Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, videogames, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book. Find Jason on Twitter @Jason_Sheehan
The City of MirrorsJustin Cronin
RaveNPRYes, it ties up a lot of the loose ends (but, notably, not all of them). Yes, it is just as beautiful, brutal and obsessively detailed as parts one and two and (bonus) comes out of the gate with an extra-special dose of confidence that you only get when you're a writer coming into the home stretch knowing exactly where you're going and how to get there ... For those of you who've read the previous books, this really is the big event you've been waiting for: A full-scale war of virals on virals and virals on humans, a true last stand that builds and comes with a bloody, roaring payoff you won't see coming, then builds again to the big face off you've been waiting for.
Ghost TalkersMary Robinette Kowal
PositiveNPRIt was the idea of it that got me into the book, and Kowal's affectless presentation of the mediums and their work that kept me going ... But it was that rare ability of Kowal's to make what could have been a completely goofy add-on to the British war effort into something that felt completely wedded and solid that sold me — that spark of a great idea, well-executed ... The book has flaws, of course. For every deeply considered character like Ginger or her fiancé, there are two who are adorable stereotypes.
Dark Matter.Blake Crouch
PositiveNPR...a book which is sometimes maddening in its refusal to be as good as you want it to be ... Crouch's affection for poetical (really, haiku-ical) structure within a work of prose is annoying at first, then infuriating, then simply numbing. And really, it's unnecessary — because almost the entire book is one big chase scene anyway ... [but] Crouch pulls off the big trick that makes it all worthwhile — a killer twist that is dark, horrifying, funny as hell, bizarre, completely earned and utterly original all at the same time.
Modern RomanceAziz Ansari & Eric Klinenberg
MixedNPRAnsari was obviously committed to his goal of investigating the way that people (primarily heterosexual, primarily middle-class and smart phone-owning) find each other, pair off and form relationships. The man put in the time and effort. And what he comes away with is...pretty much exactly what you'd think. Because it's not a self-help book or a guide to modern dating (either of which might've allowed Ansari more latitude with his voice and personal stories) but is a rigorously researched and data-driven field study on the dating-and-mating habits of modern humans, the conclusions he draws are largely of the 'Well, duh ...' variety — a problem not exclusive to this book by any means ... ultimately, I found myself wanting more masturbation jokes and fewer graphs made from demographic data
The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret
RaveNPR[a] collection of unusual coincidences, and tiny vignettes of a life lived on the constant, bittersweet edge of surrealism. This scattering of laughs. This pack of sighs. This charming and heartbreaking pile of stories that cover the years between the birth of Keret's son, Lev, and the death of his beloved father ... it takes us back through seven years of Keret's history, showing us the world (its beauty, madness, and inescapable strangeness) through his sharp and sympathetic observations. It's not an overtly political book, but one defined by violence, bookended by life and death.
Gold Fame CitrusClaire Vaye Watkins
RaveNPRWhen Luz and Ray strike out, Watkins' world opens, becomes more shattering, more starkly beautiful, exponentially more deadly. Gold Fame Citrus is a dreamy story with a mystical streak and a core of juvenile irresponsibility that does not go unpunished. But Watkins' vision — not just of a world broken by ecological disaster, but of the sorts of people who would thrive in that world — is mercilessly sharp. She's got a knife eye for details, a vicious talent for cutting to the throbbing vein of animal strangeness that scratches inside all of us.
All Tomorrow's PartiesRob Spillman
PositiveNPRHe's not a stylist, but has a plain and conversational voice. I like that. The this guy/that guy chapters are short, punchy and focused, and I like that, too. They twine around each other in their motif of rambling attempts at finding and living an authentically artistic life ... if you can inoculate yourself against this engorged sense of self-importance going in — if you can transmute long passages about the importance of living like an artist into a kind of pleasant humming noise in your brain without it tripping all your rage switches — the ride is still very much worth it.
PositiveNPRBerlinski operates in a world where the gray middles of everything (choices, declarations, morality) far outspace the black and white at the margins.
The Heavenly TableDonald Ray Pollack
PositiveNPRPollock's characters all live in the slipstream of this onrushing future, their lives upended by engines and automation, milking machines, telegraphs and a great war that they don't understand. The result is a story that reads almost like surrealism — like weird fiction save for the certain fact that all of it is real. In its bloody, violent, terrible collisions, The Heavenly Table feels like Blood Meridian if Cormac McCarthy had been born with a streak of black humor in him rather than just terseness and rage.
Gone With the MindMark Leyner
PositiveNPRGone With The Mind is Leyner's new novel. A novel that is, by turns, autobiographical, fictional, touching and just flat-out insane...I loved the thing. All of it. Or anyway, 90% of it. It is looping and self-referential, alternately bonkers and manic and depressive.
Lust & WonderAugusten Burroughs
RaveNPR[Burroughs has] a beautiful sense of rhythm, a preternatural knack for knowing the precise point at which graceful self-deprecation (coming from a successful New York Times best-selling author) tips over the edge into smarmy humble-bragging, and stops with his toes wiggling just on the edge of the bank.
Carry MePeter Behrens
PositiveNPRBehrens is a beautiful, lyric writer. His understanding of the age and command of it, moment to moment, is impressive. What is less so is the arc of Billy and Karin's romance, so often interrupted by war and politics, and their final escape from Germany as it collapses completely into the street-fighting and savagery of Nazism.
This Census-TakerChina Mieville
RaveNPRThis Census-Taker is a small, quiet and gentle book with murder at its center. It's a beautiful chocolate that you bite into and find filled with blood. It is Miéville at his most sparse, his most controlled and restrained.
Hotels of North AmericaRick Moody
PositiveNPRThis book is to middle-age what Albertine was to youth and Ice Storm was to suburbia. It's Moody at his most inventive, most playful, most bitter and biting and cruel.
This is Your Life Harriet Chance!Jonathan Evison
MixedNPRSlowly, and with admirable, dark precision, Evison lays Harriet bare. The lies, the dodges, the secrets and frustrated desires. With a touch of snark and a lashing of perfectly affected irony, he flenses her to the bone and, somehow, seems kind in doing it.
Fates and FuriesLauren Groff
RaveNPR[I]f you do want to learn how to be a great writer, you could do worse than skipping out on that M.F.A. program or pricey writer's retreat, dropping 28 bucks ($17-something on Amazon!) on this book, studying the hell out of it, and then spending all that money you just saved on gin cocktails and hats. It's that good. That beautiful. Occasionally, that stunning.
Twain & Stanley Enter ParadiseOscar Hijuelos
PositiveNPRIn many places, any sense of narrative flow is broken by Hijuelos bouncing in and out of different heads, jumping from city to city, place to place and year to year. But when he digs his fingers into something good and lets his chosen pony run a little? There's just a kind of gorgeous magic to the disparate but parallel lives he is charting.
Numero ZeroUmberto Eco
MixedNPR“The main plot of Numero Zero is a kind of potboiler that never really boils. Once the bones of the main story have been laid out, Eco turns Numero Zero into a kind of see-saw game.”
The Tsar of Love and TechnoAnthony Marra
PositiveNPRThe Tsar Of Love And Techno should be a sad book, but I walked away from it remembering it as funny. Marra's gimmick here is that the world is cruel, is capricious, is murderous absolutely, and his characters are, too — just not all the time. Where the world is consistently terrible, the people Marra fills it with are occasionally kind, occasionally joyous, occasionally funny.
Slade HouseDavid Mitchell
PositiveNPR[A]ll the joy in Slade House is in the discovery. It's in seeing different people make the same mistakes over and over again — in seeing the same story play out, the same weaknesses be preyed upon, the same arrogance of the twins who have been doing this for decades.
City on FireGarth Risk Hallberg
MixedNPR“Hallberg writes like he's not sure anyone will ever give him a second chance. There are places where you can taste his panic and his need to use every word he knows now. And there should've been an editor around to tell him that keeping something in your back pocket for later ain't always the worst idea in the world — but there's also something to be said for a guy that just leaves it all on the table.”
Did You Ever Have a FamilyBill Clegg
PositiveNPR“But you should stick with it because there will come a point where you'll suddenly find your footing. Where (maybe on the road with June, or in the story of Luke's mother) the whole delicate origami construction of interlocking stories that Clegg is building will blossom outward and you'll see it for the first time as the whole thing that it is — this spindly web of connection, this sticky, terrible, comforting, fully realized community of small, damaged and ordinary people all brought together by a moment that no one can understand.”
The MortificationsDerek Palacio
RaveNPRIt ranges and roams, this book. When it settles onto a moment, it does so with the weight of ten butterflies...all of this is touched on so lightly, Palacio's gaze settling here and there across a span of years and observing the quiet details that make up the roots of life's narrative ... [There] are beautiful observations, too. Sometimes gentle, often gotten at sideways, through the lenses of experiences so native to the characters that not a word rings false.
Thus Bad BeginsJavier Marías
MixedNPRAt its best, Thus Bad Begins rolls on like a great spy story played for (comparatively) low stakes. Juan becomes Muriel's ears and eyes, investigating the sordid past of Dr. Van Vechten ... The narrator is trustworthy because everything feels like a massive unburdening. Like Old Juan is finally telling a whole story out loud that he has had in his head for years — the pace of it as familiar as his own heartbeat, the reveals all polished smooth by long, silent practice. Which is, in a way, unfortunate because for all of Marias' gorgeous, looping, carefully structured sentences — and for all of his tales of sex and death and revolution — what Thus Bad Begins could've really used was a little bit of the bravado and rawness of youth.
You Too Can Have a Body Like MineAlexandra Kleeman
RaveNPRIn her debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, [Kleeman] writes like a gonzo journalist embedded in skin, discovering things like hair and saliva and eyeballs for the very first time ... Body Like Mine begins as a navel gaze, a searing inner catalog of mushy biology, and becomes a takedown — chilly in its precision — of beauty standards, face creams, junk food, reality TV, love, hunger, closeness, human connection. And Kleeman owns all of it. Her voice is brutal and fragile at the same time. Her eye for the absurdity of normalness is so sharp that the book puts you into a bubble of weird you won't be able to shake off for hours.
The NIxNathan Hill
RaveNPRIt broke my heart, this book. Time after time. It made me laugh just as often. I loved it on the first page as powerfully as I did on the last, and I think I was right, right from the start. Because Nathan Hill? He's gonna be famous. This is just the start.
RaveNPR...you're going to ask yourself that one, all-important question when it comes to Really Big Goddamn Books: Do I need to read this one? Yes, you do ... Inasmuch as anyone ever has to read anything, you have to read Jerusalem. People are going to say a lot of things about it — that it's massive (obviously), that it's brilliant (it is), that it's beautiful and maddening and sweet and stupid all in equal measure (true, true, true and true) ... awesome. Amazing. Lyrical and beautiful.
The Twenty Days of TurinGiorgio De Maria
RaveNPR...a spooky, strange piece of Magical Realism prestidigitation that captures, nearly note-for-note, the turmoil and chaos of a community whose center has shattered but is being held together by a willful, communal rejection of the breakage ... No Gibson, no Sterling, no cyberpunk or spec-fic scribbler of the '80s or '90s ever captured the poisoned zeitgeist of social media better than this: a room full of the violent, disgusting, lonely and broken ramblings of shut-ins and social rejects, all held in the abandoned wing of a former insane asylum ... conceived under fire and born into a world shaking itself to pieces, it captures the chaos and randomness of terrorism and the fear of hidden furies in a way that only something that treads the ragged edge of surrealism can. It was a book written for a different world. And the most disturbing thing about it is how appropriate it is for ours.
HereticsLeonardo Padura, Trans. by Anna Kushner
PositiveNPR...what holds everything together is Conde. His goofy cool, his self-destruction and generosity, his obsessions and his premonitions. Heretics can drag when Conde is not on the page, but it winks by like sun on chrome when he is. And besides all of Padura's beautiful words, all those gorgeous sentences loaded down with strangeness and terrible history, it's the waiting for Conde to come slouching and cursing back onto the page — embodying the link between past and present, goodness and evil — that is the primary joy in Heretics' darkest places.
RaveNPR[Walkaway] is remarkable. It's one of those books that I don't want to describe at all, because doing so would ruin the new car smell of stepping into a fresh-off-the-lot universe. It would sour the joy of getting face-punched over and over again by the utopian/dystopian ideas, theories, arguments and philosophies that Doctorow lays down. It would, in short, wreck the fun ... And yes, it sometimes reads like a series of philosophical set-pieces stitched together with drone fights and lots of sex. Like a Michael Bay movie if all the explosions were emotional. But the philosophy is fascinating and, somehow, rarely dull ... It's all about the deep, disturbing, recognizable weirdness of the future that must come from the present we have already made for ourselves, trying to figure out what went wrong and what comes next.
Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders
PositiveNPRLincoln In The Bardo is not an easy book, but it gets easier with the reading. At the start, it jags, loops, interrupts itself a thousand times. Somehow, the whole thing together feels staged like a terrible student play that just happened to be written by an absolute genius working at the ragged edge of his talent. But there are moments that are almost transcendently beautiful, that will come back to you on the edge of sleep ... Lincoln's grief, as witnessed by the ghosts, as experienced by Willie, is enormous. The pain of it radiant as the President languishes in his own private bardo. In comparison to the grief of America at war, it is infinitesimal, but at the same time, no less potent or real. And in the friction between these two true things, Saunders finds his terrible, brutal truth: That all lives end too soon. That no one leaves complete. That letting go is the best, hardest thing anyone — even the dead — can do.
The Last Days of New ParisChina Miéville
RaveNPRWill it help you going into Last Days if you've got a master's-level education in art history with a focus on French Surrealism? Maybe. I don't and I loved the vicious, weird little thing anyway ... Last Days is Miéville's war story. It is beautiful, stunningly realized, mind-bendingly bizarre.
Annihilation Jeff VanderMeer
RaveNPRArea X is magic in the same way Lovecraft's Rhode Island was magic — which is to say, inhabited by impossible things beyond human description. At the same time, it is haunted (which is an entirely different thing) by the previous expeditions and the things they left behind — the tents and supplies, the curiously incomplete maps, the bullet holes, the bloodstains. And VanderMeer is brave in the telling of his story — of the Biologist's story — because he attempts to explain in full almost none of it … And yet, the ending is satisfying. It is one of those rare endings that is, all at the same time, ambiguous, terrifically unfinished, and the only possible ending that the story could have had.
The ForceDon Winslow
RaveNPRTrust me when I tell you that you gotta read this book not because it's beautiful (it isn't) and not because Winslow is a virtuoso stylist (he isn't) and not because it's one of those Important Books that everyone will be talking about (they will), but because it is just fantastic. Like can't-put-it-down, can't-get-the-voices-out-of-your-head fantastic. An instant classic, an epic, a goddamn Wagner opera with a full cast and buckets of blood and smack and Jameson whiskey ... Winslow is good, no doubt. He's smart enough to be tricky without looking like he's being tricky. He's clever enough to get away with what is essentially a double prologue (in a universe where, most times, one is too many), but his best trick is a buried, pulsing, live-wire second plot that hums just beneath the surface of the first: The Force is basically Game of Thrones without the dragons. The Wars of the Roses played out with New York City cops and robbers...It's a weird thing when you first realize it, brilliant and almost subversive as you watch it play out across the pages. Amid all the drugs and guns and skyscrapers and cop bars, there's this shimmering image of an ancient tale hovering just at the edge of things.
The Book of Strange New ThingsMichel Faber
PositiveNPR...is cool because it's a remarkable work of imagination and genius. A 'poignant meditation on humanity,' a mesmerizing exploration of faith and love and a 'genre-defying' masterpiece ... Faber's great strength, trotted out right from the opening pages — this ability to write believable, lovely, flawed and inept characters. To animate his creations by exposing their great loves and human frailties, and to make us want, somehow, to follow along behind them as they traipse across the pages, the miles and, in short order, the light-years ...Faber brings little that's new or original to the trope, save a masterful skill for sketching the slow accretion of dread and mistrust in the hearts of his characters ...Faber tells a beautifully human story of love, loss, faith and the sometimes uncrossable distances between people. It feels, more than anything, like an achingly gentle 500-page first chapter to an apocalypse novel yet to come.
Tropic of KansasChristopher Brown
PositiveNPRTropic Of Kansas is like a modern dystopian buffet. It plays out in a world where all of our terrors have become manifest — climate change, wealth disparity, terrorism, an authoritarian government in power suppressing its own citizens, corporate control of everything from food to media. It is, in this particular moment in history, frighteningly prescient. It is the nightly news with the volume turned up to 11 ... From about the hundredth page forward, you know how it is all going to go down. But Brown, to his credit, uses the pages given to him to paint a frighteningly believable portrait of an American future that is closer than you want it to be. He sketches small-town fury and ultra-super-uber-right-wing nationalism in detail.