Alan Sepinwall

21 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: January 2019

21 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: January 2019

This month’s book recommendations include works by Lyndsay Faye, Kat Howard, Nick Petrie, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Mesha Maran, Ottessa Moshfegh, Susan Orlean, James Rollins, and more!

14 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: January 2017

Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Daniel Ford: December and January are typically the months I frantically catch up on all the books I wasn’t able to fit into my reading schedule during the previous year. Brit Bennett’s soulful and empathetic debut The Mothers was one of the novels I was desperate to catch when it debuted but didn’t end up reading until the beginning of this year. I’m happy to report this book was well worth the wait.

Bennett showcases wisdom and verve well beyond her years. The novel, set in a black community in Southern California, begins with academic standout Natalie Turner considering an abortion after being impregnated by Luke Sheppard (the preacher’s son and injured football star). If that weren’t enough, Turner is still reeling from her mother’s suicide and her father’s distant grief. She finds friendship with Aubrey, who on the surface appears devoutly religious and squeaky-clean, but harbors her own secret past. In fact, the only people able to keep up with all the secrets in this novel (although they tend to be the wrong ones) are “the mothers,” a group of town women who likely found themselves in similar circumstances once upon a time.

Bennett’s dialogue matches each character exquisitely. Natalie’s is often angrily blunt and forceful, backed by intelligence and sadness. Luke mangles his words at times, never quite saying what he means, but revealing enough that readers are able to at least peek into his soul. Aubrey, who is arguably as damaged as Natalie, still retains a sense of innocent longing with her interactions, but isn’t afraid to cut right to the heart of the matter when pushed too far by Natalie or Luke.

The Mothers could have easily been a syrupy, paint-by-numbers drama in less capable hands, however, Bennett matches her pitch-perfect dialogue with lyrical prose that elicits just the right literary notes. Natalie, Luke, and Aubrey all stumble and regress at times, all the while revealing insights into the true nature of community, love, race, belonging, family, friendship, and ambition. Add The Mothers to your nightstand as soon as humanly possible, and put Bennett on your list of authors to watch.      

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Daniel: A small bomb explodes in a crowded marketplace in Delhi in the mid-1990s. Two young brothers are killed, while their friend is both physically and psychologically scarred. Families mourn, government officials and security forces promise easy justice, and both terrorists and vigilant citizens follow new paths.

So begins Karan Mahajan’s masterful and devastating novel The Association of Small Bombs. Through the eyes of his conflicted characters, Mahajan examines how subtly and profoundly society is altered by “small” terrorist attacks. The author squeezes the humanity out of every character, including the perpetrators, and adds nuance to every decision and action they take. The novel is most effective in its “small” moments: A disillusioned victim finding solace and healing in prayer, a mournful father losing himself in his work, mothers confronting the limitations of their love and security, terrorists battling with internal and external demons, and a population striving for normalcy in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world.

Mahajan’s sentences are a joy to read, even when he’s twisting your emotions to their breaking points. Considering the times we live in, as well as those we have endured during the last several decades, The Association of Small Bombs is not to be missed.

Sirens by Joshua Mohr

Sean Tuohy: Sirens, the brutally honest memoir by Joshua Mohr that will be released on Jan. 17, carries a hard punch. Mohr is blunt and upfront about his issues with addiction, however, don’t think this is a breezy, uplifting tale about a man overcoming his issues. Sirens features the ugly side of getting clean and relapsing, and Mohr bares his soul to further prove that addicts are never truly over their addictions. Make sure to listen to my interview with the author later this month.

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Adam Vitcavage: Erica Ferencik was inspired by “Deliverance” while writing The River at Night. Both are about unfortunate events deep in the wilderness. Ferencik’s takes place in Maine after a girls’ trip goes awry. The first-person narrative puts readers right in the plight, but the author’s focus isn’t too narrow. She carefully considers all points of view as she slowly unfolds the plot. One thing that stood out was the tight pacing that is frantic for the characters, but very breathable as a reader. The tidy construction of events is important for a thriller like this and Ferencik does not fall short.

TV (The Book) by Alan Sepinwall & Matt Zoller Seitz

Daniel: Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz—two of my favorite television critics—begin TV (The Book) with a question that’s long been a staple of living room couches and barroom debates: What’s the greatest TV show of all time? To arrive at the answer, the duo used a scoring system to rank the top 100 scripted shows. The result is a heartfelt, wonderfully written love letter to the small screen. While I was glad many of my favorite shows ended up on the list (Gentleman, I forgive you for leaving off “Men of A Certain Age,” but yay for “Terriers!”), I found myself even more enthralled with the shows I either hadn’t known about or haven’t seen in many years. I went back and watched shows like “Malcolm in the Middle,” “I Love Lucy,” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with fresh eyes, marveling at the things I missed during my first viewing.  

Sepinwall and Seitz’s passion for television—and for writing in general—is evident in every essay, but it’s the debate at the beginning of the book that stands above everything else. Their ranking system produced a five-way tie for first place (a true battle royal between “The Sopranos,” “Cheers,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Simpsons,” and “The Wire”), which led to an intense Google Chat discussion between the authors about who deserved the top spot. The debate features some of the most insightful critical writing I’ve ever read. The history, trivia, and episodic memories that follow are infinitely readable and shareable (You’ll surely annoy the significant other in your life by starting every conversation with, “Did you know that…”).

TV (The Book) is essential reading for any TV nut who frequently shouts, “Yes, Netflix, I am still f$%76-ing watching!”

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Gary Almeter: I was giddy when, back in July, I became one of the first to place a request for Michael Chabon's Moonglow. This meant that I would be among the first to get it from the library upon its publication. Like the “Seinfeld episode” where the rental car place is good at taking the reservation but less good at holding the reservation, I am very adept at placing the hold requests and less adept at managing the requests. As such, I was in the middle of reading Nathan Hill's The Nix when I received an email from the library that Moonglow was available (along with Jonathan Lethem's A Gambler's Anatomy, Thomas Friedman's Thank You For Being Late, and John Edgar Wideman's Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File). 

With all that said, I only read the first chapter of Moonglow before I had to return it. It was not renewable because other, less astute library patrons had put request holds on it. However, the chapter I read was astonishing. Every sentence was an adventure. Sentences like, "Before the day of his arrest, my grandfather had distinguished himself to his coworkers only twice. During Game 5 of the 1956 World Series when the office radio failed, my grandfather had repaired it with a vacuum tube prized form the interior of the telephone switchboard.”

It became apparent that I was going to need all three weeks the library allots its patrons to give Moonglow the attention it warrants. I re-requested it and it remains on my radar screen.

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Adam: Start your year off with this lengthy comic memoir about Craig Thompson’s coming-of-age experiences. The majority of the plot unfolds after Craig meets Raina at a winter church camp, but you don’t have to be religious or from the Midwest to connect with Thompson’s poignant narrative. It offers that cozy feeling that your favorite novel or television series provides, but with a unique perspective that you might not be used to. For those of you who aren’t comic fans, fear not because the stark black and white art is beautiful and his prose is very fulfilling. It may be long, but you’ll be able to devour this fairly rapidly.

Juggling Kittens by Matt Coleman

Daniel: As I mentioned on Twitter in December, Matt Coleman’s debut novel Juggling Kittens had a lot in common with James Tate Hill's Academy Gothic. It’s sarcastic fun, and features an unsettling mystery. Newly minted teacher Ellis Maze has a pregnant wife at home and a wacky, but loyal and plucky, superior named “The Drew,” so why wouldn’t he add an unwise and haphazard murder investigation into the mix?

While Maze’s search for a missing student keeps the pages turning, Coleman’s subtle exploration of rural life, education, relationships, parenthood, and America’s response to 9/11 is the novel’s true selling point. I’m also not ashamed to admit that I would pay good money to watch The Drew in a hot dog eating (while he’s downing PBRs and cursing the entire time).     

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz

Adam: Creating multiple, distinct voices over a short story collection is perhaps one of the hardest concepts for a writer to grasp. Even the lauded Phil Klay's award-winning collection Redeployment struggled with this (though it didn't struggle with much else). Chanelle Benz's The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead succeeds in creating visceral voices over the course of centuries of time. The writer is able to engage readers in invigorating stories about a 16th century monk to a 19th century baroque piece narrated by a chorus of We. "The West of Known,” the opening story, garnered Benz a lot of recognition when it was first published in The American Reader. The story earned her an O. Henry Prize and is an astonishing piece to introduce yourself to her writing. "James III" is a modern piece about violence and family that is narrated from the perspective of a high school freshman in Philadelphia. However, what stands out about Benz's writing is not the thought provoking plot; instead, it is the voice she is able to give James. He feels so real. So do all of her other narrators. Each one is a unique human who really lived. They're not just characters in a short story collection.

The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter

Daniel: M.J. Carter’s debut novel The Strangler Vine was a fun adventure deep within the heart of India that introduces readers to the unlikely duo of Blake and Avery. The Infidel Stain, which takes place three years later in Victorian London, finds the pair investigating the troubling murders of several disreputable publishers (is there any other kind?). Blake and Avery are a little worse for wear following their harrowing Indian experiences (especially Blake who spends much of the novel recovering from ailments, beatings, and grumpiness), but they still have enough of their deductive powers to hunt down the perpetrators that the city’s elite population and its corrupt police force would rather see stay in the shadows.

Carter’s novels satisfy the history nerd in me without being overly expository or pedantic. She builds a world in which you can smell, feel, and taste the grime and grandeur of London in 1841, as well as keep you guessing on where the story is ended next. Blake and Avery also prove once again that their hearts are always in the right place, even when one is slowly (or rapidly) driving the other crazy. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, The Devil’s Feast, when it goes on sale in March 2017! 

Another Man's Moccasins by Craig Johnson

Daniel: I typically save one of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels for my end-of-the-year reading. I prefer to savor my interactions with Walt rather than indulge my literary desires and binge-read every one of his adventures. Johnson’s plots are always fun and unexpected, but it’s the time he takes eavesdropping on Walt’s inner monologue that makes all the yarns truly special. Another Man's Moccasins—Book 4 in the Walt Longmire series—just might be my new favorite. Walt finds a dead Vietnamese woman on the side of the road, and during his investigation, he’s haunted by a similar crime he sought answers to during the Vietnam War. Flashing back to Longmire’s war service, Johnson explores the themes of race, family, soldiers, and, as always, the mistreatment of Native Americans. If the series only gets better from here, I’m definitely going to have to revisit my Walt Longmire reading strategy. Boy howdy!   

Author’s Corner

Steph Post took some time out of promoting her new novel to share three books on her radar. Post’s Lightwood is out Jan. 24! Pre-order in bulk!

Be Cool by Ben Tanzer

Be Cool by Ben Tanzer is one of the most raw, honest, and hilarious memoirs I've ever read. Ben has a voice like no one else, fresh and self-deprecatingly witty, and his memoir tackles an issue I think we've all been dealing with since we were 11: how to be cool. Ben is a prolific writer, but Be Cool has to be my favorite of his works.

Leadfoot by Eric Beetner

Leadfoot by Eric Beetner is the follow up to Rumrunners, but goes back to the 1970s to tell the story of Calvin McGraw—the most badass old man character I've ever read about—in his prime. The McGraws remind me a lot of the Cannon family in my own novel Lightwood, and I swear one day our two fictional families are going to end up in a showdown. The McGraws are a hard luck outlaw family, and, in typical Beetner fashion, Leadfoot delivers everything you'd expect in a fast-paced, motor-fueled dark and funny caper.

Beachhead by Jeffery Hess

Beachhead by Jeffery Hess is another fast-paced read and this one is set in Florida in the 1980s. It's got everything you need in a killer crime and mystery read, but also has that beer-blurred sandy feel that I love about the "sunshine noir" genre. I think Jeffery is going to be a writer to keep your eye on in the future.

More From The Writer’s Bone Library

8 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: February 2016

Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune By W. B. Belcher

Daniel Ford: “I wrote this book for you!” W.B. Belcher said to me during my interview with the author. Boy, he wasn’t kidding. A reclusive folk music icon with a shadowy past, a writer/musician yearning for a second chance, a tortured love story, and small town politics are all themes that hit me right where I live.

Belcher’s hero, Jack Wyeth, has exhausted all of his best friend’s good will and is about to be kicked out on his ass when he gets an opportunity to ghostwrite folk hero Eli Page’s life story. The job takes Jack to the small town of Galesville and the banks of the Battenkill River, where he’ll confront not only Eli’s deteriorating mental health, but also his own troubled backstory. Every sentence of this novel is strummed from the heart, and Belcher tees up questions every angsty creative type has considered (without providing anything but ephemeral answers, of course). 

“We’re all here for one thing,” Eli says to Jack, “to find a live connection and hold onto it until it bucks us off.”

Damn, that’s good stuff. I look forward to buying Belcher a beer when he comes to Cambridge in March and toasting the live connection he created with his memorable, earthy characters and heartfelt prose.

Ghettoside by Jill Levoy

Daniel: For lovers of true crime and current events, Jill Levoy’s Ghettoside is a must read. In fact, it should be required reading for all American citizens. Levoy lays out the grim statistics regarding black homicide in Los Angeles, and the U.S. as a whole, toward the beginning of the book, and then, through exceptional reporting, masterfully illuminates the startling numbers through the eyes of police officers and victims’ families in Southern Los Angeles. While Levoy frames the book around the murders of Dovon Harris and Bryant Tennelle, she never fails to put their deaths in broader context—revealing how urban communities actually operate and how the limited resources detectives operate with affect the way authorities police violent crime.

I couldn’t help but think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and David Simon’s “The Wire” while reading Levoy’s narrative. All have added to my understanding of an America I don’t know or quite accurately grasp. The issues of race, proper police procedures, and poverty should (and I hope will) be debated throughout the 2016 Presidential election, which makes Ghettoside all the more relevant.   

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa

Gary Almeter: It makes sense that the alluringly bright cover of Sunil Yapa’s debut novel features a blurb from Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin (a book that takes place in the midst of Philippe Petit's Aug. 7, 1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center). Yapa's book also takes place in one, similarly chaotic day, this one on Nov. 30, 1999 amidst the WTO protests of Seattle. I think it must take ambition, creativity, and a little bit of experimentation to be able to create a novel that packs all its action into a single day. Think of James Joyce's Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," Anne Tyler's road trip novel Breathing Lessons, and Ian McEwan's Saturday.

I could give a hoot about the WTO and delegates and international trade. And luckily one does not need to in order to love this book (which I did). Yapa has a great time (like McCann did with 1974) recreating the fear and tumult that was the latter half of 1999. Its opening line, "The match struck and sputtered," jolts us back to a time before vaping was king. The characters confront, avoid, bypass, stumble into, and battle with one another. Their problems are somehow simultaneously huge in the way they affect one another and minute in the face of the geopolitical issues being discussed in the hotel around which they congregate.

It was a far more tumultuous, and interesting, time than we might recall and Yapa renders it beautifully.

The Exploding Detective by John Swartzwelder

Sean Tuohy: John Swartzwelder's writing was the heart and soul of the “The Simpsons.” After leaving the world of television writing behind, he turned to novels. If you like peeing yourself or snapping a bone from laughing so hard then pick up this goofy, off-the- wall novel that features a mix of noir time travel, super heroes, and humor. This short (but really, really funny) book follows Frank Burly, a dim witted private detective, who bumbles through his fight against crime with an exploding jet pack.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Daniel: I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection. I know there is an equally well-regarded HBO mini-series based on the book that I also haven’t consumed. After reading Strout’s recently published novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, I’m going to have to recalibrate my reading/viewing priorities.

Lucy Barton lands in a New York City hospital for nine weeks following what should have been a routine surgery. Her harried husband is taking care of her daughters as she struggles to recover. She awakes one day to find her mother at the edge of her bed. The two have never had the best relationship, and her mother’s visit slowly reveals the depths of Barton’s complex family life.

I’m a sucker for books that play with the idea of memory and family drama, so I clung to all the foggy reminiscences the two characters had in the short time they were together. Despite being incredibly short, the novel packs an emotional punch that will linger on your cheek well after you’ve moved on to your next read.   

A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti

Daniel: The last couple of years have seen really quality fiction tackle the wars in the Middle East, including Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Eliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, and Ross Ritchell’s The Knife. Author Matthew Hefti’s sensational debut novel belongs right alongside those works.

Hefti novel employs an innovative structure that gives the story a deeply personal foundation. Levi, the book’s main character, is writing a letter to his lifelong friend Nick to say goodbye before he kills himself. Inspired by 9/11, Levi and Nick both served in the armed forces overseas, and were wounded both physically and emotionally. The two friends bond, and are drawn into conflict, over military snafus, the same woman (the deliciously broken Eris), and coming home to a world much different (for them) than the one they left.  

Hefti’s narrative (which is interrupted by Levi’s second-person insights) is incredibly well paced. There were times I had to catch my breath because I was living and dying with each sentence. Hefti beautifully captures the struggles our veterans face in coming home from the fog of war. As I said earlier, life is different for them, while it’s been the same for everyone else. It’s clear that Hefti fell in love with all of his characters because he provides them with such depth and emotion, which, of course, will make you fall in love with them just as hard.    

I also have to respect any author who inserts himself into his own novel. During our podcast interview, Hefti said, “Levi is all Levi and Nick is all Nick,” but he couldn’t resist adding himself into a tense scene in the middle of the book. As a fellow writer, I cheered out loud when I read it. The writing process (especially when dealing with a heavy topic like this) can be drudgery, so I applaud any effort to make it as fun as possible.

Massacre on the Merrimack by Jay Atkinson

Daniel: Hannah Duston…what a badass! Jay Atkinson’s nonfiction narrative follows a 39-year-old settlers’ wife who is captured by Indians—who smash her week-old child up against a tree—and ends up dealing out brutal justice to her captors in order to escape back to what’s left of her family. Atkinson, a Massachusetts native, intersperses New England’s rich history between Duston’s harrowing plight, which gives the reader a much deeper understanding of the political and sociological issues facing early North American settlers. Readers are also sure to love Goodwife Bradley, whose story is featured in the chapter named “The Fate of Other Captives.” She’s every bit as badass as Duston, and showcases the same bravery and flintiness exhibited by Atkinson’s main heroine. Danger, sacrifice, and death surrounded colonists during that era, but Duston and the other woman show the type of steely resolve necessary to hack out a living in a wild, ungoverned country. In Atkinson’s own words, “As a storyteller, what’s not to like?”

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall

Daniel: I honestly can’t remember what it was like watching my favorite television shows without reading Alan Sepinwall’s reviews and recaps (which can be found on I held off on buying earlier editions of The Revolution Was Televised in anticipation of the author’s additional thoughts on the "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" finales. Stephanie Schaefer smartly chose the book as my birthday present last month, and I finished it in two days. The Revolution Was Televised features interviews with a variety of showrunners—including the three Davids (Chase, Milch, and Simon), Vince Gilligan, and Matthew Weiner—analysis on some of my favorite shows (“Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “The Sopranos,” and “Friday Night Lights”), and Sepinwall’s breezy, charming writing style. I also gained an appreciation for shows I didn’t necessarily enjoy (“Lost” and “24”), and found new shows to explore once I’m done binge-watching “The Americans” (“The Shield” and “Oz). This book is essential reading for television junkies.