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Ask a Book Buyer: Sci-fi with a Sense of Humor, Off-the-Grid Living, Books for Boys, and More

Ask a Book BuyerAt Powell's, our book buyers select all the new books in our vast inventory. If we need a book recommendation, we turn to our team of resident experts. Need a gift idea for a fan of vampire novels? Looking for a guide that will best demonstrate how to knit argyle socks? Need a book for a vegetarian who loves Radiohead and Flight of the Conchords? Email your question to We'll be posting personalized recommendations regularly.

Q: My husband is a big sci-fi reader (but not fantasy) and I'd like to help him find some new books to read. He has recently enjoyed the Ender's Game series and has read everything by John Scalzi, who he particularly likes for the sense of humor in books like Redshirts, The Android's Dream, and Agent to the Stars. Anything you could recommend along those lines? –Karen

A: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is chock full of '80s references to video games, television shows, and is wildly entertaining. A riptide of a read, this one is sure to carry the reader away. Michael Rubens, The Sheriff of Yrnameer is a rip-roaring sci-fi comedic adventure, complete with freeze-dried orphans, a corporate training satellite full of zombies, and a hero on the run. Due out February 11, Andy Weir's The Martian is an absolutely gripping adventure of an astronaut stranded on Mars and what he must do to survive. You will never look at a potato the same way after reading this. –Mary Jo

Q: Can anyone recommend a few books for a middle school-aged boy? He's read all the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and he likes sports, too. –Tim

A: If he hasn't already delved into the works of Matt Christopher, he'll find so many books to love. He writes both sports fiction and biographies of popular athletes. –Jeremy

Q: I am particularly interested in contemporary adult fiction, especially by youngish writers. I have not read Kushner's The Flamethrowers, but have heard mixed reviews. I recently read Leaving the Atocha Station and found the hype greater than the book itself — it was an entertaining read, but not funny like the jacket described and not that experimental, inspirational, or moving. Just finished reading Cheryl Strayed's Wild and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Any thoughts? –Katie

A: I'd suggest The Ask by Sam Lipsyte. It's very funny and Sam is also a master of killer sentences (Home Land is also brilliant). I would also highly recommend Leni Zumas's dark, dream-like novel, The Listeners, and perhaps Joe Meno's The Boy Detective Fails. –Kevin

Q: I would love to read a nonfiction book about traveling and living in your car, farming, off-grid lifestyles, or carpentry for beginners — all of this possibly rolled into one or several titles. –Paloma

A: Try Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende. Brende's account of a year without technology is an insightful and often very funny introduction to life off the grid. It includes plenty of info on tech-free farming, too. –Rhianna

You might enjoy Doug Fine's Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living. As well, if you're not already familiar, I highly recommend the Foxfire series, which is a DIY guide to nearly every aspect of sustainable living. Another great series well worth checking out is the Wisdom and Know-How series, which includes Country Wisdom and Know-How: Everything You Need to Know to Live Off the Land. –Jeremy

Q: My two favorite novels are Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays and Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero. So I guess I'm looking for novels dealing with alienated protagonists, the desert, the dark side of L.A., minimalism, nihilism, etc. –Rob

A: You should check out the work of Richard Lange, especially his short story collection, Dead Boys and his debut novel, This Wicked World. I think you'll find his writing has all of the elements you're looking for — and then some. –Jeremy

Q: In a few weeks, I will be visiting your city and need a good fiction recommendation. Here's the thing: I know about the books on popular lists and so I'm looking for something different. Nothing that would threaten to show up on Oprah's list of depressing titles (life challenges are okay), but something... special. When you finish it, you sigh, happy to have read it. What book would you recommend?

For reference, I've enjoyed Kate Morton, Sarah Addison Allen, Michael Buckley, Mark Dunn (but only his Ella Minnow Pea book), Ann Patchett. I read many different styles and am okay with trying something new. Currently I'm listening to Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. –Lisa

A: I'm going to recommend a book that won't be released until after your visit to Portland, but I think you'll love it, and will want to pick up a copy in March, or pre-order it from us. It's called The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton. The story is narrated by a girl who is born with wings, and she tells the history of her family, beginning in a small town in France, as she ponders her anomalous condition. The magical realism is very similar to the other books it sounds like you've enjoyed, based on the authors you listed, and it's not likely to be showing up on any grueling lists. It's delivered to us by a local Tacoma, Washington, author and it is definitely special. –Aubrey

Try some Miriam Toews. Her novel A Complicated Kindness is a voice-driven masterpiece. Maybe Elizabeth Berg's sweet coming of age novel Joy School as well. –Kevin

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Dead Boys: Stories
    New Trade Paper $13.99

  2. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of...
    New Hardcover $17.99
  3. Ready Player One
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  4. Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic... Used Trade Paper $2.50
  5. Agent to the Stars
    Sale Trade Paper $7.98
  6. The Android's Dream Used Mass Market $4.50
  7. Redshirts
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  8. The Ask Used Trade Paper $5.50
  9. Better Off: Flipping the Switch on...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  10. Joy School (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Used Trade Paper $4.50
  11. The Listeners
    Used Trade Paper $10.95

One Response to "Ask a Book Buyer: Sci-fi with a Sense of Humor, Off-the-Grid Living, Books for Boys, and More"

    Adrian February 6th, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    I'd like to recommend a few humorous sci fi type books. Used Aliens is a darned good read. Forget who wrote it. It's a hoot. The John Dies at the End series is funny as hell. A Martinez's books are all fairly amusing. Tom Holt's books are a mix of sci and fantasy. His more recent ones are more sciency. They are quite funny. Oh and for the teenaged boy in a grownup suit, Mad Scientists Club. You'll thank me for it. Yessiree.

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