WSIRN Ep 100: When everyone loves that book but you

This week I’m chatting with Keith Watts, a Seattle resident who credits Star Wars with making him a reader, and Top Gun for making him a history major. Keith and I discuss what it’s like to grow up in a house full of books as a kid, and how he later had to assume responsibility for shaping his own reading life as an adult.

Today we get into how and why his preferred reading format has changed with his stage of life, and why he passionately believes one of the most popular books of the last few years is objectively terrible. I was especially excited to talk to Keith because he’s devoted to a genre some of you listeners have said doesn’t get enough love here on What Should I Read Next. Today, we’re making amends.

What Should I Read Next #100: When everyone loves that book but you with Keith Watts



Books mentioned in this episode:

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• Yeager: An Autobiography, by Chuck Yeager
The Truce at Bakura, by Kathy Tyers
• author Robert A. Heinlein
• author Isaac Asimov
• The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, & Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson
• The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown
• Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey
• Lock In, by John Scalzi
• The Passage, by Justin Cronin
• Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein
• Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
• Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, & Their Battle for Speed & Glory at Le Mans, by A. J. Baime
• Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, by Jon Krakauer
• Lockstep, by Karl Schroeder
• Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
• The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin
• Maniac McGee, by Jerry Spinelli
• The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisen
The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkein
A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin
• Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon
• Six Four, Hideo Yokoyama
• The People In The Trees, by Hanya Yanigahara
• A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
• Salvation of a Saint, by Keigo Higashino
• Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw, by Mark Bowden
• Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, by Mark Bowden
• The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Also mentioned: 

• George R. R. Martin’s blog
• Hugo Award list
• WSIRN Ep 51: Gateway books to lifetime reading w/The Babysitters Club Club

What do YOU think Keith should read next? Tell us in comments. 


Leave A Comment
  1. Marion says:

    Congrats Anne on your 100th episode. That is an excellent achievement. I’ve enjoyed your podcast and appreciate you stepping out of your reading comfort zone with a podcast episode with Keith about science fiction. I’m a science fiction reader as well as fantasy and literary fiction. BTW, I loved Keith’s review of Ready Player One. Hilarious. I have a few recommendations for him.
    1) Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson is one my favorite SF Writers and this 2015 novel of Starship Generation Travel that is not what we expected. Here’s my review of it:

    2) Anniversary Day by Kristine Kathryn Rusch This is the first book in the Anniversary Day Saga that combines Space Opera and Detective fiction into a highly readable series. This is my favorite series in the last few years. Great characters and setting and got me totally lost in this world.

    3) Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. Butler is well regarded as one of the first black women writers in SF. Mostly literary fiction readers know of her work because of her novel, Kindred. That’s an excellent novel. But, I know of her work from Parable of the Sower and her Patternmaster series. Here’s my review of Parable of the Sower:

    4) I’m currently reading The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. This is a mixture of a fantasy and historical fiction novel set at the turn of the century NYC. I’m a 100 pages into it and just loved the characters and setting. It has a chance to be my favorite read of 2017.
    Hope this recommendations make it on your TBR list, Keith. Enjoyed this episode.

  2. Susan in TX says:

    Bloodchild by Octavia Butler is short story sci-fi that may also be diverse. Haven’t read it myself but remember hearing about in on Books on the Night Stand.

    • Keith says:

      Octavia Butler is another glaring oversight in my reading. I’ve had Kindred recommended to me by several people. I’ll have to add Bloodchild to my list as well.


      • Stacy says:

        Darn, Kindred was going to be my recommendation too. Hmmm, I’ll have to try and think of something else. Though you might not want one of my suggestions since I couldn’t finish Ancillary Justice and loved Ready Player One. 🙂

        Have you read any Connie Willis? She’s one of my favorite authors, especially her time travel novels.

      • Keith,
        I was going to suggest Octavia E. Butler too. I recently read PARABLE OF THE SOWER. It’s what I would call soft science-fiction in that it takes place in a possible dystopian future on Earth. The government and civilization has disintegrated and the technology we rely upon is not available any longer. I almost made the mistake of not finishing it because it’s so dark, but I’m glad I did and want to read the others in the series, eventually.


        • Marion says:

          Butler did write the Parable of Talents as a follow-up to Parable of the Sower. They were two more books scheduled in the Parable series before her untimely death. After reading Talents, I felt like there was more she wanted to explore and sadly she does not get a chance to do it.

          • “Bloodchild” was one of my favorite short stories to teach in my college lit classes – it raises lots of questions that get young adults talking – and squirming! Kindred is on my to-read list.

  3. I would also recommend _1Q84_ by Haruki Murakami in the Japanese mystery genre (although it is rather long), and Michel Faber’s _The Book of Strange New Things_ (also long but I was so moved by it and I am not a science fiction reader).

    • Bernadette says:

      Oh, I came here specifically to recommend The Book of Strange New Things! I think this would be *perfect* for Keith because it really is a piece of literary fiction that’s also sci-fi (or sci-fi that’s also literary fiction). What I particularly like about it is that it’s invested in exploring “big ideas” both through the approaches of science fiction (there are aliens and spaceships and hypersleep!) and through that of literary fiction (it’s largely an epistolary novel and character and plot development is often quite subtle).

  4. Jess J. says:

    Keith, here are a few favorites that came to mind while I was listening: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Dune by Frank Herbert, and The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. Enjoy!

  5. Megan says:

    I like Sci-fi that veers a little more realistic. Dark Matter, The Last Policeman Trilogy, Wayward Pines, and Sleeping Gods/Waking Giants were all books I read recently and really loved. I definitely tend towards fantasy but taking a few sci-fi lit classes in college made me branch out. My husband loves Star Wars books and completely hated Ready Player One for the exact same reasons this guest stated! He said it was just a big geeky love letter for nerd nostalgia!

    • Keith says:

      Yes your husband and I are not the only ones who hated Ready Player One. 🙂 There are others out there, including the guys from the I Don’t Even Own a Television podcast. That episode is a fun listen. (Content warning though.)

      • Tara says:

        So I know nothing about the sci-fi genre… but did read Dark Matter recently! And loved it. Would I enjoy other sci-fi as well? Is that considered good or bad sci-fi? 🙂

  6. Susan says:

    I would recommend Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home by Nando Parrado. It is the memoir (published in 2007) of one of the survivors from the plane crash in Chile from the 1970s that was the subject of the movie Alive. I thought of it because Nando Parrado raced cars, and you also mentioned you liked Into Thin Air. It is really good and has stuck with me long after I read it!

    Also Dead Wake by Erik Larson (about the sinking of the Lusitania) is very good since you mentioned you liked Devil in the White City by Larson.

    • Keith says:

      Those are both great! I read Dead Wake right after finishing The Devil in the White City. “Miracle” I read a while ago but I remember liking quite a bit.

  7. Stephanie says:

    Keith, have you heard of Sleeping Giants by Sylvan Neuvel? I stumbled upon this and sci-fi is not my genre, but wow was I hooked! It’s written in interview style, took a bit to adjust. So, here’s a small explanation. Rose is riding her new bike and falls into a hole.. a square and glowing hole. Fast forward 17 yrs, she is part of a research/scientific team to solve the mystery. This will be a trilogy and looking forward to book two.

      • Anne M says:

        I second the recommendation for The Themis Files (Sleeping Giants (#1) and Waking Gods (#2)) by Sylvain Neuvel. The author is Canadian, with an background in linguistics, computer software, and interest in robotics. He taps into those three things in this series. It’s a really creative and clever storyline and interesting characters that really draws you in!

  8. Amy says:

    Keith, I was so excited by your recommendation of Go Like Hell that I immediately put it on my TBR as I was listening to the podcast. (Great episode, by the way, Anne.) I’m not really into car racing but I don’t think that will matter. I knew nothing about horse racing, but loved Seabiscuit. And I knew nothing about rowing, but loved The Boys in the Boat. Can’t wait to read Go Like Hell.

  9. Laura says:

    This was such a fun listen! I’ve been intimidated by sci-fi but really appreciate your recommendations for where to start, Keith. Thanks! (And I totally agree about Ready Player One)

  10. Jennifer N. says:

    If you’re interested in Ursula Le Guin but don’t want to start a whole series, I loved, loved, loved The Lathe of Heaven. At less than 200 pages, this book is packed full with great themes, creative world-building – all the good stuff. (And the Kindle version is less than $6!)

    • Jennifer N. says:

      And thank you for mentioning Leviathan Wakes. I adore this series and I don’t think it gets enough buzz if the regular book-lovers sphere.

      • Keith says:

        Yeah, they’re what 6 books in? And of those I think there’s only one that I would consider less than stellar. And even that one was totally readable.

    • Marion says:

      The Dispossessed is in the Hainish Cycle series. But it felt like a standalone novel and could be read as such. I believe this is a great place to start as an introduction to Ursula LeGuin.

      • Keith says:

        I’ve actually already finished The Left Hand of Darkness since the podcast was recorded. So now I’m trying to figure out what order to read the rest of the series. The Dispossessed sounds like the right place to go next.


  11. Megan Miller says:

    Beyond excited to find out I am not the only person who didn’t enjoy Ready Player One! Several people have already mentioned Octavia Butler, However I think you need to begin with her book, Dawn (Xenogenesis, #1). I feel like Octavia’s books run into more fantastical elements which didn’t sound like your cup of tea. I believe Dawn earned Butler a Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards. Happy reading!

  12. Marion says:

    Keith, I would like to add one more recommendation. Hyperion by Dan Simmons. It is the first of the Hyperion Cantos series. Simmons provides a sci-fi’s perspective to Canterbury Tales and is considered one of the best science fiction novels published since 1990. It just got a new cover recently as well. Worth checking out.

  13. Dave Courtney says:

    I almost couldn’t finish the podcast after the lambasting of Ready Player One (not for the opinion but for the reasoning), but then I was reminded that I was quite angry after reading The Fifth Season and did not enjoy that award winning novel at all. So fair game 🙂

    When it comes to science fiction I am a sucker for anything with time travel. Was wondering if there were any suggestions for good time travel narratives (even if all time travel narratives don’t fit as science fiction… 11/22/63 for example)? Really enjoyed Time Travel: A History by James Gleick and the Bright Empires series by Stephen Lawhead (not his best, I admit, but still one of my favourite authors.

      • Dave Courtney says:

        Ha ha. Probably a good call. On my top favourites list for sure.

        Do appreciate that you make room below for dystopian in your love of science fiction. Not all dystopian is science fiction of course, but so much of the great science fiction (in my opinion) often have dystopian elements. The two marry so well.

    • Trisha says:

      Have you heard of the Chronicles of St. Mary’s series? In the tiniest nutshell it’s about a group of time traveling historians. Written by a woman, Jodi Taylor, with a female protagonist. Funny, fast-paced, super interesting.

  14. Melinda says:

    For non-white-dude SF, I highly recommend The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. It’s long, and not something I could read in a distracting environment, and it’s the first in a trilogy, so maybe not the best book for this stage, but worth the effort.

    I also join in the Octavia Butler recommendation. The Parable books are great, and I’m enjoying the Patternist series right now.

  15. Jill W. says:

    If you like great writing and a lot of action in your books, then I would recommend anything by Neil Gaiman. The Ocean at the End of the Lane and the Graveyard Book are two of my favorites, and neither of them are overly long.

    I think you might also enjoy The Rook by Daniel O’Malley- its a fun read with loads of action and a mystery. It’s on the longer side, but its pretty easy to get back into if you put it down for a few days.

    I also really enjoyed The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, even though I would normally never ever read a zombie book (I only read it because someone in my book club picked it).

    In the mystery category, I would suggest the Jackson Brodie series by Kate Atkinson or the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French.

    Lots of good recommendations in this episode- my TBR list is loaded up!

    • Keith says:

      I just watched the film adaptation of The Girl With All the Gifts. I did not catch that it was based on a book. I will have to check that out.

      Dublin Murder Squad is great. My sister recomended that to me a few years agos.


  16. Julie says:

    I really enjoyed this episode because sci-fi is a genre I know almost nothing about. I am going to try one of your recommebdations. Question: I have nephews who are avid sci-fi readers. Would you be able to comment on whether the books that are your favorites would be appropriate for teens?

    • Keith says:

      Hmmmmm…. Yes? Maybe?
      Of the books listed on this page, I’d say Lock In, Lock Step would be the only two I would unequivocally recommend to all teens. Ready Player One is fine for teens as well but I wouldn’t recommend it. All the others would be ok for older teens. (Say 15 or so and up.)
      Other books not mentioned…
      The Martian, Ship Breaker, Have Spacesuit Will Travel, and The Hunger Games are all solid reads.

  17. Kat C says:

    I enjoyed the episode and learned about a lot of new books! I will check out that Lockstep book. I’m not sure where the science fiction/fantasy divide is but I recommend these two books:

    The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow – Thousands of years in the future global peace is kept by a sentient satellite. The children of rulers live in a remote fortress and if the ruler of their country starts a war they are killed by the satellite.

    This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab – This is about what happens when violence in cities begins to manifest physically as monsters, including a human like monster that steals souls with his violin. Also, this author writes adult books as VE Schawb and people seem to really love her stuff but I haven’t read it yet so I can’t comment.

    Oh, and also the graphic novel Saga !

  18. Wendy says:

    This was a great episode, I love hearing from a reader who is passionate about what they read and reads very differently from me. I was wondering how you feel about dystopian novels, they’re obviously not Sci fi/fantasy, but have that otherworldly quality that can really transport you. If this is something you might like, I would suggest reading Station Eleven.It is plot driven, but the characters are deeply written and the story in unexpected.

    • Keith says:

      Oh I think dystopia definitely counts as science-fiction. Or at least I’ve never read a dystopian story that didn’t also tread heavily into science-fiction teritory.
      Station Eleven has been recommended to me before. I have the sample chapter in my Google Books queue. I’ll have to give it go.


      • Marion says:

        I liked Station Eleven. Worth reading. Although it’s quite different than your typical dystopian novel. A much lighter touch than something like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Talents or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

  19. Melinda says:

    Regarding The Fifth Season, my recommendation is just to plow through the first bit without worrying if you don’t understand it. I just finished the third book, and I want to return to the beginning of The Fifth Season to see if I understand it now.

    Jemisin makes you work for entry into her worlds, but I always find the books worth the effort.

  20. Marion says:

    I’m currently reading The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Halfway through and I’m totally enjoying this novel. A turn of century historical fantasy that has excellent characters and storytelling. It will probably be my favorite read of the year so far.

  21. Marion says:

    Keith you mentioned during the podcast that you like more of realism in the fantasy novels that you have read. Have you ever tried Guy Gavriel Kay? I have only read Ysabel and liked it. His best known novel is Tigana and is a beloved by many fans of the genre. He mixes history and fantasy quite well and is much more subtle with the fantasy tropes than most fantasy authors.

  22. Ashley says:

    It was great to hear about some of your favorites and I loved The Passage! While I tend to learn toward fantasy over science fiction, I have a few recommendations for you too and I must echo the earlier recommendations of Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods, the Girl with All the Gifts and sticking with The Fifth Season (it’s a slow start but ultimately worth it). I also would encourage you to read Pierce Brown’s series that starts with Red Rising, it’s YA but very well done. Have you read World War Z? Don’t laugh–the book is much better than the terrible Brad Pitt movie and is laid out like a World War II written documentary. It’s an incredibly intellectual look at something as silly as a zombie apocalypse. Finally, James Rollins has the ability to write page-turning books that tie in history with some sort of technology element. I would start with Map of Bones–it’s my favorite.

    • Keith says:

      World War Z is amazing. I read it first and then listened to the audible version which is full cast. I think it’s even better than the book itself.
      I’ll check out Map of Bones. That sounds interesting.


  23. Listening to this episode now. Like Keith, I also squeeze in digital reading whenever I can, but my threshold is MUCH lower than 15 minutes. I will read a book for 1-2 minutes if I can. I have no issue (usually) remembering what’s going on, so I read my ebooks while walking around the office or anytime I am waiting anywhere. I have to get them in whenever/wherever I can!

  24. Ashley says:

    This was actually my first WSIRN listen and I’m not sure it was a good idea … My to-read list just about doubled. 🙂 I’m relieved to be removing Ready Player One from it (which I started out of obligation and walked away from after the first twenty or so pages out of irritation).

    If you’re up for more Erik Larson, I loved “Dead Wake” — the story of the sinking of the Lusitania, from both the English and German sides.

    PS: The first time I “read” Tolkien was actually in audiobook form (about twenty years after I SHOULD have originally read them), and it made the LOTR series un-put-downable on a long drive. Which is hard, because it’s also a 60-hour commitment…

  25. Ginger says:

    I’ve got two books and a podcast to recommend…

    I don’t often chime in because usually Anne’s got them spot on, but I happen to be libarian (aka book-obsessed wife) to a sci-fi fan myself. So much so, that I insisted he listened to this episode this week, because every single book mentioned seemed right up his alley.

    Just this week, someone recommended the novel Redshirts. I/he hasn’t read it yet, but if you’re at all a casual Trekkie, this comes highly recommended as a good fun, but smart read from a trusted source, so I feel confident passing along the recommendation.

    Another along the same lines of Star Trek (sorry! we’re a Trek household), but completely different, and likely would appeal to all sci-fi fans, Trekkies or no, is the non-fiction Trekonomics. The author explores whether that world, with all its perfection is even possible for humanity someday. Fascinating.

    And for a podcast, I was reminded of a This American Life episode when you mentioned you’d like to read more diversely. TAL had a great episode a couple months ago that I cannot shut up about, centering on Afrofuturism (a concept I had not even heard of). So many interesting things taking place, and I saw that several above recommended Octavia Butler, which they do also, but the whole episode is really worth a listen:

    • Keith says:

      I actually considered recommending Redshirts because it is an easy and fun read (not deserving a Hugo in my estimation, but I still really liked it) but I was concerned that if people were not familiar with Star Trek they may not get a lot out of it. I’d be curious to hear if any non-Trek fans had read the book, what they thought of it.
      I used to be an avid listener on This American Life but stopped a few years ago. Thank you for they link. I will give that one a spin.


      • Anne M says:

        I haven’t read Redshirts, but I did listen to The Android’s Dream by same author and thought it was GREAT! I enjoyed the combination of sci-fi and humor, and I could listen to Will Wheaton’s narration all day!

  26. Nicole says:

    I always love listening to this podcast, but this episode in particular was great as it branched out from genres that are generally discussed more!
    Keith, are you open to a short story collection? If so, I’d like to recommend Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang. I just recently read this and think it might be right in your wheelhouse.

  27. JC says:

    Thanks for recommending Keigo Higashino. I’ve never heard of his work before and easily finished “Salvation of a Saint” in less than 24 hours. It’s not the best book I’ve read but I have to say I was highly entertained and had fun. I look forward to reading more of his books.
    I also gave “Six Four” a go. It can drag on at times but I still want to know how it ends. I think I found my newest favorite genre – Japanese crime lit. 🙂

  28. Victoria says:

    I want to write in and add emphasis to Anne’s recommendation of the Left Hard of Darkness. It’s a stand alone book and as having read the Dispossessed (which is the second one written in the same universe) they don’t effect each other.

    Here is what Goodreads has to say:

    There are 10 primary works and 23 total works in the Hainish Cycle Series

    Each book stands alone, although all books in the cycle are set in the same universe.

    Works are not numbered as author says: “People write me nice letters asking what order they ought to read my science fiction books in — the ones that are called the Hainish or Ekumen cycle or saga or something. The thing is, they aren’t a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones. And some great discontinuities…”

    You may have already discovered this but just in case. I’d hate for you to not read it because it’s incredible.

    Happy reading,

  29. Jamie says:

    A non-fiction idea: Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton.
    I don’t read much science fiction, but I’ll toss out the three books in that genre that I’ve read in the past two years (ha!) to see if you’ve read them. I really enjoyed each of them, despite by lack of commitment to this genre:
    Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
    The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
    Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

  30. Tracy Cornelius says:

    I don’t have time to read through all the comments to see if someone already recommended this book so apologies if it is a repeat. Red Rising series by Pierce Brown. My all time favorite book series and it sounds right up your alley with the things you mentioned liking in science fiction. It has tons of action in the storyline of all three books, vast political systems, and the world building is epic. Character voices are unique and interesting and the relationships between friends/family/lovers jump off the page and feel so authentic. This is the book I recommend most to people and they usually come back wanting to freak out about how good this series is.

    This episode is the first one of What Should I Read Next that I’ve listened too and it was GREAT! I got so many great suggestions to add to my reading list. I hope you look Red Rising up, read it and enjoy. I’d love to hear about it if you do!

  31. Sara F says:

    I HAD to come back here and thank Keith for his great recommendation of “Ancillary Justice” which I am loving right now! I had read on Litsy that I needed to give it 50 pgs in order to start comprehending and enjoying it. Spot on. I am looking forward to grabbing the other suggestions from this episode. Sometimes it takes a while to get to the books we want to read next!

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