Short stories 

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Barry Estabrook

Andrews McMeel Publishing, $19.99/hardcover

It's easy to wonder why tomatoes don't taste good anymore. The gap between the vine-ripened beauty in the backyard garden and the inhabitants of salad bars and grocery stores is more of a chasm, and journalist Barry Estabrook tells us why in Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. From the mountains of Peru, where the tomato originated (and where Estabrook follows a plant geneticist in search of specimens that are rapidly disappearing) to the huge, sandy fields of Florida, where most table tomatoes are grown in a stew of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides (and tended by immigrants in what often amounts to slave labor), this is the story of what should be our premier fruit. Instead, it's picked green and artificially ripened with ethylene, which is why commercial tomatoes taste like cardboard. Estabrook gives us a microcosm of what's wrong with American agriculture, and a book that should be required reading. — Kel Munger

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Zoo City

Lauren Beukes

Angry Robot, $15/paperback

It's sci-fi, or maybe an alternate-universe urban supernatural mystery: South African Lauren Beukes' second novel, Zoo City, is set in a Johannesburg segregated by money, not race, and by whether or not one has an Animal. That's Animal with a capital A, because a strange change has saddled some people — mostly criminals, lowlifes, and those who are guilty of something even if they can't name it — with animal familiars, who also seem to bestow some sort of magical gift. The protagonist, Zinzi, is a former reporter and recovering drug addict who ended up with a sloth on her back and the ability to find lost things, which is how she makes her living. She's hired by a music producer-slash-impresario to find the missing half of a brother and sister teen-pop act, and it goes downhill from there. The real energy comes from Beukes' crisp and engaging style, which is well-matched with the take-no-prisoners, smart-ass attitude of her heroine. — Kel Munger

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Always On

Brian X. Chen

Da Capo Press, $25/hardcover

If you're like more than 70 million others, you're probably reading these words via smartphone. In Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future — and Locked Us In, Wired reporter Brian X. Chen tells you how it got to be that way and why you likely are also reading this on an iPhone at 3:30 a.m. while sitting on your toilet, simultaneously listening to your new favorite band. The first half of Chen's book primarily chronicles Apple's journey to unlocking this "always-on" society. The second half gets more into how our continuous engagement with technology might be affecting our brains, our bodies and our social lives. Perhaps most fascinating, and scary, is the final chapter, which details a very possible future where augmented reality reigns — where "data from the network overlays our view of the real world" — and where we start asking questions like, "What do we give away in exchange for this highly personalized type of technology?" — Kirsten Akens

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