Ann Patchett, author of the beloved novel Bel Canto, takes her readers down the Amazon and deep into the rain forest in State of Wonder. Pharmaceutical research scientist Marina Singh sets out for the Amazon to investigate the sudden death of her colleague Anders Ekman, who had been working with the eccentric scientist Dr. Annick Swenson, and the true nature of Annick's research into female reproduction. As NPR publishing reporter Lynn Neary observes: "The relationship between these two women, the choices they make and the ramifications of those choices are ripe for endless discussion and debate. Combine that with Patchett's vivid and voluptuous descriptions of the mystery, beauty and dangers of the rain forest, and you have a practically perfect book club book."
Henry Skrimshander, the protagonist of Chad Harbach's debut novel, The Art of Fielding, is a prodigal shortstop at a small, Midwestern liberal arts college called Westish University. Henry is destined for the big leagues, until a debilitating mental slump lands him on the bench. Henry's fall raises big questions about the things we chase in life — a baseball career, a young love or a great white whale — and what happens when we fall short. NPR book critic Dan Kos sums up, "in many ways, The Art of Fielding belies its author's status as a founding editor of n+1, the crucial Brooklyn-based journal of literary criticism. Sure, there are disquisitions on Melville and a quote from Robert Lowell. But Harbach's novel might remind you [more] of John Irving's The World According to Garp in its length, its warmth, its love of sudsy plot twists."
What does it really mean to be a mother? That's the question at the heart of Jennifer Weiner's new novel, Then Came You. The plot revolves around the plans of four women — including a college student egg donor, a working-class surrogate mother and a wealthy woman and her stepdaughter — which are thrown into turmoil when the wealthy woman's husband suddenly dies and names the stepdaughter the unborn baby's guardian. Each woman voices her point of view in alternating chapters, which some critics say makes the men involved somewhat superfluous. Still, Weiner spins a compelling and unpredictable plot out of these women's lives.
"You need to watch a Graham poem closely. It's going to move quietly, subtly, so slowly it may even seem, at first, boring. But there's a lot going on there if you can bring down your heart rate to the poems' trancelike pace," says NPR poetry critic Craig Morgan Teicher. His review continues, "For Graham, observing the movements of her mind and the action in the world are the same thing. In these mature poems, memories come alive with a vividness you could trip over: 'I am the only one who ever lived who remembers / my mother's voice in the particular shadow / cast by the skyfilled Roman archway,' she writes. Elsewhere, the present turns ethereal as, for instance, a dog hit by a car becomes 'the loved still-young creature being carried now onto the family lawn.' At the end of each of these winding, harrowing poems, you always end up having inched miles from where you started. Graham is in top form."
In 1933, Germany was unstable and violent, and the job of U.S. ambassador remained open for months as President Roosevelt summarily rejected candidates, until he settled on William Dodd, a professor at the University of Chicago, who accepted the job. Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts is a detailed portrait of the man who served for four years as the ambassador to Germany before resigning — after repeatedly clashing with both Nazi Party officials and the State Department. "I was interested in him because I wanted to find out what was that like, to have met these people when you didn't know how all of this would turn out," says the author best known for the nonfiction blockbuster Devil in the White City. "What would that have been like as this darkness fell over Germany?"
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also leads a weekly chat on books and reading in the digital age every Friday from 4-5 p.m. ET on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag.