Denis Johnson's striking short novel, Train Dreams, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in a year when nobody won. But NPR book critic Alan Cheuse found much to appreciate in this story about life, fate and death in the early 20th-century American Mountain West, which to Cheuse evokes "the compactness and pacing of Jim Harrison's masterly novella Legends of the Fall. ... Johnson beautifully conveys what he calls 'the steadying loneliness' of most of [Robert] Grainier's life, the ordinary adventures of a simple man," Cheuse says, and "toward the end even convinces us of his character's inquisitive and perhaps even deeper nature than we might first have imagined ... Most people who read this beautifully made word-engraving on the page will find him living on."
Tom Perrotta's spiritual fantasy looks at those left behind by a Rapture-like event that has vaporized their friends and family. NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan listed it as one of the best books of 2012, saying: "Perrotta's characters must cope with the empty chairs at the family table, as well as the shame of their own loser status. Although The Leftovers displays the wry sensibility of Perrotta's best-known suburban social novel, Little Children, like that predecessor, it also morphs into a more elegiac reflection on loneliness and the existential mystery that lies beneath our everyday routines."
Veteran journalist and writer Pete Hamill's Tabloid City revolves around the devoted editor-in-chief of New York City's last afternoon tabloid. Sam Briscoe "lives for news, despite running a paper with a bare-bones staff and dwindling morale that is living in the shadows of days when newspapers were great," says critic Adam Rathe. "But from two minutes past midnight, when we find Briscoe stuck at work trying to fit the story of a model student shot dead onto the front page, until 9:16 the following night when all the smoke clears, Hamill's exhilarating thriller explores a world where newspapers are as soaked in adrenaline as they are in ink."
A travel editor at National Geographic, Outside and GQ, Mark Adams calls himself a "white wine spritzer explorer" in this Peruvian travelogue. In the mystical Inca city of Machu Picchu, "Adams, in fact, sleeps in a tent for the first time," notes book critic Rachel Syme. "Adams unearths a fascinating story, transporting his readers back to 1911, when Yale professor Hiram Bingham III hiked the Andes and stumbled upon one of South America's most miraculous and cloistered meccas," Syme explains. One hundred years later, Adams attempts to investigate the charges against Bingham for looting precious artifacts, while tackling such questions as: Was Machu Picchu a magical site of innovation, an Aztec vacation community or an anthropological hoax?
This memoir by Melissa Coleman recounts what it was like to grow up as the daughter of one of the stars of the "back to the earth" movement of the late '60s and early '70s — Eliot Coleman, who raised his family on the rural coast of Maine with his wife, Sue. They had no running water, no electricity, raised their own food, and made their vegetarian meals in a small one-room farmhouse. In This Life Is in Your Hands, says critic Rachel Syme, Coleman "chronicles the more luscious aspects of homesteading — the basketball-sized squash, the ripe strawberries, the cool wind off the ocean. But Coleman also divulges the darker secrets of her family and tracks her parents' ultimate undoing (involving a tragedy that we won't reveal here)."
"Johnny Appleseed ... he's real, right?" asks NPR's Noah Adams. To find out, Adams read Howard Mean's biography of John Chapman, "a smiling man — a vegetarian — who shared the forest with the Indians and bears and cougars, and brought his gift of apples to an expanding new America." Adams says he could have lived without the book's genealogical research, the details of Chapman's devotion to the Church of the New Jerusalem, and the teachings of Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. "It was the wandering Johnny Appleseed that rescued the book for me — Chapman leaving his Massachusetts home for scarce-settled Pennsylvania river lands, and then Ohio and finally Indiana ... planting seedling orchards along the way."
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.