In Booker Prize-winning novelist Michael Ondaatje's mind, the "cat's table" is where the the lowly ones who are furthest from power sit in a boat's dining room. It's also where you'll find Michael, the 11-year-old narrator of Ondaatje's latest novel, who's on his own for a 21-day voyage from Sri Lanka to London. He and his companions — two other boys who are also traveling alone — live by only one rule: to every day do at least one thing that is forbidden. Ondaatje, who also wrote The English Patient, tells their story in The Cat's Table, a book set in the 1950s that is part boyhood romp, part crime novel and part nostalgic reflection as an adult Michael looks back on how the trip shaped his life.
What if the magical land from the books you loved as a child was real and needed you to save it? This was the thrilling premise of Lev Grossman's The Magicians, which turned out to be the first of a trilogy of novels about the adventures of one Quentin Coldwater. In this triumphant sequel, he has become King Quentin of Fillory, but instead of reigning attentively, he's getting fat from his life of magical leisure. An omen of doom sends Quentin on a quest to a faraway island that's behind on its tax payments with a small crew that includes his old high school flame, the very Goth Queen Julia. The novel's climax reinvents much that we know so far, creating a spellbinding literary adventure novel that is also about privilege, power and the limits of being human.
Best known for his screenplay for the 2009 movie Fanboys, writer Ernest Cline has delivered an unapologetically nerdy debut novel, Ready Player One. It takes place 30 years into the future, where poverty and crime are endemic, but, as NPR critic Michael Schaub quotes from Lou Reed, "its heart's in 1984." Schaub characterizes protagonist Wade Watts as "a chubby, unpopular high schooler who spends all his free time in the OASIS, a virtual-reality online game that's become something like Second Life on steroids." When Wade unlocks a puzzle that puts him in the running to win the game, he is forced to move quickly, while dodging a team of murderous corporate villains. According to Schaub, "Cline is that rare writer who can translate his own dorky enthusiasms into prose that's both hilarious and compassionate."
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind paints an unflattering picture of rivalries and dysfunction within President Obama's first economic team — rivalries that Suskind says slowed the administration's response to the financial crisis. His book, Confidence Men, is based on interviews with more than 200 people, including the president, and quotes internal documents from the White House, which indicate that some of Obama's decisions were either not enforced or redirected by members of his administration. In Suskind's estimation, Obama is "a victim of very difficult and pernicious circumstances by virtue of being kind of a brilliant amateur."
This eye-opening historical account of the relationship between Britain and the United States in the mid-19th century is told through dozens of characters, says NPR critic Nancy Pearl, "from spies to newspapermen to diplomats, plenty of politicians, the rich and the poor, Northerners and Southerners, old and young, male and female." Though she cautions that it's not a quick read (it's over 900 pages long), Pearl says, "I never felt bogged down in the detail, and I ended up with a long list of people I wanted to learn more about (such as Rose Greenhow, a spy for the Confederacy). The battles are vividly described, and the political maneuvering on all sides is recounted in every bit of its troubling detail. ... This is a book to put on the shelf with other essential Civil War histories."
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. EDT on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag.