Amor Towles' elegant debut novel transports readers back to 1938 Manhattan, "just before the sharp lines between social stratifications were smudged by the leveling influences of World War II and the G.I. Bill," notes NPR critic Heller McAlpin. The story focuses on Katey Kontent, born in Brooklyn to Russian immigrant parents, and her variable romance with dashing Tinker Grey. "Along with Katey's ambitious ascension in a man's world, [the novel] is about the randomness of chance, and how most of us 'have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options' which will determine the course of the rest of our lives," McAlpin observes. "It is also about maintaining integrity and the capacity for wonder in the face of insidious monetary sway, and Thoreau's exhortations to 'find our pole star and to follow it unwaveringly.' "
All 17 of George Pelecanos' crime novels have been set in his hometown of Washington, D.C. But instead of focusing on politicians, lawyers or lobbyists, Pelecanos' stories look at the city's greasers and drug dealers, its working black families and its ethnic neighborhoods. Called "the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world" by Esquire, Pelecanos writes about crime, race and class. His latest thriller, The Cut, marks the start of a new series featuring Spero Lucas, who is home from Iraq, investigating cases of stolen property for a defense attorney — and in over his head.
You may know the story of Claireece "Precious" Jones — the pregnant African-American teen who was a victim of incest and abuse — from the provocative, award-winning film Precious starring Gabourey Sidibe. The movie was based on the novel Push by Sapphire. Sapphire's second novel, The Kid,opens with the funeral of Precious, who has died of complications related to her HIV/AIDS infection, and follows her son, Abdul Jamal Jones, as he enters a downward spiral. Moved into foster care, he faces physical and sexual abuse. At a Roman Catholic orphanage, he is victimized again. Ultimately, Abdul becomes a victimizer himself. NPR critic Sarah Weinman found the book "hard ... to shake," but laments that its rambling structure undermines "the power that comes from parsing out rage, hurt and redemption in small but lethal doses — as exemplified with the brilliance of Push."
Even if you believe in God, you might still be an atheist. So argues Penn Jillette in his book God, No! The louder half of the magician duo Penn & Teller frames his new book as the atheist's Ten Commandments. In it, he wanders from rants about the war on drugs to stories of eating shellfish and bacon cheeseburgers with Hasidic Jews. Jillette tells NPR's Neal Conan that critics of atheism often assume nonbelievers are arrogant people, but that's not necessarily true. You may not have to be brave or smart to be an atheist, Jillette says, but you do have to be humble. Atheists don't have all the answers, he writes, but they do have the humility to admit they don't know how the world was created, where humans came from or the answers to many of life's other mysteries.
For decades, five-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Jane Gross reported on a wide range of issues for The New York Times. Recently, she has turned her attention to America's aging population. In A Bittersweet Season,Gross relates how she and her brother moved their elderly mother from Florida to an assisted living facility in New York as she began to decline. Together, the three navigated Medicare and Medicaid after health care costs whittled away the elderly, upper middle class mother's nest egg. Gross tells NPR's Michel Martin, "I thought [that time in my life] was wrenchingly difficult. I also thought in many ways it was redemptive, because I was closer to my mother when it was over and I was closer to my brother [when] it was over, so at least at the back end it was an enormous reward."
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.