Erin Morgenstern is both a writer and a visual artist, and the world of her first novel, The Night Circus, is "elaborately designed, fantastically imagined and instantly intoxicating — as if the reader had downed a glass of absinthe and leapt into a hallucination," says NPR book critic Rachel Syme. Set in a traveling circus that appears at night and vanishes before dawn, The Night Circus is the story of two young magicians pitted against each other since childhood in an intricate, mysterious and lifelong competition orchestrated by their two mentors, who are longtime rivals. But for all the appeal of the novel's setting and Romeo and Juliet love story, the book's ending, "hurtling toward us from page one, is not nearly as transporting or rich as the mystical, magical Le Cirque des Reves itself," says Syme.
"Don't read this novel if you have teenagers," warns NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan. "Or ever were a teenager — especially a teenage girl. It will bring back high school in raw, oozing detail, like a psychic skinned knee." The sarcastic, smart, gutsy narrator, Judy Lohden, is a 16-year-old any parent would be reassured by. But, as Corrigan notes, "the complication here is that Judy is a 'little person' — all of 3 feet, 9 inches tall. In the novel, Judy's size functions as both reality and metaphor. Practically speaking, being a dwarf affects Judy's every social encounter and makes the whole high school ordeal harder." Though school goes surprisingly well for Judy at first, something really horrible happens "that makes this novel's acknowledged forerunner, Stephen King's Carrie, read like a mere drop in the bloody bucket of teen humiliation."
Dean Bakopoulos' novel about widower Zeke Pappas — who must get married before his cancer-stricken mother dies in order to retain custody of his two orphaned nieces — is hilarious and heartfelt, says bookseller Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee. Zeke's marital prospects include his assistant and a local barista, and the filmmaker Sofia Coppola. At the same time, Zeke's work at Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative is under investigation by a wing of the Department of Homeland Security. "Maybe it wasn't a good idea to let their biggest donor use his GMHI credit cards for sexual trysts," observes Goldin, adding that "this funny-sad novel seems to take elements of the author's own life (happily married, with kids) and twists them in a fun house mirror — with delightful results."
The novel Partitions by Amit Majmudar is set in the chaotic period when the newly independent India is rent into two countries, India and Pakistan — one Hindu-dominated, the other Muslim. As NPR book critic Alan Cheuse explains, "the metaphor suggested by the title ... produces quite a lot of ironic juxtapositions of characters and states of mind and body." The book is narrated by a ghostly Hindu pulmonologist who tries to guard the lives of his two young sons, who are separated from their mother as they cross from Pakistan into India. "Rather than producing a sweeping narrative about the partition, this adds up to a narrowly focused book that generates deep emotion about the difficulties of a small group of characters over a brief period of time," says Cheuse.
James Carroll first visited Jerusalem in 1973 as a young Catholic priest looking to restore his faith. "I encountered, in ways I hadn't before, the very real, tangible sacramental presence of God," he tells weekends on All Things Considered's Guy Raz. It led Carroll to re-evaluate his faith, and he left the priesthood. But Carroll fell under the spell of the city. He says this has happened to people of all faiths who visit. Carroll believes this leads to two Jerusalems: real and imagined. The real Jerusalem is a city divided by barbed wire and security barriers. It's a place where some people devote so much time to faith, they are impoverished. The imagined Jerusalem is what has caused so much disagreement and conflict over thousands of years — but it has also been widely inspirational. The idea of Jerusalem, according to Carroll, has shaped the history of Western civilization.
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.