In Colson Whitehead's post-apocalyptic novel Zone One, a zombie plague has wiped out 95 percent of the U.S. population, leaving survivors to band together and wait for small squadrons of human "sweepers" to inch their way across major cities, destroying the remaining zombie-like creatures. The action takes place over three days that a squadron clears the undead from a walled-off area of New York City. Whitehead, whose previous novels include John Henry Days and The Intuitionist, "is concerned with existential loneliness in Zone One, and lampooning contemporary society and its excesses," observes NPR critic Dan Kois. It's "a smart, strange, engrossing novel about ... [how] no barrier can hold forever against the armies of death," Kois declares.
Fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock's first book, 2008's Knockemstiff, was a critically acclaimed collection of short stories set in a tiny hamlet in southern Ohio. In the 1950s, the town had three stores, a bar and a population of about 450 people. The characters — who regularly brawled, drank to oblivion and assaulted their neighbors — popped into Pollock's head while he was working as a truck driver for a paper factory, before he quit at 45 to become a writer. Pollock's second book, The Devil All the Time, is also dark and gritty. Some of the characters include a man who regularly makes blood sacrifices in hopes that they will save someone dying from cancer, and a preacher on the run from the law.
Love can make you do crazy things, like steal priceless moon rocks from the vaults at NASA. That's what NASA intern Thad Roberts did, pilfering more than 100 lunar samples for his girlfriend — and getting away with it. Ben Mezrich's account of how Roberts and his henchmen managed to break into the space program's headquarters and make off with craggy chunks of the galaxy is as good a suspense story as you'll read this year. In Hollywood terms, the pitch is irresistible: It's Ocean's Eleven meets Apollo 13. In fact, the same team that created The Social Network — based on The Accidental Billionaires, Mezrich's book about the genesis of Facebook — is said to be adapting Sex on the Moon for the big screen.
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation's environment correspondent of 20 years, says now that global warming has triggered outright climate change, we're looking at at least 50 more years of rising temperatures. Even if we do everything right to reduce greenhouse emissions and abandon fossil fuels and other carbon-generating activities, he says, we're still locked in to decades of rising temperatures, rising oceans and stronger storms. In general, things will get hotter and wetter, although different localities will see different effects, and there will need to be strong regional coordination. For those trying to create safeguards, he says, the key is not to do things that are going to make global warming worse, such as turning on a lot of air conditioning that is powered by coal-fired power plants.
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.