by Emma Donoghue
Irish-born Emma Donoghue's gripping novel Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, may feel like it's been ripped from the headlines, but what's news here is what she does with her heart-stopping story of a kidnapped teenager held captive in a hidden, hermetically sealed garden shed for seven years. Narrated by the girl's 5-year-old son, whom she has resourcefully provided with a happy childhood while protecting him from her rapist, Room gives twisted new meaning to the notion of a sheltered childhood. Young Jack's skewed point of view and extreme disorientation in the world outside what he calls Room lead to a fresh look at our culture of glut and fascinating questions about childhood development. More than just a prurient horror story, Donoghue's tour de force probes the intensity and many challenges of motherhood, including the difficult but essential need to carve individual space and identities for both mother and child — rooms of their own.
321 pages, $14.99, Back Bay Books
by Justin Cronin
Justin Cronin's answer to the broody, glitter-skinned, bad-boyfriend Nosferatus of the Twilight books is a truly unsettling creation: A government experiment goes awry, as government experiments in thrillers are so wont to do, unleashing blood-sucking "virals" that strike from the darkness. Over the course of this huge, wildly popular — and wildly creepy — novel, Cronin credibly builds two worlds: the few-years-in-the-future America under siege by terrorist attacks in the book's opening, and a vast post-apocalyptic wasteland in which — yep, you guessed it — a ragtag handful of survivors fight valiantly to stay alive. Cronin fleshes out his narrative with maps, emails and newspaper clippings, many of which include details that seem superfluous in the early going. But by the time this book, the first of a planned trilogy, ends, those elements cohere — and Cronin's virals will likely have found their way into your nightmares.
784 pages, $16, Ballantine
The Lonely Polygamist
by Brady Udall
Novelist Brady Udall, born and raised a Mormon, gives us the American family novel to the nth degree in The Lonely Polygamist, his second novel. The lonely guy of the title, Golden Richards, oversees four wives and 28 children in two big houses in a remote territory of the Virgin River valley in southwest Utah. As the novel opens, his already tentative grasp on the family reins is loosening even more, leaving him vulnerable to temptations outside his marriages and sending some of his wives and children on the path toward confusion and danger — and drawing the reader into a world of wavering belief and problematic polygamy. Though Udall mostly works in a gentle satirical tone, he feels all too deeply for Golden Richards' dilemma — how to enlarge your capacity to love in a world that demands that it be huge every waking (and sleeping) moment. Marriage is a traditionally comic subject, and Udall gives us such comedy multiplied by four or five, along with some dark twists, that unflaggingly hold the reader's attention throughout this long, yet precise and unfailingly rewarding novel.
602 pages, $15.95, W.W. Norton
by Sebastian Junger
Best known for penning The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger once more reveals his gift for riveting storytelling in his latest book, War. Readers won't get any closer to the front lines in Afghanistan unless they enlist. It's clear that Junger won the respect and friendship of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, with whom he embedded intermittently over a 15-month deployment. Yet he delivers the story of these men, who've seen more action than the overwhelming majority of American veterans of Afghanistan, without whitewashing their beliefs, actions and harsh reality. However, his ferocious and compelling portrait comes at the sacrifice of a more nuanced look at the tangled politics of this particular war and the Afghans themselves, who are portrayed like monolithic bad guys in a video game. Still, Junger is a master at helping readers understand how soldiers feel and how those emotions affect their fight through the course of a deployment.
320 pages, $15.99, Twelve
Globish: How English Became The World's Language
by Robert McCrum
How did a mongrel tongue born on a small island in the north Atlantic become the globally dominant language now known as English? As Robert McCrum explains in Globish, it's a story that begins back in the first millennium, when the Britons, who first inhabited the isle of Britain, spoke Celtic languages. Their culture was forever altered by the Germanic speech of the Anglo-Saxon raiders around A.D. 500, the Nordic invaders from Scandinavia who followed, and then the Norman invaders of 1066, which made French the language of the court and literature, while English became the language of the common, conquered people. That democratic character, according to McCrum, is partially responsible for English's eventual global domination. And while he acknowledges that "clearly, the British Empire has much to answer for," he also points out that "at the level of language, the way in which it operated was very effective from the point of spreading English."
331 pages, $16.95, W.W. Norton
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 .