by Pete Dexter
National Book Award-winning author Pete Dexter tells the story of a wild boy who grows up to be a wild man — like the author himself. Both Dexter and his novel's eponymous character spent part of their childhood in rural Georgia; both grew up to become newspaper columnists; both almost got themselves killed in a barroom brawl; and both were nurtured and protected by an endlessly patient stepfather. In the novel, Spooner takes care of his stepdad as he grows older, but in real life, Dexter wasn't able to provide for his own stepfather. "The day he died, he came in from teaching school, and he was gonna go to a job at a warehouse, and he lay down to take a nap, and he died," Dexter says in an interview with NPR. "If I'd only had a chance to take care of him."
496 pages, $14.99, Grand Central
by Tracy Chevalier
Novelist Tracy Chevalier has made a career of bringing history to life, with books set in medieval France, 18th century London and 17th century Holland. At the center of her newest novel is a pioneering 19th century fossil hunter named Mary Anning, who was completely self-taught, never had any formal education and was very poor. Chevalier first encountered her while visiting a small museum about dinosaurs. "I learned from the display that she was a working-class girl who had lived in Lyme Regis, which is on the south coast of England, and had been fossil hunting with her father," Chevalier tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "And one day she and her brother discovered a huge specimen of what turned out to be an icthyosaur, an ancient marine reptile about 200 million years old."
320 pages, $15, Plume Books
Changing My Mind
by Zadie Smith
A flexible mind is an open mind. Novelist Zadie Smith puts hers — and ours — through calisthenics in this brainy collection of essays about some of her influences and passions, which include Vladimir Nabokov, George Eliot, Katharine Hepburn, David Foster Wallace and British comedy. No worries here about Emerson's "foolish consistency." Smith writes that "ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith." While her somewhat meandering tribute to Wallace (first published in The New Yorker) and her season of movie reviews (first published in The Sunday Telegraph) are filled with sharp insights, the book's real payoff comes in three essays about her "gentle, sentimental" father, Harvey Smith, a salesman who died at 81 in 2006.
320 pages, $16, Penguin
The End Of The World As We Know It
by Ken Auletta
New Yorker tech reporter Ken Auletta uses the story of Google's efforts to branch out beyond its core search engine business to explore the future of media. One of the intriguing things about Google, he tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, is that they are long-term players — exploring wind energy, robotic cars and Android phones — and refuse to be judged by short-term Wall Street considerations. But Auletta sees some potential problems for Google: "Their engineers tend to be very good at things they can measure. They're not very good at things they can't measure ... [like] why people would fear them, or why what they view as efficient may to someone else be an arrogant exercise of power."
432 pages, $16, Penguin
Obama And The Clintons, McCain And Palin, And The Race Of A Lifetime
by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
For an account of the 2008 presidential campaigns to register now, it has to dish. And that's just what Game Change does. (The Economist has described it as "high-quality political porn.") Its real selling point is the juicy stuff, like how Harry Reid talked about Obama's lack of "Negro dialect," how McCain's aides thought Palin unfit to be vice president and how Elizabeth Edwards behaved hideously to her husband's campaign staff. Such TMZ-ish revelations have won the book lots of headlines while also raising questions about the authors' reliance on so-called "deep-background" interviews with anonymous sources. But the biggest downside to these anecdotes — which tend to make Obama look good and make the losers look petty and sleazy — is that they feed the cynical belief that those running for office are all creeps and phonies.
480 pages, $16.99, Harper Perennial
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also writes the Follow the Reader blog about digital publishing issues.
Novelist Tracy Chevalier has made a career of bringing history to life. She has written books set in medieval France, 18th century London and 17th century Holland — specifically, in the home of painter Johannes Vermeer.
That book, her most famous, tells the story of a Dutch teenager who became a maid in the Vermeer household — and the subject, as Chevalier imagined it, of one of his most famous works, Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Chevalier's newest novel is called Remarkable Creatures. At its center is a pioneering 19th century fossil hunter named Mary Anning, whom Chevalier first encountered one day while visiting a small museum about dinosaurs.
"I had never heard of her," Chevalier tells Mary Louise Kelly. "I learned from the display that she was a working-class girl who had lived in Lyme Regis, which is on the south coast of England, and had been fossil hunting with her father, and one day she and her brother discovered a huge specimen of what turned out to be an icthyosaur, an ancient marine reptile about 200 million years old. [She] had no idea what it was — thought it was a crocodile — and went on to discover another ancient marine reptile called a plesiosaur."
Despite her amateur beginnings, Anning became an important figure in the world of paleontology.
"She was really quite an amazing woman," Chevalier continues. "She was completely self-taught, never had any formal education, was very poor [and] found these things for a living."
Chevalier says that she knew she had to write the novel when she discovered an incident from Anning's childhood: "Maybe most important to me as a novelist, she was struck by lightning as a baby and survived it and lived to tell the tale."
(Read the opening of Remarkable Creatures, in which Anning describes the lightning strike.)
Making Anning's story all the more remarkable is the fact that her discoveries took place nearly 50 years before Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, during an era when scientists were still trying to figure out what a fossil was.
"It was prime Jane Austen territory," Chevalier says. "It was early 19th century. Most people believed that the world was 6,000 years old and had been created by God in six days and set to run and if you looked around it was exactly as God had made it. They took the Bible as literal history. And scientists were very slowly starting to examine that. And when Mary discovered this specimen of an animal that clearly didn't exist now — at first they called it a crocodile, but they really quickly realized it couldn't be because it has this huge bulbous eye like a doughnut, and it has paddles rather than claws and legs — they quickly figured out that it was extinct. And that was like setting off a little bomb in this cozy idea that the world was 6,000 years old, because suddenly people realized, actually the world isn't just as God made it."
The fact that Anning made all her discoveries in spite of her lack of education made room in the story for another important point of view, says Chevalier. She got a little gift, she says, when she discovered a friend of Anning's named Elizabeth Philpot.
"They used to go out fossil hunting on the beach every day," Chevalier says. "Elizabeth was 20 years older than Mary, a middle-class woman who had moved with two sisters down to Lyme Regis from London in 1805. And they never married, any of them, and they became quite interested in fossils."
Chevalier says that because of Anning's limited point of view, she needed someone who could stand in for the reader, who would understand and comment on Anning's discoveries. In Chevalier's telling, Philpot narrates sections of the story.
"It's a book that becomes more about their developing relationship. It's about fossils but it's also about friendship. And in a way this book tries to answer that question, 'What do women do who don't find the Mr. Darcy of the Jane Austen novels?' "
Though Anning may not be as familiar to contemporary audiences as Mr. Darcy or Elizabeth Bennet, she may have inspired at least one well-known cultural trinket.
"She sells seashells by the seashore," recites Chevalier. The tongue twister, she believes, was created in 1908 as a tribute to Mary Anning, even though Anning sold mostly fossils.
"But she did indeed sell seashells by the seashore," Chevalier says. "The funny thing was, I was originally gonna name the book She Sells Seashells, and then I thought there's no way I'm gonna do that because I'll have to say it so many times."
The large audience that will come to Remarkable Creatures following the success of Girl with a Pearl Earring makes Chevalier protective of her newest heroine.
"I'll tell you, what I feel pressure most is getting things right," she says. "Most people aren't going to read a biography of Mary Anning or read scientific books about her. They're going to read this book and think it's exactly how it happened. I had that feeling after I wrote Girl with a Pearl Earring, people took it as that's exactly how it happened with Vermeer the painter, when actually I made most of that up."