Noteworthy paperbacks

December 22, 2013 

Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy. (Pegasus) Between 1840 and 1882, while thrones across Europe toppled, there were eight unsuccessful attempts on Queen Victoria’s life. Murphy’s book – a learned ramble through history, literature, penology, constitutional theory and even ballistics – argues that the would-be assassins cemented Victoria’s popularity and helped preserve the British monarchy.

A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts by Sebastian Faulks. (Picador) In these linked novellas, protagonists’ lives are shaped by the intersection of fate and free will: a British soldier in Nazi-occupied France; a Londoner struggling for survival in a Victorian workhouse; an Italian scientist in the near future; a maid in rural France in the early 1800s; and a musician enthralled by an American singer-songwriter in the 1970s.

Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation From Magellan to Orbit by Joyce E. Chaplin. (Simon & Schuster) Chaplin, a Harvard historian and the author of “The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius,” traces the 500-year history of circumnavigation – from tales of scurvy and shipwreck in the age of sail to the airplanes and space capsules of modern times – and sees it as an endeavor that began as conquest and evolved into an act of planetary love.

Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt. (Grove Press) Schutt’s third novel is a sinewy portrait of a doomed marriage. Isabel and Ned Bourne, young writers who seem to have it all, move from London to New York and then Maine in hopes of realizing their artistic promise and staving off unhappiness. But their life together is splintered by doubt and indifference, as well as past lovers and new infatuations.

Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism by Carl T. Bogus. (Bloomsbury) Bogus’ well-informed biography focuses on William F. Buckley Jr. – the polemicist, novelist, television star, political candidate, wit and bon vivant – during “the seminal period of the creation of the modern conservative movement”: from Buckley’s founding of its leading intellectual publication, National Review, in 1955, to Richard Nixon’s election in 1968.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. (Penguin) Ozeki’s spellbinding novel tells the parallel stories of Nao, a despairing 16-year-old schoolgirl in Tokyo, and Ruth, a Japanese-American novelist who discovers Nao’s diary, washed ashore on an island off the coast of British Columbia, and finds herself drawn into the mystery of its author’s fate.

A Free Man by Aman Sethi. (Norton) Sethi’s tour de force of narrative reporting centers on Mohammed Ashraf, a homeless day laborer in Delhi. Trapped by his almost complete lack of power, Mohammed ruminates on how he ended up this way, offering “deep insights into the struggle and, poignantly, the solitude of poverty,” Sonia Faleiro wrote in The Times.

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