This month’s best paperback releases for reading groups include this year's National Book Award winner and two much-touted novels.

Jennifer Egan’s raucous new novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, offers a perceptive look at today’s music industry by focusing on the career of a man who’s seen it all. Bennie Salazar was in a punk band years ago in San Francisco. Now a record producer in New York, he serves as the center of Egan’s narrative, which is structured as a group of loosely connected vignettes about Bennie’s career and the California music scene that nurtured him. The book flashes back to Bennie’s wild past, conjuring a range of voices and characters from that era—groupies, street kids, would-be musicians—then returns to the present, highlighting the changes that have taken place (for the worst, mostly) in the music business. Egan develops a wonderful cast of characters along the way. There’s Sasha, a kleptomaniac who works for Bennie, and Scotty, a fellow musician who’s now a recluse. At once humorous and earnest, antic and tender, this is an inventive look at an aging artist and the passions that fueled his career.

Winner of the National Book Award, Jaimy Gordon’s latest novel, Lord of Misrule, is a rich depiction of horse-racing culture set in West Virginia in the 1970s. Tommy Hansel, a trainer at Indian Mound Downs, hopes to swindle the competition through a con involving four different horses. When Tommy is joined at the track by Maggie, his attention-grabbing girlfriend, she’s quickly noticed by everyone, including gangster Joe Dale Bigg. Drawn to the dark side of racing, Maggie soon finds herself in need of protection, which arrives in the form of a tough guy named Two-Tie. At Indian Mound, a place where loyalty and honesty are in short supply, fortunes can change overnight, and Tommy’s luck doesn’t last long. In Gordon’s hands, the track is brought to vibrant life, populated with groomers and gamblers, coaches and owners. Her many narrative gifts include an ear for jargon, an instinct for pacing and a style that’s lyrical without being heavy-handed. This is a masterfully crafted novel that’s satisfying on every level.

The top choice, hands down, of BookPage readers for best new title of 2009 will finally be available in paperback on April 5. With more than two million copies sold, The Help has been so successful in hardcover that publication of a paperback edition was delayed several times. Adding to the excitement surrounding this insightful Southern novel is a much-anticipated movie based on the book, scheduled for August release and starring up-and-comer Emma Stone. Set in Mississippi in the 1960s, the story of how smart, resourceful socialite Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan joins forces with two black maids, Minny and Aibileen, to write a book about the lives of Southern servants is a poignant and ambitious work of fiction. Through the alliance of this unlikely trio, Stockett examines the big shifts taking place in 1960s society. The novel’s crisp prose, fresh characterizations and inventive storyline all seem the work of an old hand, but this unforgettable novel is Stockett’s debut. 

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