Mumbai's slums, the Iraq war and the fall of Colonel Gaddafi are among the subjects covered by the five titles up for the 2012 Guardian First Book Award.
Aberdeen's sink estates and American college baseball also feature in this year's shortlist.
Now in its 14th year, the £10,000 prize crosses all genres and is open to all first-time authors that write in, or have been translated into, English.
The winner will be unveiled at a London ceremony on 29 November.
This year's judges - who selected the shortlist in collaboration with five Waterstones reading groups from around the UK - include the authors Jeanette Winterson, historian William Dalrymple and the journalist Katharine Viner.
Guardian journalist Lisa Allardice, chair of the judging panel, said the nominated titles "range across the globe and confront some of the most urgent issues of recent years".
Previous recipients of the Guardian First Book Award - won last year by Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies - include Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer.
The five titles - some named more eclectically than others - are as follows:
• The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Sceptre), described as "an unforgettable depiction of the psychological impact of war, by a young Iraq veteran and poet";
• The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Fourth Estate), a novel about young men who play baseball at a fictional US college;
• Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo (Portobello Books Ltd);
• Sandstorm by Lindsey Hilsum (Faber & Faber), described as "the inside story of Gaddafi's regime";
• Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (Chatto & Windus), about a childhood spent in 1980s Aberdeen.
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