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Heller McAlpin

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.

One of the happy offshoots of an unexpected late-career literary success is renewed attention to the author's earlier work. Sigrid Nunez's The Friend, a tartly tender novel about a woman mourning the suicide of a fellow writer whose bereft, slobbering Great Dane provides unexpected solace, won the 2018 National Book Award for fiction and sent many readers scrambling to Nunez's backlist.

The attention-grabbing title isn't the only winning thing about R.L. Maizes' debut collection. The declaration serves as a wry punchline in the book's outstanding opening story, which is about a boy who decides to out himself publicly at his bar mitzvah rather than read his assigned anti-homosexual Torah portion from Leviticus. "Why didn't you talk to us first?" his well-meaning but work-distracted parents ask after the disastrous service at his Long Island temple, a video of which goes viral. "We would have understood. We love Anderson Cooper."

Very Nice, Marcy Dermansky's fourth novel, serves up a tart lemonade of a summer read that won't demand too much of your time or attention: Short, simple sentences. Strong, outspoken characters. Lots of libidinous activity, much of it unwise, some of it around a swimming pool. A beautiful standard poodle. A posh Connecticut coastal commuter town that brings a decidedly modern update to John Cheever's suburbia.

Claire Lombardo's The Most Fun We Ever Had probably won't be the most fun you'll ever have (I hope not, for your sake), but it's a wonderfully immersive read that packs more heart and heft than most first novels. Lombardo, a Chicago native and recently minted University of Iowa MFA graduate, has crafted an intricate multigenerational saga about the vicissitudes of a passionate but not perfect marriage over a 40-year span.

Ocean Vuong's devastatingly beautiful first novel, as evocative as its title, is a painful but extraordinary coming-of-age story about surviving the aftermath of trauma. It takes the form of a young Vietnamese American writer's letter to his illiterate mother — her education having ended at seven, when her school in Vietnam collapsed after an American napalm raid.

Once you pop the cork on a bottle of champagne, the bubbly effervescence lasts only so long. That's what seems to have happened with the somewhat flat final novel in Graeme Simsion's initially sparkling Rosie trilogy, about a geekily charming geneticist whose spot on the autism spectrum is evident to everyone but him.

Max Porter is a writer who gets children, and he also gets the pressures of parenting. In his dazzlingly inventive, darkly humorous first novel, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (2016), a suddenly widowed, grief-stricken father struggles to care for his two small sons. The boys flank him protectively, but also bicker and do things their mother hated — like splattering the bathroom mirror with toothpaste and the toilet seat with urine — as a way of underscoring her painful absence.

Among my favorite contemporary authors, Ali Smith leads the parade. I love the brassy blast of her outrage at the world's injustices and the drumbeat of her passion for the arts. This Scottish writer gravitates naturally to outsiders and really understands loss and grief. She takes a genuine interest in old people and what we can learn from them, but also sees hope for the future in smart young people.

I often refer to my grandson as an ambulatory antidepressant, a vivacious antidote to a time of life that has included the loss of my parents and the constant lashing of worrisome news.

Anna Quindlen ascribes similar jolts of joy to her grandson in her latest book, Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting: "Sometimes Arthur sees me and yells 'Nana!' in the way some people might say 'ice cream!' and others say 'shoe sale!' No one else has sounded that happy to see me in many many years."

There are certain authors I read no matter what they write. Ian McEwan is one of them. Over the course of more than 40 years and some dozen and a half books — including Amsterdam, Atonement, and The Children Act — his generally realist, propulsive work reveals an abiding preoccupation with both the repercussions of deceit and how life can change in an instant.

Helen Ellis is a hoot. That's Northern Critic Code for "Don't expect serious essays on pressing topics, but prepare yourself for some off-the-wall hilarity."

Southern Lady Code is Ellis's follow-up to American Housewife, her 2016 short story collection, which unleashed a riotous, twisted take on domesticity. This first book of nonfiction expands her riff on Southern manners and the "technique by which, if you don't have something nice to say, you say something not-so-nice in a nice way."

Such heaps of praise have piled up for Irish writer Sally Rooney, there's a danger of suffocation from avalanching expectations. At 28, the Trinity College Dublin graduate has published two novels, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People, both to the sort of excitement that more typically greets new hand-held electronic devices.

Book groups, meet your next selection. Trust Exercise, Susan Choi's powerful fifth novel, will give you plenty to talk about. At 257 pages, it's not a major time commitment, but be warned that it is impossible to discuss this book meaningfully if everyone hasn't read the whole thing. It's also tricky to review, as it derives so much of its impact from audacious narrative twists that I don't want to risk spoiling.

What's bliss? Well, for some of us, it's losing ourselves — or maybe finding ourselves — in an appealing book, like Rajeev Balasubramanyam's smart, intentionally comforting fourth novel.

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss sets the tone with its first line: "It should have been the greatest day of his life." Instead, we meet the eponymous 69-year-old Cambridge University economics professor in a state of barely concealed irritation at once again being passed over for the Nobel Prize in Economics.

In her delightful first book, Between You and Me, a personable fusion of grammar guide and memoir, Mary Norris, longtime "Comma Queen" of The New Yorker's copy editing department, parsed some of the fine points of her vocation. In Greek to Me, she excavates her avocation — a multidecades passion for all things Greek.

While there's some lovely overlap — a fascination with words and usage — we discover that there was much more on her mind during her years on the copy desk than serial commas and the objective case.

Nell Freudenberger excels at one of fiction's singular strengths — imaginative empathy without borders. Her heralded 2003 debut story collection, Lucky Girls, and her first two novels explored the rub between American and Asian culture. In The Newlyweds (2012) she proved herself to be an adept cultural mime, channeling a Bangladeshi bride's uncomfortable adaptation to life in America.

Andrew Ridker, still in his twenties, has uncorked a lively, tragicomic debut novel, a probe into questions that never get old: What constitutes a good, moral life, and how do you pull it off in this world?

Pithy, loaded letters and emails aimed at their vulnerable targets fly more like missiles than missives in Amanda Sthers' lively epistolary novel about a combative, estranged family scattered between Israel, France, New York, and Los Angeles. At the beginning of Holy Lands, it seems as if nothing is sacrosanct to this pugnacious foursome. During the course of this short novel, that changes.

Many literary memoirs involve surmounting hurdles or uncovering family secrets in pursuit of self-discovery.

My guess is that you've never read a book quite like Heather Rose's The Museum of Modern Love. I know I haven't. This is the Australian author's seventh novel, though it's her first published in the United States, and it's a real find.

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