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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.

In the 20 years since the publication of her first novel, After You'd Gone, Irish-born Maggie O'Farrell has wooed readers with intricately plotted, lushly imagined fiction featuring nonconformist women buffeted by the essential unpredictability of life, which can turn on a dime.

Gail Caldwell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former book critic for the Boston Globe and author of the 2010 Let's Take the Long Way Home, a gorgeous elegy of a special friendship, has become what is known as a serial memoirist.

It's a term that smacks of crime or perhaps narcissism — but the most serious charge against Caldwell might be repetitiveness concerning her boundless love of dogs.

Even more than usual during these past few months of confinement, I have been on the lookout for books that will transport readers to another time and place. Icelandic novelist and playwright Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir's atmospheric sixth novel, Miss Iceland, is just the ticket. But be forewarned that another time and place doesn't necessarily mean a rosier time and place.

Brit Bennett's first novel, The Mothers, was the sort of smashingly successful debut that can make but also possibly break a young writer by raising expectations and pressure. Four years later, her second, The Vanishing Half, more than lives up to her early promise. It's an even better book, more expansive yet also deeper, a multi-generational family saga that tackles prickly issues of racial identity and bigotry and conveys the corrosive effects of secrets and dissembling.

Reading may not be the opiate of the masses, but it sure is my anti-anxiety elixir of choice. Whether you're quaking in fear of the dreaded coronavirus (as I was), relieved to be recovering from it (as I am), or worried about the world and feeling restlessly cooped up (as we all are), here are a trio of delightful new books that can transport you to a happier place for hours at a time.

Anne Tyler's latest novel is heartwarming balm for jangled nerves. Once again, she burrows so convincingly into the quotidian details of her main character's life, home, and head that you have to wonder if she's some sort of Alexa-gone-rogue.

Redhead by the Side of the Road has a lot going for it, beginning with its alluring title. But I'm not going to give away anything about that roadside presence except to say that the redhead is a lovely metaphor for the protagonist's inability to see clearly, which causes him to misread the relationships in his life.

Not surprisingly, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there has been a spate of new novels exploring the long term damage of sexual abuse. In the past two years, predatory high school teachers have factored into two of the best of these — Kate Walbert's His Favorites and Susan Choi's Trust Exercise. Kate Elizabeth Russell's explosive debut now joins the line-up.

Lily King's new novel, her fifth, won't transport you to an exotic locale the way her last one did, but oh my, it's a good read. After Euphoria (2014), a richly researched and imagined tragic love triangle inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead's life, King returns to her comfort zone: a distressed young woman finding her way in late 20th century New England.

Some people, my mother used to say, look for trouble. In her most personal book to date, Katie Roiphe — frequently a lightning rod for her inflammatory, unpopular stances on issues such as date rape — probes questions raised by the turbulence in her private and professional life.

Teddy Wayne's fourth novel is written in the key of Edward Hopper. Apartment is a portrait of loneliness and male insecurity set against the backdrop of the hyper-competitive world of Columbia University's graduate writing program, where ambition and self-doubt go hand in hand, and the workshops seem designed to separate the anointed from the hacks — or, in this case, the men from the boys.

Want a great antidote to distress over current events? Julian Barnes found it in his immersive plunge into the incredible flowering of sexual and artistic expression in Belle Epoque France, and into one man's mostly admirable life in particular. His 24th book (and eighth volume of nonfiction), The Man in the Red Coat, is a wonderful demonstration of the sort of free-range intellectual curiosity Barnes feels has been stymied by the xenophobia and national chauvinism behind Brexit.

If the chances of dying in a plane crash are pretty slim, being the sole survivor is even less likely. Slighter still, one would think, are the chances that two American novels published in the same month would feature sole plane crash survivors — but that's what we have here.

You knew it was bound to happen: the pushback against the #MeToo movement, the arguments for nuance. Not just from accused men proclaiming their innocence, but from a wave of novels (including Mary Gaitskill's This Is Pleasure, and Sally Rooney's Normal People) reminding us that relationships and female desire can be complicated and quirky.

Temper tantrums and meltdowns. They're a bane of parenting. Often at the most inconvenient moment possible, your kid — tired, hungry, beyond reason — just loses it. And it's your job to keep your cool and calm them down. After all, you're the grownup.

With her sixth novel, Jami Attenberg, best known for The Middlesteins (2004), secures her place as an oddly sparkling master of warped family sagas. All This Could Be Yours, mostly set on a single, stifling August day in New Orleans following the heart attack of 73-year-old Victor Tuchman, is an autopsy of the considerable, lasting damage this toxic man has inflicted on his family.

Gail Collins warns us upfront in her robust social history of America's changing attitudes toward women past the first blush of youth that "This is not going to be a tale of steady progress toward an age-indifferent tomorrow."

No Stopping Us Now makes clear, for example, that two particularly challenging times to be an older woman in America were the youth-obsessed 1920s and 1960s. Take heart, though: As its title indicates, the general trend chronicled in Collins' new book is encouraging.

Ten years after Elizabeth Strout won a Pulitzer Prize for her eponymous collection of linked stories about Olive Kitteridge, a difficult but endearing, retired but not retiring middle school math teacher, she returns to coastal Maine with an update — which is just as wonderful as the original.

Deborah Levy is a risk-taker — in both her life and work. Her recent memoir, The Cost of Living, offered a gutsy take on finding her footing and voice in a world in which women are often relegated to supporting roles. With her new novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, she pulls off something even trickier, plunging us into a sometimes-confusing narrative that involves a man who actually sees nothing clearly.

There are several ways of looking at a story collection as wide-ranging and variable as Grand Union, Zadie Smith's first book of short fiction.

You could say it shows off her range — realist, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, quasi sci-fi, political and social satire, historical — and in doing so, provides something for everyone.

You could say it sheds light on her longform work — novels that include White Teeth, NW, and Swing Time — and that it animates ideas she explores in her essays, most recently collected in Feel Free.

In her new book of essays, Leslie Jamison reminds us more than once that the Roman playwright Terence's Latin motto, "I am human: nothing is alien to me" is tattooed along her arm.

The declaration, also the epigraph of The Empathy Exams, Jamison's first essay collection, is a mission statement for this intense writer who is drawn to strange stories that feed "the human hunger for narrative" — but also test the boundaries of her compassion and her openness to "mystery and wonder."

Ann Patchett may well be the most beloved book person in America — not just for her irresistibly absorbing novels and memoirs (including The Patron Saint of Liars, Bel Canto and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage) but for becoming a patron saint of readers and publishers when she opened Parnassus Books in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn. And despite a few small reservations, this is the story of a happy book critic: The Dutch House is another wonderful read by an author who embodies compassion.

Rachel Cusk is a writer who worries more about truth-telling than likability.

Jacqueline Woodson begins her powerful new novel audaciously, with the word "But." Well, there are no buts about this writer's talent.

Red at the Bone follows Woodson's National Book Award-winning memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, and her critically acclaimed novel Another Brooklyn, which in turn followed more than two dozen popular young adult novels, several of which received Newbery awards. With this new novel for adults, Woodson continues her sensitive exploration of what it means to be a black girl in America.

Novelist Cathleen Schine has the gift of wearing her intellectuality lightly. Since 1983, she has launched one sharply comic novel after another — about mutating female friendships, academic pomposity, foolish old men who trade in their old wives for spiffier models, and grown children who fret over their aging parents. Schine enriches each of these modern scenarios with literary prototypes that include Gustave Flaubert, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin and Denis Diderot. The wonder is that none of these references weighs them down.

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.