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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.

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.

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.

New York Times reporter Stephanie Clifford's ambitious debut novel, Everybody Rise, about a young social climber desperately trying to claw her way to the top of New York's Old Money society, takes its title from the last lines of Stephen Sondheim's bitter toast of a song, "The Ladies Who Lunch." But its inspiration (like that of Sophie McManus' The Unfortunates, another much buzzed first novel this summer) springs from Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.

My perennial quest for smart, fun summer reads landed me on Two Across, Jeff Bartsch's debut romantic comedy about a brainy couple whose on-again-off-again relationship begins at age 15, when they tie in the 1960 National Spelling Bee. During their recurrent off periods, they send hidden messages to each other in the clever crossword puzzles they compose for major newspapers.

Question: What do holiday shopping and staving off cognitive loss have in common?

Answer: Both are ordinarily earnest endeavors in which Patricia Marx has found unlikely sources of hilarity.

Here's one way to attract readers: Spell out your title in Scrabble tiles. It worked for Stefan Fatsis's Word Freak in 2001, though that's not all that worked for that wonderful book, which remains the best about the game of Scrabble and its obsessed competitors.

Some ideas are so clever it's a wonder no one has thought of them before. Case in point: Algerian writer Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation, a response to Albert Camus' The Stranger, written from the point of view of the brother of the nameless Arab murdered by Camus' antihero Meursault.

Back when I was losing sleep over various scenarios that could befall my aging parents, a friend would try to calm me with assurances that at most one of those things would happen, so they weren't worth worrying about in advance.

Write brilliantly and readers will follow you anywhere — even into a swarm of hoverflies. That's one takeaway from The Fly Trap, a charming, off-the-beaten track, humorously self-deprecating memoir by Fredrik Sjöberg, a biologist who muses and amuses about his baffling passion for hoverflies. "No sensible person is interested in flies, or anyway, no woman," he writes. His book may change that: It is a paean to some of the tiniest wonders of the natural world, but even more to the benefits of intense focus.

Lucas Mann's genre-bending first book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, was about an Iowa farm team, a dying Midwestern factory town, and his own anxieties about success, and it heralded an impressive new talent in narrative nonfiction. Mann's second book, Lord Fear, reaffirms that talent. A memoir about his much older half-brother, Josh, who died of a heroin overdose when Mann was 13, it's a less alluring, more difficult book — but clearly one that Mann needed to write.

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