Heller McAlpin

Don't be fooled by the deceptive simplicity of Graham Swift's latest short novel. Here We Are, which at first appears to be a light little story about a love triangle between three variety show performers in seaside Brighton, England in 1959 — a song-and-dance man, a magician, and the magician's alluring assistant — turns out to be about nothing less than life's frequently baffling illusions and transformations.

Sigrid Nunez is on a roll. She's tapped into a smart, wry voice which feels right for our times, as do her concerns with friendship, empathy, loss, and loneliness.

Deep into Summer, the fourth installment of Ali Smith's highly topical seasonal quartet, the author slyly inserts a charged question: "Should the Artist Portray His Own Age?" It's the subject of a debate that takes place at an internment camp for British "enemy aliens" on the Isle of Man during World War II — which speaks not just to the erudition of the detainees but also to the audacious literary mission Smith set for herself five years ago: To write four novels that weigh in on current events as they unfold.

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.

Jenny Offill broke through the funk of a 15-year gap between her first and second novels with Dept. of Speculation (2014), a wonderful series of witty, plangent short dispatches about marriage, motherhood, and thwarted aspirations from an unnamed female writer whose life ventures dangerously close to the brink.

Offill's new novel, Weather, takes a similarly clever diary-like tack, but it's even better — darkly funny and urgent, yet more outwardly focused, fueled by a growing preoccupation with the scary prospect of a doomed earth.

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