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.

Belinda McKeon's new novel takes the prize for having one of the most exquisite endings I've read in some time — but first, you have to get there. McKeon has followed her debut, Solace (which won an Irish Book Award in 2011) with a microscopically examined tale of lopsided, obsessive love between two college-aged, fledgling adults who meet in Dublin just as they're starting to define themselves apart from their provincial parents.

What's the last novel you read that revolved around a translator? I couldn't think of any, though a Google search reminded me that Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov sometimes worked as a translator, and the narrator chasing his elusive muse in Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl was an interpreter at UNESCO.

Elizabeth McKenzie's clever, romantic comedy broadcasts quirkiness right on its cover, with its potentially off-putting title and its illustration of a squirrel instead of the interlocked wedding rings you might expect. In the tradition of Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House and Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project, The Portable Veblen is a smart charmer about a brainy off-center couple who face up to their differences — and their difficult, eccentric families — only after they become engaged. Although plenty whimsical — the squirrel has opinions!

Too bad there are more than 340 shopping days till Christmas, because if it were just around the corner, I'd be urging you to buy Helen Ellis' off-the-wall stories for anyone on your list who loves satirical humor as twisted as screw-top bottles — and more effervescent than the stuff that pours out of them. Since it's January, let me just assure you that American Housewife is a better cure for winter blahs than hot chocolate, Ellis' hyper-housewife's "gateway drug to reading."

Three sisters — and their brother — converge on their late grandparents' dilapidated cottage for what's likely to be a valedictory summer holiday together as they decide the old homestead's fate. Yes, Tessa Hadley's sixth novel is unabashedly Chekhovian. But The Past also channels those delicious English country house dramas in which characters thrown together under one roof unpack some of the psychological baggage they tote everywhere, airing out old resentments, disappointments, secrets and affinities.

There are books you need to slow down for in order to appreciate fully. Like Family, Italian physicist-turned-writer Paolo Giordano's third novel, demands to be savored. Race through this short meditation on family, marriage, and devotion – set in motion by the death of a beloved housekeeper — and you'll miss its point: The importance, in our numbingly busy, propulsive lives, of pausing to fully experience the present.

I'm a sucker for charming personal essays, those seemingly casual, anecdotal confessionals in which writers essentially dine out on themselves. My favorites (Nora Ephron, David Sedaris) make light of their own foibles and shortcomings (a sagging neck, an inability to master a foreign language) in ways that both reassure their similarly challenged readers and highlight what's really important.

A recent column in the New York Times Book Review posed the question, "Whatever Happened to the Novel of Ideas?" Et voilà: Few will disagree that Michel Houellebecq's Submission, smoothly translated from the French by Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, is a novel of ideas — even though most of them are deeply discomfiting if not downright offensive.

I was a big fan of Sloane Crosley's pert personal essay collections, How Did You Get This Number and I Was Told There'd Be Cake, so I was primed to love her first novel. Billed as "part comedy of manners, part madcap treasure hunt," with a debt to Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace," I was looking forward to a smart, sassy romp of a book. But while The Clasp delivers plenty of snappy lines, it unfortunately hinges on three rather uninteresting old college friends whose litany of disappointments alternate in 50 short chapters.

Patti Smith is a survivor whose dreams prod her to "redeem the lost" by writing about them with "some sliver of personal revelation." In Just Kids, her 2010 National Book Award-winning memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, she rued the loss of so many friends and colleagues to drugs, suicide, cancer, AIDS and "misadventure." (Mapplethorpe, whom she memorably called "the blue star in the constellation of my personal cosmology," succumbed to AIDS in 1989.)

Pages