Heller McAlpin | WYPR

Heller McAlpin

When Nell Stevens, then a newly minted MFA, was offered the possibility of a three-month grant to go anywhere in the world to write, she pounced. Eager to avoid distractions and desperate to find something to write about, the 27-year-old Brit chose the weather-lashed, aptly named Bleaker Island, in the Falklands. "I do not want to have a nice time," she explains. "What I want — what I need — is to have the kind of time that I can convert into a book."

Keggie Carew dives deep into her father's world in this extraordinary blend of personal memoir, biography, and World War II military history. Recently awarded UK's Costa Book Award for biography, Dadland brings to mind Helen MacDonald's H is for Hawk in the way it soars off in surprising directions, teaches you things you didn't know, and ambushes your emotions. It's a similarly fierce and unconventional book that defies categorization to explore mortality, loss, life decisions and influences through a daughter's intense bond with her father.

I got carsick reading Stephen O'Shea's The Alps, much of which involves navigating one "neurotic noodle of a road" after another as he twists his way up and down mountains in pursuit of the highs and lows of Alpine history. Reading about his umpteenth hairpin turn, I found myself whining, "Are we almost there?"

Even before cracking Bill Hayes' mixed-media memoir, you know it's going to be special: This is the man who enabled neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks to do what a lifetime of therapy hadn't — connect intimately and openly with another man, ending three and a half decades of celibacy. Sacks finally came out about his thwarted sexuality and joyful late awakening in his memoir, On the Move, which was published just a few months before his death from cancer in 2015. Insomniac City is Hayes' valentine to Sacks, New York City, and life itself.

Could Scottish writer Ali Smith be J.D. Salinger's natural heir? It's not as preposterous as it sounds. Not since Salinger's plucky English orphan, Esmé, soothed an American sergeant's no-longer-intact faculties at the end of World War II has a writer so artfully and heartrendingly captured the two-way lifeline between preternaturally wise children (mainly girls) and young-at-heart gentle souls (mainly men) who forge special friendships that have nothing predatory or Lolita-ish about them.

What price love? Lara chronicles the horrifically steep costs for Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak's mistress, muse, and model for Yuri Zhivago's lover in Doctor Zhivago (alluringly played by Julie Christie in David Lean's 1965 movie adapation). Olga's connection with the persecuted author and her role in ushering his novel into print made her "a pawn in a highly political game" that landed her in the brutal Soviet gulags — twice.

Transit, the second installment of Rachel Cusk's cumulatively affecting post-divorce trilogy that began with Outline, is a reading journey you wish didn't have to end — so it's a good thing there's a third volume on the itinerary. This isn't to say these subdued, meandering novels are a joyride, at least not in the usual sense. They offer little in the way of plot thrills.

Dava Sobel is as adept at spotting promising subject matter as the extraordinary women astronomers she writes about in The Glass Universe were at spotting variable stars. By translating complex information into manageable bites sweetened with human interest stories, Sobel makes hard science palatable for the general audience. Even more than her 1999 book Galileo's Daughter, this new work highlights women's often under-appreciated role in the history of science.

Michael Chabon turns out more beautiful sentences in a single novel than some writers produce in a lifetime. But he is far more than just an elegant stylist: Chabon is an adventurous writer who wields his gorgeous — and occasionally over-the-top — prose in the service of lively narratives that channel various genres — comics, detective, picaresque, historical — often in combination, as in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policeman's Union.

Sex is a fraught subject in April Ayers Lawson's impressively polished debut collection of stories. The audacious but vulnerable young Southerners who populate these five tales live in a world where the ordinary uncertainties of relationships and physical intimacy are amplified and distorted by their devout, fundamentalist Christian upbringing, and in several cases, a history of childhood sexual abuse. Despite her limpid, supple prose, there's a creepy cast to Lawson's vision, with shades of Flannery O'Connor's dark humor and Southern Gothic sensibility.

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