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.

Pages

Book Reviews
5:05 pm
Sat June 28, 2014

Sorry, Europe. 'Quebert Affair' Plot Thrills, But Prose Lacks Substance

iStockphoto

Originally published on Sat June 28, 2014 5:20 pm

Joel Dicker's breakneck thriller The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair lands stateside trumpeting international sales figures that are the stuff of a writer's wildest dreams: nearly a million copies in France alone. Naturally, our curiosity is roused. Could this be another surprise charmer like Muriel Barbery's quirky The Elegance of the Hedgehog? Or, as the publicity materials tout breathlessly, a "broadly comic" mashup of Twin Peaks, In Cold Blood, The Hotel New Hampshire and more?

Don't get your hopes up.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:27 am
Tue May 27, 2014

'Delicious!' ... Isn't

Originally published on

The exclamation point in its title is a clear tipoff: Delicious!, Ruth Reichl's first novel, is about as subtle as a Ring Ding. It's an enthusiastic but cloyingly sentimental story about a 21-year-old who finds happiness by making peace with her past — namely, her crippling, self-deprecating hero-worship of her older sister. After much angst, she comes to realize that "it was finally time to stop running from the best in me."

Read more
Books
6:59 am
Mon May 26, 2014

Stories Of Loss, Brightened By Luminous Language

iStockphoto

Elizabeth McCracken is a former public librarian best known for her quirkily endearing 1996 novel, The Giant's House, about an unlikely romance kindled at the circulation desk between a petite librarian and a freakishly tall boy. Over time, her work — filled with misfits, giants, and oddballs — has become darker. Loss dominates the triple-trinity of stories in her new collection, Thunderstruck, though she continues to slyly celebrate resilience and unlikely connections.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:03 am
Sat May 24, 2014

Before She Was 'Girl, Interrupted' She Was A Girl From Cambridge

Courtesy of Random House

Twenty years after the publication of Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen's excoriating memoir about the nearly two years she spent in a psychiatric institution at the end of her teens, she's written a sort of prequel. Cambridge, her unflinching, elegiac, quasi-autobiographical new novel, takes us back to the mid-to-late 1950s with a portrait of Susanna as a difficult, contrary 7-to-11-year-old miserably at odds with her family, her teachers and herself. The result is both fascinating and heartbreaking, because we know where her abiding unhappiness is going to land her.

Read more
Books
7:03 am
Thu May 22, 2014

Full Of Warmth And Wisdom, 'Vacationers' Is A Frothy Beach Read

cover detail
Riverhead Books

Meet the Posts — no relation to Emily and her rules of etiquette. The stressed family of New Yorkers in Emma Straub's breezy summer read, The Vacationers, are the kind of people who pack their troubles on top, for easiest access, when they head off on a trip together.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:03 am
Thu April 3, 2014

'Empathy Exams' Is A Virtuosic Manifesto Of Human Pain

human heart diagram
iStockphoto

A boyfriend once called Leslie Jamison "a wound dweller." This is one of many personal morsels she shares in her virtuosic book of essays, The Empathy Exams, in which she intrepidly probes sore spots to explore how our reactions to both our own pain and that of others define us as human beings. Jamison notes with concern that ironic detachment has become the fallback in this "post-wounded" age that fears "anything too tender, too touchy-feely." The Empathy Exams presents a brainy but heartfelt case for compassion even at the risk of sentimentality.

Read more
Book Reviews
8:29 pm
Tue February 25, 2014

Comedian Ages With Humor — And Effort

Courtesy of Blue Rider Press

Originally published on Wed February 26, 2014 10:28 am

What is it about comedians itching to get between the covers — book covers, that is? Annabelle Gurwitch's I See You Made An Effort, a seriously funny collection of essays about teetering over the edge of 50, makes it clear that the draw isn't strictly literary. To tweak Peter Steiner's classic New Yorker cartoon: On the page, nobody knows how old you are.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:03 am
Tue February 11, 2014

'One More Thing' Has A Few Too Many Things, But It's Still Funny

Dimitrios Kambouris Getty Images

Originally published on Tue February 11, 2014 11:25 am

How entertaining is B.J. Novak? With One More Thing, the standup comic, scriptwriter and actor (best known for his work on The Office), takes his talents to the page in 64 fresh, short, offbeat and often hilarious stories, many of which involve updating classics for satirical effect — whether with a rematch between the tortoise and the hare, or by replacing detective Encyclopedia Brown from children's literature with Wikipedia Brown, who is hopelessly distracted by tangential subjects.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:02 am
Wed January 29, 2014

Anna Quindlen Is (Still) The Voice Of Her Generation

Courtesy of Random House

Originally published on Wed January 29, 2014 1:04 pm

Back in the 1980s, Anna Quindlen's New York Times column, "Life in the 30s," delineated — with humor and grace — what so many of her fellow newly liberated female Boomers were going through: the complications of using your maiden name after you have children. Check. The challenges of balancing a career with parenting. Check. Grocery shopping with small children in tow, "an event I hope to see included in the Olympics in the near future." Check again.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:02 am
Wed January 22, 2014

Music And Chemistry Are An Explosive Combination In 'Orfeo'

W.W. Norton

Originally published on Thu January 23, 2014 2:47 pm

Richard Powers, whose novels combine the wonders of science with the marvels of art, astonishes us in different ways with each new book. His 11th, Orfeo, is about a 70-year-old avant-garde composer who has sacrificed family and fortune to his relentless pursuit of immortal, transcendent music.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:02 am
Fri January 17, 2014

E.L. Doctorow's New Novel 'Puzzling And Ultimately Disappointing'

iStockphoto

Originally published on Fri January 17, 2014 3:00 pm

E.L. Doctorow's 19th book, Andrew's Brain, is a real head-scratcher. This short, perplexing but occasionally potent novel presents particular challenges to a critic, as it's difficult to discuss its enigmas without giving away its odd twists. What I can say is that what starts out as a tale of lost love ends up taking a baffling political turn into rather biting commentary on post-Sept. 11 America.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:03 am
Tue November 5, 2013

'Boy Detective' Walks Down Memory Lane, But Doesn't Get Anywhere

There's a difference between ruminating and rambling, and Roger Rosenblatt crosses the line in The Boy Detective, his dilatory, meandering new memoir about his New York boyhood. I was a big fan of Kayak Morning, Rosenblatt's meditation on the tenaciousness of grief published in early 2012, four years after the sudden death of his 38-year-old daughter, a pediatrician and mother of three small children. But his latest, while less melancholic, more playful, and occasionally endearingly quirky, ambles at a pace that makes rush hour traffic down Second Avenue seem speedy.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:03 am
Wed October 23, 2013

An Exhaustive Survey From Columbus To Nemesis In 'Roth Unbound'

PBS

Roth Unbound, Claudia Roth Pierpont's aptly titled study of Philip Roth's evolution as a writer, unleashes a slew of memories — including my eye-opening first encounter with Portnoy's Complaint as a naive 14-year-old. It also stokes a strong desire to re-read his books, which I suspect will be the case for many.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:03 am
Thu October 3, 2013

'The Rosie Project' Will Charm You With Science

Promo image
iStockphoto.com

He's a socially inept scientist who's tone deaf to irony. She's an edgy young woman whose fallback mode is sarcasm. Put them together, and hilarity ensues in Australian IT consultant Graeme Simsion's first novel, The Rosie Project. It's an utterly winning screwball comedy about a brilliant, emotionally challenged geneticist who's determined to find a suitable wife with the help of a carefully designed questionnaire, and the patently unsuitable woman who keeps distracting him from his search.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:03 am
Thu September 26, 2013

Julian Barnes 'Levels' With Us On Love, Loss And Ballooning

General Photographic Agency Getty Images

"Every love story is a potential grief story," Julian Barnes writes in Levels of Life, a quirky but ultimately powerful meditation on things that uplift us — literally, as in hot air balloons, and emotionally, as in love — and things that bring us crashing to earth: to wit, that great leveler, the death of a loved one.

Read more
Book Reviews
10:06 am
Tue September 17, 2013

In 'Sprinkler,' A Wacky Poet Returns With New Obsessions

iStockphoto.com

Nicholson Baker has become a sort of poet of the particular and the peculiar. His books are filled with people who focus minutely on what captivates them – in other words, obsessives. A positive way of looking at obsession is as passion taken to an extreme. The danger, of course, is that the object of one person's intense fascination — such as the broken shoelaces in his unforgettable first novel, The Mezzanine, or the disquisitions on Debussy, dance music, and drones in his latest, Traveling Sprinkler — may spell another's total snore.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:03 am
Tue July 16, 2013

Last Words: An Author's Rhymed Farewell

David Rakoff was a radio essayist for public radio's This American Life.
Deirdre Dolan

What a loss. That's the thought that kept running through my head as I flagged one inspired rhyme after another in David Rakoff's risky (though hardly risqué) posthumous first novel. Why risky? For starters, Rakoff, who died of cancer last summer, at 47, chose to write this last book in verse — albeit an accessible, delightful iambic tetrameter that is more akin to Dr. Seuss than T.S. Eliot.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:03 am
Thu July 4, 2013

City, Comedy And Calamity In Cathleen Schine's New Novel

Apartment building in Greenwich Village
iStockphoto.com

Cathleen Schine can always be counted on for an enticing, smart read, and her latest novel, Fin & Lady, is no exception, but it's an odd duck, as quirky as its peculiarly named titular half-siblings. Neither as sparklingly funny as her most recent book, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, nor as brainy as her earlier Rameau's Niece, Fin & Lady is light, entertaining, and ultimately moving, but you can't help wondering what Schine hoped to achieve with it.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:03 am
Wed June 19, 2013

A Family's Secrets And Sorrows Surface In 'Heatwave'

British writer Maggie O'Farrell, born in Northern Ireland, is less well-known in the U.S. than she should be. Her mesmerizing, tautly plotted novels often revolve around long-standing, ugly family secrets and feature nonconformist women who rebel against their strict Irish Catholic upbringing. Her most recent books, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) and The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), offer the sort of spellbinding reads that can make you miss your flight announcement.

Read more
Book Reviews
7:03 am
Tue June 4, 2013

Food For Thought In Shriver's 'Big Brother'

iStockphoto.com

Lionel Shriver tackles a whopper of an issue in her new novel, Big Brother: obesity and the emotional connection between weight, consumption, guilt and control. She comes at this huge subject through a sister torn between saving her morbidly obese older brother, who has "buried himself in himself," and an unsympathetic, belligerently fit husband — a situation that raises questions about divided loyalties and whether blood is thicker than water. In this book, diet protein shakes are thicker than both.

Read more

Pages