Heller McAlpin

Joshua Ferris has a bead on the insecurities that run beneath our quotidian exchanges, a shadowy subtext always threatening to spill into the open, like a sewage system overflowing with storm runoff. His typical protagonist is a man in his 30s who goes off the deep end in a darkly humorous way when his anxieties — usually about his wife or work — overwhelm him.

Writing good fiction is hard, and doesn't necessarily get easier with practice. Some writers improve over time, others burn brightly but flame out early. Case in point: F. Scott Fitzgerald, who produced most of his best work — This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Tales of the Jazz Age — in his 20s.

Max Winter's powerful but bleak debut novel is about missing people: people who are missing, and the sons, brothers, friends, lovers, and classmates who feel their absence and miss them. Exes is propelled by the efforts of its troubled principal narrator, Clay Blackall, to piece together the last ten years of his younger brother Eli's life — which he missed because they were estranged.

Jim Harrison lived as he wrote, vividly. When his overtaxed heart finally gave out last year, he left a trail of 40 books, mainly fiction and poetry, in which he conveyed his untamed passions for booze, botany, sex, hunting, fishing and literature. His deep empathy for America's disenfranchised was matched by his overarching intolerance of small-minded "nit-wit authorities." He has been compared to Hemingway and Faulkner, and called the American Rabelais, a Mozart of the Prairie, and a force of nature.

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.

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