Heller McAlpin

Here's one advantage to discussing Rachel Cusk's trilogy of conversational novels: Because they're essentially plotless, there's little need to worry about spoiler alerts. The surprises and rewards of reading these books comes not from finding out what happens, but from getting pulled deep into their labyrinthine tête-à-têtes.

When my brother, sister, and I were growing up, our dinner conversation would inevitably turn scatological at some point, the grosser the better: A kid puked on the teacher's desk, another tracked in dog poop. "Must we talk about this at dinner?" our mother would protest. To which we would answer, "When else are we supposed to talk about it?"

Caryl Phillips' latest novel, based on the troubled life of the writer Jean Rhys, is a lush exploration of the costs of colonialism, the limited possibilities for non-conformist women, and egregious power imbalances between genders and races. Rhys' life — she was born in the British colony of Dominica in 1890 and sent to school in England at 16 — is a fitting canvas for Phillips' perennial themes of displacement, alienation and muddled identity.

The title of Michael Ondaatje's atmospheric new novel — Warlight — refers most directly to the dimmed lights that guided emergency traffic during wartime blackouts, but it applies equally to the cloak of secrecy and uncertainty that blankets this haunting tale.

No one writes about close friendships and unconventional domestic arrangements between gay men and straight women with as much charm and flair as Stephen McCauley. When his first novel, The Object of My Affection, was published 31 years ago, same-sex marriage was somewhere over the rainbow, but his characters, gay and straight, banded together to create a new-fangled family.

In a year that hasn't exactly been full of joyful tidings, Julian Barnes' latest novel struck me as one of the saddest books I've read in some time. Beautifully done, but heartrending. It isn't about belligerent politicians, refugees fleeing for their lives, or schoolchildren being gunned down, but it's a tragedy nonetheless — albeit on a much smaller scale. The Only Story concerns the pained recollections of an aging Englishman's life-changing only love.

What do I love about this book? For starters: Dorothy Parker. Rebecca West. Hannah Arendt. Mary McCarthy. Nora Ephron. Janet Malcolm. With Sharp, Michelle Dean has essentially gathered ten 20th century literary lodestars for an all-female intellectual history party thrown between the covers of a single book. The price of admission to this critical gala: "the ability to write unforgettably," and being labeled "sharp."

Humorous personal essays may be the equivalent of literary snacks — salty, sweet, and sharp, with just the right amount of bite. But the best do more than satisfy cravings for quick, crunchy pick-me-ups: Their satirical observations provide deeper sustenance by reflecting trenchantly on our broader culture.

One of the most frequently hailed signs of social progress in the last 50 years is the growing acceptance and mainstreaming of homosexuality in the Western world. No novelist has chronicled this salubrious sea change in cultural attitudes more beautifully than Alan Hollinghurst. Beginning with The Swimming-Pool Library in 1988 and continuing through The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst's grand literary project has been nothing less than to convey the changing status of homosexuality in British society in the last century.

Fathers and sons. You could fill a library with books about the paternal ties that bind — or fray: Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, Philip Roth's Patrimony, Mario Puzo's The Godfather, and so on. And now there's Mark Sarvas' second novel, Memento Park. Dedicated to his father, who died in 2009, and his two grandfathers, who died decades earlier, it's an absorbing drama about a first generation Hungarian-American rooting around in his family's buried past in the hopes of fathoming his legacy.

Pages