Jeff Vasishta

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Sunjeev Sahota’s brilliant second novel, the 2015 Booker Prize short-listed The Year of the Runaways, was a sweeping and absorbing look at hardscrabble Indian immigrant life in working-class England. His third book, China Room, is a shorter, more intimate novel that still tells a compelling and devastating tale. It’s also partially based on a true story.

The novel alternates between two storylines in the 1920s and 1990s. The earlier timeline, which is based in part on Sahota’s great-grandmother’s experiences, is set in India’s heavily agricultural Punjab region. Notoriously patriarchal, rural India has been slow to offer women certain rights and opportunities, especially a century ago. Three brothers are married to young girls, including 15-year-old Mehar, in a triple ceremony. The girls are ruled with an iron fist by their mother-in-law, Mai, who barks orders like a military general and demeans them every chance she gets. Mai permits nightly visits between her sons and their new wives, but only in pitch darkness. In the confusion, an illicit affair begins.

The second story, set during the summer of 1999, centers on Mehar’s great-grandson. Narrating from 2019, the man describes traveling to India, seeking refuge from the heroin that has wrecked his health and the racism that has broken apart his family in the U.K. While trying to overcome his addiction, he finds himself going cold turkey in the now rundown “china room” where Mehar used to live along with her sisters-in-law. The man’s story somewhat echoes Mehar’s, and when he falls for a female doctor who’s more than a decade older than he, the local village is rife with gossip.

Through short chapters and sparse, tightly wrought prose, Sahota’s novel is both easy to read and difficult to put down. Something of a hometown hero, not only in the old steel town of Sheffield, where he currently resides, but also to British Indian and Asian writers, Sahota cements his place in a vibrant literary canon alongside Salman Rushdie, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Hari Kunzru and others.

Sunjeev Sahota’s intimate third novel is easy to read and difficult to put down.
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Not every 350-page novel can be torn through in a weekend, but readers may find themselves batting away sleep and setting an alarm for early the next day to continue Jean Hanff Korelitz’s propulsive literary thriller, The Plot. Considering the success of Korelitz’s previous bestseller, You Should Have Known, which became HBO’s “The Undoing” starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, her skill at ratcheting up the tension should come as no surprise.

The Plot is an ingenious piece of storytelling—a story within a story, two plots for the price of one. Jacob Finch Bonner is a washed-up novelist whose debut book led to a brief dalliance with literary success, but that was years ago, and he has since slipped off the radar. At the novel’s start, Jake is scraping by, teaching at a poorly ranked MFA program. When one of Jake’s students, Evan Parker, reveals the twisty plot behind his yet-to-be-written novel, which Evan is convinced will be a bestseller, Jake begrudgingly concedes that literary fame surely beckons.

A few years pass, and when Jake doesn’t hear anything about the novel or its author, he does some online snooping and is shocked to discover that Evan died a few months after the residency. So Jake writes the novel that never was, titles it Crib and becomes a publishing sensation. But things start to unravel when he begins to receive anonymous threats accusing him of theft.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to structure The Plot the way Korelitz has—to claim that Crib will be a surefire bestseller, and then in case we doubt her, to share parts of Crib to reveal just how good it is. But Korelitz is an audacious writer who delivers on her promises. Her next big-screen adaptation surely awaits.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to structure The Plot the way Jean Hanff Korelitz has, but she’s an audacious writer who delivers on her promises.
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Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's 2016 debut novel, The Nest, was an instant bestseller for a reason. It had the lure of cash; a charismatic, lovable rogue as a central figure; and a crackling cast of New York City characters. In her second novel, Good Company, Sweeney once again flexes her talent for crafting loving family dynamics that splinter due to errant behavior.

Flora Mancini’s seemingly idyllic life in Los Angeles as a voice-over actor and wife to Julian, a full-time TV actor, hits the rocks when she discovers an envelope containing her husband’s wedding ring, supposedly lost years earlier. From this pivotal moment, chapters begin to alternate between present and the past, revealing the reason for the ring’s disappearance when the couple was living in New York City with their young daughter, Ruby, and struggling to keep Julian’s theater company, Good Company, from sinking.

When the lure of steady work spurs the Mancinis to switch coasts, upgrading their climate and lifestyle, they are able to reunite with Flora’s best friend, Margot, another Good Company alum. Margot’s husband, David, was forced to give up his East Coast job as a heart surgeon after he had a stroke, and Margot was lucky to land a recurring role on a daytime soap opera. Now she’s living the celebrity life.

Along the way, there have been bumps in the road for the four friends, but life on the West Coast is treating the former Manhattanites well. Flora’s discovery, however, shatters the illusion of her perfect marriage and her rock-solid friendship with Margot.

As in The Nest, Sweeney skillfully navigates the narrow path between literary and commercial fiction with plenty of wit, warmth, heartache and joy. Like a comfy armchair, this is a novel you can sink into and enjoy. Good company, indeed.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney once again flexes her talent for crafting loving family dynamics that splinter due to errant behavior.
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The Bad Muslim Discount starts off in darkly comic fashion. “I killed Mikey,” the narrator, Anvar Faris, tells us. “It sounds worse than it was. You have to understand that I didn’t kill Mikey because I wanted to do it. I killed him because God told me to do it.” Mikey is Anvar’s pet goat, which must be sacrificed for the Muslim celebration of Eid. In the opening sections of this novel, author Syed M. Masood mixes humor with tragedy. When it works, it’s captivating. When it doesn’t, it can feel uneven and disjointed.

The plot concerns the lives of two Muslim kids, 14-year-old Anvar in Karachi, Pakistan, and a teenage girl in Baghdad, Azza bint Saqr. For each of them, extremism engulfs their countries, forcing them to flee. Anvar’s coming of age in Karachi and then San Francisco is the lighter tale. His father, frustrated with the fundamentalism gripping Pakistan, pursues the move and is the comic foil to Anvar’s orthodox mother, who is torn between her love for her country and religion and her cultural wifely duty to defer to her husband.

Conversely, Azza’s is much a darker story. Her father is arrested and held by the U.S. military in 2005, forcing Azza to seek refuge with an aunt in Basra, Iraq, before she and her father may finally immigrate to San Francisco. However, Azza is sexually abused by the person producing their illegal passports, and she arrives in the U.S. traumatized.

After a college romance with a Muslim family friend, Anvar becomes a lawyer, tasked with the thankless job of protecting Muslims' civil liberties amid the rise of Western Islamophobia. Both Anvar and Azza live in the same subsidized apartment block, and inevitably a relationship ensues—with devastating consequences.

Pride, religion, personal identity, romance and sexism are just some of swirling themes that Masood addresses in this brave novel. Ultimately, however, its success rests on the characters and our willingness to believe in them, and that is where The Bad Muslim Discount can feel a little short-changed.

Syed M. Masood mixes humor with tragedy. When it works, it’s captivating. When it doesn’t, it can feel uneven and disjointed.
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Alice Randall’s latest novel is a genre-bending series of profiles of the dazzling residents of Black Bottom, the commercial and residential heart of Detroit’s Black community in the era spanning from the Great Depression to the early 1960s. Characters are revealed through the eyes of real-life emcee, theater director, newspaper columnist and dapper man about town Joseph “Ziggy” Johnson (1913–1968). From his deathbed, Ziggy recalls friendships with some of the city’s most notable characters, some well known and some not.

Black Bottom Saints is an intriguing and beguiling look at the storied city at the height of its pomp. Randall shows us a warm, thriving, tightly woven community of “breadwinners,” or auto industry workers who fled the Jim Crow South and became patrons of Detroit’s glittery club scene. Also part of the novel’s milieu are artists such as poet Robert Hayden, actor Tallulah Bankhead and theater director Lloyd George Richards, as well as United Auto Workers negotiator Marc Strepp, boxer Joe Louis, NFL Hall of Fame defensive back Dick “Night Train” Lane and entertainment industry figures such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Motown Records’ finishing school legend Maxine Powell. The final profile is of “Colored Girl,” whose identity is not quite clear. Perhaps she is Randall herself. Each chapter ends with a cocktail recipe in tribute to the profiled person.

This is a book to read at your leisure, as you might a collection of short stories. Each profile offers fascinating insight into the characters that made Black Bottom a hub for glamour, culture and creativity.

This is a book to read at your leisure, as you might a collection of short stories. Each profile offers fascinating insight into the characters that made Black Bottom a hub for glamour, culture and creativity.
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No one engages a reader quite like Emma Straub. I was 30 pages into her warmhearted new novel, All Adults Here, before I even realized it. Her writing is witty, informal and deceptively simple, drawing readers in as if they’re having a conversation with a close friend.

Events take place in a small, fictitious town in New York’s Hudson Valley and center on the Strick family. The matriarch is 68-year-old widower Astrid, who witnesses an acquaintance being struck and killed by a school bus. This brings to light Astrid’s long-standing animus toward the victim, who, years ago, informed Astrid that her eldest son, Elliot—now a successful builder, married with kids—had been spotted kissing another boy. The fact that Astrid admonished Elliot, albeit subtly, has plagued her ever since, particularly now that she is in a same-sex relationship with her hairdresser, Birdie.

Indeed, gender and sexuality are some of the central themes of the novel. Astrid’s daughter, 37-year-old Porter, pregnant via a sperm bank, embarks on an affair with her former high school boyfriend, who is married with kids. Astrid’s youngest son, Nicky, and his wife have sent their daughter, Cecelia, to live with Astrid after a scandal involving online pedophilia in her former Brooklyn school. At Cecelia’s new school, she befriends August, who is transitioning into Robin.

Along the way, Straub imbues the novel with her trademark humor and comic turns of phrase, particularly Porter’s one-liners. Straub has taken on a lot of issues—gender politics, abortion, bullying, sexual predators—and it’s to her credit that the subject matter never seems heavy-handed or detracts from the momentum. The characters are believable, and events unfold naturally.

I found myself stepping onto a few trapdoors while trying to predict the plot. Having read Straub’s other novels, I should have known better; she’s always one step ahead.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Emma Straub shares a glimpse into her life as a bookstore owner and library lover.

Emma Straub’s writing is witty, informal and deceptively simple, drawing readers in as if they’re having a conversation with a close friend.
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Louise Erdrich’s prolific output has done nothing to water down the quality of her writing. If anything, after three decades of storytelling, she knows her groove and tells her tales in an assured, leisurely fashion. In this way, her latest novel is less a tightly plotted story than a recounting of an episode in American history with character sketches filled in along the way.

Certain themes can be relied upon throughout Erdrich’s body of work, most notably the injustice handed out to Native American tribes by the white powers that be. The Night Watchman, set in the 1950s on North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation, is no exception. It’s based on the extraordinary story of the author’s grandfather, Thomas Wazhushk, who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., where he took on Congress in 1953. Pixie Paranteau is Wazhushk’s niece. She takes a leave of absence at her job at the Jewel Bearing Plant to search for her sister, Vera, who was last seen in Minneapolis. Though she doesn’t find her sister, she finds love in the arms of a promising young boxer named Wood Mountain, himself the victim of racism in the ring. (When he is winning a round against a white fighter, the bell rings 15 seconds early.)

Pixie, her uncle Thomas, grad student Millie Cloud and other Turtle Mountain inhabitants have a common enemy in Senator Arthur V. Watkins, who is bent on reneging on long-held treaties between Native Americans and the federal government. If Watkins wins his election, it would mean the end of the Turtle Mountain community and tribes living on reservations throughout the U.S. Erdrich weaves an element of the supernatural throughout these events, with Thomas’ boyhood friend Roderick returning as a ghost.

The Night Watchman serves as a timely reminder that history seems to have a habit of repeating itself.

Louise Erdrich’s prolific output has done nothing to water down the quality of her writing. If anything, after three decades of storytelling, she knows her groove and tells her tales in an assured, leisurely fashion. In this way, her latest novel is less a tightly plotted story than a recounting of an episode in American history with character sketches filled in along the way.

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In Dear Edward, author Ann Napolitano deftly navigates the psychological and physical trauma of 12-year-old Edward Adler in the aftermath of a plane crash, of which he is the only survivor. He grapples with the loss of his family, his near-celebritylike status and the adjustment to living with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. In his new home, Edward’s lifeline becomes his next-door neighbor’s 12-year-old daughter, Shay, and the novel follows their deepening friendship through the subsequent six years.

Chapters alternate between Edward’s post-crash life and the flight itself, from its takeoff on the East Coast to its end, three-quarters of the way to Los Angeles. The novel homes in on the lives of several of the passengers, including Edward’s family—his professor dad, screenwriter mom and 15-year-old brother. There’s an elderly but curmudgeonly billionaire, a beautiful flight attendant who engages in a tryst with a passenger, a New Age Filipina who remembers past lives and an injured soldier who’s beginning to understand his sexuality.

Dear Edward isn’t a page turner with cliffhangers at the end of every chapter. Instead it’s a slow burn that draws you in to Edward’s interior life, the melancholia of his loss and of the fractured lives around him. Years after the crash, Edward’s healing begins to accelerate when he finds bags of unopened letters from the crash victims’ families. He is able to empathize and grieve with them, and so come to terms with his own loss.

It’s hard for a novel to thoroughly capture a reader’s attention while simultaneously meditating on profoundly complex issues. In Dear Edward, Napolitano, a creative writing professor in New York and author of two previous novels, including A Good Hard Look, manages to achieve this. The delicate sparseness of her prose slowly peels back the layers to reveal a warm, fulfilling center that is a true reward for readers.


Read more: Ann Napolitano discusses her tenderhearted novel.

In Dear Edward, author Ann Napolitano deftly navigates the psychological and physical trauma of 12-year-old Edward Adler in the aftermath of a plane crash, of which he is the only survivor. He grapples with the loss of his family, his near-celebritylike status and the adjustment to living with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. […]
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The Dutch House confirms what we’ve always known: Ann Patchett doesn’t write a bad book. Though the settings may differ (Bel Canto took place in South America, Commonwealth in Southern California and elsewhere), each of Patchett’s books tells a compelling, vivid and imaginative story while offering a deep meditation on human nature.

The titular mansion is located in the Elkins Park section of Philadelphia. It was once owned by the VanHoebeeks, whose imposing portraits are still hanging on the walls when an aspiring real estate developer buys it after World War II. He brings with him his two children—Danny, 3, and Maeve, 7—and his wife, Elna. The house, which has fallen into disrepair, comes complete with furniture and a servant, Fluffy. Elna is horrified by the extravagance of the property and her husband’s wealth, which he’d been keeping a secret. She starts to disappear, first sporadically, then permanently.

Left with their emotionally detached father, the children find that things can only get worse. In true fairy-tale fashion, a wicked stepmother and her own kids move in. Danny (the narrator) and Maeve are displaced from their home when their father suddenly dies and leaves them both almost penniless. An unshakable bond forms between the brother and sister as they survive and strive, pining for their lost home and enraged by the woman who took it from them.

Along the way, Patchett’s knack for aging her characters over many decades serves the story well. The Dutch House is a vast, almost preternatural property, and the characters who have, at one point or another, inhabited it are at the heart of this absorbing tale. It’s fitting and inevitable that the home eventually beckons them back.

The Dutch House confirms what we’ve always known: Ann Patchett doesn’t write a bad book.
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As Brexit throws Britain into another protracted turmoil, Jonathan Coe once again turns his talents to documenting the state of the nation. Middle England’s authenticity lies in its characters—reintroduced from The Rotters’ Club (2001) and its follow-up, The Closed Circle (2004)—now in late-middle age, with grown children of their own, grappling with a country more divided than ever.

Like the previous works in this series, Middle England covers a lot of ground. It moves swiftly from the election of the coalition government in 2010 to the riots of 2011. The 2012 Olympics gives us a feel-good respite of multicultural pride, but that’s quashed by the 2016 referendum and its subsequent fallout, ending in 2018.

Though each chapter revolves around the storyline of its many characters, if there is a central protagonist it would be Benjamin Trotter, the focal point of Coe’s earlier works. He is now single, living in a Shropshire Mill House and toiling over a novel that has spiraled out of control. His sister, Lois, is in a dysfunctional marriage, and her daughter, Sofia, is a university lecturer who has embarked on an unlikely romance with a driving instructor, who is in thrall of his mother and her far-right views.

There are many other funny and fascinating characters, too: Sophia’s gay Sri Lankan best friend, Sahan; Charlie, a boyhood friend of Benjamin’s who is now scratching out a living as a clown for children’s parties; and Doug, another old friend, now a political journalist with his own faltering marriage and activist daughter.

At times the novel feels like Coe is cramming in as much action from topical events and somehow weaving it into the plot, but it’s really only a minor complaint. Middle England is a hilarious, nuanced and well-observed novel that keeps the pages turning while leaving a smile on readers’ faces.

As Brexit throws Britain into another protracted turmoil, Jonathan Coe once again turns his talents to documenting the state of the nation. Middle England’s authenticity lies in its characters—reintroduced from The Rotters’ Club (2001) and its follow-up, The Closed Circle (2004)—now in late-middle age, with grown children of their own, grappling with a country more divided than […]
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Sally Rooney became a literary sensation in her native Ireland with the release of her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, in 2017. Now, the brilliant, Booker Prize-nominated Normal People has only enhanced her reputation.

The novel is partly set in the small Irish town of Carricklea. Sixteen-year-olds Marianne and Connell attend the same school but are worlds apart socially and financially. Marianne is plump, uncool and unliked. She comes from a well-off family, which isolates her from her blue-collar classmates. The star of the football team, Connell, is a slightly aloof, decent, sweetly unassuming guy who picks his mother up from her cleaning job.

A clandestine affair starts between the two, but at school Connell barely acknowledges Marianne. Marianne is treated badly at home, too, where she is ignored by her widowed mother and bullied by her brother. Connell’s casual cruelty evokes all the insecurities of teen life, of fitting in and worrying about what people think. It sets a precedent: Marianne longs for Connell’s love, and he appears unable to give it. The complex relationship between the two—their incredible closeness and dysfunction—is masterfully done.

Both Marianne and Connell receive academic scholarships to Trinity College in Dublin, and over the years, their lives bisect and cross. Marianne becomes popular, while Connell becomes introverted and distant. They become best friends, relying on each other’s counsel as they both enter into new relationships. But there is also a fractious, complicated longing that neither seems to know how to handle. Marianne’s bad choices in boyfriends—bullies and emotional abusers—only put Connell’s qualities in sharp relief. But he, too, is suffering. Depression sees him visiting a therapist and scuppers his relationship with a college girlfriend. 

The quality of Rooney’s writing, particularly in the psychologically wrought sex scenes, cannot be understated as she brilliantly provides a window into her protagonists’ true selves. Ultimately, when life bashes them and there is nowhere to turn, they find they always have each other.

Sixteen-year-olds Marianne and Connell attend the same school but are worlds apart socially and financially. Marianne is plump, uncool and unliked. She comes from a well-off family, which isolates her from her blue-collar classmates. The star of the football team, Connell, is a slightly aloof, decent, sweetly unassuming guy who picks his mother up from her cleaning job.

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