Jeff Vasishta

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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