Category Archives: 500 Must-Read Literary Fiction

If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel

IYSMDSH Title: If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi
Author: Neel Patel
Publisher: Flatiron Books
ISBN:9781250183194
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

A short-story collection that is written well and paces itself beautifully always lifts my spirits. It is the feeling of the book never ending. A feeling that it should last a little longer, even though it might end. Some more. And that’s exactly what I felt but of course while reading If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi.

Neel Patel’s stories are quiet and tender. They pack a punch nonetheless when they have to. What lends to them superbly is the writing – the in-depth and heart-wrenching intimacy of this collection, and more than anything else, the tapestry of the lives of second-generation Indians – their lives and loves in the US of A.

Relationships are at the core of this book and no one is judged. These eleven stories pack a punch every time. The stereotypes grow with every turn of the page and then Patel shatters them with one giant stroke of the hammer. Whether it is a younger gay man involved with an older one, three women who want to defy every norm of society there is, a young couple trying to carry on with their lives amidst gossip, and whether it is standing up to arranged marriage, every story is layered and compelling.

Neel Patel’s prose isn’t sugar coated. His characters betray, regret, and realize that living is perhaps all of this and more. That makes it real and relatable, no matter where you live. The landscape doesn’t matter. The stories do for sure. They speak to you. You can see these characters around you and that’s where I guess Neel also gets his inspiration from.

“If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi” is a collection of stories that must be read this year. A debut that is so strong, introspective, and will make you perhaps see the world a little more differently than you are used to.

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The Hazards of Good Fortune by Seth Greenland

The Hazards of Good Fortune Title: The Hazards of Good Fortune
Author: Seth Greenland
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609454623
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 624
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I loved Seth Greenland’s “I Regret Everything”. It was witty, sharp and biting and his latest book is no different. Thank God for that! “The Hazards of Good Fortune” while being hilarious and often witty, does not stop being profound or showing us what the author wants us to see, one which is thinly veiled and not exposed to all. He explores big themes, big emotions and a big landscape in this book – New York and the Obama presidency.

Jay Gladstone is the kind of aware and ‘woke’ man I would love to meet. He makes his errors and he is aware of them to the point that he tries to make amends as well. He does not try and absolve himself of his silly ways, so to say. He sees himself a moral man, who doesn’t want to repeat his father’s mistakes. He is born to privilege and checks it at all times. Till life, circumstance and other people happen to him and everything spirals out of control or so it seems.

Greenland looks at uncomfortable topics unflinchingly – race, class and gender. He doesn’t mince his words. The book reminded me so much of “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. Some things were so similar – a man caught in circumstances beyond his control, the element of race and how it works in the Obama presidency and the question of morals and what place they hold in our lives.

“The Hazards of Good Fortune” is never light (though it may come across that way sometimes). It is an extremely appropriate read for our times and the kind that makes you sit up and take notice of what is going on. The writing is incisive and sharp. The characters play out urban angst fantastically and the author doesn’t hide their weaknesses for one single minute. The plot is layered, the book runs at a break-neck speed and still manages to find some humour in all of this. Read it and find out.

 

The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas

91NWARscW6L Title: The Empty Room
Author: Sadia Abbas
Publisher: Zubaan Books
ISBN: 978-9385932267
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Because more stories such as this one need to be told. Stories where the political and personal merge and the voice stands out – being original, fearless and saying it like she intends to. I also most certainly have come to believe that stories of women are best told by women (you can refute me on this one but it is my opinion nonetheless). The story of Tahira in 1970s Karachi is told beautifully by Sadia Abbas. Through a work of fiction, you can sense the tone and emotions that are so real, you are transported back in time. As a reader, I was way too invested in this book and just wanted to see Tahira happy, no matter what.

Like I said, the novel is set in the 70s of Karachi. Tahira is married off quite quickly to someone she doesn’t know and her life falls apart as quickly. She is a talented painter who isn’t allowed to paint. Her marriage is nothing but a trap and she has no voice left. She was always the free one at her parents house – interacting, debating, discussing with her brother Waseem and his friends. She misses all that and comes to know one fine day that her brother and his friends are arrested and caught up in the regressive regime’s line of fire. Tahira’s world is shattered. She doesn’t know what to do and how to express herself anymore till she goes back to painting. All her paintings have the same title, “The Empty Room”.

“The Empty Room” is rich, luxuriant and more than anything else soothing in so many ways. I often found myself weeping and smiling at the same time while reading this book. The nation is new. The bride is new. Her roles are new. There is the rebel inside her which refuses to succumb and Abbas through her succinct prose has brought out all the elements and joined them quite cleverly. Yet, there are so many places where the book just is – it doesn’t try to be anything but show a mirror of times gone by and strangely you can see those times even today around you. They haven’t gone anywhere. The regressiveness exists, doesn’t matter which nation.

Abbas makes Pakistan come alive in this book. The streets, the places, the houses – the very atmosphere that is heavy and sometimes claustrophobic in Tahira’s world is described brilliantly. “The Empty Room” is just an introspective book with a lot of heart, gumption and the idea and hope that things will change for the better. Read it.

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

The Book of M Title: The Book of M
Author: Peng Shepherd
Publisher: William Morrow, HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0062669605
Genre: Literary, Post-Apocalyptic
Pages: 496
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I am ecstatic that I read this book. At the same time, I am devastated that it ended. A book that was dystopian, post-apocalyptic, a romance and even literary at that. I really can’t place it anywhere but it is post-apocalyptic for sure.

The M in the book title could very well stand for Memory as the book is about that and its loss. The world is now the one in which people’s shadows start to disappear, without any reason. The only problem is that their shadow is linked to memory, which means that even memory then goes out of the window. Simple memories are lost – skills to begin with – how to open a door, how to brush one’s teeth, etc. The more complex memories (the ones related to the heart) go right after. The world spins out of control. There is chaos everywhere. Nothing has prepared the world for this and people fear that this is going to be the end after all.

Shepherd’s book is fascinating. It touches on memory so closely that it almost frightens you with the thought: what would you do if you lost your memories? Or were on the road to rapidly losing them? Then what? Memory is something which perhaps we take for granted all the time, till we start forgetting. Shepherd plays on that aspect cleverly throughout the book. Each character is struggling with his or her demons and the beauty is in Shepherd tying all the loose-ends superbly. I normally do not enjoy “battle scenes” (no spoilers really) but in this book I didn’t mind them at all. In fact, if anything, I enjoyed them and Shepherd has written them accurately.

“The Book of M” draws you into its world. You want to know the whys and hows and whens of it all. Peng Shepherd creates characters you feel for intensely and cannot do anything but pray it will all work out for them. I was reminded of Emily St John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” while reading this, primarily because of the emotions and the richness of characters and secondary given both are set in post-apocalyptic worlds.

“The Book of M” is deeply moving. It is daunting as well, given the scope of writing and the setting of the novel. It is one of those books that sneak up on you and become popular through a lot of word-of-mouth, say for instance like “Homegoing”. This one is a firecracker of a read. You must read it. You just must.

 

Anatomy of a Miracle by Jonathan Miles

Anatomy of a Miracle Title: Anatomy of a Miracle
Author: Jonathan Miles
Publisher: Hogarth
ISBN: 9780553447583
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

You cannot place this book anywhere. Not in any genre, neither in any style of writing. I have read books similar to this book but nothing has come close. “Anatomy of a Miracle” as the title suggests is just that – a dissection of a miracle. The why, the what, the how, the questioning of faith and where does it stand in this world of science and technology. But above all, it is about what it means to be human, when all is lost and what you choose to believe in, no matter what.

Cameron Harris has been living life in a wheelchair, after being rendered paraplegic four years ago. He has literally nothing to look forward to. He lives with his sister Tanya, in a battered Biloxi, where most houses were destroyed in the wake of Katrina. And then suddenly, one fine day Cameron rises up without any explanation from his wheelchair and the world changes inside of and around him.

This is the barebones plot of “Anatomy of a Miracle”. Of course there is a lot more to it but for that you would have to read the book. Miles’ writing is first-grade. The book is written in the form of journalistic pieces and encompass all of Cameron’s family and friends – also the characters that are affected by his story.

“Anatomy of a Miracle” at the same time is not a fast read. It has a lot of details and you have to pay attention to almost each of them. The emotional connect and vulnerability of the book is spot-on and you can relate with questions of faith, kindness, doubt and what does it take after all to believe or walk away from it all. The details are in the characters, as they slowly unveil one layer after another. A firecracker of a read for sure!