Chika Gujarathi

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The action comes fast and furious in Rachel Beanland’s second novel, The House Is on Fire, inspired by the real-life fire that occurred in Richmond, Virginia, on December 26, 1811, and has been described by many historians as the first great disaster of our young nation. The calamity burned down the city’s famous theater during a sold-out performance, killing 72 people and becoming international news.

In Beanland’s retelling, the story unfolds in a quick succession of short chapters told from the perspectives of four real people who experienced the events firsthand. Sally Henry Campbell, daughter of Founding Father Patrick Henry, is in an expensive box seat on the third floor with other high-society folks. Cecily Patterson is in a crowded lobby seat with other enslaved and destitute people relieved to be escaping reality for a few hours. Jack Gibson, an orphan and aspiring actor, is backstage as the stagehand in charge of props, including the chandelier that ultimately causes the house to erupt in flames. Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved blacksmith, runs to the theater, putting himself in danger to save the lives of over a dozen white women and men.

Through the author’s extensive research into letters, census data and newspaper archives, as well as her historically accurate creative liberties—both of which Beanland elaborates upon in her author’s note—The House Is on Fire captures the disastrous night hour by hour, reminiscent of watching a true crime drama on TV. Most importantly, Beanland’s choice to explore the tragedy through four very differently privileged people allows the story to go beyond facts and into the moral fabric and social norms of the time. It is disturbing to be reminded of the vice grip of racism, class and sexism while a deadly fire rages on.

Times sure have changed, but the choices made by Sally, Cecily, Jack and Gilbert resonate deeply. “Would I do the same?” is a question that inevitably pops up often for the reader. And so does the realization that proverbial fires continue to burn around the world as we individuals try to save ourselves and others.

Fast-moving, character-driven and action-packed, The House Is on Fire is simply a thrill to read.

Rachel Beanland’s choice to explore the 1811 Richmond fire from the perspectives of four very different people allows the story to go beyond facts and into the moral fabric of the time.
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Paris has a reputation, a certain je ne sais quoi that has enchanted people (and readers) for years. Fueling this fascination further is Celia Bell’s debut novel, The Disenchantment, inspired by the real-life Affair of the Poisons, a period of scandal in French high society from 1677 to 1682. Bell takes us to a time when Paris was sensationalized by fortunetellers, love potions and poisons used by prominent people concerned for their wealth, reputation and romances.

Among them is Marie Catherine, the Baroness of Cardonnoy. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, Marie Catherine has realized that while money can’t buy happiness, it can provide frequent opportunities to rendezvous with her lover, Victoire Rose, Mademoiselle de Conti. The danger of their illicit affair being discovered only deepens the romance—that is, until a servant sees them kissing. However, he fails to recognize Victoire and instead reports to the baron that Marie Catherine is having an affair with a gentleman.

Furious, the baron goes to the home of Alain Lavoie, the artist commissioned to make a portrait of the baroness and their two children. Sure that Lavoie is the only man that had been near his wife, the baron assumes the painter’s guilt and orders his men to beat him to death. As fate would have it, the baron is murdered the same night. Marie Catherine is shocked by the news, at first wondering who could have done this, then overwhelmed by a sense of relief at never having to see the baron again. The pleasure is short-lived, however, and in the aftermath, Marie Catherine constructs a series of lies that backfire, leading others to believe that she used poison and witchcraft to rid herself of her husband.

Bell’s reliance on historical facts and actual people who lived through the Affair of the Poisons adds a thick layer of intrigue. The same can be said about her descriptions of the lifestyles of the rich and famous of the time, as well as her depictions of supporting characters—such as the lady’s maid Jeanne and police chief Gabriel de la Reynie—which add a wealth of information about 17th-century Paris. Through it all, Bell successfully keeps readers in suspense about who makes it through and who doesn’t.

For all those who love Paris, The Disenchantment delivers a juicy romance with plenty of twists.

For all those who love Paris, The Disenchantment delivers a juicy romance with plenty of twists.
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If you savor the life-changing pull of a good book, The Wishing Game, the first novel from Meg Shaffer, the pen name of bestselling romance author Tiffany Reisz, is an ideal summer read. It has emotional plot twists, heartbroken but resilient characters and a feel-good ending that may not be what you had expected.

Lucy Hart was rescued by a book when she was 8 years old: The House on Clock Island by Jack Masterson. It was filled with all the things one might expect of the best escapist literature for children—mystery, adventure and just the right amount of danger. To Lucy, however, Jack’s story felt personal. His characters provided her with the love and reassurance that she had never received from her own family.

The spell deepened with each new Clock Island book, until, at the age of 13, Lucy decided to run away to the author’s private island home in Maine and be his sidekick. Against all odds, she made it to the remote location easily and met Jack, who was surprised but no less kind. She also met Hugo, the handsome 20-something British artist who illustrated the Clock Island covers. If there ever were a place where Lucy felt like she belonged, this was it. Alas, the cops were summoned (rightly so) to take her back home.

Years later, 26-year-old Lucy is working as a teacher’s aide at an elementary school in California. She forms a close bond with a foster child named Christopher, whom she wishes to adopt, even though she has no money, car or security. What she does have are Clock Island books, which she reads to Christopher after school.

Unexpectedly, Jack announces that he will publish a new Clock Island book, something he hasn’t done in over a decade. Best of all, he has invited four of his biggest fans to compete in a mystery game, and the winner will receive a copy of the manuscript. No surprise, Lucy is one of the four. On the island, she becomes reacquainted with Jack (who is much older but no less energetic and kind) and Hugo (who is even dreamier than before). She also meets her fierce competition, all of whom also found comfort in Jack’s books when they were kids. As the games begin, readers begin to see the desperation, regrets and broken dreams that unite these irrepressible characters. 

In this tender spin on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Shaffer balances the darkness of emotional backstories with plenty of hopefulness, humor, plot twists and just a bit of romance. As Jack Masterson would say, wishes do come true if you are brave enough to believe in them.

Meg Shaffer balances darkness with plenty of hopefulness, humor, plot twists and just a bit of romance. As Jack Masterson would say, wishes do come true if you are brave enough to believe in them.
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There is a distinct feeling one gets while reading Tania James’ third novel: Someone needs to make this book into a movie. Steeped in the rich history of three nations and infused with a young man’s unshakable desire to do something grand, Loot is transportive storytelling at its best.

We begin in 1794, when India is still a nation of tiny kingdoms ruled by big egos, right on the cusp of British colonialism and the East India Company. India’s foremost king, Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, is in his summer palace, conjuring yet another grand plan to impress his citizenry. His current fixation is to build a larger-than-life automaton of a growling tiger pouncing on a British soldier. To achieve this technological feat, Tipu calls on the expertise of 57-year-old Lucien du Leze, a homesick clockmaker and inventor who escaped the French Revolution only to find himself on the brink of another. Lucien in turn hires 17-year-old Abbas, the youngest son of a local woodworker and the heart of this story. 

Abbas is kind, gentle and a bit rebellious. His woodcarving skills are unmatched, even though he doesn’t know that yet. Under Lucien’s tutelage, Abbas comes to terms with his gift and unearths his desire to use his craft to leave an unforgettable mark on the world. In that, he is much like his dreamy and determined king, but without the burden of defending the crown.

Tipu’s tiger automaton turns out to be a crowd-pleasing sensation, but not long after its unveiling, Tipu loses first his kingdom and then his life to the British. Lucien finds a way to escape to Rouen, France, leaving Abbas with an invitation to be his apprentice should he ever find a way to leave Mysore. The wooden tiger meets its own dreary fate as well, ending up in a musty, forgotten room in an old lady’s English castle. It’s the end of an era, but for Abbas, it’s just the beginning of an epic quest.

James’ plot is brilliant and unique, her creative liberties mixing well with the historical realities of colonialism and migration. Her supporting characters are woven with the same care and detail as her protagonist. All of this combines for a stimulating and informative novel, a must-read for adventurers, dreamers and lovers of history.

Tania James’ third novel is brilliant and unique, her creative liberties mixing well with the historical realities of colonialism and migration.
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U.S. Army veteran Zac Topping’s debut novel, Wake of War, is a fast-paced military thriller set in the year 2037, a time when the United States is collapsing under decades of public unrest due to partisan divisions and a malfunctioning economy.

A new rebel faction is gaining traction in Salt Lake City under the leadership of the charismatic Joseph Graham. A ragtag team of men and women, the Revolutionist Front has proven to be a haven for all those who are hellbent on justice and revenge. This includes Sam Cross, who at 14 saw government soldiers gun down her family as she ran for her life. Now 19, she’s become a deadly sniper.

Fighting for the other side is James Trent, who joined the U.S. Army not out of moral conviction but rather to earn a military scholarship for college. During his three years in the service, he has managed to be placed in noncombat administrative missions, but now an involuntary reassignment sends him to the bloodiest and most dangerous rebel territory in Salt Lake City, dropping him and his platoon directly in the line of fire from Sam and the Revolutionist Front.

Most stories of war have a clear indication of the good side and the bad, but Topping has other intentions, as the conflict unfolds in chapters that alternate between Sam’s and James’ perspectives. Through their stories, Topping grapples with the wonder and worry that many of us feel regarding the current state of our nation. 

Topping, who has served two tours in Iraq, does a phenomenal job of using dialogue and scene details to impart the raw and dangerous wartime conditions that surround his characters. He focuses on the impact that unrelenting pain and helplessness have on the human soul—and how the thirst for power can corrupt the best of intentions. Wake of War will resonate with all readers who enjoy thrillers that reflect real-world crises.

In his fast-paced debut novel, Zac Topping, who has served two tours in Iraq, focuses on the impact that unrelenting pain and helplessness have on the human soul—and how the thirst for power can corrupt the best of intentions.
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It’s impossible to predict how, exactly, you’ll fall in love with Gabrielle Zevin’s novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, but it’s an eventuality you can’t escape.

Sadie Green and Sam Masur might never have crossed paths as kids in Beverly Hills, California, were it not for personal tragedies. For Sadie, it is her older sister’s cancer. For Sam, it is a broken leg from an accident that takes his mother’s life. Forced to spend an inordinate amount of time at the hospital, Sadie and Sam meet in the drabby game room, and they are comfortable with each other from the start. Born from their shared love of video games, their friendship seems written in the stars and is devoid of the sadness that otherwise surrounds them.

Years later as college students—Sam at Harvard and Sadie at MIT—the two are thrust back into each other’s lives on a subway platform. Their reunion on that winter day is completely serendipitous yet somehow fully anticipated, as if each were patiently waiting for destiny to do its thing. It’s the 1990s, and gaming is on the cusp of something big. Almost instantly after meeting again, Sadie and Sam decide to collaborate on a video game that is unlike anything they’ve seen before. Powered by friendship, naivete and youth, they seem to pull it off, too. The game, Ichigo, becomes a worldwide hit, turning Sam and Sadie into gaming celebrities. Success follows, but not without a cost.

The latest novel from Zevin, a lifelong gamer and internationally bestselling author (The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry), is spellbinding and layered with details. Her artistic, inclusive world is filled with characters so genuine and endearing that you may start caring for them as if they were real. Above all, her development of Sam and Sadie’s relationship is pure wizardry; it’s deep and complex, transcending anything we might call a love story.

Whether you care about video games or not is beside the point. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is the novel you’ve been waiting to read.

Whether you care about video games or not is beside the point. Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is the novel you've been waiting to read.
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To understand the brilliance of Vaishnavi Patel’s debut novel, Kaikeyi, we must step back—way back, to ancient India, when humans walked a strict line of tradition, sacrifice and devotion to Hindu gods in exchange for a life free of curses and other bad surprises. Questioning authority was not part of the human agenda.

The ancient Indian epic Ramayana is one of South Asia’s most famous and important religious texts. It tells of King Rama, the human incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who is banished to the forest by his stepmother, Kaikeyi. Full of miracles, virtues and vices, the epic has been passed down for generations, making it an indispensable part of the cultural consciousness and, more importantly, providing a clear distinction between good and evil.

Into this long history comes Patel with her bold reimagining. A student of constitutional law and civil rights, Patel grew up hearing stories from the Ramayana from her grandmother, and during one of these storytelling sessions, Patel’s mother planted a seed of doubt regarding Kaikeyi’s characterization. Patel now recasts Kaikeyi, who has always occupied the role of wicked stepmother, a source of doom and the cause of unimaginable suffering for an entire kingdom and beyond. In Kaikeyi, she becomes the protagonist, the feminist, the godforsaken underdog.

Born on a full moon as a princess to the kingdom of Kekaya, Kaikeyi grows up knowing that her destiny is to be powerless and ornamental, yet she is resolute in her determination to change the world. With her twin brother’s help, she secretly learns how to ride horses and fight like a warrior. At 16, she is married off as the third wife of a king, and she gives birth to Bharat, who is promised to succeed his father, even though he is not the firstborn son.

For better or worse, the events of Ramayana unfold no differently with the reinvention of Kaikeyi’s character, but Patel’s changes certainly make the story much more engaging. Even readers unfamiliar with the ancient Indian epic will find a lot to love in Patel’s spellbinding details of mythological characters and ancient times.

In Vaishnavi Patel’s bold reimagining, Kaikeyi of the Ramayana has been recast as protagonist, feminist and godforsaken underdog.
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In the tightknit community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Poughkeepsie, New York, 23-year-old Arlo Dilly’s life is dictated by his ultraconversative uncle, Brother Birch, and an equally religious American Sign Language interpreter named Molly. Arlo is deafblind, and his sheltered upbringing and sensory limitations mean that his life has been highly controlled by those around him—until a 40-something interpreter named Cyril Brewster changes all of that quite unintentionally.

When Arlo decides to take a writing course at a local community college, Cyril accepts the job as his summer interpreter. Cyril isn’t an expert in the form of ASL that Arlo uses, referred to as Tactile or TSL, but he’s hoping to make some extra money and, concerned as he is about “beelining for homosexual obscurity,” escape Poughkeepsie for good. It isn’t long before Cyril begins to appreciate Arlo for who he is: a determined young man who is smart, funny and full of curiosity.

With Cyril as his champion, Arlo begins to ask questions about things as small as his bowl haircut and daily bologna sandwich, and as big as the truth about his boarding school sweetheart, S. At its heart, The Sign for Home is about a young man doing everything he can to be with the love of his life.

Chapters alternate between Arlo’s and Cyril’s narration. Passages that depict how Arlo experiences touch, smell and ASL are especially well done; his sections unfold in the second-person singular, so his lessons and revelations feel all the more intimate, revealing a layer of emotional intelligence and humor that would be lost if the story were told only from Cyril’s first-person perspective.

Debut novelist Blair Fell has worked as an ASL interpreter for more than 25 years, and also has been an actor, producer and director. The Sign for Home draws on all these experiences to tell a story that is tender, hilarious and decidedly uplifting.

The love story of Blair Fell’s deafblind hero is tender, hilarious and decidedly uplifting.
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Climate change takes center stage in three-time Pushcart Prize-winning author Allegra Hyde’s debut novel. Set in a future world of toxic air, food shortages and deadly weather, Eleutheria is the story of 22-year-old Willa Marks, who refuses to give up hope for a sustainable planet and a better life for all.

Raised by survivalist parents on canned foods in the woods of New Hampshire, Willa has lived a lonely life—until a bad turn of events thrusts her into the arms of her cousins Victoria and Jeanette in the metropolis of Boston. The two sisters are the antithesis of everything Willa has known, their entire life revolving around posting fashionable pictures online.

Willa goes with the flow until a photoshoot gone wrong brings her to Sylvia Gill, a famous sociologist and professor at Harvard University. Sylvia and Willa fall in love despite their stark differences. It’s a comfort and love that Willa has never experienced before. But being with Sylvia also means living among the privileged and wealthy, who still hold onto their vanity amid a dying planet.

Willa doesn’t understand this obliviousness. She eventually stumbles upon a group of Freegans, dumpster divers who are committed to saving the planet, come hell or high water. They inspire Willa, who wants Sylvia to use her celebrity to tout Freeganism as the answer to the climate crisis. This eventually causes a rift between the two as Willa struggles to stay in a relationship with someone who doesn’t support her cause for a better tomorrow.

In this highly emotional state of mind, Willa comes across a book in Sylvia’s library titled Living the Solution by Roy Adams. It seems to provide the salvation Willa is looking for by way of a sustainable community run by the author: Camp Hope, located on the island of Eleutheria near the Bahamas. Willa gives up everything, including Sylvia, to be part of the community—until even this Utopia starts showing imperfections.

Fast-paced and dramatic, Eleutheria is a love story that plays out against the backdrop of a planet in trouble. Hyde, author of the award-winning story collection Of This New World, offers many twists and shocks throughout her first novel, delivering an eerie prophecy of a not-so-distant future if we continue our inaction toward climate change.

Fast-paced and dramatic, Eleutheria is a love story that plays out against the backdrop of a planet in trouble.
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There is no shortage of parenting books about how to be a good mother. Jessamine Chan’s first novel, The School for Good Mothers, will make you want to throw them all out the window.

Chan’s protagonist, 39-year-old Frida Liu, is kind, smart, hardworking and beautiful. She is also divorced from a cheating husband and the mother of 1-year-old Harriet, who is her world. Overworked, overwhelmed and unsupported, Frida has a very bad day that changes the course of her entire life.

This single moment of poor parenting lands Frida in a type of detention center, housed on a former university campus. Imagine The Breakfast Club, only it’s 365 days long, cut off from the rest of the world and filled with mothers who have been penalized by the government for making questionable choices. Right away, we wonder if the punishment fits the crime.

The plot thickens when the reform school starts seeming more and more like a prison. The guards, the uniforms, the rigorous daily classes on mothering, the therapy sessions, the robots (yes, robots)—it all seems so preposterous, so over-the-top. Maybe even humorous. That is, until you realize that it’s all grounded in our culture’s absurd expectations that mothers should be superheroes.

Throughout Frida’s story, Chan intertwines supporting characters who are just as interesting, thrilling and desperate as she is. You will catch yourself laughing one minute and shaking your fist the next, demanding that we change the narrative of contemporary motherhood.

If good writing, gripping plot and provocative questions about the world we live in are your priorities, then The School for Good Mothers needs to be on your reading list, whether or not you are a parent, or someday want to be.

There is no shortage of parenting books on how to be a good mother. Jessamine Chan’s first novel will make you want to throw them all out the window.
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In these four novels, there’s no problem too big for the power of faith.

Where does courage come from? For the women in these novels, faith in God is their guiding light during moments of self-doubt, heartache and mayhem. Though set in vastly different times—from 1770s Boston and 1870s Chicago to present-day North Carolina and New York—these stories share some of the universal challenges that women have faced throughout history. Collectively, these tales reveal that the courage to defy convention and follow your own heart comes from believing that God is right by your side.

The Tea Chest

In Heidi Chiavaroli’s The Tea Chest, we meet two very different women from very different centuries dealing with similar questions of love and responsibility. In the present, Lieutenant Hayley Ashworth is on the verge of making history by becoming the first female SEAL in the U.S. Navy. In 1773, Emma Malcolm is about to change history by helping the man she loves carry out what will be known as the Boston Tea Party. Emma’s choices are limited by the times she lives in and by a father who is an English Loyalist, while Hayley’s struggle is steeped in self-doubt from an abusive childhood. When Hayley travels to Boston to make peace with her past, she runs into the man she once loved—and then finds a tea chest that holds one of Emma’s secrets. 

Though their stories are separated by centuries, Hayley and Emma share a heritage of courage and faith that guides them to their eventual callings. Chiavaroli does a wonderful job of adding historic details to Emma’s struggles, making this novel a page turner for sure.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover more inspirational fiction.

Veiled in Smoke

Jocelyn Green’s Veiled in Smoke takes us to 1870s Chicago, where Meg Townsend and her younger sister, Sylvie, run a small bookstore called Corner Books & More. Between their responsibility to the store and to their father, who suffers from lingering trauma from his days as a soldier, the sisters can barely keep up with their own lives and aspirations.

When a fire sets the city ablaze on the night of October 8, 1871, their lives become even more complicated. Their bookstore and home is burned to ashes, and in the chaos of the night, their father is somehow arrested for murdering a well-respected man. How could anyone carry on in such pandemonium? Meg and Sylvie’s story illustrates that when all is lost, God provides the courage and strength to seek the truth and rebuild for a brighter future. With strong supporting characters and historical facts woven throughout, Veiled in Smoke makes for a great read.

A Long Time Comin’

Robin W. Pearson’s first novel, A Long Time Comin’, brings us to contemporary North Carolina, where Beatrice Agnew has just found out she is dying of cancer. Surprisingly, she’s not upset by the news. Life has always been terribly hard and unfair for Beatrice, so why be upset now? What does make her angry, however, is that her granddaughter, Evelyn, has come uninvited to help Beatrice mend fences with the rest of the family. 

Beatrice’s seven children might be successful now, but there was no room for love in the Agnew household while they were growing up poor and fatherless. Beatrice wants no part in this little reunion, because dealing with the past means digging up old secrets. She believes that her choices were forced by circumstances that her granddaughter could never understand. But Evelyn and Beatrice have more in common than they realize, as Evelyn is struggling with her own marriage and possible motherhood. Together, the two women confront pain and secrets and try to move on without any regrets. 

The Fifth Avenue Story Society

In Rachel Hauck’s The Fifth Avenue Story Society, a strange invitation connects five New Yorkers in an old library on Fifth Avenue. Lexa is an overworked and overlooked executive assistant at a big company. Jett is a literature professor struggling to finish his latest book. Chuck is a divorced Uber driver who misses seeing his kids. Ed is an aging widower who works as a super in his building. And Coral, the multimillionaire owner of a cosmetics company, is famous for leaving a real prince at the altar. The only things shared by these five almost-strangers are broken dreams, and their story society becomes less about writing and more about helping each other. 

Hauck is spot-on in creating characters that are relatable, and she skillfully saves the mystery of who sent the invitation until the end. This is a sweet journey of five people finding the courage to follow their hearts and make big things happen. 

Though set in vastly different times, these four faith-based stories share the belief that the courage to follow your heart comes from knowing that God is by your side.

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