Chika Gujarathi

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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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The first thing you’ll notice about award-winning Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The Morning Star is how big it is. At almost 700 pages, it’s a book that takes up considerable real estate not just on the nightstand or in a bag but also within the mind, demanding a particular kind of mental stamina.

It’s August on the southern coast of Norway, and a big, bright celestial object has appeared in the sky. No one knows what to make of this new star. There are speculations from scholars and experts on its sudden presence, but could there be more to this phenomenon than just science?

The title’s biblical innuendo is on point. Knausgaard not only directly and indirectly philosophizes about Jesus, Satan, purgatory, sin and resurrection but also uses these touchstones to inspire the characters whose various points of view fill these pages. There isn’t just one story to follow in The Morning Star but several, as the narrative bounces from one captivating, relatable, likable character to another.

Amid these characters’ experiences in love, marriage, teenage angst, career disappointments, mental health and global warming, the novel progresses with an unflagging consideration of the roles and significance of living and dying. In this way, The Morning Star feels at once about nothing and everything. 

Knausgaard is more interested in using the novel's considerable length to introduce loose ends instead of neatly tying them up. Then again, for those who have read Knausgaard’s previous work (such as his six-volume My Struggle series), this probably doesn’t come as a surprise. 

The Morning Star is dark, eerie, mesmerizing and, yes, totally worth its size.

The Morning Star is dark, eerie, mesmerizing and, yes, totally worth the mental stamina required to get through it.
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Let’s cut to the chase: Louise Nealon’s Snowflake is one of the most heartwarming, honest and brilliant coming-of-age novels you will read this year.

Nealon’s debut is set on a dairy farm in rural Ireland, and this idyllic setting is a fitting backdrop for the quirky yet endearing White family. Eighteen-year-old Debbie, the protagonist and narrator, has lived on the farm all her life with her mother, Maeve, and uncle Billy. A self-described country bumpkin, Debbie is a bit lost, a bit sad and rather reluctant to be a freshman at Trinity College in the big city of Dublin. 

Maeve, beatnik and beautiful, believes that her dreams are prophecies and therefore spends a lot of time sleeping, or when not asleep, writing about her dreams. Billy, disheveled but brilliant, takes care of the dairy farm, drinks a bit too much and prefers to live in a caravan behind their home. Debbie may not completely understand Maeve’s and Billy’s lifestyle choices, but in their chaos and flaws, she finds comfort, love and the freedom to be herself.

This novel is a true gift from Nealon, who has embraced wholeheartedly the writer’s credo to write what you know. She grew up in County Kildare, Ireland, on her family’s dairy farm before attending Trinity College, and she still lives on the farm where she was raised. Snowflake is about growing up detached from the rest of the world and then learning to assimilate, while also trying to figure out who you are and what your purpose is. Reading it is to lose yourself in reveries about the imperfections of life, the people we love and care for, self-doubt and the pursuit of joy. 

Louise Nealon’s Snowflake is one of the most heartwarming, honest and brilliant coming-of-age novels you will read this year.
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Timothy Schaffert’s sixth novel has so much going for it that it’s hard to pinpoint only a few reasons why you will love it, but let us try nonetheless. Set in the German-occupied Paris of 1941, The Perfume Thief is the story of a queer American expat named Clementine who, after a life of notorious thievery all over the globe (think Robin Hood meets Indiana Jones), has retired in Paris and become a perfumer for the ladies of Madame Boulette’s cabaret.

At 72 years old, Clementine, or Clem, believes she is too old to pull off any scams, especially one that involves fooling the Nazis. But that is exactly what she gets roped into doing when Clem’s friend Zoé St. Angel recruits her to steal the infamous diary and recipe book of the Parisian perfumer Pascal, who has gone missing. Not only does this diary reveal Zoé’s identity as a Jew, but it also might include concoctions that could be used as biological weapons by the Nazis. And so, Clem sets out to enchant and fool Francophile Nazi bureaucrat Oskar Voss in order to retrieve the sought-after book.

It’s a thrill to be in Clem’s mind, to follow along as she sinks deeper and deeper into this mystery, as she worries about how to keep her loved ones safe, as she describes the City of Light crawling with Germans and as she reminisces about a long-ago love that still strikes a chord. With a healthy dose of romance, fashion and espionage and a glimpse of the lives of openly queer artists under Nazi occupation, The Perfume Thief is a reminder that Paris, even in the pages of a book, always makes for a great escape.

Timothy Schaffert’s sixth novel is a reminder that Paris, even in the pages of a book, always makes for a great escape.
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In her third novel, Amy Mason Doan offers a refreshing story about music, family secrets and forgiveness.

Every summer, brilliant and beloved musician Graham Kingston turns his sprawling California coastal estate, the Sandcastle, into a commune for musicians, artists and friends from all over the country to gather for creativity and inspiration. In 1979, Graham’s niece, 17-year-old Jackie Pierce, is a first-time participant in the shindig—and a reluctant one. But with her father and stepmother honeymooning in Europe for the summer, there is nowhere else for Jackie to go.

Jackie is unprepared for life among all these free spirits—until she meets Graham’s daughter, Willa. Though complete opposites, the two girls hit it off almost instantly. They develop a deep friendship, and life couldn’t be better for the teenagers, until a tragedy changes everything.

Twenty years later, Jackie is back at the Sandcastle, just as reluctantly as before. The abandoned estate needs to be packed and put up for sale, but all she can think about is the summer of 1979. Sorting through her memories isn’t easy, so she wants to complete her task as soon as possible. But then a diehard Graham Kingston fan named Shane arrives and tries to convince Jackie to let him use the estate’s recording studio one last time. She agrees, choosing to stay even longer in a place that has brought her as much pain as joy.

Jumping between 1979 and 1999, Lady Sunshine unfolds with an artful combination of lyrical writing and twisting plot.

Jumping between 1979 and 1999, Lady Sunshine unfolds with an artful combination of lyrical writing and twisting plot.

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