Eric Ponce

Being a titan in romantic fiction comes with some expectations. People love—or maybe even need—a good cry, and when you’re a master of romance, they expect you to deliver one. It has never been hard for Nicholas Sparks to keep this promise, but when you’ve been writing love stories for 25 years, it can be difficult to meet, let alone surpass, expectations. 

However, as Sparks’ many fans know, his formula for bringing such romances to life is effective because we find ourselves truly caring for his characters, in spite of any reservations or presumptions. The Wish is a typical Sparks drama, familiar in the way that an old friend is: You know what that friend will say and how they’ll say it, but there’s still the possibility that you’ll be surprised by the infinite person they are inside.

Heuristic and dazzling, Nicholas Sparks’ novel convinces its reader to believe, in spite of everything, in love.

The novel follows Maggie Dawes throughout 2013, the last year of her life. She is a famous photographer diagnosed with terminal cancer, and when a young man named Mark comes to her gallery in search of a job, Maggie finds a confidante in him. She begins to reflect upon and tell her story before it’s too late. 

In 1996, at the age of 16, Maggie’s family sends her away to avoid the scandal of her pregnancy, and she’s taken in by an aunt who’s a former nun living on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Maggie spends her days feeling helpless and isolated until she meets Bryce, the only other person her age on the island of Ocracoke. When Bryce begins to tutor her, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that despite Maggie’s pregnancy and Bryce’s military dreams, the two are destined to be together.

This far into his career, each of Sparks’ novels feels like a high school science experiment: Change the variables, add this, subtract this and see what happens. And though The Wish may seem obvious at times, when put into the larger picture of Sparks’ tragically tuned arch, the reader can see how such exaggerated emotion provides life, breath and blood to these near-perfect characters. The reader may wonder how much of Sparks’ writing process is spent trying out plot options and disregarding the failures—surely a lot, as the result is faultlessly executed. 

Sparks knows how to pull your heartstrings, and as The Wish progresses, you know when to expect the punches. This doesn’t mean, however, that you want to dodge them. And just because you’re expecting a twist doesn’t mean that one won’t still form in your stomach. It’s comforting to know that there’s still a place you can go—besides your own intricate, messy life—for a reliable cry.

With The Wish, Sparks reminds us that love, as predictable as it can be, will always move you in ways you can’t comprehend. Yes, it is idyllic, it is comforting, it is sentimental, but at the end of the day, you have to suspend logic and smile. It’s how we love.

Heuristic and dazzling, Nicholas Sparks’ novel convinces its reader to believe, in spite of everything, in love.

Nowadays, it’s easy to find out where you came from. Just pluck out some hair follicles or scrape your cheek for some cells, send them to a lab far away, and they’ll determine your genetic makeup. Even when science reveals these secrets about our bodies, however, ancestry and heritage are still complex elements of our personal identities. In her debut novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, celebrated poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story, showing that where any one person comes from is much more complicated than charts and graphs.

Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young Black girl with a big family, takes center stage, and the history and intricacies of her ancestry drive the novel’s plot. We jump, sometimes dizzyingly, across space and time to trace her family line, and the result is a dazzling tale of love and loss. The story begins with a formerly enslaved man and his acceptance into a Native tribe, the first fateful moment of a vast history. Centuries later, Ailey is visited in her dreams by a “long-haired lady” who helps her to uncover their shared story.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: To write her debut novel, celebrated poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers learned to claim her rural Southern roots.

From slavery to freedom, discrimination to justice, tradition to unorthodoxy, this story covers large parts of not just of Ailey’s heritage but also America’s. It’s the kind of familial epic that many Americans, particularly African Americans, can relate to, as Jeffers limns this family’s story with the trauma, faults and passions that we all harbor. Her masterful treatment of the characters and their relationships, paired with the thorough and engaging way the narrative is laid out, makes for a book that is easy to invest and get lost in—a feat for such a long, intricate work. Best yet, the novel incorporates the words of W.E.B. Du Bois throughout its 800-plus pages; those words are the story’s spine, its beating heart, its very life force.

Comparisons to Toni Morrison are bound to be made and will be apt in most cases, as this novel feels as important as many of Morrison’s. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois earns its place among such company, as Jeffers engages with and builds upon the legacy of African American literature as carefully and masterfully as she does the narrative of Ailey’s family.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story, showing that where any one person comes from is much more complicated than genetic makeup.

As a Latino reader, I like to keep up with the latest in Latinx literature, but you don’t have to be Latinx to appreciate Variations on the Body by Colombian American author María Ospina, translated by Heather Cleary. Latina identity serves as the foundation for Ospina’s powerful debut collection, and its six stories explore what it means to occupy a body bound by that identity. Each tale tackles a different angle, at turns pondering ownership of the body, how a body is tied to history, and why connection between bodies is so important.

Ospina’s characters are all Colombian women struggling with their bodies, though not with body image but rather the actual experience of living in human form. For example, the protagonist in “Occasion” is a young pregnant woman who’s working as a nanny, and between the needs of the child in her womb and the demands of the child she is paid to care for, the woman barely has any autonomy. Throughout the story, Ospina shifts the narrative’s perspective—sometimes the woman speaks, while other times the child she’s caring for does—to illustrate the precariousness of ownership.

This polyvocality repeats and is rearranged several times throughout the collection. In the first story, “Policarpa,” a former guerrilla fighter is silenced by the editor of her memoir, and in the third story, “Saving Young Ladies,” an isolated young woman projects her desire onto those she doesn’t know. In every story Ospina outdoes herself, and each time the message is profound and vital.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing awareness of overlapping systems of oppression, Variations on the Body is undoubtedly timely as a poignant portrait of people on the margins whose bodies are trapped in space and time. While that may sound like science fiction, Ospina shows how real these experiences are, and she challenges everyone to empathize.

María Ospina outdoes herself in every story of this collection, and each time, the message is profound and vital.

If you are an avid reader, you might have been called a nerd growing up. While bookworms rightfully consider this a compliment, bullies who wield the term usually have more malicious intentions. In Mieko Kawakami’s new novel, Heaven, protagonist Eyes experiences much worse than name-calling. He is slapped, punched, kicked, forced to eat chalk and a goldfish, and made to drink toilet water and pond water.

Eyes, who is so named by his peers for his lazy eye, undergoes all of this torment with resignation until the day he receives a note. A girl in his class named Kojima—dubbed “Hazmat” by their cruel classmates—decides that she and Eyes ought to be friends. They form an epistolary bond at first, taking solace in exchanging letters during torturous school days, but eventually they meet and embark on an emotional inquiry into their suffering.

A large part of the narrative is devoted to the excruciating details of Eyes’ and Kojima’s abuse. When Eyes is forced to eat scraps of food from a rabbit cage, readers feel both his anguish and his helplessness at the hands of his classmates. Some readers may categorize these unsparing scenes as trauma porn, but the heart of the book lies in its examination of these events. Why do the two 14-year-olds’ peers treat them with such malice? Where does the dynamic of perpetrator and victim come from? How should one respond to such treatment?

While Kawakami refuses to give us answers, the elegance and care with which she describes her characters’ lives invite the reader to ask such questions of themselves. This is not a cruel story, but rather one that understands hurt and pain for what it is: universal, unjust and material for new life.

Mieko Kawakami’s novel is not a cruel story, but rather one that understands hurt and pain for what it is: universal, unjust and material for new life.

Dawnie Walton’s The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is a brilliant fictional oral history that explores music, race and the cultural ties that bind us together. As a music journalist with experience at Essence, Entertainment Weekly, Getty Images and LIFE, Walton brings behind-the-scenes insight to the story of a 1970s rock ’n’ roll duo and the reasons they vanished from the spotlight. Here she discusses the legacy of Black women in rock and the strange ways that music moves us.

Music is notoriously difficult to write about. Was creating these characters and their art daunting to you? How did you face the challenge?
I’m not a musician myself, so there were times in writing this novel when imposter syndrome did strike. But leaning into two things helped to ease that anxiety: what I’d observed of artists and their zeitgeisty moments from working in entertainment journalism and, much more primal than that, the passion I’d felt as a teenage fan.

My professional experience helped me pose questions that placed Opal & Nev in a context as politically aware artists and performers, but it was nostalgia for the bands I have loved over my life that fed the most obviously musical parts. There’s a moment in the novel when the journalist character, Sunny, recounts the first time she heard Opal & Nev at 14 years old, and she likens what she felt in her body to a fear response. That’s directly inspired by a few personal experiences: feeling a scream build in my throat during certain parts of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” or fighting a weird urge to escape a van I was riding in with friends when someone slipped The Velvet Underground & Nico into the tape deck, or literally shivering every time Thom Yorke’s vocals crescendo at the 3:20 mark of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film).” 

Something in those sounds and those images thrusts me into taboo territories, scary and thrilling all at once, and I approached writing about music in this novel from that fan’s perspective, as an investigation into what that something might be.

 “I approached writing about music in this novel from that fan’s perspective, as an investigation into what that something might be.”

In what ways has music impacted your writing?
Rhythm is crucial. For this novel especially, which has so many characters, I wanted each to have a signature sound and phrasing.

Also, I used to be obsessed with lyrics, so songwriters have had an impact. Back when there were such things as cassette tapes and CDs, whenever I’d get a new album I’d pore over the liner notes, burning the art and the words into my brain. The best songwriters had a way of describing universal emotions—love, grief, angst, fear—in unique and sometimes puzzling ways. I went through a heavy R.E.M. period in high school, and I would play “You Are the Everything” over and over and over again, trying to understand what Michael Stipe was going on about and why I felt so moved by it, and then the music itself would enhance the emotion to 11. 

My favorite songs have always been layered like that, in sound and meaning, and as a writer I strive to do a similar kind of layering. There’s the text and the subtext and the tools of craft (like pacing and, again, rhythm) that make a scene sing.

ALSO BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.

What reasons did you have for placing Opal & Nev in the specific musical context of the 1970s? There is a lot of nostalgia for that era in pop culture today. Did that impact your choice?
When writing, I thought a lot about my parents, both huge music fans, and the stories they’d tell me about the house parties (or “sets,” as they called them) they’d go to when they were young—how their whole reason for getting together would be to listen to, say, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On as a deep and communal experience. So I wanted to dream into that time, into my parents’ youth and their fandom (especially around “message music”), because I feel connected to that.

Plus, the early 1970s was a fascinating, fertile era for rock. So many different subgenres were either just on the verge or approaching a heyday. You had Southern rock, art rock, funk, the folk coming out of Laurel Canyon and very early versions of punk. I wanted to put Opal & Nev at the heart of that cacophony.

Some of the riskiest, most exciting art has emerged from tumultuous times, so sociopolitical history was also something I was looking at as a context for Opal & Nev. I imagined them hitting during a peak moment of American exhaustion, rage and disillusionment—a climate that definitely echoed during the years I was writing.

 “The triumph of Tina Turner is not only her personal emancipation from an abusive marriage, it’s also how she fought for success in a genre overtaken by white men.” 

What specific influences did you have for these characters? How did you envision their performances and recordings?
In the earliest days, I imagined Opal and Nev broadly as avant-garde images. My short pitch to friends was, “Imagine if Grace Jones and David Bowie made weird music together in early ’70s New York.” Then as I started writing—detailing their childhoods, weaving in history, thinking about what circumstances might have believably brought such opposites together—they started to shift. 

By the time I was sketching out Rivington Showcase, the disastrous concert that launches them into the spotlight, I realized they had to shift again, dramatically. The way I imagined it: They come into that gig one way and come out the other end transformed.

I imagine their post-Showcase performances and recordings to be edgy, loud and provocative. I’d call their sound proto-punk—not part of a wave as it’s cresting but in the ripples that come before. My goal was to position them as unique and experimental, making music that can’t yet be named or categorized.

Final Revival of Opal & NevThe Rivington Showcase results in devastating racial violence. What intersections do you see between music and race? Do you think music can be a place for reconciliation, or is it just another battleground?
So first I would say that there’s music, and then there’s the music industry. Speaking purely about music and its potential: “Reconciliation” is putting a lot on it, with implications I don’t intend, but I do think music builds connections between people. Rock ’n’ roll is especially interesting to think about in those terms: It is so obviously rooted in Blackness, born in our church choirs and blues joints and further teased out by Black artists like Little Richard, and yet it still managed to reach masses of young white kids. This, despite the systems set up to rigorously separate them from us.

But it gets thorny when the industry—meaning the money-making structure that packages and promotes that same music—enters the picture. Racial bias is baked into the business of music, the same way it is in any other aspect of American life. Disparities in compensation, race-based categorization and the blatant appropriation that too often results in total erasure—these are just a few of the things that have sandbagged Black artists while elevating white ones. And this is why so many Black folks—myself included—do not really mess with Elvis. The issue isn’t his music (at least not for me); it’s the lack of respect in calling him “King.”

This is not to say that white artists who’ve borrowed from Black ones are doing something inherently wrong or sinister; everyone is influenced by somebody who came before. But the ones I admire the most, beyond simply loving their music, have been crystal clear in naming their influences. And even at the height of their own success, they’ve challenged the anti-Black biases of gatekeepers. (See this 1983 interview with David Bowie for a master class in what I love to see.)

My utmost respect, however, is reserved for the Black women who’ve tried to break through in a particular genre while being gaslit into believing they don’t belong. For me, the triumph of Tina Turner is not only her personal emancipation from an abusive marriage, it’s also how she fought for success in a genre overtaken by white men. On the flip side of that, I wonder what might have been for an artist like Betty Davis, who left the industry altogether when executives tried to change her sexy, in-your-face image and package her in some other way. I felt the resonance of both women’s stories recently, as I cheered to hear that Brittany Howard had won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song for “Stay High.”

Dawnie Walton

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Dawnie Walton is one of our 2021 Writers to Watch: Women on the rise. See the full list.

Given the dearth of knowledge and literature about underground African American bands and artists, what Black rock stars can you point readers to?
OK, so confession: I’m still stuck in the past. The thing about digging into little-known histories is that you keep discovering gems. So for those also looking to learn more about influences and pioneers, I’ll recommend a revelatory book published just last fall: Black Diamond Queens by Maureen Mahon. It puts a spotlight specifically on Black women in rock—the huge names, yes, like Tina Turner and Brittany Howard, but also LaVern Baker, Claudia Lennear, Devon Wilson and Marsha Hunt. I devoured this book and ran down Spotify rabbit holes countless times.   

Documentaries are also a great way to geek out. I’ve loved They Say I’m Different (about Betty Davis), A Band Called Death (about three brothers making punk in 1970s Detroit) and 20 Feet From Stardom (about background singers, including Merry Clayton, who contributed heavily to the rock canon but never got their due). Every once in a while, I’ll see who’s new and next on Afropunk’s digital platforms; they’ve got music premieres, interviews, mixtapes and more featuring a dizzying array of Black rock artists. 

Outside of journalism and academia, do you see a place for music literature?
Of course! Music has drama and romance and, I’d even argue, a little mystery. (How else to describe that “X-factor” that makes somebody not just a talent but a star?) It sparks our emotions and is often hard-wired to the most formative moments of our lives. That’s great fodder for riffing and remembering, and thus great fodder for fiction. Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and of course the last section of “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. I’ve loved how these writers work with music in very different, very literary ways.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Some stories are meant to be told out loud. Check out our starred review of the audiobook for The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.

Did you ever have musical aspirations yourself? Please, go into all the embarrassing details!
Ha! Well, when I was about 10, my mother inherited an upright piano from family friends and enrolled me in lessons. The teacher’s name was Mr. Head, he looked like “All in the Family”-era Rob Reiner, and he gave lessons in the music store at one of the malls in Jacksonville, Florida. I took maybe a year’s worth; for some reason, the only songs I remember learning to play in all that time were “Goodbye Old Paint” and another called “Flyin’,” which had an illustration of a hang glider on the cover of the sheet music. 

I don’t remember much else about playing, except that I would dread practicing because I was impatient. I couldn’t seem to get my fingers where they needed to be, and all the while the metronome mocked me. Then, on the night of a big recital, I broke out in the chicken pox. The end!

Author photos by Rayon Richards

Debut novelist Dawnie Walton discusses the legacy of Black women in rock and the strange ways that music moves us—just a few of her pieces of inspiration for The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.

You may think you know a thing or two about the music industry, but from the opening pages of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, it’s clear that debut novelist Dawnie Walton knows a thing or two more.

Walton spins the story of Opal Jewel, a young Black woman from Detroit who has rock ’n’ roll aspirations. Opal meets British singer-songwriter Nev Charles at an open-mike night, and after deciding to make music together, they start to ascend the rungs to rock stardom. But when a concert tragically ends in racial violence, they disappear from the spotlight.

Years later, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton, who’s spent her life unwillingly linked to Opal and Nev’s story, decides to curate an oral history about them in time for a hopeful reunion. When Sunny’s interviews unveil the truth behind the group’s troubled past, it seems like this story of a band lost to time may end in disaster.

While the novel’s interwoven voices and oral history format will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & The Six, a more apt comparison would be to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, as its perspective makes it both timely and prescient. Through viewpoints that leap from Opal, Nev and Sunny to Opal’s family members, readers begin to understand the band’s glamorous, tragic story from every angle.

Music is at the heart of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, and Walton makes us love these musicians in the same way that we love our favorite bands. She uses this love to dig deeper, grappling with racism and other sinister themes to reveal the true essence of rock ’n’ roll. It’s not just about sex and drugs and parties; it’s a way to express the complexity and sadness of our everyday lives. Using music to cope is glorious and human, and Walton doesn’t just cope—she triumphs.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Debut novelist Dawnie Walton discusses the legacy of Black women in rock and the strange ways that music moves us—just a few of her pieces of inspiration for The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.

You may think you know a thing or two about the music industry, but it’s clear that debut novelist Dawnie Walton knows a thing or two more.

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