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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.

While searching through her dead mother’s possessions, Anna Bain finds an old journal of her father’s, a discovery that she hopes will offer clarity about a person she never really knew. So begins Chibundu Onuzo’s third novel, Sankofa, an enjoyably readable novel that raises questions of belonging and the search for personal roots. 

Francis Aggrey’s diary offers important clues about his identity. He was a young student from a small West African country, here fictionalized as Bamana but bearing some resemblance to Ghana, and attended college in 1970s London. He boarded with a white Welsh family and began a romantic relationship with the younger daughter, Bronwen—Anna’s mother—before becoming involved in radical politics and returning to Bamana. 

Anna is shocked to find out that after years of political activism, Francis became the prime minister of his country under the name Kofi Adjei. Even more amazing, the former leader is still alive. Upon learning this information, Anna finds herself at a crux in her own life, separated from her husband and with no real ties to London, and so she journeys to Bamana to find her father. 

One of the strengths of Sankofa is that Anna must consistently confront notions of difference and acceptance. She was never comfortable growing up biracial in 1980s London, and her experience in Bamana is no less disorienting, especially because she passes for white among the local population. It is even more challenging for her to hear reports about her father that aren’t positive; as much as he has accomplished for his country, there are rumors that he suppressed free speech and quashed student rebellions. Yet there is no question that for Anna, meeting her father provides a sense of stability and of self that she’s never really known. 

Onuzo’s disarmingly frank novel contends with complex issues of identity and prejudice, and it doesn’t sugarcoat its depiction of the fractured history of a developing country. Onuzo sets Anna on a path that can only be completed when she begins to come to terms with her past. 

Chibudno Onuzo’s novel is enjoyably readable and disarmingly frank as it follows a woman in search of her father.

Although Sara Nisha Adams makes her authorial debut with The Reading List, her connection to the world of books is not new. She has worked as a book editor and attributes her passion for reading to her early childhood, when she bonded with her grandfather over their shared love of literature. Not only did this relationship cultivate a lifelong case of bibliophilia, but it also served as the inspiration for The Reading List, a story about two lonely individuals whose initial common ground is, ironically, that neither has any interest in reading. 

We first meet Mukesh, a widower who is grieving the passing of his beloved wife (who was a voracious reader) and finds himself increasingly alienated from the rest of his family. Desperate to form a connection with his bookish granddaughter, Mukesh heads to the local library to try to better understand her. There he meets Aleisha, a teenager who dreams of becoming a lawyer and views her summer position at the library with disdain. Following a disastrous first meeting with Mukesh, Aleisha stumbles upon a mysterious list of book titles, which she decides she will recommend to Mukesh and read alongside him as a means of making amends. 

What begins as a whim soon transforms into a deeply enriching and gratifying experience. The books act as a lifeline for Mukesh and Aleisha as the two new friends navigate their personal tribulations. Reading is so often viewed as a solitary pursuit, but The Reading List turns that idea on its head, illustrating the ways one book can touch many lives and act as a shared point of empathy, uniting disparate individuals into a community.

In Adams’ gentle novel, there is no sorrow or trouble so great that a good book—and a supportive friend—cannot help, and it is never too late to become a reader. As an uplifting and tenderhearted celebration of libraries and the transformative power of books, The Reading List is particularly perfect for book clubs and sure to brighten any reader’s day.

The Reading List illustrates the ways one book can act as a shared point of empathy, uniting individuals into a community.

As Together We Will Go opens, 29-year-old Mark believes he’s never going to succeed at writing. He’s had suicidal thoughts since high school, he’s had enough of life, and he’s come up with a plan: a final bus trip, one last cross-country party with a group of like-minded souls who can’t carry the weight of life anymore.

J. Michael Straczynski’s novel follows this group of mostly young people intent on ending their lives. As the bus stops in several states to pick up passengers, the story cycles through all 12 characters’ perspectives, but six take center stage: the aforementioned Mark; Karen, a young woman with chronic pain; Tyler, a young man with a worsening hole in his heart; Vaughn, a 66-year-old widower with a painful secret; Lisa, whose bipolar disorder has led her to despair; and Shanelle, a lonely woman who has been bullied for her size. As the bus makes its way west, these characters connect, form alliances and deal with each other’s quirks and bad behavior.

Straczynski, a comic book writer, screenwriter and co-creator of Netflix’s “Sense8,” uses text messages, emails, online journal entries and audio transcripts to reveal the characters’ thoughts and actions, creating a 21st-century epistolary novel. Because of this format, the novel moves along quickly, although the characters’ thoughts occasionally blur together, especially when musing philosophically on the state of the world and their places in it.

But a late plot twist is satisfying, intensifying the characters’ bonds as they decide what to do. While a novel about characters planning to end their lives is not for everyone (as the introduction notes, “discretion is advised”), Together We Will Go is, in the end, about friendship and learning to love.

While a novel about characters planning to end their lives is not for everyone, Together We Will Go is, in the end, about friendship and learning to love.

The funny and sharp fourth novel by acclaimed Bangladesh-born British author Tahmima Anam, The Startup Wife, exposes the folly of looking for leadership in the startup sector, which reveres disruption in all areas except its own.

In this brilliantly incisive social novel, a quasi-faith community springs from a social media platform called WAI, short for “We Are Infinite.” WAI uses an algorithm to design personalized rituals based on three meaningful elements of a person’s life—and then introduces that person to a like-minded community.

It’s easy to see why WAI would be appealing. Its rituals fill the void many modern-day people feel in the absence of organized religion. The platform's essential concept is that if we treat something as sacred, we believe that it is more than entertainment, that it offers moral rewards and is worthy of rigorous contemplation. (Listeners to the "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text" podcast will find this idea familiar.)

But first, the novel begins with a love story: Thirteen years after high school, Asha Ray reunites with her crush, Cyrus Jones, when they attend a memorial for their late English teacher. Asha is four years into her Ph.D. at Harvard, and Cyrus has become a charismatic spiritual polyglot. He’s traveled the world, collecting bits of philosophy and religion from an endless variety of sources, and distilled them into something people can use in their own lives. “I create rituals,” he says.

Cyrus and Asha’s intellectual connection is intense, and soon, so is their physical relationship. The novel focuses on their all-encompassing, interconnected work-life partnership, which also includes, to a lesser extent, their best friend, Jules. When Asha’s artificial intelligence research hits a roadblock, she draws inspiration from Cyrus’ work and decides “to start a platform that [allows] people without religion to practice a form of faith.” Through Asha’s programming wizardry, WAI becomes a life-changing phenomenon. But it quickly becomes clear that the platform, intended to bring people together, is likely to blow the triad apart.

The Startup Wife is framed as a satirical novel about startup culture, but because Americans revere that culture, its foibles and failings are our failures, too. Tech investors subscribe to the “great man” theory of history as much as the rest of America, and this unavoidable fact begins to spoil Asha’s relationships with her two male partners. Investors are more apt to provide valuable exposure and support to a passion project fronted by a brilliant (usually white) man rather than a geeky brown woman. So even though Asha’s research is the source of the platform’s Empathy Module algorithm, handsome Cyrus becomes the figurehead for WAI. Initially resistant to making his spiritual practice into a business, he is easily seduced into playing CEO and messiah.

While The Startup Wife is full of beautifully messy and enviable characters, Asha’s fierce feminism and candor stand out. Of course, she’s far from innocent. She’s a creative genius who wants her due, just as any man would. But it’s a delight to experience Asha’s first-person perspective of the world and her metamorphosis into a powerful, flawed woman.

Because The Startup Wife is sexy and funny and puts relationships at the forefront, it might be easy to overlook its depth and sophistication. But its priorities are right where they should be. When people create a community with their friends and lovers, it is inevitable that boundaries will dissolve and that friendship, love, ego and identity will become intertwined. The Startup Wife’s insights about modern relationships, gender politics, race, technology and culture are as excellent and vital as its storytelling.

Tahmima Anam’s funny, sharp novel exposes the folly of looking for leadership in the startup sector, which reveres disruption in all areas except its own.

Lee Fiora is a teen from South Bend, Indiana, attending the high-status Ault School on scholarship. Ault’s well-heeled student body includes some familiar figures a Barbie-ish blonde (named, affluently enough, Aspeth Montgomery), a hunky basketball star and a lonely gay student but Sittenfeld’s novel is more than a collection of stereotypes. With this unique and powerful coming-of-age novel, she tells the tale of an outsider who learns as she goes along how to cope in an unfamiliar world.

Lee’s decidedly middle-class upbringing is revealed when her mother and father arrive at the school for Parents’ Weekend in their shabby old Datsun. The weekend proves a catastrophic one for the humiliated Lee, providing her with a new perspective on the way families work. When she becomes involved with basketball hero Cross Sugarman, the experience is not quite as grand as Lee imagined. The growing pains set in as through various friendships and romances Lee comes into her own. As a narrator, she is endearing and awkward, with her own idiosyncrasies and obsessions, and the reader is drawn to her a loner in a world of wealth and social status.

Sittenfeld’s portrayal of this sensitive, tormented youth has won her comparisons to J.D. Salinger. Prep is a witty and wise debut novel that perfectly captures the essence of adolescence, but goes beyond the teen experience to encompass larger themes like identity and family.

Lee Fiora is a teen from South Bend, Indiana, attending the high-status Ault School on scholarship. Ault’s well-heeled student body includes some familiar figures a Barbie-ish blonde (named, affluently enough, Aspeth Montgomery), a hunky basketball star and a lonely gay student but Sittenfeld’s novel is more than a collection of stereotypes. With this unique and […]

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