Carole V. Bell

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The prodigiously gifted Alexis Hall spins pathos, sex and humor into frothy yet sensitive paeans to love. His ambitious new novel, Paris Daillencourt Is About to Crumble, demonstrates the magnitude of his talents. 

The second Winner Bakes All romance after 2021’s Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, Paris is a bittersweet play on the opposites-attract trope. The titular character, a baker with devastating anxiety and self-doubt in spite of his beauty, talent and privilege, falls for Tariq Hassan, a charismatic young Muslim with ambition and confidence to spare. Paris and Tariq meet as competitors on “Bake Expectations,” a famous television cooking competition show. (If you’re thinking “The Great British Baking Show,” you’re on the right track.) 

Paris’ roommate, Morag, ropes him into joining the show, hoping that becoming a contestant would break Paris out of an unhealthy pattern of isolation and doubt. Though some good does come of the experience, it turns out you can’t shock the mental illness out of someone. The reality of what Paris is going through—the result of nature (brain chemistry) complicated by nurture (or lack thereof, i.e., years of parental abandonment)—is too messy and complex. 

Hall portrays Paris’ omnipresent anxiety disorder and how it affects his relationships with intensity and an impressive attention to cognitive and emotional detail. This may make some readers uncomfortable, as peeking inside Paris’ thoughts can be pretty harrowing. But many people who have experienced this type of mental health challenge, as well as some who haven’t, will find his story deeply relatable.

Paris may crumble under the pressure of appearing on “Bake Expectations,” but he also finds a real romantic connection with a man who’s delightfully different from himself. Tariq revels in his queerness, style and religion, and he inhabits the spotlight with a confidence that sometimes borders on cockiness. Paris and Tariq’s differences add an interesting texture to their interactions, and it is meaningful to see someone go through what Paris does and be loved throughout. Hall refreshingly balances sensitivity and matter-of-factness about Paris’ challenges and how they impact his relationship with Tariq, while also exploring where Tariq needs to grow. 

Hall’s sprightly irony and clever humor significantly lighten the angst. At one moment, Tariq gets impatient with Paris, as people are wont to do with him as he works his way up to an apology. “Look . . . we’ve been here before,” Tariq says. “I know how long your apologies take. I’ve got a religious obligation. I’ll come find you later.”

A dish that’s both sweet and savory, Paris Daillencourt Is About to Crumble is poignant and witty in equal proportion.

A dish that’s both sweet and savory, Paris Daillencourt Is About to Crumble is poignant and witty in equal proportion.
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In Lynn Steger Strong’s taut domestic drama, Flight, Christmas is a time of tension and healing for three adult siblings in the wake of their mother’s death.

Helen was a formidable figure by all accounts. Equal parts homemaker, matriarch and intellectual, she stood out in her Florida town and provided the charismatic fulcrum around which her family’s life pivoted. Even after her children had long left the family home behind, she wielded a strong influence. 

For their first holiday after her death, Helen’s fractious family has gathered at the large house in upstate New York that middle child Henry shares with his wife, Alice. The whole group is flailing, because Helen died suddenly—without a will—and now they’re fighting over their mother’s Florida home. 

But money and property are only the start of their issues. No one is at ease in Helen’s absence; everyone is worried and hiding some perceived shortcoming. The youngest sibling, Kate, a stay-at-home mom of three, chose a similar path to Helen’s but entirely lacks her conviction. The jury is still out on Kate’s husband, Josh, who spends the holiday dedicated to the seemingly Sisyphean task of building an igloo for the kids to play in. With money trouble looming, Kate’s focus is firmly trained on the big favor she wants to ask of her brothers.

Eldest brother Martin is a professor worried about job stability in the wake of some unbecoming and potentially ruinous behavior. His wife, Tess, is a well-paid and perennially anxious lawyer, who is neither confident with her kids nor comfortable when they’re out of her sight.

Henry is a dedicated artist who does interesting work to document climate change, which no one else inside (or perhaps even outside of) the family understands or values. Alice is a beautiful biracial social worker from a well-to-do family who is grieving her maternal prospects after multiple miscarriages. She dreads being left alone with any of her in-laws.

As a reader, it’s easy to relate to Alice’s trepidation. Though every sibling and spouse in Flight is nuanced and multidimensional, Helen’s clan can be overwhelming. Fortunately, a significant side plot involving one of Alice’s more troubled clients provides a key rallying point for the family as well as some much-needed breathing room. But of course, the myriad fissures, fractures and worries are what make this family drama feel utterly real.

The myriad fissures, fractures and worries of one family at Christmastime make this drama feel utterly real.
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When you’re a spy, regime change is tricky. Even positive shifts can make for treacherous times. Two novels uncover the messy, uncertain lives of intelligence operatives in times of tectonic political change: Allison Montclair’s The Unkept Woman explores English life after World War II, at the dawn of the Cold War, while Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work illuminates the turmoil surrounding German reunification as the Cold War was coming to a shaky close. 

The Unkept Woman

A lighter riff on the espionage novel, Montclair’s The Unkept Woman is the fourth in a series about two women—Gwendolyn Bainbridge, an upper-class widow, and Iris Sparks, a former British spy—who run the Right Sort Marriage Bureau, a matchmaking service launched in the wake of WWII. 

Witty and suspenseful, the novel brims with Noël Coward-esque banter. The primary mystery is how Helen Joblanska, an aspiring Right Sort client, ended up dead in Iris’ apartment. And why was a woman tailing Iris in the days before the murder? The events may or may not have something to do with the sudden reappearance and subsequent disappearance of Andrew Sutton, Iris’ married former lover and fellow spy, who had recently turned up on her doorstep looking for a place to hide out. 

As the prime suspect in Helen’s murder, Iris is determined to find the truth, but she’s facing strong tail winds. The local authorities are openly hostile due to their resentment of her involvement in previous cases, and Gwen is unable to help Iris as her own freedom and future are hanging in the balance. She has been trying to recover custody of her son and her inheritance, but having once been labeled a “lunatic” and committed to an asylum by her family, it’s an uphill battle.

Montclair paints a compelling portrait of two intelligent, formidable women working against systems and circumstances that put them at a distinct disadvantage. They’ve grown used to having careers and being in charge of their own fates, often in the absence of men. But both Iris and Gwen are considered disreputable, and the social change they represent is seen by some to be a monstrous encroachment on the normal social order. As unruly women in an uncertain time, Iris and Gwen are as intriguing as the mystery they’re investigating.

Winter Work

Like The Unkept Woman, Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work savvily leverages the inherent messiness of the life of a spy. When Lothar Fischer, a colonel in the now-defunct East German foreign intelligence service (more commonly known as the Stasi), is found dead in the woods near his dacha, his right-hand man, Emil Grimm, is determined to find out what really happened. Some suspect suicide, as many other senior Stasi officials have made that choice in the face of potential prosecution now that the Berlin Wall has fallen, but Emil thinks that’s nonsense. To complicate matters, the surrounding neighborhood is thick with former spies, and there’s soon a scuffle over jurisdiction. 

As a sympathetic Stasi officer, Emil provides a fascinating perspective for Western readers. In addition to the troubles of being an aging Cold Warrior, Emil also worries about his wife, who is seriously ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease. With the Stasi dismantled amid the general upheaval, Emil’s income and health care are uncertain, which makes his situation particularly precarious.

As Emil scrambles to make sense of what happened to Lothar while trying to secure his future, Fesperman effectively balances building the mystery with illustrating the broader historical context and personal stakes. The social dynamics in the story are handled brilliantly, with the lines between personal and political motivations appropriately nuanced throughout. There are a multitude of competing interests in Berlin, chiefly Russians trying to shut down the flow of information and Americans offering top dollar to informants. For Emil, who has long since lost his belief in the East German system and grown wary of surveillance in his own life, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is a shaky figure who can’t be relied upon to help displaced men like him in this new world order. With the Russian leader “too preoccupied with making the Americans fall in love with his new Perestroika,” some of Emil’s fellow officials are looking for hope in other figures. In a chillingly prophetic note, one of them is Vladimir Putin: “The KGB station chief in Dresden, that Putin fellow, is as outraged as we are,” they remark. The heavy toll of authoritarianism looms over the entire proceeding, making for a complex tale that will have readers rooting for a Stasi agent.

Regime change, murder—and matchmaking? In two thrilling novels, spies both former and current contend with a host of challenges.
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Few words related to identity convey a more precise meaning than the ones Bolu Babalola uses to describe her identity: “I’m a Nigerian child, eldest daughter.” If you’re familiar with immigrant parents, you know the drill: Education is the key to securing your future, with a reliable profession (doctor, lawyer, engineer) followed by a judicious marriage by a certain age. 

But Babalola, author of Honey and Spice, one of the year’s most ambitious rom-coms, didn’t stick to that script. Born in South London to two striving professionals, one a lawyer and the other a teacher, her artistic journey began at age 10. She gained attention for her writing from teachers, and the fact that she could do something she loved, then get praised for it in school and by her family, planted a seed. Like a sunflower bending toward the light, she leaned in. By 14, she was writing and sharing rom-coms with friends. So publishing her outstanding romance debut at 31 has been a long time coming. 

Voice-driven and striking, Honey and Spice is Beyoncé meets Jane Austen on a British university campus. As unlikely as that blend sounds, Babalola nails it. The book’s narrator is budding media maven Kikiola “Kiki” Banjo, the host of a student radio show that dispenses pop culture commentary, offers advice about university life and dissects the Black British cliques of Whitewell University. When handsome and far-too-charming transfer student Malakai Korede enters the scene, he changes the social equilibrium. Kiki instantly identifies the new big man on campus as someone her fellow classmates should steer clear of. 

“Because I’m a romantic, I actually don’t want romance for the sake of romance. It has to be real.”

But as Kiki gets to know him, she realizes that, despite his slick reputation, Malakai is actually beautifully and wonderfully squishy—the perfect sparring partner for the prickly yet sweet Kiki. As Kiki notices when she digs into his social media and finds a doting post about his niece, Malakai has “a softness to him. . . . There was no way he could fake the adoration with which he looked at that angel.”

Babalola also adores him. Malakai is “a kind of distortion of what we think masculinity and Black masculinity should be,” she says, speaking by video call. Malakai’s openheartedness reflects an essential part of Babalola’s upbringing, in which her father played the role of loving cheerleader. Her parents not only nurtured her independent thinking and creativity, but also shaped Babalola’s romantic sensibility: She was raised by a couple who share the exact kind of partnership and abiding love she writes about so devotedly. 

Their relationship inspired Babalola’s first book, the story collection Love in Color, a kaleidoscopic reimagining of romantic myths from around the world. Though the book’s premise was dreamed up by Babalola’s publisher, it was her vision that made it a breakout hit. Love in Color became a mission statement, a calling card that introduced Babalola’s voice to the broader public. It provided an opportunity to place Black women and women of color from around the world at the center of her beloved genre. With Love in Color, and now with Honey and Spice, Babalola wants to “decolonize the concept of romance . . . because we usually see white women as the romantic heroines, [both the ones] desiring and the ones who deserve to be desired.”

Honey and Spice jacket

With her debut romance novel, Babalola wanted to “pay homage not only to my parents’ love story but also to them as parents because their love embodies so much of my confidence.” Perhaps because she’s a woman (and Black and Nigerian), she gets asked about that aspect of her personality a lot. “Everyone wonders why I’m so confident and why I’m so sure of myself, and I’m 100% sure it’s because my parents had that confidence in me,” she says. “There wasn’t really any space for me not to believe in myself, because that was unacceptable to them.”  That’s not the story one usually hears about Nigerian parents, and Babalola’s work provides a realistic, progressive portrayal of Black British life. Honey and Spice is grounded in Whitewell’s complex and tight (if imperfect) Black community, where love and joy and feminist sensibilities intertwine and vibrate off the page.

Babalola’s own academic life is another key influence in Honey and Spice. In graduate school, her focus on American politics and history through popular culture culminated in a thesis on Beyoncé’s audiovisual masterpiece Lemonade, female blues singers and Black women redefining identity through art. That blend of cultural savvy, empowerment and identity exploration pervades Babalola’s writing. What’s more, Kiki’s politics, media and culture major mirrors a concentration the author once designed for herself, and the fictional advisor who pairs Kiki with Malakai for a semester-long project is modeled on Babalola’s own grad school mentor.

Like her creator, Kiki is a bold, confident woman who already knows she’s loved and won’t settle for anything less with a man, no matter how charming. “I have such a soft spot for Kiki. I relate to her. . . . And I think a lot of Black girls relate to her,” Babalola says. “They think they need to be tough, but they’re really just sweethearts deep down.” 

Read our starred review of ‘Honey and Spice’ by Bolu Babalola.

Honey and Spice is the book of Babalola’s heart, a novel she’s been developing and refining for years. As in Austen, the romance is paramount, but the ensemble cast and the broader world in which the relationship grows are half the fun, allowing Babalola to lay bare the intricacies of cliques, class and color. She weaves together humor and cutting social observations with precise, innovative language. Some of this language, such as mandemologist, Kiki’s joking term for her expertise in male behavior, Babalola invented and some of it, such as wasteman, the pejorative term Kiki initially uses to label Malakai, is Black British vernacular. Babalola says the latter term can describe “a loser, like in the generic sense of the word. But it can also just be somebody who just messes you around.” In contrast with the traditional romance rake, who is often an attractive figure who can be redeemed, wasteman serves as a hard line in the sand. As Babalola puts it, “Signifying that it’s unacceptable [to behave like a wasteman] shows that we’re defining our parameters of relationships and romantic relationships.”

This term and what it says about knowing your worth is emblematic of the author’s outlook on life, gender equality and love. Babalola is single, and over 130,000 followers on Twitter savor both her insight and her celebration of sexy, empowered womanhood. She’s a romantic visionary who hasn’t yet experienced her one grand romance, but she has seen it modeled and knows what she wants. Being willing to be single until she gets the love story she’s looking for is a conscious choice. “I am a romantic,” Babalola says. “And because I’m a romantic, I actually don’t want romance for the sake of romance. It has to be real. I don’t prioritize being partnered above all else, because I really, really respect romance and love.” The women she creates mirror the ethos she embodies. Babalola champions a romanticism rooted in trust, independence and bravery—both in Honey and Spice and as the star of her own story.

Photo of Bolu Babalola credit Caleb Azumah Nelson.

The author's debut romance, Honey and Spice, celebrates the love she wants to see in the world.
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In Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s seventh novel, Our Gen, four well-off 60-something characters bond in an exclusive and privileged environment. 

Located just outside Philadelphia, the Gen (short for “sexagenarian”) is a leafy suburban community named for the sexy seniors who live there. In addition to its luxury concierge services, spa amenities and high-tech smart homes, the Gen is a uniquely intense social environment in which residents experience a kind of renewal and second wind. It’s also a place of transition that inspires contemplation, and sometimes those reflections are painful.

The events of the novel pivot around Cynthia, a new resident grieving the loss of the cherished West Philadelphia mansion and the life her attentive (and pushy) son is convinced no longer suits her. A wealthy Black Ivy League graduate and divorc’e, Cynthia bonds quickly, yet not without reservation, with an existing clique that includes the “tall and golden” Tish, an attention-grabbing, light-skinned African American socialite; Bloc, the only Black man at the Gen and a retired NASA scientist with three ex-wives; and the mysterious Lavia, a retired financier, who may or may not be South Asian. Cynthia and Bloc share an instant attraction that threatens the group’s equilibrium. There’s also a wrongful arrest of a beloved community employee, but that ends up being a small part of why Cynthia’s first few months at the Gen are a time of great change for the clique. 

In the novel’s present, life revolves around dinners and cocktail receptions. Cynthia, Tish, Bloc and Lavia fill their time with political debate and conjecture about other residents’ political leanings, as well as recreational drinking and smoking that greases the wheels of interpersonal disclosures and sex. There’s a college-campus feel to the intensity of their sharing. However, the majority of the novel’s drama is interior, occurring in contemplative flashbacks as the foursome reckons with the worst parts of their personal histories. 

McKinney-Whetstone presents these revelations in a striking and compelling style, frequently dipping into metaphor to describe the characters’ interiority through comparisons to their environment. The soapy melodrama and artistic presentation of the flashbacks are a powerful blend, if at times a little uneven in their effect. 

Complex characters and relationships are the heart of the novel, and overall, the combination works well. The premise is creative, focusing on a group of people who aren’t often at the center of stories filled with love, sex and laughter. Our Gen is warm and smart, accessible yet meaningful, a beach read with strong writing and emotional heft.

Focusing on a group of people who aren’t often at the center of stories filled with love, sex and laughter, Our Gen is warm and smart, accessible yet meaningful, a beach read with strong writing and emotional heft.
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The Emma Project concludes Sonali Dev’s series of contemporary Jane Austen retellings with a gender-flipped version of Emma. In it, Vansh Raje is the jet-setting youngest child of the illustrious Raje family, a famously wealthy and tightknit clan descended from Indian royalty and based in California. Dev’s Mr. Knightley equivalent is formidable entrepreneur Knightlina “Naina” Kohli, a decade-older family friend who’s been a beloved mentor to Vansh for most of his life.

Naina is the mature grump to Vansh’s playful sunshine. As an Indian American woman who’s fought for the well-being of countless others and gone to extremes to secure her own independence (she once faked a long-term relationship to appease her difficult parents), she’s grown to resent the Rajes’ seemingly easy paths through life. Tensions ratchet up between Naina and Vansh when they compete for funding from the same donor, funding Naina desperately needs for her microfinance foundation. Going head-to-head ignites a heady combination of long-standing trust blended with newfound lust.

While Dev expertly grafts the age gap, charming meddler and grumpy-sunshine tropes from Emma onto her sprawling contemporary update, there is a sharp difference in tone. Emma is a true precursor to the modern romantic comedy, but The Emma Project, like most of Dev’s work, is an emotionally heavy story. Naina is not just stern; she’s been hurt by her severe and volatile father, who has wreaked havoc on his family over the years. Dev’s darker take on the character gets especially tricky in Naina’s attitude toward Vansh, which can seem excessively harsh given his sincerity.

Handsome and relentlessly gregarious, Vansh dealt with dyslexia and the sting of comparison to his academically adept older siblings growing up. He’s keenly aware of his own privilege; he “wasn’t hypocritical enough to see his life as anything but charmed.” He also understands that his most obvious assets, apart from his family, are his looks (“Vogue had declared him the most gorgeous of his siblings”) and his easy way with people, and he’s more than made peace with that. Determined to stand out in his own right, Vansh has worked hard to build a substantial philanthropic network by leveraging his strengths. He has earned the implicit trust of his friends and that social capital has meaningful rewards.  

Dev endows Vansh with wonderful depth, making him a more substantive Emma, while giving Emma’s petty jealousy to Naina, who is a more severe Knightley. This makes the gender flip of The Emma Project interesting, but it’s dissatisfying to see the female character, especially a female version of a character as beloved as Knightley, get the short end of the stick. 

Despite these somewhat disappointing adaptation choices, Vansh and Naina’s story is compelling in its complexity. These are multilayered characters, and the drama is well earned. Plus, The Emma Project‘s many callbacks and cameos from previous books in the series firmly tie the novel into the larger series. It’s intriguing to contemplate how gender impacts this classic age-gap romance, especially when complicated by a contemporary setting and family dynamics.

Sonali Dev's contemporary, gender-flipped Emma is a sprawling and emotional grumpy-sunshine romance.
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In Sister Mother Warrior, her second historical novel following the success of Island Queen, Vanessa Riley brings the Haitian revolution to life through the perspectives of two real-life women: one a soldier, the other the future empress of a fledgling nation.

Gaou Adbaraya Toya’s fighting spirit is forged in fire. She is 12 when her peaceful home in West Africa is destroyed by Dahomey warriors. A week earlier, the elders had conferred on Toya the “sanctified” status of being a grown woman, but the catastrophic loss of her village is the true turning point of her childhood, as she gains a terrible understanding: “The rumors must be true. The Dahomey sold their vanquished enemies to the white devils.” 

In the midst of all this chaos, Toya decides she will become a fighter. The likelihood of being sold into slavery motivates her to join the Dahomey people and serve the conquering ruler, King Tegbesu, as a member of a select group of female soldiers. But in a horrible twist of irony, Toya’s path leads her into enslavement in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. She eventually becomes a renowned healer with an unofficial protected status throughout the colony, a warrior who fights in the rebellion and the adoptive mother of a boy who will become one of the rebellion’s most vaunted leaders (and ultimately Haiti’s emperor), Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

The second revolutionary, Marie-Claire Bonheur (later Dessalines), lives a relatively privileged life in Saint-Domingue. She and her family occupy a specific place in the colony’s stratified society. Her father is a respected free Black man who works as a fisherman; her mother is an “affranchi,” or free person of color; and her grandfather is a “Grand Blanc,” or white elite plantation owner. Darker skinned than her mother and sister, 13-year-old Marie-Claire sacrifices her precarious status—and entwines her fate with Toya’s—when, rather than solidify her family’s standing by marrying a white man, she falls in love with an enslaved boy: Jean-Jacques Dessaline. Their enduring and imperfect love is a key throughline of the narrative, bringing softness and dimension to the story.

To her credit, Riley never shies away from gray areas when depicting these incredible public figures and events. Her heroes are fallible. Toya pledges (and maintains) her undying loyalty to a king who sold her brethren into slavery; she believes that it was his divine right to do so, even after she recognizes slavery for the “slow death” that it is. Jean-Jacques grows up to become a great man, but he’s also unpitying and vengeful as a leader, and in his personal life he’s unfaithful, repeatedly breaking Marie-Claire’s heart.

The complexity of Sister Mother Warrior suits this complicated, difficult history, and Riley is successful in portraying the roles of African people within a unique and racialized system they didn’t foresee without diminishing the reality of the unspeakable atrocities committed by Europeans. Fair warning, though: The story’s complexity is at times compounded by uneven writing, which can be dense and expository, choppy and impressionistic. Riley uses first-person perspectives to place readers in the heads of her lead characters, immersing us in their thoughts and feelings. It’s effective and engrossing, especially when there’s chaos roiling outside and within, but both the subject matter and Riley’s writing style make for challenging reading. At its most opaque, the narrative mirrors the unruliness of turbulent events.

Still, Sister Mother Warrior is captivating. I sank into this one, and it motivated me to learn more about a subject I have long avoided as a Black person descended from slavery in the former West Indies. I recommend others take the same leap.

The complexity of Sister Mother Warrior suits the complicated, difficult history of the Haitian revolution, which Vanessa Riley brings to life through the stories of a soldier and a future empress.
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In Julie Mayhew’s Greek island-set thriller, Little Nothings, little cuts do lasting damage and friendships are as intense and heartbreaking as romantic relationships.

Thanks to her friendless childhood and dysfunctional family, Liv Travers never felt like she belonged. Even getting married to her husband, Pete, and giving birth to a daughter, Ivy, didn’t fundamentally change how she felt. But bonding with Beth and Binnie at a singalong music class for mothers and babies radically shifted her perspective.

So when an interloper comes along and rocks their happy triad, it’s intolerable. The new girl, Ange, is shinier and bossier than Liv’s other friends. Soon she has them all in her thrall, and the vibe shifts from supportive and homey to acquisitive and competitive, like a suburban London version of “Keeping Up with the Kardishians.” Regular group outings now take place at fashionable restaurants with bills totalling hundreds of pounds a pop. Every part of the group’s lifestyle gets an upgrade, and everyone is expected to conform. It’s hard to keep up financially, and even worse, Ange seems to want to run Liv off. Liv is excluded from group events with flimsy excuses, and no one else notices the manipulation. All the “little nothings,” the cuts and insults delivered so casually, add up, and the hostilities increase during an expensive group vacation to the Greek island Corfu. How far will Liv go to protect her found family, and what will she risk?

Rather than follow a chronological timeline, Mayhew uses flashbacks to reveal what pushed Liv and her friends to the brink. It’s an effective, psychologically driven structure, with each flashback being triggered thematically by an event in the present. As the full picture emerges, it’s easy to wonder if any friendship is worth all that drama, especially as neither Beth nor Binnie really seems to have Liv’s back. But to Liv, these women aren’t just friends, they’re soulmates; Mayhew even likens the intimacy of these female friendships to marriage. In a way that’s reminiscent of both Nikki May’s thriller Wahala and the novels of Patricia Highsmith, the intense relationships are vital to the women’s sense of their own identities. Vowing to not be that lonely girl again, Liv in particular hangs on with the fervor of a person in a rocky marriage warding off divorce.

Anchored by a deliciously layered and desperately unreliable narrator, Little Nothings enriches the familiar setup of an intruder shaking up a happy idyll with a compelling, creative structure and distinctive voice. It’s obvious that what Liv needs are better friends and a truckload of therapy, but singular obsessions make for seductive and fun reading, even if the depth of Liv’s interiority makes the other characters look thin and shabby by comparison. A good choice for fans of relationship-driven stories with a sinister edge, Little Nothings hits the same sweet spot as the works of Lucy Foley and Liane Moriarty.

With her Greek-island set thriller, Little Nothings, Julie Mayhew hits the same seductive sweet spot as writers like Lucy Foley and Liane Moriarty.
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Akwaeke Emezi is known for their literary flexibility, having already displayed a mastery of fiction, poetry and memoir, but You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty is a shock to the system in more ways than one. The differences between the prize-winning writer’s first romance novel and their previous work go beyond genre boundaries and readers’ expectations. 

Like Emezi’s debut, Freshwater (2018), and their acclaimed, bestselling novel The Death of Vivek Oji (2020), You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty is a bold work of art. But while those earlier books possess what Emezi calls “a quality of the other” or “a separateness,” the author’s first romance reflects a different voice—one that is truer to their own story of love and heartbreak when they were a 20-something in New York City.

The novel follows Nigerian American artist Feyi Adekola, who’s restarting her life in Brooklyn five years after the death of her husband. As Feyi becomes romantically entangled with a man named Nasir and then with his father, a celebrity chef named Alim, she discovers the kind of healing she needs. 

Read our starred review of ‘You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty.’

The novel takes Emezi in multiple new directions. It’s light, optimistic and fun while maintaining a significant throughline of lyricism and drama. However, there’s a certain vulnerability and rebellion whenever an author flips the script on their readership. When a voice emerges that’s different from what came before, there’s a real potential for blowback. 

“I don’t know if all readers are going to enjoy it suddenly being so, you know, contemporary and vulgar,” Emezi says, speaking by video call. “I think that will challenge certain readers, because I do think there’s a kind of reader—and to be very honest, I think of a white liberal reader when I think of this reader—who’s coming to the work looking for that otherness, you know, looking for something that’s a little foreign and well out of reach.” 

That’s an unsettling but not entirely unfamiliar sentiment. For some readers, stories of African spirituality set within African settings are more palatable than portraits of young queer Black women disregarding the boundaries of American propriety. “I’ve seen a couple of early Goodreads reviews, and some people really do not like this book,” Emezi says.

“It’s not a literary novel pretending to be a romance. Like, no, I wrote it for the genre.”

A strong audience response is a hallmark of our modern interactive literary landscape, which could be intimidating to an author and consummate artist like Emezi. But despite any pre-publication speculation about the novel’s reception, the author’s enthusiasm and fighting spirit are unmistakable. Emezi is clearly up for the challenge, with an attitude that’s more “bring it on” than nervous. 

As Emezi ruminates on the topography of the literary market, they reveal a sophisticated understanding of both their career and how genre fiction is positioned in relation to books that are considered “literary.” “I actually was a speculative fiction writer,” the author says, “but when I decided to write professionally, I had a game plan, and the game plan was to do literary fiction first, because it seemed easier to start in literary fiction and then move to other genres, rather than go in the other direction.”

Both in its own right and in the context of Emezi’s literary game plan, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty (whose title comes from a lyric in the song “Hunger” by Florence + the Machine) is an exciting achievement that represents a particular kind of artistic freedom. And after Emezi’s most recent publishing successes, including their Stonewall Award-winning memoir, Dear Senthuran, the timing seems right for them to take this leap. Plus, many readers will relate to the author’s inclination toward lightness. Emezi has long been a romance fan, but the past few years have rendered romance’s appeal more immediate and keenly felt.

“The world is such a heavy place—always has been, but it seems to be getting heavier,” Emezi says. “I wanted to both read and write something more joyful, something that had a happy ending. And that’s one of the things I love about romance, that it gives you a soft place to land.”

You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty

Make no mistake, Emezi is very clear on what kind of book they’ve written: “It’s not a literary novel pretending to be a romance. Like, no, I wrote it for the genre.” They display a clear knowledge of romance conventions, readership and fan base, and they selected a publisher with a track record of embracing the popular genre. “Part of the reason why I published with Atria is because I’m not doing literary fiction. I’m doing commercial fiction,” Emezi says. “I wanted to be very firmly rooted in the genre.” This intention permeates the novel, which readers of other hardcover contemporary romances, such as Tia Williams’ bestselling Seven Days in June, will gravitate toward immediately. 

Like Williams’ novel, Emezi’s book has a sexy, glam 2000s Brooklyn vibe, and its Caribbean scenes are equally alive. Emezi has lived in both New York City and Trinidad, and while they never insert a representation of themself into their fictional narratives, this novel is clearly influenced by real life. Feyi and her best friend and roommate, Joy, are radiant. Messy, single and free, they have known loss and are trying to make the most of their time on Earth. 

“I spent my entire 20s in Brooklyn,” says the author, who is 34. “This is what we were doing. . . . We were being hoes, and we were partying, and we were having a great time.” From page one, the novel throws off the cultural constraints of a judgmental white or male gaze. Feyi and Joy consciously reject the unwritten rules of modern respectability that Black women are often expected to follow.

“I don’t really get my thrills that way anymore,” Emezi says. “Now I’m like, ‘Oh, my garden.’ But back then, I would have been worse than both Feyi and Joy.”

This full-hearted and playful embrace of Black joy and romance also manifests in Feyi’s impeccable older love interest, Alim. His portrayal is one of fluid beauty and sensitivity that happily flirts with wish fulfillment. In fact, conjuring a dream man on the page complicated Emezi’s personal life during the novel’s incubation: “When I first started writing him as a character, I was dating this guy in New York. And the guy was jealous of Alim because he was like, ‘I feel like you’re writing your perfect man.’ Of course I am. I absolutely am.” 

For all its lightness, the novel does pose its share of challenges, and while Emezi fiercely respects the traditions of romance, they’ve also made some provocative choices. Like many modern romances (especially ones by independently published authors), Emezi’s novel departs from the old-school concept of “there can only be one” love interest, a requirement that seems increasingly ill-suited to 21st-century relationships. Sometimes in romance novels, there is only one true love, and if you lose that one but then find someone else, there must have been something wrong with the previous experience. But both Feyi and Alim experience deep, abiding love before they meet each other, and the connection between them never calls those prior commitments into question. Feyi also sees other men before she meets her ultimate love interest, and there’s no shade in the way those sexual experiences are presented.

“I wanted to both read and write something more joyful, something that had a happy ending.”

Through the expertly crafted narrative and the way Feyi and Alim bond on so many levels, including sexually and spiritually, Emezi’s novel demonstrates that you don’t have to diminish the past in order to love someone thoroughly in the present. This is a driving theme of the novel: seizing a second chance after a previous true love. It’s a motif close to Emezi’s heart. 

“I got married really, really young, when I was in my early 20s. And when that marriage ended, I was like, this is it. I’m never falling in love again. And it’s odd because when you lose your first love, on one hand, it feels impossible that it can ever happen again,” they say. “On the other hand . . . once you move past the limitations of ‘it can only happen once,’ then you can use that first time to be like, well, if it happened before, it means that it’s possible for it to happen again.”

In the end, Emezi believes, it comes down to a choice: “You can either choose despair or hope, and I wanted to show both Feyi and Alim choosing hope and working their way toward it.” In this, they have certainly succeeded. The idea that love is conscious and regenerative comes through beautifully in their characters’ growth and in the relationship’s progression. The result is a gorgeous affirmation: Second chances are real, even for characters with a few scars and miles on them.

Photo of Akwaeke Emezi by Vo.

You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty delivers a shock to the sensibilities.
Review by

The Mutual Friend is a stylized, laugh-out-loud funny social satire with devastating aim.

Like his long-running sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” Carter Bays’ debut novel is a New York City-set ensemble comedy with plenty to say about the discontents of modern life and the difficulty of connection, with one character who acts as a pivot around which the story hinges.

Alice Quick, originally named Truth, was one of twin baby girls adopted by two different families in the Midwest shortly after birth. A musical prodigy turned chronic underachiever, Alice feels rudderless and lost. She wants to be a doctor—possibly, maybe—but lacks the energy to follow through. Even registering for the medical school entrance exam is overwhelming.

When Alice’s roommate gets engaged, things go from difficult to worse. Alice is suddenly in need of shelter, and desperation lands her in a basement apartment near Columbia University. Finding housing in a convenient neighborhood seems lucky, but Alice quickly gets caught up in the whirlwind that is her new roommate, the imposing and mercurial Roxy.

Roxy is a tour-de-force character who epitomizes the ephemeral nature of life in 2015 New York City. She has a complicated yet hilarious relationship with reality, and the push-pull of her conversations with Alice is priceless. But Roxy is just one of the wonderful and absurd creations within Bays’ debut.

Like The Bonfire of the Vanities for the era of reality TV and social media, The Mutual Friend is a conflagration of cringe, as Bays paints a slightly heightened and terrifying vision of life in our age of distraction. Similar to Patricia Lockwood’s 2021 novel, No One is Talking About This, Bays’ novel sometimes replicates the thought processes of a brain addled by the overstimulation of the internet and omnipresent media: run-on sentences, a litany of random bits of information hitting the reader from multiple sources and a narrative that bounces from one topic to another with abandon.

More than anything else though, the nearly 500-page novel explores people bumping into one another and deciding if they have what it takes to make it stick. And because the book is poised for laughs and broad humor, its painful, critical sections hit harder. For example, Roxy’s second date with a slightly older man, Bob, whom she met on a Tinder-like service called “Suitoronomy,” goes south when she discovers that he’s the focus of a “DO NOT date this guy” blog post. Exposed, charming, dimpled Bob hits back with misogynistic venom. His response is beyond cringe; it’s repulsive. Yet it’s hard to dismiss Bob as a mere internet creep, as the novel gives him an origin story, too, and his tendency to follow the newest, shiniest thing is reflected throughout the larger story in many ways.

The Mutual Friend dwells at the corner of restless and randomness, displacement and dissatisfaction. The narrative is full of stray thoughts and chance encounters, everything fleeting and devastating. All told, it’s riveting.

The Mutual Friend is a conflagration of cringe, as debut novelist Carter Bays paints a slightly heightened and terrifying vision of life in the age of distraction.
Review by

Five years after the car crash that stole the love of her life, Nigerian American artist Feyi Adekola finally wants to start living again. Her grief over her husband’s death is still sharp, but she is determined to try. So Feyi and her roommate, Joy, go to a grand party in Brooklyn, and their night out is an unqualified success. Feyi drinks, dances and meets a handsome man, Nasir Blake, who wants to sweep her right off her feet.

Nasir is a patient, kind and determined (slightly) younger man with the resources of a minor prince. He invites Feyi to visit his Caribbean island home, where he’ll introduce her to his art collector father and the curator of a group exhibition of artists of the Black diaspora. It’s just the break Feyi needs, but five minutes after their plane touches down, she knows that the man she’s drawn to isn’t Nasir. It’s his elegant, gorgeous father, celebrity chef Alim Blake. Like Feyi, Alim is an artist who lost a spouse too soon, and while their connection is enriched by this common ground, their attraction is elemental.

In You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty, National Book Award finalist and Stonewall Award winner Akwaeke Emezi has written a lush, high-stakes romance novel that diehard romance loyalists and genre newcomers alike will appreciate. Emezi’s literary range is legendary, having succeeded in memoir, poetry and literary fiction for both adult and young adult readers, but it’s still a wonder that they’ve pulled off one of the most sensational and taboo tropes in the romance genre: falling in love with the parent of your romantic partner—in this case, the hot dad or “DILF.” For me, as for many readers, family boundaries are sacred—or, from another perspective, radioactive. Emezi conquers these reservations with palpable chemistry and gorgeous prose, offering an indelibly poignant portrait of a second chance at love for two people who have suffered searing loss.

Emezi’s novel is notable for respecting the conventions of the romance genre while imbuing Feyi and Alim’s story with a distinctly progressive sensibility. The lovers are finely drawn, modern and specific. Both are Black, queer and sexy, and descriptions of their beauty are worth the price of admission alone. Feyi’s artwork is experimental and edgy, with a secret ingredient I won’t spoil.

Another lovely element of the novel is Emezi’s departure from the implicit rule that a romance protagonist can’t hook up with anyone but their one true love. Feyi experiments sexually, makes a risky choice or two and isn’t punished for it. Her freedom and sex positivity shouldn’t be rare in romance novels, but it is.

The list of admirable qualities of You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty is long, but I’ll end with this: Emezi executes their first romance with creativity and deep respect. Come for the swoon; stay for the passion.

With You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty, Akwaeke Emezi executes their first romance with creativity and deep respect. Come for the swoon; stay for the passion.

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