Nareh “Nar” Bedrossian, the fascinating and lovable protagonist of Taleen Voskuni’s tender sapphic rom-com, Sorry, Bro, is a walking, talking identity crisis. Nar’s never been comfortable in her own skin; she doesn’t fully embrace her career as a video journalist, her Armenian heritage or her bisexuality. There’s plenty of room for growth, and Voskuni deftly delivers it in a romance bursting with specificity and cultural depth, told through Nar’s distinctive voice.
Voskuni kicks things off with Nar’s boyfriend’s complete failure of a marriage proposal, and this cringey and brilliant opening scene exposes what Nar knows in her soul: She’ll never be happy if she surrenders part of herself for a man who is so dismissive of her culture. That’s why Nar agrees to attend “Explore Armenia,” a monthlong series of events that celebrate the Armenian American community in her home of San Francisco, California. Who knows? Maybe she’ll meet a man her mother deems appropriate (read: handsome, eligible and Armenian). Instead, Nar meets beautiful, chic and confident Erebuni Minassian, who rescues Nar from having to marshal the confidence to enter a mixer on her own.
Despite the value Nar places on community and family connection, she frequently recoils from what she perceives to be embarrassing aspects of Armenian identity, such as their penchant for gold, departures from Western beauty ideals and ubiquitous discussions of the 1915 Armenian genocide. This discomfort is a result of the clash of values that marked Nar’s childhood. Her late father strove to be a more stereotypically white American, while her mother takes pride in their culture.
A nuanced, complex battle between these two sets of priorities is constantly raging inside Nar’s head. Cool, levelheaded Erebuni is a totally swoonworthy love interest, and it’s impossible not to root for Nar. Voskuni gorgeously depicts their connection, but the narrative arc hinges on Nar’s journey from ambivalence to acceptance. Sorry, Bro is a beautifully crafted portrait of a woman and the Armenian American community, which has been historically underrepresented on the page.
Taleen Voskuni’s sapphic rom-com, Sorry, Bro, is a beautifully crafted portrait of a woman and her Armenian American community.
KJ Charles’ latest historical romance, The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, is best described as a queer version of “Poldark.” It’s an adventurous cross-class love story set in the marshy hinterlands of England’s County Kent, as the Napoleonic Wars rage in the background.
The action-packed and intrigue-filled plot begins with a union of virtual opposites. Gareth Inglis, a gently bred law clerk, and Joss Doomsday, a charismatic country smuggler, have little in common. But for one blissful week, they are just “Kent” and “London,” aliases signifying their respective home turfs.Their idyllic affair abruptly ends when Joss is called back home to attend to urgent family business and Gareth, who’s experienced more than his share of rejection, assumes this “family business” is just a polite brushoff.
That would have been the end, if not for one inconvenient fact: London-raised Gareth actually hails from Romney Marsh, the same patch of Kentish land as his working-class ex-lover. And when his estranged father dies, Gareth inherits his title, country home and responsibilities.
Just like that, Joss and Gareth’s no-strings tryst turns complicated as they find themselves not only in close proximity but also on opposite sides of the law. Joss is in charge of his family’s illegal but well-established and locally respected smuggling operation. And Gareth, now an influential local landowner by virtue of his inheritance, has a half-sister who is romantically attached to a zealous revenue officer, enemy number one in Romney Marsh, where even judges and gentry buy their goods from Joss’ family.
The various financial and internecine quarrels are convincingly rendered and the supporting characters and setting finely textured, but it’s the tenderness and steam that emanate from Gareth and Joss that really give the story its spark. Their relationship is deeply passionate, and they have a lovely way of communicating even when they don’t have the language to articulate their feelings. Charles beautifully describes exactly what each man is going through emotionally, even when no words are exchanged: “They kissed their way past the hurt and the loneliness, kissed themselves back together . . .”
Fans of Charles’ Society of Gentlemen series and new readers alike will adore this complex and emotional historical romance.
Fans of author KJ Charles’ Society of Gentlemen series and new readers alike will adore The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, her complex and emotional historical romance.
BookPage is excited to host a first look at the new print edition of Kennedy Ryan’s gorgeous and pulse-quickening romance The Kingmaker.
The first part of an addictive duology, The Kingmaker is a suspenseful, intrigue-filled ride that generated internet buzz before BookTok and Bookstagram ruled the bestseller lists. The beautiful new edition from Bloom will allow even more readers to discover what makes this star-crossed love story so unforgettable.
The titular kingmaker, Lennix Hunter, is a powerful political advocate for Native American people. Maxim Cade is both an environmental scientist and capitalist crusader; he wants to “save the world and make lots of money.” Lennix and Maxim meet at an oil pipeline protest and, despite their stark differences, find that their values are mostly in sync. It’s just the timing they can’t seem to make work as their high-powered careers, their politics and Maxim’s family create seemingly insurmountable barriers. Lennix and Max’s epic love story spans two decades, four continents and two books, but it always feels intimate due to Ryan’s lyrical and sexy prose.
The new edition of The Kingmaker will be available on shelves at libraries and bookstores everywhere on May 23, 2023. In the meantime, we’re thrilled to reveal its beautiful cover, which was designed by Stephanie Gafron at Sourcebooks. And read on for a Q&A with Kennedy Ryan!
Tell me about The Kingmaker. How did you first conceive of this story? Activism is a common theme in a lot of my books. I saw footage of a pipeline protest, and it stirred my outrage but also my imagination. I started envisioning two best friends, one Indigenous and one Black, who start a political consulting firm to elect leaders who will champion their causes. The Kingmaker is the story of Lennix, who is Yavapi-Apache, and Maxim, who is the heir to an oil empire.
You’ve explored sports and entertainment in other books, but the All the King’s Men series examines the intersection of politics and business. What was appealing about that context for you? I wanted to write about people of deep conviction who dedicate their lives to making the world a better place. Lennix and Maxim start out as idealists, and over the course of their lives, over the course of the story, they become more jaded, but they never lose their fire for making a difference. Maxim is an environmentalist who focuses on sustainable products, which makes him a billionaire. He’s the only billionaire I’ve ever written, and I had to have him sign the Giving Pledge to justify it to myself, LOL. I enjoyed playing with how these dreamers become more pragmatic over time while trying to hold onto what initially drove them. And I wanted to examine what would happen when people who are this passionate for their causes turn that passion on each other.
While creating this suspenseful series and its hard-charging, powerful heroine, where did you turn for inspiration? I definitely was inspired by Olivia Pope from “Scandal”: a strong woman of color who has conviction and works toward the greater good (even if her white hat does get a little sullied in later seasons!).
I’m not Indigenous, so I had to really interrogate if this was a story I should tell. And if I did tell it, was I prepared to meet my own standard for writing outside your lived ethnic experience? It’s a high bar. It should be a high bar. I interviewed several Indigenous women, making sure some of them were from the same tribe as my heroine. During some of those conversations, the ladies recommended books I should read, which enriched our conversations and deepened my understanding of what I was writing. There was an aspect of the story that I consulted a medicine man for, in addition to the sensitivity readers I compensated, to ensure there would be no harmful representation. We took our time to get it as right as we could. They all inspired me, educated me, guided me. I’m so incredibly grateful and proud of the story that came out of that process. And when it was all said and done, I made sure to amplify #ownvoices writers of Indigenous romance.
How have things changed since you wrote The Kingmaker? Is there any issue or situation in the novel that you might handle differently today? Throughout the story, Lennix is fighting for legislation addressing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Almost every woman I interviewed brought up this subject because it’s such a prevalent and complex problem, and at the time, there were no laws to help. Since the book was published, there has been some legislation passed. We still have a long way to go, though, to ensure Indigenous women’s safety is taken seriously.
For readers who know you mainly from Instagram and BookTok, what are the similarities between the All The King’s Men series and books like Reel and Before I Let Go? It’s all women of color, mostly Black women. They are often powerful, yet also vulnerable. I usually build the woman’s character first and then determine what kind of man she needs. I always joke that whether he’s an alpha male or has golden retriever energy, all my heroes are feminists, meaning they believe in the fundamental equality between women and men in all things. They will adore her, respect her and acknowledge her full agency.
I don’t really write escapism. It’s romance and it’s a guaranteed happily ever after, but I don’t necessarily want to provide readers passage away from the real world. I want them to think about it deeply. Feel about it deeply. Encounter characters who are navigating the same challenges as many of them. Chronic illness, social injustice, domestic abuse, family dysfunction, mental health—whatever it is, it’s an opportunity to show strength and love. It’s an opportunity to inspire hope.
You are one of only two competitive RWA RITA Award-winning Black writers, and you’ve had success in both traditional publishing and self-publishing. You could go to any imprint you wanted for this reissue (or release it on your own). What was special about Bloom? I see Bloom thinking outside the box in ways that can really work for indie authors. They have the infrastructure and resources of a traditional publisher, but they are a lot more agile and flexible than many in the industry. They aren’t afraid to try new things or to take risks.
What was appealing to me, too, especially for this story, was that they understood where it came from: a place of uncompromising honesty about colonization, about racism, about the history of this country. None of that scares me, and it doesn’t scare them either.
I hear from a lot of people that I’m not “romance” enough, that I’m too close to women’s fiction. And the WF crowd sometimes thinks my books are too spicy. In a lot of ways, my stories don’t look like anything else in the romance space. Bloom’s really embraced that. I’m really fortunate to have a lot of choice at this stage of my career, and if I choose to work with someone, it’s because I believe I have something that benefits them and they have something that benefits me. I’m excited to see how this story finds a new wave of readers and wider visibility with Bloom behind it.
Did you have a hand in the look and feel of the cover? Some, yes! It was a collaborative effort with lots of meetings and mock-ups. We wanted an aesthetic that appealed to both readers looking for romance and those looking for romance and more, which is definitely what The Kingmaker is.
What else can Kennedy Ryan fans look forward to in the coming months? A lot! The Rebel King, which is book two of the All the King’s Men series, will rerelease right after The Kingmaker. Bloom is also rereleasing Hoops, my most popular series, this October. This summer, I’ll release the next book in my Hollywood Renaissance series, Score, which is the follow-up to Reel. Different couple, same universe. And you never know what else I have up my sleeve! 🙂
We’re delighted to reveal the stunning new cover for Kennedy Ryan’s The Kingmaker, which will be rereleased by Bloom this May.
In A Tempest at Sea, a twisty and turbulent installment of Sherry Thomas’ perennially entertaining Lady Sherlock mystery series, a glamorous Christie-esque cast sails into danger on the open seas.
A Tempest at Sea is the seventh adventure of Charlotte Holmes, a brilliant detective who solves mysteries while pretending to be the assistant of her brother, Sherlock, who in Thomas’ series does not exist and is merely the front for Charlotte’s exploits. The sleuth has recently faked her death in order to hide from Moriarty, a criminal mastermind whom Charlotte has tangled with in prior books. But now British spymaster Lord Remington has offered her a chance to return to her former life with his protection if she can find a missing dossier. The documents are soon to leave the country on the RMS Provence, protected by Moriarty’s minions. Charlotte disguises herself as a wealthy dowager and boards the ship, but then things get even more complicated. Two days into the voyage, one of the most notable passengers, a volatile self-made millionaire with a shady past, is shot dead. Charlotte and her beau, Lord Ingram, must get to the bottom of what happened, in addition to finding the dossier and protecting Charlotte’s secrets.
Thomas’ confidence and ease at the helm of the series is obvious, and she’s clearly having fun playing with the tropes and stock characters of the historical mystery subgenre. A Tempest at Sea recalls treasured Agatha Christie novels like Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express, which feature a divergent group of personalities assembled for a luxury voyage that soon turns deadly. The Provence is a state-of-the-art, first-class-only steamer vessel spiriting old money and new to a host of disparate destinations, and the mystery makes the most of this setting. It’s the ultimate locked-door location—days from land, in international waters—and unlike the equally popular country house setting, there’s no escape, no reprieve and few hiding places.
There are rumblings of trouble among the passengers even before their departure, with entitled, resentful old money bumping up against the nouveau riche (both literally and figuratively). Everyone seems to harbor a secret agenda, and Thomas excels at developing these characters, especially their petty biases. Charlotte’s mother shows up and proceeds to act out against those of lesser station, and an aristocratic passenger loudly embarasses the sister of the eventual murder victim. Even in these minor skirmishes, the danger is palpable.
Though it’s not all smooth sailing—there are occasional gaps in logic, even if the charm of the characters, settings and twists outweighs them—it’s a joy to see the well-oiled Holmes team spring into action and to watch Ingram and Charlotte’s romantic relationship thrive.
It’s a joy to see Charlotte Holmes spring into action (and to watch her romantic relationship thrive) in Sherry Thomas’ A Tempest at Sea.
Abby Jimenez’s Yours Truly is a sweet, simmering and sparkling slow-burn romance that exemplifies everything readers adore about her work: It’s one part tropey rom-com, two parts drama. The angst, the laughs and the characters are perfectly balanced as two bighearted doctors rediscover joy with each other despite being rivals for the same promotion.
Dr. Briana Ortiz is an emergency room superstar at Royaume Northwestern, one of the most prestigious hospitals in Minnesota. Her personal life, though, is a disaster. Between her soon-to-be ex-husband giving in to his secret, long-standing love for their mutual friend and her younger brother’s life-threatening kidney disease, Briana is barely keeping it together.
Into this chaos enters hotshot Dr. Jacob Maddox, who threatens the one good thing Bri’s been counting on: her promotion to chief of emergency medicine. Jacob’s gruff manner during their first interactions amplifies the offense. But, like Bri, Jacob is dealing with hefty personal baggage, namely the fact that his brother is engaged to Jacob’s ex-girlfriend. With both his ex and his brother in residence at his old hospital, Jacob needed a fresh start. But being an outsider at Royaume adds pressure to his chronic social anxiety.
Jacob and Bri’s tribulations are a lot, but they’re rendered with a meticulous authenticity. (Per the author’s note, several of their issues reflect challenges Jimenez herself has faced.) Briana’s emotional abyss is heart-rending. Once the divorce is final, Bri worries that “my rage would finally burn out, and I’d be left with what was left of me.” Jacob’s strain is just as affecting. His new job means dealing with the pressure of meeting new people and Briana’s instant hostility. And at family events, his brother and his ex rely on him to pacify Jacob’s fiercely loyal family. It’s a perfect storm of triggers, and Jimenez paints a realistic portrait of someone successfully coping. Jacob juggles pressures with generosity and grace: Early on, he writes an Austen-worthy apology letter to defuse the misunderstandings between himself and Briana.
Briana emotionally supports Jacob by pretending to be his girlfriend during his whirlwind of family obligations, and their connection blooms in truly lovely ways under the veil of platonic friendship and fake dating. Perhaps Yours Truly’s one weakness is that the burn is excruciatingly slow, even as the unresolved sexual tension sizzles. Their chemistry is both sweet and hotter than a brushfire, but Briana has tremendous difficulty seeing Jacob’s feelings. While her emotional blindness is understandable, given how it springs from deep hurt, readers may yearn for Bri and Jacob to spend more time enjoying their bright and sparkling energy as a couple. Still, Jimenez has created one of the finest cinnamon roll heroes ever written in Jacob, and Briana and Jacob’s tender connection and deep bond shines at the very center of Yours Truly.
Abby Jimenez’s Yours Truly features one of the finest cinnamon roll heroes ever written.
Crook Manifesto, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead’s elegant and pulse-pounding sequel to his tour-de-force heist novel, Harlem Shuffle, may exceed the original.
After 15 years as a Harlem businessman, Ray Carney, son of a career criminal, has become a pillar of the Black community. A property owner and merchant, he’s expanded his landmark furniture store on 125th Street, and his family lives in a brownstone he bought on the famed Strivers’ Row. His illicit side hustle as a fence seems firmly in the rear view.
And yet, four years after the close of the previous novel, Ray is both prosperous and twitchy. Temptation stalks him, and when his daughter, May, begs him for sold-out Jackson 5 tickets, he jumps at the opportunity to reach out to his less savory contacts, trading favors with a dirty cop for VIP seats and the chance to be a hero to the hard to impress teenager.
Still, though Ray frames this reentry to fencing as “the things you do for your kids,” it’s obvious that part of him misses the excitement of life off the straight and narrow. “Crooked stays crooked” is a silent mantra, and Ray is constantly tempted. When the best he can claim is that “sometimes whole hours passed where he didn’t have a crooked thought,” it seems so easy to do something he’s good at—just fence some stolen goods, and everyone’s a winner, right?
Whitehead’s acerbic, stylized and rhythmic storytelling voice is stronger than ever, but it’s his precise evocation of a fraying 1970s New York City that really makes Ray’s story compelling. Crook Manifesto replicates its precursor’s episodic, three-part structure and unsurpassed blending of social history and crime fiction, starting in 1971 and continuing to 1973 and 1976. The historical touchstones are fascinating and relatively less-storied compared to the ’60s signposts of Harlem Shuffle. The year 1971 includes the New York Police Department corruption scandal starring whistleblower detective Frank Serpico (played memorably by Al Pacino in the movie Serpico), the Black Liberation Army breaking off from the Black Panthers and that historic Jackson 5 concert. In 1973, it’s Blaxploitation film and counterculture, and in 1976, the U.S. bicentennial is the political spark that may finally burn it all down.
These pieces of history are inextricable from the spectacularly evocative atmosphere. Through Ray’s eyes, we’re immersed in a city in the midst of a slow-moving crisis. Crime is surging, trash is piling up, and the wealthy are fleeing to the suburbs and skyscraper fortresses. Even the wealthy Upper East Side is looking a bit shabby. The city’s story alone would be worth the price of admission, but the characters are equally strong, especially Ray, a study in contradictions. Between the muggers and police rousting Black men on the streets in higher numbers than usual, it seems a precarious time to be getting mixed up with a crooked cop who’s gone to seed. It’s even worse to be walking around Manhattan with a hundred thousand’s worth in stolen jewels; and yet as well as Ray is doing, and as much as he has to lose, he quite convincingly can’t resist the siren call of danger.
With that knockout interplay between context and character, Crook Manifesto more than matches the finely hewn psychological tensions that haunted its (anti) hero in Harlem Shuffle. The combination makes this sequel soar.
Photo of Colson Whitehead by Chris Close.
Crook Manifesto more than matches the finely hewn psychological tensions that haunted Colson Whitehead’s main character in Harlem Shuffle. The interplay between context and character makes this sequel soar.
In 1972, digging commences on a new development in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and unearths the desiccated skeletal remains of an unidentified man. This shocking discovery kicks off National Book Award winner James McBride’s riveting sixth novel, but while the man’s identity and how he ended up dead in a farmer’s well are essential mysteries, they aren’t the heart of this gorgeous historical tale. That belongs to the lifesaving relationships between the novel’s diverse groups of people.
Following his acclaimed, blockbuster crime novel, Deacon King Kong, McBride takes a softer turn while expanding beautifully on the themes of race, religion and belonging from his groundbreaking memoir, The Color of Water. Alongside the decadeslong mystery of the man’s remains, there are all kinds of love in The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, from love for a child to the platonic love of friends, co-workers and neighbors. There’s also a beautifully rendered romantic love story between two of the leads.
In 1930s Pottstown, the multiracial and pluralistic working-class neighborhood of Chicken Hill is witness to care and cooperation as well as conflict among its disparate inhabitants, leading to both redemption and the kind of danger that leaves an anonymous corpse more than six feet under. Chicken Hill is “a tiny area of ramshackle houses and dirt roads where the town’s blacks, Jews, and immigrant whites who couldn’t afford any better lived.” Moshe Ludlow, a Jewish immigrant from Romania who “could talk the horns off the devil’s head,” manages a theater. When he meets Chona Flohr, the brilliant daughter of the local rabbi (who also owns the titular grocery store), he knows that she is the gift that will transform his life for the better.
While Moshe is struck by Chona’s beauty, it’s her fierce intelligence, fearlessness and “eyes that [shine] with gaiety and mirth” that capture his heart. Despite restrictions on women’s religious participation, Chona is a self-taught biblical scholar. Her body bears the lasting effects of polio; with one leg shorter than the other, she limps and wears a boot with a sole four inches thick. After they marry, with Chona’s help, Moshe becomes a wildly successful theater owner who defies tradition to host Jewish and Black performers together on the stage, attracting crowds from miles around: “The reform snobs from Philadelphia were there in button-down shirts, standing next to ironworkers from Pittsburgh, who crowded against socialist railroad men from Reading wearing caps bearing the Pennsylvania Railroad logo, who stood shoulder to shoulder with coal miners with darkened faces from Uniontown and Spring City.”
Chona also continues to run the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, and when so many other Jewish families are finding a way out of Chicken Hill, Chona and Moshe dig in. This inclusive, expansive and defiant love leads Moshe and Chona to embrace an orphaned Black boy, their friends’ ward, who’s targeted by a predatory local Klan leader who’s also the leading doctor in the neighborhood. These actions set off a series of unfortunate and heartbreaking events.
McBride is a lyricist and musician, and there’s a rhythmic quality to this unique novel, which began as an ode to a beloved figure in McBride’s life: Sy Friend, the director of a camp for disabled children where the author worked for four years in his youth. These origins are visible in the novel’s nuanced portrayals of disability and race, and in the heroic figure of Chona and the myriad other fantastically imperfect humans who populate the polyglot neighborhood of immigrants, Jews and Black people in this heart-rending and hopeful tale of cross-cultural solidarity, love and redemption.
James McBride is a lyricist and musician, and there's a rhythmic quality to his unique sixth novel, which began as an ode to a beloved figure in the author’s life.
The Ray Carney saga is Colson Whitehead’s first series, and just like his readers, he feels passionately about the man at its center: a respectable, upwardly mobile furniture salesman by day, and fence of stolen goods by night. “I love him too. He’s been a great source of pleasure and inspiration,” says the author. But that affection doesn’t stop Whitehead from mercilessly putting Ray through the wringer.
Picking up four years after the close of Harlem Shuffle, Crook Manifesto heightens the dangers and stakes for the prosperous Harlem merchant and former hustler, and Ray soon gets sucked back into life on the seamier side. After all, as Whitehead writes, “crooked stays crooked and bent hates straight.”
In truth, the author may love Ray now, but the character was born out of a kind of hate—the distaste Whitehead felt for a ubiquitous trope in heist movies. “The character of the fence is always a travesty,” he says. “The team does all the work, and half the crew’s dead—they’re crawling or bloody, the cops are after them. And then some random guy you haven’t even seen before in the whole movie is like ‘10 cents on the dollar.’”
Whitehead was incensed by the patterns he observed on-screen, but that ire gave way to curiosity: “I hated the fence so much that I started thinking, who is that? Who is that guy?” And from this interrogation came the driving force of the Ray Carney trilogy: “the psychology of the fence. . . . Having a front business and having your illegal stuff in the back provided the divided nature of Ray Carney.”
Although Whitehead kept his cards close to the vest, he knew almost from the start that he had a series on his hands. While the initial instinct was “to do a heist book and just have fun with that genre,” once started, the ideas kept flowing. There was just too much material, and he was having too much fun to stop at one book. “I was halfway through [Harlem Shuffle], and I was coming up with more capers that obviously would not fit,” he says.
Doing the math, he figured: six adventures, two books. But also, “if you do two, might as well do three. You know, I’m definitely a rule-of-three guy.” Still, he proceeded cautiously in terms of commitment. He didn’t want to be held to a third book, just in case he got bored—but that never happened. Now he’s deep in the writing of Ray’s third and presumably final set of adventures.
Along with the series being a trilogy, each individual book has a three-act structure. Harlem Shuffle tells of three separate misadventures for Ray at three pivotal moments during the 1960s, and this structure continues in Crook Manifesto, which evokes the ’70s down to the sight, feel and smell of a crumbling New York City. In the first book, Ray is in his 30s; second book, 40s; third book, 50s. Ray’s experiences with aging and all its attendant challenges are essential to the series, and it also means that initially, “his kids are babies; in the second book, they’re teenagers of varying degrees of annoyingness; and in the third book, they’ll be in college and out of the house.”
Three decades is, as Whitehead says, “a long stretch of time.” But in addition to the capers and misadventures that flow from the heist narrative, he found something compelling about the mystery surrounding the fence, and with great finesse he explores the dichotomy between Ray’s straight-and-narrow life and “the call of the street.” We witness Ray’s wrestling with his criminal nature—“bending toward it, embracing it, rejecting it,” Whitehead says—and by shifting our focus to this internal tug of war, we are invited to think beyond the usual markers of time and success.
In the four-year interregnum between Harlem Shuffle and Crook Manifesto, Ray has kept his nose clean, built a prosperous business and bought both a commercial building for his store and a home for his family, moving uptown to the much storied if fraying Strivers’ Row. It’s a laudable, remarkable rise for the son of a failed career criminal, and yet it’s not enough.
In 1971, the year Crook Manifesto kicks off, Ray’s sabbatical from crime ends abruptly in an almost ironic way, considering the innocence of the inciting incident in comparison to the refuse he must wade through after. Ray calls on an old contact to get tickets to a sold-out (and history-making) Jackson 5 concert for his 15-year-old daughter—although as Whitehead points out, this fatherly duty is a cover to give in to an itch that’s been nagging at him for years.
The world around Ray is also evolving. In Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead allowed the pull of crucial—though not necessarily widely remembered—events in New York City history to guide him in shaping Ray’s story. In pursuit of key moments to “exploit,” he arrived upon the anti-police Harlem riots in 1943 and 1964. Whitehead decided that Invisible Man had portrayed the former in such an iconic, indelible manner that “I’ll let Ralph [Ellison] keep the 1940s one. I haven’t read a lot of stuff about the 1960s one. So it was open territory.”
The tension between the public and the police escalates to a palpable and deadly fever pitch in Crook Manifesto. The New York Police Department wages war against Black power activists, and a police corruption scandal widens, putting cops in the hot seat. And yet, in a way that matches the dualism of the novel’s leading man, Ray’s story also shows how normal life goes on alongside such events.
In keeping with that, the movie- and music-obsessed author takes the opportunity to throw his love of pop culture history into the mix, something that gives him great pleasure. “I was very taken with that idea that I could get my pop culture fixation and bring Ray along,” he says. So in addition to the Jackson 5 concert, which provides a soundtrack and momentum for Crook Manifesto’s first movement, the second section weaves in the rise of Blaxploitation cinema. It’s a heady and riveting mashup of politics, culture, family life and crime that only a talent of Whitehead’s stature could so seamlessly blend.
Photo of Colson Whitehead by Chris Close.
As the Ray Carney series steps into the 1970s, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead continues to explore history through propulsive heist narratives that go far beyond crimes and cover-ups.
The Secret Hours is a slow burning, artfully told and explosive excavation of the messy era of post-Cold War espionage.
In the modern-day British countryside, a spry sexagenarian with combat skills goes on the run after thwarting an attempted abduction from his home in sleepy north Devon. The attack feels unreal and disorienting after years of quiet living undercover as a retired academic, a life of “long walks, cooking slow meals, losing himself in Dickens”—not taking down potential assassins.
About one day earlier in London, two MI5 civil servants are wrestling with a career-killing task: investigating whether the U.K.’s elite intelligence service has overreached and abused its authority in covert operations. But much like being exiled to Slough House, the purgatory for spies at the center of Herron’s award-winning series (and its acclaimed Apple TV+ adaptation, “Slow Horses”), to which The Secret Hours is a prequel, the so-called Monochrome inquiry is a dead end. A “screw-up start to finish is one of the kinder assessments.” Leading the halfhearted charge is Griselda Fleet, a middle-aged Black woman worn down by decades of marginalization. Her second-in-command is the frustrated, formerly high-flying Malcolm Kyle, who blames Griselda for what the commission has become.
It’s been two years of wading through pointless and irrelevant testimonies from low-level employees, and they’re nearing the end of their remit with nothing to show for it. A bombshell of a case file has mysteriously landed in their laps but, confoundingly, they’re told to shut it down. Instead, Griselda and Malcolm call the central party to testify.
That witness, code named Alison North, starts slow but then blows the doors off the sleepy inquiry, adding a crucial third track to an already complex plot. Like Dan Fesperman’s excellent Winter Work, North’s story within a story takes place in volatile, quasi-unified Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the treacherous “Spook Zoo” that is early 1990s Berlin. As the past reshapes our perspective on the present, Herron plays with narrative form. Rather than separating timelines by chapter, the conversation and comments of 21st-century inquisitors Malcolm and Griselda intermingle with and interrupt the witness’ riveting retelling. North slowly unearths the truth behind a classified op gone tragically wrong, recasting three decades of U.K. intelligence history and its present-day players in a radical new light. Equally pithy and dark, Herron is as masterful in depicting the day-to-day drudgery of the spy-versus-spy game as he is its most incendiary events, all leading up to a spectacular climax. With shifting covers and code names in play, it’s fascinating to decipher how the operatives Slough House fans already know figure into this post-Cold War spy history, and it’s delightful to watch the pieces slowly click into place.
Sly and suspenseful, The Secret Hours is both a marvelous standalone novel and a stunning companion to Herron’s Slough House series.
Sly and suspenseful, The Secret Hours is both a marvelous standalone novel and a stunning companion to Mick Herron’s Slough House series.
Mick Herron, author of the phenomenally successful Slough House espionage novels, has been hailed as the best spy novelist of his generation. His bestselling, award-winning series following MI5 agents who have fallen from grace expanded its fan base recently with “Slow Horses,” the 2022 Apple TV+ adaptation starring Academy and BAFTA award-winners Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas. Now, Herron will delight fans both old and new with his prequel to the series, The Secret Hours. Set in the post-Cold War era, Herron’s pithy and tense latest slowly reveals the cover-up of a classified op gone wrong, casting three decades of U.K. intelligence history in a radical new light.
How will the experience of reading The Secret Hours differ for new readers versus established fans of the series? It’s impossible to quantify the experience of new readers, but I hope they’ll find The Secret Hours a story that’s complete in itself, and not feel excluded from any larger framework. Regular readers will notice familiar elements, though; for example, the Regent’s Park setup, which—as in the Slough House novels—is the center of the U.K. intelligence service. And there are a few Easter eggs along the way . . .
Does The Secret Hours have its own distinctive tone? I hope so. Though set much in the same world as the Slough House novels, it features different characters and required a different narrative voice at times. It opens, for example, with a lengthy chase sequence, which is a bit more frantic than my usual openings. I wanted to drag the reader along—make them feel they’d been hijacked, almost.
What’s your typical practice in regard to research and verisimilitude for the series, and did you have to do anything different when taking on the Cold War era? I’m not a great fan of research, for the most part, and only resort to it when absolutely necessary. When writing the Slough House books, I’m usually writing about London in the present day, so I can achieve a certain amount of verisimilitude simply through observation. But part of The Secret Hours is set in post-reunification Berlin—the years immediately after the Cold War ended—and this required a little more work. I focused on finding out what the city would have looked and smelled like. Who would have been most visible on its streets. What people did for entertainment. That sort of thing.
You’ve been hailed as the John le Carré of your generation. How did you feel when you first heard that comparison, and did it affect how you wrote? Any comparison to le Carré is both hugely flattering and somewhat misapplied. Le Carré was unique—there’ll never be another. His work defined the Cold War era. My work will never match up to that. If the comparison has brought new readers to my books, it’s done me a favor, but I’ve never tried to live up to it in the sense of trying to write more like him. That would be doomed to failure.
What first piqued your interest in the world of espionage? Were you an avid spy novel fan as a young reader? I read le Carré, of course, and also Deighton, and also—in many ways, more importantly—about a million other thrillers I no longer remember, of hugely varying quality. Quantity matters more at that stage. Reading everything you can get your hands on helps you develop your own intuition about storytelling: what works, what doesn’t, what’s new, what’s been done a hundred times. The spy novel, though, wasn’t a particular interest; just one among many. I liked most stories—I was a total addict. Still am.
Unlike the high-flying protagonists of many other espionage series, the inhabitants of Slough House are all outcasts in some way. What made you want to center spooks in professional purgatory? It’s largely because I wanted to write about failure, which I find intrinsically more interesting than success. More relatable, too. Few of us know what it’s like to be a hero, or, say, freefall from a helicopter. But we’ve all had squabbles in the workplace.
Having studied English literature at Oxford, you have a deep and varied literary background. Who do you think of as important authorial influences? Do they cross genre boundaries? There are dozens, hundreds, of writers I admire, but it’s not easy to say who I’m influenced by. They’re not necessarily overlapping categories anyway: There’s no living thriller writer I admire more than Martin Cruz Smith, but I don’t try to write like him and have never noticed myself doing so. A writer’s voice generally develops piecemeal, and by the time it’s formed, there’s no telling where its origins lie.
Thinking about it, I’ve probably been consciously influenced more by poets than by thriller writers. Not so much individual writers (though a keen-eyed reader might spot borrowed images, or even whole lines, from various poets on pages I’ve written) as the control that poetry requires: the weighing of individual words, the balancing of sentences with each other. All the things that go towards making writing seem natural. Genre writing is often dismissed as sub-literary, but only by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
The Slough House series was recently translated to the screen via the spectacular “Slow Horses” TV show. What was your role in that development process and how did the team for “Slow Horses” come together? Thank you for that “spectacular”! I have a consultant’s role on the show and spend time in the writers room, taking part in the discussions around adapting the plots and storylines so that they meet the demands of the new medium. The team itself was put together by the people, now my friends, who first approached me about the show: Jamie Laurenson, Hakan Kousetta and Gail Mutrux. I’m in their debt.
Were there ground rules or nonnegotiable elements that you had in mind or stipulated in the deal for “Slow Horses”? I’m pretty sure they’re not allowed to kill or maim any of the characters without my express permission.
What are you reading now? Like many people, I did a lot of re-reading—comfort reading—during the pandemic, and for me, the habit has endured. One of my go-to writers is Robert Goddard, many of whose works I’ve re-devoured these last few years. He’s a fabulous storyteller, consistently surprising without ever resorting to cheap trickery. His latest is out soon, and I’m looking forward to it, but I’m currently re-reading Out of the Sun.
Photo of Mick Herron by Jo Howard.
In The Secret Hours, the author reveals the secret backstory of Slough House, his series following MI5 agents who have fallen from grace.
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.
Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.