Carole V. Bell

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.

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.

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.

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.

Monica Ali’s fifth novel, Love Marriage, is a riveting portrait of a seemingly perfect engagement’s unraveling.

Yasmin Ghorami is a 26-year-old doctor following in her ambitious immigrant father’s footsteps. She’s newly engaged to Joe Sangster, a fellow doctor who’s the son of an infamously outspoken feminist with chronic boundary issues. As Yasmin anxiously anticipates the first meeting between their families, she frets that her mother’s clothes aren’t right for dinner with the sophisticated Sangsters, and that her brother, Arif—surly, unemployed and living at home a couple years past graduation—is a loose cannon.

There are many differences in race, class, religion and culture to navigate between the middle-class, Indian-born Muslim (though not necessarily practicing) Ghoramis and the white, upper-middle-class Sangsters, and Ali delineates those distinctions with nuance and specificity. But to its credit, Love Marriage isn’t really about the obvious challenges of Yasmin’s and Joe’s worlds clashing; rather, even though all looks good on the surface, the engagement (and the changes it will inevitably bring) reveals deep cracks in both family units.

On some level, Yasmin understands these divisions, but at the same time, she harbors significant misapprehensions. She’s naive when it comes to understanding the British upper-middle class, and she’s soon disabused of the notion that the Sangsters will be less interfering than her Indian family. When it comes to her son, Harriet Sangster has no boundaries, and it’s ironic that one of the Yasmin’s pressure points is uber-feminist Harriet’s insistence on a big wedding. Rather than feeling put off by the idea of including Muslim traditions, Harriet is eager to flex her liberal credentials by pushing them on a reluctant Yasmin.

Soon all the key players are questioning their paths. Joe’s past struggles with sex and impulse control resurface, and his journey and his relationship with his therapist are particularly well rendered. Unsure about her chosen profession and partner, Yasmin, who has always been cautious and well-behaved, experiments with rebellion. Arif clashes with his disapproving father. And Yasmin’s parents’ “love marriage” is tested when her often-overlooked and normally rock-solid mother, Anisah, moves out of the family home.

The novel’s structure makes the most of these reckonings. Though Yasmin is the novel’s anchor, the multiple points of view allow a panoramic view of the unfolding events. Ali includes perhaps a few too many perspectives; some, like Harriet’s, only anchor one or two short chapters. But overall, Ali’s character treatments are multifaceted, humane and fluid in this multicultural family drama in which, like a multi-car pileup, individuals careen into and away from one another.

Monica Ali’s Love Marriage is a multicultural family drama as a multi-car pileup, as individuals careen into and away from one another.

Think of the traditional, often toxically masculine, romance hero. Now think about his polar opposite. Gentle rather than domineering, warm rather than arrogant male characters have grown increasingly popular in the genre. While cinnamon roll-sweet guys aren’t everyone’s drug of choice in Romancelandia, sometimes unconditional love and support is exactly what the doctor ordered. 

Part of Your World

In a few short years, Abby Jimenez has become one of romance's most acclaimed and popular authors. Her fairy tale-esque, opposites-attract fourth novel, Part of Your World, will only elevate her standing. 

Alexis Montgomery is a 38-year-old emergency room doctor who comes from a long line of Midwestern medical royalty. When her car lands in a ditch at dusk in the middle of nowhere, a tattooed, hunky mystery man in a pickup truck comes to her aid. Daniel Grant rescues her and then drives away, thinking he’ll never see her again. But thanks to the extremely limited dining options of Wakan, Minnesota, Alexis and Daniel reunite and decide to give in to their attraction and spend the night together. 

Alexis soon finds that there’s more to her hot rescuer than his looks. Gentle and kind, Daniel is something of a small-town renaissance man: He’s the mayor of Wakan, an artist and a bed-and-breakfast proprietor who caters patiently to his rescue dog and nurses his friend’s baby goat in his spare time. There’s also more to Alexis than meets the eye, but since Wakan is a two-hour drive from her work and home in Minneapolis, it’s easy to keep her weekend escapes and real life separate. The adorable town of Wakan and Daniel’s warm, accepting company provide a respite from Alexis’ struggles with a condescending ex-boyfriend who won’t accept that their relationship is over and a father who thinks she’s a slacker for not living up to the family name. 

Jimenez is an excellent storyteller, and her special blend of humor and angst is polished to perfection in Part of Your World. Despite Alexis’ accomplishments, it’s not easy for her to push back on all the expectations placed upon her, especially since her elite family, ex-boyfriend and friends wield them like a cudgel. Those tensions and their age gap of 10 years provide plenty for Daniel and Alexis to overcome. But those stark differences also lend an almost Cinderella-like feel to Part of Your World. The hospital where Alexis works is called Royaume, and she even loses a fancy slipper (high heel) on their first night together. Daniel makes a worthy modern prince in this love story, which will enchant romance veterans and newbies alike.

A Brush With Love

In Mazey Eddings’ debut, A Brush With Love, Dan Craige and Harper Horowitz have the kind of natural spark Harper’s only heard of in the movies, even though their first meeting is an absolute disaster: Harper crashes into Dan at the dental school they both attend and smashes his class project. She offers to help him remake it, and their immediate connection only gets stronger from there. 

But their romance is complicated by two distinct issues: Harper’s chronic anxiety and Dan’s ambivalence about graduate school. Full of passion and aptitude, Harper is at the top of her class and on the cusp of securing a challenging oral surgery residency. But Dan is struggling to get through his first year of dentistry school and is only attending out of familial obligation. 

As their friendship and attraction grows, so does Harper’s anxiety. Maintaining laserlike focus on school is one of Harper’s primary coping mechanisms, along with strict adherence to habits and rituals. Eddings effectively communicates that for Harper, rules are a “life preserver in the choppy storm of anxiety.” A romantic relationship would undermine many of her adaptations and strategies, but holding the line against her attraction to Dan becomes increasingly difficult. For someone so in need of control, love is both exciting and dangerous, and the result is a spiral of anxious thoughts. 

Despite the serious nature of Harper’s situation, Eddings’ characters and their relationship feel well balanced at virtually every stage. Both leads are lovably flawed; both have vulnerabilities and strengths. Anxiety doesn’t negate Harper’s talents or her competence either. When they’re working together early on in the novel, Dan is the one who’s adorably tongue-tied in Harper’s presence. It’s clear that he gets and respects Harper for who she is, even as he realizes the challenge that her anxiety presents, and their sweet connection is bolstered by meaningful conversations. 

Harper’s mental health difficulties escalate to a more harrowing point than many may expect in the context of a romantic comedy. But even though what’s on the page feels heavier than what the illustrated cover indicates, Dan and Harper’s romance is well worth the journey.

In two contemporary romances, sweet and sensitive heroes help heal ailing hearts.

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