Carole V. Bell

These contemporary romances are ensconced in the world of professional athletics and fitness, but emotional lifting takes greater precedence than squats.

In The Dating Playbook, the second rom-com in Farrah Rochon’s knockout Boyfriend Project series, a personal trainer with a struggling practice teams up with a high-profile former NFL player facing multiple hurdles to give him a second chance at playing pro ball.

Taylor Powell has always felt like the black sheep in her high-achieving family. While her siblings soared, school meant suffering and panic attacks for Taylor. She squeaked by in high school, but her lack of college degree has been the deciding factor in several lost professional opportunities. Now she works as a personal trainer and has a tight circle of female friends, a sisterhood of women (introduced in The Boyfriend Project) who all learned through social media that they were dating the same sad-sack, low-rent player. And yet, despite their generosity and support, their professional prowess exacerbates her feelings of failure by comparison, a situation made worse by Taylor’s undiagnosed ADHD.

Jamar Dixon, on the other hand, is used to being a star. He excelled at football and got a dream job playing professionally right out of college. But an injury in his first season cut his career short. Taylor’s relative anonymity will help Jamar keep his training a secret, away from the prying eyes of the press and the public pressure to come back better than ever. And apart from the overdue bills that this lucrative gig will help Taylor pay for, being the architect of a successful comeback for a football star could be just the career-making boost she needs. To make sure Jamar’s training remains a secret until he’s ready to return and she’s ready for the spotlight, they agree to pretend to date in order to throw everyone off the scent.

It’s a great setup and well executed, with each character scratching just the right itch for the other. They both have a lot riding on their professional partnership and ample reason to keep it under wraps. Like the best rom-com couples, Taylor and Jamar are much more than the sum of their individual parts. They’re absolutely lovely together, making Rochon’s choice to have the friend group play a lesser role in this installment a wise one. The Dating Playbook is a gentle and relatively low-angst romance that makes a great comfort read in stressful times.

The comedy is a bit broader and the chemistry is more volatile in Alexis Daria’s crazy, sexy, cool second-chance romance A Lot Like Adiós.

After a young lifetime of being badgered and bullied by his parents, Gabe Aguilar was desperate to get out of the Bronx and away from his judgmental and domineering father. In an act of defiance, unbeknownst to Michelle Amato, his best friend and next-door neighbor whom he always had a crush on, Gabe applied to UCLA, got a scholarship and left everything behind, including the friendship that sustained him for most of his life. Thirteen years later, Gabe is a physiotherapist and co-owner of a successful Los Angeles gym called Agility. Michelle and Gabe are thrown together again when Fabian, Gabe’s business partner, sees a splashy marketing campaign that Michelle designed and recruits her to work on the launch of their first East Coast branch.

Gabe and Michelle have a ton of unresolved sexual tension, and they’re both curious about and longing to see each other. The main challenge, apart from the fact that he thoroughly ghosted her in order to make a fresh start in LA and never really explained why, is that Gabe isn’t ready to deal with being back in New York. Even beyond his issues with his family, not knowing how to push back against other people’s expectations has long been a problem for him.

Michelle’s terms for accepting the job include Gabe staying with her on this trip, so they can hash out their differences. She wants closure, so she engineers a little forced proximity to force the issue. To say that the scheme works is an understatement. Gabe and Michelle share a connection that is instinctual and hot like fire—not just habanero or scotch bonnet hot, but ghost pepper hot. In the bedroom, at the zoo, in the basement gym, everywhere they go, there’s heat. Daria masterfully blends that steam with character building and emotional connection from the start. Their love scenes are nothing short of spectacular, full of communication and creativity as well as physical spark.

Daria portrays Gabe with particular sensitivity. His character is specific and concrete, his wariness, dysfunction and emotional pain palpable on the page. In an effectively cringeworthy scene, Gabe’s worst fears come true when he and his father finally come face-to-face. It’s tender but also funny in a Larry David-esque way, excruciating and human all at once. Unfortunately, the story skims over his path to healing, narrowing the steps Gabe takes to mend his psychological wounds to one significant epiphany with not much in the way of follow-up. Readers’ mileage may vary when it comes to the resolution and HEA, which lean hard on embracing the love and support of family, making it almost sound like a miracle cure. It’s a curious note in an otherwise truly irresistible arrangement.

These contemporary romances are ensconced in the world of professional athletics and fitness, but emotional lifting takes greater precedence than squats.

Thiago Alvarez lost his wife, Vera, in a tragic accident. He may also be losing his mind. In powerfully immersive first-person, stream-of-consciousness prose, Gus Moreno’s debut novel provides an inside view of a grief-stricken husband’s worst nightmare that may or may not be his own fault.

This Thing Between Us feels like a fever dream but is written like a one-sided conversation between Thiago and his late wife. Drowning in guilt and incredulity at how everything fell apart in an instant, Thiago tells Vera his troubles, recounting what’s happened since she died and reexamining the tragic events that led to her death. How did their life unravel so quickly? Was their advanced smart speaker really an instrument of torture? The device seems to have had a will of its own—or maybe it was possessed. Or maybe this is all Thiago’s fault—his family’s curse, his destiny. Maybe, he thinks, Vera’s mother was right about him all along.

A few months before Vera’s death, events began innocently enough. Thiago and Vera’s smart speaker (“Itza”) played music without their request, which could’ve been a glitch. Odd packages arrived, even though they hadn't placed any orders. They heard mysterious sounds in the walls. And then, most portentously, an alarm clock didn’t go off as it should’ve, throwing Thiago and Vera’s schedule into chaos and placing Vera in the exact wrong place at the worst possible time. Now Vera’s gone, and Thiago is lost. And that’s just the beginning.

Leave the lights on! We picked seven books for Halloween reading, rated from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.

There’s no question that this novel delivers the fright. Bodies drop. Violence springs up seemingly out of nowhere. Moreno will drop the sword on anyone or anything at any time. But the most surprising and challenging aspect of This Thing Between Us is that it’s as emotionally taxing as it is terrifying—a novel of domestic conflict and suspense as well as horror. The first-person conversational style forces the reader to adopt Thiago’s perspective, as hallucinatory as it may be, and it’s easy to feel as overwhelmed in grief and confusion as he does.

It doesn’t really matter whether or not Thiago’s horrors involve malevolent possession. What matters, he realizes, is the effect of this haunting: “The point of possession was to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. It was hard to see myself any other way.” The question that dogs Thiago (and readers) is what it will take to be rid of this deeply burrowed discontent.

There’s no question that this novel delivers the fright, but it’s also as emotionally taxing as it is terrifying.

In Jai Chakrabarti’s debut novel, A Play for the End of the World, a play by Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore is a magical and malleable symbol, used to help children accept a dark reality and as a tool for resistance.

When Holocaust survivor Jaryk Smith was a child living in a orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland, The Post Office represented the possibility of hope. In the children’s production of the play, Jaryk played Amal, a little boy with an incurable disease who’s confined indoors but makes the most of what he’s got: a window. Amal makes friends at a distance and gleans vicarious joy from watching others play.

Through the play, Jaryk and his fellow orphans experienced a kind of liberation by imagination. But while the other children’s relief was temporary, Jaryk had the life-altering fortune and burden of becoming the orphanage’s lone survivor. Unlike his fellow orphans, unlike almost everyone else he had known in his short life, Jaryk got a chance at a long life. 

A Play for the End of the World primarily focuses on what happens next, how new life takes root after extreme ruin. Chakrabarti frames recovery and renewal as a long and winding road, requiring more than a little grace and serendipity. For a long time, connections are difficult for Jaryk, relationships almost impossible. He experiences the world as though he’s wrapped in thick, protective insulation. He has big feelings but they’re subdued or self-censored. 

Then in 1972, Jaryk’s oldest friend, Misha, a man 10 years his senior who lived and worked at the orphanage when Jaryk was a child, dies unexpectedly while traveling alone in India for a production of The Post Office. Jaryk is tasked with taking Misha’s place as director, and the play provides him with another shot at redemption. “I finally have a chance to do something good,” he tells his weary girlfriend, Lucy Gardner. 

Whereas “in Warsaw, The Post Office helped to prepare the children for death,” this production has a radically different agenda. In Gopalpur in West Bengal, where the people are poor and the territory disputed, the production’s organizer, professor Rudra Bose, sees the famous play as a political tool: “It’s all about a new life. About resistance!” But while political unrest is the novel’s frequent backdrop, its most recurring theme is stubborn resilience: living fully in the face of sorrow, loving after immeasurable loss.

Chakrabarti’s novel is realistic and tentative and breathtakingly poignant, with a payoff that’s more than worth the trip if you have the heart to withstand it.

Jai Chakrabarti’s debut novel is breathtakingly poignant, with a payoff that’s more than worth the trip if you have the heart to withstand it.

In a society obsessed with genetic perfection, any difference is a cause for concern. In the midst of a gorgeous love story about childhood friends reunited, Nalini Singh’s Last Guard beautifully depicts both the perils of that obsession and its alternative: a world in which difference can be strength.

Canto Mercant and Payal Rao were born into two of the wealthiest and most influential Psy families, but with privilege came a dangerous fixation. To their families, any variation is weakness, and no weakness is tolerated. When a child shows signs of being atypical in any way, they’re shuttled out of public view. Canto has limited use of his legs, and Payal has been traumatized by her brother’s physical abuse; her ensuing rage results in her being labeled mentally and emotionally unstable. Canto and Payal are both shipped off to an out-of-the-way boarding school. As “7J” and “3K” respectively, they’re subjected to terrible abuse and their lives are assumed to be unworthy of preservation.

Amid this nightmare, the two brilliant and beautiful children form a friendship, creating an unbreakable bond through small acts of kindness. In a glorious moment of defiance, Payal saves Canto from a teacher who was on the verge of killing him. The teacher dies in the melee, families are contacted, and the children removed. But Canto and Payal never forget one another. Canto’s father subscribed to toxic, eugenicist ideas of perfection, but his mother’s family, who takes him in after he leaves school, holds no such beliefs. Nurtured by the tightknit Mercants, Canto gains fierce love, protection and the best medical care. He even gains another family after he’s embraced by his cousin Silver’s Changeling mate, an alpha bear shifter named Valentin, and his rambunctious clan. But he never stops searching for 3K.

Payal returns to her father, who considers her defective and only values her as a better alternative to his violent and psychopathic son. She endures by leaving all emotion behind, rising to the position of CEO in the family business. Outwardly cold, contained and inscrutable, she’s painfully isolated and constantly fighting to stay in control. When she’s diagnosed with life-threatening brain tumors, necessary medication is meted out in small increments to keep her in line and under her father’s thumb.

The eventual reunion of these two souls would be more than enough to sustain any novel. But Singh also seamlessly intertwines wonderfully precise discussions of disability into Canto and Payal’s evolution from childhood friend to adult lovers. Ableism is not just challenged; it’s trounced as Canto and Payal talk candidly about the tools and adaptations they use to survive and thrive. Last Guard also goes deep on efforts to save the crumbling PsyNet, the psychic network in which Canto and Payal play an essential role, so while strongly recommended for its life-affirming love story, Last Guard is best enjoyed if readers are already fully immersed in Singh's Psy-Changeling lore. For readers with a firm grounding in the previous books, however, slipping back into the Psy-Changeling world in Last Guard will feel like coming home.

For readers with a firm grounding in the previous books, slipping back into the Psy-Changeling world in Last Guard will feel like coming home.

Explosive, long-buried family secrets lie at the heart of Malla Nunn’s vivid and arresting Sugar Town Queens, but so do friendship, hope and the promise of love.

Aptly named for the Zulu word for power, Amandla Harden is a bright and empathetic biracial girl who lives with her unstable white mother, Annalisa, in a tidy one-room shack on the outskirts of Durban, South Africa. Their daily life is a balancing act. Amandla manages their household and the vicissitudes of her mother’s fractured mind while also having typical teenage experiences. She worries about how to make their food money last but also thinks about university and wonders if a cute boy will ever look at her the way she can't help but look at him. It’s a precarious existence, but she’s mostly made it work.

Then around her 15th birthday, Amandla finds a mysterious note and a large wad of cash among her mother’s belongings and decides to investigate what Annalisa has been hiding for so long. The quest turns both of their lives upside down as Amandla opens herself up to new friends and turns to neighbors for support.

As Amandla explores her mother’s connections to an entirely different world from the one Amandla has grown up in, Nunn takes readers into intimate spaces within vastly different sectors of a very stratified and segregated society. Along the way, the novel effectively explores the contradictory racial dynamics of contemporary, post-apartheid South Africa.

Nunn paints an especially grounded and nuanced portrait of life in the townships. Danger lurks around the corner in this ramshackle, hardscrabble place, but the crowded lanes are also full of complicated people who care about and take care of each other. Annalisa and Amandla’s home comes alive on the page—the good, the bad, the ugly and the merely human.

Nunn’s evocative storytelling will make you ache for Amandla. She is a complex creation whose circumstances are sensational but whose journey is relatable. Nunn surrounds Amandla with a diverse cast of characters who are similarly interesting and strongly developed. The novel’s hard truths about race and class are more than balanced by the love of all types that Amandla experiences. These supportive relationships are the most rewarding part of Sugar Town Queens, the glue that holds it all together.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Malla Nunn reveals the personal memories she drew on to create Sugar Town Queens.

Explosive, long-buried family secrets lie at the heart of Malla Nunn’s vivid and arresting Sugar Town Queens, but so do friendship, hope and the promise of love.

Malla Nunn is the author of four highly praised crime novels for adults, as well as the young adult novel When the Ground Is Hard, which won the 2020 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. Her new YA novel, Sugar Town Queens, tells the story of a biracial teen girl named Amandla who lives with her unstable white mother, Annalisa, in the impoverished neighborhood of Sugar Town on the outskirts of Durban, South Africa. Amandla discovers a secret that Annalisa has long hidden from her, and the revelation upends both of their lives. 

You were born in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and have lived in the U.S. and Australia, but South Africa takes precedence in your fiction. What is it about South Africa that commands your imagination?
I ask myself that question all the time! My childhood was embedded in the smell, dirt and heat of rural Eswatini, and those memories have a powerful hold on me. My attachment to southern Africa is confounding. Being there ties me in knots. I swing between anger, anxiety and a hopeless, blinding love for the place. Call it “unfinished business” or “unrealized trauma,” but southern Africa owns a piece of my heart that no other place can lay claim to.

When the Ground Is Hard by Malla Nunn book coverYou wrote your first mystery series for the adult market, but your two most recent books are for young adults. What drew you to writing for teens?
Crime writers spend a lot of time delving into the dark side of human emotions. I love that so many YA stories cover hard topics and still work their way to hope. There’s also a special magic in firsts. First love. First “best friend forever.” First time realizing that your parents are flawed. First broken heart. The path to the future is still being built, and that gives teenagers a special power. Crafting a story with struggle and hope at its heart is deeply satisfying.

I love that teenagers are on the cusp of making discoveries about life and love and what the future might hold. Amandla is on the bridge from girlhood to adulthood, and that’s what makes her life and her experiences in the township so special. She’s old enough to be aware of the dangers of Sugar Town but young enough to dream of a better life.

Dark and long-buried family secrets are at the heart of Sugar Town Queens, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about a girl going through typical teen experiences. What inspired the novel, and what made you want to tell it through the eyes of a teen girl?
The inspiration for Sugar Town Queens comes from real-life moments when I’ve wondered what my life might have looked like had my parents stayed in southern Africa instead of migrating to Australia. In that “what-if” dream space, my visions of poverty and helplessness are tempered by memories of growing up in a close-knit community with countless aunties and friends.

Setting is incredibly important in this novel, and you do a beautiful job of making Annalisa and Amandla’s home come alive on the page. How did you accomplish this?
Years ago, I sent my father a link to a photo essay of “poor whites” living in a township and basically said, “Why should I feel sorry for people who were given every advantage by the government and did nothing with it?” My father’s answer, “I’m sad for everyone who has to live such a hard life,” cooled my anger. Life in the townships is hard. For everyone. When it came time to write Sugar Town Queens, the township location was there waiting for me, but it was tempered by my father’s humanity. 

What is unique about South Africa is that the young are living in the shadow of a dream that felt so close to being realized after Mandela’s release.

Evoking Amandla and Annalisa’s home came easily, and I wasn’t surprised to find (through my father and older sister) that the first house we lived in as a family was a one-room shack with dirt floors and no running water. Call it root memory. I knew every detail of Amandla’s home even though I was too young to recall sleeping on the floor with my siblings.  

The racial dynamics of contemporary, post-apartheid South Africa play a prominent role in the story, as the novel takes us into intimate spaces within vastly different segments of a stratified and still somewhat segregated society. How much of what we see on the page comes from research and how much from your own personal experience?
Pretty much everything that made it into the pages of Sugar Town Queens has a personal component. The location, Sugar Town, is partly based on a “government area” that my mixed-race cousins were forced to move to after their homes inside Durban city were reclassified as “whites only.” On my rare visits back to southern Africa, I have moved (in the space of a few hours) from a rarified beach suburb with ocean views to a one-room tin shack in the country. The gap between rich and poor is shocking. 

Amandla’s journey takes her from the bottom rung of society, where a majority of Black South Africans still live, to the very top of the economic system, where white South Africans still dominate. I have seen and lived this disparity in real life and real time, so no research was needed.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Sugar Town Queens.

Throughout the book, I got the sense that the late South African president and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela had left an indelible feeling of idealism among South Africans—a multiracial, egalitarian national dream that had not yet been reached but was still held sacred. Do you think the idealism of Amandla and her friends is unique to young South Africans, or is it more universal?
The idealism of Amandla and her friends is deeply rooted in South African soil, but it’s also universal. Social inequality and poverty are part of Amandla’s life, but millions of girls around the world share the same struggles. In a strange way, the more location-specific the struggle, the more universal it becomes.

What is unique about South Africa is that the young are living in the shadow of a dream that felt so close to being realized after Mandela’s release. They were promised freedom and opportunity and watched those promises disappear before their eyes. The disappointment and anger is fresh. Reality has fallen short of Mandela’s promises, and a hunger for justice and change has ignited a fire in a new generation of South Africans.

Connection is such an important part of Amandla's culture, yet she and her mother are living very disconnected, isolated lives at the start of the novel. Could you talk about the concept of Ubuntu, how it informs the book and what that means to Amandla?
Ubuntu is the concept that “a person is a person through other people.” We are all connected together, and this sense of togetherness is necessary for us to live a full and meaningful life. Both Amandla and her white mother are so focused on getting out of Sugar Town that they miss the opportunity to connect with others. When Amandla is forced to ask her neighbor for help, she finds kindness and connection. One brief visit opens Amandla’s world up to other people and other ways of doing things. She begins to live more fully inside Sugar Town, and when danger comes to her door it is Ubuntu, not isolation, that saves her.

Malla Nunn discusses her new YA novel, Sugar Town Queens, which tells the story of a biracial teen girl named Amandla who lives with her unstable white mother, Annalisa, in the impoverished neighborhood of Sugar Town on the outskirts of Durban, South Africa.

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