“Battle Royal” by Lucy Parker and “If The Shoe Fits” by Julie Murphy

Battle Royal by Lucy ParkerA book trade industry newsletter recently linked to a report on “billionaire romance”—80 pages analyzing the popularity of books in which an ordinary person falls in love with someone who is mega-rich (Fifty Shades of Grey being perhaps the best-known example). I have yet to read any billionaire romances, but I feel like I do read enough current fiction to qualify as something of a trend-spotter. Recently, I reviewed Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall, which featured a couple falling in love as they competed together on a show not unlike “The Great British Bake-Off.” And here we have a second novel set in the world of televised baking competitions. Forget about billionaires—I want to read about people baking fancy cakes.

Lucy Parker’s Battle Royal is not quite as “Bake-Off”-focused as Hall’s book. Sylvia Fairchild is a former contestant on “Operation Cake” who gained infamy when her unicorn cake, which was to feature a treasure chest bursting open, wound up malfunctioning, resulting in judge Dominic De Vere’s forehead being hit with a flying hoof. That mechanical mishap was enough to send Sylvia home, but she’s since become a successful professional baker, opening a London shop called Sugar Fair… right across the street from De Vere’s patisserie. Sylvia’s all about glitter and sparkles, while Dominic’s cakes are elegant and refined.

Four years after her ignominious exit from “Operation Cake,” she is brought back on the show to serve as a judge. As if that didn’t create enough tension with Dominic, the two of them wind up competing off-camera to receive the coveted commission to bake the cake for an upcoming royal wedding.

Naturally, Sylvia eventually winds up melting Dominic’s icy exterior. But there are still complications aplenty, involving their respective bakeries, their employees, the royals, and much more. The cover illustration may make Battle Royal appear to be a rainbow-sprinkle-covered rom-com, but both Sylvia and Dominic have a lot of trauma in their respective pasts. Even the fictional royal couple is dealing with some very heavy issues. Additionally, they have a rather nutty list of demands about what they want in a wedding cake, leading to far too much time being spent on Sylvia and Dominic trying to decipher a mystery flavor, figuring out how to pay homage to the princess’ relationship with her beloved late uncle in pastry form, etc.

So ultimately, I preferred Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake to Battle Royal. But if any other authors are planning to tackle the world of competitive baking, I’ll be eager to read the results.

If The Shoe FitsLast summer, I reviewed a novel called One To Watch which was set in the world of a “The Bachelorette”-type dating show; a plus-sized fashion influencer was persuaded to go on the fictional “Main Squeeze,” hoping it would help her career. Now comes Julie Murphy’s If The Shoe Fits, which is set in the world of a “The Bachelor”-type dating show; a plus-sized fashion designer is persuaded to go on the fictional “Before Midnight,” hoping it will help her career.

The main reason I was interested in reading If The Shoe Fits is because it is the first in a new series of novels called “Meant To Be,” which are “intended to feature updated and contemporary takes on classic Disney princesses, and also the first Disney intellectual property to be developed as an adult publishing project.” Shoe is, obviously, based on “Cinderella”; next year, they will be releasing Jasmine Guillory’s take on “Beauty and the Beast.”

After getting her degree from the Parsons School of Design in New York, our heroine (inevitably named Cindy) decides to spend the summer with her stepmom’s family in L.A. in order to help take care of her young triplet half-siblings. Cindy’s mom died when she was seven, and her father was killed in an accident a few years later; I assumed that stepmom Erica and her two glamorous older daughters would treat Cindy horribly, but refreshingly, Murphy avoids this Disney trope and makes them supportive and kind. Erica is a successful producer of reality TV shows, including “Before Midnight,” which just happens to be in need of a couple of extra contestants for its upcoming season.

Cindy figures the national TV exposure could kickstart her career ambitions, so despite some misgivings about being the first plus-size contestant on the show, she volunteers to join the other women who will be competing for the “suitor.” It turns out the “suitor” is Henry, who just happens to be the cute guy Cindy met and flirted with on the plane trip from New York to L.A.

Cindy and Erica decide to keep their stepchild/stepparent relationship a secret, but I don’t buy for a second that it wouldn’t have been uncovered by a Reality Steve-type blogger five seconds after the show’s debut. Also, unlike “The Bachelor/ette,” which finish filming several weeks before hitting the airwaves to allow the producers to shape storylines, episodes of “Before Midnight” are being broadcast on TV while it’s still being shot. This is obviously so we can learn that Cindy is turning into a fan favorite, but it feels unrealistic that Cindy and Henry would be able to escape the TV cameras and run around New York together without being swarmed by dozens of DeuxMoi tipsters.

As was the case with Battle Royal, the earlier book was also the better book; If The Shoe Fits is not nearly as complex, rich and enjoyable as One To Watch.

“Dream Girl” by Laura Lippman

Dream GirlLaura Lippman has a soft spot for bad girls. She even titled her book of autobiographical essays My Life as a Villainess. So what happens when she switches her gaze from complicated women to focus on a man who is, well, kind of a garden-variety jerk?

Gerry Andersen is a best-selling novelist who seems to have more in common with the literary Jonathans than mystery and suspense writers like Lippman and her peers. Best known for his breakthrough novel, Dream Girl, Gerry is the kind of guy who is concerned with what the first line of his obituary in the New York Times will say.

A Baltimore native, Gerry moves from New York back to Charm City in order to tend to his mother, who is suffering from dementia. However, she dies shortly after he closes on a new luxury condo in the former working-class/industrial neighborhood of Locust Point. When Gerry injures his leg in a freak accident (he trips over his rowing machine), he winds up confined to a hospital bed inside his fancy new apartment, tended to by his assistant Victoria and night nurse Aileen.

While he’s laid up, Gerry starts receiving mysterious phone calls from someone who claims she is Aubrey, the female protagonist of Dream Girl. But Aubrey wasn’t based on a real person. Gerry isn’t sure if the calls are even real, or hallucinations brought on by the pain meds he’s taking. He runs through the list of possible suspects: his three ex-wives, his latest girlfriend, various old flames… there are a lot of women in Gerry’s past, and we encounter them through flashbacks. I sometimes had trouble keeping track of them (wait, was Gretchen ex-wife number two or three?) but maybe that’s the point—for Gerry, all of those women were a fringe benefit that came with being a Great Man of Literature.

“It was true, when Dream Girl was published, there had been a lot of praise lavished on Gerry for his depiction of Aubrey, for giving a voice and an inner life to what the novel’s main character, Daniel, saw merely as an object of his desire. Daniel’s inability to see Audrey as a person was the tragedy of the novel.” Is that inability to fully see Gretchen, and Sara, and Margot, and all the others, Gerry’s tragedy as well? In this sly, ingeniously-plotted book, perhaps one of those complicated women will get the last word after all.

“Ice and Stone” by Marcia Muller

Ice and StoneIt’s been three years since Marcia Muller’s last Sharon McCone novel, The Breakers, which was a strong return to form after a couple of so-so outings. Because of the long gap, I had assumed that Muller, who turns 77 in a couple of weeks, had retired. But you can’t keep a good sleuth down—McCone is back for her 35th adventure, Ice and Stone.

This case sees McCone leaving her San Francisco home for the far northern reaches of California: the fictional Meruk County, which borders Oregon. McCone flies up in her Cessna to investigate the murders of two Native women, crimes which local law enforcement seem to have no interest in investigating. She decides to go undercover as a journalist, hoping that people will be more likely to speak to her if they think she’s writing a travel piece for the Chronicle.

At first, everyone in the small town of Aspendale seems hostile or skittish, and I thought perhaps Muller was borrowing a trope beloved by her husband, mystery writer Bill Pronzini: a private eye goes to a small town to investigate a crime, only to find that all of the locals are unanimous in their loathing of “outsiders.” But McCone, unlike Pronzini’s Nameless Detective, has never been a lone wolf, so she is able to make some friends and allies to help her out. Eventually, her cover is blown, and she soon finds that there are people who are willing to go to great lengths to stop her investigation.

Ice and Stone isn’t as good as The Breakers, but it’s a decent late-period McCone novel. She does wind up making a brief trip back to San Francisco to deal with a matter at the office, but most of the time, she’s working solo in a rural environment that couldn’t be more different than her urban home turf.

At one point, McCone is walking through the snowy landscape, mulling her future. “If I retired, gave up control of the agency, what would I do? Take up a craft… read the complete works of Shakespeare?… No, I thought, I wasn’t going to retire, or even step back. The city—the state, even—was my territory and my home. So was the agency, and so was my work. I was there to stay.” It’s a bold statement that seems to indicate Muller isn’t planning to part company with her beloved sleuth anytime soon.

“One Last Stop” by Casey McQuiston and “Unthinkable” by Brad Parks

One Last StopLike recent bestsellers The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue and The Midnight Library, Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop is fiction with a dose of fantasy. After all, anything can happen in the pages of a book; a young woman could even be trapped aboard the Q train for decades, forced to inhabit the New York City subway, her own personal rolling limbo.

Jane’s timeless punk-rock style (leather jacket and torn jeans) has enabled her to fit in since she first became a prisoner of the MTA back in the late 1970s. One morning, she meets August, freshly transplanted to Brooklyn; a coffee mishap left August splattered with brown liquid, so Jane offers her a red scarf to cover up the stain. The two strike up a friendship, and August gradually realizes that every time she steps aboard the Q, Jane is there.

August was raised by a single mother who has spent her life obsessively trying to solve the mystery of her older brother’s disappearance. As a result, August is a very adept researcher, and she puts all of her skills to use in order to solve the mystery of Jane. The woman herself isn’t too helpful at first; she doesn’t remember anything about her life before the Q train. But August gradually helps bring Jane’s memories to the surface. Before long, August realizes that she’s fallen in love, but how can you have a relationship with a person who seems doomed to ride the rails forever? When a sign goes up informing passengers that the Q will be shut down for several weeks, the quest becomes even more urgent.

Giving August a past as a true-crime buff and amateur sleuth is a delightful touch, and it’s not hard for the reader to grow invested in whether or not she’ll be able to figure out how Jane got stuck on the subway, and if she’ll ever find a way to leave. McQuiston has obviously tried to anticipate certain questions (no, she doesn’t have to go to the bathroom, but she does eat and drink), but it’s probably best not to think too hard about the logistics of Jane’s plight.

However, the book is a good 75-100 pages longer than it needed to be (the copy I read was 422 pages long), and at times, I felt my attention drift. August is only 23, and the novel has something of a YA coming-of-age vibe; I suspect a lot of younger readers will appreciate One Last Stop more than I did.

UnthinkableThe next book I picked up was Brad Parks’ new thriller Unthinkable. I wasn’t expecting it to continue the fantasy streak, but it definitely has some paranormal elements. The book’s hero is Nate Lovejoy, a stay-at-home dad married to lawyer Jenny (they both started out at the same firm, but after she made partner, he stepped away to raise their two toddlers).

One day, when his kids are off with their grandparents, Nate is kidnapped and spirited away to a mansion (there’s a real Rembrandt on the wall of the room where he’s being kept). He is given a gun and told that he needs to use it to kill his wife.

Nate’s captors are led by an elderly man named Vanslow DeGange, who has a special gift: he can see the future. Anyone who watched the sitcom “The Good Place” is familiar with the trolley problem; would you kill one person in order to save the lives of several others? “Mr. DeGange is sometimes able to foresee when eliminating one person in the present can avert a much larger catastrophe in the future, thus saving many lives,” explains one of Nate’s kidnappers. And now, DeGange sees that a pro bono legal case Jenny is working on could inadvertently cause an environmental catastrophe that would bring about the deaths of a billion people—unless she is stopped. And Nate must be the one to do it.

At first, Nate is convinced that DeGange is a fiction and the true source of the threat is the utility company Jenny is going up against in her pro bono case. No one can actually predict the future with 100% accuracy, right?

Unthinkable moves at a lightning-fast pace—once I got wrapped up in this story, it became impossible to put the book down. There are some amazing twists, not to mention perhaps the most exciting car chase I’ve ever encountered in a novel. Unthinkable is an unstoppable thriller.

“Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir

Project Hail MaryWhen I read Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, I remember thinking, “This book will make a great movie.” Weir wasn’t exactly a brilliant wordsmith, but it was fun seeing how astronaut Mark Watney managed to survive on Mars. And it was adapted into an excellent film, starring Matt Damon as Watney.

The movie rights to Project Hail Mary have also been sold—Ryan Gosling is set to star—but in this case, I must admit that I have no idea how they’re going to film it. It’s very difficult to discuss this book without getting into light spoiler territory; all I knew when I picked it up was that it was about an astronaut on an interstellar mission who wakes up on a spaceship and finds that his fellow crew members are dead. There are plenty of flashbacks, but I assumed that the bulk of the book would consist of Ryland Grace trying to figure things out on his own, just like Watney.

That is not the case, however! At first, Grace doesn’t remember anything, which seems a little farfetched (wouldn’t a carefully-planned mission include a checklist or two?), but gradually, his memories start to return. Our sun is threatened by a star-eating microbe which will lead to an ice age and the extinction of all life on Earth. Grace and his two compatriots were headed to a star system which has not been affected by the microbe in a last-ditch effort to see if they can figure out why. Because of the distance involved, it is by necessity a suicide mission, with the relevant info being sent back to Earth by means of four mini-spaceships.

Grace soon realizes that he is not alone, that there is in fact another spaceship near his which also contains a sole survivor. This is Rocky, as Grace dubs him (since his real name is a series of musical tones), a spider-like, five-armed, eyeless alien who also happens to be a kickass engineer. Most of the book is devoted to their relationship, and how they team up to save their respective worlds.

It sounds kind of ridiculous, but Rocky and Ryland’s friendship—and it is a genuine friendship—is actually quite moving. I have no idea how Rocky will translate to the screen, but he works very well on the page.

There’s a lot of science, math and physics in Project Hail Mary, but Weir gives his narrator a breezy, sarcastic voice which makes it go down a little easier. The book also has an absolutely perfect ending. Weir famously works very hard to get the science right in his novels, but what makes Project Hail Mary succeed is that he also knows how to connect with a reader’s heart.

“Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake” by Alexis Hall

Rosaline Palmer Takes the CakeI am a “Great British Baking Show” superfan. In fact, when I finished watching the original series, my husband managed to find other countries’ versions of the program, so now I’ve seen the best home bakers compete in New Zealand, Australia and Canada as well. (Some people trawl the dark corners of the web looking to score drugs or porn; for me, it’s all about bootleg “Bake-Off.”)

So when I heard there was a romance set in the “Bake-Off” world, you’d better believe I was interested. Alexis Hall’s fictional competition is titled “Bake Expectations,” and single mom Rosaline Palmer is competing for the £10,000 prize. (Here I must interject that any true fan knows that the BBC forbids cash prizes, but I’ll accept that Hall wanted to raise the stakes.) The first fellow contestant she meets is Alain, a hot landscape architect from the Cotswolds. He seems interested in her, but Rosaline feels intimidated, and winds up inventing a fictional backstory for herself (she tells him she’s a medical student who spent several years working on irrigation projects in Malawi).

Once she finally comes clean, it becomes apparent that Alain, like Rosaline’s parents, feel that she should be doing something more prestigious than working a retail job (her parents, both doctors, are slightly mortified that their daughter will be appearing on reality TV). As the Brits would say, Alain is a bit of a wanker. Luckily, there’s another hot single on the show: humble electrician Harry, a big man who keeps wowing the judges with his beautiful bakes.

The romance component of this book is maybe 20%, with 20% devoted to baking and the rest of the plot devoted to Rosaline’s personal growth journey, as she learns to accept herself and realizes that she has to make her own choices and not obsess over living up to anyone else’s expectations. (That ratio definitely worked for me, but after writing the first draft of this review, I read some of the feedback on Goodreads, and several readers complained that it was closer to women’s fiction than the romance they were expecting based on Hall’s previous books.) And I admired the way Hall managed to perfectly capture the punny, alliterative way the host—Grace Forsythe, a cross between “Bake-Off”’s Sue Perkins and Sandi Toksvig—sets up the challenges:

“Welcome back, my little Chelsea buns. I’m afraid this is the one you’ve been dreading because it’s the week you’ll be battling with bloomers, fighting with focaccia, wrestling with rolls, and if you’re very lucky, larking about with a loaf or two. That’s right, it’s bread week.”

There are so many fun Easter eggs for fans of the series, from the female judge who loves boozy bakes to the obscure technical challenges (St. Clements pie!). If Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake were a bake, it would definitely not have a soggy bottom; it would be a marvelous madeleine or a perfect patisserie. Readers who know their Battenbergs from their baked Alaskas will find much to love in this witty and heartfelt novel.

“The Wife Upstairs” by Rachel Hawkins

The Wife UpstairsFor over a year, my library offered curbside pick-up only. I could browse the website catalog and place requests online, but the shelves were off-limits. Now that it’s open again (masks required!), I’m free to indulge in scanning the stacks for titles or covers which catch my eye. When I spotted The Wife Upstairs, I knew I had to take it home with me. It’s a Jane Eyre-inspired psychological thriller—how could I refuse?

Happily, the novel did not disappoint; I raced through it, finishing it in just a couple days. This is my kind of thriller: fun and suspenseful, but not overly scary, bloody or creepy.

Jane is a former foster child who fled Arizona, where Something Bad happened (we don’t find out exactly what until about 2/3 of the way through the book), and wound up in Birmingham, AL, where she works as a dog walker. She lives in a dingy apartment on the wrong side of the tracks, but every day, she heads to posh Thornfield Estates to exercise her clients’ pampered pooches.

One day, she meets Eddie Rochester, a handsome widower who lives in the grandest home of all. His wife Bea, owner of a Draper James-type lifestyle brand, and her best friend Blanche died several months back in a boating accident; however, Bea’s body was never recovered. Eddie is so taken with Jane that he actually acquires a dog just so he can hire her to walk it. Jane, who is incredibly resourceful and canny after her years in the foster care system, sets her sights on Eddie, and gradually insinuates herself into his life—and into the lives of the neighborhood’s wealthy wives. She just knows that her life would be perfect if she were to become the next Mrs. Rochester! Of course, she doesn’t know about the secret panic room, its entrance carefully hidden, and who is being kept there…

Jane is a bit of an antihero (there’s that incident in her past, and she can’t help herself from stealing baubles from the other ladies in Thornfield Estates), but she’s also easy to root for. Oh, and does Hawkins give Charlotte Brontë’s famous “Reader, I married him” line a very modern twist? Does she ever.

“Delia Suits Up” by Amanda Aksel and “Detransition, Baby” by Torrey Peters

Delia Suits UpLadies, admit it—if you woke up tomorrow in the body of a cis man, the first thing you’d do is check out your package. It would probably take a while to get used to your new anatomy, since everything from using the bathroom to dealing with unwanted arousal would be new and different.

In her breezy new Wall Street farce, Delia Suits Up, Amanda Aksel doesn’t shy away from detailing the trials and tribulations of learning to cope with a new set of genitalia. But how did female investment banker Delia Reese wind up in a man’s body?

Four months after being laid off from her job following a merger, Delia has been unable to find a new position, while her male coworker (and crush object) Eric was hired immediately by prestigious firm Monty Fuhrmann. To make ends meet, Delia has been working as a housecleaner. When her latest cleaning assignment lands her in the home of a tech CEO whose firm is about to launch its IPO, Delia manages to pick up some intel which could prove valuable on Wall Street.

During a drunken evening with her roommates, Delia declares that her life would be a lot easier if she were a man. “I’d be ascending the corporate ladder and making boatloads of money. More than my female counterparts, by the way. And I wouldn’t have to apologize for it. To anyone… I could be powerful and intimidating without being labeled a bitch. I could be the best and they would let me.”

The next morning, Delia discovers that her wish has come true. After getting over the shock, she uses what she’s learned about the tech IPO to bluster her way into Monty Fuhrmann. But will life as “Richard” be everything Delia hoped it would be?

Delia Suits Up doesn’t exactly contain any groundbreaking insights into the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated world, but it’s a fun read with some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. I enjoyed Delia’s relationship with her roommates, especially Frankie, a (male) doctor who, fortunately, is about the same size as Delia and is able to lend her a stylish Michael Kors suit, along with some much-needed advice about her new anatomy. Thanks to Penguin Random House for inviting me to review the book, and for the advance copy (via NetGalley)!

Detransition, BabyIn her author’s note, Aksel points out that “gender identity is not one size fits all,” and that “each person’s individual experience, expression, and identity is valid.” Coincidentally, right before I read Delia, I finished Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby, which I’m fairly certain is the first work of fiction I’ve ever read which is written by a trans author. (For nonfiction, I really enjoyed She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan.)

Detransitioning (i.e. switching genders and then going back to the gender you were assigned at birth) is a controversial topic, and I was curious how Peters would deal with it. The novel’s main characters are Reese, a trans woman, and Ames, formerly Amy, and before that, James. Reese and Amy were a couple; after their breakup, Reese started dating a succession of married men, and Ames (three years after his last estrogen dose) is sleeping with his (female) boss. Ames assumed his treatments had rendered him sterile, until Katrina tells him she’s pregnant.

Reese has always desperately yearned to be a mother. Even though she and Ames haven’t spoken in two years, he reaches out to her and suggests that perhaps she could become involved in co-parenting his future child. That, of course, first requires convincing a skeptical Katrina; Reese’s self-destructive tendencies and the messy aftermath of her relationship with Amy/Ames may also stand in the way of achieving this very modern version of domestic bliss.

“[Ames] hadn’t understood how little sense he made as a person without Reese until after she began to detach from him, until the lack of her became so painful that he started to once again want the armor of masculinity and, somewhat haphazardly, detransitioned to fully suit up in it.”

This is a fascinating, beautifully written novel, and one which, it is important to acknowledge, shows us one version of the trans experience; Peters notes that her lead characters are both white, which grants them a certain amount of privilege even in a community which often faces a constant barrage of discrimination. While this is arguably the most high-profile work of commercial fiction written by a trans author to date, I hope the success of Detransition, Baby helps open the floodgates to more work by trans and nonbinary writers.

“The Missing American” by Kwei Quartey

The Missing AmericanWhat makes a book award-worthy? The Missing American by Kwei Quartey is the fourth mystery I’ve read out of the six that were nominated for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best Novel. I can see why the judges liked it, because it’s got a fascinating story to tell, but in my view, the writing itself just wasn’t strong enough.

The Missing American is set in Ghana, where young men called sakawa boys specialize in romance scams, hanging out in Internet forums or Facebook groups to find vulnerable people to prey on. Gordon Tilson, an American widower, thinks he’s fallen in love with a beautiful Ghanaian woman named Helena; when she tells him her sister has been in a car accident and she needs money, he sends her thousands of dollars. Since he spent time in Ghana as a Peace Corps volunteer decades ago, he decides to visit the country in order to meet Helena face to face.

Naturally, when he arrives and can’t get in touch with Helena, he realizes he’s been had. Gordon plans to fly home, but then a journalist friend back in the States persuades him to stick around and see if he can investigate the sakawa scam. Shortly thereafter, Gordon disappears, and his son Derek flies to Ghana to try to discover what happened to him. When the police don’t seem to be taking the case seriously, Derek finds a P.I firm to look into the matter.

The Missing American has a huge cast of characters, including Emma Djan, a young private eye whose career as a police officer came to a nightmarish end when the top police commissioner tried to rape her. When she resisted, he caused her to lose her job. Fortunately, one of her former bosses suggested she might be a good fit for his friend’s private detective agency, which is how she finds herself working to find Gordon Tilson.

There is a lot of interesting material in this book, like the way the sakawa boys are forced to work with a fetish priest, sacrificing animals and procuring locks of hair and other items, in order to gain power. (“The chicken’s beak is tied so that your sakawa victims can never say no to you,” one young man is told after being ordered to decapitate the bird.) But the prose is often pedestrian: a sexual experience leaves a woman “as limp as a dishrag”; speaking of a political leader, “people reached out to him with the fervor of a parched man in the Sahara yearning for an oasis”; a man is so stunned that his “eyeballs almost exploded from their sockets.”

The novel is billed as “The First Emma Djan Investigation,” and I hope the second one gives us more Emma, because she sometimes gets a bit lost amidst all of the other characters. Considering its flaws, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The Missing American, but I did enjoy the behind-the-scenes peek at Internet fraudsters and how they operate.

“Seven Days in June” by Tia Williams and “While We Were Dating” by Jasmine Guillory

Seven Days in JuneReese Witherspoon chose Tia Williams’ Seven Days in June as her book club pick for, you guessed it, June. This novel has a very fun concept: Eva Mercy is the author of a best-selling supernatural series which seems kind of like what you’d get if you crossed Twilight with Fifty Shades of Grey. Eva’s next book is due any day now, as her editor keeps reminding her, but she’s gotten to the point where “she wanted to strangle Sebastian and Gia,” the couple whose long-running relationship is at the heart of the books. Eva wants to write something different, but as a single mother raising a daughter in Brooklyn, she relies on the steady income her series provides.

Eva’s long-lost love, Shane Hall, is a successful author of literary fiction. Unlike Eva, who has to keep posting content to Facebook and Twitter in order to satisfy her fan base, Shane is a man of mystery: “Every five years or so he’d drop a book; give a few choppy, unrevealing interviews; sulk through an MSNBC segment… and then disappear again.” When Shane unexpectedly turns up in the audience at a Brooklyn panel discussion on The State of the Black Author, the crowd goes wild, and Eva, who is sitting on the dais, is stunned. She hasn’t seen him in 15 years.

What happened between Shane and Eva, and why haven’t the paths of these two well-known authors crossed in a decade and a half? In flashbacks, we get to know them as high school seniors, and learn about the fateful week in June in which they fell in love and then parted.

Seven Days in June has some serious and even heartbreaking moments, but there’s a good deal of humor, too; Williams seems to be having a marvelous time sending up the publishing industry, which presumably she’s learned about from the inside as the author of several previous books. For instance, one of Eva’s co-panelists at the aforementioned State of the Black Author session laments that publishers often expect her to write about “trauma, oppression, or slavery, because those are easily marketable Black tropes.” “Imagine if one of us tried to get Girl on the Train published,” Eva responds. “For Colored Girls on the Train When Suicide Isn’t Enough.”

While We Were DatingIt’s always a happy day when a new Jasmine Guillory book hits the shelves, and it’s nice to hear that While We Were Dating brought joy to the author as well. “I warned my agent that there was no way I’d be able to turn in the book I was contracted to deliver in 2020,” Guillory wrote recently. “My mind felt frozen, anxious, terrified. But then I decided that I was going to write something just for me; something I loved; something to keep me company during the hard, lonely months of 2020.”

Fans of Guillory’s oeuvre will already be familiar with lead character Ben Stephens, as he’s the brother of Theo (whose love story was featured in The Wedding Party). Theo and his girlfriend Maddie are very much present in While We Were Dating (Maddie’s job as a fashion stylist comes in handy), but the main story involves Ben and Anna Gardiner, a well-known actress who is the face of a new ad campaign being developed by Ben’s agency. When a family crisis crops up, causing Anna to need to take a break from the shoot, Ben offers to give her a ride to the airport… which turns into an eight-hour road trip when she misses her flight.

As the two of them get to know each other, sparks fly, and there’s no reason two attractive single people shouldn’t have some fun, right? Busy Anna doesn’t seem like someone who has time to fall in love—she is campaigning for a role which she thinks could snag her an Oscar, and her small part in a new superhero movie could potentially raise her profile considerably. The “fling turns into something more serious” trope is one Guillory has employed before, but While We Were Dating is still a very enjoyable read; it’s also apparently the final novel to feature her “extended universe” of characters, so it’ll be fascinating to see what she does next.