Seven Days in June – Tia Williams

I flew through the first 100 pages of Tia Williams’s novel Seven Days in June. Was this going to be 2022’s The Paper Palace? I wondered.

Nope.

Eva Mercy is the author of the best selling erotica series Cursed. She’s a single mom living with her 12-year-old daughter Audre in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Except for the fact that the fifteenth installment of her witch – in – love – with – a – vampire series is due on her publisher’s desk in a week and she’s run out of steam, she has a fabulous life. Well, she does suffer from debilitating migraines and she does have a complicated relationship with her mother, Lizette. But otherwise, life’s good.

Then, there’s Shane Hall, reclusive award winning author who now spends his time trying to mentor at-risk youth, giving them the support he never had as a kid. He’s recently sober and as part of his recovery, he feels there is one wrong he has to right and it concerns Eva.

He decides the best thing to do is ambush her – after fifteen years – at the State of the Black Author event.

When a horror-movie character sees a ghost, she emits a bloodcurdling shriek. Claws at her cheeks. Runs for her life. Eva was trapped onstage in broad view of New York’s literary community, so she did none of those things. Instead, her hands went completely slack, and her microphone slipped to the floor with a heavy thunk.

For Eva, this was “the moment she’d always feared” but also “the moment she’d always anticipated.” Although he is still devastatingly beautiful – because of course he is – seeing him again shoots Eva straight back to twelfth grade, which is the last time she’d seen him.

Look, I have zero complaints about well-written romance novels. There was lots to like about Seven Days in June. I liked that it was set in NYC; I liked the fandom aspect of Eva’s novels; I liked Audre even though she sounded more like a grown-ass woman than a twelve year old.

Once Eva and Shane are reunited, it’s just a sex romp, really because – sure – two hot thirty-somethings are going to get “groiny” with one another because they have chemistry and feelings and history. But where’s the tension?

Their week together as high school seniors was meant to be some big meeting of the souls, but it was mostly a drug and alcohol fueled week crashing in someone’s empty mansion. I mean, is that the stuff epic romances are made of? Something happened that week, but it’s explained with a phone call. That was one of my issues with this book, actually, all the plot points that just felt like a way for the story to pivot. Ty. Eva’s family ring. For me, the book tried too hard to be more than the sum of its parts.

Seven Days in June is a sometimes funny, decently-written romance about two beautiful people who have sex. A lot. It is not ground-breaking.

Every Summer After – Carley Fortune

Persephone “Percy” Fraser is thirteen when her parents decide they want a getaway from their busy lives as U of T professors. Instead of buying a cottage in Muskoka like many of their friends, Percy’s father chooses the less developed Barry’s Bay “a sleepy, working-class village that transformed into a bustling tourist town in the summer.” Barry’s Bay, her father tells Percy is “real cottage country.”

Right next door live the Florek boys, 13-year-old, Sam, and his fifteen-year-old brother, Charlie.

It took eight hours for the Florek boys to find me. […] They were clearly related – both lanky and tanned – but their differences were just as plain. Whereas the older boy was smiling wide, scrubbed clean and clearly knew his way around a bottle of styling gel, the younger one was staring at his feet. a wavy tangle of hair falling haphazardly over his eyes.

This is the beginning of Carley Fortune’s novel Every Summer After, which begins seventeen years after that first summer meeting, and then unspools with a series of flashbacks depicting Percy and Sam’s friendship over the course of six summers, and culminates in something so horrible that they haven’t spoken in twelve years. When Charlie calls Percy to tell her that their mother has died, Percy does the only thing she can do: she returns to Barry’s Bay, even though it means that she must see Sam again.

I hate to poo-poo on a novel that seems to be universally adored, especially a debut and by a Canadian to boot. And besides, I didn’t hate this novel – there were lots of things about the book I loved. So let’s start there.

I loved:

The Canadian setting. I am not familiar with Barry’s Bay (apparently a real life place on Kamaniskeg Lake), but Fortune did a terrific job of evoking a real sense of time and place. Anyone who has ever spent time at a summer house (on a body of water or just away from everyday life) will understand that feeling of time stretching. It’s all water and sand and sunburned noses, and barbecues and endless days.

The childhood friendship between Percy and Sam. Although her mother is reluctant, at first, to let her daughter hang out with Sam, the two are quickly inseparable, bonding over movies and sharing their hopes and dreams. Teenaged Sam and Percy are delightful, and so is their friendship – made official with the ubiquitous friendship bracelets of the time.

The novel’s structure. I am a sucker for novels that jump back and forth between past and present. We know that something horrible happened and we know we’ll eventually find out the reason for the estrangement, but I love a novel that strings us along. For me, the parts of the book that were set in the past were more successful, though.

Which brings me to the bits that weren’t quite as successful for me.

Percy and Sam in the present. It’s Charlie that calls Percy to let her know about his mom and, of course, Percy doesn’t hesitate; of course she will return to Barry’s Bay. When she gets there, though, despite the wedge between her and Sam, he’s pretty much the first person she runs into on her walkabout the town, and for me, that reunion lacked any tension. Honestly, I was expecting angst out the wazoo, but instead

…he takes three giant strides toward me and wraps his arms around me so tight it’s like his large body is a cocoon around mine. He smells like sun and soap and something new that I don’t recognize.

I think we all expect that the couple will end up together, but I sort of also hope that they’re going to have to work at it a little harder than these two do. Their adult conversations (and they’re 30 now; Sam’s a doctor!) are very reminiscent of the conversations they had at 16-17.

And what did Percy do to cause the rift in the first place? Careful readers will figure it out pretty quickly and yes, people make mistakes. It’s just that – they didn’t speak in 12 years. That’s a long time for things to be resolved as quickly and easily as they are.

That’s my only gripe about the book, really. (And some of the writing is kind of Erotica 101-esque.) I would definitely read something else by this author and I would definitely recommend this book if you want a quick, sweet and sometimes steamy beach read.

The Nothing Man – Catherine Ryan Howard

When Eve Black was just twelve, someone broke into her family home in Cork, Ireland and killed her parents and seven-year-old sister, Anna. Nearly twenty years later, she has written a book about the event and its connection to several other unsolved crimes in the hopes that perhaps the perpetrator will finally be caught. That book is The Nothing Man.

Catherine Ryan Howard uses the book within a book format to unspool the story of this “nothing man”, who torments his victims with menacing phone calls before showing up to their houses in the middle of the night. Eve’s true crime account reads exactly like that: a survivor’s story fleshed out with information painstakingly gathered from police reports, and information provided by people closest to the case.

And then there’s Jim Doyle, a just-past-middle-aged security guard who stumbles across the book at the big box grocery store where he works. The book’s existence throws Jim into a tailspin.

Once he knew the book existed, Jim could think of nothing else. It was a ring of fire around him, drawing nearer with each passing moment, threatening to torch every layer of him one by one. His clothes. His skin. His life. If it reached him it would leave nothing but ash and all his secrets, totally exposed.

The biggest secret of all is that he is The Nothing Man. (Not a spoiler.) As he reads the book – or, I should say, as we read the book, Jim becomes more and more unsettled. His crimes stopped after the Black family, but Eve’s book has awakened something in him and it’s an itch Jim has to scratch, but first he needs to know what Eve knows.

The Nothing Man is clever and fun to read, even while it makes the point that our fascination with true crime neglects the impact these events have on the victims and their families. We all know the names of the famous serial killers, but do we remember the names of any of the people whose lives they took?

Although Howard’s book isn’t really a thriller (because we know whodunnit from the beginning), it’s still a page-turner and watching Eve and Jim play their cat-and-mouse game makes for an entertaining read.

Everything We Didn’t Say – Nicole Baart

There’s a certain type of book I really like. It’s a dual timeline, family secrets, coming-of-age, angsty hybrid that, if well-written, makes my reading heart happy. Everything We Didn’t Say by Nicole Baart ticked all the boxes for me.

Juniper (June) Baker has returned to Jericho, Iowa after 15 years of exile. She’s come home to help an old friend in the town library, but this is also an opportunity to repair some relationships, particularly with her brother, Jonathan, and her 13-year-old daughter, Willa, who has been living with Juniper’s parents since she was born.

Why are these relationships damaged? Well, that part of the story happened fifteen years ago, when June had just graduated from high school, was flirting with Sullivan, the youngest son of the town’s richest farmer, and Beth and Cal Murphy, a middle-aged couple who live in the farm across the lake from Juniper and her family, are brutally murdered, a crime for which Jonathan is suspected but never convicted.

One of the reasons that Juniper is anxious to return to Jericho is because someone on the WWW is talking about a podcast aimed at proving, after all these years, that Jonathan is, in fact, responsible for the Murphys’ deaths. Juniper aims to prove the opposite, but doing so means revisiting that long-ago summer when everything seemed to change, particularly between her and her brother. Once their sibling bond seemed like “a tangible thing, a thread woven from shared experiences,” but as the summer lengthens, Jonathan becomes secretive and moody.

There’s a lot of moving parts in Baart’s story. Of the two timelines, I liked the one set in the past the best. June is heading off to college at the end of the summer, and she knows she is leaving this life behind. Her best friend, Ashley, is crazy about Sullivan, but June finds herself impossibly attracted to him and it appears the feeling is mutual. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. There are other things happening at home, too, things June doesn’t understand.

All of that seems uncomplicated, though, when compared to the present day. Shortly after she arrives, Jonathan – who seems about to share a long-held secret – is in a life-threatening accident, She bumps into Sullivan, and that’s confusing. And a local cop seems to be digging into the Murphy’s cold case. Oh, and her daughter seems to hate her – which stands to reason since she all but abandoned her.

Everything We Didn’t Say has lots to recommend it and although I did guess one significant plot twist, I enjoyed my time in Jericho, and looked forward to reading this book, which I haven’t said about a book for a while.

Two thumbs up.

Malibu Rising – Taylor Jenkins Reid

Oh dear.

I loved Daisy Jones and the Six. Loved loved it. I was convinced that Taylor Jenkins Reid and I were going to be book besties. Then I bought One True Loves. Okay, I thought, well that was one of her earlier titles – a book she wrote way before the juggernaut success of Daisy Jones. Malibu Rising came after Daisy Jones and so it was bound to offer up the same sort of fast-paced, character-driven narrative right?

Right?

The Riva siblings, Nina, Jay, Hud and Kit, come from Hollywood royalty. Their father is Mick Riva – who makes an appearance in Daisy Jones – a superstar musician. He’s also a philandering dead-beat, who leaves his wife, June, when she is pregnant for Kit. I mean, I guess he’s charming in the beginning, which is why June – a young girl who works at her parent’s Malibu take-out falls for him. But his pretty promises don’t amount to much and June turns to alcohol to numb the pain.

It’s Nina, the eldest Riva child, who steps in when her mother can no longer keep it together. It’s because of her that her younger siblings are successful. Then, someone sees her surfing and she’s so beautiful she gets some sort of contract and suddenly she’s everyone’s poster-girl. That’s how she ends up married to tennis pro Brandon Randall. One year later, she’s been dumped.

The action of Malibu Rising takes place over the course of one day – the biggest day of the year: the Riva’s annual party. If you know where it is, you’re invited. But simmering beneath all the party excitement are all these secrets and resentments and lost dreams, and you best be sure those things are all going to come to the surface and burn that fucker to the ground. Literally and figuratively because as metaphors go, the fire in this book is not subtle.

Through flashbacks, Reid unspools June and Mick’s romance and marriage and Mick’s rise to fame. We watch June’s disintegration when Mick leaves her, her renewed hope when he returns. Then, of course, he leaves her again. We learn about the children, their unbreakable bond, their surfing prowess (because that’s what you do at Malibu, you surf, right?) We learn about Nina’s struggle to keep it together, the sacrifices she makes. Her quick-fire romance. Her separation. All of this in an effort to help us understand – I dunno – the familial bonds that nothing can break?

This book is long. Like almost 400 pages long. And I didn’t give a hoot about a single character. Early on, when it was June and Mick’s story I was, like, okay. This isn’t what I thought it was going to be, but it’s readable. But like with One True Loves, Malibu Rising is all tell. And all the tell is supposed to get us to the big, I dunno, party? So that when it all comes to a head we’re going to actually care. Yeah, no.

Suddenly we’re introduced to all these new characters, who have had sweet FA to do with the Riva story: best friends out of the wood work, actors (some made up, some real names air dropped in) who show up for colour, I guess. The woman Brandon ran off with, Carrie Soto (who is apparently getting a book of her own), makes a crazy appearance on the Riva lawn, someone who might be a sibling arrives, there’s models and producers and the people who work at the family diner. It’s chaos. Cocaine is passed around like hor d’oeuvres, gun shots are fired, plates are being thrown like frisbees and people are literally swinging on chandeliers.

And what are the Riva children doing? Why, they’re down on the beach with Papa Riva, whom they haven’t seen or heard from in years, having a “come to Jesus” share session.

It’s, frankly, ridiculous.

I would say thus ends my short-lived love affair with Reid, but apparently The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is worth the read, so I may bite the bullet and give it a go.

This book, however, was a colossal waste of my precious reading time.

The Maid – Nita Prose

Back-to-back books with autistic main characters – what are the chances? I just read The Kiss Quotient, and I also recently finished Nita Prose’s debut The Maid.

In this novel, 25-year-old Molly Gray (and don’t worry, even Molly sees the joke) works as a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel. It is a position that she is very proud of because “Never in [her] life did [she] think [she’d] hold such a lofty position”. She loves everything about her job, her “perfectly stocked maid’s trolley”, the scent of the hotel, a “mélange of ladies’ fine perfumes, the dark musk of the leather armchairs, the tangy zing of lemon polish”; even her uniform gives her pleasure, a joy to see it hanging on her locker every morning, her “second skin – clean, disinfected, newly pressed.”

Her job, her ability to do it as well as she does, makes her confident because

The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations; it’s as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I’m always playing for the first time. I make etiquette mistakes with alarming regularity, offend when I mean to compliment, misread body language, say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Raised by her grandmother, Molly is alone in the world now. It isn’t always easy for her to know who to trust, and that’s how she gets into trouble when one of the VIP guests at the hotel turns up dead.

There’s nothing wrong with The Maid. It’s like a locked room mystery, or a game of Clue. Someone killed Mr. Black and the someone to find him is Molly. There’s a whole cast of characters in the hotel: the manager, the hunky bartender, the immigrant dishwasher, the friendly doorman, the sneaky head maid. The fact that she trusts the wrong people to help her is certainly no surprise given her inability to read people. The mystery isn’t all that sophisticated, and the ending is so sweet it’ll make your teeth ache.

I feel like this is a book that’s gotten a lot of buzz because the main character is neurodiverse. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Just not my cup of tea.

The Kiss Quotient – Helen Hoang

Stella Lane is a task-oriented, intelligent, wealthy single 30-year-old. If it weren’t for her mother badgering her about settling down, Stella might have been content to focus on her career as an econometrician. (Yeah, I’d never heard of it either. It’s a person who uses “statistics and calculus to model economic systems.”) Stella has had exactly three sexual encounters in her life, each more disappointing than the last.

Her latest sexual experience had been with one of her mother’s blind dates. He’d been good looking – she had to give him that – but his sense of humor had confused her. […] When he straight-out asked her if she wanted to have sex with him, she’d been caught completely off guard. Because she hated to say no, she’d said yes. There’d been kissing, which she didn’t enjoy. He’d tasted like the lamb he’d had for dinner. She didn’t like lamb.

Stella figures she needs practice in the sex department, and so she hires an escort, Michael Phan, a Vietnamese-Swedish hunk, to teach her the ropes – so to speak. For Stella, Michael is “by far the finest male specimen she’d ever laid eyes on.” For Michael, Stella is quite unlike anyone he’s ever met.

The hook for Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient is that Stella is on the autism spectrum. She doesn’t like loud noises, strong scents, any disruption to the routine that makes her feel safe. She says what she thinks and has trouble reading social cues. Career-wise, she’s respected and successful, but as she tells Michael on their first date “I’m awful at…what you do. But I want to get better. I think I can get better if someone would teach me.”

I doubt you will ever meet two characters as sweet and wholesome as Stella and Michael and yet the sex in this book is on the face-fanning steamy side. Turns out, Michael is extremely good at his job, but more than that, he genuinely likes Stella and as their relationship morphs from a pay-for-sex gig into friendship things start to get complicated for the both of them. Suddenly, Michael is taking Stella home to meet his family and revealing his private life in a way that is very unprofessional. I’m not sure the complication at the end was necessary (after all, everyone and their dog could see these two were CRAZY for each other) but it hardly matters because at that point you’ll be all-in.

The Kiss Quotient is smut with two delightful central characters and if that’s your thing, enjoy.

All Her Little Secrets – Wanda M. Morris

Ellice Littlejohn works in the legal department of Houghton Transportation Company. Her lover, Michael, is the executive vice president of the same company. When he asks her to meet him at the office early one morning, Ellice doesn’t find the request unusual. When she arrives though, she finds “a bright crimson spray of blood” and a “star-shaped hole in Michael’s right temple”.

This is how Wanda M. Morris’s debut novel All Her Little Secrets begins. And this is also the beginning of the issues that kept me from thoroughly enjoying the novel – although I certainly found it easy to read.

Ellice is a 50-something, Ivy-league educated lawyer, so clearly not an idiot. But what does she do when she discovers Michael’s body? Does she call the cops? Security? An ambulance? No. She “prayed to God for forgiveness, turned off the lights, and quietly closed the office door…”. Say, what?

We come to understand that Ellice has a complicated past and Michael is just one of those complications. First of all, he’s married and has children. Secondly, he’s a WASP and she’s Black and their relationship is a secret, one of many secrets Ellice has had to keep over the course of her life. And it’s these secrets – revealed slowly over the course of the novel – that prevent Ellice from making sensible decisions from the the moment she discovers Michael’s body until the end of the book.

Lots of writers gushed about this book. And I think, for a debut, it has lots to recommend it, but I also think the story itself – the part that was supposed to be ‘thrilling’ – was just sort of pedestrian. There are a lot of things going on in this book; perhaps too many to manage with real finesse. I wanted to really like Ellice because it was awesome to read about a smart, mature woman – except that she makes all sorts of ridiculous decisions. Honey, your life is in danger; you need to call the cops.

And it turns out the danger is a bunch of white supremacist asshats, which, yeah, awful, but it felt like a sort of convenient way to up the ante. I am white; let’s just get that out of the way. It feels uncomfortable for me to criticize a book because it plays the race card, but if there wasn’t rampant racism (and misogyny) in Morris’s novel, the mystery/thriller part of it would be sort of not-that-thrilling in my opinion. It has the requisite duplicitous characters, red herrings, car chases and covert meetings but it also has family drama and trauma (which is used to explain some of Ellice’s questionable decisions) and which felt vastly more authentic. We never get to see Ellice doing any lawyering, really (and Morris is a lawyer herself, so it would have been easy to include). Mostly she’s chasing after answers, but I just felt like the book was 100 pages too long.

Easy to read, but forgettable.

The Return – Rachel Harrison

When Elise’s best friend from college, Julie, disappears, Elise clings to the belief that she’s not really gone. Molly and Mae, their other besties, are not as optimistic as Elise. Neither is her husband, Tristan. And then “Two years to the day after she went missing, Tristan found her sitting on the porch swing. She was wearing the same clothes she’d had on when she disappeared. She did not seem confused or disoriented, but she had no memory of where she’d been for the past twenty-four months.”

Thus begins Rachel Harris’s debut novel The Return which is a weird hybrid: part horror novel and part novel about female friendships. Elise hasn’t been as successful as her friends post college. She dropped out of her Masters program and followed her married prof to Buffalo where she has a crap job and lives in a crap apartment. Mae is a fashion stylist in NYC; Molly lives on the West Coast and before she went missing, Julie and her husband were converting a farm house in Maine into a B & B.

Now that Julie is back, Mae plans a girls’ weekend in the Catskills at the Red Honey Inn – the kind of swanky spot that is totally out of Elise’s snack bracket, but how can she say no.

When they arrive, though, the Inn seems more sinister than swanky and Julie isn’t quite the girl they remember either.

She’s emaciated. She smiles and her skin pools like melted wax. Her teeth are chipped and discolored. Her eyes are bloodshot, and the green or her irises skews yellow. Her hair is string, simultaneously greasy and dry.

[…]

Her breath is awful. So awful I gag. I play it off like a sob but have to turn my head away.

Cue rooms that don’t heat up, labyrinthine halls, strange hotel staff and shadowy figures and a formerly vegetarian bestie who now loves meat. Um. I would not be sticking around. Like, at all. But Elise is nothing if not loyal. And her need to support her friend’s return to normal keeps her and Mae and Molly in the creepy hotel with their creepy friend way, way too long.

The Return is gruesome fun.

The Cult on Fog Island – Mariette Lindstein

Cults are fascinating, aren’t they? I was a kid in the 1970s and there wasn’t anyone scarier than Charles Manson. I watched the whole documentary about Keith Raniere and NXIVM. I mean those were some intelligent people and they just got sucked into this crazy, perverted world. Jonestown. Children of God. Heaven’s Gate.

Mariette Lindstein was a member of Scientology for 25 years. She left in 2004. Her debut novel, The Cult on Fog Island, is the story of a 24-year-old Sofia who attends a conference on a Fog Island.

Life has been difficult for Sofia. She’s sort of at a crossroad and she isn’t really sure what to do with herself. She’s earned a degree in English literature, her toxic relationship with Ellis is over and now she doesn’t know what to do with herself. When she gets an unsolicited email inviting her to attend “A lecture on ViaTerra by Franz Oswald. For those who wish to walk the way of the earth”, she’s intrigued.

She and her best friend, Wilma, attend the lecture. Sofia’s spidey senses go off almost immediately but Oswald’s charm, charisma and imposing physical presence are soon impossible to ignore and Sofia “began to catch on to what he believed in. A sort of back-to-Mother-Earth philosophy where anything artificial was the root of all evil.” When Oswald offers Sofia the opportunity to build a library – no expense spared – for ViaTerra, it seems like a gift from the heavens.

Of course, things aren’t quite right on Fog Island; the prologue is about an attempted escape. But for a book about a cult, it’s pretty boring. I mean, it’s over 500 pages long and nothing really happens until about page 450. Until then, the book meanders through the day-to-day business of ViaTerra which includes Sofia’s “unwinding” (three days of eating, sleeping and walking around the mansion’s grounds), studying the group’s theses, four vague tenets (which at first make Sofia feel “disappointed and duped”) and basically being groomed by Oswald. When Sofia finally admits that something sinister is going on (even though the ferry captain told her on day one that the place was haunted), it still takes a hundred pages for her to make a move.

My main issue with The Cult on Fog Island is pacing. So much is crammed into the last 100 pages it felt sort of uneven. If the whole thing had been about 250 pages shorter, I might have been more inclined to care about Sofia. Lots of conveniences and moments where tension could have been ramped up and just weren’t. And again with the clunky dialogue, which I find is often a problem with translations.

Then, when I finished, I discovered that this is book one of a trilogy. Yeah, not going to be reading the rest.