I was late to pick up Charlie Adhara’s first two Big Bad Wolf books and I was rewarded with that lateness by being able to read all three in short-succession. The books are a cross between police procedural mysteries and paranormal romance. They are suspenseful and character-driven stories with slowly unfurling worldbuilding that builds on itself with each book. I loved seeing Cooper and Oliver’s story unfold, and getting caught up each mystery.
In the wake of the #ritassowhite and the growing awareness of how black authors are systematically discriminated against in the romance community, there has been a lot conversations about what we can do as readers and reviewers. For all the attention we pay to the Ritas each year most readers, bloggers and reviewers are not and will never be RWA members. I am librarian member, which is a limited membership, that doesn't give me access to the forums or allow me to vote. But the pronounced discrimination against Black and Indigenous writers at RWA and prejudice and exclusion of Authors of Color more generally is an industry wide problem. As a reader, blogger, and reviewer I am part of that industry. I might be unpaid but I know that I am part of the industry, thus part of the problem.
You might be asking yourself, "What can I do?"
Track Your Reading:
Inspired by others, last year I started keeping a reading log, so I could get a better idea of how inclusive my reading really was. It is very easy to think one is reading inclusively because the white/straight default is so strong and nothing like hard numbers and charts to make you aware of how far there is to go. This is the first thing I would recommend to readers who wants to do more. You can't recognize patterns until you look at your data. I would suggest you start simply. Just a spreadsheet with the books your read and a couple of categories you will want to track. My spreadsheet this year is more granular, but I didn't really know what I really cared to learn till I looked at the first round of data.
Evaluate Who You Follow:
When I first came into Romance I mostly followed white reviewers and authors. They were the biggest names, the most visible and the most retweeted. They had their books in the library and on the RITA lists. And as a result almost everything I read was written by white authors.
Really look at who you follow, it matters. Do you have black bloggers on your follow lists? Do you read the reviews of Black, Asian, Latinx & LGBTQIA+ readers? Do you follow their Instas? If you are not, it isn't because they aren't out there on their platforms. Their work is invisible to you because you haven't looked for them. Once you find someone who is giving good inclusive recs, look at who they follow. We all influence each other.
The big publishers have advertising and promo budgets, and access to us through their newsletter databases. We've all seen how certain books are seemingly are everywhere, that isn't simply organic, that is marketing. If you are already an established author, that ARC is an easier sell to readers and reviewers, more likely to be coveted and talked about, more likely that folks with big platforms were approached and offered the book. Privilege builds on privilege.
Read Someone New:
We all have favorite authors, authors who are auto-buys, authors whose books we drop everything else to read. Our TBRs get crowded, and maybe you are mood reader, and prone to re-read binges. We can very easily let our reading be dictated by others. We want to be part of the conversation, read that hot book everyone else is reading. But I urge you to try a book a black author whose work you have never read before. Make room for them on your reading shelf in between your favorites.
If you have a favorite-can't-miss tropes, you can search WoCinRomance's database for ideas, look at Girl, Have you Read's weekly new release list, or maybe try one of those three 2019 POC Rita finalists (Courtney Milan's organizing a virtual bookclub to do this: Romance Sparks Joy). If you are reviewer, sign up for Love in Panels/BawdyBookworms/Jenreadsromance's Diverse Romances Press List and get a monthly list of new and upcoming books by AOC and LGBTQIA+ authors. Also if you didn't look at them in the past take a look at the #Rombklove prompt posts, as we tried to create diverse and inclusive lists for our prompts.
Reading and then talking about you read, leaving reviews is time-tested and effective way to support authors. Hopefully you will like me turn those New-to-Me authors into your new Auto-buy authors.
Recommend books by AOC to your Library:
My library bought another of my recommendations - I always feel so powerful when this happens.— Melinda (@MelindaEdits) March 26, 2019
A way to support authors you love is to rec their books to your library, even if you’ve read the book! It means you’ll introduce them to so many new readers 😍 pic.twitter.com/n4Zr5mVhzB
Melinda's tweet reminded me of another simple action readers can take. If you library uses the Overdrive ebook system or collects patron recommendations, take the time to suggest your library purchase books by authors of color. Many people rely solely on their library collections and the diversity of collections varies widely.
I have a special love for Shelly Laurenston/GA Aiken's special brand of slapstick humor, over-the-top-violence and strong and central female friendships. I have a special place in my heart for her Honey Badger shifters at Bite Me (Pride 9) was the first of her books I read and I adored it. A lot of characters from that books come back in her Honey Badger Chronicles series.
I have reviewed the first two books of the series.
I reviewed the first, Hot and Badgered last year and I reviewed In a Badger Way for Love in Panels this week. In that review I talk about the centrality of sisterhood in the books, the mental health rep that is both serious and fabulous as it is irreverent and ridiculous.
In a Badger Way is more romancey than Hot and Badgered but remains strongly focused on Charlie, Max and Stevie. Their relationships and history remain at the center of the story. Laurenston gives as much focus to Charlie and Max starting therapy and learning let go of some of their overprotective reactions to threats against Stevie as it does to Shen and Stevie’s relationship. Like all Laurenston books, this story is filled with 500% more named and interrelated characters than most other books, and has at least 3 different plotlines going at the same time. There is over-the-top violence, madcap hijinks and crass jokes a plenty.
For more... head over to Love in Panels
Chelsea and I had fun unpacking all our feelings for Beyond the Sectors podcast last week, and Episode 3 went out to subscribers on Thursday. To find links to the podcast and read the show notes, head over to Beyond the Sectors.
Also Suzanne from Love in Panels asked me to write up a little piece on how I ended up getting involved into launching a podcast with zero podcast experience and a lot enthusiasm for Kit Rocha's books.
18. Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch (Audio, m/m, historical PNR/Fantasy) Great mystery, suspense & twist. Really loved the tension between Blake & Lord Thornsby, their mutual mistrust/attraction. Intriguing magical worldbuilding. #bkbrk https://t.co/avsbyMAZ12— Ana Coqui (@anacoqui) March 9, 2019
Lord Thornby’s debauched and provocative London life came to an abrupt end when his father seemingly incensed at his latest outrageous stunt drags him back to the family estate. Once there Soren discovers he can’t leave, not because he would be disowned or cut off but because he literally can’t, his father able to mysteriously compel him to stay in the ever-shrinking debt ridden estate. He is close to despair when his step-mother returns from home with an unexpected and mysterious guest.
John Blake is a materials magician, working magic through inanimate objects, listening to the whispering of the walls and the chattering of chairs. He feels decidedly out of his element in the rural ramshackle manor, but a good friend has asked him to investigate who is magically harassing, his sister, the new Lady Dalton. At first he is convinced the eccentrically dressed and oddly-behaved Lord Thornby is responsible, until he sees through Soren’s cutting and dismissive words and witnesses his torment. Together they must uncover what kind of magic is at work, and secrets are key to Lord’s Dalton’s hold over Soren.
I really enjoyed listening to this book. I loved the twisty Gothic/paranormal elements on what at first seems like traditional historical romance premise. Thornby’s shock & horror at realizing he is trapped and his suspicion that he can’t simply free himself by agreeing to marry an heiress like his father demands, unless he can figure out why his father, a previously cruel but non-magical person has managed it. I am also a sucker for bad first impressions and John and Soren start out as suspicious of each other as they are attracted. The tension over whether they can trust or believe each other is delicious, because they each have very good reasons to distrust each other.
Welch did a fabulous job teasing out the mystery and complicating the picture for everyone involved. She also created some fantastically engaging secondary characters to populate the curse household, including the adventurous and sharp-witted Lady Amelia. I particularly enjoyed seeing Lady Dalton’s opinion about what is happening, and of her husband change throughout the novel. Her desire to retain her dignity and regain some power in their relationship felt very real. Of all the characters in the book, I would l really love to read some more about her as she needs a HEA of her own.
The worldbuilding was fascinating, especially because it incorporated class differences and prejudice into its development. Set in the rapidly industrializing Victorian era, John’s material’s based magic is in its ascendancy, but he is hampered by the disdain of his demon-wielding theogist teachers, whose center of power, Politics and religion are losing ground to Industry but whose wrong-headed opinions still hold sway in academic settings. I loved that Blake comes to realize that his fellow magicians have lost a great deal of knowledge about more rural folk magics that leave him unprepared to deal with what he experiences at the estate.
I listened to ending in one fell swoop because I need to know how the story would be resolved and while I was fully satisfied with John and Soren’s HEA, I wish we could have had some sort of epilogue that gave some sense who everyone else on the estate, responded, recovered and moved on.
I had not previously listened to any books narrated by Joel Leslie but he did a wonderful job differentiating the voices of the characters, capably capturing desperation, desire, urgency, archness and tenderness.
Content Warnings: Homophobia, incarceration, kidnapping/abduction, mention/description of past trauma (physical, emotional and sexual abuse).
I received a review copy of Salt Magic, Skin Magic from the author, Lee Welch.
My review of Wild Country is up at Love in Panels!
Wild Country is full of surprises and unexpected twists, most more unsettling and upsetting than the last while providing a heart-pounding companion story to Etched in Bone. It is not a book I would recommend to anyone except a long-time series fan however.
To read the full review go to: http://www.loveinpanels.com/prose/wild-country
Ernesto Vasquez might have been born in the Dominican Republic but he is a die-hard New Yorker at heart. His food truck, OuNYe’s menu expresses the special fusion of his New York city childhood, where the Afro-caribbean flavors of his heritage and that of his Puerto Rican, Cuban, Jamaican and Haitian best-friends, nourished and united them. Making his food truck a success is his driving objective because Nesto can’t live on passion alone, he needs his truck to turn a profit. Willing to try anything, Nesto has given himself six months Upstate in his mother Nurys’s new town of Ithaca, in a last ditch effort to keep his dream aflot. If he fails to find customers, he will pack it in and head back to NYC and find new dreams.
Jude Fuller is a young adult librarian with a passion for outreach to underserved communities, like rural LGBTQIA+ youth who don’t have regular or easy access to the local library. For years he has been working to see his bookmobile project funded and this might finally be the year. While it is small town curiosity and the lure of delicious flavors that bring Jude to OuNYe, it is Nesto’s flirtatious smiles and smooth moves that he can’t resist. However, Jude is determined to counter his BFF's matchmaking antics as he has no desire not risk heartbreak again. Jude wants to keep things nice and casual, but he soon finds himself caring and wanting more from Nesto.
Nesto and Jude’s relationship starts off playful and sexy with with great joyous energy and bilingual banter. But underneath Jude’s sunny and saucy sauntering lurks a painful emotional history and anxiety that makes him hesitate pursuing anyone, particularly someone whose focus and ambition might not keep him in Ithaca. Nesto is also conflicted about his inability to ignore his attraction to Jude. Being distracted from his primary reason for being in Ithaca brings up its own kind of angst.
Tension over the risk of pursuing a relationship, fear that commitment might not be evenly felt, and how to balance relationship and career goals are central to the story. Both Jude and Nesto have moments where they realize how deep in denial they have been, and I loved how their actions often betrayed their real feelings for each other long before they are willing to name their attraction or relationship.
This book was chock-full of delicious food, fascinating and engaging secondary characters and had a great sense of place. Herrera brings to life Ithaca’s many social and economic contrasts. I loved Nesto’s rowdy, nosey and loving extended Latinx family and the friends who drop everything to help him and wish him well. In contrast Jude’s religious and emotionally abusive family felt sketched in and somewhat like cardboard cutouts.
Misty, the petty and malicious antagonistic harasser of both Jude and Nesto was at times grandly cartoonish but not unrealistic in this day and age of meme-able white ladies calling 911 on innocent picnickers for simply being POC. Misty’s use and abuse of public servants such as cops & health inspectors seem instead frighteningly believable.
I also loved how Herrera showed Nesto and Jude’s different responses to the harassment. The differing ways they responded to Misty’s behavior is deeply informed by their own prior experiences and whether they felt it would spill onto others. I particularly appreciated how Nesto’s attitude of calm disengagement was a result of a life-long experience with racism and Jude’s internalized anger a scar from growing up closeted in an insular community that would eventually shun him for failing to conform to their expectations.
As much as I loved the book overall and the characters most of all, there was some wonky pacing in the middle of the book with weeks going by in a few paragraphs. I felt that I lost a sense of how long Jude and Nesto circled around each other, how long they were actively together before things started to go sideways or how far into Nesto’s six months we had progressed. I am also not a grand-gesture/big grovel reader, and the ending of this book has a big one. The gesture makes intellectual sense but it didn’t hit my emotional buttons, because it seemed to gloss over some serious communication and expectations issues that Nesto and Jude must address for their HEA to feel solid.
American Dreamer is angsty and sexy with a strong supporting cast and I am eager to read the future books in the series. I do recommend readers identify a source for Caribbean food before they start reading American Dreamer, as it is sure to inspire a desperate hankering for its Caribbean flavors.
I received a review copy from the author.