Real Talk: Reading (and writing) Romance with Heroes who are Trauma Survivors

As I have mentioned before I am a social worker, and most of my work is doing advocacy for survivors of domestic and sexual violence (a big reason why I read so much romance, I need to gorge on those HEAs sometimes , ya know?).  So that means I have a critical eye for how trauma is portrayed in books. Those stories with veterans suffering from PTSD, characters who survived sexual or physical abuse as children, or those who have been sexually harassed or assaulted as adults. Are their stories told with care and respect for what they survived? Does is it ring true, is it fair, or is it simplistic? Does it minimize the struggle living with the effects of trauma can be for the person who has experienced it, as well as the loved ones who are there to support them? These are questions that I constantly have in my head when I pick up a book with this kind of story, and the answers matter.

So what is trauma anyway? According to Judith Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftemath of Violence From Domestic Violence to Politcal Terror (which I HIGHLY recommend for anyone doing research about trauma) “psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of trauma the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force. When the force is that of nature, we speak of disasters. When the force is that of other human beings we speak of atrocities. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning.” That last line is the important one when it comes to relationships and one that I think has a lot weight when thinking about romance.

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Heroes with histories of trauma are a popular theme in Gay Romance, which frankly is one of the reasons why I love the genre. These stories are hard, and provoke empathy and a connection with the characters that is quite powerful. However, there is also a tendency to try and fix that brokenness in the characters once love is part of the equation, in ways that to me feel a bit simplistic. It would be wonderful if love could solve everything, but the reality is that for most people who are struggling with the effects of trauma, even when they are loved and supported unconditionally, those wounds don’t go away. They can be managed and healing is definitely possible, but they don’t just disappear. These are subjects that need to be approached with care, because implying that they can be solved so easily could be hurtful or feel like judgment for readers who are going through similar situations. However when they are done well, they make for some of the very best reading the genre has to offer, and they could be sources of hope and validation for those out there trying to heal.

So who is out there writing this stuff in ways that rings true and are also delivering on those powerful HEAs? Well, lots of authors actually! I reached out to a few who have written some of my recent favorites, and chatted with them about why it was important for them to show accurate portrayals of what the effects of trauma looked like for their characters even if it was a messy sight.

Over the next few posts I will share my conversation with Megan Erickson whose book Overexposed, is one of my favorites and I think does a beautiful job of rendering both of her heroes’ struggles. Thad’s PSTD from his time in Afghanistan, and Levi’s grief from losing his sister to the same war. I also talked with C.S. Poe whose hero Detective Calvin Winter in the Snow and Winter series, struggles to adjust to civilian life after leaving the military. The portrayal C.S. does of how violent and pervasive PTSD can be is fantastic, and she still manages to give us a funny and robust love story.

I also will be chatting with Dal Mclean and her book Bitter Legacy, which deals with a hero who is survivor of horrific child abuse. This topic is particularly important to me, and I think Dal does one of the finest jobs in rendering it that I’ve read in this genre. And yet her heroes still get their happy ending. Finally we will hear from the Queen of Angst herself, Amy Lane. She will talk about her writing and why she keeps going back to those broken heroes.

So, more than a lecture on what trauma is, although I will give definitions and such! 🙂 I hope this is more of a conversation starter. These authors have been quite generous to share some insight, and I hope to hear some more thoughts about this topic, and maybe get some recommendations on other books that approach this topic well.

Also, I will be listing some resources during the posts, of books on trauma that I have read over the years which I think are incredibly informative, and could be of use for those who write these kinds of heroes. And finally, I will list other novels that I have loved over the years and I think broach these subjects well.

Ok, that is all for me today! Come back Monday for my chat with Megan Erickson and C.S. Poe about writing heroes who have come back with from war emotionally wounded.

Happy Friday All.

Cheers and happy Reading!

Laura

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole and South African Sauv Blanc

30237404This book was one that I went into with a lot of expectations. I’ve found myself searching more and more for stories with characters of color, written by people of color, these days. Which I can tell you is not an easy fit in romance. There is not a lot out there fitting those categories. Especially historicals, so when I saw An Extraordinary Union an interracial romance set during the American Civil War floating around my Instagram feed I HAD to pick it up. Alyssa Cole is a new to me author, I don’t read a lot of het romance, so I had missed her stuff, which is a shame, because this lady can write! I was happily surprised in multiple ways with this book. One, the story was meticulously researched, I read A LOT about this time in American history, and can say this author did her homework.  Two did not sugar coat or whitewash the harsh, shameful realities that were playing out in this country at the time, and the incredible injustices under which people of color lived. Three, Elle the heroine, was BADASS, let me repeat, she was BAD.ASS. She was strong, smart  and totally unapologetic about it. It would take an exceptional man to get her attention, and Malcolm was the dude for the job.

Before I get more into the story though, let’s talk wine people! It’s mostly sunny here in the NYC ‘burbs these days, so we have to start putting together that Summer Wine list. This story for some reason made me a bit hot and bothered 🙂 So,  I decided to go with one of my go to wineries, Indaba Wines out of South Africa. Inbada wines are insanely affordable and ALWAYS deliver. Their Sauvignon Blanc is dry and tangy, with some citrus notes that always hit the spot. This bottle constantly makes Wine Enthusiast “Best of” lists. I pick this up again and again, and I am yet to be disappointed. A bottle usually goes between $8-$10, can’t beat that!

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Elle and Malcolm are both spies for the Union, and they keep running into each other while getting their work done. They finally end up undercover in the same Rebel enclave in Virginia. Elle is there as a slave, and Malcolm is passing as a soldier for the confederacy. They are in a delicate situation, and the stakes are very high. It is not a good time for torrid affairs, but they can’t stay away from each other.

Things are not easy though, Elle is horrified by her attraction to a white man, even if he is a “good guy” he represents everything that is evil in her world.  Malcolm sees Elle, her intelligence, beauty and strength, and and he is lost. She literally eats away at all his defenses. He’s never wanted love, he’s seen how destructive that feeling can turn between two people. Besides,  he has no time for love, he’s always moving, doing what he needs to for the Union. The thing is the pull they feel towards each other, eventually becomes stronger than all those perfectly good reasons to stay away.

Interracial romance is tricky. One of the things that I find authors consistently miss the mark on is just naming how how complicated the dynamics can be. Not just background and cultural differences, there are all kinds of power imbalances and stereotypes to grapple with.  Throw this into a time and place when the imbalance of power was so absolute, there is a lot of room for error.

In this novel though, the author, by putting all of those complications out there as part of the struggles for our heroes, made the love story that much more genuine. As I said earlier, this story is exquisitely set, the author grounds us in the time and place of Elle and Malcolm solidly, and she does not pull punches. It was a brutal time to be  a black woman, and especially one that was willing to fight for the liberation of her people. It was also hard to be a white man on the right side of history. These are not easy things to blend into a romance, and yet Elle and Malcolm fall in love while still fighting for the what they believe in. They were also hella hot in the process.

I enjoyed this book a lot, and was glad to get to an ending that seems to indicate more to come. I highly recommend this book to fans of historical romance. It has all the elements that make a good story, lots of tension, life giving banter, hotness, and main characters that had personality and then some.

Hope you pick this book up and hit the wine store too!

Cheers and Happy Reading!

You can buy An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole HERE.

You can see more of her other books HERE.

You can follow her on Twitter HERE or on Instagram HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

Concourse by Santino Hassell with Avocado Tostones and Aperol Spritz

30364779It’s Friday! And man this book made my week. For real, between studying for finals and this fuckery with congress things were looking grim, but Santino saved the day. I’m just going to say it from the get go, this book is my favorite in the series so far. I loved it SO MUCH.  I don’t even know where to start. First of all, the intensity. I literally lost all feeling in my hands from holding my kindle so hard while reading it on the BX12 bus…I don’t know if it was just all too much, what with reading about the Bronx (Fun Fact: not many books set in the Bronx out there), while being IN the Bronx, and then Ashton making me cry while also being super hot with Val…Good LORD. This book IS IT, guys. Concourse, is the fifth book in Santino Hassell’s Five Boroughs Series, which is an absolute favorite of mine, and honestly with as much as I’ve loved the other books, I could not envision a book that could top them. And yet, here we are, with Ashton and Val, Santino achieved the Holy Grail of good romance, the perfect combination of angst, top notch chathartic erotica, and enough swoon worthy moments to fell a sperm whale. I won’t even go into my feelings about Santino’s writing, I already waxed poetic about that in my review of Insight. Before I get to the story though, let’s talk food!

OK! So, this book, as I mentioned, was amazing, and Ashton is now my favorite person, so what to make for him and Val?! They are both so delicious, and there are lots of foodie things happening in the book, so there was definitely inspiration, lots of possibilities. In the end I decided to make my own version of the infamous Avocado Toast that Ashton makes for Val in the beginning of the book. However, since the story is set in the Bronx and I AM Dominican, I gave the whole thing a twist.  I made these boys Avocado Tostones (See what I did there?!).  For those who don’t know tostones (or have spent any time north of 137th street in Manattan), a toston, is a crispy plantain fritter. They are delicious, and go perfectly with avocado and limey things. To make the recipe extra fancy for Ashton, I made quick pickled red onions and a cilantro pesto for garnish. These little avocado bites  are seriously delish, and go perfectly with the champagne cocktail I selected. Which leads us to the alcoholic beverage for this book…

Since summer is near, I made an Aperol Spritz, one of my go to sunny day drinks. Aperol is an Italian aperitif (pre-dinner drink), very popular during warm months.  It is delicious mixed with prosecco, and a slice of orange. I can literally picture Ashton downing these all day long sitting in an outdoor cafe, while forcing Val to take sips. Guys this recipe and cocktail pair is a total WIN!!! Perfect for reading Val and Ashton’s romance. But now back to the story…

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This book worked for me at many levels. The connection between Val and Ashton was so intense and raw that every scene with them together felt electric. In so many ways this this is a classic trope, friends to lovers, prince and pauper romance. And yet, Santino took to it another level and crafted a character driven, stunning love story with, with a strong sense of place.

Val and Ashton have been friends forever. Val’s mom was Ash’s nanny, and they sort of grew up together, even though their worlds were completely different. Ash was always the black sheep in his wealthy family, the outcast, so Val, his mom and sister took him under their wing and gave him the affection he never got from his own flesh and blood. Ashton has always loved Val, and Val has always loved Ashton, but now that they are grown ups (well sort of), their lives are still too different, Ashton is a wealthy Instagram NYC celebutante and Val is an amateur boxer that drives cabs during the day to put this sister through school. They might as well be on different planets. And yet they are each other’s touchstone. They just can’s seem get past all those differences though, and even if there is history and genuine affection between them, they don’t seem to know how to come together.

Ashton’s character made this book for me, his vulnerability and his yearning to be SEEN, to be wanted by someone for who he really was, man it was heartbreaking. His character was rendered with such nuance and feeling, I wanted to weep for him. And yet, he was bright and funny, gave as good as he got from Val. Val was the stoic protector, and yet in the end he had to be saved too, and what saved him was Ashton. Then there’s the sex…The chemistry between these two was some next level shit, I mean how do you even do hotness, angst and humor ALL AT THE SAME TIME? Every scene with Val and Ashton was delicious, and felt so genuine.

I can’t do a review about this series without going to the setting. There are no superlatives that come to mind that are enough to convey how much Santino’s portrayal of NYC affects me. To see every borough treated with the care that he does, and to show ALL the parts which make this city the amazing place it is, makes me kind of weepy to be honest. I love his writing, but this series, these New York City stories? They’re his sweet spot.

Finally, the cast of characters and squads that he’s brought to life made their appearances and I thankfully it seems like there is more to come from this universe. I can’t wait.

I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this book and the entire series.

Now the recipes!

Avocado Tostones with Pickled Onions and Cilantro Pesto

Ingredients

Tostones

2 plantains (if at all possible purchase at C-Town, they have the best plantains! ;))

5 tablespoons of canola oil

salt to taste

Avocado Mash

2 Avocados

Juice of one lime

1 garlic clove minced

1 teaspoon of chopped cilantro

salt and pepper to taste

Pickled Onion

1 red onion thinly sliced

1 jalapeno thinly slice

1/2 cup of red wine vinegar

1/2 cup water

1/3 cup of sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Cilantro Pesto

1 cup of cilantro

1/3 cup of oil

1 clove of garlic minced

juice of one lemon

1/3 cup of oil

Directions

  1. Picked onions, put all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat to low medium and simmer for 10 minutes. Let cool for 20 minutes.
  2. Avocado Mash. Mash avocados in a bowl and mix with the rest of the ingredients. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Cilantro Pesto. Pulse all ingredients in food processor until well blended.IMG_0394
  4. Tostones. Peel the plantain (if you don’t know how, click here.) and cut into half inch slices. Heat oil in a skillet, when hot start frying the plantains, fry them until they start to look yellow and brown. Take out of pan, and smash each slice until they are flat (look like a cookie). Once you have flattened them all return to the oil for a second fry. Once they are brown and crispy, transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt.IMG_0393.JPG
  5. To make your avocados tostones, spoon a dollop of the mash onto the toston, top with a few pickled onion slices. Add a bit of the pesto, and if you’re feeling really frisky top that with a bit of feta cheese. SO GOOD.

Once you have your tostones, pop that prosecco and top your glass with a bit of the Aperol. You will be in heaven with this book,  recipe,  and cocktail combo. I GUARANTEE IT! Also the left over cilantro pesto and pickled onions are DYNAMITE on top of street style tacos…My dude just eats the onions by the spoonful, they are so good.

Alright guys hope you enjoy the book, and the food and drink!

You can buy Concourse HERE.

You can buy the rest of the Five Borough Series HERE.

You can read more about Santino Hassell HERE or visit his Patreon HERE.

Have a great weekend.

Cheers and Happy Reading!

 

 

 

Snow and Winter Series by CS Poe with a winner Rose

29759618I discovered C.S. Poe‘s “Snow and Winter” Series after I read, “Joy” a novella she recently published with Dreamspinner press. I  really liked “Joy” and as one does, upon discovering a good “new to me” author I went looking for a back list. What I discovered were two recently published mystery novels, “The Mystery of Nevermore” and “The Mystery of the Curiosities”.  The heroes of the stories are, crotchety New York City antiques dealer Sebastian Snow and closeted NYPD Detective Calvin Winter. These two are adorable together, and kept me on my toes with all the trouble they got into and boy, could they accumulate the dead bodies! I loved both books and I am glad to hear there will be more from Snow and Winter in the future.

Before I get into further into the books, let’s talk wine. I had gone back and forth between a strong red or something else for this post, mostly because the stories are set in a NYC winter and red goes quite well with the bone splitting cold that NYC can serve up during that season. However, as I was browsing one of regular wine purchasing spots, I found that Dark Horse Wines has a come out with a rose, and the label reads “Dry.Bright.Crisp.”, how cold I pass that up? It basically sums up Sebastian Snow in three words! Now I love me some Dark Horse and this rose is as delicious, as the label says it is. Crisp, very bright, great flavor, and a bottle goes for $9.99. I will be getting more bottles of this over the summer for sure!

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Now the books! C.S. Poe is a Josh Lanyon fan, and that comes through in the stories. I would not go as far as calling them an homage to the “Adrien English Series”, but those of us who are staunch fans of Jake and Adrien, will be hit with a bit of nostalgia when reading Calvin and Sebastian’s romance. That is as far as it goes though, these novels stand very solidly on their own, and they are full of curious and interesting little twists that make them quite unique.

In the first novel of the series, “The Mystery of Nevermore”, we meet our heroes Sebastian and Calvin when they are thrust into a bizarre murder mystery with a serial killer who seems to have an unnatural obsession with Edgar Allan Poe. Sebastian is NOT a professional when it come to solving murders, but this minor detail does not slow him down in the slightest, much to Calvin’s chagrin.  He is out to get himself killed trying to figure out this puzzle, and he does let a few near death experiences deter him from that end!

These two are hilarious and very intense together, and as much as the stories have a high content of humor and geeky cuteness, also C.S. Poe brings some serious matters into her story and does them quite well. Severe trauma in romance/mystery is something that is used freely in the genre, and yet it is done well VERY seldom. I think C.S. does a commendable job of rendering the effects of trauma and what PTSD looks like. Calvin and Sebastian have a lot to overcome if they want to be together, and C.S. Poe by giving us an authentic outlook of what that may entail, gives us a love story that feels a lot more genuine.

In the second novel, “The Mystery of the Curiosities”, is another twisty mystery where we are regaled with an infinite amount of obscure information about the business of the curious and macabre. I thought this story was highly entertaining, if a bit bloodthirsty, then again if I wanted tame, I would not go for the murder mysteries right?! In this story, we get deeper into Calvin and Sebastian’s lives, we learn more about them, and get a better sense of how things are between them. We also get more of some of their supporting cast of characters, Sam the shop assistant (hopefully Sebastian’s sidekick in future stories!), as well as Pop, who really is a gem of a parent. All in all I loved both books and want a lot more of all these characters in hopefully the not so distant future!

I HIGHLY recommend these novels, and suggest you got get them if you have not read them yet.

You can buy one or both books in Snow and Winter Series HERE.

You can read more about C.S. Poe HERE.

Happy Monday everyone, Cheers and Happy Reading!

Laura

 

 

A Gathering Storm by Joanna Chambers with Savory Scones

34093599I don’t have the skills to impress upon the page the level of joy I felt when I saw that Joanna Chambers was back with a historical romance, all I can say is that the joy was substantial.  Joanna’s Enlightenment Series is one of my absolute favorites. Her writing just works for me. Her novels are exquisitely set, they always have pointed commentary on the issues of the time, and most importantly her love stories are gorgeous to read.

“A Gathering Storm” is exactly the kind of novel I have come to expect from JC, smart, well researched, and with a solid and lovely romance. But, before I get to the review, I’ll share the recipe!

What could I make for this story? A historical sent in Britain…Scones, of course! I love me a good scone and I don’t think I’ve read a novel by Joanna that does not feature a delicious scone at some point, so I thought it would be fitting. So, I made savory Wild Ramps (wild ramps are a wild spring onion that grows here in the Northeast, it is also know as wild leek in some places) and Gruyere scones to go with this book, and I know I am biased, but they are to die for.  Delicious, crumbly and the subtle garlic/onion taste of the ramps with the Gruyere is just YUM. I made a double batch and it they did not last through the day…

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Now the book…As I said before I think Joanna Chambers is one of the best historical romance writers out there. What I loved about this story, in particular,  is that she gives us two heroes with a lot of insecurities and a bit of callousness, but who  are so genuine in their search for ways to be good to each other. I love a story where people are just people, you know? Most of us would like to think that in the face of certain circumstances, true love or adversity, we will be our better selves, but the reality is that most times, we are just our human selves. That does not mean we are not truly questing to be the best we can be for the one we love.

So Ward and Nick…Ward is fixated on finding a way to gain some connection to his dead brother, even when it comes at the cost of his own reputation. He is adrift without his brother and losing the one person who made him feel known. Nick has never belonged anywhere, his mother, the only person who he had a real connection to is now gone, an he is also adrift.  Finding each other gives both Nick and Ward a place to be anchored.  And yet, they are so different, their birth and stations in life are so distant from each other.

One of the things I love about this novel, is that is does not sugarcoat the disparity between Nick and Ward. They were born to very different circumstances, and this has shaped their worldview.  Nick is guarded and cautious, because he knows a man like him is at the mercy of the will of those who have a higher station than him. Ward expects the world to bend to his will.  Yet, they can still fill the empty spaces in each other. What made this novel so good for me, was how true the emotions felt. It was almost like that supernatural plane that Ward was so preoccupied with was always there for him to find, he just had to fall in love.

Lots to love here, the happy ending is locked tight, the erotica is solid and the book will read again very nicely I reckon…So, get the book and make some scones!

For the recipe:

Wild Ramps and Gruyere Scones (Adapted from Not Derby Pie Blog)

1 3/4 cup flour, plus some extra for rolling
1 tablespoon & 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup Shredded Gruyere
1/4 cup chopped ramps (or very finely chopped chives)
3/4 cup heavy cream, plus 2 tablespoons for brushing scones
1/4 cup buttermilk

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Add the butter. Put bowl in freezer for 5 minutes to chill the flour. Then beat the mixture on low speed if using a mixer) until the butter is broken up into pebble-sized pieces, about 3 minutes.

Add the cheese and ramps. Then pour heavy cream and buttermilk into the bowl and mix just until dough comes together. Scone dough can be very sticky, so make sure you have a well floured surface to knead. Don’t knead too long, just enough to get the dough into a ball. Mold the dough into one or two disks, and refrigerate about 2 hours or stick in the freezer for 15 minutes.
IMG_0170Preheat oven to 375. Roll out disk on lightly floured surface to form one 7-inch round or two 3-4-inch rounds. Cut 12 slices from the large round or 6 wedges from each of the smaller rounds, and arrange on a baking sheet (no need to leave much room between the scones). Brush with cream (this will aid the browning process).

Bake about 20 minutes, until golden on top and browned on the bottom. Serve warm with some butter, I also had a bit of ramp pesto at hand and it was delicious.

Enjoy the book and the scones! Come back and let me know how they turned out!

You can buy “A Gathering Storm” HERE.

You can read about, and buy Joanne Chambers back list HERE.

Cheers and Happy Reading!

Laura

Social Justice in Romance Series: J.E. Birk Talks Balancing Light Romance with Serious Topics

33632459In  her second novel, “Dating Ryan Alback”, J.E. Birk blends a pretty serious issue into what is for all intents and purposes a sweet and light romance. In her story, Jason, one of the main characters is a public high school teacher in Colorado. He is also trying very hard to start a nonprofit that will provide support to students whose parents have either been deported or are at risk of deportation due to their immigration status. When I read the novel, I was struck by how deeply J.E. went into the issue of immigration and how our current policies are disrupting and some times tearing apart families, all over the country.

When I decided to explore the presence of social justice themes in romance, I wanted to intentionally look at topics that were not about LGBT rights. I think it is important to broaden the outlook of the social justices issues that fit in romance, and that there there are vast numbers of ways in which injustice and oppression can intersect in a person’s life.

Immigration or the treatment of undocumented  persons in the U.S. is a topic that comes up occasionally in romance. An though it is a tricky subject, I think the authors who choose to write about it do so because it has somehow touched their lives personally. I think this makes a difference in how the story is approached.  They  seem authentic and heartfelt.

The topic of immigration has been a hot one for awhile now in this country. I found it particularly brave for J.E., a newer author, to decide to go with this story line. So I asked a couple of questions about why she went in this direction with her second novel.

Here is what J.E. had to say…

The Tipsy Bibliophile: In your latest novel, “Dating Ryan Alback”, one of your two main characters is a public high school teacher, on the side he is working on starting a nonprofit that will support kids who have undocumented parents. What struck me the most about this, was not just that you chose to put forth such a controversial issue in our country right now, but that it was such an important part of the story. You could have been vague about what the program was about, who it would help, and it would have still made the character likable. Why was it important to you to highlight this issue to the degree that you did?

J.E. Birk: That’s a great question. The weird thing is that I never even considered making the nonprofit vague. Jason teaches in southwest Denver, where I used to teach, and this issue was/is hugely important to students and the entire community there. It just made sense to me that Jason, who cares deeply for his students, would tackle this particular issue if he was going to start any kind of nonprofit in that area.

I’ll never forget the first time one of my students told me their mother had just been deported and they were worried they’d never see her again. A lot of my teaching life is in Jason, so he too has never been able to forget that moment.

 TTP: As a romance reader (and an social justice advocate IRL) I am always surprised when social justice topics are done well in the stories I read. However it is not a common practice to explore these issues in romance. Do you think there is more space in the to explore injustices and difficult topics?

J.E. Birk: Many people have asked why I chose to add this subplot to a story which is largely very fluffy and feel-good in nature. I personally think social injustices should be explored everywhere, especially in the books we read more for entertainment and escape purposes…because when we read those books we are at our most relaxed. We’re more likely to be able to separate ourselves from the politics and simply consider the issue on a humane and real-world level. I too love when romance novels tackle social justice topics, and I actively seek those novels out when I’m looking for my next read.


Like I mentioned earlier this theme has been occasionally done in gay romance. Most recently Heidi Cullinan went deeply into it in her sequel to “Dance With Me”, “Enjoy The Dance”. I think this another book that does this topic justice, and recommend it highly.

If you would like to read “Dating Ryan Alback” you can buy it HERE.

If you want to know a little bit more about immigration and how you could help organizations that are assisting families. the ACLU has great resources and information HERE.

Thank you for reading my Social Justice In Romance Series, if you this is the first post you read, there are three earlier posts which explore other social justice themes to read, you can start HERE.

Thank you to Roan Parrish, KJ Charles and J.E. Birk for the amazing conversation, and I hope this has sparked some chats within our community of readers and authors.

My hope is to do a series like every month…My next one will be on Trauma. How do authors research and write characters with severe trauma? So stay tuned!

Cheers and Happy Reading!

 

Social Justice in Romance Series: KJ Charles talks Political Heroes and Representation in Historical Romance

25241403In her book “A Seditious Affair” KJ Charles gives us a torrid and intense love story between two men who see the world from totally opposing sides. Their views on how society should work, and what justice means are like night and day.

The “opposites attract” trope is tried and true in romance, and yet the story KJ presented to us unusual, it goes deeply into class injustice,  and the atrocities that can be committed by an oppressive state in the name of “the greater good”.  She also explores, the idea that even if two people are on completely opposite sides, common values like respect, decency and loyalty can bridge those differences.

Silas and Dominic are fervent in their political beliefs, they live and die by them. Silas fights to end the oppression his people are living under, even if by doing so, he risks his own life. Dominic staunchly defends the system that he believes is the only way to maintain “social order”, and yet they fall in love. In these the days of polarization and partisanship the idea that two men can come together and find common ground by valuing each other as human beings is almost magical.  The proposition that being humble enough to listen and try to understand the other side can bring healing and unity is very powerful. So, I reached out to KJ and asked her if she could talk a little bit about Silas and Dominic, and why she decided to build her love story on such rocky ground.

I also wanted to ask KJ about her stories with people of color. As much as I love gay romance, and I do love it VERY MUCH, something that is not done very often (or well unfortunately) are characters of color. In historical romance specifically it’s practically unheard of,  yet in KJ’s books POC are often represented and in two of her recent stories they are the main characters. I wanted to hear from her why it was important to have people of color in her novels, and to speak about how she went about writing these characters as a white woman.

Here is what KJ had to say…

The Tipsy Bibliophile: In “A Seditious Affair” and other books, you make a point of exploring class injustice and oppression at very deep levels, you expose the hypocrisy of such systems, even at the expense of your own heroes. Romance is supposed to be an escape, you know, “light reading”. What do you say to that? Do you find that your readers react to those elements of your story in particular, if so, do those reactions surprise you?

KJ Charles: It’s funny: people say ‘don’t talk about politics’ and ‘romance should be escapist’. But actually “Seditious Affair”, my most overtly political book, is probably the book that’s got the most intense love from readers. And I think that’s *because* of the politics. For one thing, fighting an unjust system is an absolutely real and brutal conflict, not a fantasy one, and that raises the stakes on the romance hugely. For another, I think passionate dedication to doing the right thing and making the world better is pretty damn sexy. And frankly, at the moment, I’d say two politically opposed people falling in love and learning to listen to and understand each other’s views is about as big a fantasy as you can get.

My heroes in that book both have deeply held senses of right and wrong, and they both have to compromise beyond comfort to be with the other, without losing their souls. I did not expect readers to get quite so hooked on radical politics 1819-20, but…well, it’s a fascinating time, an evident matter of injustice, and I think readers like to learn from their books; I certainly do.

The set-up of that book involves one hero very much on the wrong side of history–he works for a government that is actively trying to suppress calls for democracy, in ways that seem grossly unjust. What I tried to do was show how a basically decent man could do those things–because, you know, I don’t think it helps to present the people we disagree with as villains as a matter of course. Sometimes people support unjust systems out of cowardice, selfishness and greed, but sometimes it’s a matter of different world views. Dominic, in my book, is a Tory who opposes enfranchising the working man. That doesn’t mean he hates poor people: it means that, like many men of his time, he believes in a hierarchical society, and in the responsibility of those at the top. He thinks there is a God-given order to things, which includes a ruling class, and that democracy would lead to anarchy, chaos and murder, as in the relatively recent bloodshed of the French Revolution. We might now not find a lot to agree with in those views. But it’s worth noting that the great anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was a Tory who opposed any enfranchisement for the working classes, even as he dedicated his life to ending enslavement. He didn’t think the Government should do anything for the poor; he near bankrupted himself personally giving charity to individuals. It isn’t always a simple matter of right and wrong where one person has to change his mind, and I think readers appreciate the nuance of that in books because they see it around them every day.
The Tipsy Bibliophile: I am as you know, a BIG fan of your writing, and as a person of color in an interracial marriage, I have been very interested, and pleased, with your interracial stories like “Wanted, A Gentleman” and “An Unseen Attraction”. Specially because they are so rare in gay romance, and practically unheard of when it comes to historicals. This is very delicate ground to tread on. So much can go wrong! Why is it important for you to write these stories? What was different for you in writing them?

KJ Charles:  I feel passionate about including POC in my stories because I am sick to death of seeing my city’s history whitewashed. There have been POC recorded in London since records began. I think the version of Victorian or Regency London where everyone is white and upper class isn’t just untrue, it’s painfully limited and honestly not that interesting. Opening out romance to variety of race, religion, occupation, class, gender and sexuality has produced most of my favourite historicals, and so many wonderful new stories. As a white author I am vividly aware of the importance of doing my research, representing with respect and as much historical accuracy as I can, and all I can say is, I’ll try my best to get characters and stories right. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing a white-only version of London because I don’t live in a white-only version of London.

I am in no way an expert but it does seem like the US and UK have very divergent historical attitudes when it comes to interracial marriage, because of course we have very different histories.  I’ve seen Americans assume that the UK had laws against mixed race marriages, which has never been the case. There are an absolute ton of mixed marriages recorded throughout London’s history, as one might expect for a port city and capital of empire, and that’s something I’ve reflected in my books as a matter of course. (Obviously we don’t have written records of queer relationships in the same way we do m/f marriages, but I think it’s fair to extrapolate the social attitudes.)

You can buy “A Seditious Affair” HERE.
You can buy KJ’s interracial romances “Wanted, A Gentleman” and “A Unseen Attraction” HERE.
Another historical series that explores class injustice incredibly well, please look for Joanna Chambers’ “Enlightment Series”. It is an AMAZING historical and an education on Scottish history. You can find the series HERE.
A few other novels with interracial couples that delve into racial justice that I LOVE are:
“Bolt Hole” by Amy Lane, you can find it HERE. 
“Other Side of the Line” by Margaritte Labbe. (this story explores the segregation and civil rights movement in the US, and it is WONDERFUL), you can find it HERE.
“Death of a Blues Angel” by Sarah Black (ANYTHING BY SARAH BLACK!), you can find it HERE.
“But My Boyfriend Is” by K.A. Mitchell, you can find it HERE.
Thanks so much for reading, and please let me know of any other romances which explore these themes that you love!
Come back tomorrow for my interview with author J.E. Birk where we talk about her decision to explore the struggle of undocumented families.
Cheers and Happy Reading!

Social Justice in Romance Series: Roan Parrish on Writing with Purpose and Decarceration

28549365In Roan Parrish’s novel “Out Of Nowhere” Rafael Guerrera one of the main characters, is an ex-convict. The ex-convict trope is not exactly unusual in gay romance, but Roan took her characters in an unexpected direction. Instead of going for the usual, she confronts us with a man who has turned his anger at the system into fierce political activism.. Rafe is relentless in his work, and refuses to be silent. He is vocal and strong, and as we read his love story we learn so much about our broken criminal justice system, mass incarceration and the decarceration movement Rafe is so involved in.

Since I read the book the first time, (I’ve read it many times by now) I have wanted to talk with Roan about Rafe. Why was it important for her to go so deeply into his political activism? Why is it important for us the reader to understand that side of him? I also wanted to talk about purpose in her writing. For me, reading romance is a lot about more than getting a happy ending with some sex sprinkled along the way (although this aspect is also critical to my enjoyment!) it is about hope, and it is about seeing the kinder side of humanity.

Being purposeful about bringing along the things that happen in our world which suffocate hope and dim kindness into a romance make the stories richer. It also builds empathy. Reading about characters who we may never come across in our own lives, and connecting with them at deep level, makes us more open to the try and understand about experiences and struggles we may have never thought of before.

So, no more of my ramblings…Here is what Roan had to say.

The Tipsy Bibliophile: The ex-convict, is not a rare theme in gay romance, it comes up every once in awhile. In “Out of Nowhere” you did something different, you did not go for the more traditional narrative, giving us a “damaged” ex-con, who is fixed by love. In Rafe’s character we get a man who had been caught up by the criminal justice system as a young man, and emerged from it emboldened to speak out and be an agent of change. Through him we learn about mass incarceration, the prison industry complex, and how the system is failing so many young men of color in our country. This is not the typical romance story line.

Why was it important to you, to let us in on the system that Rafe struggled with? What do you say to those who may argue those themes are too heavy for romance readers?

Roan Parrish: Sometimes, in romance novels, the presence of protagonists who’ve been incarcerated is a positive thing, because those characters get to be fleshed out, and in being so, often the traumas and stigmas of incarceration are made visible. But presence isn’t the same thing as analysis. And just as often, “prison” is used to stand in for a kind of eroticized reformed-bad-boy image, or as code that tells us the character is stereotypically tough. When that equation (prison = tough guy) happens, instead of being critiqued, prison becomes venerated as a kind of factory that produces a type of masculinity that signifies as erotic in many romances. This is a huge problem, because as long as books repeatedly equate incarceration with eroticized masculinity, they give it a shade of positivity, at least within those books. But, as readers well know, a lot of how we experience the world, and especially things that are unfamiliar to us, is through reading. So, if we encounter characters who’ve been incarcerated purely through reading, and those characters are coded as erotic tough guys who go on to find love, then there is an automatic connection between prison and positivity that is deepened with each story like this that we read.

At the most basic level, I believe that prison education and decarceration are issues that anyone living in America should be aware of. America is the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world. 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated, and the breakdown based on race and socioeconomic background shows the prison system to be radically skewed against people of color and people with fewer resources (African Americans, for example, make up 13% of the general population, and 40% of the incarcerated population). And people who have been incarcerated face a whole slew of challenges, both while inside and after release, that make it difficult to avoid recidivism.

In Out of Nowhere, then, it was crucial to me to write a character who, first, could express the fear and horror of incarceration, rather than portraying it as a crucible through which he had emerged, stronger or more macho. And who, second, was actively involved in attempting to intercede in the system that he had experienced. It also mattered to me that Rafe was a person of color, because of the overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal justice system. Personally, I’ve been doing prison education and abolition work for years, and the most valuable perspectives on issues related to incarceration are from folks who have first-hand experience with it. So, it was important to me that Rafe not just be working toward decarceration, but be doing so with the insight of having experienced prison himself.

What feels too heavy as a theme for romance novels is certainly a matter of taste. For me, there is very little that is more romantic than the idea that love and connection with another person can deepen our

convictions about what is right in the world, and can make us more grateful for our freedom, and more determined to work toward securing freedom for others.

TTB: I’d like to ask you a bit about purpose. I do a lot of reading on social justice issues. It would be understatement to say, I don’t usually expect to come across such a sophisticated depiction of systematic oppression when I pick up a romance novel. When you decided to delve into Rafe’s activism and his thoughts on the criminal justice system, did you do so in the hopes that it would start a conversation? If so, was it hard to achieve a balance writing about these themes within a romance novel?

I definitely hoped that Rafe’s representation would make people aware of issues with the criminal justice system, if they weren’t already familiar. It’s an issue that is so deeply ingrained in the work toward justice, but one that a lot of folks might not have had reason to become aware of. And, in fact, the most gratifying thing for me, after Out of Nowhere came out, were all the notes I received from readers who hadn’t been knowledgeable about decarceration, and who were now working to educate themselves or get involved as a result of reading the book. It really underlined what I’ve always believed about reading, which is that learning the story of a specific person allows us entrée into issues that might otherwise not have touched us personally.

But I also wanted folks who are deeply politically involved to see themselves on the page. There aren’t many representations of people doing political work in romance novels, and when there are, too often it’s a throwaway trait. Or, worse, it’s conflated with being a “social justice warrior,” a charming designation for people who shout hollowly about political issues online but don’t work toward change in the world. This is a dangerous conflation, because it makes it easy to dismiss any online political activism as empty (ahem, can you tell this is a pet peeve of mine?).

I didn’t find it hard to balance the themes of the book with the romance, no. From a purely practical standpoint, nearly all my friends and community do social justice work, and it inflects our romantic lives in the same way that, say, being a teacher, or a bartender, or a frequent concertgoer might—it affects who you meet, where you hang out, and what you connect with people about. So, it was perfectly natural to write Rafe’s involvement in Books Through Bars or decarceration and have it be one more part of his life, alongside his romance with Colin.

I didn’t choose to give Rafe a history of incarceration and a drive to change that system simply because they’re issues that I think are important, though. I purposely gave them to the character who was going to be romantically involved with Colin, precisely because of the thematic link. Colin has lived his life based on a set of rules and strictures that he grew up in, and that he internalized so strongly that he couldn’t break free from them, even once he was an adult. He was, as Rafe puts it, as much in prison as anyone Rafe met inside, only it was a prison that only Colin had the power to free himself from. So, there is a substrate of understanding between them because of certain shared experiences, even though they have dealt with these experiences very differently. And part of what I hoped to show, as they got closer, was the way that Rafe had infused his life with meaning by helping other people, whereas Colin was drowning because he wasn’t able to reach beyond himself. They needed each other: Colin needed to learn that the world mattered, and Rafe needed to learn that he, himself mattered.

TTB: Finally, are there other social justice themes that you wish to explore in your novels?

RP: Social justice is, in short, the belief that removing the barriers that people face because of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, ability, background, etc., would result in greater equality, freedom, and opportunity for all. It’s a principle that I believe in deeply, so everything I write is inflected by it to different degrees. Some are explicit, as with Rafe’s commitment to decarceration, and some more implicit. I recently finished a book about Ginger (who is Daniel’s best friend in In the Middle of Somewhere), who owns a tattoo shop in Philadelphia, and it explores a lot of the subtle and not-so-subtle sexisms that she experiences as a female business owner, and the misogyny she faces as a woman working in the male-dominated tattoo industry. But, yes, I would never want to write anything that didn’t demonstrate principles of social justice and equality, no matter how subtle.

Thank you for reading! Please share your thoughts on this, if you have them. Or, share any other novels you’ve read that talk about the issue of mass incarceration.

You can get “Out of Nowhere” in Kindle or Paperback HERE or in audiobook HERE.

If you would like to learn more about mass incarceration, here are a couple of resources for you.

Book: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander, you can learn more about it HERE.

Documentary: 13TH Film which is available for streaming on Netflix, you can learn more about it HERE.

Advocacy Group: The Sentencing Project, you can learn more about them HERE.

Please come back on Monday for my talk with KJ Charles about her book “A Seditious Affair”, and why she let her characters get so political. She’ll also discuss representation in historical romance.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Cheers and Happy Reading!

Laura

Social Justice and Romance: Are those two a good fit?

How social justice is portrayed in gay romance is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.  I think partly it’s due to the current state of the world, and all the things happening daily that are essentially eating away at the small gains we had made in the fight towards a more just society. But also, because in the past year, I have gone back again and again to the authors who have delved deeply into social justice in their stories, and reading those stories has been very meaningful for me.

Over the next week  I will post a series of posts on different social justice themes and will share my conversations with authors who have “gone there”, and not only delivered powerful love stories, but have opened readers up to some very important issues.

So, what is Social Justice? According to The Social Work Dictionary, social justice entails upholding the condition that in a perfect world, all citizens would have equal “rights, protection, opportunities, obligations, and social benefits”, regardless of their backgrounds and membership in diverse groups…A lofty goal if there ever was one, and so elusive. And yet, in the Social Work profession (my day job), pledging to advocate for Social and Economic Justice is embedded in all we do.

I think about Social Justice a lot, it’s literally my job,  and one of my passions.  My other great passion is reading, romance novels in particular are a big source of joy, and my go to when I need self-care. However Romance and Social Justice, sadly are two passions of mine that rarely overlap.  It’s not to say social justice never comes up, the fight for LGBTQ rights is a theme that is covered well in gay romance, as it should be, and in my opinion is one of the things that make this genre very special for readers.

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Social justice is much broader than LGBT rights though, and it intersects through many different parts of what makes a whole person, not just their sexuality. It is also gender identity, race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, country of origin, immigration status, education…and the list goes on.  The combination of all these things will determine whether a person navigates this wold from a place of privilege or disadvantage.

So what does any of this have to do with Romance Novels? Well, for me, a lot.  I’ve struggled a lot with the idea of there being a place for topics like income inequality, systemic racism, mass incarceration, sexual violence, immigration reform and so many others in romance. Is it even appropriate to get so heavy when romance should help readers escape? I think the answer is yes, especially for those of us who already read gay romance. Because, we already are seeking stories of  people who have struggled so much to be able to love openly. I think romance readers are the ideal audience for books that address injustice, and I wanted to hear from authors and readers about their opinions on this.

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My first conversation is with one of my favorite writers (in any genre) Roan Parrish author of the Middle of Somewhere Series published my Dreamspinner Press. We talk about the second book in this series “Out of Nowhere” one of my favorite romances. In this book Roan presents to us, the prison industry complex, decarceration, internalized oppression, and political activism, just to name a few, and does it all while giving us a sweeping and passionate love story. Roan will share about her thoughts on writing with purpose, and why more people need know about decarceration.

My second conversation will be with KJ Charles , author of the Society of Gentlemen Series published by Penguin Random House. KJ will talk with us about her novel “A Seditious Affair” and why it was important for her to delve so deeply into the politics of her two heroes. She’ll also share on why she writes persons of color in her stories, and the importance of their presence in historical romance.

My third and last conversation will be with author J.E. Birk author of “Dating Ryan Alback” published by Riptide Publishing. J.E. will share why she decided to highlight the struggles faced by the children of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in her novel, and why she thinks romance is the perfect space for stories with a focus on social justice.

So LOTS of good conversation coming up on the blog. I do hope that this gets a conversation started in the gay romance community from readers and writers. I also look forward to hearing from you and your thoughts on this.
So please come back tomorrow for my talk with Roan Parrish!
Cheers and Happy Reading!
Laura

Goodbye Paradise by Sarina Bowen w Caramelized Onion and Mushroom Tart

34198964Today I have a lovely recipe for a lovely story I read over the weekend, Goodbye Paradise by author Sarina Bowen. I’ve read a few of Sarina’s books, her Him Series, was in my Comfort Reads List for last year, and her recent book Good Boy is literally the first het romance I have read in YEARS. In this novel, which is the first in a series, we meet a couple of young men Caleb and Joshua, who have been raised in a polygamist cult in Wyoming…The book is not so much about the cult, but about their life once they escape it. I really enjoyed the story and will definitely read the next one.

Before I get further in to the book let’s talk a little about the recipe I paired the book with. I decided to do a Caramelized Onion and Mushroom Tart, which was essentially as a result of quiches being mentioned several times in the book. 🙂 This recipe is foolproof. There is literally no way to mess it up, it looks super fancy and it is DELICIOUS. Perfect for two young guys trying to start on their own out in the world!

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Now the story…We meet Joshua and Caleb right before they are forced to start a new life outside of their religious community. Joshua is forced out of the compound and left to fend for himself, but Caleb does not leave him to his own devices ,and together they make their way to a fresh start.

This story even though it is built around some pretty rough themes, and could have been very dark, is very sweet and quite sexy! Joshua an Caleb escape a situation in which they never could have been together, an along the way find kind and generous people that help them start over.

I thought the author did a good job of getting at the internalized homophobia that a person growing up in that environment could struggle with, without stalling the development of Caleb and Joshua’s romance. There was not much conflict there at all actually, which honestly I enjoy in a romance. There was no doubt these two would end up together it was just a matter of building a solid foundation for their lives.

I loved the friends and family and really appreciated how they were such a central part of the story. I specially loved Maggie and how her struggles were portrayed. I of course love little kids in book, so that was bonus. Overall this was nice story, with some very sexy parts, an for the most part a nice and easy happily ever after.

I recommend.

You can buy Goodbye Paradise HERE.

You can read more about Sarina Bowen and her other novels HERE.

Now the recipe!

Caramelized Onions and Mushroom Tart

1 pie crust (I just used a pre-made frozen Trader Joe’s crust)

2 large onion sliced thinly

1 8oz pack of white mushrooms sliced

1 cup of Gruyere cheese shredded

1 cup of Swiss cheese shredded

4 eggs

3/4 cup of half and half

2 tablespoons of butter

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 tablespoon of dijon mustard

Salt and Pepper to taste

Directions

Pre-heat oven at 375 degrees. In a skillet with 1 tablespoon of butter and one tablespoon of oil saute the sliced onion (sprinkled with a pinch of salt and pepper) at medium heat until they are caramelized (about 15 minutes) stir regularly and watch them so they don’t burn. After the onions are done set aside in a bowl to cool and saute the mushrooms (sprinkled with a pinch of salt and pepper) with the remaining oil and butter, until soft, about 10 minutes. Stir so they don’t burn. Once cooked set aside in a bowl to cool.

Put your crust in the oven to cook for 16 minutes. Watch it and take out before it browns too much. Once crust is done take out to cool. While crust is cooling, scramble the eggs in a bowl and mix with the half and half, and a pinch of salt and pepper.

Once pie is cool, spread the mustard over the bottom of the crust, the sprinkle cheese in one layer, than layer of mushrooms and top with a layer of the onions. Pour the egg mixture on top of that. Put in the oven at 375F for 35 minutes. Make sure the center is firm before you take out. Let it cool for 5 minutes before cutting. You can serve this with a spring mix salad tossed with a light vinaigrette. It goes VERY WELL with a dry white, like a Sauvignon Blanc.

Hope you enjoy the tart and the book, they are a pretty yummy combination!

If you try the recipe, please comment below an let me know how you like it!

Cheers and Happy Reading!

Laura