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 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

Bonfires by Amy Lane and Double Chocolate Banana Bread

34389595You know what I love? That what counts for light romance from long time fave Amy Lane, takes on the absurdity of public education bureaucracy, involves a dead body, and provides us with an epic, righteous monologue that literally made me cheer out loud…Light and fluffy from Ms. Lane. 🙂 SO! Amy does light and sweet mid-life romance, her way. In Bonfires Amy lane gives us Larx and Aaron’s love story, two men in their late forties, entering a chapter of life when kids are almost done growing, careers are settled, and life is feeling like it can bear a new beginning. I enjoyed this book a lot, it really was quite easy reading and the romance was utterly sweet.

So, for something as wholesome as Larx, Aaron and their pack of kiddos I had to bake! To go with this lovely story I made a Double Chocolate Banana Loaf that will literally will make you weep, it’s so good. It is a one bowl, throw everything in type of deal, perfect to whip up when you have a house full of ravenous teenagers needing breakfast. The photo (below) I have for this was literally from breakfast this morning. Today is rainy and gloomy here in the NYC ‘burbs, and I cannot tell you how much comfort re-reading the last few chapters of this book, while sipping my coffee, with a few bites of this cake brought me.

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So the book…Larx and Aaron have known each other for a long while now. Aaron is a local Deputy Sheriff, a widower who raised his three kids on his own after his wife passed ten years before. Larx is the high school principal, who moved to town with his two kids after what was rumored to be a VERY messy divorce. They’d been friendly, until one day Aaron notices that Larx is someone he wants to learn a WHOLE lot about, and he is not shy about getting that message to the feisty principal.

Larx on his end, is not upset about all the attention he is getting from the handsome deputy and well, things get going. Except, life is complicated, one of them is in law enforcement, the other a public educator, jobs that LGBTQ people lose everyday if they are brave enough to live openly. Also they’ve got like five kids and half a petting zoo between the two of them! Yet coming together seems to be a lot simpler than they thought it would be, it’s almost like life was just waiting for them to figure this shit out and go for it.

The outside world of course had other plans, and pretty soon they are both neck deep in a town fiasco that is threatening to crucify two boys brave enough to be themselves, just so their little town could continue to live with blinders on, and not have to accept that fact that gay people exist. What ensues is a really candid look at the hypocrisy with which so many communities operate. How people seem to be fine using children as scapegoats children in their need to maintain their comfort zones. The bravery it takes to confront that, and the heroism of public educators and others who fight for kids who have no one else to stand up for them.

As always the cast of characters had some fantastic personalities, and a lot of that peppery back and forth that Amy Lane is known for. What more can I say? This is classic Amy, an intense love story, characters who are not afraid to do what’s right and demand that others step and do the same, a strong sense of place, and the open possibility for a future visit.

Highly recommend it.

You can but Bonfires HERE.

You can find out more about Amy Lane and her enormous back list HERE.

Now the recipe!

Double Chocolate and Banana Loaf

*Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

3 medium-to-large very ripe bananas
1/2 cup coconut oil melted (original recipe calls for melted butter, so that is also an option!)
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 cup (about 6 ounces or 170 grams) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chunks or chips

Heat your oven to 350°F. Butter a 9×5-inch loaf pan, or spray it with a nonstick baking spray.

Mash bananas in the bottom of a large bowl. (You’ll have a little over 1 cup mashed banana total.) Whisk in melted butter, then brown sugar, egg, and vanilla. Place baking soda, salt, cinnamon (if using), flour and cocoa powder in a sifter or fine-mesh strainer and sift over wet ingredients. (My cocoa is almost always lumpy, so this is essential for me.) Stir dry and wet ingredients with a spoon until just combined. Stir in chocolate chunks or chips.

Pour into prepared pan and bake 55 to 65 minutes, until a tester or toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out batter-free. (A melted chocolate chip smear is expected, however.) Cool in pan for 10 to 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edge and invert it out onto a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

The banana bread will keep for up to 4 days at room temperature. Although in my case the bread was half gone 20 minutes after it came after the oven, and the rest was gone by morning.  It is chocolatey, moist and decadent.

I hope you enjoy the book and give the recipe a try! If you do, let me know!

Cheers and happy reading!

Laura

Dating Ryan Alback, a Slow Cooker Mole and more Pinot Noir

33632459.jpgOne of my favorite tropes in romance is the “Notting Hill” story, when a celebrity meets a civilian and falls in love. They are not always done well, but when they are, well it just gives me massive amounts of joy.  J.E. Birk whose previous novel The Worst Bad Thing, I really loved, has written Dating Ryan Alback which delivers on the Cinderella story and then some. I loved the characters and their journey, but I was also impressed by how the author achieved balance in giving us a pretty sweet love story, while introducing some pretty serious topics.

With this book I have dinner AND wine! For the meal I made a delicious and easy Slow Cooker Mole. Mole is a tradition Mexican dish which usually requires days of cooking and preparation, this quicker version is packed with flavor and very simple to make. I chose this recipe inspired by one of the heroes in our story. It is sooo good you will be glad there are leftovers. You can eat this over white rice, in a tortilla or use in burritos. I am serious this recipe is a KEEPER. The wine I paired it with is a Pinot Noir from The Pinot Project by Skurnik Wine in Sonoma California, it is lovely and light wine, perfect for spicy food and it goes for about $12. A steal! Honestly if you plan well before your next trip to the store, you could be having an amazing night in your own home very soon!

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About the book…Ryan Black is one of those celebrities who does not enjoy the limelight, he loves his career and that he gets to act for a living, but he despises the tabloids and all the attention that comes from being on television. He has been burned before and he is not about to play the fool again.  He is working on a show which is set in New York City public school and he loves it, feels like he is doing work that means something. Romance is not a priority. And yet, despite his better judgement he agrees to go on a reality dating show…

Jason Santos, is a public school teacher in Denver and has been out of the dating game way too long (according to his friends and family). He’s had his heart broken, but he really should get out there again, even if romance is not a priority. He has a project he is working on to support kids of parents who have been deported, and that just feel like a much more important thing to be focusing. And yet, he agrees to go on a reality dating show…

Ryan and Jason are not too sure about this date they are sent on, but they go with it. They get along great, it really seems like there might be some potential there. Jason is genuinely impressed by how seriously Ryan takes his role and how much he wants the show to be an accurate portrayal of what life is like for a public school educator. Ryan loves the fact that Jason does not seem fazed by his fame, it’s going very well…until Ryan let’s his past relationship baggage get the best of him and ruins the whole damn thing.

Jason, is not having any of Ryan’s drama. He feels like a fool for even thinking he could make things work with a melodramatic celebrity, yet he can’t get over how great their time together was. He wonders what could have been different if Ryan would not have made the assumptions he did? On his end Ryan is a ball of regrets, he knows he overreacted, and he can’t help but think that he might have ruined a very real chance at happiness. After some Grade A friend and family meddling, Ryan gets his head out of his ass, and makes a move to get Jason back. Jason is too much of a good guy for Ryan to lose him without a fight.

This novel is a nice and easy read, with really great heroes, and a very fun cast of characters. The friends and family added a lot to the novel specially the parents and best friends on both sides. I also really appreciated the author’s bravery in putting an issue like the tragedy of what is happening to families of undocumented immigrants front and center. This is the kind of novel that keeps romance readers like me, coming back to the genre. A love story with characters you feel invested in from the start that leaves you feeling hopeful about the world.

Highly recommend it.

You can buy Dating Ryan Alback, HERE.

You can read more about J.E. Birk and her other work HERE.

Now the MOLE!

Slow Cooker Mole

*This recipe is adapted from the “America’s Test Kitchen Soups, Stews and Chilies” recipe book

1 Finely Chopped Onion

2 TB of vegetable oil

2 TB Chili Powder

2 TB unsweetened cocoa powder

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 ts ground cinnamon

1/8 ts ground cloves

2 cups of chicken broth

1 (14.5 ounce) can of diced tomatoes (I used Fire Roasted)

1/4 cup peanut butter

3 TB instant tapioca

2 ts minced chile in adobo sauce (This amounts give a decent amount of heat, if you want a milder heat cut in half)

11/2 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

2 scallions sliced

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Directions

Combine onions, oil, chili powder, cocoa, garlic, cinnamon, and cloves in a bowl and microwave, stirring occasionally, until onions are softened, about 5 minutes, transfer to slow cooker.

Stir broth, tomatoes and their juice, raisins, peanut butter, tapioca and chipotle into slow cooker. Season chicken with salt and pepper, and nestle into slow cooker. Cover and cook until chicken is tender, 4 to 6 hours on low.

Transfer chicken to cutting board and let cook slightly. Using forks shred chicken into bite size pieces Let sauce settle for 5 minutes.

Stir in shredded chicken and let sit for another 5 minutes in low setting. Stir in scallions, with salt and pepper to taste. Serve on white rice, topped with sesame seeds and some avocado slices and warm flour tortillas on the side.

Together with the book and the wine, this Mole is an absolute WINNER. If you do try the recipe come back and let me know how you liked it!

Cheers and Happy Reading!

Laura