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616. Reading Rubrics with Shana


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Sarah Wendell: Hello there and welcome to episode number 616 of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books. I’m Sarah Wendell. With me today is Shana, one of our staff reviewers here at Smart Bitches. She wrote a review for Never Cross a Highlander and mentioned what she called the ACAB scale or the Alyssa Cole Antislavery Book scale, which ranks how central to the story the horror of slavery is. So I asked her to tell me about it, and she said yes, of course, and then we talked about rubrics: all the ways we evaluate reading, how we make recommendations, and we also take a small side trip into the field of narrative therapy and bibliotherapy. Please note, I had a cold when we recorded this, so my apologies for my very, very low and quiet voice.

I also want to say congratulations to Shana, because she just got her MSW. Hooray!

Hello and thank you to our Patreon community, who keep me going, who make sure every episode has a transcript – hey, garlicknitter! – [hey! – gk] – and who get to hang out in the Discord and tell me terrible jokes; it’s really fun. If you have supported the show with a monthly pledge, thank you. A special hello to Carrie A., who is one of our newest Patreon members. If you would like to join the Patreon, if you like what we do here and would like to support the show, and also, you know, hang out with us, it would be awesome to have you. Have a look at patreon.com/SmartBitches. Monthly pledges start at a dollar a month, and it would be wonderful to have you join us.

Hello, paranormal romance fans; I know you are listening. Support for this episode comes from Savory & Supernatural by Karen Healey, now available in audio – and the audiobook is terrific. Savory & Supernatural is a super cute, extremely cozy, witchy romance. Kingston, an ambitious, talented actor who one hundred percent absolutely does not believe in the supernatural, picks up a trinket on the beach while on location in New Zealand, and then weird and spooky things happen. Down-on-her-luck Amalia developed cooking magic instead of plant magic, which made her the black sheep of the family, and then she started seeing dead people. She’s now got a great gig running a food truck on the set of a movie being shot nearby, except for Kingston, who is way too hot to be believed, and the fact that he’s being haunted by an angry ghost that only she can see. So we’ve got ghosts, witches, forced proximity, New Zealand, celebrity romance, plus behind-the-scenes details of a movie set. This entire novella is a ride, and the audiobook is terrific. Author Karen Healey has won the Sir Julius Vogel Award and an Aurealius Award for excellence in speculative fiction. Savory & Supernatural is perfect for fans of A Witch’s Guide to Fake Dating a Demon and The Ex Hex, and it’s available everywhere you like to buy eBooks and audiobooks. And this is very cool: did you know if you are a Spotify Premium subscriber, you can listen to Savory & Supernatural on Spotify for free! For sure, give it a listen. For more information and to get your copy, please visit books.8thnotepress.com/savory. That’s books.8thnotepress.com/savory, S-A-V-O-R-Y, or check out the link in the show notes or at smartbitchestrashybooks.com/podcast.

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All right, are you ready to talk about reading rubrics and ways of evaluating books? Here we go: on with my conversation with Shana.

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Shana: Hey! I’m Shana, and I’m a staff reviewer for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and I like to talk about romances, but occasionally I don’t do that, and when I’m not doing that I’m a graduate student. [Laughs]

Sarah: So what degree are you going for?

Shana: A Master’s of Social Work.

Sarah: Woohoo! Have you, have you picked a specialty that you’re focusing on?

Shana: I haven’t? You know, I really – you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I’m really interested in narrative therapy and bibliotherapy.

Sarah: Shocking. What is narrative therapy and bibliotherapy, in case someone has not heard of that before?

Shana: Well, actually, narrative therapy is kind of creating narratives about your life to kind of better understand what’s happened to you and kind of what you want to do in the future? It’s basically what, I think, a lot of just do normally, like, automatically? But it can be really healing to try to understand your, your life in story format. And then bibliotherapy is kind of using actually reading books to, like, to hear yourself, which I feel like all romance fans are very good at – [laughs] – usually.

Sarah: And there’s a really interesting intersection there about the, the intimacy and the emotional labor and the sexuality portrayed in romance and how those are areas that people have a lot of problems with sometimes.

Shana: Yeah! I think that’s really true. So I think particularly romance can be really helpful. Although Harry, Carrie was trying to convince me that horror – [laughs] – like, that horror can also, like, be really cathartic. So – [laughs] – I’m going to, I, I need to read some more horror so I can see if I can use that.

Sarah: I mean, there is a massive audience for horror that is made up of people who identify as women, so –

Shana: Ooh!

Sarah: – who knows? She might be right!

Shana: I hear a lot of trauma survivors, like, talk about the kind of power of horror, so.

Sarah: Well, maybe it’s much like romance gives you the freedom to experience, in the privacy of your own imagination, different forms of intimacy – emotional intimacy, physical intimacy – and horror gives you a safe place to be scared absolutely shitless.

Shana: [Laughs] While knowing that it’ll be okay in the end, at least for you –

Sarah: Yes.

Shana: – for the character.

Sarah: No, you, you don’t know for the characters, but for you, you’ll be fine; you know the book has ending, so clearly there’s some kind of resolution at the end. Even if you’re like, wait, what? The ax murderer was a ghost? What?

Shana: Maybe you’re identifying yourself as the person who’s finally getting to, like, kill everybody who made you angry.

Sarah: I mean, I am all about what I call Earl Had to Die books? I have inadvertently read several books in a row where women are just like, I am fed up and, well, everyone has to die now.

Shana: Yeah, that can be really relaxing!

Sarah: Earl Had to Die can be very cathartic. I mean, mysteries, and I guess horror to a certain extent, are about restoration of order and, or some form of justice. So.

Shana: Mm-hmm, and I think that, you know, sometimes you just stumble upon the book that is perfect for you at the right time that is really healing?

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Shana: So I…the idea about, like, actually being, being able to be more strategic about that, so instead of that kind of being an accidental happenstance that you can…

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: This is what I need to heal in this moment, and, like, this book will help me do that.

Sarah: Yes. I, I often find readers who talk about a book that made them sob was a book that they needed at that moment to cathartic-, cathartically release whatever that was.

Shana: Hmm.

Sarah: Yeah. So I brought you here today to ask you about a particular thing. So in your review for Never Cross a Highlander, you came up with the ACAB scale, or the –

Shana: [Laughs]

Sarah: – Alyssa Cole Antislavery Book scale. Please tell me everything about this scale, and when did you realize that you were measuring books according to this rubric? Just, just tell me, tell me everything, please.

Shana: Okay! [Laughs] Well, what happened was, I was in the middle of reading Never Cross a Highlander, and it has an amazing cover; like –

Sarah: Oh my gosh, yes!

Shana: – very hot Black guy with, like, long dreadlocks, like, flowing in the wind. He’s wearing a kilt; I think he has a sword; he’s shirtless. Like, it is a great cover. [Laughs] And so, and I actually had a paper copy of the book –

Sarah: Ooh!

Shana: – oh yes – [laughs] – that I bought from my, you know, local Black-owned bookstore, and I just, like, couldn’t stop talking about this book, and people would also ask me about it, ‘cause the cover is great, and I would want to, like, tell them about how much I was enjoying it and how it had this free Black woman, you know, she’s from the Highlands in Scotland. She’s kind of caught in this 12 Years a Slave-like situation, where she’s been stolen back into slavery or, or for the first time into slavery, and then she tries to liberate herself, and she gets caught up with this hot Black dude who’s kind of like the Harriet Tubman of Scotland and they’re off on the run. So I’m talking about this book, and really, like, all people wanted to know is like, Is this a book about slavery? ‘Cause – [laughs] – it sounds like a book about slavery. Like, how –

Sarah: Ohhh!

Shana: – how much of this book is about slavery? Like, or, you know, if it’s one of my friends, You know me; would I like this? ‘Cause I, I’m not sure I’m in the mood for a book about slavery. Like, it was really interesting to me that that was, like, the first question? But I think it makes sense, I mean, ‘cause when I read historical romances, like, I just automatically am ranking, like, how intense is the representation of slavery? Like, is it  mentioned at all? ‘Cause that’s also a problem for me if we’re, like, reading a historical romance and we’re just pretending. Not actually a problem – [laughs] – but, like, it can be distracting if I don’t know that’s what I’m getting?

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: So, you know, you want a book that will fit your mood, which I totally get. And how short is the kilt was, like, not as important to my friend as really, like, how traumatic is this going to be? Especially if you don’t know…going on in someone’s life.

Sarah: So the kilt was not sufficient to potentially offset reading about generational historical deep trauma. I can understand this problem.

Shana: …The kilt is pretty hot.

Sarah: I mean, that kilt is doing a lot of work, but I don’t think it can do all of that. That’s a lot.

Shana: That’s too much for one kilt.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, it’s asking a lot of a kilt, really.

Shana: Yes. But I look forward to the magic kilt that will be able to do that, the magic antislavery kilt. Somebody write that book!

Sarah: Magic antislavery kilt? Hell yes.

Shana: [Laughs] Yes, I think I just realized as I was kind of talking about the book with people that I already just kind of automatically rank that, that kind of connection to slavery and how painful it’s going to be. Which doesn’t mean that, like, there’s a level where I won’t read it. It’s just about my mood, you know?

Sarah: Yeah, you have to know going in, is this going to engage on an emotional level that I may not have the energy for?

Shana: Right, and, you know, and is this going to be – kind of like we were saying with, you know, books about horror, like, is this going to be a book about fighting against slavery and oppression where, you know, the balance, there’s really balance between, like, the pain and the horror and really people fighting back, and you get that…or is this a book about people who have, you know, already experienced slavery and are, like, feeling some trauma? And, you know, we were talking, like, I love those books. Like, that’s the kind of shit I love to read, so – [laughs] – so I mean either one of those can be good, but it just kind of depends on my mood, and I think I recommend Alyssa Cole books to a lot of people because, you know, she’s great and she writes across different genres, you know, so if you want a rom-com, you know, if you want horror, like, I can give you an Alyssa Cole book. But I just think she’s a good shorthand, and I just found myself talking about her books a lot, even though they’re really not at all that much like Never Cross a Highlander. I just like to talk about her books, and when I wrote the review I decided, like, Let’s just turn it into an official scale! Like, it –

Sarah: Let’s codify it. I like codifying things.

Shana: Let’s get real. I mean, a Beverly Jenkins slavery book scale would not work, ‘cause, like, she has too many books. My brain couldn’t handle that. I – [laughs] – that would be, like, a really complicated – it’s like that meme with the guy on the board and there’s all these, like, equations.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: Like, that’s what we would need for Beverly Jenkins, but I think for, you know, Alyssa Cole it’s perfect. She, you know, only has a handful of historicals, and, and some of them are more stressful than others!

Sarah: Yes. And she also wrote a, a Scottish historical: Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight was one of her earlier books, and it is a Scottish –

Shana: Yes! That was my first Alyssa Cole book!

Sarah: Aww!

Shana: Yes, I loooved it! Oh my God, I talked about the book to so many people. [Laughs] Basically, every Black person I knew who liked to go to Renaissance fairs?

Sarah: Heard about this book from you.

Shana: [Laughs] I talked about that book. And that’s really, like, at the bottom of my scale? Like –

Sarah: Right, because the distance is substantial. It is, it is informing some of the characters’ actions, but it’s not a present problem.

Shana: Exactly. There’s, like, some ra-, you know, there’s some racism?

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: But, like, it’s real quick, and then, like, the focus is really primarily on the romance, and, like, they are so cute, and they are so adorable. [Laughs] Like, you know, it’s just, it’s just a moment, just the lightest, the lightest little taste of, like, slavery is your backstory. You know, enough to make me feel grounded and like these are real people in, like, a world that feels like our past? And these are also people, like, having their, getting to live a wonderful life. Yeah, so that’s definitely the bottom of my scale.

And then I feel like next is really An Unconditional Freedom, which is, like, one of my favorites because it is about feeling some trauma. Like, similar to Never Cross a Highlander, you have, like, a person who had been stolen back into slavery, and they’re healing from that, and they’re kind of fighting the Confederacy, and so there’s that kind of trauma in the past, but, like, you’re getting to see them, like, overcome it in their, in their present while healing. So I really love, I really love that book for that, but it is, it’s more intense, right, than Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight

And then, like, the next level up for that for me is An Extraordinary Union, which is, like, the book I just recommend to everyone and everyone loves, so it’s very easy for me to compare that book to any other book that I’m reading that’s kind of about slavery or adjacent to slavery. There’s some additional stress because, like, they are fighting racial oppression; like, there’s a system that they’re taking down; they, you know, they, like, love each other and there’s a close romance, so, like, it’s really hot? [Laughs] And they want to have sex for, like, the whole book, but, you know, but they’re fighting together in order to kind of, like, take down slavery, so it’s definitely more stressful?

But, like, it’s not as stressful as the top of the scale for me, which is A Hope Divided, which is a book that actually I found so stressful and at times, like, sad that I took a break for a year to go back and finish it.

Sarah: Wow, a year!

Shana: A year! [Laughs]

Sarah: Did you have to start over?

Shana: I did! I overlapped a little bit, and then I was like, All right, y’all, I remember this. [Laughs] It just, I think it’s because you’re constantly under threat in A Hope Divided. So, like, the character, the, you know, main Black character, she has, like, the Confederacy take over her home and use it as a base?

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Shana: So it’s like literally living with them, and then the love interest, like, for the first part of the book he’s in prison, and so he’s being, like, tortured and abused by the Confederacy. Like, it’s just bad!

Sarah: Yeah, and it’s, it’s heavy. It’s constant presence, yeah.

Shana: Yes. So, I mean, and of course it’s great writing, because it makes you really feel the intensity of, like, both of their emotions and their sense of being trapped? And then, you know, the second half of the book, then they, you know, like, they escape and, you know, they’re on the run, but again, still under threat – [laughs] – for pretty much the entire book. And, and there’s a little bit less of a sense of agency than in An Extraordinary Union, where in that book, both of the characters are spies, and so they’ve made a decision to put themselves in this dangerous situation.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: They didn’t…have it thrust upon them the way the characters do in A Hope Divided, which I think makes it a, just a little more stressful and tragic for them.

So, I mean, I like all of these books – [laughs] – but if I’m, you know, you’re sitting outside, you’re waiting for your family member, you’re in the hospital, you just need something distracting, like, A Hope Divided is maybe not the book – [laughs] – that you’re going to read!

Sarah: No, that’s, that’s the kind of book where you might need to prepare time for yourself after you’ve read it.

Shana: Yeah.

Sarah: Like, I’ve, I’ve seen different reviews for books say, Okay, you – read this; it is amazing; I enjoyed it – but you’re going to need like a week to process it. Like, be prepared for a book hangover.

Shana: A serious book hangover. Or, like, to, you know, to do something really kind for yourself –

Sarah: Yes.

Shana: – after reading.

Sarah: Yes, or that’s affirming, that makes you feel just more present and better.

Shana: I mean, I do think the arc of A Hope Divided, like, makes you feel, you know, a sense of, like, success and peace at the end of the book, so, like, it takes you on a strong emotional journey. [Laughs]

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: …and you feel like, you know, supported and cared for, just like the characters do at the end of the book, but, you know, if you don’t really want to go through that rollercoaster, you could just read Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight, and they’ll just be cute – [laughs] – and they’ll be adorable –

Sarah: Yep.

Shana: – and in love, and, you know, you’ll know that they survived something difficult, but you won’t really have to go into that.

Sarah: So if someone’s going to ask you, for example, with Never Cross a Highlander or another book, how they do ask that question, and how do you answer? So I don’t know if you saw, but there was some recent discussion on multiple forms of social media about readers on TikTok who were Black women saying they didn’t want to read any books with Black people in them because they were all sad and they were all downers, and they didn’t want to read them at all, and then of course Black authors on Twitter were like, Um, have you read any? ‘Cause that’s not the case? And I’ve, I, I am not on TikTok. I have no interest in being on TikTok; that is not my skill set. But it occurred to me that this scale could be really, really useful for explaining the breadth of books that are available about Black perspectives in romance. [Laughs]

Shana: Yeah, uh-huh. I mean, yeah. I mean, you know, actually, I was very sympathetic to those readers, because, like, really it’s unfortunate but true that, like, a lot of the representation of Black characters in, in books in general, not limited to romances, can be really retraumatizing to read. And some of you don’t want to be reminded of your life and the realities that white readers have the opportunity to do that more easily than Black readers do. Like, to have that kind of true escapism. So, so I was sympathetic to both Black readers who felt like, The only thing that lets me turn my brain off is to read this fantasy of a, like a Julia Quinn book, and obviously I’m very – [laughs] – as somebody who loves to read Black romance, really sympathetic to Black authors who say, You know, we can give you that too? You know, in a way that will make you, like – have someone who has hair like you and has to wear a hair bonnet. Like, there’s ways just to have these little moments where you get to feel seen, and that can feel actually, you know, just as escapist and good, so.

It’s true; I hadn’t actually thought about this scale – [laughs] – as a connection to that, because really, probably, for those folks I would recommend reading a book that is in no way slavery-adjacent. [Laughs] But, you know, if you do want to have just that, if you want to read a historical romance and you want to have that kind of connection to, you know, history, I do think the Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight level is really the level to come in at.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: And I do like reading those books. I mean, like, the Tempest by Beverly Jenkins I think definitely does that, where, you know, the characters have, have issues that they’re working through, but they’re not issues that are related to slavery, and it’s really cute and fun. And, you know, Nobody’s Princess by Erica Ridley totally does that too. If you want to, if these are people who are looking for historicals, then, yeah, that book is just, just fun! Like, really, really fun. [Laughs] It was hard to write a review for it that wasn’t just, This will be fun. Where there…to adventures and scrapes, and they’re solving problems, but things stay really light; like, the emotional depth for the romance is there, but for the difficult situations that they’re in with their family or trying to kind of solve inequality in society, it’s, it’s pretty light, so.

So yeah, I would definitely recommend those books, or really just recommend – [laughs] – you know, contemporary Black romance that, that is pretty light, and rom-coms.

Sarah: For sure! What really made me think, the part that’s missing from that discussion is the influence of editors inside, if you’re talking about traditional publishing houses, the influence of editors inside traditional publishing, publishing houses, which is a deeply white industry. There are more editors of color, but it is still overwhelmingly white and cis. You have this white perspective that often tends to flatten and reduce a very cultural experience into, Well, if it doesn’t have this, then it’s not accurate. If it doesn’t have, you know, if it doesn’t have racialized trauma, then is it really Black romance? Which is, which is (a) a terrible marketing hook. Like, Sales is not going to like that. And (2) that’s not the only story. But there’s, I think, a lot of perspective where if it doesn’t have that, how do we, how do we market it? What do we do? And that’s changing in contemporary. I think for historical that can be really challenging, and that, that, the role of that perspective in flattening the experience that then these readers encounter is, is, is, needs to be talked about as much as the, Wait, you’re not reading enough, or You’re not getting enough recommendations. Plus, you know, TikTok? Kind of white in its recommendation algorithm.

Shana: Well, you know, my TikTok feed is not!

Sarah: No, no, but if you just wander into BookTok?

Shana: I know, I know! It’s amazing! Like –

Sarah: It’s like the same five books! It’s wild!

Shana: It is wild. Like, I mean, just the, the narrowness of TikTok’s algorithm fascinates me, because everybody…unique experience, so I really…until, like, someone will send me something, and I fall into some other part of TikTok, like IceTok, where it’s about, like, people making ice and eating it. [Laughs] Or –

Sarah: I’m sorry. Whoa.

Shana: Oh yeah!

Sarah: What, it’s what now? IceTok? They make ice and then they eat –

Shana: My friend Amy, who’s a food scientist, like, started sending me these videos where, like, they just make beautiful ice, and they have these freezers where it’s all filled with, like, ice that has, like, flower petals in it, or it’s different colors, and, you know, you got a little bit of the pleasure of, like, they, they pour the ice out of the ice tray, so you, like, hear the clinking sound –

Sarah: Oh, so there’s some ASMR parts there.

Shana: That’s definitely part of it, but there’s also, I think, like, a weird, maybe, like, diet culture aspect, because – [laughs] –

Sarah: Well.

Shana: – like, my freezer is filled with food. It’s not filled with just, like, ice. [Laughs]

Sarah: Have you seen the people that make, like, like, like, landscapes and, and designer interiors for their fridge? Like, you open the fridge, and there’s like a mirror and a picture and a vase of flowers. Like, they’re making their fridges into a little room? This is wild to me.

Shana: But yeah, sorry – [laughs] – we got distracted by TikTok! But yeah, I…very white, publishing, you know, very white, and it’s interesting, because I do find, you know, talking to my, you know, white friends about historical books, like, people experience books differently. I mean, we’re all individuals, so we’re going to experience books differently, but the things that I find soothing in a book might actually be stressful or feel kind of like traumatic to some of my white friends, who will say, Wow, that book was, like, really sad or hard to read because, you know, it had, because it had some representation of slavery, and that seemed really painful, assuming that it was painful for me, but it actually might not be, like, because of the thoughtful way that it was, you know, described, like in some of the books that I’ve mentioned, so. Like, An Extraordinary Union, the part that was stressful for me was, like, are you going to get caught and die? [Laughs] Like, the racism, I felt like it’s very lightly applied, just to kind of give you the context. It really wasn’t a focus of the book, and that part was, was not hard for me; it’s not even very memorable. I forget it’s in there until – [laughs] – someone reads the book, and then says like, Oh! I bet that was rough! So, you know, I do imagine for white editors it’s really hard to figure out how to thread that needle and think about the audiences, and I think part of the problem is that, you know, publishing defaults to assuming that we need to protect a white audience –

Sarah: Yes.

Shana: – and what that audience needs, which –

Sarah: Yes.

Shana: – might…what I need as a Black reader.

Sarah: It reminds me very much of the, Oh, but children will get upset if you teach them the history of slavery and they’re white; they will recognize their own culpability; they will feel responsible. Like, well, if you want to dismantle white supremacy, you have to be able to accurately talk about what white supremacy does, and that’s a pretty big, massive, ongoing – [laughs] – example that informs our entire economy and culture. Like, yeah, we do need to examine that, and you’re right; part of it is protecting the feelings of people who would be upset to know. But whereas I am now looking at historical romances and I, I really struggle with the opulent wealth portrayal with absolutely zero acknowledgment of where that wealth comes from, because I know where it comes from, and I struggle with that. Like, I can’t as easily as I used to just surrender myself to what Melody at Heaving Bosoms podcast calls England times.

Shana: [Laughs]

Sarah: It’s not a real place; it’s not a real piece of history. It’s England times! So I, I can’t do that anymore, because I’m too aware, and I imagine for you, if you’re reading something where acknowledgment – [laughs] – of, of oppression in some way would, would be present, like it makes sense for it to be there and it’s not, like, would that make you go head-tilting a little bit?

Shana: Well, you know, I think when it – it depends. So when it’s, feels intentional, then I can really enjoy that escapism, and a good example is Rebel Carter’s Gold Sky series? It’s like these polyamorous Westerns kind of set in this mythical town where people are totally okay if men have two wives, and you know –

Sarah: Yeah!

Shana: – it’s totally how things were like in the 1800s. [Laughs]

Sarah: Western times!

Shana: Western times!

Sarah: Polyamorous Western times.

Shana: And there were women, you know, run businesses that are treated with respect.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: And so it has just, like, aspects that, you know, tie it to Western romances, but then other ways in which it, you know, doesn’t attempt to reflect reality –

Sarah: Nooo.

Shana: – and, you know, the, the main characters are people of color for, you know, most of the books. Yeah! It’s really delightful! I find those books really fun and relaxing, and they also have a lot of, like, queer sex in them, which is not something that you necessarily get in that genre, and there’s no slavery. Like, I’m pretty sure it’s not referenced at all in, in those books, and those are fun!

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: Because it was clearly an intentional choice. This, this series is in no way – [laughs] – attempting to reflect, you know, reality. And it actually gets more queer as it goes on. But, you know, there’s other books where, actually, for me, the hardest is reading a historical romance – and I actually just started one – every time they put sugar in the tea, all I could think about was, like, slaves made the sugar.

Sarah: Where, where the sugar came from. Yeah.

Shana: And it was really distracting to me. There’s something about, I think it’s what you’d call, like, that kind of wealth escapism? Where we’re not acknowledging how these people kind of got their money, why they’re traveling in the Caribbean, what it is – [laughs] – when someone goes to the Caribbean and comes back, what it is that they’re doing there. Like, that, that’s just really, it can be really tough for me to take a break from. Like, I can’t keep my brain from thinking about the alternate story –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – about these characters’ lives, and honestly, I’m just more interested in that story. So, you know, if there’s characters who acknowledge, like, where their money came from and they’re trying to kind of fight, you know, against that or fight oppression in some ways, then I am all for that historical? But, like, it is hard for me to read complacency.

Sarah: Yes, that’s the exact right word; I was searching for that word. Like a, a, a very complacent, oh-it’s-fine, hand-wave-y, it’s no big deal. Well, it kind of is a big deal? I also, I also struggled a lot with billionaires, when they were popular? Partially because I worked for a person who qualifies as a billionaire, and –

Shana: They were really hot, I bet.

Sarah: No! No. Actually, I used to print out Harlequin covers and stick them in the mail? I was the executive assistant, I was the second executive assistant to the CEO, and I would print out Harlequin covers that had billionaire references, and I’d just stick them in the mail. One time I put in Billionaire Extraordinaire, and he came out and was like, First of all, why am I not on the cover? Why is it not me? And second, think I need to change my job title. And I was like, Go for it, sir. Go right ahead.

Being really, really wealthy at that time in Manhattan basically meant you never waited in line for anything. Like, everything was incredibly friction-free, and if there was friction, it was a big problem.

I don’t know; I had a real hard time with that much reality and then reading about these billionaires who are like, have time to be Doms at the BDSM club and had, like, lots of friends, and they never did any work. They just sent like two emails and were very grumpy about it, and then they moved on to whatever, what else they were going on; maybe they also had a motorcycle gang, or they were in the mafia, or they were also a werewolf; I don’t know. But there’s just a lot going on that I was just like, I can’t, I can’t spend my brain on this one. This part of my brain does not hit Pause. [Laughs]

Shana: It’s such a problem as a reader. Like, when you know too much about something, like –

Sarah: Yes!

Shana: Sometimes it can make it great. Like, I mean, I, the more I learn about healing from trauma, the more I actually love reading about it – [laughs] – in romances? But, I mean, my mother, for example, is a psychologist. She cannot read or watch movies where there’s a character who’s a therapist. Like, she can’t do it. Like, she will notice every discrepancy, like every, usually unethical behavior, ‘cause you kind of need some unethical behavior and some boundary-pushing for the story to be interesting? [Laughs] And she will just be like, No. That person needs to be reported.

Sarah: So The Sopranos was just right out for her. Like, there was no Sopranos happening.

Shana: Yeah, no. No.

[Laughter]

Shana: Not for my mom! Which is funny, ‘cause some people do really like reading about their profession or their fields. For other people, you just can’t do it.

Sarah: Now I’m wondering if I would read books about podcasters. I don’t know; like, it wouldn’t be very interesting. I sit at my computer a lot. It’s not a very interesting storyline! [Laughs]

Shana: What would make it interesting? So you’re sitting at your computer a lot. Would you have a romance with, like, your sound editor maybe? Or –

Sarah: Oooh.

Shana: Mm-hmm. Or –

Sarah: Someone I’ve never met but only spoken to.

Shana: Uh-huh! Like For Her Consideration, where, you know, it’s a romance between the actress and the woman who’s, like, doing her PR and writing her emails for her –

Sarah: Yep.

Shana: – so I, I can see that working!

Sarah: Very, very nice twist on Cyrano.

Do you have any ideas of how to evaluate when you’re approaching a book, where it might fall in this rubric? Or is this something that develops after you’ve read it, where you can put it in line with other examples?

Shana: Hmm. That’s a good question! I think usually for me it is, it happens after I’ve read it –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – because I’m…books to other people?

Sarah: I mean, it’s a pretty nuanced rubric, so yeah.

Shana: Yeah, it does. And I like to have read a book before I recommend it to other people, or there’s so many caveats, like Well, I don’t know this book… – [laughs] – but, but I trust this author, and I think this and that. But I do think there’s kind of some things that you can test for. So for me, what’s not included in this rubric, which is books that I really have trouble reading, are books that I, I would call like slavery kink books.

Sarah: Ooh! Yikes!

Shana: So that, where, like, the Black person’s, like, inferiority is really central to the story or the sexual tension. You know, a book where a slave falls for her master. So Vanessa Riley actually has a series, The Bargain, where it’s a slave who falls for her master. So I don’t know if those are, those aren’t really slavery kink books but, like, kind of adjacent – [laughs] – and so I think you can tell, like, the degree to which slavery is going to be present when you read the blurb and try to get a sense of, does this person start the book as a slave? And does it sound like they’re going to remain one for the majority of the book? So that kind of gives you a sense of the centrality. And so if you are a slave for most of the book, then it is, you know, it’s, it’s unlikely it’s going to slide into the Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight level, right. So even if you are kind of fighting against slavery at some point, you’re probably going to spend quite a lot of time dealing with the tensions and the pain, the limitations of not being free. That is probably one thing I do look for in looking at books. And, you know, Vanessa Riley has other books that I can say fall somewhere else on the scale, like her A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby? Like, that’s a little more like an, An Unconditional Freedom, I would say.

Sarah: So a lot of backlist can fit into this scale. I, I love a rubric; it’s like my favorite thing.

Shana: [Laughs] Me too!

Sarah: Constantly articulating how you’re evaluating and what each evaluative level means. Like, my number one piece of feedback when I’m editing reviews is, The review doesn’t match the grade. There’s a disconnect here, and the grade needs to represent the review, and the review needs to represent the grade. They need to be in some form of conversation, if not parity. And – I love a rubric. I just love it so much. [Laughs]

Shana: Well, I love your feedback from that, where I’ll say, I wanted to love this book, so I really – [laughs] – want to give it a high score, and you will helpfully point out to me that there are twelve things I hated about this book; this book cannot be an A.

Sarah: Yep. Or conversely, I love everything about this book, one line of criticism, and the book has a C, and I’m like, okay, those, those don’t match. Like, we need to – why? Why a C? And C’s actually really hard to articulate, because a C can just also be, Meh. Those were some words that used the alphabet in an order that I read, but I got really nothing to say. Like, a C can be very hard to articulate as a rubric.

Shana: It is! And, you know, I read a lot of books that are Cs that aren’t bad books!

Sarah: Yeah!

Shana: They’re, you know, they’re forgettable –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – made…Black scene. You know, I just read, I just read a book about, you know, a woman who spends most of the book pregnant. Wait, what’s it called? Pregnant in the Italian’s Palazzo?

Sarah: I mean, it did do what it said on the tin!

Shana: Right? And that’s exactly what happened: she was in a palazzo – [laughs] – in Italy – [laughs more] – pregnant for most of the book. Memorable: no. Perfectly relaxing reading with nothing that objectionable: yes.

Sarah: I feel like that is the, the absolute essence of, like, a Harlequin Presents.

Shana: Mm-hmm.

Sarah: It is fizzy. It is like champagne bubbles. It is luxurious, enjoyable, but it doesn’t last for very long. It’s just for what – it has to be cold; it has to be ready. Like, you can’t just put your glass of champagne down and come back two hours later and expect to have the same experience. It is exactly in that time, but can be very forgettable afterward, unless you have a hangover; then you remember.

Shana: Yeah, and it, sometimes it’s hard to grade those Harlequins because when you find one that’s very unusual that, like, somehow the editor was, like, taking a nap that day –

Sarah: [Laughs]

Shana: – and, like, you know –

Sarah: This one’s an outlier! What the hell’s going on up there? [Laughs]

Shana: – I, then I want to give it an A for, like, Whoa, you really surprised me, Harlequin! [Laughs]

Sarah: You went there! You went for it! Yes!

Shana: …it’s maybe just like an A on a Harlequin scale, you know –

Sarah: Yes!

Shana: – and I love Harlequins! Like, I grew up reading them; I still love reading them. [Laughs] But, yes, I mean, an A Harlequin book, sometimes it meets, like, an A of, like, say, a Beverly Jenkins book, but not always.

Sarah: Yes, that is very, very true.

So we’ve talked a lot about a lot of different books. Are there any books that you’re reading right now that you do want to tell people about that we haven’t already mentioned?

Shana: Well, I did just finish Ana Maria and the Fox, which is another book I was talking with a lot of people about, and that’s a book where I don’t think I would have known that there was a slavery connection, having read the blurb.

Sarah: Oh, interesting!

Shana: But actually reading the book, the hero is the grandson of an escaped slave, and his kind of life’s mission is to end slavery, and the obstacle, really, between a, a romance with him and the – the heroine is a Mexican heiress – one of the obstacles is that she doesn’t have a great reputation, and he needs wealthy white people in order to get the bills passed to end slavery.

Sarah: Right.

Shana: And working on that is kind of his life’s mission that then she ends up kind of taking on. So, so that book made me An Extraordinary Union-ist, actually. [Laughs] That, like, level of adventure. But yeah, I just finished that, and I loved it. It was really fun and sweet.

And I’m reading Single Dads Club right now, so contemporary romance set in South Africa, and that is just, like, very relaxing. You know, you were talking about small-town romances; it’s definitely like small-town romance. Not a lot is happening, but every single character is just kind and funny and –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – you want to be friends, and just, you’re really rooting for them, so I’m really loving that book. I cannot say, having not been to small town South Africa, only big cities, like, I can’t say how realistic it is. But yeah, I’m really loving it, and I’m already excited for the series. Like, the references to people you know will be in future books?

Sarah: Sequel bait!

Shana: Like…Yeah, I love it. Sometimes I don’t like that in books, where it’s like, I don’t care about these other people. Focus on the people I came here to read about.

Sarah: Right.

Shana: But in this case, like, I’m really excited, ‘cause, ‘cause it hasn’t, you don’t know what all the pairs are going to be.

Sarah: Right.

Shana: Like, when you set up all of the pairs in the first book, that can be boring for me. Then I’m like, Why do I need to read – [laughs] – the rest of these books? But I really don’t know how the pairs are going to work out in Single Dads Club, so I’m pretty excited about that.

Sarah: Therese Beharrie is so talented?

Shana: Yeess! Really, she is. Even though I’m still mad about that book I read where it was set in a penguin colony and they didn’t really show penguins.

Sarah: [Laughs]

Shana: You have to focus on humans and not penguins, but – [laughs] –

Sarah: I get it; it wasn’t a penguin romance novel, but it needed more, needed more penguin!

Shana: Every book needs more penguin. [Laughs]

Sarah: Every book needs more penguins. I mean. That’s a whole other scale, though. The rubric of penguin involvement is a different, it’s a different classification system.

Shana: Okay, that’s going to be what the next classification system is –

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: – depth of, of penguin involvement.

[Laughter]

Shana: I might have to write a book to meet the top of my scale – [laughs] – for that.

Sarah: Well, I mean, they’re not penguins, but I know Sarah Morgan had a book, or possibly a trilogy, where they were set around puffin, puffin rescue.

Shana: Really?

Sarah: Yeah! Absolutely! You didn’t know this?

Shana: No, I didn’t know that! I totally love puffins. I basically went to Iceland just ‘cause I wanted to see puffins.

Sarah: So it’s called the Puffin Island series –

Shana: Okay?

Sarah: – and it looks like there’s, there’s a novella, Playing by the Greek’s Rules, and then First Time in Forever, Some Kind of Wonderful, and One Enchanted Moment. They all came out in 2015, 2016, and they are all about Puffin Island.

Shana: Well, look what’s going on my list!

Sarah: Yep! I’m here for you! Just causing trouble.

Shana: I love it!

Sarah: Making, I’m, I’m an, I’m an expensive, expensive person to know. I imagine you are also an expensive person to know when it comes to books.

Shana: Well, I do have a tendency to do friend dates – so I actually live two blocks from a Black-owned bookstore, and I have this tendency to schedule friend dates at the bookstore – [laughs] – where then we walk around the bookstore, people talk about what’s going on in their lives, I recommend books, they leave with a huge stack of books.

Sarah: No wonder you want to get into narrative and bibliotherapy. [Laughs] I mean, you’re already doing it!

Shana: Basically, for free. Please pay me to do this!

Sarah: I mean, if anything, the bookstore should hire you.

Shana: Right?

Sarah: Yeah! The bookstore should be like, Um, please send us your resume as soon as possible? We wish to discuss.

Shana: Yes. See, they’re probably really excited, very…like, Oh! We’re going to make a hundred dollars!

[Laughter]

Sarah: This one woman walking around the shelves. Ka-ching!

Shana: [Laughs]

Sarah: Well, I mean, one of the foundational elements, I think, to reading and reviewing and recommending romance is being able to communicate how that book makes you feel, because romances are directly engaging with empathy. They are asking you to have feelings, and they are trying to make you have feelings, which can be very threatening, obviously. And also very easily misunderstood when some of those feelings are, are pants feelings. But anyway. Romance is trying to make you feel things. It’s trying to give you an emotional experience, which is, I think, one of the reasons why a lot of the BookTok reaction videos took off the way they did, because you are demonstrating how the book made you feel and made you, like, sob! And, I mean, a high emotional response is often very, very interesting, or at least fascinating, for people, because we’re taught, you know, suppress your emotions, do not show emotions, especially to varying degrees depending on, you know, who you are and where you are in the world. So the idea that this book is just going to make you absolutely sob your heart out, and you can represent that as you’re talking about it, that’s very powerful. There’s, that’s a very intimate way of talking about books, so if you’re reviewing it or you’re talking about and you’re writing about it, you’re still, in a lot of ways, trying to say, This is how this book made me feel; this is who I recommend it for; this is how you might feel reading this book. And that feeds into everything, right? Like, content warnings, trigger warnings, you, we need to warn you about what feelings this might create, and we need to recommend these feelings that it might create.

Shana: Yeah, I think that’s really true, and that’s why, for me, it’s important to have a more, like, nuanced –

Sarah: Yes.

Shana: – like, description…

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: …because saying, like, Content warning, like, slavery – [laughs] – that’s not useful for me. You know, I want to know, like, well, how stressful is it going to be for me to read this book? Like, how transformative is it going to be for me to read this book? Like, you know, The Deep, it’s one of, like, my favorite, like, sci-fi books, you know, about Black mermaids, but, like, the, the origin story for that book is about, you know, people being thrown overboard from slave ships. It can be really traumatic, and the whole story is about trauma, but, you know, I think that book is really beautiful, and I, I think just saying, like, Content warning: slavery, would not communicate what I would want to communicate to a friend about how that book will make you feel, how it might, you know, connect you to your own thoughts about generational trauma.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: And make you re-examine them, but at the same time have, like, a Happily Ever After and a romance that will make you feel like the characters end up in a good place!

Sarah: Yeah!

Shana: So, yeah, I think you kind of need that, those descriptors to help connect you with a book and to know what will work.

Sarah: And is it happening now? Is it informing the past? Is it something that is talked about in the past but shown in a flashback present on the page? Like, the level of involvement in the plot is hard to, it’s hard to say with Trigger warning: slavery. Yeah.

Shana: I actually had that trouble with book, with BookTok where they just talked about a book that made me cry, because I don’t know why you cry…

Sarah: Yes, well, that’s the important piece that’s missing: what made you cry?

Shana: They cry – I just had a whole conversation with a group of folks in a, you know, queer readers Facebook group that I’m in about, like, do you like to read books that make you cry? And the general consensus was like, No. I do not seek out some books that make me cry, but if I read a book and it makes me cry, I will remember that book forever.

Sarah: Yeah.

Shana: So it was like…wanted to be, like, surprised into crying? Like – [laughs] – we didn’t want to know.

Sarah: No, we don’t want to be surprised into doing this. No, not at all.

Shana: [Laughs]

Sarah: Where can people find you if you wish to be found on the internet? And you do not have to wish to be found.

Shana: I love the idea about being incognito, but you can find me on Instagram @BlackBabeReads. That’s where I talk about books sometimes, more during the summer – [laughs] – than I do during the school year.

Sarah: Right? ‘Cause, you know, you’ve got some time.

Shana: I do. I’ve been reading so much; it’s been great. Yay!

Sarah: Well, thank you so much for doing this interview with me; I really appreciate it.

Shana: Yeah! Thank you! I really appreciate you letting me talk about my fun scale and letting me talk about Alyssa Cole books, which I love.

Sarah: I love a rubric.

[music]

Sarah: And that brings us to the end of this week’s episode. Thank you again, and congratulations to Shana. Her MSW is in her hand, and she’s going to go and do narrative and bibliotherapy, which I think is so cool! I didn’t even know that was a thing.

I will have links to all of the books that we mention in this episode, and I will have links to where you can find Shana’s reviews and where you can find her on Instagram.

As always, I end with a terrible joke. This joke is so bad, I love it so much. I told my family and there were many, many groans. That’s how you know it makes the podcast; I have to test-drive them on the family. Are you ready?

What celebrity is always ready for soup?

Give up? What celebrity is always ready for soup?

Reese, with her spoon.

[Laughs] It’s so bad! I love it so much! That’s from dadsaysjokes, and I’m so excited to share these! Do you know how much I enjoy this? Can you tell how much I enjoy – I know, I know the minute I say the punch line one of you goes, Ahhh! Which is the mark of a top-shelf joke.

On behalf of everyone here, we wish you the very best of reading. Have a wonderful weekend, and we will see you back here next week.

Smart Podcast, Trashy Books is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. You can find outstanding podcasts to subscribe to at frolic.media/podcasts.

[end of music]



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