Sponsored by The Birthday Girl by Sue Fortin.
Four friends. A party to die for. One killer surprise.
As birthday girl Joanne turns forty, no one wants to celebrate her special day, or play along with her idea of a fun party—a weekend away in a cozy cottage in the woods. But as her friends reluctantly gather round her it quickly becomes clear that there is more to Joanne’s birthday weekend, because Joanne is planning to reveal a secret that one of her friends is hiding…A beautiful cottage in the middle of the countryside sounds idyllic—until no one can hear your cries for help. And when Joanne’s party turns into a murder scene, one of the party guests must be the killer. As secrets unravel, the rest of Jo’s friends face a race against time to discover the murderer, before they are next on the killer’s guest list…
If you have a hard time defining the suspense genre you’re not alone. While mystery, thriller, and suspense do have distinctions and tropes specific to their genre, many also use elements from the other genre(s) making it more difficult for readers to easily distinguish the genres. And since many readers also recognize suspense more by the “feel” of it, it can be hard to put into words. For me the easiest way to separate the genres is that mysteries rely on a puzzle or whodunnit that its character(s) are trying to solve; thrillers are fast-paced and oftentimes contain action movie type scenes; suspense puts you on the edge of your seat by building tension on the idea of what might happen. While many must-read suspense lists have many of the same well known titles, I thought I’d go with suspenseful titles that definitely had me turning the page but maybe haven’t hit your radar. Hope you enjoy having to stay up late playing the just-one-more-chapter game.
Suspense with a Bite!
White Bodies by Jane Robins: Callie is worried that her sister Tilda is in an abusive relationship. There have been moments that Callie has witnessed between Tilda and Felix that feel off and now Tilda is covered in bruises. But Tilda is in love, Felix is her everything, and she’s pushing her sister away. Callie seeks help in an online support group and ends up being offered a trade: Felix will be murdered if Callie will murder another abusive spouse. What will Callie do?…
Always Stay Away from Cottages in Remote Areas!
In a Cottage in a Wood by Cass Green: If you’re looking for the suspense built up in horror movies without the actual horror this is for you. Lou is living with her sister’s family in London as she tries to sort out her life. Then on a strange hungover morning, Lou witnesses a suicide that changes her life even more than the traumatic event: She is left a cottage in a remote area. When her life really gets to be too much for her, she escapes to the cottage thinking it’ll give her time to sort everything out. Except either she’s now losing her mind, or the stranger who left her the cottage wasn’t really imagining that someone was after her…
Slow-burn Suspense with a touch of Horror!
The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun, Sora Kim-Russell (Translator): Ogi not only wakes up to the horrific fact that his wife has died but he has been badly hurt in the same car accident and now needs assistance for everything. This is how he finds himself being cared for by his mother-in-law. A woman who is grieving her daughter and doesn’t seem to be filled with much care for her “patient.” Isolated from everyone and left with only his thoughts Ogi is only just beginning to realize how bad his situation is…
A Suspenseful “Who did I marry?!”
Undertow by Elizabeth Heathcote: Carmen’s state of lovey-dovey honeymoon starts to unravel after a stranger’s comment about her husband Mark. See, Mark was already previously married with kids until he’d left his wife for his mistress Zena. The thing is, Zena drowned in the ocean, and while Carmen had always believed it to be a tragic accident, it seems those in the town have always thought Mark had something to do with it. So Carmen begins to snoop through Mark’s things and ask questions, she just can’t help herself…Is Mark’s past going to sink them (heh), or does Carmen need to reign in her imagination?
Slow-burn Literary Suspense:
The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani: A brutal opening that begins with the crime. It back tracks then allowing the readers to watch the moments that unfolded to this point. How a mother had slowly changed from loving being an at-home mom to needing to go back to work as a lawyer. The struggle of finding the right nanny, after so many failed interviews. And the moments, daily and past, that led the perfect nanny to become a parent’s worst nightmare.
A Lie Can Unravel Everything You Think You Know:
Every Last Lie by Mary Kubica: Clara Solberg’s life completely unravels, as one would image, after her husband dies in a car accident. Widowed with a newborn and young daughter, she is trying her best to just keep it together. And then her daughter Maisie, who’d been in the car during the accident, begins to have meltdowns that leave Clara questioning if another car was involved in her husband’s accident. Could it not have been an accident? The brilliance of this novel is how Kubica builds suspense by taking us into Clara’s daily life, starting with Nick’s death, and alternates the chapters with Nick’s daily life starting in the final months of Clara’s recent pregnancy as he struggled to keep the life they’d built from unraveling and Clara from finding out.
A Suspenseful Read with a Thriller Ending for fans of Get Out:
Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith: While this has a thriller ending—one you can imagine in a blockbuster action movie—the entire book was built on threads of suspense that slowly unravel making the reader more and more unsettled. It begins with a black lawyer, Martin Grey, who has a small practice and just won a huge, hopefully career-making case. It leads to an opportunity of being invited on a trip with prominent wealthy black men. A secret society, if you will…Yep, that’s all I’m giving you. This novel works best with you knowing nothing, as the tension builds and you get hit by every layer that is revealed.
Sunburn by Laura Lippman: A perfect pick for readers who like the exploration of an “unlikable woman” and fans of Megan Abbott. Polly walks out on her marriage and child without a word, just leaves them on vacation. Next up in her life? It seems a temporary holding place as a waitress in a small town. But she isn’t alone for long as she ends up building a relationship with Adam, a man passing through town. But when you’re on the run is it really wise to get close to anyone? The suspense builds as you only know so much at any given time creating so many possibilities of danger…This one especially works if you know as little as possible before reading.
Everyone is Behaving Like They’re Hiding Something!
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough: Louise is a single mum who has a bit of fun one night with a stranger in a bar only to soon discover that hook-up is her new boss. Oh, I haven’t even gotten to the worst of it yet—he’s also married! And his wife randomly befriends Louise…This was psychological suspense for me as I couldn’t stop turning the page asking WTF while feeling uneasy the entire time about what was to come.
A New Family Member Tests a Marriage:
Girl Unknown by Karen Perry: David and Caroline have a seemingly stable marriage as they’re raising two kids. But when one of David’s college students reveals she’s his daughter, the family’s strength is tested. Told in alternating chapters from David and Caroline’s perspective, we watch as the family reacts to Zoey: While David welcomes her open-armed (she is his daughter after all) Caroline is hesitant—she has questions. The kids are also divided: one begins to bond with his new sister while the other wants her gone. This is a page-turner that slowly builds suspense one brick at a time, but will the wall be the strength of a new family or is it all going to come crashing down?
This year’s Read Harder challenged is presented by Libby.
Meet Libby. The one-tap reading app from OverDrive. By downloading Libby to your smartphone, you can access thousands of eBooks and audiobooks from your library for free anytime and anywhere. You’ll find titles in all genres, ranging from bestsellers, classics, nonfiction, comics and much more. Libby works on Apple and Android devices and is compatible with Kindle. All you need is a library card but you can sample any book in the library collection without one. In select locations, Libby will even get your library card for you instantly. Learn more at https://meet.libbyapp.com/. Happy Reading.
If you think of the mysteries you’ve read or those you always see advertised—on front tables of bookstores, reviewed the most, finalist for awards—you’ll probably see that most aren’t written by LGBTQ+ authors or people of color. Which is probably why if you think about the majority of the POC/LGBTQ+ characters found in the pages of mystery novels you’ll see they’re stereotypical, dead, written for “bad guy” purposes, or the recipients of hate/racism/homophobia. Even now with more mysteries written by LGBTQ+ authors and authors of color being published it’s still rare to see them get publicity money put behind their books, and Hollywood rarely comes knocking for adaptations—plus, it’s still only a drop in the bucket.
Once I realized how publishing often only pushes forward the same voices, while holding back others, I actively made it a priority to find mysteries written by marginalized voices. My mystery reading life immensely improved. I’ve found so many great authors which led me to more great authors—my death won’t be a mystery because it’ll just be She died under the weight of her ridiculous TBR pile.
Whether you’re here for the Read Harder challenge or have noticed your mystery reading isn’t very inclusive I’ve put together a list of great reads hitting lots of sub-genres and reading tastes.
(If you avoid mystery reading because of violence stick with the Cozy section and/or if you’re a fan of historical fiction read Radha Vatsal’s A Front Page Affair.)
Cozy Mysteries/ Amateur Sleuths:
Hollywood Homicide (Detective by Day #1) by Kellye Garrett: Dayna Anderson has quit acting, is broke, and in need of money to save her parents house which is why she decides to solve a hit-and-run offering reward money. Being an amateur sleuth she thinks everyone did it—which is exactly how I imagine most amateur sleuths to actually be as opposed to their idea of being like Veronica Mars right out the gate.
Goldie Vance Vol 1 by Hope Larson, Brittney Williams: Goldie works at a Florida resort as a valet but really she’s constantly solving mysteries because she wants the in-house detective’s job. Fun, smart, and a joy to read.
Murder in G Major (Gethsemane Brown Mysteries #1) by Alexia Gordon: American musician staying at an Irish cottage is begged by the cottage’s ghost to solve his murder and clear his name. An entertaining and funny series.
Nikki Baker’s Virginia Kelly mystery series appears to be out of print but worth buying used, if you can, since the character is known as the first black female sleuth in lesbian fiction.
Private Investigators / Ex-Cop:
The Last Place You Look by (Roxane Weary #1) by Kristen Lepionka: A PI mystery that builds into a thriller ending. Weary is a hot mess PI dealing with the death of her father, family issues, an unhealthy relationship with her ex-girlfriend, currently sleeping with a man she should not be sleeping with, and taking on a case of a man on death row whose sister believes him to be innocent.
IQ (IQ #1) by Joe Ide: The novel jumps between Isaiah Quintabe’s childhood and his current life as a private detective in East Long Beach taking the cases the LAPD haven’t solved for whatever his clients can afford (chickens included)—until he takes a case for money involving a rap mogul whose life is in danger. Great series with fantastic characters.
A Negro and an Ofay (The Tales of Elliot Caprice) by Danny Gardner: As a biracial man Caprice must navigate racism and colorism in 1952 and finds himself in a desegregated jail cell beneath the St. Louis County Courthouse– just one of his problems. No longer with the Chicago PD he returns home to Illinois to face all the problems he’s avoided since leaving and takes a job with an attorney in order to find someone needed for a will.
The Unquiet Dead (Rachel Getty & Esa Khattak #1) by Ausma Zehanat Khan: A fantastic series written with kindness and care that features two Canadian detectives but takes you around the world exploring important social issues. The series begins with Getty and Khattak, who generally handle minority sensitive cases, being tasked with looking into a man’s fall from a cliff…
Blind Goddess (Hanne Wilhelmsen #1) by Anne Holt, Tom Geddes (Translation): A dark Scandinavian series starring Hanne Wilhelmsen, a lesbian cop in Oslo, Norway. The series begins with Detective Wilhelmsen working with a lawyer with the Special Branch of the Oslo police to figure out who murdered a drug dealer and why a man covered in blood isn’t talking.
Land of Shadows (Detective Elouise Norton #1) by Rachel Howzell Hall: L.A. detective Elouise “Lou” Norton is solving two cases: the current one, with a new partner, of a murdered girl at a construction site, and the one from her childhood when her sister disappeared leaving behind only a shoe. Lou is a perfectly snarky detective who while rich now came from the struggling community many of her victim’s now live in.
Historical Fiction Mysteries:
The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry, #1) by Sujata Massey: In early 1920s Bombay, Perveen is a solicitor working with her father when a case regarding signatures from widows bothers her. Soon Perveen finds herself caught in the mystery of what is actually happening in the house the widows and their children live in… Fantastic new series part of my favorite sub-sub-genre I refer to as Nevertheless, She Persisted Mysteries.
A Rising Man (Sam Wyndham #1) by Abir Mukherjee: Wyndham has left Scotland Yard and moved to British ruled Calcutta in 1919 where he is tasked with solving the murder of a British official. His job is made harder by his opium addiction, and the many rules/laws against Indians that he doesn’t understand. A great new series.
A Study in Scarlet Women (Lady Sherlock, #1) by Sherry Thomas: My favorite Sherlock! A brilliantly thought out and executed gender swapped Sherlock Holmes with a leading lady willing to blowup her life to ensure she doesn’t live a life she doesn’t want. I want this series to go on forever.
Deborah Powell’s Hollis Carpenter Mystery series seems to be out of print but is set in the 1930s starring a lesbian crime reporter for the Houston Times.
Trouble Is a Friend of Mine (Trouble #1) by Stephanie Tromly: A great series for fans of Veronica Mars. Poor Zoey just wants to survive being the new girl in town/school but soon finds herself trying to survive Digby who while trying to find out what happened to his missing sister has dragged Zoey into illegal-ish activity and dangerous situations. Fun, entertaining, great series with witty, sharp dialogue.
Overturned by Lamar Giles: Nikki Tate’s father is exonerated from killing his best friend and released from jail. Something that should leave his daughter thrilled considering she now has her father back and won’t need to be running the family casino, but he’s not acting right and why would someone have set him up to begin with…Nikki Tate is an awesome character and I loved feeling like I was at the poker tables with her.
Far From You by Tess Sharpe: A layered story with addiction, murder, and mystery that is perfect for readers who love an “unlikable” girl. Released from rehab after her best friend’s believed overdose, Sophie is now out to track the real murderer…
The Little Death (Henry Rios Mystery #1) by Michael Nava: Alcoholic public defender Henry Rios is the only one to suspect foul play when the black-sheep of a wealthy San Fransisco family dies of a drug overdose. You don’t see many—any?—gay Latino protagonist in this genre.
Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith: A suspenseful social thriller, perfect for fans of Get Out, that places the reader in super uncomfortable territory as a black lawyer accepts a trip with prominent rich black men which soon seem to be a part of a secret society…
Black Water Rising (Jay Porter #1) by Attica Locke: Lawyer Jay Porter is just trying to get by with his small practice in 1981 Houston, Texas, having left his past behind. But what was supposed to be a nice night out with his wife ends up sucking Porter into a murder investigation…
Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan: Twenty years ago a group of friends toured the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary after Casey and Wailer’s wedding. Present day, Wailer’s body is finally found and the only friend that can help clear Casey’s name can only do so to great detriment to her own life…
Murder on the Red River by Marcie Rendon: Set in 1970s Fargo, North Dakota, a slow-burn character focused mystery. Renee “Cash” Blackbear and the Sheriff connected to her since a childhood accident that took her away from her reservation both find themselves staring at a dead body…
Orient by Christopher Bollen: Orient Long Island is an isolated small town with the culture clash of the locals and the new arrivals of rich Manhattans. When a caretaker is found dead at sea and an animal carcass, rumored to be from a research lab, is also discovered tensions start to rise. Is it one of the new “transplants” that no one knows much about?…
The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: A fantastic mix of lit fic, mystery, crime, and horror—and by horror I mean the kind that reminds you just how truly evil humanity can be. Conjoined twins, Fire and Water, are accused of murder when they’re found bathing near a barrel filled with blood. Sunil, a doctor specializing in sociopaths, is tasked with evaluating the twins. But he doesn’t really think they are sociopaths…
And Some More Reads from Outside of the U.S.:
For a puzzle mystery where police need the help of a physics professor: Salvation of a Saint (Detective Galileo #5) by Keigo Higashino, Alexander O. Smith.
A good procedural series set in Ghana: Kwei Quartey’s Darko Dawson series.
Or maybe you want a detective solving crimes in Cuba: Leonardo Padura’s Mario Conde series (translated by Peter Bush). (You can currently see the four-part adaptation on Netflix: Four Seasons in Havana).
If you’re looking for a M/M romance mystery starring a rookie PI on the case of a missing groom in France: Amuse Bouche (A Russell Quant Mystery #1) by Anthony Bidulka.
How about Filipino Jesuit Priest leads in this dark novel where the mystery has to be solved minus all the fancy CSI gadgets and labs: Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan.
I hope that this list will be a starting point rather than a one time read, and if you’re a fan of mystery/thrillers you can count on there being inclusive reads in the Unusual Suspects mystery newsletter.
Enter to win $500 of Penguin Clothbound classics over on our Instagram account. Click here, or on the image below to enter.
Black American Writers Mug: Why choose one when you can celebrate so many?
The White Rabbit Swing Dress: Kick up your vintage heels with an Alice print dress.
Sherlock Wine Glass Charms: Pick your poison (or someone else might pick it for you…)
Black Panther Build-a-Bear: Want, want, want, WANT.
Harry Potter Boots: Best in black-and-white, right?
Fifteen years out of elementary school, I can no longer remember the names or faces of the school librarians. I only vaguely remember the setup of the trailer in which most of the instruction and research took place; fewer details survive in my memory about the trailer where the bulk of the collection sat. I don’t recall the shape of the hill beyond the library, and I certainly don’t remember any of the books I checked out as a student. But there is one thing that has sat clearly in my memory: the best book advice I’ve ever received from a librarian.
“Who knows the saying,” the librarian asked, “‘don’t judge a book by its cover’?”
We all raised our hands; one student explained the meaning of the adage.
Refraining from critiquing someone based on superficial information or, indeed, a first impression is good advice. But to take the phrase as actual book advice is to do yourself a disservice.
The school librarian, with fifty-or-so young eyes looking on from the floor (all obediently criss-cross, applesauce), explained that covers—and assessing or judging them—are imperative to selecting books that will interest the reader. For example, she said, “If you pick up a book that has a ghost on the cover, what might you expect to find in that book?”
“A scary story!” one of my classmates volunteered.
She smiled and nodded. “That’s right. Very good. So, you see, book covers are actually very useful and you should judge a book by its cover.”
A cover’s purpose, of course, is to advertise a book’s contents.
I’ve carried this book advice with me throughout my reading life (which is to say, my life). I only pick up books which attract my attention, though I recognize those who design the covers of books have a difficult job. To make a single spine stand out in a sea of them is no easy task. But I’ve learned how to visually weed out books that are unlikely to maintain my interest once I’ve opened them. And, certainly, it’s true that the point of a cover is to provide information about a book’s interior. (Well, that and be great bookstagram fodder—where would we be without To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before?)
Sometimes, this comes back to bite me. On occasion, cover art is just a poor representation of a book. There are likely plenty of books out there that I’m missing out on because of a cover design that doesn’t strike me the way the contents would. There are a couple of editions of my favorite book in the world (War for the Oaks by Emma Bull) I’d never in a million years pick up because of their covers. I lucked out with the one I saw in the bookstore that fateful day. But, to be honest, I don’t need another reason for my TBR to grow, so that cover designs are sometimes subjectively bad and/or uninteresting to me is okay.
On the other hand, there are plenty of great covers out there wrapping less-than-great books. Is the cover of American Gods awe-inducing? Yes. Did I love the book as much as the cover? Absolutely not. (Don’t @ me.) I can’t say how many reading hours I’ve wasted for a decent cover.
But overall, it’s a great strategy and I’d like to thank that school librarian (and apologize that I don’t remember your name or your face) for giving me permission to judge books by their covers. I’ve had a richer reading life for it.
Do you pick up or ignore books based on their covers? Has a librarian ever given you invaluable book advice? Let us know in the comments.
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Gabby Rivera, the writer of Juliet Takes a Breath and the ongoing America series for Marvel, visited my university last week to give an incredible talk on radical creativity. While she was in town I had a chance to sit down with her and discuss America, one of the most powerful and inventive comic books of the last decade.
I want to talk to you about Sotomayor University, the setting of most of America. Compared to other comic books, Sotomayor is an incredibly radical vision of a superhero school. The Teen Titans or the X-men, for instance, never had a class on Intergalactic Revolutionaries. What was most important to you in creating Sotomayor University?
Well, when we kicked the idea of America going to college, I’m new to comics, this is my first comic, and so I was just a little stuck. Will Moss, the editor at Marvel was like: well what’s your dream school? And that’s when I was like, Bam, I would want to go to intergalactic Sotomayor University. Justice Sotomayor is a huge inspiration to me, and when I was first starting out, I read her book, My Beloved World, over and over again. I thought, what better place to explore the ancestry of black and brown intergalactic folks? Aliens and other worlds, imagine if there was a university that had all of that and was in its own separate part of the multiverse.
How early did you have that map of Sotomayor University?
Oh my goodness. That map is so beautiful. Joe Quinones did an excellent job with that map. Besides the covers of America, that was one of the first visuals for the number one, and it was just gorgeous from the start. I had looked at some images online. I googled “sci-fi gardens.” I looked for stuff that looked like it incorporated the earth, that it wasn’t just all tech and metal and inorganic things, that it was trees, and of the ground. Something natural, but also super sci-fi.
When did you know there was gonna be a hologram of Sonia Sotomayor?
That was there from the beginning. I was like, it would also be dope if Sonia was there just greeting people the whole time. And, tidbit: Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently reached out . It must have trickled her way that there was a university in the America comic named after her. So we sent some copies to her office, and I was like (laughing): Dear Justice Sotomayor, will you adopt me please?
In the latest issue, X’andria and Prodigy hold a rally where they call for policy changes to the university, such as open portals. How does their struggle coincide or relate to the struggles of actual college students? What work is left to be done at SU, and at real life universities?
One of the beautiful things about America is that she can punch portals. For a Latina to not have any restrictions on where she can travel is revolutionary. There’s no borders for America Chavez. She can go wherever she wants to go. The fact that Exterminatrix was trying to thwart that really rallied the students, and you also get a little sense of the divide, even with students. There’s some racism at play, white supremacy. And also this idea that in order for places to be safe, like a campus, you have to give up your anonymity, you have to give up your autonomy, you have to let people surveil you at all times. I remember even when I was in college, that was something students never really were down with. So what is it like when there’s a school that’s predominately intergalactic students of color, and here comes Exterminatrix, trying to surveil them, control them? Prodigy has his own surveillance, and then realizes later on, like, hey maybe that’s not the way to do this. Maybe we can build safety in our community without, you know, snitching on each other, basically.
I wanted to ask you about the white supremacy that we see a little bit in the background. In several issues, you have white male students missing the point. Real life white boys have also missed the point of America sometimes. When I was doing research for this interview, I came across some really ignorant stuff.
There’s a lot of hate my way.
A lot of crazy stuff!
Let me tell you something—there has been—it’s been very challenging. The world in general isn’t necessarily the safest place for queer women of color, but it seems that the comic world has got its own challenges. Here’s the thing. It’s less about me having an issue with individual white guys. Will Moss, editor of Marvel, is a white guy. And in fact, I think he did an excellent job of showing how you can utilize your power for good. Instead of him kicking the job [of] America to someone already in the ranks, he did his work, and found me. So there’s that. In a lot of media people of color are demonized and criminalized. We’re seen as thieves, or people running and stealing jobs. So I thought it’d be fun to play with the innocence awarded white folks. If these young guys are here in this college, and instead of rallying behind America they see her as an illegal, as a threat, and they use tiki torches, then they’re mimicking what is literally happening in our country right now. It’s kind of also a little bit of a reflection like, hey, I’m not necessarily twisting your actions or your words, I’m just showing you what it looks like from our perspective. This is what you’re actually doing.
Have you felt that hatred or violence differently or more strongly from the comic book community than the YA world that you’re coming from?
One hundred percent. But also, I don’t want to focus so much on that, because I don’t want to fuel anything. I do want to say what’s been really nice about the comic community is that there’s a lot of support, and a lot of folks experience harassment and stuff, so there’s a lot of support internally from all types of folks. Creators of color, white guys who are like, this is dumb, I don’t like that they’re doing this. I think it’s super sweet to see Latino families coming out and cosplaying as America and Prodigy. Different types of comic fans embracing America.
America has had a lot of flirtations over the series, but no serious romantic relationships. In an interview early on, you mentioned that America was kind of deciding whether she even wants a romantic partner right now. Do you see her love life as becoming more central, or is it important to you that the romantic stuff stays on the back burner?
I was really invested in the breakup in the beginning because I feel that breakups are beautiful, but also heart wrenching ways to learn so much about yourself. If it’s a really hard breakup, you will be reborn. It was important for her to have that freedom, to be on her own. A lot of times narratives that are centered on women are centered on women and their husbands, or women and the men that they supported, and we lose the actual energy and the merits of those women. I didn’t want to do the queer version of that and give her a ton of random girlfriends, or a new girlfriend. I wanted to her to just be out in the world and focused, and show that love can sometimes be the quest for family, and not the quest for a lover.
Madrimar is pretty unique in the mainstream comic world, as an older latinx/fuertona woman. How did she come to be? What was most important to you in building her character?
Listen, my grandmothers are my souls. They’re no longer with us, but they impressed upon me tremendous love for family, tremendous respect for myself, integrity, to always be the best at whatever I’m doing, and not in a way that harms anyone else, in a way that uplifts the community. When I read through America’s story, and I saw that she didn’t have family, it kind of gutted me. Family is central to so many Latinx communities, whether its because we pool our resources and everyone thrives, and we all live together, or someone’s cooking so everyone can go there, whatever it is. The fact that she didn’t have family, I just felt like, we have to reconcile that. And what better way to bring her family then to give her a grandmother. And that’s when I was like: I don’t think I know of any badass marvel superhero luchador grandmas. Let’s bring it. If she’s gonna have a grandma, she’s gonna have the most epic grandma ever. That was the feeling behind Madrimar, and that is like: mother and ocean. This constant presence that centers you and brings you home.
Gabby Rivera is a queer Latinx writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently writing America, America Chavez’s solo series, for Marvel.
When you’re a person who loves books—let alone a person who writes about books on the Internet—people make a few assumptions about you. You likely have a lot of bookshelves. (Yes.) You probably have a good book recommendation or two. (Sure.) And you’ve definitely read Harry Potter. (Um…) I mean, obviously. Right? (Wrong.) Y’all, don’t get mad! Spoiler: I finally read Harry Potter, and here’s what happened.
I didn’t have to be sold on Harry Potter. I had no doubt it was great. I’ve seen half of the movies, and I think they’re wonderful. And do you realize how much of a poser I felt like, wearing my Hermione shirt when I hadn’t read the books? It was a risky move! It’s just that when you’re a person who loves books—let alone a person who writes about books on the Internet—there are a lot of books to read. Tons. More and more new ones every week. Titles get shuffled around, and somehow, I missed the train to Hogwarts.
And this sort of drives people crazy. The reactions were all over the place. There was shock.
Some light begging.
After witnessing my shame, and a lot of these reactions playing out, my wife decided to help me out this Christmas. She got me the complete set of Harry Potter, and I’ve finally read the first one, and it’s all that I hoped it would be. Fun and magical and full of whimsy that, frankly, I need these days. I expected that the shock and anger and begging would continue once I announced I had started the series, that people would then need me to keep going, read the rest immediately, start on Fantastic Beasts, get sorted into a Hogwarts House, etc. Much the same way that once you start dating, everyone wants to know when you’ll get married, and once you get married, everyone wants to know when babies are coming, and so on and so forth.
But that’s not what happened. What I found instead was nostalgia.
And even a little jealousy—jealousy that I get to experience it all for the first time.
Chalk all this up to the quality of Rowling’s world, to the depth of people’s love for Harry Potter. While I thought I was being dealt with harshly, while I cringed from being criticized for not reading them, while I sat through the sales pitch again and again, what people were really doing was showing me their love. They were sharing with me something deeper than a recommendation; they were inviting me to Hogwarts. They were passing along a chocolate frog for me to try.
I finally read Harry Potter, and here’s what happened: I got my Hogwarts letter. I walked the halls, and I put on the invisibility cloak, and I joined the class. And there’s a special kinship in that shared reading experience that I haven’t found with many other books—maybe any. And to get to experience that is a gift. So thanks for the begging and the shock and the anger, my friends. You were right.
When I first met erotica editor Rachel Kramer Bussel, I had already been inundated by mountains of misconceptions. I had been taught that all erotica was the same. I thought every story formulaic and assumed that within every story lived a couple, and they were usually straight, usually white, and usually young. They were also fit and healthy and rich, because who else was allowed to like sex?
I assumed it was easy money and easy work. I guessed each story would be full of clichéd writing, and imagination would be left in a heap on the floor along with expensive, but generic, lingerie. I heard the voice of my first college creative writing teacher echoing, “Sex scenes are like car manuals; it’s all about what part goes where.”
But this was not the truth.
Since I first met Rachel on that summer afternoon in 2016, she’s not only taught me as much about good writing and the writer’s life as the writers I have known who have been to Yaddo, but she also showed me that erotica could be a democratic space that celebrates the diversity of desire.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is currently the editor of the Best Women’s Erotica of the Year anthologies from Cleis Press, but she also curates, edits, writes, and promotes several other books each year. Her first story was published in 2000, and she has been working as an editor since 2006. In that time she has either edited, appeared in, or done both in over 100 anthologies. She is also a former editor for Penthouse, and has written more than just good smut—she’s been published in The New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and many others.
Rachel taught me that as writers, we must find a balance between art and the hustle. Writing erotica, like writing a poem or a short story or an essay, takes revision, voice, tone, and complexity. To make it interesting, it also has to find a new way of looking at the act, going beyond the male gaze or the conventional ending we all expect.
We must create, we must keep working, but we also must then work to get our creation out there for the world to see. As a working writer and editor, Rachel has this impressive way of both finding the quiet space to write and edit, yet she also dedicates time to promotion. She hosts readings, runs give aways, and creates a wide variety of outreach both digital and traditional.
Part of the promotion is the power of community. The more time I spent with Rachel, the more I understood her dedication to the writers she works with. She constantly promotes not just her work, but the work of others. It didn’t matter whether it was the author’s first story or if it was a heavyweight in the business, Rachel went out of her way to promote them.
And it was the writers and stories that Rachel found that changed my mind about erotica. As I read more, I discovered that erotica is a space that explores diversity and desire not only on the page but in the people who write each story.
Within the anthologies Rachel has edited, I read stories that spanned the spectrums. Age is not a barrier to desire, and in Best Women’s Erotica of the Year Volume 1 I read a story about a submissive woman in her 50s who had two doms over for dinner. Lust is also an inclusive experience, and erotic stories can be found for every orientation—straight, gay, queer, and bi—kinks and gender identities are not excluded.
I read the story of a woman who was turned on by a plus size older woman who had a kink for dirty dishes. I even read the story of a woman who had a chance encounter with a couple across time. Good Erotica, like all good writing, can be found in all genres and can be genreless if it so chooses.
Erotica also exposes the truth that desire is a thing that can span, race, class, ability, and health status. Because of Rachel Kramer Bussel, stories with deaf narrators and cancer survivors found their way onto my bookshelf. I read about a Filipino virgin on her birthday and an African American fangirl who met and then had sex with a movie star she had had a crush on 20 years before.
The writers of these romantic short stories are also diverse. At a reading for one of the anthologies, I met an author who plays the French horn and we chatted about Michael de Montaigne. Another is a professional photographer with an Instagram account of people on motorcycles around Manhattan. A third author came from Alaska, drove an RV, and was grateful for a husband who watched her dogs while she read her piece.
Through Rachel Kramer Bussel and the authors in her anthologies, I learned not only that sex is part of the human experience, but it is something that can be embraced no matter who you are or what you like. In erotica, we are given the keys to safely explore the unknown and the familiar, all the while discovering more about who we are.
Best Women’s Erotica of the Year and other anthologies gave me a permission slip I had previously been denied. It gave me permission to like what I like, no matter my shape or size or income or orientation. In the end, I have discovered that even if what I like is conventional, that doesn’t mean I can’t be sexy, sex-positive, or even a little assertive in my own desire.
Some months are better than others.
January is heaps of white, fluffy snow, hearts filled with good intentions and new beginnings. March is delayed sunsets and preludes to warmer weather.
But February is awful. It has the ring of melancholy: persistent cold, grey, slushy snow, freezing rain. By February, the novelty of a new year is long gone. Realism sinks in. Aspirations are adjusted, goals amended. Good or bad, most of us realize that we are stuck with who we are. We’re also stuck with an annoyingly limited option of books. And there we have it. My real issue with February:
I. Have. Nothing. To. Read.
Still, I am determined to find a good book. And so, on February 1st, I assume my preferred reading position: snugly seated in my armchair, feet up, Babaganoush on my lap (Babaganoush is my English bulldog). I pick up the world’s greatest invention (aka an e-reader, my preferred one being an iPad) and browse the new releases in fiction. I click on the New in February banner. My eyes twinkle as I scan the titles.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Mrs. by Caitlin Macy
A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey
Then, I notice the release dates. February 6th, February 13th, and February 27th, respectively. To an eager reader, six days can feel like six months.
Not one to be deterred, I click on the Winter’s Most Anticipated Fiction banner. This time, I make sure to check out the release dates before I get too excited.
Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao (March 6th)
Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen (March 20th)
March might as well be 2019.
I take a deep breath. It’s a new year, I tell myself. New books are bound to come out. It might feel like I’ve gone through all of the January releases, but surely there must be one good new book out there. Back to the basics, I tell myself. And by “the basics” I mean my favorite authors. The ones whose novels never disappoint.
First stop: Elin Hilderbrand. It’s a longshot: Elin’s books usually come out in the summer (unless it’s her more-addictive-than-chocolate Winter Series, of course), but one can dream. Besides, months ago Elin tweeted out a picture that showed her working on her latest manuscript. Maybe it’s ready! Maybe one of her 2018 resolutions is to release a book in February! I look it up and…no. The Perfect Couple comes out on June 19th. One day before my birthday.
No matter. There are other fish in the author-sea. Meg Wolitzer. She has a new book coming out. I’m sure of this. I read a review or a blurb or something to that effect. I input her name on the iBooks search field and, sure enough, The Female Persuasion is set to come out in 2018. April 3rd, 2018, to be exact. I love you, Meg—but why April?
Next up is Curtis Sittenfeld. Wasn’t she working on a Hilary Clinton novel? I have a vague recollection of the premise being Hillary’s life if she’d never married Bill (I briefly wonder if it will be titled Dodged that Bullet). But, alas, the book isn’t even available for pre-order. Still, the search wasn’t a complete waste of time. I find out that Curtis is releasing a book of short stories. A happy surprise, though not a perfect one: You Think It, I’ll Say It will only come out on April 24th. Again, April teases me.
Moving along. Rumaan Alam. I’ve only ever read one of his novels—Rich and Pretty, his debut—but I loved it. I’d happily preorder anything he writes, even if it’s an ad for a gently-used shoebox. And Rich and Pretty came out a while ago. Surely, he’s written another book. Again: lady luck eludes me. That Kind of Mother comes out on May 8th.
This is torture. I’m all for technology, but the orange glow of the pre-order button is sheer torment. What I need is for my favorite authors to write faster. Do they not understand how eager I am to read their upcoming novels? I am so worked up that I go on Twitter. My intention is to post a rant in 140 characters or less (Waiting for a good novel is cruel and unusual punishment, I’ll tweet), but my eyes catch Elin’s latest tweet and my anger recedes. It’s hard to stay mad at Elin. She has a full life: family, career, community. Not to mention how involved she in in politics (you should check out some of her tell-it-like-it-is tweets on the current governmental administration). More public figures should be so involved. I always make it a point to cheer her on!
And that’s when it hits me: Twitter isn’t just for rants. I can use it to contact my favorite authors and hit them up for book recommendations. And so it begins:
@elinhilderbrand – I need a book recommendation (and it’s your fault bc your next novel isn’t out yet!)😇
— Cecilia Lyra (@ceciliaclyra) January 28, 2018
Elin replies almost instantly.
My answer is THE IMMORTALISTS by @chloekbenjamin — you’ll want to send me flowers as a thank you because this book is so insanely good. https://t.co/xwhNIjvWTT
— Elin Hilderbrand (@elinhilderbrand) January 28, 2018
My heart deflates: I’ve already read The Immortalists. It was one of the January releases that I devoured (it’s so good!). I thank Elin and move on to Meg.
Hmm, well I did just rave in the NY Times about the novel Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell. It’s terrific. And ha, thanks!
— Meg Wolitzer (@MegWolitzer) January 29, 2018
A book I haven’t read! I’m delighted. Back at the iBooks store, I buy Mrs. Bridge. No need to download a sample. After all, the author of The Interestings has endorsed it.
I spend the next four days engrossed in Mrs. Bridge. Maybe February isn’t that bad, I concede.
But all good books must come to an end. Even this one.
Encouraged by the outcome of Meg’s recommendation, I tweet Rumaan.
@Rumaan – I need a reading recommendation to keep me afloat until #ThatKindOfMother comes out 😇 #prettyplease #throwareaderabone (Not Mrs. Bridge, just finished that one!)
— Cecilia Lyra (@ceciliaclyra) February 3, 2018
This time I get no answer. I try not to take it personally, and hope that it’s because Rumaan is busy working on his third book.
Soon, it’s February 6th and An American Marriage comes out. I lose myself in it (trust me: it’s as good as its hype). A friend recommends Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Eagan (not a new release—how did I miss this one last year?). For once I am thankful for my insomnia, as it helps me stay up at night, finishing this book.
The next morning, I go on Twitter and see that Elin has a new post.
Just reached Isla Holbox in Mexico, you’ve never heard of it, it’s paradise. I’m chest-deep in @JillianMedoff novel THIS COULD HURT. It’s extraordinary!! Guaranteed good read. Beach, subway, paradise, or standing in line at the USPS. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED pic.twitter.com/wwTV8lSAQg
— Elin Hilderbrand (@elinhilderbrand) February 10, 2018
I buy it. Of course I do. And, naturally, the Queen of Summer is right: it’s a phenomenal read.
I am currently reading—and loving—Mrs. I even recommended it to Elin on Twitter (so far, it feels like a novel she’ll enjoy, and, besides, rules of reciprocity and what not).
Still, I know that Mrs. will soon end, and I’ll need a new book. And so, I’ve preemptively tweeted Curtis Sittenfeld.
@csittenfeld – when is your Hillary Clinton book coming out? Can I get a reading recommendation until it does? 😘
— Cecilia Lyra (@ceciliaclyra) February 14, 2018
I still haven’t heard back from her (and, ahem, it better be because she’s busy crafting Hillary’s alternate, fascinating life!). But I think it’s safe to say that I’ve found a new way to obtain fool-proof reading recommendations in the form of borderline pushy, decidedly unsubtle, potentially annoying tweets to my fave authors.
What can I say? All is fair in love and books.
I didn’t read through the entirety of the “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder until a couple of years ago. Despite being books that were well-loved by many like me—white women—I’d never quite found the appeal growing up. I went in knowing the blatant racism that ran through them, and yet I found myself surprised by how frequent the racism was woven through every bit of the Wilders’ lives.
I knew what I was reading, and I read a lot of smart commentary on the books following that experience. And with the publication of Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I was eager to see her story put into context of the westward expansion (and subsequent impact on Natives).
Prairie Fires begins with talking about how Natives were forced from their lands illegally. About the ways they were impacted by whites taking over their land. About the ways the U.S. government treated them terribly. Fraser doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed, and she doesn’t shy away from explaining the racist beliefs white settlers carried with them. There is no apologizing for it and no ignoring it. We know going into the biography that there was no excuse for it, and yet, we’ll see it again and again throughout the biography, much as we’re exposed to it in the series.
And it’s not racism solely against Natives.
While listening to Prairie Fires, I was reading Winifred Conkling’s new young adult nonfiction book Votes for Women!: American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot. This isn’t the first young adult nonfiction title I’ve read about the suffragists, but it’s perhaps the first which looks at the complexity of the women who were pivotal in the movement.
We—and by “we,” here, I refer primarily to the same “we” that I do earlier in this piece, white women—might know Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the mothers of the movement. They rallied at Seneca Falls for the right to vote for women. They traveled, they spoke, and they put themselves on the line again and again to change the perspective of rights (white) women deserve in the US.
But rather than hold these women up as worthy of unfettered adoration, Conkling does not shy away from showcasing how racist they were. The push for women’s suffrage happened during the same timeframe that the abolitionist movement happened, as well as the same time that the temperance movement occurred. Anthony and Stanton, and indeed other ladies of the suffrage movement, were not shy in expressing how disgusted they were thinking about black men—who they saw as uneducated, dirty, and less-than-human—should earn the right to vote before white women—educated, clean, classy, fully-human. They actively threw other movements under the bus in order to push forth their singular agenda of rights for white women before anyone else.
These two books—Prairie Fires and Votes for Women—are situated in the same historical period of America.
Conkling’s book digs into how America finally granted (white) women’s suffrage, showing how states in the west were among the first to grant the rights via their state constitutions. Missouri, where Laura Ingalls Wilder was during this time, was one of the most challenging states; as Fraser wrote, while the state fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War, records show that slavery was alive and well. Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s daughter, despite being given tremendous freedoms thanks to the work of the suffragists—her own income, the ability to divorce her husband, means of traveling as a single woman without a companion—did not care for the movement nor consider herself one to advocate for suffrage.
Reading the two books in conjunction provided a context neither could alone. And more, reading the two books in conjunction highlighted the fact that the idols of white American ideals—manifest destiny, women’s rights, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps—are pockmarked by racist beliefs and trails of blood of those who’ve been stepped on, spit on, and ignored again and again.
Both Fraser and Conkling’s books, much as they look these problems head on and don’t shy away, don’t quite go far enough. Conkling talks about Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass, but few other activists of color are mentioned in the book. Fraser, by virtue of writing a book about Wilder, offers little in terms of how Native women at the time were surviving on the prairie and how they were surviving despite the fact their lands were being stolen, their rights being cheated, their lives being utterly destroyed because of white women.
But these books are a start. And more, they’re a start for white women like me, raised on the “history is told by the winners” history mentality that’s far too common. These books pull the curtains back, showing the less-sightly parts of the women we were raised to believe needn’t be questions or examined in such a way.
It should not be refreshing to read books like this. It should be the norm. And more, should be the start of a long reading trail, filled with the voices and stories of those who look nothing like us, who history has pushed to the margins, and who have been there all along, even when we’ve selected to ignore, forget, abuse, or steal from them.