My Revenge Review and What it Taught Me

So here’s how it went down:

It was 2012 and I had just let loose into the world, my first self-published book, Commitment. It was a long book. Even after I’d edited it sixty million times, it was still kind of a tome. It was the kind of book that proved that I didn’t know anything about self-publishing, and knew even less about the dominant genre of romance. So, I released the book and y’know what happened? Basically NOTHING. Not for a long, long time. I think one of my first reviews was a two-star review that said the book was too long, and didn’t hold the reader’s interest, or something like that. I was disappointed, but not crushed, because they explained why they couldn’t get into it. And when I looked at Commitment‘s counterparts, I saw that it was indeed a lot longer than the genre where I’d classified it generally tolerated.

I decided my audience was probably not traditional romance readers, or maybe not exclusively so. So, I did a little research, and the advice was that I should “get out there” and not just wait for readers to “discover” me. Instead, I should review other books in similar genres to the one I was writing in, and make sure I added to my profile wherever I reviewed, that I was also a writer, and list my work. (I picked women’s fiction as the closest to what I saw myself doing.) Cool. Easy enough to write reviews, because I’m analytical by nature and like parsing the meaning of books almost as much as I like reading and writing them. I read a fair amount now, but back then was a much more voracious consumer of novels of all kinds, so I had plenty of books to choose from for my first review.

I found a book I’d read not too long prior, and reviewed it. It was a pretty popular book with a catchy title that had garnered a lot of interest among Black women and popped up on lots of recommended reading lists for Black chick lit, Black women’s fiction and the like. I wrote an honest review. I liked the story and the trajectory until the end, which I said felt like the author stepped up to the precipice of a really important statement about women, and then chickened out and retreated to a traditional girl-gets-boy ending. I’m telling you, I put a lot of thought into that review, as I do into every review I write. And I was honest, as I always am when talking about how other writers’ work made me feel. I posted my review, and went on about my life.

A couple days later, a new review popped up for my book after a long dry spell where there was nothing but crickets and tumbleweed. Yay, right? Maybe the strategy was working! My review of someone else’s work was getting my book some attention! Then I read it. It was my very first experience with a gratuitously unkind, calling-into-question-whether-they-read-the-book-at-all review. It said something like, ‘nothing to see here, same ol’ same ol’ … Boring.’ And it used a phrase that was suspiciously similar to one I’d used in my review of that popular chick lit book. Something felt disingenuous about it. So I looked up the reader’s other reviews, and discovered through a little amateur sleuthing (okay, no sleuthing was involved, it was right there on her profile) that the bad review had come from none other than the semi-famous author whose book I had reviewed unfavorably!

My mouth fell open.

I went back to read my review of her work and found that I was perfectly content with what I’d said, and willing to stand by it. I was stunned that she would care what completely unknown little ol’ me thought of her book. She was getting national accolades and attention after all. And what was more incredible was that she would care enough to write what definitely smelled like a revenge review. That’s when it occurred to me — some authors don’t want feedback. Not really. They want praise, accolades, adulation. Otherwise, they want you to just please STFU. That experience, and a few others since then, when other authors’ fans decided to take not so subtle digs when I gave their idol less than a stellar review finally made me stop writing reviews of books altogether for a time. I’ve only just begun to write them again, and still, only sparingly. Particularly if the writer is anywhere within six degrees of separation, I remain silent unless I can be complimentary.

But lately, I’ve come to regret this approach, and am pulling back from it. Not because I’m sooooo full of integrity, but some of it is for my own sake. Especially when I get five-star reviews that feel undeserved, or read a book that has only glowing reviews but turns out to be a lackluster read. I’m craving balance, and honesty. Because I “know” readers through social media and we shoot the breeze about tons of things besides books, they tend to send private messages when they’re disappointed in a book I wrote, rather than write a thoughtful, well-reasoned public review that other readers can assess and engage with. I think they believe I’ll get frosty or mean if criticized. Or send a bunch of rabid trolls their way. Or will resent the public airing of something other than compliments. And those fears are not unwarranted in this new world of reader/writer engagement.

But don’t get me wrong. ‘I hated it. Stupid book and waste of money.’ is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about using the time and space when you write a review to give authors actual data, information about where they grabbed you, where they lost you, what you felt. That stuff is gold. Seriously. Please do it. Write reviews that are meaningful, don’t just show up to join in the applause.

My take is this: write the review, make it honest, even if it’s less than complimentary . Even if it’s about my book. I, for one, appreciate it. And I know I’m not alone.

Love & Light,

N.

NEW RELEASE: ‘In Black & White’

About the book:

A marriage, a friendship, the fate of a missing child … All three hang in the balance.

Noah and Dana are already facing a difficult time in their short marriage when their daughter, Samara, is abducted. The fallout from friends and family, and the harsh judgment of the public, force them to face some difficult truths about their views on love, marriage, and race. As Dana reflects on the road leading to her and Noah’s union, she begins to examine her motives for getting married, consider whether they should go on, and most painfully, question whether she and her husband ever really knew each other at all.

AVAILABLE NOW on Amazon!

Coming Soon!

About the book:

A marriage, a friendship, a missing child … All three hang in the balance.

Noah and Dana are already facing a difficult time in their short marriage when their daughter, Samara is abducted. The fallout from friends and family, and the harsh judgment of the public, force them to face some difficult truths about their views on love, marriage, and race. As Dana reflects on the road leading to her and Noah’s union, she begins to examine her motives for getting married, consider whether they should go on, and most painfully, question whether they ever really knew each other at all.

SAMPLE CHAPTER:

1. THIS IS HOW I LOST YOU

There is a bird sitting in the tree beneath which the Audi is parked. Just as I am opening the rear passenger door to put Samara inside, it craps on the roof, and then begins to sing, a full-throated melody, as if in triumph.

I mutter a curse. I just got the darn thing washed the day before, after a long winter when the effects of snow and salt and mud were all too apparent, making my luxury SUV look more like a work truck. We live in a neighborhood where people judge you for things like that, and one where Samara and I have already become somewhat of a curiosity.

We have become a curiosity because this is very much a two-parent family community and now there is just me and my daughter; and because most of the children are tweens or teens. Only one couple on our block has kids near Samara’s age, and they are, I think, three- and five-years-old to Samara’s eighteen months. People with very young children, like Samara tend to be somewhat young themselves, and younger people cannot generally afford this neighborhood, so I am a curiosity for that reason as well.

As I strap her into her car seat, Samara smiles up at me, and says, “Juice?”

Her tone is mildly inquisitive, and fully expectant that I will be able to supply what she has asked for.

I look at the side-pocket of diaper bag next to her on the seat and my shoulders sag when I realize I’ve left her cup inside. Instead, I hand her her favorite little stuffed toy that she drags around everywhere.

“When we get to grandma’s,” I say.

“Juice!” Samara insists. Her face crumples the way it does when she is getting worked up to deliver a scream.

“Mama will get you juice,” I promise. “Just as soon as we get to grandma’s.”

She stretches out in the car seat in that way she has, making her body as straight and stiff as a board. She tosses her little plush elephant aside in disgust. I can already picture how this will go. I will climb into the driver’s seat and shut the door, she will realize that there is no juice forthcoming, and will have an epic meltdown lasting the entire drive to Noah’s mother’s house. And I will, once again, deliver to my disapproving mother-in-law, a purple-faced, snotty-nosed, hollering child.

This wasn’t the plan. Samara was supposed to stay home today, but her sitter, Francine called late last night and said she wouldn’t be able to make it this morning after all. I had to call Noah’s mother to fill in at the last minute. But I knew that while she would judge me for being a poor planner, she also wouldn’t be able to turn down the gift of almost half a day spent alone with her granddaughter.

“Samara, please,” I say, putting the back of a hand against my forehead. “Not this morning.”

“Juice!” she says yet again.

I realize I am trying to reason with someone who is inherently unreasonable and take a deep breath, shutting my eyes momentarily. I reach to unfasten her from the car seat and then exhale again.

Instead, I smile at her.

“Just a moment, okay? Mama’s going to get you your juice.”

I make sure I have the fob in hand, shut the door with Samara inside and engage the locks. I have a moment’s pause, but only a moment. I look up and down the tree-lined block, then make a mad dash back toward the house, glancing over my shoulder while I unlock the front door, and again when I pause at the panel that will disarm the home security system.

I run back to the kitchen and spot right away Samara’s juice cup sitting on the center island. Grabbing it, I turn and trip over one of her toys, a little supermarket cart, filled with plastic fruit and vegetables, and little boxes printed with pictures to make them look like the real ones of breakfast cereal, rice, and other dry goods.

“Shit!” I yell as my right knee crashes painfully against the travertine floor.

The top snaps off the cup, sending a puddle of apple juice across the floor along with the mass of fake groceries.

I right myself almost immediately and check my pants and top. Thankfully, the juice is only on the floor and not on me. I take a deep breath, blink back the reflexive tears that rise to my eyes from the sharp pain in my knee and half-walk, half-limp over to the sink. I quickly rinse the cup then go to the fridge and refill it.

Kicking aside some of the toys and stepping over others, I head for the front door then remember my keys. Grabbing them, avoiding the pool of apple juice that will no doubt be a sticky mess when I return home that afternoon, I finally head out. I consider leaving without rearming the security system, but then decide that I must. These tiny omissions, because of the fear of a minor inconvenience are what lead to later regret, I remind myself. I shut the door, only for as long as it takes to enter the code to arm all the entry points to the house.

Finally, I am walking down the cobblestone path from the front door and back to the Audi. I am only a few feet away when I realize I can’t see the top of Samara’s head with the ash-blonde curls. I move faster. I think only that she has managed to unfasten herself from the car seat. Kids are smart, and at her age, little sponges. Having seen me do it a million times, she has probably figured out how to do it on her own.

All these thoughts go through my mind in the mere seconds it takes me to get to the car. All these thoughts immediately disappear, replaced by other more panicked ones when I get to the car and realize that Samara is not inside.

I drop the juice cup, and grab the door handle, tugging frantically at it and not understanding why it won’t open. It is locked. For a moment, I don’t know what the keys in my hand are for. I look at them, uncomprehending. I hear nothing except for the blood rushing in my ears, feel nothing except for my heart crashing in my chest. I yank the door one last time, then remember. I use the fob to disengage the locks then practically dive into the backseat.

Samara is gone.

Her car seat is empty.

I look—irrationally—under the seats, and in the front, down at the passenger and driver’s side floorboards.

She isn’t here! How could she not be here?

My mind splinters like that of a panicked animal. My hands are shaking uncontrollably. I get out of the car and look under it. I look up and down the street. And then, I begin to scream her name, over and over again. I am still screaming her name when one of my neighbors comes out of her house.

I don’t know her, but she is holding a coffee mug and wearing a summer suit. Her eyes are wide in alarm. She can tell from the sound of my wails that I am not just calling to my child in the way that parents often do to get them to come. Her expression, which I register dimly, tells me that she knows right away that something very, very bad has happened.

~~~

I am sitting on the sofa in the living room and the house is crawling with uniformed officers when Noah arrives. Next to me is the neighbor lady whose name I should know since she told it to me at some point. But it flitted immediately out of my head, and I would not be able to retrieve it if my life depended on it. She is holding my hand and I am digging my fingernails into her palms though she doesn’t complain.

I have stopped making any sound, at least outwardly, but inside my soul is screaming like a banshee. Standing over me, is Detective Lewis. I retained his name, because he is important. He is the man who I need to believe will find my baby.

“Dana!”

Noah’s suit-jacket is still on, but his tie looks askew, like he’s tugged at it. His tan face is drawn into a worried and horrified scowl. His sandy hair—always rakishly long in front—is disheveled.

“Dana!” he says again, shoving past the detective. “What … what … where’s Samara? Where’s …”

“Mr. Farris?”

The detective steps between us. He looks Noah over.

I see his eyes taking it all in—Noah’s thirtyish all-American blonde and athletic good looks, and his frantic, frightened blue eyes. If he is at all surprised that we are an interracial couple, it is not apparent in Detective Lewis’ eyes. He probably guessed as much when he looked at the picture of my blonde-haired girl with a complexion that is light desert-sand, in contrast to my much tawnier brown.

“Yes.” Noah looks at the detective impatiently, then back at me. “Dana …”

The neighbor lady releases my hand, and though I am not looking at her, I can sense her watchfulness. I can almost feel her holding her breath, waiting for what comes next.

“Noah,” I say, reaching for him. “She’s … she’s gone.”

My face begins to crumple just as his does. But instead of crying, he raises his voice.

“What do you mean?” he demands, grabbing me by the shoulders. “What do you mean?”

“I went … She was in the car, and …”

“Mr. Farris …”

Detective Lewis tries to interject, but Noah is shaking me now, and I am flopping backward and forward as he does, unresisting. Someone pulls us apart, and I don’t see Noah because I am sobbing and looking down.

“Mr. Farris.” The detective is speaking again. “It appears … Your daughter is missing, and at least right now it seems as though she may have been abducted.”

“How could that have happened?” Noah’s voice is lower now, but not by much. “Dana! How the fuck …?”

“Your ex-wife was inside when …”

I look up, and Noah is staring at me in horror.

“How could you have been … Where was Samara when you were inside, Dana?”

“Your daughter was in the car,” Detective Lewis answers for me.

“In the car?” Noah repeats the words as though he’ll need someone to translate them for him.

“Mr. Farris.”  There is stony emphasis in the detective’s tone. “If we’re to find your daughter, I’m going to need both you and your wife to answer some questions for me.”

Noah finally tears his accusing gaze from me. His face is almost blood-orange. I hear him breathing, labored and uneven breaths.

“What … what do you need to know?” he manages.

“You and your ex-wife have been …”

“My wife,” Noah says. “We’re just … we’re separated, not divorced.”

“Your wife. Yes. You’ve been living apart for how long now?”

“What the fuck does that have to do with anything?” Noah asks, looking pained. He glances at me again.

“I told him six months,” I offer.

“Six months, yes. Six months,” Noah says.

He glances up as a uniformed officer walks by, his radio squawking.

“What’re they looking for? Why are they even here when Samara …?”

His voice cracks, and my heart does as well. He looks at me.  His eyes are brimming with a look of betrayal.  “Dana,” he says, his face crumpling again. “You lost her? How could you do … how could you lose her?”

Why is Black Pain High Art?

Go to the African American Literary top 100 list on Amazon today. Go there any day. And I promise you, out of the top 20 books, sometimes half of them, and occasionally even more than that will be about some of the most difficult periods in Black history and contemporary Black life– enslavement, Jim Crow, incarceration, addiction. It’s all there. For some reason, Black pain is more … literary, i.e., artistic. People are winning awards for their most authentic portrayals of how we suffer and bleed. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely don’t blame the artists. I’m pretty preoccupied with Black trauma myself. I find it difficult to look away from it, and have to remind myself that that isn’t all there is to us.

Alice Walker did that, didn’t she? She said that Black people, possess the “secret of joy.” I remember buying her book ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ almost entirely because of that title, because it sounded both true of us, and counter-intuitive. Because of the depth of our lows, our highs are so much more heady. We revel in them, we languish in them, and we celebrate the hell out of our celebrations, grabbing our joy where we find it and holding on as tight and for as long as we can. Well, the joke was on me, because that book, too, is not about joy at all, but about enduring pain.

After an emotionally exhausting week of anticipating and then finally getting up the guts to watch Ava Duvernay’s ‘When They See Us’, I honestly don’t have the stamina to begin to truly examine what all this means — that we, too, see high art in our own pain, and render it painstakingly, and over and over again, re-traumatizing ourselves and each other. I think part of it is the artist’s essential role as town-crier, helping the rest of us to bear witness, and make sure we never forget. But I don’t know … I’m starting to wonder whether we also have another responsibility, to portray ourselves as healthy, happy and whole. Can’t that be high art, too?

That’s all I got. 

Love & Light,
N.

“Loving Cassie” by Jacinta Howard

Settle in, folks. This is going to be a long one. I am ridiculously excited about this release. Jacinta Howard is one of my favorite authors. And I’ll tell you why in a minute, but let me just start with my review of ‘Loving Cassie’ 
This book, like all this author’s books, has a mood and rhythm all its own, that reminds me of the music that her characters in The Prototype Series create—deep, soulful, incredibly memorable. And Bam and Cassie’s story continues that trend.

Bam is the percussionist in the soul band The Prototype, who we met in previous novels as the loveable comic relief, the counterpoint to all of the angst that seems to swirl around his friends. But in this story, his story, we learn that Bam is just as focused on his craft as the other members
of the band, just as steadfast underneath all the jokes. Like his bandmates, he also has some pretty complicated stuff to contend with, including the difficult family histories or distant parents that seem to typify the experience of almost all the band members in one way or another. The members of The Prototype understand each other in ways that their families of birth don’t always understand them, and Bam’s experience is no different. 

Still, despite his frivolous façade, Bam actually has things pretty well under control—he has a lover who he enjoys, and who enjoys him, and who understands his limits where commitment of time and emotion are concerned; and he has a fatalistic attitude about his distant relationship with his mother, and his almost non-existent one with his father. He doesn’t agonize about much of anything, he just gets on with it, recognizing that if he puts the time and work in with the band, he’s going to wind up in a different place from where he is now as a struggling college student.

As an aside, I never hesitate to say this about Jacinta Howard’s characters: they are not frivolous. Young, yes, but frivolous, no. And I don’t mean they don’t display frivolity in their behavior, what I mean is, as an author Howard respects them, even though they’re young. Their feelings, experiences and aspirations are not portrayed in a way that’s too … cute, or too precious. The significance of their story is never minimized because they’re just on the cusp of embarking on more adult lives. Some writers write new adult characters with a tone that’s almost glib, as though they’re patting them on the head and going, ‘Isn’t that sweet? You think you’re in love!’  or, ‘Aw! You crazy kids!’   With that approach, you feel the writer’s outsider perspective in their tone and so what should be earnest comes across as disingenuous. Jacinta Howard doesn’t do that. She pulls you back to that time in your life, if you’ve already passed it; or she roots you in it, if you’re currently there. She empathizes with her characters in a way that is clearly genuine.

Back to the review: so Bam is, despite the joking around, a young man on very firm footing. Knows who he is, and where he’s going. Enter Cassie, his bandmate Kennedy’s (from Finding Kennedy) somewhat flighty sister, who is like a whirlwind in more ways than one. She’s rebounding from the end of a long relationship and doing her “free Black girl” thing, rolling where the wind takes her and trying to temper her penchant for occasionally causing “drama.” This time, she tells herself, she’s going to straighten out, starting with putting a codependent relationship behind her. But … then comes (as Cassie later reflects on their connection): Bam:A sudden impact or occurrence.

Together, she and he are combustible, something neither of them wants, but both are powerless to resist. Their respective plans, resolutions and routines are up-ended by their connection. Bam has to learn to deal with Cassie’s changeable, volatile and unpredictable nature; and she must learn to trust that Bam’s steadfastness is not a mirage, and that he will not fail her. What one has, the other lacks, but together, there is balance. Watching them go through the process of trying to reach balance was fun, nerve-wracking in a way only passionate people can be, and all kinds of sexy. That’s all I’m gonna say, other than READ THE BOOK.

Back to why I love this author. I feel like she’s not just entertaining us, but documenting a time. A kind of revolution in Black creativity. I feel like we lost it for a while behind a focus on flashy commercialism, but things are changing and Black creatives are more mindful of their place in our story. For sure, there have always been young Black artists who are in it for the artistry, and not for the glory. We don’t hear about them much, because … again, they’re not in it for the glory. Still, far fewer books—especially contemporary relationship-focused fiction, or romance—look at the grit, the struggle, the sacrifice, the determination and the pure love of an art (in this case, music) in
the way Jacinta Howard does. And fewer still allude to the existence of a quiet tribe of young Black creatives who do it #ForTheCulture; the ones for whom,maybe the fame comes, maybe it doesn’t, but they press on because the work itself has inherent value. I feel like that about this author’s work. I know that out there, there’s a reader who wants to see a dimension of us that’s not as frequently portrayed in modern Black romance. So I think it’s pretty cool that Jacinta Howard is giving us other stories, not as frequently told stories about Black people, Black love, and Black art. You know … for the culture.

Early Morning

Ibrahim’s eyes open around four in the morning, as always. He sits up, and next to him, Jada mumbles in her sleep, turning over onto her side and away from him. Lowering his feet to the floor, he slips out of the room and into the hallway. He showers then dresses quietly in the next room, not wanting to wake his wife. When he leaves the house, it is still dark outside. He shoves open the front gate and steps onto the sidewalk, and his mind is drawn to his son, about an hour away.

Kaleem will be already be up and training with his coach. It is mere weeks from the 2020 Olympic Trials and the pressure is up, especially since now Kaleem is a father—and Ibrahim a grandfather—to a six-month-old baby boy.

His name is Anwar.

It means, ‘light’, Kaleem explained, his voice filled with pride. Anwar Ibrahim Carter.

And Ibrahim smiled.

Anwar looks like both his parents. His complexion, currently that of a lightly-roasted peanut, will ripen slightly to a richer, darker hue, but his eyes are the same hazel as those of his mother, Asha, with her dense, spiky eyelashes. Anwar has her disposition as well. He is often still, smiles easily, and is content to lie quietly in his crib or play alone. Occasionally he gurgles to himself, or bursts into loud, high-pitched shrieks as if testing to make sure he still has a voice in this world. He rarely cries. His nose, his lips, his ears are Kaleem’s, and he reminds Ibrahim of what his son looked like as an infant.

Like I spat him out, Kaleem likes to say when he picks Anwar up, holding him above his head like Mufasa did Simba in ‘The Lion King’. We gotta make some more, babe. Two more. Or three. Let’s make three more just like this one.

Whenever he does this, and says this, Asha rolls her eyes but Ibrahim can see the deep feeling in them, and the indulgence. Kaleem will no doubt get three more babies out of that girl. He will get whatever he wants.

About two months after Anwar was born, Ibrahim spent a weekend with his son and daughter-in-law. In the morning, when Kaleem woke up to run, Asha was up as well, and breastfed their son, sitting on the sofa next to him while Kaleem put his runners on and prepared to leave the house. Walking in on the moment, Ibrahim apologized and retreated to the second bedroom listening to their voices trailing behind him.

Kaleem and Asha talk all the time, their apartment filled with the sound of their voices, of them narrating to each other details of their days and the hours they were apart.

Bruh peeled out of the parking lot at like, ninety, I’m tellin’ you …

… She is the meanest teacher in the whole school, and I kind of hope they fire her before I get back … I guess that makes me mean?

I was so high offa that run, babe, I almost jumped over the car instead of getting into it …

… Wonder if I’ll always have this little pooch now. Will you still love me if I’m fat?

Kaleem makes Asha laugh, and when Ibrahim looks at her with his son, he sees a light in Kaleem’s eyes that no one else—except now, Anwar—can ignite with the same ease.

Ibrahim found himself wishing that he and his wife talked as much. They used to, but not now. Now, there is often silence in their house.

When he first came home, they talked. Well into the night, and for weeks afterwards, they had long, winding conversations and frantic bouts of spontaneous lovemaking. But that, too, has slowed and almost stopped.

The very first time he touched Jada, after he came home from prison, Ibrahim was hesitant, slow, and embarrassed that his hands trembled. He was afraid of the strength of his need, and that he might hurt her. Jada was patient, and kept saying that it was okay, that he could go slow, that it was okay … okay … okay.

Her saying that had an effect that was opposite of what she probably intended. He was not reassured. It made him worry that prison had not only stripped them of their easy intimacy, but of her belief that he could please her as a man. And if she doubted his manhood, he wasn’t sure what he had left.

They managed it that night, though the first time had been fast, and no doubt unsatisfactory for her. He waited until he was ready again, and the second time had been better, but still, not good enough. He wanted to try again, but Jada said it was okay … okay … okay. And so he just held her until she fell asleep.

He did not sleep as easily. Or, really, at all, until early the next morning after he was finally able to make her pant and perspire and moan out his name the way she used to before his own foolish actions and the State of California had splintered his family, and separated him from his wife.

Making his way down the block to Free Range, the newest hipster café in the neighborhood, Ibrahim notes that the streets are quiet, deserted, and clean. All the gangbangers are gone these days and in their place are signs on almost every block about city council meetings, and block parties, farmers’ markets and garage sales. Free Range is open twenty-four hours because the couple who owns it, lives in the upper level and have a rotating cast of characters who staff it around the clock. They are young, this couple, and friendly, and fair-haired and perpetually suntanned. The dude wears flip flops all the time no matter his attire, and occasionally he wears skirts, which bear Polynesian prints.

It’s called an ie lavalava, he told Ibrahim when he caught him looking.

And then he launched into a soliloquy about how he didn’t really buy into the whole “gender binary thing” especially when it came to something as meaningless as the garments one put on their body.

That’s cool, Ibrahim told him, though really he was just hoping he would stop talking.

His name is Martin, and his partner’s name is Thea. That’s what he calls her, his “partner.” Funny, the changes in meaning that words have gone through in Ibrahim’s lifetime. While he was in prison, ‘partner’ also came to mean ‘life partner’ or ‘domestic partner.’ Apparently heterosexual people used those terms now as well and it wasn’t just the inadequate subsitute that gay people had to adopt when they couldn’t get married.

Though the streets are quiet, and it would be an ideal morning for it, Ibrahim no longer runs as often. He lost the habit when he was in prison, and afterward, found that he did not enjoy it as much as he used to. When he started, many years ago, it was because it gave him an outlet for the urge he had to move, to get things moving, to get ahead. Now, he has a different impulse – to sit still, to contemplate, to enjoy details, and to appreciate. He is not as hungry as he once was. This lack of hunger and the absence of a fire in his belly concerns him.

Sometimes, he still runs with Kaleem; though not lately now that his son has had to train harder. Now, Kaleem can run circles around him.

“Mr. Carter!”

Ibrahim approaches Free Range and finds the front door open, and Thea on her knees wiping the glass with a cheesecloth, holding a bottle of organic cleaner.

She stands upright and smiles at him, wiping her hands on the thighs of her jeans and setting aside the cleaning tools to take one of his hands in both of hers. She does a little bow when she greets him, a habit she says she picked up in India, where she once lived on an ashram.

Although he is aware she’s a cliché, Ibrahim likes her. She has that kind of blonde hair that always looks frizzy and dry, and out of control that she doesn’t do much with, except pull it back with a scarf once in a while. Stray strands are always wafting out of nowhere into her greenish eyes, upon which she will swat them away impatiently. She reminds Ibrahim of someone. He can’t remember who.

There is no one else in sight, either inside the café, or on the street. Ibrahim wonders at Thea’s comfort being this alone with him, a tall, brawny Black man. Over the years, Ibrahim met a few white kids like this—the ones in whose eyes he detected no awareness of his being different from them. The ones who he believed truly did not attach any consequence to him being Black and them being white. To whom their difference was a matter of descriptive significance only.

Obama Babies was how Ibrahim thought of them – young people who were in middle school when the Black President was elected, and who grew up in uber-liberal enclaves where it was so accepted it didn’t even merit discussion. Some of those young, white Obama Babies used to come into San Quentin as volunteers. Some of them looked truly surprised at what prison was like. Some of them even cried while they were there, or as they left. Many of them didn’t come back.

“Lemme guess,” Thea says. “Spinach omelet with egg whites only.”

“You got it.” Ibrahim nods. “I’ll help out while you’re doing that … put these …” He indicates the umbrellas for the outdoor seating, still folded, and stacked in a corner.

“Yeah, thanks. That’d be cool. It’s going to be a real scorcher today, apparently.”

While Thea goes in to make his breakfast, Ibrahim unfolds the umbrellas one by one and chooses a place to sit. When he sits, he takes the time to look around and sees that the neighborhood is still quiet. He realizes that he has left his phone at home. Having a cell phone with him all the time is something he still hasn’t become accustomed to, so he often leaves it places.

You can’t do that, Ibrahim! Jada said to him once, when she returned from work and found his phone sitting on the entryway table.

He discovered her sitting on the sofa, his phone clutched tightly in both her hands, still wearing her scrubs from work, eyes rimmed in red.

I didn’t know what to think! she continued, her eyes still a little wild.

You should think I forgot my phone, he told her, calmly.

And then she dropped it to the carpeted floor beneath her feet, put her face in her hands and began to cry.

It was like that at first, after he came out. Like she wasn’t sure she knew him anymore, and didn’t know what to expect. It stung that she thought there was any scenario, any circumstance that would have him walking out on her without even a word. Walking out on her at all. Before prison, she knew that there was no way he would ever leave her unless he didn’t have a choice. Now, he was constantly reassuring her and she was constantly reassuring him when before, no reassurance was necessary.

When Jada works a long shift, as she did last night, his wakefulness unsettles her and that is why Ibrahim leaves the house. She sleeps better, he thinks, when he is not there. And yet, paradoxically, his absence also makes her uneasy.

“Here we go!”

Thea returns, bearing a tray, but on it are three plates. One with Ibrahim’s omelet, another with scrambled egg whites and avocado, and another with whole grain toast. There is also a decorative teapot, and two teacups.

“Do you mind if I join you?” Thea asks.

 “Of course not. Please.” Ibrahim gives a brief nod.

Thea sits in the chair opposite him. She has pulled her hair back more securely, and is now wearing sunglasses atop her head. She pours them tea.

Ibrahim smiles at her and then shuts his eyes to say a brief, silent blessing over their meal. When he opens them, Thea is staring at him.

“Were you praying?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“To whom?” Thea’s head falls to one side.

Ibrahim’s eyebrows involuntarily lift.

“I mean … what religion are you?” she amends.

“I believe in the existence of the Divine, the Most Holy.”

Thea smiles. “That’s not really an answer though, is it?”

Ibrahim shrugs.

“I don’t believe in God,” Thea says conversationally.

“No?”

“No.” Thea picks up her fork. “The world is just a random, violent place. And we have to take from it whatever joy we can find.”

Staring at her for a moment, Ibrahim feels a sudden sadness.

“You’re really young to have such a grim outlook,” he said.

“You don’t think it’s random and violent?” Thea asks. “The world?”

“Sometimes violent. But not random.”

“If you really believe that, Mr. Carter, then you must have been a lucky, lucky man.”

“Ibrahim,” he says. “Please. Call me Ibrahim.”

‘Loving Cassie’ by Jacinta Howard

About the book:

Cassandra James thinks she has her place in the world all figured out. But an unexpected betrayal forces her to ask if her “free black girl” vibe is a myth, or worse, a mask to hide herself from the world.

Bam Mosley, keyboardist for the alt-soul band, the Prototype, knows who he is. He just wants to make good music and see the people he cares about win. 

Then he meets her. 

Sure, Cassandra is gorgeous and smart, with hypnotic eyes, but his bandmate’s sister wasn’t supposed to be this…disruptive and break down all his defenses. 

She sees what he hides from everyone else. He allows her to take off her mask. 

But is their connection powerful enough to survive life’s low notes? Or maybe the true test of love is knowing when to let go…

AVAILABLE ON:

AMAZON | FREE ON KINDLE UNLIMITED

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NIA’s REVIEW OF ‘LOVING CASSIE’

Settle in, folks. This is going to be a long one. I am ridiculously excited about this release. Jacinta Howard is one of my favorite authors. And I’ll tell you why in a minute, but let me just start with my review of ‘Loving Cassie’.

This book, like all this author’s books, has a mood and rhythm all its own, that reminds me of the music that her characters in The Prototype Series create—deep, soulful, incredibly memorable. And Bam and Cassie’s story continues that trend. Bam is the percussionist in the soul band The Prototype, who we met in previous novels as the loveable, comic relief, the counterpoint to all of the angst that seems to swirl around his friends. But in this story, his story, we learn that Bam is just as focused on his craft as the other members of the band, just as steadfast underneath all the jokes. Like his bandmates, he also has some pretty complicated stuff to contend with, including the difficult family histories or distant parents that seem to typify the experience of almost all the band members in one way or another. The members of The Prototype understand each other in ways that their families of birth don’t always understand them, and Bam’s experience is no different.

Still despite his frivolous façade, Bam actually has things pretty well under control—he has a lover who he enjoys, and who enjoys him, and who understands his limits where commitment of time and emotion are concerned; and he has a fatalistic attitude about his distant relationship with his mother, and his almost non-existent one with his father. He doesn’t agonize about much of anything, he just gets on with it, recognizing that if he puts the time and work in with the band, he’s going to wind up in a different place from where he is now as a struggling college student.

As an aside, I never hesitate to say this about Jacinta Howard’s characters: they are not frivolous. Young, yes, but frivolous, no. And I don’t mean they don’t display frivolity in their behavior, what I mean is, as an author Howard respects them, even though they’re young. Their feelings, experiences and aspirations are not portrayed in a way that’s too … cute, or too precious. The significance of their story is never minimized because they’re just on the cusp of embarking on more adult lives. Some writers write new adult characters with a tone that’s almost glib, as though they’re patting them on the head and going, ‘Isn’t that sweet? You think you’re in love!’  or, ‘Aw! You crazy kids!’  With that approach, you feel the writer’s outsider perspective in their tone and so what should be earnest comes across as disingenuous. Jacinta Howard doesn’t do that. She pulls you back to that time in your life, if you’ve already passed it; or she roots you in it, if you’re currently there. She empathizes with her characters in a way that is clearly genuine.

Back to the review: so Bam is, despite the joking around, a young man on very firm footing. Knows who he is, and where he’s going. Enter Cassie, his bandmate Kennedy’s (from Finding Kennedy) somewhat flighty sister, who is like a whirlwind in more ways than one. She’s rebounding from the end of a long relationship and doing her “free Black girl” thing, rolling where the wind takes her and trying to temper her penchant for occasionally causing “drama.” This time, she tells herself, she’s going to straighten out, starting with putting a codependent relationship behind her. But … then comes (as Cassie later reflects on their connection): Bam: A sudden impact or occurrence.

Together, she and he are combustible, something neither of them wants, but both are powerless to resist. Their respective plans, resolutions and routines are up-ended by their connection. Bam has to learn to deal with Cassie’s changeable, volatile and unpredictable nature; and she must learn to trust that Bam’s steadfastness is not a mirage, and that he will not fail her. What one has, the other lacks, but together, there is balance. Watching them go through the process of trying to reach balance was fun, nerve-wracking in a way only passionate people can be, and all kinds of sexy. That’s all I’m gonna say, other than READ THE BOOK.

Now, back to why I love this author. I feel like she’s not just entertaining us, but documenting a time. A kind of revolution in Black creativity. I feel like we lost it for a while behind a focus on flashy commercialism, but things are changing and Black creatives are more mindful of their place in our story. For sure, there have always been young Black artists who are in it for the artistry, and not for the glory. We don’t hear about them much, because … again, they’re not in it for the glory. In the past decade we’ve heard more about stars, and glamor and bling … and a fair amount of contemporary romance focuses on that as well. But the tide is shifting. Even the biggest commercially successful female performer on the planet is beginning to lead with a mindfulness of her place in the cycle and history of Black artistic expression. Still, far fewer books—especially contemporary relationship-focused fiction, or romance—look at the grit, the struggle, the sacrifice, the determination and the pure love of an art (in this case, music) in the way Jacinta Howard does. And fewer still allude to the existence of a quiet tribe of young Black creatives who do it #ForTheCulture; the ones for whom, maybe the fame comes, maybe it doesn’t, but they press on because the work itself has inherent value.

I feel like that about this author’s work. I know that out there, there’s a reader who wants to see a dimension of us that’s not as frequently portrayed in modern Black romance. So I think it’s pretty cool that Jacinta Howard is giving us other stories, not as frequently told stories about Black people, Black love, and Black art. You know … for the culture.

ABOUT JACINTA HOWARD

A longtime journalist and lifelong music lover, Jacinta Howard lives in the Atlanta area. She is the author of new adult, women’s fiction, and contemporary romance, a USA TODAY HEA Must-Read Author and a two-time RONE Award nominee. 

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