I’m always frustrated with my own inadequacies when I try to describe why you should be reading Katrina Jackson’s books. Good authors have a voice and that voice brings the reader into their story and characters in a way that is unique to them. Jackson’s voice put me into her characters and worlds in a way that is very her and so satisfying.
One of Jackson’s primary concerns is the interior life of her main characters, usually the woman at the center of the story. The romance, the love interest, friends, family, and the job are all there in relation to her wants and feelings. In centering the interior life, Jackson gives us novellas that are layered with a whole rainbow of emotions. She does this in action packed books, and books that are vibes, not plots. Because I am immersed in the interior life, I care about her characters whether they are a betrayed bride starting something with a mafia hitman, a professor on the edge of burnout, or travel blogger trying to figure out what’s next.
Sabbatical follows Office Hours, which was one of my favorite reads in 2020. Toni has been a mentor to Deja, and other faculty and students of color. Mike, Alejandro’s friend, has been pining after Toni since he saw part of her interview process before she joined the faculty. With the semester coming to an end, and Toni getting ready for her sabbatical, Mike starts making his interest more obvious, or Toni starts noticing it more. This is a rare Katrina Jackson slow burn.
Toni is taking a sabbatical to rest. At her university, she officially and unofficially mentors a lot of the faculty and students of color, frequently reminding them to set boundaries and rest, while always being ready to defend someone else herself. In her sabbatical year she plans to sleep and renovate her neglected house. She does not plan to start a relationship. Mike’s challenge is to prove to Toni that he adds to her life and is not another demand on her time and energy. He takes care of her in small ways and large, always letting her choose when and if to take the next step. If you are tired from the grind of the past few years, Sabbatical is soul soothing.
Layover and Back in the Day are the gorgeous Bay Area Blues series. They are standalones, but connected by location, Oakland, California, and as Black romances, mixing grief, music, and love. As with Sabbatical, the interior lives of Lena and Tony are the lens through which we see their romance. Lena has been running away from grief. Tony has been pining for Lena. Individually, they are each remarkable people, and Jackson gives us a glimpse of who they might be with each other. I loved Lena’s relationships with her best friend and her sister, and Tony’s relationship with his best friend.
One of my favorite romance bloggers, Charlotte at Close Reading Romance, has given a passage in Layover her close reading treatment. I highly recommend giving it a read, because she is much better at the text analysis than I could ever hope to be.
I think my thesis about the importance of a woman’s interior life holds for Back in the Day, even though we never get inside Ada’s head. We only see Ada through the eyes of her husband, Alonzo, and her son, Amir. From the moment we see Alonzo meet Ada, he wants to understand her moods, make her smile and laugh, and be in her company. Alonzo is at the biggest professional opportunity of his life so far, the Monterey International Pop Festival, and his focus becomes Ada, the photographer assigned to take pictures for his story.
Back in the Day stretches the boundaries of the romance genre. For some people it may be a stretch too far, for me it was not, because the romantic relationship was still central and the HEA happened. Jackson isn’t trying to subvert those genre conventions, she is exploring them from a slightly different angle. The romance between Ada and Alonzo is told in retrospect 5 years after her death as Alonzo and Amir are packing up the house they raised their family in. Alonzo and Ada had their happily ever after – happily married for the rest of Ada’s life and successfully raised two kids to adulthood. Not that marriage and children are required for a happily ever after. Jackson shows us the evidence of their happy life through the memories her family and community share, through the ugly dolls and photographs she left behind.
So, why do I make an angry face when Nicholas Sparks gets mentioned as a romance writer, but not Katrina Jackson? In my opinion Sparks’ writing is manipulation not grounded in truth. He’s looking to rip tears out of the reader without genuine connection. Jackson is invested in the interior life of the character and how the reader responds to that is about the reader. The point of Sparks’ books is reader reaction. The point of Jackson’s story is an exploration of love.
It kills me that more people aren’t reading Katrina Jackson. I think she is a genius and one of the most entertaining writers in the genre. Do yourself a favor and pick up one of her books. None of them are a lot of money and several of them are in Kindle Unlimited.