Weekly Words about New Books in
Independent Bookstores

July 3, 2022
Horse Racing and Racism in Antebellum America, and a Refreshing Take on the Classic Rom Com
Horse by Geraldine Brooks. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning author (for March in 2006) bases her new bestselling novel on a legendary antebellum racehorse named Lexington in a saga that stretches from the 1850s to the near present. Using Lexington and a portrait painted of him as linchpins of the three stories she tells, Brooks delivers a moving narrative about spirit, obsession, and injustice that underscores the popularity of horse racing in the 19th century and highlights the impact of racism both past and present.

In 1850, an enslaved groom and a bay foal forge a bond that will carry the horse to record-setting victories across the South. As war breaks out, a young artist who has made his name by painting racehorses connects with the stallion and his groom. Forward to New York City, 1954, where a gallery owner becomes obsessed with a 19th-century equestrian oil painting of mysterious provenance. From there, Brooks takes readers to Washington, DC, in 2019, where a Smithsonian scientist from Australia and a Nigerian-American art historian find themselves unexpectedly connected through their shared interest in Lexington—one studying the stallion’s bones for clues to his power, the other uncovering the lost history of the unsung Black horsemen who were critical to the horse's racing success.

In researching the book, Brooks discovered much about the widespread interest in horse racing in the 1800s and spoke about it in a recent interview: "Before the Civil War and the Jim Crow era that followed Reconstruction, the racetrack was an integrated space, where all classes and colors mingled. Horse racing was the popular pastime, with crowds of 20,000 or more packing racetracks to watch famous rivals such as Eclipse and Fashion, Grey Eagle and Wagner ... America was an agrarian culture; even most townsfolk were only a generation removed from the land. Races happened everywhere. Andrew Jackson raced his horse in the streets of Washington DC; many towns hosted quarter mile sprints on their Main Streets, and farmers of modest means dreamed of breeding the next champion. Meanwhile, the wealthy built racetracks on their plantations and saw in their thoroughbreds a reflection of their own prestige."
Honey & Spice by Bolu Babalola. British-Nigerian journalist and cultural critic Babalola first made a name for herself as an author with Love in Color, a collection of love stories presented as retellings of myths and folktales that focus on strong, often marginalized women. With her debut novel, Babalola offers up a contemporary romance that takes place at a British university and adds a welcome dose of diversity to the genre.
Kikiola 'Kiki' Banjo is determined to keep the Black women in her college from falling for men who will waste their time, and as host of the student radio show Brown Sugar, she has a ready forum to dish out her romantic advice. She also follows her own advice, preferring to stay separate from the college’s cliques and avoiding romantic entanglements that might lead to rejection and hurt. But when this cool queen of relationship-evasion engages in a very public kiss with an attractive new male arrival whom she has already labeled unsuitable, her credibility takes a hit. The pair are soon embroiled in a fake relationship to try and salvage their reputations and save their futures. Spoiler alert—it doesn't work.

While this storyline may sound familiar to rom com readers, having it written from the perspective of a smart young Black woman offers something new. Among a wealth of good reviews in both the U.S. and Britain is this from Time magazine: "While the romance genre has long been critiqued for its lack of inclusivity when it comes to featuring books by and about people of color, Babalola’s writing refuses to acquiesce to the white gaze, firmly centering the details of the story in the experiences of Black and African students at a predominantly white institution. The author’s sharp sense of humor (which fans of her social media accounts will recognize), slick pop culture references, and keen sense of the zeitgeist ensure that though her story launches off from a tried-and-true trope, it ultimately offers a refreshing portrait of what modern love really looks and feels like."