Review: Charm & Strange

charm and strangeTitle: Charm & Strange
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 216
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: When you’ve been kept caged in the dark, it’s impossible to see the forest for the trees. It’s impossible to see anything, really. Not without bars . . .

Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself.

He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost.

He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable.

Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present.

Before the sun rises, he’ll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths—that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying. (Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: Charm & Strange is a difficult, disturbing read. I can’t say much about it without spoiling the story, but I’ll do my best.

The bio on the dust jacket says that the author is working on a doctorate in clinical psychology, and it’s clear that Kuehn has used her education to her advantage in this book. Charm & Strange combines two narratives in alternating chapters: Drew’s traumatic childhood and Win’s reluctant party attendance, which eventually turns into a mental health crisis. Both narratives leave you with a mounting sense of dread the closer you get to unraveling the mystery of what happened to Drew/Win. There are enough clues that a discerning reader can figure out the key points of the trauma before the official reveal, but that won’t lessen the emotional impact of the events. I spent the time before the reveal desperately hoping that I was wrong and the time afterwards being extremely upset that I was right.

While the book remains tightly focused on Drew/Win, Lex (a former roommate) and Jordan (the new girl) are scene-stealers at school. The failure of Win and Lex’s pseudo friendship is a painful but necessary way of highlighting just how messed up Win is. Jordan’s attempts to befriend Win are equally hard to read, especially since I wanted Win to reach out to someone for help. Lex and Jordan are two decent people caught up in the life of a very broken person, and I admire them for how they deal with Win. They also keep the present narrative from being completely soul-crushing.

Unfortunately, the past narrative is completely soul-crushing. It’s clear from the start that some pretty terrible things had to have happened to Drew in order for him to grow up to be Win, and I had to mentally prep myself for every new chapter. These chapters are the most powerful, especially when the reader starts picking up clues about what is going on with Drew and his family. His brother, Keith, features prominently in this part of the story. The relationship between Keith and Drew (and to a lesser extent, their younger sister, Siobhan) is a heartbreaking one. Keith often acts as a parent for Drew, despite only being a few years older, and watching him struggle to be an adult when he shouldn’t have to be is emotionally draining.

Recommendation: Get it soon, but only if you think you can handle disturbing subject matter. Kuehn wrote an excellent book, but I honestly don’t think I’ll be able to reread it. The book is short and powerful, and it leaves you reeling.


Thank You for 100+ Followers

To celebrate reaching 100+ followers on Twitter and Tumblr, we are hosting a giveaway of five books: The Pirate’s Wish, Cold Steel, Rogue, Girl Overboard, and Prophecy. Thank you so much for your support of Rich in Color and of books by or about people of color!

My fellow co-bloggers and I are looking forward to promoting diverse books all summer long. We hope that you’ll enjoy the upcoming reviews, essays, guest posts, and interviews we have lined up!

This giveaway is for people with U.S. mailing addresses only. It ends on July 4 at 12:00 a.m.

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Four New Books for Summer

There are four books coming out this week! Which ones are you looking forward to?

proxyProxy by Alex London

Knox was born into one of the City’s wealthiest families. A Patron, he has everything a boy could possibly want—the latest tech, the coolest clothes, and a Proxy to take all his punishments. When Knox breaks a vase, Syd is beaten. When Knox plays a practical joke, Syd is forced to haul rocks. And when Knox crashes a car, killing one of his friends, Syd is branded and sentenced to death.

Syd is a Proxy. His life is not his own.

Then again, neither is Knox’s. Knox and Syd have more in common than either would guess. So when Knox and Syd realize that the only way to beat the system is to save each other, they flee. Yet Knox’s father is no ordinary Patron, and Syd is no ordinary Proxy. The ensuing cross-country chase will uncover a secret society of rebels, test both boys’ resolve, and shine a blinding light onto a world of those who owe and those who pay. Some debts, it turns out, cannot be repaid.

A fast-paced, thrill-ride of novel full of non-stop action, heart-hammering suspense and true friendship—just as moving as it is exhilarating. Fans of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series, and Marie Lu’s Legend will be swept away by this story. (Picture and summary via Amazon)

PirateThe Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke

After setting out to break the curse that binds them together, the pirate Ananna and the assassin Naji find themselves stranded on an enchanted island in the north with nothing but a sword, their wits, and the secret to breaking the curse: complete three impossible tasks. With the help of their friend Marjani and a rather unusual ally, Ananna and Naji make their way south again, seeking what seems to be beyond their reach.

Unfortunately, Naji has enemies from the shadowy world known as the Mists, and Ananna must still face the repercussions of going up against the Pirate Confederation. Together, Naji and Ananna must break the curse, escape their enemies — and come to terms with their growing romantic attraction. (Image and summary via NetGalley)

PiecePiece of My Heart by Lynn Maddalena Menna

Still in high school, Marisol Reyes gets the chance of a lifetime to be a real singer, and she leaps at it. After all, this is the dream she held on to, all the days and nights she spent growing up on means streets of East Harlem. Marisol never gave in–no matter what her boyfriend or her best friend had to say. Who cares if only one in a hundred pretty, talented girls make it? She will be the one. In her rush to fame, Marisol tramples on the heart of her loyal best friend, and Julian, the boy she loves. But will it be worth it?

One night at a private gig in the Hamptons, the little Latino girl with the big voice from East Harlem gets a severe reality check. A famous rapper who claims to be interested in her talents turns out to be interested in something else, threatening not only Marisol’s dreams but her body and soul. Will the realities of the gritty New York music scene put out the stars in Marisol’s eyes forever? (Image and summary via NetGalley)

IntuitionIntuition by C.J. Omololu

As Cole begins to accept her new life as Akhet, someone who can remember flashes of her past lives, every new vision from her past lives helps explain who she is in this life. As her passion for Griffon grows, she learns to identify other Akhet around her, including Drew, the young self-made millionaire who reveals his startling connection to Cole-he was her husband in Elizabethan England and gave her the ankh necklace that has been returned to her after centuries in hiding. Drew’s attentions are overwhelming as he insists that their connection in the past signals their future destiny together, but before she can decide who she truly loves, Cole must learn to harness her unique Akhet abilities if she is to ever understand her role in this strange new world. (Image and summary via Goodreads)


Review: Summer of the Mariposas

Summer of the Mariposas Title: Summer of the Mariposas
Author: Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary
Pages: 355
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: When Odilia and her four sisters find a dead body in the swimming hole, they embark on a hero’s journey to return the dead man to his family in Mexico. But returning home to Texas turns into an odyssey that would rival Homer’s original tale.

With the supernatural aid of ghostly La Llorona via a magical earring, Odilia and her little sisters travel a road of tribulation to their long-lost grandmother’s house. Along the way, they must outsmart a witch and her Evil Trinity: a wily warlock, a coven of vicious half-human barn owls, and a bloodthirsty livestock-hunting chupacabras. Can these fantastic trials prepare Odilia and her sisters for what happens when they face their final test, returning home to the real world, where goddesses and ghosts can no longer help them?

Summer of the Mariposas is not just a magical Mexican American retelling of The Odyssey, it is a celebration of sisterhood and maternal love. (Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: There are a lot of things I liked about Summer of the Mariposas, and chief among them was the magical realism. The world that Odilia and her sisters find themselves in is a fascinating blend of modern life, Odyssey checkpoints, and Mexican folklore. I wish there were more YA fantasy books focusing on Central and South American cultures. (If there are any good ones, please let me know. I want to read them!) The lechuzas were delightfully terrifying, and McCall did an excellent job of redeeming the character of La Llorona. Her story was one of the two points in the book where I teared up.

For as much as I loved the magical realism, the true heart of this story is the familial bonds between Odilia with her sisters and the sisters with their mother (and even grandmother). And despite saying that, I wish that either the book had been longer so that I could get to know the sisters better or that there had been fewer sisters to devote time to. As it stands, I don’t feel as if I got to know anyone besides Odilia very well. There was a lovely moment between Juanita and Odilia where Odilia got to subtly remind her younger sister that she doesn’t always know what’s right and that sometimes older sisters have useful things to contribute (buying sodas at the gas station, for those who have read the book), and that was a conflict I wish McCall had spent more time on. While I’m generally fond of the fire-forged-friends trope, I wish there had been slightly less physical peril with the girls and more emotional peril to draw them together.

That said, Part III: The Return, was everything I wanted it to be. If you’re familiar with the Odyssey, then you know about the ousting of the suitors. The ousting in this book involved a great deal less blood, but it was still a crowning moment of awesome. I loved how Odilia was able to reconnect with her mother and that the journey she and her sisters went on really did make their happily ever after possible—and believable.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you’re interested in Mexican folklore, have a fondness for road trip stories or the Odyssey, or want to read books that focus on sisters or mother-daughter relationships. I’m going to have to check out McCall’s Under the Mesquite sometime soon to see if it is just as good.


Mini Review: Unspoken

UnspokenTitle: Unspoken
Author: Sarah Rees Brennan
Genres: Mystery, Romance, Urban Fantasy
Pages: 373
Publisher: Random House
Review Copy: Borrowed from roommate
Availability: September 11, 2012

Summary: Kami Glass loves someone she’s never met . . . a boy she’s talked to in her head ever since she was born. She wasn’t silent about her imaginary friend during her childhood, and is thus a bit of an outsider in her sleepy English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Still, Kami hasn’t suffered too much from not fitting in. She has a best friend, runs the school newspaper, and is only occasionally caught talking to herself. Her life is in order, just the way she likes it, despite the voice in her head.

But all that changes when the Lynburns return.

The Lynburn family has owned the spectacular and sinister manor that overlooks Sorry-in-the-Vale for centuries. The mysterious twin sisters who abandoned their ancestral home a generation ago are back, along with their teenage sons, Jared and Ash, one of whom is eerily familiar to Kami. Kami is not one to shy away from the unknown—in fact, she’s determined to find answers for all the questions Sorry-in-the-Vale is suddenly posing. Who is responsible for the bloody deeds in the depths of the woods? What is her own mother hiding? And now that her imaginary friend has become a real boy, does she still love him? Does she hate him? Can she trust him? —(Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: Rees Brennan lets her love for gothic romances and lady sleuths shine through in Unspoken, and I heartily approve of the combination. Kami and her friends are a delight (particularly Angela), and I enjoyed their antics as they tried to uncover the mysteries around the Lynburn family. Most of the teenage characters in the book were a lot of fun, but I’ll be the first to admit that I cared very little for the adults.

The humor in Unspoken left me with mixed feelings. Rees Brennan’s characters have a lot of witty banter, but the humor didn’t often strike a chord with me. (I felt much the same about her Demon’s Lexicon series, which is a shame, as I really enjoy the author’s tumblr.) The ending was not very satisfying for me for several spoiler-y reasons, but I truly enjoyed the last-minute emotional sucker-punching that has had most of Rees Brennan’s fans in a tizzy since the book came out.

Recommendation: Get it soon, if gothics and mind-reading romances are your thing. If not, borrow it someday, because the Lynburn Legacy trilogy has a lot of promise. I have high hopes for the second book, which comes out later this year.


Five Wrong-Headed Reasons for Not Writing Diverse Characters in Science Fiction

Awakening Final cover-sSay hello to Karen Sandler, author of the Tankborn trilogy from Tu Books! The second installment, AWAKENING, hit shelves this spring. Karen has graciously agreed to write a guest post for us today–we hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

I want to preface this post by acknowledging that writers have a right to write anything they want to write. It’s not as if there are any quota systems in place in fiction, where 6.2% of the characters have to be of this ethnicity, or 8.9% of that gender identity. You’re free to create any kind of character, culture, and world that you like.

That said, I’d like to consider some conscious and not-so-conscious reasons why science fiction might be less diverse than it could be. Why if there are diverse characters, they are nearly always the secondary characters and not the main characters.

So what do I mean by diverse main characters in science fiction? I mean characters that are:

  • From non-white European ethnicities
  • From a non-European culture
  • Strong women in non-traditional roles
  • Disabled

You wouldn’t need all these qualities in a single character (although it could be done), but by my definition, your character would need at least one to be considered diverse. And this is my definition, yours might vary. Feel free to quibble with me in the comments about these categories, or to add other areas of diversity, but these give us a starting point.

In my points below, I’m using the word “white” as a shorthand for Caucasian of European extraction, a WASP, if you will. I chose white as a shorthand because in the vast majority of science fiction, that’s the ethnicity of the main characters (and more often than not, male). But I hope you’ll extrapolate this shorthand into other areas of diversity, that is, if you’re straight, writing a GLBTQ character might be a stretch for you.

On to the Wrong-Headed Reasons:

1) I’m white, and it might be offensive it I write about other cultures/ethnicities.

Confession up front here. This is exactly the reason I avoided writing diverse main characters for so long. I had plenty of diverse secondary and minor characters featured in nearly every book I wrote. I thought it would be Someone Else’s Story to write a book with a diverse main character.

If you follow this logic down the rabbit hole, you might come to the conclusion that only white people can write white people, only woman can write women characters, only children can write about children, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Which of course is nuts. We have to imagine characters that are outside ourselves all the time. Do you think Jeff Lindsay (DEXTER), is a serial killer? Or that Carrie Ryan (FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH) is secretly a zombie? Or that either one of them worries about offending serial killers or zombies by writing about them in their books? Not likely.

However, it is possible to write a diverse character in such a way that is offensive. That can happen when we rely only on the stereotypes about others that float around in our brains, rather than gaining an understanding of that different ethnicity/culture and making the character a real person.

The key is respect—having respect for the culture, the ethnicity, the gender, gender identification, physical abilities. If you start with respect, you should do fine representing diverse characters.

2) Everyone says you’re supposed to write what you know, and I don’t really know anything about other cultures/ethnicities.

Um, see #1, particularly the part about serial killers and zombies.

We have two ways of solving the I Don’t Know problem. First, just as we would if we wanted to include a scene featuring a hot air balloon in our novel, we do some research. Read books, find reliable sites on the Internet, talk to people who have done ballooning. We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Can’t write about hot air ballooning, because you have to write what you know.”

If you want to follow that edict (write what you know), then you’d better know more. Learn more. Read about the Roma, the Indian caste system, the Hindu religion (as I did for TANKBORN). If you were writing an SF book that involved cloning, you’d go learn as much as you could about cloning.

The second way of solving the I Don’t Know problem, once you’ve educated yourself, is to put yourself in your characters’ shoes. Imagine what it would be like as them. This is what fiction is all about.

3) The world I’ve built only includes white people. Everyone else was killed in a plague.

Oh, puleeze! This is just a lazy excuse. It reminds me of my biggest complaint about Larry Niven’s THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE. In his future world, something catastrophic has happened with the human birthrate. So women are coddled and cosseted (because they’re the baby-makers), and as a consequence have almost zero influence on the story’s action. To me, that seemed like a clever way to keep women out of the story. Maybe this wasn’t Niven’s intent, but it kind of soured me on the series.

In any case, creating an imaginary plague that only spares white people is pretty preposterous. There’s no biological difference between races. There might be higher incidences of genetic weaknesses based on ethnicity (the Tay-Sachs genetic disorder that disproportionately impacts Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews comes to mind), but to create a future in which, say, everyone with dark skin is wiped out, is bad world-building.

4) I just don’t see how non-white characters would fit into my book. All the characters in my head are white.

I see this excuse as a crisis of imagination. Particularly if you’re writing SF, often set in a future when anything can change. When everything can be different than it is now. We’ve already seen our first black president. We’ve seen women in ever more powerful roles. Gays and lesbians are coming out in nearly every corner of society, and universal marriage equality is becoming more and more imaginable.

You can’t imagine a black genetic engineer as your main character? An Hispanic lesbian piloting a starship? Then your imagination needs some revamping. You need to start thinking outside the box. Open up your corner of the world to more possibilities.

5) If my main characters are non-white, a publisher (or reader) won’t buy my book.

They bought Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR (although there was the whole #racefail issue with the original cover). Sherman Alexie’s THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. Malinda Lo’s HUNTRESS. It’s true that there are few enough diverse main characters that we’re still writing blog posts like this one or the one here. But if it’s a wonderful book, publishers will buy it.

And as for readers, this is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We don’t want to write diverse characters because we’re afraid readers won’t buy them. But readers can’t buy what hasn’t been written. If your story with diverse main characters is wonderful, readers will seek it out.

Karen SandlerGenre-conflicted author of science fiction (the young adult trilogy, TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REVOLUTION from Tu Books), mystery (CLEAN BURN, a Janelle Watkins mystery from Exhibit A) and romance (fun, sexy romances, indie published). Visit my website,