Mini-Review: Blacktop #1 – Justin

Justin BlacktopTitle: Justin (Blacktop #1)
Author: L.J. Alonge
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 145
Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap
Review Copy: ARC
Availability: Available now

Summary: Justin has a list of goals stashed under his mattress. Number 1 is “figure out life plans.” Number 5 is “earn Zen Master rating in WoW.” Nowhere on that list is “play the crew from Ghosttown,” but that’s the type of trouble that always seems to finds him.

The debut title from LJ Alonge’s new basketball series pulses with action on and off the court. With wit, humor, and honesty, Justin unfolds over one hot summer in Oakland, California.

Review: L.J. Alonge’s debut novel is a short and fun read following Justin and his friend Frank as they try to build a basketball team to play against one of the best teams in the neighborhood when neither young men has any real skill. Justin sees the task of playing the dominating team as a consequence of a dare gone completely wrong and is complacent in the face of imminent failure. Along the way, however, he learns about the power to friendship and teamwork, skills his estranged father had been teaching him during their one-on-one pick up games.

I had read this novel was great for middle school students and low level readers and I have to agree with this assessment. Blacktop #1 is an enjoyable read that I know would catch many of my reluctant readers, whom are usually boys, with the sports angle and get them interested in reading.

The strength of Alonge’s debut lies in the voice of Justin who is that adolescent on the brink of adulthood, with a young man’s body (he’s 6’4” after a growth spurt), but has a kid’s playful mind and sense of humor. In addition, Justin is not just an aspiring basketball player, he is also a bookish nerd who loves comic books and science fiction/fantasy novels. He is a good student, top of his class in fact, and is proud of his smarts. He doesn’t try to hide them, but wishes that because of his height, he could be the basketball star as well. I love that Alonge chose to create a character who has other thoughts than basketball and is actually a bit nerdy. Black nerds, specifically boys, are not portrayed very often in literature and if they are they are always an Erkel stereotype. Justin is a real kid, in fact he reminds me of many of my students who were tall gangly goofy kids who would get in arguments about who was better, Superman or Batman.

It is because of Justin that I think, no believe, that Alonge’s novel could turn a young kid who struggles with reading into a person finds pleasure in the written word.

Recommendation: If you know a geeky sport loving kid, get them this book!

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Book Review: Running Away to Home

rath-coverTitle: Running Away to Home
Author: Lita Hooper
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 145
Publisher: Brave Books/Aquarius Press
Review Copy: ARC
Availability: Available Aug. 30

Summary:  How do you find your way home when your home no longer exists? For 17-year old twin sisters Sammie and Ronnie and their father, Willis, the answer to that question becomes a life raft when they are displaced after Hurricane Katrina.
Identity….Fear….Family
Running Away to Home, a YA verse novel, tells the story of two brave sisters, a repentant father, and the amazing triumphant spirit of familial love.
Loss.…Memory….Family
After leaving New Orleans for Atlanta, Ronnie and Sammie are separated and find themselves living in different parts of the city. Each sister is lured by false promises of love and security as they initially believe the people they encounter.
Love….Change….Family
As a YA verse novel, this story relies on poetry to express the intimacy of sisterhood and the triumphant spirit of its characters. Older YA readers will be moved by this family’s journey in the wake of one of the most memorable historical events our nation has experienced.
Spirit….Strength….Family

Review: With the 11 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina coming up and Louisiana under water again, Lita Hooper’s novel is especially timely. The story of Sammie & Ronnie is a very real one as families were separated as they fled New Orleans and were sent to different cities close by. Many of the stories I heard from Katrina were truly heart-breaking, so I applaud Ms. Hooper for tackling such a painful subject matter.

While Sammie and Ronnie are the main protagonists, Hooper also includes the voices of their father, and the people who “help” both of the girls when they separate. I put “help” in quotations because the people who decide to take in both Sammie and Ronnie only do so to serve their own interests. They lie to both of the girls about FEMA and their families, hence keeping both girls right where they want them. While neither girl is physically hurt, the emotional damage done to both hurt my heart.

While I felt for the girls, I didn’t care as much as I could have because I couldn’t really connect with either characters. Both Ronnie and Sammie felt very two dimensional and I didn’t get a feel of what made both girls who they are. They felt more like composite characters, there just to propel the action of the story, rather than be the heart of the story. It was stated that Ronnie was an studious honor student, and I get that in times of distress people don’t make rational decisions, but easy acceptance of her “savior’s” lies just struck me as odd. Additionally, Sammie was supposed to be the naive sister, however she came across as child-like instead of just a careless teenager. The writing for both characters was so simplistic that I didn’t get a grasp of Ronnie’s and Sammie’s feelings, how they truly felt about being separated from their twin. I feel like Hooper had a chance to go deeper, and for whatever reason, didn’t.

I understand that novels written in verse are tricky things, but I’ve read some verse novels that just floored me. I feel like Hooper could have slowed down some of the events in the novel, such as when the girls get separated, and explore the girls’ emotional response to their situation. This novel was very plot driven, which can be good, when it doesn’t come at the expense of characterization. Ultimately, that is what made the novel feel flat for me.

Recommendation: I was excited about this book based on the premise, but was disappointed in the execution.

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Book Review: The Smaller Evil

evilTitle: The Smaller Evil
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Genres:  Contemporary, Mystery
Pages: 256
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from Stephanie herself. Thank You!
Availability: Available Aug. 2nd

Summary: Sometimes the greater good requires the smaller evil.

17-year-old Arman Dukoff is struggling with severe anxiety and a history of self-loathing when he arrives at an expensive self-help retreat in the remote hills of Big Sur. He’s taken a huge risk—and two-thousand dollars from his meth-head stepfather—for a chance to “evolve,” as Beau, the retreat leader, says.

Beau is complicated. A father figure? A cult leader? A con man? Arman’s not sure, but more than anyone he’s ever met, Beau makes Arman feel something other than what he usually feels—worthless.

The retreat compound is secluded in coastal California mountains among towering redwoods, and when the iron gates close behind him, Arman believes for a moment that he can get better. But the program is a blur of jargon, bizarre rituals, and incomprehensible encounters with a beautiful girl. Arman is certain he’s failing everything. But Beau disagrees; he thinks Arman has a bright future—though he never says at what.

And then, in an instant Arman can’t believe or totally recall, Beau is gone. Suicide? Or murder? Arman was the only witness and now the compound is getting tense. And maybe dangerous.

As the mysteries and paradoxes multiply and the hints become accusations, Arman must rely on the person he’s always trusted the least: himself.

Review: One of the reasons I love Stephanie Keuhn’s books is because they not only are they thrilling mysteries, but they also explore the very mystery of how our mind works in all it’s complicated beauty. The characters in her books are all struggling with living with mental illness, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, in their daily lives and struggling with all the usual angst that being a teenager brings. And, in Keuhn’s books, things are always never what they seem. And in her 4th novel, the reader is taken on an journey that has them just as confused as the main character Arman, which isn’t a bad thing, it just means the mystery was so well plotted that there is no way the reader can figure it out until the reveal. And I love that in a book.

As I mentioned, all of the protagonists in Keuhn’s books struggle with mental illness, Arman is her most touching yet. Arman suffers from severe anxiety, almost crippling at times, and feels that the Evolve retreat is what will heal him. He is on medication to help him with his anxiety, but it doesn’t really help him at all. The self-doubt, the self-loathing, the depression that he feels is so strong that he truly believes he does not have any worth to society, and this completely broke my heart for him. Having the novel be so close inside Arman’s head truly give a glimpse of what someone with severe anxiety and depression goes through, how their own thoughts hamper them from truly functioning sometimes. Arman would often try to pump himself up, but then his self-doubt, which was much stronger than his self-love, would take over and he would not trust any progress he made while at the retreat center. Compounding his low self-worth is that when Beau disappears, no one initially believes him which doesn’t help Arman’s state of mind in the slightest. However, this is also where Arman shows great strength and grows as a character. It is for his admiration of Beau that Arman doesn’t allow himself to let his self-doubt and anxiety take control. Arman knows, desires, to figure out what happened to Beau so he constantly fights with his own brain, his low self-esteem, and really fights to have his voice heard. His purpose drives him, and while it cannot cure him from his mental illness, it does allow to find a way to work with his illness.

As for the mystery surrounding Beau’s disappearance, as well as what is exactly going on at the retreat center, I can’t exactly say without giving spoilers, but I can say that at no point did I even come close to figuring it out. There were moments where I felt Arman’s frustration with being so left in the dark without any clues as to what was really going on in the story. Well, I take that back. There was tension between Beau and other leaders of the retreat center and I saw what that place was in danger of becoming, which added an extra level of concern for Arman because his spirit is in such a vulnerable position, that certain member of the retreat center could exploit if they wanted. Luckily, Beau and Arman’s mutual appreciation of each other was well known, so Arman was never in real danger.

Overall, I’m kind of in the middle with my thoughts on “The Smaller Evil”. It is a slow paced, quiet book that feels different from Keuhn’s previous books that had a lot of movement to it. This novel takes place primarily at the retreat center, and Keuhn does a great job of giving the reader a sense of place with her descriptions, but I feel that because the setting is in one place, the story just moves a bit too slowly. Also, my heart totally broke for Arman so I struggled with reading because I just wanted Arman to get the true help he needed and the retreat center was so not the place. It changes him, as all experiences do, but I wonder how much damage it did as well. This novel grabs your heart for Arman and doesn’t let go. It is a hard read at times because Keuhn does a great job with Arman’s neurosis and you truly, truly feel his pain. Because after all, that is what Keuhn excels at.

Recommendation: Get it soon.

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Flashback Review: Tiny Pretty Things

With the release of Shiny Broken Pieces, the sequel to Tiny Pretty Things, coming out next week, we here at Rich in Color thought it would be fun to reflect on the first book to get ready for the sequel we’ve been waiting forever for.


tinyTitle: Tiny Pretty Things
Author: Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic
Pages: 448
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: Black Swan meets Pretty Little Liars in this soapy, drama-packed novel featuring diverse characters who will do anything to be the prima at their elite ballet school.

Gigi, Bette, and June, three top students at an exclusive Manhattan ballet school, have seen their fair share of drama. Free-spirited new girl Gigi just wants to dance—but the very act might kill her. Privileged New Yorker Bette’s desire to escape the shadow of her ballet star sister brings out a dangerous edge in her. And perfectionist June needs to land a lead role this year or her controlling mother will put an end to her dancing dreams forever. When every dancer is both friend and foe, the girls will sacrifice, manipulate, and backstab to be the best of the best.

Review:  I haven’t seen or read Pretty Little Liars, but have seen Black Swan so I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Tiny Pretty Things. I remembered the intensity of the ballet company in Black Swan, so I imagined that the competition between the three lead characters in Tiny Pretty Things would be intense. What I didn’t expect, because I was Pretty Little Liars ignorant, would be the level of “mean girlness” that existed by a few members of the ballet academy. Either way, I was so involved with the story that I sacrificed sleep to finish it. And then…that ending! Thank goodness there is a sequel because that ending was just cruel to readers with such a cliffhanger.  But I digress…

Tiny Pretty Things just killed me – in a good way. Seriously. It’s been a bit since I read it and  Gigi, Bette and June are still with me. I was so into the world that Ms. Charaipotra and Ms. Clayton created that during some true OMG moments, I had to remind myself that it was a novel. That some of the characters really wouldn’t behave that way in real life. That ballet academies are not as cut-throat as what is depicted in movies such as Black Swan and in the novel (at least I hope). But, at no time did I ever want to put the book down and take a break from all of the backstabbing and manipulation that was going on. No, I was intrigued to find out what would happen next and try to figure out which character really did what. I do love that I could never figure it out, and as one who loves to solve a mystery but is disappointed once I figure out before the characters do, I was glad that I was continually kept guessing. In fact, in reference to the cliffhanger, I still have no idea what happened. When I read the last page, I was irritated because I wanted the second book already. I needed to know what happened next. I wasn’t actually ready to leave Gigi, Bette and June behind. And that is the hallmark of a great, fun novel.

Within the YA sphere there has been discussion about creating unlikable characters, especially female unlikeable characters, and whether or not the readers will connect with said character. In Tiny Pretty Things, there are a number of female characters that the reader just loves to hate! These characters are not one dimensional, mustache twirly villains, they are complex characters whose reasons for doing the bad things they do make sense to them. Even though the characters are unlikeable, and people I really would not want to be around in person, I was still able to feel for them, connect with them because Ms. Charaipotra and Ms. Clayton, made me understand them and even empathize them. I am of the camp that YA writers should write unlikeable female characters because unlikeable girls/women do exist, but also for readers to allow themselves to stretch their compassion muscles and understand people for both the good and the bad decision they make. I salute Ms. Charaipotra and Ms. Clayton for not holding back in their creations of Gigi, Bette and June because if all three girls were sweet, model perfect ballerinas the story would have been very boring. Instead Gigi, Bette and June are interesting characters that made me feel for them all sorts of feelings – compassion, joy, anger, hate. But most of all I saw them as distinct young women each trying their hardest to achieve their dream of becoming a prima ballerina. Those three characters make Tiny Pretty Things the amazing, intense novel that it is and why I’m anxiously waiting for the sequel.

Recommendation: Go get it now so you can read it by Tuesday!

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Book Review: Away Running

Away RunningTitle: Away Running
Author: David Wright & Luc Bouchard
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 297
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
Review Copy: Copy from publisher
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Matt and Free discover the dark side of the City of Light.

Neither Matt nor Free ever imagined they would be playing American football in Paris, especially with a team from the poverty-stricken suburb called Villeneuve. Nothing in Matt’s privileged Montreal background has prepared him for the racial tension he encounters. And Free just wants to play football and forget what’s going on back home in Texas.

Review: Before I went to Paris I had a conversation with a writer friend about the Black ex-patriots who lived in Paris during the Harlem Renaissance because they felt that Black Americans were more accepted there than in the US. My friend asked, “so there is no racism in Paris?” Both my traveling buddy and I responded at the same time, “There is, but it’s different, especially towards Black Americans.” We went on to explain the racial tension that existed toward North Africans and other immigrants who live in Paris and how, for some reason, Black Americans were treated differently. So, when I received the email from David Wright about reviewing his book, I got excited because a) it was set in Paris and I was excited to relive through words a city I come to fall in love with, and b) the theme of the novel explored the very topic of my conversation with my friend.

I remember watching with horror and dismay at all the nights of riots that occurred in Paris after the three boys were electrocuted, which is the event Away Running is based on. Touched by the event, Wright and Bouchard chose to tell the story of the three boys and the rising tensions that led to the riots through the eyes of Freeman (Free) Behanzin and Mathieu (Matt) Dumas. Both young men are football stars in their hometowns on the brink of playing college ball. They also feel weighted down by family pressures and see their time in Paris as an opportunity to vacation while spending time doing something they loved. What they receive is an education that changes them greatly.

Instead of starting with the tragic event that causes the riots, Wright and Bouchard have us spend time getting to know the three boys in their friendship with Free and Matt. At the beginning, I wasn’t too fond of Matt because his privilege, even though he went to join the Villeneuve team specifically, was flat out annoying. His complete ignorance towards race and people of color experience life was expected because I knew that was part of his growth, however his inner thoughts towards Free really got on my nerves. He would judge/make fun of the way Free would talk in English and in French. He was making the same judgements towards Free that irritated him when other people would judge his Villeneuve friends. Though, Free did eventually call him on it, but I felt there was a missed opportunity for Matt to reflect on what Free said to him. I feel like some moments within Matt’s head as he grows to understand race and privilege through everything he experiences would have endeared me towards him more. Free also had to explore his own prejudice through the novel as he had preconceived notions about Arabs that bordered on Islamaphobia. His comes from his own personal experience with his father being deployed in Iraq, however, he does come to the realization that he is wrong and changes his views. It is through a touching moment with a friend’s father that really changes Freeman.

I like books that don’t insult the reader, books that don’t sugar coat the ugliness of life, and I’m glad that Wright and Bouchard chose to show the reality of life for North Africans living in Paris. When people think of Paris, they think of the beautiful City of Lights (and it is) but there are also dark parts to it that if you focus on just glittering city, you can miss what the true city is like. I remember taking note of some of the darker parts, the riots actually on my mind, so this novel brought all of those thoughts back. Wright and Bouchard did not hold back in showing the ugly racism that exists and how there are basically two sides to Paris. Both Matt and Free, because of their privilege (Free is there initially through a student exchange program and lives with a host family) live in the neighborhoods of Paris that we see in movies with the quaint architecture and beautiful streets. Villeneuve is the opposite of that, and the way the residents are treated is deplorable. Wright and Bouchard could have chosen to soften the blow, but they didn’t. The racist experiences Matt and Free witness (and experience), including the riots, are brutal and raw. The authors respect their readers, as they respect their characters, by giving us what life is really like in the City of Lights.

Recommendation: If you love football and or love Paris, this is a good book for you.

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Book Review: The Rose & The Dagger

The Rose and the DaggerTitle: The Rose & The Dagger
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 420
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Review Copy: It was a Teacher Appreciation Gift!
Availability: Available Now

Summary: I am surrounded on all sides by a desert. A guest, in a prison of sand and sun. My family is here. And I do not know whom I can trust.

In a land on the brink of war, Shahrzad has been torn from the love of her husband Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan. She once believed him a monster, but his secrets revealed a man tormented by guilt and a powerful curse—one that might keep them apart forever. Reunited with her family, who have taken refuge with enemies of Khalid, and Tariq, her childhood sweetheart, she should be happy. But Tariq now commands forces set on destroying Khalid’s empire. Shahrzad is almost a prisoner caught between loyalties to people she loves. But she refuses to be a pawn and devises a plan.

While her father, Jahandar, continues to play with magical forces he doesn’t yet understand, Shahrzad tries to uncover powers that may lie dormant within her. With the help of a tattered old carpet and a tempestuous but sage young man, Shahrzad will attempt to break the curse and reunite with her one true love.

Review: I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the sequel to Ahdieh’s amazing debut, The Wrath & the Dawn. I feel in love with that novel, inhaling her words, getting lost in the world building and the characters, specifically Shahrzad and Khalid. I loved their individual character arcs in the story and their arc as a couple. When I finished the first book, I was so ready to continue with Shahrzad’s & Khalid’s story that I had high expectations for The Rose & The Dagger. However, I feel a bit let down by it and I’m not entirely too sure why.

To me, the novel started out really slow. It begins just days after the ending of Wrath & the Dawn, with Shahrzad in the Badawi camp with Tariq and Rahim after fleeing the castle in Rey. Along the way, the trio picked up Shahrzad’s father who is in a coma-like state after using such intense magic. She meets Omar al-Sadiq, the Sheikh of the Badawi people and reunites with her Uncle Reza, who is both relieved to see her and upset at her survival at the same time.  I felt like the urgency of the situation was misplaced, focusing instead on Tariq & Shahrzad’s relationship instead of the tension that should come as Tariq prepares for war. Thankfully, this lack of tension doesn’t last long and the story really starts to move when Shahrzad figures out how to make the carpet fly and begins to put her plan into motion. However, some of the plan seems to be too easy, but I knew that it would fall apart at some point as I was only halfway through the book, and fall apart her plan did, but not in the way that one would expect, which I enjoyed. I like being surprised in a novel and there were some surprises in the sequel that I I liked and some that broke my heart.

Ahdieh introduces new characters in the sequel, such as Shahrzad’s sister Irsa, and we get to know characters that we were only briefly introduced to in the first novel. She expands on the magic that seemed to be only hinted at in Wrath & the Dawn. And I think this is where my “meh” feelings toward the novel stem from. Shahrzad learns a bit more about her magical abilities, but I feel Ahdieh could have spent more time exploring Shahrzad’s lessons with new magical character Artan, but the development of her magical talents appears off screen. I would have loved how the development of Shahrzad’s magic would have helped shaped who she is and added more depth to her character growth. Instead, there is no real payoff to the magical element in the story and after one point Shahrzad never mentions her magic again; it doesn’t even register as part of her identity.

At I think that is what is at the crux with my ambivalence to the novel.  I feel like the novel wrapped up to quickly and that plot points that seemed interesting really went no where. I feel like there was so much more to explore with the world that Ahdieh created and that this series really could have been a trilogy, or maybe even more (though I did learn there are 3 novellas, so there is that). I really wanted more out of this novel, and I was left wanting. Hopefully Ahdieh will return to Shahrzad’s world sometime in the future.

Recommendation: If you are dying to know what happens with Shahrzad and Khalid, then buy it now. If you are willing to wait a bit, then get it soon.

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