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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Review: Rebel of the Sands

rebelsandsTitle: Rebel of the Sands
Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Genres:  Science Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 314
Publisher: Penguin
Review Copy: My local library
Availability: Available Now

Summary: She’s more gunpowder than girl—and the fate of the desert lies in her hands.

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam the wild and barren wastes, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there’s nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the dead-end town that Amani can’t wait to escape from.

Destined to wind up “wed or dead,” Amani’s counting on her sharpshooting skills to get her out of Dustwalk. When she meets Jin, a mysterious and devastatingly handsome foreigner, in a shooting contest, she figures he’s the perfect escape route. But in all her years spent dreaming of leaving home, she never imagined she’d gallop away on a mythical horse, fleeing the murderous Sultan’s army, with a fugitive who’s wanted for treason. And she’d never have predicted she’d fall in love with him…or that he’d help her unlock the powerful truth of who she really is. — Copy image and summary via Goodreads

Review: I’m going to admit that when I first read Hamilton’s debut novel, I was so involved with the story that I read it in a day. However, there was something about the novel that didn’t sit right with me and I couldn’t figure out what it was, so I decided to read the novel again. I figured that I read it too quickly and might have missed some parts of the story, hence why I was feeling a bit incomplete. I couldn’t figure out why I had this, “I loved it but…” feeling. I enjoyed the main character, Amani, and her male counterpart, Jin; I enjoyed the adventure the two went on and enjoyed the reveal of Amani’s gift. So, why was I hesitant about this novel?

Then it hit me. I don’t feel like this novel is all that original. Hamilton’s novel hits all the checkmarks of all the current trend in female driven hero’s journey novels (outsider girl – check, desires to live a different life – check, meets handsome rogue stranger – check, leaves in a hurry/goes on the run – check, falls in love, but doesn’t act on it – check, discovers secret power that rogue stranger knew about but she didn’t – check, joins a rebellion – check, survives first fight to live on for sequel – check). The “difference” here is that Amani’s world was inspired by Arabian mythology and culture and the way that Hamilton incorporated the mythology and culture is what bothered me.

One theme that rubbed me the wrong way was Hamilton’s portrayal of Amani’s society’s attitude towards women. In order for Amani to stand out, to be original, the oppression that Amani experienced from her society was a bit over the top. Throughout the story Amani states how Miraji men believe women are lacking in intellect and treat them as nothing but property. This is a real stereotype attributed to Arabian culture and I was bothered by the fact that Hamilton chose to include this stereotype in her novel as a reason for Amani to rebel. I would have like a more compelling reason for Amani’s desire to leave her home instead of relying on a harmful stereotype of a culture.

I believe that Hamilton was really trying to be original with the world of her novel, and I will say that she did an excellent job of world building to make Amani’s world believable. In the story, we learn of more of the outside world other than Miraji and Hamilton creates a unique and interesting mythology with the First Beings and the Destroyer of Worlds. The rules of magic that she created made sense to the story. Her characters are well written and she also passes the Bechdel Test where Amani develops a friendship with another girl and they have conversations that don’t revolve around men. To see her develop a healthy female friendship in a hero’s journey was actually very refreshing.

Recommendation: Overall, I am filled with mixed emotions for “Rebel of the Sands”. There was much that I enjoyed from the novel and some parts of it bothered me. I found that when the story ended, I wasn’t quite ready to leave Amani and Jin and am looking forward to seeing where their next journey takes them.

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Review: This is Where It Ends

This Is Where It EndsTitle: This is Where It Ends
Author: Marieke Nijkamp
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic
Pages: 282
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Review Copy: My local library
Availability: Available Now

Summary:
10:00 a.m.
The principal of Opportunity, Alabama’s high school finishes her speech, welcoming the entire student body to a new semester and encouraging them to excel and achieve.

 

10:02 a.m.
The students get up to leave the auditorium for their next class.

10:03
The auditorium doors won’t open.

10:05
Someone starts shooting.

Told over the span of 54 harrowing minutes from four different perspectives, terror reigns as one student’s calculated revenge turns into the ultimate game of survival.

Review: Make no mistake, Marieke Nijkamp’s debut novel is a tough read. It is a read that, on my first reading, I sped through in one night because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I was so caught up in the fight for survival for the characters that I couldn’t put the book down. My heart broke many times during that first read, and I even cried at the end (in fact, I cried at the end a second time). On my second read, while I knew what was coming, I still felt the horrors of the shooting in my gut. This is Where It Ends is the type of novel that will stay with you for a long time after; it’s one of those books where you allow the lives of the characters to linger with you for a few days before you move onto the next book.

This is Where It Ends is told through the eyes four characters who all, in some way, have a relationship with the shooter. Autumn is the shooter’s younger sister, Sylvia (Sylv) is Autumn’s girlfriend whom the shooter despises, Tomas is Sylv’s twin brother who has an antagonistic relationship with the shooter, and Claire is the shooter’s ex-girlfriend.  Autumn and Sylvia are in the school auditorium when Tyler, the shooter, begins his rampage. Tomas and Claire are outside in various locations of the school, hearing the gunshots, and both, in their own way, work to try to save the lives of their classmates and family. The story is a mix of present events and flashbacks as each of the characters reflect on their relationship with Tyler and wonder what they could have done to prevent his current actions, well except for Tomas. All he wants to do is protect his sister, and once he realizes who the shooter is, his focus is on getting people out safely and finding a way to end Tyler’s rampage.

The use of the four narratives worked well in creating realistic portrayal of such an horrific event and was an excellent device to create a full picture of Tyler. While he is clearly the antagonist of this story who betrays the love of his sister and former girlfriend, by seeing him through the eyes of people who knew and loved (and even hated) him, we get a picture of a troubled young man instead of a “mustache twirling” villain. We are also able to have moments of “levity” as we spend time with Claire and Tomas who are outside trying to help. Their terror and fear is different than Autumn’s and Sylvia’s in that Claire & Tomas are focusing their energy trying to help. This positive energy gives the reader a sense of purpose instead of being stuck in a state of terror if the reader were to be with Autumn and Sylv the entire time, because the way Nijkamp writes the auditorium scenes, it is truly terrifying. Tyler shoots without discrimination, without remorse, and characters like that leave a chill down a person’s back.

Marieke Nijkamp’s novel is timely as it allows us, those of us who have only experienced a shooting through the lens of the media, to feel the terror that shooting victims experience, the fear family members face as they wait to hear about the safety of their loved ones, and the betrayal that friends and family members of the shooter feel, for they are victims too. No one is safe in Nijkamp’s novel and the death toll is quite high, but I mourned each and every character’s death. I felt the pain Autumn, Sylv, Tomas and Claire felt and their fear. This is Where It Ends is a moving novel and a reflection of the turbulent times we are living in.

Recommendation: Get it now!

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