Book Review: January Black

Many thanks to my book club for selecting this one. A great read!

January Black by Wendy Russo

Bookclub is a fantastic source of new books, ones I might not otherwise pick up on my own. January Black was never on my radar, but it was a delightful read.

Cover Description

“Sixteen-year-old genius Matty Ducayn is the son of The Hill’s commandant. As such, he’s expected to conform to a strict, unspoken code of conduct. Small acts of defiance over years—such as walking on the grass—have earned him a reputation for being unruly. When sarcastic test answers finally get Matty expelled from school, King Hadrian offers him a diploma if he can answer a deceptively simple question, and then dismisses the only answer.

To prove his worth to society, Matty wrestles with the king’s word games, the kingdom’s historical record, and laws that don’t make sense. He meets Iris Locke, a street smart gardener, along the way. After enchanting him at a glance, Iris helps his research, keeps him out of trouble, and finally breaks his heart.

Alone again, Matty finds himself on collision course with a deadly law, one he will have to break to answer the king’s question. Was Hadrian challenging him, or teaching him a lesson? Without Iris, it won’t matter, because Matty won’t stand down for anyone else.”


I’m a sucker for smart guys (I married one, after all), so Matty is a winner protagonist for me. He writes programs to predict people’s locations, analyzes pictures in terms of their geometric components, and recites the digits of pi to keep himself from getting too distracted by pretty girls. His rebellious nature takes him far from the stereotypical four-eyed weakling puffing on his inhaler that most intelligent teen characters end up being. Rather than feeling forced, his smarts are a natural part of his character which weave through the narrative. His character reads as a guy who is smart, not “the smart guy.”

The leading lady, Iris, has a past that plays to the intrigue of the plot. For much of the story, I suspected she was a double agent because she was just too perfect. I dislike romantic subplots where the primary love interest has so few flaws, but Iris’s past and the trouble they get into help. The chemistry between them is natural enough to pass.


The story takes place in the future, which is interesting, but the chief strength is the plot. King Hadrian’s puzzle and the political intrigue it involves kept me turning pages. I predicted most of the twists, including the ending, but that didn’t spoil it. I enjoyed watching everything unfold, and the author did an excellent job tying up all the loose ends.

Writing Style

This isn’t a book you read for its flowing prose and sparkling metaphors like say, Where the Crawdad’s Sing. The prose was simple, and the author explicitly named each character’s emotions, which I found patronizing. She wrote in multiple perspectives, which if you’ve read my own book, The Lies She Wore, you know I usually enjoy. However, this book didn’t need any perspective but Matty’s. The author could have maintained the dramatic tension and tied up the loose ends with only one perspective. I am also not a fan of flash-forwards, which is how the book begins. Matty’s expulsion was dramatic enough to begin the story. Russo didn’t need to jump to the climax to grab my attention.


I have mixed feelings about the cover. For me, the most interesting part of the book was the political intrigue, not the romance, but I will agree it is an upgrade from the original cover.


This book was perfect for those times my brain sought entertainment, but no stress. It had enough drama to keep me turning pages, but was light and romantic enough to classify as a feel-good book. Many thanks to my book club for selecting it!



January Black

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Book Review: Salt to the Sea

After I turned the last page, I was so upset there wasn’t any more that I made my husband hold me for a solid half-hour.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

After reading Fountains of Silence, I had to read another by Ruta Sepetys. This one did not disappoint. After I turned the last page, I was so upset that I made my husband hold me for a solid half-hour. Though I have a stack of books waiting to be read, I wanted more of this one.

Back Cover Description

“Winter 1945. Four refugees. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies, war.

As thousands desperately flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

But not all promises can be kept.”


A lot of characters act in the pages of this book, but with creativity and skill, Sepetys brings them all to life. Each minor character has a quirk that allows the reader to keep track, and each of the perspective character’s voices is distinct enough that the narrator is clear even if you don’t read the chapter headings.

The main characters are all moving toward the same goal—the Wilhelm Gustloff—but each of them flees a different past. They carry their guilt, fear, in grief in different ways, and their backstories come to light throughout the book. Much like The Things They Carried, you can tell a lot about each character based upon what they took with them, and what they risked to keep it. Eva, for example, risks her place upon the boat by waiting for her mother’s silver.

I liked the author’s inclusion of the delusional German sailor. Constantly teased and never taken seriously, he wasn’t a “villain” per se, but his sick mind served as a reminder that evil is a machine with gears both large and small.


The innocent refugees are trapped between two evils—the invading Russians behind them, and the Nazis in front of them. They each take their chances with Germany. The tension is high throughout the story; I couldn’t help rooting for each of them as they ran from the horrors of their pasts straight into the jaws of the future.

The story depicts a tragedy that was six times deadlier than the Titanic, yet remains obscure. I love reading about WWII because there are so many aspects of the global conflict. Not only did this story move me emotionally, it educated me. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, but now, as I often do after reading, I wonder why there isn’t a blockbuster movie about it.

Writing Style

Sepetys uses multiple perspectives for this tale—the right call for a story like this. Because of the shifting perspectives, the chapters are short. In theory, that should make the book easy to put down. I knew I was in trouble about two-thirds in. I spared a token glance at the clock, but I knew I would stay up to finish it. No regrets. Sepetys writing is beautiful and powerful.


I love the cover with the shoes. The “shoe poet” is one of my favorite characters, and the different shoes on the cover highlight the different backgrounds of each character.


You really should have stopped reading a while ago and bought the book, but if you’re not convinced yet, let me add that this book joins only four others with the rank of Binge Read. An incredible read from an incredible author.

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Author Q & A: B.A. Bellec

I had the privilege of connecting with author B.A. Bellec last month after reading his book Someone’s Story. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions for my readers.

What motivated you to write Someone’s Story? What made you decide to take a deeper dive into an often misunderstood mental health condition, especially with regard to the twist at the end (no spoilers please)?

Someone’s Story started as a journal for personal therapy. I was frustrated with a few things in my life and career. Writing was a way for me to process that better. The twist you are referring to was inspired by two people. My friend had an incident that resulted in him spending some time in care. I also had an aunt diagnosed with the condition from my book.

What prompted the decision to leave the protagonist named Someone?

The backstory behind this is that it started as a journal. After a few months, I started to make it fiction. I didn’t bother to name the character. In my head, it was always me. I just started referring to the character as Someone and kept writing. It stuck, and when I shared it with early readers I was considering changing it at that time. Most of my early feedback was that the story was unique in the way I don’t describe the main character or even name him. It makes it feel like you are in the story more. As I closed in on submitting my final copy I thought about changing it again, but so glad I trusted in those early readers and kept it. Proud of this unique feature to my little piece of art.

I am fascinated by the dual personalities of Erica-the shaman and the student. Can you talk a little bit about developing her character, as well as your decision to include psychedelics in the story?

Duality is something I saw lots of in the business world. People would come into the office and be all buttoned up and reserved. Then you get them outside the regular 4 walls and this wild animal would come out. The other way I saw it come out was when a person would say something in private and then in the meeting, they act differently and dance around the issue. People are afraid. Afraid to be themselves. They put on this mask every single day to get through because that is what they were trained to do coming up in school.

Erica was a later addition. I actually had Ashley as The Shaman in my first draft but decided there was enough material to break this part out of the Ashley character and create an entirely new person around the concept of duality and psychedelics. In the original version, these parts were muted. Once I broke the character out, I turned the dial up to 11 and wrote the tree chapter that ended up inspiring the cover, which I made with my girlfriend!

The main reason I included drug use was that psychedelic drugs are known to often have negative impacts on certain issues around mental health. I also am curious about the ritualistic side of the usage. I think the problem we as a society face today is that we have lost that connection. I think back thousands of years where these drugs were used in ceremonies and you had to earn the right. There was often a physical, emotional, and spiritual journey you had to take before you could participate. Now just about anyone can get access and because of this, we have lost a bit of that connection. Anyone curious about the roots of drug use in modern culture, pick up this book:

What would you say is the theme of the book? What are you hoping readers take away from it?

Overcoming obstacles. In fact, I would argue we have some common ground here. Having finished your book, Out of Ashes, I believe we both are fighting with this theme in the back of our minds as we write!

Anything can be an obstacle. A mental health diagnosis. A learning disorder. Poor family life. A breakup. A job. Picking up a new skill. My book is about trying to break through the walls and limits you put on yourself.

The main obstacle for me as a writer was to get over my fear that my spelling and grammar were not good enough. I feel like I am a storyteller, but I don’t write in perfect English. For the longest time that held me back. I was afraid to share this because I thought there would be too many errors. Eventually, I found Grammarly, and that improved my work lots. Then I brought on a pair of editors to help clean up my work more. I also make unique style choices because I didn’t learn writing in a system that told me how I had to do certain things. The other thing I am still struggling with, even on my second book, is past vs present tense. I frequently accidentally shift my tone. This is because I haven’t found my full potential yet. I hope that as I write more this will happen less and less. This is also where I lean on my editors lots.

I heard your next book will be more sci-fi. Why the change in genres?

I never set out to write Someone’s Story. It just popped out. I think Pulse was the story I always wanted to tell. I started thinking about it back when I was in film school years ago. Pulse is big though and Someone’s Story was me learning how to do this on a small scale. Now I have way more tools in my toolkit and I am attacking that film school idea with everything I got.

A few people have asked if I am worried about losing fans from my first book.  Yes, of course, I am. My writing style is still geared towards a young adult audience. I am trying to keep a few younger characters in my writing to keep those fans engaged. I think my prose is easy to read, my formatting is unique, and I like to think I am a genre-bender. Pulse is coming together extremely well, and I can’t wait to put the finishing touches on it over the next few months. There won’t ever be a sequel or prequel to Someone’s Story. It’s a one and done. My next book though, it’s a world builder, and I hope to write a few books in that universe I have crafted. Just check out this creature and song for a tease:

Thanks for taking the time to feature me and if anyone is interested in any of my work, come follow me on your favourite platform from the links below!

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Book Review: Someone’s Story

This thought provoking young adult novel is a poignant portrayal of mental health and the power of friendship.

Someone’s Story by B.A. Bellec

I encountered this book through an author networking site and decided to give it a read.


Someone’s Story is the tale of a teenager who refers to himself as Someone. A new school gives him a clean slate, but also triggers his anxiety. The story follows him as he makes friends, makes mistakes, and makes peace with his own troubled mind.


Someone is a well-rounded character, flawed but growing. His struggles are personal, yet universal, and his journey of perseverance and acceptance is deeply moving. His group of “weirdos” are a fantastic representation of the power of friendship to overcome adversity.

I have mixed feelings about the protagonist referring to himself as Someone, implying that this could happen to anyone. I can see this approach being successful in two different ways. In one sense, the protagonist’s anxiety causes him to avoid attention. His previous struggles with social skills cause him to fear being “that guy.” He wants to be “normal,” but his weirdo friends teach him that nobody is normal.

In an opposite sense, the self-designation of Someone alludes to his goal to “be somebody.” He doesn’t want to disappoint his father, doesn’t want to waste his life. To that end, he pursues challenging goals, starting with running.

Unfortunately, I feel like the author was reaching for both these concepts and caught neither. Neither is sufficiently emphasized to stand out as a central message. Furthermore, the character isn’t generic enough to be just “someone.” For one, he is male. To make it truly generic, the author could have edited out the mild romantic parts. As another point, it isn’t just anybody who becomes a passionate advocate for blonde roast coffee and 90s movies. Lastly, I don’t buy that the friends who got close enough to him to share their deep dark secrets wouldn’t have learned his name. At the very least, a teacher calling attendance would have revealed it. The author could have kept the name a secret from the reader, but implied the other characters knew it. Instead, the protagonist introduces himself to his new friends as Someone, and no one probes the reasoning behind that choice even after getting to know him.

I’m glad the character wasn’t a generic someone. I found my eyes skipping over the dialogue tags to spare my mind from thinking of him that way. I cannot relate to an abstract, generic homo sapien, but I can relate to the narrator’s crusade against the dark roast, even though I myself do not drink caffeine. These details make him human, which makes him relatable. A real name would have helped.

That said, the choice of Someone made me think enough to write five paragraphs. Perhaps that’s the point. This book is nothing if not thought provoking. My head was spinning for hours after finishing it.


I made the mistake of reading reviews before picking up this book. A few of them mentioned the book started off slow. I’m not sure whether I would have come to that conclusion without the priming, but I will say the first third of the story is fairly low drama. Having been raised reading The Lord of the Rings, I don’t mind a slow read, so this wasn’t an issue for me.

The plot follows Someone as he makes the most of his fresh start at a new school. His mental health challenges him, but as he gets closer to his friends, he realizes he isn’t the only “weirdo.” He gets into trouble, makes mistakes, and learns from them like any teenager, though the challenges he faces at the end are well “above the call of duty.” There are some odd scenes involving drugs, but they fit with the overall tone.

Writing Style

I typically abhor the stream-of-consciousness style of narration, but Bellec uses it to spectacular effect. Rather than spewing whatever random observations come to mind, the protagonist’s thoughts are sharp and relevant, just enough to really get into his perspective. The tone in the beginning of the novel is engaging, almost haunting. I quickly found myself tuned to the rhythm of the words.

Books like this are often written from the author’s own experience, which can lead to a lack of continuity as the author fixates on “how it really happened” and lectures the reader on the lessons learned. Not so with Someone’s Story. The story has a compelling structure, and Bellec does a wonderful job weaving the life lessons into the narrative such that the reader learns them alongside the protagonist. Someone makes many profound observations about life, but at no point does the prose read like a self-help book.


For me, the big winner of this novel is its theme. In a world where everyone has 800 Facebook friends but no one to pick them up at the airport, the value of genuine friendship can never be overstated. The protagonist’s goal is to make friends, but he takes it a step further than he ever has by getting to know them beyond a surface level. This enormous risk causes both him and his friends a great deal of pain, but it also teaches him about acceptance, forgiveness, perseverance, and perspective. In the end, these friendships help him overcome his mental health challenges.


This artfully written novel tears down our social media-dominated definition of friendship in favor of a deeper connection by which “weirdos” can band together to overcome adversity. A flawed group of teens, struggling to play with the cards the world dealt them, learn to accept themselves and to support each other as they journey through life’s most awkward phase. The plot progresses slowly through the first third of the book, but the writing style and tone are engaging from page one. While I would have preferred a named character, the protagonist’s self-designation as “Someone” is thought provoking. His struggles with mental health serve as a poignant demonstration of strength growing from vulnerability. Overall, this insightful story is a shining example of perseverance and the power of friendship.

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Book Review: Lock and Key

I hadn’t heard of this best-selling author until a few months ago when Twitter exploded, but ever since then, I’ve been curious about her books.

Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen

I hadn’t heard of this best-selling author until a few months ago when Twitter exploded. Apparently, a college group met to decide which books to include in a literature course. One young woman joined the committee with the sole goal of preventing them from selecting Sarah Dessen’s work. Dessen tweeted how hurt she was, not realizing that in doing so she would unleash an attack mob. Dessen’s fans virtually harassed the young woman until she had to change her entire online presence. Dessen later apologized, but ever since then, I’ve been curious about her books, so the other day at the library, I picked up this one.


Ever since her mom abandoned her, Ruby has been living a lie, biding her time alone in the decrepit yellow house until she turns eighteen and can legally live by herself. Her precious independence dissolves when the landlords report her to a social worker. Sent to live with her wealthy sister Cora, who ditched her and her mother ten years ago, Ruby finds herself thrust into a new world: huge house, private school, expensive clothes…maybe even a future in college?

Her new world shifts her perspective of her old world, and Ruby befriends the friendly-to-a-fault popular boy next door, Nate. As their friendship grows, she realizes she isn’t the only one living a lie.


Ruby views the world with typical adolescent skepticism—don’t get close to anyone, don’t get hurt—but she is not so closed that she cannot evaluate her perspective when confronted. She is guarded, yet vulnerable.

Nate is the too-handsome, too-perfect type I usually hate, but Dessen gets away with it by making his inner life far from perfect. The other minor characters each have their quirks. I liked them, though I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t complain that the smart guy is a braces-faced dork. Smart people don’t always need braces and glasses and lessens in social skills.

Okay, stepping off my soapbox now.


This is a character-driven novel. Most of the plot forces Ruby to come to terms with her past. Her decisions are a battle between old Ruby and new Ruby. She makes many mistakes, but uses the lessens learned to form new relationships. These insights allow her to reconcile with her sister and to pick up on what is happening with Nate.

Writing Style

Dessen’s prose is clean and simple, appropriate for the target audience. Her tone is approachable, even though the book takes on multiple difficult topics. To me, Ruby’s “life lessons” felt force-fed to the reader, giving the theme a patronizing air. Perhaps the writing style irked the ill-fated critic. It lacks the intensity and sharpness of, say, Laurie Halse Anderson or Ellen Hopkins. At no point did I pause after reading a sentence to just admire its construction, but neither did I stumble over any grammatical garden paths or misused words.


There are many variations of the cover design. I like them all about the same.


Should this win the Nobel Prize for Literature? No, but I don’t think it’s trying to. Dessen’s prose may not be swoon-worthy, but its easy-on-the-brain style makes it perfect for curling up on the couch and escaping for a couple hours. Her characters are quirky, yet relatable. The topic is serious, yet approachable, and the themes are universal. All in all, I am grateful to the critic for bringing this author to my attention. I will happily read another book by her.

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Book Review: Burned and Smoke

Both books delve into life’s gray areas and provide a glimpse into the unfiltered questions of two hurting and confused young women. Beautifully written and emotionally moving.

Burned and Smoke by Ellen Hopkins

This duology was my first experience with books in verse. I will definitely read more.

Back Cover Description for Burned

“Raised in a religious—yet abusive—family, Pattyn Von Stratten starts asking questions—about God, a woman’s role, sex, love. She experiences the first stirrings of passion, but when her father catches her in a compromising position, events spiral out of control. Pattyn is sent to live with an aunt in the wilds of Nevada to find salvation and redemption. What she finds instead is love and acceptance—until she realizes that her old demons will not let her go.”


Pattyn, the eldest daughter in a large Mormon family, starts questioning her family’s faith. She already wrestled with her “good Mormon father’s” alcoholism, so when teenage hormones hit and she develops sexual feelings, those questions increase. She doesn’t want the traditional role of Mormon mother of as-many-as-possible. When her genuine questions are answered with hypocrisy, she rebels.

While the author portrays Pattyn as a flawed human with sincere questions, Ethan, the boy she meets on the ranch in Nevada, leaves much to be desired. Like many leading males in romance novels, Ethan is too perfect. Good-looking and considerate, he doesn’t struggle as Pattyn does. The romance lacks chemistry at the beginning. There is no reason for Ethan to pursue Pattyn other than her looks, though the author implies otherwise.

Perhaps I am picky, but too-perfect guys annoy me. Ethan comes across as a savior, not a partner.

Ethan comes across as a savior, not a partner.


The story is more character-driven than plot-driven; it centers on Pattyn’s questions about God and love. Poignant and beautifully written poems allow the reader inside her private contemplations as various events shape her beliefs. The plot intensifies dramatically toward the end, which is refreshing but not satisfying. That is why I went straight to the sequel, Smoke after finishing.

Smoke picks up where Burned leaves off, but adds a subplot for Pattyn’s younger sister, Jackie, whose rape is covered up by the LDS community, including her own mother. Smoke built much more suspense throughout the plot, though I don’t think it satisfied the theme of redemption and second loves. Both love stories felt too hasty for me.

I found myself disappointed with the endings. Pattyn questions and rejects her faith, but her new beliefs are ill-defined and center around her love life. She abandons the LDS church to escape their oppressive patriarchy, but then she latches on to Ethan. Perhaps it is because I am religious myself, but I think a boyfriend is a poor substitute for God. I’m not saying she should have converted to another religion, but I wish she had found her own principles, her own foundation that didn’t depend on anyone else, especially not some boy.

A boyfriend is a poor substitute for God.

Writing Style

This is the first I’ve read from Ellen Hopkins, and I adored her writing. Her poems are lyrical without being esoteric. A non-poetry fan could read these books and follow the story with ease. She packs a great deal of power into a few words, especially the poems where she pulls out keywords to form their own sentence. Both Burned and Smoke were beautiful reads.


Burned and Smoke tackle a difficult subject—abuse, rape, and trauma recovery. The content wasn’t too graphic for me, but you must use your own discretion. Both books delve into life’s gray areas and provide a glimpse into the unfiltered questions of two hurting and confused young women. Beautifully written and emotionally moving, each book took only a couple hours to read—one advantage of poetry is brevity. Overall, I would recommend these books, provided you’re not squeamish about the content. I got them as a gift, but I wouldn’t regret spending money on such beautiful writing. Buy both though. Once you finish Burned, you’ll want the closure offered in Smoke.

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Character Profile: Tony

Here is the last character profile from my upcoming book Out of Ashes.

My lovely friend Leah Belcher traded me this sketch for a loaf of homemade bread!

If Gus is a long-simmering volcano, and Minh a crack of a whip, Tony Giovanni is a fireworks finale. When angered, his jaw clenches, his round head reddens like a ripe tomato, and his bulging muscles threaten to tear through the T-shirt stretched over his stocky frame. Just as a firework explodes with fury and dissipates in an instant, Tony is as quick to forgive and forget as he is to get angry.

A third-generation Italian who lives amidst a swarm of siblings and cousins, Tony fixes anything with moving parts using nothing but a “good old-fashioned Leatherman.” When he’s not threatening to punch Gus’s face in, “Love Doctor Tony” pounds him with his patented dating rules. Some may call him simple, but Tony couldn’t care less what other people think. He moseys through life with a tender heart, a crooked smile, and a clenched fist.

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Character Profile: Gus

My novel, Out of Ashes, comes out August 4th 2020. Here is a look at Gus, the disgruntled genius.

My lovely friend Leah Belcher traded me this sketch for a loaf of homemade bread!

The son of parents with multiple doctorates each, Gustaf “Gus” Hein was top of his class at an exclusive boarding school until his parents’ scandal sent them fleeing to the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. Accustomed to debating the finer points of astrophysics with his peers, Gus now walks the halls with guys who say “dude” and make fart jokes.

Girls may swoon at the sight of tall-blonde-and-handsome’s deep blue eyes, but as soon as he opens his mouth, they scatter like a flock of birds after a gunshot. His tone spews exasperation, and no one understands a word of his prodigious vocabulary. No one except Cathryn. Despite her quirks, Cathryn translates what he says with the naturalness of a bilingual.

To a guy whose expression alternates between a derisive sneer and a disgruntled scowl, Cathryn’s kindness is a foreign language. His stoicism masks a simmering temper, but he doesn’t waste time believing in love.

Then again, Cathryn’s smile is evidence for a lot of things he doesn’t believe.

Click here to learn more about my book The Lies She Wore

Character Profile: Cathryn

If you haven’t heard, my debut novel, Out of Ashes, will be out August 4th 2020. Here is a look at my main character.

My lovely friend Leah Belcher traded me this sketch for a loaf of homemade bread!

Cathryn Banks has mastered the art of hiding in plain sight by leveraging her thin frame to slip beneath people’s scrutiny. A “human encyclopedia,” Cathryn collects historical quotes the way a small boy collects baseball cards. When her teachers ask her a direct question, she fiddles with the end of her dust-colored ponytail and whispers the correct answer. At first glance, Cathryn Banks does not seem “heroic” enough to be a heroine, but first glances aren’t known for their accuracy.

When faced with an impossible choice, Cathryn does not hesitate to make sacrifices for those she loves. As her world darkens, she perseveres one day, one step, one breath at a time. Cathryn Banks may not seem heroic, but her quiet strength defies first glances.

Click HERE to learn more about the book The Lies She Wore

Book Review: I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

This book ought to be required reading. It’s short, fast-paced, and thought provoking without being accusatory. The contrast between the girls’ perspectives make for an engaging read. Fans of The Hate U Give will love it.

I’m Not Dying with You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal

This book is especially relevant given what has been going on in the US and around the world these past couple months. I first heard about it during an online writers’ conference and was bummed that my library didn’t have a paperback copy. Lucky for me, they had the ebook. This was a quick read—perfect for squeezing between other duties.

Cover Description

“Over the course of one night, two girls with two very different backgrounds must rely on each other to get through the violent race riot that has enveloped their city.

Lena has her killer style, her awesome boyfriend, and a plan. She knows she’s going to make it big. Campbell, on the other hand, is just trying to keep her head down and get through the year at her new school.

When both girls attend the Friday-night football game, what neither expects is for everything to descend into sudden mass chaos. Chaos born from violence and hate. Chaos that unexpectedly throws them together.

They aren’t friends. They hardly understand the other’s point of view. But none of that matters when the city is up in flames, and they only have each other to rely on if they’re going to survive the night.”


Lena has a big mouth and a bigger attitude. She’s fashionable, opinionated, and not even a riot can stand between her and her goals. Campbell is quiet, grieving the loss of her old life—friends, track team, living with her mom—and struggling to adapt to her new reality.

The story focuses almost exclusively on these two characters, which poses the risk of making them archetypes for their respective races: the sassy and ambitious African American girl and the mousy and naïve Caucasian one. The authors avoid falling into typecasting by giving each character at least one non-stereotypical characteristic: Campbell is not rich, and Lena is not as well-versed in “the hood” as Campbell assumes.

I agree with the authors’ choice to focus on Lena and Campbell because the strength of the novel is their contrasting perspectives. For example, Campbell views the police as saviors, while Lena knows they will inflame already raging tempers. Contrasts like these make the story compelling.


The book alternates between Lena and Campbell’s perspective as the riot begins and they try to navigate their way to safety. They each have separate goals. Lena wants nothing more than to reach her boyfriend, and Campbell needs to check on her father’s hardware store. They stick together despite their differences, even though every step they take brings them further into trouble.

When describing the riot, the authors did an excellent job keeping the focus on the individual experiences of their protagonists. When I read The Hate U Give, I got lost in the chaos at the end. While Johnson and Segal describe the craziness of the riot, they keep the focus on Campbell and Lena’s experience of it, and only mention the parts that hinder their progress.

Structurally, the book is short and simple. I read it in about three hours (and I read slower than a teenager cleans their room). The plot moves at a good clip, and, again, the chief strength is the contrasting perspectives.

Needs Improvement

One thing that needed more development was the situation with Lena’s boyfriend. Many other characters expressed a lack of faith in him, and while he does some noble things toward the end, I didn’t feel the authors resolved the subplot. By the end, I couldn’t predict Lena’s next steps in her relationship. Would she stick with her boyfriend and prove to all the haters what a good guy he was, or would she dump him because he isn’t the guy she thought? His actions throughout the book left me with neutral feelings toward him.

Ends Well

While I don’t like the loose end of that subplot, I do appreciate that Lena and Campbell don’t magically become best friends. Both girls change their perspective of the world, but the book doesn’t end with a kumbaya moment.

Writing Style

In keeping with the short length and laser focus of the book, the prose was sparse. The authors included few descriptive details of the characters and often relied on their names (e.g. Big Baby) or dialogue to trigger the readers imagination. I would have liked more; I had trouble keeping Lena’s boyfriend’s  and cousin’s friends straight.

Brief Nit-picking

This is nitpicky, but I disagree with the authors’ choice to italicize the word ghetto. I think any modern American reader understands what that word means in the context of a race riot. To me, italicizing that word signals a foreign meaning and brings it back to its original context: Nazi Germany. Perhaps not all this book’s readers are also into WWII fiction as I am, but for me, italicizing the word was jarring.

Writing Style Highlight

Now that I’ve nit-picked, I want to highlight something the authors did well: the African American Vernacular English—AAE—in Lena’s dialogue and prose. For those who are unfamiliar, AAE is the dialect reporters refer to when they say Obama slips into “Black Speak.”

If Kimberly Jones isn’t a native speaker of this dialect, then she has certainly studied it. The habitual be, copula deletion, negation concord—it’s all there.

I know I’m falling into an all-out nerd-gush, but so often this dialect is reduced into a sprinkling of “Girl, please,” or butchered into a lawless mess. To see such a robust, grammatically accurate depiction makes my speech therapist’s heart all sorts of happy. Seriously, speech pathology graduate students should study Lena’s chapters. We’d have a lot fewer misdiagnoses.

I haven’t geeked out about a character’s dialogue this much since Thanhha Lai’s “Vietnamese in English.” I can’t overestimate how often authors get AAE wrong. Lena’s perspective was the highlight of the book for me.


I love the cover. I think it succinctly communicates the theme.


This book ought to be required reading, and not just for speech pathology students. It’s short, fast-paced, and thought provoking without being accusatory. The contrast between the girls’ perspectives—including in the writing style—make for an engaging read. Fans of The Hate U Give will love it. To be honest, I liked this one better.

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