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REVIEW:  Dark Paradise by Angie Sandro

REVIEW: Dark Paradise by Angie Sandro

Sandro-Dark-Paradise

Dear Ms. Sandro,

When I first heard about your debut, my interest was piqued. A non-contemporary romance NA? Featuring non-white characters? Give it to me! Interests in diversity aside, I’m curious to see if NA can expand beyond contemporary romance successfully. Dark Paradise seemed promising.

Set in the Louisiana bayou, Dark Paradise tells the story of Malaise “Mala” LaCroix, the last in a long line of supposed witches. As for Mala herself, she thinks that reputation is just a bunch of nonsense. People look down on their family because her mother is the town prostitute and everyone knows it. Well, that and the fact that the LaCroix line is a result of a relationship between a plantation owner and his slave.

But it turns out that it’s not just gossip. When Mala finds the body of a dead girl floating in the bayou, the girl’s ghost begins haunting her. And of course, the dead girl’s brother soon comes around, accusing Mala of being responsible. (It does look suspicious. The body was found floating in LaCroix land, after all.) To further complicate matters, Mala and the brother, Landry, have an undeniable attraction and connection — one that she’s denied and that he’s fostered for many years.

The thing that struck me about Dark Paradise is the setting. It’s alive. I can’t speak about authenticity as I’ve never been to the Louisiana bayou but I could easily picture this small town in the deep South. Where class lines run deep, and those class lines may run along racial lines. Where the religious thump their bibles and judge. Where everyone knows your business and one misstep can lead to your ostracization.

As an aside, I really liked how the novel acknowledged that it was possible for a visibly black person to have pale-skinned relatives who passed for, and likely identified, as white. I feel like this point is often overlooked in books featuring black characters that live in the U.S. In Dark Paradise, Mala even talks about how you can see the red in her own hair.

Despite these things that I did like, I was left feeling lukewarm towards the book. I thought the characterization left much to be desired. At times I didn’t understand why they chose to do certain things and sometimes those choices contradicted convictions that had been voiced five pages before! That said, a large portion of this can be attributed to the relationship between Mala and Landry. They’re attracted to each other! He thinks she killed his sister in some sort of over the top Satanic ritual! (Why is it always Satanic ritual?) Her friends think he’s a player that just wants in her pants! His parents think she’s a witch who’s ensorcelled him! She thinks he’s a liar! There’s also the part where he stalks her and scares her half to death but it’s okay, he didn’t mean it. He was just torn up about his sister! I don’t know about you but I find that kind of back and forth exhausting. Make up your damn minds, people.

The other complaint I have is less concrete. As a suspense plot, I think the pieces are all there. There are multiple leads and multiple suspects for the murder. But it all seems to unfold in a jumbled mess. Partially because of the shaky characterization. Partially because it’s overshadowed by the burgeoning of Mala’s powers. You see, the LaCroix witches come into their full power when their mother dies. Mala’s mother has foreseen her death and warns Mala to prepare as the ghost haunting signals that the time is fast approaching. There’s also Mala’s great-aunt who is a powerful witch (enter some handwaving about twins to explain how she could have that power if the power is meant to be a mother-to-daughter thing). And partially because of the hot and cold aspects of Mala and Landry’s relationship — along with the other sort-of-but-not-really love interest, Georgie. The book tries to do a lot with all of these aspects and as a result, I think fails to do them justice.

Dark Paradise is a very different kind of read. The setting prevents it from being outright urban fantasy, and the suspense and fantasy aspects separate it from other NA novels. While I liked how family plays an important role, I also wish we’d seen more of Mala pursuing her dreams in a criminal justice career. Sure, it came up in the beginning but as the book continues, those goals fall along the wayside. I get that she has some immediate concerns that need attention but I hope those don’t get tossed away because she’s set to become some powerful hoodoo queen. But for readers who pick up NA novels for the relationship, I’m going to have to say that the romance between Mala and Landry left me cold. C

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  Dead Girls Don’t Lie by Jennifer Shaw Wolf

REVIEW: Dead Girls Don’t Lie by Jennifer Shaw Wolf

Dear Ms. Wolf,

In a sea of urban fantasies, paranormals, and dystopias, the young adult thriller-mystery never fails to stand out. At least it does to me. But I can’t help and wonder about the poor best friend in these books. Why are they always dead? Why is the friend who’s been left behind always so sure they can solve the mystery? Why are they sure there is a mystery? It’s one of those premises that works well in-world, while you’re reading the book, but when you stop to think about it, unravels.

dead-girls-dont-lie-wolfJaycee and Rachel were the best of friends until one fateful night gave rise to secrets that eventually tore their friendship apart. Then one day Rachel is killed and now they can never reconcile. The police say the cause of death is gang-related but Jaycee can’t believe it. She received a cryptic text message from Rachel the night she died, and Jaycee’s positive it’s related to her murder. But when she begins to look into the last months of Rachel’s life, Jaycee discovers that they weren’t the only ones with secrets.

Let’s address the elephant in the room first. Dead Girls Don’t Lie takes place in a town that’s split along racial lines. There is a significant Latino population, many of whom work on the local farms. But when whispers of gang-related activity spread throughout town, guess who they point fingers at first?

While I thought the narrative did a clear job denouncing this sort of prejudiced thinking, once again I felt uncomfortable reading from the POV of a white girl tackling these issues. Jaycee very much read like a white girl unpacking her privilege (and doing a pretty good job of it, to be fair) and while that’s nice and everything, it’s not something I care to read about in fiction. I see enough of that every day on the internet. Toss in the facts that she’s a white girl solving the murder of her Latina best friend while enlisting the help of a Latino former gang member? Shades of white savior narratives and characters of color used as props and background “flavor.”

That said, I thought the portrayal of a town with deeply-seated prejudices and close-mindedness was spot on. Rachel was once a “good” girl. Then she changed her looks and started hanging out with the “wrong” people. In a larger city with a different community make-up, this would be ascribed to good old teenage rebellion. In their town, though, it was a sign that Rachel had gone down the wrong path, that it had all contributed to her death. There’s a lot of head shaking and tongue clucking. There is concern that Jaycee might be heading down the same path. I found this all to be very believable.

Speaking of Jaycee, it was interesting to read a character that came from a background that was both religious and conservative. I don’t mean this from a faith angle; I mean it from a cultural one. Jaycee doesn’t wear the trendiest clothes or sport the latest smartphone (or any smartphone, for that matter). This isn’t presented in the usual over the top “woe is me” sort of way you find in YA novels. It just is. Same with how the church plays a role in Jaycee’s life. It’s a social center where people congregate. It’s how couples often meet. I think this aspect of church life is often overlooked, and it was nice to see that portrayed here even if it was also accompanied by racist gossip. (But sometimes that’s accurate too.)

I personally found the mystery to be straight-forward and the culprit to be obvious. True, there were red herrings scattered throughout the novel but I thought them to be blatant rather than subtle. Other readers may feel differently.

There are romance threads throughout the novel but they aren’t the point of the story. I’d also say, as a thriller-mystery, that none of them are trustworthy. This is definitely a “Everyone is a suspect!” sort of novel. Not to mention that at least one of them is a creeper. Who walks into someone’s house unannounced, all the way up to their bedroom? On the other hand, the idea of being able to leave your front door unlocked is completely alien to me. I’ve never lived in a place where that was even considered a slight possibility so this sort of cavalier strolling around in other people’s homes uninvited is nothing but horrifying.

I wish there had been more of a relationship between Jaycee and Eduardo. I thought this was a missed opportunity. Deeper development on this front would have gone a long way to easing my discomfort about the way race was portrayed and tackled in this novel.

While I thought Dead Girls Don’t Lie was a straight-forward mystery, I found its portrayal of an insular, close-minded town to be well-done. But though I liked the way Jaycee maneuvered the various traps and pitfalls laid before her, I was never able to shake off my discomfort about the race portrayals. C+

My regards,
Jia

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