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REVIEW:  Running on Empty by Colette Ballard

REVIEW: Running on Empty by Colette Ballard


Dear Ms. Ballard,

For the past few months, I’ve been dabbling in the older YA/new adult subgenres but I find myself looking for something a little different from what’s out there. I like tattooed bad boys as much as the next person but there is such a thing as too much. When I read the premise of your debut novel, the suspense aspects sounded right up my alley.

River Daniels is a girl from the poor side of town. But she’s dating the star quarterback darling of their high school. She should be glad, right? Everyone wants to be Cinderella.

Except her boyfriend is controlling, jealous, and violent. When he gets tired of River’s refusal to have sex, he tries to force the issue and River accidentally kills him in self-defense. Unfortuantely, her boyfriend is the son of a rich and powerful family and there were no witnesses. Knowing no one will believe her, she goes on the run. But there’s only so much one 17-year-old girl can do on her own.

While I admit I scrutinize the use of sexual assault in novels, its inclusion here didn’t bother me. Maybe it’s because of recent headlines like the Steubenville case, but the execution rang very true. It’s a sad fact of life that society generally blames the woman in situations like this. River didn’t mean to kill her boyfriend. She was just trying to fight him off. But because of her background and her boyfriend’s identity, none of that will matter. I can’t blame her for running. Who’s going to believe “trailer trash” over the son of a rich family?

I loved that River’s friends, Kat and Billie Jo, stuck by her side. That they, in fact, chose to run with her when she left town. Even when their relationships later become strained due to the stress of being on the run and in hiding, I thought it was well done. These are girls who may not have perfect families and backgrounds but they stick with each other through thick and thin. They are each other’s family, when their own families have checked out. Their friendships are multilayered — not always rosy and sometimes contentious, they always do their best to help each other when things get tough.

The romance with Justice was also well done, in my opinion. This isn’t just because I have a soft spot for the friends become more trope. Justice was River’s first love and she never really got over him. But she did her best to move on, though that unfortunately led her to Logan. She was ready to accept that they may only ever be friends for the rest of their lives. The River and Justice romance is a perfect example of friends to lovers: how they don’t want to mess up what they have and yet how they have a hard time struggling to see the other person with someone else.

While I enjoyed the story, there are some plot contrivances that fall apart upon further scrutiny. Of course the girls run into an old man with a heart of gold, willing to help the and overlook that one of them is plastered all over the news and accused of murder. Of course this man has connections that conveniently help them in their moment of need. Don’t get me wrong. I liked Charlie a lot, but it was too neat and pat.

The storyline involving River’s biological father at times seemed tacked on. In many ways, it was almost as if his presence was necessary for no other reason than to help River in the end. And that the only way to explain his presence in the book was because he was River’s dad. I simply wasn’t sold on this part.

Overall, though, I liked this book. The relationship between River and her female friends, and the romance between River and Justice, kept me reading even when certain aspects failed to hold up under further scrutiny. Dare I ask if a sequel featuring Kat is in the works? (I loved Kat.) B-

My regards,

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REVIEW:  Racing Savannah by Miranda Kenneally

REVIEW: Racing Savannah by Miranda Kenneally

Dear Ms. Kenneally,

Having enjoyed the three previous Hundred Oaks books, I was happy to have the chance to read and review this one. I’m pleased to say that it did not disappoint, and Racing Savannah was an enjoyable reading experience. Set several years after the previous books in the series, it features a new set of characters, and like the previous books, it is easily read as a standalone.

Racing Savannah by Miranda KenneallySavannah Barrow is a high school senior who has just moved to Franklin, Tennessee, where her father was offered an irresistible job training horses at Cedar Hill Farms. Savannah, who also loves horses, has ambitions to become an exercise rider, which she feels would be a much better career opportunity than working behind the scenes. She meets Jack Goodwin, the son of Cedar Hill’s owner who’s running the operation himself as a one-year test, after stopping a prized horse that had spooked and bolted. It soon becomes clear that Savannah is able to get through to the high-strung Tennessee Star, and that both she and Jack are very much attracted to each other. With social and financial disparities, family expectations, and the fact that Jack is her boss, there seems to be quite a lot to keep them apart.

Savannah comes from a low-income, working class family. Her father, while very good at what he does, is not educated, and this has limited his career prospects. Her mother died young several years earlier after battling late-stage breast cancer, and the uninsured Barrows were left with crushing medical debts. Her father now has a pregnant girlfriend, and money is extremely tight; since they are new to Cedar Hill, he does not want to rock the boat in any way, and expects the same of her.

Savannah’s dreams are bigger, and when opportunities come her way, she is happy to grab them – including the possibility of training as a jockey. She hopes to achieve a more secure life for herself and hopefully for her family as well, not wanting her soon to be born sibling to grow up with free lunches and second-hand clothes. The possibility of being more ambitious academically doesn’t really occur to her at first; nobody in her family has graduated from high school and the idea of college seems completely out of reach, something for people with money and more choices than she has. Savannah is generally suspicious and mistrustful of rich people, whom she feels are playing by a different set of rules, abusing their privilege or simply unaware of it.

The challenges that the Barrows are struggling with – lack of formal education, consequent financial difficulties and fewer career opportunities, almost insurmountable medical debt – are unfortunately all too common and I felt that they were realistically portrayed. I read in the author’s note that like Savannah, your own background was far from affluent, and your goal was to show that it is still possible to set ambitious goals and achieve them, and it certainly comes through.

In some ways, Racing Savannah is similar to the first book in the series, Catching Jordan: both Savannah and Jordan are teenage girls trying to make their mark in a male-dominated athletic field, and both are more used to having male friends than girlfriends. Jordan, however, comes from an affluent background and is in a leadership role as a quarterback and team captain, while in Savannah’s case, the roles are the more standard romance dynamic of poor heroine/rich hero. The levels of sensuality in the two books struck me as comparable as well, with some (relatively brief) scenes happening on the page and some off it.

The details about training and racing horses were well-integrated into the story. While I can’t speak as to the plausibility of two seventeen year olds being given the responsibilities that Savannah and especially Jack have, I was able to buy into it in the context of this story. Readers more familiar with horse training and racing might feel differently. The high school parts of the book worked for me, and Savannah’s friends, Rory and Vanessa, were very well-drawn secondary characters.

Not everything worked for me, however. I realize that a single narrator is very common in YA, and that this is how this series has been written as well. But while Savannah was an engaging and often entertaining narrator, I felt that this book could have benefited from some of Jack’s perspective as well. With only Savannah’s point of view available, some of Jack’s less fortunate decisions seemed designed to introduce tension into the plot rather than seeming organic to the character. There was a point where I actually wondered if there was another hero waiting in the wings, as you was the case in some of your previous books.

One of the things I appreciate about the Hundred Oaks series is that it is only loosely connected – no sequel baiting or past characters being inserted into the stories unnecessarily. The characters in all the books attend the same school, but there aren’t always links between them beyond that. This was mostly the case in Racing Savannah as well, with the exception of a wedding scene that featured several past characters a bit too prominently for my liking.

My final complaint is that the villains were very one-note: a rich family whose members – primarily the men – abuse their power and privilege in various ways. I would have liked a bit more subtlety there.

In all, Racing Savannah was a well-written novel with an engaging heroine. The issues I listed above were enough to bring down the grade a bit, but not enough to stop me from enjoying it. For me, this is a very solid B.

Best regards,

Rose lives in a country where romance readers are few and far between, so discovering romance websites was a welcome development. When not busy with reading and graduate school, she can often be found online discussing romance novels or sports –occasionally both at the same time. She has no TBR pile and is forever looking to change this unfortunate fact; recommendations for historicals, romantic suspense and contemporaries (preferably of the non-small town variety) are welcome.

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