Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Ashley Woodfolk, Angie Thomas and Nicola Yoon

The Blurb On The Back:

Six of the biggest stars of YA bring all the electricity of love to a collection of charming, hilarious and heartbreaking tales that shine the brightest light through the dark

When a heatwave plunges New York City into darkness, sparks fly for thirteen teenagers caught up in the blackout.

A first meeting.

Long-time friends.

Bitter exes.

And maybe the beginning of something new.

When the lights go out, people reveal hidden truths.  Love blossoms, friendship transforms, and new possibilities take flight. 

BLACKOUT was released in the United Kingdom on 24th June 2021.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order BLACKOUT by Dhonielle Clayton, Nic Stone, Tiffany D. Jackson, Ashley Woodfolk, Angie Thomas and Nichola Yoon from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s late afternoon on one of the hottest days of the year in New York when suddenly the electricity goes out across the city.  Across the city, 13 teenagers are going to find love, truth, friendship and new possibilities as the power cut turns into a power cut that plunges New York into darkness …

This anthology of YA romance short stories by Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Ashley Woodfolk, Dhonielle Clayton, Angie Thomas and Nicola Yoon features an all Black cast that inter-connect to form a wider novel with excellent pace, crackling dialogue, LGB representation and aspiration that does not ignore reality.  There were a couple of points where I didn’t get at first how characters connected but this is an enjoyable read if you like romance.

Tiffany D. Jackson kicks off the book with THE LONG WALK, which is a short story split into 5 sections that together form the spine of the overall novel.  It follows Tammi Wright, an aspiring film maker who has applied for an internship at the Apollo theatre’s corporate headquarters in Harlem (the Apollo being a legendary theatre that promoted Black artists).  Not only will the internship look good on her CV before she heads to college at Clark Atlanta, but the pay is $3500 and while she doesn’t need the money, it will keep her busy over the summer and away from Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn where her ex-boyfriend, Kareem Murphy, will be hanging out with the girl he dumped Tammi for.  

Told to report to HR for 5.15pm to hand in her paperwork, she’s horrified when Kareem also arrives to hand in his paperwork for the same position and outraged that he has no interest in media as a profession and is only applying for it because he needs the salary for college.  When HR admits that there’s been a clerical error and only one paid internship is available the blackout hits before they can find out who should have got it. 

Told to report back on Monday to find out who has the job, the two have no choice but to head on home and with the subway down and the rider apps on full surge pricing and running long delays that means a long walk across the city.  As they walk together, Tammi is forced to re-evaluate her relationship with Kareem and look at the impact her own jealousy and suspicion may have played in their breakup.  

As the longest story in the book, Jackson has the hardest job because there’s got to be enough interest in what’s happening to Tammi and Kareem to keep readers moving on while also having to be the type of story that can be chopped into with the other contributions without losing momentum.  On all those counts, I think Jackson absolutely nailed it – this is a strong, character-driven piece that’s really about introspection as much as it is about young love gone wrong.  The jibes that the two throw at each other ring true, although Kareem is slightly too good to be true and I would have liked a bit of a deeper dive into the form that Tammi’s suspicions and jealousy took so that the self-revelation has a harder bite to it at the end to make the resolution more satisfying and earned.  That said though, it’s a strong piece of writing that I think a lot of teen readers would be able to relate to and there’s some great depictions of the randomness of New York City and what it’s inhabitants do in a blackout situation that all add to the strong sense of place.

MASK OFF by Nic Stone moves the action to Jacorey “JJ” Harding, Jr, a high school basketball star who finds himself stuck on the subway when the power goes out with school acquaintance Tremaine Wright, a photographer who suffers badly from claustrophobia and is not coping well with their current situation.  

This is one of the two LGB stories within the collection and is another strongly written piece as JJ struggles to come to terms with the fact that he’s attracted to men because he recognises the incompatibility of that with the high school sport star lifestyle.  The story’s told largely through flashbacks with Stone using that loved romance trope of the masked ball to have JJ go to a party for gay men in disguise to explore his feelings and discover that Tremaine is part of the scene.  Stone writes in a non-judgmental way for both characters, allowing JJ to explore and recognise the complexities of who he is while also recognise when he isn’t behaving well because of fear.  It was one of my favourites within the book and having not read her other work has made me keen to check out the same.

MADE TO FIT by Ashley Woodfolk is the second LGB story in the book with the action moving to an old people’s home where Nella Rose Jackson is visiting her grandfather when the black out strikes.  As she helps the residents to keep calm and occupied, she is introduced to Jocelyn “Joss” Williams, a young woman who visits the residents every week with her therapy dog Ziggy and who Nella’s grandfather has been encouraging her to meet because he knows that they’re both out and think that they would be a good match for each other.  Nella, however, is reluctant to get involved having been badly burned by a recent experience with someone she thought she was in a relationship with.  But when her grandfather loses his picture of Nella’s grandmother, Nella and Joss have to team up to find it and in doing so, Nella learns to puts herself out there again.

There is a strong element of ‘meet cute’ to this story as Joss discovers Nella stamping out a fire caused by a game of poker being incompatible with candle light. However while the residents of the old people’s home are of the adorable variety you would find in a Meg Ryan 90s movie, this never spills over into saccharine territory and it is very easy to relate to Nella’s feelings of vulnerability given that she got it so wrong with someone else.  In fact, my favourite part of the story is where she realises that it wasn’t entirely her mistake and calls out the person responsible when it would have been easy to have her remain passive.  I would have liked some kind of flaw in Joss who is too obviously perfect but again that is a romance staple and I’m not going to come down hard on a lesbian romance story when you see the same thing in straight romances.

I have to say that my least favourite story in the book is ALL THE GREAT LOVE STORIES … AND DUST by Dhonielle Clayton, which is set almost exclusively in the New York Public Library as Lana and Tristián sneak around in a wager to find the best thing ever written.  The two have been friends since they were very small but Lana is about to go to Paris and there’s something that she needs to tell Tristián before she goes but given he’s such a player, she isn’t sure how he’s going to react.

There were two reasons why I didn’t take to this story.  The first is that unlike the others in the book, I didn’t buy the two characters being in this location during the blackout.  For starters the Library is clearly closed, they’re actually chased down twice by security guards who tell them to leave, and I wasn’t clear on how they got in while the premise for their being there is really flimsy.  Secondly, Clayton keeps using footnotes throughout the story to expand out on Lana’s true feelings and for me, it had the effect of slowing down the pace of the story and pulling me out, which was doubly noticeable because this is a slower paced, more introspective story than the others in the book.  Ultimately, this just didn’t work for me as well as the others, which is not to say that it’s bad, it just wasn’t quite at the same level.

NO SLEEP TILL BROOKLYN by Angie Thomas is set on a tourist bus driven by Tammi’s father and focuses on Kayla, her boyfriend Tre’Shawn and Micah, a recent arrival at their Mississippi high school who Kayla is attracted to.  This is the love triangle story in the book as Kayla and Tre’Shawn have been having issues recently as Tre’Shawn has been lying to her to go and spend time with his friends – something that her best friend Jazmyn (who has never made a secret of her disdain for him) has been hammering home.  Meanwhile Kayla is finding herself drawn to the warm and funny Micah, who is making no secret of his attraction to her.  

This is a story about realising when a relationship isn’t working but also that jumping into a new one won’t necessarily fix it and I think that’s a sensible message to send to readers.  There are some funny lines in it – most of which are aimed at the students’ Karen-ish school teacher but I also enjoyed the whatsapp group messages from Kayla’s concerned family – and although I didn’t believe the action that Tammi’s dad takes at the end, it’s still an entertaining read.

SEYMOUR AND GRACE by Nicola Yoon is about a taxi app driver called Seymour (who has had to miss going to college following the death of his father and is now finding himself distanced from his best friend who is leading the life he wanted), who’s taking Grace to the Bed-Stuy block party that’s constantly mentioned throughout the book.  Grace is hoping to see her ex-boyfriend there and maybe show him what he’s missing out on and confront him on his b-s reasons for their break up.  When Seymour’s car runs out of petrol, he insists on walking her to her designation and as they talk each begins to re-evaluate their situation.

Again, this makes use of some of the normal romance tropes – in this case a car running out of petrol – and while I have to say that I wasn’t completely convinced by that as a set-up, Yoon paints the characters well enough for you to believe that Grace would take up Seymour’s offer to walk with her rather than running away screaming into the night.  There’s a bittersweet quality to this story as Seymour talks about the impact of his father’s death on the family and how that means he’s had to step up, while Grace offers a perspective of being a recent immigrant to the US and the uncertainties that this involves.  I did want more of the block party, which gets heavily trailed throughout the book but doesn’t get a huge amount of page time, but it’s still a satisfying read.

There is extra content at the end of the book, including a Q&A with the authors and their survival guides for making it through a blackout.  There’s also a piece explaining the genesis for this book and I have to say, I found it very sad that this came about because of the lack of YA romance books with Black protagonists but all 6 authors have hopefully proved that this needs to stop because there’s a market for it.  I’m not a big romance reader but this is a book that’s strong on character and with a great sense of place and I would definitely check out another book of this type and will be checking out more of each author’s individual work.

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