Love Radio by Ebony LaDelle

Dear Ebony LaDelle,

I don’t t recall how your debut Young Adult novel came to my attention, but I liked the eye-catching cover and the premise sounded interesting. A bit gimmicky (a high school boy tries to get a girl to fall in love with him on three dates) but fresher than many these days—no rivals to lovers, no fake dating—so I requested the ARC.

Prince Jones is only a high school senior and already a radio DJ in a Detroit station (his uncle helped him get the job after he’d had him on as a guest and the audience loved him). His show, the Love Radio, is a mix of music and relationship advice. Callers call in and “DJ Love Jones” gives them his thoughts about and suggestions for dealing with their thorny relationship dilemmas.

Prince does this despite intense demands on this time. His mother has MS and was abandoned by his father after she was diagnosed, so it falls to Prince to help her around the house. His five-year-old brother, Mook, is adorable, but since their father isn’t around, Prince does his best to be a male role model to him. And of course, there’s school. At eighteen, Prince is a young man who shoulders a lot of his responsibilities, and he handles them with grace.

Prince is part of a crew of four guys from his high school—Malik, who is dating two girls, Rashida and Charte, mainly because Rashida isn’t ready for sex; Anthony/Ant, who is father to a baby; and Yasin/Yaz, who yearns for Jordan, a girl at school, but is afraid that if he asks her out, she’ll say no because he isn’t black (for those of our readers who live outside the US and may not know—Detroit has a predominantly Black population). Anthony’s one-year-old, Kisha, is a welcome addition when Anthony has her.

Although his girlfriend of a year, Morgan, dumped him after moving to college recently, Prince genuinely believes in love, and he tries to give his friends good suggestions on how to handle their relationships. When the other guys challenge him to take his own relationship advice and put himself out there, Prince thinks of the girl he crushed on in Middle School, a crush that never completely faded.

Danielle Ford is now a senior at the same school Prince attends. For over a year now, Dani has been avoiding her old friends Rashida, Esi, and Destiny. Dani and the first two were a tight group of three. Neither Rashida and Esi nor Dani’s mother have ever liked Destiny, though. Destiny is insecure and doesn’t have a car; before they had a falling out, she used Dani to get rides. One night she invited Danielle to a “party” that turned out to take place at a house off-campus. There was nobody there but the four guys who lived in the house. Destiny’s actions that night put Dani in danger and Dani was nearly raped.

Dani no longer considers Destiny her friend, but she avoids her other friends, Esi and Rashida, too, because she doesn’t want to talk about what happened last they judge her and she knows that they’ll sense that there is something wrong and ask.

More generally, Dani has become reclusive. She has less trust in people now, guys especially, and she doesn’t want to open up to anyone. Although she and her parents comprise a close, warm, loving family, she doesn’t want to confide in her mom or dad either. She’s become blocked when it comes to writing her college application essay. Her ambition is to be an author but now her writing well seems to have run dry.

At the library, one of her favorite haunts, Danielle is approached by Prince. He is there to pick up some children’s books for Mook, and he struggles to find what he is looking for—books about Black kids Mook’s age. There aren’t many published. Running into Danielle is an opportunity and he gathers his nerve to talk to her.

Mistaking Prince for a player, Dani shoots him down by telling him harshly that she’s not interested in a guy who has a child. Prince fires back he is borrowing the books for his brother but his friend (Anthony) is a father and if she judges kids for that, he’s not interested in her.

Danielle feels terrible—she stereotyped Prince from a place for trauma but was herself treated with contempt once when she was mistaken for a teenaged mother in a department store because her toddler cousin was with her. She confesses to her father and he urges her to apologize, so she shows up on Prince’s doorstep with library books for Mook, and ones focused on Black children at that. Prince accepts Dani’s apology and they sit down and have a conversation on his porch.

Dani reveals her skepticism about love, and Prince asks her if they can hang out together—just hang out. Dani is hesitant but then agrees. On the weekend when they are to meet up, though, she loses her nerve. When she tries to cancel, she uses the excuse of needing to take her braided hair down. Prince surprises her by offering to help and she accepts.

This goes much better than Dani expected—she is tender-headed but Prince is gentle, and he makes a good impression on her parents and on her. She gives out mixed signals because of her traumatic experience and Prince is confused, but there are enough positive signs there that he doesn’t give up. He says he wants to woo her, and asks her to give him three dates to prove himself. In three dates, she just might fall in love. Eventually Dani takes up the challenge.

This book got off to a great start. Prince is a wonderful character. His maturity and responsibility were so attractive, and his love and for and support of his mother, Mook, and his friends was heartwarming. Transcripts of his radio segments are interspersed with some of the chapters and they show that he is kind to strangers who call in and that he had great taste in music (“Your Love is King” is one of my favorite songs! LOL), too . And the dates he comes up with for Dani are creative, thoughtful and romantic even though his family doesn’t have much money and his budget is limited.

Dani is also likeable. The vulnerability, fear, and self-doubt that resulted from her traumatic experience were easy to understand even when they made her react coldly. I liked the way she owned up her mistake at the library and made a genuine, unqualified apology for what she’d said, and her doubt in her own judgment and hesitancy about the dates made sense. It was nice to see her come out of her shell as she got more comfortable with Prince and with leaving the house outside of going to school.

Most of the secondary characters were well-crafted too. I particularly liked Dani’s parents and Mook; There was so much love in Prince and Danielle’s families. Prince’s mother struggled to do her best and had been hurt by her husband’s actions.

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There were times, though, that despite her disability I was a little frustrated with her because she could have accepted more help from others and lightened Prince’s load. But given that this was connected to the abandonment she suffered when her husband left her and her kids, I had compassion for her.

Dani’s friends Rashida and Esi were nice; Rashida sensitive and Esi proud and fun. Of Prince’s friends, I liked Anthony best and Yaz as well. I was more ambivalent about Malik because despite his feelings for Rashida, he wouldn’t give up sex with Charte. But I liked the way that was handled by the end.

There were also some great tidbits about Black culture and Detroit history (including Motown’s) which I enjoyed. Some of these I already knew but some were new to me and I enjoyed learning about them. Some of this was incorporated into the dialogue a bit awkwardly, though.

I liked that Dani and Prince spent time together and texted each other between their official three dates. If three dates were all they’d had, I’d have found the concept of love and trust developing between them less believable.

I did, however, have multiple issues with the book. Dani was steeped in her trauma when she said yes to Prince’s offer to help her take down her hair. Having someone touch your scalp is intimate and requires trust, and at this point in the story, Dani barely knew Prince, so it read like a contrivance.

I also wasn’t crazy about Prince’s assertion that Dani would fall in love with him on three dates. It seemed like putting undue pressure on her and on their nascent relationship. “Let me take you on three dates and let’s see where things go from there” would have been better (but I suppose less of a hook).

Destiny wasn’t fleshed out much and I regretted that.

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I would have preferred it if Dani’s indications that she felt betrayed by Destiny’s actions had gotten through to Destiny. Destiny was a borderline villain, and I’d have preferred her to be reframed and developed more, especially given her difficult background at home and the motive ascribed to her actions (insecurity).

The first half of the book was well-paced and I was engaged by the emerging romance early on, but around the halfway point Dani’s trauma and insecurity seemed to mostly have resolved and a lot of the suspense about what would next in her and Prince’s relationship faded as a result. Instead, other things came to the fore, including storylines about Prince’s struggle with balancing his responsibilities in the present with other needs and Dani’s letting loose more after coming out of her shell. The first was interesting, but for the most part, in this part of the book Prince didn’t share these experiences with Dani. This read like a missed opportunity for developing the romance further.

Dani and Prince also had fewer scenes together in the second half, so the romance felt back burnered and the pacing flagged. The chemistry between them all disappeared. I feel that to an extent this was because the book was trying to juggle too many things.

Typically I view the YA genre as being about the characters’ coming of age more than anything else and this aspect was handled fine. But (and maybe this has as much to do with the title and the cover as with the way the book began) I feel that this book created an expectation that it would focus on the romance just as much. When that stopped happening it was hard to adjust, and I got bored and impatient waiting for the romantic relationship to reemerge.

Very late in the book, the romance returned to the foreground, but it was too late to develop the chemistry. I closed the book happy for Prince and Dani individually, but feeling that they’d become good friends rather than a romantic match. B-/C+.

Sincerely,

Janine

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Janine

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven novels in romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Examples include novels by Ilona Andrews, Mary Balogh, Aster Glenn Gray, Helen Hoang, Piper Huguley, Lisa Kleypas, Jeannie Lin, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Naomi Novik, Nalini Singh, and Megan Whalen Turner. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

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