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Gloria Carmody is 17 and engaged to the scion of one of Chicago’s most powerful families. Bastian is handsome, wealthy, and everything she’s always expected in a husband, but she can’t help but feel that something is missing. She wants adventure and excitement before settling into the safe and comfortable life of a society wife. Venturing into the Green Mill, one of Chicago’s most notorious speakeasies, Gloria gets a glimpse of the alcohol-fueled underworld that contains gangsters, flappers and, most intoxicating of all, jazz.

Jillian Larkin’s debut novel, VIXEN, is the first book in a series set in the Roaring Twenties, when Prohibition meant that alcohol --- and the nightlife that went with it --- settled underground, just outside the reach of the law. The era brought rise to outrageous fortunes made possible by alcohol’s illegal activities. It also brought about new and modern fashions, setting the trend for more liberated women and more mixing between social classes. Into this potent setting Larkin introduces three would-be flappers: Gloria, a debutante; her jealous best friend, Lorraine; and a country cousin, Clara, who has come to Chicago to help Gloria prepare for her wedding. But each of these characters is hiding a secret. Gloria decides to audition to become the Green Mill’s next singer. Lorraine, hurt by her best friends’ new secrecy, sets off on a destructive path intended to ruin Clara and put herself back in Gloria’s good graces. Clara is a great deal more than the country cousin she appears to be, as she’s hiding a painful secret of her own.

Glimpsing Jerome, the piano player, at the Green Mill for the first time, Gloria is struck by his attractiveness and his talent. Though he seems to have little more than disdain for a society girl wishing to moonlight as a jazz singer, Jerome coaches Gloria in the weeks leading up to her debut for fear of losing his job. Gloria, in turn, comes to love and respect him, even though she is engaged and Jerome is black. The taboo topic of interracial romance forms one of the central conflicts of the book, leading me to wonder why I hadn’t encountered it more often in young adult fiction, even those that feature a more contemporary setting. In a touching scene where Gloria and Jerome attempt to hash out the possibilities of a life together in a world not prepared to accept interracial romance, Larkin makes the unusual choice to highlight reverse racism: Jerome takes Gloria ice skating, but the cocoa vender by the ice rink in the black neighborhood refuses to serve her due to the color of her skin.

Likewise, though it only shows up briefly at the end of the book, one of the characters experiences a pregnancy out of wedlock. This is another unusual topic to find addressed in a teen romance. The fact that Larkin doesn’t run away from these issues makes the novel a standout title in a crowded field.

As the first of a planned trilogy, VIXEN ends on several cliffhangers. Will Gloria give up her society life in Chicago to follow Jerome into the jazz world of New York? Will Lorraine get the love and attention she wants without compromising herself or finding herself trapped in a dark bargain with one of Chicago’s ruthless gangsters? Can Clara find the courage to face her past and make a new life with the man she loves? Readers will have to wait for INGENUE, the next book in the series, to find out.

Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on December 14, 2010

by Jillian Larkin