Joseph Rinaldo’s first book, A Spy at Home, was a thriller about a CIA operative who embezzles nine million dollars from his employer and the repercussions of his actions, and featured an endearing character with Down syndrome. Hazardous Choices, his second release, also has a main character with Down syndrome, but that is about the only thing the two books have in common. Where A Spy at Home was loaded with over-the-top drama and unlikely scenarios, Hazardous Choices focuses on a real danger that is much closer to home: gang violence.
The story centers around Darnell Jackson, a gang member from Chicago who has been given a football scholarship to Western Kentucky State University. Darnell is trying to escape his violent and hardscrabble life in the gang and dreads the upcoming summer vacation when he will have to return to Chicago and take his place in the Nights of Neptune, a brutal gang that patrols Chicago’s Garfield Park, dealing drugs and trying to keep the rival neighborhood gang, the Warriors, out of their territory. Most of the action, however, takes place in Owensboro, Kentucky, where Darnell bonds with his football team and proves himself a rising star on the field. Coach Ben Rotelli and his family live a comfortable and conservative life in typical small-town fashion. Ben is the head football coach at WKSU; his wife Caroline cares for their two children, fifteen-year-old Nicole and eighteen-year-old Eric, who has Down syndrome. Life seems near perfect as Ben vows to coach the team to a winning season and Nicole goes about her life as a typical teenager, occasionally getting into trouble. That is until school ends and Darnell is forced to go home to Chicago in order to protect his mother.
Here the tone of the story shifts abruptly as we are thrown into Darnell’s home life in the gang. His summer in Chicago is spent dealing drugs and defending his fellow gang members against the rival Warriors. Shootings are commonplace, and Darnell seems to take it all in stride, although he desperately wants out. As the violence escalates and he becomes entangled in a situation that can only end in death, he lies to his gang leader about killing a Warrior and makes up a story that allows him to go back to WKSU early. Back in Kentucky, life seems far away from the horrors of his home life, but all too soon the two worlds collide in an unexpectedly violent way, and life for the peaceful, hardworking folk in Owensboro will never be the same again.
I have to give Rinaldo credit for keeping me engaged in a story that revolves around football. He clearly loves the game; football is an important element in Hazardous Choices. For that reason I would never have picked up this book on my own, but I’m glad I got a chance to read it. I loved the shifts between the two worlds, and I thought the serene family life and team camaraderie contrasted well with the darker elements of gang life. The characters in particular were completely engaging. Eric, Ben’s Down syndrome son, was one of my favorites. One compelling storyline has Ben and Nicole learning sign language so that Ben, who is not able to speak, can better communicate with his family. There are also several dysfunctional characters that keep the story balanced, such as Darnell’s mother Marlena, who lives alone in fear in her Chicago apartment while Darnell is away at school, and has a history of sexual abuse. But Darnell is the real hero of the story as a character trying to overcome a bad childhood and better himself at school and on the football field. Although the book ends too abruptly for my taste, and Rinaldo could have spent more time helping his characters find closure at the end, I felt myself immersed in the story from beginning to end. Rinaldo’s courage to forgo the expected happy ending and take the harder path gives Hazardous Choices a poignant quality that I found refreshing. Whether or not you are a football fan, Darnell’s journey and redemption will not disappoint. You can visit Joseph Rinaldo’s website here, and purchase the e-book here.