As I was planning this review, I was going to describe ATLANTA BURNS as “Veronica Mars turned vigilante,” but then Chuck Wendig tweeted that it was “Veronica Mars on Adderall. Nancy Drew meets Justified.” Ah well, close enough. The point is, yes, this is a YA novel, but it is dark and violent and sometimes brutal. But it is also honest and even funny and hopeful at times. So if you can handle issues like absentee parents, bullying, drugs, sexual assault, hate crimes, and dogfighting, I think you’ll enjoy this book immensely.
ATLANTA BURNS is the story of a teenage girl who is returning to school after experiencing a severe trauma. She’s used violence against violence, and she’s not afraid to do it again. She’s hurt and angry and trying to find her place in the high school jungle when people can only look at her and think of the rumors they’ve heard about her. She’s also got a stubborn streak as deep and wide as they come. She knows it’ll get her in trouble, but she can’t help herself. She’s not one to let bad guys win, not without fighting back that is.
Atlanta takes on some neighborhood bullies, but actions have consequences. Mess with someone’s kids, and parents tend to get involved. And when the kids are bullies, odds are their parents are worse. This is no exception. She ends up tangling with corrupt, racist, violent adults who have no problem coming after Atlanta and the people closest to her.
Atlanta is a Wendig heroine: tough, foul-mouthed, and troubled. But she is also a teenager, and Wendig has portrayed that stage of life with an honest eye and heart. Atlanta is on that cusp of adulthood, and she is is struggling to find out just how powerful she really is, what kind of person she is, and what her limits are. She also suffers from PTSD, and Wendig also handles that admirably, describing the surges of fear and adrenaline, as well as the desire to overcome it.
I also quite enjoyed the other characters in ATLANTA BURNS. The book takes place in Central Pennsylvania, or “Pennsyltucky” as it’s called. But Wendig doesn’t resort to stereotypes. The cast is diverse, and Wendig is able to create substance in each of the characters, even if they are only present for a little while. His take on high school life is a hard one, and a mature one, but I think it’s an honest and unflinching look at those darker aspects of what can be a very difficult time for many people.
And is the case with other Wendig books, I was tickled to once again find text crackling with descriptions, metaphors, and similes that I found funny, shocking, clever, subtle, and gut-wrenching. Wendig knows how to write a page turner, and I stayed up late, telling myself, “Just one more chapter.”
And that is true even when Atlanta enters the world of dogfighting. Those chapters were very hard for me to get through (I’m a big dog person, I have a rescue dog, and I volunteer with a rescue agency). I do not envy Wendig the research he had to do for this book. But it is a credit to his writing that while things were at times graphic and tragic, I don’t think he crossed any lines. I never had to put the book down and walk away. That being said, I made sure to give my dog extra hugs and treats after reading it.
ATLANTA BURNS is a revision of the novella “Shotgun Gravy” and the novel BAIT DOG. They share common characters, and the pieces are stitched together well, but there is a noticeable shift between the two. But think of it more as a bump in the road rather than a reason to derail your reading entirely.
This is not the easiest read. But it’s a very good read, and I think YA readers who are able to handle more mature themes will get a lot out of it–not just the enjoyment of a good book, but a message of standing up against bullies and being your best, truest self. Heck, I’m 34, and even I benefitted from that.