Book Review: Atlanta Burns (Atlanta Burns #1) by Chuck Wendig

I’m a huge Chuck Wendig fan, but this was his first YA book that I read. It was well written–with powerful social messages–and I ended up enjoying it almost as much as Wendig’s Miriam Black series.

Series: Atlanta Burns #1

4.5/5 stars

cover atlanta burns

Amazon description

You don’t mess with Atlanta Burns.

Everyone knows that. And that’s kinda how she likes it—until the day Atlanta is drawn into a battle against two groups of bullies and saves a pair of new, unexpected friends. But actions have consequences, and when another teen turns up dead—by an apparent suicide—Atlanta knows foul play is involved. And worse: she knows it’s her fault. You go poking rattlesnakes, maybe you get bit.

Afraid of stirring up the snakes further by investigating, Atlanta turns her focus to the killing of a neighborhood dog. All paths lead to a rural dogfighting ring, and once more Atlanta finds herself face-to-face with bullies of the worst sort. Atlanta cannot abide letting bad men do awful things to those who don’t deserve it. So she sets out to unleash her own brand of teenage justice.

Will Atlanta triumph? Or is fighting back just asking for a face full of bad news?

This book is intended for mature audiences due to strong language and violence.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about that disclaimer at the end. The book is undeniably dark and touches on very real issues that affect the real world. There is a difference between reading about dog fights and hate crimes and reading about violence in a fantasy setting, but I would say that most YA readers who would be interested in the plot of Atlanta Burns will have read enough dark or violent scenes in other places to handle this book.

Or I’m just biased. I’ve read a lot of dark stuff, including some adult horror-esque novels, so this book really didn’t bother me.

Also, Wendig wasn’t talking about rape, hate crimes, and dog fights for fun or to add drama. The book is written to condemn these actions, and does a fantastic job. His message would have been undermined if he didn’t portray the evils he was condemning, and the overall themes of the book are far too important to drop the book because of a few trigger alerts.

Now to actually talk about the plot and characters.

I loved Atlanta. She was screwed up–no way to sugar coat it–but it didn’t overpower the story. Though the book was told in third person, I got a powerful sense of Atlanta’s voice. It was cynical, broken, and pissed, but in an endearing way. I cared about her, and her actions made sense in the context of her DRAMATIC BACKSTORY (which I’m not going to tell you, but the book spells out pretty clearly early on). The way other characters responded to the backstory made the story more complex.

Wendig did a great job painting the rest of the side characters as well. Each one of them had a distinct personality, and the most important ones had enough backstory to be well-rounded. I never connected to Atlanta’s “friends” as much as I connected to her, but they still felt alive and complex on the page. My only complaint in this area is that there were a lot of characters, especially creepy older men, and I started to get them confused about two-thirds into the book. But that was a minor complaint–I could have just paid more attention.

The plot doesn’t follow a clear three-part structure. Atlanta Burns was originally two separate books, and it shows in the way the plot develops. However, even with this, the plot never drags. It just felt like it took the scenic route to get to the main plot line. Longer, but it allowed for a strong subplot and extra character development–which I loved. In the end, I actually enjoyed the unconventional plot style, though while I was reading it was a little confusing as to what was the focus of the book and what was subplot.

In the same vein, the plot talks about a lot of different societal issues, though most of them center around hate crimes: sexual harassment and rape, homophobia, neo-Nazism, dog fighting, bullying. Though the plot focused mostly on the dog fighting, Wendig was able to have strong messages about all of the different crimes he discussed. Again, this leaves the book a little unfocused while you read it, but powerful when you consider it in its entirety.

The writing is fantastic. Stylistically, it is unique. Sometimes I forget what it feels like to read really amazing writing, but this book brought it back. Wendig’s writing style doesn’t hit you in the face with literary devices or poetic turns of phrases–at first, it feels like you are reading just another YA novel, but then you realize: that was the perfect way to describe that. Wendig used dialect subtlety, but it transformed the book, adding to the setting and to Atlanta’s character. Though there is a lot of cursing and obscenities, the book never feels crass or vulgar. The writing actually gets more poetic and impressive with the addition of curses and dark material. Wendig is a wordsmith who arranges words in such perfect ways, you don’t even realize what he’s doing.

Crazy–something everyone should read.

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