I received this book for free from the Author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Burning by Danielle Rollins
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on April 5 2016
Genres: Young adult, Suspense
Format: Finished hardcover
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The nitty-gritty: A suspenseful young adult tale with awesome female friendships and an intriguing supernatural element.
A couple of years ago I read and loved the dark and violent Merciless, written under Rollins’ pen name Danielle Vega. And so when the author offered me a copy of her latest, I was looking forward to more of the same. But as much as I enjoyed Burning, it turned out to be much tamer than I was expecting, and while that’s not a bad thing, it did throw me for a bit until I realized this story stands well on its own, with its own charms and strengths. That’s one reason, I suppose, why authors decide to use pen names in the first place, to distance their “name” from a particular book or writing style, so that they can strike off in another direction without fear of being labeled. Burning is mostly a thoughtful drama about minors who have been incarcerated and how they deal with and survive prison life, but there are also some thrilling supernatural moments as well, although for me, these were not the main focus of the story.
Angela is doing time in the Brunesfield Correctional Facility for theft. She’s been trying to keep a low profile by following the rules, and she’s only months away from being released. Waiting at home for her is her little brother Charlie, who continues to write her letters. Angela longs for the day she can go home. But two new arrivals at Brunesfield shake up the inmates’ day to day life, and suddenly Angela isn’t so sure she’ll be released any time soon. First, a young girl named Jessica arrives but is immediately put in segregation due to her “dangerous” nature. Shortly after, a scientist named Dr. Gruen visits the girls, explaining that she’s starting a group called SciGirls which will help them prepare for jobs outside the system. These two events are related, but it isn’t until strange things start happening that Angela starts putting the pieces together.
It turns out Jessica is in Seg Block for a good reason—she can set things on fire with her mind. After Dr. Gruen asks Angela to befriend Jessica, she suspects that Dr. Gruen might be up to something. The mystery of Jessica and her strange ability slowly builds as Angela gets to know the frightened girl, and Dr. Gruen starts convincing all the girls at the facility to join SciGirls.
Because I’m a fan of everything speculative fiction, it surprised me how much I enjoyed the relationships part of the story over the horror parts. And while I liked the idea of a little girl who has a genetic condition that gives her the power to start fires (and yes, I had flashbacks to Firestarter!), the scenes involving Jessica trying to control those powers weren’t my favorite. I was much more interested in the friendships between Angela and her roommates Issie and Cara, and the tension between the guards and the inmates. You know, the real life stuff! Angela is dyslexic, and has a hard time reading, and so when she gets letters from Charlie, Issie reads them to her. It was so nice reading about a friendship between teen girls who actually help each other out. Of course, there are plenty of mean girls at Brunesfield, and some of the scenes are somewhat violent (but in more of a PG sort of way), but I like that Rollins gave many of her main characters the ability to empathize.
The other thing that Rollins does really well is to create a wonderful sense of tension. There are several mysteries going on in this story. There’s the mystery of Jessica and her origins, and exactly how her strange abilities work. Then there’s the diabolical Dr. Gruen, a smooth talking woman who is able to convince many of the girls at Brunesfield to join up with the suspect SciGirls organization. She reminded me of a cult leader whose evil nature hides behind charm and charisma. We don’t find out until nearly the end what’s up with SciGirls, so the reader is kept guessing for quite a while. The last quarter of the book is high on action and that’s when Rollins pulls out all the stops. She definitely knows how to write a page-turner!
I was completely surprised by the twist at the very end, which is the best kind of twist, right? I almost felt as if the author was setting things up for a sequel, but it’s one of those endings that works well either way. I personally made peace with the ending, but some readers may be frustrated by the dangling thread at the end. (Note: I did just check out Goodreads and I see a book called Breaking that could very well be a sequel.)
My only complaint with Burning would be that at times it just felt a little too sweet and nice, especially considering the prison setting. I have to admit it was hard not to compare it to Fellside at times, a very different prison story, even though the main idea is basically the same (a female character winds up in prison for the wrong reasons and encounters a supernatural presence.) Yes, there were some violent moments in Burning, but I never really felt shock while reading them. (Compared to Fellside, where I cringed the entire time I was reading the book). Obviously it’s not fair to compare the two, because one is clearly aimed at the YA market, but a touch more grittiness would have been fine with me.
But Danielle—both Vega and Rollins—knows how to craft a well-written story. For YA readers who like a mix of drama, action, a smattering of romance and a touch of the supernatural, Burning has something for everyone.
Big thanks to the author for supplying a review copy.