Book Review: Burned and Smoke

Both books delve into life’s gray areas and provide a glimpse into the unfiltered questions of two hurting and confused young women. Beautifully written and emotionally moving.

Burned and Smoke by Ellen Hopkins

This duology was my first experience with books in verse. I will definitely read more.

Back Cover Description for Burned

“Raised in a religious—yet abusive—family, Pattyn Von Stratten starts asking questions—about God, a woman’s role, sex, love. She experiences the first stirrings of passion, but when her father catches her in a compromising position, events spiral out of control. Pattyn is sent to live with an aunt in the wilds of Nevada to find salvation and redemption. What she finds instead is love and acceptance—until she realizes that her old demons will not let her go.”

Characters

Pattyn, the eldest daughter in a large Mormon family, starts questioning her family’s faith. She already wrestled with her “good Mormon father’s” alcoholism, so when teenage hormones hit and she develops sexual feelings, those questions increase. She doesn’t want the traditional role of Mormon mother of as-many-as-possible. When her genuine questions are answered with hypocrisy, she rebels.

While the author portrays Pattyn as a flawed human with sincere questions, Ethan, the boy she meets on the ranch in Nevada, leaves much to be desired. Like many leading males in romance novels, Ethan is too perfect. Good-looking and considerate, he doesn’t struggle as Pattyn does. The romance lacks chemistry at the beginning. There is no reason for Ethan to pursue Pattyn other than her looks, though the author implies otherwise.

Perhaps I am picky, but too-perfect guys annoy me. Ethan comes across as a savior, not a partner.

Ethan comes across as a savior, not a partner.

Plot

The story is more character-driven than plot-driven; it centers on Pattyn’s questions about God and love. Poignant and beautifully written poems allow the reader inside her private contemplations as various events shape her beliefs. The plot intensifies dramatically toward the end, which is refreshing but not satisfying. That is why I went straight to the sequel, Smoke after finishing.

Smoke picks up where Burned leaves off, but adds a subplot for Pattyn’s younger sister, Jackie, whose rape is covered up by the LDS community, including her own mother. Smoke built much more suspense throughout the plot, though I don’t think it satisfied the theme of redemption and second loves. Both love stories felt too hasty for me.

I found myself disappointed with the endings. Pattyn questions and rejects her faith, but her new beliefs are ill-defined and center around her love life. She abandons the LDS church to escape their oppressive patriarchy, but then she latches on to Ethan. Perhaps it is because I am religious myself, but I think a boyfriend is a poor substitute for God. I’m not saying she should have converted to another religion, but I wish she had found her own principles, her own foundation that didn’t depend on anyone else, especially not some boy.

A boyfriend is a poor substitute for God.

Writing Style

This is the first I’ve read from Ellen Hopkins, and I adored her writing. Her poems are lyrical without being esoteric. A non-poetry fan could read these books and follow the story with ease. She packs a great deal of power into a few words, especially the poems where she pulls out keywords to form their own sentence. Both Burned and Smoke were beautiful reads.

Conclusion

Burned and Smoke tackle a difficult subject—abuse, rape, and trauma recovery. The content wasn’t too graphic for me, but you must use your own discretion. Both books delve into life’s gray areas and provide a glimpse into the unfiltered questions of two hurting and confused young women. Beautifully written and emotionally moving, each book took only a couple hours to read—one advantage of poetry is brevity. Overall, I would recommend these books, provided you’re not squeamish about the content. I got them as a gift, but I wouldn’t regret spending money on such beautiful writing. Buy both though. Once you finish Burned, you’ll want the closure offered in Smoke.


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Book Review: Speak

The publisher recently released the 20-year anniversary version of this story. I am far behind the boat on this, as it is my first time reading it. That’s what I love about words: they’re timeless. Twenty years later, I can discover a book and immerse myself in its pages.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

The publisher recently released the 20-year anniversary version of this story. I am far behind the boat on this, as it is my first time reading it. That’s what I love about words: they’re timeless. Twenty years later, I can discover a book and immerse myself in its pages.

Cover Description

“From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether.

Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication.”

Characters

Melinda sees the world through the cynical eyes of someone it has treated unjustly. Her personality has a sharp edge to it, but not the edge of someone who is belligerent by nature. The bitter irony in her perspective is a defensive reaction to the pain acidifying her insides. Only Heather, a new student who is desperate to climb the social hierarchy, speaks to her.

You can tell a lot about a person by how they react to pain. Melinda holds hers inside, bearing her trauma in silence. Heather wails and shouts her troubles like a wolf howling at a full moon. The contrast between them adds power to the theme of the book.

Plot

The strength of this story is its subtlety. This is not a political manifesto, a b*tch party at the bar, or a transcript of a therapy session. The story focuses on Melinda as a person, her individual experience, and her processing what happened to her. It does not claim to represent all rape victims, nor does it strive to make vast cultural changes. This is about one girl learning to speak up for herself. Because of that, it is even more powerful.

Writing Style

This was the author’s debut novel, and her writing is flawless. When you begin with flawless and improve from there, you know you’re a good writer. I can attest to that, because, while this book was well written, the writing in her later publications left me in awe.

Other

As you can see in the Amazon link below, the 20th anniversary edition has a different cover than the copy I checked out of the library. I like them both.

This book often appears in discussions about censorship and what topics ought to be permitted in public schools. Personally, I don’t see any reason this shouldn’t have a place on school library shelves. The descriptions were not so graphic as to be unreadable, and the subject is relevant to teenagers. The book itself is short enough not to take up an entire semester should teachers make it required reading, and I recommend they do. I got more from Speak than I did from most of the stuff teachers forced me to read in high school.

Conclusion

This book is well-worth reading. I read it in two sittings, but it is short enough to read in a day if you’re so inclined. I went to the library, but I would say it is not only worth buying, it would be worth buying two to have one to give to a friend.


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Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson


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