I’ve got another one for you folks! Today’s Top Book of 2016 pick is one that I don’t like to think of as “historical” fiction, given that it’s set in the 1970s, but when you realise that is nearly forty years ago (!!) it definitely qualifies. We received Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina from Walker Books Australia for review and were drawn in by the tumultuous historical and social setting, as well as the fact that Brisbane’s never-ending summer this year neatly reflects the sultry atmosphere of New York in 1977.
Well, that and the fact that I am intrigued by the dance move that you humans call “The Bump”.
Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous year 1977 in New York.
After a freezing winter, a boiling hot summer explodes with arson, a blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam, who is shooting young people on the streets seemingly at random.
Not only is the city a disaster, but Nora has troubles of her own: her brother, Hector, is growing more uncontrollable by the day, her mother is helpless to stop him, and her father is so busy with his new family that he only calls on holidays.
And it doesn’t stop there. The super’s after her mother to pay their overdue rent, and her teachers are pushing her to apply for college, but all Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. There is a cute guy who started working with her at the deli, but is dating even worth the risk when the killer especially likes picking off couples who stay out too late?
Award-winning author Meg Medina transports readers to a time when New York seemed about to explode, with temperatures and tempers running high, to discover how one young woman faces her fears as everything self-destructs around her.
So here are some of the reasons why I had to put this on my Top Picks list for this year:
- As far as YA fiction goes, this is a finely honed piece of writing. Meg Medina is obviously a writer who knows how to craft a believable, absorbing story with perfectly timed pacing and no filler. Everything in this book is there for a reason and the various aspects – romance, family drama, social issues, friendship – are deftly balanced, resulting in a sense of authenticity that takes in the setting, the period and the characters.
- Nora is an incredibly genuine representation of a seventeen-year-old woman from a poor family attempting to be pragmatic in a difficult situation. A contributing factor to this sense of unfeigned teenage struggle is the fact that the author herself lived her teenage years in New York in the 1970s. You don’t often see characters that are so deeply explored in young adult novels and Nora is a standout.
- The parts referencing the Son of Sam killer are actually quite creepy. Medina has captured the feeling of terror that would have no doubt flitted through the minds of young couples as they emerged from the cinema or disco, or sat together in a car during the time the killer was on the loose.
- If Nora is a standout character, she is flanked by a strong supporting cast who are equally believable. There’s her friend Kathleen, who, despite having been best friends with Nora since childhood, is just far enough outside Nora’s social sphere that she misses the cues of violence and poverty occuring in Nora’s family; there’s Hector, Nora’s younger brother, whose personal growth throughout the novel more closely reflects a downward spiral; Stiller, the no-nonsense, feminist, socialist, advocate (the shelf’s favourite character after Nora!); and the collection of local shop-owners, landlords, school teachers and public servants who round out the community and add to the feeling of realism.
I had a good think after finishing this book and even put off writing this review for a few days to gauge whether my initial impression of the book waned after a period of reflection. I can honestly say however, that there is nothing about this book with which I am dissatisfied. The writing, the characters, the setting, the pacing – all of these contribute to the overall quality of the reading experience and I will definitely have to keep an eye out for Medina’s other works from now on if this is any indication of her talent.
Until next time,