For a book that I only gave three stars, I certainly had a lot to say about it! Nothing Left to Burn grew on me the more I read it, and I thought some reviewers were a little too harsh in their criticism. I don’t think a lot of adult readers will think this is a spectacular book, but I do think it could be a popular read with some of my high school students. It touches on some serious issues, but the real appeal is the friendship and support that the protagonist finds in an unexpected place.
Reece’s father hasn’t spoken to him since the car wreck that killed Reece’s brother. Desperate for forgiveness, Reece joins the Junior Cadet program at his dad’s firehouse. But the program is grueling, and Reece isn’t sure he can make it through. Then he meets Amanda.
Amanda understands wanting to belong. As a foster kid, the firehouse is the only place that feels like home. She agrees to help Reece, but falling for him wasn’t part of the deal. And when a string of arsons suddenly point to Amanda, their relationship could go up in flames.
While this book had its faults, and you know I’m going to list them in detail soon, I really liked it once I got past the first few chapters. First, I really liked the brotherhood that these characters find in their junior fire squad. Being part of this group made a huge difference in the two main characters’ lives, and I think readers will respond to their comraderie and teamwork. Second, this book gave readers an accurate picture of what it feels like to be in the foster system. Some readers will see Amanda’s insecurities, fears, and stress as exaggerated, but I know that lots of kids daily walk the line in fear of being sent to the next care facility. This is also the first book that really lays out the struggle Amanda will face as she begins to age out of the system – her dreams have to be a lot more practical than the average teen’s. Her situation creates understanding and empathy for readers who may never have thought about foster care. I also liked the parallel dynamics between Reece and Amanda’s situations with their parents – their internal conflicts essentially boil down to feeling like their parent didn’t really love them, and the story presents two ways that confronting that feeling can go. Finally, I liked how the experience that Reece dreads is really transformative for him. He starts the book feeling like he is hated and useless, but becoming part of the squad gives him a new sense of purpose and belonging. That is a potentially inspirational message for any teen who doesn’t feel like they have a place in the world.
Now, for the things I felt were a little lacking. The romantic feelings between Reece and Amanda feel rushed, and some readers will be uncomfortable with the fact that Amanda seems to be transferring her feelings for Reece’s dead brother onto Reece as a result. I also felt like there was an unbelievable amount of hatred towards Reece. I’m not sure if those feelings were just his skewed perceptions or if people really did spew dislike of him. Either way, it comes across as too dramatic to be believable, and since that issue comes up within the first few chapters, it will cause some readers to write this book off too early. I also think that the book could be perceived as glossing over Reece’s decision to change his plan to leave his family – there wasn’t enough internal debate to really make it clear what convinced him to change his mind. I really believe it was the squad’s support and friendship that changed the game, but it can come across to some readers that he is simply changing his mind for love of Amanda, and that could marginalized the bigger issue. Finally, I just didn’t understand what was wrong with Reece – I think he had to be somewhere on the autism spectrum as a child, but I found it hard to believe that no one forced his family to seek out the answers. I understood that there was a desire not to pigeonhole him, but in this day and age, a teacher or a doctor would have insisted on getting him tested based on the way he was described as a young child. I don’t know why that bothered me so much, but I felt like Reece struggled more than he would have if someone had just helped him understand why he found life and people more overwhelming than his peers.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and I didn’t really see most of the faults until I sat down to reflect. It felt a little rushed and a little overly dramatic about some things, but I liked the big idea behind it.
I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.