Welcome to the final day of Nerds Heart YA
, Round One! *cue impressive fight music* Nerds Heart YA is a bracketed tournament in which underrated YA novels go head to head. I was asked to judge between BLEEDING VIOLET by Dia Reeves
and THE END: FIVE QUEER KIDS SAVE THE WORLD by Nora Olsen
--two books about young people who shake things up in a big way.
BLEEDING VIOLET is the story of Hanna, a bipolar girl who comes to the town of Portero, Texas to live with her estranged mother. Said mother isn’t too happy to see her, but she’s willing to cut Hanna a deal: if Hanna can make herself a part of the town within two weeks, she can stay. Hanna’s unique worldview and insightful hallucinations help her rise to the challenge as she learns the ropes of this otherworldly town and fights her way into her mother’s heart.
THE END follows five young people who work to repair the world after WWIII strikes. Julia, Skilly, Marly, Vikki and Ginger use magic amulets to enhance their own innate strengths and target Muldoona, the evil goddess who’s bound and determined to end humankind forever.
BLEEDING VIOLET is a strong book from the get-go. Reeves forges an instant link between Hanna and the reader, largely by throwing things into question. We know Hanna has hallucinations, so we have to read pretty carefully to determine whether we can trust anything she sees. How much of this is really happening? How much is just in her head? It took me a little while to find my feet, but once I was in I was sunk. I was eager to figure out how everything worked and what role Hanna would play in the town’s complex social structure. I think Reeves did a wonderful job of blending the magic (excuse me, way the world works
) into Hanna’s everyday reality. It’s immersive and engaging.
A potential downside, now: I imagine many readers will find the book rather dark. There’s murder and mayhem in spades, and the citizens of Portero don’t balk at much. Their moral compass points to a different north than most other peoples'.
The darkness isn't unrelenting, though. Reeves leavens it with Hanna herself. Yeah, the girl can get violent, but she’s also a total sweetheart. She’s committed to forging a relationship with her mother. She takes delight in the simplest things. She’s perennially upbeat. Nothing gets her down for too long.
All in all: it’s good stuff, with a dynamic narrator and some funky worldbuilding. I really liked it and will definitely read Reeves's second novel, SLICE OF CHERRY (which also takes place in Portero, but is not a sequel).
Now let’s talk about THE END.
THE END’s greatest strength is the way it handles LGBTQ issues. In a word, they aren’t--issues, that is. Some people like women. Some people like men. Some people like both. Some people are assigned the wrong gender at birth. None of the protagonists struggles with her or his sexuality, though one character does have a few realistic qualms about their gender identity. They know who they are, and they’re fine with it.
Olsen doesn’t play to stereotypes, either. Her protagonists are a diverse bunch, and they’re quick enough to shoot down anyone who suggests there’s only one way to be gay. I found them refreshing.
Olsen deals with some interesting concepts, too. There’s a lot here about community, connection and sacrifice. Skilly, an immortal who’s been a physical teenager for five thousand years, also has an especially hard time with seeing other people as
people. Olsen raises many questions as to how we relate to each other and what it means to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like Olsen’s writing best served her ideas. Her prose lacks polish. It’s blunt and just a touch too wordy. I might have overlooked that, though, if she'd left more to the reader's imagination. As it stands, she spells everything
out. If the characters feel something, we hear about it in detail. If they do something, we learn exactly what motivated them. Almost all these explanations are extraneous. I think the book needed at least one more round of intensive edits to pare them away and tighten some of the phrasing.
The gender and sexuality issues are great, but they aren’t quite enough to compensate for the book's weaknesses. I’m afraid I didn’t really enjoy it.
The choice, then, is easy. Dia Reeves’s BLEEDING VIOLET moves along to Round Two!
Be sure to check out the complete list of first round decisions on the Nerds Heart YA blog
to see which other books will join BLEEDING VIOLET there!