I often start a new series, but finishing them is another matter. Not the quickest of readers, I make the decision based on time investment: am I better off continuing, or dropping it to pursue something better? On a regular basis, I choose the second path.
In certain cases, however, I feel like the author has me trussed up and is poking me with a stick. I can’t yell at them to stop it. I just have to finish the series. Enter authors Stephanie Tromly and Michael Grant, whose young adult trilogies Trouble and Front Lines tied my imagination like a Christmas turkey and wouldn’t cut the string.
In Trouble Is a Friend of Mine, 16-year-old Zoe Webster has moved with her mom to River Heights, a small city in upstate New York. There she meets ‘Trouble’ in the form of black-suit-wearing, fast-talking Philip Digby. Obsessed with discovering what happened to his younger sister, who was kidnapped when he was seven, Digby has been conducting a slow-boil investigation into her disappearance. To assist him, he assembles a team of accomplices: Zoe, whom he has just met; his old friend Henry, the school quarterback; and Felix, an almost-13-year-old genius.
Under Digby’s guidance, the unlikely detectives head into the seediest corners of the community, including the office of a corrupt gynecologist and a house full of cult-like gangsters. A good girl with her sights set on Princeton, Zoe gets arrested for vandalizing a security camera, assists Digby with everything from break-ins to data theft, begins punching people — turns out she’s good at it — and stabs a murderous thug in the eye with an Epi-Pen.
Along the way, Zoe must wrestle with the knowledge that she’s risking her personal safety and academic future for the sake of a quest that may lead nowhere. Nothing drives this point home like the end of the book, when Zoe and Digby find themselves locked in the basement of a house rigged with plastic explosives.
With witty exchanges and more bad behaviour, Tromly avoids mid-trilogy-itis in the second book, Trouble Makes a Comeback. She then makes a perfect landing with Trouble Never Sleeps, in which you discover the ultimate fate of Digby’s sister.
Featuring less rapid-fire dialogue, but more dramatic weight, Front Lines imagines World War II if U.S. women had been recruited for frontline service. Shifting between the viewpoints of three teenagers — Rio Richlin, Rainy Schulterman and Frangie Marr — the book explains their differing motivations in joining the military, then follows them through basic training to their initial deployment in North Africa.
Unsettled since her sister’s death on a naval ship, Rio wants to escape small town California. She and her friend Jenou think they may be given office jobs behind the front lines when they enlist, but instead become infantry grunts. Quick-thinking and adept at languages, Rainy finds a home with military intelligence. She has promised to investigate the whereabouts of her Jewish relatives in Europe, who have stopped sending letters overseas. Brave and empathetic Frangie, meanwhile, becomes a nurse for a black artillery unit. She hopes to share her earnings with her family, which is struggling to make ends meet.
While the characters come together during key junctures of the trilogy, they spend most of the time apart. This slows the story a bit, but allows the reader to view the conflict from three distinct perspectives.
Grant sticks close to the actual history and timelines of the war and keeps the military detail accurate. He doesn’t create an idealized version of the United States, either. The young women experience a steady dose of sexism and racism — Rainy is Jewish; Frangie is black — from their fellow soldiers.
The first book gives you a hint of where the series is heading, but the characters only experience combat towards the end. Silver Stars and Purple Hearts, the second and third books, deepen the stakes. The fighting intensifies for Rio and Jenou in southern and northern Europe, Rainy gets sent on a spy mission behind enemy lines, and Frangie keeps placing herself in harm’s way to help others, whether on Omaha Beach, or in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge.
All of the characters are wounded, one is tortured by the Gestapo, and you’ll wonder as you read Purple Hearts whether all of them will survive. It’s clear at least that none will survive unchanged.
A Good Read is a column by Tri-City librarians that is published on Wednesdays. Chris Miller works at Coquitlam Public Library.