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Monday, August 27, 2012

YA Book Club Review: This is Not a Test

Did you hear that? That’s the sound of sirens blaring because this is the official start of the YA Book Club and therefore this is your official warning: If you don’t want to read about Courtney Summers’ This is Not a Test, you might want to procrastinate elsewhere. (I hear there are perfectly good places on the interwebs to do that. Like here and here.) Not that you’re guaranteed spoilers, but as far as the book club goes, they’re not illegal. Or banned. Or whatever.

Glad we got that cleared up. Let’s move on to the important stuff: discussing the book of the month. For anyone who didn’t read the book, here’s the Goodreads blurb:

It’s the end of the world. Six students have taken cover in Cortege High but shelter is little comfort when the dead outside won’t stop pounding on the doors. One bite is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monstrous version of their former self. 
To Sloane Price, that doesn’t sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she’s failed to find a reason to keep going. Now seems like the perfect time to give up. As Sloane eagerly waits for the barricades to fall, she’s forced to witness the apocalypse through the eyes of five people who actually want to live. 
But as the days crawl by, the motivations for survival change in startling ways and soon the group’s fate is determined less and less by what’s happening outside and more and more by the unpredictable and violent bids for life—and death—inside. 
When everything is gone, what do you hold on to?

Courtney Summers’ first departure from contemporary fiction isn’t your typical zombie novel. Young adult literature has no shortage of dystopian/survival stories, and despite the different complications—zombies, natural disasters, tyrannical governments, and so on—most feature a protagonist who fights for something: freedom, love, health, happiness, family. This is not that kind of survival story, and that’s what made me really love the book.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a kickass hero or heroine as much as the next reader, love when a character has this insane determination to fight for what they want or what they believe in. It’s exciting. It’s what usually makes us invested, right? We want them to succeed. We’re like cheerleaders: Brrr. It’s cold in here. There must be some cataclysmic event in the atmosphere. Go, go, go! Fight, Fight, Fight!

(Why yes, I did just adapt a Bring It On cheer for fictional characters living in a post-apocalyptic world.)

Anyhow, Summers’ novel is fresh because the narrator doesn’t want to live. She lives alone with an abusive father and was just about to kill herself when the whole zombie apocalypse ruined her plan. Now she’s barricaded inside her high school with five other kids who want to live and she’s, well, not happy. And yet as a reader I still rooted for Sloan. She was still likeable to me, even if she didn’t see the point in fighting.

I think it told a better story, too. Because this isn’t a story about zombies or crazy survival tactics. Amid all of the dead and undead, it’s really about a girl learning to want to live.

It’s also about human nature, why we struggle to survive even when all hope seems lost. You know those stories you hear after disasters about people who miraculously hold on? Like a man who drank his own pee when he was trapped in a building after an earthquake and somehow he survived until help came.

Or something like that. You get what I mean.

What makes people want to go on?

It’s an interesting question, and this is an even more interesting answer because it’s not told from the point of view of someone with the fight to survive in them.

The book is slow, purposefully. Don’t expect a lot of zombie-fighting action, because even though there are zombie attacks, most of the story takes place inside the school and focuses on the characters and their interactions with one another. But I liked that it was a realistic survival story. Take this quote:
The thing no one tells you about surviving, about the mere act of holding out, is how many hours are nothing because nothing happens.
It’s also not a survival slash romance story. I usually go into a YA book assuming there will be some romance, even if it’s secondary to the main plot. But know that this isn’t about romance or a boy at all. Yes, there’s a boy, but he was there more to push Sloan along in her character growth, not to fulfill this deep romantic longing in her.

And her character growth was really my favorite part of the book. It wasn’t a quick realization, like, “Wow, I should really want to live! Horary!” Instead it was subtle, as were the changes in Sloan.

One of my favorite scenes was when Grace, another student trapped in the school, asked Sloan to come with her when they reached a relief center. The longing that Sloan felt to belong to a family was heartbreaking.

There’s a grim, melancholy feel to the whole story, and though the ending isn’t one big happy dance, there’s hope. It was slow coming, but there’s a part at the end of the book that Sloan finally realizes what we as readers have seen building in her: She wants to live.

There were a million and one reasons she should have wanted to die and there were a handful of reasons she should have wanted to live, and I’m not sure which exactly made her keep surviving at any point or if all of them did in some way, but there it is. This idea that as humans we want to survive. We want to fight.

What did you think? If you blogged a review about This is Not a Test, leave a link to your post by filling out the form below. If you don’t have a blog or haven’t reviewed the book, no worries. Join in the conversation in the comments here, and then hop around to everyone else’s blogs.

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