Review: This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

I was lucky enough to win a copy of This Is Not a Test the week it was released, though based on the wonderful reviews it was receiving, I likely would have gone out to purchase a copy regardless. Though I’d heard praise for Summers’s contemporary young adult, I’d never read any of her works. Still, descriptions of This Is Not a Test as a “contemporary-with zombies,” rather than a zombie book, had me intrigued despite Summers’s reputation for writing rather somber stories.

For those hoping to read about gore and bloodshed, you won’t be entirely disappointed by This Is Not a Test. I can’t say the above-mentioned description got it completely right, as this story contains enough disturbing material to make those wary of the zombie genre shy away. Yet, ultimately, this book truly isn’t about what’s beating on the doors to get in; it’s about the demons that already live inside us. Summers’s decision to narrate the story through the voice of a suicidal teenager was simple yet quite brilliant, as the stark questions raised by the fight for survival

This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

become all the more uncomfortable when viewed with a sense of detachment. A particularly beautiful effect of this approach was the highlight on survival not merely as a solitary endeavor, but as one in which the fight to live is endured as much for others as for oneself.

It’s rare that an author can sustain such a large cast of characters without allowing any single one to come to the forefront as someone to root for, yet Summers has achieved the nigh-impossible. I didn’t identify myself with any of the characters, didn’t feel the queasy nervousness of their dubious survival, yet I sincerely wanted them all to be alright. I’m not sure I would like to be friends with any of them, yet I cared about them. In an environment that brings the best and worst of people to the surface, Summers unerringly reminded us of the large expanse of gray in which most people live their lives, though shades of black and white might flitter at the periphery.

Ultimately, there was only one place that this story could be headed, and Summers doesn’t shy away from it. The end scene is a tad ambiguous, and the effect rather deprives readers of closure, but any other ending would have seemed far too disingenuous. While some might be displeased with the direction this story takes, I loved the journey that Summers takes us on from start to finish. This Is Not a Test is one of my top reads for the year. I’ll definitely be checking out Summers’ back-catalogue when I get the chance.

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Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

I’ve had Anna Dressed in Blood on my TBR list for quite a while now, and with high priority. The only reason it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it is because I’m unforgivably cheap and I haven’t been able to find a copy used. So when I saw a shiny new Barnes and Noble coupon sitting in my inbox a few weeks ago, I knew what book that discount would go toward. I won’t lie; my expectations for Anna were pretty sky-high after reading nearly universal praise from my fellow bloggers. Based on the reviews I had read, I was anticipating this to be a read rather outside of my comfort zone. While I thoroughly enjoy a good Grade B horror movie, the campier the better, horror often has the capacity to freak me out, particularly that of the haunting-ghoul-in-abandoned-house/hospital/mental ward variety. From what I’d read of Anna, it seemed to fit the bill of every story that has me watching the shadows at night, and the first few chapters did nothing to dispel me of this notion. Anna‘s opening is electric, spares no punches, and quite frankly, had me doubting whether it was wise to continue reading it when I knew I’d be going to sleep all by my lonesome that night.

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Unfortunately, despite my misgivings, I wish Blake had been able to sustain the sheer creepiness of the novel’s early chapters, but ultimately Anna failed to live up to its hype. I couldn’t help but be let down the further I read, especially when the book had initially promised to deliver a truly unique, mostly unexplored level of scare for the YA genre. Blake had the potential to knock it out of the park, and when Anna first appeared on the page I was sure that she had. The Anna of the early chapters is like no other protagonist I’ve read in the genre, perhaps not quite unapologetic in her wrath, yet utterly frightening nonetheless. What’s more, she had presence on the page; I anticipated her return at the same time that I feared it, and though I wanted to learn about her history that had led her down this path, I didn’t feel that I needed to. It was enough to witness rather than needing to see behind the scenes.

Cas wasn’t quite as successful a character for me, though I appreciate Blake’s contribution to an unfortunately small pool of young adult books narrated from the male perspective. It’s not as if Bake failed to create a believable male teenage voice, but I nevertheless didn’t connect with Cas. It might be due in part to the wealth of backstory that Cas relates to the readers; I tend to have difficulty getting to know a character through anecdote alone rather than by witnessing the events as they occur. Still, I loved Cas’s interactions with Anna and couldn’t wait to see how Blake would justify Cas’s feelings for someone who can be so very inhuman. Sadly, things fell apart for me around the midway point, as the qualities I had loved until this point simply vanished. Anna’s unsettling demeanor, the sense of foreboding, the potential for development of great side characters like Thomas and Carmel take a backseat as, with a bit of magic and a pinch of luck, Anna is transformed from Samara’s long lost cousin into an utterly generic teen queen.

Suffice it to say, the Anna of the book’s second half was not a character to inspire awe in the reader. I’m glad that Blake didn’t completely neuter her main character, as at least Anna retains the ability to turn freaky-eyed and fabulous, but by allowing Anna to achieve her humanity so abruptly, Blake took the easy way out. Compared to reading about Cas’s struggle to come to terms with his feelings for someone with questionable merits and dubious morals, allowing Anna to toggle between murderous wraith and sympathetic victim made the whole affair seem far too sanitized.

Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

When I first walked past this in the bookstore and flipped through, I got past only a handful of pages before adamantly shaking my head “No!” I don’t do well with eerily creepy things, and the vintage photos that pepper the pages of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children are just this side of wrong, enough so that I though reading a chapter would give me nightmares if the imagery lived up to its visual inspiration. After reading some reviews, however, I learned that Miss Peregrine’s wasn’t all that it seemed and was, in fact, marketed toward a teen audience. After finding a copy sitting innocuously amongst the picked-upon remnants of a library sale this past week, I knew that I had to give it a try.

I’ll preface the rest of this review by saying that I’m genuinely glad that I read this novel,

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

because Riggs attempts much that is exciting and new in a genre replete with every imaginable take on the supernatural. Yet I never really got a grasp on the type of story he is trying to tell, which seems to jettison back and forth from victorian ghost story to superhero to sideshow without ever landing on a solid basis. I’ve seen some commentators lament Riggs’s apparent attempt to script his protagonist in the likes of a John Green character without the charm, yet I enjoyed Jacob’s narration for the most part. Still, when all was said and done, I never felt that I got to know him very well; considering the fact that, as a first-person narrator, we witness Jacob’s innermost thoughts more than those of any other character, the disconnection I ultimately felt with his character didn’t speak well for Riggs’s characterization in general.

Still, I found myself quite enjoying the disturbing aura Riggs generated with photos as muse. Jacob’s slow descent into possible madness sets an ominous tone that the novel follows convincingly until the halfway mark. Unfortunately, once the novel abandons the slow-paced mystery as the secret of the strange children is revealed, the book loses its steam, changing pace and personality as we finally meet the subjects of those creepy photos. I wish Riggs had committed to the supernatural psychological thriller aspect rather than giving the big reveal so early in the story, for once we know the truth, things become decidedly less scary. The children are never as compelling as the photos from which their inspiration derives, serving as mere one-dimensional tools explaining some seemingly-improbable visuals. I found it rather odd that so many of the photos were given fantastical explanation while in actuality being quite mundane. Had the children’s abilities been incorporated meaningfully into the story or their origins explained with more thought, I might have been more willing to overlook the fact that the connection between many of the photos and their accompanying text was executed clumsily.

While the idea of the hollows was intriguing and the initial imagery quite unsettling, this too wound up being an element that Riggs failed to utilize properly, instead attaching cardboard cutout villains with no real motivation behind their evilness. I felt Riggs dropped the ball in other areas as well, particularly concerning the logistics of the time loop, but I didn’t feel motivated enough to go back and mine for the intricacies of the reasoning.

One aspect of the book that I’m still on the fence about is the romance subplot. Riggs explores some unusual territory here, and I for one think that, done correctly, it could have worked. Yet, a topic this unique and bizarre requires a lot more build-up than the meagre material Riggs provides us with to sell us on the sincerity of this unlikely pairing. Given the fact that I’m pretty sure Riggs intends to continue the story as a series, he could easily have allowed the characters to grow into the relationship rather than forcing it upon them and us.

Ultimately, I gave Miss Peregrine’s a higher rating than it likely deserves from a technical standpoint because the ideas behind it were so good. The fact that Tim Burton is interested in adapting it as a movie likely swayed my feelings as well, yet I’m not sure if I’ll stick around to see what happens next.

Booking Through Thursday

Booking Through Thursday is a meme created at the blog of the same name that poses a different question about reading each week.

This week’s questions is: All other thing being equal, would you rather read a book that’s hard/challenging/rewarding or light/enjoyable/easy?

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I’d like to say that I choose my reading selections to challenge myself, but between the pressures of grad school and the stresses of day-to-day, I really read for entertainment.  It’s why my books typically involve fantasy or romance: both are forms of escapism, and I like my reading to take me away. It doesn’t hurt if the prose takes my breath away as well, but more often than not, I enjoy a book because the author has drawn me into her characters and her world. That being said, I’m trying to add a few titles to my TBR list that have been hailed both for their fantastic storytelling as well as their literary merit.  Having just watched the film during Halloween weekend, I’m particularly excited about tracking down a copy of Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist.

You might be a Buffy nerd if you know who Nerf Herder is

I can now admit- I was the ultimate Buffy nerd. I owned an entire series franchise worth of videos and guidebooks. I owned a Buffy backpack. I went as vamp-Buffy for Halloween in fifth grade. (I believe I may have stage-staked myself at some point during the evening).

And have I ever surrendered an ounce of my Buffy-obsessive ardor? A resounding no. Put Buffy on to this day, and I am a happy camper. Sure, it was a teen show, but under Joss Whedon’s skillful tutelage, the show’s cast tempered the usual high school melodrama with wit and wry, self-deprecating humor that belied an intelligence not often seen on TV. I defy you to undermine Buffy’s influence on urban fantasy, on pop culture, and on legions of closet Buffy-dorks like myself.

In tribute to my favorite television series, now and always, I’ve rounded up a few pieces of fanart that have caught my eye. Prepare yourself, the Scooby Gang is back.

Buffy Sketch Cards by SaraRichard

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The Doppelgänger Willow, the Gentlemen, the Spike…could there be any more awesomeness crammed into this piece?

Check out SaraRichard‘s gallery.

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Kill us both Spock by leftygohome

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Alright, so there could be one more awesome thing in the drawing above. That’s why Xander gets this one all to himself, like an artistic version of The Zeppo.

Check out leftygohome‘s gallery.

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The Gentlemen Sketch Card by Dr-Horrible

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While Buffy didn’t shy from its fair share of monster movie magic, Hush presented one of the eerier hours of television in recent memory. I love the angle and shading of this piece; the best Gentlemen interpretation I’ve found.

Check out Dr-Horrible‘s gallery.

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And because no Buffy post would be complete without it: one of the best moments ever to air on television.