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.


Review: Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught

While I had high hopes going into Susan Vaught’s Freaks Like Us, I’m happy to say that it exceeded my expectations.  Granted, my first impression wasn’t quite so enthusastic, as the first few chapters did little to sustain the interest that the book’s intriguing cover blurb had inspired. Yet I soon learned that this was a symptom of a learning curve rather than of poor writing.  Narrator Jason initially comes across as quite young, and the stream-of-consciousness narrative that signifies his thought process is off-putting at first.  However, once you get into the rhythm of the narrative, Freaks Like Us takes hold and refuses to let go.

Freaks Like Us is an alternately humorous and harrowing novel narrated by a young man suffering from schizophrenia.  Though I’ve mentioned my interest in novels with narrators afflicted with mental illness before, I can’t help but feel that many such novels purport to explore the parameters of illness while covertly sanitizing it.  Yet in Freaks Like Us, Jason shows us just why the phrase “to suffer from” came about.  His disease isn’t downplayed, nor is it gratuitously exaggerated. I can’t speak from experience, but as a lay observer, I came away with an impression of honesty regarding Vaught’s treatment of Jason’s battles with his mental health.  That’s not to say that Jason is victimized by his situation; quite the opposite, he is one of the strongest characters I’ve come across lately precisely because he doesn’t inflate his own confidence or self-worth. Jason isn’t aware of the extreme fortitude that he exhibits in the dignity with which he deals with his disease, and he’s all the more sympathetic for it.

Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught

As I mentioned before, Jason’s internal monologue (or dialogue, as it were, as Jason is constantly struggling to ignore the voices in his head) is somewhat convoluted at first.  But within a few chapters, I realized a horrible truth.  While Jason’s internal narrative sounds like a disconnected, confused youth, his speaking voice does not. It takes a while to realize this, as Jason does not converse much in the book’s early chapters, yet as the investigation gets underway and Jason finds himself a suspect in his best friend’s disappearance, he must express himself despite the difficulty that his illness and medications pose. In his attempts to convey his thoughts and feelings to friends, family, and the law enforcement working the case, one fact becomes glaringly obvious: Jason is not a child. His voice is that of an intelligent young man, and though he cannot always express himself in the manner he wishes to, he is no fool.

Normally, with a story like this, I would have wanted more insight into the secondary characters, particularly Sunshine, as her own illness is hinted at but never explicitly discussed.  Yet Jason’s voice rings so true, despite his difficulties, that ultimately we don’t need more elaboration into what Sunshine is like to show us why we should care for her. All we need to know is that Jason cares, and that fact is abundantly clear, even if his expression of those feelings isn’t always obvious or overt.  I adore unreliable narrators, and it’s clear from the get-go that Jason is just that.  Still, while this can sometimes work against a novel’s air of mystery, since we are alert to expect the unexpected, I was unable to predict what would happen next and was in fact scared we would never learn Sunshine’s fate. Not only was this device effective in the big picture, but it also worked to poignant effect in several key scenes.

Freaks Like Us explores the very real agony of being different. Everyone but Sunshine calls Jason “Freak,” and while he loves that about her, he nonetheless tells the investigating officer to call him “Freak” as well. Jason’s ambivalence toward his own identity raises important questions, such as whether it is in fact kinder to acknowledge or to deny something perceived as a flaw. Is Jason’s request for others to call him Freak, despite his hatred of the name, an admonition or an absolution?

Overall, Freaks Like Us gave me something that I have been craving all year: a read that took be unexpectedly and whole-heartedly by surprise.

“Waiting On” Wednesday

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a meme created at Breaking the Spine to spotlight upcoming releases that we can’t wait to read.

This week I’m intrigued by Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook.

Here’s the summary, taken from Goodreads:

Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook

Bonnie and Clyde meets Simone Elkeles in this addictively heart-wrenching story of two desperate teenagers on the run from their pasts.

They’re young. They’re in love. They’re on the run.

Zoe wants to save Will as much as Will wants to save Zoe. When Will turns eighteen, they decide to run away together. But they never expected their escape to be so fraught with danger….

When the whole world is after you, sometimes it seems like you can’t run fast enough.

Nobody But Us, told in alternating perspectives from Will and Zoe, is an unflinching novel, in turns heartbreaking and hopeful, about survival, choices, and love…and how having love doesn’t always mean that you get a happy ending. Described as “beautiful, heartbreaking, and exhilarating” by Kody Keplinger, author of The DUFF, Nobody But Us will prove irresistible to fans of Nina Lacour, Jenny Han, and Sara Zarr.

I’m always on the lookout for great contemporary young adult books, and this one looks right up my alley.

This title is released on January 29, 2013.

Book Beginnings on Fridays

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a meme hosted at Rose City Reader designed to feature the book you are reading right now by sharing the first few lines of the story.

This weekend I’m reading Confessions of an Angry Girl by Louise Rozett.

“‘Jamie. You gonna eat that? Jame. That bagel. You gonna eat it?

Confessions of an Angry Girl by Louise Rozett

‘Cause I’m really hungry, man. My mom threw me out before I could eat my cereal. And she didn’t give me a dime.”

I’m a fan of dialogue-heavy novels, so this one seems to be off to a good start.

Here’s the summary, taken from Goodreads:

Rose Zarelli, self-proclaimed word geek and angry girl, has some CONFESSIONS to make… #1: I’m livid all the time. Why? My dad died. My mom barely talks. My brother abandoned us. I think I’m allowed to be irate, don’t you?

#2: I make people furious regularly. Want an example? I kissed Jamie Forta, a badass guy who “might” be dating a cheerleader. She is now enraged and out for blood. Mine.

#3: High school might as well be Mars. My best friend has been replaced by an alien, and I see red all the time. (Mars is red and “seeing red” means being angry-get it?)

Here are some other vocab words that describe my life: Inadequate. Insufferable. Intolerable.

(Don’t know what they mean? Look them up yourself.) (Sorry. That was rude.)

Review: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron

We readers do what we do because sometimes, we are lucky enough to stumble upon a book that speaks to us, and the experience might be painful and disconcerting, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. It’s us, reflected back to ourselves, laid bare for the world to see, to judge, to criticize.

Cameron’s book moved me. It’s not a happy book. It’s not a book about a profoundly sad person, either, though James’s own admissions would have us think so from time to time. It is, however, a book about apathy, the raw kind that can only be experienced in that awful stage between adolescence and adulthood.

For many, Someday will be a frustrating book. Many will dislike it. It’s been compared to a modern-day The Catcher in the Rye. Many will dislike it even more for this reason. Yet James was so familiar to me, bore such an imprint of my own teenage self, that I could forgive the book its deliberate decision to sustain its vague mien until the very end. Thinking back on my teenage self isn’t a particularly pleasant experience; the fact that I know well which aspects of my character haven’t really changed that much in the intervening years makes such reflection

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron

even more uncomfortable. While I didn’t warm to James from the first page, it didn’t take me long to discover myself in him. Granted, he represents a hyperbolic sense of how I used to be as a teenager- unlike James, I did attempt to socialize, however awkwardly at time- yet his particular brand of aggrandized discontent was strikingly familiar to me.

It’s easy to look back on our former selves and laugh at the arrogant folly of our thoughts and actions, but it wasn’t too long ago that I lived those tumultuous teenage years when everything up seems down and all of the answers everyone is furiously asking you for seem forever outside your grasp. James recognizes the seeming futility that we all despair of during the transition from high school to what lies beyond; the difference between James and the rest of the teenage population is that his glass-half-empty demeanor means that those around him are quite aware of his despair. I believe that, sometimes, it’s difficult for glass-half-full people to grasp how we on the other side can dare to be so unbearable at times. Struggling through James’s narrative, traveling back and forth between the months as he haltingly tells of his foibles, his episodes of panic, the alternating inanity and beauty that can be found in life, I felt that Cameron came as close to explaining the harsh insistence of negativity as anyone can.

Perhaps it’s because I relate to James, because I understand that negativity does not mean depression, that I found him to be such a sympathetic narrator. Despite his repeated assertions that he is unhappy, I don’t believe it’s the type of unhappiness that many people will assume it to be, a type of black or white dichotomy of feeling. Sometimes, at that age, it feels as if there’s no option but to be unhappy; the paths are all set out for you, and there’s really no question of enjoying yourself as you go along, but happiness can exist alongside the unhappiness. All this is an incredibly long-winded and probably inarticulate attempt to explain that I connected with James and his story as many probably will not. I was not and am not an unhappy person, and I don’t feel that James truly is either; whether Cameron meant for him to be is another matter, and one I’m not really concerned with.

There are few books that could make me ramble at such length with such insubstantial result, so I’ll stop myself there. If you enjoy heady characters who like to toy with language and examine their own lives at length, this book  might be for you.

Review: Good Oil (Republished as Love and Other Perishable Items) by Laura Buzo

I hated this book. Hated it. I bumped it up to two stars simply to acknowledge the fact that Buzo knows how to string some good sentences together. But that’s not enough to save it from my rage, and it’s a rage born of bitter disappointment. I’ve been salivating to get my hands on a copy of Good Oil for years. It’s been heralded up there with the likes of Marchetta and Crowley, and so I knew I was in for a painfully realistic portrayal of coming-of-age and the attendant heartaches and triumphs of being in that transition phase of life.

I’m not even sure if what I got was a story. There is no resolution, no character growth, no perceivable underlying plot aside from the utter self-absortion of the two main characters. Perhaps that’s being a bit harsh on Amelia, as her only real flaw was in falling blind to the supposedly irresistible charms of her coworker Chris. Apart from that, she seemed to be an intelligent, well-meaning, clever fifteen-year-old who I probably would have hung out with at that age. I also

Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo

appreciated that, despite her youth and tendency to stay out of trouble, she wasn’t a complete goody, attending a few parties and imbibing some spirits at times. I’m not necessarily condoning her behavior, but it did make her seem a bit more three-dimensional, as even the most straight-laced of us did do some stupid things at that age.

Despite what I’d read about this book, I wasn’t expecting this to be a dual narrative, and since by the time Chris takes the page for the first time we’ve still only seen him through Amelia’s rose-tinted glasses, I was excited to get the male outlook on things. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that Amelia’s crush is not only borne of misplaced appreciation for being noticed, but is in fact the result of a complete misapprehension as to his character. Through Chris’s diary (which, given his general negativity toward life and his party-seeking ways, I’m not entirely sure is a believable habit to have endowed him with, but that’s a separate matter) we learn that every charming aspect that Amelia sees in Chris is actually well-cultivated and indiscriminate. He turns on the charisma with everyone, and Amelia makes little impression in his thoughts until well into the second half of the novel. Even after he admits that he understands Amelia’s worth, it is still only in comparison to the heartbreak that he continues to feel over the ex who dumped him a year ago. Every time he deigns to bestow some special attention on Amelia, it is a direct result of his own bitter angst and restless desire to forget his own life; it never really has to do with Amelia herself. His parting gift to her, the journals he’s kept since he was fifteen, are a brilliant example of both Chris’s inflated self-importance and Amelia’s naïvety, as only a fool would believe what he has to say is some sort of love letter to Amelia herself. He lies when he tells her that she features “quite a bit” in the later ones. She’s there in the background, manages to steal a whole entry at times, but exists only as a string of obsessive crushes and one-night-stands with nearly every other coworker they have. Add to this the fact that Chris clearly has a drinking problem, and the only decent thing I could discern about his character is the fact that, while he did sleep with sixteen-year-old Donna without a care, he intuitively realized he couldn’t be so blase about Amelia, because she is of worth.

Going into this novel, I was aware of how it would end, but I believed that along the way, I would get to witness some great character interaction and a sweetly romantic growth of affection between the characters. What I got was not even a shadow of that, and I feel robbed. I’d had such high hopes for this novel, and I’m sorry to say that it crushed nearly all of them. One good thing I can say about this release: the revised title is certainly more true to the nature of the romance in this story than was the last.

Review: Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols

Echols’s writing tends to be a bit hit or miss with me, and while this one went far to make up for the undelivered promise of Echols’s previous book, Love Story, it never lived up to the promise set by the tone of her early releases. For me, this book read far too much like a dramatized version of Echols’s own Endless Summer omnibus. Yet whereas that story at least benefitted from a lighthearted summer tone and the oft-overused but never old “friends turned more” trope, Such a Rush is bogged down with an overly somber storyline and under-developed characters.

My dad is a pilot, so I couldn’t help but approach much of this novel with a skeptical bird on my shoulder, wondering just how much research Echols conducted regarding being a pilot. Granted, I know next to nothing on the subject myself, so I’m in no position to criticize, and I in fact applaud her for finding a new backdrop that hasn’t already been explored to death in young adult literature. I usually go into an Echols novel prepared to meet teen characters who live a grittier

Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols

existence than I have ever endured, and Such a Rush is no exception. Leah is trying hard to defy the trailer-park stereotypes, with no help from her deadbeat mother and financial hardships. I liked that Echols allowed Leah to be sexy to a fault, with her unknowing adoption of a sexual persona as a survival mechanism characterizing her while not defining her. Too often, female characters are pushed to the ends of the sexual spectrum; one false step in either direction will land them in spinster or slut territory. Leah is neither; she’s learned from her experiences and, refreshingly, acknowledges that they impact her decision-making presently. Still, while I never disliked Leah, I can’t say that I particularly liked her either. She’s unoffensive, yet also rather unmemorable. One thing I applaud Echols for is her inclusion of a female friend who, gasp, has agency in her own right. She’s not plopped in the background as a mere decoration or foil, and while her involvement in the story never overshadows Leah’s spot front-and-center, it nevertheless has ramifications broader than jealousy, guilt, or other shallow emotions that female best friends so often fulfill.

I wouldn’t say that Such a Rush has a love triangle, precisely. To be honest, I have a hard time defining the romance in this novel, which might represent an attribute, as Echols clearly is attempting to resist the typical format. I don’t think she was as successful as she hoped to be, though. Such a Rush never gave me the euphoric feelings the title implies. I wasn’t invested in Leah and Grayson’s relationship because it consisted of too much antagonism with too little sentiment to balance it out. I love love-hate relationships, but I never got enough push-back here. Oddly enough, I might have preferred for Leah and Grayson to be a little more hostile to each other, as at least I could have approximated that as some form of passion. Grayson’s insistence that Leah try to seduce his brother was offered flimsy justification at the end, and it didn’t serve to provide enough tension during the majority of the book. This might be partly due to the fact that I felt both brothers needed to be fleshed out more. Echols relies too heavily on physical descriptions to fill in for personality traits, yet they are not proxies for each other. I’ll admit that Echols threw in a twist that I didn’t see coming, but as far as twists go, it was rather tame and resolved too quickly.
I enjoyed Such a Rush, yet a few months from now, I doubt I’ll be able to recall much of it.  Echols could have pushed further and produced a story on par with Going Too Far or Forget You, but as it is, Such a Rush fails to measure up.