Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book of the Week: THIS IS NOT A TEST by Courtney Summers

This week’s book is actually edgy YA and is filled with adult language and adult content. It is absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie.
Hope you're having a great summer, Esteemed Reader. I myself am counting down the minutes until The Dark Knight Rises (not sure I'm going to make it).  The Ninja and his buddy have tickets to watch the full trilogy (nearly 9 hours of Batman!).
Update: 1/26/2013--I was crushed to find TDKR was the worst Batman movie since Batman and Robin.

I don't want to talk about movies, however. I want to talk about zombies and we're in luck because today's book is the one I've been waiting for all year (actually, for three years). In July of 2009 I read Cracked Up To Be by Courtney Summers and it was immediately clear to me this author was destined to be a big deal. I loved the book and I wrote Courtney to tell her and I talked her into being one of the first authors I interviewed, which later helped me land my first ever agent interview with Amy Tipton, who represents Courtney.

At that time, I read on Courtney Summers's website that she, like the Ninja, has a love of zombies. Immediately it dawned on me that YA is the perfect realm for a zombie story as who is more aware of and frightened by mass conformity than teens?  I knew Courtney would be the perfect author for such a book and so for three years I've been hectoring her to please, please, please write a zombie book. Every time I've emailed her, I've bothered her and now it's paid off. You're welcome, world:)

In all fairness, Courtney Summers probably would've written This is Not a Test without me pestering her and she certainly doesn't need me to tell her to write a brilliant novel. She's got this. But Esteemed Reader, I've had few thrills as exciting as reading to the end of the best book by my one of my most favorite authors and turning to the acknowledgements section. I'm thanked by name (Robert Kent, not MG Ninja) for my "support and zombie-related enthusiasm." So maybe the emails helped a little. I'll fantasize they did:)

I think we can dispense with the review section of this review. I campaigned for this book, I've been writing how I've been looking forward to it, and my name's in the back. It's safe to say this will be a positive review:) But I assure you the review would be positive even if I'd never heard of Courtney Summers. But that's impossible. All her books are amazing. But this one is my new favorite.

It's a funny thing, though. When I myself was a teen, I pestered my friend to ask out a cute girl. After all, she was perfect: smart, funny, drop dead pretty... and as I was selling him on all her virtues it finally dawned on me I wanted to ask her out.  Well, for three years, I've been bugging Courtney to write a teenage zombie novel, selling her on its virtues, and in the last year it occurred to me that I wanted to write a YA zombie novel and I started mine in May and am now well into the 2nd act.

But oh crap! I told Courtney to write it and she did and it's going to be published before mine's even fully written! This is the thought that's been plaguing me for the past few months. I needn't have worried. Courtney Summers is a better writer than yours truly and her zombie book is vastly superior to mine and very different. And I think there's room in this world for more than one grim YA novel about teenagers living (and not living) in the zombie apocalypse. Plus, my book will now be better for having read Courtney's first.

Since January or so, I've been up to my eyeballs in zombie research. There are as many ways to tell a zombie story as there are a western or any other genre. Among my recent favorites are The Enemy, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, and The Walking Dead: Rise of The Governor (not YA, but still awesome). The ninja dutifully reads each new issue of The Walking Dead twice and it's rivaling The Dark Knight Returns in my mind for best graphic novel series (the TV version is sweet also). My favorite zombie movies are Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later,  Shaun of the Dead, and Evil Dead 2. For video games, my personal favorites are Dead Island and The Orange Box, but there are many other good ones and rest assured, I've made time for all of them.

If I'm going to plunge into zombie territory, I've got to know what the competition is up to and I've got to know how my zombie story will stand out in an already crowded marketplace. That's just attending to the business of being an author. But I tell you all this so you will know I come to This is Not a Test as a discerning connoisseur of fine zombie literature.

I once wrote of Courtney Summers: "she's going to be a literary superstar (even more so than she already is). She is the Stephen King of gritty YA and I’m convinced her work will come to define the genre."

My favorite short story of all time, beating out such competitors as The Country Husband by John Cheever and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemmingway, is Home Delivery by Stephen King, which just happens to be about zombies. I read it in college and have used it as the benchmark to which I compare all the short stories I've written. We're going to talk more about that story in a moment, but first I wanted to plant the seed.

The protagonist of This Is Not a Test is Sloan Price (named after Vicent?), a suicidal teenager. Not just in an emo, "I hate my dad" kind of way, but in an actually going to commit suicide because she hates her dad among other reasons kind of way. Sloan's father has abused her and her sister Lilly since their mother died.

The types of abuse Sloan's been subjected to are never really clarified, but its mental and physical and awful. Like the zombie apocalypse, Sloan's abuse is something that happens mostly off screen. Her sister Lilly has recently run away from home without taking Sloane with her, despite promises to do so. And like Tommy Wiseau in The Room, Sloan is fed up with this world.

There's a lot more external conflict to this novel, but its heart is Sloan's desire to die because of her family's treatment of her and how that's shaped her view of herself. Ordinarily, I advise against suicidal main characters, unless it's a Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon sort of deal where the protagonist is only suicidal until the inciting incident when they find a Danny Glover and a reason to keep going. Sloan is suicidal through most of the novel and that would perhaps make it difficult to relate to her (why should the reader care if she lives when she doesn't) if it weren't for the zombies.

And that's Courtney's wedge, her way of putting a unique spin on zombies. It's quite brilliant and made me chuckle when I realized what she was up to. What if, as you were about to kill yourself, the rest of the world died? Would you still go through with it, or would the problems that led you to suicide have sorted themselves out with the death of everyone else? That's the question Courtney's posing and it's an intriguing and original premise.

Something that strikes me interesting is that Courtney's previous book, Fall For Anything, was about a teen girl sorting out why her father killed himself and what her life means as a result. This Is Not a Test is about a teen girl wanting to kill herself because of what her father did. Courtney Summers' own father passed between the two books and This Is Not a Test is dedicated to him. I'm not smart enough to sort out the meaning of all that and I'm not going to try. But knowing that brought me to tears as I finished This Is Not a Test because underneath all the plot trappings and drama of the genre,  both novels together tell the story of how a girl grows to be her own person without her father, and that is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.

The ending of This Is Not a Test is the most poignant moment of all Summers' books and if I ruined it for you here, I'd have to kick my own butt. Read this book and see for yourself. But be assured there is greater truth and meaning in This Is Not a Test than your average low budget zombie flick. And that's the key. That's the thing to take away from this book if you should happen to be writing your own zombie novel.

Good zombie stories are not about zombies. They're about the humans trying to survive the zombie attack. The title of my favorite comic, The Walking Dead, does not refer to the zombies, but the survivors of the zombie apocalypse who are being picked off one at a time and living in a world without hope. They are the walking dead. Readers can't really relate to reanimated corpses in more than a metaphorical way unless the writer cheats and gives the zombie human qualities and emotions, at which point I would argue we're not really talking about a zombie (see Daryl Gregory's Raising Stony Mayhall).

I won't spoil This Is Not a Test, but I will spoil Stephen King's Home Delivery. The first eight pages of Home Delivery aren't about zombies and if you didn't know the story was about zombies going in, you wouldn't expect them to arrive when they do. Instead, the story's focus is a pregnant woman named Maddie Pace and her life on a small New England Island. Like Sloan Price, Maddie Pace was abused by her father and later by her husband. All her life, someone has been telling her what to do and when her father and husband are dead, she's at a loss for direction. 

When her husband comes back as a zombie, Maddie Pace is forced to re-kill him and in doing so finds the strength to stand on her own and raise her baby in a world without men to tell her what's what. The "home delivery" is not the birth of her child, but the delivery of Maddie into her own woman (she kills her zombie husband in their living room). I'm now kissing my finger tips and raising my hand in the universal signal of brilliance and deliciousness.

This Is Not a Test is in the same vein as Home Delivery and that's as much as I can tell you without ruining it. But suffice it to say, if you're reading This Is Not a Test just for the zombies, you're kind of missing the point. That being said, if Courtney hadn't given us at least some sweet zombie carnage, she would've been missing the point. Concern yourself with whatever metaphors and thematic concerns you fancy, writer of a zombie story, but never forget zombies are a promise to the reader and you better deliver the goods.

There aren't a great deal of zombies in Courtney's zombie novel, but they're enough to satisfy. Her zombies are the fast moving sort and are mostly referred to as "infected," though they are reanimated corpses. This Is Not a Test opens with a brutal zombie kill, features a great zombie sequence in the middle, and ends with a wonderful zombie chase. It's established that if a zombie bites you, you die, then come back as a zombie, and Courtney complies with most of the classic zombie tropes.

Summers wisely avoids dealing with the origin of the zombies as many of the best stories do. After all, is there really a convincing explanation for zombies? Sure, she could've wasted pages talking about a new virus created in a lab, or a radioactive incident at the old nuclear plant, or a beam sent down by malevolent aliens. But really, who cares? There is no amount of back story likely to convince me the dead are up and walking around, so I prefer writers just get to it. I know they're no zombies, you know they're no zombies, so why not just start the story and I'll suspend my disbelief for the duration.

More concerning than the dead monsters are the living ones: teenagers. The bulk of This Is Not a Test takes place in a high school where Sloan and five other teenagers wait out the apocalypse. All the usual characters are there: the one who wants to be leader, the one who disagrees (Rick and Shane), the one who wishes everyone would just stop fighting and pull together (this character might as well wear a red t-shirt reading zombie bait). There's a mystery guest staying with the teens as well, but I'll let you discover him on your own.

What's fascinating is the way Courtney is able to flush out each of these stereotypical archetypes into plausible three dimensional characters and to twist the conventions just enough to turn them on their head. And yeah, the teens sit around and discuss their difficulties in life Breakfast Club style, but they also fight and contemplate murdering each other in a way that will keep the pages turning. And does Courtney still find time for a little romance and sexual scandal? Of course she does! This is Courtney Summers we're talking about, and she wouldn't disappoint her loyal fans:)

And that's where we'll leave it. This Is Not a Test is my favorite of Courtney Summers' wonderful collection of books so far and should be read by everyone. Now that I've had my great desire for a Courtney Summers zombie novel satisfied and surpass my greatest expectations, I think I shall begin bugging Courtney for a sequel. I'd also challenge her to write a novel with a male main character. After four books staring teenage girls dealing with the trauma of past events, I'd say it's about time we got a look at a teenage boy and his trauma:)

As mentioned before, I don't have any passages to share, so instead I'll share with you the most poignant zombie scene I've ever enjoyed. This also moved me to tears the first time I saw it and even though it's a trailer for a video game rather than a movie or an AMC TV show, I think it's one of the best clips of zombies ever. Enjoy:

Click here for an interview with author Courtney Summers!

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


  1. I haven't read anything by Courtney yet but you're making me want to. Awesome that she was your first interview and that she wrote a zombie book.

  2. I've never read a zombie book (well, Cell by Stephen King if you count it, I guess), but do like the movies and TV shows. Thanks for the recommendation (and hope you're having a great summer).

  3. Bodacious recommendation. Looks like I'll be reading this. Courtney sounds super cool. I wish all the best for her. Saying she is the Stephen King of gritty YA is a huge compliment. Just found your blog. I write MG and picture books. Nice to cyber meet you. *waves peace sign*


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.