Sunday, June 10, 2012

Review: THIS IS NOT A TEST by Courtney Summers

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?
I've wanted to read this book for nigh on forever. Well, since May 10, when I gushed about the cover for my second Cover Love post, anyways. I don't consider myself a zombie person simply because of my limited experience with the genre. I know the fake zombies on Scooby-Doo, the freakishly fast zombie-like things from I Am Legend... and that's about it. I was excited to broaden my horizons a bit.

Even more exciting was the news that this wasn't really a zombie book. Instead, supposedly, it's a book about a girl named Sloane that just happens to have zombies. Great! What an awesome way to ease myself into the genre, right?

Ooooor maybe not.

I carried some misconceptions going in, and I want to be sure you don't make the same mistake. It's true, this is not a book about zombies. It's also true that this book, ultimately, is about the six survivors stuck in Cortege High. I thought that would mean harrowing adventures, deep soul-searching, and some interesting interpersonal moments.

This Is Not A Test did have all that, but what it really is is best summed up by a quote from one of the characters - "The apocalypse: one big existential crisis."

This book is so depressing, you guys. Not it's-bad-but-there's-hope kind of depressing. I mean deep, dark, the-human-race-is-doomed kind of depressing. Remember how I guessed this book was a zombie apocalypse + Lord of the Flies mashup? I was dead-on. If this book hammers home anything at all, it's the depth of human depravity.

The story opens with Sloane at home with her father, recuperating from a particularly violent beating that's kept her at home for several days. Human depravity. Then zombie wackness breaks out, Sloane runs away, and we pick up with her again with the five other kids, shortly after two members of their group have been eaten by zombies.

The two eaten members were Mr. and Mrs. Casper, the parents of twins Grace and Trace. The twins blame the group's de facto leader Cary (boy Cary, like Cary Grant but nowhere near as awesome) for their parents' death, and they don't let him forget that fact for the entire book. The. Entire. Book. Human depravity.

Okay, so here's what this story doesn't have:

- Humor. There might be a few semi-lighthearted moments here and there, but there's nothing to balance out the gloom.
- Heroic, good-guy characters. Everyone looks out for themselves to the utter detriment of the others. I kept expecting someone to step up, to show they really weren't that bad. But the characters that I thought might be the good guys end up being selfish and disgusting. The ones that I knew were going to be bad ended up being worse.
- Answers. That's the thing about existential crises. There are no answers. Everything - from how the apocalypse started and how it works to a rather major mystery concerning a character in a parking lot - remain unanswered.
- One page that doesn't have some kind of profanity. Heavy, heavy profanity.
- Romance. Nope, no romance. There are a couple teens who hook up, but that is NOT romance. That's just a couple of kids being incredibly stupid.

Here's what this story DOES have:

- A pretty epic start to the zombie apocalypse. I mean, it's just Sloane and her dad sitting at their kitchen table and then WHAM! I loved that there wasn't any buildup, any warning. One minute Sloane is mulling over soggy cereal, the next minute her neighbor is ripping out another person's heart. Oh yeah, that's something else this story has...
- Violence. Lots and lots of violence. The zombies don't show up very much in the book, but when they do, they're sure to turn your stomach. I didn't think any book would surpass Hunger Games gore-wise. I was wrong.
- A depressingly realistic look at the depraved side of humanity. Everything you worry about in time of crisis is right there. A hysterical piece of cannon fodder who can't make up his mind? Check. Chillingly logical decisions regarding human life? Check. Shattered families? Check. Really, really bad decisions made because of stress and adrenaline? Check. Division and warring factions? Check.
- Sloane. I liked Sloane. She's broken, foul-mouthed, and depressing, but (to me), she was the most rootable (is that a word?) one of the bunch. She's intent on killing herself, but she's selfless enough to refuse to do it in any way that might endanger the others. She has moments of strength (rare, but they're there), and her willingness to accept death makes her refreshingly less frantic than the others.
- A game of I Never. Geez, I thought people stopped playing that in middle school. Still, it's an easy way to let us know secrets about the characters.
- One instance of genuine sacrifice. And boy, after all the selfish choices made in this book, you better believe I held onto that moment.

I probably won't ever read this book again. I don't mind books that make me feel gloomy and bleck as long as they pick me up in the end. That didn't happen here. I also really disliked the amount of language and sex in this book.

BUT that's just me. I can very easily think of several different types of people who will adore this book. Anyone who revels in graphic violence, anyone who doesn't mind extreme profanity, anyone who likes to ponder deep questions like "What would I do if I were in _____'s place?" Those people will like this book. In fact, fellow blogger Christy (I follow her on Twitter) reviewed This Is Not A Test just yesterday and LOVED it! A quick Google search brings up many other bloggers who are all raving about this book (examples include A Good Addiction and Reading Writing Breathing).

So there you have it. This is not a book for me, but that's okay. It wasn't written poorly or given sloppy characterizations or anything like that. I'm not familiar with Summers' other works, but according to the other reviews, her fans will adore This Is Not a Test. So make up your own mind. Go for it or don't. But no matter what you choose, y'all better come back and let me know what you think. :)

Points Added For: A wicked awesome cover (I'm still in love), the way the zombies introduced (talk about going 0-60), having twins named Grace and Trace (helped me connect them as twins before we were TOLD they were), some heart-stopping revelations, that one genuine sacrifice.

Points Subtracted For: No romance (I really like romance), an abrupt ending, being overall depressing.

Good For Fans Of: The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, Blackout by Mira Grant, other Courtney Summers books, existential crises.

Notes For Parents: Extremely heavy profanity, graphic violence, no sex but everything right up to it (and not for lack of trying - yeesh), drinking, illicit substances, murder, domestic abuse.

Disclaimer: I was given a free paperback copy of this novel by St. Martin's Press.
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