The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R Carey

Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) called The Girl With All The Gifts “Heartfelt [and] painfully human.”   Without really knowing I was buying a zombie book, I picked up M.R. Carey’s novel  a few weeks ago  and finally settled down to read it.  I am not a huge fan – or even a fan at all really – of zombies. I am, however, a fan of Joss Whedon, and an endorsement from him is enough for me to read outside of my comfort zone. Zombies, unlike vampires (Joss Whedon’s vampires at any rate), are just not sexy, and while I am still not a fan of zombie novels, I did really like this book.

17235026Melanie is ten. She lives at some sort of army base, dubbed ‘Hotel Echo’ in an area of the U.K. known as region 6. The base is about thirty miles north of London, and just beyond that is Beacon. Welcome to life since the Breakdown.

Most of region 6 is clear, but the only thing that keeps it that way is the burn patrols, with their frags and fireballs. This is what the base is for, Melanie is pretty sure. It sends out burn patrols, to clear away the hungries.

Melanie is not an ordinary girl. For one thing, she is kept locked in a cell. For another, she and the other children at Hotel Echo exist on a diet of grubs.  Every morning, she is strapped, wrists, ankles and neck, into a chair and taken, along with the other children,  to the classroom where their teacher – usually Helen Justineau – teaches them. Those are Melanie’s favourite days because when Miss Justineau is teaching “the day is full of amazing things.” The children learn math and spelling; sometimes they are read to. Melanie is keen to learn as much as she can, but it’s difficult to know just what the lessons are for because as Mr. Whitaker (another one of the teachers) explains “None of this stuff matters anymore…it’s irrelevant. It’s ancient history! There’s nothing out there any more. Not a damn thing. The population of Birmingham is zero.”

Dr. Caldwell also lives at Hotel Echo. She’s busily working on a cure for the infection that causes people to become ‘hungries’ (and you’d be right in thinking that what they’re hungry for is humans). She sees the children as test subjects, nothing more. Helen Justineau strenuously disagrees with Caldwell’s methods and the relationship between the two women is fraught with ethical disharmony.

When Hotel Echo is attacked by junkers (violent scavengers taking advantage of the chaotic state of the world) Justineau, Caldwell and Melanie end up on the run with two soldiers, Parks and Gallagher.

I don’t really have a frame of reference for a zombie apocalypse book. I don’t watch The Walking Dead, which I have been told is really good, but really gory. I read and loved Courtney Summers’ This Is Not a Test, but despite the fact that it’s a zombie novel it is zombie-lite compared to The Girl With All The Gifts. So I don’t have any preconceived zombie notions, not like when I read vampire fiction and get all annoyed when they sparkle.

But make no mistake, The Girl With All The Gifts is more than a zombie novel. It’s a novel that asks us to consider what makes us human and whether or not we can be more than our nature allows. Caldwell views Melanie as a test subject, someone with the biological potential to save the world. Justineau views Melanie as a little girl. Parks views Melanie as a monster. They are all right. And wrong. The journey they take together will horrify and break the hearts of any reader prepared to go with them.

Highly recommended.

Read it before the movie comes out!




This Is Not A Test – Courtney Summers

testThis is my second book by Canadian YA writer Courtney Summers and, that’s it:  I am a fan. I previously read Some Girls Are and I was totally taken with its unflinching look at what it is to be a teenage girl. It isn’t pretty, people.

This Is Not A Test has won a slew of awards including being named a  2014 OLA White Pine Honour Book, 2013 ALA/YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, 2013 ALA/YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, and  a  Kirkus New & Notable Books for Teens: June 2012. Trust me, the book delivers on every possible level.

Sloane lives in with her father  in Cortege. Her older sister, Lily, has left home and taken a piece of Sloane with her. It won’t take the reader very long to figure out that Sloane’s father is abusive. She tells us he burns the toast because she deserves it and when he reaches out to examine her face, Sloane flinches before she can catch herself. It’s no wonder that Lily has left, but the plan was that they were supposed to go together.

Based on the first couple of pages, it would be reasonable  to think that This Is Not A Test is a story about abuse, but you’d be so wrong. As Sloane is contemplating the burnt toast and the note her father has written to explain her absence from school, their front door starts to “rattle and shake.”  Someone is screaming for help and it is such a creepy event that as Sloane’s father heads to the door to investigate Sloane notes that he hesitates and she has “never seen him hesitate” in her life.

When Sloane’s father returns to the kitchen he’s screaming that they have to leave and he’s covered in blood. And then all hell breaks loose, literally.

Seven days later Sloane finds herself barricaded in Cortege High School with five other students: student body president, Grace, and her twin brother, Trace; Rhys, a senior;  some-time drug dealer and some-time boyfriend to her sister Lily, Cary and Harrison, a freshman who can’t seem to stop crying. The high school offers the six teens sanctuary while they wait for the help the feel sure will come. Unfortunately, the only announcement on the radio proclaims that “This is not a test.”

As the days drone on, Sloane and the rest of the trapped teens struggle to stay calm. They jockey for position, alliances are formed and they wonder what has happened to the rest of the world. It all makes for a riveting psychological drama because Summers has an ear for how teens speak and she doesn’t shy away from the fact that this scenario is relentlessly grim. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Except for the feeling fine part.

Sloane narrates this story and she is a sympathetic character. Even if she could get back home, what does she have to return to? No one knows about the abuse she suffered and without Lily she feels as though she has very little to live for. Thus, she has nothing to lose.

This Is Not A Test is my very first zombie novel. I’ve pretty much avoided them until now because, truthfully, they don’t really interest me all that much. If they were all as good as this one, though, I’d be a fan.

Apparently there is an e-sequel available, but truthfully, I thought the ending to This Is Not A Test was pretty damn perfect.

Highly recommended.