Author: Tom Leveen
Reading Level: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary YA
Theme: Art, Punk Music, Romance
Length: 302 pages
Published: 24 April 2012; Random House for Young Readers
Buy: amazon.com, bn.com
Synopsis: For aspiring artist Amanda Walsh, who only half-jokingly goes by the nickname Zero, the summer before college was supposed to be fun—plain and simple. Hanging out with her best friend Jenn, going to clubs, painting, and counting down the days until her escape. But when must-have scholarship money doesn't materialize, and she has a falling out with Jenn that can only be described as majorly awkward, and Zero's parents relationship goes from tense to relentless fighting, her prospects start looking as bleak and surreal as a painting by her idol Salvador Dali. Will life truly imitate art? Will her new, unexpected relationship with a punk skater boy who seems too good to be real and support from the unlikeliest of sources show Zero that she's so much more than a name.
My Review: It's been awhile since I've given a book a 5 star rating, but after careful consideration, I honestly couldn't find anything wrong with the story nor anything I would change. ZERO was the kind of book that once started, I literally couldn't put it down which shocked me. I guess I forgot what that felt like!
Amanda, aka Amy, aka Zero is a recent high school graduate whose plan for a fun summer before going away to the art school of her dreams is shattered. Although she was accepted into the Art Institute of Chicago, she doesn't get the scholarship she so desperately needs due to her portfolio "lacking technical excellence". To add to this devastating news, she has a falling out with her best friend, Jenn. Her parents, while supportive, argue nearly every waking moment, causing Zero to feel creatively stifled. On one particularly bad night, Zero decides to head out to one of her favorite dives called "The Graveyard". And that's when she meets Mike, drummer for one of the opening bands called Gothic Rainbow. Gathering the courage to go up and talk to him is just the beginning of her journey to discovering her self-worth as a young woman and an artist.
I don't know how Tom Leveen did it, but ZERO (the book and the character) feels 100% authentic; I'm still in a bit of shock that he created such a convincing, identifiable female character. The similarities between Zero and I are almost scary. I used to be seriously into art and at one point considered going to art school. I also know what it's like to hang with the guys but never feel pretty enough to actually be with one of them. And as freaky as this may sound, I too, once had a crush on a guy I met at a concert, who just so happened to be a drummer for his own band...and his name was MIKE. Talk about coincidental, right? I also like how Tom Leveen always starts each section with Zero saying, "Here's the thing." We all have our quirky phrases that we say. Like for me, I've been told that when I get serious I frequently say, "You know what??!" Leveen applying this detail really adds to Zero's voice as a character.
If Leveen can write such a great female character then I am not surprised how much I also liked Mike. I think I even fell a little in love with him! Even though Mike had his own set of family and relationship issues (which are somewhat, but not fully revealed), I like that Leveen didn't turn him into the cliche male character that walks around with a chip on his shoulder. You know the kind I'm talking about, the one who is a bit arrogant at first, is sort of mean and aloof and acts like he doesn't have feelings for the main female character, but later shows he has a sensitive side. Nope, that's not Mike. Mike may proceed with caution, but he never puts on a front with Zero. He's sensitive as most artists are (in his case musically) yet remains very realistic as to how the music world works.
I think what I love the most about Mike is how he loves Zero for who she is, faults, insecurities, and all. A perfect example is one of my favorite parts of the book. I need to share this with everyone. Let me set the scene. Mike and Zero are at the beginning stages of dating. She goes over his house and is in his room, waiting for him to finish getting ready so they can head out:
"You look good," [Mike] says casually as he pulls a black T-shirt over his head.
I glance down at myself. Agent Orange T-shirt, cutoffs with my green Dali belt, and my monkey boots.
"Liar," I say.
Mike winces. "Really?"
"I'm sorry, I just meant---"
"Okay, this stops now," he says, and comes over to me. He kicks his door closed, and for the first time I see the cheap full-length mirror nailed to the back.
"What size is that shirt?" he asks, pulling me to stand in front of him so we're both looking in the mirror.
"Large. I wear a large, and I'm not a big guy. You should be wearing a small. Medium, tops."
"You don't like how I dress?"
"I love how you dress! I'm saying it should fit you."
"Well, I don't feel like advertising my fat ass."
"Your...? Okay, take your belt off."
I do, and wonder why. Does he have tantalizing plans for it?
Mike grabs the waistband of my shorts in one hand and a handful of my T-shirt in the back in the other and pulls them both taut.
"Now look," he says, nodding at the mirror. "That's you. You're swimming in this stuff. You have a kick-ass body." He releases my clothes, and my shorts nearly slip off. I grab them in one hand. "I mean, dress however you want; I still think you're hot no matter what. But it's something to think about. 'Sall I'm sayin'."
Staring at myself, I pull my shorts tight again and study the image. "You mean it?" I ask him.
"I really do."
I let go of my waistband, and my shorts fall to the floor. Mike takes a step back, his eyes widening. Sweet.
"Something to think about?" I say to his reflection in the mirror.
I watch him run a hand over his hair. He can't keep his eyes off me. And I like it. I had no idea I could ever feel this...oh, the hell with it: sexy.
Enough said, right?
Leveen also creates memorable secondary characters. I absolutely loved the guys--Hob, Eddie, Brook-- that make up Mike's band. They really are a fun bunch and embrace Zero. They love her artwork and commission her to do flyers, t-shirts, etc. for Gothic Rainbow. Again, this totally reminds me of my younger years when I used to hang out with my Mike and his band.
It's no secret that Leveen packs a lot of issues that young people experience in this book. Zero's parents are constantly arguing and a part of that is due to her father being an alcoholic. Zero herself suffers from low self-esteem, which also affects her painting and relationships with others. Let's see, other topics/themes you will come across-- abandonment and sexuality issues, using sex as a way to "fill the void", the consequences of unsafe sex, etc. Oh, and did I forget to mention that there is quite a bit of cursing and sexual situations in this book? I'm completely fine with it-- hell, I think it's quite refreshing since, let's face it, young adults, especially in the 17 years and older age group are sexually active! While I enjoy books that go the PG route and try to promote abstinence, I think ZERO is a more realistic portrayal of young adults.
There are quite a few people out there that felt that the book leaves too many issues open ended. Or that Leveen didn't wrap everything up and put a, "and they lived happily ever after" at the end. To be quite frank, for about a day or 2 after reading ZERO, I bounced back and forth between a 4 star rating and a 5 star rating. I did have a few questions that were left unanswered, one being what was Mike trying to say to Zero about his mom after he got back from his "trip"?
But after thinking about it, I actually was okay with the way the book ended. After all, finding self-worth and self-esteem doesn't just happen overnight. Marital issues don't just get better overnight. People aren't just "cured" of alcoholism overnight. Abandonment issues don't just go away overnight. Beginning to trust your best friend again after feeling betrayed doesn't just happen overnight. You get the point? And this may sound crazy...but I can definitely see a sequel happening. Whether the author consciously or subconsciously ended things the way he did, I can totally see Leveen revisiting these characters, maybe when they are in their early 20's. One can dream, right?