My Review: Zombie books are hitting bookshelves left and right and are being snatched up just as quickly. The problem is finding one that stands out from the rest. When I came across the synopsis for SICK by Tom Leveen, I was instantly intrigued. Leveen usually writes contemporary YA and has a knack for portraying angsty, teenage characters in a realistic, genuine way, such as his novel ZERO (you can read my review for Zero HERE). So when I heard that Leveen was writing about a group of misfit friends that must survive a zombie outbreak, I couldn't have been more excited. This should have been an easy slam dunk for him. Unfortunately, SICK is his first novel that misses the mark.
Here is what I liked about the novel. First, I think Leveen did a great job with...
the setting of the story. I was a bit worried at first because let's face it, SICK is not the first YA zombie novel that takes place in a school (This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers, Generation Dead by Daniel Waters, etc.). However, somehow he takes an overused backdrop and makes it feel new. This perhaps is because the story primarily takes place in the Drama department. I know what your thinking because I originally thought it was a little odd myself. But then I thought to myself, well, if a zombie apocalypse did happen, you never know where you might be, right? Besides, once I got over my initial reservations and read further along, I realized the brilliance behind using the Drama department as the focal point of the story. Most drama students are creative and have the ability to think outside the box. Therefore, it is no surprise when props are used as weapons (like fake/wooden swords) and headsets that are normally used during the production of a show are used to communicate when students have to split up to find others throughout the school.
Leveen always creates memorable characters. In SICK, it was the secondary characters that stood out. I really liked Jaime, who basically ran the Drama department and had the most common sense in the group and kept his cool during such dire circumstances. Although we don't get to see her until about halfway through the book, Hollis' girlfriend Cammy is one badass cheerleader. She definitely does not fall into the dumb cheerleader stereotype. And Chad...oh how I love Brian's best friend Chad. My favorite character hands down, Chad is this Mohawk wearing misfit who speaks his mind, often without a filter, and is loyal to a fault. And I absolutely love some of the things that come out of his mouth. Here are a couple of examples:
"I'm with you, brother. Say the word, and we're off like a prom dress."
"What the snap crackle fuck you talkin' about?"
Leveen is also a great description writer. He has the ability to use words that can paint a picture in your mind so vividly:
"We watch and scream, and cuss as the attacker tears into Jack like a carnivorous lawn mower, shredding muscle and snapping bone, spraying crimson against the window, which is almost a relief because it helps block the view of the feeding frenzy."
"At a quick count, there are no less than thirty students, probably more, moving fast on their toes and knuckles, backs hunched, flesh sagging down their faces, arms engorged and glittering."
I also found the storylines interesting. Brian, our main character, is in love with Laura who suffers from a panic disorder. At the beginning of the story, Brian and Laura are broken up but it's quite obvious that the spark is still there. I liked this unconventional love story. In most YA novels, authors focus on the budding of new romance. In SICK, Leveen showcases a couple who are no longer in a relationship but once faced with the possibility of the end of the world, regret and the "what if" questions take hold. There are quite a few other storylines, such as Brian's sister Kenzie's battle with cancer. Then you have his best friend Chad who has been crushing on Kenzie for years but she won't give him the time of day. There is even a hint of a gay romance with other minor characters in the book. I also like how Leveen adds little details pertaining to the complexity of being a teen in the modern world such as the problem with technology and how it can be crippling. There is a part in the story where a student wants to call home but doesn't remember his number because it was programed in his cell phone. Or the scene where Brian realizes being an adult and having to make adult-like decisions is not all its cracked up to be:
"Being a teenager sucks. You're not an adult, but not really a kid anymore. We spend most of our time pushing for all of the adult stuff. Cars and money and all that. But when Jaime says home like that, I swear to God I drop to 6 years old because I understand instantly what he means. I just want to go home too."
Lastly, if you're going to write about zombies, then you need to give them qualities or characteristics that will make them stand out. I must say that Leveen's zombies are no joke. They are fast, move on all fours due to their severely deformed backs. Their faces tend to melt (starts with a fever that keeps getting worse) and their sparkly skin...yes, I did say sparkly. I'm not even going to attempt to explain that one, but overall, combine with Leveen's vivid descriptions, these zombies were pretty frightening.
Here is what I didn't like. First, the synopsis was a bit misleading. Brian and his group of friends are supposed to be the misfits, the troublemakers, yet other then skipping classes, there is really nothing in the story that supports that they are these badasses. Chad, out of all of them, may look the part since he sports a mohawk, however, somewhere in the story he even confesses that he has never touched drugs despite others thinking he is a druggie.
Secondly, I feel that what makes this story suffer is Brian, our protagonist. He was not only boring but downright irritating by the end of the book. Brian was also very selfish and self absorbed. It was all about him and his need to find his sister and his ex. What about the other kids and their loved ones? Why is it okay for him to put all the other students' lives at risk but not cool for others to do so when they are just as worried about their loved ones? I also thought it strange that I have no idea what Brian looks like. I don't remember a description of him at all. Usually Leveen is good with characterization, but it felt like Brian was all surface. While others, like his best friend Chad are fighting the zombies and using weapons, Brian did a whole lot of nothing. The secondary characters were way more interesting then Brian. Maybe if the story shared different narrators throughout the book it would have been more bearable. I would have loved to be in Chad's head. Even Brian's ex Laura would have been an interesting narrator since she suffers from a panic disorder. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her, how debilitating such a disorder can be normally, let alone during a zombie outbreak.
Lastly, I get that every author has specific plot points in order to move the story and characters along. But in SICK, Leveen seemed to miss something obvious. Let me set the scene. Someone gets bit (don't want to spoil it) and Brian's mom, who is a nurse, gives instructions over the phone as to how to treat the bite temporarily. They must find a sedative, something that will slow down the body. Brian knows that Laura takes Klonopins because of her anxiety disorder. So finding her is like killing two birds with one stone. But things don't turn out quite as planned. Did they EVER think to look in the Nurse's Office? Every school has one. Unless I somehow missed it, not once was the Nurse's Station mentioned. While they may not find Klonopin there, I am sure the Nurse's Office would have something like Benadryl. I guess I am just surprised that the author never thought to mention the most obvious place that would have medication, bandages, and other medical supplies.
There is no doubt that Tom Leveen knows how to write edgy, YA literature. There have been times when some of his characters in past books felt like they were coming off the pages. While I really wanted to love SICK, this was, by far, his weakest novel. I know that zombies are hot right now, especially in YA literature and many authors want to have a crack at it. I definitely commend Leveen for trying, but I think this is a great example of an author that should stick with the genre that he knows best.