Thursday Review: Tom Leveen’s Sick

Sick is a novel by Tom Leveen. It first came to my attention with a reference from a professor of mine over at Arizona State University in his class on young adult literature. It’s set in a high school at the outbreak of a zombie epidemic, and it makes for a remarkably good read.

Tom Leveen’s known for his young adult fiction already, but it tends to be more realistic than Sick. His foray into zombies is far from being underwhelming; he brings in a ton of interesting high-school elements and calls the punches as he sees them-this comes in the form of some harsh language and plenty of reckless youth, but also in the form of some nobility and selflessness that is great to see portrayed in fiction. Tom also has little difficulty making the writing really flow off the page; Sick has the pacing and writing style needed to keep suspense and horror building even for the genre-savvy, and the plot avoids feeling contrived or arbitrarily difficult-everything that matters throughout the book happens organically rather than being forced into being to provide drama later on.

Plot-wise, Sick is a departure from low-brow zombie literature and focuses on what would happen-it’s not an action movie in disguise, it’s a legitimate exploration of how to deal with an outbreak. It follows the popular modern psychological deconstruction of what would happen in a zombie scenario, complete with the lead-up to the outbreak. It’s not quite as apocalyptic as some, with a much smaller scale of destruction; there aren’t zombies wandering on every street, but there’s certainly a ton within the high school gates once the infection begins to sink in, which makes for a lot of suspense and tension without creating an atmosphere of hopelessness.

Sick has very slick writing; from its tag-line that “High school is full of monsters” to the writing style, it not only captures the zeitgeist for the average adolescent but also has a smooth and sweet organic style that makes it a very easy read. The language doesn’t descend into overly flowery or descriptive moments, but it still provides vibrant images and tells you what you need to know.

More importantly, from an educator’s perspective, Sick touches on many of the problems that confront high schools; some of the narrator’s complaints about the school system are more believable than others, but it does a good job of capturing the cliquishness of a high school setting, and includes plenty of opportunities for the exploration of students’ identities; Chad, the narrator’s best friend, is a punk with a blue Mohawk that plans on joining the Marines after he graduates-each character has depth beyond the stereotype given to them by their clique. This creates some wonderful plot elements, but also creates some great and memorable characters; each of the narrator’s core friends is much more complex than they seem on the surface, and even characters we meet only in passing have a lot of depth to them.

Tom Leveen’s voice is truly one of the best elements of Sick; it feels like it was written by a high school student, and everything flows together nicely. There’s elements of emotion throughout, and a savvy reader can pick up on the fact that Brian’s perception of events is not perhaps entirely objective; reading between the lines certainly has some merit throughout the book, as there’s a lot of things that you can miss otherwise.

In many ways, Sick feels more like a coming of age than an apocalypse. Every character develops throughout the style, even those who wind up being killed or going missing throughout the story, and every character is forced to confront their inner demons; whether it comes in the form of having to decide to take action to help the helpless at risk to oneself as Chad and Brian-the protagonist-do, or overcome anxiety to perform as they must when problems begin to build up.

This isn’t to say that Sick is light on action. It’s bloody, violent, and vulgar at times, but not so much that its darkness would eclipse its virtue. There’s medical descriptions of the sickness afflicting the zombies and lots of gore throughout, but none of it is gratuitous; every word of violence is played for how it impacts Brian and changes his resolve; whether it’s a terrifying sight or a warning, Tom doesn’t play lightly with his setting and narration.

In short, if you’re looking for a book that a kid will love to read and that isn’t overloaded with horrible content, Sick is a great read. Just be cautioned that there’s plenty of realistic violence throughout (neither gratuitous nor censored), harsh language, and some elements of delinquency, but there’s also a lot of merits-it’s about a discovery of life outside high school as much as it is about the life of an adolescent, and shows that the differences between us are not as great as they seem at first.

You can find Sick at a local book store, or on Amazon.com.

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