When I set out to read a book by someone I consider a friend, I always feel a great deal of trepidation--What if I don't like it? What will I say? I felt the same way years ago when my best friend started acting in community theatre. I knew everything was going to be just fine when I was able to forget that was Debbie up there (and quit worrying about her remembering her lines) and started to believe she was who she was pretending to be up there.
That willing suspension of disbelief works like magic.
When Alison Kemper's YA novel Donna of the Dead was released at the first of March in eBook format, I decided to download it to read on my trip to Haiti. While I may be skeptical about zombie lit, I knew Alison well enough to know she'd do something clever and original--and I was right.
The book opens on a cruise ship with the protagonist Donna, a high school girl whose dad's job is tied in closely to the cruise industry. They are traveling with her dad's girlfriend and her grandson, Donna's best friend Deke. They get word of a strange pandemic just before an outbreak onboard--and it turns victims quickly into zombies. (Stay with me here!) Donna and Deke manage to escape the ship, leaving her father and his grandmother on board, working to find some answers and a solution. All through the adventure, Donna hears voices, particularly when danger nears. They end up finding their high school has been hit hard, but several students are barricaded in the building, trying to survive together.
At this point, the novel follows a formula that worked for Decameron, Chaucer, Maeve Binchy, and Ann Patchet, to name a few: put a disparate group of people in close quarters and watch what happens. There are bossy school leaders, overly perky cheerleaders, a teacher's young son, misfits--and Liam, a boy whose attention Donna's been seeking through the last year or two of high school.
The book avoids falling into formula though in part because of Kemper's use of humor and even more because of the dead-on characterization. The characters she could easily have stereotyped have more depth to them. The cheerleaders aren't even interchangeable. While most of the characters are teenagers, she adds a cantankerous librarian in the mix, along with Donna's father and Deke's mom. Even the victims-turned-zombie are sympathetic. I particularly enjoyed the connections made to the Black Death, the series of plagues that nearly decimated Europe during the Middle Ages.
As I lost myself in the story--the best way to pass time onboard an airplane--I would make notes of favorite parts I couldn't wait to discuss with Kemper as soon as I got back from break, and I thought of readers--some more A than Y--to whom I had to recommend the book.
When Deke made an appearance on the YA boyfriend brackets on Facebook last week, I knew others had already discovered the book too.