Independent Study (by Joelle Charbonneau)

25 03 2014

independentstudyIndependent Study is the 2nd book in The Testing trilogy. The plotline is predictable: just more Testing like Catching Fire was just more Hunger Games but in a different arena. It’s almost formulaic dystopia: blend Divergent together with Hunger Games and you get The Testing. It features stereotypical main characters: (too) intelligent & perfect female main character who asks all.the.right.questions.all.the.time. There’s really nothing original or groundbreaking in this book But it’s also highly entertaining, a fun ride (although lacking somewhat in the action department, which seems to be symptomatic of middle book syndrome) and a sure winner with reluctant readers. So yeah, Charbonneau sucked me in.

The Testing (by Joelle Charbonneau)

11 09 2013

testingOK, so let’s start by stating the obvious:  Yes, this book is a blatant rip-off of The Hunger Games!

There, got that off my chest.

Now, let’s focus on the book itself, OK?

16-year-old Cia Vale is from the Five Lakes Colony and about to graduate and become an adult. Every year at graduation, representatives of Tosu City (the capital) go to the colonies to select those graduates they deem worthy to start the Testing, a severe ‘screening process’ to determine who will be admitted to the University and to ultimately become leaders of the country to restore the war stricken colonies and revitalize the country. Along with four others from her colony, Cia is chosen to compete in the Testing, something she is very excited about. Especially her father, though, who went through the Testing years ago himself, isn’t all that enthusiastic. The day before Cia leaves, he tells her he does not have any memories of the selection process itself, but is still haunted by nightmares of it. He pleads her to trust no one and to be very careful because the competition will be fierce!

Once Cia is in Tosu City, the first couple of tests seem innocent enough. They are more like general knowledge exams. However, as the testing progresses, a more sinister and deadly side becomes apparent. Cia’s roommate ends up committing suicide, for instance. And not completing certain tests results in pain or even death for some of the candidates…

Once the first 3 phases of the Testing are complete and (obviously) Cia and her love interest Tomas (of course there’s a love interest) are still part of it all, the part of the book that is so very Hunger Games-y starts. The candidates are dropped off into what’s left of Chicago (although they are not supposed to know that it’s Chicago), basically a vast post-apocalyptic wilderness. This part of the Testing is all about the candidates finding a way back to Tosu City… with whatever means necessary to get there. You can imagine what happens: it’s Battle Royale, Hunger Games, and every other book or movie in which a sort of race until only one (or more, depending on the game’s rules) winner is found, all over again. If you can find a way to get over the derivative nature of this scenario then you’ll see that there’s quite a bit of suspense going on in this book.

It’s a page turner for sure, and honestly? This book? A total blessing for the hundreds of reluctant readers that come into my school library every year! I will have no problem whatsoever to sell this book to them. I’ll mention Hunger Games (because you know, they only come into a library – or a bookstore – to get “that” book, the book that everyone is reading), they’ll look at the cover (which is also an almost exact copy of the HG), they might read the blurb (or they’ll ask me what it’s about) and they’ll get it, and they’ll be happy to have found an easy read, with a bit of suspense, that has a dash of romance, and that didn’t absolutely bore them to death.

That being said, obviously The Testing has flaws, and unoriginality is only one of them (not just HG, but there’s quite a bit of Divergent here too…). Cia is not the most interesting of characters.  She is definitely your stereotypical dystopian heroine with No Actual Apparent Character Flaws Besides Being Too Trusting. She’s nice, she’s smart, she’s resourceful… and ultimately also quite boring. Then, I want to know more about the Seven Stages of War and the world in which Cia lives: what are the colonies all about? There a lot of things mentioned that seem relevant (like the cameras), but that ultimately don’t really serve a purpose. And there’s also a lot of running around and then more running around, and then some encounters and some more running… so… I guess the writer and editors could have made things a lot more compact to add to the tension even more. And finally, I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about some of the writing. You know how you sometimes spot ‘a thing’ and it bugs you and then you just see it everywhere? Well, here I had it with half-sentences… Or (relative) subclauses, to be more precise. Chardonneau kind of likes them a lot. Which is annoying. When that happens a lot…. See there what I did? That’s what I’m talking about.

I do realize that as a writer you don’t write in a vacuum. Joelle Charbonneau doesn’t, but Suzanne Collins didn’t either. Also,  genre fiction would not exist if they did. But neither does a reader read in a vacuum, so obviously the many voices of “this book is a total fake and a rip off of the Hunger Games” will be as strong as “I loved this book to bits because it reminded me so much of the Hunger Games”.

Once again, The Testing is hardly original: it “borrows” from all over the dystopian YA market, the writing is a bit wobbly and the main character is not that interesting…. and yet…. It reads like a friggin’ train and yep, I’ll read the sequel…

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