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Book Review: Contaiminated by Em Garner

“They keep them in cages.  The unclaimed. Long rows of narrow, filthy cages lined up along dark corridors lit by bare, hanging bulbs. It’s a harsh, burning smell that hurts the inside of my nose, but it’s better than the reek that wafts up from underneath the odor of cleanser. That smell’s something raw and meaty and moist, something sick.  Like dirty wounds.  Blood and other things.” – opening paragraph 

Since we are already talking about viruses in Quarantine and have heard from Contaminated author Em Garner earlier today, let’s actually talk about Contaminated, another book that is about a virus, but it so much more.

It has been two years since a diet drink with genetically modified ingredients started to contaminate people, causing them to become living yet zombie like creatures with a violent streak that puts all of humanity at risk.  The unclaimed, those who have been infected and no one knows what to do with them, are placed in kennels until either a family members claims them or a certain time period passes and they are given what is known as Mercy Mode.  It is in a kennel that 17-year-old Velvet finds her mother.  After bringing her “connie” (short for contaminated) mother home to live with her and her 10-year-old sister, Velvet’s life begins spiraling even further out of control.  They are facing eviction, she finds herself parenting her, her sister and her infected mother, her boyfriend has abandoned her, and she can’t really get her schoolwork done.  And just when thing look hopeful, the world as they have come to know it changes once again, setting us up for the next book in the series.

Contaminated is a truly unique take on the modern day zombie craze.  These “zombies” aren’t dead but
infected, yet they still pose a very deadly risk to the world.  And this world is a very much modern day world.  But the most unique thing about Contaminated is that it is an allegory for all the children out there struggling in the modern day world trying to hold their families and lives together in the face of extreme challenges like poverty, neglect, or parental illness.  So many readers will be able to identify with this story.  And while I have bemoaned several times this year how there was a preponderance of rich kids dominating ya lit and asking where the teens who were barely holding it together were, I never thought I would find my answer in such an interesting premise.  And that is the most glorious thing about this book; it is the story of every latch key, poverty, struggling teen told with compassion and wisdom under the veil of a “zombie” story.

Contaminated also raises interesting questions about how we treat the outliers among us, the sick.  And of course there are lots of interesting discussions to be had about science and the limits of what we know, how what we think we know can change, and the role and reach of our government in the time of a crisis.  It’s really a very discussable and thought provoking book.

Velvet is a compassionate character, a young lady forced into adulthood way too early, like so many teens are.  Your heart breaks for her. She is strong, fierce, compassionate, wise and yet, a struggling, vulnerable teenage girl.  She is both realistic and an excellent role model.  There are are several awesome supporting characters, including a kind adult and her teenage son, who provides moral support and smooches.

“I’m anxious and tired and stressed; I have to get home to make sure Opal has her dinner, and I’d like to have some time to watch some terrible television after I’ve finished my homework.  I might even like to try to catch a conversation with Tony before I go to bed.  He complains I don’t have enough time for him, and even though I think he should understand, I know he’s right. And I know that although I don’t need him, I wan him.  I don’t want him to find someone else, a girl who will give him all her attention, a girl who doesn’t have so much else to do.” – page 5

Contaminated is a very interesting and accessible read.  Great to pair with The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe or the Rot & Ruin series by Jonathan Maberry. It is less violent than many of the zombie novels out there, though it does have its fair share of tense moments to remind you what is at stake, and is safe for younger YAs while still being engaging for older YAs.  I give it 4 out of 5 stars.  Remember, this is not technically a zombie novel but will sit well with those readers.  In many ways, it reminds of Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey if the mom were not an alcoholic but zombie virus infected mom, though it is not told in journal format.  So multi-layered and can be read in many ways by many different types of readers.  Readers looking for intense action and violence should stick with the Quarantine series, but readers willing to go below the surface will relish Contaminated.

Contaminated by Em Garner.  July 2013 from Egmont USA.  ISBN: 978-1-60684-354-3.

The Things That Scare Us by Em Garner (author of Contaiminated)

As a kid, I loved scary movies and books. Monsters under the bed or in the closet. A ventriloquist’s dummy that just might come to life. (I still have him. He sits on my bookshelf in my office and watches over me as I write.) Werewolves, vampires, things that go bump in the night.

Now that I’m older, I still love to read and watch horror, and I can still get chills and thrills from those supernatural creatures. But the things that scare me truly frighten and horrify me down to the core of my soulmight wear the shambling, moldy form of a zombie, but the heart of my fear comes from an entirely different place.
My debut young adult horror novel, Contaminated, came from that place. The book is about the path of destruction wreaked by contaminated protein water that has turned a huge portion of the population mindless and rageful, incapable of restraining their baser urges toward violence. Connies, which is what those affected by the prion disease eating holes in their brains are called, don’t react to pain or fear. They’re driven by anger and lack of control. That’s pretty scary.
What’s scarier to me, though, is how the contamination has affected the world as a whole. Connies aren’t undead, risen zombies. They’re real people who are no longer able to keep themselves from hurting others or themselves. They’ve lost their humanity…but they are still vulnerably, desperately human. It could be easy to hate and fear them, but for the fact they are our neighbors, teachers…our parents.
Velvet Ellis is, at seventeen, left without either of her parents after they both became contaminated. In charge of her younger sister, Opal, Velvet struggles not only with the normal problems of teenage life-school, a boyfriend, a jobbut also with taking care of her mother when she’s released into Velvet’s care. Fitted with a special shocking collar that’s supposed to keep the Connies under control, Velvet’s mother is not able to take care of herself. She needs help dressing and feeding herself. She can’t be trusted not to wander away in the night. And, if she gets too agitated, the collar around her neck will first put her down. Then, if she doesn’t control herself, it will kill her.
While the backdrop of a world gone crazy–people rioting and destroying things in the streets–the government taking over, might seem to be the “boo!” factor in Contaminated, for me while writing it, the real, true horror was always twofold. One, as a parent, worrying that I will somehow be rendered incapable of taking care of my children. And two, the idea of a child having to become responsible for the full caretaking of a parent no longer able to function normally.
So, while Contaminated might be about a new kind of zombie, and is set in a world that’s slowly disintegrating, at its heart I always intended the book to be the story of how family and love binds us together, and what we will sacrifice in order to take care of those we love.

From Em Garner’s webpage: Em Garner writes books.
She began writing at a very young age, always preferring the stories about what goes bump in the night. An avid reader of horror, science-fiction and fantasy, she first turned her hand to short stories about the sorts of things that hide under the bed…and she kept right on going.

Now Em spends most of her time in front of her computer, writing away at all the ideas she has swirling around in her head and hoping she can get them into a story before she forgets them.

She loves zombies, unicorns, and rainbows, the color purple and the smell of roses. She hates the smell of lilies, the feeling of corduroy and biting sandpaper. (Well. Who doesn’t?)