Come for the apocalypse.
Stay for cupcakes.
Die for love.


Solid, inventive, well-characterized YA science fiction. By “science fiction,” I mean “cool powers and alien invasion,” not “paper-thin dystopia in which the government’s main concern appears to be micro-managing the love triangles of teenagers.”

Madeleine, an aspiring artist, visits Sydney to paint her cousin Tyler’s portrait. Tyler is a famous cross-dressing actor, and probably my favorite character in the book despite his comparatively small part.

Her plans are stymied by an alien invasion. Starry towers rise up from the cities, and dust falls from the sky. Some people are given powers, others strange vulnerabilities, and still yet others are possessed by aliens. Stars shine from Madeleine’s skin, and she gets together with other teenagers to learn to use their powers and try to save the world.

The opening sequence, in which Madeleine tries to escape from a wrecked subway station, gets the book off to a great start. I stalled out for a while in a slow sequence in which the teenagers are interminably holed up in a hotel, but the story picks up enormously after that.

Host has a lot of respect for teenagers, and I liked the unabashedly heroic tone of the story. Rather than taking the apocalypse as an excuse for an orgy of rape and cannibalism, Host’s characters band together, form a community, explore their new relationships, take the time to make plans that make sense, and risk their lives for a cause they believe in. It’s engaging, uplifting, and, by the end, surprisingly moving.

This isn’t a flawless novel. Some events are confusing or poorly set-up, some of the dialogue is clunky, and I read the explanation of the alien invasion three times and I still don’t understand it. Too many characters are introduced in too-quick succession, and I didn’t realize that “Emily” and “Millie” were the same person with a nickname until I got to the cast of characters at the end. The sequence at the end with Gavin was really confusing, too. The book could have used one more rewrite.

However, so could at least half of the professionally edited YA novels I’ve read recently, many of which have glaring continuity errors, nonsensical motivations, ridiculous worldbuilding, unlikable characters, and, often, proofreading errors and poor formatting. In some cases, they are nothing but a string of action sequences strung together by plot holes.

And All the Stars isn’t Code Name Verity. But it’s imaginative, well-thought-out, and heartfelt. I will definitely read more of Host’s books.

Giant spoilers lurk below.

Read more... )

And All the Stars. Only $4.99!

Host self-publishes because of the glacial pace of traditional publishing, which got one of her novels stuck in review for TEN YEARS.

But there may be other reasons as well, which have nothing to do with the quality of her writing. Again, I'm not saying that she's one of the absolute best YA writers out there. But based on this, she's certainly one of the better ones. And when I say "better ones," I mean "compared to all the YA novels I've been reading that come out from major publishers," not "compared to the slush pile."

Speaking only of American publishing, which is the only publishing I know anything about, I can see why this novel would be a hard sell. It is not set in America, it involves aliens, and the tone and style are different from most YA sf I've read recently. (And there are gay characters, though in the supporting cast.) For a first-time author, those could be insurmountable obstacles.

M. C. A. Hogarth has a thought-provoking article on those issues. Maybe the audience for books about middle-aged female Hispanic space Marines is small. Maybe the audience for psychic Australian teenagers fighting aliens is small. But I'm glad that e-publishing makes it possible now for those books to find their audience.
A sleepy California town is enclosed in a mysterious barrier at the same instant that, pop! Everyone over the age of 14 vanishes. And some kids get psychic powers. (Actually, some got their powers several months before the pop - no word yet on why.) And animals mutate.

Flying rattlesnakes! Talking coyotes! Kids running around with tentacle arms and telekinesis!

This would be utterly and completely up my alley... except for the non-existent characterization.

The characters are either good kids trying to do right, with maybe one or two other traits, like "leadership abilities" or "bulimic," or complete psychopaths, with maybe one or two other traits like "intelligent" or "seductive." Speaking of which, I don't love the stock character of the sociopathic manipulative seductress in general, but it is about 500% more skeevy when she's fourteen.

Cool mutant animals. Cool mutant powers. But, alas, I didn't care about any of it.

I also disliked the disjunct between the flat emotional tone (probably due to the paper-thin characterization) and the amount of horrific stuff happening to children, and by that I mean kids way younger than 14.

Spoiler for child harm.

Read more... )

Also could have benefited from characters I cared about. And less retro gender roles. Girls run the daycare and infirmary, boys run law enforcement and government.

There are three girls with powers that could be used in a fight. Two are not introduced till near the end, and the third dies on the same page she's introduced. The main boys' powers are very strong telekinesis, super-strength, laser beams, teleportation, monster-type physical alterations accompanied by super-strength, and altering reality. The main girls' powers are healing, sensing how powerful other mutants are, and sensing how awesome the hero is.

I am not kidding about the last one. Astrid, the love interest, has the power to sense how awesome people are. She's not sure what this literally corresponds to, except that it doesn't seem to just be about who has the most bad-ass power. (The latter is a power another girl has.) But she assures the hero that her mutant power has detected that he is objectively the most important person she has ever met.

A really fun premise and some intriguing mysteries, but not enough to make me continue the series.

Gone
I have often had this book recommended to me as a small classic of YA sf in the subcategories of post-apocalyptic, psychic kids, and Australian. It was written in 1987, when there wasn't quite such a glut of psychic kid and post-apocalyptic YA as accumulated later on. But it was still unimpressive.

As is explained in prologue of infodump, after a nuclear war, mutations and science were banned. Mutants can be executed or exiled if caught.

Teenage Elspeth is a telepathic mutant who can read minds, force people to do her bidding, and communicate with animals. She also has other extremely powerful abilities which are revealed later, when it's convenient for her to be able to unlock doors and kill people with her brain. Despite these abilities, her family has been executed and she is in a precarious position, under threat of death if her talents are discovered. Her brother, a teenage total jerk, has a somewhat higher status for reasons I forget and is not very helpful to her.

She ends up exiled to a prison/lab/boarding house for teenage mutants. There she is forced to slave in the kitchens, while sinister experiments are going on off-page. This section occupies about two-thirds of the book, and it felt like absolutely nothing was going on.

I was mostly bored by the book. Elspeth has very little personality. In fact, the only character with personality is a stray cat. Though a summary of events would make it seem like exciting things are happening, they are often narrated rather than shown, and are so underdeveloped that the sense is that nothing is happening. Dullsville.

Obernewtyn: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 1
The author of this book collected a set of peculiar vintage found photographs, some altered to produce apparent wonders, some merely odd. I assume he created the splendid pen name of Ransom Riggs. He wrote an evocative first chapter built around a few of the photos, about a Holocaust survivor who tells fantastical stories to his grandson, which only the boy believes.

And then, his invention exhausted, he wrote several more hundred pages of half-haphazard, slow-paced, off-key story to fill out the rest of the book, interspersed with more found photographs which sometimes seem to have dictated the plot, and sometimes seem to be there solely because the premise of the novel was “built around found photos,” but have no apparent relevance. Distractingly, the photos don’t even always match the text, and not in a deliberately unsettling or spooky manner. They’re just wrong, like using one photo of a child and one of a different and much older person, and claiming they’re both of the same teenage character.

The plot follows Jacob, the grandson, now sixteen, who witnesses his grandfather’s death at the hands of the monsters he always feared. Could the monsters of his grandfather’s stories be real? Jacob’s shallow, poorly characterized parents send him to a psychiatrist. But Jacob manages to convince his father that they should go to Wales, where his grandfather lived at a home for refugee children, which he described as a magical place, so that Jacob can prove to himself that his grandfather’s stories were fantasies. Jacob, of course, really wants to prove that they were real. Naturally, they are: he finds the house, suspended in time, and still full of magical kids.

This sounds right up my alley. And yet nearly everything was wrong with it, starting with the voice. Jacob’s narration usually sounds like it was written by a literary-minded adult, with discordant breaks into unconvincing teenage slang when Riggs remembers that he’s supposed to be sixteen. He does not have any characterization, and neither does anyone else in the story except for the mostly off-page grandfather – the book’s only truly believable and interesting character— and some caricatured Welsh people. (The slang phrase meaning "to tease someone; to pull someone's leg" is "taking the piss," not "taking a piss," right?)

The peculiar children have powers but no personalities. There is a bizarre romance between Jacob and one of the peculiar kids, who due to being trapped in time also had a romance with Jacob’s grandfather. EW.

The pace is slow, except when a lot of pell-mell action suddenly occurs at the end, leading to a great big “to be continued” non-ending.

But my biggest problem was with the lack of atmosphere, in a book which probably hit the bestseller lists based on its promise of a delicate, nostalgic spookiness. Except for the first chapter or two, there is very little of that. The overwhelming impression of the book is blandness. The package is beautiful, but when you open it, there’s nothing inside.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
This novel was apparently self-published, then picked up by the illustrious Small Beer Press. Good pick. It’s not perfect, but it deserves much better than to languish in self-pubbed obscurity. I also applaud Small Beer for accurately representing the black protagonist on the cover.

Taggert has the power to control and transform his own body and the bodies of others: he can heal or kill, distract opponents with sudden physical urges or create the world’s best disguise for himself. Jama-Everett takes a geeky delight in exploring how exactly Taggert’s powers work, providing logical limitations and applications. This sometimes gets extremely gross and graphically violent, so be warned.

The storyline and tone are a pulp noir/superhero pastiche (complete with a fair amount of male gaze): Taggert’s ex-girlfriend summons him from Morocco, where he’s been working for a creepy supervillian/crime boss, to London, where she informs him that the daughter he never knew has powers too… and has gone missing. Cue chasing through the underbelly of London, meeting more mutant powered people and engaging in spectacular battles. But it’s not all violent and dark. The relationships between the characters are often surprisingly sweet and moving, and I got very invested in Taggert, Tamara, and several of the mutants they meet along the way. Gritty, vivid, energetic, intense: very much worth reading if my description sounds good. I didn’t like the climax, due to several annoying clichés involving the villain’s nature and eventual disposal, but the ending was satisfying.

The Liminal People
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( May. 13th, 2012 11:23 am)
This book was praised by several people whose taste I respect as one of the best of the year, and it’s about mutants (and disabled people, mentally ill people, and gender-nonconforming people) living in the sewers in a world that hates and fears them. It sounded right up my alley. It’s certainly ambitious, different, and thoughtful. But (you knew this was coming) nowhere near as much to my taste as I expected.

Matthew, the the community Teller (storyteller/historian) and the first child ever to be born in Safe, the sewer home of mutants (Cursed) and disabled (Sick) people who have fled Above due to persecution by Whitecoats (the medical and psychiatric establishment), has the scales down his back and claws on his feet, but he can hide them to Pass. You may see one of my issues already: an overabundance of Capitalized Words. This seems minor, but it’s distracting when there are several in one sentence, and there often were.

He is in love with and lives with Ariel, the beautiful bee-winged woman whom he took into Safe, but whose mental illness manifests in constantly weeping and running away. One night the spooky, shadow-controlling Corner, the only mutant to ever be exiled from Safe, returns and slaughters everyone in sight. Matthew, Ariel, and two others flee Safe for the terrifying Above, take refuge in the home of a doctor who knows about Safe, and… don’t do all that much for quite some time, other than hang out and contemplate their problems and how they arose, and their personal history and the history of Safe.

Incidentally, this is marketed as a YA novel. I am baffled by this. While many adults will (and do) love it, I think it’s a rare teenager who would. Also, I don’t recall if we’re ever told Matthew’s age, but if he is a teenager, that’s not essential to the story. He could easily be in his early twenties.

The book is told in Matthew’s semi-illiterate steam-of-consciousness narrative. It’s well-done and sometimes quite poetic, but it also had the effect of removing nearly everything I was interested in from the narrative. I wanted to know all about the mutant ensemble at Safe; Matthew already knows them all so well that, with a few exceptions, he doesn’t bother describing their mutations or personalities in much detail. I wanted scenes which revealed character and setting; Matthew, a Teller, was big on tell not show. I wanted to be able to follow what was going on; Matthew was extremely naïve and often confused. I wanted to know more about Ariel; Matthew idealized her as his beautiful, fragile love-object. This was all, or at least mostly, clearly a deliberate choice by Bobet, but it had the effect of making all the characters seem paper-thin (since Matthew didn’t understand them) and much of the action and motivations confusing or glossed over.

The politics came through loud and clear, but since that was the only thing that did, that ended up taking over the story. If you want to read a fantasy which carefully and thoughtfully deals with disability issues, mental illness issues, ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia, domestic violence, gender issues, intersex issues, and the persecution of people outside of the norm by the medical and psychiatric establishment, and the point made that some disabilities and illnesses really do need medical treatment and that separatism is not necessarily the answer and that you can still be unhealthily paranoid even if people really are after you, Above is for you. If you want to read about mutants in the sewers, it’s not really about that.

Above
Sponsored by [personal profile] tool_of_satan.

The world has been transformed by magic, science, and war. In a future Niger, West Africa, storms and camels speak with human voices, teenagers type and listen to music on their e-legbas, and some children are born with the ability to fly, call rain, or listen to shadows.

Ejii is a teenage shadow speaker. Her father once ruled her village according to harsh traditions, but he was executed by a woman called Jaa, whose rule is more egalitarian and modern, but who is equally ruthless. Jaa wears a translucent burka and wields an otherworldly living sword; when she speaks, sometimes red flowers fall from the sky. When Jaa hears that the people of another world are planning to invade, she asks Ejii to come with her on her mission to stop them. Ejii's mother forbids it, but after consulting the shadows, Ejii takes off after her anyway, across a magical, dangerous landscape.

The worldbuilding in this is absolutely fantastic. The blend of magic, technology, and magical realism is utterly convincing and really fun to read. Unlike the last 20 or so futuristic YA novels I've read lately, people have cultures and religions and tribes, they speak different languages, the ecology is weird but believable, towns have economies, and the whole world feels real enough to touch.

The first two-thirds of the novel, which sets up the story and then follows Ejii's quest across the desert, is simply plotted but made fresh and new by the strength of the world. The final third has some good moments but is a bit of a mess in plot terms, with too much chaotic action and several crucial moments falling flat. Read more... ).

The prose is plain, occasionally poetic but also occasionally clunky, and the characterization is solid. But one of the main reasons I like sf and fantasy is for the chance to explore new worlds, and this is a great new world. Despite my caveats, I liked it a lot, and I would recommend it. It's more obviously flawed than Zahrah the Windseeker, to which it's loosely related, but its strengths are much stronger and it's overall a better book.

I also love the cover. Nnedi Okorafor's books all seem to have great covers.

The Shadow Speaker
Telzey Amberdon is a genius teenage girl with a mysterious giant sometimes-invisible pet alien cat. In part one of this fix-up novel, she discovers that she’s a telepath and negotiates between humans and cat-aliens. In part two, she develops her psychic powers and tries to prevent a murder. Part one is great fun, though it doesn’t have quite the madcap charm of The Witches of Karres. Part two is more uneven, with some very fun bits but too much legal maneuvering and not enough Telzey.

Apparently some later editions of this book were poorly rewritten and given a heavy-handed edit, so I’m linking to the edition I read. It’s out of print but Amazon has lots of cheap used copies.

Thanks, [personal profile] tool_of_satan!

Universe against Her (Telzey Amberdon)
Dean Koontz writes thrillers, some involving science fiction or fantasy, some just bad guys chasing people, with excessively wholesome protagonists, hilariously evil villains, and cute kids and pets. They are very good airplane reading.

I read a bunch of Dean Koontz novels in high school, and then two things happened simultaneously: my tastes matured, and he decided that rather than merely sneaking lectures into his thrillers (sneaking in the sense that a child banned from an area stealthily returns hidden under a blanket, but nevertheless) he should devote entire pages to discussions of What Is Wrong With America (not enough "traditional values.") Also, his prose kind of sucks.

What's good about Koontz, in less-lecture mode: He is really, really readable. REALLY REALLY READABLE. I found this book at my parents' place the other day, idly decided to read a chapter before bedtime, and could not put the damn thing down until I had finished it, even though I had to get up at 6:00 AM the next day and I didn't finish it until past midnight. Part of this is that his premises are often quite genuinely cool, though his ability to follow through on them varies.

The Bad Place opens with an amnesiac man waking up with a bag full of hundred dollar bills and a handful of black sand clenched in his fist. Some spooky guy starts chasing him and firing off blasts of blue energy rays, the amnesiac guy finds that he knows how to hot-wire a car and uses that to flee. He checks into a motel, shaken and confused, and wakes up the next morning, still amnesiac, covered in blood that isn't his and with an alien bug crawling around on his chest!

I am a total sucker for that sort of premise. Especially when it revealed that he is amnesiacally teleporting in his sleep, a process which is screwing with his memories, and that he comes from a family of completely bonkers evil psychics.

Unfortunately, the book focuses less on him and more on the overly cutesy married PIs he hires to investigate his life, and the teleporting is more of a plot device than what the story is about. It never really explains what was up with the alien world he teleports to, either. Very strong first third, increasingly incoherent second two-thirds. Warning for MASSIVE INSECT SQUICK - if you thought the teleportation accident in The Fly was gross, this is about a billion times grosser. And the "horrifying backstory" was kind of hilarious, featuring generational incest culminating in a "hermaphrodite" who inseminated hirself with hir own sperm to produce freaky psychic kids!

Still, it did give me rather fond memories of what I recall as being more coherent Koontz novels. My favorite in high school was Watchers, which has a sweet romance and a super-intelligent genetically engineered golden retriever. I also remember liking Lightning, which had a complicated and twisty time-travel plot, and Hideaway, the latter mostly because I liked the relationship between the main couple and the little girl they adopt. Be aware that pretty much all Koontz novels contain sadistic villains and conservative political lecturing.

The Bad Place

Watchers

Lightning
Dean Koontz writes thrillers, some involving science fiction or fantasy, some just bad guys chasing people, with excessively wholesome protagonists, hilariously evil villains, and cute kids and pets. They are very good airplane reading.

I read a bunch of Dean Koontz novels in high school, and then two things happened simultaneously: my tastes matured, and he decided that rather than merely sneaking lectures into his thrillers (sneaking in the sense that a child banned from an area stealthily returns hidden under a blanket, but nevertheless) he should devote entire pages to discussions of What Is Wrong With America (not enough "traditional values.") Also, his prose kind of sucks.

What's good about Koontz, in less-lecture mode: He is really, really readable. REALLY REALLY READABLE. I found this book at my parents' place the other day, idly decided to read a chapter before bedtime, and could not put the damn thing down until I had finished it, even though I had to get up at 6:00 AM the next day and I didn't finish it until past midnight. Part of this is that his premises are often quite genuinely cool, though his ability to follow through on them varies.

The Bad Place opens with an amnesiac man waking up with a bag full of hundred dollar bills and a handful of black sand clenched in his fist. Some spooky guy starts chasing him and firing off blasts of blue energy rays, the amnesiac guy finds that he knows how to hot-wire a car and uses that to flee. He checks into a motel, shaken and confused, and wakes up the next morning, still amnesiac, covered in blood that isn't his and with an alien bug crawling around on his chest!

I am a total sucker for that sort of premise. Especially when it revealed that he is amnesiacally teleporting in his sleep, a process which is screwing with his memories, and that he comes from a family of completely bonkers evil psychics.

Unfortunately, the book focuses less on him and more on the overly cutesy married PIs he hires to investigate his life, and the teleporting is more of a plot device than what the story is about. It never really explains what was up with the alien world he teleports to, either. Very strong first third, increasingly incoherent second two-thirds. Warning for MASSIVE INSECT SQUICK - if you thought the teleportation accident in The Fly was gross, this is about a billion times grosser. And the "horrifying backstory" was kind of hilarious, featuring generational incest culminating in a "hermaphrodite" who inseminated hirself with hir own sperm to produce freaky psychic kids!

Still, it did give me rather fond memories of what I recall as being more coherent Koontz novels. My favorite in high school was Watchers, which has a sweet romance and a super-intelligent genetically engineered golden retriever. I also remember liking Lightning, which had a complicated and twisty time-travel plot, and Hideaway, the latter mostly because I liked the relationship between the main couple and the little girl they adopt. Be aware that pretty much all Koontz novels contain sadistic villains and conservative political lecturing.

The Bad Place

Watchers

Lightning
I re-read these recently, before the internet suddenly took notice of a bizarre interview with Sheri S. Tepper from 2008, in which she ranted about how people she doesn't like (including all mentally ill people) ought to be declared "not-human" and lose all rights, said that horror writers are evil, and seemed unaware of the fact that India is a democracy.

Yes. Tepper is very, very weird. I don't just mean politically. My own interest in her reading can be nicely summed up in this review: For those of you who have never read anything by Sheri S. Tepper, the thing about Sheri S. Tepper is that almost every one of her books is a Very Special Episode about Eco-Feminism Plus Some Other Stuff Sheri Tepper Really Wants To Talk About, As Filtered Through Enormous Amounts of Crack.

I was always in it for the crack; I stopped reading Tepper when the lecture-to-crack ratio got too high. I first read these in high school, and the first book of each of the three series has remained on my comfort re-read list. (The sequels get increasingly weird and incoherent, but the first books all more or less stand on their own.)

In the world of the True Game, some people have psychic powers, which they mostly use to “game” (fight wars and politick) against each other. If you like RPGs and intricate systems of magic powers, complete with charts and costumes and cool names like Oneiromancer, Elator, and Bonedancer, this series may well appeal to you too. I am certain that people have made it into an RPG system, if it wasn’t one to begin with. Tepper seems to realize this, because at one point someone asks why there’s all the formal names for everything, and someone else replies, “Because ‘sorceror’s spell seven!’ sounds more impressive than ‘I’m going to smash your sorcerer!’”

The Mavin books are about a female shapeshifter. I wasn’t all that into them (incoherence with rape) but the bits where Mavin learns to shapeshift are pretty cool. Oh, speaking of rape: any given Tepper novel is likely to have some. I think the Jinian books don't, though they may have some rape threats. The Peter series has one off-page rape, described in one line and so non-explicitly that I missed it when I was thirteen, and assumed the thing Peter didn't want to talk about was some sort of torture. (But while I'm on the subject, beware of Tepper's Beauty, which sucks you in with a charming fairy-tale first third, and then suddenly turns into RAPEFEST.)

The Peter books (King’s Blood Four, Necromancer Nine, Wizard’s Eleven) concern a boy in a boarding school for boys whose Talents haven’t shown up yet. It flew waaaaay over my head, when I read it at thirteen, that Peter was having an affair with one of his schoolmasters. The latter is, of course, a villain, and I wish it was only because of the pedophilia, but I think Tepper equated that with being gay. (The affair is consensual; the rape comes later.) Later Tepper seems to have forgotten all about this, because Peter acts very virginal indeed. In any case, they are a lively farrago of powers, battles, shapeshifting, rescues, kidnappings, and investigating the origins of Talents and the world.

They are the most coherent of the series, which isn’t saying all that much. Characters appear and vanish in a remarkably unexplicated manner. My favorite moment of that is when Peter’s long-lost mother makes her first appearance when she abruptly shows up in the middle of a dungeon, performs magic that does not match at all with the systems we’ve seen previously, knits two animals into existence who then transform into guys who then do stuff and then are never mentioned again, and suddenly isn’t there any more.

The best book is Jinian Footseer, in which a girl with no apparent Talent is raised by a bunch of old ladies who also have no apparent Talents, but teach her seemingly small and harmless spells. It slowly transforms from domestic fantasy to pure fairy-tale, complete with riddles and talking beasts, and then back to fantasy again, with clever rationalized (for fantasy) explanations of all the fairy-tale elements. That hangs together as a single story better than any of the others, and is still worth reading.

The second book is fine but less memorable, and the conclusion, which also concludes the whole series, is completely bizarre and features an ending which accomplished the feat of being simultaneously weird, stupid, and creepy: aliens come down and announce that they gave everyone powers but everyone misused them, so they’re taking them back now. Without magic powers, there can be no war! But they’re leaving one single magic power intact, because it will be essential to the planet’s peaceful future: the ability to foresee whether or not a newborn will turn out to be a sociopath, so that they can be murdered at birth if they are. Infanticide, just the recipe for a happy ending!

Despite the terrible series ending, I still enjoy Jinian Footseer and King’s Blood Four. They undoubtedly have the nostalgia factor working for them, but if you like psychic kids, pulp D&D adventuring, and fairy-tales, you might like these. They have comparatively little preaching, except for a hammer-to-head drugs are bad message that shows up in later books, and a hilarious bit in King’s Blood Four in which it is pointed out that the world is SO UNJUST that the very language has no words or concepts for “right,” “wrong,” “correct,” “justice,” etc. But if you value your sanity, avoid the last book. Jinian Star-Eye is the one with the “infanticide yay!” conclusion.

The True Game

Jinian Footseer

Song Of Mavin Manyshaped
Sponsored by [personal profile] chomiji.

"But what makes you think we won't get robbed blind there?"

"They're not crooks that way - at least not often. The Daal goes for the skinning-alive thing," Goth explained. "You get robbed, you squawk. Then somebody gets skinned. It's pretty safe!"

It did sound like the Daal had hit upon a dependable method to give his planet a reputation for solid integrity in business deals.


In this very funny pulp space opera from 1966, down-on-his-luck space Captain Pausert rescues three small psychic slave girls, or more precisely, they maneuver him into providing rescues that they very likely would have engineered themselves if he hadn’t conveniently come along.

Their owners are certainly all too happy to be rid of them, given that Maleen has food-poisoned the customers of one, the Leewit (not Leewit, the Leewit) perches like a small, evil cat atop the shelves of another and uses piercing whistles to break his porcelain wares, and the grumpy teleporter Goth has reduced her own owner to a gibbering wreck by the time Pausert steps in.

Pausert returns the other girls to their home planet and has a series of adventures with Goth (to my regret, the Leewit and Maleen mostly drop out of the story) involving space pirates, space spies, Worm World, Pausert’s own developing psychic powers, time travel, invisible telepathic psi entities, and a robot-wolf-spider-assassin-rug thing. I love this sort of thing, and ate it up with a spoon. I don’t think I have ever before used the word “rollicking,” but this novel distinctly rollicks.

My only caveat is that I was mildly squicked by the several references to Goth (who is about fourteen) marrying Pausert (whom I pictured in his mid-thirties) when she grows up. I don’t know if it was more or less squicky given that all his actual interactions with her and the other girls were completely appropriate to their relative ages. However, that’s about four lines total in a book which was otherwise enormously fun.

I see that Schmitz is also famous for the Telzey Amberdon series, about a psychic girl. I can’t imagine how this has escaped me until now, but I will seek it out.

In print via Amazon: The Witches of Karres
The videotape of my father was never meant to be seen by me, and were it not for a chow mix ripping off half my face, the man might have remained only a mysterious void. But it was that day when I was five, that day of growls and blood and pain and screams, when I first heard my father's voice.

Growls and blood and pain and screams! You may think this makes me a mean person (I realize that many, many people already think I am both mean and unprofessional for publicly discussing books I didn't like. But even meaner than I am already) but I read that bit and laughed. It's the "growls" that puts it over the top, I think.

Skip eleven or so years, and Mason is a huge, horribly scarred teenager living with his sad alcoholic mother, who comforts himself in times of stress by watching the videotape of his absent father reading a children's book. One day he finds that his mother used to work at the very, very mysterious local biotech company, TroDyn, which she always warned him away from. He barges into her hospital workplace to confront her. There he ends up playing the videotape for four mysteriously catatonic teenagers, which wakes up one of them. She is amnesiac and unnaturally strong, and convinces him to help her bust out of the hospital.

A sequence of rather unsurprising revelations about TroDyn's secret project occur. (Not only is it tipped off on page two with a lengthy discussion about the possibility of human photosynthesis, but the front cover blurb is THIS GREENHOUSE... GROWS HUMANS.) One guess as to who the terrifying "Gardener" turns out to be.

I generally like the genre of "teenagers with special powers flee the forces that created them," so it was execution rather than premise that disappointed me. Mason has no personality. Amnesiac girl has no personality. The surprises are very unsurprising. Amnesiac girl doesn't get to do much other than languish for lack of connection to her telepathically linked vegetative cohort. It's not a terrible book, but it's flat and unmemorable.

I was, however, amused by everyone's OMG THE HORROR and "why would anyone want to do that?!" reaction to the very concept of photosynthesizing humans. Growing people in a lab is admittedly creepy, but in terms of all the many, many possible powers you might generate that way, photosynthesis is one of the most obviously useful and least destructive ones.

By the author of The Compound, which I didn't read as the shocking twist seemed obvious from the premise alone:

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Bodeen, acclaimed as the writer of such picture books as Elizabeti's Doll, turns out a high-wire act of a first novel, a thriller that exerts an ever-tighter grip on readers. Eli, the 15-year-old son of a billionaire techno-preneur, has spent the last six years with his family in the massive underground shelter his father has built, knowing that nuclear war has destroyed the world he knows—and killed his grandmother and his twin brother, who couldn't reach the compound in time. With nine years to go before the air outside will be safe to breathe again, the food supply shows signs of running out, but Eli's father has a solution—provided they jettison all morals and ethics. Repulsed and already suspicious, Eli begins investigating his father's claims, and sets up a family death match against a man who grows increasingly irrational and sinister but no less powerful.

Rachel: There's no nuclear war, everything's fine, it's all a creepy experiment. Right?

The Gardener

The Compound
A classic psychic kids novel which I somehow failed to read until now.

Tony, who is telekinetic, and Tia, who can talk to animals, open locks, and has perfect recall - but can't speak - are brother and sister psychic orphans, hated and feared by a world that doesn't understand them, and pursued by the parts of the world that understand them all too well. They flee an evil orphanage, are helped by an athletic Irish priest (who looks like a zombie trying to conceal his undead state with way too much eyeliner in the illustrations), rescue bears, and seek their origins.

I've liked some of Key's other books better - this was a bit unsubtle and slight, with a seriously rickety plot, though it did have one good twist at the end (why Tia can't speak.)

Sadly, the best bits consisted of unintentional comedy:

A cold finger of doubt crept suddenly into Tony's mind.

That reminds me of the classic "And then the hand of fate stepped in."

When Tony and Tia explain how their uncle died in a revolution and plaintively ask why people are violent and cruel, the kindly Irish priest explains, "Because human rights and human suffering mean nothing to a communist."

Five pages later, Tony and Tia explain about how their people managed things, without money, greed, or conflict. The kindly Irish priest says, "Imagine! A small group, advanced far beyond the idea of personal profit, coming to a greedy commercial world..." He rhapsodizes on in this vein for some time, unaware that he seems to be describing... communists!

No, I've never seen the movie.

Escape to Witch Mountain
A group of at-risk kids are the unknowing subjects of an experiment intended to maximize their potential. But the experiment goes horribly wrong, as such experiments inevitably do. One daycare center becomes the subject of a notorious trial when all its kids start having violent and sexual nightmares; none of them recall any actual abuse, but the center goes under anyway. Journalist Renny Sand covers the trial, and is surprised by the wise-beyond-their-years self-possession of all the child witnesses.

Years later, someone is methodically murdering the children involved in the experiment. Renny starts researching, and finds that the entire story leads back to Alexander Marcus, an African-American legend who might have become President, but was mysteriously assassinated long ago.

The middle is a bit draggy and also features a scene so homophobic that I almost threw the book across the room. (Dude! Just because they’re gay bodybuilding thugs does not mean they are rapist gay bodybuilding thugs!) However, after that moment of massive fail, the scattered narrative threads start twining together in such a compelling manner that book-throwing became impossible, at least for me. If the homophobia isn’t a dealbreaker, I recommend this for its extremely suspenseful climax, a cool and original twist on the old “build a better human” idea, a very believable sixty-eight-year-old action heroine (former Secret Service), and, of course, my favorite thing, (almost) psychic kids. The prose is much better than in Blood Brothers, too.

One of the central plotlines, which I won’t get into too much detail on due to spoilers but which becomes clear in general terms early on, is that the dead hero Marcus might have had a very nasty secret. This is one case in which the author’s race did affect my reading of the book: if Barnes was not black, it would have been hard not to read this as “of course the African-American heroic legend is really [something awful].” But since Barnes himself is African-American and can be presumed to be conscious of those sorts of stereotypes, I read it as a take on the classic nightmare of any member of an oppressed minority: that the person held up as the great hero of your race will turn out to have feet of clay, and then, because you don’t have the privilege of being judged individually, everyone else will take that as a commentary on your entire race.

Like Woody Allen’s “Jew eat?” bit in Annie Hall (a joke about seeing anti-Semitism everywhere, even in the inquiry "Did you eat?"), which is self-deprecating humor coming from a Jew that would be plain deprecating coming from a gentile, some things come across differently depending on who’s saying them – if for no other reason than the presumption that at least the author is aware of what the stereotypes are, and so is presumably deliberately trying to do something with them. Though, of course, intent is not a guarantee of success, unconscious stereotyping can affect anyone, and I’m sure some Jews did find “Jew eat? No? Did’jew?” offensive regardless of the author. Anyway, that was my take on Marcus; yours may be different.

I note with regret but without surprise that there are no black people on the cover, just a pair of disembodied eyes.

Click here to buy it from Amazon: Charisma
I suspect that everyone who loves books has a special fondness for some very specific type of story, of which there may or may not be enough in existence to form a sub-genre. (If it's Regency comedy-romances or cozy mysteries with elderly protagonists, you're in luck.) Especially if there's not all that many of them out there, aficionados will buy every one they see, immediately, and enjoy it even if it's not actually very good.

Here are my favorite weird little sub-genres:

1. Troubled teenagers in mental hospitals, group homes, experimental shape-up-or-ship-out boot camps, etc.

I will also read about troubled children in institutions, like Torey Hayden's true stories of special ed. This genre has huge appeal to me. I like ensemble stories full of quirky characters, and ensemble stories in which each character has not only quirks, but lovingly described individual mental illnesses or horrific traumas are the quintessence of that sort of thing, as far as I'm concerned. There's tragedy, dark comedy, therapy scenes (I love therapy scenes), and generally an uplifting ending where the main character, at least, manages to overcome her interior and exterior problems and rejoin the rest of the world. I identify with the teens, of course, but there's also a bit of wish-fulfillment in the idea that they get to work out their problems together and surrounded by adults who both know about their problems and care about them. (The horrendous, uncaring instirtution is an entirely different genre.)

In this genre, my favorites are probably John Marsden's Checkers and Susannah Kaysen's memoir Girl, Interrupted. Patricia McCormack's Cut was OK but not great, and I didn't much like Brent Huntzinger's melodramatic Last Chance Texaco.

2. Mutant kids. Trapped in a world that fears and hates them! Why yes, I did not fit in as a child or teenager. X-Men, Alexander Key, Andre Norton, Tamora Pierce (unusual magic substituting for mutant powers), Brian K. Vaughan, John Wyndham... this is actually a pretty big genre. The requirements are an ensemble cast of young people, each with their own special power, and they are very very lonely and misunderstood until they find each other. And no, I don't like Slan. Can't take the writing style.

3. Backstage dramas. More ensemble casts! More talented people who are misunderstood (or in some cases, understood all too well.) And lots of comedy! Bonus points for the show reflecting the lives of the characters. A lot of the best of these are movies or plays, but there are some good books with this plot. Robertson Davies' The Lyre of Orpheus and Tempest-Tost come to mind.

Recommendations for backstage dramas, troubled institutionalized teens, mutant kids, or troubled mutant institutionalized teens who put on a show books that I might have missed?

And what are your favorite weird little sub-genres?
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