Sunday, March 9, 2008

David Lubar

by David Lubar
Recommended Age: 11+

Ryan and Taylor McKenzie aren’t just brother and sister; they’re twins. Yet they couldn’t be more different from each other. Taylor is top of their middle school class, a teacher’s pet, hardworking and organized and ambitious...heck, she’s Hermione Granger with an American accent. Ryan, on the other hand, sports a ponytail and doesn’t do much besides hang around at the park with a skateboard and some goofball friends. He gets bad grades, gets in trouble at school, gets yelled at by Dad on a daily basis. It’s hard to believe they’re related.

Nevertheless, Taylor cares about her brother. So she worries about him when he claims to have seen a spaceship explode above the park near their house. She tries to keep him out of trouble for being late for school, by helping him search for the debris the next morning. When Ryan does find alien artifacts – when the little silvery disks turn out to be a form of alien entertainment based on heroes and legends of the human race – when Ryan discovers how to activate the disks, so that each hero takes over his mind and body for a few minutes or hours – when the disks become an addiction, when Ryan becomes the prime target of the worst bully in town, and when his discipline problems lead her parents to contemplate drastic measures – why, protecting Ryan, especially from himself, becomes Taylor’s fulltime job.

The author of Hidden Talents has accomplished a rare trick in this book. On the one hand, he has created a deeply human, deeply real cast of characters. You can’t help sharing Ryan’s despair when it comes to doing anything that will satisfy his demanding parents. You feel Taylor’s anguish and desperation as she risks everything – her academic accomplishments, her friends, even her sanity – to protect Ryan. You even sympathize, for a moment or two, with their disappointed parents, frustrated teachers, and perhaps the bully Billy Snooks. The result is a suspenseful, thrilling tale that engages your heart as well as your imagination.

On the other hand, the sci-fi aspect of the story is so loopy – the misadventures caused by the alien disks are so hysterically funny – and Ryan’s endearingly goofy best friend, Ellis, injects such a steady stream of irreverent and self-deprecating humor into the story – that in all likelihood, the only tears you will shed while reading this book are tears of laughter. Breathless, side-splitting, I-had-to-read-that-bit-again-and-then-I-laughed-even-harder laughter.

Defying all natural laws, David Lubar has managed to merge these two vastly different elements – the touching melodrama with the screamingly funny, far-out fantasy – into one coherent, convincing tale. How is this possible? It must have been the alien influence...

UPDATE: I have learned that some people confuse this book with Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen, which is more of a boy-girl relationship novel. I have not read Van Draanen's work.

Hidden Talents
by David Lubar
Recommended Age: 11+

Martin Anderson has been expelled from one school after another. Now he is sent to Edgewood Alternative School – a boarding school housing “difficult students” from half a dozen counties. Right away, you learn that Martin is a good-hearted kid. But he has a really smart mouth. So smart, in fact, that his own father hates him, and every one of his teachers soon comes to regard him as one of their hardest cases.

Martin’s atrociously tactless remarks make him unpopular with the teachers. I mean, seriously – the whole school is basically a form of detention, so there’s hardly any point in giving detention – yet Martin gets detention after detention. Nevertheless, he does make some friends. Misfits with nicknames like Torchie, Cheater, and Flinch, whose behavioral problems (like Martin’s smart mouth) disqualify them from going to ordinary schools. They have very little to hope for, other than to get old enough to drop out of school, if the school bully – appropriately named Bloodbath – lets them live that long.

But even amidst angry teachers, lousy cafeteria meals, and encounters with Bloodbath, Martin’s friends find joy. First they find it by sneaking out of the school on Friday nights to play games at the arcade in town. Later, after a period when they all stop talking to Martin because they think he is either crazy or making fun of them, the boys find joy in realizing that Martin is right – they do have psychic powers! For Martin’s five friends, at least, the cause of their “behavioral problems” comes from something weird and special that each of them can do – and that, with Martin’s help, they learn to control.

Martin becomes an honorary member of this group of psychic superheroes – hey, maybe that’s how the Super Friends got started! Have you ever wondered what it would be like growing up with powers/problems like that? – but at the same time, Martin is sad because he does not have a psychic talent of his own. Or does he? What if Edgewood Alternative isn’t the worst place these kids could go? What if the only way to keep the state from closing the place down calls for Martin to discover, and master, the special power within himself?

Sure, this is a cool story with an awesome fantasy concept, solid characters, plenty of action and tension, a social conscience, and some heart-warming, mushy family stuff. But what is most impressive about this book is how outrageously funny it is. I did not just chuckle. I laughed out loud, squirming helplessly, shouting with laughter until my neighbors upstairs stomped on the floor. I laughed until I squeaked; I laughed until I thought I was going to burst a blood vessel. And I did this once every two pages or so. Sometimes I would come back from the bathroom after washing my face and catching my breath, and would try to re-read the part that had set me off so that I could make sure I didn’t miss anything – you know, from tears blurring my eyesight, and the book shaking up and down – only to laugh even harder the second time!

Whew. I needed that. Thanks, David Lubar.

Here is a first novel that is so good that it made me worry. Worry, because such a fun-to-read debut novel might mean that a gigantic new talent has arrived... or it might mean the author has shown us all that he’s got, and our hopes of greatness to follow will be disappointed. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry long. Immediately after reading this book, I got hold of Lubar’s second novel, Flip. And it is just as good!

True Talents
by David Lubar
Recommended Age: 13+

In Hidden Talents, a group of troubled junior-high students helped each other discover, and begin to control, the "super powers" that caused so much trouble in their lives. We met Torchie, who starts fires; Flinch, who can see the immediate future; Cheater, who reads minds; Lucky, who hears lost things calling to him; Trash, who moves things with his mind; and Martin, who always knows just the thing to say to make anyone love him or hate him.

But the members of Martin's gang aren't faring equally well, now that they have returned to their families and their regular schools. Sure, Flinch spies a bright future in standup comedy on his horizon. And Torchie tends to be happy no matter what - even while his dream of being an accordion virtuoso makes everyone else in his neighborhood miserable. But Martin's Dad still hates him. Cheater's attempt to cheat at poker has gotten him beaten within an inch of his life. An unlucky coincidence has driven Lucky out of his mind. And as for Trash... Well, try waking up from a drug-induced stupor and finding out that you have been held prisoner for six months, subjected to cruel tests, and presumed dead by everyone you care about?

This is Trash's story, and it takes the kids from Hidden Talents in a new direction. Suddenly Trash is on the run, trying to escape from an extremely resourceful bad guy, trying to get his old life back. And somehow, he sends a psychic signal that gathers in his old friends so that they can add their amazing talents to Trash's fight for freedom - and survival.

They are playing a dangerous game, for a group of fourteen-year-old kids. But fortunately, they have more than their still-developing "talents" to back them up. Each member of Trash's gang has a true talent that goes deeper than the psychic powers they know about - a talent that may make the difference between being hunted for life and being free.

This story was more of a thriller than the previous book, and (he said with a pathetic whimper) not quite as breathtakingly funny. But Martin, Trash, and their friends still have an inspiring relationship and loads of charm. And there are times in this book when you can't help but chuckle, or even laugh out loud, at their antics and the "payback" they dole out. After reading the author's note about the struggle he went through in writing a sequel to Hidden Talents, I am not sure there will be more books in this series... but I am hopeful.

EDIT: Other David Lubar titles include Punished, Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, Dog Days, Wizards of the Game, and the short story collections (which are on my "Around-To-It" list) Invasion of the Road Weenies, In the Land of the Lawn Weenies, and The Curse of the Campfire Weenies.

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