2011 Book Reviews #2 and 3: Hidden Talents and True Talents by David Lubar
I owe David Lubar a fistbump if I ever meet him in person. There are quite a few reasons for this, but the main two are: a) I loved his “Talents” books; and b) he helped me succeed at the ACTs.
When I was seventeen and had my college hopes pinned on Prestigious Private College That Would End Up Rejecting Me, I signed up to take the ACT college entrance exams. PPCTWEURM had some pretty strict standards on who they accepted, and my high school transcript wasn’t terribly impressive, so I really needed to ace these exams. In the days leading up to the ACTs, I was a nervous wreck. Any moment my mind wasn’t distracted by school or my novel WIP, it was making the high-pitched whirring noise of an empty blender on full power.
My friend Matt, then my English teacher, lent me a book to distract me. Hidden Talents rode around in my bag until the day of the ACTs, when I cracked it open on the way to the testing location to keep myself from exploding in a fiery ball of stress and carpenter jeans.
I was engrossed. The story was just light-hearted enough to ease my nerves, and the characters immediately won me over. By the time the testing actually started, I was most of the way through the book and relaxed for the first time in two weeks. Being laid back enough to think straight allowed me to do my best on the exams, and I got a higher score than I’d managed on any of my practice tests.
That’s the story of how David Lubar unwittingly saved my ass on the ACTs. Now, here’s the story of how his “Talents” books are awesome.
Hidden Talents is about Martin, a thirteen-year-old boy who’s fresh off the bus at Edgeview Alternative School, the place where all the trouble students wind up when no one else can deal with them. Martin’s not a bad kid, you learn from his narration – he just can’t keep his smartass mouth shut, and he has a habit of saying exactly what people don’t want to hear.
At Edgeview, it seems like everyone’s got an excuse. Martin’s roommate, Torchie, sets things on fire and cries, “I didn’t do it!” One classmate, Cheater, always gets caught copying other students’ test answers but swears he’s just smart. Then there’s Lucky, who’s always “finding” other people’s wallets, and Flinch, who doesn’t get why other people think he’s so twitchy. The only students who really own their own issues are the bullies, who rule the hallways of Edgeview with their fists. Well, and that weird kid, Trash, who’s always eating alone in the cafeteria because he throws stuff.
But maybe, Martin realizes, his new friends really aren’t making excuses. Maybe they’ve all got paranormal powers they’ve never learned to control. And maybe, when the bullies are threatening to bring down the school, Martin and his friends will be the only ones who can stop them.
As far as craft goes, this isn’t a stellar book. The pacing is slow in places, and the characters aren’t terribly deep, nor are the issues it raises. I found myself wanting more from this book – more follow-through on the implications of the psychic powers, more maturity, more of the dark themes the setting and powers hint at. But the story is a lot of fun, the kids’ powers are cool, and Martin is an entertaining narrator. It’s brain parsley – the kind of book you read to clear the aftertaste of another, more substantial book from your brain – but it’s damn good brain parsley.
Oh, and I love Trash. I love him with all my wee little heart, and I can’t really explain it. I mention this because it’s about to become very relevant.
Writing lesson learned: As much as I enjoyed this book, the main lesson I got out of it was what NOT to do when writing a book for this age group: don’t interrupt your narrative with notes and conversations from characters who aren’t your main character unless they’re really vital and well-written (Lubar’s, sadly, aren’t); and if the main draw of your story is psychic powers, you’re probably better off introducing those sooner than the halfway point in the book, unless your characterization and non-psychic stakes are awesome enough to hold readers’ interest. Lubar gets away with what he does because his writing is snappy and he builds a good mystery, but it’s risky – and the book’s gotten mixed reviews in part because of these elements.
You might like this book if you enjoy… Stories about psychic kids. Brain parsley.
Would I recommend this to friends? Yes, with the caveat that they’re not going to find anything particularly mind-blowing here. It’s good, clean fun – worth a couple hours of your time. And best of all, it will get you to the sequel.
Now we come to True Talents.
Remember when I said I wanted more from Hidden Talents? True Talents is like David Lubar took that list of things I wanted and wrote a book around them. The book opens with Trash drugged and hallucinating in a secret lab, playing the telekinetic lab rat to a villain who kidnapped him and faked his death. Those phrases in italics? Wouldn’t even enter the lexicon of Hidden Talents. Oh, yeah, and also revealed in the first chapter? Trash killed a man.
From there, the story follows Trash and the rest of the gang in their post-Edgeview lives as they find one another again, deal with the aftermath of the personal drama that’s come from their powers, and face off against the organization that kidnapped Trash and used him as their own private experiment. These characters have all grown up in the year or two since we last left them, and they’re dealing with much more grown-up problems now – primarily, figuring out where they fit in the world, being as different as they are.
Did I mention that Trash is the narrator of True Talents? And that when I realized this, I made flaily hands and dropped the book, because I was just that excited about getting a peek into Trash’s head? And that I spent good chunks of my reading time with this book yelling “I LOVE YOU, TRASH!” at the pages because everything he did made me EXTREMELY HAPPY and now my coworkers and roommate think I’m SUPER WEIRD and MAYBE I SHOULD JUST GO LIVE ON A MOUNTAINSIDE WITH THIS BOOK AND A HERD OF GOATS BECAUSE NO ONE UNDERSTANDS MY TRASH-LOVE? Yeah, it’s a huge bias. I adored this book from page one, in large part because of Trash being at the center of it.
This book has a lot more depth to it than Hidden Talents, and the stakes have skyrocketed since the bullies at Edgewood. Just as I’d hoped, it’s darker, even a little gory in spots, and rather than dealing with the discovery of secret powers like the first book did, it deals with what happens when things go horribly wrong with those powers. Characters get hurt – killed, even. One kid’s powers have so thoroughly screwed with his head that he’s institutionalized. There are explosions, people. EXPLOSIONS. Shit gets real on page one and stays real until the very end. And it is AWESOME. David Lubar notes in “A Word from the Author” at the end of the book that writing this book was only possible once he stopped worrying about comparing it to the original or appeasing the critics and decided to just write the sort of book he felt like writing. True Talents is a very different beast from the first book, in the best ways.
Through all of this, the book pushes the same basic message that Hidden Talents did: No matter how freakish you feel, there’s always someone who will understand you and someplace you belong. (Unless you are inexplicably in love with Trash, in which case you should probably go herd goats.)
Writing lesson learned: How to build stakes without your characters understanding the whole picture. Like Hidden Talents, the characters don’t begin to understand what’s going on until about halfway in; unlike Hidden Talents, this builds really effective tension. The main cast starts off separated from each other and slowly work their way back to the group, with a series of near-misses keeping them apart. This is the sort of thing that usually drives me nuts, but Lubar pulled it off because every move his characters make complicates things further, and as a reader you have a better sense of the whole picture that allows you to worry for these characters even when they’re oblivious.
You might like this book if you enjoy… The first book. Solid YA adventure stories. Stories about psychic kids with powers that go horribly awry. HERDING GOATS WITH ME ON MY TRASH FANGIRL MOUNTAIN.
Would I recommend this to friends? Yes. It’s likely that I’ll be handing these books to a couple of friends, with a warning that the sequel is the real meat of this story. I don’t know how True Talents would play as a stand-alone, but I’ll be reading it myself many, many more times.