By John Barnes
John Barnes has written buckoos of SF books. I must now pick up some of them. TALES OF THE MADMAN UNDERGROUND is non-genre YA but writing this good should not be missed. The subtitle calls it a historical romance, but that's a little misleading. There are several girls in Karl Shoemaker's life, and while he basically ends up with one the rest are still there. (And it's oh-so-easy to see why they fall for him. For those who I know in real life - like my former roomie who always hopes I'll mention her - he's a literary Justin Su.)
To be honest, TALES OF THE MADMAN UNDERGROUND is all over the place. All of the members of the Madman Underground, the school therapy group, do have serious issues. Those issues are given the weight they deserve even while mocking the therapy the kids are offered. Karl's decided he's going to act normal for a week, so that he won't get sent to therapy this year. Then he'll go the week after that, taking things one bit at a time. It's hard when things at home haven't let up - his mother's still an alcoholic who steals the money he saves for after he leaves the army. He's working too much to sleep well, and that takes a toll too. Plus, Karl just isn't the kind to ignore his friends when they need him. And the madmen . . . they need him. He's also got instant chemistry with new girl Marti, which gives him another connection that's not "normal" since she's a new madman.
This book is funny, irreverent, heart-breaking, hopeful, and utterly absorbing. It's 500+ pages and I'm not even sure it took me four hours to read. (And believe me, my niece is a distraction. She's too cute not to be.) I love Karl's snarky, cynical narration. I love that he's been hardened by life but he's still the kind of guy who would do anything for his friends. (Even though he's trying not to be that guy because it would ruin his shot at getting out of therapy.) I love that he is messed up and knows it but still tries his hardest. He's got motivation. And though he wouldn't like to think it, he's laden with scruples. (Why do you think all the girls go for him? Scruples are hot.)
I love the supporting characters too. Paul, who picks up men in his drum major uniform. Cheryl, who has the world's creepiest family but still manages a full social life. Darla, who's scary and awesome and scary and fascinating. (And scary.) And Marti, who's really just as nice as Karl. (This could go on for awhile. There are loads of characters, all magnificent. Except maybe the super super ladies.)
I have to admit: I wanted to read this from the moment I got it. Bright, eye-catching cover, cool title, mysterious blurb . . . but I really didn't know what I was getting when I opened it. I wish every book I picked up blew me away like this one. Barnes may like writing SF better, and I sure am giving those a chance, but I hope he has another YA in him. If all he gives us is TALES OF THE MADMAN UNDERGROUND, I will be satisfied. Step into Karl's shoes for a week. You won't want to take them off when you turn the last page.
(Seriously, the cover pic will take you to Amazon, where you can pre-order it. I was about to put that the book is out now since my ARC says May 2009, but it turns out the current release date is June 25. But now you're forewarned to buy/check out the book when you see it. MEMORIZE the cover.)