John Barnes–Tales Of The Madman Underground

The What: Karl Shoemaker’s life sucks. His dad is dead, he’s a recovering alcoholic, his mom’s a current alcoholic, he’s responsible for keeping the family afloat, his mother steals from him, he has to take care of her vast horde of cats… are you convinced that his life sucks yet? After spending years in the school’s therapy group, known as the Madman Underground, Karl decides that he’s tired of it all. Enter Operation Be F*cking Normal, Karl’s plan to ditch the Madmen and make a normal life for himself. Will things go according to plan? If they don’t, will it mean Karl has failed–or found unexpected ways to succeed?

The Good: Holy expletive-deleted of your choice, Batman, this guy can write. Holy wow. I couldn’t put this book down; I read it during every break and every meal until I finished it. The stories of Karl and his friends are riveting. They’re raw and real, anger-inducing and tearjerking. Somehow, through all of this, Barnes manages to show us the real love that holds the Madmen and Karl’s dysfunctional family together. It’s a novel full of social problems without being a problem novel, and it’s a novel about the fierce love we have for people despite ourselves without being an after-school special. If you read YA, and you can stomach tough issues and gore, don’t miss this one.

The Meh: Does the gay kid have to be a hooker with a band of straight thugs attacking him, only to be saved by his bat-wielding straight friend? Barnes made it work–it was completely organic to the story, and I’d rather have a gay character like Paul than no gay character at all–but this reader wishes that writers would find something new and exciting to do with their gay characters. Like, y’know, not make them hookers. Or targets of straight-on-gay violence. Yes, it’s believable, yes, it happens, but for Gaga’s sake! Let’s try to imagine a better (or at least different) world, shall we?

Hand It To: Ellen Hopkins fans, John Green fans who don’t mind something grittier, reluctant readers, Nancy Pearl’s language readers

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