Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Dr. Dan's Elixir
Potent Magic for Young Minds
    by Dan Shade
March 2007

Others See Us by William Sleator
Penguin Books, Copyright © 1993
Paperback, 163 pages, $5.99
Age Group: 12 up

Everyone who has ever wanted to be a mind reader, raise your hands. See, one hundred percent. There have been times in our lives when we would have given anything to know what was on a person's mind, just like we often wish to be a fly on the wall. This book is about mind reading: its benefits and dangers.

Jared's family is going to their grandmother's cabin at the beach. Actually she owns three cabins but has never been rich by any means. Her family is quite surprised by all the improvements she has made to the property since the past summer.

Jared has been waiting for this trip all year. It's the only time he can see his beautiful cousin Annelise. He fell in love with her the summer before and has thought of little else. Still, the first thing Jared, a high school student, does is take his traditional bike ride over the country side at full speed. While doing so this year he crashes the bike and falls into a pool of toxic waste.

It isn't long after he shower's off the gunk that Jared discovers he can read minds. As cool as he thinks that is, he soon learns is that knowing everyone's thoughts isn't what its been cracked up to be. It can be hurtful and even dangerous. He immediately knows that his Grandmother is a reader as well but far more powerful than he is. And worse of all, he learns that Annelise thinks he is a jerk even though she acts otherwise on the outside. She enjoys toying with his feelings and feeds on his pain.

Grandmother sends Jared and Annelise to the toxic waste site to fill a couple of gallon bottles. Jared, now that he knows her true feelings, does not want Annelise to fall into the pond and become a reader. I suppose he feels that would be like giving a baby an atomic bomb with which to play. Jared tries to keep Annelise away from the pool but she insists on doing her part and eventually falls into the toxic waste. Soon after she begins to use her mindreading power to control the behavior of others. She becomes a monster.

This is a great, one-day read. Sleator has the ability to say in a short novel what it takes many to say in 500 pages. There is a great plot twist at the end that is hard to understand at first but make a great deal of sense when it occurs. And there's the unfinished story of Lindie, who cheated on the math section SAT to get into Harvard. Annelise exposes her, but we never see what the consequences. Also, there is the unanswered question of what do Jared and his Grandmother do with their power.

Maybe Sleator left this for us to ponder about as I doubt there is a sequel planned. The original copyright on this work is 1993. But, hey, you never know.

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
Del Ray (Ballantin), Copyright © 2007
Hardcover, 429 pages, $17.95
Age Group: 12 up

In the tradition of the The Downsiders by Neal Shusterman, The City of Ember by Jeanne Du Prau, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and The Giver by Lois Lowry: Zanna and Deeba find a hidden passageway to an alternate reality. Otherwise known as "Un Lun Dun." As opposed to the predecessors mentioned here, this book has little to offer that is new. The plot reminded me of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and the characters reminded me of the many silly creatures Dr. Seuss created over the years. I might even throw in a Muppet or two. For example, one character in a supporting role had the body of a man and the head of a birdcage complete with bird. Another was a deep-sea diving suit, with metal helmet and glass faceplate, which was filled with fish rather than the body of a human.

As stated above, Zanna and Deeba find a passageway to an alternate London. When first they arrive Zanna's coming is hailed as the fulfillment of prophecy. She is the Shwazzy who was prophesied would come when Un Lun Dun faces it's darkest hour. Zanna isn't in the story long before she begins to feel bad and goes home. Deeba, not the Shwazzy, saves the day. I fully expected she would be declared the true Shwazzy somewhere along the storyline but she was not. Nor are we told what it means to be the Shwazzy or what the Shwazzy's tasks are. We do discover that while all prophets are not true, there is much that a motivated, compassionate person can do to encourage others and help save the day. Deeba proved to be fearless.

In a world of living, sentient garbage and umbrellas Deeba faces the most realistic monster in any book of this nature. She, and the cohort of friends she gathers along the way, must fight and overcome the Smog. The Smog is a dark, dense, intelligent, poison gas that is taking over Un Lun Dun little by little and is becoming a real threat to our world. It turns people into zombies and creates all manner of devilish creatures. Nevertheless, Smog is a monster we can all believe in as we have seen it and had no choice but to breath it.

Mr. Mieville is an award winning author whose many awards include the Hugo and the Nebula awards -- in my mind the most prestigious awards in the science fiction and fantasy world. So when I saw this book in Borders, I picked it without question. Among my adventures in fantastic fiction, I felt I would be at home with this one. Upon reading, however, I found myself profoundly depressed and frustrated. Mr. Mieville fails to stack the odds against Deeba and her gang. Although we are told the Smog is terrible, it seems too easy to avoid or shoo away. Each of the monsters or bad guys comes upon Deeba one after the other. At no one time are Deeba and her gang fighting simultaneous forces of evil. I felt like teapots, cups, and saucers were chasing Deeba throughout. They, the bad guys, also had the feeling of having been quickly created just to throw at our main character. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to their existence. It was somewhat like Moses and the seven plagues. What can I do to my characters next?

One final criticism is the lack of back-story related to Un Lun Dun. Who started it? Where did the first people come from? What was the original purpose for the town? Are there other peoples there? These are just a few of the questions I asked myself while reading the book.

The one redeeming factor is the UnGun. It is a fabled weapon that the Smog cannot stand against. Although its whereabouts are unknown, Deeba figures it out and fights terrible Black Windows (not widows) to obtain the gun. No one seems to know how to use the gun. In a world all too familiar with handguns, even a child would know you simply had to load it. Unfortunately, the gun does not come with any ammunition. However, Deeba manages to accidentally get bits of dirt, grass, stone, etc. inside the chambers where the bullets would go. Having no idea that these bits would or could become ammo, Deeba fires the UnGun in the first of many epic battles with Smog and his armies. On this occasion the gun shoots out shrubs (from a fragment in the gun), which quickly grow and subdue the enemy. The UnGun has just as good an effect with the next five chambers. However, it is when the gun is truly empty and Deeba fires it out of frustration that the gun has its more promising effects.

Another redeeming quality is the high-quality illustrations, which were done by the author. Each of the illustrations is cleverly done and serves to enhance the story.

So even though the story is resolved, there is small consolation for finishing the book. I cannot recommend it to others because I had to force myself to the end in order to write this review. I also held out hope that at any moment the story would elevate itself and become relevant. It did not and so I do not suggest this book as worthwhile reading.

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