It is with great pleasure, and maybe even a certain sense of urgency, that I must attempt to turn you on (in the ’60s post-hippie sense) to “Hush Money,” a YA book and first in the Talent Chronicles series by author Susan Bischoff, available in paperback from Amazon and B&N, with ebooks for Kindle and Nook. (I feel lucky to have a CreateSpace edition.) Also, be sure to check her out on her goodreads page, and see her sidebar at susanbischoff.com for more sources and formats).
Initially, I will describe this book—in very general terms—as being a sort of X-Men tribute, but only because X-Men, as one example, seems to be the most ubiquitous in this subgenre. The arena of kids with special powers, or Talents as they are called in Hush Money, is hardly empty. We like this subgenre. We like to play here. We want it to be real. It is romance in the very definition of the word. In addition to the X-Men comics and movies, there are other entries that include everything from alien insemination to aliens among us. For example, another literary treat that I would recommend—if you can find a copy—is “Pilgrimage: The Book of the People” by Zenna Henderson. Hush Money is the first book that I have read that competes well in that league; but, what league is that?
I think this is science fiction. Without the science. And I hope it’s fiction.
In Hush Money, the genesis of the meta-normal Talents these kids have is glossed over. Rather, this book focuses on the personal interactions, dramas and traumas of being different that compound the more familiar background teen angst and drama. Without the contrasting “typical troubles” of teen years (which Ms. Bischoff seems to have her typing fingers adroitly on the pulse of), Hush Money’s characters’ dealing with their supernatural differences might have suffered by a lack of a basis for comparison. But in Hush Money, Susan Bischoff handles the dramas, both normal and talented, with superb synergy.
Side Rant: To me, ragged right margins in literature makes for a lot of visual distraction; the story gets lost behind the words on the page. When you’re reading a story, your mind should be watching the movie, while your brain, or a part of it, zones-out interpreting the type. A symmetrical rectangle of type may be a good thing, because it allows the reading portion of your brain to stop noticing shape and drop into a semi-conscious zone, a gray matter buzz that won’t distract you from the movie in your mind. In my opinion, a justified right margin with careful and sparing hyphenation makes a page more “transparent.”
Up front, I will admit that there are a couple of things about this book that I don’t like. First, I dislike the current publishing trend of setting type with a ragged right margin.
Of course that has nothing to do with Bischoff’s wonderful story or her superb telling of it.
As for Bischoff’s writing, my only very mild complaint is that the transitions between narrators sometimes seem jarring (particularly going into Dylan’s perpective in a couple of scenes). And yes, I am saying that this story is told from more than one point of view. Also, there are a couple of places of dialog where a little more attribution (‘he said,’ etc.) might actually be less, not more, cumbersome. (Our minds tend to blank out the he-saids and she-saids if they are handled well, but we sometimes trip over forgetting who is saying what unless it’s really lucid.)
As hinted above, Bischoff’s writing vehicle in Hush Money has not one but two first person narrators. Our young protagonists are Joss (Jocelyn) and Dylan. They are teenagers—I didn’t notice exactly how old, some of them old enough to drive, I guess—and to me they had the whole middle school to high school vibe. Like most teenagers, Joss and Dylan are star-crossed, and there is evidence of some good, and mild, sexual tension between them portrayed with a wonderful innocence that is lacking in much of today’s ficiton.
While we don’t learn too much about Joss objectively, there is no question that she is the main protagonist of the story, and in her character as narrator and also in her interactions with the others in the story, she is truly loveable. She alternates between moments of female not-happy-puppiness, and other moments when she is both a frustrated and a frustrating relationship-noob. But Joss also charms us by her inward dialog recognizing and acknowledging her shortcomings. Like Joss, which of us has not, at one time or another, realized we were saying too much but couldn’t stop our mouths from running? Joss is wonderfully human; emotional and sensitive, fresh in being one of those rare teenage girls depicted in literature as genuinely loving and respecting of her parents, even when they are turning her rather austere world upside down.
Dylan was written by a girl—just sayin’—because a male author would not have been as honest about some of Dylan’s frankly ignoble qualities and, at the same time, would have written him less beautiful. Male authors usually really suck at writing good Bad Boys. This fact may make Dylan less accessible to a few male readers. But for this reader, it made me genuinely like the guy, and the author’s portrayal of him allowed me to be attracted to him through Jocelyn’s eyes. (While perhaps not unique, I will say that, to me, that is a decent accomplishment for an author!) Dylan is, admittedly, a criminal, and yes, he does realize that, and yes, he does find the personal honor to do what it takes to change for the better. Not very original, there, but immensely gratifying. (And isn’t that why you want to read a book?) But Dylan has a big problem with overcoming his bad-boy ways: His big problem’s name is Marco.
I’ve never read a character I’ve wanted to beat the fictionally living shit out of more than Marco. ’Nuf said. No it isn’t. Marco is every guy that teased me and took my lunch money in 7th grade. Okay, there was only one of them, and his name wasn’t Marco, but he was Marco, or maybe Marco was him. I’m not sure who Susan Bischoff’s Marco was (and sometimes there’s more than one), but I suspect it takes a little personal experience to be able to write a character who is both a convincing psychopath and someone you ‘love to hate’ like Marco. As a reader, and even being male, I was genuinely creeped-out by his egocentric immorality and his slick-over-crass objectification of Joss. His ‘control’ over Dylan is both believable and frankly a little unnerving. Great bad guy.
And then there’s Kat. Yeah, okay, there’s a little filmmaker in me, and yeah, one of my yardsticks for a ‘good read’ is how well it plays on that projection screen in my head, but my measurement of a really ‘crystal’ character is how well I see them. Casting Kat in the film version of Hush Money would be a personal nightmare for me because I can see her very clearly from the way she is written… and I just don’t know anyone like that. Kat is a wonderful counterpoint to Jocelyn. If Joss can be described as militant, with a healthy self-preservation instinct bordering on paranoia, Kat is honesty and party dress and love, effectively without guile. She is described in ways that make her beautiful (one of the few characters with visceral descriptions in Hush Money), and it gives us an ability to need her because she is so different from Joss, in a similar way that Joss, herself, needs her.
Now. Notice I have not said anything to this point naming what any of these kids’ special abilities, are. Why spoil it? Joss is able to conceal her Talent, as a matter of self-preservation, throughout most of the narrative. The other kids’s Talents, as we get to know them, are perhaps more delicious in how they are revealed. I’ll spoil this much for you; the meta-normal Talents include such supra-Newtonian abilities as fire starting, telekinesis (including atmospheric manipulation), telepathy (both reading at a distance and brain-dump-by-touch), super strength (but with believable limits), invisibility (and the similar light-manipulating metaphysics), and most of the standard stock we’ve come to feel cozy-comfy with in this genre. But if I tell you who has what you’ll miss out on a lot of the fun of this book.
So, if I can’t say that, what else can I say?
The big one: What good is a meta-normal (as an alternate term to keep it from being confused with paranormal vampires, zombies and werewolves) romance without a few good government creeps? These kids, the Talents, live with the daily fear of being taken away. We are told about the State School that anyone discovered to have a Talent is carted off to, and told just enough to share their mortal fear of the place. Joss and her family are realistically afraid, even to the point of militant paranoia, of being split up should it be discovered that any of them have supernatural gifts. I wouldn’t know how Susan Bischoff would have any personal experience with this, but I think she has hit the tone of the stomach-knotting fear of losing friends or family spot-on; everyone will be able to get a sense of what it is like to live in a police state, or to live under times of martial law, or in the old Soviet Union. And to any parent who has ever had to worry about CPS (or other government authorities with the unchecked and autonomous reach to potentially destroy a family), the worry of the Talents will ring true with an aching chill factor.
So, what makes good writing (or, a good writer)? In part, it may be an effortless narrative told by (in this case, two) dimensionally viable first-person characters. In part it may come from situations and settings that, however amazing or improbable, are nonetheless well-defined to the point of being visible. And it is, in a big way, having an ensemble of characters that we, as readers, may fluidly identify with to the point of loving and—in some cases—hating.
Hush Money is all that. In my book, that makes Susan Bischoff all that.