Christopher Conlon is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and an editor. His first book of verse, Gilbert and Garbo in Love, won the 2004 Peace Corps Writers Prize for Best Poetry Book, while his Midnight on Mourn Street was a finalist for the Horror Writers Association’s 2008 Bram Stoker Award in the category of 1st Novel. As an editor, Conlon won the 2009 Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in an Anthology for his Richard Matheson tribute volume, He Is Legend, which is being reprinted by Tor in trade hardcover this September. Visit him online at ChristopherConlon.com.

gardener-140The Gardener
(Young Adult)
by S.A. Bodeen (Tanzania 1989-90) [Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen]
Feiwel and Friends
May 2010
233 pages
$16.99

Reviewed by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 1988-90)

WHAT IS “Young Adult” literature, anyway?

Many think of Young Adult books simply as novels for kids, like the old “Juvenile” category some of us oldsters remember from our childhoods. But “Y.A.” is everywhere now — in fact, it’s the only real growth genre in fiction publishing today. Media reports have it that the audience for Y.A. novels now stretches to people as old as 30 — and with the Harry Potter and Twilight series, even that limitation is meaningless. Those stories have proven popular with literally all ages.

So what’s “young” about the Young Adult designation? For that matter, what’s “adult” about it?

I am not a regular reader of Y.A. novels, but I’ve consumed a few over the years — Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, Stephen Baxter’s The H-Bomb Girl, Terry Pratchett’s Johnny and the Bomb, Joyce Carol Oates’ Big Mouth and Ugly Girl. Most recently, I read S.A. Bodeen’s The Gardener, an intriguing science fiction/horror story which helps clarify both parts of the Young Adult tag.

The Gardener is the story of Mason, a disfigured teenager (he was mauled by a dog as a child) who has never known his father except as an image in a brief video the man made for him before his disappearance long ago. His mother is an alcoholic single parent who works in a hospital ward which houses catatonic teenagers. One day Mason visits his mother at work and, on a whim while Mom is away from her desk, plays a video; at which time, one of the patients, a girl named Laila, suddenly wakes, pleading with Mason to take her away because “The Gardener is coming!” Why did the video wake her? Who or what is the Gardener? And what is the true nature of Laila and all the other teenagers in the ward?

These are intriguing questions, and for the most part Bodeen does a fine, entertaining job of answering them. The novel is clearly geared to teenagers — both our main characters are that age, and the story moves swiftly from one event to another, nicely setting up an “innocent kids vs. threatening adults” motif. The language of the book avoids vulgarities, there is no graphic violence or sex, and the story is told completely sequentially, making it easy for any competent young reader to follow. The underlying themes which ultimately emerge — global warming, world hunger — are relevant and handled seriously.

In all, The Gardener is a fine and appropriate tale for teenagers, yet one that can be enjoyed by adults as well. And maybe that’s the secret of the Y.A. designation — not that the books are necessarily for young people only, but that they can be read profitably by both the young person and the adult.

Alas, I must report two significant reservations I have about The Gardener. First, the publisher has done the author no favors by providing a dust jacket with artwork depicting a half-plant, half-human figure, complete with the tagline: “This greenhouse…grows humans.” That gives away far too much of the story, and will frustrate readers who would prefer the revelations of The Gardener to arrive at their own pace.

Secondly: I hate to have to say this, but for all the thrills of the story, I had the identity of the mysterious “Gardener” pegged over a hundred pages before we got to the Big Revelation. Any fan of Star Wars will be able to do the same.

Still, despite a certain level of predictability, The Gardener is a well-told tale that should hold fans of science fiction and horror, whatever their ages, duly enthralled.

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