Friday, April 17, 2015

Gateway to hell... or heaven?

Leprosy isn't something we think about anymore unless we're reading the Bible, and although the word in scripture is used rather broadly, a stigma has attached to those suffering from Hansen's Disease.  In The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai, John Tayman explains that the skin disease usually affects the colder parts of the body – particularly the hands, feet, ears, and nose – destroying the underlying tissue.  Those afflicted suffer a loss of feeling and sometimes a curling in of the fingers or collapse of the nose often resulting in horrific disfigurement.  Because the tissue of the eyes is cooler it can destroy eyesight, so it's understandable why people were so fearful of the disease.  But not knowing what caused it (bacteria) or how it was spread (it is contagious only for those who are genetically susceptible) led to policies of exile, and Kalaupapa on Molokai is one of the most famous colonies.

A rocky and windswept peninsula on the north coast of Molokai was chosen because escape was difficult.  The seas were rough and cliffs thousands of feet tall separated it from the rest of the island.  The land was purchased cheap and the earliest exiles were often dropped in the surf and told to swim for shore.  A lawlessness pervaded the settlement and given the appearance of some of the exiles, it seemed a hellish place to those sent there and any who saw it.  Tayman describes the history of the colony from the early days until the early 2000s.  He tells the stories of many who were sent there over the years as well as the efforts of some to alleviate the suffering such as Father Damien, the Catholic priest who eventually shared his flock's fate, and Joseph Dutton, a Civil War soldier who just wanted to do good.  A cure for leprosy was found in the late 1940s which can halt or prevent the disease, but cannot reverse the damage already caused, and Tayman sounds a much more hopeful note in his account toward the end.

"The more we suffer, the more strength we have.  The more suffering, the closer we are to one another.  Life is that way.  If you haven't suffered, then you don't know what joy is.  The others may know something about joy, but those who have gone through hell and high water, I think they feel the joy deeper." 

As much as I enjoy all kinds of histories, I find that those of disease and sickness are often the more human side of history.  Toward the end of the book Tayman focuses on four individuals who were exiled in their youth, and he shows them not as 'lepers' but as real people whose ordinary hopes and dreams were interrupted by their disease.  I particularly liked the story of Makia who was exiled as a boy and yet earned a college degree after he was cured, in spite of being blind from the disease and not being able to read braille because he didn't have feeling in his fingers.  It's a fascinating history told with a very human viewpoint.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Recalled to life

“Statesmen, men of science, philanthropists, the acknowledged benefactors of their race, might pass away, and yet not leave the void which will be caused by the death of Charles Dickens.” 
 — The Times of London

When my daughter, Kate, was assigned to read A Tale of Two Cities, I thought I might as well read it with her.  I did the same with Braiden when he had to read Far From the Madding Crowd, and I really enjoyed it.  But I'd just started Nicholas Nickleby, which seemed very funny, and I wasn't looking forward to the gloomy story of the French Revolution.  And as my reading lagged behind Kate's (she had a deadline and I was unusually busy) I was surprised at how much she liked the story.  In fact, when she finished she said it was one of her most favorite books.

A Tale of Two Cities weaves several stories together.  There's Mr. Jarvis Lorry, the banker, who is sent to "recall to life" a man in France who has been "dead" for 18 years.  There's Monsieur Defarge and his wife, who have a recently released prisoner of the Bastille in one of the rooms over their wine shop.  There's Dr. Alexandre Manette, who is so broken and ruined that I thought his plight was hopeless.  There's his daughter, Lucie Manette, who lovingly takes him home and cares for him, restoring him to life.  There's Charles Darnay, who is on trial for his life as a spy in England, and Sydney Carton, who saves him when he points out during the trial the physical similarity between himself and the condemned man, thus confounding the witness.  And all their lives (and a few others) get tangled up in the ruthlessness and tragedy that was the French Revolution, and yet Dickens is the master story-teller who weaves such an amazing tale of the tangled threads.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

Often, I don't worry about revealing the plot (spoilers) of classics – after all, everyone read them in high school and they're usually pretty well-known.  Except I didn't read this one (I wonder if I'd have liked it as much as Kate did, or as much as I do now?) and don't want to spoil it for anyone else (because I encourage you to read it if you haven't already!).  But I found this one much harder to understand than Oliver Twist or Great Expectations.  In fact, I had to pull up the SparkNotes and follow along each chapter, which was so much more enlightening.  The language Dickens uses to evoke certain emotions shows just how good of a writer he is.  In particular, he tells of Lucie hearing the footsteps echoing outside her home, which are usually of friends coming to visit, but they foreshadow the events in France that threaten to destroy her family.  When he writes of the blood-lust of the revolution, he does so with a shadow of horror that casts a soberness over the story.  (I'm reminded of Ray Bradbury's beautiful – almost poetic – writing in Dandelion Wine.)

Dickens is also very economical with his characters – there aren't many throw-away people here – and they often come back at important points in the story.  I read that this is one of the criticisms leveled at the book – a deus ex machina idea where the plot is manipulated through unlikely coincidences.  But it seemed to me that Dickens was showing an inter-connectedness between mankind; events abroad can impact us, and in some ways those events aren't always so different from our own lives.  And while there are many themes in this story, the one I enjoyed best was of resurrection and being "recalled to life."  Dr. Manette is "recalled" by Mr. Lorry and Lucie, and Darnay is saved from an especially cruel sentence, but it comes up in interesting ways: Jerry Cruncher's side-job as well as some other, even more dramatic examples. 

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

The temptation is to go on and on and include a lot of quotes I highlighted while reading, but I don't want to give away too much.  This is probably my favorite novel by Dickens, and it was such a weighty and moving story that I'm having a hard time going back to the levity of Nicholas Nickleby.  So I'll just end by recommending you read this one if you haven't already – and it might be a good idea to find a SparkNotes or Cliff's Notes to help appreciate it with a little more depth.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Small space gardens

In my dreams I have a good-sized yard with a small greenhouse in a back corner.  Nearer the house I'd have a decent patch of lawn surrounded by gardens with roses and perennials and a few pockets where I could plant my favorite annuals.  In between would be a sitting area with the fire pit and a large-enough vegetable garden to grow whatever I want and try new things.  Of course I have all kinds of ideas for the plants I'd like to grow and where I'd hide the composter and even how I might keep a couple of chickens.  But the current reality is that my yard is smaller than I'd like and gets too much shade.  Still, I've managed a raised-bed on the side of the house and a number of pots around the pool that are fairly productive.  It's not as much 'earth' as I'd like for a garden, but it's probably just as well since my current calling at church barely leaves me enough time after work for what I've got.

So I'm always looking for ways to make the best use of limited space, and when I saw The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden: Grow Tons of Organic Vegetables in Tiny Spaces and Containers by Karen Newcomb offered by bloggingforbooks, I jumped on it.  This is an updated and revised edition of a book that was first published 40 years ago and has a new focus on growing heirloom varieties of vegetables – which I've become very interested in over the last few years.  The techniques are mostly organic and encourage improving the soil and making the most of your space with "crop-stretching" techniques and using vertical space.  About half the book is an encyclopedia-like section that lists the different vegetables and their suitability for the small "postage stamp garden," as well as recommended varieties.

This is a nice simple and straight-forward book with minimal illustrations.  The plant advice seems to be similar to what I've seen elsewhere except that it specifically addresses how to grow them in small spaces and make multiple plantings each year.  The recommended heirlooms are usually the ones I've seen in catalogs and the book suggests which vendors might carry them.  There are a few illustrated plans that seem a little better than some I've seen that are meant to get you thinking.  But some of the advice seems a little dated, such as roto-tilling and double-digging, although much of what I've read elsewhere no longer recommends either practice.  I was also a little confused by the suggestion to add red worms to compost piles, although I think the author is talking about cold composting as opposed to hot composting, which I imagine would just toast any worms in the pile.

Still, I appreciate that it's more like the traditional approach to gardening I learned when I was young.  Some of the recent advice I've seen (like 'no-dig' and no chemicals) doesn't always make sense to me, and this seems more like a 'tried-and-true' method – or at least a rational mix of the two.  It leans more to the beginner, but if you're trying to make the most of limited space (and limited time), this might be a very useful book.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Red Baron vs. an F-16

We don't live too far from the Van Nuys airport and occasionally I hear the throaty growl of old WWII-era fighter planes flying over our end of the valley.  Oftentimes I even run outside to look, even though I'm not knowledgeable enough to identify anything.  I really like the sound of an old P-51 Mustang, but you gotta admit that an F-16 is pretty cool!  But regardless, I like seeing them and have enjoyed going to a few air shows.  It would be really cool  to see them in real action, but that might be a bit messy and would probably include death and destruction, so... being a reader, I've managed to find a few books that I found interesting.

Prior to reading Richthofen: Beyond the Legend of the Red Baron by Peter Kilduff, the extent of my knowledge regarding the Red Baron was that he was Snoopy's arch-nemesis and that the name is used on a brand of frozen pizzas. Okay, I also knew he was a German pilot during WWI, but I didn't know he was a pioneer in military aviation tactics as well as a very decent and honorable soldier who was credited with having downed more enemy planes than any other flier during the war. When he was finally shot down and killed at the age of 25 (a young man in contrast to the grossly inaccurate depiction on the pizza box!) he had brought down 80 British and French airplanes, and was feared by his enemies everywhere and revered as a national hero in Germany.

This probably isn't the kind of book that will have broad appeal.  It does a good job of documenting those he shot down (names, places, dates and times, plane ID #s), but it's not what you'd call a 'compelling' read.  I mostly enjoyed the insights into the man behind the legend.  Apparently there is a bit of speculation about Richthofen's moodiness and change in attitude toward the end of his short life.  Many believe it was due to a head wound he had suffered, but I tend to think the author's position that he was suffering from "battle fatigue" or "combat stress" – basically what we now call PTSD – is most likely.  Maybe the way Richthofen's mother put it is the most accurate: "I believe he has seen death too often."

But times have changed since WWI when wars were fought primarily on the battlefield.  Now, we see conflicts conducted almost entirely in the air with supersonic jets and heat-seeking or radar-guided missiles.  Lords of the Sky: Fighter Pilots and Air Combat, from the Red Baron to the F-16 by Dan Hampton is well-researched history of war in the air, focusing mainly on the fighter pilots.  A hundred years ago, "aeroplanes" were a novelty and used mostly for intelligence purposes – things like scouting out where the enemy army was.  It wasn't until one flier took a gun up with him and started shooting at the enemies fliers that air combat was born, and Hampton covers a lot of notable pilots.  Not every famous pilot or airplane is mentioned but it was comprehensive enough for me.  And ever since I read the Kilduff book (back in 2006) I've been kind of partial to Richthofen, so I felt Hampton was too dismissive of his accomplishments and disagreed with his characterization of the Red Baron as simply a cold-blooded hunter/killer.  But I might be biased.

But Hampton was a fighter pilot himself and is very familiar with the technical aspects of air combat.  He gives a surprising amount of detail on not only the tactics but also on how they evolved over the years, and I found his knowledge of history to be surprisingly good.  He's able to speak authoritatively about things such as the cockpit design of Russian MIGs and he even provides short appendixes on "Anatomy of a Dogfight" and "Anatomy of a Surface Attack" (bombing) that briefly discuss some of the challenges.  It would have been nice if he'd explained some of the fighter-pilot jargon used near the end of the book but it didn't detract from a fun and exciting read, and the mix of history and technical detail made for a nice balance.  (I received a free copy of the book from the GoodReads "FirstReads" program.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The best read army in the world

It might sound cliché but books can be powerful weapons.  It doesn't matter if it's fiction or non-fiction, the ideas they convey can change how people think and even threaten governments.  One example is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, a Russian poet, which was banned by the Soviet government for being critical of the 1917 communist revolution.  Last summer I read about it in The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn which tells how the book ended up being published clandestinely by the CIA and smuggled back into the USSR during the height of the Cold War.  (Note: I didn't review it here on my blog because I didn't think it was very good.)  Also, when Hitler and the Nazis came to power, they didn't just overrun their enemies, they burned their books. Millions of them were burned in Berlin and other countries because they were seen as subversive to the Nazi ideals. Hitler even wrote his own book and foisted it upon the population to influence what people thought. In many ways it wasn't just a war for the land and the people, it was a war for their minds as well.

Molly Guptill Manning says that some in America took this as a challenge.  In her new book, When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II, she says it was seen as a matter of pride that American service men would be able to read what they chose, and early book drives were held to collect books that could be sent to the military.  Unfortunately, many of those donations were heavy hardbound books that were impractical for soldiers to carry, and more than a few were so old and outdated as to be useless. In an unprecedented move publishers came together under the Council on Books in Wartime and produced the Armed Services Editions (ASEs) – small, lightweight, and portable copies of bestsellers, classics, biographies, histories, compilations of poetry, and discussions of current events. The books, which could fit easily in pockets and packs, turned out to be extremely popular. Over 123 million(!) were printed and distributed over the course of the war.

This was a very interesting and easy read about a mostly forgotten story of WWII. Manning includes some of the 'fan mail' soldiers sent to the authors and publishers, expressing their gratitude for the books and describing how they were traded and passed around along the front lines.  More than one talked about how the books helped to relieve the hours of boredom, but the real impact was that it made so many of those men into life-long learners who came home to re-enter society and universities.  The book is kind of a light and entertaining read but it made me want to read some of those ASE books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Chicken Every Sunday. (This book includes a complete list of the books published as ASEs – even The Great Gatsby was saved from obscurity by the program – as well as a list of many of the authors banned by the Nazis.  I received an advance copy from the Amazon Vine program.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

It's a group effort

When I was in high school – waaay back in the early 80s – I was surprised when my friend Sean told me that computers were the wave of the future.  You have to understand that computers were still mostly used for specific purposes in the workplace, and it hadn't even been that long since punch cards had been replaced by magnetic tape.  A "word processor" was a typewriter that could store a few lines of text.  If anyone had a computer at home it was used to play games.  Sure, games were fun, but I didn't understand how computers could be useful

Such thoughts now are laughable.  Less than ten years later that I bought my first computer: a 286 clone with a color monitor that cost $2,000.  I even paid extra to upgrade the hard drive from 20mb to 40mb.  My $500 printer was a dot matrix that could print in color!  With some now-primitive versions of WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3, I soon found out just how useful computers could be.  And although the "digital revolution" seemed to have happened overnight, there was a lot of prior work that led to us all depending on computers and internet connections in our homes.

We love the idea of the lone inventor toiling away in obscurity, but it's more often a work of collaboration and shared ideas that create revolutions in society.  Walter Isaacson reaches back to the roots of computers in his newest book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.  He starts with Charles Babbage's "difference engine," a computing machine from the early 1800s, and the book Ada Lovelace wrote about it (and Ada is a recurring theme in the book).  If not for her detailed documentation it would probably have died in the ash heap of history.  Isaacson discusses the contributions of Alan Turing and many others whose ideas and insights built upon and added to the thinking of others.  Isaacson strives to "give credit" where credit is due, but he clearly and chronologically points out how each one inspired other uses and inventions – and he covers the squabbles for credit that often ensued.

I had a hard time following some of the concepts that underlie the logic of computers, but it's a fascinating history full of names and machines I had barely heard of previously.  Some were geniuses in their own right, but many would never have been known if not for their collaborators – Bill Gates had Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniack.  He even explains the role Al Gore had in "inventing the internet" – yes, he had a role.  There are lots of pictures, including a funny police mug shot of a very young Bill Gates with an unusually huge smile.  Some chapters were absolutely fascinating – as someone who grew up spending the money I earned mowing lawns in video arcades and buying game cartridges for the Atari at home, I loved the chapter that told about Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari.  Other chapters were less interesting, however, and I struggled with the chapter linking hippies with the personal computer (I thought Isaacson seemed to mention LSD, acid, and psychedelic drugs way more than was necessary).  Even blogs and search engines find their way into the history.

I looked forward to reading this book since I had really enjoyed his biography of Benjamin Franklin, and while it was very interesting it didn't quite dazzle me the same way.  It's a bit long – nearly 500 pages before the notes – but still a very good telling of how these things we never knew we needed have become so indispensable in our modern lives.  (I received this book from the GoodReads FirstReads program.)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Research: heroes and spectators

Lately I've been reading more about an unsavory part of history that I'm usually content to skip: the Holocaust.  You might recall my recent review of 'my neighbor's' memoir?  Well, I'm chalking it all up as research for a novel that starts in that time, but that's all I want to say about it for now.

Hitler's First Victims: The Quest for Justice by Timothy W. Ryback tells about Josef Hartinger, a German prosecutor whose jurisdiction included the Dachau concentration camp in the years that the National Socialists (Nazis) came to power. When he received notice that four inmates had been shot while trying to escape, it was his responsibility to investigate. While others simply accepted the flimsy stories from the guards about prisoners killed while attacking or trying to escape, he insisted on autopsies and investigations. And when he had enough evidence of wrong-doing, he attempted to prosecute.

Those sent to the camp were mostly political prisoners. They had been involved in communist activities or had connections to opposition groups. Many, however, were only suspected of complaining about the government, and in a few cases personal grudges were being settled (many, but not all, were Jews). They were told they were merely being "detained" while their case was investigated, and that they were being held in "protective custody." But from the beginning, some prisoners were singled out for regular, brutal, and systematic abuse, and those prisoners invariably ended up dead rather quickly. And although Hartinger tried to prosecute a few crimes he found strong proof for, the cases were dropped or derailed by others.
"Just because one is without power does not mean one needs to be without courage and ultimately without character. Shouldn't one try to find some way to make a difference, even in such hopeless circumstances, without necessarily jeopardizing one's life?" -- Josef Hartinger
We look back on it and have a hard time understanding how something like the Holocaust could happen, and yet it did. This is not an especially heroic story. Hartinger's contribution was that some of the evidence he prepared was found after the war and became instrumental in the Nuremberg trials. Nonetheless, he was one of the few to stand up and voice his objections to the injustices – and he was one of the even fewer to survive after putting his life on the line. This book is a detailing of the early deaths at Dachau – not just the original four mentioned above – and describes (repeatedly) the beatings and torture several of the detainees endured. It explains how many of them were killed, and includes explanations later obtained by the perpetrators themselves. It's not for the faint of heart, and yet it is a small insight into the way the mass murder that later became systematized began, and how it was allowed to continue by those who could have spoken out.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Voices from the Other Side: Inspiring German WWII Memoirs by Jean Goodwin Messinger is a little different.  While we regularly see memoirs written by Jewish survivors of WWII, rarely do we see a collection of the stories of ordinary Germans who also lived through those years (two of the stories here are from Jews). Messinger has collected a couple dozen stories and recollections; mostly from those she has met in Colorado. Most were children or came of age during the war. Some grew up in homes that supported Hitler (usually due to the economic prosperity that came after many years of hardship), but most were either ambivalent or against him. Some are told in the person's own words and some are told by the author. The question of what happened to Jewish neighbors was often not something people felt safe wondering too much about, and several talked of being turned in to authorities over trivial statements.

This was actually quite an interesting book to read – and sometimes the most interesting part of the memoir was what was not talked about. Many talk of the hardship of losing homes or family members, and some suffered a lot while some not so much. And while this book doesn't try to offer an answer to how the Holocaust happened, it's interesting to see the recollections of people who lived through such a fascinating and terrible chapter of history. (I received a free copy of the book from the author.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Marx, Maynard, and Dr. Dick

"Economic reading, by popular hearsay, is a veritable desert of dusty prose. In all honesty, much of it is. The student of economics must be prepared for long journeys without a single refreshing sentence; it takes the endurance of a camel and the patience of a saint to finish some of the great texts." Robert L. Heilbroner

Perhaps the coolest teacher I ever had was Dr. Dick at Westminster College.  He didn't look like any teacher I'd known before.  His beard was trimmed but his hair was past his shoulders, and he wore shorts with Birkenstock sandals and a rather loud shirt – untucked, of course.  Honestly, he looked a bit scruffy.  And he had this funny smirk on his face – all the time!  I first thought he must be an aide or something, but then he took roll and started lecturing.  And he made Intro to Macroeconomics one of the most entertaining classes ever!  I still have one of the books from that class over twenty years ago: The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers by Robert L. Heilbroner, and recently decided to read it (I must not have read it in class, or maybe we only had to read a small part because I found my notes in only one chapter).

Heilbroner looks at the great economists from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes (whom Dr. Dick preferred to call "Maynard," with emphasis), and some of the not-so-great ones as well.  And he truly tells you about their "lives, times and ideas" and makes the history come alive.  Not only do you learn about Smith's "Invisible Hand" and supply and demand but also how he'd sometimes go into these trances where he'd end up marching for hours before coming out of it!  And you learn about Maynard's – oops! – Keynes' dalliances with men as well as his insights into economic depressions.  But there's also some of the nuts like Robert Owen, Henry George, and Thorstein Veblen.  And, of course, there's Karl Marx.

The section on Marx is probably my favorite because Heilbroner makes you see the world Marx and his theories came from – as well as how often he was right!  He also points out that Marx "was not the architect of actual socialism" – that was Lenin – and it's so insightful that it makes me want to read Capital and maybe even The Communist Manifesto!  In fact, the whole book was utterly fascinating (and ought to be required reading for all those who blindly sing the praises of capitalism and ignore the failings) and I highly recommend it.  My copy is from 1986 and it would be interesting to see what he'd thought of the collapse of communism just a few years later (maybe there's an update in a later edition?).  Heilbroner doesn't just explain economic ideas or even merely put them into context, he does it in a way that entertains – no need for "the endurance of a camel and the patience of a saint" with this book.  Many times he even made me laugh!  It was almost as if I were back in Dr. Dick's classroom, and I even thought I could hear him laughing along with me.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Winter and gardens

It's the middle of winter, so naturally my mind turns to... the garden!  Of course, here in SoCal we can pretty much garden year-round and I've got pots sprouting with peas, carrots, lettuce, beets, and turnips.  At this time of year I find myself irresistibly drawn to seed catalogs and gardening books, where I pore over the pictures and descriptions and dream of what I'd like my garden to be.

One beautiful gardening book I've been enjoying lately is The New American Herbal by Stephen Orr.  This is a hefty book at nearly 400 pages that is comparable to Sunset's Western Garden Book for content but loaded with beautiful pictures and focused just on herbs.  I've never grown many herbs myself, but I've got a monster rosemary and a struggling thyme, and I plan to add catmint and valerian to the garden this year.  (The catmint is just because I like mint and the valerian is because it's one of those plants I remember from my dad's garden that we called 'garden heliotrope' and always smelled so wonderful – he says it's died out now.)  But the thing that strikes you in going through the encyclopedia-like entries is the huge variety in herbal plants and the many uses.  Sure, plenty of them smell great – like lavender or that rosemary – but there are so many ways they can be used in cooking.  Orr gives ideas on what goes best with what kinds of dishes and even includes a few recipes here and there.  I've been putting off reviewing this book because I wanted to try the caraway-orange biscuits – unfortunately I just haven't had the time lately and didn't want to put it off any longer.  Many herbs also have medicinal properties from simple relaxing teas (I'm thinking of that catmint) to the folkloric insomnia cures (maybe that valerian will come in handy sometime...?), although he offers reasoned cautions (such as warnings about other uses for aloe than just sunburns).  But mostly I find so many of them beautiful to grow in the garden – and another I'd like to add this year is bee balm: both pretty and useful.

I compared it to another book on my shelf, Herb Gardening For Dummies®.  Overall, the information is comparable.  Both talk about the history of the various herbs along with the uses and tips on growing.  Orr even sometimes shows a sense of humor that is often prevalent in the 'Dummies' books.  But Orr's book is ten times more pleasing to look at, and let's face it: with gardening books, sometimes you want as much inspiration as you do information, and you can get both with this one.  (I received this book from BloggingForBooks.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Keeping secrets

I'm still trying to get caught up on books I've recently read, so how about a couple of YA/kids books?  One is quite serious, and the other... well, not so much.

In The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart, Twelve year-old Mark has cancer and it keeps coming back. Tired of pills, doctors, hospitals, and the grief his illness causes his parents, he runs away planning to climb Mount Rainier, taking only a few essentials and his little dog Beau – who turns out to be far more heroic than his small size might indicate. (In fact, Beau might be my favorite character in the story.) He leaves a note for his best friend, Jessie, asking her to "keep his secret." But he doesn't set out in ignorance of what could happen – he seems to intend that his life will end on the mountain.

This is a very heartfelt story, told mostly first-person from Mark's perspective with short 'half' chapters in third-person about Jessie's reaction and the dilemma she faces. This unconventional style gives the reader Mark's perspective while also showing the pain his disappearance causes his parents and best friend and her difficult predicament. Through Jesse we also get several brief 'flashbacks' of experiences the two of them had together. Mostly, however, the story rides on the sad and unfortunate plight of a sick boy and the reader can't help hoping he makes it to the mountain even while hoping someone will figure out what's going on and stop him. And while death is a recurrent preoccupation for Mark, I didn't find the ending quite so definite and hopeless. It's a compelling read that I had a hard time putting down and deals with cancer in an interesting way.

But if you're not in the mood for a heavy read, how about Loot by Jude Watson?  When March McQuinn's father Alfie, a notorious jewel thief, falls from a roof in Amsterdam, he leaves his almost thirteen-year old son with a valuable moonstone and some instructions: "find jewels." Except what he really said was "Find Jules," March's twin sister he didn't know about and hasn't seen since the two of them were babies. But it turns out there were a lot of secrets March didn't know about, and Loot will no doubt please a lot of readers. It's got two long-lost twins who are now orphans, and team up with two kids they meet in a Social Services group home, and embark on a high-stakes quest to retrieve the seven moonstones stolen by their father years earlier. They pull off improbable heists in New York City and San Francisco, always staying a step ahead of the cops through their street smarts. But other, more dangerous thieves are also after the moonstones, and time is running out in order to break a prophecy.

If you were to make a list of plot elements expected to be in such a book, this one would probably have all of them. It's fairly fun and fast-paced but also quite formulaic (kind of Dan Brown for MG readers). But while I thought the story was okay, I was bothered by the questionable morality. Stealing is portrayed as fun and honorable despite the dangers, and the victims as deserving:
"He thought of his father, who had a strange sense of honor about his targets. He had moved through the world of the wealthy but never been part of it. He stole from those who had been rich so long, they had forgotten ordinary cares. He stole from those who lived in houses... plump with silk cushions and bursting with too much of everything. He stole from those who wrecked the lives of others and dusted off their hands and said, 'It's business.' March had seen it again and again, in fancy restaurants and hotels, so often, he could smell it: the ease of privilege inherited and unearned" (from page 182 of the advance copy).
But maybe being a dad reading this stuff makes you think about such sticky questions, and maybe kids won't think so much about it.  If so, I guess it was kind of a fun read.  (I received advance copies of both books from Amazon Vine.)