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.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The dark side of cute

Sigh... time.  I don't seem to have much of it lately.  I just noticed that I've only posted once here since last October, and yet I've read quite a few books – some of them really good, too.  But I'm going to get caught up and I'll start with one of those recent books – The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonnette.

Market bubbles are nothing new.  A few people make a ton of money and everyone else loses.  Karl Marx identified the boom and bust cycle as one of the great weaknesses of capitalism (and although he got a lot of things right, his end predictions were wrong – more on this in a another post).  At the time of the Internet Bubble in the 1990s there was another bubble, a rather embarrassing bubble in hindsight: the Beanie Baby Bubble.  People lost all reason speculating on small stuffed animals, thinking they would become rich.  Ty Inc., the toy company of Ty Warner, became familiar to all of America as normally rational adults lost all sense trying to collect their line of under-stuffed toys with PVC beads in them.  (And even though we're talking about toys, this story has little to do with children.)

The story of Beanie Babies has to be one of the finest examples of fact being stranger than fiction, and this is the most bizarre story I can remember reading.  Warner had a knack for creating toys – he was obsessive about things like quality and materials and display.  He frequently sought opinions from those around him on fabric color, eyes, or names.  He preferred to sell his creations through small 'mom and pop' gift stores instead of big-box retailers, and many of his employees liked him.  In fact, he did many things right and ended up a billionaire!  But there was just as much luck involved in his rise to riches, especially since he was also an obsessive micro-manager who felt threatened by not being able to control the markets his toys created.  He once screamed at his sales staff, "I didn't start my own business to make other people rich!", and boasted he could put his trademark Ty heart on manure and sell it.  He alienated pretty much everyone in his life and is known more for his selfishness and stinginess than anything. 

This is a darkly absorbing read.  I laughed out loud, I scoffed in disbelief, and I shook my head too many times to count – but I really had a hard time putting this short book down.  I remember hearing about the craze, which began in Chicago with 'soccer-moms,' but even at the time it just sounded too ridiculous.  And yet... if I remember correctly, this was around the time a PBS show called "Antiques Roadshow" began and vintage toys were often seen selling for high prices.  And who hasn't heard about their old collections of baseball cards or comic books surprisingly being worth something?  (The baseball cards I collected as a kid have long since been lost, but I still have my comic books – although they're not likely to be worth much since I read them so many times!)  The only Beanie Babies we ever owned (that I know of) were the "teeny" ones my kids got with McDonald's Happy Meals near the time the bubble burst – and those didn't stay in their plastic bags, unlike the ones most collectors stored in Lucite bins with custom tag protectors.  The book covers as much history of Ty Warner and Beanie Babies as the author could dig up, as well as a number of brief but interesting tidbits about other toy fads (I only wish it had more information the seventeenth-century "Tulip Mania" that is mentioned on the back).  But this is a very interesting and easy read about a most embarrassing market bubble – although if you still have a Beanie Baby collection in the basement, it might make you feel more embarrassed than amused!  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)