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.)

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