Monday, April 21, 2008

So, What's Your Secret?

The Black Book of Secrets by F. E. Higgins
4Q/4P M

My library has this in its children's collection (which technically is for Pre-K to grade 6), but I think it's more a middle school (grades 5-8) book. I finished the book while in bed. Just before I fell asleep, I wrote a one-paragraph summary I really liked. But it was all in my head, and naturally, I can't remember a word of it now! But as I said in a previous post, because I read this while on leave, I'm confining my review to just a short summary and a reaction paragraph.

When Ludlow realizes that his drunkard parents intend to have his (perfectly good) teeth pulled out so they can earn a few pence for more drink, it's the last straw. He's determined to get out of their clutches for once and for all. He escapes his squalid life by catching on to the back of a coach
leaving the city. The coach belongs to a despicable man named Jeremiah Ratchet, and its destination is the small village of Pagus Parvus. Ratchet has made the lives of the villagers miserable by sucking them dry of nearly every penny they earn. After stealing Ratchet's scarf and mittens, Joe meanders up the hill, where he discovers that he is not the only newcomer. Joe Zabbidou has also just arrived in town. He intends to open a pawn shop in a building on the outskirts of the village. Joe welcomes Ludlow in. In fact, Joe is a very welcoming sort. He takes all sorts of things in trade, even the most worthless (a chipped chamber pot, anyone?). But every now and then, Joe will look at a customer and ask if he'd like to stop by for a visit later in the day...say about midnight? And when they come (as they always do), Joe greets them with a drink and a question: Do they have a secret they'd like to share? They do, always. And they are dark secrets, involving murders, grave robbing, thievery, and the like. It is Ludlow's job to record these secrets in Joe's black book of secrets. It becomes clear that the villagers hope that Joe, who has helped them in so many other ways, will also help them deal with Ratchet, but Joe steadfastly refuses to do so. Ludlow can only watch and wonder what Joe's intentions are. What does he do with the secrets he records? He pays handsomely for those secrets, but where does the money come from? And if he doesn't intend to help the villagers, why is he there?

This is an entertaining read, and I think it will get good word of mouth. But the imagery is vivid, and kids who are squeamish or prone to overactive imaginations may find it disturbing in spots. On the flip side, kids who like dark, creepy books will love the more sinister, grosser aspects of it. Higgins balances the dark with a tendency to go slightly over the top at times, especially with Ratchet, so just when things might be getting a little too horrific, there's a passage that can't be taken too seriously to lighten things up again. Ludlow is an appealing character, and Joe is an intriguing blend of mystery and simple(?) goodness. Higgins's ability to build tension worked for me as a reader, but also as a key plot element as the villagers get restless waiting for Joe's hatchet (so to speak) to fall on Ratchet. The ending is a bit of a stretch, but with the exception of one element of it, not surprising. After all, with books like this, it's pretty much a given that there's a book two in the works. Will I read the next one? It's not going to be on the top of my list, but I wouldn't be surprised if I checked it out at some point.

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