June 5, 2012
This is a straightforward kid-friendly thriller that is on our state's book award nominee list. I see on the screen capture pic to the right that Margaret Peterson Haddix wrote a blurb for it. Not on the hardcover version I have. That's interesting because I was thinking as I read it that it seemed like something that would have been a whole lot better if Haddix had written it.
It's about a not-too-distant future in which the government has imposed a debt limit on everyone. Apparently there are some different Draconian options you can choose when you sign up for this but the only one we're interested in the one in which the government can take your first born and toss 'em in a workhouse to, well, begin working off your debt.
No Dickensian squalor here. The workhouse our middle-school-aged math genius gets put into is more like a Club Med for brainy hacker kids. They've all done well on some test and don't have to do manual labor or anything. They do spreadsheets, computer modeling and other math/science computer work for big companies during their work hours, then get the run of their fun top floor with swimming pool, food deliveries, and housecleaning provided.
Yes, it's all too good to be true and it doesn't take our hero long to discover that things smell like poop in Denmark. Actually it takes him longer than it should since he's supposed to be a genius and all but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt since the evil ones running this particular workhouse are trying to somehow put the whammy on the kids with some computer screen something-or-other that's doing, well, something to their brains. Keeps them smart, maybe even boosts smarts, but makes them not notice that all the contact with the outside world they've been getting through email are sanitized versions of what their friends and family have been sending them.
So it takes our hero way too long to discover what's wrong but he finally does. But for someone who is supposedly smart and patient enough to do complex math and computer hacking and programming, he hardly ever plans his little escapes at all. Is he patient and methodical or not?
Then the ending which you think you can see coming miles away turns out...to be the ending you thought you could see miles away. I kept hoping for some kind of twist, but no. All by the numbers. The kids finally break into the computer system, download evidence of the nefarious activity onto a clean laptop, copy this onto a flash drive and promptly have the laptop confiscated. Oh no! Good thing our hero remembers the flash drive in his pocket (how could he forget!?) and sends it out into the world so the story is broken through the media which is a plot point you may recall from seeing every movie ever made, as Lisa Simpson would say.
There are some good things. My favorite is a brief interlude in which our hero escapes and visits home. His mom is trying desperately to figure out a way she can help get the family out of debt and has joined up with a multi-level marketing scheme. Her escaped son has to tell her the math doesn't make any sense and it's just a scam. Yea for kids books with skepticism!
So some good messages in a generally bland-but-not-terrible book.