Background: This book made my wish list back in March, after Jen Hubert wrote about it at Reading Rants! Out of the Ordinary Teen Booklists. I've been reading F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack series of adult novels for a while. It's hard to know exactly how to classify the series - the books are a somewhat unusual combination of mystery, thriller, and paranormal fantasy. I read them primarily because Repairman Jack is such an interesting character. Jack works as a fixer in New York City. He lives completely below society's radar - he doesn't even have a social security number. His income is in cash, and he doesn't pay any income taxes. People don't know his last name - they just call him Jack. His goal is to remain unnoticed. Jack makes his living by solving problems for people - complex problems, like figuring out who killed a relative, or retrieving stolen property. He exists outside of the law, but is nonetheless highly moral in his dealings with people. He is a bit like Lee Child's Jack Reacher character, who I also enjoy. However, Repairman Jack's projects often take him into paranormal/horror territory. The paranormal aspects of the books are complex and interconnected - and some day I intend to go back and read the entire series at once.
Review: Jack: Secret Histories takes F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack character back to his teenage years in rural New Jersey. Jack is fourteen, and enjoying the summer before he starts high school as a freshman. He spends some of his time exploring the New Jersey Pine Barrens with his friends Eddie and Weezy. And there, they find a body. The very first line of the book is "They discovered the body on a rainy afternoon." Along with the body, the teens also find a mysterious black box, which it turns out that only Jack can open. Weezy believes that the box is part of the world's secret history. She says:
"We think we know what's happened in the past but we don't. Most history books don't even get the events. right, and they haven't a clue as to what's going on behind those events... But I know something's been going on. Secret societies and and mysterious forces are out there pulling strings and manipulating people and events and everyone wants to believe they're in charge of their lives but they're not because we're all being pushed this way and that for secret reasons and we don't even know it." (Page 52)
Several other deaths follow the discovery of the box and the body in the woods. As Jack and Weezy try to learn more about both, they run into various other mysteries, some with supernatural overtones. A shady local "Lodge" plays a major factor. The immediate murder mysteries are solved, mostly through Jack's ingenuity, while other mysteries, large and small, are left to be explored in future books.
I must admit to having a hard time assessing whether or not this book will stand on its own for teen readers who haven't read the Repairman Jack series. But as someone who has read that series, this book is a lot of fun. There are lots of fun tidbits about Jack's history, and early hints as to how he became Repairman Jack. For instance, his first boss, at a junk shop, asks to pay Jack under the table. This keeps Jack from needing to get a social security number, an important aspect of his later life. Jack also learned to pick locks. It's fun to see Jack, who is strong and well-armed in the adult books, getting pushed around as a 100 pound, unarmed teenager. Other aspects of his personality, such as his loner and fixer tendencies, are already firmly in place by the time he's fourteen. In this aspect, the book reminded me a bit of the Young James Bond series by Charlie Higson, though with a very different setting.
Jack: Secret Histories is set in 1983, and Wilson sprinkles reminders of the timing of the story through virtually every chapter, including references to books, musical groups, television shows, and movies, and examples of technology (Jack and a friend are wowed by the friend's father's purchase of an early CD player). Having been in high school myself in 1983, I did enjoy these references, though I thought that some of them were a little contrived. At one point Weezy says to Jack:
"Don't you wish the TV had a channel where you could, say, ask a question, and it would search every library in the world and pop the answer onto the screen? Wouldn't that be great?"
This seemed to me to something someone looking back from the Google age would plant in the book, rather than something that kids would have really discussed in 1983. In general, I'm not sure whether kids will enjoy the 80's references or not.
But I do think that today's kids will like the story itself. You have three kids, in the summertime in a small town, riding their bikes around and solving mysteries. There's a young local cop who helps them out occasionally, and a Japanese professor, but the adults are primarily sources of information. The action is left to the teens. The story is fast-paced, with something interesting happening every day. In addition to the murder mystery and supernatural elements, there are ordinary sibling rivalries and concerns about another friend who seems to have a drinking problem. It's the kind of book that you just want to keep on reading. And when you get to the end, you search online to see when the next book about teenage Jack will be available (Jack: Secret Vengeance, due out sometime in 2009). Recommended for teen mystery fans, and for adult fans of the Repairman Jack books, too.
Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication Date: May 2008
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Oops...Wrong Cookie, ALAN's Picks, July 2008, Tempting Persephone, Genre Go Round Reviews, Reading Rants!
Author Interviews: Josephmallozzi's Weblog
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.