Review: The Secret to Lying, Todd Mitchell

I am writing this review from the wonderful coffee shop I frequent on weekend mornings, and there is a woman doing a crossword who just said “Who’s smart about children’s literature?” and then asked a question whose answer I did not know. Did not know! Even though I love children’s books! It was rather a blow to my self-esteem! If I don’t know the children’s books questions I don’t have any area of expertise. It made my heart sad.

What I am finding is that — leaving out Diana Wynne Jones, who is sui generis — I am not any longer able to do a steady diet of kids/YA books, even for just a week. Alas! for they often have such nice clear writing and straightforward storytelling, the latter of which I do not like to do without. Alas again! It is hard to find a sufficient quantity of grown-up books with clear storytelling! Although I did enjoy Some Kind of Fairy Tale and Tell the Wolves I’m Home quite an entire lot, all in one month.

Anyway. Doesn’t matter. Just is something I felt while reading, and articulated when I didn’t know the crossword.

The Secret to Lying is about a kid called James who goes off to boarding school (boarding school!), where he tells a big pack of lies (lies!) about his parents and background, in order to make himself seem tough and scary to his new classmates. He engages in numerous self-destructive behaviors, struggles with terrifyingly vivid dreams of fighting demons, and has IM conversations with a mystery classmate who claims that she is a ghost.

Eh. Not really my thing. The device of two teenagers IMing each other about how vapid and dishonest are the lives of all but just they two has cropped up too often in my YA reading lately. I think I am done with that device forever. Go read an Ayn Rand novel, you sullen teenagers! It won’t do harm to your political career later probably!

More generally, I never got a feel for the two main characters, James and the ghost girl who IMs him. James does all these self-destructive behaviors, to the dismay of his friends and relations, but it’s never really clear why he’s doing them. In an ideal world one should not respond to a protagonist’s every action with some version of “What’s your damage, Heather?” (I didn’t like Heathers and feel fine about the prospect of its sinking into oblivion as implied by an episode of Bunheads.)

The book just felt like Melina Marchetta-lite. Melina Marchetta-ish, but without the emotional heft.

(This lady’s crossword puzzle is being well and truly crowd-sourced. The milk delivery man just got in on the action. In fairness, Saturday crosswords are really hard.)

The only other review seems to be this one by Book Sp(l)ot Reviews, but let me know if I missed yours!

18 thoughts on “Review: The Secret to Lying, Todd Mitchell

  1. RE a steady diet of children’s books, is this a good time for me to be all, “Jenny! Have you read everything you could find by Margaret Mahy?” I’ve been reading her lately, and the way she writes about families in particular really reminds me of DWJ. It’s subtle and perceptive and intricate, and at the same time it all fits effortless into a straightforward narrative with lovely clear writing.

    How did the sceptic-watching of Bunheads go? I’ve gone from really excited about that show to a bit weary because I’ve heard some not so great things.

    • Hahahaha. I still haven’t. But I haven’t forgotten about her! She is still on my radar and one of these days it’s going to happen.

      Bunheads…I don’t know. I have very mixed feelings. The main thing is that I find the protagonist absolutely maddening. She’s SO RUDE and then seems surprised that people do not find her adorable. It’s like Amy Sherman Palladino took all of Lorelai Gilmore’s tics that I didn’t like and magnified them massively to make Michelle. But the ballet stuff was fun, and I like all the young actresses a lot. I’ll probably watch the second season if there is one.

  2. The Saturday crosswords are my fave! I bet it was the question about Madelein L’Engle….

    I just read a children’s book I want to give a shout out for, because in it (Seed by Seed by Esme Codell, re Johnny Appleseed) the author (who, you may know, is also a well-known educator) talks to kids about the need to interrogate legends and sort out truth from myth. LOVED that!

  3. But Heathers is so good for lines to use with family! When a kid is running by at mealtime, Ron and I love to ask if that kid wants some pate, whether we have any or not.
    After reading your review of Some Kind of Fairy Tale and re-reading On Fairy Stories, you’ve got me reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland… at last. Because children’s books are comforting when a person is recovering.

    • It is, it is. I know it is. I do say “What’s your damage, Heather?” sometimes. Maybe I should watch it again and I would like it better. It’s been a few years.

      I hope you’re enjoying the children’s books, and recovering promptly!

  4. Jenny, how could you reference this crossword clue without telling us the actual clue? You know we are all addicted to Jeanne’s Friday Trivia Quiz! It could not have been a Madeleine L’Engle reference – you would know all those, right? TELL THE CLUE.

    Also, there are some mornings when the news is so depressing that your blog is the only thing that cheers me up. 🙂

  5. Children’s lit is awesome. And should still be read. The good stuff, anyway.


  6. As someone who just got her first Melina Marchetta novel from the library, I am glad that she was referened here in positive terms. I have Finnikin of the Rock with me now! I am not sure if I will read it as it appears to be the first in a series. BIG SIGH. As you are over emo teens, I am over authors who can’t finish stories in one book.

    • WOMAN. If you are going to gripe about Patrick Ness and Melina Marchetta all in one day, we are going to have a problem. Also, don’t start with Finnikin of the Rock. It is far from Marchetta’s most friendly and accessible book. Maybe start with Saving Francesca? Jellicoe Road is still my favorite of hers, but it takes a little while to get going.

      Also, Melina Marchetta does tell a complete story in Finnikin’s Rock. You’re not waiting for anything to get resolved at the end of it. The second one isn’t a sequel in the manner of Patrick Ness where you will not know the ending if you don’t read it; it’s just a second book set in the same world.

      • In my defense, I griped about Ness YESTERDAY and am PREPARING to gripe about Marchetta now 🙂

        I don’t think my branch of the library has Saving Francesca, but I know it has Jellicoe Road! Perhaps I shall return this one unread so that I start off on the right foot with her.

  7. That’s a different way to find a book! The inclusion of the ghost sounds good, but without a real reason for revenge surely the writer-recommended conflict and resolution stages of the book are a bit off. Pity about the clue, perhaps you’ll remember it later 🙂

    • I doubt I’ll ever remember the clue; I’m pretty sure it’s lost to me for good. It was something I had no idea about, so there was no way for it to stick in my head. Maybe I’ll encounter the book in question someday later and be like WHOA IT IS THIS ONE. :p

  8. I promise you it’s out there. Maybe not enough for a steady diet but enough for regular YA nourishment–starting with a book by a british guy which is basically this one without any of the annoying stuff and a lot of better stuff instead, even including emotional heft: Inventing Elliot by Graham Gardner.

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