The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Harcourt Brace & Company, 2014
Josh Bell, the narrator of Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Medal recipient The Crossover, lives to play basketball. He and his twin brother Jordan are a double threat on the court: Josh slam dunks the ball, while Jordan is money from the arc when he gets an open look. They are cheered on by their father Chuck, a former player in the NBA, and their mother, the assistant principal at their school. The brothers’ goal is to lead their middle-school team to a perfect record, but midway through the season, a pretty girl in pink court-shoes arrives at school and Jordan’s attention is suddenly divided. Add a few difficulties in school and some tension between his parents, and Josh has problems with the way things are changing.
Remember the greats,
my dad likes to gloat:
I balled with Magic and the Goat.
But tricks are for kids, I reply.
Don’t need your pets
my game’s so
Your dad’s old school,
like an ol’ Chevette.
You’re fresh and new,
like a red Corvette.
Your game so sweet, it’s a crêpes suzette.
Each time you play
it’s ALLLLLLLLLLLLLLL net.
If anyone else called me
fresh and sweet,
I’d burn mad as a flame.
But I know she’s only talking about my game.
See, when I play ball,
I’m on fire. When I shoot, I inspire.
The hoop’s for sale, and I’m the buyer.
The Crossover is a novel written completely in verse. The author’s style moves between freeverse and freestyle, sometimes reading like E.E.. Cummings and other times like A Tribe Called Quest. It’s a good mix, and the poems are well-paced little snapshots of action and exposition, sometimes providing the play-by-play of a basketball game and then recapping or defining the action with an interpretation or explication.
Josh has a lot of things going on, and Alexander does a great job of getting into his head as he processes issues of family, brotherhood, identity, romance, competition, and ambition. I’m not a big fan of using the field of play as metaphor in serious literature, but a pass can be written for books aimed at younger readers who might not find it cliche. The author makes a questionable decision near the end that doesn’t ruin the story, but I can think of better reasons to decide the opposite, which does count (in a small way) negatively against the book.
Still, it’s certainly Newbery worthy, something not every recent winner can claim, and it’s a lot of fun to read aloud. Grown-ups should be cautioned to read the book all the way through before recommending it to younger (below fourth grade) readers.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hr Bookstore by Robin Sloane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
Clay Jannon is a mid-twenties victim of downsizing in Silicon Valley. His competence with digital design proves to be less in-demand than he expected, and he finds himself desperate to take any job that will pay the rent. At his rock-bottom moment, he walks into the titular Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hr Bookstore, a crazy space with shelves reaching two or three stories high, loaded with books that seem to contain gibberish. The patrons are few in number but specific in need, entering the store at all hours of the day or night to return one book and ask for another.
It’s not long before Clay is working on the puzzle presented by these books and these borrowers. With help from a special-effects-artist roommate and a love interest who works at Google, Clay is soon not only moving in on strange discoveries about the bookstore and its mysterious owner, but he becomes personally invested, and he brings his friends along with him.
Author Robin Sloane creates an interesting story that puzzle-lovers will find difficult to put down. His prose is voicy as heck, something that can teeter between annoying and appealing:
I run my fingers through her hair, which is still damp from the shower. She smells like citrus.
“I just don’t get it,” she says, twisting back around to look up at me. “How can you stand it that our lives are so short? They’re so short, Clay.”
To be honest, my life has exhibited many strange and sometimes troubling characteristics, but shortness is not one of them. It feels like an eternity since I started school and a techo-social epoch since I moved to San Francisco. My phone couldn’t even connect to the internet back then.
“Every day you learn something amazing,” Kat says [possible spoiler removed]—she pauses and gapes for effect, and it makes me laugh—“and you realize there’s so much more waiting. Eighty years isn’t enough. Or a hundred. Whatever. It’s just not.” Her voice goes a little ragged, and I realize how deep this current runs within Kat Potente.
I lean down, kiss her above the ear, and whisper, “Would you really freeze your head?”
“I would absolutely, positively freeze my head.” She looks up at me and her face is serious. “I’d freeze yours, too. And in a thousand years, you’d thank me.”
But the likability of his characters, especially as they interact with his narrator, tilts the balance in appealing’s favor. Product-specific references, such as Kindle and Google, set the story solidly in today’s real world, but they make me wonder if this novel will feel dated in a few years. Yet they also present a few existential questions about how new technology and old technology can complement each other. Thousands of years after they were written, the words of the Bible and Homer are still with us; will Google still be with us even a hundred years from now?
There is a religious theme that I won’t explore here, and for much of the second half of the novel, the theme has the potential to ruin the mystery-solving aspect of the story. It manages to find some balance without going too new-agey or feel-goody, so that the end is satisfying at worst, ‘though it lacks a meaningful something deep that’s carryable for much longer after closing the back cover.
It’s an engaging, enjoyable read. I question its staying power and shelf life, but a questionable durability doesn’t erase the few hours of genuine pleasure this novel gave me. It’s tough to imagine very many people not at least enjoying swimming through its pages.
It is rare that I find no fault in something I read. I don’t think it’s that I’m overly critical; I just think that writing is really really really hard, and rare is the novel that satisfies in such a way that it’s difficult to find something to take issue with. Yet here is The Girl of Fire and Thorns, a fantasy that does just about everything pretty well, and one particular thing outstandingly. I honestly can’t find something to be displeased with.
Elisa (an abbreviation of a much longer, much more royal-sounding name) is the second-born princess in a remote kingdom, the once-per-century bearer of the Godstone, a gem embedded in her navel that marks her as the Chosen, someone selected by God to perform some act of service. She is sixteen and overweight, smart but not wise, and in most external ways less princess-like than her older, graceful, sage, beautiful sister. She is educated, but she has been shielded by her caretakers not only in the way that all princesses are protected, but in a different way reserved for someone whose very identity as the Bearer is a threat to her safety.
In an arranged marriage that has serious political implications, she is given to the widowed king of a distant ally, but this marriage must be kept secret for a time, and before the king’s courtiers and subjects even know they have a new queen, Elisa is kidnapped and taken to yet another, more distant land, where she will not only not be treated like the queen she is, but she will have to exert herself physically in ways she could never have imagined.
Forced to rely on talents she never knew she had, Elisa can be a victim, or she can attempt to figure her way out of this situation, possibly earning the respect of her captors by merit where her title is of little use.
Author Rae Carson tells a good story here, and while it’s not too removed from the general plot of many fantasy novels before hers, as any fan of the genre knows, the beauty is in the details, the backstory, the explanations of magic, and the believability of the characters. Here, especially in that last aspect, she turns out a heck of a book. Her protagonist is instantly likeable, someone at first to feel sorry for but then to admire. If those around her are quick to judge her by appearances, the reader is convicted with them, something that only a skilled writer can really pull off. The plot is compelling, and the setting, while at first difficult to picture, is so well conceived that by midway through the second book in the trilogy, it stops feeling like a fantasy.
As a worshipping Christian, I’m sensitive to the way religion is portrayed in a lot of fiction, and while the religion practiced by Elisa and her people is not Christianity, it sounds and feels more believably Christian than almost every deliberately Christian portrayal I’ve seen in a fictional work. You know how you can tell when a writer has spent any time in your hometown based on what he or she chooses to say about it? It’s almost impossible to fake a thing like that, and to a practicing Christian, it’s likewise very difficult for a non-believer to be convincing. Yet Carson accomplishes it. I was genuinely surprised to discover that she is not a fellow believer. Every bit of believable religious speech, practice, and thought represented by our characters is permeated with authenticity, yet the author claims it is all research and writing. That’s an enviable skill.
You can put Elisa right up there with Katniss Everdeen and Triss Prior as a great, young protagonist facing ridiculous odds. It’s too early in the series to call it, but I’m thinking you can put Rae Carson ahead of those heroines’ creators as a writer with a clear voice and great story.
Twin sisters Cath and Wren are off to college, and they couldn’t be further apart in their approaches. Wren, ever the adventurous one, decides without consulting Cath that she is going to room with someone new in her frosh semester. Cath, far more tentative, isn’t even sure she wants to go anymore, and things aren’t improved when her roommate turns out to be this sulky grouch named Reagan. Cath is so unsure of herself that she doesn’t want to ask anyone where the cafeteria is, and she spends her first several days eating the energy bars she packed far too many of, just in case food in college turned out to be awful. But what happens next is what happens to almost everyone: someone manages to connect with her, and soon Reagan and Cath find shared joy in making snide comments about others in the dorm cafeteria. Reagan’s ex-boyfriend Levi, who hangs out in their room all the time, is an ernest, eager, puppy-dog of a young man, craving attention and affection at almost any cost.
Cath is well-known in the fan-fiction universe, the writer of popular fanfic based on the Simon Snow novels. She and Wren used to collaborate, but in recent years it’s just been Cath, slaving away on her masterwork in a rush to get it complete before the author of the Snow series finally releases the final novel. As Wren pulls further away, spending her weekend nights partying with her new friends, Cath immerses herself more deeply into her writing, which now finds some direction in a creative writing course whose professor takes a liking to her.
What starts out as a pretty interesting adjustment-to-college and finding-my-own-voice story quickly devolves in the second half of the book to little more than a teen romance story, one with extended passages of nearly unbearable miscommunication and lovelorn angst. The only thing that saves it is the continued hope by the reader that Cath and Wren will find some way to regain the closeness they once shared, which Cath’s heart yearns most deeply for, and that they can figure out what to do with a father given to extended periods of serious depression and withdrawal.
Rainbow Rowell has an amazing narrative voice, one that turns plot into an enjoyable ride with sharp wit and cute humor in unexpected places, not to mention well defined characters on every page. One can only assume that she meant for this novel to be exactly what it is, a well-told teen romance. Sadly, it takes more than that to get this reader enthused, and while there are sections of prose that had me insanely jealous about this writer’s confident, playful voice, the plot becomes less interesting the more romantic it becomes.
I hate to do it, but I’m mostly only going to recommend this to young readers who like a good romance, plus any young readers who are producers or consumers of fan fiction, a world which the author obviously researched thoroughly and has great sympathy for. I’ve always been into the concept, if turned off by most of the product, but Rowell brings up some interesting issues about who owns the characters of much-beloved novels, and whether or not fan fiction, however well written, is real writing. Cath’s fanfic world and her collegiate writing world meet head-on in a fascinating sequence that young writers may find extremely provocative.
This is my first Rowell novel, and I look forward to exploring the rest of her work.
Moose Flanagan and his family move to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, where this is a community of families employed by the notorious prison. Set in the time when Al Capone is locked up there, Moose adjusts to life in this new place, missing his large group of friends in the city and continuing to take care of his older, autistic sister Natalie. He makes a few friends, including the very pretty Piper, whose father is the warden and who has the makings of a longer, less voluntary future resident of Alcatraz Island.
The novelty of life on the island is really enough, and author Gennifer Choldenko pulls off something I always admire: a historical novel that doesn’t feel like a history lesson. There’s some separate copy in the afterward, and some necessary exposition so young readers can get a sense of this place, but this is a novel about a boy living in an unusual place, and that’s interesting enough without the lesson. What I really enjoy is the way Moose, ever trying his best to do right, is conflicted by the pretty, bad girl who seems to take up more visual space than the imposing structures on the Rock. He is twelve years old, and she is a very pretty girl who pays him a considerable amount of attention, and darn it if there are any easy answers about dealing with her.
One thing the novel attempts where it falls kind of short is in establishing that missed sense of camaraderie Choldenko clearly wants the reader to feel. It’s tough to give a young boy that kind of sympathetic gravitas in the absence of the two old, standby plot elements: the lost, deceased, or endangered parent and the lost, deceased, or endangered pet. In this case, we’re dealing with friends at a former school and missing the baseball games Moose was such a valued part of. I don’t mean to belittle the importance of having a place to belong, especially at an age like this, but it doesn’t transmit very well in this case.
It’s a small quibble, though, when the setting is so well established and the conflicts so interesting. There has since been a sequel published, and I look forward to giving that a look.
Research for my Master’s thesis involved my reading every book ever awarded the Newbery Medal, a period of close attention and diligent note-taking that forbade me from reading anything else. Along the way, I encountered many books I wanted to read which fell outside that realm, so I faithfully put them aside for that glorious day when I could read whatever I wanted. Hoot is the first thing I read when I was done. Because really: I had been reading what I wanted to read, and while Hoot was not a Newbery winner, it was in that realm, a Newbery Honor recipient and clearly something in my wheelhouse.
Roy Eberhardt is the new kid at a middle school in Florida. He seems to have some problems making good friends at first, but he’s a good kid from a good home, and we’re pretty sure it won’t be long before he’s reaching out and growing into some great friendships. Before that, though, he has to deal with a bully, with whom he fights on the school bus. His punishment is a banishment from the school bus for two weeks, and it us during this banishment that he meets Mullet Fingers, an apparently homeless boy with a cause. A national pancake restaurant chain is putting its new restaurant on a lot that’s the home of several burrowing owls, members of an endangered species. Mullet Fingers has been committing secret acts of vandalism in order to slow the development, and Roy joins the cause.
One of my favorite things about Hoot is that it gives good people a chance to be good, even when some of those good people don’t know just yet how good they are. Carl Hiaasen, in an effort not to condescend to young readers in this, his first novel for young readers, also creates several grown-up characters who refuse to condescend to the young people in their lives It’s kind of a refreshing look at the world, one which young readers will respond well to, and one which I think we all would have appreciated while we were growing up.
While not condescending, the story does seem a little preachy. In many ways, it reminds me of Maniac Magee, one of my favorite novels of all time, with slightly less narrative attitude and slightly more heavy-handed lesson-teaching. It’s not enough to turn me off, but it’s there, and its thereness is worth noting. Is it the tendency of a writer new to the genre, or is this going to be Hiaasen’s approach in subsequent work? I look forward to finding out.