Boy21 by Matthew Quick

“‘I love watching you play ball, Finley.  Best part of my days lately-makes me feel like I still have legs, even-but life’s more than games.  This Russ, he’s special.  Anyone can see that.  And it’s hard to be special, Finley. You understand what I’m saying?’

I don’t understand what Pop is saying, but I nod anyway.

‘You’re special too, Finley.  You don’t get to pick the role you’re going to play in life, but it’s good to play whatever role you got the best way you can,’ Pop says. ‘And I know I’m a damn hypocrite for saying that tonight, but that don’t make what I said a lie.  We’ve both had hard lives so far.  No favors done for either of us.'”

This book has been waiting on my shelf for months, so that I could review it on its birthday: today (well, yesterday-I caught a cold and couldn’t get it written in time!)  is the day Boy21 comes into the world! Here it is, friends!  I’m so happy to get to stop waiting and tell you all about it! Hold on to your hats-here’s the story:

Finley lives for basketball.  The repetition and movement calm him and keep him from thinking about all of the darkness he keeps pushed to the borders of his mind.  He is so focused that he even breaks up with his girlfriend at the beginning of each basketball season; the game becomes his temporary new sweetheart. You can’t blame him for it, really: he doesn’t have much else to give him hope.  He lives in Bellmont, a city in the shadow of the powerful Irish mob.  In Bellmont, if the drugs don’t get you first, the mafia probably will.  Finley’s world consists of basketball, caring for his disabled grandfather, and hoping that he and his sweetheart can somehow find a way out, to a better life.

Enter Russ: a supremely talented basketball player with some exceptionally bizarre personal habits.  He lost his parents in a tragedy that he doesn’t speak about, and has moved to Bellmont to try and patch back together his life.  He doesn’t fit in-he’s far wealthier than any of the other students, and it is hard to conceal his prep-school education.  Furthermore, he refers to himself as Boy21, an extraterrestrial being sent to earth to learn about human emotions.  However strange he may appear to be, he seems to be just what Finley needs, and the two bond as they weather life-altering tragedies during the course of the story.

I hadn’t even finished the review before two different friends of mine tried to snatch this book off the desk and carry it away.  I can’t blame them, though.  You might remember Sorta Like a Rock Star, a book I read last summer. It instantly became a favorite of mine, and I do like to think that I’m pretty careful about what ends up on the favorites list.  Well, here is another book by the same author, friends.  Now, I’m convinced he is a stealth champion for the good in humanity, from the books he’s given us.  Boy21 doesn’t disappoint, that’s for sure.  It contains basketball, but it’s not really about it.  Instead, it’s about hope, and wrestling with those dark parts within-you know, the ones that want us only to look out for ourselves, even when it means hurting another human in the process.  Add in stargazing, references to The Little Prince, and the belief that we are all capable of changing, and you’ve got a unique, compelling story that you can finish in a day.

It’s hard to find a book that will appeal to the discerning set of young teenagers, much less a story that has the potential to captivate both male and female readers, without containing so much sex or violence that it will terrify school boards.  So here, dear ones, is quite a find. Equal appeal for both genders, an original plot, and characters that are quirky and endearing, but not merely for the sake of cuteness.  In this book, quirk is a survival mechanism, and the beautiful underlying message is that there are other potential responses to tragedy besides hardening one’s heart.  (When I say messages, don’t take it to mean “didactic”, because it’s certainly not-besides, teens can smell that business a mile away.) Anyway, I think you’re going to love it!  (If you do, watch out for Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook-it is going to be a movie soon!  And while you’re waiting, here are some books that I think you’ll like, if you liked the sound of this one:

Of course: Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick.  It’s an entirely different sort of plot, but it makes you feel the same way as Boy21 does.  If you liked the sports part, you could try The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and also Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena.  And come on, why not give The Little Princea try, too? There’s enough to love in there to break your heart forever.

Update:  Matt de la Pena, author of Mexican White Boy, reviewed Boy21 in The New York Times.  Check it out!

Quick, Matthew. Boy21. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012. 256 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://matthewquickwriter.com

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