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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Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

“Because with Charlie, nothing was ever easy. Everything was windswept and octagonal and finger-combed.  Everything was difficult and odd, and the theme songs all had minor chords.”

Vera’s former best friend Charlie is dead.  It’s hard enough when your best friend dies, she thinks, but when he stabs you in the back and then dies, it makes things infinitely worse.  Worse still, when he comes back to haunt you, with his ghostly form showing up in the car when you’re kissing another guy, or in the bathroom at school, it is the absolute pits.

Vera is eighteen, living with her father (you will love him, I think.  He’s pretty much the Best. Dad. Ever!), an accountant and recovering alcoholic who invests his whole heart in making sure she has the best future possible.  She works full time at a pizza place, and spends the rest of her time drinking to forget Charlie and the secret she is determined not to tell.  Of course, it’s not as easy as all that-Charlie’s ghost keeps showing up at inopportune times, a silent, shaming reminder urging Vera to tell what she knows and clear his name.

The best part of this book?  The format!  See, the story is told in a creative way-all first person, addressed right to you, and by different speakers.  I think readers will love Ken Dietz, Vera’s dad.  He chimes in during the story, in chapters titled things like “A Brief Word from Ken Dietz (Vera’s Frustrated Dad)” and with flow charts, like “Ken Dietz’s Face Your Shit Flow Chart”.  I kid you not, I actually made a copy of that flowchart and pasted it up on my bulletin board.  And besides Ken and Vera (and even Charlie, who pipes up every few chapters), there is the Pagoda.  That’s right, a building.  The Pagoda is a park building with special significance to Ken and his ex-wife (she left them when Vera was 12), and it gets a few chapters of its own. Trust me, the Pagoda is hilarious-I think it’s the best and funniest part of the novel.

This book combines creative elements (a haunting, a mystery, a talking Pagoda) with a great format (many voices, FLOW CHARTS!), and very common social problems of young people.  I think you’re going to love it! (And others did, too-this is a Printz Honor book, and a nominee for the Edgar Allen Poe mystery award!)

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.as-king.com/ (The website is really funny-the giant header describes her as “a corn lover” and “wearer of magical writing pants”. Awesome!)

All right, folks, since I’m in library school now, I think I’ll change the way I give the book information.  If you hate it, please let me know, and I’ll change it back!

ISBN 9780375865862
0375865861
Personal Author King, A. S.1970-
Title Please ignore Vera Dietz /A.S. King.
Edition 1st ed.
Publication info New York : Alfred A. Knopf, c2010.
Physical descrip 326 p. ; 22 cm.

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger

“Of course I knew.  It was the reason I was no longer comatose after an entire life of sleepwalking.  It seemed that, all of a sudden, Marisol was necessary to my existence, but of course, I didn’t mention that to her”

John’s parent’s divorced six years ago; his father left them for the high-flying bachelor life in the city.  John’s mother never touches him-not a hug, pat, or even accidentally, while passing the butter.  It has left John cold, sarcastic, and (even though he might not want to admit it) profoundly unhappy inside.

That is, until Marisol swoops into his life: a skinny, Puerto Rican lesbian, adopted by do-gooding WASPy parents.  They bond over their respective zines, which, for the uninitiated, are short, self-produced magazine publications.  They meet for coffee (which John learns to first tolerate, and then even like), and go to a concert.  The two talk for hours about feelings, parents, being different, and everything friends talk about.

However, things get complicated when John develops feelings for Marisol-those kind of feelings.  Even though Marisol is a lesbian, John falls for her, and can’t help but wishing there was more to their relationship.  The two have to navigate around their attachment, while at the same time, John is trying to renegotiate his relationship with his parents, and find who he really is.

This is a lovely, honest depiction of a growing friendship, especially when Wittlinger delves into John’s romantic attachment to Marisol.  It feels like this sort of situation happened to me at least five times when I was growing up, but it isn’t often that you see an author exploring those mixed-up love feelings.  These sections of the book really shine, and make it an award winner, I think.  She takes these miniatures of life, and examines them and works with them, and fills an entire book.  Fantastic, and not easy to do, I’d imagine.

Another great thing about the book is the references:  poetry, Ani DiFranco songs, inserts of various zines (art included), and the entire lyrics of the song that the book took its title from. It’s called Hard Love, by Bob Franke.  Here’s the Youtube link; I think you’ll like it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ejMPz5yOb0

All in all, this was a delightful book.  It reminisced on the awkwardness of the high school years, without dwelling on them.  And the relationships and characterization of John and Marisol are realistic and relatable.  I can see why it won some of the big awards: a YALSA Best Book, Lamda Literary Award, plus the prestigious Printz Honor nomination.  You don’t want to miss this one.  Even the dedication rocks:  “for everyone whose first love was a hard love.”  I can relate.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.ellenwittlinger.com

Wittlinger, Ellen. Hard Love. Simon & Schuster: New York, 1999. 224 pp.  Grades 9-11.

I know I usually recommend other books, but right now, I am still formulating my choices for this one: John reminds me so much of another character I’ve read, I just need to search my brain archives so I can tell you!