March 31, 2011


How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy. By Crystal Allen. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Kickers, Book 4: Game-Day Jitters. By Rich Wallace. Knopf. $12.99.

The Prince of Fenway Park. By Julianna Baggott. Harper. $6.99.

Take Me to the River. By Will Hobbs. Harper. $15.99.

Skate Fate. By Juan Felipe Herrera. Rayo/HarperCollins. $15.99.

     Sports and related activities are at the heart of all these coming-of-age stories, which – not surprisingly – tend to have an action/adventure focus. Crystal Allen’s debut novel, How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy, is about the trials and tribulations of 13-year-old Lamar Alexander, whose thing is bowling and whose troubles are legion. His mom died of cancer a year ago; his basketball-star brother, Xavier, is the apple of their father’s eye and a constant source of torment, mental and physical, to Lamar; his supposed friend, Billy Jenks, is a Class A troublemaker; his best friend, Sergio, has issues of his own; and to top everything off, pro bowler Bubba Sanders – Lamar’s idol – is due in the town of Coffin, Indiana, for July 4, and Lamar is going crazy with the sheer joy of possibly getting to meet him. Where the book will go is obvious from descriptions of the characters: Billy will set Lamar up (he does); Lamar will do something supremely foolish (he does) and get in big trouble (he does); Lamar will have to find ways to make amends to everyone he disappoints (he does); Xavier will eventually turn out to be not such a bad guy after all (yup); there will be a tearful family-togetherness scene (uh-huh); and even though Lamar will not win the bowling gear he has coveted, he will get to meet Bubba and will learn a lesson that is worth more to him than the gear would have been (oh yes). There are some unexpected elements in the book – Lamar’s constant attempts to cope with his asthma, the way he gets a girlfriend, Xavier’s oversize rage, the uneasy truce that eventually emerges between the brothers – and the focus on bowling is unusual. Also, Allen tries hard to give Lamar, who narrates the book, a unique voice, having him tell Sergio, for example, “Luck is for chumps. Handle your business,” and tell the reader, “I stuff my pass in my pocket, shoot Dad a peace sign, and follow my brother out. Yeah, baby.” By and large, though, the novel’s structure and its eventual affirmation of family and goodness is formulaic.

     Rich Wallace’s Kickers series adheres to a formula, too. It is about a fourth-grade soccer team, the Bobcats, fighting its way toward a championship, with protagonist Ben learning about traditional values of sportsmanship – such as teamwork, never giving up, and enjoying the game whether you win or lose – along the way. The fourth and final book in the series, Game-Day Jitters, takes Ben and the Bobcats to the semifinals and then the finals, giving Ben many opportunities to show what he learned in the previous three books (including one in which he was benched) and also showing him confronting the nervousness that many players face as they move into important games. Ben is helped here by his brother, Larry, who reminds him to keep thinking that each playoff is just another game. But Ben has trouble believing that, to such an extent that he freezes when the team needs him most. And Ben has to confront an opposing player named Loop, who does his best to unnerve Ben – but turns out to be a good guy when the season is over and the young players look ahead to what comes next. There is nothing deep, difficult or particularly surprising in the Kickers series, but young readers with a strong interest in soccer are likely to enjoy it, and will have some of their coaches’ lessons reinforced if they take Wallace’s writing to heart.

     In contrast, there is little that is remotely formulaic in The Prince of Fenway Park, originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback. And although this is a book about baseball, it is in a sense not about sports at all. It will, in fact, disappoint preteens looking for a sports-oriented read, and will have its full effect only for readers who are fans of the Boston Red Sox. But those readers – and ones interested in magical fantasy within a sports setting – will have a great time with Julianna Baggott’s book. Her premise is that the well-known (to Boston fans) Red Sox Curse really was an old-world-style curse, complete with creatures straight out of Irish mythology, such as the horse-headed Pooka and the wailing banshee. The Curse, under which the Red Sox were unable to win the World Series for 86 years, was broken in 2004 when the team defeated its arch rival, the New York Yankees. Baggott’s account of the Curse imagines that a young boy named Oscar – who has his own troubles – is key to relieving the team’s problems; and Oscar’s story is intertwined with a history of baseball itself, including racism in the game (which plays a significant role in the book). The Prince of Fenway Park is a complex book that tries to do so much that it may overwhelm some readers. But it is filled with lovely moments and wonderful ideas, such as one character’s comment about assembling the ultimate team to take the field in connection with the mystical elements of lifting the Curse: “What we need are the players with some sorrow to heal, some sorrow that burrowed down into the dirt of Fenway Park.” The book is also packed with baseball trivia and statistics that may be more than non-fans care about, and magic that may be something in which dedicated fans are less than interested. It is therefore a novel seeking a special audience – which will delight in it.

     Extreme sports are front and center in Take Me to the River, a book that also features a complex plot – but one that is strictly adventure-driven. The protagonist, 14-year-old Dylan Sands, travels from his North Carolina home to West Texas to meet his cousin Rio and Uncle Alan, a river guide. The three are supposed to paddle along the Rio Grande, on the Texas/Mexico border; but when Dylan arrives, Uncle Alan has left for a job in Alaska, so Dylan and Rio decide to travel the river themselves. That would be excitement enough – but not for Will Hobbs, for whom the river adventure is only the start of a complex story that also involves Black Hawk helicopters flying overhead from Texas into Mexico, on unexplained Army business; a Mexican gangster who is traveling with a kidnapped child; and an approaching hurricane. Considering how remote Big Bend National Park, the scene of the action, is, the way all the characters turn up in the same places at the same times strains credulity. But what Hobbs is after here is lots of action rather than careful plot structure. And action there is aplenty, along with appropriate dialogue – warnings about “a West Texas toad strangler” (a storm less severe than a hurricane), scorpions (“If you feel a scorp on your face or whatever, don’t grab it, just flick it off”), a roadblock because of “an incident at the lodge…a raid, and killings, and a kidnapping,” and much more. This is the sort of story in which the bad guy, who knows little about rowing, gets swept away in the rain-swollen river, leading to the comment, “I really don’t think he could get back here even if he tried,” which of course means that he will reappear very soon – and does. It is a foregone conclusion that Dylan and Rio will eventually escape with the kidnapped child, Diego, but there is plenty of excitement in how they get away, outwitting the evil Carlos; and the scenes of white-water rafting have enough realism to ensnare the imaginations of readers interested in intense sporting activities, even in circumstances less fraught with peril than these.

     The extreme sports in Skate Fate are urban ones, and not all would be called “sports” by many people – skateboarding, yes; drag racing, no. This is a book for somewhat older readers – ages 12 and up – because it deals intensely with pain, loss and serious injury, and its structure requires some unraveling. There are short narrative passages interwoven with long sections of free verse (but not too long – the whole book runs only 118 pages). In the narrative portions, Lucky Z tells what happens or happened to him: “got a steel rod in my back. and screws all up my left leg. right leg paralyzed. …it happened after my father came back from Iraq three years ago started talking to himself in his room. talkin’ in beeps. …it all happened after my mother died from breast cancer a year later and after i drag-raced into the night…that was two years ago and two years of therapy. and cryin’ stuff into this journal. nothing’ but cryin’ dude you’d think i was Niagara Falls. yup.” Lucky Z’s stream of consciousness seems contrived – the careful use of capital and small letters by Juan Felipe Herrera in the narrative is made to seem random, for example, but comes across as studied – but the verse in which the protagonist reveals his inner thoughts is more effective. For example, “On an Empanada Apple Turnover Behind the Lunch Line” reads, “you baked me/ you raked me/ you pinched me/ you cinnamon-danced me/ you oven-placed me/ you flour-tossed me/ then you let me cool/ you tall handsome fool.” Wheelchair-bound, Lucky Z nevertheless dreams of skating, and his poems about it – their type set in different line indentations and different sizes – reflect the turmoil of his mind as well as his determination not to let his nearly incapacitating injuries become the defining elements of his life. What eventually happens to Lucky Z is intimately bound up with the book’s dedication to a California boy who was shot and killed by another student after coming out as gay. But the book is less about violence and pain than about coping, about getting beyond what hurts and what will hurt in the future to a place of peace, beyond the turmoil of mind and body. Sensitively written, if perhaps too self-consciously complex and impassioned, Skate Fate is a short book that is far from a quick read. It may not have wide appeal, but to those who find it resonant, its interest will go deep.

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