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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Boy 21, written by Matthew Quick. Little Brown & Company, Hachette. 2012. $19.99 ages 12 and up

"It's over. That's it. My season's ruined. My basketball career is over. No chance for a college scholarship now. Whey they hit me, they knew it. They saw my face. I flew up onto the hood of their car. I was thrown onto the street - and they just left me there like I was a dead animal. It seemed like they even sped up when - But that can't be true, right?"

Finley lives, eats and sleeps basketball. The only player better is Erin. They practice their skills all day long, every day. He is the only white player on his high school team, and works hard every single day to improve his game. He wants to be chosen point guard again this season. When the coach he admires and obeys asks him to be sure that Russ Washington is made welcome, Finley reluctantly agrees. The coach explains that Russ is experiencing a great deal of stress following the murder of both parents and has come to Bellmont to live with his grandparents. Only Finley is privy to this information and he is asked to keep quiet about it. The other tidbit of information is that Russ is a highly talented and much admired high school basketball player. Finley knows he is going to have tough competition for that coveted spot on the team.

There are occasional hints that the coach has reason to ask Finley to take on this assignment. Finley will not discuss it with his coach, his guidance counsellor or with his audience. His first person narrative voice offers a very personal take on this story of friendship, romance and growing awareness. Finley, his girlfriend Erin and Russ become friends; always together and supporting each other. Russ calls himself Boy21 and says that his time on Earth will be short as he is expecting his parents to pick him in a space ship at any time. He uses alien speech and refuses to consider playing basketball.

Coach is on Finley's case to convince Russ to commit to the team, and come to practice. Russ finally agrees but plays with no heart, and no drive. Finley refuses to push him. He wants Russ to make his own decision.

Family dynamics are so well drawn, with characters to admire and a setting that takes on a character of its own. Bellmont is an old, worn town where the Irish mob has power, where race, violence and drugs are real issues, and from which there is nowhere to go but up. The foreshadowing concerning relationships and past events is there, but not 'out there', and never overwhelming. So, it comes as a surprise when events finally come full circle and readers make some heartbreaking discoveries.  Basketball, once so important, has little to do with the events as they play themselves out.

This is a story of true friendship, real tragedy and painful triumph. I felt all along that I was right there with each of the characters as their story unfolded, and will not soon forget any one of them. 

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