Thursday, April 11, 2013
The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini by Peter Johnson
I wonder if my snarky attitude towards lists makes me too biased to write a review, and maybe it does, but I didn't think this book lived up to its potential. While the craft elements are all there, the end result was like a rock skipping across the surface of a lake with chapters too short and the first person point of view too limiting for me to connect with the characters. The strong start introduces the protagonist, Houdini, who sounds like a smart aleck teenager. He's funny, has an attitude, and spends time with his good friends, Lucky and Jorge. Lucky is actually unlucky when it comes to injuring himself and Jorge likes to swear all the time. The trio deals with Angel, the class bully, and learn to not be afraid of their neighbor, Old Man Jackson, an ex-Vietnam war veteran with one arm and pit bull guard dog. Their neighborhood is rough and life is not easy for the boys. When Houdini's brother goes off to fight in Iraq, the family is fearful for his life, causing Houdini to find an unlikely friend in Old Man Jackson.
A subplot involves Houdini writing a novel. Normally I like this metafictional touch, but here it made me notice the writing craft too much and I felt like I was being manipulated through the story. Dad is political and opinionated. He's about to lose his job and through writing, Houdini notices these changes. The problem is that the first person point of view made the father flat as a character. Perhaps if I could go inside his head, he'd be more rounded. As is, when I first read his views they sounded like a platform for the author's political views. The same goes for Angel. I needed to get inside his head. Why did he change? The first person point of view made it unbelievable. The older brother is flat too. I would have liked to go inside his head to learn about his relationship with old man Jackson. He makes all the right decisions and is more an adult than the father. I think using third person narrative would have pulled me into the story more versus feeling like a detached observer.
In some ways this story reminded me of "Okay for Now" by Gary Schmidt but without the deep character development. The chapters are very short and while I like the authors use of words and arrangement of sentences that create a nice rhythmn, I just couldn't connect with the characters. On the other hand, I can see students liking the nice humor and short chapters.
I did feel uncomfortable with some of the stereotypes: hot-tempered abusive father who is a red head, screaming mother who dresses in tight clothes, wired rapper-looking boy who swears all the time, Vietnam veteran who burns incense and has an insane laugh, mohawk fat bully, and so on. The author tries to show them as human toward the end, but I wished he had not used these stock characters. This is definitely a grade 5 book and older. I know that I am in the minority with this book. My friend Angela really liked it and we tend to agree on most books. It has also won two awards. Maybe the lists spun me in the wrong direction. Maybe coming off reading four great adult novels, I was turned off by the simplicity of this story. I don't know. You'll have to decide for yourself. The good news is it took me only two hours. It's taken me longer to write this review ; )
Reading Level 5.6