Sunday, January 31, 2016

Drums, Girls, + Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick

I was thinking this reminded me of "Wonder" with its emotional punch and melodramatic ending but it was written ten years before "Wonder" by R.J Palacio, so to be more accurate, I should have reversed that statement. Terrific pacing and a strong voice make this rise above the typical school story. It starts out framed using the convention of a middle school kid writing in his journal in English class but that gets dropped halfway through the novel. Some parts are predictable and a bit dated as this topic has been in the media for ten years with students at schools helping others in need or that are battling cancer. What makes this story particularly good is the strong character development, the protagonist's interest in music, and humor that lightens the serious topic of a sibling dealing with his five-year-old brother who has been diagnosed with Leukemia.

Thirteen-year-old Steven is in eighth grade, loves to play the drums, play with his younger brother, drool over the hottest girl in school, and tool through school as the funny kid when life changes the day his brother fell off the kitchen stool and gets a nosebleed that won't stop. Steven's mom comes home from the hospital only to inform them that Jeffery's nosebleed has revealed that he has Leukemia. First all of them feel guilty for not seeing that Jeffrey was sick. Then Steven's dad withdraws into himself going into denial, while Steven feels anger over the Jeffrey's rotten diagnosis. To top things off, Steven's mom is now gone all the time and his brother is having painful chemotherapy treatments. Steven hides it from everyone at school until an intervention is called and he is forced to deal with his brother's cancer.

Steven's character arc goes from him being angry and resentful because his parents are not paying any attention to him, to one that is not so self-centered. In the end he stops feeling sorry for himself and he recognizes how his parents are doing all they can to help Jeffrey. Steven deals with his anger by banging on his drums for hours learning new musical pieces and driving out his worries at least temporarily. This came across as really authentic. The author says he is a drummer and it comes through in the detailed writing. I particularly like it when Steven talks about being in "the zone" while playing the drums. Anyone that has played sports or been on a team that clicks in a way that all of them work like one unit or just made an individual effort above and beyond, knows the magicalness of moments like that.

At times Jeffrey responds to Steven in ways that sound too old and jarred me out of the narrative. Steven even comments about how does Jeffrey say this stuff and I wonder the same thing. I just can't picture a five-year-old using the phrases like "magnet babe". But who knows? His brother is 8 years older. You'll have to decide for yourself. It does add humor so it isn't annoying. The parents are normal and loving but they too are trying to deal with their lives being turned upside down. Steven sees that it is hard on them but their issues stay on the plot's fringes allowing the reader to get completely absorbed in Steven's point of view. I found this book hard to put down and a fast read. I also thought the subplot with Samantha helped tone down the melodramatic ending. It is a sobering reality but one that many cancer patients have to face. Not everyone survives the disease. A gripping story.

4 Smileys

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