Series Review: Winger and Stand-Off by Andrew Smith

Winger (Winger, #1)Stand-Off (Winger, #2)

I have read Winger twice. And it is the only book that has made me uncontrollably sob. Twice.

Winger is about Ryan Dean West, a 14 year old junior at a northwestern boarding school for rich kids. Somehow, he got put in the “bad kids” dorm, rooming with the bully of his rugby team and across the hall from burly football players. And he’s in love with Annie, his best friend. Life gets pretty complicated at Pine Mountain Academy, but he manages to make it all work out between his friends and rugby and comics. But nothing could prepare him for what the end of the year brought, and his world comes tumbling down.

Stand-Off continues into Ryan Dean’s senior year, which should mean that he’s on top of the world but instead he is still haunted by last year’s tragedy. He fills in for stand-off after his best friend Joey passed away, and suddenly his entire team is counting on him. To make matters worse, he doesn’t even get to enjoy senior dorm privileges because administration decided to pair him with 12-year-old freshmen Sam Abernathy so he could “show him the ropes.” Ryan Dean is convinced the “Next Accidental Terrible Experience” is around the corner, and his paranoia is leaking into all aspects of his life, including his relationship with Annie.

Alrighty. Here we go. It’s almost difficult for me to review these books, Winger especially, because it’s just so good.

So instead, I think I’ll review Stand-Off and mention Winger thoughts and feelings along the way.

I despise contemporary series, so I had some hesitation about the book, but it’s by Andrew Smith so that hesitation was all of 0.2 seconds. Then I read the book. And I did have some legitimacy to my concern. I think Stand-Off is the worst book I’ve read by Smith– that being said, I still loved it. But I loved it less than Winger and 100 Sideways Miles and Grasshopper Jungle and The Alex Crow.

First of all, I had the initial distaste for contemporary sequels. Then I thought Ryan Dean was a bit of a jerk all the time. I’m all for well rounded and diverse characters, and I don’t think everyone should be likeable because a) that’s no fun and b) it’s not believable. But I think he went a little overboard with is meanness toward Sam Abernathy.

Also, I didn’t think the plot moved fast enough. Not saying that there’s supposed to be a lot of action or anything, but there were definitely parts that dragged. Like every rugby scene. In Winger, the rugby field was a backdrop for other things, a means for a team and games and excitement in Ryan Dean’s life. I felt like Stand-Off emphasized rugby too much. I didn’t want game coverage; I wanted Ryan Dean coverage! I think one of the reasons Stand-Off went slower is because I already know Ryan Dean from Winger, so there was less to learn.

Winger, on the other hand, turned the 400+ page book into a one-sitting read with its character development of Ryan Dean, trials of high school, and hilarious random events. Screaming Ned? I literally laughed out loud, which was embarrassing as I sat in the break room at work, but still. Funny stuff. I loved Ryan Dean’s humor and his cute comics. His narrative first-person voice made everything that much more entertaining.

Both books definitely have intense boy humor, so if you don’t like that kind of stuff… these aren’t the books for you. Apparently, I am a teenage boy, so I cracked up every time. Whoops?

But there’s this one thing in Stand-Off that I absolutely adored. It made me smile, or actually laugh, every single time it cropped up in the book, and Andrew Smith is all about repetition so it came up a lot. Whenever Sam Abernathy talked, or the Abernathy as Ryan Dean called him, Andrew Smith used very descriptive “said” verbs and vivid imagery. The Abernathy didn’t say it– or demand, or shout, or hiss or anything like that. The Abernathy gurgled.

Smith used descriptions for babies or toddlers whenever the Abernathy spoke, and it cracked me up. Or he would be described as a juice box or other childish and squeezable things to make him seem so cute and innocent that I just had to laugh.

Guys, there’s really no way to critique Andrew Smith’s writing. It’s beautiful. It’s descriptive. It’s funny. Even if I didn’t wholeheartedly like Stand-Off, I couldn’t deny the literary merit.

But I did wholeheartedly love Winger. I loved the ending. The commentary on the ridiculousness of social stereotypes and the realness of it all. Seriously, though. What I said before about crying? Weeping, really. That’s all true. It made me laugh and cry and everything in between. It goes on my list of all-time favorite books. It opened my door to Andrew Smith. It’s just beautiful. I emailed Andrew Smith I loved it so much. Whenever I think about this book

Anyway, I better wrap this up before I go on forever.

Winger by far surpasses Stand-Off, but I’m glad I got to catch up with Ryan Dean and make sure he was okay. It was good closure.

Read these books.

5 Stars

 

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Book Review: The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith

Max is spending his summer at a camp for boys obsessed with technology… again. Last year it was a fat camp for boys. It alternates even though he is neither addicted to computer or food. The only difference is that this year Ariel, his new 15-year-old adopted brother and the sole survivor of his small Middle Eastern village, is accompanying him. Their time at the camp is woven between the travels of a schizophrenic bomber and the late diaries of a nineteenth century Arctic expedition.

I think I’m in the same boat as everyone else for this book. What the heck did I just read.

It’s confusing. It’s weird. It’s hard to readily see any real themes or find messages hidden behind sly masturbation references or the ridiculousness of a suicidal genetically engineered crow. Named Alex. The perspectives mix up the reader and don’t seem to have many threads that connect them all. The characters border on gruesome, the events are disgusting, the boys are not the same masculine eye candy that speckles the rest of young adult literature.

And yes, it doesn’t have really any female characters. Well, there’s one. She’s a scientist who works with Max and Ariel’s dad and runs the boys’ camp. Oh, and she also is researching a way to eradicate all males to formulate a world dominated by females. So there’s that.

 

But if you let the weirdness wash over you and looked past the seemingly jumbled plot and strange characters then the message becomes clear. All men are stupid.

No, seriously. And this seems ironic considering the upheaval that was going on with Andrew Smith being sexist because of his lack of female characters. But maybe that’s one of the reasons he writes about mostly males. This book definitely focused on the failures of men. From the failed expedition to the camp for half-deranged and completely technology-obsessed boys, it doesn’t leave any of the bad or ugly stuff out. It’s about the control that they crave and their drive toward success that usually makes things worse– hence our poor friend Alex.

And then you look at the plot on the surface and once you accept the weird and learn to love all the perspectives, even if the characters aren’t the most lovable, you find the little Easter eggs. You find how the Arctic voyage ties to the father’s job and how the melting man bomber crosses paths with the boys at camp.

I heard Andrew Smith talk about this book and Grasshopper Jungle. He explained how Grasshopper Jungle begins with one point, one point that holds everything important, and explodes. The Alex Crow begins with everything and everyone and boils down into one point that has everything.

Smith always makes you think. No matter the book, despite all its ridiculousness, its full of wit and excitement and characters that are pushing through issues and growing in themselves and in the world, and this book is no exception.

4 Stars

Book Review: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Austin Szerba begins with being bullied with his best friend Robby for being “queer” and goes into an exploding story about the end of the world featuring giant, killer grasshoppers. Despite the fact that 6 foot-tall praying mantises are beginning to populate the world with indestructible exoskeletons, Austin can’t help but focuses on his own problems: he’s in love with his girlfriend Shann, but he is confused about his sexual orientation. From contemporary issues to an intense sci-fi journey, Grasshopper Jungle covers it all.

Alrighty, here we go. Review time. Get pumped. It’s late, but it’s still Monday so it counts.

For me the book began slowly. The pages are dense and the premise was startling and I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle the bundle of this large green book. So when the writing style slapped me in the face after the first page, I had trouble diving in after dipping my toes.

But that changed after the first, five(?) pages.

I love, love, LOVED Winger, which is the main reason I sought out this book. I honestly had no idea what it was about when I bought it, and after I read the inside flap I decided that couldn’t be what it was about and continued reading (don’t ask me why– I just decided the publishers decided to print a lie on the inside of their book). Read the blurb and see if you believe it.

So now I’m past the first couple pages and I like it so far. Andrew Smith’s writing style completely changed from the first book I read by him, and that’s what threw me off. He’s actually a very versatile writer because I currently have 3 of his books under my belt and all of them are written entirely different from one another. His style wove first-person contemporary, a confused teenage boy wondering about his sexuality, into beautiful stories about Austin’s Polish ancestry and a narrative about the end of the world. Yet somehow it isn’t confusing at all.

And onto the plot. Yes, I can vouch that it really is about the end of the world via giant killer grasshoppers. Grasshopper Jungle is not a metaphor. Trust me– the disbelief on people’s faces when I told them the plot summary was classic.

“What’s that about?”

“Giant, horny killer grasshoppers who take over the world.”

“Ah– oh, okay…”

I can’t say I loved the ending, though. I won’t give it away, but I felt like it was kind of anticlimactic. I listened to Andrew Smith talk at the Little Shop of Stories a couple days after finishing the book, and he said that he wanted to compare the end of the world to adolescence because that can feel like the end of the world. Which I guess means that I shouldn’t take it too literally.

The character development wasn’t the strong point for me in the book. Austin was well-developed and interesting, but both Robby and Shann seemed pretty flat to me. I thought that their dynamics could be much stronger, but Austin and Robby’s relationship was well-defined in being completely undefined and confusing. There are some chapters in the book devoted to other characters, but I tended to read these a little quicker, mainly because I hated pretty much all the characters. Not for any huge glaring reason– they were just all kind of gross and mean and unlikable. The dirtier side of reality (which Smith also said he likes to write about, so there’s you go).

But really, the subtle lack of likable characters shouldn’t deter anyone from this book. The writing style alone made it pop. He uses italics and repetition and multiple stories and first person and everything is so engaging and explosive instead of the usual linear plotline. Not to mention it’s GIANT KILLER GRASSHOPPERS. If that doesn’t rope you in, then you need to let your inner 12-year-old boy fly a little more.

4 Stars