Saturday, February 7, 2009

Review: Boost by Kathy Mackel

I hate it when books hit you over the head with an Important Message. And I kind of hate how annoyed I get. I was going to start this post off being really snarky about the message of this book, but really I can't get too snarky about it. Because the message is an important one, but dang does this book get really heavy handed about delivering the message.

After her parents declare bankruptcy, Savvy and her family move from their huge home in New Mexico to live with Savvy's aunt on her farm in Rhode Island just before Savvy starts 8th grade. Savvy lives for basketball - to her it is the one thing that makes life worth living - and she and her new friend Gonzo decide to take a risk and try out for the 18 and under basketball league, rather than sticking with the 16 and under league that they were shoo-ins for.

Savvy was a bit of a basketball superstar back in New Mexico. She's 6'3" at 13 and still growing and was used to carrying the team by herself. Here she has a coach that is determined to make sure she learns how to use her natural talent, while also balancing a team that suddenly has two eighth graders on it, when previously it had all been high school girls.

Complicating Savvy's life are her aunt and her sister. Shortly after the move her aunt breaks her ankle and is in the hospital for months. The same evening, the sheep dog dies, leaving the flock of sheep unprotected. Because her mother is working long hours, her father is injured and slaving away over going back to college, and Callie, Savvy's sister, isn't good for much of anything, Savvy takes over caring for the sheep until a new guard dog can be trained.

Callie seems to be your typical spoiled-brat sister - only this time instead of being a spoiled younger sister, she's actually several years older than Savvy. Keep reminding yourself of that, because here Savvy acts much older than your average eighth grader, while it's very hard to believe that Callie is the oldest child, yet alone the oldest and in high school. Callie can't handle anything difficult it seems; she freezes up when their aunt is injured, and spends her summer laying in her room eating junk food, even though she's normally a star cheerleader.

As competition in both of their sports start to heat up, both Savvy and Callie feel the pressure to somehow "boost" their games. While Savvy has a lot of raw talent, she isn't always the best team player and often relies on staying in her comfort zone, rather than focusing on making herself the best player she can be. Callie, meanwhile, is determined to stay on the top of the cheerleading pyramid (figuratively and literally) and, after falling off the healthy wagon over the summer, seems willing to go to any extreme necessary to get back in the game.

The sports scenes in this book seem to be excellently done. This book really seems like it was written for athletes, because no attempt is made to explain the basketball jargon (despite the move being used by someone in almost every game, I have no idea what the hell a "full court press" is). For sports aficionados, that's probably a plus - for the rest of us, the game details don't matter too much.

Lots of other parts of the book came off as extremely awkward and forced, right from the beginning. Did Savvy's aunt really need to be so completely incapacitated and relegated to a tiny, tiny supporting role? Savvy often tells us that her aunt would do something cool, but we never see even a glimmer of that sort of spunk in the woman. Please see Last Exit to Nowhere for an awesome example of not only a tough old woman (who can't do as much around her property as she used to), but plausible ways to get teenagers to take on responsibilities.

And Callie was just a spoiled brat throughout the entire book, leaving it up to Savvy to act as the parent, even telling her parents how they should be treating Callie. Callie actually reminded me a lot of Marlene in Suite Scarlett - except that Callie is 16, not six, and not a cancer survivor. So in Suite Scarlett it made sense that Marlene's parents would let her walk all over them in some ways, but there really doesn't seem to be a reason for Callie's brattiness.

And then there's the Drugs sub-plot that is treated with all the subtlety of an after-school special (which is now officially a category on this blog - one that a book should not strive to be in). The worst was probably when a doctor actually gave Savvy a lecture on what steroids do to the person who uses them. And then Savvy goes and Googles for more information. This is probably the first book I've read that deals explicitly with steroid use among young women, but did it need to be so heavy handed about it?

And even the heavy-handedness could have been balanced out if more of the characters and plot had been fleshed out. We never really get to know anyone in the book other than Savvy, and the main focus of the book is definitely the basketball games, with short detours for Savvy's reflection while she's helping with the sheep, or another blowup with Callie. When everything is fairly one-dimensional, it really makes the worst parts stand out because there's nothing of nuance to distract you.
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