Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Guest Review: The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander

Today, we've got a guest post from Paul Stenis, a reference librarian at the University of Central Oklahoma. Paul attended University of Texas with Kim and I, and in addition to being a librarian, he holds an MA in creative writing and is in the midst of working on a novel for middle grade boys. When he talked about starting a blog about books for boys, we couldn't help but ask if he'd like to offer up a review for us to share, and today we bring his first.

Chris Rylander chose to write The Fourth Stall in the first person point of view, a brilliant choice, I believe, because Christian “Mac” Barrett is his point of view character. You see, Mac is a guy you can count on for a favor. He’s a die-hard Cubs fan. And he tends to do a lot of his favors pro bono. That’s right. Mac talks tough and has a tough nickname, but he’s a champion for loveable losers and he’s got a pretty good sense of humor about it. Add it all up, and you get a kid who is tough but compassionate and pretty funny too. If you’re going to spend three hundred pages inside someone’s brain, Mac’s is a darn good choice. I liked it there. A lot.

Mac’s troubles begin when Fred enters the fourth bathroom stall that doubles as Mac’s office. Fred has a big problem: a twenty-year-old bully named Staples, who’s more ghost than guy, more rumor than fact. Staples runs gambling rings in several schools and uses high school cronies to beat up bookies and then terrorize them into making more foolish bets. Fred is one of his victims, and he’s only in the fourth grade. Fred has no money and no one to turn to. He’s come to the right place. Mac and his right-hand man Vince agree to protect Fred, pro bono of course, and that’s when the trouble really begins. Somehow Staples is on to their game from the start, and Mac soon realizes he is facing his toughest job yet.

Rylander’s achievements aren’t limited to the byproducts of Mac’s engaging voice, they’re also tied to his ability to both parody The Godfather and transcend it. The Fourth Stall isn’t just a clever book about Mac’s mafia-esque business, it’s a story of loyalty, compassion, and the strength of a life-long friendship. It’s a buddy book, and a lesson on how to forgive your friends and enemies. Christian’s first name is no accident. And so it’s moving in a way that the source material isn’t.

In other words, Rylander’s decision to move the Godfather story into the realm of junior high is brilliant on a couple of levels. It’s funny to hear sixth graders talk and act like gangsters. Indeed. But more important is the elbow room Rylander gave himself as a writer with the decision to give Mac compassionate side that wouldn’t fly in the adult world equivalent.

If I have a complaint to share, it’s this: there is a glaring lack of three-dimensional female characters here. But that’s forgivable, in my view, because Mac’s experience is limited in that department, as it would be for a lot of male characters his age. Perhaps that’s something Rylander will take on in the sequel. Whatever he decides, I can’t wait to read it.

4 comments:

  1. It makes sense, the bit about omitting female characters, if you think about it. A very interesting concept. Thanks for sharing, Paul!

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  2. As the character ages (and we get into the sequels), I bet that will change. Thanks for the comment, Pam!

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  3. I find it interesting that you would compare this book to a movie. I may be a little naive here. Did the author draw this comparison on purpose? I am assume so if it was so obvious to you. But what about the audience that is reading this book. They probably have never seen the movie. Is the book as good with the inference? Jenny

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  4. The author definitely drew the comparison on purpose, but readers won't need to infer the connection with The Godfather to appreciate the book or the humor. Christian Barrett is a strong, distinct character on his own, and the conflicts in the novel are unique to him and his friends' situations (i.e. 13-year-old-boy situations). Some of the gangster-related humor could be lost on young readers, but there is more than enough 13-year-old-boy humor mixed in with it.

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