Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Ferraiolo, Jack D. The Big Splash (3 1/2 stars out of 4).
My most challenging request as a book recommender is when a student asks for a funny book. As people like Michael Richards and Don Imus discovered a couple of years ago, and what Howard Stern has known for years, what is funny to one person is not funny to another. I have never chuckled once at a Captain Underpants book, yet my students love them. I thought The True Meaning of Smekday was the funniest middler book I had ever read and I laughed out loud while reading it; however, none of my students seemed to share my enthusiasm—some liked it, but not one thought it was laugh-out-loud funny. After having just finished The Big Splash by first-time novelist Jack D. Ferraiolo, I don’t know what to think. Since I found it very funny and entertaining, does that doom it to the back shelves? Should I tell my students I think it’s boring and hope for reverse psychology? However I decide to market it, it is the first middler noir book I have ever read, and it bowled me over and spit me out like a ragged hailstone in a Midwestern tornado.
Matt Stevens is tough, but he will need all of his wits to solve the biggest crime of his young life—the “shooting” (water pistol below the belt so it looks like the person peed her pants) of Nikki Fingers, once the most notorious ally of school boss Vinny Biggs, but now just plain old Nicole Finnegan until the shooting. Once a person is shot, he or she is in “the Outs,” the losers’ club, and ostracized from all school life. Matt runs a detective agency in his apartment building’s basement (imagine Encyclopedia Brown in seventh grade and with an attitude), and he is hired by Vinny, the underground leader of “The Frank,” Franklin Middle School, to find out who made the hit. Matt senses trouble after he negotiates with Vinny: “I sat there cursing myself for breaking one of my long-standing rules: Don’t ever work for Vinny Biggs . . . Nothing that paid well was ever easy” (11). Matt’s former best friend Kevin Carling, now Vinny’s lieutenant in “the organization,” is also involved, as well as Joey ‘the Hyena” Renoni, hall monitors (the police in this story) Katie and Melanie Kondo, and reporter Jimmy MacGregor, and Matt’s two potential love interests, kevin’s sister Liz and Nicole’s sister Jenny. The stakes are extremely high: once a student is in the Outs, he or she is history. Matt attempts to understand why the students at the Frank allow this system of humiliation: “Middle school is tough. Everyone’s got a reason to be insecure. If someone else is getting laughed at, then that means nobody’s laughing at you. And most kids feel like they’re always one step away from being the class joke” (21). Matt must put the pieces together and figure out who had means, opportunity and motive. His single mother is supportive but works too much to be around much of the time. When she starts to sense that Matt is hiding something big in his life she demands to be involved. Matt does not tell her about his case, but he does confide in her about his girl trouble: “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get off the hook without giving her something to chew on. There’s nothing more persistent than a concerned mother. They’re like rottweilers with good intentions” (156). Amid all of this turmoil, Matt must keep Mom happy, be mindful of the traps that have been set for him, try not to anger his potential girlfriends (or Vinny), and deduce truth from deception in order to solve this case and move on with his life.
The narrator in this novel has his tongue so deeply planted in his cheek that it would need to be surgically removed. His voice is predictable, but not like the cliché this novel could have been; more like an old pair of jeans or loafers, comfortable and well-worn. Although there aren’t too many belly laughs, I chuckled quite a bit, and I hope my students do too, because I “get” all of the clever noir references and I fear they will not. However, understanding the noir tradition may not be necessary to enjoyment of the novel. With The Big Splash, Jack D. Ferraiola has transformed an old literary tradition into a fun, new, middler comedy/mystery/action genre; it may not matter that it also just happens to give homage to Sam Spade and his contemporaries.

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Blogger robyn said...


If it is any consolation to you -- your cousins, Eva and Asa and I all laughed uproariously at the True Meaning of Smekday, so maybe it is a family thing.


1:46 PM  
Blogger bduboff said...

Thanks, Robin--Our family may be crazy, but at least we have good taste!


10:51 AM  

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