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Book Review: The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith

Publisher’s Book Description:

Once again blending multiple story strands that transcend time and place, Grasshopper Jungle author Andrew Smith tells the story of 15-year-old Ariel, a refugee from the Middle East who is the sole survivor of an attack on his small village. Now living with an adoptive family in Sunday, West Virginia, Ariel’s story of his summer at a boys’ camp for tech detox is juxtaposed against those of a schizophrenic bomber and the diaries of a failed arctic expedition from the late nineteenth century. Oh, and there’s also a depressed bionic reincarnated crow.

Andrew Smith is a gifted author who is known for writing no holds barred YA, often on the “quirky” side, and The Alex Crow definitely fits into this category. There is no denying while you are reading that this is a Andrew Smith book, from the man with the melting face to the female camp counselor, you can hear Smith’s voice everywhere. And Smith is no holds barred when it comes to exploring male sexuality either; one of the main characters spends a great amount of time coming up with fun and creative ways to talk about masturbating in front of the adults around him without their noticing. Although as someone who works with teens it would be hard for me not to notice and I didn’t really buy into the idea that the adults around him didn’t know what was going on either. But then, I’ve spent so much times with teens over the years that I can hear anything as a dirty innuendo in my head.

This is a book that I really struggled with as a reader. Smith takes three separate story lines and tries to weave them together in the end, and I’m not sure that he does so successfully. The three elements cross paths, but they don’t really tie together in any real meaningful way that I cared about as a reader. It may just be a case of good book, wrong reader, but I didn’t find the elements to come together as cohesively as they have in previous novels.

The story of Ariel, an orphan and refugee from a war torn country, is the most compelling part of this entire novel for me. I could read his story all day and was genuinely moved by it. The pathos that he exuded was profound and I thought that Smith did some things really magnificently in telling Ariel’s story. There are some very brutal things that happen to Ariel horrifically described, it was hard to read but it cuts to the bone in the way that reading about these things should. And these elements force Ariel to make some very real and tough decisions about a portion of his life in the refugee camp. I thought there were some interesting power dynamics exposed and explored in this part of the novel.

All in all, I think there were a lot of undeveloped parts of this story. For example, one character spends his time in camp with toilet paper shoved in his ears and disengaged from the group. But why? Without any real development it’s hard to understand why this character is doing this and what the reader should take away from it. Character development was a real issue in The Alex Crow for me, with a lot of stereotypes being presented as character traits – the boy with the masturbation jokes, the boy addicted to video games – but no real depth or personality being given to the characters. If it weren’t for Ariel, I would not have finished this book.

For me, I think there are some unfortunate missteps in this novel because there were some interesting things in there, including ideas about free will and autonomy versus government control and human experimentation. There are also some very real instances of sexual violence in this story which I think are very true to life and very realistically portrayed but there is little time for the character and thus the reader to deal with them in any meaningful way. I thought bits and pieces were phenomenal, but not necessarily the whole.

For the record, almost no one agrees with me as this book is getting a lot of stars from the professional journals and it has an average rating of 4.07 on Goodreads.

Published on March 3rd by Dutton Children’s

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