Thursday, 18 August 2011

review: Underdogs

by Markus Zusak
Arthur A Levine, August 2011
contemporary young adult
ARC received from publisher (thank you!)

Cameron Wolfe has always been close to his brother Ruben. Sure, maybe they've never said it in such words, and maybe when they're in the same house Ruben doesn't care one white for Cameron, but out in the streets, they're brothers. They look out for each other. But no one ever said growing up as brothers was an easy task.
The cover:

I guess the dark, almost gritty feel matches the atmosphere of the novels, but only kind of. Otherwise, this cover wouldn't get picked up off the shelf IMO. Although we should note that this cover formatting matches MZ's new formatting for I Am the Messenger and The Book Thief.

The book:

The first thing to note is that this is an omnibus of The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl. The second thing to note is that they're Markus Zusak's very first novels. The writing style we all loved in The Book Thief didn't just spring magically from a first effort, and Underdogs is definitely representative of the journey this author's writing grew through.

The biggest issue with The Underdog is that it's plot-less. This leaves it all up to Cameron to capture our interest, which he does, effortlessly. The portrayal of a regular teenaged boy with fears, wishes and hopes has never been truer. The longing he feels for the girls he meets also highlights this unique perspective; the plethora of female POVs may cause us to forget that, yes, boys do wish to be in love too. The fluid prose and realistic relationships still don't make up for the absense of a plot, though, and The Underdog has a wandering feel to it.

Fighting Ruben Wolfe continues Cameron's heartfelt narration with Zusak's (now-)trademark stylish prose. Relationships are redefined and delved into in this second book, and the whole family is drawn and redrawn. The love/hate Cameron and Ruben go through will be identifiable for anyone with a sibling. A gritty picture of life in the Aussie boonies is revealed to the reader through the situations the two closest Wolfe brothers get themselves into. Emotions and boxing intermingle, bringing out the best and worst in each to make for a moving story.

Humanity's favourite subject is the focus of Getting the Girl. Cameron's puppy-like approach to girls has already been introduced in the previous two books, but Ruben's love-em-and-leave-em style is developed, contrasted to his brother's style and made into an excellent source of conflict between the two. Cameron's "unmanly" habit of writing is perhaps a bit cliché, but the relationship he strikes up with the love interest, Octavia, is refreshingly tentative and tender. The cause of the eventual discord between them still eludes me, but it does offer a chance to build up the brotherly relationship again. (It should be noted that the US version of Getting the Girl differs in content from the Australian version -- read more here.)

A common element to all three novels is a specific type of passage to end the chapter (e.g., in The Underdog, it's a dream), adding to the eloquence. Well, all the eloquence a fifteen-year-old can get. It's an eloquence which Markus Zusak clearly grew upon.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5