Monday, November 20, 2006

Notes from the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonnenblick
3Q M/J

Alex is in big trouble. He's really ticked off at his parents, who divorced the previous year. Dad shacked up with Alex's third grade teacher, and Mom's going out on her first date post-divorce. Alex decides to drink some vodka (make that a lot of vodka) and then drive over to his father's house to confront him. He makes it as far as a neighbor's house before crashing the car and running over a garden gnome. He then compounds the problem by throwing up all over the arresting officer's shoes and making a lot of really bad, really drunken jokes. Then there's the little incident at the police station, where he dumps hot coffee all over the desk sergeant's lap. Yeah, Alex is in trouble, all right. He's sentenced to a hundred hours of community service at a nearby nursing home, working with a cantankerous old man named Sol Lewis.

Alex's relationship with Sol starts on a rocky note, since Sol is supposedly quite the terror (he's chased off three or four volunteers already). Sol is a joker with a bit of a mean streak (well, I think his jokes are a little mean), and he's impatient and cranky. But, of course, he also has a soft spot about a half a mile wide. And, of course, he's wise, at least in some ways. For instance, he knows before Alex does that Alex and Laurie are destined to be a couple, not just best friends. When Alex brings his guitar to the home one day and starts to play for Sol, he discovers that Sol loves jazz. Because Alex is more than a little self-centered, he doesn't pick up on the fact that Sol doesn't just love jazz, he knows jazz. Clearly, there's more to Sol than meets the eye. It takes a while, but Alex grows to enjoy his visits to the nursing home and Sol soon becomes much more to him than community service.

Family relationships are another theme in this book, involving not only Alex's family, but also Laurie's and Sol's. I won't go into that, since I don't want to give away too many spoilers. But it's safe to say that forgiveness, talking things out, and accepting that people are complicated are things that more than one character in this book grapple with.

I really enjoyed (and cried over) Sonnenblick's first book, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. It was tender, moving, funny, sad, and a terrific read. and I thought the voice of the main character was just right. The main character in that book is Steven, an eighth grader dealing with his little brother's cancer. Steven sounds like an eighth grader (not surprising, since the author is a middle school teacher). My problem with Notes from the Midnight Driver is that Alex, the main character, also sounds like an eighth or ninth grader. But he's sixteen. He doesn't talk like a high school junior, he doesn't think like a high school junior, and he doesn't act like a high school junior. That was a stumbling block for me. When I realized he wasn't a high school freshman or sophomore, my mind did a disconnect.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a bad book. It's a very quick, light, and enjoyable read, and I'm sure I'll recommend it to many readers. But it's also very predictable, and because Alex is written the way he is, teens his age aren't likely to get hooked on his character. And readers who like books with a bit of an edge or more depth of feeling will probably want to look elsewhere. That being said, I think many younger teens will enjoy this book.

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