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Clear Eyes, Full Hearts

Forever Young Adult presents: A review of The Final Four by Paul Volponi

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts

BOOK REPORT for The Final Four by Paul Volponi

Cover Story: Fred Savage
BFF Charm: Make It Rain!
Swoonworthy Scale: 0
Talky Talk: Friday Night Lights
Bonus Factors: Friday Night Lights, Speaking Truth To Power, The Trojan War, Underdogs
Relationship Status: Diehard Fan 4 LIFE

Cover Story: Fred Savage

Strong imagery, nice balance, good use of color ... but it's a SPORTS cover. Nothing in this world makes me pull a Fred Savage faster than a sports book, unless it's a book about fairies playing sports. The only sports books I've ever voluntarily read either were written by Nick Hornby or ... no, that's it. Just Nick Hornby. But that's so sad, because this book is definitely SO MUCH MORE than a sports book!

The Deal:

So, it's hard to describe the plot of this book without either making it sound like it's only about basketball (it's not) or being too spoilery (I won't), but I'll do my best. It's March Madness, and we're down to the Final Four -- the NCAA basketball semifinals. One game is between the powerhouse Michigan State Spartans and the surprise underdog, the Troy State Trojans, from Alabama. As the game plays out, four of the players deal with their pasts -- and futures -- on the court.

BFF charm: Make It Rain!

With the exception of Malcolm McBride, the cocky Spartan freshman who thinks he's God's gift, I am showering down BFF charms on these boys. Michael Jordan, who has spent his life in the shadow of his idol and whose hero is Barack Obama; Roko Bacic, who moved to Alabama from his native Zagreb, Croatia, in high school to escape corruption; and Crispin Rice, who -- well, I won't say anymore about any of them except that I love them SO MUCH and want to adopt them and hug them and squeeze them and wish they were all on the same team so I wasn't so conflicted about who to root for. Honorable mention charms go out to the rest of the Troy team, especially Aaron Boyce, who's back in the Superdome for the first time since braving it out during Hurricane Katrina (and about a billion high fives to Volponi, who managed to work that into the book without pandering).

Swoonworthy Scale: 0

The guys aren't celibate by any means, but the important relationships aren't romantic, but are the ones among teammates, coaches and families (with one exception, and girl, if you don't want him, then you'd best step outta my way). McBride's story is especially heartbreaking, as he explores love and loyalty and loss, and decides how he will let it shape him as a man -- he gets my sympathy, but he still doesn't get my BFF charm.

Talky Talk: Friday Night Lights

Volponi doles out the boys' stories in tiny pieces, interspersed with the heartpounding basketball game. Much like FNL, I found myself drawn in to the game AND the stories, thanks to the mix of radio announcing, newspaper stories, on-court perspective and flashbacks (and probably because the short pieces fit my very short sports attention span). Volponi's writing is quick and spare, but rich and full of dialogue. Each character has a distinctive voice, and each rings true. It was hard to pick an example, but this passage shows a little of what I mean.

There wasn't enough space or chairs in the kitchen for everyone. So people were eating in almost every room of the small house and out on the front porch, too. But when Coach Kennedy made a speech in the living room, everyone did their best to cram inside or into the doorways at either end.

"When I banned cell phones and iPods from our trip to the Final Four, the idea was that it would bring us closer together. That we'd be talking and listening to each other a lot more, like a family," said Kennedy. "Mrs. Boyce's hospitality tonight has really reinforced that. Now we have a home and not just a hotel. I think she deserves a round of applause."

Near the end of the clapping and cheers, Aaron announced, "There's one more family thing. It was Ma's idea. Since Roko's parents couldn't make it from Croatia, my aunt and uncle agreed to take their place. Come on in!"

The pair made their way into the living room wearing curly red wigs.

"They'll be the only black people at the game with bright red hair!" Aaron told Roko, over a wave of laughter. "They're your new peeps!"

"It's like looking into a mirror," Roko said with a huge smile across his face, before he hugged them both.

And right now, as Roko gets into position on the court beside Malcolm McBride, he finds his surrogate family in the stands behind the Troy bench and gives them a big thumbs-up. But somehow, instead of making Roko feel better, it only makes him miss his real family even more.

Bonus Factor: Friday Night Lights

Just like FNL is not actually about football, this book is not actually about basketball. It's about heart, and these guys have it. The only thing missing is the Taylors -- while Troy's Coach Kennedy is awesome, he's not quite Coach Taylor, and there's certainly no Tami here.

Bonus Factor: Speaking Truth To Power

One of the big issues in the book is the amateur status of the college players. Universities and the NCAA make millions off this tournament and their players, and the players don't see a penny -- and if they do, they're disqualified and disgraced. Through his characters, Volponi really strikes out at the current NCAA system and its inequities.

Bonus Factor: The Trojan War

The book's not a retelling of the Trojan War, despite the two teams, but it does pay the epic story a bit of homage.

Bonus Factor: Underdogs

Not only is Troy State a major underdog, even the Spartans have an underdog of their own. And like all Cinderellas should be, these boys are all worth rooting your heart out.

Casting Call:

My favorite redheads aren't exactly who I'd think of when I think "basketball players", so I'm at a loss for Roko, but Malcolm McBride can be NO ONE but Smash Williams.

Gaius Charles as Malcolm McBride

Now if only Smash's mama had a cameo!

Relationship Status: Diehard Fan 4 LIFE

When I opened up the box of ARCs from Posh last fall and my first thought was that I COULD NOT BELIEVE she would send me a sports book. I put off reading it, and almost decided to skip it altogether (A sports book! For cryin' out loud!), but I felt kind of bad. I know it's totally not my type, but I fell fast and hard. Now I know there is so much more to it than just sports, and I don't care how tacky it is, I now have 5 team shirts, a baseball cap, I fly little flags on my car on gamedays -- and I NEVER miss a tailgate! Clear eyes, full hearts, CAN'T LOSE!

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my review copy from Penguin. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). The Final Four will be available March 1!

Meghan Miller's photo About the Author: Meghan is an erstwhile librarian in exile from Texas and writer for Forever Young Adult. She loves books, cooking and homey things like knitting and vintage cocktails. Although she’s around books all the time, she doesn’t get to read as much as she’d like.