By G. Neri
Available now from Carolrhoda Lab (Lerner)
Read my review of Surf Mules
G. Neri first came to my attention with the ridiculously titled SURF MULES. I gave it a chance because it was summer and I was bored, and I loved it. I've kept an eye out for his name since. His latest novel, KNOCKOUT GAMES, is ripped from the headlines. The Knockout Game sounded like some fad made up by the media, and to some degree it is. But where it is played, people have ended up in the hospital.
Neri has the good sense not to sensationalize the story, but to humanize it. He gets into the bones of why someone might play such a stupid, hateful game. Some of it comes from the young age of most of the players, still in middle school and eager to seem impressive. Some is the high from the violence. It's a combination of factors.
Erica Asher, unlike most of the players in her town, is white. But she has her own camera and a pretty good eye, and the players like having their knockouts filmed. As she gets more involved with the game, she also becomes more involved with the Knockout King, Kalvin. He's charismatic, genuinely talented, and kind and sensitive when he talks to Erica alone. But the sweet boy she falls in love with is also capable of great cruelty, some of it directed at Erica.
Just as Neri builds up the reasons why, he tears it down with a realistic description of the consequences. KNOCKOUT GAMES is not preachy - in fact, some people get away with more than they should and some get away with less, and both sides are a tragedy. The racial implications of the Knockout Game are also explored. (Although the real-life trend of Jews being targeted is avoided.)
KNOCKOUT GAMES is a tough read. It's violent, and the sex (which the heroine wants) leads to unfortunate consequences (as it is filmed without her consent). The characters are complex and sympathetic, but many times quite unlikeable. It is a story about finding the courage to speak up, but it's a hard journey for Erica. I highly recommend this book for older teens, but I doubt I'll revisit it. It would be a hard one to reread.