I wanted to find out why some of my friends in publishing are tweeting about this book. What I found was an ingenious little story that imbibes progressive values to young men through a young adult, coming-of-age novel they can relate to.
Considering this book is about baseball in the 80s, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it. BUT THE CHARACTERS! Yes, the characters and their struggles made this a very fun read. The storyline is easy enough to follow and offers a nice mix of drama, edged with comedic dialogue. But let’s talk about those CHARACTERS. . .
The barriers in front of Layton, a troubled 15 year-old, seem too difficult to overcome. Not only is his mother dying of cancer, but he is also homeless because he punched his stepfather in the face for cheating on his mom. He fights everyone, in fact, and oftentimes he’s totally justified in doing so. Yet is he? Really? It takes the calming presence of his smart girlfriend (a total queen) to turn Layton into the leader he is meant to be.
The smart one I mentioned? The queen? That’s Monique, a thoughtful, over-achieving senior with a strong moral compass. Her mother is Black and father is white and this is the 80s, so. . . She just wants to be a journalist, but systemic obstacles quickly alter her plans because of the way she looks, while others (who are less qualified) are able to map their futures accordingly. But does she freak out? No, in fact Monique is the one who pulls the strings on the entire story, since she can’t map out her own.
The cutest, most lovable of all is Furble, a Black kid from the poorest apartment complex in this small southern town. You can’t help but notice that he cracks jokes throughout the whole book. Especially when there’s conflict. But when it’s revealed he struggles with his sexuality in a time when it simply was not acceptable to be gay during the AIDS epidemic, let alone Black and gay, those jokes turn bittersweet and my heart went out to him.
Then there’s Gina (and her big 80s hair) who doesn’t mean to be funny, but will make you belly laugh throughout. There’s also Sucio, a Latino from the Dominican Republic who everyone loves, but who can’t seem to come into his own because he is just trying to fit in. Coach Nick, the story’s main antagonist, is unlikeable and does cruel things to his players throughout the book, but his arc at least helped me understand why he is such a cold disciplinarian.
Maybe my favorite character in this character-driven YA novel is the teacher, Ms. Diamochoulos, who chooses the kids in her class that are the neediest to give special attention. Her change, from the screaming stickler all the students call “The Black Widow” is tear-jerkingly beautiful at the end.
The story centers around Layton’s struggle, but the relationships between Layton, Monique, Furble and Sucio are central, not to mention heart-warming as they go through difficult times together, struggle to make the right decisions but stand by each other no matter what happens. CHIN MUSIC RHUBARB reads like a fun 80s movie; think St. Elmo’s Fire or Karate Kid. Hearty laughs, tears of happiness along with a feel-good redemption story make this a YA fan favorite.
I highly recommend CHIN MUSIC RHUBARB. I received a bunch of ARCs from publishers looking for reviews this year, but I was intrigued by this one as it is by the same author who wrote DIVIDE THE DAWN, one of my favorites last year.
~Special thanks to the publisher for the ARC.