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Gr. 8^-12. In this promising if uneven first novel by an Australian writer, two teenage brothers from a working-class family (father unemployed but too proud to go on the dole, mother scrubbing floors) decide to do their part by signing on with a lowlife boxing promoter who stages semi-legal fights between untrained youths who are only paid if they win. Ruben Wolfe, the charismatic older brother, knocks out his opponents without breaking a sweat; Cameron, the sensitive younger brother and the story's narrator, lacks talent but fights on guts alone, usually losing but collecting "tips" from fans who respect his ability to keep getting up after being knocked down. If you smell metaphor here, your sinuses are clear. Like so many talented first novelists, Zusak must overcome the tendency to overwrite. He tells a dramatic story and effectively brings his characters to full-bodied life, but he can't resist the temptation to use Cameron's voice to wax poetic ("the lecherous soul that is my youth"). Similarly, he can't quite keep his thumb off the narrative scales, interrupting the tale to have Cameron remind us where to look for meaning: "We want to take the struggle and rise above it." When the neon "author's message" sign stops flashing, however, there is a powerful novel here demanding our attention. As we move inevitably toward the mock-Rocky ending--the boys must fight each other--Zusak lets the tale take over and, in the process, reveals more about pride and the struggle to know oneself than do all his author's messages combined. --Bill Ott
School Library Journal
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Gr 7 Up-The Wolfe family has more than its share of problems. Injured in a plumbing accident, the father is unemployed. The mother works extra jobs to help make ends meet. Sister Sarah is an alcoholic. Eldest brother Steve keeps himself emotionally distanced from everyone as he bides his time waiting for an opportunity to escape. Cameron and Ruben are close, almost inseparable, supporting one another. Despite their hardships, the Wolfes maintain a steadfast pride and determination to survive. The story, narrated by Cameron, centers on his relationship with Ruben, who is everything the younger sibling wants to be but is not. Looking to make a financial contribution to the family, the boys encounter a shady boxing promoter who convinces them to fight for money. Aggressive Ruben, who enjoys a good altercation anyway, is enthusiastic. For him, boxing is a way to prove himself. Cameron is petrified, but he goes along with his brother. Predictably, the two brothers face one another in the ring in a climactic scene in which Cameron confronts his feelings about Ruben and himself. Fighting Ruben Wolfe has an intriguing premise that is never fully realized. The characters are only superficially developed, as are the dynamics among the other family members. It is difficult to care about the characters or their situations, and the lack of resolution at the end will leave readers disappointed. A novel that begins with promise but never makes it past the first round.-Edward Sullivan, Langston Hughes Library, Clinton, TN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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In earthy, working-class dialect, Australian novelist Zusak offers a lot of sports action as well as a sensitive inspection of sibling relationships and family pride. Times are tough for the Wolfe family now that Mr. Wolfe, a plumber, has been injured on the job ("He's half a man, because it seems that when a man can't work and when his wife and kids earn all the money, a man becomes half a man"). While narrator Cameron tends to keep his family's troubles locked inside, his brother Ruben lashes out with his fists. So, when a classmate taunts the boys with a derogatory remark about their sister, who has been "gettin' around a bit," Ruben pummels him. News of the fight spreads, and, a few days later, Ruben and Cameron, who has "heart" ("People throw money into the ring corners if they think you've got heart," says the organizer), are invited to participate in illegal boxing matches. Through Cameron's voice and observations of everything from family dinners to fights to dog races, Zusak compellingly relates how the two brothers respond differently to internal and external conflicts. While Cameron lives in fear, Ruben grows increasingly hardened. The moment of truth comes when Cameron and Ruben are forced to meet each other in the ring. It's a somewhat overneat ending to an often provocative book. Ages 10-up. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved