BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After narrowly escaping the ghettos of the Middle East, a young man goes to a strange boys’ camp with his adopted brother Max, who loves to create masturbation innuendos and teach them to his friends and a talking crow called The Alex Crow, while another boy (who has been tested on by the same scientists as The Alex Crow) eventually goes on a killing spree.
PROS: Ariel’s emotional journey as a refugee into an adopted family; the life in his character cast; the humor
CONS: More interest in Ariel’s present story than his past and the other two POVs
Andrew Smith has created a fan base of readers who love to laugh and cry at things parents would find inappropriate. My first experience reading Smith was in Grasshopper Jungle, a story taglined as “praying mantis apocalypse in nowhere Iowa” (my tagline). I read it for the apocalyptic angle, but fell in love with it for the flowing narrative with its laugh out loud moments and surprisingly honest portrayal of a young man in love with his girlfriend and his male best friend. Smith teaches middle school, and not only does he know what teens are thinking, his teen protagonists are portrayed with unfailing honesty (and this includes sex), and are always easy to root for, in spite of their very human flaws, and in fact, because of them. Smith seems determined to write teens that are relatable and realistic, and I love him for it.
The Alex Crow takes place in an all boys camp where one young man finds creative expression in masturbation jokes, which are actually quite funny. This boy’s previously extinct crow, The Alex Crow, is suicidal and has been taught to say things like, “Leave me alone, I’m working out a long division problem…” The comic relief is balanced by the story of Ariel, a refugee who narrowly escapes cruelty at the hands of militants and orphans. Smith does a phenomenal job telling the story of Ariel’s journey and making us feel his sorrow and anguish. I don’t know if I would have survived.
The crow that has been brought back from extinction is an element of The Alex Crow’s science fiction thread, and there is something odd goings on at the boys’ camp that tie in with a story of a sailing voyage that discovered the Siberian Ice Man hundreds of years go. That storyline wasn’t as interesting as Ariel’s, and hurt my enjoyment level a bit, but it ties in nicely at the end, although it’s not equal in weight with Ariel’s affecting story of a young man searching for family.
The audiobook production narrated by MacLeod Andrews (who has experience in film and Broadway) is superb. I come to Andrew Smith stories to fully experience his characters, and was over the moon with Andrews’ ability to give them life through his voice, and he really wowed me with his performance. His accent for the Middle East scenes flows naturally as does his impersonation of the sole female at the camp for boys, an older nurse who puts on a friendly face even as the boys regale her with masturbation jokes.
I was very satisfied with The Alex Crow. No other author can make me laugh quite as much, and Smith once again showed me a young man’s heart, and made me love him in his honesty, made me laugh with him, and gave me a story I truly enjoyed, even when the difficult times were hard to swallow. Ultimately, The Alex Crow is a moving story about a boy finding love in his adopted family intertwined with the strange and wonderful twists that are a hallmark of Smith’s work.