Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: THE FOURTH STALL by Chris Rylander

First Paragraph(s): You need something? 
I can get it for you. 
You have a problem? 
I can solve it. 
That’s why they come to me. By “they” I mean every kid in the school. First graders up to eighth graders. Everyone comes to me for help, and most of the time I’m happy to provide it. For a small fee of course. 
My office is located in the East Wing boys’ bathroom, fourth stall from the high window. My office hours are during early recess, lunch, and afternoon recess.

Hi there, Esteemed Reader. I hope you enjoyed the holiday. I spent my long weekend being one of the very first people anywhere to read the third Ashfall book by Mike Mullin. It's everything fans are hoping it will be and more, or at least it will be once I give Mike my critique notes:) I can't talk about that book other than to say how amazed I was to learn the entire trilogy was a dream Alex had:)

Today, instead, we're going to discuss a book I can talk about and for once it's not Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, though we'll be talking about that one tomorrow. And Thursday author Chris Rylander will be here to face the 7 Questions. It's going to be a great week.

I met Chris at a recent SCBWI conference. We didn't get much time to talk, unfortunately, as I had to get to a session taught by Kathi Appelt. As she knows my name, I didn't want to walk in late and be called out. But I'll definitively be looking out for Chris at another conference, as anyone who writes a book as enjoyable as The Fourth Stall is someone I want to get to know better. Also, anyone who drops casual references to both Quantum Leap (one of the Ninja's all-time favorites) and MacGyver in his fiction is definitely in my cool book.

Chris Rylander wants to make you an offer you can't refuse: read the first chapter of The Fourth Stall, and you won't be able to resist devouring the whole book and rushing back to get Parts II and III. Would-be-middle-grade-writers, which is most of you Esteemed Readers, take note: as The Fourth Stall is a crime saga, there is apparently no genre for adults that cannot be adopted to a story for children. I haven't read the middle grade Naked Lunch yet, but I'll find it one day and when I do I'll review it here.

Meet our hero:

My real name is Christian Barrett, but everyone calls me Mac. Mac is short for MacGyver. This eighth grader, Billy Benson, called me that once, and it stuck. Now it’s just Mac, because people are lazy.

If this story had a Godfather or a Don, Mac is he. If a student has a problem they need taken care or, they can go see Mac in the fourth stall and request his extra legal assistance with said issue. Mac and his friends perform the service for a fee, and from time to time, they may call upon you for a favor. But don't worry, parents. Mac isn't handling actual crime, he's focused strictly on kid issues:

Anyways, I mostly handle easy stuff, like getting kids test answers, or forged hall passes and doctor’s notes, or video games that their parents won’t let them play, but every once in a while something tough comes my way. Like my last client on this particular Monday. His was one of the most difficult problems I ever faced.

Despite being a sixth grade gangster, Mac has his limits:

“I’m, well, I’ve been told that you could help me with anything, anything at all, right?” 
“Of course, as long as it doesn’t involve, like, killing a raccoon and then barbecuing it in the alley behind your house or something like that,” I said.

A little crime in a youngster's life is a good thing. Keep in mind, the Ninja is not officially a parent until later this year, but speaking as a former child, I had a run-in with organized crime at a young age. This blog isn't my confessional (besides, I'm saving the story for a book), but know I'm not proud of the part I played. That's not to say I'm not grateful for the lesson. 

By falling in briefly with the wrong crowd and having to worry which of them was going to rat me out, I inoculated myself against any future criminal activity. I don't commit crime, despite it's rewards, because I learned early on that the lifestyle of a criminal isn't one I want. I'm not always crazy about my day job, but it sure beats the nervous, fretful life of a person operating outside the law.

Rylander opens his crime story the way every crime story should open: by honestly demonstrating that crime does have it's short-term rewards. Mac and his best friend Vince have a life-long dream of seeing the Cubs play in the world series and thanks to their criminal organization, they almost have enough money for tickets. More than that, Mac is respected by his classmates and seems to always gain the upper hand in any situation. What kid wouldn't want to be Mac? 

But there's a new criminal in town: 

His age always varied from story to story, but it was generally agreed that he was now between fourteen and twenty. Some kids claimed that he could do forty pull-ups with two seventh graders dangling from each leg. Others said he could pop a tetherball with a single punch. He also supposedly ran a mile in under six minutes and was smarter than Albert Einstein and Hermione Granger combined. 
According to the legends, Staples had an intricate web of connections that spread throughout almost every high school, elementary school, and middle school in the city. He was even rumored to have people in the police department. He was untouchable. 
They say he used his network to operate an illegal gambling ring. He’d take bets for pro sporting events like football and baseball games, but he mostly took them for local middle school and high school sports games. He also fixed the games. That is, he paid kids to lose on purpose. To miss free throws and easy layups in basketball and fumble the ball in football games and stuff like that.

Worse yet, Staples doesn't share Mac's scruples and moral code:

one time Staples even threatened to kill this kid’s dog

In no time, Mac is forced to hire out bullies to "whack" a guy, which in this case, means beating him up and embarrassing him. From there, things only escalate. All sorts of misfortune befalls Mac and Vince as they learn what it is to tango with a true criminal element. As there are two sequels, I suppose they don't learn their lesson that well:) But being nearly intentionally run over by a red sports car while riding your bike home has to at least give a sixth grade mafioso pause. 

The Fourth Stall is tightly paced and a lot of fun. I recommend it for readers of all ages. Rylander maybe stretches the truth a bit about what misbehaving sixth graders can actually get away with, but the story never feels implausible. The characters and their struggle are real and the story is just realistic enough to feel like it might be happening in the next school over. 

Rylander tells a responsible story about how crime is both alluring and dangerous. As his young readers will sooner or later enter older grades and be faced with all sorts of temptations--they were there when I went and we didn't even have the internet--it's a good idea to prepare kids through the medium of a good story that packs some suspense and a lot of laughs. 

And crime doesn't pay (mostly) is not the only opinion Rylander is sneaking in. He also arranges for a little social commentary, including multiple references to the unfairness of the American class system, which is to be expected in a story about criminals. He's also got some thoughts on school board priorities:

Dickerson never ordered a new toilet because the process of doing so would just bring unwanted attention to the whole embarrassing ordeal. That, and the school had spent most of its money that year buying these cool Nike uniforms and tracksuits for all the sports teams.

And my personal favorite, a warning to all readers of the importance of nutrition: 

I heard a few years ago that he once kidnapped two cops and then made them eat three whole cases of doughnuts and two gallons of coffee and now they both have diabetes and no feet!

Goodness, me. I see we are out of review already. In closing, The Fourth Stall is a wonderful middle grade read and I have no doubt it is destined to be a classic in any genre. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages:

“Christian, think of it this way: It’s kind of like at the fair when you order a funnel cake and it’s all warm and greasy and covered in powdered sugar, and oh man, it’s so good. And then you eat it all and lick the sugar and grease off your fingers and it’s just delicious.” 
“What? How is it like that at all?” I said. 
“It’s not. I just really want a funnel cake right now,” he said, rubbing his stomach.

He was an eighth grader, the biggest kid at our school; he towered over the other students like an NBA player at a midget convention.

The recognition hit me like a medicine ball chest pass from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As soon as he lunged forward, I jumped from the middle of the teeter-totter onto the seat behind me. The other end fired up like a Chuck Norris roundhouse. I didn’t actually see what happened, because I was too busy making sure I landed on my feet, but I heard a crack that sounded like a baseball being crushed out of its skin by a wooden baseball bat.

Staples smiled. It was the sort of smile that a hyena might give a rotting zebra carcass.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 


  1. I think what makes this book so fun to read is how Chris nails the voice of Mac. It feels like it was written by a 12-year old. And I mean that in the best possible way!

  2. me to i agree but i also love the funny comments that Vince shares about what his grandmother would say

  3. i love that to but i also love how Vince adds comments about what would his grandmother would say


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.