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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Home, Sweet Alcatraz

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Warning: This post will not contain spoilers for Al Capone Shines My Shoes, but it may inadvertently reveal plot elements from its predecessor, Al Capone Does My Shirts. As always, I recommend reading the first book in the series first.

Favors from Al Capone don't come cheap. That's what 12-year-old Moose Flanagan is discovering. After the notorious gangster helps him out with a little problem, Moose discovers a note in his laundry: Your turn. He should have known the favor would come with a price tag, but how much will Capone demand? What will he ask, and what will happen if Moose can't come up with an answer? His friends urge him to tell the warden, but Moose can't risk getting his dad fired, not during the Depression, not when his paycheck's keeping his sister in a good school for "special" people like her. Really, what choice does he have?

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko introduced readers to the kind-hearted Moose and his autistic older sister Natalie. Its sequel continues where the first book left off, taking us back to Alcatraz, circa 1935. The gang's still there - pesky Theresa; Jimmy, Moose's buddy who can't throw a baseball to save his life; Annie, who can; Piper, the warden's beautiful, conniving daughter; and Officer Darby, who thinks The Rock would be a lot better off without the Flanagans on it. With Natalie safely at the Esther P. Marinoff School in San Francisco, Moose can finally relax. Although he hates to admit it, it's nice having his parents to himself, and it's a relief not to have to drag Nat with him everywhere, constantly worrying about when she's going to throw her next fit. Now, he can spend his time thinking about the important things - baseball and Piper.

Then, comes the note from Capone. As worrisome as that is, the next note's even worse. Moose has to figure out how to meet the gangster's demands - failure to comply could mean bad, bad things for his family. The cons who fix his toilets, take out his trash and work in the warden's house seem overly chummy. Are they just being nice or are they Capone's spies? As if he doesn't have enough to worry about, Moose is also trying to keep his friends happy. "Blessed" with the niceness curse, he just can't help worrying about everybody - he doesn't understand Piper's surly moods (which are over-the-top, even for Piper); Jimmy's jealousy over a new friend; Annie's sudden attention; and Theresa's grudge against his intended. Moose's so stressed he's breaking out in hives. Then, he makes the most terrifying discovery of all, a secret that could mean Natalie's not safe at her new school. Things come to a head one terrifying night when Moose finds out - once again - that things are never quite what they seem on the mysterious island he calls home.

Although I didn't enjoy this book quite as much as the first, I still love this series. It's fresh and exciting, but also sensitive and moving. One blogger (I can't remember who - sorry) said she found these books disappointing at first because she thought they were going to be funny. While there are definitely lighthearted moments in the story, the books deal with serious topics and are more drama than comedy. This approach works very effectively, making Moose's adventures both amusing and touching. At its heart, the series is about a big-hearted boy who's devoted to playing baseball, helping his friends and, protecting his family - even when it means calling in a favor from the likes of Al Capone. It's also about dealing with autism, long before anyone really understood what it was. Mostly, it's about a kid doing the best he can to deal with life in his crazy, wonderful hometown - a place that just happens to be "an island with a billion birds, a ton of bird crap, a few dozen rifles, machine guns, and automatics, and 278 of America's worst criminals" (1). Home, sweet Alcatraz. If that's not enough to pull you in, consider yourself a lost cause. Or just read these books already.

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for some violence

To the FTC, with love: Ahhh ... the library ... I love it so.


  1. Totally did not read a word of this. :-) Have been wanting to read the first book for ages and now that there is a second I really need to get them both read! I also have a non-fiction book by a girl who lived on Alcatraz that I need to read. I should just have an Alcatraz themed reading week sometime soon.

  2. I skimmed it too because I just picked it up from the library yesterday! I've heard that they are so good!

  3. I've been waiting for the first book from the library for what seems like ages. Should have started reading them sooner.

  4. I still haven't read the first book -- which is on my daughter's shelf. So I'm not reading this review yet, either. :-)


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