I'm not sure how I got the idea, but before reading the book I thought it would be about a somewhat prankster screw-up and his adventures (maybe from the title). The story, however, is surprisingly a lot smarter/nerdier and more heartwarming than that.
Alton, the main character, is a fairly normal 17-year-old boy, with pretty conniving and pessimistic parents and a strong relationship with his smart 11-year-old sister. This bond is actually one of my favourite aspects of the book. There isn't the constant bickering or annoying dismissal that can be typical in other books. In fact, Alton regards her with the respect of someone close to his own age and introduces and encourages her enthusiasm for bridge. His great-uncle Lester Trapp (or Trapp, as he begins to call him) was another of my favourite characters. He's grumpy, he's clever, he calls Alton a "donkey" when he does something idiotic, yet he encourages Alton's "philosophical bend". I was surprised and sad when he died, because I wasn't expecting that at all, and just when I was really starting to love the character.
The book can read like one for a slightly younger audience even though Alton himself is a junior in high school, and there isn't a great emotional range to it. However, the details regarding bridge would probably appeal only to those who find complex non-action interesting. Sachar is completely aware of this:
I realize that reading about a bridge game isn't exactly thrilling. No one's going to make a movie out of it. Bridge is like chess. A great chess player moves his pawn up one square, and for the .0001 percent of the population who understand what just happened, it was the football equivalent of intercepting a pass and running it back for a touchdown. But for the rest of us, it was still just a pawn going from a black square to a white one. Or, getting back to bridge, it was Trapp playing the six of diamonds instead of the two of clubs.
For myself, it piqued my interest in a card game I knew basically nothing about, and I now have an admiration for bridge players. While reading this book, you can definitely sense Sachar's enthusiasm for what I frankly thought was an "old-person thing", and now I wouldn't mind actually learning how to play.
Nicely done, Sachar.