Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Keeper by Mal Peet

When Paul Faustino of LA NACION flips on his tape recorder for an exclusive interview with El Gato — the phenomenal goalkeeper who single-handedly brought his team the World Cup — the seasoned reporter quickly learns that this will be no ordinary story. Instead, the legendary El Gato narrates a spellbinding tale that begins in the South American rainforest, where a ghostly but very real mentor, the Keeper, emerges to teach a poor, gawky boy the most thrilling secrets of the game.


Genre: sports

Rating: 5/5

Challenge: European Reading

Part sports drama, part coming of age, part ghost story, Keeper hits everything right. El Gato tells the story of how he escaped life in the jungles, but at the same time, he is aware he owes that background for making him what he is. There's his complicated relationship with his father, a simple man who doesn't understand the greater destiny surrounding his son and who eventually dies in a tragic way that is both pathetic and somehow understandable in his struggle against the jungle. Peet describes the technicality of football in such a way that it is both understandable and thrilling. We know from the very beginning that El Gato won the World Cup, but how he got there is still exciting. Peet doesn't get bogged down in every detail of El Gato's career and only focuses on the pivotal moments.

But the beauty of the story is the mysterious Keeper. It's no mystery he's otherworldly from the start, but just what he is isn't revealed until the end in a scene that will give you chills. He becomes a father figure to El Gato even though his father is a good man. He's a harsh taskmaster, but that's because he realizes that El Gato is the only one that can ultimately save him. Is the Keeper a ghost? Part of the jungle? Maybe a little of both.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Offsides by Erik Esckilsen

To Coach Dempsey, the Warriors teams and their Indian mascot symbolize the honor and glory of the Southwind High School athletic tradition. But soccer star Tom Gray sees little more than a denigrating cultural stereotype in the team’s mascot and the stern, war-painted Indian-head profile. As a Mohawk, Tom knows only too well the hardships Native Americans face in their struggle for respect. So when his father’s tragic death forces him and his mother to move to Southwind, Tom must make the decision of a lifetime: betray his family and heritage, or boycott Dempsey’s team and abandon the sport he loves.

(From Goodreads)

Genre: sports, contemporary

Rating: 4.5/5

Delightfully affective for such a short book, Offsides chronicles the struggle of Tom Gray, a teenage Mohawk dealing with the recent death of his father, his mother having to move with him to a new area and the biggest issue of all, having to decide how to handle the coach at his new school who fails to understand the offensiveness of the Native American mascot the team uses. This is harsh reality for Tom considering he's a star soccer player and loves the sport. Sticking with his beliefs rather than his love for being a soccer star, he makes an enemy of Coach Dempsey and soon finds himself the leader of a rag tag group of homeschool soccer players. The "geeks" are surprisingly non-stereotypical, as they're pretty good athletes and stick up for themselves. Tom finds a place in the group and finds himself drawn to Katya, a Russian girl who translates for their new "coach", the Russian owner of the novelty shop they gather at. 

The book very honestly deals with the issues that plague Native American reservations, from crime to poverty and you understand why the fight for taking down the mascot is such a personal issue about dignity for Tom and his mother. While Dempsey isn't trying to be disrespectful on purpose (and even proves to have a legitimate reason for wanting to keep the mascot), the mascot itself disrespects a people already hurting in many ways and fighting for respect. The book hints at, but doesn't address completely the fascinating aspect of Mohawk steel workers who have for generations worked fearlessly on highrise buildings and the author also shows a tantalizing, but unexplained understanding of the Russian football. The ending is a bit convenient with everything working out fairly well for Tom ultimately, but in using a sports novel to address bigger issues this book works wonderfully and doesn't fail to show a deep understanding of the game itself.

Changeling by Philippa Gregory

Italy, 1453. Seventeen-year-old Luca Vero is brilliant, gorgeous—and accused of heresy. Cast out of his religious order for using the new science to question old superstitious beliefs, Luca is recruited into a secret sect: The Order of the Dragon, commissioned by Pope Nicholas V to investigate evil and danger in its many forms, and strange occurrences across Europe, in this year—the end of days. Isolde is a seventeen-year-old girl shut up in a nunnery so she can’t inherit any of her father’s estate. As the nuns walk in their sleep and see strange visions, Isolde is accused of witchcraft—and Luca is sent to investigate her, but finds himself plotting her escape 

(From Goodreads)

Genre: historic fantasy

Rating: 3/5

This wasn't a bad book, just sort of disjointed. First off, we have a pretty, almost romance novel-esque cover going on here. And the placing of the female into the forefront is oddly appropriate as the main hero Luca is really fairly one dimensional. He tends to not be forceful and allows everyone around him to seemingly push him one way or the other in his investigations, possibly because if he didn't there'd be nothing for the minor characters to do and the mysteries as they are would be wrapped up too quickly. As it was, there are actually two separate plots of mystery in this book, short though it may be, the first one involving Isolde, the second a werewolf. In both cases it was the secondary characters who seem to actually know what's going on. Luca and Isolde seem rather doomed to wander around being pretty and not actually doing all that much. There's some underlying nonsense about Luca actually being a supernatural creature since he's so pretty and accused of being a "changeling", but it never really goes anywhere. There's also an unexplained indication that Isolde or her servant Ishraq (who we are reminded is not a slave every three paragraphs) can actually use magic. 

Any way around it, the book is harmless and unoffensive but forgettable, which is a shame considering the premise and the fact that there is a definite undercurrent that the author knows something about the time period, or at least enough that the book could have had a Tudor-esque historical fantasy flair.