________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 4. . . .September 28, 2012


Playing For Keeps. (Sports Stories).

Steven Sandor.
Toronto, ON: James Lorimer, 2012.
126 pp., pbk., hc. & Ebook, $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.), $7.95 (Ebook).
ISBN 978-1-4594-0066-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4594-0067-2 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-4594-0068-9 (Ebook).

Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.

Review by Yahong Chi.

** /4



One step towards the ball; a second step. Branko saw the left foot come through the ball. Branko guessed left, diving towards the post.

It was a good guess. The ball headed to his left, but fast. Thiessen had got all of it. Branko stretched out his arm as far as it could go. When the ball hit his fingertips, the goalkeeping gloves did little to stop the pain. Branko felt the nail on his middle finger rip away.

Then, he heard the thud of the ball off the post.

As he came to a crashing halt in a cloud of dust, Branko watched the ball pop off the post and start to float in the air. The ball flew over his head, shoulders and torso.

But it was as if his foot had a mind of its own. Branko lifted his right leg. The ball deflected off the back of his heel and away from goal. Even though he was down on his belly, he wasn't beaten.

Branko had stopped the ball twice on the same shot.



Branko's new to the small town of Morinville, AB, but even he knows that the hockey players are the only ones who get any attention. Even his only friend, Scottie, blogs about the Pelletier brothers' multiple goals on ice. But Branko just wants to make the Edmonton Selects soccer team, dreaming of playing professionally for his native country of Croatia. However, once he makes the team, he finds out he'll be playing back up to Brian, a bully of a boy. It feels to Branko like he'll never be enough to be part of this place.

     An authentic portrayal of hockey versus soccer along with a convincing immigrant story mark Playing For Keeps as truly Canadian. It's easy to feel Branko's antipathy towards our nation's sport: "The puck is so small you can't follow it. Everybody moves so quickly you can't follow the plays. And, the guys only play a minute at a time." In contrast, Branko's passion for soccer is clear in the drills he and his father repeat. The cultural link adds another dimension with Branko's father having played for the professional Croatian team. As well, Branko's djed, his grandfather, sends him Croatian sports magazines through the mail, rather than over the Internet, a quirk which makes his djed that much more realistic.

     However, the grief his father feels over the death of Branko's mother fails to reach any plausible level for the reader to empathize with. And from there, the problems break down to writing style and dialogue: Brian says, "Branko, I notice that you say 'we' a lot" ; Branko says, "Absolutely not" . Neither suit a 13 year old, nor does a seven sentence soliloquy from Branko in the last chapter on the differences between soccer goaltending and hockey goaltending. In addition, POV switches dot the story; while Branko is usually in control of the narration, readers are occasionally thrown into Scottie's, his father's or even Brian's heads.

     The sports action isn't lacking. Sandor wisely refrains from describing every game play by play and instead allows a penalty shootout to take the spotlight. A slow motion atmosphere permeates through the extended scene: "Branko dipped his right shoulder down, ever so slightly. Would the shooter bite? Would he pick up the subtle hint? Branko watched the shooter's eyes. The shooter looked away. I've got him, Branko thought."

     Playing For Keeps excels on the sports side, but technical issues keep this novel from being fully enjoyable.

Recommended with reservations.

Yahong Chi is a reader, writer and blogger in Ottawa, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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