CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 2 . . . . September 9, 2011
When Toby hears Maddie's father make a deal with the new soccer coach to keep Maddie on the team in return for cash, he doesn't know what to do. The coach is tough; players on his team must give a 100% and have talent to play. Toby knows that he and Maddie are not up to the standards and would likely be cut – if not for the deal. Should he tell Maddie what her dad had done, or should he be happy that Maddie is able to play the game she loves – no matter the cost?
Award-winning author Robert Rayner has written a number of books for the "Sports Stories" series. As with many of his books, Rayner's Total Offence wraps the plot around the game of soccer. Rayner's understanding and love of the game shine through his fast-paced, detailed descriptions. The game sequences are the highlights of the novel.
The basic premise and moral dilemma presented by the plot are sound. The main characters, in the form of chubby Toby and clumsy soccer-loving Maddie, are also nicely drawn with personal foibles that could carry the plot forward. Similarly, Rayner has developed a strong, though stereotypical, set of secondary characters, including the stern no-nonsense professional player-turned-coach, Dean Wolfe, and the rest of the Hot Dogs. Unfortunately, he hamstrings the lot of them by forcing them to follow the too many plot lines, and, although he hints at personal motivation, other than Toby, he does not let his characters develop.
It is my opinion that Rayner dropped the proverbial ball or, more appropriately, he has thrown too many balls into play making it impossible for his team to decide which one was the game ball and which were decoys. The reader, not surprisingly, quickly becomes as confused as Rayner's characters as he does not know what to focus on.
Instead of sticking to what could have been a strong story line focussing on the players' reasons and struggles to stay on the soccer team, including struggling with weight issues, being physically fit, the issue of "talent" and the moral dilemma of bribery, Rayner also threw in the issues of team sponsorship, team morale, diner food, self-image, self-harm, and an obnoxious narcissistic District Health Coordinator. Is the story about Coach Wolfe's realization that a player's love of the game is as worthwhile an objective than winning, or is it about the importance of having healthy food available to kids or is it about adults being bad examples to children, or is it about friendships and secrets...? By having so many balls in play, Rayner handicapped his star players.
Rayner is an experienced writer capable of creating realistic characters and good plot development. The idea(s) in Total Offence could have been explored very successfully in several separate stories. The characters are likable, but they are not allowed to tell the story. Simply, the novel misses the net, not because of any weakness on the part of the team or a lack effort, but because of poor coaching.
Jonine Bergen is a librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.