Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Summer 2012 Reads and Some Thoughts on Sports Fiction

What's the best book you read this summer?

For me, it was Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Every once and a while I read a book and think "I wish I could write a book this good." Code Name Verity is exactly this type of book. From the beautiful and often times humorous prose, to the multiple plot twists, to the careful historical research, to the honest, emotional and down right sassy narration, this book is a great read for YA readers and adults.

So what's it about? That's a tough question without giving too much away. (I can't even tell you one of the main characters names without spoiling parts of the plot.) That being said, Code Name Verity is an engaging read with strong female characters. Find a copy at the library, a bookstore, kindle, I don't care where you get it, but you really should read this book!

The book On the Jellicoe Road came in a close second. I highly recommend that one as well.

Other notable books:

I love books about sports. Shocking I know, since one of my work-in-progress manuscripts is about the Olympics and the other is a ghost story in which the main characters are a cheerleader turned track star and a ghost (who was a track star in her own right while alive).

If you are looking for sports themed books, here are a few of the best I came across this summer.

Gold, by Chris Cleave (adult fiction)
The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen (YA fiction)
Catching Jordan, by Miranda Kenneally (YA fiction)

There is also the Dairy Queen series, which I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) last summer.

Truth be told, I'm not the best book reviewer out there. I did write a review of Gold for Goodreads that I was pretty proud of, but rather than rehashing the plot of the above three novels, which you could find anywhere, I'd like to provide a little insight into what I think makes a good sports themed novel.

So...I'm a writer and if you've looked at the about me picture on my blog you know that I can do a cartwheel (or 25 of them on the beaches of Spain, but that's another story for another day.) I was a three season varsity athlete in middle school and high school. I have 5 DIII collegiate varsity letters (1 in soccer and 4 in track and field) and I am a red belt in martial arts (hopefully I will get my brown belt in October!) Basically, I love sports.

That being said, when I was a teen, there were very few sports themed books out there and of those that were published at the time, the vast majority were geared toward boys. Title IX was passed in 1972. I remember thinking "if girls can play sports, why can't they read about them?" That thought combined with my interest in the Olympics led to Podium Finish (the Olympic themed work in progress I referenced above.)

So what makes good sports fiction? First of all, there has to be more to than plot than simply sport. Research helps too, as do character development and believable dialogue, though the last two are key to any kind of writing, not just sports fiction.

What do I mean by "more to the plot than simply sport?" Take Gold, for example. In Gold, one of the main characters, Kate, is raising a child with leukemia. The other main character, Zoe, is dealing with memories of her brother's death, which occurred when both Zoe and her brother were children. Zoe engages in some risky/reckless behavior and her friends and coach worry what will happen once the two-time gold medalist has to retire from the sport.

Gold also tackles friendship, family as well as the coach/athlete relationship which is also important in sports fiction. My favorite character in Gold Tom, the coach. Coaches play a huge role in athletes' lives, and many times what happens off the field effects practice (whether athletes and coaches want it to or not), so it is important for a coach to know his athletes well.

RESEARCH: Chris Cleave researched cycling in order to make the sports aspects of the novel more believable. I read somewhere that he even trained while writing. His descriptions of how the body feels when racing and what it feels like to be on a bike greatly benefited from this research. Cleave has a beautiful prose style as it is, but when it comes to writing about sports, athlete readers will call your bluff if you haven't done your research. We can see the importance of research in The Running Dream as well.

The Running Dream involves an up-and-coming runner who loses her leg below the knee in a bus accident. Like Cleave's novel, The Running Dream is well-researched in regards to the recovery process and how one is fitted with a prosthetic limb. These details could have been glossed over, but I'm glad they weren't. This insider knowledge adds a sense of authenticity to the novel. Also, The Running Dream highlights character development. The main character vacillates from self-pity and the desire for independence to the realization that she wants to run again and can't achieve this goal on her own. I appreciated the array of emotions. I know some writing teachers what to see nice clean-cut character change, but let's be real here, no one, especially not teenage girls, goes form emotion A to emotion B smoothly (and given the main character's situation, if she had, readers would have called the bluff; therefore, the vacillation was realistic and made the character change at the end of the novel believable). Our emotions are like little roller coaster rides. We go up and down, back and forth and at the end of it all, hopefully we've come out of the situation a better, more mature person. Without spoiling the plot, in the end, the narrator does run again, and she finds a clever way to give back to a classmate who, due to her cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair and cannot run.

DIALOGUE: I said earlier that character development and believable dialogue are important to writing in general, not just sports fiction. Dialogue has to move the story forward. It has to tell us something about the character or it might as well be cut. I loved the dialogue in Catching Jordan. The scene where Jordan and Henry become parents to Jerry Rice, a mechanical baby given to them in family and consumer science class is wonderful. There is funny banter (present in that scene as well as throughout the book) that not only makes the characters themselves likable, but calls attention to their friendship. Jordan's relationship with Sam Henry reminds me of the classic writing advice "show, don't tell." We are shown what close friends they are from the onset. The dialogue helps our understanding of who these characters are. Personally, I admire the dialogue in this book because showing a friendship between characters is harder than telling about it. Novice writers tell. Experienced writers show.

As a side note, my mom teaches Family and Consumer Science and has brought the mechanical babies home a couple times. My favorite moment was her holding one up and saying "and this is my crack baby" like she was Vanna White showing off a prize. She has a fetal alcohol syndrome baby too, and for one night, a little over a year or so ago, I had three fake infant siblings. Luckily she was able to shut them off so we didn't have to do nightly feedings and diaper changes like she expected her students to. (For the record, my mom is an awesome teacher. She was Teacher of the Year in 2011.)

If you've read this far, thanks for putting up with a somewhat dry post. I hope you were motivated to read the books I referenced. In case anyone is curious about my works in progress, especially Podium Finish, I hope to put up more info about them once I get the hang of formatting my blog.


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