Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Faltrain's graceful but the football...?

Another book for the girls this week. Actually, technically, its books. Australian author, Cath Crowley’s Gracie Faltrain series. It’s popular YA fiction, it’s a trilogy, its about football and its for girls which makes it almost unique. In having all this, it should be applauded. Should it though? Is it deserving of a place on the football fiction shelf?

In contrast to last week’s review I started reading book 1, The Life and Times…, expecting it to be spectacular. Gracie is a winner. But from thesimplestgame’s perspective it’s far from spectacular. We meet GF in Year 8 (aged 13, I think). She’s been playing in the football team for three years and she’s having trouble. Her best friend moves away, she fancies the unattainable smiling hunk and doesn’t see the quiet achiever beside her. He’s having his own problems right enough. Then school bitch gives her a hard time, things on the park get positively monstrous (not just because she won’t play nice with the other kids) and her Mum and Dad look like they’re in trouble too. All ingredient boxes ticked then for a mill run teen angst story.

Where Gracie scores is for readers not necessarily interested in football. They will read it, swallow it whole, I’d imagine. It’s a genuinely earnest and engaging book. It's good and the issues - real issues affecting girls (well as a boy what I would imagine the real issues girls face) are dealt with, eh… realistically? Better than that, in doing her thing Gracie has the potential to turn a whole new audience on to football. And the people at thesimplestgame are all for that.
Unfortunately discerning football fans will have put it down after the first 20 pages. I almost did.

Good characters with emotional depth kept me there. They are Crowley’s strong suit. The story, told from a number of characters points of view, has great form and reads well too. But the football is rotten. Almost criminal. Like pish. Poorly phrased, it lacks articulation, resonance and any semblance of the real thing.

I’ve chosen to focus on the first Gracie, but I’ve started the second, ...takes control, and if anything there seems to be even less football in it. The writing is improved. It seems everything but the football is getting better. The fact that it’s well written makes the football look even worse. We don’t kick goals, we score them. Gracie can’t make goals either.

Now, I read recently that Cath openly notes she's only ever played football once. I’ve also read that she was asked by her editors to put some football in her book about a girl playing football. So it’s no surprise that it lacks in the football stakes. Not exactly a promising sign.

Crowley’s work does, however, raise some interesting questions about grammar and use of language in writing football. To make it sound authentic and /or familiar to football fans it has to be written to populist conventions. The vernacular and the colloquialisms are as important as the football itself. If evidence is needed, look at the sports pages in any newspaper.

Having it grammatically correct isn’t important. The right thing to say is Manchester United is playing Arsenal, but to football fans the world over it’s not right. Man U are playing Arsenal. Football fiction should be written the way it’s reported in the papers except with narrative, plot, characters and depth. This is what Crowley has missed. It’s not enough to stand at the sidelines and learn some patter. This criticism could be put on the doorstep of the editors who told her to add the football. Ten minutes with any football pundit, not necessarily SBS’s Craig Foster, would’ve straightened them out and made a huge improvement to the book.

But even where the football isn’t the best, Gracie Faltrain raises some interesting questions about how football fiction is written and who’s writing it, so it gets a berth on the shelf. But it’s only rolled over the line, quite a come down from the postage stamp free kick I expected.

Cath Crowley's own site has all the books.
Or you could try Pan MacMillan.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sweet Feck All?

For a wee while Sweet FA was all I thought I'd be putting on the blog this week. School's back. I'm really busy. Still late and never and better, apologies for delays and the rest.

I am dilligently looking for football fiction, but I couldn't help feeling this week that I was looking for something in all the wrong places. A bit like the four women who lead the charge to take their football widow bitterness out on their men folk in Siobhan Curham's book Sweet FA.

I have to be honest I was fully expecting it to be absolutely shite. I was looking forward to having something to rip into. Something I could open up and tear a big lump off. But I couldn't. Now, it isn't the best example of football fiction, but it isn't the worst either.

It's in the same league as Karren Brady's woeful lipstick football fiction, but while Brady's books would be fighting with each other to avoid relegation. Curham's book would be in the play-offs for promotion.

'Whoah' I hear you say. And you'd be right too. 'Whoah' is exactly what I said. The book's content and lack of any real football bar it from being Championship material and the glory of a higher division would ultimately allude it, but there is something there. A couple of wee bubbles of questions popped into my mind when I was reading it, besides why I was reading it obviously, and that made it a worthwhile exercise.

On her official site Curham says its about a group of football widows. She writes,"I wanted to write a book that would appeal to all women. I was interested in the notion of a group of women who are feeling neglected and unfulfilled coming together to regain control of their own lives. Sweet FA is not just about seeking revenge, but it is also a story of friendship and the fulfilment of dreams. As Belle, Ginny, Anna and Maz embark upon their campaign of sabotage and retribution they also begin a journey of self-discovery that will change each of their lives forever. Deciding to follow their football-obsessed partners' example they each find a passion of their own to pursue. Belle decides to have an affair, Ginny learns to chill out, Maz attempts to become a fashion designer and Anna finally finds the courage to escape from her abusive relationship."

This is all true, but it's not what I was thinking when I was reading it. I did however let my mind run with the ball at it's feet and I was entertained for a wee while, but honestly I would much rather be reading something else.

Awright, so I should've looked at her site before I read it, but I'm not sorry I read it. Well not as sorry as I thought I would be. It's often funny and sometimes even evocative. Along with the writing, the characters are engaging. See the bit I myopically focussed on was the football-obsessed partners. And there wasn't enough of them. But that was to be expected. It was about the girls. Still it opens the door to a world of football fiction that I hadn't put a great deal of thought into. Footballer's wives and football widows. There's bound to be creeds of material there.

And then that made me think that there must be football widowers, ye know, fellas whose partners are obsessed with football. US all-star Mia Hamm's partner for example might be sick of football, I can't see it right enough but you get the point.

Curham's written a number of other books. They're most likely not for me. Even on the beach I'd prefer to read something with more substance or more football or both. If you're interested most book sellers on the net have them. Or have a look at Siobhan Curham's own site

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wallace, Schwarzer, Megs and an interview

The work of Messrs Montagnana-Wallace and Schwarzer have been highlighted here before. In March I reviewed the first Megs book, …The Vootball Kids and then last month just after its release I reviewed Scarves and Sombreros. Both books make great contributions to the world of football fiction and of course the shelves of childrens/young adult fiction in general. The focus here is on the first and I recently caught up with Neil Montagnana-Wallace to discuss Megs, Mark Schwarzer’s involvement and Neil’s own views on football fiction.

As he almost wistfully recounts ‘the old days’ and how much fun he had as a football playing youngster, Neil tells me the Megs stories are largely inspired by his own experiences. These memories were rather sharply brought into focus a couple of years ago with what was for Neil a bit of a nightmare experience in Rome. “I spent some time in Italy teaching English. It was really pretty difficult, but for one hour a day, we all played football. It was fantastic, the kids really had fun and it reminded me how much fun playing football is and, of course, of how international a game it is.”

From there he started developing the characters and storylines for the Megs books. “Planning the first Megs book,” he says, “was really the planning of the five of them. It seemed to take a long time, but it was probably the most fun part.”

The third book is due out in December this year, the fourth in June 2009 and the fifth and final book is scheduled for release in December 2009. I asked Neil if five books had always been his intention. He said, “We wanted to build momentum with the books. Rather than publish one and then try and sell it for two years, we figured we’d publish five over the same period. That way we keep things fresh, we keep the books current, we’ve always got something new to sell and we’ve got five products to sell rather than just one.”

“We did a promotional tour to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with the first book and then we had Mark for three days to help us promote Scarves and Sombreros in Perth and Adelaide. We took it to libraries and schools and we got a a pretty good reception but because we hadn’t been over there with the first one we were really selling two books.”

Neil’s response, when I asked how it had went, was “Great. Kids love it, parents love it too. We get emails from kids and parents all the time. The challenge for us is to communicate it. To get people to read the books.” At the moment there aren’t any tour plans for the third but big plans with Mark are afoot for the fourth.

Mark Schwarzer got involved, partly because he knew Neil through his authorship of, Our Socceroos, a book Neil and his partner at Bounce worked on for two years and partly because Mark had been considering a book of his own – a children’s picture book which Neil hinted we may still see in some shape or form in the not too distant future.
The lads met face to face for the first time in 2005 when Australia played Germany in Italy in the Confederation Cup. With both of them looking to write football fiction for kids and both having something valuable to contribute in terms of their own experience things simply grew from there. They’ve certainly produced a book of two halves. A series of books in fact.

One of the strongest aspects of the book is the very likeable central character. Megs isn’t a superstar, he has skills and he’s a good lad but in every other way he is an ordinary kid who simply loves his football. Neil says, “it was a conscious decision to make Megs an accessible character. I wanted him to be what I like to think I was like myself,” he says and laughs. “It’s obviously egocentric to write that way, but he is the best bits of what I really do think I was like. I see a lot of myself in him, but Mark says the same thing. He sees a lot of himself and what he contributed in Megs too. We also obviously see a lot of what I invented, but there are bits from other kids and people we know which bring the puzzle together. I think that’s part of Megs appeal.”

It’s true, Megs is an everyman kind of character, well at least an every lad. Footballers and fans the world over at any level will be able to see a bit of themselves or their hopes and aspirations in him. I imagine it’s what makes it fun for kids too.

As far as a defined football fiction market, Neil wasn’t sure why there are so few examples, but he did say he was, “glad there aren’t too many to be honest. There’s less competition and it means our work will get more attention hopefully.” Though he did add that Pan MacMillan have a football celebrity and a writer project in development for the UK market and that he’d picked up a couple of examples in the US market on a trip himself recently, so there are more examples out there and signs that, for kids at least, the market is expanding. I’ll hopefully bring them to you through this blog.

In the meantime TheSimplestGame would like to extend its gratitude to Mr Montagnana-Wallace for his time and for writing his football books. Thanks obviously go to Mr Schwarzer for his contribution and for using his status in the game to do more than make big wages. Good work both of you.

I'm looking forward to seeing where the series goes from here.

The books are available through Pan MacMillan, Bounce Books or any good bookshop.

Fans can join the Penendale Wanderers (Megs team) on the the Megs Website, they can email Mark, Neil or Megs himself. There’s a shed-load of prizes up for grabs including signed jerseys and books and all.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Some Tartan football fiction

Talking about other people's football fiction is one thing. I thought I'd put a wee bit of my own on the blog to eh, ye know, level the playing field (...ouch). I wrote it last year (it was in a draft of Some Tartan Hyde, a novel I'm still looking to get published). It will also provide the basis for a short story I'm working on. It's the view from the pitch and it's very rarely used in football fiction, especially when it's about very ordinary football.

Their man in the centre of the park is strutting his stuff. He has a lovely touch on the ball; he’s pointing at his teammates and spraying passes about. Fancies himself as a midfield dynamo. He won’t last; he can’t. Not at this pace. And a couple of the boys, myself included, have given him a good dunt already, so he won’t.

One of their defenders puts a tidy pass to his feet. Under control, he’s trapped it and stroked it like it was his only love. Inch perfect, their forward, the boy I’ve been chasing after, steady's himself before he lays out the return pass. The ball completes the perfect isosceles triangle. The dynamo zips into the space and collects the ball like he’s been transported Star Trek style from deep in his own half. Zooming towards me, his only mistake so far is that he’s not looked up enough, not looked directly in front of him. Too busy looking to play it to someone else. He sways with the ball at his toes, left then right, then breaks left when he’s still looking right. Selling Mulheart the dummy, he skips out from under the untimely lunge. With Mulheart’s big body prostrate, the dynamo stops, picks his direction with a knitted brow and zooms off again. In a couple of short bursts, he’s dancing on the edge of our goal mouth to avoid the puffing, wheezing, clumsy tackles littering his feet and battering his ankles, he breathes in and pulls back to shoot. That’s when I step in.

I’m lucky. His view is all goal, until I fall into the picture. It isn’t exactly thief in the night stuff. Ordinarily he would have skipped away from me same as he’s done to everybody else. Sensing the danger of my momentum from the periphery, he’s faked the shot and tried to draw the ball back. Give himself some space. I should’ve blown past him. Being so slow, I catch him off guard. By accident. Trailing his foot to drop another feint and turn past me has left him exposed, so when I mis-time my challenge and slide in, it looks like I’ve anticipated it. It’s an exceptional tackle, even better if I’d meant it. The ball momentarily trapped between us, pops up in front of me. Where he couldn’t keep his feet, I’m on mine, the ball at my toes, before I’ve even stopped sliding.

I use the momentum to carry me round his mate, who had been following in, and do a bit of zooming myself. The liberation and freedom at having won the ball inspires a trip to the furthest reaches of my own half. I keep motoring into theirs. I’ll never score. I’m a defender. I clear them out and stop others coming at us. It kind of feels unnatural to be this far forward. I push the ball ahead, lining it up for an unstoppable shot but, touch like an elephant; I’ve knocked it too far. Where I should have been pulling the trigger and pinging it, I take an over-stretched step and fluff the shot. Its wayward trajectory turns it into a chip into the box. Incredibly, Keef catches it crisply on his right foot and the volley smashes into their net. The lads, to a man, congratulate me on the tackle in our box and my clever, selfless touch to Keef. We’re one nothing up in a very tight game.

Right, any questions, comments or feedback would be gratefully accepted and considered. Even if you don't think I'll like them I'm still interested to hear them. Thanks for reading it.