Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Payback Time by Cark Deuker YP FIC DEUKER

I’m not a big reader of young adult literature, so this year, to widen my horizons, I’m tackling the 2011 Lone Star Reading List, a bibiliography of recommended reading for grades 6-8 that's put out every year by public and school librarians from the Texas Library Association's Young Adult Round Table.

It's been a good experience, one that's opened my eyes to the type of YA books I like (e.g. Ally Carter's Heist Society and Francisco X. Stork's, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors) and the kinds I don't particularly care for, which turn out to be of those of the overly melodramatic, "OMG-my-life-is-totally-ruined" ilk (e.g.Tera Lynn Childs' Forgive My Fins). I'm happy to report I most recently finished one that I like: Carl Deuker's Payback Time, which made for a fun mystery against the backdrop of high school sports.

Deuker, a Seattle school teacher and longtime sports fan, often incorporates athletics into his YA novels, which also include Gym Candy, Runner and Heart of a Champion (all three of which the library has under YP FIC DEUKER). Payback Time, however, takes place from the perspective of a non-athlete. Meet high school journalist Mitch True, who describes himself thusly:

"I'm five four and I weigh 180. Okay, 190. Okay, 200 ... three months ago. I've got wispy blond hair and skin the color of copy paper. Girls don't chase me down halls."

Mitch dreams of one day seeing his byline in the New York Times covering Watergate-style scoops culled from back-alley sources. But fate has other plans his final year at Lincoln High School, located in Washington State. As the most prolific and senior reporter on the Lincoln Light staff, Mitch thinks he's a shoe-in for getting elected editor. Sorry, Mitch. No one ever said the path to a Pulitzer was easy. Not only does he lose out on the editorship, he doesn't even get to stay lead reporter; he gets shoved onto the sports beat.

Miserable, Mitch slowly begins making the rounds of the athletics departments, of which — not unlike Texas — football is king. He's shocked to find a domineering football coach who essentially tells Mitch that he can only write what the coach allows him to write. But the news gods finally throw Mitch a bone in the form of mysterious new football player Angel Marichal. While watching an early practice, Mitch immediately catches onto Angel's stellar skills but is puzzled to find Angel hides his abilities, passing himself off as a mediocre player.

This gets Mitch's reporter senses tingling and sets up his quest to unearth Angel's backstory. He's aided by Kimi Yon, the beautiful staff photographer assigned to cover sports with Mitch. Mitch spends the school year hunting down leads and testing his various theories on Angel's origins and why the football coach keeps him inexplicably benched most games.

Overall, it's a realistic, engaging portrayal of how a young journalist follows what he senses is a big story, and the mistakes and successes he finds along the way. There are no lucky strikes of information; Mitch does his investigation the old-fashioned way, pounding the pavement, developing sources and following the paper trail. Mitch comes across as an everyman (wanting to impress Kimi, he starts exercising to lose weight) who finds purpose in what could otherwise have been a senior-year disappointment for him.

His determination is admirable; like any good reporter, he doesn't let dead-ends faze him but he also knows when to change directions and tactics. When met by snarling figures of authority, he does get scared and intimidated but, like the athletes he covers, he also always finds a way to rally.

For me, the weakest moments of the story were actually its depiction of the football games themselves. Deuker's descriptions of the game may very well be thrilling to those with even an inkling of gridiron lingo but to me, a stranger to the game, those passages might as well have been in Klingon. I found myself skimming them but do not feel like doing so subtracted from the book. The real action takes place off the field.

I also take issue with the role (or lack therof) that adults play in the story. At no point does Mitch consult his journalism teacher — or any other adult, for that matter — on how he should proceed with Angel's story, even when real danger enters into the equation. He even keeps his editor, a fellow student, in the dark. And when sinister forces seem to be at work thwarting Mitch's freelance sport stories for the Seattle Times, making him seem like he's either incompetent or fabricating his stories outright, the Times sports editor merely complains to Mitch rather than firing him altogether. That just doesn't seem like it would fly in a real newsroom.

But those are small quibbles in an otherwise well-written story that kept me reading, wanting to know Angel's secret and how Mitch would put the pieces together to solve them.

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