Best of the Best. By Tim Green. Harper. $16.99.
Second Fiddle. By Rosanne Parry. Random House. $16.99.
The settings of these two books for preteens could not be more different, nor could their concerns. And while Tim Green’s is clearly designed to appeal mostly to boys, Rosanne Parry’s will be more attractive to girls. Yet at bottom, both books are dealing with the same basic issues: what it means to win, to succeed, and what one learns about oneself through difficult circumstances. In Best of the Best, the overt focus is sports, as usual in Green’s novels. This is his third featuring Josh LeBlanc and his friends Jaden and Benji, after Baseball Great (2009) and Rivals (2010). As in the previous books, Green is at his best when writing about sporting events: interactions among the characters tend to sound forced, and dialogue is self-consciously with-it, as when Benji tries to reassure Josh, whose parents are considering a divorce: “‘Your parents splitting up isn’t the end of the world. Look at me. There are advantages. …Dude, you can play one off against the other and pretty much get anything you want.’” The big problem here for Josh isn’t playing during the summer with an all-star team (although, again, the play-by-play is what Green does best) – it’s the possible splitting up of Josh’s parents, and his dad’s taking up with a woman named Diane, one of whose children – Zamboni – is really nasty to Josh, who in turn is really nasty to him, so they get into a fight, and…well, there isn’t very much unexpected on the interpersonal side here. Josh and Benji hatch a plan to use Skype to catch Zamboni doing something he shouldn’t, to give Josh a tactical advantage, but of course they find out something unexpected that changes Josh’s attitude toward Zamboni. The book reads as if Josh’s baseball playing, which is really his focus and Green’s, gets in the way of the interpersonal matters, rather than the other way around. “‘You can’t live your life in a constant state of bleeding,’” Josh’s mom says at one point, adding that her marital problem “has nothing to do with baseball. …This is life.’” Josh says that in that case, “‘baseball is way better. You know what you have to do and you either do it and you win, or you don’t and you lose. You know who’s for you because you all wear the same colors. Nobody changes teams during a baseball game.’” Green intends, of course, to show that baseball really is like life; whether he does so successfully will depend on just how much readers like the game and how believable they find Josh to be. Best of the Best is strictly for sports lovers who want some off-the-field melodrama to go with the on-field plays.
Second Fiddle is melodramatic, too, but considerably more intense and with a stronger emotional focus. Set in Berlin in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it too is a story of three friends: eighth-graders Jody, Vivian and Giselle. What binds them, though, is not sports but classical music: they are on the way to Paris for a competition in which they will play as a trio. And they are soon bound in another, more intense way as well: after their last lesson before the Paris trip, while walking together, they save a badly beaten Russian soldier from drowning, thus setting up a chain of events that will eventually involve “the KGB, the French National Police, and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe,” as Jody, the narrator, explains at the very start of the book. An elaborate plot to save the soldier by taking him with them to Paris lies at the heart of the book, whose plot becomes increasingly improbable as the girls learn more about the soldier, Arvo, who has told them he is a translator: “‘I am a translator who knows that renegade officers are selling poison gas to Iraq. It is not a happy thing to know.’” There is an air of reality to the book’s settings and some of the events – Parry and her soldier husband actually lived in Berlin when the Berlin Wall was coming down – but the characters never quite gel. Nor does the dialogue: “‘Our parents aren’t going to start worrying about us until Sunday night, when we don’t show up at the train station. That’s the main thing. They shouldn’t worry. We’ll get ourselves home and say we lost our passports. Our moms will be mad, but at least they won’t think– ’ ‘That we’re pathological liars who went to a foreign country with a total stranger, enemy soldier, thief, horrible bad guy –’ ‘Right. That would be bad. Let’s not tell them that.’” The line between humor and drama is a little too thin in Second Fiddle, and the ending, in which Jody comes out a winner in almost all ways (and pretty much everyone else does, too), is a little too pat. But the time and locations are exotic enough to appeal to many preteen girls, and the through-thick-and-thin friendship of the eighth-grade trio will be very satisfying to many readers, too.