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Book Reviews

Above All Else

by Jeff Ross

Underhand M.J. McIsaac

by M.J. McIsaac

Victoria’s Orca Book Publishers expands its Sports series with two new titles: Above All Else, which follows the drama on and off the soccer pitch, and Underhand, a lacrosse story involving two brothers. Aimed at reluctant teen readers, the books intersperse action-packed game sequences with mystery, romance, and dramatic tension. What stands out in both books is the sense that the authors understand teenagers, teenage boys in particular. Though the athletics angle is the initial draw, these narratives explore themes of sportsmanship, integrity, family, and friendship.

In Ottawa-based author Jeff Ross’s Above All Else, Del is the striker for the Cardinals, his high school soccer team. He’s keen and skilled, but his teammates are older, more competitive players who believe that winning is everything.

When the Cardinals lose an important game and a Cardinals player is attacked and left with a broken ankle, Del discovers how far some people will take the desire to win. Suspicion immediately falls on a member of the opposing team, but Del believes the boy is innocent and finds himself swept up in the search for the real perpetrator. During a crucial playoff game, Del suddenly realizes he can prove who is responsible for the heinous attack.

Ross, who teaches writing and English at Algonquin College and has written four other books for Orca, delivers convincing dialogue and off-field action, as well as intense sports scenes, all of which keep the story racing forward. The mystery element is slight but adds interest and suspense, and the scenario is entirely believable.

Rivalry and jealousy also rule the lacrosse arena in M.J. McIsaac’s Underhand. Marcus, the star of his team, has it all: a pretty girlfriend, a scholarship offer from an elite school, and the admiration of his teammates and parents. His younger brother Nick, who plays for the same team, seethes with resentment and wants everything Marcus has, including his girlfriend, Lindy, who acts as timekeeper at their games. When an error by Lindy leads to false allegations against Marcus, his scholarship is revoked, opening up a possibility for Nick to get the scholarship instead. But a nagging sense of loyalty and feelings of guilt about his jealousy move Nick to stand up for his falsely accused brother.

McIsaac proves she can create engaging, high-impact fiction, bringing a necessary edginess to the lacrosse scenes and antagonism between the players. Indeed, Underhand packs more of an emotional punch than Above All Else. Nick is also a more flawed but sympathetic character than Del, who is always the good guy. Both books, however, are successful in creating relatable teenagers and fast-paced plots that are a pleasure to read.