Let’s Play Ball (a novel)

Linda Gould

iUniverse, 2010

248 pages, Fiction

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

 

A world of political and international intrigue set against the backdrop of Major League Baseball. Kidnappings, secret missions to Cuba, backroom deals between heads of governments, and the World Series. Sounds like a great recipe for a vivid, high-stakes political thriller. When a Cuban-born professional baseball player is kidnapped and shows up on Cuban television, an international crisis begins and Miranda, an American government bureaucrat is stuck in the middle.

In Let’s Play Ball, author Linda Gould has created a fictional world layered upon our existing system. We have Major League Baseball, but instead of the New York Yankees, we have the New York Broadways. Instead of the Washington Nationals, it’s the Filibusters.  Castro is mentioned, having lost power after 45 years, which would place the story in the year 2004, but the line between reality and fiction in warped.

In this world, Cuba is a communist country with a dictator named Ramirez, and the U.S. has a Bush-like president who laments tyranny while threatening shock and awe against the tiny, relatively defenseless island. But these world leaders are motivated by jealousy and hurt feelings instead of global and economic politics.

In this world we have a MLB owner who vows to rescue the Cuban people, opposing players who drink champagne in the winning team’s locker room and then accuse the world champs of cheating (providing no evidence whatsoever). There is a professional sports league filled with racism and petty squabbles – okay that’s not much of a stretch.

I struggled with a lot of the choices the author made in designing her fictional based-on-real world. One wonders if the author knows there is no Cuban Embassy on U.S. soil? And if she does, it makes sense to put one in the book to avoid explaining why. After all, this is not a book about Cuban-American politics. The idea of going to war with Cuba – real war, a shock and awe military engagement is ludicrous even in 2004. Calling Cubans terrorists is a bit of a stretch. The frequent reference to spicy Cuban food made this Cuban (yes, this reviewer is ½ Cuban) wonder if the author has ever had Cuban cuisine (Cuban food is not spicy!) or was simply confusing Cuban food with Mexican food (yes, there is a big difference!).

She refers to small ball as “little ball” but we don’t know if this is accidental, or part of her alternate reality. And what is Oprah Winfrey doing in the middle of all this??

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the author gives us no character to root for – no one we can identify with. The protagonist, Miranda, cheats on her husband and we’re supposed to like her. She’s emotional, sobbing and wanting to be loved – but pregnant by another man. Her husband is cheating on her too – and the woman he’s cheating with? She’s cheating! Miranda is a dishonest person who routinely spies on her husband by reading his email, and gets aroused at the sight of her sister’s husband. It’s impossible to cheer for a character like that.

The author creates such a tenuous web of gossip, unfaithfulness, conspiracy, politics and baseball that you need Glenn Beck to draw it all out on a chalkboard. So many conspiracy theories are tossed around that it’s hard to remember what is really going on.  The flaw is that we’re never in the middle of the action – we are constantly relying on second-hand rumor and speculation from dishonest characters – we never actually see any of these deals go down.

It becomes a book about pregnancy, fidelity and trust, with more hormones than intrigue. A bitter tone, with constant bickering centering around the fate of a self-proclaimed “horny bastard” who hates Spics. What begin as a Clancy story becomes more like Days of Our Lives. What starts out as a high-stakes political thriller becomes nothing more than two sisters passing rumors and gossip.

The biggest flaw is that the book does not feel finished. It ends decisively, but it feels like a second draft. Not polished.  It needs a fact check, and a chance to flush out the most interesting parts of the story: the kidnappings, the conspiracy, the secret mission…we need to see these things! We’re told later, after the fact. Through rumor and speculation. A classic mistake of telling vs. showing.

Imagine a movie where Luke Skywalker tells Yoda about everything that happened on the Death Star. Wouldn’t it be more exciting to actually see those events unfold? To experience them for yourself? That’s what’s lacking.

I struggled with the score 2 ½ stars feels generous – but Gould has fine command of the language. She writes well but in this case, failed to tell a compelling story.

Let’s Play Ball is available from Amazon.

Reviewed by Mark McGinty, October 2010.

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2 Responses to Let’s Play Ball (a novel)

  1. Linda Gould says:

    Mark,

    I hope that after that rather thorough beat-down, you will permit me at least a brief response to explain what I was trying to accomplish with Let’s Play Ball.

    It seems to me that the reader of a novel that isn’t set in the present time must suspend disbelief at least long enough to enter the author’s fantasy world, and recognize it as such. The Cuba I was writing about does not exist, and may never exist. I am aware that the real Cuba does not have full diplomatic relations with the United States. (There is, however, a Cuban Interests Mission in Washington.) The White House I was writing about is certainly not the current one. And Washington, D. C. does not at present have a championship baseball team. (That might be the biggest stretch of all). It was careless of me to throw out the “forty-five years” remark, which muddies the fact that the story is set in a future time─certainly not 2004.

    Further, I have sampled Cuban cuisine, and while I understand it is not at all like Mexican cooking, I was referring to the possible effect of such ingredients as heavy garlic, oregano, onion and green peppers on a pregnant woman. And what’s wrong with the expression “little ball”? That’s what some of us here in NatsTown call it (okay, maybe a tad sarcastically).

    I understand your point about too much action taking place behind the scenes. But I was simply not writing an action novel. The essential story is about two sisters and their struggles to find happiness. In that sense, it falls squarely into the “chicklit” genre. The spate of conspiracy theories generated by one of the sisters, most of them dead ends, are indeed the result of overactive hormones, as you noted. The only way the sisters can get close to the root of the crime is to penetrate another behind-the-scenes enclave of women. Under the circumstances, with so much female happiness at stake, why shouldn’t Oprah make a late appearance?

    One comment I must take strong exception to. Let’s Play Ball is not a “second draft.” Good or bad, it’s the product of several years, a tough critique group, a professional editor, and many, many drafts. If it fails as a story, it is still the best I could do. I would never have let it out otherwise.

    Mark, thanks for letting me respond. That is one of the best features of your blog.

    Linda

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