Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Good Field, No Hit - Duane Decker's Beloved Blue Sox (Book Review)

As Michelle Nolan comments in Ball Tales, Duane Decker's "Blue Sox stories, originally published from 1947 to 1964 and reprinted into the early 1970s, are among the most cherished and best remembered sports books of the baby boom generation."  The books follow the fortunes of thirteen baseball players trying to make their major league fortunes through various challenges.  I found them at the John Ward School library, introduced them to my brother, and more recently shared them with my nephews.  I was delighted to hear that my eldest nephew Christopher had submitted a book report on the first book in the Blue Sox series - which I thought you would enjoy:
Good Field, No Hit

Have you ever played baseball? Have you ever played some heads up hustling baseball? Johnny Madigan has played in the bush leagues for six years. Six loooong years. Sportswriters everywhere have tagged him, Good Field, No Hit, for the way he guards third base, but his complete and utter lack of power at the plate. Johnny’s kid brother, Buzz, Is always convinced that someday Johnny will make it to the big leagues. Johnny is not so sure. This is why when the Blue Sox pick him up Johnny, it is like a dream come true. 

The Blue Sox are in desperate need of a third baseman, as their other one is washed up and over the hill. On the hard-hitting Blue Sox however, sometimes being a good fielder is not nearly enough. Especially when competing with a 6”4”, 250 pound, maniac named Mike Marnie, who  has got more power than anyone in the majors. This same monster is only half as good with his defence at third, but the longball is all that matters to Jug Slavin, coach of the Blue Sox. It looks like Johnny is going down to the Bluefield Clippers, a Blue Sox farm team in the middle of nowhere, for sure. Ol’ Jughead was a power hitting shortstop when he played in the league himself. This is probably why he had eyes for the talent of Mike Marnie of Johnny Madigan. As for Marnie he is pretty sure of himself. He even goes out of his way to be a jerk to Johnny because, “No team could hold both players. There was simply too\ much bad blood between them. The club would split up into sympathetic fractions, and no coach could allow that. Marnie had kept it that way since spring training. It was a good move from his side of the fence, even if it was a dirty pool.”

Just before what Johnny believes is his last game in the big leagues, Buzz stops him at the gate to the field and tells him that he has a hunch, a certain hunch, that today was the day that Johnny will finally make it into the lineup. At the time Johnny just laughs. He isn’t laughing when Mike sprains his ankle and Johnny comes into his first ever MLB game. Johnny is the starting third baseman until Mike gets healthy again, but the question is, can Johnny prove once and for all that he, not Mike, has what it takes to be a starting third baseman in the MLB. All the signs point to yes. Until one day, out of the blue, Johnny is affected by the common disease, rabbit earitus. Or in better known terms, a heckler. Hecklers are a breed of human who take great joy in knocking certain athletes off their game. Will Johnny be able to handle the pressure?  

This story is a classic example of the scrappy little guy against the big mean, knuckleheaded guy with just the right amount of perseverance, and the importance of following your dream.

I can definitely relate to Johnny as I play third base on my little league team to. I know from experience that a team player in the dugout, is ten times better than a good player on the field. A team player unifies a team. A self-first player breaks one up. 

This compulsive, fast paced, and explosive, baseball themed book by Duane Decker is one of the greatest books I have ever read. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes Matt Christopher books. Sadly it is extremely rare, and the only copies on Amazon are $389.99. One of the best books in Duane Decker’s Blue Sox series, this book will delight readers of all ages.  

Thank you for being a guest blogger, Christopher!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dominion by C. J. Sansom (Book Review & Giveaway)

Title: Dominion   
Author: C. J. Sansom
Publication Information: Hardcover, Mulholland Books (Hachette), February 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction   ISBN: 0316254916
Plot: Imagine if England had surrendered to Hitler.  In Sansom’s dark and convincing alternate history, it is 1952 and Germany is ruling England while Winston Churchill is hiding out from the authorities, encouraging a British Resistance. Newly recruited to the cause is David Fitzgerald, who has been surreptitiously passing along information obtained from his government job.  He kept his involvement from his wife whose family are ardent pacifists but that has created distance in his marriage, already strained by the death of their child.  When David’s Oxford friend Frank is committed to an asylum, both the Americans and Germans learn that Frank holds the key to a secret that could result in devastation to the whole world.  Only David can be trusted to rescue Frank, and as his cover is blown, he and his cohorts desperately try to escape with German agents in hot pursuit.

You can see the book trailer here, which is quite atmospheric.

Audience: Fans of Robert Harris’ Enigma, Alan Furst, and my old favorite, Anthony Price. Sansom is best known for his historical mysteries about Matthew Shardlake (the first of which I gave my mother for Christmas two years ago) but no previous knowledge of his work is needed to enjoy this book, one of just two standalones he has written.  You can buy the book here:     


What I liked:  This is a brilliantly depicted vision of what could have been, and even the minor characters are fully drawn and believable, particularly the secretary whose interest in David causes her downfall.  It’s a big, thick book (my favorite kind) and hard to put down.  It was the perfect read for a cold winter night (the last alternative history I liked this much was Black Hearts in Battersea).  It's a dark and deliberate journey to another world.

What I disliked:  I sympathized with the main character, David, but couldn’t really like him.  However, I forgot my feelings for him as I was drawn into the deadly chase, which included memorable scenes set in a pervasive, ominous London fog.  It takes a few minutes to acclimate oneself to lesser known historical characters, but then I sat back and enjoyed the blend of real and imaginary.  
Source: I received this book from the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours and urge you to stop by the tour to learn more about the author and various readers' interpretations of this book.   For one lucky person, I have a hardcover copy to give away (US/Canada only) – please leave a comment if you are interested, and I will pick a winner.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

What to Read in a Blizzard or During the Long Winter

My part of Boston got about ten inches of snow yesterday so it's the perfect time to recommend some winter favorites!  These are books that would make you feel the cold even if it were a warm July day.

Children's:

Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik (illustrated by Maurice Sendak) - This is one of the first books I remember, and I can hear my mother's voice reading to me:  It is cold.  See the snow. See the snow come down.  Little Bear said, "Mother Bear, I am cold. See the snow.  I want something to put on."

Snowbound with Betsy by Carolyn Haywood - Several years before I encountered Betsy Ray, I had met this other Betsy, an outgoing girl with pigtails and (later in the series) a little sister named Star.  I read every book by Haywood several times and even named my Teddy Bear after a minor character.  In this book, a storm cancels school the week before Christmas and some travelers are stranded at Betsy's home.   
Winter Cottage by Carol Ryrie Brink - A father and two daughters, down on their luck, appropriate a Wisconsin summer cottage when their car breaks down.  The father tries to repair their fortunes by entering contests while teenage Minty yearns for a permanent home.  Along with Two are Better Than One, this is my favorite Brink.

Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome - Perhaps my favorite of the Swallows & Amazons books.  No camping, the Amazons have the mumps so are snowbound, but that doesn't mean there are no adventures as snow and ice abound.  Dick and Dorothea are introduced as characters and earn their place in the group.  

The Snow Ghosts aka The Snow Storm by Beryl Netherclift - A snowstorm paperweight takes three children visiting their aunt back in time to help save their ancestral home, Farthingales, from foreclosure.
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder - No list of cold-themed books is complete without this one but you already know that, especially if you are participating in a group read with the Maud list!  This was already a favorite of mine in 4th grade when we were given the assignment of mocking up a newspaper based on a book.   Somewhere, I am sure I have some stapled pages with a headline, "Wilder and Garland Deliver Wheat - Save Town!"

Winter Shadows by Margaret Buffie.  This Canadian author is well worth hunting up, and your library can get it via ILL if you can't find it elsewhere.   Two Canadian girls, in the same house but separated by 150 years, are drawn together by the same unhappiness in this compelling timeslip involving wicked stepmothers, prejudice, and the loneliness of a cold winter.  See my earlier review.

YA:

And Both Were Young by Madeleine L'Engle - My favorite book by this beloved author is set in Switzerland.  Lonely, artistic Flip hates being separated from her father but learning how to ski and making friends with mysterious Paul help her endure the mean girls at her boarding school.  I read this for the first time the week my sister Andrea was born, one cold December (mumble) years ago.
Snowfall by K. M. Peyton - A lesser known historical YA by this author.  When Charlotte's grandfather tries to arrange a marriage for her, she escapes by going mountain climbing in Switzerland with her brother and his friends.  Peyton's depiction of the snow and Alps is as mesmerizing as Charlotte's coming of age.

Winter Shadows by Margaret Buffie - A time slip set in a Western Canada that is so cold you will shiver while reading it.   Two young women, one in 1856 and one in the present, communicate through a diary and an old brooch, as they try to deal with difficult family situations.  My review is here.

Adult:

The Colours of Snow by Kate Fenton - This is chick lit about a London artist who rents a cottage in the depths of winter in North Yorkshire so she can paint uninterrupted.  Naturally, there is a male interruption.  There is lots of snow but she mostly stays inside and eats chocolate.

In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming - This is the first in an award-winning mystery series set in upstate New York and it radiates cold!  Claire Fergusson is an Army chopper-pilot turned minister who encounters mysteries every time she turns around.  I am sure I have introduced dozens of people to this series, which I highly recommend.

On My TBR:
In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl - I don't remember who recommended this to me but historical fiction about nurses and  lost love and secrets from WWII is right up my alley.  It has been on my windowsill for a couple weeks waiting for the right moment.

The Winter Siege by D. W. Bradbridge - I read about this book on the Historical Fiction BookTour643. As winter closes in around the town of Nantwich, the civil war that rages across the country, threatening to tear England apart, is yet to reach the town’s gates. But while the residents wait, eyeing the outside world with unease, they face a deadly threat from within: Townspeople have started dying – murdered – the red sashes of the royalists left on the bodies marking them as traitors to the parliamentary cause. It falls to Constable Daniel Cheswis to contain the bloodshed, but with few clues and the constant distraction of war, can he protect the people of Nantwich?

What are your favorites?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Sailing Out of Darkness (Book Review)

Publication Information: Whitefire Publishing, trade paperback, 2013 
Genre: Inspirational Fiction 
Plot:  Samantha, in her mid 40s, is recently divorced from a cheating ex and rebounded into an affair with a childhood friend, Jack, whose live-in girlfriend objected violently.   Ashamed of her lack of control and poor choices, Samantha leaves her home, boat, and beau to visit Italy where her daughter is studying in Florence. Tootie, managing Sam’s business back in Maryland, suggests Sam rendezvous with her uncle Teo, a famous mystery writer living in seclusion in Italy.   No one knows that Teo’s writer’s block ended when he started having mysterious visions of Sam – before he even knew who she was.  When they meet in real life, there is an instant bond: they have both suffered in the past and yearn for happiness, but Sam, in particular, acts and believes she is unworthy of redemption.   Can their unexpected friendship bring them both solace or will Sam’s anguish prevent any future happiness?

What I liked:  Oh, the weather outside in Boston is frightful but reading about gondola rides in Venice is delightful!   I enjoyed the descriptions of living on the water in a charming small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland (the second small Maryland town I have read about recently) and the heroine’s travels through Italy (including the mandatory visit to Florian’s which I have made myself).  I would have liked more descriptions of the two coffee shops Sam owned than endless pages about Jack’s psychotic girlfriend India.
What I disliked: The heroine is infuriatingly sorry for herself and inflicts her misery on everyone around her.  Having been hurt twice, she is unwilling to get involved romantically, which is understandable, but there is no reason to be rude to someone who befriended her when she was alone and miserable.  It wasn't completely convincing that Teo would fall for this conflicted, self-absorbed and tormented woman.

Observation:  These days, in traditional women's fiction or chick lit, the purpose of the best friend is to sympathize with the heroine and urge her to find a new man and have a fling.  In Christian fiction, the best friend is sympathetic but more bracing: "It's no good holding all this blame, Sam.  You need to let go.... You know perfectly well where you're supposed to take guilt and shame.  Better get on those knees of yours and work up some calluses, girl, or this is going to kill you, hear?...Seems to me, you get yourself right with God, then you look things square in the face..." Sam's friend Rhea admonishes.    

I suspect both approaches have their merits but must confess the former is more entertaining to this reader.
Source: Thank you to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me in Normandie Fischer's tour.  I urge you to sample both Ms. Fischer’s recent books by stopping by one of the blogs below.   She is a lifelong sailor, which is reflected in her fiction, and also has a book out called Becalmed. You can visit her on Facebook or Twitter.   I have a copy of Sailing out of Darkness to give away (US only) – please leave me a message if you are interested, and I will pick a winner.

Normandie’s Tour Stops

Wednesday, January 22nd: Spiced Latte Reads – Sailing Out of Darkness
Thursday, January 23rd: The Most Happy Reader – Sailing Out of Darkness
Friday, January 24th: The Book Barn – Sailing Out of Darkness
Monday, January 27th: Obsessed Italian Brat – Sailing Out of Darkness
Wednesday, January 29th: Books and Bindings – Becalmed
Monday, February 3rd: Time 2 Read – Becalmed
Tuesday, February 4th: Staircase Wit – Sailing Out of Darkness
Wednesday, February 5th: Sammy the Bookworm – Sailing Out of Darkness
Thursday, February 6th: Good Girl Gone Redneck - Sailing Out of Darkness
Monday, February 10th: Shelf Pleasure (guest post)
Tuesday, February 11th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World – Becalmed
Wednesday, February 12th: The Most Happy Reader – Becalmed
Monday, February 17th: Patricia’s Wisdom – Becalmed
Wednesday, February 19th: Cruising Susan Reviews – Sailing Out of Darkness
Thursday, February 20th: Obsessed Italian Brat – Becalmed
Monday, February 24th: Every Free Chance Book Reviews – Sailing Out of Darkness