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Archive for May, 2013

I plan to start writing reviews of baseball romances here in anticipation of a future research project (in short, never let the literature and genre fiction nerd go to the SABR convention.) Here’s the first, which is the first primarily because the library wanted it back.

The good news: this mostly works as a romance novel. My problems with it as a romance are my problems with certain genre tropes, like the Big Misunderstanding–you know, there are a lot of problems in romance novels that are mostly created by an utter failure to communicate. To be honest, at this point, my tolerance for “works as a romance” involves the postulate of “If the plot was posted at Ask MetaFilter, would the majority of comments involve DTMFA?” If so, it’s not working. The ending, however, did not work because I couldn’t believe the baseball aspects of it. The ending did make sense in some terms of characterization, especially when reflecting on the sex scenes–the protagonists get a thrill out of risk–but there was too much fear out of Alicia outside of the sexual situations to not make that part of the characterization there and at the end ring true.

The bad news: It’s the baseball. It usually is. There at least was some, which puts it above a lot of novels with supposed baseball-playing heroes, but…really, pitcher rehab does not work that way with the sort of injury Garrett was supposed to have had. It’s a shoulder injury. The novel starts in the offseason and Garrett has been out with it since August. He didn’t have surgery but he didn’t start throwing until spring training and then isn’t depicted as getting into any game action. I think of Chris Narveson’s shoulder rehab and laugh. If a pitcher misses that much action, I’d think that extended spring training and a minor league rehab assignment would be in his future, but instead Garrett is throwing in live games out of the bullpen. Did I mention that he’s a starting pitcher? I really didn’t think that his unwillingness to do his physical therapy–the entire impetus for his and Alicia getting together, first as therapist and patient and later as a couple–rang true for what the reader was told was a competitive, hyper-successful pitcher. Frustration at progress, yes, but not refusal. The medical staff came off as kind of incompetent as well which isn’t so surprising considering what’s been revealed about other clownshoes medical operations in MLB.

What this book really brought to mind was the trend in romance novels to have extraordinary heroes. It’s even worse in a book like this where the supposedly successful heroine has a pretty severe case of Impostor Syndrome. As for the hero, sports romances are going just as over the top as their other contemporary fellows (the billionaire thing did not start with Fifty Shades of Grey; it’s only following the trend but since it sold so well, it caused it to flourish) with super-successful athletes with nearly unbelievable accomplishments.

A quote from the book on Garrett:

“Garrett has been the perfect specimen of a pitcher for five seasons,” Manny said. “We plucked him out of college ball, he spent six months in AAA before we brought him up, and he’s been in our starting rotation ever since, with one of the lowest ERAs of any pitcher in the league. He’s won the Cy Young Award twice, pitched a near perfect game last year, and held the strikeout record the past two seasons. He’s the golden boy.”

…well, perfect game aside–Philip Humber (who would look great on a romance novel cover, btw) threw one of those–that sounds pretty exceptional. Tim Lincecum, before the wheels came off, with even more extraordinary powers of pitching. That’s the sort of hero we’re dealing with now in single-title sports romance. Thrown by a Curve is the fifth book in a series, where all athlete heroes are successful and hot. (I tried reading book 2; it was a DNF, and I noted something re biphobia making me quit reading. I’ll probably go back to it for the project but not like it.) Apparently Athlete Hot, where the hotness comes mostly from the athleticism, is not a thing in Romancelandia. It’s not that I want the romance novel with Jeff Karstens as the hero, but maybe we could get AJ Griffin (or Philip Humber, heh) once in a while? (Yes, I have Issues with Generic Contemporary Romance Novel Hot. After writing the first draft of the review, I realized that Shelly Laurenston’s Pack series of shifter paranormal romance has plenty of guys who look like Griffin. OK, they’re lion shifters, so that’s probably not what I’m looking for in my non-sfnal romance.)

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I had requested The Summer of Beer and Whiskey because I knew that the 19th century American Association did have a team in Milwaukee for a few seasons and had hoped that this book would touch on that enough to review it over on BCB. Unfortunately for that purpose, there wasn’t anything on that, but there was a lot about the American Association’s founding and the exciting season of 1883.

The primary focus here is on the St. Louis Browns, the team that would later become the National League’s Cardinals. There’s also a secondary focus on the Philadelphia Athletics and the pennant race between the Browns and Athletics. No matter what my set of readers think of the Cardinals and St. Louis today, there’s no doubt that the Browns and their owner Chris Von Der Ahe changed the face of professional baseball for both the players and most importantly, for the fans. The American Association’s cultural differences from the National League could only happen in cities like St. Louis or Cincinnati (ironically, the birthplace of professional baseball as we know it) because of their German immigrant populations. Germans had no cultural concept of blue laws against recreation and alcohol on Sundays. They enjoyed their beer gardens and fun on Sundays, the workingman’s only day off at this time. Von Der Ahe, an immigrant himself who started in the grocery business and gradually expanded his operations into baseball, bought and renovated St. Louis’ existing baseball grounds. All it needed was a team and a league, and in 1881 the American Association was born. Unlike the NL, it played on Sundays and allowed beer in the stands. The tickets were also cheaper. This was the working man’s league and they took to it in droves.

Not only did we get our Sunday baseball and beer-based fan culture from the AA, some of the promotions to increase the fanbase of the game like Ladies’ Day were born in the AA. We probably get the word “fan” from this league; Achorn makes the case for the Browns’ manager Ted Sullivan coining this word from the “fanatics” mailing him suggestions about the team.

Achorn does a great job capturing the feel of 1880s baseball: its rules, its personalities, its business, its climate, and its racial tensions. There was a lot in here that I did not know about this period. If 19th century baseball is new to you too, there will be a lot in here for you to enjoy and learn. I’m not fond of the “show a period in baseball and American history via a pennant race” structure, but this is far from the first book to use it and it’s a popular hook in narrative nonfiction for a lot of authors and has a wide appeal to readers who are not me and thus not bored by pennant races. I recommend this to all baseball fans with a general interest in the period.

(A review copy was provided by the publisher.)

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