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The Arm

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The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports by Jeff Passan (Harper, $26.99, 376 pages)

One of the first things nearly all of us who picked up a baseball as a little boy – dreaming of one day playing in the major leagues, heard was, “Now remember, son, you only have one arm.” Jeff Passan has written a must read for any baseball fan called The Arm, which delves deeply into the mystery of how this limb withstands the continued trauma of throwing a baseball until it finally breaks down.

Anyone who has taken the pitcher’s mound in any relatively competitive situation from youth travel ball, to varsity high school baseball, to college, to pro ball, has said on numerous occasions, “I can throw. Gimme the ball.” That is how pitchers are wired. In the pitcher’s mind, he can’t pitch and beat you if you don’t give him the ball. But, how much is too much? What is the right number for a pitch limit? How much rest is required under what circumstances? What types of training, conditioning and preventive measures work best? What actually causes the arm to break down? According to Passan, nobody knows for sure. He faults organized baseball for not being more proactive in this regard, though he does cite some progress in this area over the past couple of years.

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In 1974 Dr. Frank Jobe made history by drilling holes into Tommy John’s elbow and weaving a new ligament into it to replace John’s torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL). This, of course, came to be known as “Tommy John surgery,” which now seems about as common for pitchers as putting their spikes on. According to Passan, instead of naming the surgery after himself – which is common when coining an innovative surgical procedure – he deferred to John, who he said is the one who had to undergo all of the pain and hard rehabilitative work.

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Two hundred and eighty-eight major league pitchers have had Tommy John surgery. Just two have had it twice: journeyman reliever Todd Coffey, and Dan Hudson of the Arizona Diamondbacks. A significant portion of the book chronicles their professional and personal highs and lows as they attempt to return to The Show.

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The book addresses how travel ball and specialization has taken over youth sports and delves into one of the preeminent organizations in the country, Perfect Game. It goes back in time to trace the evolution of arm care, from Sandy Koufax and the premature end of his career, all the way up to Kyle Boddy of DriveLine baseball in Kent, Washington, and his controversial training approach using over and underweight balls. Also included are discussions of alternatives to going under the knife.

While Passan seems intrigued at the possibilities offered by some of the new approaches to training, prevention, and treatment, the book does not conclude with an answer as to how to better protect young and old pitching arms. That’s because nobody has the answer. It may be that throwing a baseball as hard as you can, thousands and thousands of times – over decades beginning at age eight or so, is simply a destructive act.

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One final note: assuming both World Series teams carry 12 pitchers on their roster, 12.5% of the pitchers throwing in the 2016 World Series have had Tommy John surgery – John Tomlin of the Cleveland Indians and John Lackey and Hector Rondon of the Chicago Cubs. Tomlin was drafted in 2006, reached the big leagues in 2010 and had Tommy John surgery in 2012. He went 13-9 this year in 29 starts and sports a 49-39 career win-loss record. Lackey was 11-8 this year in 29 starts, and boasts a 176-135 win-loss record over 16 seasons. He had Tommy John surgery in 2011. Rondon, a reliever, had 18 saves this year and has a 14-14 career win-loss record. He missed some playing time this year with a non-arm injury and had Tommy John surgery performed in 2010.

While The Arm does not supply a solution as to how baseball can protect the arms of Little Leaguers and college pitchers and professional throwers like Tomlin, Lacky and Rondon, it performs a service in focusing attention on the ongoing issue of constitutionally fragile arms. It’s a good start.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Arm was released on April 5, 2016.

Dave Moyer is a school administrator in Illinois, a member of the Sheboygan A’s Baseball Hall of Fame, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Arsenic and Old Lace

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Arsenic with Austen: A Crime with the Classics Mystery by Katherine Bolger Hyde (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 312 pages)

Professor Emily Cavanaugh is a 21st Century woman who finds herself caught up in the dealings of a sleepy village on the Oregon coast. She’s been widowed for two years, is childless and growing restless with her duties in the Language and Literature Department of Reed College in Portland.

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As would be anticipated in a traditional British mystery by Agatha Christie, Emily receives a piece of formal correspondence from an attorney in Stony Beach, Oregon. It seems her dear Great Aunt Beatrice has died and left her a legacy. What follows is one of the most heart-warming murder mysteries this reviewer has read.

Emily Cavanaugh is summoned to Aunt Beatrice’s funeral and the reading of the will. It seems Emily was fantasizing a modest inheritance when she hoped that the extensive library filled with leather bound books would be hers. Emily spent many summers sitting in that same library reading with the encouragement of her aunt. Clearly, the Victorian mansion, half of the town of Stony Beach and millions of dollars was way beyond her hopeful anticipation.

Yes, there are villains scattered among the townsfolk. How else would there be a mystery for Emily to solve? She also reconnects with her former boyfriend who seemingly dumped her at the end of a summer romance. As with Dame Agatha’s stories, Ms. Hyde leads the reader around leaving a trail of tantalizing clues and misdirection.

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Author Hyde has hit all the right notes in this her debut mystery novel. She weaves in enough credible references to classic literature written by women such as Jane Austen and Emily Bronte to prove her in depth understanding of the genre. While Ms. Hyde is a resident of Santa Cruz County in California, she credits a writer’s retreat on the Oregon coast with inspiring the location of her tale. And, by the way, she is an alumna of Reed College. Let’s hope there will be more enjoyable mysteries from Ms. Hyde in the future.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Arsenic with Austen was released on July 12, 2016.

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Twentieth Century Fox

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The Trouble with Lexie: A Novel by Jessica Anya Blau (Harper Perennial, $14.99, 336 pages)

We are launched into Lexie’s suddenly unhinged life at a scandalous moment, as she is discovered in the worst possible condition, in the most unthinkable place at precisely the wrong time. This contemporary, hilarious fourth novel from Jessica Anya Blau is addicting and fast-paced. After the ignominious opening scene, the story jumps back in time, where we learn Lexie’s history through artfully constructed scenes.

Lexie James is an alluring 33-year-old Health and Human Sexuality teacher at a prestigious U.S. private boarding school on the east coast. She has made something of herself, coming from a working class single mom and absentee father in California, to now being employed by the Ruxton Academy and engaged to marry a refined man. We admire her, all the while knowing that a train wreck of poor choices awaits.

Suspense builds. There are massive deceptions, forbidden fruits, and vivid characters, such as the ancient, potty-mouthed Dot. The metaphors are brilliant (“Lexie felt the pain so intensely she could almost see it as a physical thing: a vibrating sheet of silvery magneta that clanged against her cold skin like cold aluminum.”), the philosophy sweetly dispensed (“Yes. Love the people you love, be open to love, be good and do good.”), the similes memorable (“The sadness inside Lexie ran like a wash cycle: circling, swirling, rotating, swishing. It came straight out of her mouth, eyes, and nose, everything wet and running.”) and the wisdom simply put (“Maybe anxiety showed up only when your body needed to tell you something you hadn’t yet faced.”). The outcome proves Dot’s cautionary advice to Lexie: “…remember that the only life worth living is the one where there’s been numerous f*ckups.”

Well done, Ms. Blau!

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Dwight

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on June 28, 2016.

Jennifer Dwight is the author of The Tolling of Mercedes Bell: A Novel (She Writes Press).

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Not So Harmonious

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Harmony: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Pamela Dorman Books, $26.00, 288 pages)

In 2003, I purchased and read the then-new novel The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I found it to be strange, engaging and more than a bit troubling. Years later I received a review copy of The Nobodies Album, a novel that I found to be flat and dry the first time I read it. For some reason, I later elected to read Nobodies a second time and enjoyed it once I realized that Parkhurst was channeling the cool, icy style of Joan Didion.

And so we come to Harmony, the latest novel from Parkhurst. The first thing I will note is that it’s more Babel-like than Nobodies. Basically, the author has decided to write a giant curveball of a story. Trust me, it’s not what you think it is.

In Nobodies Parkhurst took us into the world of professional musicians. Like a musician, she uses tension to a great extent in Harmony – such a calming title for a tense work, setting us up for what we believe will be discomfort and pain before relief.

We’re not ordinary people anymore. As far as the whole world is concerned, you’re all members of a cult. And me? I’m your leader, I’m your Jim Jones.

In this story, Alexandra Hammond is a mother in Washington, D.C. facing significant difficulties in managing her autistic daughter Tilly. Her husband Josh and her other daughter, Iris, are also highly affected by the situations created by the brilliant, yet socially inept Tilly. Finally, Alexandra finds a savior of sorts, a not-quite psychologist/teacher by the name of Scott Bean. Bean proposes to set up Camp Harmony in the wilds of New Hampshire, a place of refuge and healing for families with unique, difficult (never “special”) children.

It turns out, naturally, that Mr. Bean may be anything but stable himself.

The good news about Harmony is that there are stretches where Parkhurst hits her stride in writing well:

Happiness, as it exists in the world – as opposed to those artificially constructed moments like weddings and birthday parties, where it’s gathered into careful piles – is not smooth. Happiness in the real world is mostly just resilience and a willingness to arch oneself toward optimism. To believe that people are more good than bad. To believe that the waves carrying you are neither friendly nor malicious, and to know that you’re less likely to drown if you stop struggling against them.

But the fine writing is more or less wasted in a tale that’s clever, clever, clever and clever. In the words of a college professor, “This is too clever by half.” Even worse, when Parkhurst reaches the natural ending of the story she refuses to let it lie. Instead, she adds on an “epilogue” that stands alone. It’s unrealistic and calls to mind the magic-centered writing of Audrey Niffenegger (Her Fearful Symmetry).

It’s quite likely that Parkhurst has it in her to write a Niffenegger-style story of hope and deliverance. But this is not that story.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on August 2, 2016.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-harmony-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

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A Confusing Work

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The Shattered Tree: A Bess Crawford Mystery by Charles Todd (William Morrow, $25.99, 304 pages)

The time is 1918 and the place is France. Bess Crawford, AKA Sister Crawford, is working as a British nurse at a casualty center patching up British, Australian and French soldiers who have been wounded while bravely holding back the German army. Paris must not fall to the Germans! The war is nearly over but negotiations are taking way too long to suit most everyone.

The Shattered Tree is the eighth in the remarkable mystery series that gives modern readers a glimpse at the horrors of trench warfare. Bess provides the narrative as she moves quickly from patient to patient while staunching the bleeding from bullet wounds and caring for the dying. Always present is the fear of infection as this war was fought a good decade before the discovery of penicillin.

The first hint of mystery comes when a soldier wearing a tattered uniform is brought for treatment. As he writhes in pain, his cries come out in perfect German. Most of those present are too busy to note. Of course Bess, whose curiosity has landed her in many difficult situations in the past realizes the anomaly and files this information away. Soon thereafter Bess is caught in the fire of a sniper’s rifle and becomes a patient herself.

What ensues is a somewhat confusing series of efforts by Bess and several officers to identify an attacker who makes short work of several people using a knife. An 18-year-old unsolved quintuple homicide that took place outside Paris where Bess is convalescing is also interwoven with her sleuthing to find the German-speaking mystery patient’s identity.

This reviewer read an advance review copy of the book. Perhaps some editing was done to smooth out the segues between events for the final version. (It appears that this was not the case. Ed.) The discussions among the characters that are either helping or misleading Bess as she struggles to recuperate from her bullet and knife wounds can be as baffling as the jumbled plot!

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on August 30, 2016.

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San Franciscan Nights

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The Tolling of Mercedes Bell: A Novel by Jennifer Dwight (She Writes Press, $18.95, 416 pages)

As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds/Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing… Bob Dylan, “Chimes of Freedom”

In Jennifer Dwight’s The Tolling of Mercedes Bell, Mercedes Bell, a recently widowed mother of a teenage daughter, is down to her last out when fortune steps in and she obtains a job as a paralegal at the law firm of Crenshaw, Slayne and McDonough.

The bright, engaging newcomer enjoys some early success and things appear to be turning around for her when attorney Jack Soutane begins renting space at the firm. The two become an item and the future begins to look ever brighter. But, as is often the case, if things seem too good to be true, they often are.

Due to Jack’s somewhat shady reputation others are skeptical, but the trusting Mercedes opens up her heart and lets him in. He is a charmer but, soon, little things become big things; as the story shifts into another gear, not even the great Jack Soutane can maintain the level of deceit necessary to cover up his past and escape the present.

The reader eagerly sticks with Dwight, knowing something is going to go wrong and trying to find out just what that something will be. Even as that something becomes more obvious, Dwight, a former paralegal herself, creates enough intrigue to lead to a satisfying conclusion. In fact, some of the better writing begins at the point in which Jack’s fate is finally revealed, while Mercedes yet has plenty to unravel.

The ending is a happy – if somewhat improbable, one, and seems to fit the overall message of hope that is pervasive throughout the book (and inherent in Bell’s character).

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Bell is set in the San Francisco Bay Area where Dwight spent a great deal of her life. It is her fourth book but first novel. Here’s hoping she can keep it up.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Brooklyn Secrets

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Brooklyn Secrets: An Erica Donato Mystery by Triss Stein (Poisoned Pen Press, $15.95, 242 pages)

“I’m from Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, if you say, ‘I’m dangerous,’ you’d better be dangerous.” – Larry King

In Brooklyn Secrets, Erica Donato is an urban history graduate student. And she is a single mom with an teenage daughter. While conducting research for her dissertation on organized crime in Brownsville in the 1930s, a young girl with a promising future, Savanna, is beaten to death and, shortly thereafter, Savanna’s girlfriend is also found dead.

Secrets is Stein’s third “Brooklyn” book, following 2013’s Brooklyn Bones and 2014’s Brooklyn Graves. Brooklyn Ware is coming next. All are part of the Donato mystery series.

Poisoned Pen Press is dedicated to the crime/mystery genre and Stein’s third novel is commendable. It will likely have regional appeal and, early on, the reader is invited in with promise. Stein writes primarily in dialogue and for those crime/mystery fans who enjoy that approach they, too, will likely enjoy the book. At 223 pages, the book registers as readable and accessible.

Yet, for this reviewer, the book is not in the upper echelon of books in the genre. After a positive start it falls short of truly engaging the reader, drawing him or her in, or moving them willingly on to the next page. The characters could have been developed to a greater degree (something difficult to do when a writer relies heavily on dialogue), especially after the initial assumption that the mom-daughter, Erica relationship theme would have greater prominence or importance as the story develops. It’s not clear why so many contemporary novels are structured around a single mother lead character, but when this is the case the mother-child relationship should presumably be well developed.

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Brooklyn Secrets is a respectable novel, but it is a difficult read to connect with.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator in the great state of Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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