Book Bytesby Marylaine Block
Books Too Good To Put Down: Sports Fiction
Baseball Novels----Basketball Novels----Novels about Various Other Sports
note: if you want to get your hands on any of these books, and they're out of print, click here for suggestions on how to find them.
*see also my column on baseball novels, America in Nine Innings)
Kevin Baker. Sometimes You See It Coming. This is the story of John Barr, possibly the greatest player in history, winner of every possible award many times over, a veritable Michael Jordan of baseball, and an intensely private man who remains unknown after all these years. Some sort of crisis in his life has caused him to, apparently, forget how to play, so a female sportswriter delves into his past, seeking the trauma that has motivated him and now threatens to destroy him. As we find out more about him, this impossibly perfect player takes on depth and reality.
Michael Bishop. Brittle Innings. During World War II, a minor league team has an unusually large, unusually decayed looking player. There's a reason for that--the player is Frankenstein's monster, re-emerged after hundreds of years of wandering, a reviled outcast. Interesting.
Jim Bouton and Eliot Asinof. Strike Zone. Sam Ward, oldest rookie in baseball, is going to pitch the Cubs' last season game, which will determine whether they will go to the playoffs. The oldest rookie pitcher is matched by the oldest rookie umpire, Ernie Kolacka, a man of enormous personal integrity, whose best friend is begging him to throw the game, because otherwise the gamblers he's in hock to will kill him. The novel is an inning by inning account of this last game; we take turns inside the heads of Ernie and Sam as they make their critical decisions.
Darryl Brock. I Don't Care If I Never Get Back. Sam Fowler is on a train that mysteriously takes him back in time to 1869, and into the midst of the Cincinnati Reds. He travels with the ball club for a while, but also gets to meet and travel with Mark Twain. Realism is not its strong point; magic and timelessness is.
Bob Cairns. The Comeback Kids Once upon a time in the segregated 50's, a Little League World Series was canceled because one of the teams had black kids on it. Now it is going to be played, with the aging players of the original teams, as a sales promotion event. Will this be baseball or farce? Will these grown-up children be able to play together? This novel tests whether you can ever, in fact, go home again.
David Carkeet. The Greatest Slump of All Time. A fine novel about a team that stands a chance to win the world series in spite of the fact that their team includes a bunch of players suffering from depression, the world's most boring human being, a manager who gives the worst peptalks in history, a sneaky outfielder who plays some splendid game-winning tricks on his opponents, and a player who has just realized that he hates his wife.
Michel Chabon. Summerland. Young Ethan Feld is a terrible ballplayer, but it's his bat and his friend Jennifer T.'s pitching that is needed to save the world from Coyote, whose first blow in his campaign to destroy the world was the designated hitter rule. Aided by ferishers and miniature giants, Ethan and Jennifer T. embark on an expedition to the Well Coyote plans to poison, hoping to rescue Ethan's father, a scientist who experiments with dirigibles, along the way. Wonderful.
Robert Coover. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.. A brilliant book about a man who creates his own world, and then vanishes into it entirely. Waugh has created an entire baseball league, inventing the players and their histories and statistics, as well as the teams and their historica rivalries. He then plays out their games with dice and a complicated set of rules, and keeps the statistics and writes up each addition to the history of the league. Day by day, the real Waugh becomes grayer and less substantial, as the Manager takes over his life.
William DeAndrea. Five O'Clock Lightning. In the days of Mickey Mantle and the unstoppable New York Yankees and afternoon baseball, 5:00 was when the Yankee power hitters would go into action. But Mickey Mantle is here the target of a red-baiting congressman, determined to prove Mantle is a commie. When the congressman is found murdered in the stands, Mantle becomes a suspect, and the hero, a baseball player injured in Korea, trying to make a comeback, investigates the murder to clear Mantle's reputation..
Fielder's Choice, edited by Jerome Holtzman. An outstanding collection of writing about baseball, mostly short stories and parts of novels. A good starting point to sample some of the great baseball writing.
Karen Joy Fowler. The Sweetheart Season. Magrit, MN is a town shaped by the dreams of a man who falls in love with the fictional perfect woman he creates to represent his product, and who yearns to have the whole world eat Sweetwheats, the breakfast cereal produced at the mill he built after drowning the upper half of the town to make the water turn the wheels. He decides in 1947 to turn his kitchen girls into a team of baseball players whose prowess will advertise his team. Their story is told by the daughter of Irini Doyle, a girl who never entirely fit in to the small town.
Sarah Gilbert. A League of their Own. A novelization of the movie, but a reasonably good story in its own right about two competing sisters in the women's professional baseball league. There are also several books that posit a rabid reaction to the first female player in the major leagues, although that is often accompanied by fan acceptance when the women show themselves to be outstanding team players. Among the best of these are Barbara Grigorich's She's on First, Michael Bowen's Can't Miss, and Gorman Bechard's Balls.
Philip Goldberg. This Is Next Year. This is 1955, the year the Dodgers simply have to come through, after years of coming close to a championship. Their season is woven into the lives of the Stone family: the father, prevented by injury from being a player himself; the mother Jeannie, a free spirit, now in fear of death from cancer; Hubbell, trained from birth to be a pitcher, but insisting on choosing his own destiny; Roger, the narrator, destined to be a shortstop; and Hank, the plump, ungainly one, who cannot possibly fulfill his father's dream and become a first baseman.
Bill Granger. The New York Yanquis. George Steinbrenner lets all his high-priced Yankees players go and replaces the lot of them with top Cuban players and one over-the-hill American pitcher, Ryan Shawn, who can speak Spanish and communicate with the Cubans. Ryan recounts the season, which begins with his players being despised and assaulted, and ends with them threatening to win it all; this upsets the State Department, which is putting pressure on Ryan to do the patriotic thing and throw the games. Interesting, halfway plausible, and very funny.
Tom Grimes. Season's End. Baseball novels are a splendid place to talk about the problems of American society, but all in the same novel? In this ambitious novel about a man who feels real only when he is hitting the ball, the author touches on racism, greed, the importance of fair competition, the relationship between player and fan, and the purity of the game itself.
John Hough. The Conduct of the Game. One of the only novels about umpires as heroes, who keep the game honest and sportsmanlike. This is about a good and honorable umpire who refuses to tattle on another umpire who is gay; in the homophobic world of baseball, he is knowingly risking his career with this choice.
Jerry Jenkins. The Rookie. A young boy trains himself to be an outstanding pitcher and hitter, and does such an outstanding job that he joins the Chicago Cubs at the age of 13. The boy's determined training regimen is shown in such admiring detail that this seems plausible. But he's still a kid, and a sad, abandoned one at that. Movingly described.
Marvin Karlins. The Last Man Is Out. A futuristic fantasy about a computer taking charge of a baseball team. It tells the players everything to do--how to line up defensively against each opposing batter, what each pitch should be, etc. The computer has perfect statistical knowledge of every player the team faces, so it should work. The players, however, are human, and they keep screwing up the computer's perfect schemes.
Sherwood Kiraly. California Rush. Baseball makes sense; the people who play it do not. This explains what may be one of the craziest single games of baseball ever depicted in fiction. Davey Tremayne is coaching his expansion team, the California Rush, into a division championship; his team is winning because it stretches a lot of the usual rules and manners governing the game. At a critical moment in the game, Davey makes an insane decision to play an incompetent pitcher, who does indeed proceed to give up hit after hit--but no runs. This is wonderfully told, with well-drawn characters and a nice turn of phrase.
Jerry Klinkowitz. Short Season. Klinkowitz is himself manager of an Iowa minor league team, and these short stories read a lot like real life on a farm club. The stories are interesting, and often funny; the one about management requiring all conversation on the field to be in English is particularly amusing.
Scott Lasser. Battle Creek. This fine first novel deserves every bit of the excitement it is generating. Gil Davison, coach of an amateur team that for years running has made it to the championship and lost, is resolved that this season they must win it all. A man who has always loved the purity of baseball, he finds that the thirst for winning leads him to compromises that are hard to live with. The book also explores the key other members of his team--the aging pitcher who cannot admit to the pain his arm is giving him, the assistant coach who is dying from emphysema, the young phenom who would long since have been tearing up the major leagues if he hadn't been in prison for beating the brains out of his girl's boyfriend. The baseball is lovingly, truthfully described, as are the men's friendships and betrayals.
Bill Littlefield. Prospect. About a promising hitter, misclassified as a pitcher, but not a good enough a pitcher to be considered for the majors, until his aunt convinces an over-the-hill baseball scout to take a look at him. For the scout, it's his chance to make it back into the major league scouting circuit; for the kid, it means a chance at the big show.
Manderino, John. The Man Who Played Catch with Nellie Fox. As long as Hank has been a ballplayer, he has never had to ask himself who else he is. But at 40, on the farthest margins of professional baseball, with declining skills, he realizes he has nothing else--no wife, no life outside his day job, the playing field, and the bar he frequents. He terrifies himself by proposing to a woman with a hostile 10 year old son, and nearly loses her because of his obvious fear. He slowly begins to forge a life for himself while playing out the remainder of his last season. The story is told alternately by Hank, his friends, his manager, and even the 10 year old, each voice and viewpoint distinct. This well-told story will appeal to baseball fans and to anyone who understands about being middle-aged and still not quite grown up.
Gordon McAlpine. Joy in Mudville. Babe Ruth hits a home run so towering that the ball streaks across the continent, pursued by a man who believes it to be proof that Martians are visiting our planet. Along the way, Al Capone, Woody Guthrie, Clark Kent and the Wizard of Oz become involved in ways I can't even begin to explain. A book as much about American myth as about baseball, and it's wonderful.
Christopher Newman. Dead End Game. Before the final game of the American League Championship Series, Kansas City Royals pitcher Willie Cintron is found dead of a heroin overdose. But the sportswriter who had discovered Willie and rescued him from his drug-filled urban environment doesn't believe it for a minute. Somebody killed Willie and made it look accidental. He convinces a detective that this deserves further investigation, and together they find a cesspool of gambling and corruption.
Rick Norman. Fielder's Choice. Andrew Jackson Fielder is a decent enough pitcher, but he can't make decisions quickly. When he briefly plays in the majors, on the eve of World War II, this costs him a game and a career. He enlists, is shot down, and becomes a prisoner of war in Japan. He is rescued from the prison camp by a Japanese admiral who admires his pitching. This undoubtedly saves his life, but it opens him up to suspicion of treason when the war is over. The novel is presented as Jax's explanation of his life to army investigators. Jax is a decent, simple man, and his story is both funny and touching.
Bud Nye. Stay Loose. This book asks the question about what sport is really all about--competition? the chance of winning? hope? And what happens to all these things when one team is so good that it cannot be beaten?
David Ritz. The Man Who Brought the Dodgers Back to Brooklyn. The story of a boyhood friendship that matures as one of them buys the Dodgers and brings them back to their hometown, Brooklyn. The new owner, who caused the career-ending injury of his friend, puts him in charge of the revived Brooklyn Dodgers.
Michael Shaara. For Love of the Game. This is the last book written by Pulitzer Prize winner Shaara, and it is about the final game pitched by a great, aging pitcher who, knowing he is going to be traded after 17 years of service, prefers to quit the game altogether. We follow him pitch by pitch as he thinks his way through a perfect game and through his memories of a very imperfect life..
Troy Soos. Hanging Curve. This is a significant step up from the previous five books in the Mickey Rawlings series (Murder at Fenway Park, Hunting a Detroit Tiger, etc.) -- amiable mysteries centering around baseball circa 1910-1921. Rawlings, a much-traded utility infielder, helped solve murders at all the old classic baseball fields. In this far more serious novel, Soos takes on both endemic racism in baseball and the burgeoning KuKlux Klan of the 1920's. Having whiffed against a first class pitcher from the Negro Leagues, Rawlings is angered when that pitcher is found hanged. Was it a lynching? Working with a white anti-Klan activist and a black lawyer, he noses around the white guys on the semi-pro team he thinks might have been involved, and discovers the origins of the murder in East St Louis' vicious race riots of 1918. This is also a story of a deepening respect and understanding between good men of different races. A must buy for public libraries.
Harry Stein. Hoopla. A novel about the 1919 "Black Sox," who threw the world series. It makes you understand the deplorable condition of the players at the mercy of greedy owners, and makes a case for the innocence of at least one of the players who were expelled from baseball in this scandal. You could also read the definitive nonfiction account of the 1919 series in Eliot Asinof's Eight Men Out. (A far weaker novel about the 1919 Black Sox is Brendan Boyd's Blue Ruin, which aims more at using the scandal as part of a condemnation of the entire era.)
Wendel, Tim. Castro's Curveball. Well-known sportswriter and radio commentator Tim Wendel explores here the legend that Fidel Castro could've been a contender in America's major leagues. His hero Billy Bryan was at the end of his baseball career, playing winter ball in Cuba for the Senators, when one night university students came onto the field to protest their government; Fidel actually pitched a few wicked curveballs, striking out the team's best hitter. Billy formed a complicated, edgy friendship with Fidel and the beautiful photographer who documented the growing revolutionary movement. Nearly forty years later, he returns with his daughter to the bleak Cuba his old friend created, to resolve some of his conflicts with his past. Beautifully written, and with a ring of truth to it.
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Peter Barsocchini. Ghost. A white pro basketball player is trying to come to grips with the death of his father, but also trying to understand just what kind of a man his father was. He is trading memories with other people, trying to reconstruct the past he has only pieces of. A nice subplot deals with the kid he picks up along the way, a basketball hustler in need of a good friend and rescuer.
Frederick Barton. Courting Pandemonium. A very talented girl tries out for the varsity basketball team. If she plays on the girls' team, which is 6 on 6 ball, she will have no chance of getting a basketball scholarship; on the other hand, if she competes on the men's team, the women's team has no chance of success. The coach doesn't want to waste this talent, no matter what form it comes in, so he takes her on. This provokes a firestorm of criticism, not just from the old boys, who hate the notion of girls on their team, but from the feminists who believe she should be leading the girls' team to victory. Full of great basketball action and coaching strategy.
Harlan Coben. Play Dead. Pro basketball player David Baskin is believed dead, killed in an accident in Australia. So how does one explain a young player, come out of nowhere, whose playing style is an exact replica of Baskin's? This is a mystery, and also something of a love story, as well as a story about basketball.
Peter Gent. The Conquering Heroes. Gent reliably delivers a good read. In this scathing indictment of big-time college basketball, Pat Lee is an assistant coach who loves the game and cares about the kids he coaches. But his real job is recruiting, a soul-destroying job. Heavy doeses of alcohol help him cope with his revulsion to the exploitation of these kids. When a player rapes a girl and the head coach smears the girl's reputation to destroy her credibility, leading to her suicide, Pat has had enough.
Bill Granger. Drover and the Zebras. When a basketball referee who has been caught gambling apparently commits suicide, the NCAA investigates possible links to St. Mary's basketball program. Jimmy Drover's old friend, and St. Mary's coach, has been left to shoulder any blame, so Drover tries to figure out what is really going on.
Michael Katz. Murder off the Glass. The color man who covers the Chicago Flames basketball games is murdered at a game. His partner Andy Sussman is a suspect, and since the police are no longer trying to find the real killer, Andy has to, and fast--there are only a few weeks left before the NCAA tournament, where he has a chance to make his career as a sportscaster. Andy is a likeable character, who turns up again in later novels. The basketball action is well described, and the story has plenty of amusing moments.
Mike Lupica. Full Court Press. About the first woman in pro basketball. Eddie Holtz, on a scouting trip to Europe for the hapless, hopeless NY Knights, finds Dee Gerard playing the most beautiful passing, playmaking point guard he's ever seen and knows that she has the possibility of remaking his collection of whiners and selfish players into a functioning team. The owner is a Machiavellian grandstander who loves the idea, though Dee's not entirely convinced she wants it. Thrown into the games, she's bullied and abused by her coach, the players and sportswriters and has to prove her toughness and keep her concentration, even though someone's fomenting scandal about her. Meanwhile, when Eddie becomes coach, there's a bit of a problem - they're crazy about each other.
Geoffrey Norman. Blue Chipper. About the corruption surrounding the recruiting of a basketball "blue-chipper"--the kind of player who can make any team a winner. And it appears that some coaches may be willing to kill if necessary to get one. This is a powerful story about racism and the political power of top coaches.
Jack Olsen. Massy's Game. What happens when a player who is 8' 2" is brought into the game of basketball? It isn't pretty. When anyone has such natural dominance, it seems that all the normal rules to protect players don't apply anymore, at least not to protect him. Ultimately, this is a tragic story.
Rick Reilly. Slo Mo! Here's a laugh-outloud story of a likable, amazingly naive 17- year-old, Mo Finsternick, plucked out of high school to play for the NBA because he's 7'8" and has an unfailing 3-point shot. Raised in a cave cult, with virtually no exposure to the modern world, he is duped by agents and jealous teammates and would have been a mark for a female stalker of professional athletes were he not protected by his inability to understand that a woman approaching him wearing only a slip is interested in him. She ends up falling for him, and ultimately she and his old point guard buddy rescue him from the greedheads and help him find his lost family. Sportswriter Reilly has fun depicting Phil Jackson's unique zen-cum-profanity coaching style, Dennis Rodman's antics, and other oddities of NBA life.
Charles Rosen. The Cockroach Basketball League. Infamous CBA coach Rosen here depicts a coach struggling to make his CBA team play like a team, rather than a bunch of would-be stars trying to build up their individual stats so they can be called up to play REAL basketball in the NBA. He brings his team to the CBA championship in spite of everything. Rosen wrote two other basketball novels, Have Jump Shot, Will Travel, and A Mile above the Rim.
Richard Rosen. Fadeaway Harvey Blissberg, the baseball player turned detective in Strike Three, You're Dead returns to investigate the murders of some basketball players.
David Shields. Heroes. An outstanding novel about a college basketball team (Iowa readers will have no trouble identifying the college as the University of Iowa, and the town as Iowa City; whether the team is the Hawkeyes is another question). A sportswriter sees a point guard on this team who, if he were used properly, would be a great player, the Magic Johnson kind of player who makes everone around him better. But the coach wants him to be a shooter, not a playmaker. And, unfortunately, this player has no business being in college. The sportswriter finds out the truth about the kid's high school and junior college records, which have been doctored, and has to choose which he cares about more--his journalistic ethics, which would compel him to tell this story, and his love of basketball excellence. This man knows and loves basketball, and it shows.
Theodore Weesner. Winning the City. This is a novel that immerses you in the consciousness of a 15 year old boy, a very good basketball player left off his school's basketball team because he plays the position wanted by the son of a rich man who is willing to finance the team. Consumed by the unfairness of it, the boy is determined to find another team to play on, and to win the city championship against his school, despite a system that is stacked against him. Since his intense concentration on basketball is what has helped him to cope with an alcoholic father, the injustice has a double whammy effect on the kid. This is a sad and beautifully told story.
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For an article I wrote for Library Journal about golf novels, click here http://libraryjournal.com/article/CA633349.html
Alina Adams. Murder on Ice. Bex, researcher for ice-skating broadcasts, has to figure out who murdered the judge who cast a supposedly controversial vote for a Russian skater against America's sweetheart. Fun heroine, with lots of sharp observations about both broadcasters and the world of skating.
Jack Bickham. Overhead, Drop Shot, Breakfast at Wimbledon or any other of his novels about Brad Smith, aging professional tennis player and occasional CIA agent. All the books are full of well-described tennis action and strategy, which alternates with Smith playing cat and mouse with his Russian adversary who holds a serious, nasty grudge against him--Brad has beaten him way too many times.
Elston Brook. The Man Who Ruined Football. An undistinguished-looking, middle-aged man holds the key to a winning football season--he can kick a football through the goalposts every single time, no matter what the distance. When he kicks off, he never fails to kick it off into the other team's end zone. This makes his team unbeatable, and upsets the football gamblers something awful. And when gamblers get mad, they often try to get even.
Tom Coyne. A Gentleman's Game. A terrific rite of passage story, in which young Timmy Price, learns in an ugly way that high social class and class are not the same. He has a foot in both social worlds, as both caddy and member's son at Fox Chase Country Club, where, though only 12, he wins tournaments easily, with a natural swing members admiringly call "pure." His friends are fellow caddies, from the bottom of the social scale, who are used and casually abused. Timmy sees the members too close up to believe theres any honor in these men who pride themselves on playing a "gentleman's game," and ends up choosing the purity of the sport over the tarnished championship (and complicity) such men could offer him.
Esiason, Boomer, and Lowell Cauffiel. Toss. Esiason, longtime NFL quarterback, gives a gripping portrayal of an NFL team that's been engineered for failure in order to force a sale and lower its value. The team's manager drafts troublemakers, and keeps them out of jail and on the team; he also foments racial antagonisms. When $6,000,000 rookie quarterback Derek Brody arrives, the players don't want to work with him. Gradually he wins his teammates over and convinces them that winning is possible, while he figures out who is sabotaging the team and why. He then has to decide whether he'd rather play and win, or hand the bad guys over to the cops. Brody is an enigmatic but likable character. The games, preparation, and team-building are well-described, as is the corruption surrounding professional sports.
Dick Francis. Decider, or Driving Force or almost any of his 50 or 60 novels. They're all pretty good and they all follow the same formula: a horse-racing setting (Francis used to be a jockey), skulduggery by incredibly vicious, violent people, usually trying to win money by fixing races or crippling horses, and an incorruptible hero who takes a lot of punishment before bringing the bad guys to justice. His heroes are always interesting, likeable people, and his books make words like "honor" seem not so old-fashioned after all.
Peter Gent. North Dallas Forty. A fierce indictment of football as a business, and of the owners who take the idea of "owning" people quite seriously. Between the disillusionment, the pain, the possibility of career-ending injury on every play, and the constant fear of losing, or making mistakes and getting cut, you can begin to understand the appeal booze and drugs and sex (and lots of it) have for these guys.
Tim Green. Titans. Quarterback Hunter Logan, at the top, but aging, and looking for financial security, does a little sports gambling--not on football, but it doesn't matter. When Rizzo, nephew of a Mafia don finds out about it, he threatens Logan, demanding that he fix games or place his family at risk. But the Rizzo is a loose cannon, distrusted by his uncle, and under investigation by the FBI. Logan works with the FBI to save his family, protect the NFL, and destroy Rizzo. The book offers us suspense, good football action (Green is an ex-NFL player), and two likeable heroes.
William Hallberg. The Rub of the Green. A fine novel about a professional golfer who puts everything he's got into his game, because golf is a lot easier to deal with than people or emotions. When he does allow himself to care about somebody, he assaults the man who is attacking her, and ends up in prison; his chosen prison labor is creating a two-hole golf course. The thought that goes into playing a good game, or creating a course is well-depicted. And the hero comes to terms with himself over the course of the novel.
George V. Higgins. The Agent. This book is a good story and a must-read not only for Higgins' many fans but for any kid who dreams of a sports career. The agent, Alex Drouhin, protects his clients from all the people who would prey on him, from reporters to folks who would steal his underwear and sell it to sports memorabilia collectors. When he is murdered, his partners, servants, and clients are all suspect. The way the story is told is unusual--several characters reveal plots and subplots in extended monologues, while at the same time providing a wealth of information about the life of a professional athlete.
Dan Jenkins. Semi-Tough. Billy Clyde Puckett's diary of Super Bowl Week when his team, the Giants, was playing the Jets in California. Raunchy and thoroughly politically incorrect, though not racist, Billy Clyde shows the silliness of most of the proceedings except for the game itself, with lots of potshots at clueless but rich owners. It also traces the history of Billy Clyde's lifelong friendship with split end Shake Tiller and Barbara Jane Bookman, the gorgeous non-conformist daughter of very rich, very prejudiced Fort Worthians. Not for delicate sensibilities, but it's pretty funny stuff. Billy Clyde's adventures continue in Rude Behavior, which is sexist, racist, redneck, anti-gay, anti-PC, and guaranteed to offend virtually every category of human being, and also rolling-on-the-floor funny. Billy Clyde and his rich father-in-law win one of the NFL expansion franchises, the West Texas Tornadoes, and extravagantly cheat their way to the Super Bowl. Along the way there is plenty of time for comments on Hollywood (BC's wife is a movie star), corruption in college football (he's in favor of it), cheerleaders, lawyers, developers, and diners in small Texas towns.
Bob Judd. The Race. One of four novels Judd has written about a Formula 1 race driver. In this novel, the driver interferes with a terrorist plot at a major race event. The racing action is very well-drawn--you get a real sense of what it's like going over 150 miles an hour and trying to avoid turning from a driver into a helpless passenger. Other Novels in the series are Spin, Burn and Monza.
Klein, Dave. Fourth Down. Sportswriter Dave Klein gives us an exciting tale of football and organized crime. Hero Ed Buck, a New York sportswriter, is a long-time friend of Adam Benson, the Bears' quarterback. Benson tells Buck that he's been forced to throw games by the men who got him addicted to cocaine, and that he won't do it anymore. Benson then falls down dead on the field while he's playing a fantastic game, embarrassing the Giants. Buck convinces the police to investigate, and they find the barely visible evidence of murder. Along with his fiance and Benson's wife, who's ready to turn the crooks in, Buck stalks the killers -- who try to kill them. The football action is good, but the real story is about friendship, persistence, and the good guys winning.
Burt Levy. The Last Open Road. What grabs you about this first novel, is the voice of the narrator, Buddy Palumbo, a working class kid from Passaic who falls in love with cars and the boss's niece, in that order. He is a living, breathing reality from the first paragraph, with a style that is tough, funny, down to earth. He becomes a sports car mechanic in the early days of the sport, the early 50's, and the novel lovingly dwells on Jaguars and Ferraris and MGs, and on the races that were run on the open roads and small towns. He knows he could work the racing circuit forever, and would kind of enjoy doing it. But he also knows he, like his patron, a rich Jewish guy, would never really be part of the rich WASPs the sport belonged to. Structurally, this is a lot like opera-- his growing up is the recitative between the races that are the arias.
Willard Manus . The Pigskin Rabbi. Fortunately, a grownup fairy tale about football as it should be played, does not have to be plausible. A young rabbi who has lost his conviction has returned to his first love, football, playing with a Dutch team. Signed by the New York Giants, he instantly becomes a star, especially when they hire his old sandlot buddy. A great toss and catch combination, they communicate in Yiddish, which confuses their opponents. Their teammates learn not only Yiddish from them, but also a spontaneous, joyous way to play the game. Pretty soon the whole team is eating his grandmother's chicken soup on the sidelines, and their fans are all wearing official Giants yarmulkes. The only ones who don't love him are the anti-Semites, opposing players and the quarterback he replaced, who want him dead. Nonetheless, he leads them through a great season while struggling to regain his faith. The book is funny, touching, and raunchy. (A running joke is the extraordinarily large pecker of his wide receiver, called "The Hook" because of it.)
Richard Matheson. Hunted Past Reason. Novelist and screenwriter Bob Hansen is planning to write a novel about a backpacking expedition, but he's never done it. Doug, an actor who's a casual acquaintance and an expert wilderness guide, offers to take him on a 3 day wilderness trek. They're not a good match - Bob swiftly tires of Doug's lectures and patronizing attitude, and Doug thinks Bob is a spoiled wimp unwilling to carry his weight. But as the journey progresses, it becomes clear that Doug actually hates Bob for his success, and for his failure to use his success to further Doug's career. And it also becomes clear that he's a psycho, who ends up attacking Bob. He gives Bob a head start and a compass to find his own way to the cabin where his wife is waiting for him, and then starts hunting him. It becomes not just a test of Bob's survival skills but of his ethics. Outstanding.
Anna Maxes. Dead to Rights. Reggie Lichtman is an investigator for an organization that suspiciously resembles the NCAA. She has noticed that a woman's softball coach has a record of creating championship quality teams, very fast; the last time around, her team won at least in part because the other team's star player collapses during the game, and dies. Reggie soon finds that other people who got in the way of this coach have also suffered unfortunate accidents. And she finds that this coach has some very powerful friends, whose goal is much more sinister than just winning some games.
McAllister, Troon. The Green. This is probably the best novel about golf since William Hallberg's The Rub of the Green (see above). The narrator is team captain for America's Ryder Cup team, which has zero chance of winning against the European team, until he chooses Eddie Caminetti, an unknown who prefers to make his living not on the tour but by snookering golfers who underestimate him. Eddie is not only a great golfer, but a brilliant analyst of players and courses, who shows his teammates how to exploit their European opponents' weaknesses, as they play on a viciously tough golf course. Eddie is an honest con, who abides precisely by the terms of his contract, but as the novel ends, but when he doesn't get his money, it's unclear who is getting stiffed. Eddie is an unforgettable character, and the golf is vividly described. Golfers will love this book, but so may non-golfers who never understood how hard it is to play it well. Also The Foursome, in which we learn that Eddie Caminetti has only faked his death. He's really alive and well and running a private little island resort where only very well-off players are invited to play, including this foursome, consisting of a doctor, an inventor, a stockbroker and an advertising exec. Eddie and his chosen team takes them on, making a wee bet, of course. The players have not thought out the strategy required by the bet, and proceed to self-destruct as a team, sniping at each other. When they realize what has happened, they want a rematch, which Eddie reluctantly agrees to, but at terms that are ruinous. This places even greater stresses on the foursome as they reveal all the ugly things they know about each other, and they lose megabucks - but they save their souls in the process.
James Patterson and Peter DeJong. Miracle on the 17th Green. A fairy tale for middle aged men, and there aren't too many of those. A fifty year old man who hates his job, and has lost his connection with his wife and children, has the chance of a lifetime, to play in the Senior Open, and even advance to the final round with his heroes Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd. In the process, he learns a good deal about himself, and decides to change his life and regain his family.
Maynard F. Thomson. Dreams of Gold. This story of the quest for figure-skating gold is a winner. Megumi (Maggie) Campbell, a joyous skater and tough competitor, is a child of two cultures, fully welcomed by neither. Raised in Tokyo, she considered herself Japanese despite having her American father's features and flaming red hair; rejected by judges who considered her too un-Japanese to skate for Japan, she returned with her family to America, where she and her partner (and lover) Clay became world-class pairs skaters. When he is injured, Maggie returns to Japan to train to compete as a single again, against the woman she holds responsible for Clay's injury. Though the figure-skating is central, and its grueling demands and dangers are accurately shown, the book is much more about betrayal, and conquering anger and envy to lose oneself in the beauty of the sport.
J. Michael Veron. The Caddie. A really fine novel about Bobby Reeves, a struggling pro golfer whose life is falling apart. Having cheated on his wife and lost her, he's descended even farther and stolen money from his best friend. He's rescued from jail by a mysterious caddie who sets out to retrain him and bring out his potential for greatness as a golfer, and decency as a human being. With his help, Bobby starts playing the great golf courses, learning their tricks and learning to trust himself to play the game. Slowly, it begins to dawn on Bobby that his caddy, improbable though it seems, is Bobby Jones returned to life. There's a great deal of golf history here, and a lot of loving knowledge of how great golf courses work.
Bruce Zimmerman. Crimson Green. Quinn Parker's old golf team buddy Brad has come out of middle-aged obscurity to be within reach of winning the U.S. Open, but he is getting warnings that he'd better lose big time or else. When he keeps right on playing good golf, his head is blown off mid-putt. When Quinn investigates, he finds Brad's kidnapped child en route to finding that the reason for the murder lies doesn't lie in Brad's shady, hustling past at all.
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