Monday, August 19, 2019

STATE :: Melissa Isaacson

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

Melissa Isaacson spends the evening before her Niles West High School basketball team's 25th reunion with her parents, both long suffering from Alzheimer's-induced memory loss. As she reconnects with her teammates, they implore her to delve into their own recollections and document the team's story. For more than a decade, she turns her sports journalist's eye to the tale of a remarkable group of girls from Skokie, Ill.

State begins shortly after the 1972 inception of Title IX, prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded education activities. Isaacson was one of many "tomboys" who wanted to play sports and were running out of patience. Given the opportunity, her teams made spectacular runs at the state championship, ultimately winning it all in 1979, only five years after the school's inaugural season.

State is a treasure trove of personal reporting at the "squeak and rubber" level of shoes on the court. Significantly, looking back as an adult allows a view of the glory days through varying lenses of school, family and societal experiences and traumas that lay hidden under the surface for these suburban teenage girls. Details emerge about the coaches and administrators who fought for and supported them, and parents who sometimes did not.

Isaacson, the Chicago Tribune's first woman columnist and beat writer, artfully shifts voice between youthful naiveté and seasoned veteran. Her pre-game poems have evolved into great storytelling, imbued with warmth and, quite often, hilarity--a testament to the game that shaped the lives of the girls who played it.

STREET SENSE: Fans of sports, camaraderie and feel-good stories will enjoy Isaacson's recollections. The writing is insightful and often hilarious. As a fellow tomboy who came of age just after Isaacson, I recognized so many elements of her history. Many maddening, but some sweet. I particularly loved Isaacson's relationship with her father, who, when he learned how nervous she was about getting her new warm-up suit dirty, came home with a suit bag from the dry cleaners for her to keep it in. He then went back and got 13 more for the rest of her team. Her descriptions of him were some of my favorites, such as his running "with painful-sounding pants" from the "30 dollars of excess change in each pocket." Lovely stuff.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Our relationship with the sport was one that we coveted and pursued, then was allowed to grow and deepen over time. Basketball was, in many ways, one of our best friends, dependable and fulfilling and intoxicating in its unpredictability. It gave us a feeling of belonging and security and confidence we so desperately needed during the angst of adolescence. Unlike the average high school social group or clique, we had a common goal that would not shake us, withstood petty bickering, and deterred all the usual grounds for rejection like the wrong hair or body type.

Also, this one. Because while there are many who focus on the glory of offense, one of my favorite things in the world is stopping someone else from doing something (this will surprise no one who knows me). There is nothing better than throwing someone out at the plate from center field. Isaacson is a kindred spirit: "Aside from basketball, I was never happier than when I was diving for sinking line drives in the outfield, then bouncing up and firing the ball home to nail an unsuspecting base runner." Preach, sister.

COVER NERD SAYS: I'd be lying if I said this cover is fancy, but I can't help but be won over by it nonetheless. It doesn't get much better than an old black-and-white photo of some tough ladies cutting down a net in celebration. The font is very "amateur sports/collegiate" looking, which is both awesome and appropriate. The colors and curve of the text, like the arc of a jump shot or as if the words are resting on the top of a ball, are super nifty. I can't even argue with the blurb, which sits pretty nicely out of the way and, despite being off to one side, doesn't ping my OCD-meter. Plus, motherfuckin' Steve Kerr. Most of these are changes from the ARC and all pay off. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

KANSAS CITY VS. OAKLAND :: Matthew C. Ehrlich

As a young sports junkie born and raised in the Bay Area of California with some roots in Kansas, I grew up with Oakland and Kansas City baseball and football. While I had a sense of the rivalry when it came to athletics, I remained mostly clueless as to the real history and depth of the two cities' connections until I read Matthew Ehrlich's Kansas City vs. Oakland: The Bitter Sports Rivalry That Defined an Era. An in-depth look at the franchises and the cities that support (and sometimes don't support) them, Kansas City vs. Oakland is recommended for anyone who is a fan of either team, lives in the surrounding areas, or has an interest in the impact of sports on a city (and vice versa).

I find the history of sports franchises fascinating in general, but you'd be hard-pressed to find an ownership foursome more colorful and intriguing than Charles O. Finley (owner of the Kansas City A's who moved them to Oakland--and named the mascot after himself), Al Davis (owner/GM of the Raiders), Lamar Hunt (owner of the Chiefs and a founder of the AFL), and Ewing Kauffman (who established/owned the Royals and brought baseball back to KC).

Ehrlich charts the rise and fall of each team through the years from dream to fruition to present day, along with the rises, falls and championships along the way. Views of sportswriters, broadcasters and social figures of the times add insight, and the interplay of the teams and cities with stadium building, political strife, race, economic turbulence, and fandom evidences the many layers of impact sports have had on both locales.

Ehrlich organizes the book in chronological sections alternating between baseball and football in each chosen period of time. With the addition of the stories of the two cities, I sometimes found myself wishing there was just one chronology for each team. However, with the interplay and rivalry factors, along with some of the city and cultural parallels, I think Ehrlich made the right call on organization when he had so much information to present and relationships to mine.

STREET SENSE: A detailed history of two cities and the sports teams that helped define them. Recommended for fans of sport and its impact on culture and urban "progress."

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: The Oakland Coliseum was different. In the fond words of the Raiders' Ken Stabler, it was a "little ol' bullring filled with blue-collar crazies" consisting of "everyone from bikers to longshoremen." Rather than sip cocktails, Raiders fans "drank out of the same bottle," according to one fan: "And when they were done, they threw it at somebody."

Also: "Holy Toledo!" (Because there was no one better than the great Bill King.)

COVER NERD SAYS:  I don't want to be too hard on this cover, because I don't expect a University Press to have a huge art and marketing budget and there's really nothing wrong with it. When I see it, I'm confident in what it's about. The colors, fonts and image have good interplay. The subtitle in a standout color gives it an added boost. But the book packs more punch than the cover might indicate. There's not much to separate this look from the many sports books or fantasy magazines on the shelves. It's a solid cover that lacks a little emotional oomph.

Monday, August 12, 2019

DOTTIR :: Katrin Davidsdottir

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

CrossFit combines elements of all sport disciplines with tests borrowed from Navy SEAL training, creating workouts performed by the "world's largest fitness community." The CrossFit Games are the Super Bowl of that community, crowning one man and one woman the "Fittest on Earth." Katrin Davidsdottir has won twice.

Iceland is tops in the world for gender equality and celebrating strong women, despite its patronymic custom (a father's first name prefixes his children's surnames). An athletic competition that values female participation and prizes Viking traits of power and fortitude seems perfectly crafted for Icelandic women, borne out by their dominance since the Games began in 2007. "Thorisdottir, Sigmundsdóttir, and Davidsdottir. One country. Three hundred and thirty thousand inhabitants. Ten podiums. Four Championships. Two silver medals. Four bronze. All Dottirs."

A blend of personal, familial memoir and training chronicle, Dottir follows Davidsdottir's "out of the womb hypercompetitive" path to the champion's podium and her struggle to keep her title in an increasingly challenging contest that airs on ESPN, recently boasting more participants than the population of Iceland.

Rife with CrossFit terminology, Dottir remains inclusive, conveying messages with mass appeal. Davidsdottir trains under the valuable principle "win or learn," freeing her from the mental stigma of failure. Embracing mistakes while pushing her limits facilitates mental toughness when it counts. Davidsdottir also addresses the pressures of society and media, particularly meaningful to youth and girls. Reading Dottir is no guarantee of a gold medal, but its empowering themes reach beyond athletics to everyday life.

STREET SENSE: Judgey McJudgerson wrote this off as just another fitness book, but I was really drawn in by Davidsdottir's story, background, work ethic and principles. I ended up a huge fan and want to visit Iceland more than ever. The 2019 Games were recently held and Davidsdottir finished fourth, with Aussie Tia-Clair Toomey taking the crown. Also, just for a taste, here's one of the workouts, performed for time and while wearing body armor:

1-mile run
100 pull-ups
200 push-ups
300 squats
1-mile run

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Icelanders believe they are the best at everything. When it comes to the CrossFit Games, it's a matter of fact...One thing is obvious: Icelandic women are worthy of the hype. Despite the fact that only 1 percent of the total women's field is from Iceland, one in four female podium finishers is Icelandic and one in 2.5 female champions is Icelandic. That means we win the CrossFit Games about 160 times more often than you would expect us to win by chance. Those are staggering odds.

COVER NERD SAYS: I liked this cover more in hindsight. Despite my love of clean black-and-white art work, there was something about the angle of this image that was off-putting at first. For some reason, maybe my greater affinity for Davidsdottir, I kind of dig it.

Monday, August 5, 2019

DON'T WAIT UP :: Liz Astrof

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

Liz Astrof is an executive producer and sitcom writer, plying her trade on several hit shows (The King of Queens; 2 Broke Girls), so it's no surprise she has an exceptionally funny and charismatic voice. Sadly, Astrof's history also lends credence to the theory that great comedy has its roots in tragedy.

Astrof doesn't mine devastation just for laughs. Her candid essays in Don't Wait Up address life's ordeals with acerbic wit, but never reduce her experiences to a laugh track. The humor is there to break the emotional fall, as the pieces run the gamut from farcical--when her family takes on a pet turtle ("The Year of the Turtle")--to mind-bogglingly horrific.

In "Happy New Year," Astrof discovers she had a twin who died in utero. That unbearable notion created a moment of sympathy for her mother, a "hateful, filthy, horrible witch of a woman," only to have her father explain, "Your mother's problem wasn't that your sister died.... Her problem was that you lived."

Whether overtly or latently comical, each essay finds her mother's scarring impact lying in wait, fostering Astrof's "stay-at-work mom" mentality. A demanding career means Astrof doesn't "have to be home for a lot of the bad shit like homework and dinnertime." Jokes aside, she's terrified of messing up her kids. Her writing evidences a deep love and humanity, however squirm-inducing and disconcerting the journey. Written with a sharp pen and an open heart, Astrof's work is heartbreakingly poignant and funny as hell.

STREET SENSE: These essays from television writer Liz Astrof reveal humorous and challenging aspects of her family and career as influenced by her monstrous mother. There are pieces and aspects of pieces that will speak to most anyone, and there are some tough and well-earned laughs along the way.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Every Mother's Day, I'm reminded of what a...unique mother I had. There isn't a single card that captures my experience. And the dread I feel about that while heading into my local Rite Aid is profound. To be fair, it would be hard for even the most seasoned card-poet to find decent couplets for "Even Though You Left When I Was Five, You Continue to Haunt Me." Or "I Know You Never Wanted Children, But..." Or "My Kids Can Never Have Enough Clothes or Shoes Because I Had to Share Mine With Your Ventriloquist Dummy." That said, I'd settle for a simple "On This Day and All Days, I'm Terrified of Becoming You." It wouldn't even need to rhyme.

COVER NERD SAYS: I appreciate this cover more than I'm drawn to it. I do love the subtitle, which made me want to read the book all the more. How many moms would make this confession (when I would venture almost all feel it at one point or another)? This endeared me to Astrof right off the bat. For whatever reason (read: my own OCD and sense of minimalism), I think this would have been stronger without the photographs. Let's be honest, you either have no photos or 845 photos on your fridge. And if you have two, they are at right angles. I've now disclosed too many of my psychoses and I'm going to quit while I'm only this far behind. 

Monday, July 29, 2019

TELL ME EVERYTHING :: Cambria Brockman

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

"Pretend." Malin Ahlberg's father whispers this instruction in her ear as her parents drop her at Hawthorne College, a small liberal arts school in the Maine backwoods. For the next four years, from that first day through the tragedies that befall her friends on Senior Day in 2011, Malin takes his directive to heart.

Cambria Brockman's debut, Tell Me Everything, ultimately does tell all; yet, in line with psychologically twisted college clique tales, not before putting the reader through a maddeningly enjoyable wringer. Malin is patently unreliable, but in a wonderfully fresh, clear-headed way. She is not influenced by drugs or alcohol; quite the opposite, in fact. Malin is about control, with an unknown but definite method to her madness.

Coming from Texas, as something of a fish-out-of-water, Malin surprisingly finds herself part of an intimate yet disparate group of six friends. Living together in a house purchased by one set of wealthy parents gives Malin constant access to and insights into their secrets, changing dynamics and intimacies.

Weaving through three main timelines--Malin's childhood, freshman year and senior year--Brockman slowly exposes the meaning behind Malin's father's whispered instruction and her ongoing manipulations. Some minor plot points and discrepancies in the character depth of the six friends create minor hiccups in the flow, but Brockman has turned in a compelling slow burn with focus justly on its furtive protagonist. Malin's retelling of each period in her life is fraught with competing control and unease that make for a dynamite combination.

STREET SENSE:  I went into this one blind and really kind of dug it. If you're a sucker for multiple timelines and manipulative narrators with shady pasts, you might find it in your wheelhouse as well.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  My father saw potential in me, so he taught me how to be normal. I don’t think he realized it made me more dangerous, to know how to appear like I cared.

(But really, this is the best one: "Responding to people was so taxing." Man, I feel you, sister.)

COVER NERD SAYS: I like this cover. It's a bit "bright" for a book that is really more dark, but the pool has symbolism that I like and the ripples are a pretty cool effect and somewhat metaphorical. Clean, uncluttered, nice palette, good balance, no distracting blurbs or extraneous writing. This would catch my eye on a shelf for sure.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

NEVER TELL :: Part Deux

When I was assigned to review Lisa Gardner's latest Detective D.D. Warren installment, Never Tell, I had only read one of the previous nine in the series. I'm not sure why I didn't continue (too many books to cram into too little time, we all know that story), but after reading Never Tell I was moved to go back and fill in the blanks. I really dug Never Tell on its own, but Gardner also introduced a new character, Flora Dane, who was quite intriguing and I wanted to see how she entered the fray. I'm doing most of the earlier books on audio and am on the sixth.

Never Tell comes out in paperback on August 6th. While I'm not usually a fan of cover changes (mostly because covers are the best way for me to remember if I've read something), this new paperback is super nifty.

The dark color palette really sells it. The hardcover was great, but I think this image is even better and suited to the plot. To make the paperback release more enticing, the publisher has included a teaser excerpt from Gardner's January 2020 release, When You See Me. It not only brings D.D. and Flora back, but a few other recurring characters and arcs I'm curious to see play out.

I read Never Tell pretty cold, and while it necessarily gave away some plot points from prior books in the series I was not confused or bothered at potential spoilers. While completeists are encouraged to go back and see how the characters originated, if you find that idea daunting, don't hesitate to start with Never Tell and read on in both directions. I know I'm going to be anxiously awaiting When You See Me.

If you want a bit more information to see if these might be for you, you can take a gander at my prior review with more details at Shelf Awareness or here at Malcolm Avenue Review, just hit one of the links.

Happy reading~!

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

THE CHAIN :: Adrian McKinty

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

Shortly after 13-year-old Kylie hears her school bus drive past the car in which she's held captive--blindfolded, at gunpoint--the kidnappers contact her mother. Rachel Klein's positive steps toward a new life--divorce, cancer remission, new job--take a devastating tumble as she learns she and Kylie are now part of "the Chain." Multiple lives depend on Rachel doing exactly what the Chain demands. Even if they can survive, Rachel and Kylie are beholden for the rest of their lives.

The woman holding Kylie explains she is only trying to save her own kidnapped son. Stick with me here--to secure Kylie's release, Rachel must follow the same rules: send crypto-currency ransom to the Chain's account and then steal someone else's child. Kylie will be returned once Rachel deposits the funds and convinces her kidnap victim's family to pay and take yet another child. Like a snake eating its tail, the Chain perpetuates itself. If Rachel breathes a word, ever, people will die.

The refreshingly horrifying premise of Adrian McKinty's The Chain probes the lengths parents will go to protect their children and the lines others will cross to exploit them. McKinty's standalone thriller, following his Detective Sean Duffy series (Gun Street Girl), is a warped ride through the consequences of the Chain messing with the wrong woman. The action takes some fun and unanticipated turns as Rachel finds help following the rules before deciding to break them. A few convenient coincidences and deep technological details don't slow Rachel's blockbuster roll to cut the links in the Chain.

STREET SENSE: The premise of The Chain is holy cats crazy and wonderful (horrible wonderful). The plot goes places I didn't expect at the halfway point. Things got a bit far afield in the second half, but there is no doubt this one is an entertaining page-turner.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: There are some great metaphors for the Chain and some lovely descriptions (rough plot be damned, I love authors who add beauty to the horror), but I particularly liked this simple line:

"The Chain is a cage always in search of the most vulnerable birds."

Oh, hell, I liked this, too, because any Jaws reference wins the day with me:

"The plan is simple. All the best plans are simple. Aren't they? Get in the boat, find the whale, kill it. Get in the boat, find the shark, kill it."

COVER NERD SAYS:  I love me some plain, simple and artful and this is all three. A rockin' blurb (Jaws-related, no less!) from Don Winslow will also allow me to break my "blurbs are the devil" rule. This is great cover work.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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