The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Chris Szego
Posted April 15, 2010

smallyucky.JPGI just read an article in The New York Times that filled me with hope — hope for my relationship with cilantro. I’m in that small percentage of the
population that tastes something abominable in the herb. I find cilantro not only digusting, but also annoying, because it renders several international cuisines fraught with difficulty. This
particular article suggested that I might be able to turn cilantro-induced revulsion into pleasure, mostly by eating it repeatedly. Huzzah! Unfettered enjoyment of Indian and South American food is once again a possibility!

Now, I want to make it clear that there was never any repulsion in my early reading of Jill Shalvis. She was never vile like cilantro. She was more like… tarragon: something I could absently enjoy when it was in front of me, but rarely ever thought about when it wasn’t. But late last year something changed. Shalvis’ novel Double
hit the top of my to-be-read pile, and instantly upgraded her status to rosemary (in other words, something I devour at opportunity*).

Double Play is a baseball book, which makes it kind of unique. I’ve written previously about the ‘no sports’ mentality that permeates the romance genre. While the notion has relaxed from an unwritten rule to an unspoken admonition, it’s still around. That makes any sports book a hard sell to publishers, especially in this age of steroids and scandals. And that means the story has to be particularly good to connect with to
readers. Luckily, Double Play is.

Double Play is the story of pitcher Pace Martin, and reporter Holly Hutchins. Pace is the ace starter for the Santa Barbara Heat. He’s a true Major League star, with all that entails: the millions of dollars; the short-term stays; the intense, narrow focus. Holly is a blogger. She picks a subject of national interest, investigates it for several months, then writes about its secrets. And her newest assignment is Pace Martin. Neither is entirely thrilled with the situation. Holly thinks there are far more important issues to explore, and Pace doesn’t want the distraction. But despite their initial resistance, each becomes fascinated with the other.

Shalvis has said flat out that she likes to torture her heroes. She gets a gleeful joy out of making them suffer in order to earn their happy endings. In Pace’s case, much of the suffering is physical. From the very first paragraph the reader is aware that the MLB star is injured. But because he’s the lynchpin of his team’s World Series strategy, he’s hiding the pain. And it is some serious grinding pain: I winced a lot, reading. But he’s not just taking one for the team, either. Pace has spent his entire life in the service of baseball. It is his foundation, and he can’t even contemplate what he might be without it. So having a persistant and successful reporter around is not exactly helpful.

double play 250.jpgFor her part, Holly just wants to share knowledge. Secrets in her own past nearly smashed her childhood beyond repair, and she’s still trying to even the scales. She enjoys decoding the strange rituals
of the clubhouse – the superstitions, the cameraderie, the fans, with their needs and demands — and laying them out for the public to share. But she’s too good a reporter not to dig deeper, especially given all the recent drug and doping scandals. What she discovers surprises both of them, and could drive them apart for good.

I really enjoyed the athletic aspect of Double Play. Badly written sports stories are even more painful than recent Tiger Woods media coverage, but in the right hands, the sports story is a delight. Like a fairy tale, a sport provides a familiar framework in which to set a tale, and allows the writer to add depth and resonance with ease. Earlier this year, Shalvis followed up with a second book about the team, Slow Heat. This story features, catcher Wade O’Riley (who is Pace’s closest friend), and team publicist Samantha McNead. He’s the wild-child sports star; she’s trying to make him look good. But it’s also about families, for good and ill, and about how well – or poorly – we recover from the damage they can do.

Since discovering Double Play, I’ve hunted down a number of Shalvis’ other titles.
Interestingly, I find that the ones I like best all involve some sort of intense physical activity. Perhaps it’s a case of opposites attracting. She wrote a series for Harlequin about fire-fighters and rescue workers that really spoke to me; and another for Brava involving an outdoor adventure company that made me, a total urbanite, want to hike up a mountain.

Besides entertaining, Shalvis is also a very prolific writer. Thus far 2010 has seen the release of Slow Heat, a mass-market reissue of last year’s trade paperback Smart
and Sexy
, and a brand new trade paperback, Instant Temptation. That only brings us to April. Moving on, she’ll have a novella in an July anthology, another mass-market reissue, Trouble in Paradise, in September, and begins a new series in October with the trade
paperback title Simply Irresistible. Those titles hit cover four publishers, and several different subgenres. Considering that she’s also married, with several teenaged children and a houseful of pets, I can’t understand where Shalvis finds the time. I’m just very glad she does.

*That I have not yet managed to successfully over-winter a rosemary plant without killing it in no way detracts from my devotion.


Chris Szego likes hockey better than baseball. She is, after all, Canadian.

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