Saturday, October 20, 2012

Review: Phar Lap: How a Horse Became a Hero of His Time and an Icon of His Nation – Geoff Armstrong & Peter Thompson

Writing on a topic or piece of history so well known, and revered, places any author on a hiding to nothing. Everyone (at least everyone in Australia) has some degree of familiarity with the story therefore despite how fantastic the story is, and Phar Lap's is fantastic, an author stands more chance of taking away from rather than adding to it. The second difficulty lies in knowing the readers inherent knowledge level, while everyone knows of Phar Lap, just how much they know is up for debate.

Take for example your reviewer here who has seen, being Melbourne born and bred, multiple times Phar Lap's hide on display at the Melbourne Museum however has to admit that before reading this book had the horses Melbourne Cup win registered in his brain as 1929 (it was actually 1930). Clearly I was coming from a low base of knowledge and needed more of the background. But your experienced follower of track history would be the opposite and desperately seeking new insights into the events.

The story of this horse is accurately reflected in the byline of this book, he was a hero and an icon to an Australian community ravaged by the Great Depression. But though the horse was likely blissfully unaware of it throughout his life the relationships around him were racked with greed, envy and angst. Interestingly Armstrong and Thompson chose to include the tragic story of one of the horses earliest track riders, an apprentice jockey Heaton Cashell 'Cash' Martin, who was unable to follow the horse to Melbourne and later died in a race fall just after Phar Lap had won the Victoria Derby in 1929.

Measurements of weight and odds are integral parts to the sport of kings, however they do not make easy reading. Rather than let the story flow the authors include significant amounts of data on the weights carried and the relative prices available from bookies. If Phar Lap was a hero to people and an icon then his story must be carried beyond the menial, and the authors are unable to do so.

In addition as a very recent and low level follower of horse racing (who is not interested in gambling) the attraction is the majesty and power of these beasts charging away at close to 60 km/h. That despite there being many memorable shots of Phar Lap throughout his lifetime none are included means that the publishers and authors have missed another method of bringing the magic home to the reader.

The story holds its own regardless and to understand better the love of the sport in Australia you need familiarity with it. While it could have been done better this book is ranked Tennis Balls.

Cover image thanks to Allen and Unwin

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Review: A Clash of Kings - George R. R. Martin

In the second book of the now-iconic Games of Thrones series ... nothing happens.

The book begins with four claimants to the throne of Westeros; it finishes with the same amount.  All the major political figures of the first two books start and end in the same place with only one major incident at the book's climax, but without much actually being accomplished.  A major inclusion is House Greyjoy, whose power was hinted at in the previous book, A Game of Thrones, but even they - point-of-view character Theon aside - are firmly sidelined.

A case in point: one of the would-be Kings dies.  It's intimated how, but never described.  On one page is a parlay, the next sees one of the delegates back home with scant reason.  The claimant is dismissed quickly and without the care taken in describing his encampment, feasting tendencies or plans for a new Kingsguard.  Martin obvioulsy felt he needed to spend those words elsewhere. Given the book's length, it was a a merciful - if odd - decision.

That's not to say that Clash isn't a remarkable book.  Martin must be special if he's drawn in millions of readers with a series that evolves slower than we did from the fish.  He writes interesting characters - the Onion Knight, Davos Sukar, took my fancy - some of which are added to an already teeming cast of third-person narrators.  This multi-party narrative device expands the saga to involve much of the general public rather than the isolated groups which dominate other civil war recounts (eg. Star Wars - where every single important person in the galaxy is linked in somehow.  The prequels can go to hell).

Unfortunately, this also means that the reader feels as if they are marking time until getting back to a storyline in which the plot actually advances.  It makes for a disjointed read that isn't nearly as gripping as the first installment.

In  many ways, the remarkable world Martin has created - like Tolkien before him - is his greatest achievement and a rod for his own back.  While we learn more of the Seven Kingdoms, this is not matched by the activities of the major protagonists.  Each POV character seems to have one task to accomplish - to meet parlay, to journey to the Outlands, to prepare for battle or to escape.  Once this task is performed, they slide into obscurity.

War is made up of myriad finite, intricate moments which combine to form a much larger picture.  This makes for some interesting times and some ... quieter ones.  A Clash of Kings is certainly the latter.

Tennis balls.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Peter Temple versus Peter Corris – Melbourne versus Sydney

Peter Temple – 'Jack Irish' series – Bad Debts, Black Tide, Dead Point and White Dog; The Broken Shore; In The Evil Day.

Peter Corris – 'Cliff Hardy' series – Taking Care of Business, Saving Billie, The Undertow, Appeal Denied, The Big Score, Deep Water and Torn Apart; Wishart's Quest.

Something different for the readers of Books with Balls. Have decided after having read a sizeable portfolio of writings by two Australian crime writers I will weigh them off against each other. The parallels between the writers are there allowing for comparison – both are Australian, both have a series based around a central character, both have won the Ned Kelly award and therefore inherit the title as being a 'Godfather of Australian Crime Fiction' and both write their work with an undoubted sense of place.

Let's begin with the works of each that do not fall into the single character based series they are known for. From Temple I have read two stand alone works – The Broken Shore and In the Evil Day. Both are thoroughly engaging pieces of writing; detailed, gritty, and leaving you as the reader desperate for more. Both works are very different, In the Evil Day an espionage thriller in the mould of Robert Ludlum set in Europe and The Broken Shore a dramatic tale of a divided small coastal town police officer in Victoria unravelling a chilling back story to the towns life. The latter being my undoubted preference, but both are great reads.

Wishart's Quest by Corris is a story of a former orphan, who became an esteemed academic, investigating the history of who his biological parents were. The quest takes him through racially divided communities in the NSW north coast and further into the deep underworld of Asia that was promulgated through the Vietnam war. The book is a good read however at times the story felt too far fetched to allow the reader to elevate it in their esteem above being 'a good read'.

Onto the more well known works, those around a central character and immediately comes a divergence. Whereas Corris has written prolifically (over 30 publications) on the adventures of his Sydney based private investigator Cliff Hardy, Temple has thus far elected to limit his use of Melbourne lawyer Jack Irish to just four novels.

At this point I the reviewer must admit to being of Melbourne, born and bred. Therefore anyone born north of the Murray will easily identify my bias, but I believe that the superior quality of Temple's books over Corris's (who incidentally was born in rural Victoria) is a metaphor for why I believe Melbourne is superior to Sydney.

Where Corris describes tales that have brash crash and bash episodes more often, Temple chooses a more subtle route. Corris's Cliff Hardy is a man's man who's passion is for the boxing ring in the inner city or the southern beaches of Maroubra or Bondi. Temple's Jack Irish is more thoughtful and cultured and chooses his leisure to examine horse flesh for his latest plunge or listening to Italian opera. Both appear well versed in the mysteries of females, Irish tends toward brooding good looks to attract them, Hardy makes his moves less subtly with a cocktail of booze and pick up lines.

In all seriousness both writers are worth reading if you are entertained by crime fiction. Temple is my preference however being less prolific than Corris in his writing (potentially a metaphor that those from Melbourne seek quality rather than the Sydney pursuit of quantity) I will be reading more of Cliff than of Jack.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review - Tip Off - Filip Bondy

Tip Off isn't a bad book, but it's hard to get excited about.  In fact, a one-word review would simply be "meh".  Filip Bondy presents us with the equivalent of watching a player take a 17' jump shot when he could have dunked on three guys - it's just as effective and may even be the right play, but leaves the audience slightly underwhelmed.

This is a shame, because Bondy chose a fascinating topic: the 1984 NBA draft, which saw Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Perkins, Charles Barkley and John Stockton arrive in professional basketball.  It also provided the backdrop for the most high-profile draft blunder in history, when Portland selected Kentucky center Sam Bowie instead of Jordan with the second overall pick.

It's a succinct read which touches on the leadup to the draft, what each team was thinking when making their selections and also a brief look at how each player fared.  There's little coming together of the players - of every player drafted, the book may as well be about the six guys listed above.  Nobody - well, nobody except the most hardened basketball-philes - wants to know Chicago's thinking behind taking NBL legend Butch Hays with a seventh-round pick, or the reasons that Indiana chose Charlotte legend Stuart Gray.

Bondy writes to get the facts out rather than to entertain.  It is well-researched and the author has obviously researched and interviewed broadly, which all serves a purpose but at times upsets the book's flow.  Each chapter focuses on one aspect of the draft process, be it Chicago or Houston allegedly tanking (leading to the institution of the draft lottery in 1985), the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics or Sam Perkins' background in upstate New York.  The result is that there are minimal shared experiences which takes away from the Draft's inherent maturation storyline.

The information is all there, but given the storied nature of that draft, the reader is left feeling as if they're in some way short changed and that perhaps a writer with a greater sense of the event may have made Tip Off  more enjoyable.  As it is, it's intriguing at times (did you know that Philadelphia offered Dr. J or Andrew Toney and the no. 5 pick for the no. 3 pick so they could take Jordan?) but labours with an invasive flatness.

A perfectly average read - making it tennis balls.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Review: Instruments of Darkness - Gary Russell

Gary Russell made me think!  No, really, he did a good thing!  279 pages weren't wasted!  It's a miracle!

During his time writing Past Doctor Adventures, Russell made it a personal crusade to redeem the then-pilloried Sixth incarnation of the Time Lord, fleshing out the lurid continuity of the Colin Baker era.  First came Mel's official introductory story, Business Unusual - which I enjoyed - and eventually a real regeneration for Doc 6 in the form of the immortal Spiral Scratch.

It's campaigns like these that, despite the best of intentions, have earned Russell his reputation as a purveyor of the highest order of fanwank.

That said, however, despite myriad failings, Instruments of Darkness is a reasonable sequel to Business Unusual.

Irritations include a marginalised and relatively-poorly-characterised Doctor, reliance on continuity (although it's much better than some of the author's previous work), stylistic inconsistencies, dialogue peeled straight from the Star Wars prequels and Russell indulging his  Bond fetish.  Naming a pair of female assassins Ms de Menour and Ms (Mal) Feasance?  Inserting a piece about the Doctor introducing Fleming to the ornithologist on whom Bond was based?  The cult-series mix is simply too much for an admittedly-pulpy premise to bear.

But in spite of these elements, Russell deftly portrays a series of interconnected characters whose reliance upon each other is notable.  Throughout the text, couplets emerge where each member is completely dependent on the other - for existence, validation, love.  Even the Doctor is not immune as he encounters the companion that wasn't, Evelyn Smythe; and in fact only Mel appears immune.

This symbiosis is woven unobtrusively throughout and only it hits the reader with real force when it becomes apparent at the novel's conclusion.  It's sweetly juxtaposed with the climactic fireworks brought about by some old-school Doctor trickery reminiscent of Pyramids of Mars.

Tennis balls.

Discontinuity Guide's review of Instruments of Darkness

Saturday, August 11, 2012

An Omnibus of Horse Racing

Throughout my life, the sport of kings has been relatively disinteresting to me. Despite growing up on a full diet of sport obsession, for some reason horse racing never took my fancy. My perception of it has been skeptical, fueled by one question: Is there a point to it beyond being a vehicle for gambling? Can you have a passion for it without needing to risk your hard earned, or being loaded to the hilt and able to own one of the creatures?

Despite being proud of the fact I had managed to avoid watching the last eight or nine Melbourne Cups, I fell into the Black Caviar phenomenon upon its closure at Royal Ascot. I became desperate to understand what attracts people to the sport, why it is so ingrained in our Australian culture, why was Vo Rogue a cult hero, and to finally understand the theory behind weight for age. I present to you five titles that have taken me on this journey.

  1. A Year on the Punt – John Ellicott

My journey got off to a poor start, when I managed to learn less than nothing and in fact digress in my opinion of the sport thanks to this title. A journalist and petty gambler takes his long service leave and ventures far and wide across Australia to visit regional racing carnivals, learn more of the history of racing, and pick up some tips for being an effective picker of winners.

Maybe that is what Ellicott planned to do however what he presented pretty much summed up my long held reasons for prejudice against the sport. Every club he visited was struggling to survive save for the turnover of gambling through the TAB (although they do not like having to conform to the rules of the TAB). In addition the greatest stories nine times out of ten were the debaucherous antics of racegoers (and club committeemen) no mention of any equine heroes. Into the bargain the author annoys the heck out of you as a reader trying to behave as a stereotypical 'Aussie' and clearly even his own writing indicates he was more often than not annoying those at the races as well. No Balls.

  1. True Grit – Les Carlyon

After the terrible start I went into my further reading without much hope, but I was reinvigorated and identified that what Gideon Haigh is for Australian Cricket, Les Carlyon is to Australian racing. If he has not touched it, do not either. Out of all the books read this was the one that really answered my questions and allowed me to more easily comprehend the passion one could have for horse racing.

Carlyon is a long time Melbourne journalist and True Grit is a compilation of some of his best work on his great love. Given its nature the book does not seek to systematically educate you however you pick up enough along the way. You learn of the champions (Vo Rogue included) and the lesser lights in sport, coming away with a rounded view that yes I may grow to like it. If you can only read one book on horse racing, this is it – Basketballs.

  1. The Track – Mike Hayes

Transforming a television series into a book is difficult, you go from having had images and body language plus words into text and the track although full of information suffers for hit. This was ABC televisions program on the history of Australian racing, presented by topic rather than chronologically. There are many interview subjects (Les Carlyon included) that give their opinions on all subjects however it can feel repetitive with the same incidents often being discussed under multiple topics.

You do learn a lot about the history, what drew and still draws people in, therefore functionally it has served its purpose – Tennis Balls.

  1. The Master – Les Carlyon

What makes a book about someone’s life a portrait and not a biography? Broad brush strokes with an eye for detail where required, and Les Carlyon succeeds with this portrait of Bart Cummings. Despite knowing little of horse racing one fact you do know as an Australian is that Bart Cummings has trained the most Melbourne Cup winners, by a long way and is a legend in racing circles.

The book is not only a great read but a beautiful presentation of horse racing images throughout the years and could serve well on a coffee table as well as in a library. Carlyon perfects just the amount of information to give about Cummings as you journey through his life, learning the great successes and the tragedies (which there are less). You leave with no deified image of Cummings except that he is a good horseman, his people skills appearing to leave something to be desired, and that the Australian racing industry is very much built on individuals like him. Basketballs.

  1. They're Racing – Gary Hutchinson (Editor); Foreward by Les Carlyon

None of the books read have the sheer volume of information brought by this volume. Chronologically from the first white settlement up until the end of the 20th century every key moment, person, race and of course horse is profiled. The book is set up for reference and is easy reading dipping in and out. Further there is much enjoyment of the hundred's of images provided. Because you are not reading the same work consistently it is difficult to draw a consistent line through the sport in this presentation, one piece may not relate to another and repetition is again in this work as in The Track. But for the number of facts per hour reading this is the choice. Tennis Balls.

Cover Images Available thanks to and

Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: Sixty years on the back foot - Clyde Walcott

The Caribbean has produced several of the greatest batsmen of all time. However, many of these players seem to rail against faceless figures of authority. Currently, talisman Chris Gayle swats boundaries at whim – more often for lucrative T20 sides than for the West Indies. The chain which leads back through the likes of Brian Lara and Sir Vivian Richards – who was rather partisanly profiled in the acclaimed documentary Fire in Babylon – to George Headley.

Sixty years on the back foot
The second (or third, or fourth depending on how you look at it) of these superstars was Sir Clyde Walcott, a forerunner of devastating West Indian batsmanry and later president of the International Cricket Council. His autobiography, Sixty years on the back foot, was published at the conclusion of his ICC tenure in 1997.

His memoir is lightweight – entire tours are glossed over, especially those in which the West Indies struggled – and Walcott writes with the style of a man who finishes lengthy believable anecdotes with “Can you believe it?”. However, the parallels between West Indian cricket in 1952 and in 2012 are too plain to ignore.

Along with Sir Everton Weeks and Sir Frank Worrell, Walcott was one of the famed “Three Ws”, three Bajan players raised within a mile of each other and who helped West Indian cricket attain relevance in the 1950s. The significance of the three friends and their relationship is underscored throughout Walcott's writings as he attempts to characterise Caribbean cricket through their free-hitting exploits.

He does this for a simple reason: Walcott unquestionably thought that West Indian cricket, when played hard but for fun, is superior to any other. (Ed: he may be right) Time and again, his tacit disdain the orthodoxy inherent in 1950s English cricket is obvious; simultaneously he rejoices in the laid-back joie de vivre that formerly typified West Indian cricket.

Although Fire in Babylon incorrectly suggested that calypso cricket was provided only a team of loveable freewheelers (ie. losers), you can't escape the feeling while Walcott revelled in victories, he wouldn't countenance sacrificing style to achieve more success. His transition from money-chasing maverick pro to WICB ambassador adds another intriguing dynamic. However, like most politicians, his autobiography is an exercise in using many words to avoid saying much at all.

Although Walcott's memoir hearkens to different times, where pacemen were named Esmond Kentish and Foffie Edwards, there are still familiar cricket themes. Race relations, though downplayed, provided undercurrents of discontent. The same could be said for matters of money, as cricketers were still strictly classified as “professional” or “amateur”. That Worrell, Weekes and Walcott were forced to choose between making a living playing English league cricket rather than representing the West Indies provides a fifty-year prophecy of the WICB's current struggles with player free-agency.

The same issues have plagued West Indian cricket now for sixty years. The islands' success from 1975 to 1995 and more widespread cricketing professionalism only masked the difficulties of West Indian players and administrators. That the situation is unchanged over so long, coupled with difficult economic factors leaves the reader feeling that this situation is now intractable in West Indian cricket and the game is so much the poorer.

However disappointing the state of West Indian cricket, it's perhaps more disappointing that such an eminent figure in the game stuck true to his political, rather than returning to his maverick roots and challenging major failings in Caribbean cricket politics. Marbles.