Monday, January 24, 2011

Review: The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell

The first book in his Arthur trilogy, the Adjutant of the Army of Historical Fiction Bernard Cornwell has produced again an adventure of the first order. As with several of his previous works, Cornwell deftly balances the adventures of an "everyman" with the high politic which defined Europe of the period.
Set in the late fifth century - about the time that any Arthur may have lived - Cornwell portrays a young warrior's ascent to court as in his Saxon Chronicles and the Grail Quest series. Rather than shoving established history aside willy-nilly for the sake of a good story, the author gently bends what we know of the truth to add to his tale - as always noting when he's done so in the Historical Notes. The Winter King also provides an accurate account of the staidness and often perfunctory nature of peasant life in the Dark Ages but moves effortlessly between the peasant's black and white existence and that of the tonal and nuanced machinations in the courts of the land's regents.

There are certain parallels between The Winter King and Cornwell's later Saxon Chronicles, especially when it comes to his depiction of the main protagonists. Unsurprisingly, as King Alfred the Great is suggested as a possible model for the Arthur of legend, there are the same world-building, considered personalities to both men and the storyteller, a captain in the King's army narrates from old age. The hero is once again a young Saxon raised by people of an enemy nation, which allows him easy passage in both nations and more importantly, the ability to speak multiple languages, a skill which when combined with his endeavour, allows him access to the King.

In all of his works that I've read, Bernard Cornwell gifts his main character with literacy against the odds, for a man of his position and birth should have no rights or expectation of any book learning. He does so for two reasons - to emphasise how lucky the character, and by extension the reader is to have this gift of words; secondly, it makes the narrative so much easier in a fractured land with myriad dialects. Though likeable, these are men and women of their time - leather armour rather than chain mail, characters with the pox and often, death in childbirth. By mixing historical fact with a really engaging story, he involves the common man in the politics of nations without it being boring and more remarkably makes it seem like that commoner has reason to have a relationship with royalty.

After only recently having read the Saxon Chronicles these similarities did strike me as mildly formulaic but as I thoroughly enjoyed both books I won't and can't complain. By weaving a good old fashioned adventure tale around likeable lead characters Cornwell engages his readers enthusiasm which in turn makes for a fast 430-page read.

The Arthur legends with which I grew up were amongst my favourite stories. The benevolent King, a pure, selfless Guinevere and the noblest of all, Sir Lancelot. Arthur and Guinevere married because they were in love - why else would you marry? - and Lancelot, Gawain and Galahad served Arthur at the Round Table because, well, that was what they did. Though the characters remain, the motives behind are much more true-to-life and often infinitely more mercenary than legends say. By correctly ignoring the siren-call of the anachronistic plate armour, Round Table and Holy Grail, Cornwell describes his characters in very real terms, inferring that what drives a man now did so 1600 years ago. But perhaps his most underrated talent is having the happy ability of helping us relate to and care about people with whom our lives have simply nothing in common.

All the while taking us on an adventure story of the first rate. The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell, scores footballs.
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Monday, January 17, 2011

Review: Star Wars: Darksaber by Kevin J. Anderson

I saw this book for a dollar at my local second-hand book store and bought it not expecting much. Darksaber was one of the earlier Star Wars "expanded universe" books (published 1995) and I loved the series as a sixteen year old, so I decided to take a punt so I spent my loonie and got only a fraction of the pulpy escapism I expected. Pulp sure, but about as escapist as the Birdman of Alcatraz.

Unfortunately it was a poorly-written attempt to cash in on Anderson's prior Star Wars novels - his "landmark" Jedi Academy trilogy. Like all Star Wars set pieces Darksaber features a superweapon in the hands of the bad guys - the Hutts this time, with yet another bloody Death Star revisit - and Imperials who, though scattered in the last "canon" book are suddenly a force to be feared again. It goes without saying that the Rebel Alliance, sorry - Galactic Alliance - triumph at the end.

Disappointingly characterised, Anderson seemed to think copying George Lucas's hackneyed dialogue straight from the first three Star Wars movies passes as convincing interplay, forgetting that he's stealing words from probably one of the worst screenwriters of all time, and that Lucas`s style works much better on celluloid than paper. The `Chancellor of the Star Wars Universe` doesn't appear comfortable writing any intimate scenes as Luke Skywalker and his new love interest seem about as passionate as cardboard while Han and Leia`s marriage seems to be more `for the kids`than for themselves. The less said about Wedge Antilles and his bird (literally, bird) the better. You care for the characters as portrayed about as much as you do for your own toenail clippings.

Apparently creating a character worth investing in is illegal in The Expanded Universe, so when Luke and his girl are trapped on Hoth, they find themselves confronted with the same Wampa Ice Creature who`s arm he severed at the start of Empire. I mean, Lucas himself stretched credibility to beyond breaking point by using essentially the same characters in both trilogies, making us think that the Galaxy is populated by about 20 people and a bunch of Stormtroopers, but this is just ridiculous. If you want new ideas, don`t read Kevin Anderson.

Any traits a character may have are simply for the purposes for plot, which makes the 480-some pages both direct, unengaging and a waste of forest. Worse still, plot threads appear and disappear as a matter of convenience rather than building to any sort of climax. The titular Darksaber weapon is the greatest of these and its existence seems only to provide a base for ineffective, unmemorable villainy of the most banal kind. To add injury to insult, it`s disposed of with less care and interest than one throws away a crisp packet, as if Anderson realised four-fifths through writing that the Imperial rabble, though less threatening than at any time throughout the canon, were more interesting than the Hutts and disposed of the book`s raison dètre without thinking even once.

Overall, it's a page-turner simply because you can kind of - if you squint a bit and stretch the friendship to breaking point - identify with Han, Leia and Luke - no, sorry, not Luke because apparently being a Jedi de-emotionalises into becoming a one-note bore - but the book leaves you feeling blah about finishing it and reading even the more well-crafted Star Wars novels. It does this because it doesn't reflect any of the spirit of Star Wars - the fun that Cowboys and Indians in space became for us all.

Star Wars: Darksaber by Kevin J. Anderson scores only marbles.
Image courtesy

Review: Red and Me, by Bill Russell

Image courtesy 
by Matthew Wood, a re-post from Balanced Sports

A few months ago I was in the book shop at the Central Station in Washington DC and happened upon a book by the Boston Celtics' Hall-of-Fame center Bill Russell in the remainder bin. It was marked down from $24.99 to $4.99, so I bought it. Entitled “Red and Me: My Coach, my lifelong friend”, I only recently read it and without fail, every ten pages I exclaimed to my wife how horrible a sports book it was. And it`s only got 180 pages! Statements like “Now he's claiming to teach an 80-year old Auerbach about basketball from the stands!” or “I can see why it was in the remainder bin” or, less tactfully “What complete and utter BULL SHIT”. 

Yeah, I was yelling by the end.

An insight into a particularly successful coach/player relationship? I think not. It is only 180-odd pages of drivel by a man whose ego simply knows no limits. When many people think back on the age-old “Wilt or Russell” debate, Chamberlain's ability to reel off his statistics and accomplishments has usually marked him the more egotistical of the pair. Russ, however, simply put it as “Eleven rings, ten fingers”. That Wilt only won twice – on mostly inferior teams – was the burden he had to lug about and as such in the “Who's better, who's best” game he had to rely on his extraordinary personal achievements. Russell has always been seen as the less-outspoken and less crass of the pair.

Until now. Red and Me was less about Red and more about Me. It was undoubtedly the most arrogant, selfish, egotistical and self-gratifying sports book I've ever had the misfortune to read and without question ranks at the bottom of the pile. And I've read Dean Jones: One day Magic. The point is, I've read some rubbish in my time but never have I read a sports book I enjoyed less.

These are not the recollections of a coach/player relationship and what made it so successful, more an attempted apologetic at how good Bill Russell was as a player. For several years during and after the careers of Wilt and Russell – I hate bringing Wilt's name into this but their careers will always be inextricably linked – Russell always said the Celtics triumphed most often because they had the better teams, which was for the large part true. Now he appears to be coming out saying that his teammates weren't nearly as good as history has made them out, and that all the glory for their championship years should go to him, simply because he was that good. I get the feeling now there is a swell of posthumous support for Chamberlain's case as greater and this is Russell trying to gently tell everyone that he was the best ever without actually saying it. He fails horribly.

Throughout the book, as he dwells on his family history, his relationships with his coaches and his experience Russell says “It is better to understand than to be understood” and lets on that this is his personal philosophy, the mantra he's led his life by. What twaddle! It may very well be true, but when he follows it immediately with a “Why do the citizens of Boston hate me?” soliloquy; after purporting to understand them it rings very false indeed. He then uses the “... than to be understood” as an excuse to do just as he wants in life and be excused for it, no matter what the consequences on those around him. This makes him look a very sad, extremely angry and ultimately exceedingly lonely man.

Russell has a reputation for being a little spiky, perhaps a bit hard to get to know. He often has refused to sign autographs for young fans, backing it up with statements like “Young children should ask their teacher for their autograph”. Within 30 pages he shoots that argument in the foot automatically and irrevocably by stating that he learnt nothing from his coaches at the University of San Francisco or from Auerbach during their ten years together. Indeed he then says he never respected any coaches he'd had except Red Auerbach, and the reason he held Red in such esteem was that he didn't try to get Russell to play according to team rules but changed the team rules to do what was best for the Big Fella. He then says he knew everything about basketball before coming to the NBA as a 22-year old. According to Bill, Red identified early his talent and then essentially gave him carté blanche to do as he pleased.

No-one can argue with the record of the Boston Celtics during the 1950s and 1960s. I would have said “No-one can ever argue with Bill Russell's record ...” except this book has made me dislike the man so much that now I simply refuse to acknowledge him outside those Celtics teams. That this man, such an icon of the sporting world, the first black coach in any pro sport comes out and says “I liked Red Auerbach because he let me do things the way I wanted” somehow manages to diminish that last, fabulous, incredible achievement. 

No-one can dispute the results, so perhaps Auerbach was every bit the coach we think - to effectively get a player with a chip on his shoulder the size of Lake Michigan like Russell to suit up and play hard every game ensures Red's reputation as one of the greats.  But more than that, Red and Me places Bill Russell inelegantly balancing at the top of Sporting Hall of Fame for Complete Dicks, comfortably beating Ben Roethlisberger and Sonny Bill Williams into the minor placings.

Red and Me: My Coach, my lifelong friend – NO balls.
Not even for your worst enemy.

Welcome to Books with Balls

Ever tried one of those book review sites - like goodreads and the like? Ever tried to find a book there? I have. And after trying it a few times, I decided "No more!". I'd rather have both eyes scooped out with a sharped crabshell than try to navigate the mess that is common-or-garden-variety book review sites, so here's my answer: Books with Balls.

This blog will try to provide you with a number of different reviews for guys who actually read. Sports books, books on war, biographies, lawn mower repair, how to effectively swear at your lawn mower while repairing it - and although the ladies are more than welcome to stop by and read you can bet your bottom dollar that books by Janet Evanovich and Danielle Steele won't be reviewed here.

We're accepting anyone who wants to review their books on wizards or Gremlins - so if you want to contribute, please feel free to contact us and let us know what you're up to. Please also check out our sister blog Balanced Sports for sports opinion and coverage for the thinking man.

Happy reading!