Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: Riding the Rap by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard writes crime thrillers like no-one's business. It's what he does. You may not have read him, but you'd know his works: Get Shorty, Be Cool, Out of Sight, Jackie Brown and 3:10 to Yuma are all films adapted from his works. And now at 85 he hasn't eased into retirement but maintained a keen ear for the patois that sharps, shylocks, grifters and bad guys use. Riding the Rap (though published before Out of Sight) only confirms his reputation from prior works: the man can tell a story.

There are several continuities between many of his novels. It's strange a lot of his stories take place in Florida given Leonard himself is a Detroit native and bears the reputation as that city's "Dickens": as in Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Riding's predecessor Pronto, Florida features heavily in the narrative. And like many of his other works, Riding features bumbling crooks with a simple plan which gets twisted and are forced to improvise. It's been said none of Leonard's characters are ever truly "good" guys - all have dark sides - and this rings true here; but like his most famous creations Chili Palmer and Karen Sisco, the main source for good is an implacable, indomitable hero exuding control and menace without outwardly trying.

It's not formulaic, but neither does it have the charm which made Get Shorty such a readable book, nor the humour and balance which appealed in Be Cool (believe it or not, the movie didn't do justice to the novel). Character identification is tough in many of Leonard's novels as - personally speaking anyway - I don't know any US Marshalls, Puerto Rican ex-cons, psychics, Arabian Bahamians or 50-year old stoners. That doesn't matter though, because even though it's difficult to like any of the characters, they are believable and each comes with their own form of dialogue, diction and most crucially, motives. Perhaps the author's greatest ability is making readers believe that even though his characters are pastiches, real people are out there just like them - smart and fiery, cool and calculating or just plain dumb. Smart readers will have to deal with premonitions of the ending well before you reach it, but the pages keep turning nonetheless.

Riding the Rap by Elmore Leonard: not his best work, but still very enjoyable, meaning it scores Tennis balls.

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Review: The Life You Can Save - Peter Singer

Peter Singer is an Australian born scholar who's fields of research and influence are philosophy, morality and ethics. Singer is widely known for his research and promotion of views in a number of areas, foreign aid being just one.

Focussing on aid for this work, Singer seeks to present a moralist case for giving. In particular his major question is why private giving is not higher in the west? The book has a constant rhetoric of asking the reader what would their decision be if faced with the need to physically save a child from imminent danger, for example drowning. Singer's hypothesis is that regardless of the cost or burden very few would choose to ignore a child's cries for help in these situations. Why then do that same majority ignore the cries for help by impoverished children?

At this point the oft used criticism of such publications is that after indicating that there is need they bombard the reader with so much in the way of horror stories that they feel utterly useless and therefore do nothing. Singer can be commended for striking a great balance between describing in detail the immense need that parts of our world has, and describing the successes that foreign aid work has achieved.

Singer further conducts a review of the idea of self-interest, and the contention that we as imperfect humans can never act without a benefit to ourselves. Rather than giving in, unable to escape the burden, or promoting that we should super-humanly pull ourselves out of it, Singer pragmatically advises that we minimise it in some instances but harness it in others.

Ultimately Singer argues that morally we have an obligation to help the poor. Of course it must be remembered that Singer is a moralist and not a moral authority. While great accolade must be paid to persons like Singer who have spent the time and effort researching and contemplating such matters, even he would most likely agree that no one human can claim to be morally authoritative. Sceptics of aid still need to moralise their stance.

This leads to identification of my only weakness with this work, and that is the discussion of faith based initiative in aid work. This is not a plea for including religion for religion's sake. If we cannot assign moral authority to humans therefore it is logical that we must look into human worship of the divine for such authority. Singer is not silent on the topic of faith-led aid initiative, he does identify all the world's major religions as being motivations for charity, but in my opinion is not extensive enough, particularly as his argument is rooted in morality.

The work concludes with discussion of how easy it should be for the wealthy to help. This has been another rhetoric throughout, the waste of resource by the rich. Do you really need to purchase a bottle of water when you can get it clean from the tap?

Singers final answer that the wealthy should give approximately 5% of income inhabits a zone between a calculated figure that will make a difference, and providing a 'scratch' for the actually and relatively wealthy readers 'itch'. But his aim is to make people act, and in my opinion well we should. In some respects it could be a promotional response. Having potentially been moved by the stories, the 5% of income will represent a challenge to his readers, yet it is not insurmountable by any means.

More can and needs to be written on poverty and aid, but I highly recommend this book for readers seeking to make sense of what they can do to help this world. There is a true academic base for the book's contentions, providing relief for those of us tired of just marketing and tabloid media. Yet it is written in a way that one does not need the intellect of Singer to understand. Footballs.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: The Big Ship - Gideon Haigh

To begin with a proviso, this is not a book for the leisurely Sunday afternoon read, nor is it one for the casual enthusiast in matters cricket. Haigh has produced a fine piece of historical documentation on one of the most complex characters in cricket history, Warwick Armstrong.

Armstrong was a man who could be described as being as imposing as W.G. Grace, as ruthless as Douglas Jardine, and as enigmatic as Keith Miller. Haigh accurately combines such individual analysis of Armstrong’s character with broader analysis of the world and time in which he lived which was equally as complex. Armstrong’s career straddled not only the creation of Australia as a nation, but also The Great War, each in their own way influencing Australia’s national psyche.

This was an Australia trying to be the same yet different from their British origins and a people unsure of how to live with sectarian differences, primarily Protestant and Catholic (Armstrong a product of a mixed marriage). The cricket field, and halls of the games administration, providing an adequate microcosm for such tension to play out. Haigh therefore went beyond the simple boundaries of cricketing literature in researching this work, and the inclusion of such information further enhances the reader’s experience.

The man and player in Armstrong stood out in this era, and not just because of his enormous physical dimensions. Blessed with an immense talent, only shaded by his will to win, Armstrong became a cricketing Everest for opposition to climb. It was his will to win in all things that led him to play conservatively when the crowd wanted otherwise, and to argue vigorously without restraint off the field also.

Even quarrels with administration that Armstrong was not directly involved in, still had the feel of his presence – seemingly he was ‘of’ them always. He also cannot be said to be have been necessarily consistent in his dealings or statements; English cricketing authorities were quick to point out that his criticism of Jardine’s ‘Bodyline’ in 1932-33 was inconsistent with his own captaincy of Australian quicks Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald 12 years prior and his own use of leg theory as a bowler.

These brief notes only scratch the surface of the character that was ‘The Big Ship’, Warwick Armstrong. I can highly recommend this book to read for lovers of cricket history. We often look at black and white photographs and can feel the history and story behind them, though we don’t always know the details. What Haigh has done is to successfully extrapolate this feeling we have that we may know the character and stories in detail. For lovers of cricket and history, Basketballs

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Review: Licence Renewed, by John Gardner

Licence Renewed was John Gardner's first attempt at succeeding Ian Fleming in continuing the James Bond narrative. Kingsley Amis first attempted to further the legacy with the late-sixties Colonel Sun, meaning for twelve years the only Bond the world had known was that of the movies, complete with improbable infamy and impossible gadgetry.

Published in 1981, the frontispiece announces grandiosely that "James Bond enters the 1980s" and Gardner, in his own "Author's Note" makes a big deal that all the technology his Bond uses was readily available on either the open or black market. Bond is also characterised with the hallmarks of his literary incarnation - specially blended cigarettes, housekeeper May and a three-inch scar down his right cheek.

No matter how well drawn his 007 is in theory, in practice Gardner's superspy is the same man portrayed cinematically by Roger Moore for a decade: a man of action thrown into the lair of a dangerous and megalomaniacal opponent. The dangerous opponent makes his moves in almost a chapter-by-chapter feel; with Gardner apparently feeling the need to follow the "one small battle followed by a larger one" the EON films were favouring at the time. Licence Renewed reads more like a film novelisation, complete with scenes feeling very set-piecey, rather than a slow exposition detailing Bond's efforts to stop a maniac's attempts to earn power. Whereas the early (and best) Bonds were thrillers, Licence Renewed is an action novel.

It's no coincidence the most successful Bond film in recent memory is Casino Royale. Even though most knew what was going to happen, the filmmakers were still able to engage the viewer encouraging a "What happens now?" attitude. The follow-up, Quantum of Solace, is inferior in nearly every way - continuity-heavy, action-fuelled and thin on plot. That's precisely like the comparison here between a Fleming novel and this Gardner one. It's not bad - just not Fleming.

With Fleming, James Bond had opinions and spent a lot of time thinking and reasoning his way around a problem. He had opinions (the most infamous being that homosexuals couldn't whistle!) and was a fully-coloured character in his own right. His supporting cast were filled in so the reader believed they had a life outside the pages of his works. This isn't something on which you can compliment Gardner and even Bond's opinions, you feel, are those of the author himself. The less said about the the henchmen - generically evil - and love interest(s) - vapid and stolen straight from the movies - the better.

You could do much worse than spend four hours reading Licence Renewed. But you could also do a lot worse than watching The Spy Who Loved Me. But both pale in comparison to the works which made Bond justly famous.

Golf Balls.

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Review: The Art of a Beautiful Game, by Chris Ballard

You may think that Dwight Howard's a monster rebounder because at 7 feet and one inch, 265 pounds and with steel springs for legs he's the NBA's most perfect physical specimen since Chamberlain.

But you're wrong.

Because Big Ben Wallace, the Pistons' 6'8 fireplug centre rebounds just as well, age and infirmity permitting. What Big Ben and D12 have in common is their uncanny ability to read direction, velocity and arc of the ball straight from the shooter's fingertips; analyse in a fraction of a second where the ball will impact on the hoop or backboard, and adjust their reactions to be where they need to be in order to pick up the loose ball. Kevin Love, the NBA's rebounding leader, uses the same principles and does it looking like a rec club baller, doing it for the love of the game. So much goes into the art of rebounding that Chris Ballard devotes an entire chapter to it in his book, The Art of a Beautiful Game.

When it comes to NBA journalism, Chrises seem to be everywhere. ESPN boast three of them: Messrs Sheridan (New York), Forsberg (Boston), Broussard (the key story-hound). Chris Ballard continues the tradition, though being a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After covering the NBA for many years and through chats with players, formal and casual, he's pieced together a short-ish but beautifully crafted work about how certain players in the NBA are good at their jobs. Each chapter describes an aspect of the sport, from the high-profile shooters to the understated beauty of a perfectly-set screen. When it comes to a particular skill, who better to hear it from than the best? Ballard watches tape with LeBron, plays H-O-R-S-E game with Steve Kerr and his encounter with the World Free-Throw Shooting record holder, Dr. Tom Amberry. The "Big Kahuna of Free-Throw Shooting" set the record as a seventy-one year old in 1993, nailing 2750 straight free-throws before the gym in which he was shooting asked him to leave - they had to close for the night. And that's just the research he did especially for the book - also recorded are conversations he's had, professionally and privately, with the NBA's greatest. All go together to make an elegantly rounded picture.

Each chapter describes in detail the importance of biomechanics, athleticism, attitude and the ability to read play. Not just focusing on technical aspects, he describes taking a weeklong course at Coach David Thorpe's Florida training academy to see what devoted NBA stars get up to in their alleged down-time and a morning spent with a performance guru who works out players before draft day. And when Ballard's there, the reader is there: whether it's not kicking a leg out when shooting jumpers, out-thinking David Robinson in a battle for a rebound or trying to stop Chris Morris from getting arrested at the end of a long road trip.

What's most startling about his adventures and conversations is Ballard's writing style. As Howard is an artist on the boards, Ballard is with words. He writes so easily, fluidly and - there's no other word for it - beautifully, that the book is consumed within a matter of a few hours and leaves you slightly disappointed that it's finished; but therein lies more art, knowing when to finish.

The Art of a Beautiful Game by Chris Ballard scores footballs - an outstanding piece of literature.

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Review: Masters of Battle - Monty, Patton and Rommel at War, by Terry Brighton

Growing up, I was taught about the two World War II Generals most respected by my father, General Bernard "Monty" Montgomery and The Desert Fox, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. As someone who had served in the Australian Army and who has taken an interest in military history, he was someone to whom I listened about such things. Dad knew about this stuff. When I was 15 I became friends with an Aussie Digger who had fought at Tobruk and at El Alamein in the North African campaign alongside other Commonwealth forces. He took orders from Monty to try and defeat the Fox. The ANZACs achieved one of their greatest victories in North Africa against one of their greatest opponents, so I was raised with an appreciation for the exploits of the two combating leaders. Dad never told me much about General George S. Patton though. What I picked up was mainly from my favourite TV show, Red Dwarf; which was chiefly that because the insufferable Arnold Rimmer worshipped him, Patton was likely to be an arrogant, warmongering prat. It's strange how you pick up stuff as a sixteen year-old.

In his excellent book Masters of Battle: Monty, Patton and Rommel at War, British historian Terry Brighton counterpoints the period's most famous generals, one each from England, the US and Germany. He does so in such a way that each man's abilities and failures are obvious and connected in so strongly that it's apparent their individual achievements - good or bad - were not so much a product of the system, but of their own strength of personality. The case for comparison - or contrast - is easier with this trio as all were born within five years of one another and had different paths to their exalted ranks. They all were heavily involved in armoured warfare (ie. tanks) and each had, though starting from the same tactical basis, evolved their own theories about how best war was to be fought in the four battlefields they shared. Each was a soldier first, but all were very proud, egotistical leaders who enjoyed major victories and suffered dispiriting losses as a result of their shortcomings.

That's not to suggest Brighton focuses mainly on the trio's negative aspects. He elegantly suggests that the strengths which generated each man's success were also weaknesses when unchecked and therefore key contributors in any failures. Patton's ability to inspire his men came from the same seeds that led him to be short-tempered and occasionally impulsive. Monty, as a self-styled master tactician, planned battles immaculately but found victories harder to marshal when the other side didn't proceed according to his forward planning. Rommel, so long the favourite of the Fuhrer, found skirmishes increasingly harder to win as his reputation grew to the point where his superiors thought his mere presence guaranteed victory, no matter how few resources he received. Each man's ability to lead Armoured divisions is analysed and compared - to each other and to the tactics from which their methods derived. That Patton and Montgomery had to mesh together their vastly differing methods for the sake of victory - and simply keeping the peace - adds another wrinkle which Brighton also explores in depth.

More than a comparison but an insight into how connected the trio were, Masters of Battle describes major conflicts in a very easy-to-read manner and deftly captures the personality traits of three men in a way which has you respecting one marshal at the expense of the others; then only to describe further actions which tips the balance another way.

Masters of Battle: Monty, Patton and Rommel at war scores basketballs - a first class read.

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Review: First Among Equals - Jeffrey Archer

If it could possibly be measured, a scale of 'fervency' in viewers of television programs would probably render Aaron Sorkin's 'The West Wing' at the pointy end. I personally enjoyed every episode of the seven seasons that were produced so much that I can be sure I have watched each at least twice. Others I know outstrip this by a long way. But despite its quality as a television program I believe it has done some damage to the psyche of Australian generation Y who seem convinced on applying 'learnings' from the show to Australian politics. While I still believe it to be a tremendous show, operationally and ideologically the political systems of Australia and the USA are vastly different.

So what is my purpose in describing the above within a book review? Well I offer to you that 'First Among Equals' is logically a complementary read for the politically minded generation Y, and that in describing the United Kingdom's Westminster system of government they will become more rounded in their knowledge of the Australian political scene. Of course this assumes outright aversion to reading any non-fiction text on political systems – a perusal of such will render 'knowledge' obtained via television and fictional works second best.

Archer is one of the masters of the fast moving, page turning plot and the ability to intertwine the stories of multiple seemingly unrelated characters together. Because of the focus on the plot at the expense of scene description, all of Archer's books tend to be timeless. This particular work was first published in 1984 and has not dated. Even his use of actual political figures of the time as characters can be accepted in reading the story as he could have used fictional names without detriment.

The book revolves around four ambitious men from different backgrounds and different political viewpoints (although two each sit on either side of the political spectrum). These men all enter parliament at the same moment and Archer (himself a former political figure) describes each of their individual struggles, weaknesses, successes and failures as they strive in their political careers. Ultimately as the books title suggests, (First Among Equals is a common description for leaders of democratically elected governments), the attainment of Prime Ministership is foremost on each mind.

Each of these men the reader finds has distinctively endearing qualities, as well as fallibilities, therefore despite what pre-conceived political ideologies a reader may bring they may find themselves desiring the ascension at a point in the book of any one of the characters. Don't misunderstand, by no means is this book a heavy character psychological analysis, it is not. What it is though is a 'fly over' of what a professional (and personal) life may look like for ambitious politicians.

My personal favourite character is Charles Seymour who, because fate determined he was the second born of twins, misses out on noble birthright. From a character seemingly bitter about these events, and hell bent on living the nobleman’s life to begin with despite fate, the ups and downs of his political career determine changes in character for Seymour by books end.

Archer knows his audience, and he writes for them rather than indulging in experimentation. All of his books are aimed at being an enjoyable read for his audience; he is not seeking to make worldly comment behind a fictional story either. He is a storyteller pure and simple. That Mills and Boon create escapist worlds for lovelorn females, Archer and similar authors do similar for ambitious men, and maybe educating them a little as well.

Not an absolute must for the literary devotee, but a good read nonetheless – Tennis Balls.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Review: Golden Boy

by Ben Roberts

This book review can also be found at our sibling site Balanced Sports.

Followers of the recent Ashes series who sought statistics, analysis, and opinion from ESPN's Cricinfo website would no doubt have come across Christian Ryan's blog, 'My Funeral, Your Ashes'. I had never previously come across Ryan until this summer, and knew nothing of his background. Certainly he cannot be said to ever temper his opinion. But unlike most modern media outlets Ryan paints a very detailed picture first, bringing the reader first into position of understanding, before the sting comes. Less like a brawling bulldog, more a brooding viper.

The combination of my own unfamiliarity of Ryan's work, the struggling of Australian cricketers and the euphoria of the English, led me to believe initially that Ryan was indeed a native of the mother country himself. I was wrong, Ryan is an antipodean. Like Kim Hughes however, Ryan is from a state who's people hold a constant level of distrust of all things originating east of Eucla; Western Australia.

These feelings of distrust, envy, and frustration are where Ryan seeks to build this work from; WA having always perceived it has received a raw deal from eastern state cricketing administrations. Ryan indicates that although abolished in the late 1960s, the travel levy that the eastern states required WA to pay for every game in WA was a source of anger that burned within every cricket club and every cricketer in Australia's largest state, young and old.

Beyond the institutional politicking between state associations came something even more fervent, maybe destructive. For a cricket fan it is that moment of lost innocence when one recognises that despite players representing the same country, they can be nowhere near best of friends. Based upon his analysis, Ryan believes that the effect Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee, and Rodney Marsh had on Australian cricket was far beyond what they provided on the pitch. Add to this the non-playing influences of Ian Chappell, Kerry Packer, Austin Robertson and John Cornell in the mid-1970s and it is easy to understand why others may have felt suffocated.

In the middle, or more trying to glide over the top, was a exciting yet flighty batsman in Kim Hughes. Remembered by many as much courteous and polite as a man as he was impetuous as a batsman, Hughes still to this day seeks to rise above the need to engage in public comment on the issues that plagued his career. Despite repeated attempts of Ryan to engage Hughes for the book, he was always politely declined.

Kim Hughes' career is presented by Ryan as one of a man constantly trying to keep his head above an increasingly pressurised position as Australian captain, but even just initially as a WA team mate. It is continually clear, despite Hughes non-assistance in this work, that at the time, and even more so as years have passed that Hughes holds little resentment about his tumultuous time at the top. Whether Ryan has accurately captured the behind closed doors conversations and interactions that have occurred will always be a matter of opinion, opinions that will become more jaded with age. What cannot be argued, and Ryan is clear to state, is that certain protagonists of Hughes' fall publicly made comment on television and in print regarding Hughes.

Previously to this writer, who was barely alive when Allan Border assumed the captaincy of the Australian cricket team, Hughes had appeared to be an uncommon failure in the list of Australian captains. That an Australian would even think of renouncing the apparent greatest job in the world was just ludicrous, and a completely English approach. The pictures of Hughes in tears at the Gabba would never instil a sense of national pride. Ryan's work here though opens up this man and the surrounding cricketing culture to scrutiny of the kind that is unseen in most Australian cricketing media. To the public reliant on Channel 9 solely for their interpretation, one might even remain in the belief that all the Australians are best friends and spend their social time devouring buckets of a fried chicken product.

Writers such as Ryan, including the likes of Frith, Haigh, and Roebuck, never will obtain the universal approval of all. Their work is more valuable for it. But with Australian cricket currently facing a key juncture in the sports modern history it would no doubt be worth viewing the game as these gentlemen tend too. What are the purposes of anointing captains early in a career; how should we best support the captains during the tougher times; what effects are brought to bear on dressing rooms during and after the careers of high profile (and maintenance) superstars?

Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket, scores footballs.

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Review: Skullduggery, by Kerry O'Keeffe

A few years back I bought the Jeremy Clarkson omnibus with great interest as to what he had to say. It turns out that as an author, Clarkson is a very good presenter: the book was only his collected writings from his regular spot as Sunday Times columnist. One at a time, I'm sure they make for amusing reading, especially over toasted English muffins with marmalade; bound together in a tome you could use to choke a whale they only confirmed my lingering suspicions of his barely-hidden bigotry. Like Mexican beer, his style is great in small doses.

Skullduggery, the second book by ABC Radio cricket Special Comments man Kerry O'Keeffe, is another compilation of his Sunday columns with a few of "Skull's Greatest Hits" thrown in. A very quick read - a bit over an hour - but interesting not only because O'Keeffe analyses today's cricket like the radio commentator he is, rather than a TV guy who relies on the pictures telling most of the story. His descriptions are colourful, insightful and most of all, human.

O'Keeffe had been on the ABC for some time before I truly warmed to his abilities as a technical analyst of my favourite sport. Renowned for his tendency to laugh at his own jokes and make funnies at every possible opportunity, it was hard at the beginning to separate the clown from the specialist. But he told one story in particular which made me sit up and listen about a year into his regular tenure: "Skull" described twenty consecutive Christmases depressingly drunk, sad and alone until he met his wife and they started a family. It was a 30-second glimpse into the heart of a man who'd sacrificed nearly everything for his sport, paid the penalty and had found redemption in the most simple, down-to-earth manner. That he was willing to pull back the blinds on personal window for a radio audience probably comprising 2+ million Australians made me reflect that Kerry O'Keeffe the cricketer was only part of Kerry O'Keeffe as a man. I started to listen more carefully to his words and discovered that, though an entertainer, he was a person first and foremost. No-one considers the personal consequences of success or failure on the oval like him and his experiences are key in his analysis.

A personal favourite is his description of his family's Last Test, where he and his boys played carport cricket for the final time - all tinged with pride that his boys were growing into fine men but also with sadness that they were leaving these family momemnts behind them. There's plenty of opinion as to the state of the Australian team as well as memories from his 2009 Ashes' Supporter Tour.

Being lightweight, Skullduggery is never too much Skull and his observations, like those of a stand-up comedian, are all one-liners and enlightening. It scores tennis balls - well worth a look: it'll kill a short plane flight, but if you're planning on reading a cricket book on the fourteen hours over the Pacific Ocean, you're probably better suited with Steve Waugh's My Story.

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