Saturday, August 27, 2011

Review: Shoeless Joe – W.P. Kinsella

I have great difficulty in reviewing this book objectively. The movie version of this book, 1989s 'Field of Dreams', formed such a spine to my imagination as I read through 'Shoeless Joe' I admit I will never be able to provide objective review of the book. Therefore I have not sought to be objective, but to weigh off the merits of one of my favourite movies of all time against the book which inspired it.

Blessedly, the book is different enough so as to make differentiation and create points of discussion. Primarily, Where in the film we go on a journey with Ray Kinsella, finding purpose along the way for other characters but not knowing what is the ultimate purpose for Ray is until the very end; in the novel we are presented up front clearly what Ray wants in the end but its the journey teaching him about why he wants it. A change in emphasis making the book deeper and more worthwhile I feel.

Upon instruction from a mysterious voice, Ray builds a baseball field among his corn crop in rural Iowa. Building the field elicits visitations from disgraced yet oft forgiven ex-baseballer 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson, followed by many other former players who look for a chance to play the game they love more than any other. Strangely although the book is named after him, the character of Shoeless Joe has very little part in the story.

The characters of the book are very different to Field of Dreams that may prove challenging for lovers of the movie. Ray Kinsella in the movie is a soul somewhat lost in life, having rejected the great passion that he and his father had for baseball. In the book he remains an obsessive fan of the game and litters his narration with facts from its history. The movie used baseball as a vessel to try and bring a moral story, the book is more deeply entrenched in the history of America's summer pastime describing how it touches each of the characters lives.

Reclusive author J.D. Salinger (based on the genuine reclusive author of the same name) is harder and less emotive than the movies equivalent reclusive author character Terence Mann. The dialogue between him and Ray reads as more terse, giving a feeling that although they need each other to continue to journey together they often pull against each other. Archibald 'Moonlight' Graham is an objective and a driven character, lacking the genteel nature that the movie brought him as.

Ray's wife Annie has little influence on the story. Lovers of the movie will no doubt remember the unquestioning devotion she has for her husband Ray. The relationship for the movie is a highlight, but although Ray states in the book just how much she supports and means to him we do not observe this. Without the movie it may not have ever come to my attention as a flaw, however it has and it to mine is a great shame.

The movie allowed the viewer the freedom to not have much interest in baseball and keep pace with the story. The book does call upon the reader to at least be familiar with its terminology and gameplay. That you are well aware from the start the story is of the journey towards ones dreams rather than the dreams being an end in themselves keeps you reading on and on. The difficulty is how would Kinsella close out this story – he does not, giving it the perfect ending.

My review here is not at all objective, and I make no apologies for this. For mine having watched the movie and now read the book I believe both could be improved by unique elements of each. For a book that I rate Footballs this means it falls short, but still worth reading.

Cover image thanks to

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: Killing Rommel, by Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield has built an impressive folio of historical fiction works: The Legend of Bagger Vance achieved him notoriety in the movie world, while his novel The Gates of Fire has become almost required reading for the US Marine Corps.  To paraphrase former Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks  - "Selling out storyline for a pot of historical reality" is not what Pressfield's about.

His novel Killing Rommel is, much like the war in the desert, gritty, realistic and slightly overglorified.

Of all the Generals of World War Two, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was probably the most respected by both sides.  He was close to the Fuhrer, displayed bravery and leadership beyond that of many other generals and a respect for the rules of war that others in his position failed to emulate.  He was also, alongside Patton, the most awe-inspiring General, manning a staff car alongside the advance ranks of his men rather than being secreted far behind.

He was also a Nazi.

Given Pressfield's willingness to sacrifice some plot aspects for storyline, he pitches the Long Range Desert Group - a group of British and New Zealanders in trucks - in a series of long-range missions aimed at demotivating their German and Italian opponents by assassinating their inspiring leader.  Who, in this universe, isn't a Nazi and displays a code of honour that even Judge Judy couldn't match.

Occasional historical dalliances aside, the greatest failing of the book is in the mechanism of the narrative.  It is pitched in the time-honoured style of  "a manuscript discovered"; in this case an American who's adapted a memoir bequeathed to to him by a mentor who was an English member of the LRDG.  Pressfield's talent is for describing real-life battles and their consequences, not for understanding "Britishness", resulting in overuse of phrases and hackneyed British stereotypes.

However, he more than almost any other historical fiction author, fully allows the reader to grasp the combination of the vital importance of the North African campaign, the gravity of dying comrades and the incredible comradeship found amongst men on the battlefield.  Pressfield attempts to take his readers of a journey of what it meant to be part of a force comprised of individuals but larger than the the sum of those people.  It is unfortunate that he doesn't completely succeed.

While not an exciting, compelling read, Killing Rommel is enjoyable and can be ploughed through quickly.  It also has it's share of poignant moments strewn amongst intimate descriptions of battle.  Tennis balls.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Review: The Appeal – John Grisham

I have long been a fan of the work of John Grisham who has carved out the market of legal thrillers to be his own over the last 20 years, but in this instance he has fallen well short of his own standards. The Appeal lacks much when compared to Grisham's earlier works.

It appears that Grisham's desire to write more widely, including dramatic works such as 'Bleachers' or youth novels in his Theodore Boone series has weakened his ability to write on his original genre. This book lacks the grittiness of 'A Time to Kill', 'The Chamber', 'The Firm' or the 'King of Torts'. Though set up to have the reader ask questions about the decisions of major corporations and there effect on humanity, the story goes nowhere near hitting the mark as it skips along with surface concerns without truly opening up the true issues and character roles.

The plot is so thin has the ability to resolve itself within 200 pages yet Grisham feels the need to over-explain everything about the legal system that the story operates within which becomes tiresome as the book is pushed out to 500 pages for little return. By the time the end comes it is concluded briefly with no thought to wrapping up the questions readers have that it has gone nowhere near answering during the story. This leaves the reader feeling as though the time spent reading through the book have been a waste.

Another fault of the book is its inane desire to provide the political position of the author and explain to great detail that is just annoying. Whether you sympathise with the political position presented or not, the time spent on explaining these peripheral issues to the actual story adds to the confusion and frustration the reader feels that the book goes nowhere. Any frustration and confusion is only heightened by the 'Author's note' at its conclusion where he highlights these political issues as the core of the story.

Confusing, frustrating, and ultimately a fruitless read, this book from Grisham isn't worth investing time and money into. No Balls.

image courtesy of

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Review: Blood, Sweat and Treason – Henry Olonga, My Story

If you were looking to pick up a book that is not the 'bog' standard ghosted autobiography of a sports person, then this is the read for you. That former Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olonga has been allowed to tell his story in his own words was incredibly refreshing for this addict of cricketing literature. Most sports persons biographical works use clichéd wording and structure to try and breath life into their uninteresting lives. This story has not been manipulated to make good reading; recognition that Olonga's story itself is good reading. 
Although maybe more widely known as a cricketer who took a political stand against a tyrannical regime, Olonga speaks of himself throughout the book always as just a man. Cricket is a part of a life where it intertwines with music, art, faith, family and politics. Predominately told in chronological order, events move seamlessly between these topics as life was lived for him.

Take Olonga's Christian faith for an example. Often an individuals faith will either be minimally mentioned in an introduction or 'covered off' in a specific chapter under advisement from publishing house editors worried about sales. But here we find Olonga regularly referring back to his faith and prayer life, it ebbing and flowing as his life ebbs and flows. 
He is a deep thinking and sensitive soul, keen to explore in retrospect the events of his life and make apology where he believes he wronged others. His stand along with Andy Flower during the 2003 Cricket World Cup is not told in a heroic manner. Presented with an opportunity to stand up against Robert Mugabe and the wrongs perpetrated, Olonga made the decision that he could not stand passively by any more while his country suffered. 
Olonga does not dwell on describing the terrible atrocities committed in Zimbabwe in recent history. Selected examples of events affecting his life up until the point he went into exile serve the purpose enough of educating the reader on his motives. Despite the terrible events, and the struggle that life in Zimbabwe is for most of her citizens there is no bitterness in Olonga and a substantial amount of love for his country still. In an amazing passage of the book Olonga describes his shock at the poverty in Bangladesh. This is not the shock of an upper middle class westerner on their first visit overseas, but of a man well versed in what injustices exist in the world.

Olonga's life needed and received much blessing post his 2003 stand, but it has not been easy nor necessarily freeing for him. Nevertheless he chose to tell his story that reaches far beyond the 'faux' battle that is the professional sports field. Basketballs.