Monday, October 31, 2011

Review: Honour Among Thieves – Jeffrey Archer

Authors of the Archer style are the perfect fit for a long weekend where the weather is poor and you are desperate to forget those things you forgot to do, (but recalled unfortunately later that evening), before you left work for the extended break. A page turning plot, but not too complex that your mind seeking absolute relaxation will be called into further action than to try and pronounce an authors attempt at a foreign name.

Honour Among Thieves turned out to fit that bill perfectly as I lifted it from the shelf for a read. In fact it outdid expectations. The story revolves around simultaneously occurring plot lines where one country's secret agents plot to do harm to their enemies, or find out what harm is planned for another. Archer wrote this book in the early 1990's at the conclusion of the first Gulf War giving the chief protagonists as being the USA (with Bill Clinton as President), Israel (Yitzhak Rabin as Prime Minister) and Iraq (Saddam Hussein as President).
Cover Image thanks to

The Iraqis seek the USA's humiliation, the Israelis for blood (Saddam's) and the United States information on what the other two nations are up to. The Iraqis have hatched a plan to steal the USA's Declaration of Independence while at the same time the Israelis plan to assassinate Saddam Hussein. Although predictably these plot lines converge for an expected ending, the book leaves the reader turning to the very end before finding out just how it works.

Archer among others has had instances in free flowing thrillers such as this as leaving the reader hanging until the end, but then wrapping up the story with an impossible turn of events that somehow must be accepted as the end of the story. Honour Among Thieves has not fallen into this trap. The ending is of course improbable (but then so are all the events of this and most novels) but it is worthwhile given the investment of time the reader has put in.

Because there are so many different characters Archer has not tried to give background on each of them too extensively. In such a story he has found the balance right between giving enough information for each, but not overburdening the reader with descriptions of any character in a book where all are equal contributors to the story.

Archer, as is his regular will, does have a passionate love affair written in between the American agent Scott Bradley, and the Israeli agent Hannah Kopec (who just happens to be a former resident of Parisian catwalks). Archer can get carried away with his descriptions of love affairs in his works that border on being perverse rather than helpful to the read, but in this book he gets the balance right. You know there is passion, but you don't need a fifth of the book to know it either.

One of his best and perfect for an entertaining read without excessive mental exertion. Tennis Balls.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: Future King by Larry Pontius

Did you ever see the movie Air Force One?  The one where Harrison Ford plays the US President whose plane is kidnapped by terrorists. Being an average movie, he - in the words of IMDb - works from hiding to defeat them.

In his book Future King, former Disney executive Larry Pontius essentially channels this 1997 movie in his sequel to T.H. White's The Once and Future King.  The generically power-mad politician orders the kidnap of King Charles and his Queen Consort Camilla, only for the impish scamp Prince Harry, Merlyn and King Arthur to come to his rescue.

Let's break this down, slowly.  And I'll put it in bold text just to emphasize the stones Pontius has displayed in doing so - he turns Prince Charles into an action hero - complete with witty catchphrases!  Charles brandishes a 9mm assault rifle, gives "a tramp" the finger and also engages in repeated saucy banter with Camilla.

It goes without saying that this isn't, strictly speaking, a sequel.  It uses some of the same characters, but the tone and style is so markedly different that there really isn't a comparison which pays appropriate justice to both this work and its inspiration. 

It's essentially an engaging action thriller in which characterization of the royal family is a complete work of fiction.  In fairness however, such Royal personality (if any exists) must be inserted either through surgical or imaginative means.  Pontius is obviously bound - to set the novel any further forward in time means for difficulty painting a believable future landscape.  However, it would also allow for completely fictional protagonists rather than inserting real people who may be delivering ill-fitting lines.

The pages will keep turning.  You're never sure what to expect on the next page, aside from the occasional familiar set piece.  Future King is an amusing read. Tennis Balls.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: Barassi by Peter Lalor

When my grandfather died in 1991, I was eleven and before we left his house in Warrnambool for the last time, my sister and I were invited to take with us anything small we'd like. Being a sports nut, I went straight to the bookshelf and prised away the Courage Book of Brownlow Medallists (the up-to-date 1975 version), Run Digger by Bill Lawry, Crackers by Peter Keenan and two near-ubiquitous football books: Boots and all! and Captain Blood by Lou Richards and Jack Dyer, respectively.

I also found a scrapbook from 1964 made by my then 14-year old mother for her father, exclusively detailing Ron Barassi's move from Melbourne to Carlton. Coming from an age of relatively free player movement (remember the mid-season draft? Trevor Spencer!! Bret Bailey!! Andrew MacNish!!) I was astonished that so much newsprint could be devoted to one man moving clubs.

Mum explained that it was "a pretty big deal" back then, but I couldn't comprehend how important Barassi was - not just to the Melbourne Football Club - but to Australian Rules Football. With the passing of longtime friend Ted Whitten, Ron Barassi is Australian football's elder statesman and greatest advocate.

Peter Lalor's book Barassi follows the footballing fortunes of a man whose influence is so great one needs reminding that he spent the first fifteen years of his public life overshadowed. He began a football career defined by his father - a former player killed at Tobruk - and then became coach "Norm Smith's boy" due to a close relationship with the club coach.

He had to break free of public opinion and did so by agreeing to coach Carlton. He reiterates that the move was the best thing he ever did because it gave him his own identity. It is an identity with which every Victorian (Australian?) can associate.

The book doesn't provide much information about Barassi's personal life simply because outside football, he had had little personal time. It briefly details the breakup of his first marriage and elements of his current relationship, but his life is one lived almost entirely in footy. This makes the book, in essence, a year-by-year catalogue of Barassi's life which while at times informative also leaves the reader slightly flat. There are periods of detail mixed with passages of summary - which while sounding like the ideal mix, leaves the reader with questions.

Like his mentor Smith, he was demanding of himself and his players but was tactically more astute than the Red Fox. He had strong ideals about how the game should be played and how players should carry themselves. Ron Barassi - according to former player "Crackers" Keenan - is the most honest man he's met. He learned about the importance of integrity from family (and extended family), tactics at the knee of the Smith brothers and of marketability from club presidents like George Harris and Allen Aylett. Those traits defined him - and his clubs.

It was to Barassi that the AFL turned when the Sydney Swans were so shambolic in the early nineties - only a coach, a personality even, of his magnitude could turn around what had become a major embarrassment to the league.

Lalor reveals that, on taking over a floundering Sydney franchise, Barassi lined the club's back-room staff up against one wall of the bowls club used as the club's HQ, then asking each member of the playing group to name the support staff. None of the Swans could - a sign of lingering disrespect for those around them . As the Swans matured, they made a run to the 1996 Grand Final.

Ron Barassi has a strong claim to being the most recognizable Victorian of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Since then, only Shane Warne and Nicole Kidman could challenge him. Barassi tells most of his tale. Footballs.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review: Sacred Hoops – Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson is one of the greatest and the most respected coaches in the modern era. Jackson is famous for being the man who moulded the Chicago Bulls from being almost solely reliant upon Michael Jordan, into a NBA championship force as a team (with a lot of help from Jordan as well). Following from this he was able to control the egos of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal as he coached the Los Angeles Lakers to championships as well.

Cover Image Courtesy of
Jackson is also described as being not your a-typical personality of professional sports and someone a little 'left of centre'. Although this may be true one must recognise the following: 1) That in the egotistical world of professional sport it is hardly difficult to be considered different; and 2) having read this book I wonder how much of the perception of Jackson is objective and not down to his own self prophecy.

Sacred Hoops purports to be a description of the spiritual journey that Phil Jackson has gone on during his life and career in basketball and also the spiritual journey he sought to lead the unstoppable Chicago Bulls on as they won six championships in the 1990's. At best it is a philosophical reflection as rarely could it be said that Jackson describes his research or reflection as looking beyond his self for the divine.

In reality as I read through the book it felt more like a cobbled together series of quotes from Christianity, Buddhism, and Native American tribal culture that speak to the events in Jacksons career with the benefit of hindsight. This probably is not a 100% true statement, Jackson no doubt is widely read and has been for a great proportion of his life, but it appears too cute in places during this read that these single quotations from religious texts can speak wholly to the scenarios described by Jackson without reference to the greater contexts of the religious texts themselves. One could even go as far to say that it is disrespectful to practitioners of each of these religions that Jackson seemingly cherry picks bits and pieces that suit him and his story.

For those of us who grew up through the 1990's and loved Basketball and the Chicago Bulls for a period will get some satisfaction from reading back through the history of these great seasons where basketball glory rained heavily on the Windy City. Jackson does provide an honest insiders view of what he believed made the Chicago Bulls tick during this period and what helped them to be one of the most successful teams in history.

But it is not a great read. Particularly so if you reflect back (with greater hindsight) that if Jackson truly led this team (and its individuals) on a spiritual journey to betterment should they have obtained some more permanent value? Why is it then that most have seemed to continues living as ego-maniacs post their playing days?  Marbles.