Saturday, February 25, 2012

Review: The Champions – Ben Collins

My expectations of this book outweighed the result. A compilation of conversations held with the greatest players in Australian Footballs history held much interest as the 2012 season comes upon us quickly. But the result was hit and miss Рsome absolute gems of conversations, but others that descended into clich̩ and standard rhetoric.

The initial question I would have for Ben Collins is how did he go about selecting the interviewees? Presented as a the champion team and coaching staff they certainly would be awesome to watch in full flight, but in reading the names the feel is that the interviewees amount to who was available and willing rather than the best. The irony however is that those persons I would class as individual club champions but not champions of the game were often those who provided the most interesting read, so in this respect the reader must be grateful.

The highlight of the book for a Victorian based reader were that interviews were conducted with Neil Kerley, John Todd, and Glen Jakovich. Kerley and Todd are famed figures as players and coaches within South Australian and Western Australian football, they never played in the VFL/AFL however are legends of the sport. To read their stories was fantastic, and opened my own mind into the world of football that did and still does exist beyond Victoria and the modern AFL, but has largely been ignored within Victoria. Jakovich likewise, though a stand out during the 1990s for West Coast was another from Western Australia, and his story was fascinating but largely ignored outside his home state.

The book is not a series of questions and answers, though obviously Collins while interviewing each player would have led the conversation with queries, the final products are a series of paragraphs and thoughts. This makes the book all the more engaging, and though repetition is always likely to creep in, helped to keep it at bay. Unfortunately some of the interviews are simply boring, and have been provided by persons who clearly have little else in life outside football to provide context and balance. As you would expect it is the modern games interviewees who suffer most.

My favourite interview has to be with Bob Skilton. A man who has had his life defined by personal footballing success, and the lack of it for the team he played with, but spends most of the time referring to others who influenced him. The humility and understatement is amazing for a man who won three Brownlow medals and nine South Melbourne Best and Fairests.

My mistake probably was to read the book cover to cover. Such a work probably works best as a place that you dive in and out of as the mood takes you, one interview at a time. It has served its purpose in whetting my appetite for the upcoming season. Tennis Balls

Cover image thanks to 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: Original Sin - Andy Lane

Original Sin provided some interesting twists for Virgin series of Doctor Who New Adventures.  It features one of the Original Series' finest baddies and was the second time in that series that the Doctor took a new companion(s) onto the TARDIS.  The nature of these two new companions - Adjudicators Roz Forrester and Chris Cwej - then provided new enlightenment into the dystopian future that the NA authors loved so well.

The New Adventures carried on - at least initially - Sylvester McCoy's mysterious portrayal of the Doctor, the dark, cryptic Time Lord who served as "Time's Champion".  Because Original Sin takes place directly after that arc's key story Human Nature - where the Doctor becomes more aware of his actions' ramifications on his human friends, and thus less mysterious - the characterisation of the Doctor is very much of a likeable, but knowledgeable imp.  Newbies Cwej and Forrester are interesting and likeable enough, with Forrester particularly having the kind of emotional baggage that made Who writers in the mid-90s salivate.  While Benny - the most consistently drawn character in the entire Virgin NA series - is understandably her usual self, for a change there are actually some minor characters worth noting - in this case, the insane Doctor Zebulon Pryce.

However, it is in the characterisation of the chief villain that I was most disappointed.  Without revealing too much, he is maniacal rather than megalomanic, unhinged rather than calculating and desperate when opportunistic is much more to established type.  Personally, I don't mind when "Greatest Hits" bad guys are brought back, but prefer to see them written as they were in their original appearance: to be believable, they must command the same consistency as we expect from portrayals of the Doctor and his buddies.

Original Sin recreates a fondly-remembered bad guy simply because the author could, and then credits him as being behind the scenes of several high-profile Who enemies.  To do so partially and needlessly negates seminal stories such as Robot and, *cough* Invasion of the Dinosaurs.  Given lackadaisical characterisation and throwaway continuity, the book would have been better served with a new adversary.

As we've noted here before, much of early 90s Who was written by fans.  This brought with it good and bad points - the series was in the hands of people who genuinely cared about its direction, but given six-book story arcs and the occasional slavish reliance on continuity, the series became less accessible to the casual reader.  Who fans enjoy and relish the series history, but to become dependent on it - as the series itself did in the early '80s (thank you, Ian Levine) - is fanboy folly.  That those fanboys were apparently all devotees of William Gibson and Alan Moore is painfully apparent.

Occasionally, references to continuity were thrown in because they seemed like a good idea at the time (as in this case); became major characters (Irving Braxiatel) and sometimes were the premise of entire story arcs.   

Unfortunately, Original Sin is one of these novels where continuity becomes a major point in an otherwise quite open and intriguing plot.  There are several plot holes - especially a critical one concerning the impracticalities of the returning villain's far-reaching robot control - and some knowledge of Who's Earth Empire is required to fully understand the context of the novel.  Lane's writing style is interesting, but fails to fully engage the reader.  This means that with the undercurrent of technological terms (and complex Hith names that must be filed under "Seemed like a good idea at the time") at times makes progress hard slog.

In toto, the book seems as if Lane had a series of good ideas which were only tenuously connected and threw them together to create a novel which, while working, doesn't thrive.  It's a worthwhile read - if only to meet the new guys Cwej and Forrester - but feels like it should be more than it is.

Tennis Balls.

For more Doctor Who reviews, visit Who. Reviewed.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review: Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin

If there's one thing I can't stand, it's an eight-hundred page introduction.

I seem to be inundated with the the bloody things at the moment – The Phantom Pants Menace came out in 3D on Friday (forming part one of a three-part, seven-hours-of-celluloid intro) and only a few weeks ago I finished The Two Towers, book two of Tolkien's introduction to Lord of the Rings.

And only last week I finished book one of the highly-regarded Game of Thrones.

The series is actually named “A Song of Ice and Fire” and authored by George R. R. Martin, but has gained a far greater following in recent years as “Game of Thrones” after HBO broadcast a big-budget – and quite faithful – TV adaptation. The first book in this series tells the story of the noble houses of the Seven Kingdoms through the eyes of several key figures.

I became utterly absorbed in this book. I read it everywhere, from waiting rooms to buses, savouring every quick plot twist and trying unsuccessfully to anticipate the novel's climax. However, Martin worked in so many delicate subplots that three quarters of the way through it became apparent that the novel couldn't (or wouldn't even try to) resolve them before it finished. I found this remarkably frustrating, as almost every other aspect of the novel was outstanding. This means the novel didn't crescendo to a climax but to a kind of damp squib. While there were some plot elements settled, others left the reader hanging like in the original Italian Job.

It's a simple premise of speculative fiction: each “episode” needs to stand as a work of it's own. As a serendipitous example of this, take the most famous film trilogy of all time. Although George Lucas originally planned for Star Wars to be a trilogy, he wasn't initially able to secure funding for the project and made “A New Hope” as a standalone film. It was only when the movie became the greatest film of all time that he was able to pour the requisite dollars into Empire and Jedi. By circumstance (and given his recent work many would say that's the biggest stroke of luck in history) he had to make Star Wars as a discrete work of art.

The same could be said of The Empire Strikes back – you can watch either of the first two Star Wars films without needing to see the other. We'll get to Return of the Jedi later. Or never, preferably.

Tolkien anathema Raymond E. Feist did the same with Magician, another series of fantasy books which seems to breed like rabbits. Each volume of his groundbreaking trilogy could be read enjoyably as an individual novel, not leaving the consumer to immediately think “Now I have to go and buy/borrow/steal A Darkness at Sethanon”. Drawing another fictional example, it's why The Wire is so fraught – there simply isn't enough resolution to go around. When compared to other series that depend on plot arcs (say, Battlestar Galactica), there's a vast difference that makes the consumer less on edge.

It's also unfortunate that during what should be the final acts of resolution – the last fifty pages – the book jumps (the shark?) from a human based drama to include more of the supernatural. It's saddening to see, as the dexterity with which Martin deploys his bevy of convincing human characters doesn't deserve the “get-outs” of fantastical creatures.

For a book that I mostly thoroughly loved, that's a lot of criticism, so let's examine what makes Game of Thrones so eminently readable. The novel is plotted so hard it could be a poem (but isn't, Tolkien), it's characters are amongst the most believable of any science-fiction/fantasy series and set pieces are often resolved imaginatively and unexpectedly. It's also intriguing that, as with Phillip Pullman, the world is seen through the eyes of children. These little humans, who are as convincingly portrayed as I think I've ever read form many of the main antagonists and each is forced to mature quickly and assume their place in a middle-age society. As the reader's point of view changing rapidly between characters the first thirty pages can be confusing, but the narrative device works well – indeed so well after a while you can't imagine another story-telling method. Also, with Game's global scope, seeing the world through characters the whole world over allows a level of insight rarely afforded by fantasy constructs.

Although there are many plot strands left for books two and beyond, what makes the book so addictive is its pacing. It's like there is a black hole at the end of the book which starts pulling the reader towards it; at first almost innocuously and as you get nearer with greater force. It's a book which will no doubt provide you with any number of nights where you put it down at 2am having meant to read only a chapter.

A thoroughly worthwhile read, but only if you plan to read the rest of the series. Footballs.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Review: Murderball – Will Swanton

For the second book in a row I was required to endure the author while seeking desperately for the story. Where this was a story of a phenomenally impressive team of Australian athletes the overbearing nature of Will Swanton's writing takes so much effort for the reader. But first the positives.

The Murderball title no doubt tries to leverage off the consistently titled 2005 film about Wheelchair Rugby, but as you read you are left in little doubt that for the competitors involved they have no time for marketability, they are hardened competitors with only victory in mind. Predominately in their own words, this is the story of the Australian teams pursuit of gold at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

Beginning with Australian coach Brad Dubberly's massive decision to step away from playing to coach, you begin with an early familiarity of each of the players, understanding their lives, and journey's into this most brutal of sports. They train hard, play hard, ask no quarter and give none either. After the familiarity you run through tournament by tournament, match by match, as they descend upon Beijing.

Sporting diaries are repetitive beasts by nature. When you play the same game over again there is little room for diversion from the norm, and in a sport that only seven nations play to any great extent this is only further enhanced. Chapter by chapter the heroes remain the heroes, the villains remain the villains. This would be difficult to remain engaged with except that instead of the same voice, the same opinion, over again the burden of storytelling is shared among team mates. The effect is that you get a consistent view but from different angles.

The struggle of this book is Swanton who rather than an author acts more as an editor, collating the stories from each member of the team. These stories are told by rough characters, men hardened by life, hardened for the game. What they need is an objective sensible voice providing the reader with information and balance that they may understand the athletes story better. What they got is someone who behaves as though they are one of the team. The pointless swearing, aggressive tone, and judgemental nature of the narrative is not required, the guys tell the story, Swanton comes across a fool as he confuses the reader.

Despite Swanton, the book is worth reading to hear about some of Australia's hardest working, determined athletes. Tennis Balls.

Image courtesy of

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Review: Miller's Luck – Roland Perry

I entered into this book with trepidation. For a long time I have been searching for a Keith Miller biography that was not this effort by Roland Perry, with no luck. One of the great cricket writers David Frith was scathing in his review of Perry's work, citing multiple factual errors that grated on him. Similar reviews have been provided by Gideon Haigh and even right here.  I scoured second hand book stores where all that was on their shelves were multiple copies of Miller's Luck by Roland Perry.

Deflated that my searching had come to nothing I swallowed my pride, took my desire to find out more about Miller and lifted a copy from the local library's shelf. As I found out as I read it a previous borrower had too become so frustrated with errors (though their frustrations were World War II facts) that they had taken to the book with a pen themselves!

Without even re-hashing the factual inaccuracies of the work, simply put this biography is deplorably written. Rather than a study of a complex and polarising character, Perry serves up 500 pages of hero worship that just completely turns you off as you read. Miller was a tremendous all-round cricketing talent and a war veteran who escaped death multiple times (often due his own insubordination). However he also was a heavy drinker, addicted gambler and constant philanderer that makes the overriding rhetoric of hero worship difficult to justify.

As a cricketing talent he could easily be worshipped; a war veteran, definitely respected. Limited to discussion primarily on these two topics such a subjective take on the man could well be accepted. But the reality was that for all the success Miller had on field it clearly came at a very heavy cost to his family which is an indictment on the man, an impression that Perry has not sufficiently captured and in fact missed completely.

Because of the books length and quantity of information provided (despite factual errors) the dedicated and discerning reader has the opportunity to draw their own conclusions about Miller and his life. Absolutely, the descriptions of Miller's love affair with Lords and the tremendous innings he played there during the post war years make me long to travel back in time, but in all the book fails on a number of fronts. No Balls.

Cover Imaqe Thanks To