Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review - Tip Off - Filip Bondy

Tip Off isn't a bad book, but it's hard to get excited about.  In fact, a one-word review would simply be "meh".  Filip Bondy presents us with the equivalent of watching a player take a 17' jump shot when he could have dunked on three guys - it's just as effective and may even be the right play, but leaves the audience slightly underwhelmed.

This is a shame, because Bondy chose a fascinating topic: the 1984 NBA draft, which saw Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Perkins, Charles Barkley and John Stockton arrive in professional basketball.  It also provided the backdrop for the most high-profile draft blunder in history, when Portland selected Kentucky center Sam Bowie instead of Jordan with the second overall pick.

It's a succinct read which touches on the leadup to the draft, what each team was thinking when making their selections and also a brief look at how each player fared.  There's little coming together of the players - of every player drafted, the book may as well be about the six guys listed above.  Nobody - well, nobody except the most hardened basketball-philes - wants to know Chicago's thinking behind taking NBL legend Butch Hays with a seventh-round pick, or the reasons that Indiana chose Charlotte legend Stuart Gray.

Bondy writes to get the facts out rather than to entertain.  It is well-researched and the author has obviously researched and interviewed broadly, which all serves a purpose but at times upsets the book's flow.  Each chapter focuses on one aspect of the draft process, be it Chicago or Houston allegedly tanking (leading to the institution of the draft lottery in 1985), the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics or Sam Perkins' background in upstate New York.  The result is that there are minimal shared experiences which takes away from the Draft's inherent maturation storyline.

The information is all there, but given the storied nature of that draft, the reader is left feeling as if they're in some way short changed and that perhaps a writer with a greater sense of the event may have made Tip Off  more enjoyable.  As it is, it's intriguing at times (did you know that Philadelphia offered Dr. J or Andrew Toney and the no. 5 pick for the no. 3 pick so they could take Jordan?) but labours with an invasive flatness.

A perfectly average read - making it tennis balls.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Review: Instruments of Darkness - Gary Russell

Gary Russell made me think!  No, really, he did a good thing!  279 pages weren't wasted!  It's a miracle!

Courtesy: doctorwhoreviews.co.uk
During his time writing Past Doctor Adventures, Russell made it a personal crusade to redeem the then-pilloried Sixth incarnation of the Time Lord, fleshing out the lurid continuity of the Colin Baker era.  First came Mel's official introductory story, Business Unusual - which I enjoyed - and eventually a real regeneration for Doc 6 in the form of the immortal Spiral Scratch.

It's campaigns like these that, despite the best of intentions, have earned Russell his reputation as a purveyor of the highest order of fanwank.

That said, however, despite myriad failings, Instruments of Darkness is a reasonable sequel to Business Unusual.

Irritations include a marginalised and relatively-poorly-characterised Doctor, reliance on continuity (although it's much better than some of the author's previous work), stylistic inconsistencies, dialogue peeled straight from the Star Wars prequels and Russell indulging his  Bond fetish.  Naming a pair of female assassins Ms de Menour and Ms (Mal) Feasance?  Inserting a piece about the Doctor introducing Fleming to the ornithologist on whom Bond was based?  The cult-series mix is simply too much for an admittedly-pulpy premise to bear.

But in spite of these elements, Russell deftly portrays a series of interconnected characters whose reliance upon each other is notable.  Throughout the text, couplets emerge where each member is completely dependent on the other - for existence, validation, love.  Even the Doctor is not immune as he encounters the companion that wasn't, Evelyn Smythe; and in fact only Mel appears immune.

This symbiosis is woven unobtrusively throughout and only it hits the reader with real force when it becomes apparent at the novel's conclusion.  It's sweetly juxtaposed with the climactic fireworks brought about by some old-school Doctor trickery reminiscent of Pyramids of Mars.

Tennis balls.

Discontinuity Guide's review of Instruments of Darkness

Saturday, August 11, 2012

An Omnibus of Horse Racing

Throughout my life, the sport of kings has been relatively disinteresting to me. Despite growing up on a full diet of sport obsession, for some reason horse racing never took my fancy. My perception of it has been skeptical, fueled by one question: Is there a point to it beyond being a vehicle for gambling? Can you have a passion for it without needing to risk your hard earned, or being loaded to the hilt and able to own one of the creatures?

Despite being proud of the fact I had managed to avoid watching the last eight or nine Melbourne Cups, I fell into the Black Caviar phenomenon upon its closure at Royal Ascot. I became desperate to understand what attracts people to the sport, why it is so ingrained in our Australian culture, why was Vo Rogue a cult hero, and to finally understand the theory behind weight for age. I present to you five titles that have taken me on this journey.

  1. A Year on the Punt – John Ellicott

My journey got off to a poor start, when I managed to learn less than nothing and in fact digress in my opinion of the sport thanks to this title. A journalist and petty gambler takes his long service leave and ventures far and wide across Australia to visit regional racing carnivals, learn more of the history of racing, and pick up some tips for being an effective picker of winners.

Maybe that is what Ellicott planned to do however what he presented pretty much summed up my long held reasons for prejudice against the sport. Every club he visited was struggling to survive save for the turnover of gambling through the TAB (although they do not like having to conform to the rules of the TAB). In addition the greatest stories nine times out of ten were the debaucherous antics of racegoers (and club committeemen) no mention of any equine heroes. Into the bargain the author annoys the heck out of you as a reader trying to behave as a stereotypical 'Aussie' and clearly even his own writing indicates he was more often than not annoying those at the races as well. No Balls.

  1. True Grit – Les Carlyon

After the terrible start I went into my further reading without much hope, but I was reinvigorated and identified that what Gideon Haigh is for Australian Cricket, Les Carlyon is to Australian racing. If he has not touched it, do not either. Out of all the books read this was the one that really answered my questions and allowed me to more easily comprehend the passion one could have for horse racing.

Carlyon is a long time Melbourne journalist and True Grit is a compilation of some of his best work on his great love. Given its nature the book does not seek to systematically educate you however you pick up enough along the way. You learn of the champions (Vo Rogue included) and the lesser lights in sport, coming away with a rounded view that yes I may grow to like it. If you can only read one book on horse racing, this is it – Basketballs.

  1. The Track – Mike Hayes

Transforming a television series into a book is difficult, you go from having had images and body language plus words into text and the track although full of information suffers for hit. This was ABC televisions program on the history of Australian racing, presented by topic rather than chronologically. There are many interview subjects (Les Carlyon included) that give their opinions on all subjects however it can feel repetitive with the same incidents often being discussed under multiple topics.

You do learn a lot about the history, what drew and still draws people in, therefore functionally it has served its purpose – Tennis Balls.

  1. The Master – Les Carlyon

What makes a book about someone’s life a portrait and not a biography? Broad brush strokes with an eye for detail where required, and Les Carlyon succeeds with this portrait of Bart Cummings. Despite knowing little of horse racing one fact you do know as an Australian is that Bart Cummings has trained the most Melbourne Cup winners, by a long way and is a legend in racing circles.

The book is not only a great read but a beautiful presentation of horse racing images throughout the years and could serve well on a coffee table as well as in a library. Carlyon perfects just the amount of information to give about Cummings as you journey through his life, learning the great successes and the tragedies (which there are less). You leave with no deified image of Cummings except that he is a good horseman, his people skills appearing to leave something to be desired, and that the Australian racing industry is very much built on individuals like him. Basketballs.

  1. They're Racing – Gary Hutchinson (Editor); Foreward by Les Carlyon

None of the books read have the sheer volume of information brought by this volume. Chronologically from the first white settlement up until the end of the 20th century every key moment, person, race and of course horse is profiled. The book is set up for reference and is easy reading dipping in and out. Further there is much enjoyment of the hundred's of images provided. Because you are not reading the same work consistently it is difficult to draw a consistent line through the sport in this presentation, one piece may not relate to another and repetition is again in this work as in The Track. But for the number of facts per hour reading this is the choice. Tennis Balls.

Cover Images Available thanks to abc.net.au and boomerangbooks.com.au

Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: Sixty years on the back foot - Clyde Walcott

The Caribbean has produced several of the greatest batsmen of all time. However, many of these players seem to rail against faceless figures of authority. Currently, talisman Chris Gayle swats boundaries at whim – more often for lucrative T20 sides than for the West Indies. The chain which leads back through the likes of Brian Lara and Sir Vivian Richards – who was rather partisanly profiled in the acclaimed documentary Fire in Babylon – to George Headley.

Sixty years on the back foot
Courtesy: amazon.com
The second (or third, or fourth depending on how you look at it) of these superstars was Sir Clyde Walcott, a forerunner of devastating West Indian batsmanry and later president of the International Cricket Council. His autobiography, Sixty years on the back foot, was published at the conclusion of his ICC tenure in 1997.

His memoir is lightweight – entire tours are glossed over, especially those in which the West Indies struggled – and Walcott writes with the style of a man who finishes lengthy believable anecdotes with “Can you believe it?”. However, the parallels between West Indian cricket in 1952 and in 2012 are too plain to ignore.

Along with Sir Everton Weeks and Sir Frank Worrell, Walcott was one of the famed “Three Ws”, three Bajan players raised within a mile of each other and who helped West Indian cricket attain relevance in the 1950s. The significance of the three friends and their relationship is underscored throughout Walcott's writings as he attempts to characterise Caribbean cricket through their free-hitting exploits.

He does this for a simple reason: Walcott unquestionably thought that West Indian cricket, when played hard but for fun, is superior to any other. (Ed: he may be right) Time and again, his tacit disdain the orthodoxy inherent in 1950s English cricket is obvious; simultaneously he rejoices in the laid-back joie de vivre that formerly typified West Indian cricket.

Although Fire in Babylon incorrectly suggested that calypso cricket was provided only a team of loveable freewheelers (ie. losers), you can't escape the feeling while Walcott revelled in victories, he wouldn't countenance sacrificing style to achieve more success. His transition from money-chasing maverick pro to WICB ambassador adds another intriguing dynamic. However, like most politicians, his autobiography is an exercise in using many words to avoid saying much at all.

Although Walcott's memoir hearkens to different times, where pacemen were named Esmond Kentish and Foffie Edwards, there are still familiar cricket themes. Race relations, though downplayed, provided undercurrents of discontent. The same could be said for matters of money, as cricketers were still strictly classified as “professional” or “amateur”. That Worrell, Weekes and Walcott were forced to choose between making a living playing English league cricket rather than representing the West Indies provides a fifty-year prophecy of the WICB's current struggles with player free-agency.

The same issues have plagued West Indian cricket now for sixty years. The islands' success from 1975 to 1995 and more widespread cricketing professionalism only masked the difficulties of West Indian players and administrators. That the situation is unchanged over so long, coupled with difficult economic factors leaves the reader feeling that this situation is now intractable in West Indian cricket and the game is so much the poorer.

However disappointing the state of West Indian cricket, it's perhaps more disappointing that such an eminent figure in the game stuck true to his political, rather than returning to his maverick roots and challenging major failings in Caribbean cricket politics. Marbles.