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Nicola "feevishpickle" (Bristol, UK)

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A World-class Gymnast  (Making of a Champion)
A World-class Gymnast (Making of a Champion)
by Paul Mason
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars Basic, but good, 7 May 2010
I've been having the hardest time finding books about gymnastics. All those (non-memoirs) in print are overwhelmingly aimed at children. This, at least, seems to be aimed at older children, rather than 5-year-olds.

A World-Class Gymnast is, as the title suggests, concerned with elite gymnastics. It covers both the basics (e.g. how gymnastics originated) and the not-so-basics (e.g. competitive scoring), with short, lucid explanations of most of the sport's facets. There are lots of pictures, too. For an eight-year-old boy or girl interested in gymnastics, it's a pretty good book.

Alas, I am no longer eight years old.

White Horses
White Horses
by Alice Hoffman
Edition: Paperback

2.0 out of 5 stars As a short story, it might have been fine, but as a novel? No., 7 May 2010
This review is from: White Horses (Paperback)
This languorous story of incest and small town life feels underdeveloped and overlong. White Horses has so little plot that it could almost be a short story: magnetic, sociopathic Silver slides into a life of criminality and struggles with his romantic feelings for depressive sister, Theresa.

Though Alice Hoffman is not a bad writer, she overuses summary narrative, describing every banality while rarely allowing the action to develop into full scenes. In fact, Hoffman repeatedly eschews adding drama to the plot to keep the pages turning. Notably, the storyline in which Silver is stalked by a malevolent former associate is first set aside for an implausibly long time and, when it's revisited, fizzles pointlessly.

The magic realist touches - Theresa's mysterious sleeping sickness and her mother's fixation on mythical cowboys - add some nice colour to the novel, but they ultimately serve little purpose. In fact, magic realism is one of several themes that Hoffman introduces and then fails to fully explore. Magic realism also does not provide an adequate explanation for Theresa's unfailing good luck. She's touched by danger repeatedly, without ever being harmed. For example, not once but twice, a kindly stranger invites her to stay at their house.

The novel's incest theme feels fairly inexplicable. There's no trauma that drives Silver and Theresa into each other's arms. Silver is clearly a sociopath (Hoffman practically provides a check list - he's reckless, uncaring, with a God complex, etc.), but Hoffman recoils from the assumption that he coerced Theresa into sex. In fact, Hoffman writes their relationship with romance novel verve. It's almost as if they were being kept apart by something more prosaic, like a Montague-Capulet feud.

When I read Hoffman's Practical Magic, I found that she suffered a disinclination to actually dig down deep into her characters. I feel the same way about White Horses. The novel seemed like it should have ended with a therapy session for both protagonists, but instead Hoffman used flowery language of optimism to skate over their mental instability.

Balancing Act (Unbeatable): An Unbeatable Story
Balancing Act (Unbeatable): An Unbeatable Story
by Donna King
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Awful, 7 May 2010
I picked this up because it was literally the only in-print novel about gymnastics that I could find. I wasn't expecting a masterpiece, but, even as a sweet children's story about triumph over adversity, it fails miserably.

Balancing Act is about 13-year-old Carli's struggle to balance her love for gymnastics with her parents' insistence that she work long hours on their ranch in Colorado. We don't learn much about Carli except that she likes horses! and the outdoors! and she speaks! with lots! of exclamation points! (In fact, every character seems to feel! the need! to urgently! relay! information!)

The characters are all 2-dimensional. Carli's parents, in particular, are so lacking in nuance that their predictable third-act change-of-heart feels completely unearned. Of course, the idea that maybe Carli shouldn't be working 2-3 hours a day for her parents' business is never addressed. Child labour is awesome!

In general, the novel is completely lacking in dramatic tension, apart from a bizarre twist near the end that has nothing to do with gymnastics. Donna King makes no effort to weave more than a perfunctory knowledge of the sport into the novel, and let's just say that the ending truly beggars belief.

I thought perhaps the novel, with its American setting, had been poorly "Anglicized" for an English audience. But no. Donna King is an English author and, boy, it shows. King seems to know even less about Colorado than I do. Did she do any research for this novel?

Eagle Strike (Alex Rider)
Eagle Strike (Alex Rider)
by Anthony Horowitz
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.24

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Blandly entertaining, but content to play cynically to its target audience, 7 May 2010
Eagle Strike at times reads like a laundry list of stereotypical things that teenage boys are into (innit): spies; chase scenes; video games; gun porn; hot girls who treat boys badly and then have a change of heart. The result, in terms of plotting, is a spiky pattern of DANGER-DANGER-breathe-DANGER-DANGER-breathe (etc.), rather than a smooth storytelling arc that builds to a satisfying conclusion.

That's not to say that some of the DANGER-DANGER episodes are not entertaining. In particular, Horowitz makes a masterful twist on video game play in the middle of the novel. However, upon reaching the end of the book, rather than building to a climax, I found that the constant ACTION began to feel meaningless. And, by the last page, I just felt a bit deflated.

(The plot, of course, is scarcely the point of the novel, but it involves an evil pop star, Russians being self-serving and Americans being idiots. Yay, xenophobia!)

I've read a couple of the Alex Rider competitors (Cherub; the Andy McNab teen books) and it's clear that Alex Rider is the market leader because Anthony Horowitz can actually write. While he's no Shakespeare, there's a nice cadence to his writing, which lifts the series noticeably.

Do I even need mention that the 'romance' in this novel is a complete afterthought? Alex's relationship with Sabina is utterly perfunctory: we never get any background on how they fell in 'like'; there's a single scene that indicates they might enjoy each other's company, but otherwise they just seem bored or irritated by each other. Sabina is written at times with an unpleasant viciousness on the part of the author. At one point, after suffering 24 hours of unspeakable horror, she's asked to put on some goggles and she complains that it will ruin her makeup. Does Horowitz really think that ANY girl, however vacuous, would care about her makeup when placed in a life-or-death situation? Let's not even talk about the bizarrely-named Jack Starbright (she's female), who is initially painted as a cool, spunky ally and then given nothing to do but play nanny and exposition fairy.

Eagle Strike is perhaps ultimately just a frustrating read. With just a little more thoughtfulness and emotion, and a little more effort paid to plotting, it could have been a satisfying novel. Instead, it's content to play cynically to its target audience (boys who like guns) and, though blandly entertaining, it's a much weaker book as a result.

The White Tiger
The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking, but depressing, 7 May 2010
This review is from: The White Tiger (Paperback)
Objectively, I know that this is an accomplished and interesting novel, but, if I'm honest, it's not one I enjoyed. The White Tiger is witty and relevant and thought-provoking, but it's also soul-crushingly depressing. Once I put it down, I always dreaded picking it back up again.

The White Tiger takes the form of a letter recounting an Indian businessman's successful attempt at breaking free from the 'Darkness' of his poor upbringing. The letter is addressed to Wen Jiabao, though, unfortunately, this is a simple framing device, rather than the start of a collision of Indian and Chinese cultures.

I'm not personally a fan of bildungsromane, and Adiga's decision to reveal the major details of how the protagonist, Balram, came to be a businessman in the very first chapter robs the novel of a lot of its dramatic tension. Sure, it's all about the journey, but there's little that's surprising in the journey.

Adiga's writing is engaging, but in choosing to give the novel a sharp theme of humour, he seems to sacrifice making Balram into a sympathetic character. As a result, the novel is missing that emotional component: Balram doesn't seem to have an emotional attachment to anyone and, while his hollowness was likely intentional on the author's part, it's hard to connect with a novel about someone who doesn't have any friends or loved ones.

Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating
Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating
by Christine Brennan
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A great introduction to the sport's excitement and contradictions, 7 May 2010
Inside Edge is a solid piece of sports journalism that uncovers the politics and plain oddness involved in competitive figure skating. Christine Brennan weaves technical detail into an engaging people-driven narrative, making the book an enjoyable, 'crossover' read that anyone could pick up.

However, it must be noted that Brennan's 'real job' as a newspaper reporter shows in the book. Inside Edge is very fragmentary: we get bits and pieces about a number of male and female skaters, ones that made it and ones that didn't, but the book lacks any real structure or overall cohesion.

Disappointingly, pairs skaters and ice dancers get short shrift, crammed together in the final chapter and lacquered with a coat of "lol, don't really care" on the author's part.

Written in the 1990s, Inside Edge is understandably dated. Not so much that it's not enjoyable, but it does make -- for example -- the long indictment of the (since revised) scoring system irrelevant.

Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics
Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics
by Bela Karolyi
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, but ultimately forgettable, 7 May 2010
Bela Karolyi's ghosted autobiography covers his upbringing in Communist Rumania, where he coached Nadia Comaneci to Olympic Gold in gymnastics, and his defection to the US, where he successfully resumed his coaching with Mary Lou Retton.

Though it will appeal mostly to gymnastics fans, in some ways, the gymnastics in Feel No Fear feels incidental. It's the rest of Karolyi's story that is compelling. In particular, his account of finding himself in a new and difficult-to-navigate society where he didn't speak the language makes for powerful reading. The gymnastics element of the book, however, never really comes to life. It's a book about coaching in general more than about specifically coaching gymnastics, and there's a strong sense that Karolyi would have been just as happy coaching a different sport.

Karolyi is not the most likeable of narrators. There's one moment early in the book when he appeals to a classmate for extensive help when trying to gain entrance to university. She helps Karolyi with his entrance exams and, as a result, he gets in - and she doesn't. Karolyi's sweeping arrogance is sometimes too much to take. However, the book does go a long way to adding nuance to a man who is viewed as the stereotypical Soviet tyrant coach.

The views on coaching that Karolyi outlines in Feel No Fear are broadly admirable. However, there's some notable white space that remains around his interactions with some American gymnasts. There are those he gushes about - Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal - and those where his silence is deafening. Quite often the words, "[X] did not compete in this meet, because of an injury" appear in the book and never, ever elaborated upon. It's hard not to feel that the rigours of gymnastics on young bodies are being glossed over. There's also a particularly shocking section where Nadia - who has been training elsewhere and is out of shape - loses 40lbs in a matter of weeks under Karolyi's instruction.

Feel No Fear is an entertaining read about a man who has lived an interesting life. However, I suspect I will find it fairly forgettable - and I'm not surprised it's drifted out of print.

(Note: though the cover of my copy features Dominique Moceanu, the book was written in 1994 and has no mention of her. This is mildly frustrating, since the book also does not cover Karolyi's most infamous moment - telling Kerri Strug to perform her second vault at the 1996 Olympics.)

The Second Mark: Courage, Corruption, and the Battle for Olympic Gold
The Second Mark: Courage, Corruption, and the Battle for Olympic Gold
by Joy Goodwin
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, 7 May 2010
The Second Mark is ostensibly about the 2002 Olympic Figure Skating scandal, but that's really only a small part of the book. Most of the book is devoted to biographies of all the pairs skaters who medalled in 2002 -- Berezhnaya/Sikharulidze from Russia, Salé/Pelletier from Canada and Shen/Zhao from China -- and their coaches.

The book's length is slightly off-putting at first, but this is due to the incredible detail that Joy Goodwin puts into describing the histories of the six skaters. Inevitably, it becomes not just a book about figure skating, but also a book about the cultures in which the skaters grew up. This provides fascinating glimpses into life in rural Canada, the Soviet Union both before and after its collapse, and a changing China.

Figure skating is such a beautiful sport that it's heartening to find that Goodwin's writing is also beautiful enough to do it justice on the page. She writes knowledgeably about the technical aspects of the sport -- though this is not a book to read if you want to learn the difference between a triple axel and a triple salchow -- but it's the poignancy with which she imbues her subjects lives that really makes the book a joy to read.

Really, really lovely.

Stolen Innocence: My story of growing up in a polygamous sect, becoming a teenage bride, and breaking free
Stolen Innocence: My story of growing up in a polygamous sect, becoming a teenage bride, and breaking free
by Elissa Wall
Edition: Paperback

3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Overlong and unengaging, 7 May 2010
This book made it onto my to-read list because I'm interested in the Fundamentalist LDS Church, but I didn't realize until I actually picked up a copy that it was being marketed as a misery memoir. I've read maybe two mis-mems previously, so I couldn't tell you if this is a "good" one. It's certainly a harrowing story (Elissa was forced into marriage at 14 to an older man that she hated), tied up with a shiny bow of justice in the end (Elissa brings charges against the FLDS's "prophet", who arranged her marriage and encouraged her husband to rape her).

Unfortunately, Stolen Innocence presents Elissa's story in a manner that makes it feel overlong and unengaging. The narrative is dense and repetitive, even rambling -- not an easy or interesting read. There are some insights given into the FLDS Church, but honestly, if that's what you're interested in, you'd be better off reading Jon Krakauer's journalistic work, Under the Banner of Heaven.

Elissa's story is clearly one worth telling, but unfortunately, a lack of dynamism in the writing meant that this book just felt dull.

Cheer!: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders
Cheer!: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders
by Kate Torgovnick
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Flawed, but enjoyable, 7 May 2010
Cheer! is an enjoyable read that follows a year in the life of three very different competitive cheerleading teams: the defending National champions in Coed cheerleading; an All-Girl team who came close to a National victory last year and are hoping to strike gold; and a predominantly-black team, who have the moves to hit the big leagues, but not the funding.

Having read some other, piss-poor sports journalism recently (look out for my review of Perfect 10: The UGA GymDogs & the Rise of Women's College Gymnastics in America, if I ever manage to stagger through its crashingly-boring final 100 pages), I have to note the understated ability Kate Torgovnick possesses to turn sports into drama and engage the reader with the sports' participants. Even knowing next-to-nothing about cheerleading and having no visual frame of reference for what a 'Rewind' or an 'Awesome' is, I still found myself invested in each team's competitive outcome.

That's not to say that Torgovnick's writing is without its flaws, however. The author seems a little too hung up on herself and her place in the narrative. Sure, it's cute that a nerdy Jewish girl from New York City becomes an honorary cheerleader over the course of the book, but it deserves to be mentioned about 10x less frequently. This also ties in with the fact that the book -- a hefty 350 pages -- could stand to be a 100 pages shorter. Easily achievable with less of this kind of blather: "and they did this and then I did this and it was so funny because you know I'm just a journalist from New York".

Torgovnick also suffers from Tortured Poet syndrome. I get it: you wanted to be a poet, but you ended up a journalist instead. Torgovnick's lapses into purple prose are just unforgivable, however. Her similes are both nonsensical and melodramatic: a video camera's 'on' light is described as Rudolph's nose (why?), and Torgovnick recounts receiving bad news as having an atomic bomb dropped on her (WHY?).

Perhaps most offensive is her continual inability to describe black and multi-racial people in terms other than coffee. No white character's skin tone is remarked upon, but the multi-racial characters always have "mocha" skin.

Cheer! is a solid, accessible book about men and women with impressive and underrated athletic abilities. Not without its stylistic flaws, it's still worth reading.

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