Sunday, January 14, 2018

Review of "The Secret Race"

One resolution that I plan on keeping this year is to clean out the older books on my shelves or e-reader clouds.  The challenge I had earlier posted was one part of this resolution - the other was simply to read some of the books I bought a long time ago, but never got to read.  This book is one of them - and now I wish I had read it as soon as it popped up on my Nook. An outstanding memoir that provides an inside look at the world of cycling and its doping scandal, I recommend that everyone reads this, even if they are not fans.  Here is my review of Tyler Hamilton's memoir, "The Secret Race."


Title/Author:
The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France” by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle
Tags:
Cycling, performance enhancing drugs, memoir
Publish date:
September 5, 2012

Length:
306 pages

Rating: 
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
Review:
The rise and fall of Lance Armstrong was a spectacular story on both ends.  The doping scandal that was rampant in the sport of cycling ensnared not only Armstrong, but many of his teammates and competitors.  One of those cyclists, Tyler Hamilton, shares his story about his time in the sport and with Armstrong (called “Lance” throughout the book, not “Armstrong) in this outstanding memoir, co-written with Daniel Coyle.

What especially struck me about the book was Hamilton’s attention to every detail about the doping that goes on in cycling.  Not just the substances used, but the nicknames given, the undercover nature of communication between athletes and doctors, the methods of taking the drugs and the benefits a cyclists gets during the races.  Whether it was Hamilton’s description of taking “Edgar” (Erythropoietin), the details of his “BBs” (blood bags) when getting a transfusion of his own blood, or the conversations between racers on the trail, this is a book that is a page-turner, no matter what the reader’s level of interest may be in the sport of cycling.

The stories of how racers would either avoid or outsmart the drug testers read like spy novels.  This level of deceit, lies and evasion could only be told by someone who lived this type of life and Hamilton does it well.  This is true when not only talking about his own doping, but also that of Armstrong and other Postal team members.  He at times seemed in awe of Armstrong (before Lance’s eventual downfall) because he was always able to find a way to talk his way out of a tough situation.

Hamilton’s story itself is also very interesting, with his own climb from riding for various smaller teams to getting a spot in the prestigious US Postal team, the one that Armstrong raced for during his record stretch of Tour de France wins, wins that have since been stricken from records.  Hamilton himself has had the same thing happen to him with his 2004 Olympic gold medal in doubt because of a positive drug test.  While relieved he was able to keep his medal when the validity of the second positive test could not be verified, he eventually came clean on his doping. 

If a reader wants to learn about the actual sport, this book is a great source to do so.  Hamilton’s description of the riders who have to set the pace for the leaders, those who ride in packs or those who have to keep pace with the lead cyclist so that leader can maintain the speed he needs to keep the lead, is full of details that make a reader feel like he or she is on the bike. 

This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the doping scandals in the sport of cycling or learn about the story of this Olympic champion whose personal and professional life took many drastic turns.  Be forewarned – once you pick up the book, you will not want to put it down.

Book Format Read:
E-book (Nook)
Buying Links:


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Review of "When the Braves Ruled the Diamond"

Normally, any baseball book will get a glowing recommendation from me, even if it falls a bit flat from my expectations.  In this case of this book about the 14 consecutive division titles by the Atlanta Braves, my recommendation is conditional - try the print version, not the audio book and if the reader is a hard core Braves fan, go elsewhere as there will not be any new material here.  But for casual fans and readers, this one is one to try if one wants to learn about this team that went on an extraordinary streak. 


Title/Author:
When The Braves Ruled the Diamond: Fourteen Flags Over Atlanta” by Dan Schlossberg, narrated by Kyle Tait
Tags:
Baseball, professional, Braves, championship, history, audiobook
Publish date:
March 22, 2016

Length:
304 pages

Rating: 
2 ½ of 5 stars (just okay)
Review:
The Atlanta Braves ended the 20th century and began the 21st century by accomplishing an astounding feat – winning 14 consecutive division titles, not counting the 1994 season in which no team awards were given as a player strike ended the season on August 12 that year. This book by Dan Schlossberg covers each season in which the Braves won a division title and also has stories about the most important people who contributed to the streak.

While the team won all these division titles, the team was a disappointment in the postseason, winning the World Series just once during the streak (1995) and not making it back to the World Series after 1999.  That is a good analogy to describe this book about the Braves as well – despite all the great material and a good narrator, the audio book fell short of expectations.

The book started with very good stories on the general manager who put these teams team together, John Schuerholz, as well as manager Bobby Cox, pitching coach Leo Mazzone, infielders Terry Pendleton and Larry “Chipper” Jones (the two players who were named National League MVP during the run) and pitchers Gregg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz.  While avid Braves fans or readers who read a lot about baseball may be familiar with most of the material, these chapters contain good information for readers who wish to learn about these men.  The summaries of each season of the streak also are good for readers who want to learn the basics about the Braves in each of those seasons.

As an audiobook, however, there were several issues. One of the most glaring came at points during some of the season summaries.  There were random facts stated in the middle of the chapter that interrupted the particular story that was being told.  For example, during one of the seasons in which Deion Sanders played for the Braves, it was noted that Sanders was the first man to appear in both the World Series and the Super Bowl in his athletic career.  However, at the time this fact was said, it interrupted the recap of the 1995 postseason accomplishments of the Braves and Sanders was not at all mentioned in that part.  This was not the only time the narrative was interrupted by an unrelated fact.  It probably would not be as glaring in a print version, especially if it was meant to be a photo caption or footnote, but it was not clarified as such in the audio version.

The other shortcoming of the book, in this reviewer’s opinion, was the needless repetition of certain facts over and over throughout the chapters about the GM, manager, coach and players.  By the time that part of the book is over, the reader will certainly know that the Braves won 14 straight division titles, that John Smoltz was the only player to be on all 14 of those teams and that the Braves were 9 ½ games back of the San Francisco Giants in 1993 to come back and win the division that year.  All were interesting, and the first is why the book was written – but it didn’t need to be repeated so often. 

Despite these negatives, I did finish the book, I did learn some new things about this team and do believe that it is a book that casual baseball fans will enjoy.  If one is a hard core Braves fan, or baseball fan for that matter, there isn’t a lot of new information.

Book Format Read:
Audiobook
Buying Links:




Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Review of "Cold War Games"

This book served a couple of purpose.  One, I do like to read about the Olympics, especially during the Cold War era when the USSR and other communist nations supposedly sent "professional" athletes.  Two, this is the first book in my Blogger Shame challenge as I had downloaded this e-book in August but had not read it yet.  Therefore, since I have had it for more than four months, it meets the challenge - #1 of 24.  Here is my review of "Cold War Games."



Title/Author:
Cold War Games: Spies, Subterfuge and Secret Operations at the 1956 Olympic Games” by Harry Blustein
Tags:
Olympics, water polo, football (European), politics
Publish date:
August 1, 2017

Length:
368 pages

Rating: 
3 of 5 stars (okay)
Review:
The 1956 Summer Olympic games in Melbourne, Australia had one very memorable event – the water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union.  The match turned very physical, resulting in a gruesome-looking injury to a Hungarian player. This was a bloody injury to the nose, giving the game the nickname of the “Blood in i Water” match.

Why was this match so bloody? There were hard feelings between the two countries as a Hungarian uprising to break away from the communist rule of the USSR was crushed by the latter’s military.  These carried to the Olympics and that match, along with how the Soviet Union became a Olympic super-power, is captured in this book by Harry Blustein.

This book is more than just a sports book – it is a good historical book as well if a reader wants to learn about the inner workings of the Soviet sports machine.  The reader will learn how the Soviet Union was able to convince the IOC chairman Avery Brundage that its athletes were true amateurs.  Brundage took this position mainly because the United States athletes, in his eyes, were also subsidized with college scholarships and military service.  While a reader may not agree, it was an interesting argument.

There are also stories about the athletes. One touching story in particular is what an American male athlete and a Hungarian female athlete had to do in order to marry after the Games as Hungary was concerned about athletes defecting.  Also interesting was the role one of the water polo players from Hungary played in the uprising and his concern for his family during the Games. 

At times the book was very slow paced and a tough read, but the material kept my interest and by the end, I felt that I learned a lot about one of the most interesting Olympic games during the Cold War era.

I wish to thank Bonnier Publishing Australia for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)


Sunday, January 7, 2018

Review of "The Summer Game"

Roger Angell is simply the best baseball author who has ever pecked at a typewriter or keyboard.  While I have read some of his work in the New Yorker or parts of his collections of essays, this is the first time I have read one of his books from cover to cover.  Having accomplished that, it will be something that I will do time and time again.  Here is my review of his first book, "The Summer Game." 


Title/Author:
The Summer Game” by Roger Angell
Tags:
Baseball, professional, essays, classic
Publish date:
March 1, 2004 – paperback version (original publication date – 1972)

Length:
303 pages

Rating: 
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
Review:
Roger Angell is considered by many, including this reviewer, the best baseball writer to grace the pages of books or magazines.  This was his first book, a collection of essays covering the decade from 1961 to 1971. The topics are wide – everything from the birth of the New York Mets (the Mets are a favorite topic of many stories in the collection) to the Pittsburgh Pirates World Series victory over the might Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series. 

While his prose about the action on the diamond is worth the price of the book alone, his writing on so many baseball topics is also a joy to read.  Whether the topic is franchise shifts, expansion of both leagues and the postseason, the “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968, the first year of indoor baseball in the Houston Astrodome or the euphoria of New England when the Boston Red Sox lived the “Impossible Dream” by winning the 1967 American League championship, Angell tells it in flowing prose and an entertaining style.

There are so many examples in the book that illustrate the beauty of Angell’s storytelling. Many times Angell explains why baseball is the best game, and I will use two quotes from the book to show how he felt about the game.  In the chapter titled “A Terrific Strain” (written after the 1966 season), Angell writes that “Baseball is perhaps the most perfect visible sport ever devised, almost never requiring us to turn to a neighbor and ask ‘What happened?’”  The second quote I will use for this came from the final chapter, “The Interior Stadium.”  When writing about how most sports are resembling all the others, he maintains that baseball is unique, writing “Of all sports, none has been so buffeted about by this unselective proliferation, so maligned by contemporary cant, or so indifferently defended as baseball.  Yet, the game somehow remains the same, obdurately unaltered and comparable only with itself.”

With prose like this, how can any reader who enjoys baseball NOT read this man’s work?  It is the perfect book for readers who have not read any of his work to pick up and start enjoying.  If the reader has read this book, it is well worth the time to pick up again, as it is one that I will re-read as the winter continues.

Book Format Read:
Paperback
Buying Links:


Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Blogger Shame challenge

While I try my best to review all books sent to me by the author or publisher there are some that fall through the cracks. I know that these authors have put a lot of time, sweat and sometimes money into getting the book out, so I thank them for their patience when this happens. I found this challenge when receiving an update from another blog I follow, Beyond My Bookshelf. So, in order to finally get to some of those older books, I will join this challenge. The rules are located here:

http://theherdpresents.blogspot.ca/2017/12/blogger-shame-challenge.html

I will start modestly - my goal is to review 24 books that have been in my possession for at least four months. That's two a month...a reasonable goal. When the book qualifies for one that will reduce the number of reviews I owe to these patient authors or publishers, I will post this picture.  Being a cat lover, that helps as well!  Thanks to The Herd Presents for setting this up.



Monday, January 1, 2018

First review of 2018 - "The Art of the Dealers"

Happy New Year!  2018 is looking like it will be another great year for sports books and the first review of the year is setting that tone.  Since the premier sporting event on New Years Day is the NHL Winter Classic, it is only appropriate to review a great hockey book to start 2018.  This book raking the top 50 general managers in NHL history is a great book and I owe a huge thank you to author Matthew DiBiase for sending me a copy.  Here is my review of "The Art of the Dealers."


Title/Author:
The Art of the Dealers: The NHL’s Greatest Managers” by Matthew DiBiase
Tags:
Ice Hockey, professional, management, list
Publish date:
November 12, 2017

Length:
274 pages

Rating: 
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
Review:
In his first book, “Bench Bosses”, author Matthew DiBiase broke ground by ranking hockey coaches using a metrical system, the first of its kind. He now follows up that excellent work by doing the same thing with NHL general managers (GMs) in “The Art of the Dealers.”  This is also a groundbreaking work as it is the first book that ranks GMs in any of the four major professional sports in North America (baseball, basketball, football and hockey). 

Like “Bench Bosses”, “The Art of the Dealers” incorporates a system that at its core, is a simple concept.  A GM earns points for positive accomplishments that his team achieves, such as a winning record, a Stanley Cup championship, or playoff appearances.  The GM loses points for negative occurrences such as missing the playoffs or a losing season. DiBiase, through extensive research, took the records of every man who has served as a GM in the 100 years of the NHL and ranked them based on this system, featuring the top 50 in the book.

The book starts with the highest rated GM and has narratives on each of the top 50. No spoilers in this review, so there will be no names of these 50 men listed. There are some surprises, in not only who is and isn’t included but also at some of the rankings.  This is because a GM’s entire career is used to determine the total point value he earns. Some GMs of very successful teams started or ended their careers managing teams that weren’t very good, thereby reducing their total value according to the author’s system.  This in turn will result in that GM ranking somewhat lower than some may believe he should be.  Conversely, some GMs who many to believe to not be among the greatest may achieve this ranking because they took over teams that were championship caliber, thereby earning points thanks to the work of their predecessors.

The narratives dive deeper into a GM’s work during his career.  DiBiase writes about each GM’s draft choices and trades, both the good and the not-so-good. While they do not affect the value assigned to the GM, these are very helpful in painting the complete picture of the man’s career.  These make for some entertaining reading.  Because the book covers the entire history of the sport, nearly every star player is mentioned in these accounts.

Two other short sections of the book make it a complete account of how GMs have fared in the league. One is a breakdown of each decade and who were the best GMs during those decades. This made for an interesting comparison – if one wants to know how the best GM’s in the Original Six era compare to the best ones in today’s game, one only needs to read this chapter.  The other section that makes for great reading is about the “heartbreak” GMs – those who have had success by seeing his team make the playoffs at least five consecutive seasons but have not won the Stanley Cup. When reading this, I actually felt sympathy for these men – hopefully those that are still in the game can shed this label soon.

This was a wonderful book to read and one that I will be using for reference again and again. Every hockey fan, not matter what era or team he or she prefers, will want to pick up this book and learn how these GMs were able to build winning hockey teams.

I wish to thank Mr. DiBiase for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Format Read:
Paperback
Buying Links:


Saturday, December 30, 2017

Final review of 2017 - "Present at the Creation"

For the last review of 2017, I went to a memoir of a former NFL scout and general manager with some famous genes.  I didn't know too much about Upton Bell's career in the NFL but I did know that he was the son of former commissioner Bert Bell.  His memoir is one of the best football books I have read.  Here is my review of "Present at the Creation."


Title/Author:
Present at the Creation: My Life in the NFL and the Rise of America’s Game” by Upton Bell with Ron Borges
Tags:
Football (American), professional, memoir, Colts, Patriots
Publish date:
November 1, 2017

Length:
416 pages

Rating: 
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
Review:
To say that Upton Bell is a football lifer would be an understatement.  He is the son of former NFL commissioner Bert Bell, the man many consider to be the one who ushered professional football into the modern age.  He saw his father die in the stands at a football game. From that heartbreaking moment, he became a scout and general manager in the league.  His stories about those times and more are captured in this wonderful memoir co-written with Ron Borges.

Upton Bell was one to let his opinions be known when he was a scout for the Baltimore Colts and he pulls no punches in this book either.  The chapters on who he believes are the greatest coaches and greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL were fantastic. He is fair and bases his opinions on the eras that the men played or coached the game.  He took into account how much different the game is today than it was in the 1960’s when he was scouting for the Colts or in the early 1970’s when he was the general manager of the New England Patriots. I won’t give any spoilers away for his top ten in either category, but they won’t come as a surprise and both cover a wide time frame.

The stories he shares about his scouting days are excellent as well. They not only entertain the reader, but also illustrate how different the profession was back then compared to today. There were no combines, televised college drafts or social media at the time, so scouts had to rely on their eyes and ears to find talent. Bell was considered one of the best in the game. The reader will learn much about scouting and also about running a football team.  This is both as a general manager and also as an owner, as Bell was also the owner of the Charlotte Hornets of the ill-fated World Football League in 1974-75.

Of course, Bell’s life outside of football, including his post-football media career, are told in the book as well.  But the knowledge of the game, his connections to so many people inside the game and his experience all make for a book that every football fan will want to read.  It doesn’t matter if the reader prefers the more physical football of the 1960’s or the sport today which encourages the passing game. This book is certain to be enjoyed by fans of all stripes.

I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.


Book Format Read:
Hardcover
Buying Links: