The End of the Perfect 10, by Dvora Meyers

>> Saturday, April 29, 2017

TITLE: The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics' Top Score - from Nadia to Now
AUTHOR: Dvora Meyers

PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: Touchstone

TYPE: Non fiction

Just in time for the 2016 Olympic Games and the fortieth anniversary of Nadia Comaneci’s “Perfect 10,” an exciting and insightful account of the controversial world of gymnastics, the recent changes of the scoring system, and why those changes will drive American gymnasts to the top of the sport in the twenty-first century.

It was the team finals of women’s gymnastics in the 2012 London Olympics and McKayla Maroney was on top of her game. The sixteen-year-old US gymnast was performing arguably the best vault of all time, launching herself unimaginably high into the air and sticking a flawless landing. But when her score came, many were baffled: 16.233. Three tenths of a point in deductions stood between her and a perfect score. But if that vault wasn’t perfection, what was?

For years, gymnastics was scored on a 10.0 scale. During this era, more than 100 “perfect” scores were awarded in major international competitions. But when the 10.0 scoring system caused major judging controversies at the 2004 Olympics, international elite gymnastics made the switch to the open-ended scoring system it uses today, making perfect scores a thing of the past—and forever altering the sport in the process.

Gymnastics insider Dvora Meyers examines the evolution of elite women’s gymnastics over the last few decades. With insight, flair, and a boundless love for the sport, Meyers answers questions that gymnastics fans have been asking since the last perfect score was handed out over twenty years ago. She reveals why successful female gymnasts are older and more athletic than they have ever been before, how the United States became a gymnastics powerhouse, and what the future of gymnastics will hold.

Bolstered by dozens of exclusive interviews with professionals representing every aspect of the sport, The End of the Perfect 10 explores a crucial change in one of the most popular Olympic sports, and is a captivating account of elite gymnastics’ entry into the uncharted world of imperfection.
I'm a bit of a fair weather gymnastics fan, in that I only watch it when it's on the telly. That basically means that, since I don't pay for any dedicated sports TV channels (I know myself -I wouldn't leave the house on weekends if I had football on TV), I only watch it every 4 years, during the Olympics.

So how would a book that dives into the nitty-gritty of the gymnastics world and organisation work for someone like me? Well, some of it worked really well, some of it not so much.

The first half, which is basically what is described in the subtitle, worked beautifully. Meyers uses the starting point of the marking system to explore the sport and how it's changed over the years. It looks at the issues around having that top end, that perfect 10, it looks at the politics around it and at the drivers for change, it looks at how it did change,and finally it explores what that has meant.

Meyers is very much an insider and seems to be able to talk to absolutely everyone, so her exploration relies heavily on her interviews. That element could have been integrated a little bit better to the text (what we get are extensive quotes, which feels a bit clunky), but it paints a really good picture.

I loved this bit because it allowed me to really understand a lot of things which were vague feelings and impressions until I read this. I started the book thinking that of course the change in systems must have been a good thing, as it promotes increased difficulty and envelope pushing. That has to be a good thing, right? But after watching lots and lots of YouTube videos to actually see the performances Meyers describes (and you really need to read this where you are able to access online videos) I realised that my personal preference actually leans more towards the perfect execution, even if it's of less difficult skills, over something super hard but that doesn't look as perfect. Who knew?

The second half of the book was a lot less interesting to me. Meyers looks at how the US women's gymastics team became what it is today, after the disappointment of the 2000 Olympics. I confess I read the first chapter of that bit, got really bored, and skimmed the rest. I got the gist of it, and that was more than enough for me. There is also a long section about college gymnastics in the US, which I also found less than fascinating. The only chapter I really liked in the second half was one that looked at why some countries have declined so much, as the US have been in the ascendant (the bit about Romania, particularly, was heartbreaking).

Still, this one is worth reading if only for the first half. I'm glad I did, and I wish I'd found it before the Olympics last year.



The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After, by Jenny Colgan

>> Sunday, April 23, 2017

TITLE: The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After (aka The Bookshop on the Corner in the US)
AUTHOR: Jenny Colgan

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary England and Scotland
TYPE: Romance

Nina Redmond is a librarian with a gift for finding the perfect book for her readers. But can she write her own happy-ever-after? In this valentine to readers, librarians, and book-lovers the world over, the New York Times-bestselling author of Little Beach Street Bakery returns with a funny, moving new novel for fans of Meg Donohue, Sophie Kinsella, and Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop.

“Losing myself in Jenny Colgan’s beautiful pages is the most delicious, comforting, satisfying treat I have had in ages.”—Jane Green, New York Times bestselling author of Summer Secrets

Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.

Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling.

From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.
I was hoping to love this. It's very much a wish fulfillment plot, but while I steer far clear of such plots involving "celebrity/rock star/billionaire businessman/other high status man falls for regular girl", as it's not a fantasy of mine, this one hit the target.

Nina is a librarian struggling with what austerity is doing to her work (basically: libraries closing and the authorities focusing on novelty management crap over providing users a good experience). She ends up chucking it all in, buying a large van to turn into a mobile bookshop, and setting up shop in a gorgeous little village in Scotland. After a few small initial difficulties, she lands on her feet. The villagers (both in hers and neighbouring villages) love her and her bookshop van, and she happens to find a wonderful place to live, with a grumpy-but-very-attractive farmer landlord/neighbour.

I did start out loving it all. It was twee (in both content and writing style), and twee is not my thing, but I was reading this during a week work was kicking my arse, so it was just right. Nina was a fun character, the setting was charming, and I loved the different characters in the village. Everything was lovely, everything was charming.

And I suspect if the book had been (a lot) shorter, I would have closed it happy. After a while, either the tweeness escalated beyond what I could tolerate or my patience with it ran out. My happy sighs started turning into "oh, please" and "give me a break". What I had been finding charming started to feel preposterous and silly. There were some very nice moments, but pretty much every time, I felt Colgan just took the cuteness too far.

I was also majorly annoyed by the conclusion to the story of a particular character. So, when she moves to Scotland, Nina meets a young Latvian man called Marek, who's one of the drivers of the train that goes from her area to London. They become friends and meet up regularly. There's quite a bit of attraction which seems reciprocal. In the end, though, he gets deported (!). He's is sent home to Latvia in a plane full of deportees (!!). Yes, when the lawyer Nina asks for help calls the Home Office they say he's going voluntarily (would they even give that sort of detail to a random lawyer?), but the implication is that he would have been deported otherwise. This is not because he's some sort of criminal, or anything like that. It's simply because he's lost his job, as far as I can tell. Eh, Ms Colgan, Latvia is an EU member. Marek (and a full planeload of people!) wouldn't get deported for not having a job. This is set in 2016, not 2020. We EU citizens aren't being deported en masse just yet! This is objectively a minor detail, in the grand scheme of things, but given what's been going on in this country, it made me really angry. The attitude with Marek is very much that he's other, even though he's portrayed as a nice character. Of course he has a wife and kids back in Latvia. That's the way it is with foreigners, they come here to make money, but they don't actually integrate.

Bah, humbug.



The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, by David Goldblatt

>> Friday, April 21, 2017

TITLE: The Games: A Global History of the Olympics
AUTHOR: David Goldblatt

PAGES: 528

TYPE: Non Fiction

The Olympic Games have become the single greatest festival of a universal and cosmopolitan humanity. Seventeen days of sporting competition watched and followed on every continent and in every country on the planet. Simply, the greatest show on earth. Yet when the modern games were inaugurated in Athens in 1896, the founders thought them a "display of manly virtue", an athletic celebration of the kind of amateur gentleman that would rule the world. How was such a ritual invented? Why did it prosper and how has it been so utterly transformed?

In The Games, David Goldblatt - winner of the 2015 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award - takes on a breathtakingly ambitious search for the answers and brilliantly unravels the complex strands of this history. Beginning with the olympics as a sporting side show at the great Worlds Fairs of the Belle Epoque and transformation into a global media spectacular care of Hollywood and the Nazi party, The Games shows how sport and the olympics been a battlefield in the global Cold War, a defining moment for of epoch social and economic change in host cities and countries, and a theatre of resistance for women and athletes colour once excluded from the show.

Illuminated with dazzling vignettes from over a century of olympic completion - this stunningly researched history captures the excitement of sporting brilliance and the kaleidoscopic experience of the Games. It shows us how this sporting spectacle has come to reflect the world we hope to inhabit and the one we actually live in.
I bought this one while in the flush of excitement about the Olympics last year, but surprisingly, I actually read it, even once my enthusiasm had dissipated a fair bit. It wasn't quite what I expected, but in hindsight, it probably worked all the better for it. I was expecting a sort of "greatest hits" structure. Instead, Goldblatt concentrates more on the stuff behind what we see on our tellies.

Yes, Goldblatt does cover the great moments (as the book description puts it: "such seminal moments as Jesse Owens and Hitler at Berlin in 1936, the Black Power salute at Mexico City in 1968, the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, and the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980"), but the real insight is in how he explores different themes, looking at the issues that really made the Olympics what they are. These themes are things such as the organisers' attitudes towards amateurism vs. professionalism and how and why that evolved (oh, the class prejudices!), or the participation of women in the different sports.

The structure is interesting. Goldblatt goes chronologically, through each and every Olympics, but the thematic analysis carries through. He also groups sets of 3 or 4 consecutive Olympic Games and identifies what the themes were that linked them. We have, for instance, "Not the Only Game in Town: The Olympics and Its Challengers in the 1920s" and "Things Fall Apart: Bankruptcy, Boycotts and the End of Amateurism". So it's sort of overarching themes that carry all the way through, and then these mini-themes that characterise different eras. It works beautifully.

I confess I did struggle a bit to get into the book, as the initial sections on the ancient history and the very initial actions that led to the Olympics felt a bit diffuse and not that interesting. But once we got into the Games themselves, things really started moving, and I was gripped.

Also, Goldblatt can definitely write, which to me is just as essential in non-fiction as it is in fiction.



A Great Deliverance, by Elizabeth George

>> Wednesday, April 19, 2017

TITLE: A Great Deliverance
AUTHOR: Elizabeth George

PAGES: 416

SETTING: 1980s England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Inspector Lynley and DS Havers series

To this day, the low, thin wail of an infant can be heard in Keldale's lush green valleys. Three hundred years ago, as legend goes, the frightened Yorkshire villagers smothered a crying babe in Keldale Abbey, where they'd hidden to escape the ravages of Cromwell's raiders.

Now into Keldale's pastoral web of old houses and older secrets comes Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, the eighth earl of Asherton. Along with the redoubtable Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, Lynley has been sent to solve a savage murder that has stunned the peaceful countryside. For fat, unlovely Roberta Teys has been found in her best dress, an axe in her lap, seated in the old stone barn beside her father's headless corpse. Her first and last words were "I did it. And I'm not sorry."

Yet as Lynley and Havers wind their way through Keldale's dark labyrinth of secret scandals and appalling crimes, they uncover a shattering series of revelations that will reverberate through this tranquil English valley—and in their own lives as well.
This was a bit of a trip down memory lane. Elizabeth George was one of the authors I used to read as a teenager in Uruguay. This was some 20 years ago, before I discovered how to buy books online, when I'd constantly haunt the 2 bookstores in Montevideo which carried English-language books (it got to the point where the managers would let me know when a new box of books arrived, and just let me into the back of the shop to open the boxes myself). I would discover an author I liked, more often than not reading a book that was halfway through a series (in the case of Elizabeth George, I'm pretty sure it was For the Sake of Elena), and then just pick up any other book I came across. Probably why I'm a bit obsessive about reading things in order now!

Anyway, I remember really liking George's books, even though I was getting the developments in the personal lives of the detectives (particularly the soap opera that is Inspector Thomas Lynley's love life) in random bits and pieces. I know there are developments in the later books that many readers have not liked (I know several people in the romance blogosphere have even stopped reading the series because of those developments), but I really fancied going back to the early ones, at least, to see whether they still appealed to me.

Backtracking a bit: it's the mid- to late-1980s, and in a small Yorkshire village, pillar of the community William Teys has been found dead in his barn. It's a gruesome sight: his head has been chopped clean off, and he's lying on top of the family dog, whose throat has been slit. His daughter, 19-year-old Roberta, is sitting right next to the headless body, cradling the axe and wearing her Sunday best. All she will say is "I did it. And I'm not sorry."

The whodunnit doesn't seem like much of a mystery, and the regional police don't seem inclined to look any further than Roberta, whom they cart off to a mental hospital to await trial. But two of the senior police officers in the area have quite the history of disagreement, and yet another clash over this case leads to the decision to send someone from Scotland Yard to have another look.

The person chosen is Inspector Thomas Lynley. Lynley is a bit of a golden boy in the Yard, and he also happens to be one of those aristocratic detectives no British author would dare write in a contemporary setting. He's properly aristocratic, being the eighth Earl of Asherton, with such grand trappings as a massive estate in Cornwall and a full-time valet.

For this case, Lynley is paired with DS Barbara Havers. Havers is an officer who has been demoted back to being a beat cop after not being able to get along with (male) partner after (male) partner. The superintendent is still convinced there is something in her, though, so he takes the chance to see if she can work with the man who's her polar oppposite in background (she's proudly working class), personality (she's bitter and truculent; he's got effortless charm) and looks (she's plain and dumpy; he's gorgeous and stylish).

So the book is just as much a mystery as it is about Lynley and Havers slowly starting to get along and becoming real partners. They're far from there by the end of the book, and there are times when they seem like the worst of enemies, but it's clear that there is a germ of real compatibility there and that once they've ironed out the misconceptions, they'll work well together. I really liked this element, particularly because Havers is far from the dutiful working class assistant to the masterful aristocratic sleuth.

The book is also about Lynley and Havers as individuals, and I liked this just as much. We don't get a lot about Havers in this book, beyond her complicated relationship with her parents, which is very different from what it seems at first glance. However, I do remember there's quite a bit more coming. With Lynley, I've mentioned the soap opera love life, and that's definitely there. We first meet him when Havers has to go find him at the wedding of his (former?) best friend, Simon Allcourt-St James, one of the best forensics scientists in the country. So, the drama: Simon was badly injured some years earlier in a car accident where Lynley was driving (drunk, apparently, although I'm not 100% sure if that's true, or just the rumour Havers picked up). His bride? Lynley's former fiancée, Deborah, whom Lynley's still madly in love with. The other character in this quartet, which we will return to in further books, is Lady Helen. She and Lynley are very close friends, and she seems to be in love with him. So yeah, Havers may assume Lynley leads a charmed life, but he's not a happy man. I seem to remember feeling a bit frustrated with this element, after reading several of the books, so it will be interesting to see if reading them in order makes a difference. For now, I'm really intrigued.

I meant to write a short, snappy review, but I'm going on and on and I haven't even got to the mystery yet! Possibly because I'm slightly conflicted about it. On one hand, the investigation is very well done, and I loved getting to know the villagers and finding out their myriad secrets. George excels at creating some quite vivid characters, and I found them all very believable.

On the other hand, if a mystery has to be mysterious, this doesn't quite work. When they came, the revelations about what had happened were not surprising in the least. In fact, I knew exactly what had happened from the start. Every single little clue and puzzle piece, I zeroed in and put it in exactly the right place. Now, it might be that I remembered the plot from when I first read the book, 20 years ago, but I don't think so. I think what's happened is that what would have been unthinkable and shocking back then is sadly all too obvious in these less innocent times (trying not to include spoilers, but seriously, if you have a case where a pillar of the community type seems to have been clearly murdered by his daughter, what possible explanation does your 2017 mind immediately go to?).

That, however, is not necessarily a problem. I felt the characters, setting, and procedural elements were strong enough to support a non-mystery. And as long as you read the book as a historical mystery (yes, I feel old as well thinking of the 80s as 'historical'), and don't expect the detectives to have the same knowledge (particularly about the psychological aspects of a certain issue) as modern-day detectives would have, then the investigation is perfectly satisfying to read.

And if you need some convincing that the 80s were another time, I leave you with this little snippet, which made me smile. This is Havers imagining a typical posh neighbour of Lynley's in Belgravia:

"We're in Belgravia now. Did we mention it? Oh, do stop by for tea! It's nothing much. Just £300,000, but we like to think of it as such an investment. Five rooms. With the sweetest little cobblestone street that you've ever seen."

I wish I could find such investment!



Italian food and the the Persephone myth

>> Wednesday, April 12, 2017

TITLE: A Portrait of Emily Price
AUTHOR: Katherine Reay

Emily is an art restorer who works for an insurance company. On assignment in another city, she meets the Vassallo brothers when her company hires her some workspace in the studio belonging to one of them. But it is other brother, Benito, who captures his attention. Ben is visiting his brother from his hometown in Italy, and Emily finds him as fascinating as he seems to find her. And as they spend time together helping redo his aunt and uncle's restaurant, they fall for each other. But Ben is supposed to return home to Italy in only a couple of weeks...

Unfortunately, this book never really gelled. There's some good stuff, don't get me wrong. I was interested in Emily and her relationship with her family. I was interested in Ben and the hint of family secrets. I was interested in the setup of Emily following Ben to a small town in Italy. What I wasn't really interested in was the romance.

The problem was that Ben didn't work for me as a character at all. I read over half the book, and Reay never succeeded in making him real. It didn't seem to me that she even tried. Ben was this idealised image of a sexy Italian... lots of calling Emily "bella", lots of exuberance, lots of waving arms around when he spoke (with no contractions, of course, which is supposedly adorable). Actually, he seemed a bit like an excitable toddler. There was nothing that made him an individual. When he and Emily started exchanging 'I love you's and decided to marry, my reaction, which I'm guessing was supposed to be 'awww, how romantic!', was more along the lines of 'WTF??'.

Not for me.


TITLE: A Tangled Web
AUTHOR: Mercedes Lackey

This novella, originally published in the Harvest Moon anthology, is part of Lackey's Five Hundred Kingdoms series, which I love. No books in that series have come out since 2011, so I've been hoarding this one. Unfortunately, it was a disappointment.

What I love about this series is the subversive, twisty take on fairy tales, and the very fun way in which Lackey uses the concept of the Tradition, an amorphous force that guides people's actions into paths that fit within the traditional tales of their culture. Lackey has these characters called the Godmothers, who understand the Tradition really well and know just how to manipulate it for the good of the kingdoms they protect.

The problem was, not much of what I like about the series was really present here. Greek mythology instead of fairy tales, fine, no problem with that. But Lackey told the story pretty straight. Apart from bringing in two characters from the previous book, visiting from Norse mythology, the Persephone story proceeded right as is traditional, with very minor changes. There was nothing particularly clever, nothing particularly surprising. The Greek mythology characters felt, well, mythological, in that they were paper thin and had no human personalities, unlike the fairytale characters in previous books. There was also very minor manipulating of the Tradition, all in a way that felt much too easy (and no Godmothers!).

Also, the story felt like it was cut down from a novel-length version. We're moving along fine, at a normal pace, seeing all the scenes we'd expect to see, and then we reach a point where we jump a few months and Lackey has a character go "this has happened, and this, and that, and the other, and we need to deal with it", and off we go again. It didn't fit.

MY GRADE: A C+. This was a bit of a waste of time.


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