November 2021 reads

This month, I’ve once again gone through the requisite trio of reads. As with the last catalogue, there are two nonfiction titles and one novel. Jay Williams’s moving autobiography was first. I read this ebook as his story intrigued me. We follow him through his early days, his triumphs at Duke University, and as a member of the Chicago Bulls. We witness how to battle adversity. Next up was Matthew Reilly’s latest effort. The One Impossible Labyrinth concludes his seven-part Jack West Jr. series. Sixteen years since the legend began, the volume is another page turner. The Master, Roger Federer’s bestselling biography, rounds out the trio. The latter, a challenging but worthwhile portrait, has been trending on the Best Sellers list.

Life is Not an Accident (Jay Williams). I stumbled upon this book while looking out for my next read. I am familiar with this ballplayer. I remember his lone season with the Bulls, where they were among the league’s cellar dwellers. He was the second overall pick in 2003, after a stellar three-year stint at Duke. As a sophomore in 2002, he led the Blue Devils to the national title. There is a lot of basketball here but Life is not just a book about jump shots. He talks about his upbringing in New Jersey, where soccer was his first love. As an only child, he lived in a middle class neighbourhood but his parents didn’t always get along. He chronicles his struggles as a black teenager in a mostly white private school. He details about how he was conflicted and felt caught between two worlds. 

He shares his disappointment when his talent was under-appreciated. His AAU days are likewise foregrounded, where he played with future NBAers. Initially suiting up as a forward/guard, he figured out that he had to be a passer. Jay underscores the whole college recruitment frenzy, where Duke head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, made no false pretences. He had to make big adjustments as a freshman, but by his second year, he was the top player in the nation. He was torn between declaring for the NBA draft or returning to Duke. The promise of finishing his college degree ultimately led him to return.   

By now, avid hoops fans would’ve heard about the accident that prematurely ended his stint in the league. We read through the six operations, the rehab, and the despondency. We ponder the what-ifs as Williams re-learns most things. We see him squirm through his oxycontin addiction and his personal fight with self-pity. We glean that we must make the most of our time. As the author writes: ‘I had just been too obsessed with trying to renew what I’d lost instead of focusing on what I’d found.’ 

When Williams recovered, he had try-outs with NBA teams and was on the Nets’ preseason roster. However, Williams’ body seemed incredibly brittle and teams were wary of his health. He played in the D-league under Dennis Johnson. A few months later, his mentor passed away. This was the final straw in a long list of mishaps for Williams. He now works as a broadcaster for college ballgames. He still bears the battle scars and likewise despises others’ pity. He wants to be remembered more than just another dumb jock. He heard from naysayers that, at 31, he was too young to tell his story. Yet he brings forward a unique if cautionary tale. He ends on a positive note: ‘The past should be left in the past or it can steal your future. Live life for what today can bring and not what yesterday has taken.’

Rating: 4.45/5

The One Impossible Labyrinth (Reilly). Released mid-October, I had been looking forward to this finale. I’ve read the last six of the seven-part run. The prior volume saw Jack and his team entering the labyrinth in a race to save the universe. Their toughest opponent, the nefarious Sphinx, had put millions of people around the globe to sleep. He craves to rule the world with an iron fist. He was the first to ‘enter the dragon’ and has lots of help, including Cardinal Mendoza, a high-ranking Catholic official. Second in line was Dion DeSaxe, heir apparent to the underworld. He was the former fling of Lily, who is Jack’s adopted daughter. Up next was Brother Ezekiel with his woman-hating Order of the Omega. General Rastor, closely follows him. The latter was just as brutal as Sphinx. Rastor is different since he wants the world to end, as opposed to the others.

The book is full of twists, turns, and swashbuckling action, just as you’d expect from a writer who has built a career doing so. There were a few instances where you thought characters were finished, only for them to turn the tables and defy the odds. Reilly also uses lots of mythology, including the Theseus legend. The shiny albeit deadly orbs in the tunnel seem straight out of a Rowling book. Reilly even puts his spin on the fable of Troy. He builds sprawling underground cities that rise while playing the combatants in a fight for the ages. As usual, there is the requisite back stories – including a trip to the Gulf War where Jack saves Sky Monster’s skin from oblivion. 

True to the title, he dedicates a chunk of the book to a rotating, impenetrable maze. This will test  the team’s wits more than ever before. The challenges include goldmen, an improvement over the bronze- and silvermen from the prior instalment. Traversing the tunnels would take days and make Jack depleted. Towards the end, Jack running out of options was apparent. He was out of a team and out of energy. Reilly shows us what one’s fighting spirit can do in the direst moments. The use of the jet carrier and oil rig (and their ensuing destruction) was another rabbit out of the hat. 

There were so many instances where Sphinx was meters away from the prize, only for his plans to be thwarted. When the baddie got his comeuppance, Reilly had the perfect metaphor: ‘He’d been turned into a living Picasso painting.’ Like the rest of its brethren, Labyrinth was very easy to read. Short sections, clear prose, and an interesting plot ensured that cresting the novel would only take a few days if you were invested. After sixteen years of hopscotching the planet, deciphering riddles, and making history, this is a fitting conclusion to a much-loved series.

Rating: 4.8/5

The Master: The Brilliant Career of Roger Federer (Christopher Clarey). I first heard about this text in August. I seriously considered purchasing the paperback for nineteen bucks but decided that, for a one-time read, borrowing a copy was the way to go. Upon perusing the item, I am convinced that this was the right decision. The book reminded me of Halberstam’s Breaks, the preeminent basketball book: they are both rather technical. While Labyrinth could be summited in a few days, Clarey’s book is an acquired taste. Master has sixteen lengthy chapters, which have no subsections for the most part. Each instalment takes place in a different setting, providing snapshots of the key happenings in Roger’s life.

Unbeknownst to many, Federer started out as a fiery character. This is in stark contrast to the suave, ice-cool temperament that has come to define him. In the beginning, he lost a lot of matches and first-round exits were the norm. He was also initially a soccer player before pursuing tennis alone at age twelve. His one-handed backhand, one of his signature shots, was still pretty gung-ho in his adolescence. He would zap them all over the place as an amateur. An Australian, the late Peter Carter, was one of his early mentors. As a teener, he signed up with Nike. 

He would defeat his idol, Pete Sampras, at Wimbledon in 2001. Not until 2003, when he won the All-England title, would he make his breakthrough. By then, early rivals such as Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, had already won majors. Master tackles his one-sided rivalry with Andy Roddick. His victory at the 2009 French Open is likewise highlighted, the win that gave him a career grand slam. On several occasions, Clarey foregrounds Fed’s impeccable timing. Furthermore, the author underscores Roger’s appreciation of history and the tennis greats who have come before him. Like Breaks, this text goes behind the scenes not just from a technical standpoint but also in other facets of the game. The writer gives considerable space to Roger’s world, including his family, his team, his management, and the tour at large. He name-drops ball-strikers, both active and retired, stars and regulars.

More importantly, Clarey provides detailed accounts of Fed’s greatest matches. Among them are his finals losses at Wimbledon in 2008 and 2019. The legend’s rivalries are likewise dissected, including those against Rafa and Djokovic. The author emphasises that Roger is a master at compartmentalising and moving on. He does not let his failures define himself; he will win some and others will get away. Apart from this, Fed always has a packed schedule but he is extremely organised. Despite his crammed load, he always finds a way to connect with fans and the like. 

He is not picky when it comes to the locations. He has travelled the world for tennis and is a true global ambassador of the sport. Though he’s competed for over twenty years, he has managed to remain hale through the years. His tour victories in over four decades have exhibited Fed’s staying power. Based on others’ opinions, I reckon that this book is a tad overrated. Indeed, there are a few foreign phrases that impact on Master’s readability. While this is not the easiest perusal, I believe that with the detail supplied, it should stand as Roger’s definitive biography.

Rating: 4.29/5

Red Sea
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