Mini review: “The Final Empire (Mistborn Book 1)” by Brandon Sanderson (audiobook version)

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A while back I was in the mood for reading some fantasy (not something that happens very often) and I considered starting Game of Thrones but that seemed like the start of something far too big to be practical – there’s so much of it and ultimately it is unfinished.  I had checked out the first chapter of the audiobook and couldn’t imagine myself listening to the whole book.

So I looked elsewhere and having seen this recommended online I gave it a try.  It is the first book in the “Mistborn” series.

The story involves a plot to bring down the Lord Ruler, the ultimate evil power controlling the Final Empire, thought by many to be an immortal god.  The environment has been ruined, with ash coming down from the sky and mists coming at night.

I think that this is a story aimed at a young adult audience but is a good read for everyone – I certainly enjoyed it.   This is a story that could appeal to people who don’t want their fantasy too violent or graphic (Game of Thrones?) or too filled with dwarves and elves (Lord of the Rings).  Spoiler: there are no dragons.

The author has come up with some good ideas – principally that there is a race of people who have the ability to ingest and “burn” metals to give themselves enhanced physical abilities.  I always think these things sound a bit strange when discussed outside of the world that has been created but the “magic system” is plausible and works well – the details can be found here but don’t rush to read it if you are interested in reading the book.  It won’t spoil anything but the book does a good job of explaining things.

A note on the narration of the audiobook: I had never heard of the narrator (Michael Kramer) before but he does a brilliant, flawless job.  It was a pleasure to listen to. He is a professional audiobook narrator and it shows.  I’m very impressed.  I’ll be looking out for his name in the future.

This is a long book – nearly 25 hours for the audiobook – but the story never lags or seems padded out.  There are another two books after this one (and that is just the first trilogy of the “Mistborn” series) but there does seem to be a lot more story to tell.  I’m sure I’ll return to the series at some point but the next books are even longer than this one so they will have to wait.

Still, this is a slice of fantasy I can recommend.

 

New York 2017: Thomas Hart Benton’s “America Today” Mural at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Fifth Avenue

In March 2017 I made my first visit to New York – a mammoth weekend of exploring, eating and freezing my ass / arse off in temperatures of -6C (wind chill -12C).  A non-stop, full-on joy-fest with my brother that took in a lot of the main sites.

But of everything I saw, one thing stopped me in my tracks.

We went in to the Met museum and whilst exploring the Modern and Contemporary Art section I came across “America Today” by Thomas Hart Benton. I was not familiar with either.

Read more about it here.

If you find yourself in New York, do not miss this mural in particular and the museum in general. Both are superb.

Feast your eyes on the following…

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Film: Rogue One – A Star Wars Story

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When the last Star Wars film – The Force Awakens – was released I wrote this in my review:

It achieves its basic requirement: putting down firm foundations for the several more Star Wars films and spin offs that will be coming our way over the next few years.

I enjoyed the spectacle but I thought the plot was a re-run of previous films:

Don’t expect miracles from the plot – once things get going you do get a real sense of déja-vu.  This is the third time part of this story line has been used in the Star Wars films.  You’d think that the bad guys would have a bit more imagination by now.

Rogue One is the first of a number of spin-off movies, including one due next year that currently goes by the name of “the untitled Han Solo Star Wars movie”.

I’d heard this film was good, as in “it’s good for a spin off”, but I really enjoyed it.  It looks great, it keeps the action flowing and the music clearly takes its cues from the original scores but builds on them well.  It is definitely part of the Star Wars universe.

Most importantly it has a plot. The events of the film provide background to the original Star Wars film and effectively explain that film’s title “A New Hope”.  It’s great to get some new revelations.

If all the Star Wars spin-off “stories” are as good as this one then it bodes well for the future.

 

 

Mini review: “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe

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This is the story of the early (American) pioneers of supersonic flight (breaking the sound barrier) and the space race. And it is astounding.

Early on the book tries to nail what it was in the personalities of the men – test pilots from the Navy and Air Force – who risked their lives to go faster or higher than the others, to prove to the world that they were one of the special few at the top of their game. They had the skills, the ego, the guts… the right stuff.

As the book progresses it changes from expressing the concepts and ideas as to what constitutes the Right Stuff to a very character-driven history, and it definitely gets better as it goes along.  The first few chapters are written very much in the Tom Wolfe style – with lots of exclamation! – and quite a lot of repetition.  The repetition used for stylistic effect works well.  The repetition to ram an idea down your throat, not so much.

But then the story starts to blossom, the forcefulness of the writing style fades into the background and you get enveloped in the feel of the events.  It is like you are being given privileged access to a special time and place; you are invited to participate in the thrill of being on the cutting edge.  You are getting insight into achievements that will change history and the way that people look at the world.

The narrative focuses very much on the people involved but undeniably the two stars are ace pilot Chuck Yeager and the astronaut John Glenn.  It was amazing how little I knew about the rest of the people, in particular the other 6 astronauts chosen to take part in the early space missions.  I kept myself away from Wikipedia so that their stories were new to me, but these are names that have faded in the collective memory. How?

By the end of the book I was enthralled, and when I finished I had to spend a little time just thinking about the scale of the achievements involved and the sheer joyous ride I had been on.  I’m sure there are several excellent and more conventional histories of the space race, but Tom Wolfe has pulled off something very special here.  He has managed to bring out the emotion and the pure magic of the events.

 

 

Mini review: “Slow Horses” by Mick Herron (audiobook version)

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In the British secret service someone qualifies as a “slow horse” if they have messed up in some way.  They have failed whilst on duty or possess some frowned-upon character flaw and have been exiled to Slough House in London.  No glittering career, just dead-end jobs to do.  The prospect of carrying out a real operation is a pipe-dream.  Everyone has their own secret, their own reason for being there.

Things change when a young man is kidnapped and his captors threaten to behead him live on the internet.  The slow horses get pulled into the situation and called to action, but all is not as it seems.

I came across this book by chance when Amazon was selling it cheaply.  The reviews were good and the associated audiobook was also on special offer, so I gave it a go.

I’m glad I did.  This is a quite a short, character-driven story and weaved through the whole thing is a seam of black humour and a healthy disrespect for those in power.  I’m a big fan of Len Deighton and in particular his stories featuring weathered British spy Bernard Samson.  If you like those you will feel right at home here.

With regard to the narration of the audiobook, at first I thought that the narrator was a bit dour but after a while you realise that this is perfect for the tone of the story.  The humour comes over well, different accents are handled well and each character has their own voice.  He can also ramp up the pace when necessary, something done in a seamless manner.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the book and the detailed characters.  There are another couple of books in the series, and I’ll definitely be back.

 

 

Mini review: “Eye of the Needle” by Ken Follett

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This is the story of a German spy during the Second World War who discovers a secret plan by the British government to wrong-foot the Germans into thinking that the operation to liberate France and north-west Europe would land at Calais rather than Normandy.  The story itself is fiction but the plans were real, giving this a solid grounding in fact.

The book benefits from being relatively short and keeping the pace up all the way through.  It features a strong female character, which is refreshing.

I had heard that this is one of the great spy stories, up there with The Day of the Jackal.  I don’t think it comes close but it is a good thriller.

 

 

Mini review: “Spy Games” by Adam Brookes (audiobook version)

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This is the second book featuring a British journalist getting mixed up with the UK secret service.  I was not a big fan of the first (audio)book, Night Heron, mainly as a result of a rather bland reading by the narrator.

This is much better, with a story that covers a lot of ground – China, Ethiopia, Thailand.  A bitter rivalry between two influential Chinese families has international consequences.

The plot starts off broad, introducing a number of characters, but gradually becomes more focused until the core of the story reveals itself.  The pressure is kept up all the way through the book and the story is well paced.  You do not have to have read the first book.

In relation to the audiobook in particular, there is a different narrator this time and he does a really good job.  He handles accents well, so that each character is an individual and he puts over the tension and emotion of the story.

This is a very good book.  You want to keep reading – it’s addictive stuff.  If you like spy stories this comes highly recommended.