Mini review: “Station Eleven” by Emily St John Mandel (audiobook version)

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I found this book when it came up as an Amazon recommendation.  I went with it because it had some amazing reviews.  I’m glad I did.

This is the story of a future where the majority of mankind was killed off over the course of a few weeks by a supremely virulent virus and the world now exists without electricity or fuel.  A few survivors have formed a group that travels around part of North America performing classical music and Shakespeare plays.  The main characters are all linked in some way to an actor who dies on stage one night shortly before the virus hit – how they are related is revealed over time.  The book moves between the characters and jumps back and forward in time.

I wondered at first if the book deserved all the praise but overall it does leave you looking at your surroundings in a new way, appreciating what we have achieved as a human race and thinking about all the things we take for granted.

This dystopian premise might put some people off as it is generally viewed as some sub-genre of science fiction (indeed, the book has won this year’s Arthur C Clarke award for best sci-fi novel of the year) but don’t ignore it just yet.  This is far from your typical science fiction.

I mostly listen to audiobooks these days but I actually started reading this story in “proper” book form before switching to audio.  One thing that I find interesting when comparing the two is that reading the book at first seemed to have more impact.  The author is very good at going along telling an interesting story and then out of the blue delivering a devastating line or plot twist that will influence all that follows.  For me, these lines had more impact when I was reading them rather than listening to them.

What is strange, then, is that I have nothing bad to say about the narration.  The English narrator does a good job and tackles American accents with aplomb.  There has obviously been a decision to tell the story in a slower, more deliberate way but this is successful and matches the story well.

This book is dystopian fiction but it’s possible that something like this could happen.  Earlier this year there was ebola and recently there has been MERS.  I keep a close eye on the news but had not heard about about this latest breakout – in fact I had not heard of Middle East respiratory syndrome at all.  This happened in South Korea but originated with a traveller returning to the country from Qatar.  Looking it up I found on The Guardian website (a bastion of responsible reporting):

• Hong Kong tests two people for Mers as alarm over virus grows

Middle East respiratory syndrome cases broken down by country

• Should I worry about catching Mers?

As I write, the first two articles were written in the last couple of days.  The last one was written in May 2014.  Under the headline it states: “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome has no known cure and kills around a third of those who contract it”.

I suppose it wouldn’t take much for the next syndrome to be a lot more virulent and spread much quicker.  Maybe the world is doomed after all…

… in which case you could do a lot worse than spend some of your time reading this book.

“Winter (A Berlin Family 1899 – 1945)” by Len Deighton coming out as audiobook in February 2016

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I’ve just found out that “Winter (A Berlin Family 1899 – 1945)” by Len Deighton is being released as an audiobook in February 2016.

I’m currently reading the book and it is the best of the books related to his character of Bernard Samson and the “Game, Set and Match” and “Hook, Line and Sinker” trilogies.  There is something rich and rewarding about the story but I will now stop and wait.

I am a little concerned about how this is going to turn out.  This story is on a bigger scale than the other Samson books, spanning nearly half a century and featuring many characters.  I wonder if it would over-stretch a single narrator.  I have been pleased with the narrator of the Samson books but the other Deighton audiobook of this scope – Bomber – suffered from a narrator who spoke…too…slowly and could not cope with the number of characters.  Maybe a cast of narrators would be better, but this is unlikely.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed.  In the meantime there is Spy Sinker – the last book in the “Hook, Line and Sinker” trilogy.

Also see…

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Berlin Game” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Mexico Set” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “London Match” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Spy Hook” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Spy Line” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Len Deighton books (including my reviews of the Deighton books when I read them for the first time)

• Harper Collins: Winter: A Berlin Family (1899–1945) (audiobook)

Mini review: “Night Heron” by Adam Brookes (audiobook version)

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This is the story, set in China, of a prisoner who escapes and wants to sell secrets to the British government, for whom he worked as a spy many years before.  I wanted to like this book more but something just has not clicked.  Nothing stood out as exceptional – the story is unremarkable, the characters are not bestowed with any real warmth.

I think it is partly to do with the audiobook narration – the actor Jason Isaacs does a professional job but it can become slightly monotonous.  Several of the British characters sound similar.  This has led me to lose track at some points of details, of which character said what.

Overall, I was disappointed.

Mini review: “Spy Line” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

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This is the middle book in the second of Len Deighton’s trilogies featuring weathered English spy Bernard Samson, set a few years after the end of the Game, Set and Match series.

As I’ve mentioned in reviews of earlier books in the series, I first read these stories over a decade ago.  It surprises me how little I actually remembered about the plot of this one considering that this brings the story (so far) to a chronological end.  The final book in the series takes a look back at the whole story from a different point of view.

Spy Line takes the main twist introduced in the previous book, Spy Hook, and runs with it.  There are a number of subplots and characters introduced that at first seem surplus to requirements but ultimately all play a role in how the storyline comes to a close.  I have to deliberately be a bit vague at this stage, but I can say that the story gets going quickly and maintains the pace all the way through.  In my first review of this book (see the Len Deighton books page) I wrote about “a distinct feeling of melancholy”, and although older characters are reaching the end of their days and their influence is on the wane, I didn’t get that sense so much this time.

The narration of the audiobook is as excellent as ever, although I must say that some of the American accents do tend to sound similar.

I remember being blown away by Spy Sinker, the last book in the trilogy.  It comes out in under two months so my little project of listening to the new audiobook versions of these stories will soon be at an end…

Also see…

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Berlin Game” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Mexico Set” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “London Match” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Spy Hook” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Len Deighton books (including my original review of Spy Line)

• Harper Collins: Len Deighton audiobooks

Mini review: “The Establishment: And how they get away with it” by Owen Jones (audiobook version)

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This is a brilliant book that does not pull any punches.  To be fair, you can pretty much tell how much you are going to appreciate the book just by reading the title.  However, don’t think that the author just picks on the Tory party – the Labour party and all politicians in general come into the firing line, over a long period of time.

Points raised include:

• the impact of intrinsic government relationships with the media, the police, big business, the financial world

• how risk and costs remain with the state whilst profit heads towards the private sector

• the different ways in which the rich and poor in society are treated by government

• the close ties between politicians in government and right-wing think-tanks that allow ideas to be floated that politicians could not raise themselves without risking the wrath of the people (eg privatisation of the NHS).  These policy ideas – if taken up by politicians – would just happen to nicely benefit the backers of the think-tanks.  It is hard to determine the precise motives of these think-tanks as they do not widely publicise where their funding comes from.  Despite that it is clear that a core principle is to roll back the role of the state

• the sense of entitlement felt by members of the Establishment and how politicians felt free to fiddle expenses, as if they are envious of the people who have become rich on the back of the policies they have introduced.

A note about the narration of the audiobook version: in general this is very well read, adding just the right amount of vitriol when necessary but I found it a bit irritating how the narrator tries to differentiate the written text and quotes.  Quotes from men are all in the same gruff voice and he manages women with only moderate success.  To throw in some inconsistency he tries the odd impression of some of the more well known characters in the book and attempts some foreign accents.

As I write this it is the day after the 2015 UK General Election.  The expected hung parliament / coalition government outcome did not come about – instead the Conservatives managed to win a majority.  The Scottish National Party won nearly every seat in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats were nearly wiped off the political map despite being the minor partner in the previous coalition government and holding a number of the Cabinet ministerial positions.  The Labour and Lib Dem leaders resigned this morning, as did the leader of the UK Independence Party.  I mention this because the result must surely make the Establishment believe that they now have no opposition, that they are invincible.  The outcome of the election is that a lot of the people who actually have experience of running the country or holding high-ranking positions in the opposition are no longer around.  A new, more inexperienced generation of politicians will now be in power.  I suspect that the Establishment will be able to run rings around this fledgling bunch and that ties to the Conservative government will only get stronger.

The bottom line: if you live in the UK you should read this book.

Also…

• The Guardian: Owen Jones

• The Guardian: “The case for cuts was a lie. Why does Britain still believe it?  The austerity delusion” by Paul Krugman

• Spare Cycles: Review: Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World (Audiobook)

• The Guardian: General Election 2015