Review: “Noble House” by James Clavell (audiobook edition)

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It’s 1963 and there is a new Tai-Pan at the head of Struan’s trading company. From the very beginning it is clear that big change is coming. The Noble House is in deep financial trouble and is looking antequainted – its fixation with its own past is very much in evidence. Business is brutal, with rivals old and new – they are out to destroy the Noble House, and look more than capable.

There is a real sense of tension in the air – who will get the upper hand in the games of ego, suspicion, business, power, sex?

Clavell’s earlier book Tai-Pan forms the history that this book is built upon, but it is utterly dwarfed by this massive, amazing story.  Although Tai-Pan is good, in comparison with Noble House it becomes a nice little story about smugglers and their minor feuds.  If you are serious about getting the most out of Noble House then it is essential background material.

To put the book’s timing into some kind of context – it is set over the course of a week in August 1963 – this is the year that Kim Philby (a powerful British spy) defects to Russia, Chairman Mao is in power in China, the Vietnam war is on and JFK is assassinated.  Such specific timing means that the story has not aged.

Noble House is truly epic and in the beginning it builds layer upon layer of plot.  This huge book – my paperback copy stretches to over 1400 pages, 2 inches thick – is an incredible achievement in storytelling.  Over the last five years I have tried to read the book twice, each time getting about 300 pages in before I have had to stop due to lack of time.  This time I have listened to the story as an audiobook, and at 50+ hours it is a big commitment.

This version of the audiobook is a new recording from 2015 – before then there was a version from about 20 years ago which is basically unavailable.  The narrator is truly excellent, an upper class English accent when telling the story, able to imbue each individual character with a different voice – although he stuggles slightly when tackling a number of Scottish accents.  Still, it is a consistantly impressive job, which is a blessing given that you are spending so much time with his voice in your head…

It is hard to express how much I have enjoyed reading this book.  This is powerhouse storytelling by a master, without a wasted sentence, and at the end you have a desire for it to keep going.  If what you are looking for is an all-encompassing story that you can live in, then look no further.

 

Film: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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I managed to go into the new Star Wars film without having seen anything apart from the very first trailer and having heard nothing about the plot.  I keep hearing that the film is making serious amounts of money and I’m not surprised – I saw the film a couple of weeks after release and the 9am weekday showing I went to was at least 3/4 full.  My local cinema still has 29 showings a day…

Expectations are very high for this film and for the most part it manages to meet them.  This is easily the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back (although some may say that the competition is not up to much…).  The film goes back to the “beat-up” universe of the original trilogy and it looks great – even though I only saw it in 2D. 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.

The new cast members are good and they bring a good dose of humour to the story even if their characters are not fully fleshed out.  It’s good to see the old-timers back on the screen.

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.  That’s not to say that the story doesn’t have its killer twists.

This is a great film.  You cannot deny that there is still a certain magic when the film starts, the yellow plot synopsis disappearing into the far reaches of space whilst the main title music blasts out.  Experiencing that on a big screen still gives me the tingles…

Mini review: “Ringworld” by Larry Niven (audiobook version)

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Getting to read this book has been a bit of a journey.  I’ve wanted to read it for a while but I had heard that it was better to get an introduction to Larry Niven’s sci-fi universe called “known space” before starting it, so I did just that.  I read two books of short stories that established some of the principles that underpin the universe: Neutron Star and Tales of Known Space.

If you are sufficiently inspired to read Ringworld then I suggest you do the same.  With that background I was able to go into the story with a knowledge of one of the main characters, the other alien species and why the task they set out to achieve was worthwhile and challenging.

In Niven’s writing I do struggle to picture some scenes and I was tempted to stop reading at points as I could not piece together everything that was being portrayed.  What stopped me was an appreciation of the work that has been put into the creation of the universe and the detail into which the author has gone to figure out all the aspects that make the Ringworld viable and real.

Part of my problem is the smutty way in which he deals with sex in the book – I feel that it cheapens the overall story but at the same time the principals of human sexual and emotional relations are somewhat integral to the storyline.  My guess is that this reflects the time when the book was written – at the beginning of the 1970s.  It’s a shame as it makes the book feel dated to a degree, whereas the science in the sci-fi still rings true.

The narration of the audiobook is uninspiring and I thought I would get more out of the story if I just read the book.  However, if I waited until I had the time to sit down and read the book it would never have been read in the first place, so it was a compromise.

Despite these reservations, overall I was impressed by the book.

There is one more of Niven’s books set in known space that I intend to read – Protector – that looks at the race that built the Ringworld.  I hear it’s good.  After that, my journey through Niven’s vast universe and imagination will have come to an end.

Also see:

• The Guardian: Back to the Hugos: Ringworld by Larry Niven

Mini review: “Tales of Known Space” by Larry Niven

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This is the second Larry Niven book I’ve read as I work towards his award-winning science fiction story “Ringworld”.  This, like the first book Neutron Star, is a collection of short stories set in the universe he created called “Known Space”.

My ventures into Known Space at this stage are only to provide some background before reading Ringworld, so I’m not reading every story.  I concentrated on the stories recommended here.  This book starts with an introduction by the author who admits that some of the other stories are not his best, so I feel confident in my decision.

Here is the rundown:

The Jigsaw Man: an interesting idea is highlighted in this story – that some people can extend their lifespans by using replacement organs.  These organs come from executed criminals.  This leads to a change in how society deals with sentencing criminals…

The Warriors: mankind’s first contact with a race of aliens from the Kzinti Empire.  The Man-Kzin wars appear to be significant in the history of Known Space.

There Is A Tide: the first story to feature Louis Wu, one of the main characters in Ringworld.

The Borderland of Sol: this is another Beowulf Shaeffer story (a character who featured several times in Neutron Star), and the best so far.  This is an excellent story, featuring some great science and a lot of dry humour.

Overall, I feel that these four stories have introduced me to some important ideas and history that will help my understanding when I tackle Ringworld.

One thing to watch out for is that my copy of the book has the cover above but I also have a copy of “Three Books of Known Space” which I bought so that I can read the stories “World of Ptavvs” and “A Gift from Earth”.  It contains a version of “Tales of Known Space” but it is missing the story The Borderland of Sol.  I don’t know why this differs but you can find The Borderland of Sol in the book Crashlander, the collected stories of Beowulf Shaeffer.  It is well worth tracking down for that alone – but also be aware that if you have read the short story collection Neutron Star you will have read the majority of the Crashlander stories.  If in doubt, it is something you can check out.

 

Mini review: “Neutron Star” by Larry Niven

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I’m not a big reader of science fiction (the last books were the excellent Ender’s Game and Hugh Howey’s Wool) but I have been thinking of reading Larry Niven’s Ringworld for a while.  A little research online showed people recommended reading the short story collection called “Neutron Star” before tackling the main book – it would provide some background to the main characters and alien races that appear.  It is out of print but I easily found a copy on Amazon.

Overall the short stories do a very good job at building the quirky, bizarre universe.  We get introduced to Niven’s principal character (at least so far) Beowulf Shaeffer, who features in four of the stories.  He is an alien pilot who cannot hold on to money, gets into a lot of adventures, has a nice line in dry humour and discovers a crucial fact about the galaxy.  There are also a number of distinctive alien races and worlds.

The collection is not without its faults.  One thing about the aliens for me is that they are described in detail but I have trouble picturing them. Also, as the book goes on the stories get longer and the final Beowulf instalment is just an adventure that does not reveal much more about Niven’s creation called “known space”.  I also skipped one story, “The Ethics of Madness” as it apparently doesn’t fit properly within the universe.

Despite these points, it looks like I’m going to be living in known space for a while yet.  Although I do not intend on reading everything in the series, there are some more short stories and another book to investigate before arriving at Ringworld.  I hope it is worth the journey – with Neutron Star it’s off to a good start.

If you are interested in coming along for the ride then there are a few resources I found useful:

 

Mini review: “Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton (audiobook version)

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When the film originally came out it blew most people away with its realistic dino special effects.  Straight after seeing it I read the book and enjoyed it immensely.  This audiobook is a recent 2015 release marking the book’s 25th anniversary and it doesn’t disappoint.

It is a reminder that the book is very well written, one of the best techno-thrillers ever.

The narrator does an excellent job all round, especially at putting over the tension and the (almost constant) sense of impending danger.

I recommend experiencing this again.  It is up there with The Silence of the Lambs when it comes to being a classic thriller with an audio performance that elevates the story even more.