Category: Books

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: “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.

 

 

Mini review: “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu

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I’m not a big reader of science fiction but I started to dabble more in the genre at the end of last year (2015) when I tackled some Larry Niven (see Ringworld, Tales of Known Space and Neutron Star).  Before that there was Ender’s Game and Hugh Howey’s Wool, but that’s about it.

I’m not even sure how I came about this book. The main attractions were that it was a Hugo prize winner and the fact that the writer was Chinese. I’d also heard that this was the first part of a trilogy and the second book was better than this one.  So my expectations were high but tempered.

This is a “first contact” story, ie contact – or at least communication – between humans and an alien race.  It is a hard science fiction story, but one that doesn’t read as science fiction for a large part of the book.  This may put off some sci-fi fans, but as the book goes on the story arc moves from history > technology > science > startling premise and ideas.

In fact the end of the book is astounding.  I will be reading the sequel (The Dark Forest) at some point.

Something to note in relation to the audiobook version: the translation of the book is good – at least it read well in English, dealing impressively with some big ideas at the end – but some elements of the early story did not make sense.  I switched to the (printed) book and found that there were a number of notes from the translator which explained some of the meaning behind certain words or phrases.   So as much as I like audiobooks this time I recommend reading the book itself, simply for the extra context that it brings.

 

Mini review: “The Rise of the Robots” by Martin Ford (audiobook version)

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The impact that exponential technological advance will have on the future of the economy really came into focus for me five years ago when I read “Race Against The Machine” and Martin Ford’s first book “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future” in quick succession.  The two were both were very cheap, unprofessional looking e-books and the writing could be improved.  They were pedalling ideas that were outside of mainstream thinking.  People where just coming to terms with the bombshell that was the Great Recession.

Fast-forward to today and the ideas have come to the attention of the general public.  Back then we had a chess champion beaten by brute-force computing and IBM’s Watson beating humans at a quiz show. Now we have self driving cars, a Go champion beaten by a computer program using machine learning and dire warnings from important figures in science and technology warning of the risks of artificial intelligence to the future of the human race.

Also, in the meantime both books have had an upgrade and big improvements in quality.  “Race Against The Machine” became “The Second Machine Age” and “The Lights in the Tunnel” became “The Rise of the Robots”.

Although the message is largely the same as the earlier book, the author’s writing is much improved, the arguments are clear and supported with data, there is little repetition in subject matter and the book is kept short (350 pages / 10 hours).

This book won the prize for Best Business Book of the Year 2015 and it is easy to see why.  However, I do wonder – as this book has come to the attention of the business community – whether a large part of the book’s audience will actually take heed of what is being said especially in regard to the issues of  income inequality and productivity if large scale  automation is undertaken. They certainly cannot now say that they have not been warned.  Will business leaders believe that the message applies to others but not to themselves?

A note on the narration as I listened to the audiobook version: sometimes these business books end up being read by a default-American-voice which can sound very bland and unenthusiastic.   In the worst cases, this can actively detract from the content of the book (The Second Machine Age is a victim in this regard).  When I heard the voice of the narrator for this book I was initially concerned.  In the end Jeff Cummins does a good job, adding intonation and a relaxed tone which matches the style of the text.

In conclusion, this book should be read by everyone.  I would go as far as saying that the book is an addictive read (or listen).  If you have not thought about the subject before, it will really give you something to think about.  You may be persuaded at least that the author has a point or you may be convinced he is right.  He sounds right to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mini review: “Trap for Cinderella” by Sebastien Japrisot

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I was introduced to the author Sebastien Japrisot at school when I had to read his book L’été meurtrier (One Deadly Summer) in my French class.  I loved it, and it sure as hell beat L’étranger by Albert Camus.

Over the years I have collected a few more books by Japrisot on the basis that the plots of his crime stories always sound so cunning.  These days I still like the idea of reading the original French versions but when it comes down to it I just can’t bring myself to do it.  At some point I might appreciate the challenge but not … quite … yet.

 So when I was drawn towards Piège pour Cendrillon I turned instead to the English translation: Trap for Cinderella.  Here are some of the details from the back of the book:

One night on the French Riviera fire guts a house shared by two young girls.  There is only one survivor.  Her memory wiped blank and her fave desperately burned who can tell whether she is the mad-cap heiress or the companion, the victim or the cold-blooded murderer.

This story was written in the early 1960s, so forget any modern means of solving the problem…

I was hoping to be hugely impressed by this short (170 pages) story but it never quite happened even though the plot twists keep on coming and the end of the book is very satisfying.

I think that the problem is with the translation.  It starts off well but towards the end it starts to struggle.  I get the impression that Japrisot is crafting sentences in French that should be explained more fully in the English but that would not fit in with the tone of the rest of the book.  The translator has gone with the more literal meaning of the text and the result is unclear English.

Still, if you’re a crime fan looking for something different you could do a lot worse than this book.

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.

 

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