Category: Books

Mini review: “Dodgers” by Bill Beverly

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I came across this by chance and just could not resist given the reviews and the awards it won last year.

It is the story of a group of young black guys from a rough part of Los Angeles who are sent on a road trip across America to kill a judge when their narcotics operation is busted by the police.

Its pared-back tone belies the book’s emotional impact. This is more than a journey in a van for the main character – it is a rite of passage. I read through the second half of the book in one sitting one evening and found myself thinking about it all the next morning.

Somehow I managed to miss the fact that there was an audiobook version (it sounds good too…), so I went with the paper version.

Given that the book clocks in at only 300 pages there is a lot of story and character development built in.  A number of twists happen out of the blue and without fanfare that mess with the boys’ mission.

I wondered about the plausibility of such young characters being able to do what the plot asks of them but it becomes clear as the story progresses that it wouldn’t be difficult for people to disappear through the cracks of society and never be found. If anybody actually cares enough to look for them in the first place.

Take care if you are sensitive to sometimes harsh language. These are young guys gassing amongst themselves in a confined space. Reflect on this and decide accordingly.

I’m very pleased that I chose to hitch a ride on this particular literary adventure and would highly recommend it.

Wouldn’t fancy doing it for real though.

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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.

 

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 face 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.