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


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)


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: “Winter: A Berlin Family 1899-1945” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)


Winter is a prequel to Len Deighton’s three trilogies featuring weathered English spy Bernard Samson.  The inside cover of my old copy of the printed book explains why it is the “fourth book of the trilogy“, meaning that it should be read between the “Game, Set and Match” and “Hook, Line and Sinker” trilogies.

I read the trilogies for the first time over a decade ago and did not read Winter until later – I did not know about it at the time.

Over the last couple of years the books have been re-issued as audiobooks and I listened to them as they came out.”Game, Set and Match” came out in 2014 / early 2015, “Hook, Line and Sinker” followed later in 2015.  Winter was not released until February 2016 which means that it has not been possible to listen to the books in their correct reading order until now .  If you are interested in reading the Bernard Samson series then read Winter in its rightful place: fourth.

You won’t be disappointed.

The book is brilliant.  It is the best book in the Samson saga (although the masterful Spy Sinker comes close).  It is at this point in the proceedings  that you start to realise the depth of planning that the author has gone to when putting this saga together.

Winter is very rewarding if you have read the preceding Samson stories. Getting to know Bernard’s father Brian and Werner’s father Isaac sheds more light on these central characters.  Then there are the characters who only appear as old people in the trilogies – you get to see them in their youth.  Certain influential characters from the trilogies have walk-on roles, giving you an idea of how they start out.

The story begins at the turn of the 20th century with the birth of a second son to Harold Winter, a German businessman.  Winter is the story of the two brothers, with the focus on the younger son Paul.  You follow their experiences as they grow up, through the first World War, the inter-war years and the second World War.

The eldest son, Peter, has an artistic streak and goes to work in the company firm.  Paul goes into the military, has a dreadful experience in World War 1 and becomes a lawyer and a bureaucrat in the Nazi party.

One of the special aspects of this story is how it depicts the rise of the Nazis and how the German people turned to their political point of view.  It is very unsettling seeing how the treatment of Jews moved from persecution to extermination and how the Nazi leadership seized control, stamping out any sign of dissent.

A strength of the book is how you can like the character of Paul and be sympathetic towards him yet you are increasingly appalled by his actions and attitudes.

You also get to experience the war from a German perspective, which becomes particularly impactful as you head towards the end of the story and see how the Germans themselves suffered through the devastation caused by RAF bombing of cities and huge losses on the battlefield.  The Russian invasion of Germany was carried out without mercy. (This is also highlighted in Field Grey by Philip Kerr).

A word about the narration: the book is read by the same narrator as all the other Bernard Samson novels so you are listening to a voice you are already familiar with.  He does the job well, as professionally as ever.  However, there is one oddity here that I found initially off-putting: the text often mentions the different regional accents of Germany and how they sound to people from other parts of the country.  To get over this point the narrator does not try to have the characters talking with different German accents but instead uses “equivalent” British accents.  You get used to it but it is strange at first, and is particularly jarring right at the start of the story as you are immediately assaulted by a very distinct regional English accent.  It’s not what you expect when you start listening to a book set in early 20th century Germany.  I could understand how some listeners might not be able to get over this stylistic hurdle, although I can see why the decision was made to present the narration in this way.

Also see…

The “Game, Set and Match” trilogy:

• 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)

The “Hook, Line and Sinker” trilogy:

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

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

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


• Spare Cycles: Len Deighton books (my original reviews of the books)

• Harper Collins: Len Deighton audiobooks


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


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.


Spare Cycles turns nine…




This lovingly crafted blog is celebrating its ninth birthday.   A beer (or nine) is cooling in the fridge to toast the reaching of a milestone.  Happy birthday!

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns eight…

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns seven…

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns six…

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns five…

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns four…

• Spare Cycles: Spare Cycles turns three…

Concert: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Etihad Stadium Manchester, 25 May 2016


I’d been waiting since the beginning of the year to see Bruce Springsteen in concert.  I kept an eye on his website and watched as he added extra shows in the US and then concerts in Portugal and Spain.  The UK had to be soon.

Too soon.

Of the four dates in the UK three were whilst I was out of the country, including the London gig at Wembley Stadium.  Damn.  I got the feeling that I was not meant to see this tour, but I really wanted to as The Boss is not getting any younger and I did not want to wait for the next time round when he would be pushing 70.

There was one solution, one show that I could make but it meant going to Manchester, some 200+ miles and 3+ hours on the train.

So I found a place on Airbnb that was within walking distance of the stadium and the journey (pilgrimage?) went without a hitch.  I was going to follow a map to get to the stadium but when I got to the main road it was simply a case of following the several thousand other fans walking in that direction.  The route from the main train station in Manchester (Piccadilly) to the Etihad stadium is an official route that is properly signposted, and I would recommend that people walk it if possible especially once I saw the situation after the concert with traffic jams and road closures.

The weather can go either way at the end of May and I was hoping that we were going to get a nice sunny, warm evening.  No chance.  Manchester was the only place in the country where it was raining and it kept it up all night.  It was soon forgotten once the band came onstage but it would have been good to just go in a t-shirt instead…

In the days before the concert I had been looking at the setlists for the recent shows and hoping he was not going to change too much – at a Bruce show you never know what you’re going to get but I liked the look of what he had been playing.  At the start of The River tour – in the US –  they were starting the concerts by playing the River double album in its entirety but by the time they got to Europe this was a thing of the past – we got a good number of the songs but broken up during the set.  I’m glad as it’s not my favourite Bruce album – I find it quite schizophrenic with its darker songs mixed with pretty simple rocking tunes.

The band had been playing a number of different first songs and we got Atlantic City – a good start.  Then they dropped Murder Incorporated.  This was going to be a good night.  A few more songs in and the rain eased up a bit.

And then things got a bit… festive.  This happened…

Looking out at the signs in the audience Bruce spotted a guy in a Father Christmas jacket with a sign saying “Santa Claus is Coming to Manchester”.  He was invited up on stage and soon the bells were ringing out, the band kicked in with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and the crowd was loving it.  It was a bizarre but beautiful moment, a highlight of the evening.

Things did get more serious for a while.  Bruce got into a more sombre character to tackle a few songs.  They went for a different interpretation of I Wanna Marry You.  It’s always good to see artists try new angles but on this occasion it was turned into something rather tepid and flat.  Shame.  The situation was rescued by The River followed by an intimate, almost conversational Point Blank – quite an achievement to pull off in a stadium.

I had mixed feelings when they played Darlington County / Working on the Highway.  It was great to hear the songs but Bruce went down to the front of the crowd and disappeared from the stage for a long time. You could see him on the big screens but by the end of the second song I was feeling a bit left out just watching it on video.

All was forgiven when a little later they did this…

The Rising > Thunder Road > Backstreets > Born to Run > Glory Days > Dancing in the Dark > Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out > Shout > Bobby Jean

Holy shit.  The place was rocking, rolling, dancing, singing.  I’m struggling to describe it but the next day I saw a tweet that summed it up:

Over the next few days I looked at the setlists of the shows that came after.  They got a number of songs from the first album which would have been great to hear. Coventry got Seven Nights to Rock and Dublin / London got Jungleland thrown into that last mix. Drool. But I was very happy with the setlist we got at Manchester.

I’ve seen Springsteen four times now and this was the best show yet.  They played over 3 hours and never stopped.  Any doubts that he is getting too old are ridiculous.  He is in the shape of his life.

A fantastic night. A stunning, well humoured performance.  Book me in again if he comes back any time soon.

Setlist: The River Tour 2016 Manchester Etihad Stadium

The Guardian: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band review – the magic and madness go on

The Manchester Evening News: Review: Bruce Springsteen @ The Etihad Stadium

Sunday Express: Bruce Springsteen shows Manchester who’s The Boss on The River Tour first night

The Independent: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Etihad Stadium, review: Boss proves he is an enduring treasure

The Telegraph: ‘Bruce Springsteen is one of the last great showmen of his era’ – Etihad Stadium Manchester, review

The Financial Times: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, Etihad Stadium, Manchester — ‘High-octane’

The Mirror: Bruce Springsteen’s energy is unbeatable with marathon live performance in Manchester


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


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.