Tagged: Books

Mini review: The “Aubrey–Maturin” novels: Books 1 to 3 by Patrick O’Brian (abridged audiobook editions)

On holiday over the summer, my family stayed in a cottage which had copies of nearly all of the “Aubrey-Maturin” books by Patrick O’Brian and I took the opportunity to read the back covers to find out the story of each (and return them neatly in publication order).

Several months ago I had started listening to the unabridged audiobook of “Master and Commander” but stopped about half way through – which is very rare for me. I just could not get used to the writing style but finding all the books re-ignited my interest.

I knew that I would struggle to find time to read the books, so when I found these abridged versions on the Libby app (like Audible, but free if you have a library card) I thought I’d give them a try.

I would not normally consider abridged versions of books (especially when you consider that each story has been cut down from between 12 – 16 hours to just 3 – 4 hours) but I would like to explore more of the series and I was able to get through the three of these stories in the time it would take me to read a short book.

Master and Commander (Book 1)

The “Aubrey-Maturin” novels are set in the early 1800s and are adventure stories based around the friendship between the Navy captain Jack Aubry and his ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin.

The author does an excellent job of portraying the time period and he has obviously done his research (the stories are often based around real events). These main characters are intriguing, in particular because they are far from perfect.

The language and the level of technical detail that appears in the first half of this book can make it a slog to get through. Don’t let that put you off as the author proves that he is good at the action scenes too.

This book is very good in itself but perhaps more importantly (once you have read some of the other stories in the series) it is clear that this is just the beginning of a long adventure.

Post Captain (Book 2)

At the start of this book Jack and Stephen are back on dry land, enjoying life. Things do not go in Jack’s favour for very long, however, with an unexpected trip to Spain turning into an altogether more serious affair. In a bid to escape his situation ashore Jack accepts a number of increasingly dangerous jobs to keep at sea.

This is a much more personal story as we find out about the women who play a part in their lives. Jack and Stephen’s friendship comes under immense strain. It also becomes clear that Stephen is not just a sidekick to the main character Aubry – he has more depth, more intelligence and a more significant role than is apparent at first.

This is an altogether faster-paced story and all the better for it. It also has a nice vein of dry humour which is welcome. I would be tempted to read the full version of this book but as an abridged version this rockets along whilst flowing nicely.

H.M.S. Surprise (Book 3)

Jack and Stephen are taking an ambassador to Malaysia in what is the best of the books so far – the depiction of the storms they encounter and the battles stand out.

Writing style

The writing style is quite daunting at first but after a while I found myself getting used to the pacing of the language and overcame the fact that I did not necessarily understand every single word uttered by the characters. Perhaps it is easier to listen to than to read? By the time you get into the second book I don’t think this is an issue – you are either used to it or absorbed in the storytelling.

Narration

What elevates these audiobooks is the narrator – the actor Robert Hardy takes the material and rings out every last drop of drama and excitement out of it. This is a performance and a half… the books come alive and battles at sea become vivid and real. It is heart-pounding stuff as opponents use all their skill and cunning to come out as victors.

Overall

I am going to listen to more of these abridged versions of the audiobooks – they gave me just enough detail to tell the story and could be finished in a few sessions. For a series with so many books, this is the best way I am going to experience these stories. I would rather do this than miss out.

• The Guardian: Naval gazing

Mini review: “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado Perez

Now this exists, there is no excuse – everyone should read this book. As a white male, I never had to consider the many, many points raised. As a father to daughters, they should not to have to grow up and live in a world that is hostile to their gender – and neither should any woman. Women in other parts of the world suffer even more.

One particularly poignant issue raised is how women are left in a worse position than men after a pandemic – in this book from 2019 the author was talking about SARS and Ebola. The effects of Covid-19 are going to dwarf the effects of those outbreaks. Everybody will be impacted but – although it won’t necessarily be obvious or even studied in depth (it should be) – I suspect women will be impacted disproportionately more than men to a great degree, especially in the long term.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Mini review: “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov (audiobook version)

For a science fiction novel that is nearly 70 years old, this has aged remarkably well.

It got a bit too political towards the end for my taste and covering such large time spans means that you are introduced several times over to an entirely new cast of characters, which can be a bit disconcerting.

Still – recommended.

Mini review: “Coders: Who They Are, What They Think and How They Are Changing Our World” by Clive Thompson (audiobook edition)

This book is a must read if you are considering becoming a coder – and also if you work with them. The first half or so of the book goes into detail about how most people get into writing software (formal education or being self taught), the nature of the job (what they do all day), possible career paths and the personality characteristics found in many coders – both good and bad. It looks at the different types of people coming into the industry, the misleading myths that have built up, the particular challenges for women and the realistic outlook if you are looking for a mid-career job change – coming in from a different industry. Very interesting, and not something that I recall seeing dealt with in such detail elsewhere.

The remainder of the book examines the tech scene in more general terms – a look at the early days of computing and how people got into computers in previous decades, the decline in the proportion of women in the profession over time, the rise of AI and machine learning, the social problems (little predicted at the beginning but now very much in evidence) that arise with becoming a massive scale platform and how the venture capital industry determines how companies have to behave.

There is a bit of repetition as things that are mentioned briefly in the first part are dealt with in more depth in the second, but the author does a good-enough job at bringing things back to how these things are relevant to coders. The final chapter on “blue collar” coders is particularly good, so the book finishes on a high. It should give people thinking about going into this field some things to consider, which can only be a good thing.

The narration of the audiobook is interesting – often the soul of these technology / business books is sucked out of them by a narrator who talks in some “default-American” tone, unremarkable and uninspiring. At first I thought that this was going to be yet another example, but the performance is more nuanced – it feels like it is the author reading their own text but it is more professional. He gets the tone just right.

Mini review: “The Soul Of A New Machine” by Tracy Kidder

This wonderful slice of computing history comes from 1982 and tells the background story of the creation of a new computer by a team at the company Data General. They had a successful line of 16-bit computers but the business was being threatened by competitors who were already producing 32-bit machines.

I’d never heard of Data General but it turns out that at the end of the 1970s they were a big deal, although a lot more brash and rough around the edges than their competitors such as IBM.

There is always a concern with a book this old that the issues would no longer be relevant, the technology archaic. Neither is true. Processors have advanced in the meantime (and to some extent regressed – see below) but they still represent the core of a system. The issues the author raises are more than just technical – his focus is on the personalities of the team members, the challenges and the pressures they face.

In the last couple of years we have seen issues such as Spectre and Meltdown arising from flaws introduced in CPUs in the 1990’s, so processor design and microcode still impact modern computing. Also, check out the new Mac Pro from Apple – a computer that they had to design and build from scratch under severe time pressure to ensure that the company kept an important section of it’s user-base happy. I’m sure that the experience of the engineers on that project would echo what happened decades ago in the Data General offices.

The author does an excellent job of explaining the technical issues without going too deep (or finds a suitable metaphor to put his point across) and keeps the pace flowing nicely.

And to wrap it up, the bitter-sweet ending rings true – he managed to capture a special moment in time and did it brilliantly. You are fully engaged in the story and the people. This is an excellent book and I recommend it to everyone, especially if you work in IT.

• Wikipedia: Data General

• The Computer Museum History Center: Core 2.1 – The Data General Nova (direct link to PDF file)

• Wired: Souls, Lost and Found (2008)

• Spare Cycles: Article: “SPACEWAR” by Stewart Brand (Rolling Stone magazine, December 1972)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Troublemakers: How a Generation of Silicon Valley Upstarts Invented The Future” by Leslie Berlin

• Spare Cycles: Article: “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” by Tom Wolfe

The Art of “Bomber” by Len Deighton

One good thing about reading old books is that they have time to accumulate a number of different covers. “Bomber” by Len Deighton is an excellent example…

Also see:

• Spare Cycles: The Art of “Dune” by Frank Herbert

Mini review: “Bomber” by Len Deighton

I’ve had Bomber on my bookshelf for many years, waiting for a suitable time to read it.

Recently that time finally came – and it was worth the wait. Bomber is a stone cold classic.

This is a fictional account of a massive Allied bombing raid carried out on Germany in the summer of 1943 – a 24 hour period featuring the build up, the raid itself and the aftermath in Britain and in Germany.

It is written in a dry, clinical style – and that is where its power lies. The events – both in the air and on the ground – are horrific. It contains some of the most disturbing passages that I have ever read.

The book in no way glorifies war – there is no jingoism on either side. Both sides are portrayed as human. In fact, this is an anti-war novel – it highlights the terrible impact on all involved. Everyone should read this book and I’m sure most would be similarly appalled.

I have read a lot of Len Deighton’s novels now and he has many excellent books to his name but the only one in my opinion that matches Bomber in scope and depth is the brilliant Winter – A Berlin Family. Bomber shows that Deighton is an absolute master when mixing fiction with an accurate historical background.

Also see…

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Winter: A Berlin Family 1899-1945” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

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)

Harry Palmer / “Spy with no name” series:

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “The Ipcress File” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Horse Under Water” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Billion Dollar Brain” by Len Deighton

• Spare Cycles: Book: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Spy

Other:

• Spare Cycles: Len Deighton books (my original reviews of the books – including the “Faith, Hope and Charity” trilogy)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “SS-GB” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Review: XPD by Len Deighton

Mini review: “Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman (audiobook edition)

For this audiobook Neil Gaiman reads his own work but in this case he is the “story teller” rather than the “narrator”. It is like he is recounting the stories he loves. They are made for speaking aloud and passing on to others.

They can come over as quite simple but I get the impression that he has chosen his words very carefully in the retelling – to get to the essence of the stories and make them accessible to people today.

I can imagine taking an evening to listen to this book from beginning to end, in front of a fire with a glass or two of red wine. In fact, that would be a perfect way to experience these tales.

Mini review: “The Hard Way (Jack Reacher 10)” by Lee Child (audiobook edition)

This was my summer reading this year. I was at the airport and the bookshop had lots of different Lee Child books, perhaps 15 or 20 (the series currently has 23). I looked them up on Amazon to see what the reviews were like and decided to go for Never Go Back.

Well… that was one of the few that they didn’t have so I went for The Hard Way instead.

This time the story involves Reacher helping to get back a rich man’s wife who has been kidnapped.

I don’t know about the other novels in the series but the action is not too violent and there is not a lot of swearing. I’m not adverse to either in principal but it made for easy reading.

The narration is that average American blandness you often get. The narrator can’t do an English accent, and when there is more than one English character in a scene they both sound exactly the same. Equally bad. Women don’t come off much better. The main female character should come over as mature, confident and Reacher’s equal but instead sounds like a breathless damsel in distress. The other female character suffers from the same affliction.

This was my first Jack Reacher novel and the author does a good job of keeping the story going at an acceptable pace, throwing in a few curveballs so that you want to keep reading. I’d go back for another in the series – probably Never Go Back (🙃).

Mini review: “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by John Carreyrou (audiobook version)

This is the story of Theranos, the tech startup that promised the prospect of being able to carry out a large number of blood tests using just a drop of blood.

Headed up by the charismatic CEO Elizabeth Holmes, here was a startup that everyone wanted to succeed – the young, pretty, Stanford dropout who could change the world; a female role model the tech industry could champion.

Except she couldn’t make it work.

The company wasted millions, led people on with false claims and ruined lives. The story of it’s downfall is as riveting as it’s rise – now Holmes has been charged with fraud and is facing a long time in prison.

This is an excellent book – a truly addictive, fascinating, horrific story for this technology-obsessed age.