Tagged: 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: “Slow Horses” by Mick Herron (audiobook version)

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In the British secret service someone qualifies as a “slow horse” if they have messed up in some way.  They have failed whilst on duty or possess some frowned-upon character flaw and have been exiled to Slough House in London.  No glittering career, just dead-end jobs to do.  The prospect of carrying out a real operation is a pipe-dream.  Everyone has their own secret, their own reason for being there.

Things change when a young man is kidnapped and his captors threaten to behead him live on the internet.  The slow horses get pulled into the situation and called to action, but all is not as it seems.

I came across this book by chance when Amazon was selling it cheaply.  The reviews were good and the associated audiobook was also on special offer, so I gave it a go.

I’m glad I did.  This is a quite a short, character-driven story and weaved through the whole thing is a seam of black humour and a healthy disrespect for those in power.  I’m a big fan of Len Deighton and in particular his stories featuring weathered British spy Bernard Samson.  If you like those you will feel right at home here.

With regard to the narration of the audiobook, at first I thought that the narrator was a bit dour but after a while you realise that this is perfect for the tone of the story.  The humour comes over well, different accents are handled well and each character has their own voice.  He can also ramp up the pace when necessary, something done in a seamless manner.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the book and the detailed characters.  There are another couple of books in the series, and I’ll definitely be back.

 

 

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

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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)

Other:

• 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

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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.