Tagged: Spies

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

 

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.

 

Winter (A Berlin Family 1899 – 1945): “The Fourth Book of the Trilogy”

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I’ve started reading Len Deighton’s “Winter: A Berlin Famiy 1899 – 1945” to get more background to the Bernard Samson trilogies “Game, Set and Match” and “Hook, Line and Sinker”.  It takes me time to sit down and read a book – hence my liking for audiobooks – so don’t expect a review any time soon, but I noticed this description on the inside front cover:

The Fourth Book of the Trilogy:

Readers of Len Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy (set in the 1980s) will be pleased to discover in Winter some people they know already such as Lisl Henning, the hotel proprietor and her bridge partner Lothar Koch.  Here too are friends and relatives: Werner Volkmann’s father and Bernard Samson’s father both play important parts in the story, so does Bret Rensselaer’s step-father.  Readers will recognise many other old friends from the previous stories and see why Winter is indeed the fourth book of the trilogy.

Ideally this book should be read between the two trilogies…

Also see:

• 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)

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

• Spare Cycles: Len Deighton books

• Harper Collins: Len Deighton audiobooks

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

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This is an “alternative history” novel (think “Fatherland“), imagining what if Germany won the second World War.

This is a well crafted story that evokes a believable world where Britain is under direct German control.  We see the effect on the population, the smell of defeat and desperation.  But there is also a thriving black market and those who have become wealthy as a result of their collaboration with the Germans.

A determined resistance movement is planning an audacious plot.  The main character, a policeman at Scotland Yard, walks a fine line between his need to work for his German superiors and his relations with those he knows in the resistance.

Deighton does an excellent job examining the politics not only between the victors and the oppressed but also between the different factions of the German command – the intelligence services, army and police.

In relation specifically to the audiobook version, the quality of narration is first class – this is expected now from the narrator of most of the other Len Deghton audiobooks, such as the “Harry Palmer” books and the “Game, Set and Match” trilogy.

A final bit of good news is that the book is being adapted into a five-part series by the BBC.  Over the last few years they have done a good job with spy stories (for example “Spies of Warsaw” and “Restless“) so I am hopeful they’ll deliver something as good as the book.