New York Times best-selling author China Mieville delivers his most accomplished novel yet, an existential thriller set in a city unlike any other, real or imagined. When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlof the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined.
It's hard to know where to start with this one.
The performance is 5 star and 1 star, so I decided this would average out as 3 star. 5 stars because I loved John Lee's pronunciation of some of the proper names, including Besel and Ul Qoma, and I kept these in mind when I gave up on the audio and read the book instead. 1 star partly because I didn't feel he was enunciating some of the other names, and he really needed to because there are a lot of characters with similar sort-of Eastern European names and I found it impossible to keep track of them. 1 star mostly because John Lee rarely uses tone of voice to distinguish between character voices, or, crucially, between dialogue and narration. At times I was wondering, "Did you just say that aloud, or is it what you were thinking?" This made it very hard to follow.
The story's underlying premise is quite a fascinating one: two cities occupying the same space, with citizens compelled to "unsee" the people, buildings, vehicles, posters and so on that belong to the "other" city. The story explores this idea to very good effect, with a few surprising twists and turns.
Less interesting is the plot. It's basically a Chandleresque murder mystery, but with less well realised characters; to be honest some of them sink into the text. [Sort-of spoiler but not really:] One of the big twists is that we suspected the seldom-mentioned character X of being the bad guy, but it turns out it was seldom-mentioned character Y.
I know I am not alone in finding the prose a struggle at times. On several occasions I had to re-read sentences or passages to work out what the author was saying. My fault? Perhaps, but then again, what do you make of this? "We whispered under the foreign shriek of a flap above us in Besel swinging in the wind."
I've read other work by the author, and found it much more engaging. The City and the City certainly has its merits, but if you're as jaded with detective fiction as I am, I would say go for one of his other books.
A Russian honey trap agent targets a young CIA operative to uncover a mole at the Russian Intelligence service. Dominika Egorov, is sucked into the heart of Putin's Russia, and spat out as the twists and turns of betrayal and counter-betrayal unravel. American Nate Nash handles the double agent, codenamed MARBLE, considered one of CIA's biggest assets. Will Dominika be able to unmask MARBLE, or will the mission see her faith destroyed in the country she has always passionately defended?
Some years ago I read an author's guide to police procedure. It was written by an experienced police officer who was an articulate writer but by his own admission did not have what it takes to be a writer of crime fiction.
I feel something similar is going on here. Jason Matthews worked for the CIA for 33 years, so he obviously knows his onions (see end of review) but I don't think he's a thriller writer. I say this knowing there were plenty five star reviews but I wonder if the reviewers are so steeped in the genre that they know how to fill in the gaps. For my own part, there was nothing to get a handle on. The characters were just names, the romance was meh, and what little action there was just failed to engage.
Then there were the recipes. To coin an expression, "It was funny the first time... except it wasn't." Every chapter has a cooking scene shoehorned in, and after a while you start to spot them, and they are flipping annoying.
The most pleasure I got from this book was watching the time count down.
Ainsley Harriott French Onion Soup. Empty sachet into cup. Add boiling water and stir.
6 of 7 people found this review helpful
Theoretically Trish Mulligan's smashed spaceship's contains everything she needs to survive; maps, food, water and her solar-powered spacesuit. She manages to broadcast a distress signal to Earth, but to survive until they arrive she'll also need to outrun the sunset. If the sun sets, her suit's automated life support system will stop working and she'll die on the moon. So, she'll have to race the sun. On Earth it would be an interminable marathon pace but at least there she wouldn't be alone.
I've been a science fiction fan since the 1970s, but at some point in the 1990s I became jaded. Rightly or wrongly I perceived the genre as infected with forced cynicism, with characters motivated solely by their career, and authors carefully avoiding having any sense of wonder - or "sensawunda" as they dismissively termed it - in their stories.
Then recently I happened to come across Geoffrey A. Landis's "A Sultan of the Clouds" in The Year's Top Short SF Novels. Besides being a science fiction writer, Landis happens to work for NASA, and has his finger on the pulse when it comes to the latest knowledge of the solar system. Although "Sultan" is largely restricted to the planet Venus, Landis manages to convey the sheer awe of what it would be like to have cities in the clouds of our nearest planetary neighbour, and his exploration of the possibilities of terraforming proves to be as fascinating as it is credible.
In fact Landis comes across as a modern-day Arthur C. Clarke, even though it's difficult to get hold of his work. His one novel, Mars Crossing, appears to be a forerunner of Andy Weir's The Martian, but isn't available on Kindle, let alone audio.
"A Walk In The Sunshine" certainly feels Clarke-like. The premise is straightforward - a survivor of a lunar crash has to outrace the sunset if she's to survive long enough to be rescued - but it's enough to make for a suspenseful and moving short story. It's a reminder of just how effective shorter works of fiction can be, and how the real physical dangers of outer space can make for good drama in their own right.
In terms of performance, this is a little odd. The original text is effectively delivered, with sound effects to convey radio communication and so on. But there are also musical interludes which raise the question, "Why are you doing this?" Early in the story we get some 70s-style spacey music, which I thought was pleasant enough, but then again I like that sort of thing. As the story progresses, we get bursts of something that sounds like the intro to a Joy Division track, which again is welcome but a bit out of place.
Whatever the wisdom of these particular musical choices, the excellent storytelling skills of Landis come across, and I hope Audible will go some way towards bringing this first class, yet somewhat overlooked, author to a wider audience.
It was the dead thing they found hanging from a tree that changed the trip beyond recognition. When four old University friends set off into the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle, they aim to briefly escape the problems of their lives and reconnect. But when Luke, the only man still single and living a precarious existence, finds he has little left in common with his well-heeled friends, tensions rise. A shortcut meant to ease their hike turns into a nightmare scenario that could cost them their lives.
It's not often I give up on a book when I'm 71% in.
Part 1 is okay. There's some idiot plotting, but the characters are otherwise reasonably credible, and there are some atmospheric scenes and moderately exciting bits. It's about 60% of the book.
Part 2 is utterly tedious, and drains away the goodwill that Part 1 generated. I thought about listening to the rest at double speed, then realised I actively don't want to know how it pans out.
3 of 5 people found this review helpful
The Himalayas, 1935. Kangchenjunga. Third-highest peak on earth. Greatest killer of them all. Five Englishmen set off from Darjeeling, determined to conquer the sacred summit. But courage can only take them so far - and the mountain is not their only foe. As the wind dies, the dread grows. Mountain sickness. The horrors of extreme altitude. A past that will not stay buried. And sometimes, the truth does not set you free.
Apart from the Lovecraft story alluded to in the review title, I cannot think of another mountain story in the supernatural/horror genre. It should be noted that there are virtually no similarities between the two.
Some reviewers have complained that Thin Air is too similar to Dark Matter. I can see what they mean, but I don't consider it a problem. In fact, I'd be very happy if Paver did a third one. It could be her "vaguely M.R. Jamesian remote locales" trilogy. I don't usually re-listen to audiobooks, but this one is on my "to listen again" pile, and I'm debating whether to re-read Dark Matter (I have the first edition hardback) or get it on audio.
I've been generous with the stars because this is one of those fairly rare occasions when the prose and the narration really mesh. Sure, you get good readers reading good stories, but sometimes they go beyond this; there is a synergy in which the narrator isn't just reading the words, he's telling his story. There is no MIchelle Paver and there is no Daniel Weyman, there is just Stephen Pearce talking directly to the reader.
(I got a similar effect when I listened to Michael Maloney's reading of Christopher Priest's The Affirmation.)
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Set amid the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA's African American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America's space program. Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as 'human computers', calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African American women.
This is a thoroughly researched book that tells an important story. For that reason I wish I could recommend it more.
If you've seen the film you'll know what it's about: the significant role black women played in the space programme despite the prejudice against both their skin colour and their gender. Prior to the publication of this book, and the release of the film, their contribution was largely forgotten or unknown, even by people like myself who are interested in space travel.
So what's wrong with the book?
To my mind, it's the structure that lets it down. We're just told facts, dry facts and lots of 'em. And so many names! The film focuses on three key women, but in the book the names of the main characters are lost among the minor players. There's some moving about in time too, so that it's quite hard to follow, especially as an audio book. It's not helped by the narrator's monotone, which makes the story fall quite flat at times.
If I'd been editor I'd have given chapter titles that clue us in to the purpose of the chapter. Let us know whether a chapter is focused on Katherine Johnson, or Mary Jackson, or relevant historical events, or technological developments at the time, or whatever. This could make the book much more accessible without having to dumb it down.
Don't get me wrong, it's not all dull and worthy. There are breathtaking moments, such as the appearance of Sputnik, John Glenn's precarious landing and so on. Also, the author is not in any way trying to make readers/listeners feel guilty for being white and/or male, and in fact there are heart-warming moments when friendships form that look beyond colour or gender.
At the end of the day, getting through this book is more of an effort than it should be, but is nevertheless worth the effort.
I will probably listen to the book again, or perhaps read a print version. I'll also watch the film again, even though I now know it takes a few liberties with history.
It's 1812, and the Doctor, Steven and Dodo get ready to spend their winter in a Russian village. The French are on their way, but that's not the only invasion the travellers will have to deal with. Written by: Marc Platt. Directed by: Nigel Fairs.
Would you try another book written by Marc Platt or narrated by Peter Purves and Tony Millan ?
Yes. I've found some of Platt's Doctor Who work very enjoyable, notably his Unbound plays. Not so much his novels, or his grossly overrated Cyberman origin story.
Peter Purves is always worth a listen. He's not the best William Hartnell impersonator (William Russell probably is) but he's good enough.
How would you have changed the story to make it more enjoyable?
Remove the (other) alien element.
This vexes me with the Doctor Who pseudohistoricals. The first time they did one - with the Meddling Monk - it was a novelty, and a significant story element in its own right.
But it's long since been overworked into a tiresome lily-gilding exercise. Here, for instance, it's as if 1812 Russia isn't an interesting enough setting in its own right for our time travellers, so a generic alien needs adding to the mix. It really should be possible for the TARDIS to land somewhere in Earth's history without somebody else landing there too.
I can't pretend I didn't know it was going to happen - it's hinted at strongly enough in the blurb - but I hoped this would at least offer a fresh approach to the idea. But it really doesn't. The alien's special ability also means the twist is bleeding obvious.
That's not to say it fails to entertain. The TARDIS crew's arrival in Russia (not far from Moscow) is enjoyable, and it was pleasing to have them stay for several months rather than simply pop in, look around, fight off the evil alien, and pop out. Use of honest to goodness narration (as opposed to contrived "Look, that ski pole is rising off the ground of its own accord" dialogue) is always a good thing.
So, not a total waste of time, but rather less than it could have been.
What does Peter Purves and Tony Millan bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?
It's a play written for the audio medium, not a book.
If this book were a film would you go see it?
Given the nature of this product, it's exceedingly unlikely that this would be made into a film, but yeah, why not?
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to find yourself strapped to a giant rocket that's about to go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour? Or to look back on Earth from outer space and see the surprisingly precise line between day and night? Or to stand in front of the Hubble Space Telescope, wondering if the emergency repair you're about to make will inadvertently ruin humankind's chance to unlock the universe's secrets? Mike Massimino has been there, and in Spaceman he puts you inside the suit.
The Moon landings were a long time ago. It's sometimes too easy to forget that there's been a lot going on since then, even if it has been either a) unmanned or b) low Earth orbit.
If you're a fan of The Big Bang Theory, you'll know the writer. He's the real-life American astronaut who appeared as himself and addressed Howard as Fruitloops in several episodes. This gets mentioned quite late on in the book, whereas in the introduction we get to learn just how scary your first flight into space is.
Having the book read by the writer himself is great. He's not just reading, he's remembering. And although the descriptions of space are wonderful, a lot of the rest is too, including the insights into what gives astronauts the right stuff.
The drama of being in space is nailed down in the repeated sentence I've used as a headline: "There is something wrong with your car." Sure, some part is worn, or there's a bit of grit in a spark plug, or whatever, and everything is fine despite this, until some future date when the problem makes itself known. And maybe it makes itself known when you're on your own late at night, or you're on your way to a job interview, or you've got a load of frozen food thawing in the boot. But what's the worst thing that can happen while you're waiting for the person from the AA or RAC to arrive? Whatever it is, compare it to having a failure in space, when oxygen is limited, and working in a spacesuit is more tiring than you probably realised.
This is a highly engaging and fascinating book, strongly recommended for anybody interested in modern space travel.
The Great Time War has raged for centuries, ravaging the universe. Scores of human colony planets are now overrun by Dalek occupation forces. A weary, angry Doctor leads a flotilla of Battle TARDISes against the Dalek stronghold but in the midst of the carnage, the Doctor's TARDIS crashes to a planet below: Moldox. As the Doctor is trapped in an apocalyptic landscape, Dalek patrols roam amongst the wreckage, rounding up the remaining civilians.
Would you try another book written by George Mann or narrated by Nicholas Briggs?
Nicholas Briggs - maybe. He's pretty good at narration, but whenever I hear his voice I keep remembering his relentlessly unfunny performance as a continuity announcer for BBC's Seventh Dimension.
George Mann - probably not. I tried to read his The Affinity Bridge when it came out, but the prose didn't win me over.
What could George Mann have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?
Write like a real author. A lot of Doctor Who authors have little or no experience of being published outside of Doctor Who. Mann had a number of original works under his belt when he wrote Engines of War, so he really should have learnt the craft by now.
What does Nicholas Briggs bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?
It's not Nick Briggs so much as the sound effects that I enjoyed about the performance.
If you could play editor, what scene or scenes would you have cut from Doctor Who: Engines of War?
Cutting a few scenes is hardly going to rescue a one star book. The problem is deeper than that.
There's the prose. It's some of the least evocative writing I've come across in quite a while. The planet Moldox might as well be a quarry, and the characters are cyphers. The author delivers the pseudodramatic cliches with no apparent thought for what he is writing. We have "a copse of trees", characters who "shudder involuntarily", and, hilariously, the pronouncement, "The ambush came without warning."
There's the main character. The WHOLE POINT of the John Hurt incarnation is that he's the one who broke the promise, the one who declared he was "Doctor no more", the one who would be a warrior. The book's main reason for existing was to give us a glimpse of the "forgotten" incarnation's character.
Throughout the novel, he's referred to as "the Doctor". He says "don't call me that" once or twice but everybody calls him that anyway and he answers to it. Aside from some references to having a moustache, or keeping his sonic screwdriver in his ammo belt, this could be the Doctor as played by Tom Baker, or Peter Davison. And aside from a few biographical details (including the obligatory lesbian kiss) Cinder could be Sarah Jane, or Jo Grant, or TBA.
Then there are the scenes reused from the TV series. There's the one from Revelation of the Daleks, then the "Do I have the right?" scene from Genesis of the Daleks, then The Five Doctors, then the "Do I have the right?" scene again, and again, and again. And no matter who he meets on Gallifrey, the encounter always feels like the continuation of some long-drawn-out quarrel that grew stale in the early 1980s.
The suggestion that the Time Lords are no better than the Daleks - are barely distinguishable from them - was conveyed in a single line in the minisode Night of the Doctor, but here it's hammered home. The Time Lords are faced with an impossible dilemma, and have opted for what they consider the lesser of the two evils, but the Doctor condemns them for this without offering any kind of third alternative.
Any additional comments?
I don't normally give one star to a book I managed to finish, but Engines of War is a failure of a book. I note that a lot of fans have given it five stars; I can only assume they all squee whenever they spot a reference to the TV series.
I really, really hate the word "squee".
0 of 2 people found this review helpful
Six years after four family members died of arsenic poisoning, the three remaining Blackwoods—elder, agoraphobic sister Constance; wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian; and 18-year-old Mary Katherine, or, Merricat—live together in pleasant isolation. Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic to guard the estate against intrusions from hostile villagers. But one day a stranger arrives—cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune.
What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?
If it had lived up to the title. I mean, it didn't have to be literally set in a castle. I get that titles can be metaphoric, or designed to capture a vibe or whatever. A brilliant example of this is "Let the Right One In".
What was most disappointing about Shirley Jackson’s story?
The story was about unlikeable people talking drivel and doing stupid things.
I came to Shirley Jackson through the film version of The Haunting of Hill House (the proper film, not the stupid remake). It blew me away, but it was years before I could find a copy of the novel, so my impression of it was probably a bit biased.
Anyway, I was expecting Castle to be a bit sinister and creepy, with an explicit supernatural element - rather than the tedious "was it all in her own mind?" thing. Instead it was just endless descriptions of what they were growing in the garden, what they're cooking, and what the silly little girl thinks it's like on the Moon.
Oh, and there was some stuff about poisoning that completely failed to engage my interest.
Have you listened to any of Bernadette Dunne’s other performances? How does this one compare?
No. I actually have Hill House on my MP3 player - I bought it thinking I might like to revisit it in unabridged audio form - but haven't played it yet.
What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?
Disappointment. And, oddly, I found my love for Hill House lessened. I've heard of this happening before - a lot of people found their love for the original Matrix film diminished by the time they got to the end of the trilogy.
Any additional comments?
It would be nice if we could re-review books. I might try this again in a year or two and find my opinion completely changed.
0 of 2 people found this review helpful