For my money this is the best of the post-Smiley books. It is not only sophisticated in its understanding of the moral ambiguities and contradictions of the ongoing -- no end in sight -- conflict in the Middle East, it is a compelling psychological study of a young woman on the fringes of left-wing politics who is drawn -- more accurately kidnapped -- into a plot to thwart a terrorist bombing. Charlie is a theater actress of only modest success, which is to say she makes a living but only barely. She is the quintessential anti-heroine of the story. Sexually promiscuous and co-dependent, an abused girlfriend (of the cretinous "Long Al," a fellow actor), drawn to but also repelled by the brutal logic of terrorism and counter-terrorism, and finally an accidental if not unwilling savior of innocent lives. This is also a love story, counterposing Charlie and "Joseph," a Mossad operative who despite his legendary status as the coolest, toughest spy among the best of both types, is fraught with existential doubt about the consequences of meeting violence with more violence. Le Carre's prose is, as always, superlative. Little Drummer Girl stands up to anything ever written in this genre, including Graham Greene at the top of his game. Michael Jayston's narration is a perfect match for Le Carre's prose.
I bought this book because of an interest in speculative geopolitics. The idea of China invading Alaska in the aftermath of a sovereign debt depression intrigued me. However, neither the geopolitical speculation nor the story grabbed me. Instead I suffered through endless (and repetitive) descriptions of military weaponry, battle scenes described in the most purple of purple prose (worthy of first prize in a "bad writing" contest), cartoonishly shallow characters (to call them cardboard would be to insult inanimate fiber material), rampant stereotyping and cultural chauvinism, etc. I disliked this book on every level imaginable. In the end, however, it failed to connect with my interest in geopolitics and near-future sci-fi.
Having previously read The End of the Affair a few years ago and thinking it a minor Greene book, I have raised it to my A-list based on Colin Firth's extraordinary narration. Firth approaches perfection in bringing out the rhythm's and nuance of Greene's unpretentious but beautifully crafted prose. If there's any weakness here it is Greene's preoccupation with Roman Catholicism, which becomes a bit wearisome toward the end of story. Though not as great a novel as The Heart of the Matter, which appears on many lists of the 100 greatest novels ever written, The End of the Affair as narrated by Colin Firth is a must listen.
The very negative reviews of this book might well be the result of the jarring difference in style, tone, and narrative from the Shardlake series. Winter in Madrid is written in a literary style" with a weak plot, third person narration, flashbacks, and a generally bleak mood. As a fan of the Shardlake series I was unpleasantly surprised by all of the above. I wouldn't consider Winter in Madrid to be a failure or a bad novel, but it was neither what I expected or enjoyed. For anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War I would recommend Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.
Bill Bryson fans, please don't hate me. I'm actually one of yours. However, I grew as weary of this book as Bill must have felt slogging across the Appalachian Trail. The story starts out strong, as Bill prepares for the adventure by a hilarious visit to his local sporting goods store. It builds nicely in momentum as he and his less than stalwart companion travel to the hinterlands of Georgia and embark on the Trail. They immediately encounter the eccentrics that populate Bryson's books, and Bill makes the most of his raw material. But all too soon the narrative deteriorates into the usual "man against mountain" (or ocean, jungle, outer space, or whatever) story, with the usual overwhelming circumstances, narrow escapes from the jaws of death, etc. Some people like reading about this kind of thing. I do not. As the book loses its strength (along with the hikers' resolve), and similar scenes seem to reoccur (bad weather, impossible terrain, psychological weariness), Bill interrupts his trip to take a break. He should have realized there and then there wasn't a complete book to be had from the experience. It's always a pleasure to hear Bill Bryson read his books. I imagine he's the kind of guy you'd like to hang out with for a beer or two (or three), soaking up his quirky sense of humor and basking in his overall bonhommie. But not this book, for this reader/listener, at least not after the first few chapters.
I am huge Bill Bryson fan, and I could pleasurably listen to him and his quirky digressions for hours and hours. That said, I was expecting more social history instead of the extended foray into the science of the physical universe and biological life. So the "nearly everything" in the title needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. I opted for the abridged version because I love Bryson's narration. I'm not sure what was cut out of the complete book, but judging by what was left in, the subect matter was about all I could take. I followed up this book with Bryson's "At Home," which was much more my cup of tea.
As a Le Carre fan I've exhausted Audible's selection of his books. So I turned to the dramatised production of Russia House in hopes of getting more. I have ot say it's a bit of a letdown, with a lot of over-acting and irritating sound effects that I found distracting. Although Russia House was made into a pretty bad movie (starring Sean Connery), some of Le Carre's books have been successfully adapted to film and television (Smiley's People with Alec Guinness is simply superb). It's not an impossible task to capture Le Carre's distinctive prose style and nuanced characters in a medium other than the printed word. This dramatised version of Russia House falls far short of excellence. I hope that Audible will add the book to its offerings at some point.
Whoever edited the audio productions must be a big fan of shopping center music. A VERY LOUD Latin rhythm or British band music interrupts the narration every five minutes (or so it seems) at the end of every chapter and between sections within chapters. It was like being tapped in an elevator for 7 plus hours, which very nearly ruined the book for me. "Our Man in Havana" is one of Greene's lightest works, an absurd comic plot but with serious (and prescient) political insights. The reader is adequate. The story itself is well worth the time if you can live with the frequent musical interruptions.
Dick Francis is always at his best writing about what he knows: jockeys, horses, and horseracing. Unfortunately, this book spends most of its time describing in excrutiating (and generally not very well-informed) detail computer technology circa 1980s that is used to construct a betting system that predictably becomes the McGuffin of the plot. It also features an unbelievably vengeful psychopath as an antagonist that any self-respecting protagonist would have done away with whenever he had the chance. Instead the guy keeps popping up in a way that would be unintentionally funny if it were not so annoying. There are many other Francis books that show off his experience and knowledge of horseracing.
The social dimensions of contra-factual history here (Germany and Japan win WWII) are executed brilliantly, evoking a credible and thought-provoking image of what an America occupied by Japan and Germany would look like 15 or so years after the end of the war. Dick is at his best writing about society and human nature. He is relatively weak when it comes to dealing with technological change--something which is glaringly apparent now, decades later. However, this is a minor shortcoming in what is otherwise a tour de force. Note: I found the narration perfectly acceptable.
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