Thursday, June 30, 2011

Diamonds Are Forever - Ian Fleming

Cover from the first edition.

  Diamonds are Forever is Fleming's fourth Bond novel. Like the three predecessors it is a relatively easy read and I started and finished it last night. I can finish one of these novels off in two hits. I started it before I had dinner having initially read 70 pages, and afterwards, with all the household stuff finished, I sat down and read the next 210 pages in one sitting. Sure I finished just after mid-night but you get the idea at how easy these novels are to devour.

 I've now read two novels in two nights as I greedily flew through Tracy Chevalier's lovely novel Girl With a Pearl Earring the night before. Courtesy of Blogger and its temperamentally I wrote a review and lost it as I posted it due to a Blogger glitch. Just imagine a guy stamping his feet, swearing and cursing, and you get the general idea! Not impressed at all as it took me an hour to write!

 Diamonds are Forever is also the seventh of the Bond movies. It saw Sean Connery return as Bond after George Lazenby's foolish, career ending decision not to continue on in the role. At the time I believe Connery was the highest paid actor in the world for reprising the role. Of course after this he quit permanently only appearing in the unofficial Bond movie, Never say Never Again, which was nothing more than a Thunderball re-make. As with all the movies it veers well away from the novel. Several scenes are lifted from the novel but it is virtually unrecognisable. The diamonds in the book are smuggled into the States to be distributed illegally by a gang. In the movie they are used in satellite laser. Also the villains in the novel are the Spang brothers, but in the movie it is Bond's arch-enemy Blofeld.

 I believe diamond smuggling was of personal interest to Ian Fleming and he wrote a non-fictional work on the subject in the 1960's. Apparently it is very similar to Diamonds are Forever and many have mistaken it as a Bond novel because of the similarities. Like its predecessors this novel has also dated and Fleming has toned down some of his sentiments. Maybe he was advised to as the anti-American feel is less than in Live and Let Die. For instance Bond and Leiter have a discussion on the merits of American and European sports cars instead of Fleming, through Bond, just being totally dis-missive of American cars. Also Fleming is less dis-missive of American food than in Live and Let Die. It is a better novel to read for this toned downedness, as I'm not really interested in reading an authors somewhat racist/sexist/xenophobic views.

 In dated terms we see Bond with 'the girl' in this novel, Tiffany Case, fly from L.A to New York to board the Queen Elizabeth and the flight taking ten hours. I'm sure it doesn't take that long now but it is indicative of the fact the novel is 58 years old! Also the car Felix Leiter drives is a Studillac with a top speed of 130mph. Most high powered cars today are able to top that easily! Funnily enough Fleming uses the Studillac in the novel because he drove one in the States and was impressed with it. I suppose he toned down his feelings on American cars because of this!

 After finishing this novel one glaring thing hit me in the differences between the novels and the movies. That is the fact that in the novels Bond caries around a Beretta with a puny .25 calibre. In the very first movie Dr. No M makes Bond swap his Beretta for the more reliable and potent 7.65mm PPK, a very fine hand gun. I was amazed than a 00 was armed with such a puny hand gun in the novels. Sure it is small and relatively flat pistol, but with a 'license to kill' I'd have expected him to armed with something more that what in all reality is little more than a pea shooter!! But here I again  had to back off and separate the Bond of the novels from that of the movies.

 The other thing is that besides Sean Connery none of the other Bonds smoked. Bond of the novels is a seventy a day smoker!! and has his own cigarettes custom made with three gold stripes just above the filter. It isn't exactly what you would expect from a secret agent who is supposedly super fit is it?! Yet it is a sign of the times as smoking wasn't the social taboo it has since become.

In short then Diamonds are Forever is a step forward from Fleming especially in regards to his private views. I found the novel well paced with no flat spots. I found there was no single scene that stood out as in the previous three novels. I'm just not sure that the premise fits Bond as a secret agent though. Diamond smuggling comes across more as an Interpol area of expertise rather than that of 'Universal exports'! I've started From Russia With Love and it feels more like proper Bond territory in with dealing with Smersh again rather than Mob type gangs in America.

 So far of the four novels I have read I liked Live and Let Die the most. It has a tension in several of its scenes that the other three novels don't come close too.  You may also like to know that in Diamond are Forever Felix Leiter has left the CIA after his encounter with the shark in Live and Let Die. He has lost a hand and has a limp, and now works for a private firm. Fleming wrote 14 Bond novels and Leiter was written out of his CIA role very early on. It is a very clear deviation from the movies where he is CIA in all of them...and even changes colour in Casino Royale!! What an amazing trick!!

 Another quick, easy reading Bond novel, but very,very dated.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Moonraker - Ian Fleming

Cover from the first edition.
 ' Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like to have between her sheets'.

 Raymond Chandler.

 Moonraker is the third of Ian Fleming's Bond novels. It seems logical to read them in order but I notice Fleming has fallen in the annoying trap of many authors who repeat information from their previous novels. I see the point as it introduces things to readers who may not have read the preceding novels, but to one who has it is somewhat pointless. In Moonraker Fleming un-necessarily tells the reader about Bond's Bentley, which is an almost word for word description from Casino Royale. One author who is particularly bad for this is Bernard Cornwell in his Sharpe's and Starbuck novel's.

 This Bond outing all but follows on from Live and Let Die. At the end of that novel Bond was given two weeks leave and in Moonraker he has been back at headquarters for only a matter of days. This novel has a superb beginning and the first 100 pages are rippers, certainly the most enjoyable of the three novels so far. It takes Bond into Blades, the very exclusive London club where M has concerns over multi-millionaire Hugo Drax cheating at cards. Bond delves back into his Casino Royale training by a card shark to beat Drax at his own game and fleece him for 15,000 Pound. The Blades scene is wonderfully described,  but the gambling is brilliant and beats that of Casino Royale hands down.

 Moonraker was published in 1955 and yet the American version wasn't called that until 1960. In the States it was initially titled Too Hot too Handle. The Spy Who Loved Me was the only other Bond novel to have an initially different U.S. title. The reasons are rather obscure now unfortunately for anyone interested. Moonraker also was somewhat 'Americanised' as it was felt that U.S readers wouldn't understand many of the British idioms. For instance in the bridge game in Blades the "knave of hearts" is changed to the " jack of hearts".

 The movie adaptation is almost unrecognisable from the novel. In the novel Hugo Drax is an ex-Nazi soldier trained by Otto Skorzeny who used a wounding to wendle his way into English society. He makes a fortune from rare metals, and becomes well respected. He then develops the Moonraker, a missile capable of hitting any European capital. It is seen as a deterrent and Drax hailed as a hero ( 'peace in our time, again' ). Of course as the plot develops his Nazi past is revealed and Bond discovers. along with sex bomb special Branch agent Gala Brand. that on its test flight Drax has the war head armed with a Russian sourced atomic bomb. He plans to detonate it over London in reprisal for Germany's defeat at the hands of the British during the war ( not too mention his personal loathing of 'this filthy isle' ).

 Of course Bond saves the day and the missile detonates in the North Sea along with a Russian submarine sent to whisk Drax off to safety. The movie adaptation varies greatly because Albert Broccoli wanted to cash in on the success of Star Wars and give Moonraker a space incursion. Again like Live and Let Die a scene from the novel was incorporated into another movie. In this case Drax's line to Bond after he losses the 15,000 Pounds says to him ' Spend it wisely, Mister Bond'. The line was used in Octopussy after Roger Moore had won at backgammon with the cheats loaded dice.

 Moonraker is also unique in that this is the only novel outside of the short stories that Bond doesn't get the girl. At the end Gala Brand meets Bond who intended to take her to France for a ravishing good time, but he gets politely brushed off as she tells him that ' I'm too marry that man over there'.

 Again with Moonraker if you have been filled with the movies like me it can be strange adjusting to the novels. The story lines are generally changed beyond recognition of the novels and if you read Moonraker expecting space stations and laser battles you will be disappointed. But as a novel it is a very good follow on from Live and Let die, and yet I think Let Die was a superior read. Moonraker has that brilliant beginning but goes a bit flat for the next hundred pages until it picks up again with Bond in a rip roaring car chaser after Drax and the finale with the missile. Suffice to say after the beating he received in Live and Let Die he gets another good one in Moonraker!!

 Another easily read novel. Not quite as good as its predecessor but it does have the best Bond scene of the first three novels set in Blades in my opinion. At 302 pages it is also the longest of the first three. Also it possibly has the most 'Ian Fleming ' in it. There is a bit of sexism at the start, and  is based on some of Fleming's wartime intelligence work, especially T- Force which he himself established. I believe he researched rockets for the novel and based Drax's research centre in Kent as it was a part of England he was particularly fond of.

 Read especially for the first 100 pages as they are superb, and the best writing of Fleming's in his first three James Bond novels.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Live And Let Die - Ian Fleming

Cover from the first edition.

'If you want an extra navel, Mister Bond, you can have one. I have six of them in this gun.'

Mr. Big to James Bond. 

 Another one bites the dust...oops! that's Queen isn't it? And yet it could easily be the title of a Bond novel couldn't it?! I read this, the second of Ian Fleming's Bond novels, over two nights. It is only 272 pages long and with such big print it was easy reading.

 The first thing to notice over Casino Royale is how far Fleming had developed as a writer. Live and Let Die is a much taunter novel that its predecessor. Casino Royale is a fine debut novel but Live and Let Die is streets ahead of it. Fleming still engages his simple writing style but the action sequences are fuller and the tension ratcheted up further. I liked the movie adaptation which I believe was one of the stronger Roger Moore outings. It is the usual deviation from the novel but it does capture its essence, especially the tension.

 The second thing of note is the datedness. Ian Fleming's, and possibly many other's, attitudes to the American Black community comes through. He is quite dismissive of Black culture. Remember this is just before the Civil Rights movement came to the fore. It appears that Fleming was a racist, and he sure isn't impressed with the Black community of the time. He really has a quiet, smug dig at the way they spoke. Nor is he impressed with American food ( especially the eggs and coffee ), or their cars!! It is amazing, and a unique historical snapshot of prevailing 1950's European opinions of America in general. When I read Flemings words I was surprised that this volume was ever published in the States for its almost anti-Black/American attitudes. To us today it would appear quaint, and certainly mis-guided, but in its day Fleming was only mirroring a popular outlook. Fortunately this attitude was left out of the movies.

 One scene is unusual in that it is from this novel and not used in the movie of the same title. I refer to the scene where Felix Leiter is intentionally mauled by a shark. If you know your 007 then you will be aware that this scene appeared in License to Kill. I think it was left out of Live and Let Die because the plot was changed from the novels as to be incompatible, and yet fit well into License to Kill's.

 Two scenes in the novel stand out for me though. The scene where Bond first encounters Mr. Big is very similar to how it plays out in the movie. It is quite tense and Bond has his left little finger broken. He is to be killed but escapes after killing three of Mr. Big's goons. The second stand out scene is the end where Bond and Solitaire are dragged behind Mr. Big's boat. They are to be bloodied up for the sharks and barracuda by first dragging them over some coral. Of course the mine explodes and bond escapes and gets the girl!! It may be dated pace wise but it still has an appeal. ( Actually Fleming has Bond encounter a swarm of frenzied Barracudas earlier as he attached the limpet mine to Mr. Big's boat. It is a chilling, well described scene that will make your skin crawl ). The scenes in Jamaica are well described as Fleming delves into his own observations and knowledge of Jamaica from living there whilst writing the Bond novels.

 Live and Let die then is a real step forward from Casino Royale. As a character James Bond in the reader's mind will make a giant leap away from that of the movies. Throughout Casino Royale I kept trying to picture Daniel Craig, and yet with Land Let Die I at no time saw Roger Moore in my minds eye. The Bond of the novels had crystallised. Some of the attitudes are now dated and quite funny really as they are very much 1950's. I didn't take them too seriously. This then is a better and more rewarding novel than its predecessor. The action sequences are stronger, and Bond is a more palpable figure.

 A good enjoyable read that will not tax too much time or effort. Dated yes, but the Bond excitement is still there for all to enjoy.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Prisoner - Thomas M. Disch

' I am not a number, I am a free man '.

Number 6 to number 2.

 The novel The Prisoner is quite unique in that it is based on television series. Most movies or television series are based on novels so this is very unusual. It is of course not totally unknown as many of the Doctor Who episodes were written into novels. If you know your music you will know Iron Maiden wrote a song called The Prisoner which opened with the quote above, and appears on The Number of the Beast album. They also wrote The Village which appears on their next studio album Powerslave.

 The television series played in the late 1960's and starred Patrick McGoohan in the lead role. I vaguely remember re-runs of it in the 1970's as a kid but found it somewhat bizarre and never got into it. As a series it was well received and very popular in it's day. ( It was almost re-made in 2008 and stared Ian McKellan as number 2 ). I suppose the positive reception lead to the sanctioning of this novel to cash in on that success. Fair enough, but is it any good?

 First off I can't compare it against the series because as stated I haven't really seen it. But I can critique it as a stand alone novel. Thomas M. Disch was an American author born in Iowa who wrote predominately science fiction novels. Why he ended up writing this I haven't been able to find out. It is just one of those small pieces of information that is of interest even though it is somewhat obscure. After reading the novel I am very keen on watching the series just to compare the two and see how much, if in anyway, Disch has added or changed anything.

 As a novel I liked it as Disch uses a very interesting writing style. It isn't difficult to read but he still uses words in an intriguing way which adds to the sci-fi feel of the novel. As sci-fi this is a type I particularly like. It isn't overly technology heavy having only two sci-fi moments, namely the rubbery balls that guard the village and Number 1 as a replicant. The rest is based around the brain washing of the villagers which is quite a chilling premise. I can only compare it to George Orwell's sci-fi masterpiece 1984. It has the same nightmare quality to it and for the first part of the book ( which is divided into three ),  it is really creepy as Number Six, who is never named throughout as anything else, finds himself in a village where things are annoyingly vague. This leads to him and the reader asking a multitude of questions, just what is going on?

 I really enjoyed the first part of the novel. The questions and lack of answers are frightening. Disch uses language beautifully to give an air of vagueness and quiet annoyance ( through Number 6 ) at not being able to fathom what is going on. This is sci-fi at its very best. The second part racks up the questions and tension, and provides a stunning escape by Number 6 whilst Number 2 tries to prevent him. This scene is the best part of the book and I found myself totally enrapt in it. So many questions rush through your mind and yet none of them are ever answered. It is funny because I never felt like I wanted to know as much as I wanted Number 6 to get out!!

 The third part is an anti-climax and a bland, flat disappointment though. After the build up the last part is filled up with a play, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. This last part is relatively short and the play takes up too much time and I found myself bored by it. After the tension of the first two parts this fizzled and I feel it was out of place. Sure it was used as a cover for an escape but it was just too long. Thankfully though this mistake is somewhat rectified at the end of the play when Number 6 is made Number 2.

 Becoming Number 2 though is an incredibly well conceived red-herring. At first it appears he won't resist, and yet he seemingly does. In hindsight there are a few cunning clues to show it was a charade. As it all unfolds, and number 6's seeming pliant behaviour is revealed to be an act, the reader knows how and why they, along with Number 1, were so easily sucked in. For all his brain washing and confusion Number 6/2 has an incredible ability to hold on to who he is. In the series some didn't like the end as it didn't clear up the unanswered questions. Many don't like this type of premise but in this case it is perfect. It is meant to be like that as it adds mystery and a feeling of mental imprisonment. The reader can hence palpably feel the desire of Number 6 to just escape and be himself. He really doesn't want to know anything as his id is more important than the whys.

 The Prisoner then is an unusual and intriguing sci-fi novel. Very Orwellian in scope and premise it is both chilling and nightmarish, not withstanding the brilliant fact that nothing is ever answered or clarified. The first two parts are excellent but the third falls a bit flat with an over long play. Fortunately though the ending rectifies this flat spot. This third part also saw a drop off of the writing style. The first two parts are written in an unusual prose which is genuine literature in the process, but for the last third it was just common run of the mill prose and an unfortunate let down.. As a novel it is both a story and literature, for which the reader wins in both regards.

 A well worth while read if you like sci-fi of this style, which I most certainly do. If are looking for something that is just a little bit different, being off beat in its prose and delivery, then this is the novel for you. Not perfect, just different. ( Amazon has this novel rated with 3 1/2 stars out of 5 which I think is fair ).

Friday, June 17, 2011

Casino Royale - Ian Fleming

Cover from the first edition.
 If you have flicked through this blog you should have seen my review on another James Bond novel, The Authorised Biography. There I quite clearly state I'm a Bond fan, but that is based on the movies as I have before Casino Royale only read one Ian Fleming Bond novel! After reading this last night I realise how difficult it is to separate the Bond of the movies and the Bond of the novels because in all reality they are completely different.

 The Bond of the movies who most resembles the Bond of the novels is Timothy Dalton ( particularly ) and Daniel Craig. Once you read the novels you instantly see the gulf between them and the movies characterisations. Dalton's two outings as 007 were recognised for being darker in mood then the previous Bond films which is in character with the novels. Apparently during filming Dalton was seen to be reading the novels in between takes. One of the more lasting quotes I have read of the Dalton movies is that 'There was a lot of Bond going on'. Daniel Craig is more the Bond of the novels too. Dalton isn't my favorite movie Bond even though his representation is closet to the novels than any other actors.

 In the movies there is a lot of humorous lines and moments that aren't in the novels. In them Bond is a much harder, colder man and there is no humour at all. He beds women left right and centre but it isn't with the sex appeal and charm of his movie counter-part. It is more for sport than for pleasure and he is somewhat sexist in his feelings about women. But the real difference is his lack of frivolity and utter seriousness, there is no ad lib throw away lines there at all.

 As stated it is difficult for me to start reading the novels after 30 years of watching the movies as you expect the Bond of the novels to read like that of the movies. It will take me several novels before I really get the feel of the novel Bond and clear my mind of the movie Bond. It is funny too because we all know Bond and yet the novels don't really go into too much characterisation. Casino Royale was Fleming's first Bond novel but he doesn't introduce Bond as such and just rips straight into the plot. It is a unusual feeling and it shows how much of an impact the movies have on our minds concerning Bond compared to his novel alter-ego.

 Casino Royale is of course the first bond novel Ian Fleming wrote. One must wonder if he could ever have envisioned the beast he was to unleash ( much like J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter!! ). The novel was almost an instant sensation. By today's standards the action is somewhat pedestrian but in 1953 this was edge of your sit thriller material. I was personally surprised by how little the novel hadn't dated though. Sure the pace isn't as fast as we of today are used to but the writing style and use of language is still fresh, and could have been written last year. It is a tad bit simplistic but in many respect that is a good thing as it means everybody from advanced readers, to the not so advanced, can approach, read, and enjoy Bond in his novelised form.

 If you have seen the movie then I'm pleased to say it was an excellent adaptation of the novel. There are a few necessary changes just to bring it into the 21st Century but I must say I'm impressed with how a modern movie followed a 60 year old novel so well. The changes are quite minor, for instance instead of Le Chiffre being a French communist he is a terrorist, and the game in the casino is Texas Hold 'Em, and not Baccarat. The scene from the movie where Bond is poisoned is changed from the novel where he has a gun pushed into the small of his back, but it still has the same essence. The crash is the same except in the novel Le Chiffre had put spikes on the road and not Vesper.

 The scene where Bond is tortured by Le Chiffre is exactly the same but it being 1953 at no time does Fleming actually use the words where le Chiffre is hitting him. But believe me there is no doubt in the readers mind where!! It is actually well written and I think the movie adapted the scene extremely well. The movie ends slightly differently than the movie in the way Vesper Lynd kills herself, ( in the novel it is after revealing in a letter to Bond she was a double agent ). But the movie does follow the novel in that Bond fell in love and was going to leave the service after marrying her. After her revelation, and the knowledge of how she was forced into being a double agent, Bond becomes harder in his attitudes towards his job and losses the doubts he was having as to killing in cold blood for his country.

James Bond as sketched by Ian Fleming.
 In short it takes some time to re-adjust in your mind the Bond of the movies, as he is quite different from that of the novels. He is very cold, hard, calculating man with no sense of humour. He hasn't the easy sex-appeal of the movie Bond but still has no trouble with bedding women. As novels they are very easy to read, and I read Casino Royale in several hours. They still have a freshness about them that surprised me even though the pace has dated. But if you love the Bond movies then I think the novels are a must. I also think you'll recognise Dalton and Craig in the novelised Bond as they both mirror his coldness of character.

 I'm not sure what purists of the novels think of the movies. For me personally I'm a fan of both as James Bond is now such an iconic figure that has brought immense entertainment to the world in both literature and cinematic forms. Read Casino Royale and of the origins of this most famous of characters.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess

 'O, my brothers'.

'What's it going to be then, eh?'

'Your humble narrator'.

'....I would like to give them the old in-out in-out real savage with lots of ultra-violence'.


 Anthony Burgess' dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange has been on my 'to read' list for some time now. I read it last night as it is only 200 pages long and once I started I couldn't stop. I'm sure...or should it be, I hope, you have all heard of this famous of novels and its equally famous film adaptation. If not then for your own sake get a copy of both ASAP!!

 I was fortunate enough to see Stanley Kubrick's adaptation on the big screen 20 years and have been mesmerized by it ever since. I'm not usually one for dystopia/utopia type genres of film or literature but A Clockwork Orange is an exception to the rule. The film follows the novel extremely well in it's moral premise, but it can't replicate Burgess' masterful use of slang. And here I will leave off from film/novel comparisons out of necessity, because the novel is an incredible tour de force of literature...but not in a classical sense.

 Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange has written a novel that is both searing in its philosophy and use of language. Burgess had a interest as a linguist and in the novel anti-hero Alex, a very unreliable narrator, speaks to the reader in a first person perspective. But it is how he does it that lifts this novel above anything you can possibly imagine or have ever read. Burgess wrote Orange as an experiment in the use language, especially the use of slang. Alex speaks to us in a form of 'Argot', a secretive way of speaking commonly used among criminals so as outsiders cannot understand what is being said. But Burgess takes it further by inventing 'Nardot', a fusing of Russian and Cockney rhyming slang. The result is a remarkable piece of Anglo-Russian slang literature.

 I knew nothing about this when I started the novel and from page one wondered what it was all about!! But surprisingly I found that I instinctively knew what each slang word meant as Burgess shows immense structural skills with his sentences. Each word is perfectly crafted so the reader can instantly understand it as they encounter it in its respective sentence. It is a beautifully done and I was quite in awe in of Burgess skill and delivery. Here is a sample of his words:

sinny - cinema, tick-tocker - heart, rook - arm, viddy - see, gulliver -head, glazzies - eyes, krovvy - blood, rot - mouth, pischa - food, govoreet - talk, minoota's - minutes, smecking - laughing, tolchok - punch, veck - person, toofles - slippers, zoobies - teeth, gorlo - throat, nogas  - feet, itied - walked, yahzick - tongue , horrowshow - good/great, biblio - library, a cancer - cigarette, pletcho - shoulder, and so and so forth.

 In prison or 'statja' ( state prison ), as Alex calls it his slang is called 'The dialect of the tribe', by the doctors who examine him. Like I previously stated all these slang words are quickly and easily understood.  It becomes easier still as they are repeated often enough that they become very familiar in their respective usage. It may appear daunting but believe me it is so skillfully written you will surprised how quickly you pick it up and enjoy it.

 Behind the slang though is a serious philosophical dystopian novel. It was written in 1963 about a futuristic England where the criminal classes have taken over the nights and people stay in-doors. Alex is a vicious 15 year old who loves 'savage in-out in-out' ( rape ), and lots of the 'ultra-violence', no explanation needed really is there?..he likes beating people up.  The novel is about detrimental societal characteristics and the fundamental importance of moral choice. In essence it is a look at how, and whether the morality and choice of the individual over-rides that of the state.

 In prison for murder Alex decides to undergo the Ludovic treatment to get out quicker. The prison pastor distances himself from the treatment and warns Alex of his choice and asks him, ' Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed on him?' Powerful stuff, and this is where the novel gets serious in earnest as Alex has his personal power of choice taken from him. Of course it leads to him being 'cured', ( 'He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He also ceases to be a creature of moral choice' ). Here we see the crux of the novel's moral, is it right to take away a person's freedom of speech and action in the interests of the state? I think we know the answer, no it isn't, as that is the step towards totalitarianism.

 Alex leaves prison with these words ringing in his ears, ' You have no power of choice any longer. You are committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable of only good'. The treatment doesn't control Alex's urges towards violence but makes him incapable of carrying them out. Of course we know he ends up trying to kill himself and the state having to reverse the treatment. Which then sees Alex returning to his old ways stating, 'Yes, I was cured alright!' ( Who of you that have seen the film can ever forget the closing scene as Alex says those words??! ).

 In the original American release of the novel the final chapter was omitted as it was thought American audiences wouldn't accept it. In the chapter Alex renounces his ways and wants to have a family etc. He suddenly realises that violence is wrong and that he has 'grown up'. He is only 18!! The chapter is controversial and has divided opinions, but I like it and think it belongs in the final novel. Burgess wrote it so it should be there. Some say it isn't in the spirit of Alex but I say it is in the spirit of the moral Burgess is purporting. It is about freedom of choice and how it can't be imposed, and to attempt it is morally wrong. Alex in the final chapter realises this and yet makes a moral choice to change from bad to good. It is is his choice alone and not one that is enforced on him.

 A Clockwork orange is a quite brilliant work. Not only has it a powerful morality it asks some very searching questions, and is a very fine piece of literature in the process. The slang usage is easily understood. It adds to the over whelming feeling of disgust and repugnance the reader feels for Alex as he refuses to conform and act decently towards society when giving the clear choice to. His first hand perspective is wonderful and I think any reader will hang off his every word.

 A quite unique piece of genuine literature, which, like its famous film adaptation, is unmissable and quite frankly compulsory reading/viewing.
A better known cover of the novel taken from the film poster.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The 39 Steps - John Buchan

Cover from the first edition.
' I let out with my left, and had the satisfaction of seeing him measure his length in the gutter. '

Richard Hannay punches out Marmaduke Jopley.

 You may or may not have heard of John Buchan's novel The 39 Steps as you are more likely to have heard of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film rendition of it ( which was far from faithful to the novel ). Either way the title is very distinctive, and sadly as a novel I think over shadowed by its three film adaptations. It was written in 1915 and was initially released as a serial before being published as a full length novel. It is only 149 pages long but John Buchan uses a brevity of words to write a short and engaging novel.

 The 39 Steps was written by Buchan when he was laid up ill with a duodenal ulcer. It is the first of a series involving his character Richard Hannay, an Englishman who made his fortune in Rhodesia and returned to the 'Home Country'. He is an all action hero with a stiff upper lip and an uncanny knack of getting himself out of any seemingly impossible situation. John Buchan called the Hannay series as a 'shocker', a novel involving suspense, politics, and personal drama set against a backdrop of adventure where the events are highly unlikely and the reader only just able to believe them. In other words credibility is stretched! Sounds like a modern Hollywood movie doesn't it?! But all the same fun and entertainment prevails, and that is their ultimate purpose.

 I really liked this novel even though it is very short and easily read within a matter of hours. I've always admired the skill needed to write such a novel of brevity and yet still able to add in so much. Here the action starts in London, moves to Scotland, back to London, and finishes on the south east coast. It feels like a journey even though it is quickly read. Apparently the novel was extremely popular when released especially among men in the trenches of the Great War for its element of escapism.

To my modern sensibilities there was a quaintness and charm to the novel. It is very early Twentieth Century in writing style with no swearing or bloodshed, even though there is a murder. It was so noticeable and a refreshing change from modern novels where every detail is minutely examined. Buchan does it with a minimum of words and yet still manges to perfectly capture a scene. For me ,even though this is a brief read, it is still a genuine work of literature. Because it is brief Buchan has shown extraordinary skill in writing so much with so little word use. As a novel it has dated as we aren't shocked by the 'shock' genre anymore as we see it on our big and small screens every night. But if the reader reads it as a 1915 novel they will enjoy it more and should revel in Buchan's literary skills.

 Funnily enough many of the covers of re-printed editions feature a bi-plane on the cover chasing Hannay in Scotland. In the book Hannay does get chased by a plane but he very clearly states it as a mono-plane!!! So the covers are incorrect against Buchan's text!! The scene on the above cover is one from the novel though! The thing also with the three film adaptations is that even though Hitchcock's is highly regarded the 1978 version is considered the one that follows the book more faithfully than any other. It was also adapted to a British  television series in 2008 which had a tenuous resemblance to the novel.

 A short read that is a good example of an action novel from the early Twentieth Century. Dated yes , both as a genre and language wise, but still an interesting worth while read. It is mainly regarded now as the novel that originated the innocent man on the run genre. In many respects John Buchan's hero Richard Hannay pre-dated the other quintessential English literary heroes Biggles, The Saint, James Bond, etc, by many years.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Alamein - Iain Gale

 I was extremely reluctant to read this after Four Days in June, but I wasn't going to the library for another few days so had nothing else to delve into. I hope to keep this review short and sweet because there really isn't a lot I can say about this novel.

 It is in the same style as the last novel and looks at the Battle of Al Alamein through the eyes of Montgomery, Guigand, Rommel and a few other lesser known names. The writing I will say is better than Four Days in June being less flat and dull, but it still suffers from being too simplistic. This sort of writing is insulting and should be put into the young adults section of a library because it is way below even an average adults reading ability. It really is poor writing with absolutely nothing to commend about it.

 Gale at the end of novel boasts that he has read numerous books on the battle and says he got a good feel for the battle. I say bullshit!! He writes several scenes involving New Zealand and Australian soldiers and yet fails miserably to portray them as such They feel like soldiers from any-wheres-ville!! I mean it is so bad he has a couple of German soldiers call each other 'old man'! I mean how BAD is that! No nation's soldiers feel at all like they are from their particular country. The Aussies come across as a bunch of fairies and not the tough foul mouthed Diggers they were. The Germans are more English than German...arrggghhh it is just appalling. The lack of characterisation is some of the worst I've ever encountered. It is extremely poor and I can't believe a novel like this was ever published.

 It is so bad that in several scenes some American Red Cross volunteers are standing around yakking, sharing cigarettes, etc, while they have severely wounded men waiting in their ambulance. I mean how inaccurate is that?! Also scenes with officers giving orders almost read like a walk in the park and not of those in the middle of a war zone. Just poor, very poor.

 And that is it. I cannot in anyway find anything else to write. If you are like me and grew up in the late 1970's and the early 80's you'll remember the Commando comics well. Alamein in essence is a Commando comic but without the pictures. It is terrible and is nothing more than what  a schoolboy of 14 would find appealing.

 Terrible. An insult to your intellect and reading ability as it has no real redeeming features what so ever. AVOID!! ( If you need confirmation then go to and read the reviews there. This has an average rating of 1 out of 5 stars. Says it all does it not??! ).

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Four Days In June - Iain Gale

 I am a fan of historical fiction even though some scholars consider it frivolous and pointless. I had an argument with a lecturer several years ago on the merits of historical fiction. He isn't a particularly good historian in my opinion and is a complete bore in his opinions! What I shot him done with was the amount of scholars who actually write historical fiction!! Take Frenchman Max Gallo for instance who has written non-fictional works on The Night of the Long Knifes, etc, and yet made a name for himself writing novels about Napoleon. It is a valid genre and very popular with the reading community to my mind.

 I like the genre as it can provide an easy starting point in reading history. It uses real events, dates, people, etc, in an easy introductuary way, so when the reader moves onto non-fictional works they have a basic framework in place to work from. I learnt a huge amount of history through fictional readings as a boy and into my late teens. It made reading non-fictional history much easier and I'm a strong believer in it's worth to anyone interested in history.

 Iain Gale in Four Days of June has written a somewhat simplistic over view of the Battle of Waterloo. I like his idea of describing the battle through various historical figures and his attempt to get into their minds and 'see' the battle through their eyes.. He takes us through Napoleon, Ney, Ziethen, De Lancey, and Mcdonell, as his main protagonsits of the battle. Admittedly it isn't an original way of writing but it gives Gale brevity in what is a rather basic and simplistic novel.

 Unfotunatley Gale has also written a carbon copy of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's novels. They read the same way with the same basic writing style. I just couldn't help but escape the feeling of deja vu after having read Sharpe's Waterloo only a few months ago. It was one of the weaker Sharpe's novs in my opinion and Gale has written something even weaker. The problem is not so much a lack of knowledge as it is a lack of actually having been there. When you compare this against The Boat and All Quiet on the Western Front, and even the novels of Sven Hassel this is somewhat lame. His descriptions of the battle would satisfy a schoolboy, but for a hardened reader of military fiction and non-fiction they are somewhat simplistic and unsatisfying.

 The novel is only 358 pages long and the print is balloon sized so you think it would be a breeze to read wouldn't you? Wrong! Gale has a real flatness to his writing that fails to engage the reader. His prose is dull and  totally bland. There is just no zing, zip, or excitement in his writing. I actually found it difficult to read because I felt Gale had over simplified his writing style and in the process taken the life out of his English usage. I just felt it slightly insulting as the novel feels more at the reading level of a teenager than of an advanced adults reading abilities. It is funny how such basic writing can be difficult to read and digest. I honestly slogged my way to the end and felt myself forcing myself to continue in the face of wanting to throw the thing aside in despair!!

 So I'm afraid in short Iain Gale has written a poor man's Bernard Cornwell. I think the Sharpe's novels are somewhat basic but they are far more readable than this. And that is its major problem. If Gale engaged a better writing style then this wouldn't be a bad read. Its premise isn't new but for a novice on Waterloo it provides a very clear, consise overview of the battle, and is a good stepping stone into more basic non-fictional works. I'm just not sure who Gale is aiming the novel at as it is overly simplistic and hence extremely bland. An adult reader of any real literary ability will find it poorly written as younger readers will more likely  be the ones to get much from it.

 AVOID, as it is poorly written and far too basic if you enjoy historical fiction. If you want to read great historical fiction then I still say Leon Uris is the master and can't be beaten. Iain Gale should read a few of his works and see how it is done. Four Days in June is too basic, bland and boring in every way. A good idea that fails through being far too limited and superficial in scale and prose. Go and read the Sharpe's novels instead!!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Pickwick Papers - Charles Dickens

 ' A grin that agitated his countenance from one auricular organ to the other'. 

A line from the novel.
Cover from the first edition.

 Well after reading The Pickwick Papers my blogs' title, especially the word, mediocrity, immediately fills my little head! As I have clearly stated in my last Dickens review I am most certainly not a literary scholar in any way. I spent many a year ( not to mention many a dollar! ) in gaining my degrees (which I have been too useless to put to good use! ), and read literature for pleasure. The problem is now that I have a literature blog going I find myself in the unenviable position of feeling totally inadequate for what I'm attempting! How can such a mediocrity as myself even begin to write a review on one of the true masters of the English language for instance???!

 The answer quite simply is..??..hmmm!! It is certainly an interesting position and I admit to real troubles in how to write anything worth while or of note. Where to start? Here is as good place as any...Charles Dickens was only a mere boy/man of twenty four when he penned the 830 pages of The Pickwick Papers. It is an astonishing thing to behold that such a young man could write such a satirical, observant, and humorous work. 

 I wrote in my very first post on this blog, Oliver Twist, that I read that novel first instead of The Pickwick Papers because it was a shorter, simpler Dickens work to start off with. In hindsight I made the right decision because Oliver Twist, and The Old Curiosity Shop helped me ease into such a long novel as this proved to be. The fact I read it in four days didn't make it any shorter I can certainly tell you! Again in my Oliver Twist post I stated I initially wanted to read all of Dickens' works in order but with Pickwick being so long I felt it was better to start with Oliver Twist as it was shorter and easier to manage first up when entering the world of Dickens. My desire to read all his novels in order is in dis-array as I have read his second novel first, his fourth novel second, and his first third!!

 I now have the undisputed Dickens masterpiece, Bleak House, left to read. I can almost hear the theme from Jaws in my ears as it circles me ominously from my ward-robe just waiting for me to pick it up and savage my little mind!!!! Near on 900 pages, it is going to be a literary challenge of the highest order. I'm glad I have three previous Dickens novels under my belt as a warm up!

 To call The Pickwick Papers a novel isn't entirely correct though. Dickens wrote it in instalments and published each as a serial which were then later published together to make a novel. It is again a re-mark able achievement considering his age. As you read the Pickwick Papers this eye on the so-called 'human condition' from such a young man is even more remarkable. Dickens uses the character of Mr. Pickwick as his own voice. He says Pickwick was naturally curious about people, but in all reality you can translate the name Pickwick for Dickens. I think in Pickwick Dickens is looking at himself much as Samuel Pepys did in his famous diary. I felt it was Dickens doing a self analysis on himself and how he viewed the going ons of the world.

 Pickwick is much older than Dickens is being somewhere in his fifties, but I think Dickens is using this as a smoke screen to disguise Pickwick as himself. In saying that Pickwick is certainly a stand alone character and one of the most memorable in English literature. He is portly, with a good nature, but sometimes prone to outbursts of anger against pettiness and straight out stupidity. He has an eagle eye for humanity and carries around a small note book in which he writes about the everyday people he meets. Dickens describes him as a man who is a 'contemplater of human nature'. 

 Throughout the novel Dickens has Pickwick travel throughout England and witness all the events and going ons of the time. During said travels he sees a political rally and subsequent the election, a cricket match, meets a snobby foreigner, talks of drunks ( 'if I felt less like a walking brandy bottle, I'd be less staggery this morning' ), the rich, greed, con men, and such like.. It is all every day stuff and yet Dickens adds his own satirical take and eye of those involved. Not all of it is complementary, but when you analyse each character Dickens is really showing the down sides of humanity rather than the up.

 The novel is a very gentle comedy and Pickwick is involved in numerous escapades of hilarity and farce. And yet behind the humour Dickens shows how these are just ordinary everyday events that happen to us all. At one stage Pickwick loses his hat in a gust of wind. Dickens describes vividly Pickwick's chase of it and describes all the pitfalls of a portly man doing so. He says to chase too hard will see the chaser accidentally step on the hat, and too slow is to lose it all together. It has the feel of farce but we see this in our daily lives. Pickwick and a companion then have a rather funny escapade with a recalcitrant horse with a mind of its own!! Needless to say hilarity ensues! Very much like the horse out of The Old Curiosity Shop.
Mr. Pickwick chases his hat!

 Pickwick then moves on to a cricket match where there is much bluster and proverbial BS spun. It is actually an interesting view of cricket in the early 19th century as it is barely recognisable to our modern game. Dickens describes how the players fielding virtually just spread themselves out piece meal. Field placements there were none!! Also it was a game played by the wealthy and was riddled with snobbery. Pickwick wasn't very impressed with what he saw!

 He then moves on and sees a political rally between the 'Blues' and 'Buffs'. Dickens himself through Pickwick quite presciently looks at politics and all its trappings. As a scene it is very good and one I particularly enjoyed as the tete a tete of the candidates ensured and how local papers were divided among both camps and slung lies and slander at each other. It may be the 19th century but nothing has changed!! Politics is still the 'demon profession' as it was in Dickens time and he describes it superbly through satire and humour.

 The humour also runs into some of the character's names. For instance Pickwick meets a foreigner of an un-specified country named Count Smorltalk...get it? Count Smalltalk!! Dickens has a quiet poke at the accents of foreigners through Count Smorltalk. Also Dickens calls one character Lord Mutanhead...get it? Lord Mutton head!! As a character he is rather air headed and Mutanhead suits him! Also he meets a purveyor of medicines who is of dubious character. Dickens calls him Nockemorf...get it? knock 'em off!! He sells medicine to the dying from whom he re-claims any which was unused, and sells it again and so on! He craftily picks his clients as one sure to die quickly though! Very subtle stuff and very humorous.

 The whole novel is full of such things. On his way Pickwick picks up man servant called Samuel who has lisp on his W's. He has an elderly father with the same lisp and their conversations are hilarious as they lisp away!! Samuel is a great character and actually as much a main protagonist as Pickwick himself. He is very loyal to Pickwick and shares in all the situations Pickwick finds himself in. Together they make the best reading in the novel.

 It is quite difficult to relate all Pickwick's observations but Dickens covers so much of the lesser traits of humanity. Pickwick goes to prison after refusing to pay some sharp lawyers his fine. So Dickens is looking at the shadier side of the law and how some lawyers use it for monetary gain rather than as upholding the law per se. Inheritance is examined as is the greed of relatives over the will, again it is the unpleasant nature of humanity Dickens is examining. But Dickens does it under the cover of humour. His character Mr. Jingle and his side kick are hilarious as two con artists that Pickwick is pursuing and eventually helps on to the right path in life. It is all feel good stuff and I like how Dickens has made it very light and humorous. He leaves his more serious look at humanity for his later works.

 Overall I enjoyed this the first of Dickens' novels but I have two issues with it. I found it a touch too long. Sure it was initially published as a serial but as a combined work the 900 pages by about the 700 page mark were too much. I struggled with the last 200 pages as it all began to feel a bit the same. I put it down for a week and then finished it off but I still think it too long.  Maybe some of the stories that Pickwick listens to could be edited out for brevity sakes. The second thing that really did annoy me after awhile was Dickens use of the word ' ejaculated'. The characters were almost every page 'ejacualting' their words. Using that word continuously really got to me and I cursed when ever I subsequently came across it. It is along novel but I think with Dickens command of the English language he could have inter-posed ejaculated more often with something else. I just couldn't escape what else that word connotes!! 

 Yes, quite an incredible feat of literature from such a young man. His eye for the human condition is staggering and all too true. So many of Pickwick's observations are as relevant about humanity today as they were in the 19th century. It shows that nothing much changes really. As a read it is amusing with some real chuckle out loud moments. I just found it a touch too long and difficult to sustain over 900 pages. I found towards the end the novel blended into itself as if Dickens was trying to stretch things out and add in as much as possible. But if you can read through it then you'll find this a very entertaining, humorous, and very observant satirical novel.

 Recommended as all Charles Dickens novels are!!