Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Man With The Golden Gun - Ian Fleming

Cover from the first edition.
 TMWTGG was published after Ian Fleming's death in August of 1964. It was published in 1965 and was instantly shrouded in controversy as many felt Fleming had written very little of it himself. It is rumoured Kingsley Amis finished and edited the novel after Flemings death. Yet this has been denied by various sources. But it does appear that Fleming did complete the novel and was going to revise in Jamaica, but died before able to do so.

 TMWTGG then is Fleming's penultimate Bond novel. In my review of You Only Live Twice I stated I felt that that novel wasn't as strong as many of its predecessors, putting it down to Fleming being ill. Many criticise TMWTGG for being somewhat empty as a Bond novel, and at only 205 pages it is more a novella than a novel. But I think it was stronger than YOLT even with its brevity. Somehow by breaking Bond in YOLT and then have him suffer amnesia Fleming opened a new door in what to do with Bond.

 IN TMWTGG Bond turns up after a year and tries to assassinate M, as the KGB had taken the opportunity to brainwash him while he was in Russia. M then decides to send him on a virtual suicide mission to prove himself fit again as an agent, or die in the process. For me the premise really brought out the best in Bond, and if anything he bounces back harder, and more ruthless than ever. By the end of the novel he appears more confident than he ever did before, having a steeliness that is somewhat chilling. If Fleming had lived it would have been interesting to see where he took Bond.

 Funnily enough before it was published in novel form it was serialised in Playboy between April and July of 1965. Of course it was adapted to film in 1974, being the 9th adaptation, and second to star Roger Moore. The film has virtually nothing in common with the novel. Because of its brevity it obviously had to fleshed out substantially. All that remained was the title and the names of the characters. Major changes also saw Scaramanga's base changed from Jamaica to China, and the sugar cane industry substituted for solar energy.

 In the novel Scaramangea uses a gold plated .45 Colt revolver whereas in the film he uses a customised .17 calibre pistol ( a puny calibre to say the least, and one wonders why Fleming picked such a small calibre for such a cold hearted, ruthless, gun for hire ). He also uses gold tipped bullets, whereas in the novel he hand loads them himself using a gold core encased in silver, and dum dums the tips. This was the first film that deviated markedly from the novel. It is understandable why, but as a film TMWTGG is considered one of the weaker of the franchise. I don't consider it a bad film even though it is undoubtedly a lesser outing. It shows that when the producers deviated from the novels the films suffered for it accordingly.

 And like all Bond novels I have to comment on Fleming's views etc. In this novel he has another dig at homosexuals. Here he comes up with the absolutely preposterous theory that gay men can't whistle!!! Scaramanga is apparently a homosexual because he can't whistle! I went into hysterics when I read this! I mean it defies belief that Fleming actually wrote such turgid nonsense and got away with it.

 Also like several of the preceding novels Fleming refers to current events of the time. Since the novel uses the Mafia in Cuba as a backdrop Castro is mentioned as is 'that missile crisis' ( which of course refers to the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis ). I laughed also because at one stage bond reads John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. Even though he had been assassinated in 1963 Fleming still writes him in as an acknowledgement to JFK's interest in his novels and the film adaptations. There is even a bridge blowing scene that refers to 'that River Kwai Stunt'. This is the first novel where Fleming infuses any sort of humour, and maybe he is borrowing something from the films in doing so?!

 But for me the most startling thing was that Fleming wrote a small indicting look at his very own England. After Bond has killed Scaramanga he says to Felix Leiter that he 'was quite a guy'. Leiter is aghast and states, 'That's the way you Limey's talk about Rommel and Donitz and Guderian. Let alone Napoleon. Once you have defeated them you make heroes out of them. Don't make sense to me, an enemy's an enemy'. I laughed as Fleming is somewhat correct.  But then the English aren't alone in that. We NZ"s have an affinity with Rommel since our own troops fought him as well.

 The Man With the Golden Gun I thought was a very solid novella. Bond bounces back superbly from his wife's death and his amnesia. As a character he comes back fitter and tougher than ever, and if Fleming had lived, then I'm sure he would have written some fine novels with this hardened Bond. But alas it wasn't to be, and there only came one more Bond outing with the,  The Living Daylights/Octopussy novella.

Monday, August 29, 2011

You Only Live Twice - Ian Fleming

Cover of the first edition.
' Stop staring at my Black Cat '.

' Why is it called that?'

' Guess!! '

 Kissy Suzuki to James Bond. I'll leave you to figure it out...wink wink!!

 You Only Live Twice is the the 12th James Bond novel and the last published while Ian Fleming was alive. The next two published novels, The Man With The Golden Gun and Octopussy/ The Living Daylights were published posthumously. YOLT was published in 1964 several months before Fleming's death and was adapted to film in 1966. It was adapted by Roald Dahl and the finished film was released in 1967. It was the film that saw Sean Connery relinquish the role for the one film, before returning for his final outing in Diamonds are Forever.

 The film adaptation was the first that deviated markedly from the novel. To be honest while it is a strong novel, I don't think it would have made a particularly good film. The film uses several characters and place names, but that is about it. It is also the novel that concluded the so-called 'Blofeld Trilogy'. In it Bond gets his revenge on Ernst Blofeld, and the repulsive Irma Bunt, by strangling him and killing her in their castle's destruction. But in the process he is badly knocked about and suffers amnesia. The novel basically ends with Bond's obituary in The Times which was written by M.

 Of course Bond is alive and slowly works out he doesn't belong in Japan. He makes his way to Vladivostok in Russia as the novel concludes. YOLT follows on from OHMSS quite well as Bond is a shattered man after his wife's murder at the hands of Blofeld. M is thinking of retiring him as his effectiveness as an agent has dropped off. But he is persuaded to give him one last chance and he is packed off to Japan. Once in Japan I thought he novel dropped of somewhat, as it became nothing more than a tourist guide on Japanese etiquette!

 But more than that Fleming is on top form again with his xenophobia. This time with the Japanese. On only the second page he gets stuck in with Bond wanting to 'demonstrate the superiority of Western instinct over the wiles of the Orient'.  Then urtherf on it goes like this '...a country with the highest suicide rate in the world.....a country with an unquenchable thirst for the bizarre, the cruel, and the terrible'. Ian Fleming actually went on a two week research trip to Japan to prepare the novel. He obviously came away thinking Japan was a country that had only left the barbarian age behind only a century before. Bond all but says so in the narrative!!

 ( And of course what would a Bond novel be without some rampant sexism??!! Here Australian Diplomatic Corp character Dikko, Henderson, smacks a girls bum so hard she nearly falls over. Bond laughs and the Aussie replies ' What's a girls' bottom for anyway?!!! ).

 So Fleming obviously thought little of Japan. He even brings to light the Japanese strategy of bombing Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into the war, instead of the more sound strategy of just fighting the British in the Pacific. Fleming just can't help but bring up the war and rub the Japanese nose in their defeat!! But then he goes on to sound off about how dumb England was to lose its pre-war colonies, and the social ills of his own country ( he especially tirades against the trade unions! ). He really was a prejudiced opinionated prig! 

 As stated the novel reads like a tourist guide at times and doesn't get 'Bond' again towards 2/3 into it. Bond is almost rail roaded into penetrating a so-called 'House of Death' to kill the mysterious Doctor Shatterhand. At first Bond doesn't realise it is Blofeld until he is shown a photo of the 'Doctor'. Suffice to say Bond gets in, gets beaten up, escapes, kills his arch nemesis and his crony bitch, and escapes to live another day. If you have seen the film believe me there is virtually nothing in it that is recognisable from the novel. The film was criticised in having Connery's Bond appearance altered to appear more Japanese like. This is actually in the novel and is one of the few things the film does follow.

 I have read that many regard YOLT as a lesser Bond novel. I tend to agree. But that must be tempered by the fact that Fleming was a seriously ill man whilst writing it and it tends to show. It isn't a good Bond novel, and while not bad, it is a let down after Thunderball and OHMSS. I think it rates with the earlier novels in quality even though it hasn't the datedness of them. But even though ill in body, he still manages to spout out his poisonous views on the world in the form of his sexism and racism/xenophobia. Even dying the leopard didn't change it's spots!

 If you are expecting the film, forget it!! Overall You Only Live Twice is an average Bond novel, but it can be forgiven somewhat in light of the fact it was written by a dying Ian Fleming.

 One thing about the success of the first Bond films was that they helped increase sales of the novels. In fact between 1962 and 1967, over 22 million Bond novels were sold worldwide!! Staggering stuff huh??!!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Ian Fleming

Cover from the first edition.
OHMSS is the 11th novel of Ian Fleming's James Bond series. It was published in 1963 and was the first Bond novel written after the start of the official Eon film series. The novel is the second in the so-called 'Blofeld Triolgy', which started with Thunderball, and ended with You Only Live Twice. The Spy Who Loved Me is considered an interlude between Thunderball and OHMSS even though Bond's Thunderball mission is alluded to. OHMSS was itself adapted to film in 1969 and was the 6th of the franchise.

 I watched the film adaptation several weeks and reviewed it on my film blog. I found it a very solid Bond film and consider it one of the best of the entire franchise. What I have found with having now read almost the entire Bond novels is that the better novels also made for the better films. OHMSS is a very fine Bond novel and unquestionably one of the best. Certainly within the top 3-4 of them all in my opinion. The film adaptation has divided opinions in regards to George Lazenby as Bond, but besides that the film is a very faithful adaption of the novel.

 I believe when OHMSS was considered as the next Bond film, Albert Broccoli wanted to make the film as close as possible to the novel. After finishing the novel late last night I think they managed extremely well. There are a few alterations but overall the film is the novel. The only glaring change was that in the novel Ernst Blofeld has a 'luxurious' head of hair, and yet in the film Telly Savalas sports his trademark bald pate!! The film isn't an exact scene for scene shooting of the novel, but everything in the novel is in the film, with some fleshing out for narrative and action purposes.

 But like all Fleming's previous novels OHMSS is riddled with his tiresome prejudices. In The Spy Who Loved Me Fleming played out his quite distasteful rape fantasises, and I'm afraid he does it again in this novel. Tracy is the daughter of a French criminal who raped her English mother. He states to Bond that she 'possessed a sub-conscious desire to be raped......well she found it...and she was me'. Distasteful to say the least, and for all that I like about the Bond novels, Fleming's attitudes to women in particular made for very unpleasant reading. Later on Bond describes the girls in Blofeld's lair as 'rather on the stupid side'!! I'm afraid Ian Fleming was nothing more than a raving misogynist.

 The novel is predominantly set in Switzerland, and Fleming has his obligatory xenophobic dig at any country that isn't England. Here he states through Bond, 'You know the's the religion of Switzerland'!! Fortunately Albert Broccoli had the sense to cut out all of Flemings less savoury aspects from the films. If he had kept them I doubt whether the franchise would have survived too long. They would have been quickly consigned to memory instead of becoming the enduring phenomenon they have become.

 Funnily enough with this being written after the film adaptation of Dr. No actress Ursula Andress is in Blofeld's lair ( see page 193 )!! The novel is even topical as the Israeli abduction of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina is used as an example of how Bond wanted to abduct Blofeld ( see page 86 ). The novel is also noted for the fact that Fleming introduced some history of Bond himself. He is off mixed Scottish-Swiss heritage, which is due to Sean Connery! Initally Fleming wasn't impeessed with Connery being selected to play Bond. but after watching Dr. No he changed his mind, and wrote Connery's Scottish heritage into OHMSS.

 In OHMSS service Fleming also wrote into the plot his own passion for skiing. He and his wife used to Engadine near St.Moritz, and he used the experience in the novel. Also the plot uses heraldry as a back drop, and Blofeld shares Ian Fleming's actual birth date. The crest of arms above on the first edition's cover, is Bond's families, and the motto is 'The world is not Enough', which of course was used as the title for a Pierce Brosnan film.

 So in short if you have seen the film then the novel is virtually the same. As stated this was intentional and since the novel itself is one of Fleming's best the film is also of the same calibre. It is 316 pages long and one of the longest of the series as well. Leaving aside Flemings rape fantasies, misogyny and xenophobia, (which isn't as rampant in this novel as some ), OHMSS is certainly one of the best bond novels Fleming wrote. I get the feeling though that it mirrored Thunderball in being written as a quasi screenplay. That may explain why it adapted to film so well.

 Well I'm almost there as there are only 3 novels left to read!!

Friday, August 19, 2011

President Lincoln's Secret - Steven Wilson

 I brought this novel home from the library several weeks ago not knowing it was the second in a series. I don't usual like to read a series unless I've started with the first book. Why did I then? Because my library hasn't actually got the first book, President Lincoln's Spy!! But it looked like an interesting novel anyway, so I started it this morning, and finished it's 316 pages not so long ago.

 Well it is a cold wintry day here, so a nice warm fire was quite inviting to sit in front of and read away the day! The novel is set in 1863 during the American Civil War. The main protagonist is a Colonel Dunaway. Since I haven't read the first novel I have no idea how he came to be a spy for President Lincoln, and this novel doesn't provide any back story. I liked this actually, since I hadn't read the first novel this felt like a new storyline. I didn't feel as if I needed to have read the first to understand anything in the second.

 The novel surrounds a mysterious explosion at a Union powder factory. Dunaway, and his 'beautiful' wife ( she just has to be doesn't she??! ) Asia investigate on the orders of President Lincoln. What transpires is a visit to Canada in pursuit of rumoured Rebel activities in connection with the explosion. One thing leads to another and it slowly becomes apparent how the powder factory was destroyed. Dunaway and his wife undergo several adventurous escapades, and even a Congressional hearing, that bodes poorly on Dunaway. The same fiery technique is to be used on Washington, and fortunately our hero Dunaway is there to save the day ( not to mention start a huge fire! ). Plot in a simple nutshell!

 It is interesting to compare this historical novel against the recently reviewed, Ship of Rome. In all honesty this novel is far superior. It is pacy, using some really interesting premises, namely in use of Greek Fire and hot air balloons to deliver it. The writing is of a high standard, and overall I think Steven Wilson shows his obvious intellect very well. I didn't feel he fell into the cliches that blighted Ship of Rome, and even the marriage between Dunaway and his wife had some decent friction.

 My only complaints are the title and lack of historical feel. By the end of the novel I wondered why President Lincoln's Secret?, because in all reality there is nothing revealed that can be called a secret. In fact Lincoln barely enters the novel at all. So the title is a mystery in regards to the plot. Also, like so many historical novels, I didn't get an atmosphere of 'Civil War'. Sure names, places, dates, etc are mentioned, but they don't provide the air and feel of the times. I find very few novelists who write within this genre can ever pull it off. Just read Leon Uris as a comparison. Even though, it is a competent novel with a great plot and characters ( flawed as they are. Colonel Dunbar is a notorious hothead ). But did it feel like I was there during the Civil War? No, it did not.

 President Lincoln's Secret then is a worthy read. I think Steven Wilson has a keen intellect which shows in his writing. He avoids annoying cliches and provides an interesting premise with the Civil War backdrop. But I just not sure the title is appropriate to the plot, and overall the difficult task of making the reader feel they are transported back in time is somewhat lacking. But they are small criticisms, because when compared against the likes of Ship of Rome, this is by far the superior novel of the type.

 A well worth while read that is well written, paced, and with an interesting use of Greek Fire as an original premise. But what the hell was President Lincoln's secret??

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Invisible Man - H.G. Wells

Cover from the first edition.
 H.G.Wells ( Herbert George ), along with Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback, are considered the 'Fathers of science fiction'. But Wells in particular is probably the real king of the three. Over a long writing career he wrote over 100 works that included contemporary fiction, histories, political treaties, social commentaries, texts, and of course what he is best known for, science fiction

 Interestingly though he wrote all of his science fiction works in his early career. After that it was mainly his political and social commentaries he wrote. The Invisible Man is a 1897 novella of 150 pages and is certainly one of his better known sci-fi works. It first appeared as a serial in Pearson's Weekly, before its novelised form. It is certainly not as famous as his brilliant War of the Worlds, or the likes of The Island of Dr. Moreau, or The Time Machine. But still it is a known H.G. Wells work, whereas many of his other novels are now somewhat obscure. Suffice to say though that his better known novels have all been adapted to film over the years.

 Like his other sci-fi novels Wells was ahead of his time with his scope and imagination. I mean when Jules Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea the concept of the submarine wasn't totally foreign. Leonardo da Vinci envisaged such a machine, and there had been experiments with a submersible around the time of the American Civil War. But martians in War of the Worlds?? Or half man half, animal, at the hands of Dr. Moreau. But invisibility? This was heady stuff indeed for the late 19th century.

 But like all older novels my initial approach to the novel was based on the many film adaptations there have been since the first in 1933. It is of course a cliche to say they have all butchered the novel! But it has also suffered at the hands of television, stage, and even radio. But it is an easy to approach work and I read it last night in all its150 page entirety! The writing style is surprisingly modern without the flowery poeticness of the 19th century. This was a surprise, especially against the almost quaint datedness of the actual story.

 The problem for the modern reader is that the invisible man concept is well known to us through film etc. This being the original source it doesn't have the creepiness it would have held in 1897. But still, to get the most from this novella is to approach it as if reading it in the late 1890's. If you do, and put aside your modern appreciations, then you you see the impact this had on its publication.

 I personally really enjoyed this novella. A bit quaint but still very well written, and that is a real strength. The main protagonist is an initially un-named albino who dabbles in invisibility. He achieves his goal but finds he can't reverse the process. At first he revels in his invisibility but quickly finds it is in fact a curse. He has to go around naked as he can't find clothes. And in a winter that wasn't exactly satisfactory! He even finds that ingested food is initially visible until it is properly digested! The process slowly makes him mad as he struggles with his curse.

  It is here that Wells brings in a slight commentary on man. We find his name is Griffin. Through him and his curse, Wells shows us the typical reaction of man kind to what is unknown or different. Namely ostracism. Because he can't be seen he is treated as a freak, and the reader can read between the lines here, as Wells is quietly highlighting the ugliness of racism in particular. Griffin as a character is initially to be sympathised with. He rants and rages as one after another his attempts to reverse the process fail.

 As he fails more and more his rages increase, and the reader can almost feel him in the next room! As his secret is unravelled ( quite literally!! ) he brings out the worst of those around him. He is quickly ostracised and forced onto the run. From here his anger quickly deepens as he has no where to go, and he resorts to stealing to survive, as well as thuggery and malice. To be sure a lot of it is his own fault, but he is a victim of humanities innate fear of the unknown, which Wells showcases behind a sci-fi facade superbly.

 By the end Griffin has been completely driven mad, and after confiding to an old colleague his intention to cause terror and panic, he is cornered and accidentally killed. Once dead his body loses its invisibility. The novella ends with a stranger in possession of Griffin's three notebooks. He intends to use them to his advantage, as he has learnt from Griffin's mistakes, and his inability to harness the power invisibility.

The man himself!!
 The Invisible Man is still a worth while sci-fi novel. I think all sci-fi aficionados will enjoy it, and recognise the debt owned to their genre by the likes of H.G. Wells. Sure it has a somewhat dated premise, but it still has a subtle social undertone, that is as true today as it was in the late 19th century. I loved War of the Worlds, and this novella is just an acknowledgement of the incredible mind H.G Wells had for science fiction

 A recommended quick, easy, enjoyable read. Amazon has this with 4/5 stars from 158 reviews. I consider that a fair appraisal.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier

Cover from the first edition.
 'Last night I dreamt I went back to Manderley again'. And with that, one of the most famous opening lines in English language literature, Daphne du Maurier opens her acknowledged masterpiece, Rebecca. The novel that made du Maurier, to her surprise, one of the most popular authors of her day. In fact Rebecca was so well received it has never been out of print since it was published in 1938. And even more remarkable is that her novels, for several decades, were the most borrowed from libraries around the world.

 Her writing saw her regarded as a mistress of suspense, with her novels known for their less than happy endings. Rebecca is no exception, and it is a cleverly crafted novel that opens with an un-named narrator speaking of Manderley. The first two chapters, which are very short, speak in oblique terms of a calamity that befell Manderley, and with it her, and her husband. The crafting of the plot is superb because we never find out the calamity until the last page. In essence du Maurier has written a novel that is a perpetual circle. One that starts well after the events that were to transpire. When I finished the last page, I went back and read the first two chapters, as I then knew their hidden meaning.

 After the first two chapters the un-named narrator, a young woman of 21, asks what her life would have been like if her employer, a rich American woman, wasn't such a snob. Again du Maurier is upping the suspense, because the reader still has no real idea of what is to come. The question of what her life would have been like is almost rhetorical, because she is almost asking would her life had turned out any better, or worse than it did.

 The interesting thing about Rebecca is that du Maurier considered it a novel that explored the relationship between, a man who had power, and a woman who didn't. And yet I didn't feel that as I felt it more how a vile, selfish despicable personality, held sway over people's lives in life, and especially after death. The character of Rebecca de Winter never appears in the novel herself. Maxim de Winter marries the narrator in Monte Carlo and takes her back to Manderley where the shadow of Rebecca hangs. She is a naive, unworldly woman, and she struggles under the burden of a lifestyle she is unaccustomed to. But worse is the battle for her own identity in the face of the dead Rebecca and her legacy.

 Very quickly she feels smothered by the omni-present Rebecca. Even though dead it feels to her as if she has a presence over all that happens in Manderley. And no character more than the cold hearted Mrs. Danvers drives the point home. She despises the hapless narrator and the two have some strange, increasingly unpleasant, encounters. They culminate with Mrs. Danvers asking the narrator to commit suicide by jumping out of a top story window, unburdening herself of being unable to live in the shadow of Rebecca.

 This scene is interrupted by a ship running aground, and from here the novel takes an unexpected turn. Rebecca had apparently died by drowning when out sailing alone. But under the grounded ship is found her boat, and in it a body. When Maxim de Winter is informed, he confesses to the narrator that he murdered Rebecca for her vile, evil ways. Up to then the reader is under the impression that Rebecca was an outstanding, lovely woman, when in fact she was quite the opposite.

 She was screwing around on Maxim in the hope of getting pregnant so that a non-de Winter heir would take over Manderley. Maxim had no choice to go along with this conniving, as to expose Rebecca's scheming, was to create an unwanted destructive scandal. So one night, when he has the chance, he shoots her and fakes her death as drowning, even identifying a body found later as Rebecca.

 From there things start spiralling downwards rapidly. An inquest is held into the discovery of the body and the death ruled as suicide. Her cousin ,who she had been sleeping with, isn't convinced and confronts Maxim. He has his suspicions and a magistrate is called in, and evidence comes to light that leads them all to London. There they find Rebecca had cancer which only adds semblance to the suicide verdict. All the while the be-wildered narrator stands by Maxim and doesn't utter a word. She loves him and realises why he murdered Rebecca and decides to go along with the deception to keep him. But now Maxim de Winter is under a cloud, and he rushes back to Manderley only to find it on fire. The calamity refered to in the first two chapters being finally exposed.

 This is an outstanding novel. The structuring is perfect. De Maurier leads the reader astray with the false face presented by Rebecca, and then exposing her, with the master stroke of having her murdered right in the middle of the novel. For me Rebecca is an amazing literary creation. She at no times is alive in the novel and yet she casts her shadow over all. In life she was despicable woman who would stop at nothing to achieve her ends. But she died before she could realise them, namely that of having Manderley to herself. But she does achieve it! Even though dead, Maxim loses Manderley to her, because it is burnt down under the suspicion of him having murdered her. Even in death Rebecca won!

 The novel was adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock, and starred Lawrence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as the narrator, and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers. It won an Oscar for best film in 1940, and yet it deviated from the novel due to David O. Selznick's interference, and the then censorship rules. Hitchcock was unhappy with the end result as it didn't mirror his ideas for the film. Hitchcock obviously had a thing for de Maurier's novels as he also adapted Jamaica inn, and her short story, The Birds to film.

 Rebecca is a superb novel. It transcends genre as it isn't just a suspense novel, as it combines a romantic plot line as well. The crafting is sublime, and the revelation of Rebecca's murder took me by complete surprise. To me that was a masterstroke, and de Maurier hid it extremely well ,as I would never have believed other wise that Rebecca wasn't anything but a nice person. De Maurier writes with an elegant hand. The language has an almost quiet sensualness to it as the words just roll on past the eye. All of which brings an added dimension to the overall enjoyment of the novel.

 Recommended reading, and highly so. Having not been out of print since publication is saying something! A well written, and cunningly crafted novel of 400 pages length. I'm sure it will more than satisfy anyone who takes the time to read it. Amazon has this with 4 1/2 stars from 575 reviews. I give it a perfect 5!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Fall - Guillermo Del Toro & Chuck Hogan

 After finishing The Strain yesterday I was impressed enough to start reading, The Fall immediately afterwards. It is the second novel in, The Strain trilogy, and I have just found out that the third novel is to be released 25th October this year.

 As I started this novel I instantly hit the snag so many novels that follow on from one another suffer, and that is repetition from the preceding novel. I always find this odd because surely the authors know that most people who have the book are reading it because they have read the first one. Sure I can understand they are also covering for the readers who haven't read the first novel, but the majority of readers are returning ones surely?  The amount of information from the first novel was too great, and the first few chapters were a pain. I found myself getting a bit bitchy about virtually reading parts of the first novel again.

 So I put it down for several hours and came back to it. These are very easy reading, and I had got through 50 pages before throwing it aside. When I came back I polished of the remaining 250 pages in one sitting. Once that annoying so called 'catch up' ( as if I'd forgotten what had happened!! ) was out of the way, the novel cracked along at a reasonable pace, and was a solid follow up to the first novel. Solid but not spectacular, and if anything seriously lacking all of the creepiness of the first.

 The lack of creepiness may be intentional as by now the reader is well aware of what is going on, and the novel moves on to the fall of humanity, and the ensuing apocalypse. This novel also lacked the page turning qualities that I so liked about the first. The surprises are gone and this novel read like any other. But even though I have gripes it provides enough for me to want to pick up the third novel when it is published. There are some flaws in this trilogy which are unfortunate, but overall it has enough strengths to overcome them.

 The strengths come from some very good use of topical subjects, fused around historical backdrops. In my review on The Strain, I referred to Ground Zero and Treblinka. Well in The Fall, we go back to Treblinka but also to other post-war European cities and destinations. The Holocaust background is actually very well done, and I did feel that the authors did their research. Certainly using such an event as a plot line is encroaching on touchy ground, and yet I think they have handled it with aplomb and delicacy, whilst all the time infusing it into the narrative by highlighting its inherent horrors.

The only historical fault I could find was the use of a Roman crypt outside the Treblinka camp. I'm 99.9999% sure that the Romans never made it that deep into what is modern day Poland, so it cannot be a Roman era crypt. Maybe the authors wanted to keep things simple by using the Romans, as they are easily recognisable to the general reader than a more obscure ancient European race. A small matter, but one that stood out against the otherwise excellent research they have clearly put in.

 The topical subjects revolve around nuclear power plants and global warming. Suffice to say Chernobyl is a narrative point, and with it the threat of nuclear winters. I can't say too much as it will give away too much, but the end of the novel is quite plausible, and provides the only chills of the novel. But again the use of modern, and well known facets of our everyday lives as a potential instrument of apocalypse, is well done. The use of nuclear power plants as places of creation for certain vampires, and their destruction, is very clever and original.

 I stated the first novel lacked a certain degree of originality, and I still think so. It is only the vampires that aren't original but otherwise the storyline is quite solid. Fortunately this novel didn't wander off into the realm of implausibility or sheer silliness, and that is its strength. It does have a whiff of the possible, and so much of the break down of society when faced with loss of law and order, has been seen right throughout history. So yes so much could be tomorrow's headlines!

  The authors have shown what greed and to much money can do, and it is again a good infusion of the everyday world into the premise. All this destruction is brought about by one man. He wants to obtain immortality by entering into a virtual 'Devils pact' which backfires. He uses his immense wealth to orchestrate the rise of the vampires, and ends up by not getting his desire. There is an element of truth in the author's observations on humanity and its stengths, avarices, and the trappings of wealth and greed.

 The novel then ends when humanity in the grip of a nuclear winter, and now nothing more than food sources for the vampires. I finished the novel quite literally reaching over to my desk wanting the third novel!! I have raised my criticisms of the trilogy so far, but overall it is very solid with some commendable research. There is a lack of originality about the vampires, but everything else is well done and provides plenty of plot, and desire for the reader to keep reading. The pacing is good even though not quite page turning. I've been entertained and satisfied, and if anything, what more can you ask for from a mass produced novel?!

 Lacking in creepiness but has some very solid plausibility backed by some impressive research. Still worth a look at if you like apocalyptic premises. Like The Strain Amazon has this with 4 out of 5 star from 138  reviews. A fair enough grade as the strong points do for me out way the negatives, which really are only a lack of originality pertaining to the vampires.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Strain - Guillermo Del Toro & Chuck Hogan

 'The first in a trilogy that soars with spellbounding intrigue. Truly, an unforgettable tale you can't put down once you read the first page.'

Clive Cussler.

 'Blood and apocalypse mix in a terrifying story that feels like it was ripped from today's headlines. Vividly wrought and relentlessly paced, The Strain haunts as much as it terrifies.

James Rollins.

Well I hope you all know who Guillermo Del Toro is because it will save me the time of informing you! Suffice to say he is one of my favorite film makers, and he gave the world the brilliant, Pan's Labyrinth, in 2007. Around the time I heard that Del Toro was contemplating writing a novel, and it was a surprise to me to see his name on the spine of a book in my local library yesterday!!

 And not just on one spine but two!! I had no inclination what so ever he had actually done it!! The Strain then is the first novel in the so called, 'Strain Trilogy', which is co-authored with Chuck Hogan. The initial problem for me with two supposed authors though is, who actually had the most input. I find a suspicion sneaks in when a man like Del Toro, with an internationally recognised name and reputation, supposedly writes a novel as to how much of it is his and did he REALLY write it.

 I can't answer that question and we may never know, but I'm keeping an open mind on it as I hope by putting his name on the cover it wasn't a commercial ploy to sell books. Anyway that niggle out of the way is it actually any good?

 Well in any critiquing situation all I can say is yes...and no. It is well written, and I do think the use of Chuck Hogan is evident here, as the writing is just too competent for a first up novelist as Del Toro is meant to be. It is full of a lot of technical things in regards to rats, medical terms and facts, and other general stuff, and it is all well researched, factual and explained in easy terms to the reader. It is in 'layman's terms', but not to the point of patronisation. I do feel a hint of Del Toro/Hogan giving their audience the benefit of some intellect which impressed me, as it is a good way to get the reader on their side, and come back and buy more books. Simple things like that work and are subtle marketing ploys.

 At 401 pages it is actually a fairly hefty novel in this day and age of the air-port thriller, that takes up 250 pages, and can be breezed through in a few effortless hours. I read this in about 10 hours so it is quite meaty. And it is a genuine page turner!! It is a hideous clique these days to call a novel, 'page turner', and generally they aren't!! But The Strain is and I just couldn't stop!! I mean I started it at 9.00pm last night, and was still going at 4.30am this morning!! I got up to page 280 and finished the rest several hours ago.

 So yes, once you are into the first page it hooks you, and pages do tend to fly on by quite rapidly! As a suspense/horror novel this works, and the skill involved in making this type of novel work is immense. But it can throw up several pitfalls. Namely at times as my desire increased to know what happened next, I found my mind wanting to skip chapters and find out! It is only a mental thing but it became disconcerting in trying to fight the urge back! Also at times when I struck a chapter ( of which they are very short ) which I felt a bit flat, I had to again suppress the desire to skip it! But in all I did read every word in the novel!

 In a literal sense then, The strain, works extremely well for the type of genre it is, and in the way it is written. But unfortunately it isn't exactly original in premise. Recently you may be aware I reviewed Richard Matheson's novel, I am Legend. If you haven't read the novel then I strongly urge you to do so as it is a brilliant, and extremely influential novel. So influential in fact that, The Strain, has lifted an enormous part of it's premise and used it itself. It's not plagiarism but the premise of a vampire that carries a parasite is very much, I am Legend. Also so is the idea that vampires are creatures of myth. One character in ,The Strain, says they are myth ridden because of a certain Irishman, namely Bram Stoker, from his novel, Dracula. In, I am Legend, and, The Strain, the vampires are completely different to the commonly held perceptions of what a vampire is.

 So there is a palpable lack of originality running through the novel. I couldn't escape the, I am Legend, parallels, and yet another cropped up as well. Sure it is expanding the vampire myth but it smacked of the novel, The Day of the Triffids. If you know this classic sci-fi novel you will be aware that the Triffids killed the blind humans with a long stinger. In, The Strain, the vampires also have a long stinging tongue, albeit to draw blood and infest the victim with the virus. I know a Triffid is different from a vampire, but the two stingers are too close for comfort in premise for me to feel Del Toro/Hogan haven't borrowed the idea.

 The novel concerns a plane that lands at JFK airport in New York that mysteriously fails to unload its passengers. Through a series of events involving a bio-hazard unit, they find the plane full of dead people with no visible reasons for death. From there things quickly spiral out of control as the narrative swings around New York, with many scenes at the site of an excavated Ground Zero. It also goes back in time to the extermination camp of Treblinka, where a character had encountered the strain before. ( I won't tell much more as it will only lead to spoilers, and I want you to read the novel without initially knowing too much! ).

 The Strain, then has its plus and minuses, but overall I enjoyed the novel. It is a genuine, genuine page turner with all the inherent strengths and flaws that entails. It is initially quite creepy, but after a while that wore off, and it became a vampire hunt and kill exercise. Unfortunately it has an under-current of unoriginality as it feels too close to two other very famous sci-fi/horror works. But that aside, for the type of novel it is it ticks enough plus boxes to satisfy.

 Even without Del Toro's name on the cover it would still be a good enough novel for me to pick up and read. Amazon has this with 4 four stars out of 5, from 385 reviews. A fair grading as it does more than enough when so many other novels of the sort don't.

 Now I'm off to read the second novel of the trilogy, The Fall!!!!!!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ship Of Rome - John Stack

 In his debut novel John Stack has brought to life the crux of the First Punic War, namely its naval component. And with it he has written a solid novel on this war that has been somewhat forgotten in light of the bigger, and better known, Second Punic War, of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus fame.

 Whilst Ship of Rome is a solid novel it holds no pretense to historical accuracy. In fact for everything I liked about this novel Stack let himself down with some laziness in this area. To be sure artistic license has been used, and I can accept that. I can even accept at times an author has to shuffle facts etc around for narratives sake. But if a writer of historical fiction wants credibility, then he must do better than Stack has done here.

 Firstly my biggest historical gripe is his skewing of the Carthaginians. According to Stack they are the aggressors here and not the Romans. Through his Carthaginian character Gisco, a huge tyrannical bully of a man, he paints the Carthaginians as war like belligerents, when in fact they weren't. In all reality  Carthage was a trade based city that used its navy to protect its maritime trade routes. It wasn't a militarily expansionist city as Rome was,  preferring to use diplomacy and trade to dominate the them Mediterranean world.

 But Stack paints a different picture and tries to influence the naive reader into seeing the Romans as the aggrieved party. He over looks the trade aspect of Carthage, but not the fact that war sprung up between the two Cities. He is correct in the fact that the war became one of who would come to dominate the Mediterranean, but he mistakenly paints the picture of Carthage being a military power along the lines of Rome. Carthage was simply not this way inclined, as it was trade expansion inclined, not militarily and subjugation inclined, as Rome was.

 So some sloppy skewing of history belittles this novel. But it goes further as Stack riddles it with the curse of the modern novelist, namely that of the formulaic clique. They are all here, and it is sad that he has fallen into this trap, because again I felt as if rather than lift himself above it, he has decided to just join the mediocre crowd. Here is an example. The two main Roman protagonists, Perenis and Septimus, visit Septimus' home in Rome. His sister turns up and she is the most beautiful woman Perenis has ever seen. I mean I saw that coming several pages before it happened! And of course the forbidden love crops up with Septimus trying to crush it! Cliqued run of the mill stuff, and unfortunately it blights the whole novel.

 Also Stack makes the common mistake of using modern terms. For instance the military term' line of sight'. Now I'm pretty sure the Romans and Carthaginians didn't use it. And I also wonder if they used the nautical terms, port and starboard, in antiquity? I'm not sure, but they quite possibly didn't. But worst of all, and one I wish novelists wouldn't use is, 'make it so'. The problem for me is that it instantly conjures up images of, Captain Jean Luc Picard, of Star Trek fame!!

 But for its faults it has some strengths. I like how Stack has used the internecine politics of the Senate as a backdrop. As well as the reluctant  arrogance of the Roman legions in not believing they  needed to change their fighting tactics in boarding Carthaginian galleys. Remember this is a naval warfare novel and Rome was a prominently land based power, with Carthage having the over whelming edge at sea. So Stack does highlight and use some historical facts, and does it well, but the important stuff he is just too sloppy with.

 For me this novel is solid and competently written, and quirt entertaining in the process. But it paints no vividness, and I never had a picture in my minds eye from Stack's narrative. For everything I liked on one page there was a gaping hole on the next. And it is this that I must judge this novel on. The premise is great, but the historical context is sloppily portrayed, and I really was annoyed at how Stack has quite literally let the chance of a very good novel slip him by. His making the Romans out to be the good guys is nothing but pure fabrication, and he should have painted them, along with the Carthaginians in their respective historical lights. Instead he has taken the easy route out and produced something that lacks credibility, and is clique ridden to the hilt.

 A novel that is frustrating in its being far less that what it could, and should, have been. Amazon has this with 3 1/2 stars out of 5 from 7 reviews. I give it 2 1/2 stars for simply being sloppily researched. A solid effort and a light breezy read. But a novel that held so much promise is let down by choosing to be cliqued, and mediocre in delivery, instead of looking to higher ground, and being a really good novel.  At 362 pages long it provides enough to get your teeth into, and for all its faults, is still a reasonable read.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Spy Who Loved Me - Ian Fleming

The Spy Who Loved me is Ian Fleming's 10th Bond novel, and by far the most unusual. Written in 1962 it can almost be called a non-Bond novel because Bond himself doesn't appear in it until chapter 10, and is gone by the 15th and final chapter. But what makes this novel so unusual is the fact Fleming wrote in the first person point of view, a complete change of style from him.

 The novel is from Vivienne Michel's point of view. She is an early 20 something Canadian woman who narrates to the reader from a remote motel in the American Adirondocks. The novel is only 190 pages long and split into three parts, 'Me', 'Them', and  'Him'. It is a somewhat dark, bleak read, more so than any preceding Fleming novel 'Me' is Michel narrating how she came to be where she is. 'Them' is how two thugs turn up at the Motel with things turning nasty for Michel. And 'Him' is the appearance of Bond and Michel's rescue ( and bedding! ) by Bond.

 At only 190 pages long it is the shortest of the Bond novels, and by far the mot sexually explicit. But the explicitness is under scored by a dis-tasteful streak of sexism and misogyny. Fleming narrates through Michel as she unwillingly loses her virginity in a darkened park, and is then dumped. Later she hooks up with a German who is dumped by his fiance. She has a relationship with him and falls pregnant to him. He quite unceremoniously dumps her, all but blaming her for it! He pays for an abortion in Switzerland which leaves her traumatised and she decides to return to Canada, and tour through the States on a Vespa. 

 It is on this tour that she ends up in the motel and her troubles begin. To state she distrusts men is an understatement! The 'Them' part of the novel is her torment at the thugs hands. One of the thugs is a real psycho, and lets Michel know in no uncertain terms that he is going to rape her before the night is out. The explicitness goes as far as her being called a 'gash', and 'slot'. This is the early 1960's, and this is extremely explicit talk for the times. She endures all sorts of beatings ( punches no less), and abuse, but is saved from being raped by the appearance of Bond. 'Them' is nothing more than Ian Fleming playing out a rape fantasy, and to be honest is extremely dis-tasteful reading. It may be a novel but the reader just knows that Fleming is enjoying what he is writing. I'm afraid it didn't sit well with me.

 'Him' is about Michel being saved by Bond, and the death of the thugs at his hands. It is a typical Bond action scene told through the eyes of Michel. The pair eventually shag ( wouldn't be a Bond novel without the shagging would it??!! ), and Michel tells us it is her first satisfying sexual experience. She feels as if Bond sees her as a person and not just as a body. She says she felt loved for the first time ever, hence the title, The Spy Who Loved Me. What Fleming is doing is trying to temper his previous misogyny with softness after the ugly. He trips up though because as Bond 'takes' her Fleming, through Michel, tells the reader, 'All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken' ( see page 170 ). It is an unbelievable statement to make!! I just about dropped the book in horror! How on earth did he ever get such an absurd statement published?? Again Fleming's fetished up imagination was running away with itself, and the bad taste in my mouth was palpable.

 But even with an unsavoury element, Spy, is actually a very, very good novel. I believe at this stage of the Bond novels Ian Fleming wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, and it comes through in this novel. It is extremely well written, and by far the best piece of writing I've read of his. But when published the novel was poorly received by critics and fans alike. Fleming came to dis-like the novel and tried to block paperback publication in the states. He succeeded until 1967 when it was published after his death. Also when he sold the rights to Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman,  he refused the novel to be used in anyway except for the title.

 It is a shame that this novel has been over looked and somewhat maligned. But it is the way it is written that has garnered the reputation and not the sexism!! For myself I found this an extremely impressive work. I like the angle of taking a woman and looking at Bond through her eyes. To be sure the angle is somewhat skewed by Fleming's fantasies. But that aside the idea is superb, and this is one of the best Bond novels written ( even though he only appears for 4 chapters ). As a stand alone novel, even if you take the Bond angle out, it is a fine work.

 The Spy That Loved Me then is Ian Fleming at his best.....and worst. His writing in this novel is superb, and he showed the world with, Spy, that he could actually write, and wasn't just an author of imaginative espionage thrillers. That is to his credit and I believe this is an incredibly under-rated work from Fleming. On the negative all Fleming's misogynist, and sexist, views come to the fore like a festering poison. His semi-rape comment is disgusting and left me with a lingering bad taste in my mouth. Through Michel and her mis-firing, unhappy sex life, he is playing out his own personal sex fantasies, and they are dis-tasteful to say the least.

 So the two make for a double entente of a novel. So much to commend it, and yet it has an ugliness that cannot be ignored. Bond purists may not like the novel, but I highly recommend it because,  if for nothing else, it shows that Ian Fleming could write, and write very, very well.....I just wish it wasn't about his misogynist fantasies though!

 A fine novel, and must a read on so many levels.

Cover of the edition I read.
 Above is the edition I read. I believe Penguin re-issued the Bond novels with this retro set of covers in 2007. I think they are great and the artistry superb. This one of Spy is the cover I like the most.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Thunderball - Ian Fleming

 "The book is a mystery, a thriller, a chiller, and a pleasure to read."

New York Times.

 Ian Fleming initially wrote Thunderball, his 9th Bond novel, with the intention of having it adapted to film. In essence it is the first novelisation of a Bond screenplay. Written in 1961, it was the first Bond novel that 'Cubb' Broccoli wanted to adapt to film. But due to various legal wranglings, Dr. No, was awarded that distinction. In fact the legal wranglings over, Thunderball, lasted for years, and are the heart of the absurd situation that developed in 1983, with the dual release of official Bond film, Octopussy, and the non-official, Never Say Never Again.

 Well after nine novels I can honestly say I think this is the best one yet!! Dr. No is the only other one that really impressed me, with the others having their individual moments among the datedness. I always thought, From Russia With Love, would be the best. But even though I thoroughly enjoyed it, Thunderball, for me surpasses it. It just doesn't have the datedness of the preceding novels, and if anything still retains a certain freshness. I think it is because of some of names involved technology wise are still known to us, even after 60 years. I mean we all know the weapon names of Polaris, Atlas, Titan, Snark, Matador, and Super Sabre. Also just the use of nuclear weapons as a plot line still has a relevance, and can still be easily imagined by modern readers.

 Another thing as far as datedness went also leapt out at me. And that was the use of language. Before, Thunderball, the strongest word Fleming had used was bitch. But in, Thunderball, he uses crap, bloody, bastard, and the strongest word yet in, arse. Remember this was 1961, so this was heady stuff indeed! Funnily enough, even in the modern Bond films, the language is fairly straight laced and follows the novels. To be sure they are considered family films, and it is quite refreshing when you consider the amount of bad language prevalent in our modern age.
 But Thunderball does follow in its predecessor's footsteps with Fleming's sexism exposed once again. Here he has Bond being driven about by Bond girl, Domino. Through Bond, Fleming tells us why woman are such bad drivers, and the obvious fact that they shouldn't be allowed to drive AT ALL! I laughed my head off at the absurdity of it. Fleming wouldn't be able to get away with anything like that today would he??! And surprisingly, Thunderball is more sexually explicit than the last novels. It doesn't get graphic, but the sex scenes are definitely more advanced in detail than before. Surely a sign of the times, as the world was breaking down previously held taboos within literature.

 Thunderball is the novel where Bond's nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld makes his first appearance ( but without the Persian cat! ), along with his criminal organisation SPECTRE ( Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion ). Fleming used the name after becoming enamoured with if from his use of the name Spectresville ( a town near Las Vegas ) in the novel Diamonds are Forever. He also furthered it from his use of the name, Spektor, for the device from  the novel, From Russia With Love.

 Unlike many of the Bond novels, Thunderball, had almost its entirety in the film adaptation. Of course there were additions, most notably Bond's jet pack escape at the start! But otherwise the film follows the novel with very minor changes. Overall I think because of this the film is as solid as the novel. I like the film, but then again there isn't a Connery Bond film I don't like! The film definitely shows Fleming's touch, and desire, of wanting it adapted to a film.

 Yeah I liked Thunderball, and alot. I do think it is overall the best Bond novel of the nine I have read so far. It lacks the datedness of its predecessors, and with it the jerky stop start feel that it brought. I do feel all the Bond novels are worth reading, even though some have dated, and when you get to ,Thunderball, you'll be pleased you did as it is a fine novel. By this stage Ian Fleming had no excuses for writing poorly, and I quietly feel that, with this novel, he had reached his nadir. Some of the last novels had a marked lack of  previous quality, but it is recognised that by then Fleming was an ill man, and not far of his death.

 The most recommended of the Bond novels.

Friday, August 5, 2011

For Your Eyes Only - Ian Fleming

Cover from the first edition.
 This, Ian Fleming's 8th Bond novel, isn't a novel at all. In fact it is a series of short stories Fleming wrote for an aborted television series CBS asked him to write 32 episodes for. But after writing several episodes CBS withdrew, and Fleming gathered together the outlines, novelising them in 1959 under the title, The Rough and the Smooth. The title was changed later to For Your Eyes Only.

  On publication in 1960 the title had the sub-title of, Five Secret Occasions in the Life of James Bond. The US version was, Five Secret Exploits of James Bond. But later the sub-titles were dropped altogether. The five stories comprise of From a View to a Kill, For Your Eyes Only, Quantum of Solace, Risico, and The Hildebrand Rarity.

 For Your Eyes Only was used as the title for the 12th bond film, and used some of the stories characters or plot along with that of Risico. From A View to a Kill lent its name to the 14th Bond film but had no character or plot elements. Plot elements from, The Hildebrand Rarity, were used in the 16th Bond film, License to Kill. And of course Quantum of Solace was used as the title of the 22nd Bond film, and used no plot elements.

 Each short story varies in length and quality, and to be honest, From a View to a Kill, was lame! It is only 30 odd pages long, and involves Bond investigating the death of a NATO dispatch rider in France. Bond tracks down the assassin, kills him, and uncovers his ingenious hide out. Interestingly this short story was going to be the back story to the Moonraker novel. Hugo Drax was to be the assassin who crashes his bike, and then taken to an American hospital, from where Moonraker picks up the story. The title was also used at the end of the, Octopussy, film and yet was shortened to From a View to a Kill instead. The only thing it had in common with the story is the fact that part of its action is in France.

 Quantum of Solace really isn't a Bond story at all. He is at a party in Nassau and he is told a story about a diplomat and his failed marriage. The title is due to the storyteller saying he has a theory about marriages called Quantum of Solace. The film adaptation shared the title and none of the plot, except maybe the thematics alluded to in the theory of Quantum of Solace. I found this an unusual story as it really isn't about Bond at all.

 Riscio sees Bond sent to Italy to investigate a drug smuggling ring. Of the five stories this is far the best with a good violent shoot out at the end. It also incorporates a mild twist in who is the bad guy and who not. This relationship is a key plot line in the movie, and both characters, Colombo and Kristatos are used. The shoot out scene is also an integral part of one the films action sequences.

 The Hildebrandt Rarity sees Bond sent to the Seychelles. It is actually quite a dark and nasty story. Fleming explains the use of stingray tails as a form of keeping a wife in line!! In the story Bond hears a husband using it on his wife. The husband is a rich arrogant prick, and Fleming makes him so believable the reader hates him as much as Bond comes to. The guy is eventually ingeniously murdered by suffocating on the fish of the stories title. Suffice to say there are two suspects, and the story finishes with the identity of the murderer being left up to the reader to decide. The film, For Your Eyes Only, uses very oblique references to this story, and 1989's License to Kill used the stingray tail called, 'the corrector' (!!).

 The whole book is a shade over 200 pages long, and to be honest if you skip it and move on to the impressive, Thunderball, then you aren't going to miss much. The only real thing is the interest value they have on the films. As described various titles and plot elements were used, but really I wasn't particularly impressed with any thing here. Bond purists may disagree, and whilst I read it because it is Bond relevant, in hindsight I may just have skipped it as there are many other books I would rather have read.

Monday, August 1, 2011

An American Dream - Norman Mailer

Cover of the first edition.
 'A devil's encyclopedia  of our secret visions and desires'.


 After the somewhat simple writing styles of the novels I have read in the last few weeks it was with relish I read, An American Dream, by American writer Norman Mailer. I like Mailer even though I haven't read a great deal of his works, but will state right now I loved his tome on the CIA, Harlot's Ghost immensely. It is a staggering 1300 pages long, and is Mailer at his complex best in bringing to light the criminal acts of the CIA from its 1940's inception to 1965. It was him as an American examining the CIA, its actions, and the stain it left on the American psyche. Sadly Mailer never wrote the sequel to this masterpiece, but even as one novel Harlot's Ghost is a stunner.

 I've also read The Castle in the Forest. It was nowhere near complexly written as many of his preceding works, and again, unfortunately, Mailer never completed his planned trilogy, dying in 2007. The trilogy was a fictionalised account of Adolf Hitler and his life, told through a narrator who is actually a devil. Castle is a fine work, and one that really enthralled me for its unique take, and angle on Hitler. I believe it was the last novel Mailer wrote before he died, and even though well into his eighties he was still able to produce a fine piece of literature.

 Norman Mailer divides opinions markedly. Some hate his writing, while others praise it. No matter how you personally feel about his works he is an important figure of American literature and is impossible to ignore. I prefer him over some of his contemporaries such as Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal for example. Capote for me never rose to the abilities Mailer possessed as a writer, and whilst he was imaginative, his style is somewhat bland. He never came close to Mailer's complexity, and I've always felt his best known work, In Cold Blood, to be somewhat over -rated. I like Gore Vidal's, Julian, but it smacks of Vidal writing his own version of Robert Grave's masterpiece, I, Claudius, and is again somewhat bland.

 An American Dream is considered by many to be a forgotten Mailer masterpiece. It was his fourth novel, and written in 1965. He wrote it in serialised form replicating the methodology of Charles Dickens . Each chapter was written against a monthly deadline for Esquire magazine. It is written in a poetic style, heavy with metaphor, which creates a hypnotizing narrative. It was extremely controversial in its day for its violence, and depiction of women. Main protagonist Stephen Rojack is a war hero, ex-congressman, university lecturer, and television personality with several popular published books. He is living the 'American Dream' of the title. He seemingly has it all, but he still feels like a loser, and comes to despise the banality of his lifestyle.

 He is married to a very rich socialite who is a a complete bitch. One night he strangles her, and tosses her body out of a high rise apartment to make it look like suicide. This is just after he walks in on his wife's German maid playing with herself. He proceeds to sodomize her, and Mailer plays out this sex scene over four long pages! It is a stunning piece of writing because at no stage does he use clinical words or vivid descriptions, but the reader is left in no doubt which orifice he is plundering. This is amazing stuff for 1965 considering the uproar when, Breakfast at Tiffany's, was released in 1961, with Audrey Hepburn playing prostitute Holly Golightly. Against Tiffany's, American Dream was light years ahead graphically, and must have been considered the height of filth in its day!!

 The narrative is very complex, and whilst Mailer gets somewhat abstract at times, it is still a masterful read. Mailer's sentence structure beggars belief, and I just held on to every word, sentence, and paragraph. Even though at times I couldn't understand what Mailer was on about, just the sheer beauty of his writing was enough for me. I've read quite a number of reviews on this novel, and its abstractness is a constant complaint. Because Mailer delves so thickly into use of prose the message of the novel is somewhat lost, and appears only in patches. It is a relatively short novel at 238 pages, but it still took me two nights to read.

 The complexity of the writing meant I had to keep on my toes, and not let my mind wander!! For me, even though I was lost at times, Mailer's writing kept me turning the pages. It was just a pure joy to read, and if anything else, for its flaws, the writing is not one of them. I felt the plot was similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald's, The Great Gatsby, in showing how the very rich have it all, and are bored by it, even though they wouldn't give it up. Mailer takes this further by having Rojack turn to luridness, violence, and depravity just in a effort to feel alive again after many years of having it all. His complaint id he began to feel suffocated by it. The premise is very good being somewhat copied in 2000 film, American Psycho. This novel has been adapted to film starring Stuart Whitman, and Janet Leigh, but I believe it was a poor adaptation, and has slipped into obscurity.

 An American Dream then is not what you would call light reading!! To our modern eyes the subject matter won't appear so controversial as it did in 1965, but if you look at the era it was written in, it must have been shocking stuff indeed! It has two sex scenes that are graphic without vivid descriptions. The sodomy scene must have raised quite a number of eyebrows, and yet Mailer doesn't use clinical words for what is going on. He superbly dances around it, along with the violence, by his complex word usage that leaves an indelible picture in the readers mind.

  This novel is a beautiful embodiment of literature, and why An American Dream is so utterly impossible to ignore. It is regarded as an important work of American literature. But the flaw is that, whilst I love its complexity, the premise is too often abstract, disappearing and reappearing, leaving the reader at times wondering what is going on. As a piece of straight literature it is superb even though it is considered one of Norman Mailer's lesser works.

 A short dazzlingly, breathtaking, albeit flawed, masterpiece. If you want something to really stretch your reading abilities then this is the novel for you! Amazon has this with 3 1/2 stars from 32 reviews. Probably a fair mark, and I guess due to its abstractness more than anything.