Archive for the ‘Thriller’ Category

Graeme Shimmin – A Kill In The Morning

Monday, May 4th, 2015

My 300th review is also a somewhat special one as the novel involved is an alternate history, a genre that I don’t read that much. The main reason for that is basically the so-called butterfly effect. From the turning point on the change will have growing side-effects the more time passes and often the author starts adding familiar stuff he likes although the plausibility is rather uncertain or the author simplifies thing in such a way that the complexity of history is pretty much ignored. These are things that annoy me so I am very picky towards such novels. Those novels that I have picked up with some alternate setting simply avoided trying to set up an alternative history. It is simply a different universe. Essentially I only want to pick up an alternative history novel if it is done well.

This particular novel I picked up after reading a review on another site. Usually I am not easily convinced to pick up a book there as I’ve found my taste to differe considerably from the reviewers there. In this case my instinct said I should give it a try. A Kill In The Morning (2014) by Graeme Shimmin is essentially a spy thriller in the mold of James Bond. The main protagonist is a similar hard-assed womanizer who does not refrain from violence. The early parts of the novel seem also to be the pulp-like type of story Ian Fleming wrote. Of course we are here dealing with an alternative history. In this case the Second World War did not really get started and Germany made peace before they got hit back. Shimmin plays his alternative history safe by setting the novel only a decade after the turning point. This allows for better definable possibilities with regard to what could have happened so things remain believable. The one similarity that did not change was that a Cold War does happen as well and that provides the familiar James Bond-like setting. In this case the enemies are not the Communists but the Nazis and unlike the Communists they do have a healthy economy to drive their technology programs, making the competition much harder. Here I should stop on disclosing the background of the novel and discuss some other elements.

The protagonists in the novel all follow familiar molds. Shimmin changes it a little by adding a stronger female element in it, giving it a less old-fashioned flavour and highlighting some different aspects in his alternative history. As I have read all the James Bond novels (with reviews on my site) I can only say he does a good job mimicking the way Fleming set up his characters although there is of course a large difference in style and prose.

Shimmin’s aim is however not to tell a James Bond story in an alternative history setting. To explain that I have to start spoiling a little more. If you are interested already, stop reading here.

Shimmin’s plot is far more cunning. Events unfold much more rapidly then expected and at about two thirds of the novel he kicks in the major twist of the plot. It comes with total surprise and while some would say it is not realistic it does fit perfectly within the Jamed Bond themes. What follows in the last third is a lengthy finale in which Shimmin crafts an engaging and exciting turn of events in which he carefully fits the pieces of the puzzle in place which will leave the reader with great satisfaction. In the end he adds a more than fitting last Bond cliche with a twist as a dessert.

A Kill In The Morning is based on a cunning idea which is executed perfectly. Shimmin manages to lull his readers into a familiar atmosphere by using typical James Bond elements to tell his story until he throws them into an unexpected plot twist at a point when they thought the story would follow the usual hectic but entertaining course over some rapids. Instead he gives them a major waterfall. I am actually unhappy that I am disclosing this in this review. It is more fun not to know there is a grand twist but without it I would have a hard job convincing others to read this novel. For that reason I gave the warning above. I can only say that this novel is very much recommended.

Wilkie Collins – The Woman In White

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

One of my goals while exploring the world of books is reading the classics of literature. I don’t aim to read all of them because some  simply turn out not to my liking. So if I have tried at least one famous novel of an acclaimed author I am satisfied enough as I am able to express my opinion on its nature as a classic. One branch of classics, which is a bit more obscure, is reading those novels which created a new genre or subgenre in literature. Of course such definitions are prone to discussion as literature always goes through different stages of development. Novels can be denoted as partially creating a new genre so one defining line would be that a whole novel is intentionally written to be in the new genre as a whole and that it lead to many new authors copying the new genre.

One of those classics in literature which created a new genre is The Woman In White (1860) by Wilkie Collins, the first “sensation” novel. Of course sensation is a broad term. What defines The Woman In White is that its sole purpose is to captivate the reader with an exciting story while making use of cliffhangers to keep them reading. So one could say a sensation novel is a pageturner. It makes the reader unable to put the novel down. The novel was originally published as a weekly serial and its success achieved great heights. This format and the aim of the author to put in each part something that would keep the reader hooked was on a level not seen before.

So what is The Woman In White? It is a complex story with many layers which are well structured. The story is told from the viewpoint of several narrators who each contribute a part of the story. There are two main narrators. The others mainly fill in gaps so the reader gets the whole picture. The two narrators also pretty much define the nature of the story they tell. The first narrator, who is male, opens the story, then follows the second narrator, who is female, after which the first does the remainder. The first part is for the greater part told as a simple romance which on the background contains a lingering mystery. The latter is what keeps the reader going as the romance might be enjoyed by a female reader, but is nothing special.

The second part however turns everything upside down. It is a pure thriller, dark and captivating, in which the reader has little understanding of all that is happening and only knows that it is bad and nasty. There is great power in the central part of the story and as it is told by a female narrator who is part of the events and much constricted in her actions because of the social limitations she is bound to.

The third part changes style yet again. Now the story becomes more of a tale of mystery as the first two parts have created too many which need to be resolved. Collins takes his time and step by step everything is unveiled, either by chance or by smart reasoning. Even so nothing happens in any way that is predictable. There are some surprising twists which I hadn’t seen coming at all. This novel may have started a new genre but it did not contain any typical clichés we are now familiar with.

Until so far the story. What about the characters? There is not much particular development. Only the main male narrator undergoes a change which certainly improves the story. The others important characters are not so much developed but have great depth. The villains would have been very original were it not that they are one of the few elements which have been copied in later thrillers and mysteries. Even so they have many layers and very interesting. The character that stands out most among the main characters is the female narrator. She is almost manly (like a feminist), a relatively modern woman with great intelligence and understanding and a strong will. She dares and acts and is very likable. She is dominant despite her lesser social position and the rock that holds everything together.

Usually I’m very good at finding flaws and weaknesses in a story and most of my reviews contain much of that. The Woman In White is however a wonderful story with great complexity which is written with a good pace and with many strong twists that will  shock you. The different styles might set different moods of which one may be enjoyed better than the other but each serves it purpose. Because of the romance, the thriller hits harder and deeper and the mystery allows you to recover while still being much engaged. The only thing that makes me wonder about this novel is how little known it is. I only discovered it because I like browsing the available books in the libraries of publishers like Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics and Wordsworth Classics and look at books I haven’t heard about. The internet makes this easy to do. I certainly consider this novel to be literature because of the complex structure, the strong characterization and the mid-nineteenth century setting. This novel is certainly highly recommended. Anyone who loves a great book or a thriller or a mystery should certainly pick it up.

 

Ian Fleming – Quantum Of Solace

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

In my series of reviews of James Bond novels by Ian Fleming there is only one book left. This is the collection of short stories. A complete edition was published in 2008 under the title Quantum Of Solace, obviously so because of the movie that came out that year.

Quantum Of Solace contains 9 short stories which are mostly 30 to 40 pages long. The stories can basically be divided into two groups.

The first group consists of miniature action events, lighting out a certain circumstance or minor case in which Bond gets involved. Because of the short length the plot is often straightforward. What makes it an interesting read is the situation or background of the story. Fleming created a vivid picture of the time and surrounding that felt very genuine to me, which is something that has been a great strength throughout the Bond novels that I’ve read. Next to that he looks into different aspects of the spy job. Where the usual novel conforms to certain rules of behavior, Fleming shows sides of Bond we haven’t seen before. Some of the action events are quite thrilling and it is obvious why they have been used for movie adaptations. The stories For Your Eyes Only and Risico were even combined together and form the core of one of the James Bond movie. Most of the character names survived although many changes were made to create a larger and more coherent plot. Many of the important elements are however easily recognizable. The Property Of A Lady and The Living Daylights would only become minor events in different Bond movies with far less impact. The only story of this group that I don’t remember having seen in a movie is From A View To A Kill. Its events are simply not that exciting and it’s the weakest of five.

The four other stories I call character studies. They contain little action and actually hardly focus on Bond himself. The only difference is the story The Hildebrand Rarity in which Bond does play his part, but in a more passive way. He observes but is no knight. It is a grey world. As a spy he has to stay in the shadows which leads him to make unsuspected choices. This story was certainly the best of the character studies. Two other stories, Quantum Of Solace and Octopussy, are more or less stories withing stories. Nice and interesting reads and little more. The last story, 007 In New York, is very short and not much of a story at all. It was added for completeness of the collection. There is little to say about it as it is not much worthwhile either.

Overall I enjoyed the stories a lot, even the character studies. The form a varying mixture of settings and events with some nice characterizations. If one has enjoyed the novels, this is certainly a great addition, not just to complete the collection. Much recommended.

Ian Fleming – The Man With The Golden Gun

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

The last novel of the James Bond series by Ian Fleming is The Man With The Golden Gun (1965), published after his death. As only a first draft was written it is considered incomplete as Fleming normally wrote a second draft to polish the story and add details. That it was still published without any changes means that even a first draft was still a good read. So I will look at this review a bit differently, regarding certain weakness and flaws to the fact that it was incomplete.

Compared to the previous novel You Only Live Twice Fleming takes Bond completely back to the spy game. This even happens from the start, with an opener we are normally used to in the movies, while Fleming usually takes a slower approach in the novels. Fleming takes little time to slow down. Instead of giving Bond time to investigate he is thrown into the fray early on, which makes a more exciting read.

Bond himself feels more detached. As Fleming tells a continuing story in which the events of the previous novel can be an influence of the next, this can be explainable. However, he usually gives the reader more insight into Bond’s thoughts and reasoning. This is mostly absent. As this has been quite common in the series it can be attributed to the lack of polishing and adding of details. This is more a rump story, the plot more bare and more to the core. As I’ve noticed reading the novels Fleming does not like to repeat himself. Every next novel has a different approach than the previous. You Only Live Twice mostly lacked tension and had a great focus on the character of Bond and his environment. In The Man With The Golden Gun the tension is everywhere, there is little focus on the character of Bond. Now he is just a spy and the focus is on the story.

The story barely resembles that of the movie adaptation. A few of the main characters remain, but Scaramanga, the bad guy, is portrayed more normal (or rather, realistic) in the book. Locations, settings and events are all different. Because of this it feels like a new and original story, which feeling I didn’t have for several novels in a row. Even with a more detached Bond I greatly enjoyed the story. Only the ending I consider to be somewhat weaker. It wavered at times and there were some confusing moments.

So as being a first draft version, it having a more detached Bond and a somewhat wavering ending it obviously falls short of the average Bond novel in overall reading experience. Even so, it is a fun read, topping the so-called weaker novels. Of all the novels my ranking is as follows:

  1. From Russia With Love
  2. Moonraker
  3. Goldfinger
  4. Dr No
  5. Thunderball
  6. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
  7. You Only Live Twice
  8. The Man With The Golden Gun
  9. Casino Royale
  10. Live And Let Die
  11. The Spy Who Loved Me
  12. Diamonds Are Forever

The first three I consider to be the best. Then there is a middle group (nos. 4 to 7) of average Bond novels, not much weaker than the top three. They just lack that bit of extra that makes them really great. Last is the group of weaker novels (nos. 8-12). To those belong two incomplete stories (The Man With The Golden Gun and Casino Royale – which has the feel of a novella and should’ve been part of a bigger story) and the experimental The Spy Who Loved Me. Only two full novels I consider under par: Live And Let Die and Diamonds Are Forever. The other novels of the group just have at least as much to enjoy, while the two suffer from long rather dull parts with insufficient tension.

While the books certainly have their qualities I do have to say that the Bond-movies have taken the stories and the character to a new level. The movies lack the personal details and scale up events and adversaries to grand adventures. In most cases the novels are more realistic (relatively) and down-to-earth. Although the books may seem outdated, they also are a portrait of the times they were written in. Fleming’s unique style of writing is also something which provides a change from the usual prose.

With the novels completed, the ride is not yet over. There is still one Bond-book to go: a collection of all the short stories. One last joy to savor.

Ian Fleming – You Only Live Twice

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

The last completed novel Ian Fleming wrote about his famous character James Bond is You Only Live Twice (1964), in a time when the movie franchise was starting to sky-rocket into world-wide fame. Nevertheless, Fleming proves to be an independent mind. While his novels stick to a general, well-known, format he has played in several occasions with the story and approach. One major difference with the movie adaptations is the more personal touch. The reader experiences a Bond outside his missions, in his off-mission work at the office, and some of his views and feelings which provide a sometimes strange depth and picture of the times and nature of spy work. Another difference is that the movies make the stories far more adventurous and often change the plot considerably. Bond’s missions in the novels are at times more straightforward and singular.

The novel You Only Live Twice contains a very different plot than the movie which is far more exhilarating and action-packed.These are however extensions to the essence of the story of the novel. Bond is taken to a completely different surrounding, Japan, and experiences several elements of Japanese society and culture. Many of the experiences from the book are also there in the movie adaptation. The great difference is that the movie remains somewhat superficial. The viewer gets a rather fast picture of many different things and has little time to contemplate or get a good feeling for it. The novel really goes into depth of Japanese culture, society and history. Perhaps I am biased by my own interest in Japanese culture and history of many years, but I was really taken by Fleming’s impressive and (to my opinion) accurate description of Japan in the early sixties. This is in contrast to other stories taking place in foreign countries where Fleming only adds some general flavor to the scene. Only his first descriptions of Jamaica in his early novels come close. Fleming is a master of detail, certainly considering the short average length of his novels (200 pages). The range of detail concerning Japan goes far beyond his earlier writing. While Fleming at times added the details in the form of info-dumping, this time it is done very naturally during the course of the story in an engaging way.

In stark contrast to the movie adaptation and less so with the other novels, You Only Live Twice contains very few action-scenes. It is not just as story about Japan, it is also very much a character-story with Bond in the center. Throughout most of the novel Bond is paired with another character and no other characters take part in their interaction. The dialogues are very strong and insightful. To me it felt that they lifted the novel to a literary quality. These days such elements are quite common in thrillers. The Bond-novels always were something quite more than the average pulp thriller, but the focus was still on sex, gambling, smoking and drinking, and violence. Character interaction was always part of the suspense. While these elements are not absent in You Only Live Twice, they are more an element than a focus. Fleming has given Bond a mission of a different nature. Bond approaches it in the way he always does but with very different effects. To me it was great to read. A new experience.

Looking at the series as a whole Fleming managed to cover a wide spectrum of ideas. The Bond-novels have common elements, but many have their own unique character and flavors. It’s not always the same deal. The reader gets much more and Fleming also takes up challenges of his own.

You Only Live Twice is a great book. Not the best concerning actions scenes or plot complexity, but certainly the best in characterization and dialogue. Knowing the series coming to an end, the reader is treated with more Bond. You know him and you will know him more. The story itself has its typical peculiarities and Bond-feel, and to me it was quite satisfactory, even with the lack of action scenes. Highly recommended.

Ian Fleming – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

The movie adaptation of Ian Fleming‘s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) is in general seen as getting mixed opinions, mainly due to lead actor portraying James Bond giving a poor performance. Personally I think the movie has some strong parts, mainly the action sequences, while the acting isn’t that poor either. All thing’s considered many of the later movies required far less serious acting, so there can’t be much said about those performances either.

With only two James Bond novels and one story collection left to go, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service surprised me as being the first novel which plot is left virtually intact in the movie adaptation, following the story quite closely. Until this book there were always considerable differences and changes to mention, but the differentiations in this novel are only minor. The small parts that didn’t make it to the movie were simply not that interesting. On the other side many scenes have been greatly expanded with more twists and substance, actually making the plot richer and far more entertaining.

So one could see the book as a more straightforward and simplified version of the movie. Because of that it is hard for me to give a substantial review. Nevertheless because it is so similar to the movie I do can say the novel follows the James Bond format as it is known most closely, with a few exhilarating action scenes (though far fewer than the extended and long sequences of the movie) and the typical Bond gusto. Compared to some of the other novels we see here a Bond that we are most familiar with and that’s a thing I haven’t been able to say in my previous reviews.

While there are few surprises, the minor differences do provide a good reason to read this book as it gives the fan background details that has been excluded in the movies. The movies are more impersonal, while Fleming likes his details and does go more personal. That is one of the traits that provide a strong reason to read the novels, even as one has seen all the movies (multiple times). In my list of favorite Bond movies On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is ranked somewhere in the middle, and the same I can say of the original movie. It’s only weakness is a bit too straightforward plot and it lacks a bit compared to the stronger novels, but overall it delivers, providing yet another take on the spy novel, making each James Bond novel characteristic and unique.

Ian Fleming – The Spy Who Loved Me

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Like Moonraker the James Bond-novel The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) is one of the two novels who have not be adapted as the movie we know them. Even as Moonraker still have a some minor elements that were used in the movie this is not the case for The Spy Who Loved Me. It is rather so that the novel is pretty much impossible to adapt as Ian Fleming diverts from his successful concept and returns to experiment.

For in this case the novel is told solely from the viewpoint of the proverbial Bondgirl and even from a first person point of view. It even takes a while before James Bond turns up as Fleming takes his time to tell the background of the girl and put her in the necessary setting. It is strange, but also quite interesting. In earlier books Fleming had also used other characters to tell parts of the story to provide a larger perspective and to also enjoy himself telling exciting parts of the story that Bond took no part in. With the viewpoint he chose here the view is much narrower so he compensates by expanding it with more digressions. However, this does not work very well for the story although they provide an interesting read.

As the story is told from a female’s view Fleming has to change his style and use much less of his typical strong prose and addition of details. Alas he did not succeed completely. Yes he does manage a fairly acceptable to present a female view. His prose however is still a bit too sturdy and male in character.

The story itself gets interesting when the bad guys pop up and later on James Bond. Until then the story is a nice sketch and view of the early sixties where the story provides some drama which did not really catch on. It is in the second part that we get the James Bond feeling again and Fleming manages to serve, but the plot is too simple and short to move beyond a secondary plot within the usually larger story.

The Spy Who Loved Me is an interesting experiment as it uses a bondgirl perspective, but the plot only provides a short ride which does not serve to make the story a great James Bond tale. It is a side-story which might have worked better as a short story. Now it feels like an extended one where too little excitement really happens. As such it would have been much better, I think. Now it not the least of the James Bond novels, but still in the lesser category. Still I can recommend it just because of the experiment of Fleming to change his style and the point of view.

Ian Fleming – Thunderball

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

The movie adaptation of the James Bond-novel Thunderball (1961), by Ian Fleming, is considered to be one of the most popular and best of the franchise. To me it has been a good but not the best, so I was quite interested in how the original novel would turn out.

Thunderball is the first novel in which SPECTRE gets introduced, whereas in the movies it was introduced in the first movie already and played a role in many more. This is also what makes it different in setup. The movie leaves a lot of events in the beginning more mysterious while Fleming, in his usual way, starts with an extensive prelude. It also shows a more peculiar reference of the times which in the movie play no part. It is these extras which make the start of the novel quite interesting because it provides details and viewpoints previously unknown.

Once the prelude is over the novel starts following the movie again but with some small changes that were probably done for the visual effects to appeal to the viewers better. In the novels events are more business-like and less adventurous. Several striking side-characters from the movie are absent and it are these elements which make the movie much better than the novel. The movie added many more action scenes and a larger and more entertaining cast. The novel does manage to entertain but the first half of it is cut down severely in the movie while the second half is extended greatly. The movie does it better, although the novel is still a solid James Bond tale. Fleming knows his format and sticks to it. The Bond in the novel is characterized much better. The reader has a much better feel for him than one could get from the movie. It is this what makes the novels very worthwhile to read. One will discover more details and a greater picture with more realism.

How does Thunderball stand compared to the previous novels? As said, Fleming knows his format. For several novels in a row he sticks to a steady cadence and stays within the canvas which makes the stories work. Nevertheless Thunderball lacks good twists and surprises. Bond has his aim quite clear, which is probably partially because half of the novel is spent on several events that lead up to the point that Bond comes into action at last. So I think I would rank it on part with Dr No, but below Moonraker, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, which until now remain my favorite novels. Still, none of the James Bond novels have really disappointed me until now. Each of them remains a good thriller with elements and the typical Fleming style that makes an enjoyable read.