What I’m Reading: SOLO, A James Bond Novel, By William Boyd

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Solo-by-William-BoydWhat I’m Reading – Solo By William Boyd

A James Bond Novel

Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

Okay.  I admit.  When it comes to James Bond, I’m biased.  I love the movies.  The books, not so much.

That being said, I have enjoyed the Ian Fleming James Bond novels that I’ve read.  I just haven’t liked them as much as the movies.

The most fun part for me of reading Fleming’s novels is seeing firsthand his vision of the James Bond character, which is very different from the way the character is portrayed in the movies, by any of the actors, Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, or Daniel Craig.

Fleming passed away in 1964, but starting in the 1980s, the James Bond novels continued with a series of novels written by John Gardner, who penned these stories into the 1990s.  Afterwards, other authors took over.

Solo by William Boyd is the latest of the James Bond novels and the first by Boyd.  I was eager to read it.

Solo takes place in 1969, and the character of James Bond is 45 years old.  M sends Bond on a mission to Zanzarim, Africa, a country in the midst of a civil war.  M informs Bond that it’s his job to see that this war doesn’t happen, as it is in the best interest of Her Majesty’s government.  To avert this war, Bond is instructed to find the rebel leader, a man named Solomon Adeka, and in the words of M, to make him “a less efficient soldier.”

So, Bond travels to Africa under the guise of a newspaper reporter, where he befriends a young beautiful female contact, Efua Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, who helps him infiltrate the rebel forces.  Bond also meets the very deadly Kobus Breed, Adeka’s right hand man, whose calling card is that he hangs his enemies on hooks through their jaws, like human-sized fish.

Bond soon finds that things in Zanzarim aren’t what they seem, and in order to get to the bottom of things and save his own life in the process, Bond has to go undercover and work “solo” and without sanction from Her Majesty’s government.  His investigation eventually leads him to the United States, where he’s reunited with his old friend Felix Leiter, and together they solve the mystery of the Zanzarim revolution.

For a spy novel, Solo certainly takes its time.  The pace is anything but urgent, and Bond doesn’t decide to go “solo” until well into the novel, nearly two thirds of the way through.  As a result, I had a mixed reaction to Solo.  While I certainly enjoyed the characterization of James Bond, I really couldn’t get into the story, as the events in this plot never really grabbed me.

The early scenes of Bond infiltrating the foreign press corps so he can get close to the rebel leader Adeka are very slow moving, and they do very little in the way of moving the plot forward.

I also found the plot about the Zanzarim revolution difficult to get my head around.  Bond doesn’t really know why M is so interested in stopping this revolution, and as a result, neither do we.  It’s difficult to care about what’s going on when we’re not even sure what Bond is fighting for.

When Bond finally does decide to go “solo” towards the end of the novel, this plot point also fails to lift the story to a higher level simply because in the movies James Bond has chosen to go rogue in a number of films, including two of the recent Daniel Craig Bond films, QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) and SKYFALL (2012) and the second Timothy Dalton film LICENSE TO KILL (1989), so this plot point isn’t new or exciting.

To be honest, I found the story here in Solo to be somewhat of a snooze.

Author William Boyd fares much better when writing characters.  I thoroughly enjoyed his characterization of James Bond, and I enjoyed being inside Bond’s head.  He makes Bond a tough no-nonsense agent, clever and covert when he has to be, and also a deadly assassin.  There’s a particularly brutal scene in which Bond exacts revenge on a key enemy, and it’s one of the more effective scenes in the novel.

Boyd’s Bond also drinks and smokes enough to make Ian Fleming proud.    If Bond weren’t a fictional character, he’d be dead from all the alcohol and nicotine he consumes.

Of the movie Bonds, I definitely pictured Daniel Craig as William Boyd’s James Bond.

The character of Efua Blessing Ogilvy-Grant was one of my favorite characters in the book.  She’s smart, tough, and very sexy.  Boyd seems to excel at writing the love scenes in this one, as they are some of the more tender and memorable sequences in the novel.  Ogilvy-Grant is more than just a femme fatale, as she’s also a formidable opponent who gives Bond a run for his money when she becomes more than what Bond expected.

Kobus Breed is also a memorable villain, one who lives up to the role, as he instills fear in those who cross him.  Boyd does a nice job making Breed frightening.  And Breed really is the main villain in the novel, since the more powerful players pulling the strings, the people Breed works for, tend to hide in the shadows and we never really get to know them as well as we do the brutal and overly violent Breed.

Solo was an OK read, but to be honest, I was a little disappointed.  I expected more from a James Bond novel.  I thought the plot was difficult to get into, and the action and suspense minimal until the third act.  I also thought the titled “solo” plot-point where Bond goes rogue to take on the bad guys on his own nothing new and actually rather tired.

Solo therefore is a mediocre Bond tale that could have benefitted from a more emotional and tangible plot.  Its characterizations are all on the money, but the plot Bond and his friends find themselves in is rather blah.

I was neither shaken nor stirred.

—END—

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PSYCHO By Robert Bloch – A Frightening Read, Perfect for Halloween

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Psycho coverWhat I’m Reading – Psycho  By Robert Bloch

Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

Looking for a good read this Halloween?

 

Look no further than Psycho by Robert Bloch, the novel on which Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie is based.   Hitchcock’s film is such an icon of horror cinema, it’s easy to forget that a novel called Psycho existed first.

 

And whether you’re reading it for the first time, or re-reading it for the umpteenth, it’s still a powerful read.

 

For me, I enjoy comparing the book to the movie, seeing things that Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano kept in, things they left out, and things they changed.  I also enjoy reading the original ideas by Bloch.  With very few exceptions, the story of Psycho as we know it today was entirely created by Bloch.  Hitchcock and Stefano added very little in the way of ideas original to the movie.

 

The story of Psycho is so well known at this point, and for those folks unfamiliar with the movie or the book, the less they know about the plot the better, so I won’t go into much detail here about the story. It’s best for you to discover it on your own.

 

Basically, Psycho is the story of a peculiar young man named Norman Bates who lives with his domineering old mother and runs a small motel located on a back road off the main highway.  A young woman, Mary Crane, has stolen a large sum of money from her employer, which she plans to use to help pay her boyfriend Sam Loomis’ debts so they can get married.

 

On her way to visit Sam, she stops at the Bates Motel to spend the night.  She ends up having a conversation with Norman Bates over dinner, and later that night returns to her room where she takes a shower—. 

 

Sometime later, Mary’s sister Lila and a private investigator name Arbogast arrive in Sam’s town looking for Mary, and when Sam tells them he has no idea where Mary is, that she never came to see him, the search continues.  Arbogast finds evidence that Mary had stayed at the Bates Motel, and he tells Lila and Sam this news, but when Arbogast himself disappears, Sam and Lila finally decide to go to the local sheriff, who tells them he believes Arbogast has pulled a fast one on them, because if he told them he was returning to the Bates Motel to question Norman Bates’ mother, he was lying, because Norman Bates’ mother is dead.

 

And thus the mystery deepens, leading to one of the most memorable conclusions ever in a horror movie, and a pretty good one for a novel as well.

 

The first and most obvious difference between the book and the movie is the physical appearance of Norman Bates.  In the movie, as played by Anthony Perkins, Norman is tall and thin, whereas in the novel, Norman is heavy, out of shape, and wears glasses.  In fact, when Mary first sees him in the novel his weak appearance puts her at ease:

 

Mary made up her mind very quickly, once she saw the fat, bespectacled face and heard the soft, hesitant voice.  There wouldn’t be any trouble.

 

Think again, Mary!

 

The novel also introduces Norman Bates right away, in Chapter 1, unlike in the movie where the first third of the movie is all about Marion Crane (she’s Marion in the movie, Mary in the book.)  It’s a great way to open the novel, as the first chapter probably does a better job defining Norman Bates’ character than the entire Hitchcock movie.  Don’t get me wrong.  The Hitchcock film nails Norman Bates, mostly because of Anthony Perkins’ phenomenal performance, but here in the novel, especially in the opening chapter, we get inside Norman’s head and immediately are privy to interactions with his mother that define him with the kind of depth  you can only find in a novel, as it’s nearly impossible to accomplish in a movie.

 

As in this exchange:

 

“—-You never listen to me, do you?  It’s always what you want and what you think.  You make me sick!”

 

“Do I boy?” Mother’s voice was deceptively gentle, but that didn’t fool Norman.  Not when she called him “boy.”  Forty years old, and she called him “boy.”

 

And: 

 

“That’s the real reason you’re still sitting over here on this side road, isn’t it, Norman?  Because the truth is that you haven’t any gumption.  Never had any gumption, did you boy?

 

“Never had the gumption to leave home.  Never had the gumption to go out and get yourself a job, or join the army, or even find yourself a girl—.”

 

“You wouldn’t let me!”

 

And this thought from Norman:

 

She’d always laid down the law to him, but that didn’t mean he always had to obey.  Mothers sometimes are overly possessive, but not all children allow themselves to be possessed.

 

This is all from Chapter 1, which really sets the tone for the rest of the novel, as right off the bat we get a full understanding of the dynamic between Norman and his mother.  We see and understand what his mother has done to him, and what he has become in the process.  I think it’s better defined here in this opening chapter than anywhere in the Hitchcock movie.

 

Of course, the defining moment of the movie PSYCHO (1960) is the shower scene, one of the most memorable and most studied scenes in film history.  Now, whereas the book obviously isn’t going to capture the cinematic craftsmanship of Hitchcock, the bottom line is Bloch doesn’t have to because his version is even more brutal than the film version.  His shower scene ends with a beheading.  Nuff said.

 

Granted, I enjoy the first half of the novel better than the second.  I find the chapters about Lila and Sam’s investigation much less captivating and interesting than the ones about Norman Bates and his mother.  During these later chapters, Norman is in them less, and the novel just isn’t as creepy when he’s not present.

 

The same goes for his mother, whose presence is felt much more in the book than in the movie.  When she’s in the novel, she’s a monstrous character, and Bloch does a masterful job with her.  She’s much less of a force in the movie, where for obvious reasons, we don’t see her much.

 

There’s a great scene after Norman has spent hours cleaning up after his mother’s crime and meticulously disposing of the body.  He returns to his house, exhausted.  He collapses in his bed and soon hears his mother enter the room.

 

“It’s all right son.  I’m here.  Everything’s all right.”  He could feel her hand on his forehead, and it was cool, like the drying sweat.  He wanted to open his eyes, but she said, “Don’t you worry, son.  Just go back to sleep.”

 

“But I have to tell you—.”

 

“I know.  I was watching.  You didn’t think I’d go away and leave you, did you?  You did right, Norman.  And everything’s all right now.”

 

Yes.  That was the way it should be.  She was there to protect him.  He was there to protect her.  Just before he drifted off to sleep again, Norman made up his mind.   They wouldn’t talk about what happened tonight- not now, or ever.  And he wouldn’t think about sending her away.  No matter what she did, she belonged here, with him.  Maybe she was crazy, and a murderess, but she was all he had.  All he wanted.  All he needed.  Just knowing she was here, beside him, as he went to sleep.

 

Aaargh!!!  How creepy!!!!

 

Great stuff!

 

Psycho is an excellent read, especially around Halloween. If you want to curl up with a frightening book this Halloween, grab a copy of Robert Bloch’s Psycho and invite Norman Bates and his mother into your home.  It’ll get under your skin in ways the Hitchcock film doesn’t.

 

Bloch brings you in so deeply into the mindset of Norman Bates and his mother, it’ll leave you feeling uncomfortable and dirty, in need of a shower.  Then again— maybe you better opt for a bath.

 

–END—

THE YARD By Alex Grecian – A Tale of Murder and Intrigue in the days following the Ripper Murders

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The YardWhat I’m Reading – The Yard By Alex Grecian

Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

 

Whatever happened to the days when murderers were easy to capture?

When they killed because they had motive, not because they enjoyed the experience?  That’s the question Scotland Yard detectives are asking themselves in The Yard, a tale of murder and mystery in the days following the Ripper murders in London by first-time novelist Alex Grecian.

The Yard is not about Jack the Ripper.  Instead, its story takes place after the Ripper murders, when tensions in London are running high for the simple reason that the Ripper was never caught.  Faith in Scotland Yard and the police is at an all-time low.  In fact, things are so bad that the police are actually looked down upon and thought of as incompetent.

To combat this perception, newly appointed Commissioner of the Police Sir Edward Bradford assembles a special unit of Scotland Yard inspectors called the Murder Squad whose job it is to concentrate solely on solving the crime of murder in the city.  But things get ugly when one of their own, Inspector Little, is killed, his dismembered body discovered in a trunk.

Sir Edward places Inspector Walter Day in charge of the Inspector Little Case.  Day is the newest detective at the Yard, and Sir Edward believes Day is best suited for the job because he’s the least emotionally tied to the case, as he didn’t know Little as well as the other detectives did.

Day is assisted by Dr. Bernard Kingsley, the local coroner, a progressive thinking man who utilizes such modern methods as fingerprinting, a procedure which most detectives of the day scoff at.  But Day believes in Kingsley’s methods and leans on the doctor’s talents, utilizing information from his autopsy reports to help him solve the case.

Meanwhile, Constable Nevil Hammersmith discovers the body of a dead five year-old boy stuck inside a chimney but is told not to spend time on such an unimportant case, as his superiors advise him to concentrate on the police murderer, especially when the body of another slain policeman is discovered.  But Hammersmith is scarred by a traumatic childhood, and he refuses to let the murder of a young child go unsolved, and so he disobeys his superiors and sets out to solve the case on his own.

The Yard has its hands full, as crime in London is running rampant.  As the police struggle to solve the seemingly endless pile of caseloads covering their desks, they wonder if life in the post-Ripper world will ever be the same again.

For the most part, The Yard is a very entertaining read.  I definitely enjoyed the story, and author Alex Grecian includes plenty of details to make the 19th century setting of London, England, believable.  I also enjoyed the characters in this one.  Grecian does a nice job fleshing them out.

The three central characters are all very likable.  Main hero Inspector Walter Day wants to do right by his career, which is just starting out, both for professional reasons and personal, as he has a young wife at home to support.  Day is full of self-doubt, and at first he questions Commissioner Bradford’s decision to put him in charge of the Little case.  Day fears his fellow detectives will shun him and question why he was put in charge when he has so little experience.  But this isn’t what happens, as he quickly earns the respect of his fellow detectives.  He also has the full support of his Commissioner.

Day also worries about his marriage. His wife comes from a wealthy family, and she’s used to a much more extravagant lifestyle than he’s able to afford her on his policeman’s salary.  But she loves him, and she tells him continually that money is not an issue for her.

Whereas Day is the intellectual self-disciplined detective, Constable Nevil Hammersmith is the emotional, physical police officer who’s not above disobeying his superiors to solve a crime.  He’s also the voice of the voiceless, as he refuses to let the murder of a nameless child go unsolved.  Interestingly enough, in spite of his methods, he too has the support of Commissioner Bradford, who seems to have an eye for good policemen, regardless of how they get the job done.

Dr. Bernard Kingsley was probably my favorite character in the novel.  He’s an eccentric medic who gets some of the better lines in the story.  He also performs some grisly autopsies that are not for the squeamish.  His use of modern day crime-detecting methods, from fingerprinting to identifying hairs found on the victim’s clothing, is intriguing and helps to make him a fascinating character.

The supporting characters are also fleshed out nicely, as are the villains in this story.

If there’s one thing I didn’t like about The Yard it’s that at times there are too many things going on at once.  I was most interested in the main story of the killer on the loose murdering police detectives, and when the novel veered away from this plot, it just wasn’t as gripping.  At times, it played like a drama about a day-in-the-life of Scotland Yard detectives rather than a story of an all-out manhunt for a deranged police killer.  This isn’t awful.  It’s simply not as exciting as a serial murder case.

I did enjoy the theme of the book, that the society of the time was growing sicker, that in the “old days,” crimes were simpler to solve.  If someone committed a murder, they had a motive- they were cheated or wronged in some way, and killed in heated jealousy, and once the police discovered the motive, they found the killer.  But the inspectors in The Yard lament that crimes in their day have no clear-cut motive.  People seem to be killing without reason, the sort of thing started by the Ripper.  The police feel overwhelmed and defeated by this new style of killing, fearing their world of law and order is slipping away from them.

The Yard has enough atmosphere, plot twists, and intriguing characters to keep you reading page after page, even if it does get a bit sidetracked at times with its multiple storylines.  Overall, it’s a fun read, one that I heartily recommend.

—END—

A Look Back at SMOKING POPPY By Graham Joyce – Book Review By Michael Arruda

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Smoking Poppy coverWhat I’m Reading – Smoking Poppy By Graham Joyce

Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

Having read and enjoyed Graham Joyce’s latest novel, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, I decided to read one of his earlier works, Smoking Poppy, from 2002.

In Smoking Poppy, Dan Innes learns that his adult daughter Charlie, who he hasn’t seen in years, has been arrested on charges of drug smuggling in Thailand where she awaits a probable death sentence.  Dan decides to travel to Thailand in order to bring his daughter back home.  He intends to go it alone, but things don’t work out that way.  His friend Mick wants to go with him, which comes as a surprise to him since Dan doesn’t even realize they’re best friends.  In fact, he’s shocked when Mick calls him his “best mate.”

His best mate?  This was complicated. I didn’t realize I was his best mate, nor he mine.  We’d known each other for some years, true, but then only as snooker partners and quiz makeweights.  I didn’t much go in for this “best mates” thing; I didn’t see the point.  Your best mate as far as I’m concerned is your wife and your children and the family you build your life around.  You stop having best mates when you’re fourteen.  But I had to tread carefully, because he was seriously offended.

 

Dan’s estranged son Phil, who has found religion in his adult life, also decides to make the trip, because God told him to go to Thailand, and so the unlikely trio of Dan, Mick, and Phil travel to Thailand to rescue Charlie, a process that is easier said than done, especially when they discover that the prisoner being held in the Thai prison isn’t Charlie at all, but a woman who had stolen Charlie’s identification.  Charlie, they learn, is holed up deep in the jungle, surrounded by murderous drug dealers, superstitious natives, and opium plants galore.

Dan, Mick, and Phil venture into this dangerous and unsettling world with the improbable task of somehow finding Charlie and then bringing her back to civilization.

Smoking Poppy is both a thrilling page turner, an adventure into the perilous jungles of Thailand, and an eye-opening drama about a father trying to get to know his adult children, wondering where things went wrong, and how two people who adored him when they were children seem to hate him now.  Smoking Poppy is just as much about Dan “finding” his son Phil as it is about him finding his daughter Charlie.

The novel succeeds on both levels.  Dan’s journey into the jungles of Thailand is reminiscent of Martin Sheen’s trek through Vietnam into Cambodia in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).  There is high adventure as Dan, Mick, and Phil venture deep into an area of the world in which most men don’t return alive.

But my favorite part of Smoking Poppy is the internal journey taken by Dan, the one in which he grows to understand his adult children and his “best mate” Mick.  And none of these things come easily for him.

When Dan reaches an epiphany at the end of the story and realizes what it means to be a father, the moment is particularly satisfying:

Break your heart one day?  I wish I’d known then what I know now, and I could have gainsaid the old harridan.  Your children break your heart every day.  You only have to look at them and your heart shreds.  They lacerate it.  Pulverize it.  And then they mend it for you, each and every day, with a gesture or a smile or a sly glance, just so that it can be shredded and wrecked all over again.  And all over nothing.

 

That’s what it means to be a father.  That’s my definition.  A father is a person with a mashed heart and a wounded hand.  And that’s perfectly normal.

 

I really enjoyed the four principal characters in this one.  Dan is a flawed character who means well, very well, and oftentimes it’s painful to read through the scenes where he tries to communicate or help his son or daughter and fails.  You want him to succeed.

Mick might be the most interesting character in the book.  He’s this guy who Dan barely notices, but really considers himself to be Dan’s best mate.  The fact of the matter is, Mick really cares about Dan, something that Dan in his closed-in world never noticed before.  Mick serves as the driving force behind Dan’s mission to find Charlie.  He’s constantly pushing Dan forward, helping him get through one ordeal after another, and he’s the voice that always says don’t give up.  And he backs up his words with actions.

Dan’s son Phil is certainly an annoying character, and Joyce does a nice job making the reader relate to Dan’s frustrations over his son, like the way Phil always calls Dan “father” rather than “dad.”  You just want to slug him.  And yet, Phil loves his father, loves his family, and the single most satisfying moment in the book may be when we find out this fact, that Phil does love his dad, and we find out through Phil’s actions, when it’s revealed what he did to save his dad.

Charlie is also interesting, the strong, rebellious daughter of the family, who went off and got herself in a bind.  It’s interesting because the plot of the book is all about finding and rescuing Charlie, and yet the story is more about Dan’s relationship with his son Phil and his friend Mick than it is about his relationship with his daughter.

Joyce also does a nice job fleshing out the supporting characters in the book, including some of the villagers, especially Nabao, the woman who cares for Charlie.  Joyce also creates an unsettling villain in Jack, the drug lord they meet in the jungle, who oversees the village in which they find Charlie.  Jack could easily kill them all in a heartbeat, and Dan and the others have to operate gingerly around him.  He’s a very unnerving villain.

Smoking Poppy also enters the realm of fantasy, but on a peripheral level.  Moments of spiritualism are intertwined with drug-induced hallucinations to create a world in the jungle that is as uncomfortable as it is unpredictable.

There’s a moment in the jungle where Dan encounters an entity, a force that is downright frightening.

It was madness, this entire trek.  Preposterous.  I lashed at the bamboo again, and my teeth started chattering, as if I was chilled.  Sunlight dappled the rubbery leaves as a shape formed at the periphery of my vision, a shape that I took to be a bird or an animal.  It was no more than a shadow, a silhouette even, but then the thing swooped down from the jungle canopy and started to close around me.  It was like a heavy, damp cloak settling on my shoulders and pressing a great weight down on my lungs.  I felt a rancid breath on my neck.  There was corruption in the air and a sound like a veil tearing.  I tried to lash the thing away and when my hand passed through it a moment of hideous panic followed.  It was the loneliest thing I have ever experienced in my life.

 

Mick and Phil tell Dan that nothing physical had leapt onto him, and he realizes— or at least at this time believes— that it was just in his head.  But this is not an isolated incident, as there are ghosts and spirits in the jungle just as assuredly as there are men with guns growing opium.

Smoking Poppy is an engaging novel, the tale of one man’s physical journey into the perilous jungles of Thailand to rescue his adult daughter, but the more satisfying story is that of his emotional journey, where he discovers what it means to be a father and a friend.

It’s never too late to discover a gem.  Sure,  Smoking Poppy was written a decade ago, but this novel by Graham Joyce is every bit as satisfying today as it was then.  It’s a highly recommended read.

—END—