on 27 October 2014
This is moderately successful, better in some parts than in others, much like the Ian Fleming originals. There's a certain pleasure in ticking off all the generic conventions as they're duly called into service: fast girls, faster cars, particular - and often peculiar - dietary requirements, the right weapon, characters' bizarre names (Sunday, Blessing, Christmas), inventive death, etc, etc: yes, they're all here. Boyd even remembers the story of Fleming learning that in real life one always vomits when recovering consciousness. Fleming included the detail in his next novel, and here it is in Boyd, too. Twice.
While all of this may indeed 'A James Bond Novel' make, it doesn't in itself add up to an effective thriller. Solo is exciting in places, but drags in others, which I suppose is not unusual, but one has come to expect more from James Bond, perhaps unreasonably, especially as I think I remember the same being true of at least some of Fleming's efforts, though they at least had the benefit of originality, a luxury not enjoyed by Boyd.
Boyd has famously chosen to set the novel in 1969, so here we have a historical novel, too: while period detail is dutifully included and anachronism doesn't exactly abound, neither is it wholly absent, and it grates. I don't for a moment believe that she had a 'day from hell', and I'm suspicious of a hospital that was 'state of the art', or that Bond appreciates 'effective PR'.
A generally enjoyable literary exercise: well done. Now, put your money away, Mr Boyd, and write something much better.
on 29 November 2014
Oh what a disappointment! Ian Fleming was a great story-teller with one of the most enjoyable fictional spies ever imagined. Having read his books years ago I looked forward to this 'sequel' by William Boyd. But sadly Boyd is not Fleming. What we have is a poor pastiche of the style and, of course, the main character, but nothing more. Whereas Fleming had you gripped and turning the pages, this left me unengaged and frankly indifferent, both to the man and to what happens next. I appreciate that only Fleming will write like Fleming, but there are masters of plotting and narrative out there (Anthony Horowitz for one) who can write this kind of 'sequel' and have done it brilliantly for other authors. Sorry. I wanted to enjoy it, but I didn't.
on 30 September 2013
Promoting Solo in the Guardian newspaper (28/9/13) Boyd printed an 'interview' between himself and James Bond from 1969. Fun but it helped me put my finger on it- this is a 007 novel written as though Ian Fleming never existed. While it's obvious from the blurb that Boyd eschewed a classic Bond plot (playing cat & mouse vs supervillain), and clear that he hasn't attempted Fleming's voice, the wholesale dumping of the thriller style is a courageous mistake. The result is a curate's egg, lacking in action and pace but compelling in tone and atmosphere.
To start with the positive, he's got Bond pretty darn close. Beyond the welcome knitted tie, eggs, fags, etc, there's an appreciation for the dry, humane, pernickety but coldly professional hero. His voice especially shines through: be it grumbles at the service industry, or an impressively unfusty appreciation of young people's fashion and freedom. The mischief in Richmond didn't worry me from a character point of view: silly, reckless, ungallant, man without milk tray but very human.
Moreover the period setting is consummate, effortlessly weaving in the old world trappings that were a powerful counterpoint to 007's extravagant adventures: Dimple Haig, the old pound note, Jensen FF. By extension, the undoubted high light of the book is the fictional African failed state. Boyd's background obviously informs the wildlife, geography, politics of Zanzarim; the late colonial setting is perfect for Bond who operates best on a thin veneer of civilisation, the private club never more than a few steps from the urban guerrilla. Remoteness and exoticism are at the heart of the best Bond outings, and Zanzarim must be a contender for the most alien: vivid, horrific and haunting.
The problem is not so much the plot (I needn't repeat here) but the storytelling. This isn't a thriller by any means: too recursive and wandery, it's disjointed and lacks urgency. Not uneventful, but with little incident and almost no action until the halfway mark. Scenes occur so we can revisit them once something happens. I don't need shootouts and car chases, but to deprive a man of action of his purpose is dangerous. Without a proper mission or megalomaniac to hunt the pace flags badly. I don't mind continuation writers breaking rules (Amis, Gardner, Benson) but you better have a damn good reason.
Fleming's cardinal rule (borrowed from pulp fiction) was keep the plot flying and they won't see the plot holes. Here they appear cavernous, as chapters end with little coercing you to start the next. Gardner proved that 007 mysteries (semi-concealing the bad guy for plot reasons) need plenty of action, heavy on the quirky/bizarre/macabre. Without head to head showdowns over cards/cars/golf, 007 wilts amid a conspiracy. The girls and henchmen are well characterised but fail to loom large. Crucial as once out of Africa the leaden pace makes Bond's solo mission appear arbitrary, out of character and unconvincing.
In fairness the twists are good, and the prose better than I feel he's been given credit for. Erudite but unshowy, with an impressive knack for description, it's an easy read. I enjoyed it as a romance in the same old-fashioned sense that applied to Fleming's work (a story with scenes remote from ordinary life), but mourned it as a non-thriller. An interesting period companion piece about 007, but not a Bond adventure.
on 13 December 2015
A strange addition to the Bond Catalogue. It is a much more logical and thought out plot than most of them. James Bond behaves in a manner that makes me think, for the first time, that he is competent enough to be employed as a spy. The bond is older, and more mature, sensible and reflective about what he is doing and he does not put himself in danger for no apparent reason. The plot hangs together with a few more twists than the usual Bond and even leaves a few loose ends which make sense in terms of the book. The motivation of some of the 'Good guys' is not always that clean.
One slight disappointment, the writing is not quite so page turning as Flemings and there are no competitive situations (golf or card games) that grip you.
One interesting error Bond's mother used Shalimar perfume from Guerlain and he could recognize it's smell on another woman. Even though Raymond Chandler mentioned the perfume (cannot remember the book) in the 40's or 50's It had not been available in Britain (or Europe) under that name since the early 1930s due to a legal dispute. It was called Number 90 until sometime well after 1969 over here. I know this because, as a Raymond Chandler fan, in 1965 I asked the man who ran Guerlain (Dr Felber, who was a then client of mine) in the UK how I could get some for my new fiance. He told me I could not, as it was called Number 90 in Europe, he did not know about the USA. I have checked it out after I read the book. Incidentally it is an extraordinarily heavy cloying perfume and really from another era.
on 12 December 2015
If there was ever an index to measure the page turning appeal of an author, William Boyd would probably be one of the few who would surpass Ian Fleming. Reading some of the other reviews, the immediate pitfall is that Fleming's work is used as a barometer to judge Boyd's taking up the reins of the James Bond character. For me, this overlooks the fact that Fleming's books are incredibly inconsistent with efforts like "Moonraker" and "You only live twice" being pretty risible. Stripped down to a short story format or taken from an original perspective such as "FRWL" or "TSWLM" , Fleming seemed a better writer, the dodgy dialogue and bizarre endings factored out in a lithe and economic narrative.
It has to be said that "Solo" is probably amongst the very best of the Bond novels. Boyd has done his homework and the references to the food he eats, the clothes he wears and even his fear of flying demonstrate familiarity with the Bond novels. Fleming's last full novel, "The man with the golden gun" seemed to suggest a changing point with Fleming realising society was changing as the second half of the 1960's started. In my opinion "Solo" is strongly suggestive of the direction he would have gone in. Bond is now 45 and employed on an ill-defined missions to terminate a rebel leader who has staged a coup in the African country of Zanzarim. This is territory Boyd knows well but one totally unfamiliar to James Bond. The mission seems half-baked and Bond is out of his depth. Even when it looks like he is about to succeed, events take a sinister turn.
The first half of the book concerns the African operation and the story then shifts up a gear as Bond goes on a solo mission instead of convalescing in order to track down and kill his adversaries who have now relocated to Washington DC. This is more familiar Bond territory and some elements resemble "For your eyes only" - one of the best short stories by Fleming. By this point, the book goes in to overdrive with a rather unlikely twist and the involvement of a familiar face. The story rattles along with a terrific pace and the action would seem to conclude with Bond storming the mansion owned by the protagonists. Thankfully , Boyd eschews a more theatrically villain and the encounter with the repellent and cruel Kobus Breed appears to be the highpoint.
For my money, there are several reasons why this book is so good. I think Boyd is a much better writer than Fleming and his use of dialogue lacks the pantomime element that can mar some of Fleming's books. The scale of the adventure is also more modest and this makes the story more credible. I would also have to say that Boyd has thought through the development of Bond well, giving the character some back history and realising that a Jensen Interceptor would be a more appropriate car for the character to drive in 1969. However, the best bit of the book is that Boyd does something that Fleming never did and leaves one element of the story unresolved so that the final chapter has a rather understated element of menace about it.
As a fan of William Boyd, I felt that this might have been something of a lightweight effort and inferior to his own efforts even though I was very intrigued to read this book. Ultimately, what Boyd has produced is probably one of the best Bond stories and one that is only matched by "OHMSS" and "FRWL." Boyd not only nails Fleming's oeuvre spot on but offers a tantalising clue as to how the series could have developed. This is classic Bond.
I'm not a fan of James Bond generally, but if William Boyd wrote a telephone directory I'd be prepared to give it go. Boyd is in many ways a natural choice to produce a new instalment in the Bond series - he has written good quality spy stories of his own, and also has a track record of novels set in exotic locales. He doesn't disappoint here - in fact, this was a great deal better than I'd expected. I didn't mind the Sebastian Faulks Bond novel (Faulks being another writer I generally enjoy) but found it rather insipid - a three star rating. So this time round I hoped simply to be mildly diverted - I didn't really expect to be gripped or to enjoy it.
The story has all the elements that are compulsory for a Bond novel - Martinis, fast cars, a sinister villain, beautiful and intriguing women falling at the hero's feet... But the style is definitely recognisable as Boyd's, and it's better for it. It doesn't seem lightweight or overly improbable. Boyd sends Bond off to Africa, with a mission to speed the ending of a civil war in a fictitious oil-rich African state. This is a good move - Boyd knows Africa and many of his best novels are set there. The wartime setting and political nature feel more believable than a closer-to-home mad villain bent on world domination style plot.
Of course, there is a mad villain to be found - Boyd is probably contractually obliged to provide one. And the story takes several unexpected twists and turns in its course. It's very easy to read and compelling. Boyd has the skill of giving just the right level of detail - enough to draw the reader in and evoke the place, but without being dull. The pacing is excellent. It's enjoyable and exciting and doesn't require too enormous a suspension of disbelief. I liked the African setting and the low reliance of gadgets or big stunts - there was a focus on Bond using ingenuity and low tech self-reliance to achieve his goals. Good old fashioned spying I suppose. It did remind me of some of Boyd's own spy stories set around World War II.
Because the style is very clearly Boyd's own, I imagine some purists and dedicated lovers of the Ian Fleming original novels may be put off. But fans of Boyd should definitely enjoy this. Of course, there's an underlying formula so you know you won't be too surprised, but there is an sense of suspense nonetheless. Overall, I found this far more enjoyable than I'd imagined it would be and I enjoyed it as a novel in it's own right. It's not quite as good as an original Boyd would have been, but it's definitely made me appreciate the possibilities of Bond a lot more. Those who enjoy spy novels and thrillers should add this to their reading list.
on 21 August 2015
Boyd does a great job at writing in an accessible but literary style, and for mimicking Fleming's writing style too a degree. The quality of the writing is decent, with some great scene-setting and characterisation.
I was impressed that Boyd delves a little into Bond's past. According to the intro, Fleming's timeline places this story in the 1960s and shows that Bond fought in WWII, which is quite a fascinating detail about the character that is explored a little in the opening chapters. I wished by the end that Boyd had continued to examine this part of Bond's character.
Where the novel loses points is on the overall story, which is adequate, but there isn't enough happening to justify the word count and the second half felt like a slog. The plot is appropriately twisty but sadly not very interesting, although it ticks all the Bond boxes: sexy girls with funny names, gadgets, globetrotting, physically deformed villain, political intrigue, etc.. In this sense it's same-old, but probably what you were expecting from a Bond novel. Something is sadly missing though and I wished the book was a little more compact.
I much preferred 'Devil May Care', but haven't yet read 'Carte Blanche' or the latest from Anthony Horowitz (!?).
Worth a dabble if you're a big fan of either Bond or Boyd, but a generally average read.
Author of 'Half Discovered Wings'
and 'The Gun of Our Maker'
on 12 December 2014
I was looking forward to this book having read the gushing Press reviews and having read all of Fleming's books several years ago. Sadly it's a bit of a mess and not terribly well written either. If I didn't know it was written by William Boyd,and Restless is one of my favourite books,I'd have thought it was a half decent effort by a half decent author and ,sex scenes aside,possibly aimed at the Teen market.
Boyd's Bond hardly comes across as anyone British Intelligence would be remotely interested in,rather dim in fact,and the plot is full of "you can't be serious" incidents. I work in a factory putting things into boxes,I could see things writ large that bumbling Bond didn't appear to be capable of noticing. Possibly my talents are wasted and I should contact MI5 with a view to recruitment,more likely Boyd has got it badly wrong and had Rowan Atkinson's painfully unfunny Johnny English character in his mind rather than James Bond.
As a light read plenty will enjoy Solo,I found it pretty poor,not least having read the original Bond books.Anyone who is thinking of buying this would be better advised to begin reading the Fleming books. Anyone who has read those and enjoyed them but not yet read the original Robert Ludlum Bourne series will probably really enjoy those as well.
on 28 October 2014
I'd seen some negative reviews of this book, which initially put me off reading it. Well, I'm glad I made the me to read this solid little novel.
It's a "sort of" Bond, as he's now in his forties, wants to replace his Bentley with a Jensen, and looks like he wants to settle down. Nevertheless, the author his done his homework and has produced a decent follow up to the series.
Anyway, I enjoyed the story, which was evident by the speed I read it.
on 13 May 2014
This is a far better book than Seb Faulks hammy pastiche of 2009. It has a grittiness and authenticity all of its own. Just as Boyd is a better writer, this is a superior effort, up there with Fleming's best. Why?
For a start, this character is more like Bond - he is violent, sexy, intelligent and a few steps ahead of most people. When he fails he fails spectacularly. The story is about deception - Bond thinks he is helping stop a civil war, in Africa but ends up in the middle of it, helping the wrong side. He is taken in by an African seductress, in true Bond fashion, helps a typically ruthless Bond henchman called Kobus Breed, and ends up on the winning side by going 'solo' to get his revenge. It avoids a lot of Bond cliché's whilst embracing them. at the same time.
I am happy that Boyd took this on. He is one modern Brit writer I always read, and this is more than pastiche. It is an addition to the Bond cannon - and moves it forwards.