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Solo: A James Bond Novel
Solo: A James Bond Novel
by William Boyd
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.19

50 of 60 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Different, 30 Sep 2013
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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.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 10, 2014 7:39 PM BST


James Bond: The John Gardner Years
James Bond: The John Gardner Years
Price: £31.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Deal, Mr Bond, 26 Sep 2013
Seasoned Gardner/Bond fans stocking up the Kindle for the holidays need look no further than this complete set (currently averaging at just £4.65 each) but newcomers may hesitate at the investment and should 'look inside' a random selection first.

For the uninitiated, John Gardner (1926-2007) was a onetime Anglican priest, WW2 marine officer, stage magician, journalist, recovered alcoholic and successful novelist. After a string of popular swinging 60s Bond parodies, he began to write 'straight' thrillers in the 70s which drew wide critical acclaim and was employed to write the official 007 novels between 1981 & 1996. Writing 14 original Bond novels & 2 novelisations (to Fleming's 12 novels & 9 short stories) he remains the most prolific 007 author: something of a double edged sword as it turned out.

These were contemporary novels and Gardner's chief ambition was to introduce Fleming's 'blunt instrument' trouble-shooter to the 'real' spy world that he'd extensively researched. Thus Bond becomes more of a spy than a secret agent, and MI6 loses that nostalgic wartime Naval Intelligence feel of Fleming's work. However in Gardner's early 007 novels the approach is successful, with a freshness to the believable (mostly undated) plots.

That the 80s novels were among Gardner's best and the 90s ones were more of a mixed bag is a cliché, but also a truism. Newcomers can do no better than check out the James Bond Boxed Set 5. They're the closest to Fleming's pattern of plotting (007 vs super villains, macabre evil, quirky schemes), depiction of the high life (casinos, cars, scuba diving) and his portrayal of Bond (a largely unchanged, smoking, drinking, mid 40s, action focused agent). They showcase the writer's talent for technical description, action sequences and feel for place. Though dialogue isn't a strength, he compensates with big memorable characters and a knack of making you turn the page.

Licence Renewed (1981) & For Special Services (1982) are classics in their own right, while Role of Honour (1984) & Nobody Lives Forever (1986) approximate Fleming's cynical clubman voice. However it's Icebreaker (1983) -the exception to the early books- that sets the pattern for the later ones with a strong mystery element replacing any stand out villain and thus disposing of the Fleming plot formula. When this involves technical know-how and rapid action, the novels are very successful: No Deals, Mr. Bond (1987), Win, Lose or Die (1989), Death is Forever (1992). When the plot or pace run out, less so: Brokenclaw (1990), The Man from Barbarossa (1991).

Admittedly by the 90s Bond's character had changed: a more cerebral spy, perhaps in his mid-50s, cigarette free and almost teetotal. Undeniably weaker entries (written at a difficult time in the author's life) like Never Send Flowers (1993) and Seafire (1994) detracted from the series and lost it fans. However, a few below par outings can't spoil many great bestsellers and a job well done.


High Time To Kill (Raymond Benson's Bond series Book 3)
High Time To Kill (Raymond Benson's Bond series Book 3)
Price: £4.07

5.0 out of 5 stars High Standard, 12 Sep 2013
The plot is simple: a new terrorist for hire organisation steals British military secrets only to lose them at the top of the world's 3rd largest mountain. As the vast resources of unfriendly foreign governments & criminals alike are employed to retrieve them, the UK puts its faith in one man with a little mountaineering experience & a Walther PPK.

Score: 9/10. What to say that hasn't been said? Probably Benson's best, a fine thriller in its own right and a great Bond novel. Derivative in the best sense, ideas and set pieces that echo Fleming's books abound: an opponent 007's equal; free market terrorists; high stakes golf match; car chase. Even the multinational expedition into icy territory with a traitor in the midst is reminiscent of Gardner's favourite 007 whodunits. More broadly Bond himself feels like Fleming's man: competitive, passionate, conflicted and brooding over relationships.

The point is that it's done so well, the writer sufficiently confident to make each element his own. Thus the golf game is no mere rehash of Goldfinger but feeds Bond's lifelong rivalry with Marquis, whose similar background means he's no KGB superman. The mountain itself is the showpiece, playing to all Bond's strengths as a resourceful man of action, sportsman and international trouble-shooter. As exotic a locale as may be found in Fleming's work, it's uniquely remote for a modern 007 tale; dangerous and physically & mentally taxing.

There's lovely writing about Nepal, a building sense of doom and gripping violence. The pace is superb, with characters killed off as we try to guess their loyalties. Benson's in control of a raft of different characters, all of whom pursue well thought out and logical motives without depriving our hero of page time. As villains the Union & Le Gerant are given time to breathe by making this the first of a trilogy, allowing the book to focus on the near at hand villains.

With Simmons going out of business like Morlands before them, Bond now smokes bespoke Tor cigarettes and he's drinking both vodka and bourbon in keeping with the Fleming books. He's in a relationship with his secretary Helena Marksbury that truly develops, and we even encounter the Governor of the Bahamas from Quantum of Solace!

The only downside is the sometimes patchy prose and dialogue. Admittedly heavy handed in places, several commentators have overstated the problems here. Whilst characters are apt at times to think or state the obvious, Benson successfully gives each their own voice- often successfully conveying character with a surprisingly delicate touch. It's immensely readable, the most fun since Gardner's best 007 novels and with the greatest sense of adventure since Fleming himself wrote!


Naked Runner (Coronet Books)
Naked Runner (Coronet Books)
by Francis Clifford
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Forgotten Storyteller, 29 July 2013
Francis Clifford was the pen name of Arthur Thompson (1917-1975), a British crime and thriller writer from 1953 until his death. Despite twice winning the Silver Dagger Award, he now seems undeservedly forgotten: perhaps because he didn't create a recurring hero and few of his books were adapted for the big screen.

The Naked Runner (1966) appears to be his most enduring work: probably because of its inclusion alongside novels by Ambler, Fleming & LeCarre in a widely published omnibus (the way I found it) as well as a film adaptation starring Frank Sinatra (1967), itself ironically forgotten and unavailable on DVD (apparently a troubled and mixed affair).

The novel concerns Sam Laker, a business man and widower living in Surrey with his 14 year old son. After a chance action lands him in the newspapers, a wartime colleague from military intelligence asks Sam for a favour- a simple courier job to East Germany. As things soon go fatally wrong, Sam finds himself alone and forced to confront ghosts from the past: his deadly record as a sniper and a girl who once saved his life.

'Things going wrong' is the only predictable thing about this impressively unsettling book, as the writer adds shock upon shock. The deceptive beginning may have been a mistake on the author's part, dwelling so long on Laker's mundane Surrey existence in such detail, as I fear too many may give up after a few pages. However the effect is to completely dismantle the hero's cosy existence and truly rewards those who persist.

It's a late cold war thriller of a now rare type: with the tragedian tone of Hitchcock's 'wrong man' thrillers, there are notes too of that other 60s writer James Leasor's pseudo-Bond Dr Jason Love's exploits. Though the spies portrayed are closer to the chess game intelligence world of LeCarre rather than the sex and high living exoticism of Fleming's secret agent oeuvre, the protagonist retains the everyman edge of the latter's hero and the locations as real. Laker remains to all intents and purposes an outsider, an amateur trouble shooter from 'our' world not 'theirs'.

Having reached Leipzig the reader is wrong footed at every turn, with a brilliant insight into the now vanished world of an East Germany behind the Iron Curtain. The prose makes vivid use of imagery to realise people and places with only occasional lapses into hyperbole. Above all the storytelling is superb: the structure invites you to guess but makes sure you won't (fans of the genre might have an inkling three quarters in) while Laker's spiralling descent feels as nightmarish as it does inevitable. Many scenes stay with you long after the final twist. Not to be overlooked.


003 1/2 the Adventures of James Bond Junior
003 1/2 the Adventures of James Bond Junior
by R D Mascott
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty Good By Half, 22 July 2013
In between Fleming's final stories (Octopussy, 1966) and the 1st continuation novel (Amis' Colonel Sun, 1968) was a one-off attempt to reach a pre-teen market decades before Charlie Higson. Eventually attributed to Arthur Calder Marshall (1908-1992) by fan site 007forever (although never officially confirmed or denied), it was deemed a flop at the time: but what's it really like?

Score: 8/10. In a village on the Kent/Surrey border, James Bond (13? year old) son of 007's brother David is left alone for the summer holidays. With the run of the grounds of a local manor house, James' fun is spoiled by the arrival of the sinister new owner Mr Merck and his guard dogs. However, worse than his discoveries behind the barbed wire, James learns that few adults are to be trusted and that friendship comes at a cost.

You Only Live Twice (1964) established that 007 had no living relatives, let alone a (presumably older) brother to inherit a family pile, rendering this firmly non-canon. However the same novel hinted that Fleming's books existed in Bond's own world, a conceit expanded upon here and of course in Pearson's 1973 Authorised Biography. Although 007 remains off-screen (he sends his nephew a hunting knife) everyone's heard of him.

Forget the post-Horowitz brio of Higson's period Young Bond Series: there's no grand scheme, globe-trotting super villain or exotic locations. Instead we get a gritty, contemporary 1960s children's tale with tearaway kids, unpleasant crooks and flawed adults that 007 never faced. The storytelling's high calibre and surprisingly mature, with an effective use of tension and jeopardy.

Instead of a Fleming pastiche there's a spare, descriptive, cynical style, with frequent and efficient use of dialogue to relate plot. Characters are richly drawn, the prose pleasingly detailed about cars, planes, food, nature, etc. There's some of the late Edwardian spirit of Fleming's books (hot July days, picnics, swimming in lakes) and James even has a gruff old housekeeper with a heart of gold (Mrs Raggles) and finds time for a 'girlfriend' in the form of the very un-PC thieving gypsy girl Sheelagh. So why did it fail? The clue is on the dust wrapper: a storybook for 8-14 year olds.

As other reviewers have observed, this is a dark, mature story. The adult voices are convincing but unnerving (misogynistic, lying, ridden with class prejudice) and nature is red in tooth and claw (dead and dying dogs abound). The insight into adult relationships (infidelity, lovers in the woods) might challenge many 8-10 year olds. Equally many 12 year olds may skip to the fairly low-key sex and violence (plus the sophistication) of Fleming's Bond. Everyone's different, but it's seriously limiting to have an audience not much either side of 11. Whether adult fans (or their kids) find this oddity refreshing or uniquely off-putting in terms of tone and subject matter I'd be fascinated to know. Either way, the execution is of a high standard.


The Adventures of James Bond Junior: Double-O Three and a Half
The Adventures of James Bond Junior: Double-O Three and a Half
by R.D. Mascott
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty Good By Half, 21 July 2013
In between Fleming's final stories (Octopussy, 1966) and the 1st continuation novel (Amis' Colonel Sun, 1968) was a one-off attempt to reach a pre-teen market decades before Charlie Higson. Eventually attributed to Arthur Calder Marshall (1908-1992) by fan site 007forever (although never officially confirmed or denied), it was deemed a flop at the time: but what's it really like?

Score: 8/10. In a village on the Kent/Surrey border, James Bond (13? year old) son of 007's brother David is left alone for the summer holidays. With the run of the grounds of a local manor house, James' fun is spoiled by the arrival of the sinister new owner Mr Merck and his guard dogs. However, worse than his discoveries behind the barbed wire, James learns that few adults are to be trusted and that friendship comes at a cost.

You Only Live Twice (1964) established that 007 had no living relatives, let alone a (presumably older) brother to inherit a family pile, rendering this firmly non-canon. However the same novel hinted that Fleming's books existed in Bond's own world, a conceit expanded upon here and of course in Pearson's 1973 Authorised Biography. Although 007 remains off-screen (he sends his nephew a hunting knife) everyone's heard of him.

Forget the post-Horowitz brio of Higson's period Young Bond Series: there's no grand scheme, globe-trotting super villain or exotic locations. Instead we get a gritty, contemporary 1960s children's tale with tearaway kids, unpleasant crooks and flawed adults that 007 never faced. The storytelling's high calibre and surprisingly mature, with an effective use of tension and jeopardy.

Instead of a Fleming pastiche there's a spare, descriptive, cynical style, with frequent and efficient use of dialogue to relate plot. Characters are richly drawn, the prose pleasingly detailed about cars, planes, food, nature, etc. There's some of the late Edwardian spirit of Fleming's books (hot July days, picnics, swimming in lakes) and James even has a gruff old housekeeper with a heart of gold (Mrs Raggles) and finds time for a 'girlfriend' in the form of the very un-PC thieving gypsy girl Sheelagh. So why did it fail? The clue is on the dust wrapper: a storybook for 8-14 year olds.

As other reviewers have observed, this is a dark, mature story. The adult voices are convincing but unnerving (misogynistic, lying, ridden with class prejudice) and nature is red in tooth and claw (dead and dying dogs abound). The insight into adult relationships (infidelity, lovers in the woods) might challenge many 8-10 year olds. Equally many 12 year olds may skip to the fairly low-key sex and violence (plus the sophistication) of Fleming's Bond. Everyone's different, but it's seriously limiting to have an audience not much either side of 11. Whether adult fans (or their kids) find this oddity refreshing or uniquely off-putting in terms of tone and subject matter I'd be fascinated to know. Either way, the execution is of a high standard.


As Good as Gold: James Bond Jr.Adventure Game Book
As Good as Gold: James Bond Jr.Adventure Game Book
by Dave Morris
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars You Are James Bond Jr!, 26 April 2013
For those with fond memories (or kids who've run into the show on a certain video sharing website) here's the opportunity to become James Bond Jr. Inspired purely by the films, the series ran 1991-92 for 65 episodes and imagined adventures for the teenaged relatives of Bond, Leiter, Q, etc. Firmly aimed at a pre-teen audience, it was as light as a feather.

This is a 'Find Your Fate' or role-play book written in the second person, presenting the reader with choices to make at the end of every page. As James Bond Jr, your choice directs you to diverse other pages and thus shapes the narrative. As always with these books the more adventurous you are, the further you tend to advance. The overall plot remains the same, with JBJ on the trail of Goldfinger and Oddjob in London and Egypt: there's even a cameo for Goldiefinger!

Dave Morris (who performed the same honours for another early 90s TV show, Knightmare) crafts things with a deft touch, ensuring that you can't go too far wrong early on but requiring more thoughtful decisions as time goes on. Careful selection of gadgets is essential, while attention to detail is rewarded as the plot develops. Though the audience for the book prevents a grim end for JBJ, there are plenty of conclusions that look pretty bad for our hero. At least the variety here ensures you can always start again!

Devotees may care to check out the 6 novelizations (written with surprising care) for slightly older children by 'John Vincent' (aka the prolific TV adapter John Peel, not the DJ) and for completists the James Bond, Jr. Spy File provides a guide to the series' characters as well as games and tips for junior spies!


James Bond Jr.: The Eiffel Target
James Bond Jr.: The Eiffel Target
by John Vincent
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars James Bond Jr: Book 2- The Eiffel Target, 26 April 2013
John Vincent was the nom de plume of John Peel, a serial writer of novelisations (eg Doctor Who, Star Trek: DS9) who adapted 6 episodes of the cartoon James Bond Jr in 1992 for Puffin books. The concept saw 007's nephew boarding at Warfield Academy, a high security school in England for the young relatives of secret service operatives (Q's grandson, Felix Leiter's son), in between battling agents of SCUM (Saboteurs & Criminals United in Mayhem).

Derived purely from the movie characters, Peel expanded on the story lines, gearing them to a slightly older audience while remaining faithful to the film continuity. Facing increasing scrutiny from the holders of the Bond literary copyright it became a thankless task but it's an impressive effort, doing for the film Bond what Charlie Higson did for the book Bond.

The second book is adapted from episode 9 of the series "The Eiffel Missile" and differs considerably from the TV version (which sees the West's relationship with Russia threatened). Both begin with our hero tackling SCUM agent Skullcap at an airport, losing track of the bad guy but recovering plans for an 'Achilles' ICBM. Heading to France and meeting the delightful Marcie Beaucoup, James connects the theft of a nuclear warhead with the appearance of senior SCUM agent Dr Derange. Where in Paris would a mad scientist use to launch a nuclear missile to distract from an art theft?


The Diamond Smugglers (Vintage Classics)
The Diamond Smugglers (Vintage Classics)
by Ian Fleming
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.04

4.0 out of 5 stars Little Gem, 2 April 2013
While Fleming's fictional creations (007 and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) have long been famous, his forays into non-fiction tend to be overlooked. He was the Foreign Manager of Kelmsey Newspapers (then owners of the Sunday Times) 1945-1960, employing a worldwide network of correspondents in much the same way as M used agents in the 007 books.

Originally published in 1957, this tells the story of IDSO (the International Diamond Security Organisation), a small private intelligence agency created in 1953 by DeBeers and the major diamond corporations to tackle IDB (Illegal Diamond Buying). Headed by Sir Percy Sillitoe (head of MI5 1946-1953) it was wound up in 1957. Fleming was approached to tell its story, not least because his 4th Bond novel Diamonds Are Forever (1956) had been published the previous year.

Fleming's main contact went by the alias 'John Blaize' and was a senior agent of IDSO. He wrote the introduction here, underlining (60 years on) the necessary secrecy of their work. It's a fascinating picture of international crime fighting by a very few British public school men whose wartime service had led them to Military Intelligence: very much a mirror of Bond's post-war secret service, in contrast from the real MI6 of Burgess and Maclean.

The story suits Fleming down to the ground. Half a dozen interviews with Blaize (conducted in Morocco, over Easter week 1957) yield nine chapters, each relating a different battle of IDSO. The un-romanticised, procedural nature of the work is fascinating: liaison with local police; use of informers; undercover stings; diplomatic wrangling. The tone is surprisingly ironic thanks to Blaize himself, who could have stepped from the pages of a Len Deighton novel a decade later. No one expects the war on smuggling to end: instead, the more professional operation will get the upper hand.

Admittedly it's very short. Obviously dated, some may baulk at the colonial picture of administration still prevalent in Africa at the time (and in many ways to this day) but this is the unvarnished truth. The attitudes expressed towards Africans (white & black, rich & poor, honest & crooked) are very candid, but also remarkably even handed and supported by evidence. Even non-Bond fans will not go wrong here.


Thrilling Cities (Vintage Classics)
Thrilling Cities (Vintage Classics)
by Ian Fleming
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lost World, 2 April 2013
While Fleming's fictional creations (007 and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) have long been famous, his forays into non-fiction tend to be overlooked. He was the Foreign Manager of Kelmsey Newspapers (then owners of the Sunday Times) 1945-1960, employing a worldwide network of correspondents in much the same way as M used agents in the 007 books.

In 1959 Fleming visited 8 cities in the USA and East Asia on a round-the-world air ticket, and in 1960 a further 6 on a European road trip, writing up his experiences as a series of articles. All were collected (unedited) in 1963. These weren't mere "wish you were here" reportages, but vignettes from a worldly thriller writer who had an eye for the sexier, seedier, faster, quirkier and generally more interesting side of life.

They're similar to the (more successful) 007 short stories written about this time in painting vivid portraits of a place and time. The author's instinct for the eccentric is on top form: we get gangsters and casinos in the USA alongside Hollywood expats in Switzerland and dung beetles in Italy. Grim realities (the drug abuse in Macau) are not shirked and we get the real story behind the Madison avenue billboards and holiday brochures, demystifying Las Vegas, the decline in USA train travel and the room service rip-off.

The emphasis is unstuffy, be it where to get the best meal (rarely the most expensive), how to make a small win in a casino or Fleming's amusing foibles (nicking menus from hotels, suitcase stuffed with freebie presents for friends). While several attractions are unchanged and are well worth a visit to this day (oceanography museum in Monaco, archaeology museum at Naples) much more has changed. There are some perfunctory lists of hotels, restaurants and clubs ("Incidental Intelligence") but even Fleming admits "these are probably out of date already" so don't bank on them now!

It's a picture of the jet-set meeting the advent of the business traveller (USA/Asia) and the package holiday (Europe). This is exemplified by "007 in New York": a very short Bond story only included in the original US edition, and written because of the negative tone of the New York chapter. Worth comparing with Live and Let Die and Diamonds are Forever written a decade earlier. Obviously biased -as Fleming points out, his tastes and reactions may not be your own- you'll have difficulty finding a more interesting fellow traveller in a long vanished world of international travel!


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