THRILLING CITIES 1 and THRILLING CITIES 2 by Ian Fleming
The first part is more of a travelogue than the second, which tends to be extended essays on Fleming's opinions about sex, gangsters, gambling and banking.
The stuff in the Far East offers an insight into how the author utilised his experiences for the pages of YOLT. The characters of Tanaka and Henderson are based on Tiger Saito and Dick Hughes and the early sections of the novel, where Bond tries to acclimatise and assimilate himself with Japanese civil conventions, are based on Fleming's own time spent with these two in Tokyo.
A fun read. Half-way informative. The 'Incidental Intelligence' sections read as if Fleming copied them from a brochure.
I wonder if EON used these pieces as inspiration for any of their location work? Hong Kong and Macau were certainly used in one film, and I think even when they were first planning to adapt ...Golden Gun in the mid60s they were intending to transpose its location from Jamaica to Hong Kong.
I found an excerpt from a book on The Man from UNCLE that covers Fleming's involvement with the program's origins. You can read that excerpt here on Amazon.com The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Book: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of a Television Classic by Jon Heitland 1987, see pgs 5-8, where the excerpt gets cut off. I'll post more of a complete summary of this in the appropriate thread when I get a chance.
But the relevant thing for here: they were actually considering an American teevee show somehow based on Thrilling Cities before Norman Felton came up with the idea of a Hitchcock inspires spy series and Fleming got involved!
I cant copy and paste the text, but here's a screenshot of the paragraphs mentioning Thrilling Cities as an inspiration! whodathunkit?
That is fascinating, thanks for sharing. Looking forward to reading more.
BLAME THE DEAD by Gavin Lyall (1972)
James Card is a private security advisor hired as a bodyguard by a dodgy Lloyd’s syndicate to protect a blackmailed employee. When the employee is murdered, Card decides to investigate further which is where is problems really begin: shipping insurance fraud, infidelity, sex-starved widows, blood and death in France, the Home Counties and snow-bound Norway.
At times Gavin Lyall cracks a fair whip, but the action mostly slumbers and the resolution is all hearsay and tattle. Nobody actually sees any evidence or hears any first-hand accounts. The key witness is a drunk so inebriated he has day-long memory blanks and can’t physically remember where he has been or what he has done. This is a convenience for Lyall. It also increases the page count by about one hundred. The last two chapters paper over all the cracks with an efficiency as icy as the Norwegian winter.
Neatly, if ploddingly, written. A series of good characters are spoilt by a series of uninteresting ones. Most of them are prone to use slang inappropriately which passes for characterisation. Apart from Card’s cynical view of the world, nobody’s particularly interesting, filling holes in the plot rather than enlivening it. A few decent but short action sequences have to suffice for excitement.
It doesn’t bite.
CASINO ROYALE and LIVE AND LET DIE (Dynamite Comics)
I’ve just discovered these and they are stunningly good! Following closely to the novels, with dialogue and descriptions exactly as written, they are presented in cinematic period style, and it’s like seeing a movie on a page. I only wish that Amazon could use these as a storyboard to create a series, it would be fantastic viewing.
I heartily recommend these for all Bond fans, you will not be disappointed.
Courtney's War by Wilbur Smith (with David Churchill)
This is the worst, or rather least good, Wilbur Smith novel I've ever read. It's about a German man and a white South African woman who fall in love just before WWII and their struggle to survive the war. The man become a fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe and the woman an agent in SOE. The novel isn't bad, it just lacks the colourful exotic feel and sense of adventure Smith usually delivers. Perhaps this is an example of "write what you know". Very little of the story tales place in Africa and there isn't a single hunt in the entire book! 😲
It sounds like a composite of several other books. Is it one of Smith's own or a collaborative effort? @Number24 I used to read Wilbur Smith avidly, but I believe he has been on a downhill spiral since about the time of The Leopard Hunts in Darkness when he became obsessed with Courtney's and Ballentyne's.
It's collaborative effort with David Churchill. I recently read Assegai and I really enjoyed it, and that was a Courtney novel. I tend to preger his books that focusrs om Africa an is set before the life of almost everyone alive today.
I've only ever read Wilbur Smith's debut novel - When The Lion Feeds - but it is my intention to explore his books further. That first novel felt very 'home-grown' to me as large parts of it are set in the region where I grew up. So at some point I will definitely read the two books that followed on from that first novel - The Sound of Thunder and A Sparrow Falls.
As for Courtney's War, I actually have that on Audible so I will give it a read/listen although my expectations will be pretty low. I was enticed by the cover art and also the low price as it was on a sale.
My "review" of Courtney's War was perhaps too negative. Smith didn't play to his strengths and focused on themes others have done better before. The holocaust is very much new territory for Smith (as far as I know). But the novel focused more on the RAF squadron tasked with transporting agents into and out of occupied Europe than I've seen anywhere else, martial arts experts Fairbairn and Sykes get a walk-in scene and the problems faced by SOE in Belgium and the Netherlands may be new to many.
@Golrush007 those three books you mention are exceptional fare. I think it helps while they are a trilogy, they were not originally perceived as one, hence Smith develops character and incident for each book, which I feel makes them more rounded individually. They are definitely worth a read.
@Number24 do you think the collaborative effect has diluted Smith's prose? Do we know who wrote most of Courtney's War and if the ideas and themes are his or David Churchill's. It could be, as you say, that as these new themes are unfamiliar territory for Smith, he's uncertain how to write of them.
My favourites of his are the aforementioned When the Lion Feeds, Sound of Thunder, A Sparrow Falls, Cry Wolf, The Diamond Hunters, The Sun Bird, Eye of the Tiger, Dark of the Sun, Gold Mine & Shout at the Devil. The first Ballantyne Quadrology is good too.
It's possible both the collaberation and the themes made the book less good than usual, I didn't know.
SHUGGIE BAIN by Douglas Stuart (2020)
Douglas Stuart is a first-time author and this debut novel won him the Booker Prize. He was born and raised in Glasgow, so I guess either through experience or eavesdropping he knows what he’s writing about. He currently lives in New York, having moved abroad following the completion of a Fine Arts Degree. I mention this because one of the minor characters in Shuggie Bain is an unfulfilled, talented artist while another emigrates to South Africa; both brother and sister flee from an alcoholic mother and the grim tenement existence of Pithead, and abandon their young step-brother to the palpable onrushing fates.
This book is prefaced with glowing notices. Some of the words used to describe the laborious, single themed and brutal story within the stereotypically monochrome cover are beautiful, heart breaking, powerful, minutely observed, revelatory, moving…etc. One I did pick out as apt is desperation. It fits rather neatly with how I felt. If the characters here are desperate to escape their repetitive abusive and self-abusive lifestyles, I was desperate to escape it also. Stuart can’t surrender those minute observations for a single page. This is a tough read which repeats itself and its scenes over and over again. I lost count of the unremitting gloomy atmospheres, the nights and days going nowhere, the concealment of lager cans, food eaten by shovelling hands, the school playground bullies, the raids on the electric meter, the insults, the unremitting physical and mental abuse. It happened over and over and over until I wasn’t appalled or shocked by it, I was simply numb and had ceased to care. The fact the eventual outcome is squalid and obvious doesn’t help.
Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain is a lonely child who loves his mother. It’s fairly obvious he’s gay; there are surreptitious moments of Billy Eliot-lite dancing, playing with dolls, ponies and plaiting girls’ hair. The novel opens with him disdainfully placing snot in the tarramasalata at the Kilfeathers hyper-market, an act which casts him in virtually the same light as all the other miscreants he proclaims to dislike. He’s fifteen, has left home and rents a bedsit. How he got here is described through the next four-hundred pages and done so with the subtlety of a sledge hammer. It’s almost too grim to describe so I won’t bother; there are plenty of reviews online that will enlighten you.
My major issue is the lack of any kind of happy centre. Mid-way, Agnes, Shuggie’s drunken mother, sobers up, straightens her house and gets a new man. At this point a tiny flicker of light penetrates the darkness, only to be maliciously, insensitively blown out. The inevitability of her relapse is well-described, but through it, I lost sympathy for her. This was the only moment where I registered any empathy with any of the people inhabiting this landscape. The temptation of, the fear of, the welcoming of addiction was portrayed eruditely with the minimum of fuss. The outcome however dragged on and on, a deflating balloon of stale words. The author has shown us this scenario once; now he’s showing us again. The endless cycle of insult, abuse, attack, rape, molestation, drunkenness and so on, became a clammy overcast sickness. It didn’t ease up for a single paragraph. If you want your misery in extended form, pick up a copy of Shuggie Bain.
I might have endured this better had Stuart written the novel solely from Shuggie’s point of view, but he doesn’t. He gives us perspective after perspective, from husband, boyfriend, brother, sister, mother, grandmother; yet he tells us so very little about these individuals – only that they swear and fight and drink and f%%k. Some of the incidents are not only ugly, they are distasteful and inappropriate for the person’s concerned; an attempted copulation in a hospital bed was particularly horrendous. There’s little humour to relieve these passages of doom. Everyone is relentlessly gloomy, like the skies and the slagheaps. This is probably Stuart’s intention, but by goodness it’s a hard, unbending road to travel. Had the author paid attention to young Shuggie and only him, cutting out the pointless second-gear drivel of monosyllabic misogynistic men and the caterwauling of indignant gossips, of taxi-rank trysts and reflections on day’s long past and never to be revisited, the novel could have been half the length, and retained the elements of artificially exaggerated adult behaviour as young Shuggie sees it; for those are the most revealing episodes of the novel. Perhaps it would have taxed Stuart too much as a writer; but I think not, for when the narrative does concentrate on Shuggie, the novel is inventive and reflective. The ciphers of the other protagonists only offer fleeting glimpses of character, without substance.
For poor Shuggie, the die is cast once we’ve figured out he’s gay and that’s telegraphed from the opening chapter. A little introspection might have helped, but nobody genuinely intellectualises here, they only ‘do’ and do badly and at length. Decisions are constantly taken without discussion or consultation; anger and silence are often the exasperating replies. Half the revelations come quickly, sometimes off the page, when it suits the author; the rest of the world’s words run at a snail’s pace. As readers, while I appreciate the need for detail, I don’t believe we should be spoon-fed and that’s exactly what Stuart’s doing in every single sentence of Shuggie Bain. There’s a curious prettiness to some of the scenes, but most of the chapters are dully savage. The only power of the novel is its inexorable gory sullen cruelty.
I do hope this isn’t starting a trend.
V2 by Robert Harris (2020)
Robert Harris has a reputation to maintain. Ever since his ground-breaking and immaculately researched and imagined debut Fatherland, he’s given us a series of complex and thorough novels across various European landscapes, communities and historical counterpoints. Some are better than others. V2 isn’t going to win any awards. The novel is a perfunctory wartime espionage thriller, but it’s very hard to create thrills from a aerodynamic engineering, a slide rule and a book of logarithms.
The novel is split into alternating German and British chapters. For the former, Harris gives us Rudi Graf, an engineer responsible for the design, build and launch of the German rocket program. Along with his superior, the real-life Werner Von Braun, Graf is a collaborator with the Nazis rather than a fully paid up member. This allows Harris certain leeway in his approach to the German war effort. The S.S. and their ilk are uniformed, brusque, obsessed with secrecy and discovering lies. The engineers are a cheerful, slightly dreamy bunch, who are more concerned with experiments than death tolls. Harris’ interpretation of the cloying atmosphere of fear and reprisal isn’t damning enough. I had no sensation of terror or suspense. The best sequence took place in a brothel where Graf meets a young, timid resistance fighter. His colours get firmly pinned to a mast. This had a gripping, edge of your seat feel to it. Subsequent chapters only attempted to recreate such tension.
The Allied war effort is equally bland. Kay Walsh is a WAAF lieutenant working on stereoscopic reconnaissance. After surviving a V2 bombing and an adulterous love affair, young Kay gets transferred to Belgium to work on trace and fix radar calculations, assessing the parabolic curves of missiles to pinpoint launch sites. There’s also a mild and irritating spy game being played, but as Kay is barely even involved except by her own suspicions, the events are unusually sparse.
Harris has tried to create background for his characters, but while Graf’s is convincing, Kay’s is not. She’s hopelessly prim and ordinary, both in manner and thought, unless she gets into bed. Maybe that was the point. Harris is never any good with sex scenes. He prefers to omit them altogether; probably wise. He tries to recreate the stifling atmosphere of war, but it feels like a rosy picture. Everyone’s too polite and cheerful. I had only fleeting glimpses of terror. Not even an explosion dents the stiff-upper-lip.
The story resolves itself competently and without surprise. There are too many obvious clues for us not to perceive where the narrative is heading. The word count is low. I read this in six chunks but could probably have finished it in two. If you are unfamiliar with Robert Harris, it would be quite a good book to introduce yourself to.
In the acknowledgements, Harris is at pains to mention the factual information he’s included. This is welcome, but hardly necessary. I’d expect a novelist to do his research. He also falls into the recent authorial habit of identifying how long a novel has taken then to write [“four hours every morning, seven days a week for fourteen weeks”] Sebastian Faulks started the trend. It’s not a good idea. I’m not very interested in how much his family suffered his habit. I’d have preferred a more detailed and visceral reading experience.
V2 is okay as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.
The Russia House
le Carre, (June) 1989
I specify the month of publication because the world was changing fast in 1989. This is le Carre's perestroika-in-progress adventure, with Gorbachev's new policies having been in effect for a couple of years but still six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Story is about "Barley" Blair, a smalltime publisher and amateur jazz musician looking to break into the emerging Russian market, both to sell Western books to Russians, and in theory to discover new Russian talent hitherto repressed. At the end of a drinking binge in the countryside he meets a mysterious Russian who has an important manuscript he wants Barley to publish. Somehow it gets misdirected and ends up in the hands of a branch of British Intelligence called The Russia House, and is not a novel at all, but three notebooks full of mathematical formulae, engineering diagrams, and philosophical ravings. The gist is that the Soviet missile scientists have been fudging their results all along to please their political masters, and there never was any valid reason for the West nuclear buildup. This great secret is a greater threat to Western intelligence and the military industrial complex than if the missiles were accurate, cuz they're all going to lose their jobs if true! The Russia House recruits Barley as one of their "joes" and sends him back to Moscow to get more details from his contact, and instead he falls in love with a beautiful Russian lady and things get complicated.
As with most of his recent books, this one is more character study than thriller, with the revelation of Cold War secrets taking a backseat to the portrait of Barley: somewhat scrappy but charming to all who meet him, harddrinking and unreliable, prone to disappearing for days on end then reappearing at a jam session somewhere at three in the morning. It's also the third book in a row where the protagonist is someone involved in the arts (The Little Drummer Girl was a stage actress and The Perfect Spy was writing his memoir. Two books previous, The Honourable Schoolboy was a journalist with a publishing deal). A few pages back @Number24 argued le Carre would have won the Nobel Prize for literature if he wasn't writing genre fiction, and I think this trend demonstrates the case: he is actually writing about the process of storytelling from the point of view of various creative characters who just happen to get drafted into the world of espionage. A recurring question is how do we tell the story that forms our view of the world? We are limited by our experiences, and le Carre of course was himself a spy. The next Nobel worthy author over might be telling his stories about storytelling using metaphors of decaf frapuccinos and lineups at the drivethru. in this book it is not just Barley, but his mysterious Russian contact and all the Western intelligence types who can only form a worldview based on what they already know, and that worldview, the story they tell themselves and their colleagues, is threatened by perestroika. Much of the arguments between characters are attempts to tell a story that factors in the new data that is somehow consistent with all they have known up til this point and still maintain their sense of identity. We watch several likeable characters lose their jobs because they get it "wrong".
I'm still not sure what The Russia House is. This Intelligence branch was never mentioned in any of le Carre's previous novels despite their focus on Soviet Union, and The Circus is never mentioned here. The CIA is always referred to as Langley, whereas in the Smiley novels they were The Cousins. So is this a separate fictional universe from the Smiley/Circus novels?
I see this was made into a movie with Sean Connery (I've heard his name somewhere before) and Michelle Pfeiffer, only a year after publication, but the Wall had already fallen so the world had already moved beyond what le Carre could envision. Even better (from my limited and self-centred PoV), scenes were filmed on Bowen Island, which is a suburb of Vancouver. I was living in Vancouver at the time, could have bumped into the Real James Bond on the street, except I was on my own secret mission that summer, riding my bicycle round Europe for six months and partying on the rubble of The Wall.
Has anybody seen the movie?
A good review of V2 there @chrisno1. Your final line neatly sums up my own experience of the novel as well. I did enjoy learning a bit more about the actual rocket though (Assuming I can trust Harris' research...)
@caractacus potts - I have seen the film of The Russia House. I bought the DVD ages ago and watched it, but my memories of it are extremely vague. I'd just got into Le Carre and the Smiley novels in particular. Also I had just watched the Tinker Tailor TV series and the 2011 film version and my enjoyment of The Russia House certainly didn't live up to those films...But since then I've read a lot more Le Carre and I'm sure I'd enjoy it more. It's been my intention to read the book and then go back and rewatch the film, but I haven't got round to that yet.
hey I posted my report on The Russia House before reading @chrisno1 's review of V2!
sounds like they're actually about similar subjects: missile technology, the people on the other side responsible for the engineering, and the people on our side trying to figure out what they're doing over there!
Best novel I ever read on that topic is Gravity's Rainbow, but its certainly not a spy thriller in any conventional sense, more like James Joyce meets a Warner Brothers cartoon and only comprehensible with annotations. Still, Thomas Pynchon was himself a technical writer at Boeing and I think he knows his stuff.
I read this a couple of months ago and was very disappointed ☹️
It lacks much of what Harris is good at - building tension around a good story…I felt he rushed this book to please his publisher…it just doesn’t do enough to engage you in the story, learning about V2 rockets should have been the accompaniment to the story but it seemed to be the main interest…
I fully agree that Graf was the more fleshed-out character and when Harris writes about him it’s a much better read…Kay was two-dimensional at best and seemed more interested in dropping her knickers than stopping V2 rockets 👀
As you say, the ending is somewhat obvious and the whole thing is wrapped up very quickly - which was probably for the best 🙄
TIME FOR THE STARS by Robert Heinlein.
Published in my birth year of 1956, this is a fine space travel adventure where spaceships go in search of habitable planets. Contact with Earth is sustained by using telepathic twins which is an instantaneous method of communication. The story follows the Bartlett twins and is humorous and touching at the same time. Heinlein writes in an engaging manner and the pages go far too quickly.
This is one of my favourite 10 books and is highly recommended.
Roy Case is holed up in Nicosia with a plane full of guns and fronting an air freight business that’s gone bust. His best mate’s just been released from prison and an esteemed archaeologist who happens to be a guest at his hotel has committed suicide. The police, Palestinian terrorists, dodgy Lebanese businessmen, museum curators and the dead prof’s daughter are all chasing Case and his pal Ken Cavitt because they believe they know the whereabouts of a priceless crusader sword.
A couple of excellent confrontations with the nasties and an eventful flight through an electrical storm doesn’t make up for the rushed climax. The story resolves itself in eight swift pages. I felt cheated. Lyall’s developed the character of Case really well – although I disliked the recurring habit all his leads have of smoking a pipe – and I understood his situation without ever sympathising. He exploits people just as easily as the next hoodlum. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel and a lot of meals of indeterminate quality are consumed along with much too much alcohol – how Lyall’s characters ever function is beyond me – but there’s no sex (okay, it’s hinted at) and precious little humour. Descriptively, he’s rather absent. A few choice sentences is all we get to describe anyone or anywhere. His similes’ need refining; while observant they are too obviously presented.
The storytelling isn’t very concise even if the writing is. Some scenes feel unnecessary. There’s a whole longwinded episode set in a Beirut mansion villa which serves only to remove one line of investigation. Case spends most of his time pulling the wool over the eyes of the airport authorities, the police or the financial auditor attempting to wrestle Castle Freight back into business. The longer the guns stayed on the plane, the less I believed they could be flown about the near-east without detection.
I’ve read a lot of Gavin Lyall’s novels this year and they are beginning to wane on me. This is the last of his first person air-pilot driven novels. It’s a notch up on Blame the Dead, but not much of a notch. I’d have preferred there to be a cleaner plot. This one has too much going on. I think the Castle business going bust, which is supposed to provide the hook into the story, is the area that slows it down and ultimately does it a disservice. It’s very laboured at the start. Once the sword search kicks in, things pick up tremendously. I’d have preferred one of the two female characters to be a love interest. The novel felt deliberately shorn of amorousness. A good title and good premise, but Lyall hasn’t ticked every box for me. Suspense and genuine intrigue is missing. When the action comes, it’s fine, but it takes too long every time to get there.
Sebastian Faulks has been quoted in the papers saying he didn't much want to do a Bond novel but his agent said, hey, do you know how much money you'll get for it, you'll be able to retire in style! This contradicts what recent and current Bond author Anthony Horowitz has said - that they don't pay well really or that you have so share royalties (a recent gripe revealed by Lee Child who was offered the gig and turned it down) but it does suggest to me that Faulks' heart really wasn't in it, a feeling I got increasingly as the book progressed.
I don't recall too much of Devil May Care though I remember a few things - blonde twins, one made to do a strip walk in a demeaning way, an exotic villain who cheats at tennis, some aircraft missile thing plot where Faulks bites off more than he can chew and a sly, silly dig at Rupert Murdoch.
But I don't recall so much of the other books either - Deaver or another one set in Africa - they often have the air of writing to commission and never quite being sexy or lurid enough, the pulp fiction angle is absent, it's all meeting plot points and cliffhangers at the end of a chapter. Horovitz seems to do it best.
THE DEATH OF GRASS by John Christopher (1956)
Early adult sci-fi from the master of young-adult sci-fi, author of the Tripods Trilogy, Dom and Va, The Lotus Caves, Empty World and many other tomes from the sixties and seventies. In fact, this novel covers similar ground to Empty World, only rather than a plague eliminating 90% of human life, Christopher describes how society breaks down when a virus mutates unstoppably and kills all strains of grass, including corn, barley, wheat, etc. Not only do crops fail, but animals die and natural disasters start to occur, including the formation of inland deserts, even in England. The book’s quite prescient in a way, reflecting modern world leader’s inability to understand and restrict the spread of the Covid virus. Thankfully, our own travails haven’t sunk to the level of the characters in this book.
Christopher build tension by demonstrating the ordinariness of British life: cricket, the pub, families, careers; the problems in China [yes, China !] feel world’s away. When the disease takes hold of British grass, other countries’ decide to retain their grain resources, and an unelected Prime Minister forges ahead with a plan to eliminate Britain’s metropolitan populations in pinpoint nuclear strikes. Our hero John Custance escapes London with his family and a few hangers on, making for Cumbria and his brother’s isolated farm. On the way, he becomes a statesman, a judge and a warrior, a leadership role he adapts to with alarming vigour. The group struggle to survive their trek, while a revolution breaks out and lawlessness prevails. They are robbed of cars and guns, the women raped, loyalties stretched, comrades shot. It’s a grim affair, the bulk of which Christopher describes in short paragraphs of wispy detail. Most of the explanations are dialogue driven.
Of its time and well received in its time, but virtually forgotten by the turn of the century, The Death of Grass is now being reassessed as essential sci-fi. Not sure about that.
Could the answer to the problem be rice? 🤔
No, rice is a grass
Darn ... 😕
how about seaweed? some seaweeds are edible, served in Japanese restaurants and health food stores.
I think a major weak point revealed in that scenario is our meat centric diet: normal folk eat cattle, which require huge fields of grasses to graze on. Without the ready supply of big macs society goes into a panic and collapses. But what if folk were more used to a vegetarian diet? carrots and broccoli and tofu, those aren't grasses. Though I know I certainly eat cereal every morning, and corn, I think corn's a grass so thatd be gone too. But a bit of dietary flexibility might have saved civilization in that scenario.
Reminds me of J G Ballard's early novels, in which a sudden environmental change would cause civilization to go all lord of the flies. In those kind of stories I like both the environmental science and the cynicism about the human race.
Yeah, they talk a lot about eating root veg and fish, but imagine a world without grass, given all the animals that do survive on grass-based habitat and you do have a problem. Many carnivores eat vegetarians, so if one dies out, so too the other. Fruit would be plentiful. Cannibalism is touched on too. I think it's a very frightening scenario which John Christopher doesn't make enough of. He's more interested in the return to feudal society and the collapse of law than he is about the science.
Potatoes! The world would have to eat potatoes and carrots.
Already the staple diet in Ireland. 😉
I understand that worked out great other than in 1845-49. Potatoes were and are important here too. Did Irland have "potato priests" too?