Book Review – SilverFin by Charlie Higson

SilverFin (Young Bond, #1)SilverFin by Charlie Higson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As an adult I was somewhat reluctant to read SilverFin by Charlie Higson. I thought that it would be too simplistically written and plotted to keep me entertained; how wrong I was! SilverFin is the first novel in the Young Bond series and it’s a book written for the teenage market with Bond portrayed as an adolescent in the 1930s. This is the first of Higson’s Young Bond novels and as they feature the words “James Bond” on the cover they are all fully sanctioned by Ian Fleming Publications.

The novel exceeded my expectations as it provided a very solid back story for the Fleming novels to come. References were cleverly added to tie in with what we already know about Bond: his appearance, life, friends, family, likes, dislikes and the details we already knew about his past and which helped to forever shape him. Higson also ingeniously uses what we all know and love about the movies too and weaves them into the story: the mad villain, the car chases, the fiendish plan, henchmen and even a Bond girl with a suitable outlandish name: Wilder Lawless. I must say that naming her horse, “Martini” was probably one step too far. Other points I noted was that the opening is very similar to Ian Fleming‘s Casino Royale, Bond’s Aunt and Uncle drive the same Bentley as Bond and the Mighty Donovan name-checked at the circus is probably Red Grant‘s father. I’m sure that there are lots more which I’ve missed?

While the story fitted with what was possible within the constraints of being a 13 year old boy one concession Higson does make is that despite being set between WWI and WW2 the characters language is modern and understandable, something which fits into the target market expectations but not something you’d probably see in an adult book.

As the plot is revealed the details of the villain’s dastardly plan become clear, building to a final thrilling culmination of action and suspense. Of course, being Bond he finds himself in all sorts of “impossible to escape from” situations, which of course he escapes from. But that has always been one of the fun parts of Bond, understanding the dreadful situation Bond finds himself in and trying to figure out how you would breakout and then seeing how he does it. Towards the end of the book Bond faces one punishing experience after another, its fairly relentless stuff. I found myself thinking that perhaps some of these could have been cut out as the more Bond has to go through the more far-fetched it becomes. But saying this it was still a fun and easy book to read, especially as the writing is undemanding for an adult.

So in summary, a nice distraction from my main project in 2015 of reading all of the original Fleming books and I’ll definitely add the follow-up, Blood Fever to my “to-read” list. I suppose one factor as to whether or not you will like the book is how much you want Bonds back story to remain ambiguous. If you want his past to be shrouded in mystery with only a few details being revealed then you may want to avoid SilverFin, but I would certainly recommend Silverfin to any Bond fan, regardless of their age.

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Book Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Forever War (1974) by American author Joe Haldeman is a rather deceptive book. For the first few chapters the novel reads like a standard Starship Troopers military science fiction novel detailing an interstellar war between humans and aliens (the Taurans), recruits getting trained to turn them into bad-asses and hi-tech weapons being used. But it won the Nebula Award in 1975, and the Hugo and the Locus awards in 1976 for best novel so there must be something different about the book?

And there is …. The story soon changes, the effects of time dilation as a result of near light speed travel are explored, as is the tragedy of one soldiers of loss of friends and family, alienation with humanity, not being able to fit into society plus having to deal with a seemingly endless pointless conflict.

The heart of the novel is about one reluctant soldier, Private William Mandella who is fairly ambivalent about the wars he finds himself in. He fights more from of a sense of duty and loyalty. The reader is subjected to a mixture of hard sci-fi: the aforementioned time travel and its effects, black holes and hi-tech arsenals along with descriptions of the social and political changes needed following on from a Malthusian-like catastrophe (population growth had outpaced agricultural production): homosexuality becomes the law (sex is treated by Haldeman in a non-judgemental and non-moralistic manner) and payment for work is in calories as opposed to actual money. The story also deals with love too. Mandella bonds with one woman in his company in particular and she provides his only connection to their known world of the past; as the book closes Mandella has travelled over twelve centuries.

It is clear that the book is an allegory to the Vietnam War, Joe Haldeman having served in this conflict. Other hints of the autobiographical nature of the work are the protagonist’s surname, Mandella, which is a near-anagram of the author’s surname, as well as the name of the lead female character, Marygay Potter, which is nearly identical to Haldeman’s wife’s maiden name. Importantly, if one accepts this reading of the book, the alienation experienced by the soldiers on returning to Earth becomes a clear metaphor for the reception given to US troops returning to America from Vietnam, including the way in which the war ultimately proved useless and its result meaningless. This meaningless is discovered in the book by a cloned, collective species calling itself Man who can communicate with the Taurans and discovers the aliens were not responsible for an act that triggered the futile conflict that lasted for more than a thousand years.

Haldeman also subverts typical space opera clichés (such as the heroic soldier influencing battles through individual acts) and demonstrates how absurd many of the old clichés look to someone who had seen real combat duty. In fact the quantity of battles described is relatively small, as the other aspects of the story are explored more extensively.

The other thing I’m noticing as I read and review the so-called classics of different genres is that the best characters are never really truly evil, nor good. Each person is a mixture of both. This is certainly the case in The Forever War as the individuals are well rounded and fully fleshed-out.

So in summary, this is science fiction of the highest quality and is worthy of the Masterworks title. The pace of the plot never slackens and this help to draw the reader in while retaining a compensate and emotional core (despite the battle sequences and death and destruction); a difficult balance to achieve. Despite it being over 40 years old a lot of the ideas Haldeman presciently foretells in the book are still relevant today and the years haven’t dated the story. A highly recommended book.

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Book Review – From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

From Russia With Love (James Bond, #5)From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My project to read all of the original Bond novels in 2015 continues!

Before reading From Russia With Love I listened to the 2012 Radio 4 adaptation and also watched the movie again (this was the second James Bond film but the fifth Bond book). Both of these were useful to familiarise myself with what was to come in the book. The novel itself continues on in the same vein as previous books in the series and made me realise just how closely the first few Bond movies got the tone of the paperbacks right. By right I don’t mean that I agree with Bond’s misogyny and use of inappropriate language but how they managed to translate the now familiar Bond formula to the big screen. From Russia With Love sees a villain who like to talk in detail about his plans instead of just killing Bond, we have lots of action, including the excellent train scene between Bond and Red Grant, some gadgets and of course sexy parts (gypsy girl fight; boobs exposed!)

Interestingly, the first quarter of the book doesn’t feature Bond at all; the plot is described from a Russian perspective and Bond doesn’t appear until much later. This was an unexpected and brave move by Fleming. In this section we are also introduced to all of the main baddies via some nice set pieces. So with all of the main elements of the story in place a depressed Bond is revealed, haven broken up with Tiffany Case, mooching about, having breakfast with his housekeeper, getting scared on a turbulent flight and wondering about the morality of his mission. The literary version of Bond therefore comes across as much more human.

The plot line leans heavily on the Cold War paranoia around at the time of its writing and is fairly unbelievable, even for a Bond book: Romanova falls in love with Bond after seeing his photograph. But then of course, actually falls in love with him. Red Grant (one of the best Bond villains ever) comes across almost like a Terminator: a completely relentless killing machine who stops at nothing. Fleming’s writing is really intense and snappy. The reader is transported to exotic locations which are described in atmospheric detail and help to provide just enough realism to the plot so it doesn’t descend into pure fantasy.

However, as I’ve mentioned in previous Bond novel reviews, Bond seems to evade death through luck alone as opposed to any real skill on his behalf plus he misses some fairly major clues as to what’s actually happening to him. So, not he’s not a super-hero after all.

It also occurred to me that being a man in the 1950s seemed like hard work. It appears that you constantly had to be prepared to spank misbehaving ladies or even give them a beating if they put on too much weight. Really?! Perhaps it was only playboy spies that had to do this and not normal run-of-the-mill people? By novel number five I’m beginning to realise that writing realistic female characters isn’t Fleming’s strong point. For sure, the female characters have more dimension and depth than normal but Tatiana Romanova, comes over as a particularly dumb Soviet spy who simply agrees to prostitute herself for Russia and Rosa Klebb is a mad bisexual S&M loving granny.

So in summary From Russia With Love is another entertaining read and probably the best Bond novel so far. In fact, if you only ever want to read one Bond book, make sure it’s this one.

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