LOST CAUSE by J. L. Simpson

15 09 2014

Lost Cause coverI found Lost Cause quite hard to get into – might even have given up had I not agreed to write a review. I’ll come back to why I found the earlier part of the book somewhat off-putting in a moment.

First, let me say that the book is professionally produced in every way. The writing and the editing are both impeccable. Not even one of those peculiar errors we seem to be becoming inured to like the meaningless “I could care less”. No, here the narrator says she “couldn’t care less”. Bingo.

But how to classify this story? It is called a “mystery” – Daisy Dunlop Mystery Book 1. There are several mysteries, but which one is the mystery I really couldn’t say. It is certainly not a thriller, and though it is a crime story, the rather complex crime and the various bit-part criminals are not really what the book is about. Nor is it a romance, a love-story. The protagonist, Daisy Dunlop, is the mother of a teenage son and almost absurdly happily married to her husband Paul. There is no way she would ever be unfaithful to him. Yet she does flirt, often outrageously, with almost every male she meets. Especially the “Irish git” (her words) that her husband has arranged for her to work alongside as a trainee P.I. and heir-hunter. Both the husband and his friend “Solomon” (the Irish git) assume that after a few days she will abandon this ridiculous idea.

Really, the story is about the relationship between Daisy and Solomon. It is this flirting that you remember when you finish the book on another outrageous line from Daisy. A flirtation story, then. But beautifully done.

Which brings me back to my problem with the opening chapters. Daisy’s husband, Paul, and his mate Solomon are both big, hard, rich, clever, arrogant men. Alpha males. And Daisy is the obedient strawberry-blonde. Well, not always obedient. Far from it. But when she disobeys one of them she invariably feels guilty, and frequently lands herself in a load of trouble from which Solomon must ride in on his white charger (actually an Aston Martin) and rescue her.

Me, I like strong female leads. The stronger the better. And yet I liked Daisy more and more as the book went on and she began to find her feet (not easy on those heels) till by the end she was saving Solomon (all right, causing some typical dumb-blonde chaos in doing so) and I had quite made up my mind that I would definitely read Daisy Dunlop Mysteries Book 2. I also very much liked the gradual focus on homeless people, whom Daisy decides really are “the secret eyes and ears of the world”.

Final verdict? If you are in the mood for a light-hearted crime story featuring an irresistible would-be sleuth, this is the book for you.





DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER by Ian Fleming

19 08 2014

Diamonds Are Forever cover

I’ve been spending the evening – and much of the night! – with James Bond again. This time it was Diamonds are Forever, the third of the original novels that I have read since reviewing James Bond: The Authorised Biography on this site.

I talked about the sexism and the racism in earlier reviews (here and here). In Diamonds are Forever, which is set mostly in the USA, all that is once more there in the background, of course. It is still the 1950s, and without the racism and sexism typical of the period the book would seem like a badly researched historical novel written by someone in the PC here-and-now. But Fleming was brilliant at portraying a time and place, and everything in this book is exactly as it was. Don’t take my word for it; listen to Raymond Chandler: “The remarkable thing about this book is that it is written by an Englishman. The scene is almost entirely American, and it rings true to an American. I am unaware of any other writer who has accomplished this.”

What our James is up against here is American gangsters. And when M gives him the mission, it is evident that M is more nervous about sending him on this job than he ever was when sending him on “Iron Curtain business”. Talking to the Chief of Staff later, James says “What’s he so worried about? [...] There’s nothing extraordinary about American gangsters. They’re not Americans. Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves.”

That’s what you think,” the Chief of Staff replies.

By the end of the book, James has learnt better – and is seriously considering marrying the “gangsters’ moll” known as Tiffany Case.

Which brings me to another thing. In each of the three books I have read so far (this time round) James has fallen in love, literally, and by the time the story draws to an end is contemplating marriage. Is this the hard man who treats women as sex-objects to be used and discarded which seems to be everyone’s idea of him and how he has been portrayed in many of the films?

Speaking of the films, I remember that Diamonds are Forever was my favourite. I’m going to watch it again this evening and do a post tomorrow on the story – or rather the two stories, for there were, I now realise, some major changes in the film version.





LIVE AND LET DIE by Ian Fleming

5 08 2014

In my review of Casino Royale (following on from my reading of James Bond: The Authorised Biography) I mentioned – it was difficult to avoid it – the overt sexism. In Live and Let Die, while the sexism is still there (of course, it was written in the fifties) it is more the racism that sticks in our PC-brainwashed throats. Mixing my metaphors a bit here, but you know what I mean.

Let’s start with one or two quotes, not from philosophers or politicians, but from novelists, because the novel is what this blog is really all about

“I believe that political correctness can be a form of linguistic fascism, and it sends shivers down the spine of my generation who went to war against fascism.”

That’s P. D. James.

Doris Lessing quote

Note that they are both women.

So what exactly is the problem here? First and foremost, I imagine, the continual use of the word “Negro”. But this book was first published in 1954. Even ten years later, the word “Negro” was being used without any pejorative connotations by one and all – witness Martin Luther King’s use of it in his great speech delivered on the 28th August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.:

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

(http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm)

Now let’s get back to the book. Speaking of “Mr Big, a negro gangster”, Fleming has M say:

And the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions – scientists, doctors, writers. It’s about time they turned out a great criminal [...] They’ve got plenty of brains and ability and guts.

Which leads us straight to Mr Big himself:

Born in Haiti [...] initiated into voodoo as a child [...] emigrated to America and worked successfully for a hi-jacking team in the Legs Diamond gang [...] bought half-shares in a small nightclub and a string of coloured call-girls. His partner was found in a barrel of cement in the Harlem River in 1938 and Mr Big automatically became sole proprietor of the business. [After the war] he disappeared for five years, probably to Moscow [...] returned to Harlem in 1950 [...] bought up three nightclubs and a prosperous chain of Harlem brothels [...] as a result of weeding by murder, he was expertly and diligently served [...] originated an underground Voodoo temple in Harlem [...] rumour started that he was the Zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness, and he fostered the story [...] commanded real fear, strongly substantiated by the immediate and often mysterious deaths of anyone who crossed him or disobeyed his orders.    

A much more entertaining villain than poor old Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.

But what about the ageism? Bond and Solitaire are heading for St Petersberg, Florida. She tells him about it:

Everybody’s nearly dead in St Petersberg [...] It’s the Great American Graveyard [...] Everybody goes to bed around nine o’clock in the evening and during the day the old folks play shuffleboard and bridge, herds of them [...] but most of the time they sit squashed together in droves on things called “Sidewalk Davenports”, rows of benches up and down the sidewalks of the main streets. They just sit in the sun and gossip and doze. It’s a terrifying sight, all these old people with their spectacles and hearing-aids and false-teeth [...] You’ll love it [...] You’ll probably want to settle down for life and be an “Oldster” too.

God forbid,” says Bond. As well he might.

Later, he is there with Felix Leiter.

Bond noted the small grudging mouths of the women, the sun gleaming on their pince-nez; the stringy, collapsed chests and arms of the men displayed to the sunshine in Truman shirts. The fluffy, sparse balls of hair on the women showing the pink scalp. The bony bald heads of the men. And everywhere a prattling camaraderie [...] You didn’t have to be among them to hear it all. It was all in the nodding and twittering of the balls of blue fluff, the back-slapping and hawk-and-spitting of the little old baldheads. [And so on.]

That offend you? If you are one of them, it almost certainly does . Time to hear from Stephen Fry, well known representative of another minority group, but not a great fan of Political Correctness or a supporter of censorship or bowdlerisation:

Stephen Fry quote

The bottom line is: do we, can we, recognise that our notions of political correctness are purely local in time and space?

Live and Let Die is a great story. We have no more right to criticise it on PC grounds than we do to criticise the Bible or Homer or Shakespeare – or Harriet Beecher Stowe or Mark Twain – on those same grounds. It, and they, are true to their day and age. You don’t have to read it if you fear some of the words or notions in it may offend you, but if you do read it, I think you will enjoy it.

And here to close with is something I found on the internet:

political_correctness_04

http://xaxor.com/funny-pics/10352-funny-images-in-the-age-of-political-correctness.html





CASINO ROYALE by Ian Fleming

23 07 2014

Casino Royale coverI read Casino Royale that night I said I was going to (after reviewing James Bond: The Authorised Biography) but never got round to commenting on it. However, now that I am about to embark on Live and Let Die, and have some time free, here goes.

I won’t tell you the story. You may have read the book once, no doubt long ago, or perhaps seen the film – not Sean Connery, this one was more recent and starred Daniel Craig along with Eva Green, a great favourite of mine since I first saw her as Sibylla in Kingdom of Heaven.

Eva Green in Kingdom of Heaven

And here she is with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale:

Casino Royale

But back to the book! All I want to do in this “review”  is draw attention to a few points that strike me as interesting,

Firstly, we meet “M” and get the whole set-up and a two-page Top Secret document on SMERSH at once. I somehow found this surprising. I’d always imagined that Fleming introduced these things, built up this alternative universe, gradually, but no, he had it all there ready in his head before he ever started.

Secondly, there is a reference at the beginning of the book to one of James Bond’s earlier cases. (remember this is the first Bond book Fleming wrote, and chronologically the first Bond adventure.) I’ll quote the passage. “Head of S” has just emerged from M’s room and is telling “Number Two” who has been chosen for this special mission:

‘One of the Double Os – I guess 007. He’s tough and M thinks there may be trouble with those gunmen of Le Chiffre’s. He must be pretty good with the cards or he wouldn’t have sat in the Casino in Monte Carlo for two months before the war watching that Roumanian team work their stuff with the invisible ink and the dark glasses. He and the Deuxième bowled them out in the end and 007 turned in a million francs he had won at shemmy. Good money in those days.’

Now I already knew all about that case in Monte Carlo, from the Authorised Biography. You can’t imagine how at home that made me feel in Bond’s universe!

Thirdly, his (Bond’s? Fleming’s?) misogyny, sexism, call it what you will. When Bond first hears that his sidekick on this job is to be a woman, he is furious. This pest of a girl … Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them. When she turns out to be the stunning Vesper Lind (think Eva Green) that makes his attitude worse, not better. Then she is abducted by the villain, Le Chiffre, and as Bond races after her in his Bentley, it is just what he had been afraid of. These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men … For Vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched … But we have to remember that this is a man, and surrounded as we are by psychologically emasculated 20th century males, we may need to suspend our modern prejudices along with our disbelief as we read these books. And to be honest about who we would want racing to our rescue in similar circumstances. And in Fleming’s defence (SPOILER COMING) it turns out, ironically, that it is not Vesper who has “fallen for an old trick like that” but Bond himself. The abduction had been a trap Bond raced right into.

Finally, there follow two chapters that constitute perhaps the most horrifying and haunting torture scene in modern literature. It is there in the film but it is toned down. In the book he spends weeks in hospital recovering before he can return to the arms of Vesper. (Yes, she emerged unscathed.) This business of the reader / cinema-goer as voyeur, watching James Bond endure agonies  that only he could, is another key feature of the James Bond product. Perhaps the film world did it best in the very first one when he fell into the hands of the sinister and sadistic Dr No – once again while attempting to save a beautiful girl. James Bond as Knight Errant then. The man you pray will come along when you are chained to a rock and the dragon is approaching – even if he does believe that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. (As you will have guessed by now, I have a feeling he is right.)

Anyway, this evening I have another date with him: Live and Let Die.





Two more good ones from Kindle …

16 12 2013

I love these free downloads from Amazon Kindle!

The Muse of Violence by Bruce Hartman

Muse of Violence cover

The narrator is the leader of a writers’ group who tells a tale reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (“And Then There Were None”). It all begins with Jackie, a young woman who collects married men. They have to be married. The only married man Jackie is not interested in is her husband, who, according to a story she reads to the group, is a pathetic little wimp called Larry.

The following week, Eleanor, an older woman, reads a story she has written in which a wife follows the young blonde seducer of her husband and … Only Jackie is not there to hear it. Why not? It turns out that she has already been murdered, and the story Eleanor told is remarkably similar to what actually happened to Jackie.

Could Eleanor have murdered her? She seems to have a foolproof alibi, but the narrator is not convinced.

And so it continues. Read your story, meet your maker.

Excellent and gripping. And there is someone in the writers’ group for every reader to identify with – always important to me. I identified in this case not with the narrator, who would be most people’s choice, I imagine, but with Caroline, whose viewpoint we also get from time to time. The extracts from her diary make her in effect a second narrator, and I have to say I would have preferred rather more of her and rather less of him.

Nomad by J L Bryan

NOMAD-by-JL-Bryan

 

A teenage child soldier from a future dystopia finds herself inexplicably in this world dressed in the ragged remains of what she had obviously been wearing there/then, and clutching a backpack containing wads of dollars and strange clothes clearly intended for a large man.

And a gun. A gun from the future that she knows how to assemble and operate, though she has no idea how she knows.

She lost her memory in the time-jump, but gradually comes to the realisation that she is here to asassinate the young man, at present a student at Yale, who is destined to become the tyrant responsible for creating the hellish world in which she grew up.

Without him that will never happen.

Or will it?

And another thing. What will happen to her if the world she comes from no longer exists? Will she become a time-nomad, with no world of her own to return to?

That question, so well handled in this book, led me to another question. Isn’t that what happens to all of us? The world we grew up in no longer exists. As James Munro puts it in his poem Fin de Millennium:

You take the high road,
you take the low road,
you take the bloody motorway:
but I was in Scotland ‘afore ye …

And in Ireland. And England. Roads were narrow then,
the high with low stone walls, the low with hedges,
blossom, finches, trains were grimy,
dog-end-filled and stopped at every village station,
bells ringing, whistles blowing, steam and
hats and skirts all blowing; time:
the whistles and the bells fell silent, cigarettes
were antisocial, steam and stations uncommercial,
girls wore jeans, wore strings, wore …

Then was another world. You’d be an alien there.

In Andalusia I sat down and wept;
in Casablanca I remembered then, remembered
cold, grey seas and grassy dunes, the grey-green marshes
and the silence of the north
(a far-off bird, a summer insect,
breaking waves upon a distant beach: a lamb calling).

Catch a plane! Go home! they said. A plane?
I’d need a time machine.





The JET Series by Russell Blake

11 10 2013

I happened on this the other day and I must say that it seems to me the most arrogant piece of nonsense I have ever come across. It is Sue Grafton speaking:

To me, it seems disrespectful… that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. … Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall.

You can find the article I read HERE – do read it, it’s great stuff.

Sue Grafton is the author of the “A is for Alibi”, “B is for Burglar” series of murder mysteries featuring Kinsey Millhone. I read a couple of them years ago but was not moved to seek out any of the other twenty-four. (Are there twenty-four yet?)

JET-Header

By contrast, Russell Blake’s series featuring the ex-Mossad agent known as Jet is self-published, and downloadable from Amazon as an ebook. Exactly the kind of thing Grafton is sneering at. It is faultlessly edited (anyone who is a regular reader of this blog will know that I can be hypercritical!) and so gripping that I read all five stories straight off within a week.

How did that happen? It’s quite simple, and in itself proof that the Amazon Kindle sytem of Free Book Days works.

I saw that Jet was on offer free that day and, curious, I downloaded and read it. And immediately ordered Jet II and Jet III, and read them during the next three nights. Each book stops with unanswered questions – you want to read on. You need to read on. I downloaded Jet IV and Jet V. And would have ordered Jet VI had there been one. (I’m waiting, Russell!)

And that’s how I come to be writing a review of (or at least an introduction to) not just one but five books here today.

Jet is, as I say, ex-Mossad. Well, not exactly ex-Mossad, because the group she was once a key member of are ultra-secret super-specialists whose very existence is apparently unknown to the Mossad.

Jet1When the first book, Jet, opens, Jet is living a quiet life in Trinidad, running a small internet-café. Only tonight is not quiet because it is Carnival Night. And because as she is shutting up shop, a little early as that evening with all the excitement there will be no more customers, a garotte is looped over her head. In less time than it takes to tell, her attacker is dead, and within minutes so is the back-up. Jet, we see, is deadly – and virtually indestructible. And a woman with whom I for one, and I am sure thousands of others, identify immediately.

But who had sent the hit team? No one knew about her new identity. No one?

She cannot stay on the island – too many dead bodies around for a start, and anyway her cover is blown – so she sets off on a journey of revenge, a quest which inevitably leads straight on to another, and then another, in Russia, Miramar (Burma), Thailand, Argentina, and various parts of Europe and the US.

What can I say? Don’t read the first book of this series – or even the first couple of chapters of the first book – unless you want to be up all night for a week.

And please don’t, anybody, generalise about self-published books. Many of them are as good as or better than anything the big publishers are bringing out these days. And don’t generalise about “published” novels either: some of them are so carelessly written and edited that one simply does not know who to blame.  (You want an example? I don’t review crappily produced books here, but have a look at my previous post, The Begotten, and – this one is far worse and only here because it is by one of my very favourite authors – Paul Doherty’s Bloodstone . What happened, Paul?)

Jet5





Half-a-Dozen from among the Kindle Frees

21 08 2013

Half a Dozen recommended ebooks selected from among the many I have downloaded FREE from Amazon Kindle.

I often download free books from Amazon these days. (I am sent a list every day of books which are on offer.) However, I read very few of them right through to the end. What I think of as the illiterate ones I delete from my Kindle Reader after the first few lines. (I say illiterate rather than unedited because I know many of these books have come straight from the hands of the author to the Kindle download lists, but anyone claiming to be an author should be literate, should be able to edit his or her own work.) If I get past those first few lines, the story has to grab me. Then it has to hold me. Many of these writers start well, then become careless or boring. However, there are always a few gems. Here are some I really enjoyed and that you can safely download.

Kindle11. BY UNKNOWN MEANS

Doug Giacobbe

High adventure around Nassau, fast moving with great characterisation. James Bond country, but here only the bad guy is British.

The good guys are US Customs officers and officers of the US Navy. The bad guys, drug-smugglers. And the hero himself, fired from the Customs Service for being over-zealous in the pursuit of his duty, and not being one to give up, continues that pursuit in his own boat until he gets both the bad guy and the beautiful undercover agent who is posing as the bad guy’s amazon bodyguard. Great stuff.

Kindle22. OMEGA DOG

James Rush

Another fast-moving adventure set in the States. A hitman is targeting a group of apparently unrelated people, among them Beth, a conscientious young doctor. And the only person she trusts to protect her is ex-marine, ex-cop, Joseph Venn, the very man the police believe to be the hired assassin.

But Venn is working secretly for someone in the highest echelons of the American government …

Kindle4Kindle33. TIME OF DEATH

and

4. THE PEEPER

both by Ellis Vidler

Time of Death features the McGuire Women, a family of psychics. Alex, the youngest of them, is being targeted by a killer, either because of something she saw, or because of something she didn’t see except with her mind’s eye, for Alex is an artist and sometimes she finds herself producing automatic drawing (like automatic writing) depicting scenes of pain and death.

The other book, The Peeper, you simply must read. The Peeping Tom turns out to be – no, I’m not going to tell you. Let’s just say that in this book Ellis Vidler turns all our prejudices on their head.

Kindle55. THE FERAL SPY

Joyce Weaver

Very British, this one. A dotty old lady is arrested for shop-lifting. It transpires that she and her companion are living in dire poverty – and I mean starvation and exposure – in the derelict ruin of what was once the stately home belonging to her family. But how did they come to be in this state? And who – and what – were they, once, before most of these patronising young people were born?

Kindle66. THE MIST ON BRONTË MOOR

Aviva Orr

A time-slip story which turns into a truly fascinating glimpse of life at Haworth on the Yorkshire Moors when the Brontës were teenagers. You really feel you are there with Heather Jane Bell, the unhappy 21st-century girl who suddenly finds herself in a weird other world.  And the two she gets on best with are Emily, who befriends her, and Patrick Branwell, with whom she falls in love.

She had never heard of the Brontës, so it is not a form of wish-fulfilment.

(Look at that name, and don’t tell me time-travellers can’t affect the time they visit! But she doesn’t manage to save poor Patrick from himself …)








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