Author: GB

Ken Follett Hits and Misses with the Same book

A typical reader complaint when reading a book by a historian (or any writer with a passion for researching his subject to the finest detail) is that the writer, having done all that work, then decides that the reader must be subjected to the entirety of what was discovered in the process. It tends to lead to boring books.

Weirdly, Ken Follett’s Night Over Water is a bad book full of research which isn’t a bad book because of the research. It’s a bad book because the character interactions read like a Mexican soap opera (or maybe one of the less-realistic episodes of Dallas). This may be intentional, and it may have helped the book sell (which is fine by me – I have a very strong interest in readers paying money to buy books), but I didn’t enjoy it.

What I did enjoy was the result of all that research. Follett describes the experience of being a passenger on one of the legendary Pan-Am Clippers perfectly. Not just the plane itself, but the experience and the kind of people one would find on that particular airliner (the right crowd and no crowding, as the old saying at Goodwood went). For a few hundred pages you are transported to an era that existed only a very few years, and ended when flying boats were superseded by planes that landed on runways (concrete runways were expensive to build, but a lot of them were built for WWII… and then used by commercial airliners afterwards).

The description is wonderful and evocative, and I’ll admit that the action sequence at the end is pretty good (I read James Bond books, so it’s no surprise that I enjoy a good complicated fight to end a novel).

It does leave me wondering about Follett, though. The man was once a master of fast-paced novels, but in this one, his characters are boring and unbelievable (despite their fantastic backgrounds and motivations) which makes the novel drag along. I’ve already spoken of this phenomenon when I reviewed Hornet Flight, and I’m worried to have found it here, too.

There’s another Follett in my to-be-read pile. I hope the novel is better than this one… but I also hope the history is as evocative and all-immersive. That is one thing he still does really well.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller doesn’t drag along. In fact, Timeless moves through the world of Southeast Europe’s smuggling scene at a breakneck pace, pausing only for a few erotic interludes along the way. You can check it out here.

Rear Window is so Much More than the Sum of its Parts

If you ignore the star-studded cast and directory, the elements that make up Rear Window are a recipe for disaster: a protagonist of a thriller who has a broken leg and can’t move, the setting that never changes and a non-twist ending (which, of course, because of expectations ends up being a twist ending, but I won’t spoil it here).

But the film, as many have said, and I am now echoing (only seventy years late – hooray!) is most definitely not a disaster: it’s a fun one in the classic Hitchcock tradition. Not even the single setting hurts this one too much. While Rope, Hitchcock’s other one-room special on the list, felt a little constrained, Rear Window works perfectly.

And though awful ingredients have been used to make excellent films before, this one was quite different from earlier efforts. It’s a film that actually plays to the talents of James Stewart, showing him standing on principle without making him an unbearable goody-two-shoes (his voyeurism throughout the film dilutes the overly saccharine character of most of Stewarts works). And Kelly as a society girl is perfectly cast.

So the actors are in the right place, the rest of it is set design, and that is where this one shines in an incredible way. While it’s true that Stewart doesn’t do much moving, the world outside his window is both alive and lively, which keeps the film from dragging. In my mind, that is what makes the movie.

I won’t go into this one in too much further depth, mainly to avoid spoilers. It breaks no new ground, but it IS a masterpiece of the classic Hitchcock thriller. Most people have seen it, and it those who haven’t, should, as they will be entertained. There’s even a surviving cast member out there, so we have the privilege of being able to thank Kathryn Crosby for being part of this.

Recommended for being able to perfect elements that might have been out there before, but had never been combined to quite this effect.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller is very much not constrained to one room. Timeless is a high-speed ride through the murky world of Southeast European crime, and is much sexier than a 1950s movie. You can check it out here.

When a Musical Turns Ugly – A Star is Born

Now, I know most people are more aware of Judy Garland’s adult oeuvre than I am, but to me, she represents the young girl in The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St Louis, and today’s subject, A Star is Born, was my introduction to her roles as a grown woman.

This one isn’t an innocent musical comedy, although Garland is cast as a wholesome girl to whom incredible things happen. It deals with alcoholism and pitfalls of celebrity culture in a rather open way. It also tackles suicide.

But even though the themes are heavy, the tone of the picture is quite upbeat and bearable (if you can take Garland’s perkiness for three hours) until about the last half hour when all the darkness that had been building up comes crashing down.

Great film? Definitely. Good film? Not really. The music, strangely for a Garland vehicle, is not particularly catchy, and seems to have been designed to prove that she was talented enough to handle the jazz that was popular in the era. Why this should have been a question is beyond me… Garland could handle anything. I found the songs dull (though, to be fair, the soundtrack apparently hasn’t been out of print since the release of the film) and I also got tired of Judy herself after a couple of hours.

Perhaps I’m not the perfect audience for this. It felt to me like a great film for my mom or any other grandmother out there… the kind of female viewer brought up with high emotional content in their movies. That might not be the exact audience, but the fact that I think so should give you an idea of what to expect.

Anyway, this one is watchable, and even if the plot gets thick and the style isn’t your thing, you can just sit there and admire the singing, acting and dancing of one of the most talented people to ever step on a stage or in front of a camera.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose erotic thriller outside follows a journalist from New York into the murky waters of international smuggling in eastern Europe. You can check it out here.

My New Monster Book – Lost Island Rampage

And there it is! The shiny, wonderful cover of my latest fast-paced creature feature. This one is nonstop action, with both land-based and sea-based critters making life miserable for our heroes… who have to figure out a way off a monster-infested island through an equally monster-infested sea.

It’s available on Amazon both to buy and, for those with Kindle Unlimited, to read for free. Here’s the link.

As always, if you do happen to pick any of my books up, I’d love to know what you think! Reader opinions truly do matter to writers!

Bright Young Things Satirized

My copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (I read the one in the picture) had an intro by Waugh that stated that, at one point in the writing of the book, he’d gone from gleeful to bitter–although he doesn’t say so, I assume it’s because of his divorce from his wife (it’s his own fault. When A dude named Evelyn marries a girl named Evelyn, it can’t end well).

That comment began to worry me about halfway through the book. You see, the first part of Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. The description of aristocratic college life in the 1920s has always seemed to me to represent a perfect idyll (and if you want more of it, but from the academic side, I strongly recommend The Inklings of Oxford), while the second half, the “serious” half, dropped off sharply. I was enjoying the pell-mell anarchy of Vile Bodies, and I didn’t want that to happen in this one.

Luckily, it wasn’t possible–at least not for me–to easily separate Waugh’s biting satire of the “gleeful” part from the bitterness he says happened in the second section. Not on a first reading, anyway.

The book continues as it started, with the nuttiness of young people discovering their independence in a time just coming off the repressive age. While it can’t rival Gatsby as the ultimate expression of the Roaring Twenties, it does give you just enough reality beneath the exaggeration to give one a sense of what the London scene looked like.

As with Gatsby, it was a great time to be alive (as long as you were in the right set, of course).

The temptation here is to compare this one with Scoop, as they are both similar in conception: take an institution (journalism in Scoop, the Bright Young Things in Vile Bodies) and go to town on the satire. It’s a valid comparison, but Scoop is both funnier (unless you’re easily offended, in which case we pity you) and more chaotic, while Vile Bodies, though good, does fall a little flat at the end. It’s probably very symbolic, but I’m reading this one as a regular reader, for the fun of it, and have little interest in social commentary about stuff that happened almost a hundred years ago.

As such, it’s a good book, and I have yet to find a Waugh that I didn’t like, but it isn’t quite up to the wonderfulness (I was sure the autocorrector would clobber wonderfulness, but apparently it’s a real word. Who knew?) of the first half of Brideshead and the entirety of Scoop. Still better than most everything else, of course.

Read Waugh. Don’t let his books go out of print. If not for you, do it for future generations.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His literary fiction is collected in the linked story Love and Death. You can check it out here.

Welcome to the 1980s – Everyone’s Favorite Bad Hair Decade

I’m pretty sure that everyone who loves cars or freedom will have breathed a huge sigh of relief when December 31, 1979 rolled into January 1, 1980. The decade of ignorant knee-jerk overregulation was over. Sure, the regulation was still on the books but engineers are smarter than regulators, so now that the frenzy was past, they could start making cars better and faster again.

(Ironically, the July 1980 cover below proves that they didn’t always get it right, and few wheeled objects have ever been as ugly as the Aston Martin Bulldog).

Fittingly, April 1980 Road & Track had a huge article describing the evolution of the 1970s emissions and safety regs. The irony was that they still didn’t know that the regs forced in during the 70s were going to destroy the US car industry while simultaneously making the emissions of greenhouse gases much worse than they would have been otherwise (CO2 was not identified as problematic until later). This one made for really interesting reading, as it showed how government can be easily prodded by a few motivated bureaucrats looking to extend their own power, guided by a few special interest groups (any resemblance to today’s world is not coincidental).

The other memorable article was a Henry Manney piece about a Land Speed Record attempt by a Budweiser-sponsored jet car. Entertaining stuff.

The July issue was the one with the Bulldog… and despite the awfulness of the cover car, this was a good issue. Plenty of racing and vintage stuff to balance out the industry news and road tests. Best article, though, had to be the story by Rob Walker talking about the cars and motorcycles he had in the war years, in between doing some truly dangerous stuff. Seeing the way he glosses over his war activities makes you realize why no one was too concerned about the dangers of auto racing in the postwar era: these were men who’d been exposed to much greater risks than just the chance of wrapping your Ferrari around a tree at the Ring.

On a sad note, the Grand Prix coverage showed us the end of Clay Regazzoni’s career, as this includes the Long Beach GP where he was paralyzed. This was a driver that was with us all through the 1970s, and we’ll miss him going forward (weirdly, he was killed in a road crash in 2006 while driving at a considerably slower speed than the crash he survived in 1980).

Anyway, we’re well into the 80s now, and enjoying it. Any moment now, Reagan will be elected, MTV will launch, Miami Vice will go on the air, and we’ll have the true power of that decade giving rise to bewinged Lamborghini Countachs and stockbrokers driving Porsche’s looking to kick some commie butt. While good taste was only marginally more present than in the awful 1970s, at least the bad taste was brash and in your face, with no pretense or toleration for do-goody activism. And though we thought it was all in awful taste back then, a little bit of that attitude would make today’s world a much more interesting place, because we’ve gone completely off the other end… and it’s just as bad, if not worse.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is called Lost Island Rampage. And just like it says on the tin, it’s about a tropical paradise infested with monsters. Even the waters around them are infested with monsters… so you have to survive the sea gauntlet if you want the land monsters to kill you. You can check it out here.

Only the CIA Would Have Made a Film Out of Animal Farm

Animal Farm is yet another of those books you love to have read as opposed to loved reading. Orwell, as we all know, was a socialist, but what few people realize is that he was, first and foremost, a humanist. He refused to accept that any ideology, not even his beloved collectivism, was more important than the individuals it was to guide.

So when Stalinism took root in the Soviet Union, complete with all its excesses and de-personing of opposition, this avowed socialist became, ironically, the perfect spokesperson for the CIA. Both 1984 and Animal Farm are, essentially anti-communist books that warn of the dangers of totalitarian collectivism. They have since been used to attack the left and other populist demagogues by anyone with half a brain (those without brains sometime think it can be used to attack capitalist ideals, unaware that they are talking about two different things).

So the CIA commissioned a film of Animal Farm

While I’m not the right person to ask whether this is good propaganda or bad, I am eminently qualified to talk about the story and how it makes a viewer (or reader) feel. In this case, you feel like crap, because you just know how things will end as soon as a socialist utopia is mooted (utopias of any kind always end the same way, of course). You read the book because you want to understand the arguments and understand the Twentieth Century… but why watch a cartoon of this depressing stuff. Hell, if you want to be unhappy watch this one.

I can just imagine some poor parent, delighted with Disney’s offerings, taking their kids to see this little gem. It’s a wonder movie houses weren’t burned down by irate fathers (or their bawling children).

Of course, literate audiences will notice the major change in the film, which turns this into extremely obvious propaganda: in the end, the animals rise up against the rule of the pigs… which is very much NOT the message that Orwell delivered in his own book.

Taking the film by itself, it’s an unfortunate thing that would never have been made if not for political expediencies of the age. We should put it in the same category as things like Trimph des Willens (although this one is a masterpiece of filmmaking, Animal Farm is not), which is probably why it made the 1001 films list.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose passion is to extrapolate current trends and see which paths, hopeful and dangerous, they will eventually lead us down. A sterling example of this is his science fiction novel Outside, which will disturb anyone who lives in modern society. You can check it out here.

Fun Stuff in the Sixties Spy Tradition

Sixties secret agent books were escapist fun: a lone wolf secret agent, women who were available, dangerous or both, and clear-cut bad guys. No one cared if the masculinity was toxic, the women unrealistic or that communists are actually supposed to be the good guys. Back then, if you happened to think any of those things, there were other books for you, and everyone accepted that different people had different tastes. It’s a novel concept, this thing of keeping your adolescent political enthusiasms out of other people’s entertainment… but it appears to work really well.

Donald Hamilton’s character Matt Helm might not be as universally revered as James Bond, but he was very popular in his day, and four films were made of his adventures (starring Dean Martin, no less). If The Ravagers is a typical example, it’s quite easy to see why.

This book isn’t just fun in the traditional way, but it’s also linear, following the hero every step of the way without leaving his side for a moment. From a purely literary point of view, this shows the influence of classic noir on the secret agent genre (which, considering its beginnings, was sorely needed).

So what you have here is a noir adventure that moves out nighttime in the city and onto the much wider stage of international intrigue. It actually transfers reasonably well and, though the third-person narrative which follows several characters at once (see any Tom Clancy book) is probably better for that kind of thing, the noir treatment was a step in the right direction.

From a literary standpoint, that’s the extent of the deep insights you can get from this one, but one cultural thing that caught my eye was the fact that one of the plot points is that a fifteen-year-old girl would be relatively innocent. Whether that was ever true during our current phase of morality (remember that for most of human history, girls – and boys, too – that age were considered to be of marital age) I have no clue… but I suspect that not even in the fifties, where the roots of this book are, would a fifteen-year-old have been a real innocent.

Other than that, it works as entertainment, and I enjoyed it. Not memorable literature, perhaps, but an acceptable piece of escapist fiction.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller has much more modern sensibilities, and a lot more onscreen sex than this one. But the international intrigue and the fast pace will feel very familiar to readers of classic work. You can check out Timeless, here.

Macondo… But Not Quite the Same

La hojarasca (only the first word of Spanish-language titles is capitalized) is a novella-length book by Gabriel García Márquez. It was titled Leaf Storm in English, and it’s celebrated as the first appearance of the fictional town Macondo, made famous in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Unfortunately, this is a Macondo devoid both of magic and compelling characters. The plot revolves around the burial of a man who’d gained the enmity of the town by his actions since moving there, and there is a very real possibility that they won’t let the man be buried… despite the determination of one other character to inter him at all costs.

Therein lies the central conflict of a story that is very well written, but is not the master in full possession of his powers. This book is from before García Márquez was considered a literary giant, and it took quite a while to find a publisher (seven years, according to Wikipedia).

But it’s still a good example of excellent writing. The book is almost a guide to how to reveal the backstory of what is going on by taking three viewpoint characters and following along different paths that, little by little, shed light on why things stand the way they do.

One expects more from García Márquez… Although, to be honest, I’m beginning to think the man was a one-hit wonder – none of the other books of his I’ve read are anywhere near as good as One Hundred Years of Solitude. What a hit it was, though. I guess that’s the contrast with his main Latin American competitor: Vargas Llosa was apparently incapable of writing anything but brilliant books while García Márquez apparently spent his entire reservoir of higher inspiration in one dazzling dose.

So this one is perfectly competent, with wonderful use of every literary technique in the book… with pedestrian results. Give it a miss, and if you haven’t yet read his masterpiece, do so now. If you have and are in the mood for excellent Latin American writing, you can never go wrong with Vargas Llosa.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose own foray into literary fiction (he writes a ton of commercial fiction) consists of a book entitled Love and Death in which the intertwined destinies of several individuals and families reveal the true wonder and horror of the everyday world. You can check it out here.

Goodbye to the Worst Decade for Cars

Yes, I know the worst decade for cars is still coming. As the forces that conspire against personal freedoms gain traction worldwide, there seem to be ever more people who believe that individually-owned vehicles are some kind of antisocial crime against the masses. Hopefully, the forces of common sense will squash the stupid before it goes too far, but I’m not optimistic. Stupid people outnumber people with common sense by a large margin, so it’s likely that public sentiment against automobiles will continue.

Nevertheless, that is speculation. What we DO know is that the 1970s were the worst decade for automobiles to date. Overzealous US regulators (and the stupid people who just nod along to the buzzwords without ever understanding the underlying issues) managed to pass safety laws that went way beyond the reasonable, making cars permanently uglier in the process. Then, their anti-smog charge ended up favoring global warming by increasing CO2 emissions and lowering fuel economy (to be fair, they thought they were doing the right thing, but they are just legislators, not scientists, and they dropped the ball). Then came the fuel crisis and the imbecility of speed limits on highways. The excuse for the abominable 55 mph was that the fuel savings justified it… but the legislators left it in place even after the fuel crisis passed. It was probably the most hated US law since prohibition. Unlimited European highways used the excuse to impose speed limits for the first time, in a victory by the plodding and scared segment of the population over the dashing and debonair. Sad.

Fortunately, the Germans read the numbers, realized there’s no real safety gain in limiting speeds. So they reversed the stupid as soon as the immediate fuel crisis passed. Autobahns are still unlimited today. The strange part is that one would think the civic-minded Germans would be the first to impose limits on “dangerous” activity… but, on the contrary, the Germans looked at the numbers and ignored unfounded silly little fears.

Anyway, the May and December issues of Road & Track are the last ones from my big pile from the 70s and it’s a bit unfair to blame the entire debacle of the decade on them. The cars here show more of an 80s mentality–remember, engineers are always a few years ahead of the public: they were designing the cars of the 80s while the rest of the world was consuming the products of the 70s.

The cars features in these two show a certain amount of hope. And I think that’s what the world in general must have been feeling as the 70s ended, not just the automotive world. After all, the era over-regulation and excessive government was coming to a temporary end, and people were ready to party, wear big hair, kill off disco (especially this) and rediscover cocaine.

It’s obviously an oversimplification to attempt to find the roots of 80s excess in the automotive landscape of the decade that preceded it, but we’ll do it anyway. What happened to cars in the 70s pretty much made the 80s inevitable, because it was a symptom of larger things in society. It’s pretty clear that the world in the 1970s was gripped in one of its periodic moralist eras in which being too free or not conforming to society’s expectations was to be punished. Unfortunately the society of the 1970s put a premium on safety, security and a lack of ostentation. The nail that stuck out too far got hammered.

That is how the people who come after you decide cocaine is a good thing.

And that is also how you are forever saddled with the most humiliating nickname ever: the Disco Generation. It is a shameful cross that the adults of this era will forever have to bear.

Gustavo Bondoni hates to admit it, but he was actually born in the 70s (the horror). Nevertheless, he has attempted to break away from that unfortunate beginning and has since gone on to write several books, the latest of which describes a fun trip through rural Russia while chased by vicious monsters. Okay, maybe not fun for the protagonists… but definitely fun for the reader. It’s called Test Site Horror and you can check it out here.