Literature

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a few hundred pages you are transported to an era that existed only a very few years, and ended when flying boats were superseded by planes that landed on runways (concrete runways were expensive to build, but a lot of them were built for WWII… and then used by commercial airliners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.

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.

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.

For Your Eyes Only – A James Bond Short Story Collection

I love reading James Bond books for several reasons. The first is that they are so different from the movies that share the names with the books. For example, For Your Eyes only is the name of a short story which gives its title to a collection of James Bond shorts (two of the other tales are entitled “From a View to a Kill” and “Quantum of Solace”). And it’s this book that is the subject of today’s post.

This book doesn’t contain another of Ian Fleming’s delights, namely the penchant for wonderful, outrageous character names but it does keep alive his well-known tendency to write for heterosexual male audiences from the late fifties and early sixties. While some might find this kind of writing offensive, I find it delightfully unaffected and fresh. A great palate cleanser after an issue of The New Yorker which suffered from the modern day disease of overcompensating via political correctness.

Be warned, though… Fleming isn’t for everyone, just for people who can allow for context and understands that the world is a constantly-changing place without blowing a fuse if something isn’t up to today’s standards.

Obligatory caveats expressed, let’s move on to the stories themselves.

Four of the five are just what you’d expect from a Bond book (if you’re familiar with Bond books, that is. If you’re expecting them to be like the movies, this isn’t that). Spy adventure with a slightly more brooding and human–and less funny and superhuman–main character. Great entertainment, and harmless fun.

But the final tale, “Quantum of Solace” isn’t a traditional Bond story, but a tale in which our favorite secret agent gets to hear about someone else’s life, a life without any international intrigue, but nothing more than a sordid story of a marriage gone wrong. It’s well-written, of course, but also has a bit of a surprise value, and is wonderful to find here.

For those familiar with Bond novels, this one is a fun change of pace. Good stuff.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own international thriller is entitled Timeless. Hs heroine is most definitely not a male chauvinist superspy, but she has just as much sex as Bond does–and on her terms, too–you can check out Marianne Caruso’s adventures in Timeless, here.

Down and Out in 1950s America

For some reason, I find books about extreme poverty in the past compelling. Not because I enjoy them, exactly, but because they give insight into a world that is very different from that of everyday life for most people. I wouldn’t read a book about modern-day poverty because it would depress me, but if a few decades have passed, I like them a lot.

Now, Sara Harris isn’t Orwell, not by a long stretch of the imagination, so her book can’t be the literary masterpiece that is Down and Out in Paris and London, but she does have a journalist’s eye (ear?) for the human angle that will bring a point across to the reader, and she uses that gift very effectively in Skid Row USA.

This one is a paperback that I picked up somewhere (probably at a flea market in the church around the corner) with another few old paperbacks, and I just couldn’t pass it up. Garish, and aimed at thrill readers, it is both an interesting look at a past era and a psychological analysis of the dynamics of extreme poverty that sound like they’d still be relevant today.

I read this more as a history book, akin to this one, than as what it was meant to be, which is a sociologically-driven admonishment to the society of the fifties that extreme poverty is not a crime but a psychological and, when combined with alcoholism, medical problem.

It’s much more interesting as an insight into a different world. Hell, we’ve all seen the fifties. Huge tailfins, drive-ins with waitresses on roller skates, early rock and roll, the birth of the suburban ideal and the culmination of the American Dream. This book takes us out of the suburbs and small towns and into the lives and circumstances of the urban poor to whom suburbia is a legendary place outside their scope.

Of course, as a writer, this is all grist for the mill. Not all my stories take place in space, and not all of my characters are dashingly handsome aristocrats. Having this book both in my head and on my shelves means that a character from Skid Row will be a lot more believable.

But even non-writers should find this one an interesting, quick read. There’s even some hope at the end (although I have no clue if the programs described in this 1950’s book ever came to fruition).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most socially-conscious work is probably the science fiction novel Outside, which addresses the current problems of technology addiction and the incapacity of humans on one side of an issue to behave in a civilized manner to those on the other. You can buy a copy here.

It’s good to see that even The New Yorker can suck

I’m not one for complaining about stuff you should expect. If you watch an old Western, you shouldn’t complain about a the fact that indians are pictured as the bad guys. That’s just how things were, and if you don’t want to see that, then don’t watch old westerns. Likewise, if you watch a Reifenstahl documentary, complaining that it’s full of Nazi imagery is just a bit stupid.

In much the same vein, if you don’t like a highly liberal (and progressive) viewpoint, don’t read The New Yorker.

So now I’m going to contradict myself and complain about The New Yorker from November 4, 2019 for being… you guessed it, excessively progressive.

Now, a bad New Yorker isn’t something I can just shrug off, mainly because I only get the magazine occasionally, as it doesn’t get delivered to Argentina (due to a combination of imbecilic protectionism, dishonest post office employees and mafia-like action by the newsstand owners union, getting foreign magazines here has become impossible). So I need to enjoy each one.

And I don’t mind the US-style progressive lean. I agree with some of it, disagree with other bits and don’t have a position on the rest. It isn’t like the editors are raving extremists with an axe to grind.

At least not normally. The first half of this issue made it seem like a reevaluation of my opinion might be needed. If you let yourself be guided by this issue, there are precisely two critical human questions in the world: gender and race.

While I agree that these are important questions -and they define some people’s lives – they are by no means exclusive, nor are they universally the most important. Other people might find other questions more significant, and that is as it should be. But this issue, explicitly (by speaking about the subjects) or implicitly (by focusing on diversity in the arts to the exclusion of anything non-diverse) ignores all the other important subjects.

This level of tunnel vision might be fine for certain types of publication with a specific political and propaganda focus (I’d never read that, even if the politics were precisely my own), but for The New Yorker, it’s utterly unforgivable. It’s supposed to be a journal catering to intelligent people with wide-ranging cultural interests, which means that this kind of narrow-mindedness is precisely what the readers would hate.

Fortunately, a little neutrality creeps in in the second half of the magazine (one specific article on cyber-security is very professional), and the article about Ukraine’s leader is pretty decent (even though, for marketing reasons, the title is a Trump bashing one).

But that’s not enough to save an issue that, in the future, will likely be pointed to as an example of what The New Yorker shouldn’t represent. We get it, Americans are obsessed about the culture wars. But TNY should be above that adolescent squabble and able to focus on everything truly important, not just what the college professors are getting their panties in a bunch about.

We expect more from them.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction is collected in a book of linked short stories entitled Love and Death (now THOSE are important subjects!). It follows the intertwined lives of several individuals across generations in the most important moments of their lives. You can check it out here.

A Nicely Balanced Collection of Horror

I expected the anthology entitled Revisiting the Undead to be exactly what it said on the cover: a collection of previously-published zombie/vampire/undead stories. But the very first story laid those suspicions to rest, as there was not one undead baddie in sight. Instead, we had a straight, creative horror story that seemed straight from the 1980’s canon (though it wasn’t).

That story served as a declaration of intent. Though undead beasties are in this book (my own story, “Bridge Over the Cunene” is one example), they most certainly haven’t pushed out other, equally rich, veins of horror.

The result is a book that is well-balanced and which continually refreshes itself with each new story. The reader ends up wondering what the next author is going to come up with, which is a very good thing to achieve in an antho.

My favorite was Bob Moore’s “They Restared the Mill at Killington”, which is a creepy sort of horror that doesn’t need monsters to be scary. A wonderful tale.

Even though its a reprint antho, I hadn’t read any of the stories previously, so these aren’t old horses half beaten to death. A good one for those who enjoy pretty much any brand of horror.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His most recent collection of horror and dark fantasy is entitled Pale Reflection, and you can check it out here.

A Plodding Walk Through Legendary Wessex

I’m not averse to reading classics. In fact, a lot of the 19th century literary work I’ve read has been extremely entertaining, so when I encounter a classic of the era which is almost unreadable, I rue the missed opportunity.

Now, I’m not a stranger to Thomas Hardy. I’d read Far From the Madding Crowd before I started reviewing for CE, and found it uninspiring, if not awful. But I see that Hardy wasn’t content with uninspiring. The book that is arguably his masterpiece went for the truly unreadable.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the worst books I’ve read in ages. The writing, of course, is perfectly fine, but the plot is tear-out-your-hair awful. The first 400 pages of this 500 page book are completely predictable and when it becomes unpredictable, it’s a Hays-Code crime plot… which means that it gives us an unsatisfying ending.

This is one of the few cases, however, where I’d consider giving a book a pass because of the time that has passed since it was written. You see, in 1890, the subject of this book–a woman who is seduced and bears a child and then marries another man without telling him–would have been sensational stuff, and perhaps audiences in the day would not have been able to predict what was going to happen, simply because they weren’t expecting the author to tread forbidden paths.

This is certainly an argument in its favor, although it falls down if one loses that taboo. If you trust that the author won’t flinch, the book becomes utterly dull.

Some readers will find things to like, of course. The scenes of rural life are the best part of the book and show Hardy’s love for the subject. I get that, and it truly is well done.

Other readers will be moved by the plight of the wronged woman… but it was so boring, and so much of it would have been avoided by a person with a measurable IQ that I was unimpressed. She seems to me like those characters in a horror movie that, confronted with the chance of leaving the house or running up the stairs to be trapped and dismembered, choose the latter.

My advice is to read it and judge for yourself. This book has a huge following, which means that many people are going to have a very different opinion than mine.For myself? Well, I wish Hardy would just have described rural life. When he added plots to his novels, he ruined them.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work in the literary genre (as opposed to more fantastic work) can be found in his book Love and Death, which weaves together the lives, triumphs and tribulations of a series of people just like you and me. You can check it out here.

Salvador Sanz – Brilliant Argentine Artist

I don’t often get to combine the things I love. Art goes on one track literature on the other. But there’s one guy I know who combines these two art forms all the time: Salvador Sanz. He is not only an incredible illustrator but, since he has his own comics, he is also a writer.

Better still, I recently got the chance to read the book he gave me that includes a selection of his art, so I was vicariously able to combine art and literature as well.

I met Salvador by chance. Guardbridge Books was preparing my collection Off the Beaten Path for publication, and the publisher wanted an Argentine cover artist for this book by an Argentine author. I asked around and one name came strongly recommended: Salvador Sanz. A look at his online presences told me why: his work was dark and technically brilliant. So we got in touch and he produced the cover art for the book.

When I got back from the book launch in Dublin, I got together with Salvador to give him his copy of the book and to chat a while. While we were there, he was kind enough to gift me a copy of Ultra Mal, a compendium of his art.

Though I’d researched his work, I was still shocked by both how versatile Salvador is, and how gifted. His sketches show a talent that isn’t common, while his finished work, particularly the pieces that are destined for things other than comics. The attention to detail and perfect proportioning of things like scales and leaves are just breathtaking.

I’d recommend getting hold of a copy if you can, but if you’re in a place where the book isn’t available, then you should at least look for Salvador’s art online. You’re in for a treat, and you’ll see why everyone I asked recommended him for the cover work.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. Off the Beaten Path is a collection of science fiction and fantasy stories that take place outside the usual, well-trod settings of North America and Western Europe. You can check it out here.