thriller

The Pharaoh Key: Not a Good First Impression

As you probably know by now, I’m not exactly a prude when it comes to page-turning action books what the establishment turns its nose up at. I make no secret that I loved The Da Vinci Code, and still read Dan Brown’s books when they are released.

But, to my surprise, I found that I actually do have standards below which I get annoyed. Who’d a thunk it?

The Pharaoh Key was purchased at an airport for a couple of reasons. The first was purely research–I was interested to see what kind of books in the adventure (as opposed to international espionage) genre were selling in sufficient numbers to justify high-value real estate in a Hudson News outlet. The second was that the book looked really fun, and it could also serve as a gift for my father, who enjoys this kind of thing.

The first red light was when my dad, after reading it said he thought it was awful, but since he’s more into the spies than ancient treasure, I assumed that was where he was coming from.

It might actually have been where he was coming from (I didn’t ask him when he read it and haven’t discussed the book with him since), but my own dislike for this one comes from a completely different source: the writing makes Dan Brown look like Oscar Wilde, and the outrageous stuff that happens often throws you out of the plot.

I’m usually fine with that second one, so I dug into it a bit more. Just why did the outlandishness of the whole thing bug me so much?

Perhaps the first part is that, unlike Brown, the actions and descriptions of some of the exotic places didn’t ring true. The way the characters remove themselves from police custody at one point is utterly imbecilic, while the plot point of a lost tribe living in the Egyptian desert rang hollow; for all I know, it might be true, but it just seemed false, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m used to. Maybe that’s because I am an SFF reader. In science fiction and fantasy, authors are experts at making things the reader knows don’t exist seem real. Perhaps I’m spoiled, so when people who have the advantage of usually writing plausible things stretch credibility, I expect them to be better at it than Preston and Child were in this case.

The entire book is full of stuff like that, so my own review, had I left one on amazon, would have been 2 stars. It’s certainly not a one star book: it’s grammatically correct and the writing isn’t actually bad, just a little weak in some key areas.

But, going back to the reason I purchased this one in the first place, I’d like to remind everyone that that my review isn’t the one that matters. I checked Amazon, and readers seem to really like this book, and it’s currently sitting at 4-and-a-half stars. A lot of people have weighed in on it, so it’s not like a couple of the authors’ friends bumped it up.

Clearly, Preston and Child know exactly what their public wants, and write to that target with precision and skill, and while the style might not impress a fellow writer, the ability to find the style and deliver it every single time is extremely impressive. Popular fiction isn’t easy to write, and prose that is technically sound but still appeals to the majority of readers is a finely-honed skill. I probably would have loved this book when I was twelve, and many people still do. That is awesome, and no one should begrudge the authors an iota of their success for catering to their public.

So while I didn’t like this book, I respect it enormously. And now I know what is selling in the adventure thriller market, which was the whole point of the exercise.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller, timeless seems to be the exact opposite of the Preston & Child book reviewed above. While theirs is simply written and almost completely asexual, Timeless is very well-written and sexually charged. The only similarity is that both are fast-paced page-turners. You can check out Timeless here.

Tense Start, Brilliant Finish

We’ve done Hitchcock here before (and here and here, and probably in other places I can’t remember off the top of my head).  He pops up with a certain regularity on the 1001 movies list, which is unsurprising.  In fact, the version of the book that I’m using has a still of Psycho on the cover.

Some of the films are extremely well known, and some aren’t.  In my opinion, the subject of today’s post should be much more famous than it is.

Strangers on a Train - Alfred Hitchcock.jpg

Strangers on a Train (1951) deserves to be a household name in motion pictures because of the way it both tangles and untangles the plot.  This is truly a tense film (and that’s not the first time we’ve used that word in the title of a post about a Hitchcock movie) which has the audiences dreading what might happen to the protagonist for most of it.

But the end is so spectacularly well done that it makes the suffering worthwhile.  It’s the best of the Hitchcock endings I’ve seen so far, and it brings the whole movie up as a result.

But it’s not the ending that makes this one a classic, but the setup.  The sheer perverse ideation of the crime in the film makes one admire Patricia Highsmith (of Ripley fame, who originally cooked it up) while, at the same time worrying about her mental state.  This one is really diabolical and worth the price of entry by itself.

A mild spoiler and a word about the murder victim: few times have I been so happy to see a non-antagonist character die in a film.  The little piece of slime who was killed is one of cinema’s truly unpleasant characters, extraordinarily well played by Laura Elliott.

Interesting notes here are that Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter Pat (who is alive as of this writing) played a very convincing role as the love interest’s younger daughter, and there was an Argentinian actor in this, too: Barry Norton.  Always interesting to see my countrymen in American films.

In conclusion, watch this one.  The suspense truly is nail-biting, but it all comes together really well in the end.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina whose own thriller is entitled Timeless.  You can check the book out here.

Boring on a Large Scale, Well Done on the Small Stage

I always thought that a well-written story could pretty much overcome any apathy towards the subject matter itself.  Hell, if you think of the stakes of the last book you read, odds are that they only matter to the characters themselves.

And yet, when reading Arthur Hailey’s novel In High Places, the major stakes were essentially the possibility of Canada combining a good chunk of its sovereignty with the US.  It was written from the Canadian point of view, and it’s pretty safe to say everyone was gravely concerned with the possibility that things might go one way or the other.

Authur Hailey - In High Places

Um… Yawn.

Canada’s fate failed to inspire even the slightest interest.  I couldn’t care less, so the main political cut and thrust of the book lost a lot of its strength.

Fortunately, there was a subplot which affected the larger events in which a young lawyer attempted to win a court case against all odds.  That held my interest sufficiently that I was able to finish the book in a reasonable amount of time.

Hailey sold a ton of books (including the later-filmed Airport), so I suppose a lot of people cared about his subjects and I’m in the minority here, but this one didn’t do much for me at all…

Apparently, political intrigue of great moment to Canadians is my threshold for stuff that actually IS too uninteresting to read about, even in the hands of a master page-turner of a novelist.

This one allowed me to discover more about myself than about the book.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His latest book is a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories that take place outside the usual American and European settings.  It’s entitled Off the Beaten Path, and you can buy it here.

A Perfect Example of a Seventies Paperback

The next book in my reading of that pile of paperbacks from the (mostly) seventies is Morris West’s The Concubine.  And I can’t think of a better example of the breed.

Morris West - The Concubine

To start with, the naked woman on the cover just shouts 70s to me (even though, to be fair, this edition was released in 1969, although my own copy was of the 1973 printing).  Naked lady, huge yellow flower.  Yep, the seventies.

And then you get to the book.  I went into it thinking I was heading into another super-sexy adventure like the Rosemary Rogers book, but I was wrong.  This one was a thriller about an Irish oilman who falls for another man’s woman while on a criminal job in the islands of southern Asia.  And it takes up the torch for fun reading again–reminding us of the days when books were fun and very much not politically correct.

This one has the added interest of having been written in 1958, at a time when the far east still had a frontier-like quality to it, replacing the Wild West at a time when the actual Wild West was being lotted out into suburbs.

The ending to this particular book was so outrageous that you’ll have to read it to believe it.  Not what I was expecting, even though the writer foreshadowed it correctly… More fitting to a lost world fantasy tale from the thirties.

Interesting side note is that the novel was originally published as McReary Moves In, under the pseudonym Micheal East, only to be republished under the author’s real name when he became a bestseller…  You can’t make stuff like that up.

Anyway, a great way to spend a few hours.  Nostalgic and entertaining… as most of this pile of junk books was.

Of course, the last one in the pile won its author a Nobel prize, but that is the subject f a different post.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author who will likely never win a Nobel Prize.  When people ask him why he thinks he won’t win, he points at his most recent novel, Ice Station: Death and says: “That book will disqualify me for life.”  If you’d like to see why, you can check it out here.

 

Literature was More Fun in the Seventies

Whenever possible, I try to go through my to-be-read pile in the order in which I acquired or borrowed the books.  Though this sounds incredibly obsessive, and probably is, I’ve found that it helps me to actually read all the stuff I lay my hands on.  Otherwise, I’d immediately read the shiny new stuff and some books would wallow in the pile forever.

But that method also means that stuff tends to come in thematic clumps.  If I happened to swing by a science fiction con, I will have a pile of SF books to read.  If I did an Amazon order, it’s likely that the books will all be from series I’m in the middle of.

This time, I’ve hit a patch of trashy 1970s paperbacks.  They are trashy both because of the quality of the printed object itself (acidic paper seemed to reach its peak in the 70s) as well as for the writing.  By looking at the covers, I’m guessing that there aren’t many literary pretentions in this lot.

But when I read the first, I was immediately delighted to have landed in this batch.

Toll for the Brave - Jack Higgins

Jack Higgins is not a writer I was familiar with (although I later realized that he wrote the semi-classic The Eagle has Landed), but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more of his work after reading Toll for the Brave.

This was a classic-style seventies thriller where a guy survives against all odds, defeats communism and also beats his tortured (in this case rather literally) past.  Unlike modern takes on the theme, this is a slim volume at just under 200 pages, and yet seems to pack all the necessary action into the story.  The characters are also sufficiently well done that you start to wonder why any book should be thicker than this.

The enemy here are communists, and it’s a particularly nice to see them get their butts kicked by an individualist, filthy-rich product of capitalism.  The whole thing is cheesy and unbelievable, but fun as hell.  I’d felt the same way, quite recently, about The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin, which probably ticked the same boxes for the same audience in the era.

I read and enjoy plenty of modern books, but whenever I dip into the seventies, I wonder if we’re not all making a huge mistake by focusing so much energy on avoiding stereotypes and being more character-driven and literary.  That has its place, of course, but there’s also a strong argument to be made for the fun factor.

Seen in a different way, stereotypes are also archetypes–figures that many people who share a cultural background will be able to identify.  They’re a shorthand way of putting the reader at ease, letting him know what’s happening around him without dumping four hundred pages of exposition.  Those little tools make a book more enjoyable for the person picking it up.

There’s a reason books like this one sold in the millions and that’s because they were actually better than watching TV.  They’re also better than watching TV today.

So what should have been a light read of an admittedly preposterous thriller has actually made me think, which is an unexpected bonus.

The first benefit, of course, was that I enjoyed the hell out of it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist whose own preposterous thriller is called Ice Station: Death.  He thinks it’s even more farfetched than the Higgins above, but urges you to check it out for yourself.

The Shadow of Rebecca

Secret Beyond the Door Film Poster

It’s not often that we encounter minor movies while watching the 1001 films you need to see before you die, but it does happen sometimes.  Today’s subject, Secret Beyond the Door, is a case in point.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an entertaining thriller that directors other than Fritz Lang would have killed to have in their oeuvre.  But for the man who filmed Metropolis, it’s a second-division effort.

Nevertheless, it’s worth looking at, if only because it pays homage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and to Hitchcock’s film of the novel, both of which are classics of their respective fields.  The book, as I’ve so often said, holds my favorite opening line ever.

The parallels are both inescapable and obvious: a young woman meets a man with a mysterious past, marries him and moves to his mansion, where the deceased former wife is nearly a physical presence.  Both end with the house in flames.

Joan Bennet in Secret Beyond the Door

The major difference, and Secret Beyond the Door‘s major point of interest is that the gothic horror comes from the husband himself, and the question of whether he is or isn’t planning to murder the young woman drives the film forward relentlessly.

Regardless of parallels, this one is an enjoyable thriller which should supply a couple of surprises and keep you on edge until the end.

As a surreal side note, I’ll add a Gilligan’s Island link: actress Natalie Schafer, who played Lovely Howell, is in this one as the young bride’s friend and traveling companion.

And, with the reflection that I never thought I’d be writing about Gilligan’s Island here, we can go on to the next film… soon.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is not based on Rebecca.  You can have a look here.

A War Book for Adults

Alistair MacLean

Alistair MacLean is no stranger to anyone who’s ever read a thriller.  He wrote The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, for Christ’s sake (that last bit should be read in a tone evocative of a writer who is jealous of another writer).  Let’s ignore Ice Station Zebra for now because I may have recently riffed off that particular title.

But not many modern readers will be familiar with his debut novel, HMS Ulysses, and that’s truly sad.  This may be his best book.

HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

It’s not his most imaginative, by any means, nor does it involve intricate plots or undercover agents.  It’s just the story of an Arctic convoy on the Murmansk run, one of the most dangerous routes of WWII.

What makes it amazing is that it’s utterly and completely real.  Fictionalized, of course, but a true description of that particular piece of that particular war.  The horrors perpetrated on men’s bodies and, more importantly, on their minds, during combat in arctic conditions is described without holding any punches.  It’s a book that can convince anyone that war is hell.

It hits you like a hammer, right between the eyes.

And yet, it won’t put you off war books or turn you into a raging anti-war demonstrator.  MacLean had been in some of the worst conditions ever faced, but he didn’t shy away from the subject, and instead treats it in an adult way.

It’s refreshing.  Instead of whining and moaning about how awful war is, he shows it to us, and then lets us take our own conclusions from the book.  My own thoughts are that his intention was that we take due note about the harsh and awful things… and then realize that the men who lived through it were tough enough to take it.  Heroism and nobility, he seems to be saying, are not destroyed by a true depiction of conflict but heightened.

This is refreshing.  Most war books cater to either the adolescents who want to paint war as nothing but a display of the worst of mankind or to the children who think it’s just a big game of cowboys and indians.  MacLean is actually writing for people with a little more depth to them.

He sold a ton of copies and launched a career (mainly writing the cowboys and indians type book, admittedly) on the strength of this book… and all of it was well deserved.  Find this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is Ice Station Death.  You can check it out here.

How do they do it?

Let me tell you a secret about spy and secret agent-thrillers… but don’t tell anyone.  They’re pretty much all the same, only separated by era.

So in the fifties, sixties and seventies, they were all about lone wolves foiling the Russians deep behind enemy lines.  In the eighties and nineties, about how technology could be exploited in the best way against pretty much the same people, plus china.  Nowadays, it’s all about teamwork and special forces guys (or ex-special forces guys) coming together to demolish drug dealers or terrorists.

What do you mean, everyone knows this already?

Drat.

All right… I’ll try to tell you something you didn’t know, then.  Even though they might all be built to a similar formula, books in that genre are massively entertaining, and keep people not only turning pages, but buying more books.

Case in point, Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive, actually written by Grant Blackwood (I assume that this is the case, even though Clancy was still alive when this one was published).

Tom Clancy Dead or Alive - Grant Blackwood

It follows the standard formula to the letter–a formula, I might add that Clancy had an important role in creating.  Ex-special forces guys and a clandestine government agency find out where the head honcho of a terrorist organization (a Bin Laden type) is, and move to take him down, racing against the clock because the man has set several terrorist attacks agains the US in motion.

You kinda know how it’s going to end, but you still don’t stop reading.

As a science fiction writer, this embarrasses me.  Why?  Because, even though science fiction has all of space and time to play with, too much of the modern stuff is boring, navel-gazing, literary tripe.  Characters take center stage to the point where they become whiny and neurotic (also, if a character doesn’t have at least five reasons for people to be prejudiced against them, it seems that they can’t play a starring role), pushing aside the setting and situation, which is what makes SF compelling in the first place.

It’s gotten to the point where I steer clear of a lot of new science fiction until I see reviews from people I trust that tell me what I need to know.  If the book is described as “uplifting”, “human”, or “beautiful”, all sorts of alarms start flashing.

Fortunately, even the most disposable and interchangeable of spy thrillers guarantees a fun read, so there’s always something on the shelf to take your mind off the anguish that is modern literature in other genres.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is Ice Station: Death, and he guarantees that you won’t be bored by it.

Timeless Released!

Timeless - Gustavo Bondoni

It’s not every day that I release a new book.  And it is even less frequent for me to attempt a new genre.  I’d never written a thriller before, much less a romantic thriller, but it’s a genre I read in frequently.  The end result was that I felt both excited at the novelty and comfortable while writing it–an amazing experience, in fact.

Timeless was launched over the weekend, and it’s an ebook format.  You can get it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and, if you prefer to avoid the big retail chains, you can also get it from Smashwords.

A little about the book for those of you who might be curious:

Journalist Marianne Caruso is in Athens on her first investigative piece: finding the reclusive author of a best-selling novel about drug smuggling in the Aegean. She goes out for a night on the town with a good friend, Karina, who disappears after leaving the club.

Marianne’s journalistic instinct, combined with a re-reading of the novel, makes her suspect the kidnapping is linked to her investigation and that the book describes real criminals and events—criminals desperate to keep her from publishing her findings. Now even more determined to locate the author, Marianne teams up with Karina’s family to speak to underworld contacts and discovers the author is a monk at an ancient monastic complex forbidden to women.

Medieval misogyny be damned, Marianne arranges a secret meeting with the monk, but the criminals ambush her. Separated from her companions, she runs for her life with only the monk himself for company, a man who might hold the key to rescuing Karina, but whose past holds secrets that might make him just as dangerous as the men she’s trying to escape.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Buenos Aires.  You can check out his website here.

Still the Greatest Name in Literature

As I’ve mentioned more than once, I have a habit of perusing used bookstores.  There are some books that I invariably grab whenever I happen to be at one of them.  Any Wodehouse that I don’t own gets added until such a time as I happen to run across an expensive edition I shouldn’t buy but do so anyway.  Likewise anything by Gerald Durell (not his brother, though).

There’s also one set of books that I buy exclusively at used bookstores and of which I’ve never owned (or indeed seen in person) a new copy, and that is Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series.  The most recent one of these that I’ve read is Goldfinger.

Goldfinger - James Bond - Ian Fleming

Of course, the first thing one wonders when reading these books is how well the movie (all of which, of course, civilized people will have watched multiple times) follows the plot of the book.  In Goldfinger, I’m happy to say that the movie is, in fact strongly based on the original material… which is always a relief.

The book is one of the better Bonds, as anyone who has seen the movie would have suspected, and I won’t talk about the plot here.  Instead, I’ll discuss how society has advanced and also how it has regressed since the book was published.

The advance is simple and easy to explain: Fleming was a Brit writing at the tail end of the Empire.  His attitude with regards to everyone else on the planet was one of paternalistic condescension, racist assumptions and stereotyping.  I found it quaint, but I’m sure it will appropriately infuriate certain people who make it their life’s work to be offended by such things.  Cue the book bannings.

Also, it was a reminder of why a James Bond actor who isn’t believably originated in a 1950s public school England (or descended from a man who was) is a travesty, and you might as well call the character something else entirely because no matter what you call him, he is no longer James Bond.

Pussy Galore

The place in which we’ve regressed isn’t quite as obvious at first glance, but it becomes glaring once you stop to think about it.  I’m referring, of course, to Pussy Galore.

Let’s start with the first question: did Fleming know what he was doing?

Yes.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He used the name in the modern way, which, back then, was likely either soldierly slang or something said by sailors.  The important part, as far as Fleming was concerned, was that the upper-class censors and publishing house officials that would be looking at the books would have no clue… and he just barefacedly left it in the MS and, as expected, raised no eyebrows.

By the time the film was made a few years later, most people got the joke, but the British producers kept it anyway… only the American censors attempted to take any action, but in the end, they left well enough alone.

Cue 2018… could a name like this, unless used as a purely satirical element showing that the writer or producer is a socially conscious person of obvious virtue, make it onto the big screen in a mega-popular production?

No way.

We live in an age of neo-puritanism, in which the political correctness has replaced religious fanaticism as the scourge upon humor.  Of course, both were proposed by “good” people, but the situation appears to have reached the point where we’re shocked by character names that made it past the censors in the 1950s… that can’t be a good thing, can it?

Anyhow, this is a good book to start from if you’ve never read a James Bond novel.  Familiar enough to be Bond, but interesting in its own way.  As Fleming’s writing has slowly moved from trashy-bestsellerdom to classic, and is recognized as the inspiration for so many others, it’s also important reading as more than a guilty pleasure.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s Outside is a tense tale of disaster and mystery.  You can have a look at it here.