Friday, January 24, 2014


William Boyd

Jonathan Cape, 2013

James Bond wakes up with a hangover after celebrating his 45th birthday alone in a hotel room. In the office M gives Bond a new job. Agent 007 must stop the civil war in the fictional country in West Africa called Zanzarim. Due to the civil war, the population suffers from hunger, tens of thousands are dying. Former colony, Zanzarim gained independence in 1964, and later on its territory, oil was discovered. Deposits have been found on the part of the country that are controlled by Fakassa tribe. Capital and the government of the state are located in the opposite part of the country, controlled by another tribe, Lowele. Two tribes, of course, clashed because of oil, conflict initially was expressed in the protests and then completely escalated into armed confrontation, which culminated in a war. Fakassa tribe withdrew from Zanzarim and proclaimed itself a democratic republic Dahum. The war was supposed to end quickly, but because of the skill of one commander of Dahumian army, Brigadier Adeka, all military attacks of Zanzarim army end without success.

Bond’s task is to eliminate Adeka, which should stop the civil war - and benefit the British, who supported Zanzarim army, for the sake of oil. Bond flies to Africa as a journalist of a French news agency.

Solo by William Boyd is James Bond novel in name only. Give the agent a different name, put M and Moneypenny away, and you get a story that will have no resemblance with the Bond adventures. Bond of this novel is not a professional assassin working for the government, but a weary civil servant, a specialist in international relations. This Bond do without modern and deadly gadgets and practically does not use weapons, doesn’t seduces women, and if he turns out in bed with a girl, it is because of the insistence of a girl rather than on his own. Sex for Bond (and author) is as a burden, even the sex scenes Boyd reduces to two sentenses.

Solo in volume is larger than any Fleming novel that is difficult to attribute to the qualities of the book. The plot is slow, tired and devoid of surprises.

Trying to go "solo", that is, do his own business and stay without the support of the department, does not seem quite logical for Bond, especially Boyd’s Bond. Desire for revenge for people that left him for dead would suit more person of other profession. Bond here fulfills his original mission in Africa almost by accident, doesn’t kill anyone, and even sympathize with the starving children. He's not a killer, what kind of cold revenge then we are talking about? He does not even look like a pro: Bond hardly applies his skills, do not use his wit and knowledge of spy stuff.

The plot as a whole is far from ingenuity. Solo have some tense scenes and a couple of twists, but, in my opinion, in the 20s of the last century spy novels had more intricate plots. Even the final denouement, where Bond explains to CIA colleagues what is what, is far from convincing. Bond did not collect any information - and here you are, he easily reveals a global conspiracy.

Boyd showed us his vision of the Bond mythology, completely redone. I can not say that the result is in any way successful.

Friday, January 17, 2014

One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses

Lucy Corin
One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses

McSweeney’s, 2013

Usually an apocalypse is perceived as something ending, BOOM! - and there is nothing. In speculative fiction even subgenre of post apocalyptic fiction has been formed when the action is happening in the world after the apocalypse, the phenomenon, affecting everything and everyone, often leading to irreversible consequences.

This collection really contains more than a hundred apocalypses, short stories (the book opens with three long novelettes), where the end of the world happens. Here apocalypses are continuing phenomenon, which flows one into the other and so on without stopping. It is understood that Lucy Corin is not trying to come up with more than a hundred variants of apocalypse. Apocalypses in her stories are often phenomenon that is purely private, invisible shift, off-screen act, the error in the world order. Apocalypses in this book are almost like the pulse of the earth under our feet, almost non-existent.

One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses is a broken mirror, whose fragments you are trying to see yourself in. Corin fascinates us with her stories, which are baffling, puzzling, and makes us to listen to every word. This collection is hard to read in large portions: the stories are not linked, and a lot of the stories absorbed at once will make you dizzy physically.

«In my town, where we live on a hill in the desert which was a desert even before this last apocalypse, I can stand on the wall surrounding the house and look down with binoculars. Tonight there is a famous rock band in the ball park. Everyone left is watching them hook up their amplifiers to some car batteries they found. The band is in leather outfits, just like the old days, like nothing happened, except now they don't have roadies.»

This is a fragment of the story «Hot Ticket». Corin has practical style, with a touch of melodism. It's not prose in verses, but like poetry, it allows multiple interpretations. The narrator says that they live on a hill - in the open air or in the houses, and if the houses, are thay the old or newly built ones? The second part of the sentense inclines to the second version, although it is unknown whether it is a home for all or only for a few of them. «This last apocalypse» suggests that apocalypse in the world of this story is not an uncommon phenomenon, but they happened, and people remain. Rock band means that after the apocalypse people still find the time and opportunity for entertainment. But the fame of a group again raises the question whether this group became popular after the apocalypse or was known in before apocalypse times? Lack of roadies means only that the group is probably not touring - no opportunities to move around the continent?

Almost every story in the collection you can disassemble like that 24\7 , and in this the brilliance of this small volume book lays. Among the novellettes «Madmen» stands out, an incredibly strange story about a girl who, having reached 14th birthday, travels with her parents in the hospital for the mentally ill, there to pick herself a madman. In this world, all adolescents should acquire madmen that help adolescents to further adapt to the world.

This book is hardly for fans of genre post apocalyptic fiction, that much it is original and doesn’t look like anything else. I should also mention the book design: for a long time I have not seen so beautifully published book.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Deaths

Mark Lawson
The Deaths

Picador, 2013

Four families live in the fictional Middlebury in homes in the suburbs, which were built for the aristocracy. They call themselves The Eight, mainly communicate only among themselves and goes to London only to the airport and commute on train to work.

Men of the family all work, and among their wives work only two. Max is a tycoon, always doing business. Johnny is a prosperous lawyer, Tom is a security expert, and Simon is a PR manager of a bank. His wife Tasha runs a catering company, and Tom's wife Emily is a doctor, a specialist in chronic diseases. Max's second wife (he is 56, she is much younger) Jenno sometimes teaches courses and gives advice to families on reducing costs, and Johnny's wife Libby mostly is busy shopping and discussing of au pairs.

The novel, in fact, opens with the deaths from the title. Courier of coffee in containers delivers coffee to one of the houses where he sees a family shot to death, wife and children, as well as dogs. Victims of mass killings are from one of the above families, but Lawson before the end will keep in secret, who were killed and who killed them.

And if the main plot line will explain in a meticulous manner the life of The Eight, the secondary storyline will focus on the police investigation. There is very little to investigate, and the detectives just wander around the murder scene, discussing the murdered family.

Four families are seen in their daily lives, and with each chapter husbands and their wives become more disgusting and repulsive. The main storyline begins with the description of men on the train London. They all are late for work when the train suddenly stops and an announcement explains that someome threw himself under the trainand the train can’t go any further, and the four men are even not surprised with this: suicides like that happen on English railroads every week. The men are only annoyed, but they do not feel any sympathy to a suicide victim: they think they will never fall that low.

Lawson, like a real surgeon, dissects the top layer of British society: he stabs and cuts, sews and cuts up, exposing the insides – people’s vices. He is amazing surgeon, but he just gives too much anesthesia. He forgot to check if the reader feels anything.

The problem with this novel lies not in the fact that the characters are all unsympathetic, as we have seen even more vile, but that Lawson is not particularly empathetic to his own creations. And if the author doesn’t care, what to expect from the reader?

If we discard the murders, which is not only bait for the story, but also a way to show that there is a punishment for sins, the plot of the novel is compressed into a parade of little connected scenes of everyday life of the wealthy. Lawson spins his characters, exposing all their imperfections. Work, leisure, sex, church, holiday, day-to-day life - Lawson just can not stop. He throws out the details, going from one family to another. He tells hurriedly, as if afraid to stop. It is not surprising that the novel has grown to such a volume.

No doubt, the author is witty, has a keen eye, can make you laugh. He seemed to doubt his own abilities: making their characters vile, Lawson can not stop, as if considering that we did not see enough how disgusting all the characters were.

If you do not belong to their circle and their social status, you are nobody. But why, then, even to the 400th page you hardly recall who is who in this book, and who married to whom? Where is the humanity to his own creations? He is interested to look at them under a microscope, but the characters from the book after closer look remain types.

Those readers who expect from The Deaths complicated police investigation will be disappointed. Murder plot line is only auxiliary, giving no surprises.

Lawson is sure talented, but in this book even those characters that remained alive turned out lifeless.

The Baddest Ass

Anthony Neil Smith
The Baddest Ass

Blasted Heath, 2013

In the third novel of the series the (anti)hero of the previews books Billy Lafitte is in jail in North Dakota, where he is serving a life sentence. There is no peace for Billy there: other inmates consider him a traitor, and now and then attempt on his life. Billy’s enemies from the outside also want him dead: FBI agent Rome, whose life Billy spoiled earlier, and Colleen Hartle, whose boyfriend died in accident because of Billy. They order the murder of Billy and - for a fee - the leader of blacks Ri’Chess and Head Prison Guard Garner accept to eliminate Billy. According to their plan, the death of Billy will happen during a blizzard. Due to bad weather in the prison electricity will be shut down for a short period of time, and at that time one of the prisoners will kill Billy. But it so happens that the planned murder coincides with the visit to the prison of Lafitte’s son accompanied by his grandmother (Billy’s mother-in-law) and Colleen, who is offering for a hit not only money but her own body, as well. The situation gets out of control, and a quick hit grows into something big.

Good prison novels are always in short supply. The Baddest Ass is inherently a prison novel, but is it a good one? Not really. The novel is intriguing while it tells about everyday life behind bars, until the moment when the riot actually begins. And this is only a quarter of the book. When the most interesting only should take shape, the novel suddenly loses all its touch. Two-thirds of The Baddest Ass is a pulp-style fighting, with hypertrophied villains and sluggish action. Smith, who is writing clever and sophisticatedly plotted books, disappoints with this one.

Smith switches between the characters, but he loses touch with his own creations. Voices of two female characters fill with fake notes. Pious old lady suddenly mentions men’s «balls», and Colleen suddenly overflows with a sense of love for Billy’s mother-in-law and his son, whom she hasn’t ever seen before that. What is worst of all: two characters who have had the greatest potential, whose minds were interesting to be in, are out of the game immediately after the first quarter of the book.

If I should continue with the flaws, I will mention that it’s hard to believe that Billy would end up in a conventional high-security prison, given that he likely had been convicted of terrorism. It also is unlikely that other inmates would despise and hate Lafitte because he is a traitor. I think these guys inside don’t really care.

I highly valued the two previous novels about Lafitte, they were outstanding books. This is a hit-and-miss, it’s really baddest. Looking forward to next books when Smith, hopefully, will return to the form.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Fugitive Pigeon

Donald Westlake
The Fugitive Pigeon

Random House, 1965

Charlie Poole is the only employee of the bar Rockaway Grill in Brooklyn. Bar brings losses, Charlie pretends to work. But it is how it should be: Charlie is a nephew of a small time hood in a criminal organization, which keeps the bar as a cover for illegal transactions. From time to time, Charlie sends and receives packages and messages from mysterious people, but does not ask questions, as long as he has this job. Uncle Al has rescued his nephew from oblivion by giving him a job of bartender in a small bar.

Everything changes for Charlie, when one evening before closing time two hitmen from the organization come in the bar and show Charlie a black mark. Charlie yet escapes from them, looking for answers from his uncle. Uncle avoids the nephew, and Poole has to hide around New York looking for an answer to the question why someone wants to kill him.

It is believed that The Fugitive Pigeon is the first Westlake’s comic novel under his own name after five hardboiled thrillers. The book is really lighter and funnier than the earlier books, but at the same time not quite so full of comedy - on Killy and Mercenaries I laughed not less.

If we draw an analogy, then The Fugitive Pigeon is such a mixture of The Hunter + The Outfit by Stark with Mercenaries by Westlake himself. Elements of the author’s previous novels are all here. One man goes against the Mafia, while solving whodunnit (and Charlie plunges into murder). Pool is not Parker, but their methods are almost the same. Both use the most direct ways, both with gun drawn. However, Charlie should learn how to use a gun from Parker.

The Fugitive Pigeon is a smart book, not Westlake’s best, but extremely exciting.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Marriage Material

Sathnam Sanghera
Marriage Material

William Heinemann, 2013

The novel tells the story of three generations of a family, which emigrated from India in the mid-60s. The story from today is told by 35-year-old Arjan Banga, whose grandfather moved his Punjabi family from India to a small British town of Wolverhampton. Head of the family, Mr. Bains himself first moved to England, and when he was settled, he moved his wife and two daughters Kamaljit and Surinder.

To a job in a factory Bains prefer to keep his own shop, which is inherited and passed to Arjan.

At present our narrator became moderately successful graphic designer, settled in London, found a partner, a white girl Freya, and already engaged to her. The wedding is scheduled for December, as Arjan’s father died suddenly from, as police puts it, natural causes.

After his father's funeral store Arjan runs the store along with his mother Kamaljit. Death of the shop’s owner happens exactly at the time of the London riots, spreading later across the country. The shop is temporarily closed and Arjan realizes that his mother is old and alonr, she can’t manage and protect the shop. But this shop is all that his mother has, and she never agrees to sell it. Arjan, too, doesn’t want to, becuae the shop is a kind of a family heirloom.

After Freya offers to put Kamaljit in an apartment complex for the elderly, Arjan has a quarrel with the bride and goes to Wolverhampton. At work, he is given a six-month leave, and Arjan's back where he once ran away from.

Together with Kamaljit he runs the shop, they took turns behind the counter, manage the stock, although the shop brings a small profit. Arjan is daily faced with racism on the part of buyers, even once grabbing a mop - to fight back a violent buyer.

Despite its title, Marriage Material is far from the average romance novel. And to be quite accurate, it is not romance novel at all but high-quality contemporary prose – marriages included.
There are several marriages in the novel, but the main one would not happen. Arjat will break an engagement, cancel the wedding and the epilogue will leave us guessing. But it will be possible to compare the marriages that occurred and that didn’t.

The present story becomes clearer and clearer on the background of the past, stories of two sisters. Sanger asks: have a lot of things changed there? Marriage to a white girl is not considered a crime within the family anymore, castes is a thing of the past, Asians already can drink, smoke and, as well as to engage in sexual relations before marriage.

Arjan on the example of his fate shows that Asian community no longer holds one who wants to escape. And even if the parents object to your choice, no one will stop you. But the increase in freedom does not remove all the problems. Racism still remains, caste is transformed into shackles of family business, brains are still valued less than diligence and obedience.

Both storylines are spiced with humor, of course, Asian one. Arjan in his narrative presents himself as an object of ridicule, also sneering Asians and parodying the gangster image of his rival. In the plotline of the past humor is there thanks to Surinder’s naivety, smart girl who had been a victim of a sleaze talker.

Sanghera writes clever prose interspersed with sentimentality, but without the melodrama. His observation of the Asian way of life is shrill and accurate. Sanghera is able to mask the details: the death of Arjan’s father at the beginning of the novel is quickly forgotten, but then cleverly played up.

Smooth style helps no less smooth plot, quite intense, although quite predictable. In the afterword, the author writes that the storyline about two sisters is a remix of the early XX century novel. This does not affect the perception of the novel, and sometimes remix is better than the original.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Want Not

Jonathan Miles
Want Not

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

The novel consists of three storylines, each of which develops independently, until the very end without overlaying with others. The action of all three stories begins on Thanksgiving Day in 2008.
Not surprisingly, the storylines do not intersect, because the main characters in the novel live in completely different worlds, though in fact reside in the state of New Jersey. Talmadge, a young man, the son of wealthy parents lives in New York. He dropped out from college and was addicted to hallucinogens. After one strong dosage he nearly dies in the cold when he is suddenly rescued by Micah. Mika is a freegan, a representative of a lifestyle, when a person takes from life all for free, living off nature (as far as it’s possible in the city). They illegally are squatting in an empty building in Manhattan, eating what people throw away - live off garbage.

The second storyline tells the story of a doctor and a linguistic expert on dead languages Elwin Cross Jr. This middle-aged man suffers from obesity and loneliness. His wife left him for a chef, calling at three o'clock and notifying about it. Cross needs to visit his ailing father with Alzheimer's, a writer who regularly forgets that his wife had died. With the theme of garbage Elwin connects becuae he takes part in the creation of a container of radioactive waste, which is created in the form of a messege to the future, for future generations. As a specialist in dead languages, Cross writes a message for this container.

The third subplot tells about the family of Dave. He is the boss of the collection agency, a successful businessman, a man who knows how after one phone call to persuade the customer to repay the debt. His wife Sara is a widow whose husband was killed during the 9/11 attacks. Together they raise 16-year-old daughter Alexis, which Dave calls like a stripper (according to Sara) - Lexie. Dave and Sara are of that type that are spending money right and left, buying what you need and what you don’t. Sara's main problem lies in the fact that she does not understand her daughter. Alexis trusts Dave more than her.

Every writer knows the best way to start a book. But many forget that the reader's patience is limited, and if you do not offer something enticing on the very first (and better right on the first one) pages, the reader pages may not finish reading to the end. Jonathan Miles lures you in with the first scene, moreover: each storyline of the novel opens with a brilliant scene. Thus, you can fall in love with the novel three times.

All three scenes as introduce us humane and quirky characters, as convince in Miles’ power of imagination. In the opening scene of the novel Talmadge is rummaging through garbage cans, recalls his uncle’s “cracker-barrel similes” until he stumbles upon a hostile tin cans collector. Dave is first introduced to us in the toilet, where he had taken a dump and is now considering his own feces. His excrements Dave finds perfect and even considers the idea to pick up a bunch with him, but stops at taking the pictures (which he will later show to Alexis). We first meet Dr. Cross when he returnes slightly drunk home and on the road knocks deer off. He takes a dead animal with him, and near the house on the snow begins to slice the deer in the cold , and is joined by Christopher, neighbor’s son.

All three scenes are hilariously funny: on the level of individual words, styles, sitations. And began hilarious, Want Not will remain funny over the entire length. There are also elements of toilet humor and jokes about sex, but they are all funny – that’s the main thing.

What is nice - the book doesn’t fall into a flat parody. It’s funny not because the author scoffs at something, but because the author is able to write funny, transmit humor through words. And despite all the humorous, the novel raises serious themes. Abundance of trash tells not that we need to throw away less, but about something else: there is no garbage in life, everything is needful and everything is useful. All the central characters are in their relations with the theme of consumption: Dave overconsumes, Micah and Talmadge live off garbage and Elwin creates words for garbage.
No garbage also is in the text of the novel. It is vigorously written, in New York style, with neologisms, hilarious metaphors and similes, vivid dialogue, but Miles doesn’t throw away words. Every detail here plays a role, making the characters more three-dimensional.

In Want Not there is none such skewness when the writer is concerned about global themes and the characters is only appendage that serves to convey the author's thoughts. Or the other case, when the writer is interesting in poking at the minds and lives of the characters, and the novel sags on shallow themes. The characters attract our attention immediately, and gradually with background stories within the overall plot Miles talks about the heroes’ past as they become what they are. Even the homeless from the first scene, collecting cans to pay for urinalysis, here is a red-blooded man.

All three storylines intersect in the final, though only tangentially, and Miles deserves praise for the grace with which he’d tied three completely different worlds which his characters live in.

Want Not was released closer to the end of the year, but it should not get lost in the offseason. This is one of the best books I've read in the past year.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Virgins

Pamela Erens
The Virgins

Tin House, 2013

1979, Auburn Academy, one of the best boarding schools on the east coast. There come the main heroes of this book, Aviva and Seung, and Bruce Bennett-Jones, the narrator, a voyeur, a dreamer. He will actively observe a pair of lovers, and most of the action will take place in the mind of the narrator.

Bruce immediately notices Aviva among all the girls coming to Auburn. She is pretty, her appearance emphasizes her sexuality, and Bruce meets her, feeling a certain attraction to Aviva, although later he’ll tell friends that she is not his type. Aviva herself will react to the narrator with restraint: she will talk about her younger brother, who writes her weekly funny letters, about her parents, seemingly successful family in which there is no love. Bruce will try to kiss Aviva, but she won’t succumb.

Aviva chooses another boy, Seung, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Korea, a classmate of Bruce in high school in upstate New York. He's tall for Asian, athletic, broad but modest, not too pretty, and because of his origin, feeling second-rate - particularly compared with Aviva.

Shortly after the start of classes Bruce for the second time tries to get closer to Aviva at the boat house. Bruce thinks that fragile Aviva wants sex, and all nearly ends as a rape. Already stripped Aviva rebuffs brazen Bruce, and about this episode, neither he nor she ever will tell a soul.

Seung and Aviva start dating in front of the whole school, making out, kissing, irritating some and delighting others. Pupils find them a strange but almost perfect couple, jealous of their closeness and happiness.

The Virgins is an artful novel. With his plot simplicity, it is not that simple. From a narrative point, here too there is a double bottom. The narrator of the book is always in the background, as if to say: look at this couple here, they are the protagonists, I am just spying. But it's a trick: even though the narrator is not an unreliable narrator in the conventional sense of the term, you’d hardly call him reliable. Bruce saw with his own eyes just what everyone had seen: kissing in public, the arrival of young lovers, a fatal ending. Everything else that happened behind closed doors is only imagination of the narrator, not dirty, on the contrary, quite romantic, accurate, sensitive, catching not body desires but torments of the soul. These kind of torments are Bruce’s own: devoid of pure love, at least he on the example of the others can see what love is. But do not forget that Bruce is not a sympathetic soul, he is a voyeur, envious, lustful creature who is excited about these fantasies - primarily on the failures of others.

His villainy is easy to overlook because he almost did not participant in the events, but in fact he is pure love destroyer, killer of an ideal.

The death of Seung is known already by the middle of the novel, but it will not stop the greedy absorption of the book pages. And if the story is not too original, it is written with feeling, without dipping into erotica.

The novel is written by a woman, but its narrator is a man. And I do not quite believe that Bruce could so accurately convey the feelings of Aviva. The scene in the bus where Aviva feels the excitement of jeans pressure when the bus jumps:

“The bus sends its vibrations through the vinyl banquette seats and into her thighs. She tenses experimentally, shifts position. Her jeans tighten against her crotch. She feels herself contract to a sharp, sparking point.”

or her feelings with Seung in bed - all these fantasies of Pamela Erens herself, but not the narrator’s.

The Virgins, perhaps, will not open new grounds, but it is masterfully written, enjoyable novel.