Two Graves is the finale to what the authors are calling “The Helen Trilogy”. This somewhat standalone trilogy within the multiple volume Pendergast series began with Fever Dream continued with Cold Vengeance and now ends with Two Graves. It is highly recommended to read at least the preceding two books before this one if you want to have any hope of understanding what is going on. Even having read the earlier books I was often left baffled and confused by the bizarre turn of events. The authors – to their credit or detriment I’m not sure – seemed to realize the sprawling story they are telling is unwieldy at last twice in Two Graves a character will sum up all that has happened so far. To continue reading please click Two Graves for the complete review.
Short stories are tricky things for me. Books usually take around 30 pages to grab my interest. If I’m not thoroughly hooked by the 50th page or so I know it’s going to be a rough slog to get through. So with short stories where the author may only have 30 pages total to tell their tale I need something that will hook my interest immediately. I tend to have problems with short story compilations featuring different authors. The disparate styles are jarring to me and I have a harder time completing those collections despite the shorter length. I am much more comfortable with collections of the same author, especially Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. I find I can slide from each story into the next with very little acclimatization period. Such is the case with the collection of Ian Fleming short stories, Quantum of Solace.
Released as a tie in to the 2008 film of the same name, this collection – like most James Bond stories – has nothing in common with the movie other than the title. For the first time all of Fleming’s short stories are gathered in one volume. Reading the table of contents it is immediately apparent how many Bond films found their names from these short stories. “From a View to a Kill”, “For Your Eyes Only”, “The Living Daylights”, “Octopussy”, and “Quantum of Solace” have all been used for movie titles. In addition to those are 4 other stories, the essay “007 in New York”, “The Hildebrand Rarity”, “Property of a Lady” and “Risico”. Incidentally, the latter story was the basis for the film For Your Eyes Only.
Each story is different in tone and execution as well as setting. “From a View to a Kill” finds Bond called in to solve the mystery of a dead NATO courier in Germany. In “For Your Eyes Only”, the head of English secret service, M, sends Bond to the backwoods of Vermont to assassinate a Cuban national responsible for the murder of a close friend. “The Hildebrand Rarity” has Bond on holiday and mixed up in the affairs of an abusive Texan, his terrorized wife, and the search for the rare fish at the center of the narrative. “Octopussy” changes the focus from Bond and puts it squarely on his prey; a petty war criminal tracked down in the Bahamas by Bond. The entire story is from the quarry’s perspective and while the character is a bad guy, he is so eaten up with guilt that you can’t help but feel sympathy for him.
For me the stand out story is the most unique among the group, the titular “Quantum of Solace”. This short story finds Bond at a boring dinner party in the Bahamas. Bond and the governor are making idle conversation after the other party goers have left. The night is getting late and the 2 are engaged in small talk. Bond makes mention of the benefits of dating a stewardess since in his line of work he sees them most often. This leads the governor to tell Bond a story of an old friend who did just that. This chilling tale of love gone irrevocably wrong will stick with you long after the other stories have faded. Even Bond is shaken by the story of a cuckold’s revenge on the wife who betrayed him. The story is utterly unlike anything you would associate with a James Bond story but it is absolutely enthralling nonetheless. This is a dark tale and terrifically well written. The strange title of the story is explained as follows:
“Quantum of Solace – the amount of comfort. Yes, I suppose you could say that all love and friendship is based in the end on that. Human beings are very insecure. When the other person not only makes you feel insecure but actually seems to want to destroy you, it’s obviously the end. The Quantum of Solace stands at zero. You’ve got to get away to save yourself.” – James Bond
Each of these stories, and the other 4 as well, are all supremely well written and exciting. Fleming is a master of using precise wording to perfectly describe characters, settings, and events without going overboard with flowery language. He rarely gets in the way of his own narratives so the reader is effortlessly transported to the exotic locales and experiences the action and adventure right along with Bond.
With each book I read by Fleming I am continually impressed by his sheer talent. I have read before that the movies, especially the latter Connery and most of the Roger Moore outings, were positioned almost as parodies of the outsized super-agent genre with each one trying to trump the last in terms of outlandish stunts. The original books and stories are suspenseful, imaginative, and serious affairs that deserve to be experienced in their intended form. I’ve been a fan of the movies all my life, some more than others admittedly. Now that I’ve been reading the books it’s like discovering the character anew. Rather than the super human quip spewing killing machine portrayed in the movies the James Bond of Fleming’s works is a methodical, cautious, and professional assassin that does the dirty jobs not because he likes it but because he is good at it.
And nobody does it better.
James Bond returns in Ian Fleming’s second novel, Live and Let Die. This time we find James traveling to New York City to track down the source of mysterious gold coins that have started to flood the market. The trail leads to a Harlem kingpin named Mr. Big, a hulking giant of a man, who controls all criminal action on the eastern seaboard. With the help of CIA agent Felix Leiter, Bond tracks down Mr. Big only to find that Bond is the one who is being hunted. With the beautiful fortune teller Solitaire in tow, Bond escapes Mr. Big time and time again until the final confrontation on a secluded island in Jamaica where every passing second means the difference between life and a watery grave.
Live and Let Die portrays a more likable Bond than the cold and hard man at the center of Casino Royale. Even though Live and Let Die was written before publication of the first novel it is evident that Fleming actively worked to make Bond a more likable character. While still an assassin, now Bond works to protect Solitaire from danger and his affection for both her and Felix Leiter are evident throughout. Rather than the action heavy adventures the movies tend to be, the novels are more easily classified as thrillers. Time after time Bond and companions narrowly escape attempts on their lives as they continue to search for the source of the gold coins. There are moments of pure suspense, in particular a night time undersea crossing of a lagoon that makes the reader feel all the fear and dread that Bond is experiencing right along with him.
Live and Let Die was written and set in the 1950’s and the attitude at the time towards black people is unavoidable in the narrative. References abound to Negroes, negroid, Negresses, and harsher racial epithets. The main villain, Mr. Big, is black as are all of his henchman and informants. A large chunk of the narrative takes place in Harlem and Jamaica and nearly every adversary Bond and Felix go up against is black. The interesting thing is that the anachronistic descriptors are not invoked to cast aspersion but rather as adjectives. One chapter is titled “Ni**er Heaven”; the title meant to describe a jazz club in Harlem that Bond and Felix are casing for Mr. Big. It’s jarring to see something that we deem as hate speech used in the narrative so nonchalantly but Bond and Felix never talk down to any of the black characters and some of them end up aiding the heroes. I bring it up because it is an element of the novel that can and, to be honest, should make modern readers uncomfortable. Live and Let Die is not a racist book and Bond is not a racist character but both the character and the novel are of their times.
One of the fun things about reading the novels is reading scenes in their original form that has since shown up piece meal in the movies. At one point there is a shootout in a large aquarium warehouse. This same sequence was used in the Timothy Dalton Bond film License to Kill. One of the big scenes in the novel is two characters being keel hauled through a reef bed, the same scene occurs in the Roger Moore film For Your Eyes Only. Interestingly, the movie adaptation of Live and Let Die uses very few of the elements from the book unfortunately. The characters of Solitaire and Mr. Big carry over but they do not closely resemble their written counterparts. Given that the movie is, to be blunt, not good this probably is for the best.
This is the second full length Bond novel I have read and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Once you get past the anachronistic (to us at least) language and social mores the novel proves to be an exciting and suspenseful thriller.
Sharp Objects is a mystery/thriller told from the perspective of a narrator that is not unreliable so much as untethered. This is a dark and at times brutal book that offers little light and hope and puts the reader in the shoes of a character who starts off broken and proceeds to shatter as the story progresses.
Working as a reporter in Chicago, 30 year old Camille Preaker is called in to her editor’s office one day and briefed on a missing child case in her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri. Six months earlier another girl had gone missing only to have turned up dead. Her editor thinks it could be the work of a serial killer and wants to break the story first. So against her better judgement Camille returns to the home – and family – she fled years before. When the missing girl is found dead, suffering injuries same as the girl murdered 6 months before, the town is thrown in to a panic and Camille begins to suspect she knows the killer. This realization forces Camille, already fragile and raw after a recent stay in a psychiatric hospital, to confront the mother she can never please, the half sister she never knew, and the roots of her dark inclinations toward self destruction.
The set up for Sharp Objects isn’t unique. The mystery/thriller genre is full of cops, reporters, shrinks, etc., that work to solve that one case which conveniently ties in to their own back ground. By the half way point most readers are going to be convinced they know not only who did it but why. Rather than relief the book becomes unbearably tense as you wait for Camille to realize what is going on even while hoping you are wrong. Camille is a well realized protagonist because even as she makes incredibly poor decisions and edges closer to the edge the reader can still understand why she is so unstable. There are points in Sharp Objects where you want to slap Camille but she always remains sympathetic.
Even with a last act twist the story remains grounded in the plausible which makes the events all the more gruesome. Sharp Objects is much closer to horror than thriller as the events and motive are truly gruesome and hard to fathom. While not a graphically violent book, the psychological trauma inflicted is truly horrific and gives the novel a tone of helplessness that perfectly fits with Camille’s spiraling breakdown.
Gillian Flynn’s writing is precise and direct. She has an uncanny knack for capturing the emotion and essence of a scene without going overboard with descriptive phrases. More than anything else, Flynn puts the reader in Camille’s head space forcing you to accompany her on the journey whether you want to continue or not. My paperback copy includes a quote from the Chicago Tribune: “Keeps you reading with the force of a pure but nasty addiction.” That sums it up perfectly. As much as you may want to close the book you are compelled to keep reading until the conclusion even as your stomach is churning. For those willing to take the journey Sharp Objects is a compelling and gripping story that takes the familiar and turns it in to something altogether darker.
While technically a mystery, Sharp Objects is not an airport read. Fans of dark fiction with mature subject matter should absolutely not pass it up.
Kitchen Confidential is part memoir, part behind the scenes, and part guide book for aspiring chefs. Perhaps best described as a “What not to do.” for those in the industry. I worked in restaurants throughout my high school and college years, so I was able to identify with Anthony Bourdain’s account of life in a working kitchen. While I wasn’t plating up high end meals for well heeled New York City clientele, the accounts of work place shenanigans and debauchery certainly took me back to those days of battling through a dinner rush and then partying the night away. Speaking from experience – and I don’t have more than a percentage compared to Bourdain – the restaurant business can chew you up and spit you back out if you aren’t careful. Kitchen Confidential is a bitter love letter to the industry.
Starting with a childhood visit to the home country in France and moving though restaurants in Provincetown, MA and New York City, Bourdain leaves little to the readers imagination in spelling out the kind of life a professional cook can expect to have. There are times that the book gets bogged down in the description of various dishes, but for the most part this is a lively ready that should serve as an eye opening examination to the reality of working in the restaurant industry. Of particular interest is a chapter detailing Bourdain’s Day in the Life, an essay that peels back any mystique you may have of a working chef and describes just how backbreaking managing a kitchen can be. Same are the chapters where Bourdain details the many, many shifty characters he has been friends with and employed over the years. The book is filled with accounts of drug use and excessive partying, but a great deal of the narrative takes place in the 70′s and 80′s so that’s pretty much to be expected.
I enjoyed the book and plan to read his most recent book on the subject, 2010′s Medium Raw as well.