Category Archives: Books

Octopussy & the Living Daylights (James Bond, #14)

Octopussy & the Living Daylights (James Bond, #14)
author: Ian Fleming
name: Matthew
average rating: 3.54
book published: 1966
rating: 3
read at: 2018/10/20
date added: 2018/10/20
shelves:
review: This collection of short stories more appropriately belongs somewhere before You Only Live Twice, but was not published until after Ian Fleming’s death in 1964. It contains three short stories: “Octopussy”, “The Property of a Lady”, and “The Living Daylights” which–like For Your Eyes Only before them–are appetizer-sized vignettes into some of James Bond‘s smaller, but nonetheless interesting, adventures.

“Octopussy” ruminates on a man’s past glory, his dissatisfaction with his life, and the war crime that was to be his rise and ultimate downfall. James Bond is sent to extradite a former British officer from Jamaica in order to stand trial for crimes committed during the allied occupation of Germany at the end of WWII. It is a story of guilt and the ghosts that follow us when ill-gotten gains become our way of life.

“Property of a Lady” is referenced more by the plot of Octopussy the film than its namesake story. The Faberge Egg plot device of the film is lifted directly from this short story which finds Bond in an unfamiliar world of London’s exclusive luxury auction houses, notably Sotheby’s, on a hunch that the KGB is using the sale of a valuable piece of jewelry to pay off an agent that has been dutifully performing work for the Kremlin while handling cypher communications for MI-6 (entirely to MI-6’s knowledge as she is constantly fed false and misdirected information to confound the KGB). It’s a fun little romp that Fleming obviously enjoyed writing and is full of wry, subtle humor that the film series is often celebrated for.

“The Living Daylights” puts Bond in the job he hates the most of his profession: that of the assassin. It’s unpleasant work, and Fleming lets you see just how much Bond dislikes killing–especially in cold blood. It’s a clever little story that sees Bond in a sniper’s duel between him and his opposite number in the KGB over the life of a defector try to cross the area that would become known as the infamous “Checkpoint Charlie”.

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The Man With the Golden Gun (James Bond, #13)

The Man With the Golden Gun (James Bond, #13)
author: Ian Fleming
name: Matthew
average rating: 3.54
book published: 1965
rating: 3
read at: 2018/10/16
date added: 2018/10/16
shelves:
review:

You know, the more I think about it, the more I kinda enjoy this late outing in Fleming’s James Bond canon. It’s a pretty straightforward detective story, but we see get to enjoy the last appearance of Bond’s BFF Felix Leiter as well as an action-packed firefight at the climax of the story! It’s a desperate gambit that pits two desperate men against each other. This is the kind of action that should have been incorporated into You Only Live Twice–a REAL adversary that can match Bond in wits as well as skill! Unfortunately, his name is Francisco Scaramanga and not Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Ideally, this would have ended the series, but there is one more collection of short stories that needed to be told. I would strongly recommend reading Octopussy, The Living Daylights, and Other Stories first and end Fleming’s franchise in a way that will make more narrative sense in the concluding chapters of The Man With The Golden Gun.

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You Only Live Twice (James Bond, #12)

You Only Live Twice (James Bond, #12)
author: Ian Fleming
name: Matthew
average rating: 3.75
book published: 1964
rating: 3
read at: 2018/10/08
date added: 2018/10/08
shelves:
review:

You Only Live Twice might be my least favorite of Fleming’s James Bond stories. The characters are one-dimensional parodies (even by Fleming standards), Fleming spends far too much time describing the gardens surrounding the Castle of Death, and Blofeld and Bunt are hopelessly incompetent! Instead of an epic showdown to last the ages, we get a tottering old fool in the form of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a shadow of his former imperious megalomania, and his half-witted wife Irma Bundt purchasing a castle in Japan in order to allow people to more easily commit suicide? Seriously, the man who first held the world at ransom with two stolen nuclear weapons in Thunderball then attempted to inflict mass starvation through engineered famine in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service goes on to raise the stakes by…populating his garden with every manner of poisonous flora and man-eating fauna so that depressed Japanese salarymen can still kill themselves in a spectacular manner (as, apparently, dictated by the Shinto religion?) while not doing so with the more “favored” methods such as throwing themselves under a pile driver or in front of a speeding train.

Even the “last, great, deciding battle” with Blofeld is lackluster: Bond gets lucky and the fight is over within a page or two. It’s bad. Like, it’s really bad. There’s no real sense of danger. There’s no real suspense. It’s just Fleming gushing about how wonderfully civilized the Japanese are since The War and how much he’s learned about poisonous plants over the course of his life.

Skip this one and read Thunderball or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service again.

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On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (James Bond, #11)

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had the typical James Bond novel of deep cover and intrigue. The last attempt was Goldfinger and Bond was so incompetent with the execution that I scarcely dare consider it. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, James Bond–sick and tired of “desk work” chasing down leads on Ernst Stavro Blofeld (his assignment since Operation Thunderball), mostly ending up as wild geese–seriously considers resigning from the Double-Oh Section and going into some other line. He even goes so far as to dictate his resignation letter to his secretary, Mary Goodnight, when he gets an urgent call from M informing him of a new lead on Blofeld at the Royal College of Arms.

Bond goes under deep cover as a representative of the Royal College of Arms to help determine if this Blofeld fellow (who wants to claim a dukeship in France), proprietor of a health clinic and ski resort on top of a Swiss alp, is the same character who mastermined the Thunderball affair. What he finds is no real surprise, but the cat-and-mouse game of subterfuge is Fleming’s knack for nail-biting suspense at it’s peak (or should I say, “piz”?)!

Fleming gives Bond one of his best and most “James Bond-like” outings of the series in this taut thriller that puts Bond completely in the lion’s den with no gadgets, no backup, and possibly no escape. Bond is literally in character, locked in a fortress, and under near-constant surveillance from his quarry. The devil is in the details, though, as our wily secret agent has to improvise his way around the compound, find the information he needs, and escape with his life–or die trying.

Desperate mountainside chases on skis and bobsleds highlight the intense action worthy of any great action film (brilliantly portrayed by George Lazenby in 1969 in the most faithful adaptation of the franchise) while sweaty, page-turning suspense inside the Piz Gloria culminate in what might be the best book of the series. James Bond is human, and there’s a definite sense of the stakes involved in this caper. We’re not entirely certain that he’s going to make it, but even a hero needs the help of a hero every once in a while….

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The Spy Who Loved Me (James Bond, #10)

The Spy Who Loved Me (James Bond, #10)

It’s quite interesting to read a James Bond story from the perspective of the Bond Girl, and Ian Fleming takes the opportunity to get in touch with his feminine side, penning a personal account of a chance encounter with the famous secret agent during one woman’s moment of life-threatening peril. Vivien Michel is a young Canadian woman on personal exile after a particularly heartbreaking string of affairs with European men during her early 20s in London (UK, not Ontario). Instead of giving up on life, she takes what savings she has, buys a Vespa, and decides to motor her way from her family’s home near Montreal into New York to Miami.

We meet Viv as she is preparing to close the motel where she’s been staying for the last few weeks, somewhere in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. A series of wistful anecdotes illustrates her whirlwind romances with “lesser” men before she is rudely interrupted–in true Fleming fashion–by two particularly unsavory gangsters, complete with grotesque mannerisms and features befitting any Bond villain. Two two men terrorize Viv while never completely stating their true purpose, leading to several desperate attempts to fight or flee–ultimately being captured or subdued each time.

We’re not introduced to James Bond until nearly 3/4 of the text is passed. He appears out of nowhere, a knight mounted in a hired Ford Thunderbird, after a conveniently punctured tire leaves him stranded on the road to Washington. Naturally, Bond steps in and does what Bond does in true Fleming style. Rescue, revenge, and relish all in the span of one night.

The Spy Who Loved Me is an interesting experiment in storytelling, a departure from the Bond narrative that we’re used to. We don’t really get the introspective Bond that plots and plans every detail of the attack–instead, we get to watch Bond from the perspective of the damsel in distress. We get to see how Fleming believes the “woman’s psyche” works as she falls in love with this dangerous man. Sure, its attitude is dated and–like all Bond novels–may not fit a modern “liberated” sensibility, but the storytelling is robust (even `the small stories are worth reading), and the action (once it happens) is taut and dramatic. Much like For Your Eyes Only before it, The Spy Who Loved Me is a vignette, a small window–a “side quest”, if you will excuse the metaphor–of a much larger Bond story that was never told. Like the Mexican drug caper tossed aside at the beginning of Goldfinger, it’s an unimportant setup precluding the daring adventure that we’re reading.

The Spy Who Loved Me shows Fleming as a master storyteller capable of crafting compelling, emotionally interesting characters in a small setting and giving us a glimpse into the “real life” outside of Bond’s globetrotting adventures, posh hotels, and gentlemen’s clubs.

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Thunderball (James Bond, #9)

Thunderball (James Bond, #9)
author: Ian Fleming
name: Matthew
average rating: 3.78
book published: 1961
rating: 4
read at: 2018/09/19
date added: 2018/09/19
shelves:
review:

James Bond is BACK!

After a disappointing outing in Goldfinger and an appetizer of juicy vignettes from For Your Eyes Only, Fleming has brought Bond back to all his former, pulpy glory in a new adventure in an exotic locale with a brand new enemy–SPECTRE–in the ever-thrilling Thunderball!

The first few chapters seem to play with the audience’s criticisms about Bond: M thinks he’s tired, possibly washed-up, and sends him on a mandatory holiday at a health spa in the country learning to fast, eat vegetables, cease smoking and drink, and other “un-manly” things that were the new health craze at the time. The retreat really serves as a reboot in the series. Bond casually investigates a fellow inmate, the inmate tries to kill Bond in retaliation, and Bond responds in kind. Very typical “tough guy” Bond that we all know and love. All the while, Bond begins to soften somewhat and take on a more healthful visage; he returns from the retreat energetic and healthy, much to the delight of M but receiving the uncharacteristic reprimand from his faithful housekeeper who knows more about his life than Bond might’ve suspected.

After the delightful opening act, physically rejuvenating Bond and reminding the reader what made them love the character in the first place, we are introduced to our new villainous organization, SPECTRE (the SPecial Executive for CounterTerrorism, Revenge, and Extortion)–led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld–to take the place of (the now, apparently, defunct) SMERSH in a more “realistic” capacity and, ostensibly, to allow Fleming more freedom to write around the confines of the Cold War rather than from within. It’s a bold move, and one that–as we look back historically–has worked out well for the franchise staying relevant.

The novel is paced well, much like the early films, and reads like one of Connery’s outings. Bond is back to being his introspective tough guy, and Felix Leiter returns in a starring role (hook, peg leg, and all). The stakes are the highest that they’ve ever been in a Bond novel, and the action stays intense throughout!

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For Your Eyes Only (James Bond, #8)

For Your Eyes Only (James Bond, #8)
author: Ian Fleming
name: Matthew
average rating: 3.64
book published: 1960
rating: 4
read at: 2018/09/06
date added: 2018/09/06
shelves:
review:

After the disappointing experiences with Goldfinger and Dr. No, Fleming seems to come back around to what made James Bond special in the first place. This collection of short stories, curated under the title For Your Eyes Only reads like Fleming revisited his fundamentals after two disappointing outings–focusing instead on the quintessential Bond tropes and those storytelling techniques that made the early works so great. The stories are tight, the action is gripping, the stakes are high, and Bond is really Bond–not some sub-par interloper traipsing through the French countryside or enjoying a quiet game of golf, making mistakes for the purpose of advancing the plot.

The one outlier in this collection is “Quantum of Solace”, a sort of story-within-a-story where the governor of Jamaica delivers a tale of woe and revenge between a goldbricking young woman and her milquetoast husband. It’s a comedy of life wrapped up in the mundane drudgery of white-collar Edwardian colonial politics, but it reads with sincerity and a polish that keeps you wondering just what will happen next to the unhappy couple. I feel like it serves as a subtle turning point in the Bond literary franchise. Bond learns a little something about “real” people, and we’re treated to a gossipy tale about the hidden despair in outwardly happy life in colonial Jamaica.

There’s a definite attitude change in the way Fleming treats Bond through these stories. Instead of just pushing Bond through another lackluster travelogue, Fleming plays with him in the way he does best. The stories are vignettes, rather like a “best of” collection, displaying the most interesting and exciting attributes of a Bond novel. Fleming has the luxury of dropping us into the middle of an adventure, without wasted exposition, and reinvigorates the interest both he and the reader have in this legendary character.

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Goldfinger (James Bond, #7)

Goldfinger (James Bond, #7)
author: Ian Fleming
name: Matthew
average rating: 3.81
book published: 1959
rating: 3
read at: 2018/09/03
date added: 2018/09/03
shelves:
review:

If Dr. No was Fleming’s “rusty Bond”, Goldfinger‘s Bond is downright incompetent.

On a lark, a tired and irritable Bond (possibly a reflection of Ian Fleming’s interest in writing at this point), takes an easy job to help a side character from Casino Royale uncover a card cheat by name of Auric Goldfinger (very creative, there, Ian). Bond disrupts the game and identifies himself as a threat–the first in a series of mistakes that sees Bond stumbling over every conceivable plot device in his eventual crash into the anti-climax of the raid on Fort Knox.

The plot makes little sense and the action scenes are unexciting. Fleming spends several chapters droning on about the intricacies of golf in an attempt to recapture the tense, exciting anticipation of the card game in Casino Royale that simply comes off long-winded and dull. Fleming then takes Bond on a leisurely drive across the French countryside disguised as the least-thrilling car chase in fiction. I hate to say it, but this Bond is simply boring. Even the big set piece production of the raid at Fort Knox has no teeth–it builds and builds, but is over too quickly and with too little action.

If Moonraker is the maximum ratio of the book being better than the film, Goldfinger is the maximum ratio of the film being better than the book. Skip this novel and just watch Sean Connery make the most of the source material.

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Doctor No (James Bond, #6)

Doctor No (James Bond, #6)
author: Ian Fleming
name: Matthew
average rating: 3.77
book published: 1958
rating: 4
read at: 2018/08/27
date added: 2018/08/27
shelves:
review:

Fleming’s Bond may have gotten in over his head in this Jamaican outing. After sufficient rest following a near-fatal wound, Bond is sent “on a holiday in the sun” to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his friend Commander Strangways (from Live and Let Die). This book serves as sort of a “reset” for the Bond character, miraculously surviving a fatal blow at the end of From Russia With Love. Bond is rusty, careless, and seemingly fed-up with his lot, but he grudgingly flies off to one of the last vestiges of the crumbling British empire, reconnects with his friend Quarrel and ruminates about the time that has passed since his last visit to the island.

Dr. No is a love letter to Fleming’s Jamaica, replete with exquisite detail of the high and low societies of the tropical island where he spend so much time writing. Bond, like Fleming, grudgingly picks up his next job and re-familiarizes himself with the tropes that made him great. This is the return of the great adventure novel in all its swashbuckling glory–a mystery, a megalomaniacal villain, and solitary dangers to test our hero to his very core. The climactic battle, though, is not with the titular baddie, but with something even more typical of the genre (and done with a self-aware flourish) that serves as a new direction for the Bond series. It’s not the best in the bunch, but it’s certainly worth a read!

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From Russia With Love (James Bond, #5)

From Russia With Love (James Bond, #5)
author: Ian Fleming
name: Matthew
average rating: 3.89
book published: 1957
rating: 5
read at: 2018/08/21
date added: 2018/08/21
shelves:
review:

After creating a rather winning formula with his James Bond novels, Ian Fleming uses his 5th book as a departure from the norm. The book is really divided into two distinct parts: the first, a deep look at the operations of SMERSH within the greater Soviet party bureaucracy as well as an intimate portrait of their best assassin–a bipolar sociopath whose disillusion with western society led to his defection during the early years of allied occupation in postwar Germany. The second, a romp around the gleefully sinister city of Istanbul where daily jabs in spycraft put the “game” in “The Great Game”. This romp, following James Bond and led by his new friend and ally Kerim Bey, is a love letter to the near Orient of Fleming’s time. The area was in transition to modernity, and Fleming attended those growing pains with interesting details and flourishes such as the juxtaposition of modern film advertisements alongside traditional institutions like the spice bazaar.

In true Fleming fashion, the writing is verbose and colorful when describing the scenery, then tight and frenetic when describing action (such as the climactic fights with Red Grant and Rosa Klebb). Kerim Bey is a wonderful character and brings a joie de vivre to the introspective action of a typical Bond adventure. Bond himself seems more flippant in this adventure, possibly owing to the fact that he feels that the whole assignment is rather daft (a beautiful Soviet cyphers technician wants to defect because she has fallen in love with Bond’s file), which leads to a series of missteps and miscalculations that build to an intense climax aboard the legendary Orient Express.

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