Cue the Shirley Bassey tape
May 23, 2009

Let me be clear from the offing, I love me some James Bond.

GoldfingerI find Ian Fleming’s colorful lead character consistently compelling, notwithstanding the fact that he’s sexist, racist, condescending, narcissistic, and sometimes a bit cruel. Despite his flaws, or perhaps because of them, Bond always seems very human to me. He doesn’t always make the smart decision. He sometimes gets tripped up, either by a wily foe or by his own shortsightedness. He falls in love, quite regularly.  He gets the ever-living-hell beat out of him, quite regularly. Yet he always manages to come out on top, by relying on his wits, his training, or just plain dumb luck.

*Beware of Spoilers*
One of the things I appreciate about the Bond books is that the storylines don’t usually depend on ridiculously cartoonish plots or characters. In Goldfinger, Bond is up against Auric Goldfinger, a crafty gold smuggler who is using precious English gold to help finance SMERSH (the Russian syndicate dedicated to the eradication of spies like James) AND has a diabolical plan to rob Fort Knox. Okay, when you put it like that it DOES sound a bit outlandish, but it’s a tribute to Fleming’s storytelling abilities that the story feels almost plausible. True, Goldfinger is a bit larger than life, and his plan is pretty daring in its scope. But as Fleming explains it:

To Bond there was nothing fantastic, nothing impossible about Goldfinger since he had heard the details of Operation Grand Slam. The theft of a Stratocruiser, as Goldfinger explained it, was preposterous, but no more so than his methods of smuggling gold, his purchase of an atomic warhead. When one explained these things, while they had a touch of magic, of genius even, they were logical exercises. They were bizarre only in their magnitude.

That, to me, is part of the reason why the books are so much better than the movies (although, those are good, as well). At the core of each book is generally a very ordinary crime or theme (smuggling, gambling, larceny, code breaking, counterintelligence, etc.) that has been pushed to the extreme level of plausibility. And, thankfully, there are very few gadgets or gizmos, almost no lasers or missiles (aside from Moonraker), and no corny puns or zingers.

And then, there are the women. In Goldfinger, I was exceedingly amused to discover that the female leads, damsel-in-distress Tilly Masterson and tough-as-nail crime boss Pussy Galore, were BOTH lesbians. I actually cackled out loud. What a great plot twist! Poor, old, lovelorn James! Of course, my initial glee was ruptured in the last few chapters. After Tilly’s untimely demise at the hands of Oddjob, Bond’s reaction is “Poor little bitch. She didn’t think much of men.” That line could very well be the lowest point for me in all the Bond books I’ve read thus far. I thought it encapsulated the very worst in Bond (see those traits listed earlier). I mean, WTF? A bitch? Why? Because she had the gall not to trust the man she (perhaps rightly) blames for the death of her beloved sister? Or perchance it was more because she had no interest in Bond’s legendary lovemaking skills? Either way, I thought it was harsh and very nearly ruined my enjoyment of the book. Still, there’s Pussy right? Nope. Turns out that, in the end, James’ powerful alpha-maleness was more than enough to convince Pussy to give up both her life of crime and her sexual orientation. *sigh* Not the old “all a lesbian needs is a good man” trope! How disappointing.

So, in the end, Goldfinger was much as I expected it to be: a thoroughly entertaining, though nonetheless flawed, secret agent escapade. I only wish it had been a little less predictable. But then, it IS Bond.

P.S. Did I mention the play-by-play account of Bond and Goldfinger’s golf game? It was quite possibly the longest chapter I have ever read. It felt like I was reading it for daaaays. Merciful heavens, how I hate golf.

I’ll take Brisbane over Heathcliff any day
January 21, 2009

When I saw the ARC for Silent on the Moor in the Readers’ Advisory office I literally squealed like a little girl. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I adore Raybourn’s Silent series and was dreading the three-month wait for the next one (I can be terribly impatient sometimes). But then, there it was, just sitting there, waiting for me to pick it up and make it my first read of 2009. Squeeeeee!!!!Silent on the Moor

The third (and final??) installment of the Silent series has our heroine, Lady Julia Grey, haring off to the Yorkshire moors to confront her sometime partner/sometime lover, Nicholas Brisabane. Julia knows she loves Brisbane, and she knows Brisbane loves her, and she knows that he knows these things. So, she’s decided to take the bull by the horns, follow him to the manor house he’s just purchased, and get these affairs of the heart settled once and for all. But, of course, all is not right at Grimsgrave Manor, and evil doings are afoot.

As in the second installment, the setting for this book is an archetype of gothic mystery/romances. Here is the dark, decrepit manor house isolated on the beautiful but harsh moors, inhabited by the remnants of a once-great family brought low through their own vanity and self-enforced isolation. Add to this a gypsy who lives on the edge of the moor, ghostly bells that presage death, and a secret chamber disgorging deathly secrets. All handled so deftly by Raybourn that the well-worn paths of the genre never once felt trite or tedious.

To be sure, there were some parts that were less than stellar. The resolution of Brisbane’s financial problems, for instance, seemed a little too pat for my taste. (I won’t say anything further on that score so as not to spoil the ending.) In addition, the final, shocking solution to the mystery was so obvious it practically announced its presence with trumpeting fanfare about 2/3 of the way through the book (or maybe my mind is just sick enough to automatically guess this squicky plot twist). Nevertheless, these complaints are minor, minor, minor and in no way diminished my enjoyment of the book.

As always, the characterization was superb, the dialogue was delightful, and the romance was swoon-tastic. What I particularly like about all three of the Silent books is that the characters seem genuine and human, flawed but likeable, and capable of personal growth. There is also a real sense of believability; not all loose ends are tidied, not everyone gets a happy ending.

I highly recommend Silent on the Moor, as well as the two preceding books, Silent in the Grave and Silent in the Sanctuary. To learn more about Deanna Raybourn, check out her blog a go-go.

Come in! and know me better, man!
January 9, 2009

Come in! and know me better, man!During my weeklong Christmas break, amidst the festivities and family dinners and hockey and gallivanting in our nation’s capital, I somehow manage to polish off two books. The first of those, admittedly, should probably not count, since I’ve read it so many times I could doubtless recite it verbatim if I tried. (Okay, maybe not the whole thing, but definitely stretches of it.) I’m talking about my perennial Christmas favorite, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Dickens in general (although, I do intend to read A Tale of Two Cities one of these days), but I have to say that A Christmas Carol is, quite simply, one of the finest stories ever written. Every sentence, every character, every scene is letter perfect.

This, for instance, may be one of the best character descriptions in literature:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

The prose practically sings, and, in fact, I often find myself overcome with the desire to read it aloud. I’m gushing, you say? Yes, yes, I know, but I can’t help it. I love this story so much that I honestly read it every year. It has just a dash of everything, love, hate, cruelty, kindness, regret, redemption, horror, and humor, all in the space of barely 100 pages.

We all know the story of A Christmas Carol so well, and it has so permeated our collective consciousness, that I think we tend to simply overlook it (or just watch one of the eleventy billion movie versions). But I sincerely urge everyone to give it a read and a few minutes of reflection. It is truly a beautiful tale, poignant and stirring with a lovely, hopeful message. That it is never too late to change your life. That each of us has the power to affect our fellow man, for good or ill. That we all need to take the time to examine our lives. That there is beauty and love everywhere, even in the poorest home by the most meager of fires.Fezziwigs' Dance

To read A Christmas Carol online for free at Project Gutenberg, click here.

As for the second book I read, well, let’s talk about that tomorrow.