Monday, December 30, 2013

In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson

Cover image © PanMacmillan
I believe that reading a novel that is part of a series, having not read any of the preceding books, is a little like jumping into an ice-cold plunge pool. It has the potential to leave you feeling a sense of shock and bewilderment, but equally can have some benefits. I'm not sure into which category this novel falls.

In a Dry Season (1999) is the tenth in a series of novels by Peter Robinson focussing on Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks. Being a little late to the DCI Banks party, and never having watched the television adaptations being broadcast on ITV, by the time of this novel, the protagonist has separated from his wife, has a somewhat dubious reputation with women and his career as a detective is grinding to a halt.

The action commences when, during a period a drought, a reservoir dries up revealing the remains of a deserted village that had been submerged following the building of a damn after the Second World War. A young boy, making the most of the adventures to be found around the remnants of Hobb's End, stumbles upon a human skeleton buried in the outbuilding of a cottage.

Presumably seeing it as a chance to punish Banks for previous indiscretions and insubordination, Chief Constable 'Jimmy' Riddle, sends him, along with DS Annie Cabbot, to investigate what seems like a rather a dead investigation. What at first seems like a story based on raking over relics of the past in fact becomes more and more alive and encroaches into the present day leading to the rather dramatic conclusion.

The novel revolves around two narratives: the first omniscient narrative follows the action of the present day as Banks and Cabbot investigate and get to know each other; the second is the first person narrative of Gwen Shackleton and follows the life of Hobb's End from 1941 to 1945. The interplay between the two narratives works well to keep the momentum of the story pacey and allows the plot to develop numerous potential conclusions.

All in all, I would happily read another book in this series should the situation ever arise again. Indeed, the only reason I read this novel was to review whether or not to use it with my A Level Language and Literature class. Generally, the storyline is engaging, although a few strange deviations to include current romances and reminiscences of drug addict neighbours I feel the book could have done without, but possibly make more sense to those who've read more of the series.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

Continuing my summer tradition of a James Bond novel on the beach, this year on Anse des Sables in Vieux Fort, Saint Lucia, is something I look forward to with relish. Under a palm tree, with rum near to hand and an expanse of turquoise sea in front of me, I read From Russia With Love (1957) – the fifth book in the James Bond series.

Despite the modern reputation Ian Fleming’s novels enjoy, in 1956 he wasn’t satisfied that they were commercially successful enough. With this in mind From Russia With Love saw Bond at a crossroads and the writer's approach demonstrates this.

In a slight departure from previous Bond novels, the first part of the novel deals exclusively with SMERSH formulating a plan to strike the Secret Service’s top man, James Bond. The reader is drawn into the meticulous construction of an airtight plan – the target, the beautiful bait, the exotic location, the risk of scandal and the right man for the execution.

The characters working for SMERSH seem even more extreme than usual too. We meet ‘Red’ Grant, a deadly man with an almost werewolfesque, supernatural drive desire to kill during a full moon and Rosa Klebb a woman described as a “neuter” whose need for sex with men and women “was nothing more than an itch.” As the plan to trap Bond using the beautiful and innocent Tatiana Romanova moves forward, you begin to believe that Ian Fleming was seriously considering the untimely demise of his protagonist. 

With the planning over, around a third of the way into the novel, we move into part two – ominously entitled ‘The Execution.’ Increasingly we gain momentary insights into a different Bond. We see him in his home, we see him frightened during a few minutes of turbulence on a plane journey and we see him taken in by a SMERSH trap to lure him to Istanbul. This is not the sickeningly suave Bond of the movies, but a believable and fallible character

Istanbul seems like the perfect place for the action of the novel to truly begin. Fleming writes that for Bond “Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were its only population.”

Reading under the dappled light of a palm tree, Saint Lucia.
The action really picks up after Bond and Miss Romanova’s departure from Istanbul aboard the Orient Express bound for Paris, accompanied by the lively Darko Kerim, a local agent. Once more the sensation of entrapment means that the reader is never really sure of how long it will be until someone makes a move, mirroring, in many ways, the global tensions of the Cold War.

The novel, as well as developing Bond’s character from the previous novels and leaving the audience with an epic cliff-hanger ending, makes a number of observations of the world at the time of writing. A number of references are made to Britain’s loss of influence and power on the global political stage, something that many political commentators continue to comment upon today.

All in all, From Russia With Love is a good read, and, despite wishing that I was reading one of the Caribbean-based novels on the beach rather than one set over in Europe, it is definitely the most tense, if not always the most action-packed, of the first five novels in the James Bond series.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Autumnal Sunset Over Hammersmith


Autumnal sunsets over cities have the power to stir my soul, like mountains and oceans do. After another busy day of talking non-stop to colleagues, teaching classes of students, conducting one-to-ones, and jumping over a variety of obstacles thrown in my direction, I looked out of the window of the classroom I was working in.

It is Wednesday 4th December 2013, and to the east I can see the bright orange reflection of the sunset shining back off the blue-tinted glass of the Empress State Building on the Earl's Court and West Brompton border. The radiance of it leads me to leave the room I am in - there are no classes at this time - and I head to my favourite place in the building. The roof.

Stood on the roof, three storeys up, my thoughts a million miles away, I breathe in the cold early evening air to the background noise of Hammersmith. The sirens fail to crash through and break my peace of mind and the light shining off the glass seems to rebound and silently fight off the faint lines of clouds in the sky.

The song in my mind is 'Fanshawe' by El Ten Eleven. This view and these stolen moments surveying all of West London are what will make leaving this place so hard when the time comes.


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