Ice Station Zebra (Novel)

An exhilarating and at times extremely claustrophobic Cold War thriller

What it’s about

Dr Carpenter has orders to go to the Arctic on Commander Swanson’s atomic submarine, the Dolphin. They have to sail beneath the ice-floes of the Arctic Ocean to locate and rescue the men of weather-station Zebra, gutted by fire and drifting with the ice-pack somewhere north of the Arctic Circle.

But the rescue is more than it seems, as is Dr Carpenter, whose secret mission is to find the traitor who started the fire, the traitor that is playing a very dangerous game which could see them all sent to the bottom of the ocean…

My thoughts

​This is another of Alistair MacLean’s famous novels, though these days perhaps most people will recognise the name more as a result of the film version, which is a very well known classic.

It is set in the Cold War which means inevitably the Soviets are the bad guys, it is also set in the Arctic which is a bit of a speciality for Alistair MacLean and one thing about the book is that you really do feel that you are in the Arctic.

It is a little bit slow to start but that is mainly because, due to it being written in the 60s, there is a lot of time spent introducing the submarine. Basically we are taken on a tour of it and spend a good bit of time learning about how it works. At the time due to submarines of the type of the Dolphin (the submarine in the novel’s name), so high-tech atomic ones which can stay under water for long periods of time and don’t have to resurface every twelve hours or so, due to submarines like this being relatively new at the time of writing, inevitably if you had no knowledge of submarines like that reading about them would be pretty cool. However, to the modern reader all of this will most likely be scan material.

But once the story gets going to say the least this is a brilliant and exhilarating espionage thriller. And I have to say there are some truly vivid images that you will be left with after reading this novel.

From the claustrophobic feel of being inside the submarine, which is especially brought to life when there is a fire, to the images of the Arctic which MacLean brings to life brilliantly, especially when they have to battle through a storm to initially find the station, this book really takes you there.

The most impressive part of this novel though is how MacLean keeps the mystery alive, the story is told from the point of view of Carpenter, though it is likely that you will relate more to Commander Swanson – at least that was how it was for me. The reason being Carpenter spins endless tale after endless tale and is most certainly a master of manipulation, gradually though he is forced to reveal to Swanson and thus us as readers more and more information about the true goings-on.

Some people may find this annoying, but for me the balance in this book I feel is right and the narrative moves along at a nice pace.

One thing I will say is that the ending does have a little bit of a Hercule Poirot feel about it which may feel a little bit odd for a espionage thriller, but it is done nicely and does round everything up, leaving no loose ends. The last line also made me smile which is always a good thing. Everything rounded up, and ending on a note that makes you smile.

All in all that means from me it gets a solid thumbs up.

Writer: Alistair MacLean

Genre: spy thriller, mystery, action

Year: 1963

Moonraker (novel)

One of Ian Fleming’s best Bond stories

What it’s about

Sir Hugo Drax is a multi-millionaire tycoon and war hero, revered by the British public for his Moonraker missile defence programme. But he cheats at cards and in doing so risks his reputation and the Moonraker project. Bond is tasked with putting a stop to his cheating ways before they are exposed, but in doing so uncovers a very dark plot indeed, a plot so dark it puts the lives of millions at risk.

My thoughts

​First things first, the book is very very different to the film version, in fact it is in a different stratosphere to the film version. The film version which the vast majority of people will know of, sees Roger Moore’s James Bond uncover a devious plot by Spectre to destroy the world, all the while repopulating it with some selected people who will be protected from the Earth’s destruction by taking refuge on a space station.

In reality Moonraker the film is Bond gone sci-fi with half the film spent in space with laser guns. The book on the other hand is nothing at all like this, the book is a basic espionage story which sees Bond uncover a plot by a group of Nazi’s from the war who have infiltrated society and plan to do some real damage to the UK, all in an effort to bring the Nazis back to life.

In terms of how good it is, this is the third of Fleming’s Bond books and it is one of the best ones, all throughout the book there is a real sense of high tension and suspense as well as impending doom as Bond digs deeper searching for what the truth of this dastardly plot is and its links to Hugo Drax and the Moonraker project.

So on an entertainment level as a Bond novel it is top-notch. But what is perhaps most interesting about this novel is how in effect Bond rather than playing his typical role as a spy and thus working abroad is playing more the role of a standard detective. In fact this could be argued as being more of a MI5 style story than a MI6 one, after all MI6 is supposed to be tasked with missions abroad not at home, which is the playing ground of MI5.

That means unlike other Bond novels this is a story set entirely in the UK. Basically Bond is tasked with taking over security of the Moonraker base after the previous head of security was killed. He needs to work out both who killed him and why he was killed, inevitably he has the aid of a lady friend who helps him along the way as well as joining him in the bedroom, this is Bond after all.

But this novel, though incorporating all the elements of Bond from the cardplaying to the bravado to the girl to the villain, places Bond in a slightly different world than the other novels meaning all in all from me it gets a thumbs up as it is indisputably an entertaining read.

Writer: Ian Fleming

Genre: spy thriller, mystery, action

Year: 1955

Dr No (Novel)

Arguably the Best of Fleming’s Bond Novels

What it’s about

Dispatched by M to investigate the mysterious disappearance of MI6’s Jamaica station chief, Bond was expecting a holiday in the sun. But when he discovers a deadly centipede placed in his hotel room, the vacation is over.

My thoughts

​Despite being billed at the time of its release as sex, snobbery and sadism, by today’s standards it would be PG rated. If you have watched the film which the vast majority who decide to read this book will have done then you already know the basic jest of the story, but there are enough differences in the book to make it still worth reading.

The build up to the end is especially compelling reading and is so well done even people who are not claustrophobic will be filled by with horror by it. And if you have watched the film though you will already know the final outcome you will be shocked at just how different the run up to the ending is.

Also surprisingly the female character is not quite as helpless as a person who has watched only the films would expect. She is written in a way as a sort of tame woman from the wild who becomes increasingly desperate to have sex with James Bond, turning to more into predator then prey, she also has a damaged nose which she is self-conscious about and wants to go to America to have it fixed.

Yet surprisingly by the end Bond decides that he doesn’t want her to have it fixed because it’s part of who she is. So expect her to worship Bond like a God but don’t expect her to be quite as tame as the female characters in the films, also don’t expect Bond to be quite as superficial as he is in the films. Though this is still James Bond, and that must never be forgotten.

All in all a must read for any Bond fan as this is arguably the best of Fleming’s Bond novels, which means all in all it most definitely gets a thumbs up from me.

Writer: Ian Fleming

Genre: adventure, mystery, spy thriller

Year: 1958

The Bourne Identity (Novel)

One of the Best Spy Thrillers There Is

What it’s about

The Bourne Identity is a 1980 spy fiction thriller by Robert Ludlum that tells the story of Jason Bourne, a man with remarkable survival abilities who has retrograde amnesia, and must seek to discover his true identity. 

My thoughts

​Any person who has watched the film and expects the novel to tell a similar story will be in for a shock. Other than the beginning and this being a story about Jason Bourne searching for his true identity they have little in common.

But at the same time any person who has watched the film despite the film being brilliant will likely find that the book is better. What writer Robert Ludlum does so well with this novel is to really bring to life Jason Bourne’s desperation to find out just who the hell he is.

Literally the pages scream with that desperation, and the world he creates along with the skills that Jason Bourne finds himself make for a truly compelling reading.

However, it should be remembered that this is a book from a writer who was trained in a very different era, or rather modern novels of the mainstream kind tend to very much use a much more simplified level of English.

But this book is by no means advanced, in fact far from it and any person with a decent grasp of the English language will have no trouble reading it.

All in all this book is fast-paced, clever and will undoubtedly leave you wanting more at the end. If you like spy stories a must read which means it definitely gets a thumbs up from me.

Writer: Robert Ludlum

Genre: adventure, mystery, spy thriller

Year: 1980