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

The Man with the Golden Gun (Novel)

Worth reading if you’ve read the other eleven books

What it’s about

A brainwashed James Bond has tried – and failed – to assassinate M, his boss. Now Bond has to prove he is back on form and can be trusted again. ‘All’ 007 has to do is kill one of the most deadly free-lance hit-men in the world – one Paco ‘Pistols’ Scaramanga, the Man with the Golden Gun.

My thoughts

​This is the final of Flemings twelve Bond novels, but unfortunately it is far from the best, and in fact arguably is the worst. Before getting onto the problems, as most people who plan to read this book will likely have seen the film, the only real similarity between the film and the book is the fact that Bond is doing battle with Scaramanga a.k.a. the Man with the Golden gun.

So the book and the film are two completely different kettles of fish, that means if you are expecting the book to be similar to the film, and as a result a better version of the story than the film, you will be disappointed.

With that said onto the problems with this book, the first being that James Bond himself does not appear properly for far too long, in fact he does not really make a proper appearance until about one third into the novel. The majority of the first third of the book is based around M dealing with the reappearance of Bond after he had been missing for a year.

Basically Bond went missing a year ago and was presumed dead but in fact has been captured and brainwashed by the Russians – he now sees British Secret Service as the enemy. As a result of his brainwashing he attempts to assassinate M, but fails and as a result is captured by the British and sent to a facility to be basically un-brainwashed.

We don’t follow him to this facility instead we jump straight to him being released from it, though we do learn a little about it, some sort of shockwave therapy was used on him, and now he has to prove it has worked and redeem himself by killing Scaramanga, who has been killing British agents.

M makes out that this Scaramanga is an unbeatable gunman and believes that James Bond, due to M sending him after him, is likely being sent to his doom, the trouble is the so-called man with the Golden gun just never really seems that smart or that good.

But before getting to that, so after all this build up and all this blah blah, the book finally starts because we finally start following James Bond, he is in Jamaica where Scaramanga is believed to be holding up. The last time Bond was in Jamaica was in Dr No, and Fleming is not shy about touching upon this fact though only briefly as there is no link between the stories, but it is a quite nice touch if you have read Dr No.

But back onto the main point of the bad guy just not seeming that bright, firstly, Bond first meets his deadly nemesis in a whore house, he just so happens to go to a whore house which has been put up for sale at the exact time that Scaramanga makes an appearance, Scaramanga is a very difficult guy to find and yet Bond manages to find him before really even beginning to start looking for him.

I’m diverting from the point here, next Scaramanga decides to employ Bond, who pretends to be someone else, as a bodyguard as such, which allows Bond access to Scaramanga’s secret base where a secret meeting will take place by a secret faction which is linked to the KGB. Felix Leiter and his CIA buddy are of course already there spying on this secret mission.

So just to put this into perspective Scaramanga, this super skilled killer who we’re supposed to believe is every bit Bond’s rival if not his superior, has hired the CIA and James Bond is an effective protection for this supersecret mission, and is clueless of the fact that he has done so, the reason being he met them in random places and so assumed they clearly must be legit.

Don’t get me wrong this is a novel and poetic licence is allowed, but considering just how clever Scaramanga is supposed to be, it just seems a stretch that he could be so unlucky as to hire three agents. And I have not even mentioned the elephant in the room yet, Bond could have killed him many times but does not, it seems he is battling with his conscience, doesn’t like killing in cold blood…

You read that right, Bond could have killed Scaramanga many times over but does not because he battles with the morality of killing in cold blood, so basically this is a story of Bond in effect waiting for Scaramanga to try to kill him before killing him because he doesn’t like the idea of killing in cold blood. James Bond, licensed to kill assassin. Not wanting to kill the man who has been killing his fellow agents, despite being given the order to kill him…

I have read the Bond books and I have to say it just does not feel like this is how James Bond would ever act, I get he is supposed to be knocked off his game due to this brainwashing but, still, it just doesn’t really make for a compelling story, at least not the way it is written.

Perhaps if the story had been solely focused upon Bond having lost his nerve for killing it could have worked but it just wasn’t about that, in fact it seemed more a story about eavesdropping and learning about the KGB secret operations which they had been running out of Jamaica, along with their future plans for Jamaica, but that just did not make for compelling reading. To be honest I could go on and on with the complaints but I will just leave it there.

In regards to the action at the end, it isn’t bad, it’s nothing special, but it does at least keep you turning over the pages, there is also a corker of a final line, though feminists beware of this line as it is most definitely probably the closest moment James Bond comes to to feeling like James Bond in this novel. I won’t give it away but it will either make you smile or will infuriate you.

All in all I can’t really give this book a thumbs up but if you are a fan of Bond, and as this is the last in the series, it is still worth reading even if only so that you can say that you have read them all.

Writer: Ian Fleming

Genre: spy thriller, mystery, action

Year: 1965

Force 10 from Navarone (novel)

A slow starter but an electrifying finisher

What it’s about

This follows on immediately from the highly acclaimed The Guns of Navarone, Keith Mallory, Andrea and Dusty Miller are parachuted into war-torn Yugoslavia with the task of rescuing a division of Partisans. But they also have a secret mission, a one that is so deadly that it must be hidden from even their own allies.

My thoughts

​If you have not read The Guns of Navarone though it is not a prerequisite to reading this book, I would highly recommend that you do in fact read a first as it is literally a direct follow-on. So this book starts right at the moment that the last book, The Guns of Navarone, ends

However, the stories of the two books are very much different so really the importance in regards to reading the predecessor is more about getting to know the main characters. So like I say even though I highly recommend reading the predecessor first it is not a prerequisite.

With that said, now onto the story of Force 10 from Navarone, it is a highly entertaining one, basically the small incursion team led by Mallory plan to blow a dam to bring down a bridge just as a German brigade is crossing, and though the story of the predecessor is arguably better in terms of pacing and action this novel probably comes up trumps.

And what really perhaps makes this book stand out and really come into its own, is the dynamic between the original team, which is Mallory, Andrea and Miller, and the young upstarts who have joined them, Reynolds, Saunders and Groves.

There is great mistrust between them, but different sorts of mistrust, Mallory and his team do not trust Reynolds and his team have what it takes to do what has to be done. This lack of trust needs to Reynolds and his team misinterpreting what is going on and frequently wondering whether Mallory is perhaps up to no good.

As the novel progresses the dynamic changes and the teams come to trust each other but that trust comes with a very heavy price leading to a very poignant moment at the end. I have to say a big fan of the dynamic between the characters in this book, it really does create some great tension but also makes you think about the rights or wrongs of what the characters are doing and thinking.

Regarding readability, it is quite difficult at the beginning to make sense of just what is going on, who they are helping and who they are not helping and much more.

Really the problem is there are too many names that are difficult to remember, and there are too many different messages being told to too many different characters, meaning you really have to pay attention to make sense of just who they are helping, who they are fighting and just what it is they are actually going to do.

But in all honesty you are able to get the gist of it without rereading, and I didn’t bother rereading as I assumed that I would make sense of it later on in the book which I did. And it is later on in the book that this story really comes to life.

To say the least the buildup to the ending of this book is electrifying in its pacing, and in fact the way the text seamlessly bounces us from place to place, from character to character showing us different scenes which all interconnect and help build up to the electrifying climax, is very cinematic in style.

In fact at times it feels like you are reading a film, except that is in the format of a book and so you feel much closer to the characters and action than if you were watching a film.

All in all despite the information overload at the beginning, this is an electrifying and very much high octane action story. That means from me it gets a definite thumbs up and is unquestionably a worthy follow-up to The Guns of Navarone.

Writer: Alistair MacLean

Genre: war story, action, adventure

Year: 1968

Where Eagles Dare (novel)

Arguably Alistair Maclean’s best novel

What it’s about

A team of British Special Forces commandos parachutes into the high peaks of the Austrian Alps on a rescue mission, the chief planner of the Western front has been taken prisoner. To save the war effort they must free him, but he is being held in an invulnerable alpine castle, accessible only by aerial gondola, which just so happens to be the headquarters of Nazi intelligence.

My thoughts

​Despite popular belief this is not based on a true story, and is entirely fictional. With that out of the way this is arguably Alistair MacLean’s best novel, most people probably better know it as the film which stars a young Clint Eastwood along with the legendary Richard Burton.

In regards to which is better, both are equally brilliant, but there are some minor deviations the biggest perhaps being that in the book there is much less violence.

Also the characters in the book are a little bit more humorous, you also get a far greater sense of place in the book, along with the claustrophobic feeling of truly being inside the headquarters of Nazi intelligence. But perhaps the biggest difference is the fact that the stakes even though they are near enough the same feel in the book just so much bigger.

What the book really succeeds at is making you really buy into just how big the stakes are, and how if this mission fails it could truly mess up the planned invasion on the Western front i.e. D-Day.

But outside that really the big differences are what you would normally expect to get from a book versus a film. For example, in the film the stakes are high but the characters always seem to be ahead of the game, while in the book you really get a sense for just how desperate this mission is. Pretty much all throughout you also get the feeling that actually they might not succeed, which you don’t really get in the film i.e. Richard Burton’s character always seems like he is going to succeed.

So in the book you are just much closer to the characters and action and they feel more like real people rather than action stars.

But the film is great, and the book is great which means all in all I don’t really have a great deal to say other than this is a brilliant read, highly entertaining, simple English and written in a way that means it is highly improbable that you will need to reread any sections to make sense of what is going on.

That means from me this book gets a solid thumbs up, and is a highly entertaining World War II rescue story.

Writer: Alistair Maclean

Genre: war story, action, adventure

Year: 1967

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

The Guns of Navarone (novel)

A highly enjoyable read of a most desperate of missions

What it’s about

An entire navy had tried to silence the guns of Navarone and failed. Full-scale attacks had been driven back. Now they were sending in just five men, each one a specialist in dealing death. But the question is can they do the impossible and finally silence the guns of Navarone?

My thoughts

​First thing’s first, counter to popular belief this is not based on a true story and there is no island of Navarone, the only truth to the story is the historical context of which it is supposed to be a part of, which is the Dodecanese Campaign, a campaign by the Allies to capture the Italian-held Greek islands in the Aegean Sea back in 1943.

In terms of whether it is any good, the simple answer is yes it is a highly enjoyable read. In terms of whether it’s better than the film which perhaps it is better known as these days, not better just a little bit different, and a little bit is very much the word.

For example in the film there are female characters but in the book there are not, also in the film the main characters Andrea and Mallory have on a personal level fallen out. Basically Andrea blames Mallory for the death of his family and plans to kill him after the war.

In the film a large part of the story is the characters dealing with this issue and resolving it, but this issue does not exist in the book and in fact in the book Mallory and Andrea have an unbreakable bond and that unbreakable bond is a large part of the story.

I have to say I do prefer the film’s idea of the tension between them as it just adds another element but I take nothing away from the book, which is an enjoyable read, and perhaps what Alistair MacLean does best is making you feel like you are really out there on the fictional island of Navarone and are being hunted by the Nazis.

Literally the connection you feel to the characters as they as they are hunted and get more and more beaten up and more and more desperate, is what really sells this book and is its standout feature over the film version. You can just really feel the sense of sacrifice both mental and physical not only needed to be made but that they are willing to make and are making, you can also feel their turmoil due to their inner desire to save a fallen comrade yet knowing that their efforts to do so risk the mission.

And in fact I would say the most endearing part of the novel is just how hard they fight to keep Andrew Stevens, not just alive but out of captivity, the fact that they carry him on a stretcher for the majority of the book really drives home their sense of desperation. Also the inner turmoil around their fears about the mission being compromised if he was taking into captivity is a nice touch.

All in all this is a great read, and an easy read as the majority of the English is just basic, the only thing I will say is the sequence at the end when they finally reach Navarone, I had to reread that section as I got completely lost with the logistics of where they were and the exact details of just what they were doing, in all honesty the problem was that I could not in my head buildup an accurate image of the place which for this section is highly important.

With this in mind should you choose to read it, when they reach Navarone and especially when they reach the guns I suggest you really concentrate as it is very easy to get lost at this point. But other than that this is an enjoyable and easy read, not the sort that will blow your mind but the sort that you could happily read on a Saturday evening before bed which means it gets a thumbs up from me.

Writer: Alistair MacLean

Genre: action, war, historical

Year: 1957

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