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Review of ‘Solo’ by William Boyd

Solo coverThanks to NetGalley and Vintage Books for the ARC of this book.

Warning – this review contains spoilers.

William Boyd is one of my absolute favourite authors but I have not read any of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books before. So I was looking forward to reading this book with a bit of trepidation. I wanted to like it because it is William Boyd and it marks his return to Africa, where some of his best books are set; but I was worried it may take an out-dated position on gender politics which would annoy me.

Initially Boyd makes a very small attempt to invert Bond’s sexist world outlook by unexpectedly making his African liaison, Blessing, a highly educated woman; however, this is very quickly undermined a few pages later when this beautiful, clever woman half Bond’s age is luring him into her bedroom pretending she is scared of lizards in order to get him into bed.

At that point I decided I would just have to go with it. What did I expect from a Bond novel? Strong, brilliant, chaste female characters who were able to resist Bond’s manly charms and be an important player in their own right? No. So I decided I would overlook the book’s gender politics and judge it on other criteria; plot, pacing, writing-style etc.

On to that…

I found the book a bit slow to start with. For example, I really did not need to read about what type of car Bond was test-driving (although I presume this kind of detail is inherited from Fleming’s original stories); I just wanted the plot to get going. However, once Bond arrives in Africa, the pace definitely picks up. Bond has to try to stop a civil war single-handedly and encounters starving villages, battles, creepy soldiers and a fatally ill General along the way.

After Bond has completed his mission in Africa, he returns to Britain and determines to get revenge on the baddies who tried to kill him in Africa. (It turns out Blessing wasn’t a pathetic woman who couldn’t resist Bond’s charms, but was actually playing him all along. Good.) He decides that he is going to have to get his revenge as a ‘solo’ off the record mission. I did not understand his reason for this decision. The three people he is after are clearly enemies of the state, MI6 would want them dead too, they have targeted one of its agents; why does it need to be a solo mission? I guess it just makes a more tense and exciting storyline and gives the book its catchy title.

Bond’s revenge mission takes him to America where he wanders around a lot, eats food, buys stuff, stakes people out and has a run in with the CIA before we finally reach the climatic shoot out. This is followed by a return to Africa and a guest appearance from Felix Leiter for some long-winded exposition about what has gone before. At the end there is some more pointless flirtation with a token beautiful woman who really did not need to be in the story at all before the book finishes with a highly unsatisfying and illogical ending where it seems one of the baddies isn’t dead after all but for some reason we don’t get to see Bond find him and kill him.

I’m not sure what to make of this book. It’s an easy read and it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it but I think the plot could have been tighter. Boyd could have cut the character of Bryce altogether and started the narrative at the point at which Bond is sent on the mission to Africa. This would have saved the slightly mundane sections at the beginning where all Bond does is flirt and test-drive cars and would have made the story more fast-paced and exciting. Also, there is no need for the inference that Kobus is still alive at the end of the book unless we are going to see Bond give him his comeuppance. This slight cliff-hanger suggests that Boyd is angling to write a sequel where we see this happen.

While the plot and pacing could be stronger, the prose is up to Boyd’s usual beautiful standard. I found myself learning new words while reading (‘bibulous’ is one that sticks in my mind), which is always exciting! He writes with meticulous detail and always seems to find the perfect way to describe things. I think I would recommend this book to fans of Boyd and, although I have not read any of Fleming’s original work, I feel this would probably satisfy his fans also.

The section of the book set in Africa stands out above the rest of the book, because Boyd is so familiar and passionate about this continent, his writing is always superb when describing scenes set there. I would also recommend ‘Brazzaville Beach’ to anyone who has not read Boyd’s earlier novels set in Africa. It is an intriguing and very enjoyable read and, unlike ‘Solo’, has a fantastic three-dimensional lead heroine.


Review of ‘You Deserve Nothing’ by Alexander Maksik

You deserve nothing cover
You deserve nothing cover
This is a novel about how students idolise good teachers and how influential teachers can be; when in reality they are as flawed and as fearful as their students.

I thought the plot was fairly predictable; once a teacher starts to have an affair with a pupil, there’s really only ever one direction that the novel is heading.

I enjoyed the classroom scenes where Mr Silver’s charismatic and original teaching style is demonstrated and I thought that Maksik did a good job writing in the different voices of the three narrators. However, I never really understood the teacher’s motivation for starting an affair with a student and, while the novel is an easy read, there is nothing that makes it stand out from the dozens of other books about inspiring teachers or inappropriate school relationships.

Review of ‘The Boy that Never Was’ by Karen Perry

Image‘The Boy that Never Was’ is a novel exploring the madness which can befall a parent due to grief following the death of a child and the huge consequences that decisions and actions can have no matter how small they seem at the time.

It is well-plotted and paced intelligently so that important facts are revealed slowly over the course of the book. It is both a thriller and a claustrophobic study of a personal family drama and one character’s descent into madness.

I admired the writing style and the clever story-telling and I liked the device of narrating chapters from alternating point of views. I was intrigued by the fact that the book was written by two authors and wondered whether Karen wrote Robin’s chapters and Paul wrote Harry’s.

However, while I appreciated the writing I would say that, due to the unlikeable characters and the unsettling themes of grief, guilt and loss, this is a difficult book to enjoy. I was particularly frustrated by the character of Harry who throughout the book, even before the earthquake, makes such terrible decisions and deals with situations so badly. I found it hard to feel sympathy for such a flawed character. In spite of Robin’s thoughts at the conclusion of the book, I could not help but feel that everybody would have been a lot better off if Harry had not made his discovery.

I guessed Robin’s secret early on as I doubted anyone would be so willing to forgive a husband whose neglect had led to the death of her child unless she was also harbouring some terrible guilt. However, I think there was enough misdirection that the reader was led away from the final revelation of the whole truth, particularly after Robin fails to see any significance in meeting Garrick’s family while Christmas shopping. I think it would have been a braver choice on behalf of the authors and a more believable storyline if the book had stopped before the final twist at Garrick’s house.

‘The Boy that Never Was’ is an interesting thought-provoking novel which is very readable, it is well-written and carefully structured to create a tense thriller. The characters’ motivations are clear and it is easy to understand how they are moved to make such shocking decisions and take actions with such disturbing consequences. However, I found Harry’s actions exasperating and the ultimate conclusion of the book unsatisfying. I think the selfishness of the adults in convincing themselves that their horrifying actions were in some way in the best interest of their children meant that at the conclusion of the novel everyone is so damaged that it is hard to feel hopeful for their futures and I do prefer books to end with a sense of hope and possibility.

Review of ‘Missing You’ by Harlan Coben

ImageI read EVERYTHING Harlan Coben writes! I love his style but it must be said that his books often tread the same ground and in recent years themes, characters and storylines in his books are becoming a little repetitive. Nevertheless, they are always easy to read and entertaining.

I think this is one of his better recent novels. The story feels rounded and self-contained and the lead character, Cat, is a female detective, which is a bit different.

The unbelievable co-incidences which usually drive Coben’s plots are kept to a minimum as are the other repetitive tropes (dumb goons, fight scenes and wisecracking detectives). Cat’s story feels personal and more believable than his many of his other recent narratives.

The ultimate showdown and conclusion to the book feel a little rushed, but it is an enjoyable read, which I think fans of Coben will love.

Review of ‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty

Image This novel is written in an interesting style, with the main character, Yvonne, addressing her lover, Mark, as if writing one long letter (present-tense) retelling the history of their relationship, an extra-marital affair which goes very wrong.

The prologue, a flash-forward to the tense courtroom scene which comes towards the conclusion of the novel, is very tantalising and made me want to read on.

However, the main section of the book is less exciting. For me, although the plot was interesting, the characters and their relationships did not ring true.

Maybe I am a prude, but for me there was no difference between the first time Yvonne has sex with Mark in a crypt a few minutes after they first meet without even knowing each others’ names and the rape which she is victim of later in the book at the hands of her colleague George. Both men are sexual predators, one is just more suave, subtle and manipulative about the way he goes about it. How Yvonne could convince herself she was in love with Mark astonished me, they did not have any intellectual connection, only physical, she knows nothing about him. She is supposed to be an intelligent woman but throughout the novel she just appears naive, even to the extent that she is still worried about Mark’s welfare at the end of the novel when he has obviously instructed his lawyer to throw her under the bus.

I did not like her or any of the other characters. Her husband’s character was paper-thin, I got no sense that they actually cared for each other yet they stayed together even after they have both had affairs and she has been to jail.

The ending confounded me, was the last page an indication that Yvonne is a completely unreliable narrator and she did actually provoke Mark to kill George, or was it just a fantasy? By that point I didn’t care enough about this stupid careless woman to give it much thought.