nuranar: Hortense Bonaparte. La reine Hortense sous une tonnelle à Aix-les-Bains (1813) by Antoine Jean Duclaux. (Default)
This time I'm quick with another Alistair MacLean review!  In the past year I've pretty much exhausted his pre-1970 books.  Now I'm working my way through the later ones. (Complete list and links here.)  I'm not bothering to read them in order, since by most accounts their quality, although uniformly poor in comparison to his previous excellence, varies.  I'd rather go in with poor expectations and be surprised.

To be entirely frank, I'm getting this review out of the way because I'm wanting to ramble. As I've read more and more MacLeans, I'm really beginning to grasp the depth and variety and consistencies of his work.  In addition, there are certain allegations on the Wikipedia MacLean article that I want to address.

Athabasca )
nuranar: Hortense Bonaparte. La reine Hortense sous une tonnelle à Aix-les-Bains (1813) by Antoine Jean Duclaux. (Default)
This time I'm quick with another Alistair MacLean review!  In the past year I've pretty much exhausted his pre-1970 books.  Now I'm working my way through the later ones. (Complete list and links here.)  I'm not bothering to read them in order, since by most accounts their quality, although uniformly poor in comparison to his previous excellence, varies.  I'd rather go in with poor expectations and be surprised.

To be entirely frank, I'm getting this review out of the way because I'm wanting to ramble. As I've read more and more MacLeans, I'm really beginning to grasp the depth and variety and consistencies of his work.  In addition, there are certain allegations on the Wikipedia MacLean article that I want to address.

Athabasca )

Circus

26 July 2007 09:08 pm
nuranar: Hortense Bonaparte. La reine Hortense sous une tonnelle à Aix-les-Bains (1813) by Antoine Jean Duclaux. (Default)
I found this book waiting for me in a PaperBackSwap package when I got home one day last week.  By lunch the next day, I'd finished it.

Alistair MacLean's Circus

Published in 1975, Circus is one of MacLean's last, and poorest, set of novels.  I'm glad to report, however, that it was a very enjoyable read.  It's not up to the technical standards of his earliest novels, but I liked it better than The Way to Dusty Death.

Bruno Wildermann and his two younger brothers are known as the Blind Eagles, a group of extremely skillful trapeze and high-wire experts who perform blindfolded.  Bruno is the linchpin of the act, being in addition borderline clairvoyant and having a literally photographic memory.  The Wildermanns were refugees from Eastern Europe, an unspecified country that seems to be either East Germany or Poland. His combination of skills and his background bring him to the attention of the CIA.  Bruno agrees to break into a high-security prison and research center in the city of "Crau" and memorize/destroy certain plans.

The major criticisms of MacLean's latest period are excessive dialogue, "sagging" prose, poor characterization, and lazy description.  These are the technical standards in which Circus does not measure up; however, it is a long way from being the worst example.  The dialogue is not excessive; I found none of it boring, and some quite amusing.  The quality of the prose did not bother me or lose me, although it could have been sharper.  My biggest criticism is that the antagonists do not quite live up to their menace and their knowledge.  There is a definite reason to account partially for this, albeit is one I cannot reveal.  Nonetheless, they do not even approach the terrifying efficiency and genuine brilliance of their counterparts in The Secret Ways.

MacLean handles the circus setup with quite a bit of skill; I found his descriptions fascinating in and of themselves.  His characters are a little more nebulous than I like, yet they're interesting and I cared about them.  Especially when they... never mind.  Several of Bruno's fellow circus men are quite good creations. Their banter is reminiscent of Hansen, Zabrinkski, and Rawlings in Ice Station Zebra.

Circus might be held up as an example of the old "male writers write helpless females" trope.  I won't go into a discussion of this, since it would be long and rife with spoilers.  Let me just say once again that MacLean uses layers of deception in his work.  In Circus, there are excellent reasons for what he does with his characters (and I'm saying this generally, too), no matter how long it takes to see or how clichéd it seems in the meantime.  In the specific instance, it's unfortunately not shown nor explained as skillfully as it was in the earlier novel that used the same idea.  But it makes very, very good sense.  MacLean is not an author to judge quickly.  Even in 1975 he could be a master of subtlety.

After the initial exposition, things get menacing fast with two murders.  I'll warn you - one is quite grisly, not for the descriptions but for the imagination.  *shudder*  Nonetheless, after Fear Is the Key and The Satan Bug, the relative lack of grimness in Circus is a relief.  It gets worse, trust me, but it's not a numbing grief or paralyzing fear that permeate the entire book.  He hasn't lost the humorous touch by any means.

A very minor aside: I'm amused that the highest-up CIA man shown is an admiral.  In The Hunt for Red October, James Greer of the CIA (played by James Earl Jones) is also an admiral.  Note: It's a departure for MacLean to use the CIA, although he used quite a few Americans in Ice Station Zebra and did them well.  I think the whole premise necessitated it.

I think I'd like to start including excerpts in my reviews.  It's always great to get an idea of an author's style, even at its less-than-brilliant moments.  In this excerpt (not necessarily the best, just the one that came to mind), a certain Colonel Sergius is having to deal with Alex, a less-than-successful... employee.

Sergius sighed.  "Alas, it was ever thus.  I am left to fight on virtually alone.  All the decisions have to be made, all the thinking has to be done by a senior officer, which is no doubt why I am a senior officer."  A false modesty was not one of Sergius's besetting sins.  "Our Bruno Wildermann is clever, he may also be dangerous.  He suspected, only he knows how, that he was under surveillance and put his suspicions to the test.  He had this man Roebuck standing by to follow whoever might follow him.  This would make Roebuck--and, by implication, the other two--something just a little bit more than friends.  Roebuck followed Alex.  He didn't go to borrow money, he went to inform Bruno that he, Bruno, had been followed by a man with a black coat, black moustache, very stupid."  He bestowed a pitying glance on the crest-fallen shadower.  "I don't suppose it ever occurred to you, Alex, to look over your shoulder?  Just once?"

"I'm sorry, Colonel."

Sergius gave him a look more commonly associated with a starving crocodile which has just spotted lunch.

Circus

26 July 2007 09:08 pm
nuranar: Hortense Bonaparte. La reine Hortense sous une tonnelle à Aix-les-Bains (1813) by Antoine Jean Duclaux. (Default)
I found this book waiting for me in a PaperBackSwap package when I got home one day last week.  By lunch the next day, I'd finished it.

Alistair MacLean's Circus

Published in 1975, Circus is one of MacLean's last, and poorest, set of novels.  I'm glad to report, however, that it was a very enjoyable read.  It's not up to the technical standards of his earliest novels, but I liked it better than The Way to Dusty Death.

Bruno Wildermann and his two younger brothers are known as the Blind Eagles, a group of extremely skillful trapeze and high-wire experts who perform blindfolded.  Bruno is the linchpin of the act, being in addition borderline clairvoyant and having a literally photographic memory.  The Wildermanns were refugees from Eastern Europe, an unspecified country that seems to be either East Germany or Poland. His combination of skills and his background bring him to the attention of the CIA.  Bruno agrees to break into a high-security prison and research center in the city of "Crau" and memorize/destroy certain plans.

The major criticisms of MacLean's latest period are excessive dialogue, "sagging" prose, poor characterization, and lazy description.  These are the technical standards in which Circus does not measure up; however, it is a long way from being the worst example.  The dialogue is not excessive; I found none of it boring, and some quite amusing.  The quality of the prose did not bother me or lose me, although it could have been sharper.  My biggest criticism is that the antagonists do not quite live up to their menace and their knowledge.  There is a definite reason to account partially for this, albeit is one I cannot reveal.  Nonetheless, they do not even approach the terrifying efficiency and genuine brilliance of their counterparts in The Secret Ways.

MacLean handles the circus setup with quite a bit of skill; I found his descriptions fascinating in and of themselves.  His characters are a little more nebulous than I like, yet they're interesting and I cared about them.  Especially when they... never mind.  Several of Bruno's fellow circus men are quite good creations. Their banter is reminiscent of Hansen, Zabrinkski, and Rawlings in Ice Station Zebra.

Circus might be held up as an example of the old "male writers write helpless females" trope.  I won't go into a discussion of this, since it would be long and rife with spoilers.  Let me just say once again that MacLean uses layers of deception in his work.  In Circus, there are excellent reasons for what he does with his characters (and I'm saying this generally, too), no matter how long it takes to see or how clichéd it seems in the meantime.  In the specific instance, it's unfortunately not shown nor explained as skillfully as it was in the earlier novel that used the same idea.  But it makes very, very good sense.  MacLean is not an author to judge quickly.  Even in 1975 he could be a master of subtlety.

After the initial exposition, things get menacing fast with two murders.  I'll warn you - one is quite grisly, not for the descriptions but for the imagination.  *shudder*  Nonetheless, after Fear Is the Key and The Satan Bug, the relative lack of grimness in Circus is a relief.  It gets worse, trust me, but it's not a numbing grief or paralyzing fear that permeate the entire book.  He hasn't lost the humorous touch by any means.

A very minor aside: I'm amused that the highest-up CIA man shown is an admiral.  In The Hunt for Red October, James Greer of the CIA (played by James Earl Jones) is also an admiral.  Note: It's a departure for MacLean to use the CIA, although he used quite a few Americans in Ice Station Zebra and did them well.  I think the whole premise necessitated it.

I think I'd like to start including excerpts in my reviews.  It's always great to get an idea of an author's style, even at its less-than-brilliant moments.  In this excerpt (not necessarily the best, just the one that came to mind), a certain Colonel Sergius is having to deal with Alex, a less-than-successful... employee.

Sergius sighed.  "Alas, it was ever thus.  I am left to fight on virtually alone.  All the decisions have to be made, all the thinking has to be done by a senior officer, which is no doubt why I am a senior officer."  A false modesty was not one of Sergius's besetting sins.  "Our Bruno Wildermann is clever, he may also be dangerous.  He suspected, only he knows how, that he was under surveillance and put his suspicions to the test.  He had this man Roebuck standing by to follow whoever might follow him.  This would make Roebuck--and, by implication, the other two--something just a little bit more than friends.  Roebuck followed Alex.  He didn't go to borrow money, he went to inform Bruno that he, Bruno, had been followed by a man with a black coat, black moustache, very stupid."  He bestowed a pitying glance on the crest-fallen shadower.  "I don't suppose it ever occurred to you, Alex, to look over your shoulder?  Just once?"

"I'm sorry, Colonel."

Sergius gave him a look more commonly associated with a starving crocodile which has just spotted lunch.
nuranar: Hortense Bonaparte. La reine Hortense sous une tonnelle à Aix-les-Bains (1813) by Antoine Jean Duclaux. (Default)
Back when I first started reading Alistair MacLean, I was enthralled and wanted to share my find with the world.  It was disconcerting to discover how hard writing a review was.  "Hah!" you'll say.  "How many words and posts have you made on the fellow in the last month, hmm?"  Ah, but those are on him, on his style and the elements of his writing.  In the intervening years enough has gelled for me to have a semi-coherent analysis.

But the plots, still no.  Take, for example, Fear Is The Key, which I started last night and finished this morning.  A good review should begin with a summary, no?  Well, here's my summary:

...

I'm not being cute.  In journalistic writing, I was able to focus on the W's (and the H) to get the point of the story across.  Who, [did] What, When, Where, Why, and How.  For a review, sometimes all of the W's would let out a spoiler.  Easy enough to avoid, right?  You just tell part of the answer, and maybe leave out a couple W's and the H that reveal too much.  But for Fear Is The Key, the W's and the H are Spoiler City.  I'll do an exercise and see what I come up with.

Who:  Uh... His name? John Talbot.  But who is he?  There's nothing I can say to that.  In a MacLean story, identity and character are not confused or ambivalent.  The reader simply doesn't know.  That is, the intelligent reader doesn't know.  The ordinary reader thinks he does, until he's been fooled two or three times and gives up.

[did] What:  Definitely off limits.  I can't offer even the tiniest smidgeon of the beginning of a hint, or you'll start guessing things.

When:  Ah, well, this doesn't tell you much.  1962 or 1963, I think.  The prologue is in 1958.

Where:  Southeast Florida, partially, and partially off Key West on an oil rig.  No, that is not any kind of a hint; you can't extrapolate from that unless you're really imaginative.  Try it.  I dare you.  *g*

Why:  Uh-uh.

How:  Double uh-uh.

Okay, we've got a protagonist, John Talbot, in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico in 1962.  What kind of a summary is that?  Is it anything to build a review on?

Now that I've maundered on enough to give this entry a more-than-respectable length, I might as well attempt something worthwhile about Fear Is The Key.  So I don't have to restate it every two sentences, take it as a given that I could offer a less vague analysis if I didn't mind giving away plot points.

I think it's the saddest MacLean books I've read.  I don't like sad books.  I liked this one still because (1) it's a MacLean and (2) there's no dwelling on the sadness.  It's shoved to the back of the reader's mind, just as it is in Talbot's.  MacLean does not develop his characters by giving a psychological profile of their suffering.  He gives the facts, and a poignant phrase, and allows human emotion to develop a deeper empathy than any words would create.  Like in a Nero Wolfe I just read. To an acquaintance who'd just lost his only son, a flier, in Sicily: "I would hold up your heart if I could."  From Wolfe, that irritable, contrary, unsympathetic genius, it's outrageous.  Outrageous and heartbreaking.

I digress.

Correspondingly, it's one of the least humorous MacLeans.  Oh, his word choice is as much a delight as ever, and well-worthy of a few chuckles.  But it's in first person from Talbot's point of view, and Talbot isn't in a very funny mood.  He can still see the humor in things, but even his naturally dry humor is tinged by more than a little bitterness.

MacLean's more poetic titles, I ought to mention, are particularly apt, once the reader discovers what they mean.  Night Without End, which takes place on the Greenland ice cap, refers to the endless darkness that falls when the midnight sun sets.  Fear Is the Key and The Way to Dusty Death are even more integral to their plots.

My verdict?  It's not in my absolute favorites list, but there's no real reason I can give.  It's good, very good.  The opening sequence/hundred pages/however many chapters is, ah, excellent reading.  (Boy, he can mess with your mind!)  And that's not to minimize the rest.  No Save The World stuff, either.  Just some rats who need a very definite squashing, and a man with a great desire to right a wrong.
nuranar: Hortense Bonaparte. La reine Hortense sous une tonnelle à Aix-les-Bains (1813) by Antoine Jean Duclaux. (Default)
Back when I first started reading Alistair MacLean, I was enthralled and wanted to share my find with the world.  It was disconcerting to discover how hard writing a review was.  "Hah!" you'll say.  "How many words and posts have you made on the fellow in the last month, hmm?"  Ah, but those are on him, on his style and the elements of his writing.  In the intervening years enough has gelled for me to have a semi-coherent analysis.

But the plots, still no.  Take, for example, Fear Is The Key, which I started last night and finished this morning.  A good review should begin with a summary, no?  Well, here's my summary:

...

I'm not being cute.  In journalistic writing, I was able to focus on the W's (and the H) to get the point of the story across.  Who, [did] What, When, Where, Why, and How.  For a review, sometimes all of the W's would let out a spoiler.  Easy enough to avoid, right?  You just tell part of the answer, and maybe leave out a couple W's and the H that reveal too much.  But for Fear Is The Key, the W's and the H are Spoiler City.  I'll do an exercise and see what I come up with.

Who:  Uh... His name? John Talbot.  But who is he?  There's nothing I can say to that.  In a MacLean story, identity and character are not confused or ambivalent.  The reader simply doesn't know.  That is, the intelligent reader doesn't know.  The ordinary reader thinks he does, until he's been fooled two or three times and gives up.

[did] What:  Definitely off limits.  I can't offer even the tiniest smidgeon of the beginning of a hint, or you'll start guessing things.

When:  Ah, well, this doesn't tell you much.  1962 or 1963, I think.  The prologue is in 1958.

Where:  Southeast Florida, partially, and partially off Key West on an oil rig.  No, that is not any kind of a hint; you can't extrapolate from that unless you're really imaginative.  Try it.  I dare you.  *g*

Why:  Uh-uh.

How:  Double uh-uh.

Okay, we've got a protagonist, John Talbot, in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico in 1962.  What kind of a summary is that?  Is it anything to build a review on?

Now that I've maundered on enough to give this entry a more-than-respectable length, I might as well attempt something worthwhile about Fear Is The Key.  So I don't have to restate it every two sentences, take it as a given that I could offer a less vague analysis if I didn't mind giving away plot points.

I think it's the saddest MacLean books I've read.  I don't like sad books.  I liked this one still because (1) it's a MacLean and (2) there's no dwelling on the sadness.  It's shoved to the back of the reader's mind, just as it is in Talbot's.  MacLean does not develop his characters by giving a psychological profile of their suffering.  He gives the facts, and a poignant phrase, and allows human emotion to develop a deeper empathy than any words would create.  Like in a Nero Wolfe I just read. To an acquaintance who'd just lost his only son, a flier, in Sicily: "I would hold up your heart if I could."  From Wolfe, that irritable, contrary, unsympathetic genius, it's outrageous.  Outrageous and heartbreaking.

I digress.

Correspondingly, it's one of the least humorous MacLeans.  Oh, his word choice is as much a delight as ever, and well-worthy of a few chuckles.  But it's in first person from Talbot's point of view, and Talbot isn't in a very funny mood.  He can still see the humor in things, but even his naturally dry humor is tinged by more than a little bitterness.

MacLean's more poetic titles, I ought to mention, are particularly apt, once the reader discovers what they mean.  Night Without End, which takes place on the Greenland ice cap, refers to the endless darkness that falls when the midnight sun sets.  Fear Is the Key and The Way to Dusty Death are even more integral to their plots.

My verdict?  It's not in my absolute favorites list, but there's no real reason I can give.  It's good, very good.  The opening sequence/hundred pages/however many chapters is, ah, excellent reading.  (Boy, he can mess with your mind!)  And that's not to minimize the rest.  No Save The World stuff, either.  Just some rats who need a very definite squashing, and a man with a great desire to right a wrong.
nuranar: Hortense Bonaparte. La reine Hortense sous une tonnelle à Aix-les-Bains (1813) by Antoine Jean Duclaux. (Default)
I've compromised.  It's now the recycle can, not the wastebasket, that's handy for kicking over.  It won't make such a mess when I tump it over, but will give no less satisfaction.

---

In addition to the heaps of Nero Wolfe books, my to-be-read Debris Field includes several Alistair MacLean books.  Besides The Way to Dusty Death, sent to me by the Most Gracious [personal profile] jordannamorgan, I have The Satan Bug (from PaperBackSwap) and Fear Is the Key (from the Book Rack).  The Way to Dusty Death, written in 1973, is the first of MacLean's final, and poorest, phase, so I read it first.

The Way to Dusty Death is set on the Grand Prix racing circuit in Europe.  It tells of the seeming - seeming - mental breakdown of Johnny Harlow, unquestionably the best driver, after a series of crashes, and his lapse into alcoholism.  Reader beware - Things are seldom what they seem.  I have zero interest in automobile racing, but that was not a handicap to understanding the book.

If this is a poor book, it's poor only in comparison to MacLean's best.  I didn't find it terribly suspenseful, but that is a very subjective opinion; it's far more suspenseful than most mysteries, for example.  There's a bit too much narration and too little dialogue, particularly in the beginning.  Characterization is not poor, but certainly doesn't show the extreme care and effort put into his earlier books.

In all of the four or five Cussler novels I've read, I've thought that Cussler tried to accomplish too much.  He tries to write a modern thriller with heavy historical elements, and his hero(es) have to head off The Biggest Catastrophe to Hit the World Ever.  In every book.  I swallow a lot, but that's just too much.  Another of MacLean's later books that I've read seemed to fall into the same trap, coupled with a (Cussler-like) caricatured Evil Villain.  But not in The Way to Dusty Death.  As always, the kernel of the conflict is deeply hidden; it's not a Save the World situation, though.  I refuse to give away plot points, so I cannot elaborate.  But it's a definitely a worthy plot.

There were a few notable word choice examples in the dialogue.  At one point, the Hero agrees with the Partner, saying, "True, true!"  That little phrase is up there with "wonderfulness" as the biggest of the many catch phrases that I SPY made famous.  At another point, the Hero refers to the opposition as "the ungodly."  If you think that didn't bring a big grin to my face, you don't know me!
nuranar: Hortense Bonaparte. La reine Hortense sous une tonnelle à Aix-les-Bains (1813) by Antoine Jean Duclaux. (Default)
I've compromised.  It's now the recycle can, not the wastebasket, that's handy for kicking over.  It won't make such a mess when I tump it over, but will give no less satisfaction.

---

In addition to the heaps of Nero Wolfe books, my to-be-read Debris Field includes several Alistair MacLean books.  Besides The Way to Dusty Death, sent to me by the Most Gracious [personal profile] jordannamorgan, I have The Satan Bug (from PaperBackSwap) and Fear Is the Key (from the Book Rack).  The Way to Dusty Death, written in 1973, is the first of MacLean's final, and poorest, phase, so I read it first.

The Way to Dusty Death is set on the Grand Prix racing circuit in Europe.  It tells of the seeming - seeming - mental breakdown of Johnny Harlow, unquestionably the best driver, after a series of crashes, and his lapse into alcoholism.  Reader beware - Things are seldom what they seem.  I have zero interest in automobile racing, but that was not a handicap to understanding the book.

If this is a poor book, it's poor only in comparison to MacLean's best.  I didn't find it terribly suspenseful, but that is a very subjective opinion; it's far more suspenseful than most mysteries, for example.  There's a bit too much narration and too little dialogue, particularly in the beginning.  Characterization is not poor, but certainly doesn't show the extreme care and effort put into his earlier books.

In all of the four or five Cussler novels I've read, I've thought that Cussler tried to accomplish too much.  He tries to write a modern thriller with heavy historical elements, and his hero(es) have to head off The Biggest Catastrophe to Hit the World Ever.  In every book.  I swallow a lot, but that's just too much.  Another of MacLean's later books that I've read seemed to fall into the same trap, coupled with a (Cussler-like) caricatured Evil Villain.  But not in The Way to Dusty Death.  As always, the kernel of the conflict is deeply hidden; it's not a Save the World situation, though.  I refuse to give away plot points, so I cannot elaborate.  But it's a definitely a worthy plot.

There were a few notable word choice examples in the dialogue.  At one point, the Hero agrees with the Partner, saying, "True, true!"  That little phrase is up there with "wonderfulness" as the biggest of the many catch phrases that I SPY made famous.  At another point, the Hero refers to the opposition as "the ungodly."  If you think that didn't bring a big grin to my face, you don't know me!

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