Tag Archives: Alistair MacLean

Baby, it’s cold out there

‘Do you even know what that is?’ Daughter asked as I read out loud from the television guide, suggesting that Saturday afternoon we could have watched Ice Station Zebra.

Would I suggest something without knowing; without meaning it?

I swiftly informed her about the film, whose novel it was based on and that the Alistair MacLean book was far superior. But the film would still have been worth watching. Again. Can only have seen it three or four times.

This was confirmed by friends on social media, who did actually watch yesterday, and I felt I had sort of missed out. Even if I can watch later. But I’m glad that at least people my age are still enjoying these ancient adventure thrillers. And there was nothing wrong with Where Eagles Dare, which both Offspring have watched.

I probably won’t reread the MacLeans. Although the reason I gave up at whatever point, must have had more to do with me moving on as the books moved in a different direction. I suspect I favour the WWII and Cold War stories.

And if I may say so, one good side to the lack of new programmes and films has been that there is so much old stuff offered again. Things that would usually have been hidden away in the middle of the night if it ever came to light again. I like seeing films again.

Again.

An Austen-free upbringing

After wondering why I didn’t read the books by Jane Austen or the Brontës in my early teens, I suddenly realised why, and who I could blame for this regrettable shortcoming. (Always important, because it certainly wasn’t my fault.)

My Swedish teacher when I was 15, is who. The last year of secondary school we had free reading once a week. I am – with my mature adult hindsight – guessing it was a way to get the non-readers to read. Anything. At. All.

We were allowed to read whatever we wanted, and could bring our own books or use the school library. I generally sat down with an Alistair MacLean, or similar. Generally in English (which is odd for a Swedish lesson, but never mind). Naturally the teacher would have preferred me not to.

So she suggested books I might try. The only one I remember is Pella. I am sure the Pella books were fantastic, and the teacher had most likely loved them when she was young. But I was 15, and I was reading MacLean. Pella would – possibly – have been right for me about three years earlier.

All these years I’ve remembered the teacher’s badly chosen suggested books and I have understood what she was hoping for. I just haven’t thought of what she ought to have pointed me in the direction of instead, because she was quite right in wanting me to better myself with something other than MacLean.

I already loved all manner of romances; the kind where a young governess meets her new employer who is a brooding and somewhat strange man, and where they eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. The Jane Eyre copycats. Reader, I had no idea there existed the real thing and that it would have been much more satisfying. (Not better than MacLean, obviously, but as good…)

We knew of Pride and Prejudice because it had been on television. At that point I was of an age where understanding there’d be a book as well was too much to expect. We knew about Vanity Fair, because that too had been on television. Also, Heathcliff ran around the moors on television, and I knew there was a book, but it didn’t tempt me at all.

I knew about Dickens because we had children’s abridged versions. And yes, he’d been on television.

Mother-of-witch was many things, and for someone of her background she had an astounding number of proper books and books in English. But she had not been brought up on the classic governesses, and so she could not point me in their direction. Which is fine.

But my well educated mother tongue teacher could have. And should have.

A Bloody Brilliant Crime Weekend

Lin Anderson and Alex Gray are used to murdering people, and on Friday night they toasted their victims in prosecco (which was really water, or so they claimed) to mark the start of Bloody Scotland, their ‘baby’ in the ‘Harrogate of the North.’ (That’s Stirling for the uninitiated.)

Alex Gray and Lin Anderson and drinkers

They ran through all the reasons for a Scottish crimefest, and then called in Ian Rankin to consider the merits of them, and he seemed to think it was a sound idea. Hard to be sure, because he mumbled a bit from time to time.

But it is a good idea; this ‘weekend to die for.’ The Albert Halls were packed on Friday evening when Lin and Alex and Ian provided the arguments for yet another crime festival. Something for a country with fewer spinsters and tiny gentlemen, and ‘with a bit more gas’ to put it bluntly.

Scotland has plenty of places not yet used in fiction. Everywhere is fair game. And crime is not subsidised or sponsored, so it has to sell. It has to be good. Ian Rankin said he wanted to write what he thought his father might want to read. He himself grew up on Alistair MacLean (well, who didn’t?), but pointed out that all of his books were set outside Scotland.

When they opened the floor to questions the audience was unusually reticent until Barry Forshaw set the ball rolling by wondering if we – they – need to be worried about the Scandinavians.

Yes, they do need to be concerned about the Scandinavians. Especially beware the ones in Stirling this weekend.

Ian Rankin

Ian moaned about the difference in television hours between Rebus and the Killing, and made the obvious statement that Branagh is Branagh. As for himself he prefers the second Wallander, which is probably Krister Henriksson.

After discussing how it’s harder to murder people with obscure poisons these days, the audience got friskier, culminating in one writer advertising his own crime novels and asking Ian for advice on publishing and ‘how to become a little more rich.’

The move on to sockpuppets was probably unavoidable, although not everyone knew what they are. But as Ian said about himself and his Scottish crime writing peers, ‘we’re the gang.’

This gang drank – another – toast to Bloody Scotland, signed books in the BS bookshop, and then swanned off to a grand dinner at the Highland Hotel.

The Grasshopper’s Run

I love it when a book I’ve not quite got to earlier, turns out to be unexpectedly really very good. Except I wonder about my own delaying tactics sometimes.

Siddhartha Sarma’s The Grasshopper’s Run is like an Alistair MacLean for teens, with India in its heart. And better. I didn’t realise before what kind of book it is. If I had I wouldn’t have waited. Although if I hadn’t saved it – however mistakenly – I wouldn’t have discovered it now. Now it fits perfectly with my Indian theme.

Set in Assam in 1944 immediately prior to the war in Burma escalating, it partly features MacLean style British military people, but mostly it is about the locals in this part of East Assam. The natives, who are not terribly highly thought of by either the British or the Japanese. It’s the cruelty – and stupidity – of one Japanese Colonel which is at the centre of this story.

Siddhartha Sarma, The Grasshopper's Run

The book begins with the slaughter of every person in a small Naga village, by the Colonel’s soldiers, and the rest of the story deals with the revenge taken by neighbouring native groups. They get together to cooperate on this, unlike how things used to be.

The main character is a 15-year-old boy, the son and grandson of someone important. His best friend died in the massacre, and they were clearly two remarkable teenage boys, well trained by their elders. This comes in very handy for finding one specific Japanese Colonel in the haystack of the Naga Hills.

Siddhartha has done a great deal of research and his knowledge of both the war and of the Naga tribes feels genuine. For any reader who might believe that ‘natives’ are simple, it’s time to think again.

There is something terribly satisfying about revenge, when it’s done for all the right reasons. This a truly exciting book, and most informative for the European reader. I knew nothing about Assam. And the mind boggles when you learn that the Brahmaputra river ‘here narrowed till it was little more than a mile across.’ That’s some river!

Now for some romance before it gets dark!

Last week several authors linked to this blog post, which primarily moans about sequelitis in the world of romantic fiction, and especially that aimed at younger readers. At least, I think so. Mercifully I have not read them, but I can imagine what they are like. Or perhaps I can’t.

The thing is, the post was written by a fan of this type of book before publishers lost all sense of proportion.

Now, I grew up on plenty of romance of the fictional kind. I was actually under the impression that I was awfully grown-up when tackling Barbara Cartland, who was perpetually serialised in the weekly magazine I liked so much that I spent my pocket money buying it, until Mother-of-witch gave up and paid.

I saw the light – eventually – and moved on to Alistair MacLean and other mature books.

In my brief course on children’s literature at university we were ordered to read two unexpected books alongside Anne of Green Gables and other worthies. One had to be a cheap romance, and the other an action story like Nick Carter. The reason being that children, or young adults (long before the term was invented), were reading them. Ergo, they counted as children’s books.

And now we have vampires.

The cheap action type novel has plenty of modern alternatives. And I suppose Twilight & Co are better than my old Barbara Cartlands? Miss Cartland reputedly spent all of two weeks on every book she ‘wrote’, and whatever your opinion of Stephenie Meyer, she must have worked somewhat harder on her writing.

Dark romance

I suspect young girls are hardwired to want romance at some point in their early reading lives. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the romance is allowed to end and the readers move on to new things. That’s where it might be worse now, because vampire novels and similar books look so much like real books. Mills & Boons look exactly as what they are. Cheap romance. Some of them pretty good. Some not.

Now publishers are milking the black and red covered cash cow. Endlessly. I want to sit down and cry when previously sensible publishers bring out their own Twilight.  I could almost accept it, if it weren’t the case that these Twilights are squeezing out real books. Not all of them, but there are many excellent books that never get published, or that sell so badly that they don’t stand a chance in the shadow of romance.

There is good YA romance. Recent examples that come to mind are Mary Hoffman, Celia Rees and Gillian Philip, who all write real, and romantic, novels. It’s not my intention to come up with a long list here. I just want to say that there is choice.

We had very little of that in the 1970s. Cartland and M&B on one side and Jane Eyre & Co on the other. Although, in my late teens I did find a couple of authors who were capable of writing light but intelligent romance with death and excitement on the side. M M Kaye and Mary Stewart were both authors I inherited from nearby adults. And unlike the cheap stuff, I still remember them well.

SOS Adventure

Ice Quake

Contrary to what you might think, this is my first children’s book by Colin Bateman. Still haven’t got to the charity shop purchase and I never did read the Titanic book, despite it doing well in awards shortlists. But I’m past the stage where I walk up to Colin and utter the ‘hello, I’ve never read anything by you, but I’m pleased to meet you’ kind of thing.

I’m rambling. SOS Adventure is Colin’s new series for children, the first of which is called Ice Quake. It’s an Alistair MacLean for children, competently written and exciting. SOS appears to be yet another organisation of the kind that does important and adventurous stuff and which recruits young people to help out.

So, not realistic, unless I’m mistaken in what goes on in real life, but it’s the kind of thing we dream of when young. To be chosen to be part of something bigger than a school outing. To make a difference. Michael sets fire to his school and then does a heroic act, after which he is catapulted into another world. There he meets Katya, another young recruit, and they really don’t like each other.

After that kind of a start it goes without saying that they get marooned together somewhere and have to be brave and clever, and they succeed where the adults failed.

I’d expect readers the right age to love this, and I can see that they’d want to go on to the next adventure, whereas I feel so tired and exhausted that I’d prefer a rest. I’m old. That’s why.

But you can all sense a big but of the one-t variety, can’t you? Colin is a marvellous writer. Having read his Mystery Man adult crime novels that are both intelligent and hysterically funny, what I’d like most of all is a miniature version of those. Just like I found Carl Hiaasen’s latest young novel far better than the first two, for the very reason that it was like his adult books with the sex and the swearing removed, I feel Colin could (should) do the same.

Intelligently written, humorous books for children in whatever genre is something we can never have too many of. Just as Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant really is The Thin Man for young readers, there’d be room for a ‘mini Mystery Man’ of sorts.

There’s scope here for telling me that the ones I haven’t read (yet) are precisely what I’m suggesting, in which case I’ll just go and lie down in a dark room for a while.

Drop Zone

The witch is not your average Andy McNab girl. Not in the slightest, although she has a lingering fondness for Alistair MacLean, and they are a little related. Andy does that thing which I approve of, which is to write about what you know. And he really does seem to know about skydiving, as well as covert operations and weapons. And stuff.

He writes macho books with plenty of action in an easy to read style, which ought to be ideal to get boys of all ages to read.  I enjoyed his new book Drop Zone more than I’d expected, and that’s despite reading with a cynical mind. So, if you want male adventure and a light read, you can do worse than to try Andy’s book.

Drop Zone is about Ethan, who is 17 and who lands a really different summer job at a skydiving centre. It doesn’t take long – naturally – for him to go from helping in the café and in the shop, to doing skydiving himself. From ‘simple’ skydiving it’s a short jump to joining the skydive team and their rather more secret tasks for MI5.

The skydiving and the centre is totally believable. The covert operations less so, but what do I know? Whether realistic or not, it’s exciting. It’s a page turner, and Ethan’s exploits could well be a model for uncertain teenage boys to follow. I’m never sure whether army ideals are good to thrust on impressionable young minds, but the alternatives are often far worse.