Wednesday, 28 December 2016

"You only live twice: Once when you are born and once when you look death in the face"

Arguably the best 50p I've spent recently was on a 1964 copy of Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice, book 11 in the James Bond series. I've bought a couple of these 1960s paper backs before; the cover designs and bold 'James Bond' type are irresistibly collectable, but You Only Live Twice really jumped out to me when I remembered from the movie adaptation that this was James Bond in Japan. 

You Only Live Twice was the first novel published after Ian Fleming's death and can be seen as a step change in the series. Bond fans generally will read in this particular novel the end of the Blofeld trilogy and a specific cycle of books when many of the classic Bond tropes has been established but You Only Live Twice is a fascinating read whichever way you look at it. Movie fans will notice the fresh nuances Fleming introduces in this novel that was published once several Sean Connery/EON films had been released. M's eulogy at the end of the book even goes as far as to suggest that Bond himself has Scottish ancestry which demonstrates that Fleming himself was accepting a kind of Connery/Bond blend.

For me this novel is all about the setting in Japan which Fleming writes with both an awareness of post war Japanese modernity and simultaneous deep roots in the mystic Orient. Fleming himself had been commissioned to write a travel piece about his own trip to Japan and this novel is essentially an extension. The novel is far less about shoot outs, car chases and fist fights and more about Bond's search for a zen like recuperation after the loss of his wife Tracey in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Fleming weaves into the narrative a number of key Japanese cultural themes; isolation and suicide, strict societal formality, US cultural imperialism etc which simply didn't make Roald Dahl's subsequent screenplay adaptation. 

Alongside the contemporary references Fleming can't resist scenes set at a Ninja training camp and the Russian roulette experience of eating poisonous fugu fish which are more a reflection of 'exotic' Japan through Western eyes. There is a tendency today to think of Japan in these hyper modern yet deeply traditional terms but Fleming's writing shines a light on just how other Wordly Japan was to the eyes of the sixties Briton.

The story is fun, arch enemy Blofeld poses as a famous horticulturalist in a volcano hideaway which Bond must infiltrate as a favour to the Japanese secret service in exchange for documents needed by M, but the real thrill of the novel is Bond's conversations with the characters he meets along the way. The train ride to the South Islands with Tiger Tanaka and deep sea diving with Kissy Suzuki are moments where the novels always deliver something that the films ignore.

Personally, the scene where Bond drinks post dinner sake from a small tumbler whilst watching the lights along the coast at Yokohama is pure Bond.   
I read this novel in paperback not long after a business trip to Yokohama.
You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming published by Pan,  228 pages.      

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

"As for Helsinki...its innocent smell was like an old cardigan left out in the freezing cold, spattered with salty seawater, fresh pine needles caught in its threads "

The Mine is the new release from ‘King of Helsinki Noir’ Antti Tuomainen who may not be as well known (yet) as other writers in the Nordic Noir canon but has been praised as a highly distinctive writer and been shortlisted for the coveted Scandinavian Glass Key Award.
Antti Tuomainen’s premise in The Mine is a master-class in genre construct. Following a tip off, investigative journalist Janne Vuori sets out to uncover the truth about a mysterious mine in a remote area of Northern Finland. In the dead of winter, Executives from the firm begin to die in a string of accidents and the mine begins to release its secrets. In a second, and initially unconnected, narrative strand a lone and elderly hitman looks back on his life and work. This is classic Noir from the outset!
I’m reviewing this book as part of Orenda Books Finnish Invasion blog tour which celebrates the best of crime fiction coming out of Finland. Earlier this week I posted by review of fellow Finnish Author Kati Hiekkapelto’s TheExiled.
Tuomainen’s story telling is gripping, the pace is fast and succinct with the whole narrative structured around 3 parts; Nickel, Lead and Gold. Some chapters are a single powerful paragraph whilst others adopt a more pensive prose style that opens up the characters one by one; “He had continued reading over the years, sometimes voraciously, finding new books and new authors, but still the memory of the books he had read all those years ago exceeded everything that has come before”.
Although the drama of the story is strong it is the character development which really sets this novel apart. Janne’s meeting with his estranged father is brilliantly written; “He could see from the man’s eyes that he recognised him, at least on some level, before he fully understood who he was looking at”. Likewise his bitterly failing relationship with his wife unravels in a single paragraph; “The entirety of the conversation after which I lost my family for good...”.
The other highlight of the novel for me is Helsinki itself which Tuomainen brings to life by combining descriptive fact, “Pirjo’s Tavern, a legendary watering hole at the Pirkkolantie intersection”, with unique prose “the bourgeois sleep sound” and vivid detail “It was so quiet that he could almost hear his breath steaming up the windows. This is high quality writing for the thriller genre with a clear and distinct sense of place.
The Mine is an ecological conspiracy drama with all the darkness , secrets and murder we’ve come to love from the Nordic Noir genre but what really sets this novel, and Tuomainen’s writing apart, is the character driven family sub plot which underpins the entire story. The Mine itself is a wonderful metaphor for the hidden secrets and lies that are buried deep within the psyche of man.
I read this novel in paperback (thank you Karen for the advance copy), on a flight between London and Tokyo which took me directly over Northern Finland.
The Mine by Antti Tuomainen and translated by David Hackston, published by Orenda Books,  300 pages.      

Monday, 5 December 2016

"Dear child. This is a different world from the one you're used to. There are some situations to which the normal rules don't apply. Thank God, you don't know anything about this kind of place"

'The Exiled' marks the third outing for Finnish detective Anna Fekete, Heikkapelto's hugely popular literary lead who is coming to define a particular strand of Nordic Noir coming out of Finland.

This time Anna returns to her childhood home in The Balkans with the intention of taking a relaxing holiday. Typically for this genre the holiday is seriously cut short when Anna's handbag is stolen at a party and the body of the thief is later found washed up on the banks of the river. Anna is immediately drawn into the investigation which ultimately brings her face to face with the circumstances surrounding the death of her own father years before.

I'm reviewing this book as part of Orenda Books Finnish Invasion blog tour which celebrates the best of crime fiction coming out of Finland including not only Kati Hiekkapelto but also Antti Tuomainen whose novel The Mine I'm reviewing later this week.  This blog is packed full of Nordic Noir reviews from Ragnar Jonasson to Arne Dahl but to my knowledge this is the first time I've read a translated novel from Finland. 

'The Exiled' is a well written slice of crime fiction with all the chilling tension and dark secrets we've come to expect from the genre; "Anna had the impression that their mother had already accepted that her grand children might not be her own flesh and blood".  The locations perfectly capture the pressure of the investigation and the characters that inhabit Heikkapelto's landscapes; "The Sun was like an enormous, glowing eye looking down omnisciently on the Jaras"

Heikkapelto expertly weaves contemporary themes into the story by setting the drama at the heart of the Eastern European refugee crisis. Anna Fekete is the perfect protaganist here as she herself is a outsider with the strength of mind and sheer independence to dig deeper into places others would fear to tread. As such, Anna is the star of the novel and a character that you want to read so much more about.

At times the story slows down and gets bogged down in detail that does little to drive the story forward but at other times the pace is faster and more compelling. Heikkapelto's writing style is immersive and distinct but for me I would have liked a little more Finland so I will be checking out the first two of the Anna Fekete novels, The Hummingbird and The Defenceless

Credit must also be given to translator David Hackston who surely must have one of the most difficult jobs in fiction translating from such a unique language.

I read this novel on paperback (thank you Karen for the advance copy), mostly on the train in and out of Marylebone

The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto and translated by David Hackston, published by Orenda Books, 300 pages