McCloud, Scott. Zot!

NY: HarperCollins, 2008.

To older readers of graphic novels — people like me — McCloud probably is best known for his three groundbreaking books on the theory, art, and practice of storytelling through the medium (not “genre”) of comic books. But he wrote those books based on his experience in the trenches. Zot! was a four-year series of black-and-white comics that played new riffs on the superhero tradition by postulating a 15-year-old flying hero with lots of tech (as opposed to superpowers) who lives in an alternative New York City, but who can hop back and forth between his world and ours via a portable portal.


Fraser, George MacDonald. Flashman.

NY: World, 1969.

Harry Flashman is a coward, a cad, and a bounder. And not only does he know it, he brags on it. We first met him as a supporting character — a bully, evicted from the school — in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but that was just the beginning of a very successful life for Flashman, . . . if you ignore the sheer terror, the occasional torture, and the frequent lack of money. He always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — and he always comes out of such predicaments smelling of roses and having medals pinned on his tunic.


Greene, Graham. The Tenth Man.

NY: Simon & Schuster, 1985.

Back in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, Graham Greene was in Hollywood trying to become a screenwriter, as a possible solution to his cash-flow problems. (His novels, while well received, weren’t earning him much.) One of his ideas, based on a true incident of the Spanish Civil War, involved a group of French hostages being held by the Germans as guarantors for the good behavior of the civilian population. When a couple of soldiers are shot, the hostages are informed that one-tenth of them will be executed in reprisal — a classic decimation.


Published in: on 23 May 2011 at 6:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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Furst, Alan. The Spies of Warsaw.

NY: Random House, 2008.

I’m not ordinarily a heavy consumer of espionage novels — with the strong exception of John Le Carre, whom I put in a class by himself; his plots and characters are almost Shakespearean. But the critics continue to rave about Furst as the leading writer of spy stories, and he’s been turning them out for twenty years now, so I decided I had better give him a try. Where Le Carre’s stories are set in the Cold War and after, Furst deals mostly with the late 1930s, the period just before World War II, which everyone who was paying attention knew was coming.


Fraser, George MacDonald. The Hollywood History of the World, from One Million B.C. to Apocalypse Now.

NY: Morrow, 1988.

Any book which undertakes to argue the author’s choice of the best or worst of anything has a good shot at being a lot of fun — and an even better shot when the author is a very knowledgeable, highly opinionated, and notably talented wordsmith. Fraser is best known for his “Flashman” comic-historical novels — highly regarded for their detailed accuracy — but he was also an experienced and professional playwright and screenplay writer. And in this volume he considers how history has been treated in the (mostly) English-language films of Hollywood and Britain.


Published in: on 17 May 2011 at 5:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Greene, Graham. Our Man in Havana.

NY: Viking, 1958.

Greene is best known (deservedly) for his serious “Catholic novels,” but he also was fascinated with the world of espionage, and he was perfectly capable of writing archetypal British dry humor. Put those together and you have a very funny book, set in the last days of the Batista dictatorship in Cuba. Mr. Wormold, a middle-aged ex-pat, runs the Cuban franchise for the Phastkleaner Company, purveyors of the Atomic Pile Vacuum Cleaner. Though there’s nothing actually “atomic” about it, as he has to keep explaining to nervous potential customers.


Published in: on 15 May 2011 at 4:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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Davies, Robertson. The Rebel Angels.

NY: Viking, 1982.

Canada, being a small nation, hasn’t produced that many first-rate literary minds, but among those she has Davies leads the pack. He was a Shakespearean actor, a playwright, a newspaper editor, a professor of English, a busy novelist, and head of a graduate college in Toronto, and it’s the latter two careers that figure most in this first volume of a satirical trilogy. (Davies did a number of trilogies.) There are three narrators who take turns leading the reader through events and we see each of them through the eyes of the other two, which makes the whole story exist in multiple dimensions.


Byatt, A. S. The Shadow of the Sun.

NY: Harcourt, 1964.

Sometimes, a young writer’s first novel is a blockbuster, a runaway bestseller. (This seems more likely to be the case when its style is heavily cinematic.) And this is unfortunate, in a way, because any subsequent work then has a sort of doom hanging over it for its author: Will the next one be as good as my first book? More often, though, for a “literary” author, the first book is likely to be a bit tentative, just a toe in the water. Then the work improves and draws more attention as the corpus grows. Practice makes perfect.


Published in: on 10 May 2011 at 5:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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Adams, Alice. A Southern Exposure.

NY: Knopf, 1995.

Alice Adams was one of the great storytellers of the late 20th century, best known for her short stories, but I’ve always loved her novels. And she was one of the great delineators of character, too, painting deft portraits of urbane but conflicted Northern women and smart but constricted Southerners. And she could set them in their milieu and tell you all the important things to know about them in just a few sentences.


Published in: on 8 May 2011 at 6:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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Isaacs, Susan. Past Perfect.

NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007.

Fifteen years ago, when native New Yorker Katie Schottland was still idealistic (well, more idealistic than she is now), she combined her love of spy novels and her degree in economics with a desire to serve her country by going to work for the CIA — not as a spy but as an analyst in the “intelligence” part of the business. And she not only loved her job, she did it well — until one day, after not quite two years, she was abruptly fired and escorted out of Langley. “I have a right to know why,” she insisted. “No, you don’t,” they replied.


Published in: on 6 May 2011 at 6:42 am  Leave a Comment  
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