Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Spy Novels for James Bond Fans

The Intern's HandbookIt’s easy to tell that Shane Kuhn has a background in movies- from the very first page, his debut novel has the perfect pacing and delicate balance between humor and action that sends crowds flocking to the theaters every summer. The Intern’s Handbook is resident anti-hero John Lago’s gift to the newer recruits at HR, Incorporated. HR, Inc. is a corporate staffing agency specializing in placing interns at some of the best corporations across the country. At least that’s what they tell the government. In reality John Lago is one of many highly trained assassins who are scooped off the streets as troubled children and groomed to infiltrate and eliminate. This is a record of Lago’s final assignment, as he approaches the ripe old age of 25 when an unpaid intern goes from being invisible to highly noticeable, before he is retired. While Lago intends his handbook to be a learn-by-example training guide for the fresh blood at HR, Inc., it ends up doubling as an intense look at a man trying to fight his way out of a hopeless situation while attempting to keep his emotional walls high and impenetrable. Lago’s surety in his own prowess and his actual talent for survival are the perfect cross between cocky James Bond and psychologically scarred Jason Bourne. The Intern’s Handbook is a noteworthy twist on the spy thriller genre that had me at times laughing out loud and other times frantically ripping through the pages, barely breathing, rooting for John Lago to survive.

Verdict: Buy. But wait for the paperback release on the 24th of February.

Solo: A James Bond NovelWilliam Boyd’s Solo is really good. If you like James Bond. I don’t mean the movie Bond, either. What impressed me the most with Boyd’s new addition to the 007 canon was his ability to nearly seamlessly replicate Fleming’s style. Bond may be a bit older here – it’s 1969 and he’s 45 now – and the world is changing rapidly around him, but he’s still as sexist, racist, and focused on his food, clothes, and cars as ever. Truly this is what makes Bond, Bond. Fleming’s novels had some ridiculous action sequences, but they focused on the characters. The villains were analysed and given twisted and convoluted motivations while Bond was a gallivanting, playboy super-spy with carte blanche from Her Majesty’s Government to kill as many men, ravish as many women, and drink as many of his signature martinis as necessary to complete his missions. And that’s all here, with the added bonus of showing Bond aging out of being cool and confident. Boyd has managed to do what no one else has for the (written) Bond franchise – make it feel like a genuine continuation of the original novels.

Verdict: Borrow, unless you’re a massive 007 fan.

Too Bad to DieToo Bad to Die by Francine Mathews is not what I expected it to be. It’s fast-paced, multi-layered, and brazenly tackles multiple historical figures. Mathews has dropped us into Cairo, on the eve of the Big Three’s meeting in Tehran in 1943, when a naval intelligence officer named Ian Fleming receives an urgent message from some computer genius named Alan Turing. Turing has intercepted a series of messages that indicate, without question, that an assassin intends to take out at least one of the Allied leaders at the conference. Oh, and there is definitely a spy among the gathered government officials and their families. Fleming, long resigned to living in his brother’s shadow and determined to live up to his pledge to make his late father proud, decides to take matters into his own hands and uncover the traitor before it’s too late. Things quickly go awry and Fleming is forced to adapt a covert identity hastily provided by the British embassy (some dead soldier named James Bond). This novel is simultaneously an easy read, yet really meaty. I’m beyond impressed with Mathews’s ability to make such famous characters – Turing and Fleming join the likes of Winston Churchill, FDR, Joseph Stalin, Elliott Roosevelt, and Pamela Churchill (Harriman) among others – seem so real while easily merging the more comical elements of Fleming writing spy novels as a hobby and stumbling into the character he would eventually make famous.

Verdict: Buy! (Well, pre-order – it’s available March 3rd!)
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