Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Day of the Jackal #bookreview #FrederickForsyth

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth is a political thriller focused on a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, President of France.  The Jackal, a professional assassin is hired by the OAS, a French dissident paramilitary organisation to complete the task.

If I’m honest I don’t think I’d have ever chosen to read this book.  Although I do read a lot of thrillers I tend to sway towards religious historical thrillers, hunts for lost libraries, scrolls, treasures and gospels.  I also, prior to this, had little knowledge and active interest in the politics of France of the 1960s.  But, it is a favourite of my other half and we’re trying to broaden our reading by taking recommendations from each other.

In setting the scene for the assassination plot Forsyth begins with detailing a failed attempt on de Gaulle’s life by Col. Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry followed quickly by the capturing of Antoine Argoud, the OAS Chief of Operations.  Whilst I understand the need to give background and context to the rest of the book I struggled with these first few chapters.  The organisational structure of the OAS and the history of their involvement and disagreement with the making of an independent Algeria confused me and I began to doubt whether I would a) be able to keep track of the plot and b) be interested in what happened next.

From the moment Argoud’s deputy Lt Col. Marc Rodin sets his plan in motion to hire a professional assassin the pieces came together and Forsyth’s storytelling came into its own.  Most people reading this book they will know from the outset that the Jackal will fail as Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated but died at home from a ruptured blood vessel weeks before his 80th birthday.  I did not know this and had to seek guidance from my other half as to what was true to reality and what was fiction!  I have since learnt that Forsyth was to influence a generation of thriller writers with this new documentary style of realism.  In reading The Day of the Jackal you could easily be led to believe you are reading the real life account of one of those involved with the investigation.

It is a credit to Forsyth’s style, depth and narrative talent that the book was publish in the first place.  Published in 1971 de Gaulle had already died and I’m sure many publishers doubted the success of a book which focuses on the movements of one man, with one mission, which the reader knows he is going to fail at.

So why was it such a success? I think this is simple, Forsyth had written a spectacular and detailed Cat and Mouse adventure.  The slow and methodical preparation we are taken through with the Jackal is captivating.  We are given snippets of information, identities he is perfecting, schematics of weapons and carry cases to disguise them but never enough to fully understand his plan.  All too often in thrillers we are given a plethora of information, we are allowed to know more than the principle investigator allowing us to look to the future and attempt to solve the puzzle ourselves.  That is not the case with The Day of the Jackal.   We are kept in the dark about many aspects of the Jackal’s character, his true identity, his history and his plans for how and when the assassination will take place.

Without spoiling the book for anyone who hasn’t already read it, the French secret service discovers information about the plot and takes it to de Gaulle.  Notoriously stubborn the President refuses to cancel any public appearances, change his routines, or allow any public investigation.  Instead Roger Frey, the French Minister of the Interior, convenes a special board made up of the heads of French security forces at which they appoint the Deputy Commissioner of the Police Judiciaire, and best detective in France, Claude Lebel to establish the Jackal’s identity.

So begins the ticking of the clock, can the Jackal stay one step ahead of the police? Ingenious acts on the Jackal’s part and quick thinking of the Lebel’s side makes for an edge of the seat read with suspense increasing page by page, chapter by chapter as the moment to assassination moves from weeks, to days, to hours, to minutes.  Unlike most thrillers which balance on the question of “Will they succeed?” the hook of The Day of the Jackal is the how – how will he evade the police? How will he get a weapon into France? How will he get close enough to make an attempt? How will he escape?

The Day of the Jackal is a well written page turner, constantly leaving you thinking “What will happen next?”  A testament to the standard of this book is the test of time.  It’s over 40 years since Forsyth wrote the book and yet it is as compelling and addictive today as I’m sure it was at the time.  Don’t worry if you don’t know about French politics of the 1960’s that’s not what this book is about, it’s about one merciless methodical man with a job to do.

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When is it ok to stop reading? #bookramblings

Reading should be fun, the moment it stops being fun you lose the reader they see it as a chore, a task they most complete.

When I was at school reading books were set, you started at a level 1 I think and you made your way through.  Different levels were different colours so your reading ability was clear to all your friends depending on whether you were reading a yellow book, or a pink book.  Looking back this probably wasn’t the best way to instil a love of reading, nor encourages those less able to read.  There probably isn’t a clearer way to put someone off reading then to put a big sign around their neck “this person is reading a yellow book which means they’ve a low reading ability”.

For those of us who were competent readers it brought out our competitiveness and probably not in a good way.  I can remember always wanting to know where Nicola Chatterley and Vicky Pendlebury were up to because I wanted to be further on than them.

But the bigger issue here is that you weren’t able to progress with your reading until you’d completed the book.  And here began a hang up I carried with me for many years.  Reading a book because I have to complete it and not because I’m enjoying it.

I would like to say that my reluctance to put down a book I wasn’t enjoying stemmed from something greater.  A desire to give the author a chance, I mean come on they’ve put a lot of hours into this book.  A sense of duty to give life to the characters, if I’m not reading about them then they’re not there.  Meeting the expectations of others “What do you mean you’ve not read…?”  But the more I think about it the more I realise I read books I didn’t enjoy for so long because that is how I’d been taught to read.  Reading wasn’t about the story; it wasn’t about escaping into another world, going on an adventure.  It was about getting through the books, moving up the levels and beating Nicola and Vicky.

It may have taken me many years to get past this, but post A-levels I had my epiphany.  No longer did I have set texts that I had to read.  I could leave reading out loud in Mr Brazil’s GCSE class, Jane Austen could remain the love of my A-level teacher Mrs Lavelle’s life and I could choose books that I wanted to read, because they made me happy and for no other reason.

Examples of books I’ve started and thought nah not for me:

  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  • The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

I’m sure if I thought long and hard the list above would be much longer.  I’m sure some of you are shocked by the books on the list, I know people who LOVED The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and really struggle to process the fact that I didn’t get past the first few pages, that it didn’t grip me, move me.  But then I recently read and LOVED The Luminaries by Eleanor Cotton, I couldn’t put it down, couldn’t wait to read the next page and really hope they make a film or even a TV series because I think it would work.  But my friend Hilary hated it, found it hard work, cumbersome not something she would recommend.

But then there is the beauty of books, different adventures, not necessarily meant to be taken by everyone.

So I’m going to carry on judging books (some of them by the cover but don’t tell anyone) and putting them down if I don’t enjoy them.  Some I will revisit.  There is definitely a time and a place for some books but others are going straight to the charity shop.

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The Darkest Hour by Barbara Erskine #bookreview

A mystery novel set in the past and present.  Our leading lady is Evie Lucas, a young aspiring war artist, torn between her love for a dashing young pilot and her responsibilities to her family.  Our supporting lady is Lucy Standish, art historian and recent widow who is trying to put together a biography of Evie.  How do the events and emotions of the past make their presence known today, what will be the impact on Lucy and why do some people not want the story to be told?
Erskine’s opening to The Darkest Hour is filled with tension and emotion as Laurence Standish, husband of Lucy, is driven off the road in a suspicious accident and dies.   Who was following him, we don’t know, why they were following him, we don’t know – a fantastic opening, I was hooked.
Erskine has obviously done her research, the book is filled with history and the pictures painted of Sussex during World War II are vivid and powerful.  It was no surprise to find out, after completing the book, that Erskine is a historian by training.  Beyond setting a wonderful scene the characters in the book have great depth and personality.  It is very clear from the early chapters who the badie of the story is; but as to the lengths they will go to win, those continually shocked and surprised me as the story unwound.
The past in this books is very real with a haunted picture at the heart of the story.  At the first reference to paranormal activity, I must admit I was a tad sceptical and for a moment doubted the quality of the story yet as I continued I saw how cleverly woven and entwined it is.  Erskine uses it as a way to bring characters from the past to the present and in doing so allows us to gain insight into their persona, motivations and regrets.  There is nothing ghoulish or Blair witch project about the way Erskine writes about the supernatural.  She clearly has a great interest and respect for things other worldly and as you read through the moment and the experience you can’t help but feel a chill creep down your spine and goose bumps on your arms.
I’m big fan of this style writing, blending the past and present in a mystery having previously read lots of Rachel Hore and Kate Morton.  The Darkest Hour is filled with passion, anger, love, remorse, regret and grief as we are given the opportunity to experience the life and loves of Evie Lucas.  What are her secrets, why would there be objections to her story being told? I won’t answer those questions, it would spoil the book for you but I will definitely be picking up another Barbara Erskine book.

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