Ice Station Zebra (Novel)

An exhilarating and at times extremely claustrophobic Cold War thriller

What it’s about

Dr Carpenter has orders to go to the Arctic on Commander Swanson’s atomic submarine, the Dolphin. They have to sail beneath the ice-floes of the Arctic Ocean to locate and rescue the men of weather-station Zebra, gutted by fire and drifting with the ice-pack somewhere north of the Arctic Circle.

But the rescue is more than it seems, as is Dr Carpenter, whose secret mission is to find the traitor who started the fire, the traitor that is playing a very dangerous game which could see them all sent to the bottom of the ocean…

My thoughts

​This is another of Alistair MacLean’s famous novels, though these days perhaps most people will recognise the name more as a result of the film version, which is a very well known classic.

It is set in the Cold War which means inevitably the Soviets are the bad guys, it is also set in the Arctic which is a bit of a speciality for Alistair MacLean and one thing about the book is that you really do feel that you are in the Arctic.

It is a little bit slow to start but that is mainly because, due to it being written in the 60s, there is a lot of time spent introducing the submarine. Basically we are taken on a tour of it and spend a good bit of time learning about how it works. At the time due to submarines of the type of the Dolphin (the submarine in the novel’s name), so high-tech atomic ones which can stay under water for long periods of time and don’t have to resurface every twelve hours or so, due to submarines like this being relatively new at the time of writing, inevitably if you had no knowledge of submarines like that reading about them would be pretty cool. However, to the modern reader all of this will most likely be scan material.

But once the story gets going to say the least this is a brilliant and exhilarating espionage thriller. And I have to say there are some truly vivid images that you will be left with after reading this novel.

From the claustrophobic feel of being inside the submarine, which is especially brought to life when there is a fire, to the images of the Arctic which MacLean brings to life brilliantly, especially when they have to battle through a storm to initially find the station, this book really takes you there.

The most impressive part of this novel though is how MacLean keeps the mystery alive, the story is told from the point of view of Carpenter, though it is likely that you will relate more to Commander Swanson – at least that was how it was for me. The reason being Carpenter spins endless tale after endless tale and is most certainly a master of manipulation, gradually though he is forced to reveal to Swanson and thus us as readers more and more information about the true goings-on.

Some people may find this annoying, but for me the balance in this book I feel is right and the narrative moves along at a nice pace.

One thing I will say is that the ending does have a little bit of a Hercule Poirot feel about it which may feel a little bit odd for a espionage thriller, but it is done nicely and does round everything up, leaving no loose ends. The last line also made me smile which is always a good thing. Everything rounded up, and ending on a note that makes you smile.

All in all that means from me it gets a solid thumbs up.

Writer: Alistair MacLean

Genre: spy thriller, mystery, action

Year: 1963


Force 10 from Navarone (novel)

A slow starter but an electrifying finisher

What it’s about

This follows on immediately from the highly acclaimed The Guns of Navarone, Keith Mallory, Andrea and Dusty Miller are parachuted into war-torn Yugoslavia with the task of rescuing a division of Partisans. But they also have a secret mission, a one that is so deadly that it must be hidden from even their own allies.

My thoughts

​If you have not read The Guns of Navarone though it is not a prerequisite to reading this book, I would highly recommend that you do in fact read a first as it is literally a direct follow-on. So this book starts right at the moment that the last book, The Guns of Navarone, ends

However, the stories of the two books are very much different so really the importance in regards to reading the predecessor is more about getting to know the main characters. So like I say even though I highly recommend reading the predecessor first it is not a prerequisite.

With that said, now onto the story of Force 10 from Navarone, it is a highly entertaining one, basically the small incursion team led by Mallory plan to blow a dam to bring down a bridge just as a German brigade is crossing, and though the story of the predecessor is arguably better in terms of pacing and action this novel probably comes up trumps.

And what really perhaps makes this book stand out and really come into its own, is the dynamic between the original team, which is Mallory, Andrea and Miller, and the young upstarts who have joined them, Reynolds, Saunders and Groves.

There is great mistrust between them, but different sorts of mistrust, Mallory and his team do not trust Reynolds and his team have what it takes to do what has to be done. This lack of trust needs to Reynolds and his team misinterpreting what is going on and frequently wondering whether Mallory is perhaps up to no good.

As the novel progresses the dynamic changes and the teams come to trust each other but that trust comes with a very heavy price leading to a very poignant moment at the end. I have to say a big fan of the dynamic between the characters in this book, it really does create some great tension but also makes you think about the rights or wrongs of what the characters are doing and thinking.

Regarding readability, it is quite difficult at the beginning to make sense of just what is going on, who they are helping and who they are not helping and much more.

Really the problem is there are too many names that are difficult to remember, and there are too many different messages being told to too many different characters, meaning you really have to pay attention to make sense of just who they are helping, who they are fighting and just what it is they are actually going to do.

But in all honesty you are able to get the gist of it without rereading, and I didn’t bother rereading as I assumed that I would make sense of it later on in the book which I did. And it is later on in the book that this story really comes to life.

To say the least the buildup to the ending of this book is electrifying in its pacing, and in fact the way the text seamlessly bounces us from place to place, from character to character showing us different scenes which all interconnect and help build up to the electrifying climax, is very cinematic in style.

In fact at times it feels like you are reading a film, except that is in the format of a book and so you feel much closer to the characters and action than if you were watching a film.

All in all despite the information overload at the beginning, this is an electrifying and very much high octane action story. That means from me it gets a definite thumbs up and is unquestionably a worthy follow-up to The Guns of Navarone.

Writer: Alistair MacLean

Genre: war story, action, adventure

Year: 1968

Where Eagles Dare (novel)

Arguably Alistair Maclean’s best novel

What it’s about

A team of British Special Forces commandos parachutes into the high peaks of the Austrian Alps on a rescue mission, the chief planner of the Western front has been taken prisoner. To save the war effort they must free him, but he is being held in an invulnerable alpine castle, accessible only by aerial gondola, which just so happens to be the headquarters of Nazi intelligence.

My thoughts

​Despite popular belief this is not based on a true story, and is entirely fictional. With that out of the way this is arguably Alistair MacLean’s best novel, most people probably better know it as the film which stars a young Clint Eastwood along with the legendary Richard Burton.

In regards to which is better, both are equally brilliant, but there are some minor deviations the biggest perhaps being that in the book there is much less violence.

Also the characters in the book are a little bit more humorous, you also get a far greater sense of place in the book, along with the claustrophobic feeling of truly being inside the headquarters of Nazi intelligence. But perhaps the biggest difference is the fact that the stakes even though they are near enough the same feel in the book just so much bigger.

What the book really succeeds at is making you really buy into just how big the stakes are, and how if this mission fails it could truly mess up the planned invasion on the Western front i.e. D-Day.

But outside that really the big differences are what you would normally expect to get from a book versus a film. For example, in the film the stakes are high but the characters always seem to be ahead of the game, while in the book you really get a sense for just how desperate this mission is. Pretty much all throughout you also get the feeling that actually they might not succeed, which you don’t really get in the film i.e. Richard Burton’s character always seems like he is going to succeed.

So in the book you are just much closer to the characters and action and they feel more like real people rather than action stars.

But the film is great, and the book is great which means all in all I don’t really have a great deal to say other than this is a brilliant read, highly entertaining, simple English and written in a way that means it is highly improbable that you will need to reread any sections to make sense of what is going on.

That means from me this book gets a solid thumbs up, and is a highly entertaining World War II rescue story.

Writer: Alistair Maclean

Genre: war story, action, adventure

Year: 1967

The Guns of Navarone (novel)

A highly enjoyable read of a most desperate of missions

What it’s about

An entire navy had tried to silence the guns of Navarone and failed. Full-scale attacks had been driven back. Now they were sending in just five men, each one a specialist in dealing death. But the question is can they do the impossible and finally silence the guns of Navarone?

My thoughts

​First thing’s first, counter to popular belief this is not based on a true story and there is no island of Navarone, the only truth to the story is the historical context of which it is supposed to be a part of, which is the Dodecanese Campaign, a campaign by the Allies to capture the Italian-held Greek islands in the Aegean Sea back in 1943.

In terms of whether it is any good, the simple answer is yes it is a highly enjoyable read. In terms of whether it’s better than the film which perhaps it is better known as these days, not better just a little bit different, and a little bit is very much the word.

For example in the film there are female characters but in the book there are not, also in the film the main characters Andrea and Mallory have on a personal level fallen out. Basically Andrea blames Mallory for the death of his family and plans to kill him after the war.

In the film a large part of the story is the characters dealing with this issue and resolving it, but this issue does not exist in the book and in fact in the book Mallory and Andrea have an unbreakable bond and that unbreakable bond is a large part of the story.

I have to say I do prefer the film’s idea of the tension between them as it just adds another element but I take nothing away from the book, which is an enjoyable read, and perhaps what Alistair MacLean does best is making you feel like you are really out there on the fictional island of Navarone and are being hunted by the Nazis.

Literally the connection you feel to the characters as they as they are hunted and get more and more beaten up and more and more desperate, is what really sells this book and is its standout feature over the film version. You can just really feel the sense of sacrifice both mental and physical not only needed to be made but that they are willing to make and are making, you can also feel their turmoil due to their inner desire to save a fallen comrade yet knowing that their efforts to do so risk the mission.

And in fact I would say the most endearing part of the novel is just how hard they fight to keep Andrew Stevens, not just alive but out of captivity, the fact that they carry him on a stretcher for the majority of the book really drives home their sense of desperation. Also the inner turmoil around their fears about the mission being compromised if he was taking into captivity is a nice touch.

All in all this is a great read, and an easy read as the majority of the English is just basic, the only thing I will say is the sequence at the end when they finally reach Navarone, I had to reread that section as I got completely lost with the logistics of where they were and the exact details of just what they were doing, in all honesty the problem was that I could not in my head buildup an accurate image of the place which for this section is highly important.

With this in mind should you choose to read it, when they reach Navarone and especially when they reach the guns I suggest you really concentrate as it is very easy to get lost at this point. But other than that this is an enjoyable and easy read, not the sort that will blow your mind but the sort that you could happily read on a Saturday evening before bed which means it gets a thumbs up from me.

Writer: Alistair MacLean

Genre: action, war, historical

Year: 1957