Wednesday 3 February 2010 8:53 pm

The A-Team meets James Bond in this gung-ho mercenary adventure

FIRE FORCE BY MATT LYNN Headline, £12.99 by Jeremy Hazlehurst YOU’VE got to hand it to Matt Lynn, he can certainly write a first line. “Until you’ve sat down to a game of poker inside Africa’s most brutal jail, you don’t really know what it’s like to sweat,” begins his second novel. No man, surely, can fail to read on. Our hero is Steve West, an ex-special forces soldier whose former colleague Ollie Hall is in the jail (described as “Hell’s Butlins”), and West is here to break him out. Before the first 20 pages, as well as a jail-break, we’ve had a card game, an Irish bomb-maker, a brutal local hardman and scantily-clad bar girls. It’s fair to say that if you don’t have a Y chromosome, then this book is going to leave you cold. Fire Force’s plot is simple: a gang of mercenaries – Brits, gurkhas, South Africans, you name it, some of whom appeared in Lynn’s previous book, Death Force – go on a job to assassinate the dictator of the African country of Batota. It’s a mix of Casino Royale, The Day of the Jackal and back copies of Commando magazine, with a bit of the A-Team thrown in. There are helicopters, people crying: “We’re going in!” and a posh conservationist called Samantha. And it’s as much fun as you can have without firing a rocket-propelled grenade into a fireworks factory. You can tell that Lynn has done his research, and the book absolutely screams authenticity. It even has an appendix about the weapons used in the book – if you ever wanted to know more about the Mi-24 gunship or the KPV machine gun, this is for you. It’s not going to win the Booker Prize, but this is a fast-paced and well-told tale of derring-do that guarantees entertainment. THEIR FINEST HOUR AND A HALF BY LISSA EVANS Black Swan, £7.99 by Zoe Strimpel She’s an established master of the light-hearted farce, but with the Orange Prize long-listed Their Finest Hour and a Half, Lissa Evans has pulled off something trickier – a jaunty, heart-warming novel that also manages to be sharp, historically clever and even a bit substantial. It’s London, in 1940. The city isn’t looking great and morale is low. There are allotments in Highbury Fields and Soho Square. The Serpentine is more a puddle than anything else. What’s needed, naturally, is a good propaganda film to get the Brits feeling stronger and more gung-ho about the wartime effort. The Ministry of Information then spots Catrin Cole, a junior copywriter whose experience includes extolling the virtues of swedes for the Ministry of Food. She’s tasked with filming the story of shy twin sisters who sailed to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers. The truth, once Catrin gets down to it, is not quite as romantically exciting as promised – in fact, what truth there is to the Dunkirk story does not strike Catrin as the sort of thing to tell the Ministry. A host of troubled, amusing, weary characters accompany Catrin through this comedy of manners – there’s self-obsessed Ambrose, Edith Beadmore, a retiring 36-year-old wardrobe assistant at Madame Tussauds; and the less-than-talented Lance Corporal Arthur Frith, mysteriously appointed Special Military Adviser to Catrin’s film, probably because of an administrative muddle. It’s immediately engaging and funny, but the details of wartime destruction ring true. When there is such a wealth of heavy historical books about the war, this one adds a much-needed ray of light. FORDLANDIA BY GREG GRANDIN Icon books, £14.99 by Jeremy Hazlehurst IN an era when capitalism is often accused of being amoral, it is worth looking back to an example of what can happen when businessmen get ideas above their stations, and the havoc that this can wreak. Back in the 1920s, Henry Ford was the richest man in the world, and as well as money, he had ideas. Big, crazy ideas. One of these was to set up a bizarre utopian worker’s paradise in Brazil. He got hold of a 5,000 square mile patch of land, and built a rubber plantation-cum-arcadia on it. Predictably, it ended in total and utter disaster. Partly it was the fault of Ford’s cranky, paternalistic ideas. He was obsessed by soya, and wanted people to live on it, and even build cars from it. He banned “sex dancing”, and wrote a manual dictating how the workers in Fordlandia (as the city was known) could shake their booty. There wasn’t a lot of touching involved. Ford thought golf a more wholesome pastime. The concept of mixing arcadian pre-industrial life with up-to-the-minute production techniques was doomed. But Fordlandia failed not only because it was crazy, but because it was just totally impractical As the workers’ rubber plant crop came to fruition, a plague of caterpillars broke out and annihilated it. Soon, the all-American ideals fell away, and the place descended into a Wild West-style nightmare. This is a gobsmacking book, and reminds us of just how damaging idealism can be, especially when it is the idealism of an arrogant man who doesn’t like to hear the word “no”. Or “mad”.