This is turning out to be the year of the re-reads, mostly because of that fateful trip to The Brown Elephant a few months ago. This is another book I recall finishing years ago and saying, “meh.” Actually, I didn’t say that exact word because it hadn’t been invented yet. But I’m sure you get the picture. You probably also think I’m cool because of my occasional exploration of The Urban Dictionary. Thanks.

I spent my youth wanting to like Alistair MacLean novels. Many of his books were made into movies my brother and I loved, like Bear Island and Force 10 from Navarone, so I figured the books would be just as great. But as a youngster, I struggled through Athabasca, Goodbye California, and Seawitch before eventually giving up. After awhile, I settled into Robert Ludlum as my favorite thriller writer and compared every book to Ludlum’s, jarring, macho, fast-paced stories.

Upon the second reading, I’m mildly surprised at how much I liked Athabasca. It started out rather slow but picked up markedly in the second half, and the last few chapters flew at a breakneck pace. The characters were not very deep, but the good people were likable and the bad guys were cruel.

It’s as much a mystery/crime novel as a thriller I think. It nicely builds in aspects of both for a fine reading experience. It has a classic investigation by a group of outsiders and builds up to a big unveiling of the guilty parties. But it also has some tight action scenes, including a near death experience and a tower assault.

I like the idea of Alistair MacLean. His writing spans a long period of time and there seems to be a lot of variability in his subject matter. I think I’ll grab one of his war novels next, like Where Eagles Dare or Guns of Navarone.


Black Ops

Well, The Presidential Agent Series may have just nuked the fridge. Yeah, I don’t think it means I’m going to be moving on, but my respect for the series has taken a little hit. Maybe respect isn’t the right word. I’m struggling with how I feel, but I’ll sort it out by the end of this post.

This was a decent thriller, with Charley Castillo and the whole crew back again still sorting through the Iraq arms-for-food scandal that has been present for basically all of the books. The scandal provides good continuity and is a decent backdrop for the action, spy-craft, and political wrangling that Griffin has enamored me with over the last four books. The dialogue is still crackling and characters are still quirkily flawed, but cool.

This book started stretching things a little thinly though.


In the end, when he meets up with this secret society interested in protecting the interests of the United States, it just seemed to deviate from what heretofore has been something not too far off the charts of the plausibility scale. Listen, I know it’s always been implausible, and I don’t run from implausibility. But it’s clear that the next step is that Castillo continues saving the world on his own dime. Sure, that’s fine.

I find it interesting that this comes as Griffin’s son joins as co-author for the next book. Reading the preview, it really sounds fantastical. I’m okay with that, I’ll change my latitude a little and enjoy it.


The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Well, I’m done with the Dragon Tattoo girl series. What an epic ride it was; full of peaks and valleys, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, not boring for a second. I thought early on that my only option was to read all three books this year and I was correct. I had no choice.

There are a ton of things happening in these books and for some readers, I imagine, it may seem meandering to a point of boredom. But I liked the new characters and the plot deviations introduced in this final book of the trilogy. I think Larsson did them justice. Heck, this book may even be able to stand alone, but I would advise strongly against reading them out of order.

What will be the point of seeing the movies? I know how everything ends so there will be no surprises. I guess the visual depiction of this work of art could provide some moments of appreciation. And of course, from a social and pop culture standpoint, it’s probably going to be required viewing. I’ll probably just wait for the video though. We’ll see what Ebert says. My movie viewing nowadays is based on time, place, and situation. I don’t really seek movies out, they just kind of happen occasionally.

It’s a wrap. I’m moving on.


The Girl Who Played With Fire

I used to like to space out books in a series, but I’m moving off that trend. The dragon tattoo girl series hooked me on the first one big time. I loved it. So I recently grabbed book two in paperback with a Borders gift card. It was also good and I had trouble putting it down throughout the first half. But in the end, it was not nearly as good as the first one. Not even close, actually.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, I guess. Sophomore efforts rarely meet or exceed stellar first efforts. I was so fired up for book two that there was no way it could live up to my own, manufactured, hype machine. I wonder why I do that to myself. It was still great though.

I can’t really put my finger on the disappointment. Both of the main characters, Blomkvist and Salander, have lost a little of their vulnerability in my view. In this book they are much more in charge. But it’s a natural evolution I guess; they were underdogs in the first book and now they’re rich and famous (or infamous), so where else could it go.

That’s the evolution of the story.


This book picks up right after the last book and ends with a cliffhanger. It also includes an excerpt of the first chapter of book three, so I already know book three picks up just hours after book two. These three books are shaping up to be one epic story broken up into three manageable chunks.

There is a lot of stuff happening. The story is turning out to be so much more than just a mystery with a little international intrigue sprinkled in. There are a bunch of side stories, a huge back story, and detailed character studies. All of these aspects have loose ends and I’m betting not all of them will be tied up given that Larsson died before book one was even published.

The Blomkvist/Salander relationship is probably the biggest loose end. They spend almost no time in each others physical presence for the duration of book two, which is basically Salander’s doing. In fact, many of the loose ends center around Blomkvist and his success with the ladies. He’s bedding his editor and a member of his magazine’s board of directors, but you get the feeling that both relationships could end with very little emotion on Blomkvist’s end. But he’s clearly distraught about Salander’s lack of interest.

Salander is a one-of-a-kind character. She goes superspy in this book, but it makes sense once her back story is filled in.

I’ll be finishing the third in a few months I think. I don’t think I’ve ever read a trilogy in the expanse of a single year. This one seems worthy.


The Shooters

This book is just about all dialogue. I noticed it earlier in the series but it really seemed to stand out in this one. Especially in the first half. Griffin basically tells the bulk of the story with dialogue. It’s amazing, and really cool. It’s non-stop chatter that moves rather rapidly. The violence and action found in most thrillers is hardly even described; it’s glossed over so he can get to more dialogue.

Since 2007, I’ve finished one book annually in the Presidential Agent series. But I may end up finishing two this year because it’s early and I’m pretty fired up to get to the next one. There are five books in this series so I have one left. Hopefully he churns out more, but I have the sneaky feeling that Griffin is running out of steam. I say this because his last few books (although not in this series) were co-written with his son; a sure sign of decline. Griffin is, after all, 80 years old.

He’s not off his game though. I love the macho, sarcastic, and sometimes hilarious dialogue. And he continues to craft interesting characters and really digs deep into their psyche. I’m not worried about running out of material, he is very prolific so I may have trouble finishing them all before I die.

He’s also a member, according to his official website, of the Flat Earth Society. Here are the search results. I’ve never heard of this. I guess there are people out there who still think the earth is flat. I had no idea. Oh well. I guess that’s what keeps the earth goin’ around…er, or not, I guess.

Still great stuff.


Oh yeah, I didn’t see the twist of Castillo’s kid coming. Wacky stuff. Can’t wait to see how he’s going to treat that in the next book. And I can’t recall what happened to Castillo’s love interest, I think her name was Betty Schneider. I know she got shot in Book Two, but I thought she survived, hmmm.

I’ll be back for more shortly, for sure.


The Company of Strangers

I was looking for a serious spy novel – I got a serious spy novel. There’s nothing light about this book. I read one of Wilson’s novels before I started Booktakes and I recall thinking it was really cool. Well, this one is even better. In fact, it’s the best book I’ve read so far this year.

It starts out in Hitler’s bunker in the middle of the war but quickly transitions to Lisbon, Portugal during the summer of 1944. Lisbon was interesting during this time because it was a neutral city, so delegates and spies from the Axis and the Allies coexisted. That’s where double agent Karl Voss, German spy working for the Brits, ends up after his brother gets killed in Stalingrad and his dad shoots himself. It’s also where Voss meets English spy Andrea Aspinall.

The Third Reich was in a weakened state after D-Day and they incurred heavy losses on the Russian Front. A faction of the German establishment, including Voss, wanted to assassinate Hitler, sabotage German efforts to build a bomb, and smooth relations with the US and GB so that a conditional surrender could be negotiated. The meat of the book depicts a few furious weeks in Lisbon where Karl and Andrea navigate the landscape of spies and double agents from the Third Reich, the US, GB, and Russia in an effort to figure out who’s buying and selling secrets to build the bomb.


It culminates with the failed attempt by Claus von Stauffenberg to kill Hitler, depicted in the movie Valkyrie, resulting in Voss being rounded up with all of the other traitors and sent back to Germany for interrogation. But we are still only two thirds through the book, yet Voss has had time to save Andrea’s life, fall in love with her, and unknowingly conceive a child with her.

Fast forward twenty plus to years to 1968. Andrea thinks Voss died in 1944 (he didn’t, but the reader does not know that). She’s back in London because her mother is on the brink of death. Her marriage, to a Portuguese military man, is on the rocks because he’s embroiled in another military exercise in Africa which she opposes. She hasn’t told anyone about the real father of her son, who is in Africa fighting along side her husband.

It sounds kind of messy, but it get’s messier. In another furious few weeks, Andrea’s mom dies of cancer, her son gets killed in Africa, and her husband kills himself as a result. She tries to get her life back on track by working in her field at Cambridge, but gets entangled in a dysfunctional relationship with a math professor, who is also connected to the Communist party, which has a special place in her heart because it was the only viable deterrent to fascism in Portugal. Was that a run-on sentence?

Eventually, she rejoins the Company, the British Secret Service, to spy for the communists.

Let me digress into a discussion about spy novels. I think of spy novels as a very specific genre, much different from international intrigue (ie…Robert Ludlum) or thrillers (ie…Dan Brown). The spy novel is a thoughtful, complicated, often dark, character study, the best example of which is probably John Le Carre. I didn’t like spy novels growing up. I can remember struggling through a Le Carre novel as a kid, all the while wishing I was reading something by Ludlum. I haven’t read anything by Le Carre since, but I liked this Wilson book so much that I’m inspired to do so.

Back to the story. In Andrea’s second stint as an agent, she eventually runs into Voss during an operation in Cold War East Berlin. It’s an emotional few scenes. They save each other’s lives and diverge for another twenty years.

They eventually meet in their 70’s I guess, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She moves to the country in a small house in a quaint town and one day he shows up. He’s writing a book that’s going to blow the lid off the British Secret Service. They take a quick trip down memory lane back to Lisbon, where Andrea gives Voss a box of family memorabilia that she salvaged from his apartment when he was busted. It felt like loose ends were tied up. I had some warm fuzzy feelings. I was premature.

When they get back home, Andrea gets strangled by her next door neighbor, who I assume was a British agent trying to make sure Voss didn’t publish his secrets. That ending friggin’ rocked. Great book. Classic spy novel.


The Hard Way

This is the next installment (for me) of the Jack Reacher series. I’ve had it sitting around for awhile but I was inspired to read it after reading about Lucas Glover’s win at the US Open. If you’re wondering why, read the first few paragraphs of this article and you’ll understand.

So Glover is a huge fan of Child’s stuff. That’s good to see.

Chock this up as just another great thriller by Child. It’s the one where he just happens to be sitting at a sidewalk cafe in New York when, unbeknownst to him, a crime takes place right in front of him. He just happens to be at the same sidewalk cafe the next night when an interested party stops by and asks him about what he saw. He just happens to solve the crime and kill a bunch of highly trained ex-military guys now working as mercenaries who drive big black Toyota Land Cruisers. Who woulda thunk it?

This stuff is over the top, but it’s so damn much fun. And at least one member on the PGA Tour agrees with me. Boy, how far the Tour has come; I think I recall David Duval claiming about a decade ago that he was the only guy on the PGA Tour who read books. Well David, now there are two, and the other one just cleaned your clock at Bethpage Black (btw, I still pull for Duval, he’s my favorite PGA player).

Looking forward to the next one, probably on the Kindle.


The Hunters

This is the third book in Griffin’s Presidential Agent series. A series which is fast becoming one of my top fiction reading experiences. I think the stuff is genius.

I really like the way Griffin humanizes his characters. He gives them quirks and cool traits that add to their personalities and add a lot to the story. But what sets him apart is the pure volume of characters in which he does this. I lose count of all of the antagonists, protagonists, and supporting characters for which Griffin opens this window into their psyche. He does it sometimes through his standard narration written in choppy, cryptic prose. His main tool, though, is to use the thoughts of the characters themselves, which he puts in italics. The thoughts read like a standard conversation at times, it’s just that it’s a conversation going on in the heads of the characters and not being verbalized. I don’t see this method used that often by any of my other favorite thriller writers, but Griffin employs it extensively.

I think he employs this method because it’s the only way he can throw first person style thoughtfulness into his narration. He can’t take the first person perspective throughout because these books are so big and Bournesque. If he took the main character’s perspective instead of that of a narrator, he would lose a lot because the main character can’t be all over the globe at the same time. But by going into first person mode every so often, you get great character insights. This way, the reader can get a little more emotionally involved and really refine who they like and dislike.

In the end, these books get me involved in the characters like Grafton and Hillerman do, but they capture some of that international intrigue and thrill left out of a crime novel. It’s a good mix.


One Shot

When you’re reading a book in the middle of a series, you know the hero isn’t going to die. This takes away some of the anxiety you feel when the hero embarks on the “attack on the fortress,” against impossible odds of course. Which is not a good thing because it also takes away some of the excitement of the book. However, series writers usually align their main characters with friends, family, cohorts, and colleagues who fall in harm’s way, thereby putting someone you care about in peril, which restores some of the excitement.

Child is expert at this. He often has Reacher finishing up the book with an “attack on the fortress” and Reacher rarely goes in alone. He’s usually accompanied by at least one highly attractive female and one person with some military or law enforcement experience. It’s always pretty implausible, but who cares. I don’t care how formulaic Child gets with this stuff, he always manages to throw in enough twists and coolness that each book seems fresh and fun.

My wife and I differ on our fiction choices; my tastes are more accepting of a slower paced mystery-style thriller, whereas Gail prefers something that runs at breakneck speed. However, we meet at Lee Child and both like the series. They’re good stories and Reacher, the main character, is outrageous. Who can’t love a guy who lives completely off the grid and only travels with the clothes on his back (which he replaces occasionally and washes almost nightly)?

Chock up another great one. The popular fiction I’ve read this year has been great. Shortly I’m going to sit down and review my year in books. Maybe I’ll do that on Christmas Day, seems like a great Christmas Day kind of thing to do.


The Hostage

Just last month I was voicing my frustration with the international intrigue/espionage thriller. Let me be clear, W.E.B. Griffin is an exception to that rant. His Charley Castillo books have sucked me in. They blaze at a breakneck pace and are chock full of great characters.

Underlying the multitude of characters is the constant clash of politics versus progress, of bureaucratic protocol versus cooperation. But Charley Castillo gets around it because he’s working directly for the President, which doesn’t always guarantee him the cooperation of the CIA, FBI, NSA, or State Department, but makes for a ton of fun. This book is jam-packed with dialog and the best parts are when characters from different agencies engage in macho verbal battles highlighting natural turf wars – wars that I’m guessing are pretty darn accurate based on Griffin’s cred as an insider. In fact, there is more oral sparring than gunfights, resulting in a very intelligent thriller.

The bottom line for me, and this Presidential Agent series of books, is that Griffin has developed a huge amount of interesting characters that I like. Let me give you some examples. Castillo’s boss will go to bat for him no matter what; he’s the type of boss you always want. Fernando, Castillo’s civilian brother, regularly gets dragged into government operations and is constantly giving his brother a hard time. The marine that shuttles Castillo around in Argentina has a freaky amount of knowledge of Argentinean history and won’t stop calling Castillo “sir,” despite Castillo’s pleading. Heck, Castillo has even befriended an international criminal from Russia, now living in Argentina, who shares much needed information with Castillo that Castillo can’t get through normal channels, in return for certain favors of course. This is just a cool group of people. Then there’s Castillo’s love interest, and her obnoxious brother, both of whom add more twists. The list goes on, and on, and on…

I’ve read two of them and they are near-perfect thrillers. I’m ready for the next one.