musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Daniel Silva’

Hillary Clinton’s Reading Choices

Hillary Clinton has been back in the news lately, thanks to the backlash about the outrageously high fees that she commands for speaking engagements, the publication of her new book, and a few choice comments she made about current US foreign policy.

HiIlary Rodham Clinton

About two months ago there was a short interview with Clinton in the New York Times, one that focused on books that she enjoys reading. This book interview column is a regular feature in the New York Times and I always find it fascinating to find out what various authors like to read when they are not writing, what they read when they were growing up, or in some cases the classic books that they admit to not having read yet. Here are a couple of excerpts from the column that featured Clinton:

Who are your favorite contemporary writers? Are there any writers whose books you automatically read when they come out?

“I will read anything by Laura Hillenbrand, Walter Isaacson, Barbara Kingsolver, John le Carre, John Grisham, Hilary Mantel, Toni Morrison, Anna Quindlen, and Alice Walker. And I love series that follow particular characters over time and through their experiences, so I automatically read the latest installments from Alex Berenson, Linda Fairstein, Sue Grafton, Donna Leon, Katherine Hall Page, Louise Penny, Daniel Silva, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Todd, and Jacqueline Winspear.”

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

“At the risk of appearing predictable, the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking. I was raised reading it, memorizing passages from it and being guided by it. I still find it a source of wisdom, comfort and encouragement.”


Well, she had me pleasantly surprised there for a while, picking authors that I also enjoy reading such as Daniel Silva, Alex Berenson, Laura Hillenbrand, and Alexander McCall Smith. But then she blew it with the lame Bible pick. I’m not sure if that was an “astute political choice” or truly a sincere personal pick, but either way it dismisses her in my mind as yet another religious wacko.

I’ve made these comments in past posts, but my feelings remain the same if not stronger: religion has no place in politics. If you are telling me that the Bible influences your way of thinking and how you make decisions, then I sure as hell (or should I capitalize that as a proper place name?) don’t want you holding elective office and making laws that affect my life.

In the United States a big deal was made about fifty years ago when John F. Kennedy was elected president, making him the first Catholic to hold the nation’s highest office. In the last US presidential election the fact that Mitt Romney was the first Mormon to run for office was also a source of curiosity. Personally, I’m waiting for the first atheist to run for office, someone who has the intelligence and fortitude to declare that they are not a superstitious half-wit who belongs to an organized religion. Please, just give me one such honest person.

I get so sick of seeing the same types of people elected to office in the USA. Most are career politicians with backgrounds in law, or perhaps they have some business experience. But do we really want more lawyers and MBA types running our government? Why don’t we elect scientists, teachers, economists, or people that actually have the brains and experience to effect change and make our lives better? Enough with these money-raising talking haircuts and dangerous religious fundamentalists; it’s time for real change. And even though she would be the first female president if elected, an insider like Hillary Clinton — especially one that apparently holds diehard religious beliefs — does not represent change for the better.

Searching for Books in Shan State


I had extended my stay in Shan State’s Nyaungshwe for an extra two days in order to attend a pagoda festival in Hat Ein village. The festival was being held on a full moon day, which I was told, would guarantee a most festive festival. My only problem was that I was about to finish the paperback book I brought with me, The Secret Soldier by Alex Berenson (a great read by the way, part of his intriguing John Wells espionage series), and I needed another book to read until I could return to Mandalay where I had another book tucked away in an extra bag. I’m one of those people who believe that a day without books is like a day without sunshine, so I had to solve this predicament quickly.



Luckily, there is a small shop in Nyaungshwe, Golden Bowl Travel, that stocks books. They are located on Yon Gyi Road between the main market and Golden Kite Restaurant. It’s run by Ma Ma Aye and her darling daughter who goes by the nickname of Tina. They are truly sweet and very helpful people. I browsed their selection of English language titles (they also have books in French, German, Swedish, Italian, and Dutch), pondering several titles. There was a 2-for-1 Ed McBain edition, but I’d already read both novels, so I continued perusing the shelves. I pondered a John Cheever short story collection, but the book looked too heavy for my needs, both the size and weight of the book (I need something relatively small to stick in the shoulder bag that I always travel with) and perhaps too serious in tone for my carefree travel mood. In the end, I opted for a Stuart Woods novel, Orchid Blues. I had read one Stuart Woods book about a decade ago (don’t even ask me to remember the title!), recommended by a friend who is also a big mystery buff, but I don’t recall being that thrilled with that book. In any event, I figured I would try Woods again and see if I liked him better this time around.


Well, that didn’t happen. In fact, I can truly say that I hated this book, a reaction that I rarely have when reading mystery novels. But this book was so trite and lame that I gave up after about 100 pages. I’m amazed that I even made it that far, but it wasn’t like reading that many pages was a particular challenging task; the dialogue was so simplistic and ridiculous that a child could have breezed through it. In fact, I wonder if this was indeed aimed a “young reader” market. It certainly will insult the intelligence of anyone that reads reasonably well-written crime fiction. Honestly, I can’t heap enough scorn upon this book. Total rubbish.


So, I took it back, along with the Berenson book that I had finished, and resumed the task of picking out another novel. I looked at both the McBain and Cheever books again, but opted not to get either one. Then I noticed a Daniel Silva book on the wall. I think I’ve read all the books in his Gabriel Allon series, but this particular novel, The Mark of the Assassin, was a one-off effort that I hadn’t read yet. Say no more, I’ll take it! And, predictably, it was a very good read, although it struck me as a paint-by-numbers spy story with relatively few surprises. Nevertheless, it held my interest and lasted me until I reached Mandalay.


I know; experienced travelers who read would advise me to get a Kindle or some other sort of e-reader for when I’m on the road, but having such a device doesn’t even remotely appeal to my reading tastes. Give me a real book with that magical paper smell and the familiar comfort of turning the pages. I’m a holdout and proud of it!



Good Books, Boring Books, More Books!

Here is a roundup of some of the books that I’ve finished reading in the past month or two. They run the gamut from old familiar authors and crime fiction to a few new authors (new for me, at any rate), plus some non-fiction to break up my crime-centric reading habits.


Lloyd Jones – Mister Pip

This novel was recommended by a friend a few years ago, but I only recently got around to reading it. Wow! This is an amazing little novel, one of the best that I’ve read in recent years. This novel is both a love letter to “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens, and the powerful, uplifting story of a young girl living on a remote island country torn apart by civil war. “Mister Pip” refers to the character in the Dickens novel, but it also ends up as a reference to young Matilda’s eccentric yet inspiring teacher, Mr. Watts, the lone white man living in her village. The book has more than its share of funny, lovely, and tender moments, but before its conclusion the reader is also confronted with tragic and horrific passages. In the end, however, this book is a triumph, showcasing the magic and power of a good teacher and that of a good book, and more importantly the power of believing in yourself. Highly recommended.


David Baldacci – The Camel Club

I thought it was about time that I read a book by Baldacci, seeing as how he is so popular nowadays. What’s all the fuss about, I wondered? “Baldacci is a master at building suspense … will leave readers breathless” raved a review in Booklist. Another blurb on the back cover of the paperback edition of this novel tells us that “David Baldacci is one of the world’s favorite storytellers.” Well, I read this book, and I’m still puzzled. Baldacci may indeed qualify as an entertaining storyteller, it’s just unfortunate that he’s not a better writer. Judging from this book, his writing skills are mediocre at best. His prose is bland and unimaginative, and the characters don’t quite gel. The simplistic tone of this novel felt like something geared towards middle school readers. And yet this guy is one of the most popular writers around, selling millions of books. Not an author that I plan to read again.


Francis Wheen – How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

This is basically a collection of essays in which Wheen deftly critiques the “retreat of reason” we’ve witnessed in the past several decades, particularly in areas such as politics. This is an engaging and stimulating book, but some parts get bit “too deep” and plodding, or at least overly intellectual as to tax my simple brain. But overall this is a very thought provoking, and often very funny book. I especially enjoyed Wheen’s skewering of “Self-Help” and Motivational hucksters — you know the ones; those “visionary” types who write best-selling books on how to transform your life or become filthy rich. Wheen also offers entertaining insights on the double-speak practiced by so many politicians, and accounts of “great leaders” who rely on astrology and religious beliefs for guidance and decision-making. Scary indeed. Wheen’s total demystification of the bizarrely beloved Princess Diana is also a highlight. Well worth reading.


Ben Fong-Torres – Hickory Wind: The Life & Times of Gram Parsons  

If you don’t know the name, Gram Parsons was a very influential musician, one who pioneered the fusion of country music and rock. He was the leader of the Flying Burrito Brothers and also briefly a member of The Byrds. He also recorded with the Rolling Stones (and did his share of drugs with them too) and Emmylou Harris. It also helped cement his legendary status by dying young, at the age of 26 (watch out for those morphine and alcohol cocktails!), a bizarre incident compounded when one of his buddies stole his body from the funeral home and set fire to it in the desert near the Joshua Tree Park. This biography by veteran Rolling Stone magazine writer Ben Fong-Torres covers all the Parsons bases, from Gram’s childhood in Waycross, Georgia and the citrus groves of Winter Haven, Florida (my old neck of the woods), to his various musical projects. While fairly comprehensive, I don’t think it properly conveys how influential Parsons was, nor tells us why his music appealed to some many people, both fans and fellow musicians. Nevertheless, it’s a good introduction to a talented musician.


Ed McBain – Like Love

McBain was one of the absolute masters of crime fiction and this 1962 novel is one of the best of his early 87th Precinct episodes. A bit of the dialogue is dated (but delightfully so, in my opinion; I love sentences like “Don’t get sore at me!”), but for the most part the story holds up very well. Once again, we are entertained by the dependable cast of Detectives Carella, Hawes, and Meyer Meyer. This is a typical McBain tale that is equal parts funny, sad, heart-breaking, and joyful.


George V. Higgins – The Friends of Eddie Coyle

File this book under the “I just don’t get it” category. Higgins was a highly revered writer who has influenced many other writers of crime fiction. Most reviews remark on his brilliant use of dialogue. Well, okay, the guy DOES have a flair for writing realistic dialogue, but this novel consists of about 95% dialogue, much of it just people running their mouths, yapping about things that don’t have much relevance to the plot. Guns, banks, guns, stickups, and more guns. Frankly, I found the whole thing tedious. A true master of dialogue, such as Elmore Leonard, would have used a fraction of what Higgins throws at the reader. From my perspective, this whole story was pointless.  


David Ellis – Breach of Trust

I’ve become of a big fan of David Ellis’ books recently, particularly the engaging Jason Kolarich series. I’ve read two other books in that series, but belatedly got around to reading this one, the first of the bunch. I’m very impressed with Ellis’ writing style and this novel doesn’t disappoint, packed with both creepy and caring characters, and plenty of intrigue and suspense. You can read a synopsis of the novel elsewhere, but suffice to say, it has plenty of twists and turns. Ellis had me guessing until the end. Ellis belongs on the top shelf of current mystery and crime authors. Don’t dare call him a “thriller” writer; he’s better than that.


Daniel Silva – The Defector

I’ve been hooked on Silva’s Gabriel Allon books this year and this is another gripping and absorbing addition to that series. Although well-written and featuring the usual charismatic cast of characters from previous Allon tales, in many ways this is also a very predictable tale with too many clichéd passages. Yes, once again something goes wrong with the planned operation and of course it’s up to Allon to save the day. And you can count one plenty of “last minute” heroics and other timely miracles to ratchet up the suspense. But is all that really necessary? Really, it gets a bit tiring. Silva is a good enough writer that he shouldn’t have to resort to such cheap literary tricks to hold the reader’s interest or to create suspense. Those relatively minor quibbles aside, I enjoyed this novel very much. It also helps to have read “Moscow Rules” before tackling this one, as some of the same participants from that novel make encore appearances in this tale too.


Kjell Eriksson – The Demon of Dakar

A review in the Globe and Mail called the book “riveting … it’s hard to see how the author could do any better. Eriksson is a gifted storyteller and a great creator or character … terrific.” The New York Times Book Review was even impressed, saying “With Kjell Eriksson, what we find is an extraordinary depth of feeling for honest people caught up in serious crime.” My thoughts: This is a bland, predictable crime tale populated by miserable, unlikeable characters. Horribly dry, bland dialogue does nothing to keep the pages turning. Too often, I suspect, something gets lost in the translation with these Scandinavian writers, and this could be a prime example.



Alex Berenson – The Midnight House

I had never read anything by this author, but he was recommended to me by a customer whose opinion I trust, so I decided to give this one a try. Basically, this novel falls in the spy/espionage genre. It’s brimming with plenty of adventure and interesting characters, although some of the scenarios in the story stretch the bounds of credulity. But I enjoyed this quite a lot and plan to read more books in this series, starring CIA agent John Wells. But I’ll need to go back and start at the beginning of the series; there are apparently three other novels in the series that precede this one and I think I missed too much of the back story by starting with this one.

Finding good new authors

Anyone who reads a lot of books, particularly novels that feature a series with the same characters, runs into the problem of running out of new authors to read. You find an author you like and end up reading every book they’ve written, becoming attached to the characters and their lives. But after you’ve finished the entire series, then what? You find another author that writes equally gripping tales and read all of those books, and then try to find other authors in a similar vein. For whatever reasons, some click and some don’t. I’ve read a lot of books in the past few years, but sometimes I can’t make it past the 50-page mark without becoming either bored or annoyed. Those are the books I don’t finish.


In the past six months or so I’ve devoured the latest novels from favorite authors such as John Sandford, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Connelly, and Lee Child. Loved them all. I’ve recently started reading Daniel Silva’s series of novels featuring the Gabriel Allon character, and find those to be top-shelf fare too. Allon is certainly one of the more unusual and multi-dimensional characters in crime/espionage fiction these days. He’s an artist who works as an art restorer in various locations around Europe. But he’s also an Israeli citizen who is employed by that government in various spy-related activities, including the assassinations of “bad guys.” An intellectual hit-man with artistic skills.  Not your normal plot premise, but seriously addictive stuff.


Among the new authors that I’ve discovered — and liked— this year are Jess Walter and Greg Hurwitz. I’d actually read one Jess Walter novel, Over Tumbled Graves, about a year ago and enjoyed it. It was more of a standard crime fiction story, but two others that I’ve read since then are even better and have more depth than the usual mystery. One novel, The Zero, is set in New York City, shortly after the Twin Towers disaster of 9/11. The main character is a police officer who was hailed as a hero after 9/11 and becomes a minor celebrity around town. But depression soon takes its toll and the man wakes up one day to discover that he had shot himself in the head the night before during a drinking binge. The wound wasn’t fatal, of course, but he can’t remember exactly what happened that night, and in the days and months afterwards he continues to have memory lapses, at times not even sure why he is at a certain location or what he is supposed to be doing, or who he is talking with. Walter’s skillful prose takes the reader inside the mind of this troubled man as he deals with his frustrating issues. Some passages are moving, others totally hilarious, and some quite frightening. Altogether, a very powerful and moving novel.  


I read a third Walter novel earlier this month, Citizen Vince, that I also thought was superlative. In this novel the main character, Vince, is a career criminal who somehow gets involved in a mafia scheme. He ends up testifying against the mob and enters a witness protection program, given a new identity, and relocated to Spokane, Washington. Vince trains to be a baker and ends up working at a donut shop, a job he actually enjoys very much. But to supplement his income he also starts dealing in forged credit cards again. This novel is set in the fall of 1980, in the days before the US Presidential election between Carter and Reagan. The idea of voting in the election becomes an exciting prospect for Vince; due to his previous convictions he has never been able to vote in previous elections. Adding to the election fervor, a person from his criminal past discovers Vince living in Spokane. Lots of intrigue, a few laughs, and more great writing from Jess Walter. He has written several other books too, so I’m excited that there are more waiting to discover.


As for Greg Hurwitz, he’s one of those names I’ve seen on the shelf for years but I’d never read anything until I started a novel called The Crime Writer last month. The basic plot is a twist on the typical whodunit: a fellow who writes crime fiction novels is charged with murdering his girlfriend. The evidence at the scene of the crime suggests that this is a no-brainer: this guy definitely did it. But due to a brain tumor he had at the time, the man really can’t remember if he had done it or not. Some things about the crime don’t add up in his mind, so he ends up investigating his own case, turning up some baffling and disturbing facts. In addition to the clever plot, the novel is populated by some very interesting characters (ones that are so engaging that you hope Hurwitz does a sequel), and some seriously funny dialogue. On top of that, Hurwitz is one of those crime fiction authors — like Jess Walter — who also a very good writer; a definite step above the rest of the mystery pack. I just started a new novel by Hurwitz, Trouble Shooter, more of a traditional cops and robbers tale, but still very well written and absorbing. He’s also written more than a handful of books, so I look forward to reading those also.


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