“Hawaii” by James Michener: Books Matter

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 11.43.12 AMThis isn’t a book review, but rather a personal story of how one book influenced my life and continues to exert a huge influence on me to this day.

Over 40 years ago I bought a copy of a book in San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, “Hawaii” by James Michener. I was a young Naval officer then, and was about to make a trip From San Francisco to Hawaii on an aircraft carrier on the way to Vietnam, and the book looked like a good thing to read along the way. No television or internet in those days at sea. Unfortunately, the trip to Hawaii turned out to be a “bad trip” to use a term from the 60’s. In a period of 5 days a lot of things happened from the mildly unpleasant to the really terrible. The mildly unpleasant: I learned you can get very seasick even on such a large ship as an aircraft carrier, I broke my leg. Then the really terrible: a plane crash on the ship, large fire, man overboard, several deaths. Bad stuff to be a part of for a 22-year old kid. I looked back on what helped me get through that and it was certainly a lot of prayers, and a very good book “Hawaii” by James Michener. Each night, his book put me in another place for a short time, and since then I read many of his other books. Prayers and “Hawaii” got me through some tough times.

Fast forward a few years. The school at which I started my teaching career gave James Michener an honorary degree. I had the privilege to shake his hand and thank him for what “Hawaii” did for me. I told him it was a real “coming of age” for me. I did get a small smile from him. He liked what I said, and he moved on to shake the hand of the next person in a very long line on a very hot day. I felt like I met Babe Ruth that day.

My daughter recently got married at the James Michener Museum. My daughter and her husband chose this James Michener Museum for reasons of their own, and it turned out to be a lovely venue. They knew nothing of my connection with this book. In addition they were going to Hawaii for their honeymoon. I couldn’t help telling this story at their wedding and giving them a copy of the book “Hawaii” as a small, but very sentimental wedding gift. The coincidences and the connections still kept coming. The edition I bought had an introduction from Steve Berry, a thriller writer my wife and I both met several years ago at Thrillerfest in New York City. Steve Berry helped me put together a pitch for the novel I am in the process of writing today. He wrote a damned good introduction to one of my favorite books of all time.

“Hawaii” will keep a reader going for a while. It is over 1,000 pages long and full of very small print. If you have a love for the sea, as I do, go to a bookstore and read Michener’s first sentence. His words are magnificent. Better yet, buy a copy and have a really great read.


Review of “Murder as a Fine Art” by David Morrell

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Author: David Morrell


Publication Date: May, 2013


Publisher:  Mulholland Books


ISBN: 978-0-316-21679-1


Agent: Dystel & Goderich Literary Management

Source of Book: I borrowed this book from my local public library. I had never read any of David Morrell’s works, and was impressed by his presentations at Thrillerfest. He is best known for his debut novel “First Blood” in which he introduced the character Rambo.

Blurb: Thomas De Quincey, infamous for his memoir, “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, is the major suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders identical to the ones that terrorized London forty-three years earlier.

The blueprints for the killings seems to be De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Desperate to clear his name but crippled by opium addiction, De Quincey is aided by his devoted daughter Emily and a pair of determined Scotland Yard detectives.

In “Murder as a Fine Art”, David Morrell plucks De Quincey, Victorian London, and the Ratcliffe Highway murders from history. Fogbound streets become a battleground between a literary star and a brilliant murderer whose lives are linked by secrets long buried but never forgotten.

(Source of Blurb: Inside dust cover jacket)

Review:  “Murder as a Fine Art” shows a true master at work. David Morrell, author of “First Blood”, which introduced the Rambo character, is a scholar as well as an author. This book is as much of a learning experience as it is a thriller. Morrell teaches us a lot about Victorian England, and this was, for me, the best part of the book. In addition, Morrel uses a complex story structure, writing a good bit of it in third person omniscient point of view, seldom used currently, but widely used in Victorian times. He intersperses this with some first person point of view using a strong female character via excerpts from her diary. I learned a great deal about Victorian England, as well as a lot about the craft of writing.

I was a little less impressed with the plot, however. Morrell starts his first chapter with a very vivid description of several murders including the killing of a small infant. The book certainly has a dark side to it. The story eventually explains the psychological reasons behind this. I found it intriguing that the protagonist was an opium-addled author who outwits a much younger and stronger villain, but towards the end of the book, the cleverness of the protagonist and the ease with which he eventually defeats the villain were a little too much for me. Please do not get me wrong, this is a very good thriller, just a little too much cleverness and too much psychology for my taste.

If you have the stomach to get by the description of the gruesome murders in the first chapter, this is an entertaining, well-written thriller. The real strength of “Murder as a Fine Art” is the rich detail of the setting, Victorian England. The book is incredibly well-researched, and Morrell’s use of third-person omniscient point of view is a great example of a master writer at work. If you like your thrillers laced with a great deal of very pleasurable education, and you have an interest in Victorian England, you will enjoy this thoroughly.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Link to Author’s Website:  www.davidmorrell.net

Purchase Link:  Murder as a Fine Art

Review of “The New Spymasters” by Stephen Grey

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Author:  Stephen Grey

Publication Date: July 14, 2015

Publisher: St. Martin’s

ISBN: 978-0-3123-7922-3

Agent: Not known

Source of Book: I obtained this book by scanning the shelves at my local library.



Blurb: The old world of spying-dead-letter boxes, microfilm cameras, an enemy reporting to the Moscow Center, and a hint of sexual blackmail is history. The spymaster’s technique has changed and the enemy has, too. He or she now frequently comes from a culture far removed from Western understanding and is part of a less well-organized group. The new enemy is constantly evolving and prepared to kill the innocent. In the face of this new threat, the spymasters of the world shunned human intelligence as the primary way to glean clandestine information and replaced it with an obsession that focuses on the technical methods of spying ranging from the use of high-definition satellite photography to the global interception of communications. However, this obsession with technology has failed, most spectacularly, with the devastation of the 9/11 attacks. In this searing modern history of espionage, Stephen Grey takes us from the CIA’s Cold War legends, to the agents who betrayed the IRA, through to the spooks inside Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Techniques and technologies have evolved, but the old motivations for betrayal-patriotism, greed, revenge, compromise-endure. Based on years of research and interviews with hundreds of secret sources, Stephen Grey’s The New Spymasters is an up-to-date exposé that shows how spycraft’s human factor is once again being used to combat the world’s deadliest enemies.

(Source of Blurb: Macmillian Publishers)

Review:  “The New Spymasters”,  a non-fiction book by Stephen Grey published in 2015, was challenging to read, but highly informative, and very wide-ranging. Case studies were presented in readable, but rich detail. The author tried to draw together some overarching themes, including the conflict between technological intelligence and human intelligence gathering, and the difficulties inherent in each as well as ethical conflicts. The differences and conflicts between obtaining information and covert action are clearly described and illustrated. For an aspiring author searching for plotlines and conflicts to make a story richer, this book provides a wealth of possibilities. Spying is not easy, and it is not glamorous, and “The New Spymasters” pulls no punches. These stories are all very real and very well documented.

The book starts with a glossary in the front.  I imagine that was a signal from the author that this was going to be a difficult read. I found the glossary useful, especially the names and abbreviations of the intelligence services of many foreign countries.  The author is not afraid of complexity, and the glossary is helpful. “The New Spymasters tells the story of spying from the British Empire up to Afghanistan and al-Queda. It takes a case approach, focusing on a famous spying episode in each chapter, including Sidney Reilly, Kim Philby, the IRA, Andrew Antoniades, as well as several post 9-11 spying successes and failures, probing deeply into what is known about each episode. The book highlights the evolution of the spying business, and is quite clear about the difficulties involved in spying on an organization such as al-Queda.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Link to Author’s Website:  http://www.stephengrey.com/

Purchase Link:  https://www.amazon.com/new-spymasters-Inside-espionage-global/dp/0670917400

Review of “Operation Finale”

I enjoyed this movie a lot, but it was not as good as I had hoped it would be. I thought it suffered in comparison to two movies, “Silence of the Lambs” and “Argo”. As I watched “Operation Finale” , I could not help bringing up thoughts of these two excellent movies, each of which had points of reference in “Operation Finale”. If I hadn’t seen these two movies, I would have enjoyed “Operation Finale” a lot more on its own. It is a very thought-provoking film, and features an excellent performance by Ben Kingsley. It is well worth seeing.

The strongest performance in “Operation Finale”  was Ben Kingsley as Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal who was Hitler’s architect of the “Final Solution”. Eichmann was a classic villain if there ever was one, and Kingsley plays it to the hilt without overdoing it. The high point of the movie was Kingsley’s dialog with Peter Malkin, one of the Israeli agents involved in the kidnapping of Eichmann,  as Malkin struggles to convince Eichmann to sign a document saying he was voluntarily returning to Argentina. It seems Eichmann has some Hannibal Lecter-like skills in the manipulation of his captors, and Kingsley is very good at showing the humanity of Eichmann simultaneously with his truly evil nature. If I hadn’t seen “Silence of the Lambs” I would have appreciated it much more. I was constantly comparing Adolph Eichmann with Hannibal Lecter, and in terms of both true evil and manipulative skills, Kingsley’s portrayal of Eichmann comes up very close, but a little bit short. This is not a knock on Kingsley, however who turned in a riveting performance.

The other movie I wanted to compare “Operation Finale” to was “Argo”, in which a team of United States’ agents successfully smuggled a group of Americans out of Iran in the middle of the Iranian hostage crisis. “Argo” and “Operation Finale” were both based on real events, and both undoubtedly took a few small liberties with the historical facts to create cinematic tension, but I thought Argo was the better “thriller”, while “Operation Finale was the better psychological study and a lot more cerebral. There were some interesting ethical issues in the Eichmann kidnapping, and the inner turmoil of the Israeli agents who had to fight off the urge to kill Eichmann themselves was well presented in this movie.

I had a little difficulty in the opening scene in which Peter Malkin, the Israeli agent who is the main focus of this story kills the wrong person in his search to bring Nazis to justice. I honestly wasn’t clear what was happening in this scene and who the characters were. For me, that started the film off on the wrong foot, but once Ben Kingsley filled the screen, that first scene was quickly forgiven, and a very good, but not great, movie ensued.

Review of “The Other Woman” by Daniel Silva

“The Other Woman”, the 2018 effort by Daniel Silva, was one of the best espionage books I have read in recent years. Silva is at the top of his game and keeps improving as his Gabriel Allon series continues.

This story concerns Gabriel Allon, the spy, assassin, art restorer, and head of Israeli intelligence who learns of a highly placed mole from cold war days who has risen to a very high place in Western intelligence. Once again, it seems that Allon is the only person who can deal with the situation.

Although I felt the story was a bit contrived and somewhat preposterous, Daniel Silva makes it plausible, and provides a copious amount of research along the way, as well as some visits to exotic locales. This story held my attention from beginning to end, and I wound up reading it quickly. This is the sign of a great thriller. Silva uses short chapters and changing points of view to provide a very tight story that keeps the reader on edge throughout.

Gabriel Allon still reigns as my favorite thriller hero. His character is the best developed in this book which is to be expected. Whenever Allon speaks a line of dialog, his voice shines through, and you draw a picture of a capable, but somewhat cynical hero, who always wants to do the right thing but is not afraid to get his hands dirty or violate some set of rules.

My only gripes in this excellent book concern the minor characters. I may have had too high expectations here, since his other characters are not as well developed as I believe they have been in Silva’s previous books. One of my favorites, Julian Isherwood is not even present in this novel. The art world, which I have enjoyed reading about in Silva’s previous novels, has no role here. Christopher Keller, Silva’s assassin turned British agent is present, but strangely not given too much stage time and not as colorful as he has been in previous novels. The same goes for Allon’s usual fellow Israeli agents. They are present, but not really important or well constructed in this novel.

Please don’t let this last paragraph deter you from this novel, however. The fact that Silva is capable of making a truly preposterous premise seem very realistic is a testament to his storytelling skill. The fact that I was disappointed in the use of his secondary characters is a testament to the richness of the story world that he has created in his previous novels. I really wanted to see more of these secondary characters since I enjoyed spending time with them in previous novels.

Read this novel. You will not be disappointed.

I obtained a copy of this novel from my public library. I am a fan of Daniel Silva’s work, and I was anxious to read his latest effort. I also posted this review in Goodreads.

Review of “The Billion Dollar Spy” by David Hoffman

“The Billion Dollar Spy”  by David E. Hoffman, is a 2015 non-fiction account of what is known of Adolph Tolkachev, a highly productive spy for the United States. Tolkachev was an employee in the scientific community of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Until he was caught by the KGB, he delivered what was probably the most valuable information the CIA ever received about aviation and radar research and development activity in Moscow.  I enjoyed this well-written book immensely. It reads like a good thriller, and you cannot help becoming emotionally involved in the lives of the main characters. You are told early on that Tolkachev will not survive, but that knowledge did not spoil the book for me, but made it all the more tragic.

The book is non-fiction, based on archival research as well as interviews with some of the participants. It reads like a good thriller and was very difficult to put down. It captured the atmosphere of the Cold War, and portrayed the complexities and dangers of running a spy in Moscow during that time. It provides good background on what diplomats and CIA employees went through while being stationed in Moscow, and gives the reader a great appreciation of the difficulty and courage involved in this work. There is no glamour here. The stress involved in doing covert work in Moscow while under almost constant surveillance by the KGB is evident, as is the personal toll this work took on all concerned.

The largest personal toll was paid by the spy himself, Adolph Tolkachev, who wanted little more than to provide as much information as possible to the West that would do the maximum damage to the Soviet Union which he had grown to loathe. The bravery and obstinance of this complex man was evident throughout, and his willingness to continue providing the CIA information as the KGB’s net grew tighter around him is admirable, but difficult to comprehend. The life of a spy in Moscow in those times was certainly not a particularly good one. Tolkachev’s tragedy is made even more poignant knowing that he actually got little that was useful to him in return from the United States. He demanded large amounts of money, but was really not able to spend it. It seemed to be a form of scorekeeping to him, a measure of his personal worth. The value of the information he provided was far in excess of any benefits he may have received. The CIA was reluctant to provide him with even very simple rewards, like rock music for his son, since being found with such material not readily available in the Soviet Union would have opened him up to unwelcome scrutiny. The author hints, that many lives were saved in our conflicts in Iraq since the United States had vastly superior air power than Iraq. The Russian-provided technology used by Iraq was able to be defeated easily since the United States had extensive knowledge of weaknesses in Soviet aviation and radar largely due to information provided by Tolkachev.

I read this book to get a handle on realistic information on how the CIA operated in Moscow. Although much of the information is now outdated, the stresses, strains and personal tolls paid in the pursuit of actionable on-the-ground intelligence are well presented in this outstanding work. Real spying work involves long and tedious surveillance detection runs, and reading in closets to avoid the scrutiny of any planted video cameras. The presence of deep personal tragedy runs throughout. The wrenching ethical decisions of balancing the demands for more information against the personal risk taken by the provider of that information are clear here. These are tough decisions.

I purchased this book at the “Mysterious Bookstore” in New York during my visit there to attend Thrillerfest. It was well worth the purchase.

I also posted this in Goodreads.

Review of “Spook Street” by Mick Herron

I found “Spook Street” to be a very innovative entry in the Spy novel genre. It blends a lot of humor into what is actually a pretty good spy story.

This 2017 book is squarely in the tradition of the British spy novel. It is set largely in England and concerns the residents of Slough House, a kind of turkey farm for British Spies with “issues”, or who have ruined their careers as the result of a screw-up, or some personal failing. These individuals arrive in Slough House, sometimes because they deserve it and sometimes due to more nefarious circumstances beyond their control. This universe allows Herron to populate his novel with an endless supply of interesting and quirky characters. “Spook Street” does just that. Herron’s  characters in this novel are wildly rich and highly entertaining. The leader of Slough House is Jackson Lamb, a particularly despicable individual, but quite intelligent. Other inhabitants of Slough House include those with “anger management” problems, alcohol problems, gambling problems, post traumatic stress syndrome, etc.

The plot starts with a terrorist attack in London, and then moves to strange goings-on in a cult-like house in France. One of the residents of Slough House is drawn into these events as the result of an attempt on the life of his grandfather, a former high-level spy himself, who is dealing with the possibility of dementia.

Herron throws in a lot of humor in this book, and I found that to be very refreshing. At the same time, there is a lot of action in this book, and Herron writes his action scenes as well as anyone. They are tightly drawn and held my attention throughout. Don’t let the comedy fool you. Herron can do action with the best of them, and then make you return to laughing on the next page. He is very good at what he does.

The strongest part of “Spook Street” is its innovative universe and characters. Slough House is a lot of fun, and offers the reader an endless possibility of twists and turns. Herron’s use of humor is innovative and kept me laughing while I was gradually drawn into the world of Slough House. The book is not all funny, however, and Spook Street offers a lot of action and drama as well.

The strength’s of “Spook Street” far outnumber its weaknesses. I found the plot a little far-fetched, with a few too many coincidences concerning family relationships, however. I also have to warn the American reader that this book is very British. It is written like a John LeCarré novel with a lot more humor thrown into the mix. I have to admit I missed a lot of the humor simply because I missed a few jokes that may have depended on more of a knowledge of Britain than I had. In Slough House, the interesting characters are introduced very quickly, and the changes in point of view were a little difficult for me to follow. I understand this is the fourth in a series about Slough House and I may have been more familiar with the characters had I read his previous books in the proper order. These weaknesses are minor, however. If a reader likes a good spy story with a heavy dose of humor, and can handle the British style, this book is a lot of fun.

I obtained this book from my local library. I was not familiar with Mick Herron’s work. I recently read “A Loyal Spy” by Simon Conway. This book won the “Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award”, so I checked the award and came up with the name Mick Herron. I am glad I did, and I will seek out his other works, particularly when I am in need of a good laugh combined with a good spy story. Slough House is the home of many really good characters, and the premise offers the possibility of meeting a whole lot more.

I have also published this review in Goodreads.