My Must-Read Book Collection: Spy Novels

I find it extremely difficult when people approach me and ask for a book recommendation. It’s an impossible task because the sheer number of books in each genre is mind-boggling! And to pick one at random and tell someone to read it is akin to a crime in my head.

So I’ve decided to share my must-read book collection with the world in a very methodical way. Every month, I will pick one category and share some of the best books I’ve read in that genre. So anytime you feel the craving to read a book and are looking for some help, you know where to find it!

And the category I’m going to start off with is: Spy Novels

Spy-Novels

A good spy novel is one which grips you from the get-go. A lot of writers have tried their hand at this genre but few manage to make a mark. The reason behind this is a good spy novel combines elements of heavy research, good story and solid characters. This combination takes a writer who is super-smart, tenacious and has a solid writing style.

Across the years, I have read a lot of spy novels which attempt to take the reader into the cloak and dagger world of espionage. But only the following novels managed to capture my entire attention and transport me to the realm of secrecy, shadows and suspense!

1. The Deceiver

The Deceiver

A classic spy novel by the legendary Frederick Forsyth. The Deceiver takes the reader into the life of a British Secret agent by the name of Sam McCready and his most successful missions.

This spy novel is a particular favorite of mine because the four missions of Sam in the book show the different skills and tactics required from an actual spy who works undercover. The author doesn’t mince words when describing the ethical dilemmas and the cold inhuman decisions which are a part and parcel of a spy’s life.

Another interesting theme described is the importance of relying on human intelligence as opposed to gadgets and drones. Sam in his various missions demonstrates how a superior human agent can always exploit the loopholes in technology and thereby makes a strong case for using humans in covert operations.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

(Other awesome spy novels by the same author: The Fist of God , The Afghan )

2. The Matarese Circle

the-matarese-circle

The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum is a lesser known spy novel by the legendary author who created the Bourne series. This spy novel pits the protagonists Brandon Scofield (US Intelligence) and Vasili Taleniekov ( Soviet KGB) against a mysterious organization called Matarese.

Matarese is a dynasty which has it’s secret origins around 100 years back and is led by an evil mastermind. The natural enemy spies who hate each other must combine forces to save their respective nations from falling prey to Matarese!

I love this book because it is a solid example of spy fiction which transports you to the Cold-War era and the filled with suspicion and a wariness resulting from long battle. And it’s one of the few books which forces the natural enemies in the spy world to collaborate towards a common goal!

I remember losing all sense of time when reading this novel and having a grim look on my face till I reached the end of the novel. Action, superior intelligence strategies and amazing characters make this an unputdownable book!

PS: Ludlum is extra awesome because he follows this novel with a sequel called Matarese Countdown which is equally gripping with a CIA protagonist and a ruthless new villain!

Rating: 4 / 5

(Other awesome spy novels by the same author: The Ambler Warning, The Covert-One Series )

3. The Company

the-company robert littell

Don’t read this book unless you are a serious espionage fan and can spare a week. Because it’s extremely addictive and is a mammoth read (900 pages!) which can piss off your near and dear ones as they try to get your attention.

The Company is a definitive novel by Robert Littell about the infamous CIA(Central Intelligence Agency) which showcases its history from 1950 to 1995. This is a must-read for all those wanting to understand the dynamics of intelligence history and the moves of the big players following World War-II.

The CIA’s involvement in the defection of Burgess and MacLean from Britain to the Soviet Union(thus ending Britain as a superpower), the Suez Canal crisis, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis are covered extremely well. Also the arming of rebels in Afghanistan to combat Russia and the Gulf War are featured with a very good amount of detail.

The best part of the novel is that you end up learning all these things without realizing them as you are caught in the gripping story-line and associate yourself with many characters as the novel progresses. You get to know a large number of young men and women recruited while still in college and their battle with themselves and the world as they rise through the ranks of the Company.

Don’t miss the character called The Sorcerer (Harvey Torretti), a heavy-drinking chief of the Berlin office in the early Cold War days. He re-defines the trope of badass spy who can be drunk as a fish while carrying out super-complicated covert operations.

Rating: 5 / 5 

 

4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

George Smiley: Short, fat and boring.

Atleast that’s what James Bond fans would call him. This John LeCarre novel is close to my heart because it sheds all the fancy glamorous bits of what we associate with the world of spies.

The hero of the novel is a disciplined intelligence professional who was forced to retire. He is called upon to hunt down a Soviet mole in the “Circus”, the highest echelon of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

This is not an easy book to read as you don’t have all the answers to the puzzle before the characters. The timeline is non-linear, and contains many subplots. As a reader, you will be left observing the actions of the characters and you must put together the pieces yourself!

But at the end of it, you’ll realize it’s totally worth it. You learn the psychological approaches to interrogation along with many intelligence operations details which other novels never capture. And of course you’ll fall in love with Smiley, the legendary spymaster as he battles his way through the darkness cast by the shadows of his enemies.

Rating: 4 / 5

(Other awesome spy novels by the same author: The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People)

5. The Key to Rebecca

The Key To Rebecca

The Key To Rebecca is my most favorite Ken Follett book. The novel starts in 1942 as the World War II is raging, and the now legendary German general Erwin Rommel is having success after success with his famous Afrika Corps.

The Nazis are planning to invade Cairo and Rommel wishes to urgently hack into the British intelligence from their Headquarters in Cairo. So Rommel sends a master spy known only as the “Sphinx,”into British occupied Egypt. Then begins the roller coaster ride as the Sphinx tries to outwit his opponents and faces many obstacles.

I absolutely love this book because it was the first ever spy novel which kept me up all night! It’s a fantastic thriller which keeps you on edge as you start rooting for the anti-hero Sphinx as he devilishly wades through dangerous waters. A must, must-read indeed!

Rating:  4.5 /5 

(Other awesome spy novels by the same author: Eye of the Needle, Triple)

Over to You

Hope this post introduced you to some books which were new to you. Don’t forget to give them a try and let me know what you thought of them. And if you have any favorite spy novels which you think are a must-read, tell me about them in the comments!

Cheers!

Rejection Diaries – My First Encounter

My first encounter with rejection happened when I was 14 years old. I had just completed my tenth grade and life seemed an open canvas where I could freely paint my desires and do whatever I wanted to. Little did I know my real schooling was about to begin.

In India, formal education is given an immense amount of attention in the family. The degrees which you possess, the schools that you attend and the grades that you get are seen as indicators which determine your chances of success or failure in life.

The IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) are a premier group of schools which offer engineering degrees which are highly valued throughout the world. They are one of the hardest institutions to get into with one of the toughest entrance exams in the world. Students who finish their class 12 appear for this entrance exam commonly called JEE (Joint Entrance Exam)

And because the exam is so hard, there are special coaching centres which promise extensive training to students in all the required subjects so that the students are prepped to ace the IIT entrance exams. One such coaching centre in the city of Bangalore was BASE where most parents hoped their kids would get in.

Not surprisingly, BASE had its own entrance exam! Thousands of aspiring 15- year olds and their equally ambitious parents ensured that the BASE exam date was prominently highlighted on their calendars.

When my dad first told me about the BASE entrance, I thought I could easily ace it. After all I had pretty decent grades in school and even managed to top my school exams once or twice.

“How hard could a few multiple choice questions on science and math be?” I thought to myself.

On the day of the exam, I was amazed at the number of kids who turned up at the venue. Everyone seemed to be carrying books containing previous question papers and were religiously scanning their formulae and notes. And here I was coolly laughing at them with a pen in my pocket and chewing gum instead of preparing.

And then it began. At 9:30 a.m. sharp! Lightning struck me pretty quickly after that.

school exam
By Rune Mathisen

I can’t seem to recall if it was a two or three hour test. My mind has pretty much erased the painful bits. All I remember now is within 15 minutes of seeing the questions, I was pretty sure the only way I could get in was if the goddess of luck and the god of gambling both decided to hedge their bets on me.

There were questions on gravity, probability and oscillations. Pendulums, weights and water seemed to be the theme of the test as many questions contained these phrases. I felt like Archimedes himself!

Minus the water-tub, brains and the Eureka moment. In short, naked and dumb!

So I used my imagination and luck and answered all the questions. I thought “Heck, I should get some of them right” and started with the ones I knew. These were about 5 % of the questions. For the rest, I relied on the tried and tested method of choosing the options: All of the above, None of the above and the longest explanation answers.

By the end of it I was thinking maybe, just maybe I can bag the last spot left in the center.

So I went home cheerfully and told my parents I had a pretty good chance at clearing it. They were of course happy and optimistic as parents are when their kids show over-confidence and excess positivity. They probably thought their doofus boy had it all figured out and was well on his way to becoming the next rocket scientist!

The results came in through post and was probably lying in our mailbox for a few days as we had all gone on a family vacation to our native village. We came back Saturday morning and dad left for his half-day of office.

I went down to play with my apartment buddies and on the way back peeked in the mailbox to find an envelope with BASE written on it.  I was both nervous and anxious as I quickly took it to my room and opened it in hurry.

Rank

That was the number which stared at me. I didn’t understand it at first. I thought they were referring to my roll number. But after staring at it dumbly for a few minutes I realized it was my rank. Not only had I got a rank which looked like a train number from the Indian Railways, it was probably a couple of ranks better than the person who forgot to show up for the test.

That was when I realized the questions had negative marking! In my enthusiasm to succeed through sheer will power, I had forgotten a fundamental principle of math. If you add a smaller positive number to a larger negative number, the result is still a negative bloody number! I must have answered so many questions wrong that whatever little marks I got by answering the ones I knew were eaten up by the wrong ones.

My dad was mightily disappointed and probably lost his appetite for a week. But being the eternal optimist that he was, he calculated that some kids might not want to go to BASE and there might be some seats left over. Of course some seats did get left over but they went to the kids who scored ranks in the early 600’s.

The rejection hit me hard.

For probably the first time in my life, I faced severe self-doubt and struggled to come to terms with the fact that there were thousands of kids my age who were better than me. My self-esteem was at an all-time low and for the next few months I just trudged along with my life as if it were a bad dream.

I got into a local pre-university college which had many people attending BASE as they juggled regular school and coaching classes. For them regular coursework seemed too easy as they were much ahead compared to the rest of us thanks to the advanced coaching they received.

So as I struggled with understanding calculus and organic chemistry, the college library became a place of solace for me. It wasn’t crowded as it consisted of dusty shelves and a musty odour but it gave me a chance to be with people and stories from books I loved so I didn’t really mind.

For a teenager struggling with rejection and shaky self-worth, fiction can be a comforting friend.

One day, in the middle of my 11th grade, I was browsing through the library after classes. I stumbled onto a book called Swami Vivekananda – Collected Works Vol. I

swamiji

I had heard a little about the heroic monk and his inspiring journey of uplifting people back in the days before India achieved freedom. So I borrowed it for a week and started reading it at home that evening.

For the next few days, day and night merged into a series of forgettable moments as I plunged into the book with the fervour of a madman. The speeches of Swami Vivekananda were electrifying and inspiring. They beckoned to the hero within each soul as he urged everyone to ‘Arise, Awake and stop not till the Goal is reached!’

I could imagine him standing in front of the rejected masses of Indians back in his days roaring

 “My countrymen should have nerves of steel, muscles of iron, and minds like thunderbolt!”

The book shook my being completely and made me realize what a self-pitying idiot I had turned into!

The possibility of making something of myself through my own genius and not having to depend on others for assessing my worth gave me immense strength. I realized that the more I tried to fit myself into the patterns of other people’s expectations, the more miserable I would become.

Rejection in this case had made me turn to what I had always loved to do. It set me on a path where I read more, imagined stories and fueled the hunger to acquire more wisdom through deep introspection.

Had I not been rejected, I would have desperately tried to fit in with the others and would have probably never ventured into the college library. All the literature on physics and advanced chemistry would have not given my soul the nourishment it desperately needed to blossom and evolve.

Over To You

Rejection is something we have all faced at different points in our life. I have faced it many, many times and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult. The key to handling rejection, however is your attitude towards it. Rejection if handled properly can provide a sense of direction and a renewed purpose which might drastically alter the direction of your life.

Rejection taught me an important lesson which I will always be thankful for. To never let a momentary setback get in the way of a larger vision. To not let fear and ridicule rule me, but rather stare rejection in the face and move ahead confidently past it.

As Swami Vivekananda brilliantly put it, “The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed.”

So, how has your experience been with rejection? What has it taught you? Would love to hear from you.

Cheers!

5 Fictional Heroes Who Influenced Me

What kind of heroes are you attracted towards? The action-type? The cool type? Or the angry type?

All of us have preferences when it comes to the kind of people we like and have an affinity towards. This extends even to fiction. Some fictional characters have such great impact that they push us to develop certain traits and characters which become part of our identity!

In my case, I have a weakness for calm, cool and collected characters. Characters with nerves of steel. I would prefer  having a calm guy/gal by my side who can out-think and outmaneuver the opposition through sheer brain power, than a wham-bamming brute force monkey!

Being a voracious reader, I have consumed loads of fictional novels since I was 12. Here are some characters who have stayed with me through the years and continue to inspire me with their coolness, wit and courage.

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes

The epitome of coolness. This consulting detective was my first hero whom I tried to ape in every way possible when I was growing up. Sherlock’s supreme confidence in situations old and new, his ability to see beyond the obvious and his calm, unruffled composure inspired me whenever I felt fear and doubt in my own abilities.

Thanks to my obsession to be like him, I ended up studying about topics which made me something of a wonder-boy during my school days. I took to reading Physics, Toxicology and Philosophy with a relish and even went to the extent of collecting crime news clippings from dailies in order to hone my skills as a future detective!

These things seem silly when I look back now, but some of the qualities which I developed back then still help me out. Sherlock taught me to be fearless, driven and logical. He taught me to have the curiosity and the courage to learn about things which fascinate me. Given his ability to still inspire millions, it’s quite elementary he’s my favorite character isn’t it?

(Thank you Arthur Conan Doyle for creating this masterpiece!)

Dr. Ian Malcolm

Ian Malcolm

My first encounter with Ian Malcolm was when I picked up the books Jurassic Park and The Lost World by Michael Crichton. Ian is a rebel mathematician and a chaos theorist who acts as a detached protagonist in the novels.

What struck me about Ian Malcolm was his ability to be the voice of reason (though an ironic one) when everyone around was excited and emotionally blinded. His accurate warnings about the downside of trying to control nature and attempting to bring back dinosaurs made him something of a genius to me.

His dry humor and his intellectual breadth appealed to the nerd in me and gave me the hunger to digest complex concepts which I would have otherwise never excelled at. Even now, when I am forced to learn stuff which I find hard to comprehend, I make myself step into the cool, rational mind of Ian Malcolm. This helps me power up my focus and learn them with ease.

 

John Galt / Howard Roark

Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged

Some young adults (referring to nut-cases such as me) between the ages of 20-23 have a tendency to turn into part-time philosophers. They are besotted by the quest of finding about the purpose of life and our place is in the grand scheme of things.

Enter Ayn Rand’s legendary books Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The sheer number of thinkers who have been influenced by these books is phenomenal. I am no exception. (I recommend them to anybody who has a love of reading)

Howard Roark and John Galt, to me represent the pinnacle of radical doer-thinkers. Self-made men in every aspect, they move through life with the fluidity, grace and assurance of divine beings. Armed with an objective mind, fearless disposition and a joy for living, these two heroes carved out a distinct path for themselves. Their philosophy of objectivism gave a fresh direction to my thoughts.

They taught me to develop the ability to withstand life’s tribulations with fortitude, through a firm faith in one’s own abilities, no matter how bad the situations around me.

Dirk Struan

Tai Pan

Dirk Struan is the main character of the epic novel Tai-Pan written by British author James Clavell in 1966. He is the Tai Pan (Chinese for ‘Supreme leader’) who commands the respect and envy of everyone  and trades through his trading company called the Noble House.

Dirk Struan is my favourite anti-hero who is a resourceful, tough and a cunning bastard. He is a self-made millionaire who loves the seas and is a fearless merchant. The novel is about his love for China, his challenges, adversities  and how he comes out of them a sheer winner!

The Tai-Pan taught me the need to embrace change and adapt to dynamic situations. His ability to network with a wide variety of people and lead them in times of intense pressure make him an endearing character of mine.

Michael Corleone

The Godfather

No list of my favorite characters would be complete without The Godfather’s prodigal son. A complex character who is forced to take up the family mantle and deal with the ever-increasing violence of his enemies. A man who ruthlessly consolidates power so that he can escape it all. Only to be pulled back again.

Michael taught me never to be intimidated by anything. Whether it be power, stature or size. He also taught me the value of diplomacy over brute force. The need for level-headed thinking instead of impulsive decision making. His words of wisdom have helped me make many good decisions in my life.

What such characters show is the need to live life on your own terms. To be one of a kind. To be driven by a purpose and to excel in whatever you do. To walk the talk and leave a legacy behind which can inspire others to lead better lives

So who are the fictional characters responsible for molding you? Share them with me and the rest of the world…

Cheers!

Raining Cats, Stray Dogs: Zen and the Autowallah

 
There is this thing about wisdom. It meets you in unexpected places.
 
It was a cloudy evening in Bangalore. I spent a couple of hours at Blossoms – a book store on Church street housing thousands of books – new and old – making it a bookworm’s paradise. One encounters all sorts of people there – Collectors of interesting books. People who seem to have spent their lifetime in that store just looking for that next book to buy. Average Joes like me trying to get a good price for expensive books. Nerds and Geeks. Good looking girls (Rare occurrence. Just like everywhere else, they seem to come and go just to ensure we don’t forget them. I usually can’t locate them after 10 minutes). Then there are these:
 
a) People searching for weird books -
 
“Excuse me, do you happen to have ‘Does God ever speak through Cats’ by David Evans?”
Store Manager: (Poker face. Thinks for a full 2 minutes pretending to know…) “Try First floor. Near Science fiction”
 
Turns out there is such a book 
 
 
Does God Ever Speak through Cats
 
 
b) People pretending to be filthy rich -
 
“Hey, Hi. I happen to have like two or three thousand Marvel comic books. Will you accept them?”

Store Manager: “Sure Sir. Send them over. We’ll take a look”
 
Dude gets all excited now. Smiles knowingly at his pretend-rich girlfriend and overplays his charity card
 
“You know, I just want other people to also read and enjoy them. Nowadays its rare to find these kind of comics. Haha. Emm by the way… how much do you pay for them?”

Store Manager: (Plays his ace card. He has seen too many of this type) “Sir, it depends. But I think 150-200 rupees is a reasonable price depending on the condition of the books”
 
“Oh wow. Great. I will send my driver tomorrow morning only! That’s terrific!”
 
His girlfriend senses something fishy. She asks the store manager. “You will give 150 rupees for the Superman comics na? The small one..like the 40 page ones? Thin and long?” She shows the dimensions with her hands.

Store Manager:(smirking) “Whaaat madam? For those books we pay 5 rupees to maximum 20 rupees. I thought Saar had original Superman collection”
 
Dude is deflated. His true net worth hovers on his face now.
 
Anyway I digress. So me and my old buddy from college are trying to pick up some cool books at dirt-cheap prices. I get irritated seeing Murakami books are sold at 400 a piece even here. After an hour or so, we finally pick up a few books (Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett) . We see the rain outside and decide to wait it out for another 15 minutes hoping the rain subsides.
 
I decide to re-visit the spirituality section in hope of finding that rare book which would grant me insights into enlightenment and wisdom. I quickly scan the titles. There are the usual Yoga, meditation, Osho books. Then there are books on Buddhism,translations of Upanishads and new-gen Scientology books. Ahh…I finally spot a little Zen book promising quick nuggets of wisdom. I randomly open a page and read this story:
 
A monk asked Joshu, “Has the dog the Buddha nature?”
Joshu replied, “Mu”
(Note: ‘Mu’ in Japanese means ‘No’ or ‘Does not have’)

I rack my brain trying to figure out this one. I don’t get it. I quietly hide the book in the shelf lest someone else gets the story and makes me look dumb. I continue to scan the section trying to see if I can find a simpler book which I can make sense of. The thing is life has this habit of sending me loud signals. As if it knows subtlety might not do the job. And it usually sends me repeated messages just in case I don’t get it the first time. Or the second.
 
First sign: I am happily searching for more books when my phone starts ringing. It’s my girlfriend. She gives me her warning. “Dude I am almost reaching your place. You better not leave me alone with your folks like you did last time” She cuts the call. I sigh and look at the sky outside.  Still heavily raining. I decide to give it another ten minutes.
 
Second sign: I spot a nice looking book which is kept sideways on the top shelf. Kept at a place where only a six-footer like me can reach. It has picture of trees and is green and nice. I smile and reach out. Pick it up and this is what stares at me:
 
How Green were the Nazis
 OK. Someone actually wrote this shit. And it ended up in the Spirituality section. I get the hint. I decide to see what my buddy is upto. He is hovering near the exit looking at something intently. It’s a set of tarot cards. He laughs and opens the deck. He says “Go ahead. Let’s see what your future has in store for you!”
 
Third and final sign: I pick up a random tarot stuck in the middle. This is what I pick up (I am not kidding here. I have a witness for this event)
 
 
Tarot Death
 
 
I do the same exercise with him and he picks up an upside down naked hanging man. He obviously finds it hilarious! I stop thinking about the rain and head towards the exit. Wave a quick goodbye and try catching an auto while getting heavily drenched.
 
Catching an auto in the rain requires tremendous amounts of luck. The auto drivers realize their new leverage and hike up their asking rates. I meet the same fate for a good 10 minutes with them asking me to cough up anywhere between 300 – 500 rupees! Most of them ignoring me while targeting troubled westerners, making them pay atleast 500 rupees for a 30 rupee ride.
 
Finally a serene-looking auto guy stops and asks me my destination. “Rajajinagar!” I blurt out, with rain covering my glasses making it almost impossible to see. He says ‘Kutkoli Saar’ (‘Get in Sir’ in Kannada), turns the meter on and zooms ahead once I am seated. No haggling. No cheap tricks. Pure professionalism.
 
After a while, I settle down and the usual autodriver-customer banter begins. We bitch about the state of roads, Municipal Corporation and the shitty weather. We are ten minutes away from my place. Unable to resist, I ask him why he didn’t ask me for more money when he could have easily got it. He gives me a stunning answer:
 
“Sir, I am a simple, hardworking person. I have heard somewhere that no matter how many corners you try to cut, Karma always catches up with you. I have seen these autowallahs charge hundreds of rupees extra from helpless customers. They don’t realize it but they usually end up losing that money and more in bribing the corrupt cops, repairing their autos which breakdown for no reason or getting caught by moneylenders whom they owe money. I have been driving this auto for 20 years and it has broken down only twice before.”
 
I am at a loss for words. I just smile. He deftly manoeuvres his auto between two cars and continues, “The funny thing is, I have seen some customers who are equally strange. Some are generous and end up giving me an extra 20-30 rupees. Some fight with me for their remaining 1 rupee. People don’t seem to realize that there is no shortcut in life. Either for success, money or fame. No person has the power to be God no matter how much power he accumulates. I guess you need to have nothing at some point of time in your life to understand the value of things.”
 
I nod and agree with him. We near my street and I ask him to bank left. A stray dog barks at us. It suddenly hits me. ‘Mu’. The meaning of the Zen story. All beings do possess Buddha-nature. But the very question of a dog would not exist had the disciple realized his oneness with all beings. The ‘Mu’ was supposed to negate and crush the student’s personal barriers and concepts and set him free.
 
The auto reaches my place. The meter shows 130 rupees. I thank the auto driver, pay him 150 and get out.
 
Is there any point searching for wisdom outside? In books, thoughts, lectures or speeches?
 
Mu!