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Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Camel Club

****½ The Camel Club by David Baldacci. Action/adventure.

Wow. When I went to David Baldacci's book signing earlier this year in Ramstein, I'd expected only to support an author coming to visit us here in Germany. I didn't expect to find a new favorite author. Looks like I lucked out.

The Camel Club is four older men--all misfits--who meet regularly to discuss conspiracy theories and occasionally do something about them. There's "Oliver Stone," obviously a pseudonym, who has a mysterious and probably dangerous past, and who spends much of his time protesting outside the White House; Milton Farb, who's a genius, but who also has pretty severe OCD; Reuben Rhodes, a big man who's a disaffected vet and former DIA agent; and Caleb Shaw, another genius, who tends to retreat into his world of rare books.

The story opens when, during one of their meetings on Roosevelt Island, they witness a murder ofSecret Service agent Patrick Johnson. They realize they're not very credible witnesses, so they don't go to the police, and soon the killers are after them.

Turns out, they've stumbled onto a plot to kidnap the President, and things get more dangerous and more complicated as events unfold.

On the inside, there's Secret Service agent Alex Ford, and his new girlfriend, DoJ lawyer Kate Adams, who moonlights as a bartender.

It's so tempting to explain more than I need to: I just deleted a whole bunch of details about these characters. You'll have to read the book (or visit their Wikipedia page). It was tempting because they're such complete characters, and they feel very real. Despite the fact that The Camel Club has a very large cast, I never got confused, because each character was so clearly written. Their emotions and motivations fit with their histories and past actions, and they behaved exactly the way you'd expect them to behave.

The plot is complicated but not obscure, and it's full of conspiracy and intrigue, which I love. It's very much post-9/11, full of terrorists and people doing the unthinkable in the name of their cause, whether it's for their religion or their country.

I was taken aback by the poor rating on Amazon--only 3 stars--until I read a several of the negative reviews: every single one I read complained about the "politics" and that the story showed Muslims in too good of a light and made Americans look bad. I really have to argue with that. It only looks that way if you're of the mindset that says all Muslims = evil and all Americans = good. On the contrary, I thought it was a very even-handed portrayal. And after all, the heroes were American--it was just that some of the bad guys were, too. I'm glad I didn't read a book those reviewers would have liked. It would have seemed to black-and-white, I think.

One more rebuttal, and then back to the review: what is so "left-wing political" about the notion that you should understand your enemies? It seems like common sense to me. Argh. Whatever. I frequently wish I hadn't read the Amazon reviews, but I just can't help myself.

It's fiction. It's a story. And a damn good and clever one. It's not easy to make a terrorism story new and different, but Baldacci has definitely succeeded here.

My only quibble is that a couple of the characters were convinced a little too easily--Kate could have shown a little more hesitation in throwing herself into the adventure, and Alex could have been a little more incredulous when the conspiracy began to be revealed. I don't think either end result was unrealistic, just that a couple of emotional steps seem to have been left out.

I'm very glad that I had the foresight to buy the first three books in this series all at once, and delighted to see that a fourth has just been released. I've put it on my must-buy list.

One last comment: David Baldacci has one of the best author websites I've seen. It's attractive, professional, and extremely thorough--there's everything on there that you could ever hope to find on an author's website. And it's easy to navigate. Visit it if you have the chance.

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