BOOK REVIEW: Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Miss BurmaMiss Burma by Charmaine Craig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel tells the story of a mixed-race family and their trials and tribulations in Burma / Myanmar from the colonial period (before the Second World War) through the early 1960’s when a civil war was in progress. The father / husband, Benny, is ethnically Indian, religiously Jewish, works for the British, but was born and spent his early childhood in Burma. He marries a Karen woman (i.e. of the Karen tribe.) The central (and titular) character is the couple’s first child, Louisa. Louisa is a beauty, and for various reasons – none of which reflect her own preferences – she ends up a beauty queen and national celebrity.

What is fascinating about this book is how the many levels of humanity – from the individual level (e.g.Louisa / Miss Burma) to the international level – play into each other. At an individual level, each member of the family finds his or her life intruded upon by the nation’s conflicts. Benny ends up a prisoner of war of the Japanese and then later a prisoner of the Burman ruling regime. He feels beholden to the Karens because of a combination of factors involving repaying of debt, familial obligation, and friendship. Louisa ends up in the pageant – in part — because of the question of whether the leaders and Burman citizens are really serious enough about unity to allow a non-Burman into that high-status role.

At a national level, there is a rapid succession of changing situations. First, the country needs to thwart the Japanese invasion. Next, they must throw off the British colonial yoke, and, finally, Burma must figure out what kind of nation (or nations) it will become. The Burman leader wants to consolidate the country, while many tribal groups, including the Karen, want independence. Benny’s family is tied up in this conflict, in part, because of their Karen connection, but also the fact that Benny was able to exploit the post-war economy to his advantage and became rich after the war. This makes him, and his family, both important and simultaneously loved and despised.

At the international level, America and other global powers have interests in keeping Burma from disintegrating into tribal sub-states. In the early post-war period, these interests are largely economic, and involve the preference to have a solitary trading partner for Burmese goods. However, later, as “domino theory” takes center stage in American foreign policy, the interest shifts to thwarting the spread of Communism. (“Domino theory” was the idea that if a non-Communist government fell, others would proceed in a chain reaction throughout the region. It was a little simplistic, but reflected the anxiety of the times and was a large part of the justification for the Vietnam War.)

I found this book gripping and fascinating. The international intrigue and family tensions both work together to make an intensely readable work. Without getting into the ending, I will say that it feels a little bit rushed and anti-climactic. However, the events of the book give it plenty of tension overall, and there is a logic to the place the book ends. It is emotionally powerful to see how this family is repeatedly torn apart and must come together again through great difficulties. We also see how obligation and sense of duty play themselves out, often trumping other considerations.

I would highly recommend this book for readers of fiction, particularly those with interests in historical fiction and works that offer insight into a nation and a culture.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Autobiography of a Flea by Anonymous (Stanislas de Rhodes)

The Autobiography of a FleaThe Autobiography of a Flea by Stanislas de Rhodes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The Autobiography of a Flea” is a historical work of erotica first published in the late 19th century anonymously, and later was attributed to Stanislas de Rhodes. Like the works of the Marquis de Sade, the book is simultaneously a socio-political commentary and philosophical novel. While the erotic elements tend to not be as extreme and perverse as Sade’s work, it shares in common a philosophy of society and a disdain for the clergy and the aristocracy / upper class (Sade’s work was earlier and straddled the French Revolution, and so things had changed on this front.) But, for example, in this book, two lascivious and hypocritical clergymen play key roles in the story that would not be unfamiliar to Sade’s readers.

The story starts with discussions (and wagers) regarding a competition that is coming up between women who work for the village’s main employer, a vintner. Whichever woman tramples the most grapes, wins a substantial prize. Our narrator is a libidinous, little flea who follows the sexual antics taking place in this French village. From the flea, we learn about the competition through discussion before, during, and after amore by two village couples. Two women who are likely to be front-runners make a salacious wager that involves the other’s husband. Each woman confesses the wager to her respective husband, but the husbands each have confidence in his wife to win, and so neither is concerned about the competition. Little do any of them know, the vintner has stacked the deck in favor of the fairest maiden in the village, who he intends to marry – despite the fact that he is old, feeble, and disgusting.

This fair (re: young and gorgeous) maiden has a suitor, and she is about to be intimate with him for the first time, when the village priest interrupts them. The priest then uses his knowledge to manipulate the young woman to his benefit. (Ultimately, he is joined by an English priest on sabbatical who involves himself with a couple village widows as well as in the priest’s nefarious plot.) The village priest simultaneously seeks to please the vintner (because the old man is the church’s leading patron), and at the same time he pursues his own pleasure. So, the young woman is forced into marriage, and into allowing consummation of said marriage — though the old vintner repeatedly shows himself not up to the task and is usually comically premature.

The author echoes a theme from Sade’s philosophy, which a society that is anarchic under its feeble institutions, i.e. in which the strong do whatever they please to the weak. The lead character, the maiden, is constantly humiliated and run roughshod over whenever she tries to move against the flow of this anarchy. Counting on the strong to behave virtuously only gets her punished and humiliated. It’s only when she starts moving with the flow so as to game the system by acknowledging and heeding this power disparity that she starts to see success in getting her way.

As with the Marquis de Sade’s work, this book could correctly be claimed to be excessively pessimistic and Hobbsean (philosopher and author of “The Leviathan” who believed people were brutish and self-interested.) I found it to be cleverer and less gratuitous than the works by Sade that I’ve read. Both the use of the narrating flea to give the reader a well-established point of view and the story — which exists (in contrast to many works in this genre, including Sade’s work “120 Days of Sodom.”) I’d recommend this book for readers of historical fiction and erotica (particularly if one enjoys — or can tolerate — the sado-masochistic dynamic.)

[Note: there are a couple versions of this book, but – as near as I can tell – the story is consistent between them. It’s the character names that vary. The book is set in France, and features one English clergyman (kindred spirit to the village priest.) However, the more common version of the book features more English-sounding names, but there is a version with more typically French names. e.g. the lead, Bella, is Laurette in the latter edition. I read the version with the more French sounding names, but read a plot summary of the other edition, and the story was the same in broad brush strokes at least.]

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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At its core, this is a love story set in the most unlikely of places, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp – which was in reality an extermination camp where Jews and others were executed as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Lale, the lead character, owing to his skill with languages and his survival instincts, was a prisoner chosen to be the assistant tattooist and in short order the tattooist’s replacement. As tattooist, Lale was responsible for writing numbers indelibly on the arms of the adult prisoners coming to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. This position offered him an unusual freedom of movement that allowed him to carry on a secretive relationship with one of the young women that he’d tattoo’d and become instantly smitten with. It also allowed him to carry out a small-scale relief mission in which he purchased food and medicine from a couple of sympathetic Poles. Still, this covert charitable work didn’t erase his guilt of believing he was participating in the atrocity by way of the tattoo-branding of his fellow prisoners. In a place where everyday was a test of survival, it goes without saying that both his love affair and his covert purchases created a heightened risk of being killed. The tension is perpetually high as one never knows whether Lale or those dear to him will survive from one scene to the next.

It’s testament to how tight and engaging the narrative arc is that I was under the impression that it was completely fictitious until I got to the back matter – which included an epilogue, an afterword, and a photo section that clarified that the book was based on interviews with the real-life tattooist, Lale Sokolov. The book is presented as a novel, and that’s how it reads throughout, but it’s in some measure a memoir. It’s hard to know how much is fictitious, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the author took some liberties – otherwise it would presumably have been presented as a history / biography.

I found this to be one of the most intense and gripping books I’ve read this year, and I’d highly recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

River of Teeth (River of Teeth #1)River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This alternative history book takes as its premise the “what-if” of: what if feral hippopotamuses had been introduced into the bayous of Louisiana. This was apparently an idea that was considered in the real world, presumably by people who didn’t realize that hippos are one of the most territorial and cantankerous creatures in nature. Those who’ve read the writings of the explorers / adventurers who made their way through Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries will be well aware that hippos were among the most feared creatures faced by those expeditions — rivaling black mamba and lions, and not at all like the cattle they were expected to be.

The first part of the novel consists of a hippo wrangler of British origin, named Winslow Houndstooth, building his team of hippo wranglers Magnificent Seven style. Houndstooth has a contract from the federal government to drive feral hippos out of a marshy river basin called “the Harriet.” Houndstooth also has a plan to do this dangerous job in a way that—if it works—will make the job quick and easy while exacting revenge on his archenemy, a man named Tavers who operates gambling riverboats on the Harriet. The story is as engrossing as it sounds. Dangers abound for our protagonist and his team of misfits – misfits of varying reliability, and —like George R. R. Martin—Gailey isn’t afraid to kill off a character.

The introduction of hippos isn’t the only way in which the story is alt-history. It’s also set in a world in which people of various sexual orientations and gender identities are much more open with their sexuality than they would have been in the Louisiana of the early 20th century as we know it. (Note: It’s not clear whether it was the introduction of hippos to America that created divergence in the parallel timeline that allowed for this progressiveness, whether it was a more open societal outlook on sexuality that facilitated the introduction of hippos, or whether these are independent events.)

At any rate, while gender and sexual orientation issues are quite prominent in the story, there’s only one area in which this disparity between historical reality and the alt-world became a distraction for me. I should point out that there would be no distraction in a science-fiction or fantasy story, as there is in historical fiction, because the author can create or destroy societal mores and norms as she wishes in a non-existent world. Anyhow, the one distraction I referred to had to do with one character, Hero, for whom the plural pronoun is used throughout. I must admit that I spent a few pages trying to figure out whether Hero had two heads like Zaphod Beeblebrox before I concluded that it was an attempt to deal with gender identity (I think.) I will say that the character development is skillful and Gailey does a great job of producing characters that evoke love or hate but not indifference.

I enjoyed this story. It’s a quick read, has likable and loathable characters, and builds tension throughout. There is a second book that I understand can be read independently of this one called “Taste of Marrow.” I have not yet read it, but probably will.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cold Days by Tibor Cseres

Cold DaysCold Days by Tibor Cseres
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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During the Second World War, there was a massacre conducted by the Hungarian military in the Yugoslavian town now called Novi Sad (known as Újvidék under the Hungarians.) The operation was meant to be a cleanup of Yugoslavian partisans, but the casualties were primarily innocent civilians. The novel is called “Cold Days” (i.e. literally translated from the Hungarian “Hideg Napok”) because the killings took place during a cold snap in January of 1942. Cseres bases his novel on this real world event, but he tells the story through the lens of four fictional military men who are sharing a cell for their respective actions in Novi Sad.

The novel weaves five narrative lines into an overall arc. Four of these are the personal stories of each of the four soldiers during the massacre and the time leading up to it, and the fifth takes place later when they are all together in the cell. The four characters have no connection before being placed in the same cell—or so it seems. At most, the officers know of each other. The five lines come together in the end and the reader sees how the four lives are no longer in strict isolation, but are connected by the events of that day—in some cases more severely than others.

Captain Büky is the highest ranking of the prisoners and is a straight-laced military man except that he takes issue with the order than keeps married men from bringing their families to station at Novi Sad. Prior to the massacre and some killings that instigated it, it’d been a routine assignment. Lieutenant Tarpataki is a new assignee, and his principal trouble is that he arrives to find that he hasn’t been assigned housing or a billet. Lieutenant Pozdor gets his men taken from his control by the police chain of command and is left hiding out trying to avoid being assigned some remedial task. Corporal Szabo is both the only enlisted man in the group and the only one who is directly involved with the violence, though a Cpl. Dorner takes the lead and Szabo is a follower.

If that cast doesn’t seem like the kind of villainous blackguards one expects of a massacre crew, I think that that is part of what the author is trying to convey. Run-of-the-mill men stumble down slippery slopes into treachery during times of war. Sometimes the worst go unpunished, while others take the fall. The author also shows that sides can matter little when it comes to such events. Anyone can suffer loss when events tumble out of control as they did in January of 1942 on frigid day in Novi Sad.

This book is translated from Hungarian. It’s sparse and simple writing, and readability is high. It’s a short book of only about 120 pages.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in tales of the horrors of war. It may have interest to history as well as fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman (Art: Andy Kubert)

Marvel 1602Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is anachronism done right by Neil Gaiman. The title gives one the jist of this graphic novel’s theme. It’s the Marvel Universe circa 1602. There’s a big cast of Marvel characters in this collection of eight comics. However, those who don’t follow comics might not recognize some of the characters because they are decidedly less comic-esque in this take. The characters mostly go by their given names rather than their superhero nom de guerre and not one of them wears spandex—and even capes are fairly few and far between. While the cast is large, there’re just a few main players and some major Marvel superheroes play only minor or unheroic roles.

The principal heroes in this book are Nicholas Fury (as head of the Queen’s Intelligence Service), Carlos Xavier (principal of a school for mutants), Virginia Dare (the first girl born in the Roanoke Colony), Rojhaz (the–decidedly Caucasian but–Native American protector of Dare), Stephen Strange (close to his modern-day namesake), Matthew Murdoch (think Daredevil), and a smattering of other X-men, Avengers, and Fantastic 4 members.

The principal villains are King James I (as himself), Count Otto Von Doom (similar to the modern character), The Inquisitor Enrique (a Magneto-esque character), David Banner (advisor to James I and–it would appear–the gray Hulk), and Natasha (think Black Widow). Before one bemoans the fact that the slate of heroes seems much stronger than the slate of villains, it should be noted that there is a threat that far exceeds the likes of Von Doom.

The world of Marvel 1602 is quite similar to Earth 1602, but there are differences such as the existence of pterodactyls and dinosaurs in some locales. The plot includes political intrigue in the form King James I of Scotland’s desire to nudge an ailing–but beloved—Queen Elizabeth I out-of-the-way. We soon find out that three assassins have been dispatched to target Fury, the Queen, and Virginia Dare, but finding out who hired them and why takes up a fair piece of story line. There’s a substory that features Matthew Murdoch and Natasha on a mission to retrieve what can only be described as a McGuffin (a highly sought after artifact whose value and purpose remain completely unknown until a big reveal, but for which characters are none-the-less willing to lay their lives on the line on pure faith) that offers its own intrigue. There is also the matter of strange weather that increasingly comes to be considered a harbinger of doom (not Von Doom the character, but actual doom.) Ultimately, this is a bigger threat than is presented by any of the human villains, and it can only be overcome through a combination of Richard Reed’s brilliance, Nicholas Fury’s courage, and Rojhaz’s sacrifice of what matters most to him.

I enjoyed this graphic novel. First, having a top-rate writer like Gaiman was certainly a help. There was none of the juvenile / poorly written dialogue that usually plagues comic writing. Gaiman is his usual clever, witty self. Second, while the anachronisms often border on silly (e.g. 1602 Reed’s noodling out Einstein’s discovery of 300+ years later), they are intriguing and recognize real science. Third, the last being said, there’s a lot of effort put into making the comic appropriate for the era in which it’s set. It’s not just putting frilly shirts on modern-day characters. The blending of fact into the fiction is thought-provoking.

If you read graphic novels–even sparsely–this is one that you should definitely check out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Rules for Virgins by Amy Tan

Rules for VirginsRules for Virgins by Amy Tan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This Kindle Single is written in the form of advice by a Madam to the newest member of her brothel. It’s historical fiction, and is set ambiguously in the past. It is presumably set in China, but I don’t recall that that is ever explicitly determined.

The Madam shows a mix of maternal protectiveness for the girl and straightforward, harsh candor. She tells the young girl how to game the men, and how to get the most out of them. She instructs the girl in how to defend her virginity until such time as it is sold to someone who can afford to richly compensate them for it.

There is nothing in the way of a plot in the book. It does read just like rambling advice, so there is also not a lot by way of setting. We do get character development of the Madam, but not so much of the title character.

It’s well-written and seems to be well-researched as well. While I don’t know a great deal about the subject, it rings authentic. Despite the subject, the book isn’t gratuitous in its talk of sex. However, don’t be surprised that the entire work revolves “around” the intertwined subjects of sex and money.

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Your Life is Hard? Try Working with Ninjas,Pirates, and Smugglers!

Ninjas, pirates, and smugglers aren’t exactly chatty. They burn, or shred, their correspondence. They sow seeds of disinformation to confuse the authorities. They lurk in the inkiest of shadow worlds behind doors we don’t even know exist. Still, who wants to do a hatchet job on a pirate? Right?

Did I mention that these are characters in the novel that I’m currently revising (or did I let you believe I was talking about in-the-flesh smugglers so that you’d keep reading.) Sorry, no one ever accused me of NOT being a deceitful bastard. Well, my friend, you’re now more than Tweet deep in this post; that’s quite an investment; it’s the modern-day equivalent of having read The Iliad, so you might as well keep reading.

Kiss the Cobra (my third working title) features a cast of characters of not only the aforementioned occupations but also monks  (both the scholarly and  kick-ass kung fu varieties), an Emperor, a muay Thai master, and a secret society that makes ninjas look like chatty Cathys. Like all good lies, this novel begins with a seed of truth. That seed is the rescue of Emperor Go-Daigo from imprisonment by an evil (ok, quasi-evil) shogun in 1337.  From that seed, it’s my wild imagination run amok… or is it? The Emperor assigns the loyalist ninja who rescued him, Korando, to travel to Southeast Asia to acquire an artifact that legend has it will help him re-consolidate power.

Cut to the present day, a linguistically-talented young man, Matsuo (a.k.a. “Matt”), comes into possession of a scroll. The scroll is Korando’s journal, written and hidden as a confessional. Matt investigates Korando’s journal on an electronic bulletin board only to find himself being chased by nefarious characters. Matt discovers that there are still people willing to kidnap, kill, or commit treason for the secrets that Korando’s journal may possess.

The novel weaves the 14th century journal with this present-day cat and mouse game between the forces of good and evil. There’s murder and mayhem, love and betrayal, victory and defeat, virtue and vice; in short everything you love in a novel is densely crammed into this book.  There’s even one character who may or may not be a Zombie–I’ll let you be the judge.

Now let me just add this screenshot of me to show you ho

Do you ever get a chill on the back of your neck?

Did you ever get an inexplicable chill on the back of your neck?

BOOK REVIEW: Eclipse of the Crescent Moon by Géza Gárdonyi

Bas relief of Siege of Eger

Bas relief of Siege of Eger

Eclipse Of The Crescent MoonEclipse Of The Crescent Moon by Géza Gárdonyi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is the English translation of a volume originally written in Hungarian and titled Egri Csillagok, i.e. “Stars of Eger.”

Historical fiction works best when the event it’s built around requires no fictitious embellishment to fascinate the reader. Eclipse of the Crescent Moon takes place during the 1552 siege of Eger. During this siege, 2,000 Hungarians held off at least 40,000 Turkish invaders for over one month. (In the book the Turks have a two order of magnitude advantage.) The Turks retreated despite having had superior armaments as well as a massive numeric advantage. It’s the perfect underdog story.

Reading a purely historic account would be interesting enough, but Géza Gárdonyi creates value-added by imbuing his characters with depth, particularly his lead Gergely Bornemissza. There wasn’t much known about Bornemissza. He was a minor character in history compared to Eger’s commander, István Dobó. However, his expertise in explosives did play a role in this Hungarian success story.

The book begins when Bornemissza is a young boy. He and a girl named Éva are captured by a Turk. The couple escapes and manages to free others. They later elope to avert Éva’s arranged marriage. They have a child who is later captured by the same Turk who had captured them.

A major subplot is a trip made to Istanbul in the heart of enemy territory to attempt to aid in the escape of Bornemissza’s  adoptive father.

The book is well translated and an engaging read.

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