reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #43 Vuture Peak by John Burdett

I’ve read Burdett’s entire series of books featuring Sonchai Jitpleecheep, detective with the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok. The books include a whole host of characters, Sonchai’s mother who is a former prostitute and now madame, his wife Chanya, also a former prostitute and his corrupt boss Colonel Vikorn.  Sonchai is a practicing Buddhist who is often faced with hard choices between following his Karmic path and survival. I haven’t liked all of the books, the first Bangkok 8 may have been the best, but I always enjoy Sonchai.

Vulture Peak might best be described as a hot mess. The book begins with 3 corpses missing darn near everything: faces, fingertips and key organs.  Vikorn, now running for public office, puts Sonchai in charge of the case and  international human-organ trafficking suggested by this crime. Sonchai gets a black Amex card and travels to Hong Kong, Dubai and Monte Carlo, in pursuit of the Yip sisters, eccentric wealthy twins who appear to be at the heart of the crime ring.They are also compulsive gamblers, usually competing against one another.  While Sonchai is chasing down organ harvesters, his wife Chanya is writing her thesis about prostitution, which includes numerous arguments that many women enter prostitution willingly and are not exploited. Seriously, Burdett? Throughout the novel a rapist is also terrorizing women in Bangkok. The plot gets pretty convoluted, with the rapist and organ-harvesting story lines eventually converging and making little sense whatsoever. Everything gets wrapped up in the end in a most unsatisfactory manner.  Maybe it’s time for Sonchai to pursue another line of work.

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #42 The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Is there a more dystopian setting for a novel than North Korea? Massive starvation, slave labor, hideous prison camps and  endless propaganda barking from loudspeakers in the home and on the streets. The culture is so bizarre that at times it is comedic. How accurate the book is can’t be determined, no fact checking allowed in North Korea.  Johnson spent years researching North Korea, including a trip to Pyongyang, but needless to say he didn’t have unfettered access.

In the first part of the book Pak Jon Du, grows up among orphans, but believes that he was in fact the orphan master’s son. His name is one of the 116 martyrs, names usually given to orphans, but the story he tells himself appears to be part of his survival method. During a countrywide famine most of the orphans die, but he ends up in the military. He learns to fight hand to hand which plays a large role in the plot. His jobs in the military vary, working in the tunnels under South Korea and kidnapping individuals from Japan in the dead of night. His career takes a number of strange turns, learning English, living on an ancient fishing vessel listening to broadcasts through the night, getting a secret assignment to Texas (yes, Texas) and then when it all goes wrong, prison camp.

Throughout the book the story is also told in part through the device of propaganda radio broadcasts. This is where much of the humor comes in: “Kelp-harvesting season will soon be upon us! Time to sterilize your jars and cans.” “This month’s cooking contest. . . Pumpkin Rind Soup!”

In the second part of the book, Jon Du has taken on the identity of General Ga. Ga is a feared military commander who is married to a beautiful film star: Sun Moon. Some of this part of the book is narrated by Ga’s interrogator. He lives with his elderly parents and in his life we see what “ordinary” life might look like.  Kim Jong Il also plays a role, although in a comic book sort of way. We don’t see him making decisions that impact millions of people, we see him in the context of his love of an opera star and his rivalry with Ga for Sun Moon.

The Orphan Master’s Son is hard to pigeon hole into a genre, so I won’t try. It left me feeling that what is going on in North Korea is the cruelest trick played on 23 million people. It is sad to think that there is no end in sight.

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #41 The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

I read this book on holiday several weeks back. It was a lovely story that I imagine can be sliced and diced and analyzed, which is something I don’t do well. The narrator is a middle-aged man who has returned to the area he grew up in for a funeral. In a paragraph he sums up his adult life: divorced, two-kids, not dating, work is fine. He has a bit of time and drives back to the house he grew up in and the Hempstock’s farmhouse.

As he sits at the farmhouse he remembers events that started with his 7th birthday. He is a lonely child, not one of his classmates comes to his birthday party. He finds solace in books and in his new kitten. I’ve not read Gaiman’s children’s books, but this is a childhood with plenty of darkness, where adults cannot be trusted and his sister delights in being mean to him. His parents have some financial difficulties which cause them to take in a boarder, who has run over his kitten. Shortly thereafter he and his father find the border dead of a suicide.This leads him to the nearby Hempstock home where Lettie and her mother comfort and care for him. Weird things start to happen, like coins appearing in inappropriate places, but the farm becomes a refuge, Lettie and her mum and gran have a magic world that begins and ends within the confines of the farm.

Things get scarier when the narrator’s family takes on a young beautiful housekeeper named Ursula Monkton. The attractive housekeeper torments him, seduces his father and is also a monster from another world that only he can see. His father’s behavior becomes monstrous and it is all that he can do to escape the wickedness that is growing in his household.  The Hempstock farm is his refuge, Lettie, Ginnie,her mother and her gran are imbued with magic, they appear to be ageless, having been around since perhaps the beginning of time.

Are his memories real?  Did he really grow up amongst magic, or was it his child’s imagination? When he asks “is it true” Mrs. Hempstock answers: “Different people remember things differently, and you’ll not get any two people to remember anything the same whether they were there or not.” I suspect this to be true of the book too, there is so much and so little that happens in this little story that I suspect we all remember it a little differently.

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #40 Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson

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This may have been my favorite book of 2013.  Prior to reading this book, everything I knew about  T.E. Lawrence came from David Lean’s film, Lawrence of Arabia which I like a lot. The real story is even better and more interesting than the film.

From the outset Anderson admits that Lawrence is a difficult character to know, there is so much mythology about him, both negative and positive. Lawrence himself contributed to the confusion through his own writings that are inconsistent and contradict other eyewitness accounts.  Anderson has worked through a lot of source material, often providing the reader with differing accounts of the same event, sharing his conclusions, but allowing the reader to draw her own.

The book begins prior to WWI introducing Lawrence at a young age.  His family was reclusive due to his parents’ scandalous romance.  As the book moves into the Middle East, it follows three other men who were contemporaries of Lawrence who were operating in the Middle East.  Curt Prüfer was a German national and spy who was trying to incite jihad against the British.  Aaron Aaronsohn was a Jewish agronomist and Zionist, a spy and a critical figure in the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Anderson also tells the story of an American, William Yale, who worked for Standard Oil.  His story is much smaller than the others, but also reflects the outsider role the United States played through much of World War I.

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reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #39 Tom Bedlam by George Hagen

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This book starts out as a Dickensian tale:  Tom Bedlam lives in a tenement with his mother and several other families. As a child Tom’s closest friends are Oscar and Audrey Limpkin whose large family is warm and welcoming, somewhat like the Cratchet family in A Christmas Carol. Tom and his mother both work in a ceramics factory for pennies a day. Tom’s father deserted the family long ago, leaving his mother to raise him alone. Despite these poor circumstances, his mother is exceedingly cheerful. She tucks away money with the hope of getting her son an education. Unfortunately Bill Bedlam, Tom’s father returns. He’s a self-centered cad, an unemployed actor always looking for a scam. He finds Tom’s mother’s money and disappears again. Shortly thereafter Tom’s mother becomes ill. As she is dying she reveals that Tom had an older brother that BiIl Bedlam took away.  Did the baby die, or did he give the child away?  Shortly thereafter Tom’s mother dies, and Tom is alone.

And then things change. Instead of a life of drudgery at the factory, Tom’s maternal grandfather appears and Tom is sent to school.  The school is the worst Victorian England has to offer and Tom has a horrible experience.  That experience allows him to attend medical school and to change his name from the unfortunate moniker Bedlam to Chapel. When he graduates he leaves for South Africa. 

Part two of the book starts with Tom and Lizzy’s new life in South Africa in 1889.  Tom has four children who grow to adulthood just before and during the first World War.  What started out as a family novel becomes an anti-war novel.  The way things come together are improbable and somewhat like an old English novel, and yet it isn’t. Somehow the old threads and new threads weave together in a satisfying way. Hagen pulls this book off, making it quite an enjoyable read. 

 

 

reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #38 Someone by Alice McDermott

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What sets this book apart is that Alice McDermott writes beautifully. Someone is a story of about an Irish-American family told by Marie. We meet her as a little girl in Brooklyn waiting for her father to come home.  “Small city birds the color of ashes rose and fell along the rooftops.  In the fading evening light, the stoop beneath my thighs, as warm as breath when I first sat down, now exhaled a shallow chill.” The paragraph continues to describe her neighbor: Mr. Chabeen, Big Lucy, a bully she fears, passing nuns and a game of stick ball.  McDermott’s economic prose is often like poetry providing just enough detail to paint a delightful picture. 

 The book follows Marie through her life. The first third focuses primarily on her childhood, in large part because these are the events that shape her life. The story begins with her father working as a clerk, he is a frail man who gets sick while Marie is still very young. Marie’s older brother Gabe is a model student who goes to the seminary as a teenager. Marie’s mother is a strong woman, taking care of her husband and her children.

 I found it interesting that McDermott makes minimal references to the world outside of Brooklyn and New York, and yet I always new roughly what decade it was and what the context of the story was. 

Marie grows up, gets a job and falls in love. Her brother leaves the seminary suddenly and inexplicably. Later she gets married and has several children, who we also see grow up.The book jumps about in time here and there, but never in a way that detracts from the story. 

 This book is a demonstration of the difference between great writing and merely good story telling.  Nothing wrong with good story telling,but great writing provides another pleasure entirely. 

reginadelmar’s #CBRV review #37 The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy begins very abruptly with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a parish councilman in the small English town of Pagford.  Pagford neighbors the Fields council estate.  The privileged townspeople of Pagford see the Fields residents as drug-addicted parasites, and the Fields residents see the townspeople as elitist snobs. Barry, who grew up in the Fields worked to help those in the Fields, in particular one teenaged girl: Krystal Weedon.  Krystal is a stereotypical juvenile delinquent with a drug-addicted mother, until Barry convinces her to participate on the school’s rowing team.  The rowing team gave her a touch of confidence; yet, with the death of Barry she’s right back where she started.

 The book follows Krystal and numerous other residents of the Fields and Pagford. In Pagford Howard Mollison, deli-owner and council president, schemes to fill Barry’s council seat with his own son.  His daughter in-law Samantha is bored with small town life and opposes her father-in-law’s scheme.  Colin Wall is a deputy head teacher who wants to carry on Barry’s legacy, and then there is Simon Price, a truly despicable character who runs for the seat hoping to profit from political graft.

 The candidates all get a rude awakening when the “ghost of Barry Fairbrother” appears on the council’s website revealing one of Simon’s secrets.  In a gossipy bitchy little town like Pagford, suspicions and accusations fly.

 The children of these characters are all teenagers attending the same school.  They too are cruel and petty. Suhkvinder Jawanda who is bullied by Fats Wall.  Andrew Price is Fats’ best friend, who doesn’t understand Fats’ cruelty.  Andrew Price in turn has a crush on Gaia, the new girl in town, whose mother dragged her to Pagford as part of her own romantic pursuit.  Krystal is in the center of all this, protecting her younger brother Robby from their mother and from the social service workers as best she can.

 Pagford is a small town inhabited by a lot of small-minded people.  I found it impossible to empathize with any of the adults, but felt drawn to Krystal, Andrew and Suhkvinder.  The plot started out a bit slowly, but picked up somewhere in the middle.  Overall, I found this to be a good read.