About This Blog

I am always in search of a good book, which is getting harder to find these days. My taste is ecclectic though it leans toward books that take me places I've never been.

Through the books I've read during the past few months, I've been to China, Spain, Ireland, India, Afghanistan, Chile, Japan, The Philippines, and many other exotic places. I've lived the lives of a boy soldier in Africa, a Shanghai detective, a foreign intern in Spain, a famous geisha, a precocious boy in Ireland, and a college student in a circus train.

My reviews will not reveal the plot but it will give you a general idea of the storyline and the flavor of the narrative.

I make it a point to only post reviews on the good books I've read, whether from a small or big publisher, those that merit a four or a five stars. In this way, I can point my readers toward a new and exciting place on a journey they may otherwise not have taken.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Book Review of Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga

When I give up on a book, I immediately banish it to the dark confines of my bookcase.  There, it will languish on a dusty shelf along with other orphaned books, never to be touched again.   Such was the fate of Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga, a book that turned me off so thoroughly I didn't get past  chapter one.  Jackson Jones is a professor of anthropology who is recovering from the disastrous effects of Lyme disease.   A bachelor experiencing the first hint of midlife crisis, he lives in a big house with a detached garage apartment formerly occupied by a deceased friend, Warren.  In his deathbed, Warren asks Jackson to take care of his niece, Willa Fern who is scheduled to be released from prison.  Six years before, Willa shot her abusive husband on the shoulder after he forced her hand into a rattlesnake pit.  What would have been a good beginning turned into a frustrating read as Hellenga loaded the narrative with endless back story some of which were irrelevant to plot or character development.  Disgusted with the authorial self-indulgency, I banished the book to the shelf. 
But I had an attack of guilt.  After all, it is the type of book I like to review:  low key, non-commercial, something that is often overlooked in the shelves.  Plus, I paid twenty-five dollars for the darned thing.  I decided to give it a second chance.  I'm glad I did because chapter two introduces the novel's true main character, Willa Fern (the Snakewoman) who had just been released from prison.  The difference in the storytelling is stark, like a diamond to a bauble.   As opposed to Jackson's tiresome narrative, Willa has a distinctively engaging voice: upbeat , sympathetic,  and full of wonder.  It was as if she is seeing things in a new light.  She is living in a new town, enjoying a new dig (Jackson's garage), and calling herself a new name (Sunny).   She has also decided to attend the university where Jackson teaches anthropology.  Though thirty-five years old, her voice seem innocent and childish.  She sees herself as a woman of seventeen, that carefree period before she married her abusive husband, who had robbed her of her childhood.  Jackson's midlife crisis, Sunny's hunger for companionship, and their proximity to each other push them toward the inevitable love affair.  It is something the reader expects and wants to see.  Sunny's hunger for life is genuine, and to some extent, Jackson's too.  When Jackson gets drawn in to the zealotry of Sunny's charismatic ex-husband, Earl, the story gets more interesting, foreshadowing danger and ruin.   Sunny's witty narrative gives the novel the needed brilliance.  We want to follow her journey and see her succeed in the life she built for herself.  Despite a rough beginning, I give this novel a four-star nod.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book Review of When Red is Black by Qiu Xiaolong

When I think of cheap labor, industrial pollution, and a burgeoning economy, the C-word inevitably comes to mind.  I've heard of China's new state-of-the-art bullet trains, seen footage of their futuristic skyscrapers, and wonder how in the world they got there so fast.   A perception exists that this Eastern giant is nipping at our heels.
 I thought it would be fitting to review a book that features China's new capitalist culture within the context of a novel.  WHEN RED IS BLACK by Chinese author Qiu Xiaolong (Death of a Red Heroine and Loyal Character Dancer) does exactly that.  Set in 1990s Shanghai when China was in the early stages of its capitalist binge, the novel portrays a country still living under the bureaucratic clutches of communism but engaged full-throttle on its own brand of capitalism.
 The protagonist is Chief Inspector Chen Cao of Shanghai's Special Branch Bureau, a detective unit that handles politically sensitive cases.  When a former Red Guard is found murdered in her cramp Shikumen dwelling, Inspector Chen is asked to investigate the homicide.   The victim turns out to be a denounced intellectual condemned to the labor camps during the Cultural Revolution, who had recently published an autobiographical novel critical of the government.   Fearing bad publicity locally and abroad, the Party, portrayed as a paranoid and corrupt bureaucracy, pressures Inspector Chen and his partner Guangming to wrap up the case.   But as the investigators delve deeper into the homicide that has the outward appearance of a government involvement, one can't help but notice the bureaucratic red tape they had to endure to get important pieces of information needed to solve the case.  Complicating matters for Inspector Chen is a lucrative project he took on from an entrepreneur with triad connections to translate a real estate development proposal from Chinese to English, putting Chen in conflict with his own conscience (as a sideline, Chen is also a writer, a poet, and a translator of American literature).  But such is the way things are done in the new China, a sort of quid-pro-quo-I-pat-your-back-you-pat-mine type of culture.  Chen is no exception to that.  In past investigations, he has used the man as a source of valuable triad information to solve the case.   
What sets this novel apart is the glimpse the reader gets of the emerging get-rich-quick culture in China, which at times resembles capitalism on steroids.  Everyone is on the hustle to become the latest "Mr. Big Bucks," the name people use to describe the new entrepreneurs.  One gets the sense that something is not right, that amidst the economic bustle is a stark disparity between the few nouveau riche who live in luxurious excess and the rest of the populace, pitifully crammed in their tiny urban cubicles subsisting on rice and a scrap of meat.  References about the Party's effort to undo many of ex-Chairman Mao's damaging initiatives are flawlessly imbedded in the narrative.  This is especially true of the Cultural Revolution during which millions of educated youths were sent to provincial labor camps to be re-educated by the proletariat, the ill-effects of which linger in the general psyche.   The narrative is clean and achieves an authentic Chinese voice without having to resort to dialect.  Descriptions of Shanghai are luminous.  One could almost smell the pork buns steaming in the communal outdoor kitchen or feel claustrophobic in the overcrowded Shikumen dwellings, which are basically confiscated private mansions subdivided into ten feet-by-ten feet apartment units.  Though the plot is simple and Chen's penchant for quoting Chinese philosophers gets old sometimes, When Red is Black is nevertheless an insightful and engaging novel.

First published at blogcritics   http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-when-red-is-black/ 

Friday, May 6, 2011

My First Impression of NBC's New Music Reality Show The Voice

Today, I decided to step out of my self-constructed literary box and review something out of the norm.  In the past two weeks, I have endured watching repeated trailers of NBC's new reality show, The Voice.  You know what I'm talking about, the one where four recording stars sit in silly oversized pods to judge the singing contestant in a blind audition.  The idea is to achieve music purity by focusing solely on the contestant's voice without being distracted by appearance.  To achieve this, the judges have their backs to the stage while the contestant belts his heart out.  My first thought was "yeah right, this hokey concept is going to compete with American Idol."  Not that Idol is the yardstick for good reality television. Lacking the witty cynicism of Simon Cowell, the show has deteriorated into a boring love fest where I half-expect Randy, Steven, and Jennifer to hug the contestant and start singing Kumbaya.  But that's another review.
I hedged my bets and watched the show anyway (in case it turned out to be good and I wouldn't miss out).  I must admit I plopped into my couch wearing significant filters, ready to nit-pick every little flaw.  After a flashy canned trailer, the same one I'd seen countless of times, Host Carson Daly came on camera to introduce the judges, which included country crooner Blake Shelton, Gnarls Barkley's Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine of Maroon 5, and blonde pop star Christina Aguillera.  I sat straighter in my seat.  A bona fide line up of judges, one of them especially pleasing to the eye!  When the quartet opened the show with a searing rendition of Gnarls Barkley's hit song CRAZY, pieces of my filters fell away. Still, when the blind auditions began, my mind was heavy with skepticism.  The contestants who I suspect to have been previously-screened, performed surprisingly well, each one as good if not better than the Idol finalists.  There are only thirty-two open slots and each judge must now select eight contestants to whom he or she will provide coaching to get them ready for the live portion of the competition when America votes for its favorite. 
What I thought would be a torturous two-hours turned out to be quite entertaining.  When the judges vie for the truly exceptional contestants, the competition became cutthroat and funny, especially when it concerned Aguillera and Levine who seem to exchange ever-sharper digs as the show progressed. 
With a lineup of terrific singers, some of whom possessed recording artist musicality, the potential for The Voice is excellent.  The back and forth jabs between the judges are enjoyable and there is promise of even better entertainment when the coaching part of the competition begins.  It remains to be seen whether The Voice has the legs for a season-long marathon, but my first impression of it is a good one.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Review of The Physician by Noah Gordon

This epic novel is set in 11th-century London, a time when the city is plagued by extreme poverty and overrun by drunks, thieves, and cutthroats. When Rob Cole, our young protagonist, is orphaned at age nine, he fears being passed over by adoptive families and cast into slave labor. A fortuitous break comes his way when he is taken in by a traveling barber-surgeon, the medieval equivalent of a snake oil salesman, flimflam man, and healer rolled into one. Under the guidance of his devious tutor, Rob travels the English countryside as a barber-surgeon apprentice, lancing boils, treating coughs, and hawking their all-cure elixir, which was nothing more than apple brandy mixed with a host of questionable herbs.

It is in one of the villages that Rob discovers his gift of touch when he foresaw a patient's death with a touch of a hand. At first, he is horrified by the discovery, for he experienced the same morbid sensation when he touched his mother's hand the day before she died. Compounding his fear is the grim possibility of being accused of witchcraft by the clergy. But as the years went by and the gift continues to manifest itself, he begins to realize that healing is his destiny. When his mentor dies 10 years after they first met, Rob, now a young man, is free to pursue his calling. The calling sends him on a dangerous journey to the Near East, through the bandit-plagued countryside of Byzantine Europe, Turkey, and Syria disguised as a Jew so he could study medicine in the best medical university in Persia (where Jews are accepted, but not the crusading Christians).

The novel has the flavor of Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth, but with a deeper character development and story arc. The narrative is fast-paced, one engrossing scene unfolding into another, revealing yet another adventure, danger or discovery. The intensity of Rob's desire to unearth the secrets of healing is admirable and the portrayal of Bagdad and Persia as the center of advanced medicine is intriguing. It was interesting to see the comparison between the crude monastic treatments practiced in Europe which relied heavily on bleeding versus those practiced by the famed Avicenna in Persia where illnesses were scientifically studied and complex surgeries such as cataract removal were performed. Vivid descriptions permeate throughout the book such that one gets the feeling of actually being in the dusty streets of ancient Isfahan skirting legless beggars and camel dung. An insightful and unforgettable read.

First published at Blogcritics under the title of Book Review: The Physician by Noah Gordon. http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-the-physician-by-noah1/

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

Once in a while, I indulge in cheap thrills and post a review of it in my blog.  Since The Lincoln Lawyer is currently showing in the theaters, I thought I would review this excellent thriller by Michael Connelly.   The story takes us to the City of Angels with its winding traffic jams, jaundiced skyline, and perpetual Hollywood hustle.  Our protagonist is Mickey Haller, a high-energy criminal defense attorney who uses a stable of Lincoln Continentals for an office, each one equipped with a phone, a fax, a laptop, a printer, and a pull-out desk.  You can't get any more original than that.  His clients are not the wrongly-accused but those living in the L.A.'s netherworld—pimps, pushers, hustlers and con artists—dregs of society who nonetheless have the right to legal representation.   
When the son of a wealthy Beverly Hills realtor is accused of assault, the mother hires Haller to prove his innocence.   At last, Haller acquires his first high-profile "franchise" case, a deep-pocketed client way above the lowlifes he usually represents.  The fees would tide him over for months to come and boost his reputation as a leading Hollywood defense attorney.  But as he delves deeper into the case, he discovers a convoluted web of crime and felony that reveals are darker side of his client, putting his innocence into question and Haller's own life in danger.   
The narrative is fast-paced, the descriptions of L.A. life searing in their intensity.  As the Lincoln Lawyer takes us into the belly of this urban jungle, one could almost feel the verve of the city, beating like a racing heart.
Four Stars.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Book Review of The Help by Kathryn Stockett

As a practice, I don't usually review well-known books or those in the current bestsellers list since I focus more on good books that are unknown or have been published way in the past that younger folks may not have had the opportunity to read.  But I would be remiss if I didn't review The Help, for this novel touched me straight in the heart.   

The novel is set in 1960s Mississippi, a time when racism is still a way of life in some towns, but is being confronted by rapidly developing civil rights changes.  The story is told from three point-of-views: that of two black maids and a young white woman who is the daughter of a big cotton farmer and raised by a black maid. The three-tiered POV works well in that it allows readers to absorb the story from different perspectives, each one powerful in its own way.  The novel took me into the kitchens of white families and allowed me to experience in a vicarious way how black maids are treated, mostly despicably bad, though at times with certain characters, the relationship (even friendship) between maid and master turns into something beautiful and touching like that of white aspiring writer Skeeter and maid Aibileen who helps Skeeter write her inflammatory book; Aibeleen and her four-year-old ward Mae Mobley (who sees Aibeleen as her true mother); and feisty maid Mindy and her white trash and sensitive master Cecelia Foote.  The Help is a book that is hard to put down and  makes the reader feel completely satisfied, yet sorry that the experience is over. 

I give this book five big stars.

Just Got Back From A Long Vacation in Hawaii

Well, after a long vacation in sunny Hawaii, I'm back to do more book reviews.  I apologize for being on the lam for so long, but I needed to vege out, wipe my internal drive clean, and re-energize.  The nice part is that the break allowed me to read a lot of books.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Book Review of Shaman by Noah Gordon

I visited our local library and found an old gem among the clutter of mediocre books being published these days. Shaman did not get much press when it came out a little over a decade ago. Which is a pity, because this book has everything one would ever want in a novel.

Written in an easy-to-read descriptive prose, Shaman tells the story of a gifted 19th century physician cursed with the ability of knowing when a patient is about to die with a mere touch of a hand. Set in the area of the Platte River in the Central Great Plains, the novel takes the reader through a journey among the Sauk Indians, their eventual massacre, and the bloody blue and gray civil war with Rob J. Cole and his deaf son Shaman as the protagonists in this two-part novel. The narrative of this novel is excellent and places the reader smack in the scene with the main characters. The pacing is terrific and I'm not talking about thriller-type pacing but one that involves deep, character-driven velocity, featuring larger-than-life events that shape lives.
Five Stars

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Review of Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

This review sets the  mood and general storyline but does not reveal the plot. 

Set in imaginary feudal Japan, Across the Nightingale Floor is part YA fantasy and part romance with a bit of a poetic narrative. It opens with sixteen-year-old Takeo finding his entire village wiped out by a powerful warlord's men (the men actually were sent there to kill him). What better way to start a novel? Orphaned but having escaped death, Takeo is taken in by Lord Shigeru of the opposing Otori Clan who has traveled far and wide to adopt him. Takeo has mystical powers (something of which the boy is not aware) that he inherited from a secret and outcast race called the Tribe with which Shigeru has a mysterious link. Shigeru mentors Takeo and coaxes out his mystical powers of invisibility and sharpened hearing, even as the powerful warlord, threatened by this power, plots Takeo's demise. The pacing is terrific, filled with betrayals and misty intrigue, a cross between Shogun and Lord of the Rings. There is never a dull moment in the entire book. As with all YA fantasy novels, one has to suspend disbelief but the author did a terrific job in building a realistic imaginary world, oxymoron as the word might seem. Four Stars

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Book Review of The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho

Once again, a book that takes one on an enlightening journey to exotic places in the world.  The Alchemist is the story of a Spanish shepherd boy in search of the truth about life and existence.  In the course of his travels, he encounters an alchemist, a man who possesses the mysterious secrets of metals that if heated under certain conditions reveals the secrets of the soul.  Santiago's journey takes the reader from the arid plains of Andalusia, Spain to the bandit-plagued deserts of Morocco and Egypt, each stage of the voyage sprinkled with hidden wisdom and epiphany. 
The story is laid out in simple narrative, mystical almost, yet one gets a vivid picture of the scenes as the boy goes through his illuminating passage.  Though the narrative is a bit detached at times, it nonetheless lets one inside the head of the boy and his desire to discover the truth about life.  Though a YA novel with a YA protagonist, The Alchemist possesses adult themes, making it a satisfying read for both readers.  It is a short book packed with lessons and insights. 
Four Stars.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book Review: The Conch Bearer by Chitna Banerjee Divakaruni

I love books that take me to places.  In the case of The Conch Bearer, it is india.  It's  a modern day fairy tale and adventure story about a twelve-year-old boy named Anand, a believer in magic and living a destitute life with his mother and ill sister in the city of Calcutta. 
One day, an old healer, attracted by Anand's faith in magic, shows up at his doorstep and entrusts him with a powerful magic conch shell.  In exchange for curing Anand's ill sister, Anand must undertake a dangerous journey to the Himalayas to return the conch shell to its rightful owners, the Brotherhood of Healers.  In every turn, he is shadowed by a powerful and ruthless villain who wants to possess the conch shell to increase his magical powers.  The story takes readers from the grimy streets of Calcutta to the majestic mountains of the Himalayas, replete with roaring rivers that turn into something dangerous and alive.  The narrative is beautiful and simple, the story fast-paced and told in a thriller-type fashion so that the reader knows exactly what sort of dangers Anand and his girl partner are getting themselves into.

Four Stars!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

I mentioned in my profile that I like books that take me to places.  If you are a mystery aficionado and like to be taken to China, this is the book for you.  Qiu Xialong's Death of a Red Heroine takes the reader to mid-1990s Shanghai, a time when the country is just getting into its capitalist binge.  The protagonist is Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau, Special Case Branch, which essentially means he is in charge of politically sensitive cases.  Aside from being a detective, the protagonist is also a poet, a translator of English mystery novels, and a gourmand.  When a woman labeled as The Red Heroine (a role model citizen for the Party) is found floating in a Shanghai canal, Inspector Chen is called to investigate the murder.  His investigation takes him to sensitive areas of government pitting him and his partner Guangming against the new and powerful capitalist cadre in China. 

What I like about this book is the accurate portrayal of the ridiculous bureaucracy created by the all-powerful and seemingly schizophrenic Party, which seems to have one foot in capitalism and the other foot firmly planted in communism.  Inspector Chen has to go through hoops and countless political barricades just to get simple things done.   I loved walking in the busy Shanghai streets with its food stalls and markets and crowded shikumen houses.  The scents and descriptions of exotic Chinese food pervading the novel only add to the sense of being there. I mean, how can one not salivate at the mention of a hot and sour pork soup bun or braised cock's comb with tofu and scallions or guangdong roast duck on pan fried noodle?

I give this book five stars.