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.