Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Burmese Days

I was travelling through Burma last year and thought (unoriginally it seems) it would be a good opportunity to read George Orwell's "Burmese Days - readily available from streetside hawkers for a dollar or two (one of the pleasures of south east asian travel).

Burmese Days was Orwell's first novel and (like "1984" but to a lesser extent) reads like an auto-biography of sorts - Orwell served in the Indian Imperial Force of Burma for 5 years in the 1920s before his return to London to become a writer.

The book itself is set in a minor outpost of the British Empire, with the colonial administrators grappling with the heat, boredom and political machinations of the natives using techniques ranging from racial superiority, brutal suppression and excessive alcohol consumption.

Like most of Orwell's books you won't find yourself feeling uplifted by the time you've finished reading it, but it is an interesting companion piece for anyone wandering through Myanmar as it slowly opens up to the modern world.

E-books of Burmese Days can be found here and here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Delicate Truth

I always enjoy a good John Le Carre novel and his recent book "A Delicate Truth" was no exception.

Le Carre seems to be taking an increasingly jaundiced view of the British government and it's intelligence agencies, in particular the unholy alliance between "New Labour" and neo-conservative political and industrial players from the US.

"Delicate Truth" tells the tale of a civil servant from the Foreign Office who is caught up in the machinations of a dodgy Minister and an unethical military contracting firm calling itself "Ethical Outcomes".

"Delicate Truth" has received better reviews than some of Le Carre's other recent novels, with this piece from the Sydney Review of Book being a good example - Cast As A Spy.

A Delicate Truth is a return to form. It’s not The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but it is a much more impressive and engaging book than Our Kind of Traitor, and in many ways it has an edge on A Wanted Man. We are not quite in the heartlands of le CarrĂ©’s mythic stamping ground, but we are in a place of murky darknesses and grey confusions. We are in the realm of the horrors that can be perpetuated under the cloak of security, in a world where every cloak must always come with a dagger, and truth and justice are liable to be stabbed to death. A Delicate Truth could scarcely be more pertinent (for what that’s worth) because it is concerned with the kind of moral anxieties that afflicted Bradley Manning – who was mercifully found not guilty on the capital charge of aiding the enemy, but went down heavily nonetheless – and brings to mind the controversies surrounding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the fugitive American whistleblower Edward Snowden. Indeed, Simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Times, recently singled out A Delicate Truth as an allegory of the evils currently in play.

Like all Le Carre novels it ultimately ends in tragedy but I enjoyed the ride.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Galileo's Dream

Galileo's Dream is one of Kim Stanley Robinson's more interesting works, paying homage to what may be the first science fiction book - Johannes Kepler's book Kepler's Dream. The story tells a detailed history of Galileo's life in Renaissance Italy, interwoven with brief periods of time in the Jovian moons in 3020. Like many of Robinson's books, this one is long and filled with dense tracts outlining Robinson's theories about science, politics and history. While these can be somewhat heavy going at times, in general this book flows well and leaves you feeling profoundly moved by Galileo's long life and the contribution he made to human history. Recommended.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Godfather of Kathmandu

The Godfather of Kathmandu is the 4th installment of John Burdett's Bangkok based series of detective novels.

In this episode, Sonchai juggles investigating the grisly murder of a Hollywood film director who has gone to seed while having to grapple with the latest task that Colonel Vikorn has set for him in his eternal struggle with General Zinna to see who is the most corrupt individual in Thailand.

Both plot threads take Sonchai to Kathmandu, where he falls under the sway of a Buddhist guru who wants to reverse the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

Its not the best book in the series but it is entertaining as always.

Wanting: A Novel

Richard Flanagan is the Tasmanian equivalent of Tim Winton - one of Australia's truly gifted modern writers.

"Wanting" interweaves the stories of novelist Charles Dickens, Tasmanian governor Sir John Franklin and an aboriginal girl called Mathinna in an interesting although slightly unsatisfying story that illuminates a period of history that I didn't know much about.

Not one of Flanagan's best books but worth a read nevertheless.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Good Reads

I've been using "Goodreads" a lot lately - its like a Trip Advisor for book readers - worth checking out.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tijuana Straits

Kem Nunn's 2004 book Tijuana Straits doesn't quite scale the heights I remember "Tapping The Source" and "The Dogs Of Winter" scaling a decade ago when I read them, but its still a worthy addition to the surf fiction genre.

Nunn does have a knack for building tension in his stories, with a grotesque gang of evil-doers enabling the redemption of another damaged surfer as he wrestles away the demons from his past in the strange borderlands between California and the polluted wastelands of Tijuana to the south.

Rick Kleffel at Trashotron has the best review out on the web :

On the border between California and Mexico, between land and sea, Kem Nunn finds Sam Fahey, a man who could have been a contender in the world of big-wave surfing, but was carried away by the white trash currents of his childhood on the border. In 'Tijuana Straits', Nunn brings readers his powerful novel to date, a compelling story of wasted potential and potential danger. The filth of our country runs down the rivers and slops into the streets of Tijuana, creating monsters of men. Nunn's powerful novel is blisteringly savage and painfully perceptive. We're poisoning ourselves. We may be dead and not even know it.

Long past his glory days as a young surfer, long past even his days as a drug runner and small-time criminal, Sam Fahey is now an older-than-his-age employee of the government who tends to the endangered species that manage to survive in Tijuana Straits, the small valley just north of the border. When he saves the beaten, bruised and almost insensible Magdalena from wild dogs roaming the sand dunes, he makes a spot decision to take her in. Magdalena is an activist from over the border, who is fighting the multi-national corporations that have created the toxic wastelands known as the maquilladoras. She's uncertain how or even why she arrived in Tijuana Straits. Both she and Sam are soon to find out.

Nunn keeps his story close and tight. His prose is evocative and lyrical but tough and to-the-point. He creates landscapes that are so intense as to be thoroughly immersive. The tiny ecosystem of Tijuana Straits, from the Outer Peak in the ocean where the Mystic Ridge breaks, to Garage-Door Tijuana, an intricate maze of trash and treasure comes meticulously to life in Nunn's prose. He also creates the hellish world of the maquilladoras in Tijuana proper. This bleak landscape of ruin, rust and toxic waste shambles to life and itself gives birth to monsters. Every terrorizing story about bad drugs and bad neighborhoods comes to fiery life as Nunn creates the compelling and ferocious Armando Santoya.

Santoya's stories -- and the stories of his comrades from the maquilladoras -- are intense, compelling stories of terror and horror. Nunn writes powerfully and passionately enough to evoke the supernatural dread within the natural world. He peels the skin off of an ugly reality and finds the deeper ugliness within, nestled next to a humanity so stepped-upon, so beat-down, so used that the terror is intimately mixed with sympathy. Nunn's monsters are ultimately human and ultimately frightening. And for readers, nothing is quite so bracingly enjoyable as glancing in the mirror and seeing your own scarred face, sheeted in the blood of others.

But Nunn's novel isn't merely a tale of terror. The horrific landscape of the maquilladoras borders on the beauty of the Pacific Ocean. And though Sam Fahey is damaged goods through and through, he's still a human being capable of greatness. Nunn's love of the huge, cryptic slab of ocean that washes upon our shores is borne out in passages that mine the power of nature, that excavate with a single man on a single board and find somewhere on the border a purity that evokes peace. It's the purity that brings redemption, that cleanses the filth from our veins and our lives.