A Canadian expat ESL teacher in Taiwan. Interested in books, coffee, movies, straight razors, fountain pens, medieval history, rum...and rain!
My favorite writers are John le Carré, Graham Greene, Martin Cruz Smith, & Alan Furst.
My favorite books are:
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The love story of Martha da Silva--a Chinese orphan and house prostitute--and Thomas Kuyck Van Mierop--a British trader for the East India Company--set in late 18th-century Macao, and her eventual rise to becoming a successful trader in her own right, the richest woman in Macao, and someone with her own name.
They don't publish novels or make movies like this anymore. This story hearkens back to movies like Casablanca and to the novels of Graham Greene. The main difference, though, is that it's more Martha's story than it is Thomas's. And what a story it is. If it had been published now, it would've been politicized and plucked for more pity. As it stands, however, this is a beautiful, beautiful novel--in the narrative, in the characters, in the setting, and in the subtlety. And, perhaps most importantly, it treats the reader in a dignified, intelligent manner.
Three things stuck out to me, an expat living in Asia, that would be particularly insightful for readers unfamiliar with the area. One, it shows how, culturally, there is little regard for the law here. There may be crackdowns on occasion, and people will toe the line for a short period of time after; but, once everything blows over, it's back to business as usual. Two, there is the duality of the superficial exterior that everyone pretends to see, and the actual interior that everyone knows is going on but don't verbally acknowledge. Third, there is the belief that the cultural norms are too difficult for new foreigners to comprehend, and so these foreigners must be protected from the reality by keeping things from them.
I'm reluctant to say more for fear of giving anything away, other than that it's inspired by actual events. Don't let the brevity of this review dissuade you in any way from reading this wonderful story. I haven't given a four-star rating to a work of fiction in over four years now, but this one is definitely deserving of it. I can't for the life of me figure out why this novel isn't more popular than it is.
[NB: This novel is a fictional account of events that have some truth to their structure. If you want to know more about the real-life characters and Austin Coates's deviations from the historical record, you can read an article on it by Rogério Miguel Puga at JSTOR (https://www.jstor.org/stable/23891933). But it does contain spoilers, so read it at your own discretion.]
In this installment of the Aubrey-Maturin series, Captain Aubrey is tasked with carrying a load of convicts to New Holland (Australia) and assisting Captain Bligh (yes, that Captain Bligh, of HMS Bounty infamy) with his troubles with the locals there.
Patrick O'Brian is a seal: a most graceful creature in the water. His ability to fully immerse the reader in the early 19th-century British naval experience is unparalleled. He is, hands-down, the greatest historical novelist I've ever read. Seldom has a writer been able to create such a fully realized atmosphere as this. Certainly, this series is at its highest point when they are out at sea, doing what sailors do, talking how sailors talk. Even if you don't fully understand everything, you just go with it. It's surprising how much you pick up just by the way it's presented.
Unfortunately, seals aren't very graceful on land, and neither is PO'B--both just sort of bouncing around. Land is where the gestation takes place for their sea-based lives, so it's a necessity. But it's where they're both extremely vulnerable.
The first quarter of this novel takes place on land, and that's a little bit much. Once they are under sail, the narrative picks up, but the story hasn't really developed yet. It's not until about the halfway point that things get interesting. There's a slight espionage subplot that carries throughout the story, but most of what happens is just a few disjointed events that show us the situations sailors experience while they're at sea. It's almost as if O'Brian realized by book five that he had a loyal readership following his adventures, so he decided to spread the story ideas thinly across all the novels in the series, rather than use up too many in one novel.
The characters are well done. We have Jack Aubrey as the captain, and the situation closer to the end certainly brings home the mutiny aspects hinted at by referencing Captain Bligh early on in the story. We have Stephen Maturin with his espionage work, but also his doctoring work when typhus breaks out. The ship's crew is familiar to us from the previous books, but the characters of Mrs. Wogan, a convict, and Michael Herapath, a stowaway, add nicely to the mix.
Unfortunately, towards the end, the narrative gets heavy-handed. O'Brian trusts himself and his readers to be able to figure out what's going on with all the nautical jargon, but when it comes to the espionage, he resorts to over-explaining instead of just presenting it to us and going with it. Somewhat telling, though, this takes place on land. The story isn't quite fully resolved at the end, but the espionage subplot has been taken care of, and it's a fitting place to end it. That means book six can start on the sea almost from the get-go.
For new readers, start at book one, Master and Commander, because there's a lot of educating that goes on in that one. Skip book two because it's useless (it also happens to take place mostly on land). Then read the rest in order. Contrary to the extremely traditional nature of these novels, I recommend reading them as ebooks. You'll be better able to look up nautical terms and archaic place names, as well as locating the coordinates Jack takes during the voyage. The Patrick O'Brian Mapping Project (cannonade.net/) is also a useful tool, as well as other online resources dedicated to this series, but beware that they could potentially include spoilers. Enjoy.
The easiest way to sum up this book is to say it's the comings and goings and conversations of Thomas Cromwell on his way to becoming the second-most powerful man in 16th-century England.
On an historical level, this book gets praised for its accurate portrayal of the events under discussion, even if it paints Cromwell more sympathetically than his portrayal in textbooks. Certainly, he's no angel, but his motivations are relatable, and we understand him quite well. His character is well defined, as are King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, and a handful of Cromwell's right-hand men. The narrative is quite witty, and there were moments I was glad it was written by a woman given these #MeToo times. I also thought the pace of the novel was nigh on perfect.
Unfortunately, though, that's where the praise must stop. The narrative, for the most part, is pretty choppy. The closing pages are quite well done--or maybe I was just finally getting used to Mantel's style--but the sentences just didn't flow together very well for the preceding 98% of the book. For one thing, she loves semicolons; copious amounts of semicolons; tacking things on when she should be joining ideas together. Even within scenes it was difficult to get an idea of who the speaker was or the one taking the action. I don't think I've ever had to go back and reread so many passages just to get an idea of who was doing or saying what. Smooth and beautiful this book most definitely is not. But it is subtle. So subtle and understated, in fact, that some pretty momentous things happen--like King Henry illegally divorcing his wife and separating from the Catholic church--without even the slightest bit of emotion from any of the cast of characters. Surely this must be a testament to the stiff upper lip we hear so much about.
In addition, numerous secondary characters--not just minor characters, but important secondary ones--are reduced to mere names. They lack personalities and distinction, but their roles are historical, and therefore they must be included. There is a listing at the front of the book to help keep them straight, but I think any writer of fiction has failed if readers have to look back to remember who certain characters are when other writers can keep them firmly in the reader's mind throughout the novel.
Finally, there's the setting. The ability of an author to convey a sense of time and place to a readership that may not be familiar with it is of paramount importance in an historical novel. My gold standard is Patrick O'Brian with his Aubrey-Maturin novels set during the Napoleonic Wars. My runner up would be Gore Vidal with his Narratives of Empire series about early America. And third would be Alan Furst with his Night Soldiers series set around World War II. With the possible exception of her description of fabrics (Cromwell was a fabric merchant), this book is merely average in this regard, which is truly disappointing given its length and the obvious research Mantel did into the events.
I won't discourage anyone from reading this novel, but I won't be putting it on any must-read lists. It's a little mundane and ho-hum with how it seems to follow Cromwell around everywhere and seems to be always looking over his shoulder, and yet, at the same time, skips any sense of gravitas regarding the decisions these guys are making about the future of the kingdom. It's probably best to know the actual historical account before reading this book, or else look up the events on Wikipedia as they're happening on the page.
My requirement for giving a four-star rating would be me wanting to read the novel again if I were stuck in a mountain lodge in the middle of a blizzard, with the only thing to pass the time being a collection of books I've previously read. But, there's an even better scenario for this book. It has sequels. Four stars from me would mean I'm interested in knowing what happens next in Mantel's story. But, in this situation, I think I'll stick to Wikipedia. I can't be bothered to know where Cromwell went on a given date, nor with whom he talked; nor semicolons.
This is a succinct little book. Physically, it's a bit thick, but it's not tall at all. What it does is take (what I assume is) a large majority of Venice's most important buildings and give a 2- or 3-paragraph write-up on them. It's loaded with pictures, but you can also go to the internet to research more regarding their history or their interior and exterior architecture.
It also does something similar with Venice's art, but that's of lesser interest to me. I actually started to skip the write-ups on the art at about the halfway point.
I can't recommend this book highly enough as a companion to any beginner's reading about Venice. It's an absolutely great jumping-off point for Venetian architecture for amateurs.
I have long found Macao to be a fascinating city (I use "Macao" for the colonial period, and "Macau" for the modern period). Its colonial history is quite interesting, and visiting it was a joy--that is, before the modern casino-building ruined it. Still, I like to get my hands on anything that details what life used to be like there. Not an easy task if you only read English.
Unfortunately, this book was a bit of a slog. Not that it's long, but because the writer goes to great lengths to attach some sort of allegorical or symbolic meaning to absolutely everything. That in itself isn't wrong because, no doubt, there was meaning put into things like this. However, a lot of the so-called meaning he attaches to things seems really forced, and his reasoning is often tenuous at best. There was just way too much philosophizing and pontificating, and I got annoyed every time he said "seems to...", "as if...", or "as though...". In his defense, though, it is a good listing of interesting buildings to see when visiting Macau, and I think he does get the reader to look at them in a slightly different light than simply as a tourist attraction.
I didn't read the last two chapters on Macau's Post-Modern architecture and the current casino-related boom. My interest is in old Macao, not modern Macau.
If your interest is architecture, you may find this book disappointing. If your interest is Macao, you'll be more willing to put up with the author's foibles.
From a complete novice's point of view, this is a pretty decent book for beginners. It focuses on three main aspects: pencil, ink, and watercolor. The first two sections are done well but, despite being the most difficult and the author's preference, I found the section on watercolor to be the least well-explained. That's fine with me because it's something I'm unlikely to get into, but other readers may want to take that into account.
I'd probably give it more than 3 stars, maybe 3.5, but I know it's not 4 stars. It is a good book, it's informative, and the art is nice. What holds me back from being more effusive is the above mentioned simplification of the watercolor process, his ink pictures are somewhat busy for my tastes, and the book needed more proofreading and copy editing.
Pretty much everything I said about the first two books in the series applies to this one: Charles Dickens lite...with kung fu fighting, excellent introduction to Chinese culture and geography, insightful look at Chinese values and norms, wonderful world-building around the different martial-arts schools and fighting techniques.
However, there are two glaring deficiencies with this novel when compared to the previous two. Number one, the setting is just too limited. The first 150 pages or so is spent on a ship--and not in the Patrick O'Brian way--and another 100 pages or so is spent in the great room of an inn. Number two, coincidences and contrivances abound, making this what I feel to be the novel with the most overheard conversations in the history of all literature. It's also interesting how, with China being such a vast country and the cast of characters being so large, almost all of them manage to find their way to an inn in a little village over such a short span of time.
The bulk of this installment seems to be mostly fluff. It's filler just to drag the story out. Nothing of consequence actually happens until the last 100 pages or so. That part is interesting and does move the plot forward, but it comes too little and too late to save it. That's not the fault of the publishers, editors, or translators. That fault lies squarely with the author when it was originally serialized in the 1950s.
Here are links to my reviews of the first two books:
At its most basic level, the story is about a professor from the former Soviet Union being a guest lecturer at an American college. Along the way, he meets a beautiful hairdresser half his age, gets caught up in an environmental protest, is courted by espionage agencies from around the world, and works with the police on a serial-killer case.
Although primarily known as an espionage novelist, here Robert Littell gives us a satire about America in the early '90s. His sentences are interesting, his characters are engaging, his wit is keen. However, the narrative is a bit unfocused as it switches back and forth between the third-person to the first-person perspectives of the two main characters. It also doesn't handle the professor's transition to America in enough detail to be entirely convincing.
What it does do, though, is spend a great deal of time talking about chaos theory, randomness, God, redemption, the journey vs. the destination, and relationships. This, I think, is where a lot of readers lose interest. It's not as heavy as, say, The Name of the Rose, but the reader has to be prepared to do a little work with this one.
Still, it's a decent read. Littell's die-hard fans may be disappointed because it appears to be a huge departure from his usual fare. Seeing as this is my first encounter with him, I'm suitably impressed. I'd say it's more of a 3 1/2 stars than the three I gave it, but I know it's not an all-out four. The novel served its purpose of entertaining me in a way that was not insulting, so the impression it left was a favorable one.
While I wouldn't call it for the "absolute" beginner, it is quite good for beginners. The focus is exclusively on pencil drawings, so that is a limiting factor. However, the pictures are very good, and it does cover a wide variety of subjects. Perhaps the steps to the drawings don't have as much detail as beginners would, but I think most people will be able to extrapolate where needed. I'd recommend it.
Set in 1348, England, the story features four (not three, like the blurb says) people who join up with a company of archers on their way to fight in Calais, France: a farmhand-cum-archer named Will, a Scottish proctor named Thomas on his way to Avignon, a knight's daughter named Bernadine fleeing her arranged marriage to a much older man, and a fourth person who will remain nameless so as not to spoil the story.
The narrative is by far the most intriguing aspect of the novel. It is written in a made-up form of English which is designed to sound archaic but still be accessible to modern readers. It is much easier to read than, say, Shakespeare, but it does take a little while to get the hang of. I found Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org) to be the best resource for understanding the meaning of the words, but it is possible to just read it as it is and glean the overall gist of what it's talking about. However, if the etymology of English is not of interest to you, this is going to be a very tedious read. On the whole, the narrative works if the dialog is just basic chitchat and the action is routine. In-depth discussions and detailed action fail to be communicated effectively. And the first sex scene is downright hilarious, worthy of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award.
The plot is fairly simple and can be summed up in three words: medieval road trip. Initially, there's nothing of interest to hold the reader's attention, so the enigma of the strange English used in the narrative at least gives us a sense of mystery and discovery. Once they start their journey, though, there's one incredulous event which seems strange that everyone buys into and then a long dry spell of just semi-random events happening on their way. The story doesn't actually get interesting until over the halfway point. I'd say this is one of its major shortcomings, even though it does rally for a relatively strong finish.
The characters are mostly annoying, with the exception of Will and Cess, a Frenchwoman the archers have kidnapped and forced into servitude. The archers are horrible people, the proctor is vain, the knight's daughter is spoiled. Some do change, but the strange narrative hinders the discussion of their personalities and keeps them at a distance. And, I don't know if it was just me or the narrative, but I couldn't keep the different archers straight until well past the halfway point.
The setting is a huge missed opportunity here. While there is a basic description of the time period and the locales, it won't satisfy anyone who picks up the novel wondering about the Middle Ages. Even the Black Death, which features heavily, is given just perfunctory treatment, despite all the people who do succumb to it.
Finally, there are the themes of the novel, which seem at odds with its setting. This kind of story, set in the High Middle Ages, seems to be more of interest to conservative people. However, this novel is very progressive--overtly, but also sometimes contradictorily, so. It deals quite heavily with homosexuality, confession, love, and classism. But then it also discusses feminism and rape, two subjects some people just don't want to hear yet another man writing about. I think the themes will alienate both conservatives and progressives, just for vastly different reasons.
Overall, I'm disappointed with this one, mainly because of weak plotting, annoying characters, and being light on setting. If it were not for my job-related interest in English and personal interest in the High Middle Ages, this would be a one-star read. I also think the themes and pseudo-archaic narrative will give this novel a very, very limited audience.
I bought this book online based on others' recommendations. It didn't really meet my needs, but perhaps it will yours, so let me explain.
My goal is to draw in a way that communicates effectively the thing I'm trying to convey to the viewer--more practical than it is artistic self-expression. I'm not the least bit interested in portraiture, texture, or light. There was some useful information in the chapters The Drawing Process, Proportions: Taking the Measure of Things, and The Illusion of Depth. However, I'd say I need a beginners book that is one step before this one because his lessons assume you already have at least more drawing experience than the average person.
Another problem is that I'm interested in pen and ink drawing, as well as marker on whiteboard. Very basic stuff with hard edges. This book goes into pencil and charcoal as well, neither of which were very relevant in my situation.
However, the biggest drawback to this book is that most of the drawings aren't very good--except for the ones done by other artists that he's just borrowing. His own art, while not bad at times, is not impressive. If I could do it at an amateur level, I'd be impressed. But, at a professional level, this is quite disappointing.
I think a lot of the information in here can be gleaned from YouTube videos. If you have an opportunity to borrow this book, I'd suggest that over buying it.
Ah, Venice! The most serene city.
Readers looking for a detailed history of Venice won't find it here. While it's impossible not to glean an overall understanding of the city's history, this book is mainly about the personality of the city and its inhabitants. It focuses more on the culture than on the events that make up its character. And character it is, for the book treats the city as if it were a person.
Another thing to be aware of is the writing is not the typical matter-of-fact style of non-fiction. There is a flair and abstractness that some may find irritating. And it is steeped in the author's personal opinion. While he seems to appreciate Venice, he doesn't hold back when he is describing something he doesn't like.
And the quotations. Oh, the quotations. I'm sure the writer scoured absolutely every written work that mentioned Venice and pulled something out to insert.
It's not a bad book, but I can see where some may find it off-putting. I wouldn't recommend it as a first book, or even second book, to read about Venice. But, if you have already read one or two and are looking for something to augment your understanding of Venice, then this would be one to consider.