I have found Thailand one of the most challenging of our World Challenge countries, because in general the literature about this beautiful, friendly country is very different from that of others in the region. When it comes to countries like Japan or China for example, there is a multitude of books to choose from which explore issues such as family life, the position of women, aspects of history etc – all subjects I am passionate about. But when it comes to Thailand, the novels available tend to fall into two categories.
The first are books about Bangkok crime – such as John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, described as “ a sexy, razor-edged, often darkly hilarious novel set in one of the world’s most exotic cities” or Dean Barrett’s Skytrain to Murder in which an American detective is on the trail of a murderer through “Bangkok’s seedy underbelly including dangerous slums, high class gentlemen clubs and a house of domination.” These novels have a big following, and for those who like gritty, underworld crime they are ideal.
The second category consists of books about Western sex-tourists and their relationships with conniving Thai bar girls. These books are often marketed as “warnings” to gullible Western men and at least on first glance appear to do little to really explore beyond the stereotypes. At this stage I am loathe to include these novels on Packabook’s list of books set in Thailand, until I have had a chance to read some of them myself and determine their level of sensitivity and respect for the country itself. So far, I’m not convinced.
Neither of these categories particularly appealed to me as I searched for a book to read for our challenge this month…but I have found a few other titles which look a little more promising.
You may want to try Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, a mystery novel set in the northern hills. Reviews suggest this novel gives a sensitive and well-researched perspective on the landscape as well as the cultures of tribes in the area.
Or for a closer look at Bangkok there is Letters from Thailand, a 1969 novel by Botan which has recently been re-released in English. The book is one of the country’s most enduring novels and gives us the story of a Chinese migrant attempting to make his fortune in Thailand.
But for this challenge I decided to try a new release which ticked all the right boxes for me, and had the added advantage of being set in a place I have actually been to, albeit just for a few hours.
Cross Currents is a novel set on Ko Phi Phi Don, an island off the coast of Phuket. You may be more familiar with one of the other Phi Phi islands, Ko Phi Phi Leh the location for Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2000 film ‘The Beach’ which introduced the stunning beauty of the islands to the world.
This novel is set the week before the Asian tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, so there are no prizes for guessing where things are heading. While the actual number of people who died on Phi Phi during the tsunami is hard to determine and will probably never be known, it seems it was in the thousands. The particular shape of Phi Phi Don (butterfly-shaped with two wide bays and a thin strip of land in between) meant it was hit by waves from two directions. The resulting damage and loss of life were devastating, and the infrastructure has had to be completely rebuilt since.
Cross Currents tells of a family who run a small resort on Ko Phi Phi Don. Lek and Sarai depend on convincing a few tourists a day to stay in their beachside bungalows, but it’s a challenge. Many people prefer to stay in high-end accommodation, and for the family, it is a daily battle to make ends meet. Into the picture comes a young American called Patch who is clearly on the run from someone, but is helping Lek out with work around the resort. When Patch’s brother arrives to try and convince him to give himself up, he is torn between dealing with his past and staying in paradise and helping the family who have pretty much adopted him.
Ko Phi Phi Don – Image courtesy of C-Fix via Wikimedia Commons
The novel has a fairly simple narrative and won’t tax your brain cells too much, but it does a lovely job in exploring the lives and feelings of the protagonists. We get a wonderful insight into Lek and his family and the challenges they face, something I doubt you’d be able to read about anywhere else. The tension obviously grows as we approach Boxing Day, as we all know what is about to engulf this beautiful island. The description of the tsunami itself is terrifying, and while the ending of the novel feels a little unbelievable, it takes nothing away from the emotion of the story itself.
There are some wonderful characters in this novel, not least two of Lek’s children; his witty, feisty daughter and his dreamy, budding marine biologist son. As that tsunami approaches, I can guarantee you will be praying to every god you’ve ever heard of for those two delightful children to survive. It is heartbreaking to think of the number of children who were actually swept away when the wave approached, and the novel really brings that home.
I highly recommend this book for those of you looking to join us for the Thailand leg of the World Party Reading Challenge. If you fancy trying something else, here’s our selection of books set in Thailand to explore. Let us know what you are reading and what you think of it in the comments…
Packabook was kindly provided with a review copy of the book “Cross Currents” by the publishers.
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.
Books set in Russia – Helen Dunmore takes us to Leningrad…
Well…by now you have no doubt realised that the correlation between the proper month for our World Party Reading Challenge and the corresponding blog post is completely up the spout. But never mind – we shall ignore the fact that it is no longer June and move swiftly on…to Russia.
There are mountains of books set in Russia you could read for the Challenge. You might want to go traditional and ambitious with something like Anna Karenina or War and Peace, or you may want to immerse yourself in the darkness of dissident writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Or perhaps for a change of pace you might consider the Cold War spy novels of John Le Carre or the Soviet crime fiction of Tom Rob Smith.
But for this challenge I decided to delve into a bit of Russian history by reading Helen Dunmore’s The Siege. Actually I had already read this novel a few years ago, but with the release of Dunmore’s sequel The Betrayal, it seemed a good opportunity for a re-read, and then to move on to the second book.
The novel is set in the north-western port city of Leningrad (which has now reclaimed its pre-revolutionary name of St. Petersburg). In 1941, as WWII began to bite, Leningrad was almost surrounded by German troops and their Finnish allies. The city headed into the winter of 1941 a victim of German shelling, with its supply routes to the rest of the Soviet Union cut off and its residents falling to starvation, exposure and disease. By the time the Siege was fully lifted in January 1944, it had claimed more than 600,000 lives.
In Dunmore’s novel we meet 23-year old Anna Levin, who is determined she and her family will survive as the city becomes surrounded. Along with her dissident father and five-year-old brother Kolya she hoards food and fuel for the bitter winter ahead. There is some joy for Anna in her relationship with Andrei, a doctor who works for days at a time in the hospital – but while this IS a love story, it is under such extreme circumstances their relationship is stunted for much of the Siege. Anna and Andre are forced to live a romance of pragmatism rather than of passionate sentiment.
This novel is filled with the realities of famine. At one stage Anna must pull apart Kolya’s papier-mache castle, so that she can extract nutrients from the paste that had held it together. Another time, she boils strips of leather to make a broth. It is impossible to imagine how anyone survives in these circumstances and Dunmore does not spare you anything in her detail.
Eventually, the Russians were able to transport some supplies over the frozen waters of Lake Ladoga, the massive lake to the city’s East – but this too was fraught with danger. The operation was not always as successful as suggested in this extract from an American film which shows footage from the time. (It also has some great graphics showing the city surrounded!)
Given there is a sequel to this novel, I am not spoiling anything by telling you that Anna and Andrei survive – but the path to that survival makes for some pretty unforgiving reading.
Dunmore’s follow up The Betrayal is set some ten years later. The war has ended but for Andrei and Anna there is a new fear; Stalin’s Ministry for State Security. They live in a world of trepidation and caution, doing their best not to be noticed by anyone who can do them harm. Andrei is now a respected physician, but when he is asked to treat the seriously ill son of a senior secret police officer, their carefully constructed world is threatened.
The Siege and The Betrayal are very different novels from each other, and each can easily stand alone. But I like the device of telling a city (and country’s) history through one family, even if the plot and style is quite different. And it reminds us that this was what it was like for millions of Russians who lived through decades of such hardship; they had to deal with one crisis and then another, with barely a moment of reprieve along the way.
Dunmore’s prose is matter-of-fact and brutal. She does not let you escape the impact of starvation and fear on the mind and body. And yet still, we see that survival is possible; that Anna and Andre do it, that thousands of others have done it, that time and time again people manage to overcome the most desperate of circumstances. It is a story of the miracle of the human ability to endure.
You could do far worse than visit Anna and Andrei’s world for our Russian challenge – but if the thought of putting yourself through their ordeal does not attract you, there are many other books set in Russia you may want to consider.
I look forward to hearing your suggestions and comments, and please feel free to link to any reviews you decide to write.
Looking for a book set in Pakistan to read for the World Party Reading Challenge, I was immediately drawn to A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, not least because of its intriguing title. (It also has a gorgeous mango golden color on the cover which was very tempting!)
The novel included elements of politics and history which are generally winners for me, as I try to delve deep into what makes a country tick, and I wanted to know more about Pakistan’s military dictator General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, one of the main ‘characters’.
There is no doubt that this is an extremely well-written and intelligent novel, with plenty of very dark humor. But, in a lot of ways, it’s not for me.
I guess the best way I could describe it is as a bit of a ‘boy’s book’. I hadn’t quite realised that so much of the novel was to be set slap bang in the middle of the Pakistani army scene, and how few female characters there would be. Our hero is Ali Shigri, a young military officer who is evidently up to something, we’re just not sure what, for most of the novel. Someone suspects something though, because he is soon whisked away by the Pakistani security forces who attempt to find out more details, and as you can imagine that’s not a particularly pleasurable experience for young Ali. (Or for the reader!!)
General Zia’s mysterious death
What we do know, is all of this will somehow climax in the death of General Zia, when his plane crashes in the desert on August 17, 1988.
We know Ali has something to do with it, but again, we’re not quite sure what…
If this all sounds a bit cloak and dagger, then that’s because it is. It may be because my reading of this novel was a bit interrupted, but I found it challenging at times to remember what I was suppose to know and what I wasn’t. The story meanders a fair bit in time, and for me, took too long to get to the bit I was really interested in – the plane crash.
It wasn’t only Zia who was killed when his plane went down – several of his top generals and the US ambassador also lost their lives. Hanif includes many of the real characters and facts known about the crash in his reconstruction in Mangoes, but he plays on the speculation about its cause in coming up with his own interpretation of the events.
I did enjoy the comic portrayal of General Zia, who suffers from (justified!) paranoia that his life is in danger, subordinates who are trying to usurp him, an uncontrollable fascination with the cleavage of an American journalist and a severe rectal itch he is embarrassed to share with his own doctor.
In real life, Zia took Pakistan’s helm after staging a military coup in 1977. He became president in 1978 and ruled largely under martial law for eleven years. While in the past I’m sure his name has passed me by, I will be far more interested in any references to him in future reading on Pakistan having read this book. While it is no doubt an unfair portrayal of the man, it is going to be hard not to imagine him bending over with his head between two flags, as a Saudi doctor gives him a rectal examination next time he’s mentioned in a newspaper article! This is the magic of novels – they give us memorable anecdotes to refer to as we go about our lives!
Click on the image below to see a video announcing the death of General Zia
Read about General Zia’s death in the New York Times
While I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ Mangoes particularly, it is a novel which will remain with me for a long time. Pakistan’s history is filled with political assassinations and military intrigue – and while this book is obviously satire, it does give us a way into that history in an unusual way.
There are very few female characters, and those there are play very small roles. For me, that always makes the reading of any novel that little less enjoyable. But to be fair to Hanif, this novel is set in a man’s world, and there is little opportunity to explore what the women were thinking at the time.
If you enjoy satire and can see the attraction in hanging around with military cadets and political prisoners you will enjoy this novel. You will enjoy the absurdity of ‘OBL’ of Laden and Co Constructions trying to make small talk at a Fourth of July BBQ hosted by the US ambassador, and of General Zia heading out on a bicycle in disguise in an attempt to find out what his people really think of him. Hanif has created many amusing, preposterous scenes that you cannot help laughing at, and there are images which will stay with you for a long time.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a truly original novel which will show you a side of Pakistan I suspect you have not seen before, and while I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this book, it is still one which is very much worth reading.
And if you are fascinated by the conspiracy theories the novel throws up, then you may enjoy Hanif’s facebook group called Who killed General Zia? where they are discussed in great detail. We also have plenty of other suggestions for books set in Pakistan if you’d like to explore the country a little further.
For our next World Party Reading Challenge adventure we are off to Russia…more on that soon!
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.
I have been looking forward to this one – Pakistan has a fascinating history, and with many new writers emerging for English-language readers it is an exciting time to learn more about what makes the country tick.
In reading any novel about Pakistan, a bit of an understanding of the history is important. Please bear with me here – it is a little complicated, but we will get there in the end!
The Partition of British India in 1947 which led to the formation of two states along religious lines – Pakistan (Muslim) and India (Hindu) – lies at the heart of many novels set in both countries. This is understandable, it led to massive upheaval for those who were forced to flee their homes so they could be on “the right side” of the lines of division, as well as to horrific sectarian violence and bloodshed, often between people who had been friends and neighbors for a lifetime.
But Partition was not as simple as simply dividing British India into two. The Muslim population was concentrated in two different areas, the north-west of the Indian subcontinent and a delta to the very east, on the Bay of Bengal. So when the two states of Pakistan and India were created, Pakistan itself was divided into two with one part in the west and another more than a thousand miles away to the east – in between was India.
This set the scene for more conflict, when in March 1971 the more politically powerful West Pakistan launched a military operation against Bengali civilians in East Pakistan who were calling for independence. This resulted in a civil war, complete with guerrilla operations and a flood of refugees to India. India decided to support the East and this led to conflict on the India-West Pakistan border. In December 1971 the West Pakistani forces were defeated in East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh.
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam explores this conflict through the eyes of one family – a young widow Rehana Haque and her two teenage children. Initially oblivious to the political dissent around her, Rehana is soon caught up in the rebellion and resulting conflict. The novel is the first of a proposed trilogy, with the second instalment The Good Muslim just about to be released.
If you would prefer to explore more contemporary Pakistan in this challenge, rather than delve into the history, here are a few ideas.
But for this challenge I am going for something a little off-beat.
Apart from anything else A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif has one of the most intriguing titles I have come across for some time!
A fictional take on the death of Pakistan’s dictator General Zia in a mysterious plane crash in August 1988, this novel is touted as a comedy. Apparently many of the characters and events portrayed in the book are real – and the reviewers on Amazon promise me and “unpredictable but very enjoyable read”. That’s enough for me!
What is your choice for the Pakistan World Party Reading Challenge? If nothing here strikes your fancy, then have a look at the other books set in Parkistan we have found. And then let us know what you are reading in the comments below…..
And if you have enjoyed this post, please click the Facebook Like button on this page, so we can spread the word to other potential Challengers…
UPDATE: Read my review for A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.
I have just finished reading Andrea Levy’s The Long Song for the World Party Reading Challenge for books set in Jamaica and so while I’m finding myself thinking in the style of Miss July’s Jamaican patois, I shall do my very best not to write in it!
I really enjoyed this novel in which we view the abolishing of slavery in Jamaica through the unreliable eyes of Levy’s main character Miss July, interrupted by the odd interjection from July’s son Thomas, who questions her recollections.
Born on a slave plantation and taken away from her mother to become a ‘lady’s maid’ at around nine years old, July is forced to wait hand and foot on her ‘Missus’, Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the plantation owner John Howarth. Caroline soon becomes almost entirely dependent on July, and the relationship between the two of them is one of the main strands of the novel.
It is when July is in her late teens that the plantation’s slaves start smelling the whiff of freedom, but it is still many years before emancipation, and the road there is far from smooth.
As is inevitable in any book about slavery, this novel is confronting. And at times it is almost unbearable to witness the attitudes of the plantation owners.
In one scene, Howarth is showing off the strength of his slave Kitty to Caroline.
“Show your mistress your legs,” (Howarth says to Kitty)
Kitty did not move.
“Lift up your skirt and show her your legs.”
When Kitty still did not take heed of his command he huffed,”Oh, good God,” before grabbing the worn cloth of Kitty’s skirt and raising it almost to her waist. Kitty turned her head to one side as John Howarth beckoned his sister. He commenced rubbing his hand up and down Kitty’s leg saying, “Come and feel the muscles.”
This is not the worst example of the liberties whites took with the bodies of their slaves, but it does reveal the casual indifference they had towards them – treating them as nothing more than livestock.
There is no gloss to be seen in Levy’s account of daily life on the plantation – from the birth of children to the reality of daily ablutions, the raw physical nature of plantation life is revealed in all its glory. Here are just a couple of examples:
“But Kitty did at that moment fall upon her knees and, with her heavy belly brushing the dirt floor, crawl upon the mat. Soon the trash, which was the substance of her mattress, was soaked through with Kitty’s sweat – it squelched underneath her as she writhed, tormented, for some position that might ease her pain.”
“One–wearing a bright-red madras kerchief upon her head and an apron at her waist that was so splattered with stains it did appear like a map — was chewing upon something with her mouth agape. Another picked at the contents of her nose, wiping it upon the filthy rag of her skirt as she angled her head awkwardly so she might better see through an eye that was bruised-bloody, swollen and half closed.”
All the worst of human physicality is proudly displayed in this novel – and it is not for the squeamish!
But despite being in a novel which appears to be coated in sweat and grime, July emerges as a truly irrepressible character. She is mischievous and feisty, intelligent and quick-witted and her ability to outfox her lazy, dim mistress is true entertainment.
The Baptist War
While Levy moves through various time periods, it is the lead up to and the years following the abolishing of slavery in the British Empire which hold the most interest for me.
There is very little historical fact and background included in the novel itself because as July points out, without the benefits of modern communications, she really didn’t know what was going on around the island throughout such pivotal events. Referring to the telephone she says “If there was such an invention at the time of this Baptist War (as my son does name it), then I am sure I would have known what was going on everywhere at one time. But there was not.”
So, as July is unable to furnish us with the facts, here’s what I have been able to find out.
The Baptist War of Christmas 1831 was an uprising which saw as many as 60,000 slaves mobilised. It had begun as a general strike but soon became a fully-fledged rebellion lasting 10 days. Led by the Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe the uprising was soon repressed by the plantation owners and Sharpe was hanged. Around 500 slaves were killed during the revolt or executed afterwards.
Statue of Samuel Sharpe in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Image by Pozole via Wikimedia Commons
But while the rebellion was unsuccessful, it is thought to have contributed to the call for emancipation, which finally came in 1938.
For July and her fellow slaves, this period is filled with much uncertainty, and it is heartbreaking to witness these promises of freedom being routinely dashed. And even when the slave-trade is completely abolished, things do not necessarily improve – the rules are all gone, and plantations are not obligated to hire or house the people who have worked their lands for generations. The former slaves do not emerge into a level playing field.
It is distressing to realise how deeply the arrogance and contempt of the white plantation owners ran both before and after abolition. Even apparently ‘enlightened’ characters are unable to contemplate a world in which the former slaves might have their own ideas, ambitions and abilities – and in fact do all they can to crush their entrepreneurial spirit.
New life for Falmouth?
The novel is set in Falmouth on Jamaica’s north coast; it had one of the busiest ports on the island and was central to the slave trade. With nearly a hundred plantations producing sugar and rum, Falmouth was wealthy and vibrant during its heyday with as many as 30 ships in the harbour on any given day.
But with the end of slavery, the town suffered a rapid decline. This has left at least one positive legacy. With a lack of development over the years, many of Falmouth’s original buildings are still standing, making it one of the best preserved Georgian towns in the Caribbean.
Falmouth has recently experienced a resurgence, as cruise companies realise its potential both for historical tourism and as a landing point for those wishing to visit Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. In fact one such cruise liner has spearheaded the building of a new port, which it is hoped will bring much needed commercial activity to the town. As with all projects such as this there is some controversy, but those behind it say it will be sensitive to the historic nature of the town. If anyone has been to Falmouth recently, I would love to hear your thoughts on this…I understand it is still very much a work in progress.
In so many ways this is a heart-breaking novel and reminds us that it often takes generations before real change is made. And even when it does, there are new sets of problems; the legacy of what has come before. But despite the dark history being told here, Levy’s (and July’s) narration manages to pick out the light moments and give us plenty to smile about along the way.
On finishing this novel I couldn’t help but think how much I’d love to sit down with Miss July to share a cup of tea and some of her finest naseberry preserve – and have her tell me some more of her marvellous stories. Of course, I know Miss July has a habit of bending the truth from time to time, but I think I can live with that!
P.S. Have you read The Long Song? Have you ever been to Falmouth? Let us know in the comments what you thought….
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.