Global Challenge? Only Just…

With some dexterous juggling, I can just about claim to have completed the Global Reading Challenge (Medium Level) this year. I had to be a little creative with Mexico and place it in Latin America so that I could sort of claim it was South America. But if you forgive me my geographical inaccuracies and the fact that I still owe you two quick reviews for Africa and the 7th Continent, then I can claim VICTORY!!!

2015global_reading_challengev2

The Medium challenge is about reading two books from (or set in) each continent, regardless of genre. I was initially quite ambitious and planned to visit countries where I’d never been (fictionally) before. But the second half of the year became a mad, disorganised scramble to get books off my Netgalley and TBR shelves, so I had to compromise in the end.

Europe:

Moldova – The Good Life Elsewhere

Poland – Madam Mephisto

Asia:

Israel – Route de Beit Zera

India – Witness the Night

Australasia/Oceania:

Australia – Barracuda

Samoa – Blood Jungle Ballet

North America:

Native American reservation: Sherman Alexie

Houston, Texas – Pleasantville

South America:

Mexico – Faces in the Crowd

Costa Rica – Red Summer

Africa:

Morocco – Fouad Laroui

lastnightLibya – The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra

The author takes us into the warped mind of Ghaddafi as he sits holed up in a secret location, trying to avoid both bombing and the wrath of his own people. There is little here to give you a profound insight into the politics or history of Libya itself, but I found it a precise dissection of a dictator’s mind, how it is possible to become a megalomaniac and lose touch with reality, how power corrupts and idealism can get subverted, how tantrums can turn vicious when you are surrounded by sycophants. I thought it also raised some interesting questions about the appeal of tyrants: how they often play the nationalistic card (us versus the foreign menace, we’re going to make our country great once more etc.), which explains their rise to power and the often confused legacy they leave behind.

7th Continent:

Space – Solaris

voyageCentre of the Earth – Jules Verne

I’d forgotten what fun this classic novel is to read – yes, even when the author enumerates all of the things Axel and his uncle the professor take with them on their expedition. Appeals to the geek in all of us, but also lessons to be learnt about how quickly he gets to the intrigue, how imaginative he is, how endlessly inventive. It’s not even remotely plausible scientifically – that underground sea alone is completely wrong for all sorts of reasons. So it’s not as good as some of his other novels, but still a rollicking read (best discovered in your youth, though).

 

Bangkok Eight by John Burdett

I can finally add to my Global Reading Challenge list, hosted by the ever-suave and encyclopedic Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.  

Bangkok8Welcome to Bangkok – you are in for a rollercoaster ride of thrills, spills and emotional manipulation in the hands of a supremely confident writer, John Burdett.

Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a half-caste cop from Bangkok’s District 8 (hence the title).  He and his childhood friend and partner, Pichai, are probably the only two cops not on the take in the city. In the opening scenes, they are following a US marine in his Mercedes E series, without quite knowing the reason for the close surveillance.  When they finally catch up with the American, they discover he has been trapped in his car and bitten to death by a swarm of cobras and a drugged python. A few minutes later, Pichai too falls victim to one of the snakes.  Sonchai is a devout Buddhist who may be intent on becoming an arhat (living saint), but only after he avenges the death of his soul-brother.

The American Embassy and the FBI get involved, of course, as does Sonchai’s corrupt but somehow likeable boss.  It’s a complicated plot, exposing all of the unsavoury underbelly of the City of the Angels: prostitution, violence against women, drug smuggling, dubious jade trade and desperate poverty.  And yet there is a lot of love and understanding for Thai culture here, albeit seen through the somewhat cynical eyes of an outsider, half-American and half-Thai, who never fits in completely with either culture.

buddhasWhat I most enjoyed about this was the singular, strong voice of the narrator.  He makes you enter a largely unfamiliar world with such aplomb, that you are completely on his side.  I cannot judge how accurate Burdett’s portrayal of Thailand is (I hope it is exaggerated), but while we have Sonchai’s compelling voice haranguing us farangs (foreigners), it is completely believable.  And I can’t get enough of his wily mother Nong, a retired prostitute ready to open a go-go club for the Third Age.

Exotic and quite distressing in places, it is a book best read before and after some calmer, cosier pieces, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world.

 

Kitchen Cupboard Cleanout

Apologies, but this post is a bit of a ‘kitchen cabinet cleanout’.  That’s what we call it in my family when we have a bit of a pause to rethink and recalculate things. Necessary but evil admin, which probably will be of little interest to anyone but which is a useful reminder for myself.

We are more than halfway through the year: how are my reading challenges coming along?  Well, I’ve read 75 of my targeted 100 books, according to Goodreads, so I should be doing well.  But….  they are not necessarily the books I was planning to read for my Global Reading Challenge (Crime Fiction) and my Translation Challenge.

The Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the latter, I have read a few (non-crime) books in translation, such as Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence’ and Kristina Carlson’s ‘Mr. Darwin’s Gardener’, but I haven’t had time to review them properly yet.  Still, it’s far less than I expected.  I have been reading an average of 1-2 books per month in French though, does that count?

For the Global Reading Challenge, I’ve had trouble with certain continents: Europe has been as forward as a middle-aged gossipy aunt, while South America has been rather coy.  I’ve revised my plans as follows:

1) In North America, I’ve exchanged the Arctic Circle of McGrath’s ‘White Heat’ for the swamps of Florida and Travis McGee (by John D. Macdonald).

Cover of "Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet...
Cover of Havana Gold: The Havana Quartet

2) I have found a book by Leonardo Padura at last, called Havana Gold, which will be my second Latin American contribution.

3) For Asia, I will move to Thailand and read ‘Bangkok 8’ by John Burdett.

4) For Australasia, I’ve had to give up on New Zealand and choose another Australian setting.  I’ve taken my own advice over at the Crime Fiction Lover website, and chosen a chirpy instalment in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series.

Portrait of Wilkie Collins. Paiting in the Nat...
Portrait of Wilkie Collins. Paiting in the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5) Finally, for my 7th continent challenge, i.e. a new venture outside my usual area of exploration, I will read a classic: Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone’, often celebrated as the world’s first detective story.

You will have noticed that I did not mention Africa.  That is because it is possibly my favourite continent and I am hoping to discover a real treasure there.  Unfortunately, few of the writers I had in mind are available on Kindle (and I cannot find them easily in other formats over here).  Any suggestions will be most gratefully received.  I have read crime fiction by South African writers or set in South Africa, so I would quite like something set somewhere else in Africa.  Anything in Kenya or Ghana or the Maghreb?