RaveThe Asian Review of Books... likely to be read somewhat differently depending on whether or not one is included in the title. For those who aren’t, this is a readable and personable if perhaps idiosyncratic history structured as a travelogue ... Indian history can—again, for the non-Indian, at least—seem kaleidoscopic: it can be hard to identify linear throughlines of the sort that characterize the history of the United States, Britain or even China. India, with its multiple polities, languages, scripts, religions, is more continent than country. In his careful selection of highlights, Arora manages to shape Indian history into something manageable, with a narrative arc that is graspable ... In this gentle book, Arora manages to outline the development of several strands of Indian religion as well as put down major political and cultural markers in an overall chronology. He makes little attempt to be definitive; indeed, he implies he considers himself a \'storyteller\'. Arora is a deft writer: his excellent descriptions of the places he visits bring the reader along with him. Ancient is leavened with modern; the arcane made relevant. Academic historians may take issue with his approach, and others will surely say that he left many things out, but with Indians under one’s belt, one is far better prepared for a more detailed and definitive work ... Arora’s own enthusiasm is infectious.
Kaoru Takamura, Trans. by Allison Markin Powell and Marie Iida
PositiveThe Asian Review of BooksIs Lady Joker worth the build-up? It’s hard not to feel like a TV reviewer being asked to pass judgement on a new miniseries after only the first (extra-long, perhaps) episode. But, on the basis of what remains an incomplete reading, the answer would be yes ... The sense of effectively watching while reading is both surreal and (literally) entrancing. The story, which is anyway a very slow burn, hardly matters ... Although well-plotted, the plot emerges from the multitude of fragmented and kaleidoscopic character vignettes. Lady Joker is a psychological thriller in that everything comes from the interaction of personalities, a large number of very complex personalities, rather than action. There is a temptation to sketch out the sort of diagram one sees on cork boards in police shows, with pictures, scrawled notes and bits of string connecting one person of interest to another. But Takamura quite masterfully makes this unnecessary: the characters are fleshed out, the matrix of relations is clarified and the holes get filled in. Corporate offices, police stations, newsrooms, restaurants and golf courses all come into focus ... At a time when TV series are released all at once for binge-watching, not having the second half immediately available is somewhat (and perhaps deliberately) annoying. But at least I don’t have to worry about revealing any plot spoilers: I haven’t a clue how it turns out. Stay tuned.
Ahmet Altan, trans. by Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi
RaveThe Asian Review of BooksAhmet Altan is something of a master of the evocative opening line ... Although Love in the Days of Rebellion, the second installment in Ahmet Altan’s \'Ottoman Quartet\', is a sequel to Like a Sword Wound, it can also be read alone ... Despite the political turmoil, the novel proceeds at a languid pace—at 500 pages, it is half again as long as the first volume. There is, as before, a cast of characters of Tolstoyan proportions ... In Altan’s world, love comes with loss, happiness is the cause of unhappiness, divorce can yield friendship, honor and conviction are conjoined with infidelity, error and uncertainty; there are always choices to be made ... Love in the Days of Rebellion is atmospheric, hypnotic, inevitable and sad, or perhaps triste, as Hikmet Bey would undoubtedly have put it. While it can be read on its own, the reader is likely to be drawn to the first volume, so one might as well start there.
Banine, trans. by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova
PositiveAsian Review of BooksThis story of a family between tradition and modernity, filled with exotic and eccentric characters, of a multi-cultural place on the verge of a momentous transition in which both the traditional past and an increasingly cosmopolitan present are swept away, will be familiar to readers of such other memoirs as those of Andre Aciman or of pre-War Shanghai.The book treads some tricky ground, notably Turkish-Armenian enmity ... The book is nonetheless a product of its time. There are references to stereotypes, admittedly self-employed, that a writer a half-century later might have avoided ... Days in the Caucasus has charm by the bucketful. Yet it seems that Banine had not yet entirely come to terms with the contradictions of her pre-Parisian life; Days in the Caucasus reads as if there were much left beneath the surface.
PositiveThe Asian Review of BooksThe stories in Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen’s debut collection, are—to get the headline out of the way—fine, well-crafted works ... At one extreme of the collection’s wide range is a surreal tale of people waiting for weeks in a Beijing station for a train that never comes, or when it does, doesn’t stop ... At the other, is a quiet, quotidian domestic drama of a mixed relationship in the American West stumbling from lack of commitment ... Chen’s strength is ultimately her writing, not in the exotic settings or situations: however well-observed, they have slightest sense of having been observed ... Chen doesn’t ever really wrap her stories up; this story, like the others, and like most things in life, has no real conclusion. Readers must work it out themselves.
RaveAsian Review of BooksThe combination of the surreal, faintly humorous and possibly momentous typifies this eminently readable foray into some of the farther reaches of technology’s tentacles ... significantly, Blockchain Chicken Farm isn’t really a \'China book\' at all: Wang is peering into the future of tech and society and finds—convincingly—the most important signposts in China rather the United States ... a fascinating (and fun) discussion of how technology development plays out differently in China, but more importantly, it provides a mirror, largely unfogged by priors, of how the push and pull between technology and society may well play out not just in China but possibly everywhere else.
PositiveThe Asian Review of Books...Cheng is clear, focused and precise. Despite it’s nominally nerdy take, x + y reads considerably faster than most books of equivalent length ... The book is also a foray into the broader question of whether a mathematical frame of mind (as opposed to necessarily mathematics per se) can help untangle (if not necessarily solve) complex social problems ... Math has neither objectives nor ethics: the results just are. But society does: it is trying to optimize something and people will disagree, quite legitimately in many cases, about both what that something is and what is optimum. Cheng writes that \'congressive behavior is better for society\'; I happen to agree out of both principle and practicality, but \'better\' is not itself a mathematical concept. Cheng’s \'whole new theory of people\' requires inclusion of non-mathematical considerations which are to some extent judgmental ... That being said, x + y is a rare combination of precision, passion and optimism. Whether via math or just clear and rigorous thinking, knotty issues benefit from discussions like this.
PositiveThe Asian Review of BooksThe book recounts several wild goose chases and dead ends and visits to places, such as the disputed Kurile Islands, where there never was any hope of finding a piano. But no matter: the pianos are an excuse to travel to far-off places, indulge oneself in history, meet interesting people and tell stories, all of which Robert does with abandon ... Roberts’s writing can be lush and romantic, almost to a fault ... She tracks her pianos like a detective, following leads and interviewing witnesses. She has a thing about piano serial numbers; all are noted. She is at least self-aware about it all...
PositiveThe Asian Review of BooksJohnson tells the story with swashbuckling aplomb ... This is a rollicking good tale, popular history at its best, filled with many \'really?\' moments ... The story itself, however, is rather spare. Johnson compensates with generous amounts of background information (or what might less charitably be called filler). Some is relevant and needed, such as introductions to the East Indian Company, the Mughal Empire, and a discussion of the literature and popular culture that grew around the event. But Johnson ranges far and wide, covering the Bronze Age \'Sea People\' who terrorized the ancient Egyptians, the Prophet Mohammad, chintz, protectionism, the sources of the word \'terrorism\', and much besides. This is all well done and Johnson doesn’t linger, but the ratio of explanatory material to narrative is high ... Well-written and fast-paced, covering lots of ground, chock-a-block with interesting anecdotes and walking the tightrope between strict fact and reasonable speculation, Enemy of All Mankind is a history book for people who don’t like history. Those who like history will probably like it too.
Nam-Nyong Paek, Trans. by Immanuel Kim
PositiveAsian Review of BooksOriginally published in 1988, the novel was and apparently remains immensely popular. It is easy to see why: the characters are layered and human while Paek maintains enough dramatic tension to keep the pages turning ... Friend, in this able and very readable translation by Immanuel Kim, is a salutary antidote to the many tomes that purport to explain the DPRK. The North Korea of the novel is—like everywhere else—filled with real people who love, tease, marry, fight, look at the stars, dream, make mistakes and grow old ... Friend may not be a great novel, but it is by any measure a good one. And if literature is supposed to upend our view of the world, then it’s better than good.
MixedThe Asian Review of BooksAssigning a city to a single century is a bit artificial but Marozzi treats the century more as a pivot than a strict chronological delimiter. A more serious quibble is that Marozzi has nothing East of the Indus. He associates the Mughals with Kabul rather than Delhi or Agra and one could, as Marozzi acknowledges, make a good case for the inclusion of Jakarta ... [its] best chapters are those on cities which have attracted less attention by popular historians ... Despite, or perhaps due to, a certain lack of narrative coherence—other than Islam, there can be little to link the chapters ... Marozzi also, deliberately or not, finishes the story where it began, in the Arabian peninsula. After passing through North Africa, the Levant, Persian and Afghanistan, he concludes with Dubai and Doha, places which present themselves as being as much part of the modern, globalized world as the Muslim one. Is this the future: a Muslim modernity which takes from Western culture and science what it wants and needs, merging it with its own traditions to create something new? It would not, as this very readable book points out on several occasions, be the first time.
PositiveThe Asian Review of Books... a translation of a Norwegian original which won the 2015 Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize for Nonfiction. Not, it must be said, that anything in the book gives that away: if the goal of translation is to be transparent, then Kari Dickson must be at the peak of her craft. It’s entirely colloquial; some references to Oslo aside, the only thing that gives Fatland away as something other than the otherwise expected Anglosaxon travel-writer is that in the book she communicates in Russian, German and Finnish ... a series of wide-ranging if not always connected vignettes ... Fatland has an eye for the absurd...But she also has a soft spot for ordinary people making do in difficult circumstances, as well as extraordinary accomplishments in extraordinarily difficult circumstances ... Fatland is an engaging writer with an excellent translator. Completeness would have been an impossible objective. Fatland chooses the individual tesserae of her mosaic well: stand back and a picture comes into view. Those new to the region can do far worse than start with her.
RaveThe Asian Review of BooksYoon shatters his story into a half dozen pieces as the physical bonds between his protagonists are shattered by the ongoing war. Each piece forms an elegant short story, linked to others by a hope, extending over decades, of reconnection ... Yoon’s craft was already evident in his 2013 novel Snow Hunters...Run Me to Earth displays the same feel for language—English, yes, but empathy for other languages, whether the Brazilian Portuguese of Snow Hunters or the French which serves a touchstone in the recent novel—and the same fascination with the incongruous ... But in Run Me to Earth, Yoon has also put structure to the service of style. Each of the chapters a story, the narrative swaps back and forth between decades and continents, separating and recombining the characters, changing viewpoints and focus ... Throughout it all, the language is spare. But Yoon has the ability to conjure up an entire world in a phrase ... In the images it conjures up, the language, despite its spareness, can be unexpectedly cinematic, albeit in a somewhat grainy, natural lighting, art film sort of way.
Sok Fong Ho, Trans. by Natascha Bruce
PositiveAsian Review of BooksLake Like a Mirror is more evidence, if more were needed, that Chinese-language literature is thriving in Southeast Asia. Ho writes free from the censorship that prevails in mainland China but also behind a linguistic veil that must to at least some extent shield her from the petty tyrannies that can sometimes be imposed by English and the internationalism that comes with it, a veil that is only drawn back for us readers by the efforts of her able translator Natascha Bruce.
Martin Cruz Smith
PositiveAsian Review of BooksThe Siberian Dilemma has all the tension, sympathetic characterization and research-based verisimilitude that Smith displayed right from the first novel ... Everyone in The Siberian Dilemma seems more urbane that one might expect of real life ... But Smith’s research is telling ... there is little doubt Smith has trod in at least some of his hero’s fictional footsteps. Smith has a remarkable ability to evoke atmosphere with the simplest of language ... Perhaps because Smith only rarely finds the need to be explicitly edifying...the book, in its atmospheric and introspective way, perhaps is.
Hiroko Oyamada, Trans. by David Boyd
MixedThe Asian Review of BooksOyamada can certainly write ... the translation by David Boyd is fluent and atmospheric, maintaining a sense that this is a Japanese dystopia, not just via the smattering of bento boxes and soba, but also in the way people interact in a sort of formalized informality ... more atmosphere than plot ... The difficulty of course is that a novel about emptiness can also come to seem empty ... Discomfiting and disconcerting, The Factory is short, clocking in at just over 100 pages. That’s probably just as well; nothing, even surreally random nothing, can go on for only so long. Having made her point, Oyamada brings the work to a rapid close.
RaveAsian Review of BooksThe Anarchy doesn’t disappoint: readable, informative, full of color. Dalrymple lets the protagonists speak for themselves as much as possible, protagonists which thankfully, but not surprisingly given the author, include Indians as much as Europeans ... This is not however an anti-colonial polemic but rather a considered, and considerably well-written, history. The various Indian rulers and nobles are presented warts and all, while he gives such credit (mostly military and sometimes administrative) to individual British (and other foreign) interlopers as they are due ... By the end of the book, the wide sweep of 18th-century Indian history (mostly) makes sense, which is no mean accomplishment.
PositiveAsian Review of BooksA Savage Dreamland is travel-writing...yet in a sort of politically-targeted way: the book is more about the destination—an attempt to understand contemporary Myanmar—than the journey itself ... The result is a patchwork of dialogue, vignettes of observation, held together with relatively straightforward research material about peoples, places, politics, religion and history. Eimer writes very well and the pieces are almost seamlessly integrated ... A Savage Dreamland’s main strength is Eimer’s prose. Eimer is a meticulous, fair-minded and empathetic observer, he takes interest in people of all kinds and from all walks of life, and is adventurous and curious enough to go off the beaten track. The places are easy to visualize, the voices of his interlocutors clear. One probably cannot understand Myanmar without going there, but Eimer’s book may be one of the best alternatives.
Yoko Ogawa, Trans. by Stephen Snyder
PositiveThe Asian Review of BooksThe novel is surreally dystopian, except that while people grumble about the sinking quality of life, they do not expressly regret the loss of things they have forgotten...The jacket copy says the novel is \'Orwellian\', but there is no double-speak here, no attempt by an overweening State for absolute control, no obvious attempt at political manipulation ... Ogawa does require of the reader a certain suspension of logic if not belief. Exactly how this small cut-off island society functions economically is unclear; to remark on this isn’t pedantry, because markets, businesses and occupations feature prominently in the narrative. The unnamed protagonist is herself an author with an editor and publisher; this would hardly seem to be viable at the best of times, but it becomes increasingly fantastical when the disappearances force the economy into reliance on increasingly impoverished market gardens and individual artisans ... Ogawa does follow Orwell in the clarity of her prose—at least in Stephen Snyder’s stylish translation—and the ability to create familiar and recognizable characters in a distorted reality.
PositiveThe Asian Review of Books... nothing if not deft ... There is no central narrative: the pieces come together through tangential connections. This is not just cleverness—and it is indeed very clever—for it allows Phillips to introduce a varied cast of characters of Tolstoyan dimensions. The structure renders her two-page character list at the beginning of the book unnecessary: it is easy enough to work out who is who as people drop in and out of each other’s stories ... Phillips’s understated writing and tangential approach to plot is such that this less-than-random distribution of characters seems natural and unremarkable until all of a sudden one realizes—quite a long way in—that was the point all along ... Phillips observes—and goodness, does she observe ... a rich novel of a place that is not as bleakly empty as it might first appear.
MixedAsian Review of BooksLittle of the history is particularly new...but Sharman compellingly connects a great many dots. This needn’t however have taken even the relatively small number of pages Sharman has dedicated to it. Many of these pages are spent dismantling, writer by writer, scholar by scholar, the \'military revolution thesis,\' but he might just have noted that it is all a combination of eurocentric post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning combined with the projection of the features of one period onto previous ones[.]
PositiveThe Asian Review of BooksGriffiths stitches events and issues, most of which are—individually—reasonably well-known, into a coherent narrative. The result is a readable, well-documented history of the internet in China ... The book’s strength is in Griffiths’s measured tone—this is no polemic—and general even-handedness. He is as critical—more despairing than scathing—of the American tech industry as he is of Chinese government policy and notes that much of the technical apparatus used to enforce China’s restrictive version of the Internet was supplied, at least initially, by American firms. Griffiths writes in a fluent, storytelling style, making use of the journalistic-style vignettes that now seem de rigueur in books that might otherwise purport to be analytical. These add color if not necessarily evidence; at least Griffiths does it well. The technical passages on, for example, the various international organizations that struggle for international control over the internet or how domain name routing works, are clear and to the point. The book is however perhaps longer than it need be ... But stylistic pros and cons aside, The Great Firewall of China’s recapitulation of the history, and discussion of how many of the best-laid plans went awry, is a good jumping-off place for, if one likes, discussion of the \'larger issues\' ... In the end, it seems Griffiths sees the \'Great Firewall of China\' more as a lesson about the internet itself than a story about China per se.
William L Silber
PositiveThe Asian Review of BooksIf you thought a book entitled The Story of Silver: How the White Metal Shaped America and the Modern World and published by the venerable and academic Princeton University Press would be a dull, dense, heavily-footnoted tome, you’d be wrong ... The Story of Silver is two different books threaded together. The first is a detailed history of silver—in the United States...The second is a page-turner of a financial-political multi-generational thriller worthy of, say, John Grisham, filled with larger-than-life speculators, businessmen, manipulators, crooks and politicians—it not always being easy to tell them apart ... Silber tells the story of these outsized personalities and financial shenanigans with gusto and evident relish ... Silber writes with verve ... Silber manages to provide cogent explanations of how metal-based currency systems work, or don’t, as well as flesh out some fascinating yet lesser-known denizens of, in particular, the US Senate over the past century and a half ... It is something a shame that Silber starts his story only with the founding of the United States, for the history of silver and its effect on the world economy goes back at least to mid-16th century ... might serve as a useful refresher for those who (still) think that national currencies should be backed one-for-one by precious metals.
PositiveAsian Review of Books\"The ten well-crafted works of short fiction collected in award-winning Korean author Ha Seong-nan’s Flowers of Mold are not so much horror stories as just horrible ... Ha’s [stories] are mostly characterized by atmosphere: they make the skin-crawl—not by overly explicit description, although there can be that too, but rather by imbuing her characters with a certain inescapable creepiness ... The stories, it must be said, are uncomfortable if not unpleasant: some readers will enjoy the frisson they deliver, while others may admire their craftsmanship without necessarily finding them to their taste ... Janet Hong’s translation deserves more than a mention. It is fluent to a degree that one might never guess it is a translation at all.\
PositiveAsian Review of Books\"Immerwahr is an engaging writer with an eye for the telling anecdote, characterization, quote or juxtaposition: the book fairly romps along ... Immerwahr is particularly good at noting the contradictions that arise when trying to apply the US Constitution to places that are American but not part of (or one of) the United States ... But possibly the most illuminating parts of the book are those that deal with what Senator William Henry Seward (who later brokered the purchase of Alaska) referred as \'ragged rocks\' ... Immerwahr succeeds in creating a notion of the \'Greater United States\', a concept which rarely if ever enters public dialogue.\
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
PositiveThe Asian Review of BooksIt is...a story—an often achingly beautiful story—about love, family, identity and what might be called, at the risk of descending to cliché which the novel itself does not, the inner light of the human spirit ... What one expects might happen, doesn’t quite ... The Dragonfly Sea colorfully dips in and out of several languages which Owuor rarely bothers to translate since she usually ensures the meaning is clear from the context ... In this lyrical and contemplative book, it is not China—Belt and Road in hand—that dominates Africa, but rather, it seems, the other way around.
PositiveThe Asian Review of BooksThe first novel of a four-volume set, Like a Sword Wound stands alone, except for curious and in this single volume, somewhat awkward, framing in which the story is nominally told via Osman, a modern character, in communication with relatives from his past. This may prove more significant in later volumes; in this book, it seems a superfluous device, but thankfully hardly intrudes ... Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi’s translation manages to be both fluently colloquial while maintaining a period tone.
PositiveAsian Review of Books\"... reading Insurrecto is the literary equivalent of playing pinball: the prose ricochets around, takes long looping arcs through paragraph-long sentences, only to bounce off bumpers in rapid-fire dialogue. The book bounds along in the present tense. Characters engage in repartee that might have been scraped from one of the wittier television shows. Literary references abound, as do references to film, music, fashion, and popular culture, sometimes cascading in passages that feel like pachinko ... Insurrecto is a bravura performance ... Apostol sometimes seems to feel the need to explain what she is doing, to make her structure visible. Maybe without the explanation, the reader would work out that the various historical sections are “scripts” rather than just fiction—but if not, the parallels and connections, the sense of history imposing itself into the present and of the present projecting itself onto the past, emerge naturally over the course of the book ... Readers might wish—like her protagonists—to have the Internet at the ready.\
Leonid Yuzefovich, trans. by Marian Schwartz
PositiveAsian Review of BooksThis is a rip-roaring story ... There’s a bit of The Man Who Would Be King in here; also a bit of El Cid, at least the Charlton Heston version ... Leonid Yuzefovich seems to have drunk at the same spring that nourished two centuries of great Russian writers ... He has been well-served by his translator Marian Schwartz, who delivers these very Russian stories in pitch-perfect English.
Kim Sagwa, trans. by Bruce Fulton & Ju-Chan Fulton
MixedAsian Review of Books\"... there is something missing. Some of this seems to be down to the author, who has eschewed the oft-recommended invocation to \'show and not tell\', for there are long passages of semi-editorial description ... the novel can also seem curiously bleached of cultural content... there is little that ties the story and characters down to one place or another ... Characters and scenes are drawn with sharp edges, designed to shock. Despite some drawbacks, the effect by about midway through becomes hypnotic. One continues through to the disturbing end.\
You-Jeong Jeong, Translated by Chi-Young Kim
PositiveAsian Review of BooksThe novel is cleverly plotted and constructed ... The fragmented, and at times discombobulating, structure of the novel reflects Yu-Jin’s own mental state ... While there is rather too much reliance on a journal to fill in some gaps, the novel nonetheless pulls one along—such suspension of disbelief as is necessary comes easily—as one is pulled deeper into Yu-Jin’s mind than is entirely comfortable ... Translated novels rarely make into the English-language commercial mainstream. If a Korean novel finally does, it might just be this one.
PositiveThe Asian Review of BooksBirobidzhan’s claim on the imagination is more for what it eminently is not than for what it is. Gessen, however, concentrates more on the sadness than the absurdity. What stands out in Where the Jews Aren’t are Gessen’s qualities as a storyteller, one able to weave together political history, biography and personal experience into a singularly poignant tale.