Private Dancer – Stephen Leather

In 1990s Bangkok, thirty-seven-year-old British travel journalist Pete walks into Zombie, a go-go bar in the infamous Nana Plaza red-light district. Dancing naked on the stage is Joy, a twenty-one-year-old girl from Isaan, the poorest region of Thailand. Pete is immediately smitten. He barfines Joy, and from that moment on they are drawn into a passionate relationship which they both misunderstand. Joy sees Pete as someone who can take care of her and her family financially. Pete is attracted to Joy the bar girl, but he also wants Joy the innocent and cute girl he can spend the rest of his life with. Despite being able to act all cutesy, whether Joy can fit into the latter stereotype is an open question. Pete doesn’t like that Joy sleeps with other foreigners for money, but he seems unwilling to commit to the relationship fully, wanting her to wait until he can figure stuff out. Joy does not see the problem with constantly asking for money from Pete, as being well-off confers status, and besides, she has no sense of fiscal responsibility, spending money as soon as she gets it. Under the cynical eye of friends, relatives, and acquaintances on both sides of the cultural divide, Joy and Pete dance around each other, love, argue, fight, and reconcile, in a vicious and tragic cycle.

The novel is a fascinating study of cross-cultural communications and interaction. Despite spending a long time in the country, and speaking some Thai, Pete misunderstands Joy’s point of view from the start. His jaded friends more or less correctly point out that as a bargirl, Joy is only interested in him as a means of financial security, and how can he expect a girl who has sex for money to be trustworthy. On the other hand, Joy does not understand why Pete is being so obtuse and often feels offended about him trying to control her, with his apparent view that he should “save” her from sex work, something that has been extremely lucrative for her. She is clearly fond of him but fondness and love do not mean the same things for her as they do to him. Growing up in abject poverty, and working as a sex worker since she was a teenager, she sees love as a man taking care of her financially, and she in return taking care of him. Romantic emotional attachment is not necessary for her, or perhaps more accurately is not bound to some Western ideal of star-stricken lovers. She seems quite ready to confer her affections to someone who treats her well and brings her security, though it is hinted that Pete is indeed special to her. Pete, a blundering water buffalo by Thai cultural standards, misinterprets Joy’s loving behaviour as that of a Western girl. But in Thai culture, the subtext is supremely important. A person may be smiling and positive, but the real meaning of their behaviour is tucked away in a complex set of cues readily accessible only to those with the background to interpret them.

The tragic core of the story is that Joy and Pete really do love each other, in their own ways, but seem unable to resolve their differences and move on to a future together. This despite the often unexpectedly helpful and understanding advice from Pete’s Greek Chorus of friends, a collection of “old Thailand hands”.

The story deals with a particular subset of Thai society, the dark world of sex work and related crime, and is not necessarily representative of Thai culture as a whole. That being said, it is a case study in cultural misunderstandings, many of which regularly occur in the wider interactions between Thais and Westerners. Some book critics suggested, rather seriously, that this book should be given out for free to young tourists arriving in the country, and it is easy to see why.

The use of multiple narrators with varying backgrounds works extremely well for the narrative. Some old Thailand hands are cynical almost beyond belief about Thailand, but you can see their point of view. Others, especially Joy’s older sister, are also cynical almost beyond belief about foreigners, but again, you can see their point of view. Pete and Joy typically see the same events in completely different ways. The narrators’ understanding of events is often incomplete, jaded, and even perhaps unreliable, but it all weaves a complex web of what, in the end, is a story of two lovers that the reader would love to end up together.

Throne of Glass (Throne of Glass I) – Sarah Maas

The young assassin Celaena Sardothien is serving a life sentence in a forced labour mine when the Dorian, Crown Prince of Adarlan, retrieves her and takes her to the capital. She is to take part in a series of competition with a variety of soldiers, mercenaries, assassins and thieves. The prize is to be appointed Royal Assassin for four years, during which the winner would earn their freedom. Once at the Glass Palace, she is drawn into a web of intrigue, and dark magic is afoot in the bowels of the castle.

This young adult low fantasy tale is rather unevenly paced, and its strong romance traits work against it. Celaena’s story and background, and the bits where there is actually action and intrigue, are quite interesting. The drawn-out sections of love triangle, with trite expositions about feelings, are quite tedious. Celaena is one of those characters who is good at everything, so there is little suspense regarding the final outcome, especially since this book is followed by six more. The hints at her heritage being more than it seems are heavy-handed and far too obvious. Her only redeeming qualities are her temper and her unwillingness to be meek and submissive.

Fortune’s Pawn (Paradox I) – Rachel Bach

œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIDeviana “Devi” Morris is a native of the planet Paradox, a high-tech feudal society known for its martial obsession. She is a decorated veteran and currently a mercenary, fighting in combat armour. Her career goal is to join the elite “Devastator” military unit; the best of the best. In order to further this goal, she hires on as a guard on a peculiar trading vessel run by an enigmatic captain. Apparently this captain is well connected, and the crew sees more action than seems logical.

Initially, I liked Devi. She makes no secrets about her ambition and goals, even to herself. She is blunt and straightforward to the point of rudeness, but nevertheless loyal and absolutely professional.

However, once the falling-in-love subplot kicks in, everything falls apart. The love interest has secrets (obviously) and this gets Devi into trouble. This could have been interesting, but I mostly found it tedious. It didn’t help that Devi’s behaviour once she fell for Rupert seemed very much at odds with her character as written in the first part of the book.

I get the feeling that Ms. Bach wants the ship and crew to be Firefly a bit too much, but this does not succeed. The dynamic between characters is wooden and most of them are cardboard cutouts. I could never see the logic behind their behaviour. I have a feeling that “all will be revealed” in future installments, but the author could at least have thrown the reader a bone on the overarching story of the trilogy.

One the plus side, the action scenes are a lot of fun.

2½Rosbochs

 

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen – Lois McMaster Bujold

VorkosiganGentlemanJoleandtheRedQueenThree years after the death of Aral Vorkosigan at the end of Cryoburn, Cordelia is still serving as vicereine of Barrayar’s Sergyar colony. Feeling a desire to have more children, she starts the gestation of embryo’s combining previously frozen ova and sperm from her and Aral. She also makes an unexpected offer to Aral’s former aide and now commanding Admiral of the Sergyar fleet, who also happens to have a very deep involvement with the family.

Any new Vorkosigan Saga novel is cause for loud squeals of delight from yours truly. True to form, Ms. McMaster Bujold delivers masterful prose and exceptional dialogue, leaving me chuckling on almost every page, and frequently re-reading selected passages.

There is not much action in this novel. It is really “just” about romance and moving on with life. I was conflicted as to whether this was necessarily a weakness. I certainly enjoyed it despite the lack of anything really happening. Ms. McMaster Bujold could write about the weather and still keep me entertained.

There’s also the matter of the somewhat blatant retcon of previous events, inserting a key character where before there was none. I’m willing to forgive the author for this one as well.

Perhaps the only key weakness of the novel is that it may be a hard read for anyone not at least vaguely familiar with the Vorkosigan Saga. Looking at in an uncharitable light, it is full of shameless fanservice. But fans should love it. I, for one, savoured every moment.

4Rosbochs

Outlander (Outlander I) – Diana Gabaldon

Outlander1OutlanderClaire Beauchamp Fraser is a nurse who has just been through World War II. She goes on a second honeymoone to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, a man she has met for only a few days during the war years. As she touches a stone in an ancient standing stone formation, she is transported back in time to the 1740s, a time which in Scotland was characterized by the Jacobite uprisings. She finds herself abducted by a band of Highland men and taken to Castle Leoch, where the locals are highly suspicious of her claims to be a woman of fine birth who has been robbed by highwaymen.

Despite the painstaking historical detail and the romantic nature of the setting, I found myself rapidly bored with this book. The use of the first person voice only works for me if the narrator is at least somewhat self-deprecating; preferably even snarky. Claire is neither of these things, and she comes off as quite a bit too serious. The romantic bent of the novel is also too strong, with Claire almost instantly attracted to the rugged Jaime, a handsome outlaw with a quiet demeanor and a well-muscled body. I gave up after a hundred pages or so.

2Rosbochs

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance – Lois McMaster Bujold

In the latest book set in the Vorkosiverse, Miles is conspicuously absent barring an amusing cameo. The protagonist is instead Miles’s cousin and close friend Ivan Vorpatril, a favorite secondary character in many of the earlier books. Ivan is mostly known for his somewhat overbearing mother, social secretary to the Emperor, his high birth but unwillingness to get close to the corridors of power, and his many successive girlfriends, none serious. While on the planet Komarr assisting the Chief of Military Operations on an inspection, now Captain Ivan Vorpatril receives an unexpected and unwelcome visitor, Byerly Vorrutyer, a part-time spy and old acquaintance of Ivan’s who specializes in ferreting out corruption in Barrayaran high society. Byerly leads Ivan to investigate a young lady on the run from a hostile  takeover in Jackson’s Whole, the definition of a Machiavellian society. Unsurprisingly, things blow up in Ivan’s face and he is found saddled with the young lady as a bride in order to protect her from both local security forces and outsystem bounty hunters. What follows when Ivan takes her back home to an encounter with his mother, and subsequently when parts of the young lady’s past resurface, makes for a caper of epic proportions.

Bujold is in super form here. The little ironies woven into descriptions and conversations made me chortle with pleasure and re-read certain passages over and over. The decision to explore the character of Ivan is an inspired one. He was always known to have a spine, even though he lacked the propensity of his cousin Miles to bash people over the head with it. His growing intimacy with Tej after their sudden wedding is marvelously portrayed, sweet without romantic comedy movie cheesiness, as are the complex family dynamics on both sides. This novel was a great pleasure to read for this Vorkosigan fan, and it should also be easily accessible for new readers.

Mucho Caliente – Francesca Prescott

Not my usual fare, this ended up in my hands because it was written by my neighbor’s sister. It is a romantic comedy about a recently divorced woman who moves to Ibiza to get away from her boring ex-husband. On the flight, she happens to sit next to Emilio Caliente, latin pop superstar. The latter is running away from his annoying manager and her demands. Naturally, our heroine is a huge fan. Hilarity ensues as she keeps running into him, her ideal sex-god man.

I wasn’t expecting much, but this book is very funny. Very far from the bodice-bursting romance novel I thought I would have to slog through. In tone, it is like a good romantic comedy film. Light-hearted, with a neurotic protagonist and a whole host of misunderstandings, Freudian slips and missed connections. Prescott’s characters are well rounded and funny. They feel real and, just like real people, evoke love, loathing, annoyance and exasperation. The plot is perhaps a bit convoluted, and explicitly designed for maximum hilarity and heartbreak, but it works. Prescott manages not to stray beyond the line into “just plain silly”. A “light summer read”? Perhaps, but I still found myself rooting whole-heartedly for our heroine. And that doesn’t happen if I’m not engaged in a book.

High Fidelity – Nick Hornby

I love the movie based on this novel, so I figured I had to read the book eventually. Hornby has a great writing style, very self-deprecating and funny in the way of understated comedians. The book is much darker than I imagined, but is a very good illustration of how most men (as far as I know) think of their lives, at least when they are young. The insecurity, the “leaving your options open” bit, the belief that relationships can stay forever in that first few dates mode. Our hero, Rob Fleming, is a bit older that most guys who ask themselves this question, which only adds to his plight.

So if you are a guy who wants a girl to understand how men think, give her this book and ask her to believe every word. Because it’s all true.

Winterfair Gifts – Lois McMaster Bujold

This short story forms an epilogue of sorts to Komarr and A Civil Campaign. It is told from the viewpoint of armsman Roic. A few days before Miles and Ekaterin’s wedding guests in the form of Miles’ friends from the Dendarii Free Mercenaries arrive. Taura in particular is focused on in a brief tale leading up to the wedding.

The story is cute, but would not be worth much if it hadn’t been tacked on to the end of the Miles in Love omnibus. It is certainly worth reading, and it forms a nice bookend to the macrostory of Miles and Ekaterin’s courtship, but it is not a good standalone.

This short story is collected in the “Miles in Love” omnibus.

A Civil Campaign – Lois McMaster Bujold

After the events of Komarr, Ekaterin returns to Barrayar to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Miles is more infatuated than ever. In the mist of the preparations for the Emperor’s wedding, he embarks on a campaign to win her heart. And screws up badly. Meanwhile, political intrigue lands him in trouble, and his brother Mark starts a bizarre business venture in the basement of Vorkosigan House. Much hilarity ensues.

McMaster Bujold herself describes Komarr as the romantic drama, while A Civil Campaign is the romantic comedy. It is definitely the funnies Vorkosigan book. The author was inspired by authors like Dorothy Sayers and Jane Austen for this comedy of manners. It is definitely a melding of Science Fiction with those romantic styles, and brilliantly done. The infamous dinner party scene is one of the most inspired and funniest passages I have ever read. McMaster Bujold has a talent for putting her characters in the deepest trouble. She seems to revel in it, never protecting them from embarassment or injury. This makes for greatly engaging stories.

This novel is collected in the “Miles in Love” omnibus.