Thursday 19 December 2013

In the shadow of the banyan by Vaddey Ratner




Vaddey fictionalises her own story of being a child during the days of the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia from the fall of Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese liberation. This is the story of what happens to the country through the eyes of a child and the microcosm of what happens to her family. Obviously this is a powerful story and Ratner tells it well. At the heart of the book is her relationship with her father, a poet, and the power of words, especially stories.


Overall – Good fictional account of life under the Pol Pot regime
Beyond the killing fields by Sydney Schanberg
Schanberg was a journalist for the New York Times covering the war in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over the country. The Killing fields, as book & film, is a very powerful story of friendship and survival and is the story of Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist. Pran was left behind when all the foreigners were ejected from Cambodia and lived in the then closed Khmer Rouge regime as Pol Pot enacted his Year 0 social experiment on a grand scale. I finished this on the bus on the way to Phnom Penh and visiting S-21 and the Killing Fields with it so fresh in my mind was an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget. However it doesn’t need to be read in situ, it is a brilliant book full of stirring writing and if you haven’t seen the film I thoroughly recommend it as it is a very good adaptation. This book adds some of Schanberg’s other war journalism in Vietnam & Bangladesh as well as his coverage of MIA US servicemen left behind by the US government and his thoughts on the war in Iraq. The message of the book is that war is never clinical, that “collateral damage” is a sanitisation of murder and that the abstraction of making decisions way behind the front lines contributes to atrocity.
Overall – Powerfully intelligent writing on the subject of war. Highly recommended. Have a box of tissues to hand when reading though.
The deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu
This sequel follows on from the first book after a few years have passed. It concentrates initially more on Roen’s wife Jill but soon expands and takes in much more of the world and the Genjix versus Prophus war. As all good sequels the action is more intense the stakes are higher and there are lots of great cameos from characters from the first book as well as interesting new characters introduced. My only gripe is that it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger and I don’t know when the next instalment will come. This is a rollicking good read with all the same humour and gripping action of the first but cranked up even higher. This is panning out to be a great series, I am impatient for the next one.
Overall – if you like [lives of Tao] you’ll love [Deaths of Tao]
Dream London by Tony Ballantine
A fantastic well imagined world where London has opened a door somehow into an alien, Fey realm and weirdness is commonplace. <i> In Dream London the city changes a little every night and the people change a little every day.</i> In a scene reminiscent of Burroughs the book opens with our “hero” being awoken by the sounds of psychedelic salamanders eating and is confronted with being poisoned by a rival pimp. Something is coming, the parks have hidden themselves away, no-one can escape, the trains bring new people in but don’t allow people to leave. Captain Jim Wedderburn is recruited by opposing forces, those that wish to expand the influence of the inimical forces and those that wish to free London. Captain Jim Wedderburn is out for himself though and is not a nice man, a pimp and criminal. All to the good but it is something that Ballantine squanders, in a place where it seems that anything can happen there appears to be no jeopardy, we don’t really care for the protagonist so putting him in danger, especially self-inflicted danger is not that interesting and Wedderburn is an oddly passive lead also. The denouement happens pretty much off screen after our protagonist is told “we’ll take it from here” and we don’t see the action of the climax having stayed with him. Yuk. And boy is it misogynist, Dream London forces women back into submissive roles, they’re not allowed real jobs (they can be sexy secretaries though it seems) and there appear to be a lot of prostitutes. A US agent come to investigate Dream London starts out sassy but is eventually willing to sell her body. Double yuk. All the women our hero meets, apart from said US Agent, Immediately fall head over heels in love with him, they are all, with one “crone” exception, incredibly beautiful and Ballantine spends many sentences extolling swelling bosoms, perfectly round bottoms, shapely legs etc. etc. you get the picture. There is a good story, and some nice imagery here but it is overshadowed by bad plotting, poor writing and disgusting misogyny. One to avoid I reckon. Oddly looking at the reviews on Amazon I seem to be in a minority, it gets universally good reviews. I am mystified why.
Overall – Some good stuff but very much outweighed by the bad.
Crash by Guy Haley
In the future 0.01% of the population own the vast majority of the wealth and the market is rigged to keep it that way. This is not power in the hands of corporations it is power in the hands of a few families. These “Pointer” families have realised that Earth is ecologically doomed and have identified a number of planets that could support human life and build a fleet of arks to take key family members and personnel. Dariusz is a geo-engineer that has no chance of joining the ships until he receives an offer from a man in a bar to get him aboard one of the ships in return for a “small act of sabotage” which he readily agrees to so that he can take his son with him. The ship crashes on a planet that is not their target and is tidally locked to the star, one side eternal night, the other perpetual searing daylight. It is also already inhabited by a number of strange and dangerous lifeforms. The colonists have to build their own society from scratch whilst struggling to survive. This is a fantastic space opera that reminded me of my love for SF in my teens. The plot is interesting, the characters are well drawn, the action is well imagined and described. I didn’t really like the ending for which it drops a half star but I think it was a tonal shift that didn’t work for me.
Overall – good old fashioned (but not old) space opera, a great read if you’re into that sort of thing, which it appears I still am…


  1. The two Combodia books sound good, I will have to get at least one of them. Geoff Ryman's 'The King;s Last Song' is another great novel about the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge I can absolutely recommend.

  2. Cheers Dave I'll have to track it down...


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