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Posts tagged ‘Asia Books’

When Good Writers Go Bad: The Mystery of John Sandford

I popped into the Emporium shopping center in Bangkok last week, looking to kill some time before meeting a friend for dinner. Browsing the increasing limited bookshelves at the Asia Books branch there (unless you’re looking for the latest bestsellers, forget about finding anything remotely old), I was pleased to see the new John Sandford novel, Storm Front. Or was this the new one? The title looked quite familiar. I checked the publication date, which was 2013, so it appeared to be a new book, but I’ve been burned before, so I scanned the other titles listed under Sandford’s name. Ah, there it was: the similarly titled Storm Prey. It was confusing enough when all the books in the Lucas Davenport series had “Prey” in the title, but now Sandford seems to be borrowing words from past titles for his new books too!


I’m a big fan of John Sandford’s novels. I’ve read the entire “Prey” series, all the Kidd books (the artist turned computer hacker), the handful of one-off titles that he’s written, and everything in the recent Virgil Flowers series. This new novel is also part of the Virgil Flowers series, but fair warning to longtime fans; this one’s a stinker. By the third chapter it was obvious that something was more than a bit “off” about this novel. Not only was the dialogue flat and sophomoric, but the characters themselves were shallow and their actions inconsistent. Not at all like previous Sandford novels. All of which leaves the reader to wonder: Did John Sandford even write this novel?

For those who have read the other books in the Virgil Flowers series, you will have noticed an “Acknowledgement” — one could even call it a disclaimer — preceding the first chapter in each novel, telling the reader that the book was “written with” or “in cooperation with” some old friend or fishing buddy of Sandford’s. In the case of this new novel, Sandford says in the acknowledgement: “I wrote this novel with help from my partner, Michele Cook, journalist and screenwriter, and now a novelist.”

But to me, it’s still not clear: Has Cook written another novel, or is this one her first effort? And if so, why is her name not on the cover along with Sandford’s? In past episodes of the Virgil Flowers series, the influence of any outside collaborator was subtle at best. The books were consistent enough in quality that it seemed like the same person was writing them all. But this time around the collaborative effect is jarring. This novel doesn’t flow or have the same feel as other novels he’s written. Sandford says that he wrote this book “with help” from Cook, but to me the novel reads like something else entirely, as if Cook wrote the book with only a slight bit of input from Sandford.


The Virgil Flowers character has always been an engaging protagonist in Sandford’s novels, delighting readers with his wit, zest for life, shameless flirting, and dedication to the task at hand. Virgil may act like a goofball, but he’s pretty bright guy and always catches the bad guy. In this novel, however, Virgil comes off as more of an inept buffoon. The story itself is also not up to the quality of previous novels, lacking Sandford’s skillful plotting and deft use of dialogue. At times, the events in this novel are so absurd that they venture into Carl Hiaasen territory, yet it’s never as funny as something that Hiaasen would write. Instead it’s just weak. But I kept plowing through the book, intent on finishing it. Instead of enjoying the experience, like I normally do, I was just hoping it would end soon, willing it to end. But the story kept going on and on and on, any sort of climax remaining frustratingly elusive, much of the dialogue descending into stupidity.

Having co-authors seems to be in vogue nowadays. James Patterson is notorious for doing this; thanks to frequent co-author billing, he was credited with writing 13 novels last year. He’ll probably have as many this year too. The word “ridiculous” springs to mind. Clive Cussler is another veteran author who now almost always shares co-billing with another writer —although good old Clive’s name always jumps out in a much bigger font!


If John Sandord is going to keep writing this series “with help” from others, or allowing someone else to write most of the book, then he and the publisher needs to acknowledge that on the COVER of the book, not in small print buried inside the book where a potential buyer won’t see it … until it’s too late.


Monks & Politics

I popped into a branch of Asia Books last week to hunt down a copy of the new Neil Young biography that one of my customers said they had seen. I was ecstatic to find that book (and more about that in a later post), but I was also shocked to see another book in stock: Burma’s Plea by Dimitra Stasinopoulou.


The book was displayed behind the counter, but it was one of those huge coffee table-sized photo books so it was very easy to notice. My mouth must have dropped open when I saw the cover photo: a huge shot of one of the novice monks from Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, a monastery that I visit frequently in Shan State’s Nyaungshwe. Perhaps “frequently” is an understatement. I usually drop by Shwe Yan Pyay on a daily basis when I’m in Nyaungshwe, taking donations of fresh fruit and snapping photos, sometimes chatting with the Abbot (Saya Daw), the novice monks, or senior monks. I’ve been going there for the better part of decade and in recent years have taken groups of the monks on trips to places in the area such as Kakku, Pindaya, and Taunggyi. They’re a nice, polite bunch of kids and the Saya Daw and his assistant monks do a fine job of educating and taking care of them.


So anyway, I see this huge book and the cover photo was clearly taken at Shwe Yan Pyay, and even the novice monk looks familiar; I’m just flabbergasted by the whole thing. But what I found most unsettling was the book title, Burma’s Plea, along with a big quote plastered on the cover: “Please use your freedom to promote ours.”


That’s more than a little creepy. I can understand and even empathize with the desire to promote “freedom” and other human rights issues in the country I know as Myanmar (I’ll leave the name debate alone for now; that’s something I’ve written about in the past), but I find it troubling that they are using the photo of a young novice monk to highlight their human rights agenda, no matter how righteous it may be. What does this young monk have to do with promoting freedom? You can rest assured that novice monks like this kid have scant knowledge of politics or human rights issues. Yes, many older monks in Myanmar are known to voice their political opinions and some have marched in various protests in recent years (witness the famous, but misnamed, “Saffron Revolution” in 2007), but novice monks from Shan State have not been among the participants. This book, published in 2011, looks like a gorgeous one (see the “YouTube” link below), containing 407 pages of photographs that highlight various parts of the country. While the photos may be captivating they don’t seem to focus on “freedom.” In any case, the author and/or publisher really should not have used a photo of a novice monk on the cover to make a political statement.


And what’s with that horrible book title? Burma’s Plea? It almost puts the locals on the same pitiful level as beggars: Help us because we can’t help ourselves! I have a problem with Westerners sticking their noses where they don’t belong, particularly when it comes to domestic political issues in other countries. I look at any sort of intervention or “assistance,” no matter how dire the situation may appear, to be the wrong course of action. To title a book “Burma’s Plea” makes it sound like “those poor pitiful people” can’t fight for their rights without the benevolent assistance of Westerners. I think that most people in Myanmar have enough pride that they don’t want to be seen as helpless in the eyes of the rest of world. That’s not to say that they don’t appreciate — or need — development work and humanitarian assistance, but whatever political problems the country may have, let them work it out amongst themselves without know-it-all Westerners trying to butt in and dictate the “proper” way to make changes or do things.


I’m also still not clear where the proceeds from the sale of this book are going. On the website of The Border Consortium (an organization that has an office in Bangkok) it states that:

“This private edition is available in Thailand from TBBC’s Bangkok office for 1,500 baht each. Dimitra has generously agreed that proceeds of books sold by TBBC in Thailand will be used for TBBC activities.”

And those “activities”, judging from what they say on their website, include a lot of worthwhile projects. But a news report on the website, states that “funds from the sale by the TBBC will be donated to Burma Campaign UK.” Now that gets a little trickier. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of Burma Campaign UK. They are one of those organizations that used to strongly discourage (condemn might be a better word) tourists from visiting Myanmar, deeming it not only politically incorrect but tantamount to enriching the coffers of the military junta. But in 2010, after Aung San Suu Kyi (along with her NLD party) changed her tune and decided that tourism ain’t such an evil thing after all, the folks at Burma Campaign UK, in parrot-like fashion, followed her lead and no longer opposed the idea of tourists visiting the country. Except for package tourists: they were still evil and were helping the generals get richer. At least that’s the opinion of Burma Campaign UK. Their heart may be in the right place, but I think that the strident, no-compromising stance of groups like Burma Campaign UK has done more harm than good over the past 20 years.


During one of my trips to Mandalay I saw a shocking reminder of just how negative and counter-productive that these “campaigns” can be. I was visiting the Moustache Brothers (the famous dance and comedy troupe who are very politically active, two the “brothers” having spent time in prison) at their house one afternoon. In between serving me tea, Lu Zaw (the “funny one”) played a DVD that had a public service announcement produced by Burma Campaign UK. It was in such bad taste, and catered to such pathetic stereotypes, that I was appalled. I don’t even think Lu Zaw — who has always encouraged tourists to visit his country and see the situation for themselves — was properly aware of just how insulting and one-sided that this video message was. It certainly wasn’t going to help his business or encourage anyone to visit Myanmar.

You have to wonder what organizations like this do with all the donations that they receive (consider their overhead, for starters: they have to pay healthy salaries for their director and staff members, rent an office, etc.) and how much of the money really goes to helping the people in Myanmar/Burma? On their website, they state their goal as:

“We play a leading role in raising awareness about the situation in Burma, and pressuring the international community to take action in support of the people of Burma.

Okay, those appear to be admirable goals on the surface, but what does “pressuring the international community to take action” involve exactly? More boycotts and sanctions? A lot of good that did! In other words; not at all. Meanwhile, all those “misguided tourists,” ones who defied calls for a boycott, visited the country over the past two decades, met many local people, and were able to put money directly into those people’s pockets, something that groups like Burma Campaign UK could never do.


Adventures in English

For those who native language is not English, learning the language can be a challenging, frustrating, and sometimes baffling process. And for anyone born in Asian countries, learning English can be even more of a challenge. In addition to trying to pronounce words correctly, most Asians face the added challenge of learning an entirely new alphabet. In Thailand for example, we don’t have ABCs, but instead write with characters such as:  ก   ข   ค


Despite such linguistic hurdles, you would expect the media, government agencies, and big businesses in Asia to be able to use English correctly, especially when they are trying to communicate with English-speaking residents or tourists. Alas, that’s rarely the case here in Thailand. Walk around Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport and have fun picking out the mistakes and/or puzzling wording on posted signs. Look at the website of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, or even those of daily newspapers such as the Bangkok Post or The Nation for more odd English usage. Mistakes run rampant.


There was a short article in Thursday’s edition of the Bangkok Post about a “Children Festival” that a local chain of bookshops, Asia Books, is holding this month. Thailand-based author Pongpol Adireksarn (a former politician who writes under the name of Paul Adirex) will, according to the article, “recount interesting stories from his experience of travelling the world, seeing and living with wild animals.” Living with wild animals? And here we thought the Red Shirts were difficult neighbors to have! Ole Paul needs to write more about his experiences “living with wild animals.” Or perhaps they were just Liverpool fans.


Asia Books, who specialize in selling English language books, is calling their promotion “Uncle Paul with Adventure Story.” Huh? Wouldn’t it have been better to call their event “Adventure Stories with Uncle Paul” or “Uncle Paul Reads Adventure Stories”? But no, some sixth grade graduate working for Asia Books, who still can’t grasp the concept of plurals, has decided to call it “Uncle Paul with Adventure Story.” Pathetic.


The article goes on to note that “as part of the festival children can enjoy wild animal coloring activities with equipment provided by Stabilo in every Asia Books branch from noon to 5pm daily until the end of the month.” I have no idea who or what Stabilo is, or what sort of “equipment” they are providing, but that sentence conjures up vivid images of kids running around with paint guns, delightfully spraying colorful stripes on tigers and monkeys as they leap around the room. The potential for total chaos is ripe. I think it might be wise to stay away from those Asia Books branches until this potentially insane promotion has run its course.


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