Sunday, December 25, 2016

Book Review - "In the Company of the Courtesan" by Sarah Dunant

After reading Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, I always wanted to read another novel by Sarah Dunant. At some Goodreads friends’ nudge, I decided to pick this one up.

Throughout the first three-quarters of the book I was more emotionally twined with the character of the dwarf Bucino than I would care to admit. The fact that he is also the first-person narrator is supposed to give immediacy and sense of reality to the scenes and things happening to him, but I must confess that I consciously and stubbornly clung to my skepticism. However, by the time I reached the denouement, I was obviously already too invested in him to be able to detach myself from his pain and anguish, or hold back my tears. That Dunant is a brilliant writer needs no further proof.

The plot would seem simple enough but nonetheless enthralling: a famed courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf Bucino must escape the carnage of Rome’s invasion by foreign powers and are forced to find their footing again in prospering Venice, where they meet their friends and foes. With their loss of a precious jewel, we are led down a path of intrigue behind a veil of fog when Fiammetta’s healer and friend – a blind hunchback called La Draga – starts to snatch our attention. From that point on, I was loath to put the book down. The ending didn’t surprise as much as it saddened me.

Apart from being a skillful storyteller, the author is also adept at painting a vivid picture of 16th century urban Venice. In true historical fiction form, real historical characters abound in the novel to enhance the sense of place and time: painter Tiziano Vecellio (or Titian), engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, writer Pietro Aretino, painter Giulio Romano, and healer Elena Crusichi (fictionalized as La Draga).

I’m giving this novel 3.7 stars. [Warning: the language may be a bit raunchy for some readers’ taste.]

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Book Review - "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu

I read the Chinese version with English translation. I was most impressed with this observation: that winning every war is not the best scenario; the most ideal scenario is where one manages to repel an enemy without fighting. The other theory I found convincing is that a shrewd fighter would choose his men wisely and would know how to ride the prevailing situation. Most of the contents would seem to be practical common sense.

The keynote of the first chapter ~ all warfare is based on deception ~ seems to tally with the last chapter, which is about the use of spies.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Book Review - "The Peach Blossom Fan" by Kong Shangren (桃花扇 - 孔尚任)

I read the English version of this famous classical Chinese play set in the late Ming/early Qing dynasty. The translators did a superb job, considering the difficult classical Chinese language and the numerous historical allusions, which are not easy to grasp even for the average Chinese person.

The story is about a late Ming courtesan's struggles to stay loyal to her true love despite villainous attempts by self serving power mongers to tear the lovers apart. It reflects on the stark contrast between the courtesan's strong-willed patriotism and the traitorous deeds of an avaricious and corrupt clique at the Southern Ming court, whose total lack of morals and internecine feud ultimately led to the demise of the Southern Ming Pretender's reign.

I loved the historical background of the play, as well as the poetic renderings of much of the dialogues, which add to the poignancy of the story. I kept referring to the original Chinese edition to check out the beautiful poetry.

Overall, it was a 5 star read.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Book Review - "The Book and the Sword" (書劍恩仇錄) by Jin Yong (金庸)

I had read this in Chinese in my childhood, along with other Jin Yong martial arts novels. The image of the virtuous hero Chen Jialuo stuck in my mind.

Update (Sept. 14, 2016) - I'm reading the English version.

Update (October 8, 2016) - After flipping through a few pages of the English version, I became frustrated as I couldn't recognize the names of the characters due to the "pinyin" romanization (my recollection is in Cantonese). Otherwise, the translation is well done. I'm going to re-read the Chinese version.

Update (December 6, 2016) ~ I've finished rereading the Chinese version of the novel. Almost half a century after my first read, I still found this novel magical! The author skillfully weaves together three main storylines: that of the resistance movement against the Qing rulers by a powerful clique called the Red Flower Society; that of the enigmatic birth secret of Qianlong Emperor who, as it turns out, is related to the protagonist Chen Jialuo, the head of the Red Flower Society; and that of the Xinjiang Uighur tribe's loss and recovery of their sacred scriptures. A convoluted love quadrangle forms between the protagonist, Qianlong and two Uighur sisters. Apart from these key storylines, there are several sub stories about some of the Red Flower Society's members, who are all veteran martial arts experts. The central theme is about honor and integrity of the individual, and loyalty and comradeship of the brotherhood.

For me, this was unquestionably a 5 star historical fantasy read.