A Different Kind of Daughter (Pakistan)

by Maria Toorpaki

Courtesy of an Advanced Reader’s Copy from Auntie’s Bookstore.

book coverAnd I thought that Khalid Hosseini’s novel 1,000 Splendid Suns was hard to read. It just baffles me, the grip that chauvinism and entitlement have on the men of so many parts of the world. Allow me to reference Spokane, my town, for a moment:

When Robert Lee Yates was caught a few years ago (one of the worst serial killers in Washington State history), his daughter went on camera and said that while she was shocked and horrified that her father could have done these awful things–he was still her father and she still loved him. She still loved him! He killed over 18 prostitutes that we know of, and buried one in his backyard right under the noses of his wife and 5 children. He is a self-confessed necrophiliac, and yet his family professes to love him still!

map PakistanBy contrast, the narrator of this memoir mentions her mother watching a young girl being stoned to death for what we in the West view as a natural and trivial sexual contact, with her own father hurling the largest stone and being the coldest and most unforgiving in the face of her dying pleas. Because “his honor” has been shamed. Oh for God’s sake–grow up!

The Good News

However, the father in this book is exceptional. Were he a Pakistani or even a Syrian refugee, I would open my home to him in a second! He believes in women’s rights, allowing his wife to go to University, buying her a jeans jacket to wear around the house, and even teaching his children that the three most important words in the world are…

We the peopleWE THE PEOPLE

(If you were expecting I LOVE YOU, so was I! But this father shows it so strongly–he doesn’t need to say it too. Perhaps that is not the Waziri way.)

Yes, the father loves democracy. When little Maria sees that the life of girls is heavy and stifling and the life of boys is free and lovely, she takes all her elaborately brocaded and stiff dresses and burns them in the courtyard. She chops off her hair with a knife, and she tells her startled parents that from now on, her name is Ghengis Khan. And they allow it!

Memorial for murdered President Bhutto

Memorial for murdered President Bhutto

But you know that the time is going to come when Maria will no longer be able to pass as Ghengis. She’s already had some pretty awful things happen to her for daring to be a little girl who wants to play sports–she’s been spit on by adult men and cut with a riding crop across the face. (God help the truly LGBTQ person in Pakistan. It must be a living hell.)

Both Maria/Ghengis and her sister Ayesha (a more traditional girl) idealize their country’s Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, for her work with Pakistani girls, especially in tribal areas. They are devastated when she is murdered by extremists. As Maria/Ghengis remarks bitterly, in Pakistan, courage often gets you killed. But the little girls don’t give up. Ayesha’s father hauls her all over the country as a debate champion, and Maria/Ghengis becomes a squash star. But will their own countrymen allow them to fulfill their dreams? Read on to find out…

Taliban members in Northern Waziristan

Taliban members in Northern Waziristan

Final Rating: Five Squash Racquets: Chilling, and disturbing, but a necessary read and also a shining testament to courage, faith, and the power of belief. To fathers everywhere who believe in their daughters. My own father has always believed in my writing and supported it. (PS–thank you, Dad!)



Viking Warrior Rising (Sweden)

book cover*courtesy of an Advanced Reader’s Copy from Asa Maria Bradley, my dear friend and fellow writer, who chose to launch her first novel at Auntie’s Bookstore.

by Asa Maria Bradley

You know how, when you get done with an awesome series, you feel that kind of hollowness? A longing to re-enter the fantastic world you’ve been living in for 3 or 6 or 9 or 12 books, but you can’t, because you have read the words The End…?

And then you find another writer, with a similar but unique world and style, and you are sooooooooooooooooo excited?

If you love the paranormal romances of Christine Feehan and J.R.Ward, Asa’s Vikings and Valkyries series is your next find. And what a fun find it is!

Love in the Snow = Steaming

Malmo Sweden

Malmo, Asa’s home town

While I love the “Dark Warrior” series by Feehan, it drives me crazy that she can’t seem to grasp the ethnicity of Carpathian names. And while I love J.R. Ward’s “Black Daggerhood” series, I have to admit they are a bit “rape-y.”

Well, Asa’s series doesn’t have either of those flaws. Asa is Swedish herself, so she grew up with the legends of the Vikings and Valkyries, and tales of Ragnarok. She’s authentic as it gets, and she doesn’t make careless mistakes. (She once objected to a description of a scene in a Russian café by informing our friend John that there was no way, given the number of matchsticks he had used, to make the shape he had mentioned.) And, she is a strong woman, and dare I say, a feminist.

The Immortals book coverThe only comparable writer I can think of, as far as having strong female heroines, is new writer Joanna Brodsky, whose main character is a non-human Greek goddess fallen from grace, who patrols Manhattan. (Check out her book The Immortals, just published January 2016 .)

Now, back to the Norse. Asa’s background as a physics teacher lends her unique blend of science and magic a compelling, and believable twist.

The Plot

Naya is a fierce computer expert whose upbringing was a bit different…and involved a laboratory. A lab and a government from whom she is still trying to rescue her brother, Scott.

One night, while heading to her car, she sees a large man getting his butt kicked in an alley by some little rat-faced creatures and against her better judgment, and her habit, she steps in to help.

Viking Territory MapAs it turns out, the man is Leif, the leader of a band of warrior Vikings and Valkyries, sent to Earth by Odin to foil the plans of Loki to bring about Ragnarok. Oh, and it seems she is Leif’s intended mate–by kissing her, an ancient Norse bond and prophecy is triggered. If they don’t complete it, Leif will lose himself permanently to battle fury and become a berserker. So time is running out for them, and for Earth as well.

Viking EarringsBut in the meantime, there are still are feuds over sandwiches, chauvinism, campy dialogue and misunderstandings aplenty. Also a motorcycle chase. This is not a super-serious, dark novel. It is a light-hearted, sexy and fun read.

Final Rating

I can’t wait to read the next novel in the series! Yes, Asa is my friend, but even if I didn’t know her from Freya, I would still love this book.

Forget Sorrow (Taiwan)

by Belle Yang

One of the mysteries of the modern world, at least for young Americans, is how families and dynasties manage to pass on their wealth and their cultural knowledge. For me personally, the triggering town was a trip to visit the American South in my late 20s–people had lived there for generations and had a connection to place.

I, on the other hand, came from people with restless feet. Beginning in Denmark and Ireland, my people came to the Eastern shores of the New World and moved West with each generation.

The House of Yang, on the other hand, in this graphic novel, based in Manchuria, has endured for 8 generations and is ongoing. When Belle Yang, born in California and grown up Chinese-American, falls in love with the Rotten Egg, an American boyfriend psycho-stalker who shoots up her lawyer’s office and threatens to kill her, she must retreat to her parents’ house. It offers both protection and confines that she chafes against.

But she gets to know her father and his history better, and comes to terms with her creativity. Her father was born in Manchuria and escapes to Taiwan after the Japanese occupation ends. From there, he makes his way to America, where he feels he belongs, like he never has before.

What I Loved About This Graphic Novel

Gosh, so many things.

  1. When I went through graduate school at Eastern Washington University, there was a Chinese man in my program. He told me that English to him felt very “flat” and one-dimensional. He explained that Chinese characters look like the idea they represent, so the Kanji for a book looks like a book. He said Chinese felt and looked three-dimensional to him, which of course was hard for me to imagine. But that’s why I feel that the graphic novel format, with illustrations that illuminate the characters’ emotions, are more true to the story. It feels like and extra layer. It was cool.
  2. The Chinese man also told me that, in China, physical or mental handicaps were heavily stigmatized–that village people considered the disabled to have done something awful to bring calamity on themselves (al la the Puritans) and so the village would shun them, lest it was catching.

In the book, Third Brother has to outrun the Communists as a Magistrate, and he gets frostbite in his toes. Some have to be amputated. He is never the same again. (Interestingly, a village doctor of Chinese medicine tells him that a Western doctor would have amputated his entire foot…) Third Brother is greedy, like  a goose. He is selfish. He is a glutton. Nonetheless, the father character loves him. Unfortunately, he comes to a bad end, earned through his actions but not necessarily deserved. Chairman Mao is to blame.

  1. I loved the complicated family relationships. The history that is explained–which I never learned about in American textbooks. Seniority is huge, but so is the grandparents’s “favorite son.” Ugh.
  2. Neither the Nationalists or the Communists are portrayed as totally good. Even Pearl Buck’s “red-beard” bandits have a good side–if you see them and fire a rifle shot, if they don’t want to fight you they get off their horses and walk. It was honest, it was raw, it was painful. Spectacularly good writing.

Some Caveats

It was sometimes confusing for me to try to figure out who was who and that was because so many of the characters had numbers instead of names, Chinese-style. I kept confusing Third Uncle with Third Brother, for example.

Just like the declensions of Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia are the thermoclines of family ties and societal ties. As the Communists take over from the Nationalists who take over from the Japanese, the fortunes of the House of Yang decline, decline, decline. But the peasants who have benefitted from their generosity over the decades do not have to reciprocate now that the tables are turned and the Patriarch has been labeled a “Capitalist”.

One of Belle Yang’s great-uncles is a Taoist, one is a staunch Buddisht. How will their philosophies affect their actions in time of crisis?

Who is selfish, and who is generous? And what does family really mean?

The Final Countdown

Seriously, I stayed up late reading through to the last page.

Somewhere in the telling of her father’s story, Belle Yang becomes strong. And that was absolutely satisfying, no matte how sad the tale of Forget Sorrow  may have been. The phrase that she was named for, the phrase that she tried to write out of her father’s story. No more sorrow–just a happy life in America with the rest of us–modern people–looking forward to the new age.

Rating: Oh boy, did I love this graphic novel. Could not put it down. Five watermelons being sold by vendor Second Uncle with his knobbly knees and his philosophy of non=attachment!

Island of the Colorblind (Guam)

book coverby Oliver Sacks

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

A famous neurologist (Sacks) , a Norwegian colorblind man (Knut), and a scientist named Bob go into a sakua bar. They drink the slimy, grey, pulpy liquid and feel really peaceful and stare at the stars all night. Some see colors, one sees only luminescence.

Actually the title of this book is a misnomer (at least for my blog) because the colorblind bits take place on Pohnpei and Pingelap in the Federated States of Micronesia. What the Chamorro people of Guam and Rota (and Saipan and a single place in Japan) suffer from, in great numbers, is a mysterious and fearful illness called lytico-bodig. It presents in a number of ways: like Alzheimer’s, like Parkinson’s, like Lou Gerig’s Disease (ALS) and/or like the post-encephalitic illness many of Sacks’ patients suffered from in the movie Awakenings. (Westerners call it ALS-PDC.)

Cycad trees


There are a bunch of theories as to why the Chamorro people suffer the disease in such high numbers–one theory is that it is somehow related to their use of a particular seed from the jungle. From the cycad tree–an ancient the dinosaurs may have munched on–it’s poisonous until the seeds are thoroughly soaked. Hm. Ancient neurotoxins? Bring it on!

What I Loved About This Book

This book is a botanist’s dream: full of not only beautiful descriptions of the mysterious jungles on the islands of Guam, Rota, and others, but with lovely  hand-sketches as well.

beach in GuamThe search for disease origins fascinated me, as well as the descriptions of the people and families living with the disease. The relief on Tomasa’s face; the satisfaction in her eyes when Doctor John says that her daughter is in no danger of getting the lytico-bodig: nobody in the younger generation is getting it, thank God. They don’t know why, but it is enough.

And What I Didn’t

Even more than some tropical islands, Guam has had a rough colonial history, having been the property of Germany, Spain, Japan, and now America. And I was totally indignant, as was the author, when he and his Chamorro colleague Phil were harassed when wanting to enter the U.S. military base to swim at the best beach on the island, now off-limits to most. The site where the most beautiful and oldest village in Guam was destroyed by American and Japanese fighting in WWII. With the graveyard of the Chamorro people’s relatives and ancestors, and they get hassled every time they want to go pay their respects. On their own land, where they have lived since 200 B.C.

StarfishSometimes I’m so proud of my country I just can’t stand it. Sigh.

Oh, and get this: Many of the power outages on Guam are really snake-outs. Brown tree-climbing snakes get up to the top of power poles and fry themselves, causing a power outage. Courtesy of a U.S. Navy ship during WWII. (I have to wonder, since humans are so good at making species go extinct, why we couldn’t have managed that here.) There are no native birds on Guam anymore–no birds at all, in fact, thanks to these non-indigenous snakes. Ugh.

Guam beachCaveat: I would have preferred that the meaty 100 pages of endnotes had been footnotes instead, so I could have enjoy them as I was going along.

Nonetheless–a fabulous read, part travelogue, part medical mystery, part history, a little bit of comedy thrown in. Really different from Sacks’ other books.

The Good Muslim (Bangladesh)

book coverby Tahmima Anam

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

Wow. A great look at the complex lives of an ordinary single-parent family in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Rich with the sounds, scents and sights of life in Bengal.

Maya and her brother were freedom fighters in the war for Bangladeshi independence in the early 1970s. Now, they must try to put their lives back together. When Maya’s brother takes a right turn into extreme Islam, she refuses to accept it, and tries to rescue her brother’s son, Zaid, from the extremist lifestyle.

She wants her brother to feed him better, look after the scabs on his skin, see that he’s washed and learns not to cheat at cards or steal money from people’s purses, not to lie, and most of all, to send him to school.

MAP OF BANGLADESHBut control isn’t love, as Maya soon finds out. Although she herself is partially seduced by the simple faith of the “people upstairs”, she despises their ignorance in turning their backs on Western ideals, Western furniture, books, and light sockets. She refuses to see anything good in her brother’s faith, or to acknowledge how important it is to Sohail.

Can We Read It? Yes, We Can

The style of writing is easy –no purple prose here, just good storytelling that pulls you right through the plot even when what you’re reading is horrific. Like all the Bangladeshi women who were raped by Pakistani soldiers and now can’t return home to their families. (Many elect to fly to Pakistan, to leave their “shame” behind them.) Like the village woman who is given 101 lashes by a group of village men when she has a Down’s Syndrome baby (the husband accuses her of cheating, since the baby looks like a “Chink”.)

Fort in Daka

Fort in Dhaka

In these days of Islamaphobia, it is refreshing to be in the head of Maya’s brother Sohail, who finds a peace in Islam that has eluded him ever since the terrible war. And the terrible thing he did. To feel the soothing kindness of Sister Khadija. But to also feel, through Maya’s eyes, the blind selfishness of Sohail, who sacrifices his son’s needs before his own. Who sends his son back to the madrasa out of arrogance and selfish uncaring, when his son has already told him what is happening there.

The resolution of the novel, after a tragedy, is perfect and left me appreciating one of those “ah ha” moments that happen in life all too rarely. If this were just a novel of clashing faiths, changing culture, and warring countries, it would have been ok. But because the author focused on the family element, the love and hate and control and disgust and expectation and exasperation and tolerance and joy and the whole juicy, hairy, complicated mango, it was great.

Five spicy samosas with lots of chilis!