Monday, September 29, 2014

Amazon Burning: Dramatic Red Alert With Compelling Characters

It’s been some time since a book has taken me to Brazil.  Those who used to read my previous blog, The Unmasked Persona's Reviews , would know that I reviewed several books by the widely revered classic Brazilian author Jorge Amado, that I’m interested in Brazilian history and in Afro-Brazilian religion.  Amazon Burning by Victoria Griffith also isn’t the first book I’ve read dealing with the need to preserve the fragile ecology of the Amazon Basin.  Its fragility isn’t addressed in this novel, but I thought I’d mention it before beginning my discussion of Griffith’s work.

Here’s the background on this issue. Many people aren’t aware that when all the trees are logged out of the Amazon jungle, there will be no topsoil left.  The entire area will become a vast desert.  Stripped of the jungle’s resources, the Brazilian economy will collapse.  Even worse, global warming will become irreversible.  See this Climate Warning From 2006. Preserving the jungle’s biological diversity is certainly important, but what is really crucial is preserving Brazil’s future and the future of humanity.  These are the reasons why the struggle of the heroic central characters of Griffith’s book is so urgent. 

I consider Amazon Burning a very timely red alert.  I received a free copy from the publisher in return for an honest review.


I must apologize for starting this review with a lecture.  Amazon Burning is not some ponderous academic study.  It’s actually a suspenseful romantic eco-thriller that begins with the murder of activist Milton Silva.  The point of view character is Emma Cohen, an idealistic journalism student at New York University who has left behind a major legal predicament that gradually unfolds over the course of the novel.  Like her crusading journalist father, Emma believes that her vocation is to right all wrongs through investigation and publication of every instance of inequality and injustice.  Until she came to Brazil, she hadn’t quite grasped how dangerous her career can be.  Griffith deals with Emma’s maturation along with the critical problems that she faces in the Amazon.  In many cases, this process of growing up entails a surrender to cynicism, but Emma’s commitment to her principles survives all her hardships. I found this really wonderful to behold.  By the end of the novel, Emma has become more resilient and a credit to her profession.

Another significant element in this book is the people that Griffith calls the Yanomami.  Elsewhere I have seen them named the Yanomamo.  The Yanomami/Yanomamo are only one of many indigenous groups that reside in the Amazon jungle.  Anthropologist Napoleon A. Chagnon romanticized them, but Griffith portrays the degradation of their environment and the decline of their health.  If you would like to learn more about them, I would recommend Spirit of the Rainforest which is written from their perspective.  Griffith shows that they aren’t passive victims.  When they become aware of their options, they are quick to take advantage of them.  I really liked seeing a bit of Brazilian indigenous culture in this book.  Griffith provides us a genuine sense of place.  I definitely felt transported to Brazil.

The romance took time to develop due to plausible barriers that resulted from the characters' circumstances.  Some readers might consider these barriers contrived, and might have preferred the course of true love to have been smoother.  Yet that would have interfered with the tension necessary in a thriller plot.  So I think that Griffith's decisions about the romance relationship were good ones.

Even though Amazon Burning has a number of strengths, I had doubts about a couple of details.  Emma is depicted as being able to see what is happening outside a plane while traveling in a cargo compartment.  I’ve been advised by co-blogger Tara, who knows a great deal about airplanes, that it’s highly unlikely that there would be windows in a cargo compartment.  More importantly, I wondered which judge would have allowed Emma, a defendant faced with a serious charge, to travel as far as Brazil while awaiting trial.  I kept on wanting her legal situation to be fully clarified. I didn’t feel that I ever understood how or why she had no restrictions on traveling in her position.   It could be that one or the other of her parents had officially posted bond and told the judge that they would make certain that she appeared in court, but I would have been happier if readers were told that up front. 

Finally, I had a disagreement with a statement that was made by one of the characters about capoeira.  He said that it was more like dance than a martial art and that it was “pretend fighting”.  That may be an accurate representation of that character’s practice of capoeira, but capoeira isn’t uniformly non-violent.  Capoeira can be beautiful in an exhibition, but so is a solo karate kata sequence.  That too may appear to be like a dance, but no one would argue that karate isn’t a genuine martial art.  Capoeira can actually be quite deadly despite appearances.  Please read Is Capoeira An Effective Martial Art?  I found it to be very informative article about the history and practice of capoeira.

Despite these relatively minor missteps, I really did enjoy Amazon Burning.  There were some clever red herrings provided for readers to chew on during the course of the murder investigation.  I never guessed who murdered Milton Silva until the truth was finally revealed close to the end of the novel.   

So Victoria Griffith has given us a successful mystery dealing dramatically with important themes, containing sympathetic characters who develop over the course of the narrative, and a credible representation of Brazil.


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