Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Books (page 1 of 13)

Nuclear Blues

Martin 001Bradley Martin, the man who wrote the book on North Korea with his Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leaderwas in Seoul recently at What the Book? Bookstore talking about his new book, Nuclear Blues.

His new book is a thriller set in North Korea that has everything from evangelists running around, nuclear missiles, a blues musician, Heck Davis, investigating the death of his best friend, to a surprise appearance by Kim Jong-un. It’s a non-stop geopolitical thriller that’s a lot of fun to read. While I was reading it, I was thinking to myself, “you know, this could happen. It certainly is plausible.”

With North Korea and Kim Jong-un in the news so much these days, this is a timely novel from Martin. I doubt Kim Jong-un will have this book on his nightstand for some late night reading…but who knows?

Perfume River

51u0D0URQ+L._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Perfume River

By Robert Olen Butler

Hardcover: 272 pages

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; 1st edition (September 6, 2016)

Of all the modern writers I admire and who have inspired me the most, Robert Olen Butler would be at the top of the list. Butler’s latest, Perfume River is a literary tour de force. Beautiful, haunting, and evocative, I have never been moved by a novel as much as I have been moved by this one.

The story about two brothers, Bob and Jimmy, and their strained relationship with their father is the story’s critical mass. The story moves seamlessly back and forth through time as both brothers come to terms with their dying father and the spiritual wounds of the Vietnam War which split apart the family. What’s so moving about the relationship between the father and his sons, is how Bob and Jimmy represent the polarity of the war: Bob the one who goes off to fight to win his father’s favor and Jimmy who wants nothing to do with the war and runs off to Canada. Butler could have stopped here, and the book would have been a fine one as the two brothers in later years reconcile those differences. However, Butler doesn’t. Instead, he takes it to the next level with the real story here: laying to rest the ghosts of war.

One early scene that resonated most for me was on the eve of the Tet Offensive, and the older Bob tries to get back to the compound, and he hides in a banyan tree. It reminded me of this Buddhist statuary at a temple in Ayuthaya, Thailand, where the roots of a banyan tree had grown around it. This moment in the story was both gripping as it was almost surreal the way Butler described it. For Bob, this was a defining moment not only for trying to survive Tet but also the deep, dark secret he will carry with him through life.

The story is also a microcosm of the nation coming to grips with the war and the wounds that still exist. Even more, is the significance of the character of the other Bob, himself a veteran of Afghanistan. As America continues to find itself ensnared in that conflict, the character of the second Bob is a grim reminder of another generation of young men and women sent into harm’s way.

For many of us, who were not in Vietnam, we come with our own perceptions of the war from the movies and documentaries we have seen and the literature we have read, which is good and bad. But my read of Perfume River…there’s this human element with the two Bobs and Jimmy that again, and this is just my perception of the story, has really helped me understand the war and the lives it took…physically, mentally, and spiritually.

It’s hard to say if a novel could provide some semblance of closure for the men still fighting that war, but I believe Perfume River does just that. If anything it serves to remind us of the generation of young men who still carry the scars of war with them. If we are ever truly going to heal as a nation and lay to rest the ghosts of war, it takes authors like Butler to remind us that it can be done.

The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

Breen's BookThe New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

By Michael Breen

Hardcover: 480 pages

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1st edition (April 4, 2017)

When it comes to writing about Korea—its people, culture, and history—there is no one better up to that onerous task than Michael Breen who has devoted most of his life observing and writing about the country. In his latest book, The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation, Breen does what he knows best. Sorry, if I seem a little bias, but I have known Breen since 2000, when I started writing feature articles for the Korea Times. In all those years, there is no else who can come up to his level when it comes to talking and writing about Korea.

However, this is more than just an outsider’s take on Korea. To be sure, Breen with journalistic flair and cultural sensitivity offers an in-depth look at modern Korea that is unrestrained and honest. This is more than a history of modern Korea, though. Breen endeavors throughout this impressive tome to help readers understand who the Koreans really are through anecdotal musings and historical evidence.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the opening chapter which talks about the Sewol tragedy when a ferry sank off the southern coast of the peninsula in the spring of 2014. This was a rather bold on the part of Breen to lead off with this tragedy, but this chapter and his delicate, cultural understanding set the tone for the rest of the book when he tries to make sense of why something like the tragedy and its aftermath could happen. I remembered when this tragedy happened and immediately on Facebook, foreigners in Korea started to chime in about “their take” on the accident and the “culture” that allowed it to happen. Breen, though, the acute observer of Korea that he is, can analyze something critically without being shackled by his deep appreciation for the country. In the process, he helps the reader understand the Korean psyche and character without running the risk of being bias.

One of the things that I liked most about the book were all of his personal anecdotes and his loving attention to detail. Even for this old Korean hat who has lived and worked in South since 1990, I learned some new things about my adopted home. Whether it’s talking about why there’s a wastepaper basket next to a toilet in a public restroom or the manner in which Koreans number and name their streets (one of the first things I learned when I came to Korea and took a taxi—in the days before GPS—was always to make sure I could tell the taxi driver a landmark to help with navigations) Breen’s observations and analyses make for some very enjoyable and insightful reading.

Another thing I liked about the book was how he divided the sections and named the chapters, which helps readers develop a better understanding of Korean than by saying this happened, and then this happened because something else happened. We want to know why it took Korea as long as it did to finally rise from the ashes of the Korean War and become the nation that it is today. We want to know why the Chaebol continue to have a stranglehold on the Korean economy and culture. We want to know why men like Park Chung-hee and Kim Dae-jung played pivotal roles in South Korean politics and their legacies that remain until today. We want someone to explain why K-Pop has become an international phenomenon. And yes, we want to know why something like the Sewol incident could happen.

If there was one book that I would recommend to anyone thinking about coming to Korea to work, study, or simply visit, I would recommend Breen’s book hands down. There’s no one writing about Korea these days more knowledgeable and understanding of Korea than Michael Breen.

Hot off the Presses!

Bureau 39 First BatchThe first batch of Bureau 39 arrived in Daejeon today, and in the immortal words of Ed Grimley (Martin Short) what a thrill it was to open the box to see all these copies, if I must say. This is one book that readers are going to love holding in their hands. As much as eBooks have given me the chance to read more books, there’s no better thrill a new book gives you when you hold it in your hands and begin to read it. And not just a new book.

I remember it was the summer of 1975 and I was hanging out with my friend David Walther. After he had broken both of his wrists, thanks to a movie I wanted to do (in the movie he had to jump from a train trestle–a story for another time) there wasn’t a lot we could do. Both of us expressed an interest in joining the Air Force after graduation from La-Salle-Peru Township High School the following year. One hot summer day, we walked to the Air Force Recruiting Station on Fourth Street in Peru, Illinois to get some information about the Air Force with David’s father who had served in the Air Force in the 1940s.

On the way back to David’s house, we walked down Fourth Street and stopped at a used book store in the old Turnhall Building. Although very hot, the inside was cool; the smell of all those old books was sweet and musky, like some exotic perfume. We all bought a couple books, and if my memory serves me correctly, I bought a collection of Rod Serling stories. But it was the first time I understood the thrill of holding a book in my hands and thinking not only about the people who might have read it before me, but the author’s life–the sweat and toil that went into its creation. It was that physical connection to other readers and the author which made me realize then, as it does now, the value of the written word and something that all of us writers strive for when we sit down and write.

I loved that feeling. I want to feel it more.

Book Trailer for Bureau 39

bureau39_ebook_front 2If you’re going to promote your book these days, you need to spend a lot of time on social media. Just posting a link to your book on Amazon or wherever else that it is available is just not going to work.

You need a video.

Specifically, you need a book trailer.

Of course, you still have to publish it somewhere and of course you still have to get people to watch it…who you hope will want to buy your book, but it’s just one of the things that indie authors have to do if they want to reach a wider market.

 

What do you think? Makes you want to go out and buy the book now, doesn’t it?

Proof Day

Proof 1You know the adage, “the proof is in the pudding?” Well, that’s how I felt when I received my proof of Bureau 39 in the mail today. It’s a big day when you see the physical copy of your book for the first time.

It’s a thrill that never gets old.

Even though I had already seen the eBook version, nothing beats holding your book in your hands; the one you worked on for so long; the one written with lots of sweat and torment when certain scenes didn’t always turn out the way you wanted.

This time, I went for a matte finish instead of a glossy one. Although I’m not too happy that the print is not too sharp, I do like how the cover feels.

Like I said, “the proof is in the pudding.”

What is Bureau 39?

DSCF2413What exactly is the infamous Bureau 39?

This is what Wikipedia says:

“Room 39 (officially Central Committee Bureau 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party, also referred to as Bureau 39, Division 39, or Office 39) is a secretive North Korean party organization that seeks ways to maintain the foreign currency slush fund for the country’s leaders, initially Kim Il-sung, then, in progression, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un.

The organization is estimated to bring in between $500 million and $1 billion per year or more and may be involved in illegal activities, such as counterfeiting $100 bills (see Superdollar), producing controlled substances (including the synthesis of methamphetamine and the conversion of morphine-containing opium into pure opiates like heroin), and international insurance fraud.

Although the seclusion of the North Korean state makes it difficult to evaluate this kind of information, many claim that Room 39 is critical to Kim Jong-un’s continued power, enabling him to buy political support and help fund North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Room 39 is believed to be located inside a ruling Workers’ Party building in Pyongyang, not far from one of the North Korean leader’s residences.”

And, in the immortal words of that endearing radio personality, Paul Harvey, “and now you know the rest of the story.”

Of course, the real story is here.

 

CIA Creates Mission Center on North Korean Threat

5980819f593a46c491b6c1887823263a_18I couldn’t ask for better publicity for my new novel, Bureau 39.

Every time there’s a story about North Korea these days means more exposure for my novel. In this case, a mission center in Seoul to assess the North Korean threat.

“Creating the Korea Mission Center allows us to more purposefully integrate and direct CIA efforts against the serious threats to the United States and its allies emanating from North Korea,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

In Bureau 39, Frank Mitchum a CIA operative flies to Seoul to find out what he can about a dead North Korean defector who might have had information about a drug distribution system that the North might have been using to smuggle missile components for their WMDs.

Keep the publicity coming. Every little bit helps!

Bureau 39: The Beginning

bureau39_ebook_front 2Many people have asked me how did I come up with the story for my latest novel, Bureau 39. The story of Frank Mitchum chasing down an old Army buddy in Korea while trying to cut-off North Korea’s funding for its WMDs started out as a story about a murder in Itaewon, which was based on an actual event that happened in 2002. The novel, Murder in the Moonlight, which was my first foray into the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2012, was the story about a woman found murdered in a hotel in Itaewon. The woman, the daughter of a former United States Forces Korea (USFK) general was in Korea visiting friends. When she ends up dead, her father contacts one of his former NCOs, Greg Sanders, who is a defense contractor in Seoul, to find out what happened. Sanders runs into his old nemesis in the CID who is convinced that the woman was murdered by her boyfriend. Later, Sanders finds out that the daughter got caught up in a drug smuggling conspiracy involving members of South Korea’s underworld and a North Korean defector. The closer Sanders gets to finding out who killed the girl, he becomes caught up in a web of deception and murder.

I wasn’t happy with the how I developed the story and shelved it to work on The Panama Affair.

And then in 2014, I heard about a former Army Ranger who was caught trying to smuggle 100 kilograms of methamphetamine into the United States.

The meth was from North Korea.

It was time to look at the story again.

Bureau 39 — An Excerpt

bureau39_ebook_front 2WRAPPED IN LAYERS of threadbare rayon and vinylon, Kim Min-hee shivered on the shore of the frozen river and hoped she wouldn’t have to wait too long. After traveling for almost two days to get there, she had lain low for another day to watch for military patrols, and had been unable to light a fire for fear of being spotted. Hungry and cold, she spent the night huddled under an old blanket she had found tucked between rocks at the edge of the mighty Yalu.

She felt the small package under her clothes. Its weight and shape were both comforting and deadly. If things worked out, she would make contact with a Chinese buyer who would pay her well for the package. Bingdu—methamphetamine or crystal meth, was a valuable commodity, but if she was caught carrying the drugs, she would either be shot on the spot by one of the patrols, or worse, arrested and sent to one of the work camps where she would most assuredly die. The risk was extreme, but definitely worth it if Min-hee wanted to escape to the South.

Getting the drug was simple, since there was a man in her village who made it in his kitchen. He had once been a renowned chemist at a state-run laboratory, but when the country fell on hard times, he and other chemists who found themselves out of work turned to alternative means to support themselves. There were others who made the drug, but Min-hee’s villager was the most reliable. He had lost his wife the winter before, and no longer cared about life. The government threatened to crack down on the production and sale of bingdu, but the kitchen labs prospered, and the thriving black market along the border between North Korea and China was impossible to stop.

Min-hee had heard there was even a factory that was producing the drug on an industrial scale. Supposedly a Chinese businessman had built it and was manufacturing the drug using some of the same chemists who had been producing it in their homes. Min-hee feared it would only be a matter of time before chemists like the one in her village would be put out of work, or executed. The regime liked to keep the people scared, and mandatory attendance of public executions in the village square did that. Either way, if these rumors were true, she would have to come up with another way to fund her passage to the South.

Like many of the people in her village, Min-hee had sampled the drug she was carrying for the Chinese trader. Fellow villagers had told her how, in small quantities, bingdu suppressed the awful hunger they all felt. At first, she wanted nothing to do with it, but when she could no longer endure the gnawing emptiness in her stomach, she relented. The drug also had other supposed medicinal benefits. Some took it for headaches, to treat a common cold, or to seek relief from depression. She heard about soldiers who used it to stay alert when they were on duty or workers who took it to work longer hours in the country’s factories.

Everyone who tried it more than once found it extremely difficult to stop using.

Min-hee was not the only person in her village who sold the drug to Chinese traders. There were others who were willing to take risks, but not everyone was so lucky. There was one woman in her village whose son was arrested and thrown into jail for smuggling the drug into China. When the woman went to try to secure the release of her son, one of the guards told her that if she ever wanted to see her son alive, she had to bring him two grams of the drug. She did, and her son was freed. Another woman was caught and never heard from again.

It never crossed Min-hee’s mind that what she was doing was wrong. When she was younger, she had been mesmerized by her country’s charismatic leader. Once, while serving in the army, he visited her radar station on a mountain. She and the other women in her unit wept when he stopped to talk to them and pose for a photograph. It was one of the happiest days of her life. She believed in her country’s policy the Juche ideology or self-reliance. However, not everyone felt the same way. People grew tired of the food shortages and the empty slogans that told them to grow more mushrooms or annihilate the enemy to the last man. These slogans did not improve their lifestyle or put more food on the table. Soon, she dreamed of a better life.

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