Ransom

UnknownJay McInerney became a literary superstar with his debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City. It was the sort of book I felt I had to read when I moved to New York in the mid-1990s, ten years after its publication.

Ransom came out a year later, in 1985, and only now came to my attention. I’m writing a fictional sequence that takes place in a somewhat outlandish dojo located in the wilds of Hokkaido. Someone recommended I check out Ransom, which deals with a young American named Christopher Ransom immersed in a Japanese karate dojo in the 1970s.

It turned out to be based on McInerney’s own experience of studying karate in Japan as a young man. The dojo scenes are the best part of the book. He also takes a jaded view of contemporary Japan, without being snide – not an easy balance to strike.
Continue reading “Ransom”

Table

IMG_2611It’s April 2016 and I’ve been in Paris for a week in what will be a roughly six-month stint here. Being in this city is already a joy but the best part of this deal is that I’m here to write: to be, for the first time in my life, a full-time writer.

I’ve already hashed out a draft of a first chapter and read it aloud at a regular Sunday evening writer’s workshop, held at the local branch of Shakespeare & Co. on the Left Bank. Continue reading “Table”

Malice

UnknownMalice, a mid-1990s whodunit by Keigo Higashino, is a carefully constructed set of twists. The story is a series of switchbacks between an author who may or may not have murdered a fellow writer, and the cop who latches on to tiny details that reveal lies.

Higashino, author of The Devotion of Suspect X, provides a masterly update of both Arthur Conan Doyle and the ‘golden age’ murder mystery writers such as Agatha Christie.

His Detective Kaga has the perceptions and intellectual regimen of Sherlock Holmes, while the villains are adept at scattering misinformation as any adversary of Hercule Poirot. Continue reading “Malice”

The Three-Body Problem

UnknownThe Three-Body Problem is a Chinese science-fiction novel by Liu Cixin that has achieved prominence in the West. I heard about it at a recent talk in Hong Kong and decided to check it out.

It’s not particularly good from a literary perspective: the author is more interested in ideas than in character or a compelling narrative, and the writing itself is pedestrian. To wit, the novel’s title is about as clunky as they come. (Although it represents an actual theoretical mathematical problem originally dreamed up by Isaac Newton.)

But the imagination behind The Three-Body Problem is breathtaking, and the work’s shortcomings can be glazed over for anyone interested in this hard-science-meets-Cultural-Revolution alien invasion story. Continue reading “The Three-Body Problem”

Ville des lumières

Paris, Paris, city of lights, lights that ISIS seeks to extinguish. The capital that defined modern civilization, the idea of the city itself as a thing of beauty, as a constellation of obscene wealth and fine art, of a nexus of infrastructure and fashion – Paris will be my home for the better part of this year.

What a time to leave bustling Hong Kong for a city, a continent, in the throes of upheaval. When the idea germinated, Paris was the most attractive city in the Eurozone: if not quite the global financial hub of London (or New York), if just slightly too unAnglo to be among the first rank of cities, it was nonetheless headquarters to global giants, firmly within the ranks of the liberal West but proud of its differences and cherishing its traditions.

As I gradually began to inform people of this change, the reaction was a jealous “Oh, Paris!” What other city would elicit such consistent praise? Continue reading “Ville des lumières”

Submission

41YjMnlq0CL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Michel Houellebecq trains his satire against his own people in this strange but compelling tale of France’s fall to political Islam.

The twist is that sharia law turns out to be exactly what the French want. Having jettisoned Christianity, the country finds the allure of a fictional Muslim Brotherhood party irresistible after it wins the presidency in 2022.

The soothingly moderate leader, Ben Abbas, restores Paris to the centre of the world by expanding the European Union into North Africa and the Levant, shifting the EU’s internal power away from Germany and creating a political entity to rival America.

But the true male fantasy that this Islamic France tickles is the revoking of women’s emancipation. Once the Islamists seize power over the nation’s cultural institutions, the Sorbonne – oh, make that the Islamic University of the Sorbonne – starts by banning skirts; soon, women are excluded from the administration; ultimately, the Muslim Brotherhood seduces France’s intellectual class (literally) with the promise of trouble-free polygamy. Continue reading “Submission”

Simon Overton

SCC-OvertonSimon Overton interviewed me for a podcast in December. He has also been a behind-the-scenes fixer for the Hong Kong Writers’ Circle (HKWC), which I’ve supported for its critique groups and also to share in a sense of community. Simon has also co-edited some of the group’s anthologies. There was no quid pro quo in his doing a podcast in exchange for a Q&A here but I thought, why not?

We shared thoughts on podcasting, on talking about writing, and about how the English-language literary scene is developing in Hong Kong.

JDB: You have been doing podcasts featuring Hong Kong-based writers for some time now. What do you get out of it?

Simon Overton: I started the Hong Kong Writers’ Circle Podcast back in 2013 and I have produced one every couple of months since then. I was inspired by several podcasts, including Filmspotting (which is a “pure” podcast, inasmuch as it is produced solely for an Internet audience) and In Our Time (which is a recording of a BBC Radio 4 program). I love how in-depth both of these shows are, and how the presenters are required to have a very broad knowledge – of film, or culture – while simultaneously being able to discuss a particular topic in great depth. It was this intellectual challenge, along with the technical challenge of actually producing the show, that first attracted me to the medium. Continue reading “Simon Overton”

Red Sparrow

UnknownA good book; not great. If I had read Jason Matthews’s Red Sparrow a little earlier, I may have liked it more. The problem, you see, is that I had just read Charles McCarry’s The Mulberry Bush. Both are contemporary espionage thrillers written by former CIA operatives. Both involve Montague-and-Capulet love affairs between enemy agents.

The difference is the quality of craft: not spycraft, which abounds in either story, but that of writing.

McCarry hung up his James Bond spurs long ago and has pursued a career as a writer, and it shows. The Mulberry Bush provides a depth, its sentences and words a clarity, that Red Sparrow cannot match. Continue reading “Red Sparrow”

Vargabonds

IMG_2205I took this picture recently at a dive bar in Hong Kong’s SoHo neighborhood called Varga Lounge, whose upper floor has served as home base for my writer’s critique group.

The image’s lighting has been brightened so you can see the faces of my comrades. At night the room is only dimly lit, which is ideal neither for reading from scribbled notes nor for iPhone snapshots. The odor of mold and spilled beer can overpower the air conditioning. Sometimes the room is ours, and other evenings it fills with revelers, reducing us to shouting our critiques – which can generate some strange looks.

Nevertheless, the venue works for us. The playful illustrations of busty women en deshabile, the bohemian mix-and-match décor, and the occasional round of drinks on the house granted by Sirin, the friendly Nepalese bartender, make for a convivial atmosphere. It may not be the moveable feast of Hemingway’s Paris, but if the writing isn’t quite as good, at least the drinking gets serious once we’ve wrung the critiques dry. Continue reading “Vargabonds”