Monthly Archives: September 2010

The obsessions of Amelie Nothomb

Amelie Nothomb, the prolific Belgian writer, is an interesting person. Her always short, definitely out-there, novels (some of them more novellas than novels) revolve around a small number of common themes: impossible love, eating disorders, obesity, Japan, and self-introspection. She writes in French, but many of her novels have been translated in several other languages. Some of her books available in English include, Fear and Trembling, The Character of Rain, Tokyo Fiancée, The Life of Hunger, Sulfuric Acid, Loving Sabotage, Hygiene and Assassin (her first novel), The Stranger Next Door, Antichrista, and I’m probably forgetting some. I have just finished reading her latest novel (only available in French as far as I know) entitled “Une Forme de Vie” (A Life Form). I enjoyed it, but I find that Nothomb’s stories tend to involve more and more abstract philosophical discussions that seem to fly at stratospheric heights. Still, her cold, cynical, confronting style is fun and I always find myself laughing hysterically at some of her lines. Among the books I have mentioned and  which are published in English, I highly recommend Fear and Trembling, the autobiographical story of a year she spent working in Japan. It will have you in stitches. Her analysis of Japanese society is revealing. Nothomb knows Japan well: she was born and grew up there and is in love with the country. Tokyo fiancée, which is the counterpart of Fear and Trembling, is not quite as good. My other favourite Nothomb novel is Antichrista, the story of a friendship that turns weird and destructive; it’s excellent. Both Fear and Trembling and Antichrista were made into movies. It has to mean something. In her latest book (Une Forme de Vie) Nothomb dissects a mail exchange with an American soldier in Irak, giving us an upsetting insight into the relationship between authors and some of their fans.

Trailer of “Fear and Trembling”

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Kaohsiung, the friendly city

I’ve just spent a few days in Kaohsiung. It was my first time in Taiwan, and I must admit and I was impressed! The people are extremely friendly and they welcome the few tourists who go there with open arms (To be honest, we didn’t see more than a handful of them over the four days we spent there). Kaohsiung is the most densely populated and the second largest city in Taiwan after the capital Taipei, with a population of around 1.5 million. It is located in southwestern Taiwan and is a major port, through which pass most of Taiwan’s marine imports and exports. The city has large avenues, without too much traffic (for a Chinese city), and with footpaths that are wide enough for walking (although the heat at this time of the year makes it somewhat uncomfortable). Unfortunately, The FANAPI typhoon passed over the city a few days ago, and some of the vegetation has suffered extensively. We went to the city of Tainan (about an hour from Kaohsiung) and the mountains for a few hours of relaxation in the local hot springs, which I strongly recommend to anyone in need of a good rest. When we left the springs, a storm came over us and in a matter of minutes, the road we were driving on became a river. Very scary.

People in Kaohsiung speak Taiwanese or Mandarin, and some of them also speak English. Things to see and do in Kaohsiung include a walk along the Love river, the Rose Basilica, the Lotus Pond, the former British Consulate at Dagou, the port, and the Liuhe night markets, full of people and food stalls from 5 pm to 5 am every day! One of the highlights for me was the food, which is of amazing quality. I strongly recommend the fried fish, beef noodles, smelly (sic) tofu, mango ice, and some of the delicious cakes to be found in the numerous tea and coffee shops. In fact, Taiwan did remind me a little of Japan from that perspective. I should also mention the KMRT, the 2008-newly opened subway system, which, with its two lines, covers the city well. I have never been in such a clean underground train system in my whole life (see picture below). I will be spending the weekend in Taipei in a few weeks time, and I can’t wait!

The Love River and the city skyline.

The Rose Basilica and the KMRT.

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Recent interview about The Wings of Leo Spencer

I was recently interviewed by Sophie Waters, from So Many Books, So Little Time, about my latest novel, The Wings of Leo Spencer. Sophie’s also reviewed my book a few weeks back.  You can find the interview here, if you’re interested.

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A concise history of Hong Kong by John Carroll

As part of the research for my next novel, I’ve been reading A concise history of Hong Kong, by John Carroll, and I’ve learned a lot. The book was written with the general public in mind and is not full of technical and historical details only relevant to historians. The focus in on the days since the founding of the British colony in 1841. I wish there had been more about the Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945, a period I am fascinated with, but overall I found the book very interesting. The strikes and riots of 1967 are well covered, as well as all the politics around the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 (almost too much). It’s a good first read for anyone who’s interested in the history of Hong Kong.

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Nicaragua, twenty years on…

I recently went back to Nicaragua to visit friends. It was twenty years since I had lived there myself, and I couldn’t help reflect on the changes that have happened all over the country. I was twenty-four when I left Paris for Managua, staying away for two years and coming back changed deep inside. I had gone over there to work for a Franco-Nicaraguan cooperation programme, in lieu of my – then obligatory – military service in France (Given the choice between living in Central America for two years and spending the time bored out of my tits – forgive my bluntness – walking in the countryside carrying a gun and practicing useless military exercises, I hadn’t hesitated one second.). I had chosen Nicaragua for several reasons: I had never been to Latin America; I wanted  to experience something new; the job sounded interesting; I thought learning Spanish could be useful; and the country was in the midst of a civil war, which, in my naivety, would add spice to the experience, even if, to be honest, it did worry me and my mum a little. What I found in this amazing place far exceeded my expectations.

I arrived in Managua towards the end of 1989. By then, the Sandinistas has been in power for almost ten years, since the coup that saw the former, cruel, blood-thirsty, filty-rich dictator Anastasio Somoza flee the country with his family, leaving behind an exhausted and impoverished country. Unfortunately for them, the Sandinistas happened to be Marxists, so they quickly found themselves fighting against Americans as well, who forced an economic embargo down the country’s throat and funded the Contras (Nicaraguans who fought against the Sandinistas), as well as part of the civil war that was going to ruin the country for ten long years. It’s actually very difficult to talk about Nicaragua without mentioning the political context, even these days. I loved the place as soon as I set foot on it, the heat and the humidity, the lushness of the vegetation, the warmth of the locals, the music everywhere, the richness of the food, and the depth of the friendships you could build with people. I was stunned to see sixteen-year-olds holding AK-47 (also called Kalashnikov automatic rifles) everywhere on the streets, but I very soon got used to it. Most of the fights happened in remote areas outside the capital, so they were easy to avoid, even if I did travel extensively through the country for work. Having said that, I remember one Christmas when we had decided with some friends to go horse-riding in the mountains. It was a fantastic, exhilarating experience, but at some stage, far enough from any significant town, we found ourselves caught between crossfire, with bullets zooming above our heads. As a result, we spent nearly twenty-four hours hiding until the fighting ceased and we were able to escape… Because of the embargo and the war, many items were hard to come by, such as spare parts. For example, if one of the headlights of your car was broken, you only had two options: one was to do nothing about it, which made the roads extremely dangerous at nights, because many cars drove without lights, or worse, with only one light, therefore looking like motorcycles and creating accidents; the other option was to go to the Oriental Market and “order” a light. You only had to come back the next day to pick it up, most certainly stolen from another car – sometimes your neighbour’s! I remember my surprise at entering a supermarket for the first time and seeing nothing but empty shelves. Sometimes the same shelves would be covered with only one item: rice, corn, or… black dolls! (most probably a gift from Cuba or Russia, the main trade partners at the time). The eggs were presented in plastic bags, which was definitely the best way to break them  and to help develop a healthy population of cockroaches roaming around. Another consequence of the dire economic situation was rampant inflation (7,430% in 1989, but only 3,000% in 1990 with the introduction of a new currency!) and devaluation of the currency, the Cordoba (by the end of 1990, you needed 3.2 million Cordobas to buy US$1!). But there was plenty of food on the markets and life was not as difficult as it sounds. In fact, people were happy, and I was amazed to see my friends content with little, struggling to make ends meet, but never failing to smile and be happy. The Sandinistas lacked experience; in fact they were all very young. Daniel Ortega was only thirty-four years old when they took power. They made mistakes, and the Marxist system they dreamed of didn’t work (I could see that first-hand in the management of agricultural resources). This left Nicaragua the poorest country of the Americas at the time, along with Haiti. However, there were many good things too: very little corruption, no crime, and one of the highest levels of alphabetization on the continent. I loved my life there. I learned to speak Spanish with a Nicaraguan accent, I made lifelong friendships, and I learned about life and death, and what it really means to survive. I also happened to be present at a very interesting time of Nicaraguan history, when the opposition won the elections overseen by the UN, ten years after the Sandinistas had acquired power. We saw the first female President of Nicaragua, Violetta Chamorro, who was the widow of a martyred journalist, and funnily enough when you think she won as part of the opposition, had taken part in the Sandinista revolution beside Ortega. I remember meeting her once – she looked more like a grandmother than a president, but she was lovely. Interestingly enough, it’s just after these elections and the accession of the opposition to power that I was exposed to the most danger, with riots that took over Managua and saw me struggling to get home and avoid shootings in my street.

Twenty years later, I can’t help wonder if the situation of the people has really improved. The Sandinistas and Daniel Ortega, now sixty-five, are back in power. They’ve abandoned their Marxist ideology, but don’t seem to be managing to improve the country’s economy. Supermarkets are full with products coming from all over the world. Giant, luxury shopping centres have sprouted all over the country. Nicaraguans who had fled the regime, often to the US, have come back. And the rift between the rich and the poor has widened. In fact, the rich seem richer and the poor poorer. Slums have not disappeared; in fact they may even have grown. Managua is not the safe city it used to be anymore. And my friends struggle more than ever, with high unemployment and increased cost of living. The alphabetization rate has unfortunately also slightly decreased. And the people still need help. But I still love the place. It is a little bit like home, and I’ll keep going back. I have my friends there. And I will never forget that Nicaragua helped me change the way I see the world, making me a better person for it. See you in another twenty years’ time?

Guns are not allowed in this trendy shopping centre from Managua!

Active volcanos are a common sight in Nicaragua.

Managua’s new cathedral… one of the weirdest looking buildings I have ever seen.

Managua city centre

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We all make mistakes, don’t we?

I’ve made a big mistake tonight, but thankfully not one that will have much consequence. I went to the wrong movie! To start with, every time I see a film in Hong Kong, I think this will be the last. Watching a movie in Hong Kong is a food fest. It includes the usual popcorn, chips, Big Macs and other types of hamburgers… I’ve even seen someone eat a soup! Between the noise and the smell generated, it can easily detract from what you’re seeing, especially non-action movies. But I like going to the cinema so I keep going back. Second mistake today, I let some friends talk me into going to see Piranhas, the latest version, in 3D. I even read a review or two that weren’t bad. What was I thinking? It’s a terrible mixture of gore and heavily siliconed breasts…. the plot is weak to say the least, and there are glitches I thought you never saw in films anymore, such as the woman who falls in the water and comes out dry, without a hair out of place… you get the gist. Oh well…

If you really must see it, here’s the trailer…

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Serena – Ron Rash

Serena, by Ron Rash, is the story of a murderer. Serena is an extraordinarily strong woman with a purposely unknown past who marries George Pemberton, a wealthy logger in the North Carolina mountains. As soon as Serena sets foot in the mountains, she has a very strong influence on the workers and employees of the logging company, including her own husband. The two of them dispose of people as they wish and the number of people they murder or have murdered increases rapidly. When Serena learns she cannot have children, her wrath knows no limits. The setting is beautifully described, as is the life of the loggers in these wild, dangerous mountains where many perish by accident. Of course, it’s impossible to like the main two characters, and I even found hard to empathise with them at all, which for me is a weak point of the novel. The pace is slowish, but, I think, adequate for the story. The highlight is the life of the community in those rough conditions. An easy read.

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The Peak @ Hong Kong

This morning I went for a walk (I should say a “climb”) to the Peak. I live on the side of the mountain in Hong Kong and I have just one street to cross before finding myself in the forest, which is a bonus when you live in a built-up city like Hong Kong. It’s an arduous walk all the way up to the peak but the views are rewarding, and you don’t come across many people. Birds sing in the canopy and nature displays its tropical exuberance, an amazing fact when you look down at the city below. I took a few pictures and decided to share the view with you. I’m also posting a night picture (it’s blurred, but you’ll get the gist).

Thinking about it, and considering I travel often, for work and for pleasure, I thought I would from now on post a few photos and comments about the places I visit. I know you will tell me whether it’s a good idea or a boring one, if not already overdone! Have a great day (or night, depending on where you are!).

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Early works: Harlan Coben takes us for a ride

I feel cheated! And angry. I decided to swap genres for a change and chose a crime novel for my next read during my French holiday. I picked “Play Dead” by Harlan Coben at Heathrow (along “Serena” by Ron Rash, for which I will post a review soon), since I’ve always enjoyed Coben’s crime novels. I find them usually well written, with a good plot and a number of twists that guarantee some suspense. True, there is a bit of formula in his writing, but it works. When I opened this particular book, I was surprised to find an introduction written by Coben, which rang alarm bells. Here’s an extract of the introduction: “Please know that I haven’t read Play Dead in at least twenty years. I didn’t want to rewrite it and pass it off as a new book. I hate when authors do that. So this is, for better of worse, the exact book I wrote when I was in my early twenties…” Oh oh, I thought, I wish I had read this before buying the book. I started reading and became angry quickly. The quality isn’t there, the book is not well written, and it has obviously not been edited properly. The beginning of the book is set in Australia and Coben tries to make his Australian characters sound Australian in the dialogue. Alas, the result is pathetic and will probably anger any Australian. You have to be very naïve to think that by using the words “mate” or “no worries” in every second sentence, you sound Australian. These words (and others) are used in the wrong sense, and repeatedly, to the point of becoming senseless and annoying. This could have been fixed by asking someone from Australia to read these parts. The dialogues in general sound fake. Many similes are terrible or offending and patronising (“The well-dressed patrons attacked the food like the poor in Bangladesh”, “She peered into his eyes. They darted away from Laura’s glare like scared birds”,”He took a drag on his cigarette with enough intensity to inhale a tennis ball through a straw”). Other passages are just cliché (“She had been afraid of exposing herself to the devastating weapon of love”). Some techniques, such as flash-backs, are used in a clumsy way. And elements of the plot (such as the character who fakes his death and goes through plastic surgery to come back as almost himself) are, if not simply laughable, so easy to see through that you feel ashamed for Coben. Don’t get me wrong though, the book is not all bad. The overall plot is okay – even if typically Coben and predictable – and it’s not a bad read. But don’t read it if you’ve read anything else by Coben before, you will be disappointed.

Why am I angry? It’s not because it’s an early book. Many writers get better at their craft with time, and their early works aren’t as good. I’m no exception. I find this totally acceptable, this is part of a normal process. No, what really annoys me here is that this book has just been published, after many other very good ones by Coben, and that it was not rewritten, or even slightly edited by the look of it. Coben is aware of that. He says so in his introduction. Why does Coben hate it when authors rewrite their early works before publishing them? I would advise him to do so if he wants to publish others of his early manuscripts. It would benefit his readers, and him too. Coben is aware of the flaws of the novel. He states it in his introduction, “I’m hard on it, but arent’ we all hard on our early stuff? Remember that essay you wrote when you were in school, the one that you got an A-plus, the one your teacher called ‘inspired’ – and one day you’re going through your drawer and you find it and you read it and your heart sinks and you say, ‘Man, what was I thinking?’ That’s how it is with early novels sometimes.” So if Coben knows he can do better, why does he allow himself to exhibit mediocre writing, not to strive to produce the high-quality novels his readers enjoy? Isn’t he in fact looking down at us, patronizing us, treating us like children? Or is it easy money? Easy work? And what about the publisher, Orion Books? How can they allow such a book to be published by such a well-known author under their banner? Shame on them, they’re taking their readers for granted! Okay, after so much ranting and cursing, I should be more gentle with Coben and his publisher. They’ve given me precious material to use in creative writing classes. What better way to learn than to learn from errors, whether your own or someone else’s? Learn from clumsy writing, from what NOT to do? Thanks, Coben!


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The Devil of Nanking / Tokyo

Tokyo (or The Devil of Nanking, depending on which edition you’re reading) by Mo Hayder is a book that is hard to put in a box, and that’s not a bad thing. Some classify it as thriller, others as horror or even historical fiction. It’s a little bit of everything. Thankfully, the horror side of it is not prevalent, it’s just that some parts, especially towards the end of the story, are not for the faint-hearted. Tokyo is the story of Grey, a disturbed young British woman on the search for a film, which is supposed to exist somewhere in Japan, and which she needs in order to prove the world she is not as crazy as it seems. Her search will take her from ladies clubs in Japan to Tokyo’s underground and its frightening yakuzas. The story is interwoven with a depiction of the invasion of Nanking and the ensuing massacres by the Japanese army in 1937. I won’t spoil the story by saying much more about the plot.

Hayder’s writing is okay. She doesn’t really keep us guessing until the end about what really happened and what Grey’s search will uncover, even if some aspects of me still took me by total surprise. There are enough hints at what is at stake throughout the book so that one is prepared for the grisly ending. It’s a good story, however, in so far as you are kept wanting to read on to know more. The plot has its holes or bits that are hard to believe, but to be honest, it does not matter. It’s a great read, which will keep you thinking for a while. Plus, it takes place in Japan and China. For someone like me who loves Japan and lives in China, it’s just perfect! I’m not a fan of gore and I won’t be necessarily rushing to read more Hayder, but I’m glad this one’s been recommended to me. I read it in one go and I can guarantee you will too.


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