Saturday 21 December 2013

Season's Readings

Season's Readings is not exactly an original variation on Season's Greetings, but  it's been put to good use this year by Kinokuniya, Singapore, as the title for its Christmas calendar-cum-promotional-catalogue. 

Kinokuniya is a Japanese book chain, operating throughout Asia, Australia, and across the U.S., and selling Japanese language books, as well as local language and English language books in each store. It  has a pleasing commitment to books from Asia, and, if the Singapore calendar-catalogue is anything to go by, a commitment too to local publishing.  

The calendar-catalogue is organised by month, and book category. If you celebrate Christmas, you've left your shopping late, and you're short of gift ideas, it's a good place to start.  For those of you not in Singapore, I now offer my pick of their picks.

January / Fiction: Crazy Rich Asians /  Kevin Kwan.   Asian Book Blog's September book club pick.  A wild romp that dazzles with the excesses of Singapore's super-rich.  Perfect for free-spending teenage girls.

February / Fiction: Strange Weather in Tokyo /  Hiromi Kawakami. An old fashioned romance set in modern Tokyo.  Perfect for secretly-sloppy outwardly cool dudes who, rather than being caught reading romantic fiction, would wrap it in brown paper covers.

March / Children's: Jet Black and the Ninja Wind / Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani.  The story of a teenage girl descended from ninjas. Perfect for pre-teen ninjas.

April / Children's: My Awesome Japan Adventure: a diary about the best 4 months ever! / Rebecca Otowa. The title says it all. Perfect for under 10s relocating to Japan.

May / Lifestyle:  I'm skipping this one, on the grounds that any book a person of normal intelligence could possibly categorise as Lifestyle can't be worth the paper it's printed on.

June / Food & Drink: Baking With Tropical Fruits /  Melinda Lim. Great bakes using mango, pineapple, lychees, and so on.  Perfect for woodworkers. (Only joking - perfect for cooks.)

July / Business: In Line Behind a Billion People / Damien Ma and William Adams. How scarcity will define China's ascent in the next decade.  Perfect for students you dislike - spoil their Christmas by reminding them of the competition they're up against in our globalised world.   

August / Business:  Another one I'm skipping, this time because all the books look deadly dull. 

September / Science and Humanities: Countdown: our last, best hope for a future on earth? / Alan Weisman.  An investigation into humanity's future. Perfect for the loons otherwise known as climate change sceptics, although if they haven't had what passes for their minds changed by now, then they probably never will. 

October / Humanities: The Straits Chinese House: Domestic Life and Traditions / Peter Lee. A  lavishly illustrated guide to Peranakan culture through their homes.  Perfect for expat wives who've set up shop as interior designers. 

November / Biography: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban / Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb. What can you say? This is surely a book that everybody ought to read, especially those least likely to - so if you do happen to know any English-speaking fundamentalists, try slipping them a copy, although perhaps it would be best not to mention Christmas. 

December / Comics: Super Graphic / Tim Leong. The geek's infographic guide to the comic book universe. Perfect for pale boys who are so in love with their screens they never leave their bedrooms.

If you do celebrate Christmas, I hope you give some great books, and, in return, get some equally great books in your stocking.  

Asian Book Blog will now close until January 5, when the first post of the New Year will be a discussion of December's book club pick, The Valley of Amazement / Amy Tan, which would itself make an excellent Christmas gift - add it to your wish list if you haven't already read it. Happy Christmas, and happy reading, now and all through 2014.   

Saturday 14 December 2013

500 Words From Barbara Ismail

500 Words a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books.  Here, Barbara Ismail talks about Princess Play, the second in her Kain Songket Mysteries, which she intends to be a 6 or 7 book series. The mysteries  feature Malaysia’s first female detective, Kelantanese Mak Cik Maryam, a no-nonsense kain songket trader in the Kota Bahru Central Market - kain songket are gorgeously woven silks, patterned with gold or silver threads, found all over the Malay world.   

Barbara Ismail now lives in her home city, New York, but she studied the wayang siam puppetry tradition in Kelantan in the 1970s, when she was doing fieldwork for a PhD in anthropology. 

So: 500 Words From Barbara Ismail...  

The Kain Songket Mysteries were originally conceived as a story about Kelantan and its culture. I never thought of myself as a novelist, since the writing I had done in the past was academic for the most part.   However, I wanted to write something easier to read than a general ethnography, and in the bargain, way more fun to write.  Writing fiction allows enormous leeway in the story and the characters, and of course, reality doesn’t limit what you can do.

Having said that, I think the background of the novels—Kelantan and its people—are quite realistic, and I have tried to stick to the Kelantan I know and the culture I love.  Of course, murder doesn’t happen in Kelantan with the regularity of a mystery series, and I fear that as the stories follow each other I may be decimating the population!  And while the plots are, of course, fiction, the society in which they are placed is certainly not.

I enjoy reading mystery novels and therefore thought to write in a genre I liked and could be comfortable with.  Mysteries in general are quite stylized, with a strong story structure: the question is never what will happen, I think, but rather how. I find, therefore, that within the ritual, the specific sleuth and environment can be explored at length with a story line to carry it along.

When writing the stories, I usually begin with the victim, and try to imagine the full person, filling in his or her family, friends and work.  The characters take shape, and then basically do what they want: I don’t begin the story with an outline or a detailed plot: the characters themselves take over the story, and in both the books I have written, I was surprised at the end to find out who did it:  the murder seemed to present him or herself without my "permission".

Many of the characters are based, at least to some extent, upon real people.  Mak Cik Maryam is based upon one of my neighbors in Kota Bahru, who owned a cloth stall in the main market, and also upon my Polish mother, who shares her name.  The bomoh (spiritual healer or shaman) in Princess Play is also based upon a bomoh I knew in Kelantan.  Mak Cik Maryam’s husband Mamat is based upon a neighbor with whose family I lived in Pengkalan Cepa, and also owes a great deal to my sister-in-law, who first commented that Mamat was so nice, it didn’t seem real:  in homage to her, I have worked to make him the ideal husband, perhaps bordering on fantasy.  Maryam’s daughters are my daughters; they provide a great deal of inspiration.

It is important to me that my books open a window on Kelantan, and that readers will either learn about the area by reading my books, or recognize it if they are from there.  

The Kain Songket Mysteries are published by Monsoon, in paperback and ebook, priced in local currencies.   

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Curtain of Rain / Tew Bunnag

The Asia Literary Agency has sold World English and Italian language rights to Curtain of Rain, a soulful, intricately linked series of stories set in Thailand and London, by Thai author Tew Bunnag. World English rights were bought by Narisa Chakrabongse at River Books. Italian language rights were bought by Andrea Berrini at Metropoli d'Asia.

Bunnag comes from a prominent Thai family, graduated from Oxford with a degree in Chinese and Economics, works to ameliorate conditions in the Bangkok slums, and divides his time between Thailand and Spain. He is a Buddhist, and a t’ai chi and meditation master, who counsels families with terminally ill children. Bunnag enjoyed publishing success with his previous works, including Time of the Lotus, a bestseller in Spain, and After the Wave, a collection of short stories to commemorate the Boxing Day tsunami. 

Geographically, Curtain of Rain takes readers from Bangkok to London, via the Vietnam War; it moves in time from the troubled past to the uneasy present.  It is told from the perspective of two characters whose lives and fates become entangled after a chance encounter during the Vietnam War. Bunnag evokes place brilliantly, especially Bangkok and the Thai countryside. His explorations of the tension between history and the present, and of the unreliability of memory, allow him to introduce issues of politics, power and greed, without losing sight of his characters’ searches for meaning, and redemption. 

Kelly Falconer, founder of the Asia Literary Agency, said: “This timely account of contemporary Thailand, a country still struggling to come to terms with an unstable past, is evocatively told by Tew Bunnag. The feeling of being an insider and simultaneously an outsider, caught between the past and the present, permeates this book, which is international in setting and in appeal.”

Bangkok-based River Books was founded 20 years ago with the aim of publishing high quality, illustrated books on the art, archaeology, history, and culture of mainland Southeast Asia. Their guidebooks to the ancient cities of the region are perennially popular, although Ancient Angkor has the dubious distinction of being the most widely available pirated guidebook at Angkor Wat. Recently River Books has started publishing cookery titles and novels. Narisa Chakrabongse said: “River Books are very excited to be publishing the English edition of Curtain of Rain by Tew Bunnag.

Metropoli d'Asia is an Italian publishing house owned and run by Andrea Berrini, a writer himself, who spends most of his time in India, China, Singapore and the rest of the South East Asian countries, directly scouting for emerging writers.

Curtain of Rain should be available in English and Italian next year. 

Friday 6 December 2013

Two Sons of China: a novel of WWII and America’s forgotten war in China

December 7th is America’s National Pearl Harbour Remembrance Day, commemorating the attack of 1941, which merged the Second Sino-Japanese War with World War II.

To mark the anniversary, Bondfire Books is releasing Two Sons of China, a richly detailed historical saga set against the backdrop of Japan's invasion and occupation of parts of north eastern China, and the struggles of the Chinese, both Communist and Nationalist, to overthrow them. 

Two Sons of China pivots on an unlikely friendship between Lieutenant David Parker, an American soldier, and Lin Yuen, a Chinese Communist guerilla fighter. Parker was brought up in China, where his father was a missionary, and he speaks fluent Mandarin.  Despite their deeply held, clashing convictions, Parker and Lin form a brotherhood in battle.

The author, Andrew Lam, now based in Massachusetts, is a 3rd generation Chinese American, which means his grandparents immigrated to the United States. His family’s story was directly impacted by the war in China. When the Japanese invaded in 1937, his paternal grandfather, Wing Ching Lam, left China for America. His maternal grandfather, Chung Tam, was the only son of a prosperous family in southern China. Chung became a civil servant in the Nationalist government in Chungking (Chongqing). When the Communists took over in 1949, he fled with his family to Hong Kong, leaving all his possessions and property behind. His family left China for the U.S. in 1968.

Lam has a history degree from Yale, but he did not pursue a career as an historian.  Instead, he became a retinal surgeon.  His first book, Saving Sight, profiles medical innovators whose inventions were ridiculed but ultimately saved the sight of millions around the world. Now, with his debut novel, he has returned to his first love, history.  He says: “I wanted to write a sweeping, romantic novel of the Second World War, and to set it in a place that would surprise many American readers: China.”

The novel was inspired by the little-known, true story of the Dixie Mission of 1944, in which American soldiers ventured to Mao Zedong’s northern stronghold of Yenan (Yan’an) to investigate reports that the Chinese Communists were effectively fighting the Japanese, and to consider arming Mao’s troops with U.S. weapons.

The Americans became involved in the Sino-Japanese conflict because they wanted to prevent the Japanese soldiers tied up in China from being freed for deployment in the Pacific. Thousands of American soldiers served in China. Yet Lam feels this has been overlooked, or even forgotten, by many: “Too few people are aware of America’s role in China during World War II. I wanted to correct that, and to do it in an entertaining way. I hope Two Sons of China succeeds in both aims - entertaining and informing. It is an action-packed, romantic war novel that shines a light on unsung American heroes who served with honor in a distant, difficult land.” 

Readers in Asia are less likely to think of China as distant, difficult land than are those in Cincinnati, but I think it fair to say the Dixie Mission is as little known in much of Asia as it is in the West - I for one knew nothing about it until I came upon Two Sons of China.

William Martin, New York Times best-selling author of The Lincoln Letter, and other novels of historical suspense, is enthusiastic about Lam’s novel.  He writes: “Prepare to be captivated. Two Sons of China takes you to WWII China, introduces you to a fascinating cast of characters, and spins a terrific tale of adventure and romance. If you love historical fiction, or any fiction, don’t miss it.”

Two Sons of China will soon be available as a print version. It is currently available as an ebook here at, and here at iTunes. If you have trouble purchasing from these sites with an Asian credit card, you can also try buying direct from

Lam is already at work on his next novel, Repentance.  It is a story about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Japanese-American soldiers who fought in Europe during WWII while many of their families were incarcerated in internment camps at home. Says Lam: “Many are not aware that the 442nd became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history and I hope this book helps spread their story far and wide.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Book Club: Response From Dawn Farnham

Dawn Farnham, author of the November book club pick A Crowd Of Twisted Things, has e-mailed with her response to the discussion summarised in the previous post - scroll down if you want to read it.

I asked Dawn if she'd mind if I shared her e-mail, and she gave permission, so here it is:

“The discussion of Twisted is interesting. It is always great for an author to get readers’ viewpoints and see how your own processes get interpreted.  Your comment on Annie's belief that Ronald tried to kill her being part of mis-memory is very interesting. She has taken the trauma of her shooting and put it on the man she hates, Ronald. I hadn't got that wrinkle in mind, but it is very intriguing and does add a layer of richness to the story. 
My sympathies being with Aminah:  This too is an interesting take. Actually I had no particular sympathy with either side. I did, however, want to present Aminah in a light which was quite different to the vilifications she received at the time. She was painted as an illiterate, greedy maid who was manipulating Maria for her own ends and I wanted to clear that up. And also see Adeline as a woman under great strain as the Japanese occupied her life, a woman quite capable of giving away a child, especially given the prevailing attitudes in Asian families about the value of girl children."

Sunday 1 December 2013

Book Club: A Crowd Of Twisted Things and December's pick

Since this a book club, I assume you've read November's pick, A Crowd Of Twisted Things, by Dawn Farnham, so I'm not going to give a plot summary. If you need one see here for details from the publisher, Monsoon.

I'd never heard of Maria Hertogh before I read this thought-provoking novel, but the tussle between Adeline, her Eurasian birth mother, and Aminah, the Malay woman she considered as her mother, made a terrific backdrop for the main story of Annie and Suzy, and the sub plot of Annie and Joseph. 

Taken together the true story and the two fictional ones enabled Farnham to pose some really interesting questions about the nature of motherhood, and, indeed, fatherhood. When it comes to motherhood, does biology trump all other considerations? If a biological mother hands a child over for informal adoption, and later changes her mind, should the child be returned to her?  If, in the midst of war, a biological mother loses a daughter, should she later be able to reclaim her from the woman who has subsequently cared for her?  If a lost child states she wants to stay with the kind woman she thinks of as her mother, then, when her biological mother turns up to claim her, should her wishes prevail? If a widowed father abandons his baby son, but states at the time he wants to reclaim him later, should he be allowed to do so?

Maria Hertogh was in fact handed back to Adeline – and she did not subsequently lead an entirely happy life, as the fascinating epilogue makes clear. In A Crowd Of Twisted Things Maria’s, Aminah’s and Adeline’s story takes place off the page, as it were - we follow it in newspaper snippets, and by the characters’ reactions to it - but it seems clear that not only the characters', but also Farnham’s sympathies are with Aminah. Despite the distressing evidence of the epilogue, I’m not sure that mine are. What about you?  If you had been Adeline, what arguments would you have used to support your cause, and do you think those arguments should have outweighed Aminah’s, and, indeed, Maria’s stated wishes.  Why? 

Likewise, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the resolution of Suzy’s story. I don’t want to give a plot-spoiler, even in a book club discussion, not a review, so I won’t say what that resolution is – if you don’t know, read the book – but I remained doubtful a birth mother would behave as Suzy’s behaved, or, indeed, that a birth mother would allow her thinking to be influenced by such considerations as that her daughter appeared to be growing up a snob.

The relationship between biology and maternity was not the only weighty theme of the book.  Repressed memory was another. Here I’ll hand over to Amira, from Singapore:

I never understood what had happened on Annie’s last night with Ronald.  She kept saying he tried to kill her, but we never saw that, and we never saw him giving Suzy away.  Did he really try to kill his wife and give his daughter away?  Also, I thought some characters, such as Beaver, verged on caricature.

Beaver is only a very minor character, but I agree he could have been more finely drawn. Meanwhile, I thought the mystery of what happened between Annie and Ronald was deliberate.  Annie could remember barely anything of the war – or at least not at the opening of the novel. Perhaps, if her Japanese lover had made it appear he wanted to kill her, in order to save her, then the trauma of this event, and the confusion of her repressed memories, caused her later to think that it was Ronald, and not him, who had tried to murder her?

Claire is also from Singapore.  She said:

I used to live in Peirce Road, and I enjoyed seeing it used as a setting, and reading about all the other places in Singapore, too.

I am sure any reader in Singapore would share this feeling – and I am sure readers outside Singapore would agree Farnham is brilliant at creating a sense of place, using a mass of compelling detail.

Renu from Hong Kong said:

I thought the novel glossed over the issues of female circumcision and child brides.

I don’t think it’s fair to say Farnham glossed over tensions between the Muslim community and others, either in their attitudes to these practices, or in general.  Female circumcision and child marriage occurred within Maria’s story, and this was the backdrop to the novel, with, as I said, events occurring off-page, as it were. I thought these issues were handled sensibly, and sensitively, within the framework of the novel.

December’s Pick

Next month I suggest we read Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement, another historical novel concerned with a mother separated from her daughter, and, in this case, the profound connections between them. It is a sweeping, evocative epic of a mother’s and her daughter’s intertwined fates and their search for identity. 
Geographically, it moves from San Francisco, to the lavish boudoirs of Shanghai courtesans, to the fog-shrouded mountains of a remote Chinese village.
In time, it spans more than forty years, from 1912, until World War 11. It explores pivotal episodes in history: from the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty, to the rise of the Republic, the explosive growth of lucrative foreign trade and anti-foreign sentiment.
The publisher, Harper Collins, claims that The Valley of Amazement returns readers to the compelling territory of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and that she conjures a story of inherited trauma, desire and deception, and also of the power and stubbornness of love.

Let’s see what we think.  Since Christmas intervenes, the next book club discussion will be delayed until Sunday January 5th.  Please do share your thoughts, either by commenting on this post, or by e-mailing  Thanks, and happy reading over Christmas.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Self-Publishing With Alice

Alice Clark-Platts is Asian Books Blog’s digital and self-publishing correspondent. Each month she provides an insight into these rapidly expanding fields. If you are involved in digital or self-publishing in any capacity, and you would like Alice to feature your work, please e-mail

This month, Alice looks at creating a writer’s platform.

Amidst the hustle and bustle and deal-making of the recent Singapore Writers Festival, two days were devoted to a symposium on self-publishing. Speakers included Ravi Mirchandani from Atlantic Books in the UK, Jo Fletcher from Quercus Books, and other representatives from publishing houses Aurora Metro and Penguin North Asia.

Master classes took place in the arts of speed pitching your novel idea, and editing your novel for success. There were also specific workshops on building a market base and the vagaries and pitfalls of e-publishing.  The latter was conducted by Stephen Leather, a journalist turned novel writer who has used the internet, Amazon and Smashwords particularly, to great fruition for his Spider Shepherd thriller series. He spoke at length about the need to create the famed writer’s platform – a base of fans and readers who are tuned into your work; a veritable host of potential buyers, the jingle of whose wallets will lure publishing houses into taking on your book.

Guy Vincent, based in Singapore, has created Publishizer with the aim of tapping into this need. Publishizer is a pre-orders platform for books. It helps authors craft and run a pre-orders campaign to help fund publishing costs and a first print run. All campaigns are free to run and authors who use the company keep all rights and royalties. Publishizer’s first campaign, The Backpacker Chef by Jacqui Treagus, sold US$5240 (262 copies) in pre-orders in 30 days whilst generating a huge amount of publicity around Australia. The Other Side, a children's book by Marc X Grigoroff, sold US$5585 (239 copies) in pre-orders in 30 days.

Publishizer will often present a book to readers with the view to them becoming patrons of a particular project. Should a certain amount be donated, a patron can expect a variety of benefits, including a limited edition of the book, a signed copy, meeting the author – the list is endless. Limiting the benefit can also reap rewards: Grigoroff’s US$50 patron edition completely sold out – the book was limited to 50 patrons.

The publishing industry is discovering that if readers can connect with an author as well as the book, they are more likely to keep buying that author’s work. Having their name on the back cover or attending a launch party, creates this connection, at the same time as helping the author fund their first print run. Whilst there may be snobbery attached to such a process, realistically the practice is not so far removed from literary festivals where well-known authors give talks in front of huge displays of their latest novel and sign copies for their eager fans. Those fans feel more connected to the author because they’ve met them, they know something about their process. The book they take away from such an event, means more to them because of it.

A writer’s platform is akin to that but can help aspiring novelists who either have yet to secure a traditional publishing contract or, for the reasons set out in the post last month, have decided to reap the benefits of self-publishing. Ultimately, novelists want people to read their work whether in hard copy or on-line. A writer’s platform can help create an audience for a writer – a world of fans eager for the next project to come from their pens.

Monday 25 November 2013


Orwell Honoured In Burma

Nearly 80 years after George Orwell’s Burmese Days first hit bookshelves in 1934, it has won the highest literary award in the country where it's set.

The Burmese Ministry of Information announced last week that the unabridged Burmese translation of Orwell's novel was the winner of the 2012 National Literary Award’s informative literature (translation) category. 

The translator, Maung Myint Kywe, told The Irrawaddy newspaper: "I thought the Burmese should read it, and so I translated it." He considers Burmese Days a scathing portrait of both the British and the Burmese. He said his intention in translating the book was partially to inform young people about how the Burmese were discriminated against under British rule: "But Orwell is unbiased, even though he himself is British. He has fairly portrayed how bad the British were, as well as we Burmese, too."

Htay Maung, the chairman of the judges, said Burmese Days was the unanimous choice of his 10-member panel: "We all believed that, contrary to other books on Burma by the British, the novel is quite balanced. Plus, the Burmese translation style is OK and conveys the meaning of the writer well.”

According to The Irrawaddy, translations of both Burmese Days and Nineteen Eighty-Four were last available in Burma in the 1960s, but then all editions were pulped - criticism of the Burmese in Burmese Days and the satirical view of dictatorship in Nineteen Eighty-Four would not have made it past the former regime’s censors.  But after the easing of literary censorship last year the Law Ka Thit publishing house published translations of both. Win Tin, publisher at Law Ka Thit, told The Irrawaddy: “I wanted to publish those books for a long time. I feel glad one of the books I’ve published has won the highest prize in the country, but I’m wondering: what’s wrong with Nineteen Eighty-Four?"

The Golden Point Award

Singapore has four major languages, English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. The Golden Point Award is the country's premier creative writing competition for short stories and poetry; winners in each category are announced in each of the four languages. Organised by Singapore's National Arts Council, the biennial competition aims to promote new creative writing and to nurture local literary talent by providing the opportunity for unpublished writers to be evaluated by a professional jury. Winners of the 2013 prizes were announced earlier this month, and the winning stories and poems in each language can be read here

Finn Writing About Mongolia

It's probably not often you find Finns writing in Finnish about Mongolia, but Rosa Liksom’s Hytti Nro. 6 translated by Lola Rogers, and published by UK-based Serpent’s Tail as Compartment No. 6, has just won a Writers in Translation award from English PEN.    

According to the blurb, Compartment No. 6 concerns a young woman fleeing a broken relationship, who boards a train in Moscow, bound for Mongolia. She chooses an empty compartment – no. 6.  But her solitude is soon shattered by the arrival of Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov, a grizzled, opinionated, and foul-mouthed ex-soldier. As their train cuts slowly across a wintry Russia, towards Mongolia, a grudging kind of companionship grows between the two passengers, and the girl realises that if she works out how to listen, Vadim's stories might just contain lessons for her.

Translation in Korea

The Korea Times reports disappointment in the 2013 Modern Korean Literature Translation Awards, which received only 23 entries,10 of them poetry, although: "it is generally agreed that it is far more difficult to translate a few lines of poetry adequately than the many pages of a work of fiction." As to the fiction, the paper reported that the translations were adequate, but the judges did not read many with pleasure: "That was in part the fault of the translator who failed to create a convincing English style, and in part the fault of the author whose work did not lend itself to translation." Somewhat grudgingly, it seems, the judges awarded the Grand Prize to the translator of Jeong Chan's novel A Report to an Academy.  The Korea Times does not name this translator, and I could not discover his or her identity on-line, but apparently he or she produced a translation that: "reads so well that one can easily forget that it is a translation."

Thursday 21 November 2013

Go There With Gimbal!

A gimbal - and the Gimbal logo
Do you have an iPhone or an iPad? And do you commute? If you answer yes to both, you should download Gimbal, a free app which will transform your daily slog of getting to work into a daily journey of discovery. 

Gimbal is not a common word, even for those who speak English as their first language, so if you have an Asian language as your mother tongue, and you've no idea what a gimbal is, don't feel intimidated - it's a thing of rings and pivots used to keep navigational instruments level at sea.

Not many of us go in for literal seafaring, but all of us engage in exploration conducted through the imagination. So there could not be a more fitting name for Gimbal. The app comes from Comma Press, a UK-based publisher specialising in short stories and international fiction in translation. Gimbal allows you to explore cities all over the world through a variety of short stories from Comma's award-winning and internationally-acclaimed authors, many of whom write in languages other than English, although as Gimbal is an English-language app, all stories have been translated. 

Whether you're riding the train in Beijing, taking a bus in Bangkok, or whizzing along the MRT in Singapore, Gimbal is for you: wherever they are, it's designed to offer commuters an opportunity to escape their surroundings through fiction, by exploring distant cities quite unknown to them.  

So where do you fancy going?  Venice? Istanbul? Dubai? Manchester, because you're a Man U fan? 

Wherever and why ever you want to go, the idea is that you choose a story by location, journey length, genre or mode of transport, and then select either the read function - like an eBook - or the download and listen function - an audio book which comes with a map that follows the fictional journey of the character, with markers containing information about, and images of, real landmarks in the target city.   

Gimbal is very easy to use. I selected my first story by journey length, 5-10 minutes, and picked The Other Man, by Jean Sprackland, the story from Blackpool, a seaside town in northern England. I clicked the read function, and found a horrifying story about a man's encounter with a briefcase that doesn't belong to him. It was creepily compelling, though perhaps a little less drenched with a sense of place than I'd expected, given its inclusion on Gimbal.

At the end of each story is an about the story button. By flipping through the following pages you can find information not only about the authors, but also about the translators.

Gimbal grew out of Tramlines, a project run by Literature Across Frontiers, a UK-based organisation which aims to develop inter-cultural dialogue through literature, to promote translation, and to highlight lesser-translated literatures. Tramlines was a residency project, across 8 European and North African cities, all with tram networks – it’s a pity they couldn't have included any Asian cities served by trams, such as Hong Kong. As it was, writers from Alexandria, Barcelona, Brussels, Istanbul, Manchester, Prague, Riga and Zagreb were paired up, and each visited the other's city, with the task of exploring it by tram, in order to write a story that engaged with local communities - and with local commuters. 

The resulting stories are now all to be found on Gimbal, along with many others. Excluding West Asia (the Middle East), Asia is represented only by China, and only by 3 stories: Wheels Are Round, by Xu Zechen, translated by Eric Abrahamsen, the story from Beijing; Square Moon, by Ho Sin Tung, translated by Petula Parris-Huang, the story from Hong Kong; Squatting, by Diao Dou, translated by Brendan O'Kane, the story from Shenyang.  These are all boundary-stretching stories, also to be found in Shi Cheng: short stories from urban China, part of Comma Press' series of anthologies of short stories, Reading The City. 

Although Gimbal has only 3 stories from Asia, I counted 10 from cities in England, and I have to say I think this is a slightly odd imbalance.  But that's a quibble. Despite thinking Manila, Jakarta, and Yangon are as worthy of inclusion as Oxford, Cambridge, and London, I loved Gimbal - we've of course always been able to go anywhere with books, but how fantastic that authors, publishers and translators are challenging us to travel further than we otherwise might, transported by our phones and tablets, in scraps of precious time we might otherwise have found dreary.


Friday 15 November 2013

Goodbye books, hello stories

According to The Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association (APWTA), Asians spend twice as many hours reading as Westerners.  But Asians don’t just read traditional printed books. The story Deep Love was a hit in Japan in 2003, with each chapter delivered to mobile phones. The Ghost Blows Out The Candle attracted six million readers in China as computer-delivered text episodes in 2006. When it comes to graphic novels, agents in Asia report that they are more likely to strike deals for digital versions, than for printed.

What does this move to digital and mobile platforms mean for the future of the book?

“As digital delivery systems replace traditional ones, the old rules about standard lengths, structures, formats and categories make no sense,” says APWTA chairman, Nury Vittachi. 

Since the borders of the book can no longer be patrolled in the traditional way, APWTA is launching a new writing prize, The World Readers' Award.

The World Readers' Award is not intended for books, but for stories, defined by the organizers as “sustained acts of creative imagination”.
Entries will not be limited either to highbrow literature, or even to fiction. The new prize will be offered simply for “the best read of the year”, including narrative non-fiction.

While an author needs a US passport to be eligible for the Pulitzer, and a work must be published in the UK to be eligible for the Man Booker, judges of the new prize won’t consider an author’s nationality at all, and with this award's emphasis on stories and digital, not books and print, constraints on place of publication are irrelevant.

Instead of geographically-based entry requirements, a broad cultural theme, such as East meets West, or the Indian subcontinent, or the Chinese diaspora will be set for each contest. The idea is to nudge authors away from stock characters and locations, such as those found in political thrillers set in the US, or cosy crime novels set in the UK, to social and physical settings in Asia, where the majority of the world’s readers live. The exact theme for 2014 is currently under discussion and will be announced shortly.

For 2014, entries must be in English. But APWTA wants to grow the award to include Asian languages eventually.

Two prizes will be awarded each year, one for the best published work, and one for the best unpublished text. Penguin Random House has signed up as a publishing partner through its North Asian operation, and winning entrants will be offered a traditional publishing contract.

Judges are to be so-called ordinary readers - whoever they are - not academics, literary journalists, novelists or anybody else with a professional interest in story telling.  Judges for the award for published work will be recruited through the Internet. For the award for unpublished work, APWTA will appoint a diverse panel of judges, drawn from people who read at least 30 books per year.

The distinction between published and unpublished work begs the question: how do you distinguish them in the digital age?  Says Nury Vittachi: “We’re working with the Penguin North Asia office to see where that line will be. We’re trying to encourage fresh writing, rather than have people send in their old, self-published books which have not been successful. But on the other hand, if a text has been seen by only by a small number of people, it could count as unpublished, for practical reasons.”

Writers in Asia are enthusiastic. Mariko Nagai, in Tokyo, says: “This new award subverts the notion of the West, subverts how an award is chosen, and most importantly, it questions the idea of who a writer is, and what makes a book a book.”
Mumbai poet Menka Shivdasani says: “An award such as this one will act as a catalyst to give literature from Asia the attention it deserves.”

APWTA will be publishing details of how to enter before the end of the year.  Further information at:  Join APWTA at

Sunday 10 November 2013

Festival Book Launches

As discussed in the last two posts, both Hong Kong and Singapore hosted literary festivals running Nov 1- Nov 10.  In each city, local publishers took the chance to launch new books. Here's my selection of three interesting-looking titles from each festival.

Launched at The Singapore Writers Festival

Princess Play / Barbara Ismail / published by Monsoon:

New Yorker Barbara Imail spent several years in Kelantan, Malaysia in the 1970s and 1980s, living in Kg Dusun and Pengkalan Cepa, studying Wayang Siam (Malay shadow puppetry) in the Kelantan dialect. The first book in her Kain Songket Mysteries series, Shadow Play, follows the middle-aged sleuth Mak Cik Maryam as she investigates a murder in Kelantan. In this second mystery, Princess Play, Mak Cik Maryam unravels a knot of family secrets, madness, and familiar spirits to solve the murder of a market woman.

The Last Lesson Of Mrs De Souza / Cyril Wong / published by Epigram

Cyril Wong is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of several poetry collections. The Last Lesson Of Mrs De Souza is his first novel. After a long career of teaching secondary school boys, this is Mrs De Souza's final lesson before retiring - and one that turns into a confession about a former student who overturned the way she saw herself as a teacher, and changed her life forever. 

Island of Silence / Su Wei-chen, translated by Jeremy Tiang / published by Ethos Books

Taiwanese Su Wei-chen is a professor of Chinese literature at National Cheng Kung University. This is the first English translation of her modern classic, originally published as 沈默之島 in 1994. In Island of Silence Chen-mian, a young woman with a troubled background, can’t bear the reality of her life, and creates an idealised fantasy existence: "the other Chen-mian" is a happily-married woman with a stable family. Chen-mian is obsessed with islands. She travels to Hong Kong, Bali and Singapore, trying to find a secure hiding place. The lives of the two Chen-mians become more surreal and intertwined, and it becomes difficult to tell where reality ends and fantasy begins. 

Launched at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival

Hong Kong’s Back Yard: A Guide to the Pearl River Delta / Tom Bird / published by Make Do Publishing

Despite the integration of Hong Kong and the cities of the Pearl River Delta (PRD), the PRD remains mysterious to many, even in Hong Kong. The new travel guide Hong Kong’s Back Yard: A Guide to the Pearl River Delta introduces some of the hidden gems of the PRD: from surfer beaches, to artists’ villages, Ming dynasty fortresses to ancestral temples, hiking trails to archipelagos of hidden islands, and much more. It is suitable both for locals and for visitors to Hong Kong with a day or two to spare for exploration.

Vivid Hong KongPalani Mohan / Asia One Books

Vivid Hong Kong is a colourful look at daily life in Hong Kong, as captured on an iPhone camera. Photographer Palani Mohan roamed the streets in all weathers and seasons to compile his personal take on the city. By forgoing traditional photographic equipment, Mohan was able to make his way through the crowds unobtrusively, capturing the everyday, fleeting moments that define the soul of Hong Kong in their purest state and their most evocative and dream-like form.

In The Shadow Of The Noonday Gun / Mike Smith / Self-published

In his first book, former policeman Mike Smith unveils Hong Kong's seedy past under colonial rule, by recounting true tales of corruption and sex, including some gathered from the gambling syndicates typical of the less than salubrious side of Hong Kong. This is Hong Kong noir at its noir-est!

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Hong Kong International Literary Festival

As noted in the last post, the Singapore Writers Festival is currently running at venues across Singapore, and, in an embarrassment of riches, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival is happening over the exact same dates, Nov 1 - Nov 10.  If you're in Hong Kong see the website for venues and ticketing information.  

It seems wilfully aggressive of the two cities to organise their Festivals to compete, but Paul Tam, general manager of Hong Kong International Literary Festival, told me the clash was purely coincidental and that more coordination will take place between Hong Kong and Singapore before dates are set for the Festivals next year.

As you'd expect authors with a connection to China have a big presence in Hong Kong. Inevitably, I suppose, Jung Chang, who is also appearing in Singapore, is attending to promote her latest offering Empress Dowager Cixi.  

Guo Xiaolu, a controversial cultural figure, has found success as both a novelist and as a film-maker. She has published seven novels, including A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, and she is known for blending her heritage of ancient Chinese folk legends with a fresh take on contemporary living. Guo will discuss her forthcoming novel, I am Chinaa love story for modern times, and a vibrantly funny portrayal of multicultural society - it has already received considerable attention in the UK. I am China moves between an immigrants' detention centre in England, where exiled Chinese musician Jian is awaiting an unknown fate, to the seedy bars of small-town America, where Jian's girlfriend Mu has fetched up. Meanwhile, in the lively streets of East London, translator Iona Kirkpatrick is feeling adrift in her life. As Iona deciphers Jian's and Mu’s ink-smudged letters and diary entries she unravels their poignant story to a tragic and powerful end. 

If you prefer comfort reading, food writer and Beijing cookery school owner, Jen Lin-Liu will discuss her love letter to noodles, On the Noodle Road: from Beijing to Rome with Love and PastaFrom China to Kyrgyzstan, and from Iran to Turkey to Rome, Jen Lin-Liu trots around the globe to immerse herself in the rich and disparate cultures of the noodle - along the way she discovers truths about commitment, independence and love.  

Of other events, the panel discussion Asia in Focus looks particularly interesting. Those setting up shop as professional writers in Asia often have to grapple with problems about how to build a rewarding - and rewarded - career in this part of the world. How can you make a decent living?  Where are the agents and publishers? What amount of effort will it take to reach an international readership? Should you stay at home or seek better writing fortunes elsewhere?

Questions such as these will be discussed by an international panel of authors who have all grappled with decisions impacted by cultural, economic, and geographical considerations. Panellists are: Andrew Lam (US/Vietnam), Jason Ng (Hong Kong), Alice Pung (Australia), Ma Jian (UK/China), Sharmistha Mohanty (India),and Glen Duncan (UK)

The Hong Kong Festival has not forgotten its local authors.  Asia in Focus is moderated by Xu Xi, a Chinese-Indonesian native of the city and the author of nine books of fiction and essays - in 2007 her novel Habit of a Foreign Sky was a finalist for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize. She is also editor or co-editor of three anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English; a fourth anthology of new Hong Kong short stories, The Queen of Statue Square & Other Stories, co-edited with Marshall Moore, is forthcoming from CCC Press, Nottingham, UK. She is currently Writer-in-Residence at City University of Hong Kong’s Department of English, where she established and directs Asia’s first international low-residency MFA in creative writing. 


Saturday 2 November 2013

Singapore Writers Festival

The 2013 Singapore Writers Festival, SWF, is running from now until November 10 at venues across central Singapore - if you're in the City see the website for venues and ticketing information. 

SWF includes Mandarin, Tamil and Malay programmes, as well as programmes in English. Alliance Francais and Institut Francais have even supported a session in French with Chinese readings, in which Nobel prize-winning holder of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Gao Xingjian, a naturalised French citizen, will read from his seminal works, and demonstrate how different cultures, languages and art forms have influenced his life.

Of the English language events the In Conversation With and Meet The Author sessions are sure to be popular.

In Conversation With sees authors pairing up for informal debate. Two highlights with strong Asian interest are Romesh Gunesekera in conversation with Fatima Bhutto, and Carol Ann Duffy in conversation with Edwin Thumboo.

Booker Prize finalist Romesh Gunesekera and Fatima Bhutto, who was born in Kabul, grew up in Damascus, and lives in Karachi, will share their views on the fraught notion of home:  its re-imagining through fiction, and ways of negotiating its idealised vision in the fractured, complex reality that is today's mobile world of immigrants, emigrants, refugees, and exiles - I assume even the lucky emigrants, expats? Meanwhile, the UK’s Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and Singapore’s literary pioneer and Cultural Medallion recipient, poet Edwin Thumboo, will read and discuss their poems.

Fatima Bhutto and Carol Ann Duffy will also participate in Meet The Author sessions.  Fatima Bhutto will read from her debut novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, which chronicles the lives of five young people trying to live and love in a world on fire. The novel begins and ends one Friday morning in Mir Ali, a small town in Pakistan's Tribal Areas close to the Afghan border. Three brothers meet for breakfast. Soon after, the eldest, recently returned from America, hails a taxi to the local mosque. The second, a doctor, goes to check in at his hospital. His troubled wife does not join the family that morning. No one knows where Mina goes these days. And the youngest, the idealist, leaves for town on a motorbike. Seated behind him is a beautiful, fragile girl whose life and thoughts are overwhelmed by the war that has enveloped the place of her birth. Three hours later their day will end in devastating circumstances…

More established Asian authors attending include Jung Chang, who will discuss her new book Empress Dowager Cixi: The concubine who launched modern China, a revisionist take on the dramatic, epic biography of the unusual woman who ruled China for 50 years, from concubine to Empress, overturning centuries of traditions and formalities to bring China into the modern world. Jung Chang will discuss such questions as What is the difference between the vision of an emperor, a dictator and a popularly elected leader? And Do all men and women in power have the same idea of Utopia?  

As well as the author events, SWF also includes a host of book launches, especially from local publishers such as Epigram and Monsoon, and a  variety of workshops for as yet unpublished writers, across a variety of genres from comics and manga, to poetry, to memoir, to novels.