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.