THIS MODERN LOVE: a novel by Ray Hecht My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dots and Demitasse

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This book plays off several shades of the contemporary grunge with a persistent neo-noir gradation. It saturates the cliché and builds it up through every paragraph till it blows into a cumulonimbus of decay. It is a tale of ‘missed connections’ and opportunities. A dystopic dirge keeps throbbing in the background while the four protagonists dance to its tune in perfect psychedelia.

It is hard to go through the book from this frame of reference. We can see ourselves in the pages making love to cellphones and avatars and losing sight of the reality while sinking deep into the mire of a new strain of love, the new romance. No one cares anymore for ‘the real thing’. Is there actually something real? Well, we do not have the time to spare on that kind of discovery. In an age of fast food and digital cash, finding true love seems rather…

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This Modern Love: A Novel by Ray Hecht (Book Review #34) — Review Tales

This review was kindly requested by the Author, Ray Hecht. A brutally honest portrayal of what seems to be the common mannerism of our youth and our society. Here you have four young adults living in four different ways, and each chapter discusses their addiction to technology, their odd ways of connecting to people through…

via This Modern Love: A Novel by Ray Hecht (Book Review #34) — Review Tales – A Personal & Sincere Review On Books Read

Party Members: a gruesome China book review

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Party Members by Arthur Meursault is an intense, ugly, gruesome work of fiction that will leave most feeling nauseous. It’s also a page-turner that is kind of essential reading for China observers. Reader discretion is advised, be aware that this one may offend many if not all…

Basically, the novel is a satire which viciously critiques the excesses of contemporary post-economic reform China. As titled Party Members, it stars a low-level Communist party member who lives in a third-rate polluted city and decides to indulge in the very worst of corruption. It is incredible how far it goes, which is a testament to author Meursault’s mind in both imagination and depravity.

The protagonist, who is certainly no hero of the story, is Yang Wei. He starts out as a very unremarkable Chinese man. “Not one in a billion, but one of a billion,” exceptional in his mediocrity. The story starts out critiquing how dull and quaint the average Chinese citizen can be in their complacency, but soon Yang Wei stands out indeed as being a particularly shameless party member.

To be specific, one day Yang Wei’s penis starts talking to him and pushes him to literally act like a dick in order to get what he wants. So begins an series of progressively worse moral failings, from familiar disrespect to copious descriptions of prostitution and shallow consumerism. The literary critic in me ponders whether hearing of voices represents schizophrenia, or if an unreliable narrator device is at play. Although later scenes seem to indicate that it is ‘true’ in the world of the story, for reasons unknown his penis seems to gain the ability to speak and thereafter instructs him to be a terrible person.

Comparisons of Irvine Welsh’s Filth come to mind, which was about a corrupt police officer who had a tapeworm that could talk. Somehow, Meursault is even able to outdo the famed Welsh in writing vulgarities.

Despite whether or not the particulars of the story will appeal to all readers, Party Members is mostly well-written by technical standards and stays interesting one way or another. However, the descriptions can get too dense, and there are far too many adjectives. Even several long-winded speeches, satirical as they are, can come across as whiney nihilistic teenage rants. “The only way to be successful is to be a complete and utter dick… Just shit all over it!” More often than not the novel descends into telling not showing, with plenty of words such as “scumbag” thrown around in the narrative, unnecessarily reminding the reader how to judge the various scenarios.

Subtle, Party Members is not. Crass and disgusting, it still can’t be denied that it reads fast. It’s also hilarious at times, with ridiculous situations one can’t help but laugh at. In a sick sort of way. From toilet humor (there is actual drinking of piss as part of a scam marketing campaign), to the recurring theme of copiously describing greasy KFC food.

Yet, as the plot goes on it gets uncomfortably worse. Once the chapter about the child named Shanshan comes—which is about a terrible urban legend in China concerning car accidents and homicides—it becomes very hard to read.

The ending is legitimately horrifying. The question remains though, is this strange China tale supposed to be classified as horror?

Most unlikable protagonist ever. Which is of course the point.

It must be said that China is an enormous and complex country, with major problems but it may not be fair to look at it through the lens that Party Members embraces. The most cynical possible interpretation of Chinese society is a point-of-view worth exploring through this book, but there is a bigger picture and hopefully this isn’t the last word when it comes to China fiction. Meursault is certainly very knowledgeable about China issues and a talented wordsmith, but it just doesn’t seem healthy to focus that intently on the worst of the worst with no solutions whatsoever. Perhaps the genre is dystopia, in that case? Dystopia which takes place in the present.

All in all, reading this will leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. And being able to do that is something of a literary feat, in a way.

 

Party Members is available on Amazon.com and the ever-offensive Arthur Meursault blogs at arthurmeursault.com.

 

Of Gods and Mobsters by the Hong Kong Writers Circle

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Of Gods and Mobsters is a 2013 anthology of short stories published by the Hong Kong Writers Circle (you may recall that I participated in a podcast for the HK-based literary society). The Writers Circle publishes anthologies on an annual basis, and this volume in particular was recommended to me. I am pleased to report that the stories are excellent and the quality of writing coming out of Hong Kong is very high indeed.

The stories are grouped together into three parts: Of Gods, Of Tales, and Of Mobsters. Broadly speaking, the stories are split between the genres of magical realism and crime. The pervading theme throughout all are unique examinations of modern cosmopolitan experience—specifically within the strange land of contradictions that is Hong Kong.

The first and longest part tells stories of Western mythology in this Eastern-yet-international setting, which range from James Joyce-esque references to Neil Gaiman-style stories of ancient gods in the contemporary era. Several stories star the Mount Olympus pantheon, starting with Reena Bhojwani’s Hidden in the Night, an entertaining romp about Apollo and Zeus and Hera interacting in the city. Makes for very interesting juxtaposition.

The middle section, Of Tales, still fits with the style of the rest of the book. Aber Revisited by Joy Al-Sofi is a fable in the style of Kipling full of talking tigers, yet the tiger is represents Chinese symbolism. One of the best stories is The Standard by the anthology’s editor SCC Overton, a tragic science fiction romance about the fascinating concept of ethnic minority DNA becoming the future currency standard. It is a genre-bending story, very literary and very poignant. A futuristic banker of all people falls in love with a woman who is a Hakka specimen carrying her people’s genome for the sake of the economy. What a way to capture the essence of Hong Kong.

The final part Of Mobsters exemplifies the spirit of such themes by taking a myriad of story-telling directions. Some mystery, some even satire. Midlife Triad by James Tam is about gangsters in jail who are fans of ‘wuxia’ pulp stories. Guanxi by Edmund Price contrasts the rich (literately) high-life on the Peak, with corrupt Filipinos who break into the world of one wealthy man. I found The Curious Resemblance to the Case of the Speckled Band by Kim Grant very charming, an amusing postmodern take on Sherlock Holmes about a fan who happens to named Holmes who bumbles and strives to be a detective, and actually has a wife named Watson. And The House by Melanie Ho references the board game Clue (known as Cluedo in some countries).

Perhaps the best is saved for last with Ian Greenfield’s story Mr Tse and the Pied Piper of Homantin, which ties the entire anthology together well. The story is both a crime story, and an homage to fairy tales of old. A great satire full of quips on Hong Kongers complex relationship with mainlanders, the shallowness of pop stars, and the prevalence of parent’s dependence on tutors. Ostensibly a retelling of the Pied Piper (also with Snow White, Miss Muffet, and even vampires therein), Mr Tse finds a way to use its structure lambaste nearly everyone in Hong Kong.

Like any anthology, Of Gods and Mobsters has many different short stories of various styles and each may not suit all readers. However, no matter a reader’s preference it cannot be denied that the quality is always high. Not to mention, there are also poems of depth sprinkled within for yet more diversity if one isn’t just into prose. The only major criticism, as it goes with expat literature, is that much of it might only make sense if the audience is familiar with the area. One frequent phrase is “Fragrant Harbour”, which of course is a literal translation of the characters for Hong Kong, but that wouldn’t necessarily be known to most around the world. Nonetheless, for fans of the region the book is sure to have many stories exemplifying the spirit of 香港…

Available in Hong Kong bookstores and on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

Book Review: Threads of Silk

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Threads of Silk is a new historical novel written by Amanda Roberts — blogger at TwoAmericansinChina.com — and published by Red Empress Publishing, which is sure to fascinate fans of Chinese history. The novel is about one woman’s perspective in the twilight of the Qing Dynasty (which ended in 1911), and is full of historical details. The author certainly did her research; the world of Threads of Silk is grand and exotic and rings true.

The story opens in rural Hunan and is told through the character of Yaqian, a poor girl who raises silkworms and enjoys her simple life in the countryside. After being taken up by upper class mentors, she learns embroidery and is eventually taken to Peking where she stays for the bulk of the novel. The capital city is full of politics, treachery, funerals, the aging dowager empresses, the final child emperor, and there’s even a prince. Yet this is no fairy tale by any means.

The start is somewhat on the slower side, focusing on the atmosphere of the time, and the narrative pace eventually picks up. The bulk of the tales take place within the Forbidden City, a most fascinating setting, although there is a sense that all what goes on in all of China is crucial.

Year by year Yaqian survives and grows. It’s the details that makes the stories feel truthful. Roberts paints an era of intrigue with Han Chinese versus Manchu. Much of the book is also focused on cruelty towards women, and there is ample material full of foot-binding and all the minor crimes that were part of society at the time. Ultimately, the strength of the main character shines through. Especially when it comes to the overlap of politics and family…

The country of China irrevocably changes in the course of these pages, but overall it is a human story about the people who are caught up in history. Right up until the end.

The novel covers such a grand and ambitious scope that it occasionally feels like there is a checklist of historical events to go through. It does work, and it is somewhat the point of the novel to show how a woman of humble origins would have witnessed all that occurred. For the most part the flow works with Yaqian’s life, and the exposition is part of the interest in reading Threads of Silk.

Available on Amazon

Book Review: South China Morning Blues

adventures abound

Almost two weeks later, I’ve finished Ray Hecht’s South China Morning Blues (2015). At 349 pages, this fiction novel definitely should not have taken me as long to finish. I probably could’ve dedicated one weekend to it, but this is nonetheless a pretty good pace for my 2016 reading goals.

Last night, while on the final section of the book—the book is divided into three main sections: Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong—I got ahead of myself and started preparing to write this review. As I Googled the author, I came across his blog and soon enough his WeChat ID. I added him.

What happened next is likely the coolest thing that’s happened so far this year. Not only did he add me back, but we also ended up agreeing on my interviewing him on the book.

“I am 100% interested,” he said. (!!)

Of course, the exact details remain TBD. It could be for GDTV…

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Book Review: Tiger Tail Soup

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Tiger Tail Soup by Nicki Chen is a historical novel of the Pacific War, from the point of view of a Chinese woman. Author Nicki Chen is an American who gained a Chinese surname by way of marriage, and any reader will fully sense her fascination with China. She has done the proper research for such a novel. She takes the voice of An Lee, a strong-willed woman who gets left behind to raise children and live with her mother-in-law when her husband goes off to war.

The novel opens in 1946, then jumps back to 1938 and slowly goes through the war years until the epilogue rounds out back to the original year. Full of fanciful language and observations on gender roles in traditional societies – from the Qing Dynasty to the Republic era – and conflicts start off with simple things like getting a perm to look modern and soon grow to horrifying proportions.

Basically, the narrative takes place within the mind of the introspective narrator. Early on, darkness looms from afar. She carries a son in the Year of the Tiger, and is given fortunes of greatness. Then her engineer husband Yu-ming is conscripted as an officer, and most of the novel is about what happens to the war-weary women who are left behind.

At times, the narrator gets too lost in her own thoughts, endlessly reflecting and repeating herself as she dwells on her family and lot in life. The flow suffers for it, but that is the nature of this kind of story.

When the bombs begin to drop, the tone changes dramatically. The violence becomes very real, and that is of course the nature of war.

The chapters of the book are divided into seasons and year, and tales of pregnancy and childbirths and contrasted against the distant war. Themes of life and death. A son is born, a father seldom seen. There are attempts to let life go on, as schools remain open. An Lee’s husband’s letters are very important, describing being in the midst of the war. Yet overall it’s still a tale of women. And the emotions always outweigh any action. Time moves on and children age, with snippets of tragedy throughout. Some of the most powerful imagery in the novel concerns simply going to the beach and seeing Japanese battleships. And the suffering grows.

Tiger Tail Soup is not an objective overview of the war, but simply one deep character’s perspective. The hatred against the Japanese even seems one-sided, although in this context it is certainly well-deserved. The reader must remember that it is first-person narrated novel, not a textbook.

The historical aspect stays interesting as the book goes on, with references that range from the Gone With the Wind film to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Halfway through the plot does thicken, and An Lee joins a resistance league which engages in street theater performances. There are arguments, politics, more conflict. When she does finally meet her husband again, and one son meets for the first time, war has changed and hardened the man. Hardened everyone.

Bringing another child into this war-torn world proves to be the greatest tragedy of all in the end. When the worst most possible violence happens near the end of the novel, it is very jarring.

The theme above all is survival, and is best summed up this quote: “It was my fate to live in a time of war, and I bloody well was going to be one of the survivors.”

Tiger Tail Soup comes recommended for readers interested in this period of China, and for anyone who might wish to learn about the human cost of war. Available on Amazon.

Book of the week – South China Morning Blues

(The following review was posted on Susan Bloomberg-Kason’s website, author of the engaging tell-all memoir Good Chinese Wife. I am honored that she appreciated my novel, and in several weeks we will be participating in a panel at the Hong Kong literary festival. Please see her website and the links below for more.)

 

http://www.susanbkason.com/2015/10/04/book-of-the-week-south-china-morning-blues/

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For almost a year, I’d been hearing about Ray Hecht’s forthcoming novel, South China Morning Blues (Blacksmith Books, 2015), which comes out from the publisher on October 15 and on Amazon later this year. When the author sent me a review copy, I found myself pausing at every break during the day and evening to get in more reading. This is not one to miss!

Most China novels and memoirs take place in other regions besides the Pearl River Delta. Hecht’s book is different in that it’s separated into three sections named after cities: Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. I haven’t been to Shenzhen in 17 years and Guangzhou in 19, but felt like I was being transported back to a place I once knew well and one I’d visited a couple times, respectively. And I think I know Hong Kong well, so was excited he kept that one for the end.

Through his writing, Hecht shows he’s an adept observer of life in southern China and Hong Kong, capturing the spirit of each place he writes about and the issues that define these places. His twelve characters appear throughout the book and each brings a different perspective. There are English teachers, a journalist, artist, businessman, and a young woman who marries an old Taiwanese sugar daddy, to name some.

The format of the book is quite clever. As I mentioned above, it’s broken into three sections according to locale. But within each section, the chapters are arranged according to one of the twelve characters. Hecht doesn’t label the chapters with the characters’ names, but rather by the Chinese character of their zodiac animal. My short-term memory is not the greatest, but I found I had no trouble keeping up with which character was which.

It was fascinating for me to read about dating in Shenzhen and Guangzhou since I had heard some stories from my ex-husband’s friends who moved south to Shenzhen for better working opportunities. But I never knew foreigners who lived in Guangzhou back then, so that part was new to me. And the Hong Kong section was fun and completely realistic with many of the characters ending up at a rave on Lamma Island.

This is a dense book, yet a quick read. If you have trouble keeping the characters straight–which you shouldn’t have since I seemed to manage all right–you can always flip back to the list of characters and their zodiac animal at the front of the book. The stories are not always happy (in fact, more often than not they are pretty depressing), but they are realistic and tackle issues that many young people–expats, locals, and those who relocate from other parts of China–face every day.

The book is available for a GoodReads raffle until October 14. Click here to enter. I’ll be appearing with Ray at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on Sunday, November 8 at 3:30pm. For more tickets and more information, click here.

 

 

Shenzhen Daily

SZ Daily
Occasionally I write (and edit) for the local English-language newspaper of Shenzhen, the Shenzhen Daily. All very official. The only English daily in South China…

It’s not much in the realm of hardcore investigative journalism, but some fun lite reads herein. Here are a few humble lite posts worth resharing:

Hong Kong ASSEMBLING Art Exhibition Features Shenzhen-based Artists

Shenzhen-Based Artist Wins Award in Hong Kong

Interview/Restaurant Review: Canadian Opens Vegan Restaurant

Book Review: Good Chinese Wife

Book Review: No City for Slow Men

Film Review: The Wind Rises

Futian District: A Holiday at Lianhua Hill

Interview: American Expat to Run Marathon in Australia

Interview: Expat Cycles to India for Good Cause

Interview: American Starting Local Volunteer Group

Editorial: Kimmel’s Apology Merits Acceptance

Restaurant Review: Vegetarian Oasis

Review: Marlene and Sofia – A Double Love Story

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http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00LGXESSA

(Free eBook edition available, today only!)

“Marlene and Sofia – A Double Love Story,” the latest from Portuguese author Pedro Barrento (author of the whimsical-yet-deep Prince and the Singularity) is an ambitious novel.

Complex and thought-provoking, it can be hard to follow the various plots and diaries and takes a while to understand how this would considered be a love story. Characters introduced in separate storylines are slowly developed and then interact with each other, as the reader discovers their connections – be it by relatives or online interaction. The title characters Marlene and Sofia themselves take a while to appear. Then there is Joaquim, Manual who is father to Sofia, and the fling with Tiago. Some chapters are flashbacks to an earlier time as well. Pasts, from the sordid to the innocent, are revealed.

Right from the beginning, there is a clever metatextual section about how best-selling authors the world over secretly being assigned settings and characters by a mysterious imposing body. It is satirical and amusing, and oddly enough it rather fits with regards to Hollywood-style rules in the Writer’s Guild.

But this is no Hollywood formulaic story. It has more depth than that. There are treatises and quips on freedom, sexuality, family, and youth. Observations on the advantages of a simpler authoritarian past versus a bureaucratic modern democracy. Conversations about Marxism. Cynical takes on how men and women treat each other. Tragic short stories that are harsh critiques on sexist conservative 1940s culture, contrasted with the burgeoning sexuality of other character’s histories. Hints of supernatural forces at play. Digital futurism, and more.

In one early scene, an old man walks a dog and the narration describes the differing sensory perception of each species, and then states “they walked along together, but in two distinct universes.” It’s a nice line, and upon reflection it’s also just might explain more to what this story really means…

Halfway through the story becomes extremely intriguing, and gets into more science-fiction cyberpunk elements. Profound questions on the nature of experience and reality arise. Re: worldfromyoursofa.com (Not a real site, yet.)

And, inevitably, as we all know, the uses of the latest digital technology tend to immediately be co-opted by humanity’s baser sexual instincts. As even the most proper old lady users end up paying an online service to see the world through another’s eyes, it quickly escalates to something explicit. And what of those providing the online services, how do they process what they have done?

There are many surprises as the story goes on, and you’ll have to read for yourself to understand the rest. It’s always charming, always makes you think, this double love story. “Marlene and Sofia” is a unique novel unlike anything else out there.

Book Review: The Tibetan Affair

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http://www.amazon.com/The-Tibetan-Affair-Three-stories-ebook/dp/B00JTI91WM

The Tibetan Affair by Wang Xiao Hui is a novella which also includes two short stories. An interesting look into the world of Chinese journalists and the conflicts in Tibet, the main novella offers a readers an opportunity a window to observe this little-known scene.

The introduction comes slowly at first, opening with the personal lives and drama of the Beijing TV crew before they head to Tibet. There are interesting anecdotes along the way, such as the issue of altitude sicknesses and various vices.

Mainly the story centers around Mickey, who is bored of his wife and loves a younger coworker. Trouble comes when they do get to Tibet, from rocks thrown at trains to sexual tension in the hotel room.

Largely a critique of both the reactionary Chinese government and the hypocritical, submissive media, the journalists interview the police who expound on their obviously ridiculous views about foreigners the CIA and the Dalai Lama… Then conversations start to get more cynical, with takes on selling out your own country. The truth comes out and there is a bit of real journalism, but in a certain self-serving way.

But that’s just a backdrop to the romantic plot, which is the meat of the story. The sex scenes are quite steamy. Dreams are a constant theme as well; sexual dreams, dreams of jealousy, and strange nightmares. The plot patiently develops until the romantic plot overlaps with the journalism plot, and then they literally *climax* into a tragic ending.

It’s all too brief, and sometimes the story could have used more action and more character development. There are interesting vignettes and intriguing descriptions, but just not enough going on. The Tibetan Affair is very much worth a read, but it would have been a stronger story with simply more going on.

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Book Review: No City for Slow Men

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Despite Hong Kong’s reputation for being very welcoming to foreigners, it’s not always that easy for expats to deeply understand the city. Hong Kong is famous for its international style, and people from all over the world enjoy the city’s comforts, yet there remains a barrier between the locals and those who hail from other places.

To share the truth about Hong Kong culture with the English-speaking world, Jason Y. Ng — resident blogger and columnist for Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post — has written “No City for Slow Men,” covering every subject an HK-phile could ask for.

Published by Blacksmith Books, the book contains 36 essays and covers a broad range of topics. For some writers, it might be a struggle to have so many chapters and keep the quality high, yet every line of Ng’s prose is well-written and full of crucial information for piecing together the puzzle of Hong Kong’s identity.

Split into three parts, the first section “Our Way of Life” concerns corrupt property tycoons, the culture of taking out loans for expensive watches, and the rise of Taobao. The title piece “No City for Slow Men” is about one of the very first impressions a visitor of the city will have — the high speed of life. Ng laments about the lack of relaxation when he writes, “Hong Kong is charming when it is bustling, but loveliest when it is tranquil.”

The second part, “Our Culture,” contains such topics as Chinese New Year and includes many interesting childhood anecdotes. The autobiographical element starts to seep in, which shows off some of Ng’s best writing. There is more on restaurants and cooking, which is, of course, very important to Chinese culture worldwide, as well as an overview of the history of the city and the famous sites that rapidly changed through generations and development.

Finally, “Our Identity” has some of the most compelling pieces of all. “HKID” says it best: Hong Kong is stuck somewhere between the Chinese mainland and the rest of the world, and that causes a bit of an identity crisis. The tense relationship with the mainland is an important point, reaching new lows with the labeling of mainland tourists as “locusts,” which Ng points out is an undeserved reputation. A letter from a mainland student best expresses the argument against prejudice. Another major theme is the contrast between the lives of expats and locals — with their gambling by way of cards instead of mahjong, the strange sport of rugby and lack of Cantonese fluency.

The plight of the domestic worker is an especially important topic, written about with great heart. The personal stories of abuse and tragedy of Indonesian and Filipino maids are very moving. Ng is certainly a compassionate writer and should be commended for bringing these issues to the public’s attention.

As the book concludes, the final essays cement the autobiographical element. After a piece detailing Ng’s struggles with stuttering in his early life, the penultimate “My Father the Artist” goes over the very man whose illustrations pepper the book. It all ends with a touching interview of the author’s mother.

As an emigrant from Guangdong Province who struggled through years of tumultuous change, from poverty to a happy retirement abroad, she best exemplifies the contradictions that make up the history and identity of Hong Kong. “All these years, mother and son have been swept up in a complicated dance of love and reticence,” Ng writes. “Each aching to reassure the other of their happy existence.”

“No City for Slow Men” is available at bookstores in Hong Kong and on Amazon.