Thursday, December 20, 2012

7 DAYS AND COUNTING by Suvi Lampila


Two strangers meet, possibly for the first time. Then the countdown begins.


7 Days and Counting is my friend Suvi Lampila's debut novel. I wrote about her book launch last month, and this week she officially released the e-book edition. Her novel features an experimental structure and a thought-provoking ending. The events of the seven days are told first from the perspective of the woman, backwards, and then from the perspective of the man, forwards. The structure plays with one's perceptions and twists traditional plot conventions. Suvi proves that a story can have a satisfying climax and plenty of tension, even when you more or less know what happens "next". She goes far beyond the common practice of putting a scene from the end of the story at the beginning, and reveals surprises with each day.

There's always a danger when reviewing a friend's book that you will be too kind. However, I can honestly say that 7 Days and Counting is an extraordinarily clever piece of writing. It's short, not much longer than a novella, but it packs quite a punch. I finished reading it several weeks ago, but I'm still going over the final scenes in my mind and trying to decide how to interpret the ending. It's a book that forces you to think, and you could easily read it a second time and view it a totally different way. Part of Suvi's inspiration comes from pictures, like the one featured on the cover, that look like completely different things to different people.

Suvi's writing is precise and intelligent. She uses clean descriptions and clever dialogue to slowly reveal the lives of her characters. You get the sense that she always knows what her characters, even the  minor ones, are doing when they are not in the scene. She plays with the idea that there is usually more to people's actions than meets the eye, and human relationships are never simple. This is a book that's worth at least one read, and probably two.


Suvi Lampila's website


$4.50 for the Kindle edition


What other books with a non-traditional structure have you read? Did they work?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bookspotting and Movie Reviews

This is a snowy mountain and ski lift inside a Hong Kong shopping mall.

Compared to last week, I didn't spot very many books this week. I've had my nose in Hugh Howey's Wool, so I just haven't been paying as much attention to the readers around me. I saw a woman with a Hong Kong guidebook standing at the top of the Pottinger Steps. A woman on the train had a hefty mathematics textbook in her hand. I spotted three Chinese books and two comic books this week, mostly on the train, and one man was carrying a thick English paperback with a swirly cursive title through Central Station.

This weekend I also went to see two movie adaptations of books I've read and enjoyed. I tend not to get too worked up about movies not staying "true to the book" and judge the films mostly on whether I was entertained and whether they matched the spirit of the books.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
This story truly doesn't need three films. The Hobbit is a sweet, self-contained novel and this is a rare case of the movie actually adding stuff to fill time rather than cutting it. They even brought in bits from The Silmarilion! However, I enjoyed the story and there were some exquisite visuals. It felt like a director's cut where the filmmakers had time to explore some of the interesting side stories and background vignettes. I liked getting to see more LOTR scenes, even if the film had a meandering pace at times. There were a few duds, most notably the goblin king's final line and Radagast's rabbit sled, but there were plenty of memorable moments too. Martin Freeman gave a splendid performance as Bilbo Baggins and Andy Serkis's Gollum is pure genius.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2
This one is old news for my US readers, but the final Twilight installment actually doesn't come out in Hong Kong until December 20th. I went to see an advance screening on Saturday and I've got to say I think this is the best of the Twilight movies. The ensemble cast of vampires from around the world was a lot of fun. Bella Swan's character really does come into her own, and most of the awkwardness of the first films is gone. This is a story about family rather than romance, and that really sets it apart from the other films. The build-up to the climax was great and I totally bought the surprise ending. I don't want to spoil it if you haven't seen the movie yet! My one complaint is that they didn't have a scene with Alice's back story. I think it would have fit well about a third of the way into the film, and it's one of the saddest and most interesting parts of the books.

Have you seen any good book-to-movie adaptations lately? Spotted any books?

Friday, December 14, 2012

A TIGER IN THE KITCHEN by Cheryl Lu-lien Tan

This is Vietnamese food, not Singaporean, but it's what I had for lunch after Cheryl Tan and Fuchsia Dunlop's Lit Fest talks about food writing left me absolutely starving.


A New York City writer returns to her home, Singapore, to learn how to cook from her extended family.


Cheryl Tan spent her childhood in Singapore, but she has since become a thoroughly Americanized fashion journalist. She doesn't usually cook, and she resents any implications that, as a woman, she should have to. However, like any good Singaporean girl, she loves food, and she dreams of the dishes that made her grandmother a legend in their neighborhood. In this memoir, Cheryl decides to return to Singapore and collect the recipes and wisdom of the women in her family before she misses her chance.

This memoir takes place over one year during which Cheryl makes numerous visits to her family in Singapore. She shares their stories over boiling pots of curry and armfuls of doughs. The women in her family have taken vastly different paths, and it is interesting to see how Cheryl, as a liberated, modern woman, relates to them. Her efforts are clumsy at first, but she begins to understand the cooking processes and the women's choices better throughout the course of the year. She explores her own attitudes and prejudices towards family, motherhood and women's roles as she trails after her aunts and grandmother in the kitchen.

The writing style is very chatty and sometimes sarcastic. There are some very warm scenes between the family members, and it is interesting to see how the author teases out the stories of the family she didn't know as well as she thought. Her enthusiasm for eating is evident, and of course she includes recipes at the end of the narrative. The stories of Singaporean cooking are interspersed with Cheryl's attempts to make bread in her New York apartment as part of a blog challenge, which I found distracting, but it did provide a counterpoint to the whirl of dumplings, pineapple tarts, moon cakes and curries. I'm going to Singapore next week for the Christmas holiday, and this book definitely whet my appetite for some great food.


Cheryl Tan's blog
My reflections from Cheryl Tan's writing workshop at the HK Literary Festival


I bought the paperback at Cheryl's HKILF event. The Kindle edition is $8.


What special dish do you associate with your own extended family? For me it's a type of chicken curry, a recipe that actually came from Singapore originally.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bookspotting on Trains

Last week I spotted a young man on the MTR reading one of the Hunger Games books. An older man nearby was reading on an iPad. I saw something about the science of acupuncture when I took a peek at the screen. I spotted a woman in Mong Kok station holding In the Sight of History while she waited for the train and a man with a John Connolly book in FAB, our new favorite restaurant. On my way home from work on Friday, a young guy standing at the same pole as me on the train had a Chinese/English phrasebook. When I got on the train, he was reading silently, but after I'd been standing next to him for a few minutes (an English paperback in hand) he started saying the English phrases aloud, almost in my ear. Later, when I was taking the escalator out of the station, I spotted someone reading on a Kindle in Chinese! I think it's the first time I've seen Chinese characters displayed on a Kindle screen.

And of course, the big news of this week is that my new Kindle arrived! My mom sent it along with a bag of my favorite Reese's Pieces, which I can't get here. I've already eaten half of the bag and read the first installment of Wool by Hugh Howey (highly recommend it). The K3 is sleek and light and I'm in love with it already. It was definitely the right decision to skip the touchscreen and go for the keyboard model.

What are people reading in your town this week?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi


A young boy works on a salvaging crew on a post-apocalyptic Gulf Coast until he discovers an unusual shipwreck.


Ship Breaker, a young adult post-apocalyptic adventure novel, was part of my self-imposed homework reading during Nanowrimo. Set in a futuristic wasteland, Ship Breaker is the tale of a boy named Nailer who crawls through the wreckage of old tankers looking for scrap metal, wire and oil to sell. He lives on a beach full of territorial ship-breaking crews and desperate, impoverished people. Nailer discovers a wrecked yacht that introduces him to a class of wealthy, warring merchants and a world outside his rough beach home.

Nailer's adventures take him beyond the beach to a drowned New Orleans and onto the high seas. His world is gritty and dangerous. There is no clear explanation for why the country has become the way it is, or if the country as an institution still exists. The story deals with issues of class and inequality through the eyes of a boy who is the lowest of the low, showing mere glimpses of the powerful. Friendship, family and loyalty are what is most important to these characters, and they do whatever they can to help each other survive in a difficult world.

It was refreshing to read a YA book that focuses on friendships rather than romance. There is plenty of action, and the plot clips along at a quick pace, though it founders a bit in the end. Ship Breaker is worth reading just for the world-building in the opening scenes. Bacigalupi's use of metallic, dirty language to create the right atmosphere for the blasted beach is seriously impressive. The reader can feel the grit and danger through the vocabulary. The vivid scenes and stylish dialogue make this a quick, memorable read.


Paolo Bacigalupi's website


$8 for the Kindle edition


A Clockwork Orange is a famous example of a book that uses a unique, stylish vocabulary to create the setting. Can you think of any others that do this?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bookspotting and Kindle-appreciating

It has now been two weeks since my mom sent my new Kindle and it still hasn't arrived yet. In the grand scheme of things, two weeks isn't very long, but it feels like forever. It's making me realize just how reliant I've become on my e-reader, primarily because I can get any book I want instantaneously. There are plenty of English bookstores here, but they usually only stock frontlist titles. Additionally, the imported paperbacks are often twice the price I'd pay for a hardback at home. I've definitely been spoiled by my Kindle, and I can't wait for the new one to get here.

This weekend I spent more time out and about than I have in a while (thank you, Nanowrimo). Even though it was cold and rainy, I spotted three different Hong Kong guidebooks in the hands of various tourists. During the week, a woman sitting next to me on my commute was reading No Man's Land (I looked over her shoulder to confirm the title). The dapper gentleman who always wears nice shoes had a book with the word Food in large letters on the back. LaterI saw a man on the train reading a Chinese book with a big, red 100 on the front. It looked familiar and could have been related to any number of 100th anniversary-type publications. This afternoon, a woman rushing through Central station had a hardback copy of Thinking Fast and Slow in her hand.

What are people reading in your town this week?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bookspotting and Winning

This week, I spotted a Chinese woman on the MTR reading the third book in the Fifty Shades series. Meanwhile, a pair of young women in the same train car were carrying on a loud, derogatory conversation about the books and 'mommy porn'. Clearly, the reader knew English well enough to understand them, so I'm not sure whether they didn't see her or they thought she would be too engrossed in the story to pay attention to their vitriolic conversation. In other bookspotting news, I saw a Western woman in a coffee shop reading on a Kindle and a Western man sitting outside a hookah bar reading on an iPad. On the MTR, I spotted an English book with a swirly cursive title and a Chinese book in the hands of a man wearing some rather elegant saddle shoes. My new Kindle still hasn't arrived yet, and I've dealt with the impatience by purchasing ten e-books in the last ten days (CyberMonday was a factor as well).

In other news, I officially won National Novel Writing Month! I reached 50,000 words yesterday and pushed ahead to 53,000 at writers' group last night. I'm estimating that the story will be finished at 60k, but I have a feeling I'll be adding a lot to it on my next rewrite. In case you're curious, it's an adventure novel about a risk-taking mechanic on a post-apocalyptic cruise ship. I've been having fun writing something that has nothing to do with Hong Kong or Asia for a change.

Have you spotted any books lately? How's your Nanowrimo project going if you are participating?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bookspotting and Nano-ing

This week I spotted a boy reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets near my work. I'm not positive, but I think it was a Chinese edition. The cover image was the same as the British version. Anyone know if the Chinese HP books have their own cover art? Speaking of cover art, I was sitting in a second floor window working on my Nanowrimo project this weekend when I saw a woman carrying The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I recognized the vibrant colors of the cover from my overhead perch. I also spotted two other Chinese books, one English book with a mystery cover and a 2nd generation Kindle around town this week.

I just reached 40,000 words on my Nanowrimo manuscript. There's no way the story will be finished at 50k, so it's full steam ahead into December. You may have noticed there haven't been any book reviews on the blog this month. This is why. Here's what I've read, but haven't had a chance to review yet:

-The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (I'm seeing the movie tomorrow)
-Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
-The Space Between by Brenna Yovanoff
-7 Days and Counting by Suvi Lampila
-A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

I'm halfway through Hope Solo's memoir and The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, and Our Quest to Predict Disasters by Bruce Parker. How's that for an eclectic list!

What are you reading this week? What books have you spotted around your town lately?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bookspotting and Kindle-breaking

Well, folks. It's the end of an era. This weekend my beloved 2nd generation Kindle got crushed. I went to the UFC fight in Macau with my fiance and a few friends, and my purse ended up getting stuck between two seats. When I turned it on the next morning, this was the result:

I've had it for 2 1/2 years and it has served me well. I've already ordered a new one, but in the mean time I'll be catching up on my stack of paperbacks.

This week I spotted a schoolgirl reading a middle grade novel with a bright purple cover. Another teenager was reading a dog-eared copy of The Mysterious Benedict Society. This book happens to be one of the best gifts I've ever received. On the last day of my first year of teaching (in the US), I turned up to my 6th grade classroom to find this book on my desk. Inside, a note inscribed on the first page said, "To my favorite teacher I give my favorite book." I can't even write that without tearing up.

I spotted a man in Starbucks at the Venetian Macau reading what appeared to be Norwegian Wood. A girl on the train this morning had three Chinese books in her arms and a man had a thick red paperback. I also spotted a total of ten novels-in-progress at a meet-up for National Novel Writing Month. I just passed the halfway mark on my own novel!

What are people reading in your town this week?

This is my favorite shot from the fight night

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bookspotting and Nanowrimo

This week, I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month for the second time. Last November, I wrote about 22,000 words that eventually became The Olympics Beat, my mini travel memoir. It was only ever meant to be a short piece, but after finishing I didn't write another 28,000 words to win the challenge. This time around, I'm starting a new novel from scratch, and I'm in it to win. My creative non-fiction comfort zone has been left behind and I'm experimenting with a totally new genre. So far, I've written nearly 14,000 words and met up with six other Hong Kong writers for a write-in. We are having another one tonight, Tuesday, at Holly Brown in Central, so please come along if you're in town!

In the bookspotting department, I saw two women perusing the Hiker's Guide to Hong Kong, whose author, Pete Spurrier, I happen to have met. Another woman had a Lonely Planet Hong Kong guidebook on Queen's Road. I spotted one Kindle near my house and three Chinese books on the train. I was just feeling disappointed with my bookspotting tally yesterday (especially considering how many hours I spent in coffee shops this weekend) when I spotted a woman on the MTR reading The Eunuchs of the Ming Dynasty. What are people reading in your town this week?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bookspotting and Book Launching

This weekend I attended the launch for my friend Suvi Lampila's debut novel 7 Days and Counting. The event was held at Kapok, a unique design shop on Sun Street in Wan Chai. Suvi's book features an experimental, intentionally ambiguous structure, and it has had a unique publishing journey. She originally wrote the book on her blog, receiving constant feedback from a team of editors around the world. Then, she received a grant from the Arts Development Council here in Hong Kong to self-publish her novel. The result is a beautifully-produced paperback featuring original artwork that can be viewed in a number of different ways, just like her story. I'll do a full review of 7 Days and Counting, most likely when the e-book edition comes out later this year.

My bookspotting adventures this week were quite successful. I spotted a man carrying a book by Mike Gayle in Central Station. On the MTR, I spotted a schoolgirl with a middle grade novel titled The Goddess Girls. A Chinese man was reading the Chinese version of Onward, that book about Starbucks, which has an easily recognizable cover. Over the weekend, I spotted a girl reading Lost and Found Girl in a Japanese restaurant and a young man carrying The Honeymoon by James Patterson in an Italian restaurant. Finally, there was a backpacker in Central Station bright and early this morning with one of the Game of Thrones books in hand. My fiance was reading The Sun Also Rises yesterday and I'm reading a non-fiction book about extreme weather at sea in preparation for Nanowrimo.

Have you spotted any books this week?

P.S. If you're a Hong Kong-based writer, we're having a write-in for Nanowrimo at Holly Brown in Central on Saturday the 3rd. We'll get there at noon and write until we can't write any more, then go for dinner. We will also be writing at Holly Brown every Tuesday night. Find us upstairs!

Friday, October 26, 2012

SKINNY: A NOVEL by Diana Spechler


A young woman works at a weight-loss camp in an effort to connect with a sister she didn't know about until her father died.


Gray is a 26-year-old woman who has spent the year since her father's death binge eating. Somehow, she has only gained 15 pounds, but she feels consumed by self-loathing and a hunger that is not about food. She decides to spend a summer working at a weight-loss camp for kids, despite not particularly liking children. While there, she hopes to weasel into the affections of a girl who may be her father's love child. At the camp, her "daddy issues" run rampant and she quickly becomes anorexic with the encouragement of a bone-headed PE teacher.

Self-destructive women do not usually appeal to me as characters. By self-destructive, I don't mean Gray's struggle with eating disorders, which could have made for an interesting premise. The way she treats all the people in her life is horrible and selfish, and I found her quite frustrating. There was a Q&A at the end of the Kindle version of the book in which the author talks about how she intentionally created an unlikeable protagonist. It makes for an interesting read, but it doesn't work for me personally. In fact, most of the characters are unlikeable. The only exception is a girl called Spider, but she leaves less than halfway through the book.

Spechler's descriptions of hunger and eating are powerful, and she goes to great lengths to show Gray's guilt and desperation. The prose is often visceral and evocative. However, her actual response to the various eating disorders in the story is not particularly enlightening. The resolution was unsatisfying, and it felt like a missed opportunity to explore the kinds of hunger that are not really about food by tacking on a stilted, guilty ending. This is a book I might recommend for the strong writing alone, but I'm afraid I didn't enjoy reading it.


Diana Spechler's website


$7.99 for the Kindle edition, though I bought it when it was on sale


Have you read a book you really liked with an unlikeable protagonist? What made it enjoyable/worth reading?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bookspotting and Thriving

This week, I spotted a woman carrying a thick paperback with some sort of green design on the cover in Central station. It looked like the copy of Salem's Lot I got from a used bookstore here. Also in the MTR, I spotted someone reading Sizzle by Julie Garwood. One of the poets at the Wednesday poetry reading I sometimes attend had a book by a prominent literary fiction writer, but I can't for the life of me think of what it was. It may have been Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje. Do you have any other guesses? Another poet unashamedly pulled out her copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. I spotted five Chinese books this week, including a graphic novel, and one textbook. Have you spotted any books lately?

In other news, today I have a guest post on the Live.Write.Thrive. blog about my publishing journey. In it, I talk about how the writing journey can be like training for the Olympics. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Bookspotting and Boating

This weekend I spent the day on a junk boat near Turtle Cove, the same spot where my friends and I saw a whale shark at the beginning of the summer. No sea creatures appeared this time, so we spent the whole time swimming, chatting and barbecuing on the boat. One of my friends was reading Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking on the roof deck. Earlier in the week, I spotted someone reading The Hunger Games, and just yesterday a woman on the train was deeply immersed in Three Cups of Tea. At my writers' group last night, I got to see a freshly printed copy of a novel one of our writers is launching on October 27th. More on that later. I spotted two Kindles this week, one with a keyboard and one without. A travel guide, three textbooks, and four Chinese books rounded out my bookspotting for the week.

National Novel Writing Month starts in two weeks. I got a killer idea for a story when our junk passed a big cruise ship in Victoria Harbour on Saturday. It's unlike anything I've written so far, but I've been taking notes and researching like crazy to get ready to start writing. Are you participating in NaNo this year? Where do you get your inspiration and ideas? If you're based in Hong Kong, we'll be kicking off Nano with an afternoon of writing at Holly Brown in Central on Saturday the 3rd, probably followed by dinner. Let me know if you want to join us!

Friday, October 12, 2012



A writer-turned-psychologist outlines all the major mental illnesses and disorders so that writers will stop perpetuating misinformation.


The author of this writing guide actually decided to become a psychologist partially so she could become a better writer. Wanting to more accurately and fully explore the way people think, she delved into the study of the human brain and what can happen when it is out of balance. The more she learned, the more she realized that a lot of writers get it very wrong when talking about mental illness and personality disorders. This guide uses clear language to explain mental illnesses so that writers can accurately portray and diagnose the symptoms, behaviors and treatments of their characters. The book includes information about the training and ethics of psychologists and psychiatrists as well as their clients.

The guide provides a fascinating overview of the major disorders and then delves into each one using examples from literature, film and history. There are also many examples of the misuse of terms and diagnoses by real writers. One of the most common is mixing up people who suffer from schizophrenia, people with dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities), and psychopaths, all of which are quite distinct. It is also extraordinarily difficult to hospitalize someone against their will, people going to therapy actually want help, no one gets lobotomized anymore, and modern electro-convulsive shock therapy does not cause people to flail around or experience pain.

The author explains the factors, both biological and circumstantial, that cause mental illness with an accessible, balanced voice. She speaks of people who live with mental illness with compassion and precision. I confess that the book left me analyzing everyone around me in terms of mental illness and personality disorders. Human behavior is just so fascinating, and there are literally dozens of ideas for great stories in the pages of this guide. But even if I never write another book, I'm to have some of my own misconceptions corrected. This is definitely a book to hold on to for future reference.


Archetype Writing Blog. Kaufman is also a regular contributor to blogs on Querytracker and Psychology Today.


$9.99 for the Kindle edition


How does it affect your reading when an author gets the facts wrong about an illness or situation with which you are familiar? Do you stop reading? Do you overlook it for the sake of the story?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Hong Kong Literary Festival

With Cheryl Tan at the Hong Kong Literary Festival
This weekend I went to City University in Kowloon Tong for two writing workshops as part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. The workshops were taught by Cheryl Tan, author of A Tiger in the Kitchen and Fuchsia Dunlop, author of numerous Chinese-food-related books, including Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper. It was inspiring to see two women, both journalists, who have turned their passions into admirable careers. In addition to the speakers, I got to meet some cool local writers and catch up with some of my writing friends in the audience. Here's some of what I learned:

Cheryl Tan on mining your family history for stories

Cheryl Tan is the author of a family memoir about how she got to know her Singaporean relatives, and her grandmother in particular, by learning to cook their food. A New-York-based journalist, Cheryl facilitated the workshop by sharing her own experiences and asking members of the audience to talk about what they want to write. She gave practical suggestions for how to get your family members to open up, especially if you want them to reveal the true, sometimes unsavory stories. Some of her tips:
  • think about family members as characters so you can describe them with the necessary distance and accuracy
  • do activities together (such as cooking) to trigger memories
  • ask to see old objects
  • if necessary, play relatives off each other to get a more accurate picture of past events, and then use both accounts
  • make sure your relatives know you will be writing about them so they don't feel betrayed
On memoir writing in general:
  • clean structure is vital, especially when dealing with many characters
  • find a universal feeling or theme that people will understand
  • think about the "newspaper angle" of your story to find what will actually compel people to read it
  • for big projects, approach the story as a series of magazine articles rather than 80,000 words
  • use a present frame for a past story
  • remember that every story you include has to further the narrative
  • remember that the story has to be interesting for someone who doesn't know the people involved
I'm currently revising my Hong Kong travel memoir in preparation for a round of queries, but I'm already looking ahead to my next project. At some point, I would like to write about growing up in a homeschooling family of nine children. My HK book deals with the events of one year and one unconventional love story, so it was relatively easy to structure. With so many characters and such a large time frame, the task of writing about my family is quite daunting. This talk helped me start to narrow down the best way to approach the story.

Fuchsia Dunlop on food and travel writing

Fuchsia Dunlop, a Brit who grew up in Oxford, is one of the most prominent Western women currently writing about Chinese food. She trained at a cooking school in Chengdu, and has since published both cookbooks and travel memoirs of her experiences as a Western woman cooking and eating her way through the wide world of Chinese cuisine. She, too, is a journalist, and she had both encouraging and practical words for writers who are interested in food and travel. Her tips:
  • find a surprise angle to set yourself apart
  • trim excess material (you can practice this by writing for publications with space restrictions)
  • always have a selling point
  • write a blog, both for practice and exposure
  • you have to put in the hours before you'll be able to write the beautiful, spontaneous things
  • always maintain your integrity
Fuchsia's passion for her subject was evident. She encouraged her audience to do what interests them without certain pay off. Although she admits she spent many years writing broke, it has been well worth it in the long run.

Both writers urged their audiences to blog, but they also got me thinking about pitching more pieces to newspapers and journals. While I'm editing my Hong Kong travel memoir, perhaps I'll work on a few short pieces before I jump into my next book-length project.

Are you going to any of the HK Lit Fest events this year?

Thursday, October 4, 2012



A small town battles through rivalries, resentments and a myriad of secrets under the guise of a parish council election.


The town of Pagford is an insular community dominated by "old guard" middle-class residents who have lived there for generations. The Fields, a neighborhood of low-income housing within its borders, seems to be the only thing disrupting the comfort of the little hamlet. But Pagford and its residents are anything but idyllic. Wrapped up in secrets, discontent and agendas in their personal lives, they fight over whether to cut loose the projects and force out a clinic for heroin addicts. When the chief advocate for the Fields dies suddenly, the various townspeople use the election for his replacement to maneuver for revenge, power and absolution. With stakes that get higher at every turn, especially for a fiery 16-year-old girl who lives in the Fields, this novel is full of the gray areas and conflicts that make up modern life.

The Casual Vacancy strikes me as a brave novel. It does not shy away from tough issues in the face of its guaranteed-to-be-huge audience. Characters struggle with abuse, adultery, mental illness, addiction, rape, depression and more. At times it feels like the author had a checklist of all the difficult, sad, adult things a person could experience and included all of them. The interpersonal conflicts are universal and revealing, but the novel also addresses the social situation in Britain quite directly. Class, addiction and welfare feature prominently; I likely don't have a full grasp of how these topics are typically treated in the UK, but Rowling was not terribly sympathetic toward her middle-class characters. Nevertheless, I felt that the novel was insightful, daring and thought-provoking, albeit rather sad.

As a first generation Harry Potter fan (got the first two books for my 11th birthday), I was predisposed to like JK Rowling's first foray into the non-HP book world. Although the mood and themes of The Casual Vacancy were entirely different, I recognized Rowling's ability to engage readers from the first page and keep them wrapped up in a world that might seem inconsequential from the outside. The thing that struck me most about Rowling as a writer was her ability to create vivid, believable characters. After growing so used to her HP characters, it was interesting to see her breathing life into entirely new ones. The people in this novel are flawed, nuanced and sometimes even despicable, and no one comes out of the story looking like a hero. Even so, Rowling's writing style is as engaging as ever, and there was an exciting feeling of experimentation about the book. It goes without saying that this isn't a story for kids, but if you grew up with JK Rowling and are eager to tackle some of the painful, difficult parts of the world through her lens, then I highly recommend The Casual Vacancy.


JK Rowling's author website


The Kindle edition is a shocking $17.99, so I decided to buy the physical copy (which was imported and significantly more expensive, but at least I can lend it to people).


Do you think Rowling went overboard in making this novel "too adult"? What do you think about there being no true "hero" character in this novel?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Lamma Island Ferry

I spent the last twenty-four hours on Lamma Island for the public holiday. Last night, while we were having dinner, the Lamma ferry collided with another passenger vessel and sank it, leaving 37 people dead. The other boat was carrying families to watch the National Day fireworks. I just wanted to express my condolences to the people who lost loved ones in the accident last night.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bookspotting: Week 82

This is your brain when revising fiction.
This week's bookspotting was limited. I've spent more than my usual amount of time in cafes over the last several days, but I've been existing in a revision fog. There is a local writing competition whose deadline is September 30th. I'm using it as motivation to finish my first long work of fiction (currently weighing in at 42,000 words). I finished the first draft before the summer holidays, and now I'm trying to fight it in to shape in time to submit it to the judges. As my first novel (I'm more of a creative non-fiction gal), I'm not expecting to make it very far in the competition, but I really do want to complete the piece. Unfortunately, the middle has been a big, soggy mess and I've had to rewrite the first chapter about 20 twenty times in the last week. (Mom, this is why you haven't heard from me lately. Sorry!) With any luck, I'll learn enough to try another novel when NaNoWriMo season rolls around again...

I did spot one Kindle in the Pure restaurant. A Chinese girl on the MTR was reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and yesterday I spotted a young man reading a comic book on the train. Beyond that, my eyes have been on my computer screen and my Kindle this week. Speaking of which, what do you all think of the new Paperwhite Kindles? If they had a Paperwhite with the keyboard option, I'd upgrade. Alas, I'll be sticking with my trusty 2nd generation white Kindle for the time being.

Are you working on a project that is frustrating right now? What have you been reading lately? Have you spotted any books?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

WILD by Cheryl Strayed


After the death of her mother, a young woman hikes the Pacific Crest Trail alone in search of healing.


The latest travel memoir everyone's talking about follows the 1995 journey of a young woman who feels like she has lost everything. Her mother dies after a shockingly brief battle with cancer, and in the aftermath Cheryl's young marriage crumbles, she makes a series of terrible choices, and her siblings scatter. Left raw and lonely after her divorce, Cheryl sets out to hike from the bottom of California to the top of Oregon alone. Along the way, she tests her body to its very limits and finds peace and healing in the wilderness. She has a self-destructive streak which I found very frustrating, but she is brutally honest about her shortcomings.

Cheryl meets other hikers along the way, but the trail is new and empty enough that she sometimes travels for days entirely alone. She encounters everything from desert heat to snow to lack of water to ill-fitting shoes. The book is full of lyrical descriptions of the emotions Cheryl experiences through these hardships, but not enough about the beautiful, wild parts of the West. I read this book while in Oregon this summer, and it did make me want to wander around in the woods outside my grandparents' house, but it did not make me want to take a trip like Cheryl's.

Cheryl's journey is interspersed with vivid flashbacks, making this more a story of grief than of hiking. On one hand, I appreciated the powerful, personal nature of this story. However, the moments when she stopped to consider some vista and revisit a scene from her past seemed contrived at times. It was apparent that this story was written many years after the journey, and a lot of the actual moments had to be recreated. Even so, the emotions were very real. The prose delved into each feeling, unafraid to linger on the pain, guilt and hope.



$12.99 for the Kindle edition


How do you feel about memoirs that are written long after the experience vs. when the memories are still fresh? Do you think perspective and depth are more valuable than raw immediacy?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bookspotting at The Book Attic

Last night I attended an event at The Book Attic, a lovely used bookstore up a little back staircase in Soho. Owner and booklover Jennifer Li spoke about how she manages the shop, which has garnered attention from the likes of The New York Times and CNN.

The Book Attic has an orderly, computerized system, distinguishing it from the cluttered cacophony of Flow (the other used bookstore in Soho). Jennifer's loyal customer's donate almost-new books in exchange for store credit, and her patrons recognize her passion for bringing English books to Hong Kong. She acknowledged that it can be difficult for a bookshop to survive, especially in a place where many people do not read anymore, but she was full of good stories about the people who come through her doors.

I spotted a few readers this week, including three people with Chinese books. A man in the grocery store was carrying a copy of The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Leaders by Richard McGregor. A woman on the train this morning was reading Pigeon English. I spotted a girl in the lounge of my gym with a huge book (we're talking 7th-Harry-Potter huge) beside her on the table.

What are people reading in your town this week? Do you have a favorite used bookshop?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Expat Women in Asia: Call for Submissions

Dear Friends,
I have an exciting new project in the works and I need your help! I will be the editor for a new anthology of creative non-fiction and memoir by expatriate women in Asia, and I'm looking for contributors. The anthology will be published by Signal 8 Press in the spring of 2014. Many of you are writers, many of you are women, and many of you live in Asia. Please take a look at the information and consider submitting to the collection (or sending it on to your writing friends).

Expat Women in Asia: Call for Submissions

We are seeking contributions from expatriate women in East Asia for a new anthology from Signal 8 Press in Hong Kong. This collection will feature the writing of women who are currently expatriates or who previously lived in an East Asian country. For the purposes of this anthology, we construe East Asia to include Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and the ASEAN countries. All submissions should be creative non-fiction and/or travel memoir pieces that speak to the expat experience in modern East Asia. Potential topics include travel, work, relationships, gender roles, safety, family, and repatriation. We are looking for stories with a strong and personal narrative arc, not just travel guides or descriptions of the places you’ve lived. We hope to make this anthology as inclusive as possible, as well, and we welcome submissions from women from different parts of the world.

Contributions should be between approximately 2000 and 5000 words in length. Each writer will receive two copies of the completed anthology and a percentage of the royalties to be determined by the final number of contributors. Please send all submissions, with a brief paragraph about the author, to shannon [at] typhoon-media [dot] com. Submissions should be in Microsoft Word, .doc or .docx format, and in a standard font. The deadline for submissions is 28 February 2013. This title will be released in paperback and e-book formats in the spring of 2014.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bookspotting: Week 80

I spent this weekend in various coffee shops finishing the second draft of my first novel. It's more of a novella, really, but my deadline is September 30th, so I've been working pretty furiously. Saturday was gloomy, but Sunday was a beautiful sunny day. I set up shop on the back patio of the new Starbucks on Queen's Road. Surrounded by skyscrapers, it's one of the few coffee shops in Central where you can sit outside and enjoy the weather. On the patio, I spotted a couple of Filipino women having a Bible study and a separate group studying a Jehovah's Witness text. There were three Western women reading on the terrace. One had Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins; one had a book by an author whose last name is Koch (there are quite a few Kochs on Amazon); one was taking notes in The Universal Journal. When I got off the MTR this morning I saw someone carrying a Lee Child novel. I spotted four Chinese books this week, one of which had a bright yellow cover. How about you? What are people reading in your town this week?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012



A young girl must deal with the repercussions when her beautiful, terrible mother murders her lover.


Astrid and Ingrid Magnussen are not like other people, at least that's what Ingrid teaches her daughter. She is a magnetic, sometimes ethereal poet who glides through life with cold elegance. Astrid worships her mother and watches her wield power over men who mean nothing to her. When an unremarkable man loves and then leaves her, Astrid watches Ingrid plot and carry out a crime that is both dispassionate and desperate. She finds herself in the foster care system, shuffled between households, mothers and worlds, constantly in thrall to her mother's dangerous influence.

WHITE OLEANDER is viciously lyrical, exploring the pain of growing up in the foster system through unapologetic poetry. I read this novel before summer started, but the descriptions of Ingrid's cold, psychological power have stayed with me. The novel is set in southern California and explores the dry, unglamorous parts of the region with desolate honesty. Some might find the prose overdone, but I appreciated the way the author lingered over the descriptions and images, allowing them to sink and settle.

The language is what makes this novel worth reading, but the characters are also complex, flawed and fascinating. It is not a happy novel, but the relationships and people are fiercely vivid. I'm currently working on a novel, and I've learned a lot from Janet Fitch's model while developing my characters. Ingrid is an extreme character, and the author is not afraid to make her powerful, dangerous and beautiful. I have a tendency to make everyone pretty reasonable, but reading WHITE OLEANDER has challenged me to stretch beyond that and work on creating characters who are truly memorable.


Janet Fitch's blog


$9.99 for the Kindle edition


What character has stuck with you the longest after reading their story? What book did you remember for the language rather than the plot?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Bookspotting: Week 79

This week I spotted two different young men carrying Game of Thrones books, one in front of the bar where I sometimes attend a weekly poetry night and one on the MTR. On Sunday I was in the Mandarin Oriental for some afternoon cake and spotted a young boy with The Adventures of Hugo Cabret. Later, on the MTR, I spotted a man reading an English thesaurus. He wasn't taking notes or anything, just reading. That might be a first for me. I counted four Chinese books this week, not including my adventures in the new Eslite bookstore.

What are people reading in your town this week?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Walking Tour: Eslite Hong Kong

You may remember that when I went to Taiwan last year, I raved about Eslite, the famous 24-hour bookstore. It was packed with readers sitting on the floor, in the corners, hidden behind shelves. It was a refreshing change from the smartphone worship that happens around Hong Kong (I'm guilty of this too). My weekly bookspotting posts started because I was surprised that I could often count the number of readers on my long daily commute on one hand. Taipei was noticeably different. It remains to be seen whether this will have any effect on the reading culture here, but Hong Kong now has it's very own Eslite.

Yesterday, I went to the Hysan Place shopping mall in Causeway Bay to check it out.

The bookstore takes up three floors at the top of the mall.

It has an eclectic mix of Chinese and English books.

The escalators go straight through the middle of the three floors, and you can wander around them in a wide circle as you peruse the books.

The place was packed.

It was nice to see so many people in the shop on a Thursday afternoon.

There were lots of kids, who are about to start school next week...

...and there were tons of people sitting around and reading.

The building itself is lovely, with light wood details and lots of different sections.

The layout might make it difficult to find exactly what you need, but it was a great place to browse.

I liked seeing the Chinese and English books mixed together, though it might have been frustrating if I had been looking for something specific.

They had a large fiction selection, everything from historicals... novels of chivalry.

There were some tall windows looking out on the city, and even those were filled with books.

It was fun to see the American Lit section full of Chinese translations.

The Forum is an area on the second level where there is space for cultural events, readings and bands.

Because there was nothing scheduled that day, it was just full of readers. This also happens to be the spot where the travel narratives are located, which is of course my favorite section.

It's also next to the tea room.

On the literary fiction table nearby, I picked up a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I bought One Hundred Years of Solitude at Eslite in Taipei, so it seemed fitting.

I took the escalator up to the third level...

...which had business books and a number of merchants selling leather goods and miscellaneous jewelry.

Completing the tour, there was also a stationery shop with a nice selection of Moleskins, laptop bags and cards. Overall, it was a lovely bookstore and I was happy to see it doing well so far. It'll be open 24 hours on Thursday-Sunday for the next month, so you should pop in whenever you can.

I will leave you with this inspiring word from one of the binders in the shop.

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