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.
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