Monday, August 25, 2008

How Green is My Grammar?

Even after writing for the last few years, I cannot say I'm an expert at English grammar. I'm not bad and I've internalized most of the rules of grammar. But don't ask me to conjugate verbs. That would be painful. Sometimes, what I need is the grammar police, but aside from an IFWA member, they don't really exist.

Or do they?

Jeff Deck and Ben Herson of the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL) have been travelling throughout the United States stamping out as many types as they can find "in public signage and other venues where innocent eyes may be befouled by vile stains on the delicate fabric of our language." You can see a map of their travels by clicking on the link to their website.

In an interview, Jeff Deck said he has had a passion for eradicating typos since he was young and with this tour hopes to raise awareness of typos. He also said the most frequent typo he finds is the misuse of the apostrophe.

Not everybody values their form of public service. On August 11th, they plead guilty to conspiracy to vandalize government property in Grand Canyon National Park when they used white out and permanent marker to correct a typo on a historical sign that was painted over years ago. They were sentenced to a year's probation and banned from National Parks for the period of one year.

During that year, it would be amusing if the members of TEAL travelled through China correcting the grammar on "Chinglish" signs. Although the Chinese government tried hard to exterminate Chinglish signs for the Olympics, I'm sure a few like the one shown here got missed.

This week's Reason to Read: The Last Concubine by Lesley Downer. The author of Madame Sadayakko: the Geisha that Seduced the West and other non-fiction works about Japan has finally written a novel about Japan. The Last Concubine is an epic novel about Japan in the 19th century. Sachi is only 15 years old when she is given to the Shogun as his concubine. She escapes amidst civil war after the Black Ships arrive and she begins a journey of self-discovery.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Write Dharma 2 – There’s Something About Ami

I just finished the Conversion Writer’s Workshop and had part of the novel I am working on, The Last Miko critiqued. The workshop was a fantastic experience and I got a large number of good crits for my novel. I also have a lot of thinking to do. It was our facilitator who gave me the bombshell.

He said that every writer has two minds: a craft/technique mind and an artistic/muse mind. Writers who are good at craft will write competently and formulaically, whereas writers who are good artistically will surprise. You can’t craft surprise. The best writers, the ones who are recognized for their work, use both minds. He said I am a good craft mind writer (like himself) but I seem to be pulling punches. I had to put a sharp edge into my writing. In other words, I had to let my artistic mind take over once in a while.

I know what he means. I don’t often let my artistic mind take over because I am so focused on craft and I don’t really trust my muse. But when I do, sometimes, I do something right.

Case in point: Ami. More than one person, in fact half of the workshop participants, said they loved Ami. Not liked, loved. Ami had a short, five page appearance in Chapter 2. I didn’t do much with her either. She was a foil for the main point of view character. Yet they loved her? She was amazing. They cared for her. I was quite taken aback by these comments. Then someone asked me how I did it. How did I get everyone to care so deeply about her in so few words?

The answer: I don’t know. Ami came out of nowhere. I originally wrote her in an earlier draft of Chapter 2 but then scrapped the whole thing and started fresh – new setting, new characters, new plot. The draft I submitted to the workshop hadn’t even been polished. I guess I discovered the diamond at the core of Chapter 2 and her name is Ami. And I still don’t know what I did right.

The only thing I can think of is that my muse was kind to me that day.

This Week’s Reason to Read:Shanghai by David Rotenberg

Most noted for his Zhong Fong mysteries (also set in Shanghai), Canadian author David Rotenberg has written a thick, page turner of a book that will remind readers of the Clavell's novels Shogun and Tai Pan. The novel centers around two families, both descendents of Emperor Qin, the first Emperor of China, locked in a multi-generational feud. This is not-to-be-missed reading.

Monday, August 11, 2008

All Eyes Trained On Beijing

The Eye of Jade
by Diane Wei Liang

Rating: ***

Culture Shock: ****

To celebrate Beijing’s 2008 Olympics, for the next two weeks I am going to review novels set in modern day China. This is the first.

Although you may not be aware of this, but there are quite a few English language mystery novels featuring hard-boiled Chinese detectives. Two that come to mind are Zhong Fong by Canadian author David Rotenberg and Inspector Chen by Qiu Xiaolong. Both of these detectives are male and both work, for good or ill, within the confines of the Communist system in Shanghai .

The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang gives us a new protagonist in this otherwise brutal profession: a female private detective living in Beijing. Mei Wang, a former member of the Communist Party’s Ministry for Public Security opens her own private detective agency against the wishes of her sister and her mother, both whom feel she doesn’t have enough guanxi, or contacts, to make it in business. She is far from being a hard-boiled style of detective, though she does ply through the seedy streets of Beijing. Instead, she represents the clash of cultures; the battle which is going on in modern China everyday. She is a modern, female capitalist finding her way through the maze of China’s Communist traditions.

I enjoyed reading this book. It does not read like a conventional mystery novel. After introducing us to Mei, it meanders through her life taking us on a trip into her past and to her sister wedding before plunging us into the main mystery involving her uncle's request to find the Eye of Jade, a jade seal lost during the Cultural Revolution.

When the plots do run into each other, the collision is satisfying and says a lot about life in modern China . Some readers might get frustrated waiting for so long for the author to get to the point, but the details about Chinese society under Communist rule and good character development will keep the astute reader turning the pages.

This book is an easy and breezy read for the summer cottage. I await the second Mei Wang novel, Paper Butterfly, due out in May, 2009.

Rating: ***

Culture Shock: **** Details about guanxi and life in modern China are well detailed and easy to understand.

This Week's Reason to Read: The Ancient Ship by Zhang Wei

Originally published in 1987, two years before the Tiananmen Square protests, Zhang Wei's award-winning novel is the story of three generations of the Sui, Zhao, and Li families following the creation of the People's Republic in 1949. It is a bold examination of a society in turmoil, the struggle of oppressed people to control their own fate, and the clash between tradition and modernization. Translated into English for the very first time, The Ancient Ship is a revolutionary work of Chinese fiction that speaks to people across the globe. It was released to Canadian booksellers on August 8, 2008, just in time for the Beijing Olympics.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

I Am Rich...This Icon Tells Me So

Asians have a reputation for loving their cellular phones. You would be hard pressed not to see an Asian texting furiously or talking incessantly for hours on the latest cellular gadget. And the rates for using them in China are among the cheapest I have ever seen (The equivalent of $20.00 a month for 1000 "anytime" hours in Hong Kong - and that was 3 years ago. I am sure prices have changed since).

Blackberries have simply upped the ante. If you use a Blackberry, it tells the world that you must be somebody - a business mogul on the go who is so important that he must be connected to his office at all times.

So, it comes as no surprise that somebody thought of selling this icon (pictured here) as an App (short for Application) for Apple's new iPhone and iPod Touch. It says "I am Rich" below the picture of the glowing red jewel. Created by Armin Heinrich, it is a work of art that costs $999.00.

What does it do? Nothing. He's not trying to scam you either. It does nothing and he tells you up front. It's just a one square centemeter status symbol that reminds you and tells the world that you are rich enough to buy it. Well, at least someone is getting rich from it.

Oh, and if you press the icon, it will show you a secret mantra that will help you stay rich and healthy.

Mine says: "I wasn't born yesterday."

Japanese Shark Tank

Shinjuku Shark by Arimasa Osawa

Rating: ****

Culture Shock: *****

Summary: Jump the shark and discover Japanese noir at its finest in the first of a long-running series of mystery novels to be translated into English.

A few years ago I toured Japan with Intrepid Travel (plug, plug). While in Tokyo, managed to cajole my wife into Kinokuniya, the Japanese equivalent of Chapters/Indigo or Barnes and Noble. This mega-bookstore in Shinjuku was five stories tall with one floor dedicated to manga. When you bought a book, no matter how small, the cashiers took the time to wrap the book in a Kinokuniya book jacket and then wrap it again in tissue paper before handing it to you in a bag. It’s all about the aesthetics I suppose. I still have the book jackets.

As I was staring in awe, I found a small shelf of English language books. On it was a collection of the most popular English language best sellers by the likes Stephen King and JK Rowling and Tom Clancy. There was nothing by such literary luminaries as Margaret Atwood. And it got me to thinking – is this how the Japanese perceive English language books? Are the likes of the most popular writers in the English language world the only window into English literature?

The same could be asked of Japanese literature. What do we get as a window into Japanese society? The most popular books out there are manga. I would dare say that this is not entirely the best way to see what Japan is really like on the literary front. Well, then along comes Vertigo books which publishes translations of Japan ’s most popular novels that were not written by Haruki Murakami. Koji Suzuki (author of Ringu and its sequals), Natsuo Kirino (Out and Real World) and other popular Japanese authors are now gracing American bookstore shelves. They provide at least a peak into what the Japanese literary world is like.

One hopes that Arimasa Osawa is a name that will also stay on North American books shelves (I got my copy on Amazon though).

Shinjuku Shark is Arimasa Osawa’s first book in a series of noir detective novels. Published in English by Vertical Books, this series of best-selling crime fiction has won numerous awards including Japan’s Naoki Prize and has been made into films – all Japanese of course. After a decade and a half of acclaim in Japan , this series has finally made it to North American shelves. I had to get it on Amazon, but at least I got it and now that I know the second one (Poison Ape) is coming in October, I will look out for it.

Samejima is the quintessential noir detective – tough as nails with a strict, uncompromising moral code and living in a corrupt system that wants him dead, or at least silenced, for what he knows. Samejima (whose name loosely translates into ‘shark’) must find out who is killing cops and his investigation will lead him through the seedy streets of Shinjuku home to criminals, corrupt cops, streetwalkers and Yakuza. Samejima grabs you by the throat from the first page and doesn’t let go until the last. His character and his relationship with the young pop singer Sho will keep you turning pages.

And that was enough for me to recommend this book. However, there were parts of the novel that did not engage me. Some parts might work for a Japanese audience, but did not work for me and may not work for a North American audience. For instance, there are several short chapters seen from the point of view of the unnamed killer. The reader gets insight into what is going on in the killer’s mind. But for me, it wasn’t engaging enough. There was little or no interplay between Samejima and the killer nor was there enough information to get insight into the killer’s motivation (at least not until the last couple of chapters) so as a study in the criminal mind, I found it lacking.

Also, there was a lot of backstory regarding Samejima and the secrets he knows near the beginning of the book. This extended infodump slowed the pace of the book considerably and may turn some readers off. Much of the information imparted to the reader did not have any bearing on the current mystery. It did reveal a lot about the character of Samejima and where he comes from, but did not add to the air of mystery surrounding the cop killings. I imagine a lot of this is set up for the inevitable translations of the sequals, the first (Poison Ape) which is due this December.

So my recommendation is to jump the shark and discover Japanese noir at its finest in this, the first of a long-running series of mystery novels to be translated into English.

Culture Shock: ***** Arimasa describes Shinjuku and Tokyo in very sparse terms. This is probably because it was written for a Japanese audience who would be familiar with the locations mentioned in this book. Intimate knowledge of these places and terms is not necessary but trying to figure them all out might cause vertigo.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Write Dharma 1

These are comments and updates on projects I am currently working on:

Snow on Red Leaves: my latest try at a samurai short story was not accepted into the final five of the Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest this year. I made it into the contest for the past two years and won last year with Happy Valley. But my “no hat trick” rule still seems to be in effect (I can’t seem to three-peat anything. Two in a row is my upper limit it seems. Such is my karma). To be fair, there were over 30 entries this year and I was very close according to the pre-judges. However, there were still issues regarding character motivation which I have yet to work out. I received similar crits shortly before Christmas and I thought I added just enough to it, but obviously not enough. A few more tweaks and I’ll start sending it out to markets.

Current Short Projects include Jiang Shi, a story with Chinese vampires. Yes, Hopping Vampires. I plan to have this finished up this week and start editing this month. I want to send it in to Tesseracts 13 for the October 31st deadline. I need at least a crit or two before doing so, so I have a tight deadline. I am also working on Sorcerazzi, another modern day fantasy.

This Week’s Reason to Read: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami was released in hard cover last week. It is a memoir about writing and running by Japan ’s award winning author. Murakami’s other books include The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, After Dark and Kafka on the Shore.