Tag: books

Books books books

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-Sybil Kathigasu, No Dram of Mercy: an account of Kathigasu’s life under Japanese occupation in Malaysia, her arrest and subsequent imprisonment. Got this book via Zen Cho; and it’s intense–not in the way of gory details, of which there are very few, but truly emotionally intense (and the fact that Kathigasu provides almost nothing leaves the reader plenty of room to imagine…). It’s obvious that the author had a very strong character (I doubt other people would have held out that long); you can feel it from the page even though she doesn’t make a great deal of it; and the horrors she lived through are also quite obvious. Also full of little details–like the armband on Eurasians and the hints that they lived in a very particular world, not quite colonist but not quite “local” anymore–that are really interesting. I don’t much like using phrases like “duty of memory”, but here I think it’s very apt; especially since in the West we barely learn anything about the Japanese occupation (whereas most of Asia had to deal with it in one way or another).

The book also reminded me of why I dislike the current trend of explicit torture and rape used as voyeurism and a way to up the stakes–it’s hard to articulate, but there’s a deadly seriousness and a sense of wracking pain emanating from every page of this book that fantasy fiction about similar topics just never achieves. Maybe it’s about truth vs. fiction or something similar? Or maybe just a question of intent? I’m not sure, but I’m uncomfortable with a lot of grimdark because it never even comes close to that level of intensity, while recognising that this kind of intensity in a book is something I couldn’t bear for very long (fortunately it’s a very slim book).

-Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings. More a comment than a review, since I’m still working my way through this one. Lots of things to chew on; it’s a whirlwind tour of the basic concepts of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism (I know he’s a Vietnamese Zen buddhist, but the precise name of his school escapes me at the moment). One of the things that spoke most to me was the discussion on the sutras, and how you need to think on them and work out which bits are appropriate; because like all sutras they’ve been written by human beings with an imperfect comprehension.

Seraphina, fullblood prejudice and pervasive racial passing

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So… have just finished Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina–I bought it mainly because it was recommended to me as a great portrayal of a mixed-race protagonist: its eponymous heroine is half-dragon, half-human in a world where a fragile peace reigns between the two species. Seraphina is the Music Mistress at the court of the human queen of Goredd, where she passes as human in order to avoid the deep-seated prejudice and fear engendered by dragons (who are able to take human form but are betrayed by their silver blood and their odd smell).

It’s an intriguing setup; but in the end, I’m sad to report I was somewhat disappointed by Seraphina and its portrayal of race relationships.

(rambly musings about prejudice and passing)
Continue reading →

Books books books

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From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra. A history of Asia (*very* loosely Asia since it includes the Ottoman Empire and bits of Egypt), colonialism and the rise of nationalism/pan-Islamism/pan-Asianism, seen through the eyes of three 19th/20th-Century intellectuals (al-Afghani, Ling Qichao and Rabidranath Tagore) . I am… conflicted about this book.

On the one hand, it’s a welcome and refreshing account of the colonisation/decolonisation of Asia through the eyes of Asians–for people raised in the West and unfamiliar with the blood and greed-drenched history of colonisation, it’s definitely a worthy read, if only because it lays bare the sheer destructive scale of what the Western powers did to Asia (and it’s also worth seeing the repetitions of colonisation patterns in today’s globalisation), and the frustrated, powerless soul-searching of Asians seeking to conciliate the Industrial Revolution ideologies with their own traditions.

On the other hand… I can’t speak for the Indian parts of the accounts (though this article can and isn’t overly pleased about them), but I also found it a very frustrating book, because Mishra distorts facts to suit his theory of unified Asian resistance to the West (to cite just one of them, he cites the invasion of Vietnam by France in 1854 as a sign that China was besieged by Western powers eating into its hegemony–whereas in fact Vietnam had been independent of China for a while and the power balance in the region was a little bit more complicated), and I had no means of judging which bits were accurate. Mishra also quite obviously does not understand how Chinese society worked–to suggest that Confucianism is an alien and artificial ideology (that he grants was deeply embedded in Chinese minds, but in a tone that suggests recent embedding more than millenia-old beliefs) misses the point by a rather wide margin. On the whole, I think it makes for interesting reading, but definitely more for the quotes than for the arguments raised by Mishra.

A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, by Ursula Le Guin: those were the first fantasy books in English I ever read, and so I’m coming back to them loaded with memories. They’re good–they’re very chewy and tackling weighty subject matters while maintaining the outward guise of epic fantasies, and the language is deceptively simple and gorgeous (though looking back at them, the vocabulary is definitely more elaborate than I remembered. I pity my younger self, parsing them through with a dictionary…).

It’s also an interesting reread: I’d never noticed when I first read them, but the role of women in them is appalling. A Wizard of Earthsea is particularly spectacular, its women being either evil sorceresses or smiling domestic goddesses, and most certainly not fit to go adventuring; but The Tombs of Atuan also has disquieting overtones of women’s proper place being in the home rather than wielding political power (Kossil being the embodiment of womanly power, and Arha/Tenar rather a powerless figure when it comes down to it). I can see why Le Guin felt motivated to write Tehanu, but again that takes the approach of making women’s work valuable in and of itself–don’t get me wrong, that’s also rather valuable and not recognised enough, but there’s no reason to forbid women to take up men’s work either…

A few upcoming publications, and a reminder

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A few cool news: first, I’ve put together an ebook sampler for my fiction. The idea isn’t to do a short story collection (or even to make money!), but simply to allow people to discover my stuff by browsing through their Kindles and other reading devices. The thing is called Scattered Among Strange Worlds, and regroups my Clarkesworld Chinese/Vietnamese diaspora in space story “Scattered Across the River of Heaven” and my IGMS apocalyptic mermaid tale “Exodus Tides”. Due to exclusivities, etc., it will be available end of July (or possibly a bit later if I have to fight to upload a book on amazon…). Price should be the lowest I’m allowed to set, so 99 cents?

The cover and ebook design is by the ultra amazing Patrick Samphire, who recently launched his own ebook cover and ebook design business over at 50secondsnorth. He blogs about the design and the choices he had to make here, on his blog.

Isn’t it fabulous? Many thanks to Patrick, who’s got a very sharp eye for what works for books covers, and does absolutely freaking gorgeous stuff (and his rates are pretty darn affordable, too). You know you want an ebook this summer 😀

Also, my Chinese-y story “Under Heaven” will be available in Electric Velocipede issue 24, in which I share a TOC with Ken Liu (then again, who doesn’t share a TOC with the ever-prolific Ken? 🙂 ) and Ann Leckie. You can find the full list of stories here, and their publication date should be available soon.

Finally, I’ve sold my short story “Ship’s Brother”, set in the Xuya continuity, to Interzone for their next or after-next issue. Featuring a ship named after a fairytale character (Mị Nương, aka The Fisherman’s Song. If you’re read the fairytale, you’ll know why). Many thanks to Chris Kastensmidt and the ever-awesome Rochita Loenen-Ruiz for reading it and offering very cogent suggestions!

Snippet:

You never liked your sister.

I know you tried your best; that you would stay awake at night thinking on filial piety and family duty; praying to your ancestors and the bodhisattva Quan Am to find strength; but that it would always come back to that core of dark thoughts within you, that fundamental fright you carried with you like a yin shadow in your heart.

I know, of course, where it started. I took you to the ship–because I had no choice, because Khi Phach was away on some merchant trip to the Twenty-Third Planet–because you were a quiet and well-behaved son, and the birth-master would have attendants to take care of you. You had just turned eight–had stayed up all night for Tet, and shaken your head at your uncles’ red envelopes, telling me you were no longer a child and didn’t need money for toys and sweets.

In other news, packing for Romania in a bit of a panic. More later, but a small reminder you can find me in Bucharest Friday 17:00, at the Calderon Cultural Center, 39, Jean-Louis Calderon Street, sector 2, for the Society of Romanian Science Fiction’s ProspectArt meeting. I’ll be interviewed by the tireless Cristian Tamas, and will read from “Immersion”, a full two weeks before it’s published in Clarkesworld!

Linky linky

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-Chimadanda Adchie on “The Danger of a Single Story”. I’d been linked to this before, but never actually read it. It’s ultra-interesting, fascinatingly argued; and touches on subjects like the vulnerability of people (esp. children) to the stories they consume, and the skewed balance of power in the depiction of cultures.
-Charles Stross on “DRM and ebooks”. Lots of stuff to chew on.
-Michael Moorcock’s “Starship Stormtroopers” on Reactionary SF. I don’t agree with everything, and I, uh, admit to never reading Heinlein, but it’s still food for thought. Somewhat depressing that it dates back from the late 70ies, though… (among things I am ambivalent on: the simplistic equation of being for or against the Vietnam War with being for or against US imperialism. US imperialism in Vietnam dates *way* back before the war, and the question of their involvement was a freaking tangle by the time it all blew up. Then again, I suspect a lot of people in the US at the time had no idea what was going on or why).
-The always wonderful Rochita Loenen-Ruiz has an essay on “Decolonizing as an SF Writer” over at Kate Elliott’s blog (and also at The Future Fire):

During the American occupation, the passing on of the oral tradition was suppressed as the native priests and their rituals were demonized not only by the white colonizer but also by the white missionaries who followed in their wake. This meant that the true traditions and the original culture were slowly overlaid with the glaze of white culture and white belief.

Add all this up and it is no wonder that the psyche and the culture of the Filipino is so scarred and wounded to the point where we see the white and the west as being superior to us in all things.

Reading the history of conquest and colonization is a traumatic experience for the colonized. The Philippines went through not one, but two colonizers. I wonder how many colonizers other countries had to endure.

From reading these histories, it becomes clear to me that the erasure and subjugation of existing indigenous narratives were prioritized as these were viewed as being rival to the colonizing power.

Well worth reading, discussing and sharing.

Recent reads

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-Elizabeth Bear, New Amsterdam, Seven for a Secret, and The White City. A series of linked short stories and a novella, all set in an alternate history where the English Crown still has the colonies, and where magic works. It’s very effective urban fantasy, both drawing on the stereotype of the vampire as the ultimate seducer (vampires have groupies who only live for the pleasure of providing the ecstatic gift of blood, and are drawn into various relationships with humans–that run the gamut from patrons to abusers, from friends to walking pints of blood), and it just hits so many small details in a fashion that had me nodding along: for instance, at one point, one of the (rather long-lived) main characters reflects that churches are becoming unfriendly places because religion has changed beyond all recognition, compared to what he remembers from his childhood, and this is SO true. And it has Bear’s usual pretty writing, which flows along effortlessly (even though I’m sure the actual process of couching it onto paper involved blood and sweat); and wonderful and deep characters that refuse to become established stereotypes, and feel very much like real human beings with their flaws and frailties, but also their wonderful capacity for quiet heroism. I’m very much looking forward to the last book, Ad Aeternum.

Steam-Powered 2, edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft (review copy). I’m probably not in the target audience for this, because I’m not particularly fond of romance in general, and a lot of steampunk leaves me cold (the “mad adventure and costume” side doesn’t appeal overmuch to me). And, indeed, the main problem I had with this anthology was that I could predict a lot of the endings: if a story only has two women on stage, and it’s in a book of lesbian steampunk, well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what will happen… On balance, I thought that the best stories in the book were those that moved away from the stereotype of two women falling in love, and dealt with other aspects of the relationship: either further along in time, like Nisi Shawl’s “The Return of Cherie”, or by questioning its power dynamics and putting it into a colonial framework (such as Stephanie Lai’s “One Last Interruption Before We Begin”); or by eschewing the mad adventure steampunk altogether and focusing on much smaller-scale events (Alex Dally MacFarlane’s awesome “Selin that Has Grown in the Desert”, by far and above my favourite story in the book). I also enjoyed those stories with a very different setting and mindset: “In the Heart of Yellow Mountain” by Jaymee Goh is reminiscient of Chinese fairytales and adventures stories, and has a very unique vibe; “Not the Moon but the Stars” by Shveta Thakrar is set in a wonderfully recreated India that brims with lovely cultural details; and Zen Cho’s “The Terracotta Bride” takes Chinese Hell as its setting, deftly dealing with issues of power between the haves and have-nots (your status in Hell being, very appropriately, determined by how many children you had, and whether they’re still burning funeral offerings for you). Overall, even though I didn’t enjoy everything, the book as a whole is definitely worth reading. (and I suppose it says something about me that the stories I enjoyed most didn’t follow the brief of “independence, romance and adventure”, and tended to be written by people outside of the US, or by US POCs *sigh* I’ll go hide away now, promise).

Ebook piracy

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There has been a lot of debate on the internet about the ethics of ebook piracy, a lot of which boiled down to “piracy is stealing”. I’m not saying I disagree with that, but…

Well, you should check out this links roundup from troisroyaumes over on dreamwidth, which is a little more measured. Specifically, it focuses on problematic issues with intellectual property rights seen the Western way. The part that especially resonates with me, book-wise (but there’s more here than that), was people discussing the availability of books (whether physical or electronic) in developing countries, and their price–which is a not-insignificant part of the problem. I’ve always thought that asking people to pay US prices for books or DVDs was ridiculous: take Vietnam, where the average salary is 50$. With that, if you’re lucky, you can buy maybe two English hardbacks? (and I’m being nice here, because I’m assuming said hardbacks aren’t subject to import duties). As qian points out, in Malaysia, an imported English book can cost 7-8 times the price of a meal, and getting it is a terrible hassle. I can see why it would give her the unpleasant feeling that “in almost every case, the author is not even contemplating that somebody like you will be reading it. You quite simply do not exist in their world.”

I’m already getting that impression of being ignored from all those ebook piracy posts–and I live in a developed country with high salaries, reasonable access to English-language books (amazon, book depository, few or no import taxes). I can imagine how much freaking worse it would be for people in developing countries.

ETA: fantasyecho has a further links roundup–some overlaps, but there are a few not in the original DW post. Like the earlier one–don’t agree with anything, but a lot of points are definitely worth taking into account.


Also, one of those linked posts has a very valid point, which is that “illegal” is not a synonym for “immoral”. A lot of those blog posts about piracy don’t make a clear distinction between those two words. “illegal” is what the state thinks is bad. “immoral” is what you think is bad according to personal ethics–and if it’s exactly the same as “illegal” for you, no more, no less, you’re demonstrating a scary amount of trust in your government…

America, sometimes you make me despair…

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So, apparently there’s a series of books about Genghis Khan and his descendants, written by Conn Iggulden . The first book was released in the UK as Wolf of the Plains, which is nicely evocative.

In America, they’ve titled it Genghis: Birth of an Empire. Just, you know, in case you don’t get it’s about Genghis Khan, or if you don’t have a clue who this guy named Genghis Khan was and that he would later rule one of the greatest empires in the world…

*headdesk*