Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Diplomat

What follows is an extract from The Ninja and the Diplomat, volume 2 in The Chinese Spymaster series. Some time ago, I published an extract that presented some inner monologue for the Ninja. This extract features the Diplomat; inner monologue is represented by passages in italics. But these are not the thoughts of the Diplomat. Instead, I have tried to present the thoughts of his students. How does one know what a group of people are thinking? Well, one hopes for some artistic license.

Former Minister Yu began the class. It was a course studying theories of the ideal state or society. This in itself made the students uncomfortable. No one wished to say that whatever state China was currently in was not ideal as any such discussion implied.
Yet Yu blithely continued to describe the syllabus that in the forthcoming weeks would take them through discussion of theorists like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, before turning to Marx, Lenin and Mao Zedong. He had chosen, however, to begin with Confucianism, a departure from orthodoxy that would have had the Red Guards screaming obscenities in a different era; it still seemed so old-fashioned. Worse, the assignment for the day had been the Dao De Jing, surely a book of riddles.
If the students at the “other school,” the China Executive Leadership Academy of Pudong in Shanghai, found out, they would surely laugh. Actually, there were five schools in all dedicated to the further training of middle and high ranking officials, but as commonly happens, rivalry was strongest between number one and number two.
“Who will begin our discussion? Does anyone have a comment on the reading assigned for today?” asked Yu.
This was another disconcerting aspect of the course, the professor always asks for opinions and comments. Doesn’t he know we are Chinese? Who among us makes comments?
Nonetheless, a brave soul ventured,
“I have heard that this classic proposes a way of life and thought that is obsolete. They say no person or state could live in such isolation as is recommended.”
“Very good. I myself thought that. Does everyone agree?”
The students murmured restively, realizing that the professor had set a trap for them. They could not agree because he would then criticize them for not thinking for themselves. But what should they say if they disagreed? This man is devious, everyone in the class agreed. Some rumors said that he was a princeling and had been a rising star in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If so, what was he doing here? Could it be possible that this school meant something in their party career.
“Weren’t the followers of the Dao often hermits who retired from towns and cities to work on wonder-making powers, including the drug to give man immortality?” persisted the lone voice.
Everyone else was sure he was a marked man, his name remembered. But what if he should be earmarked for special promotion?
Another voice was raised. “I have been told that the Monkey King was such a Daoist, perhaps even an Immortal himself.”
The students laughed with relief, as many of them had heard similar stories from doddering old men and women, their grandparents or family friends of that generation. Some of the stories, it had to be admitted, had reappeared in many computer games.
Yu remarked seriously, as if scolding the students for levity, “The Monkey King is a character from old literature. He did not seek a better state or society. He sought to gain more powers himself, and in the end, it was proved to him and his readers, that the Buddha’s power was stronger than any he exhibited. But I want to draw your attention to a passage that you might remember reading in preparation for today:
Though the next state can be seen
And its barking and cock crows heard,
The people of one state will age and die
Without having to deal with the other.
“In what way, if any, can this be interpreted as a statement about a social or political ideal?” asked Yu.
“I don’t have an answer but a question,” remarked a third student. “I don’t understand the verses just before these that you quoted. They suggest this society or state abstains from goods or weapons that it actually has. Is that because these material things were unnecessary or because they were not good enough?”
“Indeed, a thoughtful observation,” replied Yu. “Perhaps those verses about not using weapons, chariots or ships that they have are not unrelated to the notion of the ideal society or state.”
No, we will not say anything. The professor has the answer in his mind already. If we say anything, it might be right but most likely would be wrong. It is best to say nothing and do what we do best: We look inscrutable.
“Well, let me suggest a possibility to you. You tell me if you agree or not, and try to base your arguments on the text we have read,” Yu announced. “Let us say, the ideal state or society is one in which the inhabitants are not concerned with wealth or power. They remain poor or appear so to the states around them so no one from these other states wishes to conquer or even visit them.
“On the other hand, they are so well-governed, a fact that is not visible from outside the state, no one inside the state or society wishes to leave. Is that an ideal state?”
“Who would want to live in a poor state?”
“Who could govern the state so well that no one would want to leave?”
“You need power to govern well, and if you have power, why wouldn’t you use it to enrich yourself?”

Yu interjected an occasional question or remark that served only to keep the discussion rolling along. He grinned and waved at his visitors who prepared to leave.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Radiance, a review

Because Louis B. Jones is soon to be the key-note speaker at the first ever Sierra Writers Conference, to be jointly sponsored by Sierra College and Sierra Writers on January 3, 2016, I have discovered what pleasure can come from "slow reads." (Perhaps some day I shall blog on the value of writing that is deemed "fast-paced.")

Radiance (published in 2011) begins disarmingly with a familiar scene. A San Francisco parent (Mark) accompanies a teenager to an (expensive) Fantasy Celebrity Vacation in Los Angeles, enabled by a recent inheritance and prompted by the discovery that his daughter (Lotta) had started shopping among senior high schools in Connecticut. She plots to leave us. But barely has the "Fasten Your Seat-belts" sign been turned off than we find ourselves in deep, heavy territory. 

Mortality, late-term abortion, and the quality of life are the weighty considerations homing in like predator drones at the reader almost from the beginning of Radiance. "Death abides always there in constant contact ... in the Periodic Tables of Elements' basic, cool powders and metals and crystals and colorless odors, while the sensation of 'life' is merely the rarest, briefest tingle through all the galaxies' endless tonnage."

The turmoil faced by the parents who eventually decided on the late term abortion is hinted at by the abandonment of her vocation as a corporate lawyer by the perfect wife who then dons the hair-shirt of a middle-aged mom apprenticed as a carpenter, driving herself into exhaustion working with Habitat for Humanity. Atonement by heavy labor without lunch breaks. The sonograms had revealed a "hydro-cephalic condition," the fetus appeared "cretinous-looking." Teenage daughter, whose "ethical equipment was somewhat simplistic," initially declared for termination, asserting a woman's right to choose and the prospect of a short and unhappy life for what would become her brother. Within a month she had changed her mind. 

Then she met Brodie. 

He was a senior, a "paraplegic boy drummer" at the Fantasy weekend who had learned "to extract his rewards from the world by asserting intellectual dominance." His own condition was a "defect from birth" and "now he's got the grateful-to-be-alive gospel." Teenage daughter reports that hedeclares the lost life would have been "the same as ours in terms of absolute value." Father dreads the inevitable conversation, the impending battle "with those innocent certainties."

Somewhere between the Hollywood sign (Los Angeles continued to look, to this northern Californian, "like local news crime scene footage") and the Santa Monica Police Precinct (it has wheel-chair access), and while enduring in the holding cell "the 120-volt clang of its inner electromagnets" and the old metal bars "painted the old Wrigley's Doublemint green," Mark concludes, "the truth is, a physicist and a lawyer are worth more than a paralyzed, retarded, blind baby. [Otherwise] the evening sound of dishes is as great as the Milky Way or the sensation of cotton fabric is as profound as the Seven Wonders of the World." 

Brodie persists in asking "What is everything made of these days, ... below atoms and quarks and super strings?" Mark wonders whether "it would be odd if inquiring into his ideas as a physicist should seem more insolent than kissing his daughter." But he affirms that "two plus two would eternally equal four ... even in the emptiness before the beginning of time.... The principle alone furnished the radiance to have made matter originally bead up out of nothing."  

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Awesome Indies Approved

The email said: 

You may now tell your readers that your book is ‘Awesome Indies Approved’ or ‘has been awarded a place on the Awesome Indies list of quality independent fiction.’

Not only that, it came with a badge of some sort, several in fact. A couple I could put on the cover of my book (The Chinese Spymaster) and one I could use on this blog/website. I have not figured out how one adds to one's cover and in any case am loath to tamper with the pixels; whatever they are, the word evokes pixies and I don't feel inclined to mess with them.

Asking around about all this, I was pulled up short by the challenge - "have you noticed any increase in your sales?" That I suppose is the point of the exercise, at least to this one of my fellow authors. But I rather like the idea that at this stage of my life, in its Third Act, I might actually get something like a gold star. That now seems so long ago and far away.

So here it is. From Awesome Indies.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Awesome Indies Review

I am delighted this week to share a paragraph from a review of The Chinese Spymaster (published in 2013) in AWESOME INDIES.

Told primarily from Wang’s point of view, with occasional diversions to other characters who are central to the overall plot, and written in English, but in Chinese style language, it will be difficult at first for the average English language reader (American or UK), but patience is its own reward. The story unfolds much like a traditional Chinese story would unfold, and in the end the reader will be rewarded with a fuller understanding of the murky world of intelligence and foreign relations, as seen through non-Western eyes. That alone would make it a worthwhile read, but the fact that it’s a well-constructed story with tons of suspense and the occasional plot twist, merely adds frosting to a tasty reading treat. 
For the full review, follow this link.

Awesome Indies itself is 
... an indie book accreditation service that approves independently published works of fiction that meet the same standards as books published by mainstream publishers – as evaluated by publishing industry professionals. We aim to showcase books that meet a specific set of standards for fiction writing so readers can browse for indie books knowing they will be buying well-crafted works.

It's stated mission is
  • Identify and honor independently published books that meet, or improve on, the standard of books published by major mainstream publishers and their imprints.
  • Promote and support Awesome Indies Approved (AIA) authors and their books,
  • Raise the standard of independent publishing,
  • Assist authors to achieve quality, 
  • Raise the image of independent publishing among readers.
  • Operate ethically in all aspects of our endeavors.
As an "Indie Writer," all I can say is - more power to them! Visit and explore the website (link).

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Chinese Justice

Of course, I have no special information about the workings of the Chinese judiciary or Party disciplinary processes. It is probably nothing if not opaque to those who have looked into it. But with the current President's avowed war on corruption, especially having those in the inner circle in mind, I indulged in some wishful thinking. In The Ninja and the Diplomat, I cast the diplomat in the title as a princeling, the son of a bona fide veteran of the Long March. He is a hard-working diplomat, brilliant and forward-looking, indispensable to his fatherland. But he makes a mistake and is charged with corruption. Here I envision how a sub-committee of party elders discuss with humanity and objectivity his fate.

yi or integrity

 A week after the mission to retrieve the trigger mechanisms of the stolen nuclear devices concluded, Wang accompanied Cai to a very secret meeting. It was that of the party’s disciplinary tribunal and had been convened to decide on the sentencing of MFA Deputy Minister Yu. Wang had attended its preliminary proceedings only as a substitute for Cai. Though still frail from his treatments, Cai felt it important enough to attend in order to lend the weight of his seniority within the party to salvaging Yu’s life and career.
“I see minister Yu has an extra advocate for this hearing,” declared the presiding party cadre, an elder of the party, with a smile.
“I can wait outside,” offered Wang.
Cai interrupted, “Commissar Wang has represented me throughout your deliberations last month and is kind enough to accompany me here to make sure I do not stumble. I would consider it a great favor if this august body would let him stay, without a vote, of course.”
zheng yi(simplified form) = justice, sense of

The other three men, who had known Cai for decades nodded as they turned to focus on the issue before them.
“As I see it,” elaborated the presiding cadre, “the committee on discipline wants to make a point.”
“We created the whole process and institution,” added a second party elder. “It would be illogical for us to obstruct or pervert its processes.”
“Do they want to see Yu executed?” asked Cai. “So far as I can see, he is guilty of a single lapse when he issued the export permit. I understand that the permit was used only once to export a single tactical nuclear device.”
“That is in his favor,” interjected the second elder, “as is the fact that he did not gain from this lapse.”
“So the inquiry has satisfied itself of that fact?” asked Cai, seeking confirmation.
“They did,” confirmed the third elder. “But only after a very thorough investigation including an intrusive search of Yu’s residence that greatly distressed his wife.” Wang knew that this elder was the favorite uncle of Yu’s wife and fervently hoped the older man would give no leverage to the Party disciplinarians hunting for signs of favoritism.
gongdao= justice, practice of

“I believe that the process would be satisfied with his dismissal from the ministry and the party,” concluded the chairman. Cai and Wang exchanged a look as if affirming to each other a previously prepared position.
Cai asked,
“Would the process be suitably appeased with his suspension rather than dismissal from the party and ministry?”
“Possibly,” responded the chairman, “but only if the removal of the suspension is subject to the jurisdiction of the disciplinary committee.”
“Why would we want to urge a lesser punishment by the disciplinary process?” asked the second elder. “I knew his father and I don’t think he would have supported bending the rules for his son.”
Cai looked around to assess the mood of the others as Wang held his breath.
“I don’t think we are bending the rules for former minister Yu,” stated Cai deliberately. “I believe the punishment is excessive. I also consider that the valuable service to his country Yu has given should be taken into account.”
“I’m only playing the devil’s advocate,” offered the second elder. “Why do we think he is personally so valuable? He works with a whole ministry and the support of the Party.”
“Senior Commissar Cai should address the ideological question of the role of an individual in a collective,” observed the chairman, “but I wish to note that I have been impressed over two decades by the dedication of comrade Yu.”
“Perhaps our spymaster has an assessment to share with us,” suggested Cai in a tone deferential to the others at the meeting. “He has sat in for me over the last few weeks in a number of the meetings involving international liaisons.”
Both Cai and the chairman looked around to make sure there were no visual cues of dissatisfaction from the others in the meeting before nodding at Wang.
“With respect,” stated the spymaster, “I have noticed that both the MFA and the committees in which Yu participates benefit from his passion, initiative, and grasp of the various complex issues. He has the rare ability to balance economic, political, military, and other interests, as well as to foresee how our friends and enemies will respond to our initiatives.”
Sensing that his words were not adequately conveying his message, Wang reached into a familiar Chinese classic for an illustration. “He is like Zhuge Liang among the councilors of Wu.”
Smiles lit up among the elders. One responded, “Like lightning among the lightning bugs.”
The chairman of the meeting added, “I believe the English have a saying, like a swan among the ducks.”
The senior commissar observed light-heartedly, “Our elder is very fashionable.” Turning around to Wang, he said, “It is well that the classics illuminate our discourse, but we must not forget that China was brought to her knees by four thousand years of ignorance of the outside world, a world into which Minister Yu would be a brilliant guide.”
After a pause to catch his breath and to collect his thoughts, the ‘devil’s advocate’ declared, “I am happy to have our reasons outlined so clearly and trust this confirms our recommendation to the committee on discipline.”
Thus Yu’s fate for the immediate future was determined. He would leave the ministry immediately and be relieved of all party positions and perquisites.
“Does the Committee on Discipline have any stipulation about what Yu can or cannot do?” asked Cai innocently.
The cadre chairing the meeting, who had known Cai from their days together as lukewarm Red Guards, maintained a straight face as he stated, “I believe it would be displeased if he should be given any access to wealth or power. But otherwise I know of no restrictions.”

Without taking a vote, which was always the preferred outcome, this meeting arrived at a decision that would finalize the disciplinary process. 

All the above appears in a putative spy novel so I have received many comments about it being too discursive, not sufficiently fast-paced. I hereby succumb to the temptation to paraphrase Marie-Antoinette: "Have some cake, darlings."

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review of Louis B. Jones' Particles and Luck

"Say there is a very fortunate young newly wed, a theoretical physicist who has just purchased a deluxe semidetached unit...." Thus we are introduced to the main character of this witty book. He is "a groggy newcomer to California where even one's dearest old values are immediately refracted in the clean air. It turns out that he loves California, completely, amnesiacally."

A great deal goes on regarding the development of the sub-division and potential real estate scams or woes that haunt the imagination of the MC's neighbor and some might say this is a story of male bonding of an peculiar sort. Perhaps so, but I am more taken in by the fluent, plausible reflections on perception and reality, that test one's understanding of the meaning of meaning and the nature of nature. 

Neither his "improbably beautiful" wife nor the voluptuous "work-study assistant"--dismissed by a colleague as "Euro-trash"--participate in the plot. The one has hung the same two art posters wherever they had lived, "a Frida Kahlo self-portrait in traction and a Georgia O'Keefe anatomy of an iris incapable of fragrance." The other flirts with him and "a sweet remorse enters his life again"; they embrace and he discovers that "her hips adjust on a mysterious fulcrum," and "the air is different in the world of infidelity. It's clear."    

Indeed, there does not appear to be much of a plot, just writing that scintillates. "We are out of oatmeal" says improbably beautiful wife, fully knowing "that setting a nickel of brown syrup at the north, south, east and west quadrants of his oatmeal is the only way he can begin his day (a manipulative way to get him of of bed, by panicking him)."

The author deftly reveals more of the MC - "Before he sits anywhere, he has to lift the chair discreetly and tap each of its legs four times--upper left and right, then lower left and right--sixteen taps altogether."

We are treated to views into the MC's mind, such as - Turning on the faucet, he is entranced by the "perfectly smooth column of water which imprisons a filament of cold daylight. It's beautiful. It is impossible to imagine the whole thing could be time reversible--as if you could run the movie backward, provided you could also reverse particle charge and parity, and, in a mirror-reversed universe composed of anti-matter, watch the water swarm ... up the drain into a column and thrust itself up into the faucet--resulting in the identical apparition: a tube of water."

This is writing of a very high order. Going outdoors into the "cleansing air straightens his shoulders, makes him a few centimeters taller as the vertibrae unclench from the habitual spinal curve that characterized all the physicists [aligned] along the corridors like floating babies decaying." 

Read. Savor. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

LeGuin on Lavinia

Recently I read Ursula LeGuin's Lavinia which she says is inspired by the last six books of Virgil's Aeneid. I wanted to get a feel for how a master writer deals with an ancient era (more on that shall be revealed in the coming months).

In the Aeneid, Virgil allows Lavinia not a single word of her own. I imagine that it was with
some sense of vengeance, despite her admiration for his poetry, that LeGuin writes Lavinia entirely in her voice and from her point of view. It is mostly the voice of a late teen, when Lavinia is doted upon by her father, king of the Latins, and treated almost as a stepchild by her mother since the death of her sons, Lavinia's adored brothers. So much of the story is Lavinia's that both the father and the mother are reduced, flattened to noble, sensible king and the scheming, slightly unhinged queen.

Aeneas himself, when he appears does not fare so well either. He too is noble and full of piety, unlike his son by a previous marriage and most certainly unlike the suitor her mother has picked for Lavinia. "He has no piety," is her dismissal. It is not what we think of these days when piety is almost an embarrassment. It meant the reverence for life, for the gods, for the bonds between gods and men, and for those among men. It is different from the ossification that the Chinese made of filial piety.

The sense of place in Lavinia is wonderful. The main character herself is drawn with shrewdness and sympathy as are one or two of the servants. But the places, the cave in which she encounters the vision or ghost of the poet (who would not be born for another eleven or twelve hundred years), the sulphurous springs nearby, and the salt beds at the mouth of the "father river" (the Tiber) are vivid to the reader.

The last portion of the book tells of life after Lavinia marries Aeneas, the modified rapture of nursing her son at her beasts "bursting with milk," and then alas, as already revealed by the poet, the sudden death of Aeneas, life cut short by a careless moment. Lavinia's life thereafter is a pale shadow of her youth and adult struggles. (It is a problem, what does one do with an old queen?)

There are notes of a pedantic nature I must record. Perhaps the anachronisms are from Virgil, but perhaps the modern author must be more careful. It is doubtful that archery was common in the post Trojan War period, and it is certain that the arrows would not have been tipped with steel. Homer himself makes no distinction between the Trojans and the Danaoi, as if the former were members of a distantly related tribe. But, Greeks versus Italians aside, it is now a lively controversy over how Latin or even Italian were the Etruscans.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Ninja speaks of his past

It is of some concern to me when reviewers note that my characters are "distant" or "detached," because I do want the reader to feel a "connection" and because I want to write authentically about Asians in general and Chinese in particular. I wonder what kind of a connection could these same readers feel with Jason Bourne or James Bond or any of the characters from The Matrix?

Here, in any case, is a scene from The Ninja and the Diplomat. There are not many such scenes but if no one feels a connection to this one, then it is back to the drawing boards for me. Prayer and fasting might also be in order. Wikimedia Commons is the source for both the graphs for ninja and for the Scene from the March 1826 Edo Nakamura-za production of Sanmon Gosan-no-Kiri, with Kōshirō Matsumoto V as Ishikawa Goemon (above) and Sanjūrō Seki II as Mashiba Hisakichi, by Toyokuni Utagawa II (1786–1865).

I still remember my seventh birthday. The beautiful lady said she had seen me earlier but it was on that birthday that I noticed her, taller than almost everybody at the orphanage. She had brought treats for us all. Later, I learned from the others that she had been coming once or twice a month to visit the smaller children. She had brought toys and then she got permission to give us treats. Once a month, everyone with a birthday could celebrate and she would bring cakes and sweets. On my birthday, she brought us boxes of different mochi. My favorite were those with red bean filling. I chewed them carefully in small bites and made each last so I could savor the sticky rice and the natural sweetness of the red beans in the paste.
I shared what I received with my roommate. 

Everyone called him Dummy because he could not speak and was never called on in school. He and I had shared the same tiny room, our beds though small almost touched each other, for as long as I could remember. He was bigger than me. I learned from the staff that he was two years older, and we had been brought there in the same week. The orphanage took us just after we learned to go to the bathroom by ourselves. I knew he could understand what everyone said even though he often pretended he was deaf as well. My earliest memories of him were of the nights during which he would cry himself to sleep. It was nearly a year before the crying stopped. The women who looked after us were not unkind but they always had so much to do, cooking and cleaning and all the other things. It was nearly a year later, almost my eighth birthday, before someone learned which month was Dummy’s birthday so he could receive his own mochi from the lady.

The first time I received my present, she pointed out the ones filled with coconut. I did not know what coconuts were, but she did not laugh at me. She explained that they grew all over islands in the South Sea and were a treat in Taiwan where she had grown up.
I thought she smelled nice but I did not tell her this because I was too shy. When I thought about it again later, I decided I would tell her on my next birthday. It would be my present to her and I could think about it for a whole year to get ready.

On my eighth birthday, she smiled as she gave me the box of mochi.
“Do you like the coconut filled ones?” she asked.

I admitted that I had gotten accustomed to the crunchy coconut and begun to like the exotic creamy taste. But I told her that I loved the red bean filling best.

“Me too,” she laughed. “But the coconut will always remind me of my old home. Japan is my home now.”

“I like the way you smell,” I told her.

She laughed a happy and embarrassed Japanese-style laugh and said, “That is a nice compliment. Women often wear special scents and what I wear is something that my husband gave me when we first met. It is called Shalimar and comes from a country far away called France.”

“Why doesn’t your husband come with you?” I asked.

“He is very busy,” she said, “We do not yet have any children.” She looked a little sad when she told me that. I was glad I told her she smelled nice.

Her visits were happy times for all of us. I noticed that she always had a kind word
for all the children and that she also brought gifts for those who worked at the orphanage. This was a word I learned around that time. No one else said it with such kindness.

I soon noticed that the word was corrupted into a bad word, insulting and obscene, at the school where we met other, ‘normal,’ children. By my ninth birthday, I had been suspended from school because of it. I wasn’t the only one suspended but I had caused the trouble at the school and that resulted in many students being punished.

As she gave me the long awaited box of mochi she asked, “Can you tell me about the trouble at school?”

“There are six of us from the orphanage that go to the same class at school,” I told her. “The smartest student in the class had recently been recognized and she was from the orphanage. Some of the others at the school were angry about this. Ten of them, all boys and some older than we were, stopped us from leaving one day and started to pull the girl’s hair and spat on her. I told them to stop. That started the fighting.”

“Didn’t any of the adults do anything?” asked the Lady.

“The language teacher did,” I said. “He actually spoke up for us with the principal, but the parents of the boys later came together and complained.”

“So you were suspended,” she said.

“Yes, I replied. “I also heard that the teacher who defended us would be leaving the school at the end of the school year. Those of us who were suspended, the six of us, would be sent to a different school next year. One in a poorer neighborhood.”

I was afraid that the lady would stop coming to visit, but she continued. In fact, she told me that her husband might come to my tenth birthday. I was surprised to hear that, but on my tenth birthday, there he was. He was slightly taller than her; I wondered if I would grow to be as tall as him. He looked stern. That was the look I caught when I looked directly at him during the party festivities. For some reason, I did not look away but continued to look him in the eye until suddenly he smiled. It did not give me the joy that her smiles did, but it gave me confidence. I felt that if he approved, I could achieve big things. That year, the lady stopped giving me any mochi except those with red-bean filling.

The girl from the orphanage who had been in the fight at school killed herself in the third month at the new school. She had found her way to a bridge over some trains and jumped in front of one. Nobody at school or at the orphanage said anything. I felt that if anyone at school had said anything I would have fought that person to the death. That was what I told the lady, I feel that there would be no honor not to do so.

The lady cried.

“Have I said something bad?” I asked.

She shook her head and said, “I am crying because the girl killed herself. Maybe if I had shown her more love, she would not have done that.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

The beautiful lady said, “It is very important to show compassion to others so that they do not feel hopeless in this world.”

I found that difficult to understand.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Facing one's fears

In Carly, the protagonist has been through a horrendous ordeal; her cousin has disappeared, and her family was murdered in front of her by a crazy neighbor. Once in custody, Carly agrees to a meeting with a female reporter, Vanessa St John. Carly insists she tells the whole story in her words. 

While waiting for a reporter to interview her, Carly glances at a picture of her cousin Lisa--"happy, bright green eyes looked back" at her. I found this a charming thought. Then Carly insists on telling her story about James from the very beginning but it is not clear why. James seems to have charmed Carly's mother--"tough as old boots, but ... gullible as hell." This strikes me as an amiable but unlikely combination. Carly realizes she is "paranoid" but does not recognize the word "execrable." Overall, I'd say the author has drawn her characters with enthusiasm and liveliness. Both Carly and Vanessa show signs of an unrecognizable (to me) aggression or hostility or instability as well as personas that they each have forced themselves to adopt for their interview/confrontation. I found this disturbing but suspect that this is probably the effect the author intended.

A fascinating twist towards the end of the story has the reader wondering just who had engineered the interview.

In The Box, which twenty-seven-year-old Charlene and her sister Stacy find when their bullying, obnoxious father has a medical emergency, the sisters find a letter and personal effects that their father had kept for the fifteen years since they mother allegedly left them. The father had always told Charlene that her mother could not cope with her preteen tantrums and therefore abandoned them all. He alone had been there when Charlene was raped by his best friend and he took credit for comforting through her unwanted pregnancy.

What they learn from the items in the box changes everything--what really happened to their mother? It sets off a chain of events that uncovers more acts of gruesome brutality. Fortunately for this reader, there was more telling than showing of the years of abuse until their mother left and of subsequent heinous acts.

The story climaxes in a twist, as in Carly. Except this one also left me cheering.

Both these books are novellas which suits me since the genre, the stories of victims who suffered abuse as children, young adults and who witnessed similarly depraved abuse of humans and animals, take me outside my comfort zone. I do believe, however, that a writer needs to occasionally venture outside such personal limitations and "face my fears." (My five year old daughter told me that.)

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Plot Thickens

The Ninja and the Diplomat starts with a perverse idea. An "asset" of the Chinese Intelligence Agency reports that he has learned of a plot by China to attack its Southeast Asian neighbors. The Agency loses contact with him even though he is on their watch-list. The acting chief of the agency reports this to a confidante and confesses puzzlement.

It turns out that the foreign "asset" is an arms dealer who has spotted the markings of the People's Army on the crate containing some weapons he was selling to a Southeast Asia rebel group and thought by this means to alert Chinese intelligence. (An educated man, he allows that he might have composed a haiku but felt his skills to be rusty.) But the theft of arms is an important security issue for the Chinese, especially when nuclear weapons are discovered to be missing. So the plot thickens and continues to develop.

I did not set out with this plot fully developed when I started  writing the novel. In fact, I let my characters determine how the plot should unfold. An early reader has commented on how complicated the plot turns out to be and this reminded me of the concern on the part of many of my fellow authors that a review not contain "spoilers." Groups on Goodreads that do wonderful service for authors by organizing and encouraging reviews often enjoin their members to avoid giving the plot away. Some explicitly allow an author to request that reviews be altered if there is any element that might be deemed "spoiler" material. For no other reason may an author request a change in a review or its rating.

This puzzles me as a reader. I have read most of the books I enjoy more than once--The Lord of the Ring and the Harry Potter novels at least three times. Fans of Agatha Christie, Trollope, Dickens, Faulkner or Larry McMurtry must surely have read their books over and over. Nobody I know reads the Iliad to find out what happened or is bothered by the fact that the plots of Hamlet or The Merchant of Venice are so well known. I confess to allowing myself the pleasure of re-reading The Alexandria Quartet and Proust every ten years or so.

So what is this thing about "spoilers"? 

I like to think that even when readers have figured out the plot of  The Ninja or The Chinese Spymaster, they will continue to wonder about other aspects of the stories. Are the characters as "detached" as some reviewers have found? Do they not reflect on why they might appear so? Perhaps I shall add some extracts from these books to this blog to encourage re-thinking on this matter.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Ninja and the Diplomat, a promotion

The Chinese intelligence agency received this message from a trusted asset. He had just completed the sale of MANPADs, manually portable anti-aircraft devices, in Macau. His customer was Carlos a.k.a. Hashim. Why buy arms for the rebels in the Philippines? What else lurks unseen?

This is, as the cover indicates, volume 2 of The Chinese Spymaster. It is neither a sequel to the first nor the prequel to the (forthcoming) third volume. I set off on this series to see if I could write without something already written to translate or adapt or retell.

As for the promotion, I have read a great deal on what makes for sales of books. But I have decided that, for now, it would be a good thing to give it away. The following coupon, PD35A, will enable you to obtain a copy in any eformat from Smashwords (link).  

Those who wish to purchase it from Amazon may use this link. As the author I thank you.

But the offer of this book for free is without obligation. Just note the coupon expires on September 20. A review or a rating on your usual haunt would be much appreciated.

In addition, five paperback copies will be given away via Goodreads Giveaway program

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Ninja and the Diplomat by Hock G. Tjoa

The Ninja and the Diplomat

by Hock G. Tjoa

Giveaway ends October 15, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Monday, September 7, 2015

China and the South China Sea

History demonstrates incontrovertibly that nations do what they do because they can. It is one of the more flippant reasons Dick Cheney is reported to have given in answer to the question why the U. S. invaded Iraq.

When Britain ruled the waves, no foreign ship nor citizens nor indeed nations were safe. Remember the War of 1812? The British burned Washington DC all because the U. S. objected to the seizure of American ships (sailing perhaps to trade with and/or aid the French) and the impressment of Americans into the British navy. Things could have gotten uglier but for the realization on the part of the Brits that they had a great deal more to lose in Canada. (That they lost it in the end didn't happen until over a hundred years later, so it doesn't matter.) The Brits found easier naval operations to execute, including two Opium Wars visited upon China in the name of free trade. 

On its part, America took to heart Alfred Mahan's dictum to ensure its own "possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy's flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive; and which, by controlling the great common, closes the highways by which commerce moves to and from the enemy's shores." Certainly it reinforced the Monroe Doctrine, though it is not clear what the Latin Americans thought then. (What they think now is clear.)

The surprise and indignation displayed over China's actions and intentions in the South Sea has a self-serving ring. The above map showing the People's Republic now infamous  "9 dotted line" is by U.S. Central Intelligence Agency - Asia Maps — Perry-Castañeda Map Collection: South China Sea (Islands) 1988. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. What China really intends to achieve remains a mystery. Is it the possibility of energy reserves to be gained? Or is it simply to demonstrate that it now can do this?

The Ninja and the Diplomat, now available although technical issues remain, explores this tangentially. Spymaster Wang and an assistant finance minister discuss this, touching on directional drilling and binding arbitration among other subjects, and concluding with the following excerpt:

“Thank you for this lesson. I do not know what a national security expert or a finance minister should do in a dispute involving military and foreign policy interests. But I was concerned from a national security point of view.”
“And I am concerned from an economic financial point of view,” interrupted Zhang. “It really bothers me that those who are ready to go to the brink of war have not counted the cost of their preference or weighed it against the cost of the alternatives.”

“You were right, Comrade Zhang,” agreed Wang. “Your views are not only unconventional, they are heretical. If we believed in wizards and witches, you would be dealt with accordingly.”

The assistant minister laughed, but insisted, “The water is far and the fire is near. Why are we so stupid?” 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

China and Japan

Even a casual observer of world affairs must have noticed the tensions, rivalry, and sometimes antagonism, between Japan and China. 

Not many decades ago, Japan enjoyed the limelight as THE wonder economy, with world beating brands like Sony and Toyota. This fueled its ever-present sense of destiny and desire to rank among world class leaders. Its industrialists enjoyed treatment in apartheid South Africa as 'honorary whites' and some of its thinkers and leaders wrote of The Japan that Can Say No (1989).  

The twenty-first century, however, seemed prepared to accept another Asian nation in the front ranks of nations. But the rivalry has deep historical roots. Current arguments over whether or not holocaust-like atrocities were committed and who is to be master of a handful of rocky islands date only to the end of the late nineteenth centuries. Apropos the latter question, I found the following map which also appears in The Ninja and the Diplomat (to be released in a week or two). It is by Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, and shows the Air Defense Identification Zone as defined by China (CADIZ), Japan (JADIZ), and Korea (KADIZ). The islands in dispute, called Senkaku by the Japanese and Diaoyu by the Chinese, are located very close to the northeast of Taipeh.

I should make clear that The Ninja (short title), volume 2 in The Chinese Spymaster series, is not devoted to geopolitical considerations. There are two or three dialogues given over to that. But it explores also a very personal facet of the complicated feelings the Japanese and the Chinese have for each other. Here is an extract:

I apologize for my disobedience, Revered Father, and make no excuses for myself. I do not regret what I did. But it pains me, really and truly, to have caused you grief and anger. Yes, I know that you threw me out of the family business in a rage over my choice to marry my Sakura because you thought I was betraying you. Yes, I married a Chinese woman. You did not care that she came from Taiwan and not the mainland, that she and I had met at a Japanese university, or that she became more Japanese than any woman I have ever met.

She was meant to be only a plaything at college. Who could have foretold that we would fall in love? When I hinted at her existence, you and Mother refused to listen any further. You made me pay court to numerous daughters of your esteemed business colleagues. You sent me away on long trips to learn the business, so you said. You and Mother warned me of your implacable refusal to consider a Chinese daughter-in-law, even though I pledged to you my unquenchable hatred for China. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Warren Dean's review

The following is Warren Dean's review of Agamemnon Must Die, reproduced from Goodreads (link) with his permission.


This is the story of what happens when King Agamemnon returns from the Greek conquest of Troy.

For ten years, his queen Clytemnestra has been nursing her hatred of Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia at the beginning of the Trojan campaign. In her husband's long absence, she has taken his cousin Aigisthos as her consort. Aigisthos loves her unconditionally and is easily persuaded to help her kill the king.

After the deed is done, the story becomes that of Orestes, son of Agamemnon and heir to the throne. Honour and tradition require him to avenge himself on his father's killers, but is it really in his nature to do so?

In this re-telling of the tale, all of the characteristics of Greek tragedy are faithfully preserved. Mortal heroes and heroines struggle to reconcile lofty ambitions, innate character flaws, and the dictates of love, while immortal gods and goddesses manipulate them to further their own schemes and petty squabbles.

However, that is not all there is to the novel; the central storyline is overlaid with subtle facets which engage the reader on different levels. For example, Aigisthos' backstory makes him a noble character whose motives the reader can sympathise with. And Orestes' inner struggle is what makes him susceptible to Apollo's attempts to coerce him to act contrary to his nature.

The supernatural element of the story is prefaced by some of the mortals openly questioning society's belief in the literal existence of the gods. This gives the reader an insight into what motivates the likes of Apollo, Hermes, and the Furies to compel mortals to do their bidding. The gods' very existence is at stake; if the values and traditions that define them are abandoned, they themselves will fade into oblivion.

This theme culminates in an enthralling debate between the Furies, who want to maintain the power of the gods, and Athena, who wants to end the cycle of violence begun by Agamemnon's murder of his own daughter. Athena's stance is a fascinating one; in proposing to supplant the supreme authority of the gods with the rule of law, she is advocating her own eventual demise. The Furies' make an apposite observation in response: "This is too new for us. We grasp not the reason nor the desired outcome. Do you think to make men good by enacting more laws?"

Good question.

Good story.

(I received a free copy of this story in exchange for an honest, non-reciprocal review.)


I have reproduced the review exactly as written, not only because Warren thinks it is worth four stars out of five, but also for his reaction to the ending of the book--the "supernatural element," the debate between the new gods and the old, the Olympians versus the Fates. This occupies almost all of the last third of Aeschylus' trilogy. It was for him and fifth century B.C. Athens a vital debate.

It was also the hardest to write/retell. Nothing happens; it is a long argument. I chose to write this confrontation in verse with the Olympians speaking in a different meter from the Fates. I imagine that usually eyes glaze at this point. A debate between the new morality and the old, the new set of beliefs that make sense of life versus the old. 

How refreshing that a reviewer finds this "an enthralling debate"!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

"To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that," declared the author flatly through his narrator, Saleem Sinai, who was born on the stroke of midnight August 15, 1947 at the same instant that India was given its independence. 

"There was an extra festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary ... a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will--except in a dream we all agree to dream ... a mere fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat ... India a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivaled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God."

Thus, with wit, style, and erudition, Rushdie has his narrator usher that event, acknowledging the roles of a dying Jinnah who desired to witness the creation of Pakistan during his lifetime and of Mountbatten with his "extraordinary haste." Was it because the British believed there might be substance to the rumors that Hindus and Muslims had started to work on a resolution of their differences and feared a successful new nation where Britannia had ruled by division?

Those who prefer their fiction separated, like yokes from whites, from mere political history must suffer through much in this blockbuster, from the massacre at Amritsar, through the shenanigans of pro versus anti Muslim Leaguers, through comparisons between Nasser and Nehru, between Indian and Pakistani troops, actions in Kashmir and so on, as if to the last syllable of recorded time. 

William Methwold, the departing expatriate who sold to the narrator's parents Methwold Estates in Bombay, whinged that the British had provided "hundreds of years of decent government ... built your roads. [We bequeathed India with] schools, trains, the parliamentary system. The Taj Mahal was falling down until an Englishman bothered to see to it." 

But Reverend Mother (the narrator's grandmother) noticed that there was no water near the pot. "I never believed, but it's true, my God, they wipe their bottoms with paper only." Magna Carta, habeas corpus, and Shakespeare notwithstanding, the British Empire remained in her eyes as the great unwashed.

Rushdie's exuberant and eloquent stories set this blockbuster aside from Virgil's constipated and politically correct epic of the rise of Rome/Augustus or Tennyson's prissy, labored homilies that celebrated English greatness. Instead, from Tal, Aadam Aziz (the narrator's putative grandfather), heard many stories, "endless verbiage which made others think him cracked." The boatman of Kashmir told the tallest of tall tales: "listen, nakoo. I saw that Isa, that Christ, when he came to Kashmir, beard down to his balls, bald as an egg, old and fagged out." 

But the narrator was ecumenical in his casual references to religious figures. He compared his own visions to those of Mohammed ("on whose name be peace -- I don't want to offend anyone") who had been commanded to Recite and received for his confusion the comfort and reassurance of family and friends that he had been singled out as the Messenger. The narrator, on the other hand, saw "the shawl of genius fluttering down, like an embroidered butterfly, the mantle of greatness settling on my shoulders." In an aside he explains a cozy reference to elephant-headed Ganesh, "despite my Muslim background, I'm enough of a Bombayite to be well up in Hindu stories."

Myth, politics, a cunningly contrived plot, almost overwhelms the imaginative, inventive, and most enchanting language. The Sinai family fed upon Reverend Mother's "curries and meatballs of intransigence"; Amina ate the "fish salans of stubbornness and biryanis of determination." Mary Pereira made them "pickles of guilt and fear of discovery." 

This may very well be the Great Indian Novel. There is that air about it, but it may have been too clever. 

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