Byblos

Alphabet

The tradition of writing began with a curse. Crime fiction, you could say, started it all.

To witness the creation of literature, journey to Lebanon. About an hour’s drive north of Beirut, between the mountain and the sea, is a small coastal town with a tale to tell.

Byblos harborA Phoenician tower still guards one of its harbors. From there it is a short walk to the remains of an urban settlement that has been in continuous habitation since at least the fifth millennia BC; there are traces of settlement that extend back another 2000 years, with the first emergence of agricultural settlement and pottery.

Called Gubal by the earliest Caananites who probably founded it, this may be the oldest city in the world. Continue reading “Byblos”

Expats breaking bad

The biggest topic in Hong Kong right now isn’t Occupy Central – it’s the sensational murders of two prostitutes by a junior expat banker. Amid plenty of juicy press coverage, Business Insider ran an article noting that, beyond the extremes of murder, expat men in Hong Kong behave badly all the time.

The article, by GSElevator, says the murders, allegedly by the 29-year old Rurik Jutting, took place in a city of hedonism, in which wealthy expat men feel no rules apply to them:

As an overhang of colonialism, [expat bankers] tend to get treated better than locals. They can start food fights at The Mandarin Grill, flee the scene of a car crash, or take their pants off and run around Lan Kwai Fong. And if they get so out-of-control that they get banned from 3 bars in one night, the cops will just take them home.

I know guys who tick all of those boxes, and more. The assertions are beyond dispute. But GSElevator is wrong to connect these things with murder. Lots of expats go off the rails in Asia. So far only one has gone around killing Indonesian prostitutes.

While rude behavior is fact, the more interesting question is why? Why do so many expat males feel as though the social norms of Europe, North America or Australia don’t apply to them when they are in Asia? GSElevator calls it an overhang of colonialism and leaves it at that. Continue reading “Expats breaking bad”

The impatient Tim Berners-Lee

1410898342000-XXX-ISAACSON-INNOVATORS-BOOKS-jy-2151-My day job for the past two decades has been financial journalism. Publishing, journalism, books and other forms of written content – including this blog – have over that time been destroyed as profitable industries.

Sure, there is still money to be made, but in most cases not by the creators of content.

The Internet has allowed for the proliferation of content, which is good for consumers (and I’m a consumer too), aggregators (Huffpro, et. al.), and discount online purveyors such as Amazon.

While few have shed tears for the demise of traditional publishers – of books, magazines, newspapers – the destruction of these industries has also made untenable careers for talented people who might have otherwise continued to provide what remains a service to citizens. Continue reading “The impatient Tim Berners-Lee”

Soundtrack

I begin my writing routine to music but often end it in silence.

The music is not there for listening. Listening requires concentration. I do enjoy listening to music, but when I’m writing its purpose is more akin to whatever it is that white noise does to our brains.

Therefore I prefer to start with music that I know very well. The better I know it, the more easily it will slip out of consciousness.

Music that is repetitive and predictable is better to write to than music that is quirky and surprising. Classical music is often difficult to write to because of its contrasts. So too Led Zeppelin’s first album.

I also happen to like writing to loud rock music. I like an empty apartment and loud crashing repetitive rock.

My wife may not always like it when I write. Continue reading “Soundtrack”

Prince of Ayodhya

abcd7febefedfb5c60193b1676fdb56eMy friend Kamni once lent me a paperback copy of Prince of Ayodhya, the first of an eight-book series by Ashok Banker recreating India’s ancient epic, the Ramayana. This is a few years ago, when I was researching for The Story of Angkor and trying to get my head around the basics of Hinduism; I was also becoming a regular at yoga. Kamni seemed pleased that I was gettin’ my Indian thang on. Hence the book.

The idea of tackling a gigantic epic written millennia ago is daunting, to say the least. The Ramayana emerged in its orthodox format sometime in the 300s BC. It’s not like cracking open an Elmore Leonard for your next flight.

But Banker has transformed the epic into plain, modern English – the kind that Elmore Leonard fans can enjoy. More, he has reinterpreted it for our generation. (This is in keeping with centuries of Indian tradition; the epics have always been reworked in a variety of languages to appeal to the readers of the time.)

The result reads like a cross between J.R.R. Tolkein and “Star Wars”. Any fantasy, sci-fi, mythology or adventure reader would dig this. No knowledge of Hinduism or Indian culture is necessary. Banker lets the story do all the teaching. Continue reading “Prince of Ayodhya”

Jade Lady Burning

UnknownMartin Limón published this, his first in a series of crime novels featuring American military detectives in 1970s Seoul, in 1991. So George Sueño and sidekick Ernie Bascom have been populating bookshelves for a long time. I only found them recently, though. Now that I know Limón exists, I find traces of him in lots of places (like crime fiction blogs) but lurking back in the shadows – a cult favorite, I guess.

Selling Asia-based crime novels is tough. There isn’t much of an audience for it (or at least, US and UK publishers don’t think there is…stick an umlaut on it and tell them it’s set in Copenhagen, they go batshit). Korea is about the least understood, least touristed major country in Asia. So I’m not surprised that Martin Limón is obscure relative to his body of work.

But Korea’s also been home to the US military for nearly 70 years. Limón’s investigators love army life there because it’s a steady paycheck, they enjoy a lot of freedom (drinking and whoring on the job), and George Sueño has a Marlowe-like sense of honor that compels him to obsess on cases that everyone else wish would just go away. Continue reading “Jade Lady Burning”

Val, con’t

I’m excited to have completed the manuscript to the next Val Benson novel. This isn’t the finished product. It needs a little ‘walkaround time’. And the publisher, Crime Wave Press, will give it their edit. But finishing the draft is the hardest part of the creative process.

In some ways this was easier than the debut novel, Gaijin Cowgirl. This is now my third completed novel and fourth book overall. I knew my main character very well. Confidence helped with keeping the writing on schedule, too. Each work of mine has engendered doubts, this one included. But readers seem to really like Gaijin Cowgirl, and that’s a great feeling.

This story has a few things in common with the debut. I think there are some things that make it a Val Benson thriller: multiple locations, a treasure hunt, a dollop of historical narrative, and of course plenty of action. Continue reading “Val, con’t”

Writer on location: Three Pagodas Pass

photo-3Thailand figures prominently in my fiction. The second half of Gaijin Cowgirl followed Val Benson from Bangkok to the Burmese border. The as-yet unpublished Bloody Paradise is set entirely in Koh Samui. And the new Val Benson adventure sees her revisit Bangkok.

At the time of writing Gaijin Cowgirl, I was spending a lot of time in Thailand. Work led me frequently to Bangkok, so I got to poke my nose around the city. I tried to infuse the story with the real sense of mystery, fun and seediness you find there. In fact, Gaijin Cowgirl required a few chapters that flashed back to Bangkok in the late 1960s, when it was the heart of the US air war against Ho Chi Minh. Those are still among my favorite passages of anything I’ve written. Continue reading “Writer on location: Three Pagodas Pass”

The Golden Lands

9780789211941Peter Gordon of the Asian Review of Books kindly asked me to write something about a newly published tome on Buddhist architecture (click here to read it).

I learned a tremendous amount from Vikram Lall’s The Golden Lands, a big book with awesome photos, maps and computer-generated images. Meant to be the first volume in a series, The Golden Lands covers six countries in Southeast Asia. If you’re into temples, stupas and monasteries, this is for you.

Understanding a subject as big as Buddhism is hard, and I’m no expert. I’m not even a Buddhist! Continue reading “The Golden Lands”

Declare victory, retreat

Hong Kong’s protesters should use tonight’s rally to dismantle the road barriers. The campaign for a democratic Hong Kong must be seen as a long-term struggle. To think that this round of protests – which may enjoy broad sympathy but have not mobilized the middle class into taking to the streets – would by itself change the way Beijing runs Hong Kong is foolish.

The umbrella movement has achieved a lot. It has forged a new generation who must take their commitment forward into the uncertain, awkward arena of life. Beijing doesn’t know how to deal with them, and the creativity and discipline evinced this week by the protesters has to be channeled into new, diverse tactics. They must retain an essential unity of purpose but through decentralized cells that can pop up and frustrate the more anti-liberal activities the government may pursue.

If they persist in blocking thoroughfares in Central, Admiralty and elsewhere, they will certainly provoke chief executive Leung Chin-ying into ordering the police to clear the streets. The police, sometimes caught in the middle of this political tussle, will oblige. People may well get hurt. Continue reading “Declare victory, retreat”