Friday, March 10, 2017

My Upcoming Historical Epic about Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang

After two-and-a- half years of solitary hard work, I am thrilled to say that I recently put my pen on a publishing contract for my historical epic set in 17th century China. The novel is presently undergoing editing and proofing.

Before reaching this stage, my publisher Graham Earnshaw of Earnshaw Books had also offered me a role as the curator of a new series of historical novels set in Old China, a role I gladly accepted because I felt he and I share a vision of extending and enhancing interest in and knowledge of Chinese history to a global audience through fictional works. The project is progressing well.

Over the last few years, I have read several books and many articles on the craft of writing. The essay that impressed me most is Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. The key lesson I drew from the essay is this:

“I’ve always constructed them on two levels: on the first, I compose the novel’s story; over that, I develop the themes. The themes are worked out steadily within and by the story. Whenever a novel abandons its themes and settles for just telling the story, it goes flat.”

My upcoming novel is based on the life story of the Manchu Qing Dynasty's influential first matriarch, who was born a Mongolian princess. She was the beloved grandmother of Kangxi Emperor. Set against a background of war, racial hatred and great turmoil, when the failing Ming Empire was dealt the final blow by the invading Manchus, the novel encompasses such themes as conflicts caused by cultural gaps, duty versus love, self-interest versus the greater good, how power corrodes humanity and the burdens of hatred and forgiveness. In the course of writing, I made sure that I followed Mr. Kundera’s advice closely.

The latest I’ve heard from my publisher is that my novel has been tentatively scheduled for release on July 1, 2017.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review - "Corrag" by Susan Fletcher

If I hadn’t read this book, I would never have imagined that there was still persecution of witches in late 17th century Great Britain, the practice of which was only banned from 1735 with the introduction of the Witchcraft Act.

The story is a gripping one that recounts the political massacre of Glencoe in February 1692, told through an imprisoned woman who was condemned as a witch and was waiting to be burned, and who had earlier managed to save many lives in Glencoe. Her only audience was a reverend of Christian faith, whose motive was initially to obtain an eyewitness account for political purposes. During the course of listening to the “witch”, he was transformed from a disgusted bigot to a compassionate sympathizer.

The structure of the novel is such that the first-person narrator flips between the “witch” telling her story and the reverend writing to his wife. The themes that dapple the novel are love of nature, getting in touch with one’s heart, futility of hatred and violence, tolerance of others’ values and compassion for all living creatures.

The writing is deeply affecting, especially the description of Scottish scenery. In the end, I think it is the underlying themes that resonate viscerally with me.

These are passages that I love:-

But maybe the best thing I learnt was this: that we cannot know a person’s soul and nature until we’ve sat beside them, and talked.

When was I not a bit lonesome inside? I mostly was. Seeing true, natural beauty can lessen it, because sunsets and winter light can make you say inside you ‘I am not alone’ – you feel it, through such beauty. But it can worsen it, also. When you want a person with you it can be a sore thing. Sometimes you see this beauty and think it is not as lovely as them.

Your heart’s voice is your true voice. It is easy to ignore it, for sometimes it says what we’d rather it did not – and it is so hard to risk the things we have. But what life are we living, if we don’t live by our hearts? Not a true one. And the person living it is not the true you.

It is the small moments, sir, which change a world.

No war. Fight with your pen. Give your battle-cry in ink, and mark your dreams down on a page.

I’m giving this novel 4.5 stars.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

How Did Johann Adam Schall von Bell Relate to the Qing Dynasty?

It may be common knowledge for current and former students of The Chinese University of Hong Kong that the earliest student hostel ever built on campus is called the Adam Schall Residence. But perhaps the person Johann Adam Schall von Bell, in honor of whom the hostel was named, is not too familiar a figure for many, students or otherwise.

Johann Adam Schall von Bell was a German Jesuit missionary born in Cologne. In 1619, at the age of 28, he arrived Macau with a few other Jesuit missionaries, planning to enter China to spread Christianity, only to find themselves stranded in the Portuguese Settlement, as it was the Chinese policy then to curb foreigners’ entry. So Schall von Bell decided to settle down in Macau and learn Chinese and continue with his mathematics studies.

A few years later, in 1622, he unexpectedly got embroiled in Portuguese Macau’s military defense against an attack by the Dutch Calvinists, which attack was instigated by trade disputes. The Dutch (i.e. the Dutch East India Company) had for a long time been jealous of Macau’s lucrative intermediary position on the China-Japan trade route (silk in exchange for silver) and wanted to capture the Settlement. Schall von Bell and his fellow Jesuits went up to the citadel to man cannons that fired on the invading Dutch soldiers, and a shot accidentally hit an explosive dump near their camp. The defense was victorious and the Dutch were chased out.

When news of this reached the Ming Emperor’s ears, he invited Schall von Bell to Court and asked him to produce cannons for use against the invading Manchus. But the Jesuit’s skill at weaponry was clearly eclipsed by his knowledge in astronomy and his work in the calendar reform.

After the Ming Empire transitioned into the Qing Dynasty, Schall von Bell rose to prominence as a key adviser in Shunzhi Emperor’s reign. His influence on Shunzhi and Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang was profound. After Shunzhi died, Schall von Bell’s envious Chinese colleagues initiated a depraved false accusation against him, which led to a death sentence. Although ultimately exonerated, his prison ordeal took a toll on his already frail health and he died shortly after regaining freedom. This roller-coaster phase of his presence in China was nothing short of dramatic and is one of the sub-plots in my upcoming novel.

Monday, March 6, 2017

AnnLoretta's 5-Star Review of "Fated and Fateless"

I was heartened to see this review by a Goodreads friend AnnLoretta:-

Unrelenting suspense. This is a wonderful story of woman versus adversity in a culture which is blind to women.

The tension Ms. Poon creates about the ultimate fate of Wendy, the protagonist, and that of the other women in this story -- for the men are always secondary characters to the upheavals they continually create -- is riveting. What can Wendy make of her life? '

I spent nearly 10 years in a publicly traded real estate investment firm, so I fell immediately into the technicalities of the business. One needn't be able to do that to appreciate the situations these women are in on the changing climate of Hong Kong. The conflicts are deeply communicated and leap off the page.

This book is engrossing, and I greatly enjoyed its story and well-drawn and varied women characters.

Based on this book, I am looking forward to Ms. Poon's next book, due out soon!