The Message by Mai Jia – Blog Tour Review.

About The Book

China, 1941.

While war rages in Europe, Japan has established itself as the supreme power in Asia. The beautiful province of Hangzhou has become a stronghold of the Japanese puppet government. One day, five officers from the code-breaking department are escorted to an isolated mansion outside the city. One of them has been sharing secrets with the communists. No-one is leaving until the traitor is uncovered. It should be a straightforward case of sifting truth from lies. But as each code-breaker spins a story that proves their innocence, events are re-framed, and what really happened is called into question again and again. Part revisionist history, part playful meta-fiction, The Message is at once an absorbing and cerebral spy thriller and a commentary on storytelling itself.

My Review

With thanks to the publisher for the copy received. The Message is the first Chinese fiction book that I have read and despite knowing nothing at all about either Chinese or Japanese history I found it fascinating. If at times a little confusing.

In three parts, the first concerns the interrogation of the five people. You don’t really get to know much about any of them, most of the focus is on the ways of getting information, the tricks that Hihara and the others tried to get the information they required. And the mercifully brief descriptions of the torture methods used when this failed. It was this part of the book that I found the most confusing, partly due to my lack of knowledge concerning the history and partly due to the number of people involved. I had no idea who Ghost was or if the right person had been found guilty.

The second part was my favourite, it was here that I realised what meta -fiction was and I stopped looking for information about the characters online. More importantly I felt I got to know at least two of the characters more. Not necessarily liking them but I understood them more and had more sympathy. It was also here, when I started to appreciate how clever this book was. 

The third part goes into detail of the history of the conflict between China and Japan, the identities of some of the characters involved and the beauty of the area where all the crimes took place. And the believable account of how it was protected.

I have never read a book like this before, not easy to read but I’m glad I took a chance. 

Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei – Extract – Blog Tour.

About The Book

From the author of the acclaimed novel The Borrowed, a very timely and propulsively plotted tale of cyberbullying and revenge, about a woman on the hunt for the truth about her sister’s death. 

Chan Ho-Kei’s The Borrowed was one of the most acclaimed international crime novels of recent years, a vivid and compelling tale of power, corruption, and the law spanning five decades of the history of Hong Kong. Now he delivers Second Sister, an up-to-the-minute tale of a Darwinian digital city where everyone from tech entrepreneurs to teenagers is struggling for the top. 

A schoolgirl – Siu-Man – has committed suicide, leaping from her twenty-second floor window to the pavement below. Siu-Man is an orphan and the librarian older sister who’s been raising her refuses to believe there was no foul play – nothing seemed amiss. She contacts a man known only as N. – a hacker, and an expert in cybersecurity and manipulating human behavior. But can Nga-Yee interest him sufficiently to take her case, and can she afford it if he says yes? 

What follows is a cat and mouse game through the city of Hong Kong and its digital underground, especially an online gossip platform, where someone has been slandering Siu-Man. The novel is also populated by a man harassing girls on mass transit; high school kids, with their competing agendas and social dramas; a Hong Kong digital company courting an American venture capitalist; and the Triads, market women and noodle shop proprietors who frequent N.’s neighborhood of Sai Wan. In the end it all comes together to tell us who caused Siu-Man’s death and why, and to ask, in a world where online and offline dialogue has increasingly forgotten about the real people on the other end, what the proper punishment is.

Extract

When Nga-Yee left her flat at eight that morning, she had no idea her whole life would change that day.

After the nightmare of the last year, she was sure better times were ahead if they just gritted their teeth and clung on. She firmly believed that destiny was fair, and if something bad happened, something good must naturally follow. Unfortunately, the powers that be love playing cruel jokes on us.

A little after six that evening, Nga-Yee dragged her exhausted body homeward. As she walked from the shuttle bus stop, her mind busily calculated whether there was enough food in the fridge to make dinner for two. In just seven or eight years,prices had risen alarmingly while wages stayed the same. Nga-Yee could remember a pound of pork costing twenty-odd dollars, but now that barely got you half a pound.

There was probably a few ounces of pork and some spinach in the fridge, enough for a stir-fry with ginger. A dish of steamed eggs on the side would complete a simple, nutritious dinner. Her sister Siu-Man, who was eight years younger, loved steamed eggs, and Nga-Yee often served this soft, silky dish when the cupboard was almost bare—a fine meal with chopped scallions and a dash of soy sauce. Most important, it was cheap. Back when their finances were even tighter, eggs got them through many a difficult moment.

Although there was enough for that night, Nga-Yee wondered if she should try her luck at the market anyway. She didn’t like leaving the fridge completely bare, her upbringing had left her wanting a backup plan at all times. Besides, quite a few vendors dropped their prices just before closing, and she might pick up some bargains for the next day.

Ooo-eee-ooo-eee.

A police car sped past, the siren piercing Nga-Yee’s thoughts of discounted groceries. Only now did she notice the crowd at the foot of her building, Wun Wah House.

What on earth could have happened? Nga-Yee continued walking at the same pace. She wasn’t the sort of person who liked joining in the excitement, which was why many of her secondary school classmates had labeled her a loner, an introvert, a nerd. Not that this bothered her. Everyone has the right to choose how to live their lives. Trying to fit in with other people’s ideas  is pure foolishness.

“Nga-Yee! Nga-Yee!” A plump, curly-haired, fiftyish woman waved frantically from among the dozen or so onlookers: Auntie Chan, their neighbor on the twenty-second floor. They knew each other to say hello, but that was about it.

Auntie Chan sprinted the short distance toward Nga-Yee, grabbed her by the arm, and dragged her toward the building. Nga-Yee couldn’t make out a word she was saying, apart from her own name, sheer terror made her voice sound like a foreign language. Nga-Yee finally began to understand when she picked out the word “sister.”

In the light of the setting sun, Nga-Yee walked through the crowd and was finally able to make out the horrifying sight.

People were huddled around a patch of concrete about a dozen yards from the main entrance. A teenage girl in a white school uniform lay there, tangled hair obscuring her face, dark red liquid puddling around her head.

Nga-Yee’s first thought was, Isn’t that someone from Siu- Man’s school?

Two seconds later she realized the still figure on the ground was Siu-Man.

Her little sister was sprawled on the cold concrete. All the family she had in the world. Instantly, everything around her turned upside down. Was this a nightmare? If only she were dreaming. Nga-Yee looked at the faces around her. She recognized them as her neighbors, but they felt like strangers.

“Nga-Yee! Nga-Yee!” Auntie Chan clutched at her arm, shaking her violently.

“ Siu-Man?” Even saying her name out loud, Nga-Yee couldn’t connect the object on the ground with her little sister.

Siu-Man ought to be at home right now, waiting for me to cook dinner.

“Move back, please.” A police officer in a neatly pressed uniform pushed through while two paramedics knelt by Siu-Man with a stretcher.

The older paramedic held his hand beneath her nose, pressed a couple of fingers to her left wrist, then lifted an eyelid and shone  a penlight at her pupil. This took just a few seconds, but Nga-Yee experienced every one of these actions as a series of freeze frames.

She could no longer feel the passing of time.

Her subconscious was trying to save her from what would happen next.

The paramedic straightened and shook his head.

“Please step back, clear the way please,” said the policeman. The paramedics walked away from Siu-Man, looking somber. “Siu-Man? Siu-Man! Siu-Man!” Nga-Yee pushed Auntie Chan aside and dashed over.

“Miss!” A tall police officer moved quickly to grab her by the waist.

“Siu-Man!” Nga-Yee struggled futilely, then turned to beseech the officer, “That’s my sister. You have to save her!”

“Miss, please calm down,” said the policeman in a tone that suggested he knew his words would have no effect.

“Please save her! Medics!” Nga-Yee, all color  drained  from her face, turned to implore the departing ambulance crew. “Why isn’t she on your stretcher? Quick! You have to save her!”

“Miss, are you her sister? Please calm down,” said the police- man, his arm around her waist, trying to sound as sympathetic as possible.

“Siu-Man—” Nga-Yee turned back to look at the broken  figure on the ground, but now two other officers were covering her with a dark green tarp. “What are you doing? Stop  that! Stop that now!”

“Miss! Miss!”

“Don’t cover her, she needs to breathe! Her heart is still beat- ing!” Nga-Yee leaned forward, her energy suddenly gone. The policeman was no longer holding her back, but propping her up. “Save her! You have to save her! I’m begging you . . . She’s my sister, my only sister . . .”

And so, on this ordinary Tuesday evening, on the empty ground in front of Wun Wah House, Lok Wah Estate, Kwun Tong District, the normally voluble neighbors fell silent. The only sound among these cold apartment buildings was the heartbro- ken weeping of an older sister, her sobs rushing like the wind into each person’s ears, filling them with a sorrow that could never be wiped away.

Behind Her Back by Jane Lythell – Review.

About The Book

n a TV station run by men, how do the women make themselves heard?

Liz Lyon is a television producer at StoryWorld, the UK’s favourite morning show. Her job is stressful and demanding, but she is determined to show her teenage daughter that women can succeed

Then a new female colleague joins the station. In this predatory climate of toxic masculinity Liz and Lori should be helping each other. But when Lori starts secretly building her power base with the bosses, Liz is desperate to know what’s going on behind her back

My Review

With thanks to the author for the copy received. I hadn’t read the previous book in the series but it didn’t take me long to get to know all the characters. It is different to what I usually read but sometimes a change is good and I’m glad that I took a chance on this book. 

Daytime TV, or shows like the one featured are not something I usually pay any attention to. I’ve always felt they were ego driven, with competitive presenters who weren’t as friendly as they appeared on camera and were just a little fake. I hadn’t given a minutes thought to where somebody sitting on a sofa showed how important they were. Luckily much of the novel concerned Liz who worked behind the scenes and was fully aware of everybody’s ego and coped well with any brattish behaviour.

There were a few of Liz’s colleagues I didn’t warm too, maybe because I hadn’t read the earlier book or maybe because they were just unlikeable. I liked reading about what happened behind the scenes, how a programme came together and the things that went wrong. Especially with a presenter who wouldn’t do as they were told. I imagine that the author has seen a lot of bad behaviour in her previous career.

I loved her relationship with daughter Flo, it felt real and I could sense her loneliness and frustration at having to deal with teenage angst on her own. If there are future books in the series I would love to see more about the two of them.