Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent still relevant today

I must confess that I haven’t read any “serious” English novels for quite some time, but 2 weeks ago, I started reading the relatively short Joseph Conrad spy novel The Secret Agent. The novel is only around 240 pages, but feels much longer due to Conrad’s dense prose. Despite this it remains a manageable read. My core experience with Conrad was Heart of Darkness during college; The Secret Agent felt much easier to read (based on my memory of slogging through Heart of Darkness nearly 2 decades ago), I think, because there is more plot development and involvement in the characters. And I am going to congratulate myself for finishing this book!

The novel centers around Mr. Verloc, who runs a seedy shop while acting as an agent for the Russian Embassy. When ordered to instigate an incident (plant a bomb at Greenwich Observatory) or risk losing his subsidy (his main source of income), he embarks on a dangerous terrorist act that ends in tragedy.

The Secret Agent feels as relevant today as it did back in 1907 when the novel was published. Terrorist bombings are used pretty much the same way now as then – i.e. to instill fear and cause governments to react. As a spy novel (I would hesitate classifying it as a thriller, as the slow pace makes it NOT a page turner), I would pretty much call it the precursor to John Le Carre’s excellent early spy novels – that is, these are novels about mundane but complex characters caught in turbulent times. Mr. Verloc is not a James Bond, and Conrad is not fascinated by boyish adventures; his spies and their superiors are seedy politicians and officials looking to further their own careers at the expense of others. And incidents happen not really according to meticulous plans as much as by chance.

Recommended for people who have the tolerance for slow and difficult prose.

P.S. The quality of paper on these new Penguin paperbacks are really quite superior to the ones I used to read back in school. My guess is they won’t go yellow so quickly. Very nice.

Seminal sci fi cover art by Chris Foss … now can be found online

I started reading science fiction back in the 1980s and the first author that I really loved was Isaac Asimov. I remember going through his Foundation and robot novels with great joy. And I loved the cover art work as well; with both UK and US editions available in Hong Kong, I made a conscious effort to acquire the novels featuring his artwork (which were the UK editions).

Recently when I was browsing the web, I came across some of these fantastic book covers by Chris Foss. And boy, did they bring back fond memories. Even now, I find Chris Foss’s artwork impressive although I suppose space opera style fiction is not in vogue.

Apparently apart from creating covers for science fiction novels, Foss also did some sketches for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s (of El Topo fame) abandoned interpretation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. And to my surprise, the illustrations in The Joy Of Sex were also penciled by Foss.

For more info on Chris Foss at Wikiepedia : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Foss

Official Chris Foss website containing his artwork : http://www.chrisfossart.com/

《姑獲鳥之夏》 promotional video

This is the first time I have come across a video clip used to promote a novel. All I can say is that the promo clip succeeds in creating a creepy atmosphere, not unlike a J-horror films – this is rather misleading as the book is a detective thriller and not a very good one at that! I believe the clip was produced by the Taiwanese publisher in promotion of the Chinese edition of the novel.

Click to view [via bubu’s blog]

Rating novels I have read in 2007

By request, here is how I feel about some of the rest of the novels I have read this year. Click on the links to see previous posts about these novels.

Title Author How I liked them
惡魔前來吹笛 橫溝正史 ★★★
嫌疑犯 X 的獻身 東野圭吾 ★★★★★
寂寞獵人 宮部美幸 ★★
Daywatch Sergei Lukyanenko ★★★★★
Nightwatch Sergei Lukyanenko ★★★★★
如焉@sars.come 胡發雲 ★★★
隱劍孤影抄 藤澤周平 ★★★★
A Case Of Two Cities Qiu Xialong ★★★
When Red Is Black Qiu Xialong ★★★
     

Book 1  Nightwatch  Sars  Samurai

多情浪子癡情俠 : decent but not groundbreaking

new-chinese-ma-novel-01-03.jpgEarlier this year I came across a brand new Chinese martial arts novel. Apparently a web site in China organized a competition to find new martial arts writers. 多情浪子癡情俠 by the female writer 鄭丰 won the top prize and was voted the most popular entry by web readers. 中華書局 published this novel in a 4 volume set, with the last two volumes debuting at the Hong Kong Book Fair. According to the blurb on the inside cover, the author was born in Taiwan, and received her university education in the US; she married and moved to London, before migrating to Hong Kong as a full time banker. She wrote the novel in London, a period when she did not have to work.

多情浪子癡情俠 focuses on two heroes : 趙觀 and 凌昊天. The former is clearly modeled on Louis Cha’s 韋小寶, a wily and smooth talker who wins over the ladies. The latter is a top swordsman with few peers but falls in love with his elder brother’s fiancee. The novel follows these two characters from the beginning when they are just kids to the end when they become saviours of China (against invaders) and torchbearers of the new generation. 趙觀 is the more fascinating character as he must navigate through the dangerous waters of the secret societies in the hope of avenging the death of his mother.

Written for initial “publication” online, the novel comprises of short chapters and the plot progresses very rapidly. This is a pro and a con : positive in that novel draws readers in quickly, but negative because too many plot points are glossed over. As a debut novel, I found it very readable. Prose is simple, crisp and unpretentious. Despite a large cast, characters were generally likeable if not particularly developed in depth.

Most martial arts novelist live under the shadow of the three greats – Louis Cha 金庸, Gu Long 古龍 and Liang Yusheng 梁羽生. How does this new novel fare in comparison? Well, it cannot claim to be being a masterpiece despite publicity dubbing the author a female Louis Cha. The novel does not break any ground stylistically (unlike Gu Long’s works) and the plot can hardly be deemed original,as it clearly owes more than a little debt to Louis Cha’s works. But considering that the author is basically an amateur novelist and this is her first work, let’s not be too harsh on the novel. After all, decent new martial arts novels are VERY rare. And while 多情浪子癡情俠 isn’t a seminal work, it does deliver good entertainment.

Recommended.

Link to review at 以書會友

Recently read books : Japanese fiction

Recently, I have read quite a few Japanese novels translated into Chinese. Most of these novels were decently entertaining, with the exception of the rather pretentious and long-winded 姑獲鳥之夏.

The surprise was 砂之器 by 松本清張. I read his so-called seminal Points And Lines in English translation more than five years ago and found that book very dull with too much details involving train schedules. I found 砂之器 to be significantly more interesting.

Having watched a fair number of ninja movies and anime, I was delighted to come across 伊賀忍法帖 by 山田風太郎. The cult movie Ninja Wars actually managed a rather faithful adaptation of this novel – but the novel is nonetheless the better read. Very amusing stuff.

Title Author How I liked them
宿命 東野圭吾 ★★★
池袋西口公園2 石田衣良 ★★★★
動機 橫山秀夫 ★★★
某《小倉日記》傳 松本清張 ★★★
雪國 川端康成 ★★
砂之器 松本清張 ★★★★
危險的童話 土屋隆夫 ★★★
姑獲鳥之夏 京極夏彥
伊豆的舞孃 川端康成 ★★★
伊賀忍法帖 山田風太郎 ★★★★
     

Ninja  Dangerous Fairy Tales  Snow Country  Summer Bird