Category Archives: Writing

Book Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old ChinaMidnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend who lives in Beijing recommended this book to me on the occasion of my visit there. I like to read about places that I plan to visit, so I picked it up eagerly. The atmosphere of pre-war Peking is vividly drawn, the author’s attention to detail is exhaustive, and I found myself caring about Pamela’s fate and wanting to know what happened next. Unlike some other reviewers, however, I found the writing style and pacing to be rough going. The events unfolded in repetitive fashion and since we knew from the get-go that the case remained unsolved, there wasn’t much suspense. The lack of a clear protagonist or viewpoint character added distance, compounding the distance already afforded by time and space.

Parallels beg to be made between the story of Pamela Werner, a complex young girl–both beautiful and dark–who was brutally murdered, and the city of Peking itself with its residents brutalized under wartime occupation. I felt that most opportunities to draw such parallels were missed, although perhaps they were just too subtle for me and my scant knowledge of the history of the period.

In general I thought that the author assumed more historical knowledge than most of his readers are likely to possess. Certain descriptors were repeated so often that they became monotonous, but given little context or explanation. For example, I had to google the term “White Russian.” The entire first page of hits for this term was about a cocktail. Its wikipedia entry is a bit more helpful, but even that claims that the term can refer to one of four different possible groups of people, including members of the “White” movement during the Russian Civil War, ethnically “white” emigres fleeing the Russian Civil War, people from Belarus, or a religious group also called Old Believers. I suspect the author meant the first of those four, but it should have been clearer and made more of a difference. I was also brought up short by the many repeated references to “DCI Dennis” and “ETC Werner.” I would have preferred that these men were referred to by their given names.

While I understand the objections to the evidence collected by Pamela’s father in a study that purports to be objective, I don’t think those concerns matter for the purposes of telling an entertaining story and giving Pamela her small measure of justice. The author admits to being himself convinced by Werner’s evidence; he might as well go all in and not hedge. So, in my opinion, the author should have told the story from Edward Werner’s point of view, and started the narrative from the point where the police gave up on the investigation and Werner picked it up on his own. The false starts and trails gone cold followed by the police could be told in interspersed flashbacks as Werner works the case, confronts the alleged killer in prison, and eventually returns to his home, defeated but in another way unbowed.

The Fox Tower, where Pamela’s body is found, is believed in Peking folklore to be the home of the King of the Fox Spirits. The legend held that on a nocturnal visit to a cemetery, a fox would exhume a deceased body and then balance a skull upon its head. It then bowed reverentially to the God of the North Star. If the skull did not topple from the fox’s head, the fox would be transformed into a spirit who would live for eight to ten centuries.

I enjoyed the stories about the Fox Spirits so much that I plan to visit the tower when I visit Beijing. The book’s website has an interesting and very readable article about the tower, which warns visitors that if you let a Beijing taxi driver know that you want to go to the Fox Tower and “you will be met with a blank look and perhaps a gruff shenme difang’r delivered as a tu hua challenge.” http://us.midnightinpeking.com/pdf/th…

This is just the kind of thing the book itself needed more of.

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Mundane Monday: Patterns of Creativity

The Mundane Monday challenge for this week hasn’t been published yet, but it’s still Monday, and I have a picture that fits the spirit of the challenge: to find beauty in the mundane and take a picture of it.

Continue reading Mundane Monday: Patterns of Creativity

Hop(p)ing

For the past 2 weeks I’ve been participating in a NaNoWriMo-related Blog and Social Media Hop, hosted by blogger and author Raimey Gallant. I did the Facebook, blog, Twitter, Google+, and Goodreads hops. I finished following everyone on the very last day of the follow period. I followed Facebook pages as my author page, and that seemed to protect me from being blocked the way some others were.

Otherwise, this year wasn’t a successful NaNoWriMo for me. Continue reading Hop(p)ing

A Writers’ Eye View

Last weekend my husband and I went to a Christmas party given by a local geocacher in Hayward, over in the East Bay. It was a fun party: lots of good food and conversation, and a contest. Every year this person puts out a series of puzzle caches on the first of the month, and at the end of the year, prizes for Fastest Solver and Fastest Finder for all 12 caches are given out at this party.

Continue reading A Writers’ Eye View

The Calendar

It has been 2 weeks now. I have been working on my novel every day for 2 weeks. I’m generally terrible with “every day” goals but I managed to get this system up and running again for the novel. And now the chain is long enough that I don’t want to break it by missing a day. Continue reading The Calendar

Thursday Doors on Friday: Little Free Library

I am again taking a slightly different approach to the Thursday Doors theme. For one thing, it’s not Thursday . . . but these are still doors. They just aren’t doors that humans can literally walk through. They are doors to the imagination: doors to books!

Continue reading Thursday Doors on Friday: Little Free Library

Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part VII: The Road Ahead

  • “You’re going to have to learn to ignore a lot of advice, including some of mine.” 
  • You both have to, and can’t, keep your readers in mind as you’re writing.
  • Try writing some non-fiction, in addition to fiction.
  • Set up a place to write where you can close the door and won’t be interrupted
  • Put your writing materials there and books/resources that you use for writing

I’ve been back from the Windbreak House retreat for over a month now, and I thought I would write two, maybe three, posts about it. Instead here I am, wrapping up with Post Number 7.

Continue reading Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part VII: The Road Ahead

Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part VI: Stories

During the second (and last) full day of the retreat, the weather was hotter and drier, and unbroken by thunderstorms at Homestead House. The window, floor, and ceiling fans were a constant source of white noise, as I sat, partially horizontal, on the couch in the living room. I struggled to eat all the food I had bought—a whole bag of salad, a whole tub of blueberries, a whole bag of carrots. My pedometer stayed under 5000 steps.

Continue reading Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part VI: Stories

Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part V: Going Geocaching

As you may or may not know, I went to this writing retreat in the middle of a geocaching streak: at least one cache find per day for every day of the calendar year. You can read more about my streak here. (Not to be a spoiler or anything, but as of this writing, I’m on day 227).

Continue reading Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part V: Going Geocaching

Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part IV: Advice

My first assignment at the retreat was to write down chronologically what happens, from beginning to end, in my novel. Not surprisingly, I struggled with this. I did have quite a few things worked out: a timeline for when each of the characters were born, for example, and some significant events like Hurricane Noel in 2057, and the Great Flood of Manhattan that breached the protective sea wall in 2042, the return of Halley’s Comet in 2061-2. These events were necessary to get my characters away from the rising seas to Western NY, where they live during the novel. Continue reading Little Writing Retreat on the Prairie, Part IV: Advice