Sun, Dec 29, 2002 - Page 18 News List

Fantasy and genetics, travel and domesticity, with an Asian twist

`Taipei Times' book reviewer Bradley Winterton picks the best of this year's Asia-related books

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

And the winner of the Taipei Times Best Book with an Asian Connection 2002 award is ... . Well, there's no such prize, in fact. But this being the last Sunday of the year, we thought you'd perhaps like to be reminded of some of the most notable titles reviewed in this column over the last twelve months. So I've selected a "long list" of the ten books I most enjoyed reviewing, then chosen a "short list" of the five best of those, and finally made a personal choice of Best Book to wind things up.

Fiction first. Three novels stood out. One was The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru (Hamish Hamilton), an uneven but ambitious, and in places astonishing, book on the rise to success of an Indian waif turned upper-class English schoolboy in the first half of the 20th century. It's a comic near-masterpiece that tails away towards the end but is nonetheless vigorous, vivid and almost everywhere inventive.

Also impossible to forget, or put down, was Michel Houellebecq's Platform (William Heinemann), an exceptionally sexually explicit novel that begins by eulogizing sex tourism in Thailand and ends by unwittingly anticipating last autumn's bombings in Bali.

Then there was John Lanchester's absorbing and regularly perceptive Hong Kong saga Fragrant Harbour (Faber) following the fortunes of a small group of characters from the 1930s to the present.

In the world of fantasy fiction, a new arrival, Lian Hearn's Across the Nightingale Floor (Macmillan) looks set to equal all but the best. Set in medieval Japan, it has a poetic quality that combines with a good plot to exceptionally strong effect. It is the opening volume of a trilogy, Tales of the Otori, which is still to be completed.

Now for travel books. Edward Gargan's The River's Tale (Knopf) describing a journey down the Mekong had its moments, but Carsten Jensen's I have Seen the World Begin: Travels through China, Cambodia and Vietnam (Harcourt) was much better, indeed one of the best travel books on Asia I've ever read.

Travel-related, while not being an actual travel journal, was the excellent Along the Silk Road (University of Washington Press) in which Yo-Yo Ma casts his net wide to commission scholarly articles on various aspects, all fascinating, of one of man's oldest land routes.

And while we're on academic publications, a special award for Bravest Local Publication ought to go to Rudolphus Teeuwen's collection of scholarly papers Crossings (Bookman Books) in which current academic absurdities are well and truly put in their place simply by being routinely ignored. Kaohsiung's Sun Yat-sen University, where Teeuwen works, ought to be proud of him.

As for books about Taiwan itself, there hasn't been a lot of competition but John Ross's Formosan Odyssey (Taiwan Adventure Publications) contains a mass of information in very readable form.

Among books of popular science with an Asian angle, Stanley Wells' The Journey of Man (Allen Lane) was remarkable, tracing ancient human migration routes from the DNA in the blood of living populations.

So -- what would be this hypothetical award's short list from these ten publications? I would opt for the following. Among the novels, the bitterness manifesting itself as out-and-out racism rules out Platform. It's very hard to choose between The Impressionist and Fragrant Harbour so both go forward. Across the Nightingale Floor is clearly an outstanding contribution to the fantasy genre, and its being set in Asia is an added bonus. This book sails into the short list with ease.

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