Books

We call it a term - get over it!

In Hong Kong, you often find the UK and US versions of books sitting next to each each on the shelves.  And generally the US version is significantly cheaper, but for many books from the UK I don't want the US version.

Because they change stuff. 

I remember reading the first of the Charlie Bone books and being really confused because it seemed to be set in the UK and yet it talked about semesters rather than terms.  Had I really got the wrong idea?  No, the US publisher had employed someone to go through the book and change all those pesky UK English words to their American English equivalents.

Is this really necessary?  Wouldn't it be possible to have a brief glossary to explain a few of the terms that are different?


A bear?

Wellcome are currently running a promotion which features Paddington, the bear from Darkest Peru who lives in London (at 32 Windsor Gardens) with the Brown family. 

What shouldn't have surprised me, I suppose, was that people in Hong Kong wouldn't have any idea about Paddington or that there are a whole series of books about him.

He's a bear?  From Peru?  I never knew that...


Buy the book

Someone kindly recommended www.bookdepository.co.uk a few weeks ago.  They ship books to Hong Kong and they don't charge for delivery.  Hurrah!

Amazon (both UK and US) also ship to Hong Kong, and offer much bigger discounts.  The problem is the delivery charge - Amazon UK add £4.99 per shipment plus £2.99 per item (i.e. £7.98 for one item, £10.97 for two items), which totally wipes out any savings on books with a cover price of less than about £15.  Amazon US have a lower shipment charge ($4.99), and higher per-item charge ($4.99) but the effect is much the same.

Amazon charge same for delivering one small paperback or a boxed set of hardbacks, which means I will never order a cheap paperback from them, but I may order a more expensive title (this also applies to DVDs, which can make boxed sets excellent value for money).  Maybe they make their charges so high to encourage people to sign up for Amazon Prime (a single annual charge for unlimited shipments), because it's hard to believe that it really costs them £7.98 to ship a paperback to Hong Kong.  

Anyway, Book Depository do things differently.  Order a paperback with a cover price of £7.99 from them and you will likely pay £7.19 including delivery (roughly HK$85), whereas it would cost about HK$150 shipped from Amazon or about HK$120 in a Hong Kong bookstore.

Delivery is by airmail and seems to only take 5-10 days, so no complaints there.  They don't use such elaborate packaging as Amazon, and that must keep costs down, but the books have arrived in good condition.

Unfortunately their customer service isn't so good.  I wanted to order one book in advance of publication, and they were advertising it with a bigger than usual discount, but I decided to wait - and a few days before publication the discount had disappeared completely (whereas Amazon were offering a 60% discount).  I questioned this and got no reply.  I followed up and got a vague response.  I tried again, and this time they suggested I order it from Amazon.  Doh!

Then mysteriously they started offering their usual 10% discount again.  Puzzling.

In fact there are many slightly weird things about their website.  Most books have a very prominent link to Amazon.co.uk that tells you the price and the delivery charge.  I suppose this is for price comparison, and also generates some revenue for them if you do order from Amazon.   They even say:

The Book Depository and Amazon: why do we link to Amazon.co.uk?
We are not in competition with Amazon, we complement Amazon by providing books which have poor availability, offering considerable discounts on certain titles which Amazon are unable to. On the other hand, we recognize that our customers want books quickly and, so, if we do not have stock -- or if Amazon is considerably cheaper -- our customers are able to order direct from Amazon via a link from our website. Our aim is to make "All books available to All", so we make it as easy as possible for you to order and obtain books quickly and efficiently. We hope to give you visibility of other bookseller's availability and prices; you will also find our catalogue on internet marketplaces at Amazon, Play, and other retailers.

Well, I suppose they are not in direct competition with Amazon, and it works for them to co-operate instead of trying to compete.  Probably for sound commercial reasons rather than pure altruism.


Bargain Books

Sometimes the price of books in Hong Kong is almost beyond belief:

Jamie's Ministry of Food

Page One, Kowloon Tong HK$474
Cover Price £25.00 HK$292
Amazon.co.uk* (shipped to Hong Kong) £17.97 HK$210
Typical UK bookstore price £12.50 HK$146

£1 = HK$11.68 

* Amazon price is £9.99, plus a delivery charge of £7.98 (£4.99 per shipment plus £2.99 per item)

So the price in Page One is more than three times the price you would typically pay in a UK bookstore, and 60% higher than the cover price. 

Of course, if you purchase multiple items from Amazon, you could split the shipment charge across all of them, making the books even cheaper.

My last delivery from Amazon took 6 days.  


Five rip some DVDs

When I first saw the books, I thought that it was simply a bit of clever marketing, but it turns out that they have updated the Famous Five for the new millenium with four new characters (Jo, Max, Allie & Dylan) who are supposed to be the children of George, Julian, Dick & Anne.  That makes no sense, because the first book was published in 1942, at which point Julian was 12, Dick & George were 11, and Anne was 10.  Which would make it rather unlikely that their children would be teenagers in 2008.  Admittedly they were still the same age 21 years later when Enid Blyton published the 21st and final book in the series, but even so, it doesn't seem quite right.

Even better, we are asked to believe that tomboy George went off to the Himalayas, met an Indian called Raavi, and they had a daughter called Jyoti  (but known as Jo), and that Annie moved to California after University and is now a successful art dealer, with a daughter called Allie.  Which takes care of the whole multicultural thing - clearly they wouldn't have got away with having four white, English, middle-class children.  You'll be relieved to hear that the dog is still called Timmy, and that no-one has bothered to give him a back story.

OK, actually these are not really new books.  Instead they are novelizations of a new Disney Channel TV series made by the company who now own the rights to Enid Blyton's name and all her characters.  So I guess they can do whatever they want.


Closed book

Sun Gai Gweilo was complaining recently about the price (and availability) of English language books in Hong Kong.  And, yes, I am sure I will be criticized for writing this, but English is an official language of Hong Kong, so you might hope that books would be readily available at a reasonable price.  And they're not.

In Hong Kong, it's standard practice for bookshops to convert US Dollar prices to HK Dollars 10:1 (rather than than the actual exchange rate of 7.8), and a similar mark-up applies to British prices - though the fluctuating exchange rate makes this more difficult to track. 

The thing is that even if they used a fair exchange rate, you'd still be paying more (for most titles) than anyone would actually pay in the UK - discounts of 30-40% are widely available in the UK, particularly on new titles and from online booksellers. 

The answer ought to be online, but once again we seem to be poorly served in Hong Kong.  You can order from Amazon, but delivery charges are quite steep.  However, their service is excellent, and books arrive a few days after ordering.  Paddyfield only charge a modest amount for delivery, and use the real exchange rate, but delivery on many titles takes up to 4 weeks, and they don't offer the range of titles or the discounts that you can get from Amazon.

The explanation is simple enough - lack of demand and lack of competition.  If you go to other major cities in Asia, such as KL, Bangkok and Singapore, you will find a better choice of English books at more competitive prices than in Hong Kong.


Prince Caspian - a stupid adaptation

Having watched the film (which opened a few weeks ago in Hong Kong), and read the book, I have to say something about the horrible job they have done of adapting this children's classic for the cinema.

In the book, the story starts (as it should) with the Pevensie children.  They are on a railway station somewhere in the countryside, when they are suddenly whisked off to Narnia.  Later they are told the story of Prince Caspian and why he has summoned them back to Narnia. 

The film, on the other hand, starts with Prince Caspian escaping from the castle, and although a rather cursory attempt is made to explain the story, the main focus is on excitement.  And action.  Then Caspian finds the horn and immediately summons the children (something that takes much longer and is given far greater consideration in the book). 

In the film version the children are at Strand underground station in Central London when the call comes.  Presumably they did this because it helps to make it clear that the story is taking place during World War II, but it also enabled them to add two unnecessary plot points - Peter Pevensie being caught up in a fight, and his sister Susan fending off an unwelcome admirer.  These two themes are developed further as the film goes on, with Peter and Susan both falling victim to the screenwriters' attempts to "modernise" the story.

Then there's the way that the Telmarines are given a vaguely Spanish accent just to make it clear that they are the bad guys.  So much easier than giving us the 'back story' that is in the novel, and typical of the unimaginative way that this has been put together. 

Some people seem to think that the basic narrative structure of the book would not have translated well to film.  I disagree, and in fact I think it would have made a lot more sense if they had left it alone - though I suppose we'd still have had the inevitable CGI and extended battle scenes.

Maybe they'll find a decent director for the next one.


Storms, teacups

I don't know all the background to this strange story:

ASIAN AUTHOR Nury Vittachi, co-founder of the Hong Kong Literary Festival, is to be sacked by the organization’s board in a row about racial insensitivity and improper business links.

The novelist, probably Hong Kong’s biggest literary export, alleges that the board fired him after he complained about racism and urged that “questionable business practices” be reformed.

Vittachi claims:

  • That he campaigned for years to set up a literary prize, but once sponsorship was obtained, he was cut from the project because of a Westerners-only rule.
  • That the festival board, ostensibly non-profit, limits membership to directors and authors of Paddyfield.com and Chameleon Press, companies run by board member Peter Gordon.
  • That prime slots in the festival programme were given to Chameleon Press novelists even if they paid for their own publication.

However, the long and the short of it seems to be that Peter Gordon has fallen out with Nury Vittachi.

Those with long memories may recall that one of the more celebrated claims made by that mad bloke with the big yellow blog was that Peter Gordon owned IceRed and was supressing any criticism of Nury (mostly from dear mad old George himself) on the discussion forums.  At that time Peter Gordon's Chameleon Press was indeed publishing Nury's books, but he certainly didn't own IceRed.  Now Nury has moved on to bigger and better things.

I probably shouldn't jump in and make any judgements on this, but I think I'd agree with the conclusion of the anonymous journalist who wrote the article:

People close to the board of the Hong Kong literary festival claim that personalities are a likely element in the present dispute. “Both Peter Gordon and Nury Vittachi have massive egos,” said a regular festival attendee. “But to sack the founder of the festival over a single, vague blog entry seems way out of proportion. There’s got to be more to this than meets the eye.” 

[..]  Both principal players in this drama are deeply ambitious people. Gordon is a spiky character, admired for his acumen by some but not well-liked by other booksellers and publishers in Hong Kong. Vittachi is infamous as a self-absorbed, aloof, workaholic author, but is well-connected and widely liked.

Well, I have to confess that I took an instant dislike to Peter Gordon (it saves time, you see), and Nury is a lovely bloke but he does seem to over-fond of conspiracy theories - such as the one about why he was sacked by the SCMP (published by Peter Gordon), which is only slightly spoilt by the fact that he wasn't actually sacked at all. 

Now he has been sacked, so that should be worth another book.  I'm sure Chameleon Press will publish it...

[UPDATE: In case it's not clear, this appears on Nury's own blog - he appears to have arranged with a journalist to write this account, which he has then published.  I don't think it has appeared elsewhere.]


Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux

I came across my copy of this book recently, and it made me wonder whether it is the worst "Hong Kong" novel ever written by a well-known author. 

The characters are two-dimensional, the plot is flimsy, and the author knows nothing about Hong Kong - as demonstrated by the fact that the factory owned by the main character is located in that well-known industrial area of Kowloon Tong.

Truly a dreadful load of old nonsense. 


No offence

There was (I think) a time when obituaries were written with great care so as not to cause offence. Not any more - this is from the Daily Telegraph (several months ago - I forgot about this and have just found it again):

William Donaldson, who died on June 22 aged 70, was described by Kenneth Tynan as "an old Wykehamist who ended up as a moderately successful Chelsea pimp", which was true, though he was also a failed theatrical impresario, a crack-smoking serial adulterer and a writer of autobiographical novels; but it was under the nom de plume Henry Root that he became best known.

Willie Donaldson's alter ego was a Right-wing nutcase and wet fish merchant from Elm Park Mansions, SW10, who specialised in writing brash, outrageous and frequently abusive letters to eminent public figures, enclosing a one pound note. Donaldson's genius was to write letters that appeared absurd to the public but not to those to whom they were addressed. The recipients duly replied, often unaware that the joke was on them.

An inspiration to Harry Hutton, methinks.

In 1971 Donaldson fled wife and creditors and left for Ibiza, where he spent his last £2,000 on a glass-bottomed boat, hoping to make money out of tourists. By the end of the season, he had no money left and had to sell the boat for £250. He returned to London when he heard that a former girlfriend had gone on the game, moved in to her Chelsea brothel as a "ponce" and used his experiences as the basis for his first book, Both the Ladies and the Gentlemen (1975).

He seems to have led a full life, as they say.