Dragon Games by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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Dragon Games by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: American by birth, but long time Hong Kong resident, retired journalist Paul Leibovitz finds himself drawn into another crime across the border in mainland China. Playing the culture clash as gently as ever, Sendker produces another mystery-thriller-come-love-story that holds you from start to finish. The plot could have been tighter, but the telling of the tale is worth the read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: September 2016
Publisher: Polygon
ISBN: 978-1846973543

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The putative cover of my advance copy of Dragon Games ties it to the international bestseller The Art of Hearing Heartbeats – Sendker's first offering in English translation. I'm hoping that the final edition that hits the market will have the confidence to reference Whispering Shadows to which this is the direct sequel. My hope is because the step between the first two Burmese books and the modern China mystery ones is a significant one. Many readers will love both, but I think the less lyrical, more prosaic, dare I say more political approach of the Chinese stories has a wider readership. It is a readership Sendker deserves.

He manages to maintain a low-level poetic feel to his writing, even when grubbing about in the nastiness of controlled state crime.

If you haven't read Whispering Shadows I'd urge you to do so before picking up Dragon Games. Both books stand well enough alone, but the former deserves its place as your entry into the world of the ex-pat Paul Leibovitz and his Chinese Hong Kong girlfriend Christine. How they came to be together does have a bearing on everything which happens next.

What happens next is that Christine gets a letter from someone claiming to be her brother. Her brother, she thought, had probably died a long time ago at the hands of Chairman Mao's cultural revolution. She escaped to Hong Kong with her mother, her father died, her brother was never heard – nor spoken – of again. For a long time the not talking about him had seemed normal, sensible even. And then it had in a way become too late to try to ask.

Until the letter arrives. A letter asking for help, but giving no details of what kind of help it might be that is needed or why it is Christine who should supply it.

With Paul in tow, Christine travels to mainland China to meet family she had thought lost for 40 years and family she never knew existed. She finds a small village and a dying sister-in-law. She finds that she is not qualified to provide the help her brother sought, and that those who are cannot, or will not, because… because of the way things are.

Paul, however, is an outsider. For all he has lived in Hong Kong for 30 years, for all he believes he understands the Chinese sensibility, for all he has given up his former profession and retired from the world to nurse his own wounds, he is still at heart a journalist. Being an investigative reporter is in his blood. He senses an injustice, a story, and has an idea of how to pursue it when other avenues close down.

As with his previous novels, Sendker continues to talk about love as a back-drop to life and pain. He plays with the weaving of Eastern and Western cultures. His western protagonist is disconcerted by the prophesies of a Chinese astrologer, while his eastern heroine finds her solace in the music of western composers.

In many ways, the crime is just the frame upon which to hand personal stories.

In another sense, I get a feel of modern China standing in for Cold War East Germany – that same sense of modernity heavily overlain with control and greyness and concrete, the colour of life being suffocated by a nervous state, and a people torn apart not by the big things, but by the little things, by the actions taken by individuals a long time ago, when they were young and knew no better, or no different.

That same acceptance.

Plot-wise the tale works well enough to keep you engaged. I'm afraid you will at one point want to 'scream at the screen' as the characters make the fatal mistake which inexorably leads you know roughly where. A better story would have resulted if it could have been something less obvious that led to a downfall, but perhaps the very overlooking of the obvious is the point. That aside, it is a page turner that takes in very modern themes of big business, corruption and/or incompetence at high level and the new opportunities that ordinary people have to address the inequities of life.


If you haven't come across Sendker go back to the beginning with The Art of Hearing Heartbeats but definitely read Whispering Shadows – get a feel for this one by clicking the video linkHi. If you've discovered and love these stories, then we can also recommend The Dark Road by Ma Jian.

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Buy Dragon Games by Jan-Philipp Sendker at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dragon Games by Jan-Philipp Sendker at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Dragon Games by Jan-Philipp Sendker at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dragon Games by Jan-Philipp Sendker at Amazon.com.


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