Paul French in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Every so often, a novel that captures the essence and flavors of the modern China experience is published — yet seemingly totally escapes the attentions of the devoted China reading crowd. They praise and discuss, absorb and dissect other, often distinctly inferior, novels, while Lawrence Osborne’s The Ballad of a Small Player has attracted no attention and fallen through the cracks of the Sinology drain. Yet Osborne has written an acutely observed novel detailing one part of the contemporary China experience and he deserves to be widely read. In fact, I’m going to just go right on and out and say it — Osborne’s novel is the best on contemporary China since Malraux’s Man’s Fate (which, rather depressingly, means we might have to wait another 80 years for the next one!)
Macau, the former Portuguese colony off the coast of southern China, is a distinctly little written-about place. It deserves more. In the 1930s, Macau gained a reputation for sin and wickedness, epithets that have long lingered over the place. The American noir writer Sherwood King wrote If I Die Before I Wake in 1938. The book became the basis for the Orson Welles-Rita Hayworth film The LadyFrom Shanghai in 1947. In the novel, Elsa Bannister, a White Russian of dubious reputation, born of refugees in Chefoo, on the China coast, explains her past: “Chefoo is the second wickedest city of earth.” The first? “Macau,” she exclaims, without a moment’s hesitation.