An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King

I first heard of this book in an article about recent dystopian fiction written by women. It stood out, as I tend to be drawn to books written by Asian women, and the premise was especially of interest. Set in a near-future Beijing, affected by the one-child policy which has resulted in far too many males, An Excess Male is the story of a family. May-Ling has two men in her life – Hann and Xiong-Xin or XX. They’re not exactly a typical China family as Hann is “Wilfully Sterile” (the official term for gay), and XX is a “Lost Boy “, socially awkward but brilliant and probably on the autism spectrum. They have a young child together.

We are also introduced to Wei-guo, a personal trainer in his early 40s, a single man whose two fathers have saved up in order for him to finally be able to join a family (at least one that they can afford to join, for it is very expensive to join good families). And he wants to be part of May-Ling’s family. But something happens during a battle at the Strategic Games – this is one part of the book I didn’t quite understand, to be honest, it’s a kind of state-sponsored live-action role-playing game and I think Wei-guo didn’t want to follow some new regulations that were being put in. Anyway, it’s a government thing and he pretty much went against the government, throwing himself and his almost-family into jeopardy.

I went into this book expecting dystopia and dystopia I definitely got, but I loved how the story was so much about family. How a family can consist of one woman, one child, and three men. How there can be love, romantic love, familial love, friendship, in this less-than-typical family.

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What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan

In the first chapter of this book, I learn a surprising fact about China – it has one standard time zone, despite it spanning five geographical time zones! How confusing is that?

Luckily this book, despite its interweaving stories of an expat family, a long-lost brother, and a housekeeping staff-turned-ayi, isn’t confusing at all.

Sunny is from rural China. She works as a maid cleaning rooms and serviced apartments at a hotel in Shanghai. Her name isn’t Sunny of course – it’s just a name tag she picked out of the bin, finding something that seemed right about the name, although she couldn’t even read it herself.

“Chinese names were too difficult for foreign residents to pronounce and carried too much meaning to be revealed to the Chinese speakers. When characters in a name were combined, they produced a complex of feelings and images. That was no good; the best thing for a housekeeper to be was forgettable. Better to take on the blankness of American names.”

One of the apartments that Sunny cleans belongs to the Zhen family, an expat family returned to China after a decade in the US. Lina and Wei have had a long history, having been betrothed since they were young. Wei works long hours at his advertising job, Lina is one of the many taitais in the hotel – “ladies of luxury who could not be called housewives because, aside from cooking the occasional meal, they did no housework at all”.

Wei’s long-lost brother Qiang, contacts them out of the blue after 22 years, and comes to visit. What exactly does he want? Why did he disappear all those years ago? And it turns out that Qiang and Lina have had a history of their own.

I’ve read quite a few books by Chinese authors but this one is written from a very different perspective of a returning Chinese family. Their move from China to the US and then back to China was such a contrast – from a young couple with no money to spare, entertaining themselves by wandering into drugstores and looking at all the goods on display and not being able to buy anything, to becoming a well-off expat family living in a fancy apartment, owning Rolex watches and expensive jewelry. It was a bit hard to like Lina though, although I felt like we had plenty in common in that I am an immigrant to the US myself and while Singapore isn’t such a huge contrast from the US with all its shopping malls and what not, there were all these very “American” things that fascinated (and sometimes frustrated) me. Like the way our first apartment had an open kitchen and this combination cooker hood/microwave over the stove – how was one to get rid of all the cooking smells if that was all?

“American kitchens weren’t designed for wok use, Lina complained. She had tried the American recipes and decided people here didn’t know what real cooking was. All that boiling and baking? Those were safe ways of preparing food. Oil was meant to be splattered on walls, the wok lid held in front of your body like a shield. Cooking, she said, was an act of love and creation. Danger should be somewhere in the mix or it didn’t count. You had to put yourself on the line; you had to sweat. Chinese cuisine required more energy and a higher flame.”

What We Were Promised is a story of contrasts. Sunny’s qunzu fang, a room she shares with five others and which reeks of boiled cabbage and urine vs the large and luxurious jasmine-scented Lanson Suites she cleans. The silk factory where Lina’s father worked vs the skyscraper in which Wei’s office is located. Rural vs city life, rich vs poor.

In case you can’t tell by now, I loved this book and I am just so excited to see what else Lucy Tan writes.

#AsianLitBingo wrap-up

I didn’t do too badly this time! I got three bingos! I always enjoy this challenge and got to read some very beautiful books in May. Some of my favourites were the manga series Orange, Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T Lee, and Lucy and Linh by Australian writer Alice Pung.

Here’s what I read for Asian Lit Bingo:

Asian Muslim MC:Here We Are Now by Jasmine Warga (own voices)

Southeast Asian MC: Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig (own voices)

South Asian MC: Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy (own voices)

Asian MC with Disability: Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T Lee (own voices)

Graphic Novel with Asian MC: Orange by Ichigo Takano (own voices)

Translated Work by an Asian Author: After Dark by Haruki Murakami (own voices)

Asian Immigrant MC:  The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly (#ownvoices)

SFF with Asian MC:  The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by FC Yee #ownvoices

LGBTQIAP+ Asian MC: Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan #ownvoices

Poor or Working Class Asian MC: Girls Burn Brighter by Shobhaa Rao #ownvoices 

East Asian MC:Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li #ownvoices

Asian Refugee MC:Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung #ownvoices

Contemporary with Asian MC: Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

Multiracial/multiethnic Asian MC Such a Lovely Little War by Marcelino Truing #ownvoices

#AsianLitBingo – Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Shan, Mon, Chin, Rohingya, Kachin, Karen (these last pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, it seemed to him – Ro-HIN-gya, Ka-CHIN, Ka-REN) and so on.

This book was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction which is probably where I first heard of it.

I was curious about it as its focus is on the Karen people of Myanmar, people who have been persecuted for their beliefs, and still are today.

It was something about their friendliness, their relaxed natures, their open courteousness, their love of life, their easy acceptance of his right to be among them, elephantine as he must have appeared in their eyes (and hopelessly dumb, miming what he wanted to purchase). He had the sense that wherever they had come from (Mongolia? Tibet?), however many centuries or millennia ago, they had long ago accepted others’ infiltration of their homeland so long as it was peaceable. Yet he also had the distinct impression that they’d never forgotten the dust of homelessness on their feet.

I have to confess that I was also interested by Craig’s own background. She is an actress and is part Karen and based much of the book on the lives of her grandmother and mother, who was actually Miss Burma and a political revolutionary.

But I felt that this book was a really difficult read. Part of it is the violence and the suppression of the Karen people. Part of it is the way the author crams so much into the book. It was very heavy, very intense, something that probably required a longer reading time than the three weeks my ebook loan allowed me.

It was one hell of a tough read.

It did however open my eyes to Burmese history, which I knew almost nothing about before this.

I realized that after writing all this I never actually talked about the synopsis.

And to be honest it’s just easier to paste the official synopsis for you. Maybe you might appreciate this book more than I did.

A beautiful and poignant story of one family during the most violent and turbulent years of world history, Miss Burma is a powerful novel of love and war, colonialism and ethnicity, and the ties of blood.

Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of Benny and Khin, husband and wife, and their daughter Louisa. After attending school in Calcutta, Benny settles in Rangoon, then part of the British Empire, and falls in love with Khin, a woman who is part of a long-persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen. World War II comes to Southeast Asia, and Benny and Khin must go into hiding in the eastern part of the country during the Japanese Occupation, beginning a journey that will lead them to change the country’s history. After the war, the British authorities make a deal with the Burman nationalists, led by Aung San, whose party gains control of the country. When Aung San is assassinated, his successor ignores the pleas for self-government of the Karen people and other ethnic groups, and in doing so sets off what will become the longest-running civil war in recorded history. Benny and Khin’s eldest child, Louisa, has a danger-filled, tempestuous childhood and reaches prominence as Burma’s first beauty queen soon before the country falls to dictatorship. As Louisa navigates her newfound fame, she is forced to reckon with her family’s past, the West’s ongoing covert dealings in her country, and her own loyalty to the cause of the Karen people.

Based on the story of the author’s mother and grandparents, Miss Burma is a captivating portrait of how modern Burma came to be and of the ordinary people swept up in the struggle for self-determination and freedom.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – South East Asian MC

Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T Lee #AsianLitBingo

The first hospital stay, I was a compliant patient, a Sweet Asian Doll, and for this I was branded with a Severe Lifelong Mental Illness. Later, I would be told I had a twenty percent chance of maintaining a full-time job, a twenty-five percent chance of living independently, a forty percent chance of attempting suicide, a ten percent chance of succeeding.

I was twenty-six years old.

This was an exquisite book.

It’s not an easy tale to tell – one of mental illness, of immigrants both legal and illegal, of family and relationships both wonderful and strange.

Miranda, as the older sister, has always been protector, defender and the responsible one. And even more so now that their mother has passed away. Lucia brims with vibrancy and vivacity. She’s unconventional, some may say strange. She’s lived in South America and is marrying an Israeli man she barely seems to know. And worse, she’s started hearing voices.

Just as soon as she married Yonah she decides she wants to have a child and leaves him for a young Ecuadorian man, Manny, who is in the country illegally. Eventually they move back to his small village in Ecuador which soon proves a problem for Lucia’s condition.

Lee said in an interview that she has family members with schizophrenia and in the book it is clear that she’s dealt with various aspects of it, especially the way Miranda tries to handle the various hospital staff who don’t seem to understand how best to treat her sister. Miranda has done all her research and is familiar with all the problems the different drugs give her sister.

In bringing in Manny to the story, we see someone who cares for Lucia and also tries to appease her, not knowing exactly what she needs but still trying his very best to help.

Everything Here is Beautiful is a must-read. I seldom say things like that so I hope you know I mean it. It was a story gently and thoughtfully told, one that explores different perspectives, one that shows us how mental illness affects family and loved ones.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – Asian MC with Disability

#AsianLitBingo – The Land of Forgotten Girls

Ever since Erin Entrada Kelly’s third book, Hello, Universe, won the 2018 Newbery award, I’ve been curious about her books. And now that I’ve read one, how I wish I could have read it when I was a kid!

It’s a bit of a sad story really, two young girls move to the US from the Philippines not long after their sister and mother die and their father remarries this woman Vea, who really falls into the “evil stepmother” category. Life isn’t easy but then three years ago, their father returns to the Philippines for a funeral and never returns to America.

“Unfortunately, we still have Vea.”

Vea, who complains a lot, smokes a lot, and locks Sol in the closet when she misbehaves.

12-year-old Sol is defiant but her younger sister Ming is young and doesn’t know any better.

“I’m not a disobedient girl, even though Papa and Vea say I am. Vea thinks it’s because I’m being raised in America, but that’s not it. I just don’t think it’s right to obey orders that you know are wrong – and calling Vea “Mother” was as bad as cursing God.”

They live in lower-income housing. Thin walls, the kind you can hear all kinds of sounds through, and rats. It’s a bleak and depressing place, but Sol tries to make it a better one for her sister by telling her fairytales and stories she makes up or remembers from what their mother told her, including stories about their made-up Auntie Jove, a beautiful adventurer who travels the world and was blessed by fairies.  Ming holds on to the hope of being found by Auntie Jove.

Sol wants to make Ming a treehouse, a place for her to escape, and she breaks into a junkyard to get materials but gets caught by the junkyard owner, who has a change of heart and showcases his artistic side. Similarly, she finds a friend in neighbour Mrs Yeung, a silent Chinese woman. Perhaps there is hope after all for the two girls.

Sol is a great character – spunky, driven, and independent. She’s also a fierce defender of her younger sister. And while she does some silly things like stealing popsicles from the store and breaking into the junkyard, she knows right from wrong, and knows that their living situation isn’t ideal but that as a child, she can hardly do anything about it.

I really liked this story about a young, lower-income, immigrant girl struggling to fit in. As an adult reader, I think I wanted the book to touch more on race and class issues. But if I had been reading this as a 10-year-old I would have enjoyed this a lot, the way it brings in a bit of fantasy into reality.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – Asian Immigrant MC.

See the rest of my TBR list here

Find out more details about the challenge here.

#AsianLitBingo – Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

“I also began to notice how white everything was. The students, the students’ teeth, and the fences surrounding the outdoor swimming pools we never used. We all seemed to categorize ourselves without ever explicitly saying anything. Where does that leave students who don’t have a clear category?”

It’s not easy being different in school. Leila already stands out because of her Iranian background, but she also holds close to her a secret – she likes girls.

“I’m not ready to announce my lady-loving inclinations as yet. I can hear the whispering, knowing that what they are snickering about could easily be me. I’m already different enough at this school. I don’t need to add anything else to that.”

A new girl joins Armstead Academy and Leila is immediately drawn to her. Saskia stands out – she’s just moved from Switzerland and is Dutch-Brazilian and is the rare person to ask about Leila’s heritage.

“It’s nice to be able to talk to someone about this stuff. Tess and Greg don’t get it, because people see basic white or black when they look at them. It’s the ambiguity that throws people; they want to know which box to put you in.”

Leila is drawn to Saskia – she’s confident, clever, poised, she stands out yet is comfortable with that. She’s not quite so sure why Saskia wants to befriend her though.

Leila constantly worries about coming out to her family. A family they know have shunned their son who was seen kissing another man. How would her own conservative Iranian parents react?

“You know where they’re from, being gay is illegal? They imprison people over there for feeling like I do! Sentence them to death sometimes.”

When I reflect back on Lucy and Linh, the other book I recently read that focuses on teenagers in school, Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel is less complex, more simply told. There’s nothing wrong with that though. Sometimes a lighter read is what’s needed. It’s a lighter read yet it discusses some complicated issues that face many teens out there – discovering their own identity, standing up for themselves and what they believe in, relationships with family and friends, and learning that it’s ok to be different.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo -LGBTQIAP+ Asian MC

See the rest of my TBR list here

Find out more details about the challenge here.