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.

#ripxiii – Death Notice by Zhou HaoHui

An action-packed crime thriller set in China that sold more than 1 million print copies and is now published in English. The killer styles himself as an avenger of unpunished crimes, calling himself Eumenides & sending out death notices listing their crimes and date of execution. This is the first book in a trilogy has a complicated plot & sometimes stilted dialogue but it was a pretty exciting page turner!

I read this for RIP XIII

#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

#AsianLitBingo – Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

I wouldn’t have heard of this book if not for the lists of suggested reads for Asian Lit Bingo. I initially read it with the thought of using it for the “Queer Romance with Asian MC” square but ended up using it for a different square so as to get a bingo!

Don’t Let Him Know opens with Romola who is visiting her son Amit in America not long after her husband Avinash dies. Amit finds among her things, part of a letter from someone named Sumit. And Amit assumes Sumit was his mother’s former lover, before she met and married his dad. But she doesn’t know how to tell him – can she even tell him? – that this letter from Sumit wasn’t written to her, but to Amit’s father and Romola’s late husband, Avinash.

The book reads more like a collection of linked stories than a novel. We move from character to character, back and forth in time, through various stages of their lives.

It opens with an adult Amit and Romola as a recent widow. Then move back to the time of Romola and Avinash as newlyweds in Illinois. We also meet with a young Amit and in another chapter, an older Amit trying to find his own way in America.

I was surprised that a lot of the chapters belonged more to Romola and Amit than to Avanish. I guess I was expecting to learn more about Avanish and his coming to understand (or perhaps failure to understand) his true self, one that he kept hidden for so long and just seemed so uncomfortable with. I wanted the book to explore more of that.

Still it was a worthwhile read.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – South 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.