Mini reviews (Shadow Scale; Life of a Banana)

shadowscale


 

I was not inured to the siren call of books myself. I wandered, transfixed by the endless shelves and scroll niches, the colonnaded courtyards and burbling fountains, the scholars passionately scribbling treatises at long wooden tables, the gentle slant of sunlight along the open corridors.

 

Shadow Scale is immense.

A fire-breathing, heartwarming, mind-wrecking journey.

There are dragons, and half-dragons, and mind-gardens and mind-fire. There are Saints and monsters and Knights and quigutl.

But you might already know of this wonderful world, if you’ve already read Seraphina. Shadow Scaleis its sequel.

I adored Seraphina. And yes it took me a little time to settle into this world again, to build it up in my mind and wallow in it, getting myself comfortable, cocooning myself. Never an easy thing to do but Hartman does a pretty decent job at it.

While Seraphina is the main character in both books, it is her relationship with the other characters, humans, dragons, half-dragons, and even that little family she maintains in her mind garden that make the series wonderful.

So I wrote those paragraphs above a few months ago while the book was still fresh in my mind. Today though, while I do think the two books still make for an excellent read together, Shadow Scale pales a little with regards to Seraphina. But that tends to be the case with second books, doesn’t it? The first stuns and astonishes with its world-building and the reader’s discovery of new characters and the plot, so much that sometimes the sequel seems an afterthought. Luckily Shadow Scale is not a mere afterthought. It was just as welcoming to dive back into and to revisit old friends, but also to explore new places and meet new people with Seraphina.

Plus how can I resist a book that ventures into a library, if only for a little bit.

(Source: Netgalley)

lifebanana

 

“… what Chinese people call a banana: white on the inside, yellow on the outside”

The Life of a Banana – PP Wong 

(Source: Netgalley)

I was really excited to see this book on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. Wong’s book is largely set in England but also features Singapore, as the late mother of her main character Xing Li, is from Singapore – Wong’s parents were also from Singapore and moved to England where Wong was born.

Essentially it’s a coming of age story from the perspective of a young British Chinese girl. Although born and raised in London, she feels out of place. And when her mother dies, she and her older brother are sent to live with their very traditional and strict maternal grandmother, their auntie who is an actress, and their very strange uncle. She’s also sent to a new school where she’s one of the few non-white kids, and the bullying gets out of hand…

It’s not easy being a teenager, and it seems even harder for

Her older brother Lai Ker is full of quotable quotes on how to be a good Chinese:

“If you want to be a proper Chinese you HAVE to be good at Maths. If you want to be a fake Chinese, then go bleach your hair blonde and call yourself Mary.”

 

“People always think Chinese people are working hard but actually they’re smart and they’ve finished the work by lunch break so they can play games on their computer.”

Their Auntie Mei is an actress, and it isn’t easy being an Asian actress in England, or anywhere for that matter..

“Auntie Mei said white directors can’t tell the difference and talked about when she went to an audition pretending to be Cambodian. They asked her to speak in her ‘native’ tongue – she made up gibberish and got the job. Luckily the advert was only shown in the UK. She told us yesterday she’s played Filipino maids, Thai prostitutes and Chinese refugees. It must be super glamorous being an actress.”

Wong makes a clever move using a 13-year-old as her main character. Xing Li is innocent and wide-eyed about the world around her, but is starting to figure out her place in the world, and in her family. She often muses about ethnicity:

I start to daydream about what is would be like to grow up in a country where I am not seen as different. Somewhere where I am popular and don’t have to explain my name or that I’m Chinese. It would be a really cool place where Asians and Jamaicans are just seen as doctors, school girls and business women. Not “the Chinese doctor”, “the Asian school girl” or “the black businesswomen of the year”. It would be a country where I was not seen as “ethnic” or “exotic” but just “me”. That would be great!

The Life of a Banana makes me reflect on my own situation. I grew up in Singapore and about six years ago moved to the US. The husband is also from Singapore but my children were born in the US. Singapore is about 3/4 Chinese, so there we were among the ethnic majority. So I (unfortunately) never gave much thought about that when I was growing up. But having read this book about growing up British Chinese (fiction, yes, but I reckon it reflects Wong’s own experiences), I’ve been wondering what it will be like for my children to grow up here. It’s always been in the back of my mind (and my husband’s), whether we should stay here or return to Singapore, where the rest of our families are. There are many reasons to go, many reasons to stay. Neither answer really seems right for now.

On a similar note, I shall be posting later this week about Bone, another book written by a Chinese writer, one who grew up in San Francisco. That’s a very different book, but I can’t help but think of it as I write this post.

 

ppwongPP Wong is the first British Born Chinese novelist to get a publishing deal in the UK. After completing a degree in Anthropology and Law at the London School of Economics, she did a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism.

Her debut novel The Life of a Banana is about race relations in London seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl. It was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 (formerly Orange Prize for Fiction). The rights have already been sold for eight countries including Italy, Israel, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

PP Wong is now an author, freelance writer and the Editor-in-Chief of website http://www.bananawriters.com The website has readers from over twenty countries and is a voice for East Asian and South East Asian writers.

(From http://www.ppwongauthor.com)

Reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This book has been talked about enough everywhere (and Tartt has given plenty of interviews) that you probably know what it’s about already. In case you don’t, here’s the summary from Goodreads

It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

This isn’t a review.

This post is about my reading of this book.

This stellar stellar book.

First you probably should know that I’m the kind of crazy reader who has at least four or five books going on together – one on the kindle, one on Overdrive on my tablet (so that I can max out my e-book loans from two libraries), one graphic novel borrowed from the library, perhaps one kidlit for a quick distraction, a non-fiction that is slowly being picked at. I always have several e-books downloaded from the library at a time. E-books are my main reads these days as it’s a bit tricky manhandling two littles around the library, along with their massive library loot.

So it was a rather unusual past week where I read just two books. The Goldfinch on the Kindle (and Kindle app on the tablet). Then for something to dip into, for a slightly different taste when I came up from air from reading The Goldfinch, Howard Cruse’s graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, a very different sort of read set in the 1960s, in small-town America.

And for those days when I was immersed in Donna Tartt’s world, whether it was New York or Las Vegas or Amsterdam, I was cocooned in this book, reading little else, thinking of little else (aside from those nagging demands from the littles and the usual every day necessities like eating and drinking). And for me, the best sign of a great book is the way I felt a little lost after it ended. Reluctant to pick up another book. Hesitant to start something new that would take away this world that still swirled around in my mind.

While The Goldfinch had an intriguing plot, what made the book sing was its characters. The young Theo, lost in the aftermath of the tragedy, unwanted, unsure. His best friend Boris, brash, alcoholic, unpredictable. The sweet and generous Hobie who takes Theo in, but whose mind is on his work (furniture restoration) more than anything else.

And not to forget, the very important work of art itself. When Theo first sees The Goldfinch in the museum with his mother, he doesn’t quite see it yet. And he’s really more interested in that girl he saw:

“It was a small picture, the smallest in the exhibition, and the simplest: a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”

But when he sees it again, much later, in Las Vegas, he begins to understand its significance.

“In the arid room – all sheetrock and whiteness – the muted colors bloomed with life; and even though the surface of the painting was ghosted ever so slightly with dust, the atmosphere it breathed was like the light-rinsed airiness of a wall opposite an open window. “

And even when it’s hidden away, there is something magical about it:

“Even in the act of reaching for it there was a sense of expansion, a waft and a lifting; and at some strange point, when I’d looked at it for long enough, eyes dry from the refrigerated desert air, all space appeared to vanish between me and it so that when I looked up it was the painting and not me that was real.”

I wonder what it would be like to see this painting up close. 

It’s so hard to say goodbye to a book you’ve been so immersed in, whose characters you continue to wonder about, whose lives you’ve been so invested in. The Goldfinch was just breathtaking!

I know this is hardly a decent post about this book but I felt the need to put something down, to make a note of my having read this. Because it was a read that shouldn’t disappear into the black hole that is my memory.