The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

This was the book I didn’t know I needed last night. I’m not from Malaysia but there are enough similarities between Malaysia and its neighbor Singapore for me to feel at home when I was reading this. I couldn’t sleep last night and while a ghost story wasn’t exactly what I was looking for at that moment, the library ebook was due in a couple of days. So The Girl and the Ghost it would be then

The ghost is a pelesit, a dark spirit who takes the form of a grasshopper to stay hidden. His master, a witch, dies and he has to find a new master. The witch had told him a pelesit needs a master to control his craving for destruction and chaos. As he is bound by blood, the new master has to be of the same blood. And so it is to be Suraya. Suraya is a lonely child, her father is dead and her mother withdrawn.

“Maybe that was what she was. The durian of friends. Maybe people would learn to like her one day. Maybe she just had to meet the right ones.”

So quickly she and Pink become inseparable. But Pink’s dedication to her has a dark side as he lashes out relentlessly at those who bully her, then takes an even darker turn when she makes her first real friend.

It was a dark and endearing read, full of the sights and sounds and smells of Malaysia. It was a beautiful and emotional tale of friendship and family. It made me long for home and made me tear up as I thought of my family and wished I could be there for them, especially this week, with the passing of my grandmother

The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha

My boys were into those Choose Your Own Adventure books last year, although that interest faded away surprisingly sooner than I expected. I remember liking those quite a bit when I was a kid. Then again, the variety in children’s literature nowadays is so much better, maybe the Choose Your Own Adventure books no longer hold kids in thrall these days?

Or maybe I am just still a kid at heart, for I was tickled with delight when I reached that moment in The Wandering where I got to pick between two choices. Do I go with (choice one) and turn to this page, or do I go with (choice two) and turn to this other page? What would be a wiser choice? Or really, what would be a more thrilling choice?

When you get to pick, would you pick something you personally would have gone with or would you pick the one which make for a more exciting story?

We begin with the devil. And you are his lover. He worships you and courts you with gifts of chocolate and flowers. But soon, you tire of his gifts. You ask him to grant you a wish – to get away from Jakarta, Indonesia, not to be a tourist, but to live in places far away, places you’ve never been to. The next day, you wake to find a pair of glittering red shoes by your bed and a contract. The contract says, if you return home, you will lose everything, your home will not be what it was. To accept the contract, you wear the shoes.

And find yourself in a taxi, heading to the airport, ready to leave New York. But as you leave the taxi, you realise one red shoe is missing. And here you are given the first choice – return to New York, report your loss to the police, or continue on your journey to Berlin.

It is a wander through the world, through self-discovery, through mythology and Indonesian folklore as well as popular culture.

And as I finished one version of the story, I immediately went back for a different version. Until I finally read through all the different storylines. In the end, it wasn’t really about the plot lines, but like the title, it was a wandering between alternate possibilities, a meandering through different countries (although admittedly, fewer than I was hoping), different stories, via the decisions the reader takes.

The Wandering is an especially interesting book to read during these times (it was originally published in Indonesian in 2017 and then in English in 2020) – when border crossings are restricted, when flights have dwindled to just a handful a day, newspaper articles about families separated for months because of illness, immigration issues, visa problems. Personally, I have often wondered (and more often since the way the mangled way the US has handled the pandemic), what if we had returned to Singapore, instead of staying on here? What would our lives have been like?

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan


While not as well-rounded as Beauty is A Wound (my thoughts), Man Tiger, first published in 2004, is a great introduction to Eka Kurniawan and Indonesian literature. After all, it tops out at 172 pages, versus Beauty is a Wound (first published in 2002) which has 470 pages.

Man Tiger is not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit. There is a murder. A man in a small village has been killed. Everyone knows that it was Margio, who insists:

“It wasn’t me,” he said calmly and without guilt. “There is a tiger inside my body.”

There are a lot of mystical elements to the story, which is told in a cyclical, rather conversational manner (perhaps in the Indonesian storytelling fashion?). But this is also a story about an ill-matched relationship, a couple who are constantly at loggerheads, a broken family.

Man Tiger could be described as crime fiction, maybe magic realism (although when I see those two words, I tend to flee from the book, so scratch that), domestic fiction? I don’t know, I guess the easy way out would be to file it under ‘translated fiction’ as it doesn’t really seem to fit into any proper genre. But if you’re looking for a different, diverse, translated read, one that’s quick, one that’s different, and yet also gory (you should see the way Margio kills the man), passionate, and just completely apt for autumn (i.e. ripe for any Readers Imbibing in Peril, or just up for a weird read).

If you’re interested in reading more from Indonesian writers, may I suggest The Girl from the Coast by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (my thoughts)

Some things you might not know about Indonesia.

  • It’s the world’s fourth most populous nation with some 261 million people speaking over 580 languages and dialects.The main language is Bahasa Indonesia
  • It’s made up of 17,000 islands and some 130 active volcanoes



I read this book for Readers Imbibing in Peril XI

(here’s the link to the review site)


Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf 


 Read Diverse Books Year-Round

TLC Book Tours: Ghost bride by Yangsze Choo

In the seventh month of the lunar calendar, usually around August, Chinese Singaporeans (and Chinese in other parts of the world) observe what we call the Hungry Ghost Festival.

It is believed that the gates of Hell open and the ghosts are allowed to wander the earth. To appease these hungry ghosts, offerings are made to them – food, joss sticks, candles, paper money and other items made out of paper like houses and cars. In Singapore, big dinners are held, and guests bid at auctions for auspicious items (one man even paid S$258,888 (about US$207,000) for a gaudy urn that cost S$100!). And entertainment is provided for both human and ghostly guests, traditionally in the form of wayang (Chinese street opera) but these days, getai (literally ‘song stage’) is the popular mode of entertainment, where Mandarin and dialect songs are sung by colorfully dressed singers. But one thing remains the same, the first row of seats remain empty, for the spectral guests.


(Photo via Singapore Tourism Board)

When I was a kid in Singapore, not far from our house, a wayang/getai stage and dinner tables would be set up in a small parking lot of a row of shophouses. And we would hear the loud music late at night from our house, and smell the offerings being burnt. One had to watch where we were walking, to make sure we didn’t tread on ashes or offerings as it would bring bad luck. My parents weren’t the superstitious/religious sort but my grandparents were, and they had altars and joss sticks at their house. I remember helping to fold joss paper money and burn them, although I cannot remember if this was for Hungry Ghost month or for funeral rites. Perhaps both. (In Singapore columbariums, large troughs are provided for the burning of joss paper).

And it is during Hungry Ghost month that the more superstitious avoid doing certain things like swimming, going out late at night, getting married (see more here).


But nothing has been said about reading books that talk of this ghostly world, like Yangsze Choo’s amazing Ghost Bride.

The story is set in late 19th-century Malacca, a sleepy seaside town in southwest Malaysia. Li Lan is about to receive an unusual proposal, to be the bride of a young man recently deceased, the only son of the wealthy and powerful Lim family. It is a very rare practice, and is meant to appease a restless spirit. Of course there is far more to this as we later learn as we delve into the spirit world with Li Lan.

Li Lan’s own family was once wealthy but now its fortunes are in decline, and her opium addict father’s debts are owed to the head of the Lim family. She soon finds her dreams haunted by Lim Tian Ching, the deceased she is meant to marry. She enters a ghostly world in her dreams, where everything is “intensely and unappetizing lay pigmented”, where food is displayed like funeral offerings. But her thoughts are with his cousin, the scholarly and gentle Tian Bai, now the heir to the Lim fortune.

As a Chinese Singaporean, I was drawn to Choo’s story and her skilful rendering of 19th century Malaya. Many of our superstitions and beliefs are similar to those of the Chinese Malaysians, and they continue today, such as the Courts of Hell, the various levels and chambers in which souls are taken to atone for their sins. A visit to Haw Par Villa when I was a kid, brought those chambers – torture methods and all – terrifyingly to life through statues and dioramas. It is not for the faint of heart. Or children really! (More photos of this bizarre theme park built by the Aw Brothers in 1937 – warning, although these are just statues, some images are very violent. And bloody. Some are just plain weird.)

Apart from the spooky afterlife, Choo’s novel just meant a lot to me. There aren’t many books that are situated in Southeast Asia, despite its 11 very diverse and interesting nations, including the fourth most populous country in the world, Indonesia. (Here’s my list of books set in Southeast Asia/written by Southeast Asians). Malaysia, which neighbours Singapore, has more than a few similarities,  and so to read of foods, traditions, customs, slang that I could relate to, that just made me feel so very warm inside. And a little homesick.

“They had all my favourite kinds of kuih – the soft steamed nyonya cakes made of glutinous rice flour stuffed with palm sugar or shredded coconut. There were delicate rolled biscuits called love letters and pineapple tarts pressed out of rich pastry. Bowls of toasted watermelon seeds were passed around, along with fanned slices of mango and papaya.”

For instance, Li Lan’s Amah, a very traditional, superstitious woman who has looked after for Li Lan since she was a baby. I was tickled by her solutions of boiled soups and tonics, of her fondness for consulting mediums and so on, which are not out of place even in today’s modern Singapore. My mother-in-law, for instance, still boils up ginseng tonics to boost energy, and when I was pregnant would make sure I drank chicken essence every day (thankfully that was the only thing, as there were plenty of other soups and tonics one ‘ought’ to consume during pregnancy, and even more after, during the ‘confinement period’ of the first three months).





“Malacca was a port, one of the oldest trading settlements in the East. In the past few hundred years, it had passed through Portuguese, Dutch_ and finally British rule. A long, low cluster of red-tiled houses, it straggled along the bay, flanked by grooves of coconut trees and backed inland by the dense jungle that covered Malaya like s rolling green ocean. The town of Malacca was very still, dreaming under the tropical sun of its past glories, when it was the pearl of port cities along the Straits. With the advent of steamships, however, it has fallen into graceful decline.”

I adored Choo’s depictions of Malacca, a sleepy coastal town I’ve been to just once in my life during a school trip when I was 12, despite the fact that it’s only about 2.5 hours from Singapore. I remember the red-bricked Stadthuys, built in 1650 as the office of the Dutch governor, visiting a Peranakan museum and eating Peranakan food. Of course it was a lot more about having fun with our classmates as it was our last year of primary school and we would likely end up in different secondary schools.

“Malaya was full of ghosts and superstitions of the many races that people it. There were stories of spirits, such as the tiny leaf-sized pelesit that was kept by a sorcerer in a bottle and fed on blood through a hole in the foot. Or the pontianak, which were the ghosts o women who died in childbirth. These were particularly gruesome as they flew through the night, trailing placentas behind their disembodied heads.”

Longing and wistful, haunting and melancholy, Ghost Bride has a little something for everyone – a romance, a mystery, a coming-of-age story. An apt read for the Hungry Ghost Festival but also for every other month in which the spirits do not roam the earth.

Yangsze ChooYangsze Choo is a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent. She lives in California with her husband and their two children, and loves to eat and read (often at the same time).
Connect with her on her website or on Facebook.




tlc logo

I received this book from its publisher and TLC Book Tours

Check out the other stops on the tour:

Tuesday, August 5th: Svetlana’s Reads and Views

Wednesday, August 6th: Jorie Loves a Story

Thursday, August 7th: Book Dilettante

Friday, August 8th: Bibliosue

Monday, August 11th: Broken Teepee

Tuesday, August 12th: Fuelled by Fiction

Monday, August 18th: Literary Feline

Tuesday, August 19th: Book Without Any Pictures

Wednesday, August 20th: Olduvai Reads

Thursday, August 21st: Snowdrop Dreams of Books

Friday, August 22nd: nightlyreading

Saturday, August 30th: guiltless reading


The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam


“We are wa kiu.” They were overseas Chinese, those who had wandered far from home. “We are safer when we remain quiet.”

We first meet Chen Pie Sou in Shantou, China. It is 1930 and his father Chen Kai is about to leave for Indochina to try to make his fortune. Chen Kai passes down to his son the family good luck charm, a small lump of gold which his ancestor dug up many years ago.

Fast forward to 1966 and Chen Pie Sou is in Cholon, Vietnam, now known as Headmaster Percival Chen of the Percival Chen English Academy. He is admonishing his son Dai Jai for being seen with a local Annamese girl: “Son, you must not forget you are Chinese”. For Percival is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, and reminded of his father Chen Kai’s second, disastrous marriage to an Annamese.

Some of his Chinese pride bleeds down to Dai Jai, who launches his own protest against the newly mandated Vietnamese lessons that the school conducts – he leads a walkout. Unfortunately this reaches the ears of the authorities and they take action. Chen has to make use of every contact and favour he has throughout the city (ok so most of them are the mysterious Mak’s, a teacher in his school, his right hand man, who seems to have answers to everything) – and almost every last piastre.

But Dai Jai’s troubles continue to dog him and Chen’s solution is to smuggle him to China, not realising that the Cultural Revolution is upon it – not the best place for the son of a wealthy merchant.

“On a nearby couch, a metisse girl in a light-blue dress was half-reclined, her legs crossed. Her hands were slender creatures nested in her lap, and her elegance made the furniture cheap and shabby. She had strong French bones and warm Vietnamese skin. Her poise made it clear that she was better than the dress.”

Chen, who has long had a weakness for mahjong and prostitutes (he is divorced from Dai Jai’s mother), still has loans to repay, and takes on a big-stakes game where he meets a beautiful metisse (mixed race) prostitute named Jacqueline and essentially ‘wins’ her. He later falls for her, despite his earlier admonitions to his son about preserving his Chinese heritage.

He had turned the radio on for something reassuring, something solidly Chinese, but the Mandarin-speaking announcer reminded him that he ought to feel embarrassed about Jacqueline, that he should be ashamed to be in love with a foreigner. She was mixed, yes, and neither part was Chinese.

While Lam has crafted an intriguing story set in a fascinating time and place, his main character is difficult to like. He’s too much of a stereotypical Chinese businessman type whose only interest is money. It’s like he has blinders on, everything else is out of sight, out of mind. He doesn’t ever wonder why Mak seems to have his finger in everything and contacts everywhere, he resolutely remains indifferent to the politics of the Vietnam war raging around him. He is unsympathetic, and a little offputting, even when his son is feared drowned:

He said, “Did you thank the ancestors?” Cecilia looked at her husband as if he was speaking a foreign language. He turned to Cecilia, on the verge of shouting without knowing why. “Did he? I want to know – is he grateful to his ancestors for saving him?”

But what happens to Chen and his family does make for an interesting read, and a different viewpoint of Vietnam and what it means to be Vietnamese and Overseas Chinese.

It is something I sometimes think about myself. I am Chinese. I am Singaporean. I am Chinese-Singaporean or Singaporean Chinese. But what does it mean to be Chinese?

My family has always been more comfortable speaking English. Thanks to Singapore’s mandatory ‘Mother Tongue’ second-language lessons, I had to take Mandarin classes from Primary 1 (age 6/7) to AO levels (age 17/18). More than ten years! Yet I have never felt comfortable speaking Mandarin. Probably because my parents don’t really speak it either. They grew up speaking their own Chinese dialects of Hokkien (Fujian) or Teochew (Chaozhou) and English. My mum actually took Malay lessons instead of Mandarin.

I’ve never felt any ties to China although I still have distant relatives there. My late grandfather though was a member of the family’s clan association in Singapore (永春会馆) and the clan association for the Singapore descendants of the village that our ancestors were from (can’t remember the name). This is despite the fact that he was born in Singapore. Whereas for my dad, the only reason he visits China is to play golf!

So to read of Chen’s blind devotion to the country he calls ‘home’ intrigued me.  He hadn’t been back in years and had no intention to return, and seemed firmly ensconced in Vietnam, but regularly made donations to various causes in China and felt so strongly about his Chinese heritage. Was it a different generation? A different sense of belonging?

Lam too is Overseas Chinese, by way of Vietnam, and Chen is inspired by his own grandfather who was a headmaster and a gambler.

He said in an interview with Metro News:

“I was born in Canada so I grew up hearing family stories about a place that I’d never been to, which was Vietnam, specifically the Chinese community in Vietnam. So I think those stories had an especially vivid place in both my imagination and my concept of self because they were completely foreign to my experience of growing up in this country.”

“I was also very aware as I was growing up … that not only was I not growing up in that world but that world did not exist any longer.”

But luckily for us, he was able to recreate this world for his readers


As always, I look forward to reading passages that are food-related, and there were such gems:

Each bowl of noodles was crowned by a rose of raw flesh, the thin petals of beef pink and ruffled. Foong Jie put down dishes of bean sprouts, of mint, purple basil leaves on the stem, hot peppers, and halve limes with which to dress the bowls. She arranged an urn of fragrant broth, chilled glasses, the coffee pot that rattled with ice cubes, and a dish of cut papayas and mangos.

On these occasions, Percival made sure that the cooks prepared special Chinese dishes that Laing Jai liked – his favourite was or lua, oyster omelettes, and Percival was gratified that the boy relished such a characteristic Teochow dish. He also looked forward to hung gue dumplings filled with garlic chives, rice, minced pork, and dried shrimp, platters of Peking duck, crab balls, and tofu stuffed with shrimp. For a snack, a big bowl of mee pok noodles with minced pork and braised mushrooms.

Vincent Lam is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam, and was born in Canada. Dr. Lam did his medical training in Toronto, and is an emergency physician in Toronto. He is a Lecturer at the University of Toronto. His first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

I received this book for review from Random House

Reading Southeast Asia in August: Bangkok 8 by John Burdett


Like the city it’s set in, Bangkok 8 is a colourful, vibrant, loud and intense book.

In this first book of the series, John Burdett explores crime, Buddhism, Thai attitudes towards sex, sex-change operations, prostitution, bribery, the lives of the “half-caste” in Thailand, the attitude of the farangs or westerners in Thailand…. and more.

And like another set-in-Southeast-Asia murder series I enjoy, Bangkok 8 is imbued by the presence of the other world. He is a firm believer in karmic reincarnation, and is able to glimpse a person’s previous lives.

“With us the lifting of the egoic veil at the moment of death reveals the workings of karma in all its pitiless majesty: see that clubfoot in your next life, that’s from when you fouled your best friend on the football pitch; see those buckteeth the size of gravestones, that’s your cynical sense of humor; see that early death from leukemia, that’s your greed.”


Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is assigned to a murder case of a US Marine killed by snakes. And it is personal because the same snakes took the life of Sonchai’s partner and best friend Pichai.

Sonchai is a ‘half-caste’ – the son of a Thai prostitute and an American soldier. And one of the few honest cops in Bangkok (he and Pichai became monks after killing a drug dealer when they were young). So he makes for an unusual character.

Throw in some shady businessmen, a gun-loving female FBI agent, an entrepreneurial former-prostitute mother about to run her own brothel, plenty of dirty cops, and a plot that just gets a little more convoluted with each twist and turn, and you get this eclectic first book in a crime series set in Bangkok.

“…we don’t seem to have the same hang-ups as many Western women. The West tries to turn the act of sex into a religious experience, when to us it is no more than scratching an itch. I’m afraid we’re not as romantic as we seem. And perhaps we are a little strange. In other countries such as Japan and South Korea, prostitution declined dramatically as the economy improved. When our economy improves, the number of prostitutes tends to go up rather than down.”


I guess I was a little disappointed when I realised that this book brought in Bangkok’s sex industry. Is that really what pops into mind when westerners think of Bangkok? I quite like visiting Bangkok – as I do the other parts of Thailand like Chiang Mai, Phuket and Koh Samui – it has great food, nice people and plenty of shopping. It’s a nice getaway just a few hours’ flight from Singapore. Sure, you wander into the wrong parts and there will be drunk farangs, local men pushing flyers of nude girls in your face, but there is still so much that isn’t about girlie bars and prostitution.

Perhaps I have been comparing it too much to Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri Paiboun series set in neighbouring Laos, its main character being the country’s chief coroner, tasked to investigate murders. A far more interesting, unique perspective to a crime series. But is that really fair? After all, what does the average reader know about Laos? I sure didn’t know much. Whereas Bangkok already has that reputation, so a crime novel set there has to lead to the inevitable?

I don’t know… perhaps I am putting too much thought into this….

I like that it is set in Thailand. There aren’t all that many books set in Southeast Asia (my list here) so it is always refreshing to read one. So here I am hoping that the next book in the series, Bangkok Tattoo, will move away from that (although as Sonchai’s mother is a former prostitute, and by the end of the book he and his mother now co-own a brothel, I hardly think this will be the case!).

And of course a book about Thailand should not go without a mention of its amazing cuisine, so I will leave you with some food for thought:

“We are sitting at a food stall after finishing a meal of tom-yum soup, fried fish, spicy cashew nut salad, three kinds of chicken and thin rice noodles on a street in Pratunam. Our table is loaded with six different dipping sauces, beer bottles, chopped ginger, fried peanuts, mouse-shit peppers and bits of lime. We are about twelve inches from the traffic jam but the stall is famous for the quality of its roast duck curry. It is so famous the police colonel in charge of the district doesn’t dare to bust or squeeze it even though its tables and chairs take up most of the sidewalk and force pedestrians to risk their lives among the traffic. Thai cuisine is the most complex, subtle, variable and generally the best in the world. It knocks the socks off fussy French and flaky Chinese, although one must give credit where it is due: during Nong’s one and only Japan trade (in Yokohama, a Yakuzi mobster with impeccable manners whose chronic migraine could only be relieved by more or less continuous sex): on my first bite of Kobe beef I forgave Pearl Harbor on your behalf, farang.

Protected by a firewall of chili, our cooking has been immune to the corruption suffered by other great cuisines due to Western influence and the best food can still be found in humble homes and, more especially, on the street. Every Thai is a natural gourmet and cops don’t bust the best food stalls if they know what’s good for them.”


I read this book for my personal challenge Reading Southeast Asia in August. 

John Burdett is a former lawyer who lived and worked in Hong Kong for twelve years. For a time, he was employed by the Hong Kong Government. He later worked in private practice. Eventually, Burdett decided to abandon law and pursue a career as a novelist. Burdett now splits his time between France and Bangkok and continues to research his novels in various locations in Thailand.

A Personal History of Thirst
The Last Six Million Seconds
Bangkok 8: A Novel
Bangkok Tattoo
Bangkok Haunts
The Godfather of Kathmandu
Vulture Peak

Five star billionaire by Tash Aw


This was what life was like in China, he thought: Stand still for a moment and the river of life rushes past you.

It is a book set in Shanghai, but it is teeming with the essence of Malaysia.

I don’t want to pretend that I know Malaysia. It is Singapore’s closest neighbour but I’ve only been to a few of its cities – Johor Bahru (just across the border from Singapore), its capital city of Kuala Lumpur, the Portuguese-influenced Malacca, the island of Penang (the last trip was for my cousin’s wedding – her husband’s family is from Penang), another island of Langkawi known for its beaches, Cherating (this was for a press junket at the Club Med there – yup life as a journalist could be quite the slog!). And then there is East Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah) which I have never stepped into before.


I know little of its rural life, its villages, yet there was something kind of comforting about reading from this familiar-ish perspective.

We first meet Phoebe, an ambitious small-town girl trying to make her way in Shanghai, first working in a factory, then as a spa receptionist:

She was not from any part of China but from a country thousands of miles to the south, and in that country she had grown up in a small town in the far northeast. It is a region that is poor and remote, so she is used to people thinking of her as inferior, even in her own country. In her small town, the way of life had not changed very much for fifty years and would probably never change. Visitors from the capital city used to call it charming, but they didn’t have to live there. It was not a place for dreams and ambition, and so Phoebe did not dream.

She gets advice from the self-help books she buys from street stalls, interpreting them in her own ways, and from observing the local women, for instance, on how to dress: “Wear the biggest sunglasses you can find; carry the smallest handbag possible. The new attitude she had been cultivating was filling her with a magnificent confidence”. And chats online in order to meet men.

There is Justin Lim Chee Kiong, the oldest son of an old money Malaysian family, sent to China to establish the family business on the Mainland with a big real estate project.

He had known little about Shanghai and assumed that it would consist solely of shopping malls and plastic reproductions of its history, its traditional life preserved in aspic, as it was in Singapore, where he went to school, or else inherently Third World, like in Malaysia, where he grew up. It might be like Hong Kong, where he had begun his career and cemented his reputation as an unspectacular yet canny businessman who would hold the reins steady as head of the family’s property interests. Whatever the case, he had assumed he would find it familiar—he had spent his life in overcrowded, overbuilt Asian cities, and they were all the same to him.

Gary is an unusual character. A celebrity, a singing sensation who shot into stardom after winning a talent competition in Malaysia just before the age of 17, but whose shining star has dimmed after a drunken altercation in a pub:

Because when he stopped for that moment to consider his life, he realized that there was nothing in it that was within his control. Every minute of his day was organized by his management company, even the number of hours he should sleep. It had been like this for so long that it made him wonder if he had ever known a different way of living.

Yinghui is a female entrepreneur who runs a chain of high class lingerie stores, and is quite formidable: “a bold businesswoman, certainly, but also a superefficient, humorless automaton who would coldly plunge a knife into you, except she wouldn’t bother to do it in your back, she’d stick it in your chest”, nicknamed “Ultrawoman, Dragon Queen, Terminatress, Rambo” by her subordinates. Her family was once a wealthy powerful one in Malaysia but is now down on its luck.

Walter is the five-star billionaire himself, whose self-help manual for wannabe billionaires is interspersed among the rest of the stories and it is from that manual that we get to know his background.

Tash Aw’s characters’ lives are intertwined. For instance, Yinghui used to date Justin’s brother once upon a time in Malaysia. Phoebe is a big fan of Gary and eventually meets him in an online chatroom although she doesn’t know his real identity. Phoebe ‘dates’ Walter, who, unknown to her, is the writer of the very self-help manuals she has been reading. Yinghui is about to embark on a big deal with the shady Walter. And so on.

Everyone is connected in some way, even if it is for just a fleeting moment.

Phoebe’s character is the one that really stood out. Her determination to make it big, whether in her career or in her love life, is admirable although her decisions often are not (she uses someone else’s identity card to land her spa receptionist job, for instance). But she is a bright spark and indefatigable, sometimes ruthlessly so.

“In the business of life, every tiny episode is a test, every human encounter a lesson. Look and learn.”

Tash Aw’s tale of life in Shanghai is sharp, contemporary, and elegantly brought together. It is a harsh chilly world that his characters inhabit. But despite the icy impenetrable society that they live in, these five are so very human, blemishes and all.

I previously read Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory but wasn’t too impressed with it. But he has wowed me with Five Star Billionaire, and I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing what he will be writing next.

I first heard of this book from JoV of Bibliojunkie who is herself from Malaysia and writes a far better review.

tashawTash Aw was born in Taipei in 1979 to Malaysian parents. He grew up in Kuala Lumpur and moved to England at the age of 18 to attend University.
Tash Aw is the author of three novels: The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), winner of the Costa First Novel Award and a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel and longlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize; Map of the Invisible World (2009); and Five Star Billionaire (2013), longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

Reading Southeast Asia (updated)


Ah the real fun of themed reading is coming up with the lists!

As I had mentioned, my goal for this month is to concentrate on reading books set in Southeast Asia, especially the countries of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Unfortunately my list is limited to books available in my library.

Of course I realize that I won’t actually finish reading the books on the list, but a girl can dream. And try.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

In the shadow of the banyan – Vaddey Ratner
The king’s last song, or, Kraing meas – Geoff Ryman
When broken glass floats : growing up under the Khmer Rouge : a memoir – Chanrithy Him

All that is gone – Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The Mute’s soliloquy : a memoir – Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass) – Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Map of the invisible world : a novel – Tash Aw


The Coroner’s Lunch – Colin Cotterill

Evening is the whole day – Preeta Samarasan
The Harmony Silk Factory – Tash Aw
Rice Mother – Rani Manika
The Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng
The Garden of Evening Mist – Tan Twan Eng

The river of lost footsteps : histories of Burma – Thant Myint-U
The lizard cage – Karen Connelly
Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin.
Everything is broken : a tale of catastrophe in Burma – Emma Larkin
From the land of green ghosts : a Burmese odyssey – Pascal Khoo Thwe
Burma chronicles – Guy Delisle

Ginseng and other tales from Manila – Marianne Villanueva
Mayor of the roses : stories – Marianne Villanueva
The Tessarect – Alex Garland
The solemn lantern maker : a novel – Merlinda Bobis

Tanamera – Noel Barber
The Singapore Grip – J.G. Farrell
The thorn of Lion City : a memoir – Lucy Lum
Breaking the tongue : a novel – Vyvyane Loh
A different sky – Meira Chand
Shadow Theatre – Fiona Cheong
Foreign bodies – Hwee Hwee Tan
The bondmaid – Catherine Lim

Fieldwork – Mischa Berlinski
Bangkok 8 – John Burdett

Le colonial : a novel – Kien Nguyen
The tapestries : a novel – Kien Nguyen
The lotus eaters – Tatjana Soli
A dragon’s tale – Long Lee
Headmaster’s Wager – Vincent Lam

The unwanted : a memoir – Kien Nguyen
Catfish and Mandala – Andrew X. Pham

Southeast Asia in general (often multiple countries)
The reeducation of Cherry Truong – Aimee Phan
The Inspector Singh Investigates series: (A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder; A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul; The Singapore School of Villainy; A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree) – Shamini Flint
The unyielding clamor of the night – Neil Bissoondath

Read in July/Will read in August

This was a good month of non-fiction reads! I know, I know, I am so behind on my reviews… it is just overwhelming…

Among my favourite reads this month – Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion?, Word Freak, A Writer’s House in Wales.

As for August, I’m heading to Southeast Asia. Just not physically.

I’ve decided to do some armchair travelling in that region this August because it’s the month of National Days.

Growing up in Singapore, August 9 was always pretty exciting. A day off from school, a ‘parade’ to watch (although it usually took place within a stadium, so I’m not sure if the word ‘parade’ is apt anymore. And we’d pop out into the garden to catch a glimpse of the fighter jets streaking their way across the sky, and the helicopters flying the Singapore flag (Singapore is so tiny that it didn’t matter where you lived, you could probably see the flypast). Of course as I grew up, it was just about the day off. If you’re interested in finding out what the celebrations are like, here’s the official website. Essentially August 9 commemorates Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965.

But Singapore isn’t the only country celebrating its National/Independence Day in August. August 17 is Indonesia’s and August 31 is Malaysia’s. So it’s pretty fitting to be reading Southeast Asia in August!

Anyway here’s what I read in July

Fiction (11)
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1) – Gail Carriger
The snail-watcher and other stories – Patricia Highsmith
Seven Years – Peter Stamm
Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
The Gun Slinger (Dark Tower #1) – Stephen King
The Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin
Buzz Aldrin, What happened to you in all the confusion? – Johan Harstad
Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century #1) – Cherie Priest
Walks with men – Ann Beattie
China Mountain Zhang – Maureen McHugh

Graphic novels (2)
Mister Wonderful: a love story – Daniel Clowes
Petrograd – Philip Gelatt

Non-fiction (6)
Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician – Shinmon Aoki
Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players – Stefan Fatsis
52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust – William Alexander
Mother reader: Essential writings on motherhood – Moyra Davey (Editor)
A Writer’s House in Wales – Jan Morris
Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country – Louise Erdrich

Total: 19