Reviews: Fiction

Review: “Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan [2013]

crazy-rich-asiansI suppose the title says it all really, as well as the cover art which is sparkly gold. The debut novel from Singaporean native Kevin Kwan is a funny, light and enjoying read. Set largely in Singapore, the novel follows the rich and famous as they descend into the small island country for the wedding of the year – the son of one of the richest families marrying a famous model whose family comes from ‘new’ money. We follow Nicholas Young who, having been educated overseas and is now an up-and-coming professor at Stanford University, invites his ABC (American Bord Chinese) girlfriend Rachael to Singapore for the wedding and to meet his family. Away from the craziness of his insanely wealthy family and extended family, Nick innocently lures Rachel into a minefield of cattiness and snobbery of the highest kind (coming from Mainland China is the biggest sin of all). The novel is filled with couture clothing totalling over millions, lots of private jets and first class flying, penny pinching, penthouses, royal Thai-maids, Gurkhas and other expensive frivolities that makes you hope that excesses such as these are not actually real.

What I also loved about the novel is also the excellent introduction to Singapore. While the book is a story of the insanely rich upper crust of Singaporean society, it is also a love story to the country especially to its food. As a lover of Malay and Singaporean food (especially Hawker food), this book had me salivating all the way through. Kwan also integrates Singaporean colloquialisms into his character’s speech and adds interesting little footnotes to explain them.

A fun read and perhaps one of the first books to parody the rise (or shine the spotlight) on the insanely wealthy Asians and the new generation of ‘new money’ coming from China.

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Review: “Berlin Syndrome” by Melanie Joosten [2011]

Disclaimer: This is a review copy kindly sent to me by Scribe.

It is Berlin, 2006 and Claire, a woman from Melbourne, is mid-way drifting through a backpacking slash working holiday through the old Soviet countries. Claire is an architectural photographer and is working on a coffee table book of Soviet buildings. While visiting Checkpoint Charlie, Claire meets a local man, Andi, who randomly offers her strawberries. Delighted by this chance encounter, Claire sits down to chat with Andi who lets on the meeting may not have been random:

‘Sometimes I like to just sit there and complicate the world.’

He had watched for her reaction.

Clare had laughed, throwing her head back in a pantomime of enjoyment. Would it annoy him after some time? Would he stop trying to make her laugh?

Complicate? You mean contemplate…but it’s very funny.’

He had laughed with her. It was a good choice. He had almost gone with compensate. Consummate. Concentrate. Consecrate. Complicate had definitely been the best choice. – p. 15

Claire and Andi both connect and are attracted to each other but neither work up the courage to say anything. They go their separate ways but through another chance encounter at a bookstore a few days later, Claire goes home with Andi. The two begin a seemingly normal relationship and both Claire and Andi connect through their mutual disconnection in the world. Claire has left and given up keeping in touch with her friends and family, only sending her mother a few emails here and there to let her know that Claire is alright. Constantly travelling, Claire is searching for something that she cannot define and constantly looking into the distance.

‘But maybe we are always looking forward to something else,’ he  said … ‘I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Not if there are things to look forward to.’

‘It is impossible to be present in the present.’ [Claire] – p. 51

Andi only has his father with whom he shares a stilted relationship. Both are alone in the world. The romance develops but it soon disintegrates into something entirely sinister beginning with a locked front door:

She felt slighted, wanted to kick something. She gave the door a half-hearted nudge with the toe of her shoe. It was one thing not to be able to get in. But not get out? How could he have forgotten she was here? How could he have locked her in? She kicked the door again, harder, and a scuff mark appeared like a rebuke. – p. 57

Andi, utterly but quite rationally in love with Claire but completely deluded, wants to ensure that she won’t be able to leave him and so virtually keeps Claire locked in his apartment. He brings her gifts and does not harm her, hoping that Claire will soon warm to the idea and return his love once again. Like most lovers, Andi wants to save Claire:

‘Running away? What have I [Claire] ever run away from? You don’t know me at all!’

‘I’m just trying to help. I’m giving you a place just to be yourself. In the moment, not looking to the future. That’s what you said you wanted, isn’t it?’ He is doing this for her. Why can she not see that? – p. 97

Andi lives in an isolated apartment block and have taken away all forms of communication from Claire. Trapped, Claire eventually reforms a rather twisted relationship with Andi who wants nothing but Claire.

Berlin Syndrome is a really thrilling read and is the debut novel from a Melbourne writer. The prose is sparse but polished and, I found, very elegant. The small, claustrophobic cast was well drawn and in a rather bizarre sense, both Claire and Andi really complemented one another. They were really two lost souls and you felt for their loneliness and disconnectedness. I’m wondering if the title is a play on Stockholm Syndrome? I don’t want to put anybody off but if you liked Room by Emma Donoghue or Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson, then you’ll probably like this too because it’s in a similar vein.

Review: “East Lynne” by Ellen Wood [1860]

Spanning across nearly a decade, this sweeping Sensation novel charts the disgraceful downfall and eventual partial redemption of aristocrat Isabel Vane. Left impoverished after her father’s death and at the mercy of her cruel and spiteful aunt, the quiet and timid Isabel accepts the marriage proposal of Thomas Carlyle after they meet again. Mr Carlyle, a humble, albeit a successful and popular, lawyer had earlier purchased the Vanes estate, East Lynne. Isabel, with no other options, marries Mr. Carlyle believing that she will one day learn to love him. Isabel admires and likes Mr. Carlyle enough and he in turn is thoughtful, considerate and deeply in love with Isabel. Although Isabel had believed that coming back to her former home at East Lynne would bring her happiness, Isabel is lonely and dominated in her house by Mr. Carlyle’s older sister, Cornelia, who has moved in with them and leaving Isabel with no say in the running of the domestic. After the birth of their three children, Isabel’s health deteriorates and she is sent to recuperate at the seaside. Despite her pleas for her children to accompany her, Isabel is denied this by the doctor and Cornelia who admonishes her about the expenses.

“The children are not going to the sea-side,” said she [Cornelia]. “They are not ordered there.”

“But they must go with me,” replied Lady Isabel. “Of course they are not expressly ordered to it. Why should they not go?”

“What should they not?” retorted Miss Corny. “Why, on account of the expense, to be sure. I can tell you what it is, Lady Isabel, what with one expense and another, your husband will soon be on the the road to ruin. Your journey with Joyce and Peter will cost enough, ma’am, without taking a van-load of nurses and children.” – p. 209

Left alone at the seaside to recover her health, Isabel bumps into Captain Levison whom she had previously felt attracted to when they were acquainted in their youth. Despite having been warned by Isabel’s uncle that Captain Levison was a bad influence, Isabel can’t deny his allure. Frightened and confused, Isabel flees back to East Lynne but a series of coincidences have Mr. Carlyle invite Captain Levison to stay at East Lynne. While Mr. Carlyle becomes heavily involved in acquitting a falsely condemned man, the brother of a family friend, pretty Barbara Hare, Isabel grows jealous and is swayed under Captain Levison’s influence. One night, both Isabel and Captain Levison disappear.

The hand-writing, his wife’s, swam before the eyes of Mr Carlyle. All, save the disgraceful fact that she had flown – and a horrible suspicion began to dawn upon him with whom – was totally incomprehensible. How had he outrages her? in what manner had he goaded her to it? – p. 281

A year passes and Lady Isabel is hiding in France, deeply regretting having run away with Captain Levison who, as soon as he received what he wanted, treats Isabel badly and leaves her unmarried just as she is about to give birth to their child. Seeking repentance, and missing her other children dreadfully, Isabel begins her journey back to England when she is involved in an accident. Misidentified, the authorities notifies her uncle that Isabel has died and the news travels back to Mr. Carlyle who is now married to Barbara. Isabel, with her face and figure scarred, adopts a disguise and a new name and, again, through twisted coincidences is recommended as a governess to Mr. Carlyle’s family which includes his children with Barbara. And so Lady Isabel returns to East Lynne once more, this time under an eccentric disguise and a new name, Madame Vine, and as a stranger to her children in a house that was once hers.

I quite enjoyed this book, being a huge fan of Sensation fiction. This, along with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret makes up the core Sensation trilogy. Many of the plot lines were contrived but I quite enjoyed it. It’s like a Victorian soap opera. Isabel remained an elusive character though and while I didn’t despise her, I also didn’t quite warm to her although I did pity her and her tragic circumstances. Unlike other adulteresses in many other Victorian fiction, Isabel is not painted as a ‘scarlet woman’ but merely a woman who made one mistake that ultimately cost her everything.

Review: “The Midwich Cuckoos” by John Wyndham [1957]

Something strange is happening to the quiet and closed off town of Midwich. Between the late evening of 26th September and the morning of 27th September, an unusual and unseen occurrence have encircled the boundaries of Midwich causing everybody within, and whoever crosses, the perimeter immediately lapse into unconsciousness. Once the phenomena, dubbed the Dayout, has been lifted, the townspeople goes back unharmed to their daily lives until a few months later where all women of childbearing age find themselves pregnant. The children borne are unsurprisingly unusual, not only in their identical looks, but it also becomes clear that these babies exert some unnatural influence over their mothers:

Mrs Brant had gone into Mrs Welt’s shop one morning to find her engaged in jabbing a pin into herself again and again, and weeping as she did it. This had not seemed good to Mrs Brant, so she had dragged her off to see Willers. He gave Mrs Welt some kind of sedative, and when she felt better she had explained that in changing the baby’s napkin she had pricked him with a pin. Whereupon, by her account, the baby had just looked steadily at her with its golden eyes, and made her start jabbing the pin into herself. – p. 99

As the children grow, the the women find themselves detached from their children. The Children (now with a capital C) now also seem capable of rapid learning and have a form of unnatural intellectual connection with one another. When one of the boys or girls learn something, the entire gender group will suddenly also absorb the new knowledge. The Children grow rapidly and suddenly, they become a much larger threat than Midwich initially thought putting everybody at risk.

Despite its fascinating premise and storyline, I found this quite boring. Perhaps it’s just me, not being a sci-fi fan, but I found I just couldn’t connect with the characters and the writing sort of just plodded along and was rather dry. I kept losing track of which character was who. The first part started off quite well but then it just sort of withered down. Interesting but it was just a bit ‘blah’ for me unfortunately.

Review: “Maisie Dobbs” by Jacqueline Winspear [2003]

I have been anticipating reading this series ever since I first heard about it from If You Can Read This and also from seeing its gorgeous covers floating around at work.

Maisie Dobbs is the first book in the series starring…Maisie Dobbs! Set in 1929, Maisie is trying to establish herself as a private investigator in a country, and world, that is still haunted by the horror of WWI. As a single, young woman working in an unorthodox career, Maisie was always going to be a little unusual. Her first case brings her Christopher Davenham who suspects that his wife is cheating on him. To Davenham’s surprise, Maisie questions his intentions with any information Maisie will provide him about his wife:

“The information I gather will be presented in a context. It is in light of that context that we must continue our discussion, in order for you and your wife to build a future.”

“My job is rather more complex than you might have imagined, Mr Davenham. I am responsible for the safety of all parties. And this is so even when I am dealing with society’s more criminal elements.” – p. 14

Integrity and morality is what sets Maisie apart from the typical private investigator. She does eventually get to the bottom of Davenham’s wife’s regular, unexplained disappearances which is connected to the aftermath of the war, which in turn forces Maisie to remember her own past.

Born into a lowly, but well loved, family, Maisie is sent at the age of 13 to the Belgravia estate of Lady and Lord Compton to work as a maid. Harbouring a passion for reading and displaying deep intelligence, Maisie soon concocts a way to read her way through the Compton’s rich library undetected by sneaking up early in the morning before the household chores.

The feeling inside that [Maisie] experienced when she saw the books was akin to the hunger she felt as food was put on the table at the end of the working day. And she knew that she needed this sustenance as surely as her body need is fuel. – p. 87

The secret visits to the library continued for some time before she is caught out by Lady Compton. This ultimately works out to Maisie’s advantage who demonstrates her intelligence and  becomes the Compton’s and their family friend, a highly regarded intellectual, Dr. Maurice Blanche’s protege. Life goes quite well for Maisie until the outbreak of the war where she eventually volunteers herself as a nurse and she is shipped to France.

The past and present becomes interconnected. To solve her case, Maisie must not only analyse the physical, but also the psychological, scars left by the war, horrors unforseen by anybody in the world.

Maisie Dobbs is a lovely first book and establishes the characters and setting. This is indeed somewhat a cozy crime fiction but the psychological examination of WWI and the surviving soldiers return to society gives it an edge. Maisie is an interesting character but I couldn’t help thinking some areas of her life were cliched and at times, she seemed a bit weak. However, I did thoroughly enjoy this first book and will seek out the other Maisie Dobbs books soon! And is it terrible of me to think that this would make the most lovely mini series?

Review: “One of our Thursdays is Missing” by Jasper Fforde [2011]

My love affair with Jasper Fforde and the Thursday Next series continues with this latest book. The inventiveness of Fforde knows no bounds!

In this latest installment, while it is still technically a Thursday Next book, the original character does not appear in it except for a few paragraphs. How can this be? In the past books, there had been increasingly more ‘Thursdays’ coming into existence due to Thursday’s adventures being fictionalised. The real Thursday is able to visit and train these new character actors into being authentic Thursdays because she has the ability to ‘book jump’ and immerse herself into any book.

When this latest installment begins, we soon discover, after a few furious head scratching and befuzzlement, that we aren’t reading about the original Thursday Next but the latest actress who is playing her within the book. A story set within a story. It’s incredibly fun to read the going-ons within the actual book and how the various characters contend with plots. The actors can also sense what part of the story the reader is reading.

‘– hang on,’ said Dad, or rather, the character playing my book-father, ‘I think they’ve gone.’

I tasted the air. He was right. Our lone reader had stopped and left us dangling in a narrative dead zone …

‘I was marvellous.’ intoned my book-father haughtily, the inference being that it was somehow my fault the reader didn’t last until even the end of the second page, ‘you need to engage the readers more, darling. Project yourself. Make the character come alive.’ – p. 18

Thursday is soon placed under instruction to discover the unauthorised destruction of a book and we are taken on a tatalising ride through Book World. Politically, time is also extremely tense as a genre-war is threatening to erupt between Racy Novel, Women’s Fiction and Dogma. To make matters worse, Racy Novel has threatened that they have a dirty bomb in their disposal:

‘A loosely bound collection of badly described scenes of sexual nature. The detonation of such a bomb could cause untold damage, flinging wholly gratuitous sex scenes as far as Mrs Dalloway.’ -p. 175

As Thursday goes about investigating what seems to be a straightforward case, matters take a turn when Commander Bradshaw, once the real Thursday’s director at Special Operatives, reveals that the real Thursday has disappeared and has not been seen since her book jump almost a month ago. As a highly respected figure in the Book World, Thursday was supposed to chair the upcoming peace talks about the genre war. As the next best thing to the real Thursday, Bradshaw enlists the book Thursday to find our what had happened to the real Thursday Next.

The authorities who run Book World from Text Grand Central, the Council of Genres, also desire to track down Thursday but they are also ready to substitute the fictional Thursday for the real Thursday which would also be quite beneficial politically because the imposter would hold her tongue.

With this book, I think Fforde has managed to reinvigorate the Thursday Next series (with a few more to come, hopefully) and I think it is his best Thursday book yet after the original. Like with all other Fforde novels, the stories are layered with intricate plots and numerous twists and turns but the best part is the typical Ffordian (yes, I believe that may be an actual term now) wordplay and literary in-jokes. I never tire of those. There are cameo appearances by many other well known literary figures including the Lady of Shalott. I’ve already mentioned this paragraph in a previous post but I can’t resist posting it here again:

The Lady of Shalott was of an indeterminate age and might once have been plain before the rigours of artistic interpretation got working on her. This was the annoying side of the Feedback Loops; irrespective of how she had once looked or even wanted to look, she was now a pre-Raphaelite beauty with long flaxen tresses, flowing white gowns and a silver forehead band. She wasn’t the only one to be physically morphed by Reader Expectation. Miss Havisham was now elderly whether she liked it or not, and Sherlock Holmes wore a deerstalker and smoked a ridiculously large pipe. The problem wasn’t just confined to the classics. Harry Potter was seriously pissed off that he’d have to spend the rest of his life looking like Daniel Radcliffe. – p. 75

Not only does Fforde does terrific in-jokes, he also manages to satirise current affairs that is not in your face. If you get it, great, but if not, the book is just as enjoyable. Above all, I think Fforde’s love of reading and books is always lovingly conveyed in his writing. Characters will disappear forever if they are not continued to be read and many great books are patiently waiting to be reopened once more.

Review: “Miss Buncle’s Book” by D. E. Stevenson [1934]

Miss Buncle’s Book was one of the first titles I decided to purchase when I finally found the beloved Persephone store and was completely overwhelmed by the collection. I had to pick just three from all these delights? I picked Miss Buncle because, to be honest, it had the word ‘book’ in the title. What’s not to like? And I wasn’t let down. It is one of the most delightful and charming books I’ve read.

Barbara Buncle, an unasuming middle-aged spinster, has lived her whole life in the quiet little village, Silverstream. To make up for her ever decreasing dividends upon which her income depends on, however, Miss Buncle decides to write a book based on Silverstream because, as Miss Buncle chirps, she can only write about what she knows and she knows her little village and its inhabitants. To her surprise, her manuscript is accepted by a publisher who is bemused and a little flummoxed by the book and its author, ‘John Smith’:

It was not written by a genius, of course, neither was it the babblings of an imbecile; but the author of it was either a very clever man writing with his tongue in his cheek, or else a very simple person writing in all good faith. – p.8

The publisher, Mr. Abbott, upon meeting and instantly liking Miss Buncle decides to publish the book under the pseudonym but changes the original title from Chronicles of an English Village to the much more punchy Disturber of the Peace. Due to Miss Buncle’s slight lack of imagination, the book is a very thinly veiled characterisation of Silverstream, known in the book as Copperfield. Miss Buncle did let her imagination fly though towards the end of the book where she imagines the futures for her ‘characters’ which includes an illicit affair or two and an unlikely couple heading off into the sunset to Samarkand.

To everybody’s surprise, the book becomes a bestseller but the book’s popularity finds its way quickly to Silverstream where its residents quickly realise their printed twins. Some residents are shocked at their portrayal in the book which Barbara had faithfully reconstructed, perhaps a little clearly. An angry mob of Silverstream residents group together and demand the book be pulled out of circulation and that John Smith show himself. While all the hoopla is happening, nobody suspects the quiet and unassuming Miss Buncle who is happily taking down notes for a sequel. However, with the townspeople breathing down Miss Buncle’s neck and narrowing down their list of suspects, both Miss Buncle and Mr. Abbott realise that the Copperfield stories will end once the sequel is published because that will finally reveal ‘John Smith’.

While I’ve probably just made this sound like somewhat of a thriller read, it is not. It is a charming and gentle read, satirical and very tongue-in-cheek. Periodically, particularly in the beginning, I was reminded of Elizabeth Gaskell’s gentle Cranford. As the book progressed, it began to feel quite weird because it felt like I was reading the book that Miss Buncle had written, a little Calvino-esque. My suspicions were confirmed when Mr. Abbott thought similarly too:

The theme was unusual and intriguing. Mr. Abbott had never before read a novel about a woman who wrote a novel about a novel who wrote a novel – it was like a recurring decimal, he thought, or perhaps even more like a perspective of mirrors such as tailors use, in which the woman and her novel were reflected back and forth to infinity. – p. 295

The quiet, dowdy and self-sufficient Miss Buncle is an unlikely heroine. She is alone but is never pitied nor pitiful. She remains true to herself and becomes a rather inspiring figure.

The book is a wonderful read and I can why fans have been clamouring for its sequel, Miss Buncle’s Married, which Persephone has kindly obliged. The sequel title gives the story  line away a little though. 🙂