Daughter of Xanadu by Dori Jones Yang

Title: Daughter of Xanadu
Author: Dori Jones YAng
Source: Library
Set in: Mongolia
Rating: 4 out of 5

My thoughts:
There are 2 things you should know before I start this review.
1) What is Xanadu: It’s a place in inner Mongolia which had the summer palace of Khublai Khan who was the grandson of the greatest ruler of Mongolia, Genghis Khan.
2) Who is Marco Polo: Marco Polo was a traveller and merchant who travelled to China and Mongolia somewhere between 1271 and 1295 alon with his father and Uncle. When he went back to Venice, where he’d come from, he wrote a book about his travels called Travels of Marco Polo. The author relied on this book while writing Daughter of Xanadu.

Lets get to the book now. This book is about a teenage girl called Emmajin who was the grand daughter of Khublai Khan. She was unlike other royal princesses who simply wanted to enjoy the comforts of palace and laze around the whole day and just be content with a life of doing nothing. Our Emmajin wanted to be a warrior, she wanted to fight for the great Khan and return home victorious after defeating the enemies of Mongolia. She wanted to help the Khan achieve the goal of ruling over the entire world. At least that’s what she thought she wanted to do.

Enter young Marco Polo. The Khan was not very sure of the agenda of these European merchants so he assigned Emmajin to befriend them and spy on them. Morco Polo has the exact opposite views than Emmajin. He thinks people should exist in the world peacefully and that all this war and occupying other countries was unnecessary. Of course Emmajin disagreed with him. All she wanted to was fight in a war.

So this is the basic premise. What attracted me to this book in the first place was that it was set in Mongolia. There aren’t many YA books that are set in Mongolia. And also that it was historical fiction.

I thought the first part was slow without much action. The author was basically building up Emmajin’s character and her background. Also, this was the part where Morco Pola nd Emmajin got to know each other and were attracted to each other, at least on a superficial level. The second half is where the action starts, when they travel to these remotest parts of Mongolia and China on a mission. This was my favorite part,the lands they crossed, the people they met, the adventures they had (not spoiling anything here) and how Emmajin and her relationship with Morco Polo changed because of all this.

There is only one thing I disliked in the novel. Emmajin never existed. Morco Polo did not meet anyone in Mongolia and fell in love with, at least none that is documented. I don’t mind introducing new supporting characters and new situations to build a story but I definitely have a problem when 2 of the main characters are fictional (namely Emmajin and her cousin). It kind of negates the whole romance for me.

But overall I really liked the book. I liked reading about Mongolia and their customs. I also liked reading about how it might have been for Morco Polo in ancient times. I loved that I got to learn a bit about history. I definitely recommend reading this book.

Oh and if you like watching videos, do watch my review for the same book below

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SchoolGirl by Osamu Dazai

Title: Schoolgirl
Author: Osamu Dazai (Translated by Allison Markin Powell)
Paperback: 100 pages
Publisher: One Peace Books (October 1, 2011)
Genre: Fiction/ Novella
Source: Review Copy
Set in: Japan
Challenge: East and SouthEast Asia Challenge
Rating: 3 out of 5

My thoughts:
I was very interested in this book because it’s considered a Japanese modern Classic and is written by a very popular Japanese author. Considering how weak my knowledge is in Japanese literature, modern or otherwise, I thought reading this book would give me an insight into the same.

This book could be sensitive, silent, hopeful and depressing all at once. Schoolgirl is a basically a day in life of a schoolgirl on the verge of womanhood. Her mothers indifference following her father’s death leaves a huge void in her life leaving her alone and vulnerable. Beneath all the loneliness she is also very depressed. She is at a stage in her life where her thoughts are full of contradictions. Her view of the world is hopeful and depressing at the same time.

Plot is something that is very important to me in a novel and Schoolgirl definitely doesn’t have one. But my main problem with the book is that I couldn’t relate to the central character which is perhaps no fault of the author or the translator. For someone who doesn’t get depressed ever (touch wood), I didn’t understand how the girls thoughts veered towards depression so often and for no reason. I know there are people who suffer from depression and perhaps it is as unexplained as it is for this girl.

The back of the book says that Osamu Dazai suffered from depression during his lifetime and he died from a suicide attempt after several unsuccessful ones. There must be a few of his thoughts reflected through this young girls vision.

Overall I wasn’t as impressed with this book as so many others have. But I’m glad I read it.

The Great Elephant Escape by Antoinette Van De Water

Title: Title: The Great Elephant Escape
Author: Antoinette Van De Water and Liesbeth Sluiter
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library
Set in: Thailand
Challenge: East and SouthEast Asia
Rating: 4 out of 5

My thoughts:
I had very low expectations from this book but it ended up surprising me. The Great Elephant Escape  is about a German woman Antoinette who volunteered in an Elephant Park in Thailand and ended up organizing a ‘Bring the Elephant home’ campaign. Antoinette loved elephants and empathized with their situation in Thailand. She wanted to do more than volunteer and that’s when she came up with the project. The book  chronicles her and her teams journey through Thailand with the rescued Elephants. The goal of the project was to make people aware of the plight of the elephants.

Today Elephants in Thailand are mainly used for begging and tourism purposes. There are Elephant shows, Elephant rides and the works. But there are also elephants that work in the logging industry. Violent measures are usually used to train them and they are often not treated well. With deforestation, the elephant owners have little to feed their elephants, so they have to resort to take them to the cities to beg or use them in the logging industry.

Antoinette begins her project by raising money which seems a lot more difficult than she imagined. A lot of things that could go wrong did go wrong during the planning of this project. But as the project progressed there was also a lot of support and awareness created about the Elephants and their plight. The author takes you through Thailand with her and lets you experience the frustration of dealing with the Thai bureaucracy, the sorrow of seeing the plight of these majestic animals and the happiness of finally doing something for them.

The writing if not very literary is good enough to pull you into the book without any distractions. Antoinette seems like a genuine person who poured her heart and soul into this project. I highly recommend this book to those who are interested in memoirs or Elephants.

Progress: East and SouthEast Asia Challenge….

Since it’s already been a little over 6 months since the year began I thought I might do a recap of where I am in terms of the East and SouthEast Asian Challenge. I am not very pleased with my progress so far but the year is not over yet and I do believe I can catch up.

I have been trying to get my hands on books that are set in as many countries as I can but it’s becoming increasingly difficult. Majority of the books are based in China, Japan or Vietnam and I’m not even remotely interested in books written by foreigners about the Vietnam war. I want something from an insider’s perspective and possibly something that doesn’t entirely revolve around the war.

I do have a few more books in my TBR and the library is always there. I will try and read from the countries that I haven’t read already. Right now I’m reading Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto.

This is what I’ve managed so far
Thailand- Private Dancer by Stephen Leather (Violet Crush)
Thailand – Only 13
Thailand – The great Elephant Escape
North Korea – Jia by Hyejin Kim (Violet Crush)
Singapore – A Leap of Love by Catherine Lim (Violet Crush)
Indonesia – Sea by Heidi R. Kling (Violet Crush)
China – Dragon Keeper by Carole Wilkinson (Violet Crush)

I have also read a couple of books more which I haven’t reviewed, hopefully I’ll review them soon. I have books on Japan and Burma in my TBR. Hope to read them soon as well.

For those of you who have taken part in the Challenge, please do update the review list as and when you get time. There are already a few reviews linked. Please go here to see the list. If you are interested in the list of books based in each country, go HERE.

DragonKeeper by Carole Wilkinson

Title: DragonKeeper
Author: Carole Wilkinson
Genre: Fantasy
Set in: China
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Hyperion Book CH; 1 edition (April 2, 2005)
Rating: 4 out of 5

My Thoughts:
Dragonkeeper is a story set in Ancient China in the Han Dynasty. Ping is a 5-year-old slave girl in one of the forgotten castles of the Emperor. She does all the cooking and cleaning for the Imperial Dragon caretaker who is very lazy and mean to her. When the Emperor comes to the castle with his entourage to kill the dragon, she has no choice but to flee.

Since the slave girl is all she has been all her short life, she wants to go back, but the dragon takes her on a journey to the ocean where he can gain her strength back. On the way, Ping and the dragon have many adventures and I loved every minute of it.

I loved journeying through ancient China with Ping; be it visiting the Garden of secluded harmony or sailing on the yellow river. The author Carole Wilkinson weaves a fascinating and enchanting tale. Her writing can enthrall a child and an adult into ancient China and into Ping’s world. She creates characters that are both strong and vulnerable at the same time, be it the little girl or the dragon Danzi.

I cannot recommend this book enough for all the adults, kids and teens out there. I’m only too eager to read the sequel Garden of the Purple Dragon.

Awards:
Book of the year: younger readers-> The children’s book council of Australia.
Aurealis Award winner
2004 Winner: Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards
2004 shortlisted: NSW Premier’s literary Awards

A Leap of Love and The Leap Year

I borrowed this movie from the library on a whim and I’m so glad I did. I ended up loving it. It was such a feel good, romantic and happy movie. Obviously since it’s a Singaporean movie and I thought they are all made in either Chinese or a non-English language. But surprisingly this is in English although it’s about a Chinese woman and her search for love.

Li-Ann is a young girl when she boldly asks a stranger for a date on 14th Feb. Li-Ann and Jeremy, the stranger, end up spending a few blissful hours together and Jeremy catches a flight back to Canada. It was fun seeing a movie set in Singapore and recognizing the places I had already seen. Without giving away the story though, they meet every leap year and we get to experience Li-Ann’s tangle of emotions through the years. Be it happiness of finding the right man or the disappointment when he doesn’t feel the same. Over the next few years we get to see how every leap year affects Li-ann’s life.

I enjoyed it so much that I looked up for more information on the internet. It’s actually based on ‘A Leap of Love’ by Catherine Lim who is a Chinese Singaporean (although she is from Malaysia) author in her 80’s and a firecracker of a woman. I watched her interview on YouTube and I was so intrigued that I’m planning to read all her backlist.

Anyway, so I found A Leap of Love in the library and ended up loving it too. The movie is very similar to the book where the character sketches and the basic plot are concerned. But there are a few changes in the movie which make for better viewing. The writing in the book is funny and sarcastic and fun to read. It’s a love story, but it’s not the mushy type nor does it have a chick-lit feel (which the movie has).

I cannot recommend the movie to romantic or chick-flick fans. The book is something that can be enjoyed by all though. Highly Recommended.

The book A Leap of Love is for the East and SouthEast Asia Challenge.

Sea by Heidi R. Kling

Title: Sea
Author: Heidi R. Kling
Genre: Young Adult
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile (June 10, 2010)
Source: library
Set in: Indonesia
Rating: 3 out of 5

My thoughts:
Sea is about a 15-year-old girl Sienna who lives with her father and grandmother in U.S.A. She lost her mother in a plane crash a few years back. She has serious emotional issues which were the result of her mother’s death. Then she accompanies her father to Indonesia to work with the Tsunami orphans, she is instantly attracted to an Orphan boy Deni who is playing the drums for their welcome ceremony. I found the instant attraction weird. There is nothing that really makes him stand out other than his strong muscles under his tight shirt. I do understand his appeal later on since he seems to be the leader of the other boys and keeps passing deep, dark looks to Sienna. She’s a teenager after all, she’s bound to fall for that.

Anyway, as Sienna gets to know more about the orphan kids and the things they lost, her own sorrow seems very small to her. She works on her father’s team with the kids suffering from Post Traumatic stress disorder. This is the really sad part of the story-reading about children having to watch their entire families swept away. It’s heart breaking.

As a novel, what worked for me in Sea was the setting. I don’t think there are many YA novels that are set internationally. It feels like the author has actually been to Indonesia in the way she describes the landscape, the people and the customs. What didn’t work for me was believing that a boy from a village could speak English so fluently. We have been to Indonesia twice and we’ve had a really tough time communicating with the locals since very few know how to speak English.

If I decide to overlook that I still have a couple of things I didn’t like. Sienna-I didn’t like her and I didn’t understand her. She was stupid and irresponsible and there are only so many things you can excuse for being a teenager. If I was her father I would have grounded her for life. Another thing I didn’t like was the ending. It kind of negated the entire romance between Sienna and Deni for me. I can’t really tell you why without spoiling the end..

But, Sea has its appeal. Even though I didn’t love it, I know there are readers who might love this book.

This book counts for the East and SouthEast Asia Challenge

Jia by Hyejin Kim

Title: Jia
Author: Hyejin Kim
Genre: Fiction
Paperback: 300 pages
Publisher: Cleis Press (June 14, 2007)
Source: Library
Set in: North Korea
Rating: 4 out of 5

My Thoughts:
Jia is a novel based in North Korea written by a South Korean. Interesting right? It’s also supposedly the first novel about present-day North Korea to be published in English. The author was inspired to write this novel when she met a women, she calls Jia, while traveling on a bus in China.

In the book, Jia spent the first 5 years of a life in a North Korean Mountain Gulag where her elder sister and her grandparents have been sent as a punishment for something their son did. Her grandparents manage to smuggle her out of the gulag so that she could have a better life. Jia is sent to an orphanage in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, where she lives for the next 15 years of her life.

The rest of the book is how she struggles to survive in her own country by hiding her identity. As she says in the book

I didn’t understand why my life couldn’t be my own, why there was always a chain, emerging from deep in the past, stretching into the present, that bound me to my fate.

I’m sure there are(were?) thousands of North Koreans who think that way, whose present and future revolves around their past. It’s sad to see to see how much a government can control the lives of their citizens.

The author brings out the desperation and loneliness of Jia very well. When Jia has to leave North Korea to survive, we also get to know how Jia and the people she meets along the way have to run from North Korea to seek a better future in-spite of all the risks. It’s a heartbreaking book for sure, but it’s also a glimpse into thousands of North Korean lives.

I loved how this book could take me to a place I’ve never been before. She describes the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students that was held in the country. She describes how the government puts up a front for the international audience. She also shows the state that the country and it’s people went into during the The North Korean famine. I found many parallels in this book and Long Road Home by Kim Yong, a memoir of an escaped prisoner from North Korea.

On the flip side, the writing was very amateurish. I could tell this was the authors first book. It was also not properly structured and the narrative kept jumping from one person to another. I think the author wanted to include everything that she learned about the North Korean lives while she was working with the refugees in China. It reads more like a page turning memoir than a novel.

Nonetheless, this is one book I would definitely recommend because this book and the events are still fresh in my mind and I keep thinking about all the characters in it. If you know nothing about North Korea, this book might fill that gap in some way. If not for the writing, this book could have been excellent, but I guess ‘very good’ is not bad either.

This counts for the East and SouthEast Asia Challenge.

Private Dancer by Stephen Leather

Title: Private Dancer
Author: Stephen Leather
Genre: Fiction (Mystery)
Set in: Thailand
Source: Free e-book download
Rating: 4 out of 5

My Thoughts:
If you have ever visited Pattaya, Bangkok, Chiang Mai or any other tourist places in Thailand, the most common sight you’d see is an old white man with a very young Thai girl. You’d wonder what’s up with that before you realize that they are actually bar girls or prostitutes and the white men are mostly sex tourists. When I searched for books based in Thailand on the internet, Private Dancer came up many times. I was thrilled when I found out that this book was available as free download on the authors site. A printed version of the book is now available but the author has not taken down the link for this one.

Anyway, I started this book when we went on a vacation to Pattaya, Thailand for the new year. What a great insight it was into the world of this so-called couples I saw around. The entire tourist area in Pattaya is filled with bars and sleaze that is usually associated with it. There are similar areas in Bangkok that are famous, viz. Nana Plaza, Patpong and a couple of others. Private Dancer is set in and around these areas.

Pete moves to Thailand from London for work. He gets involved with a bar girl and prostitute Joy and is naive enough to think it’s love. He does everything for her and she in turn is using him, as bar girls do, to get money out of him. She also has a Thai boyfriend who Pete doesn’t know about. This book provides a lot of insight into these white men/bar girl relationships. In a way, it’s the kind of book a man should read before coming to Thailand and getting involved with these bar girls.

The writer has a very interesting way of telling a story. We get to know about story and the various characters from the characters themselves. So there are a lot of viewpoints in this-Joy, her sister, Pete’s friends but most of all Pete. It’s refreshing and although there isn’t much difference in the tone of the voices, there is a difference in their situations. Since this book is written mostly from the prospective of guys, most of whom are in Thailand for the sleaze, you get a different perspective of bar girls than you would from other people, or woman for that matter.

Obviously, the bars and the night life is not what Thailand is all about but it can’t be denied that it is a very small yet prominent part of it. Read it for getting to know a world you’ll probably never get to know up-close or simply for entertainment.

Note: This is my first book for the East and SouthEast Asia Challenge.