Red Lotus by Pai Kit Fai

Red Lotus coverTitle: Read Lotus (UK version)
Author: Pai Kit Fai
Source: Library
Published by Sphere (first published January 5th 2010)
Rating:4 out of 5 stars

I had a reading block for the longest time;
hence the lack of posts. I haven’t blogged here for a while for the same reason and a book that bought an end to this block is worth mentioning. I literally devoured this book and considering it is 500 pages long, it says something.

Red Lotus
is a story of 2 women, mother and daughter, who were unlucky to be born in a time and place which was not very kind to women. The book begins in the year 1906 at the Great Pine Spice Farm on the Pearl river in Southern China. In a rich farmers family, a young girl is bought as a concubine. She was a girl from an influential family but was sold because the family had fallen into bad times. The concubine gives birth to a girl who is named Li-Xia. Li-xia survives against all odds and manages to escape her house when she is sent to work in a Silk weaving factory in Ten Willows. There she finds a family and some happiness. She finds her destiny with a foreigner called Ben. I wont tell you much but suffice to say Li-xia’s story is the first half of the book and Sing’s, her daughters story is the second half of the book.

Some people might say this book is rambling and very detailed. But for someone like me it was the main reason why I loved this book. Miss Fai’s writing is brilliant and she manages to bring the Chinese countryside, the Silk Farm and Macau to life. It was fun to read about what Macau was like a few years back. I marked a lot of pages but for the sake of this review, I’ll post one here

Gold can be found everywhere you look for it…sprinkled by sunlight on clear water…in the evening sky and the coming of each new dawn. It falls like scattered coins on the forest floor and gilds the leaf of every tree; glitters on every blade of grass after the rain and turns each dewdrop into a precious jewel. You will find gold in kindness; it can be found in the seeking of happiness and in helping others. Try to find your fortune among these things, collect what you can of these real gold, and one day you will be qian-jin.
(*qian-jin: means being compared to thousand pieces of gold).

There are some drawbacks of course, but they are mainly with the scenes towards the end of the book which I’ll refrain from mentioning here.

I loved both Li-xia and Sing but I have to admit I have a special affinity for Sing just because of her trying childhood and the way she overcame all odds and still remained strong and pure.

It’s a book worth reading if you enjoy oriental books, love reading about the countryside, love reading epic stories and finally, love reading about strong women. This ones definitely going on my ‘one of the best reads‘ of 2013.

Note:
1. The summary on Goodreads spoils the plot. Miss it if you can.
2. The cover is gorgeous but unfortunately its the most mismatch cover ever. The story is about Chinese women set in China. However the girl on the cover is definitely not Chinese, neither is the farm picture at the bottom. It’s a clear case of designing for the sake of beauty and not as a reflection of the actual book. Since I’m a designer myself now, I find this very disappointing.
3. This book is also published with the name ‘The Concubines Daughter’ in the US.

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Year of the Tiger by David Miller

year of the tigerTitle: Year of the Tiger
Author: David Miller
Source: Review Copy
Set in: Singapore
Paperback, 278 pages
Monsoon Books Pte Ltd
Rating: 4 out of 5

My Thoughts:
My only reason for accepting this book for review was that it was set in Singapore. If you read my blog regularly you might know I don’t read many thrillers. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that I don’t actively seek them. So if I’m just going to read a few thrillers every year, I’m glad ‘Year of the Tiger’ was one of them.

This book in set in 2014 Singapore. When workers are digging for a tunnel in Singapore, they stumble upon a secret room filled with loot from the World War II. It’s a vault created by the Japanese and protected with a lethal virus that could affect hundreds of people very quickly. When the workers take the loot and flee Singapore, it creates an epidemic which can only be stopped or controlled if the mystery of the virus can be solved by the clues left by Japanese.

For me the plot itself is a big draw because along with the current story it also gives interesting information on the Japanese during the World War. It’s intriguing to imagine that a small and super developed city like Singapore could have so many secrets. I found the Singapore history and the presence of tunnels and secret rooms in modern-day Singapore fascinating, and because it intermingled seamlessly with the plot, I was one happy reader. Unfortunately I don’t know much about the Japanese occupation of Singapore and this book more or less gave me a teaser without reading like a history lesson. It made me want to study more about that particular time period. How many thrillers can you say that for?  This is also the kind of story that could turn out to be true a few years down the road. That kind of explains part of my fascination to the story.

The involvement of the Japanese in the whole affair makes me wonder how Japanese will react if there was truly a situation like this. I kind of imagine it would be pretty close to the book. As far as the writing goes – it works well for a thriller I guess. The only problem I have is that the language used by the Singaporeans was not really Singaporean. If you have lived in Singapore even for a short while you’ll notice the unique brand of English spoken by the locals here which makes it distinctively Singaporean. While the characters weren’t particularly memorable, the story was enough to keep me occupied.

When I was almost 90% finished with the book I wondered about the end, I was worried about how it was all going to tie up. For me the most important part in the thriller is the ending, It could make or break a book for me. Fortunately, the ending in this book was pretty good. In some parts it was a very simple solution but in some parts it was pretty complicated considering the scale and scope of the problem.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book and I hope there are more books written that are based in Singapore. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more David Miller books, especially if he writes about Singapore. For just 278 pages, ‘Year of the Tiger’ was throughly entertaining.

The Informationist by Taylor Stevens

Title: The Informationist
Author: Taylor Stevens
Genre: Thriller (Adult fiction)
Source: Review Copy
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Crown; First Edition edition (March 8, 2011)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

My Thoughts:
I usually don’t read a lot of thrillers. I used to read many but mostly by Sidney Sheldon, Robin Cook or Mary Higgins Clark. But lately I don’t find myself picking up an authors book just because I want to read a thriller.

But I LOVED the Informationist. I will go as far as saying it’s one of the best thrillers I have read in a long time. I could be biased because this book has everything that I love and look for in a thriller. I tend to love books set in Africa and I don’t like cozy mysteries/ thrillers. I like them to be grand, I like them to be set in exotic places. BAsically I don’t like those one room or one town thrillers. I don’t like those detective thrillers either.

This book is set in Africa and I love everything set in Africa. I find everything about Africa fascinating. The Informationist is about Vanessa Monroe who is The Informationist. She goes to developing countries to gather inside information and she sells this information to business tycoons or business people who then use it to set themselves up in these developing countries. So when she is given this assignment of this missing girl she is reluctant because it’s not really what she does but she is keen because it will take her back to Africa which is her birth place and where she spent the initial years of her life and there is something that she doesn’t want to face and keep in her past which is why she is reluctant to take the assignment.

But there is a part of her that makes her want to go back and face her demons which is why she accepts it and it doesn’t hurt that the missing fathers girl is a millionnaire and he offers her a lot of money. So this is the basic premise of the book. All said and done this is not really a missing person’s story. We also learn a lot about Vanessa’s past and why she is the way she is. Vanessa is this kick-ass heroine who is intelligent and resourceful. She always gets what she wants. She is also very adventurous. She is ready to do things that many people wont do and she has the connections to do them. When she goes ot Africa she goes to Equirotial Guinea and places around it. What was really fun was following her through West Africa. She travels via boat, on foot and it was just so different and nice to get inside information on West Africa. I’m not sure how much the author knows about the place but in the Q and A given at the end of the book it says that she has stayed there for a few years and it shows.

I just wish there was a map somewhere in this book because I’m not very knowledgable on that part on Africa and I don’t think many people are. But I googled and found a really good map. I had fun following Vanessa’s journey from the capital of Equitorial Guinea to Cameroon to all these exotic paces. If you want to read a book that is different from the wildlife, the Serengeti, mass migration and even the war, this book is perfect for you.

So in conclusion I would say that this is a very fast paced, page turning, edge of the seat thriller and I really hope you give this book a chance even if you don’t read thrillers.

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You can WATCH my review of the same below if you are interested 🙂

A Place Called Here by Cecelia Ahern

Title: A Place Called Here
Author: Cecelia Ahern
Genre: Fiction
Paperback: 389 pages
Publisher: Harper Collins Pb (October 20, 2006)
Set in: Ireland
Source: Personal Shelf
Rating: 3 out of 5

My Thoughts:
I read P.S. I love you by Cecelia Ahern some time back and although I didn’t like the writing style a lot, I did love the book. So when I got this book in a sale I thought I could give this author another chance and see if we get along. Unfortunately I didn’t like the book as much as I hoped to. I liked the writing style in this one but unfortunately the plot was very slow for me.

Sandy Shortt becomes obsessed with lost things when at the age of 10 her neighbor and classmate disappears. Sandy struggles to cope with the concept of lost and how things can suddenly disappear. When she becomes an adult she joins the Gardai’ who search for missing people. She becomes so obsessed with the cases that she finds it difficult to let go; so she opens a missing persons agency of her own. After years of wondering where all the missing socks and things and people go, Sandy lands up in a place which is in a different dimension altogether.

Have you wondered where all your missing stuff goes? One moment you have it and the next moment it disappears. Sandy lands up in such a place, A Place Called Here, where all the missing people are. Even all the missing things are there. It’s a place where you can get in but not get out of. It’s a whole new world where all the missing people have made a life for themselves. They have their own towns where missing people from all over the world stay.

Although I liked the concept of the book, after about 100 pages I began to wonder where all this was heading. The story was not moving forward as fast as I liked and frankly I was bored after a certain point and wanted the book to end or to reach a conclusion.

The good part about it was how the author handled the state of people who are missing or those whose someone is missing. She captures their emotions very well. There is something about this book that kept me reading in spite of being a little bored by it. I think many people might like this book, it just wasn’t for me.

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.

The Sari Shop Widow by Shobhan Bantwal

Title: The Sari Shop Widow
Author: Shobhan Bantwal
Genre: Fiction
Print Length: 352 pages
Publisher: Kensington Books (August 24, 2009)
Source: Library
Rating: 2 out of 5

My Thoughts:

I had such high hopes for this book but only a few pages in and I knew I was not going to like it. But I thought I would give it a chance since it was easy to read and I was hoping it would improve. But as you can see from my rating, it didn’t. Before I tell you what I didn’t like in the book, let me tell you about the plot.

Anjali Kapadia, a 37 year old widow, owns a high-end boutique of Indian clothes and Jewelery called ‘Silk and Sapphires’ in Little India of New Jersey. She lives with her parents who help her manage the store. When her business is suddenly in financial crisis, her father invites his rich and successful big brother, Jeevan to pull them out of it. Jeevan arrives with his rather young and dashing business associate, Rishi, who is a British-Indian and has many successful businesses of his own. Naturally we all know what is going to happen next.

The very first thing I disliked about the novel was the main character Anjali. She had this holier than thou attitude which I hated. She thought she was better than all the other Indian girls out there. The author probably meant to portray her as an independent woman, which she was, but to me she came across as a snob. The author wanted to portray a woman who was the best of both worlds, but mostly Anjali criticized her own culture. As an example, read this

Anjali watched her mother flash her most cordial smile and bend down to touch Jeevan kaka’s feet in the conservative way of greeting an elder. So she followed her mother’s example and did the same. It’s be best if she played the passive little Hindu woman–for the moment.

First of all, touching your elder’s feet is not conservative, it’s a cultural thing. And by suggesting that modern woman do not do that is plain ridiculous. It’s a form of respect and if you think you are not modern if you do that, I am going to have very little respect for you. There a few other similar things that irked me in this novel. In fact at one point, as was convenient, she also says this

Maybe despite her American ways she was still an old-fashioned Indian woman who looked on total fidelity and trust as the cornerstone of marriage.

huh? Generalizations are a pet peeve of mine and this novel had them in abundance. The story was also pretty superficial than I thought it would be. It was a simple love story, which I would have loved anyway, if it had a better central character. Even Rishi, the handsome, dashing guy who supposedly every girl dreams of, was always better because he was British-Indian with Indian cultural values thrown in when convenient.

I can really go on and on about what I didn’t like in this book. The one and only positive thing it has is a small glimpse into the life of Indian-American families. That’s about it. Read it at your own risk.

Swapna’s review is very positive though, so I hope you go read that for a different perceptive.

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.

Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai

Title: Witness the Night
Author: Kishwar Desai
Genre: Mystery
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Beautiful Books (15 April 2010)
Set in: Jalandhar, India
Source: Review Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

My Thoughts:

How does one avoid the Tyranny of dreams? The footsteps that keep taking you back to a house full of ghosts, where every window has a face staring from it, each face once beloved and known, now with bloodied eyes and grey lips, their hands drooping, bodies limp, yet yearning. They are all silent. The thick bile of sadness oozing from their hearts has regurgitated into their throats and blocked their voices, their pale shadowy hair seems like seaweed, green and stringy, floating in the air. Yet, all around their collapsed bodies is the scarlet odour of fresh killing, the meat at their feet is newly shredded for the dogs, which are peculiar and never bark. They do not even nudge the meat. Do they know whose flesh it is? How can they tell? Does human flesh taste different? Is there some loyalty hidden in the DNA of animals that allows them to differentiate? Nothing in the house is as it should be, because now another smell permeates and rises, the smell of burning flesh. (Pg. 1)

Set in small town Jullundur (Jalandhar) in Punjab, Witness the Night is the story of a 14 year old girl Durga caught in a nightmare and a 45-year-old social worker Simran who is working hard to find out the truth. When 13 people from a rich and prominent family are killed one night, 14-year-old Durga, the daughter of the family and the only survivor, is the main suspect.

When Simran, a fiercely independent and outspoken social worker arrives in Jullunder to speak with Durga and find out the truth from her, she realizes that the incident is not as straight forward as it seems. Durga looks like a scared child but she keeps mum about the incident. It is up-to Simran to find out the truth on her own. As she tries to uncover the truth, she finds that the relationship of Durga with her family has sinister undertones to it.

I cannot tell you how much I loved this book. It deals with a very important subject about female infanticide and the place of women in a conservative society. I could tell the author is passionate about the subject. But in no way does it get overbearing or boring. It’s also a page turning mystery where we are kept wondering till the end about how it happened. Although we know what happened by the first page itself, it’s still a mystery about why someone would wipe an entire family out.

The book is written from 2 viewpoints, Durga’s and Simran’s. While Durga’s writing is serious and dark, Simran’s is sarcastic and funny at times. She is a very interesting lady and I especially enjoyed her interactions with her mother. Overall this is a mystery that is different from many mysteries out there because not only is it page turning but it also deals with a very important subject with honesty and fearlessness.

My review doesn’t do the book justice. You have to read it to see how wonderful it is. Highly recommended. Witness the Night is the winner of 2010 Costa First Novel Award.

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.

The Volga Ruby by Peter Jobes

Title: The Volga Ruby
Author: Peter Jobes
Genre: Historical Fiction
Set in: St. Petersburg (Russia)
Rating: 4 out of 5

My Thoughts:
I had this book for some time on my shelf and the only reason I had been avoiding it was that it’s set in 1907 Russia and I have absolutely no knowledge about that time period. This being a story around true events and places, I thought a little knowledge would be helpful.

But one day I just picked it up and before I knew I was almost 70 pages in. I had been worried about nothing. The Volga Ruby is a novel that instantly pulls you in and keeps you turning the pages. It’s a story about an Englishman James who is in Russia working as a British Military Attach‚. When the book begins he requests for a meeting with the English Ambassador to let him know about a plot to assassinate the Tsar. The plot is possibly being hatched by one of Tsar’s closest associates and someone who has a lot of power in the court, Count Berovsky. The ambassador assures him that he will take the appropriate action.

When James gets in trouble with one of the bad guys, he is asked to leave Russia for London. Thus begins an adventure to save himself from possible humiliation and making a mark for himself. He also gets involved in blowing the cover of the conspiracy which endangers his life further.

I enjoyed reading the book immensely. I liked reading about a place and time I had never read before and spent a lot of time on the internet looking up Tsarskoe Selo, Church on the Spilled Blood, Troitsky Bridge, Winter Palace and so many other things including real events. I like it when a book does that, makes me want to know more about a place or an event, broadens my knowledge. On the flip side, there were a couple of printing mistakes but nothing that could spoil my reading experience.

Although The Volga Ruby is an adventure that involves the Tsar, Russian politics and the future of entire Russia, it’s surprisingly a very cozy mystery, the one that should be read curled up under a blanket with a cup of chai.

Note:  Peter Jobes is a very dear online friend. However, my thoughts are 100% honest and without bias.