Halloween Reading! The Ghost Bride – by Yangsze Choo

As I noted in my prior post, The Night Tiger, I enjoyed that book so much that I committed to reading Ms. Choo’s earlier debut novel, The Ghost Bride. Here she also spins an enchanting yarn inspired by multiple streams of history, folklore, religious worldview and mystery.

Although set in 1898 British Colonial Malaya, much The Ghost Bride takes place in a mythical afterlife.

Of the two novels, I prefer The Night Tiger. However, I come away from The Ghost Bride in awe of Ms. Choo’s imaginative storytelling skill. She draws

The Ghost Bride has a stronger fantasy element—spends more time in unearthly realms. At a few points the plot nearly lost me. But I hung on and am glad I did.

The Night Tiger felt more like magical realism; anchored in the physical world but with excursions into the afterlife and folklore. The telling felt tighter, the story clearer.

Most importantly, I am now officially a fan of Ms. Choo. I will anxiously await anything she produces. As noted, her imagination makes me want to cheer.

You can find full reviews of The Ghost Bride here and here.

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

In The Night Tiger, Ms. Choo intertwines dreams, folklore, mystical creatures and in-between places with physical-world events in the lives of five vivid and compelling characters. Every answer leads to a new question. You feel the connections but you can’t guess where it all ends. She immerses you in 1930s multi-cultural Malaya without the story being about multi-culturalism—there’s no time to dwell on it. Too much is uncertain. Along the way, Ms. Choo blends the concrete and surreal with such finesse that you never doubt the truth of it.

Readers of Long Ago and Far Away stories will love the whirlwind journey through dance halls, rubber plantations, jungles and train rides, dark shophouses, hospital wards and English tea in a colonial bungalow. Ms. Choo effortlessly infuses her complex tale with rich texture and detail.

It’s been ages since I found a novel I couldn’t put down. For the first third of The Night Tiger, I kept trying to figure everything out. I finally relaxed and went along for the ride—and what a ride!

This book is highly recommended for lovers of Long Ago and Far Away!

Some Random Observations (Caution Minor Spoilers):

  • Ms. Choo builds the narrative around three point of view characters. (Two additional key players are not given a point of view). Ms. Choo uses 1st person past tense for Ji Lin, the main character and 3rd person present for Ren, the Chinese houseboy and his new master, William Acton, an English surgeon. Although somewhat jolting the first time the tense changed, I think it did help separate the characters once the pattern was set
  • Each character left me with their own thematic impression.
    • For Ji Lin – self-determination. She struggles against her culture’s assumptions about women, work and marriage.
    • Ren’s loyalty to his prior master drives much of the plot. That loyalty transfers to his new master and plays into the hand of Fate.
    • William’s character, though surprisingly sympathetic despite his obvious flaws, finally succumbs to ironic Karma.
  • As part of the setting’s immediacy, Ms. Choo sprinkles the text with snippets of Malaysian language. Since I can still read it, it made me giddy and kind of smug—as if I could be deeper attuned to the story than the average reader. I couldn’t possibly know whether it contributes or distracts for other readers—but she does clarify the meaning each time.
  • I won’t spoil the ending for you—but it felt a bit rushed. I would like to have seen a little more resistance from Shin in response to Ji Lin’s final decision. That decision felt right but I would like there to have been more conflict in their resolution.

In summary, I am thoroughly enchanted. I can’t wait to double back and read her first novel The Ghost Bride.

You can find summaries and reviews of The Night Tiger here and here.

Samarkand and The Rock of Tanios by Amin Maalouf

Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese-born author, began as a newspaperman in his native Beirut then moved to France at the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war.

The Rock of Tanios:
This book led me through a time and place for which I had no prior knowledge even though part of my Work in Progress moves through the same geography. Twelve hundred years pass between my subject and the world of Maalouf’s novel and yet I enjoyed the immersion into 1830s Lebanese mountain village life. This story of personal passion, murder and fateful decisions slowly expands to involve the wider political context—when Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, England and France vied for control of the region. All new territory for me.

Samarkand:
My old interest in early medieval Central Asia drew me to this book. How could I pass up a story set in 11th century Samarkand? More, please!

As with The Rock of Tanios, this dual time-period novel introduced me to epochs of history to which I’d had little prior exposure: the life of Omar Khayyam during the Seljuk Empire and the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907.

Again, some of my Work in Progress is set in Persia but five hundred years before any of the events included here.

But this is the attraction of reading historical fiction from off the beaten path. It opens up new adventures and the chance to see the world through another’s experience. Some say that stories help us develop empathy. They also help us understand ourselves.

 

You can find summaries and reviews of The Rock of Tanios here and here.
You can find summaries and reviews of Samarkand here and here.

 

Afterward—Long after I’d read these two novels, I realized that the author is one and the same with that of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes—the book I read way back in the early ‘90s which had such a strong effect on me. It was, in fact, one of the sparks which ignited my own slow movement towards my Work In Progress.

You can find summaries and reviews of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes here and here.

Tea & Opium – Recent Reads

Tea & Opium - smaller

 

My passions – tea and historical fiction (not opium!) – recently collided in the following two books:

 

For All the Tea in China – How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History – by Sarah Rose – Non-fiction

 

And,

 

Sea of Poppies – by Amitav Ghosh – Fiction

 

I had chosen the tea history because of my general love for the drink and growing curiosity about its history and transport.

 

Sea of Poppies was on my radar because of my constant search for historical fiction set off the beaten path and especially stories by non-western writers.

 

So, what do these books have in common?

 

Colonialism, international trade and the early effects of globalism.

 

More specifically, they deal with two of the three sides of the East India Company’s trading triangle: producing opium in India, trading opium for tea in China and transporting tea across the world to the exploding tea market in Britain.

 

For All the Tea in China tracks botanist Robert Fortune’s efforts to steal tens of thousands of tea plants and seeds from China and set up a competitive market in the Himalayas – all to profit the East India Company.

 

I have long loved Victorian travelogues. I used to scour the shelves at MacKay’s in Knoxville for every book pertaining to Central Asia and the Great Game. Sarah Rose’s summation of Fortune’s journey makes me want to find his writings and read them for myself. However, in these journals, we rarely see the consequences these “adventures” have on the nationals – either as individuals or as communities.

 

Sea of Poppies – written from both Indian and colonists’ points of view – shows us the trauma of the populace whose subsistence farms were turned into poppy fields. Over time, the farmers’ indebtedness to the Company forced many into impoverished dependency and some to emigration as indentured servants.

 

One man’s adventure is another’s demise.

 

You can read the reviews for:

 

For All the Tea in China – How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History – by Sarah Rose – Non-fiction – here and here.

 

And,

 

Sea of Poppies – by Amitav Ghosh – Fiction – here and here.

 

 

PS/Update: I recently stumbled upon an article from the New York Times that mentions Fortune’s brazen theft but focuses on the efforts to expand tea production from Darjeeling to Nepal. Enjoy!

Now to make another cuppa…

The Conqueror Series by Conn Iggulden

conn iggulden - conqueror series - small

As you can see from the image, I have four of the five books in this series. I do hope to catch up with the last one: Conqueror.

It has been several years since I read these stories but sometimes distance strengthens impressions.

Wolf of The Plains is by far the most memorable. When pondering character development or the influence of setting on psyche, this book often comes to mind. Iggulden immerses us into the life of a Mongol boy navigating a brutal cultural and natural environment. We walk alongside him while he establishes himself as the supreme leader of all who encounter him – starting with his own brothers. From a childhood of loss and hardship emerges the man who will conquer the world.

The series’ subplot – Genghis’ relationship with his son Joshi – is a tragedy often played out in the lives of great men. Unsure if Joshi is his own blood, Genghis never completely accepts him. (Genghis’ wife is raped at around the time of Joshi’s conception). Also, Genghis for too long delays rolling authority to his sons – clinging instead to absolute power – resulting in divisions and strife. In this I am reminded of Sharon Kay Penmen’s portrayal of Henry II, his family’s dysfunction and the ensuing fallout so brilliantly dramatized in her Plantagenet series. Both are examples of powerful leaders unable to relinquish control to the next generation.

Highly recommended for historical immersion, world/culture building, action/adventure.

It can find starred Reviews for these books on Amazon and Goodreads:

Wolf of the Plains: here & here.

Lords of the Bow: here & here.

Bones of the Hills: here & here.

Empire of Silver: here & here.

Conqueror: here & here.

 

Should Writers Write Reviews?

I might have already mentioned – I do not intend to provide formal/starred book reviews on this blog. I discussed this decision with several other writers and we felt reviewing novels within our own genre could be awkward and is best left to others.

Since reviews are crucial to a book’s/writer’s success, I decided some time ago I would only review a novel if I could give the work at least four stars. Simply completing and making available a mediocre novel is a heroic feat. But a three star review could discourage and damage a writer even if they had made great strides with that piece. I don’t want to be the one to bring down someone who has worked so hard.

For me to write a five star review, a book must be not only well crafted, but also memorable. I have read many entertaining and near flawless books only to forget them the next day. A five star book had better stick with me for days after the final page.

Until starting this blog those were my personal guidelines. In an era of grade inflation I’m a bit stingy with my “A”s (5 stars!). And this shows the subjectivity of reviews – who am I to withhold a five star review from a perfect, forgettable beach read?

As I begin to write I am naturally looking more closely at what I read, the same way my theatrical self notices the lighting at a live performance. I am learning from others, both techniques and pitfalls. To write a balanced review seems even more difficult now. So I have decided to refrain completely from starred reviews here, on Amazon or Goodreads, etc. I will, however, share my response to and observations about writers, books or passages that I find noteworthy. I may also link to the reviews of others. There are plenty of places to find them.

While thinking about this problem I stumbled across the New York Times Bookends column, “Are Novelists Too Wary of Criticizing Other Novelists?”. In it Zoe Heller and Adam Kirsch describe the problem but also argue the benefits of novelists reviewing novels. I see their point but will stick with my decision and defer writing formal/starred reviews until such a time that I have earned a literary voice. (What a pleasant thought!)

I would love to hear how others handle this question. As a writer, are you comfortable writing Amazon, Goodreads, blog, etc. reviews of material in your own genre?