Review: China Dream by Ma Jian

Alexis:

I definitely recommend knowing modern Chinese history, especially The Cultural Revolution, before diving into China Dream by Ma Jian.

In modern day China, totalianarism is on the rise. Main character Ma Daode is the director of the China Dream Bureau, which aims to use a device to replace people’s dreams with the China Dream of the Communisty Party by directing the China Dream directly into their brains. But Ma begins to struggle with recurrent nightmarish memories of the Cultural Revolution. Soon, he feels like he’s two separate people: his past self, and his current self, and he begins to worry he will lose his job and status.

I struggled to read the first chapter, which mostly focused on introducing Ma’s character by talking about his many affairs, and by having Ma talk to other people at his work to establish the ideology of the China Dream.

But after the first chapter, I found this an intriguing satire about the Chinese government. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of Ma’s past with his present. The writing itself is straightforward and a little stilted, although that probably has to do with the translation. The further you get into the book, the more absurd it becomes as Ma struggles to keep a grip on reality.

I definitely recommend reading the Afterword, where Ma discusses his motive for writing the book.

Overall, this is a well-done, often brutal and violent satire that reveals the dangers of a totalitarian government, and what happens when you suppress the truth. 

VERDICT: 4 stars

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Review: The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

Alexis: Read 2/27/19

The Night Tiger is a fascinating blend of magical realism, historical fiction, romance, and murder mystery. It follows two main characters: Ji Lin and Ren. Ji Lin is the apprentice of a dressmaker who is also secretly a dance-hall girl. Ren is an eleven-year-old houseboy who recently switched masters due to his old master’s death. Their lives come together when Ji Lin finds a severed finger and tries to figure out where to return it.

I love that the book is set in 1930’s colonial Malay, now modern Malaysia. This makes for a rich and cultural setting, and I loved reading about the different languages spoken and the foods eaten. I loved Choo’s descriptions of clothing from Ji Lin’s point of view, and how she showed England’s rule and influence over the culture of Malay.

Throughout the book, Choo focuses on the superstitions based on chinese numbers, as well the folklore of weretigers. She even includes a section explaining these at the end of the book, which I wish were placed before the book as pretext, but I still appreciated her including them at all.

The first 30 pages were a little slow, and I had to get used to Choo’s writing style and tone. But then I was hooked. This isn’t a fast-paced book, and the mystery is revealed slowly. Though the main plot is fairly slow, there were enough subplots to hold my attention.

I loved Ji Lin as a character. She’s a classic modern day heroine in 1930’s Malaysia, yet she also fits in perfectly in the time period. She’s intelligent and clever and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Yet, unlike where a lot of strong female characters seem to fail, she is still feminine and caring. I also really enjoyed Shin, her step brother’s, character. I found he and Ji Lin to have a lot of chemistry, and I found their relationship moved in a natural direction.

What I didn’t like about the book: the switching POVs. Ji Lin’s chapters were first person, past tense, while Ren’s chapters were in third person, present tense. And every once in a while, I was thrown into William Acton’s POV (Ren’s new master). It would have served the book better if both Ji Lin and Ren’s chapters were in first person, or, honestly, if the whole book was in Ji Lin’s perspective. Sometimes Ren felt like an afterthought.

I really enjoyed The Night Tiger’s setting, atmosphere, and characters. I wish the ending had tied up some of the loose ends, but overall, this was an interesting and unique read. Just don’t read it if you get queasy at the mention of severed fingers!

VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books

 

SPOILERS BELOW:

I’m not really even sure how to address the twin issue. Why do authors always feel like one of the twins has to be dead? I enjoyed Ren’s “cat whiskers” sense, but Yi’s role in the story was kind of “eh” for me.

I actually really liked the fact that Ji Lin and Shin fell in love. Their relationship, and the progression of their relationship, felt very real to me, and I loved the dynamic. I didn’t find it weird because they were so close and important to each other and not actually related.

However, I wasn’t a fan of how Shin’s character progressed. He professed his love for Ji Lin, only to beg her to have sex with him…? It felt completely out of character, as Shin was nothing but respectful towards Ji Lin, and even though he was portrayed as a womanizer, I knew from the beginning that it was obviously just a front. I felt like their almost-bedroom scene could have gone very differently. But, in the end, I was glad Ji Lin stood up for herself and decided to wait on marriage and pursue a career. It felt true to her character.

 

Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Alexis: Read 1/28/19

“For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me — as a girl and later as a woman — to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.”

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a beautifully written historical fiction novel. Lisa See’s writing always flows well, and her writing did not disappoint.

This is a novel about women in 19th century China. I, who usually reads a book in one to three sittings, found myself having to take multiple mental breaks from this book. This was also the case when I read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, which turned out to be one of my favorite books.

The reason for the needed breaks was the heavy topics that this book addresses. I had to push my 21st century Western ideals to the back of my mind while reading this (See even discusses this in the afterword). She addresses some beautiful and fascinating ideas, such as embroidery, nu shu, the secret woman’s language, and friendship. But this book also addresses foot binding in detail, as well as death, starvation, and miscarriages. It deals with the extreme sexism of the time, including abuse and acceptance of the low societal positions from the main characters, Lily and Snow Flower.

If I had held onto my modern viewpoint while reading this, I would have intensely disliked the characters and the storyline. Who wants to read about two women who believe they are utterly worthless unless they have three inch feet, marry, and have all sons?

But I learned so much from reading this book, and I enjoyed learning about Chinese society during this era. You can tell that See did her research. See writes well-rounded characters and doesn’t shy away from giving them flaws, and this is one of the greatest aspects of the book. I loved Lily and Snow Flower in the first half of the book, and I was frustrated with them in the second half. However, Lily hints at this in the very first page, so it wasn’t unexpected.

Overall, if you’re interested in learning about a remote, 19th century Chinese society, and you’re not afraid of a sad story, pick this up. If you’re interested in a woman-centered story, and the complicated love between two women, then pick this up.

VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books

Review: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Alexis: Read 5/11/18

“‘Tea reminds us to slow down and escape the pressures of modern life,’ he says. ”

There are some rare books out there that I just know I’ll love, and this was one of them. Okay, maybe I read it because I love tea and the reviews were good. But what other reasons do I need?

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane ended up being my top book of 2018!

The section part of the book is a fascinating, and sometimes disturbing (let’s just say I’m a twin) detailed exploration of the Akha people and their way of life. The middle is a little slower paced, but it masterfully meshes Li-yan’s Akha culture with the modern way of life in China. The last section explores Li-yan’s new life and Haley’s life in California. Haley’s life is revealed through documents, letters, and essays.

See manages to weave an epic story while also exploring China’s history, the history of tea, and what it means to be Chinese and Chinese American. She handles each of her characters with care (in their characterization, that is; they all go through some incredibly tough situations). The only character that felt out of place was Ci-teh later in the book, though I understand why she turned out the way she did.

Overall, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a beautifully written story, the core of which focuses on the relationship between mother and daughter, and the promise of finding one another again.

Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Alexis: Read 11/22/18

Yesterday, I finished The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang.

I loved the first half. It reminded me of a mix between The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, and Avatar: the Last Airbender. On her website, R.F. Kuang even mentions that ATLA and Game of Thrones were some of her inspirations.

This brutal book deals with every heavy theme you can think of: genocide, addiction, experimentation, rape, death. Despite being a high-fantasy book, I found many aspects of the war in the latter half of the book to be extremely realistic.

This is because Kuang is a genius. She graduated from Georgetown and is now studying at Cambridge. She’s studying Chinese studies, and you can tell. I was amazed at her worldbuilding. Kuang knows everything about the world she’s created. The book describes the hierarchy, the history, the mythology, you name it. She talks about it. She describes it in detail. She fully understands the world she’s created, and I admired that from the very start of the book. I love the way she based the world off of Chinese history. This includes fascinating aspects like martial arts and mythology. But it also includes the dark side of history. And I love a good dark book.

I generally like the main character, Rin. She is established out-right: we know what she wants and how she’s going to get it. We know her motivation. But Jiang is my favorite character. His personality is the most well-defined, and I love all of his quirks. I love a good quirky, underestimated character. To be honest, I didn’t really care about any of the other secondary characters, though Altan annoyed me in the second half of the book.

Something is lacking in the second half. Even though the plot is still well-defined, too many new elements are thrown together too fast. A whole new crew of characters are introduced. Characters from the first half come in and out. And some huge decisions are made. It isn’t rushed; it takes place over a couple hundred pages. Yet for some reason, it feels jumbled. To be fair, the entire second half is war. War is a mess; war is a jumble. This Poppy War is brutal and messy and isn’t for the fair-hearted reader. But the way Rin acts in the second half almost turned me off from her (I mean that was kind of the point, but still). Her actions and way of thinking are justified in the world, but that doesn’t mean I like the direction her character is going. 

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I loved the messy history and the mythology of the world. I will definitely read the rest of the series in the future, but it just wasn’t a 5 star read for me.

VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books