Category Archives: Malaysian

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Ghost BrideHauntings, posthumous marriage proposals, addictions, not-quite-human heroes, in-between spirits growing old, burnt offerings that are actually real in another world. Interest piqued? Get ready for this absolutely ingenious debut novel!

And (there’s more!), as an exponentially satisfying bonus, the crisply-voiced author herself – Yangsze Choo, a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent now California-domiciled – refreshingly voices the audible incarnation. Yes, without having to grit your way through errant pronunciations, Choo’s rendition is just about music to your ears!

The concept of ‘hungry ghosts‘ is centuries-old in China and other parts of Asia, but Choo goes far beyond lost and desperate spectres to create original, unexpected parallel world she calls “the Plains of the Dead” filled with the uniquely undead. Li Lan, a young woman in 1890s Malaya who is quickly bypassing socially-deemed marriageable age, receives an eerie offer. No longer an illustrious family, Li Lan’s father is financially diminished enough to present the unusual proposition to his daughter: to marry Lim Tian Ching, the wealthy heir to a privileged family … never mind that he’s … well … dead. His mother worries that her precious son will be lonely in his afterlife, and requests Li Lan as his bride.

Just in case Li Lan had other thoughts, Tian Ching quickly begins to lay claim from beyond on his intended. Li Lan, of course, is no obedient wallflower; in fact, her heart flutters for Tian Ching’s cousin, Tian Bai, who she initially mistakes as a servant. Her future, alas, is not her own if she can’t get herself unhaunted. Somehow, somewhere, she’ll have to chase down the undead Tian Ching and expose him for the less-than-honorable spirit he is …

Li Lan’s epic journey toward death in order to live is filled with unexpected meetings, devious servants, a trusty horse that never eats or tires, an arrogant yet irresistible guardian spirit, and plenty of corrupt officials (surprise, surprise – even in the netherworld!). Lest you worry about your own soul, Choo inserts a clever nod to tolerance: Keep an eye out for the centuries-old Dutchman who cannot help Li Lan on her deathly quest because “Those are not my beliefs … That is not my afterworld.”

The lengths a girl has to go through to escape unwanted attention reaches new heights – or should I say depths? – in this intriguing, wholly inventive, thoroughly entertaining debut title.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Chinese, Malay American, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

The Little Hut of Leaping Fishes by Chiew-Siah Tei

Little Hut of Leaping FishesFor all the power and wealth of the Chai clan, discontent and tragedy haunts its three generations. With the challenges facing China at the turn of the 20th century as the last imperial dynasty crumbles and western colonialism looms, patriarch Master Chai’s once ironclad rule over his household begins to falter.

Born the first grandson, Mingzhi’s life is not necessarily his own to control as the family’s eventual heir. Obedient, hard-working, and honest, Mingzhi realizes early that his family’s extensive involvement in opium production is not an enterprise he supports nor wants to inherit. His path to redemption, as well as escape, is in education as he tenaciously works toward becoming a government official far from the family’s reach. Away from the Chai mansion, he finds reprieve and enlightenment in his eponymous “little hut of leaping fishes.”

In spite of an expansive cast of characters, author Chiew-Siah Tei tends toward simplified archetypes rather than multidimensional individuals. Mingzhi, for example, is the ‘good’ grandson with his laudable successes while his younger half-brother is the ‘bad’ counterpart – deceptive, lazy, and vengeful. Of Master Chai’s sons, one is a debauched opium addict with two wives, while the other is a filial, irreproachable, unmarried nurturer. Of the household’s two wives who belong to Mingzhi’s father, one remains a devoted mother and long-suffering silent wife; the other proves to be a scheming adulterous runaway.

Predictable as many of the characters might be, Tei manages plenty of unexpected plot twists and turns, from brutal rivalries to unexpected friendships to unrequited love. Her deft machinations earned her a 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize longlist nod – no small feat for the Malaysian Chinese, Scottish-domiciled author writing her first novel in English (she’s won multiple prizes for her earlier titles in Chinese). If, by chance, you choose to go audible, the elaborate family saga is engagingly read with breathless animation by Malaysian Australian actor Keith Brockett, whose androgynous voice works especially well here.

Mingzhi reaches manhood in spite of abandonment, repeated betrayals, and even unexpected death – who needs enemies when you have your own family too ready to watch you suffer and fail? Such survival merits Mingzhi another life, as his story continues a vast ocean away in last year’s sequel, The Mouse Deer Kingdom. Further adventures ho! Stay tuned.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, British Asian, Chinese, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

Five Star Billionaire* STARRED REVIEW
Think of Tash Aw‘s third novel as an ingenious game called “How To Be a Billionaire.” A how-to guide is interspersed with 30 rules that also serve as chapters, e.g., “Move to Where the Money Is,” “Always Rebound After Each Failure,” “Strive To Understand the Big Picture.” The playing board is Shanghai, that 21st-century city of limitless possibility; the power broker is the eponymous Five Star Billionaire. A quartet of players – all Malaysian immigrants – are revealed one by one: country girl Phoebe, real estate heir Justin, pop superstar Gary, and businesswoman Yinghui, who is about to multiply her success. Aw moves fluidly between past and present, creating a multilayered narrative about chasing, catching, and sometimes losing elusive opportunities.

Verdict: London-based Aw, who spent a year in Shanghai on a writing fellowship, has honed his experiences into a literary victory. Admirers of Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory, which won a Whitbread Book Award (renamed the Costa Book Awards in 2006) and a Commonwealth Prize and was long-listed for the Man Booker, and Map of the Invisible World will clamor to read this, his best thus far. Fiction aficionados with international tastes will surely fall in line as well.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, April 15, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under Chinese, .Fiction, ..Adult Readers, Malaysian, British Asian, Southeast Asian

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

* STARRED REVIEW
Like his debut, The Gift of Rain (2007), Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng‘s second novel is exquisite and, like Gift, arrives stateside with Booker Prize longlist approval.

Recently retired judge Teoh Yun Ling has at most a year before she will lose all language and memory to aphasia. She leaves Kuala Lumpur for the highlands of central Malaysia and finds Yugiri – the book’s eponymous Garden of Evening Mists – where she’s agreed to meet a Japanese scholar writing a book about Yugiri’s creator, Aritomo, the self-exiled former gardener to the emperor of Japan.

Four decades earlier, in spite of being the single survivor of a horrific World War II Japanese prison, Yun Ling apprenticed herself to Aritomo, hoping to someday create the perfect garden to honor her murdered sister. Almost 38 years have passed since Aritomo disappeared, and now, threatened with erasure, Yun Ling begins to record his story as well as her own.

Verdict: Tan triumphs again, entwining the redemptive power of storytelling with the search for elusive truth, all the while juxtaposing Japan’s ignominious war history with glorious moments of Japanese art and philosophy. Readers in search of spectacular writing will not be disappointed.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, September 15, 2012

Tidbit: Since the review was originally written, Tan moved up to the Booker shortlist! You know who I’ll be rooting for! Stay tuned!

Tidbit2: Library Journal says Garden is one of four September titles “trending now that I don’t want you to miss,” writes fiction editor Barbara Hoffert. This review above gets quotes. Whoo hoooo!

Tidbit3: To check out my recent Bookslut interview with Tan, click here.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Japanese, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng + Author Interview

I can count on one hand the books that I’ve given by the dozens to lucky relatives and friends over the decades. One of those counting fingers belongs to Tan Twan Eng‘s debut stunner, The Gift of Rain. With the impending American release this month of his long-awaited second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, I grabbed the chance to interview the young writer … only to thoroughly embarrass myself by the third question by revealing my inexcusable myopia, as I referred to Tan’s native Malaysia as an island.

“Terry,” he gently corrected, “Malaysia isn’t an island, but a peninsula, and Penang is an island off its northwest coast.” My mortified apology was met with “It’s a part of the world not many people know much about,” which gave me yet another reason to continue to spread Tan’s titles far and wide.

Longlisted for the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2007The Gift of Rain was an astonishing accomplishment. Its protagonist is the half-British, half-Chinese Philip Hutton, the youngest (and only mixed-race) child of a powerful British trading family based in Malaysia. On the eve of World War II, the gorgeous islands show no hint of the devastation about to unfold, and young Philip finds himself befriending an elegant Japanese man, Hayato Endo, who has taken residence on the tiny island across the Hutton estate.

Endo begins to train Philip in the Japanese martial art aikido, transforming the distant teen into a strong and confident young man. But nothing is as it appears, and as the much-feared Japanese military finally lands on Malaysian shores, surviving the war will mean betrayal and redemption, and ultimately love.

Like Rain, Tan’s second novel is exquisite; like Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists arrives stateside with Booker-longlist approval, announced just weeks before the U.S. publication date. This time, Tan’s protagonist is a damaged, wary woman, Teoh Yun Ling, who has just taken early retirement from a lauded career as a respected judge; she has at most a year before she will lose all language and memory to aphasia.

She leaves Kuala Lumpur for the highlands of central Malaysia to Yugiri – the eponymous Garden of Evening Mists – where she’s agreed to meet a Japanese scholar writing a book about Yugiri’s creator, Aritomo, the self-exiled former gardener to the emperor of Japan. Four decades earlier, in spite of being the single survivor of a murderous World War II Japanese prison camp, Yun Ling apprenticed herself to Aritomo; she sublimated her fear and loathing in the hopes of learning to create the perfect garden to honor her older sister who died in the camp. Almost 38 years have passed since Aritomo disappeared, and now threatened with erasure, Yun Ling begins to record her, his – their story.

In both unforgettable novels, Tan manages to intertwine the redemptive power of storytelling with the elusive search for truth, all the while juxtaposing Japan’s inhumane war history with glorious moments of Japanese art and philosophy. His is a challenging balancing act, and yet he never falters, intimately revealing his stories with power and grace.

Because you’ve set both novels primarily during and after the brutal occupation of Malaysia during World War II, both are understandably infused with a symbiotic mixture of horror and beauty. What is your fascination with that time period? You were decades from being born.
The Japanese Occupation of Malaya (as it was then called) was one of the country’s most traumatic experiences. Growing up, I heard some stories about the Occupation from my parents. My father was a child when it happened, so he didn’t have any terrible experiences, but he heard about them from his family. My mother has no direct experience of it either, as she was born after the war.

Do you think you will return to that time again in future works?
I don’t know if I’ll revisit that terrain in my future works. If I do, I’ll want to find something new about it to write, angles that haven’t been explored before.

How have you lived with the terror of your homeland’s history – World War II through the “Emergency” that finally ended in 1960 – that you recreated in your books? Both books must have taken years to write, which means you must have had to endure long years of inhabiting the historically accurate world you had to conjure forth on the page?
I’ve always been interested in that period of our past, so I had been reading up and collecting materials on it for years. When I wrote The Gift of Rain, I had all the details I needed in my head and it was a just matter of crafting the story. There comes a point when the writer has to forget his research and just, simply, tell the tale.

Writing The Garden of Evening Mists, on the other hand, required more extensive research. The settings and the time period were different from Gift‘s, and I was never much of a gardening man, so it took a lot of work to learn how to create a Japanese garden. But the more research I did, the more fascinated I became with it and the more I appreciated it; I realized that the principles of gardening could be applied to life, too.

Dealing with the horrors of the Japanese Occupation and the violence of the Malayan Emergency was at times emotionally draining, but it’s the writer’s responsibility to feel, and then to convey those emotions to the readers, otherwise the writing will come across as lifeless. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Tan Twan Eng,” Bookslut.com, September 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Japanese, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw

Five years ago, Taipei-born Malaysian British Tash Aw landed in the media spotlight with The Harmony Silk Factory, complete with public speculations about an allegedly enormous debut advance. Decorated with multiple important prizes, including Commonwealth and Whitbread first novel awards, Aw’s Factory earned him both fortune and fame.

Last May, Aw’s sophomore effort, Map of the Invisible World, arrived on British shelves, but took another eight months to cross the Pond. Without a doubt, as lauded as Aw’s debut was, Map is even better.

At its core, Map is a story about a family in search of home. Set mostly in Indonesia in 1964 during a tumultuous “Vivere Pericoloso … Year of Living Dangerously” as named by then-President Sukarno in his Indonesian Independence Day speech, the two-member de Willigen family comprised of father Karl and son Adam is torn apart by race and politics.

Although Indonesia declared independence in August 1945 after centuries of Dutch colonialism followed by Japanese occupation during World War II, the Netherlands did not acknowledge Indonesia’s sovereignty until 1949. Decades of turbulent transition followed for Indonesia’s citizens – both native and naturalized.

Born on a remote Indonesian island to Dutch parents, Karl desperately wishes (and almost believes) that he was his hired wet-nurse’s half-Indonesian son. His need to belong to the only home he’s ever known manifests in his longing for an Indonesian family: “’I want to have an Indonesian child. A boy. He’ll be my alter ego, except better, and happier.’”

Years later, Karl’s adoption of five-year-old native orphan Adam completes the de Willigen family. But for Adam, a new father means he must acknowledge he has forever lost his only other family, an older brother Johan he “cannot remember the slightest thing about … not even his face.”

“’My name is Adam and I have no surname,’” he used to announce to detach himself, but he eventually accepts that his “Present Life” permanently includes Karl. In their idyllic house by the sea on the “lost island” of Nusa Perdo, he settles into his new identity as Adam de Willigen, which “sounds just right.”

Refusing to acknowledge the growing xenophobia, Karl and Adam are caught unawares when Karl becomes one of thousands of Dutch Indonesians rounded up for forceful expulsion. One day, soldiers simply take Karl away – “no violence, hardly any drama” – as 16-year-old Adam helplessly watches.

Ten days later, Adam tracks down Margaret Bates, an Indonesian-born, U.S.-national, university professor long domiciled in Jakarta. Hers is the only name he finds repeated in his father’s personal papers and photos. “’I wasn’t prying, you understand, I was just looking for clues. I need to find my father,’” he explains to a bewildered Margaret.

And thus the search begins. Driven by decades-old memories of her 15-year-old-self, Margaret calls on an overly-complacent Australian journalist friend and an untrustworthy U.S. Embassy official in her desperate quest to find Karl – whom she finally admits to be her long lost love.

In the big city for the first time, Adam falls victim to Margaret’s enigmatic graduate student, Din, who hopes to one day write “a secret history of the Indonesian Islands … a history of our country written by an Indonesian.” His militant patriotism both repulses and fascinates wide-eyed Adam, while his promises to help Adam find his brother Johan lead the teenager towards grave danger.

With controlled elegance, Aw lays out a multi-layered puzzle whose pieces create a haunting portrait of a splintered family working towards reunion. The militant Din tells Margaret of his visions of a “lost world where everything remained true and authentic, away from the gaze of foreigners – a kind of invisible world, almost.” Din unmistakably refers to an Indonesia untouched, certainly uncontrolled by western colonialism.

Ironically, Din’s ‘lost world’ points specifically to the southeastern Indonesian islands, which include Buru where Karl was born, and the fictional Perdo where Karl has chosen to build his adult home. Only in Din’s lost world – which Karl refers to again and again as “paradise” – can Karl and Adam be ‘true and authentic’ as father and son. But their Edenic existence proves fleeting, and both Karl and Adam are separately cast out.

“Home was not necessarily where you were born, or even where you grew up, but something else entirely, something fragile that could exist anywhere in the world.” For Adam, home must be with Karl, with new hopes of being joined someday by Johan and even Margaret. To get there, these unlikely individuals must move beyond history, politics, skin color, barriers, and background … and find their way together, somewhere on that map of the invisible world.

Review: The Bloomsbury Review, Spring 2010

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, British Asian, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan

evening-is-a-whole-dayThe wealthy Rajesekharan family of Ipoh, Malaysia is suddenly in shambles. Chellam, one of the family servants, has been mysteriously dismissed and leaves in utter disgrace. The bitter, difficult family matriarch is dead. Her son is long disillusioned with his life, especially his family. His wife, once a wide-eyed naive young girl dreaming of happily-ever-after with her wealthy husband, has borne a life of endless disappointments. The oldest daughter can’t wait to leave everything behind and start her new life as a student at Columbia University. And finally, 6-year-old Aasha sees too much but can never say enough of the truth. Samarasan’s exquisite debut novel deftly weaves back and forth in time to reconstruct the moment when the mighty family falls completely apart. 

Review: “TBR’s Editors’ Favorites of 2008,” The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 2008

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Malaysian, South Asian, South Asian American, Southeast Asian

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

gift-of-rain1IF YOU READ ONE BOOK, LET IT BE THIS EPIC STUNNER! One rainy evening, an elderly gentleman finds himself opening the door to his past in the form an elderly woman who arrives bearing a gift. Although strangers, the two share a complicated past, which magnificently unfolds through this astonishing debut novel.

Half-British, half-Chinese Philip Hutton is the youngest (and only mixed-race) child of a powerful British trading family based in Malaysia. On the eve of World War II, the gorgeous islands show no hint of the devastation about to unfold, and young Hutton finds himself befriending an elegant Japanese man, Hayato Endo, who has taken residence on the tiny island across the Hutton estate – the island is also a Hutton property.

Endo begins to train Hutton in aikido, transforming the distant teen into a strong and confident young man. But nothing is as it appears, and as war – and the much-feared Japanese – finally arrive on Malaysian shores, survival will mean betrayal and redemption, and ultimately love.

Review: “In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Month: A Survey of New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, May/June 2008

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, British, Chinese, Hapa, Japanese, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

Kampung Boy and Town Boy by Lat

kampung-and-town-boy 

A delightful, joyful pair of titles about a young Muslim boy, Mat, growing up in a rural village (kampung) in 1960s Malaysia and his everyday joy of discovery and plain fun. Town Boy continues with urban adventures when Mat’s family moves to the quickly industrializing town of Ipoh to follow Mat, who has already been at boarding school there for almost a year.

Review: TBR’s Editors’ Favorites of 2007,” The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 2007

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2006 and 2007 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

My South Seas Sleeping Beauty: A Tale of Memory and Longing by Zhang Guixing, translated by Valerie Jaffee

my-south-seas-sleeping-beautySu Qi, a sensitive Chinese Malaysian youth, comes of age in the magical jungles of Borneo, shaped by the cruelty he witnesses at the hands of his abusive father and his loving but withdrawn mother. He is bewitched by the elusive daughter of his father’s best friend, but when she falls into a hopeless coma (yes, another sleeping beauty!) after a near fatal fall, Su Qi escapes to Taiwan, where he enters college and meets a vibrant fellow student singer with secrets of her own.

Zhang Guixing, a Chinese-Malaysian writer living in Taiwan, manages to create a novel as dense as the labyrinthine garden of Su Qi’s enigmatic mother, filled with ghosts and detached voices that refuse to be silenced.

Review: “Windows: Asian Literature in Translation: New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, September/October 2007

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese, Malaysian, Southeast Asian, Taiwanese