Friday, February 16, 2018

"The Green Phoenix" in Third Place

Happy New Year! 恭喜發財, 祝各位狗年事事亨通, 喜氣洋洋, 身體健康, 青春常駐!

The Asian Books Blog has just announced that “The Green Phoenix” came in THIRD in the poll to find Book of the Lunar Year of the Rooster, out of 12 shortlisted Asia-themed titles. A big thank-you to voters!

“The Green Phoenix” has so far garnered EIGHT five-star and SIX four-star reviews on Goodreads, with an average rating of 4.38.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Book Review - The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

This was a very compelling read. The story is set in Penang, Malaysia, just before, during and shortly after the Japanese invasion and occupation in World War II. It follows the soulful trajectory of a half-Chinese, half-British local young lad, who learns the hard lessons of duty, love and loyalty in the midst of war-time brutalities, when it is most difficult to draw the line between right and wrong.

The book is divided into Part One and Part Two. Part One tells how Philip Hutton, a half-British half-Chinese youngest son of a wealthy British merchant family meets with a Japanese consulate official, Endo-san, and how he comes to love and respect him as his sensei (teacher) in aikido and its attendant philosophy, Japanese culture and language, and the meanings of harmony and love. He is eager to show his Japanese sensei around Penang. Philip, whose Chinese mother died when he was a child, feels isolated from his British family members including his father, and finds affections and acceptance in Endo-san’s mentorship and friendship. This Part also deals with the cultural misunderstanding between Philip’s father and his maternal Chinese grandfather that caused great pain to his mother. After a meeting with the old man, who tells Philip the story of his youthful days as a tutor to a would-be Chinese emperor in the Qing court, the young man changes his perception of the old one and finds it in his heart to forgive his previous callousness towards his mother. Philip also comes to accept his father and half siblings.

Part Two describes in the background the atrocities that the Japanese invaders inflict on the residents of Penang, and how Philip struggles with the dilemma between keeping his family safe and being an upright citizen. In his all-consuming desire to protect his family, he bows to Endo-san’s pressure and agrees to work for the Japanese. Now he realizes that Endo-san has been spying for the Japanese military and using him as a source of information. He finds himself an accomplice to the Japanese in executing innocent villagers and city residents. He also indirectly causes the death of his half sister and aunt. When his best friend Kon, who is with a British military camp, decides to engage in a dangerous plot against the Japanese, Philip becomes an informant in an effort to save Kon, but his effort failed.

The story is told through Philip’s recount of the events to a woman who comes from Japan and who wishes to know everything about Endo-san, having been in love with him. In the painful recalling and reliving of events, Philip at last finds peace with himself.

I find the plot a complex and enthralling one, although a few details stretch the imagination a bit. The writing is lyrical and evocative of emotions and gives a beautiful description of the island of Penang.

I’m giving it 4.3 stars.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Book Review - "Peony" by Pearl S. Buck

I must say this historical novel is quite different from anything I’ve read thus far in the genre. It is a story of impossible love between a Chinese bondmaid and a young Jewish man in the Jewish community of 19th century China. The crux of the story lies in the spiritual or ideological clash between the Chinese and the Jewish culture, and this clash is seen as a subtle force that simmers beneath the surface of differing customs and traditions, until it bubbles up and creates the ultimate barrier that keeps the lovers apart.

Peony is a Chinese bondmaid sold in childhood to the Ezra household to serve their only son David. They grow up together and develop a mutual bond. Within the Ezra household, the husband is easy going and loves the Chinese way of life and is grateful for the kindness shown to him and his by the Chinese, while the wife is a strong-willed woman whose sole aim in life is to uphold the Jewish Law and traditions. But Peony is witty enough to understand there’s no future for her love for David. In order to be able to stay near him, she devises a scheme for David to wed a beautiful Chinese woman, even knowing that her subterfuge would derail Madam Ezra’s plan to get David married to a traditional Jewish girl. From here the plot thickens until the climax is reached, when an incident forces David, now married with children but still struggling with restlessness, to reveal his true feelings for Peony, which ironically leaves her no choice but to seek refuge in a nunnery.

Buck writes with a simple and candid style, but what really stands out is the intensity and depth of emotions she succeeds in painting – it literally holds the readers’ breath! I think she writes with great sympathy about the dilemma of the diminishing Jewish community in China who tried futilely to resist assimilation into their foreign host country who showed them kindness and tolerance while the rest of the world continued to persecute them.

It was inevitable, when people were kind and just to one another, that the walls between them fell and they became one humanity.

There is an Afterword by Wendy R. Abraham, who is a scholar of the history of the Jewish descendants of Kaifeng. She attests to the authenticity of the historical background of the novel. Some interesting tidbits in the Afterword:

The actual history of the Jews’ presence in China dates back at least to the 8th century.
The first Jewish synagogue in Kaifeng dates to 1163 (the Southern Song Dynasty).

I’m giving this novel 4.3 stars.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Green Phoenix Shortlisted for the Award of the Asian Books Blog Book of the Year of the Rooster

It is truly an honor for "The Green Phoenix" to be shortlisted for the award of the Asian Books Blog Book of the Year of the Rooster. I'm thrilled to be in the great company of writers whose works are Asia-themed. The literary award is a tribute to books of particular interest in, or especially relevant to, Asia.

For the full shortlist, please go to:

Asian Books Blog Book of the Year of the Rooster

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Book Review - "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro

I loved the way the author uses a deliberate old-style (you may even call it “stilted”) English voice in telling a bittersweet life story of an old-time English butler who is constantly struggling (but not admitting the struggle) between loyalty to his profession and his heart’s true feelings.

After closing the book, one thought has been hovering in my mind: did the author mean this to be a nuanced satire of certain old English ways and values, or is the novel simply an honest and sympathetic account of the life of one stiff-upper-lipped English butler who sacrifices his emotional life for what he regards as his ideal of being a truly professional butler, which literally means putting his master’s interests before anything else?

Perhaps it is a blending of both. One thing that grates me, though, is the seemingly blatant callousness that the protagonist exhibits, especially in the incident of his father’s dying hour.

I’m giving the book 3.7 stars.