A River of Stars

A River of Stars is the debut novel of Vanessa Hua. I am always interested in new English books written by Chinese authors. This one is worth reading: entertaining enough, yet also serious.

The story is about Scarlett Chen who became pregnant with her married boss’s baby and is awaiting birth at a secret (aka unlicensed) maternity centre in Los Angeles……

Besides exploring the themes of motherhood and immigration, other issues include family, identity, the American Dream, class and privilege, survival, overcoming past mistakes, and maintaining cultural and traditional beliefs and customs.

The characters are real: they are flawed, imperfect and vulnerable; at the same time strong, resilient and serious.

I look forward to Hua’s next novel.

In Order to Live

In Order to Live is a moving memoir by Yeonmi Park (with Maryanne Vollers). In it, Park writes about her life in North Korea and her journey to freedom.

As Park mentions, life in North Korea is like the manifestation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm – the suppressive conditions, the brutal hardships, the extreme poverty and propaganda. The reality is outrageous and almost unbelievable.

Like other women defectors, Park and her mother endured unique horrors like rape and human trafficking (kidnapping and being sold over and over again) in addition to the plight common to all defectors.

Even in the darkest situations, Park had enough resilience and optimism for a better future. What she and her mother endured shows their strength, endurance and unwavering love for each other.

This is an honest and haunting account of a devastating but important truth. It is emotional as well as inspiring. A must-read for all to gain a better insight into the reality that resides in North Korea.

Leaving Tangier

A friend introduced Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jelloun after her Moroccan trip last year. I would not have picked up this book otherwise, for it is translated from French and I usually only read books in the language they are written.

This is a contemporary story of young Moroccans desperate to start new lives in Spain. Sexually explicit, the viewpoints shift repeatedly as it moves from one chapter to the next. Still, the sense of self-disgust and alienation, the aching conflict in the hearts of those who love their country but cannot make a life there comes through quite clearly. The long monologues reveal the anguish of the characters and provide insight into their own issues as well as others, who represent a cross-section of the region and the world.

Other issues such as dysfunction and corruption, racism and prejudice, frustrations and disappointments, the illusion of happiness and the compromise of principles have various social, economic and political consequences.

A Thousand Lies

A Thousand Lies by Sharon Sala is another book I picked out on a whim and I’m very glad I did so. On top of the suspense-mystery-thriller that Sala is known for is a family drama and this is one of her best books I’ve read so far. There is also romance, but it has sort of taken a back seat. The themes of good and evil, despair and hope, loyalty and treachery, physical and mental abuse, and even magic/voodoo are well woven into a plot with amazing twists and turns.

The characters are believable, and touch the heart, with emotions like frustrations, pain and love on every page. Even the villain’s cruel and abusive behaviour which chill the bones come across as an apt portrayal of Evil Incarnate.

A mesmerising and fabulous read.

Railroad Tigers

I borrowed this 2016 movie because it looks unlike the action films Jackie Chan is known for. The liner notes say: In December 1941, Japan expands the occupation of its neighbouring countries to Southeast Asia. The railway from Tianjin to Nanjing in East China became a key military transportation route, heavily guarded by Japanese soldiers. Railroad worker Ma Yuan (Jackie Chan) leads a team of freedom fighters. Using his deep knowledge of the train network, he and his men sabotage it, ambushing Japanese soldiers and stealing supplies to feed the starving children. Although the freedom fighters have no weapons of their own, they employ whatever tools are at hand, including shovels, loose railway track planks and diverted trains. The local Chinese call the unlikely heroes the Railroad Tigers.

The stunts are not as spectacular as those I remember from his earlier movies. There is minimal excitement. What is more interesting is that Jackie’s son, Jaycee has quite a lot of screentime, though his name isn’t on the cover. My guess is that this is the movie that Jackie promised he would make to mend the relationship with his son after his release from a six-month jail sentence for marijuana possession.

The cameo at the end by Andy Lau is also a surprise.

The Missing Piece

I used to read a lot of Sharon Sala’s novels but have not done so for a while until I chanced upon the latest one (published in 2019) called The Missing Piece. The title alone is enticing enough.

This is a mystery; there’s a lot of suspense and fast-paced exciting action. The characters and plot are interesting, fascinating and appealing. I was glued to the pages until the very end. And I can’t wait for the next installment!

Big Brother

A friend couldn’t stop gushing about Donnie Yen’s kungfu skills in the latest Yip Man movie earlier this year, but I never got to see it. When I saw Big Brother (2018) on the library shelf, I decided it was something I could not pass.

The storyline is very predictable but real: about a tough but fair teacher who gives hope to a class of would-be high school dropouts, a teacher who is also a counsellor to his students’ problems (dangers of rolling with the wrong crowd, playing with too many video games, disrespecting the elders and so on). Teachers, students, education administrators, parents and the community everywhere would recognise the story.

Donnie Yen is not an ordinary teacher. He rides a motorcycle, has served in combat, wears blue jeans with a plaid vest (and a denim jacket sometimes), has visible tattoos, knows all sorts of tricks and has dazzling fighting skills. He also has an answer to every problem.

An entertaining movie.

Beauty Queens of Bishan

Beauty Queens of Bishan by Akshita Nanda is an interesting novel set in one of the heartlands of Singapore that I’m no stranger to – Bishan. The style is simple yet engaging, and I like the attention to details and the vivid descriptions.

The story is multi-racial and multi-cultural. There is a main plot and a number of sub-plots, with all sorts of drama and interesting characters. The characters feel natural, especially the type of attitudes and phenomena familiar to Singaporeans.

Amidst the humour are serious issues such as family, love, friends, ethics, beauty, passion, reality TV, celebrity worship, social media obsession, eating disorder, the beauty industry, rivalry, differences and unity.

Paris Holiday

Paris Holiday is a 2015 Chinese-Hong Kong romantic comedy. I picked this at random as I wanted to see more of Amber Kuo’s acting. She first came to my attention when she appeared on a Chinese TV programme called Puzzle Master. I am also curious about Louis Koo, whom I’ve not seen on TV or the cinema for decades.

Amber Kuo did not disappoint. Her performance of a paradoxical character that’s cute, quirky and endearing on screen carried the entire movie. Except for a little twist at the end, the story of a mismatched pair of roommates who end up falling hopelessly in love with each other is rather cliche. If not for the nice Parisian scenes of the Eiffel Tower, the Palace of Montmartre, Basilique du Sacre, the sunny vineyards, the prevalence of bicycles, baguettes and flashes of French speaking, the outcome would have been the same if the story had been set in Hong Kong or elsewhere.

The Home for Unwanted Girls

It is not very often that a novel is so well-written that I am reduced to tears, but The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman did just that.

This novel is based in part on the author’s mother’s story and dedicated to her. The true events portrayed are controversial things that happened in Canada’s history – the division between the English and French in Quebec in the 1950’s, involving one of the darkest scandals involving money and religion. It is a shameful time when the children of unmarried mothers were sent to orphanages and then to asylums because the nuns running these institutions were paid more to care for the mentally ill. The hardship, abuse, conditions and cruelty these girls were subjected to have a long lasting effect.

A moving story about family rifts and enduring bonds that is riveting and haunting. It is both intriguing and captivating, meaningful and thought-provoking.