Category: Book Reviews

3 Defectors – Memoirs from North Korea

3 Defectors – Memoirs from North Korea

Even though my main focus is China, I’m also very interested in what is going on in North Korea. I know that for most Americans, North Korea isn’t really on their radar, but here in China, the “hermit kingdom” can’t be ignored. Even though I mostly review books on this site that specifically deal with China, almost all North Korean defectors pass through China. In fact, North Korea wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for China’s support. So here are reviews for three defector memoirs I have read in the past couple of months.

  1. A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim.
    Kim’s story is of the type you expect to read. Her family suffered greatly during the great famine of the 1990s that left millions of North Koreans dead. After many of her family members died, Kim’s mother made the decision to flee to China with her two young daughters. It was a harrowing and terrifying journey that took them nine years to complete. The time they spent in the countryside when her mother is trafficked to marry a Chinese villager is especially poignant. Countless North Korean women are trafficked as “brides” into Northern China every year. Most of them will never escape or have the chance to tell their story.
    Of the three books in this post, this is the one I would recommend the most if you are interested in learning just a bit about North Korean defectors and the challenges they face in North Korea, China, and in South Korea.
  2. The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee.
    This is a different kind of defector story, one that didn’t happen because the author chose to leave or was forced to by starvation. Lee was born into an elite class of North Koreans, so even though she is the same age as Kim and lived through the great famine, she was never hungry. She was never homeless. She lived in Northern North Korea and barely even saw the death that surrounded her. She was extremely sheltered and protected.
    Her defection was an accident. When she was seventeen she simply wanted to slip across the Yalu River and enjoy a Ferris Bueller type day off in forbidden China. But she was never able to return.
    Her story is less harrowing than Kim’s, but it gives a different viewpoint, one of a person who didn’t suffer in North Korea and if given the choice between leaving and staying, she would have stayed in her home country.
  3. Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (Story of Shin Dong-hyuk).
    If you have any interest in North Korea, this is the book you have probably heard of. When Shin’s story broke in the US in 2008, he became an instant celebrity, the poster child for North Korean horrors. His story was shocking, and still is despite controversy.
    I have mixed feelings about this book. I don’t really care about the supposed discrepancies between the 2012 version and the updated 2015 version, because even the least horrifying version of his story is shocking. My issues are with the way the story is told. Even though Shin spent his whole life in a maximum security camp and lived to tell the tale, this book is the shortest of the memoirs I’ve read (only 210 pages), and half of that is not Shin’s story. For every paragraph that talks about Shin’s life, Blane adds a paragraph of exposition about what was going in North Korea or other parts of the world at the time. I suppose he gives this information as context, but most of this context has scant little to do with Shin. While some context is important, it shouldn’t be equal to the story itself.
    I really don’t know why this memoir is the most popular when there are so many other better-written ones available.
    I wouldn’t go so far as to say “don’t read this book,” but if you only read one North Korean defector memoir, pick another one.

Of course there are many other defector memoirs out there to choose from. These are only the ones I have read lately. Next on my list is In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park. You can see a speech she gave in 2014 about her experience below.

Have you read any North Korean defector memoirs? Which would you recommend?

Book Review: Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

Book Review: Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

Vermilion by Molly Tanzer is an amazing book. It was the one I have spent years looking for. I read a crazy amount of mystery novels, but as I mentioned in my review of the Red Princess Mysteries by Lisa See, when it comes to historical mysteries, the protagonist is always the same – a white widow of means. I even read two mystery series set in San Francisco this year, and in both of them, Chinese characters are relegated to the sidelines, if they are present at all. Vermilion finally breaks out of this mold. Tanzer has created a facinating story with a unique main Chinese chatacter that appeals to almost all readers.

About Vermilion

vermillionGunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise “Lou” Merriwether might not be a normal 19-year-old, but she’s too busy keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si to care much about that. It’s an important job, though most folks consider it downright spooky. Some have even accused Lou of being more comfortable with the dead than the living, and, well… they’re not wrong.

When Lou hears that a bunch of Chinatown boys have gone missing somewhere deep in the Colorado Rockies she decides to saddle up and head into the wilderness to investigate. Lou fears her particular talents make her better suited to help placate their spirits than ensure they get home alive, but it’s the right thing to do, and she’s the only one willing to do it.

On the road to a mysterious sanatorium known as Fountain of Youth, Lou will encounter bears, desperate men, a very undead villain, and even stranger challenges. Lou will need every one of her talents and a whole lot of luck to make it home alive…

My Review

The main character of “Lou” (short for Elouise) is completely different from most mystery novel heroines. She is half Chinese, half white, a girl who passes as a boy, is mostly attracted to boys but certainly appreciates lovely females and works as a Taoist exorcist in 1800s San Francisco. She is absolutely riveting. I loved reading about her and her adventues.

I also apreciated how important Chinese culture is to the story. Chinese people and Chinese culture are not simply there to give San Francisco “color” or to fill the sidelines. Chinese culture, people, and and language are integral to the story, and Tanzer did an excellent job researching and incorporating Chinese elements.

The story is set in America, though, which is highly influenced by European culture. The way she integrates Chinese and European fantasy (specicially vampires) was facinating. I’ve never read a book before that uses both. Usually authors focus on either one or the other, as if they are mutually exclusive and cannot exist in the same realm. The way Tanzer integrates all of these elements together is brilliant.

The only criticism of the book I have is that the prologue is terribly boring and is not a good introduction to the story. Honestly, I think the prologue might even turn some readers away. My advice is to keep reading or just skip it. The prologue is not integral to the story at all. The first chapter, however, is brilliant, and once you start reading it, you won’t want to stop.

I really loved this book and I hope Tanzer has plans for more adventures for Lou.

What about you? Have you read Vermilion? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Don’t forget to enter this month’s drawing! Learn about this month’s prize, Beijing Monkeys, here!

Book Review: The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel

Book Review: The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel

I have been looking for a novelization about Empress Wu Zetian for a while. I gave Empress by Shan Sa a try, but it was god-awful. So I was very excited to come across The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel.

About The Moon in the Palace

moon in the palaceThere is no easy path for a woman aspiring to power

A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. But young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.

Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.

In the breakthrough first volume in the Empress of Bright Moon duology, Weina Dai Randel paints a vibrant portrait of ancient China—where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life or death—and the woman who came to rule it all.

My Review

How gorgeous is that cover? Honestly, even if the book hadn’t been about Wu Zetian, I would have picked up this book based on the cover alone.

But thankfully the book is also very good. I really enjoyed the story that Randel told here. She did a great job of creating the character of Wu Zetian, especially the young woman we don’t really know much about. Wu is often portrayed as a villainess in history, but here, she is a sympathetic protagonist. Randel did a great job humanizing the character of Wu.

She also did a good job of taking us inside Tang Dynasty China, an era I don’t know a lot about (I usually focus on Qing Dynasty China). While this is a work of fiction, it is clear a lot of research went into her descriptions and it was interesting to see what life was like inside the palace at that time.

Unfortunately, the book is part of a two-book set, and I haven’t read the second one yet. I’m dying to know what happens from Wu’s point of view! I mean, I know from history the basic outline of events, but reading about this from a first person perspective will be very interesting. My suspicion is that Randel actually wrote one book, but it was too long so the publisher divided it into two. I really can’t wait to get my hands on the second half!

Have you read The Moon in the Palace? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Don’t forget to enter this month’s drawing! Learn about this month’s prize, Beijing Monkeys, here!

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Book Review – Soundless by Richelle Mead

Book Review – Soundless by Richelle Mead

Richelle Mead, the hugely successful author behind the Vampire Academy series, stepped into new territory this year with Soundless, a fantasy novel set an a China-inspired world.

About Soundless

soundlessFor as long as Fei can remember, there has been no sound in her village, where rocky terrain and frequent avalanches prevent residents from self-sustaining. Fei and her people are at the mercy of a zipline that carries food up the treacherous cliffs from Beiguo, a mysterious faraway kingdom.
When villagers begin to lose their sight, deliveries from the zipline shrink and many go hungry. Fei’s home, the people she loves, and her entire existence is plunged into crisis, under threat of darkness and starvation.
But soon Fei is awoken in the night by a searing noise, and sound becomes her weapon.
Richelle Mead takes readers on a triumphant journey from the peak of Fei’s jagged mountain village to the valley of Beiguo, where a startling truth and an unlikely romance will change her life forever…

My Review

I’m not a fan of YA novels in general, their plots are simplistic at best, problematic at worst, so I hadn’t read any of Mead’s books before. However, since this one featured a “Chinese” setting, I picked it up.

Author Richelle Mead
Author Richelle Mead

The plot is both simplistic and full of holes, but it wasn’t terrible. I was easily able to keep reading it.

One of the criticisms I read of the book before I read the book itself said, “While Mead may be commended for attempting to create a world based on a non-Western culture, her use of Chinese mythology and culture is superficial at best. She could have renamed her characters and plonked them down in medieval England with no real narrative impact.”

While this is true, I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing. The fact that the book features an almost all non-White cast is a big deal. I am sent dozens of books every day from people asking for reviews. I can count on one hand how many of those feature non-White protagonists. Representation matters, and kudos to Mead for stepping out of her comfort zone and creating a novel, and whole world, based on non-Western culture.

If you enjoy YA fiction, I would encourage you to give this book a try. It would also make a good gift for your kids.

Have you read Soundless? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Don’t forget to enter this month’s drawing! Learn about this month’s prize, Beijing Monkeys, here!

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Book Review – The Red Princess Mysteries by Lisa See

Book Review – The Red Princess Mysteries by Lisa See

I read a lot of historical mystery books, but I got really tired of the same protagonist – a white widow of means. So when looking for a mystery with a non-white heroine, I came across Lisa See’s Red Princess Mysteries. While it isn’t exactly a historical series, the Red Princess Mysteries is a solid  trilogy with a much more interesting setting than most mysteries on the market today. Don’t forget to read my interview with Lisa See about this series here.

About The Red Princess Mysteries:

red princessThe bestselling Red Princess thrillers aren’t just riveting crime stories; they’re novels of emotional depth and savvy insight into modern China. At the heart of Lisa See’s dynamic, suspenseful trilogy is the relationship between detective Liu Hulan and American attorney David Stark, two characters caught in the crush of international affairs. 


In the waning days of Deng Xiaoping’s reign, the U.S. ambassador’s son is found entombed in a frozen lake. Off the coast of California, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Stark discovers the corpse of a Red Prince, a scion of China’s political elite. With the Chinese and American governments joining forces to see justice done, David teams up with unorthodox police detective Liu Hulan in Beijing. As their investigation sparks an intense connection, David and Hulan uncover a web linking human trafficking to the drug trade and to governmental treachery—a web reaching from the Forbidden City to Los Angeles and, like the wide flower net used by Chinese fishermen, threatening to ensnare all within its reach.
As David Stark opens a law office in Beijing, Liu Hulan receives an urgent message imploring her to investigate the death of an old friend’s daughter, who worked for a toy company about to be sold to a new client of David’s. Despite his protests, Hulan goes undercover at the toy factory in a rural village deep in the heart of China, a place that forces her to face a past she has long been running from. Suddenly Hulan and David find themselves on opposing sides: one trying to expose a rogue company, the other bound to protect his client. As pressures mount, they uncover universal truths about good and evil, right and wrong—and the sometimes subtle lines that distinguish them.

Author Lisa See
Author Lisa See

Liu Hulan and David Stark are traveling to one of the most beautiful places on earth: the Three Gorges, where China’s biggest engineering project since the Great Wall is taking place. Hulan is there to investigate the death of an American archaeologist found in the Yangzi River; David is trying to figure out who’s stealing artifacts and selling them on the international art market. Haunting the investigation is the possibility that an artifact has been found that could very well alter the history of civilization. Together, David and Hulan unearth more scandals and revive tragic memories as they struggle to solve a mystery as big, unruly, and complex as China itself.

My Review

I really enjoyed these books. I read through all three of them fairly quickly. The mysteries are interesting and there are lots of twists and turns. There is also a lot of Chinese history and culture packed in. Even though these books are not “historical,” the first one was published in 2007, almost 18 years ago, so it is a great picture of China at that time. It is interesting to see the differences between China then and now, and almost frightening to see just how little has changed. I think the second book in the trilogy was the weakest mystery-wise (why anyone, especially Hulan, cares about the factory girls is never really clear. I mean, honestly, the “deplorable” conditions at the factory sounded better than the conditions at my daughter’s university today), but the character development is essential to the overall story and has significant impact on the trilogy’s conclusion.

If you are looking for an interesting China-based mystery series, definitely check out Lisa See’s Red Princess Mysteries.

Have you read The Red Princess Mysteries? What did you think of them> Let me know in the comments. 

Don’t forget to enter this month’s drawing! Learn about this month’s prize, Beijing Monkeys, here!

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Book Review – Buy Me The Sky by Xinran

Book Review – Buy Me The Sky by Xinran

I am a big fan of Xinran’s books. It is still difficult to find female Chinese writers writing about women’s issues in China in English. While more Chinese women are taking up the pen regarding these issues, Xinran was one of the first. She was in China collecting women’s stories when many people in China thought those stories weren’t important. Her books The Good Women of China and Letters From an Unknown Chinese Mother were groundbreaking in their time. This time, Xinran has widened her scope and looks at the first generation of young men and women raised under the One-Child Policy in her new book Buy Me The Sky. Be sure to read my interview with her about this book here.

About Buy Me The Sky

buy me the skyWith journalistic acumen and a novelist’s flair, Xinran tells the remarkable stories of men and women born in China after 1979 – the recent generations raised under China’s single-child policy. At a time when the country continues to transform at the speed of light, these generations of precious ‘one and onlies’ are burdened with expectation, yet have often been brought up without any sense of responsibility. Within their families, they are revered as ‘little emperors’ and ‘suns’, although such cosseting can come at a high price: isolation, confusion and an inability to deal with life’s challenges.

From the businessman’s son unable to pack his own suitcase, to the PhD student who pulled herself out of extreme rural poverty, Xinran shows how these generations embody the hopes and fears of a great nation at a time of unprecedented change. It is a time of fragmentation, heart-breaking and inspiring in equal measure, in which capitalism vies with communism, the city with the countryside and Western opportunity with Eastern tradition. Through the fascinating stories of these only children, we catch a startling glimpse of the emerging face of China.

My Review

While many theorists, psychologists, moralists, and even economists have all weighed in on what the outcome would be for China’s only children generations, we had to wait for those first only children to grow up before they could tell their own stories and begin to piece together the real emotional impact of what it means to be, not just an only child, but a country of only children. Xinran finds a group of these young people, mostly through casual acquaintance, and tells their stories.

Author Xinran
Author Xinran

Unfortunately, I think the stories are very limited. 9 of the 10 chapters (the 9 people who get a whole chapter to themselves) are students she met who were living abroad. That means these are all rather affluent people. There are some variations in their stories, one girl was a waitress and one young man was from the countryside and borrowed money from his extended family to leave China, but the type of person who has the opportunity to go abroad is very different from someone who cannot afford to school, or was a “left behind” child, or was denied a hukou. I think that chapter 10 was the strongest because it focused on all of those other ones, the ones she met in China. They are all lumped together though and I would have liked to have seen more variety throughout all of her interviewees.

Of course, no two people are alike. Even if she had 20 interviews in the book and had met Chinese youths from all over the world, in and out of China, the stories would not have been representative. How do you write a book about millions of people? It is impossible. This book at least offers a glimpse of what life was like for those kids. Hopefully this will be just a jumping off point for more writers, researchers, and the youths themselves to tell their stories.

This book is a good introduction to the One-Child Policy and what life was like for that first generation growing up under it.

Have you read Buy Me The Sky? What did you think? Let me know in the comments. 

Don’t forget to enter this month’s drawing! Learn about this month’s prize, Beijing Monkeys, here!

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Book Review: The Palest Ink by Kay Bratt

Book Review: The Palest Ink by Kay Bratt

Check out my interview with Kay Bratt here. Be sure to read all the way to the end for a chance to win a copy of The Palest Ink. 

About The Palest Ink

The Palest Ink jacketA sheltered son from an intellectual family in Shanghai, Benfu spends 1966 anticipating a promising violinist career and an arranged marriage. On the other side of town lives Pony Boy, a member of a lower-class family—but Benfu’s best friend all the same. Their futures look different but guaranteed…until they’re faced with a perilous opportunity to leave a mark on history.

At the announcement of China’s Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao’s Red Guard members begin their assault, leaving innocent victims in their wake as they surge across the country. With political turmoil at their door, both Benfu and Pony Boy must face heart-wrenching decisions regarding family, friendship, courage, and loyalty to their country during one of the most chaotic periods in history.

The prequel to the beloved Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters series, The Palest Ink depicts Benfu’s coming-of-age during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution.

My Review

Kay Bratt’s latest novel The Palest Ink follows about two years in the lives of Pony Boy (a poor son of a postal worker and factory employee) and Binfu (the son of university academics) at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (which started in 1966). While the book is interesting and heartbreaking at times, it is important to remember that the Cultural Revolution was actually much worse than it is presented here.

Life in cities such as Shanghai was very different from life in the countryside for most of the Cultural Revolution and its predecessor The Great Leap Forward. Since Binfu and Pony Boy live in Shanghai, they have a measure of protection from starvation, manual labor, and the Red Guards. Information is also highly censored, so no one ever knows what is really going on. However, both of the families live in terror of not knowing what will happen. Because of this, both families make decisions without having all the facts. It is when the boys leave Shanghai that their lives change for the worse, if they could possibly get worse. Probably the most tragic part of the novel is that the major catastrophes that befall them come from their own choices and decisions – although they wouldn’t have had to make such decisions had Mao not declared war on his own people. “If only” plagues this novel, which is frustrating to read, but imagine having to live it.

The book is very easy to read and isn’t too graphic or tragic. It would be appropriate for even young readers. It ends on about as high of note as it could considering it only covers the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution. It is important to remember when reading stories like that just how terrible the time period was for everyone, rich and poor. One of the interesting things about the novel is just how much Pony Boy’s family suffers when all of Mao’s revolutions were supposed to have raised families like his up. From 1949, when Mao came to power, to Mao’s death in 1976, over 70 million people died. And that was during a time of peace with the outside world. China under Mao was horrific. I would not say the story here fully depicts the horrors of the time, but it is tragic, which is probably enough for sharing such a small part of the lives of two families.

There was one glaring error in the book, though, that I really can’t ignore, and that is her description of foot binding. This is something that I have done considerable research on and have written about before. When an elderly woman in the book talks about her feet being bound, she says that she was 13 and her sister was 12 when their feet were bound and that some girls waited until they were 14 to have their feet bound. The process was done to little girls, less than 6 years old, in order to stop their feet from growing.

This is probably a good book for young readers or people with limited knowledge about China and the Cultural Revolution, but it was a bit watered-down for my taste.

About the Author

Kay Bratt, credit Eclipse Photography StudioKay Bratt is a child advocate and author. She was born in Kansas and lived all over the U.S. before settling in the Carolinas. Kay’s experiences of growing up as the constant new kid—and usually one of the poorest—ignited a passion to advocate for children in need when she became an adult.

When Kay’s husband’s career took them overseas to live in China, she was drawn to the cause of that country’s forgotten and abused orphans and devoted herself to working in a local orphanage. She found that journaling helped her to bear the emotional impact of the abhorrent conditions she witnessed. Upon her return to the U.S. after five years in China, Kay wrote about her experiences and her fight against the Chinese bureaucracy as she tried to change the social conditions in a bestselling memoir, Silent Tears, A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. The book resonated with readers all over the world and became a bestseller. She continued to write, but it was when she came across an article about a scavenger in China who took in abandoned children that she was inspired to write the book that launched her bestselling fiction series, The Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters.

Her new novel, THE PALEST INK, a prequel of sorts to The Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters, will be published by Lake Union Publishing on October 27, 2015.

Kay continues to be a voice for children who cannot speak for themselves. In addition to using her writing to gain awareness, she has actively volunteered for several non-profit organizations, including An Orphan’s Wish (AOW), Pearl River Outreach, and the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for abused and neglected children. In China, she was honored with the Pride of the City award for humanitarian work.

Kay lives in South Carolina, at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, daughter, dog, and cat. | @kaybratt

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Book Review: The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel by Maureen Lindley

Book Review: The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel by Maureen Lindley

The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel is a novelization of the life of Japanese spy Yoshiko Kawashima, who was also known as Eastern Jewel. While the book was interesting, it focused far too much on Yoshiko’s sexuality. The book’s description says:

eastern jewelPeking, 1914. When the eight-year-old princess Eastern Jewel is caught spying on her father’s liaison with a servant girl, she is banished from the palace, sent to live with a powerful family in Japan. Renamed Yoshiko Kawashima, she quickly falls in love with her adoptive country, where she earns a scandalous reputation, taking fencing lessons, smoking opium, and entertaining numerous lovers. Sent to Mongolia to become an obedient wife, Yoshiko mounts a daring escape and eventually finds her way back to Peking high society—this time with orders from the Japanese secret service.

Based on the true story of a rebellious woman who earned a controversial place in history, The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel is a vibrant reimagining of a thrilling life—a rich historical epic of palace intrigue, sexual manipulation, and international espionage.

The book followed Yoshiko’s sex life more than her life. One could say that Yoshiko’s sex life is inseparable from her life, which may be true, she did wield her sexuality like a weapon, but she was much more than that. In fact, many of the more interesting parts of her life, such as the fact that she led a cavalry of 3,000 men, was not even mentioned. She was also a pop culture figure in her own time. She released a collection of songs, was a popular radio personality, and there were many dime novels written about her exploits. She was an effective spy in her own right, not just as a hanger-on of the spies she was involved with. But all of this is left out of The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel. Everything Yoshiko did that didn’t require her to have sex with someone was left out of the book. I would have enjoyed the book more if it had focused on Yoshiko’s life on the whole and not just this one aspect.

Author Marueen Lindley
Author Maureen Lindley

I also take issue with the descriptions of Yoshiko’s earliest sexual experiences. When Yoshiko was fifteen-years old, she was raped by her grandfather, yet the book passes this incident off as consensual. When she was only sixteen, her step-father acted as a pimp, handing her over to his friends to do as they wish, but again, it is written as though Yoshiko is complicit in these encounters. The idea that Yoshiko was routinely sexually brutalized by her family never comes up, but is passed off as Yoshiko embracing and learning how to wield her sex.

While the book is classified as historical fiction, it had more elements of an erotica. While I have no problem with erotica (and even write erotica myself), it was unexpected, so readers should be made more aware of the book’s content before picking it up.

Have you read The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel? What did you think? 

If you enjoyed this review, you can catch all of my reviews here

Have you written a book with some connection to China or the Chinese? I review books in any genre! Send me an email at to schedule your review. 

Book Review: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Book Review: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

I recently finished reading The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo. It is a really fascinating book that I highly enjoyed and would recommend.

16248223The book’s description does not do the book justice. According to Amazon:

Li Lan, the daughter of a respectable Chinese family in colonial Malaysia, hopes for a favorable marriage, but her father has lost his fortune, and she has few suitors. Instead, the wealthy Lim family urges her to become a “ghost bride” for their son, who has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at what price?

Night after night, Li Lan is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, where she must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family.

That is the basic plot of the book, but really only the first quarter of it. The majority of the book actually takes place in the Chinese underworld. This was something I have never seen in a Chinese novel before. Most references to China’s afterlife deal with how the dead interact in our world – ghosts. While the book does deal with this, Choo goes much further, actually taking readers into Hell, which is a fascinating place. Choo’s version of Hell is vividly depicted. If you want to read a book that does an excellent job of painting with words, I would highly recommend this one.

Author Yangsze Choo
Author Yangsze Choo

The story itself is also very good. I enjoyed the characters and the plot and read the book quickly. It delves into Malaysian and Chinese culture, history, and and folklore, all things I enjoy. There is a bit of mystery in it, as well as love and murder. The book would appeal to a wide range of readers. The book really is an impressive feat as a debut novel and is sadly Choo’s only novel to date. Hopefully she will have a long and productive writing career.

I also have to say the cover is gorgeous. Mumtaz Mustafa, the cover designer, needs a pat on the back because the cover is beautiful and very eye-catching.

What about you? Have you read The Ghost Bride? Let me know what you thought in the comments.


Frog by Mo Yan – Book Review

Frog by Mo Yan – Book Review

Talk about disappointing. Two years ago, when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for literature for Frog, Westerners and Chinese were shocked and elated. The Chinese were ecstatic that a Chinese writer won the honor at all (he’s the only Chinese writer who lives in China to have ever won the prize) and Westerners were amazed that the book was “about the one-child policy and forced abortions.” Unfortunately for people who can’t read Chinese, that description was a bit of a misnomer. After waiting two years for the official English translation of Frog, I can tell you that there is nothing surprising, shocking, or reactionary in Mo Yan’s Frog. In fact, Frog toes the party line just like every other Chinese writer trapped in China (though I don’t think Mo is actually trapped and rather enjoys his role as an exemplary Party member).

711BOrxouXLMany reviewers claim that the book is about a woman named Gugu, a midwife, obstetrician, and abortionist in China from the 1960s to the present day, but that isn’t actually true. The book is about Tadpole, the book’s male narrator and Gugu’s nephew. Gugu does have a large role in the book, but she is not the protagonist, and large swathes of the book leave her out entirely.

The book opens on the Great Chinese Famine from the late 50s to the early 60s. The narrator and his classmates are so hungry, they eat coal. While this is most likely based on true events, the scene is humorous and contains none of the horrors that people endured during the Great Famine. Everyone who was alive at the beginning of Mo’s book is still alive after the famine, even though as many as 40 million people died during that time, including whole communes. At one point, Tadpole says that he would “have rather starved than eat a frog.” This seems to imply that the famine wasn’t so bad if people could still be picky about what they would and wouldn’t eat to survive. The truth is that some people ate their own children in order to survive the famine. But Mo’s lighthearted approach to one of the most tragic parts of China’s history sets the tone of the novel.

The book finally moves into the family planning stories and recounts the deaths of two women who are trying to have second children, but the narrative is extremely sloppy and paltry. The first family planning policy stated, “one is good, two is just right, three is too many” and forced vasectomies became the norm. Forced vasectomies certainly did happen in frightening numbers, but they are rarely talked about. They also don’t happen today, unlike forced abortions. But then the book jumps 20 years into the future when the one-child policy is in full effect with no explanation or introduction.

None of the women in the book are “forced” to have an abortion. One woman (Tadpole’s first wife) is “coerced” (Gugu begins tearing down the neighbor’s houses and the woman eventually gives in) and the other one gives birth prematurely while trying to escape from Gugu. These are also only two women. The fact that countless women (even today) have been dragged out of their homes and strapped down while their wanted babies are ripped from their bodies is completely left out. While the deaths of the two women who have abortions are sad, and the ramifications are felt throughout the rest of the book, the deaths are just not particularly significant. I’m not sure if that the right word, but if you feel horrified, disgusted, or heartbroken over their deaths, you really are not very well-informed about what women have been enduring in China since the one-child policy came into effect over 30 years ago.

But more frustrating than the way Mo handles the one-child policy and the women’s deaths is how he completely dissolves the Chinese government, the family planning commission, and even Gugu of any responsibility. He says “Westerner’s critiques of China’s family planning policies are unfair;” “I wasn’t blaming [Gugu]…it was just our fate;” “Society didn’t create my problem; I was the problem;” “The men and women who defied the policy against multiple pregnancies could not escape a share of the responsibility for what happened;” and “Family planning has an impact on the national economy and the people’s livelihood, and it is the greatest importance.”

Oh sure, there are some nice feminist statements littered throughout the book, such as “his head was filled with feudal ideas like favouring boys over girls” and “I want them to know how hard it is to be a woman,” but in the end, the book holds up the old status quo. At 55-years of age, Tadpole becomes a father to a son, and even though he has a wonderful daughter living abroad, he says that his son “is a treasure sent down to me from the heavens, and is worth all my suffering.” See, as long as you have a son, it doesn’t matter how many women died or how many kids were aborted or how many filial daughters you have, having a son makes everything all right!

This book is beyond disappointing, it is infuriating. I honestly don’t know why it won the Nobel Prize. The book does nothing to challenge preconceived notions, is not original, and isn’t even honest. There are so many books out there that are so much better. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the selection of Mo Yan as a winner is a downright sexist decision. The book largely deals with women’s issues but is told by a man from a man’s perspective. And while men can write about women’s issues and be allies, why have Chinese female writers who have also talked about these issues with much more candor, honesty, and emotion been snubbed? Authors like Xinran and Lisa See have both written brilliantly and openly about women’s experiences in China because they have the freedom to do so by living overseas.

Mo Yan is nothing more than a communist party mouthpiece, and as long as the Chinese government continues to pursue policies of censorship and artistic strangleholds, this is the best Chinese authors will be able to give the world. Mo Yan’s Frog is an excellent example of why Chinese authors in China shouldn’t and don’t win Nobel Prizes.

Have you read Frog? Let me know what you thought in the comments. 

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