Singaporean romantic comedy that pokes fun at the ridiculously wealthy
I had heard of this book a while ago, and meant to read it for one of my book clubs but didn’t quite get around to it. Then they made it into a film, and I thought – now’s the time. My mum had a copy and kindly lent it to me.
“Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan is a romantic comedy novel set among the upper echelons of Singaporean society. When American academic Rachel Chu is invited to a wedding in Singapore by her boyfriend Nicholas, she thinks that it’s going to be a low-key, romantic trip where she finally gets to meet his family. However, Nick hasn’t been completely upfront with Rachel about just how wealthy, and snobby, his family can be.
This book is a self-indulgent romp. Kwan has a very funny, irreverent style of writing and has a real talent for capturing conversation and dialogue. He flexibly swaps between Rachel’s perspective, catty conversations and frenzied texting and seasons his novel with lush descriptions of almost imaginable wealth and opulence. Having been to a few extravagant weddings in Singapore and Indonesia, I have to say that some of his descriptions were not that exaggerated. I really enjoyed how Kwan explored some of the nuance of how people throughout the Chinese diaspora view one another, and how arbitrary and exclusionary class lines can be.
However, as fun and gossipy as this novel is, the main plot, which is told from the perspective of Rachel, does at times feel like its sole purpose was to facilitate Kwan’s anthropological study of the Singapore elite. She is a useful lens to examine these families and their behaviour, but from the first chapter to the last chapter Rachel does not change much at all and while there is no shortage of drama, it does feel like it comes at the expense of character development.
Nevertheless, it’s a very enjoyable book and one that would make a great holiday read.
Romance novel set against the backdrop of a beautiful lake
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“The Road to Vermilion Lake” by Vic Cavalli is a romantic novel about Thomas, a first aid attendant and blaster’s assistant who is working on an enormous development project alongside a beautiful lake. Every time Thomas hears an explosion, he’s reminded of his ex-girlfriend, the gorgeous Sally, the first woman he ever kissed. However, his life becomes complicated when he meets Johnny, Sally’s sister and an architect on the lake development project. As he starts to fall for Johnny, Thomas wonders if he can grow to be the man she deserves and whether he can ever truly move on from Sally.
This novel is quite unusual in that it is purely romance, but told wholly from the perspective of a male character. Romance is typically considered a feminine genre, so it was a bit refreshing to read a romance novel where it’s a man who is angsting over what he says and does to make a relationship work. I thought Cavalli did a good job exploring the emotions around a new relationship and the transition from carefree young man to responsible, driven adult.
There were a lot of interesting elements to this story, but one thing that I thought was a shame was a missed opportunity to link two of these elements together. Without giving too much away, there was a character that Thomas’ friend met and a character in Johnny and Sally’s life that could have been connected and I did feel like it would have been brilliant to connect the two and have a bit more depth to the characters’ backstories.
An easy read and a gentle novel about the personal development and compromise required to make a relationship work.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“Surrogate: A Novel” by Tracy Crisp is a story about a young nurse called Rachael who is asked to house-sit by a doctor from her hospital that she is loosely acquainted with. Dr Cate and her handsome husband Drum have plans to adopt a baby overseas. However when things don’t work out and they return home early, they first ask Rachael to stay and then the ask her to consider a much, much bigger proposition.
This is an evocative and unsettling story that explores the issue of surrogacy by pushing the boundaries of relationships. Crisp is a thoughtful writer who captures the day to day lives of Rachael, who is going through the confusing process of surrogacy, and her mother Mary, who went through something similar as a young woman. I thought Crisp’s real strength was exploring imperfect relationships and the reasons why people keep secrets from one another. The interplay between Cate, Rachael and Drum was particularly engaging.
I think probably the only thing I struggled with in this story was the role of Mick. Mick is Rachael’s father’s best friend, and Rachael is infatuated with him, but I just didn’t quite see how this part fit into the rest of the story. Mick seems to be a bit of a bridge between Mary’s past and Rachael’s present, but I’m not sure the foundations are quite strong enough to hold up that particular plot-line.
Anyway, this is an interesting novel that deeply explores the theme of giving up a child through the lens of ordinary people.
Literary fiction about an ordinary yet dysfunctional family told from the perspective of a differently-abled boy.
Content warning: disability, chronic illness, domestic violence
Last year I saw Sofie Laguna speak about her new book “The Choke”, and it was one of the most fast-paced and scintillating author talks I’ve ever been to. Although I was really interested in buying a copy of her newer book, I really wanted to get my hands on a copy of her previous novel that won the Miles Franklin Award in 2015. In the end, that was the one I bought and got signed.
“The Eye of the Sheep” by Sofie Laguna is a literary novel told from the perspective of a neurodiverse young boy. Jimmy’s family are like other families. He has a mum, a dad and a brother. His dad works in a refinery, his mum stays home and looks after the family. However, Jimmy isn’t like other children. His mind is too quick in some ways and too slow in others, and he sees the world in a very unique way. As his family’s limited emotional and financial resources are stretched to the limit, the tension threatens to tear Jimmy’s life apart.
This is a spectacular novel that you need to throw yourself into headlong and let it cover you completely. Laguna takes the banal and makes it mesmirising. Writing a story through the eyes of Jimmy was ambitious, but Laguna does so convincingly and evocatively. I really liked how Jimmy ages through the story and finds that the world beyond his mother’s cloying arms is neither as understanding nor as undemanding.
Laguna also uses Jimmy’s observations to tackle some very difficult themes. I think one of the most challenging parts of this book is Paula, Jimmy’s mother, and the increasing toll her weight, her asthma and domestic violence takes on her. Jimmy’s naive understanding of what is happening in his family is contrasted against his brother’s increasingly verbal and violent protests against his father’s violence. Where Jimmy thinks about the things his mother could do to mitigate his father’s anger, I found myself wondering at why this family that does so much better apart tries so hard to stay together. Laguna explores the theme of fighting to breathe over and over again, throwing each family member’s sense of being trapped in stark relief.
I could go into more detail about this book but I think this is the kind of story you just have to wade into and experience for yourself. It was definitely no mistake this book won the Miles Franklin, and I am very eager to read more of Laguna’s work.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“A Different Kind of Lovely” by Petra March is a romance novel about a wealthy but troubled young playboy who stumbles across a ballet dancer when trying to confront his painful past. The magnetism between Neal and Mina is immediate, but when Mina’s ballet career is threatened, their budding relationship may not be strong enough to withstand the pressure.
This is an idyllic novel about a summer romance and when you can tell in a relationship that you can rely on someone. March is a whimsical and sensual writer who focuses on all the senses while exploring human motivation. Mina and Neal are attractive characters whose initial physical attraction is rounded out later by their personal histories and achievements.
However, this is a romance novel and while I appreciate that the focus of the story was Mina and Neal’s relationship, I think I would have liked a bit more depth to the plot. The story alternates between Mina’s perspective and Neal’s perspective on the relationship and their own personal issues, however I think that the story needed a touch more conflict to contrast the dreamy love story against.
An easy summer read about a summer romance.
Magic realism in a post-war Italy
As is becoming tradition, I received a copy of this book in last year’s RedditGifts book exchange (in March 2017, to be precise), and I am only just now getting around to reviewing it. I’ve already received my book from the 2018 exchange, but it’s highly unlikely that I’ll get around to reviewing that until next year either. One thing I always put in my exchange preferences is that if my Santa is from another country, I really like to receive books from that country. While this doesn’t always work out to be particularly interesting because a huge proportion of people on Reddit are from the USA, in this case I was really excited to get a translated novel by a renowned Italian author.
“Timeskipper” by Stefano Benni and translated by Antony Shugaar is a magic realism novel about an eponymous young boy from the mountains in Italy who is on his way to school when he bumps into a god in the woods. Given the gift of a duoclock, Timeskipper now has the ability to see into the future. For his small village in post-war Italy, the future looks pretty bleak as the politics and progress threatens the idyllic rural lifestyle he, his family and his friends live in. The future is also filled with plenty of adolescent anxiety and this novel is a bildungsroman as much as it is political satire.
This was a rich and clever novel that captured the psyche of a teenage boy excellently. Timeskipper is a charismatic protagonist who tells the most outrageous stories that neither the reader nor the other characters can ever fully determine how much is true and how much is hyperbole. I think some of my favourite parts of the book are Timeskipper’s interactions with his long-term love and on-again-off-again girlfriend Selene and how irreverent they are with one another, and how they navigate the changing times. I also really enjoyed the absurdism of the student protests and I felt like Benni was at his best sending up the intricacies and self-importance of student politics.
However, there were some things that made this book a bit difficult. You can’t really talk about a translated book without some words on the translator. This is a very complex book, and Shugaar made a valiant effort to convey all the nuance of Benni’s very rich writing style into English. However, there were a lot of things in the book that did not seem to make sense and I couldn’t tell if it was a translating choice or if it was a mistake.
For example, throughout the book chickens are referred to as chickins. Typographical error? Specific choice? Benni’s joke that didn’t translated to English? I have no idea. Doing some additional reading, I think that there is a lot of symbolism and are a lot of references in this book to Italian historical events but to someone not familiar with Italy’s history these literary devices weren’t readily apparent. Shugaar is cognisant of this, but it is not until you get to the translator’s note at the end of the book that some of these issues are raised. I think that what would have been more helpful would have been to include footnotes throughout the book like other translations I’ve read to help convey meaning where a direct translation isn’t always available.
Anyway, while this was at times a difficult book to read, Benni’s playfulness and pointed observations nevertheless did make it through translation. It shows a different facet to post-war Italian history, and I’m tempted to read other work by Benni to see how it is handled by other translators.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“A Perfect Square” by Isobel Blackthorn is an Australian novel about two mothers and two daughters. Eccentric artist Harriet has her carefully controlled bohemian-bourgeois lifestyle in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria upturned when her pianist daughter Ginny moves back home after a breakup. Tension crackles between them as Ginny tries to pry the truth about her father from her mother and they collaborate on a joint exhibition. In the UK, another artist called Judith struggles with her own daughter Madeline, and as the novel progresses the connections between the two families become more and more clear.
This is a dark and fraught story about the complexity of female relationships, and particularly mother-daughter relationships. I found Harriet a particularly fascinating character who straddles privilege and a more modest artistic lifestyle, who balances innate talent against anxiety about originality, and who wants to see her daughter flourish yet feels envy about her daughter’s success. I felt like there was some real honesty in the way that Blackthorn described an artist’s life. Harriet’s self-doubt and reliance on selling her artworks rather than just painting whatever felt very real to me. Blackthorn also explored some interesting ideas about fatherhood, being a single parent, and how much love and affection is the right amount to give to children.
The focus of the novel was definitely on Harriet and Ginny’s relationship, but the second half of the book had much more of a thriller theme. There were two families, but the majority of the story was so much about Harriet and Ginny that Judith and Madeline were effectively only support characters. I think that I would have liked to have seen either equal airtime for Judith and Madeline to better strengthen the overall sense of suspense, or to have removed them altogether and let Harriet and Ginny carry the story by themselves. I also felt a little like Ginny’s two best friends were support characters as well. It seemed like they had no lives of their own outside Ginny’s sphere of perception and I didn’t feel like Ginny had individual relationships with either of them.
A tense story with some difficult yet universal themes, this book gives an interesting perspective into the lifestyle of artists and expectations around motherhood.