Book Reviews

Book Review: China

China: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my first Rutherfurd novel and a pleasant surprise. I feel it is difficult to write about a foreign culture, let alone one with such a tumultuous, profound and controversial history. Instead of writing about the actual historic characters, Rutherfurd chooses a safer route by creating fictitious ones that are loosely associated with several prominent figures in Chinese history. The book follows several storylines. Representing the English point of view is an opium merchant, a couple of missionaries and a brief examination of colonial lifestyle in India. An eunuch with an unusual life provides a glimpse of life within the forbidden city. We also follow the lives of a mandarin from the north and wealthy land owners of the south, allowing a somewhat harmonised view of the North/South divide in Chinese cultures. Other notable characters include a gang of pirates plus a father and son pair who went to California as labourers for the rail track construction.

Rutherfurd writes with confidence, broaching on several complex subjects matters such as the use of Confucius to create order in society and China’s stubborn rejection of the international trade in contrast with the Japan that went through the Meji revolution to make up for the decades lost in matching Europe with industrialisation. The book starts off at the climax of the opium war, where the British uses the addictive concoction to tip the balance their trade deficit with China. Several Chinese officials expressed their shock in the underhandedness of this manoeuvre and in fact attempted to write to the Queen of England, appealing to her moral righteousness to stop the decay of the nation through addiction. The storylines then ended around the close of the 19th century, when China was on the cusp of a series of painful revolution that resulted in the present day superpower.

“Think of it: we want China to be open and to trade with us. When they won’t, because however foolishly they closed themselves off from the outside world, we come in and ruin them. Is that going to induce them to welcome us? Is that even going to make it possible for them to increase their trade?”

One of the prominent character expressed this perspective towards the end of his life. It makes me wonder if that is Rutherfurd’s own reflection upon the impact British trade had on old China. After the British looters pilfered and destroyed the summer palace, an eunuch expresses his angst, “For it is not wise to tell a vanquished enemy that you despise him and everything he loves. he will not forgive it. In the Celestial Empire, as I still call it, the rape and burning of our paradise and the contempt it showed will never be forgiven or forgotten. Not in a thousand years.”

This book describes the first significant conflict between China and the Western world. It puts modern day rivalry into perspective. It is apparent to me China never forgive nor have forgotten their recent humiliation. The West still has a love/hate relationship with China – there is constant criticism on China yet the West reluctantly accepts that it is dependent heavily on China for manufacturing to support their consumerism lifestyle as well as Chinese dollars in pushing forward world economy. It often causes me great frustration to explain to person of European descent, that while China is not without faults, many severe ones, Westerners are poorly placed in history to criticise China for anything at all. After all, their wealth and lifestyle that resulted in the educated masses were as a result of their relentless plundering of the rest of the world for centuries.

I applaud Rutherfurd’s endeavours to provide a balanced view. I applaud him double for the tremendous and thorough research.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is much to admire about this book and its author. The momentum and concept of the book is unique – the story flows but there isn’t any particular part of the plot that is climatic. Jena’s voice demonstrates a vague awareness of her self destructive life with only the slightest of a hint of growth towards the end of the novel. The story is littered with generous serves of sex scenes, some of them rather violent. Yet instead of being continually shocked by the graphic description, I became desensitised quickly. Jena is difficult to like and there is a near complete absence of any feel good factor. This lack of adherence to a conventional pattern is impressively bold for a debut novel.

Jena Lin is the offspring of Taiwanese migrants to Australia. A former child prodigy, Jena reflects often about her past life as a world famous violinist as she mindlessly stumbles forward in life. Like many children of migrants in Australia, she feels little loyalty to her birth country.

“It is strange to have a white man tell me to dress in a cultural uniform, put myself in a box, a box he’s created for people who look like me, this face, this skin colour and all that it means.”

“‘Great accent,’ she says.
I’m not sure whether she means I have a good Australian accent, or that I have good English for someone with my face.”

Admittedly, in these months of social isolation, I survived by reading predominantly easy to read, light hearted novels. I was deceived by the title expecting a forgettable book about a girl with a sad, lonesome life who goes on to find salvation through some twist of fate. Instead, I was highly entertained by this haunting, somewhat outlandish story that is now seared permanently into my memory. Tu writes with exceptional courage. I look forward to her next piece.

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Book Review: In the Mind Fields

In the Mind Fields: Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis by Casey Schwartz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love the concept, or what the book set out to achieve. Schwartz admits right from the beginning that she has never been a ‘science person’, yet she bravely tackles a very difficult subject of bridging neuroscience and psychology, in other words, the hard and software of our brains. It is a question that I have frequently considered – why there is a lack of corporation in the studies of our brain and mind, when essentially both originate from the same organ.

The writing is relatively simple for such a complex subject. Schwartz manages not to overwhelm any layman readers with too much medical or scientific jargon, so that’s definitely a plus for me. She tries to create a story based on the research journey she undertook. Unfortunately that meant a great deal of information that I feel was unnecessary, such as how she nearly missed the opportunity to meet a certain important researcher.

I finished the book somewhat unsatisfied – there is no clear outlook or in fact, much conclusion except to point out a few key persons in the field continually trying to amalgamate the two opposing fields. While this makes an easy read for anyone ever curious about the biology and psychology of our brain, I wish the book had offer a meatier content.

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General Affairs Mental Health


I have lived in Australia for 15 years. Prior to that, in the United Kingdom for a little over half a decade.

When I first moved to Melbourne, I felt welcomed here in contrast to my life in the UK. Initially, when asked about the infamous red-neck behaviour in Australia and I would laugh it off saying that I have many Australian friends of all colours and heritage. Racism was possibly a disease that had died off in the 90s. As I mature and my experience with the society grew a little more, I started feel the acceptance was skin deep.

Aussies like to think of themselves as welcoming and accepting. It is a good start, no doubt, certainly better than an outright rejection of any foreign culture. Imagine your typical middle class white family in the burbs. When asked how they feel about Afghan refugees, the patriarch would animatedly declare how the Afghans are great people and perhaps he’d have his Syrian neighbours over for a backyard barbie every Australia day. Until one day, his daughter starts to date a brown skin man and that fella boldly asks her father for her hand in marriage. Then things would go downhill from there. Kinda like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” – a rude culture shock for both families only with a big fat unhappy ending.

Gradually as I reach middle age, I learnt to keep my composure, my mouth shut and my opinions about the lack of acceptance to myself. I would look upon at other foreigners trying hard to merge into mainstream Anglo Australia, muttering “No worries, mate” with their strong accent and patiently explaining that being fifth generation Malaysian Chinese meant that no one had been ‘born in China’ for a while, silently applauding them for their efforts and secretly hoping they would fare better than I had.

A few days ago I shouted a neighbour coffee. We hailed from the same country and by chance we also share the same surname. He was well known in this side of town for his efforts in social media to promote personal stories of local residents. That was our first meeting and from my impressions in social media he struck me as an optimistic, cheerful man who had successfully amalgamated into our suburb. He even won an award for his work with the people. I was glad to see someone else doing a better job of being accepted by mainstream Australia. Yet when we broached on the subject of racism, I was surprised at how quick he unleash his dissatisfaction to me, a stranger he’s only met several minutes before. He believed it is necessary to continue the fight to combat this inequality right down to eliminating the casual racism we deal with on a day-to-day basis. Our stakes in this fight are different – he has a family with young offspring whom he’d hope would see a better future. I, on the other hand, no longer have much faith, wish or hope for the future to be any different from today.

Nonetheless, it is difficult not to contemplate this unique blend of Australian Racism, or Australia-ism in 2020, when an underlying resentment of all things Chinese blew up in our face, followed closely by the protests about aboriginal deaths in custody set off by the death of George Floyd on the opposite side of the Pacific. Confronted by a sharp increase of hate speech on social media, it became harder to maintain my silence. Every now and then I would engage and get sucked into a spiral of angry words, then waste precious energy disengaging and walk away. Eventually I would throw in the towel again, resigning to the reality that it remains impossible to have a conversation with the nation about their racist tendencies when the denial is one big, thick steel wall.

I have no proposed solution, not even a conclusion in this blog post.

Book Reviews

Book Review: Widows

Widows by Lynda La Plante

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Widows”, a heist thriller written by Lynda La Plante in 1983 that subsequently turned into a TV drama then modified into the Hollywood movie of the same title some 35 years later.

This is a fast pace story about 3 widows who got together to re-execute a heist that also killed their husbands. The 1980s was when the concept of women empowerment first emerged and a plot like “Widows” looked to be a crowd pleaser. Led by the no-nonsense middle aged Dolly Rawkins, the team went about planning the robbery while hiding in plain sight from the police and the underworld.

“Widows” still hit a note in contemporary 2020 behaviour. Tragically many women are still dependent on their husbands, clueless about the men’s deed outside their domestic realm, often betrayed and sacrificed like a pawn. Women are still overlooked as a gender capable of complex schemes with the guts and finesse to commit a successful arm robbery. “Widows” took a far more serious undertone in comparison with a movie like “Ocean’s Eight”, however they unite in showing how womanhood tends blend into the background as a vase, a servant or simply dismissed as an silly older women who is just bitter about her lost youth. Grossly underestimated, the widows went about their plans right under the nose of men who had been chasing around in circles for the prize money.

Even without the technology of the 21st century, “Widows” is able to intrigue readers with clever tactics and plot twist. A book that is still in circulation after nearly 4 decades speaks for itself.

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General Affairs Mental Health

The 2020 International Women’s Day Rant

This morning, a good friend of mine messaged me to tell me about her plans to go on a march to support putting an end to femicide in Mexico. Millions of women in the country will be protesting against the silence and in hope to end the machismo culture. Our brief text exchange evoked a horrific memory I’ve long suppressed – my personal brush with Australian ‘machismo’ in Colombia.

Nearly 10 years ago, I was travelling with a male friend through Latin America. We used to be partners but were travelling as platonic friends. Brad, (not his real name) and I got into an argument which escalated and he assaulted me in our guesthouse late night in a small town in Colombia. I was upset and started crying, rang downstairs to the guesthouse owners asking them to call the police. They refused, saying it’s just a regular quarrel – I should either shut up (as I was disturbing other guests) or get out. I chose the latter. Packed up my bags and took off 11:30 pm into a busy town where hotels were fully booked due to a festival.

So there I was, a lone Asian girl stranded in the middle of the Andes. A middle aged man was gathering passengers for a taxi to head to the nearby town. I asked if I could catch a ride in his taxi. He said no problem, just wait in the car while he gathers other passengers. 15 minutes passed. I saw a well dressed couple walk by. The woman apparently said something the man didn’t like. He pushed her to the wall and attempted to strangle her. Before I could react, she said something that clearly pacified him, so he left her go. The two continued walking hand in hand as though nothing happened. Given what I just experienced, I was hardly surprised.

Another 20, maybe 30 minutes passed. The taxi driver returned without any other passengers. I told him in my pidgin Spanish what happened and asked if he could help me find a place to stay tonight. He was kind enough to drive me to a safe place, and offered to pick me up the next morning to catch a flight to my next destination.

The problem was, a few days from that fateful night, Brad and I had booked and paid on 2 weeks tour in Venezuela. To see the Angel’s Fall was a huge dream of mine. So I went along with it, stuck with the asshole who assaulted me only days before, completely unapologetic and utterly unrepentant.

I survived Venezuela and Hugo Chavez was not my biggest threat. Years later, Brad got married – he somehow found a wife who is happy be the sole breadwinner while he played house husband with the children they have. I remain unmarried and child free. Whether or not I wanted marriage or children was irrelevant – I will always be negatively labelled and judged for the rest of my life. While Brad will never suffer any consequence for his action in Colombia.

This is the world we live in . This is my reality. That story about Brad is not even close to the worst story I’ve experienced.

My brief conversation with my dear friend reignited the rage in me, an anger and hatred I have tried unsuccessfully to suppress and smoother. I have a sudden urge to yell out all the unjust I’ve experienced this life, demanding the world pay heed and give me back what’s right. All that from a friendly text message about a feminist march.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Book Reviews

Book Review: Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The enormous list of characters is a warning sign of what is to come. As a Stephen King fan I was prepared for extra patience at the beginning to go through the back stories of all his characters. In this particular instance I did find those back stories a little too long. Once the main plot was revealed, however, I was hooked and read as much as I could over the next couple of days.

The positives for me:
I agree with most of the authors’ observations of gender roles in present day society. Even though the book is set in a small city in the USA, those behaviour transcends race and nationality. The points of views of some of the ‘bad’ characters, e.g. Don Peters the sexual predator and Frank Geary in his moments of uncontrollable violence, are written convincingly, offering an insight to how some people justifies their distasteful action in their minds. I especially like a scene where Don Peters, when witnessing another man with a drinking problem, declares how he much despise men with no impulse control.

Occasionally, the same unfairness between black and white American is touched upon, specifically with white cops shooting black civilians. The authors do not offer any solution for the either unfairness but simply describes the dilemma faced by those in the position of strength and the sorrow of those who suffers. While the phenomena of all women going to sleep provokes extreme thoughts and action in the men that stayed awake, little or no self-reflection occurs implying that little or nothing will change in that fictitious world.

The negatives for me:
The roles of the animals, insects and supernatural plant life seems unnecessary. They do not add much dimension to the plot except to create more reading for a book that is already unusually long. I am also not too persuaded by the concept of Evie Black. This complex supernatural being that is sold as a mother nature/ goddess type figure, in hindsight I can’t even be sure if she is that essential to storyline. 

I am not fond of labels and never thought of myself as a feminist or otherwise. It does not matter to me whether this book or its authors are labeled in any way advocating for women’s rights, I am simply pleased that the subject is being discussed in a book written by a well known and respected white man, will be read by many more white men and hopefully will result in some self-reflection of men of this realm. 

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Book Reviews

Book Review: The Institute

The Institute

The Institute by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of my favourite Stephen King work. As usual, I found the book inaccurately classed as ‘horror’ in my local library (which worked to my benefit since this book is hot off the press). Sure, there is an aspect of paranormal as with many of King’s novels, but none of your typical aliens and beasts in this book. The true horror of King’s stories, in my opinion, usually lies in the despicable human nature of his villains, many of said nature commonly found in people around us.

The institute is a story about young children kidnapped and reared in seclusion, chosen for their special neurological functions, brain waves utilised for the ‘greater good’ of humanity. The children, under terrifying captivity, forms a unique and tenacious bond against the evil monsters who are really average adults acting very poorly due to a varying degree of denial and sociopathy.

The plot of King’s novels are mostly secondary to me. Personally I am extremely impress by how he describes the spectrum of our behaviour so acutely, in particular, at times of duress. The ‘grown ups’ of The Institute repeatedly declares how their work benefits society in vain attempt to justify their grotesque actions. Privately, many of them enjoys administering pain and exerting control over smaller and weaker beings to compensate for their unhappy existence. Such hypocrisy reminds me of so many people I know, both famous and your average nobodies.

The ending I feel is excellent. Despite the placid tone of the final chapter, it is in line with what I’d imagine would be the exact outcome in the real world. It certainly highlights the amount of faith Stephen King has with the intellect of the general public.

After racing through the hefty 550 odd pages in record time, I found myself wanting more at the end.

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Book Reviews

Book Review- Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 stars

Any aspect of Elon Musk’s colourful life would provide sufficient materials for a book – from his traumatic childhood, his migration from South Africa to Canada to the USA to his 3 marriages to 2 women. To compress the enigmatic persona of Musk alongside with the complexity of his numerous historic achievements in entrepreneurship into a readable format is quite a feat indeed. Prior to reading this book, I have only known of Elon Musk through media and the relentless ramblings of a sibling who idolises Musk, both presenting very different pictures of Musk. Ashlee Vance did his best to create a complete story through the points of view of many who had brushed shoulders with Musk.

“To the extent that the world still doubts Elon, I think it’s a reflection on the insanity of the world and not on the supposed insanity of Elon.” – Peter Thiel, PayPal cofounder.

It has been over 5 years since Peter Thiel made that statement about the state of mind of Elon Musk. Unfortunately, public opinion hasn’t seem to have changed much. The media still jumps at every opportunity to demonise him; the general public prefers to dismiss him as a rich guy playing with big toys. I asked a group of acquaintances what they think of him – most rolled their eyes and claims disinterest, others mentioned briefly his juvenile spat with the rescue diver in the Thailand soccer boys incident. Whilst I obviously cannot speak for the true motivations of Musk, it is apparent that all his enterprises are focused on the hope of creating a better world for mankind and he seem to be genuinely devoted to his causes. Yet only a handful of people, albeit a staunchly loyal group, sing praises about his efforts.

Elon Musk is an example of the type of person I once upon a time wanted to be – someone who dares to confront the somber reality of our world and charge head on to resolve some truly difficult issues. Nothing seem to curb his aspirations, not even when the government of the strongest nation in the world stands in his way. What I admire most about Musk, however, is not his multitude of skills, his depth of intellect nor his fierce determination. It is his ability of witness, tolerate and absorb that much scums of the world and somehow still wants to try and make it a better place.

Nobody is a complete saint, especially those who tries hard to convince you of their virtues. Ashlee Vance tried to paint a 360 degrees view of Elon Musk and included some less agreeable incidents his life. However, Vance’s admiration of Musk did seep through a little, thus those unpleasant episodes are not delved into deeply enough to reveal the less angelic aspects of Musk.

I am glad I read this book – I’m not normally a fan of biographies, but Elon Musk truly is a notch above many billionaires. I believe the world can certainly do with more children/ young adults learning from his world betterment and enterprising spirit.

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Book Reviews Mental Health

Book Review: Unbearable Lightness

Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain

Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Porshe…” He cried harder. As he inhaled to say what he was leading up to say, his breath caught, making short staccato sounds. “You’re gonna die.”

Prior to this book, I knew little about Portia de Rossi. She was cast in Ally McBeal years ago as a very attractive and intelligent lawyer. She is married to Ellen DeGeneres and the two of them seem to be a rare example of Hollywood marriage gone right. I understand that anorexia is a very serious mental condition, however, reading the internalisation of a woman with this disorder is still rather confronting for me.

“I didn’t decide to become anorexic. It snuck up on me disguised as a healthy diet, a professional attitude.”

It is disturbing to me that so many mental disorder can be attributed to the lack of self esteem or a childhood where one is unable to feel unconditional love. Portia de Rossi, in spite of having a reasonably functional family, is terrified of losing their love and affection because of her sexual orientation. She punishes her body thinking that only through extraordinary pain and suffering would she deserve the rightful success of a model and actress.

Portia’s voice behind her binge and purge pattern strangely reminded me of the thoughts of Ronda Rousey whilst struggling with a different kind of weight (and self esteem) issues. Rousey, in contrast, is a elite competitive athlete. Both women viewed food as such kind of violent sin that leads to a self destruction and a total obliteration of love in their live.

The book is a short and easy read, but tilts heavily on her downfall and in my opinion not quite enough on her recovery. I would have liked to read more about how she defeated or tamed those voices in her head. Nonetheless, in a superficial world where a severe condition such as an eating disorder can be dissed and mocked as a ‘first world problem’, it is incredibly brave of Portia de Rossi to write and publish such intimate details of her journey. 5 stars for courage.

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