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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 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: 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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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 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 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 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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Book Review: Empress Orchi

Empress Orchid (Empress Orchid, #1)

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


“My sorrow for Hsien Feng and my country was beyond expression.”

This is a unique work of fiction. Empress Orchid defies all popular sentiments of Empress Dowager Cixi by depicting her as an almost regular woman who was driven to what she did through mere necessity. Initially, she applied for the position to become one of the many wives of Emperor Hsien Feng only to prevent her uncle from selling her. She acquired the art of seduction to please her Emperor to avoid being left in isolation her whole life. She ousted the men in power after Emperor Hsien Feng’s death to prevent them from killing her first. Creative as this point of view may be, it is utterly unconvincing that Orchid could be innocent and helpless to her circumstances yet able to climb up to the absolute top of China in an era when a woman’s opinion did not matter.

I have no doubt Empress Cixi was not born a scheming and malicious person. However, I cannot be sold on the idea that she survived and thrived without actively scheming to pre-empt her opponents, taking them down ruthlessly. Nonetheless, I am grateful that Anchee Min is able to present this enigmatic character in a different light, even if its sole purpose was to oppose the conventions of Chinese blaming the downfall of it’s Imperial Dynasty on one woman.

“This was my first time entering the heavenly ground after the foreigners has assaulted it. Lord Elgin was three hours late. He entered with two thousand men in a display of pomp. He rode in a crimson palanquin borne by sixteen men, knowing that this privilege was reserved only for the Emperor of China. I made an effort to be gracious, although I was disgusted beyond description. I bowed slightly and shook Elgin’s hands in the Chinese style. I struggled and succeeded in keeping my emotions from spilling.”

Through this book I also gained a very personal insight to the humiliation felt by the Manchurians and Chinese alike at the cusp of foreign invasion. Emperor Hsien Feng was slowly but surely losing the North of the country to the Russians. The looting of the Summer Palace by the British and French forces in 1860 devastate the Emperor so much his health deteriorated rapidly after. Like many rulers before him, they viewed non-Chinese as inferior and barbaric. To have them taking their country bit by bit is not merely mortifying, but leaves behind a painful mark that will not be erased for generations after.

Fast-forward 159 years later, China had risen in the contemporary era able to swallow up whole most nations in this world and go head to head with the present day superpower. Whilst there is much criticism on Chinese (and American) behaviour, only when one peeks into the past will they be able to comprehend China’s thirst for showing the world what it is capable of.

The book flows reasonably well, especially considering the challenges of describing ancient Chinese philosophy, practises and customs in English. I hope this book provokes interest in the understanding of the stupendous fall and rise of China over the past century and a half.




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Book Review: My Fight Your Fight Ronda Rousey

My Fight / Your Fight

My Fight / Your Fight by Ronda Rousey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book was surprisingly easy to read, especially considering that I read it post downfall of Ronda Rousey’s UFC career.

Ronda Rousey, a stupendous athlete known for her outspokenness, confidence and incredible martial arts prowess wrote and published this autobiography, subtitled “The Undefeated UFC Champion” right before her subsequent devastating back-to-back losses to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes. The book is broken down into small easy-to-digest morsels, arranged loosely in a chronological manner from her childhood to the climax of her UFC career. I was once perhaps, 1/200th of the athlete that Ronda Rousey was, hence I could relate to the sufferings she endured as a woman athlete – from something that seem mundane like wardrobe malfunction in a fight to weight and body image issues. Unlike Rousey, losses in matches was something that came like second nature to me. Thus I had first imaged it will be hard for me to go indepth into the mindset of a winner, albeit a deserving one, right before she suffered crushing losses.

Like many other Rousey fans/critics, I am unimpressed by the manner in which she handles her losses. It isn’t simply because she avoids talking about it, but that she never particularly acknowledges and give due respect to the sufferings her opponents may have to endured before taking her position. However, this book reminded me why Ronda Rousey is Ronda Rousey, what she did for women in combat sports and why I believe, despite the subsequent events, she is worthy of the glory she earned.

What I had not expect was how it gave me insight to why she remains a sore loser, nearly 4 years after she was knocked out by Holly Holm right before my eyes here in Melbourne. Before I’d even flip to page 1, there it was, those words that haunted me for a bit:

“For Mom and Dad, I hope you’re proud of me.”

When a human being defies so much of history and social expectations and dominates in an arena never dominated by any other person of the same gender before, she would stand on top of the world and utters how she hopes her parents are proud of her.

On that same note, I hope that whatever she chooses for now or in future that Ronda Rousey will feel enough pride for Ronda Rousey and never require the validation of any other human being, genetically related or not.





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Book Review: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


“The devil is in the details, they say. A book this size has a lot of devils, any one of which will bite you if you don’t watch out.”

Disclaimer: I read this book with the hindsight of having watch the current 7 series on telly. Regardless, the knowledge of what is to come did not diminish the pleasure of reading this masterpiece at all. In fact, it served to reiterate what a momentous effort it must have been to create an epic story of this proportion.

I feel it is unwise to label this book as ‘fantasy’. The brilliance of this novel for me lies in the variety and complexity of characters interwoven with an even more complicated plot. George R.R. Martin’s inventiveness and grasp of history, religion, language even fashion is downright mind-blowing. The schemes and battles of the seven kingdoms resembles many stories in the real world, both past and present. Who is to say that the use of advance technology that is common in one nation can be depicted as witch craft in a less developed country? Should the schemes of our G7/G8/G10 nations be told from a different point of view, it may well sound like a fantasy too.

The novel also touches upon a large number of perennial subject matters, such as ambition, greed, sibling rivalries, failure and growth, class distinction and even the psychology of unequal parental love. The stark contrast between the two (Stark) sisters – Sansa and Arya is depicted splendidly. The two girls not only represents common sibling rivalry but also symbolises the conflict of two very different females and their place in society.

There was a guilty pleasure in devouring this book within a few days when I considered the years it must have taken to write it. Now I am hungering for more.



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