Tag Archives: England

Tash Aw, Five Star Billionnaire


A number of Malaysians seek fortune in China. They all go about it in different ways, with differing definitions of fortune, success, and happiness. We follow them through a number of challenges and we see how they resolve the problems they are faced with. These characters are complex and not always likeable, but I enjoyed finding out what the future held for them.

Take Phoebe, for example.  A young uneducated woman from a small village, she is an illegal in China, using a stolen identity card. She studies self-help books and the Internet to guide her in how to act and dress to seek fortune in China, and especially to find a rich husband. She goes from dressing provocatively (“like a prostitute”) in order to catch a rich man to adopting the demeanor of a young business woman (and is henceforth ashamed of formerly having followed the wrong advice about attire). After a number of encounters with men who do not meet her criteria, she meets a young businessman in a cafe. She has with her a “good quality” counterfeit Louis Vuitton bag, which the young man disappears with when her back is turned. Her luck seems to turn when she meets Walter but there may be some surprises in store.

And don’t believe that Phoebe gets manipulated only because of her lack of education… An experienced business woman with an English university education enters into a business deal with the same Walter only to find out he siphons off the funds she has just borrowed from the bank to purchase a large derelict building they are planning to repurpose in Shanghai.

And no, it’s not only women that meet these misfortunes…

So, there is quite a lot of fun to be had following the meanders of this novel, where chapter titles read like business advice.


Aw, Tash. Five Star Billionnaire. Penguin Canada, 2013.

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Clár Ní Chonghaile, Fractured


A young, but experienced, investigative journalist is captured by a group of bandits in Mogadishu, Somalia. The group is hoping to sell him to an Islamist group that control parts of Somalia, assuming a good ransom can be obtained from his employer or family.

The story of what got him there and what happens following the kidnapping is told from three points of view, those of the journalist, of a Somali teenager who guards him, and of the journalist’s mother.

What characterizes this book is the careful exploration of the web of human relationships that affect one’s sense of self. This is done for all three characters whose point of view is shared. Parents, siblings, extended family, partners and strangers are part of that web. In the complex relationships we develop with the people that surround us on a daily basis or that we meet in fleeting encounters, we get a sense of who we are by contrast with what we see of them and through our responses to them.

Some of these relationships are somewhat harmonious and continuous; others are “fractured” or contain fault lines that make them more fragile or more treacherous to negotiate. If we superimpose those “fractured” relationships to a “fractured” society such as Somalia, we get the rich material that this novel is made of.

Some aspects of this book, especially the description of the conditions of detention and of the contacts with the kidnappers was reminiscent of Amanda Lindhout’s memoir A House in the Sky with some important differences, given the single point of view of the memoir, the much longer detention and the torture Ms. Lindhout was subjected to.



Ní Chonghaile, Clár. Fractured. Legend Press, London, UK, 2016.

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Charles Dickens, Great Expectations


Nothing dusty or old about this classic… so many themes are quite relevant and it does say a lot about human nature. What I most loved about it where the complex quirky characters.

The main character, Pip, is a young orphan who was taken in by his older sister and her husband who is a blacksmith. The sister and her friends keep talking about how fortunate he is that she “brought him up by hand”. The expression is never explained and Pip keeps wondering what he should be grateful for, the sister being as unsisterly as you can think of. Some folks interpret this expression as a reference to corporeal punishment, others as taking personal responsibility for his upbringing. The way Dickens manages this expression, repeating in frequently and in sometimes incongruous situation does contribute to make the description of the household life quite humorous. The same goes for other descriptions of the sister’s violent temper (she goes on the Rampage, yes, with a capital R).

Through some twists of fortune, Pip is brought to London, gets a bit more of an education and has sufficient money to waster a lot of it, all the while trying to become somebody, and fulfilling his Great Expectations, but feeling at the same time unmoored. He is enamoured of a young woman met when he was very young who does not share the feeling, assumes that she was put on his path consciously by someone with the design they should get married, and also assumes that the unnamed benefactor is a strange woman from his hometown call Miss Havisham who is the young lady’s adoptive mother. We learn later in the story that nothing of the sort was engineered.

As for Miss Havisham, she is an older lady who was left at the altar by a runaway groom and never subsequently got out of her wedding dress. She is essentially hiding in her childhood home, with heavy drapes blocking windows so she never sees daylight. Her yellowing dress makes her a grotesque figure and the cobweb covered wedding cake that has been left on the table all these years is a quite revolting picture. Miss Havisham is surrounded by a lot of other people whose role or expectations of their relationship with her is never really explained although it looks to me an expectation of inheritance is involved, expect for her adoptive daughter Estella. When we first encounter Estella, I thought she was  a maid and it took me a long time to realize that she was a daughter. I don’t know if that was intentional on Dickens part or if I am just slow. A second, closer, reading might be called for.

Wemmick is a clerk to the lawyer who is the intermediary between Pip and his benefactor. He is a serious young man, very focused and disciplined at work. He befriends him and invites to visit his home. That home has two rather unusual features. First, it is surrounded by a moat. Second, there is a gun on the roof that is fired daily. Wemmick lives with his elderly father to whom he refers to as “Aged Parent” or “Aged P”. The father is quite deaf but he claims to hear the gun (most likely he feels the vibrations). Wemmick becomes a sort of confidant to Pip but insists that anything that might be shared when they are at home should not be discussed at his office, Dickens’ version of the Vegas rule. The extent of their friendship thus remains unknown to the lawyer.

There are many interesting plot twists as well. What was most appealing is how Pip kept making assumptions that turn out to be wrong and being both surprised and disappointed by what he eventually finds out.

This is the first Dickens novel I actually manage to read from cover to cover. In earlier attempts I had found the language too difficult, especially the dialogue. This will certainly encourage me to read more as I am greatly interested in Victorian England. In fact, I just bought a book by Judith Flanders, a social historian who writes about life in the Victorian era. That is bound to be a nice complement to Dickens.



Friday Night Ramblings: Can’t go to the gym so I might as well write something


I had minor surgery on Wednesday and I have to take it easy for a couple of days, so the usually Friday night at the gym is out. So let me tell you about what I’ve currently got in process and what I’m thinking of reading next (mind you keep in mind that I am easily distracted by new ideas and what is to be read next keeps changing quite rapidly but I still like thinking about it).

I made a commitment to myself to read some Dickens this year. I had taken a stab at book such as Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities when I was younger and my English was not so good, and I found I had little patience to wade through the dialogues. In general, my knowledge of English is quite good now and my tolerance for dialogue written in the vernacular has certainly gone up. So I am about one-fifth into Great Expectations and I am quite enjoying it. I am looking forward to the way in which Pip is going to evolve as he grows up. At the point where I am in the book, he is living with his sister and her husband who took him in as he was an orphan. He was invited to “play” at the home of an eccentric woman, Miss Havisham, and I wonder where this is going. There are all sorts of ways in which this could turn really weird…

In parallel, I am reading the third and latest novel by Ildefonso Falcones, La reina descalza, published in 2013. Falcones made his name with is first book, La cathedral del mar (The Cathedral of the Sea), which was quite a bestseller in Spain when it came out in 2006. I had picked up that book while browsing in a bookstore in Madrid on the tail end of a business trip. Falcones is a Barcelona-based lawyer with four children who writes big, thick historical novels in his spare time. La reina descalza focuses on the lives of gypsies in 18th century Spain. One of the main characters, Caridad, is a freed African slave that somehow came from Cuba to Sevilla and comes under the protection of an old gypsy man. The storytelling is quite smooth and this is an easy, fun read, not too challenging, although I do need to resort to the dictionary once in a while.

I have another stack of books I have been reading and put aside and I am just waiting for inspiration to get back into them. And then there are the stack of books on the living room window sill.

  • Mort-terrain by Biz: Biz is the rap singer who leads the band Loco Locass, who are quite well-known in Québec. The story is set in a mining town. Of course, I definitely have to read that.
  • Sous l’arche du temps by Hélène Dorion : this is a series of essays and interviews with my favorite Québec poet. I read it in small chunks. I am also reading through the large volume of her collected works from 1983 to 2000 and I have never written about that. Her poetry is just gut-wrenching.
  • Un été avec Montaigne d’Antoine Compagnon: I love Antoine Compagnon, the no-nonsense literature professor from the Collège de France. His inaugural lecture at the Collège de France was about why we should read… Un été avec Montaigne is a series of commentary about Montaigne’s Essays that were originally written for a summer radio series for France Inter. I am not sure I would have the patience to read Montaigne but which such an introduction to his work, who knows?
  • Le départ des musiciens by P.O. Enquist: I have to get into the next one, don’t I?
  • I still have some Giller Prize-related reading to do: The 2013 Giller Prize winner, Hell Going, by Lynn Coady, and well as the Dan Vyleta novel who was on the short list. Officially, I bought them as a present for my husband, so he gets to read them first. So he read the Coady and he quite liked it although, like me, he is not much of a short story reader. He preferred her novel The Antagonist, and I seem to remember it was about hockey, which would be timely given we are in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
  • I also have a volume of the complete tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe sitting on my desk. It is an old musty-smelling book. It has an inscription on the first page, “To Alex, Best Wishes, from Tsia, Xmas 1944”. From one of my husband’s aunts to her sister… Both dead now, but I was lucky enough to know them in their last years. They never married, remained independent, lived together their whole lives, loved travelling, and of course, loved reading.

Ann Ward Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho


I was drawn to reading this book after reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey where the female characters are enthralled by it and compare it to other perfectly “horrid” books, other gothic novels that they are reading. Udolpho consists of four volumes that download as one book from the Gutenberg Project and they took me 27 hours to read. It took me a long time to read the first half but for the last half I could not put my Kobo down and read it all in the past week. It’s a wonder I did not miss my stop on the metro and only miss the bus stop at home once.

To the extent that the book is a true reflection of life at the time in which the story is set (late 16th century, two hundred years earlier than the time of publication), it shows an interesting picture of the lack of independence afforded to women as long as they had parents or family appointed as guardians. The book only shows the heroine, Emily, as an independent young women quite capable of taking her own decisions (in spite of a strong propensity to faint) once her guardians have died. She can then take possession of the properties that were already in her name and settle where she wants.

And the whole drama of the book starts from this very dependence. After her parents’ death, Emily becomes the ward of her aunt, Madame Cheron, a wealthy widow, if I remember well. The aunt then proceeds to make an ill-advised marriage to an Italian noble, Montoni, who soon insist that they return to his home in Venice. It turns out that he is a gambler who has lost of fortune and married Madame Cheron for her money. He also attempts to marry Emily to some associates of his in order to gain access to their riches. When some of his plans fall through, he removes his establishment to the remote castle of Udolpho in the Appenines. Emily’s vows then become more severe as she is a virtual prisoner at the castle and has to see her aunt die as a result of Montoni’s mistreatment of her.

After some additional difficulties, Emily manages to escape and find her way back to France where she hopes to reunite with the man she had vowed to marry, whom she had met while her father was still alive. At the time that they meet, she learns that he had fallen victim to a number of vices, one of them gambling, and she concludes that he is no longer worthy of associating with her. This was in part due to a series of misunderstanding. In the end, this misunderstanding is resolved, and many mysteries encountered along the way (ghostly apparitions, strange musical phenomena, disappearances, and uncanny resemblances) are  all logically explained and Emily marries the love of her life and settles in the old home where she grew up to live comfortably and happily.

The novel features many trips on land and water, through difficult mountainous terrain where travelers are constantly threaten by the dangers of the landscape and the possible presence of criminals. The descriptions of the majesty of various locations (the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Appenines) are very vivid and provide a perfect backdrop to the adventures of the many lovable characters that Radcliffe develops in this book.

The author also describes in minute details the emotions and physical reactions of the main characters as they work through the elation of young love, the disappointments of perceived betrayals, and the many fearful moments they encounter throughout the novel.

This book was indeed very entertaining and I would very much like to read other books by Ann Radcliffe, if I don’t get buried by a mountain of unread books that threaten to topple over me as I write this note.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: Definitely worth re-reading


Or is that my memory is failing me so that the pleasure is the same as the first time because I hardly remembered it? I read it about twenty years ago when I was living in North Carolina. I remember where I bought the book (the Duke University Bookstore in the Bryan Cente; oh, I loved that place).

Be that as it may, I got to the famous “Reader, I married him” as if that was the ultimate goal all along. However, Jane seems to have had so many goals to conquer that true happiness surely did not depend only on marriage? But as one of my previous posts talked about, women’s choices were quite restricted in those days. Brontë tries to challenge some of the restrictions with this novel by having Jane make some choices quite on her own: leaving Lowood to become a governess, leaving Thornfield with no money, proposing to St. John that she accompany him as a missionary without them getting married, which quite appall him. Two young unmarried people could not set out to go half way around the planet then… in some circles, it is now normal to do so.

In The Fiction of Relationship MOOC, it is also suggested that Brontë takes on the beauty industry by putting forth a heroine who is repeatedly described as not being pretty, as possessing no beauty, and as surely not having any power of attraction. That she is obviously appreciated by others, and even loved, seems to defy the equation of “beautiful” to “lovable”. But even making that possible seems to require retirement from the world in an isolated manorhouse, surrounded by woods so thick that they absorb sound rather than carry it. Must one live in seclusion in order to be different and to free oneself from social expectations?

There are so many other themes to discover through reading Jane Eyre, I certainly recommend it.



Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 2nd edition. Originally published in 1897. Downloaded from the Gutenberg Project.

Jane Eyre: Restricted choices for women in the 19th century



I love reading 19th century English literature, the detailed description of the life of minor gentry, budding cities, country lanes… but I am always disturbed by the plight of women in those days, assuming fiction provides a faithful depiction of it. There were so few choices available to them. For many families, marriage is a matter of economics or political alliance. Young women with no fortune may become nuns, or governesses, or remain as a dependent of a more fortunate relative. Not to speak of orphans… of which there may have been a lot given the state of medical knowledge at the time and the prevalence of death in childbirth for women.

Jane Eyre is an orphan. Both her parents died when she was young and she was left in the care of an uncle, brother of her mother. While her family had shunned the mother for marrying a poor clergyman (too low for her in their opinion), the brother dearly loved his sister and maintained contact with her. Unfortunately, this uncle also died young and his wife resented having to bring up this orphan as one of hers. The way in which she treated Jane for the years she remained under her care could be qualified as child abuse: constant accusation of lying and misbehaving even in the absence of proof, and frequent physical punishment or confinement. At the age of ten, Jane is sent to a school for poor children and is left there even during holidays. At the age of eighteen, with some basic education, Jane seeks a position as a governess.

Once a governess, what are the options for the future? Going from family to family as children age, or maybe marrying? In Jane Eyre’s case, she and the gentleman who employs her mutually fall in love and there are no close relative to counteract their plans. Well, of course, the matter of the mad first wife does eventually come out…

Jane Eyre as a little girl


I started reading Jane Eyre again and it struck me that in the first part, where she tells her story as a 10-year old girl, that the maturity displayed by the character in her depiction of her surroundings and of the people she encounters is beyond her years. The tone of the narrative voice hardly changes when we meet her again as an eighteen year-old who is ready to leave the Lowood Institution and who gets a position as a governess.

She does sound very much like a child in the severity of the judgment she casts on others and the impulsiveness of her reactions and rages. However, she uses an incredible amount of detail to describe her aunt and cousins, the maids at her aunt’s house, Brockelhurst who runs Lowood, as well as the teachers there. She also relates or contrasts their appearance to their character and seems to notice all this at a glance.

The way in which she adapts to her new circumstances shows an incredible resilience to change and a strong will to make the best of the chances she is given.

I am greatly enjoying rereading this book and I nearly missed getting out at the right metro station at least three times this week because I was totally engrossed in the book.

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey and other things


The week before last, I watched the BBC TV series version of Sense and Sensibility with my sister (the version with Hattie Morahan). My sister was going on about how much better this version was compared with the Hollywood version, which I remembered quite favorably. So, when I returned home at the beginning of last week, I set out to watch said Hollywood version all over. I still like it but there are certain aspects for which the BBC version is superior, such as the casting for Elinor. As much as I like Emma Thompson, she does look too old for the part, compared with Hattie Morahan. And Alan Rickman looks too gloomy even for Colonel Brandon; I much preferred David Morrissey. However, Willoughby in the BBC version is downright creepy and that does not quite work for me.

There were differences between the two versions that I will have to double-check against the book, such as the existence of an extra Steele sister. I have never read the book and it’s about time I do.

So, as I was in a Jane Austen kind of mood and since I did have some of her works on my Kobo (but not Sense and Sensibility), I started reading Northanger Abbey. It is interesting that the behaviors that Emma Thompson highlights in her commentary to Sense and Sensibility, that is the relative lack of status of women, their being left to wait to be noticed by men, and their lack of choices regarding their own futures, are very much present in Northanger Abbey. It may also be the case that I paid so much more attention because of her comments. The main character, Catherine Morland, describes herself as a reformed tomboy. At the age at which we meet her, she is quite ladylike and given to fret about her dress and beaux. Friends of the family, the Allens, offer to take her to Bath to enjoy the social scene and her parents agree she should go. Her brother goes as well. After some time spent without meeting familiar faces, the Allens encounter acquaintances, the Thorpes. Young Isabella Thorpe becomes friend and confident to Catherine. She had previously met Catherine’s brother James and renews this connection which eventually leads to their getting engaged. While in Bath, Catherine meets the Tilneys and becomes attached to Henry, the younger Tilney son. The father, quite impressed with the young lady, invites her to his country estate, Northanger Abbey, and she gladly accepts. Following a misunderstanding regarding her fortune (or lack of it), she is sent home. Henry’s stubbornness is instrumental in resolving the misunderstanding and they eventually marry.

The book is also a parody of gothic novels. Catherine has a preconceived notion of what an abbey should look like based on reading gothic novels so she quite expects something dark and frightening. Henry Tilney plays on her fears by describing his childhood home along the same terms. This leads Catherine to become quite frightened of objects she finds in her room and of the noises she hears at night. However, Austen means these reactions to be comical rather than seek to produce fright in her readers. Another way in which the gothic influence is obvious is in the conclusions made by Catherine about the relationships between Henry Tilney’s parents, when she finds out that the mother died suddenly some years ago. She is given very little information about this and yet, she starts imagining that the husband did not care about his wife and may have murdered her, or that she may still be alive but kept as a prisoner in part of the abbey she was discouraged from visiting. We eventually find out that the mother died from a recurring health problem and that the husband grieved very much for his wife.

A novel which had quite a bit of influence on Catherine is The mysteries of Udolpho by Mrs. Radcliffe. There are repeated references to this book thoughout Northanger Abbey; Cathering and her friend Isabella Thorpe are quite fascinated by it. I did find a copy of it on the web; it will be interesting to see if the book corresponds to the image I have of it based on Jane Austen’s description.

There is also a great deal of discussion of reading as a pastime. Novels are at one point described as unworthy of one’s time, as “trash”. Austen also refers to novelists as writers of low status, about whom “there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.” However, they also lead to people connecting based on similar interest and Austen has her narrator state that she cannot approve of novelists putting down the act of reading novels and refraining from showing their heroine enjoying “some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” So whereas, the heroines of Sense and Sensibility are entranced by the reading of poetry and the images of romantic love and its raptures, those of Northanger Abbey are fascinated by novels and the horrors portrayed by the gothic genre.


Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. First published in 1803. Web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling


I enjoyed reading this book. It was quite close to what I was expecting, a decent easy read with a good plot and some humor in spite of the dramatic aspects of the plot. It describes some aspects of life in a fictional small town in South Western England and the events that follow the death of a local parish councillor (the parish council in this context being like what I would think of as a city council). The book was rather long and took me about 21 hours to read (thanks to Kobo for tracking reading time). As I did not expect in depth social analysis, I don’t have the same kind of disappointment that other reviewers have told about.

I would have like to see the resolution of more the plot lines. We are left to wonder about what is going to happen to many of the characters at the end of the book. Mind you that is a good way to leave readers thinking and imagining their own endings, and maybe it leaves room to publish a sequel. So let me speculate about possible sequels.

Sequel Number 1:

The Price family moves to Reading and Simon continues to bully and mistreat all family members. One day, he hits Ruth really hard and she ends up in the hospital brain damaged. Paul, the youngest son, trips his father at the top of the stairs and the fall is fatal. Andrew moves to London to be closer to Gaia and his mother shares a flat with Gaia’s mother, Kay the social worker. Gaia and Andrew have stayed friends with Sukhvinder in Pagford. The Jawanda family is also undergoing some changes. Parminder regains her licence to practice medicine but also volunteers at the drug clinic. Vikram leaves his wife and is being ostracized by the Sikh community. He remarries with a young English nurse who has young children. While spending time with her father’s new family, Sukhvinder discovers that she has a knack for taking care of young children and decides to become a teacher. This new found purpose in life enables her to better cope with her learning disabilities. This sequel will describe the trials of Paul with the youth justice system, Ruth’s challenges with rehabilitation, Vikram’s attempt to be accepted in a conservative English family, and Sukhvinder’s delights at finding fulfillment in her studies and her work.

Sequel Number 2:

Fifteen years later, in Pagford, a council member discovers that some illegal activities of former council members. He decides to research these activities which lead him to interview a number of retire council members, some of which are still living independently, some of which are in retirement homes and some of which are in long-term suffering from various ailments and senility. Lexie and Libby Mollison, granddaughters of Howard Mollison, one of the suspects in this affair, are outraged at the allegations and try their best to derail the investigation. A local tax fraud investigator is involved. Given that he had grown up in the Fields and currently lives in Yarvil, we eventually find out that his family was involved in these illegal activities as well. His young wife is a doctor and a friend of the Jawandas. She is also a cousin of Gavin Hugues, Miles Mollison law partner. These multiple linkages lead to a serious case of conflict of interest and significant turmoil in the small town, which leads us to discover more of its small business owners and the variety of parochial interests they try to defend.

Sequel Number 3:

Fats Wall suffers from chronic depression and struggles to maintain his sanity. His difficulties in life have nevertheless led him to become an acclaimed novelist and he shares his time between Pagford where his adoptive parents remain, the south of France where he has located his birth father and the beaches of Thailand. While in Thailand, he is instrumental in bringing down a network of pimps providing children for the sex tourism trade. This has put his life in danger. He manages to make his way from Phi Phi to Bangkok and to fly back to the UK, where he finds out that his parents have received threats. He contacts the police who organize the protection of his parents in Pagford and takes refuge with Andrew and Gaia who are now married and living in Scotland. The same people who threatened his parents locate him in Scotland and the chase takes us through some of the most picturesque locales in the region. Scotch smugglers ultimately Fats escape, the police catches the bad guys and everyone returns to their quiet life which Fats starts his next book tour.

I could go on because I also wonder about what might happen with the Mollison’s lesbian daughter, Patricia, as well as Gavin, Colin and Tessa Wall, Miles and Samantha Mollison, Terri Weedon, and of course, Mary Fairbrother and her children.



Rowling, J.K. The Casual Vacancy. Little Brown, New York and London: 2012.