Archive for the Category ◊ Book Reviews ◊

• Friday, April 26th, 2019

Selina Siak Chin Yoke was born into a Malayan-Chinese family in Singapore, which at the time was part of Malaya, becoming Malaysia in 1963. In 1979 Selina was sent to study at a boarding school in Kent, England with some of her school friends. She later studied physics at Southampton University, obtaining a PhD scholarship.

With her degrees in hand she worked for the Atlas Research Fellowship at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, followed by investment banking at Goldman Sachs in London. After her brain cancer, she changed to quantitative trading before dedicating herself full-time to writing. Selina Siak Chin Yoke presently lives in London, England.

Having undergone two major operations – brain cancer in 2009 followed by breast cancer, Selina felt apathetic for a while until she remembered an old dream about writing a story, vaguely influenced by the life of her Nyonya great-grandmother, Chua Paik Choo, to whose memory “The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds” is dedicated. A book that helped Selina Siak to re-discover her roots, she says.

Following the success of her first novel, published in 2016, Selina Siak published her second book “When The Future Comes So Soon” in 2017. It is assigned to her maternal grandmother, Chang Kim Eng, “whose experiences served as the inspiration for this story” Selina says.

“When The Future Comes Too Soon” is a new addition to the Malayan series but can be read as an independent, self-sufficient novel. It follows the middle-class Wong family during three and a half years of the second world war and the Japanese occupation of Malaya, through the life of Mei Foong, Weng Yu’s wife and Chye Hoon’s first daughter-in-law.

The matriarch, Chye Hoon, dies on the eve of the second world war, leaving her family to fend for themselves. Mei Foong is five months pregnant with her fifth child when the British colonisers flee Malaya followed by the Japanese invasion of the country. She struggles to feed her family and make ends meet due to galloping inflation and scarcity during this bleak period of the second world war.

The main character, Mei Foong, is a Malayan-Chinese woman who narrates the story from her viewpoint. She is a strong, intelligent, resilient woman who, due to circumstances, discovers her inner strength. She can take challenges and undergo hardship to survive and keep her family together.

She is a likeable person – illustrated on the book’s front cover – a determined look on her face, despite the Japanese warplanes in the background, as opposed to her husband, an unlikeable, unsympathetic, selfish character. He is cruel to his wife, making it easy for her to be attracted to Chew Hock San, who shows her more attention, appreciation and sympathy.

Mei Foong, although raised in an upper-middle-class family, is resourceful when things get tough, hence her resentment for her aggrieved and faint-hearted husband, Weng Yu, and her loss of all esteem for him. Weng Yu cannot accept the situation his country is confronting and refuses to accept the challenge he finds himself facing overnight after leading a carefree life. He spends his time listening to classical music and gambling, leaving his wife to fend for herself and her family on her own.

In her first novel: “The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds” the author describes an enchanting journey of myths as well as long-established traditions that have continued for many generations in this part of the world. It is a culture where grandmothers tell their grandchildren bewitching tales of genies and fearsome warriors with magic swords. One of the main themes is the emphasis on the importance of protecting one’s own cultural identity and traditions from fading away through time in a changing world.

The book also depicts the vibrant, colourful food as an integral part of the story and is one of its essential themes: the frying of garlic, the toasting of dried shrimp paste mixed with chopped chillies producing “a pungent aroma in the air” and the making of different kinds of pickles and the varieties of Malayan kueh (cakes).

In her second novel: “When The Future Comes Too Soon”, Selina Siak uses a faster pace compared to her first book. This is owing to the seriousness of the subject (world war two) she is tackling, i.e. the harshness and brutality of humans towards each other during wars and invasions and in particular, the savage behaviour the Japanese inflicted on the Malayans – abandoned by their British ruler – bringing pain and misery on harmless, defenceless people.

Other themes in the novel are love, loyalty, betrayal and regrets as well as the difficulty for some marriages to survive under rough conditions and unexpected afflictions.

Selina Siak said: “In writing historical fiction, historical accuracy is vital to me”. Therefore, the author had to undertake thorough research. “She cross-checked facts and used a mix of sources: archives, libraries, the Internet, anecdotes from interviews and subject experts. she also reflects the world as it was in her stories”.

“When The Future Comes So Soon” is a compelling, skilfully written book with a great deal of intense feeling. It is about being taken by surprise when the future arrives faster than expected, creating confusion and devastation by upsetting the daily routine once lived in peace.

The characters are vividly portrayed; thus we commiserate with their misfortune, suffering and endeavours to survive the brutal Japanese occupation, each one in her or his own way.

• Friday, February 22nd, 2019

Amor Towles was born in 1964 and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. He graduated from Yale College and obtained an MA in English from Stanford University. After working for twenty years as an investment banker, he now lives with his wife and teenage son and daughter in Manhattan, New York and dedicates his time entirely to writing. Towles once said: “If I do not write anything valid before my fifties, my life will be a failure”. So he started writing his first novel at the beginning of the millennium.

Amor Towles’ second novel, “A Gentleman In Moscow”, is a historical fiction published in 2016. It has been translated into several languages including Russian and was named one of the best books of 2016 by many American newspapers.

Before writing his novel, Towles stayed at the Metropol hotel in Moscow, where the staff allowed him to explore all the hidden corners of the building as well as the most lavish rooms, which helped his research, enabling him to describe everything in the hotel in detail. The hardback edition of “A Gentleman In Moscow” is exhibited in the lobby bar of the Metropol.

The novel starts in June 1922, shortly after the 1917 Russian revolution and ends in 1954. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who is thirty-two years old in 1922, is escorted through the gates of the Kremlin into Red Square in the centre of Moscow and back to the Grand Hotel Metropol, where he resides and has his daily routine. When questioned by the Bolshevik tribunal he is found to be an irredeemable aristocrat with moral values which, if shared, will be a threat to the public.

The Bolshevik tribunal consequently sentences him to lifetime confinement in the Hotel Metropol, a few meters away from the Kremlin and opposite the famous Bolshoi theatre. The constraint is not back to his former luxury suite but to a small, spartan maid’s room with a tiny single attic window on the sixth floor. He is told that if he ventures out of the hotel, he will be shot.

The Count, who is a prototypical Russian aristocrat, has been spared a death sentence or prison by the court, like others of his class, because he has high ranking friends. The other reason being a poem published under his name in 1913 called: “Where Is It Now”, which was liked by the revolutionaries who considered it to be a call to battle during the pre-revolutionary era.

The story is mostly from Count Rostov’s viewpoint, illustrating how he adapts to all the changes happening around him and contently accepts his fate. He seems able to adjust to his new conditions without harbouring revenge or feeling bitter. He makes friends with the staff of his gilded prison and in spite of the transformation of Russian society under the Soviet regime, Count Rostov maintains all the signs of his upbringing and education and does not depart from his principles. He always stays an honourable integral gentleman. He remains gallant and courteous, even when he becomes a head-waiter at the prestigious Boyarsky restaurant at the Metropol, where in the past he had been a distinguished guest.

Even though most of the events take place over thirty- two years within the four walls of a building with rigid rules and repetitive routines, the reader does not feel claustrophobic. As the narration evolves, the scope broadens with the significant changes occurring inside and outside the hotel as well as the informative footnotes and addenda supplemented by the author throughout the novel.

The narrator also often moves back and forth to the time of the tsar as well as recounting the everyday happenings in the hotel at present under the Bolsheviks who made part of the hotel their headquarters.

Count Rostov’s acquaintances also widen the scope as he comes across the curious and mature nine-year-old girl named Nina Kulikova, who is a guest at the Metropol with her father and who has a skeleton key for all of the hotel’s rooms. She introduces the Count to all the nooks and crannies of the place.

A while later in the story, this friendship with Nina as an adult will change the course of Rostov’s life. There is also the visit of Mishka, Rostov’s poet friend, who informs him about what the Soviet apparatchiks are doing to the country, with their destruction of old monuments, replacing them with new ones as well as their censorship of almost everything.

In this charming, original, atmospheric and elegantly written novel, the colourful cast of characters is fascinating and carefully depicted. There are the chefs, the bartenders, the doormen, the seamstress and there is Nina, Sofia, Mishka, Anna Urbanova and the friendly officer of the communist party.

The author addresses several themes, like the resilience for human survival when faced with hardship. Other topics are courage, love, friendship, the longing for home and parents’ responsibilities and commitments.

The author says: “I generally like to mix glimpses of history with flights of fancy until the reader isn’t exactly sure of what’s real and what isn’t”. He continues: “I was a fan of the 1920s and 1930s, eagerly reading the novels, watching the films and listening to the music of the era”. “I chose to write “A Gentleman in Moscow” because of my long-standing fascination with Russian literature, culture, and history”.