Five Star Billionaire: Tash Aw

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Five Malaysians in Shanghai.  Related in some ways but then very different in others.  The story is about how their lives intersect and take dramatic turns.  It is a fast paced book that covers a wide horizon of society.  What stands out is the difference in the lifestyles of characters who come from really diverse backgrounds.  However, that is also the weakest point of the book too – as many of the characters – Jerry, Justin and to an extent Phoebe – go through a similar crisis and face the same effects.  So there is the element of predictability and repetition.  The writing is good, not exceptional, and the repetition of thoughts and words gets a little tiresome.  I suppose I was expecting more; Tash Aw had been one of the biggest draws of Writers and Readers festival in Ubud, Bali.

Recommendation: Don’t bother.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North: Richard Flanagan

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The Booker winner of 2014.  Richard attended the Writers and Readers festival in Ubud, Bali and spoke about it.  It sounded semi-interesting like most and then it went on to win the Booker (and I am sure making him a rich celebrity overnight).  The verdict: It deserves the Booker.  The Narrow Road traces the fate of Australians POWs who were tasked to build a railway line in Siam in WWII, amongst terrible conditions: diseases, atrocities and little food.  The story is strong, the scenes of disease, filth and beatings stark.  Takes courage and skills to write explicitly and precisely about those times.  The side story of Dr. Dorrigo Evans’ lost love functions well too.  The book bounces back and forth from the past to the present a number of times but the writing is so precise and all the sub-plots so interesting that it does not jar at all.  If anything, it adds to the charm of the book.  The only blemish, in my view, is the last seventy odd pages.  What happened to the Japanese oppressors and their life stories after the end of the war are neither interesting nor satisfying.  A summary description of their fate would have probably worked better.

Recommendation: A must read.