Tag Archives: books set in China

Review : Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi

Book Review of The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of Shanghai by Wang Anyi

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of ShanghaiMy Thoughts after Reading

This literary fiction is translated from a Chinese work. It takes its title from a classic Tang dynasty poem about the tragic love between the Emperor and his favourite concubine.

Right from the opening chapter, the author invites you to step inside the world and relish in every minutiae of Shanghai life. I am amazed at how the author is able to describe so much about everyday things we take for granted, from apartment blocks to pigeons.

I recognised some of the expressions in Chinese. In some ways, I would say the beauty of the language in the original text is lost in translation. I say this because a single word in Chinese, after translation, becomes a three syllable word in English, or a string of words to describe the same context. When the rhythm is lost, the reader can only grasp about 70-80% of the author’s original intent.

This story centres on Wang Qiyao, from a high-schooler all the way to her death decades later. Although she is the main character, this account is narrated from a detached omniscient view. Right to the end, I didn’t really understand her. I felt as if I’ve seen her entire life through frosted glass. People came and went in her life. They seem to be drawn to her, but apart from her beauty, I could not understand why. She lived through the tumultuous times in China history, but the author has skirted round these historical events. We get little hints that it’s going on outside.

Nonetheless, the unhurried pace allows you to immerse completely in every aspect of Shanghai life. 3/5

Goodreads Blurb

Set in post-World War II Shanghai, “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow” follows the adventures of Wang Qiyao, a girl born of the “longtong,” the crowded, labyrinthine alleys of Shanghai’s working-class neighborhoods.

Infatuated with the glitz and glamour of 1940s Hollywood, Wang Qiyao seeks fame in the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant, and this fleeting moment of stardom becomes the pinnacle of her life. During the next four decades, Wang Qiyao indulges in the decadent pleasures of pre-liberation Shanghai, secretly playing mahjong during the antirightist Movement and exchanging lovers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Surviving the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history, Wang Qiyao emerges in the 1980s as a purveyor of “old Shanghai”–a living incarnation of a new, commodified nostalgia that prizes splendor and sophistication–only to become embroiled in a tragedy that echoes the pulpy Hollywood noirs of her youth.

From the violent persecution of communism to the liberalism and openness of the age of reform, this sorrowful tale of old China versus new, of perseverance in the face of adversity, is a timeless rendering of our never-ending quest for transformation and beauty. 

Review : Dragon Mountain by Katie and Kevin Tsang

Middle-grade book review of Dragon Mountain by Katie Tsang

Dragon MountainGoodreads Blurb

Deep within the mountain, a great creature stirred in its sleep. Its eyes rolled back in its head, and its wings jerked wide open…

When 12-year-old Billy Chan finds out his parents are sending him to a summer camp in middle-of-nowhere China he doesn’t know what to expect. There he meets fellow campers Dylan, Charlotte and Ling-Fei and together they stumble upon an age-old secret: four powerful warrior dragons, hidden deep within the mountain behind the camp. They have been trapped since an epic battle with the Dragon of Death and need the children’s help to set them free before terrible evil is unleashed on the earth. Billy and his friends must set off on a dangerous adventure that will take them to the heart of the Dragon Realm. But can they save the dragon and human worlds from destruction?

My Thoughts after Reading

This middle-grade book is about an unexpected twist during a summer camp in China.

Billy would rather be surfing back home in California than endure a summer camp to polish up his Mandarin. He gets teamed up with three other children and on their first activity they venture into forbidden part of the area as a short cut to their destination. They survived an earthquake but to their surprise everyone else at camp did not experience it. One of his team-mates had lost her precious necklace. Returning for it, they discovered the cave of dragons and their adventure began.

If you enjoyed The Golden Compass, you’ll also enjoy this story as they have a similar bonding with their dragons. I liked how the authors had merged Eastern and Western folklores of dragons. I also liked how they gave representation to mixed-race children who grow up having extra expectations heaped on them. But this book did not dwell on the characters that deeply. On the contrary, the children leapt from one crisis to another in this is fast-paced story.

This is one for readers moving on from chapter books. 3/5

Eight Middle Grade Books that Take You to Real Places

Travelling is something we can start dreaming about. Here are eight middle-grade books that take you to locations around the world.

1. Yellowstone Park, North America

Dreaming the BearDreaming the Bear by Mimi Thebo

Goodreads Blurb

“When I get up, there’s nobody home. Even Mum has gone out. The note says, ‘I have to check my emails. I’ll snowmobile to the meltline and be back soon. XX Mummy’.
And I think, ‘Good. I can feed my bear…'”

Darcy’s life was never exactly simple, but it was about to become a lot more complicated.
Recovering from a distressing illness in her parents’ cabin surrounded by looming pine trees, Darcy spends most of her days alone, warming herself by the log fire. That is, until she ventures into the woods hours before a heavy snowstorm, and finds herself face-to-face with a grizzly bear. Their encounter takes a surprising turn when it flourishes into a warm and caring companionship.

Set against the backdrop of the snowy Yellowstone National Park in Montana.

My review

2. Holland

The Wheel on the SchoolThe Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong

Goodreads Blurb

Why do the storks no longer come to the little Dutch fishing village of Shora to nest? It was Lina, one of the six schoolchildren who first asked the question, and she set the others to wondering. And sometimes when you begin to wonder, you begin to make things happen. So the children set out to bring the storks back to Shora. The force of their vision put the whole village to work until at last the dream began to come true.

My review

3. Malawi, Africa

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and HopeThe Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba

Goodreads Blurb

William Kamkwamba was born in Malawi, a country where magic ruled and modern science was mystery. It was also a land withered by drought and hunger, and a place where hope and opportunity were hard to find. But William had read about windmills in a book called Using Energy, and he dreamed of building one that would bring electricity and water to his village and change his life and the lives of those around him. His neighbors may have mocked him and called him misala—crazy—but William was determined to show them what a little grit and ingenuity could do.

Enchanted by the workings of electricity as a boy, William had a goal to study science in Malawi’s top boarding schools. But in 2002, his country was stricken with a famine that left his family’s farm devastated and his parents destitute. Unable to pay the eighty-dollar-a-year tuition for his education, William was forced to drop out and help his family forage for food as thousands across the country starved and died.

Yet William refused to let go of his dreams. With nothing more than a fistful of cornmeal in his stomach, a small pile of once-forgotten science textbooks, and an armory of curiosity and determination, he embarked on a daring plan to bring his family a set of luxuries that only two percent of Malawians could afford and what the West considers a necessity—electricity and running water. Using scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves, William forged a crude yet operable windmill, an unlikely contraption and small miracle that eventually powered four lights, complete with homemade switches and a circuit breaker made from nails and wire. A second machine turned a water pump that could battle the drought and famine that loomed with every season.

Soon, news of William’s magetsi a mphepo—his “electric wind”—spread beyond the borders of his home, and the boy who was once called crazy became an inspiration to those around the world.

Here is the remarkable story about human inventiveness and its power to overcome crippling adversity. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind will inspire anyone who doubts the power of one individual’s ability to change his community and better the lives of those around him.

My review

4. India

Boys Without NamesBoys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth

Goodreads Blurb

For eleven-year-old Gopal and his family, life in their rural Indian village is over: We stay, we starve, his baba has warned. So they must flee to the big city of Mumbai in hopes of finding work and a brighter future. Gopal is eager to help support his struggling family until school starts, so when a stranger approaches him with the promise of a factory job, he jumps at the offer.

But Gopal has been deceived. There is no factory but, instead, a small, stuffy sweatshop, where he and five other boys are forced to make beaded frames for no money and little food. The boys are forbidden to talk or even to call one another by their real names. In this atmosphere of distrust and isolation, locked in a rundown building in an unknown part of the city, Gopal despairs of ever seeing his family again.

Then, late one night when Gopal decides to share kahanis, or stories, he realizes that storytelling might be the boys’ key to holding on to their sense of self and their hope for any kind of future. If he can make them feel more like brothers than enemies, their lives will be more bearable in the shop—and they might even find a way to escape.

My review

5. London, UK

The City of Secret RiversThe City of Secret Rivers by Jacob Sager Weinstein

Goodreads Blurb

Magic is real. History is a big, fat lie.
Before Hyacinth Hayward moves from Illinois to London, she reads up on the city’s history. Too bad for her. Because the books are wrong. The truth is, London was built on magical rivers, and all the major events in its past have been about people trying to control the magic.
Hyacinth discovers this when her mom is kidnapped. In the chase to get her back, Hyacinth encounters a giant intelligent pig in a bathing suit, a boy with amnesia, an adorable tosher (whatever that is), a sarcastic old lady, and a very sketchy unicorn. Somehow Hyacinth has to figure out who to trust, so she can save her mom and, oh yeah, 
not cause a second Great Fire of London.”

My review

6. Australia

Pie in the SkyPie in the Sky by Remy Lai

Goodreads Blurb

When eleven-year-old Jingwen moves to a new country, he feels like he’s landed on Mars. School is torture, making friends is impossible since he doesn’t speak English, and he’s often stuck looking after his (extremely irritating) little brother, Yanghao.

To distract himself from the loneliness, Jingwen daydreams about making all the cakes on the menu of Pie in the Sky, the bakery his father had planned to open before he unexpectedly passed away. The only problem is his mother has laid down one major rule: the brothers are not to use the oven while she’s at work. As Jingwen and Yanghao bake elaborate cakes, they’ll have to cook up elaborate excuses to keep the cake making a secret from Mama.

Told in prose and graphic novel elements, this middle-grade novel is about a boy’s immigration experience, his annoying little brother, and their cake-baking hijinks!

My review

7. Russia

The Wolf WilderThe Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

Goodreads Blurb

Feodora and her mother live in the snowbound woods of Russia, in a house full of food and fireplaces. Ten minutes away, in a ruined chapel, lives a pack of wolves. Feodora’s mother is a wolf wilder, and Feo is a wolf wilder in training. A wolf wilder is the opposite of an animal tamer: it is a person who teaches tamed animals to fend for themselves, and to fight and to run, and to be wary of humans.

When the murderous hostility of the Russian Army threatens her very existence, Feo is left with no option but to go on the run. What follows is a story of revolution and adventure, about standing up for the things you love and fighting back. And, of course, wolves.

My review

8. China


Secrets of the Great Fire Tree by Justine Laismith

Goodreads Blurb

A Boy.
His Pendant.
A Magical Tree.

In rural China during the New Year celebrations, Kai receives devastating news. A poor harvest spells disaster unless his mother accepts a job in the city caring for a wealthy family.

Abandoned in his mountainous village, Kai is desperate to bring his mother home. He gives in to superstition and unlocks the secrets of the Great Fire Tree. The Great Fire Tree will grant Kai’s wish—for a terrible price. With the help of his new friend Xinying and his trusted piglet, Kai will make a sacrifice to make his family whole.

Justine Laismith weaves together Chinese mystique and rural charm in an enchanting tale of an antidote that kills and an amulet that curses.

This is my own middle-grade book. I chose this location because my ancestors were from there and I wanted to find out more about the place. I took this opportunity to travel to China to carry out my research. You can read about the various aspects of Chinese lives I learnt here.

First published Oct 2018. Updated 4 July 2020.

Review : Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

Book Review of Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

Bronze and SunflowerMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

My Thoughts after Reading

This middle-grade book takes you to the rural areas of China. Bronze and Sunflower are names of two children whose brought together by destiny. Bronze loses his ability to speak after an illness. Sunflower is orphaned when her father drowns in an accident. Right from the outset, when Bronze catches Sunflower being bullied, he came to her defence. This connection carried on throughout the book, even after Sunflower was adopted into the family.

The story takes an idyllic stroll through rural China. It is almost like a compilation of short stories surrounding the lives of Bronze and Sunflower. I got a lot out of reading about their lifestyles, from agriculture to making reed shoes to building roofs made of cogongrass. The struggles of family is demonstrated through various incidents and disasters. Despite their poverty, there is a lot of love in that family.

While Sunflower was orphaned at a young age, she remained a sunshine to all those she met. Bronze is a lovely boy who deserves so much more. He is intelligent, caring and loyal. I wished life was fairer to him. I would say the ending was bittersweet.

PS. If you’ve enjoyed this book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is another book set in rural China. Whilst Bronze and Sunflower is set during the Cultural Revolution, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is set at the start of China’s economic boom.

Goodreads Blurb

When Sunflower, a young city girl, moves to the countryside, she grows to love the reed marsh lands – the endlessly flowing river, the friendly buffalo with their strong backs and shiny, round heads, the sky that stretches on and on in its vastness. However, the days are long, and the little girl is lonely. Then she meets Bronze, who, unable to speak, is ostracized by the other village boys. Soon the pair are inseparable, and when Bronze’s family agree to take Sunflower in, it seems that fate has brought him the sister he has always longed for. But life in Damaidi is hard, and Bronze’s family can barely afford to feed themselves. Can the little city girl stay here, in this place where she has finally found happiness?

A classic, heartwarming tale set to the backdrop of the Chinese cultural revolution.

Review : Waiting by Ha Jin

Book review of  Waiting by Ha Jin

WaitingThis book has a sedentary pace. The narration is somewhat detached, but the story is told in such a deliberate way it intrigues.

I enjoyed the time and setting. I know enough China history to recognise some of the names and incidents mentioned in the story. For this I rate it 3*.

I found myself sympathetic to the characters and the situation they are in. Mid-way through the book I asked myself if they were truly in love, as I could not sense it in the narration. However, I also know that Chinese love stories are usually more subtle. Showing emotions is not the Chinese culture. So I tolerated with this anomaly. For this I rate it 2*.

Given how the characters were portrayed in the story, the ending did not come as a surprise. Overall I rate the book 2.5*.

Goodreads Blurb

For more than seventeen years, Lin Kong, a devoted and ambitious doctor, has been in love with an educated, clever, modern woman, Manna Wu. But back in his traditional home village lives the humble, loyal wife his family chose for him years ago. Every summer, he returns to ask her for a divorce and every summer his compliant wife agrees but then backs out. This time, after eighteen years’ waiting, Lin promises it will be different.

Review : Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Book Review on Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

My Thoughts after Reading

Take your time with this book. The pacing is slow, but not surprising as it is an eighty-year-old recounting her life story. I had to put it down many times, and found myself regularly glancing to see at how much of the book I had completed. For the pacing I rate this book 3*.

I persevered with this book because, overall, I am intrigued by the lives of China’s ethnic minority – you will spot this if you have read my blogs on Chinese culture or the premise of my latest book. The author goes into great details of their lives, from girlhood to motherhood. I am in awe of the amount to research she has carried out in order to write this story. I did find the description of the foot-binding queasy, having seen photos of distorted bound feet. The descriptions of their lifestyles are very detailed. Some I am aware of through my own research for my book Secrets of the Great Fire Tree or from my own Chinese heritage. But I still learnt many things about the lives and customs of the Yao people. For this eye-opening read, I give this book 4*.

Overall, I rate this book 3.5*

Goodread Blurb

In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men.

As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.