2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

The Ghost Bride

Li Lan is the studious daughter of a noble but bankrupt Chinese family, and as such has few prospects for a successful marriage in 1890s Malaysia. When a marriage offer from the powerful Lim family comes, it is to wed Li Lan to their recently deceased son, Tian Ching. This ‘ghost marriage’ is meant to appease Tian Ching’s spirits after a mysterious death, and offers Li Lan her best chance at a secure life.  Li Lan refuses, but finds her dreams haunted by the jealous and powerful Tian Ching. Li Lan is drawn into the haunting parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, populated with ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, spirits both petty and monstrous, and a remarkable amount of bureaucracy. The only thing that protects Li Lan is an enigmatic guardian spirit, Er Lang, and her own determination.

This supernatural fantasy by Yangsze Choo provides a beautiful dive into a fascinating setting. The early chapters of the book take place in colonial Malaysia (Malaya, in the 1890s), which springs off the page. But it is once Li Lan enters the Chinese spirit world that Choo really shines. This is a belief system I know almost nothing about, and Choo managed to keep my enthralled and surprised without ever leaving me confused or needing more.

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Choo’s characters and plot are the many vehicles into the world that Choo creates for us, and as such are a little shallow. Li Lan serves her character purpose well; she is not dripping with detail, but neither is she a total cookie cutter. She serves to highlight the setting, mythology, and culture of the story.  While Choos characters do not have much depth, they do have nuance. Perhaps because the spirit world of Chinese belief is so similar to the real world (with class problems, servants, bureaucracy, bribes, and petty feuds and trickery)- the heroes and villains of Choo’s story are nuanced: humorous, pitiful, annoying, charming, and loathsome all together, even when they are ghoulish monsters or her very own father.

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I chewed through The Ghost Bride in two days, delighted all the while. This story does not follow the typical adventure arc a reader might expect- the love triangle barely exists, Li Lan never has to do battle with her tormentor Tian Ching, important characters come and go very quickly, the palace intrigue is not revealed in a ‘gotcha!’ moment. We never even make it to the Courts of Hell! Instead, this is a patient exploration of a cultural belief system, both the spooky and mundane, and the question of what it means to be free in a world where duty, family, and culture are more powerful a force than death itself.  The Ghost Bride is a delicate and fascinating ghost story, with just enough court intrigue, romance, and adventure to keep things recognizable for the general YA reader.

The Ghost Bride

2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Aunty Lee’s Delights

After becoming a widow, Rosie Lee devoted herself to her restaurant, Aunty Lee’s Delights, where she serves Singaporean home cooking and folksy wisdom in equal measure. But when one of her dinner guests turns up missing and a body is found washed up on a beach, Aunty Lee discovers another passion: solving murders. Aunty Lee’s Delights is a charming mystery about the many types of people and ideas coexisting in Singapore, and how to manage the clashes of culture and class that take place there. Read my First Look here. 

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This is a light little read full of cute witicisms and surprisingly nuanced cultural critique. Aunty Lee functions as the compassionate and curious heart at the center of a group of very different characters: fussy traditional wives, adventurous modern women, religious tourists, conceited ex-pats, gay men and women, uptight police, and the servant class of Singapore. Aunty Lee serves them all with spicy food, relaxing teas, homespun wisdom, and general compassion. Aunty Lee is the type of hero we don’t see too often – curious, caring, and capable.

“As far as Aunty Lee was concerned, people ought to go through the ideas they carried around in their heads as regularly as they turned out their store cupboards. No matter how wisely you shopped, there would be things in the depths that were past their expiration dates or gone damp and moldy—or that has been picked up on impulse and were no longer relevant.”

It can be difficult to decide where a book lands on representation when it is written by and for another culture than my own. I know nothing about Singapore or the people and cultures that weave together everyday life there. But the author, Ovidia Yu, is Sinagaporean. Aunty Lee’s Delights seems to purposefully grapple with cultural differences, and it feels as though Yu is trying to use Antuy Lee as a megaphone for tolerance and understanding. And to an ignorant reader like me, the whole thing came off as very, very sweet if not a bit shocking at times.

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Ultimately, I don’t think I like series mysteries. I hadn’t read one since my Nancy Drew days, but in my grand project of diversified reading, I thought it was only right to try another one out as an adult. I liked almost everything about Yu’s novel, except the genre. When I read mysteries, I feel like everything is in sketch rather than vibrant color. Just not my kind of reading experience.  BUT, if you do like mysteries, I think this one is probably going to charm you. Aunty Lee is a lovely character- a widowed busybody chef who solves mysteries- and the details of Singaporean culture and everyday life really add a meaningful novelty to the genre.

Scent Notes: hot peppers and pickled cucumbers, cardamom tea, and baby powder.

Aunty Lee's Delights