Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Our seventh book is Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw and the review is written by Michelle Carmody.

The life-advice section in any bookstore is usually the shiniest, the brightest, with the glossiest covers and the snappiest titles. When I lived in Argentina I was seduced by the prospect of an organized life that the books in this section offered me, the promise of pulling me out of my rut and helping me make good use of my time, to seize the day and to make the most of the great opportunity that living in a foreign country offered. While these books appeal to, and are aimed at, any and every sector of the population, perhaps they hold a special appeal to migrants, to transitory populations seeking a path, in lieu of a fixed place.

The migrants in Five Star Billionaire are all floating in foreign space, looking for a path forward. No one sees Shanghai as a permanent option. The five stars of Five Star Billionaire are Yinghui, Phoebe, Gary, Justin and Walter; all Malaysian emigrants of varying social status, making it work in Shanghai. The most interesting of these characters is Phoebe, who really seems to be the personification of new South East Asia. Phoebe arrives in Shanghai by way of Shenzhen, the factory floor of the world. She comes to Shanghai because it offers her somewhere to sleep, the floor of the tiny apartment of a friend from her Malaysian village. But it also offers her the prospect of making it big, of moving up in the world beyond the factory floor to the upper levels of life.


Phoebe follows various self-improvement manuals, absorbing the advice of gurus on how to get rich and how to get a man – the latter being the key to the former – until she completely transforms herself and becomes a creation of these books. Phoebe sets out to exploit the possibilities that the new China offers rural women like her. She steals an ID card, which allows her to literally stumble into a job, and from there she sets about finding the perfect mate while managing a workforce of fellow migrants who, having come from the countryside to the city, have not made the transition to city girl Phoebe has.

She masters the ability to chat online with multiple men, filtering out the useless ones. Through this she meets both Walter and Gary. Gary is a disgraced pop megastar; Walter is an uber-tycoon who, when not writing self-improvement manuals, is busy completing the acquisition and destruction of both Justin and Yinghui’s successful business empires. The connection between the five migrants is Jackie Collins-esque: there is deception so obvious to everyone except the deceived, there is revenge for something that happened long before the avenger even opened his first bank account; there is a fall from grace that Britney herself could be proud of. There is no sex.

In many ways this book fails to really capture the energy of five lives open to potential and being thrown around by the city of Shanghai and its mixture of possibilities and limitations. The story arcs, and especially the connections, are far-fetched and some characters are under-developed. But in other ways this book gives a glimpse into the contradictions of emerging China. Yinghui has made it big as a businesswoman, but is ultimately brought down by social conventions and traditions that lead her to submit to Walter and lead Walter to extract revenge on her for the humiliation of his father by hers. Phoebe suffers from increasing existential angst brought on through her masquerading as a successful businesswoman. Heritage buildings in the heart of Shanghai and KL are being torn down and used as the foundation for new fortunes.

Zizek has talked about the rise of China as evidence of a kind of ‘capitalism with Asian values’. While in many respects this book is unsuccessful as a story, it plays with this idea of unrestrained capitalism and its promise of self-improvement and entrepreneurial (re)invention, and the clash with tradition, convention and the past. The self-improvement that Phoebe undergoes allows her to find a path in a foreign city, allows her to exploit opportunities and Shanghai itself to the fullest possible extent. She reaches a limit, though, and eventually accepts that return to her village is inevitable. As her roommate puts it, ‘where else am I supposed to go?’. The anything-goes, get-rich-quick environment of Shanghai offers endless possibilities, but those who are floating in its space are still restrained by their past, by the traditions and conventions that follow them into their new lives and pull them back into the old. While this book fails to capture the energy of contemporary China, it does point to many of the contradictions in the model of uber-development through replication, the paint-by-numbers approach to moving up in the world and what the personal and social implications of that might be.

Written by Michelle Carmody


If The Mystery of the Author’s Identity Is The Most Interesting Thing About Your Book, Your Book Might Not Be That Good.

This review was written for American Book Center’s You Review. The advanced reading copy of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August written by Claire North was gracefully provided by ABC.


If you’ve never heard of Claire North, please don’t be embarrassed. If you Google her name you will find out that Claire North is actually a pseudonym for a ‘an acclaimed British author’. Do we have another one of J.K. Rowling’s works in hand? I sure hope not.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is about the kalachakra, a specific type of people living throughout all times who live their own lives over and over again. These kalachakras or ouroborans form a club – The Cronus Club – to support each other through life and help smoothen the transition from life to death back to life again. Our main character, Harry August, is of course a kalachakra and we follow him through his first 15 lives which ends with him hunting a super villain who hides inside the The Cronus Club destined to destroy the world.

All this sounds rather exciting, but it turns out to be quite a dull read. The premise of living your life over and over again is interesting, but done much better by Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. However Harry August is not in the business of being a novel that exposes human nature and horrors of our history. The book should have been a fast-paced exciting sci-fi story, something you can’t put down because you know the world is going to end and the future is inevitable. The ‘science’ behind the kalachakra should have been mind-boggling, but it’s mostly confusing and – even worse – boring. Nothing in the book made me marvel at the world created by North and the only character that was even remotely interesting was the villain of it all, trying to unravel where the kalachakra came from by way of a quantum mirror. I wish the book would have focused more on the origins of the time-travelers and the possibilities this lends to a story and widened its focus the the actual end of the world described at the very start of the book.

That said, it’s not a bad book. It’s well written and interesting, but it’s definitely not the genre-crossing sci-fi/literary fiction work of genius people make it out to be. It’s a great book for people who want to ease themselves into sci-fi reading or people who are fully emerged in the genre and strapped for reading fodder.

Written by Esmée de Heer
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Heft – Liz Moore

For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Our sixth book is Heft by Liz Moore and the review is written by Reka Paul.

There are many different kinds of loneliness in this world, but in truth they all feel the same. Arthur Opp, who weighs 550 pounds and never leaves his house is as lonely as the high school senior Kel Keller who has many friends but no one to turn to when in trouble. These are the two main characters of Liz Moore’s “Heft” (2012), a heartrending novel which shows us that being satisfied with your life is not quite the same as being happy.

The heavily overweight Arthur and the sporty high school heartthrob Kel do not have much more in common apart from their loneliness.  Except perhaps for Charlene, Kel’s mother and Arthur’s former sweetheart who is very dear to both of them. A letter from Charlene reconnects Arthur, her past, with Kel, her present, and uncovers many problems that have been lingering in their lives. The former literature professor Opp retreats into his family’s house, surrounded by painful as well as pleasant memories, does not allow anyone into his small world besides the deliverymen but keeps telling himself that this is the life he wants and needs. Kel is being pushed by his sick mother to seek for a better life, a life that she always wanted but never found, a life of education and well-being, away from their old neighborhood, maybe in the brighter parts of New York. In accordance with her wishes he attends the high school in a far better off area and makes friends with the rich kids but never forgets where he comes from, the darker dirtier streets of Yonkers.


Where Arthur leads us to reflect about the boundaries between comfortableness and laziness and the temptation of having no obligations in life, Kel on the other hand shows us how it feels to be accepted and liked by everyone, which seems so desirable until his mother gets worse and he cannot confide in any of his so called friends.

Moore tells their stories separately, Arthur’s on the one side, his every day’s struggle to walk from the living room to the kitchen and his ideas for meals. Kel’s story on the other, his plans for the future, his worries for his mother, his yearning for a father he never had. The stories start to intertwine when Charlene catches up with her pen pal Opp and asks him for help with her son’s future.

Slowly both characters develop, firstly by admitting their problems, famously the most important step towards facing them and gain new friends or recover old friendships. Both find out in their own way, that even though they had insisted for a long time that they were satisfied with their lives, they had not been happy. For though many things can bring us satisfaction, but only few can bring us true happiness.

Apart from the deep insights into their worlds and thoughts, which brings us Arthur and Kel close enough to forgive them almost anything, but just almost, we still cannot get through to all the supporting characters. In a sense Arthur’s new friend Yolanda and Kel’s high school friends stay shallow acquaintances to the reader, shadows in the background whose impact we feel but whose driving stays hidden to us, even though one cannot but desire to get to know them better.

What Moore wants to tell is surely that people need people, that loneliness can be overcome and that two people as different as Arthur and Kel can have things in common. Enough to be a spark of hope, in form of a letter, a picture and a call. The two stories are not told with great drama but rather gently with much concern for the characters’ personal desires and struggles. We follow them both close up and for a long time leading up to their encounter. For though as little as we know the other characters, as much we do know about Arthur and Kel and throughout the story one cannot help but feel and struggle along with them and keep up the hope for them to overcome their loneliness and to transform a just quite satisfying life little by little into a happier one.

Written by Reka Paul