I’ve read Five Star Billionaire, now what?

Our latest book club meeting discussed the book Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw, a story about five people trying to stay afloat in Shanghai. The book got very mixed reactions from our readers, but for whoever liked it, or liked parts of it, we will give some further reading recommendations.

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The first recommendation is always more work by the author himself. Tash Aw has written two other novels of which The Harmony Silk Factory is the most praised. It won several awards and turned Aw into a household name for Malaysian English literature. The Harmony Silk Factory is about a textile merchant called Johnny Lim. He’s a Chinese peasant that moved to British Malaya and the story is set in the first half of the 20th century. The book delves into the history of China and Malaya and tries to discover the identity of Johnny. Is he the hero that fought the Japanese when they invaded or is he a crook and collaborator that betrayed the people he should have served? Just like Five Star Billionaire, Aw experiments here with multiple point of views and unreliable narrators to showcase how subjective life can be.

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If you liked the self-help aspect of the book and want to learn more about becoming rich, try Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The book is also written like a self-help book pretending to teach you how to become rich. It suggests get rich quick schemes and ways to stay alive in the cut-throat large cities of Asia. Just like Five Star Billionaire this book has multiple narrators and an emotional story that is hiding out as a tacky self-help novel.

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Phoebe, one of the main characters from the novel is a factory girl, a typical kind of migrant working in large factories all around China. Tash Aw used the book Factory Girl: From Village to City in a Changing China written by Leslie T. Chang as research for his own novel. Factory Girl traces the lives of two real life girls who are trying to escape the assembly lines to rise to the top. Chang researched one specific sneaker factory in Dongguan which is large enough to house its own hospital, movie theater and of course karaoke bars.

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An often remarked point about Five Star Billionaire was that all the descriptions of Shanghai as a city were beautiful and very life-like. The city itself became a character in the book and was almost equally important to the plot.  If you like rosy prose and pretty descriptions of Asia, you might want to give The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng a try. Also a Malaysian author, he writes with the same calm and slow rhythm that you can enjoy from Tash Aw.

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If it was the narrative structure of the book that got you going, you should take a look at Communion Town by Sam Thompson. It’s a story told from 10 different voices, all talking about the same city. The stories interject and connect with each other, the characters meeting without them knowing it. The book reads as ten short stories all about the same setting that can be read separately, but ultimately form a whole. And it’s even recommended by Tash Aw himself!

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Although many of us didn’t enjoy the revenge plot of the novel that much, there is nothing wrong with a good avenging story! So give True Grit by Charles Portis a shot! You might have seen the movie, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the book (we should make this our catchphrase or at least a new category of blog posts). In True Grit the 14-year old Mattie Ross is out to avenge her father’s death and to do this she enlists the meanest Marshall in town. Very different in tone from Five Star Billionaire with much more humor as a dead-pan western.

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I’ve read Heft, Now What?

Our last book club meeting was about Heft, the novel by Liz Moore about two men whose lives have been revolving around the same woman. The first man, Arthur Opp, was her teacher but now lives completely alone in his Brooklyn flat which he hasn’t left for quite some years. Within that time he has grown for a rather large man to a very large man, eating anything his heart desires. The second man is more of a boy, the young Kel Keller who’s life is completely engulfed by playing sports and taking care of his mother Charlene. She used to have high hopes for her life, learning at a fancy school taught by Arthur, but got pregnant at a young age. Now she pins all of her hopes on Kel, forcing him to go college even though he wants to play pro-baseball. Of course we have a full review of the book which you can read, but now we are in the business of giving you further recommendations if you enjoyed reading Heft.

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If you liked the writing of Liz Moore I don’t have super awesome news for you. She doesn’t have a lot of novels to her name yet, but does write a lot of short stories and articles and also makes music. Her other novel was her debut and it is called The Words of Every Song, a mosaic story-structure surrounding the music industry. A very daring first novel in which Liz Moore draws from her own experiences working with music in New York. Some women just have it all…

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One of the first things you notice about any description you can find of Heft is that Arthur Opp is very obese. Although this is not the most important characteristic of Arthur at all, it is something that defines him to others and is mentioned over and over again. Another great book in which one the main characters is obese, but much more than just a fat person is The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg. The book is about Edie, a mother of three now grown up kids, who is eating herself to death. Her husband can’t take it anymore and leaves her, ensuring the children are the ones to pick up the pieces. Just like with Heft, it seems easy to judge Arthur or Edie for their problems, but in both books these characters are much more than what they eat.

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For anyone who wishes that Charlene had more of a story in Heft, I present to you The Good House by Ann Leary. Just like Charlene, the main character Hildy Good is an alcoholic. Her family has tried to do an intervention, but all it did was push Hildy further away from them. Now she lives in a New England town, trying to cope with her drinking on her own, she also finds herself stuck in the seedy underbelly of her town filled with secrets and scandal. I imagine this book as Charlene pretending to be a detective while still drinking herself to death. It’s fun until suddenly it isn’t.

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Kel is a fervent sports player. He plays baseball, basketball, football and whatever else he can get his hands on. His struggle with his mother and his aptitude for sports constantly reminded me of Friday Night Lights, but presented with somewhat less drama. Kel’s entire storyline played out as a combination of The O.C. and Friday Night Lights, but we are not here to recommend movies, dammit! So I can’t tell you to watch these shows (even though you should), however I can tell you to read the book Friday Night Lights was based on. I have no idea if Coach is as endearing in real life as he is in fiction, but does it really matter?

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If you liked the letters sent by Charlene and Arthur and you were too annoyed that you didn’t get to read more of them, 84, Charing Cross Road might be the book to fix this.  Helene writes a letter to a bookshop inquiring about some second-hand books. This sparks a reply from the stodgy shop keep. The sarcastic and straight forward letters of the American Helene are a stark contrast with the uptight Britishness of the replies which are guaranteed to make you laugh, but will also provide you with enough feelings to wipe away some tears.

These are the books we are recommending this month. What are your book recommendations for Heft or have you read any of these? Let us know what you think!

I’ve read A Tale of Two Cities, Now What?

A new feature on our blog will be further recommendations for the people who enjoyed the book club pick and are waiting with aching hands for more. Our first I’ve read this book, now what? will be for A Tale of Two Cities. If you want to know more about this book first, read the (Dutch) review here and then let’s move on to what others book to read if you liked Dickens, The French Revolution and sappy father-daughter stories.

Let’s start with Charles Dickens. You’ve entered the world of crazy characters and long descriptions that will make you laugh anyway. Dickens’ style came sometimes be a bit overwhelming. His sentences are runny and his books are filled with more characters than the pages can contain. If you’re looking for something shorter and more accessible, I suggest trying Oliver Twist. The story is already familiar, which makes it easier to grasp and the book is one of Dickens’ shortest. However, all the tell-tale signs of a Dickens novel are present. The novel is filled with caricatures, the ever-expanding gap between rich and poor and all of this against a stark English background.

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For anyone who really enjoyed Dickens and is looking to dive in deeper, try Bleak House. A whopping 1000+ pages of scathing criticism on the English Chancery Court. It’s the only novel Dickens ever wrote from a female perspective and a definite must read for lovers of his writing.

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How can you not be intrigued by a book that gets people drawing?!

If the French Revolution really got you going and Madame Defarge and The Vengeance had your full support, but you are looking for something a bit more modern, try A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. The Queen of Historical Fiction uses real characters to pen her take of the French Revolution. The story is about the consequences of power, something we talked about as well during the book club, and another biggie (750+ pages).

Personally, I was terrified by the calm knitting of Madame Defarge, but that might just be your bag. If you like knitting and terrifying ladies involved with murder, give Knit One, Kill Two by Maggie Sefton a try. It’s a real knitting murder mystery about discovering a great hobby and solving the murder of Kelly Flynn’s aunt. And if you like this one, there are nine more books waiting for you!

Lucie and Doctor Manette were quite something. Either you hated them or you loved them, but one thing was certain, as far as a father-daughter relationship goes, they had something going on. I’m still not sure if they just deeply cared about each other or if they had a very unhealthy relationship, but if you want to explore the topic a bit more, try To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch might just be the greatest dad in fiction!

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Although it was only a small part of the story, I can’t help but get excited about a doppelgänger/look-alike switcheroo. If you like the challenge of Dickens and you love a mystery then I recommend The Double by José Saramago. Definitely not an easy read, but magical realism at it’s best.

If you still don’t know what to read we’re always happy to answer any questions in the comments. If we missed any books that are a definite YES after A Tale of Two Cities, let us know as well. We’d love to hear from you.