Sunday, 30 March 2014

Review: ‘Five Star Billionaire’ by Tash Aw

‘Five Star Billionaire’ by Tash Aw

Here’s the blurb:

'In the Man Booker prize-longlisted ‘Five Star Billionaire’ Tash Aw charts the overlapping lives of migrant Malaysian workers, forging lives for themselves in sprawling Shanghai.

Justin is from a family of successful property developers. Phoebe has come to China buoyed with hope, but her dreams are shattered within hours as the job she has come for seems never to have existed. Gary is a successful pop artist, but his fans and marketing machine disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui has businesses that are going well but must make decisions about her life. And then there is Walter, the shadowy billionaire, ruthless and manipulative, ultimately alone in the world.

In ‘Five Star Billionaire’, Tash Aw charts the weave of their journeys in the new China, counterpointing their adventures with the old life they have left behind in Malaysia. The result is a brilliant examination of the migrations that are shaping this dazzling new city, and their effect on these individual lives.'

Fast-paced, breathtaking

I was surprised and delighted by this book. Tash Aw's writing style is elegant, yet fast-moving and modern. This is a novel that sparkles.


Themes of loneliness, ambition, success and tragedy are threaded through the inter-connecting stories. Most of the characters are struggling to climb to the top of the ladder and struggling to stay there. The author imagines the difficulty of being a woman in modern China as well as the despair of a successful pop star on the way out.


From tiny villages in Malaysia to luxury spas in Shanghai, from a dilapidated hotel in Malaysia to the slums in suburban Shanghai, from pineapple stalls near Singapore to lonely hotel rooms in Taiwan, the settings in this novel are exotic and unique. I'd love to visit modern China after reading this. Failing that I would like to read more from this author.


I listened to this as an audiobook and felt it was hard to follow at times. As the pace is quite fast, I felt the need to flick back to check which character was which. I would highly recommend this in hard copy/e-book format.


Tash Aw is the author of two previous novels, 'The Harmony Silk Factory', winner of the Costa First Novel Award and a Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Novel, and 'Map of the Invisible World'. He was born in Malaysia and now lives in London.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Contemporary French Lit: ‘Bernard’ by David Foenkinos

Contemporary French Literature

‘Bernard’ by David Foenkinos is a slim French novel. In fact, fooled by the unorthodox format, I’m not sure it can even be called a novel. A novella, then.
The story begins with Bernard returning to live with his parents after he splits up with his wife. At the age of fifty he finds himself in his childhood bedroom, falling in with his parents’ rules. We find out how he ended up there: He had an affair. His wife threw him out.
He realises that he’s gradually losing contact with his daughter. He tries to reconnect with her through facebook, a rather creepy episode that doesn't show him as a sympathetic character, although that was perhaps the author's intention.
Living with his parents is difficult. They treat him like he’s still a teenager. Then they try to set him up with a divorcee.
‘Bernard’ is a pleasant and easy read, although I didn’t feel much empathy with any of the characters. There was a certain lightness about the story, as if it wasn’t taking itself that seriously. Plenty of humour in there that had me chuckling, especially as he reverts to the behaviour of his teenage self.
Bernard, although only concerned with himself, manages to shake up his parents’ lives too and causes them to make changes themselves that are well overdue.
Find out more about David Foenkinos here.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Short Story: 'The Fjord of Killary' by Kevin Barry

'The Fjord of Killary' is one of the stories in the 'Dark Lies The Island' collection by Kevin Barry.

Originally published in the New Yorker, read the story online here.

‘So I bought an old hotel on the fjord of Killary.’

A great opening line that draws us right into this story. Caoimhin wants to escape the city and buys a hotel in the west of Ireland, a place with an interesting history, and hopes it will inspire him to write poetry again.
‘All of my friends, every last one of them, said, “The Shining.”
'But I was thinking, The West of Ireland . . . the murmurous ocean . . . the rocky hills hard-founded in a greenish light (the light of a sad dream) . . . the cleansing air . . . the stoats peeping shyly from gaps in the drystone walls . . . '

But it doesn't inspire him. Instead he grows to despise his customers in the bar and dreams of escaping elsewhere. This story takes place on the night the ‘gibbering Atlantic’ looks like it's going to flood the hotel.

Although Caoimhin himself is a bit of a bore, his customers are varied and typical. The conversations of the locals in the pub, from the undertaker to the retired lorry driver, give a realistic insight into the rural psyche in the west of Ireland.

Caoimhin tries to engage in discussions but is magnificently ignored. The staff, all Belorussians, won't let him forget he's paying them minimum wage. The disco that follows the rising water is vividly portrayed: We can imagine the old ballroom, the dusty corners and the disco lights as the water rises up the stairs.


Barry's genius must lie in the authentic dialogue. The voices of his customers make the stories more gritty, more real.

The primary interest of these people’s lives is how far one place is from another, and how long it might take to complete the journey, given the state of the roads. They make a geography of the country by the naming of pubs:

“Do you know Madigan’s in Maynooth?"
"I do, of course.”
“You’d take a left there.”“I have you now.”

 Bill worked in haulage as a young man and considers himself expert.

“I don’t know, Bill,” I said.
“Would we say an hour twenty if you weren’t tailbacked out of Newport?”
“I said I really don’t fucking well know, Bill.”
“There are those’ll say you’d do it in an hour.” He sipped, delicately. “But you’d want to be grease fuckin’ lightnin’ coming up from Westport direction, wouldn’t you?”

 They like to criticise and discuss their neighbours.
 “Fuckers are washin’ diesel up there again,” John Murphy said. “The Hourigans? Of course, they’d a father a diesel-washer before ’em, didn’t they? Cunts to a man.”
“Cunts,” Bill Knott confirmed.

Kevin Barry certainly has a way with language. The west has ‘disgracefully gray skies' and the 'gibbering Atlantic.'
'The last of the evening light was an unreal throb of Kermit green.'
 'Seven sheep in a rowing boat were being bobbed about on the vicious waters of Killary. The sheep appeared strangely calm.'

A dark humour runs throughout the story, fierce honesty amid the tragedy and we can but laugh or we’d cry.
'It was by now a hysterical downpour, with great sheets of water steaming down from Mweelrea, and the harbor roared in the fattening light. Visibility was reduced to fourteen feet. This all signalled that the West of Ireland holiday season had begun.'   

'This, by the way, was the Monday of the May bank-holiday weekend. Killary was en fête. Local opinion, cheerfully, was that it had been among the wettest bank holidays ever witnessed.'

'I always tended bar in the evenings. I’d had a deranged notion that this would establish me as a kind of charming-innkeeper figure. This was despite the fact that not one but two ex-girlfriends (both of them, admittedly, sharp-tongued academics) had described my manner as “funereal.”'

The author

Kevin Barry is a bit of an oul' character himself. I went to see him last year at the Cork Short Story Festival where he presented the Faber anthology which he edited: 'Town & Country: New Irish Short Stories.' Remarkably down-to-earth, considering he also won the 2013  International Impac Dublin Literary Award for his novel 'City of Bohane', he advised us to 'go home to your tea, now' to close the event.
A good interview with him on Irish Writers in America, in which he describes Ireland as 'a wet, tormented little rock,' can be viewed here.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Review: 'The Three Musketeers' by Alexandre DUMAS

Statue of D'Artagnan in Auch, Gers

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre DUMAS

Written in serialised form in 1844, and set around 1625 in the France of Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Anne of Austria and bishop Richelieu, Les Trois Mousquetaires is a story of adventure that still delights and entertains. Although historically inaccurate in places, it is rich in colour and atmosphere, full of witty dialogue and drama. It is the first in a trilogy about D’Artagnan (other books are Twenty Years After, and The Vicomte de Bragelonne).

D’Artagnan is a brave but temperamental Gascon who makes his way to Paris on a yellow horse, encountering adventures on the way. He provokes duels with each of the three musketeers - Athos, Porthos and Aramis - when he first meets them in Paris. However they join forces to fight the bishop’s guards and forget their differences and become friends. D'Artagnan dreams of joining the Musketeers - the King’s guards -  and is finally admitted to the Musketeers at the Siege of La Rochelle. D'Artagnan also falls in love with Madame Bonacieux and embarks on a quest to save her, a quest which takes him to England and back, and which also saves Queen Anne of Austria’s reputation.

Les Trois Mousquetaires first appeared in serialised form in 1844

A Gascon

Dumas’ genius must lie in the characters he creates. Like Dickens, his characters attract and hold our interest and D’Artagnan remains one of the most well-known and well-loved characters of all time. Much is made of the fact that D'Artagnan is a Gascon.

He had the power of seeing in the night:

‘It is said that the eyes of Gascons, like those of cats, have the faculty of seeing in the night. D’Artagnon was able to see therefore…’

He was proud:

‘Proud as a Scotchman, muttered Buckingham. ‘And we,’ answered d’Artagnan, say ‘proud as a Gascon’. The Gascons are the Scotchmen of France.’

And crafty:

‘Imagine Don Quixote at eighteen; Don Quixote without his corselet, without his coat of mail, without his cuisses, a Don Quixote clothed in a woollen doublet… face long and brown, high cheek bones, indicating craftiness, the maxillary muscles enormously developed, an infallible sign by which a Gascon may always be detected even without his cap…’

 And brave:
‘Our brave Gascon has just shown himself as brave and as faithful as ever.’

D’Artagnan was clever enough to be able to read people just by looking at the countenance of those he encountered:

‘It was not a landlord this time but a landlady who received him. D’Artagnan, being somewhat of a physiognomist, examined at a glance the fat and good-humoured face of the mistress of the place. This glance satisfied him that dissimulation was not necessary with her and that he had nothing to fear from such a happy-looking countenance.’


Women in Dumas' world could be weak, powerful,  cunning, charming, vindictive, and capable of sorcery.

‘There was an understanding between this lady and Porthos. If she was a lady of quality she would have fainted, but, as she was only a solicitor’s wife, she contented herself with saying in a concentrated rage…’

‘The enchantress had resumed that magic charm which she took up and laid aside at pleasure, that is to say beauty, softness, tears and above all the irresistible attraction of that mystical voluptuousness which is the most irresistible of all kinds of voluptuousness.’

‘Her ladyship wished to please the Abysse and this was a very easy task for a woman so truely superior. She endeavoured to be amiable and became charming so that her entertainer was seduced by her varied conversation as well as by the grades which appeared in all her person.’

I'm particularly amazed at this feisty lady:

'Athos examined it (the ring) and became very pale. He then tried it on the ring finger… A shade of anger and revenge passed across the generally calm forehead of the gentleman.

She turned, no longer like a mere furious woman, but like a wounded panther.

‘Ah, wretch,’ said she, ‘you have betrayed me like a coward, and, moreover, you have learned my secret. You must die.’

And she ran to an inlaid cabinet on her toilet table, opened it with a feverish, trembling hand, drew from it a small dagger with a golden hilt and a sharp and slender blade and returned with one bound to the side of d’Artagnan, her vesture in pieces. Although the young man was, as we know, brave, he was frightened at that convulsed countenance, at those horrible dilated pupils, at those pale cheeks and bleeding lips. He arose and recoiled as from the approach of a serpent that had crawled towards him and, instinctively putting his perspiring hand to his sword, he drew it from the sheath. But…. her Ladyship still advanced to strike him.

Her Ladyship was rushing at him in horrible transports of rage and howling in a fearful manner…’

The English

Dumas manages to slip in a few amusing digs at English food:

‘The English, who above all things require to be well-fed in order to prove good-soldiers, eating only salted provisions and bad biscuits, had many invalids in their camp.’

And comments on the weather in England:

‘It was one of those few and fine summer days when Englishmen remember that there is a sun.’



Proper sustenance is critical for the French, even in the midst of battle:

‘We are four against one... about to be engaged to a far greater amount of foes…. How many persons? Twenty men. How far off are they? About 500 paces. Good, we have still time to finish this fowl and to drink a glass of wine. To your health, d’Artagnan!’

The musketeers even ask the enemy to hold off the battle until after breakfast:

‘Gentlemen, we are some of my friends and myself engaged in breakfasting in this bastion. Now you know that nothing is more disagreeable than to be disturbed at breakfast, so we entreat of you… to wait until we have finished our repast or to come back in a little while unless… and coming to drink with us to the health of the King of France.’

Loose ends

The story in this book meanders and detours. Some of the loose ends are conveniently tied up, like where her Ladyship might be found. The name of the town they will later need to locate actually falls out of someone's hat:

‘Hello sir. Here is a paper which fell out of your hat. Hello sir, hello.’

‘My friend,’ said d’Artagnan, ‘half a pistole for that paper.’

‘With the greatest pleasure, here it is.’

D’Artagnan unfolded the paper. Only one word…the name of a town… Armentieres…. is written in her hand… let us take great care of this paper…’

Her Ladyship decides to wait for the cardinal’s orders in a convent, which also happens to be the convent where Madame Bonacieux is being held:

‘I am proceeding to the Carmelite convent at Bethune where I shall await your orders.’

'All for one and one for all'

The famous slogan is only referred to once in the book, although there are many duels and shows of bravery.

Some of the pleasure in reading this book is the fact that the real D’Artagnan (Charles de Batz de Castelmore d'Artagnan)  on whom Dumas based his character, came from Lupiac, a village in Gascony. So, whilst reading the book, I paid a visit to the Musée D'Artagnan in Lupiac and was transported to the 17th century. It was easy to imagine the proud D’Artagnan,  leaving the area as a boy and returning many years later leading the King’s guard. The entourage travelled through France and Gascony on the way to St Jean de Luz where Louis XIV wed Marie-Thèrese of Austria.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

French food served in a gamelle

Gamelle: Lunch pail; mess tin; billy can

Although I picked up this red gamelle in an antique fair a few years ago I didn't ever expect to actually eat from one. I mean, a million years ago, Laura Ingalls took her lunch to school in one, but I didn't think you'd find them in use anywhere anymore. Apparently you put the soup in the bottom section and the bread and sundry items in the top.

Dining in Pau, Pyrénées-Atlantiques

On Friday last we dined in Restaurant Le Pilota in Pau. It's situated in the sports' complex, overlooking the pelote basque courts (although they were preparing for a badminton tournament at the time.) The setting is modern and chic but the food is traditional.

La Musette du Jour

I ordered the set menu (served weekday lunchtimes, it consists of a starter, a main, a dessert, a 1/4 bottle of wine and a coffee - all for 13 euro) and the waiter arrived with my lunch bag and hung it over the back of my chair.

Opening it up it revealed the lunch pail, the wine, a bread roll, a couple of slices of saussisson, a Paris-Brest in tinfoil.


The first tier contained the starter - a slice of quiche...

...the second revealed the main course - hake and king prawns in creamy sauce...

... and the third, cauliflower and cheese,  although I'd lost the run of myself at that stage and forgot to take any more photos. Sorry!

Worth swinging by - all was delicious.

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