Thursday, October 31, 2013

Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson

After hearing Jo Robinson interviewed on The Splendid Table, I wanted to know more. In Eating on the Wild Side, Robinson shares surprising recent research about the varied levels of bionutrients in the vegetables and fruits that we eat, as well how to select and prepare them in order to maximize nutritional benefits.

The wild plants from which our modern fruits and vegetables descend usually (but not always) have the most bionutrients, but they are also less palatable than cultivated varieties. Robinson quotes William Wood, writing about chokecherries in 1629 in Massachusetts: "They so furre the mouth that the tongue will cleave to the roof and the throat wax hoarse with swallowing those red Bullies (as I may call them)." I happen to love the musky taste of my homemade chokecherry syrup and now I know that it is packed with nutrients, too.

Robinson explains that you do not have to go foraging for wild foods. Instead, you can find great choices at the grocery store, farmers market or your own garden. It can be as simple as choosing Fuji apples over Golden Delicious.

I found fascinating stuff throughout. Here are just a few tips:

"Adding a squirt of lemon to your teacup or teapot before you brew green tea increases the amount of the phytonutrients in the brew and also enhances your ability to absorb them."

"Cooked carrots have twice as much beta-carotene as raw carrots."

"Tearing romaine lettuce the day before you eat it doubles its antioxidant content."

"Ounce per ounce, there is more fiber in raspberries than in bran cereals."

I've already incorporated simple adjustments in my diet as a result of this book, such as throwing chopped fresh cranberries into my lunch quesadillas, buying purple carrots (at Granville Market), tipping the pulpy bits into the juice after squeezing a lime, and eating currants as a snack. It's all good!

Readalikes: Foraged Flavor (Tama Matsuoka Wong); Food Rules (Michael Pollan).

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois

Lily Hayes and Katy Kellers are 21-year-old Americans living with an Argentine family while they spend a scholarship semester in Buenos Aires. Five weeks after they meet, Lily is charged with the murder of her roommate. After initial questioning by police (without a lawyer), Lily was left alone in the interrogation room. She then turned a cartwheel, a fact widely debated in the media frenzy surrounding the investigation. Is this an indicator of guilt or innocence?

In Cartwheel, Jennifer duBois keeps switching to different points of view, allowing readers to approach the murder from different angles. Appearances are deceiving, as evidenced by the following three interpretations of the same photos on Lily's camera.

"There was a picture of Lily standing in front of a church, and Andrew grimaced again at what she was wearing: a low-cut top, one of those cheap, flimsy things she bought at deep-discount clothes warehouses. All the women around her were dressed conservatively. Had she really not noticed? [...] In one photo, Lily licks salt from her hand; in the next, she sucks on a lime." (Lily's father, Andrew Hayes)

"And here is Lily Hayes, standing in front of the Basilica Nuestra Senora de Lujan, her prodigious bosom spilling out over a too-tight tank top. She is nearly aglow with the light of her narcissism. Does she notice that all the other women are modestly dressed, that their heads are covered? She either does not notice, or she does not care. A person who does not notice is silly. A person who does not care is dangerous." (Eduardo Campos, the chief prosecutor)

"She spent a day taking the train out to the basilica in Lujan to try to see what all the Catholic fuss was about. She sat in bars drinking Quilmes and trying to look mysterious; she sat in cafes eating alfajors and licking powdered sugar off her fingers and not minding that she looked silly." (Lily)

Even more interesting than the puzzle of who committed the murder, are duBois' character portrayals. The entire Hayes family, broken by the death of their first daughter, many years earlier. Sebastien, Lily's agoraphobic and eccentric boyfriend next door. Unhappy Eduardo and his unstable wife, Maria.

"Eduardo did not blink. His own depression was a thing with claws and teeth and eyes, its own set of tics and preoccupations and prejudices, its own entire integrated personality. The trick to not killing yourself was to convince yourself, every single day, that your departure from the world would have a devastating effect on absolutely everyone around you, despite consistent evidence to the contrary."

I love books like this that present reality as something that shifts, depending on perspective. Cartwheel is a satisfying page-turner that leaves room for speculation beyond the final lines.

Readalikes: Five Star Billionaire (Tash Aw); You Are One of Them (Elliott Holt); So Much Pretty (Cara Hoffman); Where Things Come Back (John Corey Whaley); The Monkey's Mask (Dorothy Porter).

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The days are just packed at the VWF 2013

I want to record highlights from the Vancouver Writers Fest but every event I've attended has been outstanding, so this is very difficult.

Anne Carson was at two out of the four sessions I was at yesterday, and her readings will live long in my memory. At the Poetry Bash, Carson got us to participate as she read meditative prose poems from her first published collection, Short Talks. Her deadpan humour was perfectly hilarious. Her way with words, perfectly genius. I feel lucky to have been part of her appreciative audience.

I also feel blessed to have been at two of Tomson Highway's events. The amazing Patricia Cano performed songs and readings in English, French and Cree from Highway's latest play, The (Post) Mistress. Tomson accompanied her on piano while another musician played the saxophone. It was magical. The inclusion of theatrical and spoken word events is part of what makes VWF so special.

At Word!, I was thrilled to hear portions from two Fringe theatre plays, Corin Raymond's Bookworm and Alison Wearing's Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter. Tanya Evanson's high energy poetry rounded out that fabulous spoken word line-up.

And then all of the other great stuff from fantastic authors -- novels and short stories and memoirs -- I've been in literary heaven. I've spent $223 on books. My suitcase will be much heavier going home today. One last treat awaits before I leave: Helen Humphreys in conversation with Kathryn Gretsinger this afternoon.

I was missing one ticket
when I took this photo; it
turned up in my pocket later.
I chatted with the executive director of the Saskatchewan Festival of Words at one of the sessions and I asked for her top author pick. She chose Humphreys without hesitation. A reader after my own heart. Conversation with other festival-goers has been another great pleasure this week. My friends and I arrived early for events held at Performance Works so that we could get good seats. Yesterday, we discussed the importance of place versus character in fiction as we waited, continuing the stimulating topic raised at Corner Stories. Other people in line contributed their thoughts. Reading is even better when shared with other readers.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Weather at the VWF 2013

A foggy Tuesday evening for the first night of the VWF on Granville Island. As my plane was descending into Vancouver fog on Tuesday afternoon, the pilot announced that we would be returning to Edmonton if our first landing attempt was unsuccessful. It's an 80 minute journey. Lucky for us, the clouds cleared and I was able to attend the Grand Opening event. I've heard fog horns almost every night since arriving - a novel sound for my prairie ears.
On Wednesday, Vancouver was bathed in sunshine and I toured Van Dusen Gardens before returning to Granville Island to enjoy more of the writers fest. The streets of the city are lined with trees showing off their autumn colours.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Worst question from the audience ever at VWF 2013

The opportunity to ask questions at author events was never more severely abused than on Thursday evening at Beyond Queer at the Vancouver Writers Fest.

A sock moose in the style of
a sock monkey caught my
eye on Granville Island.
Abdellah Taia, Amber Dawn and Nancy Jo Cullen were the writers we had just heard reading from their works. Cullen had chosen a short, funny piece, "Valerie's Bush," from her short story collection, Canary. The bush referenced in the title is subject to a radical makeover as part of Valerie's recovery after the breakup of a long relationship.

Okay, so back to the worst question ever. Of course it was of the kind that isn't a question at all, but an opportunity for personal expression. In this case, very personal. I didn't know the woman who raised her hand to speak, but she was seated right next to me. She addressed her comment to Cullen - and everyone in the theatre got to listen - while she described trimming her own bush. In detail. The visibility hindrance caused by her middle-aged belly. The attempt at a rectangle effect. The result that was more like a bacon strip.

It was not clear if this woman was sharing an invented joke or an anecdote from life, but it was the most awkward thing I can remember at a writers fest event. A stunned silence followed. Anne Fleming, the cheerful and capable host, swiftly moved on to another question from the audience.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

YA author shenanigans at VWF 2013

Maureen Johnson and Maggie Stiefvater were interviewed by Shannon Ozirny, a librarian, in the Vancouver Writers Fest Fantasy@Six event. Fun times! If you are among the legions following them on twitter, you already know how entertaining these authors can be. Maureen and Maggie (these women are so informal that I'll stick to first names) easily wrestled control from Shannon, teasing her about her sheaf of papers. Shannon explained that she would rely on her notes if she got flustered, but she stored them under her chair after more pressure from the authors. Later, Shannon made an accidental double-entendre (something about getting off) and the audience roared. Shannon reached under her chair, restoring her notes primly to her lap. More laughter. That was pretty much the tone for 90 minutes.
Meanwhile, outside, a dog was forced to
pose as the Red Baron. (I learned, btw, that
Maureen Johnson is crazy about her dog.)

At one point, Maggie leaped up to investigate a sound coming from behind the curtain across the back of the stage. Maureen joined her, noting for the audience's benefit that the fabric was corduroy. She pushed it aside to reveal the festival bookstore (Kidsbooks) on the other side and swiped a blue stuffed hippo from a top shelf. Back in their seats, Maggie told us about meeting with her German publishers a while ago. They wanted to know about her next project. She excitedly described to them The Scorpio Races, and the dangerous, mythical water horses therein. Their faces fell. She tried to convey how sexy they were, but the publishers were not interested. Water horse, it turns out, is German for hippo.

When it was time to read from their works, Maggie got a couple of volunteers from the audience, plus Maureen, to perform a readers' theatre excerpt from The Dream Thieves along with her. Maureen's facial expressions elicited more peals of laughter.

Thank you to the festival for this inspired pairing!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Great energy on opening night at VWF 2013

View from the quay outside Granville Island Market.
Two standout readings last night at the Vancouver Writers Fest Grand Openings event were by Earl Lovelace and Rachel Kushner. They had us snorting with laughter in the audience. Both Lovelace and Kushner wield satire with a sure hand. Kushner looked up at one point to mention that no other audience had found her work so funny. (It wasn't clear whether she found this disconcerting or charming.) Coincidentally, both writers have set their recent novels in the 1970s.

I never would have picked up Lovelace's Is Just a Movie otherwise, but now I'm eager to read the rest of his story of a Trinidadian singer hoping to make a name for himself through a part in a foreign movie being shot on the island. I'm currently listening to an audiobook edition of Kushner's debut novel, Telex from Cuba, and loving it. Her new book, The Flamethrowers, is most definitely on my TBR.

Viola Di Grada also chose to read from a funny - yet disturbing - part of her novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool. The first-person narrator feels assaulted by beauty (like a slap in the face) and feels obliged to murder flowers.

Other highlights from last night include a flawless reading by Eleanor Catton from her Booker-winning The Luminaries. She explained that the luminaries are celestial bodies and they are represented in her characters. Catton read from a part where the two that represent the sun and moon first met. They are a young man and woman watching an albatross from the deck of a steamer off New Zealand's Otago peninsula. I'm going to have to choose a particular block of time to read this book because it's 832 pages long and will require focus to appreciate its complexity. E-book is probably the format I'll choose, just because it's so heavy.

Bill Reid canoe at Vandusen Garden
Joseph Boyden's newest book, The Orenda, blew my mind. I was totally thrilled to hear him read from it and my mind once again was haunted by Snow Falls, Bird and Crow. During the signing portion at the end of the evening, my friends and I had a mini book discussion of The Orenda while we waited for the fourth person in our group to get Boyden to sign copies. He had a much longer autograph line than any of the other authors.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Going to Vancouver for the Writers Fest October 22 - 27, 2013.

The False Creek Ferry is my favourite way to get to and from
Granville Island for the Writers Fest.
I'm leaving today for Vancouver with a fistful of tickets for the Writers Fest, starting with Grand Openings, a sold-out event tonight. Joseph Boyden, Eleanor Catton, Sahar Delijani, Viola Di Grado, Rachel Kushner, Earl Lovelace and Andrew Pyper will take turns reading tonight. It'll be like a quick trip around the world and an excellent start to a week of international writers on Granville Island!

Anne Carson, Anne Michaels, Helen Humphreys, Tomson Highway and Michel Tremblay are some of the other people I'm excited to see. I am really looking forward to all of it.

My access to the internet will be sporadic, but I'll try to post a few highlights about the festival when I can.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Two mythological creatures meet in 19th-century New York City. Knowing that much was enough to make me want to read The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. As a bonus, it has a beautiful dust jacket with gold filagree embellishments and an atmospheric photo of the Washington arch in New York, plus dark blue edging on three (unbound) sides of the pages. It has the look and feel of a precious manuscript.

The female golem wasn't entirely convincing as one of her kind, made of clay. She found "to lie still and silent in such an enclosed space was no easy task" and complained (about reading): "It's hard to sit still for so long." I understand that she was created to be a thing of action, but her immobility should be equally effortless, don't you think? Am I being unreasonable in my desire for a believable fantasy creature?

The golem and the jinni discuss philosophical questions like: are we good at heart? is there a god? and independence vs. mutual interdependence.

The Golem said, "I read about angels, once. In one of the Rabbi's books." She glanced at him. "You don't believe in them, I suppose."
"No, I don't," he said. He thought she might be waiting for him to return the question; but he didn't want to talk about angels, or gods, or whatever else the humans had invented that week."
----- [...] -----
"God is a human invention. My kind have no such belief. And nothing I've experienced suggests there's an all-powerful ghost in the sky, answering wishes. [...] So perhaps this God of the humans is just a jinni like myself, stuck in the heavens, forced to answer wishes. Or maybe he freed himself long ago, only no one told them."
[Golem]: "So, it's just stories now. And perhaps the humans did create their God. But does that make him less real? Take this arch. They created it. Now it exists."
"Yes, but it doesn't grant wishes, he said. "It doesn't do anything."
"True," she said. "But I look at it, and I feel a certain way. Maybe that's its purpose."
The plot kept me turning pages but conversations like the example above made me wince a little. The book wasn't entirely disappointing, but I had hoped to enjoy it more.

Readalikes: Sailor Twain (Mark Siegel); Cairo (G. Willow Wilson); The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey); The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope (Rhonda Riley); and the Bartimaeus books (Jonathan Stroud).

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta

In her debut short story collection, Happiness, Like Water, Chinelo Okparanta writes tenderly about all kinds of Nigerian women. They are brave, humble and filled with longing, but true happiness seems beyond their reach.

"'Happiness is like water,' she says. 'We're always trying to grab onto it, but it's always slipping between our fingers.' She looks down at her hands. 'And my fingers are thin,' she says. 'With lots of gaps in between.'"

That excerpt is from 'Grace', one of two stories about lesbian relationships. The other is called 'America'  and it's my favourite in the collection. Okparanta deftly captures complex emotions. Two women fall in love in Nigeria, where "there are penalties for that sort of thing." But if one follows the other to the relative safety of being with each other in America, she risks the pain of leaving her beloved parents and homeland behind. 'America' also has the most political content: the issue of environmental pollution from the petroleum industry in both Nigeria and USA.

Readalikes set in Africa: Daughters Who Walk this Path (Yejide Kilanko); No Sweetness Here (Ama Ata Aidoo); and similar intimate short stories from other parts of the world: The Best Place on Earth (Ayelet Tsabari); Canary (Nancy Jo Cullen); Monstress (Lysley Tenorio); Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri); In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Daniyal Mueenuddin).

Friday, October 18, 2013

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf by David Almond and Dave McKean

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf is a cheeky creation fable by David Almond, lavishly illustrated by Dave McKean.

McKean's use of texture in the opening pages is exquisite.

"Long ago and far away, in a world rather like this one, there were three children: Harry, Sue and Ben."

"The trouble was, the gods who had made the world had become rather fat and rather too pleased with themselves."

While the gods lie around on clouds, sipping tea and nibbling cakes, the children discover that they can create marvellous things too.

This would make a great family read-aloud and also a catalyst for discussion about the power of imagination.

Readalikes: There Is No Dog (Meg Rosoff); Mr and Mrs God in the Creation Kitchen (Nancy Wood and Timothy Basil Ering); Harold and the Purple Crayon (Crockett Johnson).

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

The Ghost Bride is an atmospheric debut novel by Malaysian-born Yangsze Choo.

Li Lan is a young woman in colonial Malaya who becomes entangled in the affairs of the spirit world when an evil ghost is determined to have her as his bride. The convoluted plot reminded me of a Cantonese opera that I attended in Singapore, but without the opera's farce. Li Lan is a plucky and sympathetic character, an innocent who learns quickly to beware those around her because few are who (or what) they seem.

One of the traditional stories that Li Lan has enjoyed since she was a child is about the cowherd and the weaver girl. A comics retelling of this tale can be found in the collection Once upon a Time Machine (Dark Horse): "The Shepherd and the Weaver Girl" is by Saajan Patel and Jim Giar.

Readalikes: Half World (Hiromi Goto); Stardust (Neil Gaiman); Tea with the Black Dragon (R.A. MacAvoy); and the supernatural elements in The Hundred Secret Senses (Amy Tan) and The Woman Warrior (Maxine Hong Kingston). The Ghost Bride also has a similar feel to Miyazaki's anime film, Spirited Away.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchannan

A poverty-stricken trio of sisters who come of age in 19th-century Paris and inspire the artist Edgar Degas; that was enough to hook me into reading The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. Actually, I listened to the Blackstone audiobook, even though I own a paper copy, because I loaned the book to a friend in order that she could read it in time for our book discussion last night. (There are currently 113 holds for it at the Edmonton Public Library.)

Three narrators -- Cassandra Campbell, Julia Whelan and Danny Campbell -- contribute to the audio production, which I downloaded via the library's subscription to Hoopla. It's 12.5 hours long and kept me enthralled.

Buchanan centers her story on a real person, Marie van Goethem, who posed for Degas' famous statue, the one called Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. (See art images mentioned in the book on the author's website.) Marie and her sisters are realistically portrayed, scrabbling to survive in their miserable situation. Fierce bonds of love, their dreams for the future, and the disillusionment of betrayals make for an emotional tale. At our book discussion, we agreed that the happy ending was implausible, but the alternative would have been very sad indeed.

Readalikes: The Little Shadows (Marina Endicott); Les Miserables (Victor Hugo).

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden's The Orenda is set during the time of enormous upheaval for the Wendat indigenous people (called Huron by the French). Trading contact with Europeans -- and the subsequent disease epidemics, the arrival of Jesuits in their midst, escalating hostilities with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations, and agricultural setbacks: all of these things are the devastating stuff of The Orenda. It's a brutal book.

Boyden lets readers know the date by including Samuel de Champlain as a minor character and later mentioning his death. (Champlain died in 1635; I looked it up.) I have personal context, because my maternal ancestors arrived in New France in 1666 (le Sieur, now Desaulniers) and 1669 (Charron). Also, a Huron woman is listed in my family tree.

The story is told in three alternating voices: Bird, a respected Wendat warrior; Snow Falls, the Haudenosaunee girl that Bird adopts after he has killed her parents and brothers; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary. These characters and the other people they interact with are vividly real.

Bird's conversations are in his head, addressed to his dead wife. I found it best not to look too closely at this conceit, because it didn't always ring true. "Both in these fields and the new ones a day's walk from here, we plant the three sisters. The corn, if rains come, will be waist high when I leave in the summer, the beans showing off their lush leaves, and the squash blossoms blooming the colour of the setting sun."

In an example of synchronicity between books that I experience so often, I encountered the following passage in Eating on the Wild Side (Jo Robinson) when I set down The Orenda (to take a break from its violence):

"A number of North American tribes planted corn, beans, and squash in a single mound, a technique we now refer to as companion planting. The Wyandot people, renamed Hurons by the French, were masters of this art."

Christophe keeps a journal addressed to his Father Superior: "In matters of the spirit, these sauvages believe that we all have within us a life force that is similar, if you will, to our own Catholic belief in the soul. They call this life force the orenda. That is the fascinating part. What appals me is that these poor misguided beings believe not just humans have an orenda but also animals, trees, bodies of water, even rocks strewn on the ground. In fact, every last thing in their world contains its own spirit."

Boyden's book is infused with spirit. It is the kind of historical fiction that puts you right there in the middle of everything and then haunts you after the covers are closed.

Readalike: Fools Crow (James Welch); Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel).

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories by Simon Rich

"It doesn't matter if you're a caveman, time traveller, or space alien: sooner or later, some girl's going to break your heart." -- from the blurb inside the dust jacket of The Last Girlfriend on Earth, a witty collection of very short fiction by Simon Rich.

What I love most is Rich's good-natured humour. These brief stories are sweet, rather than sharp. Here's one in its entirety:

Man Seeking Woman
You are an intelligent woman, with a sweet and caring soul. You're mature and sophistacated, but you know how to let loose and have a good time. Your first name is Chloe.
I am a thoughtful, intelligent guy with a sense of humour. I like to stay up late talking about the big questions. I have a large, irremovable tattoo of the word 'Chloe' on my chest form a previous relationship.

Readalikes: Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (Etgar Keret); Anthropology (Dan Rhodes); The Lover's Dictionary (David Levithan); and Super Spy (Matt Kindt).

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Mary Roach, author of Packing for Mars and other lively books about science, has done it again. This time, with Gulp, Roach turns her boundless curiosity on the subject of digestion.

While investigating the topic, Roach hung out with the kind of people who throw a Gut Microflora Party. She spoke to law enforcement officers and prison inmates about rectal means of transportation. ("Well over a thousand pounds of tobacco and hundreds of cell phones are rectally smuggled into California state prisons each year.") Roach tracked down historical accounts (and debunkings) of people who survived being swallowed by whales. She checked out a nutritional extract made from seabird guano. (Instructions are given to use it sparingly, or it "will be as repugnant as pepper or vinegar.") Want to know the world's riskiest menu items? Gulp is full of interesting stuff like that.

Best of all is Roach's zany wit. "On the African veldt, fats, sugar and salt were not easy to come by. That, in a nutshell, explains the widespread popularity of junk food. And wide spreads in general."

If you find the cover image unpleasantly gross, you might find the contents even more so. But come on!  Learning more about what's inside our bodies is fascinating, especially with Roach as a tour guide.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

I'll Seize the Day Tomorrow by Jonathan Goldstein

Jonathan Goldstein of CBC's WireTap counts down the weeks in the year leading to his 40th birthday in I'll Seize the Day Tomorrow. He is quirky and flawed and muses upon the existential as well as the mundane.

"I've just finished moving all my stuff into the new apartment, and deciding where to put certain personal effects is proving difficult. Where to place the empty box of Reese's Pieces that contains a doodle I'm rather fond of? In my old apartment, it just sat under the couch."

"In celebration of spring, I've shaved my head again. After work, I meet up with Gregor for a drink.
     'Again with the shaved head,' he cries at the sight of me. 'You used to have funny hair -- hair that a person could laugh at. You might as well kiss your comedy career goodbye.'
     'First of all,' I say, 'I'm not a comedian. I'm a humorist.'
     'What's the difference?'
     'A humorist is a comedian who doesn't necessarily make you laugh.'"

Introspective with more than a touch of the absurd, Goldstein makes me laugh.

Readalikes: Don't Get Too Comfortable (David Rakoff); I Know I Am But What Are You? (Samantha Bee); Funny Misshapen Body (Jeffery Brown); and Canadian Pie (Will Ferguson).

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

The booming Chinese economy draws hopefuls from all over southeast Asia. In Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw interlaces the stories of four Malaysians with big dreams who are working in Shanghai. The connections between them are slowly and masterfully revealed.

As at the end of Aw's earlier novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, the finished puzzle seen by readers remains invisible to his characters. Yet Phoebe, Jason, Gary and Yinghui are real and sympathetic characters. Aw treats each one with loving warmth, making it a joy to get to know them.

Phoebe arrived in Shanghai to find that the job she had been promised wasn't there. She is diligent in her efforts to improve herself, to rise above her impoverished childhood and lack of education.

"She bought a few self-help books, cheap counterfeit copies being sold on the pavement near the subway station in Tiantong Lu, such as Sophistify Yourself."

"Sure, the handbag was a fake, but it was a very high-quality copy, which had cost her a lot of money -- chao-A counterfeit goods were expensive and difficult to obtain these days, what with the Europeans putting pressure on the Chinese government to ban such items. This was what the shopkeeper had explained to her in order to justify the cost of more than 1,000 kuai. She remembered being astonished at the time by the price, nearly five times what she had paid for her existing bag, which she had purchased in a market in Guangzhou and was exactly the same brand. But she was in Shanghai now, and everything was more luxurious and more expensive."

Jason works for his family's international business and struggles with the expectations that have been forced upon him. When the company's fortunes take a nosedive, Jason also crashes.

"He clicked on his in-box to look at his emails -- the first time in weeks that he had done so. He calmly waited while the emails loaded, not panicking as he had done before, feeling strong enough to deal with whatever appeared. Even when he saw the number of unread emails -- 3,281 -- highlighted in bold font, as if to emphasize his negligence, he felt unruffled. He scanned the pages swiftly; he could sense three or four calling out to him, like ailing antelope in a herd of thousands whose weak bleating drew the attention of the predators. They were from his brother, imploring him to come home."

Gary is a pop star sensation who derives no satisfaction from his concerts or his fans. He connects to the world only anonymously, online.

"In front of him, little windows announce themselves on the screen of his laptop, popping into existence like beautiful, short-lived nighttime flowers."

Yinghui has worked hard to establish herself as a successful business women, but she is haunted by her past.

"Sooner or later the frantic somersaults of fortune have to end and the restlessness of desire fades. It was time -- so all her friends said -- that she started settling down. Such a strange expression, she thought: settling down, as if she were silt in a warm river, sinking slowly to the muddy bed."

As Phoebe, Jason, Gary and Yinghui struggle to reinvent themselves, they are manipulated by outside forces. Five Star Billionaire, longlisted for the Booker this year, is a novel as vibrant and confounding as life in a mega-metropolis can be.