Chinese fiction

All posts in the Chinese fiction category

The Ghost Bride – Yangsze Choo

Published June 20, 2015 by bibliobeth


What’s it all about?:

“One evening, my father asked me if I would like to become a ghost bride…”

Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.

Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.

After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim’s handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy—including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever.

What did I think?:

My sister and fellow blogger Chrissi Reads recommended and gave this book to me and I was attracted to it immediately. Not only is the cover absolutely stunning but I loved the synopsis – a little bit historical, Asian fiction with a dusting of the paranormal, sounds like my perfect book! And it was, on so many levels. Our main character is a seventeen girl called Li Lan who lives in 19th Century Malaya (now Malaysia) under British rule as a member of the upper class. Sadly, there is nothing upper class about her situation. She has lost her mother under strange circumstances and her father in his grief has become addicted to his opium pipe and is slowly disappearing from her also. They live in a large, beautiful house that is now slowly crumbling away due to lack of maintenance and her prospects, especially for marriage look entirely gloomy. Her only comfort is her old Amah who has been with her since her birth but even she, fiesty though she is, cannot hope to influence her father as he slides further and further into addiction.

One day, her father calls Li Lan in and mentions that he has had an interesting offer from the rich Lim family concerning a match for her. The unfortunate thing is that the bridegroom to be is their dead son, Lim Tiang Ching. Yes, you read right. Dead. Her father says that he instantly refused the proposal but he worries as at least it would have meant that Li Lan would have been provided for for the rest of her life. Li Lan is horrified but agrees to just pay a visit to the Lim household as a courtesy. On arriving, she is stunned by the magnificence of the house, the surroundings, the food she is offered and the servants who cater to her every whim. She also finds something she was not expecting – to fall in love. No, not with the dead son, with a very much alive cousin and heir-to-be, Tian Bei. After meeting him, albeit briefly, she decides there is no way that she could ever become the wife of a dead man, especially one so repulsive as Lim Tiang Ching who begins to invade her nightly dreams, insisting that she should be his wife.

Li Lan continues to refuse him – it’s just a dream, right? However, he becomes angrier and more harassing on each visit and soon she becomes drawn into the spirit world, leaving her shell of a body behind as a living ghost. Stuck between two worlds Li Lan meets with a kindly and enigmatic guide, Er Lang who sends her to The Plains Of The Dead, a hideous place where spirits wander before being judged. This harks back to Chinese mythology where after death, spirits must go to the Courts of Hell to atone and be punished for any sins committed. After an indeterminate amount of time, depending on the severity of the sin, they then enter the reincarnation stage where they are born again to a life of comfort or poverty depending on how they behaved in their past life.

“I had seen some of the painted hell scrolls that depicted the gruesome fates awaiting sinners. There were people being boiled in oil or sawed in half by horse and ox-headed demons. Others were forced to climb mountains of knives or were pounded into powder by enormous mallets. Gossips had their tongues ripped out, hypocrites and tomb robbers were disemboweled. Unfilial children were frozen in ice. The worst was the lake of blood into which suicides and women who had died in childbirth or aborted their children were consigned.”

When I read up a bit further on this superstition, I also found that one could be punished for the sin of “misusing books,” which I found amusing and fascinating! See guys, I told you dog-earing was wrong! Anyway, Li Lan must carry out various tasks in the spirit world whilst trying to avoid demons with ox for heads and corrupt Hell officials who are baying for her blood. Li Lan learns so much about herself and the mystery of her family as she navigates her way through the dangerous Plains but she must hurry. If she does not complete her tasks within a timely fashion, the fragile link between her body and the spirit world will be severed and she will be trapped there forever.


Diyu – a version of hell in traditional Chinese culture, during the Tang dynasty this increased to 134 hells with 18 different levels of pain and torture with Levels known as the Chamber of Tongue Ripping, The Chamber of Scissors, The Chamber of Iron Cycads, the Chamber of Mirror, Chamber of Steamer, Forest of Copper Column, Mountain of Knives, the Hill of Ice, Cauldron of Boiling Oil, Chamber of Ox, Chamber of Rock, Chamber of Pounding, Pool of Blood, Town of Suicide, Chamber of Dismemberment, Mountain of Flames, Yard of Stone Mill, and Chamber of Saw.


Hmm, not a place I fancy visiting any time soon.

I began this book with such high expectations and I’m delighted to report that what I read exceeded those. Yangsze Choo has woven a mesmerising tale which is beautifully descriptive in its historical detail and brilliant in plot execution. I love learning new things about different cultures and this was one of those books which explains everything so simply to the reader without ever feeling patronising. I found all the superstitions and folklores fascinating, especially the burning of offerings to appease the “hungry ghosts.” I can’t believe that this is the authors debut novel, the writing is so accomplished and in no way amateur. The whole book is fresh, exciting and like nothing I have ever read before, even the ending (although surprising) is totally unexpected and original. I can’t wait to see what she does next, I know I’ll be snapping it up immediately.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):


Songs Of Willow Frost – Jamie Ford

Published May 15, 2015 by bibliobeth


What’s it all about?:

Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese-American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.

Determined to find Willow, and prove his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigates the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive, but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.

Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery. Jamie Ford’s sweeping book will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.

What did I think?:

I first came across Jamie Ford in his amazing debut novel, Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet which received global acclaim and deservedly so. As a result I was really excited when my sister Chrissi managed to get her paws on a copy of Songs of Willow Frost and urged me to read it as soon as possible. It tells the story of a young orphan called William who was left in the care of the nuns at the Sacred Heart orphanage in Seattle following the death of his only surviving parent, his mother Liu Song. Life at the orphanage isn’t easy but William doesn’t really know anything different, having only hazy and vague recollections of life with his mother. Then comes a day that will change his life and what he believed about himself and his mother forever.

On one day each year (which is decided to be the birthday of all the orphans) they are taken out into the city for a treat – to watch a film in a theatre. William is excited to be away from the orphanage for a while anyway but as he watches the actress on the screen, he becomes utterly convinced it is his mother. Although he is slightly puzzled why he has been told that his mother is dead for all these years he is mostly overjoyed that he appears to have a second chance with her. With the help of his blind friend Charlotte (who is probably my favourite character) the two children run away from the orphanage and into the streets to begin the hunt for Liu Song. As they edge closer to her whereabouts William realises that there are many questions that have to be answered: why was he left at the orphanage in the first place and who exactly is this woman who claims the title of his mother? Yet William must be careful and dampen his expectations somewhat as Liu Song has had a complicated and traumatic upbringing that will give him the answers about his adoption but perhaps not the answers he wants to hear.

I think it must be really hard for authors if they have had such a successful debut novel like Jamie Ford. No matter what, the second novel is always going to be compared to it and it must be quite a lot of pressure to be under as an author. If I was to compare the two I have to confess that I do prefer Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet but this does not mean that Songs of Willow Frost is a bad book – far from it! I love books that are set in a different time period from the present and I hadn’t read anything recently that was set in 1920’s U.S.A. at the time of the Depression so it was a very interesting insight to the States at that time. William and his friend Charlotte are beautiful characters although at times they came across as a bit too adult in their way of thinking. I don’t know if this was a deliberate ruse by the author to illustrate the difference in development when raised quite strictly by nuns in an orphanage versus the usual Mum, Dad,brother, dog (insert your own favourite animal/sibling here).. family relationships. Even so, there were instances where what the children were saying/thinking didn’t feel realistic enough as their manner of speaking was just very adult. This is just a minor niggle though.

I loved that we got to read the back story of Williams mother, Liu Song especially because what she went through as a young woman was so traumatic and was very effective at tugging on my heart-strings. I also enjoyed that the author fed us tid-bits of information through the novel leading us to pose questions and feel slightly wary about Liu Song (standing sternly and protectively in front of William…oh maybe it was just me that imagined that?!) As Liu Song relates her history, the jigsaw pieces start to come together and yes, there are reasons behind her actions. William does not necessarily want to hear these reasons but it is something he must do if he is ever going to achieve any closure on this issue. I did wish that there had been a bit more of a build-up to William meeting his mother and I’m not sure why the author resolved everything quite early on but maybe I just missed something. This is still a terrific read that fans of Hotel are going to enjoy and I’m sure will bring new fans to his work. Looking forward to the next one.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):