Favourite romance reads of 2016

2016 has got to be the year of the romance novel for me. I must confess sheepishly, that I was one of those people who rolled their eyes at romance novels, declaring them silly and shallow. And yet, I started out my readaholic journey with romances -Judith McNaught, Danielle Steele, Linda Lael Miller and Jude Devaraux were my starter romances. But I began to pooh pooh them after being bitten particularly hard by the literary bug, where I declared fiction that did not change the world was not worth my while.

Fortunately, I have recovered from such delusions and rediscovered the magic of romance novels this year after deciding to read one to break my fiction reading slump (from 2010, I only read non-fiction). Well, golly, it worked and I was swept away by the beautiful magic and I just couldn't stop after that! Here are my favourite romance reads of 2016:

1. CAPTIVE by Grace Burrowes
Hero was tortured for two years by the French. He comes home damaged and well, a little crazy. One day a distant relation - Gillian - comes to his estate and literally bullies him back to health. I love Gillian's strong, no-nonsense personality, and Burrowes captures the pain of PTSD really well. And the hero has got to be the most gentlemanly and kind hero I've ever met. They don't make them like this anymore.

2. NO LONGER A GENTLEMAN by Mary Jo Putney
Again, Putney never fails me! And yes, another hero that was tortured by the French. Hahaha. But the hero is kickass - she literally yanked him out of prison, and together they trudge through dangerous French territory back to England. I literally sighed at the end of the novel - it was that good and I would buy a physical copy just to hug it.

3. A MOST DEVILISH ROGUE by Ashlyn McNamara
I was attracted to this novel because of the cover. No, I'm just kidding. Mine was the super boring UK cover, so there wasn't any sexy butts. But again, strong heroine, who had to face society's condemnation for daring to get pregnant out of wedlock. The hero is a man who sees something beyond her stained reputation. Then there's that convenient cave during a storm. Hot. This is definitely a new author to watch for. 

4. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST by Eloisa James
Sometimes supermarket sushi is what I need, and I definitely love this because of the hero, who is gruff and absolutely rude and without tact. Fortunately, the heroine is as tough as he is.

5. FITZHUGH series by Sherry Thomas
I read the three books of the series in one day - that should tell you how good it is. Yes, yes, miscommunication and lack of talking abounds (like as if we real-life humans do that so well), but the relationships feel very deep and real. The three books, actually, read like one, entwined tale.

Most disappointing book:

TO HAVE AND TO HOLD by Patricia Gaffney
It started so well, Gaffney is an amazing writer, truly. Then the hero tells the heroine: "Don't make this a rape". Yes, it's one of those Old Skool romances where rape is ... I'm not even sure why it's there, really. Was it supposed to be romantic? Sexy? Hot? It was none of that for me and the hero was utterly irredeemable to me after that first rape scene.

 I am surprised that so many people would call this book a classic, and one of the best in the genre. Those who support and talk highly about the book say that the author was painting the picture of a less-than-perfect rake, that as a rake he was what he was. But then, why wouldn't the author paint a real picture of a rape victim? Would a rape victim marry her rapist with love in her eyes?

Perhaps I'm too modern for this book. Perhaps I'm too enlightened, having watching two documentaries of women fighting hard to punish those who raped them, and having society disappointing them again and again because society didn't believe them. Some even thought they deserved it.

After watching these documentaries, there was no way in good conscience can I call this book amazing, enlightening, complex or whatever claptrap description its supporters have foisted on it. This book is perpetuating a dangerous idea in women's heads: That there can be romance after a man rapes you.

Review: Happy City

Finally, after a string of blah reads, I score something truly amazing. I have always loved books about sustainable living, minimalism, and this book combines both of my loves.

Montgomery tells us that happiness is not an accidental thing - sometimes it can be caused by design. Urban living has torn apart village living, tossing people into isolated McMansions, taking away their freedom of mobility without dependence on fossil fuels and thus causing a ripple effect of unhappiness throughout society. But as inspiring as this book is, it's also frustrating because - there are so many things that the powers that be are doing wrong! If only Montgomery was in charge of urban planning. Ha!

But the good thing is the author doesn't leave us stewing in frustration, wishing that we lived in Vancouver or Amsterdam. 

He acknowledges that a lot of work has to be done before the urban sprawl can be repaired and village life be restored, but there are still ways to bend the city to your needs, or to change your life to get that village life you've always craved.

That's why I identify most with Conrad Schmidt, a man Montgomery interviewed, who changed his life bit by bit by instinct. Like him, I felt strangely unhappy in the urban sprawl that was the Adelaide suburb of Colonel Light Gardens. After visiting New York City in the 90s, I've always dreamed of living in the heart of a city; it doesn't matter what city, I just wanted to live where the action was, and where everything is within walking distance.

When I returned to Malaysia, by happy chance I got the opportunity to live in the heart of a small satellite city, something I've been dreaming about for a while. My apartment is a few blocks away from malls, a light rail transit station, a park, a great gym, a community book exchange and wonderful cafes. I made friends with the cafe owners, I walked daily to get my groceries and took trains to the city - I only drove my car to work, and even then my work enabled me to escape the insane KL traffic as I worked odd hours, so work is only a quick 15-20 minutes drive away. 

I've also downsized, got rid of much of my possessions, lived in a much tinier space. All this has a ripple effect in my life. I'm exercising more, spending less, and more content with my neighbourhood. I've never been happier in my life. And now I understood why!
Instinctively, like Conrad, I've re-engineered my life to make myself happier. 

This book also made me realise that maybe Malaysia is heading the right direction - at least in Selangor. The popularity of mixed developments, where residential places are above commercial areas, and light rail transits which snake through these neighborhoods makes me glad. Perhaps one day, one of our cities will be one of the most livable in the world too.

Verdict: This book could help you build a happier life for yourself!

Adventures in Beijing

About two years ago, I was sent to Beijing to cover an acrobatic troupe. I wasn't that thrilled to go there because it was right after the SARS epidemic, and there were rumblings that it was coming back.

Still, it was fascinating to be in the land of my ancestors. I've never been to China up to that point.

The first thing I saw before landing in Beijing was the desert.

After some mountains we saw the city. According to our guide, Beijing is a rather dusty city thanks to the winds that regularly bring the dust from the desert into the city. As a result, most people build windows around their apartment balconies.

Beijing is a big city. In fact, a lot of its buildings are big, probably to cater for the huge population. The train station was just massive, and one could get really lost there. Imagine my utter sadness when I found a building which houses a 5-storey bookstore, and 95% of the books I couldn't read! (I can't read Chinese. Sniff.)

We were brought to the Great Wall of China - or rather, a portion of it. If you could ignore the commercial bits (the selling of cheap trinkets in a corner here and there) one realises that it was amazing being there, knowing one is standing on hundreds of years of history,
that it was there since the days of the first Emperor of China, Shi Huang Ti (or Zhing She Huang, as it is in Mandarin).

Typically, I morbidly wondered if there were any bodies buried in the wall portion I was standing on.

I remember touching the stones - it was icy cold (it was winter then). And then looking up from one of the "towers" and spying portions of the Wall snaking along the mountains far away. It was an awesome sight to say the least.

But the funny thing about being a semi-banana Chinese* in China is that you look like everyone else (except that you got a great tan) but you can't speak the language.

Sure I speak Hokkien, but my Hokkien is a bastardised version with some Malay words and idioms in it, so the folks won't understand me. My mandarin is so-so, but sometimes I get brain freeze and forget my vocabulary!

One thing you've got to be ready when you're in China is the state of its toilets. I hear that it has improved and will continue to improve thanks to the coming Olympics, but it will nevertheless still shock you.

It was torture walking around Beijing city. I had to "tahan" (hold it) a lot because some of the toilets had no doors! No, I'm not kidding you. People just do it in the open. I remember being in that five-storey bookstore, pretty sure that a modern building will have a clean toilet, only to be confronted with a clean toilet ... with no doors! Sometimes people will share toilets too. It's just ... alien, you know? :P

I remember when a friend and I were waiting for the toilet to be available. Two people came out, so we thought there were two cubicles inside. Instead, there were two squatting toilets in a room. You're supposed to "share" the room. My friend got so horrified she refused to go inside!

Then there are the baby clothes. While in the Forbidden City (which you have to visit when you're there) we spied many babies toddling around with their ... genitals exposed. It's most weird. Bizzare. They will be wearing chic outfits, but they have this hole around their privates. Again, another culture shock.

The Forbidden City (right) is probably the best place to visit while in Beijing. It is absolutely massive and I swear you need a day (or two) to visit it. When I went there, I could only explore the Western area of the place. It took us five hours to explore the area!

Yes, it was luxurious, but I can't help but think - as I look at the gold-plated and carved ceiling of the Emperor's room - that it was a luxurious prison.

The concubines were housed in this housing complex, and because of their status, they can only sleep on narrow beds barely big enough for you to turn around in. The Empress Dowager's room was grander, and it was bizzare to know that one of the most powerful women stayed there once.

There was a special man-made mountain there, where fountains bubbled and stairs were carved inside it. There, the concubines could amuse themselves. Darn, that's what people did pre-TV days!

Beijing is indeed very urban, with lots of shiny modern buildings. As with every urban place, it suffers from jams. Baaaad jams. I partly wonder if it's caused by the many suicidal cyclists in Beijing. They would put the New Yorker cycling messaging services to shame.

There I was, in the car, patiently waiting for the light to turn green. And from across the five-lane expressway (the roads are also massive) a cyclist comes charging at us. Just before he is about to hit us, he veers to the right, breezed past a few cars and was on his way to goodness knows where - against traffic, mind you.

And I honestly hope that the people of Beijing has given up the spitting habit - though I honestly don't think so. They spit in rubbish bins, they spit on the road. Every minute while I was in the city, someone would spit nearby. It drove me utterly wild. I wanted to turn around and scream: "Don't you realise SARS is transmitted this way?!"

Well, I had a good time in Beijing - but it was torture as well on account of the toilets. The pinnacle of the trip had to be visiting the Forbidden Palace. It just made me realise how part of this land I was.

PS: Did I also mention that there were a lot of cute men in uniforms everywhere?

* semi-banana Chinese: A "banana" Chinese is a Chinese person who can't speak a word of Chinese. I'm semi; I speak two dialects, but not very well!

Review: Tiger Babies Strike Back

Surprisingly, Tiger Babies Strike Back was rated lowly by some folks on Goodreads, and I think it's unfair.

I suspect that some readers have imposed their expectations on this book. And this book is not a rebuttal to Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. There won't be long treatises on why HER version of parenting would be better than Chua's. 

Instead, this is a book that de-glamourises the Tiger Mom form of parenting. Think that you should be a drill sergeant mum in order to ensure that your kid becomes a success? Read this book before flicking out that whip. You may not like what you see here. Also, this book speaks best to Tiger Babies - people who were children of Tiger parents. They will be affirmed and validated by this book.

Tiger Babies Strike Back is best read as a memoir of a woman's experience of being parented by a Tiger Mum and how that form of parenting has affected her. In many ways I am amazed at how the author's experiences echoed mine - down to the ritual fat shaming by the relatives during the holidays! 

For one, Kim's book has helped me deconstruct and understand so many things - Chinese family dynamics that had frustrated me for ages (and that I now realise is shared by many in the Chinese community) and best of all - the root of my Drive.

It's the Drive that makes so many Chinese kids star students. By many standards I was a star student. I had a scholarship to study in university, was a straight-A student in college, became a freelance writer for the No.1 newspaper in Malaysia when I was 18. Yet, the Tiger parenting that enabled me to be a 'success' warped me in ways that surprise me till this day.

Being a Tiger baby is both good and bad. Good if you happen to thrive on competition. Bad if you happen not to. Good if you revel in the pedestal the family puts you onto if you happen to be No.1. Bad if you're can't meet the sky-high Expectations.

What resonated most with me is Kim's discussion about stoicism, and how many Chinese people valued that characteristic and try to pummel a kid so that they have this "quality". Again, good if you happen to be naturally stoic. VERY BAD if you are a passionate and sensitive person. 

Basically, traditional Chinese parenting only favours a certain type of personality. But even that personality may buckle under the stress. The author writes poignantly about the suicide of super-successful-by-anyone's-standards Iris Chang, and how she suspects that the constant Drive to be No.1 played a part in her undoing.

Because, after a while, you get really, really, really exhausted trying to run that up never-ending mountain, and you just want to QUIT. Unfortunately, in a culture where it's all about "face" and external success, quitting isn't desirable.

Back to the memoir - she does ramble in the last 1/4 of the book, and I found myself skimming the pages. But she comes back with a blast with the epilogue, where she tells Tiger Babies how to "turn to the light" like she did. That epilogue alone is worth the price of the book.

Final verdict: 4 stars. An amazing book that has been unfairly judged by folks who wanted it to be something else.