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Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
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Five Star Billionaire (2013)

by Tash Aw

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1934261,059 (3.53)64

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Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
Although I found the story slow going at first, I became more and more engaged with the struggles of the characters and the challenges of making it Shanghai, an uber city among cities. The novel crashed to and end as I found myself trying to turn one...more...page. ( )
  bookweaver | Mar 18, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
his mystery is set in a childrens' group foster home near Oslo. The director has been killed and the focus seems to be on a troubled child who has disappeared. Those Norwegians are a caring and kind bunch of folks, so this is hardly a gritty crime novel, but is an enjoyable read. ( )
  gbelik | Feb 16, 2014 |
This novel didn't really work for me. I thought that the basic premise was clever, and I found the early chapters appealing, but that initial appeal palled fairly quickly.

The story takes the form of five narratives relating the experiences of separate Malaysian émigrés who have relocated to Shanghai. These five include:
· a young woman struggling to make a life in the big city who thinks that her greatest chance for advancement lies in finding a wealthy man,;
· a member of an immensely rich family which has made its wealth through selling insurance and is now looking to cash in on the property boom in Shanghai as it becomes increasingly westernised;
· a successful pop star in his early twenties who, after having a meteoric career seems to have fallen foul of the tabloid papers that had previously eulogised his every act;
· a successful businesswoman who has created an extensive commercial empire but worries that she has sacrificed her private life; and
· a personal development guru who has developed a life plan that can make the most unlikely candidate become a billionaire.

Unfortunately, as the novel progresses each of these characters seemed to become more rather than less two-dimensional, and the plot simply seemed too contrived to be rally plausible. ( )
  Eyejaybee | Feb 2, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I loved Tash Aw's previous novel, "Map of the Invisible World", and I was eager to read this one given its backdrop: the big dreams and harsh reality of today's China. New wealth is being created, but it's being distributed more unevenly than ever before, and the author drills down into the experiences of a range of characters from all parts of the spectrum -- migrant workers, real estate developers -- to illustrate this.

But... the narrative bogs down under its own weight. Before I was 100 pages into it, I felt as if I was slogging through waist-deep molasses. It's perhaps too ambitious: the pacing and tone certainly don't make it easy even for someone as curious as I about the topic to become immersed in the novel. I think it has taken me a record nine attempts to make it 300 pages into the book, and I'm not deriving much pleasure from the process. I think by now I've reached the point where I can write at least a basic review, but it can't be an enthusiastic one. There's a lot of repetition -- this is, by and large, a novel about disillusionment and ambition, with all the ugly underside that you'd expect -- and what was completely missing for me is the kind of energy that is palpable when you are actually in Shanghai, a kind of energy that somehow is twinned with the darkness behind the boom.

So, reluctantly, this is going to end up as a 3 star read for me. I don't feel any real compulsion to finish it. In fact, if I were forced to choose between this and the dentist, I might choose the dentist, if only because he offers nitrous oxide. ( )
  Chatterbox | Dec 31, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
Five Star Billionaire deploys telling detail and idiosyncratic perspective to evoke the logic and feel of contemporary China. The prose is lucid and unhurried, and Aw keeps an impressively tight rein on a sprawling narrative. Besides spanning languages and plots, it is also a primer on popular Chinese culture, covering hallmarks from the zealousness of online communities to self-help books and food stalls.

The interlocking lives of the five Malaysian-Chinese living on the mainland are reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities in how they reveal social gears and levers. Just as Bonfire endeavoured to do for New York City, Billionaire renders a sweeping cross-section of modern Shanghai. But it does so obliquely, giving the measure of the city the way a disease might be revealed through patient histories.

Aw excels at revealing the city's symptoms by layering detail upon detail - for instance, in this image of a rich Shanghainese girl as seen by Phoebe, a poor girl from a remote village in Malaysia: "Phoebe could not tell if she was pretty, but she sat the way a pretty girl would. Her dress was a big black shirt with loads of words printed all over it like graffiti, meaningless sentences … it was horrible but it was expensive, anyone could see that."
 
Five Star Billionaire is a brave, partly successful attempt to capture the size and variousness of Shanghai through the interlocking lives of five Malaysian Chinese immigrants, all searching for money and love: poor, unsophisticated, ambitious young Phoebe; rich, sophisticated, ambitious Yinghui; rich but unsophisticated and unambitious Justin, who is starting to crumble under the pressure of running his family’s commercial empire; pop icon Gary, who has left his poor, unsophisticated roots behind, thanks to a television talent contest, but who like Justin is crumbling; and the billionaire of the title, Walter Chao – the only character to get a first-person narrative, a fact that might put the reader on the alert for signs of unreliability.

Long before the end, the book begins to feel dispiritingly under-imagined. We’re told too often what conversations are like – awkward, cheery – rather than given the dialogue that might enable us to judge; emotions are asserted but unfelt; and the business of moneymaking, around which so much of the novel revolves, is always discussed in the sketchiest terms: a big property deal at the heart of the book is annoyingly unconvincing. Five Star Billionaire contains a lot of useful and interesting information about the way the world wags these days; but are useful and interesting what you read a novel for?
added by kidzdoc | editThe Telegraph, Robert Hanks (Mar 21, 2013)
 
Tash Aw's Five Star Billionaire opens with a bang, not a whimper. Four Malaysians are trying to make it in Shanghai, the new capital of the eastern world – but when we meet them, each of their lives is in freefall. There's Phoebe, the ambitious young Malaysian village girl who passes herself off as Chinese and has arrived in Shanghai on the broken promise of a job and a new life. There's Gary, a "Taiwanese" pop star who finds his fall from grace in a Shanghai bar endlessly replayed on YouTube and is reduced to singing in shopping malls. There's Yinghui, a steely and successful businesswoman whose friends tell her that to really succeed in Shanghai, she needs a man. And, finally, there's Justin, the lonely businessman adopted into a wealthy Malaysian family, who has lost his way while his family have lost their fortune. He and Yinghui knew each other in an earlier life and their reconnection is one of the fine threads that link the characters in this book. Though how many of those threads are held by the fifth character, Walter Chao – the mysterious "I" and author of the bestselling self-help manual Five Star Billionaire – remains to be seen.

Aw is a master storyteller and Five Star Billionaire can be read as The Way We Live Now for our times, for with the global triumph of capitalism, New York and London pale in comparison with the financial behemoth of Shanghai. Like Trollope's Augustus Melmotte, the mysterious Walter Chao has moved his base of operations to the new city: Phoebe, Yinghui, Gary and Justin stand in for the speculators and wealthy families ensnared by his plotting. At 400-plus pages, Five Star Billionaire is only half the length of Trollope's masterpiece. Still, it's a long book; and if there's a criticism to be made it is that the pace is too unvarying. Even where the narrative takes a dramatic turn, it is delivered in Aw's spare, fresh, cool, almost dispassionate prose, which though it succeeds in many ways somehow never quite leaves the page. Instead the characters drift towards their various destinies, caught in the whirlpool of Shanghai. There's more than a hint of fatalism in the air. Even when Yinghui is warned about her new business partner, she fails to conduct the most basic credit check on Walter Chao; she is too desperate, her dream too fragile.

Behind it all, perhaps rather predictably, is a tale of ruin and revenge. But it matters little, because by the time you work out that what you thought was going to happen is indeed going to happen, you realise that Five Star Billionaire is a gentler story than at first appeared: one of lives lost and found, of the transience of material success and the courage required to hope and to trust again, to forgive oneself and to believe in the possibility of love.
added by kidzdoc | editThe Guardian, Aminatta Forna (Mar 8, 2013)
 
At one point in Tash Aw's fine new novel about what people call "the new China" a young woman is trying to photograph herself on her mobile phone in a park in Guangzhou, hoping to enliven her internet dating profile with an image that doesn't make her look like an immigrant factory worker (which she is). An old man who sells tickets for the rowing boats on the lake offers to take the picture for her. He looks uncertainly at her phone. She wonders if he understands how to work it. Then he says: "This phone is so old. My grandson had one just like this three years ago when he was still in middle school." This is the world of the book, where traditional societies seem to have leapfrogged their way into a modernity without signposts, where the past isn't solid enough to build on but too substantial to be ignored.

The five main characters, three men and two women, all come to Shanghai (by some definitions the world's largest city) from Malaysia, though their backgrounds range from old money to rural deprivation. As a title, Five Star Billionaire is close to brash, and the book's storyline could persuasively be pitched to a producer in search of a blockbuster miniseries, but the reading experience it offers is coolly engrossing – with elements of frustrating evasion – rather than propulsive. Tash Aw doesn't exactly kill plot momentum or the emotional impact of the situations he creates, but he certainly keeps them in check. Narrative hints are often indirect, like clues in a detective story, as when a passing reference to a character having written an article deploring the architecture of Gaudí suggests that a conversation almost a hundred pages earlier wasn't in fact spontaneous.
added by kidzdoc | editThe Observer, Adam Mars-Jones (Feb 24, 2013)
 
Mr. Aw is a patient writer, and an elegant one. His supple yet unshowy prose can resemble Kazuo Ishiguro’s. The drawback to the author’s measured attack is that “Five Star Billionaire” is a long book that simmers without ever coming to a boil.

This simmering quality is one that modern readers have grown used to, now that ambitious literary novels so reliably hopscotch among points of view. Our novelists, like our chefs, deliver long sequences of small plates.

That thing that novels do so well, and that caused us to love them in the first place — envelop us, induce us to submit to the spell being cast — is repudiated. Can we pause for a moment to thank Charlotte Brontë for not hitting the shuffle button on “Jane Eyre,” splintering her novel into bite-size arias by Jane, Helen Burns, Mr. Rochester, Adèle Varens and Grace Poole?
 
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The city held its promises just out of your reach, waiting to see how far you were willing to go to get what you wanted, how long you were prepared to wait. And until you determined the parameters of your pursuit, you would be on edge, for despite the restaurants and shops and art galleries and sense of unbridled potential, you would always feel that Shanghai was accelerating a couple of steps ahead of you, no matter how hard you worked or played. The crowds, the traffic, the impenetrable dialect, the muddy rains that carried the remnants of the Gobi Desert sandstorms and stained your clothes every March: The city was teasing you, testing your limits, using you. You arrived thinking you were going to use Shanghai to get what you wanted, and it would be some time before you realized that it was using you, that it had already moved on and you were playing catch up.
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Dreaming of love and success in rapidly changing Shanghai, four individuals--a starry-eyed waitress, a wealthy developer's son, a pop artist, and a poetry-loving activist--confront unexpected realities in regional challenges.

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