Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke

This is the life story of Chye Hoon, a Nyonya (Malaysian woman of Chinese heritage) who lives between 1878 and 1941, a time of great change in her homeland.  Initially a willful child who wants to break out of her culture’s tradition (why shouldn’t a girl get the chance to go to school like her brother?), Chye Hoon grows into a young woman whose reputation for temper and independent spirit seem to doom her prospects for marriage.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

But an enterprising matchmaker brings her together with a Chinese immigrant named Wong Peng Choon.  Despite this being an arranged marriage and the pair never actually meeting until the wedding, things work out well.  Peng Choon appreciates Chye Hoon’s cleverness and unwillingness to be cheated, and in return is a good husband.  The young couple moves to Ipoh, a rapidly growing tin mining town.

The next decade or so is good to the couple; Peng Choon is much in demand as an accountant, and Chye Hoon has ten children!  But then Peng Choon must return to China to take care of some family business.  He perishes in that far-off land; while he was careful to make sure that Chye Hoon had enough capital for a couple of years, she knows that raising ten children will soon drain that, and jobs for widows with no formal education are few and low-paying.

Chye Hoon applies her cleverness and cooking skills to the problem, becoming an entrepreneur in the field of tasty kueh (Nyonya cakes of both sweet and savory varieties.)  There are many difficulties involved in making the business a success, but she and her servants make a go of it.

Meanwhile, Chye Hoon must also raise her children, facing times of joy, times of heartbreak and times of great frustration.  In this last category is the increasing  influence of the British over the Malay States as they take firmer control of the government, and increasingly the young people adopt Western ways.   Chye Hoon has become a traditionalist who fears that her people’s heritage will be forgotten in the rush to modernize.

Chye Hoon is based loosely on the author’s own great-grandmother, and apparently many family stories were woven into the narrative.  The parts of the book that give a sense of the time and place are fascinating.  Less helpful is that quite a few of the large cast are underdeveloped or vanish from the story–a couple of the sons get brief mentions at times just to remind us they’re still alive but not doing anything relevant.

The author has made some interesting stylistic choices; uneducated characters use traditional Malayan syntax, while those with formal schooling speak British English.   (Even when they’re clearly not using that language.)  There’s also frequent usage of traditional Malayan filler words and interjections, and the author has chosen to use the older transliteration of some words, as well as some language that is now considered pejorative.  In places, this works well, and in other places it becomes intrusive.  (It also kind of raises the question of just who Chye Hoon is telling this story to at the end.)

The story ends just before the Japanese invasion during World War Two, which gives a pretty obvious cue for a sequel with the surviving family members.

Worth checking out if you are into family saga stories, and especially if you are curious about Malaysian history and culture.

Book Review: Wintersmith

Book Review: Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is a witch in training.  She in some ways is already a very powerful witch, and has endured some hard lessons that required growing up fast.  But she’s also very much a girl who’s almost thirteen.  Miss Treason, on the other hand, is over a century old and has not been a “girl” in a very long time.  So when she tells Tiffany not to move during a dance, it doesn’t occur to her to explain what the dance is or why moving during it is a bad idea.  Tiffany senses a spot in the dance that seems to be shaped for her, and her feet dance her right in.

Wintersmith

That was a huge mistake, as the dance is the change of seasons.  And now the Wintersmith, the personification of winter, has become fascinated by Tiffany.  He sees her as the Summer Lady somehow in his time, and wants to hold her forever.  And if Tiffany doesn’t make it to spring, then spring will never come…..

This is the third Tiffany Aching book within the Discworld setting; the first book in the sequence is The Wee Free Men.  Tiffany is a farm girl who grew up in sheep-herding country called The Chalk.  She’s very practical and straightforward, which serves her well in witchcraft.  (In the Discworld setting, witchcraft, while it certainly includes a heaping of magic, is more about being a “wise woman” who provides skills and knowledge to a rural area.)  On the other hand, she is very young and has many things to learn, and sometimes Tiffany will get her back up and turn stubborn at the wrong moment.

Tiffany is aided as always by the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny blue men that combine the more disturbing aspects of Smurfs with the more violent aspects of highland Scotsmen stereotypes.  They have their own special dialect, and there’s a glossary at the front that also helps readers and parents know what they’re in for with the Feegles.  The tiny men provide much of the comic relief in the book, and are usually annoyances, but they are helpful when pointed in the right direction.

As well, Tiffany interacts with the community of witches, from the fearsome Miss Treason who has mastered the art of Boffo, through the harsh but highly competent Granny Weatherwax and jolly Nanny Ogg to the vain and in way over her head Annagramma.  Each of them has lessons to teach Tiffany (yes, even Annagramma has her uses) and help her on the way in her Story.

And Roland, the baron’s son, Tiffany’s friend who is a boy, comes into play as he has his own problems, but sets them aside for the time being to be the Hero that the Story needs at a crisis point.  His highly unpleasant aunts sound like they will be an issue in the next volume.

The Wintersmith, of course, is the antagonist of the book.  As the anthropomorphic personification of the idea of winter, it isn’t evil.  But Tiffany’s mistake has thrown the Wintersmith out of balance, and unbalanced winter is highly dangerous.  Worse, it’s trying to make itself more human without understanding what that means or caring about the effects it has on others.  It chillingly (pun intended) follows a children’s rhyme about what “makes a man” until it gets to the most important ingredients and just skips those.  It’s both funny and scary when the Wintersmith tells random people “I am a human being.”

A nice twist of the book is that it starts with a version of the final showdown between Tiffany and the Wintersmith, then rewinds the story, reminding the reader “the future is always a bit wobbly.”  When we reach the ending again, things are somewhat different.

This is listed as a “Young Adult” book but should be fine for precocious middle-schoolers on up.  Some parents may be disturbed by references to sex and childbirth (no gory details), but it makes sense in setting; Tiffany’s a farm girl with older sisters in a society that doesn’t shy away from those topics.  But the important thing here is relationships and learning how to say “no” to ones that are not a good idea.  Younger readers should probably start with the first Tiffany Aching book.

Recommended to fantasy fans, young readers and fans of practical, straightforward women.

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