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3.8 out of 5 stars
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3.8 out of 5 stars
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Tash Aw's novels should be so good; he has a great ear for a title; his locations are to die for and his stories are brimming with ideas. But his previous two novels, although entertaining enough at the time, have left not the slightest trace of a memory on this reader's mind. Five Star Billionaire seems to be more of the same.

The novel stars five people (do you see what Tash did there?) who all hope of becoming billionaires. They are all outsiders from Malaysia (though Gary the disenchanted rock star might also have connections with Taiwan) and have all pitched up in Shangai. Their pasts, presents and futures all seem intertwined in degrees of coincidence that would make Dickens blush.

The characters, and there are actually more than five of them, fall into three groups: the men, the women, and Gary. The men: Walter Chau, Justin, the Lims and others all seem much of a muchness. They want to get rich through property deals but have a sensitive side if you look. The women, too, are interchangeable with Phoebe, Yinghui and Yanyan seem to want to make money in the field of make-up, massage, lingerie and dating. You have to keep wide awake to remember which one is which because they sound the same, behave the same and think the same. Only Gary, the rock star who has run away from his management company and is holed up in a darkened flat looking at intimate internet sites offers any relief from the monotony.

As for the settings - the novel bounces from Shanghai to Kota Bharu to Kuala Lumpur. Yet these wonderful cities with their mix of sounds and smells could be anywhere. Where are the images of eaves full of chirping birds and loudspeakers broadcasting the call to prayer in the deeply Islamic city of Kota Bharu? Where are the hoons driving around the town all night hooting their horns, perfectly sober in this dry city? And in Shanghai, where are the bicycle bells, the rows of ancient shops and cottages dwarfed by new developments, the fake pavilions outside the walls of the Yuyuan gardens? It is a criminal waste of locations to let them slip through unnoticed. Were this a first novel, you might say that the creation of a place is a skill still to be learned, but in a third consecutive novel it looks like a real weakness.

So, if the characters are a bit samey and the setting seems a bit bland, what of the story? Sadly, that too is a bit of a fizzler. The various story lines sort of come together at the end and there is supposed to be a bit of an explanation, a bit of a backstory that explains it all. The trouble is, it doesn't. The way the five stars behave towards one another makes no sense. There is no consistency over time and the backstory, when you analyse it, makes no sense.

Five Star Billionaire had its moments; it did create the occasional moment of suspense (invariably left hanging for too long), it did have some witty turns of phrase. For the most part, the novel was not actually boring and sometimes was quite entertaining. But overall, it was not enough. This is the weakest of Tash's three novels, and he seems to be in a bit of a downward spiral.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 April 2013
Phoebe is a fiercely ambitious and highly focused young woman. Gary is a pop star phenomenon whose bubble has burst. Justin is the scion of a powerful property-owning family. Yinghui was once a young idealist now a successful capitalist but a lonely woman. The interwoven stories of these four Malaysians who have come to Shanghai to seek their fortune are linked to one first-person narrative voice: that of enigmatic entrepreneur Walter Chao. Is he the five star billionaire?

Shanghai represents the speed with which the new China is changing and the city is portrayed as ruthless: "stand still for a moment and the river rushes past you". Phoebe depends on self-help books to realise her ambitions yet she, like the city, still tussles with age-old customs. "You must overturn all your old beliefs in order to succeed in life". Like so many of Shanghai's migrant workers, she leads "a floating life" and says, "We all have to do things that sully us while we wait for our real lives to happen."

Tash Aw was born in China, brought up in Malaysia and came to London in his teens. He knows all aspects of the turf and language. His prose is fluid, his paragraphs sustained and he summons up "the fast-forward glitter of Shanghai" convincingly. Certain aspects of his five key characters are contradictory and occasionally puzzling yet nevertheless the narrative compels you forward to a satisfying if guessable conclusion.
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on 18 September 2014
Set in current day Shanghai, this novels tells the story of five migrant workers and how they struggle and sometimes succeed in the cut-throat business arena. All these lives inter-twine or slip past and diverge as the novel goes on.

Phoebe, a girl determined to find a rich husband or boyfriend or at least someone who will buy her the latest designer handbag. She'll stop at nothing to get what she wants including lying and theft.

Justin, property magnet, his family have built a successful business which he inherited until it all goes wrong and he struggles to leave his rented flat. How will he re-build his life when so many people are gloating over his failure?

Gary, a superstar singer who won a talent competition and never looked back. When it all comes crashing down he turns to the internet to find a soul-mate and tries to re-build his life.

Yinghui, a successful business woman who has overcome tragedy to become her own woman, answerable to no one. But at what price?

Walter, a billionaire entrepreneur who writes self-help books to inspire the next generation. He wants to give something back to the community, money no object, will it succeed?

I liked the premise of this book, taking very different characters who seem to have nothing in common and then see how they find or walk past each other in life. My favourite character was Phoebe, she knew what she wanted, tried to get it and then found another path, ok she was a lying, cheating scumbag but at least she was honest with herself. The other characters, I could take or leave, they mostly annoyed me.

So that was what I liked about this book (not much), now onto what I didn't like.

The picture this story paints of Shanghai is not complimentary, everyone is cheating everyone else, pretending to be someone they're not, stabbing each other in the back and only interested in their own success. I hope the real Shanghai isn't like that.

The start of this novel is so confusing, each character has their own chapter (which are reasonably long) so by the time you've read five chapters, you're back to character one who you have totally forgotten and think they're a new character. I resorted to writing down the character's names for each chapter until I saw a pattern. I don't like to have to keep notes in order to follow a storyline.

I found the ending quite predictable, I really didn't care what happened to the characters, so was quite glad to finish, not a good sign.
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on 3 June 2015
I read mixed reviews abut this so to find I enjoyed it was a pleasant surprise. The story follows a number of protagonists making their way in the hustle and bustle of Shanghai with varying degrees (and interpretations) of what success means. They cross paths or graze up against each other all the way through and while it was difficult to see where things might end, I liked it that way. You could say that I'm definitely on the more positive end of the Five Star reviews spectrum and I'd recommend giving this one a go.
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on 29 March 2013
Fascinating and beautifully written, like his two previous novels. Superbly well researched and giving a rare insight into the lives, aspirations and massive challenges facing Malasian Chinese immigrants seeking fame and fortune in the buzzing world that is Shanghai. For me, Aw is the master of this genre, being perhaps one of the few authors who can write with such authority on this subject, drawing on much personal experience of living in different societies. He holds back nothing in showing how hard it is for his characters in an unforgiving new environment, but where the influence of the past can never be truly shaken off. While avoiding sentimentality, he treats his characters with empathy and compassion. A brilliant and rewarding read!
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on 16 September 2013
I enjoyed this book. I was fascinated by the interweaving of different characters in south-east Asian settings which were strange to me yet brought to life by an insightful author. So many of my images of China are so out-dated! And yet it didn't quite live up to the billing. It's a bit of a risk putting 5 Stars in the title...

For me, this was a good book but not quite special enough. It didn't draw me in to the lives of the characters quite enough to be ultimately satisfying. I can imagine wanting to read other books by Tash Aw, but I can't imagine wanting to read this one again. It was good, but not great.

This was the 10th of the 2013 Man Booker longlist that I have read. It was worthy of its place on the list, but I wasn't unduly surprised that it didn't make the shortlist.
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on 28 January 2014
This is a sprawling novel, set primarily in Shanghai. Very well structured, good technical aspects. Strong characters who interact with each other.
A memorable teen pop star who is dysfunctional. Lots of writing around use of internet. Characters that amuse or are tragic.
Asian values satirised. Vivid dialogue and excellent Chinese symbols. That head each chapter.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 28 September 2013
Long-listed for the Man Booker, the story sounded readable. A lot this year didn't. Not having tried this author before I was dubious when seeing the length but very quickly began to enjoy the multiple-plots of the five stories meeting in Shanghai.

Despite the foreign setting, nothing about the writing or context made me feel alienated or out of my depth. The stories of country girl heading to the big city, former billionaire son and pop stars losing their fortune/celebrity, hardworking businesswoman finding her way, and the Five Star Billionaire of the title and how they all connect, was all well-written, engrossing and fascinating.

I really wish this had made the Booker shortlist and the closer I got to the ending and saw Aw's clever knotting of the stories together made me rethink the whole of the book and how the characters all connected. Very clever.

Great book, worthy of winning awards. And very readable. Don't be put off by the setting or the award tag. Good payoff.
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on 12 February 2014
My first novel set in the Far East and i have thoroughly enjoyed it so far. A good sociological novel as it maps out the mindscape of Far Easterners who a lot of people in the west think of as exotic creatures with exotic habits when they are exactly like the rest of mankind in attitude, outlook and desires. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this tome, and as a writer myself i would give Tash AW 5 stars. Great effort!
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on 21 April 2014
Chinese-British writer Tash Aw’s “Five Star Billionaire” is really more a fascinating fictional portrait of modern Shanghai replete with all of its contradictions - a thriving megalopolis which yearns to hold onto its Chinese and Western European past, as it becomes a dynamic economic and cultural beacon of hope and success to countless scores of people across the globe – than it is a novel focused solely on a few protagonists. Here Aw renders Shanghai as both the stage and the key character in his vast, sprawling, novel that introduces us to four different people whose fates become intertwined and, indeed, orchestrated by the shadowy figure of Walter Chao, the “Five Star Billionaire” himself. Aw’s exuberantly descriptive prose and superb storytelling skills offer readers a beguiling fictional portrait of Shanghai as seen through the eyes of each of the five main characters. We are introduced immediately to Phoebe, who arrives in Shanghai with the promise of a factory job, but discovers that the job doesn’t exist, and must survive with her wits intact long enough to attract the attention of Chao himself. Gary is an up and coming pop star who has enjoyed some success, having fled the country for the dazzling lights of Shanghai, but finds his life spiraling out of control as his success begins to ebb. Justin has inherited the reins of his family’s vast real estate empire in Shanghai, but he is torn between adhering to his family wishes and gaining the love and trust of someone whom he has had a crush on for years, Yinghui, a former leftist activist, turned successful businesswoman, who is passionate about preserving Shanghai’s Western European past, even as she contemplates major financial deals with the likes of Walter Chao. Aw may be one of the best literary stylists writing now in the English language as well as a fine storyteller who manages to make readers care deeply about each of the five protagonists in “Five Star Billionaire”; I look forward to reading his earlier novels, “The Harmony Silk Factory” and “Map of the Invisible World”, even as I wonder what else he may write that could match the breathtaking scope of his latest.
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