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Book reviews: Singapore-based novels, kids’ stories in May 2014

Check out EL’s handy book reviews below for hot tips on the best reads across the island in May.


Singapore Black
William L. Gibson
Monsoon | 255 pages

Billed as the first in a trilogy of “hard-boiled crime novels set in the rough-and-tumble frontier of 1890s Malaya”, Singapore Black offers an interestingly alternative view of the burgeoning Crown Colony – a “polyglot steam-cooker” on the brink of a gang-war bloodbath.

Chief Inspector David Hawksworth heads up the detective branch of the Straits Settlement police force. Orphaned very young, raised and educated in Penang, he is a misfit in white Singapore society; but his local knowhow and linguistic skills give him a unique edge when it comes to murder investigations.

The action starts when a body is found floating in the Rochor Canal. Not an uncommon event in turn-of-the-century Singapore, but the dead man is American – and completely naked. The ensuing investigation reveals a link to the stolen statue of an ancient Hindu goddess, and is pursued through every unsavoury enclave imaginable, including the docklands, Chinatown gang headquarters and opium dens. Weirdly, inexplicably, various unconnected people are being plagued with grotesque erotic dreams.

Parts of this book are not for the faint of heart (like me), with their scenes of more-or-less gratuitous police violence and torture, wide-scale murder and mutilation – even a full-on Tantric cult ritual orgy. But it’s something different, to say the least, and a thoroughly entertaining read.
Verne Maree


Singapore Siu Dai
Felix Cheong; Illustrations by PMan
Ethos Books | 128 pages
We’ve featured Felix Cheong’s poetry and young adult fiction in these pages before, but this book – a collection of 50 short stories of everyday life in Singapore – marks a departure for the award-winning writer. The “Siu Dai” in the title refers to a kopitiam request for coffee with reduced sugar – the implication being that these stories shed light on a more bitter side of Singaporean life.

It’s true to a degree; for example, there’s a section about a gang of Ah Bengs and their nefarious activities – one of the members “spews his speech in a Merlion-style torrent”.

But even the seedy underbelly of the island is portrayed with great humour; I particularly liked the misheard phone call to police from a person reporting a home invasion; was it a “tiger” that broke in, or a “Thai girl”?

Other topics broached in these entertaining vignettes include the aftermath of a “mobile device apocalypse”, when a teenage girl rediscovers her ability to gaze into the distance without the aid of a camera phone, and a sudden shortage of tissue paper stocks that leads to locals taking drastic measures in order to chope their seats at hawker centres.

Quirky, enjoyable stuff.
Shamus Sillar


Silk Road Vegetarian
Dahlia Abraham-Klein
Tuttle | 187 pages
The term “Silk Road” refers to an extensive, interconnected network of trade routes from Asia to the Mediterranean world, culminating in Italy. For 3,000 years, it was an important path for cultural and commercial exchange between China, India, Tibet, the Persian Empire and Mediterranean countries.

Sub-titled “Vegan, Vegetarian and Gluten-free Recipes for the Mindful Cook”, this jewel of a book is a labour of love from a New Yorker whose parents were part of the Jewish community of Central Asia.

You don’t have to be vegetarian to be delighted with Silk Road Vegetarian. Meat-eaters can enjoy the flavourful recipes as starters or side dishes, or for the occasional meat-free meal. But if you do like vegetarian food – and particularly if you’re interested in preparing dishes that are free of meat, dairy, wheat and sugar – you’ll love it. Emphasising the use of spices, legumes, vegetables and grains sourced as close to home as possible, it reflects a culinary philosophy that is good both for the earth and for our bodies. 

What’s more, it’s full of detailed information on spices, preparing tofu and cooking various legumes and grains to perfection. You can whip up your own vegetable broth, tofu mayonnaise or mango chutney, or roast your own nuts. (There might be a better way to put that.) Recipes include the likes of traditional Persian green frittata, roasted eggplant paté, gingered sweet-potato soup and Afghan cauliflower curry.

Perhaps because it’s so easy to surf the internet for recipes as you need them, a new cookbook has to offer something more: it needs to have the kind of vision and soul that propels the reader off the sofa and into the kitchen. This one did that for me.
Verne Maree


Just For Kids
Darcy Moon and the Deep-fried Frogs
Catherine Carvell
Fremantle Press | 124 pages
Children’s author Catherine Carvell lives in Singapore with her husband, two children and two pet turtles. Born in the UK, she grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth.

Darcy Moon is a Year 5 student with some major problems. Apart from lacking cash and the street-cred to fit into the cool crowd at Quagmire Primary, she also has embarrassing parents. Mum has hairy armpits and refuses to wear a bra, and Dad smells of the stinky compost he farms in their backyard. Her lunch is awful, too: squashed lentil burgers instead of something normal, like Vegemite sandwiches.

To cap it all, Darcy discovers that she’s an Earth Guardian who has been chosen to save the local swamp from ecological disaster at the hands of an evil entrepreneur. What would the kids at school say if they found out she’d been talking to frogs and tortoises, endangered or otherwise?

But there’s no escaping destiny: in the end, it’s up to Darcy to fix the food chain, save the swamp and prove that money can’t buy everything. And what do you know – her parents turn out to be not so bad after all.
Verne Maree

Baby Bookworms
Singapore’s first Early Literacy Library has opened at Jurong Regional Library, offering a collection of over 60,000 books and audio-visual materials in four languages – English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil – for children up to the age of six. It’s part of the National Library Board’s Early READ initiative, which encourages parents and educators to instil an early love for reading among their little ones. Look out for its free reading workshops and educational programmes, weekly story-times and performances. 21 Jurong East Central 1, Level 1. Open daily.