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Book Reviews: Summer holiday reads in Singapore

From dramatic novels to dynamic recipe books, here’s this month’s shortlist of top reads in Singapore. To check out more handy book reviews, head here.

Holiday Reads
These two novels gripped me from start to finish and continue to linger in my mind. Good candidates for summer holiday reading, though their subject matter is admittedly anything but light.



The Quarry
Iain Banks
Little, Brown | 326 pages

Told through the voice of an autistic youth, Kit, this story centres on his misanthropic and cancer-ridden father, Guy, who gathers together the friends of his youth for one last time before he dies. It was only when The Quarry was being prepared for publication that Banks himself discovered that he was in the advanced stages of gallbladder cancer: a most tragically ironic twist. In true Banks style, authentic characters and a fast-paced plot make this a real page-turner. This is Banks’ last novel, and he will be deeply missed by his legions of fans.

Verne Maree



A Marker to Measure Drift
Aleksander Maksic
Random House | 240 pages

It’s difficult to review this book without giving away too much of its exquisitely crafted story. In the aftermath of Charles Taylor’s regime, we find a young vagrant Liberian woman called Jacqueline living in a cave on the beach of an Aegean island. The tale is an exploration of memories, of hungers – both physical and spiritual; and finally of the human potential for healing. As it reaches its terrible denouement, there is no way to avoid being strongly shaken by the unspeakably dreadful event that lies at the novel’s core.

Verne Maree



Japan’s World Heritage Sites
John Dougill
Tuttle | 189 pages

How wrong it is to think of Japan in terms of big, overcrowded cities like Tokyo – as wonderful as they are, too. Much more of this long, geographically diverse collection of islands is characterised by culturally distinctive villages, rolling countryside, majestic mountains, wonderfully unspoilt national parks and, of course, temples. And shrines. Lots and lots of temples and shrines, each one as fascinating as the next.

John Dougill is a professor at Kyoto’s Ryukoku University, so it would have been a doddle for him to research and photograph the 17 top cultural sites that make the city of Kyoto just one of Japan’s 17 World Heritage sites. (There seems to be something about the number 17 here.)

After that, he set off on a four-month tour of Japan to visit the other 16 sites – travelling the length of the country from the sub-Arctic north of Hokkaido down to sub-tropical Okinawa. This gorgeously illustrated and hugely informative coffee-table book is the result.

Iconic Mount Fuji kicks off the list; next comes the exquisite Itsukushima Shrine, on an island just off the city of Hiroshima, whose apparently floating torii (Shinto gate) evokes harmony with nature. Then follows the Peace Memorial at Hiroshima, the only building to survive the world’s first nuclear blast. Of the remaining national treasures, my favourite is Yakushima Island, a primeval forest with thousand-year-old cedar trees that are photographed here to awesome perfection.

As for the author’s favourite, he was smitten by the volcanic Ogasawara Islands, 1,000km south of Tokyo and uninhabited until they were first settled by Westerners and Pacific Islanders in the 1830s. They were never attached to the mainland, and have been called “a laboratory for evolution” by scientists who study their distinctive flora and fauna.

If you’ve visited one or more of Japan’s heritage sites, this lovely book will make you hanker to return. And if you haven’t yet, it might just put this amazing country right on top of your wish list.

Verne Maree



Living in Singapore, 13th Edition Reference Guide
American Association of Singapore | 463 pages

Updated every two years, this is the indispensable reference guide to living in Singapore. Each of the chapters, from The Big Move and Settling In through to Education, Health & Fitness, Motoring & Transportation, Arts & Culture, Nightlife, Shopping and many more, is a written by a long-term expat with a thorough grasp of his or her subject, and is a comprehensive mini-guide in itself.

Even if you already have a well-thumbed past edition, it’s worth getting the new one – redesigned, updated and still hot off the press. Taking the Education chapter as an example, Rosanne Woodmansee has included invaluable new information, including insider-type advice for those considering local schooling as an option.

I loved Laura Schwartz’s chapter on Lifestyle, particularly her refreshing reflections on the dating scene, LGBT issues, and even “nudity, naturism and swinging”. It was slightly disappointing, though, to learn that sex is strictly prohibited during any gatherings of members of the Yahoo! SgNudClub members.

Verne Maree



Dim Sum: A Flour-forward Approach to Traditional Favorites and Contemporary Creations
Janice Wong and Ma Jian Jun
Gatehouse | 176 pages

Though Chef Janice Wong of Singapore’s 2am:dessertbar is best known for her artistic pastry creations, her latest book, written in collaboration with Chef Ma Jian Jun, focuses on the art of dim sum – a staple of Chinese cooking.

Eager to explore the Cantonese dishes she grew up eating, and intrigued by the variations of flour used in making dim sum, Chef Wong sought out classically trained Chef Ma, who prepares dim sum daily. Together, they came up with a collection of traditional dim sum recipes and others reinvented with Western ingredients – think truffle cheese dumplings, foie gras and cognac dumplings, and snow-skin popcorn balls.

Dim Sum presents the origins, ingredients and techniques behind dim sum through beautifully photographed recipes and accompanying tips, beginning with types of flour – wheat, potato starch, glutinous rice and mung bean flour, among others. Over 80 recipes are organised by dumplings and their various skin textures – crystal, elastic, matte and sticky, for instance – followed by buns, flourless creations and pastries.

It’s obvious that these dishes require some major skills, and this cookbook won’t make the process much easier for those of us who are culinarily challenged. Nevertheless, Chef Wong’s inventiveness is fascinating, and each recipe is showcased as a piece of art. I, for one, plan to keep my copy of Dim Sum on the coffee table, rather than in my kitchen; it’s certainly a great conversation-starter.

Amy Greenburg



Deco Roll Cake Party
Marshall Cavendish Cuisine

This cute and kitsch recipe book jazzes up the humble Swiss roll into a party talking-piece. Japanese graphic designer turned food-blogger, Junko, has made a name for herself by pre-baking patterns onto parchment paper, which is then used as the baking paper to line a Swiss roll tin.

The result is intricately pretty designs on Swiss rolls, the sponge in a range of flavours from vanilla to matcha green tea, filled with cream and fruit. Her first book Deco Roll Cakes and this latest “party book” together offer a variety of cake recipes, fillings and baking tips, plus a collection of patterns from teddy bears to skulls. Simply photocopy the patterns and use them under parchment paper for a shortcut route to baking success.

Beate Baldry