Greg Isles. William Morrow | 788 pages
It wasn’t necessarily the subject matter that made me pick up this bestseller at Kinokuniya; it was more the ecstatic cover accolades from John Grisham – “a scorching read”, Jodi Picoult, Stephen King, Scott Turow and others. Set now, the plot harkens back to a clutch of unsolved KKK-related race murders in 1960s Mississippi.
It’s a huge book with a large cast of mostly well-drawn characters. Some of them, now in their sixties and seventies, played various roles in those dreadful 1960s events, as we discover through flashbacks. Young protagonist Penn Cage, whose father Tom has now been accused of the murder of an elderly black woman, starts his own investigation, with the help of a local small-time newspaper editor who is the key to discovering the truth.
Although wholly fictional, Natchez Burning! does evoke the history of the times, touching as it does on events like the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It’s a real page-turner – all 800-plus of them – with a storyline so interesting that it stuck in my mind for much longer than the average bestseller. So, in this case, judging a book by its cover was the right thing to do.
Crazy Rich Asians
Kevin Kwan. Doubleday | 416 pages
Set in Singapore and focused on the lifestyle of the elite, this chick-lit novel by Kevin Kwan is definitely a page-turner. On the one hand it’s a voyeuristic insight into the lives of the ultra-rich, but operating underneath it all is a clear social commentary, an exploration of cultural stereotypes and a psychological observation of goings-on in Asian society.
The plot follows the story of Nick, who brings home his ABC – that’s American-born Chinese – girlfriend, Rachel Chu, which sets into motion an onslaught of comedic events, from Nick’s marriage-meddling mother hiring a private investigator to delve into Rachel’s background and family tree to bitchy antics from socialites at hens’ nights. Featuring private jets, big parties and even bigger mansions, this is a book you won’t want to put down – although I would’ve preferred a different ending.
How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? – True Stories of Expat Women in Asia
Edited by Shannon Young. Signal 8 Press | 322 pages
In her foreword, the editor makes the point that expat women’s voices too often go unheard. “We are labelled and dismissed,” she says, “tagalong characters in someone else’s adventure.”
But this is not the whole picture, as she has discovered through the process of choosing these 26 stories from a total of more than 80 submissions. For every expat woman who has lost her career, support network or sense of identity, there’s another who feels freer, safer and more valued in Asia; who innovates, takes control, thrives and makes her voice heard.
Perhaps my favourite is the first. Written in an elegantly succinct style, “Forwarding Addresses”, by New Yorker Shannon Dunlap, who lived for some time in Cambodia, is told in the form of several poignant letters from an expat American woman in Phnom Penh to friends and family back home. One is to the French teacher from whom she failed to learn to speak the language during four years of study; another to her father to say she has at long last learnt to ride a bicycle.
Born and raised in the US, Chinese-American Dorcas Cheng-Tozun finds herself in Shenzhen, reviled by the local community for her lack of Mandarin skills and her relative plumpness, while her tall, good-looking Caucasian husband can do no wrong. In Bangkok, meanwhile, young Neha Mehta blossoms in her newfound liberation from the ever-present dangers of life in India; now able to walk on the streets, take public transport and even go out alone after dark without fear of harassment from men.
From Hong Kong suburbia to the markets of Cambodia, and from Kunming Railway Station to the temples of Nara, this collection of very different voices reflects the rich variety and endless possibilities of the expat condition. An enjoyable and inspirational read.
Tell me a Story!
Guest storytellers at this year’s Singapore International Storytelling Festival (SISF 2014) include Michael Harvey, from Wales, Katrice Horsley, from England, and Kiran Singh Sirah, from the US.
Expect a rich and diverse programme, with the theme Translations: Storytelling – From the Word to the Voice. Highlights include the Asian Congress of Storytelling, workshops for both children and adults, and a master class on Shakespeare to commemorate The Bard’s 450th anniversary.
SISF 2014 runs from 1 to 9 September at The Arts House. For tickets and more, visit www.sisf.bookcouncil.sg.
Paw Prints and the Itchy Spots
Sarah Mounsey; illustrated by Jade Fang. Brindal Books | 32 pages
Eddie is covered from top to toe in lots and lots of itchy, red spots! How did they get there? And how can he stop scratching them? This delightfully illustrated book follows on from Sarah Mounsey’s first two works for children – Purple Paw Prints and Paw Prints on the Magic Sofa, which won bronze in the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards for their Aussie author, who is both a primary school teacher and the mother of three boys.
Peng’s Fun with Chinese Characters for Children
Tan Huay Peng. Marshall Cavendish | 128 pages
It’s one thing to master a few Mandarin phrases, quite another to get to grips with the Chinese script. “Help your child learn Chinese the fun way!” is the subtitle of this little book.
Well-known Singaporean cartoonist Peng introduces more than 100 essential Chinese characters by means of humorous illustrations, with clear explanations and lots of examples. By deconstructing the characters, he shows their fascinating evolution from ancient pictographs and ideographs to their contemporary form. What’s more, there’s a stroke-by-stroke breakdown to indicate how each character is to be written.
Though it’s aimed at children, we’d bet that quite a few adults could enjoy learning from it too.