In need of a gripping new page-turner for your bookshelf this month? Check out our choice reads out in Singapore this November, plus writerly happenings around town…
How to Build a Girl
Ebury Press | 343 pages
By the best-selling author of How to Be a Woman (2011), who is also a popular columnist for the The Times in London, this laugh-out-loud novel was a good choice for my book club – even the more hard-core elements of which were awestruck by its extreme rudeness, and that’s saying something.
It’s about the adolescent coming of age of 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan, equally determined to rise above the penurious existence of a dole-reliant Midlands family in Thatcher’s England and to shed her despised virginity. Johanna’s way out involves escaping to London and re-inventing herself: into the feisty, cigarette-smoking, hard-drinking Dolly Wilde, vitriolic critic for music magazine D&ME.
Having been a nineties teenage music critic herself, the author’s inside experience shines through in a realistic evocation of the mood and artists of the era. Full marks, too, for Moran’s full fleshing-out of Johanna-Dolly’s parents and gay brother – no mere drunken, on-the-dole caricatures here. As much as it’s about identity and the painfulness of the adolescent quest to “find oneself”, this is a novel about class.
It’s also about sex – a lot of sex, including the most graphic passages on masturbation you may ever have read and a wincingly hilarious encounter with an unfeasibly large penis.
Marshall Cavendish | 167 pages
Shojin means vigour and ryori means cuisine; together, the term shojin ryori refers to the cuisine that originated from the Japanese Buddhist temples in the sixth century. Today, it’s popular throughout the world thanks to its selection of healthful and well-balanced meals prepared without fish, meat, eggs or dairy products; in fact, the concept derived from the Buddhist principle of not taking life – and minimising any wastage of ingredients – which makes shojin ryori a great option for vegetarians and vegans. One key aspect of shojin ryori is its great emphasis on preparation and presentation, and drawing out the natural flavour and colours of each ingredient, to captivate all five senses.
Intrigued by this art of Japanese Zen cooking, Chef Danny Chu left his corporate career as a foreign currency trader and followed his passion to Japan. With some hard work and determination, he mastered the traditional Zen temple cooking style and became the first shojin ryori chef in Singapore, running Enso Kitchen for several years.
In his new book, Chef Chu shares the history and explanations behind shojin ryori, and with clearly written, step-by-step instructions, illustrates how to transform simple ingredients into creative, flavourful and nourishing shojin ryori meals. The book’s clean, easy-to-follow format – complete with over 50 recipes, a glossary of fresh and dry ingredients, and a weight and measures chart, plus insightful culinary tips – means even cooking novices like myself can make delicious dishes like cabbage rolls, carrot croquettes and daikon rolls without feeling intimidated.
Rojak – Stories from the Singapore Writers’ Group
Compiled by Alice Clark-Platts
Available from Amazon as an e-book or limited-run paperback and in selected Singapore bookstores
This anthology of 19 short stories embodies its title – rojak is a Malay term meaning mixture – and just like the famous dish, this disparate collection somehow works and comes together nicely as a whole.
The stories take you to an array of destinations as far-flung as the nationalities of their authors. Both of what I feel are the two strongest stories in this collection, “Lions in the Morning” by Alice Clark-Platts and “Africa Sucks” by Tara Mitchell, are set in Africa, one in colonial times and one in contemporary Mozambique; both stories are astutely assured and each one leads to a denouement that astonishes the reader.
Ta’afuli Andrew Fiu’s “Not my Mother” and S. Mickey Lin’s “Adrift” are evocative tales focussing on the pull of family memories. “Not My Mother” takes place aboard an aeroplane and is told from the point of view of a child; “Adrift” takes place aboard a patrol boat where a Singaporean immigrant faces refugees from his former home country in circumstances similar to those he once experienced.
“A Deviation” by Vincente Miguel Locsin features a jet-setting businessman passing through Singapore on a brief visit, and is a heart-warming distraction after some of the heavier pieces.
Two other excellent stories, “Mr Lim and Minah” by Kim Ong S.K. and “Mangala” by Sarah Salmon touch upon the lives of domestic workers from differing points of view. Also worthy of mention is “New Guinea Gold”, a clever and amusing story about the cockeyed plan of a student and his girlfriend to trade arms for drugs.
Some of the pieces are very brief and read more as vignettes or as a taster of the author’s budding potential. Others leave too many questions, looking like the beginning of a larger work.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed this quirky collection. Each story is accessible and intriguing, perfect to read while waiting in a queue or out and about on public transport. A number of the authors are already published, either working in the field or seasoned bloggers, and no doubt the others will continue to be nurtured and spurred on by this diverse and inclusive writing group.
Signal Press | 331 pages
This extraordinary thriller starts in a Cairo souk, where the disguised Ambassador of the US to Singapore and the mysterious old man X hold a covert meeting about a supposed Israeli plot to assassinate the Israeli Prime Minister during his approaching official visit to Singapore.
Who’s their inside man? One Chan Boon Seng, smilingly villainous chief protocol officer of the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To take the rap for the assassination, he’s singled out Eurasian Jet West, a local lifestyle magazine editor and modest watch-collector who’s had the temerity to apply for a licence to publish an independent newspaper. (“Jet knew that women dug his good looks.” And his first appearance is in a mauve jacket. Yes, mauve.)
Complete with a Bond-style string of attractive female characters, only a couple of whom manage to survive the ingeniously murderous exploits of Chan’s tame killer, the schizophrenic psychopath Fung, the plot zings from Singapore to the Israeli desert and Jerusalem’s old Muslim quarter, Buenos Aires, South Australia’s Murray River, Chan’s Indonesian island fortress Pulau Jakaba, and perhaps a couple more.
It’s enjoyable to follow the plucky Jet evading capture in various familiar places, be it in his flashy black Miata, atop a stolen police bike or on foot. He drops into a Tourism Board soirée at Sands Sky Park, (almost) dines at the Alkaff Mansion, finds temporary sanctuary in St Andrew’s Cathedral belfry during a blistering action sequence through the colonial district, and visits an underground Chinatown opium den run by a Brummie* ex-broker-turned-passport-forger.
Jake Needham, author of two novels set in the police and security services of Singapore, says Smokescreen is “nearer to the truth of that closely controlled little country than you might believe”, and that it’s “a gripping and creepy tale of how governments can rig the way we all see the world”.
However true that may be, this could be a cracker of a movie, one to rival Saint Jack. Would permission be granted, this time?
* Native of Birmingham, England.
The Forbidden Game – Golf and the Chinese Dream
Oneworld | 320 pages
I played golf in China for the first time back in 2001, next to the Ming Tombs on the outskirts of Beijing. As we drove along the laneway to the clubhouse, half a dozen villagers leapt out from behind trees and approached the car. They were wielding second-hand golf balls that they’d found in the surrounding vegetation and were selling in a clandestine fashion. We bought a dozen or so, and promptly hit them straight back into the out-of-bounds areas, where they would be collected again, and sold again.
At the time, the course we played on was one of only a tiny handful in the country. And it was empty. Yet golf, long considered taboo in China because of its bourgeois connotations, was about to boom. Hundreds of new courses would soon open up across the country, and more and more locals would seize upon the opportunities presented by this growth to seek their fortunes – and not just by selling second-hand balls.
It’s this boom – and more than a few subsequent busts – that Dan Washburn documents in his fascinating account. The book revolves around the stories of three vastly different men: Wang, who finds his lychee farm under threat from a massive golf course development; Martin, an American course construction manager who unexpectedly winds up at the forefront of China’s golf scene; and Zhou, a peasant whose life follows a bizarre trajectory from security guard to professional golfer.
You don’t have to be a fan of golf to enjoy the book, because it’s about so much more: rural land rights, corruption, rich versus poor, the environment, and people pursuing dreams. In short, Washburn uses the sport as a window to shed light on all the big issues that China has faced in its meteoric rise.
Flash Fiction Writing
If you’re quick and if you’re lucky, you might still find a place at this 8 November full-day workshop on writing flash fiction, led by brilliant Singaporean author and university lecturer Felix Cheong. It takes place at the Singapore Training and Development Association and costs around $70. For more information and registration, visit alap.bookcouncil.sg.
Singapore Writers’ Festival
“The Prospect of Beauty” is the theme of this 17th edition of the festival, held at SMU Campus Green, the Arts House, the National Museum, the Art Museum and other venues. Featuring award-winning writers such as Raymond E. Feist, Karen Joy Fowler, Paul Muldoon and Naomi Wolf alongside emerging Singaporean and Asian writers, it’s presented in all four Singaporean official languages: English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. From 31 October to 9 November. Tickets from Sistic.
Text in the City Poetry Competition
Fancy yourself as a poet? To encourage the creation of poetry, The Arts House is organising a poetry competition in conjunction with the Text in the City campaign. Write your own poem about a place in Singapore – in any of Singapore’s four official languages – and submit it in either the public or youth category, via the Text in the City app or online at textinthecity.sg, before 25 December 2014. Remember, it must be an original, unpublished work.