The Ambassador’s Wife, Jake Needham’s crime novel set in Singapore, begins with a coincidence. A police sergeant rings Inspector Samuel Tay to inform him of a murder that has taken place at the Marriott Hotel; Tay happens to be a few hundred metres from the hotel at the time, browsing the shelves of a used bookstore on the third floor of Far East Plaza.
And this is one of the striking things about Jake’s five crime novels. While the characters might be fictional, the locations are as real life as it gets. The author has lived in Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok, and the landmarks of those cities are vividly portrayed in the books.
“To me, one of the cool things about fiction, whether I’m a reader or writer, is that sense of identification,” says Jake. “I was speaking at a school in Hong Kong one day when a kid came up and said, ‘I never read novels, but someone gave me yours; I was reading it on the tram today and I looked up and saw the building that you were writing about, just outside!’ I could see the kid suddenly twig that fiction isn’t just Charles Dickens in a classroom – it’s something you can connect to your own life.”
Readers of this magazine are likely to connect not only with the places in Jake’s novels but also with the portrayal of the “expat experience”.
“That’s what I like about my Jack Shepherd series,” says Jake. “There aren’t many books about the process of being an expat, and the dealing with day-to-day things. But Shepherd character is just a guy, like me, who ended up in Asia on a whim.
“I’d say the hardest thing about being an expat isn’t cultural or emotional. It’s the damned logistics. If you can solve that problem, you’re okay. Wherever you are, you’ve got stuff to deal with – trivial stuff that requires your attention in different places at different times.”
But Jake has been an expat in this part of the world for 25 years. Surely it gets easier over time?
“I guess the honest answer is yes, but it’s balanced by getting older. As you get older, your tolerance for crap decreases markedly – and part of expat life in Asia is about having a high tolerance of crap, because many things don’t make sense! The easiest thing to do is to skate through it. But as you get older, you feel less inclined to do that.”
Jake’s tolerance has been tested in another way, too: by a series of film offers that have come his way, only to never get off the ground for one reason or another.
“I think my novels attract film people because I write in scenes. My first book, The Big Mango, went very close to being made into a film, starring James Gandolfini – it was while he was still working on The Sopranos. But then the producers thought they could get someone bigger for the film, and so it got dropped.
“That’s the problem with films. The material – the book itself – doesn’t matter. It’s all about getting the ‘big guy’. If Brad Pitt wants to do it, they’ll make a film out of the Cleveland phone book.
“In the last two days, I’ve had film enquiries from people in California, India and Hong Kong. The guy from India has his own talk show – he’s like the Jay Leno of India. As a writer, though, all I can really do is say, okay, that’s interesting, and if someone shows up with a cheque and a deal, fine.”
In the meantime, he’ll stick to books – and, these days, e-books.
“E-books are important,” says Jake, “because they’ve changed the relationship between writers and readers. A few years ago, publishers and distributors were the ‘gatekeepers’ – they were the only ones who could get your book out there, and unless you rode that train, you didn’t exist. Retailers were so powerful that publishers would test different covers on them to see if they liked them. The dirty secret was that nobody gave a damn about the actual readers or writers. It didn’t matter what book the bookstore sold, so long as it sold something.
“Now, with e-books, the infrastructure is gone. Writers and readers are the only things that matter. And that’s where social media comes in. When readers put 8 or 10 hours into a book, they feel like they know something about the author’s attitudes; then they began to want a relationship with you. But social media is time-consuming and not much fun, and you have to be careful not to shoot your mouth off in the wrong way. You’re being quoted – forever. If you’re sorry you said something a week later, too bad.”
For Jake, then, it sounds like less time on Facebook and more time writing.
“I’ve got a couple of books on the go. I’ve written part of a new Jack Shepherd novel; it’s set in Macau and going under the working title of The Macau Job. I love Macau. It’s amazing how well the old city can co-exist with the casinos on the Cotai Strip, this thing that’s been glued onto it. I’d say that 85 percent of the place is still straight out of the old Robert Mitchum movie from the 50s.”
It’s this same mix of old and new in Singapore that appeals to Jake, too – Emerald Hill, for instance, with its century-old terrace houses just off frantic Orchard Road. “That whole area is terrific. Sitting outside of the Number 5 bar at dusk, smoking a cigar and having a beer – there’s no better place in the world.”
Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?
Little, Brown and Company | 290 pages
Well, clearly I’m not. This book includes a detailed discussion about how to determine the first 10-digit prime number that can be found in consecutive digits of e. If that’s what you need to know at a Google interview, I’d have more luck applying for work at a Swahili newspaper.
But I’m not sure it is what you need to know. Several reviewers of Poundstone’s intriguingly titled book have noted – from personal experience – that Google is more likely to ask interviewees about computer code than the kind of obtuse mathematics puzzles and logical conundrums that are laid out here.
Still, there’s plenty of interesting stuff in Are You Smart Enough. “You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown in a blender,” reads one of the alleged interview questions. “The blades start moving in sixty seconds. What do you do?”
Another: “Explain the significance of dead beef.”
It certainly gets the grey matter racing. (Or lumbering slowly, in my case.)
A book for numbers enthusiasts, first and foremost, and, to a lesser extent, anyone looking to apply for a job with a Fortune 500 company.
Expat Teens Talk
Dr Lisa Pittman and Diana Smit
Summertime Publishing |183 pages
Not fitting in at high school, or the other kids making fun of your appearance, clothing or accent? Getting through your teens in one piece is difficult anyway, and how much more fraught it can be for an expat teen, grappling with a new way of life in an unfamiliar environment.
Dr Lisa Pitt – a practising psychologist, and Diane Smit – an educational therapist who lives here in Singapore, have put together a stellar tool for expat teens, and it wouldn’t hurt their parents to read it, either.
It has an inspired format, each section beginning with a concrete description by an anonymous teen of a genuine problem, followed by a slew of helpful comments and suggestions from three lots of responders: peers, followed by parents and then professionals. Topics include: fear of moving to a new place; adjusting to being a little fish in a big pond; feeling overwhelmed by others’ expectations; family relationships; the seductions of sex, drugs and alcohol; and readjusting to life back in the home country.
Full marks to the authors for seeing the crying need for a book such as this, and, on top of their own extensive experience as expats and professionals in the field, doing the far-reaching research that was required to make it happen.
Genuine, detailed, honest and pragmatic, its overriding message is that the expat experience is in the end a transformative opportunity that will change a teenager’s life for the better.
Step-by-Step Cooking Italian, and
Step-by-Step Cooking French
Elsa Van der Nest
Marshall Cavendish |120 pages
If you’re looking for easy-to-follow recipes for a range of French and Italian classics – from moules marinières to lobster Thermidor and from Roman-style oxtail to ricotta cheesecake, look no further. Big, beautiful illustrations are a bonus.
Chef Elsa Van der Nest acquired Cordon Bleu credentials in her home country of South Africa before working with a slew of famous names such as Raymond Blanc (her mentor), Anton Mossiman and Bruno Loubert. Now she lives in Singapore and runs her own culinary consulting business.
Luckily, you don’t need Elsa’s advanced cooking skills to follow these relatively simple recipes; what’s more, you can probably be sure that the ingredients are all available here.