Movies Watched in November 2020

1)

****

2)

***

3)

***

4)

***

5)

***

6)

***

7)

****

8)

***

9)

***

10)

****

11)

****

12)

***

13)

****

14)

***

15)

**

16)

****

17)

***

18)

****

19)

***

20)

***

21)

***

22)

****

Second Sister

I chanced upon Second Sister by Chan Ho-kei while I was looking for another title on my book list. I decided to borrow it because my 30 minutes was almost up and I had not picked enough books yet. It turned out to be one of the best split-second decisions I’ve ever made.

This is a thrilling, cleverly constructed mystery set in hyper-modern Hong Kong about a woman on the hunt for the truth after her sister’s death. From the back cover: “A schoolgirl, Siu-Man, has committed suicide, leaping from her twenty-second floor window. Her older sister and guardian, Nga-Yee, refuses to believe there was no foul play. Nga-Yee contacts a hacker and cyber security expert known only as N to investigate, and what follows is a cat and mouse game through the city of Hong Kong and its digital underground, where someone has been smearing Siu-Man’s reputation. This is not the only hidden drama in the city of Hong Kong: Chan introduces us to a serial groper on mass transit; high school kids, with their competing agendas and social performances; a Hong Kong digital company courting an American venture capitalist; and the Triads, market women and noodle shop proprietors who frequent N’s neighborhood. But who caused Siu-Man’s death and why? And in the echo chamber of online bullying, what does justice look like?

Reading this book is like peeling a large onion (495 pages): there are multi layers of secrets, revenge, regrets and surprise. Instead of tears, it is the increasing adrenaline that pulsates through the reader from start till end. This brilliant novel skillfully weaves suspense, mystery, revenge, regret and surprise together, and is extremely compelling and utterly irresistible. The plot twists and manipulations are incredibly impactful.

Besides the dangers of cyberspace, online trolling, victim blaming, fake news, data privacy scandal, sexual harassment and exploitation, other subjects include high technology, high finance, high fraud, high school hierarchies, politics and culture. Themes like family values, relationships, dysfunctional families, absent parents, relentless surveillance, punishment, forgiveness, and the gap between online and offline behaviour are also explored.

The story reveals a lot about the kind of people that we are and the kind of people that we can be. It urges us to be kind to others, to communicate our feelings more effectively with people we love and not to take them for granted. It is a tale of heartbreak, loss and grief.

I am in awe of the author as well as the translator. Chan Ho-kei is a Hong Kong software engineer, script writer, game designer and editor of comic magazines; Jeremy Tiang is a Singaporean novelist and playwright. I may be biased (because I’m a Singaporean), but Second Sister is the best translated book I’ve ever read.

Pachinko

Published in 2017, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a wonderful, wonderful book! It is outstanding, extraordinary, stunning, marvellous, gripping, brilliant, splendid… … I can’t find enough adjectives to describe it.

The blurb (from back cover of this 2020 edition):

YEONGDO. KOREA. 1911.

Teenager Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy yazuka. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant – and that her lover is married – she refuses to be bought. Facing ruin, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle minister passing through on his way to Japan. Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country where she has no friends Sunja will be forced to make some difficult choices. Her decisions will echo through the decades.

Spanning nearly 100 years of history, Pachinko is an unforgettable story of love, sacrifice, ambition and loyalty told through four generations of one family.

The writing is impeccable and this long family saga is written from an omniscient point of view, which I love best as it is sympathetic to every character’s plight. The interplay of characters in setting and time affects both plot and characterisation. There are major plot lines but the minor plot lines give critical support to the story.

Pachinko is a kind of vertical pinball game played by adults in Japan. It is often viewed with suspicion and hostility. It is first mentioned just past the halfway mark in the 531-page book. Part III of the book (P357) is also named ‘Pachinko’. (Part I is ‘Gohyang/Hometown; Part II is ‘Motherland’) They serve as metaphors for the history of Koreans in Japan – a people caught in seemingly random global conflicts – as they win, lose, and struggle for their place and for their lives.

Broadly, the subjects cover history (the Korean diaspora resulting from the invasions and destabilisation of the once-unified nation and the individuals who struggled to face historical catastrophes), war (legacy of the Japanese Occupation, World War II, The Cold War, The Korean War), economics (money), class (power), sex (redefinition of intimacy and love), gender (how women suffer more than men) and religion (Confucianism, Buddhism, Communism, Christianity), and how common people live through these events and issues. The themes include relationships (biological/adoptive parents, parent-child relationships), forgiveness, loss (including death), desire, aspiration, failure, duty and faith.

I will always remember the immense satisfaction of reading this book. One phrase that’ll stick in my mind is that ‘the Bible says that wise men must reign in their tongues‘; I looked this up and found examples from Proverbs, Palms, Corinthians, Ecclesiastes, James, Romans, John, Job, Isaiah, Colossians, Exodus, Titus and Matthew.

This story, I’m sure, beats any Korean (or Japanese) drama hands down!

Midnight Secrets

The spine of Midnight Secrets by Ella Grace caught my attention. I didn’t like the cover (that’s why I don’t have it here), but the blurb told me it could be a good read so I borrowed it. (Since 30 minutes is a short time to pick out 16 books.)

This is a romantic suspense novel. From the back cover:

Home Is Where The Danger Is

On a hot southern night, with a storm on the horizon, a family is shattered. Three beautiful daughters – Savannah, Samantha and Sabrina Wilde – go on with their lives, each significantly changed, as they bear the memory of murder-suicide that killed their parents. For years, they have stayed away from Midnight, Alabama. Until Midnight calls them home.

Savannah is the first one home, when a gruelling case in Nashville leads the young prosecutor to seek shelter in the quiet of the once grand Wilde mansion. But when she finds letters casting doubt on her family’s dark, shameful past, she realises that peace in Midnight is a shallow facade and sinister secrets lurk beneath the surface.…..

I like that the timeline spanning eighteen years provide a look at both the past and the present. It adds a depth to the storyline, which is loaded with intrigue and enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing right to the very end. However, the two big reveals turn out to be anti-climatic maybe because I’ve read too many such mysteries. It had been an enjoyable read, though.

I also enjoyed reading about the many captivating characters, such as Aunt Gibby (whose name is not Gibby and is not an aunt to anybody else in the story). I’m curious as to what the next two installments in this Wildefire trilogy (about the triplet sisters) have in store. (Midnight Lies and Midnight Shadows) I will pick them up if and when I see them on the library shelves.

The Baby Plan

The Baby Plan by Kate Rorick is a light-hearted and humorous story about three pregnant women whose lives intertwine.

Nathalie is a 33-year-old English teacher who has been trying with her lawyer husband to get pregnant for years; Lyndi is her 24-year-old half-sister who didn’t plan on getting pregnant with her biracial bisexual roommate; Sophia is a 36-year-old single mother and make up artist to the stars and has a 17-going-on-18 daughter, and a rock star boyfriend.

I was attracted to the plot and the promise of related themes like marriage issues, mother-daughter (and stepmother-stepdaughter) relationships, complicated family set ups, how the pregnancies impact these three women etc.

However, my interest waned as the book progresses. I can’t pinpoint why but I was disappointed in the writing. It was the first time I came across this author and it is unlikely I would go for another of her books, at least not anytime soon.

The Undertaker’s Daughter

The Undertaker’s Daughter by Sara Blaedel is one of the titles I had put down in my list of books to borrow before I visited the library again recently (so that I could better accomplish picking 16 books in 30 minutes). From the summary in the NLB catalogue, I thought it would be stunning and filled with “spine-tinkling suspense and taut storytelling”.

I have never read anything by this author before, and it is only when I was about to start reading that I realised this book has been translated from Dutch. (I usually don’t like reading translated books as I feel they lose the essence of the author’s original intention.) Then I turned to the last page, About the Author, and realised that the author struggled with dyslexia and tried a number of careers before embarking on journalism and eventually writing a series of novels.

I did not know what to expect but this novel is something completely different from the usual thrillers and mysteries associated with a premise like this: a 40-year-old widow from Copenhagen travels to Racine, Wisconsin when her estranged father dies. (He had left her and her mother when she was 7yo.) Hoping to learn more about her father and his life, she arrives to find a business seriously in debt and an unsolved murder… …

It has been fascinating to read about the funeral business: the bodies in refrigerated storage units, empty coffins lying around the workshop, strange sounds emanating from the preparation room, and the different ways funerals are treated in Denmark and the USA. (Does Costco really sell coffins?)

However, though it was compelling enough to keep me turning the pages, the story is not “an edge-of-your-chair thriller as promised by Oprah.com on the cover.

I take my hats off to Sara Blaedel for her achievements, but I’m not likely to read the sequel to The Undertaker’s Daughter simply because the last three words of the novel are “to be continued“.