A Face to Die For



A Face To Die For is the latest book in Andrea Kane’s Forensic Instinct series. (The Girl Who Disappeared Twice, The Line Between Here and Gone, The Stranger in You, The Silence That Speaks and The Murder That Never Was are all reviewed here.) In all the novels, Kane creates characters confronted with life-threatening danger with an element of suspense, excitement and tension. Each of the novels can be read on its own. I think A Face To Die For is the best so far as it involves two separate cases which are intertwined with an interesting twist.

The novel reads like a movie. The story is intriguing: Right from the Prologue, there is a sense of urgency and at a pace that only escalates over the next 38 chapters, until the Epilogue. The story takes us from Brooklyn, New York in March 1990 to Tribeca, NY City in May 2017. Along the way, besides the Forensic Instinct offices in Tribeca, we “go” to (and from) the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue in NY City, an Animal Clinic in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a townhouse in Rye, New York, a massive home in Todt Hill on Staten Island, the NYU Stern Business School’s Faculty Wing, to Cleveland, Ohio, the Green Cemetery in Brooklyn, a top-ten NYC restaurant on West Fifty-first Street in Manhattan, the La Guardia airport and more.

The first case involves a stalking incident; the second about two women who’ve never met who look exactly like each other. Are the two women twins? How did they get separated? Did someone not want them to meet and thus reveal the truth of their background? When DNA testing prove they are identical twins, and their lives threatened, did it mean there is someone with such a huge secret that has to be kept that way no matter what has to be done? The plot may sound familiar but Kane has a way of adding her own twists and make this book a page turner. The mystery intensifies. What is the secret? Who is behind it? How did murder come into the picture? What dark forces are at play? And how is this case related to the first?

The seemingly far-fetched scenerio is made to seem quite logical in the hands of Kane. This is not just a mystery story that is captivating and engrossing; there is the issue of adoption. The idea of sibling separated shortly after birth, being adopted, kept apart and then being reunited is something to ponder over. I hope I don’t have to wait a long time for the next instalment in this series. Kane can’t write them fast enough for me.




The Italian Job



I may have watched this 2003 movie before, but I’m not sure. I don’t remember watching Edward Norton, and he is one actor that leaves a deep impression every time. But I definitely watched the 1969 movie (The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine) on which this is based.

Master thief Charlie Crocker (Mark Wahlberg) and his mentor John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) plot one last heist to steal $35 million in gold bars from a safe held by Italian gangsters in Venice. A team member, Steve (Edward Norton) is the turncoat who hijacks the gold for himself and kills John point-blank and leaves the other members of the group for dead. The surviving members (Charlie, Lyle played by Seth Green, “Left Ear” played by Mos Def & “Handsome Rob” played by Jason Statham) stay loyal to each other with one goal – vengeance. When they locate Steven in Los Angeles, they recruit John’s daughter Stella (Charlize Theron) who is a brilliant safe-cracker like her father, except she is no thief but a professional safe and vault technician whose services is often called by the Police. She has the skills and motivation to join the team in a smart and deviously elaborate plan to get back at Steven.

This is a typical action movie, and the plot is not all original but there are a few plus points: the beautiful scenery – landscapes (Venice and its waterways, the Alps, Hollywood Boulevard and more) are candy for the eyes, the visual and special effects are stunning, and the actors all give very convincing performances. It’s quite a lot of fun watching the little Mini Coopers fly around in the crowded streets of LA, like avoiding the pedestrians on the Walk of Fame, in front of the Kodak theatre and  down the stairs into an underground Metro station; helicopters in the air; armored trucks exploding, besides the early boat chase along the narrow waterways in Venice (where there are other boats and boat taxis plying along the canals). With lots of twists and turns, the tone is quirky and exuberant.

The theme of relationships is also explored, along with dynamic characters. (Two quotes that leave an impression are i) John’s advice to Charlie – There are two kinds of thieves in the world – the ones who steal to enrich their lives and the kind who steal to define their lives. Don’t be the latter. Makes you miss out on what’s really important in this life. (Relationships) and ii) when both John and Stella say “I trust everyone; I just don’t trust the devil inside them” on different occasions. The background music adds to the tone, keeping the audience on the edge; such as the sly, witty, pulsing arrangement that combines strings and guitar harmonics in the opening sequence, and ringing, chiming and pulsating music throughout the movie.

Without a doubt, exemplary work comes also from the set decorators, the team behind the title designs, the department of photography (especially the underwater photography) and the cinematography, and much more.


A Friend



Is she trustworthy?

Is she congenial?

Is she a good listener?

Is she supportive?

Is she humourous?

Is she fun to be around?

Does she back-stab you?

Judge, resent, provoke,

And want things to be her way?

Does she come across

As being deceitful?

Does she have integrity?



Crazy Rich Asians



I’ve been wanting to read the book by Kevin Kwan and watch the movie long before it opened it Los Angeles, but wasn’t able to do it sooner because there were more than three dozen in the queue in the reserve list for the book at the libraries  and I was barely standing after an unexpected family event. I finally watched it this afternoon, and enjoyed it so much that I’m thinking of watching it again.

What struck me first was the selection of music – especially Chinese music. For the opening sequence, the song is the evergreen When Will You Return? (a Teresa Teng classic). Throughout the movie, there are lots of such music (so many I lost count) including Waiting For Your Return (Wo Den Zhe Ni Hui Lai), I Want Your Love (Wo Yao Ni De Ai),  Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon (Hua Hao Yue Yuan), Sweet (Tian Mi Mi), Do You Understand (Ni Dong Bu Dong) and The Evening Primrose (Ye Lai Xiang). The one English song I liked is Can’t Help Falling in Love.

Like the novel, the movie begins with a quote by Ibu Battuta (a 14th century Moroccan scholar): nowhere in the world are there to be found people richer than the Chinese. Then comes the prologue where a furious Eleanor buys the snooty London hotel which tried to turn her family away. The story: Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a New York University (NYU) professor of economics; Nick Young (Henry Golding) is also a professor at NYU. Although he grew up in London, he is originally from Singapore and belongs to one of the wealthiest families in Asia and is probably the only heir to his family’s great fortune. This is not known to anyone in New York. He is taking a trip back to Singapore to attend his cousin Colin (Chris Pang)’s wedding, and takes Rachel along. She is completely unaware of what is in store for her. Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), is controlling and obsessed with prestige and pride and attempts to break up Rachel and Nick’s relationship…

The cast is a huge one (more than 50), including Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum) as the scene-stealing comic, Goh Peik Lin (Rachel’s best Singapore friend from Oxford) and Ken Jeong as Goh Wye Mun who play a father and daughter from a family with money but no taste. Singapore actors include Pierre Png as insecure Michael Teo married to the rich Young family, Fiona Xie as gold-digging bombshell Kitty Pong, the retinue of aunties played by Janice Koh as Felicity Young, Amy Cheng as Jacqueline Ling & Koh Chieng Mun as Neenah Goh, Tan Kheng Hua as Kerry Chu (Rachel’s mother) and Selena Tan as Alix Young. Cameos include Kevin Kwan (also an executive producer of this movie) as a texting author, Russel Wong as Himself (a photographer), Kris Aquino (Princess Intan), Beatrice Chien (Ling Cheh), and I think I saw ex-Mediacorp actress Hayley Woo in one scene at the Gardens by the Bay.

I also liked that there is a mixture of English (BBC & American), Singlish (Singapore English), Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien. Besides the making of dumplings and the playing of mahjong, there is a sumptuous feast for the eyes: from the Changi Airport to the super-clean roads and expressways and the Singapore river, The Esplanade area, the lovely CHIJMES chapel (where the wedding took place), Bukit Pasoh, Raffles Hotel, a hawker centre (not sure if it’s the Newton Food Centre or Lau Pa Sat) and of course, the Garden By The Bay at night, with fireworks and all. It was the closest I got to the Marina Bay Sands and its rooftop infinity pool. It’s a good thing that the Singapore Tourism Board and Singapore film commission support the project.

Of course, the photography, cinematography, editing, production design and props are top-notch.

I look forward to the sequels. (This is Book I of Kevin Kwan’s trilogy.)






Is it guilt or remorse

When one realises

That being overbearing

Has its consequences?

Putting up pretences

About intentions,

Pretending to trivalise

Her own indiscretions,

Feigning her innocence

Is preposterous;

Probably only minions

Will lap up such credence.

Fire Road


Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey Through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness and Peace is a Memoir by Kim Phuc Phan Thi, published less than a year ago. I remember this photograph (on the cover of the book) from more than four decades ago, captured by a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer which made headlines all over the world.

In the Introduction (War and Peace), Kim wrote that she’s been dreaming about the book for more than a decade after coming across Denise Chong’s 2006 book, The Girl In The Picture (a marvelous and detailed account of Vietnam civil war), as there is a story beneath the story there. She  believes that living a life at peace, and being a people of peace, is how problems get solved.

As is my habit, I always look for the quote before the beginning of any book, and this one is by Aristotle: The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain. I had an inkling that there is a lot of pain between the pages.

The book is well structured and amazing. The Prologue (In Pursuit of Smooth Skin) is set in Feb 2016 when Kim undergoes another laser treatment to burn her skin all over again in order to treat her scars – this is pain with a purpose. This is followed by four sections – Part I: A Body Ablaze; Part II: A Life Exposed; Part III: A Peace Pursued & Part IV: A Story Redeemed before the Epilogue in which Kim reiterates that she wants to help other children of war discover the peace that she has found.

From “golden happiness” (both the literal translation of her name and her childhood) to being burnt by napalm (and then helped by a kind BBC journalist who tried to help but made matters worse), to being left to die in the morgue in the hospital, to her “hell on earth” (burn baths and skin-grafting operations), Kim was for a time an invalid and disabled in every conceivable way. Discharged  from hospital 14 months later, Kim had to endure abysmal living conditions, shivering in fear and in debilitating and constant pain.

Ten years after the  napalm attack, Kim began her university studies but this had to come to an end as she was constantly “kidnapped” for forced interviews. Feeling utterly hopeless, this is when she started to attend church. Her mother was so angry that she disowned Kim. She was helped by Perry Kretz, a German journalist who made arrangements to escort Kim to West Germany’s premier burn clinic for her 17th skin-graft surgery. The Prime Minister of Vietnam (whom she called Bac Dong) rearranged for Kim to go back to school, studying English, in Sochi (1000 miles from Moscow) then in Cuba. In Cuba, Kim met Toan who was assigned to help her, and who became her husband.

Kim planned to defect (after marriage) and Toan eventually agreed. In Toronto, they could not work for two years while awaiting citizenship so they volunteered at Chinatown as government-sanctioned translators. A son (Thomas) was born and Kim was put in touch with an entertainment lawyer who set up a series of interviews and opportunities for her. Kim was no longer angry and no longer looking for revenge. The enemy list had become the prayer list, and fury had declared a cease-fire. She established the KIM Foundation International, a nonprofit organisation that helps fund groups already actively involved in providing relief for the world’s more than six million children severely injured or permanently disabled in wars during the past decade alone.  Soon after her second son (Stephen) was born, the documentary Kim’s Story premiered in Canada.

Kim was invited to be a goodwill ambassador at UNESCO to promote a culture of peace. “We cannot change history, but with love, we can heal the future.” She has also convinced her parents to visit and then to stay for good. Kim is often invited to speak about peace in a world at war. She has by now made peace with the pain, and had come to accept the napalm’s effect; she has even learned to love her scars. She believes in these five principles: free your heart from hatred; live a simple, not complicated, life; give more to those in need that you meet; expect less, and you’ll know less dissatisfaction; walk by faith, and not by fear.

The Epilogue tells of how she is Holding Fast to Hope: the challenges she has faced did not overtake her; she is at peace . She delivers more than forty talks every year to promote peace: Forgive; Love.

This is one of those books with quite a bit of religion in it (about half the book) that I didn’t mind because I can see why this is important for her story.

Short Term 12



I was enticed by this 2013 movie because it stars Brie Larson, whose acting (Room, 2015 movie) I’m very impressed with, and also because it says on the cover that it’s a winner of the Best Picture award (not the Oscars, I’m sure, though it was not specified where the award came from).

Brie Larson plays Grace, a supervisor at a group home (called Short Term 12 – because the residents are supposed to be there for no more than a year) for troubled teens, and is in a secret relationship with a co-worker Mason (Jake Gallagher Jr).  She is passionate and tough, trying to do her best for the teens though it is not easy. These teens are often profoundly scarred , have a lot of anger and have underlying issues. Grace herself has had a difficult past and conceals this behind her work, but has to face it with the arrival of a distraught new girl. The complications push Grace and Mason to the brink, and how they overcome these challenges is what makes this an unique love story. As they come to embrace a surprising future together, they discover truth, honour and family in unexpected places along the way.

The message of love this movie is subtly done: it is full of compassion, and about people who have been damaged by the people who are supposed to protect them the most – their parents. It is also about how the human spirit can, with care and respect, sustain after such darkness. This movie is a portrayal of neglected youth, a rare look at relationships, and an articulation of the fears in the world.

However, I didn’t quite like the cinematography nor the music (folk music and rap). Another not-so-good thing is that there is no subtitles, and even with my hearing aids on, I could not make out a fairly large part of the dialogue by the not-so-well-known (or professionally trained?) actors, and I had to do quite a bit of guessing.

The Double



The moment I saw this Blu-ray disc on the ‘Just Returned’ library shelf, I took it to the borrowing station without even bothering to read the blurb, because I didn’t even know there’s this Richard Gere movie!

This 2011 thriller is really interesting in that I never expected to see Richard Gere in a crime movie, with all the action, and playing a character that is not plausible.

The story: A US senator is murdered, seemingly by a Soviet assassin thought to be dead – someone nicknamed Cassius. CIA agent Paul Shepherdson (Gere) is tasked to investigate the case. Paul, who is near retirement, has been unsuccessfully hunting down Cassius his entire career and insists this is a copycat murder. He is asked to work with a young FBI agent Ben Geary (Topher Grace), who has done a thesis on Cassius.

From very early in the movie, it is obvious that Paul is Cassius – no twist and no surprises. Gere’s character is weary as he has seen and done too much. What I wondered at this point was why the movie is called The Double, when it is revealed so early on who the Double is. I was waiting for the real suspense because I refused to believe that Gere would take on such a lame movie. Indeed, the big unexpected twist comes only near the very end of the movie. This changes the whole dynamics. And I could finally see how exciting and entertaining the movie is.

For once, I found the music score rather irritating, especially the constant rise in volume, supposedly to keep the audience in suspense, trying to entice a sense of urgency and endangerment. What was fascinating was using the Shakespearean characters Cassius and Brutus (from Julius Caesar) – both aristocrats and how they conspire to assassinate Caesar to prevent him from becoming a king. (Brutus in this movie is played by Stephen Moyer.) Cassius is a character who can do many horrible things and feel nothing; everyone in the movie is made a liar.

The Marriage Recital



I first came across The Marriage Recital by Katherine Grant a couple of months ago – I was enticed by the word ‘recital’ and made the ‘mistake’ of reading the blurb on the back cover before checking out the font used in the book. It was with a tinge of regret that I put the book back to its place on the library shelf because there are four-and-a-half pages of praise for the book (by established newspapers, magazines, reviewers and critics) that made it sound like a fabulous book.

Then, recently, a friend suggested I read it as there are lots of references to music and she would like to hear my views on it. Hence I decided to borrow it and hoped that it would be interesting enough to be worth the eye strain that I knew I would have to endure.

The setting is 1794 London; the problem is that four fathers have five marriageable daughters between them that they want to see married; these men are rich but they have no titles so their plan is to give these young women piano lessons, present them at a concert performance for young Englishmen with titles and no money…

I had such high hopes for this book that unfortunately it was a let-down for me. Yes, plenty of piano music is mentioned, like arabesques, canons, sarabandes, gigues, Mozart’s Sonata in C, Haydn’s Sonata in C, pieces by Clementi and Couperin and J S Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (in particular the Prelude & Fugue No 2 in C minor) and Clavier Ubung (which includes works like partitas, The Italian Concerto and the Goldberg Variations). I would have preferred to have heard all these in a film (based on the novel) as it is quite  unbelievable reading about these young women learning pieces of such level and difficulty.

I’m not drawn to any of the characters; neither did I like the tiresome way the various plots are presented, though some of these are quite disturbing (like rape, incest, abuse, violence and mutilation). The story is quite weird and not in a satisfying way. I find some parts unbelievable or are simply ludicrous. I didn’t really dislike the book, but I didn’t think it was anything special either.

































Soulful Sunday


(Photo credits: Albert Chan / May Ling

L to R: Jerome Lee, Mrs Pauline Huang, Yu Teik Lee)

Presented by Sifon Music Productions (solely owned by veteran Xinyao singer-songwriter Huang Hongmo), Soulful Sunday is a shared musical journey towards pop piano improvisation. Today’s speakers/trainers are Yu Teik Lee and Jerome Lee, ardent and enthusiastic Pianovers. (I found out about this event via a Facebook post by another passionate member, Goh Zensen.)

This sharing session comes about because of the collaboration between Sifon and Zensen. The event is called Soulful because the way Teik Lee and Jerome play is full of soul and passion, with a lot of improvisation and very impressive, and helps the listener understand a different style of playing music.

The first to speak is Teik Lee. He started off by recounting how he discovered his style of music, his learning journey, his insight into piano playing, his favourite songs and genres of songs, how to play by ear and improvisation. (Richard Clayderman is the main motivator.) He also shared how his playing has evolved from a classical background (even quoting Beethoven’s Sonata Op 101) to sentimental pop ballads. It is very enriching to explore and experiment with the different ways of playing the piano. He used Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to demonstrate how a simple melody like this is akin to be given a blank canvas for add-ons by putting in the chords and embellishments. My deepest impression is when he declared that “anyone who can sing can play by ear, even someone without perfect pitch”. (Does this imply that someone who can’t sing properly will not be able to play by ear? I always barely passed my Aural tests, and I need hearing aids; is that why I’m unable to play by ear?) He further demonstrated with a Malay song (Lenggang Kangkong), a Chinese song (The Moon Represents My Heart) and Moon River (which he also sang). He also mentioned that it is not easy to coordinate singing and playing (which I didn’t really comprehend). His talk ended with a quote from Beethoven: To play a wrong note is insignificant, but to play without passion is inexcusable.

The next speaker is Jerome, who also began by sharing how far he has come from a classical background to explore across multiple music genres over three decades. He also spoke at length about reharmonising techniques through interaction, simplification and improvisation. One thing I remember is: The more you learn, the more informed you are because all teachers teach differently. I have definitely not come across a teacher like him. Nevertheless, he got me curious enough to want to try to transpose (pop) songs into just C+, G+ or F+ (or their relative minor keys : Am, Em & Dm), as most songs can be played with just these 6 chords. (But I’m thinking it’ll be easier to play in the original key according to the score.) He demonstrated using eight songs written by Singaporeans such as Eric Moo, Dr Liang Wern Fook and Dick Lee. (Now I’m inspired to dig up my score for these songs and play them again.) His segment is twice as long as Teik Lee’s because it is more technical (and therefore more ‘complicated’). One new term I learned is that an anacrusis is also called a Single Note Glide.

It has been a refreshing and enriching session. I look forward to attending more such sessions but I doubt I would make the ‘switch’ from my classical training easily. (After all, it was much much more difficult for me to get started on the piano compared to these two gentlemen. And I had a very different career path which would not have allowed me the ‘luxuries’ that they had.)