Disunited Nations: International School Mums at War by Stephanie Suga Chen is the sequel to Travialsofa Trailing Spouse but can be read independently as a stand-alone.
While the earlier book is a more light-hearted look at the lives of expatriate wives in Singapore, the sequel contains a more interesting premise: the local school system vs international school.
Besides exploring the themes of challenges (eg the struggle to fit in and finding a sense of purpose) and identity (eg. embracing two cultures and assimilation), the book is especially enlightening to readers who want to know more about Singlish and the diverse educational opportunities available.
The Heartsick Diaspora and Other Stories by Elaine Chiew is a collection of 14 short stories. Besides stories about life as immigrants, the pressures of people living their lives torn between cultures and juggling their divided selves, parents and children relationships, these stories have a common theme in food.
The stories are like a kaleidoscope, with so many different characters and viewpoints. The inclusion of local (Singaporean) dialects and slangs is something I like. I also like some of the stories, like The Coffin Maker, Run of the Molars, Face, A Thoroughly Modern Ghost of Other Origin, Chinese Almanac and The Chinese Nanny. However, I didn’t really like some of the endings.
Since this debut collection was only published in 2019 after a decade of writing, I hope there’ll come a day in my lifetime when I can get to read a full-length novel by this author.
I was surprised to find The Brigadier’s Daughter by Paul Callan on the shelves of the Singapore Collection as the author is a British who divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and London. This was until I started reading and realised that he must have stayed in Singapore for a while and did a lot of research before writing this book, published in Singapore in 2017. The amount and accuracy of local details is quite astonishing. (At least I have never come across another non-local writer like this.)
I suppose I can call this a historical fiction. Set in Kluang, Johor just before Merdeka Day (Malaya’s Independence) in 1957 and present day Singapore, this is a haunting love story. Besides teenage love, there is love between friends (and family); it is also about hope and loss.
The characters are well portrayed and come alive and their trials and tribulations are realistic.
Two things that stood out for me while reading are Debra Paget (which I had to google out of curiosity) and a line from the father of the protagonist: Remember, son,lust is as fulfillingas milk. It turns sour soon enough.
The ending is unexpected, and both the story and characters still resonate after the last page.
The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood is an unusual read for me. This is a story about grief, regrets, forgiveness, second chances, ageing, love, ambition, dreams and unexpected connections.
The story weaves back and forth between different periods. The two main protagonists are unlikely characters (one is the 104-year-old lady Ona and the other is an 11-year-old boy). The boy dies of a rare illness and people who loved him (including his divorced parents) unexpectedly develop and learn from the legacy that touched their lives.
Though unnamed and not mentioned, the smart and perceptive but socially awkward boy who loved facts and figures and was passionate about lists (he made fascinating lists of records -in tens – in the Guinness Book) was apparently autistic. A lot is revealed though a series of recorded interviews between the boy and Ona.
The writing style and presentation of ideas is, for me, unusual and refreshing. The result is something sentimental, sweet and sad at the same time. A book to be savored.
Sahar Delijani’s Children of the Jacaranda Tree has a very interesting premise and a captivating opening chapter. Based on her own harrowing experiences, the story is about the life of children and their parents who were singled out for persecution by the Iranian government.
In the Author’s Note, Delijani mentions that her parents had been arrested in 1983 because of their political activism against the Iranian regime. Her childhood was accompanied by stories with friends of her parents who had been cellmates in Evin Prison. They knew they could never repeat these conversations outside their homes. They could sense the fear, the grief and the apprehension of the adults. They had to protect their parents.
The children in the story are based on real children, though some of the other characters are imaginary. This novel attempts to shed light on a dark moment in Iranian history, in its tales of violence and death, to give voice not only to the victims of this atrocity (tens of thousands of political prisoners were assassinated in Iran in 1988, including the author’s uncle), but also to the rest of their families and their descendants.
Because the author wants to put across the message of family, love, loss, pain and suffering of both adults and children during this period in less than 280 pages, there are too many characters (named and unnamed) and it becomes quite confusing trying to remember how they are related to each other. The story then loses a bit of its charm. However, the theme of longing for freedom and the voice of those who suffered in silence come through clearly enough.
I am a little bit more knowledgeable about life in post-revolutionary Iran, but I think I ought to read more memoirs, such as Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran, to learn more.
My Country by Kassem Eid is an unique memoir. It offers a personal perspective on the Syrian crisis from someone who lived there at the time.
Eid, a Palestinian immigrant, writes about his childhood in Syria (eg the Jasmine-scented streets and his experiences in school), about how he was always treated differently because he was an outsider. He also writes about the horrors of living in a war zone – the atrocities and violence, the suffering, suppression, repression, the sarin (chemical) attack, destruction everywhere, torture, children and innocent people dying (either of starvation or running away from snipers) etc.
I borrowed this book to read more, to know more, and to understand what the situation in Syria is really like. I empathise with what the author endured and his tone of bitterness and grimness. I also learned a little bit more about Islam – the Sunnies and the Alamites.
What struck me most is that completely innocent people were denied the basic right to just get on with living their everyday lives, with the withdrawal of basic necessities like food, water, power and medicine. I am really fortunate to be a Singaporean!
Justice for Bonnie by Karen Foster and I. J. Schecter is an emotional read. It chronicles the seventeen years of hell Karen Foster went through after her daughter Bonnie was abducted, raped and murdered.
The book describes the heartbreak of a family who goes through such a trauma and loss. The long delays of the trial is frustrating. One act of violence has rippled through the whole community, changing lives for ever.
The final verdict brings some closure to the family and the resilience of the mother shows her strength. She has also managed to turn the horror of her experience into something meaningful by being an advocate for victims and helping others.
The Wrong Hand by Jane Jago caught my attention because the synopsis reminds me of a true heinous crime. (An English toddler, Jamie Bulger, was abducted and murdered by two 10-year-old boys in 1993.)
Like many movies that are based on true events, I couldn’t help but feel that this novel is too, although the setting and the ages of the children have been changed. The premise is that of child-on-child violence.
This novel also explores the themes of upbringing (how the lack of love, compassion and nurture can lead to a desire for listlessness and mindless entertainment which can lead to serious trouble), of the devastating effects of losing a child, about rehabilitation, honesty, consequences, mental and emotional stability, etc.
The story is told through different perspectives: the grieving family, the perpetrators and their families, and the professionals who worked on the case. Just like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, they join together to weave into a whole and offers a glimpse into the far-reaching effects of such a crime.
Working Fire is the second novel I’ve read by Emily Bleeker. (The first, which I read last night, is When I’m Gone, a book that reminds me of Cecilia Ahern’s P.S. I Love You. I hadborrowed it thinking that I would enjoy it as much as I had enjoyed Cecilia Ahern’s story. Alas, was I disappointed!)
There is nothing wrong with Emily Bleeker’s books, but both left me unsatisfied.
Working Fire is told from the perspectives of two sisters, and this is an interesting approach. The main premise is the bond between these two sisters and how it is tested by tragedy. There are various other themes such as family, love, marriage and lies. However, I find the plot predictable and not as compelling or suspenseful as expected. In fact, the ending is somewhat ridiculous – why would a sister want to keep in touch (aka maintain a friendly relationship) with a manipulative man who tried to ruin her sister, her closest and dearest kin?