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“.

Kebaya Tales, Sarong Secrets, Manek Mischiefs

Kebaya Tales, Sarong Secrets and Manek Mischiefs are the three books that make up Dr Lee Su Kim’s trilogy of short stories of the unusual and unique Peranakan community.

All 35 stories are simply charming! Teeming with fascinating characters, unexpected twists and turns, cultural rituals, beliefs and superstitions and poignant events, the stories are based on or inspired by real-life events. Two that stand out are Frangipani (from Sarong Secrets) and Through Lara’s Eyes (from Manek Mischiefs); the former because it reminds me of an old tale that spooked me when I first heard it as a young child, and the latter because I can imagine how difficult but cathartic it must have been for Dr Lee to write it.

In between the stories are pantuns (poems) and gorgeous full-colour photographs of exquisite headwork, bejeweled adornments, vintage fabrics, gilded artifacts from private collections, personal belongings of the babas, and twinkling manek (beads in Malay) -encrusted accessories.

Well-written, with humour, wit and vivid details, this thoroughly enjoyable trilogy is pure reading pleasure.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Peranakan culture, its spirit, colour, opulence, eccentricities, idiosyncracies, openness and personalities will be delighted with the authenticity given to the stories. (Dr Lee is a 6th generation nyonya with links to both Malaccan and Penang Peranakan communities.)

No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide by Susan Lewis is a suspense mystery with drama: Justine flees England and returns to her grandmother’s hometown in Indiana with her three-year-old daughter, hoping for a fresh start. What devastating secrets have driven her away, and what memories follow and continue to haunt her new life?

The story flashes back and forth from America to England and from different time periods. The first 65% of the story is tantalizing, but once the truth is revealed the rest is less absorbing although the puzzling information regarding the grandmother adds another layer to the story.

The themes explored include family secrets, running from the past, family bonds, parental mistakes, prejudice, cruelty, moments of confusion, pain, regret and guilt, and the promise of forgiveness with the power of love and hope.

How Dare the Sun Rise

How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringyimana is the remarkable and true story of a girl who tells the tale of how she survived a massacre, immigrated to America and overcame her trauma through art and activism.

Sandra is from a tribe called Banyamulenga, a province in Congo called South Kivu but the tribe’s appearance, language and accent differ from the Congo natives and they are often discriminated against. During the massacre, she watched her six-year-old sister being gunned down and saw people getting slashed and burned. How she survived the horrors of her past – the violence and atrocities of war, the refugee experience, the struggles as an immigrant to a new land, family dynamics, poverty, bullying, racism and depression – is amazing. In comparison, I’m living in luxury!

An excellent book!

Widows’ Revenge

I was so excited to find Widows’ Revenge by Lynda La Plante on the library shelf that I just put it with the pile of books I would borrow without even a second look. This book, I thought, must be a sequel to Widows, which I had read about three decades ago and still remember. It would be another great read, I was sure.

As is my habit, I look for the publication date before reading a book, and I was surprised that Widows’ Revenge was first published in 2019. I wondered why it took so long for the author to come up with a sequel and if it would be as good and lowered my expectations accordingly.

There is a summary of The Story So Far before the first chapter. It tells me nothing that I don’t remember. (So good was Widows that I can still remember the story after three decades!) All 354 pages of the rest of the novel about the four widows of a failed heist are riveting and filled with enough threads and excitement to make me keep turning the pages. The writing style (interesting and short dialogues, chapters broken into several smaller sections, and characters that come alive) is something not executed in all of Lynda La Plante’s books, of which I’ve read a few but not many as enjoyable as Widows.

In the end, I was not disappointed at all. The story is set in the eighties (many details are telling, such as the word processor being a new gadget at the time), as expected, since the story continued from the failed heist in the first book. I just wonder why it took so long for the sequel to be published.

The Girl with the Suitcase

I’ve read several books by Angela Hart, pseudonym of a foster carer with decades of experience, two of which (Terrified and The Girl in the Dark) were reviewed here a couple of years ago.

The Girl with the Suitcase is the true story of 10-year-old Grace with nowhere to call home until Ms Hart’s devotion changes her life for ever.

Grace has been sent to stay with Ms Hart after eight failed placements since she was just 4yo. She was even labelled Miss Trouble (and called many other names) by her birth mother. It was much later, under Ms Hart’s care that Grace is diagnosed with ADHD, a relatively unknown condition in the nineties.

This is a very interesting read. The story shows how a good stable caring environment can turn things around with love and patience. The impact is remarkable.

I truly applaud what Ms Hart has done! And I look forward to reading more about her fostering experience.