Gifts of the Heart

I picked up this book only because someone had stashed it among the Large Print books at the Ang Mo Kio Library. Since it is a thin book, and the sub-title says it consists of stories to lift the spirits, I thought it would be an easy read. I also wanted to find out the quality of the writing, especially with regards to themes, plots, their development and characterisation.

This book has 18 stories in two parts : A Twist of Fate and Women’s Lives.

Part 1 has stories with titles like The Monkey God (about a kidnapping attempt), A Baby’s Dream (about Feng Shui and Chinese medicines), Deadly Female (about a 25-year-old woman and her 75-year-old lover) and Help Me Bomoh (about magic and spirits);

Part 2 has stories like The Shining Cage (about confidence & cowardice, Confucian ideas & values, individuality & liberty, identity & selfhood, resilience, patience, parenthood & motherhood) and The Phoenix (about how gullible human beings can be and the challenges of a marriage especially filled with ambivalence and misery).

I was a tad surprised to discover that The Shining Cage was published in an University of Malaysia journal (Vol 3 No 2, Dec 2009) because I wasn’t that impressed by the writing though I must say it is no mean feat to combine so many subjects in a short story.

The only thing I liked about the book was the use of quotes from literary giants like Rudyard Kipling, Robert Frost, Wilfred Owen and William Shakespeare in two of the stories (Kipling in Deadly Female; Frost, Owen and Shakespeare in The Phoenix).

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The Fifth Letter

This is the first Nicola Moriarty novel that I’ve read . I’m delighted to discover she writes as well as her older sister, Liane (whose Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret I read and reviewed here on 8 Jan 18 & 31 Dec 17 respectively).

The plot involves four friends – Deb, Trina, Eden and Joni – and four secrets – each of them is supposed to make a confession in an anonymous letter during a reunion holiday at a beachfront resort. But there are five letters and bigger and darker secrets, deeply buried grudges and a shocking betrayal…

Best friends since high school, they have drifted apart over time because of careers, husbands and babies. Joni is the one who brought them together because their teacher mentioned that they are all Scorpios and have surnames beginning with the letter C; and she is the one who always ogranises their annual vacations (because she’s the only one who is childless and the other three have families that keep them busy) and suggests each one writes a secret in a letter at the beach house and print it out to share anonymously with the others. But she stumbles upon a fifth letter…

The premise is intriguing: we all have secrets, some of them dark. We do not want to reveal our innermost turmoil even to those we consider our best friends. Our private lives are our own. Similarly, we can never fully know everything there is to know about a person, regardless of how close the relationship is. People will always have certain secrets that they keep to themselves, for as long as they can (even to the grave). The past must be put behind, and life must go on.

Despite the lack of character development, this is a book that is enjoyable and entertaining.

 

 

Educating Alice : Adventures of a Curious Woman

A friend bought this book during a recent trip to Adelaide, and passed it to me as she enjoyed it very much. I don’t think I like it as much because the Weiss typeface is too miniscule, which makes for arduous reading and I have a habit of finishing every book that I start.

I do not love to travel as much as my friend, though we both love learning and writing almost in equal measure. Each trip Alice made is recounted in a chapter – from Cooking at the Ritz to Dancing in Kyoto to The Mystery at the Old Florentine Church to Sense and Sensible Shoes to Havana Dreams to The Secret Gardens – that is a standalone piece. Even though I know this is non-fiction and a memoir of Alice’s travels and adventures, I can’t help but feel the lack of transitional or linking passages (like from Exposition to Development to Recapitulation in an opus like a Sonata, or even between the First and Second Subjects within a section). Without a formal structure, this memoir seems to me to be random ramblings.

On some trips, she writes about the tribulations she overcame to get there; on others, she starts further into the trip and works her way back. She does not follow a chronological approach within each story.

The only common thread is her memories and descriptions, be they about French cooking in Paris, Border Collie training in Scotland, discovering Jane Austen’s life in England, meeting with a geisha and a maiko, or Cuban architecture and art ; and how she takes the opportunity to connect with and learn from the people she meets along the way.

I do not think I would read another book by Alice Steinbach. 

 

Big Little Lies

I so enjoyed Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret that I borrowed her Big Little Lies in Large Print, thinking that I’d enjoy it more because it would not be so strainous on my eyes. Alas, I thought wrongly.

Big Little Lies is a story about friendship, and I like the plot. Three women –  Madeline, Celeste and Jane – are at the crossroads of their lives:

Madeline is 40 years old and a force to be reckoned with. She’s married to Ed and they have two children: 7-year-old Fred and 5-year-old Chloe. She has a teenage daughter with her ex-husband. Ed and his new wife have moved to her neighbourhood and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Chloe.

Celeste, Madeline’s friend, is wealthy and beautiful and is mum to twin boys and married to Perry. She has kept a dark secret about her marriage for a long time.

24-year-old Jane has just moved into the same community with her son Ziggy “on a whim”. She also has an untold secret.

The children attend Pirriwee Public school and the story revolves round the annual School Trivia Night. What I did not like about this book is that the author chose to tell the story from Five Months Before the Trivia Night, Four Months Before the Trivia Night… … Five Days Before the Trivia Night … Eight Hours Before the Trivia Night … The Trivia Night … and A Year After the Trivia Night. I thought this would be more suited to a script for a TV drama series. Then, coincidentally, I found out from The Straits Times this morning that there is indeed a HBO series starring Nicole Kidman based on this book!

Perhaps due to personal experience, I was absorbed in the sections revealing domestic violence and rape. Violent relationships tend to become more violent over time. Every relationship had its own “love account” – doing something kind for your partner was like a deposit. A negative comment or slamming your wife’s head against a wall was a withdrawal. And : Domestic violence victims often don’t look at all like you’d expect them to look. And their stories always sound as black-and-white as you’d expect them to sound.

Another element that I liked was towards the end – did a tragic accident just take place, or is it murder? Then more secrets are revealed.

After reading two books by Liane Moriarty (one in normal font and this one in large print for seniors), I’ve decided that I need not take the extra trouble to scour for a large print version. Anyway, before I pick up another book by the same author, I would read one written by her younger sister, Nicola.

The Husband’s Secret

I thought it was time I explore different authors, and I was drawn to this title. I decided to borrow it when I saw there were a few other well-thumbed titles by Liane Moriarty and that there were three pages of praises from other authors and critics. I was also intrigued by what sorts of secrets a husband would hide (other than extra-marital affairs).

I was not disappointed. In one sentence, the story is about three women whose lives interconnect after one of them unexpectedly discovers her husband’s secret. But it is so much more.

There is a constellation of characters but the central character is Cecilia Fitzpatrick, a decisive, organised and successful businesswoman, devoted wife and mother, who is a pillar of the small community. Her husband is John-Paul. They have three daughters.

Then there is the second story about Tess, her husband Will and her sister Felicity and how Will and Felicity fall in love and Tess walks out with her young son; how Tess also has a secret involving her first love Connor.

This is also tied to the third story about Rachel, whose daughter Janie died a teenager, and how Rachel thought all these years that one person took her life when it was another who confessed, yet he isn’t the cause of her death.

The Fitzpatrick family is the common thread that brings all the characters together. John-Paul’s secret has devastating repercussions on all the characters. One significant link is the Berlin Wall; another is the date 6 April 1984. Then there is the gob-smacking twist towards the end.

There are themes of grief, guilt, unplanned decisions, betrayal, remorse, regret, ethics and morals, as well as a sense of mystery and foreboding. The unthinkable happen but lives continue.

This is one really good read and I can’t wait to read another of her books; except that this time I’m going to look for one in Large Print! I also look forward to the day when the movie based on this book (starring Blake Lively) is screened in cinemas here.

 

 

Seeing Red

Having 68 bestsellers under her belt, Sandra Brown must be one of the most successful authors around. I’ve read most, if not all of her previous books, and I marvel how she never runs out of ideas after all these years.

This romance-suspense novelĀ  is fast-paced, intriguing and intense. The Prologue tells of a mystery : Major Franklin Trapper is a decades-old hero who has become a recluse in recent years and has never granted any interview. Then TV journalist Kerra Bailey comes along, seeks out his son John for help in securing an interview with the man who saved her life 25 years ago. Gunshots and footsteps are heard; then Chapter 1 begins with ‘Six Days Earlier– as though it’s a movie being played.

…… By Chapter 6, the scene is At Present; The Major and Kierra are on their way to hospital in an ambulance. What follows is that the plot gets complicated (there’s kidnapping, murder, suicide), and some parts get quite boring (the first time I’ve encountered this in a Sandra Brown novel) but there are enough twists and surprises (in the form of lies and deciet) that keep the reader wanting to turn the pages quickly to find out what would happen next.

I look forward to what Sandra Brown would come up with next.

 

 

 

 

Finding My Voice

When I got news about the upcoming Memoir Writing workshops, I immediately wanted to know who the instructor would be, since my mentor is away in England doing her PhD in Creative Writing. Her name is Emily Lim. It did not ring any bell, so I decided to look up the National Library catalogue. I found out she’s an award-winning author of Children’s books, and has only one book for adults – her memoir titled Finding My Voice. I managed to get hold of a copy, and read it in two installments.

Self-published in 2011, it is about Lim’s journey of setbacks and new beginnings: losing her voice and losing control of her life, and how she defied the odds with hope and faith.

The book is divided into two parts – I. Lemon and II. The Mustard Seed.

In Part I, Lim recounts how she was suddenly struck with a crippling voice disorder called Spasmodic Dysphonia, how much she was in denial (that she screamed and shouted), how much she was misunderstood (which added to her sense of alienation and physical & emotional stress) and how she tried to seek a cure (with Botox that was meant to temporarily paralyse her voice muscles and reduce the involuntary spasms and lessen the breaks in her voice) with the support of her husband.

In Part II, Lim writes about how she searched for answers, how she learnt to see things differently and how she felt she was not alone after all through Prayers and Providence; she made a breakthrough and found a passionate new voice in the written word, and how this led her to the ‘Write’ trail, with the support from her family and friends.

Towards the end of the Memoir, Lim writes that her voice was by then “functionally normal”; I wonder what she sounds like today. Unfortunately, I would not have the privilege to find out as I’m not allowed to sign up for this course.