Summer Reading

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I recently returned from two glorious months in the U.S., where I spent time with family and friends (and welcomed a new nephew), saw Hamilton on Broadway, and generally enjoyed the long days and short nights. I also read a lot, including five #sglit novels! Here are my feelings:

Inspector Singh Investigates: A Frightfully English Execution by Shamini Flint

I’ve read most of Flint’s Inspector Singh novels and, although I was underwhelmed by her earlier efforts, her later works have hit the mark with regards to genre conventions of pacing and plotting and character. A Frightfully English Execution is Flint’s first novel in this series that is set outside Asia; in previous escapades, the bumbling inspector finds himself in predicaments in Malaysia, Cambodia, China, and elsewhere. In this novel, she successfully explores themes she has in previous installments in the series—political and legal issues in the context of immigration, colonization, and war in Asia—but in A Frightfully English Execution, she also elucidates the sense of dislocation that colonized people of the Commonwealth experience on returning to the nation of their colonial masters! Singh here not only has to solve a crime, but also has to differentiate between expectations and reality of being Brown in London.

Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge: A Singaporean Mystery by Ovidia Yu

Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge, the third culinary cozy in this series by Yu, is much tighter in plot and character than her previous two attempts. You may remember that I thought the first book was rather plodding. However, like her previous novels (all published by William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins), Chilled Revenge is also overwhelmed, in a bad way, by expository information. For example:

At first glance Aunty Lee was a typical Singapore Per­anakan tai-tai. She was fair skinned and plump cheeked enough to please the most demanding in-laws, and short enough not to embarrass the most average-sized man, and the traditional kerongsang (brooch) she wore sported intan, or rose-cut diamonds, set in handcrafted twenty-karat gold, enough to impress the most snobbish customers. And as her late husband had always said, she was kaypoh, kiasu, and em zai siKaypoh or busybody enough to stick her nose shame­lessly into everyone’s business, kiasu or tenacious enough to follow through, and em zai si or “not scared to die” as she charged recklessly in search of answers—something which had led to her solving several murders.

Overall: a fun read, because I love mystery novels, but written for readers looking for exotica (recipes! reading group guide!) in mind.

Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Sugarbread was a real treat (pun intended) and I don’t say that only because I blurbed the book. To wit:

Balli Kaur Jaswal has written a profoundly moving story that is both a sensitive family portrait and a wild page-turner. With arrestingl vivid prose and carefully wrought characters, Kaur Jaswal draws readers into the world of ten-year-old Pin as she negotiates her Sikh faith and grapples with startling secrets. This is wonderfully crafted novel about food, faith, and family.

Sugarbread is less ambitious and polished than Inheritance, her first published novel, but no less satisfying. Jaswal has said that Sugarbread is “a young adult novel [that] I wrote in college… which is also centred around a Punjabi family in Singapore, but narrated from the point of view of a young girl named Pin who is trying to find out a secret about her mother,” and it feels like her first attempt at the novel form (but not in a bad way!).

Jaswal is a writer to watch. She is going to do great things. (And I will say that I knew her when!)

Sarong Party Girls: A Novel by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

I really wanted to like this book. It promised to be “Emma set in modern Asia” and set out to examine the sexual and racial politics of Singapore and the “forces of [Singapore] history—colonial or otherwise—that have shaped this desire and belief in the value of Caucasian-ness.” But it didn’t deliver. The secondary characters are stock and interchangeable, the plot is thin and uneven, the sex-scenes are coy. The novel centers around White-ness and Chinese-ness, much like Kevin Kwan’s popular novels do. Singaporean friends have said to me that the Singlish used in the book is “off,” “forced,” or “wrong,” and I trust them on that! As a non-Singlish speaker, I could follow along quite easily, and I did appreciate that Tan didn’t resort to footnotes or a glossary (as Kwan does), but rather trusted her readers. They also said the book didn’t feel current—that Tan was describing an “old” Singapore. “When four of ten Singapore marriages are transnational, what relevance does the SPG trope have?” a friend said over lunch one day. “If it ever did!” she added.

Tan, an experienced journalist, wanted to write reported book about “SPG culture,” assuming there is such a thing. I want to read that book, which I know would give the topic more justice than this well-meaning, but flawed, novel did.

First Fires by Jinat Rehana Begum

I picked this book up on the recommendation of a friend who heralded it as the first English novel by a female Indian Muslim Singaporean writer. (Can anyone confirm this? While I do know quite about bit about contemporary Singapore literature, I do not know for sure if this is true!) First Fires is a slim confessional novel of sorts: each character speaks directly to the reader to reveals truths, which are sometimes at odds with the way the reader has been encouraged to think of that character. The prose is lush and evocative, displaying Begum’s poetic skill, but the plot hems and haws after the first few chapters. Still, this debut novel holds promise and I look forward to Begum’s next.