Books I’ve Read This Week: Singapore

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 47: Singapore: I recently travelled to Southeast Asia to lecture on a cruise ship and journey began and ended in Singapore. I enjoyed exploring the city, visiting the Botanic Gardens, Fort Canning, National Museum and Chinatown. I also enjoyed reading histories of Singapore and the wider region as well as novels set there. In recent weeks, I read the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, fiction and non-fiction about Singapore’s founder Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a traveller’s history of Southeast Asia and a mystery novel set in the 1930s Crown Colony of Singapore. For more histories of Singapore, see the reviews in Week 45: The History, Politics and Culture of Southeast Asia. Here are this week’s reviews:

#324 of 365 Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Date Read: November 23, 2018

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 527 pages

Review: I read the novel after watching and enjoying the film. Nick Young and Rachel Chu have even more eccentric relatives in the novel and some of the storylines are more complicated including Astrid’s marriage and Eleanor’s family life. Like the movie, the book is a lot of fun. Kwan includes humorous footnotes about the slang phrases used in Singapore, and the designers favoured by the different social circles among the very wealthy. There’s a detailed annotated genealogy of all the interconnected families as well. The financial decisions made by the Young family and their relatives were interesting. The characters, especially Astrid, spend enormous sums spent on clothing and jewellery but they are expected to stay with family and friends whenever they travel instead of spending on hotel rooms, which of course leads to more complications. The perfect read for the long flight to Singapore.

#325 of 365 China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

Date Read: November 25, 2018

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 479 pages

Review: The entertaining sequel to Crazy Rich Asians. Most of the characters from the first novel return although there are surprisingly few scenes featuring Nick’s overbearing mother, Eleanor Young, with the exception of a dramatic entrance early in the novel. There is a fun subplot involving an “art consultant” to the wealthy who helps her clients break into high society with the correct fashions, behaviour and manner of speaking. In contrast to the first book, very little of novel takes place in Singapore. Instead, Nick and Rachel spend their honeymoon in China, getting to know Rachel’s half-brother and his complicated social circle, and take a side trip to Paris. There are some unexpected plot twists toward the end including a dramatic medical crisis.

#326 of 365 Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 541 pages

Dates Read: November 25-28, 2018

Review: My favourite book in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy. In Rich People Problems, the future of Tyersoll Park, the stately home of NickYoung’s grandmother is in question, and the family matriarch’s last will and testament raises more questions than it answers. The history of Japanese occupation of Singapore is woven into the narrative with a fascinating back story concerning the older generation of the family and the Singapore Botanic Gardens. There is some great character development for both Kitty and Astrid while Rachel continues to find Nick’s overbearing family and immense wealth to be a challenge. An entertaining and satisfying conclusion to the series.

#327 of 365 A Traveller’s History of Southeast Asia  Nicholas J. White and J.M. Barwise

Dates Read: November 28-30, 2018

Genre: Travel/History

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.com

Format: Paperback, 358 pages

Review: A good overview of selected countries in Southeast Asia designed for travellers to the region. The writing style is a little bit dry but conveys a great deal of information in a concise manner. The book includes a chronology of key events and lists of political leaders as well as summaries of the current political situation of each of the countries discussed in the book. The intended audience of the book, travelers to the region, limits the scope of the history as the author leaves out Myanmar and the Philippines because they attract fewer tourists, even though they are relevant to the historical events mentioned in the text. There are also no conclusions presented about the region as a whole. A useful read for travellers but of limited value as an overall history of the region.

#328 of 365 Raffles: And the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning

Acquired: Purchased at the National Museum of Singapore

Date Read: December 5, 2018

Format: Paperback, 350 pages

Genre: History/Biography

Review: A comprehensive biography of Thomas Stanford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. The author devotes much of the book to his extended family and his sometimes contradictory ideas concerning Britain’s political and cultural influence in the wider world. The narrative often reads like a real life Jane Austen novel with passages such as “The Raffleses were ordinary people with no family money and few influential connections” and the circumstances surrounding Raffles’ two marriages and his efforts to arrange matches for his sisters. The book did not devote as much time to the founding of Singapore as I expected and I would have been interested to read more about Singapore’s history in the context of Raffles’ biography. An interesting read but the focus is more on Raffles’s early life and family than some of his later achievements.

#329 of 365 Olivia and Sophia by Rosie Milne

Dates Read: December 7-11, 2018

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Paperback, 432 pages

Acquired: Purchased at the Battlebox Museum, Fort Canning, Singapore

Review: An engaging novel told through the fictional diaries of Olivia and Sophia, the successive wives of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. Both the scandalous Olivia and the pious and supportive Sophia were interesting historical figures in their own right and they were well traveled by the standards of their time, accompanying Raffles on his journeys to Asia. Milne captures the changing sensibilities of the 19th century as Olivia is presented as far more tolerant of local customs around the world than Sophia, who is convinced of the superiority of her own culture and religion.

There are moving entries concerning the loss of Raffles’ and Sophia’s children to tropical diseases. Some of the entries in the novel follow historical documents closely while others are heavily fictionalized. Sophia’s entries are more nuanced than Olivia’s, perhaps because Milne was able to draw upon Sophia’s real life memoir to get a strong sense of her voice. The entries from Olivia’s perspective are a bit too reliant on the cadence of the early 19th century with frequent uses of “twas” and “twere” that become distracting over time. An enjoyable read, especially for visitors to Singapore.

#330 of 365 The Betel Nut Tree Mystery by Olivida Yu  

Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction

Date Read: December 13-14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from W.H. Smith, Changi Airport, Singapore

Format: Paperback, 312 pages

Review: An entertaining murder mystery set in 1930s Singapore. I found the mystery itself a little bit hard to follow and had to reread the conclusion a second time but I greatly enjoyed the historical setting and the narrator’s dry humour. The novel incorporates the events and popular culture of the time from a Singaporean perspective including the abdication of King Edward VIII to marry Wallis Simpson, the Japanese invasion of China and the growing threat of war in Europe. Yu includes Singapore’s cultural diversity including different approaches to the English language, details which play a key role in solving the mystery. I look forward reading other novels in the series.

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