Review: The Frangipani Tree Mystery (Ovidia Yu)

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Genre: Crime, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Constable
Publication date: June 1st, 2017
Format: Paperback
Source: Pansing Malaysia
Page Count: 320

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Blurb:
First in a delightfully charming crime series set in 1930s Singapore, introducing amateur sleuth SuLin, a local girl stepping in as governess for the Acting Governor of Singapore.

1936 in the Crown Colony of Singapore, and the British abdication crisis and rising Japanese threat seem very far away. When the Irish nanny looking after Acting Governor Palin’s daughter dies suddenly – and in mysterious circumstances – mission school-educated local girl SuLin – an aspiring journalist trying to escape an arranged marriage – is invited to take her place.

But then another murder at the residence occurs and it seems very likely that a killer is stalking the corridors of Government House. It now takes all SuLin’s traditional skills and intelligence to help British-born Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy solve the murders – and escape with her own life.

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I was pretty excited when I received The Frangipani Tree Mystery for review. I’m always on the lookout for diverse reads by diverse authors, and a crime-cum-historical fiction written by a Singaporean Chinese sounds amazing.

Throw in the fact that this was set in 1930’s Malaya/Singapore before the Japanese occupation in 1940’s, and I was hooked. The premise for this book is so interesting and unique that after reading this book, I feel like every South East Asian should read this book. Because finally we have a book that we can relate with in a historical sense!

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The Frangipani Tree Mystery is about SuLin, a Chinese Singaporean who took on the role as a nanny for the British acting governor’s daughter after the previous nanny died from a balcony fall. This book is a crime fiction as we see SuLin try to solve the murder of the nanny, alongside an additional murder that occurs afterwards.

Not only do we have a diverse main character in this book, we also have a main character that is disabled. SuLin suffers from polio and limps while she walks. But this adversity doesn’t hinder her from solving the murders at Frangipani Hill as she’s very smart and quick on her tongue. From simple beginnings as the granddaughter of a famous along to carving her own path away from traditional cultures, SuLin is a wonderful character to witness her development in this book. Her wit and resilience was wonderful to read, and I just love strong female characters.

She also takes care of Dee Dee, a 17-year-old girl who suffered irreversible brain injury. As a result, Dee Dee acts like a 7-year-old, the age she suffered the injuries, with no indication of growing in mental maturity. The struggles to care for a special-needs kid are highlighted in this book, and it was done so well in my opinion.

I honestly wished we had books like this during my primary and secondary school years. It would have been so much fun to learn about Malaya this way, because all the characters written in this book are exactly how we were taught back in school. You have the 2 main races of Malaya: Malay, Chinese and Indian. All three living harmoniously until the British came to colonize us. There was this one particular scene where a British male character was seen asking SuLin whether she trusted the Malay gardener and Indian cook. And SuLin replied that only the ang mohs (white people) wanted the locals to believe that each race was dishonest and non-trustworthy.

Let me tell you something, seeing the terrible racist things that are happening now, SuLin’s words ring truer than ever.

The accuracy in which the characters are written during that period is impeccable. I felt so much nostalgia for each South East Asian character that probably were reflective of every person my grandparents knew when they were living in Singapore in that period. You have each character that brought about a sense of belonging to how life was back then. It was representative of how simple things were back then. From the way they cooked their food, to the way they talked, and to the traditions of the Chinese and Malays highlighted in this book. Everything about The Frangipani Tree Mystery is authentic.

I must bring into light the wonder of this book for using Hokkien and Malay languages! I was so shocked to find a Malay poem inserted within the first few chapters that I squealed in delight. Small details like the type of language used and anecdotes infused in the book are what gives the book an authentic vibe.

You have SuLin preparing nasi lemak and fish curry in the book. You have an Indian cook preparing crispy , fried ikan bilis. You have the superstitions surrounding frangipani trees, or kemboja in Malay, and how they’re bad luck because they’re technically “grave flowers”.

You even have the legendary Biskut Ais Jems making an appearance in the book!

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I mean, if you never ever had these as a kid, growing up in Malaysia or Singapore, what kind of childhood did you even have???

The endless Malaya traditions included in this book are what I enjoyed the most. I’ve never read a novel that could portray and embody so well all the traditions and cultures I’ve experienced growing up.

Asides from these brilliant flashbacks, I found the plot to be alright. Nothing special that gripped my attention hard, but the adventures of SuLin and Dee Dee were enough to keep me reading until the end. The plot was a bit slow somewhere in the middle before picking up and ending a bit abruptly. But otherwise, it was a pleasure to travel to 1930’s Singapore and get inside the head of a local nanny.

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Overall, I really enjoyed this wonderful gem of a book. It is unique and needs to get out in the book industry more. The diversity and rich history portrayed in the book are what make The Frangipani Tree Mystery a brilliant read. The fact that it’s a fusion of crime and historical fiction adds brownie points to the package!

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Thank you Pansing Malaysia for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review!

Review: The Storyteller (Jodi Picoult)

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Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Publication date: January 2, 2014
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal
Page Count: 528
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Blurb:
What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who’s committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And most of all – if Sage even considers his request – is it murder, or justice?

Sage Singer befriends an old man who’s particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses…and then he confesses his darkest secret – he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.

REVIEW:

“History isn’t about dates and places and wars. It’s about the people who fill the spaces between them.”

The Storyteller has got to be one of the most prominent historical fictions there is out there. This is even more beautiful than The Book Thief by Markus Zusak if I dare say so myself. Because whilst The Book Thief was narrated by Death himself, The Storyteller was from a first person account of what went through (with no doubt) during World War II in German-occupied Poland.

The Storyteller is a beautiful book and woven into it are words that will take your breath away. Stories during the Holocaust that will disturb you but you just can’t take your eyes away from the pages. Each word brought life into the survivors and victims of WWII and what tragedies occurred during that period, where most of it remained silenced within each survivor’s life.

It is the tale of redemption, forgiveness, hope, bravery, mortality and family all rolled into a huge story that questions our ability to judge those who have committed heinous crimes and how and when they should be punished. The writing itself is beautiful as always. But what attracted me was how well the characters were portrayed and how real they felt despite me not having a clear understanding of WWII. We are the generation that knows about it the least other than what was taught in our history lessons in school.

But The Storyteller goes beyond that.

It describes Auschwitz, the infamous concentration/extermination camp in Poland, in such detail in its responsibility for killing over a million Jews via its gas chambers and crematoria. I felt disturbed and sick when I read of Minka’s (Sage’s grandmother) experience living there, as if I was reading an actual survivor’s accounts of her time there. I initially didn’t know the significance of the camp doctor directing prisoners who just arrived at the camp left or right until I Google-d it and found the terrifying truth….

“That’s why we read fiction, isn’t it? To remind us that whatever we suffer, we’re not the only ones?”

Picoult’s use of words and stories symbolised how important fiction is in enabling us to survive in the toughest of times. How stories can save us from the darkest pit of hopelessness and give us strength to brave the day ahead. The book starts out with a chapter from a fictional book written by Minka, which eventually becomes a vital essence of The Storyteller. Where monsters are portrayed by men and how relevant it is throughout the ages gripped my attention and made me understand Minka’s fight for survival even more. Eventually, we see how that fiction is what saves us in the end and how stories remind us of humanity, love and hope in bleak and unforgiving times.

“The only monsters I have ever known were men.”

I love how the plot was nicely done, despite not entirely enjoying the long and draggy Part 2 of the book. Otherwise, the way Picoult transitioned between the present and the past was seamless and perfect. I truly enjoyed learning more about the Holocaust in a very detailed approach, even if at times they disturbed me more often than not. But that’s the bleak side of History, no? They make you uncomfortable as proof that it did happen and people did die.

The Storyteller is a wonderful story of how genocide destroyed the humanity of mankind, and how hope salvaged it to allow the survivors to move forward. And with stories like this, I hope more people will be more willing to read about the plights and wars in Syria, Libya and Myanmar where the Muslims are facing similar events like the Jews 80 years ago.

“Forgiving isn’t something you do for someone else. It’s something you do for yourself. It’s saying, ‘You’re not important enough to have a stranglehold on me.’ It’s saying, ‘You don’t get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future.”

I do highly recommend this read if you are looking for something that will tear you to pieces and make you think about the fine line between monsters and men. It is an amazing masterpiece by Picoult and truly a wonderful historical fiction work that will live long in our hearts and mind.

RATING: ★★★★☆

Have you read this book? And what did you think about it?

Review: Wolf Hollow (Lauren Wolk)

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Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publication date: May 3, 2016
Format: Hardcover
Source: Personal
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Blurb:

Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.

Brilliantly crafted, Wolf Hollow is a haunting tale of America at a crossroads and a time when one girl’s resilience, strength, and compassion help to illuminate the darkest corners of our history.

Review:

“The year I turned twelve, I learned that what I said and what I did mattered. So much, sometimes, that I wasn’t sure I wanted such a burden. But I took it anyway, and I carried it as best I could.”  

Wolf Hollow is a middle grade historical fiction based in Pennsylvania, US during the second world war and focuses on the devastating impact of bullying, neglected childhood, and the importance of bravery to stand up for those unable to do so for themselves.

I fell in love with the cover of Wolf Hollow in an instant. This story had the perfect mix of 1940’s America caught between one of the most brutal wars of our time and the simple farm life that became the setting of this story.

It tells the tale of Annabelle, an 11-year old girl who comes into contact with a mean and evil-spirited girl, Betty, set on ruling her school and her life. This story gave us a complicated insight to fighting prejudice, facing conflict in the best way possible and having courage to help others when all hope seems lost.

Annabelle developed a beautiful friendship with Toby, the war veteran that eventually became the target of Betty’s torments. To see that kind of friendship develop in the most trying of times was emotionally gripping and allowed us to see that beyond appearances and judgement, each person has a story to tell. A worthy one, too. Annabelle teaches us the power of kindness, resilient and firm believe in the kindness of strangers and the good human condition that makes us the people we are today.

I love how well written this book was emotionally and plot-wise. The characters were so well presented that they were created simply for the young readers to easily identify bullies and how they create conflict in a society. How sometimes, bullies and tormentors look innocent and can spew lies against those who are odd or a bit strange.

This book is meant for middle graders but I believe it appeals for adults as well. Because sometimes, we need books with simplicity such as Wolf Hollow to remind us that prejudice has existed for the longest of time. And only kindness and bravery can endure it.

“And I decided that there might be things I would never understand, no matter how hard I tried. Though try I would. And that there would be people who would never hear my one small voice, no matter what I had to say. But then a better thought occurred, and this was the one I carried away with me that day: If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?”

I would recommend Wolf Hollow for all lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) and Pax (Sara Pennypacker)! They have similar vibes to Wolf Hollow and this book will leave you in emotional heartbreak at what awaits you at the end of the book.

RATING: ★★★★★

Have you read this? What did you think about it? 🙂

Review: The Ballroom (Anna Hope)

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Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: ★★★★★
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Publication date: September 6, 2016
Format: Hardback
Source: Personal
Page Count: 320
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Blurb:

By the acclaimed author of WAKE:

Where love is your only escape ….

1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors,
where men and women are kept apart
by high walls and barred windows,
there is a ballroom vast and beautiful.
For one bright evening every week
they come together
and dance.
When John and Ella meet
It is a dance that will change
two lives forever.

Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, THE BALLROOM is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

REVIEW:

There is only one way to describe this book: Breathtaking.

This is why I love reading historical fictions, they have this air of mystery and a bit of a paranormal aspect because of its time frame. But I’m glad to say this book is not as creepy or disturbing as one might associate asylums with. Yes, it was based in a Yorkshire asylum where the patients’ mental states are described in detail. But never was it made to turn you off at the idea of them. Rather, it made me feel close with the characters and everything that surrounds them.

“Why? What way are you?”

“Oh. All wrong,” said Clem with a brief smile. “I’m all wrong.”

This book was brilliantly written, in a way that haunts you. In a way that makes you repeatedly think of the characters and the evil that lurks in the medicine field back in the days where doctors felt superior to everyone else.The plight they made in the early century was horrifying, how they could easily think they deserve to make the choices for all mankind.

And the not running was a pain all over her body. But the pain of leaving was worse. And she was caught and pulled between the two…

There was a disturbing scene where a doctor made the observation that a women who reads too much will be prone to insanity as she is not fulfilling her nurturing duties. God, I can’t imagine living in such misogynistic situations where what you read is dictated by someone else.

The plot was alright, but as historical fiction goes, it isn’t the best part. The writing and the historical portrayal usually is.

How terrible it must be to be old! To have nothing pleasant or exciting ahead, only the contemplation of a past that may or may not have been what you had wished.

I also love the characters 3-POV narrative: John, Ella and Charles (the doctor). The book alternates between the three giving us a good glimpse into Sharshton Asylum. We see how they struggle in keeping their sanity in check, and craving for the freedom that has been denied to them. The romance that stemmed between John and Ella is so brilliantly written that it will keep you on your toes because you just don’t know what to expect next.

He did not need a war to come and remake the world; in her he could be made new…

The ending is heartbreaking as most historical fictions go. They are an accurate resemblance of the harsh reality of life and how it was truly difficult back then to be mentally unfit in a society of so many self-righteousness. This book questions morality, insanity and how subjective it can be, and also love and is consequences to freedom.

I urge you to read this haunting, beautiful tale of two souls and what kept them apart. The Ballroom is a story that stays with you long after you’ve reached the last page…

Review: The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Alice Hoffman)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis:

Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s “museum,” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River.

The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father’s Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie. Continue reading

Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis:

A novel of the cruelty of war, and tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love.

Richard Flanagan’s story — of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife — journeys from the caves of Tasmanian trappers in the early twentieth century to a crumbling pre-war beachside hotel, from a Thai jungle prison to a Japanese snow festival, from the Changi gallows to a chance meeting of lovers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Taking its title from 17th-century haiku poet Basho’s travel journal, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is about the impossibility of love. At its heart is one day in a Japanese slave labour camp in August 1943. As the day builds to its horrific climax, Dorrigo Evans battles and fails in his quest to save the lives of his fellow POWs, a man is killed for no reason, and a love story unfolds.

Continue reading