Friday, February 27, 2015

A Certain Exposure by Jolene Tan

Wow. I've never been exposed to a novel quite like this in all my years of reading. It's a rather refreshing read to be perfectly honest. Even though it got rather sad nearing the end, I'm still impressed with this work.

Spoiler alert! Although I must say that whatever I write here will certainly not do justice to the book. You have to read it for yourself to appreciate its beauty. So consider yourself warned. 

This book, set largely in Singapore, begins with Brian receiving his twin brother's, Andrew's, body from the UK. The story of their lives slowly unfold and the tale of how the tragedy happened is gradually revealed bit by tantalising bit. 

Although I found the writing a tiny bit ... "stilted" (is the best word I can think of) in the beginning, the plot and the setting more than made up for it and I found myself getting more and more intrigued with each passing page. By the end of it, I was hooked. This makes for great reading. 

In any case, I've not read a book that wove in local elements so naturally and effortlessly before. The author manages to not only incorporate parts of Singapore history such as Operation Spectrum, without referring directly to it by name, but also blend in the familiar education scene that every Singaporean can relate to. It's great to finally see some great writing set in this little country of ours. In addition, complex family dynamics are portrayed accurately and in much detail without being overboard.

As I read A Certain Exposure, I mused that I had never read a work of fiction where the characters were gay, be they the protagonist or otherwise. This says a lot about me, or the place in which I've been brought up. But as I was typing out this review, Cyril Wong's The Last Lesson of Mrs DeSouza came to mind. That wasn't too bad, but it pales in comparison to this book. The author fleshes out two gay characters in the book and one can really feel for them. 

If this book is an accurate reflection of our society, it is really quite tragic that there seems to be a lot of repression in Singapore. People seem to be unable to express their true selves, seeking to conform to the expectations of others for their approval. The only counter cultural character, Hwee Ling, whom we are only acquainted with near the end of the book, is often mocked at and viewed with much derision. But I have hope that things are slowly changing in this place.

Nonetheless, despite my melancholic musings, this is a fantastic book and I'd recommend everyone to read it. Especially Singaporeans. This book is written for you. I'm sure you can get this book at all major bookstores, I found mine at the library, and you can also buy it directly from the publisher's webpage at

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Quiet Journeys - Finding Stillness in Chaos by Mary Elizabeth Lim and Melanie Lee

If life is a journey and I am a pilgrim, then this book is a guide to finding stillness in a world where people and social media chatters incessantly.

Quiet Journeys draws on the decades of experience of a Catholic nun, Mary Elizabeth Lim, in leading people in silent retreats at Good Shepherd Oasis to recover their inner peace and to come alongside God to hear what He has to say to them. It was her desire to help the layman who might not be able to attend such a retreat to do so in his or her own time and place.

I found this book a practical and refreshing read. It is divided into 4 main portions titled, Solitude, Meditation, Reflection, and Other Guiding Words and each chapter does a good job in expounding on their respective titles. This book is an easy read that can be finished very quickly, yet there are many hidden words of wisdom within.

There are instructions in the second chapter on 3 types of meditation:

1. Benedictine Meditation (also known as Lectio Divina)
2. Ignatian Meditation
3. Christian Meditation

I'd heard and tried the first before, after reading about it in Dallas Willard's Hearing God but the other two meditation techniques were rather new to me. I tried all three out (on different days of course) and it was a most relaxing experience. I found myself quite at peace and much calmer than before after a couple of minutes of meditating on the word "Maranatha" or "Come, Lord" in Aramaic. I think I might incorporate these practices into my daily life.

The book is also interspersed with short testimonies of people who have gone to the Good Shepherd Oasis for silent retreats and how they have benefited from it. As I read them, it made me determined to book a session with them to experience a silent retreat for myself.

The book ends with the author informing us that the Land Transport Authority would be taking back the land that Good Shepherd Oasis stands on to build a new expressway. However, a quick look at the Facebook page of this book informs us that they have found a new place at Toa Payoh and I am very happy that they have done so. I'm sure that this will enable many more to find peace in a world filled with noise.

So grab this book my fellow sojourner, I'm sure it will be able to help and encourage you in this journey called Life. If you're in Singapore, you are able to purchase this book from SKS Books located along Outram Road or order it from Armour Publishing. It also ships internationally with Amazon and those with eReaders can purchase the eBook version from the Armour Publishing website with the link provided here.

Disclaimer: The author sent me a copy of the book to review.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

I picked up this book because I'd heard many good things about it. It sure didn't disappoint.

Well, this is an autobiography of a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who entered his vocation at the young age of 26 after a lifetime of worldly pursuits. It is quite a tomb at 462 pages but I suppose this is comparable to other autobiographies out there.

What most surprised me was how engaging the book was. Unlike other autobiographies that had me bored by page 3 (Richard Branson's "Losing my Virginity" being one), I followed Merton as he rambled on about his childhood, his youth, and then his time at Cambridge and then Columbia. He is quite a masterful writer in that sense, because he kept me reading. He had certainly travelled quite a bit by the time he entered university.

But I suppose part of the draw was wanting to find out how and why he left the world to become a Trappist monk, one of the more exacting vocations among the Catholic orders. In fact, he felt the same way too, first signing up with the Franciscans instead who rejected him eventually. This book shows how when God calls someone, that someone would have his soul tugged toward that particular vocation. At least that's what happened for Thomas Merton. That was how he was first converted from being a pagan (in his own words), to a Catholic and from subsequently to the priesthood. It seemed not so much the work of the people around him, although they played a part in it, but more the work of God himself that led him to his final path.

I loved this passage near the end of the book which made me feel like this is what life is supposed to be about. This was when he was on his way to the monastery, hoping that they would accept him, while at the same time aware of the possibility of being drafted into the army (World War 2 was happening at that time):

"I was free. I had recovered my liberty. I belonged to God, not to myself: and to belong to Him is to be free, free of all the anxieties and worries and sorrows that belong to this earth, and the love of the things that are in it. What was the difference between one place and another, one habit and another, if your life belonged to God, and if you placed yourself completely in His hands? The only thing that mattered was the fact of the sacrifice, the essential dedication of one's self, one's will, the rest was only accidental."

This is impacted me so much. It is brilliant and made me realise in a flash that life can be so simple. Often we over-think and ruminate on the complexities of life when all we have to do is to place yourself in God's hands.

Well, I must say I wouldn't recommend this book for all, especially for those hard-pressed for time. His life is really quite interesting and I can understand why it was a best-seller in its time, just after the war when everyone was searching for something greater than themselves. For those interested in Thomas Merton, this would be a good book for you to find out more about him. For the average person, do pick it up if you'd like to find out why someone would convert to the Catholic faith in his adult life, not having much contact with it all throughout his life. I must say it was quite a good read, as long as it was.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Invisible Manuscript by Alfian Sa'at

"I never knew poetry on gay male sex could be so beautiful," was how I introduced this book to a couple of my friends. You'd probably not believe me, but it's true. Pick this book up and give it a try. You might be surprised. I certainly was. 

A friend who teaches Literature glanced through the book and commented that such poetry needs to be read a little at a time, like something to be savoured. The impatient me of course, read the entire thing within the course of a day. 

This book contains a mix of both prose and poetry and both are equally good. They are written with different personas in mind and that is something that can be clearly seen through the titles or content of the various works. This makes it very interesting indeed. 

It's not all about gay sex though. But every poem or short story does express heartfelt same-sex desire or longing. And it is amazing how it does not get stale, all of the 102 pages. 

If you're looking for something a little out of the ordinary, this is the book for you. You can grab it at Books Actually which did a reprint with a snazzy new cover, or order it from their online store at:

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Adventures of Squirky the Alien #2 - What happened to Planet Q? by Melanie Lee

So I sped through the second book in this series to see if the Squirky was able to find his birth parents. (Check out the first book in the series - Why am I blue? in an earlier review.) And I was disappointed. 

He didn't. But I suppose this probably mirrors the process of someone who's searching for their birth parents which may be a process sometimes fraught with difficulty. 

Nothing much happens in this book (which added to the disappointment) but I suppose this is the result of writing a book series - there has to be an explanation of the backstory somewhere and this was it. I must say though, that the illustrations are stellar. 

Children will probably enjoy it more than I did, especially if they loved the first book. Hopefully the next book will shed more light on who his birth parents are. 

The Adventures of Squirky the Alien #1 - Why am I blue? by Melanie Lee

I finally got around to reading this book after so long. I was invited to the book launch by the author last year but was working and wasn't able to make it. But today, at the Woodlands Public Library, I finally laid my hands on this book. Not without a bit of difficulty. (It's under "English LEE" at the 10 - 12 Years section, not under Preschool.)

Anyway, it's a really simple and easy to read book with an engaging storyline. "Why am I blue" is about Squirky the alien who is part of the Lee family who one day discovers that he is quite different from his sister, a human. And the worst part of his mini existential crisis was that he felt so different from everyone at school because he was blue. 

But his parents reassures him that they love him and Daddy explains where he came from and how he got here. I was surprised to find myself tearing up on page 29 when Squirky wondered if he were alone, the only alien on this planet. This most heartwarming thing was when his mother comforts him and tells him that he wasn't because he was part of their family. 

This is a great resource for any family, whether they have adopted children or not. It will help to explain that there is more than one kind of family and that what's most important in one is the unconditional love and acceptance that a child should find in it. 

I can't wait to start on the second book which is what I'm exactly about to do!