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Novel approaches

BT Lifestyle rounds up the year in arts, entertainment, food and design with our favourite selections in every category
Dec 23, 2016 5:50 AM

THE first batch of novels from the short- and long-list of the Epigram Books' inaugural Fiction Prize kept us busy for much of the year, while Math Paper Press continues its winning streak with emerging authors and poets. Few Singapore writers have ventured into "chick lit" territory, but 2016 saw at least two who attempted it successfully. Here are our favourite Singapore books of 2016.


By Balli Kaur Jaswal, published by Epigram Books

Following her excellent 2013 novel Inheritance, Jaswal returns with another story about the Punjabi-Sikh experience in Singapore. It centres on 10-year-old Pin who tries to uncover the mystery of her mother's past while coming to terms with the racism she faces at school. Jaswal writes convincingly through the eyes of a young girl who does not judge - yet the girl's innocent observations often lead us to see Singapore in more vivid colours.

Market voices on:

A Field Guide To Supermarkets In Singapore

By Samuel Lee, published by Math Paper Press

The poetry debut of the year belongs to Lee, a young writer with a gift for transforming passing moments into philosophical inquiries. Tiny observations lead into infinite mysteries, small incidents become solar flares. Lee's precise control of language and lyric interiority put you right there in the picture where you wish you could stay longer than the length of the poem allows.

Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book

By Shubigi Rao, published by Rock Paper Fire

It's not unusual for artists to embark on books projects. But Rao's 10-year timeline to produce five books might have been just been an ambitious statement if the first instalment of the series wasn't so jaw-droppingly impressive. Pulp feels like a 268-page love letter to books, libraries, illustrations and marginalia. It is playful, enigmatic and erudite all at once. And because Rao is a visual artist, Pulp is also the most beautifully-designed book we've seen in 2016.

Now That It's Over

By O Thiam Chin, published by Epigram Books

The winning novel of Epigram Books Fiction Prize really divides readers. Some call it dull, others find it nuanced and powerful. For the latter group, the parallel stories of two relationships - one straight, one gay - culminating against the backdrop of 2004 tsunami are elegiac accounts of the failings and frustrations of love.

Kappa Quartet

By Daryl Qilin Yam, published by Epigram Books

Set in present-day Singapore and Japan, Yam's terrific debut novel tells a strange and shivery tale of ordinary people living side by side with kappas (the river demons in Japanese folklore). Beneath the story's surreal creepiness is the idea that we can't run away from confronting our isolation and insignificance. Yam is one to watch.

BooksActually's Gold Standard 2016

Edited by Julie Koh, published by Math Paper Press

Our favourite anthology of 2016 is BooksActually's new Gold Standard annual collection of short fiction by the best "cult writers" of Asia and its diaspora. There are familiar names here such as Singapore's Balli Kaur Jaswal and Cyril Wong, Indonesia's Laksmi Pamuntjak and China's A Yi - and many unfamiliar ones whose contributions are no less sterling.

Annabelle Thong

By Imran Hashim, published by Epigram Books

Sarong Party Girls

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, published by William Morrow

For some reason, few Singapore authors have bothered with the chick lit genre. But in 2016, we had at least two titles. Though they're strikingly different in style, each offers an entertaining read. Annabelle Thong centres on an innocent Singaporean girl studying in Paris and looking for love, while Sarong Party Girl tells of an aging party girl desperate to land a Caucasian husband.

The former is a light and breezy read, written in standard English. The latter is deliberately crude and brassy, written in unannotated Singlish and filled with Hokkien swear words. Take your pick.

And The Walls Come Crumbling Down

By Tania De Rozario, published by Math Paper Press

De Rozario's semi-memoir about losing love and moving houses is dolorous and hard to encapsulate, because it tends to go in different directions unexpectedly. And yet one doesn't want it to be organised any differently, because its peripatetic thread feels closer to real life and real love, with their constraints, deprivations and unpredictable outcomes.

Rich Kill Poor Kill

By Neil Humphreys, published by Marshall Cavendish

Humphreys is best known for his humour writing, but he deserves more recognition as a crime novelist. His first stab at the detective genre was last year's Marina Bay Sins, a pulpy page-turner which introduced the character of Stanley Low, a detective suffering from bipolar disorder. Humphrey's new book Rich Kill PoorKill has Low investigating a series of killings that exposes the social hierarchy of Singapore.