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Burnt Sugar
Photograph: @themoonsg/Instagram

14 books we've read and loved so far in 2021

On our list – a murder mystery set in Raffles Hotel, a manifesto for more time in the sun and an anthology of global folktales

Cheryl Sekkappan
Written by
Cheryl Sekkappan
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We're about halfway through 2021, and hopes are that amidst the stress and confusion of semi-lockdown and hybrid working, you've found enough downtime to settle in with a book or two. If you haven't, then no shame – take this list as inspiration for the rest of the year. From mythical tales on Changi Beach and classic whodunits at Raffles Hotel Singapore, to critical essays on our colonial history and a cookbook chockful of every local recipe you can think of, here are the books the Time Out Singapore team has read and loved so far in 2021. 

RECOMMENDED: 16 new books we're excited to read in 2021

Mosque in the Jungle
Photograph: Wardah Books

Mosque in the Jungle

By Othman Wok
Who doesn't love ghost stories? Unlike modern ghost stories with elaborate twists and dramatic plots, his stories are simple, eerie, and timeless. Fun fact Othman Wok wrote most of his stories when he was still a journalist  – before he became a prominent politician in the 60s and was part of the team that led Singapore to independence. Mosque in the Jungle assembles the best stories from three of its novels. – Delfina Utomo, Editor

Mexican Gothic

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This one was such a fun read because fantasy and gothic horror are some of the first genres I got into. There's a creepy Victorian house... in Mexico, there are dangerous ravines, there is a blonde blue-eyed male hero, a dark-haired beautiful and gutsy heroine. There is also a witch/healer character, some people die... yup, everything you need in a gothic horror novel. – Delfina Utomo, Editor
Available at BooksActually and Kinokuniya.
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Such A Fun Age
Photograph: @kileyreid/Instagram

Such A Fun Age

By Kiley Reid
Such A Fun Age is definitely relevant to today and it is also an easy read for a novel that tackles issues like racism, tokenism, performative activism, the white saviour complex, and also that early 20s age where you have so much to plan and look forward to (adulting, basically) but just want to have fun. You'll identify so many familiar characters here but the story is still intriguing enough for a weekend read. – Delfina Utomo, Editor
Available at BooksActually and Kinokuniya

How to Cook Everything Singaporean

By Denise Fletcher 

If there's a quintessential Singapore cookbook you need on your bookshelves, it's this. Now that we're staying home more, I've made it a goal to improve on my culinary skills – so this book has been a lifesaver. How to Cook Everything Singaporean is a curation of recipes compiled and tested by Denise Fletcher, Executive Chef at Quentin's Bar and Restaurant.

You'll find everything from time-tested recipes right out of your grandmother's book to more gastronomically adventurous ones by Singapore's renowned chefs like Bjorn Shen, Willin Low and more. – Dewi Nurjuwita, Art & Culture Editor

Available at BooksActually, Epigram Bookshop and Independent Market.

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The Keepers of Stories
Photograph: Epigram Books

The Keepers of Stories

By Suffian Hakim

I low-key enjoyed Suffian’s satirical debut Harris Bin Potter And The Stoned Philosopher, so it was a no-brainer to pick up his latest novel The Keepers of Stories which was longlisted for the 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. A sucker for myths and folklore, I was pretty much drawn into this world where Suffian weaved in real-life experiences with age-old tales. It introduces the Anak Bumi, a group of homeless people at Changi Beach who practise a storytelling ritual that invokes – as Suffian puts it – “the spirits of the land". The frame narrative is similar to that of A Thousand and One Nights, which is a collection of folk tales that, at one point, kept me up in the witching hour. And so did The Keepers of Stories too. Oh, and the best part? I got to interview Suffian about the novel too. Read the full interview here. – Cam Khalid, City Life Writer 

Available on Epigram Books.

Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold

By Bolu Babalola

Yes, I have an affinity for myths, but not so much romance novels. However, Love in Colour manages to combine the two with a captivating twist. It’s an anthology of folk tales from Nigeria, Persia, Egypt, China and more that are reimagined with a modern, feminist and multicultural flair. There are also three original stories to shake things up. But don’t expect the typical lacklustre “live, love, laugh” plot. The frontwoman of each story is brilliantly etched out in a way that they remain with you even after devouring the entire book in just two days. – Cam Khalid, City Life Writer

Available on Amazon.

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The Vanishing Half
Photograph: @themoonsg/Instagram

The Vanishing Half

By Brit Bennett

I can’t stop raving about The Vanishing Half – the hype is real. This lockdown companion had me following its intricate plot lines word for word, page for page until my eyes couldn’t stay open. A sort of historical fiction, the novel tells the story of long-lost twin sisters during the Jim Crow era – one grows up to marry “the darkest man she could find” while the other marries a white man, passes for white and hides her true African-American identity. It touches on race and colourism, as well as complex familial ties, romance and tragedy. Now I’m just waiting for HBO’s TV adaptation of it. – Cam Khalid, City Life Writer

Available on Amazon and Kinokuniya.

The Raffles Affair

By Vicki Virtue

A classic whodunit adventure set in the palatial grounds of Raffles Hotel Singapore. Heroine Victoria West, a former M16 agent, travels to the restored Grand Dame to attend her friend’s wedding, only to find herself thrown into a murder mystery. And more than just a thrilling page-turner, The Raffles Affair provides the perfect excuse to swing by Writers Bar (when it is safe to do so) and read with a drink in hand. Sip on specially crafted cocktails inspired by the characters and their personalities – made possible thanks to the Writer Residency Programme at the hotel. – Fabian Loo, Food & Drink Writer

Available at Epigram Bookshop and Kinokuniya

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Naif
Photograph: Wardah Books

Naif

By Nurzawani Jamaluddin

In Naif, Wani documents the ups and downs in her life and I admire her strength in slowing stitching the broken pieces together and coming out of her grief by writing her thoughts through poetry. Even though it is such a short read, some of her poems hit differently, hitting close to my heart as well. I always put it by my bedside for an easy read whenever I feel I need some encouraging words after a long day. – Kashmira Kasmuri, Designer

Available on Wardah Books.

Chasing the Sun

By Linda Geddes

No thanks to the pandemic, many of us are spending way more time indoors – away from sunlight and increasingly exposed to artificial light. Chasing the Sun: The Science of Sunlight and How It Shapes Our Bodies and Minds gave me both anxiety and hope. Journalist Linda Geddes lays out scores of research that shows how our distorted relationship with the sun is wreaking havoc on our sleep cycles, immune systems and mental health. At the same time, this brilliantly accessible book illuminates simple bits of advice that we can all take up to get back in sync with the natural rhythms of life. A good wake-up call at just the right moment for me. – Cheryl Sekkappan, Staff Writer

Available on BooksActually.

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Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History
Cover Art: City Dwellers (2014) by Hilmi Johandi

Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History

Edited by Alfian Sa'at, Faris Joraimi and Sai Siew Min

This book came up in our list of highly anticipated books of 2021, and with a provocative title like that, I had to pick it up. Inspired by the Singapore Bicentennial in 2019, which commemorated the 200th year of Stamford Raffles' landing, Raffles Renounced takes a hard look at the narratives we've constructed around that occasion and the colonial years thereafter. How has colonialism occluded pre-colonial ties to Malaya and shaped enduring stereotypes of 'the lazy native'? Why does Raffles still hold pride of place in our canon, and what end does it serve? Can Singapore be decolonised? These questions (and more) aren't those that we ever grappled with in our classrooms (not in mine, anyway), so it was a thoroughly enriching and eye-opening read. – Cheryl Sekkappan, Staff Writer

Available on Ethos BooksBooksActually and Littered with Books

A Net for Small Fishes

By Lucy Jago

I love a good historical novel, and A Net for Small Fishes certainly fits the bill. Based on the true story of English noblewoman Frances Howard, this book whisks you away into the politics and intrigue of the Jacobean court. It's centered on the unlikely friendship between the rich and beautiful Frances and the witty and talented seamstress Anne Turner. Their struggle to survive and gain power in a highly rigid and unequal society is gripping and unputdownable, but it's the friendship that packs the real emotional punch. – Cheryl Sekkappan, Staff Writer

Available on The Moon and Kinokuniya

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Burnt Sugar
Photograph: @themoonsg/Instagram

Burnt Sugar

By Avni Doshi

How do you deal with the trauma inherited from your mother when she has dementia, and is forgetting all the pain she's done to you? A book recommended by Kenny Leck from BooksActually, Burnt Sugar made quite an impact with its depiction of a troubled, and I would say, toxic relationship between a mother and daughter. Set in Pune, India, the book was at times dark, difficult and depressing, but the writing is richly evocative and...I guess I like the pain?  Cheryl Sekkappan, Staff Writer

Available at BooksActually, The Moon and Kinokuniya

Stoner

By John Williams 

I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. From the outset of Stoner, we are told that the main protagonist William Stoner lives and dies an unremarkable man, eventually fading into obscurity. It’s not the most uplifting start to any book, and the melancholy continues as we are taken through Stoner’s brushes with politics in academia, his tumultuous marriage, and his inevitable death. Yet, the beauty is in the telling – and John Williams infuses Stoner's story with quiet luminance. By the last sentence, I feel deep empathy and heartbreak for this everyman. – Cheryl Sekkappan, Staff Writer

Available on BooksActually and Kinokuniya

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