Singapore Shelf: Ning Cai's thriller trilogy comes to a twisty end

Metamorphosis is the final book in a trilogy by Ning Cai. PHOTOS: GREYBERRY, EPIGRAM BOOKS

SINGAPORE - In this monthly feature, The Straits Times lines up five hot-off-the-press home-grown books for readers to dive into.

1. Metamorphosis

By Ning Cai
Young adult thriller/Epigram Books/Paperback/197 pages/$18.08/Epigram Bookshop

"Pick a card," says Ning Cai over Zoom.

Before this interview, she had prepared a deck of cards in a sealed envelope with my name on it. After I have chosen my card - the seven of diamonds - she opens the envelope and fans out the deck, all the cards facing one direction - except the seven of diamonds.

Once a stage illusionist and escape artiste who went by the alluring name of Magic Babe Ning, the 39-year-old retired in 2014 to write. These days, the novelist and new mother saves her tricks for friends, family and the occasional journalist, but she says there may still be a touch of the old razzle-dazzle in the way she crafts her novels.

"In magic, it's always about the kicker at the end, the reveal," she says. "I guess I use that psychology in my work too."

There are twists aplenty in the Savant trilogy, her young adult mysteries featuring Maxine Schooling, a teenage Singaporean parkour champion who wakes up after a three-year coma to learn her entire family has been murdered.

Maxine finds she has new abilities, such as a photographic memory. She starts helping the police to solve crimes with the aid of her friends, from her loyal bestie Luce to Sunny, a non-binary hacker who is introduced in the second book, Manipulation.

Cai, who is based in Lausanne, Switzerland, is married to a museum professional and has a son, published the first book, Misdirection, in 2018, when it spent six weeks on The Straits Times' bestseller list.

But it was only this year that Manipulation and the final book, Metamorphosis, came out.

In between, a great deal happened. Cai pursued a master's degree in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh. She finished Manipulation while staying in the house of her friend, British writer Neil Gaiman, on the Isle of Skye, for which her son, Angelos Skye, is named.

Skye was born early last year as the Covid-19 outbreak began to escalate. Travel restrictions meant family could not visit Cai, who finished Metamorphosis after she delivered, while coping with baby blues and mastitis so severe she had to have two operations.

"I wasn't in a very good place," says Cai, who also lost her grandmother in this time.

"I had to wrestle my demons into this energy towards completing the book, and feeling how Maxine would have felt. I think it's the toughest book I've had to write because of where I was, not just physically, but also in terms of mental space."

The lengths Cai has gone to for research include getting a certificate in hypnotherapy, which plays a key role in Manipulation, and travelling to Glasgow to learn about hacking from an expert.

"I've always wanted to write something that young Ning would have loved to read," she says.

When she was growing up, books that were all the rage were the Nancy Drew mysteries and Sweet Valley High series, which feature white American heroines.

"I didn't get into the whole romance thing because I was always like, what's with these girls falling head over heels for these guys?

"I wanted an Asian girl who was intelligent and not annoying, a tomboy who's also very vulnerable. I wanted her to have full agency over who she wants to be and who she wants to be with at the end of the day. And I think these books are a step towards that."

2. Diard & Duvaucel


Pierre-Medard Diard and Alfred Duvaucel
Natural history/Epigram Books/Hardcover/188 pages/$40 before GST/Epigram Bookshop

This lush coffee-table book in English and French brings together drawings from the collection of French naturalists Pierre-Medard Diard and Alfred Duvaucel.

The duo accompanied Sir Stamford Raffles on his travels to Penang, Singapore and what is today Indonesia between 1818 and 1820. They commissioned artists to create hundreds of drawings of local flora and fauna, which were sent back with their specimens to aid the study of scientists in Europe.

From Kuhl's Gliding Gecko, a lizard with skin flaps, to the black-necked stork depicted on the book's cover, these drawings provide a valuable glimpse into what Singapore's biodiversity looked like some 200 years ago.

Today, the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris houses 120 of the drawings, while the entire collection has been digitised and transferred to Singapore's National Library.

This book, launched during the French festival Voilah! earlier this year, is a collaboration between the Embassy of France in Singapore and the National Library.

3. You Might Want To Marry My Husband


By Yap Swi Neo
Fiction/Monsoon Books/Paperback/223 pages/$19.80/Books Kinokuniya

Yap Swi Neo, a retired educator who was born in Melaka and now lives in Singapore, pens these 15 autobiographical stories, from the trials of the "Is the soup done?" test - which she was subjected to as a Peranakan girl by her first aunt to prepare her for marriage - to the story of a silent, nameless Malaysian bondmaid.

4. The Covid-19 Chronicles


National University of Singapore Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine
Non-fiction/World Scientific/Paperback/212 pages/$29.96/Books Kinokuniya

This book charts Singapore's Covid-19 journey into "peri-pandemic limbo". It collects the comic strips that the school has been putting out to educate the public about Covid-19 and also pays tribute to front liners.

5. Best New Singaporean Short Stories Vol. 5


Edited by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Fiction/Epigram Books/Paperback/274 pages/$26.64/Epigram Bookshop

This is the fifth volume of an ongoing series that collects the best Singaporean short stories published in the past two years. The offerings here range from The Prisoner by Yu-Mei Balasingamchow - a grim story about the wife of a man detained by the Internal Security Department - to Suffian Hakim's comic play on the idea of a double date in Who's Your Daddy?/Siapa Bapak Kau?

Correction note: An earlier version of this article said the Best New Singaporean Short Stories Vol. 5 collects the best short stories published in Singapore in the past year. This has been corrected.

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