Book Review: Yesterday by Felicia Yap

This review was originally published in The Star on 17th October, 2017

YESTERDAY

By Felicia Yap

Publisher: Wildfire, too many pages 

IMAGINE a world in which people’s memories go no further back than two days? Considering that I rarely remember what I’ve had for breakfast let alone what happened two days ago, this is not a scenario that sounds particularly unique to me.

But jokes aside, I approached Felicia Yap’s novel, Yesterday, with great anticipation because of the hoopla surrounding its acquisition: eight agents fought to represent Yap; the bidding war over her manuscript culminated in Headline Publishing Group paying a six-figures sum for it; and, as of December 2016, translation rights to the book had been sold to 11 countries. No wonder Newsweek predicted that Yesterday would be a 2017 “literary event” – naturally, I looked forward to reading it.

Sadly, I found the book disappointing.  

In Yesterday, the world is inhabited by Monos (they remember yesterday) and Duos (they remember yesterday and the day before yesterday). Duos are considered superior to Monos, and mixed marriages are rare, but Mark Evans, a Cambridge-educated Duo and successful novelist and wannabe Conservative MP, is married to Claire, a Mono who was a waitress when she first met him.

We learn, right off the bat, that Mark and Claire’s union is far from successful, but it disintegrates totally following the discovery of a body in the River Cam, not far from the couple’s home. It appears that the corpse is of one Sophia Ayling. Subsequently, we learn that she is Mark’s mistress. This fact is revealed in Sophia’s iDiary, a device (created by Steve Jobs, the Duo CEO of Apple) into which everyone in that world is legally obliged to record the details of their lives.

Monos and Duos lose their long-term memory at 18 and 23 respectively. This loss is caused by a surge in the levels of a protein that inhibits memory. Without long-term memory, daily diary entries are the only way people are able to keep track of their lives. Studying the details of your life diligently will transfer the information permanently into your brain, but studies show that a maximum of only 70% of the information in their diaries may be retained by an individual. And what happens when people record lies about themselves?

I’m assuming that what you know about yourself before you lose your long-term memory is permanent. I’m assuming that Duos remember what they learn to earn their university degrees. Also, what did people do before the advent of written language; or before education was widely available; or, indeed, before information could be stored in microchips? How did this civilisation advance, technologically, at the same rate as ours despite having such a handicap? What are things like outside the UK depicted in this book?

It’s a sketchy world that Mark, Claire and Sophia live in, one that Yap is obviously not that interested in building.

She certainly doesn’t address the above questions and many more that I feel would occur to any thoughtful and perceptive reader. The only question that interests the author is the one she has mentioned, in at least two high profile interviews, as being the basis of her book: “How do you solve a murder when you can only remember yesterday?”

The thing is, when you’re solving a murder, you wouldn’t rely on your memory anyway, no matter how good it is.

Instead, you’d do whatever is required, same as if your memory wasn’t restricted to the day before: ask the relevant questions, read the clues correctly, make the right connections between everything, and, through it all, make copious and detailed notes.

Detective Chief Inspector Hans Richardson, a Mono masquerading as a Duo, does all of the above, and I think the story would have worked better if it had been told solely from his perspective. Instead, the entire first-person, present-tense, (unreliable) narrative switches from Claire to Mark to the Detective to Sophia and back again, with, as the story progresses, barely a difference in the four voices. There are also the characters’ diary entries and newspaper clippings (to provide some sorely lacking information about this alternate world in which they live).

The first quarter of the book is a quick read, but the style gets repetitive and boring after that, and the wooden, cliché-ridden and unlikely dialogue and over-writing doesn’t help. A couple of examples:

“‘Someone murdered Miss Ayling,’ he says with a growl, his face inches away from mine. ‘I sense it in my bones, even though my deputy thinks it was suicide.’” 

“‘But the writing was on the wall,’ I say, unable to stop my voice from choking. ‘The facts were there from day one, Em. Mark’s not to be trusted.’”

Worst of all is how unappealing Yap’s characters are. They are predictable stereotypes: philandering rake of a husband; sniveling, downtrodden wife; hardboiled detective; sexy femme fatale. We don’t get close to any of them; never understand their motives and thought processes. Oh, we are told why they do this and that, but it’s like reading a comic with stick figure characters – all too basic and shallow to feel real.

Who killed Sophia Ayling? I didn’t care. Was Mark and Claire’s marriage doomed? Why would that interest me? Would DCI Richardson’s Mono status be revealed? I felt zero concern. I had to force myself to continue to the end, and I was quite shocked by what was finally revealed, including what was supposedly the big, shocking twist, because of how hokey and unlikely it all was. I really was reminded of the totally bonkers and extreme plots cooked up by my creative writing students who are under 10.

Six figures? If I were Headline, I’d ask for my money back.

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Review: Water Into Wine by Joyce Chng

WaterintoWine_300WATER INTO WINE

By Joyce Chng

Publisher: Annorlunda Books, ebook

[Some minor spoilers ahead]

Xin inherits a vineyard and decides to embark on a new life (and career), packing up and moving, with her mother and children, to Tertullian VI.

I found the story an easy read, and I was eager to turn its virtual pages as I found Xin an interesting, intriguing character, and I was eager to find out more about her … him?

Sadly, when the book ended I still had lots of questions about the character. Read More »

Review: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

beauty queensThis review was first published in The Star on 31st July, 2011

(I’d forgotten about this YA novel and that I’d reviewed it until the all-female remake of The Lord of the Flies was recently announced.)

BEAUTY QUEENS

By Libba bray

Publisher: Scholastic Press, 396 pages

A PLANE full of teenage beauty queens crashes on a tropical island en route to the 41st Annual Miss Teen Dream Pageant. There are 14 survivors, including Miss Texas, the super-efficient and scarily perky Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins; Miss New Hampshire, razor-tongued Adina Greenberg; Miss California, super-assimilated Shanti Singh; and Miss Nebraska, secret wild-child Mary Lou Novak.

The stress and hardship bring out the worst and the best in the girls. You don’t look the way beauty queens do without being hard as nails (Miss Mississippi is initially gleeful about the lack of food on the island, immediately thinking in terms of weight loss rather than starvation), and one broken nail too many and even the most disciplined beauty bot might blow a fuse.

Still, the girls eventually rise to the occasion, turning their beauty apparatus and pageant-wear into tools to help them survive. And as the girls dig latrines and spear fish together, they learn to trust one other and let their guard down.

The demons each one privately wrestles with range from the usual teen problems with self-esteem and body image to sexuality, gender and race issues. While some of the girls come clean with their new friends, others are not yet ready to be honest with themselves, let alone the other girls.Read More »

Review: Once We Were There by Bernice Chauly

bcONCE WE WERE THERE

By Bernice Chauly

Publisher: Epigram Books, too many pages

Let’s get straight to the point: Bernice Chauly’s debut novel, Once We Were There, does not work, for me.

Reasons why it doesn’t work:

The protagonist’s name

I still can’t get over it and I wonder why the author chose to saddle her character with such a silly, pretentious and distracting name. However, Delonix Regia (I kid you not) is the Latin name of the flame of the forest tree, and as the plant is also known as royal poinciana, I guess Del (as she wisely chooses to call herself) could have fared worse. (P.S. Del also gives her daughter a Latin plant name, and so, the cycle of abuse continues.)

Read More »

Review: Dongeng by Anna Tan

Dongeng[This review contains spoilers]

DONGENG

By Anna Tan

Publisher: Pronoun, 214 pages

The prelude to Dongeng by Anna Tan sets the scene and fulfils the promise of the book’s title: This is a story set in the world of fairytales. Sang Kancil makes a brief appearance, confirming that, as the title suggests, the fairytales will be those of the Malay world.

The title also seems to remind us that the world we are about to enter, via the story, is an imaginary one. While we may be expected to suspend our disbelief as we immerse ourselves in Tan’s words, the title stresses that this is a fairy story. Or is it? Certainly, as I read more, I began to see that the book’s title might allude to the doubt and skepticism felt by the novel’s protagonist about what she encounters. Indeed, the title seems also to cheekily reference the reader’s own assumptions that the story being told is pure fantasy.

‘Chapter One’ plunges us into the thick of things: Sara, the protagonist, finds herself in the middle of a forest, on a moss-covered dais no less. A city girl, who lives in Kuala Lumpur, she is immediately aware that something really odd is afoot, and so, one of her first observations is that her handbag has travelled to the forest with her and that nothing in it has gone missing — as it would be inconvenient to have to apply for a new identity card and cancel her credit card. This response is rather incongruous, but not entirely implausible, I suppose, considering how traumatised Sara must be to find herself whisked away to another world.Read More »