Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart: yay local history and single ladies of fiction

Girl Waits With Gun

2015. Houghton Mifflin. ebook. 416 pages.


In Girl Waits With Gun, Amy Stewart gives us a fictional story based on a real woman and real events. The year the story starts is 1914. Constance Kopp and her two sisters – one of them a teenager – live together on a farm in New Jersey, despite their brother’s wish that they live in town under his “protection”. One day, their buggy is overturned during an accident involving a careless driver of an automobile, who happens to be a local factory owner by the name of Henry Kaufman.

When Constance boldly presses Kaufman for compensation of the buggy, in a way that pokes his easily bruised ego, Kaufman escalates matters. The sisters soon become the targets of intimidation by Kaufman and his cronies. With the help of the local sheriff, Constance seeks justice and safety for her family. Additionally, Constance is moved to help a young factory worker whose son she had by Kaufman has gone missing.

One of the things I loved about Girl Waits With Gun is the historical specificity. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but enough to realize that many novels in that genre try to connect their story to an uber-narrative of that era, some widely understood concept of that time period’s role in the greater story of the United States or Great Britain etc. (For example: the Roarin’ 20’s and all the shorthands for that decade that have made it into cultural memory.) The uber-narrative is not always a bad thing, but it can be if used lazily. Girl Waits With Gun dodges the uber-narrative, mostly because Stewart keeps her novel at a local history level, which is a territory that feels rather refreshing. Smoothly incorporated local history tidbits make the novel’s setting feel really lived-in and real.

Stewart wisely makes few deviations from the true story of the Kopp sisters’ conflict with Kaufman. I think some authors would have been tempted to put a 21st century spin on that storyline, which would have just made it bland. When I read the afterword, I was surprised and pleased to find out just how much primary source material made it into this novel. I’m guessing that Stewart’s judicious use of her research stems from her extensive experience in nonfiction writing (The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Plants).

Girl Waits With Gun jumped to the top of my to-read list when it was recommended to me as a book that featured a never-married female protagonist who has no romantic interest during the course of the novel. I have been on the lookout for books fitting that description ever since posting my review of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. (So has Teresa of the blog Shelf Love – she wrote a post on Book Riot about it. And we have a list on Goodreads.)

***Spoilers*** While Girl Waits With Gun certainly belongs on that “single ladies of fiction” list, one of the central emotional throughlines of the novel is based on the (real-life historical) fact that Constance’s youngest sister Fleurette is actually Constance’s biological daughter, born from Constance’s teenaged tryst with a traveling salesman. Fleurette is ignorant of her true parentage, but Constance still struggles with her maternal feelings for her daughter. It is a fascinating layer of the story, don’t get me wrong, but I realized that I’m especially longing for “single ladies of fiction” books that have a protagonist who has no children as well as having no romance. ***End Spoilers***

All in all, I really enjoyed Girl Waits With Gun, and plan on reading the next book in the series.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

A Work in Progress – “Girl Waits with Gun is a fun story, mostly very light-heartedly presented, but an interesting look at early modern America.  If you are wary of historical fiction, this is a story that wears its details lightly.”

living read girl – “Girl Waits With Gun does have the flair of such fictional feisty female crime fighters such as Miss Phryne Fisher, who I think Constance would get along well with, even if she’s not as much of a party girl. Both ladies share a keen set of wits and plenty of savvy to deal with trouble at their doorstep, despite what the men about them might think”

loudlatinlaughing – “The most delightful and entertaining fiction I’ve read in a while, with an ending that doesn’t drag and drag but that is ultimately perfect, you read to the last drop on the page.”


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Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor

Writing My Wrongs

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison

2016. Convergent. Hardcover. 268 pages.


In the memoir Writing My Wrongs, Shaka Senghor describes the events that led up to committing murder in 1991 Detroit at age 19. In alternating chapters, he also describes the arc of his nineteen years in prison, as he gradually transforms himself through education  and religious conversion. He takes the reader into his mindset at these different points in his life.

I had a mixed opinion about this book, but I definitely think his story is worth hearing. What came through clearly for me was his emphasis on the psychological and emotional scars that drove his young self onto the wrong path. Among other things, Senghor’s parents separated when he was a teenager, and his mother sent him to live with his father, a move which felt like rejection to him. When she took him back later, she dealt with his rebellious behavior by beating him. He began to have suicidal thoughts, and made one attempt. Later, while selling drugs, Senghor was shot in the leg and was subsequently filled with rage. He began carrying a gun himself. Senghor definitely takes personal responsibility for his wrong actions – especially the murder. However, it’s also clear that he had no outlet for addressing the emotional tumult of his life, and no one around to help him out of his downward spiral.

It reminded me of This American Life’s episodes on Harper High School in Chicago, where in one year 29 current or recent students of that school were shot. No one is immune in an environment of violence. It will take its toll.

I thought Senghor’s story was hampered at times by some of his writing style choices. I thought he too frequently injected his current self’s understanding into his description of past events. Take this excerpt:

Within a few weeks, I had immersed myself fully in my life as a hustler. The money came quick, but I found ways to spend it quicker. I decked myself in the latest gear, and I felt proud, walking around with a wad of money in my pocket. But in truth, I was overcompensating for the things that had been missing in my life – the most important of which were love and acceptance, things my new life couldn’t give me.

On the one hand, Senghor is reminding us of the emotional wounds that hid behind his tough exterior. However, the way he expresses it is so on-the-nose diagnostic – and he adds this kind of retrospective analysis throughout the text.

Indeed, a few pages later, he describes watching customers hallucinate and crawl around and adds: “At the time, I was ignorant about their plight and the seriousness of addiction, so I laughed at them until my stomach felt like it was going to burst. I didn’t realize it then, but I was growing desensitized to the suffering of others and developing a warped view of adults and authority.” I kept wishing he would let the story alone and let it speak for itself, at least for longer stretches. I think the retrospective analysis has its place, but here it just seemed to keep me from getting immersed in his narrative.

All that said, Writing My Wrongs displays Senghor’s thorough processing of his life, an honest reckoning of his own failings as well as the failings of institutions, especially the prison system, which I didn’t really touch on in this review, but is certainly a large part of the book. Today, Senghor works for #cut50, a criminal justice reform initiative that aims to “safely and smartly reduce the U.S. prison population in half by 2025.”

I first heard about the author and this book from Emily at Books, The Universe and Everything. Shortly after that, I saw it was available to request from Blogging for Books so that worked out nicely.


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A Trio of Classic Reads: Mini-reviews

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Recommended from things mean a lot

Jerome’s 1889 tale of three men who take a boat trip down the Thames is delightfully funny and accessible. I think Jerome’s book is technically classified as fiction, but based on real people and real boating trips. (Apparently the dog, Montmorency, is completely fictional.) I decided to augment my reading experience by following along their trip using Google maps, and looking up pictures of landmarks and hotels and pubs online as well. There was something inexplicably satisfying about finding the named location from the book on the map. I also just learned that Oxford River Cruises offers skiffs for hire by advertising on their site “Live the Jerome K Jerome Classic Tale of Three Men in Boat“.

The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

Recommendation from Eva

The Blue Castle is the only book of L. M. Montgomery’s where none of the story takes place on Prince Edward Island. (It’s set in Ontario). In this story, Valancy Stirling is an unmarried woman of 29, who lives unhappily with her horrid family. Feeling some unusual pains, she visits the doctor who diagnoses her with a terminal disease. This knowledge frees her from her submission to others’ judgments and she invents a whole new life for herself. There’s a great matter-of-fact marriage proposal that occurs half-way through the book, and I do envy the cozy island life Valancy chooses for herself. An enduring mental image I have in my head from this book is of Valancy happily snow-shoeing through the Canadian forest.

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

This is the fourth novel of the Chronicles of Barsetshire. While introducing a new set of characters, Framley Parsonage also carries forward characters from the third novel, Doctor Thorne, which I read last year and from the second novel, Barchester Towers, which I read several years ago and had more trouble recollecting the particulars. In any case, as with the rest of this series, I loved Trollope’s writing and his nuanced characterization. I thought the plotline about Mark Robarts’ debt scandal dragged on in places, but it was more than made up for with the return of the glorious Martha Dunstable, who had a supporting part in Doctor Thorne. There’s a great set piece in the middle of the novel when Miss Dunstable throws a party and two mortal enemies – The Duke of Omnium and Lady Lufton – are forced to acknowledge the other’s existence.

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All three of these books are from my Classics Club challenge list, which I don’t think I stand a chance of finishing by September 2017, which was my goal, but I will still have pushed myself to prioritize reading more classic books than I otherwise might have done.


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Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Deserve More Readers

I have never participated in Top Ten Tuesday before, but something about today’s prompt called to me: “Top Ten Books We Enjoyed That Have Under 2000 Ratings On Goodreads (we’ve done underrated books a bunch of times in the past 6 years but thanks to Lenore at Celebrity Readers for suggesting this topic as a new way to talk about underrated books especially when underrated is subjective.)”

I took a page from River City Reading’s post on this topic, and limited myself to books that have under 1,000 ratings on Goodreads.


  1. The Cloud Garden: A True Story of Adventure, Survival and Extreme Horticulture by Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder

In 2000, Tom Hart Dyke (English horticulturalist and first cousin of actress Miranda Hart) and his travel companion Paul Winder were kidnapped by guerrillas in the Darien Gap (Panama/Colombia) and held for nine months. The manner in which they are freed is something you just can’t make up.

2. Spoonhandle by Ruth Moore

Set on a small Maine island in the 1930’s, Spoonhandle captures a disappearing way of life without glossing over the prejudice and sexism of that community. The novel is funny, romantic, warm and tragic. Born in 1903, Moore grew up on a Maine island herself, and her intimate knowledge bears fruit in her storytelling. Moore also spent twenty years away, living in New York City, California and Washington D.C. (including four years working for the NAACP) before returning to Maine island life with her lifelong companion Eleanor Mayo.

3. Intimate: An American Family Photo Album by Paisley Rekdal

Intimate blends poetry, photographs, biography, imagined biography, memoir and essay. On one level, the book’s subject is the photographer Edward S. Curtis and his Apsaroke assistant and interpreter, Alexander Upshaw. Curtis famously photographed American Indians in the early 20th century, but only according to his ideas of authenticity: no contemporary clothes, no technology, no mixed-race children. Rekdal mulls her own mixed-race heritage alongside of Curtis’ legacy and Upshaw’s life.

4. The Goats by Brock Cole

This 1987 classic young adult book about a boy and a girl who run away from summer camp after being bullied is simply lovely. I have to guess that its age accounts for its low rating on Goodreads, because I thought it was a fairly well-known book in children’s literature.

5. Here is Your War by Ernie Pyle

Pyle was a World War II correspondent. This book is a collection of his writings from the North African front. He was killed on Ie Shima in 1945. From the book:

On the day of final peace, the last stroke of what we call the “Big Picture” will be drawn. I haven’t written anything about the “Big Picture,” because I don’t know anything about it. I only know what we see from our worm’s-eye view, and our segment of the picture consists only of tired and dirty soldiers who are alive and don’t want to die; of long darkened convoys in the middle of the night; of shocked silent men wandering back down the hill from battle; of chow lines and atabrine tablets and foxholes and burning tanks and Arabs holding up eggs and the rustle of high-flown shells; of jeeps and petrol dumps and smelly bedding rolls and C rations and cactus patches and blown bridges and dead mules and hospital tents and shirt collars greasy-black from months of wearing; and of laughter too, and anger and wine and lovely flowers and constant cussing. All these it is composed of; and of graves and graves and graves.

6. Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming

Peter Fleming (brother of Ian Fleming) penned this travel memoir about the time he joined an expedition to the Amazon to look for the famously disappeared Colonel Fawcett. Fleming is self-deprecatingly funny in this and it’s also a fascinating glimpse of that place and time in the 1930s.

7. Bab: A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Comic 1916 novel about a self-absorbed but hilarious seventeen year old girl named Bab who gets into a number of misadventures. There are some things about teenagers that never change.

8. Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

A psychologically astute novel about children growing up during World War II in England.

9. Caught in the Act / Edge of Night by Jill Sorenson

Sorenson is a new romance author find for me. Caught in the Act and Edge of Night are romantic suspense novels that both take place in San Diego (where the author resides). Sorenson’s doesn’t shy away from illegal immigration, the drug trade, and gangs as part of the environment and plotlines of the characters, and letting it be messy and not easily resolved.

10. The Europa Suite (The Autumn Castle / Giants of the Frost / The Veil of Gold) by Kim Wilkins

The three novels that make up Australian author Kim Wilkins’ Europa Suite are standalone fantasy novels where characters from the modern world interact with the world of mythology and folktales. The Autumn Castle draws from German fairy tales; Giants of the Frost takes its cues from Norse mythology; The Veil of Gold pulls in Russian folk tales. There’s horror and romance influences in each book. The Veil of Gold may be the best one, though The Autumn Castle is a close runner-up in my eyes.


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Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Better Than Before Rubin

2015. Broadway Books. Paperback. 304 pages.

Recommendation from: books, the universe, and everything


A little over a year ago, I read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. I loved it. It helped me attain a few goals and some of the principles from that book still stick with me. In Better Than Before, Rubin focuses on the mechanics of making and keeping good habits as well as breaking bad habits. Habits are powerful forces that we can harness for good:  “how we schedule our days is how we spend our lives.”

As with The Happiness Project, Rubin emphasizes self-knowledge. For the most part, she is not interested in proscribing particular habits to form or break, but is instead explaining methods for accomplishing these goals. And both the habit and the method you choose depends on who you are.

In the beginning, she discusses her theory about the four tendencies people tend to fall into: the Upholders who respond well to inner and outer expectations; the Questioners who respond to expectations only if it makes sense to them, and so do better with inner expecations; the Obligers who find it easier to meet external expectations rather than inner expectations; and Rebels who resist too much expectations of any kind. According to the questionnaire on Rubin’s website, I’m an Obliger, which I felt was sort of true, but not entirely. I am wary of such tidy categorizations, and the concept never really resonated with me like other parts of her book do. (Also, it seemed like most of the book’s strategies wouldn’t work for Rebels, which makes me wonder what would work for Rebels. But being Rebels, maybe they wouldn’t be the type to pick up the book anyway?)

I finished the book a week ago, and the phrases that continue to run through my head are “tomorrow logic” and “we manage what we monitor.” When I picked up this book, I knew exactly what habit I wanted to form. I wanted to be in bed by a certain time on weeknights. I had been fighting against “tomorrow logic” every night, coming up with illogical reasons for staying up later than intended. But a good habit must begin now, not tomorrow. So far, I’ve been keeping to my new bedtime on weeknights. However, this habit is only a week old, and still very vulnerable. That’s where the strategy of monitoring comes in.

Rubin talked about monitoring in The Happiness Project but I didn’t do much to try and incorporate that into my life. This time I was more proactive and I printed out copies of the Daily Time Log from her website, and I have been using them.

One of my favorite chapters was the one about identity, where Rubin discusses how our views of ourselves influence our actions. For example, I’ve long thought of myself as a “night owl” and I think this made my attempts to go to bed earlier harder. I’d be up late, maybe reading something online, justifying it by thinking, well that’s how I am – my brain is just active at night. When instead, I was actually in a wired/tired state (an apt description I’m borrowing from the book). Reading this book made me rethink this “night owl” identification. I thought of the times where I got up early on a Saturday morning and was productive and how good it felt. Maybe there’s a morning person in there somewhere, or at least more of a morning person than I thought. I’m not sure what this new identity is – maybe simply “I’m a person who values sleep”.

I think bad days at work will be the greatest threat to my new bedtime habit. Rubin discusses various tempting loopholes like the Moral Licensing loophole where we give ourselves permission to do something “bad” because we deserve it, or that “this doesn’t count”. I have in the past sacrificed a good night’s sleep because I wanted my free time after work to be longer, to “salvage” the day. I’ll have to come up with ways to soothe a bad day that don’t involve staying up late.

As with Rubin’s The Happiness Project, Better than Before has injected some new vigor into my efforts to make changes that would better my life. She does a great job in articulating the ways we sabotage ourselves, and then also the ways to overcome common obstacles. I appreciate the care that she takes to acknowledge that one size doesn’t fit all and what works for one person make not work for another. I took a number of notes, and could see myself referring back to some of the chapters as I consider other habits to form / break.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review. (The program allows you to choose a book from a selection of books, so I chose a book I thought would be a good fit for me.)


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Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Excellent Women Pym

1952. Penguin. Paperback. 256 pages.

Recommendation from: Aarti

Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is about a woman named Mildred Lathbury living in post-war London. Mildred is just over thirty, has never been married, works in charity, and is quite involved in her church. When a dashing, tempestuous couple move into the flat below hers, Mildred is drawn into their affairs (at their invitation).

The title of the book refers to the category of women that Mildred has been placed in. These “excellent women” are unmarried, and are expected to and condescendingly admired for performing domestic tasks for the church, for society, and for apparently hapless bachelors and neighbors. This might take the form of organizing a jumble sale, or mending curtains. Many times for Mildred, it takes the form of being dependable company for people who want to confide or who are bored.

I loved how well Pym captured the internal thoughts of Mildred. Mildred is wonderfully observant and self-aware, as seen in passages like this one (Dora and she used to be roommates):

As I moved about the kitchen getting out china and cutlery, I thought, not for the first time, how pleasant it was to be living alone. The jingle of the little beaded cover against the milk jug reminded me of Dora and her giggles, her dogmatic opinions and the way she took offence so easily. The little cover, which had been her idea, seemed to symbolize all the little irritations of her company, dear kind friend though she was. ‘It keeps out flies and dust,’ she would say, and of course she was perfectly right, it was only my perverseness that made me sometimes want to fling it away with a grand gesture.

Pym’s book is not championing “spinsterhood” or denigrating it – in Excellent Women, all the characters are kind of ridiculous in recognizably human ways, whether they are married or not. And Mildred herself vacillates between contentment with her life as it is and desire for something different, for something more romantic but not necessarily romance itself, if that makes sense.

I found it completely refreshing to read about an unmarried woman over thirty with no real romantic history and no romantic storyline in the book either [1]. That’s my life, but it’s rarely the sort of life that gets the spotlight in stories. And while I read and enjoy romantic stories, they do hold a narrative tyranny that can become tiresome. I know so many women like me in real life but am hard pressed to find fictional protagonists like us. Being long-term single is not a homogeneous state of being or a more empty one – there are so many different life stories among my single friends and family members. Who is our Mildred Lathbury of the 21st century? Where can I find her story? (Hit me up with recommendations if you have a candidate or any other good non-romantic stories of never married women.)

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Aarti of Booklust – “I think it cut so close to home in some ways, and was so deeply emotional in ways I did not expect, that I was taken aback.  It was also such a wonderful, telling snapshot of London after the war on so many levels.”

Girl with Her Head in a Book – ” It’s a little bit Stella Gibbons-esque in the social satire, but it’s Mildred’s brisk attitude to all social situations that carries the novel.”

Hilary at Vulpes Libres – “Capable, staunch Mildred behaves like and is believed by all to be a detached observer of all this but she isn’t – by subtle means in the narrative we find out how deeply she too is involved, and where her inner desires (ruthlessly suppressed) might be taking her. It is all so delicately done, and all of a piece with her character as an ‘Excellent Woman’. ”

[1] I’m aware that a later Pym book alludes to Mildred’s marriage to another character from the novel, but I still contend that there is no romantic storyline for Mildred in Excellent Women.


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I think the common denominator for the books to be reviewed in this post is that most of them were quick reads. Otherwise, they run the gamut of settings and genre.

Laura Bickle’s apocalyptic duology, The Hallowed Ones and The Outside, are set in an Amish village. The main character, Katie, is on the verge of a much-anticipated Rumspringa, when the world’s population starts turning into vampiric zombies. Her Amish community is a tenuous hold-out. Katie’s worldview is tossed upside-down and she finds herself at cross-purposes with most of the elders in her desire to understand the threat and help others. In particular, she wants to help two non-Amish people who have taken refuge in the community.

These two books might possibly be the books I’ve read the fastest this year. I found them incredibly suspenseful. I’m sure there’s stuff to nitpick, but I found myself willing to go along with the majority of Bickle’s worldbuilding. I really appreciated the fact that these books engaged with religion and faith in an interesting way. Unless a book is explicitly Christian fiction, it seems rare to find fiction – especially genre fiction – where main characters are people of faith.  I think some readers took issue with the way Katie’s worldview changed – she held to some principles but gave up on others, but it seemed very human to me. [Recommendation from Reading Rambo].

Vying for the spot of this year’s fastest read is Zen Cho’s novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Effortlessly light and funny, this story is told as a series of journal entries by a young, independent Malaysian-Chinese woman living in 1920’s London. She is invited into a Bloomsbury literary circle after writing a scathing review of an author’s book and is soon pursued by that same author. Things get complicated from there. Jade’s narration of her own life is delightful.

Soon after that, I also read Zen Cho’s fantasy novel Sorcerer to the Crown. Online summaries remind me this novel is set in Britain’s Regency Era (the best my memory could come up with was “olden time England that is not Victorian but close”). Zacharias Wythe has recently become Britain’s Royal Sorcerer, after the death of his adoptive father, who was the previous Sorcerer. His ascent to this position is not well received by the rest of the magicians, mostly due to the fact that Zacharias is black and a former slave. As the politics get more dangerous, he makes a stop at a school outside London where young women are taught to restrain their magical abilities. It is there that he meets Prunella Gentleman, a young woman with extraordinary magical powers and a magical inheritance from her Indian mother. She finagles a ride back to London in an effort to better her station. Assassination attempts, supernatural visits, secret societies, and magical demonstrations ensue.

I can’t recall all the details of the complex plot – and it was complex. I remember that some parts were a little slow, and that it got a rather silly and confusing for my tastes at the climactic scene. Overall, though, I enjoyed it and what Zen Cho was doing through her story. I especially appreciated the inclusion of Zacharias’ mixed feelings toward his adoptive white father, who gave Zacharias freedom but also took Zacharias away from his living enslaved mother. For all that the book had its funny touches, it doesn’t shy away from sticky moral questions.

Into That Forest by Louis Nowra is set in 19th century Tasmania. When a terrible boat accident leaves six-year-old Hannah and her friend Becky stranded and alone in the wilderness, they are adopted by a pair of Tasmanian tigers. Hannah quickly takes to animal behavior to survive, while Becky is more reluctant to surrender to it. The story is told as the reminisces of an elderly Hannah. It’s an odd read. I liked the unusual setting and certain moments were evocative. However, I kept feeling like the story should have been more interesting to read than it was. I don’t know if it was the writing, or the straight-forward tragedy of it all that left me a little disappointed. That cover is amazing though. [Recommendation from Farm Lane Books].

Another underwhelming read for me was Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, a collection of short stories by Z Z Packer. This was a book club read. Leslie was also underwhelmed but Teresa really liked it. As Teresa says in her review, these are dark stories. In these stories, the characters are often in a new place, usually hoping it will be better than where they left, but ultimately finding they cannot seem to belong anywhere. It’s pretty bleak, and that may explain some of my disengagement. It’s hard to pinpoint the reasons why, but with the exception of a couple of stories, I wasn’t really drawn in. The two stories I did like were the first one, “Brownies”, and also “The Ant of the Self.”

In the meantime, I can’t explain exactly why I enjoyed Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. I know there was a plot in there, but the book is mostly wall-to-wall descriptions of extremely wealthy people’s possessions and lifestyles. The clothes, the houses, the snobbery are all sumptuously detailed. And the descriptions of the food are enough to make you want to travel to Singapore just to eat. It’s a reading-as-gawking sort of experience and surprisingly a lot of fun.


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