My Quintessential Life, Memoirs by Bei Zonaga

My Quintessential Life is a very interesting, engaging and truly fascinating memoirs!  I couldn’t put it down and could have finished reading it in one sitting but decided to do it slowly relishing every story from the beginning to the end.  The author claims that she’s not an extraordinary person, nor a famous personality. Yet, in her own words she says, “But I believe we are all special in our own ways, and so our lives typical as they may seem.” She details her story to unravel her genealogy in clear-cut prose, leading up to her retirement in 2019.  And the book is dotted with beautiful black and white as well as coloured photographs.  The result is a charming, poignant and tender journey into an unexpected lens of a daughter, sister, friend, wife, mother, and career woman rolled into a rather unique and really ‘Quintessential Life!’

In many ways it’s like reading a social history of the Philippines from the time she was born to the present.  Cultural aspect aside, she’s just trying to tell her story, but reading it also gives me a sort of cultural identity.  Indeed it’s a privilege to enter into her world, to look at her life, from her mirror.  It’s worth mentioning that I’ve never heard of Banaba Compound, a residential community that Caltex established in Bauan for their employees in the 50s, (I worked with Hitachi in Makati Office in the mid-90s, and the manufacturing plant was in Bauan, and although I’ve made many trips to Bauan, and to this day I have former colleagues and friends who live there, no one has ever mentioned about this place).  Banaba seemed like, from Tita Bei’s tale, a typical American ‘midwest small town’ neighbourhood.  (In fact, I was transported back to my mother-in law’s hometown in Arkansas where no one locks the door and people leave their car keys outside, and we used to visit there every Thanksgiving.)  Banaba was an idyllic place to grow up in the 50s-60s where she was surrounded by a loving parents and family friends that enabled her to forge long lasting friendships. No doubt her upbringing has contributed a lot to her confident demeanour and sophisticated personality.

Remarkably, her journey is not marked by so much pain as it is for me but rather a surreal, relatively unimaginable ease (can’t help but immerse myself in her world as I was reading her story). The memory of a single event she had in high school when her Dad was diagnosed with cancer made me teary eyed. I lost my own father to cancer at a young age, and Tita Bei’s words drew me in and resonated with me.  Deep thoughts and emotions from a similar experience resurfaced, and I thought, “Oh, no! I sure do hope her Daddy didn’t die when she was in high school!” I dropped the book and decided to continue reading the next day.

There were many instances when I had to pause after reading something that resonates with me. For instance, leaving her comfort zone to study in Manila; her college years at UP Diliman; studying abroad, getting married at 31, etc. “What a coincidence! I’ve experienced all of that, and I also got married at the exact same age as she did!” I silently told myself. 

More spectacularly, through her Dad’s high-flying career, the family lived in the US and Australia, and she managed to get a rare admission at the then newly established Philippine Science High School, and she also earned her college and post-graduate degree from UP Diliman, an achievement that many young Filipinos can only dream of.  Told Jared that I feel like I do share a special bond with Tita Bei, and really got to know her a little bit better after reading her memoir. There’s some lessons that I learned from her life story.  It truly inspires me to follow her example of hard work, courage and determination to overcome whatever trials and difficulties God brings into my life.  

Ultimately, it’s amazing to discover God’s unique plan and purpose in her life, and He continues to unfold them day by day as long as she’s on earth. And I can’t wait to read her next book!

Let me share this scripture verse that she shared at the closing of her memoirs because it’s also one of my favourite verses.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing.In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”


This week I’ve read a book that could very well be the sentimental story of a romantic Victorian bestselling novel, but the story isn’t fiction. It did happen in real life. And it’s not an overstatement to say that the story of Mary Jones changed the history of the world. Her amazing journey, though it happened 217 years ago, remains a tale well worth telling.

Jared got me this book a few months back along with a few other books that are sitting in my desk.

Mary Jones (1784-1864) was born into a very poor but devout Christian farming family in a tiny village called Llanfihangel-y-Pennant located at the foot of Cader Idris mountains in north Wales. Around the time of her birth, there was a revival going on in Wales and a Calvinistic Methodist preacher named Thomas Charles who was ministering in a chapel in a market town called Bala, made sure that Sunday Schools were taught at churches in the nearby villages. Mary had to walk three miles each way to attend a school started by local Methodists in another village, Abergynolwyn.She learned to read and desperately wanted to have her own copy of the Bible but her mother, who became a widow when her husband died before Mary turned 5, was too poor to buy one for the family.  The nearest Bible to her house was in a farm about two miles away which is a long hike for a little girl to do everyday but Mary would often go to read God’s Word whenever she could. At the tender age of 9 she decided to save up her money and for 6 long years she had amassed a total of 17 shillings just enough to buy herself a copy of the Bible. Seventeen shillings is 85 pence in decimal coinage, but back in 1800 it was worth about £40 — a huge sum of money at a time when that amount was a labourer’s one year and a half wage.

So in the summer of 1800, with a bag filled with bread and cheese, the money to purchase the Bible, and a clog (which was too expensive to be worn for the long hike but she would have worn before she knocked on the door of the preacher’s home), Mary walked 25 miles from her home across the treacherous Welsh mountains to Rev. Thomas Charles house in Bala. The rough track over the mountains would have been very rough and lonely to traverse but Mary walked on her own very determined to buy a copy of the Bible she so desperately wanted. 


However, when she arrived at Rev. Charles home, she received a disappointing news that the delivery of the Bibles from the printers in London had been delayed. But Mary was graciously offered to stay in the house of the minister’s maid, where she stayed for three days until the Bibles were delivered from London. She would no doubt have welcomed the opportunity to recover from the exhaustion of the long walk before her return journey. Once the Bibles arrived, the preacher gave Mary not just one, but three Bibles for the price of one. Mary then retraced her steps back home to her village, carrying her clogs and the three Bibles, which would have made quite a heavy load for a 15 year old girl to carry since Bibles back then were huge and bulky.

Rev. Thomas Charles was so moved by Mary’s story and was inspired to help establish the British and Foreign Bible Society. Since that day in 1800, over 217 years ago, the British and Foreign Bible Society has become Bible Society — a charity committed to faithfully living out their mission that the Bible should be made available for every man, woman and child in the world.

The story of Mary Jones can best be told in her own words. Here’s what she said during an interview a few months before her death in 1864:

“One stormy Monday morning I was walking to a farmhouse about two miles from my home, a gentleman riding on a white horse and wearing a cloth cape came to meet me and asked me where I was going through such wind and rain. I said I was going to a farmhouse where there was a Bible, that there wasn’t one nearer my home, and that the mistress of the farm said that I could see the Bible, which she kept on a table in the parlour so long as I took my clogs off. I told him that I was saving up every halfpenny this long time to get a Bible but that I did not know where to get one. The gentleman was ‘Charles of Bala’, he told me to come to Bala at a certain time, that he was expecting some from London and that I should have one from him.When the time came my mother put the money and a little bread and cheese in one end of the ‘wallet’ and my clogs in the other, and I set off for Bala on a fine morning, resting where there was a stream of clear water, to eat the bread and cheese. I came to Bala trembling and knocked at the door of Mr Charles’ house. I asked for Mr Charles and was told that he was in his study at the back of the house. I was allowed to go to him and he told me that the Bibles had not arrived. I started to cry because I did not know where to stay. He sent me to stay with an old servant of his who had a house at the bottom of his garden, until the Bibles came. When they came Mr Charles gave me three for the price of one. I set off home with my precious burden, I ran a great part of the way, I was so glad of my Bible”.


Mary died in 1864 at age 80 and was buried at the churchyard in Llanycil (above photos), not too far from where she was born. She came to be known not only for her faithfulness to the Lord and to the church where she was a member of, but also for her generosity and her love of the Word of God. She reads her Bible right through from cover to cover four times in a year. She also memorised a large portions of the Bible that even in old age she could very well recite the Scripture to herself after she had become blind and could no longer read it to herself. Of the three Bibles which Mary received, only two survive. One of them is now owned by the Bible Society and on display in their archive at the University of Cambridge. The other copy is in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. The third was given to Mary’s son John who emigrated to America in 1890 where it may have disappeared. (Images show two of Mary’s Bibles that survived and are now housed at the National Museum of Wales and University of Cambridge. Images: Bible Society) 


While reading this book, I was reminded once again that so many Christians have sacrificed, some gave their lives — were burned at the stake — just so we could have an English translation of the Bible. Today we simply take for granted having the Word of God at our fingertips. The story of Mary Jones is very moving and highly inspirational; it certainly is one book I’d highly recommend to Christian parents to read to their children from a very young age.

Note: Featured image and the two photos of Cader Idris mountains are from Wales Tourism. Mary Jones would have traversed that landscape from her home to Tala.


I’ve been following Notting Hill Yummy Mummy for almost three years now. She is a Notting Hill resident who inspired me to share on social media what goes on in our neighbourhood. She launched her debut novel The Beta Mum Adventures in Alpha Land over a week ago, and I got to read it a week before it was out. I enjoyed it so much and did a review here.  That’s why I’m honoured to share the exciting news of her new novel right here. In this conversation we discuss how she began her blog, her love of reading and writing and, of course, her debut novel.


With the fabulous author at the book launch of ‘The Beta Mum’

Elna Smith: Hi Isabella! Thank you so much for your time. Let me firstly start by saying ‘Congratulations on the success of your book launch last week.’  For the few of my readers who haven’t come across your words yet, can you please share a little about yourself? Please share with us your story. 

Isabella Davidson: Firstly, thanks so much for having me on your blog! I am a mum of two young girls and live in west London. I wasn’t always a writer. I started out as a doctor, but when I had my children and went back to work I realised I wasn’t going to be the doctor I wanted to be or the mother I wanted to be, so I stopped working and focused on raising my children. That’s my priority right now.  

ES: What originally drove you to start your blog ‘Notting Hill Yummy Mummy’? 

ID: It all started out as a bit of fun, chronicling the lives of Notting Hill residents after hearing lots of entertaining stories and anecdotes. Then, as I got more followers and readers, it’s evolved and become more of a lifestyle blog, with travel and restaurant reviews. 

ES: You’ve built an online readership and eventually decided to write a novel about the people you talk about in your blog. What drove you to write a novel?

ID: I always wanted to write a book – it’s always been a dream of mine – and I decided to go for it after a few people mentioned that they loved my writing. It gave me the confidence to write a book! Of course, west London is very entertaining so I chose it as the setting, and I wrote about what I know best: mums in west London. 

ES: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned when it comes to writing a novel, and what advice would you give to anyone starting out now?

ID: The biggest lesson is that if you want to write a novel and be somewhat successful, you will have to really want it and have tenacity. The entire process is really hard work: coming up with an idea, writing the book, getting a publisher and then selling the book. Each step of the way needs so much time and dedication that you have to have a really thick skin and persevere. And it isn’t about making money! It’s about loving to write. 

ES: Who are the people, what are the books, places and experiences that have shaped who you are today? 

ID: My parents of course influenced me so much. My father has written a book too, so I saw him working on his book for years and it gave me the thought that I could write too. My mother is the empathetic one, which is needed when writing fiction, to see life through other characters’ eyes. 

I loved reading when I was younger, so every book I read and loved shaped me as a writer and made me want to write. On weekends, I would wake up and read instead of getting dressed and playing outside. It was what I loved to do. And that has followed me my whole life. 

ES: It is exciting times that your debut novel is finally out. So what’s next? What are you most excited about right now?

ID: Well, quite a few people have asked when the sequel is coming out – which is not completely out of the question! But I will need a bit of time to digest everything that has happened with this book. I still have an enormous amount of book promotion to do and it takes up a lot of time! I recently did a live TV interview on London Live, which was my first live TV show, and I was so nervous and excited as the same time! 

ES: Lastly, I must say that you’re one of Notting Hill’s famous ‘Yummy Mummies’ and majority of the young girls in Britain (according to a research study done a few years ago) want to be like you when they grow up — get married to a banker and become a yummy mummy, or get married to a footballer and be a WAGs, live in one of London’s posh neighbourhoods, raise beautiful children, travel the world, and all of that. I am sure you’ll have a lot of young girls reading your novel this summer. (Btw, I have nieces in the Philippines who regularly reads my blog and I’m sending them copies of your book). What advice would you give to young girls?

IS: That’s very sweet of you! Not sure I am that famous, but I would like to think that I can inspire girls to follow their dreams. I would tell them that they should find what they truly love to do and to work really hard at it. That’s what really will make them happy in the long run. Not becoming a wag or a banker’s wife. And all the rest will follow. 

ES: Thank you so much for your time, Isabella. 

Featured image and this photo: courtesy of the author


This is one of the best historical novels I’ve read. Thanks to my friend Yasmin Cooper who mentioned this to me as one of her favourites and gave me a copy to read.The author explores some of the discrepancies in the Houses of York and Lancaster story covering the late medieval period. Anyone who is familiar with English history is well aware that the Wars of the Roses culminated in the brutal murder of Richard III in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth. After Henry VII was crowned the new king of England, he married Elizabeth of York and their marriage symbolically brought an end to the Wars of the Roses and the unification of the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster that created the ‘Tudor Rose’ which is widely recognised as the floral heraldic emblem of England. 

Although the novel is about Richard III, it is also as much about his older brother, Edward IV, and the latter’s rise to power and his sudden and unexpected death at the young age of 41. It was a very turbulent period of English history with the country pretty much divided into two factions, Lancastrian and Yorkist. Ms Penman gives us a gripping tale of England and Europe in the late Middle Ages — its social and political atmosphere. The author’s attention to details is exceptional with description of the terrible illnesses, childbirth, death, battles, and more importantly, the people, their faith and practice, and their relationship among themselves and with the nobility and monarchy.

The story starts during Richard’s childhood growing up in a large family; the tale of all the wars, power struggle and politics, from his perspective. By introducing Richard at such a young age allows the reader to understand his formative years and the circumstances that shaped his unique personality. The author presents Richard as a young man who, despite all the afflictions that affects his early life, is rather a visionary, ethical and honest. The author doesn’t portray him to be perfect — far from it; rather Richard’s character, his emotional and psychological frailties as well as strengths are put within a broader social context. The reader is given some insights and understanding as opposed to simply presenting some judgment on Richard.

The novel is also about an incredible love story in the custom and tradition of the day. Despite all the picture of war, the blood shed by men and women who sacrificed their lives for power, central to the theme of the novel is the love story of Richard and Anne Neville, his childhood friend, cousin, companion, and later on, his wife. Another love story is that of two domineering personalities, his brother King Edward and his queen consort Elizabeth Woodville. The couple were both endowed with remarkable physical beauty — Edward, a very tall and handsome king while Elizabeth was considered one of the most beautiful of English queens. Elizabeth is particularly presented in the novel as a cold-hearted woman who’s very aloof to her children and other members of her family, and who did whatever she could to retain control not just over her own life and that of her children’s but also as to cling to power and authority. Later in the book the reader comes to understand her motivations, her earlier manipulations to gain control are shed in a more sympathetic light.

As for all the other characters in this very long novel such as George Clarence, the Duke of Buckingham, Will Hastings, Jack Howard and many others, including a host of foreign kings, archbishops and other members of English nobility, ultimately it’s Richard, the main character of the novel, who shines.

There are not very many novelists like Miss Penman who can present a nine hundred plus pages and captures a reader’s interest. Although it took me a while to read this book, only because I read 2-3 history/biography books at a time, I was deeply fascinated and gripped by the heart-wrenching, tragic yet triumphant tale about this particular period of English history. As mentioned, this really is one of the best historical fictions I’ve ever read. It is an impressive narrative of the York family from the moment they become ‘Sunne in Splendour’ before their fall under the mighty hand of the Lancaster dynasty. This captivating novel immerses the reader into a historical period from beginning to end. I’d highly recommend this to anyone who loves historical fiction.


This is the very first novel I’ve read within 24 hours.  Yes, all 234 pages in one day!  I hardly ever read fiction nowadays (mainly because I prefer history and biography), but I simply couldn’t put it down till I turned to the last page. 

The story revolves around Sophie and her life in Alpha Land; she reluctantly moved to London from Canada with her husband Michael and three-year old daughter Kaya.  Michael had to work long hours leaving his wife and toddler by themselves which made Sophie very lonely and unhappy.  Kaya ended up in the best nursery school in the city, Cherry Blossoms, where the kids of the rich and famous attended, and where the mums are always dressed up to the nines for the school runs.  Sophie soon finds out that there’s a clique among the mothers, what she calls ‘Alpha Mums’ and she feels like as an outsider therefore she calls herself a ‘Beta Mum.’ With Sophie’s husband being very busy with his new job and not having the time of the day to spend with her and her daughter, much less listen to her personal issues, Sophie turns to the internet and starts a blog, where she could freely express what she’s going through. Overnight Sophie’s blog gains a readership from around the world, even from among her co-parents at Cherry Blossoms, the very same people she talks about in her blog.

The drama that transpired next — from Sophie’s secret correspondence with a man, an avid follower of her blog; the backstabbing and catfights among the mums; the extravagant children’s birthday parties; the parents having affairs; Sophie’s own inner conflict, and the climax of the gripping narrative — are all exhilarating!

This is a book that gives the reader a glimpse into the world of the super-rich, particularly the Notting Hill set — the ‘Yummy Mummies’ as they are famously called.  It’s about their desire to raise perfect children, to maintain their lavish ‘instagram-worthy’ lifestyles, and so on.  Yet behind the mask, underneath the picture-perfect image they’re trying to project, is a life filled with so much conflict and emptiness, constantly seeking for approval and acceptance, and not having joy and contentment.  And sometimes they become too wrapped up in the material things that their life meets a tragic end.  The author has done a great job presenting this narrative in an easy and fast-paced manner that the reader has no time to get involved with any of the character except Sophie’s, the main character.

As a Christian and having a different worldview than most people (and I say this in humility thanking God for saving me at a young age), I realised while reading this that the life of the characters in the novel is the ultimate example of what the lifestyle of London’s super rich have turned into — keeping up with the Joneses; marital affairs, high-profile breakups and divorces, and so on.  It’s a never ending quest to satisfy their heart’s deepest longing.

I am very much aware that this type of ‘sub-culture’ exists within the top strata of the British society, and it’s far and above the lifestyle of today’s British royalty and aristocracy — the world of mega-yatchs, mega-jets, mega-mansions, etc.  Since I’ve relocated to London seventeen years ago, I’ve personally heard from my friends at the health club different stories that are similar, if not exactly the same, as those I’ve read in this novel.  I am a Notting Hill resident and have friends who shared with me very controversial details about some of the parents they know at ‘the nursery’ their kids went (my friends’ kids went to one of London’s top nursery school and just like Sophie in the novel, they both felt like an outsider).

The Beta Mum may be a fiction but I know, some of the stories mentioned happened in real life to some people.  It may be coincidental but some of the stories is a fact of life for a tiny group of Londoners — the super-rich club.

This is an easy read, very engaging and highly entertaining novel.  If there’s only one contemporary fast-paced fiction I’d recommend, it would be ‘The Beta Mum’ hands down.  A great debut book from Isabella Davidson (the author’s pseudonym), and I hope it will be a huge success, and the first of many series.

Many thanks to the author, Isabella Davidson, for providing an electronic copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Isabella Davidson’s latest novel, The Beta Mum: Adventures in Alpha Land, is out on the 20th of June (Silverwood Books, £9.99, paperback) 

Extraordinary, Ordinary People by Condoleezza Rice

Condoleeza Rice is unarguably one of the most influential women in the world today.  She became the youngest and first female National Security Advisor, and the first black female Secretary of State.  Her childhood and upbringing clearly set the scene in a way that will make anyone reading this book to conclude that her parents deserve the credit given to them by their daughter.  She was born and grew up in segregated South in the 1950s with music-loving parents, both educators (her dad was also a Methodist preacher), who encouraged her from an early age to excel twice than her peers. Continue reading “Extraordinary, Ordinary People by Condoleezza Rice”

In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Morris & Grueninger

I have been fascinated by the story of Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife, who was tragically beheaded at the Tower of London on 19 May 1536.  The Tudor period is on top of my list of the most intriguing eras of English history.  When reading a book about this period, I am always enthralled by Henry VIII’s evil scheme to get rid of his wife to achieve his goal to produce an heir; the conspiracy among his circle of trusted courtiers; and all the other fascinating events usually inspire me to read up more about the Tudors. Continue reading “In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Morris & Grueninger”