Thursday, 6 April 2017

Book Marks: Tomes, Terror, Etc.

A former university student was detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) for possession of books related to terrorism. The news was shocking because part of it might stem from fear of the authorities ("treating her like a terrorist for OWNING BOOKS OMG"), and the fact that the same student was previously acquitted and discharged for the same offence. But things got a little murky when details of her alleged ties to terrorism emerged.

Calls have been made to not play up the issue and leave the matter to the police (gladly!), and some grassroots groups and activists have expressed their support of the detainee and concerns over what they called the "repression of arts and culture" in Malaysia.

There was also a minor Facebook drama over an article in a local Malay-language magazine about Malaysian writers of Indian origin.


Elsewhere:

  • With over 100,000 copies sold and counting, The Hate U Give (the title is based on the song "T.H.U.G." by Tupac) is a phenomenon in the publishing world and an essential read for everyone. And you better get reading, as the book's already been optioned for a film with Amandla Stenberg as Starr." Teen Vogue's Q&A with Angie Thomas, author of her debut novel, The Hate U Give (emphases theirs). And here's the podcast of Thomas's interview on BFM Radio's Bookmark programme.
  • "A Montana library said a stolen book was returned 35 years later with an apology note, a $200 donation, and the author's signature." Said book, Richard Matheson's novel Bid Time Return, was also restored professionally, courtesy of the "thief".
  • "I love editing. Discussing commas and semicolons is my idea of fun, and I enjoy helping other authors find shape and structure in their work. Editing uses the more mathematical side of my brain, creating order from chaos. But on the weekend, when I try to write myself, I have to face the fact that the act of writing is chaos." Hannah Tinti, author of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, talks to her editor Noah Eaker about how she wrote it.
  • "What appears to be instant achievement, is really a culmination of preparation and practice. For [Veronica] Roth, that meant 10 years of work before a fully fleshed idea worth publication, took form. Even then, obstacles appeared. Her first manuscript was initially rejected and even after receiving a book deal, rewriting was required."
  • "I encourage people to judge books by their covers! While a poorly designed book isn't necessarily a poorly written book, it's not a promising first impression. If a book is ugly, it doesn't speak well of a publisher's judgement, skill or vision." Black Ocean Publisher Janaka Stucky wants us to, among other things, judge books by their covers.
  • "When I first started submitting my work to literary magazines, I had some pretty uninformed—and, in retrospect, fatalistic—ideas about what the slush pile process might look like. In my nightmare scenario, a team of editors would sit in a brick-lined room, around a wooden table of imposing size strewn with manuscripts and glasses of single malt. One of them would pluck my short story from the stack, glance over their glasses at the cover letter, and then toss it into a burning barrel, unread. They would all laugh and clink glasses as they warmed their manicured hands over the flames." Since then, PRISM's Prose Editor Christopher Evans has discovered that not all of that is true.
  • "Every year, companies go into a frenzy of 'cost containment' – just a fancier term for the drastic and now defunct 'cost cutting.' We all know which budget gets reviewed after the catering and team building budgets ... all together now ... marketing. Therefore, as a marketer, you know that for every rand you request, you will get half of it if you are that lucky, and still a rabbit is expected out of that hat." This piece was written with a focus on South African publishing, but it might have lessons for all of us as well.
  • "In a national culture newly aware of micro-aggressions and offensive speech, what you say can easily strike the wrong tone. One increasingly common solution among US book publishers: Hire someone to be offended for you." Authors and publishers of children's books are hiring sensitivity readers.
  • "It's not that I don't sympathise with your frustration at being unable to fulfil your dream and be published. ... We have all looked at our work – our 'masterpieces', in your words – and wondered the same as you: 'How can I fail?' But you aren't a failed novelist. You’ve had precisely two books on submission to publishers. ... Dear Anonymous, you're not a failure. You're a quitter."

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Book Marks: On Gatekeeping, And The Diversely Bizarre

"[Couple and co-authors Ian and Sarah Hoffman] say the subject of 'Jacob’s New Dress' is one they have personal experience with, having raised a son who used to storm around the house at age 4 'wearing a sparkly princess dress and carrying a (replica) battle ax.' 'Now, he's 14, and into recreational math,' says Ian Hoffman."

So this book written by the Hoffmans was withdrawn from a school in Charlotte, North Carolina, after conservatives railed at it for obvious reasons. The Hoffmans seem baffled by the reaction, and not just because Jacob's New Dress was first published in 2014. "The idea that a book can turn someone gay or transgender is bizarre to us. Reading a book can't turn you gay," Sarah Hoffman told The Charlotte Observer.

Ma'am, some think a movie will make people gay. Tale (almost) as old as time.

Meanwhile, conservatives (and censors) worldwide should probably brace themselves for a wave of children's books featuring transgender teens, blended families and feminism.



"When librarians add self-published e-books to their collections, they shoulder more of the curation responsibility. Self-published books typically haven't survived the agent/publisher gauntlet of traditional gatekeeping—a form of vetting that librarians appreciate—and they typically don't come with the same number of reviews. This may explain why 61% of the librarians at the time of Library Journal's survey had not purchased or were not planning to purchase self-published e-books."

Therefore, Smashwords founder Mark Coker has five tips for getting your self-published e-books to libraries.

If that's not enough to give you hope that your manuscript will see the light of day:

Midlist authors all contribute to a publishers and booksellers bottom line, although they tend not to get many reviews by The New York Times or Publishers Weekly. Their books aren't really reviewed by indie bloggers either, they mainly depend on Amazon reviews by the readers. These authors certainly are not household names, but are tremendously important to publishers for their consistent source of revenue.

But not all good books make it to press, according to Kanishka Gupta, CEO of the South Asia’s largest literary agency, Writer’s Side, who also lays out eight reasons publishers would reject even a good book.

"...having spent more than seven years on the other side, first as a consultant and then an agent, I think many writers have wrong notions about rejections. While most books are rejected because of poor quality and incompetence (as they should be), there are several other factors that play a role in publishing decisions. And these affect 'good' books too."

Even so, such books will see the light of day eventually, depending on the will of the author to push it through. Gatekeepers and similar institutions can get it wrong, and what defines a good book should not be an idée fixe.



I think some of us find this situation familiar:

A month or two ago, a publishing biggie, who makes sure never to like a single Facebook post of mine like it would give him a social disease if he did (after having sent me a friend request just so he could see what damage I was perpetrating), was having something like a nonsexual orgasm on social media because he had acquired the rights of a book by the talentless offspring of a big-time actor. In it, he gushingly referred to the spouse of the "writer", an upstart in the film industry, as a legend.

Meanwhile, another bona fide writer died jumping off a building. (My word, who was it?)

This rant about publishers signing up film stars by author Krishna Shastri Devulapalli struck a chord in the wake of a slew of books by local celebrities and wannabes. But it sounds personal to Krishna, because: "It is funny that I am finding this publishing world's going-out-of-business sell-out to Bollywood objectionable. Because, my own love for reading, and maybe writing, too, pretty much began with books by film folk."

I suppose one could argue that things have changed (or rather, begun to stagnate) in the film world and its people, hence. Niches don't appear by themselves; the market carves them out. So if there is one for books by "film-stars who cannot even read a script", one probably shouldn't judge.



In this profile of bizarro publisher Bizarro Pulp Press is a story of a genre some of you might not know exists, or know by other names. Vincenzo Bilof's piece in Cultured Vultures is so I couldn't pull any quotes off it as a preview— oh, wait, here's one:

After considering Eraserhead Press (and [Carlton Mellick III]'s books) with a fresh perspective, I realized that my original snobbishness conflicted with the fact that I had thought a book like Fecal Terror was fun and worth publishing. If a book about a space sex dwarf with a goat could be published (it hasn't, yet, or at least, I haven't seen it, which means someone should be writing it), why would that be worse than a book about a demonic, talking turd that possesses people?

Why, indeed. Niches, people. No idées fixes.


Plus:

  • "Drew University student Jennifer Rose is like many 20-year-olds, sweating out class assignments, socializing with friends and participating in activities like an anime club and the campus newspaper. But in other ways, she is one of the more unique students at Drew — still learning to cope with autism, she recently became a published author."
  • "Amazon blocked sales for The Corroding Empire, a scifi book from Vox Day's conservative publishing company Castalia House, because the cover bore an uncanny resemblance to John Scalzi’s latest book, The Collapsing Empire. And it wasn't a coincidence." Vox Day is the alias of Theodore Beale, an alt-right figure who declared himself Scalzi's rival. I guess you have to be a certain kind of snowflake to g to such lengths to troll an author.
  • "In 'Falling,' [William McPherson] described the humiliation of asking friends and family for handouts, which managed to keep him off welfare, Medicaid and food stamps. He lived in Washington, where he received a housing subsidy from the federal government. The city helped cover medical insurance payments. He was able to afford a cellphone and a computer — instruments that for a writer, he said, were needs more than wants." An obit in The Washington Post of McPherson, the paper's former Book World editor. Don't quit your day job.
  • "A raid in downtown Nairobi unearthed a multi-million-shilling school textbook piracy racket. The racket was uncovered after the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) and Kenya Copyright Board (KECOBO) raided Nyamakima in Nairobi and Ngong in Kajiado. The raid also revealed how rogue head teachers were were colluding with hawkers to rob textbooks from public schools."
  • "I always knew I would have to learn a lot before I tried to write a book," wrote Michael Merschel, books editor and assistant arts editor at The Dallas Morning News. "I did not think about what I might learn from writing one." So, what has he learnt from writing his own book?

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Pardon My English, Part II

Although this might be an attack on Tun Mahathir, I had to throw my hands in the air and sigh, "Not again."

In Malaysia, language is so tightly tethered to cultural identity that to want to learn another is to betray one's roots, or worse. To hear of schoolchildren being teased for their attempts to study English is depressing.

I've had the benefit of private tuition and an upbringing that encouraged me to use English. Those who can't afford or access that would have to rely on school and measures such as PPSMI. Otherwise, would anyone take the initiative, against social prejudices, to gain access to a wider world?

Multinational firms have been complaining of local grads with poor communication skills at job interviews, particularly in English. Some of these companies NEED employees who can function anywhere, and English - and maybe Chinese - is widely used.

In certain situations, miscommunication can mean disaster. You want to discuss "language apartheid" with a supervisor who's had to deal with a subordinate who doesn't understand phrases such as "Caution: Do Not Open", "This Side Up" and "Danger: Radioactive"?

But no. We get things like "Pihak swasta pilih kasih", "Depa pandang rendah Bahasa Melayu", and "Apa yang hebat sangat kalau speaking?" Or "Jepun dan Korea Selatan tak guna Bahasa Inggeris pun boleh maju."

True beccause learning the language doesn't necessarily move one to adopt the related culture. Japanese and Korean work ethics and civic consciousness can be hard to pick up.

Language is not merely a marker of identity or status any more. It has become a tool - useful ones, too. Stigmatising those who want to learn another language is akin to robbing them of the keys to more opportunities.

I'm not fond of some of the things happening to BM (Why "Bajet"? Too many letters in "Belanjawan"?), and to hear others denigrate the language ticks me off. But there should be other ways of defending BM without angry, jingoistic us-versus-them arguments.

Like it or not, English has become the international language for science, maths, finance and commerce - though I've been told that for the latter, Chinese is gaining ground. In contrast, we have few reasons to use Malay beyond our borders and the language's official capacities.

Tun M has his flaws, but he had foresight in certain matters. Some parents might be getting the hint as well.

When will the rest of us start catching up?

Friday, 24 March 2017

Verse-imilitude: The Charming Tale Of Sarah Dooley’s Poetic Protagonist

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 24 March 2017


Abandoned by her mother when she was little and orphaned after her father and brother perished in separate accidents, Sasha Harless, the teen protagonist in Sarah Dooley's Free Verse, struggles to find her way in the small and possibly fictional American town of Caboose, West Virginia.

Though she comes under the wing of a kind woman called Phyllis, Sasha can't seem to escape her demons, nor can she cope with stuff happening around her.

When a schoolmate and another troubled youngster apparently commits suicide, she takes out her emotional turmoil on a dumpster, which unnerves the school bully, Anthony Tucker.

And if she is really, really overwhelmed, she tends to run away from home — perhaps seeking comfort in any semblance of the escape plan out of Caboose she and her late brother Michael used to talk about. From what I could glean from the pages and beyond, I suspect Sasha might be autistic.

The cycle of moping, acting out and running away goes on until she learns of a relative — an older cousin called Hubert who, like her late father, also works at the nearby coal mines. Then, there's also Mikey, Hubert's son.

Soon, Sasha doesn't feel alone anymore. She starts opening up to her schoolmates, Hubert, Mikey, Phyllis, and even Anthony, who she discovers is part of the school's poetry club. It's through poetry that our heroine finds another way to "escape," cope with her troubles and make sense of her feelings and the world around her.

However, tragedy soon strikes, and Sasha falls back on the usual escape plan. This time, she takes little Mikey along, with dire results...

The book starts out real slow, with few clues as to Sasha's past and her condition. I guess I started paying attention when she hit that dumpster.

And again, when she started writing poetry, which impresses everyone in the poetry club, even the school bully and self-appointed head of the club. And again, when she's told one of her compositions is good enough to possibly win a competition.

And again, when Sasha gets the rug pulled out from under her just when things started brightening up for her. And again, when she deals with the tumult that follows, by penning more poetry. Almost a whole quarter of the novel is Sasha continuing her narrative, entirely in poetic verse.

We get poetry of all sorts — including haikus, cinquains, acrostics, quatrains and, of course, free verse — on ruled pages that bring to mind a kid's notebook, some of which are "torn." And since primers on how to write some types of poetry are smuggled into the novel, you can try your hand at writing a few.

Dooley's portrayal and treatment of the heroine and narrator, the town and its denizens is remarkably true to life. She really gets inside the head of this troubled but apparently talented girl. I Googled and couldn't find this town, but Dooley makes it sound like you can.

Maybe it's because, according to her bio online, she "has lived in an assortment of small West Virginia towns," and she used to be a "special education teacher who now provides treatment to children with autism."

Once Sasha's verses — or technically, the author's — start flowing, everything starts falling into place and things I initially found annoying — the slow pace, the small-town setting, the dialogue and the mundane puttering around these small-towners do — began to make sense.

And who can resist our young plain-speaking protagonist when even her normal prose sounds poetic: "On Sunday, it is pouring down sun. The kind of sun you can't get away from even if you want to; it's so bright, like orange juice, and it splashes into everything."

Not to mention the wit. When she started writing poetry again after a hiatus, she realises that: "Swearing off poetry doesn't work the way swearing off lima beans does. I swore off lima beans in third grade and it worked. I swore off poetry less than a week ago and here I am." You might know some people like that.

And here's a taste of what she can do, poetry-wise. Some words for what I think is her shrink:


Dear Dr Shaw,
Mr Powell swears
you know your stuff,
even though you give names
to things that should have
other names.
You call it "depression."
You call it "anxiety."
I call it "Look what happened."



And it all happens within small-town settings, proving that adventures don't have to span incredible distances covered by, say, dragonflight.

Amazing, how I've found the words — enough for this piece anyway — in spite being sucker-punched into silence by the simple yet effective storytelling. Let me leave you with a few more words:


By Sarah Dooley,
Free Verse is a novel you
have to read. Like, NOW.




Free Verse

Sarah Dooley
G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
352 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-399-16503-0

Amazon | Bookurve | Book Depository | Kinokuniya

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Book Marks: Book Fairs, Comics, And Publishing

"...the ebook story has turned out to have a twist in the tale. Sales of physical books increased 4% in the UK last year while ebook sales shrank by the same amount. Glance around a busy train carriage and those passengers who aren’t on their phones are far more likely to have a paperback than a Kindle.

"The e-reader itself has also turned out to have the shelf life of a two-star murder mystery. Smartphones and tablets last year overtook dedicated reading devices to become the most popular way to read an ebook, according to the research group Nielsen."

So the death of print has yet to arrive, based on this bit of news, which seems to have cheered UK publishers somewhat. The resilience of print appears to be the case in Malaysia as well, according to the Malaysian Book Publishers Association.



"'The content of many of these books is shallow, almost like a collection of tweets,' said 20-year-old Shurooq Hashim, leading member of a book club that participated in the [Riyadh Book Fair]. “When I feel I can write the same, I don't think it deserves to be published. These books are written by people who want to market themselves."

Not everything at the Riyadh Book Fair is good, apparently. "Brief chapters of trivial information in large print and images fill up pages of such books that the publishers deem to be popular among a segment of the population"? Sounds familiar.



According to O'Reilly's research department, computer-book sales have dropped 54 percent since 2007. In principle, the demise of professionally prepared support materials shouldn't be any cause for concern. It's just another sea change unleashed by the Internet, another in the list of casualties, such as printed encyclopedias, newspaper classified ads and music on discs.

"In reality, though, none of the tech industry's teaching channels—manuals, computer books, online sources—is universal and effective."


Also:

  • "People like me assumed that comic books were SUPPOSED to look like that. I assumed that the thick, blotchy lines were drawn that way. I thought the colors were printed outside of the lines on purpose. ... We looked at it as a style instead of the crappy quality that it really was. It wasn't until I began my job as a 'digital art restoration artist' that I began to see just how damaging the process of comic book printing could be to the art."
  • "Tung Nan Book Store was among the first few in Sabah to bring in English books published by Longman and Oxford in England after the Education Department sponsored them to a book fair in London. The books were imported from its supplier in Singapore and later, from Peninsular Malaysia." Now, it's closing down.
  • "Nothing, but nothing—profanity, transgender pronouns, apostrophe abuse—excites the passion of grammar geeks more than the serial, or Oxford, comma. People love it or hate it, and they are equally ferocious on both sides of the debate. At The New Yorker, it is a copy editor’s duty to deploy the serial comma, along with lots of other lip-smacking bits of punctuation, as a bulwark against barbarianism." Comma Queen Mary Norris talks about how a punctuation mark could cost a dairy company millions.
  • "What makes [Büşra Karayıl] different from her peers is the fact that she published a book, 'Esma'nın Günlüğü' (Esma's Diary), at the age of 14. Her story is about an illiterate mother and her daughter who reacts to this situation. When Büşra learned that her mother Şükran was not allowed to go to school because of her gender, she reacted, saying, 'What kind of rubbish is that? This will not happen to me. I will go to school.'"
  • "...books aren't commodities that you can purchase at a bargain. They are the living minds of brilliant people who have taken the time to share their world, their stories, with us, and all we want is a 'discount'!" Q&A with Priyanka Malhotra, owner of New Delhi's Full Circle Bookstore.
  • "Arimba [Kovelinde] was this character and I imagined him as the Anthony Bourdain of the rifts, because I like Bourdain's particular blend of seeking out interesting places and people, and the way food takes him to more casual places rather than making the rounds at only the big attractions like a travel guide would." An interview with the people behind webcomic site Deep Engines, which also publishes the webcomic about said Bourdain-esque character, Epicurean's Exile, that's fast becoming a favourite.
  • "Once the laughing stock of the literary world, self-published books are increasingly establishing themselves among the publishing heavyweights, spurred by the ease of online distribution and companies offering works tailored towards specific niches." Which still comprises genres such as romance, steampunk and, unfortunately, dinosaur erotica.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

When Wandering Hearts Hunger For Home

I cut into a scone with a knife and spread the last of the jam and clotted cream onto the halves. By themselves the scones had little taste, though the faint perfume of butter promised more. So the jam and cream were necessary, and I found myself wishing they gave out more. But I didn't have the heart to ask.




Nor did I have the heart for much else that evening.

I left work for dinner one weekday evening with my head full of mental bramble. I can't remember why I was bummed out, but I knew I didn't want to deal with it sitting in a shiny café with a sculpted plate before me. Something a little more rough-hewn and quotidian was called for.

One evening at a café months earlier, I caught up with a couple of friends and saw one of them off; she was heading to Singapore to work. I liked the salmon, but had no room for the scones, which they told me was good.

Seemed like a good idea.

I stopped ordering pasta dishes since I learnt how to prepare them, as many are simple and don't take much to make. I make exceptions for what's beyond my current skillset, but we all have lazy or sad days.

So I tucked into a spaghetti bolognaise. Some effort went into decorating the plate, but I felt the dried herbs should just go on the dish. I made a bit of a mess when I blew on the pasta to cool it, scattering the herbs onto the table.




Just as I'd expected, its workaday plainness cleared my mental haze somewhat and didn't fill me up completely.

I appreciated that they warmed up the scones, but not only was there not enough cream and jam, the scones were still kind of hard and could only be cut across. Splitting them from the top was difficult; attempts to do that made more crumbs. And without the cream and jam they had little taste and moisture.

Which is probably why it's usually "tea and scones".

Once the food was gone, so was the steel wool of tangled thoughts in my head - until a familiar gloom clawed its way in.

Heartache. Numbness. Loneliness.

From what I could notice, this café opened to some fanfare. The homely décor, welcoming and unpretentious, might have been intended to keep customers around and make them feel at ease. Some places are so done up you're afraid to leave your fingerprints on any polished surface.

And parts of it looked like a converted house. One corner was a seating area you can comfortably have tea at and not realise you are not at home. Handwritten notes and drawings hung on a series of wire racks on the walls, mementoes left behind by patrons past.




The white-tiled counter with cement-hued sides where beverages, scones and pastries were served from dominated the dining area, with cheap-looking thin steel-legged chairs with plastic backs and seats enhancing the DIY diner's vibe. The al fresco seating area outside looked inviting, and more so during daytime.

I'm not fond of crowds, but any social establishment like this was meant to be packed. Looking around, I imagined the chatter and laughter of times when this place was new, the clatter of silverware on plates, the clinking of spoons against cups, and the aroma of coffee. Oh yes, and people. Lots of people.

But I was alone this evening, and the dining room feels cold in more than one way. The motor in the chiller would intermittently kick in, raising a din as it did. Kind of old-fashioned, but I didn't mind.

My attention returned to the notes on the wire racks, which flapped from the draught from the ceiling fan. Each flutter seemed to conjure remnants of what the writers did while they were here; the results were discordant but still painted a discernible picture of this café's heydays.

At this phantom recollection, my heart felt slowly squeezed by a melancholic longing for the writers of these notes to return and, strangely, a burgeoning curiosity about them. Who are you all? How did you learn about this place? What did you have and did you like it? How do you feel about this place and its staff? How often do you come back? Will you return someday?

What would it take to make you return?




A different picture soon unfurled. An empty living room. A single grey-haired figure slumped in a chair, staring longingly on a shelf full of framed photographs. The walls replay events they've witnessed over the years, interrupted by shadows thrown by the occasional ripple of a curtain. In the air, past ghosts of conversations and banter whisper over the hum of a ceiling fan.

The chiller's motor kicked in again, bringing me back to reality. The clutching sensation withdrew from from my heart as I got up, prompting memories of other places afflicted by a similar forlornness.

The silence of a once-vibrant place can be heart-rending, as it tolls for the impending death of a dream.

I couldn't stay any longer.

I walked into the night with even more questions. For those of us who left home to pursue a better life and a place of our own, our birthplace holds a certain allure - that is, to those with more fortunate childhoods. It is where we learnt of the world and how to survive it, an education sustained by the flavours from our mothers' kitchens.

And it is this nurturing sustenance that we return to when life exhausts us, saps us of our wide-eyed wonder, optimism, confidence and courage to face it. Even the stoutest spirits longs for the healing nourishment of home.

However, as those hands age to the point where even stirring a pot is laborious and old recipes fade away from memory for a lack of heirs, we who now dwell far away from home and family resort to surrogates. We take pictures, exhange notes and wax lyrical of this and that, perhaps in a vain attempt to disguise a deeper hunger.

Food, after all, is more than flavour, presentation, and ambience. And the hands that stir the pots we often eat out of these days may not care as much for our welfare, our joy, or our troubles as they toil above their own struggles.

Yes, they fulfil a need, and some of their owners and cooks may be passionate about food and what they do. They strive to do their best against the odds. Over time, we may develop a bond with these places and their people.

But try as it might, a café, bistro or restaurant will never truly be home.

And when the flame in the familial hearth goes out for good, when the hands that fed us from birth go to their final rest, when our surrogates eventually shutter one after another, hungry hearts like mine and those of my fellow wanderers may never get to go home again.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Cold Vengeance, Hot Case: Aunty Lee's Chilled Revenge A Treat

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 06 March 2017


The third instalment of Ovidia Yu's Aunty Lee crime series begins with an arson at a veterinary clinic in Singapore.

And the intrepid, sometimes foolhardy Rosie Lee, the protagonist and proprietor of a Peranakan café in Binjai Park (and, perhaps, her creator's in-universe avatar), has to navigate the clues and suspects with a sprained ankle.

In Aunty Lee's Chilled Revenge, British expat Allison Fitzgerald is subjected to trial by Internet after she had a puppy euthanised at the clinic that has been torched.

A traumatised Allison left the island state, only to return several years later to sue those she held responsible for her misery. One of those is Cherril Lim-Peters, Rosie's friend and now business partner, hence Rosie's involvement.

However, Allison gets killed and that would've been the end of it, if not for the deceased's sister, Vallerie, who tagged along and has to remain and help the police with their investigation.

Pitying Vallerie, Rosie lets her stay at her home. None too thrilled with this arrangement is Rosie's Filipina domestic helper and sidekick, Nina Balignasay, who is suspicious of the new guest and is cross with her boss for getting hurt while climbing up a stool and an upturned pail on a coffee table.

Not to mention the fact that the paranoid, shrill and condescending Vallerie is the archetypal nightmare Caucasian tourist. For the rest of the book the gwaipoh proceeds to make everyone's lives miserable, including the reader's.

“Aunty Lee liked catering funerals almost as much as she enjoyed catering weddings. Funerals were less happy as occasions, of course, but there was far less chance of someone getting cold feet and backing out.”

Nevertheless, Nina hopes that "the presence of a guest would prevent [Rosie] from climbing onto things." No such luck.

Soon, the kaypoh (nosy) Singaporean Miss Marple is all over the case, during which she confronts her frailty and mortality, the dark side of people, and the complexities of online shopping and Skyping. Meanwhile, the body count starts to rise...

Readers hoping for more of the same from Yu will not be disappointed. The author rambles her way towards the denouement and into our hearts in her inimitable way, occasionally deviating to dish out social commentary and homespun wisdom.

Anyone with a favourite aunt who goes off on different tangents during a conversation can perhaps relate.

A passage conveying the thoughts of recurring character Inspector Salim, for instance, also sells the upper-middle-class residential area of Bukit Tinggi, makes a case for attracting foreign talent to Singapore, talks about genetics in guppy breeding, and hints at Salim's possible latent crush on Nina. Plus, gratitude to Rosie's sleuthing and cooking, of course.

“...how a man ate his crab (and whether he had the tenacity to dig the sweetest meat out of the claw tips) showed so much about his character.”

We also learn that Rosie's not keen on making kuih with machines (“too much system”) or forcing young national servicemen to run in the sun in the name of national defence because they might drop dead and you don't need that much exertion to fly a drone.

Our heroine still smiles from her jars of homemade sambal and achar, and who else can rock a kebaya blouse with a pink Converse T-shirt, kaffir lime-green yoga pants and pink-and-green Nike shoes?

Others get to shine this round. Nina's presence is bigger here, and we see more of several minor characters, even the Robocop-like police staff sergeant Neha Panchal. Further developments in the lives of some cast members are possibly teased, too.

One thing though — did Vallerie Love have to be such a walking ulcer? The folksy prose, wit and the mouth-watering descriptions of food could barely offset her loathsomeness, which clings like the memory of a horrible aftertaste.

“It was always easier to deal with the greedy than the crazy, because you could follow their reasoning even if you didn’t share their values.”

Still, this is the satisfying continuation of a series we've been waiting for. However, gratification soon gives way to concern over the longevity of the series. The work that went into this book appears to be more than that of the previous two, and the fourth novel is on the way.

I hope the author takes it easy. Look at Aunty Lee, after just two books fall down already.



Aunty Lee's Chilled Revenge
A Singaporean Mystery


Ovidia Yu
William Morrow
338 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-06-241649-0

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