Thursday, 30 June 2011

Paper People

I decided to get Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists at the advertised 20 per cent discount. The sales assistant mentioned a "coupon", but turns out all I had to do was to surrender that section of the newspaper in exchange for the price cut.

At a discounted price of RM48 it was still expensive, never mind the "bonus" interview featuring Rachman and Malcolm Gladwell and accolades such as the New York Times Book Review of the Year.

At least the book didn't disappoint.

Formerly a journalist with Associated Press, Tom Rachman was born in 1974 in London, but grew up in Vancouver. The Imperfectionists is his début novel; he's now in London, working on his second.

Tom Rachman's newspaper novel

This novel charts the fall of a fictional newspaper headquartered in Rome, through the vignettes of key characters involved with it. Each chapter is dedicated to one character, complete with a headline. Spliced in between are the milestones in the paper's history, rendered in eye-gouging italics.

Among others, we meet an obituary writer and trivia section custodian, who struggles with his editor and later, a family tragedy; the grizzled corrections editor who can't seem to keep up with the Internet-powered changes in his world of words; a frumpy, bitchy, bitter copywriter who has a love/hate relationship with her career; and a news editor/aspiring inventor who tries to deal with his girlfriend's cheating.

Rounding up the cast is the struggling, starving freelancer who's miles away from it all, and is therefore, clueless about how the news mill he writes for is run; the equally clueless descendant of the paper's founder; and one who is perhaps the paper's most loyal reader.

Despite my very brief stint in journalism, and even though the setting and ethnicity is different, I can still recognise bits of former colleagues in the characters. In myself are fragments of struggling freelancer Lloyd Burko and obsessive-compulsive corrections editor Herman Cohen. As for the premise itself - well, it's one that's playing out everywhere.

The format may look odd, breaking the story up and interrupting the momentum, but thanks to sharp, witty prose and an innate knowledge of the industry, this 200-plus-page obituary to newsprint that Rachman has written is one fun, morbid ride. The character's individual stories, though interesting and funny, are somewhat peripheral to the world crumbling around them.

In The Imperfectionists one can truly see the physical newspaper's slow, painful spiral to oblivion. Despite knowing what's to come, the pages keep turning. Writers/journalists/publishers of every stripe will find the depressing tone of the book strangely comforting in its familiarity.

Hence my bafflement at this book being marketed as fiction. It's as real as it can one wants it to be.

They could have done without the Rachman-Gladwell section. Omitting that would probably cut the price by 30 per cent.

The Imperfectionists
Tom Rachman
Dial Press (2011)
281 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-34367-1

Sunday, 26 June 2011

"Eet Ees NOT Too SOHLTEE!"

A long, long time ago in a Visa Card ad with a restaurant setting, Zhang Ziyi infuriated a chef with the complaint, "De sup is too saltee." The pissed-off chef yells his denial and set his kitchen staff on her. A re-enactment of the restaurant fight scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ensued. Though the place was trashed, Zhang emerged triumphant and hurled a Visa Card to a waiter - "for the 'extras'".

In 2008, at a restaurant in Taiwan, a similar tableau unfolded but this time the chef - or rather, the restaurant - won.

A food and lifestyle blogger who visited the restaurant not only complained about salty food, but also of cockroaches in the kitchen and the owner who allowed indiscriminate parking near his premises. When the owner heard about the review, he sued her for defamation.

The judge ruled in the restaurant's favour on the grounds that the blogger had gone too far with her review. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and ordered to pay the restaurant about US$7,000 for losses her review may have caused.

This sounds... kind of familiar... except that nothing about that fishy case has come up so far.

I have not read the review, but I feel the judgement handed down was a bit heavy-handed. Making sweeping statements about the food based on one dish is reckless (unless it's the only dish served by the establishment), though I feel the roach part is valid. It was just one review by one person; other diners may beg to differ.

So can a food blog, a chronological journal of one's eating experiences with anecdotes of bad food and bad hygiene for a particular day, be defamatory? Is it unfair and unobjective to say something tastes "bad" when it, well, tastes "bad"? Tastebuds generally don't lie.

Things change all the time in restaurants, and unfortunately for that blogger, that day was perhaps a bad time to visit. Things might have happened afterwards: a visit from a healthy inspector, another customer complaint... the problems that were blogged about may have been solved after the review was published - something a review should include.

Commenting on the case, a Taiwanese lawyer said food bloggers should be "truthful in their commentary", "be fair and objective in their writing", and use photographic evidence to protect themselves. In short, they should be like journalists. But are food bloggers supposed to be journalists? Or will journalism be expected from bloggers in the future, particularly those whose blogs have high page hits?

Will being like journalists actually help protect bloggers from defamation suits?

One way this could have been avoided was not to review the place at all. With the exception of one or two blogs I know of, Malaysian food bloggers don't bother if an overall restaurant experience is sour. But what if a review was paid for, or by invitation? Does one gloss over the flaws, write a "balanced" review, or what?

In the near future, however, I think they'd better be careful when reviewing eating places in Taiwan.

Friday, 24 June 2011

France Made Fun

I had expected this to be out on in the Sunday Star's ReadsMonthly, not today. I wonder what will that section feature?

Not much else I have to say about this review, other than it took me 2½ days to finish. With this, Stephen Clarke and Dan Simmons are now the authors whose works I've reviewed the most. Not sure if that's a good thing... .

France made fun
Sample these sharp and humorous takes on all things French sparingly

first published in The Star, 24 June 2011

Stephen Clarke is funny, which is to be expected of a writer who cut his teeth writing comedy sketches for the BBC. After moving to France, he turned his incisive wit on his adopted homeland, resulting in a series of novels and several non-fiction books that are mostly about the pleasures and perils of living in that country.

Talk to the Snail was how I got to know Clarke ("French comprehension", Reads, StarMag, Dec 30, 2007). His handy, hilarious survival guide to France was chock-full of myth-busting anecdotes. "... if you want to know France, don't ask a Frenchman. He'll only give you the version he wants you to hear," says Clarke. "He won't mention that French women have just about the highest Prozac consumption in the world.... Or that the French are mad about hamburgers...."

Stephen Clarke's 1000 Years of Annoying the French (left) and
Paris Revealed - more of the French than you can handle

That book didn't shock, but it left me quite breathless by making me laugh my lungs flat. It's just that all these hidden, surreal sides of France are so over the top, they look more natural and less funny in fiction – I decided that I find Clarke funnier when he's not writing fiction. So when I came across a 2010 non-fiction release I hadn't seen, as well as a title released earlier this year, I couldn't resist asking to review both.

1000 Years Of Annoying The French, which sounds like Clarke's job description, is a brick-like tome that tries to "set the record straight" about the long tragicomedy that is the French-English relationship. A healthy portion of it, however, appears dedicated to what Clarke does best, which he suggests is nothing new. From William the Conqueror to the diplomatic gaffes suffered by current French president Nicolas Sarkozy, all forms of insults have been flying between Britain and France for centuries. Kind of like Malaysia-Singapore, only much longer.

From 1000 Years, it seems the French may have exaggerated notions of their place in history. In his own inimitable way, Clarke mercilessly tears down each "historical fact" and uncovers some surprising things:

  • Clarke says that William the Conqueror was not a French king because he was of Viking descent, drank little wine, and was faithful to his wife.
  • Mary, Queen of Scots, had French blood and upbringing. As Clarke states, "She was as Scottish as foie gras-flavoured haggis."
  • The fearsome guillotine used to dispatch various French royals and nobles during the French Revolution was a British invention.
  • France's exorbitant demands for war-time reparations from Germany after World War I might have bred the resentment that would later fuel Hitler's rise and start World War II.

Here, Clarke shows his work as an acerbic, wittier, and less genteel David Attenborough of the history of Anglo-French relations. Each sequence of events is threaded together well, with references to previous chapters and modern events, plus accompanying footnotes to make the history more interesting, entertaining even.

Case in point: The English may have killed Joan of Arc (see chapter four), but it seems that France allowed them to. Centuries later, after World War I, France had her made a saint (see chapter 24). Clarke notes the irony. "Yes, just eighteen months after Britain had sacrificed a whole generation of its young men to defend Joan of Arc's homeland against invasion, the French adopted an anti-English patron saint." Merci beaucoup, les amis (thanks a lot, buddy), indeed.

This history book with a difference was every bit the enjoyable read it promised to be. I can't say quite as much about the other book. Returning to the present day and familiar territory, Clarke zooms in on his home city. Paris Revealed: The Secret Life Of A City is essentially Talk to the Snail Lite, focusing specifically on the "secrets" of the city. Clarke lays bare the mysteries behind the some Parisian eccentricities: the signage, the people, the architecture ... the works.

Treasures in this box includes a map and brief descriptions of Paris's 20 arrondissements (administrative districts); survival tips, such as how to become a Parisian and how not to annoy other Parisians; and addresses of cafés, restaurants, museums and other places of interest. Choice bits and helpful information about the "city of lovers" are divided into helpful sections: Parisians, Pavements, Water, History, Romance, Fashion, and so on.

Though it veers towards TMI territory, it isn't Clarke's intention to scare people away from Paris. He hopes the book will complete the "glitzy, romanticised" image of the city that often graces travel brochures, making her personality more real and fully rounded. "After all, you don't truly fall in love with someone until you know what makes them tick." Well put.

Even so, Paris Revealed is pretty lightweight reading, compared to 1000 Years. Though a good mix of fact and fun, it has little of the zing that Talk to the Snail has. By the time I was halfway through, Clarke-fatigue had set in. The writing started appearing dry and a little self-indulgent. The jokes get old rather quickly, and the use of French phrases in punch lines soon becomes a bad idea, especially if the reader doesn't know the language. Do I smell an author's impending burnout?

I hope not. Few can write like Clarke, and it would be a pity were he to keel over after flogging the old French nag for so long. Every book in his repertoire so far revolves around taking the mickey out of France – which the French themselves have begun doing, as recent headlines suggest. Perhaps a new source of inspiration is in order. Italy, maybe?

In spite of it all, Clarke remains a must-read on my shelf, and I'd recommend (some of) his books to anyone who's interested. It's just that his stuff is like foie gras: rich, and should only be consumed on occasion – preferably in small, manageable portions.

1000 Years of Annoying the French
Stephen Clarke
Black Swan (2010)
686 pages
ISBN: 978-0-552-77575-5

Paris Revealed
The Secret Life of a City

Stephen Clarke
Bantam Press (2011)
306 pages
ISBN: 978-0-593-06711-6

Thursday, 23 June 2011

One Sick Fish

When I was with Off The Edge, we received mail from a reader who noted the little "Consumer Price Index" slot we gave to Hotel Nikko, advertising its Chinese restaurant's Superior Shark's Fin with Golden Broth and Gold Foil (OTE, Jan 2009).

He went on to express "surprise" that "one of the more enlightened publications in Malaysia" would promote, from the vibes I got, something so decadent and environmentally damaging as sharks fin soup. Shock! Horror!

So he suggested that perhaps we should've added a disclaimer of some kind, which he helpfully provided. The chief felt he had a point, so he published the "disclaimer" in full in the next issue.

Eating shark-fin soup seriously threatens the survival of sharks. More than one hundred million sharks are killed each year ... The irony is while the shark-fin itself is tasteless ... it actually contains a high concentration of toxic mercury (causes nervous system deterioration, male infertility) since [the shark] is the apex predator in the sea and accumulates all the mercury from the fishes in consumes during its long life. Have a healthy Chinese New Year.

I had different thoughts.

The reader might have done his homework and meant well, but to me he was a complete tyro. The point was to promote the dish, and tacking his kind of "disclaimer" to the slot would be the equivalent of "save the sharks, shut down some restaurants". The "male infertility" thing was definitely pinpoint targeting. Tact, dude.

And did he really feel people who'd buy OTE would be so woefully uninformed about shark's fin? As a sometimes-reader myself, I'd be offended - and I was. And still am.

Given the choice, I wouldn't order it. It's expensive, wasteful (if it came from finning) and the fin fibres themselves have as much nutrition as your hair or fingernails. But when a bowl of Jaws' flipper-fibres is put in front of me, I'm very likely to eat it. Because by the time the shark goes into the bowl, it is already too late.

I like sharks. It is one sick fish. While the raptors were busy growing the parts that would help them fly, sharks were already masters of their realm. Around this time was the reign of a personal favourite: carcharocles megalodon, the bus-sized, whale-eating terror of the deep.

The shark evolved to effectively hunt and kill slow, weak and stupid marine life, so that only the strong remain and make stronger, smarter offspring - kind of like what Simon, Randy, et al do on American Idol. On lean days, their keen senses are used to look for dead or dying prey species and eat that, keeping the seas relatively clean and sanitised.

However, as Reader so helpfully pointed out, in this day and age countless numbers of sharks across the spectrum of species are killed each year. And as apex predators of the deep, they accumulate all sorts of toxic substances in their bodies as they hunt and eat inside increasingly polluted oceans, much like whales.

Though it's been established that many species such as the great white mature slowly and rarely reproduce, science still knows so little about the shark's life cycles. The scale of the slaughter is such that the impact of one dead shark can send big ripples across an ecosystem.

And if we do wipe out the sharks, are we willing to take their place in the ecosystem, hunting and cleaning up the oceans of dead, rotting whales and such?

But it didn't used to be like this. Or was it, except on a smaller, more sustainable scale?

Which is why I'm interested in what this book has to say about sharks and our relationships with them. They could have done away with the simulated gill slits on the cover, though. And did they have to call it Demon Fish?

In this book, the author Juliet Eilperin goes round the world to investigate how different individuals and cultures relate to the shark, one of nature's most awesome creatures. Eilperin is the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post, where she writes about science, policy, and politics in areas ranging from climate change to oceans.

Ah, that's one sick book. Too bad it comes with a sick price tag. The paperback can't come soon enough.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Man On The Fringe

In my brief stint at Off The Edge magazine, I'd had the privilege of interviewing and writing about people I'd never thought I meet and proofing the articles of some really high-powered personalities. The job had its moments but I only ever got to meet a handful of these people in person.

Copies of Benjamin McKay's 'Fringe Benefits' at The Annexe, Central Market
The first time I saw Benjamin McKay was at the first Seksualiti Merdeka, in 2008. He was in a panel that included Sharon Bong and an MP, and he was presenting a paper on public spaces and the "cruising habits of the Malaysian male." Which, he constantly reminded his audience, was done with no funding. He was a Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University's Sunway Campus and, I heard, knew his stuff well.

I never got to know him other than through the articles I checked, and even then, gave them a perfunctory glance for any glaring typos and whatnot. From what I would hear much later, all the copies I'd received had been substantially cleaned up beforehand.

His passing came as a shock to everyone. Back then, chances of McKay's name on a list of "people who might die tomorrow" were very, very remote.

Off The Edge folded around the same time he passed on. I barely got to know the magazine before it went, too.

My time with both McKay's articles and OTE was brief, and I did wonder if that was enough to "allow" me to attend the event that also commemorated his brief time with us. But went I did.

Fringe Benefits: Essays and Reflections on Malaysian Arts and Cinema was launched on 19 June at The Annexe, Central Market, and it was attended by several of his students, colleagues, friends and acquaintances. The book is a compilation of selected film-related articles he wrote for online Malaysian arts portal Kakiseni and Off The Edge.

The phrase "fringe benefits" had a significance. According to McKay's former colleague Yeoh Seng Guan, the fringes of a society was where interaction with the outside world was and where all the creative energies were - the edges of the box one should think out of, so to speak. So the "benefits" from the fringe are new ideas, radical ways of thinking that can enlighten and transform a society. Perhaps an allusion to a quest to bring these benefits from the fringe to the "centre" - the mainstream society.

Another thing that was mentioned was that McKay's office was located on the fringes of the campus as well. That made his fronting the "Fringe Benefits" column doubly apt.

I'm intellectually lazy, so I'll only tell you that his stuff, though at times very scholarly, were quite fun to read. Each would have a humorous undercurrent there somewhere, but he always had respect for his subjects - except, perhaps, those that deserve the full weight of his derision, though I can't remember on which occasion.

One fun article was about how common images of half-naked men were in the Philippines ("Musings on the Filipino male in advertising", Off The Edge, February 2009). The accompanying photo we had was quite low res, and I didn't relish the task of looking for a better one. We eventually settled for a less than ideal picture of "that ding-dong".

I didn't get a copy of Fringe Benefits that day. I felt I'd read enough of McKay for a while, but only as a proofreader. And I don't think it's okay to review stuff I had a part in publishing. So don't let it stop you from getting one.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Buckets Fixes Melancholy

Coming back from a wedding celebration, I got stuck in a traffic jam outside Dataran Sunway at Kota Damansara. On The Om Nom Show at BFM89.9 was artisanal ice cream entrepreneur Elaine Gunting.

As the segment wrapped up, John Lim asked Elaine where her business was located.

"We're located at Kota Damansara-"


"That's where our factory is, The Strand," she continued. "We opened some counters to complement the production line. When we experiment with different flavours, we take it out and people can sample them..."

No prizes for guessing what I did next.

Buckets was tucked deep inside The Strand, far from the main road and out of sight. Two tables, several seats and barebones decor. The co-founder who calls himself Jay was standing by, "one leg kicking" as he said. He wasted little time, and I was sampling a number of flavours.

Buckets is about cold stuff: ice creams, sorbets and yoghurt-based desserts. Their ice creams are made the gelato way, with fresh raw ingredients. To make it low fat, they use palm-based stuff. They sell their stuff to a few cool customers, which include Ole-Ole Bali, Sushi-Tei and 7ate9.

"We use real fruits and ingredients," said Jay in his sales pitch. "When you eat our sorbets, it's like eating the fruit itself. If you tried similar products from other manufacturers, the first-"

"You'll taste the ice first," I cut in.

"That's right. But here, you taste the fruit first."

He didn't have to try so hard. The cool and refreshing rock melon and passionfruit sorbets released the fruits' aromas as it melted in the mouth. Likewise the banana ice cream. Some of the products had Italian names, which made selection a tad difficult.

I had a double scoop: vanilla and banana. Jay pointed out the black dots in the vanilla ice cream, which I knew were vanilla beans. The real deal. Strawberries from France, Thai honey mangoes, and pisang berangan for their banana ice creams. An ongoing experiment involves stevia, a healthier natural sweetener.

"Try this and tell me what you think," said Jay as he handed me a spoon of chocolate ice cream made with "the finest" dark Belgian chocolate. I cleared my mouth of the other flavours and in it went.

Wow. The chocolate hit the tongue almost immediately and seconds later, the aroma reached my nostrils via my throat.

They choose their raw ingredients based on not just on flavour, but also how the ingredients react to being frozen, then thawed, mixed with milk and blended in. Changes in quality and flavour can occur between box to bucket.

The ice creams were great. The lingering feel of the slick palm-based fat is to be expected - ice creams need some kind of fat in them.

A family walked in and bought a cup or two. Then, a couple waltzed in with a print-out for a Milk-A-Deal redemption. They were similarly sold on many of the flavours, particularly the sorbet and the yoghurt-based thingy with mixed berries. Then Jay mentioned durian.

What? I didn't hear about this.

After the couple leave, I asked for a single scoop of durian. After my two scoops of vanilla and banana.

Jay was incredulous. "Serious?"

Of course. In a year, durian rarely happens.

Of course it was good. It's durian. Buckets, Jay said, only use the expensive maoshanwang varietal.

The durian ice cream was the perfect ending for my incidental visit to this hidden dessert corner. Also a sweet way to end a hectic, draining week. Funny how things just seem to fall into place like that.

So this must be what it's like for Melody when she's having a good day.

Premium Buckets Sdn Bhd
38-G & 38-1, Jalan PJU 5/20B
The Strand, Kota Damansara
47810 Petaling Jaya, Selangor


Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Review for Revenue?

Carol Hoenig, a freelance writer and publishing consultant, asks whether one should pay to have books reviewed. She expresses guilt over not being able to review every book delivered to her, but stresses that priority must be given to her paying gigs.

"The shame of it is that there are fewer places to have one's book reviewed, thanks to so many publications eliminating the position or having folded altogether," she says at one point.

Hers is perhaps the longest question I've read so far on whether paid reviews are relevant in the age of the digital freebie.

...Probably not.

The modern phenomenon of shrinking attention spans is eating into a lot of the stuff we do, including writing reviews of anything that justifies a paycheque. Nowadays, the gauge to whether a book is good is the number of stars or votes it gets on Amazon, Librarything or Good Reads. In short, "Is this book worth my money and time?"

...Probably not.

Reviews of a book - of anything - are subject to the fancies or foibles of those who pen them. Not everybody thinks Phillip Roth is a writer, and still many others wonder, "How the hell did this book get so-and such prize?" If one has trawled through the 20-odd pages of reviews for a popular book in Amazon before deciding to buy it, chances of a 50/50 "I will like/hate this book" will still be high enough to give pause.

So why write reviews at all?

I suppose it depends on where the review is going to be published.

It's true that the mainstream media nowadays sees little reason to publish book reviews or book-related features, especially when the featured books are not considered commercial successes. In the old, old days when books were relatively a luxury and a bit later, associated with culture and enlightenment, reviewers (or whatever they're called back then), could show off a little by disassembling a book and calling out the author on plot devices, characters and the hidden messages, cutting commentary and whatnot, disguised as a work of literature.

Though that aspect of the reviewer's job remains, modern reviews are geared towards selling books, hence the "balanced" review, even for books one knows are unequivocally bad. Of course, a review for the mainstream media has to be of a certain length, depth and quality for payment to be justified.

But will it be enough to make people care and, maybe, shuffle off to the bookstore to pick up a copy and see if the reviewer is right?

...Probably not.

The increasingly huge freebie pool comes with history's biggest caveat emptor sign. When free doesn't necessarily mean quality or veracity, you'd be a fool to believe everything you read on the web. At home, book reviews tend to be supportive, if not "balanced", so I don't think the question of ethics and "honesty" in one's paid review really applies.

Nevertheless, we should probably be grateful that the mainstream media hasn't given up on books yet. Though it is foolhardy to pay the bills by solely reviewing books, those who still write reviews will have a platform to publish - and maybe an additional, albeit small, income stream.

...And this is the longest preamble to my reply to Ms Hoenig's question.

Which is, should reviews be paid for? By paid reviews, I assume she's not talking about those commissioned by newspapers or magazines, but the freebies gathering dust on her table, which she might review on her blog or web site if... .

...Probably not.

When a publisher, agent or bookstore (chain) sends you a book, it implies that they are confident that your blog, newspaper or online portal can provide some degree of visibility for whatever they send you. It is, I think, not a decision made lightly. Every printed book sent to a reviewer means one less sale, on top of postage. That sort of suggests you should do something with it, even if the letter says you are not obliged to.

Lots of books are released each year and some really good ones get swamped by the buzz over hyped-up commercial successes. Reviewers should take a chance on some books not extensively covered by the press. Not to mention the thrill - and spill - of the gamble when you, if you can, dive into the book pile at a newspaper's HQ.

And if the book is not available in your local bookstores? Who cares? There are no borders in cyberspace. Someone in Poughkeepsie, New York might want to know if that book he's looking up is worth his time and money. Your review could help him decide.

Write the damn review(s). Find the time. Got books you're "not obliged to review"? 500 words, minimum. Maybe less if you're a blogger, or a reviewer at The Independent. Quote some passages to complete the word count. When it's done and posted, that's your obligation, there. That's also material for your blog, and a free book for your bookshelf.

...Probably not a good idea to wait until the book is out of print.

(Disclosure: I have missed deadlines before. You don't need to know how many times. This is not about me.)

I guess the writing of book reviews, along with the reading and writing of books, has always been a labour of love, and we know just how much love pays where cash-strapped, overworked and stress-out freelancers are concerned. Labour of love, or simply a chance to show off one's biblio-forensics skills.

But as long as there's a space for the book review, those who want to, will. If you can spin an entertaining review out of a good (or bad) book, that's even better.

"Can you tell me how?"

...Probably not. That's something you have to discover. Just like what I'm trying to do.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Jolly Good Jaunt

I had fun with these books, I really did.

However, several minor details: The first paragraph was supposed to be the standfirst, and the first letters of "South Extension Amateur Theatrical Society" and "Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education" were meant to be in bold, in case nobody gets the joke; the initials for both "organisations" spell "SEATS" (as in theatre seats) and "DIRE" (presumably the state of superstition vs rationality in India).

India's CSICOP, meanwhile, is known for its mouthful of a full name: Indian Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), which is an affiliate of the US-based Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI).

Hence, the "fixed" version of the published review below.

Maybe I should have left more clues or something for the editing team.

Jolly good jaunt
Reading about the exploits of a Punjabi private detective and his assistants is like taking a fun and fast-paced Indian autorickshaw ride

first published in The Star, 12 June 2011

It's been a while since I've read a good detective story, especially one that's not only action-packed but also has witty writing, fast pacing, and quirky dialogue.

And a memorable lead character like Vishwas Puri. The portly, pompous Punjabi private eye and proprietor of Most Private Investigators Ltd is the protagonist of British journalist-turned-author Tarquin Hall's series of detective novels set in India.

For Puri, danger is his ally (he dices with death with each chilli pakora he eats) and confidentiality is his agency's watchword (never mind his Bollywood dreams for his case files).

Tarquin Hall's Vishwas Puri novels

Being mentioned in the same breath as Johnnies-come-lately Poirot, Holmes, et al (who, like himself, don't really exist) offends him. Puri insists that his profession, his methods, go way back to the time of Indian sage and diplomat Chanakya, who wrote a treatise on spying and investigation over 2,000 years ago. He scoffs at younger competitors who appear to watch too much CSI, dress like Horatio Caine and think the handheld UV light is the ultimate crime-solving tool. Portly he may be, but he's also tough in his own way: Have you ever eaten a naga morich, one of the world's hottest chillies, without flinching?

Good detectives in India don't work alone, so Puri has a team of experts, most of whom are code named. There's Tubelight, a former professional thief; Handbrake, Puri's chauffeur and once-cab driver; Nepali femme fatale Facecream; tech wizard Flush; Ms Chadda, telephone operator of many voices; and Elizabeth Rani, Puri's secretary. At home there's his loyal wife Rumpi and his mum. Puri's mum, known only as Mummy, is a bit of a sleuth herself and is, apparently, something of a clairvoyant.

But this is India, and his talents don't appear to receive great acclaim. Puri languishes in semi-obscurity, largely scorned by the police. His daily bread involves sussing out prospective grooms and numerous petty crimes, when he's not solving major cases such as the Case Of The Laughing Peacock, the Case Of The Pundit With Twelve Toes, and one about a missing polo elephant.

We are thrust into the Case Of The Missing Servant, Hall's first book in the series, in the middle of one such groom-sussing stakeout. Not long after Puri wraps that up, a clean lawyer – a rarity in modern India, it seems – comes a-calling. The lawyer's maidservant is missing and awful rumours of her disappearance are swirling around him. It's not long before the lawyer is jailed for a crime he says he didn't commit – and then someone tries to shoot Puri.

The bigger hazard for our sleuth, however, is his girth, which marks him as a candidate for obesity-related ills, but that has not diminished his love of fiery chillies, pakoras, and other spicy, buttery Indian fare. The Missing Servant also introduces us to India's marriage customs, class divisions and its supposedly shady real estate scene.

We know that Puri survives the assassination attempt, the chillies and cholesterol, because The Case Of The Man Who Died Laughing came out about a year later. The second book highlights the struggle between superstition and science in India, with a bit of sci-fi thrown in. Guru-buster Dr Suresh Jha is killed, seemingly by the four-armed goddess Kali. The murder victim and his association appears to be based on real-life Indian guru-buster, the late Basava Premanand and his rationalist group, the Indian CSICOP (Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal).

While Puri and gang are off chasing goddesses, magicians and a fake guru, wife Rumpi and Mummy amuse themselves investigating a robbery at a kitty party (typical ones usually involve middle-aged women gossiping and drinking tea, so fish your minds out of the gutter now, please).

Hall's writing and language grow on you, like an overly chummy Punjabi with a booming voice who wraps a thick hairy arm around your shoulder, hustles you to the nearest bar and plies you with drinks. I found myself wanting to speak in tongues by the time I finished the two books, rolling my tongue outrageously as I aped the characters. Plus, you get more than one case and more than one detective. Mummy holds her own as she pokes her nose into danger – and grows on you as Delhi's answer to Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote.

Word play abounds. In The Missing Servant, one chuckles at the shallow pun in the desperate lawyer's plea to "find this bloody Mary!"; Puri's multi-talented telephonist belongs to the South Extension Amateur Theatrical Society. In The Man Who Died Laughing, the late Dr Jha is founder and head of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education. And then there's the running gag that involves Puri getting a knock in the head, either by accident or by an unknown assailant.

Hall's India is one big caricature where circumstances serve the cartoonish narrative and plot. The unsavoury socioeconomical and political climate and unflattering stereotypes help make Puri and gang, victims and the supporting good guys stand out – perhaps a bit too much. Though Puri is not above it all. Problems at home include water and power cuts ("load shedding") and a brother-in-law who fancies himself Punjab's Donald Trump. And our old-fashioned gumshoe bemoans creeping Western influences and declining morals, and believes that mums – and women in general – don't make good detectives.

But you won't care, because you'll have too much fun with these novels. I sure did.

However, there have been no new Vish Puri novels out since The Man Who Died Laughing. It would be a shame for the series to end after such a spectacular take-off. And I really want to know about that missing polo elephant.

The Case of the Missing Servant
Tarquin Hall
Arrow Books (2009)
312 pages
ISBN: 978-0-09-952523-3

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing
Tarquin Hall
Hutchinson (2010)
334 pages
ISBN: 978-0-09-192567-3

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Some Monthly Reads

Some books slated for review in The Star arrived at my desk today, courtesy of the MPH book people.

Mitchell Zuckoff's Lost in Shangri-La (left) and Chan Koonchung's The Fat Years

  • Lost in Shangri-La
    A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and
    the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II

    Mitchell Zuckoff
    Harper (2011)
    384 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-06-209358-5
  • The Fat Years
    The Notorious Novel No-one in China Dared Publish
    Chan Koonchung
    Translated from the Chinese by Michael S Duke
    With a Preface by Julia Lovell
    Doubleday (July 2011)
    307 pages
    ISBN: 9780385619189

The Fat Years will probably be slated for publication in The Star's Monthly Reads in July. And it means I'd better wrap up this month's review.

I haven't been as prolific as I'd like with regards to book reviews. I'm trying to be cautious as well, because writing a review based on first impressions can be a risky proposition.

Guess it's time to get cracking.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Dulang Washer

Working on this book was fun. That the story is probably one of the better ones we've received so far this year had something to do with it. At posting time, it's still with the printers, hence the cover photo.

We intend to release it this August, but it might be in bookstores as early as next month. For a sneak peek at the novel's backstory, go here.

The Dulang Washer is set in Malaya, in 1890. In the tin-mining camps of Perak’s Kinta Valley, only the strongest and bravest survive. One day, an ox-drawn cart rolls into one such camp. Among the human cargo inside is...

Mee Ling. The young, wilful daughter of a farmer in China, her desire for freedom and independence leads to her abduction and arrival in a foreign land and perhaps a fate worse than death, if not for...

Aisha, who takes the frightened Mee Ling under her wing. Burdened by a secret tragedy and driven by a sacred vow, the mysterious Malay maiden labours as a dulang washer to support two families, while staying above the mine’s politics and fending off the advances of the mine’s unscrupulous proprietor...

Fook Sin, who has enriched himself at the expense of the mining camp's indentured labourers. He sees the camp as his fiefdom and will brook no opposition to his rule. He also covets Aisha, whom he hopes to add to his stash of secretly hoarded treasures. However, his reign will soon be threatened by...

Donald Redfern, a former British army officer who left his country for the chance to better his young family's life. Sent to the mine as its new overseer, Redfern finds succour from his loneliness and homesickness in Aisha's language lessons and small gestures of compassion. But he will also clash with...

Hun Yee, a young Hakka miner whose recent victory against his opium addiction allows him to once again pursue his dreams of being the boss of his own mine. But when he acts against a fellow miner’s unjust punishment, he inadvertently challenges Redfern’s authority and piques the interest of both Mee Ling and Aisha.

Of all the myriad hazards of the mining camp, which will prove to be the more dangerous: Fook Sin’s desire to cling to power and his ill-gotten wealth, or Redfern's growing obsession with Aisha, which she'd unwittingly fuelled with her kindness? And what will this mean for Hun Yee's dream, Aisha's vow and Mee Ling's hunger for freedom?

Paul Callan was born in Dublin, Ireland. His love of storytelling was fuelled while attending Chanel College in North Dublin. As a young man in London, he abandoned his first attempt at becoming a novelist in pursuit of a business career. After marrying his Malaysian wife, he visited Malaysia many times, and fell in love with the country and its people. He now divides his time between his homes in Kuala Lumpur and London. The Dulang Washer is his first novel.

The Dulang Washer
An Epic Tale of Love, Valour and Secrets

Paul Callan
MPH Group Publishing
388 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5997-55-6

Web site

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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A Monsoon Blows In

"This is a true story of 1930s Malaysia, of jungle operations, submarines and spies in WWII, and of the postwar Malayan Emergency, as experienced by an extraordinary man."

Days ago, out of the blue, Monsoon Books offered me books to review or feature in the media. A package from them came last Friday, but I was not informed until yesterday evening.

Malayan Spymaster: Memoirs of a Rubber Planter, Bandit Fighter and Spy is the story of Boris Hembry, a British rubber planter who joined the fight against the Japanese occupiers in World War II as an intelligence officer and later, the communist insurgents during the Emergency.

Hembry's memoirs were written for his family and not meant for publication, but they felt that his life in Malaya and his struggles deserved a much wider readership.

"We dedicate it to those expatriates of many generations whose devotion to that beautiful country and its peoples helped to lay the foundations of present-day peaceful and prosperous Malaysia," writes Hembry's son, John in the preface. Boris Hembry passed on in September 1990.

My thanks to Monsoon Books for what promises to be an interesting read, and many thanks to the family of the late Boris Hembry for their generosity in sharing his extraordinary story.

Monday, 6 June 2011

A Subtle Degree Of Restraint

At a series of creative writing workshops under the British Council Creative Cities programme, run with UK-based writer development organisation Spread The Word, participants looked to the energy and character of the city of Kuala Lumpur for inspiration. The stories in this collection are the results of those workshops.

Creative Cities is a British Council project set up in 2008 and was developed in 15 countries in Europe. It provides a platform and a toolkit which can be used by individuals and organisations to help improve their cities.

Spread The Word, with the assistance of established professional writers, helps writers reach their full potential through workshops, mentoring schemes and other activities.

Most of the stories take place in KL, or were inspired by KL. In an urban restaurant, a woman is irked by the presence of a huge round vase as she explores love and weight loss. Will the vase survive? ...And how delicious are those after-lunch mochi?

A married woman struggles with her husband's infidelity and forbidden feelings for a neighbour's teenage son. One outlet for her frustrations involves the desperate housewife fantasies she writes on her computer. How will this play out?

As she swaps stories with her friends at a swanky Bangsar joint, an uptown woman learns something that sours the sweetness in her little secret. Shock! Horror! Will she consign the little package she's carrying into the dustbin?

A timid teacher finds the courage to stand up for what's right. But troubles at home threatens to turn her workplace triumph into a pyrrhic victory. Despite a flu, a man at Amritsar is awed by the vision of loveliness he guides in a search for the mysterious beauty's roots, miles away from home. She finds what she's looking for, but has he?

Across the city, viewers following a tacky game show witness an unassuming contestant's spectacular victory and watch her humiliation as the prize for her efforts is revealed. A crowd gathering at the scene of a drowning brings a man back into his childhood and the tragic death of a schoolmate.

A Subtle Degree of Restraint and Other Stories is published by MPH Group Publishing and will be available in all major bookstores.

A Subtle Degree of Restraint and Other Stories
Various Authors
MPH Group Publishing
138 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5997-47-1

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Look, Books!

...because my brain, like Odo the Changeling from Star Trek: TNG, is still reconstituting from the weekend and is unable to come up with snazzy titles.

Last Friday, someone from books distributor Pansing dropped by. Earlier, we passed them a copy of a book we could not distribute for some reason or another, hoping they could. We received that copy today, but that book's status is still unclear. I hope to have some good news regarding it soon.

Some new books from Pansing

They also left us with a bagful of books, three of which were passed to me. My weekend reading list may soon spill over to my weekdays...

  • The Poison Tree
    Erin Kelly
    Hodder and Stoughton (2010)
    359 pages (with Prologue for The Sick Rose)
    ISBN: 978-1-444-70106-7
  • Inside Wikileaks
    My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website
    Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Tina Klopp
    Jonathan Cape (2011)
    Non-Fiction/Current Affairs/Political
    282 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-224-09401-6
  • The Plantation
    Di Morrissey
    Pan Macmillan Australia (2010)
    458 pages
    ISBN: 978-1-4050-3998-7

Okay, so not all of them are "new" new, but new enough. We will have to do something with some, if not all, of these books.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Times Of Turmoil

Some may complain about books that's clean, not exciting and all that. In short, boring. That was my very first impression of this collection. But I returned to it weeks later and was amazed at the shift in my perception.

How many weeks later? I'm not sharing.

As a result, I may have been... effusive in my praise of the book. But after rolling around in what passes for journalism these days, what a gust of fresh air!

Something to keep firmly in mind.

Times of turmoil
A deft touch conveys stories of upheaval without resorting to unrealistic extremes

first published in The Star, 03 June 2011

Isn't today's media action-packed? Blood and guts, bullets and bombs, skin and sex, and reality TV shows where f-bombs drop like names at a socialites' ball. And it seems as though whole sections in bookstores both real and virtual have been taken over by genres that combines elements of all the above and then some.

I wonder if it is perhaps in reaction to this trend that publishers Marshall Cavendish have re-released something cleaner and calmer.

Born in 1951 in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar), to parents of Chinese descent, Minfong Ho was raised in Thailand and graduated from America's prestigious Cornell University with a bachelor's degree in economics. She became a journalist, and then taught English at Thailand's Chiang Mai University. She currently resides in New York with her family.

During her first years at Cornell, she turned to writing to fight her homesickness. Her short story, Sing To The Dawn, won a prize and was later expanded into a novel published in 1975. She would go on to write more novels and story collections. Rice Without Rain (1986) was based on her experiences with Thailand's turbulent politics in the 1970s, and her times as an aid volunteer helping Cambodian refugees during the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia inspired The Clay Marble (1991).

Marshall Cavendish has compiled these three works into a single volume, The Minfong Ho Collection. All three novels feature young Thai or Cambodian village lasses whose daily struggles are compounded by bigger forces intruding upon their little worlds.

In Sing To The Dawn, we are introduced to Dawan, a brilliant, headstrong student who wins a scholarship and a chance to study in a big-city school.

However, she faces objections from her parents and the apathy and fatalism of her fellow villagers, all of whom seem to view the idea of a girl getting educated as something radical. Her so-called blessing also drives a wedge between her and her brother.

Seventeen-year-old Jinda gets caught up in Thailand's student-led democracy movement in the 1970s in Rice Without Rain.

A group of university students arrive at her village, bringing with them the promise of change. Brought to the city, ostensibly to speak out against greedy landlords, Jinda soon learns that she is but a pawn in a bigger struggle, and that the price of change may be too high to pay.

The Clay Marble's 12-year-old Dara has lived through two "liberation" campaigns: one led by the Khmer Rouge against the Cambodian royals, and the other by Vietnamese forces fighting the previous regime. When the Khmer Rouge's reign crumbles, she and her family join the refugees fleeing towards the Thai-Cambodia border. Along the way, Dara meets a fellow refugee with a knack for making toys out of clay. But the peace she finds in a refugee camp along the border is eventually shattered when the war finally catches up.

What's refreshing about these three works is how unremarkable they look at first glance. Ho doesn't dramatise the human tragedies with graphic depictions of wartime atrocities – something that seems to be de rigueur nowadays in print, on TV and online.

Unlike the reports filed by some of those "celebrity" journalists on 24-hour "news channels", the subjects take centre stage, not the writer. Ho's use of simple, unadorned language does not detract from the respect and sensitivity she shows her characters and their world, and the gravity of the issues the young heroines face.

Gender and class discrimination, corruption, superstition versus modernity, and the callousness of the powers-that-be in their bid to maintain the status quo become all the more poignant when one sees that little has changed in these countries since these works were first published in the 1970s and 1980s.

In this collection, Ho does not shed excessive blood, rip bodices or curse like a flotilla of pirates to tell her tales. She doesn't have to. The deft touch of her pen, tempered by first-hand experience, brings to life the voices and the pain of these three village girls, and that alone is enough. Though meant for children and young adults, readers of all ages will find this honest, easy read almost like journalism at its finest.

The Minfong Ho Collection
Minfong Ho
Marshall Cavendish Editions
399 pages
ISBN: 978-981-4302-45-6