Friday, 29 July 2011

Price Of Courage

Though The Absolutist was a simple book to review, I'm rather embarrassed by the results, which was published today. Not because it was tucked into a corner of a page of cinema screening schedules.

But, oddly enough, because it's so short.

I couldn't see much to write about. To say too much would give away parts of the novel I'd rather let people read about. And people should give this novel a go. Then, they should probably watch Captain America: The First Avenger.

Review of 'The Absolutist' by John Boyne in print
A novel about World War I soldiers (left) and a movie about
World War II soldiers. Coincidence?

Sure looks like they did a little homework before laying it out. Kind of clever.

Price of courage

first published in The Star, 29 July 2011

Renowned octogenarian author Tristan Sadler is at a prize-giving ceremony that also celebrates his long illustrious literary career.

The evening doesn't go so well, however. An exchange with a rude, callous, young and upcoming writer sours his mood, and he takes it out on a newbie reporter who didn't do his homework before interviewing him. Though the prize is prestigious and rarely given out, he thinks the thing is ugly.

After the ceremony, Tristan returns to his hotel where he finds an elderly woman waiting for him at the lounge. They know each other. She's Marian Bancroft and it appears she has unfinished business with him. This encounter is 60 years in the making and the story leading up to it is in the unpublished manuscript in Tristan's hotel room. Which you would be reading as John Boyne's novel, The Absolutist, if you picked it up.

It's 1919. A much younger Tristan Sadler is on the train from London to Norwich. He makes small talk with an aged female novelist of some renown. He himself is employed by a publisher, a possible foreshadowing of his future in publishing. But his business in Norwich is not with books but letters.

World War I has ended, and he brings letters from the front, presumably unsent, written by his friend Will Bancroft. The letters are addressed to his sister Marian, and there may be a reason why he's delivering the letters himself.

Tristan and Will met at the military town of Aldershot three years earlier, where they trained with other young men – boys, some of them – and formed a bond that strengthened as they faced death and desolation in the trenches during the war.

As the days on the battlefield wear on, they keep a depressing count of their comrades-at-arms who died, deserted or went mad. One day, Will lays down his arms and declares himself an "absolutist" – someone who refuses to contribute even an iota of effort to the war. To the rest of his comrades, he is just another coward. Will is executed as a traitor for his decision, shaming his family's name.

But of course, this isn't the whole story. Besides the letters, Tristan tells Marian why Will objected to the war, but not the circumstances surrounding his death. The letters say nothing; only Tristan knows. But will he find the courage Will had to reveal them?

The Absolutist is short, focused as it is on Tristan, Marian and his friendship with Will. The novel is also a sad, poignant tale of war, of what young men had to endure in the trenches and the shattered lives left in the wake of their deaths. It also sheds some light on Tristan's own sad story, how he came to know Will, and the burden of truth he has borne through the years.

Tightly-woven, straightforward and unpretentious, the writing is an example of fine storytelling and the plot is easy to follow. A nice read overall, even if the story sort of plods along in parts (such as Tristan's vignettes in sleepy Norwich as he struggles with whether to spill the whole bag of beans to Marian). You can imagine this as a full-length feature film as you read, but try not to press the imaginary fast-forward button – that will spoil the whole experience.

I'd say more but because of the brevity of this novel, I'm already treading the thin red line between review and spoiler. Suffice it to say this is definitely worth picking up.

The Absolutist
John Boyne
Doubleday (2011)
309 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-61605-8

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Sassy Schoolmarm

I'd originally picked up Catherine Lim's Miss Seetoh in the World along with a bunch of books to be reviewed in The Star but it was dropped to accommodate an interview piece related to her next book (A Watershed Election: Singapore’s GE 2011, I think). But the paper graciously permitted me to blog it instead.

Miss Seetoh , which was published last November, is "a very special book for two reasons", Lim blogs. "Firstly, it came at the end of the longest break - 7 years! - in my writing career, and secondly, it is the first novel to have a strong political component which might just make it my most controversial work of fiction."

I took a deep breath, held my nose and dived in.

Singaporean schoolteacher Maria Seetoh was brought up under conventional circumstances - typical of the female leads in Lim's novels. Seetoh's English is also very powderful one. Somewhat precocious as a child, she's the type that might have despaired her teachers and the nuns at her school, prompting them during meetings to ask colleagues, "How do you solve a problem like Maria..."

No surprise then, that she ended up teaching English at a creative writing class in secondary school. Her students are a joy to teach, and the classes are her Wonderland. She also has two friends, both teachers.

However, against her desire to buck religious and social norms, she had married a conservative Christian guy who'd rather she stayed at home, cooked, cleaned and made his children. Of course theirs was a loveless marriage, which ended when the guy died of an illness.

Seetoh's widowed mom disapproves of her newly liberated daughter's affair. Her ne'er-do-well stepbrother has gambled his way to loan shark hell and eventually takes his family and mother away to a new life in Malaysia.

And Seetoh sees stories everywhere, like how the Sixth Sense kid sees dead people.

She sees the story of her marriage in nine words coined by a student. She sees a story in the shared life of her two friends. She has a mind to respond to an anti-Singlish campaign by writing a story in Singlish. Musings on the Singaporean obsession with the GCE O-Level cert pulled odd bits of ideas in her head into a story.

The sad tale of her grandmother's life? She'd love to write about that; it'll be a short story, in the passive voice. When down on her luck one day, she thought she'd write a funny book. The love lives of her family's women? Write-worthy! Everything, it seems, can be put to paper.

Thing is, writing and telling stories is what this sassy Singaporean schoolmarm has been doing throughout the 480-odd pages of Miss Seetoh, and it soon dawns on the reader that the protagonist may be Lim's in-novel persona. The outspoken, unconventional Lim was once a teacher and apparently loves to write; her portfolio includes seven novels, a bunch of short story collections and two poetry books.

This hoagie of a novel looks like an attempt to make up for lost time. Snippets of Seetoh's life, from her childhood to her eventual liberation from the shackles of tradition, marriage and career are spliced with childhood recollections, socio-political commentary, existentialistic and introspective ponderings, questions, and musings, peppered and punctuated with pseudo-aphorisms and non sequiturs with tenuous ties to the storyline.

While talking about so-and-so, suddenly Seetoh recalls some mahjong quartet from a distant memory. Then, laments over the Singaporean obsession with "the five Cs" and stellar exam results and the island nation's barren pool of creativity. At least four pages on the conditional mood. Over five pages on love and the nature of things.

A chapter set in the botanical gardens sees her imagination take flight. On religion: "Someone had once said that those who abandoned God were left with a God-shaped hole that nothing could fill. Hers was being richly filled with all manner of things that did not even have names."

Of the gardens' visitors and inhabitants: "The great chain of happiness-seeking could be extended downwards to include the tiniest organisms inside each of [their] bodies, for surely even these primordial forms of life sought their own kind of happiness, and upwards to include the deities of Providence residing in those huge ageless trees, for surely even gods needed to be happy."

Various elements in the book don't segue well from one to the other. The reader is dragged out of a chapter of her life and then plunged into her thoughts or given a peek into the workings of a nanny state (as she sees it), before being yanked by the wrist towards the next chapter of her or someone else's life. It is one rough theme park ride that tries to pack too much into one circuit.

A huge pity, because Lim can really write. But here, she makes the reader work to uncover the rare displays of wit and wordcraft among the platitudes and flowery prose. The well-worn use of an author's avatar in this novel is unnecessary, as Lim is more than capable of social commentary without the need for literary stand-ins.

And the stepbrother going to Malaysia to escape from loan sharks says something about what Seetoh/the Malaysian-born Lim thinks about her adopted homeland.

When all of Seetoh's personal troubles are behind her and the political one looms - not a big one, as her contribution to the "earth-shattering political revelation" is but a footnote - the suspense and the political thriller parts kick in, but exits the stage a bit too soon, leaving us with barely a taste of what else the author can do.

Miss Seetoh is not a bad book, and none should doubt Lim's command of the language. It could be an even better book if she didn't work so hard to make it an all-in-one package.

Also published in The Malaysian Insider, 10 April 2013.

Miss Seetoh in the World
Catherine Lim
Marshall Cavendish Editions (2011)
487 pages
ISBN: 978-981-4328-36-4

Friday, 22 July 2011

Winds Of Change

I'd forgotten about submitting this review. Nor did I expect it to be out today.

It's been a while since I wrote this and things in Burma don't appear to be improving as fast as hoped. So Aung San Suu Kyi is allowed to tour the country - but no politics, please, says its "civilian" government.

Big deal. They kicked out Michelle Yeoh, allegedly, for her role in the Suu Kyi biopic. Might it have been something she said about the film?

Change. It's in my pocket but not, it seems, in Burma. Not yet.

Winds of change
For years one of the world's last remaining military dictatorships, Burma is now under a civilian government. But it remains to be seen whether the country can move on from the bleak days chronicled in this book

first published in The Star, 22 July 2011

After ruling the country for over 30 years, the Burmese junta was dissolved and replaced by an elected civilian government early this year. Naysayers can perhaps be forgiven for their scepticism, though: the junta has historically been seen as a fickle, paranoid entity that relies on spin and brute force to cling to power.

The elections that paved the way for the junta's dissolution is widely believed to have been a sham, an attempt to rebrand old lamps as new.

The collapse of the ancient Danok pagoda in 2009 could have been an influencing factor in the rebranding exercise. In Everything Is Broken, American journalist and author Emma Larkin describes the event as a possible ill omen for the junta, a divine rejection of its legitimacy.

The pagoda's collapse was particularly significant in the light of the fact that the wife of a junta official, Senior General Than Shwe (now retired), had performed a religious ceremony there mere weeks before the collapse.

Wishful thinkers would probably have seen this incident as one in a series of heavenly wake-up calls for the junta, a follow-up to the last one in May 2008. That year, cyclone Nargis wreaked havoc and destruction in Burma's Irrawady Delta. In their attempts to control and, as usual, spin the situation, the junta placed numerous stumbling blocks in front of mostly foreign aid agencies trying to enter the country to help.

The state-run media was virtually blowing sunshine and scattering flower petals everywhere to mask the scale of the destruction, decrying foreign press coverage of the disaster as a "skyful of lies".

Larkin was one of the few foreign journalists who managed to sneak in as part of an aid group's entourage.

"Emma Larkin" is a nom de plume, and there's a good reason why. This bleak, cheerless chronicle of the cyclone's aftermath has little good to say about the Burmese junta and their handling of what is said to be the worst natural disaster in the country's recorded history.

Broken families, broken bodies, broken bridges, broken chains of command, broken everything. The title comes from an oft-heard phrase during Larkin's interviews with affected locals.

It is hard to read this painfully one-sided, unflattering, monochromatic portrait of the junta and its key figures. It is, after all, The Untold Story Of Disaster Under Burma's Military Regime.

Burma's military rulers, Than Shwe in particular, are cast as a hermitic, paranoid, superstitious and xenophobic lot who are scared stiff of the big wide world and rely on astrology and religious and magical rituals to bring good luck, accrue merit and ward off enemies.

The reader feels despair, pity and rage at the victims' plight, at the scenes of horror in the disaster zones, and at the darkly comic cruelty of the regime's clumsy efforts to maintain control of the situation. The collapse of the Danok pagoda is perhaps the only bright spot among the pages.

Larkin says her pseudonym protects the locals who spoke to her; talking to the foreign press is dicey business for the Burmese.

"The worst thing that would happen to me is that I would get deported," she said in an online interview.

She also implies that it is the regime's control of the country and all public discourse within that drives writers like herself to dig deep and chronicle events in countries such as Burma.

"As a result of the regime's actions, stories are vanishing, history is being rewritten, memories are being eroded and stories lost."

However, her efforts to hide her identity and assure her return to Burma later works against her in that this work can be seen as an attack on the Burmese junta by someone hiding behind a false name, rather than a true-to-life account of events after Nargis.

Larkin's storytelling, however, makes her sound more credible than Burma's state media. Or is it because she paints the kind of picture some of us want to see?

Maybe it all depends on what happens in Burma in the coming months. Any change for the better in the country is good news for everyone. After decades of rule by a schizophrenic military regime, however, one can only hope that not everything there is broken, and that there will be fewer pieces to pick up when the real healing begins.

Everything is Broken
The Untold Story of Disaster Under Burma's Military Regime

Emma Larkin
Granta Publications (2010)
265 pages
ISBN: 978-1-84708-180-3

Tuesday, 19 July 2011


Days ago, a note sent by an e-reader appeared on Facebook and Twitter, announcing to all that so-and-so finished a certain book.

Thing is, he'd finished it long ago. But his e-reader, fearing that some will not be informed of this development, duly tweeted the news. "He finished reading this book on Kindle! Huzzah!"

Not that it's the first time I've seen tweets of this ilk. Who's familiar with Foursquare?

I never really saw the lure of an app that broadcasts your location, but I've since learnt it's a bit more than that. Foursquare is said to allow users more interaction with their environments. Its "superusers", for instance, can correct or update information about "check-in venues". Places can be reviewed in the same way as books, and annotations made to existing venue profiles.

The badges, which you get just by going to places, are a devious kind of incentive that gets users to go out more and collect them the same way scouts or adventurers collect their badges. It gives Foursquare the feel of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).

So will there be a Foursquare-type app for e-readers? Or does something like that already exist? Or has Foursquare come up with a version for e-readers?

Such an app will definitely be invented, and if not, it should. As books go digital, there will be ways get people to buy the devices and download books. A Foursquare for e-books may get people, particularly the gadget-crazy Gen-Yers, to actually read the books they download instead of just hoarding them in their e-readers or iWhatChaMaCallIts.

What would such an app offer, and how can they get people reading? Badges, certainly, but I'm thinking, bookstores can also tap into this by making themselves more trendy for the hip and wired. Discounts and freebies in exchange for badges, perhaps - who needs loyalty cards?

Maybe have secret badge combo promotions: users who manage to collect a secret set of badges, for instance, get bigger, more exclusive goodies, such as attendances at author appearances, book talks or readings, in lieu of the obligatory signed copy and related merchandise.

Bookstores of the near future could be places where e-books can be purchased or downloaded; cash registers could also show buyers their "Booksquare" (I'm groping for app names here) statuses or whatever they've won, after their purchases. The whole scheme will make for an interesting tie-up among publishers, sellers, authors and app and device makers.

A bookclub app can be another possibility. A mini-Facebook page with threads, related and recommended reads, updates and individual user sections to track who bought the book, who read it and their reading progress. It's a good gauge of how well a book is being received and may help spread the reading bug.

That's some good sides. One example of a not-so-good side is the autopinging of the guy's book status. Was there a way to turn it off? I think there should be. Maybe the switch was hard to find. Maybe there isn't a switch at all. Horrors! Imagine some of the pings that might go out.

But this data is important to certain quarters. Just like the GPS that helps people and guided munitions find their way home, your preferences: albums, books, restaurants and hangouts, will help them sell their products or services more effectively. It's how that data will ultimately be used.

Perhaps the fuss over privacy settings in this wired and dangerous world is warranted. As long as there are irresponsible parties out there who covet this data for sinister aims, many of us would think thrice before going "e". Something makers of e-readers and e-book apps should think about.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Bleeding Raw

At a low point in his career, a chef wrote a crime fiction novel, incorporating characters and settings from real life: drug-addicted chefs, Italian-American mobsters, Feds, informers, sleazy restaurant operators, et al. It didn't do so well.

However, his memoir, an expanded, non-fiction version of his first and failed crime novel, was a different story. "Inexplicably," the chef wrote in a sequel to this book, "it flew off the shelves." Now more famous for his writing and TV appearances, the chef has left his former grimier and sometimes larcenous life and settled down with a wife - his second - and a kid. He'd given up drugs, and later, even tobacco.

That book was how I got to know this chef. Or was it his faux food/travel TV shows? I forgot. Dude's a real raconteur. Unashamedly frank, open, and unbridled. You believe every single word. Coming from a culture that represses freedom of expression, it was like a breath of fresh air.

I speak, of course, of Anthony Michael Bourdain, the American chef, author, TV host and French export with a desire to be Italian-American. The Book, which shall henceforth be known as The Book, is his best-selling memoir Kitchen Confidential.

With all the non-fiction stuff he's written since The Book, only die-hard stalkerish followers of the Brash B know of his other works of (mainly) crime fiction, which feature the archetypes in the world of the American mobster and the kitchens he'd worked in.

I found Bone in the Throat in an unlikely place: Cziplee in Bangsar, months ago. First published in 1995 by Random House imprint Villard, Canongate released this edition in 2008 with an updated author's bio. Obviously, cashing in on his fame, but time will tell if readers and fans will take a shine to his earlier works.

Bone is a slice of the life of Tommy Pagano, sous chef of the Dreadnaught. A mobster's son, Tommy wants nothing to do with the life that ruined his father, so he took up what he likes - cooking. But there's no getting away from his mobster uncle and guardian, Salvatore Pitera aka "Sally Wig", who has always been around since he was a kid, helping him out whenever he could.

So when his uncle calls in a favour one day, Tommy couldn't refuse. Sally wants the Dreadnaught's kitchen for a while for some business. Tommy finds out too late that the "business" was a mob hit, which he witnesses. This was exactly the kind of crap he'd been trying to avoid.

Not long after, the FBI manages to snag the Dreadnaught's chef, a skinny guy with a drug habit, and offer him a chance out of trouble by getting him to persuade Tommy to squeal on his uncle. Tommy's got girlfriend problems too, but that's sauce on the side.

Many characters will sound familiar to those who've read The Book, particularly the chapters on his early career and encounters with mob figures. The character inspired by real-life mob boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante makes an appearance about halfway through and turns out to be more than expected. And... now where have I seen the Dreadnaught's chef before?

Bone take some time to appreciate because of the writing. It's violent, profane (to say the least), and dripping with testosterone, a chaotic compilation of restaurant terms and recipes, mob lingo and to-and-fros between cops and robbers stitched together with an overkill of F-bombs.

The pace is like a speeding subway train, fast and cacophonous, the images outside the window blurred by the speed. Characters come and go, but few of them stick: Tommy, Sally Wig, Harvey the Dreadnaught's owner, Al the federal agent, and the wacky mob boss. The mob and the kitchen are brought to life, warts and all.

Bourdain has come a long way since Bone in the Throat, though his style is still discernible. Compared to his latest, Medium Raw, this book is just bleeding raw, the Brash B at his brashest, unpolished and unrestrained, if that's your kind of thing. Not too sure if it's mine, though after a while, the cursing and swearing becomes immaterial. The character's flaws no longer shock.

All that's left is yes, this is the story of Tommy Pagano, a guy who just wants to take his life into his hands, and it is good. And that, yes, Bourdain is a damn good storyteller.

Bone in the Throat
Anthony Bourdain
Canongate (2008)
340 pages
ISBN: 978-1-84767-054-0

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

MPH Quill Issue 31, Jul-Sep 2011

Heaps of stories and good stuff coming your way in the latest issue of Quill. New books. Book news. And what is perhaps the longest letter to the editor ever received.

Among the highlights: Eric Forbes talks to Tan Twan Eng, author of The Gift of Rain and Dave Nuku of The Biggest Loser Asia about their favourite books and writers and thoughts on e-books.

Interviews with Tan Twan Eng (left) and Conor Grennan

Janet Tay speaks to Conor Grennan, author of Little Princes, about the life-changing experience that inspired the book and the charity Next Generation Nepal.

Read an excerpt from Chinese Women: Their Malaysian Journey about nyonya brides, maidens and matriarchs. Starting this issue, we'll be featuring excerpts of books we think readers may be interested in.

Features on David TK Wong, author of such books as Chinese Stories in Times of Change and The Embrace of Harlots and Wan A Hulaimi aka Awang Goneng (Growing Up in Trengganu and A Map of Trengganu).

Kenny Mah's nasi kandar memories (left) and Alexandra Wong's
Mysore melancholy

After a soliloquy on sequels, Ellen Whyte takes us on a whirlwind tour of terrific Toledo. Kenny Mah, meanwhile, serves up a sweet tale about his nasi kandar memories.

It's melancholy at Mysore when Alexandra Wong hops into an autorickshaw and gets to know the young fellow behind the handlebars.

...And more!

An additional issue of Quill will be out in conjunction with MPH's 105th anniversary, with more goodies we couldn't fit into this issue.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

End Of An Empire?

Less than two years ago, I read a copy of Inside Rupert's Brain by Paul R La Monica. At the time, the News of the World phone-tapping scandal tarred but didn't sink the paper. Even then, Murdoch's empire was fraying around the edges.

What a difference a couple of years makes.

Today, on 10 July 2011, the 168-year-old News of the World publishes its last edition. The phone-tapping scandal turned out to be bigger and deeper than previously thought. In a move many see as baffling, Murdoch spared the head of the editor in charge at the time of the hacks and axed the paper instead. Earlier, MySpace which was bought by News Corp six years ago was sold at a loss of about 94 per cent, from US$580 million to US$35 million.

In the days that followed news of the hack, Fleet Street has been on a big schadenfreude buffet. Murdoch, from the looks of it, is not well-liked by the British press. But it's only a matter of time before all the UK papers will have their journalistic practices looked into. I doubt all this will make a really big impact on News Corp, though nothing seems for certain nowadays.

But back to the book.

What I found freaked me out a little. This guy certainly knew his business, and it looked like he had a way to make the Internet work for him. I found the size and reach News Corp had really scary. About half the world consumes what News Corp and its various components offer, and it seems that isn't enough for the old fox.

This book managed to convey just enough to give readers a brief look into his thinking, what drives him, and some background into what could be considered the milestones in his long career. Any deeper and you might have to speak to the man himself. Not that it matters to the casual reader.

Wonder what kind of books will come out about News Corp after this?

Along with other pieces I've done, this review brings back memories. The job at Off The Edge had its moments, including books such as this one. I'm not sure if I can deal with the stress, though.

I, Rupert
Inside the mind of an old-school newsman

first published in Off The Edge, December 2009 (Issue 60)

In a rather patronising radio address published in the Herald Sun’s web site last year (2008), Rupert Murdoch appeared to chide rival newspapers for writing their obituaries upon seeing the coming digital wave, rather than using it to their readers’ benefit as well as their own. "Give these readers good honest reporting on issues that mattered most to them. In return, you would be rewarded with trust and loyalty you could take to the bank."

Another thing he intends to take to the bank is money. Since this address the Australian-born media baron has gone on a roadshow of sorts, trumpeting the end of free news on the web as newspapers and magazines start folding worldwide. Quality journalism, he insists, is not cheap, and adds that today's readers are willing to part with a few more dollars for real, quality news.

It echoes of the McTaggart Lecture Murdoch gave at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in 1989, where he foretold TV’s digital (and paid) future, and lambasted British broadcasters’ protectionist policies. On the same stage twenty years later, his son James blasted UK media industry regulator Ofcom for what he believes is its complicity in the BBC’s "chilling" ambition to grow its footprint. It should be noted that Murdoch’s BSkyB (formerly Sky TV) has become the UK’s dominant pay-TV service, whose grip on the market is being probed by... Ofcom.

Thanks in part to his successes, and the reputed political clout of his media outlets, Keith Rupert Murdoch is hard to ignore. From just a single newspaper, the now-defunct Adelaide News, his News Corporation now includes movie studio 20th Century Fox, broadcasting company Fox, Asian satellite TV provider Star TV, web sites MySpace and Photobucket, book publisher HarperCollins, and of course, newspapers in Australia, the UK and US.

To many, this old-school newspaper man seems prescient when it comes to some media trends (as it was with multi-channelled, satellite pay-TV). What’s under the hood? Paul R La Monica, "editor at large" of, wrote Inside Rupert’s Head to find out. Quite a bit of research has gone into the book, written in a way that appears to only interest those who really want to look inside the media mogul’s head.

At first glance the book is a somewhat biographical account that highlights certain chapters in Murdoch’s career, which include the expansion of the newspaper business in Australia to the UK and US; the news channel battle between Fox and CNN; his forays into satellite and cable TV, and the Internet; and his bid for Dow Jones and Co, owner of the Wall Street Journal and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In between the author inserts observations by himself and others about Murdoch during those times. The resulting picture of is that of an industry pioneer and maverick who still feels he has something to prove.

Given the bad news coming out of News Corp of late, he might. The company recorded a US$3.4 billion net loss for the latest financial year. Murdoch’s British newspapers’ year-end ad revenue dropped by 14 percent. Profits across News Corp’s global newspaper division fell from US$786 million to US$466 million. His News of the World was involved in a phone-tapping scandal. To top it off, his net worth dropped from over US$8 billion last year to US$4 billion, according to Forbes. Dow Jones wants to sell its iconic stock index business. Now comes what is seen as his war on Google.

While the senior Murdoch's call for paid news makes some sense, the timing is somewhat suspect, what with all the above. Even if subscribers passed more bucks to keep the media honest, how much of an improvement would it make on the business practices of this monolith of a media corporation? One supposes time will tell, as it did with satellite TV.

It is likely this old-school media mogul’s empire will continue to make the news even as it dishes them out. From James Murdoch’s McTaggart lecture this year, it won’t be too long before there’s enough interest in finding out if James Murdoch is a chip off the old block.

Inside Rupert's Brain
Paul R La Monica
Portfolio (2009)
272 pages
ISBN: 978-1591842439

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Portuguese Pleasures

Written weeks ago, this review of popular, well-reviewed Cristang Restaurant is finally out in the papers. On the day of the Big Yellow Rally. What timing.

However, I feel I have to clarify and point out a few things which were in the original copy: The chef's name is Gerald G (as in Gordon) Oei, not C; the "devils on horseback" dish is described twice; a "noodle incident" about "crossed wires" should've been removed, but wasn't; and technically, the Cristang aren't exactly Portuguese but I was groping for words for a little article alliteration.

Portuguese pleasures
It’s a different kind of foreign occupation when memories of the food at Cristang Restaurant can’t get out of these diners’ heads

first published in The Star, 09 July 2011

We arrived at the restaurant at 8 Avenue around dusk. As Alex whipped out her camera to photograph the exterior, she pointed at something. "Look," she exclaimed, "there are pigs above the doorway!"

As I examined the pigs, a Cristang-looking fellow appeared at the door. "It’s the first time anybody noticed the ‘guardians’ since I opened," he observed. Alex can be sharp-eyed when she wants to be.

We take in the décor: chairs with chequered cushions, wood panelling around the front doorway, and glass panels with the current specials written in dry-erase ink. Sitting in front of each fake brocade cushion was a half-filled pig head-shaped bean bag. The atmosphere was quite subdued, with Portuguese/Latin American guitar playing over the sound system. At the time we were there, we were the only patrons.

Chef-owner Gerald C. Oei told us that Cristang has been open for two years.

"Our opening hours are on Facebook, and behind the counter. I don’t open on Mondays," he said, adding that there were exceptions. "If Tuesday is a public holiday, I will open on Monday."

Though named for the descendants of the Portuguese who dropped by in the 16th century, Cristang’s restaurant’s menu also has Italian, Spanish and other influences from continental Europe: pastas and protein-starch-veggie dishes. It seems as though the restaurant is still trying to figure out what it wants to be. Or perhaps it’s a reflection of the owner’s eclectic tastes and repertoire.

In a radio interview, Gerald seemed to suggest that Cristang was the lab/playground to test and try out his culinary experiments, his own takes on his grandma’s recipes. He was almost vibrating with glee as he told a customer about a dessert he was trying out.

"I love what I do," he beamed.

Alex avoided the carbonara despite the promise of crispy, smoky porcine pleasure in the ingredients list. She settled on a "basic" pork burger, a Cristang signature that had a number of different "grades" from P1 to P10. I picked a tapas dubbed "devils on horseback" - bacon-wrapped sticks of asparagus, baked in a sauce of garlic, onions and red wine. The menu whimsically noted that for this item, "Sorry, angels are not available."

Similar displays of humour were in the menu, lost in the anticipation of a splendid meal.

Alex didn’t like the "devils on horseback" much, mainly because the bacon wasn’t crispy. The dish - three asparagus spears wrapped in bacon and swimming in a garlic and red wine sauce, was likely baked. It was delicious, a great appetiser.

Alex found Cristang’s pork burger much finer than another establishment’s. It was nice and juicy, and the tiny potato wedges were roasted with rosemary. Definitely a higher class pork burger. The full-on version, which had petai (stinkbean) mixed into the patties only got better with the addition of cheese, chilli con carne, and other add-ons, all of which made for a pretty dish one would feel reluctant to cut into.

My Avenue Fried Rice was a decidedly upmarket, larger and tastier version of a mamak stall nasi goreng kambing. A lamb curry fried rice with crunchy fried anchovies and slivers of cucumber, it was, to my dismay, mild – but tasty.

I was surprised, however, by how bitter my D’Tox Red fruit juice combo was. Wasn’t a mix of watermelon, orange and carrot supposed to be kind of sweet? I also wondered why they served water in a tequila glass until I took a sip and got a mouthful of sucrose syrup instead.

Oh yes... didn’t the waiter say, "Sugar is separate"?

Almost full, we toyed with the idea of dessert. The Apple Strudel looked nice, but Alex was worried about the sugar content. Nor did she find the fried banana dessert appealing. We eventually settled for something different, a Butter Cake Anglaise: five pieces of fried butter cake with cream Anglaise, strawberry purée, arranged around a scoop of vanilla ice-cream garnished with a mint on top.

The notion of a fried butter cake drove Alex into mental overdrive, even before she’d had a taste. Oh, it was so good. Sinful decadence on a plate. It helped that the butter cake was already good, but when you pan-sear the outside to crisp it, then drizzle strawberry purée over it and eat it with a bit of good cold vanilla ice-cream...

Alex’s mind was, to my imagination, afire with visions of animated slices of butter cake, falling into and leaping from their frying pans, complete with yelps of pain.

Despite being stuffed, we kept stealing morsel after morsel, and in no time the plate was clean, we were happy, and the tension caused by our crossed wires vanished. It was money well spent.

I popped RM1 plus change into a tip jar that rather brazenly suggested, "Afraid of change? Leave it here!"

Memories of the food, particularly dessert, continued to haunt us as we drove home.

"Oh God, the cake was so sinful," Alex groaned. I couldn’t tell whether she was grumbling or gushing. Our minds would be aflame with visions of butter cake, petai-infused pork burgers and rosemary-tinged potato wedges for the next couple of weeks.

Talk about a different kind of Portuguese invasion.

Cristang Restaurant
Unit B-G-19, 8 Avenue
Jalan Sungai Jernih (8/1)
46050 Petaling Jaya


Friday, 8 July 2011

Secret Service

I had originally intended to blog the review of this book I got from Monsoon. Then, when visiting the editorial staff at the paper, I opened my big mouth.

But perhaps it's better I did. As an account of the days before and after the Japanese occupation of Malaya, this book is a slice of history. While I don't know how much of a difference the review will make, I felt the paper was a better platform to tell people about this book.

My standfirst in the original copy was not used, so I've included it here; it does sound quite cliché in hindsight. But why does the print and online version have different titles?

Secret service
The memoirs of a British intelligence officer in Malaya surfaces to entertain, enlighten and enthral

first published in The Star, 08 July 2011

Malayan Spymaster: Memoirs Of A Rubber Planter, Bandit Fighter and Spy is the abridged version of the memoirs of the late Boris Hembry (1910-1990) who, according to the back cover blurb, "... spent a month in the jungle behind enemy lines ... recruited into the Secret Intelligence Service ... returned to Sumatra and Malaya several times by submarine ... liaised with Force 136 ..."

Who would not want to know more?

Born in South Africa, Boris Messina Hembry was barely 20 when he arrived on these shores in 1930. He bounced around several rubber estates in Malaya and Sumatra, and also joined the local volunteer corps. He brought his wife over from Britain and started a family.

When the Japanese invaded during World War II, Hembry joined one of the volunteer corps' many stay-behind parties – his first and failed foray into espionage – before eventually escaping to India. He soon demonstrated a knack for getting into trouble when he signed up for intelligence work in Burma, forsaking the relative safety and calm of a training battalion.

He would later join spying operations in Japanese-occupied Malaya, a job that had him travelling by submarine and taking a short course at Britain's famous Government Code and Cypher School in Bletchley Park, where the Nazis' Enigma code was cracked.

Hours after the murder of estate manager Arthur Walker (that eventually triggered the declaration of the Malayan Emergency and the fight against communist insurgents), Hembry organised his "own bloody army" of volunteers to repel the Reds – the beginnings of the anti-Communist home guard.

His contribution to the fight against the insurgents included input that would later be incorporated into the Briggs Plan that resettled rural folk into New Villages to cut off support for the communists. Social highlights included interactions with Sir Henry Gurney, Sir Gerald Templer and Anthony Eden, who would become British prime minister. Hembry left Malaya in 1955 with his wife, partly due to poor health.

With a title like Malayan Spymaster one expects a cool book. The writing, however, is quite matter-of-fact, devoid of the usual fluff and literary devices. His life as a planter, soldier and estate manager is more detailed than chapters that concern his time as an intelligence officer.

Even if this isn't quite the knuckle-whitening, real-life spy thriller the title suggests, Hembry's simple storytelling, charming in its own unadorned way, is compensated by a wealth of information and experiences gleaned the hard way. The reader is immersed in life in the clubs and estates of the British colonial era, as well as the dangers of the jungles and swamps during war-time.

'Tis heady stuff, this record of the days in pre-war and post-war Malaya by this Mat Salleh, one of many who spent much of their life's efforts on their adopted country and who may never be acknowledged in the history books.

Hembry never intended to publish his memoirs. His kin, however, felt that it 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," says Hembry's son, John, in the preface.

I'm certain readers of Malayan Spymaster will be grateful for the Hembrys' generosity.

Malayan Spymaster
Memoirs of a Rubber Planter, Bandit Fighter and Spy

Boris Hembry
Monsoon Books (2011)
424 pages
Non-Fiction/History/Malayan Emergency
ISBN: 978-981-08-5442-3

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Born To Run

Timothy Malcolm Smith is creative whiz at London ad agency Cream. He's friendly, charitable, deeply spiritual, philosophical, good with the ladies, and keeps virtually no vices. He doesn't pray to Christ, he chats with Him, calling him "Jezza" or "Jez". Did I mention he's also his ad agency's creative genius?

There's this British coffee franchise, Common Grounds, which is older than penicillin, tea bags, even sliced bread. But the brand has gone stale. With his capable and charming assistant Cambria, Timmy swoops in with a plan and a slogan: "Common Grounds - Everybody's Cup of Tea". The campaign is paradigm-changing. The video ad goes viral. Common Grounds is rescued. One can almost visualise the headlines blaring, "Cream Saves Coffee".

More ad campaigns follow, including a poem for a charity organisation's ad that blows everyone away. Rival agencies come a-courting, including New York creative powerhouse Oddinary. But for the time being, he stays put.

And there's this other dream of his: training in secret since his childhood, Timmy wants to run and win the New York Marathon, taking the entire race by surprise as a dark horse of a champion. No small feat, considering that it means defeating the Ethiopian long-distance running champion, Haile Gebrselassie.

Oh, did I mention that Timmy's rich? Or his Balinese-style, 4-bedroom pad called Ankhura, atop a 18-floor luxury apartment building on the edge of London's Canary Wharf, with its own garden and fish-filled rock pools, and a sound system that plays ambient sounds of nature: forests, seaside, rivers and so on - which he designed himself? And the "elephantine mahogany bed", larger than king-size, with sheets of 1500-threadcount Egyptian cotton?

...I put down the book. If I could crook one eyebrow, I would. Can such a Mary Sue - whose ads everyone wants to copy, whose artistry can bend the fabric of reality so that Brits would start switching from tea to coffee - possibly exist? It is fiction, but still...

Character, charisma, career, creative chops, cojones, and cash. Timothy Malcolm Smith has it all. Then I read on, and find out that even as Superman has his kryptonite, the protagonist of Jeremy Chin's début novel has some flaws. For one, Timothy Malcolm Smith is unlucky in love. Funnily, "Jezza" is a nickname for people called Jeremy or Jerry.

...All that was the first 60-odd pages of Fuel, a dark horse of a Malaysian-authored novel if I ever saw one. Even before we enter the home of Timmy Smith, it passed the 50-page test with soaring colours.

What follows is perhaps among the most beautiful love stories ever told. Timmy would share his marathon dreams with Cambria, whom he eventually grows close to. They would train together, go to New York and exchange pleasantries with Gebrselassie. And they would, as the novel promises, do the unexpected. What drives Timmy - the "fuel" for his creativity and his dreams - is passion. Hence, the title.

Despite the reality-warping powers of Timmy Smith's creativity and charm, the initial contact, courtship and the clincher is well-scripted and believable, albeit a little rainbow-hued. If the atmosphere of a creative agency feels too true-to-life, it's because Chin himself worked in a similar industry in London for a number of years, and has brought his experience to bear in this book.

But it's not just the cover's simple but impactful design. Every phrase, every paragraph has purpose, is strung together well and polished to a showroom sheen. Timmy's big empty mahogany bed practically screams, "Lonely heart, space available, enquire within." No need to guess what the 1500-threadcount Egyptian cotton sheets imply.

The only minor bumps in Timmy's racetrack to glory are the first-person narratives and the prologue featuring lionesses hunting a gazelle. But wait a minute - isn't Gebrselassie's native Ethiopia home to a number of national parks?

That's why I feel the inclusion of Gebrselassie adds a touch of realism to the tale. Even before the conclusion of Fuel, you're already cheering for Timmy and Cambria. You'll want to believe that someone like Timmy can actually exist, that Timmy and Cambria's love story can be real, that Timmy can win, that he can actually move mountains. That you can move mountains, and the fairy-tale Timmy-Cambria romance can be yours.

Yichalal, as they say in Ethiopia's Amharic language. "It is possible". "It can be done." Especially when the word was associated with Gebrselassie’s fierce determination to run and win gold in the 10,000 metres at the 2000 Sydney Olympics despite an injury.

If there is one book you should read this year, or next year, or the year after that, it'll be this book.

Jeremy Chin
255 pages
ISBN: 978-967-10084-0-9

Web site:

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


...or how my reading list is getting longer.

I picked up three books by Singaporean Eurasian novelist Rex Shelley (1930-2009) that have been reissued by Marshall Cavendish: People of the Pear Tree (1993), Island in the Centre (1995) and A River of Roses (1998), I'd also rescued several other books from non-review obscurity - because I'm kind of biblio-masochistic that way.

Books "rescued" on impulse (left) and the Rex Shelley "collection"

Now I also have John Boyne's The Absolutist, followed by Catherine Lim's Miss Seetoh in the World and Those in Peril by "airport novel writer" Wilbur Smith.

Now, let's see:

  • The Absolutist
    John Boyne
    Doubleday (2011)
    309 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-385-61605-8
  • Miss Seetoh in the World
    Catherine Lim
    Marshall Cavendish Editions (2011)
    487 pages
    ISBN: 978-981-4328-36-4
  • Those in Peril
    Wilbur Smith
    MacMillan (2011)
    386 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-230-52927-4
  • People of the Pear Tree
    Rex Shelley
    Marshall Cavendish Editions (2011)
    270 pages
    ISBN: 978-981-4346-24-5
  • Island in the Centre
    Rex Shelley
    Marshall Cavendish Editions (2011)
    271 pages
    ISBN: 978-981-4346-25-2
  • River of Roses
    Rex Shelley
    Marshall Cavendish Editions (2011)
    471 pages
    ISBN: 978-981-4346-26-9

...Whoa. Glad I've finished reading The Absolutist and drafted the review. One down, five-plus more to go!

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Writing Room Gets Crowded

Unbound, a new crowd-funded publishing company that gets readers involved the writing of books, was unveiled at this year's Hay Festival, the an annual literature festival held in Hay-on-Wye, the famous town of books in the Welsh county of Powys.

Unbound, the new face of crowd-funded
On the web site, each author's page has an extract from their book and a video pitch of their book idea. People who like what they see can pledge a certain amount to fund the book, from £10 to £250, with goodies that commensurate with the pledged amount. Pledgers will have their names printed in the final version of the book.

Half the profits on successful titles go to the author. If a book fails to launch, pledges can be transferred to other titles, or be refunded.

So why should people participate? Because, according to Unbound, "For the first time, you will be able to hold in your hands a book that wouldn't have existed without you."

"We are really trying to involve the readers at an earlier stage of the process which could be transformative as authors will have better visibility of how their ideas are being received by their target audience as they write," explained John Mitchinson, one of the company's founders, in the Guardian. The others are British historian, television producer and writer Justin Pollard, and author and editor, Dan Kieran.

Several authors have signed on to Unbound, including best-selling authors Terry Jones, Booker-shortlisted novelist Tibor Fischer and cloudspotter Gavin Pretor-Pinney.

In the fading, cash-strapped world of book publishing, crowd-funding can be one way out of oblivion. But will any kind of book be successfully Unbound?

Crowd-funding, I feel, works best for works of non-fiction, particularly coffee table books and directories for people and places of interest: historical sites, hidden foodie haunts, unique communities, and such. Nothing galvanises the public more than a worthy cause, and they can contribute more than just money. From this simplistic point of view, I don't think the initiative is all that novel.

One of the founders appears to concur. "In many ways it's a very old idea – there are a lot of 19th century cases where books were published by subscription," said Justin Pollard. "Because of the internet we have crowdfunding, so we can combine the old idea of subscription with finding your audience on the internet, and get the best of both worlds."

Perhaps. After all, books aren't solo endeavours; historical novels, for instance, require research, which volunteers can pitch in with.

Thing is, I'm less sure about crowd-funding working for fiction.

With regards to the novel as an art form, however, crowd-sourcing can be burdensome. Imagine Leonardo da Vinci's patrons - the highest-paying ones - being granted the privilege of sitting around the artist and providing input as he paints the Mona Lisa.

"The nose needs to be sharper."

"No, a finer bridge."


"Why is the backdrop so dull? The Florentine cityscape would look nicer."

"Why not her room?"

"Don't want people to know where the apartment is located."



"Her forehead's too damn high."

"G*d she looks like a man. Longer eyelashes?"

"Redder, shinier lips, maybe."

"More colourful robes."


"Like he said."

"Yes, that'll work."

Leo would probably snap his paintbrush in two and stalk off after a few days of input.

Regardless of the amount, there is little to deter patrons from going overboard with their ideas. The author, meanwhile, will inevitably feel swamped by all the contributions, wondering perhaps if he'll offend certain patrons (such as the high-paying ones) by rejecting their ideas. Then there's the question of money compromising artistic vision... .

I'm certain some authors would not welcome such complications to their creative processes.

Still, it's not a bad idea, and G*d knows the publishing industry is gasping for fresh ideas, a lifeline out of oblivion brought on by the digital age. Perhaps Unbound can be another launchpad for the careers of new authors, and a new arena the established ones can explore or play in.

Some members of the latter category sound enthusiastic. Jones reportedly said the "brilliant" crowd-funding idea was "just what publishing needs". Philip Pullman and Noam Chomsky are similarly enthusiastic.

Such a web portal can also help bridge the gap between authors and their supporters and the public - kind of like JK Rowling's Pottermore. The buzz surrounding an upcoming project can whip up a degree of interest in it, ensuring a ready market for new products.

Chick-lit author Amy Jenkins, another Unbound participant, is particularly excited by the notion of being surrounded by supporters ("Writing is a really lonely occupation", she reportedly stated) and not having to do much marketing.

So I suppose, yes, this startup might be worth keeping an eye on.

"The hero needs to be blonde."

"Why did you kill him off here? Do it earlier."



"This scene needs to be longer."


"China in 1891 is still under the Qing Dynasty."


"There are no piranhas in Africa."

"They're imported."

"Dude, this is fiction. Lighten up."


"Like he said."

"Yes, that'll work."

...Along with the myriad challenges it poses.