Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Reading List Update

I think I may have skipped at least one reading list update, but only because I felt the books didn't need much talking about. I've already reviewed one of the books in that missed update, anyway. And I'm beginning to get tired of the tedium.

From the few pages I've glimpsed, however, these two look promising.

  • Beautiful Ruins
    Jess Walter
    HarperCollins (June 2012)
    337 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-06-192812-3
  • We Are Anonymous
    Parmy Olson
    Little, Brown (June 2012)
    498 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-316-22765-0

So many items on my growing list of (non-mandatory) reads have not been read or reviewed yet.

But I still hope that these updates are the kick-in-the-butt I need to go through it.

Monday, 28 May 2012

News: Banned Book, Barbed Pens, and Stupid Sugar

No liberty or love in bookstores
Irshad Manji's Allah, Liberty and Love is officially banned. Well, that was quick. ...Wait... no, they weren't...

"The English version of Irshad Manji's book, Allah, Liberty & Love, has been published since June 2011 and there has been no issue taken with the book... until we published a Malay translation of the book (Allah, Kebebasan & Cinta)," said Ezra Zaid, director and owner of ZI.

Of course, that's assuming that the book had been in the country since June 2011, something I'm not sure of.

Food critics speak out
At the Guardian, Jay Rayner wonders why people love bad reviews - except for the victims. Speaking of bad reviews: has therapy and fatherhood mellowed out Giles Coren? Short answer: Not really.

Other news

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Family Business

This book was great. That surprised me. And I didn't have to read the previous novels. My liking for this book doesn't really show in this review, and I didn't plan on writing so much about it. Once I started, however, I couldn't stop.

A dying breed of crook

first published in The Star, 27 May 2012

Apparently, Paramount Pictures had "allowed" the release of The Godfather Returns in 2004, the sequel to the original Godfather novel. But the next sequel, said to have been released without Paramount's knowledge in 2006 by the estate of Mario Puzo, reportedly didn't do so well.

“The Family Corleone”
Perhaps that's why Paramount, which claims it has rights over the Godfather franchise, sued to keep The Family Corleone, the "unauthorised" third book and possible bomb, from publication. Anthony Puzo, son of the late Mario and executor of his dad's estate, responded with a countersuit. A deal has since been struck to allow the book to be published, but nobody can be sure if there will be lasting peace between the two parties.

That's another book – or movie – by itself, but I'm talking about The Family Corleone today. It's a fine book, and it made me wonder if this legal battle is really about protecting the "legacy" of the franchise.

Set in the years 1933 to 1935, the prequel to The Godfather charts the rise of Vito Corleone from olive oil tauke to godfather of the New York crime families. A lot of this book also tells how Santino "Sonny" Corleone, Vito's impatient and reckless eldest son, came to follow in his father's footsteps.

Said to be adapted from unpublished material written by Puzo, it is divided into two "books" or arcs. "Mostro" (Monster) explores a bit about Vito and Sonny's pasts and how the latter, as a kid, came to know about his dad's other business. Years later, he's head of his own gang and shows how he's unlike his old man by robbing the liquor shipments of a powerful mob boss and selling the fruits of one such heist to the monster of this arc, the violent psychopath Luca Brasi.

The "Guerra" (War) arc kicks off soon after Vito finds out about Sonny's extracurricular activities, and that's when things get bloody for the Corleones and everybody else.

(I know some of you reading this online probably have or are going to open an extra window or tab with Wikipedia on, so I won't be telling you anything else about the plot. But I got help for the two Italian words from the glossary at the back. Thing is, 'bout half of 'em are swear words.)

The novel has a cinematic feel to it. Even the narration occasionally lapses into the informal lingo many of the characters use, lending it a certain warmth and familiarity.

Sprinklings of Italian add flavour to the delightfully engaging dialogue, from the Corleones' dinner table conversations and the salty, profanity-peppered exchanges between Sonny's gang members to the tense gangster round table conferences and "interrogation" sessions.

These guys are witty, charming and friendly. They can also pop your kneecaps or lop off your hands one heartbeat after you answer, "Oh, mother's fine, and the kid brother's in school, thanks for askin'." That being said, reading these guys lob racial epithets at each other, even in jest, can make one uncomfortable.

It's the closest you'll ever get to "watch" it, at least until the film adaptation comes out, if at all. Any other style wouldn't do.

Being what it is, there are some uncanny moments. At one point, Vito pays Luca Brasi a visit, seemingly unarmed and alone, and comes away unscathed. Several other characters escape death because of some unwritten code of honour or character quirk and stuff like that. But that's the stuff gangster movies – and novels – are made of.

Kudos goes to Ed Falco for his work on this novel. Incidentally, he's the uncle of Edith "Edie" Falco, who acted in The Sopranos, the TV series about an Italian-American mobster and his family.

I find myself thinking, though, whether the Mafia is still good grist for the fiction mill in the 21st century. What's the deal with mobster-inspired crime fiction, anyway?

So I look up a former chef turned author, who suggested in an essay that "...for purposes of fiction, organised criminality offers plenty of drama, ... plenty of situations in which characters find themselves in extreme circumstances with presumably difficult choices to make." Chef-Turned-Author also said that "All the real gangsters have seen The Godfather, One, Two, and maybe Three. They've seen Goodfellas. And these films made a powerful impression." No better seal of approval than that.

I suppose the kind of drama associated with the old-time gangsters offer writers opportunities to paint convincing psychological portraits of what would be complex characters that audiences can connect with. Another appealing aspect of such works, goes another school of thought, is the notion of honour. One tends to believe that it's Vito Corleone's conduct that inspires his capos' loyalty to him, a valuable asset in the long run. Who wouldn't want to work for a boss like that? Or be a boss like that?

But the Corleones' era seems to be over. And there are more bad guys out there now: religious fanatics, computer hackers, evil scientists, ecoterrorists and maybe even rogue Wall Street elements, plus a new breed of gangster who's all about bling, turf and power, and not much else.

Though some may feel that the novel's release is just business for the Puzos, I'd like to think that it has emerged as one last encore by the titular family whose on-screen exploits will, perhaps, forever remain legend. And what an encore it is.

Viva i Corleone.

The Family Corleone
Ed Falco
Grand Central Publishing (May 2012)
436 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4555-1616-2

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Coming Soon To E-Readers?

The book trailer. Is it the next big book marketing tool?

Take a gander at these teasers for Amish Tripathi's Shiva Trilogy. And here are some teasers for The Secret History of Elizabeth Tudor, Vampire Slayer. How about this nifty video for Scott Westerfeld's Girl Genius-like Leviathan?

Compare these with the promotional videos for the next big sleep-killing app of the year. Aren't they all kind of ... elaborate for what are book previews? And don't you think Blizzard Entertainment should totally go into movies, instead of pretending to be a games company?

Author AJ Walkley, for one, appears to like the idea of a book trailer. For her, it's one more way of selling a book, and she can get her videographer and musician friends to help her make it, preferably at lower cost and, ideally, at much higher production values.

Walkley cites another author, Rex Pickett, who makes the case for book trailers with culture. Good short videos nab attention, as they should in an age where everything is getting more and more visual, and a book or series with its own trailers tend to stand out from the rest.

Showpiece or showboating?
Of course, there's a tendency to overproduce a book trailer, which in turn may foster unrealistic expectations for the book later on. And, well... book trailers don't quite showcase the actual product, which is mostly text. Many responses to some of the book trailer videos I've seen have called for a film adaptation to be made.

"Trailers for movies make sense — a visual medium for a visual product," Walkley says. "If you aim to read a book, why do you need anything more than the synopsis of the book before you know whether you want to read it?"

A commenter who claims to be "one of the pioneers of book trailer production" makes several good points about video as another medium on the Web and the proper approach to book trailers. I broke up the latter half into more paragraphs:

I understand your impulse to over produce your book trailer but in doing so you run the risk (as you learned) of misrepresenting the experience. My approach is generally — less is more.

As a producer I do not want to substitute my images for the images that the reader will conger themselves. I want to use video to suggest the experience that the book promises. The trailer should not interfere with the relationship between the author's words and the imagination of the reader. Whenever possible I like to draw from the book's cover and any illustrations the book might have. Beyond that the images should be suggestive and not explicit.

I don't think trailers can convince me to buy a book. It was, however, the visually arresting previews of Tripathi's books that got my attention. This was how I'd learnt of the trilogy's existence, though you'd need to watch each video to see that, oh, they're pitching a book and not a film or a video game.

But I think some parts need more research. From the trailer for the second book in Tripathi's Shiva trilogy, Secret of the Nagas, segment 0:23:

Is that a European-style longsword in ancient India? And what's the
Dark Wanderer from Diablo doing there?

With books going digital, a book trailer might make more sense if it's embedded in the e-book itself as a preview for an author's next book or, if the book is part of a series, the next volume. Not too different from the preview chapters at the back of printed books.

Let it be good
I can imagine the kinds of other video previews that could go into the last few 'pages' of an e-book: author notes, spoken by the author himself/herself; promotional skits, outtakes, maybe ads (though I wish there wouldn't be). Maybe a link somewhere where they can open a page and write an Amazon review and put it up, or post their thoughts immediately on Goodreads, Facebook or Twitter. Maybe, on some kind of Foursquare-ish app for books, an automatically updated status.

Collaborative efforts in producing book trailers, such as in Walkley's, would also mean more work for other indie film, digital animation and music sectors. The book trailer in this case becomes a showcase of the moviemaker and musician's respective talents.

But let's have creative, good-quality video content, please. Blurb- and back cover copy-writing may fade away with print, but the need for quality is a constant. And what matters most is the book itself.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

More News: Sedaris, Screen Adaptations and Taliban Poetry

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

News: Liberty And Love, And Other Pressing Matters

JAKIM's latest book promo
A big piece of book-related news last week was Uganda-born Canadian writer Irshad Manji's talk at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall last Saturday, which may or may not have anything to do with the Malay translation of her book, Allah, Liberty and Love, published by ZI Publications.

Manji is also known for another book, The Trouble with Islam. She's director of the Moral Courage Project at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, and founder and president of Project Ijthiad, a "charitable organization promoting a 'tradition of critical thinking, debate and dissent' in Islam." Her presence here and her book have, naturally, raised some hackles.

I don't know about the book, but the reporting bums me out. Like, is it such a big deal that she's a "lesbian Muslim writer"? So it seems her books are not only "dangerous" but, oh, horrors, she's reportedly also a le-e-e-esbian. Like that is all you need to know.

Here, read some thoughts about this, because I don't think I can add to the debate.

Before JAKIM raised the alarm, I'd never even heard of Irshad Manji (bad books editor, bad!) Now, everybody does. And if her latest book is banned, say, nine months from today ... what's the point?

Censorship and sensibility
The Quote of the Week goes to Jessica Crispin at Bookslut: "Okay, it's nice and all that someone is fighting back against these stupid decisions to pull books off of library shelves, but does it have to be this book we're rallying around? They still yank To Kill a Mockingbird, you know."


Something else the West didn't invent
So Gutenberg, apparently, wasn't the first to invent the printing press or movable type. Gunpowder, the compass, paper money and now these. I'm getting a bit sick of experts unearthing Things That Came Out of China While Europe was in the Dark Ages but the Chinese Were Too Dumb to Perfect and Capitalise On. Today? They copy everything.

More writer tips
Reading the fine print: editing clauses in publishing contracts. It's a lot more comprehensive than what we have here, which is, "Make my manuscript SHINE!" And the raw material isn't always good. Also, here are 11 mistakes writers make when approaching literary agents.

Future career plan?
This infographic on the birth of a book is one of the more realistic representations of the book publishing process. Just so happens, I like mutton and goat's milk. And, like goats, I like coffee.

You know I will. And this pic needs to be on a t-shirt.
Original picture here.

Think I'll looking for a goat farm to buy when I'm too old to type shit. I might even plant coffee trees on the premises, too.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Tropic Tempers

Although it looks unrelated, Gone Bamboo is a sequel of sorts to Bone in the Throat, the salty, grimy and riotous crime novel that was one of Anthony Bourdain's early attempts at writing.

“Gone Bamboo”
Former soldier and CIA-trained assassin Henry is hired by mob capo Jimmy "Pazz" Calabrese to kill mob boss Charles "Charlie Wagons" Iannello, who last appeared in Bone in the Throat as the deux ex machina who saved the protagonist Tommy Pagano from retribution by more mob figures. The hit fails.

Now a federal witness for the US government in a trial against Calabrese, Charlie has gone into hiding in the same Caribbean backyard where Henry and his hard-nosed wife Frances are hiding at. Concerned over the possibility of tensions between Charlie and Henry causing trouble on the island, Charlie's minder, a former associate of Henry's, urges the hit man to spare Charlie and make amends with him.

To that end, Henry and Frances become pals with Tommy and his girlfriend Cheryl who we last saw in Bone in the Throat and are now eking a living in the same tropical paradise as owners of a restaurant.

Trouble comes in the form of Irish thug Kevin, hired by Calabrese's underlings to get rid of Charlie and anyone who stands in the way.

Like the previous book, Gone Bamboo draws heavily on Bourdain's experiences, but also weaves in a wistful scenario where he settles permanently in his Caribbean island getaway of St Martin. A local example of people like that is writer Tom McLaughlin.

The plot, meanwhile, isn't as tightly woven as the previous book. Yeah, Henry, make friends with Charlie, the guy who needs to shit in a bag (thanks to you), or you might make our job harder. Why couldn't they, say, pay these two to simply vanish for a while until things blow over?

Of all the quirks Bourdain could infuse his characters with: why make Calabrese a cross-dresser, other than to make him even more despicable? The vivid imagery doesn't help; halfway through chapter one, you'd want to do the characters a favour and blow him up with a dozen car bombs to kingdom come and gone.

I also got the feeling that Bourdain is somehow pitching the go-bamboo route to readers. The atmosphere certainly worked its magic on Kevin. Not long after his arrival, the Irishman goes native, sunbathing and skinny-dipping with his new girlfriend. But reality eventually intrudes, setting up some explosive encounters as hits are made and scores are settled.

It's no coincidence that Bourdain wrote this book in St Martin. He said before that he feels relaxed there; perhaps there is a connection. Bone: chef in the city, what Tony B used to be, and Bamboo: beach bum, a life he probably wanted even more, for his then-wife Nancy and himself. The scene where Frances tosses a half-eaten chicken leg to a stray dog echoes something similar in the epilogue to A Cook's Tour.

Despite the connection between the two, both Bone and Bamboo can be considered independent books. Bourdain has made the best of his experiences and weaves them into entertaining, albeit fast-paced and violent, novels.

For weary followers of his adventures since then, his crime novels feel dated compared to his works of non-fiction, which are arguably more real and interesting. After all, he doesn't need to dream any more. He's living it.

Gone Bamboo
Anthony Bourdain
Canongate (2000)
286 pages
ISBN: 978-0-85786-112-2

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Rescuing The Book Review And The Future Of Publishing

Can the Internet save the book review? Probably. Can Kakutani save the book review? Uh...

...If any book reviewer can save the review, I'd put my money - but not a whole lot - on these two: Lev Grossman, and a 16-year-old book critic that makes me look like a hack. I feel ancient... (what's with the hair?)

Other news
  • Trying to peer into the crystal ball of the publishing industry - a Canadian perspective. And here's Amazon's perspective.
  • A six-figure deal for a seven-book series: Is Samantha Shannon the next JK Rowling? Also: Why Barry Eisler walked away from a half-million-dollar book deal.
  • Here, have some Taliban poetry. And a senior Kuwaiti books censor speaks. No relationship whatsoever between the two.
  • Chinese dissident author Ma Jian on another fellow dissident: Qu Yuan, who's generally associated with glutinous rice dumplings and the Dragon Boat Festival. "...the story of Qu Yuan is quite possibly the story of all genuine, non state-approved Chinese authors."
  • Young historians risk academic cred in packaging their research as commercial books. Sounds kind of like ... Niall Ferguson, don't you think?
  • An essay on how we should speak English appears to make the case for "keep it simple" and "less is more".
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt plans to file for Chapter 11, a.k.a looking for bankruptcy protection.
  • The fate of used book stores in the digital age.
  • US study suggests readers may be influenced by characters in fiction. Does this explain book bans?
  • Even copy editors have bad days.
  • Want to know how to write best-sellers for India?
  • Banned: No "Shades of Grey" in Wisconsin, Georgia and Florida libraries.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Whimsical Whodunnit

A brilliant, engaging tale of murder and missing persons

"A murder mystery that solves itself" is the best way I can describe Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog. The title comes from the first line from an Emily Dickinson poem, and the novel is set in modern-day England.

Kate Atkinson's “Started Early, Took My Dog”
Security chief and former policewoman Tracy Waterhouse is having a generally crappy day when she spies hooker Kelly Cross dragging a little girl by the hand. Driven by an impulse, she buys the child with money meant for the workman renovating her house. Two people witness the exchange: Jackson Brodie and an old woman called Mathilda Squires.

With Waterhouse's purchase of the little girl, the ball, as they say, starts rolling. And, as promised, all three will learn that "the past is never history and that no good deed goes unpunished."

Back in the late Seventies, when a Jack-the-Ripper-style serial killer was on the rampage, she and her partner found the child of a murdered woman at the crime scene, a boy who kept asking for his sister. Spirited away by a social worker, the child was never seen again.

Pieces of that puzzle start falling into place as the mystery of that years-old crime begins unravelling like a badly-knit sweater through the viewpoints of three protagonists: Waterhouse, who goes into hiding with Courtney, the girl she now 'owns'; Brodie, another former policeman and now private eye, who rescues an abused dog he names "The Ambassador" (hey, it was on the tag); and Squires, also known as "Tilly", an old actress on her way towards dementia hell.

The novel follows the main characters as they get inadvertently tangled up in the old murder and a possibly related cover-up. None of them appear to be driving the investigation, actively solving it and looking for clues.

Except Brodie, perhaps, but he's on another seemingly unrelated case. We explore their own pasts and how they came to be there. In between, milestones in the present storyline send us back thirty years ago, and towards the end, we finally see how it all happened, and how the loose ends get tied up so nicely.

The non-linear storyline works here somehow. Atkinson does it well, and also manages to stay, for the most part, out of sight. Little of her writing voice is evident... even though this is the first book of hers I've read, that's how it feels.

If there were any messages, morals and the like, I didn't notice as I read, teased on by a murder mystery made more brilliant and intriguing by splitting itself in parts and scattering them throughout three decades for me to find and put together.

Some may find the assembly part tedious and confusing, and it's not clear whether some pieces belong in the present or back in the past.

For me, the end result was satisfying enough that I didn't mind that the novel made me work a little. Nor did I care about the unanswered questions (like, who's Courtney and what's the story behind The Ambassador) once the puzzle was solved. Or did I just focus on the main puzzle itself and totally missed the clues to other little mysteries inside?


When you pick up this book, just open it, enjoy the puzzle-solving and forget what's between the lines. You can revisit the latter afterwards if you want to.

This review was based on an andvace reading copy. Book information is based on a more recent release.

Started Early, Took My Dog
Kate Atkinson
Transworld Publishers (2011)
493 pages
ISBN: 9780552776851

Monday, 7 May 2012

News: Lights Out At Amazon, Targetting Kindle and 99¢ Coelhos

Lights out - for a week - at Amazon for Bissinger
In a pick-of-the-week promotion with Starbucks, Apple gave customers (of Starbucks, I think) a code that allows them to redeem a copy of Buzz Bissinger's After Friday Night Lights e-book online.

Amazon - or rather, an algorithm - responded to that by dropping the price of the book to zero. In response to that response, Bissinger's publisher Byliner yanked the title off Amazon for a week. Though it was temporary, the decision meant the loss of royalties from sales that would've been racked up over that week.

Bissinger wrote the sequel to Friday Night Lights as a sort-of homage to his friendship with former football player James Miles. A third of the sales proceeds from the sequel, priced at US$2.99 a copy, would go to Miles, who suffered a career-ending injury and now has trouble getting by.

Yeah. Amazon, 'saviour' of book lovers, authors and the publishing industry. Snort.

Target takes aim at Kindle
US discount retailer Target finally stops selling Amazon e-readers. "Finally", because people seem to have forgotten that Amazon is an online version of Target, which is a bit like the US version of our Mydin.

Amazon's aggressive discounting schemes and its apparently tacit support of the practice of "showrooming" have drawn the ire of others. Kind of like going to a brick-and-mortar Mydin store to check out the prices of toasters and buying a cheaper one from Lelong.com instead.

But there may be other reasons, says a TIME report: namely, the accomodation of Apple mini-stores at some Target outlets. Target also sells the Nook e-reader, a product by Amazon rival Barnes & Noble.

Own a Coelho for a song
Paulo Coelho's selling his e-books for US$0.99 each (except The Alchemist) - less than a cup of coffee, Coelho enthuses. "For years I have been advocating that free content is not a threat to the book business. In lowering the price of a book and equaling it to the price of a song in iTunes, the reader will be encouraged to pay for it, instead of downloading it for free," he adds.

The offer was initially limited to the US and Canada, but now that you can buy them through the iBookstore and Nook, is it a worldwide offer?

As long as the public is aware that only authors of his class can afford to price his own books that low. And if anybody still wants to buy some of his older books....

Other news
  • The funny, lame, and creepy books cashing in on the Dragon Tattoo craze. Do people really fall for this?
  • Here are ten ways you can annoy literary agents - and maybe book editors.
  • "Tax me, for f—s sake!" sums up Stephen King's rant against the very rich - including himself. King should write like this more often.
  • A writer says he's figured out the ingredients for a best-selling title. Is the recipe for real?
  • Ann Patchett's love letter to Nashville, Tennessee.
  • A 'book fair' that cracks down on publishers? Only in Iran. The event, held in Tehran's Grand Mosque Mosallah, sees over 2,000 publishing houses, some rare books, loads of bookworms, bussed-in students and even covert lovebirds. Sounds almost familiar.
  • Can e-books succeed without Amazon? I think, yes, eventually.
  • Cory Doctorow hails the begining of the end of DRM - and the e-book format wars.
  • Hyperink will blook your blog. But they're not the only blookers in the biz.
  • And if you're looking for independent editors, here's something to help you snag a good one.
  • Introducing A.R. Venkatachalapathy's The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes and Scribblers in Colonial Tamilnadu. The reviewer sounds enthusiastic.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Still Running

Some may have concerns about recycling old stuff for articles, but I think it's fine in some cases, like highlighting good books, for instance.

Since I wrote this unabashedly pimpin' review, little has changed for the book and the author. And the magazine needed some stuff. So here it is. Meant every damn word, too.

...Never expected it to turn out better than the original review.

Cool running
Jeremy Chin tells Alan Wong that believing in what you do despite the odds is the most important ingredient towards becoming a great writer

first published in the annual issue (2012) of MPH Quill

2010. The Annexe, Central Market. A curious sight, one of many: Who was this bald, dopey-looking, self-effacing Chinese fellow, selling copies of his début novel, Fuel? I bought a copy with some degree of trepidation.

Several days afterwards, a friend borrowed the book and finished it before I could turn to page one. The language in Fuel held her spellbound; its ending made her weep.

Born to run
Fuel’s protagonist, Timothy Malcolm Smith, is the 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”.

There’s this British coffee franchise, Common Grounds, which is older than penicillin, tea bags, even sliced bread. Like bread, however, the brand has gone stale. With his capable and charming assistant Cambria, Timmy swoops in with a plan. The campaign is paradigm-changing. The video ad goes viral. Common Grounds is rescued. One can almost visualise the headlines: “CREAM SAVES COFFEE”.

More ad campaigns follow, including a poem for a charity organisation’s ad that blows everyone away. Rival agencies soon 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.

Every phrase, every paragraph has purpose, is strung together well and polished to a showroom sheen.

Did I mention that he’s rich? His self-designed Balinese-style four-bedroom pad, Ankhura, crowns a 18-floor luxury apartment building on the edge of London’s Canary Wharf. It has a garden and fish-filled rock pools, and a sound system that plays ambient sounds of nature: forests, seaside, rivers and so on. His “elephantine mahogany bed”, larger than king-size, has sheets of 1,500-threadcount Egyptian cotton...

...Whoa. 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? Character, charisma, career, creative chops, cojones, and cash. Timothy Malcolm Smith has it all. Except love, but that’s going to change.

All that was the first 60-odd pages of Fuel, a dark horse of a Malaysian-authored novel. Even before we enter the posh Balinese 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. And the true scope of the Common Grounds ad campaign’s power is left to the reader’s imagination. If the atmosphere of a creative agency feels too true-to-life, it’s because Jeremy Chin himself worked in a similar industry in London for a number of years.

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 1,500-threadcount Egyptian cotton sheets imply.

“When you take on a dream this big, it is crucial that you know why you are pursuing it.”—Jeremy Chin

The only minor bumps in Timmy’s racetrack to glory are his intermittent narratives in the first person and the prologue featuring lionesses hunting a gazelle. It makes no sense at first, until one realises that Gebrselassie’s native Ethiopia is home to a number of national parks.

Even before the conclusion of Fuel, you’re already cheering for Timmy and Cambria. You’ll want to believe that someone like Timmy can exist, that Timmy and Cambria’s love story can be real, that Timmy can win, that he can 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, a word that summed up Gebrselassie’s gold medal in the 10,000 metres at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, despite being injured. “It is possible.”

Tough track
Jeremy had high hopes for the book: he wants it to become an international best-seller. “When you take on a dream this big, it is crucial that you know why you are pursuing it. And those reasons have to be good reasons, reasons you will hold close to your heart till the day you die,” he told the audience at a special talk and book-reading session for the hearing impaired in 2011. “Fuel’s success would buy me a golden ticket to continue doing that which I have come to love, which is to write, to share with the world the best that I am capable of. Believing in what you do. That is the most important ingredient towards becoming a great writer.”

Photo of Jeremy Chin, courtesy of Jeremy Chin (www.fueldabook.com)
He’d quit his job at an ad agency and spent a year to write it, but ran into a number of problems. For one, selling English fiction can be difficult in Malaysia. Also, bookstores worldwide are competing with other forms of entertainment; why read the whole Lord of the Rings when you can watch or even play it? Kind of funny, when you learn that Fuel was originally a movie idea. He approached several publishers with the synopsis and three chapters from the manuscript, but was turned down.

Did readers find it hard to relate to the book, which was set in London and New York? For Chin, it was natural; he’d worked for 10 years in the US and two in the UK. Setting the novel in London was important, and the character was supposed to run in the New York City Marathon. “To give Fuel a Malaysian setting would have been alien,” he stated.

Given the kind of work that went into it, the self-published route was, perhaps, astute. Every word, every phrase was chosen for effect. Each section of the book: characters, milestones, plot, premise and so on, was meticulously mapped out, storyboarded. Chin approached the writing and marketing of Fuel like an ad campaign.

Sadly, his perfectionist streak and dedication to the book didn’t quite pay off. Not all his supporters bought the book. Glowing reviews of Fuel did little to spur sales.

“My journey as a writer, as enjoyable as it was, has become extremely difficult now that I’ve gotten to the stage of promoting Fuel,” said Chin to his audience as he wrapped up the book-reading session. “I’ve walked alone for a year and a half, and it is my sincere hope that each of you here would join me for the next leg of my journey.”

One year later, Chin is still on that journey. He has also released a line of merchandise based on the book’s theme (www.fuelrunning.com). It appears he’s in it for the long run, and still telling naysayers, “Yichalal”.

It’s hard not to cheer that spirit on.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Caffeine Fix(i)

I admit I'm a sucker for certain marketing gimmicks, particularly those with the keywords "limited", "(about to be) banned", "pulped" and "coffee".

A certain marketing gimmick combining two of the above keywords is what drove me to this year's KL International Book Fair. After the last one I'd been to (in 2008), my expectations for this year's Fair were low.

I only stayed longer than I did because they spread the booths across more areas and levels this year, and I got lost. And the crowds were there, including schoolchildren who were bussed to the venue.

Waterfish bait
So, what made me endure the crowds at PWTC on Bersih 3.0 Day?

“Kopi” at Mukha Café
Kopi at Mukha Café, TTDI, KL
A collection of Malay short stories called Kopi by Fixi. And a mug.

Like the Fair, both looked nice on the Internet. The book was small, and the mug didn't feel hefty enough for holding boiling hot liquids.

The book is pretty, though, inside and out. Like a mini-coffee table book without pictures.

Apparently, Kopi (Coffee) was published to raise funds for a series of short films. Limited to a 1,500-copy print run, this limited-edition short story anthology will only be sold online through Fixi's portal and Amazon, and at events such as book fairs. There will be no reprints once the book is sold out.

Also, it seems the publisher was told that short story anthologies weren't moving off the shelves, so he's not making Kopi available at bookstores. But with this publisher, you never know.

Amir Muhammad should be a fisherman. He knows how to bait a line and get waterfish (suckers) like me chasing after it.

A complex brew
“Kopi” at Artisan Roast TTDI, KL
Kopi at Artisan Roast TTDI, KL
All the short stories revolve around, are inspired by or includes coffee and are written either by Fixi's authors or contributors who have worked with it at some point. Funny, melancholy, surreal or just scary, the stories conjure up emotions or mental images one might or might not experience when one's brain stem is being shaken by caffeine.

Several stories - some scary, some touching - offer plot twists that are quite inventive, until one realises that it's been done before. But it seems so fresh in these pages. Maybe it's the language - some shorts are buoyed by the rhythm of urban contemporary Malaysian Malay that also has elements of colloquial Chinese, Indonesian and English speech, the lingo of the country's new generation.

In Shaz Johar's "Kopi 3 Rasa" ("Three Flavours of Coffee"), a maid is a witness to the misery and dysfunction in the affluent family she serves. We follow the antics of a skirt-chaser through accounts of his exploits to the female narrator at various cafés in Dayang Noor's "Bersaksi Kopi" ("Witnessed by Coffee").

"Kau Kopikoku" ("You're My [Coffee Candy]") by Dheepan Pranthaman sharply conveys the pain of a young man whose long-held crush for a girl is eventually shattered. Similarly poignant is Nadia Khan's "Kopi Kola" ("Coffee/Cola"), a sad tale of first and unrequited love.

The unexpected plot twists in Amal Hamsan's "Kopi Percik" ("Splattered Coffee") and Gina Yap Lai Yoong's "Cinta Kopi" ("Coffee Love" - boy, translating is hard) bring to mind M Night Shyamalan, which is already saying too much.

In "Ritual" (no need to translate, right?), Luc Abdullah takes us on an exploration of the turmoil faced by two lovers with a really big problem. Meanwhile, Redza Minhat's "Venti" (ditto) manages to tickle with its vulgarity and the "flat what" ending.

Like the caffeine that keeps some awake at night, Faizal Sulaiman's "Kopi Julia" ("Julia's Coffee") and "Tangan Berulat" ("Maggotty Hands") by Fadli Al-Akiti provide potent nightmare fuel. Ridhwan Saidi's "Luwak and Kretek" ("Civet Coffee and Clove Cigarette") is a surreal and shameless piece of self-promotion that's kind of genius.

Oh yes... there are pictures, courtesy of Nik Adam Ahmad's pictorial essay "Kopi Jantan Kaw" ("Strong 'Man' (ahem) Coffee").

The rest of the stories are good, too. It's hard to pick out the best of the best, or even the best. Heck, why bother?

Sweet, sour, bitter at turns and bursting with complex, local flavours, Kopi is a pretty decent blend from a new generation of writers.

edited by Amir Muhammad
Fixi (March 2012)
180 pages
ISBN: 978-967-0374-05-5


Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Late News: DRM, Publishing and Books

It's the tail-end of Labour Day and my long weekend. Didn't enjoy the latter half as soon as I realised that, gosh, I need a routine.

Dashing this off before bedtime because, well, this has also become routine.

Tor junks DRM
Sci-fi/fantasy imprint Tor junked digital rights management (DRM) for its e-books. How big will the ripples be? At least one author seems happy about it.

And here's a case against DRM in e-books, and a publishing exec's experience in jailbreaking e-books.

Book publishing vibes
The KL International Book Fair, which ends on 6 May, is sending out positive vibes, from the tone of this report. Earlier, somebody at The Star sees good times for e-publishing and scary times for traditional publishing.

Also: It seems book publishers are following call centre operators to India. China and Singapore sign four publishing agreements on the first day of the China-Singapore Publishing Symposium.

Meanwhile, Egypt's publishing industry looks bleak.

Other news
  • Textbook publishing houses in Kathmandu are allegedly fixing prices. Too bad the US Department of Justice is busy right now.
  • Several weeks ago, a publisher wanted me to review a Jeremy Lin book. I said I was interested, but wondered whether Linsanity was on its way out. Now, it looks like it is.
  • An edition of "Mein Kampf", annotated by historians, a gets (cautious) nod from German Jews. Yes, Germany will soon publish Hitler's "boring and unreadable" manifesto.
  • The tortured history of the book review.
  • Here's why reversion clauses in book contracts are important.
  • News about Fifty Shades of Grey: All three books in the trilogy - OMG it's a trilogy? - took the first three places in the New York Times best-seller list. All three books are also available at MPH @ Publika, Solaris Dutamas. DON'T get it now.
  • Fate of badgers in the UK linked to their portrayals in literature. Well, they started killing more sharks after Jaws came out....
  • Apparently, Barry Eisley wants Amazon to end an old, existing monopoly - one established by legacy publishers.
  • Over a third of the winners of Australia's most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, are now out of print.
  • In praise of (good) editors - the kind I want to be.
  • Bram Stoker, Dracula author, was once with the Daily Telegraph's books department?