Monday, 26 November 2012

News: Restaurants, Books and Stuff

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells's bulldozing of Guy's American Kitchen and Bar rippled for a bit last week, leading to bandwagon-hopping pieces like this one, where a boatload of restaurant critics relate their experiences with negative reviews.

Meanwhile, a Japanese restaurant gets a bad review in the Guardian, and a LA Weekly food critic ran down Gordon Ramsay's Fat Cow.

No, I don't think it's getting trendy to bash restaurants, and I hope that never happens.

Since I'm on a food roll, here's a Ruth Reichl interview where she talks about food books and food culture.


  • After books that essentially says "beware of (some) chefs" (Kitchen Confidential/) and "beware of (some) waiters" (Waiterrant), now there's "beware of (some) hotel clerks".
  • Randall Sullivan's book on the "King of Pop" reveals a sad, tragic life.
  • It seems the French publisher of Fifty Shades is cracking down on copycat titles, which it has termed "parasitical" ... isn't it just like the French to ramp up the drama? Nothing, however, has been said about the parodies and 'tributes' to Ms Erika Leonard's blockbuster trilogy that came out before the publication of the French edition, so I'm guessing those are in the clear.
  • Merger II: Is HarperCollins interested in buying Simon & Schuster?
  • JK Rowling and EL James left out of Bad Sex shortlist. Aww, too obvious, perhaps?
  • Good self-published books? Here's how to find them.
  • Woman arrested for "Liking" a Facebook post in "world's biggest democracy".
  • Happy much-belated birthday to Parnassus Books, which some might know as "Ann Patchett's bookstore".

Also: Lydia Teh's Honk! If You're Malaysian is going for another print run, which will feature a redesigned cover. If this batch sells out, that means over 20,000 copies would be sold since it was first published in 2007. Will post a little bit more about this soon.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

This Beautiful And Caffeinated World

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 22 November 2012

I bought this book with the hope of learning all that's interesting about coffee.

I wish it had been written in an interesting way.

“Uncommon Grounds” at Artisan Roast, TTDI, KL
Mark Pendergrast's encyclopaedic and scholarly Uncommon Grounds packs a lot of history, geography, a bit of chemistry and assorted trivia in what reads like a memoir of the black brew, complete with illustrations, ad posters, photos and graphical material.

From the fabled tales of its discovery to the rise of the "third wave", coffee has played a bigger part in our modern history than even the most caffeine-literate among us would dare to imagine. Real wars, trade wars, gender wars, civil wars, ad wars, and the colourful characters that pioneered the early coffee trends.

Even sex was part of this rich history. One legend says a Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta from Brazil charmed a few coffee seedlings from the First Lady of French Guiana in the 18th century. Today, Brazil is considered the world's largest producer of coffee.

Factually voluminous
Points of interest in this book include:

“Uncommon Grounds” at Artisan Roast, TTDI, KL
•  Clash of civilisations. Over 400 years ago, in a bid to ban what was then also known as a "Muslim drink", Pope Clement VIII was given a taste of coffee, and was hooked. He reputedly said he'd baptise the "delicious" drink to make it "a truly Christian beverage." Thank goodness there was no Internet or social media back then, or history might have been different.

•  Kopitiams in England. In the 1700, coffee houses were also called "penny universities". Over a one-penny cup of coffee, one can listen in on discussions that could go on for hours. The topics varied according to the clientèle, and no two coffeehouses served the same group, apparently. Nowadays, coffeehouses can be so noisy, you can barely hear yourself speak. And good luck trying to get a cuppa for a penny.

•  Yankees once knew squat about coffee. For a long time, it seems nobody in the US knew how to properly select, roast and brew the beans. Nor did they know or learn to love the taste of pure coffee. What they added to 'improve' the flavour chills the blood. A partial list (around the 1880s) includes such adulterants as chicory, chrysanthemum seeds, coal ashes, dog biscuits, malt, parsnips, rice, sawdust, wheat and wood chips. One's glad they got much better since then.

•  Coffee substitutes. With all the things used to adulterate coffee around that time, small wonder it made some people sick. In 1895 businessman Charles William Post came up with a 'healthier' substitute. Post was also a savvy marketeer of his roasted cereal coffee substitute, "Postum", using ads that struck a chord with his audience. Ironically, Post also drank coffee, which may or may not have stressed him out or driven him to suicide.

•  Cupping was a guy sport, until... Erna Knutsen was probably the first female ever to enter the male-dominated cupping room, and became a specialist in high-end coffee beans. She also gave the name "specialty coffee" to her niche. The term appeared in the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal in 1974.

“Uncommon Grounds” at RAW Coffee, Jln Ampang, KL
•  Beans in one basket? Bad idea. As a major producer of coffee, the effects of frost on Brazil's coffee crop is carefully watched. Substantial crop damage means higher prices. But as this slack is taken up by countries such as Vietnam, there's the risk of a coffee glut instead.

If Uncommon Grounds were sampled like a coffee, one notices almost immediately a distinct academic dryness that registers heavily on the senses with just the slightest touch of fruitiness. Very little of the blurbed wit is there, except for the footnotes which elicit the briefest of sparkles before dissipating completely. What comes on most strongly are the pungent earthy notes of the deepest sun-deprived alcoves of a library or archival hall.

The author appears not to take sides or present a skewed point of view, hence the neutral, uninteresting tone which makes going from cover to cover almost impossible. Interesting it may be, all that socio-politico-economic stuff just flew over my head, putting me - ironically - to sleep after a couple of chapters' worth. These parts deserve a revisit when the mind is more lucid.

But you'll learn lots of stuff about coffee, like how instant coffee is made. I'm now more determined than ever to avoid it, unless it's the finer brands and only when making milkshakey novelty coffee drinks at home.

A bitter brew for some
“Uncommon Grounds” at RAW Coffee, Jln Ampang, KL
That blood had been spilled over coffee may astonish some. "Blood coffee" has been around for a while; Pendergrast quotes the example of Idi Amin, who financed his reign of terror with profits from Ugandan coffee exports. A news report spotlights criminal raids on Kenyan coffee farms.

But consider this: A news report cites the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) as saying: "The value of total exports in calendar year 2011 is currently forecast at $23.5 billion for a total volume of 102.4 million bags compared to US$16.7 billion for a volume of 96.8 million bags in 2010." Globally, over two billion cups are drunk every day, most of that in developed nations.

In short, coffee is big business. Pendergrast once said that it's the second most valuable legally exported commodity in the world after oil, a statement I first heard in what I think is the 2005 documentary, Black Coffee. Though he seems to have disavowed that assertion in this edition, it's occasionally repeated on the web.

Considering how tightly coffee is woven into the fabric of our lifestyles, I don't think much that can be done at the moment about some of our money trickling down to these unsavoury enterprises. Let someone else take up that Facebook campaign.

Sip, don't gulp
Perhaps it's because my love and experience for coffee has yet to reach the rarefied heights inhabited by the caffeinated cognoscenti that I failed to see the finer points of Pendergrast's Uncommon Grounds.

There's so much in this book, it'll take a while for everything to percolate down to one's subconscious. I just know that I'll be sipping my next good cuppa Java, Brazilian or Colombian with more care.

So maybe I did it wrong. Maybe this book should be sampled in small doses and not gulped down with pinched nose like bitter medicine. It is as complex as the beverage it profiles. The chronological order of the chapters makes that easier but sometimes, one can get carried away and just turn page after page after page after....

...think I'll just stop here and wrap this up.

Even after internalising the whole book, one gets the sense that it's just scratching the surface of the bean. Coffee is still with us, and will continue to evolve along with - and shape - civilisation as we know it. That is, if climate change doesn't wipe out coffee first.

Time markers have been added to the "points of interest" in this version.

Photos taken at Artisan Roast TTDI at 4, Jalan Rahim Kajai 14, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, 60000 Kuala Lumpur and RAW Coffee @ Wisma Equity, 150 Jalan Ampang, 50450 Kuala Lumpur

Uncommon Grounds
The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

Mark Pendergrast
Basic Books (2010), revised edition
424 pages
ISBN: 978-0-465-01836-9

Monday, 19 November 2012

News: Haters, Reviewers, and Publishers

Guy Fieri's American Kitchen & Bar put the New York Times's restaurant critic Pete Wells in an interrogative mood. Though Wells was exceptionally harsh to the restaurant, I have no patience or sympathy to any celeb who behaves and presents himself in ways that make him a target for ridicule.

I won't deny that I found Wells's fiery take on Fieri entertaining. And I do enjoy writing the occasional hate piece - which you may not see here - because there is a kind of pleasure in hating something. But it's got to be a well-written, sufficiently informed piece. Maybe I'll elaborate on this some day.

Back in the book world: Put off by what "professional" reviewers - "corrupt & paid laborers: academics & journalists", like Pete Wells - did to a book, an author subjected (or rather, "crowdsourced" reviews for) his book to "amateur reviewers" and didn't like what he got. So how lah?


  • Vietnamese publishers vent against "unauthorised books". "Unauthorised" can mean a lot of things, but I suspect they're talking about pirated books. Elsewhere, an Amazon-published author turns to a former "hotbed of piracy" to distribute his book which, under the Amazon imprint, is not being hosted by retailers such as Barnes & Noble.
  • Days ago, an article by one Michael Levin that suggests "publishers hate authors" appeared on The Huffington Post. Victoria Strauss posted a response. It should be noted that Levin runs a ghostwriting company. Based on the tone in some of the stuff he's written, would it be too subjective to suggest that some of his bile might be targeted at publishers who didn't like what he'd written?
  • Apparently, reading on a Kindle is not like reading a physical book. ...And I thought I was a paper-book romantic.
  • "Missing e-books", and how publishers' control over their digital material is keeping them from libraries. But like paper books and physical bookstores, it's getting harder to argue for the continued existence of brick-and-mortar libraries. The question is: How many of us still want them around?
  • The Nagani Book Club, an iconic Yangon-based publishing house, may re-open after being shut for seven decades. On a related note, here's some background on Burmese literature and its associations with the independence movement.
  • When you need to turn down a publishing contract.
  • Newly retired novelist Phillip Roth tries to discourage a new author and fails. "Don't do this to yourself"? C'mon, let a guy dream.
  • China's great shame, one writer's 'tombstone': the Great Famine.
  • When a son's book is used to defend his father's killer.

Last but not least: The Dulang Washer (MPH Publishing, 2011) has been longlisted for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Other contenders include The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht and The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. Which all start with "The".

And the crowdfunding drive for publishing Readings for Readings 2 has collected RM3,000, the "minimum" funding amount. With four days to go before the deadline, this is generally where last-minute contributions should start trickling in.

Friday, 16 November 2012

A Glimpse Into The Abyss

I didn't spend much time 'unpacking' this book because I was way too creeped out by some of the nasty behaviours recorded within. And with some diligence, anyone interested in reading about Anonymous, etc can probably Google the relevant information.

We Are Anonymous
Groups such as Anonymous are even more of a threat to home computer users and businesses than crooks or oppressive regimes. To me, that's what Olson (inadvertently) drove home in this book. I've never come so close to quitting Facebook, Twitter, etc than I did after reading about "William".

And the Westboro 'Church', for one, may have been a poor choice for a target; that nest of vipers makes LulzSec look like CARE.

Wikileaks, meanwhile, is becoming a joke, no thanks to its 'leader's' antics. Somewhere along the way, like the former LulzSec crew, he lost the plot. Thus, the movement unravelled and faded into the background under the glare of his grandstanding.

Would things have turned out differently if the Assange, Topiary, et al remained an enigma? Perhaps that would be answered by another Wikileaks or LulzSec, which is probably a matter of time.

This book was a good piece of journalism, but Parmy Olson didn't quite tell the 'full story' of Anonymous, which is still out there, and still making waves.

A glimpse into the abyss
Parmy Olson makes it very, very hard for one to keep calm and go online

first published in The Star, 16 November 2012

We Are Anonymous is probably the scariest book you'll read in 2012. Parmy Olson's book on the faceless, amorphous Internet collective is enough to make you distrust your own passwords – a well-founded fear these days when news of hacking, data theft and destruction of people's digital lives are increasingly creeping into the headlines.

But, as the subtitle says, this book is more about the rise and fall of LulzSec, the hacker group that claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile hackings in the past several years.

LulzSec's leap into notoriety began with the failed attempts to infiltrate Anonymous by cybersecurity firm HBGary Federal's former CEO Aaron Barr. It was only after several members of Anonymous locked him out of his social media accounts and published his e-mails did he realise he either needed a much bigger boat and harpoon ... or easier prey. Barr resigned, and HBGary Federal is now defunct.

We do get a peek into the underbelly of the Internet where groups such as Anonymous lurk. But as the book progresses, the focus shifts to LulzSec. We see this group break away from Anonymous and, through acts of digital theft and vandalism aided by hackers outside LulzSec, help establish the myth of Anonymous as a world-shifting underground movement – until a combination of hubris, dissent and betrayal brought it down. A handy timeline of events is available in the book for reference.

Olson's research is voluminous, as the end notes testify. However, I wasn't quite as awed by Anonymous's role in the "global cyber insurgency" (which, so far, hasn't lived up to the hype) as I was overwhelmed by its potential to cause havoc in our online lives (as well as by the wealth of computer jargon within).

One comes away with a very grim outlook of the future of computer security.

It may not be Olson's intent, but this book makes it hard to see members of Anonymous, LulzSec and other similar groups as anything but selfish, self-aggrandising, amoral and extremely computer-savvy miscreants who amuse themselves by hacking into systems, stealing data, and messing with the lives of others. One example is "William", a hacker who, among other things, duped some Facebook users into giving him nude photos of themselves.

And these people are among those whom former LulzSec member Topiary claims "owns" the Internet: "The Internet belongs to the trolls and the hackers, the extremists and the enthusiasts; it will never cease to be this way," he wrote in a "missive" published near the end of this book. Which includes everything that the rest of us puts on the Web, one presumes, and if these guys want to mess around with all that, there is, apparently, nothing the rest of us can do about it.

My blood runs cold thinking about that.

It's said that one is more likely to die in a road accident than be attacked by a shark. Thousands pass their days online without incident, so one shouldn't be unduly worried. Olson, arguably though, makes it very, very hard to keep calm and go online.

This review, the 50th done for The Star was based on a complimentary copy

We Are Anonymous
Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency

Parmy Olson
Little, Brown (June 2012)
498 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-22765-0

Monday, 12 November 2012

News: Book Prizes, Publishing Perils, and Roth Retires

Jerome Ferrari won France's top book prize, the Prix Goncourt, for Le Sermon de la Chute de Rome ("The Sermon of the Fall of Rome"), a novel set in Corsica. But not everyone's picking up prizes.

Spanish author Javier Marías turns down state-sponsored book award worth €20,000. He was one of a few who refused book awards this year for various reasons, mostly political.

One reason why book prizes should have no strings attached.


  • Phillip Roth not writing any more novels. Quitting while he's ahead? Panio Gianopoulos eulogises Roth's career. Some might feel this is premature, especially when he still hasn't scored the Nobel lit prize...
  • Britishisms may be the least of US worries as Jamie magazine comes to 'merica. Lubbly jubbly!
  • In the wake of the Penguin House merger: If capitalism is killing culture, is government intervention for the arts necessary?
  • Ten conversations about books that should be laid to rest. Uh, amen?
  • A publisher's year in the e-book age.
  • A call for an open access model for publishing academia.
  • Book piracy is not harmless, as book bootleggers in Zimbabwe demonstrate.
  • Fairy tales as social and cultural commentary - and how Disney turned it into feel-good dope.
  • Is a crackdown on "highly-structured", "test-focused" textbooks looming in the UK?
  • Another 'threat' to literature: NaNoWriMo? Must we keep feeding the "Is _____ a threat to literature" mill?
  • When a little neighbourhood bookstore came to John Grisham's rescue.
  • Why we enjoy stories featuring female detectives.

And Happy Deepavali.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

More Read Reads And The George Town Lit-Fest

More than a year after the launch of Readings from Readings, the second volume is on its way. This time though, the publisher is crowd-sourcing funds for the project. Head here for more details.

If all goes well, Readings from Readings 2 will be launched on Sunday, 25 November, 4pm at Studio@Straits (86 Lebuh Armenian), during the George Town Literary Festival.

Readings from Readings 2 coverGeorge Town Literary Festival poster

Others scheduled to appear include Dr John Robertson, author of The Battle of Penang; Dina Zaman, Shivani Sivagurunathan, Linda Christanty, Chiew-Siah Tei, A. Samad Said, Alfian Sa’at, Omar Musa, Jasmine Low, Jerome Kugan, Az Samad and Tan Twan Eng. Among those who will be moderating panel discussions are Amir Muhammad, Ann Lee, Rehman Rashid and Umapagan Ampikaipakan.

...The programme alone is making me drool. Should I?

The George Town Literary Festival will take place at several venues in George Town, Penang, from 23 (Friday) to 25 (Sunday) November 2012. Details at, or email or call +604 264 3456.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Book Blogger Blah-Blah-Blah

This is very late, I know, but I only had time and free brainspace to regurgitate this after scratching off several items from my mental list of to-dos.

I don't know how many book bloggers cried when Sir Peter Stothard, chair for this year's Booker panel, asserted that their "mass of unargued opinion" will tsunami the output by bona fide literary critics. "There is a great deal of opinion online, and it's probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion."

He also mentioned his predecessor's focus on "readable" books, arguing that readability can be "interesting", but "great art for the most part resists it to a degree". "Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic," he added, "otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off."

I imagine people who, without finishing the article(s) hyping up Stohard's statements, going, "La sir! How snobbish!" or "At least we don't refer to the New York Times for what to read."

I was hesitant about shooting my keyboard off while this thing was still hot, because at some point I want to stop, and I can't seem to when talking about stuff like book blogging or reviewing.

A simple reply from me would be, "Rubbish." Too short? Okay...

By now it should be clear that book prizes such as the Man Booker aren't for types who pick 'readability' over 'art'. Books that can be considered 'readable art' or even 'absolutely re-readable art' are possible, but what determines that is for the most part subjective. How to explain the polarised views people have for certain books, apart from blaming rogue reviewers and easily gamed ranking systems?

That few things out there are universally loved - or hated - keeps reviewing and criticism exciting. People apply different yardsticks to measure a book's readability, bringing to bear their own knowledge and previous reading experiences.

The subsequent richness of opinion on a book or any other work can be complex and hard to cut through, but one gets a really huge buffet of viewpoints from which to choose, digest, and maybe add to.

Anybody who spends time and money to buy and read a book is entitled to an opinion, even if it's just "My cat can write better erotica" - who knows, it might just be true. Even if it doesn't advance one's appreciation of the book, at least it's entertaining and, well, if it isn't, move on to the next soapbox.

And the opinion deluge wouldn't necessarily drown out the more "critical" voices which, by virtue of their writing, should rise above the inane. Serious book people will learn how to recognise this cream; it is, after all, like picking what's good to read off the shelves. It's fine, I guess, to indulge in something 'vacuous' on occasion, as long as one recognises what it is.

One's understanding and knowledge of a particular kind of work can only increase as the discussion goes on and intensifies. That can only get better, but only if the contributions improve in quality. They will, over time, despite scepticism from Booker Prize panel chairs.

Book prizes such as the Booker may have a part to play as an established gatehouse that brings good but lesser-known reads into the spotlight, like this piece suggests. That they're not about recommended "beach reads" is pretty much self-evident. Their picks and their relevance at a time when reads appear to be dumbing down, however, will continue to be a subject of at times intense debate.

Monday, 5 November 2012

News: Amazon Reviews, Book Pride and "It's NOT A Hobbit!"

Author Steve Weddle is "befuddled" over Amazon's removal of his positive review of another author's book, for which he makes no money.

Amazon's rationale? "We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product."

Weddle's befuddled, because he has no financial interests "in the product or a directly competing product". Also:

...what is this "directly competing product" stuff? I mean, if I were selling a rotary-enhanced-lippo-vac, I could understand if the nice people at Amazon did not want me reviewing someone else's rotary-enhanced-lippo-vac. That makes sense.

Point. But Weddle is not the only author whose Amazon book reviews have been deleted.

So this is how Bezos's jungle is responding to the sockpuppetry affecting its rankings and reviews system, hmm? What's frustrating, though, is that Amazon isn't, for the time being, telling people exactly why it's doing the stuff it does.

What with this and deleting or locking e-books in people's Kindles, small wonder Amazon-published books are still not welcome in some bookstores.

On a possibly related note: What's this with Twitter "withholding" tweets that may have infringed copyrights? Hope they know this may also affect the RTs on the platform.

Tolkien estate says prof - and everyone else - can't call Homo floresiensis a "hobbit"; Village Voice Media sues Yelp over generic phrase "best of"; and and William Faulkner estate sues over a paraphrased quote in the movie Midnight in Paris. Will bars and lounges be prohibited from selling the Vesper?

In other news:

  • RIP Elizabeth Kuanghu Chow a.k.a Han Suyin.
  • Elie Wiesel to write a book with Barack Obama?
  • Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick highlights what they feel is the problem with America's history books. Across the pond, a "spellcheck generation" can't spell simple words.
  • Isn't it just so Anthony Bourdain for his imprint's first book to be about meat?
  • Remarkable story about an author helping a Russian who's pirating his book. It's not Coelho...
  • Malaysian books as year-end presents? Why not? Except that this is more of a rant about why governments of some countries don't seem to be proud of their books and writers.
  • How not to write comics criticism. Points can apply - somewhat - to book criticism as well.
  • "If you loved Fifty Shades, you'll love this book." I scoffed at this blurb -or something like it - on the cover of Sylvia Day's Bared to You. Still scoffing, just because. La la la la la not reading you....
  • Will this court case affect how former college students dispose of their textbooks?
  • Writing a book? Here's three things that should go into a book's first page.
  • E-devices, it seems, are changing how - and what - we read.
  • Ian McEwan praises the novella. Are we looking at an upcoming trend?
  • Are bad books better than no books? No. Because there's always the Internet. Or fresh air. Or coffee bars. Or bookstores. Or Ramly burger stands. Or...

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Ruined Splendour

I enjoyed this book.

Alright, so the three industries aren't really dead yet - just in shambles, thanks largely to the technology that enabled me to post this. But they'll pick themselves up, hopefully, and live on.

Apologies to Justin Cronin and Karl Lagerfeld for any offence caused. The mental cues just ... leapt in there.

Splendour from ruin
Even broken lives can be beautiful, as this darkly funny novel suggests

first published in The Star, 04 November 2012

Why do KL drivers slow down to stare at multi-vehicle pile-ups? Could there be something ... beautiful about them? Considering the things that pass for sculptures of modern art, perhaps. But such morbid beauty isn't just found in mangled metal.

Beautiful Ruins
The pile-up of broken lives in Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins is just as fascinating. The comic-tragic tale unfolds from several directions as the protagonists race towards the inevitable collision. And it's all because of Richard Burton.

In 1962, Porto Vergogna (literally, "port of shame") is a dying Italian fishing town and home to young Pasquale Tursi, keeper of the oddly named Hotel Adequate View. Tursi's daydreams of building tennis courts are interrupted by the arrival of Dee Moray, an American starlet who was supposed to be in Liz Taylor's Cleopatra. It's not long before Tursi starts thinking about a different kind of "love". However, stuff happens and, one day, she vanishes.

In the present day, several people are failing in their romances and careers. Claire Silver, assistant to film producer Michael Deane, is disappointed with her porn-addict boyfriend and the box office bombs her boss made. Shane Wheeler's dreams of being a writer also bombed, along with his marriage and finances. Across the pond, Pat Bender's latest music-comedy act goes belly-up, ending his rock star ambitions.

Hoping for a break, Wheeler pitches a story to Deane, so he's off to meet his assistant, Silver. Wheeler's knowledge of Italian helps when an elderly Italian man, a now-aged Tursi, shows up with one of Deane's old business cards – and a story that moves Wheeler, Silver and Deane to help him.

There's a tingling sense of anticipation that's maintained throughout the novel, the promise of a spectacular collision that only happens during a rare alignment of some major cosmic bodies.

The third-person narrative is mostly the spilling of the characters' thoughts. The jumps in the timeline, punctuated with excerpts from several characters' manuscripts or screenplays, can be initially hard to follow but the dark, often vulgar comedy helps.

Another compelling aspect about Walter's novel is that its backdrop can be considered "beautiful ruins" as well: the film, book and music industries, as represented by the principal characters. Gawk and maybe chuckle at the references to trashy reality TV shows, bad movie ideas and English professors who write popular horror fiction (makes one think of Justin Cronin). Although their worlds are crumbling, the protagonists manage to cling on, just in time for Tursi's arrival. In helping the old Italian find a missing piece of his past, their hope is rekindled.

What one feels about this book is captured by Wheeler's reaction to the present-day Deane, a "lacquered elf" whose obsession for eternal youth has given a 72-year-old man the face of a "nine-year-old Filipino girl" (makes one think of Karl Lagerfeld). "Try not to stare," Silver advises Wheeler.

Like Wheeler, you'll fail. You can't help it. Even if you have almost no idea what's going on, there's no way you can take your eyes off Walter's ruined lives as they converge and finally crash into each other. I don't really fancy how some loose ends are tied up, but at least it rules out a sequel if they decide to bring it to the silver screen.

"Go read this now" would not suffice. The splendour of Beautiful Ruins, like the pyramids and temples of Ancient Egypt, must be personally witnessed to be understood. You will not be able to look away. Be awed at the chaos and brilliance of his work, and be moved by a story of optimism and a decades-old love.

Beautiful Ruins
Jess Walter
Harper (2012)
337 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-220713-5

Friday, 2 November 2012

Growing Up With Ghosts

At first, the idea of the supernatural in the setting seemed interesting, only because I haven't read anything like this. But I'm no 140-plus-books-a-year person.

In the end, though, I felt underwhelmed. This book broke no mould or new ground. That "octopus scene" touted in some promo material appeared gratuitously tacked on. The protagonist's ordeals lent little poignancy to her survival.

Maybe I should've titled it "Growing old with ghosts".

Cassandra's abilities reminded me of Brian Lumley's Necroscope character, a man who can talk to the dead and raise an army of dead people. Despite this and her toughness, she remains bound by the restrictions from the religious and social mores of her day. She is used, abused, disbelieved and betrayed, particularly by the men in her life.

One would think being a female necromancer would set her free from all that, but perhaps it's due to her reluctance to abuse her gift, or the author's attempts to avoid turning an adult book into some young adult fantasy.

Guess some ghosts are harder to exorcise than others.

This particular time period may yet yield more stories, but I think it's time writers start letting Southeast Asia's pre-war/wartime/post-war era fade into the evening mists along with its gardens, jungles, horrors and other emotional baggage.

Growing up with ghosts
Don't read too much into this dark tale

first published in The Star, 02 November 2012

In present-day Japan, an old lady searches for a book in a library and finds pages torn from it and a picture of her younger self in it defaced. Then, walking outside, she sees a pair of crows collide in mid-flight. In the evening, she gets a mysterious phone call asking for an interview and, much later, a seemingly otherworldly visitor. Shaken, the old lady reaches for a voice recorder and starts recalling her dark past.

The Black Isle
One thing about ghost stories these days is that they seem to be about more than just ghosts – or not at all. There are ghosts galore, as well as undead and nature spirits, in Sandi Tan's The Black Isle but it feels as though their presence is more for effect and atmosphere in a tale about a little girl born in the 1920s, who has to grow up real quick when she's uprooted from her native Shanghai and sent to a tropical backwater.

The girl, Ling, is the elder of a pair of brother-sister twins and the black sheep of the lot that includes her brother Li and a pair of younger twin girls. Her life starts to change when she discovers her gift.

... She sees dead people ... all the time....

Don't bother calling up filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan about possible copyright infringements of his hit 1999 movie, The Sixth Sense. Nothing of the sort here.

The first ghost Ling sees is of her former babysitter, who vanishes after leaving behind a message: That Ling would leave home for a faraway place. It isn't long before Ling is packed off to South-East Asia, along with her dad and twin brother, to help better the family fortunes.

They end up on the "Black Isle"; from the map in the book, it looks like – but is not quite like – Singapore. The island is "dirty" – haunted – and would get "dirtier" when the Japanese come a-knocking.

It's not long before we see hints that her "gift" is more of a bane than a boon. Nobody believes in her sightings as a child, which would later lead her to adopt the name Cassandra, after the tragic princess and prophetess of Troy. But when the Black Isle finally gains its independence, will she also be free of her ghosts?

One observation made about The Black Isle is that the work straddles young adult and adult fiction, which I find is very much the case. The pages breeze along, despite their not-so-bright tone. But I wonder if the novel was set during a time of conflict as an excuse to weave in elements of dark fantasy.

Racism, swearing and lurid descriptions of all sorts of bad behaviour made me feel uncomfortable, even though the whole novel overall was well-written and – perhaps, a little too – well-imagined.

The Black Isle itself is said to be an amalgam of a number of South-East Asian countries whose evolution mirrors Malaysia's. That, as well as the inclusion of elements of regional folklore and myth makes the novel more relatable, albeit well-worn in its familiarity. As a result, there's little compulsion to pick this book up again after one is done with it.

Still, that so much from real life is incorporated into a supernatural tale begs one to seek out hidden messages in the threads of the story.

Old wisdom contends that each place has its ghosts and penunggu (Malay for "guardians"), and the notion that they will rise up against any injustice done to it, just as the Black Isle's did, has a certain appeal. But raising ghosts and invoking the past can be dangerous, especially if it is to inflame passions or advance someone's selfish agenda.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into what could be a simple ghost story set in familiar territory, meant only to be enjoyed on a sleepless night in a dimly lit room. Can you blame me? After a spell on Sandi Tan's shadowy Black Isle, you'd probably start seeing things, too.

The Black Isle
Sandi Tan
Grand Central Publishing (August 2012)
472 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4555-1654-4