Friday, 29 March 2013

Wise Guys

Easter, Sunday, 2013: This review struggled to find a home for a while, mainly because of the novel's premise. It ended up in TMI, on Good Friday, no less. I'd only realised this belatedly. Was this why it briefly ended up as an editor's pick?

Anyway, Happy Easter, Malaysia.

Wise guys
What if the "three kings" were "three thugs"? For one, there'd be more action

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 29 March 2013

Seth Grahame-Smith's darker retelling of the Nativity took me by surprise. I actually liked it – though I knew from just the title and synopsis that I would.

Unholy Night
The story of the three magi should be a familiar one. As the ages roll by, however, many chapters in history tend to become apocryphal – outa punya cerita.

Did these three kings really exist, and are they enshrined in the Cologne Cathedral in Germany? Or is there something else behind the tale?

Grahame-Smith shakes things up a little by suggesting that the Biblical Magi are not really nobles or holy men at all, but a trio of criminals on the run who just so happened to be at the right place at the right time.

This is the premise of Unholy Night, his latest work after Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

The protagonist and appointed leader of the fabled "magi" is Balthazar, a thief and murderer who's also known as the Antioch Ghost.

Attempting to escape the law, he's captured and imprisoned in the dungeons of King Herod in Jerusalem, along with two other thieves, Gaspar and Melchyor.

Being the most experienced and resourceful of the three, Balthazar successfully springs them all from jail.

Their escape enrages Herod but the sickly king's attention is diverted by one of his advisors towards a window.

Outside, the Star of Bethlehem is shining brightly, announcing the birth of the prophesied Saviour – and the beginning of the slaughter of the firstborns.

While escaping from Jerusalem, the three thieves witness the killings and are stunned into silence. Horror gives way to righteous fury. The result: some dead Judean soldiers and a wounded Balthazar.

Learning of the encounter, Herod sends a letter to the Roman emperor, who dispatches a real magician to deal with the holy child and his bodyguards, along with a young Pontius Pilate, who would preside over a famous trial years later.

Though it feels more true-to-life, Grahame-Smith retains some supernatural elements.

A wounded and unconscious Balthazar sees visions of a "Man with Wings" (Gabriel the Messenger?) and a wise old man who tells him to escort Joseph and Mary and their child to Egypt.

A swarm of locusts comes to their rescue at one point. When the magician shows that he's the real thing, Herod sees possibilities, including a cure for his disease and freedom from his position as a Roman satrap.

Also, other serendipitous events related to Balthazar's own troubled past explains why he uncharacteristically decided to protect the holy child.

His revenge sub-plot, which involves an old flame, brings out a sympathetic side to his generally unsavoury character that compels you to root for him.

"Stick it to him there! It'll hurt more!"

I found almost nothing to complain about. The pages practically turn themselves, and the cinematic feel of the novel screams, "Make a film out of me!" Grahame-Smith is – surprise, surprise – also a screenwriter and film and TV producer.

Some may find the portrayal of Mary in this novel a trifle unsettling, though. Balthazar initially scoffed at the immaculate conception thing and suggests a more earthly reason for Mary's pregnancy and gets an earful from the young and unexpectedly assertive, feisty new mom.

We know what happens to Joseph, Mary and their child.

We know what happens to Herod and Pilate. But it's what happens to the three "magi" at the end of Grahame-Smith's Unholy Night that makes it a satisfying read.

Those Christmas carols and Nativity scenes will never sound or feel the same.

This review was based on a complimentary advance reading copy.

Unholy Night
Seth Grahame-Smith
Grand Central Publishing (April 2012)
307 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4555-1617-9

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Unarchived: Malaysia, Truly Aiya!

another version of this piece was published in issue #50 of Off The Edge, February 2009

Around 2005 or 2006, Brian Gomez quit his job to travel and write Devil's Place, a fast-paced, violent, politically incorrect and expletive-laden novel - criteria that will make the Home Ministry's reading list if it wasn't labelled as fiction.

‘Devil’s Place’ (Idle Minds, 2008)
The lives of several main characters take a turn for the worse when a shady deal goes bad. What follows is a series of car chases, fights, homicides and the collision of paths between the protagonists, among whom are a struggling musician, a taxi driver with bizarre conspiracy theories, a pimp with poor English, a terrorist, a crooked cop, and an American CIA agent.

Despite the main cast's international make-up, Devil's Place is very Malaysian, right down to the jalan cerita that's like the North-South Highway during festive seasons. Observant readers will spot facets of our society and culture as the pages turn, many of which are unsavoury. It's not 'Malaysia, Truly Asia', but it's damn funny.

Brian was kind enough to answer some questions regarding his debut novel for Off The Edge, back in 2009:

ADOI magazine said you were previously Creative Director for Friends Advertising. What made you quit your job and go off to travel and write?
While working on concepts and ideas for the many ad campaigns I'd done over the years, inevitably some random idea would pop into my head and I'd think This would be a good premise for a book or this would make a good movie or maybe I'd stumble upon a phrase that I thought would sound good in song. And eventually I had to quit my job just to see if something could come out of these ideas. I wasn't 100% sure I was going to write a novel at the time. But in the end the premise and promise of Devil's Place interested me the most.

May I assume that your blog ( reflects your political leanings? But surely you didn't write the book to air those views?
Not everything I blog about reflects my views. My blog posts are written in pretty much the manner the novel was written, that is to say I start out with a premise and then see where the next paragraph takes me. Sometimes it takes me to places that have nothing to do with what I believe in. But more often than not, I think, they end up more or less a reflection of my values. If by reading my blog, you surmise that politically I'm more left than right, you'd probably be correct.

‘Devil’s Place’ (Fixi Novo, 2013)
The book was not written to air any views. Before I sat down to write it, I thought that maybe it would to a certain extent. But after the first couple of chapters I realized that you have to allow the characters to determine the story. Everytime I tried to plot things my way, I found that the story ended up being too contrived – too forced. But in the end it was a lot more fun discovering the story as I wrote it as opposed to already knowing the ending and writing just to service the plot.

It was amazing to recognise all those little Malaysian idiosyncrasies in the novel, but it doesn't exactly paint a pretty picture. What are your feelings about the 'Malaysia' in Devil's Place? How close is it to the one we are living in?
I think the Malaysia in Devil's Place is probably slightly less absurd than the real Malaysia. In any other country, Devil's Place would be considered satire but after everything that's happened in the country the last couple of years – The Lingam Case, Altantuya, ISA Protection etc – I fear a story about terrorists, a prostitute, politicians, corrupt cops and stuff might actually bore people. But I love this country. I really do. What writer wouldn't? It's the gift that keeps on giving, isn't it? I think I actually love the things I hate more than I love the things I love.

Any word from the Home Ministry regarding your book?
The good thing about book-publishing in this country is that you don't have to be licensed by the Home Ministry. But magazine publishers do, don't they? There could be a Home Ministry official reading this at this very moment, couldn't there? To any Home Ministry officials who may be reading this right now, I would just like to say that among all the ministries the Home Ministry is my favourite and that, in my opinion, it is perfectly acceptable to detain people without trial for the purposes of their own protection. The Home Ministry rocks! But not in a bad way like Avril Lavigne or anything. The Home Ministry rocks in a good, clean, Eastern-values-filled way! Like Mawi!

Are you really coming up with a sequel to Devil's Place? Mind telling us a little bit about it?
It's a sequel-but-not-quite. Some of the minor characters from Devil's Place will feature in the new book I think, but it will be a completely different story. So far, I've got the premise. I'm itching to start but haven't found the time. Hopefully, it'll be out by the end of the year.

You mentioned that you're currently working freelance. Are you getting by, and is there anything readers of Off The Edge can do to help (besides buying the book)?
I get by but the millions I expected from sales of the book have strangely not materialized. Off The Edge readers who wish to remedy this grave injustice can send me suitcases full of cash of which I promise to donate at least 10% to The Home Ministry.

Brian Gomez's Devil's Place was originally published by Idle Minds in 2008. Its re-launch as part of the Fixi Novo imprint is happening at Kinokuniya, KLCC on 30 March, from 8pm to 9pm. Not sure if there will be a sequel.

Happening on the same day and around the same time is MerdeKahKah Comedy + Improv at Brian's Place aka Merdekarya, 1st Floor, 352, Jalan 5/57, Petaling Garden, Section 5, Petaling Jaya. Attendance is free, but please leave something in the tip jar.

So, where will you be?

Monday, 25 March 2013

FESSing Up

A couple of weeks back, I checked myself into a hospital and had this done. One day after the procedure, I was discharged and advised to "take it easy" and maintain a low profile.

But it was difficult.

The first week was the toughest. New pillow too high, old pillow too low. Sleep was hard, and I had to get up now and again to cough out gobs of mostly blood-stained phlegm.

I shed nearly six kilos in the last two weeks. My stamina levels plummeted; walking distances I'd never break a sweat over had me gasping for breath and energy. My limbs atrophied somewhat.

So, no listicles for book- or publishing-related news until I'm back to normal.

Besides, all everyone cared about while I've been away was Tan Twan Eng winning the Man Asia Literary Prize for The Garden of Evening Mists. I believe this will be the last time that the Man Group will be sponsoring the Asian Literary Prize which will be known as ... the Asian Literary Prize until a new sponsor is found.

Other good news includes the ban on that SIS book being thrown out and the religious authorities' raid on Borders being ruled illegal, though an appeal will be filed for the latter, it seems.

Bad news: RIP Chinua Achebe.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Hattie's Heartbreak

first published in The Star, 24 March 2013

It is impossible to come away from Ayana Mathis's The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie without a pit in your stomach. That the trials and hardships of a black woman and her 11 children are still the lot of many within her demographic in 21st-century America deepens that pit.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Not too long after teenaged Hattie gets swept off her feet by her beau, August, sometime in the 1920s, the sweet life they imagined for each other is shattered time and again by harsh realities and August's failings as a father and husband. After Hattie's first children – a pair of twins – die, she becomes a cold, bitter woman, determined to toughen up her subsequent nine kids for a world that won't treat them kindly. Even so, her efforts would yield mostly bitter harvests.

Her children distance themselves from her as they grow up. Not knowing her love, Hattie's kids don't seem inclined to give any to their loved ones in turn. Floyd the musician, for instance, merely drifts from gig to gig without much of a plan in life. Alcoholic Franklin is almost a carbon copy of his father. Young Six tries to help others through faith but corruption rears its ugly head. Alice's constant need to keep her younger brother under her wing stems from insecurities born out of a dark time in their lives, even as the supposedly frail younger sibling finds the courage to be his own man.

The last couple of chapters, set in 1980 and possibly derived from Mathis's own life story, is about how Hattie struggles to protect her granddaughter (the "twelfth tribe") from a world that she still sees as harsh and unforgiving when the girl's possibly schizophrenic mother can't cope. And we end up resigned to Hattie's pain continuing until she breathes her last.

This not-very-big volume is mostly misery, disappointment and heartbreak. Snapshots of points in Hattie's and her children's lives contain just enough detail that, when put together, they seem to show how certain mindsets have clung tenaciously onto America's social fabric, right up to this day and age. That these mindsets appear to have been strengthened rather than weakened by a black man in the White House, seems to justify Hattie's bleak worldview.

The threads that link the lives of Hattie and her children together, however, seem non-existent or hard to trace, like the love – or rather, the general idea of the love – this woman is supposed to have for her kids. Were it not for Hattie, the chapters in this novel appear unrelated to one another.

That's no weakness, as readers can take a break whenever it gets them down. They'll have to at some point. The sun don't shine in these pages, no sir. The characters' pain is conveyed perhaps too well, prompting one to wonder: If Mathis penned something light-hearted, would it be even more enjoyable? Because make no mistake, this début novel is a good read despite the pain.

The only bright spot is that some of Hattie's children eventually recognise the wisdom behind her stoicism and try it out for themselves during hard times, though it's unclear if they know they're referring to their mama's playbook.

Don't be put off by the "Oprah Book Club 2.0" endorsement. The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie is worth exploring for the powerful language, the emotions it stirs, and how it makes us think of familial ties in the face of adversity.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Ayana Mathis
Alfred A. Knopf (Hardback, 2012)
243 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-35028-0

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Fritter Frenzy

My food piece submission for The Malaysian Insider before I checked myself into hospital for minor surgery; it was published three days after I went under the knife.

Reading this again afterwards, I began thinking how horrible it would be to not have memories like these, to have encounters like these and the opportunity to share them. To not be able to hear about quaint hidden corners like this stall and sample what they have to offer. We all live on borrowed time, of course, and it's absurd to think one can within his or her lifetime, unearth all the hidden gems this world has tucked away.

But one can try, while one is still able to. That's one life's goal there.

Fritter frenzy
All puffed up over treats from a neighbourhood snack hawker

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 14 March 2013

Several times I've heard Melody moan about her failed search for this banana fritter stall in Brickfields. Like it has the best in KL.

Chiam’s fritter stall
Mr Chiam at work
So when she finally got her hands on some crispy sweet goodness, she let me have it. Crunchy, sweet and not a whit of that hold-on-I'm-not-ripe-yet kind of tartness.

I have my favourite and only fritter stand, right outside the 99 Kopitiam in OUG, which sells what I say is the best cekodok in the Klang Valley. More banana than flour and they don't bounce like tennis balls when they hit the ground. They're damn oily, but nothing some paper towels can't solve.

Something was different about these Brickfields fritters, though.

"They're made with pisang raja," Melody enthused. "Not easy to get, and they don't have much in stock. They open around eleven, but all will be sold out by 3pm."

Pisang raja, hmm? As opposed to the made-with-pisang jelata stuff I've been eating? I was curious but remained non-committal when offered a chance to go there myself. C'mon, it's in Brickfields. One of the busiest parts of Brickfields, the area around the YMCA.

But wouldn't you know it, I had a vacant Saturday to fill. And Melody said they have damn good curry puffs.

Belatedly, I consulted Google. Turns out that this nondescript stall has a reputation. So famous, that they made their mobile number available for those who wanted to order in advance. Melody even called up to make sure they were open and that the banana fritters were still available.

Yes, nobles and common folk, this stall is Chiam's at Brickfields, an outfit run by a father-son team.

The man in charge looks like the younger Chiam; Chiam Sr was nowhere in sight. For a stall with so many mentions online, it didn't look like much. And not a whole lot of things to offer. It's worth remembering that these stalls are often specialists in what they do serve, and they've been doing it for years.

I gave the sesame-coated balls a pass - not my favourite. I snagged two of each: banana fritters, kuih bakul (nian gao) and the curry puffs.

banana fritters, curry puffs and deep-fried kuih bakulinsides of a fresh curry puff
Chiam's banana fritters, curry puffs and deep-fried kuih bakul (left);
lovely, delicious, glistening insides of a fresh curry puff

Okay, problem: Where to eat this?

"Go across to Old Town," Mr Chiam suggested.

Infuriatingly straitlaced ol' me was aghast. You don't do that!

"Don't worry," Chiam assured me. "The waiters are only working there; they're not going to bother you." In other words, nobody at that outlet is being paid to give a damn about the 'outside food' rule.

Eating takeaway fritters in a gussied-up kopitiam is kind of odd, but oddly appropriate - not encouraging this sort of thing, mind you. Even this outlet feels so... neighbourly. A bunch of schoolkids were having a meeting; at another table, one is doing his homework. I haven't been in such a setting in KL for a long time. Or perhaps I haven't been going out much.

Fritters are best chased down with a good kopitiam-style coffee, so we ordered one. Melody also wanted a wan tan mee, which she said was good. At this point I can't argue with her anymore. The weather was hot, and she's seldom wrong about food.

I waited until the coffee arrived before taking a bite. Nobody made a fuss, so my molars crunched down. The honeyed layer between the flesh and dough is sweet and fragrant, almost nectar-like and HOTHOTHOTOWIE WHERE'S THE ICED COFFEE?

price list and contact info
Chiam's price list and contact info

I helped myself to more banana fritter after lunch. It's easier to appreciate the taste after it cools. The dough shell can be excessive, so chuck away a little if you feel like it.

The balance among yam, sweet potato and kuih bakul - in that case, can we call it "anniversary taffy"? - in the fried kuih bakul was just right. Can't complain.

And the curry puffs... the potatoes were moist, warm and finely diced compared to most curry-puff fillings, and the chunks glistened in shades of vermillion and ochre. What was strange was that Melody found it spicy, while I didn't. We both agreed that, yes, this is a Curry Puff™, the blueprint for all (economy-class) curry puffs to come.

When I opened up another one at home, out popped a shred of chicken. How long has it been since chicken appeared in a hawker-stall curry puff? And the thing was still moist, more than two hours after we reached home.

If only I stayed near this YMCA.

Mr Chiam's Pisang Goreng
Opposite YMCA, in front of Yit Sieang Coffee Shop
Jalan Tun Sambanthan 4
Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur

Daily, 12.30pm–6pm

+6012-617 2511

Monday, 11 March 2013

Bowled Over Again

The adventures of a portly Punjabi private eye continues

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 11 March 2013

After discovering and enjoying Tarquin Hall's first two Vish Puri mysteries about two years ago, I was "doing tension" waiting for the next instalment since reading about it online. It quietly slipped into bookstores in the middle of 2012.

I had thought that The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken was a working title.

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken
When the third Vish Puri mystery unfolds, the portly Punjabi private eye is in the bathroom weighing himself, and the signs aren't good. Things take a dark turn when Puri, eager to avoid a monumental scolding from dear wife Rumpi over his weakness for high-calorie munchies, resorts to (gasp!) rigging the bathroom scales and quaffing diet pills.

However, the real mystery begins when Faheem Khan, the father of Pakistani cricket star Kamran Khan, croaks after eating some tainted butter chicken during a dinner party. Puri suspects the incident may also be tied to a poisoned dog that interrupted an earlier cricket game.

So begins our hero's descent into the shadowy world of underground betting syndicates, cricket match-fixing and money laundering. Puri is also investigating the theft of somebody's record-breaking moustache, a case that's more for comic relief rather than advancing the main plot.

Also making a return are Puri's crack team of mostly undercover operatives: professional thief Tubelight, Nepali femme fatale Facecream, electronics wiz Flush, and his secretary Elizabeth Rani, as well as the somewhat lovable scoundrel Rinku, Puri's childhood friend.

And how can I not mention Puri's mom, who's also a bit of a sleuth herself? Mummy-ji, who was also at the dinner party, had a look at Kamran Khan and, you'd swear, it's like she'd seen a ghost.

On the pretext of helping a friend, she does some investigation of her own, revisiting the horrors she'd witnessed after the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947. Of course, mother and son would eventually find themselves co-operating in an effort to find Faheem Khan's killer.

Those who have enjoyed the first two books will be glad to know that the magic is preserved in this one. The writing is compelling, entertaining and crafted with the wry eye of a well-travelled expat.

With topics such as cricket betting syndicates and the aftermath of Partition, Hall's latest Vish Puri novel is darker than the first two. Puri's assistant Tubelight braves the paltry, stomach-turning living conditions in the slums in his search for the poisoned dog's remains. Our hero's life is threatened several times. A tragedy in Puri's family comes to light.

Another topic that is touched upon briefly is the alleged trade of blood diamonds in Surat, considered the world's diamond capital. We only get the barest of hints that the mastermind may be laundering money by buying diamonds, and that's it.

There are plenty of funny bits in the narrative as well as the dialogue. For one, the Punjabi PI is bewildered by the IT jargon used by one of his suspects. "What the hell was 'dynamic content'?" our protagonist wonders. "And how could a computer eat cookies?"

An entertaining lesson on Mumbaiya pigdin/Indian English slang can be found in an informant's exchange with Puri. A dead murder suspect, "Fawda Bhaiyya was game bajaana suumdi style", so he couldn't have hanged himself.

Besides, the deceased "was dedu foot so couldn't reach the punkah. Plus, he was totally fultoo and doing balle balle with his biscuit."

Have fun Googling that. But I'm sure you'd rather read the book.

The realism of Puri's world buoys seemingly outa elements such as Flush's remotely operated robot with a camera, leaving readers free from having to suspend disbelief and follow the hijinks of the intrepid Indian investigator, his gang and his mom.

The only major gripe I had was that my paperback edition does not include the "three mouthwatering recipes from the Vish Puri family kitchen" as promised by some retailers.

Spicy, scrumptious, and at times side-splitting and surreal, The Case of The Deadly Butter Chicken is an excellent continuation of the Vish Puri series.

(Coincidentally, there's a real Indian cricketer called Kamran Khan out there. For maximum reading pleasure, please unplug yourself from the Web and remember that it's fiction.)

This version includes a correction. Also, here's my review of the first two books.

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken
Tarquin Hall
Hutchinson (2012)
360 pages
ISBN: 978-0-09-193741-6

Sunday, 10 March 2013

News: Michelin Snark, And Slaying The Hydra

Twitter is, it seems, a huge pool of negativity. And not a good indicator of public opinion. Evidence of the former may be found in this list of choice "passive aggressive" tweets from Michelin reviewers, which also suggests that 'pros' are no better than Yelpers.

A day in the life of a senior (digital) editor at The Atlantic. Also, here's a day in the life of a freelancer who was asked to repurpose his article for The Atlantic - for nothing.

Felix Salmon delves into the issue in a Reuters blog. There's more at Gawker, which is - I think - saying that writers who have to support themselves and their dependents cannot afford to write for media outlets without pay. Ron Hogan threw in his two cents as well.

Presenting, the top ten worst sex scenes in modern literature. Hey, didn't all these win the Bad Sex Award at some point?

This question comes up from time to time: Why is literary sex generally so bad? Someone tries to get to the bottom of the rarity of good literary sex. Perhaps the writers are too ... embarrassed to be sexy and, therefore, crack under the pressure to perform?

John Scalzi, among others, rails at a "HORRIBLE AWFUL TERRIBLE APPALLING DISGUSTING" publishing contract "WHICH IS BAD". The contract, offered by Random House's digital-only imprint Hydra, had terms which some would consider exploitative.

Random House has issued an open letter to critics of the contract, "strongly" disagreeing with their points of view. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) wrote back to say they're maintaining their stance and that "there is very little to discuss."

Victoria Strauss over at Writer Beware is not a fan of the contract's terms, but her comments on the issue are also worth reading. How this will play out remains to be seen.

What else cropped up? Let's see:

  • An attempt to read and blog about Publisher's Weekly's bestseller-list-topping books for the past 100 years.
  • Even if blogging doesn't sell books, give it a go anyway.
  • Amish Tripathi, re-teller of the Hindu god Shiva's tale in the Shiva trilogy, gets a seven-figure advance for his next book(s). Is he the subcontinent's Dan Brown?
  • There are more guy reviewers than gals in some major lit journals. Looking at, say, The Star, one would think Malaysian men don't read.
  • When Tash Aw read at Silverfish and optimism for Malaysian writing.
  • "I was bitter. I wanted to sell my own book. And I still want some literary immortality of my own." 'Failed' novelist apologises for trashing novels of Keith Gessen and Nathaniel Rich in his search for that "literary immortality".
  • Comedian Russell Brand's powerful, unfunny outpourings about addiction. Riveting stuff. Can't believe he wrote it.
  • Hilary Mantel speaks out on the media storm over her "royal bodies" lecture, which has only propelled her name further up the charts. Meanwhile, Mantel adds the £40,000 "British Nobel", the David Cohen award, to her increasingly crowded mantelpiece.
  • Mike Godwin on his Law - yes, that one - and other stuff.
  • "Who needs Anne Frank?" What the famous diary (and, by extension, the Holocaust) means for boomers, Gen-X and millennials.
  • Seven grammar rules that aren't worth losing sleep over.
  • Sebastian Faulks to (try channelling PG Wodehouse and) pen a new Jeeves novel. All the best, Faulks.
  • A dispatch from a Congo literary festival.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Herbs Do Weird Things To People

This piece is a little different from the kinds I usually write, and it's not (just) because of the herbs.

Since writing this I've learned that: a) Not everyone gets a clove of awesome fried garlic, which could be another reason why the fries are awesome (garlic-and-herb infused oil?); b) myBurgerLab is planning collaborations with local startups Forty Licks and Smooshie Juice, so McDonald's is in trouble; c) the crispy savoury thing in the A++ is a wafer made of grilled parmesan cheese; and d) did TMI modify their file structure again?

Anyway, I should start cutting down my trips there; I work nearby and it's a 15- to 25-minute drive from there plus heavy traffic. It has reached a point where the staff recognise me on sight.

Burger trippin'
Flavours from of this 'lab' are so good, they're almost illegal

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 09 March 2013

For weeks, Melody has heard her friends wax lyrical about this burger joint. Feeling a sort of burger fatigue, we put off investigating this place until one rainy weekend. It always seems to rain each time we embark on burger hunts.

myBurgerLab counter; photo ©Alexandra Wong
Gateway to meaty, charcoal-bunned
awesomeness; photo ©Alexandra Wong
Our first attempt to find myBurgerLab was not successful. And we thought Salak South was a Bermuda Triangle for traffic. But we eventually found it, the McDonald's for hipsters and purveyors of Instagrammable burgers.

Inside, there was barely any room to stand. Décor was threadbare, not unlike similar hipster joints popping up all over the Klang Valley. Slogans, notices, signs and wall decorations were sprinkled with wit. That wall painting of a giant burger? Strain your eyes and you'll see a hidden message.

Ordering could be a problem. So many varieties on the chalkboard menu - what to choose? And the ingredients - ever had maple syrup and hash browns in a burger?

In the end, you just close your eyes and point. They're all just as pricey.

Melody explored her masochistic side with a "Kick in the Face" while I went with the simpler-sounding "A++" - with eyes wide open.

Behind the counter is a hot, steaming burger assembly line. Plum-sized balls of bright pink minced meat are laid out on a ledge near the griddle before they're transported onto hot metal, cooked and pressed into patties.

Various burger components are made separately before they're stacked between the trademark charcoal buns and bussed to the tables or packed for take-away.

On a good day (for the restaurant, not you) an eternity and a half can pass before your order number appears on the LCD display above the counter. The six to eight people in the kitchen can barely keep up.

myBurgerLab “Kick in the Face”; photo ©Alexandra Wong
"Kick in the Face", about to kick someone's face in;
photo ©Alexandra Wong

Melody's "Kick in the Face", a "mustard-grilled patty" with jalapenos and horseradish sauce, looked rather subdued but the flavours were whoa. The horseradish sauce made all the difference, adding a slightly nutty layer of flavour.

I couldn't tell whether the crispy savoury thing in my A++ meat-and-mushroom thing was beef bacon or something else. Both were delicious.

What I was not prepared for was the fries.


The herbs were a nice touch. It's one of those things you never think of but makes sense once you've experienced it. Who knew a dash of mixed dried Italian herbs could turn mundane into magnificent?

Oh, here's some red dipping sauce.


These are some wicked fries. And it comes with a wrinkled clove of garlic that's fried, salted and herbed like the potatoes - and also tasted good. I can only imagine that it goes well with beer, because I don't drink.

On a Tuesday one week later, I returned to myBurgerLab to round up the exploration with a Beautiful Mess 4.0, a tower of a burger with a breaded and fried portobello mushroom nearly as big as the patty and a sunny-side-up on top, which was said to have been refined four times. I had to wait about half an hour because they made a beautiful mess of my order.

myBurgerLab “A++”, awesome fries and magic red sauce; photo ©Alexandra Wong
myBurgerLab's A++ Burger, the awesome fries and magic
red sauce; photo ©Alexandra Wong

I got the impression that myBurgerLab is perpetually packed. No surprise, since they only open for dinner, taking half the day to prepare the raw ingredients and kitchen. Customers fill their cups from a dispenser at the back while their burgers cook.

"We consider today a slow day," said the lady at the counter. I believed her.

When my order eventually arrived, I pondered. Eat or run?

Then I spied the shelves for standing customers inside and outside the joint. That made things easier. I stepped outside, away from the crowd, and opened my take-away package.

There is no way to eat a Beautiful Mess v4.0 without making a beautiful mess of it. But what joy to smoosh your burger to make it fit.

At some point you can't tell where the meat ends and where the juice-soaked buns or egg bits begin. You'll know where to find the mushroom, though. If you're eating it fresh, it's the scalding hot bit somewhere near the top- darn, ate a bit of wax paper.


I'm still trying to wrap my head around the simple yet mind-blowing genius in the herbed fries.


How ironic it would be if myBurgerLab ended up being more famous for its fries.


With the last of the burger gone, I tipped the wrapper and down went a mix of melted cheese, meat juice, sauces, yolk and grease.

I can see why Melody's friends were wild about this place. They're cooking up some interesting combinations in this burger lab of sorts. You can't let go of the tastes. All they need is to stock some artisanal ice cream from The Last Polka and McDonald's will be in trouble.

Lumping a burger into a set - with a drink and fries - can take the bill past RM20, but it's worth it.

Just go easy on the fries. Oil, salt, glycaemic index and all that.


myBurgerLab (SEA Park)
No 14, Jalan 21/22,
Seapark, Petaling Jaya,


Tuesdays to Sundays, 5pm-10:30pm

Closed on Mondays

Facebook page

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Adiós, Hugo

So, Hugo Chávez's (aka Mr Freeze's) long goodbye has come to an end. Seems the whole world is mourning his passing; half because it means one less gadfly poking at Uncle Sam's eye, while the other half bemoans the loss of a target for snarking, object of loathing, and less-colourful headlines.

Those who 'like' him because he's a 'socialist' and hates the US, Britain, et al are missing the point. Because some people are paying a heavy toll so that he can call Bush Jr 'a devil' in a UN General Assembly, among other nutty stuff. I found him too weird for admiration, like that Turkmenbashi fellow. He's also too easy to hate, and I have better things to do.

Don't worry, because the caretaker of Hugo I's kingdom is striving to fill his late liege's shoes. And his credentials are notable, which includes former bus driver, Sai Baba follower and conspiracy theorist (emphasis mine):

...Hours before Chavez's death, Maduro accused "imperialist" enemies of infecting Chavez with cancer - the kind of headline-grabbing allegations against powerful foes that Chavez often used to whip up supporters during his 14 years of tumultuous rule.

He'll do just fine. And with friends like this, he'll do even better.

But a national security lawyer from one such "imperialist" country denies that bit because, well, "logic" (emphasis mine - do I have to do this? It's tiring):

"It's just not effective ... While some cancers can be intentionally induced, they take years to kill you. If an intelligence agency wants you dead, it wants you dead now so that you'll stop doing whatever it is that you're doing that makes them need to kill you."

That's the idea, I think. But now it seems the cancer he had didn't swing the scythe - and was only one of several ailments plaguing him till the end.

RIP Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's President for Ever.

08/03/2013: And Venezuela apparently agrees with me. If they follow through with this, will they build a pyramid for him next?

Monday, 4 March 2013

News: Everything's A Critic, Etc

Jon Methven's novel This Is Your Captain Speaking was 'reviewed' on Amazon by one of its characters, a "Passenger 12B": "Far be it for me to point out that I almost died on that plane. There I was, pinned to the fuselage's ceiling, wondering if I would ever see my kids again. Then we all discovered it was a ruse, and there was much rejoicing. Then we discovered Mr. Methven, who dreamed up our hellish descent and was writing a crap novel about it."

Everybody and everything, it seems can now be a critic. Will some of Nigella or Jamie's dishes start telling their authors what they really think of all that double cream or those "knobs o' butter"? Or will Hanuman in various adaptations of the Ramayana comment on their spoken 21st century lines? "Verily, honoured scribe, I do not speaketh so."

The mind boggles at the possibilities.


  • Nook suffers an over 20 per cent drop in business, not long after Barnes & Noble's founder, chairman and largest stockholder, Leonard Riggio, announced his intent to buy the company's retail business, but not the digital end of B&N.
  • Do you really own the e-books you download or 'buy'?
  • 'Trusted friends', word of mouth and book clubs ranked top three book discovery tools. Goodreads appears to be growing as a go-to for book recommendation. Amazon reviews? Not so much.
  • Homer's Iliad was written around the eighth century BC, according to geneticists.
  • Jonah Lehrer's other book, How We Decide, is being yanked from the shelves by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who also plans to refund customers who bought copies. Apparently, they found a boo-boo in that book.
  • Your new Oxford English Dictionary entry of the week: "friend zone".
  • Is it not chilling that some people don't know what 1M'sia book vouchers are for? Apart from, say, something to sell for money?
  • The complete works of Shakespeare, now in Punjabi.
  • Buying your way into the best-sellers' list? Probably not a good idea.
  • International Herald Tribune to be renamed International New York Times. And how is the Times NOT international already?

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Keep Calm And Read

I had something else to post, but something came up.

We're being invaded, of course, but that doesn't mean work on blogs, books and manuscripts have to stop.

On an unrelated note, a rescue mission of sorts took place on Friday at the distributors' side. One phone call and the editors in publishing and one or two colleagues were there in a flash.

Rescued books
My batch of rescued books. Will they all be read - preferably this year?

On staid Fridays, these rare phone calls from Distribution are a treat. We were like kids in a candy store.

Most are at least a year old and destined for pulping. Some could not be saved, including some Twilight-related publications (no huge loss there). But it's got me thinking.

Unfortunately, I didn't ask Distribution about any alternative recourse for to-be-pulped books. My understanding is that unsold items are written off and, when the time comes, are shipped off to their doom. Other than the annual warehouse sales, I don't know of any other ways (that don't involve money) to properly dispose of these books.

Now... how do I make time for these?