Thursday, 30 May 2013

Wandering Woman

Reading some of the tales in this book, one wonders why Zhang Su Li does the things she does to herself. But I suppose that - and the honesty - is part of the book's charm.

Way back in 2007, Marshall Cavendish published some of Zhang's travel tales in a collection called, A Backpack and a Bit of Luck. Some months back, more stories from her travels in Malaysia appeared in another travel story collection, Sini Sana ("Here and There" in Malay).

The boss would know the details about why Zhang wants to republish A Backpack with MPH. For me, it was a chance to read the book for free, after hearing about it for so long.

Old trails, revisited
Zhang had been a copywriter for years, and it shows. Occasional flashes of what I would assume is literary flair shows up in the book. Colourful, vivid descriptions attempt to put the reader in her shoes as she trots, hikes, stumbles and saunters her way through life and the exotic locales in the collection.

A showcase of her talent can be found in her (mis)adventures as an apprentice Odissi dancer in India, which is worthy of its own staged epic and takes up over a third of the book. What is perhaps the best story in the book also captivated a fellow editor.

For Zhang, the classical Indian art is physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding, particularly the physical part: "In learning Odissi, you become aware of the muscles you never knew you had," Zhang writes. "You also have to disregard the bones you always knew you had."

She describes the sights and sounds from an Indian roadside that conjures all the mental images and feelings needed to fill in the blanks.

Vivid memories of standing by a roadside littered with rubbish, cows, donkeys, pigs, dogs, crows and peacocks, barefoot children in rags with lice in their hair, snot down their noses and possibly somebody else's wallet in their pockets. A dog was dying on one side of the road. On the other, a cow was giving birth. Children were laughing and crying. People were chatting and quarrelling. Animals snorted, barked, mooed and squawked. Cars. Vans. Buses. Motorbikes. Bicycles. Honking their horns and ringing their bells. Swerving around the mobile landmarks and carcasses of small unidentifiable animals. At remarkable speeds, with impressive accuracy.

India is a land of extremes, from her point of view. Living and learning at her Odissi guru's neighbourhood at the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority (Noida) in Uttar Pradesh was, I take it, an enlightening experience that builds character, nurtures the spirit and sharpens hyperbole:

Only God knows why in India, there is no such thing as medium, or 'just nice'. On a scale of one to ten, all the numbers from two to nine seems to be missing. In winter, the water is so cold your tits get numb just looking at the bucket.

And isn't it just like a copywriter to anthropomorphise dust? Indian dust, to be precise:

The seams of my mobile phone were packed with dirt no matter how often I tried to clean it with the edge of a fingernail. Anything with a screw top ... oooh, baby ... here they come! Flat surfaces are just too easy for them; they're already occupied by less ambitious dust particles anyway. ... Nothing, nothing, nothing escapes the clutches of Indian dust.

Not all adventures are as action-packed, dramatic or memorable. Zhang appears to find Helsinki boring. The city boasts a Stockmann's departmental store that seems to have become a reference point to all other places in the city. But even in a squeaky-clean utopia of a Scandinavian city, she finds a silver lining:

"Excuse me, where's the railway station?"

"You go past Stockmann, turn left, then past the traffic lights, and take a right..."

Or, "Excuse me, how do I get to the Pyramids of Giza?"

"You go past Stockmann, and you turn right, and..."

Or, "Hello, where can I get a large rubber hose with fur attachments to hit myself on the backside with?"

"You go past Stockmann..."

...Aww nuts, she's just being cheeky. The fur-augmented rubber hose didn't happen ... right?

ostrich head
What she saw just before...
photo probably from here.
But if there is a place where Finns can indulge in their own Fifty Shades of Grey fantasies, their country isn't all that boring.

Meet, greet and (maybe) eat
Zhang's penchant for travelling and talking to strangers may have begun when, as a schoolgirl, she met an old British chap who was posted to Malaya and had lunch with him at his home. This pattern of meet, greet and eat would repeat itself at various points in her life.

During a Kruger Park safari, she 'cures' a travelling companion of 'malaria' and, later, helps raid an ostrich nest at a farm in South Africa for a monster-sized sunny-side-up (if you're curious, here's a guy who made one).

Job searches in the UK lead her to quirky and often charming characters in a British pub and its landlady's peace-making custard cream biscuits; and a gambling den and its greasy, chauvinistic manager's "turkey stew" ("Tin 'a turkey roll, baked beans, mix 'em together." Then, keep it in a safe for one night. Eww.)

A flat tyre along a dark silent highway ends in a late-night tom yam and lessons on patience, humility and the kindness of strangers. Answering a call from another kind stranger while searching for Atlantis in Santorini nets her some salt-cured sardines, ouzo and an olive-branch wreath for protection.

At a cemetery in Vienna, she toasted marshmallows with an old bag lady. And a throw of the dart sends her to Myanmar on a bumpy cross-country bus ride to a feast of salad, fried bugs and sago palm worms.

Not bad for a former student at an English school who's terrified of earthworms. Come a long way since then, she has.

And there's more where that came from.

Poignant, funny, punny, a little pugnacious and kind of fun, Zhang is not shy about her own shortcomings even as she strives to overcome them, documenting every misstep for our entertainment and education.

So go on. Pick this up and find out what one phone call, a swing of the steering wheel or a knock on the door can lead to. You might be surprised.

Zhang Su Li's A Backpack and a Bit of Luck will be republished by MPH, plus some edits. Copies of the original Marshall Cavendish edition may still be available at bookstores.

A Backpack and a Bit of Luck
Stories of a Traveller with No Sense of Direction

Zhang Su Li
MPH Group Publishing
285 pages
ISBN: 978-967-415-866-8

Buy from

Monday, 27 May 2013

News: Open Letter, Blurbs, And Amazon Kindles Fanficdom Fire

A certain blind Socialist woman penned a letter to a bunch of German university students in 1933 who planned to burn some books, including hers. That was the year Adolf Hitler became the German Chancellor, by the way.

"History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas," it begins. "Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them."

Not that she's unaware of the issues behind it. "I acknowledge the grievous complications that have led to your intolerance; all the more do I deplore the injustice and unwisdom of passing on to unborn generations the stigma of your deeds."

That this blind lady sees the value of and appreciates what some of us take for granted: ideas and letters on a page should shame book-burners everywhere and through the ages.

What? You've never heard of Helen Keller?

Okay, what else?

  • Amazon has started a publishing model to crowdsource fanfic. Authors Malinda Lo and John Scalzi has some thoughts about it - few of them good.
  • Beth Hayden over at Copyblogger on why writing is scary, and why writers must write through fear. "If we let fear stop us, our content will have no spark, no life. And everything we write will be completely unremarkable."
  • "Do snippets of inflated praise on dust jackets make any difference to potential readers standing in a bookstore? Is anyone buying Benjamin Percy’s werewolf novel, 'Red Moon,' because John Irving called it 'terrifying'?" Book blurbs are "terrifying", Ron Charles suggests.
  • How a writer used Wikipedia to buff his ego and settle scores - and cast more doubt upon Wikipedia as an online info source.
  • After doing some homework, restaurant critic Jay Rayner eats crow over a past outburst over food miles. This is why Rayner deserves respect, even if he is a little shouty and abrasive.
  • Why literary criticism still matters. I know I'm beating a dead horse.
  • A farmer in the US explains certain questions you shouldn't ask at farmers markets in the US.
  • Nationalist politics in China's film industry is kind of ... worrying.
  • Manila's city chairman roasts Dan Brown for calling the capital the "gates of hell" for its "six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution [and] horrifying sex trade" in his latest book, Inferno.

    Some commenters on the original news report, however, say that Brown, who is reputed to be fond of re-interpreting history and science to suit his plots, was kind of spot on about Manila in that book.

    So, I guess he won't be helping much with Filipino tourism as much as, say, Florentine or Venetian tourism.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Lost, Then Found

first published in The Star, 26 May 2013

♪ ... we are poor little lambs who have lost our way
Baa, baa, baa! ♫

In those lines from the opening sequence of the old TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep (aka, the Black Sheep Squadron), one feels all that's heroic, heartwarming, harrowing and horrific in World War II. The book I'd finished in just one night had the same effect, albeit with a few chuckles.

While rummaging through old newspaper archives, former journalist, and now professor of journalism at Boston University, Mitchell Zuckoff uncovered lots of hidden gems. One of these became Lost In Shangri-La, an airplane crew's story of survival and salvation in the dense jungles of Papua New Guinea during World War II (which I reviewed in 2011).

Now Zuckoff is back with another, similar epic: Frozen In Time. This time, he became more involved with the story he was writing, going so far as to visit plane-crash sites in freezing cold weather and giving a stranger his credit card. The things authors do to write books these days....

Greenland, according to Zuckoff, was a source of natural cryolite, used in processing the aluminium that went into American and Canadian warplanes during World War II. That, and Greenland's potential as a staging area for a blitzkrieg-style attack on Europe, led to the US setting up bases there.

Greenland was a tough posting. It's cold, of course, and layers of snow hide deep gaps in the glaciers underneath. When fog or a storm rolls in and covers the horizon, the ground becomes indistinguishable from the sky. Even experienced aviators can't tell which way is up when caught in this hazardous phenomenon, known appropriately as "flying in milk".

This book is about not one but three plane crashes. In 1942, the crash of a C-53 Skytrooper in Greenland sent planes in the air in a search operation. One of those planes, a B-17 bomber, crashed while searching for the C-53. Much of the story revolves around the crew of this B-17.

Unlike Zuckoff's other war tale, some of the people involved perished trying to rescue the victims. One of the rescue planes that didn't make it home was a Grumman J2F-4 piloted by Coast Guard members Lieutenant John Pritchard Jr and Radioman First Class Benjamin Bottoms. The plane, also known as the "Duck", crashed while carrying a crew member of the crashed B-17.

Zuckoff not only unearthed the story of the three planes and their crew, he also learned about the people who were trying to bring the Duck and its crew and passenger home. To write a complete account of the three plane crashes, the author joined the 2012 quest to find the Duck.

As I see it, the "Duck Hunt", as the search was called, was primarily driven by two figures. Zuckoff is wary of photographer and explorer Lou Sapienza whose "default posture" reminds the author of a certain windmill-tilter, especially after Sapienza gets him to pay for a shared taxi. And "Don Quixote" wanted Jon Krakauer (of Into Thin Air fame) to write this story. The other guy, retired Coast Guard captain Tom King collects Coast Guard relics to preserve them and keep them away from profiteering wreck-hunters. As Grumman Ducks were rare WW2 planes, the Greenland Grumman may be worth several million.

Tom King has another, more personal reason: "I don't want to see John Pritchard's wallet being sold on eBay."

Those who read Lost In Shangri-La can expect a similar kind of narrative from Zuckoff here, except with even more testosterone. Imagine Band Of Brothers set in an icy landscape and made by National Geographic. There's plenty of drama to keep the pages turning, and heaps of background information to slow things down, too. Zuckoff has done his homework, as attested to by over 20 pages of source references.

As we follow the travails of the B-17 crew and their rescuers amidst dangers that lurk in the white, we are taken back to each major character's beginnings in relatively fairer climes and times and told how they got to Greenland and, later, learn of their ultimate fates.

Back in the present, we see how the search is hampered by inaccurate maps, a lack of thorough planning, expertise and funding, a clash of personalities, and the harsh Greenland winter.

Zuckoff helps out by giving Sapienza cash and, later, his credit card number. "In no time, Lou (Sapienza) blows past the limit I set." The author's sacrifices provide much of the humour in the latter-day part of this saga, for which I was grateful.

Too many names to mention this time around, as we go from the crash victims' makeshift weather-beaten shelters against the cold to the meeting rooms where creases in the Duck Hunt are being ironed out and, finally, what may be the Duck's final resting place.

Throughout his potentially quixotic mission to bring us the tales of these brave men – in the past and present – Zuckoff is at times asked, "How does the book end?"

Not in the way you would think. History buffs, however, will thank him for getting this story out of the ice.

02/01/2014: Amended this bit to clarify exactly who perished; people died in the plane crash in Lost in Shangri-La, not the rescuers.

Frozen in Time
An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II

Mitchell Zuckoff
HarperCollins (2013)
391 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-226937-9

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Reading 'Readings' Again

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 23 May 2013

For reasons I'll only divulge over coffee, I haven't gotten involved in anything related with Readings since 2011. But is the latest release of Readings from Readings 2 that bad?

Not really.

Collective camaraderie
Local poet, writer, and lecturer Bernice Chauly founded Readings about eight years ago. The "live" reading event, which usually takes place on the last Saturday of each month, is currently held at Seksan's, a house in Lucky Garden in Bangsar that landscape architect Ng Seksan turned into an art gallery and office.

When Bernice could no longer manage Readings, it was bequeathed to Sharon Bakar, a writer, editor and creative writing teacher. Readings has hosted more than 400 writers, from the man-on-the-street types to names such as Tan Twan Eng, Tash Aw, Hishamuddin Rais, Kam Raslan and Preeta Samarasan.

I've lost count over the number of Readings sessions I've attended, but it must've been somewhere between 10 and 12. Most of these took place on warm, often muggy Saturday afternoons. Trees provided little shade, and the breeze mostly stayed away.

The crowd is a mix as eclectic as the reader line-ups. Some were new faces who have never been published before, let alone read their work aloud in front of strangers, some of whom are formidable figures in writing and publishing.

For new or unpublished writers, Readings can be a launchpad to greater heights. Simply showing up and, maybe, buying a copy or five of the books on sale helps.

Because of the current state of the local writing pool, seasoned Malaysian writers, editors and publishers are eager to share and help grow local talent ― and they should be! Every achievement, every success story, no matter how small, is celebrated.

From Seksan's to the shelves
Coming out of over eight years of Readings, this second volume in the Readings from Readings series more or less lives up to its billing as a collection of new writing, and it's a gorgeous production, thanks to writer, poet and artist Shahril Nizam's unique touch.

Reports of their suckiness were greatly exaggerated

Many contributions are short, written as they were for their 15-minute time slot. Crafting exceptionally effective and powerful short stories is hard, so, kudos to those who managed to pull it off in this collection, like Chuah Guat Eng, who manages to channel the tortured mind of a child whose ignorance sparks a terrible tragedy.

For me, Fadz Johanabas's is arguably among the better pieces, as is Amir Hafizi's outlandish, rib-tickling paean-of-sorts to his dad which, one hopes, is not "fiction."

Even without the cadence of her calm voice, Lilian Tan's poems ― including the one about a stubborn raindrop ― manage to retain some of their potency. And how not to pity the poor girl in Cynthia Reed's tale of a makeover that ends badly?

This volume overall is a slight improvement over the first, with a good mix of new and familiar names. This would also mean that more will be expected from the third book, if it comes out.

Perils of podium to print
Translating the creative energy from people into a publication can be a dicey affair. There's plenty of that energy coming out of Readings, and even more potential. The people behind Readings and CeritAku are justifiably proud of what's coming out of their years of toil, and it's natural for them to feel it's all worth sharing.

As a collection of stories, it's lovely and well-crafted. No doubt a lot of work went into it, perhaps to make it representative (somewhat) of what Readings is and what comes out of it.

But like many multi-author short story collections, R from R 2's fruit-salad nature and the brevity of many of the contributions might also work against it. Not every writer's talent and voice can be effectively conveyed by a shortie.

In spite of frequent references to Malaysian identities, issues and idiosyncrasies, the "diversity of genres" from this "eclectic bunch" of writers is vast. Like a box of chocolates, certain flavours will be preferred over the others.

And it's likely that the newcomers' efforts will be unfairly judged and compared with those by the more well-known names, diminishing this book' significance as a showcase of new (read: previously unpublished) writing.

Putting poems in the mix without some form of segregation reflects the inclusive, freeform nature of the line-ups, but such a scheme doesn't translate well into print and the random appearance of genres tends to affect the reading momentum.

We can probably expect more Readings from Readings volumes, as the event marches towards its ninth year. Regardless of the reception given to this labour of love by the Readings people, they should be lauded, at the very least, for their efforts to bring the balmy, lit-filled weekend afternoon atmosphere at Seksan's to the world at large.

Readings from Readings 2
New Writing from Malaysia, Singapore and Beyond

edited by Bernice Chauly and Sharon Bakar
Word Works Sdn Bhd (2012)
206 pages
ISBN: 978-967-10292-1-3

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Muslim Culinary Heritage

Proofreading this book was hard. I kept losing focus - and getting hungry.

The descriptions of food, ingredients and the chefs who made them kept returning me to my younger days and the nasi kandar I knew as a child in Penang: white rice, half a hard-boiled egg, and a chicken leg or breast, slathered with a spicy brown gravy that had the texture of sawdust.

But the flavours, the aroma, the spice, and the heat! I remember being hooked on it, and eagerly awaiting my father's return from work and the spicy package he'd bring home for himself and those in the family who could take the heat.

From the book: "Classic" nasi kandar which resembles my
childhood memories of it

I haven't had anything like it since arriving in KL about two decades ago. I don't know if it's still there...

Right, the book.

Usually, chefs write cookbooks, while academics write papers. It's perhaps the first time I've seen an academic write a (sort of) cookbook. Not credible? Not if the academic also cooks the food she writes about.

Wazir Jahan Karim, economic anthropologist, Distunguished Fellow and Founder of the Academy of Socio-economic Research and Analysis (ASERA) and Life Fellow of Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge, is also a Jawi Peranakan, one of the many Indian Muslim communities along the Straits of Malacca.

Heir to her mother's culinary repertoire, Wazir Jahan is also said to host really great dinner parties. It was during one such dinner that a guest, impressed by the food and table setting, suggested that she write and publish something about both.

Pictures from the book: murtabak maker (left) and guy with
sup kambing and roti Benggali

She has delved into the historical, cultural and societal aspects of her family's cuisine and, perhaps, found more than she needed. The result is Feasts of Penang: Muslim Culinary Heritage.

Her book, which took almost a year to finish, was based on favourite hereditary foods from Penang's oldest families. "There are many anecdotes in the book which trace the history and origin of these Muslim heritage foods within families and how they were invariably linked to the spice trade in Southeast Asia from as early as the 14th century," she told the New Straits Times.

From the book, also an old favourite: fried fish roe - delicious, but not healthy

Penang's 18th- and 19th-century Jawi Peranakan and Jawi Pekan communities were mostly English-educated. The women were leaders and educators who also did charity work. Using their unique culinary alchemy, they brought crowds to charity bazaars.

From her impressive CV and bits and pieces from this book, it looks like the author is keeping that tradition going.

She stresses that the book is "not a text on the 'anthropology of food' or 'history of food'", but "a narrative and personal search into Malay and other sub-cultures of Muslim cookery in Penang and to a lesser extent, the northwestern states of Peninsular Malaysia" that "tries to capture, through memory and anecdotes, the kind of plural Muslim culture of food which has emerged in this region."

It's also a huge book, loaded with facts about the Straits Muslim communities and their cuisine - the better to sate hungry minds and whip up appetites for the food itself. The author's own memories of food, family, community and heritage, along with an occasional dash of humour, add a personal touch.

Famished types will salivate at pictures of some of the dishes inside. The cuisine is divided into several categories, including herbs and spices, breads and breakfasts, rice, nasi kandar (so good, it seems, that it has its own category), cakes and puddings, and bridal table spreads.

From simple starters and cakes to complicated stews and curries, there is enough in the book to keep one occupied - whether one really want to try his hand at the recipes, or to reminisce wistfully on a weekend afternoon.

Feasts of Penang: Muslim Culinary Heritage is available at all major bookstores. The book is jointly sponsored by Think City Sdn Bhd, ASERA and the Al-Bukhary Foundation.

Feasts of Penang
Muslim Culinary Heritage

Wazir Jahan Karim
Nurilkarim Razha (culinary editor)
Rashidah Begum Fazal Mohamed (editor)

MPH Group Publishing
307 pages
ISBN: 978-967-415-879-8

Buy from Kinokuniya |

News: Inferno in Hell's Kitchen As Farm-Lit Takes Off

Eight of the worst sentences in Dan Brown's Inferno will chagrin those who were hoping he'd dial down his signature tell-not-show style. But that's what sells millions, so why fix something that ain't broken?

While we're on the subject of 'bad' writing: Have some absurd quotes from Guy Fieri's book. ..."Fierifying".


  • Josh Ozersky's take on food writing/criticism can also apply to book reviews. Plus, bacon and grilling tips.

    Update: A rebuttal of Ozersky's suggestion that restaurant critics serve a more selfish agenda. "[Restaurant] critics, at least the serious ones, try not to pal around too much with chefs they might review," says Joshua David Stein, writer and editor of and contributor to all sorts of publications. "They aren’t the chef’s friend. They aren’t the chef’s enemy. They are the reader’s advocate."
  • Four kinds of author appearances, defined. Not every author wants to do a 'reading'.
  • Young adult novels are getting more sophisticated - and reaching more adults.
  • Goodbye, chick-lit; hello, farm-lit - where "a roll in the hay" can take place in real hay. Hey, hey, hay.
  • Book-hoarding behaviour now has a name: "tsundoku". Too close to 'tsundere' for comfort.

...What the heck did I just call this update?

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Lit And The Law Of The Jungle

Lots have been said about the review system on Amazon. It's not perfect, and next to no monitoring means all sorts of interesting input- (OMGZ, EA Poe's "The Raven" repurposed into a review of Tuscan Whole Milk!

But takedowns of products, driven by outrage or money, happen just as often. Maybe more often. More odious is the hiring of faceless online mercenaries in the effort. The bile in your veins must be really thick for you to do that.

As a reviewer, I have a personal beef with those who use feedback platforms in such a manner. Flooding a product's feedback section with lazy, lying, ill-informed 'reviews' - without even a look at the actual product - is destructive, unproductive and grossly unjust.

On top of it all, they're unconvincing and, in a way, taints what honest reviewers are doing.

I got a copy of the book to see if it was that bad. The one-star 'reviews' of it? All bull.

It is not an awful book, though I wouldn't call it great.

It is not a "far-left ultra-liberal" socialist manifesto. (What.)

It does not disrespect the Boston bombing victims. (What the heck?)

I've proofed even more error-ridden stuff.

The neurosurgeon in the book should sue for libel.

And would anyone with half a brain know if he was insulted?

And isn't it odd that some of the Amazon 'reviewers' five-starred almost the same things?

Only one error stood out after a casual pass: a name in a story appears to have two spellings. Several pieces feel rushed, written for its own sake with no apparent denouement. And several stories need better paragraphing - except maybe one.

I'm not defending the book or the publishers as much as I'm venting my spleen against the practice. I have made my feelings known about Amazon's feedback/review 'system', as well as 'reviewers' who think the number of posts on Tripadvisor, etc translate into power and authority. Unregulated feedback/review platforms are like mosquito-breeding swamps that need to be drained.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

News: MPH Warehouse Sale, Grammar, And Dan Brown's Inferno

MPH Distributors is having its annual blowout sale from 21 to 26 May, 8am to 6pm at its premises at 5, Jalan Bersatu, Section 13/4, 46200 Petaling Jaya. Come one, come all, and avoid all that post-GE13 unpleasantness.

And glad to see that Fixi is doing well.


  • " haunted my office for a decade in the form of a file cabinet labelled "DAB" – the Damned Africa Book. Into that cabinet I stuffed notes, clippings, photographs, character sketches, plot ideas, anything that struck me as relevant to the huge novel I wished I could write. I did not believe I would ever be writer enough to do it. So the files grew fat, in proportion to my angst about the undertaking." Barbara Kingsolver talks about that "Damned Africa Book", The Poisonwood Bible.
  • "Tourism is down in Florence by 10%, and if this new book does well, we will get that 10% back." Eugenio Giani, head of the city council of Florence, Italy, is apparently banking on Dan Brown's latest book, Inferno, to set the city's tourism industry ablaze. Never thought of Brown as a tourist site resuscitator.

    Speaking of Dan Brown: seems the translators working on Inferno had a taste of Hell because the publisher(s) wanted to keep a lid on the book before its simultaneous worldwide release. It's just one of some crazy ways publishers enforce a code of silence.

    Before I forget: here's twenty of St Dan's worst sentences, just in case you're wondering what to expect in Inferno - thank you, Daily Telegraph. After all, dude sells millions. Maybe half of that are editors and English teachers looking for case studies.
  • Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City, became a victim of a hacker who posted excerpts of her new novel online. Someone suggested (forgot who) that Bushnell use the hacking as publicity for said book but, hey, we can't all be like Paulo Coelho.

    Bushnell's case, however, is nothing compared to the angry reactions to how Charlaine Harris ended the Sookie Stackhouse saga. Death threats and suicide threats over the ending of a book? SRSLY?
  • The art of translation, examined via the response to Haruki Murakami's latest.
  • How different is book-signing in the digital age, and are signed e-books just as much relics as signed hardcopies? (the short answer is "yes", I think). Also: a brief history of the pantelegraph.
  • How John Scalzi packs for a three-week book tour. Even then, he admits he's no expert. Mary Robinette Kowal can pack as many days worth of clothing into a carry-on as I can, and still — unfathomably — have space for a ball gown."
  • Dude's writing about comics, but he brings up a good question: Will fretting over production details mean that professionals in publishing - editors, writers, book-makers, etc - will enjoy reading less?
  • The Guardian asks, "Is good grammar still important?" Comedian and author Charlie Higson spars with Daily Mail columnist and sketchwriter Quentin Letts over whether the grammar Nazis have had their day. Maybe some rules need not be adhered to, but here are some grammar rules 'everyone' should follow. Or not.

    Recent news about the ancient Egyptian pyramids makes the case for some flexibility in language. Thanks to their precise engineering, the expansion and contraction of the limestone blocks due to temperature changes led to the outsides cracking and eventually crumbling. Without room for improvisation, language may end up the same.
  • 'Discarded lines' from Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistable". Sounds like parody because ♪ the writer sounds irascible, yeah yeah... ♫
  • This 7-minute, research-based workout plan leaves you with almost no excuse not to exercise. And here's a handy guide on storing your favourite foods. What to keep on the shelf, fridge or freezer. Not exactly book-related, but handy.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Kampung Boey Abroad

Last January, I received an e-mail that began thus:

my name is boey, and a friend referred me to your blog, where i ninjaed this address.

i'm best known for my works on foam cups since they went viral 4 years ago, and ive amassed quite a following on my blog that i update 6 times a week, and i am actively promoting the book now, especially so in asia, because it is rather disheartening that my artwork is better known in other parts of the world, but hardly at all back home.

I ignored all the typos in the e-mail for some reason and looked at the attachments. It was good, like a rough version of Lat's Kampung Boy, but I had a feeling we wouldn't be able to publish it for him.

I replied, and then forwarded the e-mail to the distributors' office upstairs. He had to self-publish in the end, but at least they would help him bring his book into the local market - if they agreed to.

I don't think anybody saw what came next.

A year later, the book has gone for five reprints - with 10,000 copies sold or in circulation; made the best-seller lists of major bookstores; and landed the author spots on TV, radio and the papers, in print and online.

All of that happened because a) he made a good product and believed in it and b) kept knocking on doors. We just so happened to be around and ready to give him a break.

Perhaps it was for the best that he self-published it. Otherwise I would've been the one doing his author's note and wouldn't have let him call himself "handsome", even if many readers think so.

I'd like to think that this was a modest success story. As with all success stories, it's the protagonist who sets things in motion with the first step.

When he was a kid...

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 13 May 2013

Childhood stories. Most people wrote theirs; fewer have drawn theirs. But one thousand words is not easy to write, and a picture does not have to be too detailed to tell a good story.

Boey Cheeming's collection of hand-drawn childhood stories, When I Was A Kid, is an example of how simple lines and words are all you need to tell a tale.

Years back, I came across what looks like the blog of a young lady's (mis)adventures in life and love, comprising mostly of simple single-frame comics.

The artwork in Boey's collection is not much different. His avatar is easier to draw, however, and though his collection has more text, his roughly drawn figures fill in when words fail.

One should note that he's not afraid to speak or draw his mind. Nor is he inclined towards political correctness. Despite being advised to choke back the F-word numerous times during his book tours in Southeast Asia, one or two managed to slip past - without incident, I should add.

And some wouldn't like what he had in mind for his mom in her old age, though I personally saw one fan guffaw at it. His mom has read the book and is fine with it.

Okay, maybe she's not fine with everything

I guess there's a certain appeal in his honesty and irreverence, much of it all too apparent in his blog, where his own (mis)adventures continue online.

Even the non-graphic blog entries, all handwritten and scanned, are just as expressive. The handwriting, crossouts and assorted scribbles hints at a tendency to wear one's heart on a sleeve - or one's brain on a T-shirt.

Kampung Boey abroad
Malaysian by nationality, Boey went to school in Singapore before flying off to the States to do advertising at the Academy of Art University (AAU) in San Francisco.

He moved to computer animation, and eventually landed a job at Blizzard Entertainment(!) where he was an animator on projects such as Diablo II (!!) and Diablo III (!!!)

Before he found fame with his graphical autobiography, one of our country's crouching tiger/hidden dragon was known for gorgeous, intricate pieces painstakingly inked on styrofoam coffee cups with markers, from the first stroke to the last ("Wayward Boey comes home - for a short while", 02 August 2012).

He has since quit his job, and gone on a book tour, giving talks, meeting fans and signing copies of his book. He currently resides in Oakland, California and is working on his next book.

Poignant and punchy penstrokes
Though these are Boey's recollections, he promises that they will have you reminiscing about your childhood. Do you want to, though? It can be a tough question, and not just for those with difficult childhoods.

For most of us, when we were kids, childhood is a mixed bag, like Forrest Gump's "box o' choc'lutz" that should be partaken slowly and in small bites. Who knows what emotions a particular scene would evoke?

I've been to shops that looked like this

The sight of a well-drawn old-school Chinese-run sundry shop, for instance, returns the smell of dried goods, old rice and stale air to your nostrils. Then your eyes threaten to spill when you think of the days you badgered your parents for snacks or trinkets your adult self now recognises as unhealthy or frivolous indulgences - and feels awful for.

Other scenes from the author/artist's childhood seem familiar as well. Forced to do unsavoury chores? Yes, though burying dead birds is a breeze compared to whacking a trapped rat to death, which is harder than it sounds.

Fought with your younger sibling and got thrashed for it afterwards? Been there, done that. Felt your other talents were underappreciated because of your mediocre academic performance? So did I.

And hey, my grandma smoked too.

But it's not all about his parents or other people. Boey pokes fun at himself as well. In one chapter, he mimes kung-fu moves and gets teased by his mom. Another chapter sees his chubby tween self climb out of a pool with all the grace of a manatee. Getting chased and pecked by angry geese can be a harrowing experience for a kid, but he manages to make us laugh at that.

A friend who probably grew up a thousand miles away from any large body of water gawped incredulously when Boey told her that he used to believe that there were sharks in a swimming pool.

"I was a KID," Boey said defensively.

Weren't we all?

Boey calls his book a time-travel device and, in a way, it is. Combined with hindsight, a wry eye and the impious touch of his pen, he revisits his "mundane" growing-up years and manages to make it more interesting.

It's nice to think that, as he takes his trips back through time, the book becomes a prism through which he examines himself to see how much has changed since he was a kid and whether there's still room for improvement.

If it could do the same for those who read it, all the better.

When I Was A Kid is available at RM34.90 a copy and is available at all major bookstores. When I Was A Kid 2 is being Kickstarted.

When I Was A Kid
written and published by Cheeming Boey (2010)
183 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9849786-0-1

Friday, 10 May 2013

Shadows, Secrets and Starstone Spears

We wanted to get this out sometime last year, but one or two issues held it back. The art shift, for one.

Books one and two of The Jugra Chronicles

We couldn't get the illustrator for the first book to work on the second, but isn't the cover as lovely?

I've seen this kind of face before. Where, I wonder?

The long-awaited release of the second volume of The Jugra Chronicles begins three years after Miyah and village outcast Rigih rescue the former's younger brother from the clutches of a forest demon. Miyah, however, is seized by the demon instead and suffers a cruel curse.

Three years later, the denizens of Miyah's village, Tapoh, have largely moved on from the incident, though Rigih and Miyah's brother Bongsu remain the most affected by her disappearance. Especially the latter, who has been plagued by dreams and memories of things he doesn't remember experiencing.

An illustration from the book

One day, Malidi, younger daughter of the village chieftain and one of Miyah's friends, finds a bracelet of glass beads in the jungle. The item horrifies her sister and mother; they now believe that she, by picking it up, is under the spell of the penyamun, dreaded marauders who use black magic to ensnare their victims.

She is placed in confinement while a way to break the spell is devised. Like Miyah before her, she defies the wisdom of her elders and escapes, taking the beads with her. Then, she vanishes. Her disappearance leaves a cloud hanging over Tapoh, on top of rumours of a strange man-beast prowling the jungle with the penyamuns.

More potential trouble comes in the form of the Dutch and their interest in the natural resources of Borneo - a worry for the royal house of Tanjungputra.

Meanwhile, Bongsu's visions intensify, even as he struggles to forget his abduction and imprisonment by the forest demon. Heeding the advice of Nenek Kebaya, he seeks out Rigih, convinced that the time has come to find his sister and put the demon to rest.

It's not long before Rigih and Bongsu are joined by the young warrior Temaga and the headstrong Suru on their quest, which will take them to a hidden valley where the secrets of the man-beast, the dreaded forest demon and the Jugra bloodline, and the truth behind the penyamun will be revealed.

Who is Jugra, the legendary shaman and what are his connections with Rigih, Miyah, Bongsu, Nenek Kebayan, the demon, and the mysterious woman with the tattooed arms? Will they overcome the jungle's mortal and supernatural threats to find and rescue Miyah?

The second volume in The Jugra Chronicles, Rigih and the Witch of Moon Lake, will soon be available at all major bookstores.

Material for this series is by Tutu Dutta-Yean, whose repertoire includes fairy tale collections such as Timeless Tales of Malaysia, Eight Jewels of the Phoenix, Eight Fortunes of the Qilin, and Eight Treasures of the Dragon.

Art for this book is by prolific children's book illustrator Tan Vay Fern, whose vast body of work includes Hayley's Vegemania Garden and Hayley's Fruitastic Garden by Mohana Gill; The Zany Zebra, The Ugly Green Umbrella and The Xenophobic Xylophone by Wong Ching Hsia; and Dutta-Yean's Eight Treasures of the Dragon. Also, the cover for Wee Su May's Nine Little People Who Lived in a Chest.

The Jugra Chronicles: Rigih and the Witch of Moon Lake
Tutu Dutta-Yean
illustrated by Tan Vay Fern

MPH Group Publishing
148 pages
ISBN: 978-967-415-085-3

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Thursday, 9 May 2013

Late News: Bestseller Figures, Rejection, And A Publishing Miracle

Last week's general elections was definitely eventful, but it seems a new circus is forming around the aftermath. So I dropped the ball on what's been happening in the book/publishing thing. On top of several planned articles and work.

  • Another reality check for self-publishers.
  • Rejection sucks. So take that rejection letter, shove it and carry on writing.
  • How many copies makes a self-published book a bestseller? Some success stories share some figures.
  • "...simply publishing e-books is already a thing of the past...". The Rumpus interviews writer Miracle Jones.
  • Microsoft is thinking of buying Nook after the B&N division was sort of spun off from the main retail arm. If this sale goes through, TechCrunch thinks B&N and Amazon might as well stop competing over e-books.

Monday, 6 May 2013

A New Quill For A New Year

They said they were revamping Quill into a lifestyle mag. However, I wasn't quite prepared for the new look, which was finally revealed last week.

The new Quill, not quite like the old Quill

It's like watching your prim-and-proper little girl grow up into Lady Gaga.

While book-related pieces will have a place in the 'new' Quill, expect to see more everyday stuff behind the covers. As this incarnation of Quill evolves, we hope to feature more great stuff as the mag finds its voice (because now everybody can contribute, not just authors and book people).

What you'll find in this issue:

  • With her new guide book on how to be a successful model, Amber Chia pays it forward. Find out how she made her name.
  • Stephen HB Twinings of Twinings Tea, talks about the beverage and the company, and shares his reading habits.
  • A note from Datuk Abdul Kadir Jasin of Berita Publishing on Tun M's Blogging to Unblock: A Citizen's Rights.
  • An excerpt from Adibah Amin's As I Was Passing II: "A laughter of eggs" and other odd-sounding collective nouns.
  • Chef Malcom Goh from AFC's Back to the Streets re-invents several hawker delights.
  • Strategies to start saving for one's retirement, from Yap Ming Hui.
  • An excerpt from Only 13 the "sordid sexposé" about a young victim of Thailand's sex industry.

And more. It's still RM8 per copy and available at all major bookstores and news stands.