Friday, 30 August 2013

Ingenious Iban Fable

After clicking "Send", I went to bed and woke up the next day and looked at it again.

Dear G*d, did I actually write that?

Feels like a tuak-induced hangover. But I really, really found it hard to be harsh to this novel.

And I didn't expect them to publish it so soon. Many thanks, and Happy Independence Day.

02/09/2013: Fixed a typo somewhere here.

Ingenious Iban fable

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 30 August 2013

In a land of ancient gods, animal spirits and omens, a war party leaves a child without family. The survivor is adopted by apes, grows up to be a warrior and is pitted against savage headhunters, terrifying beasts, marauders from a foreign kingdom, and the wrath of a vengeful deity.

Golda Mowe's Iban Dream; pua
and mat are from Nanga Ukom,
Batang Ai, Sarawak
But Golda Mowe's Iban Dream is no supernatural Tarzan fable set in the Land of the Hornbill. The world she conjures in this novel is almost as real and vibrant as any computer-generated fantasy world James Cameron can come up with.

After his home and family are decimated by a band of headhunters sent by the warpath god Sengalang Burong, young Menjat is doomed to a similar fate until the demi-god Keling intervenes.

Adamant that the boy should follow the way of the headhunter, the warpath god allows him to grow until adulthood. Tok Anjak, the leader of an orangutan troop, adopts Menjat and renames him Bujang Maias ("ape man").

Years later, shortly after Tok Anjak's passing, Bujang encounters Sengalang Burong and passes the warpath god's test. The deity marks him as his and sets him on a violent path which begins with him slaying the warrior who orphaned him. He would kill several more, to aid the people of a longhouse who eventually makes him their chief. But trouble looms over the horizon...

As real as it can get
Mowe spins this fable like a master pua kumbu weaver, incorporating aspects of Iban lore into this rich tapestry of words. At times, she tends to get carried away with details, slowing down the flow of the story to an uncomfortable level as she demands that we stop and smell the air and taste the water.

From feasts of durian, sweet fragrant rice, and a demon-boar buffet to the clash of steel and spilled blood in life-or-death battles, we walk with Bujang as he goes from lone warrior to longhouse chief and family man.

You can almost smell the cempedak as it comes down from the tree, and the scent of the heady rice wine will drive you to the nearest watering-hole.

To those who have read about or experienced stories of longhouse life in Sarawak, the scenes and rituals depicted here will not feel alien. Iban Dream is probably a misnomer; when it comes to the life of the Iban, it's as real as it gets in this book. I'll leave it to the experts to find any discrepancies.

Apart from the attention-grabbing story, the stilted, theatrical prose begs to be on stage; almost everyone, including killers and louts, recite, rather than speak their dialogue with little emotion.

Bujang's saintliness might also be problematic, even for what is essentially a fairy tale. Raised by apes and almost guile-free, his glowing near-perfection starkly contrasts with his enemies' ugly characters.

With relative ease, he battles and overcomes bloodthirsty men who have no respect for custom and the will of the gods. A real Disney prince if I ever saw one.

Still, there's something beguiling about this dream world that kept me going back to revisit certain scenes. I turned a few pages to check if I got things about the book right and ended up losing about half an hour — proof that Mowe's lavish, colourful Iban dream is one that's easy to get lost in and hard to wake up from.

Iban Dream
Golda Mowe
Monsoon Books (2013)
288 pages
ISBN: 978-981-4423-12-0

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

News: RIP Elmore Leonard, Public Speaking, And Learning English

The really huge news last week was the passing of Elmore Leonard. I'm not qualified to write my thoughts on this because I haven't read any of his stuff, other than "RIP Elmore Leonard". His son Peter reportedly said he hopes to finish his dad's last novel.

  • More JD Salinger books coming our way beginning 2015?
  • "Like a person who dislikes the outdoors but tries to be into camping, or who isn't fond of large parties but goes anyway for fear of missing out, it was something I thought I was supposed to want. Teachers and speech therapists and career counselors and even stupid Gwyneth Paltrow movies had convinced me that it was shameful not to want confidence and charisma to display in front of a crowd. As though everything worth doing required sparkling speaking skills and an outgoing personality." Public speaking may not be for everybody, even if it's said that you can learn how.
  • How hard is it to learn English? Short answer: "It depends." Long answer: "A native speaker of German or Dutch—Germanic languages closely related to English—will find English relatively straightforward. Learners whose first language is Chinese (completely unrelated) or Russian (distantly related) will find English much harder. ... If you learn a language geographically close and from a common ancestor of your first language, there will be fewer nasty surprises, at every level from sound to word to sentence."
  • "It's not just the value of certain books; it's also the time and place when they happen to fall into our hands." When it come to books, sometimes it's all about the moment we find them.
  • Problems pitching your novel? Check out 23 query letters that worked, one for each (sub)genre.
  • In pictures: the sixth Hargeisa International Book Fair in Somaliland.
  • Board of a Japanese school restricts access to Keiji Nakazawa's ten-volume manga Barefoot Gen "because of the manga's graphic violence". Right.
  • "Cats now face possibly more hostility than at any time during the last two centuries." Says John Bradshaw, author of Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed.
  • Is Samantha Shannon, author of the hyped-up dystopian YA novel The Bone Season, "the next JK Rowling"? Shannon doesn't think so. " is kind of uncomfortable for me, because if you say that someone is the new something, it suggests that there is something wrong with the old. We don't need a new J. K. Rowling, so, you know, I'd rather be the first Samantha Shannon." Also: "...The Bone Season is violent. There's sex."
  • In the wake of an author's alleged bullying on Goodreads, a group of authors are calling for an end to such behaviour. Goodreads is owned by Amazon, which also - unintentionally - hosts a similar kind of bloodsport in the review section.
  • Someone actually compiled "the collective wisdom of Chris Rock". His "bullet control" idea is genius.
  • This piece on brewing the perfect coffee will only send you to the nearest barista.
  • Now that Batffleck looks set to spread his wings, he won't be helping out with the silver-screen adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Afterlife Adventure

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 26 August 2013

It wasn't too long ago that I'd read a novel set in pre-war/post-war Malaya. Now I get another one. How many times must we re-visit this era like some old propaganda reel?

Nevertheless, I soldiered on with the hope that this one will be different. Thank my ancestors that it is.

Set in 19th-century Malacca, The Ghost Bride is a supernatural tale of love, tradition, and taboos. The protagonist of Choo Yangsze's novel is Pan Li Lan, a somewhat bookish young lady of a once-prosperous family. Her father spends his days chasing the dragon (smoking opium) and not much else.

Out of the blue comes a proposal from the prosperous Lim family for Li Lan to become a ghost bride to their recently-deceased scion. All seems fine and dandy until the dead boy Lim Tian Ching starts courting Li Lan in her dreams and repulses her. That'll teach her to think about husbands before bedtime.

Then she learns that she'd been originally betrothed to Tian Ching's kinder and cuter cousin Tian Bai, before it was scrapped for the current arrangement. Oh, how the tears flowed.

And when Tian Ching's night-time visitations become unbearable, the desperate Li Lan overdoses on a medium's nostrum which kicks her soul out of her body. But she soon learns to make the best of her situation, thanks in part to a female ghost called Fan who teaches her some of the basics.

As she adjusts to her new situation as a real ghost, she takes the opportunity to satisfy her curiosity about her family's past, Tian Bai's past, and how Tian Ching was able to enter her dreams. This eventually takes her to the realm of the dead and an adventure of an afterlifetime.

Things get hairier when corrupt hell officials and animal-headed demon constables get involved. Coming to Li Lan's rescue include the Pan family chef Old Wong (no relation), who can see ghosts, and Er Lang, a mysterious young fellow who appears to be a spirit-world constable.

I was told — and can see why — this novel is categorised as young adult fiction in the UK; a few times I've wanted to rename this book Huánghūn. Li Lan sounds like a typical teenaged girl who reads the likes of Judith McNaught or Stephenie Meyer. Here, Pan Li Lan is speaking to an audience.

We're treated to her thoughts, hopes and fears in a narrative that on occasion includes details about things like Malacca, Bukit China, Qing Ming, and the blue pea-flower used to make Nyonya kuih. Rare attempts at wit include her giving her nursemaid "a ghost of a smile" when she assures her she's fine.

Even in her panic upon discovering an ox demon guarding the door to her room, she manages to tell us, like a schoolteacher, that it looks like a seladang, a kind of wild ox found in the Malayan jungles, yada yada. Her descriptions of the street food she sees as she floats by some hawker stands is enough to make you hungry like a ghost.

Is it a coincidence that this book — about a young Straits-Chinese girl's adventures in the spirit world — was officially released during the Hungry Ghost Month?

We get no incredible heroics from Li Lan, apart from some attempts at subterfuge that end badly because of bad luck. After all, she is a normal girl and how she is portrayed here — an interloper in a dangerous realm — is as realistic as suspension of disbelief allows.

We also get the love triangle, an indispensible aspect in many YA plots — albeit a thin one. In Team Tian Bai versus Team Er Lang, the former is soliticious and gentle to our lovely orchid, while the latter is snarky, abrasive, and doesn't seem to care about her. We know how this ends, don't we?

But ah, how Choo paints the backdrops: the old Malacca neighbourhoods, the interiors of Peranakan houses and the din at the mahjong table. Even her vision of the afterlife is kind of credible, except perhaps for the comparison between the ancient and "modern" offerings for the dead.

The way Choo Yangsze's The Ghost Bride demands its readers' attention, it almost seems taboo to skim it. Fans of lush, descriptive writing styles will dive straight into Li Lan's world. Others like, say, jaded, slightly bibliophobic reviewers would probably be content to paddle on the surface, at the cost of missing out some good parts.

Other than that, it is a somewhat good book. Don't just take Oprah's word for it.

The Ghost Bride
Yangsze Choo
William Morrow (2013)
368 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-227553-0

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Arguably Apostrophic

A debate on possessives and apostrophes was sparked by a book project, which I assumed was because of aesthetics.

Barring some circumstances, the apostrophe-S is generally placed in front of nouns ending with "S" to denote that they own whatever that follows, e.g. "Charles's apples" or "Hermès's summer collection".

For some situations, the Americans have largely done away with the "S" after the apostrophe, but the Chicago Manual of Style is okay with either "Dickens' novel" or "Dickens's novel", though they prefer the latter.

Online comic The Oatmeal has a simpler, more concise guide to apostrophe usage. It's okay with both.

However, Strunk and White say 'ancient' names such as Jesus and Moses don't need the "S". While "Jesus' home" is fine, you can write it as "the home of Jesus" if you think the former is harder to pronounce. Maybe Hermès qualifies as well. Other situations where the apostrophe-S can be omitted is when it makes something hard to read out loud.

I never liked the tendency to simplify everything for the sake of 'efficiency'. Coding web pages that only look fine on Internet Explorer back in the day meant not having to strictly adhere to W3C standards, but it made programmers and designers sloppy. Same goes for copy editors.

In the end, when standards are all over the place, you gotta have a style guide to refer to. Pick a set of conventions for proofing copy and stick to them.

I much prefer the apostrophe-S. Cumbersome as it is, at least it implies that "Charles" or "Hermès" are not plural forms of "Charle" or "Hermè".

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

News: Local Authors, Books, And Brazilian Bites

Tanggal dua puluh lima, bulan lapan two oh satu tiga, meet the authors of Fixi Novo books Dark Highways and Wedding Speech at Borders, The Curve from 3pm to 5pm.

Also: Boey is back with When I Was a Kid 2 and he's currently on tour in KL. Here's the latest schedule of his appearances.

"What if everyone could be persuaded to stop scribbling for a period of, say, 12 months? Of course we would lose some marvellous work during The Year of Not Writing, and that's not to be taken lightly. But look at the compensations: we could all kick back, take stock, and get off the spinning carousel of keeping up with the latest offerings. Just think what could be done with the free time: books we've loved could be revisited; philosophy or poetry could be afforded the time they demand; tomes of previously forbidding length could be tackled with languorous leisure."

Somebody at the Guardian thinks it'll be great for everyone if writers took a year off from publishing books.

The Edinburgh international book fest may be seeing the rise of the author-as-performer, but that might have its problems.

"Certainly a disquiet is growing among some authors about the economics of the live performance, especially when many festivals pay their authors nothing, and book sales frequently fail to compensate for lost working time. (Edinburgh pays authors, whether Nobel laureate or first-time novelist, £150.) According to McDermid it is 'outrageous' that some book festivals 'pay the people who erect the tents, staff the box office, run the bar – but don't pay the people on the stage'."

Also at the Festival: "When you've had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely," says former archbishop of Canterbury Willam Rowan during his appearance, among other things.

Though Violet Duke's (or whoever 'her' name is) self-published novels have reached the best-seller list, book prizes still won't touch selfies (my terminology). Someone at the Guardian asks why books of literary merit aren't considered unless a "proper" publisher picks it up.

The Guardian piece seems to argue that disconnect between what 'literary' critics like and what the reading public likes will shrink as the latter's influence grows - making traditional gatekeepers such as publishers and book-prize panels increasingly obsolete.

"It's safer for an editor at a mainstream publishing house to buy a book that reads a lot like last year's bestseller, than to stick out their neck in support of an unproven concept that might not deliver. But readers have no such reason to be cautious, so buyer power is increasingly setting the agenda in mass-market publishing."

In light of this, comments such as this one make me cringe, however truthful they may be: "You still think the book industry is created for and by intelligent people? That only clever people read books? Think again. Just remember that the last best seller was a badly written soft porn. (The smart ones are those tip-toeing around the manure to pick the lovely flowers and fruits, trying not to step on the crap or get it onto their clothes.)"

But have a look at why this curmudgeonly fellow gave up reading certain books before passing judgement. Guess there's no accounting for taste.


  • In the 'rediscovery' of Muriel Rukeyser's Savage Coast, a novel about the Spanish Civil War, the question arises over what old, forgotten books are worth saving and re-introduced to the world.
  • The Borders raid by JAWI over Irshad Manji's book and the arrest of store manager Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz last year has been declared illegal. Will it happen again?
  • Go anywhere that the Google Play store doesn't operate and the app will delete all your e-books. Gizmodo picked up the incident, which happened to a fellow who travelled to Singapore and found all his e-books gone. What it all boils down to, says Gizmodo, is that "you're buying a license, not a book. And licenses can come with strings attached. Obnoxious strings."
  • "It's not just the intrinsic value of certain books — their 'greatness' — that makes them existentially arresting; it's also the time and place when they happen to fall into our hands." When the time and place is right, books can become one's "personal touchstones".
  • "Sicha has spent the past decade developing what has become the lingua franca of the Internet: un-snobbish endorsements, presented in a candid, self-consciously hysterical tone. ... His humorously helpful parentheticals, doubt-inducing scare quotes, casual 'like's dropped carefully amidst otherwise competent sentences, and gratuitous exclamation points litter the online landscape. When typed by Sicha, though, these superficial markers of style—so easy to replicate!—communicate a set of core values that he's carried with him from job to job: genuine egalitarianism, acrobatic diplomacy, unregulated intimacy."

    Sounds like Alice Gregory really likes Choire Sicha's book or writing style. Sicha himself talks about how the Internet kills and saves book culture.
  • From George Orwell: A Life in Letters: Mr O wants to know if a friend could take up his reviewer's slot in an English daily. The lowdown: "It's rather hackwork, but it's a regular 8 guineas a week ... for about 900 words, in which one can say more or less what one likes."
  • "Big books are epic, dense, packed with plot and content and ideas, aren't they? They weigh more, cost more, take more time to read. And now that time spent reading has to compete with films and on-line everything and facebook and twitter ... surely that means that big must be more important than ever, to justify all that time they take us away from our PCs?" So, are big books making a comeback?
  • Good stuff: how South American chef Alex Atala is introducing Brazil's indigenous culinary delights to the world.
  • So not the Man Booker longlist: Kirkus Reviews thinks these novels of 2013 (so far) are overlooked.
  • "...Cartland's world was for ladies only. That Berlin Wall between women's and men's popular fiction persists to this day. While we men get Chris Ryan's SAS yomping and throat slitting, women get the chilly fantasy of EL James's Christian Grey. Yet with the distance of time, Cartland's work now deserves to be analysed, like a Fifties recipe for braised veal Orloff, with a mix of admiration and horror." Before EL James, there was Barbara Cartland.
  • $#!+ book snobs say - with translations.
  • These one-star reviews sting even more when superimposed on the photographs of the authors of the books being panned.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Rushmore Revelations

So it's a bit odd that I reviewed this book after Flashback. Not so odd if you know that this was written months before Flashback was released. Wish I'd thought of a better title, though.

Rushmore revelations

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 19 August 2013

Dan Simmons's time-tripping historical novel, Black Hills, can perhaps be considered among his better works of historical fiction. It chronicles the life and times of Paha Sapa, a Lakota Sioux named after his tribe's most sacred region, the Black Hills at what is today South Dakota in the US.

The novel starts right in the middle of the Battle of The Little Bighorn. A young Paha Sapa touches the body of a dying George Armstrong Custer and, with his supernatural talents, absorbs his ghost. He also divines Sioux war chief Crazy Horse's violent death in the very near future.

Soon after, Paha Sapa's guardian, his tribe's holy man, sends him to the Black Hills on a vision quest, far away from the paranoid Crazy Horse's deadly fury. What Paha Sapa sees there horrifies him: four stone giants, rising up from Mount Rushmore to literally devour the "fat of the land": trees, animals, and people.

Mount Rushmore was originally known as Six Grandfathers to the Lakota Sioux, and lies along a path taken by a chieftain on a spiritual trek. In the novel, it is the spirits of the mountain, also dubbed the Six Grandfathers, who show young Paha Sapa the dreadful vision.

However, he never gets to tell his tribe what he saw. While escaping an enemy tribe's patrol, he loses his tribe's treasure that was placed in his care. Feeling suicidal, the boy leads the white cavalry unit that captured him to Crazy Horse's war party, hoping to die in the ensuing skirmish. The plan fails, and Paha Sapa's life in a new America begins.

As William Slow Horse, Paha Sapa rides with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, marries the daughter of a French missionary, and has a son with her. As Billy Slovak, he ends up working for sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who is raising four stone giants out of Mount Rushmore: carvings of former US presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Believing that these were the stone giants he saw in his vision quest — the future he's supposed to prevent, Paha Sapa begins planning his version of 9/11 for the Mount Rushmore monument.

Simmons is quite the storyteller. He weaves lots of history and Native American culture and language into this tale with ease. Minor complaints, such as the non-linear storyline and the eye-gouging italics used to render much of the spoken dialogue and Custer's monologues, all fade from memory as one turns the pages.

Paha Sapa's observations of the white man's world through the lens of his tribal roots are interesting, even though he feels he no longer belongs in what is now the white man's country. So it's perhaps understandable when his son Robert enlists in the army, saying "My country is at war", Paha Sapa feels like exploding.

There's also Custer's ghost, lodged inside his mind. For decades he's endured the naughty love notes he dictated to his widow, or his taunts during the few "conversations" they have had.

And he believes that by leading the US cavalry to Crazy Horse that day, he may have played a role in the events that led to the eventual surrender of the sacred Black Hills to the US. Small wonder he needs to blow up something.

The epilogue, however, reads more like an article, and is perhaps too quick a wrap-up. I found the ending a bit too fantastical, even for a work that's part sci-fi, but it does sort of explain how Paha Sapa does, indirectly, save his beloved Native American culture.

While there's a bit of posturing about how all of humanity in general — natives and newcomers — are "fat takers", there is, I think, also a warning for all of us, spoken through the Six Grandfathers in one of Paha Sapa's visions:

"...the tides of men and their peoples and even of their gods ebbs and flows like the Great Seas on each coast of this continent we gave you. A people no longer proud of itself or confident in their gods or in their own energies recedes, like the waning tide, and leaves only reeking emptiness behind. These Fat Takers also shall know that one day..."

Black Hills
Dan Simmons
Reagan Arthur Books (2010)
485 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-07265-6

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

News: Not "Pak Lah's Book" And All That

Early this year, news portal broke the news about what was referred to as "Pak Lah's tell-all book", a report that was panned by the book's editors because it's not "Pak Lah's book", no, no no, because he didn't write it.

Again: Not Pak Lah's book
Some time last week, talk about the book was resurrected by newsbites from former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Awakening: The Abdullah Years in Malaysia is a multi-author collection of "serious reflective collection" by scholars and other professionals on Pak Lah's tenure.

But the editors decided to postpone the official KL launch and the much-talked-about Singapore launch of the book because the nasty, nasty media predictably hyped it up again as "Pak Lah's book", even though he only has one contribution in it.

Am I to understand that they did not expect any of this? In light of the GE13 results and the upcoming UMNO general assembly? This is Malaysia, after all.

Crybabies, one would say. But what pressures could the editors and publisher be under, for them to have to tell people not to hype it up?

Curious? Get a copy from MPHOnline or Silverfish Books.

Other book-related news:

  • "Classically, we have defined ourselves by the things we love. By the place which is our home, by our family, by our friends. But in this age we're asked to define ourselves by hate. That what defines you is what pisses you off. And if nothing pisses you off, who are you?" Salman Rushdie, speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, on today's apparently new "culture of offendedness".
  • After learning that some of his books were banned from Guantanamo, John Grisham went inside to trace a fan of his works. What he learns kinda ticks him off.
  • Wattpad introduces a crowdfunding service so fans of its writers can, like, help their favourites self-publish.
  • Author Jeff Klima's take on book reviews. And here's his 12 evil ways to make your book more marketable.
  • Fixi isn't just Amir Muhammad's imprint, it's a "conceptual approach". Does that make Amir Muhammad the Steve Jobs of modern urban Malay novels/publishing?
  • And look, here's a review of Anchee Min's Pearl of China.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Somebody Thinks This Is Funny

I was getting off work, thinking of the big Cadbury chocolate bar and other stuff I'm about to get to help me wind down.

Then my day was ruined.

Looks like the Readings from Readings sniping has resumed.

And somebody scrawled my name on one of the bullets.

To put it nicely: I AM NOT PLEASED.

For one, I'm very picky with what I read. Also, double exclamation marks?

If you want to impersonate me online, at least do some homework.

And yes, I had some history with Readings, but that's so Shang Dynasty.

I already wrote a review for it - and it'll be the only review for this series of books.

It's nice that they took the trouble - or maybe it's another "Alan KW Wong" they're trying to set up - but I don't like my name being used in what I assume is a personal, puerile beef with the editors, contributors or publishers of this book.

I don't even want to respond to this, but I still remember the Readings-related online shitstorm. I was actually worried about losing my job. And if I have to, I'll seek legal advice.

Better safe than sorry.

19/08/2013: Well, as of today Amazon scrubbed all the latest bad reviews except one: 'mine'.

Gotta say, I'm a bit ambivalent about how 'I' am being positioned opposite Amir Muhammad. He's a much better writer and reviewer - and not just of books.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Late, Late News: Zealot, Bezos, And Author PR

More developments on the Reza Alsan thingy include assertions that, contrary to what some believe, the author of Zealot knew what he was doing when speaking to Fox. As expected, the interview sent his book up, up, up the sales charts.

A few think that Fox blew the whole thing by sticking to a prepared script that did not involve a close read of the book; Lizzie Crocker at The Daily Beast offered some key points Fox could've brought up but didn't. Perhaps they should've waited a bit after reading the book to post their critiques.

Début author Anakana Schofield asked why must authors join the PR merry-go-round. Someone answered. An excerpt: "Like it or not, books have a relatively small audience. Advertising is a classic way to reach a mass public (those who buy cornflakes), not a niche one (interested in literary fiction). And although cornflakes may indeed be fascinating, there's not much of a story to offer the media (though that may just be me being uncreative). With a book, there is. Which, again, is why we do PR."

Paul St John Mackintosh, however, is less kind to commercial authors who moan about self-promotion, and wonders if such people went into writing just for money and fame. To which he says, "If all you have to keep you going as a writer is your greed, yearning for celebrity, and self-regard, then the social media self-promotional grind is exactly the hell you deserve."

What else?

  • After a spell with a Kindle, a bookseller tries reading a paper book and finds it cumbersome: "The book was too fat. It was too heavy. It spread out too widely. It was as if I had taken an unruly small pet onto the plane and couldn't keep it under control." Shudder. Oh, and Amazon boss Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post.
  • Silverfish releases a "dumbo's guide" to creating e-books - check it out, do what it tells you and start e-mailing it to editors.
  • Why a freelancer is working in an essay mill: "I can make up to £150 for a standard essay of 2,000-3,000 words – an evening’s work. Longer items can fetch up to £2,000." How this freelancer does it will shock some of you - a little.
  • Is Choire Sicha's new book Very Recent History a chronicle of "the panicked, fax-filled, poverty-waged life" of a freelancer? WANT.
  • "Like a short story, a good recipe can put us in a delightful trance. The Oxford English Dictionary defines fiction as literature 'concerned with the narration of imaginary events.' This is what recipes are: stories of pretend meals. Don’t be fooled by the fact that they are written in the imperative tense (pick the basil leaves, peel the onion). Yes, you might do that tomorrow, but right now, you are doing something else." Why reading recipes is such a pleasure for some.
  • Seems the London Review of Books isn't the only one with a woman problem. The most recent issue of the New York Review of Books only has one female contributor out of over twenty. A sad thing when it's said that female critics made it great.
  • "In the time since Little Women was published in 1868 ... a countless number of women have — as Alcott put it — 'resolved to take fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.'" Louisa May Alcott was no "little woman", says Harriet Reisen, author of The Woman Behind Little Women.
  • Taiwan eyeing our Chinese-language book market? Makes you wonder apa lagi depa mau.
  • In Uganda, trouble for author(s) and publishers of "defamatory" book(s) critical of the country's president.
  • An interview with James Dawes, author of Evil Men. Writing about evil is hard, as Dawes suggests. "We imagine evil is other than human, beyond understanding, almost mystical. This lets us off the hook, lets us deny our own capacity for evil, and stops us from analyzing the very human, very common causes of it."
  • "Yes, there will always be characters that some readers just don’t want to read about, but I think most readers can experience a character who is neither a Mary Sue nor a Humbert Humbert ... and still care about their story: how they got there, how they’ll get out. Readers see themselves and the world around them in these characters, just like we do ... and the very notion that “people” will reject a book because they don’t 'like' the characters is condescending and dismissive." Author Kelly Braffet wants people to stop griping about unlikeable characters in novels.
  • What makes a good librarian, from a bunch of librarians.
  • The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, which collects literary and cultural artefacts from the US and Europe to advance the study of the arts and humanities, just acquired McSweeney's archive, which "contains manuscripts of the books, essays and short stories it has published, as well as correspondence from its work with writers like David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon and Heidi Julavits."
  • Are developing markets fuelling a Wattpad boom? Wattpad, in case you have no idea, is an online community for writers to share stuff.
  • What is literary fiction? Here's one definition. And here are some web sites for literature lovers, several of which I read almost daily - and scan for listicle items.
  • Chuck Wendig wants you to know these 25 things about word choice.
  • Mitch Moxley went to Beijing in 2007 to work in the China Daily. His story, which includes selective reporting and navigating political minefields, is becoming familiar everywhere.
  • Obama visited an Amazon fulfilment centre and sent cyberspace into a panic. No, the US president does not hate bookstores, as some have implied, but to say that Amazon is the future of retail... maybe I'd feel better if it's not the only option in some far-flung future.

Oh, did I mention that Amazon boss Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post? People are excited. Some are stunned. And some are snarking about it, like this fellow:

At least one is ecstatic, enough to say that "the iceberg just rescued the Titanic" (shudder). But Bezos thinks it's too early to say that: "I don't want to imply that I have a worked-out plan.".

What he did say, with regards to the future of news, is that there won't be printed newspapers in two decades and people won't pay to read news online.

"Iceberg"? Hell yes. It'll be quite a chilly future ahead for the media if Bezos's predictions come to pass. Might be a good idea to pick up the fur coats now.

...Okay, better stop here and save some stuff for next week's updates.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

High-Seas Hazards

This review was written over a year ago, perhaps at a time when Somali pirates were a big deal before Snowden, Tahrir Square 2.0 and the whole mess in Syria came along. It's been said that the increased scrutiny of the Horn of Africa has made piracy less attractive there, but with these things, one never knows.

High-seas hazards
Kill some time with some fast-paced, lightweight pirate fiction

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 06 August 2013

Prolific African-born author Wilbur Smith's books might be "airport novels" (according to "Wilbur Smith can't stop the words" in The Star, June 21, 2011) but from experience, they can be fun, albeit hefty.

So maybe they should only be read if one knows one's flight will be delayed by some three to five hours. Many of Smith's books can demand a lot of one's attention.

Though better known for his epic historical novels set in Africa, Smith has written other standalone novels as well. His latest of the latter, Those in Peril, is an action-adventure tale of terrorism, piracy, religious extremism, vengeance, betrayal, sacrifice and covert operations.

This leaner book also lacks his hallmark lush, voluminous prose. Maybe he's slowing down. With over 30 novels to his name, it's probably time he did.

A haughty ice queen of a woman, widowed Hazel Bannock is the boss of Bannock Oil. In her employ is Hector Cross, a security expert who's also a former member of the British Special Air Service (SAS).

Though their first meeting is hardly cordial, readers will know they'd hook up at some point. Readers who don't are the ones knocked out cold by the clues thrown at them.

Elsewhere, in the Indian Ocean, Hazel's headstrong daughter Cayla had taken her mother's yacht for a cruise with Rogier, a guy she'd picked up. A huge mistake: Rogier, a member of a Somali bandit clan, sneaks his pirate buddies onboard the vessel. Cayla is taken hostage, but not before she leaves her mummy a text message.

Because of her spoilt little girl's carelessness and the complicated politics of the day, Hazel has to beg Cross, the "arrogant" and "awful know-it-all", to mount a covert rescue operation and bring her daughter home. Cross succeeds, but that's only half the tale. Is Cayla really the baddies' target, or is there something else afoot?

Though the storytelling is crisp and the plot tightly woven, the pace is hurried in many parts, probably to keep the reader from noticing the strange, unbelievable situations and gaps in logic. For one, the good guys somehow manage to find time for witty banter under the stresses of hostage rescues, black ops, and possible death.

While planning Cayla's rescue mission, Hazel and Cross even manage to find time for chess, a fancy dinner, skinny-dipping and a bit of you-know-lah, nudge, wink, nudge. At one point in the middle of a mission, Hazel even approves of her lethal, highly trained body-double's taste in lingerie.

Parts of this novel take place in the lawless territories of Somalia, so we know who the antagonists are. Still, Smith makes damned sure we know, with devices such as bad-guy names (Rogier is really Adam Abdul Tippoo Tip), bad-guy habits (the violent, misogynistic head of the Tippoo Tip family hunts people like how they hunt foxes) and bad-guy talk ("My name is Anwar (Tippoo Tip). Remember it, Cross, you pig of the great pig.").

Some of these presumably crass, unwashed brigands sound like they took acting classes at some British drama academy; at times, I thought I was reading a River God sequel.

Okay, fine. Cross and some of his friends aren't much better. They're a tad racist, potty-mouthed and have generally bad manners, but by the end of the sentence where they're introduced you'll be friends with them, too. Nobody will miss the bad guys when they get killed.

Some parts are uncomfortable to read. Cayla's sexual enslavement and scenes of radical Sharia punishments at a village square in Puntland, for instance, are unnecessarily graphic and appear gratuitously added for weight. And what's with the cameo by royal gaffe-machine Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh?

Smith reputedly has a knack for melding history, geography and a dash of Mills & Boon into his tales. Those in Peril, however, also includes an incredible plot, two-dimensional characters, sparse and rushed storytelling and a sanguine ending — fast-paced, intellectually lightweight, straightforward fun for anyone (not just airport-goers) with some time to kill.

Those in Peril
Wilbur Smith
MacMillan (2011)
386 pages
ISBN: 978-0-230-52927-4

Monday, 5 August 2013

And It Keeps Piling Up Further

So once again, my reading backlog grows - exponentially. I haven't bothered to update my reading list since the last time.

And there are a few more books I'd forgotten to add to that.

My workload increased of late and my sort-of bibliophobia got worse. So I've got a lot to catch up on.

There's a long weekend up ahead. Hoping to reset myself then.