Thursday, 29 October 2015

Jian Goh's Book Talk At MPH Mid Valley Megamall

Goh Kheng Swee, a.k.a. Jian Goh, a.k.a. Miao, recently joined a growing list of Malaysian comic bloggers and artists who have published their own books. Goh's book, Once Upon a Miao, is a selection of episodes from Goh's growing up years in Kuching, Sarawak.

He conducted a book talk and book-signing session at the MPH bookstore in Mid Valley Megamall on 17 October 2015.

It was clear Goh hasn't had much practice with public speaking. But he'll improve with time; there will be more talks and public appearances. Nor can he fully hide behind his online avatar, Miao the orange tabby cat.

Goh started by talking a bit about how he started comic blogging. The former electronics engineer has always been fond of drawing, but his dad had other plans for him, apparently.

The need for this book and Goh's stories became clear when he related tales of his first time in the Malaysian peninsula, where Sarawak and the rest of East Malaysia was some mysterious land.

Goh gives the audience a primer on Sarawakian culture. Here,
he's talking about food - one thing all Malaysians love.

"Do you live in trees?" he was asked. Perhaps as a way of making himself sound cool, he replied, "Yes, but we use lifts to go up the trees." (Author and academic Prof. Lee Su Kim was asked the same question - about all of Malaysia - in Texas, only she said we used escalators.)

Goh also claimed, to the audience's amusement, that Sarawakians also rode wild boars and surfed on crocodiles, complete with illustrations. The boar was cute.

Other cultural differences included the food. In Sarawak there is only one type of laksa, but several types of kolok mee. The first few weeks he was here, Goh despaired at not having Sarawakian food. We were also introduced to several phrases used in Sarawak, and the fact that no, you can't tell what race some people are over there.

Goh demonstrates his skill with a mouse and on-screen art tools.

After a brief reading session - or was it before? - Goh demonstrated his drawing skills with a mouse. You know, those art tools that requires knowledge of how you stretch that curve or break it to form your desired shape?

Goh drew his feline avatar on a laptop; the process was projected onto a white screen. It took him about five minutes to produce a full-colour image and he made it look effortless.

I don't know many artists who do digital art well with a mouse, but since many of his characters are basically composites of numerous shapes, I guess it works for him.

The audience seemed awed by the dexterity in which he drew with a mouse
(at left). "Yeah, some days I can do it with my eyes closed." Show-off.

One thing about my camera was that it was too "auto". It was hard to get a clear shot of the artist and the image on the screen, so I had to settle on one or the other.

...Ah, the book signing. Always the best part.

One lady, known as "Singing Coconut" (on Instagram, I think - don't ask me) bought about 13 copies and Goh signed them all. Those who bought the book on that day - and on subsequent book signings - also got a custom bookmark free.

At left: I'd say Ms "Singing Coconut" was happy with that. In her heart,
she's probably singing right now. At right: NOT Ms Coconut.

Goh claimed that cameras hate him, which is why so few of his posts feature his real face. Do you believe that?

Goh, hard at work at the book-signing table.

Still, I couldn't get fantastic author-signs-this shots of him; this was the best I could do without shoving the camera right up his nose.

More signings. By the fourth buyer or so he started getting requests, and these got more complicated as time wore on. "Me eating something (ended up being kolok mee)!" "Can I have Narutomiao?" (Yes, with kolok mee logo, too.) "Kakashimiao, please." (How do you even?)

Goh seems to be wondering, "Urh, what Kakashi look like again, ah?"
(Okay, so I forgot what his request was.)

Goh was game for anything. It helped that some of the fans brought along visual aids so he could get an idea of what to draw. Take one lady, for instance...

"Can put a ring on this?" No-lah, this lady wanted Goh to duplicate
the nail art in the doodle. Didn't see what it was.

But for others, he had to rely on given descriptions.

Drama Auta: Goh: "Maiku, really want me to draw THAT ah?" Lady in
Red: "You can or not? I challenge you." Lady with Shopping Bag: "..."

This bunch I called "Miao's Angels" because, from the questions and banter, I think some of these people have corresponded with him before. One of them even drew him a balloon with a Miao and some assorted doodles on it.

Goh, a.k.a. Miao and his "Angels". I think the lady sitting down
wanted a Miao doodle with her avatar, a pink fox.

One more, ladies! Because someone asked, "Why aren't you
posing with your books?"

Well, a good session overall. His books are really hot right now, from what I heard. Guess it's true that many people like cats. Especially one that speaks the local lingo and can tell you where to find the best kolok mee.

Goh's Once Upon a Miao: Stories from the Other Side of Malaysia is now available at all major bookstores. A review of his book is here, and here's the podcast of his appearance on "That Time of Night" at BFM89.9.

Monday, 26 October 2015

One-Pan Oven-Roasted Chicken

Now, this famous chef and food pers'nality may be diff'runt things to people, but nobody can doubt that 'e knows what 'e's talkin' 'bout, I reck'n, havin' bin behind the stove f'r years an' countin'. So when 'e put up a video of an oven-roasted curry chik'n, I felt compell'd t'try something similar.

An' I ended up w' sumthin' tot'lly diff'runt.

So I got sev'ral chic'n drumsticks, yea, and marinated it for 'bout an 'our wi' sum curry powder, a li'l salt, a li'l black pepper, sum cookin' oil, sum chilli powder and a pinch or two ov' minced garlic.

While that's marinatin', I sliced up an onion, a couple of p'tatuhs (skins on), minced sev'ral tiny cloves o' garlic and rubbed it all t'gethuh with the same thing I marinated th' chik'n with. I threw sum unpeeled garlic cloves into the pan wi' all th' veg'tables so they roast up nice 'n easy in th' oven, then laid the marinat'd drumsticks on top.


I popped th' tray into th' oven pre'eated at about 160°C, le' it cook f'rabout 45 minutes and turned up th' heat to almost 190°C for a ten-minute duration, t' let the skin crisp up a bit more.

But b'fore that, I tossed a li'l water into the pan, so's th' bott'm won't burn and, 'opef'lly, get it steamin' a bit so things won't get too dry in there.

Th' r'sults?

Look a' that. Beeyoutif'l.

'Course, ev'rythin's beeyoutif'l when you're 'ungry. Bu' I like t' think there 're other reasons.

Th' drumsticks turned out well: crispy outside, tender inside. Not too salty, either. If I'd taken few'r pictures wi' me phone, I'd've sum'thin warmer and juicier too. Th' p'tatuhs didn't seem cooked all the way, not sof'nough, so I reck'n I should've cut 'em up a bi' smaller.

Th' onion was good, all gooey and sticky from th' sauce at th' bott'm of th' pan. A couple o' garlic cloves were a bit burnt on one side, but th' rest were okay.

'S been a while since I made anything wi' th' oven, so it feels good t' whip up a nice dinn'r on me own. But maybe next time I'll do it wi' the yog'urt and turmeric powder. B't then pe'ple might go, "Al, wha' you doin'? You're not in bloody Essex or even California! Y'got no bis'nus usin' turmeric POWDER when you c'n get 'nuff of th' fresh root f'r 'bout thirty pence!"

Yea, well, turmeric root's also hard to manage wit'out good 'ardware and I want sum'thin I c'n spread easily and evenly on th' chick'n, which is hard 'cus dry-ish marinades don't tend t' stick too well on meats wit'out sum'thin claggy 'n thick t' keep 'em there.

So, f'r a sor'-of-quick dinner: chick'n, p'tatuhs, addition'l veg or two, aromatics an' a rubdown wi' your fav'rut 'erbs or spices, bish-bash-bosh, into th' oven.

'Appy days.

I'm aware that these days a certain food celebrity doesn't talk (much) like that, but I wanted to do this anyway. The seed for this was planted years ago when I was challenged (forgot by who) to write a whole piece this way. It was hard. Might even be unnatural and disparaging of said celebrity.

But before I started dabbling with food, much of what I knew about cooking and stuff was informed by the shows made by him and his ilk. And the accent added flavour to his show, like its a herb or spice - which is why I still remember a few bits, even though it's been years, maybe a decade.

I'd like to think that all the years of watching food shows eventually gave me the push to do my own experimenting in the kitchen - and take the steps to trim my dependency on hired professionals and take charge of my own diet. If I am going to drench my mashed potatoes in cream and butter, at least I'll know exactly how much.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Book Marks: Seven Killings, Publishing Mafias

A Brief History of Seven Killings, a Reggae-inspired book by Jamaican author Marlon James, won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Jamaican authors are elated.

The chair of the judging panel acknowledged the win, though he wouldn't recommend the book to his mother because it was "violent" and "full of swearing".

Forty-plus years of the Man Booker Prize and only now they realise that violent books full of swearing can be great. And why not introduce the book to your mother, Mr Michael Wood? What's a little violence and swearing to a generation that lived through a world war?


  • MalaysiaKini picked up on the local indie publishing scene. "Publishing mafia"? Really? From the tone of some of the interviewees, maybe. Odd, how is this article free for reading when Malaysiakini is subscription-based.
  • Gabriel García Márquez delivered letters from Pablo Escobar to Fidel and Raul Castro, says the drug lord's hitman. The hitman, however, stressed that he "was not formally linking the world-famous Garcia Marquez to the Medellin network, only that the novelist 'served as a link by delivering letters.' "
  • The most looked-up words on Kindle, if anybody's interested. How many of these do you know offhand?
  • "Historical fiction is not a secondary form." Jane Smiley, on on history vs historical fiction and being condescended to by "Niall Ferguson, a conservative historian about 15 years younger than me, who wanted to be sure that I understood that the historical novel is all made up, but that historical non-fiction, written by historians is truth."
  • "We always think we're right and the other is wrong." A Q&A in The National with Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi on his novel The Bamboo Stalk, which features a half-Kuwaiti, half-Filipino protagonist. " We don't know anything about the Filipino," Saud says. "We see him working in Starbucks – that’s it. ... It's because we don’t know his background that we deal with him in this stereotypical and disrespectful way. And because we don't know the other, we don't know our own place in this world."
  • What will happen when the copyright to Mein Kampf expires in 2016? Someone at Haaretz weighs in on this. Meanwhile, hissy-fits are brewing at the impending release of this controversial book, including one edition annotated by academics and historians.
  • Here's how some publishers deal with politically persecuted authors (not a substantial piece, I think). Ties in with the troubles faced by the Lohvinau House of Literature, an "underground publisher" in Belarus, in translating Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich's novels into her mother tongue.
  • The thriving Arab publishing sector is still far behind others, says the founder of the first publishing house in the United Arab Emirates during the Frankfurt Book Fair. Shaikha Bodour Al Qasimi also said "Arabic books are still among the least translated books in the world. This is due to many reasons, but primarily it is due to the lack of agents in the Arab world to promote Arab publications around the world, compared to Europe, America, and Asia."

Oh yes, the second MPH Warehouse Sale for 2015 is happening from 26 October to 1 November at:

MPH Distributors @ Bangunan TH,
No 5, Jalan Bersatu,
Section 13/4, Petaling Jaya
Call 03-7958 1688 for directions

Hours: 8am to 6pm

The map to the venue is here. More details (and offers) can be found at the MPH Distributors' Facebook page.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Zany Zambian Caper

Before I started at the current job, one of the books published by the company caught my attention with its writing and font selection. To hear that it didn't fly off the shelves is sad, especially after I proofed it for e-book publication.

You'd think people would at least be piqued by a title like Peeing in the Bush.

In spite of the title (or perhaps because of it), this punny, punchy,
pungent and at times poignant travelogue didn't move at light speed.
Why, I wonder?

Far from a survival manual for travellers venturing into places with non-existent plumbing, PitB is a travelogue of author Adeline Loh's (mis)adventures in Zambia, which began as many of these adventures do:

"WHAT??!" [my boss] said, his eyes bulging out in disbelief. "Let me get this straight. You're quitting, for no reason whatsoever, but to go have fun?"

"Yeah," I replied nonchalantly.

He regarded me suspiciously. "And this isn’t because you've got another job offer?"


"So where are you going?"

"I dunno." I shrugged. "Africa, perhaps."

Of course, Loh had trouble convincing people that she wasn't nuts for picking the Dark Continent as a travel destination; it's amazing how many prejudices people have about Africa and its people and wildlife.

And finding a companion for the trip was hard. Eventually, Loh settled on "Chan", a "typical sheltered goody-goody" who's also Buddhist and vegetarian, whom she met and sparred with at a martial arts class.

She wasted little time pitching to Chan the adventure of a lifetime:

"Zambia is the ultimate undiscovered adventure travel country, Chan!" I started babbling, widening my eyes and waving my hands about passionately. "It's home to the world's widest waterfall Victoria Falls and the awesome Zambezi River! We’ll go on unforgettable safaris where you'll have real close encounters with unique mammals! It will be like we're in a perpetual Animal Planet documentary! And the wild scenery ... mmm, you’ll be picking your jaw off the floor! Can you believe all of this is found in one friendly country? Trust me, you won't regret it – it will be the trip of a lifetime!"

If you have a bridge (or two) in Penang you'd like to sell, Loh's your girl.

Zambia in a nutshell - or two
Visa problems upon touchdown in Zambia is a great way to start one's very first African sojourn, as Loh found out.

She and her sidekick Chan's itinerary included a safari in South Luangwa National Park, paddling a canoe along a stretch of the Zambezi River, a visit to the Livingstone Museum, getting hammered (Loh, not Chan) at a sunset booze cruise, and a private (and disastrous) five-day mobile safari in a beat-up van at Kafue National Park.

And what trip to Zambia would be complete without a fly-by of Victoria Falls (again, only Loh) in a microlight?

Of course, Loh was prepared for her African voyage, which includes getting acquainted with the local vernacular: "Encouraged, I bravely practised more words I had learnt from the guidebooks ... the most essential being Yadula! (It is too much!), Chonde, ndi paseni mowa (Please give me a beer), and Onani! Njoka! (Look! A snake!)"

Even so, they were not quite prepared for the squalor in some of the neighbourhoods they visited or passed. Urban perils include being propositioned by local men, smooth-talking vendors, dodgy safari guides (the dodgiest one was a one-eyed huckster that sounded like he was conscripted straight out of an Indiana Jones flick) and temperamental managers of various lodges, motels and hostels - on top of rickety vehicles, could-be-better public transport, problem plumbing and the barely-there roads.

Out in the bush, hippo-infested waters, crocodiles, baboons, lions, the matriarch of an elephant herd and biting, stinging insects made things exciting. There is in fact a bit about how to pee in the bush, but the fun, as Loh demonstrated, is how you get there.

She packed a lot of her observations, recollections and research into this book, which will serve lost travellers who find themselves without a corresponding Lonely Planet or Fodor's guide (do note that it's been years since this book was written).

Her breezy gonzo style: punny, gung-ho and a little heavy on the adjectives hint at a polished pen and years of writing. The text knows how to grab the eyeballs and hold the reader's attention.

Nevertheless, Loh adroitly skips the snark for some topics. A certain poignancy is evoked when she outlines the stark reality in Zambia and several neighbouring countries: poverty, corrupt and despotic leaders, lack of infrastructure and the ravages of AIDS and the courage and stoicism of the locals struggling to get by. Not to mention the problems national parks have with poachers and the bushmeat trade. Ultimately, we end up knowing more than we'd ever want to about this corner of the world.

Smart and witty
But it's the funny turns of phrase that really sell the book; if it weren't for the occasional reference to Malaysia, you wouldn't realise this was a local production. And how the phrases turn. Take this excerpt from a dinner at a restaurant:

When dinner was served, I nearly had a heart attack. Clearly they had mistaken a lone, 40-kilo, five-foot-one Chinese girl for a small African village. I sat down to the kingly feast: a washing basin of starter soup with three dinner rolls the size of bricks, a huge two-inch thick slab of medium-rare T-bone steak, a large avocado stuffed with mashed eggs, a whole baked potato the size of an infant's head and a wok-sized bowl of raw salad. I could not see the table anymore and wondered how many days it was going to take for me to finish everything.

Then there's an early encounter with a denizen of the Zambian wilds at a safari chalet, leading to this comedy routine of an exchange:

"...a palm-sized hairy spider clinging to the seasick-green wall like an unsightly mottled-grey mole. With its white-banded legs spread widely, it zipped around like a frenetic UFO before pausing to taunt us. Chan tried to shoo it away.

"Don't do that! Kill it, KILL IT!" I yelled like a lunatic.

"I can't!" she cried. "I'm Buddhist!"

That still cracks me up.

We also get some animal sex. Specifically, hippo sex. Loh sounded underwhelmed, though:

"...there wasn't much rumpy pumpy going on. The inactive male merely lay motionless atop her like a dead fish. Every now and then, she'd come up for air and continue making the breathy sex sounds. That's as exciting as it got. I hoped she's had better."


Though her artistry with words really shine in some of the passages, a few glowing examples can be found, like this one:

"...the large marabou stork captivated me the most. It’s the ugliest, most ghastly bird you will ever see in your life, with a clunky bill, grubby head and the back of its dirty pink neck riddled with short sparse hairs. Still, the moment I laid eyes on the scavenger dining on the rotting dead and pooping on its own legs to cool off, I knew I was in love with Zambia."

(You're right, Adeline. Maybe my backyard could use a bridge...)

And all the above was just from their romp around South Luangwa National Park – about one-thirds into the book.

But is it too "clever"?
I also noted her commment on the canoe trip along part of the Zambezi River: "Nothing could beat creeping up on drinking elephants, examining the dental work of yawning hippos and inviting crocodiles over for tea by dipping our fingers in the water. It was going to be the thrill of a lifetime ... as long as nobody dies."

Such cautious bravado drips from time to time, befitting the setting in which this escapade took place. But I wonder if anybody told her that bull sharks can also be found in parts of the Zambezi, hence one of its aliases, the Zambezi shark?

Some, however, might find the snark too thick, the tone too pandering to foreign audiences. Critics might think Loh's trying too hard to be clever; samplings of the above can feel gimmicky, and one can't be blamed for thinking she's showboating. And, as a former boss once said, "Gonzo is dead."

Is it really, though?

Because as attention spans shrink along with the length of what's written these days, I still believe it's this kind of work that readers are likely to pass the time with. The tone is light, with enough trivia, insight and gravitas that makes you feel a little more joyful and wiser after you're done.

That's true for me, at least. And I've read much worse.

Not quite "wretched", "godforsaken"
In spite of their travails, Loh and Chan came out unscathed (otherwise, no book). The former was even left with an "African hangover", the kind one experiences after listening to a certain song by Toto. In her words:

"I had anticipated a whole lot but I hadn't anticipated becoming so attached to a country my dad had described as a 'wretched, godforsaken place'. We had had the time of our lives, and surprisingly, ended up none the worse for wear. By sheer miracle we had given food poisoning, yellow fever, bilharzia, malaria, hypothermia, sleeping sickness, meningitis, fungal infections, intestinal tapeworms and drowning a miss. Best of all, we did not get eaten.

"Even so, I was going home with something else: memories of Zambia that would continue to haunt me for the rest of my life and make me wish I had never left ... the Southern Cross [constellation], lions brushing past our open vehicle, boisterous markets, walking safaris, fleeing from hippos on the Zambezi, Play-Doh nshima (an African staple), gliding over phenomenal Victoria Falls, bush loos, booze cruises, mud villages and spending the night in Beat-Up Van would reduce me to a space cadet for months on end.

"All the beautiful, warm people who shared their intriguing and scary stories with us. All the adorable animals that could not wait to devour us. And all the fabulous salmon-pink sunsets that never failed to leave me gasping for air like an asthmatic."

Zikomo kwambiri (thank you very much), Adeline Loh and Chan, for sharing.

While I do not review books published by the company, this one came out around 2009, about a year before I joined. Still, it feels like I'm skirting a VERY tight bend by classifying this as a bona fide book review.

Peeing in the Bush
Two Panicky Girls, Lots of Dangerous Wildlife, One Hell of a Trip

Adeline Loh
MPH Group Publishing (2009)
231 pages
ISBN: 978-983-36986-0-8

Friday, 9 October 2015

On The Verge Of Touching The Sky

Let the tracks in Owl City's Mobile Orchestra move your heart to the edge of the earth and soar to the heavens

"I ain't to sure what I believe in, but I believe in what I see
And when I close my eyes, I see my whole life ahead of me..."

So begins "Verge", the first track in Owl City's latest album, Mobile Orchestra.

In May, before the album's release, Owl City frontman Adam Young tweeted (or "hooted", if you like) the lyric video for the "Verge" single, which revolved around graduating from college or university.

Aloe Blacc, his collaborator for the track, thought the graduation angle would be great for it; Young's was about weddings. Either angle works; the rousing anthemic track can be trotted out to celebrate a new phase in one's life. When R&B and hip-hop man Blacc heard the track, he felt that "it sounded like it could be ... quite inspirational."

Oh, very much, from the way it straps rockets to your heart and launches it to the "edge of the earth and we're touching the sky tonight..."

I finally got a copy of the album in September. So I'm a little slow. Or perhaps it's the music stores here.

The album's title was inspired by Young's realisation of how technology allowed him to stuff an orchestra's worth of sounds in a laptop – to him, a blessing and a curse – and his inability to switch off the creative side of his brain that's being bothered by an unfinished song or melody. One the bright side, he doesn't need to assemble a band of humans to scratch that musical itch.

His early stuff has been derided as light, fluffy and sweet; I'd call it pixie-dust electronica/synthpop. He even manages to make werewolves ("Wolf Bite", not in this album) and the aftermath of a father's suicide ("This Isn't the End") sound nice and cheerful – that is, if you don't pay too much attention to the lyrics.

From The Midsummer Station onwards, however, I feel he's moving even more towards experiments with different sounds and genres, and joint efforts with other artistes. Yuna worked with Young on "Shine Your Way", featured in the Dreamworks animated feature The Croods.

After "Fireflies", I've been looking forward to his new releases. I'm not a fan of every piece, but when there are more hits and misses in an album, it's worth the time and effort to own one.

The album kicks of with "Verge", which encapsulates the excitement and anticipation of one on the cusp of receiving one's degree. Listeners are transported back to the graduation hall (or whichever milestone), all nervous and elated at being on the threshold of a new life.

Blacc's resonant vocals in the middle (bridge, maybe?) convey the soaring pride, joy and conviction in the new graduate's pledge to make good and do good with the acquired skills and knowledge:

From now on there's no looking back
Full steam ahead on this one-way track
From this day forward I will make a promise
To be true to myself and always be honest
For the rest of my life, I will do what's right...

Much has also been said about Young's spirituality, and fans have been combing his work for signs of that. Several pieces in Mobile Orchestra leave no doubt that he's a good devout boy from Owatonna, Minnesota. "You are my light in the dark," he croons in "My Everything", "and I sing with all of my heart..."

This track is, Young said, "my attempt at summing up how important my faith is to me, and certainly how much influence it is, not just the decisions I make creatively as an artiste but every area of my life, you know ... across the whole board."

He also hopes it will provide encouragement to the "spiritually weary or tired" who need a nudge to get out of whatever fix they're in. "If somebody's mood is lightened for 30 seconds or a minute while they're driving to work because of this song, I felt my job is done."

I think part of it also has something to do with his insomnia, and having gone through several sleepless nights myself, I can empathise – especially if he's sleeping better these days. Sleep deprivation is not funny, and one is always glad when pleas for deliverance are answered.

Besides Blacc, he also collaborated with several other musicians and artistes for this album. "Unbelievable" – which sees Young and the guys from Hanson recalling stuff they had or experienced when they were kids, including the Fresh Prince, Jazzy Jeff, Lion King, Jurassic Park and "I won't lie, my friends and I were too legit to quit" – was bubbly straightforward fun.

"You're Not Alone" (with Britt Nicole), Young suggests, addresses and assuages the feelings of isolation and being distant one feels, even within a crowd or among a gathering of loved ones. The chorus says different, though.

The country-themed "Back Home" is also particularly emotive. This track, featuring US country singer Jake Owen, brings a tear (or ten) to the eye as the verses strum the heartstrings, compelling one to pack one's bags and say hello to tree lines, "free time and starry nights, to bonfires and fireflies".

And as one's vision blurs with each additional reminiscence, memories get addled and some of the lyrics start sounding different...

Back home there's a girl named Ong Joleen
A kopitiam off the main road that I've never been
And every red-dirt road is a trip down memory lane
And back home, where the palms grow thirty feet tall
And momma's chicken curry is the best of all
The casuarinas are waving till we come back home again

Even the last track, the previously mentioned "This Isn't the End", didn't dampen the overall mood created by the album. Instead, one is left with hope and optimism that things will be okay, that more and better Owl City tunes are still to come.

With great tracks and great replay value, Mobile Orchestra is the album to grab and keep you company in a traffic jam or, better yet, your balik kampung journey as you say goodbye to the street lights and city skyline.

♪ So pack your bags it's time to go~ ♫

Monday, 5 October 2015

Book Marks: Sour Notes, Court Battles, And The Hundredth Review

Perhaps the biggest news last week was how a local columnist splashed ice water with a dash of lemon juice on a Facebook group's anniversary celebration. Then comes the broad tar brush: Are these Malaysian writers serious about their craft or is this a self-congratulatory exercise?

One can argue that, if others outside the circle can't or won't acknowledge them or their efforts, where else can they turn to for support? Writers need to earn a living, and it's hard if you're a writer and nobody's heard of or couldn't care less about you. So any kind of buzz is welcome.

I won't say anymore on this, so here's a rebuttal of sorts. And a response from one of the Facebook group's two administrators.

ZI Publications failed in its bid to nullify Selangor Shariah law over seizures of translated editions of Irshad Manji's Allah, Liberty and Love. The Federal Court, according to The Malaysian Insider, ruled "that the Selangor legislative assembly had acted within its powers when making the Shariah law that criminalises the publishing of publications deemed un-Islamic and upheld the state law as constitutional."

So, as I understand it, Ezra Zaid, as head of ZI Publications, could still be fined, jailed or both for publishing that book. What a thing to happen on Banned Books Week. (Here's a small sample of books banned worldwide.)

BFM89.9 marked the end of Banned Books Week in the second half (at 15:00) of this podcast. A couple of revelations: desk clerks or officers at customs, etc., are arbitrary "banning" books and Umapagan Ampikaipakan wrote a book?

Cookbook editor Judith Jones, in her own words. Some phrases after my own heart:

The most important thing an editor can do is be a diplomat. It's not your book, but you can subtly try, and it usually ends up that the writers express themselves so much more clearly. At least, that was my experience.

It's funny, because the harder the books were to edit, the more challenging they were, the more fun, in a way.

If you want to write, write. It has to be a passion. When you edit, you're willing to stay up all night and then be slapped in the face.

Unrealistic as it is, I hope I won't have to be her age to enjoy being that wise and sharp.

Of course, Jones points out that "I still don't think I'm necessarily a cookbook editor."


  • Author Lauren Myracle calls on overprotective parents to stop banning books. Myracle's own books: ttyl, ttfn and l8r, g8r were among the American Library Associations' (ALA) list of frequently challenged books for 2009 and 2011.
  • The Guardian interviews author Elizabeth Gilbert "on creativity, women’s fear of failing and not caring what others think", in conjunction with the release of her latest, Big Magic. On chasing perfection, Gilbert says: "Perfection murders joy. You cut yourself out of the game before you even start."
  • The Margaret Atwood webchat, also in The Guardian, as it happened. Includes, among other things, a nudge for writers and other people in general: "This was the 1950s. I was a teenager. I didn't see why I couldn't do things, so I did them. If I'd known the odds I might have been discouraged. But just this: if you don't try, nothing happens."
  • Oh yes: Fixi Novo has issued a call for submissions for its next anthology, PJ Confidential. Deadline for submissions is on 30 November. Get cracking, people.
  • "Dreadful debut", "plotless", "written in sixth-form prose", "publishers should be ashamed of themselves" ... damn, so much love for Morrissey's debut novel, List of the Lost. "Do not read this book" seems to be the general consensus. But how else will we know it's bad? So yes, this is likely to backfire.

And with this, I've published a hundred book reviews on this blog since I started reviewing.

The hundredth review I'd written since I started reviewing, however, is of another novel, one in another series I also enjoyed that is, while not magic fantasy, is still kind of magical. The review hasn't been published yet.

From the day the hype about Sorcerer to the Crown exploded online, I wondered whether I could say anything different. Turns out I couldn't. I wanted to add a bit more, but what's already there laden with exposition. And this novel packs a lot of stuff; I think I've spoiled a fifth of it already.

So I didn't talk about familiars and how important they are to mages and the plot; those who have read it, however, might recognise the dragon on the red cover from US publisher Ace Books. Am I the only one who finds the UK cover ugly and headache-inducing?

While I hate to be part of any choir (and this one's huge), I think I'd delivered an honest assessment of this novel.

Friday, 2 October 2015

This Gentleman's A Lady

An indelibly enchanting Regency-era adventure casts its spell on readers

So London-based Malaysian author Zen Cho published a work of fantasy titled Sorcerer to the Crown and everyone lost their minds. Sci-fi author Mary Robinette Kowal said "This is the book I wish I'd written. SUCH a fantastic use of language. So good. SO GOOD."

Award-winning American sci-fi/fantasy author Ann Leckie says those partial to Jane Austen, Patrick O'Brian "or magic and humor like Susanna Clarke ... you will really, really enjoy this!" Justine Larbalestier, another award-winning author, "would marry this book if I could."

Go, get the book now. Do I need to say anything else?

Well, if you insist.

Pride, prejudice and persons thaumaturgical
The Regency era in the United Kingdom (1811–1820) was characterised by the rule of George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, as Prince Regent until he took the throne as King George IV.

In Cho's world, where magic exists and supernatural creatures share our borders, this was around the time England's mages are having problems casting spells. For their own reasons, the faeries have blocked the flow of magic into the kingdom.

Not a good time, particularly when the ruler of one tiny far-flung corner of the world needs help. Relations with France aren't good (have they ever been?) Plus, the muggles in the government are thinking of stripping the magicians of their privileges.

And I thought the water shortages in the Klang Valley were bad.

Thrust into this mess is Zacharias Wythe, England's Sorcerer Royal, whose responsibilities now include getting the magic flowing into the kingdom again. Thing is, his colleagues think he's unsuited for the role. Somebody wants him dead. He's even accused of killing his predecessor, Sir Stephen Wythe, for the top job.

Zach (let's call him that) is getting all this love because he is black. As a boy he was adopted by Sir Stephen and trained in magic, but making him his successor was way beyond the pale for many.

Because Malaysians from the diaspora are prone to fits of flag-waving when deprived of their sambal, Cho throws some local flavour into the mix as well. During a visit by the Sultan of the island of Janda Baik (said ruler of that tiny far-flung corner of the world), an old Malay witch called Mak Genggang appears, Sauron-like, in Zach's crystal ball and makes some nasty remarks about the ruler. But the crone doesn't stop there...

(Janda Baik is also a village in modern-day Pahang. The scryers at Google suggest it's a scenic rural getaway.)

Respite for Zach comes when a friend of a friend needs someone to present a speech at a school for "gentlewitches" where young ladies are taught to repress their magical gifts for their own good. So it's kind of funny when he ends up walking into a sorcerous catfight between two students upon his arrival.

Zach's attention, however, is drawn to Prunella Gentleman (not just because she's pretty), a half-Indian girl and essentially the school dogsbody, who is deflecting an irate girl's hexes with some expertise.

Prue's natural talent for spellcasting inspires Zach to work on bringing female magicians into the mainstream, starting with her. So she follows him to London and, naturally, gets tangled up in his job to fix Britain's magic deficit – and the plot to unseat him as Sorcerer Royal.

Of course, things wouldn't be half as exciting for everyone if Prue didn't have something revelatory lurking in her past and her late father's hand luggage.

It's a lady's world
Readers unfamiliar with the Regency style might conclude that this novel was written thus to hide minor plot holes and structural flaws and glam up what might sound mundane if penned in 21st-century parlance - even if she is putting to use all that reading steeped in the period in which the novel is set.

And yes, the faeries' embargo of magic. They have a reason for that, but the way it was carried out was ... clumsy? Not though through? Happens when a race relies too much on magic rather than brains to fix things.

And when the mastermind and motives behind the attempts at Zach's life are revealed, how that part was resolved veers dangerously towards bathos, thanks to what I'd consider a deus ex machina.

Still, you can't help but admire how Cho pulled it off. Nor can one dismiss the novel's feminist vibes. There's enough wit, humour, dumb male behaviour and smart female behaviour to keep the pages flipping, even if the turns of phrase are a little tedious.

Fiercely independent Prue is a wickedly delightful lady, as is Mak Genggang, whose part in the plot and Prue's development as a sorceress steadily grows (though the former seems too genre-savvy for my liking). Even Zach's stepmom-of-sorts, Lady Maria Wythe, is a force to be reckoned with. But it's sad to see the poor Sorcerer Royal getting upstaged more and more towards the novel's end.

Despite not setting out to "write a 'message' novel", there seems to be some comment on how the West sees the East (no way that old Malay witch could hack into a Brit's crystal ball) and the illusion of Western superiority (oh yes, she did).

And, oh, the utter cringeworthiness in how the privileged abuse finite resources like magic. One bristles at the image of a bunch of dandies amusing themselves and wasting precious mystical reserves by making their reflections recite poetry.

I was wary of joining the growing choir of voices falling under Cho's spell and afraid the hype surrounding her debut was all smoke and mirrors. So I was glad to have enjoyed Sorcerer to the Crown, though I don't think any book deserves offers of marriage in exchange for a good time.

And it ends nicely too, so I wonder if the saga of the Sorcerer Royal should be continued in future instalments. If so, Cho has her work cut out for her to top this effort.

Sorcerer to the Crown
Zen Cho
Ace Books (2015)
371 pages
ISBN: 978-0-425-28337-0