Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Carnage And Calamity: Inspector Singh In Beijing

I'd read this novel during the Chinese New Year break. Months ago, I'd gone into the A Curious Indian Cadaver, which was published earlier, but I got this one out instead, veering dangerously close to China-bashing. Though China could, I suppose, be held responsible for some of the outrageous things it has been linked with, from disappearing booksellers to prawn-pillaging tourists, and the goings-on at the South China Sea.

Carnage and calamity: Inspector Singh in Beijing

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 29 March 2016

Shamini Flint does not like China.

That's what I could gather from Inspector Singh Investigates: A Calamitous Chinese Killing. This instalment in Flint's Inspector Singh series sees the character looking into the death of a young Singaporean, seemingly from a botched robbery, in the Middle Kingdom.

Through the dead youth — Justin Tan, the son of the First Secretary of the Singapore Embassy there — we are introduced to modern-day China, and the emptying of the famed hutongs of Beijing, driven by development and greed, and enabled by corruption and class disparities. It is soon clear that the victim's end is tied to the land grab.

The good inspector's circumstances haven't changed much, six books into this series and counting. Despite his successes as Singapore's globetrotting gumshoe and growing reputation, he still gets no respect at home. His wife still nags him, and his superior can't stand him. One suspects that Singh was shipped to China with the hope that it'll be a one-way trip.

In keeping with the novel's vibe, Mrs Singh raves about the expendability of anything "Made in China" and the influx of Mainlanders into the island republic.

"Up to no good until proven otherwise!" she says, echoing the sentiments of a neighbour about the gold-digging China dolls said to be infiltrating the Lion City. Which is also what some governments might feel about non-conformists.

Maybe it's not just China that Flint dislikes.

This novel isn't short of villains: corrupt businessmen, corrupt cops, heavy-handed members of the security forces, and even one of China's spoiled-rotten princelings. But the identity of the actual big bad — the country itself, one is led to believe — is always in sight.

Other victims abound as well. Dreaming of a better life, a factory girl plots a get-rich scheme with what she witnesses at a crime scene, potentially dicing with death. Professor Luo, Justin's mentor, is arrested for practising falun gong in public and incarcerated. The professor's daughter (and Justin's girlfriend) fends off the unwanted advances of the aforementioned princeling, who can't seem to tell the difference between loving and owning someone.

But all that is nothing compared to how a prisoner's organs are harvested and for whom — spine-chillingly horrid and infuriatingly unjust.

The perfect backdrop for a calamitous killing.

Though I find it odd that a Singaporean policeman can be sent off, seemingly at a moment's notice, to solve a crime involving Singaporean citizens abroad, even if certain strings were pulled.

It's been a while since I last caught up with Inspector Singh; the other one I read was about "a curious Indian cadaver." By now, I've come to accept that Flint's are a different kind of detective story, where the pieces of the puzzle come together slowly towards the end, with few clues as to the identity of the culprit. You don't get the sense that Singh is driving the story, but I suppose it works here.

Singh tends to think his way through a case (not hoping for action-hero acrobatics with his size), letting other able-bodied sidekicks and allies pick up the slack. In this case, it's a former police officer assigned to him, probably in a dual role as cultural attache to keep the portly Singh from stepping on too many toes.

One gets just enough of everything: detective work, scenery, socio-political commentary and the occasional quote and flash of wit that convinces one that this is a crime novel and not a laundry list of things in China that need fixing.

Still, I couldn't help picking up on the disdain for the unsavoury aspects of modern China sprinkled throughout the book. Maybe it's because I share some of those sentiments.

Or, in Flint's case, maybe it's a case of "we hate the things we love." One can't help but wonder whether, deep down, she is railing against the injustices depicted in her books with the nanoscopic hope that she might in some way get people thinking, and then moving, to start changing things for the better.

Just as her obese, unloved crime-solver tries to do the right thing, despite his own doubts and the odds stacked against him.

Inspector Singh Investigates: A Frightfully English Execution, the newest in Shamini Flint's Inspector Singh series, will be released in April 2016.

A Calamitous Chinese Killing
Shamini Flint
Piatkus (2013)
309 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7499-5779-7

Monday, 28 March 2016

Book Marks: Eka's Kurniawan's Wound, Self-Publishing, And Jalan-Jalan

Eka Kurniawan has won the inaugural World Readers Award with Beauty is a Wound.

The award, "organised by the Hong Kong and Australia-based Asia Pacific Writers and Translators association, was given out in Hong Kong." Kudos was also given to the translator for her work on the Indonesian original, Cantik Itu Luka.

Before receiving the grant to publish the book from the Yogyakarta Cultural Academy, Eka had offered Cantik Itu Luka to four publishers, but to no avail.

"A major publisher included a note [with the rejection letter], saying 'the novel is too literary'. I have no idea whether that's a compliment or something else," he recalls, laughing.

"Self-publishing? It generates a lot of noise on social media. It results in many flashy-looking websites from authorpreneurs keen to sell success secrets to other aspiring authorpreneurs. With Amazon's Kindle and CreateSpace as the major outlets, it continues to put money in the coffers of the company largely responsible for destroying author incomes in the first place. But it isn't a route to financial security. For those who prefer orchestrated backing to blowing their own trumpet, who'd privilege running a narrative scenario over running a small business, who'd rather write adventures than adverts, self-publishing is not the answer."

I'm still trying to decide whether the writer of this piece is for or against self-publishing.


  • In The Guardian, the interesting story of Mike Stoner's self-published novel, Jalan-Jalan, a tale about "a heartbroken young Brit through Indonesia, where he finds himself embroiled in a murky world at the bottom of the expat barrel after accepting a teaching job at a dodgy language school after a five-minute telephone interview."
  • Parnassus Books is now mobile. Bookmobile, that is. "The bright blue bookmobile, which hit the road this week, is a roving offshoot of Parnassus Books, a popular independent bookstore ... co-owned by Karen Hayes and the novelist Ann Patchett," wrote The New York Times/ "The store’s name comes from Christopher Morley’s 1917 novel Parnassus on Wheels, about a middle-aged woman who travels around selling books out of a horse-drawn van."
  • Bloggers and social media people in Singapore now have to pay tax for freebies they receive. According to the report, "The rule applies to not only blogging website but social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the likes. Payments are taxable regardless whether they are received directly from the advertisers, or indirectly through a social media influencer companies."
  • Sabah-based artist Tina Rimmer launched her memoir, A Life on Two Islands "The memoir tells the story of Tina's life in the United Kingdom and British North Borneo where she arrived in 1949 as the Colony's first female education officer," according to The Borneo Post. Sounds like a good read.
  • RIP Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall, and Barry Hines, author of A Kestrel for a Knave. Still a bad year for the arts.

Friday, 18 March 2016

The "First Time"? Maybe Not

This year, a couple of local (Malaysian) novels were nominated for the 2016 Dublin International Literary Awards (DILA, formerly the Dublin IMPAC International Literary Awards): Tree of Sorrow, by Malim Ghazoli PK and The Michelangelo Code by Nazehran Jose Ahmad. Both, I understand, are English translations of the originals in Malay.

An official from the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (National Institute of Language and Literature), told The Malay Mail Online that "both the novels were nominated by the Malaysian National Library and that this is the first time that local novels have been included for the awards."

Well... if they're the first local novels included for the awards after the name change in November 2015, yes. If the DILA is a new award that's different from the Dublin IMPAC, with different criteria and categories, yes.

But it doesn't look that way. For one, why are the previous longlists still archived?

A search shows that in 2015, John Solomon and The Fifth Island (Samuill Tiew/Monopoly Publications) was longlisted; and in 2013, DUKE (Rozlan Mohd Noor/Silverfish) and The Dulang Washer (Paul Callan/MPH Group Publishing) got in. These were published by Malaysian publishers and also nominated by the National Library of Malaysia. Aren't these local titles?

Also: two titles by Khoo Kheng-Hor: Taikor (2006) and Sifu (2011). I think these were published by Pelanduk. Tunku Halim's Dark Demon Rising made it as early as 1999. Aren't these local too?

So I don't think it is the first time local novels have been included for the awards. Was someone misquoted? Did someone transcribe something wrongly? Or has somebody not been doing homework?

As it turned out, IMPAC, the American company that jointly sponsors the award with the Dublin City Council, had apparently gone defunct in the late-2000s and the trust fund that supports the award had been wound up. The 2015 prize was entirely funded by the Dublin City Council while a new sponsor was being sought.

One of the councillors, Mannix Flynn, suggested the name of the title be changed to relect the departure of IMPAC as a sponsor. From the Irish Times:

"It should be called the Dublin City Council City of Literature award or at least it should denote that the city backs the award [FINANCIALLY]," he said, adding the money might alternatively be spent in other areas.

"There is absolutely no sign of a [NEW]sponsor whatsoever on this. It's a grandiose gesture when you have a city that is suffering from great austerity and the vast majority of artists are living well below the poverty line."

So it's now the DILA, minus the IMPAC. It's kind of like how the Orange Prize for Fiction became the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, when Bailey's (yes, that Irish Cream one) stepped up after the telco firm Orange withdrew.

But if Councillor Flynn is correct about Dublin's situation, the future of the award, once described as "the most eclectic and unpredictable of the literary world's annual gongs", looks bleak without backers. How long can Dublin's city council be able to keep the award going by itself?

Unfair as it may sound, many prizes and awards in the arts are propped up by private sponsors. The implications of this - and the question of what makes somebody's work "world-renowned" and whether this needs to be redefined - is probably better explored in another post or forum, if it isn't already.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Book Marks: Newton, Apple, And Tweeting To Sell Books

Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica, "arguably the most important scientific work ever published", was almost scuppered by a book about fish. Imagine that.

So the story goes that not only Newton was afraid of being criticised for the stuff in Principia, the Royal Society also refused to fund the book because it nearly bankrupted itself, publishing something called The History of Fish.

And it was astronomer Edmund Halley who stepped in - a couple of times - to ensure the publication of "the revolutionary work – which proved mathematically that the same set of laws govern everything in the universe, from small objects to the Earth".

Unfortunately for Halley: "After the publication of Principia, the Royal Society informed Halley it could no longer afford his annual £50 salary, and instead paid him with left over copies of 'The History of Fish.'"

Oh yes, The Telegraph brought us this interesting titbit to tell us that an exhibition at Cambridge University - Lines of Thought: Discoveries that Changed the World - is now open to the public and runs until September 30, in conjunction with Cambridge's 600th anniversary. Do drop by if you're in the neighbourhood.

Apple owes as much as US$450m for conspiring with five publishers to raise the price of e-books years ago, in response to Amazon's book-pricing policies. Most of the money will go to those who bought books between April 2010 and May 2012 as reimbursements for the higher prices they had to pay.

I'd been following this saga for a while because I'd thought it would have some bearing on how we read, buy and price books in the long run, Yet, it's 2016 and I still prefer physical books and can't find an e-reader I like or can afford. But it seems unceremonious to drop this apple without some acknowledgement.

Here's an interesting story about a "Twitter book hustler". Shea Serrano used the social media platform to make a book viral, including his own. So apparently, it's all because he's "real". "His tweets give off a dude-down-the-street vibe that seems to resonate with his followers," the Marketplace article goes.

Serrano's editor also said his way of communicating with his fans "feel like he made them a part of something, and they are a part of something." Doesn't this sound like how some indie publishers network with their followers?

On a related note: at a tiny gathering of aspiring writers, literary agent Jan Kardys spoke about, among other things, "the need to focus on creating public platforms and using social media to spread the word about themselves and their work". She also stated that publishers these days "want authors to prepare an advertising campaign" before reaching out to them.

Of course, she also suggested getting the help of a lit agent, but stressed that "It's not the job of an agent to teach you how to write."

She suggested connecting with people who would promise to be 'brutally honest' in their evaluations of the work.

Kardys didn't promise that it would be easy.

"You have to get your book in great shape," she said.


  • Shutters are coming down on the long-running book blog Bookslut. So far no reason has been given for the impending closure.
  • RIP Anita Brookner, whose novel Hotel du Lac won the 1984 Booker Prize for fiction.
  • Have a gander at this review of The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura, "a taut tale about a university student's obsession with a pistol in a country where private ownership of firearms is virtually unknown." Will we see more translations of Japanese crime fiction?
  • "What is the point of critics?" New York Times film critic A.O. Scott makes his case for criticism in his book, Better Living Through Criticism (I mentioned it here somewhere). The piece in The Guardian includes some views from other critics.
  • "I would like to set fire to the term 'serious reader' and throw its ashes into the sea." Over at Book Riot, Maddie Rodriguez makes the case against the "serious reader" and suggests some other types of readers we can be.
  • Who is Elena Ferrante? The guessing game goes on as writer Marcella Marmo, professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples Federico II, is forced to deny she is the mystery pseudonym known for a series of acclaimed Neapolitan novels, as claimed by a peer.
  • "We Israelis tend to forget that we are a nation of refugees." Israeli novelist, screenwriter and psychologist Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is interviewed at The Guardian for her novel, Waking Lions. Despite her objections to some of the things her country is doing, she's not ready to pack up and go. "I think that to really love your country is to stand there and to fight when you think what it's doing is wrong."

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Rediscover Kuala Lumpur with POSKOD.MY

Get the low-down on another side of Malaysia's capital city in Stories from the City: Rediscovering Kuala Lumpur, a collection of articles from online magazine POSKOD.MY, edited by Ling Low and Dhabitah Zainal of POSKOD.MY and published by MPH Group Publishing.

Stories from the City, a compilation of selected Kuala Lumpur-centric
articles from online magazine POSKOD.MY

How is the Coliseum, KL's oldest cinema, still in business? Can you make a living from hunting ghosts? Where do migrant workers (from Myanmar, for instance) go for a taste of home?

Find the answers to these mysteries and more. Get off the beaten path and rediscover the city with those who know it best. From makcik traders to hip-hop stars, cosplay fans to urban farmers, meet the people who are the beating heart of the city.

"When we visit a place as tourists, we look for the obvious monuments, the postcard icons marked as ‘unmissable'," writes Low, the outgoing editor of POSKOD.MY. "But often, it's the smaller details that stay with us: the smell of the subway, perhaps, or the toothy smile of a fruit seller. If someone is rude or polite to us, it sticks more vividly than the most impressive scenery."

Hence, from 2012 to 2015, "POSKOD.MY has made it a mission to rediscover Kuala Lumpur," Low states. "We wanted to ask questions about the city, to unravel its daily mysteries, from the mundane to the profound. What happened to Sungai Buloh's leper colony, once the largest in the Commonwealth? Who is the woman who runs the hidden bakso soup stall in Kampung Baru? Can you make a living from hunting ghosts?"

The mission was undertaken with some urgency, as parts of the city, mostly the historic and rural holdouts underneath the towering spires of modernity, are being eclipsed by development.

"Every day, a new high-rise building would go up and a few more bricks of history would be lost," says Low. "As I write, well-loved kopitiams are replaced with hotels and public parks razed to make way for towers."

It's not just these enclaves that are disappearing, but also the people who are the life of these places – and the custodian of their histories.

"KL is a city obsessed with renewal," Low says. "We are rarely encouraged to look back. Yet, as more communities fight to keep a piece of their heritage alive, the past becomes ever more compelling. To live here is to live with a constant sense of loss.

"But this is the silver lining: with each change, people adapt. When I look at the articles in this book, the common thread is resilience. It’s the people who work in grey areas; the people who transform abandoned spaces; the people who reinvent the city by necessity."

Indeed, the stories of those featured in this book serves up a compelling smorgasbord of the kind of things that make up the character of KL - the Big Durian, if you will, that is home to the locals and those who have ventured here to find something better.

"It's the people who make the city tick," says Low. "But you have to spend time with them and listen to them. This book is a start, but it's simply a drop in a wide, muddy confluence."

Stories from the City: Rediscovering Kuala Lumpur is available at all good bookstores. And apologies for extracting so much from the intro written by Low. She's so quotable in this book.

I know I said I didn't want to do any more "previews" of the company's products, but something about this one compelled me to come out of retirement. Maybe I'll just choose what I want to feature - tengok anginlah.

Stories from the City
Rediscovering Kuala Lumpur - Selected Stories from POSKOD.MY

edited by Ling Low and Dhabitah Zainal
MPH Group Publishing (January 2015)
148 pages
ISBN: 978-967-415-339-7

Buy from MPHOnline.com

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Book Marks: MH370, Scripture, And Putting One's Foot Down

Perhaps reacting to an event called "Let's Read the Quran", the Home Ministry stated that it is a crime to publish or read the Quran in languages without the accompanying Arabic.

(Well, it's book-related, isn't it?)

The chairman of the Home Ministry's Al-Quran Printing, Control and Licensing Board also said that "Translations of the Quran without the Arabic text are prohibited and it is feared that they may be misunderstood and that spiritual rewards cannot be gained by reading them."

Uhm ... interesting. Has the Home Ministry also heard about The Study Quran? If they have, then I suppose we won't have troublesome belated bannings of this book because we're not getting it anyway.

I don't think I'm qualified to comment, so I'll just leave a couple of opinion pieces on the matter by social activist Azrul Mohd Khalib and Malay Mail Online journalist Zurairi AR here.

A marketer created a fake best-seller by "putting his foot down" - and got a real book deal. Brent Underwood "uploaded a satirical book and turned it into a 'No. 1 best seller' ... to reveal how hollow the claim 'best seller' is by 90 percent of all the gurus and experts)," according to Ryan Holiday in Observer.com.

Underwood's stunt seemed to be a protest of sorts against "all sorts of cringy infomercial-like sites that promise secrets, hacks, summits and webinars to make you an overnight 'best seller.' I found that, more often than not, the people running these sites have no clue when it comes to creating or marketing books. Because they know they can crank out a best seller by way of gimmicks, they do it, and they prey on an aspiring author's desires for status and success."

It's an interesting interview. Speaking of such...

Anybody know Steve Alten? Well, seems the the guy who wrote novels about a kind of "dinosaur shark" recently chummed the writerly waters by dipping his toes into book publishing. Author Chuck Wendig was among a few who had a look at the pay-to-publish service and thinks, well, "you shouldn’t pay anything to get published." But Wendig might have tripped a nerve when he stated that "It smacks of a vanity press."

Alten has responded to Wendig's post several times, but many of the other commenters are, for clear reasons, firmly on Wendig's side of the fence.

It's been two years since Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. Prior to this, many news agencies have released commemorative features and op-eds. But a new book on the mystery plane?

So, CNN's "aviation correspondent" (is there such a thing?) Richard Quest has come up with a book, which, according to The Daily Beast, "shines less light on the mystery of MH370 and more on CNN."

The Vanishing of Flight MH370 pretty much chronicles how the 24-hour news network went "all in" - seemingly building a weeks-long media circus around the tragedy to boost ratings. Some of those antics can be seen here in this Daily Show segment.

And in that clip, Quest himself (looked like him, anyway), prompted by a featured tweet, suggested employing PSYCHICS to help find the plane. "It sounds incredible, but they have been used before." Stewart then sarcastically recommended the services of Paul the Octopus. Or did they forget about the bomoh and his coconuts?


  • In this Q&A with Tom Bissell, author of Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve, he speaks to National Geographic about whether Christ's twelve apostles were real(!). "There was probably a Peter and a John, definitely a James (the brother of Jesus), and probably a Thomas. Beyond that, there's nothing historical that verifies their existence other than the gospels themselves. So I think they're a mixture of fact and fiction."
  • "Anonymity lets me concentrate exclusively on writing." Italian author Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym) is interviewed in The Guardian. Would this work here?
  • Singapore-based publisher Epigram Books is in the running for the Bologna Prize for Best Children's Publisher of the Year. Congrats!
  • The self-published The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers makes the Baileys prize longlist, along with works by Kate Atkinson, Geraldine Brooks and Anne Enright.
  • "Some of these diets are really just political (or religious) manifestos with the word 'diet' stuck on them," argues Carrie Arnold in The Daily Beast. "Many people turn to diet books when they need to shed some weight. If that's their goal, they should probably look elsewhere."
  • These thirteen "self-published books you won't find at a book store" sound interesting.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Back To Mobile Computing, Sort Of

And it's the Asus X453S, probably among the cheapest models in its range. This was an impulse buy after the desktop unit finally went bust after almost five years of excellent service.

Despite being warned that its lifespan and that of its ilk won't exceed three years (it only has a one-year warranty), I picked it up. Turned out I needed a PC in the house after all.

(Apologies to all those who warned me against budget laptops. They will probably be proven right.)

It runs Windows 10, and some of the grouses circling online about it seem warranted, such as updates in the background without notice - not to mention Asus-installed bloatware - and the machine is slower performance than its predecessor. Getting it primed and scrubbed for use was nerve-wracking.

If this is the future of computing, it looks pretty bleak to me.

I don't even plan to take it out of the house much. Which means I might return to static (as opposed to mobile) computing at some point.

Though I managed to find a USB 2.0 hub that allows me to use the mouse (I never am a touchpad person) and the modem, freeing the lone USB 3.0 for external drives, the design is such that I can only use, maybe, two ports at a time because the ports are so close together.

At least I have a PC. And I plan to make it pay for itself. Write, write.