Book Review: Doubt & Bitter by Bissme

doubtbitter

First published on 24th April in The Star.

Review by Daphne Lee

Publisher: Merpati Jingga

BETRAYAL and revenge are the main themes explored in two short story collections by long-time journalist Bissme (who goes by one name).

These relentlessly miserable, casually violent tales of mean-spirited, ill-fated characters hell-bent on destruction of one kind or other are obviously meant to shock, but the outrageous details and denouements lose most of their kick from being repeated like clockwork.

Halfway through Doubt (published in 2013), the gristly, gory details, the small-minded petty axe-grinding ceases to make you gasp. You simply end up groaning, ‘No, not again!’Read More »

Book Review: A Call to Travel by Rumaizah Abu Bakar

call-to-travelFirst published on 10th March, 2015 in The Star

A CALL TO TRAVEL: MUSLIM ODYSSEYS

Author: Rumaizah Abu Bakar

Publisher : Silverfish Books

THERE was a period in my life when I read little more than travel books. It started with a re-reading of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here and In Patagonia, and continued, for more than a year, with books by Paul Theroux, Eric Newby, VS Naipaul, Redmond O’Hanlon, Pico Iyer, Colin Thubron and Vikram Seth. There was even one in which Edith Wharton travels through France in a motorcar, not to mention several by writers I’ve not heard of since.

Looking back, I realise that this was a time when I was a new, financially-strapped wife and mother. Armchair travel was, I guess, the most convenient and affordable means of escape from the mundanity of motherhood, a dead-end job and housework.

And it wasn’t as simple as the books transporting me via words and descriptions to strange new worlds. The destinations were only part of the attraction. What I really appreciated was the perspective of the authors – the way places and people were filtered through the lenses of their unique personalities and experiences, and how their reactions and views made you re-think your own opinions, question what you always believed, be fiercely scornful, or even feel inspired.

So, for me, what the travel writer brings to the tale is more than half the journey. I like travel writers to have angles and agendas. I like writers who travel to remember and to forget. I like travel writers who travel to make a point (political, spiritual etc.) or to learn (about the world, a culture, a lesson). I like travel writers who travel to find or to lose themselves, and, most importantly, I like travel writers to write what they think and what they feel.

I looked forward to reading A Call To Travel: Muslim Odysseys because the perspective of a Muslim woman was one I had never come across before in a travel book. The fact that Rumaizah Abu Bakar’s travels took her to a number of Muslim cities and towns was a plus.Read More »

Book Review: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

ghost brideFirst published in The Star on 3rd August, 2014

THE GHOST BRIDE

Author: Yangsze Choo

Publisher: William Morrow, 368 pages

WHEN I first heard about this book, I was intrigued. I didn’t know the details of the plot, just the book’s title and that it was set in Malacca.

The title misled me because it suggests a marriage, without which there would not be a bride. My imagination misled me further. As I thought there would be an actual marriage, between a living girl and the spirit of a man, I thought that the story would focus on the married life of the couple, describing, in particular, the bride’s experiences in the world of the dead and how she copes not just with being a new bride but also the fact that her husband is dead! I imagined that there would be plenty of scope for conflicts – perhaps a dead “other woman” or a thwarted suitor in the world of the living, or strange and violent encounters with other-worldly beings.Read More »

Book Review: KL Noir Blue

kl noir blueAn edited version of this review first appeared in The Star on 8th July, 2014

KL NOIR BLUE: NO ARRESTS FOR THE WICKED

Editor: Ee Leen Lee

Publisher: FIXI NOVO, 291 words

FIXI NOVO’sKL NOIR series continues with Blue, a collection that focuses on the shady world of crime.

No Arrests for the Wicked is the book’s cheesy subtitle, but this doesn’t mean that bad deeds go unpunished. Indeed, there are no happy endings for anyone, but the price of crime is never anything as conventional as the rope or 60 years with no hope for parole. Retribution is invariably more creative, poetic even, and much more gruesome than one would suffer if left in the hands of the legal system, as grubby as their paws might be. Hey, it’s noir so there can be no mercy, no silver lining.Read More »

Interview: Shi-Li Kow

shih-li2This interview was first published on 11th July, 2014 on the now deleted ‘local’ blog.

Shih-Li Kow is a Malaysian writer published by Silverfish Books. In  2009 her short story anthologyRipples and Other Stories was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

Previously, Kow’s stories had appeared in News from Home, a collection with two other Silverfish writers Rumaizah Abu Bakar and Chua Kok Yee.

This year, Silverfish published Kow’s first novel, The Sum of Our Follies. In the following Q&A, Kow talks to local about growing up in a small town, what needs to happen for Malaysian fiction to be more widely read, getting edited, and whyFollies isn’t ‘really a novel’.Read More »

Book Review: Tropical Madness by Marc de Faoite

tropical madnessFirst published on 2nd february, 2014 in The Star

TROPICAL MADNESS

Author: Marc de Faoite

Publisher: Fixi Novo

I OFTEN tell the Malaysians who come to my creative writing classes to write about Malaysians and to give their stories a Malaysian setting. To me, not writing about ourselves is a wasted opportunity. There is not much Malaysian literature in English and I feel that fiction about Malaysians and Malaysia should, by and large, be written by us. We can’t expect others not to tell our stories but we must do so as well.

When a foreigner writes a Malaysian story, the focus shifts.  And I feel the same about Malaysian stories published by international publishing houses. In the latter case, the books are being written with a foreign audience in mind. The authors (and publishers) might feel compelled to over-explain some things, play up others. In the former case, foreigners naturally don’t think and feel the same as Malaysians. They don’t have the same insight or concerns or baggage so it’s not possible for them to create convincing Malaysian characters. When I read a Malaysian story written by a non-Malaysian (be it Frank Swettenham or W. Somerset Maugham, Anthony Burgess or Paul Callan) I feel that they are telling their version of things and it makes me wish that there were more Malaysian versions to redress the balance. As Chinua Achebe said, ‘Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin.’Read More »

Book Review: KL Noir Red

KL NOIR REDFirst published on 14th April, 2013 in The Star

KL NOIR: RED

Editor: Amir Muhammad

Publisher: Fixi Novo

FIXI NOVO is the English language imprint of Amir Muhammad’s hugely successful Buku Fixi. Actually, I lie: according to the description on Fixi Novo’s Facebook page, the imprint publishes books in the American language, while its Manifesto declares that American spelling is used because “we are more influenced by Hollywood than the House of Windsor”. Fair enough, not that the distinction hits you like a ton of bricks or anything: Malaysians seem to use American and British spelling interchangeably and, if we’re talking terminology, most of us are, I believe, equally comfortable with bonnet and hood, lift and elevator, biscuit and cookie, and so on … and probably wouldn’t even be able to identify which term is American and which British.

The point is to position Fixi Novo as an unabashedly non-literary imprint (“pulp fiction”) that’s supposed to appeal to the unpretentious, unwashed masses – in particular the “young, the sengkek and the kiam siap” – no italics please!Read More »

Book Review: Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

GardenFirst published on 28th Feb, 2012 in The Star

THE GARDEN OF EVENINNG MISTS

Author: Tan Twan Eng

Publisher: Myrmidon

Review by Daphne Lee

ON a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been a gardener of the Emperor of Japan.”

The first sentence of Tan Twan Eng’s second novel, The Garden Of Evening Mists, has a fairytale-like resonance, a magical quality that intrigues and beguiles. Who was this man and why did he journey so far from his home? Where was this mountain above the clouds and what did the Emperor’s gardener do there?

Almost immediately, this sense of picturesque tranquillity is disrupted by vague yet unmistakable references to violence, pain and sorrow in the subsequent sentences.

What was the exact nature of the relationship between the novel’s narrator and the Japanese gardener? From the book’s second paragraph, I found myself utterly absorbed by Tan’s characters, captivated by their histories and, especially by how the paths of their separate lives intersected and finally converged at Yugiri – the garden of evening mists.Read More »

Interview: Bernice Chauly, on ‘Growing Up with Ghosts’

A shorter version of this interview was first published on 22nd November, 2011 in The Star

bcWHAT stands out for me when I think of Bernice Chauly’s book Growing Up with Ghosts – A Memoir, is the story of her father’s death. It is where the book begins and Chauly’s dreamlike and poetic description of how her three-year-old self deals with the sudden loss of a beloved parent is, for me, the most heartbreaking and compelling thing in this book.

Later, when introduced to the young Bernard – the curious, adventurous trainee teacher, the passionate young lover, the idealistic newly wed – it is my initial vision of him as a loving, devoted father that fixes my attention and makes me want to learn more about him.

His death affected Chauly powerfully, but it was just one of many losses her extended family had to endure. Deep in the heart of the book is the family curse that Chauly seeks to understand. Its almost gothic details, including a pilgrimage to India to visit an ancient snake temple, imbue the book with a sense of mystery and deep, devastating horror.

In our interview (conducted via email), Chauly said the real reason for writing the book was to find ‘the root of the curse’, and understand why all the men in her family died. ‘I grew up haunted by grief, and my grief became a ghost, I had to confront it and finally let it go, she said.

She went on to say that she used ‘ghosts’ as a metaphor ‘for many things – for untold histories, for the voices who lived through difficult times, who were never  heard; for things that scare you, and things that come back to haunt you, for the dead whom I mourned, for the dead that my ancestors mourned, the dead who became ghosts, who were forgotten, who never told their stories and who were never heard, and who never got a chance to exorcise their grief.’

Writing the book, Chauly says, was ‘cathartic in every way’, an exorcism of sorts that allowed her to make peace with the ‘ghosts’ and with herself. The author uses the voices of her grandparents and her parents to tell a story of struggle and of hardship, of hope and of love. Chauly’s own narrative binds the different voices together and represents the link between the past and the present.Read More »

Book Review: Matanya Teleskop, Hatinya Kapal Dalam Botol Kaca by Sufian Abas

matnya-teleskopFirst published on 23rd August, 2009 in The Star

MATANYA TELESKOP, HATINYA KAPAL DALAM BOTOL KACA

Author: Sufian Abasa

Publisher: Sang Freud Press

ALTHOUGH HE doesn’t write specifically for adolescents, I think Sufian Abas has the sort of weird and wonderful imagination needed to create the sort of romantic fantasies teenagers would be only too eager to lose themselves in. They would most certainly identify with Sufian’s love-sick characters, his delusional young men and wide-eyed young women, all wandering through a world lit by fluorescent strips and filled with dusty roads, stuffy LRT coaches and gaudy fast food joints.Read More »