Monday, 26 October 2015

On Kedai Fixi's Bestsellers List.

That strange moment when not only are two books with my stories in them are on a bestsellers list, they are on it together with a book by Haruki Murakami!

It's not much compared to other people's success, I know, but this is at least one of the few things that can make me smile when it comes to the painful writing journey I've had this past nine years.

After all the painful rejections I've had, after all the horrible things people have said about my writing, I now know at least there are some people out there who can appreciate it.

Thank you to those who've been there along the way, always encouraging and supporting me, (John Ling, Shark, Sharon Bakar, Elizabeth Tai) even the worst moments when I almost quit writing for good. Thank you to the editors (Zen Cho for Cyberpunk: Malaysia, Hadi M. Nor for Hungry in Ipoh, Jane Camens for Griffith Review) who loved my work enough to want to include my stories in their anthologies, and thank you to Fixi for giving genre writers a space in Malaysian literature.

I suppose the next thing I should be pushing towards would be a book that's solely my own work. A novel perhaps. Or even a short story anthology. We will see. It took me ten years to get where I wanted to be ten years ago, it might take another ten years to get where I want to be now.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Hungry In Ipoh: A Water Tower Story

If you're a long time reader of this blog (all three of you), you'll remember I wrote a story about two boys and a water tower. Okay, actually you won't remember, because it was nine years ago. That was my first seriously written short story, one I had intended on submitting for publication.

It was also my first rejection.

No hard feelings though. It was truly a badly written story. I was overconfident of my writing abilities (or lack thereof) and the story truly didn't deserve to be published.

But the story of climbing a water tower continued to linger in the back of my mind. I knew I wanted to write a story which featured one. I had grown up in suburb of Ipoh called Pekan Razaki, and I lived on a road that led up to an imposingly tall water tower. I'm sure you'll understand that this would spark the imagination of a teenaged boy.

To give you an idea what it was like, I messed around a bit with Google Maps Streetview. Here's the view:

I lived on this road some twenty years ago.

The water tower close up.

Moving on a little, earlier this year Fixi Novo put out a call for submissions on a new anthology to be called, "Hungry In Ipoh". Of course, I had to try!

One problem.

The submissions had to be related to food or hunger of some sort. I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this but even though I'm an Ipoh Boy, I'm no foodie. Heck, for years I had no idea Ipoh was some sort of food haven. If people asked me where the best food was, I wouldn't have been able to answer. Still can't really.

Fellow writer Marc De Faoite recently posted on his Facebook wall looking for "Recommendations for good places to eat in Ipoh please (preferably the type of place that has white wall tiles, plastic chairs, kitchen workers in rubber boots, and lots of loud loud Cantonese)",  and all I could think of was the old McDonald's opposite of Super Kinta, one of my lepak spots back in the 90s. I'm sure that wasn't the kind of eatery Marc meant.

So there I was wanting to write for Hungry in Ipoh but I had no food-related memory or idea I could mine for a story. Until I recalled my long since abandoned Water Tower story. I decided to bring it back kicking and screaming. I didn't reuse my original draft. That was too horrible to bring back. But I took the idea of two boys exploring a water tower and added a girl to their story. Now I had a sort of triangle, a dynamic I could use to set up for a revenge plot.

There was still something I needed to add--an ingredient that would make this an Ipoh story. So I decided to make the story revolve around "air lengkong", essentially grass jelly drink, or outside of Ipoh more commonly called "cincau". I don't know if there are other places besides Ipoh that call cincau "air lengkong" but Ipoh is the only place I know and that would serve the story.

I spent a week writing it and then when I was done, I titled it "Mastura's Air Lengkong Adventure". I sent it off and had little expectations it would be accepted simply because the story wasn't about a hunger for food, but a hunger for revenge.

But Hadi M. Nor, the editor, accepted it anyway, and I'm glad to announce the story is now included in the anthology along with other fantastic writers, like the previously mentioned Marc De Faoite, Tina Isaacs, Cassandra Khaw, Atikah Abdul Wahid, Terence Toh, Julya Oui, and many others.

By the time you read this, Hungry In Ipoh should be launched in Ipoh and hopefully you'll be able to find the anthology in bookstores a little later.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

#BookReview: The Fifth Dimension by Martin Vopenka

Martin Vopenka's novel, though given the label of science fiction, reads more like a magical realist escapade through philosophy, sprinkled with liberal doses of space-time theories. The result is a novel that reads more like Milan Kundera rather than something more traditionally placed in the realm of science fiction.

The Fifth Dimension starts out promisingly. A Czech man, Jakub, who built a successful career in construction after the fall of Communism suddenly finds himself broke after his business prospects vanish one by one.

Desperate, he answers a mysterious ad from an equally mysterious organization that promises him US$200,000 if he takes part in an experiment that involves spending a year in solitude out in the mountains of Argentina. He takes with him only one book, Black Holes & Time Warps by Kip Thorne, and so spends his time lost not only in loneliness and paranoia but also in multidimensional physics theories.

Unfortunately, the plot takes too long to build and there were many moments where I found myself flipping through the pages, wondering when something interesting would happen. Something interesting does happen, but by then I noticed I was already more than half way through the book.

Thankfully, the writing (or perhaps the translation offered by Hana Sklenkova) makes it an easy read, and Jakub's often ponderously long monologues about black holes and space and time are actually quite interesting, considering how these are advanced topics which are rarely accessible to a layman.

In the end, I found the reveal of what the fifth dimension of the title actually is to be quite disappointing. The author might have known he'd be questioned for it, and so he has Jakub say this, (probably on his behalf): "I worry that people won't appreciate the simple truthfulness of my basic idea. Precisely because it is that simple."

Simple it may be, but still disappointing. And, like the story, which hinges on a simple concept that doesn't deliver a satisfying payoff, The Fifth Dimension ultimately proves to be a let down.

This review was made possible by an ARC from NetGalley.

Friday, 11 September 2015

#BookReview: Windswept by Adam Rakunas

It's very rare for a book to grab my attention on the first page, then proceeds to drag me through a fast-paced, action packed SF romp. Adam Rakunas's Windswept sweeps you through a plot involving labor unions, edge-of-space boondocks, space elevators, and sugarcane byproducts, which of course, includes rum. Lots of rum.

Padma Mehta is a union recruiter grappling on the edge of sanity who only wants to fulfill her recruitment quota so she can retire and buy her own rum distillery. When an opportunity presents itself so that Padma can finally fill her quota, she takes it despite her better judgment.

But instead of the forty people she expected to quit their labor contracts, only five of them come tumbling down the space elevator and one of them happens to be dead. What happens next is a series of increasingly insurmountable problems for Padma to overcome.

Besides the breakneck speed of the prose, I found the witty banter and the often hilarious situations entertaining, making the book very much an enjoyable read. I also found the worldbuilding a lot of fun, with Rakunas borrowing a lot of elements from various Asian cultures and mixing them together to create a cool world. I especially liked that on a far-flung backwater planet that there were "kampongs" and that characters used "chops" to mean company seals or stamps. (Take that, English teacher from my childhood!)

About the only problem I had with it was because it was so fast-paced, I sometimes had trouble picturing what was actually happening during some of the action scenes. I had to take a pause, flip back a few pages and reread them again to fully ground myself in the situation.

Otherwise, the book is irreverent and zany and I heartily recommend picking it up.

This review was made possible by an ARC from NetGalley.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

#BookReview: The SEA Is Ours edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng

Southeast Asia is a region rich with legends and myths which hasn't been explored enough by writers, even those residing here. But this is probably partly because we don't have that many venues in which to share these stories.

It goes without saying then that The SEA Is Ours, a steampunk anthology featuring writers from all over Southeast Asia, is a timely anthology that fills the need to showcase stories from authors we don't normally hear from.

The two editors, Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng, have made great choices in selecting the stories that went into this anthology. There were only a couple of stories that didn't really grab my attention, but that's par for the course for any collection of stories. It's rare that I find myself liking all the stories in an anthology.

The ones that did really stood out for me were Timothy Dimacali's On The Consequence of Sound, which, rightly, is the opening story and features humongous giant whale catfish sweeping through the skies; Marilag Angway's Chasing Volcanoes which featured airships (my primary reason for loving the steampunk genre) and a fun, rollicking adventure worthy of the era of pulps and adventure serials; as well as Paolo Chikiamco's Between Severed Souls, a really fun steampunk twist on a Filipino legend.

You may have noticed that all the stories I mentioned above were written by Filipinos. They really turned in great stuff and this anthology has piqued my interest in looking for more SFF written by them.

Lots of other cool stories from writers from Southeast Asian countries worthy of your attention as well such as Olivia Ho's Working Woman and ZM Quynh's Chamber of Souls. All in all though, a fun book to read and a great addition to the canon that is world SFF. Truly worthy of your attention if you're a fan of well-written speculative fiction, steampunk or otherwise.

The book releases on November 1st. This review was made possible courtesy of NetGalley.

As a Malaysian though, I think it's a shame none of us managed to make it in but that just means we will have to work harder on our craft. And in case you're wondering, no, I didn't submit for this anthology.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Short Story Progress Report (August 2015).

Earlier this year I blogged about feeling inspired to write again, how I gained my writing mojo back after several years of writing drought.

(Perhaps one day, I'll write about that period of time but suffice to say I was in a bit of a depression and didn't think highly of my own writing. But that time has passed and it is time to focus on the now, and more importantly, on the future.)

As I said it that blog post, I intended 2015 to be the year I took writing seriously again, and so far, I've stuck to my word. I didn't mention it back then (perhaps because I was afraid of jinxing it) but I renewed an old contract, an old resolution I used to make every end of the year, and that was promising myself I'd write a short story a month, or twelve stories a year.

I've never been able to keep that promise and at the end of the year, I'd self-flagellate for not being able to live up to that promise.

But this year felt different. There was certainly something in the air, and I was determined to seize this newfound optimism and channel it into my writing. And boy, have I been productive. Still not quite living up to that promise, but it's much better progress than years past.

And so, here's a progress report of stories I've written, am writing and have revised: 

  • The Dangers of Growing Air-Cooled Volkswagens in Your Backyard
  • Do Djinn Dream of Burning Sheep?
  • Mastura's Air Lengkong Adventure
  • Under a Concrete Sky the Flashing Lights Zoom By
  • And the Heavens Your Canopy
  • Say, I Seek Refuge with the Lord of the Dawn
  • Air-Cooled Nuisance
  • Girl at Salak Selatan
Revisited and Reworked Significantly
  • Do Djinn Dream of Burning Sheep?
  • The Ghost in the Garden
Out of all these stories, one has been self-published (The Dangers of Growing Air-Cooled Volkswagens in Your Backyard), two have been accepted for publishing (Mastura's Air Lengkong Adventure in Hungry in Ipoh and The Ghost in the Garden in Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now Vol. 2) and the rest of the completed stories are in process of submission in various places.

Out of all these stories, Under a Concrete Sky the Flashing Lights Zoom By is by far my longest story. At 10,600 words, it's a novelette rather than a short and it's one I'm quite proud of. It's been rejected by four pro markets so far but I hope it'll find a home soon.

Do Djinn Dream of Burning Sheep? was initially a 1000 word flash fiction sent to Daily Science Fiction but after getting rejected, I rewrote it significantly, expanding it to about 2000 words and now it's waiting for a response from Fixi Novo for their HEAT anthology.

And the Heavens Your Canopy is funny little thing that just popped into my head over the period of a week after I completed writing Concrete Sky, which was ridiculously hard to write. Heavens was in stark contrast, a relaxing walk in the park. This story is now waiting a response from Fixi Novo for the TRASH anthology.

I started writing Air-Cooled Nuisance as a riff on Disney's old Herbie movies, intended as flash fiction for Daily Science Fiction, but the story quickly grew more than 1000 words. I'm still not sure where the story needs to go, so it's been put on the backburner for now.

Girl at Salak Selatan was written in response to Daphne Lee's call for submissions for her Remang horror story anthology. While writing this I came to the realisation that I don't like horror stories and even less of writing it, so I abandoned it. There's still 500 words of that story that I could probably reuse for something not-horror but it'll probably be a while before I revisit it.

Say, I Seek Refuge with the Lord of the Dawn is still under progress. It's my current writing project and it takes place in the same world I created for What the Andromaid Reads at Night (the short story that got published in Zen Cho's Cyberpunk: Malaysia) and my novelette, Concrete Sky. It's been another tough story to write, but I'm enjoying the process so I'm willing to put the hours in to make it a great story.

It's August, so I should have had eight completed stories now, and I only have five. I'm a little behind but I think what I have so far is still good progress. I'm just happy I'm this passionate about writing again. There's still four months left in the year, and who knows, maybe I suddenly become super prolific and be able to crank out another seven stories?

If Ray Bradbury was able to push out a story a week, I don't see why I can't do it every month. With that, I leave you with this io9 article I recently rediscovered: 12 Secrets to Being a Super-Prolific Short-Story Writer.

Monday, 17 August 2015

#BookReview: Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

My review of Haruki Murakami's Wind/Pinball was published in the Sunday Star on 16 August 2015 and appeared on the website on 18 August 2015.

Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator (Japanese-English): Ted Goossen
Publisher: Alfred A Knopf

Finally, famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami has deemed it fit for English-speakers to read the two novellas he wrote in the late 1970s that launched his career.

Wind/Pinball is a collection of two novellas: Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. Murakami is on record for saying that he’s embarrassed by these novellas because, by his reckoning, they were his early books and are not that good. He’s even mentioned in interviews that he had had no plans for them to be released outside of Japan.

English translations did exist, though. Published by Kodansha and translated by Alfred Birnbaum, the rarities were only ever intended to be used in English language classes in Japan. Print runs were limited and English-reading Murakami fans curious about them had to dig deep in the bowels of the Internet to find copies. Of course, they also had to be ready to pay ridiculously high prices for these rare Murakami books.

So for the books to actually be released officially in English now with a new translation is a big deal. To complete the package, an introductory essay by the author is also included. The essay is a great how-I-became-a-writer piece and is probably the best thing in the book.

The first novella, Hear The Wind Sing, takes place over 18 days in the summer of 1970, and follows the aimless wanderings and ramblings of an unnamed narrator and his friend, Rat.

This initial effort shows Murakami was already a writer with great ideas and adept at creating interesting dialogue, but it also betrays a lack of skill in plotting. There is no discernible plot in this book – it is merely about a college student aimlessly waiting for his holiday to end, and is littered with non sequiturs throughout.

Murakami’s signature tropes have already begun appearing, though. Elephants, cats, wells, odd girls. They’re here but perhaps a little underused than they will be in his later novels and short stories. Then there’s his penchant for invoking Western culture – references abound from Gatsby to Dostoyevsky, Marvin Gaye to the Beach Boys.

Hear The Wind Sing drags along at an unbearably slow pace. Nothing happens to prod the story along, and when mysteries crop up, they go unsolved and the characters remain unbothered and indifferent. The dialogue does, however, hint at something more substantial waiting to be revealed.

Pinball, 1973 picks up three years later. The nameless narrator has moved to Tokyo and set up a translation service. Out of the blue, seemingly out of nowhere, a pair of twin girls appear in the narrator’s apartment and decide to stay, “as if they had been taking a stroll, seen a promising place, and moved in”.

The narrator, being the typical Murakami protagonist, doesn’t seem to mind, doesn’t question their appearance, and in fact, relishes the company. And then he develops an obsession about a pinball machine he used to play in a bar in his small hometown. This bar also happens to be where the Rat spends most of his time now, moping about seeking greater meaning in his life.

Pinball, 1973 is a much better effort than Hear The Wind Sing and has the advantage of actually having a plot, though, admittedly, the story is still vague and the pinball machine doesn’t even enter the plot until near the end.

Though Wind/Pinball is undoubtedly a momentous book, I can’t imagine recommending it to anybody other than the hardest of hardcore Murakami fans. Murakami had good reason not to release these works in English before. He must have known critics would tear them to shreds.

He only really hit his stride with his third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase (1982, English translation 1989), which continues the story of the unnamed narrator and Rat. That novel was a much better effort and it shows in how immensely enjoyable a read it is.

Wind/Pinball, however, will remain that one Murakami book that only completist fans will buy.

~ ~ ~

A Comment on the Review

So this marks the first time I've reviewed a book (well, two actually) twice. Long time readers of this blog (all two of you) may remember I've already reviewed Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 back in 2007 but those were the Alfred Birnbaum translations that were never officially made available outside of Japan.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed I cribbed a little from my previous reviews to write this review and that's because even though I read the new Ted Goossen translation I found my opinions mostly unchanged from before. (Also, I wrote the review on the first day of Eid holidays and I was in a hurry.)

In retrospect, I feel the review is a little lacking in certain areas. I wanted to comment a little on the differences in translation between the Goossen translation and the Birnbaum translation. But I found that the distance of time had made me forget most of the nuances of the text in the Birnbaum translation. And because I had a deadline, I wasn't keen to revisit them either. With the 800 word limit I had, I don't think I would have had space anyway.

I find it interesting that most of the mainstream reviews that exist out there for this version of the text have been very positive and I am probably one of the few reviewers who did not find it captivating.

A stark contrast for back when I was the premier Murakami reviewer in Malaysia and was often criticised and mocked for seemingly giving a good review for any of his latest releases. Well, it just so happened I really liked those books, and I just happened not to like this particular one. I am a fan, but I'm not a blindly loving one.

For a complete list of Haruki Murakami reviews I've written, click here.

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