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.

p/s
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: 

Finished
  • 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
Unfinished
  • 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 Star2.com 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.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

#BookReview: City by Clifford D. Simak (2015 Edition)


It's always wonderful when you discover a wonderful new author. But this author I've found is hardly new and he is hardly obscure, having won three Hugo awards as well as a Nebula. In 1977 he became the third Grand Master of the SFWA. No, far from obscure, Clifford D. Simak is one of the masters of science fiction who wrote and published his stories during the hallowed Golden Era of SF. And the book that I've discovered by him is the fantastic, far-reaching and truly epic novel, City.

Like many SF novels of that period, City is a novel that is patched together with previously published unconnected short stories, very similar to what Bradbury did with The Martian Chronicles and what Asimov did with I, Robot. What makes City unique--I'd go so far as to say fascinating--are the interstitial "notes" that tie the stories together into one continuous narrative. And these notes are often equally as intriguing as the stories they introduce.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. City tells a legend that has been passed on via oral tradition by intelligent, sentient dogs of the future. The legend consists of eight tales (with a ninth added to the canon in 1974) following the adventures and trials of the Webster family, their dogs and their loyal robot butler, Jenkins. The notes* that tie the stories together are written as academic research essays by dogs who are skeptical that Man ever existed, and they often assume the stories are mere fancy, legends to entertain little pups before they go to sleep.

And indeed, the novel tells of how the Websters had their hand in giving the dogs their sentience, getting Man to leave Earth and ascend to another kind of existence and what happened when the dogs took over as caretakers of the planet. From the perspective of a dog who has never had the chance to meet a man or to witness the wonders of Man's creations such as rockets that fling into space, how else but to take these stories as mere fancy?

The stories are heartfelt and are a great commentary of the human condition. I especially love the story, "Desertion", which tells the story of what happens when a group of human explorers are sent to Jupiter, never to return. It's a great story by itself but it also provides the novel a pivotal moment that changes everything for humanity.

On the whole, a great read by someone who's not mentioned enough by the SFF circles. City is now available in a new edition which not only includes the newer ninth tale but also an essay by his close friend David Nixon. I highly suggest you check it out.

This book review was possible thanks to an ARC provided by NetGalley.

* Are they... Cliff Notes? Heh heh heh. Okay. Sorry. I'll get my coat.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Journey of a Nine-Year-Old Short Story.


Yesterday, the New Asia Now edition of the Griffith Review went on sale:
Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now showcases outstanding young writers from the countries at the centre of Asia's ongoing transformation. They write about the people and places they know with passion, flair and insight.

All born after 1970, our contributors are cultural agenda setters at home who explore issues of identity and belonging in the new world that is unfolding.

Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now, co-edited by Julianne Schultz and Jane Camens, takes a journey through the region’s diversity, featuring a new generation of literary stars who will shape the way we understand the complexities of culture, politics and modernisation.
The editors received so many good entries they wanted to include that they decided to publish this edition in two volumes -- a print edition and a supplementary e-book entitled, "New Asia Now: Volume 2".

Now, why am I telling you this? Because not only is New Asia Now a great showcase of the modern Asian zeitgeist in writing, but the e-book, New Asia Now: Volume 2, includes a story by yours truly!

Long time readers of this blog (all three of you) may remember nine years ago, at a Readings session run by Sharon Bakar, I read a story I had just written called Ghost in the Garden. This was the first time I presented this story (still a very early draft at this stage) to the public and the response was encouraging. (It was also the first time I had read in public.)

Born in one of Sharon's writing classes back in 2006, the story has been rewritten several times over. Sharon's been instrumental in encouraging me to continue submitting it for publication, even after it was rejected by many publications over the years. (Incidentally, an earlier draft was also rejected for Readings from Readings 2, an anthology of Malaysian writing that was co-edited by Sharon herself along with Bernice Chauly, though my other story, Pak Sudin's Bicycle, managed to sneak its way in.)

Earlier this year, I saw the call for submission from Griffith Review for New Asia Now and told myself, ehhhh okay one last time. I took another look at the story and decided to give it one more round of polishing and rewriting. Then in February I submitted it and promptly forgot about it. That's what you do with a story you've kept for nine years that's been rejected repeatedly. You don't put much hope into it.

Early in April I had an email from the editors telling me I was among two hundred writers long-listed to be included in New Asia Now. I was happy to know that but didn't put to much stock in it. Two hundred? Surely there were a hundred and ninety-nine other more talented writers who had a much better chance at being accepted!

Another month passed and I hadn't heard anything regarding my story. I assumed that my story had been dropped. Suddenly I received an email with suggested edits for my story. They also let me know that while the story might not make it into the print edition, they're going to publish the story in a supplemental edition as an e-book.

And so now, after nine long years, you too can read The Ghost in the Garden, if you get a copy of Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now Volume 2. And of course, you totally want to.

Malaysian author, Chuah Guat Eng, had this to say about The Ghost in the Garden:
"Loved it. You had me expecting a ghost! I also love your writing style."
Oops. That's kind of a spoiler. But I suppose I should say that the story isn't a genre story in case someone expects it to be and finds themselves disappointed that it isn't.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

#BookReview: Starfire by Paul Preuss



A solar flare causes an accident on a routine mission around the Earth's orbit. This causes astronaut Travis Hill to take extreme measures by leaping out of the craft and into an escape pod, effectively becoming the first astronaut ever to jettison to safety from space and make a reentry back to Earth.

This amazing starting sequence in the novel, Starfire by Paul Preuss, hooked me straight in and kept me turning the pages, wanting to know what would happen the thrilling moment next. Unfortunately, as action-packed as the opening was, the rest of Starfire left me wanting.

Several years after Travis Hill's amazing escape from the solar flare accident and his daring descent back to Earth, he has been deemed unfit to go back to space. But when he hears about an asteroid that makes a near pass to Earth and is heading towards the Sun, he spies an opportunity to get back to space. With NASA launching the brand new spaceship, the titular Starfire, very soon, plans are made to readjust the spaceship's maiden voyage with an ambitious mission to land on the asteroid before it heads into a closed loop near the sun.

The premise of Starfire may remind you a little of the film Armageddon but this novel was first published in 1988, ten years before Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck ever went to space to the sound of Aerosmith. Also, Starfire, being a hard SF novel, likes to think it's a little brainier than Michael Bay's popcorn fare. And truly, the science and realism that permeates the novel is a joy for those who prefer their science fiction leaning towards science more than fiction. It is to the author's credit that all that science and realism does not get in the way of the story and actually enhances it.

Where the author fails is in the characters and the extraordinarily slow pace of the plot. The characters are either forgettable and especially in the main character's case, unlikeable. Travis Hill recalls one of a cowboy from Texas and retains all the negative stereotypes of one -- mainly a misogynistic white male. In fact, the cowboy elements were so strong that half the time I wondered whether I was reading a Louis L'amour western or a scifi opera.

The plot is simple enough, and the author possibly realised that this meant he had to pad his novel so that he could make his wordcount. And so every time things start to get a little exciting, we are thrown into a pointless flashback of a character. The flashbacks were so many to the point of annoyance; I kept wanting to shout at the book, "Get on with it already!"

I really wanted to like this book, I really did. The premise was sound and normally, anything with spaceships in it would get me hot and bothered, but this one left me as cold as a floating rock in space.

This book review was possible thanks to an ARC provided by NetGalley.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Cyberpunk: Malaysia featured at The Book Smugglers.

The Book Smugglers feature Cyberpunk: Malaysia in their monthly SFF in Conversation article. They speak with Zen Cho, the editor, as well as the authors featured within the anthology. And yes, I'm one of 'em, thank you very much.

An excerpt:
We received 100 submissions – a lot for a local English-language anthology – and filtering them down to the final 14 short stories was not an easy process. But I’m proud of the resulting book: it’s a fascinating snapshot of contemporary urban Malaysia, an exploration of what cyberpunk might be in a Malaysian context, and a glimpse of what we can hope for from the continuing growth of world SF.
There's also a giveaway, so if you hurry, you might be able to win a copy.

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