Sunday, 29 January 2012

Don't Lose Your Sensawunda.

Was reading a local litblog of some repute today and at first I thought he would be reviewing a particular fantasy book but it turned out he just wanted to rant about the state of today's fantasy. About how today's fantasy novels seemed to be written for teens and young adults and none of them seemed to be written for middle-aged dads.

Well, the answer to that is, well... yes. Fantasy is written for teens and young adults. From Conan to Tolkien to Martin.

But then again, fantasy novels have always targeted teens and young adults. Sure, some of them have involved adult themes and imagery but let's not kid (heh) ourselves here, fantasy is, and has always been, largely a domain for the young and young at heart.

The message of the rant implied that just because modern fantasy is for mere children, as it were, it automatically fails to challenge, intrigue, entertain, grab by the collars or refuse any reprieve. And the writer condemned this sweeping judgement upon modern fantasy after reading the first fifty pages of just one book.

And here is where I take exception. Why sir, surely making such a general statement borders on absurdity? What about Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie and the myriad other authors who write fantasy with adult themes? Surely their work must count for something?

I'm not a middle aged dad. I'm a bouncing, hale and hearty thirty-year-old man. (Also, I just had my tonsils out. Always a sign of youthfulness! ;P) But I am a dad. But that doesn't mean I have gotten jaded yet with the genre and I don't know if I ever will. I hope not. To lose one's sense of wonder is a terrible thing.

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, a man who is tired of fantasy, is tired of life.

You Can Never Have Too Many...

I've admired fantasy author Glenda Larke's work for some time and I have her blog subscribed in Google Reader so I can always read her latest posts.

But I never knew she just lived down the road from me!

I randomly met her on Friday evening in a restaurant near where we lived and recognised her from her pictures on her blog, so I went over and said hello. We had a short chat and then she asks me, "Would you like some reading matter?"

Turns out Glenda's cleaning her house out and is culling some of her books from her personal library. Well, obviously, I'd be happy to help!

The next day, I was over at her house with four shopping bags and look what happened:

Cataloguing this will be very interesting, to say the least.

188 books. 10 books in each stack, except for one stack which has 8 books.

That's altogether 188 books, mostly fantasy but there are some science fiction (finally, I have a copy of Frederick Pohl's elusive Gateway!) and some crime fiction as well.

But the most wonderful discovery amongst these treasures was a book I had been looking for the better part of the last decade. It was a tough search as I had forgotten the title and the author's name and I only remembered a vague outline of the story.

I had read the book back in secondary school and in a moment of extreme dumbness I sold it to NovelHut, a second-hand book store which I've mentioned on this blog several times before. I liked that book, so I don't remember why I actually sold it off. I must have been really desperate for money.

When I pulled the book off Glenda's bookshelf and saw the cover, I took a deep breath as recognition set in and I couldn't believe I had finally found it.

Finally, in my hand, was a copy of The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein:

The cover isn't much but it's a really good book. Honest!

Can't wait to reread it and blog about it. Meanwhile, Jo Walton's writeup on Tor.com is a good introduction to the series. (Wow! I didn't know it was a series!)

Anyway, looks like I now need to go buy some planks of wood and drill some new shelves into the wall or else two-year-old Sophie is going to play librarian and the next thing I'll know she'll shelving these books under the toilet bowl, rather than under "Fantasy/Science Fiction".

And if you haven't read any of Glenda Larke's books, you should, especially if you're into fantasy. The Last Stormlord, book 1 of The Watergivers trilogy is a good place to start. You could also check out Heart of the Mirage, which is the first book of the Mirage Makers trilogy.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Taking it Bird by Bird.

Anne Lamont's wonderful book for writers, Bird by Bird, isn't a how-to book for writers. Rather, it is a book about the joys of writing as well as being an inspirational guide on the life of writing.

The book opens with an anecdote that retells a childhood story of Ms. Lamont's brother who has to write an assignment for school.

The assignment requires him to write about birds but when finally the day before the assignment has to be submitted, he cries in frustration that the task is impossible because there are just too many birds to write about.

The father comes over, takes a look at the assignment, then gives one small but important piece of advice: "Take it Bird by Bird, son. Bird by Bird." (I haven't read the book for years, so forgive me if this isn't exactly verbatim.)

It goes without saying that this is excellent advice.

Recently, I met with fellow writer, Elizabeth Tai, and we chitchatted about books, reading and writing.

After a while the Bird by Bird book came up in the conversation and I talked about how if ever I got stuck with my writing, I'd take a deep breath and chant "bird by bird, bird by bird" repeatedly like a mantra, and that would help me to get unstuck.

But when I said that I did that with my writing, I meant I did it with my writing at work and not really with my personal fiction writing. For some reason, I've always compartmentalised my writing and have separated writing for work and writing for myself. With my own writing, I am like Lamont's brother, who frequently cries in frustration that "this is impossible!"

Elizabeth has the same approach with her writing but has the smarts to actually apply the Bird by Bird technique it to any of her writing, whether it is with her work-related stuff (she's a journalist with Malaysia's daily newspaper, The Star) or with her fiction. To her, all writing is the same and the same technique can be applied no matter what you're writing.

Some things are so obvious, you need somebody else to tell it to you. For me, this is one of those things. Well, duh. Of course I can apply the Bird by Bird technique to my fiction writing. Why the heck didn't I think of it before? In my mind, many head slappings occured.

Elizabeth went on to elaborate on her writing process. She said that while writing, she takes a robotic kind of view and has a detachment towards her writing. She admitted it was a dry process but at least it gets the job done.

She has a point. As writers of fiction, we all want our fiction to be perfect, we all want to carve out that perfect novel. We labour and lament over the choice of words, idioms, metaphors, similes and other dumb bits of writerly jargon. And when we do that, the writing process grinds to a halt and it has a psychological effect on our minds and makes us think, as writers, we kind of suck. No, not just "kind of". We suck. Truly and completely. And that makes us stop writing.

But stop a moment and reconsider. Writers are only human. (Or at least most of us are. I'm betting you are human.) We're not divine beings who can churn out perfection as easily as going for a morning constitutional. (And I mean that in the euphemistic sense.)

In the end, what's important is you keep writing, no matter if you think what you're writing is utter and absolute crap. Just keep going, take it bird by bird, and go on. If you have to keep it dry and robotic, then so be it. You can always touch it up later. Until you're done and have that elusive first draft.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

SHORT STORY REVIEW: The Sun Never Rises in the Big City by Jeremy C. Shipp

This short story Kindle e-book started out as a generic hard-boiled detective novel with a broad asking a shamus to investigate her apparently lecherous husband.

But then the broad dies, and the story turns into something altogether different.

Shipp writes gritty dialogue worthy of the hard-boiled genre. In fact, I downloaded the story on the basis of the dialogue on the first page alone.

The story is pretty weird and throws curve balls at the reader a lot of times. I kept wondering what the heck was going on, and I didn't see the ending coming. Probably because I had no idea where the story was going most of the time!

I did not know anything about the story beforehand and I downloaded it on the basis of reading the first page. I didn't know it was a bizarro story, but if I did, that would have probably spoiled half the fun.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading this--I love bizarro--and am now interested in checking out the author's other work. Attic Clowns looks interesting, for starters.

The Sun Never Rises in the Big City is temporarily available for free on the Amazon Kindle Store. Otherwise it's available for 99 cents.

For more on the author, Jeremy C. Shipp blogs at slices of bizarro pie.

Monday, 23 January 2012

REVIEW: Book Light - Paperback LED Light Panel by positiveideas

Bookaholics who tend to stay up late at night reading but have a partner who shares the room must surely understand the all-too-common dilemma of having to switch off the lights so your partner can sleep, but dammit you're just about to get to the good part in your novel but you don't want to get out of bed and continue reading in the living room.

The solution would of course be to get a nice book light, one that illuminates enough for you to enjoy your reading, but not pervasive enough to bother your pesky non-reading partner.

I've been married quite a while now. So it goes without saying I've been wanting a really good book light for some time. Getting a book light had become more crucial after little Sophie was born. I wanted to read in bed but neither the wife nor the baby would shut up and go to sleep when the lights were on.

I scoured the internet for a solution and discovered the LightWedge, a really nifty device that, like it's name suggests, is shaped like a cheese wedge. The "cheese wedge" is actually a transparent piece of quality plastic panel which is fastened to a black spine. The spine is equipped with several LEDs that shoot out light which the plastic cheese wedge then spreads all over the surface of the plastic.

It would be positioned neatly over the page of the book and illuminate the whole page with equal light. The product garnered quite a number of good reviews. It looked like the perfect thing for me. Unfortunately the price that it was asked for was a bit too rich for my blood: approximately RM130.

I forgot about it and considered getting one of those cheap clip-on lights instead.

But then several years later as I was browsing MPH bookstores, I discovered a cheap knockoff of the LightWedge, called the Book Light. I considered buying it but I decided to wait a little bit and check online for reviews.

Unfortunately, nobody really reviewed it or I couldn't find someone who actually reviewed the damn thing because when you give your product such a generic name, it makes it impossible to find in Google. So I forgot about it for a while until just before Christmas of 2011 when I found myself at a Christmas MPH sale in Putrajaya (ironically selling mostly Islamic books). The Book Light was offered for RM25 so I thought, okay, why not.

You've read this far, so I'll reward your patience by getting to the point. The Book Light is a piece of crap that isn't even worth the admittedly well-designed packaging it came in.

Reasons why I hate the damn thing so much:

1) The quality of plastic is shoddy. When I bought it, I made sure to take the Book Light out of the box to see if there were any scratches on the surface of the plastic panel. I didn't see any and was pleased that the manufacturers had sealed the panel with a protective layer of sheet plastic. But when I got home and turned on the light to test, the all too obvious scratches and deformities of the plastic began to make itself apparent. There were wavy patterns and a multitude of tiny scratches all over the panel, which annoyed me to no end because it distracted from my reading.

2) The LEDs kept flickering. Any light that flickers is bound to give anyone a headache. It wasn't because of the batteries either. The Book Light didn't come with its own batteries (no wonder it was so damn cheap) so I bought fresh new batteries just for the device. And speaking of batteries...

3) It uses three AAA batteries. What kind of moron designs a device that uses THREE AAA batteries? Batteries aren't sold in threes, they're sold in twos so when you need to buy batteries for the Book Light you might end up with more batteries than you need. I wouldn't cared as much if it were AA batteries as I usually have quite a lot of those in the house for other devices (e.g. Wii remotes and clocks).

Packaging (front)

Packaging (back)

The Book Light (unlit)

The Book Light (lit)

The Book Light, while lit in the dark. Notice the scratches.
Are there any redeeming qualities about the Book Light? I would say none. I did get one benefit out of it though. There was a blackout recently in my area and I used the Book Light to light up my face which amused Sophie immensely.

I would have loved to give you a background of positiveideas, the delightful company that came up with the Book Light but it seems their rather useful website has been hacked, leaving us with just this charming message:
Hacked by RKH | Hoax Trojan | DSRsysGR | E404 | Loading Fr | Alb Dragon |
As a book light, the Book Light is worth less than guano, because you know, bat shit is kind of useful. As a tool that lights your face up like a phantom, it does better.

My recommendation: do not buy.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

REVIEW: The Blasphemer by John Ling


You don't really expect a fast-paced action thriller to take place in the sleepy antipodean nation of New Zealand, and yet John Ling, a Malaysian-born Kiwi, has made it work.

In The Blasphemer, a Muslim author named Abraham Khan has written a very controversial book very much akin to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. But Khan is no Rushdie. I won't tell you why (spoilers!) but even the author himself claims the main inspiration for the character is the feminist writer, Taslima Nasrin, who is a far cry from Salman Rushdie.

It goes without saying that Khan is then targeted by extremists. Enter Maya Raines, who is assigned by the New Zealand police to protect Khan and his wife, Belinda Freeman, after a failed suicide attack almost kills them both.

John Ling then goes on to weave a fast-placed story that includes drugs, thrall-like Somalis, two hired assassins (with the names Devlin and Emmerich; see if you can catch the reference) and a mysterious man with an aim to create Mayhem and Mischief.

The action scenes are taut and written well with good detail. And with good reason. The author spent some time interviewing members of special forces, and it shows. John Ling describes the action scenes clearly and with great detail but it never feels like he is being didactic.

The other main character in the novel, that of Maya Raines, should be well received by lovers of strong female leads. She is a no-nonsense, professional operator and knows how to get her job done. She's not two dimensional either as we learn that she has had some personal trouble with her mother, Dierdre, who incidentally happens to be her supervisor in her mission.

On the whole, a great fun, fast-paced read. I can't wait to read the sequel, of which the ending of The Blasphemer strongly suggests.

The book also contains some essays and excerpts of aborted novels. The essays cover interesting topics and issues such as Shiites in Malaysia and the Arab Spring but the essays are too short and one is left wanting after reading them.

The excerpts of John Ling's aborted novels are also interesting but one gets the sense that they are only there to pad out the book. Also, if they are abandoned novels, why should the reader want to read those excerpts, because it is clear the author does not intend to finish them. If anything, these extras are not detriments to the novel and can be considered like the "Bonus Extras" in a movie DVD.

As a final note, I think it is interesting that while both Taslima Nasrin and Salman Rushdie are Muslim-turned-Atheists, Abraham Khan remains Muslim even after he publishes his book.

The Blasphemer is available on Amazon as a Kindle e-book.

Hey look! Someone reviewed Zombies Ate My Muslim!

And has nice things to say about it as well:
I’ve recently read a bit of bizarro and have to say even the one with freshly birthed wolves being shot out of a bears mouth isn’t as strange as this book. It’s stupid but funny. I was like wtf! while reading it. This book is weird, wacky and funny. 

Thanks, Jessica! This is exactly the kind of reaction I was going for with the story and was glad to see it worked. That makes me feel glad.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

My Guest Post on John Ling's Blog.

 
My guest post about my experience self-publishing e-books is up on John Ling's blog.

I give a basic rundown about what it takes for a newbie author to get his or her e-book published on Smashwords and Amazon and I also touch a little on what it is like to put your e-book up on Amazon for free.

If you've been wondering what the process is for publishing e-books, do check it out.

John also has a new, exciting thriller out called The Blasphemer, available on Amazon right now.

From the blurb:
When Abraham Khan releases an e-book condemning radical Islam, the consequences hit him fast and hard -- an armed fanatic smashes into his home one evening, trying to kill him. He survives the harrowing attempt. Just barely. But will he survive the next one?


Maya Raines is the security operator brought in to protect Abraham. She is tough and committed. The very best at what she does. Always one step ahead of the threat.


But Abraham is no ordinary principal -- he will not hide, and he will not stay silent. And as rage explodes on the streets and the nation is propelled to the brink, Maya will have to ask herself the hardest question of all: how far would you go to protect one man’s right to speak?

Buying the book not only gets you a fast-paced, action thrill ride, you'll also be eligible for a giveaway contest in which you can win either a Kindle Fire, a Kindle Touch or a $150 Amazon gift card! (Giveaway ends 11th February 2012.)

As for the book itself, I will be writing my thoughts on The Blasphemer soon. (Hint: I liked it.)

Currently Available E-Books

Available from: Amazon | Smashwords | iTunes | Google Play | Kobo
Available from: Amazon | Smashwords | iTunes | Google Play | Kobo
Available from: Amazon | Smashwords | iTunes | Google Play | Nook