Malaysiana

Mother & Child | Yusof Gajah (2009)

Mother & Child
Yusof Gajah (artist/illustrator)
Integra Majujaya (previously Oyez! Books), 2009
52 pages
9789675250378

back copy:

Mother & Child represents a selection of a series of water colours done by Yusof Gajah, in celebration of motherhood and the family. The images show how the mother tenderly teaches and cares for her child.

Also included in this delightful book are Yusof’s sketches, mostly done during his travels. They present a rare insight into the artist’s mind and give us a glimpse of the ideas that would later form his paintings.

A truly beautiful and inspirational book…

My thoughts:

I received this book along as part of a large stack from Daphne (because she’s moving, and is giving away some of her old books). At first glance, I thought it was a picture book, but when I flipped through I realised that it was just Yusof Gajah’s paintings, and some quotes to go along with it. I’m kind of a fan of his paintings, so this didn’t bother me, although I did wonder if it’s meant to be a children’s book, or if it’s only designated as such because Integra/Oyez is mainly known for publishing kidlit.

a low-res IG post of some of the book’s pages
Fantasy · Malaysiana

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (#Diversiverse)

sorcerer_front mech.inddNormally if you say “Regency Fantasy” to me I wouldn’t be very interested, despite having liked quite a few regency fantasies before. And if you said Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or Georgette Heyer to me, I probably would have avoided the book. (Not because I didn’t think either are good, but because I usually don’t have any patience for the language, or the slowness) So Sorcerer to the Crown wasn’t quite up my alley, but I was very much looking forward to it because (1) Zen Cho wrote it, and (2) I seem to recall an early review on GoodReads that mentioned “Malaysian vampires”. Pontianaks in (alternate) historical England? THAT I must read!

And I’m very glad that I did read it, because it turned out to be one of my favourite fantasies this year. (Also, the pontianaks are from Malacca. This interests me greatly because my family is from Malacca.)

First of all, the book does awesome work at handling race and gender issues – two things that are often concerns in historical fiction/films/etc. The main character, Zacharias Wythe, is a freed slave and the first and only black sorcerer in England. He also happens to be the Royal Sorcerer, even if many of his fellow sorcerers refuse to acknowledge him as such. The other main character is Prunella Gentleman, a half-Indian woman who reminded me somewhat of Sophie Hatter, except that she’s MUCH more ruthless. And – and! – the other main character (sort of) is an old Malay woman named Mak Genggang, and a bomoh (magic user, something like a shaman) to boot.

Upon becoming the new Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias not only face opposition from his colleagues, but also finds that he has to solve the problem of England’s dwindling magical source. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s summoned by the Government to aid Sultan Ahmad of Janda Baik, Malacca fight a war against the witches and pontianaks of his country. Zacharias refused, not wanting to start a magical war. When he meets Prunella, however, and visits Fairyland, the source of England’s magic, he learns that everything might be connected after all. Continue reading “Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (#Diversiverse)”

Malaysiana · Science Fiction · Short Story

Cyberpunk: Malaysia, edited by Zen Cho (#Diversiverse)

cyberpunkmalaysiaOne of the first things I thought when I was reading this collection was, whether or not you enjoy it would depend on your expectations – which I guess would be true of many things, but especially so with Cyberpunk: Malaysia. That’s because it’s published by Buku Fixi, which mostly deals with pulp fiction and horror (with the occasional fantasy, and rarer SF) and also the fact that Malaysian authors (and readers!) may not be that familiar with the cyberpunk genre. I’ve read enough of Fixi’s anthologies to know not to be literal – not every story in the KL NOIR collections were actually noir, for example. So I began this book expecting some of the story to be not-really-cyberpunk, and perhaps not-really-“Science Fiction”. (This is because I know a lot of local readers that only consider hard-SF as SF.)

That said, I also had high expectations in the enjoyability of the book, because it is edited by Zen Cho, author of the collection Spirits Abroad (also published by Buku Fixi), and the novel Sorcerer to the Crown. I’m definitely a fan of hers, and I think she totally delivers here, because I liked the flow of this collection – it’s a book that I can read from cover to cover in one go, which isn’t something I would say about most fiction anthologies.

My favourite stories would be “Underneath Her Tudung”, about a cyborg woman that many others assume to be an android; “Personal”, which poses an interesting question about a world where our entire existence could be summarised by a tab or a phone; and “The Twins”, which has robots possessed by Penunggu spirits. I also enjoyed “Attack of the Spambots” which is just pure fun, and “Codes” which makes for an excellent discussion on all the current restrictions set on Malay/Muslims in the country.

As a Malaysian SF fan I’m always looking out for speculative fiction with a Malaysian bent, and this anthology certainly satisfies me on that front. I even like the use of Manglish in a few of the stories, which I know annoyed some readers – the way I think of it, I can use English or Malay (or Japanese) completely, but most of the time it feels weird and like I’m trying too hard when I’m not mixing it all up, especially when talking to another Malaysian. Hence, I’ll never speak perfect English, or Malay, or any other language – some things are just better expressed in other languages, and I think in Malaysia, that’s exactly what we always do, mix it all up.

While there are one or two stories I could have done without, and I’m not as in love with this anthology as I was with Spirits Abroad (my favourite work of Malaysian fiction so far!), I do think it is a perfectly enjoyable collection of Malaysian SF, and among the better offerings of local fiction in English in the market.

morediverseuniverse

Contemporary · Malaysiana

The Sum of Our Follies by Shih-Li Kow

sumofourfolliesI had been hesitant to write about this book, which I had read for our Malaysian Fiction book club, because it pretty much left me with a “meh” feeling. And usually I wouldn’t bother writing about books I didn’t feel strongly about either way, but I also wanted to write about my attempts in reading more local fiction.

I think my biggest complaint about this book is the characters. They didn’t feel real, and their feelings didn’t feel real, which made it very difficult to engage with the book, because I am very much a “characterisation first” sort of reader. I don’t have to like or love a character, but I definitely do have to get a feel of who they are as a person, and I didn’t get that with any of the characters in this book. The narrators kept getting switched around and they all sounded the same to me, and I couldn’t tell them apart, which wasn’t a good thing considering that one of them was a young girl, another was a middle-aged (I think) woman, and the third was an old man. Each of these characters came from very different backgrounds, with different levels of education… and they all sounded the same.

What I did like about this book was the setting. Lubok Sayong, the fictitious town the story was set in, was described vividly enough, and the best parts of the story was when it took on a magical realist feel, like with the big fish that kept turning up in different parts of the book. The prose was pretty in some parts, and it made me wonder if I would enjoy Shih-Li Kow’s short stories more, as I am more apt to overlook lack of character development in that format. Since I’ve been told that her Ripples collection is better than this novel, I may give it a try one day. Overall, I found this novel readable, if much like Lubok Sayong’s nasi lemak bungkus – “lukewarm and thinly garnished, in portion that fall short of satisfying the appetite and the imagination.”

5 by 5 · Malaysiana

5×5: Zen Cho

I’ve always been interested in what local publisher Buku Fixi have been releasing, but most of their books weren’t the sort that I normally read, until Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad.

Spirits Abroad is really a collection of (mostly) previously published SFF short fiction. I loved that a lot of the stories were exactly the sort of thing I liked, perfectly blending the real world with folklore. And as a  MAJOR plus point, this time the folklore were the ones I’ve grown up with, because Zen Cho is also Malaysian. I really ought to write about the book in a different post, because I want to flail about all the stories. Earlier this year Buku Fixi released another anthology full of the sort of things I like in my SF, Cyberpunk: Malaysia, edited by Zen. This, too, I will write more about in a future post.

This month Zen released a novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, which I had included in my “2015 books I’m anticipating” lists here and on GR. I’m expecting it to be as awesome as – if very different from – Spirits Abroad. My copy just arrived yesterday, and I can’t wait to start reading!

Anyway, here are Zen’s top fives (and top 1 for one of the questions):

whiteboots1 uprooted AKitS Cover amanliesdreaming gokusen

Top 5 favourite childhood books

  • First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton
  • White Boots by Noel Streatfeild
  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
  • Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Top 5 fictional characters you’d love to meet

  • Death from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
  • Temeraire from Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series
  • Stephen Maturin from Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series
  • Yankumi from the manga Gokusen by Morimoto Kozueko
  • Anne Shirley from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series

Top 5 fandoms you’re currently into

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (the Susanna Clarke novel and the BBC series)

Zen’s note: I can’t truthfully say I’m currently into any other fandoms! I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to fandoms.

Top 5 SFF books you read recently

  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik
  • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
  • A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar
  • Cyberpunk: Malaysia by various authors
  • A Killing in the Sun by Dilman Dila

Top 5 creatures/spirits from myth/folklore

  • Dragon
  • Pontianak
  • Qilin
  • Manananggal
  • The Monkey King, Sun Wukong (though a bit disrespectful to call him a creature)

Thank you very much, Zen, for answering these!

Contemporary · Malaysiana

Voice in My Head by Lilian Chan

voicesinmyheadTessa Goh is a young wannabe writer who works as a receptionist in a clinic. The synopsis of the book describes the clinic as a “health clinic”, but from what I gathered in the book it’s more of a cosmetic center. She is described as ambitious but the book has her pretty content toiling away at the clinic and working her way up (without ever reading or writing anything, so why did she want to be a writer?) into a possible management position. She has a self-esteem problem, constantly comparing herself (a “lowly receptionist”) to the upperclass women who are the regular patients of the clinic.

She also has a secret – she could hear other people’s thoughts. Not every single thought, but if the thought was strong enough, Tessa would be able to pick it up. Most of the time the thoughts she hears are negative, which makes Tessa distrust people in general. But then she meets Aran Shankar, who is “rich, intelligent, and good looking.” Also – and this is the most important part – he’s a Datin’s* son.

The two of them hit if off from the beginning, bonding over their love for street food, but then Tessa begins to hear Datin Shankar’s thoughts. Shaken by the mean things she heard, Tessa began to change herself in order to be someone “worthy” of Aran.

The story never did conclude on whether the voices Tessa heard were really other people’s thoughts. And it was hard for me to engage with this book on any level, because the characters were flat and the story reminding me of a Malay drama serial, what with the stress on class difference and the obsession of the Datin in having her son be with someone of a higher class. Tessa Goh is also a kind of Mary Sue, and not of the sort that I enjoy reading. Both Aran and her best friend adore her, because she has some sort of special quality to her that never becomes apparent in the book. She isn’t particularly funny, and if she’s smart she doesn’t show it, and I don’t buy that someone as smart as she’s supposed to be not being able to get a different job. I think there’s nothing wrong being a receptionist, but if she thinks it’s below her, then, well. She’s in KL! I know people who switch jobs every few months here; surely Tessa would be able to find a better fit for her talents. And speaking of her talents, she’s supposedly a brilliant writer, and dreams of winning major awards in the future. And yet… she never writes in the book. She doesn’t blog. She doesn’t scribble in notebooks. She doesn’t submit her stories anywhere. And she doesn’t read, or mention a book at all, in the whole course of this story, which makes her supposed bookishness unbelievable to me. Aran, on the other hand, at least proves his supposed intelligence by doing something with it.

I wasn’t keen on the way Tessa treats her best friend, either. I could believe that she had no idea of her friend’s feelings, since he kept his love to her pretty close to the chest, but it seemed like he had done so much for her, and yet she decides to cut him off entirely because he made the mistake of meeting up with Datin Shankar, who wanted his help to break Tessa and Aran up. I would probably be more sympathetic with Tessa’s decision if her best friend actually agreed with the Datin’s schemes, but all he did was listen, and decline.

Come to think of it, this really is like a Malay drama, so perhaps Malaysians that enjoy those would like this book. As for me, the best thing I could say about it is that I liked the cover enough to pick it up in the first place, and that it didn’t have any glaring typos.

* a Datin is the wife of a Datuk, which is an honorary title in Malaysia, similar to a British Knighthood. Interesting bit of trivia: two famous non-Malaysians have received Datukships before – Datuk Jackie Chan and Datuk Shah Rukh Khan.

Fantasy · Malaysiana · Short Story

Malaysian Tales: Retold and Remixed, edited by Daphne Lee

malaysiantalesI guess I should first say that I may be biased, since I’m friends with the editor. I may be, but I don’t think I am, because I also happen to know that Daphne is more picky than me when it comes to fiction, even if she is often kinder about local works.

First of all, this book has one of the prettiest covers I’ve seen on a Malaysian book. It’s published by ZI Publications, whose books usually have nice covers, although they rarely print fiction.

This anthology collects retellings of Malaysian folklore. I’ve always wanted a collection of local folklore that isn’t in the form of a (usually badly illustrated) picture book, but a book of retellings is good enough. It’s inspired by other collections, particularly Adele Geras’ The Tower Room Trilogy and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, both of which reinterprets fairy tales, giving them new and different meanings.

Some of the stories in this collection, I’ve never heard of before, such Puteri Sa’adong, retold in “A Little Warm Death” and “The Proper Care of Princesses”, both by Karina Bahrin. And then there are the more familiar stories, like Batu Belah, Batu Bertangkup (about two children whose mother basically killed herself because they, uh, ate her food); Bawang Puteh, Bawang Merah (a Cinderella story of step-sisters, an evil stepmother and a magical dead mother, and a prince); Mahsuri (a semi-historical legend of a woman wrongly accused and punished for infidelity, cursing her village to years of strife); Si Tanggang (a story of a poor boy that makes it big and forgets his roots, causing his mother to curse him, turning him to stone); Puteri Gunung Ledang (a king searches for the rumoured beautiful and magical princess of Gunung Ledang, who makes unrealistic demands because she refuses to marry him) and Raja Bersiong (a king develops a taste for blood and starts needing it more and more, developing fangs as time goes by). And the Sang Kancil stories, which are trickster stories in a similar vein to Anansi or Brer Rabbit stories, except with a mousedeer as the trickster.  Continue reading “Malaysian Tales: Retold and Remixed, edited by Daphne Lee”