Wednesday, August 31, 2005

A shortlist of some of my favourites

FOR WHATEVER IT’S WORTH, here is my shortlist of six novels for the 2005 Booker Prize for Fiction. Outside favourites include John Banville’s The Sea and Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. Hopefully, some of my choices will make it to the shortlist. The official shortlist will be announced on September 8, 2005, while the winner will be announced on October 10, 2005.

Arthur & George / Julian Barnes
A Long Long Way / Sebastian Barry
Never Let Me Go / Kazuo Ishiguro
The People’s Act of Love / James Meek
On Beauty / Zadie Smith
The Accidental / Ali Smith

Sunday, August 28, 2005


Sebastian Faulks's
Human Traces (2005)

THERE is much to savour in the novels of Sebastian Faulks. By exploring the mingled affairs of love and war, tempered with lots of dramatic tension and convincing period details, this British novelist has written a number of engrossing novels over the years. His best known novel is, of course, Charlotte Gray (1998), where a Scotswoman journeys into German-occupied France during War War II to aid the French Resistance and to rescue her missing RAF pilot lover at the same time. His other known works include Birdsong (1993) and The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives (1996), a multiple biography of three historical personalities.

A novelist who finds difficulty seeing much grandeur in contemporary British society, Faulks seems most at home writing about turn-of-the-century England and France. His new novel, Human Traces (2005), set against the backdrop of Vienna at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in the heyday of psychiatry, where the two protagonists compete with each other to understand the workings of the human mind and explore what causes madness, is probably his most ambitious work to date. An intellectual sprawl of a novel, Human Traces explores what makes us who we are and concludes that life is such that things are never what they seem to be.

“Peter Gregory kicked the door of the dispersal hut closed behind him with the heel of his boot. He sensed the iciness of the air outside but was too well wrapped to feel it on his skin. He looked up and saw a big moon hanging still, while ragged clouds flew past and broke up like smoke in the darkness. He began to waddle across the grass, each step won from the limits of movement permitted by the parachute that hung down behind as he bucked and tossed his way forward. He heard the clank of the corporal fitter’s bicycle where it juddered over the ground to his right. The chain needed oiling, he noted; the man was in the wrong gear and a metal mudguard was catching on the tyre with a rhythmic slur as the wheel turned.” Sebastian Faulks, in Charlotte Gray (1998)

FAULKS Sebastian [1953-] Novelist, biographer. Born in Newbury, England. NOVELS Human Traces (2005); On Green Dolphin Street (2001); Charlotte Gray (1998: shortlisted for the 1998 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction); Birdsong (1993); A Fool's Alphabet (1992); The Girl at the Lion d'Or (1989); A Trick of the Light (1984) BIOGRAPHY The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives (1996) EDITED The Vintage Book of War Stories (with Jörg Hensgen) (1999)

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Malaysian Fiction in English?

Is there really a market for Malaysian fiction in English?

EVERYTHING BOILS DOWN to economics at the end of the day. How many copies of a local novel in English are sold? Malaysian authors must write for a global audience – not just for the local market. The Malaysian market for local novels in English is very limited. It is not surprising if you study the statistics. Take a look at India for instance: while growing fast population-wise, the market for books is still merely a tiny fragment. In India, most writings in English sell less than a thousand copies each, though the subcontinent has a population of over a billion people! Not exactly a very viable proposition. Malaysian writers, I believe, must penetrate the British and American markets to enjoy better market penetration in terms of sales, distribution, promotions, foreign rights, etc. (However, the truth of the matter is that not all books get to enjoy these. The publishing world is a pressure cooker; if you don't sell, you don't survive, but unlike popular or commercial fiction, literary novels are very rarely supported by huge marketing budgets and strategies.)

Tash Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory (2005) was published in the U.K. and the U.S. and was recently longlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize for Fiction and the 2005 Guardian First Book Award

There certainly is a need for home-grown literature published in Malaysia. It is always good to nurture and encourage good local writing. After all, it is difficult to get published in the United Kingdom and the United States. Even writers in these countries find difficulty getting their works published in their home countries due to one reason or another! What’s happening now is that good novels get published overseas while the not-so-good ones are published locally, if they are published at all. Sadly, most local publishers do not see developing home-grown writing as a viable business option; most publishers prefer nonfiction and textbooks.

D. Devika Bai's The Flight of the Swans (2005) was published in Singapore

Like any other business, book publishing is indeed subject to changing trends, tastes, etc. Yes, Southeast Asian writing is doing all right at the moment but it is merely a passing fad. Books published in Malaysia do not reach a wider world audience due to many reasons. Whether a local writer publishing in the West can create literature that really addresses Malaysian issues will really depend on the writer’s skills and maturity. Though I cannot dispute the fact that literature has an important role to play in addressing social issues and educating us on a wide variety of topics, I also believe that it must also entertain us and teach us stuff we never learnt at school or university; so much better if literature can do both simultaneously. The world is a big place and there's no stopping writers from exploring any issue under the sun. Yes, literature can change the world.

Rani Manicka's The Rice Mother (2002) was published in the U.K. and the U.S. while Touching Earth (2004) was published in the U.K. The Rice Mother is the winner of the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize, Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region, for Best First Book

Sharon Bakar hits the nail on the head when she said that there is a real lack of editing skills here in Malaysia. “Editors act as gatekeepers, making sure that second-rate writing does not flood the market. Editors must reject the second-rate, encourage and support first-rate writers.” Yes, developing good editors takes time, effort and commitment. Editors must edit more, but we must consider the realities of the workplace, where editors are subject to punishing schedules by publishers. However, good publishers are indeed a rarity, especially those who appreciate the value of good editing. What we need are publishers who grapple with the conflict between perfectionism and commercialism and at the same time try to find ways to improve public taste.

It is imperative that publishers exercise discretion in the kinds of books they publish. Quality must always come into play in the assessing of manuscripts. Readers must never be shortchanged. After all, imported fiction has historically been the first priority for serious readers of literature. The questions we need to ask are: How do you go about maintaining the quality of manuscripts? Are there enough quality manuscripts published at regular intervals to sustain publishing as a business in the long term in Malaysia? What about retail support? What about the support of the local press in terms of author interviews, book reviews, book supplements, etc.? We must not forget that we are now living in an age where publishers have to pay to display their products in strategic locations within bookshops.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Charles McCarry’s
Old Boys (2004)

SPY NOVELIST Charles McCarry does intrigue as well as the masters of the genre: John Buchan, John le Carré, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and Ken Follett. He spent two decades as a CIA spy during the Cold War. However, his highbrow thrillers somehow did not sell as many copies as it should through the years despite glowing reviews. It is a shame that most of his books are now out of print. Though Old Boys, his 10th novel, is measured, atmospheric and engrossing, and definitely one of the better thrillers I have read in a long time, it is not his best work; I believe that distinction belongs to The Tears of Autumn (1974) . However, it is never too late to start on Charles McCarry’s espionage thrillers.

McCARRY Charles [1930-] Novelist. Born in Otis, Berkshire, Massachusetts. NOVELS Old Boys (2004: shortlisted for the 2004 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller); Lucky Bastard (1999); Shelley’s Heart (1995); Second Sight (1991); The Bride of the Wilderness (1988); The Last Supper (1983); The Better Angels (1979); The Secret Lovers (1977); The Tears of Autumn (1974); The Miernik Dossier (1973) BIOGRAPHY Citizen Nader (1972)

Sunday, August 14, 2005

New hardcovers from all over

BOOKS are all too often judged by their covers, despite what we say to the contrary. Feast your eyes upon the following new books between August and December 2005.




Kate Atkinson’s
Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)

KATE ATKINSON has come a long way since she achieved literary success with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995), a comic, poignant story of a dysfunctional middle-class English family and the dark secrets that punctuate the mundanity of their lives in grim, gritty Yorkshire. Ruby Lennox is one heck of a memorable character: perky, quirky, intelligent and pessimistic, a child struggling to make sense of the world around her and, in the process, exposing skeletons in the family closet. Conversational and humorous in tone and light in touch, this novel gripped me from the moment I read the first sentence (“I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.”) until the end. Atkinson is a very funny writer and she has succeeded in creating an eccentric cast of compelling characters coming to grips with the sheer bloody awfulness of life. There is no denying that much of her forte as a writer lies in her observational humour and narrative exuberance.

Atkinson's recent novel, Case Histories (2004), is a quite a departure from her first novel, though equally good. Private investigator Jackson Brodie, a former police officer, is adrift in Cambridgeshire amidst death, intrigue and other misfortunes, bringing restorative truth to those wounded. Brodie is as nice as they come, though a tad bitter and cynical. A comic novelist, her books have been consistently entertaining.

However, if you are new to Kate Atkinson, I suggest that you read Behind the Scenes at the Museum first before tackling Case Histories. Read the rest of her ouvre only if you have acquired a taste for Atkinson's lively and conversational prose, wry observations and brilliant turns of phrase and metaphors.

ATKINSON Kate [1951-] Novelist, short-story writer. Born in York, England. NOVELS Case Histories (2004: shortlisted for the 2004 Whitbread Award for the Novel); Emotionally Weird: A Comic Novel (2000); Human Croquet (1997); Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995: winner of the 1995 Whitbread First Novel and Book of the Year Awards, the 1996 Yorkshire Post Literary Award for Best First Work, and the 1996 Lire Book of the Year Award) STORIES Not the End of the World (2002) PLAYS Abandonment (2000); Nice (1996)