Book Review: Tale of the Bidadari by Stephani Soejono


Author/artist: Stephani Soejono

Publisher: Maple Comics, 110 pages

Erlang visits a remote village with his father, a doctor, on a mercy mission. From the architecture and headdress worn by the womenfolk, this community seems to be Minangkabau. Furthermore, the village chief is a woman: the Minangkabau are largest matrilineal society in the world.

Drought has left the villagers hungry and sick, so Doctor Tanuwe’s skills, as well as the medicine and food he has brought with him is well received although there is some indication that there are those who are resentful of his ‘modern’ ways.

Old beliefs and practices are still a feature in the village, and there is even (rather mysterious) talk of ‘sacrifice’ to address the drought.

Meanwhile, big city boy Erlang, is not enjoying himself. Not only does he find rural living and the villager’s traditions alienating and boring, he can’t even have something as simple as a bath because the water sources are dry as a result of the drought. Luckily, he meets Upik, a precocious little girl who proves to be a welcome distraction.

Erlang and the doctor are staying with a villager named Aminah and Upik is her daughter. There are hints that Aminah is supposed to keep an eye on the father and son, and that this is something that she needs to do to keep Upik safe: what is going on? Has it to do with Mayang, a young girl who is kept prisoner by the village chief and whom Upik sets free?

The chief tells Erlang that he should keep out of the village temple and the forest, but while playing with Upik, the boy finds himself led into the woods. There, they are met by Mayang, who opens Erlang’s eyes to the beauty of nature.

Who is Mayang? Well, the title of the comic hints at her supernatural nature. Bidadari are fae and, in Indonesian and Malaysian folklore, they are also known as Bunian. However, despite its title, the story does not really focus on the character, does not delve into what she is, where she’s from, nor the complexities of her relationship with the village and villagers.

I see this story as an account of the experiences of a city boy in a small Indonesian village rather than the tale of a fairy. I admit that the title’s focus on the ‘bidadari’ is potentially more intriguing to readers, but I feel that it is less Mayang’s nature that is interesting than the villagers’ beliefs, including the practice of blood sacrifice to ensure favourable weather for a good harvest. I am curious if this is based on historical fact, or if it’s pure fiction.

As a reader I found this a charming, engagingly illustrated story, but as an editor, I wanted more character development, more exploration of subject matter and themes, and more details in both the illustration and text. I was left with many questions about the nature of Mayang; the village’s past, including the reasons for Aminah’s apprehension; and even a suggestion of what the future has in store for her and Upik, bearing in mind the decision they make at the end of the book.

Finally, I was pulled up short on several occasions because of distracting typos so I hope Maple Comics gets their publications thoroughly proofread in future.

Apparently, Indonesian author/artist Soejono will be publishing another comic with Maple soon. Looking forward to it.






Thirsty Thursday & Hungry Hearts: Poick vs Serbat


Descriptions of food aren’t always enticing although I have to admit that my favourite literary depictions of food tend to be. For instance, when Elizabeth David writes about mayonnaise, I long to slather my sandwiches with it, even though I actually really, really dislike the taste.

I am fascinated by this scene, from Provenance by Ann Leckie. The food and drink isn’t described in detail and this underlines how basic it is, but Ambassador Tibanvori’s reactions are hilarious and extreme, revealing her prejudices and her reluctance to adapt to the culture of the species to whose world she has been assigned.

These paragraphs demonstrate how one civilisation’s gastronomic delights may seem disgusting to another. When you taste some foreign flavours you may decide that they need to be acquired over long periods of time, practically from the cradle even. Perhaps you need Geck DNA to enjoy ‘poick’, and Malaysian DNA to love durian — I’m thinking how so many people from the West are disgusted by the taste and smell of durian, yet love the taste and smell of blue cheese, which I liken to unwashed feet.)

“There’s food here now,” said Garal. “Everything will be going on whether we eat or not. And it’s easier to think things through when you’re not hungry and thirsty.”

Ingray frowned, and opened her mouth to argue, but then she remembered Garal on the trip to Hwae, saving food. Talking about how difficult it could be to get something to eat in Compassionate Removal.

“You haven’t eaten in way too long,” Garal said.

She didn’t trust herself to answer but went to the back of the room, in the direction the spider mech had indicated. She found a niche in the wall with a basin of body-warm water in it. Gingerly, she scooped up a small handful and tasted it.

“It’s plain warm water.” Ambassador Tibanvori’s voice. Ingray turned to see her come into the room. “They won’t make anything hotter, even if you ask.”

“What do they eat, then?” asked Garal, sitting down on an extrusion beside the table.

“Raw things,” Tibanvori said, with utter disgust. “Or rotted ones.” She gestured at the packets on the table. “This is your kind of food, though. We took it on board at Tyr Siilas. I have no idea what any of it is.”

“Nutrient blocks,” said Ingray. “Those are mostly yeast with flavors.”

Ambassador Tibanvori wrinkled her nose.

“Noodles,” Garal added. “You add hot water to them. I guess warm water will do.”

“It won’t,” said Tibanvori with disdain, sitting down next to Garal.

“And there’s serbat.” Garal looked over at Ingray. “Instant serbat.”

“I could do with some serbat,” Ingray said. “Are there any cups or bowls or …” She trailed off, unable to quite complete the thought.

“Touch the wall above the basin,” said Tibanvori. Ingray did, and the surface of the wall contracted away from her fingers, exposing a cavity underneath that held a stack of shallow bowls, some small cups, and a few large, deep spoons.

“It’s disgusting, isn’t it,” said Tibanvori, behind her, and she had to agree at the very least that there was something disturbing about the way the wall had reacted, how it felt. Like a muscle, or at least something biological, not a nice, solid, dependable wall.

Tibanvori continued. “Those spoons are only for scooping up water. They eat with their fingers.” She shuddered. “What’s serbat?”

“It’s a hot drink,” Garal said. “It’s serbat.”

Ambassador Tibanvori gave em a sideways, disapproving look and then sighed, rose, and came over to where Ingray stood. “Here.” She took a stack of bowls and cups out of the cavity and handed them to Ingray, then scooped a few cupfuls of warm water out of the basin. “Whatever serbat is, it can’t be worse than poick. The salt water I was telling you about before,” she added, to Ingray and Garal’s exhausted incomprehension. “The noodles you just have to let sit longer. I don’t know about the sort you’re used to, the ones I’ve had are generally not very good cold, but it’s better than live sea worms or
algae paste.”

“I like algae paste,” said Ingray, following Tibanvori back to the table. “And I like fish, cooked or not. I don’t know about worms, though.”

“Trust me, they’re horrible.” Tibanvori took the dishes out of Ingray’s hands. “Sit down.” Brusquely, but, Ingray realized, she had been standing there clutching the stack of bowls, unable to form any idea of what to do with them.“I’m sorry,” Ingray said. “I’m very tired.”

“Apparently,” Tibanvori agreed, tearing open a serbat packet and peering at the contents. “You mix this with water, I take it?”

“Yes,” Garal agreed, as Ingray sat. And stared as Tibanvori poured lukewarm water onto noodles, and into cups of serbat powder.

“And I need to know what’s happening on the station,” said Ingray.

“Not bad,” the Radchaai ambassador said, after a sip of warmish serbat. She sat at the table. “Not tea, but not bad. I wonder if I can get some of this shipped back to the Geck homeworld. Tea is hopeless when you can’t get hot water. Real tea, the way it should be drunk, I mean.”

“I need to know what’s happening on the station,” said Ingray again. She blinked open her messages, but she was too tired to make much sense out of what she saw. Nothing from Netano at any rate, and nothing from Nuncle Lak. She sent them both a brief, barely coherent message asking for whatever information either of them had.

“Whatever’s happening on the station doesn’t concern us,” Tibanvori said. “Your friend is right, you should eat something. And then see if you can find some news, I suppose. And get some sleep. Though I’m sorry to say there’s nothing like civilized sleeping quarters here. These people, the ones who live in orbit, they generally just lie down on the ground wherever they are. This room”—she gestured around with the cup of serbat still in her hand—“is a concession to foreign habits. Even the Geck humans on the station generally
eat squatting or standing. Though I guess you don’t need anything like comfort or manners when you’re just shoveling slimy animals into your mouth with your bare hands.”

“I can’t imagine why the Geck ambassador doesn’t like you,” Garal said.

Tibanvori made a sharp, sardonic hah. “Well, I don’t much like her, if it comes to that.”

N.B. That contracting wall!

WWW Wednesday

It’s Wednesday! (Is it just me but has time started flying by again?)

What are you currently reading?

1. Separate Lies by Nigel Balchin

I wish I could find more books by Balchin. I own one other and wrote a post about it earlier today. This one is different and the same. Will try to write a review when I’m done.

2. Late in the Day: Poems 2010 – 2014 by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is my first close reading of her poems. They must be savoured, read slowly, heard. They may be more than poems, may be spells.

3. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. Le Guin

How do you teach creative writing? How to explain how to write? I find it impossible, but Le Guin may offer some insight. Meant for committed writers, this guide should also be helpful to those who teach writing (heaven help us).

4. Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir 1926 – 1939

Sartre is lovely when he’s not theorising and being a pompous intellectual. This has been on my TBR list for years.

5. Letters to Sartre by Simone de Beauvoir

I was waiting to have this before starting No. 4.

What did you recently finish reading?

Provenance by Ann Leckie

Here’s the review I wrote.

What do you think you’ll read next?

I’m aiming for Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyms, Corpse de Ballet: A Nine Muses Mystery: Terpsichore by Ellen Pall and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, but who knows.

Books from My Shelves: Darkness Falls From the Air by Nigel Balchin

I’m going to start doing a series featuring books from my shelves because it’s something I love to read about in other blogs: accounts of personal book collections; favourite childhood reads; books that belonged to parents and grandparents; treasured flea market finds, that sort of thing.


I’m kicking off the series with Darkness Falls From the Air by Nigel Balchin, a rather obscure English author from the 40s and 50s. Darkness Falls is set during the second World War and written while it was happening. It was published in 1942 and the copy from my shelves is  the ‘Services Edition’, published in 1945.

I found this book in the family bookcase when I was in my early teens and read it without understanding it. However, I loved the writing style, especially the dialogue, which is not how people speak in Malaysia, but was strangely familiar and pleasing anyway.

The novel is about Bill Sarratt, an English civil servant who is living in London during the worst of the Blitz and how he deals with the bureaucratic nonsense at his office, and also the affair his wife, Marcia, is having with a melodramatic poet.

nb3 copyrightI found it a fascinating and horrifying read at fourteen. Bill’s wit and sarcasm was very funny and alien, and his lifestyle exciting and glamorous despite his wry and disparaging descriptions of how the war had disrupted London nightlife and made everything dreary and difficult. Then there was the situation with his wife, which I did not comprehend at first and when I did, did not believe. I still find it a little hard to imagine a husband being so cool about his wife’s infidelity, but it is very much who Bill Sarratt is. Also, I happen to be currently reading Balchin’s Separate Lies (originally published as A Way Through the Wood) and the protagonist is another man who is strangely cool and calm when he discovers that his wife has been unfaithful. Perhaps this was something Balchin experienced in his personal life and was trying to work through in his fiction. In anycase, I find that, at fifty, it’s still something I am interested in thinking about. Certainly, in both books, the two men’s reactions are very much in character and not at all implausible. It’s my own feelings that are at odds with how they behave, but that makes the stories more interesting.

nb5 backMy copy of Darkness Falls belonged to my late mother and was ‘produced for the Services Central Book Depot Artillery House, Handel Street, London, W.C. 1 for circulation to the Fighting Forces of the Allied Nations’.

I don’t know when my mother acquired the book. She would have been twelve in 1945 and the story is quite a grim one, although told in a light, offhand tone. However, I wasn’t much older when I first read it and, anyway, don’t all twelve-year-olds read books too mature for them? Her signature on the epigraph page is a bit wobbly so she probably wasn’t much past twelve.

On the last page of the novel, she writes ‘The End’ a couple of times as if practising her penmanship. It’s precious and one reason why I will never part with this book.

Too Many Books

Despite having given away bags and bags of books, I still have too many, i.e. too many for the space I live in and the bookcases I own.

I live in a medium-sized flat and I have only twelve bookcases, three of which are really stupidly designed, with shelves that are too deep and too widely spaced to make sense — unless they weren’t made for books, but to display tall vases or something. To maximise the height and depth of these shelves, books need to be double-stacked flat. It’s not a friendly arrangement. Looking for books makes me want to scream, although that’s not all the fault of the shelves — I haven’t organised my books in years. (BTW, I did not buy these shelves. The ex-husband did. Yes, blame it all on him, harhar.)

Anyway, I don’t have limitless space for books. For years I have kept stacks of them in the cabinets above my wardrobe, but what’s the good of having books you love if they have to be out of sight?

I have already done a few rounds of culling, but I need to do more so those hidden-away books can come join the others.

Questions I need to ask myself when I do my next sweep:

  1. Just how many copies of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books do I need?
  2. Should I keep a book just because someone I care about gave it to me?
  3. If I have Keats’s complete poems, should I also keep a slimmer volume of his poetry just because I like the portrait that’s on the cover?
  4. How likely am I to read a biography of Leonard Wolff? And do I need to own it just because it’s by Victoria Glendinning? (These questions apply to about half a dozen biographies. Eg. Mary Shelley, because Muriel Spark wrote it?)

There are a whole lot of classics I should send marching (they will probably always be in print, and/or can be found on Project Gutenberg); also, a great many books that belong to the ex-husband. These books are, however, staying put for reasons I won’t get into. Grrr.

I think I shall start culling again today. Stay tuned for the final results (Leonard Wolff will probably be there).