Science reigns supreme

The top two win­ners of the Read­ers’ Choice Awards prove that science – of both the fic­tion and non­fic­tion va­ri­ety – can be pop­u­lar among read­ers.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - By DI­NESH KU­MAR MAGANATHAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

HAVE you ever won­dered what life might be like after a close en­counter with death? Would you gain a new per­spec­tive, per­haps? But then ... what if you dis­cover, to your ut­ter hor­ror, an in­vad­ing con­scious­ness con­trol­ling your ev­ery step, mak­ing you do things which are bizarre and er­ratic?

Al­ter­na­tively, have you ever peered through the win­dows of time and weighed the choices you’ve made which led you to your cur­rent desti­na­tion? Was it the in­ner work­ings of your soul, guid­ing your ev­ery step or was it some­thing larger, work­ing in the back­ground, or­ches­trat­ing ev­ery as­pect of your life?

Per­haps it is these soul-search­ing queries un­der­ly­ing the books Some­one’s In My Head and How I Be­came A Physi­cist that struck a chord with Malaysian read­ers.

Steven Steel’s Some­one’s In My Head and Vi­ola Ho’s How I Be­came A Physi­cist bagged the top prizes in the fic­tion and non­fic­tion cat­e­gories re­spec­tively at the 2017 Pop­u­lar-The Star Read­ers’ Choice Awards (RCA) on Satur­day.

Steel’s science fic­tion novel fol­lows Jarod Wick­ern­ham, a teenager who es­capes death after a bad car ac­ci­dent. But what he wasn’t ready for was to dis­cover an­other con­scious­ness con­trol­ling his mind. Jarod plunges into a thrilling and sus­pense­ful ad­ven­ture to find out the iden­tity of this in­vad­ing mind, lead­ing him to shock­ing truths which have been buried for years.

What may have ap­pealed to Malaysian read­ers about the 20-year-old’s de­but novel, be­sides the plot, is the hu­mor­ous tone of the book.

“I tried to keep it as light-hearted as pos­si­ble and in­jected it with hu­mour. But what could have made it an in­ter­est­ing read for peo­ple is that my novel is not too fac­tual.

“Some may think science fic­tion nov­els are very pre­ten­tious and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble due to the sci­en­tific el­e­ments. What I have done is to make it more close to home, with re­lat­able char­ac­ters and strug­gles,” Steel, a univer­sity stu­dent, said. (Steel’s real name is Tey Feng Nian; see an in­ter­view with him at tinyurl.com/Star2-Steel.)

The Pe­nang-based author shared that it was in his late teen years that he and a friend be­gan toy­ing with the idea of a science fic­tion novel on mind con­trol. He kept writ­ing and, ul­ti­mately, his ef­forts cul­mi­nated in this award-win­ning novel.

This is not Steel’s only win for Some­one’s In My Head. He picked up a 2015 Wat­tys Award for Best Use of Vi­su­als for the on­line ver­sion of his novel that he had up­loaded at Wattpad.com, the free fic­tion site.

Pleas­antly sur­prised at his win, Steel has a few words of ad­vice for young and bud­ding writ­ers out there: “Fol­low your dreams, don’t get dis­cour­aged by crit­i­cism or peo­ple who don’t ap­pre­ci­ate what you’re do­ing, and stay de­ter­mined.

“Also, have a voice of your own. It’s OK to get in­spi­ra­tion from other au­thors but don’t copy them. Find your own voice, your own style of writ­ing,” he shares.

It is very much her own voice that comes across in Ho’s short me­moir, How I Be­came A Physi­cist, that took first place in RCA’s non­fic­tion cat­e­gory. As the ti­tle sug­gests, the book is es­sen­tially about Ho’s jour­ney of be­com­ing an ex­per­i­men­tal physi­cist upon re­ceiv­ing a schol­ar­ship from pres­ti­gious Ox­ford Univer­sity.

What makes Ho’s book, her first, stand out is the fact that it is writ­ten in a very easy to read man­ner, suit­able for just about any­body. De­spite her back­ground, the 27-year-old does not over­whelm her read­ers with sci­en­tific jar­gon or bom­bas­tic lan­guage.

“I just wanted to share my jour­ney and hope­fully in­spire young­ster along the way to join STEM (science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics) re­lated ca­reers. There is a lot to learn, ex­pe­ri­ence and en­joy in STEM,” Ho says in an e-mail in­ter­view, ex­plain­ing the mo­ti­va­tion for writ­ing a me­moir at such a young age.

Other than her book, Ho found an­other way of en­cour­ag­ing young peo­ple to get into STEM: she is one of the founders of The Great Lab, a stu­dent-led hub for Malaysian stu­dents to de­velop so­lu­tions for projects and post­grad­u­ate re­search. The Ox­ford Masters grad­u­ate is now pur­su­ing a PhD at Ger­many’s Tech­nis­che Univer­si­tat Munchen.

Lo­cal hor­ror story mae­stro Tunku Halim Tunku Tan Sri Ab­dul­lah came in sec­ond place in the fic­tion cat­e­gory for his hor­ror an­thol­ogy Hor­ror Sto­ries 2.

He’s prac­ti­cally a vet­eran at the RCA, as this is his third con­sec­u­tive win. His pre­vi­ous col­lec­tion of spooky tales, Hor­ror Sto­ries, bagged the top fic­tion prize in 2015 while the novel A Malaysian Restau­rant In Lon­don earned him sec­ond prize last year. With a track record of pub­lish­ing dark fan­tasy and hor­ror sto­ries since the 1990s, it’s not for noth­ing that he’s been crowned the “Malaysia’s Prince of Dark­ness”.

The 52-year-old says the main rea­son his dark tales are well loved by Malaysians is be­cause “we are a very su­per­sti­tious lot”. “We love hor­ror sto­ries. We be­lieve in the pon­tianak in the cor­ner, the spirit of the coin, and all kinds of de­mons and ghosts lurk­ing around,” he says.

Hor­ror Sto­ries 2 is a col­lec­tion of Tunku Halim’s al­ready pub­lished sto­ries and in­cludes tales picked from The Woman Who Grew Horns And Other Works (2001), 44 Ceme­tery Road (2007), Gravedig­ger’s Kiss (2007), 7 Days To Mid­night (2013), and the novella Juriah’s Song (2008).

Plac­ing third in the fic­tion cat­e­gory is Vicky Chong, Alexan­dria Goh and Sona Ghose’s The Kid From The Big Ap­ple. The touch­ing novel fol­lows 11-year-old Sarah who was raised in New York City and due to un­avoid­able cir­cum­stances, has to move to Malaysia to live with her es­tranged grand­fa­ther. The trio was rep­re­sented by their pub­lisher at the award cer­e­mony on Satur­day.

Bag­ging the sec­ond prize for the non­fic­tion cat­e­gory are hus­band and wife team Md Mah­mudul Hasan and Rau­dah Yunus, who edited Tales Of Moth­ers.

Writ­ten by var­i­ous au­thors, Tales Of Moth­ers is a col­lec­tion of eight real-life sto­ries about the peaks and val­leys of moth­er­hood. The book also fea­tures ex­pert ar­ti­cles on par­ent­ing, spe­cial chil­dren, and moth­ers with ca­reers.

Com­ing in third is for­mer first lady Tun Dr Siti Has­mah Mohd Ali, who wins the prize for her long-awaited bi­og­ra­phy My Name Is Has­mah. The book takes read­ers into a world that few were privy to till now. Dr Siti Has­mah charts the mul­ti­ple roles she has had to jug­gle through­out her long and il­lus­tri­ous life – as a daugh­ter, doc­tor, wife, and mother.

Both Steel and Ho re­ceived RM3,000, a tro­phy and a com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque each while the sec­ond and third-place win­ners in both cat­e­gories each re­ceived RM1,500 and RM1,000 re­spec­tively at the awards cer­e­mony held at the Kuala Lumpur Con­ven­tion Cen­tre on Satur­day. The award was held in con­junc­tion with BookFest@ Malaysia 2017, which ended on Sun­day. Both events are or­gan­ised by the Pop­u­lar Book Co (M) Sdn Bhd.

In its 10th year, the RCA is the only lit­er­ary awards in Malaysia that hon­ours and re­wards lo­cal best­selling au­thors. The 20 con­tenders, 10 each in the fic­tion and non­fic­tion cat­e­gories, au­thored the top sellers last year in Pop­u­lar and Har­ris book­stores na­tion­wide. (Har­ris book­stores are a part of the Pop­u­lar group.)

What makes the RCA unique is the fact that read­ers play the roles of king­mak­ers. The top three win­ners for both cat­e­gories are picked by read­ers via a vot­ing cam­paign; this year, the cam­paign ran from April 14 to May 21 in Star2’s Reads pages. The 100 read­ers whose votes matched the over­all re­sults also walked away with prizes: each win­ner re­ceived a RM50 Pop­u­lar book voucher and a free-for-one-year Pop­u­lar card mem­ber­ship.

Star Me­dia Group is a me­dia part­ner of BookFest@Malaysia 2017 and the Read­ers’ Choice Awards.

Steel en­cour­ages young writ­ers to chase their dreams. — Hand­out

Ho hopes to in­spire young read­ers to pur­sue STEM ca­reers — Hand­out

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