Search

Fiction Matters

… because it does and it should.

Life is a Narrative

Literature is one of my three loves (the other two are music and movies). I have my mother to thank for inculcating a love of reading in me way back when I was a kid still addicted to television. A couple of Enid Blyton set me on my way to a never ending journey of discovering new worlds. As far back as I can remember, I can be feeling low in the doldrums, but the excitement of turning the next page is a feeling that can always envelope me and lift me up again.

I read fiction of all genres but with a predisposition for detective procedurals. I live for the big twists, cruel turns and the OMG a-ha shocking reveals. And because I love stories, I have always likened my life to a narrative and it is up to me to create the big moments.

When I hear a great tune, see a great movie or read an amazing book, I can’t keep my mouth shut. So this blog is my way of giving back what books have given me for so long and to spread the joy of reading.

Advertisements
Featured post

Wonder – R.J. Palacio

C3FDFF7E-F579-4987-96B9-25DA174177C5

So many acccolades and praises have been extolled on R.J. Palacio’s debut Wonder that I really have nothing much to add, but you know me… I have to say something as closure for myself, especially after what was such a satisfying read.

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

I bought the book way back in 2014 after it rode on the crest of a euphoric wave of viral popularity, but I didn’t read it until I learned the movie is around the corner (it will open in sunny Singapore on 14 Dec). I don’t read a lot of teenage fiction, but being a geek who loves to compare the film with the original prose, I dived into the world of Auggie. This is one of those rare books that makes me want to stand on the world’s highest spot and announce to everyone that the next thing they should be doing is to read this.

R. J. Palacio drew inspiration from an actual moment at an ice cream shop and it was one of those moments that forces one to confront oneself. And she started writing the book that very night. She must have been wondering what it takes to face a world that doesn’t know how to face you back.

The prose is spare but buoyant, written with a deep sense of clear-eyed intelligence with a wide-eyed hope for a better world. Keenly observed with nary a false moment and brimming with so much humanity. Stories like these tend to be preachy and manipulative, and without a moment too soon the author would start pressing all the buttons. But not Palacio, Wonder seldom seeps into mawkish sentimentalism and each short chapter ends in a moment that is thought-provoking and invites you to do some self-reflection.

The story is divided into six bigger sections, each written from the perspective of a different character; a clever use of a narrative device. I have just read Paula Hawkin’s Into the Water which is practically a 101 manual of how not to use this tool. Palacio, on the other hand, uses it marvellously. Each perspective opens up the world a little bit more and tears new layers from the characters, proving once again that there are always two sides to any story.

The only part that didn’t quite sit down well with me is the last section on Julian’s perspective. I find it a little emotionally manipulative, but then again I was glad for Julian’s redemptive arc.

Wonder is essential reading, not just for teens but even for adults who have been become too jaded by what society has jackhammered into our senses day in day out. Yes, I am talking about you and me.

 

When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.                              – Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

 

Into the Water – Paula Hawkins

8F7BAF1A-07DE-4678-931E-1928E95EDC05

I will just come right out and say this – this is a huge pain in the ass to read. This was so bad I could not finish. I was in a cafe and hit the halfway mark. I lifted my lethargic head up from the pages and asked my wifey (who had finished it earlier) “please tell me this gets better and the characters climb up from the lake of utter despair”. She replied no. I proceeded to roll my eyes and prayed for mercy…

In the last days before her death, Nel called her sister. Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help.

Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. And Jules has been dragged back to the one place she hoped she had escaped for good, to care for the teenage girl her sister left behind.

But Jules is afraid. So afraid. Of her long-buried memories, of the old Mill House, of knowing that Nel would never have jumped.

And most of all she’s afraid of the water, and the place they call the Drowning Pool . . .

I belonged to the minority that didn’t think Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train was a stunning debut. There were some good moments and the Rashomon-esque narrative trick was well employed, but the characters are unsympathetic and unreliable. For her sophomore effort, Hawkins dips into the same old bag of tricks, but this time she totally over-plays her hand with the narrative told from different perspectives. Whereas The Girl on the Train only had four perspectives, Into the Water has what feels like tripled that! That is tripled the number of unlikable characters wallowing in self-pity. The characters’ emotional states swing from indifference to anger to the maudlin. The timelines switches from the past and present like a faulty light switch, which makes for a disembodied read. Even the central mystery fails to make the read compelling. At times the words floated into space and disintegrate into letters, milling around my dazed consciousness. It was sheer torture.

But mercy came… I requested my wifey to tell me how it ends and she wisely advised me to just read the last chapter. She said nothing happens in the rest of the chapters. So, on that fateful day, in a quaint looking cafe located next to an underused airport, I finished the last chapter, lifted my befuddled face and uttered “WTF”. There is no OMG moment and the revelation feels totally flawed and illogical, which I won’t reveal here, unless you are praying for mercy.

 

The Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz

D430812F-A129-4099-8B6C-F8EEFAEB898A

Lisbeth Salander is back!

Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist have not been in touch for some time.

Then Blomkvist is contacted by renowned Swedish scientist Professir Balder. Warned that his life is in danger, but more concerned for his son’s well-being, Balder wants Millennium to publish his story – and it is a terrifying one.

More interesting to Blomkvist than Balder’s world-leading advances in Artificial Intelligence is his connection with a certain female superhacker.

It seems that Salander, like Balder, is a target of ruthless cyber gangsters – and a violent criminal conspiracy that will very soon bring terror to the snowboound streets of Stockholm, to the Millennium team, and to Blomkvist and Salander themselves.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series were published posthumously and sold 80 million copies to date. They introduced the world to Lisbeth Salander. What a character! A ghoulish punk, a narcissist with a moral compass that points north (mercy to those that has theirs pointing south) and a brain that goes in a hundred directions at one time. She has no qualms about calling you out for being a keyboard racist and would stick a knife in you and twist it into infinity for hurting an innocent. She is hard as nails. God, I miss her so much…

I was apprehensive about picking up this book. Who wouldn’t? The three books by Stieg Larsson are the stuff of legends and one does not mess with a legend. David Lagercrantz (with only one fiction novel to his credit) has pulled off the world’s greatest magic act. While reading this continuation of the Millennium series, I didn’t know when Larsson’s distinctive bombastic prose ended and Lagercrantz’s began. Like Larsson, Lagercrantz’s prose is marked by a serious case of verbosity. But mind you, I will take this type of verbose any time, especially when the setup and characters are so compelling.

I devoured the tome in less than a week and it would have been sooner if the book was less thicker and I could bring it out with me during my daily travels. It has a relentless pace, a gripping intensity and a plot that is complicatedly compelling. I took less than 3 pages to get my entire being back into the evil world of Millennium, populated with the most narcissistic of villainy that almost veered into melodrama. I read the book furiously, willing the first meeting of Lisbeth and her counterpoint Blomkvist to be ferocious and memorable, and when it finally came… Oh my goodness… I had to hold a tear back and stop my lips from quivering.

Lisbeth is back!

The Dry – Jane Harper

AADB87C0-6C0A-4AA2-B456-D1BC197BAE58

This is one assured debut. In fact, it’s hard to believe this is Jane Harper’s first novel. The writing is brilliant, it lulls you into the mystery and the atmospheric tendrils of a rural small town drowning in secrets will start to envelope you. I brought the book to a holiday in Melbourne recently, lo and behold, I had no idea that the story is centred around a small town in rural Melbourne. Oh man… the feels.

After getting a note demanding his presence, Federal Agent Aaron Falk arrives in his hometown for the first time in decades to attend the funeral of his best friend, Luke. Twenty years ago when Falk was accused of murder, Luke was his alibi. Falk and his father fled under a cloud of suspicion, saved from prosecution only because of Luke’s steadfast claim that the boys had been together at the time of the crime. But now more than one person knows they didn’t tell the truth back then, and Luke is dead.

Amid the worst drought in a century, Falk and the local detective question what really happened to Luke. As Falk reluctantly investigates to see if there’s more to Luke’s death than there seems to be, long-buried mysteries resurface, as do the lies that have haunted them. And Falk will find that small towns have always hidden big secrets.

The pace is deliberately slow-burn, aptly reflecting the dreary pace of life in a forgotten farming town wallowing in deep hurts and secrets. The prose carries a finely honed rhythm…

It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.

The drought had left the flies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra leveled their rifles at skinny livestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions as the tiny town shimmered under day after day of burning blue sky.

How’s that for an opening? No over-descriptions and such purposeful words. And I felt the sweltering sun beat down on me as I read.

In all my years of reading, I always find flashbacks a necessary but laboured literary device. Harper employs the tool differently that it breathes fresh life into it. I shan’t say more, go read it and find out what I mean for yourself.

The characters are well fleshed out and their motivations well drawn. They literally live and breathe in front of me as I devoured the book. The mystery plot is masterfully constructed and cleverly wrong-foots the reader without cheap red herrings. A piece of the jigsaw is given in each chapter and they all end with a revelation that practically dares you not to turn the next page. Of course, I failed each time. The final denouement doesn’t feel cut and dry, without the typical out of the world heroics. Every scene has time to breathe and the ending has the feels and gave me the chills (and they are multiplying 😊). I can totally see a movie or a TV series adaptation with the distinctive likes of Peter Weir’s Witness (1985) or Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (2013).

PS – My wifey didn’t think much of it in terms of the mystery and finds the Aaron Falk character not Sherlock-ish enough. She could guess who the killer was pretty early. “When someone is too helpful it only means one of two things – it is either he/she is really helpful or he/she is trying to find out more about the case” Ouch! She is right of course, but even if the who may be easy, the how is another story. This is one of the best reads for me this year.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

8123B1C5-8BF5-46C7-BD88-B6C7DD5319F5

I binged Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale TV series some weeks ago and it was a tremendously satisfying watch. It has been a long time since I got hooked on a good TV series and finished it in a week. This is a nightmarish dystopian tale that feels frighteningly contemporary. Imagine a world where most men are sterile and women are basically divided into two categories – barren and fertile. The world is toppled by a band of religious fanatics and women’s rights are basically thrown out the window. Fertile women become handmaids, another name for concubines, and ceremonies, another name for sex, are conducted in an elaborate manner. Babies are currency; they are bragging rights. Superbly acted and written with an eye out for current times. Thought-provoking and it hits a raw nerve. So I decided to dig out the novel by Margaret Atwood at the back of my shelf for a read. This is not a curl-up-on-beach-chair sort of read; it is demanding and hauntingly constructed.

Respected Canadian poet and novelist Atwood presents here a fable of the near future. In the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, far-right Schlafly/Falwell-type ideals have been carried to extremes in the monotheocratic government. The resulting society is a feminist’s nightmare: women are strictly controlled, unable to have jobs or money and assigned to various classes: the chaste, childless Wives; the housekeeping Marthas; and the reproductive Handmaids, who turn their offspring over to the “morally fit” Wives. The tale is told by Offred (read: “of Fred”), a Handmaid who recalls the past and tells how the chilling society came to be. 

Frightening yet mysterious, cryptic and crystal clear at the same time, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is not a comfortable escapism read. It is fearlessly written and possesses astute wisdom, offering readers a tour into the marshland of deviltry and emptiness. There is an uneasy urgency to each page and a raw emotional pull, making this a harrowing read. The plot isn’t driving, but it serves up on a platter the dark mindset of a woman that is taught not to feel anymore. It fleets from one nightmare to a distant dream in a blink of an eye, and despair never look this magnificent.

PS – I love the haunting epilogue that really screwed with my mind, and I am hugely appreciative of Hulu’s superb adaptation of the seminal masterpiece of doom. I was surprised that the entire first season is literarily the book, which means Hulu is on a virgin slate from season two onwards. The story of Offred, no it’s June, is not over.

The Name of the Game is a Kidnapping – Keigo Higashino

8AAE182F-1087-4B10-BEFF-51345620027E

Any new Keigo Higashino book is greeted with excitement between my wife and I. The man is hands down my favourite mystery writer. So far there are no misses, every one is a delightful read and offers us countless moments of enthusiastic discussions. But The Name of the Game is a Kidnapping just isn’t right up there with the rest of his output.

Sakuma is a high-profile ad agent who was about to land one of the biggest gigs of his career. But he was betrayed by the owner of the company that just hired him. Down on his luck and now on his way out career-wise, he planned to chew out the man who brought him down. Instead, upon uncovering a deep secret, he devises a plan to bring down his new rival in a twisted game called kidnapping.

After reading all of Higashino’s books, I tend to expect a lot. In fact, his reputation precedes himself and I can always count on multi-layered intricate plots, superbly drawn flesh and blood characters and twists that hit you in the guts. The problem with this one is that the main character is a rather unsympathetic character. Sakuma is a manipulator of people, a user of women, a petty and self-serving man. He might be smart but his smarts are used in a devious manner.

Much of the book isn’t compelling and the premise unconvincing, but I stayed on because knowing Higashino he will have something up his sleeves. Much as the characters are all unsympathetic, I admire their intelligence and guile. These are characters weaned on movies involving police work in kidnapping cases, so I found that refreshing.

I was falling into a comfortable rut with my mind fast-forwarding two steps ahead of the game, and then I hit the last 50 odd pages. OMG! The narrative takes a sudden turn and my knees grew weak with excitement. Time stopped. I read the ending in a flurry and I reread it again to get everything squared away. What a game! What an ending! The initial part may feel dry and uncompelling, but I realise it had to be written that way for the ending to hit you with such verve. Higashino is the master!

 

The Snowman – Jo Nesbo

2A92DBCD-3D67-43E4-88BC-289E990DA445

This is my third foray into Jo Nesbo’s crime series featuring Harry Hole. The first two, The Redbreast and The Bat, were lacklustre events for me and didn’t wow me. But the Michael Fassbender movie The Snowman is just around the corner and ever one who likes to compare the book with the film, I tore into this. This is a case of third time lucky because this is one helluva gripping page-turner.

One night, after the first snowfall of the year, a boy named Jonas wakes up and discovers that his mother has disappeared. Only one trace of her remains: a pink scarf, his Christmas gift to her, now worn by the snowman that inexplicably appeared in their yard earlier that day. Inspector Harry Hole suspects a link between the missing woman and a suspicious letter he’s received. The case deepens when a pattern emerges: over the past decade, eleven women have vanished—all on the day of the first snow. But this is a killer who makes his own rules . . . and he’ll break his pattern just to keep the game interesting, as he draws Harry ever closer into his twisted web. With brilliantly realized characters and hair-raising suspense, international bestselling author Jo Nesbø presents his most chilling case yet—one that will test Harry Hole to the very limits of his sanity.

Chilling Oslo in November makes for a spine-chilling setting and even as I write this, the image of a decapitated human head on a snowman is sheared into my brain. Well-paced and meticulously plotted, The Snowman constantly surprises me with its twists and turns, culminating in a fierce climax. The story is complex and the characters splendidly realised. Harry Hole is a fascinating hard-boiled detective character with his own fair share of demons, and the villain is also a formidable foe. This book does lend itself to a cinematic treatment and I am looking forward to a killer movie.

 

 

The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories – Marina Keegan

IMG_0858

I teach kids writing in schools and I am of the opinion that teachers can teach kids everything there is to know about turning in a good essay (but whether they pick up the teachings and apply them is another story), but the one thing we cannot impress upon a kid is the writer’s voice. The voice is personal, it is elusive, it evolves and grows through every chapter in a person’s life. Yet, not every person who goes through a tumult of soul-shattering experiences becomes a good writer because it takes a special person to want to hone that voice. The voice has to be cultivated, nurtured and it crumples easily. Sometimes I see that magical voice in its infancy within a kid and I wonder if he or she will have the tenacity to grow that talent, realising that words have power.

Marina Keegan has that writer’s voice. It doesn’t take a minute to find that out.

When I chanced upon her last essay entitled “The Opposite of Loneliness” for Yale Daily News, I knew immediately she has it. The essay captures the hope, uncertainty and possibility of newly minted graduates from any university. The working world beckons and who cannot remember how we, buoyant with so much hope for the future, aspire to make our mark in the world.

She writes like a 21 year-old who thinks and behaves like a 21 year-old. This is not someone who is a 21 year-old but wants you to think she is way beyond her years. Five days after graduating magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012, she tragically died in a car crash.

I read this posthumous collection of short stories and essays with a lump in my throat. If she were alive, I have a feeling she wouldn’t have allowed these works to grace us in their current state, but as they were one can immediately discern a refreshing voice full of raw fervour and appealing passion. Her ambition is evident and the enthusiasm infectious. The short stories expand from a small nugget of an idea or a simple notion to a poetic conclusion. Her telling angle captures pensive instants, her prose unsentimental and emotionally adroit, with epiphanies that don’t come with loud clangs but with silences that scream in your soul. This is keen and expanding intelligence at work. Keegan has a writer’s eye for truth and the human condition. It makes me sad that she wouldn’t be able to see her own success.

 

Do you wanna leave soon?
No, I want enough time to be in love with everything…
And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.
– Marina Keegan, from the poem “Bygones”

 

 

 

 

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto – Mitch Albom

 

IMG_5575

With The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, Mitch Albom again pulls at my heartstrings. My tears very nearly broke the dam, but somehow it managed to hold the waters at bay. It was close, very close.

This is the story of Frankie Presto (fictional) – greatest guitar player who ever lived – told through the voice of Music, a celestial being, and various music icons like The Beatles, Lyle Lovett, Paul Stanley from KISS, Ingrid Michaelson and many others. When we first meet Presto, he has already passed on, and so all the stories are told through flashbacks and different perspectives.

It is kind of a hokey way to tell an epic tale, but it worked. Albom’s passion for music permeates throughout the pages with a distinctive rhythm, tempo and cadence as the pages whizzed by. There is a definite Forrest Gump-ish feel as Presto weaves through musical landscape of the 1940s straight to the 60s, meeting noteworthy music giant talents like Duke Ellington, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. His life also intersects with major events like Woodstock and Hurricane Katrina.

Is it preachy? Oh yes, Music can do that at times. Is it sappy? Sometimes, but the moments are earned. Albom embeds his maxims for life with a light touch – everyone joins a band in this life. And what you play always affects someone. Sometimes, it affects the world – and I found myself pondering over them with relish and thinking fondly about my bandmates who have played a part in making me who I am today. At the core of it all is a gentle love story, aren’t all stories like this. There is a two-page reunion between Frankie and Aurora that screams for a cinematic treatment and I even read that out to my classes at one point.

IMG_0823

This is just half of my music collection and I can still remember the occasions I got each one of them. When I hold any CD in my hand, I can hear the songs from the album in my mind. Like all great ear worm music, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto has a great hook and it is a story after my own heart, even more so because I love music.

Truth is light. Lies are shadows. Music is both.

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑