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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.

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Featured post

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster

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Enough of plot-driven potboilers, thought I should give something out of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die a shot, and I have picked Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

Ostensibly presented as detective fiction, the stories of The New York Trilogy have been described as “meta-detective-fiction”, “anti-detective fiction”, “mysteries about mysteries”, “very soft-boiled”,  “meta-mystery” and so on. So many times the words on the page would float and mingle with each other, and I find myself daydreaming of a world where nothing makes sense. When I finally come back to my senses, I would realise I have already ploughed a few pages forward and had no understanding of what I have just read. I would then re-read the pages. It sounds like I am dissing the book; I am not. And I have no fricking idea how to review this. The only thing I can safely do is to describe the experience.

The first story, City of Glass, features a detective-fiction writer becoming a private investigator who descends into madness as he becomes embroiled in a case.

The second story, Ghosts, is about a private eye called Blue, trained by Brown, who is investigating a man named Black on Orange Street for a client named White.

The last story, The Locked Room, is the story of a writer who lacks the creativity to produce fiction. Fanshawe, his childhood friend, has produced creative work, and when he disappears the writer publishes his work and replaces him in his family.

Auster has an uncanny way with words and there is a cadence and rhythm to them, and he is a maestro of tautology. Here is an example:

“Quinn was nowhere now. He had nothing, he knew nothing, he knew that he knew nothing. Not only had he been sent back to the beginning, he was now before the beginning, and so far before the beginning that it was worse than any end he could imagine.”

Here is another one. This is the opening paragraph to the second story. I had to read it twice to understand it.

“First of all there is Blue. Later there is White, and then there is Black, and before the beginning there is Brown. Brown broke him in, Brown taught him the ropes, and when Brown grew old, Blue took over. That is how it begins. The place is New York, the time is the present, and neither one will ever change. Blue goes to his office every day and sits at his desk, waiting for something to happen. For a long time nothing does, and then a man named White walks through the door, and that is how it begins.”

The running themes of the stories are identity and obsession. I remember immersing myself in the first story and recall an episode of Twilight Zone in which Bruce Willis (this way before he became a household name) calls home and discover there is another “him” at home and he slowly fades away because he loses purpose. The characters in The New York Trilogy suffer the same fate.

None of the stories can be decoded in a few simple derivative sentences and they are beautiful enigmas. This is an intoxicating read, just don’t ask me what they are truly about.

 

 

 

The Late Show – Michael Connelly

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One of my favourite characters in the detective fiction world is Harry Bosch. In Michael Connelly’s skilful hands, Bosch is a wildcard, a maverick, a bloodhound always baying for the blood of the guilty. Even though the crime can be committed more than a decade ago, his heart beats for the victim and he will seek justice for the soul of the innocent victim. He has a problem with authority and frequently goes against it in his relentless pursuit of justice. Harry Bosch is an olden knight errant trapped in these modern times. When I finished Bosch’s latest adventure in Two Kinds of Truth recently and learned that Bosch will intersect with Connelly’s latest female detective creation Renée Ballard, I had to hunt down The Late Show which introduces the new detective for a read. It only took me a few days and it is a crackerjack of a crime thriller. I think I have a new favourite detective now.

Renée Ballard works the night shift in Hollywood, beginning many investigations but finishing none as each morning she turns her cases over to day shift detectives. A once up-and-coming detective, she’s been given this beat as punishment after filing a sexual harassment complaint against a supervisor.

But one night she catches two cases she doesn’t want to part with: the brutal beating of a prostitute left for dead in a parking lot and the killing of a young woman in a nightclub shooting. Ballard is determined not to give up at dawn. Against orders and her own partner’s wishes, she works both cases by day while maintaining her shift by night. As the cases entwine they pull her closer to her own demons and the reason she won’t give up her job no matter what the department throws at her.

I had my doubts Connelly can create a worthy female character, but Renée Ballard is one fascinating character. Her back story is neatly built up and we find out what makes her tick and what drives her. Like Bosch, her moral compass points straight North, she is the tenacious Righter of Wrongs and she doesn’t rest till justice is served. She is flawed and her vulnerability can waylay her. she can also weaponised her sexuality in subtle ways. Ballard is a character that subverts my expectations in stereotypical charactisations of female detectives in fiction.

In The Late Show, Ballard has to solve three crimes and Connelly builds each one to a furious crescendo. The police procedural adheres very closely to the fundamentals of actual investigations. Blood work and ballistic test have to go through a battery of bureaucratic impediments. There is none of those idiotic eureka moments at the bottom of a beer mug. Everything retains a realistic edge and a painstaking timeline, and reflects the bump and grind of a detective’s thankless life.

Connelly has scored big time with this new character and I closed the book with breathless satisfaction and in quickened anticipation for Ballard’s next adventure.

Force of Nature – Jane Harper

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I adore Jane Harper’s brilliant debut, The Dry, so the moment I learned she has a new one out I hunted the book down at the library. I remember praying the book will be on the shelf and it be invisible to all other prying eyes, as I scanned the shelves. Its mine, MINE! I remember thinking whether Aaron Falk will visit another dreary town with more skeletons in their closets than the local cemetery? Will there be the teasing possibility of a romance? You know the feeling of how much you love that magical first experience and it is almost a tall order to better or even be on par the second time round. Alas… lightning just doesn’t strike the same spot twice.

When five colleagues are forced to go on a corporate retreat in the wilderness, they reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking down the muddy path.

But one of the women doesn’t come out of the woods. And each of her companions tells a slightly different story about what happened.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker. In an investigation that takes him deep into isolated forest, Falk discovers secrets lurking in the mountains, and a tangled web of personal and professional friendship, suspicion, and betrayal among the hikers. But did that lead to murder? 

Kudos to Harper for not regurgitating the same formula. She rocks the boat by using a different narrative structure which alternates between two trajectories, and both will hit a feverish pace as the story reaches the final denouement. The setting changes from the sun scorched plains to the primeval rainforest as Agent Falk tries to solve the mystery of what happened to his whistle-blower. Harper again manages to describe the tension between characters hampered by the unforgiving Mother Nature remarkably well.

Where it doesn’t hit home for me is the cast of unlikable characters who remain unsympathetic throughout. The story lacks guile and doesn’t demand much intelligence on the reader’s part. I also find the writing less poetic and the characters not as rich. Falk is an organic part of the story of The Dry, but here he feels detached as he is all business. The two-prong narrative has an inherent danger – if one of the story threads is weak, the whole story doesn’t hold up. For me, I find both threads laborious. While tediously ploughing through this, I even entertained the thought that this is actually the first novel but it was quickly shelved away knowing that it isn’t good, and with the success of The Dry, this was hastily brushed up and published to ride on the success of the first.

Still, there is joy to be had for the returning fan in that we get to know Falk more. In Force of Nature, we get insight into Falk’s childhood, his failed relationship with a significant other and his relationship with his father. Quibbles aside, I have a feeling I would enjoy this much more if I had not read The Dry. Here is to hoping that lightning will strike the same spot in Aaron Falk’s next mystery in the backwaters of Australia.

 

1001 Books & Movies

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This is not my usual book review. It’s just a happy post about my latest acquisitions for a song. 😊

These are tomes and are doorways into the world of great literature and films. The one on movies doesn’t come as a huge surprise because I have seen a lot of the great films listed. However, the one on books is a shocker. I have only read 20 of them, granted most of them belong to genres I don’t usually indulge in.

Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange about a nightmarish future is a brilliant study of good, evil and true human freedom. One look at the Alex cover and I fell in love instantly. To date, I have a t-shirt, the blu-ray book and a tote bag with that distinctive graphic of Alex. Oh… and I almost forgot about this naughty Bad Taste Bear figurine. 😊

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The Boy in the Earth – Fuminori Nakamura

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Warning: If you are feeling depressed, this book may just push you over the edge. This is not for the faint-hearted, but it is still a helluva read if you can stomach the unforgiving nihilistic tone.

An unnamed taxi driver in Tokyo has experienced a rupture from his everyday life. He cannot stop daydreaming of suicide, envisioning himself returning to the earth in what soon become terrifying blackout episodes. His live-in girlfriend, Sayuko, is in a similarly bad phase, surrendering to alcoholism to escape the memory of her miscarriage. He meets with the director of the orphanage where he once lived, and must confront awful memories of his past and an abusive family before determining what to do next.

The story opens with the narrator flicking a cigarette at a group of hooligans on motorcycles. He of course gets beaten to an inch of life. He wants that because he is hoping that pain will make him feel alive.

Nakamura has an uncanny way with words – no word is wasted and his prose is clinical yet sparse, mirroring the cold and dark nature of the narrator’s perceived world. I have all read all his novels that are translated into English and he is absolutely adept at drawing characters that exist at the fringes of society. If a person’s soul-ness is a volume knob, then his protagonist are at “1”. Just one catastrophic event will tip the shell of a man over the edge into oblivion and that is precisely how he can either become a maniacal serial killer or a hero with nothing to lose.

The Boy in the Earth is an utterly compelling and quick read at just less than 150 pages. It rushes to a climax that explains the genesis of the unusual title and hits a verve of a satisfying conclusion that is not quite an obligatory punch in the air for the unnamed taxi driver, but I have the comforting thought that he is in a better place.

 

The Price of Salt – Patricia Highsmith

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The Price of Salt (later republished under the title Carol) is a 1952 romance novel by Patricia Highsmith, first published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan”. Highsmith – known as a suspense writer based on her psychological thriller Strangers on a Train – used an alias because she did not want to be tagged as “a lesbian-book writer”, and because of the use of her own life references for characters and occurrences in the story. The novel’s relatively happy ending was unprecedented in lesbian literature.

Alright, I gleaned that chunk above from Wikipedia. My thoughts are here – I adored Todd Haynes’ Carol late and IMHO it is one of the best films of 2015. I was curious about the Patricia Highsmith book and dived headlong into my first LBGT literature. It was a little slow moving at first but it didn’t deter me one bit because the lovely prose details how I fall in love – slowly at first and then with absolute totality and abandonment.

This is a story of a chance encounter between two lonely women who are eking out a hollow existence. They take a chance with each other which leads to a passionate romance with lots of ups and downs. I enjoy Highsmith’s prose a lot. It is gently probing, sensitively moving and subtly exploratory of a forbidden relationship in that particular time period. I have seen a fair number of films of the same subject matter but Highsmith’s gentle prose doesn’t walk the same preachy path. The last act really stunned me with its honest insights and beautiful depth. I read through it in a flurry, all manner of life’s activities and noises dialled down to low lull subsumed into the background, and tears knocking at the back of my eyes. When I closed the last page I remembered feeling so thankful for such a great read. The book truly reflects the way a person, probably just me, falls in love. The ending is brilliant and it builds and builds till my heart exploded in hope and optimism.

 

My Reading Report Card for 2017

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This is my reading report card for 2017. Last year I surprised myself with reading 30 books and I thought I could better that number, but I think I was too distracted by Pokemon Go 😊. I didn’t get a chance to write a review for each one, but I did write for the ones that mattered.

Best Book
The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei. In terms of prose it doesn’t stand a chance against veterans like Atwood and Chabon. In terms of themes and purpose it can’t pip Palacio or Keyes. But I adore its elegant structure and evocative sense place and time. I could literally see Hong Kong through the years in this marvellous crime story that spans decades.

Best Graphic Novel
Sleepwalk and Other Stories by Adrian Tomine. He has a wonderful eye for the everyday and the vicissitudes of life. Despair, desperation and loneliness hand drawn to silent lucidity.

Novels
01 The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith
02 Sansho the Steward – Ogai Mori
03 The Kingdom – Fuminori Nakamura
04 The Return of the Young Prince – A.G. Roemmers
05 I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes
06 Moonglow – Michael Chabon
07 Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
08 Orphan X – Gregg Hurwitz
09 The Embassy of Cambodia – Zadie Smith
10 And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
11 The Nowhere Man – Gregg Hurwitz
12 The Wrong Side of Goodbye – Michael Connelly
13 The Nakano Thrift Shop – Hiromi Kawakami
14 The Borrowed – Chan Ho-Kei
15 The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto – Mitch Albom
16 The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories – Marina Keegan
17 The Snowman – Jo Nesbo
18 The Name of the Game is a Kidnapping – Keigo Higashino
19 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
20 The Dry – Jane Harper
21 Wonder – R.J. Palacio
22 Into the Water – Paula Hawkins
23 The Girl Who Takes An Eye For An Eye – David Lagercrantz (*)
24 The Boy on the Bridge – M.R. Carey (*)
25 Metamorphosis- Franz Kafka (*)

 

(*) means I am still in the midst of reading. Hope to finish them before 2017 draws to a close.

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Graphic Novels
01 Superman Earth One (1) – J. Michael Straczynski
02 Superman Earth One (2) – J. Michael Straczynski
03 New Lone Wolf & Cub – Kazuo Koike
04 Wolverine: Back in Japan – Jason Aaron
05 Death of Wolverine – Charles Soule
06 American Vampire (8) – Scott Snyder
07 Superman Earth One (3) – J. Michael Straczynski
08 Batman (1) – Ed Brubaker
09 Wolverine: Origin II – Kieron Gillen
10 Hellboy in Mexico – Mike Mignola
11 The Walking Dead (27) – Robert Kirkman
12 Astro City (13) – Kurt Busiek
13 30th Anniversary Aliens – Mark Verheiden
14 The Batman & Judge Dredd Collection – Alan Grant & John Wagner
15 BPRD: Hell on Earth (8) – Mike Mignola
16 BPRD: Hell on Earth (9) – Mike Mignola
17 BPRD: Hell on Earth (10) – Mike Mignola
18 BPRD: Hell on Earth (11) – Mike Mignola
19 BPRD: Hell on Earth (12) – Mike Mignola
20 BPRD: Hell on Earth (14) – Mike Mignola
21 Hellboy and the BPRD: 1952 – Mike Mignola
22 Batman and Son – Grant Morrison
23 Brightest Day (1) – Geoff Johns
24 Hellboy & BPRD: 1952 – Mike Mignola
25 BPRD: Hell on Earth (3) – Mike Mignola
26 BPRD: Hell on Earth (13) – Mike Mignola
27 Hellboy in Hell – Mike Mignola
28 BPRD: Hell on Earth (15) – Mike Mignola
29 Ghost World – Daniel Clowes
30 Sleepwalk and Other Stories – Adrian Tomine
31 Scenes From an Impending Marriage – Adrian Tomine
32 Revival (8) – Tim Seeley
33 Lazarus (5) – Greg Rucka
34 Nailbiter (6) – Joshua Williamson
35 Deadly Class (4) – Rick Remender
36 Invincible (23) – Robert Kirkman
37 Saga (7) – Brian Vaughan
38 Batman – Brian Azzarello
39 Batman: Ego – Darwyn Cooke
40 Batman: The Black Mirror – Scott Snyder

 

 

Wonder – R.J. Palacio

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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

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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.

 

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