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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.

Featured post

The Nakano Thrift Shop – Hiromi Kawakami

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I love visiting Japan, especially Tokyo. The scores of music retail establishments, the delectable food, the hustle and bustle of the streets, the extreme etiquette and work ethics, their way of life… all serve up an out of world experience for me each time I am there. Just wandering in the aisles of pre-loved CDs is a joy I cannot describe. So it is not a surprise that I read a lot of Japanese literature. I enjoyed Hiromi Kawakami’s The Briefcase (Strange Weather in Tokyo) a lot and gave a soft whop of joy when I found her new one at the library.

The Nakano Thrift Shop is a repository of secondhand goods. It is run by an eccentric Mr Nakano, and his two young employees, Hitomi and Takeo. Sometimes they get hold of quirky stuff for sale like a life-sized standee of 80s pop-star Seiko Matsuda (I was a big fan 😃) holding a sewing machine or an antique bowl that might carry a curse. It is a quaint shop that is an intersecting point for different lives at different times.

Each chapter is named after an item that will find itself being sold or feature in some curious way at the shop. This is not a plot-driven novel. It has a very vignette feel with short little stories of people who are associated with the shop, which if you think about it, are probably stories about you and me.

The tone of the novel is unrushed and a little Zen. It is subtly observed and gently magical. Kawakami knows how to make mundane everyday lives feel like magic. It’s hard not to smile while reading this.

 

The Nowhere Man – Gregg Hurwitz

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Got my hands on Gregg Hurwitz’s The Nowhere Man, the sequel to the outstanding Orphan X, at my local library. It was an adventure in itself – there was a long queue getting into the library early in the morning and I was praying nobody ahead of me is eyeing that book. I know, I know, I am nuts, but sometimes I like to play imaginary suspense games in my head. After mauling down a few able-bodied guys with my deadly moves, I got to the book. Hooyah!

Spoken about only in whispers, it is said that when the Nowhere Man is reached by the truly desperate, he can and will do anything to save them.

Evan Smoak is the Nowhere Man.

Taken from a group home at twelve, Evan was raised and trained as part of the Orphan program, an off-the-books operation designed to create deniable intelligence assets—i.e. assassins. Evan was Orphan X. He broke with the program, using everything he learned to disappear and reinvent himself as the Nowhere Man. But the new head of the Orphan program hasn’t forgotten about him and is using all of his assets—including the remaining Orphans—to track down and eliminate Smoak.

But this time, the attack comes from a different angle and Evan is caught unaware. Captured, drugged, and spirited off to a remote location, heavily guarded from all approaches. They think they have him trapped and helpless in a virtual cage but they don’t know who they’re dealing with—that they’ve trapped themselves inside that cage with one of the deadliest and most resourceful Orphans.

Hurwitz delivers another high-octane 12-cylinder dynamite of a read. Instead of regurgitating the same plot, he pushes the envelope by letting Smoak get captured. In this installment, we get to see Smoak’s mind working the angles to not only escape but to eliminate all the scumbags. Hurwitz writes action very well – the description is not bogged down by excruciating details, but yet it is visceral and the action plays very clearly in my mind. It was like a Jason Bourne-John Wick action movie is playing in my mind.

If I were to make a choice with regards to which book is better, all my chips will be on Orphan X. The Nowhere Man has a lot of far-fetched elements that threatened to take me out of the story. Right at the top of the heap is a megalomaniac villain with some crazy lair that feels like a page out of an Ian Fleming James Bond novel. There are some implausible moments in Orphan X but Hurwitz knows how to ground them in realism. It is a struggle getting the disparate elements to work cohesively here. Thankfully, the character is so compelling that I could look past the rough spots.

Bring on Part Three!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Briefcase (Strange Weather in Tokyo) – Hiromi Kawakami

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Tsukiko, thirty-eight, works in an office and lives alone. One night, she happens to meet one of her former high school teachers, “Sensei” in a local bar. Tsukiko had only ever called him “Sensei” (“Teacher”). He is thirty years her senior, retired, and presumably a widower. Their relationship–traced by Kawakami’s gentle hints at the changing seasons–develops from a perfunctory acknowledgment of each other as they eat and drink alone at the bar, to an enjoyable sense of companionship, and finally into a deeply sentimental love affair.

As Tsukiko and Sensei grow to know and love one another, the passing of time is measured through the seasons and the food and beverages they consume together. From warm sake to chilled beer, from the buds on the trees to the blooming of the cherry blossoms, the reader is enveloped by a keen sense of pathos and both characters’ loneliness.

This is a lovely and enjoyable read. The prose resembles the falling of a cherry blossom petal, so subtly delicate and quietly romantic. It is not a plot-driven story but more of a chronicle of two lonely souls quietly coming together. The passage of time is lovingly depicted in beautiful details as are the food and alcohol they shared. The book is presently republished as Strange Weather in Tokyo, the powers that be probably realised The Briefcase wouldn’t sell as many books.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye – Michael Connelly

 

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This is my 7th Michael Connelly novel and my 6th one involving Harry Bosch. I love this Harry Bosch character. He is a bloodhound, continually baying for the blood of the guilty even if they have eluded justice for more than a decade. The book offers a great psychological study of an ageing cop who succeeds by bucking the system. There is nothing fancy about the prose. It is what it is – a riveting police procedural written with uncanny relentless pace and spellbinding power.

Harry Bosch is California’s newest private investigator. He doesn’t advertise, he doesn’t have an office, and he’s picky about who he works for, but it doesn’t matter. His chops from 30 years with the LAPD speak for themselves.

Soon one of Southern California’s biggest moguls comes calling. The reclusive billionaire has less than six months to live and a lifetime of regrets. He hires Bosch to find out whether he has an heir. Using all of his cold-case skills, Bosch pieces together a 65-year-old mystery and finds out that the case is not as simple – or as cold – as he thought.

Both cases reach their conclusion with aplomb and I must say that unconsciously I was so consumed by the book for the past week that I even watch fewer movies. The prose is crisp, the plot is linear and plausible. Connelly’s hard-boiled approach is superb. It starts with a slow drive and before you know it everything is cruising along until he hits the accelerator. The ending is tremendously satisfying with such a slam bang that time stood still for me.

PS – Can’t wait to check out S3 of the TV series

 

 

 

 

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami

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Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is definitely his most accessible novel in a while. Here he gives us the remarkable story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man haunted by a great loss; of dreams and nightmares that have unintended consequences for the world around us; and of a journey into the past that is necessary to mend the present. It is a story of love, friendship, and heartbreak for the ages.

I love Murakami. I remember years ago I happened to walk into Borders at Times Square, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and every single one of his books were going for 3 for 2 special offers. I grabbed them all and started with Dance Dance Dance on the spot and finished it on the ride back home. Nobody, and I mean nobody, writes stories like him and seriously nobody would even try to do it because they would be slammed for being pretentious. Murakami is the master, he is the ultimate amiable tour guide. You know what the main highlights will be but he will lead you down the beaten path to strange places and in the end it is these weird places that make the trip memorable. His heavily plotted stories are near impossible to pigeonhole and they are a genre in itself.

This one is a superbly satisfying read. The prose is seductive and balletic. It has solid moments of suspense, quiet moments of fragility and tranquil moments of pure Zen. I would highly recommend this novel if you are keen to discover Murakami but something stops me from going all out to do just that. If you are one of those that need every plot-line to be tied up and explained away, this is definitely not for you. But if you are those few who dream every night and the tendrils of the dream continue to envelope you as you revel in the waking hours. You are not sure what the dream mean and the meaning feels elusive, but yet you feel the essence of what it is trying to tell you. Then you are one of those whom Murakami cries out to with his prose. His stories are dreamscapes. They give meaning to what you dream at night.

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

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I am a big police procedural and mystery fan, but I have never read any Agatha Christie. This is so embarrassing, but I did watch the movies – Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Evil Under the Sun (1982). So I thought I should try one and googled for her best novel. This one came out tops.

Considered the best mystery novel ever written by many readers, And Then There Were None is the story of ten strangers, each lured to Soldier Island by a mysterious host. Once his guests have arrived, the host accuses each person of murder. Unable to leave the island, the guests begin to share their darkest secrets – until they begin to die, one by one.

The big picture is easy – it is a deadly game of slow and clever decimation to zero. It is the execution that is sheer class. How do you make ten people die without it becoming repetitive and ridiculous or the murderer stand out like a sore thumb? Let Queen of Mystery show you. The prose is simple and purposeful. Things don’t happen immediately because each of the ten characters needs a back story, but Christie doesn’t drown you in unnecessary details. When the first body drops things move fast. I love Christie’s use of dialogue between the characters left to address the questions swirling in my mind, and I definitely love her clever misdirection and delicate placement of red herrings. The ending is quite the mindfcuk and it left me stunned out of my senses. Thankfully, there is an epilogue that explains everything in a satisfying manner.

This my first Agatha Christie and it won’t be my last. Any suggestions of which of her other books I should hunt down at the library? I rather hear from the readers out there. In the meantime, I heard great things about the 3-episode mini-series (2015) and I can’t wait to see that, but not until the missus finishes the book.

 

The Embassy of Cambodia – Zadie Smith

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At a mere 69 pages and lots of white spaces in between, Zadie Smith crafts a quiet story that is no less important in that it is a window into London’s immigrant culture. It may be London in context, but here in Singapore it is the same. We may be living in a First World country, but race, gender, ethnicity and religious belief play a huge role in one’s station in life.

First published in the New Yorker, The Embassy of Cambodia is a rare and brilliant story that takes us deep into the life of a young woman, Fatou, domestic servant to the Derawals and escapee from one set of hardships to another. Beginning and ending outside the Embassy of Cambodia, which happens to be located in Willesden, NW London, Zadie Smith’s absorbing, moving and wryly observed story suggests how the apparently small things in an ordinary life always raise larger, more extraordinary questions.

Smith’s painting of Fatou is exquisite and evocative. Through short chapters numbering from 0-1 to 0-21 (clearly reflecting a lobsided badminton game), we get to follow Fatou. She accepts her station in life, harbours no big dreams and holds no bitterness. Her only “crime” is a weekly filching of the family’s guest passes to swim at a local club. She owns no swimsuit and swims in a black bra and panties, but the garments are so inconspicuous that nobody pays her any heed. On Sunday, after church she will go with her only friend, Andrew, to a Tunisian cafe for coffee and cakes. It is not a routine, more of a comfortable rut.

Zadie Smith’s prose is simple yet elegant and purposeful. For a short piece of work, she packs a lot of details that cry out gently for a closer reading. For instance the high walls of the Embassy and a constant badminton game going on behind the wall as she passes on her way to the pool is a subtle metaphor for the sad state of foreign menial workers like Fatou. Even how the chapters are numbered suggest the state of affairs for people like her. The split narrative structure is genius – it switches between a third person narrative that observes Fatou and a first person narrative voice that represent the people of the town, another words that represents us. The gear shifts invisibly and effortlessly, putting us in the story, sometimes next to the character and at times outside observing her impassively.

This short read is superbly observed and rendered. You know only an author with deep compassion can write something so multi-layered and nuanced. A gem of a read of a human tragedy.

 

 

 

 

Orphan X – Gregg Hurwitz

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Holy mackerel! Believe the hype! This is one frigging page-turner! This is my second book in a row about a protagonist who possesses a “very particular set of skills, skills (he) has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make (him) a nightmare for (bad guys)” and this is a class act way sleeker than Derek Haas’ The Silver Bear.

The Nowhere Man is a legendary figure spoken about only in whispers. It’s said that when he’s reached by the truly desperate and deserving, the Nowhere Man can and will do anything to protect and save them.

But he’s no legend.

Evan Smoak is a man with skills, resources, and a personal mission to help those with nowhere else to turn. He’s also a man with a dangerous past. Chosen as a child, he was raised and trained as part of the off-the-books black box Orphan program, designed to create the perfect deniable intelligence assets—i.e. assassins. He was Orphan X. Evan broke with the program, using everything he learned to disappear.

Now, however, someone is on his tail. Someone with similar skills and training. Someone who knows Orphan X. Someone who is getting closer and closer. And will exploit Evan’s weakness—his work as The Nowhere Man—to find him and eliminate him. 

The story centres around the character Evan Smoak, which is not even his real name. He lives steadfastly by his commandments – #10 is “never let an innocent die”. But it is #9’s “always play offense” that will bring a world of hurt on scumbags in his way. Gregg Hurwitz’s prose moves like a speeding bullet gunning for your jugular and it doesn’t rest until a fountain of blood explodes from the fatal wound. From the disquieting opening where a boy begins his dramatic transformation, Orphan X rockets the reader on an exhilarating cat-and-mouse chase with a galore of twists and turns. The characters live and breathe on the page, even though they are not exhaustively developed. In a thriller you won’t want your characters’ back stories dragging the pace down to a literary crawl. Hurwitz knows the thriller genre like the back of his hand and he delivers in spades. Brilliantly conceived, amazingly plotted, the story moves like a summer tentpole action movie. It has some uber-sleek action scenes that will look visceral on the big screen and some super-cool world building scenes that will set it apart from the usual action thrillers. As I typed this I learned that Bradley Cooper’s production company has acquired the film rights and he will be in the lead role. OMG! I can totally see him in it.

Manga: Oldboy & Ikigami

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Ten years ago, they took him. He doesn’t know who. For ten years he has been confined in a private prison. He doesn’t know why. For ten years his only contact with the outside world has been a television set and the voice of his jailers. In time, he lost himself… changed… transformed himself into something else… something hard… something lethal. Suddenly one day, his incarceration ends, again without explanation. He is sedated, stuffed inside a trunk, and dumped in a park. When he awakes, he is free to reclaim what’s left of his life… and what’s left is revenge.

After reading this 8-volume I have even more respect for Park Chan-wook who made the 2003 film of the same name. He managed to distill the filmic elements from the manga and made the Mother of all revenge thrillers. He only retained the main spine and nihilistic feel of the manga written by Garon Tsuchiya and illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi. The manga itself is a great read. A twisted cat and mouse game with quite a lot of characters, more than the film. The first 7 volumes are gripping and cerebral stuff but IMHO the final denouement is rather lackluster, unlike the grand operatic crescendo of the film. Still I would say this adult manga comes recommended and the movie which is a masterpiece comes even more highly recommended.

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Dear Citizen: You’ve no doubt noticed that the world is a troubled place. People are apathetic, lazy, unmotivated. You’ve probably asked yourself: Why isn’t anything being done to stop this systematic decline? Well, you’ll be happy to know measures are being taken. We, your government, have decided society needs a wake-up call. So beginning today, we will randomly select a different citizen who will be killed within 24 hours of notification. We believe this will help remind all people how precious life is, and how important it is to be productive, active members of society. Thank you for your attention and your cooperation and participation in this new program.

This is both my wife and mine favorite manga for the past couple of years. Each time a new volume is released it is an almost religious experience. We would find a quiet place to devour it – I would of course get first dibs. I am not fully convinced by the big picture of the dystopian premise but the metaphor of what a government does to thumb down its citizens is plain to see. What I love are the short stories. Each one is a three act play – shows a new character and end the first act with Fujimoto delivering the ikigami (a death notice), the second and third act then centre on how the person reacts to his/her final 24 hours and what he/she does about it. Then it usually ends with Fujimoto questioning what he does for a living and the purpose of life. Some of these stories are incredibly powerful and it did something few comics can ever do to me – it made me ponder the greater meaning of life. I started reading this some years back but some of the stories and characters continue to remain in my consciousness. The ending of the final 10th volume feels rushed and it was trying to achieve too many twists and turns, but like I mentioned, it is the short stories that will make you ruminate over the meaning of life. There was a movie made that incorporated a few of the better stories. It is worth checking out.

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