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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 Dry – Jane Harper

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

 

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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.

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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.

 

The Borrowed – Chan Ho-Kei

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There are 6 interlocking stories in Chan Ho-kei’s The Borrowed, each one is as good as the previous one. In fact, I would say they are all uniformly awesome. I read a lot of crime thrillers and detective procedurals, so it is not often something can hit me with a wallop. The Borrowed surprised me 6 times! And I think that says a lot.

From award-winning Hong Kong writer Chan Ho-kei, The Borrowed tells the story of Kwan Chun-dok, a Hong Kong detective who rises from constable to senior inspector over the span of several decades, from the 1960s to the present day, and becomes a legend in the force, nicknamed “the Eye of Heaven” by his amazed colleagues. Divided into six sections told in reverse chronological order — each of which covers an important case in Kwan’s career and takes place at a pivotal moment in Hong Kong history — the novel follows Kwan from his experiences during the Leftist Riot in 1967, when a bombing plot threatens many lives; the conflict between the HK Police and ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) in 1977; the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989; the Handover in 1997; and the present day of 2013, when Kwan is called on to solve his final case, the murder of a local billionaire, while Hong Kong increasingly resembles a police state. Along the way we meet Communist rioters, ultraviolent gangsters, stallholders at the city’s many covered markets, pop singers enmeshed in the high-stakes machinery of star-making, and a people always caught in the shifting balance of political power, whether in London or Beijing.

Don’t look for elegant literary prose. The writing is as dry as the Sahara and loaded with trite but detailed fluff. Kwan Chun-do is the Sherlock Holmes of Hong Kong. His deduction skills are legendary. Like any Agatha Christie novel, there are red herrings and surreptitious clues placed everywhere, but with clever misdirection you will fail to see them. The big reveals in the last act will make your mouth fall open and your mind go “why the hell didn’t I see that”.

Chan doesn’t just craft 6 detective procedurals revolving around a main character, he also paints a social picture of Hong Kong through decades of pivotal historical moments. Whether it is the Handover or the times of the triads or the underbelly of the city, the pictures painted are always vivid and full of emotional hues.

It helps if you have been to Hong Kong and love the city. Otherwise, I can foresee an unprepared reader would get flustered by the cringe-y literal translations of names and titles, like Candy Tong and Boss-man. For me, having been weaned on Hong Kong’s movies and TVB dramas, I can feel myself being transported to the streets and slums of Mongkok and Sham Shui Po easily, and the gripping scenes come alive.

I particularly enjoyed the last story, which in the beginning bewildered me because the point of view suddenly changed to the first person. The first chapter reads like a history lesson and I had to place my trust in Chan as I soldiered on albeit in a confused manner. It felt like I was running in a thick fog, but gradually it cleared up and the final reveal hit me like a sledgehammer and time stood still. It was just outstanding and I couldn’t have seen it coming in a thousand years. Chan has managed to show how a thin line separates the good from the evil, and the story of Detective Kwan has come full circle. The Borrowed would make an awesome TV series. I hope it happens.

 

 

The Gun – Fuminori Nakamura

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The Gun may be the Fuminori Nakamura’s fourth book translated into English, but it is actually his very first novel.

In Tokyo a college student’s discovery and eventual obsession with a stolen handgun awakens something dark inside him and threatens to consume not only his life but also his humanity. Nakamura’s Japanese debut is a noir-spun tale that probes the violence inherent to aesthetics.

This is a neo-noir and by noir you know the main character don’t get out alive. I wouldn’t say it is a suspense thriller but more of an uncomfortable study of a person’s obsession. The protagonist has no saving grace and it is hard to feel for him as he spirals deeper and deeper to the dark side, but it is compellingly readable. The feeling of reading the lean book resembles looking at an accident site. You know you are going to have nightmares but your eyes just can’t turn away. Nakamura hasn’t reach the full prowess of his craft with this book, but the evidence of his talent is undeniable. He can truly understand how a life can swirl and eddy around an object, becoming so possessed that life has no purpose anymore.

Evil and the Mask – Fuminori Nakamura

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Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief is still one of the best mindfcuk in prose form for me. When I saw his new one, Evil and the Mask at the bookstore, I did not perform a ritual I always do – check the Amazon price. I bought it straightaway because I couldn’t wait to read it.

When Fumihiro Kuki is eleven years old, his elderly, enigmatic father calls him into his study for a meeting. “I created you to be a cancer on the world,” his father tells him. It is a tradition in their wealthy family: a patriarch, when reaching the end of his life, will beget one last child to cause misery in a world that cannot be controlled or saved. From this point on, Fumihiro will be specially educated to learn to create as much destruction and unhappiness in the world around him as a single person can. Between his education in hedonism and his family’s resources, Fumihiro’s life is one without repercussions. Every door is open to him, for he need obey no laws and may live out any fantasy he might have, no matter how many people are hurt in the process. But as his education progresses, Fumihiro begins to question his father’s mandate, and starts to resist.

Right from the interesting premise I was enthralled with this sprawling epic. It’s not really a pure Good versus Evil story, but more of a deconstruction of Evil. As I was reading it I kept thinking that Fumihiro will turn out to be the ultimate villain in The Thief, but it didn’t go in that direction. The plot goes in three directions but thankfully I didn’t find it confusing. In fact, I find it thought provoking. Characters sometimes go on a long diatribe on what is evil and what is its identity, which never bored me. The suspense is psychological and right in the centre it is also a tender love story. Great stuff! I would read anything Fuminori Nakamura writes, even if it is a cookbook.

 

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