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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 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.

 

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.

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