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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

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

This is one sad story and sad stories, in my book, are the hardest to tell. In the hands of less abled writers, the stories get trapped in the quicksand of cloying melodrama with little sign of respite. But in the hands of a great storyteller, a sad story can be transcendent, brimming with hope. Celeste Ng, in her amazing debut, doesn’t lose a step. This is a gorgeous piece of literature. It begins with a death…

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.

Ng’s prose is masterful and she has an uncanny ability to turn the characters inside out, making them so vivid you can see them and feel their pain. Being a Chinese living in Singapore, I can totally understand the pressure cooker atmosphere of parents wanting their kids to get a leg up in education and the stressful feeling of being an outsider in school. Ng demonstrates keenly observed human behaviour in a very refreshing way that never becomes maudlin. It is writing that is full of grace.

I did have trouble reading beyond a chapter at a time (there is only this much of sadness I can take at a time) and at 12 chapters it was a perfect read for two weeks. If you are in a downer of a mood, this sensitive family portrait may be just the antidote.

**** / 5

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami

This has got to be the most befuddling Murakami novel ever, but such is the skill of a great writer that I couldn’t tear my eyes away. The imagination, the creativity and the ability to find the sweet spot between heart and head, are on every page. I am convinced Murakami is a genius and this is great literature and great literature doesn’t have to be boring and prodding. When I hit the last page I was so sorry the experience was going to end.

This is one strange and dreamlike novel, its chapters alternate between two bizarre narratives – “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” (a cyberpunk-like, science fiction part) and “The End of the World” (a virtual fantasy-like, surreal part).

The odd-numbered chapters take place in the ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland’, although the phrase is not used anywhere in the text, only in page headers. The narrator is a “Calcutec”, a human data processor system who has been trained to use his subconscious as an encryption key.

The even-numbered chapters deal with a newcomer to “The End of the World”, a strange, isolated Town, surrounded by a perfect and impenetrable wall. The narrator is in the process of being accepted into the Town. His Shadow has been “cut off” and this Shadow lives in the “Shadow Grounds” where he is not expected to survive the winter. Residents of the Town are not allowed to have a shadow, and, it transpires, do not have a mind. The narrator is assigned quarters and a job as the current “Dreamreader”: a process intended to remove the traces of mind from the Town.

This is an exercise in genre blending. Murakami blends so many literary genres into one beautiful mess that I found it difficult to connect with the characters on an emotional level. It is a detective novel with obvious influences from hard-boiled detective literature from the 30s to the 50s; it is a science-fiction novel with a mind-boggling treatise on the power of consciousness; it is a romance novel and it is most definitely a dystopian novel. But it all coalesced into something truly way out there.

This being Murakami, there are random references to Western pop-culture, from movie stars to music, that really added nothing to the plot, but I love reading them. Sometimes he succeeds in making me curious to check out artistes like Duke Ellington and Bob Dylan, “the singer with the rough voice”. These detours never bother me because when Murakami writes he puts himself in his narratives – his likes, his dislikes, his philosophy. Reading any of his novels offers a small window into the mind of the writer and he has one fascinating wonderland of a mind.

Oh… this being Murakami get ready for weird sex and fascination with a male body part. There is so much fascination with it that it stands erect regularly in the story and in the most inconvenient of times.

Murakami is my comfort food; it is food for my soul. He is the only author that I will buy the first printing every time. When I am at a loss on what to read and totally out of funk, a Murakami novel always solves the problem. His stories are always unpredictable, have wild detours into other worlds, offer a blend of musical delights, and I look forward to the occasional romp in the sack. Scanning my shelves, I have only four I have not read: Men Without Women, A Wild Sheep Chase, Underground and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. What should I read next? Decisions, decisions… but such nice decisions.

***** / 5

Vengeance in Death – J.D. Robb

One of things I love to do when I am shopping in a mall is to search the bargain bin of used books for sale, that is if there is. Chances are, I will find some J.D. Robb’s in Death series there. Then it’s a case of checking goodreads on its ratings and I shouldn’t bother because every entry in the series perpetually hits a rating of 4 and higher.

He is an expert with the latest technology…a madman with the mind of a genius and the heart of a killer. He quietly stalks his prey. Then he haunts the police with cryptic riddles about the crimes he is about to commit–always solved moments too late to save his victims’ lives.Police lieutenant Eve Dallas found the first victim butchered in his own home. The second lost his life in a vacant luxury apartment. The two men had little in common. Both suffered unspeakable torture before their deaths. And both had ties to an ugly secret of ten years past–a secret shared by none other than Eve’s new husband, Roarke.

The mystery is a bit meh, but what I like is dialogue and dynamics between characters. I felt like real and fun people interacting and some parts had me giggling…

“It’s a little tradition of mine. Whenever my wife’s been in an explosion, I like to make a quick trip to the hospital.” He sat on the edge of the bed, his eyes keen on her face, and held up three fingers. “How many do you see?”

“Thirty-six.” She smiled thinly when he simply continued to stare. “Okay, three. Now get your fingers out of my face. I’m still mad at you.”

“Now I’m devastated.” When she started to shift he laid a hand on her shoulder. “Stay.”

“What do I look like, a cocker spaniel?”

I laughed out loud. Robb knows how to write good dialogue with an ear for cadence and tempo. It sounded like it came out of cool people.

She has another talent – she can make even peripheral characters interesting by giving them identity. Her character development is brilliant. Characters can just drop in for a quick one or two pages but they will remain in your consciousness after they disappear.

I always welcome more back stories to the main characters and this 6th entry has a lot more of Roarke’s Irish past and definitely a lot more of Summerset. Oh boy… I live for all those cheeky repartee between Eve and Summerset, seemingly sworn enemies, they will grow to have respect for each other in the end. Although, I still think they will continue to jab each other with knives of sarcasm.

This is one rip-roaring yarn.

**** / 5

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

Ever since Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, I made a vow to own and read anything written by the writer. To read Ogawa is to experience quiet brilliance and elegiac enchantment. Her stories speak volumes by sometimes leaving things unsaid. With her latest, The Memory Police, published in 1994, finally translated in 2019, the moment I finished the last sentence I wanted to turn back to page one to read it again.

On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses—until things become much more serious. Most of the island’s inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten.

When a young woman who is struggling to maintain her career as a novelist discovers that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police, she concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards. As fear and loss close in around them, they cling to her writing as the last way of preserving the past.

Written in an understated and gentle prose, The Memory Police lulls you in and proffers a profound meditation on loss, memories and survival in a totalitarian regime. It starts off with a sense of urgency in a state of dystopia under constant surveillance but ends on a sense of thought provoking existentialism. You could also read it as an allegory of a person suffering from Dementia struggling to hold on to nuggets of memories.

In The Memory Police, memories are associative in that if roses disappear, everything associated with it, be it photographs or even memories, is erased. If you still remember it, you are in danger. The Memory Police will take you away and you will not see the light of the day again.

The tension is quiet, the danger feels real and the loss is palpable. There are two stories happening at the same time – one is the current world the narrator, who is a writer, is living in and the other is a love story the narrator is telling, which makes a bizarre turn in the final act. Ogawa offers no pat and easy answers, but the social alienation and dislocation feels particularly relevant in today’s world.

This is a review I hope words do not elude me so that I can do it justice, but alas words failed me in my amateurish attempt. I enclosed an eloquent review that captures everything I want to say and more.

***** / 5

Macbeth – Jo Nesbø

“Well, Strega,” he said. “Do you think the seed we sowed in Macbeth will grow?”

“Let’s hope so.”

“They’re thistles. They can’t help themselves. They’re evil and foolish. If people see the soothsayer’s first prophecy fulfilled they’ll believe the next one blindly. And now Macbeth has found out he’s the new head of Organised Crime. The only question is whether Macbeth has enough of the thistle’s ambition in him. And the necessary cruelty to go the whole way.”

“Macbeth doesn’t,” Hecate said. “But she does.”

“She?”

“Lady, his beloved dominatrix. I’ve never met her, yet I know her innermost secrets and understand her better than I understand you, Strega. All Lady needs is time to reach the inescapable conclusion. Believe me.”

“Which is?”

“The Duncan has to be get rid of.”

“And then?”

“Then,” Hecate said, tapping his stick on the ground, tap tap. “The good times will roll again.”

“Are you sure we can control Macbeth? Now he’s clean he’s probably… moralistic, isn’t he?”

“My dear Strega, the only person more predicable than a junkie or a moralist is a love-smitten junkie and moralist.”

I was having some trouble getting into the book right up until the above quote appeared, and then I could plough myself right into it. What a great reimagining of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Being a big fan of Macbeth and having seen all the great film adaptations like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003), I sought out Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth, a worthy contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare Project. I have read Nesbø’s Harry Hole series and he is definitely an inspired choice.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is timeless and its themes of good versus evil, dangers of ambition, influence of supernatural forces, loyalty and guilt still ring emphatically true in our present time. One just need to open the daily papers to see evidence of people trapped in the endless cycle of power and greed. IMHO Macbeth also has the Mother of all twists, not one, but three.

The genius of Nesbø’s retelling is that you don’t even need to know the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth to appreciate the story. It’s a blood-soaked smorgasbord of human depravity. There are good people, but they are outnumbered by the evil ones, ten to one. Nesbø situates the story in a gloomy town in Norway with almost everyone on the fringe of losing their morality. Drugs and crime rule the town in a deplorable state of moral decay. It is a story of cops versus criminals. Duncan is the Chief Commissioner of Police, Macbeth is the leader of the SWAT team and other familiar names play roles on both sides of the law, staying true to their originals.

Even though I said that one doesn’t need to know Shakespeare’s Macbeth to appreciate this noir-ish tale, but if you are a fan you are in for a superb time. Nesbø uses the framework, but he totally made it his own tale with different takes. The trainspotting element put a big smile on my face and some of them are so cleverly conceived.

That said, I did find it a chore to read in the beginning because there are so many characters with different agendas and the long passages of exposition was a pain to get through. It was also too lengthy at over 600 pages. For me, once I hit the chapter with the clever dialogue between two criminals with regard to Macbeth and Lady, I was hooked. Personally, transposing Shakespeare’s setting to a bleak town ridden by crime, drugs and corruption works like a song. Shakespeare would have been proud.

**** / 5

Penance – Kanae Minato

Like most readers, I picked up Kanae Minato’s Penance after being awed by her debut Confessions and perhaps having seen the excellent film adaptation. But Penance is not in the same ballpark, not even remotely close, proving once again that lightning doesn’t strike the same spot twice.

When they were children, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into separating from their friend Emily by a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurs: Emily is found murdered hours later.

Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko weren’t able to accurately describe the stranger’s appearance to the police after the Emily’s body was discovered. Asako, Emily’s mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will pay for her daughter’s murder.

Like Confessions, Minato uses the same Rashomon-esque narrative tool – it’s basically looking at the same crime from four different perspectives. I have no issue with that; when use well it can be a revelation. But here it felt repetitive because the four ten-year-old girls observed the same aspects of the crime. Moreover, each of the girls description of the after-effects went on for too long and mostly in a dispassionate voice.

Where Minato gets it right is in presenting the insidious nature of evil and how violence begets violence. But I have to say one of the revelations was particularly preposterous. I won’t want to drop spoilers so let’s just say it has something to do with a bear. It was just excessive, irrational and left a bad taste in my mouth.

Penance is an interesting read about friendship, guilt, consequences and revenge, but IMHO Minato didn’t manage to make all the disparate themes dovetail into something potent and unforgettable. I would only recommend it if you are looking for something dark, situated in the faraway land of Japan.

*** / 5

The Turn of the Key – Ruth Ware

When Rowan, a young nanny working in London, stumbles across an advert seeking for a nanny to work in a remote part of Scotland, she jumps at the chance for a change of pace. Moreover, the house is beautiful, the family is lovely and the pay is high. It is her dream job. She is told that there have been previous nannies but all have left complaining the house is haunted. Rowan does not believe in ghosts, but soon her beliefs will be shaken and her nightmare will begin.

The Turn of the Key reads like a modern day Gothic haunted house thriller. By modern day, I mean the humongous house is controlled by an app and the rooms have cameras and ceiling speakers. Nothing goes on without the owners’ knowledge. Rowan feels like she is in heaven from the get-go but as the days go by she feels like she is in hell. This being a house juxtaposed with Victorian architecture and Gothic feels, it comes with a mysterious attic, a forbidden garden, secret doorways and things that go missing in the night. The people that go in and out of the house have secrets and Rowan also has some skeletons in her closet. Red herrings abound and chaos reign.

Ware frames the story in an epistolary structure with Rowan sitting in death row (probably) writing to her lawyer about what had happened. The story is gripping and the characters intriguing, but I didn’t find the ending satisfying. It felt like there is much unfinished business that wasn’t addressed and the twist wasn’t particularly surprising because I could see it coming due to some heavy-handed dropping of hints. That said, this is a breezy and atmospheric read and I will definitely look for her earlier novels.

***1/2 / 5

No Middle Name – Lee Child

Knowing grammar and parts of speech is important. Sometimes it can give you insights, sometimes it can even get you out of a jar of pickles.

I am always searching for examples of good writing. This one isn’t fantastic, but reading how Jack Reacher dissects and deconstructs an innocuous phrase is freaking amazing. Some context first…

Reacher is walking down a street and sees a mugging. A young man grabs a woman’s plastic bag and runs away, towards Reacher. Two men see the mugging and they give chase. Meanwhile, the woman stands up and takes to her heels in the opposite direction. Reacher trips the mugger and reaches for the bag but noticing the bag seems empty he retracts his hand. The two men turned out to be with the police. One of them, Aaron says, “Thank you very much for helping us out with that.”

Now you can read the page and if you are still a student… freaking pay attention in English class.

The above is taken from “Too Much Time”, a brand new work that finds Reacher in a small town in Maine. This being an anthology of short stories featuring Jack Reacher is a mixed bag, but I am glad to say most of the stories hit the mark and taken together they offer different facets of Jack Reacher. Some of the stories have Reacher as a teenager and a young man. If you are a fan of the Reacher series you will appreciate the origin and development of his complex character.

This is a fabulous accompaniment to the Reacher stories and will keep the Reacher addiction at bay till the next instalment arrives. If you are a fan, you shouldn’t miss this.

*** 1/2 / 5

Into the Fire (Orphan X, #5) – Gregg Hurwitz

This is number five with a wholotta bullets and it’s the best one yet. Reading an Orphan X novel is the equivalent of watching a ludicrous but insanely entertaining Fast and Furious movie. I am not sure whether the one with the cars chasing a submarine on ice or the one with cars gliding down on parachutes best equates to the novel, but you probably got the idea that one has to park one’s logical brain at the door to enjoy an Orphan X novel.

Max Merriweather is at the end of his rope. Separated from the woman he loves and barely scraping by, Max is a disappointment to everyone in his life. Then his very successful cousin Grant is brutally murdered. Two months before, Grant left Max an envelope with instructions to take it to a reporter if anything happened to him. Now the reporter is missing and Max’s apartment is ransacked. A man at the end of his rope, he calls The Nowhere Man.

With mixed feelings, Evan takes on this mission, easily finding the men who are after Max and executing a plan to keep him safe. But it isn’t as obvious as it seems—and Evan finds himself enmeshed in one of the most challenging missions of his life, one that he can’t survive on his own. With the help of Joey Morales, a genius-level hacker and the last Orphan recruited into the Program, and the brilliant, off-the-books gunsmith, Tommy Stojack, Orphan X once more heads…Into the Fire.

Even with his fifth entry in the series, Hurwitz’s writing and plotting never gets repetitive, each latest book pushes the character to a different frontier and with even higher stakes. You would think going mano a mano against the president of the United States can’t be topped, think again. This one has The Nowhere Man going against a whole syndicate from ground up. It spirals so high up the human chain you wonder Orphan X would ever get to them, but get to them he does in the most pulsating fashion. In one instance, he even has to infiltrate a prison to get to a shot caller with no weapon. Heck! The man is the weapon!

The writing continues to be uber cool…

A man sits on the bed, legs crossed, spine straight, so still that he might be carved from marble. He lives by a set of Commandments, and this act of meditating embodies the Second: How you do anything is how you do everything. His eyes are closed, but not all the way. His open hands rest on his thighs. He is nowhere, but precisely here. He is nothing more than his breath. He is doing one thing and one thing only. This is the opposite of multitasking.

He looks like an ordinary man.

He is not.

Damn right he is not. He is every scumbag’s worst nightmare and he is a good man’s super weapon. And dammit… I actually find him inspirational.

It is mentioned in some circles that this is the last one. I am going to tell you it is not. The last line of dialogue just opens up a whole can of delicious worms. Bring on #6.

****1/2 / 5

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