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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

Necessary People – Anna Pitoniak

I got wind of this novel through Stephen King’s Facebook feed. He wrote: “That book-blurb saying “I couldn’t put it down” is usually bullshit, right? For me it was true of Anna Pitoniak’s NECESSARY PEOPLE. I literally couldn’t stop reading. Murder, ambition, toxic friendship. What’s not to like?” In my book, if Mr King says it’s good, it is going to be bloody good, and he was right.

I finished the last 40 pages yesterday in Geylang East Library and when I hit the final paragraph I almost wanted to read it ever so slowly because I knew the sublime experience is going to be over soon. When I did finally finish it, I turned to my wifey next to me (she was reading Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel) and let out a cry of satisfaction laden with a couple of much deserved expletives. This is one of my favourites this year.

Stella and Violet are best friends, and from the moment they met in college, they knew their roles. Beautiful, privileged, and reckless Stella lives in the spotlight. Hardworking, laser-focused Violet stays behind the scenes, always ready to clean up the mess that Stella inevitably leaves in her wake.

After graduation, Violet moves to New York and lands a job in cable news, where she works her way up from intern to assistant to producer, and to a life where she’s finally free from Stella’s shadow. In this fast-paced world, Violet thrives, and her ambitions grow — but everything is jeopardized when Stella, envious of Violet’s new life, uses her connections, beauty, and charisma to get hired at the same network. Stella soon moves in front of the camera, becoming the public face of the stories that Violet has worked tirelessly to produce — and taking all the credit.

The first half felt awfully familiar, like some toxic teenage female friendship that happens a dime in a dozen on TV land, but Pitoniak’s evocative flair makes the whole thing smell like a bed of roses. I love how she skewers the rich in some of the scenarios that sickened me to the stomach, like treating Violet as a hybrid slave. On the surface it feels like normal behaviour, but underneath it reeks of the stink of elitist behaviour. Their Patek Philippes and Cartier diamonds are the apotheosis of the material world, and their behaviour will turn your insides out.

A couple of evenings ago, we caught Ready or Not at the cinema. It is a clever variation on “the last girl” trope in the survival genre. We had a blast laughing at the absurdity of the rich, but the movie couldn’t quite embed the “rich versus poor” subtext well, but Anna Pitoniak’s Necessary People has this aspect in spades and she nails it all – the larger-than-life personalities, the high drama and the fierce competition, everything hits the mark.

I enjoyed reading the stressful atmosphere of the newsroom so much so that I suggested to my wifey to check out HBO’s The Newsroom, once we are done with Mindhunter.

The centre of it all is the toxic relationship between Stella and Violet. It is a symbiotic relationship based on a push-pull dynamic. It works until it doesn’t, and when it takes a crazy turn, everything goes to hell. I will admit there were some times I wanted to scream at Violet for making the wrong choices, and I have to say they aren’t illogical. Thankfully, Violet isn’t portrayed as a saint, born on this world to serve Stella; she is her own woman. I want to say more, but this is the point I need to shut my trap.

If this gets optioned to be made as a film, I am sure every up-and-coming young actress will be eyeing the role of Violet Trapp. It is a career-defining role and I think real will clash with reel life because they will have to fight tooth and nail to get it. The role should go to the one who is ambitious enough to be selfish and cruel. That’s who should get it.

**** / 5

The Sandman – Lars Kepler

This is my first Lars Kepler novel. It is actually written by a husband-wife team of Alexandra and Alexandra Ahndoril who hail from Scandinavia. Gosh… Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo, Lars Kepler… Scandinavian noir is a like a genre itself. Bleak, nightmarish and bloody wraiths hang in every page of The Sandman.

The novel opens with a malnourished young man struggling to walk on a railroad bridge near Stockholm one snowy night. Mikael Kohler-Frost had been missing for 13 years and declared legally dead, just like his younger sister, Felicia. They are the children of popular author Reidar Frost and 13 years later he and his son are finally reunited. It is a race against time for detective superintendent Joona Linna as he must elicit from sadistic serial killer Jurek Walter where Felicia is held and everything will come at a huge price.

Kepler is very efficient as a writer because the chapters are short. The characters are neatly drawn and the pace is brisk. All these aspects make for a breezy read, although I am not sure if it’s a crime to say it’s “breezy” because victims do die gruesome deaths. The protagonist, Linna, is a morose and sullen dude with a moral compass that points to the true north without any degree of wavering. While, the antagonist, Jurek Walter, is a Hannibal Lecter-type. The allusion to the devilish gentleman-killer who loves to eat human liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti is clear, but I wouldn’t categorically say Jurek is Hannibal’s equal. I know who my money will be on if they ever go mano a mano. That said, Jurek is a fascinating villain.

There is another character that I find fascinating – Saga Bauer, who is one brave cop. She is given the task of going undercover at a mental institute for hardened criminals to find out what Jurek knows. If this is going to be made as a movie, her role will no doubt be highly coveted. Remember Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame?

The Sandman is actually the fourth book in the Joona Linna series, but it can be read as a standalone. I did enjoy it while it last – it has a crazy story, a whole lot of plot and interesting characters pulled out of the brain of someone dreaming of serial killers every night, but the writing lacks a flair that I craved for. Perhaps it’s the translation, or maybe not, but the pages are littered with “telling” sentences, so I doubt I will dive into another Lars Kepler novel any time soon.

***1/2 / 5

My Lovely Wife – Samantha Downing

This is going to be the easiest review I will probably write this year because the fun in reading this amazing debut is not knowing too much of the story and plot.

C.J. Tudor says this is Dexter meets Gone Girl. That sounds about right. I will just give you a basic story outline… This is about a couple, married for 15 years with 2 kids, with an interesting extra curricular activity to spice things up. They love to abduct women, torture and eventually kill them. Of course, they are having it too smooth for a while and when a body finally turns up, they will take “getting away with murder” to a whole new level.

I finished the last 70 pages in a furious flurry till 1.20am last night after coming home from a late night screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Can’t say I enjoy the movie because my mind was still reeling from a shocking twist at the end of chapter 60. I had brought the novel out and planned to read it any spare time I had. I looked up, uttering two words to my wifey sitting across me at the dinner table in Jack’s Place. She understood my shock (she had read the book) and replied “so good right?”

Samantha Downing’s My Lovely Wife is literally unputdownable. It gripped me from the opening pages and kept me riveted. This is one crackerjack of a read. The tone may be dark, but there are layers of black comedy that I adored.

The narrator is the husband who is never named (actually, I didn’t even notice that till the next morning when we started discussing the novel). The subtext will hit you like a sledgehammer because he can be anybody. That’s a scary notion.

On paper, I am supposed to loathe this flawed couple, but just like Dexter I find myself rooting for them, my allegiance to different parties will shift over the course of the story, sometimes in the space of a chapter. Their meet-cute is the essence of great romantic comedies and some of the episodes of their love for each other are adoringly depicted. You will love them and you will hate them in the course of 374 pages.

The plot is stellar and holds a barrel full of surprises. I literally had no idea how the story will proceed after each shocker of a twist. It’s demented and nuts, but yet believable in a twisted way. When I finished it in the wee hours of the morning, I wanted to reread from page one because this time I want to catch all of Downing’s incredible sleight of hand. I can’t remember the last novel that made me want to do this.

Read this.

NOW.

****1/2 / 5

Glory in Death – J.D. Robb

Glory In Death is the second book in the series, but it doesn’t have the same verve is the first one. Nonetheless, it is a very entertaining read and does peel a few layers of the main characters and the futuristic world.

In this second mystery, someone is slicing up famous women, making their throat gush out a fountain of red. Lieutenant Eve Dallas is tasked with finding the murderer and she leaves no stones unturned, including stepping on many important people’s toes in her relentless pursuit for the truth. Her heart beats for the victims and she makes it personal. Only multi-billionaire Roark sees the true Eve and loves her for it.

I love Robb’s writing style and this second in the series continues to be a breezy read. It may be a story set in the future, but it isn’t bogged down with explaining the mechanics  and technology of this future. Now and then, we are graced with super-cool inventive machines like the AutoChef (I would sure like to own one), a body dryer and a floating mattress (give me one of that). 

We are introduced to a new character named Peabody whom I am sure will be a staple down the road. The troublesome relationship between Eve and Roark’s butler Summerset drew some giggles from me. But all that I mentioned are not why readers lapped up Robb’s “in Death” series. At the core of it is Eve and Roark’s relationship, which goes on a rollercoaster ride, but everything turns out great in the end. I am sure some readers probably went “awwww….” right in the end.

I didn’t quite enjoy this one primarily because I managed to guess who the murderer is and I wasn’t even trying very hard, so the surprise was lost. But that said, sign me up for the next one Immortal in Death. My friend did say that the first three books laid the foundation for the characters and I shouldn’t skip them. Once that is done, I will just go for the ones that are rated highly. I already have 12 that I picked up from bargain bins. 

PS – there are over 50 in the series and wonder why no studios thought of picking up the rights to this. I am sure the huge fanbase practically guarantee initial success. We already have Michael Connelly’s Bosch and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher gracing the screens, we absolutely need Eve and Roark in our lives.

***1/2 / 5

Killing Commendatore – Haruki Murakami

I have read so many novels by Murakami and this is the first one that falls way off the mark; a complete slog fest and utter bore. It feels almost sacrilegious saying this, but this one just didn’t endear me.

In Killing Commendatore, a thirty-something portrait painter in Tokyo is abandoned by his wife and finds himself holed up in the mountain home of a famous artist, Tomohiko Amada. When he discovers a previously unseen painting in the attic, he unintentionally opens a circle of mysterious circumstances. To close it, he must complete a journey that involves a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors.

All the hallmarks of Murakami’s stylistics are present – the plot that goes off-kilter at the drop of a hat, characters that want to turn themselves inside out, the tender melancholy, the flights of fantasy, fortuitous encounters with oddball creatures, the adoring proclamation of good music and weird sex – but none of it coalesces into an organic whole.

The story is too small here, it felt like it was stretched out to fill up 680 pages. The prose rambles, and I find myself wanting to skip paragraphs that I have read 10 pages ago. The characters aren’t compelling – the main narrator is obsessed with breasts, likewise with a teenage girl named Mariye whose dream is to be able to fill out a C-cup bra and have nipples the size of olive pips. WTF! It got so ridiculous after a while. I had to ask my wifey whether young girls think of such idiotic stuff and she told me yes. Okay, I stand corrected on that tit-bit 😊

I really wanted to love this, but I just can’t. 2* is what it will get from me and perhaps a 1/2 for that weird astral sex bit, that took immaculate conception to a whole different inception level.

**1/2 / 5

Cult X – Fuminori Nakamura

After his excellent The Thief, I made a vow to read anything by Fuminori Nakamura, but Cult X was one tedious read. So this is going to be a short review because I have nothing worthy to say.

When Toru Narazaki’s girlfriend, Ryoko, disappears, he tries to track her down, despite the warnings of a private detective he’s hired to find her. Ryoko’s past is shrouded in mystery, but the one concrete clue to her whereabouts is a previous address where she lived: in a compound in the heart of Tokyo, with a group that seems to be a cult led by a charismatic guru with a revisionist Buddhist scheme of life, death, and society. Narazaki plunges into the secretive world of the cult, ready to expose himself to any of the guru’s brainwashing tactics if it means he can learn the truth about Ryoko. But the cult isn’t what he expected, and he has no idea of the bubbling violence beneath its surface.

Inspired by the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, Cult X is an exploration of what draws individuals into extremism. This multi-faceted novel is nothing less than a tour de force, capturing the connections between astrophysics, neuroscience, and religion. It is an invective against predatory corporate consumerism and exploitative geopolitics, and it is a love story about compassion in the face of nihilism.

I took the above synopsis from the back of the book and it served a huge purpose. Sometimes I had re-read it again to understand WTF I was reading. The words are like black particles floating around before my eyes and I can’t get past two chapters at a time. The story isn’t compelling, neither are any of the characters.

There is a lot of very disturbing sex, but they are hardly well-written, and they made no sense. Women exist in the cult for the pleasure of men; consent is a dubious concept. I am no prude, mind you, and I can’t understand why do the people in the cult do what they do.

The writing is abysmal. Huge chunks of it are devoted to endless rants about philosophy, culture, disenfranchisement and religion. I skipped them. I am not sure if it’s the translation that is bad, but with a story this nonsensical I doubt it matters much. I have no fricking idea why there are so many rosy raves about this novel; maybe it’s just me. I rather poke needles into my hand, while reading this. At least this way I can feel something.

*1/2 / 5

Naked in Death – J.D. Robb

J.D. Robb writes great sex scenes like she is a virtuoso.

Alright, that should get your attention. I absolutely mean it, but I will touch on this aspect later.

I take people’s suggestions on what to read seriously. The aspect that usually draws me to these book suggestions is passion. Real passion flows like an unbridled stream of enthusiasm and it is always contagious.

J.D. Robb (pseudonym of Nora Roberts) has written 47 “in death” novels to date, but I have never heard of her till my colleague shared so ebulliently her novels late last year. Her passion sold it, so I picked up a used copy of the first “in death” novel Naked in Death (1995) and she was right – this is superbly entertaining and J.D. Robb writes great sex.

The sex scenes are so well-written, especially the one involving the two main protagonists, that my toes curled up in a ball just thinking about it. That particular scene happens nearly halfway in the novel and when it drops you would realise that all the pages prior to it is foreplay. Robb does not even have to use explicit words to convey a kaleidoscope of sensations and a rhythm of feels. It was powerful, intense and downright sexy. It was so fricking good that I thought for a moment I have been doing it all wrong 😊 and I have not even talked about what the story is about.

The year is 2058, Eve Dallas is a New York police lieutenant hunting for a ruthless killer. In over ten years on the force, she’s seen it all—and knows her survival depends on her instincts. And she’s going against every warning telling her not to get involved with Roarke, an Irish billionaire—and a suspect in Eve’s murder investigation. But passion and seduction have rules of their own, and it’s up to Eve to take a chance in the arms of a man she knows nothing about—except the addictive hunger of needing his touch.

Another aspect that I enjoyed is Robb’s hardboiled lean prose and economically world building. Most authors would spent a lot of time establishing the future and its mechanics, but Robb’s way is simply to just write it matter-of-factly, as if interplanetary travel, police using lasers and guns are collectors’ items are everyday occurrences. The procedural aspects of it is also engrossing and the myriad characters interesting.

Perhaps the only weak spot is how things get wrapped up briskly in the last act and the plot feels familiar, resembling a Kevin Costner movie that I won’t say here. That said, I still had a lot of fun with this and I can’t wait to dive into the seedy and sexy world of Eve and Roarke. Bring on Glory in Death.

****1/2 / 5

The President is Missing – Bill Clinton and James Patterson

On the cards, this certainly makes for an interesting collaboration: a bestselling thriller writer who knows the blueprint like the back of his hand and an ex-president who has the know-all in the corridors of ultimate world-changing power. Does it work?

As the novel opens, a threat looms. Enemies are planning an attack of unprecedented scale on America. Uncertainty and fear grip Washington. There are whispers of cyberterror and espionage and a traitor in the cabinet. The President himself becomes a suspect, and then goes missing…

I had a running image of Kiefer Sutherland while reading The President is Missing and I wonder if I am the only one. I was weaned on 8 seasons of 24 stretching from 2001 to 2010. Each of the 195 episodes tells the story in real-time and it was compulsively addictive even if sometimes it was a huge stretch. With The President is Missing, I was picturing Sutherland’s Jack Bauer as the President, eluding gunfire and killing bad guys out to send America to hell (by hell, I mean a world without the internet).

Like the TV series, the novel is far from high art but it is an entertaining read while munching on popcorn. How I wish it opens up the White House with some interesting insights never privy to anyone, but alas no. If you are a fan of House of Cards (2013-2018) and The West Wing (1999 – 2006), nothing new is revealed here.

The main conceit is a silent wiper virus that will wipe out all software on devices – “your laptop computers will be useful only as doorstops your routers as paperweights. The servers will be erased. You will have no internet service… elevators stop working. Grocery-Store scanners. Train and bus passes. Televisions. Phones. Radios. Traffic lights. Credit-card scanners. Home alarm systems. Laptop computers will lose their software, all files, everything erased. Your computers will be nothing but a keyboard and a blank screen. Electricity would be severely compromised. Which means refrigerators. In some cases, heat. Clean water in America will quickly become a scarcity. No websites, of course. No e-commerce. Conveyor belts. Sophisticated machinery inside manufacturing plants. Payroll records. Planes will be grounded. Even trains may not operate in most places. Bank records. You think you have ten thousand dollars in your saving account? Fifty thousand dollars in a retirement account? You think you have a pension that allows you to receive a fixed payment every month? Not if computer files and their backups are erased…” And it goes on and on.

The writing is content with ramming everything down your throat with little subtlety. I don’t know about you but I had the privilege of straddling between two eras – with and without internet, and I can tell you it’s not a bad thing to go back to the time without it. I love those simpler days and human beings were a lot nicer.

The President is Missing reads like the equivalent of having a McDonald’s burger with lots of added cheese. It will no doubt fill your stomach and keep the hunger pangs at bay for a while, but it will not reawaken your dormant tastebuds to new sensations. It will not be a memorable meal.

***1/2 / 5

Elevation – Stephen King

My favourite Stephen King novel isn’t a horror one; it’s Different Seasons (1982), a collection of four novellas, each one capturing an aspect of the four seasons. There was a time, come December, when everything would start to wind down, I would read Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption again and be reminded that I am doing okay as long as I have at least one true friend. I will let you in on any another tidbit: when I was learning the ropes to become a teacher, all the newbies were tasked to read a one-page text of our choosing so that our tutor can check on our enunciation and articulation. I read from the prologue of The Body from Different Seasons. When I was done, the Caucasian tutor immediately asked me where was the text taken from and I could see my fellow teachers scribbling it down likewise. King manages to elucidate ever so succinctly a particular human behaviour in that prologue. Presently, I own the third copy of the novel because the first two were loaned out to friends and they didn’t come back to me. It’s absolutely fine; I like to think that the novel has found its way into their heart just like it did for me. Elevation, just like Different Seasons, is a novella and it isn’t horror, and it is a gem of a read.

Part of the fun of reading is to find out as little about the plot as possible, so I will not divulge much, except to just say it’s a story about a man with a rather particular weight problem and how he saved a small town called Castle Rock from their worst selves.

Using weight loss as a narrative lynchpin isn’t new to King. He first did it in Thinner (1984) which is a helluva psychological horror-thriller. But Elevation approaches the weight loss idea in a unique way with free-flowing prose that brims with witty charm and nuggets of wisdom. King nails that small town vibe and speak effortlessly.

For me, one of the hallmarks of a good story is not being able to guess what will happen in the next page and with Elevation, I couldn’t, but perhaps it’s more correct to say I didn’t want to. It’s so easy to fall in love with Scott Carey who is stricken with the weirdest malady ever and hope against the inevitable.

The second act is devoted to the Turkey Trot, the Castle Rock long distance foot race where Scott’s dire affliction brings out the best in people who have mollycoddled with the worst in themselves and others. I devoured that section with a smile on my face. I must have looked really silly in the train on my way to class.

Back in my younger days, I used to run the full marathon every December. One week before the run, I would prep myself psychologically by reading King’s The Long Walk (1979), an early version of The Hunger Games where 100 people competed in a race and losers get shot. I loved running the arduous marathon with that crazy story in my head and believe me when I say I would never stop to walk. Now with Elevation, and with me being older and less springy, I think I may have found my new running companion story prior before running my annual marathon, albeit half-marathon now.

****1/2/ 5

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