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Fiction Matters

… because it does and it should.

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.

 

 

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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.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye – Michael Connelly

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami

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

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

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

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

 

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