Fiction Matters

… because it does and it should.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye – Michael Connelly



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


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


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.


The Embassy of Cambodia – Zadie Smith


At a mere 69 pages and lots of white spaces in between, Zadie Smith crafts a quiet story that is no less important in that it is a window into London’s immigrant culture. It may be London in context, but here in Singapore it is the same. We may be living in a First World country, but race, gender, ethnicity and religious belief play a huge role in one’s station in life.

First published in the New Yorker, The Embassy of Cambodia is a rare and brilliant story that takes us deep into the life of a young woman, Fatou, domestic servant to the Derawals and escapee from one set of hardships to another. Beginning and ending outside the Embassy of Cambodia, which happens to be located in Willesden, NW London, Zadie Smith’s absorbing, moving and wryly observed story suggests how the apparently small things in an ordinary life always raise larger, more extraordinary questions.

Smith’s painting of Fatou is exquisite and evocative. Through short chapters numbering from 0-1 to 0-21 (clearly reflecting a lobsided badminton game), we get to follow Fatou. She accepts her station in life, harbours no big dreams and holds no bitterness. Her only “crime” is a weekly filching of the family’s guest passes to swim at a local club. She owns no swimsuit and swims in a black bra and panties, but the garments are so inconspicuous that nobody pays her any heed. On Sunday, after church she will go with her only friend, Andrew, to a Tunisian cafe for coffee and cakes. It is not a routine, more of a comfortable rut.

Zadie Smith’s prose is simple yet elegant and purposeful. For a short piece of work, she packs a lot of details that cry out gently for a closer reading. For instance the high walls of the Embassy and a constant badminton game going on behind the wall as she passes on her way to the pool is a subtle metaphor for the sad state of foreign menial workers like Fatou. Even how the chapters are numbered suggest the state of affairs for people like her. The split narrative structure is genius – it switches between a third person narrative that observes Fatou and a first person narrative voice that represent the people of the town, another words that represents us. The gear shifts invisibly and effortlessly, putting us in the story, sometimes next to the character and at times outside observing her impassively.

This short read is superbly observed and rendered. You know only an author with deep compassion can write something so multi-layered and nuanced. A gem of a read of a human tragedy.





Orphan X – Gregg Hurwitz


Holy mackerel! Believe the hype! This is one frigging page-turner! This is my second book in a row about a protagonist who possesses a “very particular set of skills, skills (he) has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make (him) a nightmare for (bad guys)” and this is a class act way sleeker than Derek Haas’ The Silver Bear.

The Nowhere Man is a legendary figure spoken about only in whispers. It’s said that when he’s reached by the truly desperate and deserving, the Nowhere Man can and will do anything to protect and save them.

But he’s no legend.

Evan Smoak is a man with skills, resources, and a personal mission to help those with nowhere else to turn. He’s also a man with a dangerous past. Chosen as a child, he was raised and trained as part of the off-the-books black box Orphan program, designed to create the perfect deniable intelligence assets—i.e. assassins. He was Orphan X. Evan broke with the program, using everything he learned to disappear.

Now, however, someone is on his tail. Someone with similar skills and training. Someone who knows Orphan X. Someone who is getting closer and closer. And will exploit Evan’s weakness—his work as The Nowhere Man—to find him and eliminate him. 

The story centres around the character Evan Smoak, which is not even his real name. He lives steadfastly by his commandments – #10 is “never let an innocent die”. But it is #9’s “always play offense” that will bring a world of hurt on scumbags in his way. Gregg Hurwitz’s prose moves like a speeding bullet gunning for your jugular and it doesn’t rest until a fountain of blood explodes from the fatal wound. From the disquieting opening where a boy begins his dramatic transformation, Orphan X rockets the reader on an exhilarating cat-and-mouse chase with a galore of twists and turns. The characters live and breathe on the page, even though they are not exhaustively developed. In a thriller you won’t want your characters’ back stories dragging the pace down to a literary crawl. Hurwitz knows the thriller genre like the back of his hand and he delivers in spades. Brilliantly conceived, amazingly plotted, the story moves like a summer tentpole action movie. It has some uber-sleek action scenes that will look visceral on the big screen and some super-cool world building scenes that will set it apart from the usual action thrillers. As I typed this I learned that Bradley Cooper’s production company has acquired the film rights and he will be in the lead role. OMG! I can totally see him in it.

Manga: Oldboy & Ikigami


Ten years ago, they took him. He doesn’t know who. For ten years he has been confined in a private prison. He doesn’t know why. For ten years his only contact with the outside world has been a television set and the voice of his jailers. In time, he lost himself… changed… transformed himself into something else… something hard… something lethal. Suddenly one day, his incarceration ends, again without explanation. He is sedated, stuffed inside a trunk, and dumped in a park. When he awakes, he is free to reclaim what’s left of his life… and what’s left is revenge.

After reading this 8-volume I have even more respect for Park Chan-wook who made the 2003 film of the same name. He managed to distill the filmic elements from the manga and made the Mother of all revenge thrillers. He only retained the main spine and nihilistic feel of the manga written by Garon Tsuchiya and illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi. The manga itself is a great read. A twisted cat and mouse game with quite a lot of characters, more than the film. The first 7 volumes are gripping and cerebral stuff but IMHO the final denouement is rather lackluster, unlike the grand operatic crescendo of the film. Still I would say this adult manga comes recommended and the movie which is a masterpiece comes even more highly recommended.


Dear Citizen: You’ve no doubt noticed that the world is a troubled place. People are apathetic, lazy, unmotivated. You’ve probably asked yourself: Why isn’t anything being done to stop this systematic decline? Well, you’ll be happy to know measures are being taken. We, your government, have decided society needs a wake-up call. So beginning today, we will randomly select a different citizen who will be killed within 24 hours of notification. We believe this will help remind all people how precious life is, and how important it is to be productive, active members of society. Thank you for your attention and your cooperation and participation in this new program.

This is both my wife and mine favorite manga for the past couple of years. Each time a new volume is released it is an almost religious experience. We would find a quiet place to devour it – I would of course get first dibs. I am not fully convinced by the big picture of the dystopian premise but the metaphor of what a government does to thumb down its citizens is plain to see. What I love are the short stories. Each one is a three act play – shows a new character and end the first act with Fujimoto delivering the ikigami (a death notice), the second and third act then centre on how the person reacts to his/her final 24 hours and what he/she does about it. Then it usually ends with Fujimoto questioning what he does for a living and the purpose of life. Some of these stories are incredibly powerful and it did something few comics can ever do to me – it made me ponder the greater meaning of life. I started reading this some years back but some of the stories and characters continue to remain in my consciousness. The ending of the final 10th volume feels rushed and it was trying to achieve too many twists and turns, but like I mentioned, it is the short stories that will make you ruminate over the meaning of life. There was a movie made that incorporated a few of the better stories. It is worth checking out.

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared- Jonas Jonasson


I thought Scandinavian writers only write crime, apparently not. This is one of the funniest novels I have read in years. Heck, I can’t even remember the last time I read a funny novel because ‘funny’ is one of the hardest skills to achieve in prose without becoming pretentious.

Desperate to avoid his 100th birthday party, Allan Karlsson climbs out the window of his room at the nursing home and heads to the nearest bus station, intending to travel as far as his pocket money will take him. But a spur-of-the-moment decision to steal a suitcase from a fellow passenger sends Allan on a strange and unforeseen journey involving, among other things, some nasty criminals, a very large pile of cash, and an elephant named Sonya. It’s just another chapter in a life full of adventures for Allan, who has become entangled in the major events of the twentieth century, including the Spanish Civil War and the Manhattan Project. As Allan’s colorful and complex history merges with his present-day escapades, readers will be treated to a new and charmingly funny version of world history and get to know a very youthful old man whose global influence knows no age limit. An international best-seller, this is an engaging tale of one man’s life lived to the fullest.

I love the prose. Jonas Jonasson writes it in a way that is so matter-of-fact and the humour is so black. There are some moments I LOL but on reflection I realized that I was laughing at someone who has died. It is not so much the dying but the manner in which the unfortunate fella is disposed of that is so morbidly hilarious. The book is not just funny, it is intelligently funny because Allan Karlsson is a ‘Forrest Gump’. He didn’t just meet people like Stalin, Harry Truman, Oppenheimer, Mao and other illustrious historical figures, he frigging influenced the history that has become ours. The one I love the best is Harold Einstein… say what? That’s the half brother of Albert Einstein! If you are in the mood for something intelligently funny, grab yourself a bottle of vodka and get ready for a rollicking time. The book actually makes you feel growing old is not so bad after all. Now I have to look for the movie.


The Silver Bear – Derek Haas


Derek Haas is the co-screenwriter of the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma and his debut novel, standing at just over 200 pages, is one lean, muscular and taut page-turner. Being a screenwriter, one can distinctively observe a pumped-up B-grade visual style in his prose. Think of this like Leon: The Professional (1994) sans the emotional heft and John Wick (2014) but with lesser guile and slick.

“A natural killer,” his mentor—a middleman named Vespucci—said he was. He proved it with his first professional hit: a Fifth Circuit Court judge in Boston, executed with a sheet of Saran Wrap in the stairwell of her own courthouse. He’s proved his merit often, usually with a Glock semiautomatic, but he’s improvised too, with his bare hands, the heel of a shoe, knives, even a sewing machine. He is the consummate assassin, at the top of his form, immune to the psychological strains of his chosen profession. He is what the Russians call a Silver Bear. He calls himself Columbus. It’s the name Vespucci gave him, ten years ago, when he discovered a dark, new world of fences, clients, marks, jobs, jack. Not that his real name meant much to him anyway. He never knew his father or his mother, a prostitute who became dangerously involved back in the seventies with an earnest young congressman named Abe Mann, then a rising star in the Democratic Party. The magnetic Abe Mann has since become the Speaker of the House. He is currently running for the Democratic nomination in an exhausting presidential campaign, weaving his way across the country. Columbus is not far behind. But as he pieces together his past and prepares the seamless assassination of his mark, the criminal underworld he has always ruled begins unraveling violently around him.

The thing I like about this is the very lean “take no prisoners” prose written entirely from the assassin’s point of view. Every word counted and amounted to more than most authors tend to land in twice the pages. I also like how it segues into flashbacks rather deftly. The purpose of the flashbacks is to peel layers from the assassin, linking the past to the present. The book reads like I am watching a pulsating action thriller which includes highlights like quick reversals, kickass action and a jaw-dropping denouement. It also manages to get inside the mind of a Silver Bear, the term given by Russians to killers who never miss with their bullets. It is what it is – a quick and no frills entertaining read that isn’t high art, and sometimes that is so refreshing.


I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes


I picked up this tome of a book just before I boarded the plane in Manchester, United Kingdom, for home last year. WHSmith was having a “2 for 1” sale and I just grabbed the two thickest and most well-reviewed novels at the Bestsellers section. I really don’t know man… it is definitely a helluva read, but it is also painfully over-plotted and tediously over-written. Something must be wrong with me because I see thousands of raving reviews and mine won’t be one of them.

Can you commit the perfect crime? Pilgrim is the codename for a man who doesn’t exist. The adopted son of a wealthy American family, he once headed up a secret espionage unit for US intelligence. Before he disappeared into anonymous retirement, he wrote the definitive book on forensic criminal investigation. But that book will come back to haunt him. It will help NYPD detective Ben Bradley track him down. And it will take him to a rundown New York hotel room where the body of a woman is found facedown in a bath of acid, her features erased, her teeth missing, her fingerprints gone. It is a textbook murder – and Pilgrim wrote the book. What begins as an unusual and challenging investigation will become a terrifying race-against-time to save America from oblivion. Pilgrim will have to make a journey from a public beheading in Mecca to a deserted ruins on the Turkish coast via a Nazi death camp in Alsace and the barren wilderness of the Hindu Kush in search of the faceless man who would commit an appalling act of mass murder in the name of his God.

As a screenwriter, Terry Hayes gave us Mad Max 2, Dead Calm, From Hell and a few other noteworthy films. My copy of the massive book (888 pages) has a tagline that says “the only thriller you need to read this year”. For once, this isn’t some rubbish hyperbole tailored to make unsuspecting readers buy the book. But neither would I rave about it, but more of that later.

The premise is quite compellingly drawn – it starts with a gruesome crime scene and it segues to a larger plot involving a killer virus which will bring America to its knees. Hayes doesn’t re-invent the genre but draws two very credible characters that lift up from the pages. We get inside the head of a super-spy and learn what makes him an elite hero and a Jihadist doctor radicalised after watching his father’s beheading. Hayes alternates between the first and third person with an omniscient view of the proceedings. By far and large, it is a page-turner, but there are stuff that just didn’t sit down well with me.

I am of the opinion that suspense thrillers need to have a relentless pace and a succinct prose, every sentence written needs to push the plot forward and nothing much is disposable. But at 888 pages the narrative is drowning in extreme minute details and it could really use some judicious excising. Like why would I need so much languorous details on the characters’ childhood? Hayes’ style also doesn’t involve me a lot because he prefers to tell, tell, tell and tell. The book feels like a helluva lot of shorthands for him to eventually turn it into a movie, and I just checked IMDb, he is in the process of adapting it for a Mathew Vaughn film project.

I am also not convinced by the antagonist’s motivation during the climax. He has spent a good part of his life masterminding a deadly plan of revenge and he throws it all away because of one person. Call me skeptical, but I just can’t believe it. He is just one step away from the biggest terrorist act of all time and he just throws it all away in a snap. And that falling action… all the way to the last page, I thought it would never end. Oh well… maybe the movie will be better.



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