Malice – Keigo Higashino

January 13, 2021 § 1 Comment

First published in Japanese in 1996
Translated into English by Alexander O. Smith with Elye Alexander in 2014

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I’ve been having a hard time finding my focus and inner calm to do much reading in the past month or so. That’s more or less the story of 2020, to be honest, for most of the year at least.

So to get myself started on the right foot, I knew I had to find a book that was by an author I was familiar with, whose style I knew I would be able to grasp and follow quickly. And for that, I chose Keigo Higashino’s Malice. I’ve read two of his books in the past year, and his writing style was one that made for easy reading. That, and mystery/crime/thrillers are always page turners for me.

Malice is written from two points of view, both in the first person, both as notes or accounts of what events have occurred. In the first chapter, Osamu Nonoguchi takes us back to the day the incident took place, though he doesn’t immediately tell us what that incident is. He introduces us to his friend, Kunihiko Hidaka, who he visits at his home for the last time before Hidaka moves to Canada. He tells us about a stranger he meets in Hidaka’s house, even when Hidaka’s not home. He then discovers (as do we) that this stranger is a neighbour whose cat has recently died. He shares with us the shock he felt when he learns that Hidaka was actually guilty of poisoning the cat himself.

Then 20 pages in, we finally know what that incident was. Hidaka was found murdered in a locked room in his locked house.

What follows is the classic cat-and-mouse story, where Detective Kyoichiro Kaga tries to figure out exactly what had happened that day, and how Nonoguchi, who is the murderer in his mind, managed to get himself an alibi.

There is, of course, a twist in the middle of the book, which to me is just classic Higashino. Publishers Weekly called this book “fiendishly clever”, which I agree to wholeheartedly. There was this feeling that I constantly got as I was reading the book, like there was something just at the corner of my eye that I can’t really see, but if I turn to look at it proper, it disappears. Yet its existence cannot be denied. And when Higashino shines a light at the end of the book to what the truth of the incident really is, that feeling was immediately rewarded.

I’m glad I decided on this book to start the year.

Summing Up 2020

December 31, 2020 § 6 Comments

This has been a difficult year, to completely understate the obvious. At the same time, I also somehow feel like I can’t believe today is already the last day of 2020. I want to ask, where has all that time gone, and within that same time, what have I actually done and achieved?

I take a look at my Reading Goal at the beginning of the year, and I feel sort of shy to see how far I am from that initial goal. 52 books a year. That was my aim. One book a week. And I told myself that if at any time I feel overwhelmed, maybe I could go for shorter books, novellas, in between.

Then some time in July, I realised I was not going to make that goal in any way or form. So I cut it down to half. 26 books a year. That’s one book every two weeks. No matter how I looked at it, it felt completely doable. I am, after all, a fast reader. Surely I could read one book in two weeks.

And then today, I look at the list of books that I’ve read, and it is at 15. Not shameful, but that’s only slightly more than one book a month. Given all the time that we’ve had to spend indoors this year, one would have thought there would be more reading, not less.

But as the universe has constantly been showing us, who can truly say? Just because I am physically at home does not mean I’m in the right frame of mind to do meaningful reading. And if the act of reading is not meaningful, then why do it at all? In fact, this applies across the board. If we’re to do anything at all, it had best be meaningful.

So here’s where we take a closer look at the books I managed to read this year. I started the year on a high note, with the beautifully written novel by Tan Twan Eng. I had wanted to read it before watching the film they made, but after reading it, I no longer wanted to watch the film. The prose and descriptions in the book were so beautiful that I didn’t know how I would feel if the film couldn’t live up to it.

That book was followed by two Haruki Murakami books. He’s a favourite author of mine, and it’s been some time since I’ve last indulged in his wacky, quirky world. And while the worlds he create are still as bizarre as always, I have found it easier and easier to dive in and immerse myself completely. To suspend reality and believe every single word Murakami puts on the page. That’s the best way to read his books, I feel. Just let him take the lead.

There were a couple of books that didn’t quite hit the mark for me this year. Both Black Chalk and The Fire Gospel were not as good as I had wanted them to be. Meanwhile, the other books scattered throughout the year were either just right, or fell a little below expectations.

That doesn’t make for a bad reading year. I think what this year has given me in terms of books, is that I have read outside of my comfort zone. And it is precisely because of this that I’ve had some mishits, which comes with the territory of reading what I’m not used to.

There are also a couple of books that have been on my nightstand since the start of the year. Neil Gaiman’s The American Gods, and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Both are huge books, heavy in content and prose. Both are brilliant, but my frame of mind has been kind of on and off, especially during the latter part of the year.

Moving into the new year, I’m really hoping to finish both books, and get started on some good ones as well. I don’t know what this year holds for me, or for us. But I’ll keep doing what I do. I’ll still plan to read as much as I can. But my focus will be less on how many books I read, but how meaningful my reading is. 52 books a year, one book a week, is not impossible. It is still the goal. The only difference now is that I know better than to be ashamed of not achieving what I set out to do. Because, after all, in this unpredictable world that we’re living in: Who can say?

Denis Ever After – Tony Abbott

December 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2018

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Denis was seven years old when he died. It is now five years later, and he’s gotten used to being in Port Haven with GeeGee. Lately, though, there have been sounds and noises coming from within himself, and it’s been causing sleepless nights for him. He talks to GeeGee about this, and he’s told that this means someone from the living world is holding on to him, holding on so tightly and intentionally that it’s literally grating at him on the inside.

To make all this noise stop, he’s got to go see who it is who’s calling out to him from the living world. He’s got to try and get them to let him go, so that he can remain peacefully in Port Haven, until the time comes for him to move on.

He’s got to pay a visit to the living world. And when he does, he finds out that it’s his twin brother, Matt, who’s been holding on to him, calling out to him every night. Matt has learned something about Denis’ death. He’s learned that his parents have secrets that could be related to Denis’ death. He’s learned that Denis’ death was shrouded in mystery. And with all this new information, he’s determined to find out the truth—which is why he’s been calling out to Denis.

Now Denis has to help his living brother solve the puzzle, the mystery surrounding his own death. But he doesn’t remember. And it seems the more he gets involved with the living, the more difficult it may be for Matt to let him go in the end.

It’s an intriguing story, I feel. And there are many meaningful elements as well. How it feels like to lose someone so close and so dear, and how the circumstances of the loss can sometimes cause more pain. How do we move on? And how do we hold on to memories without causing more hurt to those of us who are still living?

I liked the book. And I’m also very thankful for it, because it has somehow gotten me out of the reading slump I’ve been in for the past couple of months. It’s a simple read, very easy to follow, and it’s very well-done.

All-in-all, though, I feel like I wanted more. I wanted more pain, more anguish, more complex feelings and internal conflicts. I wanted to go so much deeper.

Keigo Higashino: A Pair of Books

October 8, 2020 § Leave a comment

The Devotion of Suspect X
First published in Japanese in 2005
Translated into English by Alexander O. Smith in 2011

I read this book knowing that it’s a popular book that’s been made into a movie (or several). My partner told me about the film and said it was interesting, encouraging me to watch it, which then got me interested in reading the book first.

The way the story was constructed got me hooked almost immediately. Within the first few chapters, the murder had already happened, and we all knew who had committed it. So instead of the classic whodunit plot line, it goes down a totally different route. How do they get away with it? And how will the detectives find out?

It has been a long while since the last time I finished a book in one sitting. I simply haven’t been in the right frame of mind, and there’s been too much going on to really focus. But this book simply sucked me in from the start, and it was so easy to fall into the plot.

That isn’t to say that the story wasn’t completely unexpected. I had a small, extremely tiny inkling of what might have been the trick that they employed to get away with the murder, but I never was able to pin it down exactly. Which is also part of what made this book such an interesting read. You can feel the answer just within your grasp, but also just far enough that you can’t really see the full picture.

Then, of course, I had to read Higashino’s second book that I had on my own shelves, which so happened to be the second book in the “Detective Galileo” series.

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Salvation of a Saint
First published in Japanese in 2008
Translated into English by Alexander O. Smith in 2012

His second book follows a similar pattern. We know from the beginning who the real suspect is. And in this story, Higashino introduces a new detective who sees things from a completely different perspective from the leading detective on the case. This not only creates a lot of tension, but also gives us two very contrasting views on who the suspect might be, and why.

But unlike the first book, we don’t really know how the suspect managed to pull off the murder. Somewhere along the line, we’re inclined to think that maybe she isn’t the suspect after all. But that’s really just throwing us into the fog, because of course she is. We just need to figure out how she did it.

This story had a lot more curveballs than the first, and definitely much more difficult to anticipate. So when the answer came, it was a lot more surprising. Was this then necessarily a better story? I wouldn’t be so quick to say so. Precisely because it had more curveballs, it also became a less straightforward story, and some parts of the story felt like they were intentionally put in there to draw your attention elsewhere. They felt less organic.

But it was still a great read. I can see why Keigo Higashino is such a popular author.

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo

September 17, 2020 § Leave a comment

Published in English and Chinese in 2008
Translation into the English by Rebecca Morris and Pamela Casey

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We live in a world today where change is not only constant, it is also happening at unbelievable speeds. Many 20-year-olds today don’t even know of a time when the internet didn’t exist. It’s something that really shows our age, whether we would like to admit it or not.

So it was interesting for me to read the author’s acknowledgements at the back of the book, where she mentioned briefly how difficult she found it to translate the original work, which was first published in Chinese in 2000, almost ten years before. She said:

… I was no longer completely happy with the original Chinese text. Ten years on, I found I didn’t agree with the young woman who had written it. Her vision of the world had changed, along with Beijing and the whole of China.

~ Xiaolu Guo

I did a little bit of a Google Search, and found out that the original Chinese text was titled 《芬芳的37°2》, which literally translates to “Fen Fang’s 37.2“, an indication of the heat that engulfs her. Perhaps also an indication of the passion of youth that burns within.

I remember having read and loved one of Xiaolu Guo’s other books, The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, and therefore had a rather higher expectation than usual for this book. And it didn’t disappoint. Written in 20 different chapters, all of which start with a rather unrelated photograph, and each chapter depicting parts of Fen Fang’s life that, while sequential, don’t always tie up nicely with one another, this book read very much like a young person’s heart racing into her future, despite having no idea what lay in the steps in front of her.

The title of the book tells you exactly what to expect. These 20 chapters are fragments of her youth, her hunger for something more than just the typical, her yearning for meaning beyond making it to the next day. What else does life have in store for her? Does she even have a say?

Xiaolu Guo has a way of writing (and her translators have obviously done a great job) that pulls you in without really using any methodical tactics. It’s like sitting down and listening to someone speak, the way the words flow on the page are simple and easy, and before you know it, you’re already on Chapter 4.

Do I relate to Fen Fang? Maybe, and maybe not. After all, I’m no longer 17 or 21 or 28. Nor was I born and raised in a rural village, and I never had to make a long trip to the city to try and find my place under the sky. But that feeling deep inside, that hunger to know more, to have more, to be more, is something so universal, I feel, that I would be lying to myself if I said I didn’t see even a little bit of myself in Fen Fang.

And that’s really the magic, the brilliance, of Xiaolu Guo’s writing. Her ability to create characters that are real, flawed, so individualistic, yet so general she could be anybody. So grounded in the harsh reality of the world today, I wish I could give her wings.

Sum up: May 2020

June 4, 2020 § 1 Comment

After Sweet Bean Paste, I’ve only managed to finish a couple of books, and before I knew it, it was June.

Time has flied by.

I’m not sure what inspired me to pick H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, but I have had enough reading experience so far to know better than to question the forces at work. This slim volume was written a long, long time ago (1895, that’s more than a century!), but somehow, it didn’t read like ancient text. I’ll be eternally grateful for that, because I know I very often shy away from the classics because I’m afraid I might not be able to fully grasp the language.

It’s a simple enough story, and one that has been told and retold in all shapes and forms throughout the years. It’s interesting for me, though, that I have never once read or watched any of the remakes/retellings of this well-loved classic. Perhaps that’s a blessing in disguise. I went into the book having nothing in my mind’s eye, and left it with some very vivid images implanted in my head of the Eloi and Morlocks that no movie will ever be able to erase.

I’ve also managed to finish Sophie Hardach’s The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages. I remember like it was yesterday, when I picked this book from a mountain of other books at the Book Sale of the Year. I had found the title extremely tantalising, and did not even bother to read the blurb. And while I won’t say that the book has been disappointing, it also somehow didn’t achieve my expectations of it. Perhaps my expectations were ill-placed.

Yet at the same time, reading such a story about illegal immigrants and terrorists and the lives of those who fall through the cracks seems only too eerily apt. In Malaysia, a country where a majority of us are descendants of immigrants, we have somehow managed to conveniently forget our roots. Especially during this Covid-19 pandemic, we have learned to draw arbitrary lines in the sand to separate the “us” and the “them”, as if it were even possible.

It is sad that so much has changed, and yet, nothing really has.

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Hope everyone is keeping as well as possible under the circumstances. The world needs more kindness.

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