August 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
First published in English in 1999
Dunstan Thorn lives in Wall, a little village where there is a very well-known, physical wall, from which perhaps the village got its name. There is a small opening in the wall, and peering through it, it looks like there’s a beautiful meadow beyond. But no one goes through it, except on one very special day every nine years—the day of the fair. People from the world over would crowd this small village of Wall, all so that they could go through that opening, into the meadow, to see the market by the magic folk.
He meets a beautiful young woman, a faerie, selling some of the most exquisite crystal flowers he has ever seen. He is bewitched, perhaps, and returns to the meadow late that same night to claim his Heart’s Desire. But he is a mere mortal, a man, and cannot stay on this side of the wall. He returns to his village to live his normal life the best he can. Then, nine months later, a newborn in a basket is pushed through the opening from the meadow into the village of Wall. A piece of paper comes with this package, and on it is written: “Tristan Thorn”.
Tristan grows up in the village of Wall, just like an ordinary boy, though sometimes he feels that perhaps he is just a smidge different from the rest. But a boy he is, and like his friends, he is smitten. Losing his heart to the beautiful Victoria Forester, he promises to retrieve a fallen star for her. This, then marks the start of his journey to the world beyond the wall, where he must find this fallen star, and bring it back with him to Wall.
It’s a beautiful book. And it’s odd, because I can’t seem to be able to pinpoint exactly what about it makes it so pretty, but the book itself feels like it’s been sprinkled with stardust, and the magic almost feels normal. It’s an adventure story, one that brings Tristan to places he has never gone before; but also one in which he grows up without anyone ever really noticing it.
The book itself is like magic, I feel. There are so many things I want to say about it, but there are also so many things that I feel are unsayable. Almost as if I’m afraid of losing some of that magic, of making it less magic, simply by mentioning it. It’s playful and serious at the same time; funny and sombre at the same time. Everything is a fantasy, and yet everything is real, all at the same time.
July 29, 2019 § Leave a comment
First published in English in 2005
Nora is a woman that would make so many other women jealous. She’s beautiful, she has a successful career, and she’s standing in a room in New York with the world’s most perfect man. He is very sexy, very successful, and very much in love with her. She’s going away for the weekend, but not before they have some earth-shattering sex. And after a sumptuous after-sex meal, this perfect man proposes to her.
Nora’s life is to die for.
Nora’s weekend trip is to visit a client of hers in Boston. She’s an interior designer, and it seems she makes house calls very often. After all, her clients are mostly extremely rich. But this Boston man is no ordinary client. They wrap their arms around each other the moment they see each other, eager to have skin touch skin, and for some raunchy activity. Boston man is very handsome, very charming, and also very much in love with her.
Boston man is Nora’s husband.
She’s living a double life, and it seems like she’s happy to keep it that way. Both men are extremely wealthy, and obviously more than willing to lavish her with anything her heart desires. But what is it that she really wants by seeing both men? Their love? Their money? Their lives?
It’s no secret that very soon into the book, Nora kills one of them, makes it look like he died from a heart attack, and makes millions with a few clicks on the computer. She knows how it’s done; she’s done this before. But unlike the previous time, now she has someone on her tail. It comes in the form of an insurance agent, and a chance to rake more money from this poor man’s death. An investigation is happening behind her back, trying to unearth the secrets that is Nora Sinclair.
This was a very quick read. It was like how James Patterson himself describes his books, “the pages turn themselves.” But perhaps for me, not necessarily because it was so exciting and full of suspense that I couldn’t wait to find out more, but more due to spontaneous reaction—I’m done with this page, on with the next.
There were, of course, some moments of surprise, and a couple of times when a reveal is something I never expected. The pace was quick, chop chop, beat after beat after beat. And I felt it worked for this kind of story. It is, after all, a murder mystery/thriller. You’d want it to read that way.
In the end, though, I’m not entirely sold.
So why a James Patterson book?
I signed up for an annual subscription with Masterclass earlier this year, and James Patterson is one of the instructors. There are quite a number of courses on writing, with authors like Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman, as well as Dan Brown and R.L. Stine. It’s quite a treasure trove for me, really.
So I finished the James Patterson course, and one of the things he talked about was the importance of having an outline. What was really interesting for me was the fact that he shared one of these outlines with us, and, no surprise, it was the outline for Honeymoon. So of course I had to read the book alongside its initial outline, whether it is to compare notes, or to see if I can tell what thought process was going on, what he kept, what he threw out, what he added in, how he changed things.
While I didn’t love this book, I also don’t think it will be my last James Patterson book. He’s written so many, I’m actually curious to see how his other books read.
July 16, 2019 § Leave a comment
First published in Japanese in 2010
Translated into English by Satako Izumo and Stephen Coates in 2013
Fumihiro Kuki is a young boy of 11 years. He’s summoned into his father’s study, and as he stands there holding on to a toy, his father tells him “some important facts” about his life. They’re not the usual suspects, the “you can be anything you want, as long as you put your mind to it”, or the “study hard and you’ll have a great future”, or the “my business will one day be your business”. None of those.
Instead, his father says this to him:
“Under my guidance, you will become a cancer. A personification of evil, you could say.”
There is a girl in the room together with him. A girl in a white dress. A girl he’s never seen. A girl he will get to know, and love. A girl who becomes the reason behind his every breath, and the source of all his pain. A girl who will one day become a woman, and as a woman become the focus of his obsession.
But he doesn’t know that yet.
What he does know, is what his father is telling him. That his father will show him hell when he turns 14. That he will show him hell again when he turns 15. That he will see hell twice when he turns 16. And this girl in the white dress will play an important role in these hells.
Despite knowing all this, he cannot seem to stay away from this girl, Kaori. It’s almost as if he cannot help his attraction, his need to approach her and get to know her. They grow close, and as his 14th birthday approaches, Fumihiro starts to worry. Just what kind of hell will his father show him? And given his infatuation with Kaori, he decides that he cannot let his father win.
What follows is a story about what this boy decided to do that fateful night, and everything else that happened as a consequence of that action.
I was really taken in by the premise, or the blurb on the back cover of the book. When a child is told, literally, that the sole purpose of his existence is so that he can cause so much misery in the world that he would be known as a “cancer”, how does that boy grow up? How would a conversation like this affect the way he perceives the world? What kind of adult would he turn out to be?
So many interesting thoughts came out of reading that single paragraph, and yet about halfway into the book, or maybe some time earlier, I started to get the feeling that things were not going deep enough. It felt like there were so many dark corners that the story skimmed past, not really taking the time to peer into the dust and try to make sense of the mess that must be hidden in there. The story itself was still interesting enough to keep me turning the pages, but somehow I felt like I wanted more. More of what? I’m not exactly sure. But to my mind, a child like Fumihiro has got to have dark skeletons hidden somewhere inside, that there must surely be some dark and twisted feelings that were tangled up, waiting to be explored. Why didn’t we go there?
Then towards the ending, it got even more bizarre for me. Characters were talking to me, to each other, about their take on what life was all about, about the world, about how darkness mingled with hope, about how important it was to be able to move away from misery. Why are they telling me these things through conversations between themselves? Point blank and straightforward. Why?
So many complex ideas and concepts. I would have loved this book.
But, in all honesty, I didn’t.
May 20, 2019 § Leave a comment
First published in English in 1967
Rosemary and Guy are a newly-wed couple looking for a place of their own to move into and eventually build a family in. Rosemary in particular has her sights set on The Bramford, a classic apartment building with all the charm and romance of Victorian detail. Somehow, as luck (or un-luck, depending on how you look at it) would have it, an existing tenant of one of the apartments passes away, leaving Rosemary and Guy with the opportunity to view and put down an offer.
They get it, of course, and quickly make plans to move in and redecorate the place. Rosemary is excited about this, and shares the good news with Hutch, a father-figure she adored and had immense respect for. Hutch, however, is less than enthusiastic, telling her tales of past “accidents” that seemed to happen at the Bramford at a rate much too high for comfort.
Despite this, Rosemary decides to move in anyway. After all, these stories were just rumours, surely, pure coincidences. In this day and age, who still believes in stories like this?
Rosemary then meets a young girl, Terry, who lives just next door. Terry used to be homeless, she tells Rosemary, but the kind elderly couple, Minnie and Roman Castevet, took her in and was most kind to her. Very soon after that, though, Terry commits suicide by jumping off the building. This upsets the young couple, of course, but this tragic incident is also what introduces them to the Castevets.
A dinner or two later, Guy starts to enjoy spending with their neighbours, and although Rosemary finds it odd in the beginning, she writes it off as Guy finally finding the father-figure he never had growing up. Also, it was good news all around, with Guy landing more acting jobs than he ever has, and Rosemary getting pregnant with their first baby.
But the feeling that something is not quite right doesn’t leave Rosemary alone. There is a background hum somewhere in her head that perhaps this is not what pregnancy is supposed to be like, that perhaps her relationship with Guy has changed somewhat, that her neighbours are simply too accommodating and helpful to be normal.
But her doctor tells her that all pregnancies are different and unique. Guy tells her that he’s simply preoccupied with rehearsals and shows, now that he’s finally getting somewhere and becoming “someone”. And who in their right mind would refuse kindness from anyone?
In the introduction that Chuck Palahniuk wrote for this edition of the book (2011, by Corsair), he writes:
And reading the first two thirds of this book, “Rosemary’s Baby”, you don’t know whether to laugh or to worry. To admit fear would be to lose face and risk being branded as a superstitious rube.
It was a real battle.
For Rosemary, it was a battle in her head, whether to believe what she could see, or what she could feel. Who she could believe, and who she couldn’t. Whether to listen to her gut, or to believe that things like that don’t happen anymore.
For me, it was also a battle. But it was a slightly different one. It felt like I could see everything that was coming. I could see everything that Rosemary could see, but with the benefit of not being her, not tied down with her commitments and beliefs. I could believe what she couldn’t bring herself to, and yet I didn’t want to. Could it be possible? Surely that was the only explanation, but was it believable?
And despite knowing what I knew, and believing what I believed, I also wanted to believe what Rosemary believed—that it simply couldn’t be so. But as the story unravels and Rosemary can no longer ignore truth, what Chuck Palahniuk says at the start of his introduction comes back quite starkly: The Enemy Is Everyone.
May 16, 2019 § 2 Comments
First published in Swedish in 2012
Translated into English by Henning Koch in 2013
Ove is fifty-nine.
He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s torch.
When we first meet Ove, he’s trying to buy an iPad. It quickly becomes obvious that he doesn’t belong in this world of technology—he calls the iPad an O-pad, and insists that the salesperson should throw in a keyboard, too.
He’s grumpy, he never smiles, and he kicks things to make sure they are still rooted in their spots like they are supposed to be. It seems that he isn’t friendly with any of his neighbours, and he follows signs and instructions to a fault. He comes across almost as an obsessively disagreeable old man, hell-bent on being irritable and unforgiving.
And in his own mind, surely no one can blame him. He believes that he’s surrounded by idiots who cannot and will not read signs that are clear as day, and clumsy people who can’t even reverse a trailer in proper fashion.
What has happened to the world that no one cares to be proper anymore?
At first, I wondered how it was possible to warm up to this man. But very very soon, he became my favourite person in the world. He was honest, not only to himself, but to the world around him. He was straightforward and frank, so adamant about living the right way.
And yet, he was trying to die.
I don’t know if bittersweet or sad is the better word to describe the overall feeling of the book. It’s a story about Ove and how he deals with all that grief after the love of his life dies. It’s also a story about Ove and Sonja and the life that they had, about how this woman had been his everything, and how everything was just enough.
People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was colour. All the colour he had.
The more I read about him and the life that he could no longer share with Sonja, the more I wanted to crawl into the pages and hug him. But I also knew that Ove was not one who would tolerate complete strangers coming up and physically manhandle him. So I kept my distance, as much as I could. I tried to not pry, to ask questions when it wasn’t yet time for me to know the answers. I let him tell me his story, at a pace he was comfortable with. I waited for him to drop hints and reveal other parts of himself.
I felt my heart cry more and more every time he made his way to Sonja’s grave.
“I miss you,” he whispers.
April 17, 2019 § Leave a comment
First published in Japanese in 1935
Translated into English by Phyllis Birnbaum in 1989
Yuasa Jōji is an artist, and he has just returned from abroad. Now, he lives with his wife and child, though not in the way one would expect a husband to live with his family—he lives upstairs alone, while his wife and child live downstairs. They rarely speak, unless there is someone at the door for him, and his wife comes up to get him.
Jōji then goes on to live his life, the way he thinks he wants to. He roamed the streets and spent time with his friends, all the while looking at the pretty girls and women surrounding him. One day, he gets a note on his desk, a note from a woman he has never met, saying that she would like to meet him. He ignores this message at first, but the notes arrive daily without fail, so he finally succumbs to curiosity and goes to see this woman, Takao.
Very soon after they meet and spend the night at a hotel room, the woman goes missing. Jōji does not believe that he has any responsibility to bear in this case, but when two of Takao’s friends come to meet him over this matter, he changes his mind. He will take some responsibility and attempt to look for her, if only because he is completely enchanted by one of her friends, Tsuyuko.
The fire that drives his feelings for Tsuyuko is obvious. His passion is overwhelming, dictating his every move, decision, and thought. This does not bother him, instead he feels that it is natural for him to feel so strongly for this young woman, for she is the love of his life.
As is with all love stories so full of passion and uncommon sense, they are met with challenges and obstacles from the word “go”. Is it so impossible for them to be with each other? Is that too much to ask?
Told entirely from Jōji’s point of view, the story is a whirlwind. The author does not linger on the emotions that clearly calls the shots in Jōji’s life, but instead tells us what he does in response to the feelings that are beating so hard in his chest. From those actions, we glean what we can of his feelings. And those feelings are strong and powerful, for how else could we explain his compulsion and complete disregard for logic and common sense?
Does he understand fully the consequences of his actions? Maybe, but they don’t matter to him. What matters is his very urgent and immediate need to see the love of his life, to be with her, to never leave her side.
It is a love story that perhaps in today’s world is all the more impossible, taking into consideration how we place value in suppressing our emotions, and keeping “sane”. For to love, the way Jōji loved, is perhaps a little crazy. But somehow, despite our efforts to be “sensible”, we have in our hearts the potential to love the way Jōji did. And in all honesty, isn’t that the best way to love?
April 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
First published in English in 2018
“It’s a lot of fluff.”
That was what I told my dad when I was about 60 pages into the book. I casually left my bookmark where it was, and passed the book to him so that he could have a go at it. I said what I said as a sort of warning, because of what I understand of my dad’s reading preferences, this didn’t seem like a book he could fully immerse himself in.
If I felt it was a lot of fluff, chances were, he would find it slightly unbearable.
Surprisingly, that was not the case.
He finished the book in less than a week, and when I asked him what he thought about it after, he held the book in his hand, paused for a moment to really think about it, and said to me, “I thought it was quite sensible.”
Not quite the reaction I was expecting. So I thought to myself, maybe I was too quick to judge. Maybe I should continue reading the book and see where it takes me.
The entire title of the book is “Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom For A Perfectly Imperfect Life”. The author, Beth Kempton, attempts to explain the concept of wabi sabi to us, and on page 4 itself, this is what she writes:
As I’ve said, trying to articulate a definition of wabi sabi is a tricky endeavour. It’s a bit like love—I can tell you what I think it is and how it feels to me, but it’s only when you feel it for yourself that you really know.
And that, for me, rather sums up the book in its entirety quite well. It is about trying to explain something that is supposed to be personal and intimate, something innate in our beings, something that means different things to different people.
When I got to about page 120, my brother saw me reading the book and asked what I thought of it.
“It’s a lot of fluff.”
That was still what I thought of it. It was a lot of fluff. Much more than what I’m used to. But I could see where my dad had a point. It was sensible. For much of the book, I felt like I knew what she was talking about, like I understood why she was espousing what she was.
The book was “nice”. And again, this was something I am simply not used to in the books I typically choose to read. (And as I’m writing this, I’m starting to wonder, why is it I tend to choose books that lean towards the “darker” side? What does that say about me?)
Yet at the same time, I also felt like all this is old news. Kempton was telling me things that I could feel deep down that I already know, and have always known. Why I know those things, I cannot tell, but I know that I know them.
The forest does not care what your hair looks like. The mountains don’t move for any job title. The rivers keep running, regardless of your social-media following, your salary or your popularity. The flowers keep on blooming, whether or not you make mistakes. Nature just is, and welcomes you, just as you are.
And what surprised me the most, was when I finished the book and closed the covers, I sat there with the book on my lap for 15 minutes. It was near midnight, my parents had gone to bed, and the only sound I could hear was the ticking of the clock on the dining room wall. I could feel myself going through everything Kempton shared in the book, from recognising our flaws, to knowing when to walk away, and learning to pace ourselves.
And I knew that the book was not there to teach me something new. It was there to remind me of something buried deep down in my heart.