Literature

Malice by Keigo Higashino

malice.jpg

I don’t often get the opportunity to walk into a bookstore and pick a book randomly off the shelf to buy. There are two reasons: 1) My own doing as I am either directly targeting a library book, used book sale, or online shop for a specific title and 2) retail books are quite pricey. But I went in with the mission of selecting a book on a whim. The first book I tried was a Swedish thriller with solid writing but uninspired plot and then the second attempt was Malice by Keigo Higashino.

I haven’t read a ton of Japanese literature, especially anything contemporary, but this whet my appetite to continue down a Japanese rabbit hole.

The novel touches on a character element that I really enjoy and that is the unreliable narrator. Also, Keigo Higashino clearly has been influenced by a personal favorite unreliable narrator story of mine, “In a Grove,” by Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.

Malice is a locked room sort of mystery with a famous and accomplished author being found murdered in his home office. The front door to the house is locked and the two people, his wife and friend, both have solid alibis even though they are most likely suitable suspects. The novel alternates between the narratives of the aforementioned friend and the detective working the case. The murderer is fingered early on, but the mystery is focused more on the why and how.

The book is layered and with each new section, something is pulled away and revealed, but the new information also frustrates the case as sometimes what the detective finds out muddles what is already known. I also say Malice is like “In a Grove” as there is a testimonial aspect to the plot with people beyond the friend and detective testifying, so to speak.

My experience with Japanese literature is limited, but by the few examples I’ve read, the writing is not heavy. A reader feels as if every word is chosen for a reason and with Malice, the narrative didn’t feel clunky like many procedurals can appear. Of course, there is a constraint when an unclear mystery is presented, but I didn’t feel as if the gears were grinding and often crime novels can read very fabricated (I sometimes cringe at the bad writing).

Even if you are not one for crime or detective novels, I would still recommend this to you. I get a bit bored with this tired characterization of detectives as being grumpy, chain smoking loners who always jog in hooded sweatshirts at night. The detective in Malice is a former middle school geography teacher. Also, even though this book published in the US in 2014, it originally came out in the mid-1990s in Japan and the reference and reliability of a fax machine is delightfully antiquated. It is ann interesting thought to consider how storytelling must change as technology changes as well.

Has anyone else read books by Keigo Higashino? It appears that he is quite prolific and popular in Japan. I must admit, I reached out for this book while gazing through the shelf looking for Patricia Highsmith books when I saw this cover. The description and the fact that he’s been nominated for Edgar Awards piqued my interest.

A Couple of Bookish Apps for Literature Lovers

I found these two literature loving apps recently. I wanted to try them out for a little bit before sharing my thoughts (I don’t use my phone for more than telephoning, twittering, audiobooking, and spotifying, so there was a near possibility I would lose interest).

Serial Reader

This app’s mission is to help you read those classics you always wanted to crack, but the idea of dedicating huge swaths of time to conquering Moby-Dick is a hard one to overcome (although, I am an evangelical for the greatness of this novel and now that US publishers insist all novels be 500 pages, this great beast is not so monstrous anymore).

You choose which book or books you are interested in reading and everyday the app delivers a short nugget of the text. Each section is called a serial and besides easily digesting these 9-13 minute sections, the experience is akin to the way readers used to experience fiction when books were serialized in magazines.

Serial Reader is free, but there is a premium version with a few nifty extra features. Once I read through my first book, I’m sure I’ll ante up the $2.99, if anything as a donation to the creator. The app itself is stable, easy to figure out, and crisp. I really appreciate the lack of fuss.

I’m currently reading The Castle of Otranto, which is perfect for serialization. It is an overwrought, glorified soap opera of a novel and receiving daily short chunks is making the reading experience even more engrossing. I can also see Serial Reader’s advantage with texts that have more difficult language; it allows the reader to focus on a portion instead of being overwhelmed by several hundred pages.

COMPLETELY RECOMMEND


 

Litsy

It would be reductive to define Litsy as Goodreads meets Tumblr. Although, it does crib general ideas from both platforms. I love Goodreads, I find it very useful to keep track of what I’m reading and how long it takes to finish a book. Occasionally, I appreciate its algorithmic recommendations. With Tumblr, I am less enthused. I still don’t understand its appeal and consider it a sewer.

So, going in to Litsy I was skeptical because of the latter.

Its user base is not nearly as large as Goodreads, but still has a plentiful base, which includes both individuals and well-known publishing houses. The snippet sharing that is common on Tumblr is far more enjoyable on Litsy. Many of the users have interesting and helpful thoughts about books and for this, the app succeeds at being a venue for finding new reads.

It’s not entirely easy to find new users to follow and can be a little clumsy when it comes to user interaction, but overall, an enjoyable bit of literature love. In the very least, it’s a suitable time waster and it is filled with content that far exceeds the ephemera that makes up Tumblr. It’s not a super-platform like Goodreads, but this isn’t really the intention. It does, however, serve as another place for readers to find recommendations for books that might otherwise elude Goodreads’ algorithm. Also, because the user base is smaller, it’s easier to tame the reviews for a book that would otherwise have thousands on Goodreads.

(It’s free and brought to you by the people behind the Out of Print clothing company.)

RECOMMEND

 

 

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

big little lies.jpg

Back in October, I saw a short one minute long trailer for a new mini-series coming to HBO. Whoever created it was spot on. I was hooked. I had that feeling that marketers shoot for: I need this in my life now. The trailer ended with the note that the series is based on a book. When I looked it up, based on the cover, it appeared very much in the “chick lit” genre and perhaps, out of my normal reading purview. But this year, I decided that I was reading outside of my normal zone and in doing so, it has paid off. Especially for this book.

I also found it surprising that Stephen King, of all people, blurbed the book. His brief sentiment is exactly right. Big Little Lies was a dark, mysterious, funny, adroit novel. It was contemporary commercial fiction at its best.

Somehow Liane Moriarty has written a literary thriller that centers around the parents and children of a kindergarten class in suburban Australia. Immediately, a reader can see why Stephen King liked it. There are flash forwards to police interrogations, hinting at a crime that has taken place at a school function. It was reminiscent of the structure of King’s great first novel Carrie.

I often don’t read commercial fiction, because simply, the writing is tedious and abysmal (I imagine myself typing this with my nose in the air), but I unabashedly loved this. I also really recommend this book as a way to get back into using your brain. I’ve heard from many people that the past weeks have been hard and doing anything constructive, even reading or watching television, has been extremely difficult….

*

While reading this book, I kept thinking that we are in a heyday of excellent crime novels written by women. I generally prefer the types that don’t feature a detective as the main character and are not part of a series. For example, I’ve enjoyed the imperfect Ruth Ware novels and some of Laura Lippman books are decent, but I still maintain the queen bee to be Megan Abbott (I reviewed her 2014 novel The Fever). Over the summer, she was interviewed on Inside the New York Times Book Review podcast, where she made a case that women writers have made a space for themselves within the genre. Abbott, I say, is an expert at “girl voice” and it’s so enjoyable reading. (aside- if I had the reading time, I would love to delve into Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels.)

On the most recent episode of the NYT Book Review podcast, Pamela Paul talks about her recent pleasure read, All Things Cease to Appear, which she described as a literary thriller. I’ve downloaded the audiobook hoping to start soon.

One aspect of these type of books that I usually enjoy is the closeness to the characters and plot. Attention to writing on the sentence level is very important to me (this year, I’ve begun reading James Lasdun, whose books are thin and mysterious, and the writing is so enviable). I’ve never been drawn to hysterical realism, these big books that are more ambitious than anything else. They seem more concern with their “bigness.”

*

But back to this HBO series. It’s developed by David E. Kelley, so I’m hoping he carries over the humor and dark, sharp dialogue and narrative. The book takes place in a beach community in Australia, but the series looks as if it has been transplanted to the craggy and beautiful Monterrey, California. Reese Witherspoon, who stars in the series, also serves as a producer and if you look at her past and upcoming projects, she is very interested in developing films and TV shows from books by women authors.

Last week, HBO released a slightly longer trailer, which shows a little more of the characters and plot. You can watch it on YouTube here, but below is the original one that I watched that got me intrigued (kudos again to the trailer designer!).

The Ghosts of Winter

Ghost stories are grand any time of year, but they’re particularly alluring during the wintry months. Days are darker and shorter, colder and crisper. Our eyes start to close more easily in winter. This is the perfect time for tales of hauntings and ghouls.

The Dead of Winter This is a children’s book that the algorithmic gods of Goodreads thought I would be interested in and those gods were right. I don’t normally have a chance to read children’s literature and when I do, my adult-reader-brain has trouble squaring the lightweight plots and writing. True, this novel will feel breezy to a grownup, but it was still really enjoyable to read a children’s book that was well-written and clearly influenced by Gothic literature. Of course, we will see the moving parts of this ghost story, but hopefully children will get chills while reading of this haunted house.

Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof You know you have a good roommate when he or she buys you books and an even better one when they gift you books about ghosts. This gem was sent by an excellent past roommate one Christmas and I can’t recommend it enough for the avid reader. It’s non-fiction that will appeal to both lovers of fiction and non-fiction, alike. Roger Clarke is a witty and astute writer, and he humorously serves up historical ghost stories and reasonings. Clarke is a believer, but he is extremely skeptical.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places You might be quick to lump this title and the aforementioned Ghosts together, but besides the umbrella theme of ghosts and haunting, they are very different. The writing here is a little more “academic,” for lack of a better term (but still pop enough for a general audience). American readers, certainly, will be familiar with a bunch of what’s being investigated (American History, is in the subtitle, of course), but Colin Dickey does bring in new info. For example, he proffers an aspect of the Salem witch hysteria that is lesser known: land disputes. Families were in business dealings and disagreements with each other over properties, and certain people were fingered as witches when they weren’t playing nice with the others.

**

What are you reading during these wintry months? Any ghost stories in your pile?

**

Potpourri for $200, Alex

potpourri

A grey, opaque endless skyline seems about right.

Like most, these past days have been a mixture of anxiety, stress, anger, and shame (and some more words; please insert your favorites). Besides our electoral PTSD we’re all dealing with from the past year and a half, the onslaught of the rapid and flawed news cycle can make anyone’s heart explode.

Hyperbole aside, it’s been rough days. For the time being, I’m generally staying away from the news, letting my eyes scroll over my newsfeed. Somehow I’ve become more tolerant of inane articles about technology (read: Wired). These briefly distracted me from the racists and bigots who are being given powerful positions and platforms.

For a while, consuming books and television felt hollow and frustrating, writing useless. I have no doubt that others feel or have felt this way recently. So, I leave you with internet potpourri for a momentary mental health break.

 

Froust Questionnaire, 10/12/2016

n. Proust, or more like the Froust Questionnaire (as in Fake Proust)

inhabited painting

Reading HorizonThe Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker. This was recently recommended as a page-turner. It is, plain and simple. It is not perfect, but Dicker knows how to plot and keep readers engaged. What fun.

Audiobooking: Ready to start A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Writing: Have a few pieces still in their infant stages. Everything is a bit too abstract right now for my liking.

ObsessingWestworld. Has anyone else seen it? I was skeptical at first and almost didn’t watch it, but I saw the first two episodes and think it’s really intriguing. Because it’s HBO, of course there is annoying female nudity, but it sort of works here (but I argue that you still don’t need it; especially, considering that the male nudity is close to nil).

Brainstorming: Ideas for fundraising for online magazine. This is a very hard task.

Procrastinating: Need to read submissions for aforementioned online magazine. Doing it today! I swear.

Watching: Scream Queens (does anyone else watch? If not, you’re missing out)

Disappointing: The Sunday night presidential debate for so many expected reasons.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

the-woman-in-cabin-10

Since writing Monday’s post about the mediocre year in book publishing, I finally have a winner. Three cheers and all that!

I read Ruth Ware’s debut novel In a Dark, Dark Wood earlier this year and even though it was so completely preposterous, I thought it was great. Reese Witherspoon even scooped it up for an upcoming film.

Ware’s writing was great and she certainly knows how to keep a reader turning pages, so I was extremely excited when her newest was released. I read this one in two days. I couldn’t put it down and read it into the night to see how it finally ended.

Its premise was reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and 4:50 From Paddington by Agatha Christiein that a woman–an unreliable narrator for a number of reasons–witnesses a crime that no one believes. There is no body and the more and more she digs, the more the other characters disbelieve her. She is labeled hysterical.

There have been more of these novels–that I dub the women who know too much–probably since the popularity of Gone, Girl. It was a fine read (I was certainly like everyone else on the subway that summer with my nose in the book), but it is the lesser of them all.

Crime and thriller are genres I enjoy when done extremely well. It’s unfair to see excellent books pigeon-holed into a genre ghetto instead of celebrated as literature. Why are we punishing financially successful books?

With that said, there are PLENTY of crap crime books and thrillers. Like all genre, some times the plot synopsis pitch is more interesting the actual composed sentences and for some reason, it is sadly a genre inundated with terrible writing. If a reader is able to find the gems, they will surely be rewarded.

I argue that all books are mystery books. If there is no question the author proposes that needs to be investigated in some way, what’s the point?

Besides The Woman in Cabin 10, I devoured Megan Abbott’s newest title You Will Know Me. Abbott is a stunning writer and I reviewed her book The Fever here a couple of years ago.

*

The Woman in Cabin 10 follows travel writer Lo Blacklock on a week-long luxury cruise. She is invited for the maiden voyage, along with other people in the business: writers, photographers, investors. The idea is that they will drum up publicity for future voyages. After her apartment is burgled the previous week while she was inside, her nerves are shot, she’s not sleeping well, and when she’s assigned next to a room on the ship that is supposedly empty, everything really goes sideways.

She speaks with a young woman in cabin 10 that no one on the ship seems to know exists. Late one night, Lo hears a loud noise and then what she presumes to be a body go overboard. Blood is smeared on the veranda glass door, but when she returns with the head of security, it’s gone. Of course no one believes her, because, you know, she’s an hysterical woman.

I don’t know how Ruth Ware did it (or how Megan Abbott does it in her novels), but the writing is spot on and the story makes you forgo sleep.

This one was far less absurd than her debut novel. One thing that I’m able to track in these novels is that the authors are able to believably hold back information. They don’t withhold just to withhold and the information, when revealed, doesn’t feel like a convenient bombshell. Also, like aforementioned, they’re actually good writers.

Has anyone else read The Woman in Cabin 10 or any of the other mentioned books? I’m always looking for recommendations. Tana French was once recommended, and while I enjoyed her first book In the Woods, when I went on to her second book, I couldn’t finish it because it was truly awful. Thoughts?

 

A Year of Mediocre Books

A photo by Lacie Slezak. unsplash.com/photos/yHG6llFLjS0

True, the year is still not up, but I have concluded long ago, that the publishing schedule for major houses was a dud. Yes, there were a few good reads, but when I look back at my reading list, I find that many were did not finish. I have been told in the past, however, that I can be hard to please when it comes to reading, but I mostly believe that, my reading preferences aside, this year marked a year of mediocre books.

I haven’t written much on the blog these months, sadly, and I owe this mostly to 1) I am working on a wonderful project with a co-editor: a literary magazine that we are so very proud of and 2) the books that I have read have been uninspired.

To remedy this, I’ve received a couple of imaginative galleys, chucked everything dull to the side and took out a huge stack from the library, and also, ordered a couple of books from the UK that are not available or won’t be available stateside for a while.

I am very excited for these reads! How has your year of reading been? Hopefully, better than mine. I find that my brain is more stimulated, I feel less anxious, and my writing improves when I am reading a great book.

Here are some that I have on deck:

FROM THE UK

His Bloody Project
“A brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community in 1869 leads to the arrest of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae. There is no question that Macrae committed this terrible act. What would lead such a shy and intelligent boy down this bloody path? And will he hang for his crime?”

FOXLOWE
“Foxlowe is a crumbling old house in the moors—a wild, secluded, and magical place. For Green, it is not just home, but everything she knows… At Foxlowe, the Family shares everything. Outside, the Bad is everywhere. At Foxlowe, everyone in the Family is safe…”

 

FROM THE LIBRARY

ARTHUR & GEORGE
“As boys, George, the son of a Midlands vicar, and Arthur, living in shabby genteel Edinburgh, find themselves in a vast and complex world at the heart of the British Empire. Years later—one struggling with his identity in a world hostile to his ancestry, the other creating the world’s most famous detective while in love with a woman who is not his wife–their fates become inextricably connected.”

THE HOUSE BETWEEN TIDES
“An atmospheric debut novel about a woman who discovers the century-old remains of a murder victim on her family’s Scottish estate, plunging her into an investigation of its mysterious former occupants.”

THE BOOK OF NIGHT WOMEN
“It is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they- and she-will come to both revere and fear. The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age they see her as the key to their plans.”

THE SELLOUT
“A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality―the black Chinese restaurant.”

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley

I know a lot of readers are not fans of reading main characters who are unlikable or–I shutter–unrelatable, but this certainly never bothers me. I’m a sucker for a debut novel, and Swan Huntley delivers.

we could be beautiful

Catherine West is a spoiled, self-involved, bored forty-something Manhattanite. She’s a tragic figure without realizing it. The opening declaration by Catherine reminded me, oddly, of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

I was rich, I owned a small business, I had a wardrobe I replaced all the time. I was toned enough and pretty enough. I moisturized, I worked out. I looked younger than my age. I had been to all the countries I wanted to see. I collected art and filled my West Village apartment with it. My home was bright and tastefully bare and worthy of a spread in a magazine.

I was also a really good person.

This book, no doubt, will be compared to other “unlikable women thrillers” a la The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, but it really doesn’t fit with those. There isn’t frantic movement by the main character, but there is definitely a creeping dread and mystery, and a frustration with the character.

What Catherine West wants is  a family, but single with multiple fiances behind her, she thinks things are looking slim until she meets a handsome man from her far past at an art show. William Stockton is a few years older than her and knew her family at some point when he was a child before he was mysteriously swept off to Switzerland, where he’s lived till recently. He easily woos Catherine, but there are signals to the reader that something is wrong with him.

It’s hard to describe any more without giving away bits of the plot. As more of the mystery oozes out, I was able to figure out what was going on before the end, but by the time you come to the end a feeling of “that is creepy and uncomfortable” still meanders through your mind with the closing of the last page.

There is something quite remarkable how the writer is able to capture such an oblivious and unlikable person without it getting to the reader. Sure, there have been unlikable main characters for ages, but it is a hard task that the author sets up to keep readers with them.

The detail, the comments that Catherine makes, her actions are entirely ridiculous, but I couldn’t turn away. Even though some pages could have been cut in the middle (there were a few dragging parts but still engaging even if not necessary), this is a great summer read where the pages will be turning.

This book only recently came out, but has anyone else read it? I’m curious of other thoughts on the character and voice of Catherine West.

 

 

Froust Questionnaire, 6/21/2016

n. Proust, or more like the Froust Questionnaire (as in Fake Proust)

inhabited painting

Reading HorizonFarthing by Jo Walton, backlog of fiction submissions for magazine I edit (the co-editor is way ahead of me, for shame)

ListeningThe Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach

Day dreaming: Travel, always

Audiobooking: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (so long, but so good)

Writing: Making a lot of starts but not focusing. Need something that I am passionate about.

Obsessingnot applicable 

Brainstorming: Ideas for article pitches. Harder than you would think.

Procrastinating: Life, le sigh.

Watching: Scream the TV Series (new guilty pleasure)

Disappointing: ALL THE BOOKS I’VE BEEN READING LATELY