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Min Hun’s Favourite Reads of 2021

Deciding a best of list is always a frustrating experience because there are so many books to choose from in any publishing year. Then you also have to decide if books that elicit a strong emotional response is more or less deserving of a place than a novel that is, though more subdued, on the whole, a more technically accomplished work — it’s tough. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed your reading year as much as I did.

Summer by Ali Smith
Each entry of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet has made my “Best of” list in the past three years and Summer has unsurprisingly made the list again. While not my favourite of the four books in the series, Smith’s pretty good is still terribly good although I couldn’t bring myself to read it until there was a lull in the pandemic newsfeed. Tackling prickly issues including immigration, nationalism and COVID-19, it is a true testament of Smith’s storytelling ability and deftness of touch that the novel can seem light and even delightful at times. Which is not to say that the novel panders. It is sharply critical as were the previous three entries and, as with the previous novels, near impossible to sum up briefly what it is about. Nevertheless, we find the redemptive value of art again a central theme and a reminder that the tragedy of evil persists because of the inaction of good men and women.

How to be a Liberal by Ian Dunt
The title is misleading because Dunt doesn’t really dwell very much on how one is to be a liberal. Instead, this is a masterful work chronicling the genealogy of liberalism from its philosophical roots to its political, economic and moral instantiations. Dunt does a good job in correcting widely held misapprehensions along the way, e.g., by restoring Harriet Taylor’s rightful role as John Stuart Mill’s collaborator rather than just a hanger-on, and expertly weaving together the disparate threads to create a cogent historical sequence of events. Starting out as a polemic against the rising tide of nationalism, How to be a Liberal charts the development of liberalism from philosophical ideology to economic and political dogma, and reveals the way this cornerstone of the 20th century has now come to be reviled and abused by political leaders. Written with the aplomb of a page-turning thriller, this book is particularly worth reading for those of us with poor knowledge of European history.

The Giant Dark by Sarvat Hasin
The Giant Dark doesn’t feel particularly exceptional during the reading; however, the impression it leaves after turning the final page makes it one of my most memorable reads of the year. A stunning retelling of the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, The Giant Dark follows the doomed love affair of cult rock star Aida and Ehsan, an erstwhile poet and artist who has lost his mojo. The story picks up with the lovers meeting again after having broken up for the last 10 years after Aida returns to the US from their London home. In that time, Aida has channelled her heartbreak and longing into her music, which has turned her into a rock star with a fanatical following. A chance dinner date brings the two of them back together. For Aida, it is the fulfilment of a decade’s longing; for Ehsan, it is a rebirth but to what end? Comes replete with a Greek chorus (read bacchantes) ready to worship and tear down their hero with equal aplomb.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman
Richard Osman’s cosy mystery — and I use that term advisedly because there seems to be something pejorative in it — is an excellent read to wind down the year. We return to Cooper’s Chase in this second instalment of the Thursday Murder Club series where a group of old age pensioners (OAPs) choose to unravel unsolved mysteries and crimes that occur in their surrounding environs. In The Man, Elizabeth, the de facto leader of the group and a former spy, receives an unwanted visitor in the form of her ex-husband. Also a spy by training, he has been called out of retirement to infiltrate the home of a crime lord, which, naturally, goes wrong. Meanwhile, Ibrahim, the brains of the outfit and the voice of reason, has been the victim of a snatch-theft and is suffering from post-event trauma. Joyce, the ever-cheerful and enthusiastic member of the group, is trying to hold everything together. A page turner that is readable in every aspect.

Silent Parade by Keigo Higashino
I am a huge fan of Keigo Higashino so anything new from him almost automatically makes it to the list. Silent Parade is the latest of the Detective Galileo series featuring Manabu Yukawa, Higashino’s sleuthing physicist who is always ready to pitch in whenever the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department encounters a sticky case. This time, it’s the death of the prime suspect involved in the murders of two young girls 20 years apart. Reticent and more cunning than his external demeanour lets on, Kanichi Hasunuma has already escaped the judgment of the court once, and the family and neighbours of the second victim wasn’t about to let him get away again. Hasunuma is conveniently murdered during a popular parade through the neighbourhood but everyone seems to have a rock solid alibi. Our returning flatfoot, Chief Inspector Kusanagi, is again stumped and calls on the deductive powers of his university friend Yukawa to help solve the seemingly impossible murder. A gripping page turner, Silent Parade is a book you want to finish in one sitting.

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Lit Review: ‘The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again’ by M. John Harrison

by Fong Min Hun

A few years ago, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to accompany my wife and her brother on their sibling-bonding hike up Mt. Kinabalu. This was — is — something that I am not particularly keen to do, and the only reason I would have ventured to do so would be out of love or, as it was in this case, out of spite. The hike up Kinabalu is not particularly difficult or treacherous but it can be dire when the weather is inclement — which it was — and when the hiker at issue is unfit and overweight — which I was. There were plenty of occasions on the way when I’d simply wanted to quit, turn around and say, this is not for me. However, it was one of those occasions in life when you just had to keep going forward because you couldn’t turn back. 

M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again reminds me of that hike: beautiful, grueling, unforgettable, momentous. I would add ‘regrettable’ but as with the hike, I think I’m rather glad for having read the book/ascended the mountain than if I had not. It is not the most accessible of books and it does not yield readily to judgements of “I liked it” or not; indeed, it may be almost sublime (in the technical sense of the term). Seldom does a book prompt immediate re-reading but this one did, if only for one to piece together the various clues scattered throughout the book.

Sunken Land follows the lives of two protagonists: Shaw and Victoria, unlikely middle-aged lovers whose lives are linked by a conspiracy website and the myth of an ancient, atavistic race of water people. Both are gripped in some form of low-key existential crisis — Shaw, recently unemployed, checks into a low-rent guest house on the bank of the Thames while Victoria, tired of city life, opts to move into her late mother’s house in Shropshire in the Midlands. They have a tenuous relationship, further strained by Shaw’s continuing effort to give up any and all forms of agency, while Victoria’s attempt at bucolic life is interrupted by a parade of strange characters at her new home by the river Severn. 

Shaw picks up work with the eccentric Tim Swann whom he meets at a cemetery harvesting muddy water from a depression in the ground. A general dogsbody, Shaw is set to work on a number of seemingly random tasks, including visiting derelict wholesalers in the depressed outskirts of Greater London, jotting down the testimony of a retired civil engineer who had been arrested for violent disorder, and video recording the actions of a psychic during a séance. Shaw is happy to go along with Tim’s increasingly strange bequests, including the transport of a pale green body from a swimming pool to places unknown and bearing witness to an incestuous coupling.

Victoria, meanwhile, settles into a community where the locals seem to be participants in a strange cult that has as its bible Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, a Victorian-era fable about a boy who transforms into a water sprite. Her only friend is Pearl, the owner of a café in town who occupies a queenly position of sorts in relation to the other oddballs in town. Victoria’s suspicions become even more piqued by the strange gatherings of men in the middle of the night, a mysterious voice calling out to her at all hours of the day, and Pearl disappearing into a pond only inches deep. 

Drained by their experiences, Shaw and Victoria meet once more but find themselves unable or unwilling to connect with each other. “I’m living without explanations, if you can understand that,” Shaw explains at one point. And Victoria: “I always want to tell you about my life but somehow I never can. Isn’t that weird?” 

No and yes. 

From a plot perspective, Shaw is doing exactly what he says — living without explanations. Things happen to him, around him, by him, but he is simply there accreting circumstances. One reviewer describes Shaw as “post-critical” — he no longer questions or wonders or connects, but simply allows things to happen around him, effectively transcending the subject-object dichotomy. This aloofness, if it can be called that, finally fails him at the end of the book:

Shaw stood in the doorway. He became convinced there was another person in the room with them, then recognised in a single pure instant that it was himself. Events seemed to have paralysed him, casting his consciousness into the old root of his brain whence it struggled to escape.

Victoria, who has more of her wits about her, finds that she, too, has lost her agency. Driven into a psychic noose by the cult-like inhabitants of her city, Victoria confronts a reality of her home in the Midlands that jars with her big city London sensibilities. Unlike Shaw, she is caught in an eschatological maze that defies her will at every turn and prods and leads her to an inescapable fate.

Reviewers have read in Sunken Land a psychogeography of Brexit Britain. While it may be difficult for anyone not residing in Britain to ascertain the veracity of that claim, it must be said that Sunken Land can be a discomfiting experience. The inconclusive and allusive plot that leads the reader on with the promise of closure — “Everyone gets an answer in the end,” an exasperated Victoria is told; “All will be revealed” Tim tells Shaw on another hapless adventure — never comes to a satisfying close. And yet there is something beautiful but haunting in the writing that both gladdens and terrifies at the same time; while I’m reluctant to draw parallels with Lovecraft, there is more than a nod in that direction viz the watery gothic imagery that saturates Sunken Land. The book is also about forgotten places: spaces left behind and forgotten by the passage of time, and in which the distinction between legend and reality becomes inseparable. 

This was my first Harrison. Despite a substantial backlist of work in the realms of speculative and literary fiction spanning decades, I’d not come across his work until he showed up in my newsfeed as having won the Goldsmiths Prize for 2020. I tend to give this award, which recognises excellence in experimental writing, a wide berth. I will likely continue to do so but Sunken Land will at least make me pause to reconsider, and pick up a book out of spite. 

The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is available here.

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Lit Review: ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ by Bill Gates

by Fong Min Hun

Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster doesn’t set out to change your mind about climate change. Not really. Instead, Gates — who says he thinks more like an engineer than anything else — sets out to do what an engineer does best: the book is a comprehensive and accessible summary of the problem, and the tools and solutions that he thinks will help stave the climate disaster. Which is not to say that he is a climate fatalist — say like Jonathan Franzen — Gates is optimistic throughout (almost annoyingly so) but one can expect no less from a billionaire philanthropist who has spent the better part of this century on aid programmes and developmental schemes. 

The main thesis of the book is that humanity needs to reduce our current rate of carbon emission from 51 billion tonnes each year to, well, zero within the next few generations. Failing to do so would result in disasters of epic proportions that will be costly both in terms of resources and human lives. He then goes on to detail the main human activities that must be addressed in order to curb carbon emissions — power generation, construction, transportation, heating and agriculture — and some of solutions that are already available or on the horizon that may solve the issue. Gates is a wonk so no surprise that his solution to climate change is a technological one. 

He is well aware that climate change is as much a geopolitical issue as it is a technological one; carbon emissions will only increase as lower income nations climb up the value chain and it would be “immoral and impractical” to try to stop them. The only solution, it seems, is to once again put our faith in the marketplace and price the new carbon-neutral or carbon-negative alternatives so that they become more affordable than the current carbon-emitting solutions. This will require a radical rethinking of existing laws and pricing mechanisms that must of necessity be cross-border and holistic. 

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a handy guide which gathers all the relevant information into one place. If nothing else, it is an accessible and informative book that spells out the scale and challenges of the problem. However, climate change is perhaps the intersectional issue and any solution that addresses it from one or two perspectives, as this book does, may seem ineffective. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster might not change any minds, but it might give the right reader some ideas on how they might make a greater contribution. 

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Lit Review: ‘How Do You Live’ by Genzaburo Yoshino

by Fong Min Hun

Genzaburo Yoshino’s How Do You Live? is a beloved Japanese coming-of-age novel that has been translated into English for the first time by Bruno Navasky. Originally published in 1937, How Do You Live? is regarded as a classic and an important children’s title in Japan. Soon to be an anime directed by the auteur Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, the book is a meditation on what it means to live with honour and integrity, and what it means to live a meaningful life in society. 

The tale revolves around Junichi “Copper” Honda, a reflective 15-year old with precocious intellect and curiosity. Having lost his father at an early age, Copper turns to his mother’s brother, i.e. his maternal uncle, as the father figure in his life. A naturally curious and energetic boy, Copper enjoys a lively relationship with his uncle who he turns to for advice on subjects ranging from science to social relationships and ethics. These ponderings typically arise from Copper’s interactions with his peers or his observations of the empirical workings of the world. 

The uncle, recognising the intellect and spark in Copper, encourages these musings and challenges the boy on his positions. These interactions are later recorded in a notebook that expands on the advice bequeathed to his nephew and elaborates on connected themes. Citing a broad range of thinkers including Copernicus, Napoleon and Goethe, the notebook serves as a handbook for living and guide for becoming a mensch. 

How Do You Live is a charming story reminiscent of books such as Jostein Gaardner’s Sophie’s World and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince where the central vehicle that moves things along is the mentor-mentee relationship between Copper and his uncle. The book is divided into two distinct narratives: the first follows the journey of Copper, as an every-day school boy making his way through life with all the accompanying quotidian drama of a young teen, while the second are essays written by the uncle in the notebook which are didactic in function. 

While the combination of the two might seem to be a recipe for a somewhat dull read, the opposite is instead true; as Neil Gaiman says in the foreword, “the joy is that the book contains both parts, pulling at each other, each informing the other side, and that if you removed either part you would have a less interesting book.How Do You Live? Is a thoroughly enjoyable read and the anime should be no less interesting.

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Lit Review: ‘Klara and the Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

by Fong Min Hun

It’s difficult to read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun without locating it among the rest of his writing. What makes the job more difficult is the Nobel laureate’s tendency to produce variations on a theme, unlike, say, David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, Bone Clocks, Utopia Avenue) whose past performance is no guarantee of future results. Ishiguro’s self-professed “dirty secret” is that he has only ever written one book over and over again with varying levels of virtuosity.  

Ishiguro’s big tussle in each of his books is invariably the question of truth and the reliability of his limited and flawed narrators. These narrators construct imprecise and incongruous worldviews because it turns out that these are essential to their survival. In Never Let Me Go, Kathy H. and her fellow clones hold on to the unlikely hope that a display of their humanity will delay their inevitable sacrifice. Masuji Ono in An Artist of the Floating World can only justify his existence by believing himself to have been a far greater monster than he really was. Stevens, the butler of the Nazi-sympathising Lord Darlington in Remains of the Day, sacrifices truth at the altar of duty and dignity until he can no longer afford to do so. 

Whatever their flaws, these narrators remain sympathetic characters if only because they reflect our own fragile grip on the meaningfulness of the world, and our need to create narratives for ourselves despite our own limited and narrow understanding of the people and events around us. The difference for Ishiguro’s characters is that they are almost always ultimately caught in their self-deceit; as Stevens says, “One is not struck by the truth until prompted quite accidentally by some external event.”

So what do we make of Klara in Klara and the Sun, the protagonist of Ishiguro’s eighth and most recent book? An Artificial Friend, or AF, Klara was built to be a companion for children in a fractured society that has stratified into an Orwellian caste system. Power has become concentrated in the hands of the few while automatons increasingly act as “substitutes” for human workers. Schools have been shut down in favour of homeschooling through remote devices known only as Oblongs, and chosen scions of a select few participate in a genetic editing process that results in their being ‘lifted’. Brought up in isolation, children in this dystopia socialise in mediated “interaction meetings” where they practise disguising their backhanded compliments as social grace. (This dystopic future, written in a time of pandemic, seems almost laughably kitsch until one realises that it’s not too far off from the current state of learning.) 

The world in Klara and the Sun is not a happy place; but it is a hallmark of Ishiguro’s novels that the worst evils are attenuated through the use of normalised language: “lifted” and  “substituted” in Klara, or “completions” in Never Let Me Go referring to the death of an organ donor mid-vivisection. Klara’s world is a morass of contradictions and genteel horrors, but as with Ishiguro’s other books, this horror is very much softened by Klara’s experience and understanding. 

Precocious for an AF with unique powers of observation and synthesis, Klara begins life as a display model at the AF store. Because of these traits, she is  extremely sensitive to the nuance and patterns of human behaviour around her, even when they are incongruous with each other. This comes up in an interesting bit of philosophy of mind when Ishiguro describes just how an AF might view the world, which builds a unified intuition from discrete perceptions that are given to her in discrete perceptions a la Kant. When contradictions in her perceptions occur, the unity is broken up into individual “boxes”, indicating that the scene before her is contradictory, confusing or otherwise incongruous. For example, In one passage, her perception of the store manager is broken into boxes, one of which showed her eyes “that were filled with kindness and sadness” even as another box focused on the manager’s jaw which reflected “anger and frustration”. 

These incongruities would pop up regularly during her time spent with Josie, the teenager who purchases Klara and brings her home. Josie is very ill and her relationship with the people in her lives are tense, especially in relation to her overbearing mother, Chrissie, and her neighbour, Rick, with whom she has a youthful romance. Josie has already lost her older sister Sal to a similar sickness, and the loss has coloured her world — from the estrangement of her father to her mother’s overprotective demeanour. 

Klara is an excellent AF, not just to Josie but to the other people in her lives. Reflective and spiritual — again, unique traits for an automaton — she becomes involved in the private sufferings of the people around Josie. Incapable of self-deception, Klara’s beliefs and actions are motivated by her empirical observations and her sense of duty. Nevertheless there is something at the core of her being that adds to the synthesis, which motivates her to make some very un-AF-like decisions, such as rejecting a potential customer while waiting for Josie to return to the store, and deducing the nature of love in her reflections at the end of the book. Klara may not be an unreliable narrator in the traditional sense, but neither is her portrayal of the world one that is truly representative. (Then again, whose understanding of the world can be truly representative?)

As with Ishiguro’s other books, the world constructed in Klara and the Sun is by necessity narrowed by the first-person perspective, but one of Ishiguro’s strengths is his ability to do so without suffocating the reader. Instead, it becomes an intimate marriage of self and experience which leads to beautifully reflective prose. An oddity in the book, however, is the tonality of the dialogue between the teenaged children who speak with an American patois that is distinct from everyone else in the book. It broke the reading momentum the first few times I encountered them but they eventually became niggling irritations rather than severe disruptions. 

There are some inexplicable issues in the book; for example, how does an AF with a highly developed scientific cognitive mind fail to understand the true nature of the sun? Or misidentify objects such as a roadworks machine to be some sort of mythological creature of evil? It is unclear if Ishiguro’s world is logically consistent, but then again perhaps that is not the point of this book, or any of his books for that matter. Klara and the Sun might not hit the same artistic heights as his previous novels but it is still a beautifully quiet, elegant novel. 

Klara and the Sun is available in hardback (RM116) and trade paperback (RM75.50) here.

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Five reads to kickstart the new year

The dawn of a new year inadvertently brings with it a renewed desire for self-improvement, whatever form that may take. This is a lifelong endeavour, however, and what’s important isn’t so much the destination as the path and process. To quote Michelle Obama from her memoir, Becoming, “[It] isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”

To help us along the way, we can certainly turn to books for wisdom — begin with some or all of the following titles for insight and inspiration.

Limitless by Tim Peake, RM86.90
If there’s anyone who understands the sheer amount of dedication, perseverance, and discipline it takes to attain a goal, it would be an astronaut. One such individual is Tim Peake, who recounts his unusual path to becoming an astronaut in vivid detail in his new autobiography, Limitless. Peake served 18 years as a British army pilot and was chosen out of 8,000 applicants to be one of six new astronauts of the European Astronaut Corps. He endured six years of grueling training before he was able to experience what few have – the exhilaration of heading out to space. Peake writes in a manner that’s engaging and humorous, and his inspiring story speaks of the power of following our dreams and of striving to reach our potential.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, RM49.95
There are two systems that drive the way we think and make choices: there’s fast, intuitive, and emotional thinking, and then there’s slow, rational, and more deliberative thinking. In this book, renowned psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman reveals how these two systems work together to shape our judgments and decisions. He makes the case for not trusting our intuitions which can often lead us astray and explains the benefits of slow thinking. He also gives practical techniques of how to do so, as well as how to guard against our minds tripping us up. A phenomenal book on human rationality and irrationality, this book will likely change the way you make decisions.

Beyond the 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch, RM79.90
Successful entrepreneur Richard Koch first published his book on the 80/20 principle in 1997, and it has since become one of the definitive business books of the 20th century. In it he showed how one can achieve much more with much less effort, time, and resources by identifying and focusing our efforts on the 20% that really counts. He provided a systematic and practical way to vastly increase our effectiveness, and improve our careers and our companies. This is a revised edition of the book, with 92 more universal scientific principles and laws that will help you achieve personal success in an increasingly challenging business environment.

Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars, RM46.50
There’s much that we can learn about how to live from the three great Roman Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Philosophy professor John Sellar’s excellent book draws from the lives and works of these three Stoics to elucidate how their ancient ideas can help us live better lives, including how to understand one’s place in the world, how to cope when things don’t go well, how to manage one’s emotions, and how to behave towards others. Comforting and enlightening, this delightful book serves as a thoughtful guide to the philosophy of a good life.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal, RM58.90
If you’re struggling with being distracted all the time, you’re going to want to read this book to learn how to reclaim your attention and focus. Behavioral design expert Nir Eyal shows the hidden psychology that drive us to distraction, and why it’s not as simple as abstaining from our devices. He lays out a four-step, research-backed model that will help you design your time and not let technology overrun your life. This empowering and optimistic book will help you live a more fulfilling life.

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Susanna Clarke returns with mystery novel ‘Piranesi’ 16 years after epic debut

by Elaine Lau

Susanna Clarke’s new novel, Piranesi, is a mystery. It is not, as the title might suggest, a novel about the 18th century Italian architectural artist famed for his etchings of Rome and atmospheric imaginary prisons. But his art must have served as inspiration for the British author, for in her novel we enter a dreamlike World that is at once beguiling and bewildering, haunting and enigmatic — much like the Italian master’s exquisite artworks.

This World is a decaying House with an innumerable number of marble halls like “an infinite series of classical buildings knitted together” and divided into three levels. The tides inhabit the Lower Halls, the Upper Halls are the “Domain of the Clouds”, whereas the Middle Halls are the “Domain of birds and of men”. Statues of varying sizes and composition inhabit every nook and cranny of this labyrinthine House. Outside, there is only the sun, moon and stars, and nothing else.

We know this from the journal entries of the novel’s titular character, Piranesi, although he tells us that is not his name. He regards the House with reverence and childlike wonder, and considers himself a “Beloved Child of the House”. Piranesi believes he is between 30 and 35 years old, and considers himself “a scientist and an explorer” who is determined to explore as much of the House as he can in his lifetime. He records every happening in his notebooks, be it tidal patterns or the behaviour of the rooks that come to nest, and catalogues the thousands of Statues.

Piranesi subsists on fish, seaweed and molluscs, and tends to the 13 skeletons in the House. Aside from biweekly visits from a figure called simply The Other — who is on a quest to uncover “a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World” and needs his help — Piranesi lives a contented life of solitude.

One can draw parallels of his solitary existence with Clarke’s own ex­perience of finding solace in con­finement. For the past 15 years, the British author has been suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, among other conditions, which has at times impeded her writing and caused her to withdraw from the world. In an interview with The New Yorker, she said that she would imagine herself in a place with “endless buildings but silent — I found that very calming”.

Clarke became a literary sensation with her 2004 debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. This heady 800-page period fantasy tale of rivalling magicians set in sumptuously detailed 19th-century England won the 2005 Hugo Award, among other prizes, and sold more than four million copies worldwide. The novel firmly established Clarke’s narrative prowess and she was heralded as an exciting new literary voice to watch.

Which is why her second novel, Piranesi, published in September, was met with keen anticipation, especially more so because it has been 16 years since her debut. Piranesi is a very different animal from her debut — gone are the loquaciousness and helical plotline that made Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell either an exhilarating or laborious read, depending on whom you ask. By contrast, Piranesi is a breezy 270-page novel of bite-size journal entries in straightforward language. But its deceptively simple form belies the story’s complexity and inventiveness. Clarke has crafted an evocative novel that explores alternate worlds, memory and the sense of self, madness and imagination, and the detrimental pursuits of the vainglorious.

Piranesi is a mystery, and true to form, the first 80 pages or so rendered me utterly mystified. But as with all well-constructed mysteries, it gets good, and it subverts all expectations.

Where things start to shift is when The Other tells Piranesi that someone is looking to infiltrate their labyrinth and means to cause harm, and he should not engage with this person, whom Piranesi dubs “16”. But of course, 16 does show up, and here is when the story turns into a puzzle-box mystery. We follow along with Piranesi as he slowly puts the pieces together and, in the process, uncover his real identity and past — and what a bombshell of a reveal it turns out to be.

But more than plot, Piranesi is an exquisite depiction of something primeval, namely man’s earliest attempts to make sense of our sublimely ordered universe. It comes as no surprise that the arrangement of Piranesi’s World is eerily reminiscent of ancient cosmology, whose ordering of the universe is perhaps more a reflection of the human psyche, in its attempt to impose a meaning to his wonderment and place in it.

This article first appeared on Oct 12, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.

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Cures for Loneliness: Of Memoirs, Biographies and Stories from Elsewhere

By William Tham

Two books by the British writer, Olivia Laing, are curiously offbeat in their fusion of travelogues and memoir, which are best read back-to-back. The Trip to Echo Spring takes the uniquely American form of the road trip, to the Deep South and eventually the shoreline of the Pacific Northwest, filtered through her very British perspective, passing through towns and cities where writers ranging from Fitzgerald to Hemingway and Carver to Tennessee Williams drank away for a multitude of reasons. Very much like her first book, To the River, which weaves in a walk along the River Ouse and the stories associated with it, including the suicide of Virginia Woolf, Echo Spring contains elements of memoir, touching on relationships and a damaged childhood.

But it is in the third book, The Lonely City, where Laing’s fusion of facts and memoir is most concerted. She draws parallels not just between artists and the loneliness, but also her own sense of isolation in the wake of a jagged end to a relationship that left her alone in New York. For her, “[l]oneliness is personal and it is also political.” Her subjects, more focused and intimate than in her previous book, come to life in the pages. Through the text, she weaved together artists from various points of the 20th century, all of whom moved through New York at one point or another. Her biographical subjects – Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Edward Hopper and Klaus Nomi to name a few – all of whom battled loneliness in some form or another, amplified by the city.

The sense of isolation imposed by cities is curious, despite the fact that they crush people together. There is a facelessness to uninterrupted architecture, filled with people who have either call it home or are just transient visitors or newcomers. It breeds an aloofness that prevents the formation of the necessary human bonds that tie us together. We can be physically close but a psychological separation remains. Perhaps this is why Laing’s book hits so hard. I bought a copy of the book on a street that I had walked along for years, yet I never knew anything about the people who lived and worked on even the short stretch where the bookshop stood. And in an age of instant communication and digital media, of fleeting attention spans and the shallowness of online dating, Laing’s meditations on the counterintuitive sense of separation that the Internet imposed struck especially hard.

There was a curious sadness woven through the course of the narrative, which itself was interspersed with almost voyeuristic snatches into Laing’s own life as she navigated lost love and an escape from her own loneliness. Was it a temporary state? An endless trap with no way out?

Perhaps it was necessary for her to be temporarily alone to learn how the human heart and human nature operated. For her she arrived at two cures: “learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.”

William Tham is a Malaysian author of two books, Kings of Petaling Street, and The Last Days.

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Lit Review: ‘The Honjin Murders’ and ‘The Inugami Curse’ by Seishi Yokomizo

by Fong Min Hun

That the last few months have been stressful is an understated and moot statement so much so that the declaration needs no further elaboration. Escapism, therefore, was very much called for so far as my reading was concerned. As a result of which, anyone going through my recently-read list will find a substantial collection of pulp science fiction and detective novels, most of which were re-reads (familiarity is an effective, if temporary, balm for the soul). 

It was during this time that I came across the newly published translations of Seishi Yokomizo’s detective novels The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Curse by Pushkin Vertigo. (Full disclosure: despite being a fan of Japanese crime thrillers and murder mysteries, I was not at all familiar with the Yokomizo name despite there being a literary award named after him. This may be due to the fact that only one of his novels had been published previously — The Inugami Curse was released as The Inugami Clan in 2013 by a previous publisher.)

I was thrilled to learn that the books were set in inter-war/post-WWII Japan as I had just come off a Sherlock Holmes binge and was very much still in the mood for period detective fiction. Likewise, both books feature a brilliant young detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, who has a good shout of being lumped together with the greats such as Auguste Dupin, Poirot and, of course, Holmes himself. It comes as little surprise that Yokomizo was a self-declared fan of the popular mystery novels of Western authors, particularly John Dickson Carr, and the Honjin Murders, a locked-room mystery, is very much a tip of the hat in Carr’s direction.  

Picture this: the heir of the wealthy landowning Ichiyanagi family (former proprietors of a honjin — an inn frequented by warlords and other Japanese nobility in feudal Japan) and his new bride are found dead in their chambers on the night of their wedding. Both are stabbed to death and the murder weapon, a katana, is found blade down in a snowbank metres outside the chamber. On the days leading up to the double-murder, a mysterious and terrifying three-fingered man was spotted around the estate and making enquiries of the dead man. The manic playing of a koto (Japanese zither) could be heard in the nights leading up to the murder and on the murder night itself. Moreover, it takes only three fingers to play the koto… 

As with all good detective novels, it seems that everyone in the extended family — the brothers, cousin and mother included — has a motive to kill except for the youngest sister who, being a bit simple, seems to be the only one who is innocent. But she is an expert koto player and seems to know more than she can or will let on. The local police are baffled, suspecting everyone and no one in equal measure. Enter Kindaichi, an eccentric-looking young man who has only recently started his detective practice following a less than stellar start in life. With a string of successive cases under his belt and the endorsement of the influential adoptive father of the dead bride, Kindaichi goes to work on the family. 

The Honjin Murders is a wonderfully descriptive piece of period detective fiction replete with quirky family, mysterious bordering on supernatural suspense and numerous thrusts and parries between our hero detective and the unknown perpetrator. But as with all locked-room mysteries, much of the book’s success hinges on the big reveal of the murder mechanism at the end with three possibilities: the mechanism is not clever enough, the mechanism is just clever enough, or the mechanism tries to be too clever. I think we can safely scratch out the first possibility although I leave it to the reader to decide where the book fits in respect to the remaining two options. 

Having been introduced to Kindaichi, we encounter him again in The Inugami Curse, which is set immediately after Japan’s defeat in WWII. It is again an unhappy family that is the seat of all ills. The story proper begins with the repatriation of one of the potential heirs of the wealthy and influential Inugami family following the completion of his tour of duty in Southeast Asia which left him a broken and disfigured man. The patriarch of the family had died a few months prior leaving behind express instructions that his will remain unread until the entire family could gather together. 

But this was no gentle, wise old family head who expired; rather, it becomes immediately clear that there was a vicious streak in him that bore no love for either of his three daughters or their children. The will that is read is particularly divisive, with the fate of the bequest very much determined by the actions of a couple of outsiders including the granddaughter of a former benefactor and his illegitimate son by another, unrecognised woman. Moreover, the will is so structured that there is a very good chance that only one of the daughters would stand to inherit the fortune leaving the other two branches of the family very much out in the cold. 

With razor sharp claws honed by years of ambition and indifferent treatment by their father, the three vituperative daughters will go to any means to secure the substantial wealth and businesses of the Inugami clan for their branch of the family. Kindaichi is first called on to the scene by one of the lawyers involved in the case because of several failed attempts at the life of one of the players in the will; however, the lawyer is himself killed before he can divulge his findings to the detective. So Kindaichi stays on and becomes an indispensable tool to the local police when, one by one, the heirs to the fortune are found dead in mysterious circumstances. 

A quick google of The Inugami Curse reveals that it is one of Yokomizo’s more favoured novels with several movie adaptations made from it, and it is not difficult to see why. Compared to The Honjin Murders, Inugami is a more accomplished murder mystery that is made more complex by the competing motivations of the various actors in the novel. This may mean quite a few side plots and red herrings, but Yokomizo is masterful enough to tie up all the loose ends in a satisfying ending while maintaining a good level of suspense throughout the book. The Inugami Curse may also be the only detective novel which features a manhunt on skis, although this may just mean that I don’t read enough Scandi noirs. 

It’s difficult for a non-Japanese reader to really gauge Yokomizo’s influence on the genre, but a regular reader of Japanese crime thrillers should be able to feel the distant echoes. Both books are really good yarns, and I for one am looking forward to the other translations of Yokomizo sensei’s works promised by Pushkin Vertigo. 

Verdict: The Honjin Murders (7/10); The Inugami Curse (8/10)

Availability: RM52.90 for The Honjin Murders, and RM56.50 for The Inugami Curse — both in paperback

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Lit Review: ‘The Girl and the Ghost’ by Hanna Alkaf

by Elaine Lau

I stopped reading children’s books when I became a teenager and graduated to ‘older’ works such as western classics and crime fiction. It wasn’t until we opened Lit Books that I rediscovered middle-grade fiction and found to my utter delight a world replete with gems.

Many of these stories of adventure and hijinks are about meeting life’s difficulties and complexities with courage and hope. Good middle-grade fiction tackle weighty issues without dumbing it down and without being preachy. When it is done well, my god does it make my heart sing — and I reckon, it will you, too, dear adult reader, and not just your child. To quote WH Auden, “There are good books which are only for adults… but there are no good books which are only for children.”

When Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf revealed at the author event for her debut young adult novel, The Weight of Our Sky, at our store last year that her next book will be a children’s novel, I looked forward to it with not a small amount of excitement. The Girl and the Ghost is the novel in question, published this month by HarperCollins, and it is a deliciously chilling novel about family legacies, friendship, and jealousy, but also forgiveness, kindness, and courage.

The story begins with Suraya inheriting a pelesit, a familiar spirit from the witch grandmother whom she’s never met. A bit of a loner who grows up with an emotionally absent mother, Suraya grows up with the pelesit — whom she christens Pink — as her closest companion. Pink, in turn, watches over her obsessively, and sometimes with a little too much zeal.

So it happens that when Suraya befriends the new girl in school, Jing Wei, Pink reacts jealously and to the detriment of both girls. Things come to a head, eventually leading Suraya to divulge to her mother what’s been going on at which point her mother enlists the help of a pawang hantu, Encik Ali. But to their horror, Suraya and Jing Wei discover he has sinister designs for Pink. They take it upon themselves to help Pink return to where he came from so as to escape the clutches of Encik Ali. The two embark on an urgent mission where danger lurks at every turn and they find unexpected allies of the supernatural kind coming to their aid — a bit reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

Hanna has crafted a story with verve, emotion, and empathy in The Girl and the Ghost, and reading it gave me all the feels. Be forewarned, however, that if you have a particularly sensitive child, the story gets pretty dark and gruesome in the final confrontation with the pawang. There’s a lot to unpack in the novel, as it examines heavy themes such as the harm of holding on to something even when it’s time to let go, the way jealousy poisons relationships, and how the avoidance of difficult or painful parts of our lives just makes things worse in the long run.

But there’s a lot of light as well. The precious gift of friendship is a key thread that runs through the novel. Jing Wei is the very portrait of a true friend, a Samwise Gamgee-type to Suraya’s Frodo Baggins who jumps with both feet in, come what may. There is also the tenacity of hope, bravery in the face of fear, and love in action.

Suraya as a character is bookish, kind and non-confrontational. She is the very definition of a good girl, “one who does as she’s told… who doesn’t like to make trouble for other people”, taunts the pawang at one point. But as it becomes clear, it isn’t that she’s afraid to fight, but that she’s one who chooses her battles — when it comes down to it, she will face demons to protect someone she loves.  

The Girl and the Ghost is a good book. And as Auden informs us, no, it is not just for children.

Verdict: 8/10

Availability: Paperback, RM49.90. Purchase here.

Special thanks to HaperCollins for an eARC of the book.