Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Choice Cuts by Joe Clifford

The stories in this collection now and again flirt with various genres though crime has the upper hand. “Choice Cuts” talks mostly about desperate people who lead desperate lives. Happiness is something that you see in the movies, and not that you read about in books, the author seems to think, and I guess that’s the reason why his heroes find themselves in trouble all the time.

Even though this is not your cliché ridden crime story collection, we do get to meet a lot of sad and deluded people within its pages; I say deluded because they really can’t tell what’s true or false and thus they believe what they want to believe, without stopping to think for a moment that things may not be as they seem. So, a cop kills a man thinking that it was the right thing to do, but that was a mistake; a couple of prisoners create the perfect plan to escape but their reasoning is clouded by mischief, exhaustion and hunger; and a man realizes that “…when it looks too good to be true, it usually is”.

I believe that the best thing about these stories, even though they do contain quite a few twists and turns, are their characters, all of whom seem to be living their personal hell on earth. Ray, in “Nix Verrida” is a veteran whose mind is playing tricks on him; how many and how big we don’t get to know until the end of the story. Jimmy is a writer who’s unable to write anything, while Kitty, his girlfriend is sick of him; his not drinking and not writing. Geiger and Donnie are squatters who have a plan to make it big. And last but not least there’s a man who thinks that Leonardo da Vinci is to blame for all his troubles.

“Is anyone in here psychologically sound?” one could ask. Well, the truth is that most of them are not, and that’s what makes their stories so interesting. It’s as if the author, by telling the reader everything about them, tries to make it clear that what happens to them could happen to anyone. All it takes is a major event, or even a minor one at a critical moment, to change somebody’s life forever.

If you’d ask me to choose a story to call a favourite, I really wouldn’t know which to pick; they’re all bleak, and they all talk about loss in one way or the other. “Rags to Riches” with its final twist took me by surprise; “Nix Verrida” made me feel a real sympathy for its hero; “A Matter of Trust” managed to put me into thoughts about the role destiny has to play in our lives; while “Chain Reaction” came to prove that it’s for the best if we don’t rush to jump into conclusions.

Choice Cuts is one of those rear books that have a lot of stories to tell, but in an almost relaxed, laidback way. The author doesn’t seem to try too hard to impress the reader with his writing, or even with his plots. His narratives are plain and simple, so they stick to the reader’s mind, and they make them feel some kind of connection with the heroes. And, I don’t know why but, this book also reminds me about the golden era of noir fiction; the times when the characters build the stories and not the words; when the dialogues were more vibrant and the heroes simple people, just like everyone else.

Joe Clifford did a great job bringing these heroes and their personal stories to life, so reading this collection proved to be a real joy.

First published in Crime Factory magazine

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura review

Evil and the Mask is one of those books that captivate the reader not so much with their plot and action but with the interactions between its heroes in a society that seems to be on the brink of destruction.

Most of the people in the west expect murder and mayhem and high-octane adventures when they read crime fiction. There’s a little bit of the above in this story, but not enough to thrill someone. Instead the author offers a story that talks about the cruelty of a father, the redemption of a son and a love affair that’s bound to go terribly wrong.

The said father, a ruthless businessman, tells his young son, Fumihiro that he’ll become a cancer, a personification of evil under his guidance, and the child feels that there’s darkness inside of him already. He hates his father and he’s determined to kill him one day and thus fulfill his prophecy. Until then though he must do his best to resist his authority and enjoy life a little. Enter Kaori, a young girl who’s adopted into the family, with whom Fumihiro grows up and inevitably falls in love with. He knows that his father will do everything to stop him from being happy, and later rather than sooner decides to take matters into his own hands. Will this pursue of happiness lead him to his doom or will it change his life once and for all for the better?

Happiness is a fortress,” we read somewhere, and one can rest assured that apart perhaps from the worst of people in these pages, not many can enter it. Instead they keep wandering in the streets of the night, like people with fake faces and mistaken identities; people who have nothing to lose because their lives never really belonged to them.

Fuminori Nakamura, whose excellent previous novel The Thief I've read in one sitting, has his characters interact in peculiar ways. While they’re desperately trying to find their way in an ever changing world, they are held back by the ghosts of the past; while they need love, they thrive in pain; and while they fight hard to be good, they end up exactly the opposite.

As we follow these people we get to learn a lot of things, not only about modern Japan, but also about the loneliness that has become the plague of our times, and the cynicism that seems to drive a lot of people’s actions.

Perhaps this is one of those few special occasions when the title of a book describes perfectly its content. The evil is personified in two people in here; the mask in another two. The characters come alive because the author seemingly keeps his distance from them, and his story is captivating for the simple reason that most of the time things in life don’t turn out as we want them to.

Nakamura chose to narrate his story by moving back and forth in time, thus providing miniscule clues, from chapter to chapter, about how things are going to play out. And yet, because he’s a Japanese author and doesn’t have to abide by the rule of the happy ending, he manages to surprise the reader. You don’t have to be a fan of the genre to enjoy this tale; but even if you are, once you’re not looking for blockbuster fiction you’re bound to love it, as its not larger than life heroes and its simplicity win the day. As a conclusion I’d say that the crime is not so important here, since it only serves as the means that justify the end.

First published in Crime Factory magazine