Review of The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Title: The Devotion of Suspect X
Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander
Published: First published in Japanese in 2005; this translation published in 2011
 Little, Brown
Genre: crime, mytery
Source: review copy from Penguin SA
Rating: 7/10

Yasuko is a single mother living a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, when her ex-husband Togashi walks back into her life. She’d divorced him after he became an abusive drunk who took her money for gambling. Afterwards, he’d repeatedly harassed Yasuko and her daughter Misato, until Yasuko changed jobs, homes and Misato’s school in an effort to get away from him. But now he’s found them again. In their small apartment, he brags that they will never be rid of him, prompting a terrified Misato to attack him. In the struggle that follows, Yasuko defends her daughter by strangling Togashi while Misato holds him down.

Mother and daughter are both prepared to turn themselves in when their enigmatic neighbour, Ishigami, calls and offers to help them dispose of the body. Yasuko is shocked that he figured out what happened and wants to help, but she knows that Ishigami – a reclusive mathematical genius – has always had a thing for her. Although he’s too shy to exchange more than a few words with her and sometimes can’t even make eye contact, he always buys his lunch from the bento shop where she works just so that he can see her.

Ishigami immediately begins instructing Yasuko and Misato on dealing with the incriminating evidence and makes plans for disposing of Togashi’s body. Soon after, the police find a body with its face smashed in and fingerprints burned off. By the time they identify it as Togashi and come knocking on Yasuko’s door, the mother and daughter have credible alibis and there is no solid evidence linking them to Togashi’s death. But the police have no one else to suspect, and Detective Kusanagi of the Edogawa police keeps poking at the problems in Yasuko’s story and questioning the puzzling circumstances of the murder. He turns to his friend Yukawa, another genius who works in the physics department at a local university and sometimes helps the police with their cases.

Yukawa, Kusanagi and Ishigami actually all attended university at the same time, and when Yukawa hears that Ishigami is the neighbour of the murder suspect, he asks Kusanagi for the address. Yukawa simply wants to get in touch with an old friend and classmate whose brilliance he deeply admired, but in doing so he starts to suspect Ishigami’s involvement in the case. The physicist is the only one with a mind to match the mathematician’s, and with Kusanagi’s help he tries to solve the problem that Ishigami has created to protect the woman he is so devoted to.

This is an unusual and interesting angle for a mystery novel. For the reader, there is no mystery surrounding Togashi’s murder – we learn all there is to know about the why, who and how in the first two chapters. Instead, it’s Ishigami’s brilliant cover-up that drives the story, as Yukawa and Kusanagi battle to find the truth. We see only fragments of Ishigami’s plan, which at first seems simplistic and sloppy, but is soon revealed to be complex and deceptive. Ishigami has never done something like this before, but he is certain that “Logical thinking will get us through this” and applies mathematical ideas to the problem as if it were an equation or philosophical dilemma.

For the sake of suspense, most of his methods are hidden from the reader until the very end. It feels a tad artificial, since the story is told from multiple perspectives (Yasuko, Ishigami, Yukawa and Kusanagi) and you are very aware of the fact that the author is being selective about what his characters say and think, or how much of their conversations are put on the page. But I thought the story worked very well nevertheless. Even if you aren’t privy to Ishigami’s plans, you get to see Yukawa and Kusanagi tackling the problem. The only irritating part is when Yukawa starts to figure out what happened, but only makes vague and provocative statements about it because he’s unwilling to incriminate his friend and doesn’t want such a brilliant mind to be wasted in prison.

There are some other interesting character dynamics at play. Yasuko starts dating an old friend, but both she and Misato are aware of how this could jeopardise their situation – Ishigami is obviously obsessed with her, so what might he do if he feels betrayed? Should Yasuko put her life on hold for someone so socially inept that he can’t even have a normal conversation with her? And how dangerous is Ishigami, a man who didn’t think twice about covering up a murder or mutilating a body to do it? The crime has been committed, but the sense of menace remains, especially when Yukawa describes Ishigami as a man who would do anything, no matter how horrific, if it was the most logical solution to a problem.

It’s quietly compelling story, somehow managing to be a page-turner with a minimum of the drama that that term generally implies. I appreciated its calm, straightforward manner and the way the plot differed from the norm. The Japanese police in the novel seem so very different from the brash cops often seen in fiction, or the overworked, under-resourced and inefficient ones you hear about in the news. The Edogawa police have all the resources they need, and Kusanagi is thoughtful and observant. He warns his partner about the danger of assumptions, when the younger officer assumes that a nice single-mother like Yasuko couldn’t possibly be guilty of a violent crime. Similarly, Yukawa warns Kusanagi about the assumptions the police are making, knowing that Ishigami could use that against them.

I like the strategic, rational thinking here, especially when it comes to the two geniuses. I only wish that the whole novel was as rigorous, because its logic fails somewhat in relation to Misato’s character. While there were only two or three technical details that bothered me in the novel, the worst one was about Misato – after she attacks Togashi, he retaliates and hits her repeatedly in the face, but at no point does she show any bruises.

Then, I felt that her character was badly neglected, which bugged me throughout the book and becomes problematic at the end. We’re always left to make assumptions about her motives and feelings, while other characters’ are described in more detail. It’s stated that Togashi had physically abused Yasuko, but whether or not Misato was also abused is not clear, although it’s very likely. Then there’s a subtle suggestion that he may have abused her sexually, which would certainly account for her fear, and her impulse to attack Togashi and help her mother kill him. Misato’s actions are what set the entire story in motion, but even in that crucial moment the focus is on Yasuko, and Misato feels secondary. For the rest of the novel, she is little more than a sullen teenager, spitting out a line here and there. She clearly feels guilty about what she did, not because Togashi was killed but because of the trouble and risk created for Yasuko and Ishigami. And yet Misato’s feelings are barely touched upon, even when we see the story from Yasuko’s POV as a concerned parent. If she talks to Misato about the situation, we don’t see it on the page.

On a related note, the police largely ignore the reasons behind the murder. The reader, of course, knows that Togashi threatened Yasuko and Misato, and several characters express relief at his death, knowing how badly he’d treated his ex-wife and step-daughter. The police, however, are more concerned with the who and how of the murder, not the why. With no one to suspect except Yasuko, they try to figure out how she could have done it, but aren’t too concerned with the glaring possibility that she killed Togashi in a kind of self-defence. Besides the fact that the police would need a motive for the case, ignoring the issue seems unkind, portraying Yasuko as a killer rather than a vulnerable person in a difficult situation.

Flaws aside though, The Devotion of Suspect X is an excellent crime thriller and an intelligent page-turner. It offers a refreshing departure from the norm in English-language fiction, not only because of the plot but because of the Tokyo setting, and the Japanese culture. The translation can be a little clunky at times, but some of that I would chalk up to a difference in style that I’ve noticed in other translations from Japanese, in both popular fiction and anime. I’d happily pick up another of Keigo Higashino’s novels, and I’d recommend that you do too.

Beautiful Redemption: International Giveaway

OK, so I tried doing an SA blogger giveaway of my review copy of  Beautiful Redemption by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, and sadly it seems that none of my fellow SA bloggers want it either 🙂 Or they already have copies. So I’m making it an international giveaway for both bloggers and non-bloggers. I’ll also extend the cut-off date to Monday 15 April. Here are the details (again).


Beautiful Redemption by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl is the fourth and final book in the Caster Chronicles, also know as the Beautiful Creatures series. The series began with Beautiful Creatures.

The blurb (may contain SPOILERS for the previous novels)

Ethan Wate always dreamed of leaving the stifling Southern town Gatlin.

But he never dreamt that finding love with Lena Duchannes would drive him away. Lena is a Caster girl whose supernatural powers unveiled a secretive and cursed side of Gatlin, so powerful it forced him to make a terrible sacrifice.

Now Ethan must find a way to return to Lena – and Gatlin – as she vows to do whatever it takes to get him back. Even if it means trusting old enemies or risking their loved ones’ lives.

Can Ethan and Lena rewrite their fate and their spellbinding love story in this stunning finale to the Beautiful Creatures series?

I received Beautiful Redemption from Penguin SA. It was published on 23 October 2012.

To win my copy, follow me via WordPress, email or Twitter and leave a comment below.

Terms and Conditions:
 – This giveaway is open internationally.
 – The giveaway will run for one week, from now until midnight GMT+2 on 15 April 2013. 
 – I will choose the winner using on 16 April, and will post the book once I have the winner’s address.

Good luck!

Review of Unearthly by Cynthia Hand

Title: Unearthly
Series: Unearthly #1
Author: Cynthia Hand
Published: 4 January 2011; my edition published 1 May 2011
Publisher: Egmont UK
Genre: paranormal romance, YA, fantasy
Source: review copy from Penguin South Africa
Rating: 5/10

I didn’t expect to get a copy of this from Penguin Books SA, and I wasn’t even going to read it, since paranormal romance is not my thing and I hate these lame pretty-girl YA covers. However, I’ve been away on a holiday of sorts, and found that I was too distracted to focus on more demanding reads, so I told myself to stop being a snob about this and just give Unearthly a shot. At the very least, I would learn a little more about the current trend of YA romances featuring mythical beings.

In Unearthly, the beings are angels and angel-bloods (human/angel hybrids). Sixteen-year old Clara Gardener is a Quartarius, a ‘quarter-angel’. Her mom Maggie is a Dimidius – a half-angel. When the novel opens, Clara is shown her ‘purpose’ – a vision of her reason for existing, her destiny. The vision shows a raging forest fire and a mysterious, beautiful boy she has to save. Using clues from her vision, Clara and her mother figure out where it’s supposed to take place and, along with Clara’s younger brother Jeffrey, they pack up their things and move to Jackson Hole, a small town in the forests of Wyoming.

At Jackson Hole High School, Clara learns that the boy she’s supposed to save is Christian. Christian Prescott. Christian is so hot that Clara’s friend Wendy refers to him as a god. Maggie pushes her to get closer to Christian in order to fulfil her destiny, but he’s dating one of the hottest, most popular girls in the school and Clara is in the lower half of the social hierarchy. She might be gorgeous and athletic thanks to her angel blood, but she starts school with her hair dyed orange (I’ll explain later), leading to some unflattering nicknames. She struggles to find her place at a school where everyone has known each other since nursery school and it’s a long time before she has a real conversation with Christian. She must also overcome the physical challenge of learning to fly and becoming strong enough to carry Christian away from the forest fire. However, everything becomes more complicated when Christian leaves town for the summer, and Clara falls for another boy, whose affection and rugged good looks distract her from her purpose.

I’ve read a few other paranormal romances just to give the genre a shot – Twilight and the first two Sookie Stackhouse books. I found them to be dreadful, boring novels, so I was pleased to find that this wasn’t too bad. The romance dominates the story, which I don’t normally like, but I actually found some of it quite sweet, at least when it wasn’t overly clichéd or being taken way too seriously. I imagine that fans of YA paranormal romance will be enraptured, particularly when the second romance begins to blossom later in the novel. Personally, I have to admit that the book gave me what I wanted, which was a quick, simple read. I finished it in about a day (even at 433 pages) and thought it was a decent way of passing the time.

But, me being me, I couldn’t help but notice the flaws.

Clara, firstly, is too perfect and privileged. She’s smarter, faster, stronger and more beautiful than humans. She heals quickly, she can speak any language, and command animals. Her mom is inexplicably wealthy, so it’s no problem to pack up and move across the country, and their house in Jackson is stunning. Maggie later buys Clara a prom dress just because it’s beautiful (at that point, Clara has no intention of going to the prom) and pays for skiing lessons and an expensive all-season pass for the slopes so that Clara and Christian can share a hobby and spend more time together. Clara and Jeffrey go to a swanky school, and although some of the students are “poor” they only seem that way because everyone else is stinking rich.

Everything is so easy for Clara, that learning to fly is only a challenge because it requires some actual effort and practice. When Clara tries other things, like skiing and horse-riding, she does it perfectly on her first try. As far as her personal life in concerned, she only has a minor difficulties common to pretty much every teenager on earth – hating her hair, suffering a few embarrassments, feeling confusion about her romantic interests, fighting with her mom. Even her purpose is something that she’s mostly just waiting for, and it seems way easier than the usual problem of trying to decide what to do with your life.

The novel gives too little attention to the concept of purpose and the rest of the angel mythology, so a lot of it is very vague, contrived or just silly. The mythology is almost strictly biblical, but the novel is silent on many relevant theological questions, like the nature of God or the role of religion. On the positive side this means the novel avoids being religious and it’s easy to see the angels as just another mythology (although you can take the religious view if you’re so inclined). On the downside it’s very flat and simplistic.

But of course, this is a fluffy teen romance, so I guess I shouldn’t expect much in terms of moral-complexity or world-building, and I think a lot of information is being held back for the rest of the trilogy. I often felt it would be easy to exchange mythologies, and make Clara a vampire or fairy, or switch genres and make her a cyborg or give her genetic engineering. She just needs to be a superhuman with secrets to keep and the romance could still play out in much the same way. However, there are some important plot points that are actually based on the shaky angle mythology, leaving us with some gaping plot holes.

Clara’s hair is one of these. It’s naturally golden (*sigh*), and can shine with a bright, “unearthly” light if she’s feeling emotional. To prevent this from happening, her mother dyes her hair, but I don’t understand why this solves the problem. Also, Clara’s hair turns out orange instead of auburn, which is quite embarrassing and is presumably meant to be the reason why this hot, smart, athletic girl doesn’t become one of the popular rich kids. Instead she’s notably ‘different’ and socially cut off from Christian, which better suits the plot. However, there’s really no reason why Clara can’t dye her hair a different colour. And why choose a light colour when a dark one would be safer? The whole orange-hair problem seems completely avoidable.

Then there’s her goal of getting close to Christian. As far as her purpose is concerned, I don’t think there’s any need for this. From what I can tell, she doesn’t have to do anything except fly him away from the forest fire. She figures out when and where it will happen, and she learns what jacket she’ll be wearing at the time. This means that it can’t take her by surprise, so it’s not like she has to follow Christian around. She just has to be in the right location, during fire season, on a day when she wears her purple jacket. She could ignore Christian most of the time, so really the idea that she needs to be his close friend or his girlfriend is a poor excuse for romance and a love triangle. Why not give her a better reason for wanting to get close to him, like learning more about the guy who is part of her purpose in life? What makes him special? The book doesn’t offer any explanation because Clara doesn’t try to figure it out. Apparently blind faith is enough for her. No surprise there, I guess.

It was also no surprise to find that the romance takes the old damsel-in-distress, my-life-revolves-around-a-man route. When Clara first sees Christian, she faints and he carries her to the nurse. I was suddenly very worried that I’d be reading Twilight all over again. It’s the first of several instances of Clara literally falling into a boy’s arms, and one of many romance and YA clichés. She also activates some of her angelic powers by thinking about a boy, and of course her whole reason for existing is to save the life of a hot guy. Christian is essentially the most important thing in her life because God said so. It’s some of that good old divinely inspired misogyny.

In terms of plot though, everything revolves around Clara. The other characters exist only to serve her story, and as a result they’re terribly flat. Two of them actually accuse Clara of assuming that everything is about her, but as a reader you’ll find nothing to contradict that assumption. About halfway through the novel most of the characters are casually sent out of town so that Clara’s second romance can develop unhindered.

Reading over this review, I can’t believe I sort of enjoyed this book. It obviously helped a lot that I wanted an easy read. I think the novel is also ‘saved’ by the fact that it’s mediocre. It’s not as stupid and misogynistic as something like Twilight; it’s benign enough for me to get some enjoyment from the story while brushing aside the flaws. It could be a bit slow at times, because its focus is on the romance rather than the paranormal stuff, but I think fans of the genre will be very happy with this. The ending also adds a few intriguing elements to the story, setting a nice stage for the sequel.

Buy a copy of Unearthly at The Book Depository

Review of Death of a Saint by Lily Herne

Title: Death of a Saint
Author: Lily Herne (Sarah and Savannah Lotz)
Series: Mall Rats #2
Published: 1 April 2012
Publisher: Puffin Books, a division of Penguin
Genre: YA, fantasy, action adventure
Source: review copy from the publisher
Rating: 8/10

It’s been a few weeks since the final events of Deadlands. Lele, Saint, Ash and Ginger are camping out the wilderness that is Cape Town because it’s too much of a risk to return to either the mall or their hideout outside the enclave. When they save a family from the zombies however, they have no choice but to take them to the enclave, so they decide to use the opportunity to buy supplies. It’s a big mistake. Corruption has festered, security has become more brutal, and the Resurrectionst government is about to distribute Wanted posters with the names and descriptions of the four Mall Rats. Their days of raiding the mall and selling the products in the enclave are definitely over.

It’s clear to Ash that they need to get the hell out of Cape Town. It’s a difficult decision to make, but they’ll be able to get away from the institution that wants them dead and perhaps find other survivors to help them fight the Resurrectionists. They might even find some answers to the many secrets surrounding the Guardians.

So begins their road trip across a decimated South Africa. They find new companions and new reasons to be hopeful about the future, but mostly it’s a hard journey, and not just because of what the Rotters have done to the country. Some of the Rats are keeping secrets that could destroy their friendships. What they find tests their characters and their relationships, and puts their lives at risk. As it turns out, there are far stranger and more dangerous things than Rotters or even Guardians out there, and the Mall Rats will be sniffing them out.

Now, I didn’t exactly love Deadlands, but Death of a Saint is a book of another calibre. Everything that bugged me about its predecessor is no longer an issue. Firstly, it has a different style. Lele no longer addresses an audience, which she did for no apparent reason in book 1 (she didn’t seem to be recording her experiences, so who was she talking to?). There are no more super-short chapters ending in one-liner cliffhangers. The narrative of Death of a Saint is smoother, more focused and the writing is more refined. Chapters narrated by Lele are now alternated with chapters narrated by Saint, giving us two perspectives on the story. This new tactic can actually be a little confusing as there often isn’t much difference between the two (both characters speak the same way and are mostly in the same situations), but for the most part it wasn’t much of a problem.

I also think that the characters are better written, and the and their interactions are more interesting. The Mall Rats learn new things about each other, much of it unsettling. At the end of Deadlands, Lele learned why the Rotters don’t attack the Mall Rats, but she finds the secret so shameful, she can’t bring herself to share it with the others, even though she knows she should.

Ash and Lele were clearly attracted to each other in book 1 (forming a clichéd loved triangle with Thabo), but now the possibility of a relationship seems to be dying out. Ash seems to be taking Hester’s death harder than the rest of them, and he’s always moody. He might have been the sexy brooding rebel before, but now his attitude gets everyone down and is killing his relationship with Lele. As Saint puts it, “The angst act is getting old” (50). Lele even starts to wonder if Ash’s good looks are the only reason she still likes him, since he’s been such an unapproachable asshole lately. Then Ash’s mood changes when they meet a stunningly sexy girl who’s also immune to Rotter attacks. She’s perky, brave and endlessly nice so everyone instantly likes her (me included). Lele is instantly jealous, not only of the newcomer’s gorgeous curves (compared to Lele’s skinny frame) but of how much time Ash spends with her, talking and laughing. It’s sheer torment.

This may sound mean, but I think it was good that the authors made Lele suffer like this. In book 1 I found her too temperamental and troublesome. Now she seems to have calmed down a bit, and the way Ash keeps hurting her made me more empathetic – it’s a situation we’ve all been in.

Ginger, on the other hand, is a character I always liked. Lele describes him as “the only person in the world who can put a positive spin on a zombie apocalypse” (113), and his ability to crack jokes and think of movie references even in the worst situations easily makes him the series’ most entertaining and likeable character. He occasionally shows a vulnerable side though – unlike the others, he hasn’t had a serious romantic interest, and he’s lonely. It’s quite heart-warming then, when he adopts a baby hyena and gives him the ridiculous name, ‘Bambi’. Despite the name, Bambi is really cute and I can see him growing up to be Ginger’s bad-ass companion. For the moment though, he mostly just has ‘accidents’ in Ginger’s hoodie and gives him my favourite line in the book:

“Don’t shoot! I have a hyena!” (150)

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that it’s the characters that made this a great book. I really cared about all of them, and my feelings were like ropes wrapping around my limbs and pulling me into their world. To add to that, ‘the journey’ is my favourite type of YA plot. I like the way that strange new places and people constantly bring uncertainty, surprise, hope and danger to the story, even if that sometimes makes the book discomforting to read. I like the demands that journey put on the characters, testing their strengths, forcing them to face up to their weaknesses, or teaching them new skills. Then, when they find a sanctuary in the midst of all their hardships, you feel just as relieved and happy as they do. Journeys are a source of both delight and torment, sometimes at the same time, and Death of a Saint does this one perfectly.

I enjoyed the story so much that I didn’t mind that they didn’t really learn much about the Guardians or fight the Resurrectionists. This was one of my major problems with the first book because it seemed like the most important and interesting stuff was being ignored. It’s a different case in Death of a Saint. The Mall Rats face these issues at the beginning, but once they’re on the road it makes sense for them to deal with the many other problems that arise.

Zombies, oddly enough, aren’t really one of those problems. Most Rotters don’t attack the Mall Rats, so they seldom have to fight them. Instead, Lele and the others tend to show them compassion rather than hostility. When a Rotter wanders into their camp at the beginning, Ginger gently chases him away instead of chopping his head off. On the road, they find a zombie who’s been dangling from a bungee cord for the last decade, feel sorry for him, and cut him loose. It disturbs them when they see how humans have made some of the Rotters suffer, and there’s a growing question of whether the Rotters still have some humanity left.

Humans, on the other hand, are the ones who pose the greatest danger. As in most post-apocalyptic stories, the breakdown of civilisation has made many people savage and cruel. Or really, really weird. Everyone has to be ready for a fight, not just with the Rotters, but with people who’d rob you, rape you, or kill you. Some show kindness and generosity, but with scarce resources, no one is looking for extra mouths to feed.

There’s less action than in Deadlands, I think, but fans of the first book shouldn’t worry – there’s still plenty to get your blood pumping and anyway, I think this story is more exciting with its ever-present sense of danger and uncertainty. Plus the characters are more engaging and there are some new ones I think you’d like. The writing is better, the structure is better – honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better sequel. My only disappointment is that they changed the cover from the cool creepy style of the Deadlands one, to this YA cliché. The title wouldn’t have been my first choice, but there are still plenty of surprises and a cliffhanger ending to whet your appetite for the final book – The Army of the Left. Kudos Lily Herne – you guys did an awesome job.

Buy a copy of Death of a Saint.