By Ayobami Adelbayo – This superb debut novel is set in
Nigeria, starting in the 1980s—a time of political upheaval following an
aborted election and resurgent military dictatorship. With that as a backdrop, it
focuses on the considerably smaller-scale politics within the household of a
married couple, Yejide and Akin Ajayi.
Narrating mostly by Yejide, with occasional chapters from Akin,
author Adelbayo presents an eloquent deconstruction of the social and family
pressures on the couple to have children—a not-unusual problem that the author
manages to make distinctly fresh. Difficult solutions are proposed and
undertaken that have profound consequences, forever altering Yejide and Akin’s
While that central problem remains intensely engaging, the
daily aspects of Yejide’s life, running her hair salon, remembering her
childhood and its stories, and catering to relatives’ demands and expectations
are rendered in vivid detail. The result is a novel nominated for numerous
prizes, one with “remarkable emotional resonance and depth of field,” says Michiko
Kakutani in The New York Times.
Adelbayo’s prose is deceptively straightforward, carrying
you along easily, and you occasionally must stop yourself to reread a sentence
or paragraph to fully appreciate its beauty or insight. An example is when Akin
talks about a breast-milk stain on his wife’s blouse: “As I watched the milk
stain spread downwards, I realised that the ground under our feet had just been
pulled away, we were standing on air, and my words could not keep us from
falling into the pit that had opened up beneath us.”
It doesn’t take long to read—give it a try!
photo: .craig on Visual Hunt, creative commons license
By Jan Moore, narrated by Jilly Bond – It’s January 1608.
London is dark most of the time, and the citizens are restless. Food shortages
put residents of the poorer neighborhoods in increasing peril, though the
authorities are still hiding the extent of the grain shortage. When a well
respected woman of the Aldgate neighborhood dies under mysterious circumstances
there is no lack of suspects. Just proof.
In Mrs. Cox, Jan Moore has created a powerful sense of time and place, and one of her story’s most salient features is the disregard the men have for women. The victim’s landlord, Mr. Sutton, proprietor of the alehouse across the street, investigates her disappearance and discovers not a body, but the bones of a hand, burnt in the fireplace, a detail based on a true crime of the era. He’s a rascally sort and people are willing to believe he might have done her in.
The local Alderman, Blincoe, is trying to expand the domain
of Aldgate through the acquisition of Duke’s Place, widening of the roads, and
construction of housing projects, with an eye eventually to becoming Mayor. A
number of people, including the current mayor, suspect him of dirty dealing,
but aren’t sure how to stop him. Blincoe also had a motive for murder, because
the victim could thwart his development plans.
Moore’s narrative is as full of colorful characters as a
Dickens novel, and some of their names are equally apt. Particularly
entertaining is the newspaperwoman Mrs. Gosson, so close in sound to gossip,
which well describes her stock-in-trade. The irrepressible laundress Bitty is a
lot of fun, and the vivid procession of sticky-fingered maids, apprentice
needleworkers, and persons of both sexes harboring secrets will stay in your
mind long after the story ends.
Rumors suggest the murderer was a woman called Mrs. Abbott, who was wearing a dress decorated with cobweb lace. Eventually, a woman so described is found. She’s tried, found guilty, and due to hang, but Mrs. Cox knows she’s not guilty and persists in trying to save her. Moore has done a creditable job imagining the difficulties and prejudices the women would face, confronting the disinterest and intransigence of the male authorities and the venality of those with a smidge of influence.
I enjoyed the book’s award-winning narrator, Jilly Bond. She has a significant challenge in developing distinctive voices and speech mannerisms for this colorful cast and conveys the different women expertly. The men’s voices are a little less convincing, yet they are easily told apart. If you like historical mysteries or pre-Dickensian London, you’ll find this book both intriguing and delightful! Mrs. Cox is currently available only in its audio version, was a UK finalist for an Audible New Writing Grant: Crime Edition 2018.
Photo above: John O’Nolan, creative commons license
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By David Hewson – Violent gangs roaming city streets looking for trouble, murder, illicit love, poisoning, suicide, and what amounts to the sale of a human being, these are the crime elements of thriller writer David Hewson’s latest reimagining of one of Shakespeare’s works. I’m not talking about one of the Bard’s tales of the murder of kings or caesars, but a story more often thought of as the pinnacle of romance, Romeo and Juliet.
Hewson’s is a wonderfully readable and entertaining recasting of a story that itself was reconceived several times before Shakespeare took his turn with it. According to an author’s note, the fundamental story appeared in a volume published in 1476, which a Venetian writer adapted in 1531, with a subsequent version in 1562 that was translated into French, then into a poem in English, which was the version Shakespeare used in creating the play, published in 1597.
In the spirit of a story that has repeatedly evolved to fit its time, Hewson has changed some things. Most notable is the ending, which may give purists fits, but the author says, “that’s what adaptation entails.” Juliet comes first in the title, because, with Hewson’s shifted emphasis, it’s her story. She’s a self-actualized, practical young woman, while Romeo is a dreamer, a little fuzzy around the edges. She knows what she wants and it is definitely not the forced marriage to the older Count Paris that her father has in mind. “So that’s the role Count Paris will perform,” Juliet challenges her father. “Not so much my husband as your proxy son. I marry him because it’s good for business.”
In addition to immersing himself in Shakespeare’s plays, Hewson comes to this project with a solid understanding of Italian culture, reflected in the contemporary crime stories he sets in Italy. The book is a full novel rework of an award-winning audio project he did with Richard Armitage, who narrated Hewson’s exciting version of Hamlet.
Clearing out the underbrush of Elizabethan-era language and putting more modern words in the characters’ mouths creates a refreshing experience. Hewson’s brilliant adaptations Macbeth: A Novel and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel, written in collaboration with Shakespeare scholar A.J. Hartley, prepared Hewson to penetrate to the core of Shakespeare’s characters and situations, making the familiar new again. Read and enjoy!
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If you’ve read a few of my book and movie reviews, you’ll have noticed I generally praise these creative efforts. Maybe you’ve thought I’m not very critical (my family members will gladly disabuse you of this notion). No, I end up reviewing mostly good stuff, because I don’t read a book or go to a movie that promises not to be pretty darn good. Life is short. In the past week, though, I’ve had two disappointments—one book and one movie that defied expectations.
The Scarpetta Factor
Patricia Cornwell’s forensic investigator Kay Scarpetta has many devoted fans. Somehow, I’d never read one of these books and scooped up this one at a book exchange. I won’t read another, even though I suspect this was a sub-par entry in the long-running series.
First of all, it was almost 500 pages long. To demand that much commitment of precious reading time, a book has to meet a high bar. Second, it could have been 300 pages, or anyway, 350. Sooo much tedious backstory clumsily dropped in that I kept thinking, can’t we get back to this story? Annoying repetition, repeatedly, over and over, as if the author tried three different ways of saying something, planning to go back in the editing process and eliminate the two weakest. Then didn’t.
Naming three characters Berger, Bonnell, and Benton was an invitation to reader confusion, which I accepted, most ungraciously. I never could get them straight. Did I mention plot holes? Hundreds of pages in, the story is building to a climax that was more like a gun that shoots a message saying “bang.” So much else had gone on, I had no interest at all in her villain (show, don’t tell his perfidies).
So, if you’re tempted to read one of Cornwell’s thrillers, check online reviews carefully—“not one of her best” is a giveaway—and maybe try one of the early ones. This was number 17 in the Scarpetta series, and perhaps she’d run out of steam.
P.S. I could have saved myself a lot of time if I’d remembered that she’s the author who keeps trying to prove the cockamamie theory that Jack the Ripper was the English painter Walter Sickert.
Writer-director Paul Schrader’s new film about an upstate New York Dutch Reformed minister’s apostasy can’t be faulted for the acting (trailer). Ethan Hawke as the desperately unhappy Reverend Ernst Toller (Earnest, get it?) is spectacular, as always. He’s a drinker and, believe it or not, that doesn’t help. Perhaps that’s why his character can’t see trouble coming every time he encounters his pregnant congregant with the heavily symbolic name, Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried. I especially liked Cedric Kyles, as the head of the local megachurch, Abundant Life.
The polar opposite of Abundant Life, Toller’s tiny First Reformed congregation is merely an archaic satellite of the larger church, kept alive more for historical value—its 250th anniversary approaches—than for its contribution to the spirit and economics of the parent enterprise.
The problem for me was the plot. Where is this story going? Is it an exercise in consciousness-raising about the environment? Is it about one man’s spiritual journey? The point must have flown by on wings of song (the singing is good), and I missed it. Perhaps it all boils down to the theme first expressed by Mary’s husband, a depressed environmental activist—“Will God forgive us?” And maybe that question applies equally to Rev. Toller’s personal quest as well as to our worldwide environmental depredations. Plus, the ending is strange, with two different interpretations in our household. (See the movie and tell me your, please.)
Last Saturday the Princeton Arts Council hosted an afternoon conference featuring an impressive gang of mystery and crime writers who ply their trade between New York and Philadelphia. A first of its kind, in my memory at least, it drew around a hundred writers and readers and fans.
Panels talked about writing stories set in a region—does it matter whether you’ve actually been there? Or, when is Google Earth not enough?—and stories where the author can’t have been there, because they’re set in a different historical time—how much research do you really need? Even stories set in the future, in the case of some thrillers—is research even important? Don’t you just make it up?
Audience members asked the burning question: how do people react when the find out you write about murder? And, while this prompted some humorous replies, in fact, most people are fascinated. They often say they would like to write a mystery themselves, though few end up doing it. Panelists encouraged them to. As to how they manage writing, other jobs, families, and so on, panelist Jeff Cohen (who writes as E.J. Copperman) had the best reply: “If you can swing it, it helps to have a wife with a full-time job.”
Guest of Honor S. J. Rozan, a mystery writer with 15 novels, more than 60 short stories, and multiple awards on her c.v., gave the keynote. She talked about how genre writers—crime (including mystery and thrillers), romance, Westerns, science fiction, and she’d include coming-of-age—are still disparaged as “not literature,” yet remain wildly popular.
Why is that? She said genre writing can be distinguished by having an ur-story, a fundamental story line. Readers (and moviegoers) expect and take comfort in those ur-stories and in their very predictability, and writers violate the established genre conventions at their peril. The ur-story in the romance genre is “love conquers all”; in science fiction, it’s “what it is to be human.” Mysteries and thrillers, despite their uncountable variations, have ur-stories too, she maintains. In mystery, it’s “here’s why this happened”—attractive in a world where so much seems inexplicable—and in thrillers, it’s “is there time?” This last manifests itself in the frequently encountered literal “ticking clock” that thriller protagonists are trying to beat.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell maintained there is a single ur-story underlying all fiction, ancient to 21c. This has led to the “hero’s journey” school of story construction, in which a protagonist is marched through a call to adventure, begins a quest, overcomes trials, brings home the goods, and so on. That fundamental storyline can be detected in Rozan’s more descriptive genre-specific ur-stories. Whatever it is, however it’s aggregated or subdivided, we love hearing and seeing the ur-story over and over in books, on stage, and in the movies.
The event, sponsored by Princeton’s Cloak & Dagger bookstore, was co-hosted by the local chapters of two organizations I belong to: Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime.
By Joe Hefferon – The author spent a quarter-century “in law enforcement” in gritty Newark, New Jersey. In this, his first full-length novel, he’s created an engaging female protagonist in a jam who turns to a private detective for help, and he set the story in and around Los Angeles. On the surface, his characters are savvy and confident—on top of the world—but underneath, well, it’s more complicated. The book’s brief prologue has a particularly engaging first line: “The coroner’s wagon had a flat tire.” Nothing good can follow.
Sixteen years before the novel begins, now-successful Hollywood interior designer Nina Ferrer lived in Chicago and gave up an illegitimate son because she was too young, too unready, and too unwilling to raise a child alone. She abandoned her child and the Midwest for a better, more glamorous life. It turned out she has a talent for perfectly divining the aspirations of her well-paying clients, making their homes an expression of their best selves. Her own home, however, is empty of love, as she and her wealthy businessman (and Cuban cigar-smuggling) husband have long since lost interest in each other.
Still, her life is reasonably well-ordered until she receives a telegram saying that her son back in Illinois has been accused of murder. His adoptive mother swears he is innocent, but she can’t afford a proper defense, and unless some kind of deus ex machina appears—most likely in the form of Nina herself—the boy is doomed to a lengthy prison term.
Nina’s husband is unaware of the boy and at this late date, she doesn’t want to tell him. So she travels all the way to dismal Bakersfield to find a private investigator and gets much more than she bargained for.
The short chapters toggle back and forth mostly between events early in 1965 and toward the end of that year. The later scenes are a series of journalist interviews with Nina that take place after she’s been incarcerated. You don’t know why she’s in custody or what is likely to happen to her until near the end of the story. Although Hefferon precedes each scene with the appropriate time stamp, this switching back and forth became a bit dizzying as the plot gains in complexity and the crimes that led to the boy’s arrest are investigated.
Hefferon’s engaging presentation of Los Angeles and its denizens, its petty criminals, and the detective Nina hires all seem plausible. Yet the novel has an occasional unevenness of tone that is jarring and which Hefferon will probably overcome with more writing experience. At times it seems he’s trying too hard to achieve a literary effect. Nevertheless, Hefferon is capable of pleasing on-point description. For example, “Whether it was (the reporter’s) inability to ask questions rapidly, or a natural gift for shutting up, he listened better than he talked, offering Nina a wide runway on which to land her story.”
You’ll enjoy spending time with these characters and may conclude this is an author who, when his literary skills catch up to his gifts of characterization and plot development, may become highly regarded in the crime fiction field. It’s gritty noir tinged with tinseltown glamour. And you may find these characters, especially the wise-cracking detective (whose wit is easily matched by that of Nina herself), modern incarnations of the types so well portrayed by Los Angeles literary icon Raymond Chandler and his progeny.
Perilously stretched, but yet unbreakable ties of blood, obligation, and love link three generations of a Calcutta family in Pulitzer-winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. It’s a pleasure to read a book so well put together, in which Lahiri saves something of a surprise for the end.
The story centers on two brothers in a family living alongside the lowland, a marshy area of ponds and fields, “thick with water hyacinth” next to their home in the city’s outlying area of Tollygunge. In the monsoon season, the water rises and floods the lowland and the two ponds merge. Not until the next summer does the water completely evaporate.
Subhash is the older and from childhood the more responsible brother, and Udayan the risk-taker. They are as inseparable as the nearby ponds throughout their school years. It’s the 1960s, and they still are living at home until after graduate school, when Subhash takes the dramatic step of immigrating to the United States for postgraduate study.
At first, Udayan pleads with him not to go. He’d gone to the countryside to do some work and returned very ill. When he recovers, “some part of Udayan was elsewhere. Whatever he had learned or seen outside the city, whatever he’d done, he kept to himself.” What he’s done is become involved in the Naxalite movement—the Maoist Communist party of India. It inspires him. It also is deadly dangerous. Subhash is not interested in this new passion of Udayan’s and resettles in Rhode Island.
Through his political work, Udayan meets and marries Gauri. They live with his parents, who expect her to be a traditional Indian wife, but she is university-educated and the situation is uncomfortable. Then the police come. Udayan tries to hide under the water in the lowland, but in front of his parents and wife, they murder him.
When Subhash returns to the aftermath, he sees Gauri’s position in the family is untenable, marries her, and takes her back to the States. The rest of the book is about his and Gauri’s relationship and how each of them relates so very differently to their daughter Bela, formed her from presence and absence alike, including the absence of Udayan.
A novel covering such a long swath of time necessarily skims a great deal, but in a sense, time has not moved on at all, and both Gauri and Subhash (who wasn’t even there) are stuck in the moment of Udayan’s death. It’s only by breaking free that their world will open up again. Hoping that they can keeps you reading.
Guest poster Greg Beaubien; photo, courtesy of the author
Story and voice are essential in novels. Start by thinking of the most compelling story you know or can imagine, and then tell it in your own voice, as if you don’t expect anyone else to ever read it. A common mistake beginning writers make is trying to impose style on their work. Attempting to impress readers has the opposite effect; they can smell a contrived or self-admiring tone.
To win readers over and give your novel that all-important element of voice, tell your story in a simple, straightforward way, with your own personality or attitude. Your voice becomes your style. Most professional writers do their share of hackwork to pay the bills, but when you write a novel, never censor your fiction or try to please others.
What makes a good story? Something changes in the lives of the characters, setting the narrative in motion. In The Godfather by Mario Puzo, the sudden, ominous appearance of a heroin dealer who wants financial backing and political protection from the Corleone family—and then tries to assassinate its patriarch when that support is denied—is the story’s catalyst. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy begins with the funeral of the protagonist’s grandfather, an event that leads to the impending sale of the family ranch in Texas and the young man’s decision to embark on an adventure to Mexico with his best friend. Early in my novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities, an American tourist kills a drug dealer in Morocco—an action that may or may not have been taken in self-defense, and from which the rest of the story flows into the past, present and future.
The change that sparks a story might be as big and dramatic as the outbreak of war or a natural disaster, or just someone new who enters the main character’s life. Stories that capture our attention involve a problem or barrier that the protagonist must face, a dilemma or an elusive goal. Something is at stake. In one way or another, there should be constant conflict—whether it’s a physical fight, an argument, or just a haunting memory. That pressure keeps the story moving and holds the reader’s interest.
Important as the story catalyst is, equally significant is how the characters react to the situations they’re in, according to their own personalities, desires, and fears. Tell your story, but show your characters. Always have empathy for them, even the villains. As the author, you should be able to sum up your novel’s story—how drug trafficking changed the Mafia in the 1940s, for example—but you also need to know what it’s about emotionally. In the case of The Godfather, the answer might be, “In taking over his father’s organized-crime empire, a son betrays his family and himself.”
Using the raw materials of your story, characters, emotional theme and naturally occurring authorial voice, write scenes in your novel similar to those in a movie. And just as filmmakers do, propel the narrative and hold the audience’s attention by getting into your scenes late and leaving them early.
A finished novel should be about 70,000–90,000 words long (established authors sometimes write them twice that length). But once you reach the end, plan on revising at least five or six drafts—and maybe many more. Much of the beauty in well-written novels occurs through the author’s self-editing. When you eliminate extra words, slow or dull passages, repetitions, clichés and errors, your story and voice are honed and the real book starts to emerge.
Guest poster Gregory W. Beaubien is a longtime journalist and feature writer, who published his debut novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities in 2014 (Moresby Press). He is revising a new novel called Air Rights, about struggling fathers who try to blackmail a real estate tycoon, not realizing that the businessman also has a family and is facing serious legal and financial problems of his own.
By Aravind Adiga, narrated by Sartaj Garewal – Adiga’s 2017 novel purports to be about two brothers, growing up in a Mumbai slum, under the obsessive protection of their cricket-crazy father—a helicopter parent with a swinging cricket bat for a rotor blade. Adiga’s debut novel The White Tiger was such a witty, penetrating exploration of economics and capitalism and how they affect the average person (and a winner of the Man Booker Prize) that I eagerly awaited this one. If he can make economics entertaining, cricket should be a snap, right?
To read the book, it thankfully isn’t necessary to understand cricket’s impenetrable mysteries. The novel is in essence a coming-of-age story, a story of when to hold on to parental values and when to abandon them, of the choices that come the boys’ way and what they do with them, and the intrusions of fate.
There are some wonderful characters: the boys Radha Kumar and his principal rival in cricket and in life, his younger brother Manju, their clueless dad—the lowly chutney salesman Mohan—and the local cricket talent scout Tommy Sir, among many others. Years of effort are guiding the boys’ efforts to “selection day,” when just a couple of up-and-coming 17-year-olds will be chosen to play for Bombay Cricket. That one day will make the boys’ future or break their father’s heart. Possibly both.
One of the best aspects of the book is the relationship between the boys. Said Carmela Ciuraru in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Adiga superbly captures the intimacy between the two brothers, as they bicker, tease and protect each other” and as Manju struggles with his sexuality. Also entertaining were the cricket officials’ efforts to keep the father away from the playing fields. Anyone who’s been especially close to a brother or who’s observed the obsessive parents at their children’s sporting events can identify with the dilemmas of this striving family. Again, says Ciuraru, Adiga’s take is “both satirical and affectionate as he shows how the sport is less a means of lifting gifted kids out of poverty than reinforcing boundaries of privilege in rather ruthless ways.”
The book begins three years before the Selection Day in which Radha will participate and a short concluding section takes place eleven years later. As a tremendous fan of audio books, I was quite disappointed in the narration by Sartaj Garewal and believe it is at least partly responsible for my not becoming fully engaged with this book. Read a print version.
photo: mytokyoguide.wordpress.com, used with permission
By Nicolás Obregón – What an entertaining debut! Told almost exclusively from the perspective of Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Inspector Kosuke Iwata, it’s a multilayered police procedural involving murder, official corruption, and dangerous secrets.
A brief prologue set in 1996 describes the death of a woman who jumped from a dangling cable car into the sea, despite the efforts of police detective Hideo Akashi to save her. Fifteen years later, Akashi is investigating the quadruple murder of a Korean family. In the midst of his investigation, he commits suicide by jumping off Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge (pictured above). No one knows why. This theme of falling pervades the novel and ties together many of its strands, past and present.
The brass at the police department asks their newest detective, U.S.-trained (and therefore highly suspect) Iwata to pick up Akashi’s investigation of the family’s murder. Iwata is aided by Assistant Inspector Sakai, transferred from the Missing Persons department to work with him. These two inexperienced homicide detectives are assigned such a complex investigation because the department is short-handed, having lost Akashi, and is focused instead on another of his cases, the mysterious death of high-profile actress. A little racism creeps in, as well; as Iwata’s supervisor explains, “The family were Korean, so not exactly front-page news.”
Iwata and Sakai manage to get along rather well, considering. He is haunted by memories of his childhood in an orphanage, and she is a feisty young woman whose reflexive prickliness provides a lively counterpoint of humor. (I loved her!)
Iwata and Sakai haven’t made much progress in their investigation when the lonely widow of a judge is murdered. Striking details at the crime scene are similar to the Korean family’s case. Though Iwata and Sakai energetically pursue multiple lines of inquiry, they cannot begin to figure out what links these deaths until he starts breaking rules.
The author, who has lived in Japan, not only evocatively describes the physical and social settings of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hong Kong, he also carefully explores Iwata’s complex interior life and motivations. The atmosphere he creates is dense with possibilities and a bit dreamlike. This is in part because a dozen or so mysteriously poetic lines repeatedly float through the detective’s mind: “The lights of the city are so pretty”; “I walk and walk, swaying, like a small boat in your arms.” You don’t learn the origin of these lines until well along—a song that is the source of the book’s title (hear it here).
But Obregón is a more subtle writer than that, and the title also echoes other blue lights. A local suicide prevention program uses them, based on the supposition that the color blue is calming. The flashing blue lights of police cars, another recurrent Obregón image, would belie that assumption. Blue Light Yokohama is an immersive police procedural that uses its exotic setting and distinctive characters to great effect.