Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight

If you enjoyed Riku Onda’s previous mystery translated into English, The Aosawa Murders, you’ll find many of the same attributes in her new psychological thriller, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight. It offers that same dreamy feeling and a quality of uncertainty about the characters’ perceptions. It’s almost as if the story were told by those very fish, trying to make sense of the light and dark around them through a veil of water.

The short chapters of this new book are related alternately by Chiaki (Aki) and Chihiro (Hiro), who met in the tennis club at college and were immediately attracted to each other. Paired up to play doubles, it seemed like they had played together their whole lives. When their parents learn about their friendship, they reveal that the young people are, in fact, brother and sister, twins separated when their mother could no longer take care of them both and gave daughter Aki up for adoption. Since age three, they were raised as only children.

To recapture the lost years of siblinghood, Aki and Hiro decide to share a flat in Tokyo and are very happy for a time. The relationship falls apart after a mountain hike when their guide is killed in a fall, and they are each wracked by suspicion that the other somehow engineered the tragedy. The novel takes place on their last night together.

Every chapter peels away another layer, as each of them is intent on extracting a confession about the guide’s death from the other. It turns out that the guide is connected to the twins in a way that might provide a motive for murder, but did it? Author Onda spreads out the revelations, and in large part, they’re the siblings’ differing impressions of the tragedy.

Unexpected fragments of memory find their places in the puzzle of their lives, as the deepening mystery flashes, twists, and turns much like the eponymous fish that Aki at one point describes.

The translation by Alison Watts effectively conveys this sense of gradual discovery—about the guide, about the siblings’ relationship, about their un-twin-like misinterpretation of the other’s state of mind, about the past, and, perhaps even about their futures. Onda has a lovely, slow-moving and relatively unadorned style of writing. But beneath the placid surface is a tidal wave of emotion. She minimizes physical description in lieu of emotional nuance, resulting in a complex and memorable story.  

Onda is a well-known Japanese novelist, whose works have won numerous top awards and been adapted for both film and television there. The Aosawa Murders was the first to be translated into English. It won a Best Novel award from the Mystery Writers of Japan and was selected as a 2020 Notable Book by The New York Times.

See You Next Tuesday

In See You Next Tuesday, former US FBI agent Ken Harris has brought back his entertaining private investigator Steve Rockfish and his young assistant—now partner—Jawnie McGee. This is the second of a series, following his debut with The Pine Barrens Stratagem earlier this year. In this novel, Jawnie has passed her PI exam, and the two of them have established a bare-bones office in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, just south of Baltimore.

When this fast-moving story begins, the duo is faced with three separate quandaries. Most puzzling is the yellow Nissan Xterra parked across the street with a woman in it who appears to be spying on their office. Most annoying is their new client, the wealthy Claudia Coyne, who’s convinced her husband Roan is stepping out on her and insists they find out who the floozy is. And, most alarming, Rockfish’s father Mack is rushed to the hospital with a possible heart attack.

With his father in the hospital, Rockfish bequeaths the Coyne case to Jawnie and spends time with his father, whose heart is fine, but he’s stressed out, having lost $17,000 in a phony investment scheme.

Jawnie begins following Roan Coyne on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the nights he regularly arrives home late. At first, his actions seem completely above-board, even admirable. On Tuesday evenings, he buys dozens of McDonald’s meals and distributes them to the homeless; on Thursdays, he staffs a soup kitchen. Following these charitable endeavours, he attends meetings in the basement of Allison’s Adult Super Store. When Jawnie peeks in a window, the gathering looks to her like some kind of self-help or religious session. She suspects something shady.

Jawnie trips over a woman camped out in the alley behind the adult store. Some cash waved around convinces the woman—Lynn—to attend the next meeting. One thing they figure out quickly is the several plays on the phrase “See You Next Tuesday,” a bit of risqué wordplay.

Rockfish is determined to get his father’s money back and follows a sketchy clue to the scammers base of operations. When he and Jawnie both turn up in the parking lot behind Allison’s Adult Super Store, they realize they’re working on different dimensions of the same case.

As in the earlier book, Rockfish and Jawnie’s relationship is a work-in-progress. He admires her skills with the computer and with people, and she admires his ability to keep going, in the face of seemingly impossible odds. I like watching them work.

Lynn definitely adds to the team’s strengths and Rockfish’s long-time friend Raffi, who’s also brought on board, will always be a wild card. Destroy and repair describes Rockfish’s relationship with the authorities, and he’s constantly skating somewhere out there on the thin ice. The humorous elements and overall entertainment value of this sequel suggests author Harris has found a winning formula for his cast of interesting characters, and we can look forward to more.

The Woman in the Library

When you read this latest psychological thriller by Sulari Gentill, The Woman in the Library, you may need to stop every so often and think, where am I? Its clever plot is like a set of nesting boxes, and you have to check which box you’re in. You may be familiar with Gentill’s ten historical novels featuring gentleman detective Rowland Sinclair, and, though this is not part of that series, it displays the same storytelling chops.

In this story, Australian author Hannah is writing a contemporary novel set in the United States. Her main character, Winifred (‘Freddie’) Kinkaid is also an author, working on a new book in the inspiring setting of the Boston Public Library. One day she finds herself at a table with three more young people and idly muses about them. They’d make great characters in her novel, she thinks. So, what you are reading are the chapters in Hannah’s novel, concerning Freddie and her new friends.

They’ve all four quietly checked each other out, but the ice is broken when a piercing scream shatters the library’s stillness. Oddly, the scream pulls them together. They speculate, start to chat, introduce themselves, and soon wander off for coffee as a group. The other woman, Marigold, heavily tattooed, has a rather obvious crush on their tablemate, Whit Metters, and the fourth is a handsome fellow named Cain McLeod. After that unusual bonding experience, the four spend much time together, especially when their curiosity is raised by the discovery of a murdered woman, presumably the screamer, under a table in the library meeting room.

Hannah (fictional, remember) is a best-selling author back in Australia, and as she’s writing about daily life in another country, she accepts the offer from a Boston-based fan to review her chapters and look for anachronisms in vocabulary—‘jumper’ instead of ‘sweater,’ ‘crisps’ instead of ‘potato chips,’ and the like—and location details. This man, Leo Johnson, is also an author, very down in the dumps about the publishing industry’s lack of interest in his book. Chapters of Hannah’s book are followed by a ‘Dear Hannah’ reaction from Leo.

At first, Leo’s advice is confined to minor factual matters and minor adjustments in descriptions. The fact that the fictional Freddie encounters these cultural quirks makes sense, as she’s Australian, too. She’s able to work on her book and live in Boston’s upscale Back Bay, thanks to a fellowship. A neighboring flat is occupied by another fellowship recipient, a character whom Hannah names Leo Johnson. (A third Leo is buried in the name McLeod. Significant?) Her correspondent is delighted at being recognized in this way, which may contribute to his growing intrusiveness. He makes corrections, fights for his suggestions, and sends photos he thinks Hannah might (should?) use for inspiration. His long-distance efforts to encroach on her creative territory made me increasingly uneasy! Creepy!

Meanwhile, in Hannah’s novel, the four friends learn unsettling revelations about Cain McLeod’s past. (Real) author Gentill plays the gradual erosion of trust nicely. Nor is the killing finished. McLeod seems to be the police’s top suspect.

The relationships among the friends are well developed, and, as Freddie gradually falls in love with McLeod, you hope she’s not getting in over her head. Not only is there the risk that he’s not whom he pretends to be, as Marigold warns her, there’s also the inconvenient fact that the police are watching his every move. Her proximity may put her on their radar too. Not until she and McLeod visit an Aussie bar does she recognize how hard she’s been trying to fit in.

This is a very readable book, with a strong sense of menace generated by Leo’s correspondence. I enjoyed it!

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The Ones We Keep

Bobbie Jean Huff’s powerful new domestic drama, The Ones We Keep, is a real standout. It’s quite a testament for a debut author’s novel to be compared to the works of Elizabeth Strout and Diane Chamberlain! I enjoyed it thoroughly, as much for the quality of the writing as the fully developed and compelling characters.

As the story begins, New Jerseyans Olivia and Harry Somerville and their three young boys are vacationing at a Vermont lake. Olivia, returning from a walk, sees a police car leaving the resort, and two teenagers she encounters on the trail tell her a boy from New Jersey has drowned. All Olivia can think to do is run. If she gets away, if she hides, if she cuts off communication with her family and friends, she will never know which of her boys is lost. I have three sons, becomes her mantra.

Once she makes this break from what would have been her reality, it’s somehow better to keep that door firmly closed than to go back and face her loss. The story describes the accommodations she must make as she builds a new life, how Henry and the two remaining boys cope with her absence, how time moves on. Olivia’s choice may not be one most of us would make, but it is the choice she believes she has to make, in order to keep all her sons alive in her mind and for her own survival.

Bobbie Jean Huff and I are acquainted, having taken some of the same writing workshops together, and I couldn’t be more delighted that this novel turned out so beautifully!

Weekend Movie Pick: Parallel Mothers

Seeing Penélope Cruz in a movie’s cast-list is enough to make me want to see the film, and that decision-rule works flawlessly in Parallel Mothers (trailer), her latest work for writer-director Pedro Almodóvar. It’s a moving tale about what’s lost and what’s found, about the importance of knowing who you are and where you came from (coincidentally, the theme of yesterday’s post about genetic genealogy).

In this film, Cruz plays Janis, a professional photographer who, after a photo session with a forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde) asks about the exhuming the graves of her great-grandfather and several other men murdered by the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Such excavations take place under Spain’s 2007 Law of Historical Memory, but Arturo says the arrangements will take time.

He and Janis begin an affair that, months later, leads Janis to a hospital maternity ward. She’s very happy to be pregnant and about to give birth. Not so, the frightened teenager Ana (Milena Smit), her hospital roommate. Janis gives Ana a lot of support that is not forthcoming from Ana’s mother, and they promise to stay in touch.

Arturo isn’t wild about the baby, and the future of his and Janis’s relationship is uncertain. Janis reconnects with Ana and engages her as a nanny. Soon she’s faced with a powerful moral dilemma, and both their lives are about to change profoundly.

When the film returns to the question of the exhumation, it can feel like someone in the projection booth switched up reels, but again, the subject is knowing where you came from, which Almodóvar illustrates in two completely different ways.

Cruz and Smit are wonderful as the new mothers, and the rest of the cast does well too. Quite entertaining, especially after recent disappointments (Licorice Pizza and Nightmare Alley). In Spanish, with subtitles.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 83%.

Find Her First

Former newspaper journalist Emma Christie’s second novel, Find Her First, could be called a crime thriller, which it is, or a murder mystery, which it also is. Trying to figure out what is really going on in a sea of red herrings is a big part of this book’s enormous pleasures.

The story takes place in Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside, where Andy Campbell and his wife Stef are dedicated hikers. Scotland’s well-described forests and cliffs and vistas are an essential backdrop to their story.

The book opens with Andy, apparently on trial for murder, awaiting the verdict. He’s an experienced paramedic, but has he taken a life? Though the contours of his crime are not yet defined, his sadness that events reached this point is clear.

You’re left waiting for the court’s judgment, which won’t come for many pages. Instead, the narrative goes back six months to the previous summer. Chapters taking Andy’s point of view alternate with those written by Betty Stevenson, the housecleaner for Andy and his wife Stef, also a paramedic, but on mandatory leave.

Fate and whether it’s possible to escape it or to take it into your own hands is a major theme of the book. Betty is fond of Stef and desperately eager for closeness with someone. She believes in luck—the luck of a shiny penny found on the street—and in fate. Being a friend to Stef, she thinks, is her fate. And now, it seems, Stef is missing. Betty is going to Do Something About It.

Betty and Andy both had traumatic childhoods that shaped their current lives, with Andy determined to save people and Betty, in her own way, trying to recapture the innocence of those much younger days. A few chapters are in Stef’s point of view from a year before the trial. All these time shifts can be a mite confusing, but in the end make sense.

All three of the main characters have regrets. Fractured family relationships. A romantic indiscretion. Lies they’ve told. A series of miscarriages. Author Christie spins out a complicated, entangling web and keeps you guessing about where its strands will lead. Are their current challenges related to the past, the present, or the future?

She writes with a close-in psychological perspective, and you come to have a rather deep understanding of the principal characters. You know why they act as they do, even when another course might be objectively better. In a sense, it’s an object lesson in the perils of partial information. You have only partial information too, and not until the end do you learn what the story is really about. An excellent read.

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A Feast for Book Lovers!

Last week, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the New York Times Book Review, current staff and contributors presented an entertaining look back at books where reviewers got it dreadfully wrong and reviews that sparked particularly pointed letters to the editor.

Contemporary authors read scathing sections of reviews panning books now considered classics. Catch-22, reviewed in 1961, was deemed too long and too episodic—a collection of incidents, not a coherent novel. Though the reviewer of Anne of Green Gables considered her “one of the most extraordinary girls to ever come out of an ink pot,” she was deemed far too clever, well-spoken, and much too wise. (That’s why we readers loved her!) Fahrenheit 451, reviewed in 1953, was dismissed as a polemic. The reviewer believed Ray Bradbury had “developed a hatred for many aspects of current life,” and showed what would eventually happen if the tendency to treat reading as a heinous event went unchecked.

Book Review editor Tina Jordan called the letters the review has received “the Internet message board of their day,” containing praise, complaints, grievances, and corrections. In one from 1962, an author pointed out a mistake in the review, and the reviewer agreed she’d mis-read something (a bit unfathomably when they read us the disputed passage). Norman Mailer was mentioned in the review of a book by a different author, and Mailer wrote to dispute the comparison and in the process, assuring that more people heard about the controversy.

Best was Jack London’s response to a 1905 review that criticized the “unrealistic” fight scenes in his short story, “The Game.” A devoted boxing fan and amateur boxer himself, London felt obliged to respond, saying, “I have had these experiences and it was out of these experiences, plus a fairly intimate knowledge of prize-fighting in general, that I wrote The Game.” So there!

The 1986 novel in verse, The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth, received only condescending praise from its reviewer, which instigated a fiery letter from Susan Sontag, who called it “a thrilling, subtle literary achievement.” Clearly, opinions differ.

This month, the Book Review will be publishing its list of finalists for the best book of the past 125 years—and you can nominate your favorite here! Meanwhile, you can read reviews and interviews selected from the Review’s amazing archives. The Book Review’s anniversary celebration isn’t ignoring the crime/mystery/thriller genre. Included in its retrospective content—linked above—are a 1912 review of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and commentary from over the years on such classics as Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Ellery Queen’s The Dutch Shoe Mystery, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and, one of my favorite books, not technically a crime novel, but filled with crimes, high and low—Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. A feast for book lovers!

Her Sister’s Shadow

If you’re a fan of books with an unreliable narrator, you’re in luck with Catherine Wimpeney’s debut thriller. She draws on her experiences and insights as a psychotherapist to create a nuanced portrait of a woman with profound and initially unappreciated mental health challenges.

Kay is a Senior Investigating Officer in the Manchester police force, a bit uneasy with her partner, DI Matt Anderson, whom she believes is too ambitious (wants her job), and with their commanding officer, Barbara Dean (may give it to him). Granted, Kay seems more than a bit paranoid when she sees Matt and Barbara talking with each other. But she’s been in a shaky mental state since her older sister Helen’s suicide.

About ten months earlier, Helen jumped to her death from a parking structure. Helen suffered from depression for many years, but Kay never anticipated she’d do this. Kay knows she played a role in Helen’s troubled psychiatric history, which contributes to her grief and guilt over Helen’s death. Kay has missed a number of appointments with the therapist her department hoped would get her back on track. That, combined with Kay’s current somewhat erratic mental state, convinces Barbara to require that she take some time off.

Fate seems to play a cruel trick on Kay when she spots another woman at the top of a parking structure, looking prepared to jump. She rushes to the woman’s aid. If she couldn’t save her sister, perhaps she can save this woman. The woman’s name is Ava, and Kay finally talks her down. Ava’s reveals she’s being tormented by her ex-husband, Adrian McGrath, a wealthy property developer. She is terrified of him and the men he has following her. To Kay’s surprise, she knows McGrath, whom she holds partly responsible for the torture death of a young boy.

Kay planned to pursue her mental health recovery in Scotland at a vacation home that’s been in her family for generations. Quiet. Fabulous views. Now, she invites Ava to join her. No one will have a clue that’s where she’s hiding.

Author Wimpeney delves into a lot of backstory, not just about Kay, but Adrian too, and I’m not sure all of it was necessary. She made a good choice in letting Kay narrate most of the story in first-person. You get a strong sense of her perspective, which makes the book work. A few very short chapters take other points of view, but make the narration feel choppy.

When Kay finds Helen’s journal in the vacation house and begins to read, her mental state is stressed almost beyond endurance. The pressure on Kay continues to mount—protecting Ava, salvaging her career, repairing relationships, dealing with Adrian, heading off a nosy reporter.

Her Sister’s Shadow is unquestionably a psychological thriller, and you may conclude it emphasizes the psychological elements at the expense of the thriller elements. Yet, the unpredictable consequences of Kay’s mental state will keep the pages turning.

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Streaming Movie Picks

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

We liked this unusual Hungarian romance written and directed by Lili Horvát and starring Viktor Bodó and Natasa Stork, one of the most pleasant-looking actresses around (trailer and interview with the filmmaker).

Márta Vizy, a successful 40-year-old neurosurgeon, working in the United States, meets a man at a conference in New Jersey, and they agree to meet a month hence. She abandons her prestigious position in deference to romance, but when she encounters him again in Budapest, he claims they’ve never met. This confuses her to the point that, while she rebuilds her career in her home country, she has to sort out where reality and wishful thinking collide.

While the Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it an 88% score, the few audience ratings averaged out to only 55%.  I suspect what American audiences didn’t like were exactly the features that made us admire the film—primarily, the unexpected plot twists. Certainly (and thankfully) it follows no familiar, superficial formula! Oh, and there are subtitles. “A very engaging film to watch,” says Cinetopia’s Jim Ross

The Outside Story

This drama/comedy is kicked off when Charles locks himself out of his New York apartment. He’s a screen-obsessed introvert (a video editor, who assembles online obituaries for people not quite dead yet). He just broke up with his girlfriend and doesn’t know any of his neighbors. Well, he meets them now, and quirky and charmingly human they are.

Brian Tyree Henry is a genial if befuddled Charles, Sunita Mani, is a parking enforcement officer who’s hilariously suspicious of him, Sonequa Martin-Green is the super-glam former girlfriend. Numerous others turn even the smallest roles into gems. Written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski. This is a lot of fun (trailer)!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audience rating 79%. The critics consensus: “A refreshingly optimistic look at urban community life.”

The Cut

By Chris Brookmyre – “Millicent Spark’s life ended on the twenty-third of January, 1994,” starts Chris Brookmyre’s new thriller. She woke up with the body of her lover Markus next to her, covered in stab wounds. She served 20-some years in prison for his murder – her sentence lengthened because she insisted she was innocent. She’s finally out, living in Glasgow, trying to cobble together some kind of modus vivendi in a vastly changed world.

At a university across town, Jerry Kelly is an uneasy first-year student, having trouble fitting in. He’s black, from a village in North Ayrshire, and grew up with almost nothing. A big piece of his education, such as it was, came from obsessive viewing of horror videos from his gran’s rental outlet. This explains his encyclopedic knowledge of film in general and especially the legendary gore-fests.

Brookmyre’s two misfits have plenty of depth and individuality; they’re sympathetic, despite their flaws, with a wry sense of themselves. On the surface they appear to be polar opposites, but plot magic happens once their paths cross.

Jerry applies to live in an off-campus house, not expecting to be accepted, given who he is and how he looks—dreadlocks, black wardrobe of metal band t-shirts—and given that his prospective housemates are three elderly ladies. To his surprise and theirs, they take him in. He discovers that pre-prison, his prickly new housemate Millie Spark had been a genius makeup artist on many of the blood-soaked films he loves. Grisly wounds were her specialty. The movie-banter between them is highly entertaining, and she’s not put off by his dark affect. But what cements their relationship is when he rescues her from a man trying to smother her with a bed-pillow.

The last movie Millie worked on was Mancipium, a film rumored to be such pure evil no one has ever seen it. All copies were destroyed, and everyone connected with it died. Not strictly true, although several unexplained deaths and disappearances gave the story legs. Seeing Mancipium is at the top of Jerry’s all-time wish-list.

Millicent and Jerry discover that her murdered lover Markus was not a film production company rep, as he claimed, but a London cop. Why did he lie, and what was he after? Who really killed him, and why was Millie framed for his murder? The answers to these questions could prove Millie’s innocence and answer the more urgent question, who wants her dead now? Author Brookmyre effectively ramps up the tension as the danger to Millie mounts and as she and Jerry discern the outlines of a much bigger conspiracy.

The long-ago summer Mancipium was wrapping up offers intriguing clues: immense pressures on the production team, a decadent lifestyle of underage sex and over-consumed drugs, and the influx of high-powered guests that lifestyle attracted. Millie and Jerry search out the scattered remnants of the old crew and ask their questions, with their pursuers never more than a half-step behind.

There may be a fifty-year age difference between Jerry and Millie, but a lively and wholly believable friendship grows up between them. Getting out of their predicament will require the knowledge and skills of both. They are fascinating, funny, and spirited protagonists who are such good companions—to the reader and to each other—that I wished the book could continue for another hundred pages. I hated to give them up! In sum, a most satisfying adventure.