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.

Order here from Amazon.

Or here from IndieBound.

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.

Order here from Amazon.

Or here through IndieBound.

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.

Stellar New Crime Novels from South America

Crocodile Tears by Mercedes Rosenda

Uruguay probably isn’t at the top of your list of places clever crimes are hatched—with cleverer police detectives on the prowl—but Mercedes Rosenda’s new book, admirably translated by Tim Gutteridge, will clue you in. It’s dubbed ‘a blackly comic caper in the style of Fargo.’ You may object to the descriptor, caper, as being too weighted on the comic rather than the ‘blackly’ side. But if you think of a caper as involving slightly dim criminals who can’t quite get anything right, this is surely one.

The story begins in confusion. Diego is in an overcrowded and dangerous prison, charged with a recent kidnapping. The slippery lawyer Antinucci promises to spring him. It seems that Ursula López, wife of the kidnapped man, says Diego never contacted her, never asked for a ransom. But the ransom was paid, and Diego’s partner absconded with it. Still, without Ursula, he can’t be convicted.

Before long, you realize two very different women named Ursula López are intertwined in the story, and it’s hard to see how everything can work out well for them both. The situation looks increasingly perilous for Diego too, when he’s forced to participate in an ill-conceived armored truck robbery.

I found Ursula and the female detective, Leonilda, especially interesting. They’re women whom the men dismiss as unimportant, yet they keep the events of the story moving in unexpected directions and provide much of the wry humor. Glimpses of life in Montevideo peep through too.

Repentance by Eloísa Díaz

Eloísa Díaz’s riveting new political thriller takes place during two tumultuous periods in Argentina’s history. The present-day of the story is December 2001, when riots in Buenos Aires and elsewhere will lead to the president’s resignation. These events alternate with flashbacks to 1981 and Argentina’s Dirty War, a terrifying era in which the military, security forces, and right-wing death squads kidnapped, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of supposed left-wing sympathizers. Among the murdered was the younger brother of the book’s protagonist, Inspector Joaquín Alzada of the Policía Federal.

Alzada has a new deputy, Orestes Estrático, eager to please, alarmingly wet behind the ears, and insufferably by-the-book. A young woman from one of the country’s wealthiest landowners is reported missing, and Alzada’s superiors don’t want him spending time on the case. After all, what kind of investigation is it? A missing person? Not enough time has elapsed. A murder? There’s no body. Unless . . . Alzada and Estrático recall the body of an unknown woman discovered that morning in a dumpster behind the city morgue. Could they pretend she and the disappeared woman are one and the same?

Alzada is an engaging character, and how he goes about discovering what happened to his family in 1981 and to the missing woman in 2001 is told from close-in point of view. You’re privy to many of his thoughts and wry observations at odds with the politically correct demeanor that’s his survival strategy. Especially enjoyable is young Estrático, who has talents Alzada doesn’t expect.

New Jersey Noir: Cape May

New Jersey Noir: Cape May is the second of William Baer’s novels about private investigator Jack Colt, set firmly in New Jersey. Jack is a resident of Paterson, noted for its waterfalls that powered local industry (pictured). There, one of his forebears founded the Colt firearms manufacturing company, so naturally, the revolver he carries is a Colt Python. Luckily, he’s pretty good with it too.

A judge from Cape May, New Jersey, at the far southern tip of the state, calls on Jack with an intriguing tale of two mysterious deaths. He’d hired a local Cape May private investigator, Edward Colt—puzzling coincidence there—to look into the murder of his daughter ten years before. Now Eddie Colt has been murdered.

Judge O’Brien had twin daughters, Nikki and Rikki. When Nikki was seventeen, her car was driven into the Atlantic Ocean with her in the trunk. The police long ago exhausted their available suspects, but Eddie Colt wanted to pursue it. In his papers were twenty-five thousand dollars and a note: “Remittance for Jack Colt.” “He wants you to solve the case,” the judge told Jack. “Both cases.”

Jack goes about doing just that, re-interviewing the dead girl’s twin, Rikki, their friends, and trying to get a lead on a college student Nikki met the night she disappeared. The story, as Jack gradually unwraps it, has unexpected twists and is nicely plotted.

Two additional aspects make the novel a true pleasure to read: humor and narrative voice. The banter between Jack and Rikki and between Jack and his elderly receptionist will keep you chuckling. For that matter, all the dialog is strong, reflecting author Baer’s playwriting expertise.

Most of the story is told by Jack himself. You feel as if you’re sitting in the passenger seat of his car, tooling down the Garden State Parkway.

As such conversations go in real life, Jack wanders a bit, taking the opportunity to throw in facts about New Jersey, which he clearly loves, Paterson especially. But Baer has such a light touch, these digressions stay interesting, not pedantic. For example, he points out that Cape May has more Victorian homes than any other city in the United States, except San Francisco.

In addition to the first novel in this series, author Baer has published several books of short stories, plays, and nonfiction works and is an award-winning poet and playwright.

You can be forgiven for assuming the book is part of the Akashic Books short story series set in various cities and, in fact, Akashic published a New Jersey Noir a few years ago. Unlike stories in that volume, many of which unfortunately seemed as if they might have occurred anywhere, Baer’s book is New Jersey all the way. Real New Jerseyans will recognize that last bit as a shout-out to one of our state’s most famous characters.

War Stories: Oddly Timely?

Can focusing on another low point in Western civilization sidetrack you from obsessing over the current news cycle? Does seeing how another generation coped with agonizing stress help? These engrossing World War II stories are like biting your lip as a distraction from a different pain. Click on the novel title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Interpreter

AJ Sidransky’s political thriller has a fresh and appealing story line. The war in Europe is winding down when US Army Intelligence recruits Vienna-born GI Kurt Berlin to help in its interrogations of captured Germans—Nazis, Wehrmacht officers, and members of the SS and Gestapo.

When he reluctantly agrees, he finds himself face-to-face with the Nazi who had a terrible impact on his own family. He’s in the excruciating position of keeping his own emotions in check, but can he sustain it? Read my full review here.

Night of Shooting Stars, Ben Pastor

The Night of Shooting Stars

Latest in author Ben Pastor’s award-winning World War II-era political thrillers about colonel Baron Martin von Bora, late of German military intelligence. Because his former unit was believed to harbor anti-Nazi army officers, Bora must keep looking over his shoulder when he’s asked to investigate a strange murder. Is it a trap? What he keeps uncovering are dangerous hints about a plot threatening Adolf Hitler himself. Read my full review here.

The Winds of War
War and Remembrance

The audiobook of Herman Wouk’s 1971 saga, The Winds of War, is long (45 hours, 46 minutes) and engaging—perfect for my daily 40-minute walk. There are an awful lot of characters in this story of events leading up to World War II—American, English, German, Polish—many of them real-life politicians and military leaders. At the core of the story is a single family, fictional US Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, his three adult children, and their significant others. Pug is desperate to command a battleship, but naval intelligence duties in the capitals of Europe keep delaying that assignment. You get a well-rounded picture of the multinational political forces and military maneuvering in the late 1930s, packaged in a rich skein of interesting plot lines. The book ends shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk

In its sequel, War and Remembrance (56 hours), Pug is still in the Navy, son Warren is a Navy flyer stationed on an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor, and son Byron is a submariner. Byron’s situation is complicated by his marriage to Natalie Jastrow, a Jew stuck in fascist Italy. With these three men in different branches of the Navy, Wouk thrillingly (for me) recreates many of the important battles and strategies of the war in the Pacific.

You may recall ABC’s 1980s miniseries of these books with Robert Mitchum as Pug Henry (Interestingly, all three children were played by different actors in the two productions.) Reportedly, a new adaptation, to be co-written by Seth MacFarlane is in the works.

The Winds of War was a best-seller, but the critics didn’t love either book. Too much emphasis on historical accuracy over character development, they thought. Exactly what made me enjoy it! It’s like an education about the war in an easy-to-digest package, with Wouk’s main point, the key word “remembrance.”

The audiobooks are narrated brilliantly by Kevin Pariseau, who kept me company all summer.