Another Day, Another Film

popcorn

You could call it a “self-curated film festival” or you could just call me lucky to have two top-notch independent movie houses nearby. Whatever you call it, five movies in five days is a lot of popcorn-eating opportunity. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these very different films if they sound like your thing. Two here, three next week.

Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s film (based on a true story, whatever that means these days) centers on a woman (Keira Knightley) working for British intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war (trailer) . A memo comes through asking analysts to dig up information the Americans can use to pressure UN Security Council members to support the War. A Security Council endorsement would give the Bush Administration and the Blair government much-needed political cover.

But it’s wrong, and she leaks the memo, in violation of Britain’s strict Official Secrets laws. Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans are helpful and entertaining investigative reporters. She has a Muslim husband (Adam Bakri) a rights lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), and between them, they give fine and timely speeches about loyalty and treason. I was on the edge of my seat. Generally, I don’t like Knightley, but she’s great here.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 89%.

Judy

Rupert Goold’s film, written by Tom Edge, about Judy Garland’s sad last days doesn’t contain plot surprises (trailer). It’s showstopping strength is Renée Zellweger’s amazing performance. You know Judy’s going to crash and burn, and you so, so, don’t want her to. It’s painful to watch.

She scrapes herself together at times, which gives you hope that she can fulfill her contract with a London theater for five weeks of sold-out performances. They’re bringing in the cash she desperately needs in order to reclaim her two younger children from husband #4, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell).

Zellweger doesn’t try to imitate Garland’s voice, but she’s got the mannerisms cold, and the way she belts out the songs, no wonder fans adore her. Flashbacks provide a cold appraisal of Hollywood’s exploitative star system, where her addictions began.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 83%; audiences 86%.

****Because You’re Mine

mountain path, woods, forest

By Rea Frey – In Rea Frey’s compassionate new psychological thriller, Lee is a single mom living near Nashville with a seven-year-old son who’s on the spectrum, and her life isn’t easy. She has a couple of things going for her. She has a circle of three good friends, especially her closest friend Grace who’s one of the few people her son Mason is fond of. Mason’s handsome, dedicated occupational therapist Noah is helping him with his small and large motor skills as well as channeling and challenging his amazing intellectual capacity. And, Lee works from home, with a hair styling studio in her garage, which means she’s always close at hand, just in case.

In the book’s prologue, you learn a woman took a nighttime mountain hike and that it ends tragically. No spoiler here: the first words of the book are “She is going to die.” But you aren’t sure which “she” took that fatal tumble. The first chapter rewinds the story to a week before the mountain outing and fills in the missing pieces.

One of the women friends suggests a getaway for the four of them in the North Carolina mountains, and Grace thinks the mountain mini-vacation will be the perfect time to tell Lee some important news, which she does. There’s considerable fallout from this revelation, and an even deeper exploration of how Lee and Grace became the adults they are. While Grace has been preoccupied with her secrets, those that Lee hides are much deeper and more dangerous. Maybe.

In the mountains, the secrets start tumbling out and she—the ambiguous she from the prologue—dies. But that’s not the end of the story, there are layers and layers yet to come, a past to be excavated.

Just when you think you understand this story and the roles of the players on the board, Frey produces another surprise from her characters’ pasts that suggest a totally different dynamic at play. Nor does she tie the ending up with a too-neat bow. An excellent read.

Photo: Cortez13 for Pixabay, creative commons license.

NETFLIX: Unbelievable

This Friday, September 13, Netflix begins its eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable based on a fascinating true crime story (trailer). Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on how different police departments handled the uncertainties and ambiguities that arise in rape cases. And, in the book, they go into the long, sorry history of why women are so readily disbelieved.

Created and executive produced by screenwriter Susannah Grant, with novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.

Miller and Armstrong found they still had more to say about the contrasting investigative approaches—one, involving a case that takes place near Seattle where a young woman’s story was disbelieved, and others, in the Denver suburbs, where police went to extraordinary lengths to tie together their investigations with those of other local departments. The authors report what they learned in the new book Unbelievable, an excellent, real-life police procedural.

Read my full review on CrimeFictionLover.com, see the mini-series, or read the book!

From Author’s Page to Your Ear

earphones

The spring crime/thriller/mystery award season is for me means listening to the many nominees I’ve missed. Below are four recent listens. Good books, all, but these reviews focus on their strengths as spoken-word products. Listed in order of preference, my favorite at the top.

1 – Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (12 hours, 12 minutes) – I fell under the spell of this engrossing novel and Cassandra Campbell’s placid narration. Yes, Owens glosses over the serious difficulties that would be faced by an eight-year-old girl living alone in the North Carolina marsh. With the help of her friend Tate, Kaya teaches herself to read and to record her detailed observations of the marsh’s plant and animal life. In the background, Owens weaves in the investigation of a murder that takes place when Kaya is in her early twenties and, the plot being what it is, you know she’ll be accused of the crime and totally unprepared to defend herself. I was with Kaya’s story all the way up to the end. Though Owens laid the factual groundwork for it, it didn’t make emotional sense. Nevertheless, the story is a fine ride, sensitively and beautifully read.

2 – The Liar’s Girl, by Catherine Ryan Howard (10 hours, 26 minutes) – A nicely plotted thriller about Alison Smith, whose boyfriend, in her first year of college, confessed to a string of murders of young Dublin women. He’s been in a psychiatric institution ever since, but now, ten years on, the murders have started again. The Dublin police visit Alison in the Netherlands where she now lives, saying her boyfriend may be able to help with the current investigation. But he will only talk with her, and they guilt-trip her into returning. Solid reading by a trio of actors: Alana Kerr Collins (mostly), Alan Smyth, and Gary Furlong.

2- (Yes, a tie) – Down the River Unto the Sea, by Walter Mosley (7 hours, 44 minutes) – Loved the narration of this New York tale and its diversity of voices. Disgraced NYPD detective Joe King Oliver, now a private detective, sees a chance to redeem himself and his career with the takedown of a group of crooked cops. And he has the chance to rescue another possibly falsely accused black man. But, it’s New York, so it’s complicated. He finds himself an unlikely ally in a dangerous character named Melquarth Frost whom I liked a lot. Great narrating job by Dion Graham, capturing all the humor and subtleties of Mosley’s wildly colorful characters.

3 – The Witch Elm, by Tana French (22 hours, 7 minutes) – I hadn’t realized this book was so much longer than the others. It sure felt that way. French is such a greatly admired author, I must be missing something when I find her tedious. Only after you’ve invested  several hours does evidence of the crime at the book’s center emerge. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how well she wrote the dialog of twenty-something Toby and his cousins—snarky, whining, self-absorbed—or the pitch-perfect rendition narrator Paul Nugent gives it (“Toe-beeee!”), but listening to their endless talk was like fingernails on a blackboard.

***Envy

window blind

By Amanda Robson –The suburban London borough of Twickenham is home to the upwardly mobile young couple Faye and Phillip and their two daughters. Thirty-four year old Faye cuts a striking figure, walking the older girl to school and dropping in on the agent who occasionally finds her modeling jobs. She’s beautiful, thin, and, to all appearances, has her world well put together.

Those appearances are carefully noted by Erica, a neighbor in a rental flat who is overweight, insecure, and has little going on in her life. Before long, Erica’s preoccupation with Faye moves beyond watching; she begins following her.

Divided into short chapters, the novel is told from the alternating points of view of Erica, Faye, Faye’s husband Phillip, and their architect friend Jonah who’s in charge of Faye and Phillip’s loft conversion.

Early on, we learn about cracks in Faye’s façade when she visits the modeling agency and learns she’s been turned down for a job because the client wants someone younger. At a party where she meets a top modeling agent, he won’t even take her card. He says over-contrived looks are out of fashion. Faye is devastated until friend Jonah appears.

In his first-person sections, Jonah makes clear his motive is not friendship, but seduction. He plies Faye with alcohol and flattery, soothing her insecurities. In a ‘why doesn’t she see this coming’ moment, he persuades her to go home with him and they have an uninhibited night of sex. When she wakes in the morning, Faye is horrified and slips away unobserved—except by Erica, that is. Erica becomes convinced Faye is irresponsible and a bad mother and that she can be the young girls’ savior. Despite her delusions, she remains a sympathetic character, with a nice character arc.

Faye is aghast at what she’s done and determined to keep Phillip from finding out. Ah, once again, secrets are the fuel that propel the plot forward. Jonah is not backing off.

Lots goes wrong from here on out, as the pressure on Faye increases to an excruciating point. While Erica is a convincing adversary, as a young woman without advantages who lets herself be inhabited by a foolish fantasy, Jonah is not. You may not fully believe in him and his smarmy descriptions of the sex he and Faye had. It would be a stronger book if his character inspired the kind of divided loyalty Erica does. You still kind of root for her, despite her missteps.

Photo: yeniguel for Pixabay.

Oscar’s Foreign Language Contenders 2019

Only three of this year’s Oscar longlist for best foreign language film have made it to Princeton so far, at least that I’ve seen: The Guilty, Cold War, and Roma.

My favorite so far is the riveting Danish thriller, The Guilty. Alas, it didn’t make the final list of nominees, so it may be hard to catch.

Nevertheless, don’t miss a chance to see Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, which took home the Sundance World Cinema Audience Award (trailer). Danish policeman Asger Holm is assigned to answering emergency calls until he goes to court on some unspecified matter. He deals rather cavalierly with a man who calls complaining that a woman stole his laptop and wallet, once Asger figures out the man is calling from the red-light district and the woman was an Eastern European prostitute. But then the calls turn serious and he works desperately to rescue a kidnapped woman. You can’t take your eyes off him, and the camera almost never does. You hear what he hears and know what he knows. As he frantically tries to figure out how to rescue her, the suspense is almost unbearable. Jacob Cedergren as Asger is brilliant.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 90%.

The Polish nominee is Cannes Best Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s romance Cold War (trailer), which begins in the 1950s. The romance is doomed, though, because Zula, played by Joanna Kulig in a breakout role, can’t decide what she wants. Scenes of the communist-sponsored cultural performance troop, in which the peasant Zula’s lovely singing voice is discovered, are energetic and entertaining. She begins an on-again, off-again affair with the troop’s sophisticated conductor, Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot), that over the next few decades is mostly off, to the regret of them both. Full of great music of many types and shot in lovely, deep black and white.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 92%; audiences 84%.

The other nominees are two films of a type Indie-Wire calls “poverty-row melodramas,” Hirozaku Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (Japan), winner of Cannes’ Palme d’Or, and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (Lebanon) which won the Cannes Jury Prize. In addition, there’s Roma (Mexico), sweet, but not great, in my opinion, and Never Look Away (Germany) from previous Oscar-winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, in which the Nazis take on “degenerate art.” You know, Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Paul Klee and their ilk. That one’s on the “coming soon” board.

30-Second Book Reviews

****The Death of Mrs. Westaway

By Ruth Ware – It was a big house, with big grounds, supervised by a noisy tiding of magpies. Harriet Westaway, barely eking a living as a psychic advisor on the Brighton Pier, receives a letter from faraway Penzance inviting her to the funeral and will-reading of her grandmother, the wealthy Hester Westaway. Trouble is, her grandparents are all dead.

Curiosity wins out and she shows up for the event. What starts as something she could explain as a misunderstanding draws her in deeper and deeper, and the search for her real family takes off. Liked it. The Death of Mrs. Westaway

****The Bolivian Sailor

By Donald Dewey – Sometimes a book arrives unexpectedly in the mailbox, or “over the transom,” as publishers used to say, as this one did. To my delight, there were many things to like about this book. Poor P.I. Paul Finley finds himself enmeshed in a deadly plot when a Bolivian seaman is murdered in a seedy motel. He keeps his sense of humor, though, if not his part-time gig teaching a college course in Practical Problems in Law Enforcement. Alas, quite a few of those problems are playing out in front of him. Fun! The Bolivian Sailor

***Low Down Dirty Vote

Edited by Mysti Berry – A timely collection of eleven crime and mystery stories on the theme of fighting voter suppression. Women, blacks, the elderly—in these stories, various groups are discouraged from voting because of presumptions about how they’ll cast their ballots. Most unexpected and amusing use of the vote appeared in Catronia McPherson’s tale about the comeuppance of a man in a crowded commuter train. Good job, all! Low Down Dirty Vote

***A Deadly Indifference

By Marshall Jevons – Harvard economics professor Henry Spearman travels to Cambridge, England, to help a friend wanting to buy the former home of economist Alfred Marshall and establish a foundation there. Marshall may be dear to some economic theorists, including Spearman, but the university faculty is dominated by leftists opposing Marshall’s legacy. Soon, intellectual sparring is replaced by violence and murder. Spearman engagingly calls on economics theory (sometimes a lot of it) to explain these events. Secondary characters, not required to trot out their supply-and-demand curves, are nicely drawn too. A Deadly Indifference

Magpie photo: AdinaVoicu, creative commons license

*****Best American Mystery Stories – 2018

reading
(Pedro Ribeiro Simōes, cc license)

Edited by Louise Penny – What an entertaining collection this is! The stories cover a wide range of mystery/crime/suspense writing, with a fair bit of edge. Edited by Louise Penny from a collection assembled under the direction of Otto Penzler, the twenty stories, all published in 2017, first appeared in US crime magazines, in literary magazines, in themed anthologies, and in single-author collections by T.C. Boyle, Lee Child, Scott Loring Sanders).

Says editor Penny, “A great short story is like a great poem. Crystalline in clarity. Each word with purpose. Lean, muscular, graceful. Nothing wasted. A brilliant marriage of intellect, rational thought, and creativity.” This edition underscores her point on every page.

Though most of the stories run to about twenty pages, Lee Child, with “Too Much Time,” doubles that length. He meticulously describes how the redoubtable Jack Reacher digs himself in deeper and deeper with Maine police while all the time working on an unexpected (by this reader) solution to his precarious situation. Joyce Carol Oates also provides a near-novella with “Phantomwise: 1972,” about a naïve college coed who makes consistently bad choices and the men who exploit them.

Most of the stories take place in the good old US of A, from the sketchy surrounds of Paul Marks’s Venice Beach (“Windward”) to James Lee Burke’s Cajun country (“The Wild Side of Life”), though a few are set in more exotic climes: Africa in David H. Hendrickson’s Derringer-winning “Death in the Serengeti,” the tropical and fictional island of St. Pierre (“Breadfruit” by Brian Silverman), and the Republic of Korea (“PX Christmas” by Martin Limón).

The selected authors found clever and creative ways to deploy the staple characters of crime fiction—unfaithful wives (“Waiting on Joe” by Scott Loring Sanders), assassins (“Takeout” by Rob Hart) and serial killers (“All Our Yesterdays” by Andrew Klavan). They deal with classic crime situations too: trying to escape a difficult past (“Smoked” by Michael Bracken and “Gun Work” by John M. Floyd) or the long tail of a super-secret job (“Small Signs” by Charlaine Harris); prison breaks (“Cabin Fever” by David Edgerley Gates), and the double or is it triple? cross (“Y is for Yangchuan Lizard” by Andrew Bourelle and “Rule Number One” by Alan Orloff).

A couple of the scams were so deftly described that you may find yourself grinning with the vigilante surprise of Michael Connelly’s “The Third Panel” and the flim-flamming of an elderly man in TC Boyle’s “The Designee,” in which you must decide how complicit the elderly “victim” is. It’s the best story of his I’ve ever read. There’s also a thought-provoking twist in “Banana Triangle Six” by Louis Bayard.

This talented collection of authors fills their stories with great lines, though one of my favorites comes from “The Apex Predator,” by William Dylan Powell, wherein the main character claims he learned in Uncle Sam’s navy the “most useful tactical skill ever developed by humankind—and it’s not swimming or fighting or tying knots. It’s the art of bullshitting someone so you don’t get in trouble.”

If you’ve been glancing over the author names looking for (and finding) many that are familiar, you may also have noticed the near-absence of women authors. Joyce Carol Oates who has more than a hundred published books is not a surprise in this list, nor is Charlaine Harris, who’s been publishing mystery fiction since 1981. It’s a real mystery why no other accomplished, newer authors appear here. Women are somewhat more prominent in the list of “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2017” at the back of the volume, where nearly a third are women (10 of 31).

Which publications brought these stories to light in the first place (and where you might find next year’s winner’s now)? Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine published four of the stories, Mystery Tribune (two), and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Fiction River, and Switchblade, one apiece. Also Level Best Books’ anthologies (Noir at the Salad Bar and Snowbound) produced a pair of them.

Be Very Scared . . .

raven

drawing, rebeccarawrr, creative commons license

Credited with inventing detective fiction and contributing to the popularity of the then-new genre of science fiction, Edgar Allan Poe was one of America’s earliest authors to devote energies to the short story—as he defined it, a composition that could be read in a single sitting. Yet, his heart’s desire was to be a poet. Had he not died so young—at age 40—he might have been a great one.

This year, around the 169th anniversary of Poe’s mysterious death in Baltimore, Camden Park Press published Quoth the Raven, an anthology of poems and stories inspired by Poe’s work and sensibility, reimagined for the twenty-first century. Lyn Worthen was the collection’s hard-working editor. One of the short story authors, Tiffany Michelle Brown, interviewed seven of the collection’s 32 authors about their inspiration.

Brown: Imagine you’re in an old-timey elevator, a rickety one that boasts a well-worn, rusty cage. There’s a man in all black in the elevator with you, and he asks what your poem or story is about. What do you tell him?

Poet Tony Kalouria said she was inspired by the notion that unsolicited, unwanted advice is “for the birds.” Menacing, nay-saying birds, the spawn of Poe’s Raven.

Story-writer Susan McCauley used “The Cask of Amontillado” to inspire her story of murder and revenge, whereas my story sprung from Poe’s “Berenice.” In it, a woman sees her twin brother as the other half of herself and will stop at nothing to keep him close. In “My Annabel,” Emerian Rice told the story of two surgeons caught in a pandemic and their fight to stay alive for one another, and Sonora Taylor propelled Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” into the maelstrom of social media with “Hearts are Just ‘Likes.’”

“Considering the rust on this rickety cage,” said Stephen R. Southard, “I’m not sure we’ll even make it to our floors.” His story sprang from Poe’s tale about a balloon trip to the moon, which, naturally, left many unanswered questions. Poe intended future installments, but never completed them. “Someone had to write the sequel, so I did.”

Brown: What’s a story or poem – by any author – that has truly creeped you out (in the best way possible, of course)?

  • The Exorcist — book and movie! “I was considering therapy for almost a week, I was so traumatized. And pea soup was definitely off-menu for a very long time” (Tony Kalouria). Frankenstein. “It’s terrifying and heart-breaking at the same time. And the way it plays with ideas of gods and monsters is really quite genius.” (Donea Lee Weaver)
  • Emerian Rich chose The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. “I read it after watching the movie because I just adored the film. The book has this underlying chill that scared me more.” He said the house (or the bog) seemed to mesmerize characters into doing strange things or paralyze their thought process in some insurmountable way.
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, said Susan McCauley. “I first read it in my early twenties and had to sleep with the lights on for several nights.”
  • Sonora Taylor picked the short story “Shadder” by Neil Gaiman. “ I read it in bed (having learned nothing since reading Poe’s “Hop Frog” in bed years before). Even though it’s short, even though I knew it was fiction, even though I had all the lights on, and even though my bed is up against the wall, I still felt the urge to look behind me at the end.”
  • Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, said Steven Southard. “It’s a re-telling, and update, of George Orwell’s 1984 and a chilling tale of how easy it may be to slip into totalitarianism.
  • My pick was The Silence of the Lambs, the first modern “thriller” I ever read. The scariest film would have to be Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It was decades before I didn’t think of it when in the shower. Or the deeply disturbing ending of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing. Nightmares.

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Toronto: Backdrop for Mystery

Park Bench, snow

Trang Pham, pexels license

Two very different mystery/thrillers from authors based in Canada, where everyone is supposed to be so nice. !

*****Bellevue Square

By Michael Redhill – A compelling contemporary psychological thriller set in Toronto, Bellevue Square won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award and is now out in paperback.

Narrator Jean Mason runs a downtown bookshop. When customers begin mistaking her for Ingrid—a woman they know from Kensington Market—Jean decides to track down this supposed doppelganger.

She stakes out a bench at the market’s heart, Bellevue Square, and observes the comings and goings of the folk living and trading nearby. The richly described life of the square becomes the center of the novel and of Jean’s attention. The Bellevue Square regulars are “a peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants.” Author Redhill gives them distinctive personalities and preoccupations that are occasionally comic, yet never cruel.

As Jean gets to know them, she likes them and they her. She lets them know she will pay for information about Ingrid and they come up with sightings and information, but should she trust it? Her husband Ian, a policeman, insists on knowing where she’s spending her days, and when she takes him there, his fresh and unsentimental eyes see a collection of loonies. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time? With these kinds of people?”

You hope Jean is successful in her quest for Ingrid, even as its likelihood dwindles. Redhill says Bellevue Square “is a literary novel but has one foot in mystery and a couple of toes in psychological thriller,” and Jean’s reality cracks and splinters around you in unique and unexpected ways. Well worth a read.

P.S. Until recently, the Bellevue Square of the novel was a real location in Toronto. In the spring of 2017, reports Redhill in his acknowledgements, the city’s Parks, Forests and Recreation division razed it. He says, “My regards to the City of Toronto for enthusiastically illustrating some of the themes in my work.”

 ***The Language of Secrets

By Ausma Zehanat Khan – Now also out in paperback, is Ausma Zehanat Khan’s second Toronto-based thriller featuring Esa Khattak,  head of the Community Policing Section, and his sergeant and chief sounding-board, Rachel Getty. As winter sets in, the Canadian authorities are trying to thwart a rumored New Year’s Day terrorist attack and Khattak’s friend, Muslim intelligence officer Mohsin Dar, has infiltrated the plotters. Then he’s murdered.

Khan vividly describes the icy, remote location where key scenes take place, as well as the cramped urban mosque where the police believe the plotters meet. Their putative ringleader is a charismatic but evasive man named Hassan Ashkouri who speaks in riddles and poetry.

Khattak is tasked with finding Dar’s killer. For personal reasons, Inspector Ciprian Coale, who heads the team trying to stop the terrorists, is determined to thwart Khattak’s investigation at every turn. He’s not above suggesting that Dar may not have been playing straight with him and hints Khattak may be equally unreliable.

Politics is thus intertwined with many aspects of this story, and every move Khattak makes is subject to political interpretation by his rivals, the news media, and the minority communities he serves. This slant on police work give his investigation an appealing timeliness. However, the author occasionally stops writing fiction in order to provide a lecture on political topics.

Khattak’s sister Ruksh has a new man in her life, one she plans to marry—coincidentally, the terrorist leader Hassan Ashkouri. In her reflexive hostility toward her older brother and her defiant determination to pursue the relationship she acts more like a sulky teenager than a grown woman. By contrast, Rachel Getty, Khattak’s sergeant, is an appealing character. Khan gives her an interesting background as a competitive hockey player with an important all-star game imminent, yet she doesn’t go to hockey practice once during the entire novel.

Although the desire to learn the fates of these characters kept me reading, Khan’s prose is murky at times; at others, she telegraphs too much, announcing, that a character just made a big mistake, for example. Show, don’t tell.

As a bottom line, this book contains unusual characters and situations that should carry you through the uneven patches in the writing.