mystery

READ THE WORLD – Bolivia: The Matter of Desire by Edmundo Paz Soldán

Translated by Lisa Carter.

Pedro, a Bolivian-American political scientist teaches at a university in upstate New York. Having become entangled in an erotically charged romance with Ashley, a beautiful red-headed engaged graduate student, he returns to Bolivia to seek answers to his own life by investigating the mysteries of his father’s past.

The Matter of Desire starts with Pedro arriving in Bolivia and in the present he is reconnecting with old friends, living with his Uncle David, and trying to learn more about his father; a political activist who was assassinated when Pedro was a child. The story also jumps back in time every now and then to show how Pedro met Ashley and the progression of their relationship.

Pedro isn’t a particularly likeable character. He is the epitome of the self-absorbed academic character and it gets old and annoying very quickly. Instead of focusing on academic work and research which are more challenging (and is what his university expects him to do), he has made a name of himself by being the go to academic for news sources to quote on any events or issues concerning Latin America, something that doesn’t require as much thought or attention. He even admits to using other academic works as templates for his own, copying their style and then overlooking figures and research that don’t support his claims. He just doesn’t seem like the sort of person who should be teaching, never mind the fact he got in a relationship with a student.

Pedro is also obsessed with finding out more about his father. It’s understandable as he was a child when his dad was killed, and his dad has become an almost legendary hero to the people of Bolivia as he was fighting against a supposed corrupt and totalitarian government. Pedro’s father wrote a book before he was killed, and Pedro is desperate to find hidden meanings in it and believes the book, like his father, is great. While the book also has a kind of cult status, it’s not generally seen as such a great achievement as Pedro thinks it is.

Admittedly I found the politics aspect a bit confusing. I know nothing about Bolivia’s political history and was confused when googling the names mentioned as some of them were real people, while others weren’t. The author may have been using a pseudonym that Bolivian’s or people who are familiar with Bolivia would know who was meant, but someone like me was left confused. Also, I’m pretty sure Pedro’s dad was a fictious figure, as was the city where this was all taking place.

The fact that naturally a lot of the books I read for the Read the World Project are translated doesn’t really register for me a lot of the time. I’m someone who looks for an enjoyable or interesting story first rather than how well a book is written. I would be interested in seeing The Matter of Desire in its original language though, as there’s parts of the book, often dialogue between a native Spanish speaker and someone who’s learnt the language, where there’s the odd word, phrase or sentence in Spanish dropped into the conversation. I think this is a prime example of Spanglish. A lot of the time based on context, you can easily pick out the meaning of the Spanish word or phrase based on the rest of the conversation that’s in English. I’d be interested to see if in the original Spanish version, the phrases that are in Spanish in the translated version, were in English in the original.

The first half of The Matter of Desire was very slow to get into. It’s difficult to become attached to a self-centred character and one who fails to communicate with a lot of people in his life including friends, family, and Ashley who he is supposed to love a lot. The second half of the 214-page book (which sometimes felt a lot longer) was a bit more interesting as Pedro was learning more about his father. Perhaps it’s cruel but I think I enjoyed that part more as the things he was finding out about his dad weren’t all good and it was taking the shine off the idolised version of him that Pedro had. Pedro was so obsessed with the fact that his father was a great man, that seeing him have to deal with the fact that may not have been the entire story was kind of enjoyable.

All in all, I did find The Matter of Desire a struggle to get through. I didn’t really care about Pedro and towards the end as more secrets and lies are uncovered, things seemed to get pretty complicated very quickly and without much of a clear explanation. 2/5.

V is for Vertigo (1958)

Former police detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) is suffering from acrophobia and vertigo when he’s recruited by an old friend to investigate the strange activities of his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), but as he follows her movements Scottie becomes dangerously obsessed with her.

My second Alfred Hitchcock film and perhaps one of his most popular films – or at least one that has an easily recognisable name. Again, I knew nothing about the plot of Vertigo going into it, and I think that worked in the films favour. Though to be honest, I’m not sure how I’d describe the plot as it can get very convoluted and hard to follow.

The colours in Vertigo are beautiful. San Francisco looks stunning and there are scenes where the camera really shows off the city. There’s a lot of pastel colours in the clothes and the sets, and then there’s neon lights from hotel signs, they should clash but they don’t. A dream sequence with animation is unexpected but it’s vibrant and unsettling, really making an impact even though it’s pretty short. The “vertigo effect” is impressive and unnerving. It puts you in Scottie’s shoes when he’s at his most vulnerable.

Scottie is an interesting character. Before he starts investigating his old friend’s wife, he seems like an enthusiastic person, fun to be around even while he’s struggling with his newfound condition. He has his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) to help him, whether that’s just to be someone to talk to or to help him with a case. She’s bubbly and smart and is clearly in love with him, but he either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. And once he becomes caught up in Madeline Elster, all he shows her is indifference which she doesn’t deserve.

As Scottie’s obsession gets more and more out of hand, the tension amps up through the score and Scottie’s behaviour. He changes as he becomes entangled in Madeline. He becomes a strong and frightening force as his passion overtakes logic and it’s uncomfortable to watch.

While the two-hour runtime of Vertigo seemed to drag at times, the ending seemed rushed as everything was wrapped up. It also seemed to have a non-ending, leaving me with more questions and wanting to know what happened to these characters next. As Vertigo is only the second Hitchcock film I’ve watched, I don’t know if this is a Hitchcock thing, or is just pure chance that both Vertigo and Family Plot left me feeling this way.

Vertigo is an eerie film with a couple of brilliant performances from Kim Novak. Her different mannerisms were fantastic, even if she didn’t have perfect chemistry with Stewart – though that might be down to how much older than her he looked. The mystery was complicated, and as the film progressed I found myself caring more about the women in Scottie’s life than the man himself, even if he was possibly driving himself to madness. 3/5.

N is for National Treasure (2004)

Archaeologist Benjamin Gates (Nicolas Cage) races to find the legendary Templar Treasure before a team of mercenaries, led by former friend and colleague Ian Howe (Sean Bean).

So I have seen National Treasure many times before, but as I don’t own a film beginning with the letter N that I had not seen before, and I rewatched the National Treasure movies the other day because they bring me joy, I thought it would do fine for this challenge.

National Treasure is just so much fun. It’s a heist movie (one of my favourite genres of movie) with history (one of my favourite subjects at school). Sure, the premise of hidden treasure and a secret, invisible map on the back of the Declaration of Independence is farfetched and kind of silly but who cares?! This premise makes a great film!

Ben along with his best friend and tech genius Riley (Justin Bartha) are the ones trying to stop Ian – their thinking is they must steal the Declaration of Independence in order to protect it. As their heist gets underway archivist Dr Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) gets caught up in their plans and the three of them are forced to work together to figure out the clues and find the treasure before Ian does.

The main trio of characters are all great. They are all well-rounded, they each have their own skills and knowledge to contribute to finding the treasure, and they just fit together nicely. Riley isn’t related to comedy sidekick and Ben doesn’t always have all of the answers.

The action sequences are well shot and exciting, and the score, composed by Trevor Rabin, is great and the central motif just works so well. The mysteries and double crosses that are key to a heist and a treasure hunt are all there and the film goes by at a good pace so you are never bored.

National Treasure is just a fun adventure film that knows exactly what it is, and it does it incredibly well. It’s pure escapism for a couple of hours and I love it. 5/5.

F is for Family Plot (1976)

When Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris), a phoney psychic, and her taxi driver/private investigator boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern) are trying to track down a missing heir, they cross paths with a pair of serial kidnappers.

Family Plot is the first Alfred Hitchcock film I watched (I’m a terrible film fan I know) and it turns out, it was his last film. I find some sort of symmetry in that.

Family Plot is a fun thriller that’s more comedic than I thought it’d be, considering the director and the preconception I had of him and his films. The humour is very wry and often dark as people are kidnapped, there’s attempted murder, and Balance and George are trying to con a wealthy old lady out of her money.

The duos of Harris and Dern, and Karen Black and William Devane who play the kidnappers, are great to watch. Each pair have a very different relationship, but they all bounce off one another well and they play interesting characters.

There are some really fun filming devices in Family Plot, like an overhead shot of a graveyard where George follows someone on parallel paths. It’s funny because as the viewer you can pick put both characters routes and you know they can’t avoid George, but their efforts to do so make it all the more entertaining.

I found the score, composed by John Williams, really interesting especially in the sense of how and when it was used. It made great use of silence and showed how it could increase the tension more than a big soundtrack could.

Family Plot is perhaps a little long and certain events could’ve been tighter, but it’s still an engaging film with an interesting mystery at its core. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Chile: In the Distance with You by Carla Guelfenbein

Translated by John Cullen.

Vera Sigall, now eighty years old, has lived a mysterious, ascetic life far from the limelight of literary circles. This powerful character has a profound effect on those around her – Daniel, an architect and her neighbour and friend, unhappy in his marriage and career; Emilia, a Franco-Chilean student who travels to Santiago to write a thesis on the elusive Vera; and Horacio, an acclaimed poet with whom Vera had a tumultuous, passionate affair in her youth. When Vera suffers an accident that puts her in an induced coma in hospital, Daniel, Emilia, and Horacio are brought together and as they tell their stories, they reconstruct Vera’s past, and search for their own identities.

I found the writing in In the Distance with You to be beautiful and almost lyrical at times. The whole story is like a love letter to an author and to their works and the people surrounding Vera really feel connected to her in different ways. In some ways In the Distance with You is a story about stories; the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell others, and the ones we may write and publish to great acclaim.

In the Distance with You is told from three different points of view – Daniel’s, Emilia’s and Horacio’s – with the chapters alternating between the three of them. Daniel is the one who discovers Vera after her accident and tries to figure out what caused it as she lies in hospital. He’s a character that grew on me over the course of the book, as he grew as a person. He starts off being quite self-absorbed and only really cares about what’s happening with Vera, pushing his wife aside in the process, but when he meets Emilia, he finds someone else that he cares about and starts to open up more. Emilia learns so much about Vera from her own works and studying the few bits of information there is about her past. It’s interesting to see how a novelist may put bits of them into a story and it’s through these breadcrumbs that Emilia starts to put together a picture of the kind of woman Vera is. Horacio keeps his distance after Vera’s accident and instead revisits the past; how the two of them met, fell in love and worked together on their writing.

The mystery at the heart of the novel is Vera and her life. She’s pretty much a recluse with Daniel being the only person who saw her regularly, and even he doesn’t know that much about her past. As the story progresses, the layers of Vera’s life are slowly pealed back by each of the three main characters, and it’s only through all three of their point of views do you get a full picture of who Vera is. It’s interesting having a book so focused on a character that spends the majority of the story in a comatose state. Daniel, Emilia and Horacio orbit Vera even when she’s unresponsive and her being in that state almost forces them to reconsider who they are and what they want from life and those around them.

In the Distance with You is beautifully written story with fully realised characters. They’re flawed and it’s fascinating to see how even though Daniel, Emilia, and Horacio are very different people, they are connected by a love of or fascination with one person. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Spain: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Pulp fiction writer David Martín is holed up in an abandoned mansion in the heart of Barcelona, desperately writing story after story while becoming increasingly frustrate and disillusioned. When he is approached by a mysterious publisher, Andreas Corelli, makes him an enticing offer David leaps at the chance. But as he begins to research and write this novel, and after a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, David realises there’s a connection between his book and the shadows that surround his dilapidated home, and maybe his publisher might be hiding secrets of his own.

The Angel’s Game is set in the same universe as The Shadow of the Wind, but I don’t think it matters if you haven’t read that book or if you haven’t read it for a while. I read and reviewed The Shadow of the Wind four years ago so naturally I can’t really remember much about the book, but the only connections I noticed was the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the dilapidated tower home the main character in this novel came to live in. (After writing this review I googled the series and realised that The Angel’s Game is in fact a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind though apparently each book in the series is supposed to be able to stand on its own from the others, so it really doesn’t matter what order you read them in.)

Set in the 1920s and early 1930s, The Angel’s Game really makes use of both the time period and the city its set in to add to the mystery and eeriness of the story. Not being able to get hold of a character, or instances of mistaken identity are rife, and both increase the tension at key moments. The city of Barcelona truly becomes a character in its own right in The Angel’s Game. The narrow alleyways, abandoned houses, tiny shops and the often-bleak weather, makes the city a wonderful setting for a gripping mystery. The descriptions of the city are vivid making the few times characters venture elsewhere, even more stark and different to what we already know.

David is an interesting man. He’s often unlikable as he pushes away those who care about him when he’s obsessed with writing and is unsure how to love or be loved in return. He’s always had affection for the daughter of a friend’s driver, Cristina, but circumstance and society keeps them a part. His reluctant friendship with Isabella, an inspiring writer who is many years younger than him is surprisingly sweet and while their relationship isn’t without its troubles and miscommunications, their honesty with one another is truly needed by both of them.

The mystery of the tower house, its previous owner and what happened to them kicks in about the third of the way through the book. Andreas Corelli seems to be connected to it all though it takes a long time for David to figure things out. David becomes obsessive, both about his writing and the secrets his home holds, looking for reasons behind the deaths and strangeness that appears to be following him. The Angel’s Game is told in the first person from David’s point of view, meaning that as the story progresses and things get weirder, you begin to doubt what you’ve been told so far as David’s grip on reality seems to slip.

I shan’t say I picked up all the threads of the mystery before they were explained to me, nor that I totally understood the ending, but that didn’t make me like this story any less. The Angel’s Game was a very readable book and the whole gothic take on Barcelona fully pulled me into the story. Would it have been nice if the story wasn’t quite so convoluted and weird? Yes, but it’s still a book that I ended up enjoying more than I remembered enjoying its predecessor. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Romania: The Fox was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller

Translated by Philip Boehm.

Set in Romania during the last months of Communist dictator Ceaușescu’s regime, people struggle to keep their minds and bodies intact in a world that’s permeated with fear. Adina is a young school teacher, Paul is a musician, Clara works in a wire factory, and Pavel is her lover. But one of them is working for the secret police and is reporting on the others.

The Fox was Ever the Hunter was a bit of a difficult read for several reasons and the way it was written was the main one. There were little things like how there are no speech marks when someone is talking, so you definitely needed to pay attention to what’s going on – especially when there was more than one person talking in a paragraph. Then there’s the attention to detail the author has. There’s so much focus on tiny things like the creases in a dress, how ants move, or how the chalk is like on a blackboard, but when it comes to the characters, they don’t get much description or backstory at all. It’s almost like it’s an intense study of the time period it’s set. This writing style makes the characters very distant and hard to connect with, as it’s as if the environment they live in is more important than themselves.

The main plot of the secret police, and someone in their friendship group not being trustworthy, doesn’t really kick in till halfway through the book. The first half of The Fox was Ever the Hunter is more of a study of the environment the characters live in. The intense descriptions make the town feel like a very cold and unwelcoming place to live. It seems almost hopeless and when Adina, Paul, or Clara make an appearance they feel like they’re sleepwalking through their lives.

I could see some people loving how The Fox was Ever the Hunter was written as its prose is often poetic and strangely beautiful, but for me it made it a bit of a slog to read.

REVIEW: The Murders in the Rue Morgue And Other Stories by Edgar Allan Poe

A collection of three short stories, two of them are The Murders in the Rue Morgue and its sequel The Mystery of Marie Rogêt which are creepy and gruesome mysteries. The third is The Purloined Letter which is mystery about a seemingly simple case.

I had an interesting time with this short story collection. It was the first time I’d read any Edgar Allan Poe and I flew through, and really enjoyed, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, but I found the other two stories a real drag.

All three stories are told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator. His friend Dupin is an amateur sleuth so when there’s a crime, he narrates how Dupin gets involved and how he might solve the case. Dupin’s explanations of what happened is where the stories lost me. They’re really long and in depth, with page long paragraphs that I found myself getting lost in as his explanations didn’t intrigue me. They seemed like a way to show off how clever Dupin was but there was never enough to make me like the guy.

The events of The Murders in the Rue Morgue are horrifying and there are a lot of vivid descriptions on the crime scene. Those sequences, in all the stories, are the most compelling. It’s the explanations that ended up boring me instead of making me interested in finding out whodunnit.

These short stories reminded me of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and E.W. Hornung. The style of writing and story-telling is quiet something but unlike Sherlock Holmes or A.J. Raffles, Dupin isn’t a charismatic protagonist that I almost instantly took a liking to.

I’m not sure if this was a good introduction to Poe but at least I can now say I’ve read The Murders in the Rue Morgue. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Philippines: Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan

The body of a young boy is found dead in the landfill in a poor district outside of Manilla. His face has been cut off, and his heart and genitalia removed. The police are stretched thin and are unsure of what to do, but as another boy, and then another boy, is discovered with the same injuries, the police need help. Father Gus, a forensic anthropologist, and Father Jerome, a psychologist, are asked by the Director of the National Bureau of Investigations to help the police in their efforts to track down the killer before they strike again.

Set in the late 1990’s there are quite few subplots in Smaller and Smaller Circles. There’s naturally the main plot of these murders and the police’s attempts to solve the case with the help of Father Gus and Father Jerome, but there’s story threads about the police and the Catholic Church too. The fact that the police in the Philippines don’t have good filing systems or good communications with the various departments places a major role in the story, and then with regards to the Church there’s a priest that Father Gus believes is using his power and influence to get away with abusing young boys he has access to.

Father Gus and Father Jerome are both compelling characters and are both smart in their own ways. They make each other better, bouncing ideas off one another until they might get a clearer idea of any patterns or motivations regrading the killer and their victims. Their easy camaraderie is great to read about and it’s fun to see how they manage to juggle working at a university and all the things that come with that like marking papers and getting funding, and with helping the police on serious crimes.

Smaller and Smaller Circles is a well-paced mystery as you as the reader have the same amount of information as the police and Father Gus and Father Jerome, and when they do have a suspect they spend the time trying to catch them and get concrete evidence. This makes the final part of the book tense as you wonder whether they’ll get to the killer before he kills again. Also, it means the ending isn’t rushed and various characters do have some form of closure.

Smaller and Smaller Circles is a bit gruesome. The bodies are described vividly but clinically and there’s some unsettling characters too. It’s not too scary or creepy and instead is a good mystery that’s set in a place where crime stories aren’t usually. In fact, Smaller and Smaller Circles is credited with being the first Filipino crime novel. It brings in the politics and socio-economics of the Philippines into the story in a way that fleshes out the setting and characters but isn’t something you need to have prior knowledge of to see how a lot of these characters lives are affected by forces outside of their control. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Tale (2018)

After her mother (Ellen Burstyn) discovers a story she wrote when she was thirteen, Jennifer (Laura Dern) tries to re-examine her first sexual relationship, the people involved and what truly happened that summer.

The Tale is based on writer and director Jennifer Fox’s own experiences and based on the story she wrote as the teenager. This makes this story all the more compelling and heartbreaking as it’s a sexual abuse survivor, telling her story in her own words as she tries to come to terms with what happened to her.

This is not just a story about abuse, but a story about memory. Jennifer can remember her riding teacher Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and her coach Bill (Jason Ritter) so vividly but has difficulty picturing herself in those memories and remembering how she felt and what she knew. As she reconnects with people who spent the summer with her at the riding school, Jennifer begins to realise that some of her memories don’t match up with other people’s recollections.

The Tale is told with two narratives running parallel to one another; Jennifer as an adult, suddenly having to confront her past, and Jenny as a child (Isabelle Nélisse) living the experiences Jennifer is now recalling. Both Nélisse and Dern give powerful performances. Nélisse is brilliant as she slowly becomes less naïve about the world but still believing that what she’s experiencing is a relationship and that Mrs. G and Bill really love her. Dern is phenomenal as she perfectly captures the anguish as she revisits her past and now she’s older she can start to put into context what she experienced. The scenes where young and present-day Jennifer are in the same space helps show the haziness of memory as between the two of these points of view they try to find the truth of what happened.

The Tale handles the sensitive subject matter with grace and care. It’s a tough film to watch as it doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable and sexual content. However, it’s powerful to see an independent and strong-willed woman reassess the trauma she experienced and decide what to do with that information. 5/5.