October 2021 Reading Round Up: More Than A Mystery

Everyone love a good puzzle–but in this collection of mysterious microreviews, there’s more to the story than just a carefully woven plot. These four titles take the mystery genre and use it to explore class, gender, race, and revolution. From a man who is searching for the literal woman of his dreams to the subtle tensions between two families–one Black and one white–in apocalyptic Long Island, these stories make you reconsider what the mystery novel can do.

Lady Joker (Vol. 1) by Kaoru Takamura,

trans. by Allison Markin Powell and Marie Iida

GENRE: literary fiction/crime | soho crime 2021 | REVIEWED BY allison mccausland

Revenge ages like wine—except when the wine ends up being congealed blood. However, Kaoru Takamura’s classic novel takes the winding road less traveled in the high stakes world of corporate extortion in her novel, Lady Joker. Already an acclaimed classic in its native Japan, English readers get to experience this caper for the first time thanks to the wonderfully articulate detail of translators Allison Markin Powell and Marie Iida. Its intrigue is enhanced for international true crime lovers, who no doubt recognizes elements of the plot from the famously unsolved case of kidnapping by “The Monster with 21 Faces.”

The plot begins with a letter written in 1947 addressed to the Hinode Beer company explaining grievous misconduct regarding the discrimination against employees of the segregated buraku community, a caste with origins rooted in Japan’s feudal era. Flash forward to nearly half a century later, convenience store owner Seizo Monoi mourns the premature death of his grandson after an interview with Hinode reveals his family ties to the very same community. Monoi enlists the help of his rag-tag group of friends from their racetrack outings to kidnap Hinode’s CEO and heist the company in order to expose their hidden crimes.

Takamura seamlessly weaves Monoi’s group of narratives together for the first half of the novel before switching to the viewpoints of the individual police and journalists embroiled in covering the case. Throughout the novel, she allows readers into the private narration of Hinode’s CEO. Sadly, only the first half of Takamura’s book has been translated thus far, but the ending’s cliffhanger on the identity of Monoi’s titular group leaves speculation for readers to assume a Volume 2 is on the way.

Why We Love It: This international thriller paints a complex portrait of Japanese life, and Japanese crime, while exploring the generational impact of discrimination and marginalization.

leave the world behind by rumaan alam

GENRE: literary/apocalyptic fiction | ecco press 2020 | REVIEWED BY rebecca valley

If you just read the back cover, Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam sounds like any other end-of-the-world novel. Two families converge on a guest house deep in the woods outside New York after an unexplained blackout sends the eastern seaboard into a tailspin. But this lyric novel is about more than just uncovering the apocalyptic event that has brought these two families together. It’s also about class, and race, and the many truths we ignore in order to survive in a chaotic and uncertain world. 

Much of the subtle tension of this book is driven by the relationships between these two families. Clay and Amanda , who are renting the vacation home, are white, middle class New Yorkers. Ruth and G.H., who own the home, are wealthy and Black. When they converge, the characters have to contend with not only a blackout, but also the discomfort of performing their social identities for strangers. The women judge each other’s cooking and parenting. The men quietly size each other up. They are not friends. They do not bond over their shared plight. As Alam writes, in characteristically simple and astute language: “George had expected human communion, but he forgot what humans were actually like.”

As these tensions unfold inside the house, a mystery slowly unravels. What is going on out there?The uncertainty calls into question the logic that glues our world together. Alam writes: “There was no real structure to prevent chaos, there was only a collective faith in order.” Leave the World Behind calls many illusions into question: that you can keep your children safe, that money guarantees safety, that the world will keep turning as it always has. And as these assumptions crumble, others do too— assumptions about race, class, gender, power, parenthood, love, and the lifespan of our dying planet. 

Why We Love It: This beautifully written novel uses a captivating, apocalyptic mystery to reveal the ingrained beliefs and power structures that define our lives.

Forest of stolen girls by June Hur

GENRE: YA Historical mystery | feiwel and friends 2021 | REVIEWED BY zerin jannat

June Hur delivers an intriguing and tortuous tale of mystery, history and familial love with her sophomore novel, The Forest of Stolen Girls.  The year is 1426, Joseon, Korea. Disguised as a man, eighteen-year-old Min Hwani has returned to the Jeju Island. Once her home, the island has now become a land of disappearances. Thirteen daughters of the islanders have disappeared, and in his quest to solve the case, Hwani’s father Detective Min Jewoo has also vanished.

In a flashback, we meet Hawani’s younger sister Min Maewol, who was lost in the forest of Mount Halla. During her frantic search for Maewol, Hawani discovered a woman on the brink of death. Both sisters were later found unconscious near the ghastly crime scene. They woke up with only the memory of a menacing man in white mask. After the Forest Incident, Min Jewoo uprooted his family from Jeju, leaving only Maewol behind under the care of village shaman. Over the years, Jewoo became a renowned detective, but repeatedly failed to bring his youngest daughter to the mainland. Feeling neglected and abandoned, Maewol is resentful of her blood relatives. Back in the present, Hawani finds her estranged sister Maewol and is shocked at her indifference towards their father’s disappearance. With little time, Hawani sets out to find Jewoo herself, and discovers that the Forest Incident, the disappearances of the young women, and her father’s disappearance are all connected. After the man in white mask reappears and she narrowly escapes the wrath of his sword with Maewol’s help, the two sisters have a change of heart and set out to find their father, and unbury their memories of that fateful night five years ago.

This novel explores a lesser known part of Korean history, when it was a vassal state and forced to offer tributes to the Ming dynasty of China. Poverty and class segregation are overt in the novel, as is the merciless exploitation of the weak by the upper echelons. It is an era where women are to remain refined, confined and subservient. Thus, it is gratifying to see how strong and decisive the female characters are in the novel. They are brave, intelligent and willful young girls who will transgress the stringent norms and laws of their time to achieve what they want.

The Forest of the Stolen Girls might be a young adult novel, but I believe readers of every age will enjoy this enigmatic tale, where no one can be trusted and no one can be convicted until the mystery finally starts to unravel.

Why We Love It: This historical mystery explores gender, class segregation, and much more in a haunting backdrop perfect for Halloween.

the society of reluctant dreamers by jose eduardo agualusa

trans. by daniel hahn

GENRE: literary fiction | archipelago books 2020 | REVIEWED BY rebecca valley

Who is the woman in Daniel Benchimol’s dreams? 

When Daniel is fired from his job as a journalist, he goes to the Rainbow Motel off the coast of his native Angola to swim and clear his head. In the water, he discovers a disposable camera which contains images of a beautiful woman—one who has haunted his dreams for years. Daniel sets out on a mission to discover the identity of this woman, and finds himself entrenched in a world of romance and clairvoyant dreams thats spans decades and continents. 

But José Eduardo Agualusa is interested in more than just dreams. Through tangents, journal entries, and diversions, the novel also dives into the lasting impact of generations of war—and how that violence has shaped Angolan culture. As Daniel attempts to solve his own mystery, a coup is being staged in Angola. Young people are taking a stand after decades of violence and corruption. And Daniel somehow finds himself in the middle of that revolution, too. 

This satisfying and brief novel weaves together surreal dreamscapes with the lived and politicized experience of contemporary Angolans, to ask: how does our nation shape our dreams? How do our dreams shape our nation? 

Why We Love It: This novel weaves the surreal with the political to create a world of intrigue, romance, revolution, and hope.

Want to review a book for our next round-up? Head to our submissions page for more information and to see a list of titles we’d love to cover.

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