The Slippery Complexities of Human Behavior on Display in Ivy Ngeow’s Novel Masterpiece Overboard

“A stranger. She is trying to show you a grain of kindness but it turns into a beach of bitterness.”

A stranger…tossed overboard from a burning yacht in a raging storm that claims the lives of all onboard…except him.

He wakes up, battered, burned, unrecognizable…an amnesiac…in a Thai hospital…with amazing food.

From the intoxicating smell of homecooked cuisine in a foreign hospital…to the way non-native speakers of a language have their feelings often misinterpreted…it’s these types of sharp, evocative details that litter and bloom in Ivy Ngeow’s smart, witty, satirical, dark, complex, twisting globe-hopping psychological thriller.

The amnesiac’s point of view is boldly done in second person narration, and it’s one of the few times I’ve found this to work well. But it’s not just his story, there are other POVs (like a philosophical Polish plumber with a pet Burmese python living in London, and a rich widow caught up in legal disputes) done in third person limited, and all circumnavigate each other in startling ways leading to a shocking denoument.

Apart from the perceptive details, there are sardonic notes on materialism and obsessions with brands. Many of the characters walk through their carefully curated lives like amnesiacs who can only remember their identity by the brands they wear or procure.

Like Christian Petzold’s film Phoenix and Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, identity, amnesia, and transforming oneself hang over the proceedings like a pall. Ngeow’s spin on the themes, however, are decidedly modern and channeled through technology and interior design. Her characters foolishly build protective walls around themselves with their possessions and hobbies, often unaware of their true selves and how others perceive them through the veils of technology and language. Ngeow’s sardonic wit and voice echo back to the best of Graham Greene. And much like Greene’s work, Overboard, finds that delicate balance between thrilling entertainment and keenly observant literature inundated with the slippery complexities of human behavior.

Overboard is a modern, novel masterpiece. An absolute must-read.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

Lost Girls on Netflix and The Escape to Candyland

The new Netflix film Lost Girls takes an interesting look at the unsolved Long Island Serial Killer case from the POV of one of the alleged victim’s mother. Directed by Liz Garbus, the film gets off to a choppy start, but once Amy Ryan takes control and begins her mission to find her missing daughter, her impassioned performance raises the film beyond your standard psychological thriller melodrama. The supporting performances are also very strong, with the cast making the most of roles that would’ve benefited from more fleshing out in a longer format.

The material here is probably better suited for a miniseries, but I enjoyed the film’s compactness and some of Garbus’ moody visual choices for lighting, framing, etc… This is one of those sad but true tales about young women being marginalized and victimized, and the “stronger-than-they-thought-they-were” women in their families becoming their voice after they were silenced. Ingrained misogyny and corruption, as well as the mishandling of mental health issues are brought to light as the women champion for the murdered girls…but sadly to no avail as of yet beyond the story being shared.

Many of the stories in Yong Takahashi’s new collection The Escape to Candyland swirl around the marginalization and victimization of women as well. A good portion of the stories deal with women who were brought up in a corrupt and cultish crime ring headed by a pastor and yogi in Atlanta. These characters could’ve easily ended up like the women in Lost Girls.

Combined with other tales of immigrants, the marginalized, and the mentally or emotionally troubled, Takahashi’s stories make for an interesting read.

Both the film the short story collection standout because of their POVs. They both make it clear that these are voices that need to be heard…deserve to be heard. These are stories that are all too commonly swept under the rug.

The haunting line from Takahashi’s story “Sacred Places” rings true for all of these girls and women:

“We’ve lived our lives like compressed balls of yarn, twisted and knotted together, unable to separate ourselves from each other. Once I let my secret go, all the others will unravel.”

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Fiona Apple Has Released the Perfect Album for Quarantine with Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fetch the Bolt Cutters, from the incomparable genius that is Fiona Apple, dropped yesterday, and I instantly downloaded it to listen to while catching up on work emails late Friday afternoon. As excited as I was about it, and as much as I’ve always loved Apple from the time both of us were teens and she released Tidal, nothing could prepare me for how brilliant the album would be. I, of course, started to babble about it on social media, re-listened to favorite tracks in the evening, posted a review on Amazon, and swam in my thoughts well into the sleepless night. Was it Fiona’s lyrics or the Venezuelan food or the normal quarantine panic keeping me up?

The bulk of the Amazon review has been integrated here, but reflecting a day later, I wanted to collect my thoughts and provide more context.

I have many fond memories of listening to Fiona Apple’s sophomore album When The Pawn… self-quarantined in my college dorm room thinking deep, deep thoughts. It was a landmark album. “Get Gone” and “I Know” remain amongst my favorite songs of all time. The album I could listen to straight through tomorrow and it would seem as fresh as that first day I listened to it in my dorm room.

Fetch the Bold Cutters arrives over twenty years later to a world under quarantine, and it too is a landmark album. It is the perfect album at the perfect time. Apple recorded it in her own self-quarantine with only a select few friends and bandmates (and dogs, barking seemingly on cue at the end of one track) at her home over recent years, reflecting deeply (as she always does) on her life, relationships, career, fears, wants, and forgiveness.

Like When the Pawn… Fetch the Bolt Cutters plays straight through true and true, not a wasted track. It’s all at once angry and joyous, polished and raw, soulful and angsty, defiant and willful, dark and tragic and funny and honest and blithe. There are themes of self-care, female empowerment, speaking up, acting out, messing up, surviving, and thriving. Her stories, her songs, her words, they are hers but also ours. She is speaking about our times, not as a passive witness, but as a tortured participant crawling through the muck, learning, growing, and trying to pull some of us out of it with her…if only we would listen…

Ladies, ladies, ladies…she sings…yet another woman to whom I won’t get through.

Another track, “Relay”, which apparently has been tossed around since Apple was a teen, seems like an anthem for all this is wrong with the world today. Evil is a relay sport, when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch she echoes over and over.

Originally slated for an October release, Apple convinced the studio to release this in April because why wait when the world is under a global pandemic shutdown? People need music, and escape, and we need to be allowed to think deep, deep thoughts. A lot of the professional reviewers are marveling at the experimental rawness, but I found it to be more polished and refined than advertised. It certainly is playful with percussions, happy accidents and background noises, but it all gels and her voice sometimes screaming and sometimes whispering and barely there, still sounds great and classically trained more often than not. What I loved the most is the dark sense of humor and the emotional vulnerability of her lyrical wordplay. Apple is at her most cunning and clever…and this is a masterwork. This is by far her best since When the Pawn…and perhaps the apex of her long gestating craft.

My favorite tracks:

  • I Want You To Love Me
  • Under the Table
  • Relay
  • Ladies
  • For Her
  • Drumset

But there is something to savor and reflect on in each of the rich, complex, surprising tracks.

A real treasure in these strange, strange times.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

There is Weird Wild Heartbreaking Beautiful Stuff to be Found in The Deep

The Deep is a wildly imaginative bit of fiction anchored in universal truths and spun creatively from real trauma. It is simultaneously a collaborative work based on the mythology created in experimental rap songs, and a uniquely singular novella. Like its main character, the mysterious Yetu, it is both plural and one. It’s quite unlike anything I have ever read. If I tried to ensnare and then relay its essence, imagine if Toni Morrison wrote a piece of science-fiction. It’s that soulful, and that weird. But to reduce it to that type of blurb would do it a disservice.

A fantastic underwater utopia inhabited by strange sentient creatures (the Wajinru) who are descended from pregnant women tossed overboard during the transatlantic slave trade, communal memories, climate change, the end of the world…it’s all woven into the rich tapestry of Rivers Solomon’s tome which reads like an epic poem. Rich in metaphors and bold imagination, it channels both the grief and the triumph of the marginalized.

Love who you love. Own your past. Create your future.

For all the heartache, the novella builds to an amazing closing line that left this reader reeling.

There is hope in the chaos.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Revisiting Phoenix – The Best Film of the 2010s

Nina Hoss in Phoenix – The Performance and Film of the Decade
Denis Villenueve (directing Amy Adams in Arrival) – The Director of the Decade
Ryan Gosling in Drive – the Performer of the Decade

The 2010s: the decade of Obama and Trump, hope and hate, dashed dreams and heightened anxiety, increasing interconnectedness that lead to both positive grassroots movements and sharper divisions, social media overload, hacks into our privacy and once sacred institutions, political chaos, and drones delivering both presents and bombs.

Personally, this was the decade I traveled abroad for the first time and ultimately visited six different countries. I advanced multiple rungs in my corporate career. I met an amazing woman – our first date was seeing the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself – who I married. We then bought a wonderful old house together in a charming neighborhood, and became parents to an awesome little boy. I also published a novel, Then Came Darkness, that will likely always be my own sentimental favorite piece of work.

Film was right there with me every step of the way, mirroring the light (La La Land) and increasing darkness (most of Villeneuve’s output) in the world at large, sometimes in the breadth of the same film (Arrival, Drive, The Tree of Life).

It’s terms of consistency of output, Denis Villenueve had a banner decade and directed more list entries than any other auteur: Arrival, Enemy, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049. It was also a great decade for Ryan Gosling, who is the performer who shows up on more list entries than any other: Drive, La La Land, The Place Beyond the Pines, Blade Runner 2049. The Gos also brought my wife and I together as our shared love for him was one of the first topics of discussion the night we met at a rooftop party, both of us reluctant guests of mutual acquaintances. Her favorite Gos performance was Half Nelson, mine was Drive. We abhorred The Notebook. Both of us passed each other’s first test.

But I digress. Back to the decade at hand where some films reflected the anxious yet still somehow hopeful mood of the moment through depictions of complex modern relationship (Moonlight, Waves), while others just flat out broadcast our deepest modern anxieties (Take Shelter, Enemy, Sicario, Us). Still others looked back and reminded us there were times before ours even more tumultuous (Phoenix). Still others bent time (Inception, The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) while others stood austerely outside of any context and proved the timeless nature of art (Phantom Thread).

Some could’ve only been made with the boldness of young auteurs finding their voice (Moonlight, Us, Waves), while some could’ve only been made by a reflective master looking back on their career (The Irishman). Then there were others that could’ve only been made by auteurs in their prime (Arrival, Inception, Phoenix).

Yet some could’ve only been made by a depressed madman looking for the beauty in the end of the world (Melancholia). And still some blazed a trail so defiant in their logic and reason for being (a continuation of a series thought long dead directed by a senior citizen) that they perfectly reflected the madness of our times by showcasing an even madder future (Mad Max: Fury Road).

But the movie that I think about probably more than any other film of the decade; a film whose climax features a haunting, emotional, draining, and ultimately uplifting rendition of Sarah Vaughn’s “Speak Low” that was so memorable my wife and I later added it to our wedding song list; a film that I compared to such classics like The Third Man (routinely in my Top Five of All Time) and Hitchcock’s Notorious…is none other than Christian Petzold’s neo-noir psychological slow-burner about survivor’s guilt and hidden identities, Phoenix. Just as Nelly (played by Nina Hoss in a performance for the ages) survived her husband’s betrayal, WWII and the Holocaust, so did all of us looking back now survive the wild anxiety-riddled ebbs and flows of the 2010s. Phoenix is without a doubt, the greatest film of the decade.

FilmYearDirectorDecade Rank
Phoenix2015Christian Petzold1
Phantom Thread2017Paul Thomas Anderson2
If Beale Street Could Talk2018Barry Jenkins3
Inception2010Christopher Nolan4
The Tree of Life2011Terrence Malick5
Mad Max: Fury Road2015George Miller6
Waves2019Trey Edward Shults7
Melancholia2011Lars Von Trier8
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives2011Apichatpong Weerasethakul9
Drive2011Nicolas Winding Refn10
The Irishman2019Martin Scorsese11
Arrival2016Denis Villeneuve12
12 Years a Slave2013Steve McQueen13
Winter’s Bone2010Debra Granik14
Interstellar2014Christopher Nolan15
Moonlight2016Barry Jenkins16
La La Land2016Damien Chazelle17
Cold War2018Pawel Pawlikowski18
Lean on Pete2018Andrew Haigh19
The Place Beyond the Pines2013Derek Cianfrance20
Take Shelter2011Jeff Nichols21
Biutiful2010Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu22
Transit2019Christian Petzold23
Us2019Jordan Peele24
Personal Shopper2017Olivier Assayas25
A Separation2011Asghar FarhadiHM
Lincoln2012Steven SpielbergHM
The Grey2012James CarnahanHM
The Impossible2012Juan Antonio BayonaHM
The Master2012Paul Thomas AndersonHM
Gravity2013Alfonso CuaronHM
Inside Llewyn Davis2013The Coen BrothersHM
Mud2013Jeff NicholsHM
Blue Ruin2014Jeremy SaulnierHM
Enemy2014Denis VilleneuveHM
Sicario2015Denis VilleneuveHM
The Salesman2016Asghar FarhadiHM
Dunkirk2017Christopher NolanHM
Blade Runner 20492017Denis VilleneuveHM
Wind River2017Taylor SheridanHM
BlacKkKlansman2018Spike LeeHM
Roma2018Alfonso CuaronHM

Written by D. H. Schleicher

We Are Not Afforded the Luxury of Being Average in #Waves

High school wrestling champ Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) seems to be living his best life. He’s a star athlete with an eye on nationals and a college scholarship, the life of the party, has a beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie), plays the piano, and lives in an upper middle class house in a Miami suburb with his successful and very present parents (Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry) and younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell). But nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface. Everyone has multiple sides, and Tyler is a ticking time-bomb – over-stimulated, over-worked and living in a pressure cooker of unjustly high expectations and toxic masculinity. Harrison is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal, playing for the second time this year an African-American high-schooler who seems perfect on the outside but is just one perceived slight away from blowing his top. In Luce, he was scarily in-control, while here in the emotionally seismic Waves, he’s hanging on by a thread. The tension builds in the first half of the film to shrieking, anxious effect.

I’ve probably already said too much. The less you know about Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, the better. I went in cold, riding high on the festival circuit buzz, and having been riveted previously by Shults’ ode to addiction and family, Krisha.

(POTENTIAL SPOILERS)

Waves is one of those films that takes a sudden turn half-way through and changes POV from Tyler to Emily and her attempt to recover from tragedy by finding love with a refreshingly non-toxic male named Luke (Lucas Hedges). Shults self-analyzes the film in interviews as “a panic attack followed by a hug,” and he couldn’t be more apt. We are right there with Tyler in the midst of his breakdown, our hearts pounding, our emotions unchecked, and then the switch to Emily’s more sensitive POV is like a breath of fresh air. Shults handles the transition exquisitely. But there are no easy solutions on either side of his film of mirrors and psychological undulations. I loved the complexity of the characters and their sometimes tortured and sometimes beautiful relationships with each other. They are not always likable, but in some way they are always relatable. And every single cast member makes you feel their highs and lows, their pain and their joy.

Shults uses camera tricks (some of which I know I didn’t even process – begging for the continuous cineaste visit hoping to catch something new with each re-watch), music, light, and color to transition from scene to scene, character to character, emotion to emotion. Everything physical in the craftsmanship informs, shades, and mirrors the internal struggles of the souls aching to be loved and understood on film.

Did I mention the screenplay? There were so many great, ponderous quotes coming not just from our main characters but from peripheral influences – teachers, coaches, and preachers offering words that both comfort and taint the mindsets of the young people in the film struggling to find their way in the world. I wish I had taken notes, but I was too caught up in the moment to peel my eyes from the screen.

One quote stuck with me though, when Tyler’s father Ronald tells him, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”

Shults in anything but an average filmmaker, and Waves is a shattering earthquake of a film whose aftermath will leave viewers with so many troubling, wondrous, humbling things to unpack.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

When in Doubt Think about Ghosts

“When in doubt, think about ghosts.”

This is what director David Lynch told actor Russ Tamblyn while shooting a key scene for the original Twin Peaks in an attempt to get the right reaction. And it worked. I vividly recalled that scene, and man, Russ Tamblyn was all kinds of spooky looking, obviously thinking about ghosts.

It’s these great little tidbits that make Room to Dream such an enjoyable, and often weird, read for fans of surrealist extraordinaire David Lynch – a man who seems like he must have had a tragic, horrible upbringing to be able to tap into such pain and darkness, yet seemingly didn’t (by any account, his or another). Here is a man who had a Norman Rockwell upbringing only to obsess over the seamy underbelly of the white picket fence world he both loved and railed against.

The semi-autobiography has alternating mirrored chapters (it is eerily its own doppelgänger) about the same events  – one from the point of view of David Lynch’s friends, family, and colleagues and then one from his point of view. It is long and rambling and very detailed. Though none of the back-stories on the productions of his films were previously unknown to me, someone who has studied and read about Lynch for decades, I especially enjoyed those walks down memory lane to Philadelphia and the Eraserhead days. The meat of the book is in those delicious little tidbits and the altered views of what happened…Lynch sometimes disagrees with (or doesn’t remember) what the others say happened. Continue reading

Find Your Thrills During Indie April

#IndieApril will be coming to a close soon, so I wanted to share with readers some of the great indie writers I discovered this year who write the type of stuff I like to read and write.

First up is Pray for the Girl by Joseph Souza, which I received an advanced review copy of in March, quickly devoured all of its twists, and wrote a full review of it at The Spin a few weeks ago.

“Souza’s novel follows many of the standard modern murder mystery tropes, but’s it’s all told from the point of view of a protagonist unlike any other…In Lucy Abbott, Souza has created an unforgettable character who is tortured, complex, and tough as nails.”

Get your copy of Pray for the Girl – on sale as of April 30th.

Next up is a stand alone short story from Jenna Moquin, Stone Storm, about a man who finds a dead body in a blizzard and then fears the killer may have snuck into his farmhouse for shelter.

“Edgar Allan Poe tales are often over-used for inspiration for far too many uninspired tales. Luckily, with Jenna Moquin’s Stone Storm we have one of the more effective uses of a classic Poe theme. I won’t mention which of his fabled short stories serves as inspiration here, as it would give too much away, but this is one of the better updates I’ve read.”

Download Stone Storm to your Kindle app for one cent less than a buck.

Lastly we have John Greco’s short story collection, Bitter Ends.

“John Greco’s short story collection, Bitter Ends, is jam-packed with quick, nasty little numbers full of cheating and murdering spouses and twisty turns of fate. If there’s a lesson to be found…it’s probably this: never agree to a prenup. While some of the stories seem more like sketches and aren’t as fleshed out as others, there are a few real stand-outs of the noir genre: Good for Nothing, We All Got What We Wanted (probably my favorite…with its Upstate New York setting), and A Marriage to Die For.

Bitter Ends is available in paperback and Kindle ebook editions.

Follow me on Goodreads where you can read full reviews of Stone Storm and Bitter Ends.

The Twisting Thrills and Complex Humanism of Joseph Souza’s Pray for the Girl

Where does one even begin to review a book like Joseph Souza’s Pray for the Girl? And how can any in-depth analysis not reveal one of its major plot twists? And believe me, there are many jaw-droppers here. Souza’s novel follows many of the standard modern murder mystery tropes, but’s it’s all told from the point of view of a protagonist unlike any other.

Lucy Abbott is a veteran of the Afghan War, both emotionally and physically scarred by her experiences and haunted by the death of a young girl she couldn’t save while stationed there. After a stint in New York City where she honed her culinary skills as a way to avoid dealing with her PTSD and other issues, she returns home to Fawn Grove, Maine to help her ailing sister only to find the once proud mill town economically devastated and tensions rising between the townies and recent influx of Afghan refugees. When a young Afghan girl (like the girl Lucy couldn’t save in the war) is found buried up to her head and stoned to death, Lucy takes on the classic role of amateur detective as a way to wrestle her own demons and find redemption, she hopes for both herself and her town.

In Lucy Abbott, Souza has created an unforgettable character who is tortured, complex, and tough as nails. Her PTSD only scratches the surface of what she’s been through and amplifies the conflicts she’s had with her own identity all her life. Continue reading

This is Us and We Are Terrifying

I was six years-old in 1986, and I have a vivid memory of the Hands Across America initiative. We were visiting my aunt’s house on the day it was to happen, and I thought that people were actually going to step out of their houses at the designated time and literally hold hands across the entire country. How disappointed I was when I eagerly ran out of my aunt’s house onto her front porch and saw no one holding hands. Jordan Peele must have had a similar memory, and he uses that sense of disappointment in hope as a set-up to his newest complex and fitfully terrifying horror opus, Us.

There’s a palpable sense of dread in the film’s 1986 prologue where a little girl wanders away from her parents at a Santa Cruz fun fair and has a harrowing experience in a house of mirrors. Later, as an adult, that same little girl finds herself back on that beach during a family vacation that leads to a home invasion by a red-suited, scissor-carrying family of shadows. Dopplegangers brood throughout Peele’s sophomore effort as a writer and director, and with a larger budget, he casts his net of ideas broader than he did in the succinctly satirical Get Out. There’s a lot going on here, and Peele has clearly found his groove in setting a unique mood, cutting tension with his now signature sense of humor, and then going all out in turning modern horror film tropes on their head. Bunnies and beaches, social commentary and mass killings, ballet and butchery…it’s all on the table, and it’s gripping, fascinating and sometimes confounding. Peele leaves no horror cliché unturned, including the twist ending, which I assumed during the first sand-tray therapy scene. In lesser hands, it could have become a bloody mess, but Peele shows complete control of his runaway train wreck. Continue reading