KAREN’S KILLER BOOK BENCH: Welcome to Karen’s Killer Book Bench where readers can discover talented new authors and take a peek inside their wonderful books. This is not an age-filtered site so all book peeks are PG-13 or better. Come back and visit often. Happy reading!
THE LAST TEA BOWL THIEF
Asian American Mystery
BY JONELLE PATRICK
One tea bowl. Two strangers stuck at dead-end jobs with nothing in common. Except that the mysterious tea bowl may be the key to unlocking both of their futures…
Modern-day Japan. Robin Swann’s life in Tokyo is grinding to a halt. She’s stuck in a dead-end job testing antiquities for an auction house, but her true love is poetry, not pottery. Her stalled dissertation sits on her laptop, unopened in months, and she has no one to confide in but her goldfish.
On the other side of town, Nori Okuda sells rice bowls and tea cups to Tokyo restaurants, as her family has done for generations. But with her grandmother in the hospital and the shop next door stealing their best customers, the family business is foundering. If her luck doesn’t change – and soon – everything she’s worked so hard to build will collapse around her ears.
The two women have nothing in common, until they learn that both their futures depend on possessing a cultural treasure that went missing before they were born. The past sets the stage for the hunt, while the elusive tea bowl leads Nori and Robin to secrets that make them question everything they believe. As they close in on the prize, it becomes clear that they will have to choose between seizing their dreams or righting the terrible wrong that has been poisoning the legacy of the tea bowl for centuries.
Have you ever felt like a stranger in a strange land? I’m not asking if you’ve stepped off a plane in a country that’s so many time zones from home that noon feels like midnight—I’m asking if you’ve ever walked into a classroom at a new school? Sat in a lobby, waiting for someone to show you to your desk at a new job? Walked into a party and realized that the person who invited you isn’t there yet? If so, we’ve got soooo much in common!
The first time I moved to Japan, I thought I was prepared. I’d been there before, I’d studied hard. And my Japanese was pretty heckin’ good. Or so I thought.
That summer, I was involved with a fencing program (the kind with swords) at a Tokyo municipal sports center. Since it was a mixed group of Japanese and foreigners, the coach announced he’d organized a trip to show us Mt. Fuji. Nobody should leave Japan before seeing Mt. Fuji, he told us.
The kids all showed up dressed like kids, but I knew I should show respect for the coach, so I dressed for what I thought was going to be a pleasant summer excursion to view the most-photographed landmark in Japan. Purse-size camera: check. Sundress: check. Sunglasses, high-heeled sandals & appropriately seasonal handbag: check, check, check.
You see where this is going. And as soon as the coach returned from the Fifth Station souvenir stand toting official Mt. Fuji climbing sticks for all, so did I.
But there was nothing to do but gird up my pantyhose and charge up the trail like, of course this is how everyone my country dresses when a 12,000-foot peak needs scaling.
And honestly, from the fifth hiking station to the sixth, it was perfectly do-able. Just like sauntering up a Tokyo street, if that street happened to be made of gritty, slippery volcanic cinders and pointy lava rocks. We made it to the sixth station (got the brand on my walking stick to prove it!) and climbed halfway to the seventh before the sheer humiliation of hiking with a crazy foreigner in high heels who politely greeted every ragged and exhausted Fuji warrior limping down from the summit with a cheery, “Konnichi wa!” got the better of my companions. They tried to assure me that I hadn’t cut their enjoyment short in any way, but yeah, I’m pretty sure they were lying.
That might be the most cringeworthy—but far from the only—time I felt like Robin Swann, the stranger-in-a-strange-land foreigner in The Last Tea Bowl Thief. The last empty seats on the subway are always next to her, her use of honorific Japanese sometimes has the opposite effect, and not a single pair of pants in all of Japan fits her.
But don’t let me spoil it—here’s a chapter from The Last Tea Bowl Thief, where we meet her for the first time!
FRIDAY, MARCH 28
Art Authentication Specialist Robin Swann shoves her front door shut with her hip, dumping the mail and her handbag atop the shoe cupboard with a sigh of relief. Why is it that no matter how big her purse is, the stuff inside expands to fill it? Rubbing her aching shoulder, she scuffs her feet into the fluffy pink slippers waiting beyond the edge of the entry tiles and trudges down the hall toward the kitchen. Detouring to the pocket-sized bedroom on the way, she trades her pantyhose and suit for sweatpants and a t-shirt, zips a faded college hoodie over the top. Then she grabs a shapeless sweater and pulls it over her bush of blond hair, because it’s still two-sweatshirt weather in her apartment. People have been posting bursting blossoms online for weeks now, but anyone who has read the haiku masters and lived in Japan for eight years knows that’s just an invitation for a late dump of snow.
Ugh, has it really been eight years? She takes off her glasses and rubs her tired eyes. She’s over thirty, still living year-to-year on a precarious academic visa that has to be renewed every April, and has had a longer relationship with her goldfish than with any man since she arrived. Speaking of which . . . she crosses the room to the clear glass bowl and peers in. The orange fish lurks near the bottom, not moving, but not belly-up either. She taps in a few flakes of foul-smelling food, and it waves its feeble fins, rising slowly to the surface to nibble.
At first, she’d kept the unwanted pet in a pickle jar, expecting it to move on to goldfish heaven within the week. Instead, it was her romance with the Japanese chef who’d won it for her at a shrine festival that died a quick death, while the stubborn orange fish lived on. After being ghosted by two more prospective boyfriends—neither of whom had been able to deal with her being taller and heavier than they were, even at her skinniest and in flats—she’d reluctantly bought the fish a clear bowl with a fluted blue rim, sprinkled some colored gravel on the bottom, and given it a name.
Fishface is now two—no, three—years old. Surely that’s some kind of record for a festival goldfish. She keys a search into her phone. Nope, apparently, she and Fishface would have to live here thirty-eight more years to challenge that one. The very idea makes her want to . . . what? Scream? Drink wine straight from the bottle? Eat a whole carton of green tea ice cream?
She tucks the canister of fish food back behind the framed photo of her solid Middle American parents, flanking a beaming, longer-haired Robin who’s squinting into the sun and clutching the diploma proclaiming her a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies. She’d been so excited that day, a week shy of stepping onto a plane to begin her graduate program in Kyoto. So many shining roads had stretched before her, and on that sunny afternoon she still had no idea that the one she’d chosen would lead her further and further from the Japanese poetry master who was her passion, and turn her into a reluctant expert on Yoshi Takamatsu’s tea bowls instead.
The truth is, her fairytale life in Japan is slowly grinding to a halt. She has a dead-end job authenticating antique ceramics, a month-to-month studio apartment near an inconvenient train station, and a marked-up fourth draft of her PhD dissertation languishing on her laptop, the file unopened since mid-December.
That reminds her, she still hasn’t gotten the letter from her thesis advisor that’s key to renewing her visa for another year. If she doesn’t submit her application next week, she’ll be in deep trouble. Retracing her steps, she scoops up the wedge of mostly pizza flyers and utility bills, shuffling through it until she spots a fat envelope with her academic advisor’s return address in the corner. Whew. If she makes the dreaded pilgrimage to the immigration office next week, her visa renewal should nip in under the deadline.
Abandoning the junk mail, she returns to the kitchenette and tugs on the overhead light’s grubby string pull. The fluorescent UFO overhead stutters to life as she opens the refrigerator. There’s a gap where the wine bottle usually stands. She groans, remembering that the last of her California chardonnay had contributed to last night’s vow to get out more, meet new people, maybe even sign up for a matchmaking service. As if.
Turning to the cupboard, she discovers that her wine supply has dwindled to a single bottle of pinot and the dusty bottle of champagne she’d received when she finished her master’s degree. She twists the top off the red and pours some into the glass that never quite makes it back into the cupboard from the dish drainer. A nightly glass of wine is her one indulgence, and although American wine is more expensive than French in Tokyo, she considers drinking California chardonnay and Oregon pinot among her few remaining acts of patriotism.
She takes a sip and plops down at her low table with the envelope from her advisor. Slits it open, to make sure everything has been signed and sealed.
It has. But a note is paper-clipped to the renewal form, and her smile fades as she reads. The professor, who supervised her research establishing that the tea bowl discovered in the Jakkō-in convent’s treasure house had indeed been made in the 1700s by Yoshi Takamatsu, regrets to inform her that if she doesn’t submit her doctoral dissertation within the coming academic year, he’ll be unable to sponsor her visa again.
Robin’s heart sinks. If she fails to finish her dissertation, she can’t stay in Japan. And if she can’t stay, where will she go? Certainly not home.
Jonelle Patrick is a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Language Institute, and also a member of the Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime. She first moved to Tokyo in 2003, and now splits her time between San Francisco and Tokyo. Since then, she has authored four novels based in Japan, and continues to write about Japanese culture. In addition to the Only In Tokyo mystery series, she produces the monthly newsletter Japanagram, the Only In Japan blog, and the site The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had. Patrick teaches at writing workshops, appears as a panelist at Thrillerfest, and has been the keynote speaker at the Arrow Rock Writing Workshop.
Links to Jonelle‘s website, blog, books, etc.
Thanks, Jonelle, for sharing your story with us!
Don’t miss the chance to read this book!