“The Hating Game” by Sally Thorne

The Hating GameThere’s a thin line between love and hate. That’s the premise of Australian writer Sally Thorne’s first novel, The Hating Game, which pits two uber-competitive office workers against each other as they both angle for the same promotion at a publishing company.

Lucy has always dreamed of working at a publishing company; Joshua fell into his job after dropping out of medical school due to squeamishness. Bitter rivals, the two are constantly trying to sabotage each other. However, despite their mutual loathing, there’s an undercurrent of sexual tension that becomes more and more difficult to ignore.

To Thorne’s credit, this isn’t the type of book where the protagonists finally declare their attraction to one another on the final page; the romantic sparks between Joshua and Lucy are pretty obvious early on, and a kiss in the elevator at work further complicates their relationship. Both have vowed to quit if the other one gets the promotion, and when Lucy begins to date another employee, things get even more twisted.

The Hating Game reminded me a little of Lucy Parker’s Act Like It, another book where we watch the couple move from antipathy to amour. (Seriously, does that ever happen in real life, or is it just a rom-com trope?) But while Parker’s novel had a rich background in the world of the London theater, Thorne leaves the setting of her book as something of a mystery. At first I just assumed the author was British and that it took place in London, until a receipt with a price in dollars was mentioned. It’s definitely not set in Manhattan, since everyone drives their car to work. When I read that Thorne was Australian, I kind of wished she’d been more specific about the location and given the novel some local color; the huge success of Liane Moriarty’s Oz-set books have proven that readers elsewhere in the world will enjoy fiction set in the land down under. But on the whole, The Hating Game is a fun, light read with a couple of appealing lead characters and a satisfying resolution.

“The Dark Room” by Jonathan Moore and “Fatal” by John Lescroart

The Dark Room by Jonathan MooreThe back cover of The Dark Room features a blurb by Stephen King, praising Jonathan Moore’s previous novel, The Poison Artist: “I haven’t read anything so terrifying since Red Dragon.” That novel, by Thomas Harris, remains at the top of my own personal Scariest Book list (followed closely by Lee Child’s Make Me). I was a little hesitant to dive in, but I find it hard to resist noir thrillers set in San Francisco, so I persevered.

On the whole, I’m glad I did, although when I described the plot to my husband, his reaction was one of ewwwww, so be advised that this book is not for the squeamish. (There are several scenes set in morgues.) Still, I found The Dark Room, which takes place in a San Francisco where it never seems to stop raining, to be a chilling and appropriate read for a wet and windy Bay Area weekend.

SFPD homicide detective Gavin Cain is attending an exhumation at a cemetery near Monterey when he’s summoned back to San Francisco by the mayor. Someone has sent him a threatening letter, along with several photographs. Mayor Castelli claims he has never seen the woman in the photos. Is he being blackmailed? He wants Cain to find out what’s going on, but the inspector is pretty sure the mayor’s a shady character and isn’t telling him the whole story.

Gradually, we learn more about the exhumation, and that it seems to tie into the investigation involving the mayor. Cain also gets to know Castelli’s family: his wife Mona and 19-year-old daughter Alexa. When Cain goes to visit Mona at the Castellis’ tony Sea Cliff home, I somehow knew before he arrived at her front door that she would be a bitter alcoholic “drinking a pitcher of martinis alone at two on a weekday afternoon.” And it wasn’t a huge surprise that Alexa turns out to be a troubled nymphette with a penchant for taking off her clothes.

Less of a noir trope is Cain’s girlfriend Lucy, a pianist suffering from agoraphobia and anxiety as a result of past trauma that is revealed later in the book. I found myself so concerned about the fate of fragile Lucy that I almost flipped to the end to see whether or not Moore killed her off in some horrific Gwyneth Paltrow-in-“Se7en” scenario. (No spoilers here, natch.)

The Dark Room is very well plotted, with a satisfying and logical solution. It’s a creepy but strangely compelling book.

Fatal by John LescroartUnlike Moore, John Lescroart lives in Northern California, so perhaps it’s not surprising that his San Francisco setting is dry and drought-ridden, as was the case here until just a few months ago. In fact, the drought plays a small role in the story, helping a detective find an important clue.

Fatal, a stand-alone thriller, starts off with an affair—a man and a woman, both married to other people, meet at a dinner party thrown by mutual friends. They agree that their tryst at a downtown hotel will be a one-time thing… but will it? At this point, I assumed the novel was going to turn into a Fatal Attraction style scenario where one of the people won’t take no for an answer, but the plot really takes a turn when a major event occurs that changes the lives of all the characters. To say more would spoil the twists that await the reader.

Some pretty awful things happen in Fatal, but Lescroart has a breezier style than Moore, so there’s less of a persistent sense of dread. Something I thought was going to turn into a major plot point winds up being mostly dropped, and the ending may not satisfy readers who want everything tied up with a bow. But Lescroart knows how to craft a page-turner, and once I was halfway through Fatal, I didn’t stop ’til I’d reached the end.

“Bum Luck” by Paul Levine

Bum Luck by Paul LevineI was a big fan of Paul Levine’s Solomon vs. Lord series, which featured a pair of South Florida lawyers who were constantly at each other’s throats—that is, when they weren’t jumping into bed. The mismatched couple starred in a handful of books, but it had been so long since the last one came out (2007’s Habeas Porpoise) that I figured Levine had retired them.

Well, Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord are back, though they play a supporting role in Bum Luck, which primarily features another one of his series characters, Jake Lassiter. Like Solomon & Lord, Lassiter is an attorney (Levine himself was a lawyer before turning to fiction). A self-described “brew and burger guy in a pâté and chardonnay world,” Lassiter had a less-than-illustrious career playing for the Miami Dolphins a couple decades back. His latest client is also a Dolphin: the former benchwarmer is defending a current superstar. And thanks to Jake’s work on his behalf, “Thunder” Thurston was acquitted of murdering his wife. There’s just one problem—Jake is convinced Thurston was guilty, and after the acquittal, he finds himself wanting to wreak vengeance: “Thirty seconds after the jury announced its verdict, I decided to kill my client.”

The dead woman’s father, Clyde Garner, is out for revenge as well, threatening both attorney and client: “You know what you are, Lassiter? Dead lawyer walking.”

Another case, which pits Jake against his pals Solomon and Lord, brings up CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative disease that often strikes football players and others who have suffered repeated blows to the head. Learning more about CTE makes Jake realize that his frequent headaches and occasional memory lapses may be related to the condition. The book takes a poignant turn as Jake reluctantly decides to undergo testing and find out if his football career may have caused lasting damage.

Bum Luck has a few touches of South Florida wackiness that will resonate with fans of Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey (Jake’s granny’s home cooking involves a heaping helping of iguana), but it’s not quite as outrageously over-the-top, which is fine with me. Even though I was meeting Jake for the first time, I found myself rooting for him, even when he made some morally questionable decisions. And I was pleased to find that his previous adventure, Bum Rap, also features Solomon and Lord; that book, along with almost the whole Levine backlist, is available free of charge to Amazon Prime members. I’ve already downloaded Bum Rap, and am looking forward to catching up with Lassiter’s earlier cases.

Note: Bum Luck will be published on March 28, 2017. Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the review copy.

“All Our Wrong Todays” by Elan Mastai

All Our Wrong TodaysWhere are our flying cars? We should have had them by now, right? Those of us who grew up watching “The Jetsons” on TV were sure that by the time we were old enough to get our licenses, we’d be zipping around in airborne automobiles instead of boring old Corollas.

The clever premise of All Our Wrong Todays is that the America of 2016 should have had flying cars, as well as “robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases.” (That the book is mostly set in the annus horribilis of 2016 is a masterstroke that Elan Mastai could not have anticipated when he wrote the book, unless he is a time traveler himself.) Unfortunately, one man, Tom Barren, screwed it all up, ensuring that instead of “a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder,” we have… well, those black tubes that you can use to order a pizza or play the latest Drake song. In other words, things we could have accomplished just fine with creaky 20th century technology like a landline phone and a record player.

Tom had the misfortune of being a thoroughly average child of a super-genius father, a man so intelligent that he invented a working time machine. The purpose of the machine would be to send a chrononaut to observe the single greatest moment in human history: the launching of the Goettreider Engine in 1965, the device that enabled all of those futuristic dreams to come true. The Engine generates “unlimited, robust, absolutely clean energy,” and was invented by Danish-American inventor Lionel Goettreider, “the most famous, beloved, and respected human on the planet.” Unfortunately, Goettreider died of radiation poisoning shortly after the Engine was switched on, meaning he never knew how his invention would change the world.

Through a series of wacky misadventures, Tom winds up being propelled back to Goettreider’s lab instead of the chrononaut who should have made the trip, the brilliant Penelope Weschler. Things go wrong, there is no Goettreider Engine thanks to Tom’s interference, and he finds out what would have happened had the Engine never been switched on: he is no longer Tom, sad-sack loser, but John, a successful architect; his dad is a friendly, lovable professor instead of a cold, impossible-to-please genius; and Penelope is Penny, a down-to-earth Toronto bookstore owner. Tom realizes that he needs to try to fix things so that the Earth can return to the techno-utopia it was meant to be, but the problem is that he really likes the way things turned out for himself in the alternative timeline. Still, “it’s monumentally selfish to condemn the rest of the world, reality itself, to this wrong existence just because my little life has been improved. I’m not important, not compared to the billions who have never known how things should be.”

Will Tom figure out a way to fix his massive mistake? Mastai, a screenwriter, tells the story in short, breezy chapters (most of which are only 2-3 pages long, making the book a quick and easy read). If he doesn’t quite stick the landing, at least for readers like me who can’t handle too much science in their science fiction—”I don’t know how much more patience you have for semi-lucid explanations of time-travel physics,” he writes at one point near the end of the book (my answer is not a lot)—it’s still a delightful debut.