“The Impossible Fortress” by Jason Rekulak

The Impossible FortressA few months ago, I reviewed Matthew Amster-Burton’s 90s-set novel Our Secret Better Lives and remarked that “some of the experiences the college-age characters have seem like they belong to a time as far removed from 2016 as ancient Greece.” Well, The Impossible Fortress goes back even further, to the far-off world of 1987. That spring, nude photos of “Wheel of Fortune” letter turner Vanna White appeared in Playboy magazine, sending young men across America into a tizzy. If you didn’t have an older brother or “cool” uncle who could buy the magazine for you, you were out of luck. There was no World Wide Web yet, and thus no way to Google “Vanna White” +Playboy to find those precious pics.

In the town of Wetbridge, NJ, only one store stocks Playboy: Zelinsky’s Typewriters and Office Supplies. Unfortunately, the proprietor is a stickler for the rules, and is not about to let a bunch of 14-year-old boys buy a copy. So Billy Marvin and his two best pals, Alf and Clark, embark upon a series of schemes to try to get one. After failing miserably, they come up with a long-shot idea: Billy will attempt to get close to Zelinsky’s chubby daughter Mary in order to talk her into revealing the store’s alarm code; that way, they can break into the store, take some magazines, and leave a $20 bill behind. No harm, no foul, right?

Mary, who is Billy’s age but attends a Catholic girls’ school, turns out to be a genius-level computer programmer, and Billy is also fascinated by computers, so the two form a genuine bond as they start working on a game called The Impossible Fortress. The goal is to submit it to a contest sponsored by Rutgers University, which is offering a prize of an IBM PS/2 (“With a sixteen-bit processor and a full megabyte of RAM”).

Sometimes, The Impossible Fortress is just a bit too cute (a scene in which Billy battles obstacles in an attempt to get a message to Mary at her school is structured like a video game), but fellow Gen X’ers who were into computers back in the days of CompuServe and “Trash-80s” will no doubt have feelings of nostalgia throughout. I kind of wish the book had featured an “Animal House”-style epilogue showing what happened to all the characters; as a young teen, Billy may have been a screw-up with poor grades, but the triumph of the nerds was just a few years away.

“A Midsummer’s Equation” by Keigo Higashino

A Midsummer's EquationA few weeks ago, my book group read All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe, and it reminded me that I had been meaning to check out some more mysteries translated from the Japanese. If you look at any list of the “best ever” crime novels from Japan, one name is certain to appear again and again: Keigo Higashino. The prolific author won acclaim for his Edgar Award-nominated The Devotion of Suspect X, which is almost Agatha Christie-like in its ridiculously clever plotting. If you’ve never read a Japanese mystery, start with Suspect X.

A Midsummer’s Equation features a character who first appeared in Suspect X, a brilliant physicist named Yukawa. While many of Yukawa’s statements and actions seem cryptic at first, he is, of course, a genius who has a knack for solving crimes by using his amazing powers of deduction. In Equation, Yukawa turns up in the sleepy seaside town of Hari Cove, whose resorts and businesses seem to be on an endless downhill slide as tourists have opted to go elsewhere. The cove has been proposed as a site for offshore underwater drilling that could provide valuable resources. A series of hearings about the proposal’s pros and cons is being held in the town, and Yukawa is on the scene to participate in the talks.

He winds up staying at an inn housing only two other guests. One is a retired police detective who is also attending the hearings. The other is a non-paying guest: Kyohei, the nephew of the inn’s owners, is spending the summer. When the retired detective is found dead, at first it looks like an accident, but it soon becomes clear that he was murdered. The police investigating the crime can’t figure out what he was doing in Hari Cove in the first place, since not even his wife knew he was there, and he appeared to have no prior interest in environmental issues.

Yukawa’s interactions with Kyohei are delightful, as he teaches the young boy about science and math (with a few life lessons thrown in for good measure). The physicist is a fascinating character, one who is as knowledgeable about the human heart as he is about equations and theorems. My only quibble is that I wish I’d begun jotting down a “who’s who” when I started reading the book, as there are two teams of detectives (one from Tokyo and one local), and I found myself getting the names mixed up from time to time. No matter where a book takes place, be it Tokyo or Topeka, there are two little extras I always appreciate whenever they are included: maps, and lists of characters.

“America the Anxious” by Ruth Whippman

America the AnxiousSometimes, it takes an outsider to provide a truly penetrating look at what’s really going on in a place. Ruth Whippman is an Englishwoman who moved with her husband to the San Francisco Bay Area, and soon found herself having the sorts of conversations she’d never had back in London: “Am I following my passions? Am I doing what I love? What is my purpose in life? Am I as happy as I should be?”

The British, she writes, “are generally uncomfortable around the subject [of happiness]… It’s not that we don’t want to be happy. It just feels embarrassing to discuss it and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask if they like you.”

In America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, Whippman explores various aspects of the American “happiness industrial complex,” visiting places like Provo, Utah (because the largely Mormon population there is supposedly the happiest in the entire U.S.) and the headquarters of Zappos (the online shoe store whose founder and CEO is obsessed with making his employees thrilled to be coming to work). She tries meditation and takes a Landmark Forum seminar, in which participants are forced to share personal stories while the course leader tries to tell them that everything bad in their lives is their own fault (“A divorcée learns that, contrary to her belief that her husband was callous and emotionally cruel, she should be assuming the entire responsibility for the failure of their marriage.”).

Over and over again, Whippman finds that there are often unpleasant truths lurking behind smiley-faced façades. Those cheerful Mormons, for example? Many of them are secretly miserable and just putting on “a constant happy front”: Utah actually has the highest rate of antidepressant use in the U.S., and the CDC has found that residents of the state “report having more suicidal thoughts than anyone in the entire United States.” (“The Book of Mormon” parodied this attitude in the song “Turn it Off.”) Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s utopian Downtown Project in Las Vegas, an area he developed based on research on “how to maximize innovation and happiness,” becomes the site of a suicide cluster.

Granted, a lot of what Whippman writes about is only really applicable to a certain affluent class; I doubt Americans dealing with poverty have a lot of time to worry about whether or not their kid’s preschool offers toddler yoga (as does the curriculum at Whippman’s son’s school). She does point out, however, that strong safety nets tend to raise happiness levels; in Salt Lake City, for instance, a robust church-sponsored welfare program ensures that the city boasts some of the highest social mobility levels in the world, “on a par with Denmark’s.”

In the end, she declares that her main takeaway from her deep dive into the happiness industry is that “the more time you spend obsessively monitoring your emotional temperature, the less likely you are to be happy. I can confidently say that I am at my happiest when the topic of happiness is farthest from my mind.” America the Anxious is a brisk, enjoyable read that will definitely make me apply my critical-thinking skills the next time I hear about the latest, greatest study or self-help book on the topic of happiness.

“Exit Strategy” by Steve Hamilton

Exit StrategyIf fans of Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series, about a good-guy cop-turned-P.I., were willing to cut his new protagonist, Nick Mason, a little slack—well, sure, he’s a hit man, but he has a moral code!—Exit Strategy will put that willingness to the test. In his second Mason thriller, Hamilton’s Chicago ex-con proves to be a savagely effective killing machine, having to go back on his personal vow to try to keep the casualties to a minimum. Exit Strategy runs up a sky-high body count as Mason goes about his deadly duties.

While the first book in the series, The Second Life of Nick Mason, had to roll out the backstory, Exit Strategy jumps right into the action (newcomers won’t be totally lost, but it helps to have read the previous novel to fully grasp what’s going on). Nick is out of prison thanks to the powerful Darius Cole, who sits behind bars but still manages to run a thriving Chicago criminal enterprise. Cole will be a free man if Mason can bump off the witnesses who are prepared to testify against him. All that’s standing in Nick’s way is a battalion of U.S. marshals sworn to protect the heavily-guarded men, along with a bloodthirsty Irish assassin who is on nobody’s side but his own.

The reason Cole is able to exert so much power over Mason is because he has threatened to harm Nick’s ex-wife and beloved daughter if he ever steps out of line. In Exit Strategy, we learn that the ex’s new husband wants to move the family to Denver. Mason is sad that he will be so far away from his kid, but anyone reading this book will probably be rooting for the entire clan to pull up stakes to a remote part of Iceland, though Cole seems so omnipotent that one gets the sense that he could probably keep tabs on them even if they were living in a Mongolian yurt.

Like the first book, Exit Strategy is a pure adrenaline rush, almost impossible to put down once you’ve started it. But by the end, I found my feelings about Nick to be a lot less mixed than they were when I finished the earlier novel. He may not be a “bad guy” in the sense that he has evil motivations, but he definitely does bad things—terrible things—and genuinely good people suffer the consequences of his actions. Still, it’s clear that Hamilton is working at the height of his powers, and with Exit Strategy, he has written a novel as lean and ruthless as his antihero protagonist.

Note: Exit Strategy will be published on May 16, 2017. Thanks to Putnam and NetGalley for the review copy.

“The Dry” by Jane Harper

The Dry by Jane Harper“It’s the lack of water here. Makes the whole town crazy.”

So says a character in The Dry, Jane Harper’s mystery set during a seemingly never-ending drought in a remote Australian town. Melbourne federal agent Aaron Falk has stayed away from Kiewarra, where he grew up, for many years, but he is persuaded to come back by the father of his childhood best friend, Luke. It appears that Luke killed his wife and young son in a murder-suicide, and the grieving dad demands Falk’s presence at the funeral.

Of course, Falk soon begins to realize that the small town is a cauldron of secrets, and not everyone is glad to see him again—most residents recall the long-ago death of a 16-year-old girl, and the fact that many in Kiewarra believed Falk to be responsible. He did have an alibi, provided by Luke. But the girl’s outraged father ran the teenaged Falk and his dad (Falk’s mother had died in childbirth) out of town. The man is still alive, and while he appears to be suffering some age-related memory loss, he has not forgotten Falk.

Believing there’s more to the deaths of Luke and his family than meets the eye, Falk begins to investigate, aided by the town’s policeman, Raco. One of the best things about The Dry is that Raco is not the ignorant, territorial small-town local cop too often seen in mysteries; he eagerly accepts Falk’s help, teaming up with him to hunt for clues, and he’s a smart and ambitious officer hoping to use his time in Kiewarra as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

The Dry really makes you feel the searing heat of southern Australia, a place where the rushing river of Falk’s youth is now completely gone, and the arid land has driven people to commit desperate acts. And don’t just take my word for it; producer and actress Reese Witherspoon, who famously bought the movie rights to Gone Girl before it became a mega-best seller, has made The Dry her latest acquisition.