“The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald

The Readers of Broken Wheel RecommendWhen Sara Lindqvist arrived in Iowa, she was expecting to meet her pen pal Amy, an elderly woman with whom she had been exchanging letters and books for two years. Sara worked at a bookstore in Sweden, until it went out of business, leaving her jobless, with plenty of time on her hands—and enough money to buy a plane ticket to the U.S.

The day she comes to Amy’s hometown of Broken Wheel, however, she is greeted by some unfortunate news: Amy has just died. Her friends decide that Sara can live in Amy’s house until she figures out what to do next. Surely no tourist would want to linger too long in a place like Broken Wheel, a small town where “the buildings were low because there had never been any need for more than two stories. Nowadays, there wasn’t even the need for one… There was something sad about the town, as though generations of problems and disappointments had rubbed off onto its bricks and its roads.”

Sara decides to stay for a while—after all, Amy’s home is full of books, and she is in no rush to return to Sweden. Then she learns that Amy owned an empty storefront in the town’s almost-deserted main drag, and Sara is inspired to give it a fresh coat of paint, add a couple comfortable armchairs, and open a bookshop, using Amy’s vast collection as inventory. Unfortunately, no one in Broken Wheel is particularly interested in reading. However, the townspeople are intrigued enough by Sara that the store manages to attract a handful of customers.

Among the volumes in the store are, of course, a few Scandinavian crime novels, by Stieg Larsson and Jens Lapidus. “It was actually quite disheartening. Broken Wheel’s only image of Sweden was comprised of sadomasochistic conspiracies and organized crime, with a touch of Serbian mafia thrown in to confuse things.” (In the charmingly eccentric categorization used by Sara in her bookshop, these novels are filed under “Sex, Violence, and Weapons.”)

Eventually, Sara realizes that she doesn’t want to leave Broken Wheel, but the U.S. immigration authorities have other ideas. The townspeople don’t want to lose her, either, even though they’re not quite sure why anyone would want to spend so much time around books. They need to come up with a plan…

This is a droll and witty book that paints a vivid picture of small-town midwestern life, despite the fact that Katarina Bivald had never set foot in the U.S. until after her novel had already been published. (She gleaned a lot of knowledge from books, obviously; she has said she was particularly inspired by Spencer, Iowa, home of the celebrated library cat Dewey.) Unlike Sara, I don’t think I’d want to stay in Broken Wheel forever, but I very much enjoyed my visit.

“Killing With Confetti” by Peter Lovesey and “The Lost Man” by Jane Harper

Killing With Confetti“There is no frigate like a book,” wrote Emily Dickinson, and Peter Lovesey’s mysteries set in Bath have no doubt made many readers feel like they’ve spent time in the city. I longed to see it in person, which I finally managed to do last year. So it was especially delightful to discover that two of the places I visited during my stay, the Abbey and the Roman Baths, both play important roles in the latest Peter Diamond investigation, Killing With Confetti.

Diamond, Bath’s head of CID, is not happy with his latest assignment: providing security for the wedding between a crime boss’s daughter and a policeman’s son. And not just any policeman—the Deputy Chief Constable, second-in-command for the entire region. Joe Irving is fresh out of jail, and his criminal rivals would love to bump him off, while DCC George Brace will do anything to ensure that his daughter’s perfect day goes off without a hitch. Diamond’s boss, Georgina Dallymore, is ready to make Diamond the fall guy if anything does go wrong. It all adds up to a thankless, high-stakes assignment.

The suspense builds as the happy couple heads toward their wedding at the Abbey followed by a lavish reception at the Baths, everything paid for with Irving’s ill-gotten gains. Instead of having to catch a crook, Diamond is busy keeping one safe from harm. But unbeknownst to him, there’s a determined assassin waiting in the shadows…

Killing With Confetti provides the clever twists and wry humor that Diamond’s fans have come to expect over the course of this 18-book series. Lovesey is 82 now, and certainly has nothing more to prove—the list of awards and honors on his website is a mile long. How fortunate that he has chosen to continue to delight readers with new novels.

The Lost ManMeanwhile, on the other side of the world, Jane Harper has set her latest novel in a place much less hospitable than genteel Bath: the middle of the Australian Outback, a place so isolated and unforgiving that one stroke of misfortune can be fatal. The closest city, Brisbane, is 900 miles away; brothers Cameron and Nathan Bright are both cattle ranchers and are each other’s nearest neighbors, though their homes are a three-hour drive apart.

As The Lost Man opens, Cameron’s body has just been discovered, near a lonely, 100-year-old tombstone. Nathan and his youngest brother, Bub, can’t imagine that cautious Cam died by accident; the fact that his vehicle was found just a few miles away, in fine working order with a full tank of fuel and mini-fridge stocked with water, seems to indicate foul play. But Cam seems to have been bothered by something lately, though he didn’t confide in anyone. Could he have committed suicide? Though if so, why would he choose such a brutal way to kill himself instead of, say, using a gun?

The Lost Man vividly depicts Outback life, which is harsh but has its attractions as well. “There was something about the brutal heat, when the sun was high in the sky and [Nathan] was watching the slow meandering movements of the herds. Looking out over the wide-open plains and seeing the changing colors in the dust. It was the only time when he felt something close to happiness.” This book provides a fascinating glimpse into a place that at times seems almost as remote as an alien planet, but her characters are all heartbreakingly human.

“The Warehouse” by Rob Hart

The WarehouseThe first thing I saw when I opened The Warehouse was the dedication: “For Maria Fernandes.” As a rule, I don’t pay a lot of attention to dedications in books, unless I happen to recognize the name of the dedicatee. In this case, I did not; I assumed it was a friend or relative of the author, turned the page, and didn’t think anything else of it.

Until, that is, I finished the book and read the acknowledgments section. The final paragraph explains who Maria Fernandes is and why the book is dedicated to her, and at that point it all makes sense and has an unexpectedly powerful impact. (If you read the book—and you should—I urge you not to skip ahead; I guarantee that The Warehouse is such an exciting novel that you’ll be completely caught up in it.)

The Warehouse takes place a few decades from now. Global warming has taken its toll, and we learn that something called the Black Friday Massacres caused virtually all brick & mortar retailers in the U.S. to close. What’s left is Cloud: a sort of Amazon.com on steroids. All of their products are delivered by drone. The company employs a huge segment of the American populace and houses them in live-work facilities. The employees wear color-coded shirts depending on what job they are assigned, and are paid in credits, which they can use for everything from delicious CloudBurgers to an extra five minutes in their morning shower. CloudBand bracelets keep track of where the employees are, what they’re supposed to be doing at any given moment when they’re on the job, and stores their credits.

As the book begins, we meet two new employees: Paxton, a former prison security guard who quit his job in order to form his own company, which was a success until Cloud gradually forced him to tighten his margins, forcing him out of business (a story no doubt inspired by the real-life facts in the 2003 Fast Company piece “The WalMart You Don’t Know”); and Zinnia, the code name adopted by a corporate spy who’s been hired to gain some inside information on Cloud. Because of his prior occupation, Paxton is assigned to security at Cloud. He takes an immediate fancy to Zinnia, and she decides a man in his position could be of use. Paxton is genuinely head over heels, while Zinnia is trying to figure out how she can fulfill what is an insanely difficult mission, considering the surveillance culture of Cloud.

Zinnia and Paxton’s stories are interspersed with blog entries written by the terminally ill billionaire founder of Cloud, Gibson Wells, who plans to reveal the identity of his hand-picked successor while on a final journey to visit as many Cloud locations as possible. Wells adopts a folksy “we’re all family” tone, but it’s clear to the reader that what he has accomplished is the ultimate goal of many corporate titans in the U.S.: privatizing absolutely everything, from education to the FAA. (There’s no mention made of who the president of the country is, but whoever it is, he or she probably has a good deal less power than Gibson Wells.) The mandatory live/work aspect of employment at Cloud also ensures that they control every facet of their workers’ lives.

As Wells prepares to visit Zinnia and Paxton’s facility, the novel continues to reach new heights of suspense as our two protagonists get ready for the big day in very different ways. This is not a particularly optimistic story, but it is one that will make readers consider where we’re headed and whether or not we want to hand corporations the power granted to Cloud, which makes even Microsoft and WalMart look like small potatoes.

“Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi

Trust ExerciseWhen I was in high school, the tests in my English classes were given to make sure that we’d actually read the books on our assigned-reading lists. The questions were all about the characters and plot. As a result, when I got to college and was asked to analyze texts, I felt completely at sea. Suddenly, I was expected to have original thoughts and ideas about the great novels we were reading (at least one book every week! Imagine that). Used to simply parroting back the who, what and where, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the why.

Those old sensations came rushing back to me as I read Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, which left me feeling confused and, yes, a little bit stupid. As regular readers of this blog are aware, I mainly read and review crime fiction, but I do dip into literary fiction from time to time. Trust Exercise is certainly one of the most lauded books of the year so far, with the Boston Globe calling it “piercingly intelligent, engrossingly entertaining” and Publishers Weekly raving, “Fiercely intelligent, impeccably written, and observed with searing insight, this novel is destined to be a classic.”

I might have given up on it after the first 30-40 pages had it not been from the blurb on the back by one of my favorite authors, Tom Perrotta, who described it as “an uncanny evocation of the not-so-distant past that turns into a meditation on the slipperiness of memory and the ethics of storytelling.” The book starts out by telling the story of a romance between two high school freshmen, Sarah and David, who attend a performing-arts school with a theater department that is led by a highly charismatic teacher. Sarah and David have a lot of sex, described in a way that is almost repulsive, which may be appropriate, since who wants to get turned on by reading about two 15-year-olds?

Some of the writing seems pretty bad, especially when a troupe of performers from the U.K. come to Sarah and David’s school in order to present a run of “Candide.” The British characters’ speech patterns struck me as particularly fake, kind of like an “oi, guvnor” parody. But eventually, I figured, something would turn, as Perrotta’s quote promised. And it finally does, about halfway through, when we are presented with a new narrator who informs us that everything we’ve read up to now is from a novel written by “Sarah,” looking back on her high school experiences. An untrustworthy narrator, as it were. But is the person narrating part 2 any more reliable?

What really made my head hurt, though, was the book’s brief third part, which upends almost everything we’ve read about in parts one and two. If I’d been assigned to write a term paper about what it all meant, I’d have given up in frustration. But luckily, there’s Google, and I searched for “Trust Exercise ending.” That led me to this brilliant review by a college professor, who just goes ahead and lays out her whole theory of what happens in the book and what it all means. (Spoiler alert, obviously.) I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of reading the novel, but Adriel Trott’s review made so many things click into place that I felt at least I finally understood what the author was getting at.

So while Trust Exercise isn’t a particularly fun or entertaining book to sit and read by yourself, I do think it would be an interesting book to discuss. I wasn’t sure I wanted to review it, since admitting that your first thoughts upon closing a novel are “What did I just read? What just happened?” is kind of embarrassing. But there can be value in getting out of your comfort zone, right? Still, I think the next book I read will be something a little more straightforward.

“Below the Line” by Howard Michael Gould

Below the LineIn his debut novel, Last Looks, Howard Michael Gould introduced Charlie Waldo, a former policeman atoning for a dreadful mistake he made when he was on the L.A. force. Living the life of a hermit miles from civilization, Waldo was persuaded to return to L.A. by his former girlfriend, Lorena, a private eye who needed his help with a high-profile case. As Below the Line opens, Waldo and Lorena have been back together for a month, and she is urging him to join her P.I. business.

Lorena’s bread and butter is routine marital investigations, but she’s convinced Waldo’s notoriety could bring in a celebrity clientele. Their newest client, though, discovered Lorena on Yelp. Stevie Rose, a 15-year-old girl who claims to be an orphan, needs help finding her missing older brother.

Lorena and Waldo soon discover that Stevie is a practiced liar despite her young age, and in fact, her parents are alive and well and producing a soapy teen TV drama called “Malibu Malice.” When Stevie disappears, her parents hire Lorena and Waldo. A teacher at Stevie’s school, who had been rumored to be dealing drugs, is murdered, and the girl becomes the prime suspect.

Waldo’s rules for living—he refuses to own more than 100 things total, and he constantly frets about his ecological footprint—play an important role in Below the Line as they did in Last Looks, but even more so than in the first book, he constantly finds himself having to make compromises. For one thing, Lorena refuses to respect his rules, and for another, the case winds up taking them all over Orange County, difficult terrain to cover when you limit yourself to getting around via public transit or bicycle. Their relationship is tested over and over again in a myriad of ways, and Waldo finds that there’s still a lot he doesn’t know about his lover.

Waldo is a wonderfully complex and quirky protagonist, and the mystery is fast-paced and twisty, but my main gripe about Last Looks continues to apply: Waldo is always getting physically pummeled, and still manages to jump right back into the investigation despite grievous injuries that would confine a normal person to bed for a week. He does pop quite a few Percocets; will he wind up hooked on pills if he continues having to deal with rough characters in L.A.’s criminal underworld? Maybe Waldo will eventually solve a case while he’s in rehab. (It seems fitting that Charlie Hunnam, whose character Jax was both victim and perpetrator of heinous acts of violence on the TV show “Sons of Anarchy,” has been cast as Waldo in an upcoming feature film adaptation of Last Looks.)

Because I was such a fan of Last Looks, I persuaded Howard Michael Gould to part with an ARC of Below the Line at the Left Coast Crime mystery convention in Vancouver earlier this year. It will be published by Dutton on August 13.