“Winter and Night” by S.J. Rozan

Winter and NightI’ve read most of the books in S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series, but somehow I’d missed 2002’s Winter and Night, despite the fact that it won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. Rozan took an extended break from her series—there was an 8-year gap between 2011’s Ghost Hero and Paper Son, which came out just a couple of months ago (it’s on my TBR shelf).

One of the unique things about Rozan’s series is that each book is narrated by one of her two sleuths; “Lydia books” would alternate with “Bill books.” Winter and Night is a “Bill book,” and those tend to be a little more noir. Lydia’s stories always contain some comic relief from her force-of-nature mother, whom Lydia lives with in New York’s Chinatown. Winter and Night is pretty heavy going, without any breaks for levity.

It’s also one of those “This time it’s personal!” novels, as Bill’s 15-year-old nephew turns up in New York, picked up by the cops for trying to mug a drunk. Bill has been estranged from his sister and her family, so he hasn’t been a part of Gary’s life; however, he takes the boy back to his apartment, hoping to get him to confide why he ran away from home. “I need to do something,” is as much as he can get out of him before Gary manages to make a break for it.

Bill and Lydia go on the hunt for the teen, which brings them to the football-mad New Jersey town where he and his family had been living for the past few months. Gary was on the team, which made him part of the in crowd in Warrenstown; with a big game coming up, it seemed like a particularly inopportune time for him to disappear.

As the two private eyes are searching for the boy, the body of one of his high school classmates is discovered, and the local cops naturally assume that Gary killed her and went on the run. Meanwhile, Bill’s brother-in-law, Scott, is absolutely furious with Bill for what he sees as unwelcome interference in his family’s personal business.

At its heart, Winter and Night is a meditation on men and violence, both on the football field and in real life. Bill and Scott wind up in confrontations several times, which drives them both to peaks of rage: “Our eyes locked; in the color flaring in his face, the thrust of his shoulders, I could see how ready he was to explode. I clamped my jaw shut to keep from saying words to set him off, because part of me wanted that to happen, wanted him to rush me, wanted to fight Scott Russell right here, now, in my own place… Scott wanted what I wanted right now and I knew it. To hit, kick, beat someone down, exhaust yourself. To take the fear and helpless rage and turn them into something you can tell yourself you’re proud of. To force someone to betray himself, to make him fail. To win. To prove you’re really there.”

Winter and Night is very much of its time; it took me back to the days when every private eye had to have a hacker or two on retainer to dig up information that could now probably be found by anyone with a Facebook account and Google. Bill is also addicted to his ever-present flip phone. At almost 400 pages, this is a hefty read, but it’s well-written and thoughtful, and while the technology has changed, many of its themes continue to resonate today.

“The Wedding Party” by Jasmine Guillory

The Wedding PartyMaddie Forest and Theo Stephens have something in common: they are both best friends with the same person, Alexa Monroe. With Alexa’s wedding on the horizon, she has naturally asked both of them to be in her wedding party, which means they’ll be seeing a lot of each other. There’s a big problem, though. Maddie and Theo have never gotten along.

Maddie is a stylist who spends her days helping her clients find fashionable outfits; Theo thinks she’s a superficial nitwit who only cares about clothes and celebrities. Theo works for the mayor of Berkeley; Maddie thinks he’s a condescending know-it-all. Then one night after Alexa drags her to Theo’s birthday party, he and Maddie wind up having what both of them firmly insist is a one-night stand.

“Relax,” Theo tells her the morning after. “This will never happen again, and Alexa will never find out.”

However, a few weeks later, it does happen again… and while their sexual connection is obvious, they have nothing else in common, so they’re just having some fun, right? In any case, whatever they’re doing can’t last, so there’s no point in telling Alexa. Or anyone else, for that matter. The two start sneaking around with each other, until something happens that forces them to confront the fact that they might actually have developed feelings for each other.

This is the third book in Guillory’s series (Alexa and her fiancé Drew’s story was told in the author’s first novel, The Wedding Date), and while the enemies-to-lovers trope is well-worn, she handles it with humor and heart. She draws them both sympathetically, giving the reader insight into what makes them tick. Theo’s smartypants behavior masks his deep-down insecurity. And Maddie’s hard outer shell hides a soft, vulnerable center. These opposites actually have a lot in common, and while a happily-ever-after is guaranteed—this is a romance novel, after all—Guillory makes getting to that point a lot of fun.

“The Right Sort of Man” by Allison Montclair

The Right Sort of ManThe cover of this book reads, The Right Sort of Man: A Mystery. And that’s accurate, since it is a whodunit, and a very good one. However, it comes with a second, bonus mystery as well: who is Allison Montclair?

Usually, when I’m reading a book by an unfamiliar author, I Google them to find out a little bit more information. The Right Sort of Man seemed incredibly polished for a debut, and that’s because this is not the author’s first novel; “Allison Montclair” is a pseudonym. According to an interview, “she has written historical mysteries before, as well as ‘fantasy, science fiction, horror, non-genre fiction, and theatre.'” (By the way, if you click on that link, the man in the accompanying photo is the author of the article, Neil Nyren.) Montclair’s editor at St. Martin’s Press suggested the idea for the series, so presumably her previous historicals were also published by that house, which doesn’t exactly help narrow it down since they have a pretty large author list.

As a last-ditch attempt, I emailed my friend Cara Black, who blurbed the book, and even she had no idea—the person at St. Martin’s with whom she spoke refused to spill the beans.

So enough about the enigmatic author, let’s talk about the book. It takes place in London immediately after World War II. Rationing’s still in effect, and there are bombed-out buildings everywhere. Two very different women meet by chance at a wedding and decide to go into business together, opening a marriage bureau to match eligible singles—”The war is over, and people want to start normal life up again in a hurry.”

Iris Sparks is savvy and streetwise, having spent time during the war doing things she still can’t (or won’t) discuss. The aristocratic Gwendolyn Bainbridge was married to an officer in the Royal Fusiliers who was killed in the war; the shock of his death sent her to a sanitorium, and when she got out, she found out that her in-laws had assumed custody of her young son. She needs something to keep her occupied (and out of the house she shares with her domineering mother-in-law).

The business is a roaring success out of the gate, until one of their clients, Tillie La Salle, is found murdered, and the man Gwen and Iris had matched her up with is accused of committing the crime. Scotland Yard is so convinced they’ve found their man that they close the case. Iris and Gwen are equally convinced that he’s innocent, but there’s also the fact that the ensuing scandal could destroy their business, so they have little choice but to investigate.

The book really takes you into the world of postwar London, where desperate women scheme to buy nylons on the black market and bulldozers are busy scooping up the rubble left behind by the German air assault. The two lead characters are exceedingly well-drawn; Gwen must cope with her still-overwhelming grief and also try to fight for her son, while Iris lives in an apartment paid for by her married lover and sometimes has a penchant for acting recklessly (she carries a knife in her purse, and she’s not afraid to brandish it if she feels threatened).

While it would be fun to know a bit more about the author, the most important thing is that she’s written a captivating book, one which will make readers eager for the next installment in this promising new series.

“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.