“Heaven, My Home” by Attica Locke

Heaven My HomeNow that we’re almost three years into the Trump presidency, most of the new books, films, music and TV shows reaching the market were conceived and created during this particular era in American history. Not all of it deals directly with current events; a Los Angeles Times piece called the 1980s-set evil-clown film “It” “a thinly veiled parable of life in Donald Trump’s America,” while even romance writers have changed their approach to alpha-male heroes as a result of the man in the White House.

Mystery novelist Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird was releasead in 2017, so considering publishing’s long lead times, it was written well before the 2016 election. However, its sequel, Heaven, My Home, takes place in the immediate aftermath of the election, announcing itself as a Trump-era novel right from the start, as its protagonist, African-American Texas Ranger Darren Mathews, is described as “depressed, sick with a rage that was eating him from the inside. Daily, he marveled with a befuddled anger at what a handful of scared white people could do to a nation. He never again wanted to hear them question the point of rioting in Ferguson or Baltimore, or Watts and Detroit for that matter, hear them wonder why black folks would torch their own neighborhoods, because in an act of blind fury, white voters had just lit a match to the very country they claimed to love… After Obama, it was forgiveness betrayed.”

Some of Mathews’ misery stems from the fact that he’s stuck on desk duty at the Houston office, largely in an effort to save his marriage, which was hanging by a thread due in part to all the time he was spending on the road. He’s busy investigating the Aryan Brotherhood, poring through bank records and chat room transcripts, when an opportunity arises to travel to East Texas to help investigate the disappearance of a nine-year-old boy. Levi King is the son of a notorious white supremacist who is currently in jail on drug-related charges. (“Never mind that he’d skated on assault charges in a separate case that had left a black man, a father of two, dead, Darren thought.”)

Mathews’ boss sees a chance to take down the Brotherhood “before the change of power in Washington. Before a Trump Justice Department mistakes the Aryan Brotherhood for some sort of honor guard.” As a black Ranger, Mathews is seen as someone who can speak freely with the other African-Americans in the community, potential witnesses to the ongoing racial violence.

Adding an extra dollop of intrigue is Mathews’ strained relationship with his mother, who has been blackmailing her son due to a piece of evidence she has hidden away which implicates him in a cover-up. This is a direct continuation of events that took place in Bluebird, Bluebird, which is why I referred to this book as a sequel, not a word I generally use when discussing mystery series, where new installments are traditionally expected to stand alone. I wouldn’t suggest reading Heaven, My Home unless you’ve first read Bluebird, Bluebird.

I recognize that not everyone will be up for reading a novel that never lets you forget about the traumas our country is going through right now. A lot of the reason I read is for the pure joy of escapism. But Locke is a tremendously good writer, and there’s a big difference between reading an exciting mystery novel and something like, say, Proof of Conspiracy. (Don’t expect a review of that one anytime soon.) Long after the time that Trump has finally left office, people will turn to Heaven, My Home to find out what life was like in this era, but also for the pleasure of reading a fine and entertaining book.

“Royal Holiday” by Jasmine Guillory

Royal HolidayJust a few months after her appearance in The Wedding Party, fashion stylist Maddie Forest is back in Royal Holiday, which sends her to England to pick out clothes for a young duchess (unnamed in the book, but obviously inspired by Meghan Markle). However, Maddie and the duchess play small supporting roles in Royal Holiday, which focuses on Maddie’s mom, Vivian Forest.

Vivian is an Oakland social worker who hasn’t taken a vacation in years when her daughter persuades her to come along on her Christmastime work trip. (The duchess’ regular stylist is out of commission due to a difficult pregnancy, so Maddie will be filling in.) It may be her last chance to relax before starting a new job—Vivian’s boss is retiring, and she’s in line to become director of her department once he departs.

Vivian, who has been divorced for decades, was not expecting to find romance on her trip, but then she meets Malcolm, the Queen’s private secretary. Smitten with the American visitor, Malcolm offers to show her around the property. Their flirtation develops into a friendship, and when it’s time for Maddie to go home, Malcolm invites Vivian to stay on and spend a few extra days with him. Surely there’s no chance that this fling could turn into something more, considering that the two of them live thousands of miles apart?

After reading Guillory’s trilogy of novels about a group of friends who are mostly in their early 30s, it was refreshing to encounter a more seasoned pair. Their priorities are different, and they’re both in stable, successful careers. Certainly The Wedding Party was more of an emotional roller-coaster ride, while Royal Holiday is basically a pleasant opportunity to spend time with some very likable characters in splendid surroundings, from Sandringham House to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s jewelry collection.

[Incidentally, I went to Guillory’s launch event at a bookstore in Oakland, and she was asked who she’d like to play Malcolm in a hypothetical Royal Holiday film. Idris Elba’s name came up, but Guillory felt it might not be believable for the “sexiest man alive” to portray a character who has been unattached for several years. Of course, readers may “cast” the characters in any way they please, and I think Elba and Viola Davis would make a perfect Malcolm and Vivian.]

“Paper Son” by S.J. Rozan

Paper SonLast week, I wrote about S.J. Rozan’s 2002 novel Winter and Night, part of her series featuring New York private eyes Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. That one was a “Bill book,” told from Smith’s point of view; her latest novel, Paper Son, is a Lydia story. Lydia’s formidable mother has never entirely approved of her daughter’s career as an investigator, so it’s quite a shock when she orders Lydia to travel to Mississippi, of all places, to help a relative who’s been accused of murder. “That she would bring me a case and demand I take it is something I never would’ve imagined five years, or five minutes, ago,” she marvels.

The born-and-bred New Yorker was previously unaware that her family had kin in the Deep South, but her mother reveals that they do indeed have relations who settled in Mississippi to work in the grocery business. Lydia’s father’s cousin, Leland Tam, owned one of the few remaining stores in the Delta operated by a Chinese family, serving a mainly African-American clientele. When he was murdered in his store, his son, Jefferson, was arrested for the crime. “We found Jefferson in the store, Leland’s body not cold yet, Jefferson’s prints on the knife, and him without a tale to tell,” explains the police detective investigating the case. And when Jefferson escapes from prison, disappearing into thin air, it complicates things even further. Why would an innocent man go on the run?

With Bill along as a helpful interpreter of all things Southern—he grew up in Kentucky—Lydia begins to look for clues that might reveal Jefferson’s whereabouts, and tries to determine who else might have had a reason to kill Leland. It eventually starts to seem like this modern-day murder may be related to events that happened decades ago.

Rozan manages to cram a lot of history into this novel, from the Great Flood of 1927 to the immigration from China to the U.S. of so-called “paper sons” in the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Luckily, she’s such a skillful writer that these sections flow seamlessly into the more action-packed parts of the story. After an eight-year gap since their last adventure, it was a pleasure to catch up with Bill and Lydia again, and the interesting and well-researched bits of history provide a nice bonus.

“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.