Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman****

“The first time Peter realized that the tiny person was sleeping soundly in his arms. What are we prepared to do for our children at that moment? What aren’t we prepared to do?”

UsAgainstYouUs Against You is the second in book in the Beartown trilogy. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the invitation to read and review. This book will be available to the public tomorrow.

Beartown is in crisis. The hockey team has been undone by the arrest of their star player for rape, and Maya, his victim, has been harassed endlessly as if she were the perpetrator. Resentments simmer. There are anonymous callers. A new coach is hired, not only a woman—but a lesbian. Chins wag. New owners roll into town, friendly and treacherous, generous and oily. Violence hums beneath the surface as the town polarizes between the hometown hockey team and that in the neighboring town, to which some Beartown citizens have decamped.

Fredrik Backman, who is possibly the finest male feminist novelist in the world, is on a roll here. It’s interesting to note that although the hockey players in this story are men and boys, the best developed, most complex characters are the women. I like reading about Peter, Leo, Amat, Benji, and Teemu, but the characters that keep me coming back are Kira and Maya, Ana and Ramona. More than anything I want Kira to pack her bags and seize the opportunities presented to her, with or without Peter. Just go, woman, go. But it’s always easy to suggest that someone else should leave a troubled marriage behind, and the way that she deals with this problem—and the role that her daughter plays in the decision—is thought-provoking.

Meanwhile there are about a dozen other small threads here, and again, Backman is among the best writers when it comes to developing a large cast of town members without dropping anyone’s story or letting the pace flag. His use of repetition as figurative language is brilliant, and he is unquestionably the king of the literary head fake. If I taught creative writing to adults, I would assign my students to read his work.

I have some relatively minor quibbles here, although I know so little of Swedish culture that they may or may not be valid within that framework. I would dial the sentimentality and drama down twenty to twenty-five percent; clearly most readers love this aspect of these novels, but I would argue for a smidge more subtlety. There are occasional exaggerations that remind me that the characters are fictional. When the entire town is economically depressed, and yet everyone shows support for something by showing up in matching jackets, and when a preposterous amount of spare change goes begging in the kitty at the local bar, I wince. But then I am quickly drawn back in by the complex, compelling characterizations.

If you’re a fan of Backman’s, you won’t be disappointed. If you have never read his work before, don’t start here. Read one of his excellent stand-alone novels, or begin with Beartown, the first in this series. Recommended to those that love fiction that features excellent, complex characters, particularly female characters.

Storme Front: A Wyatt Storme Thriller, by WL Ripley*****

storme frontStorme Front, the second mystery in the series featuring former NFL player Wyatt Storme and his buddy, Chick Easton, is smart and sassy. Ripley proves that an action-packed thriller with a he-man protagonist is stronger, not weaker when it treats women respectfully, as equals to men. Thank you twice, first to Net Galley, and second to Brash Books. I received this DRC from them in exchange for an honest review. This title was released August 4, so you can get it right away.

When someone offers one a thousand dollars to make a single, simple delivery, it’s natural to be suspicious. But when it appears to also involve pulling a good friend’s cojones out of the fire, an experienced badass will sometimes agree, however cautiously, to tag along. So it is here. Drugs, guns, and bodies pile up, and all through it runs some kick-ass banter that made me laugh out loud a number of times. The exchanges are typically between Wyatt and Chick, but there’s some pretty strong humor, at times, in the interactions between Wyatt and his fiancée, Sandra Collingsworth, as well. As well as respect. I like the respect even better.

“No one likes smart, self-assured women, you know.”
“Except you,” she said. “And I’m glad.”

Complicating the picture without making it into a soap opera is the involvement, however peripherally, of an old flame of Wyatt’s. They split up a long time ago, and she married the man whose afore-mentioned cojones Wyatt is trying to salvage.

“His wife?” said Billy, smiling. “Ain’t she a sweet piece of—“
“Her name’s Kelly,” I said, interrupting. “But you can call her Mrs. Jenkins.”

The action is linear in format, so the fairly sizeable number of characters doesn’t create confusion. Then too, Ripley’s memorable character sketches certainly help:

“Snakeskins came around the truck. He had a big face, crooked nose. About thirty. A little overweight. Too many Coors in cowboy bars. Blond mustache, untrimmed, and a diamond stud in one ear. His hands were immense.”

Oh, there are so many more memorable passages, and I highlighted 78 of them, just for giggles. But the fact is, I would just hate to ruin it all for you. All told, the flavor is a bit like Sue Grafton’s, but with male protagonists in Colorado.

The examples I’ve provided show up early on, but the pace never slows till the last page is turned. In the end, I just wanted to read the next book in the series. And so will you.

Highly recommended for mystery and thriller lovers, or for anyone that needs a snappy, amusing beach read.