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C. Gary Johnston
New Leaves In Winter
Dan Pierce and Joan Schneider are key management employees of Starlingers Gourmet Food Markets until suddently they both find their careers in jeopardy, each for different reasons. As Dan and Joan deal with the apprehension and anguish with what they are sure is facing them, they are unaware of their real status as pawns in the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of a situation much larger than either of their jobs.
Johnston’s twisty follow-up to Secrets Unused finds suspense, desperation, and a touch of tragedy in a powerfully evoked everyday milieu: Starlingers, a high-end, family-run grocery store company so refined that nobody dares call it a “supermarket” in front of the Starlinger clan. As Starlingers faces shocking upheaval, two corporate employees, fearing for their jobs, scramble in the buildup and aftermath. Dan Pierce, an associate vice president, and Joan Schneider, its manager of public relations, have reason to worry in the couple years after Starlingers has started outsourcing its advertising. So Joan is terrified when her boss Jeff Starlinger—the quick-tempered heir—texts her to come in early the next morning for an urgent meeting.

But as Joan worries what that portends, something terrible happens to Jeff, to the family, and to the company. Johnston alternates between Joan and Dan’s perspective, while moving back and forth in time—the novel opens with Dan, nerves frayed, racing to the Starlinger estate for some urgent mission several weeks later, before flashing back. It’s less a thriller than a tightly coiled workplace drama, attentive to how such a business works, to the scheming and anxieties of its managers, and to the textures of professional life in a time of uncertainty. Johnston excels at this stuff, threading a line between comedy and pathos, wringing tension out of Dan’s wife’s winning of a raffle at a holiday party and out of Joan’s bold insistence that, when sick, she not come to work.

That means Joan misses out on the setpiece scene, a crisis management session centered on what to do about Starlingers’ own holiday party. The stakes may seem small, but Johnston never condescends to these characters’ concerns—he’s too empathetic to satirize. In fact, his dedication to their hearts and backstories, at times, slows the book down, especially in its first third, where pages summarizing their lives and business outnumber pages of scenic action, with some details belabored. Those lives are convincing and engaging, though.

Takeaway: A tense and humane workplace drama, with a gratifyingly twisty plot.

Comparable Titles: Jillian Medoff’s This Could Hurt, Joshua Ferris.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A-