Every year’s reading journey (I read 2 or 3 books a week) has me looking out for my favorites, and finding them is like a treasure hunt. As always there are returning names to this list along with some new ones, and a great array of reading for everyone. Each of these books has something excellent and unforgettable about it and deserves to be read. All of these titles—as well as our “extra” featured titles—are offered at a 15% discount for the month of December.
You Will Know Me, Megan Abbott
Later, Kate would come to think of that night as the key to everything that came after, the secret code. But at the time, it was just another party, a celebration like dozens of others, all to honor their exceptional fifteen-year-old daughter.
As I was reading this twisty tale of a family devoted to the gymnastics talent of the daughter in the family, I knew it was one of my favorites of the year. Abbott’s skill in dissecting the human psyche is practically unmatched—and her love of the particularly disturbing elements of the human psyche reminds me very much of the great Ruth Rendell. You won’t be able to stop reading this story of the gymnastics culture, family sacrifice, relentless ambition, and a death in the circle that has far flung ramifications. Abbott’s almost stream of consciousness writing style really gets inside your head. She’s one of the best of all contemporary writers of any variety.
The One Man, Andrew Gross
Whenever the topic turned to the horrors of “the camps,” her father would turn away or leave the room. For years he would never even wear short sleeves, and never showed anyone his number.
I was sent an early copy of this way back in December of 2015 and after I read it couldn’t get it out of my head. A holocaust thriller? Unlikely. The book centers on a scientist imprisoned in Auschwitz and efforts to have an agent sneak in to the camp and get him out. And what if this scientist was the one man with the secret to the atom bomb? Great thriller premise. Gross then proceeds to delineate the very human stories of the prisoners from many perspectives. Not only was this book an impossible to put down read, it’s an important reminder of the cruelty humans are capable of. And some of the parts of the book that are hard to believe are actually the true parts—someone actually did sneak into Auschwitz and sneak back out. Gross’ depiction of the human spirit is ultimately, if bleakly, uplifting. If you read it, don’t miss the author’s notes at the end.
Brighton, Michael Harvey
She’d do what it took, even at the breakfast table on a Saturday morning. And so there it was, fully conceived and freshly birthed, ugly in all its wrinkles and all its greed, licking its lips and gnashing its teeth, squalling and looking to feed. And everything else crumbled before it and raised itself up again, except it wasn’t the same in that house and never would be.
As I read this book I knew it was an instant classic, the book the talented Harvey may have been waiting to write his whole life. His fine Michael Kelly books set in Chicago seem to be a prelude to this one, set in his boyhood hometown of Boston in the tough Brighton neighborhood. Much like Dennis Lehane’s classic, Mystic River, Harvey takes a look at a working class family torn apart by an act of violence, and the different paths taken by two of the young boys concerned: one becomes a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, one a career criminal. Characters, setting, plot—all perfection. And Harvey’s prose is a master class. Combining heartbreak and beauty, often in the same sentence, this great novel deserves as wide a reading audience as it can garner.
Wilde Lake, Laura Lippman
…so you will have to trust me when I tell you my story is true. I guess I could swear on my children’s lives—but that strikes me as distasteful. Sometimes I think we hold truth in too high an esteem. The truth is a tool, like a kitchen knife. You can use it for its purpose or you can use it—No, that’s not quite right. The truth is inert. It has no intrinsic power. Lies have all the power.
Laura Lippman is always good—I don’t think she’s written a bad novel—but I loved this take on To Kill a Mockingbird. Assuming Mockingbird’s structure, Lippman makes it very much her own by setting it very specifically in Columbia, Maryland, at a very specific time. Her observations of social mores are so spot on and so well written, you could read the book for that reason alone. Being Laura Lippman, though, there’s also a great story that follows a young, motherless girl with a lawyer father who grows up to be a feisty lawyer herself and who investigates a case that ties back to an act of violence that blew her brother’s high school friend group apart. As always, there’s a theme: is it best to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? You’ll be thinking about it long after you finish the book.
The Darkest Secret, Alex Marwood
And so we go home. Through the dark, rain flickering in the headlights, Mills Barton is all shut up for the night, glinting light through paned windows so twee I want to lob a brick.
I’m purely annoyed by the success of The Girl on the Train when there are much better books, like this one, to be savored. Marwood based her story loosely on the 2007 disappearance of little Madeline McCann in Portugal. Like that little girl, the vanishing of toddler Coco, the daughter of wealthy parents enjoying a birthday weekend, has never been resolved. When the story fast forwards to the father’s funeral we meet Coco’s 15-year-old twin sister, Ruby, and their grown half sister, Millie. An explication of the human behaviors and motivations behind what happed to Coco drive the novel, as does the growing friendship of the two half sisters. This is a terrific, perceptive and very intelligently written read, not to be missed.
The Queen’s Accomplice, Susan Elia MacNeal
Since the war had begun, the park had become a desolate expanse of meandering walkways, overgrown shrubbery, and long air-raid trenches—an ideal location for crime. But not on her watch.
I have loved the Maggie Hope novels from the beginning, and this may be my favorite. The novels are set during WWII, this one smack in the middle of the blitz. Maggie, an American who started out in the first book as Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, now works part time as an agent for the MI-5 and part time as an agent at the SOE, the Special Operations Executive office. In this novel she’s brought in by the M1-5 when a young would be SOE agent is found murdered. The murder unfortunately proves to be part of a series which mirrors Jack the Ripper’s. I was captivated by the verve and energy of MacNeal’s storytelling style, and the spark of Maggie Hope’s spirit at the center. While MacNeal touches on dark topics—serial murder, the Blitz, concentration camps—the heart of her books are optimistic. I loved the inclusion (while brief) of Britain’s valiant wartime Queen Elizabeth. This is a memorable entry in what is already a very strong and enjoyable series.
A Great Reckoning, Louise Penny
The snow returned by early afternoon, blowing in over the hills and swirling around, trapped there. Turning Three Pines into a snow globe.
While I have enjoyed and in fact loved almost all of Louise Penny’s books, I especially liked this one, which takes the semi-retired Inspector Gamache back to work, running the academy where future Surete officers are trained. He’s also there to root out corruption at the top, a task complicated when the demoted former head of the academy is found murdered. One of the many pleasures of a Penny novel is her devotion to the pure mystery form, and this one, with its closed, almost classic circle of suspects it particularly satisfying. There’s also a plot line in Three Pines. All in all, pure bliss.
See Also Deception, Larry Sweazy
I was not on a ship, but most days I needed steadying, fearful that the sway of everyday life, as it was now, would knock me off my feet and toss me overboard.
This lovely surprise in my reading year has me thinking about it months later. A story that on the surface has all the elements of a cozy—the murder of the town librarian, the central character in 60s North Dakota who is part farmwife, part indexer—Sweazy has deeper things in mind as he gently illuminates the hardscrabble lives of these Midwestern farmers, and the getting-on-with-it despair as Marjorie deals with a severely crippled husband. The prose is light, beautiful, and profound, and with a stroke of his pen, the author takes the reader to the very place he wants you to be. This is a beautifully written and imagined novel that deserves wider discovery.
The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware
The first inkling that something was wrong was waking in darkness to find the cat pawing at my face.
Wowza, what a story. I loved Ware’s first novel, In a Dark Dark Wood, out last year, and I loved this one even more, even though reading it was somewhat like living through a fever dream. It’s the story of travel journalist Lo who has the plum assignment of covering the maiden voyage of a ritzy cruise ship. She arrives exhausted and paranoid after a break in at her London apartment; when she sees what she’s sure is a body being thrown over the side of the boat in the middle of the night, her next (and fruitless) task is in getting anyone to believe her. This is both a thriller and a straight up detective novel, beautifully done and originally imagined. Ware is very obviously a great new talent.
A Useful Woman, Darcie Wilde
Rosalind Thorne…was breakfasting in her parlor with the small table drawn up close to the coal fire. In addition to providing extra warmth, this arrangement allowed her to surreptitiously toast bits of muffin on her fork. Rosalind made sure she’d eaten the evidence of this unladylike occupation before ringing the bell.
This charming debut featuring a certain “useful woman” is set in 1817 London, where the impoverished but genteel Rosalind must work for a living, making herself useful to society matrons, who are concerned with the ins and outs of the social “season”. In this novel the Ton is concerned with an opening in the governing body at Almack’s, an exclusive club where men and women met for balls. When there’s a murder within the sacred halls of Almack’s, Rosalind jumps in to solve the crime. There’s an old love interest, a possible new one, a look at class and society in a very specific time frame and a clever mystery, but most of all there’s the useful Rosalind. She captivated me from beginning to end, and I am eagerly awaiting #2.
That’s the way it’s done, Son
Some of our favorite writers—the excellence of whose novels are now almost taken for granted—turned in some really great work this year, favorites of ours in their now long careers.
The Wrong Side of Goodbye, Michael Connelly. Connelly’s nod to the “elders” as he refers to Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, is simply wonderful. Bosch, working part time in a small police department and part time as a P.I., takes on two cases: one looking for a rich man’s missing heir (shades of Chandler and Macdonald) and one working on a serial rape case at the police department. Bosch continues to behave like a lone wolf, breaking rules as he searches for truth and justice; that’s always been a big part of his charm. This is the (seemingly) effortless work of a master, back at the top of his game.
The Second Life of Nick Mason, Steve Hamilton. Hamilton’s dark return after a two year hiatus finds him with a new character, Nick Mason, freshly released from prison to ritzy digs in Chicago, though he’s still obligated to the benefactor who sprung him. He carries a special phone; when it rings, he must answer it and do whatever he’s told. This is a hard edged, lean, mean, narrative machine that had me turning pages faster and faster as I got to the end. I missed Alex McKnight, but I was happy to make Nick’s acquaintance, and happier still that the great Steve Hamilton is back at work.
Tell it, Sister
Leotta and Ryan both attacked the issue of campus sexual assault in profound and memorable ways with their latest novels, both excellent and worthwhile reads.
The Last Good Girl, Allison Leotta. Allison Leotta is slammin’. I read this book in a fever—probably in 4 or 5 hours, in one sitting. Set at a fictional Michigan University, there are similarities to both U of M and MSU (Leotta’s alma mater) as we meet Emily Shapiro, who has woken up in a strange bed with no memory of what happened, though she’s sure she was raped. The rest of the novel follows her disappearance, recounts her difficulties in getting people to believe her or take her seriously, and finds Leotta’s series character Anna Curtis on a righteous tear as she hunts for justice and Emily. Leotta backs up her fictional character with her real life experience as a sex crimes prosecutor, but any way you slice it, the woman is a born storyteller.
Say No More, Hank Phillippi Ryan. Ryan is at the peak of her game, interweaving the story of her main reporter character, Jane Ryland, her fiancée, Jake, and the story, in this novel, of a student at a Boston University who has been sexually assaulted and now won’t leave her apartment. She goes only by ”Tosca” and Jane is working on gaining her trust so she can run an on air interview, but along the way, gets caught up in the hunt for Tosca’s assailant. The many story threads here are brilliantly handled. Ryan makes it look easy and her books are a pleasure to read.
Some of the authors on this list were kind enough to tell me about a book they enjoyed this year. Megan Abbott’s was Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake. Laura Lippman had this recommendation: “The Book that Matters Most, by Ann Hood. It’s a book about a book club. It’s also a book about how novels can save us, which I certainly believe. And although Ann is a mainstream literary writer, it has an extremely satisfying mystery, although it comes at the reader aslant. It’s the perfect book club book. Which is kind of meta, but there you go.” We’ll be offering this title at a 15% discount.
We also loved: Julia Keller’s fine Belfa Elkins novel, Sorrow Road; William Kent Krueger’s latest Cork O’Connor book, Manitou Canyon; Elsa Hart’s historical novel, Jade Dragon Mountain; Jane Casey’s complex and intelligent After the Fire; Tasha Alexander’s A Terrible Beauty, where Lady Emily’s husband returns from the dead; Maureen Jenning’s fine look at the home front in Britain during WWII, Dead Ground In Between; Cara Black’s terrific prequel to her Aimee LeDuc series, Murder on the Quai; A Death Along the River Fleet, Susanna Calkins’ fine historical; The Midwife and the Assassin by Sam Thomas, as midwife Lady Bridget moves to York on a mission; and Brian Freeman’s Goodbye to the Dead, where we readers finally meet Stride’s long dead wife in a masterful prequel to the series.
Staff & Customer picks
Lisa Arnsdorf, San Diego: Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James – My favorite of her books so far! St. James created an amazingly creepy atmosphere – I can’t read this book if I’m alone. However, this story is the most based in reality, instead of in the supernatural;
The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths – I loved this book! The story line was so unique and fun. Griffiths defly capture the conflicting feelings of the 50s in England (as I imagine they were), both looking forward to the future and all of its possibilities, and reflecting on the painful past that was still abundantly evident. The characters were rich, interesting, and sympathetic, with a lot of room to grow. Yes, the ending was somewhat predicable. But uniqueness and character-driven plot made up for that. I look forward to learn more about Edgar and Max!
Winged Obsession by Jessica Speart – Amazingly, I finished this book in only 10 days, which is impressive in my current life and demonstrates just how compelling this book was to read. I learned so much about Fish and Wildlife, the important work they are doing, and just how underfunded and unappreciated that work is. The story was incredibly thrilling, even though it unfolded over several years. Kojima is a weird, weird dude. I hope Speart writes more true crime, because this was outstanding.
Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton – Wow! Bolton made me both sympathize with and hate, at varying times, each character. Although I had a pretty good feeling of who did it, I was stilled bowled over by the ending, holding my breath to the last word. This, like so many of her others, is a book I want to reread so that I can pay close attention to all of the details, clues, and red herrings and soak even more of it in.
Mimi Cunningham, Okemos: Clouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers.
Vicki Kondelik, Ann Arbor: A Death Along the River Fleet, Susanna Calkins; I Will have Vengeance: the Winter of Commissario Ricciardi, Maurizio DeGiovanni; Jade Dragon Mountain, Elsa Hart; The Seventh Sacrament, David Hewson; The Murder of Mary Russell, Laurie R. King; The Prophet, Michael Koryta; Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, Susan Elia MacNeal; A Great Reckoning, Louise Penny; See Also Murder, Larry Sweazy; The Midwife and the Assassin, Sam Thomas.
Jan Burgess, Ann Arbor: Jade Dragon Mountain, Elsa Hart; Mycroft Holmes, Kareem Abdul Jabar & Anna Waterhouse; The Girl with the Sturgeon Tattoo, Lars Arffssen.
Kurt Anthony Krug, Ace reporter: Since She Went Away, David Bell (pretty much anything by David Bell); The Last Good Girl, Allison Leotta; The Guilty, David Baldacci; The Twenty-Three, Linwood Barclay; Home, Harlan Coben; No One Needs to Know and You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, Kevin O’Brien.
Patti Lang, Tucson: A Bed of Scorpions, Judith Flanders; A Fete Worse than Death, Delores Gordon-Smith; The Language of Secrets, Ausma Zehenat Khan; The Body in the Birches and The Body in the Wardrobe, Katherine Hall Page; Design for Dying, Renee Patrick; A Great Reckoning, Louise Penny; All Things Murder, Jeanne Quigley; A Useful Woman, Darcie Wilde; and Journey to Munich, Jacqueline Winspear.
Lizzie Solway, Cincinnati: Bootlegger’s Daughter, Margaret Maron.
Margaret Agnew, St. Louis: Home, Harlan Coben.
Tammy Rhoades, Ann Arbor: Julia Keller – what a great writer and I am so glad to have been introduced to her and her work through you – also Carrie Smith – Silent City – wow.
Robert Agnew, Ann Arbor: Brighton, Michael Harvey; Those Girls, Chevy Stevens and Michael Koryta, Rise the Dark.