Archive for Best Of

Best of 2017

As always I read so many great books, it was hard to choose just 10 (so I chose 11!). In their own category are William Kent Krueger and Louise Penny, both of whom write such consistently wonderful novels I started to feel they were beyond the top 10 list! Never the less both writers turned in beautiful books this year – Krueger’s Sulfur Springs takes Cork to Arizona on the hunt for his new wife’s son in a great novel that also takes a look at immigration issues and the border wall; Penny’s Glass Houses, also typically excellent, finds Gamache back as head of the Surete and investigating matters of conscience as well as a look at the drug problems rife in Western society at the moment (adding to a number of novels I read this year addressing the drug crisis). Both of these writers, with their beloved characters, gorgeous prose, and timely themes only continue to get better. But on to the list, which includes new writers as well as old friends. Happy reading!

The Murder Book, Jane A. Adams

He was an outsider here in an even deeper sense that in the market town. He had come to realize that Elijah Hanson had called him in only for the look of things… had there been a way of taking care of this business themselves, the community would have done so. He found it unsettling – not their suspicion, which was really commonplace enough – but the sense that he was not really needed, that his version of the law was a mere veneer. Civilization applied as a thin whitewash to the village walls.

I loved this look at the countryside of 1928 Britain, where the “murder detectives” from Scotland Yard are called in to investigate a case that seems to tread on too many tricky toes for the locals to handle. Adams gives a nuanced look at both her main character – who is portrayed in the beginning as a capable officer, as observed by his coworker, as well as an arrogant presence by the townspeople he’s investigating. This is truly a slice of British life not often examined, and well worth a look.

Death in St. Petersburg, Tasha Alexander

From a distance, the crimson spray coloring the snow looked more like scattered rose petals than evidence of a grisly murder… Perhaps St. Petersburg required elegance even in death.

I love Tasha Alexander, but this may be my favorite of all her books. Lady Emily is in Russia merely as a companion to Colin as he works on a case, but after a night at the ballet and the discovery of a dead ballerina in the snow, Emily is inevitably asked to investigate. Filled with detail about ballet culture as well as depicting Tsarist Russia, this book, which even includes a “ghost ballerina” is so much fun it’s swoon-worthy.

The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne

…while I did learn to read thanks to a stack of National Geographic magazines from the 1950s and a yellowed edition of the collected poems of Robert Frost, I never went to school, never rode a bicycle, never knew electricity or running water. The only people I spoke to during those twelve years were my mother and father. That I didn’t know we were captives until we were not.

The standout, breakout novel of 2017 is certainly Dionne’s heartfelt masterpiece about a young girl, Helena, who lives in a remote spot of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where her father, it turns out, has been keeping her mother captive for years. Living without electricity of running water, the little family survives on what they make and hunt; and as the book is structured, the young girl who worships her father grows into a young woman who begins to question his cruelty and ultimately escapes his clutches. This novel is beautifully structured and beautifully written, and with the character of Helena, Dionne has created an indelible classic.

The Trickster’s Lullaby, Barbara Fradkin

The woman, and her son, needed help, and Amanda hated to turn her back. Had always hated to turn her back on need.

This novel, set during the brutal Canadian winter, is the second novel featuring former international aid worker Amanda Doucette. She’s organized a winter camping trip aiming to help acclimate marginalized high school students, many of them Muslim, to their new Canadian cultural home. When one of them disappears, the book becomes a bravura chase novel, but it’s also speaking to Fradkin’s central question of how a young person growing up in comfortable Canada becomes an extremist. Both a pure detective novel and a bravura slice of nature writing, this is also a thoughtful social novel populated with memorable characters.

The Dry, Jane Harper

The late afternoon heat draped itself around him like a blanket. He snatched open the backseat door to grab his jacket, searing his hand in the process. After the briefest hesitation, he grabbed his hat from the seat. Wide-brimmed in stiff brown canvas, it didn’t go with his funeral suit. But with skin the blue hue of skim milk and a cancerous-looking cluster of freckles the rest, Falk was prepared to risk the fashion faux-pas.

Set during a recent Australian draught, The Dry features Melbourne financial detective Aaron Falk, who has returned to his tiny hometown to attend the funeral of his best friend, who has apparently slaughtered both his family and himself. The setting, hot and relentless, informs every paragraph of this stunning and unforgettable story. Falk works lone wolf style to try and figure out if his former friend was really capable of the ultimate horror, digging up his painful backstory as he goes. You won’t be able to stop reading this incredible debut.

Give the Devil His Due, Steve Hockensmith

I believe it was the noted paranormal researcher Ray Parker Jr. who best summed up my feelings about hauntings: “I ain’t afraid of no ghost,” as he so sagely put it… I am, like him, not afraid of any ghosts. Because I don’t believe in them. Which is why, when I found myself talking to a dead man recently, I didn’t scream, didn’t faint, didn’t reach for the phone… I just tried to do a little mental recalibration.

I’ve enjoyed all Hockensmith’s novels set in a tarot reader’s store front in tiny Berdache, Arizona, as central character Alanis tries to right the wrongs of her con artist mother along with her half sister, the teenaged, blue-haired Clarice. This one is my favorite, though, as Alanis sees someone she thought was long dead and winds up in a Westlake-style caper involving a painting of Elvis on velvet, an elderly hit woman, and an assortment of suitors. In tone, style, humor, character and plot, this novel is simply perfection. 

Let Darkness Bury the Dead, Maureen Jennings

The grey November day had seemed endless, filled with trivial pieces of police officialdom: a variety of fines, numerous licenses, several detectives’ schedules. Murdoch had to sign off on all of them. On days like this he wondered if his position as senior detective was really worth it.

Maureen Jennings returns to Detective Murdoch after a 10 year hiatus, finding Murdoch older (mid-50s) and dealing with an estranged son back from the war. It’s 1917, and Jack has been gassed at the front; it’s obvious to Murdoch he is not himself. As Murdoch tries to re-adjust to his son, he’s also investigating an apparently unrelated string of murders of young men. As always, Jennings casts a wide net, and her picture of wartime Toronto is incredibly vivid; the portrait of Murdoch and his son is unforgettable. Another bravura turn from a great writer.

August Snow, Stephen Mack Jones

Of course, in our house, these poets had to share shelf space with classic noir gumshoes, who stood shoulder-to-hardbound-shoulder with the interminably boring and occasionally grotesque: weighty tomes on police procedure and criminal law… there were mysteries by Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler and first-edition signed copies of Rudolph Fisher and Chester Himes. And there were programs from the five August Wilson plays we had seen as a family at the Fisher Theater in downtown Detroit.

I love a great debut novel, and when it’s a P.I. novel set in Detroit, it can hardly be improved upon. August Snow is the central character in Jones’ deft private eye novel, a welcome addition to the dearth of characters of color in the mystery universe. Happily it’s also simply a great read, with former cop August re-acclimating to life in Mexican town and solving a case that reaches into the upper echelons of society. What could be more classic? August is a worthy companion to Estleman’s Amos Walker in every way, including a lovely prose style that indicates Jones’ other identity as a poet.

Fast Falls the Night, Julia Keller

It had been a strange summer. The heat never really settled in. Throughout June and July and the first two weeks of August the weather seemed to be in a sort of trance, a holding pattern, as if it was waiting for a secret signal to let loose and intensify… this year, though, things were different, temperatures remained moderate. And yet people could not quite trust this moderation.

Julia Keller goes from strength to strength, and her books are almost always informed by contemporary social issues. This novel looks at a 24-hour period in tiny Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, when the overwhelmed police department, health services, and over all community are dealing with a record number of heroin overdoses, some of them fatal. Keller crafts a tight story as well as a heartbreaking and unforgettable one, and it could not be more timely. Recommended: Kleenex at the ready.

Dying to Live, Michael Stanley

Detective Sergeant Segodi looked down at the dead Bushman and frowned. He didn’t have much time for the diminutive people of the Kalahari. Somehow they always caused trouble, whether they meant to or not, and this was a case in point.

One of the strongest entries in the enjoyable Detective Kubu series set in Botswana, this one finds Kubu investigating the death of an elderly bushman who, on examination, appears to have the organs of a young man. The trail takes him on the hunt for witch doctors selling a plant that’s supposed to grant a very long life. As always this is a nice balance of Kubu’s mostly happy home life (he’s dealing with a sick child in this outing) and a really hard edged story, while at the same time delving deeply into African culture. A bravura effort.

Never Let You Go, Chevy Stevens

I stared into the mirror. Tried to remember how to arrange my lips so I didn’t look so scared, softened the muscles around my eyes, rubbed at the smeared mascara. It didn’t matter how many times I told him I hadn’t been flirting with the man. I might as well have been shouting into the ocean.

Chevy Stevens is always good, frequently disturbing, and never forgettable. This novel focuses on Lindsey and her daughter, with a thread illustrating Lindsay’s life as an abused wife, and one illustrating her present life as she and her daughter live free of the abusive husband. As the novel opens he’s just gotten out of prison and wants to know his daughter better. Lindsey is terrified; her daughter, more naïve, not so much. Stevens in an incredible empath who really gets inside the heads of her characters, and this suspenseful novel is also a penetrating look at the way women are all too often treated. It’s also a twisty mystery novel with a plot turn you won’t see coming. Good luck trying to stop reading.

Also recommended: Lee Child’s knockout Reacher novel, The Midnight Line; Elly Griffiths’ excellent The Chalk Pit; the long anticipated and spectacular return of Deborah Crombie, with The Garden of Lamentations; Rhys Bowen’s too much fun On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service; Sharon Bolton’s tightly knit thriller, Dead Woman Walking, that will surely put you off hot air balloon rides; and yet another great cozy from E.J. Copperman, The Dog Dish of Death.

Authors recommend: I always like to ask authors what they enjoyed in the past year. This year we heard from Lori Rader-Day. She recommends House, Tree, Person, by Catriona McPherson and A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner.

Readers recommend: Roxie Weaver, Ann Arbor: The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware; The Wrong Side of Goodbye, Michael Connelly; Redemption Road, John Hart; Camino Island, John Grisham; The Fix, David Baldacci; Sulfur Springs, William Kent Krueger; Night School, Lee Child; You Will Know Me, Megan Abbott; The Day I Died, Lori Rader-Day; and The Expats, Chris Pavone.

Joyce Simowski, Canton: Hunting Hour, Margaret Mizushima.

Linda Kimmel, Ann Arbor: Death in St. Petersburg, Tasha Alexander; A Conspiracy in Belgravia, Sherry Thomas; The Essence of Malice, Ashley Weaver; The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Goldberg; The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals, Jordan Stafford (Young Adult); A Perilous Undertaking, Deanna Raybourn; No Living Soul, Julie Moffett and This Side of Murder, Anna Lee Huber.

Rob Weaver, Ann Arbor: The Kind Worth Killing, Peter Swanson; The Redbreast, Jo Nesbo; The Obsidian Chamber, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child; The Drifter, Nicholas Petrie; Mississippi Blood, Greg Iles; Iron Horse, John Hart; The Wrong Side of Goodbye, Michael Connelly; The Lost City of the Monkey God, Douglas Preston; The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne and A Legacy of Spies, John LeCarre.

Emily Milner, Ann Arbor: The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne,

Tori Booker, Ann Arbor: Missing, Presumed, Susie Steiner; The Drifter, Nicholas Petrie; The Girl Before, JP Delaney; Behind Her Eyes, Sarah Pinborough and Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie.

Mimi Cunningham, East Lansing: Rhys Bowen, “just fun to read”; Patricia Wentworth, Harlan Coben.

Lizzie Solway, Cincinnati: “Always Kent (Krueger)’s are at the top of my list. And his newest (Sulfur Springs) is no exception.”

Sue Trowbridge, California: The Long Firm, Jake Arnott; The Widow, Fiona Barton; Rubbernecker, Belinda Bauer; The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne; The Night Bird, Brian Freeman; The Dry, Jane Harper; Before the Fall, Noah Hawley; Celine, Peter Heller; Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz; The Secrets She Keeps, Michael Robotham.

Vicki Kondelik, Ann Arbor: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Alan Bradley; Buried in the Country, Carola Dunn; The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Goldberg; The Flood, David Hewson; This Side of Murder, Anna Lee Huber; The Paris Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal; Devil’s Breath, G.M. Malliet; Glass Houses, Louise Penny; Forgotten City, Carrie Smith and Murder on Morningside Heights, Victoria Thompson.

Best of 2016

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.

Also recommended

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.

Best of 2015

What makes a book a Top 10 read for me (or this year, a Top 12)? In some cases it’s perfection of a form – a perfect thriller, say, like Hank Phillippi Ryan’s or Ruth Ware’s; or a perfect character, like the one in Tasha Alexander’s new book; or the vivid depiction of an experience unfamiliar to me – being stuck in a mineshaft in Julia Keller’s novel or being a Vietnamese refugee in Vu Tran’s remarkable debut or being a bookseller in 17th century London, as depicted by Susanna Calkins. Sometimes it’s hitting the right comic note perfectly, as Judith Flanders does; or finding a new way to tell a suspense story, as David Bell and PJ Parrish do so well; or ripping a story from the headlines in a resonant way, as Allison Leotta and Michael Harvey do. And finally, there’s just flat out perfect, as in the case of Sharon Bolton’s stand alone. All in all, some terrific reading this year, and Jamie & I had a hard time winnowing down the titles. These titles and our bonus holiday recommendation are 15% off for the month of December.

The Adventuress, Tasha Alexander, Minotaur, $25.99.

“The English duke is dead.”

The words, muffled and heavily accented, hardly reached me through the voluminous duvet that, while I slept, had somehow twisted around me with such violence that it now more closely resembled mummy wrapping than a blanket.”                                              

There are many reasons to love Tasha Alexander’s entertaining books – setting, appealing main characters, time period, even the clothing – but I loved this novel for the strong characters portrayed by Alexander. Lady Emily and her husband Colin are in Cannes for the extravagant engagement party of their friend Jeremy, who is marrying an American heiress, Amity. Everything about Amity seems just perfect except – something seems off to Emily, and little mishaps, both large and small, begin to befall her throughout the story with the death of one of their party making the whole outing uncomfortable. As Alexander focuses on the two women who have claimed Jeremy’s heart – Lady Emily has long served as Jeremy’s best friend – she also beautifully explicates relationships between women, as friends, family, or frenemies.   At every turn the reader’s perceptions are challenged and the storytelling and mystery are, as always, top notch. This is a terrific entry in one of the best historical mystery series going.

Somebody I Used to Know, David Bell, Nal, $15.00.

When I saw the girl in the grocery store my heart stopped.

I had turned the corner into the dairy aisle, carrying a basket with just a few items inside. Cereal. Crackers. Spaghetti. Beer. I lived alone, worked a lot, and rarely cooked. I was checking a price when I almost ran into the girl. I stopped immediately and studied her in profile, her hand raised to her mouth while she examined products through the glass door of the dairy cooler.

I felt like I was seeing a ghost.

How’s this for a set-up – a guy goes to the grocery store and sees a young woman who looks exactly like his beloved college girlfriend – exactly, that is, the way she looked before she was killed in a house fire twenty years before. He haltingly tries to talk to her but when he mentions his girlfriend’s last name she drops her box of Cheerios and carton of milk and takes off. The next morning the cops show up at his door with some questions because the girl has been strangled at a local motel. And, oh yeah, his name and address were on a piece of paper found in her pocket. Accomplished thriller writer Bell takes this engaging premise and knocks it out of the park. If you like Harlan Coben you’ll love Somebody I Used to Know. It’s got plenty of twisty plot and mounting tension, but the prose and characters are richer than usual in the suspense field.

Little Black Lies, Sharon Bolton, Minotaur, $25.99.

I believe just about anyone can kill in the right circumstances, given enough motivation. The question is, am I there yet? I think I must be. Because lately, it seems, I’ve been thinking of little else.

Start to finish, this engaging, original, and disturbing read won’t let you look away. Set in the Falkland Islands in the 90’s, the Falkland war is still fresh and the island is still studded with land mines. One of the characters is a vet with PTSD, but the main character, Catrin, falls into the tormented young woman category that Bolton absolutely excels at. Catrin is living as a recluse after the accidental deaths of her sons; she’s an expert on sea mammals, especially whales. She’s also governed by a simmering hatred for her former best friend, Rachel, who she blames for the death of her sons. As children begin to disappear and Catrin is drawn into the hunt for some of them, all kinds of unexpected things happen, and the actual mystery is not solved until the last sentence. There are few books and fewer authors who can pull that off. This is also an incredibly well written gothic tale, and there’s a scene with beached whales that is unforgettable and so disturbing you may need to take a break after reading it. Bolton is one of the very best contemporary mystery writers and she’s also one of the most original. This book is sheer perfection.

The Masque of a Murderer, Susanna Calkins, Minotaur, $24.99.

Her mind wandered, though, as she kept thinking about what she needed to do. She’d spent much of the night tossing and turning, worrying about what the dying man had whispered before he slipped away…

Susanna Calkins’ terrific series set in 17th century London (this one during the freakishly cold winter of 1667) gives the author some free rein when it comes to her central female character. London has survived the plague and the Great Fire and its all hands on deck, allowing her Lucy Campion to progress from chambermaid to bookseller. Lucy is drawn into a mystery involving the Quakers, as her former boss asks her to see how his daughter Sarah, now a Quaker, is doing. The Quakers were outliers in the 1600’s, looked down on by most of society with many of them setting off for the new world. Calkins brings a true historian’s grasp of the time period to her writing, but she’s also a natural storyteller and her central character is a wonderful creation.

A Murder of Magpies, Judith Flanders, Minotaur, $24.00.

Ben had always treated me like I was a brain-dead senior citizen, gently knitting and dozing in the corner while he got on with the cutting edge of publishing. It was time he realized everyone over twenty-five wasn’t senile yet. I smiled viciously at him, showing all my teeth.

I loved Flanders’ premise and setting – her character, Sam Clair, is a 40-something book editor and Flanders makes full use of her age, experience and gender, sliding in blindingly astute vignettes illustrating how women of a certain age tend to be ignored. As this book proves, ignoring a middle aged woman comes with its own perils. The crime itself, involving the disappearance of a well known fashion editor, is needlessly complicated but the inclusion of Sam’s scary mom and her mysterious upstairs neighbor are an absolute delight. I definitely hope Sam Clair continues as she’s fascinating, smart and funny. In fiction, as in life, those are three qualities not to be missed.

The Governor’s Wife, Michael Harvey, Knopf, $24.95.

I’m sure there’s a manual somewhere that sets out the guidelines for when and how private investigators should take on new cases. Knowing the name of your client would seem to be a necessity. When the proposed retainer hits six figures, however, necessity becomes a somewhat elastic concept, and guidelines tend to get tossed out the window.

This is a welcome return of Michael Harvey’s now virtually classic Michael Kelly series. Kelly is a Chicago P.I. who reads classical literature to relax (he loves Ovid) and the series is a lean, mean private eye juggernaut that takes no prisoners. Ripping his story from the headlines, Harvey’s take on what might have happened if the corrupt Governor of Illinois disappeared without a trace on his way to prison is absolutely riveting. Kelly of course starts his investigation with the Governor’s wife. An unsentimental writer, Harvey nevertheless cuts to the heart of his loner detective’s emotions and follows him so closely on his journey you’ll feel like a P.I. yourself. There are as many reasons to admire Harvey as a writer as to enjoy his books. His clear, concise storytelling style, his grasp of plot and character, and his clean way with a line of prose all add up to a spectacular read. Once you encounter Michael Kelly, you won’t soon forget him.

Last Ragged Breath, Julia Keller, Minotaur, $25.99.

The road wore its battered, end-of-winter face. The two-lane stretch that ran from Acker’s Gap into rural Raythune County looked like a boxer who’d refused to stand down despite being seriously overmatched, and so had wobbled under the blows in hopes the referee might finally halt the thing out of pity.

Julia Keller is using the slow, steady approach toward becoming one of the best crime writers in the business. Some writers rocket to the top, some build their way up more gradually – and it’s a real pleasure watching Keller’s ascent. In this fourth outing, her best yet in my opinion, prosecutor Bell Elkins is faced with the unwelcome task of putting away one of the town’s wounded souls for murder. Despite the evidence, she’s not so sure Royce Dillard, the survivor of a horrific 1972 mining disaster (a real event) is guilty of killing the smarmy developer looking to build a resort in town. Keller’s way of telling a story, her skill with explicating character and relationships, and her setting – the heartbreaking tiny town of Acker’s Gap, West Virginia – make this series, and this writer, indelible. There’s a scene inside a dark mine shaft that was about the best thing I read all year. The magical spark that lifts these novels above only polemic or only great story or only great settings (though all three of these things are true of her books) are her characters and the depth and heart she gives to them. I haven’t yet ended reading one of these in tears, and I hope I never do.

A Good Killing, Allison Leotta, Touchstone, $25.00.

When I was fifteen, my favorite place in the world was the high jump set-up at the school track. The bar provided a simple obstacle with a certain solution. You either cleared it or you didn’t. In a world of tangled problems and knotty answers, that was bliss.

This was my introduction to Allison Leotta’s series about Assistant U,.S. Attorney Anna Curtis, and after I finished it, I went back to the beginning. Which should tell you how much I enjoyed this novel, which finds Anna heartbroken as well as summoned back to her home state of Michigan to help her sister, who has been accused of murdering the popular football coach. I loved the relationship between the sisters; I loved trying to figure out what was going on with Anna’s love life; and I loved the flashbacks of her sister’s life that help to tell the story of a popular town hero who isn’t quite the good guy he seems to be. The small town Michigan setting as well as some beautifully drawn Detroit scenes gave the story even more heft. This book was impossible to put down or forget.

She’s Not There, P.J. Parrish, Thomas & Mercer, $15.95.

She was floating inside a blue-green bubble. It felt cool and peaceful and she could taste salt on her lips and feel the sting of it in her eyes. Then, suddenly, there was a hard tug on her hair and she was yanked out of the bubble, gasping and crying.

The Parrishs’ new book, She’s Not There, is a departure from their beloved Louis Kincaid series, but it hits the ground running with a set up reminiscent of the great noir thrillers of the past. A woman wakes up in the hospital and learns that not only does the doctor have no idea of her name, but, even more alarmingly, she doesn’t either. She has only a few disturbing memories to go on, along with the firm certainty that she is in grave danger and had better start running at once. She learns a little more about herself every step of the way. She’s Not There has it all: great suspense, great characters and a crackling pace, equal if not superior to any bestseller you might name. This is a set up for a series, so happily there’s more to come.

What You See, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Forge Books, $25.99.

Jane had walked the gauntlet of speculation, escorted by a chatty assignment desk intern, weaving through the newsroom’s warren of of cluttered desks and flickering computer monitors…

Four books in, Hank Phillippi Ryan has hit a sweet spot with her latest Jane Ryland mystery. A perfect mix of plot, suspense, emotion and character, Ryan takes a crazily snarled few days in the lives of Jane and her boyfriend Detective Jake Brogan and makes you live them right alongside the characters. She layers her story so that she shifts between what’s happening to Jane and what’s happening to Jake, often cutting away just as she’s gotten to a reveal or plot twist, which only serves to sharpen the suspense. This incredibly well put together and intelligent thriller tells the story of a seemingly random stabbing in a busy Boston park as well as the disappearance of Jane’s future niece, practically on the eve of her sister’s marriage to the girl’s father. Jane is torn between her job – covering the stabbing – and what’s happening to her sister. With each snap and turn of this crisp plot, not only are you often surprised, you’re emotionally engaged. Ryan breathes reality and suspenseful tension into the whole novel. It’s one of the best and most resonant thrillers of the year.

Dragonfish, Vu Tran, W.W. Norton, $26.95.

“No one out there to hurt you but yourself,” my father, a devout atheist, used to tell me. I never took this literally so much as personally, because my father knew better than anyone how shortsighted and selfish I can be. But whether he was warning me about myself or just naively reassuring me about the world, I have chosen in my twenty years as police, to believe in his words as one might believe in aliens or the hereafter.

This startling novel by newcomer Vu Tran is a fascinating blend of old school hard-boiled writing and sensitive psychological examination, while still maintaining a distance and sense of mystery about the central characters. Tran tells the story of Officer Robert Ruen, who is forcibly requested by a Vegas gangster to find his now ex-wife, Suzy. Through a series of flashbacks, Robert re-examines his relationship with the mysterious Suzy who is truly this novel’s McGuffin; and he also relates a story of Vietnamese refugees escaping Vietnam after the war on tiny boats. These scenes are absolutely indelible, and they’re layered with a hard boiled and unsentimental story that is often bleak and brutal. As Robert unravels Suzy’s story (her real name is Hong), Tran challenges the reader to re-examine obvious Asian stereotypes. An intelligent and distanced writer, he nevertheless engages the reader’s emotions when it comes to the backstory of the refugees, and the quest for Suzy and the discovery of her whereabouts may leave you almost breathless. This is a surprising and very promising first novel.

In A Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware, Scout Press, $26.00.

I don’t know what I’d expected, but not this…what actually stood in the forest clearing was an extraordinary collection of glass and steel, looking as if it had been thrown down carelessly by a child tired of playing with some very minimalist bricks. It looked so incredibly out of place that both Nina and I just stood, open mouthed.

This is the first novel by Brit Ruth Ware, and it’s that rare thriller that is also a mystery. In a straight thriller, you may know whodunit, and the thrill is finding or catching that person. But combining the best parts of the thriller – pacing, suspense – with the best parts of a mystery – whodunnit? – is a rarer skill. As Ware unspools her story of a bachelorette weekend (or hen party) she throws together friends, acquaintances, and frenemies and proceeds to stir the pot with a vengeance. The creepy setting – a house in the middle of nowhere during a snowstorm – adds to the suspense and as the story starts with the (almost) ending and then backtracks in time, the reader is even more on the edge of their seat. This is a bright, new and very scary talent.

Also Recommended

Ellen Hart’s fabulous Jane Lawless outing, A Grave Soul; Chevy Stevens’ nail biter, Those Girls; Sam Thomas’ terrific The Witch Hunter’s Tale; Eva Gates fun new series that begins with By Book or By Crook; Anna Lee Huber’s romantic, sprawling Scottish epic, A Study in Death; Jane Casey’s terrific police thriller, The Kill; G.M. Malliet’s latest Max Tudor outing, The Haunted Season; Michael Stanley’s A Death in the Family which brings back Detective Kubu; and of course Loren D. Estleman’s Ann Arbor outing, The Sundown Speech.

Staff & Customer favorites:

Some commonalities here – Louise Penny, Elly Griffiths, Robert Galbraith, Tasha Alexander, Alan Bradley and Charlie Lovett’s First Impressions.

Marty Cignetti, Ace Assistant: Darkness, Darkness, John Harvey; Endangered, C.J. Box; The Rest is Silence, James R. Benn; The Ghost Fields, Elly Griffiths; The Whites, Harry Brandt a.k.a. Richard Price.

David Bell, writer: See Also Murder, Larry Sweazey.

Linda Kimmel, Ann Arbor: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, Alan Bradley; The Adventuress, Tasha Alexander; A Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn; The Other Side of Midnight, Simone St. James; The Nature of the Beast, Louise Penny; The Ghost Fields, Elly Griffiths; To Dwell in Darkness, Deborah Crombie; Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, Susan Elia MacNeal.

Dianna Banka, Ann Arbor: The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith; The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins.

Lisa Arnsdorf, California: The Incidental Spy by Libby Fischer Hellmann (which is actually a short story), The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths – the character development in this story is wonderful!, The K Handshape by Maureen Jennings, Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton, Law of Attraction by Allison Leotta, The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen, Wreckage by Emily Bleeker, No Known Grave by Maureen Jennings.

Meg Mims, writer: Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series, Ashley Weaver’s Murder at the Brightwell, Eva Gates’s Lighthouse Library series, and our own (blush) Move Your Blooming Corpse by D.E. Ireland.

Isabel Spencer Hansen, via Facebook: favorite mysteries/thrillers of 2015: Girl in the Spider’s Web, David Lagercrantz; Career of Evil, Robert Galbraith; Make Me, Lee Child; Death and Judgment, Donna Leon; Precipice, Paul Doiron; The Patriarch, Martin Walker.

Vicki Kondolik, Ann Arbor: A Fatal Waltz, Tasha Alexander; The Suspicion at Sandition, Carrie Bebris; The Masque of a Murderer, Susanna Calkins; A Study in Death, Anna Lee Huber; Dreaming Spies, Laurie R. King; The Figaro Murders, Laura Lebow; First Impressions, Charlie Lovett; The Haunted Season, G.M. Malliet; The Nature of the Beast, Louise Penny; The Witch Hunter’s Tale, Sam Thomas.

Rowena Hoseason, via Facebook: Europa Blues, Arne Dahl; The Corruption of Chastity, Frank Wentworth; The Breaks, Eden Sharp; Normal, Graeme Cameron.

Katie Millan, Ann Arbor: A Good Killing, Allison Leotta; Death Wears a Mask, Ashley Weaver; Nature of the Beast, Louise Penny.

Tom Biblewski, Toledo: The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith; The Art Forger, Barbara Shapiro.

Shelagh Dick-Davis, via Facebook: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, Alan Bradley; The Ghost Fields, Elly Griffiths; The Nature of the Beast, Louise Penny; What You See, Hank Phillippi Ryan; The Kind Worth Killing, Peter Swanson.

Mike Galbreath, Portage: The Last Hurrah, Edwin O’Connor (1956); The Devil’s Share, Wallace Stroby; The Cartel, Don Winslow; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (1885); Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor (1952); Singapore Wink, Ross Thomas (1969); The Long High Noon, Loren D. Estleman; World Gone By, Dennis Lehane; Gathering Prey, John Sandford; West of Sunset, Stuart O’Nan.

Tori Booker, Ann Arbor: Raven Black, Ann Cleeves; Children of the Street, Kwei Quartey; The Spellmans Strike Again, Lisa Lutz; Shroud for a Nightingale, P.D. James; First Impressions, Charlie Lovett; Hostage Taker, Stefanie Pintoff.

Patti C. Lang, Tucson: Dead to Me, Mary McCoy (YA title); The Unquiet Dead, Ausma Zehanat Khan; Night Life, David C. Taylor; The Kill, Jane Casey; Rock with Wings, Anne Hillerman; Ruined Abbey, Anne Emery; Dark Reservations, John Fortunato; A Death in the Family, Michael Stanley; Home by Nightfall, Charles Finch.

Margaret Agnew, Bloomington, Indiana: Little Black Lies, Sharon Bolton; By a Spider’s Thread, Laura Lippman,

Robert Agnew, Ann Arbor: The Forgotten Girl, David Bell.

It was a bookstore, and from the smell it dealt in used books mostly. The smell was of fusty paper, desiccated bindings, and petrified library paste; dry rot, to the unromantic. Fetid. The atmosphere of an Egyptian tomb exposed to the sun after three thousand years.

I supposed; I’d never been closer than a midnight showing of The Mummy. It had its charms. I can read a book and let it go, but I’m not immune. Dead movie stars glowered out from posters and black-and-white stills hanging at Krazy Kat angles on the walls that weren’t entirely covered in books. Somewhere a stereo was playing swing. In Ann Arbor it’s possible to pass between three centuries in fifteen minutes.

Ancient writings. Archaic music. A place out of time.

A bookstore.

The layout was split-level. I climbed a short flight of steps to where a long-haired refugee from Woodstock looked up from a desk piled with old paperbacks…

“Welcome to Aunt Agatha’s,” he said. “First time?”

Amos Walker enters Aunt Agatha’s in The Sundown Speech, Loren D. Estleman

Best Of 2014

As is often the case, we couldn’t actually keep this to 10 titles, instead offering 12 with one of the titles, Chevy Stevens’ That Night, being a favorite of both of ours (and our son’s). Lots of vivid, beautiful storytelling and great reading this year; I was going for an all female list but darn it if Michael Koryta and Jeff Cohen didn’t write such great books they had to be included. There are some new authors to the list – Malla Nunn, Jeff Cohen, Jenny Milchman, Chevy Stevens, and Lauren Willig – as well as the return of some favorites. Enjoy your reading journey wherever your taste may take you. As always these titles are 15% off for the month of December.

The Fever, Megan Abbott, Little, Brown, $26.

“In the deep white empty of February when his students would get that morose look, their faces slightly green like the moss that lined all their basements, he’d tell them that Dryden was special. That he had grown up in Yuma, Arizona, the sunniest city in the United States, and that he’d never really looked up until he went away to summer camp and realized the sky was there after all and filled with mystery.”

Adolescence is, if nothing else, a time of high drama. Part of it is, of course, those crazy hormones coursing through young bodies, but there’s also a definite lack of perspective – without a substantive field of experience, small things can loom very large while important ones appear insignificant. The resulting hullabaloo can be comic, but there is also the occasional tragic result such as teen suicide, school shooting or other lapses in judgment that can shadow an entire lifetime.

Abbott’s story begins with a set-up I dimly remembered from the news – a teen girl comes down with a strange and seemingly inexplicable illness, which seems to spread, but only to other girls, and with equally bizarre symptoms. This “plague” spreads from the tight, yet friction-filled circle of central character Deenie and her school celebrity friends to their classmates and then to the rest of the community. The divisions and insecurities of the teens are exposed and the furor attracts the attention of the adults, who for once turn their self-absorbed eyes in their direction, attempting to exercise their seldom used parenting skills. If anything, these “grown-ups” act even worse than their progeny, amped by the contemporary internet inspired blend of passion in the service of half-truth. Abbott’s filmic style is immersive and atmospheric, drawing the reader into the heady teenage world, while also tracking the parallel hysteria of the adults. As usual, she brings great skill and something different to the crime fiction world, making The Fever not only one of the best reads of this summer but of this year as well. (Jamie)

The Question of the Missing Head, Jeff Cohen/E.J. Copperman, Midnight Ink, $14.99.

“But have you heard of the Beatles?” It was no idle question; I was able to discern quite a bit about a person’s character from their answer to this question.            

“Yes, of course.”                              

“Then if you had to choose just one song a s a favorite?”                                            

He shook his head and let out his breath. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ Why?”                                        

Pretentious. Terrified of death. Perhaps sees himself as lonely.

“It’s a device I use,” I told him.                  

This absolutely charming, totally enjoyable book is one of the reads of the year from E.J. Copperman/Jeff Cohen, a writer with a long and solid history in the cozy mystery genre. His earliest books featured a parent with an Asperger’s child; in this one he’s streamlined his concept and given the main character Asperger’s, something that enhances his skills as a detective. Cohen, the real life parent of an Asperger’s child, illuminates the condition for the reader in the best possible way: by showing, not telling. His central character, Samuel, has a storefront called “Questions Answered” – he’ll answer any question using his methods of deductive reasoning that are maximized by his condition. His navigation of the “normal” world is helped by his mother, and by a certain Ms. Washburn, who gently remind him of appropriate responses or behaviors. But Samuel is a real charmer; while he doesn’t suffer from the same disorder as Detective Monk, they have some delightful similarities, placing Samuel in a long continuum stretching from Sherlock Holmes to Columbo to Samuel himself. All use their remarkable brains to solve crimes. One of Samuel’s tricks is to ask whoever he’s interviewing what their favorite Beatles song is – it gives him an insight into their personality. Every aspect of this novel sparkles – great story, a light hand from Cohen, wonderful characters and a clever ending. This is literally an almost perfect novel set within the confines of the traditional mystery. Bravo.

To Dwell in Darkness, Deborah Crombie, William Morrow, $25.99.

“Even though the March days were lengthening, the drizzle and heavy gray skies had drawn the dusk in early. The flashing blue lights from the phalanx of emergency vehicles gathered round St. Pancras International threw a pattern on the dark red brick of the Victorian train station that might, under other circumstances, have seemed festive.”                          

This fine police series continues to age well, taking in changes in the characters’ lives and situations with aplomb. Crombie’s Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid are both police, working in different parts of London. In this outing, the main case belongs to Duncan, who is called to St. Pancras Railway station when a bomb explodes there and someone is burned to death. As the railway station is a public place of course the first thoughts are of a terrorist attack, and when an officer on the scene turns out to be Melody, from Gemma’s team, the stakes are ramped up even higher.

Crombie presents the reader with a case that seems to have no cracks, no matter how much Duncan and his team interrogate the raggedy band of protesters who insist they were only out for publicity and thought they were setting off a smoke bomb, not a deadly grenade. If there’s a more careful writer than Deborah Crombie, I’m not sure who it would be. Her stories are meticulously assembled and the rewards for the reader are many. The end of this novel is sensationally good, an unexpected yet well grounded twist that was both chilling and believable. This book had one of the best endings of any book I read all year.

Summer of the Dead, Julia Keller, Minotaur, $25.99.

“Nothing seemed too outlandish anymore for a small town. No amount of trouble and tragedy. There were no more safe places, no more spots beyond the reach of violence, Truth was, Bell believed, such places had never existed in the first place.”

I flat out love Julia Keller’s books, which have quickly earned a place on my shelf next to Sharyn McCrumb’s spectacular ballad series. Set in Appalachia, the series centers on Bell Elkins, a county prosecutor who struggles in this book with a sister recently released from prison as well as a series of killings around town that appear unrelated. Her usual sounding board and friend, Sherriff Nick Fogelsong, is distracted by his wife’s mental illness; and every character in the book is struggling with some kind of caretaking task of a family member that makes them confront grief, loss and love in equal measure. Most memorably for me was Lindy Crabtree, whose father, Odell, a retired miner, lives in the basement. His many years in the mine have made him unable to stand up straight, and he’s most comfortable crouching in the darkness; Lindy has created a space in the basement as close to a mine as she can manage.

Keller seems interested in what it means to let go; what it means to give freedom to a damaged person; and the necessity of asking for help. High minded concerns indeed. However, Keller shares with her spiritual sister Sharyn McCrumb something vital to a great mystery writer: a natural and compelling storytelling ability. Without the story, her use of setting, rich characterizations and thematic concerns would all would fall flat, in my opinion. Happily, Keller is the total package, and her continuing development as a writer is one I’m delighted to follow.

Those Who Wish Me Dead, Michael Koryta, Little Brown, $26.

“The night landscape refused full dark in that magical way that only snow could provide, soaking in the starlight and moonlight and offering it back as a trapped blue iridescence.”

Koryta’s new book Those Who Wish Me Dead is a powerful stand-alone, a straightforward action thriller that hits the ground running and never lets up. Jace Wilson is a young man who has witnessed a killing by two very scary guys that is at the heart of a massive police cover-up, and when no official form of protection seems to be effective, he’s placed incognito in a wilderness program for troubled teens run by Ethan Serbin, a survival expert. Of course, this stratagem fails to throw the creepy hell-hound killers off the scent, and the chase is on in the midst of the Montana mountains, replete with snakes, lightning strikes and forest fires.

Koryta has all the tools of an All-Star, and he displays them in this compelling book. The prose, the setting, the pace, the characters – particularly Hannah Faber, the fire lookout and former fire fighter with her own demons to contend with – are exemplary, and make Those Who Wish Me Dead virtually unputdownable.  (Jamie)

After I’m Gone, Laura Lippman, William Morrow, $14.99.

“She had received enough orchids in her life to open her own greenhouse and actually preferred simpler flowers – sweetheart roses, peonies. But orchids were the gold standard, and she would be insulted if a boy had brought her anything less. She realized it was strange to hide one’s desire for something only because the rest of the world felt differently, but she didn’t know another way to be.”              

Laura Lippman is truly a master at what she does.  Her latest is the story of the feloniously inclined Felix Brewer, a slick operator who decides to vanish rather than face prison time for his many unlawful misdeeds.  Lippman’s concern and interest, however, is not so much Felix as the women Felix leaves behind: his beautiful wife, Bambi; his three daughters; and his mistress, Julie.  The connecting thread is not only the women, but the cold case officer who is trying to figure out, many years later, who caused the death of Felix’s mistress ten years to the day after his own disappearance. The inner secrets at the heart of the novel lie coiled between the lines of the story and within the depths of the characters Lippman so vividly portrays, leaving behind not only a portrait of a family but of a certain swath of life in a certain part of Baltimore, from mid-century onward. Bambi’s expectations as a young woman are not her daughters’, and you wonder what the expectations of the girls’ children will be, and how they too will differ from their mothers.  While there’s a crime at the heart of the story, the real story lies in the relationships Lippman seems able to portray almost effortlessly.  This is another memorable and compelling read from one of the truly great contemporary American writers.

Ruin Falls, Jenny Milchman, Ballantine, $26.

“Liz had already decided that car games must have been invented by some not-so-benevolent dictator masquerading as an elementary school teacher. For that matter, cars might have been invented by the same person, minus the schoolteacher part. She had no idea how people sat still for so long. Her body itched to be moving, knees sinking into the soil, hands digging into the ground.”

Jenny Milchman’s story of a family living on the edge – raising their own food, living as “green” as possible – is beautifully portrayed. She then takes the family out of their comfort zone, on a family visit. When the husband suggests an unexpected treat, a stay in a motel, the mother relishes the comfortable sleep. When she wakes up in the morning, her children are gone, and shortly after, so is her husband. The police then step away, as it’s become a “domestic”, not a kidnapping. The mother. Liz, is then basically left on her own as she tries to reconstruct her life for clues and is blindly, passionately, desperate to find her children. It’s this portrayal which I found so true and so brilliant. There may be a few plot point quibbles, but I thought Milchman’s portrayal of Liz’s primal desperation was both relatable and exquisitely rendered. This is a suspense novel that grabs you from the first page and won’t let go. You’ll want to find the kids as much as Liz does.

Present Darkness, Malla Nunn, Emily Bestler Books, $16.

Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper crossed the ramshackle garden, jacket unbuttoned in the nighttime heat. A fat moon tangled in the branches of a jacaranda tree and the air carried the smell of fresh-cut grass and the tree’s shameless purple flowers. It was a perfect Friday night to sit with his daughter…Instead he was at a crime scene in Parkview, in the flashing lights of a street cruiser.”

Malla Nunn’s novels are set in 1950’s South Africa, so her three central characters, a white policeman, a Zulu policeman, and a Jewish doctor and refugee, are loaded with racial and historical tensions. In her first novel, the weight of the connections of the characters almost overwhelmed the book; in this one, her fourth, she has the balance of things just right. She has a terrific crime story at the heart of things – a white couple is found beaten to within an inch of their lives, and the Zulu policeman’s son is the main suspect. The three men work as a team to find the solution to the crime. Meanwhile, Nunn vividly portrays the many sides of South Africa, which was truly a world out of balance. Like all good books, the plot doesn’t overwhelm the setting, which doesn’t overwhelm the characters. She’s a gorgeous writer, utilizing beautiful prose and depicting characters and scenes so memorably you won’t soon forget them.

The Long Way Home, Louise Penny, Minotaur, $27.99.

“Armand Gamache looked across to the deep green midsummer forest and the mountains that rolled into eternity. Then his eyes dropped to the village in the valley below them, as though held in the palm of an ancient hand. A stigmata in the Quebec countryside. Not a wound, but a wonder.”                                    

Some writers write with their smarts on their sleeves and some with their hearts on their sleeves. Louise Penny belongs firmly in this second category, and in none of her novels has her heart been more front and center than in this one, a deeply moving examination of the relinquishment of power, love, and attachment as well as an examination of the painful but necessary process of change and growth. Gamache has retired and settled in Three Pines with Reine Marie. Gamache’s peaceful retirement is interrupted by the pressing needs of artist Clara Morrow, whose estranged husband Peter has disappeared. She is terrified and asks Gamache for help.

This novel is also a deep look at creativity and where it comes from as well as how it’s encouraged and inspired. The winding path into Peter’s psyche taken by the motley crew looking for him – Clara, Myrna, Jean Guy and Gamache, with a little help from Reine Marie – takes in his art school past, his trajectory as an artist, and eventually, how that trajectory may have changed.

Their journey takes the travelers deep into Quebec into some of the most beautiful and remote parts of it bordering the St. Lawrence River. I was moved by the elegiac and yet ultimately healing nature of the story, which is not without its horrible twists. This is quite simply a gorgeous novel.

Cop Town, Karin Slaughter, Delacorte, $27.

“Dawn broke over Peachtree Street. The sun razored open the downtown corridor, slicing past the construction cranes waiting to dip into the earth and pull up skyscrapers, hotels, convention centers. Frost spiderwebbed across the parks. Fog drifted through the streets. Trees slowly straightened their spines. The wet, ripe meat of the city lurched toward the November light. The only sound was footsteps.”              

I’ve always been a big fan of Karin Slaughter’s, as despite the sometimes terribly graphic violence she includes in her books, she’s also a terrific writer with a great hand at the big three: character, plot and setting. Her books are mostly set in Atlanta, as this one is, going back in time to 1974 when women were just joining the police force. She delivers two things: a slam bang serial killer story, about a killer who targets cops; and a look at the life of rookie cop Kate as she’s razzed by men and women alike as she attempts to fit into her new job. Slaughter’s look at the reluctance of the comfortable male hierarchy realizing they must now admit women into the fold is devastating, and Kate, getting she blunt end of their hostility, is the victim – or is she? Slaughter is such a smart writer she usually makes you take a look at things at least twice. But I also loved this fresh look at the entry of women into a particular workforce, as well as the accommodations we must all make in order to survive and get along. None are perhaps as dramatic as the events she describes, but the emotional truths she is depicting are universal. A wonderful book and a great read.

That Night, Chevy Stevens, St. Martin’s, $25.99.

“I wrapped my hand around my arm, squeezed hard. I’d spent almost half my life behind bars for a crime I didn’t commit. The anger never really leaves you.”

Earlier this year I lined up four or five proofs and read the first pages of all of them and That Night was the only one that grabbed me from the get go. Part of what made it so compelling was the intriguing opening, a first person, richly detailed and believable account of a woman, Toni Murphy, being released from prison, having spent half her life there for a crime she claims she didn’t commit.  It’s soon revealed that the victim was her sister which, as you can imagine, complicates things with her family and her return to society. Stevens nimbly cuts between the High School acting out that ends in tragedy, Toni’s painful descent into prison routine and a “freedom” that is almost as perilous and constricting, especially when her alleged co-conspirator, high school boyfriend Ryan, reestablishes contact against court orders, urging her to help him find justice and rekindling their old attraction.

The suspense increases with every sentence, the reader furiously wondering what really happened that night – everyone seems like a suspect, including Toni, who may just be an extremely unreliable narrator. I highly recommend picking That Night up, but I also recommend clearing some time before doing so, because you’re not going to want to put it down. (Jamie)

That Summer, Lauren Willig, St. Martin’s, $25.99. Signed copies available.

“Isn’t the purpose of art to improve upon the mundane?”

“That’s only if you see the world as it is mundane.”

I was a Lauren Willig newbie when the paperback of her novel The Ashford Affair called to me, as some books do. Well, the transition from newbie to hard core fan was swift and complete, as I was entranced by both The Ashford Affair (highly recommended for Downton Abbey fans) and this story, told in two time periods. There’s a story in the present, where the drifting Julia inherits a house in London. She flies over from New York to clean it out with a view to selling it. In the second story line, we meet Imogen in 1839, who is basically ignored by her overbearing and clueless husband until 1848 when a group of Pre Raphaelites visit her home and one is commissioned to paint her portrait. While this is not strictly a mystery, there is a mysterious, unexplained disappearance, though the main portion of the novel centers on the relationships between the characters. The two stories naturally have threads that the clever Willis uses to tie them together, and all in all, this was one of the most purely enjoyable books I read all year. Setting, character, plot, a bit of romance and a bit of mystery made for a great combination. Call me the kind of fan who now can’t wait for the next book.

Also recommended: Jane Haddam’s stand out traditional mystery, her 28th Gregor Demarkian book, Fighting Chance; another excellent Cork O’Connor outing from William Kent Krueger, Windigo Island; the twisty, satisfying thriller from Hank Phillippi Ryan, Truth Be Told; Sharon (formerly S.J.) Bolton’s creepy look at life on the River Thames, A Dark and Twisted Tide; G.M. Malliet’s latest Max Tudor entry, A Demon Summer; Maureen Jenning’s WWII tale, No Known Grave; Elly Griffiths’ sparkly new Ruth Galloway book, The Outcast Dead; and Vidor Sunstol’s remarkable and haunting books in his trilogy set in the Minnesota north woods (two so far), Only the Dead and The Land of Dreams.

Reader & Staff Recommendations:

Marty Cignetti, ace assistant: Present Darkness, Malla Nunn; Seven for a Secret, Lyndsay Faye; The Devil in the Marshalsea, Antonia Hodgson; Destroyer Angel, Nevada Barr; Cold Storage Alaska, John Straley.

Robert Agnew, Ann Arbor: That Night, Chevy Stevens; Brilliance, Marcus Sakey.

Margaret Agnew, Bloomington, IN; The Outcast Dead, Elly Griffiths.

Linda Arnsdorf, Ann Arbor: The Caretaker, A.X. Ahmad; The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jussi Adler-Olsen; Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, Susan Elia MacNeal; Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty.

Patty Lorandos, via e-mail: The Taint of Midas, The Doctor of Thessaly and The Lady of Sorrows,Anne Zouroudi.

Martha Zallocco, via e-mail: A Beautiful Place to Die, Blessed are the Dead, Let the Dead Lie, and Present Darkness, Malla Nunn; The Case of the Love Commandos and The Case of the Butter Chicken, Tarquin Hall; The Secret Place and Faithful Place, Tana French; The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café, Alexander McCall Smith; and The Cleveland Creep, Les Roberts.

Carla Kish, via e-mail: the entire Steve Hamilton oeuvre, read in order!

Shelagh Dick-Davis, via facebook: None so Blind, Barbara Fradkin.

Kathryn Wilder, via e-mail: The Outcast Dead, Elly Griffiths; Those Who Wish me Dead, Michael Koryta; The Bookman’s Tale, Charlie Lovett; and The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, Peter Swanson. And “anything by M.C. Beaton.”

Pat Zajac, via e-mail: all of Erin Hart, especially The Book of Killowen; Susanna Gregory’s Michael Bartholomew series; the Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen.

Diane Lending, via e-mail: The Question of the Missing Head, E.J. Copperman; Sleuth Sisters, Maggie Pill and Murder Misdirected, Andrew MacRae.

Julie Seymour, via Facebook: Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty.

Jane Stiegel, via e-mail: the Joanna Brady and Ali Reynolds books by J.A. Jance (definitely NOT the J.P Beaumont books); the Cork O’Connor novels by William Kent Krueger; and the Loon Lake mysteries by Victoria Houston.

Vicki Kondolik, Ann Arbor: Hell with the Lid Blown Off, Casey Donis; The House of Dolls, David Hewson; Mortal Arts, Anna Lee Huber; Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger; Wicked Autumn, G.M. Malliet; Last Will, Liza Marklund; Whispers of Vivaldi, Beverly Graves Myers; The Long Way Home, Louise Penny; The Whispering of Bones, Judith Rock; The Ashford Affair, Lauren Willig.

Best Of 2013

This year, I separated my choices into categories – there are some returning favorites, a book that stood out as an instant classic, some great sophomore efforts, and some new authors to the list. I couldn’t keep myself to 10 – there are a lucky 13 titles here.  All in all, a great year for reading.  I’ve also included picks from readers.  As always, these titles are 15% off for the month.  (Please contact us in order to receive the discount.)  Happy reading – here’s to some great reads in 2014!

Best of the Year

Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger, Atria, $24.99.

“In those final days New Bremen for me had a different feel… It seemed as if the town and everything in it was already a part of my past.  At night sometimes I tried to reach out and grab hold of what exactly I felt toward the place but everything was hopelessly tangled… I’d been a child there and had crossed the threshold, perhaps early, into young manhood.”

Kent Krueger’s masterwork is set in 1961 small town Minnesota, told through the eyes of 13 year old Frank.  As a reader, you’re seeing events unfold as he understood them at the time.  The writing makes the whole book seem like a remembered dream of childhood, though not always a good dream.  What makes this book especially memorable is that while it’s about terrible loss, it’s also about the way people deal with terrible losses.  There’s a passage toward the end of the book – you’ll know it when you get to it – that left me sobbing as well as dog-earing the pages so I could go back and read them again.  It’s that kind of transcendent moment that, as a reader, you live to discover, and I imagine as a writer, you live to be able to convey. Buy a copy of this book for everyone and anyone who means anything to you.  I hate to use the word special, but this book is special.  I’ve read it twice and am already looking forward to revisiting it a third time.  Whether or not you’re interested in coming of age stories, or 1961 Minnesota, it simply doesn’t matter, as the emotional truth of this novel is timeless.

Old Favorites

Let it Burn, Steve Hamilton, Minotaur, $24.99.

“This is something Detroit had always been known for, of course.  Devil’s night, the night before Halloween, when people would come from literally all over the world to watch the city burn… Now it was like the whole city just said, all together… Let it burn.”

I thought Steve Hamilton couldn’t get any better, but he does, with this incredibly timely book about the deterioration of Detroit.  Alex returns to his old home town and relives memories of his shooting and his partner’s death on the news that the shooter is being released from prison.  A tightly wound, beautifully constructed novel that is heartbreaking while being far from sentimental, now kind of a Hamilton trademark. To be so on top of his game this deep into a series is very impressive – and makes for great reading.

The Book of Killowen, Erin Hart, Scribner, $26.00.

“This was the same peat that preserved bog butter, wooden roads, all those ritual sacrifices.  Ten thousand years, that’s how long it had lain in a suspended state in the bottom of a bog, and now it was being disturbed, for what?  Beauty treatments whose effects were at best transitory.  The impossible quest for youth.  She thought of all the endangered bogs and suddenly began to feel guilty for enjoying the fruits of such exploitation.”

This lovely book is a kind of spiritual meshing of Agatha Christie – for plot – and P.D. James, in that the setting and characters are as richly captured as any in a James novel.  The fourth in Hart’s fine Nora Gavin series, The Book of Killowen finds Nora and Cormac back in Ireland and back in another bog, this time on the trail of an ancient bog man as well as a much more recent one.  Like the bogs of Ireland that Hart chooses to write about, her stories are richly layered creations right down to two, not one, bodies found on top of another in the trunk of a car.  The combination of history, scholarship and a mystery tricky enough for Dame Agatha herself also has a sense of real emotion and place that are all Hart’s own.  This is great armchair travel as well as a deeply satisfying read, delivered by one of the very best traditional mystery writers at work at the moment.

How the Light Gets In, Louise Penny, Minotaur, $25.99.

“For days, weeks, months… she’d known.  Monsters existed.  They lived in cracks in tunnels, and in dark alleys, and in neat row houses.  They had names like Frankenstein and Dracula, and Martha and David and Pierre.  And you almost always found them where you least expected.”

Louise Penny has hit a pinnacle of popularity, respect and adoration among her fans that makes it almost impossible to rationally judge her books.  I think is a good one though, with Gamache at odds with the department, back in Three Pines, and struggling with Beauvoir’s ongoing addiction.  There’s also a matter of corruption that goes as high as possible in the police and government, as well as a mysterious friend of Myrna’s.  It’s a conspiracy novel that forces old connections to be tested, which I think is Penny’s main concern.  What’s distinctive here is the growing power and originality of this writer’s voice, which happens to be a very particular and enjoyable one.

Through the Evil Days, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Minotaur, $25.99.

“The snow was falling thick and fast, fat wet flakes that covered the windshield between swipes of the wipers, so that his eyes seemed to be blinking in and out of focus: tire tracks, white spatter, mailboxes, white spatter, hemlocks, white spatter, carports, white spatter.”

Can I just say – yay?  I’m delighted to have Episcopal priest Clare and her new husband, police chief Russ, back at last, enjoying possibly the world’s most uncomfortable honeymoon.  It’s the middle of an ice storm, they’re stuck in an isolated if beautiful cabin, and there’s a missing 8-year-old girl who will die without her medication if she’s not found. The police department is trying to function without Russ.  This is a race against the clock thriller with Spencer-Fleming’s trademark: incredibly rich and varied characters.  She keeps throwing curveballs at Clare and Russ, and as always, they weather them (if there’s a better definition of marriage, I’m not sure what it might be).  A wonderful, and welcome, return of a beloved series.

Spectacular Sophomores

Bitter River, Julia Keller, Minotaur, $25.99.

“All three looked anxious, uncomfortable, as if they weren’t quite certain what to do or how to be.  Motion was their preferred state, action was how they defined themselves, and this interval – the standing and waiting – was unusual.  It made them feel clumsy, pointless.”

Julia Keller’s first novel was a knockout, and the second book in the series, set in Appalachia, may even be better.  She brings an amazingly assured voice to her storytelling, reminiscent very much of Sharyn McCrumb’s classic ballad novels.  American mystery writing – to my biased mind – doesn’t get much better than the mix of grit, setting, rich characters and sheer storytelling power Keller brings to her work.  Central character Bell Elkins, the local prosecuting attorney, is missing her daughter who has moved away to live with her father, dealing with a new boyfriend, and trying to solve the murder of the hometown golden girl.  Her most trusted ally, Sherriff Nick Fogelsong, is doing things off the grid, and Bell feels very much on her own as the town quite literally falls apart around her.  In this novel, Keller is examining all the fierce permutations of love, and how the ties of family and kinship can either help or hinder you in the world. As in her first novel, her central question becomes, what would you do for love?  Along with a great story, she gives you plenty to think about.

Crooked Numbers, Tim O’Mara, Minotaur, $24.99.

“Teachers know.  We only have these kids for a short time.  We throw a whole bunch of knowledge at them and hope more sticks than falls away.  They have no idea what life’s going to bring, so our job is to prepare them the best we can, and then we let them go.”

I loved O’Mara’s first book, Sacrifice Fly, and I think I love this one even more.  His main character is Brooklyn teacher (now Dean) Raymond Donne, who used to be a cop, but thanks to an injury sustained on the job is now a teacher.  Though he’s not technically a private eye, he functions like one, in both books getting involved in cases involving students.  In this book, a promising student has been found dead and his mother asks Raymond to help raise the publicity profile so the police will take a closer look.  Very strong elements in this series are the Brooklyn-specific setting and the school setting – O’Mara brings real life experience to his storytelling. In a sophomore effort, I always hope not just for a continuation of what made the first book special, but for a deepening and expansion of what’s been started.  O’Mara delivers.

New to the List

Behind the Shattered Glass, Tasha Alexander, Minotaur, $24.99.

“This, Emily, goes beyond bad manners… One cannot have gentlemen falling down dead in the library, especially on an eighteenth-century Axminster carpet!  It is entirely ruined; there is no possibility that the bloodstain will come out…What would your father say?”

This book is about the most fun you can have “between the covers.”  In Alexander’s eighth novel featuring Lady Emily, she’s at last come home with her husband and twins to Anglemore in the British countryside. Interrupting a weekend dinner party, a neighboring marquess falls into the library, dead.  The unraveling of the mystery, with detective work being done both by Emily and her delicious husband, Colin, takes an upstairs/downstairs approach, with part of the story being told through the eyes of a maid.  I couldn’t put it down and was sad when it was over – what better reading experience could there be?

Seven for a Secret, Lyndsay Faye, Putnam, $26.95.

“I met him before his mother’s residence in the spun-sugar February dawn, sunlight pale as an oyster shell and the dull little sparrows trilling pleasantries to one another from the naked treetops.”

Lyndsay Faye’s voice is remarkable, and remarkably compelling.  She’s also a great storyteller.  She recreates the world of 1840s New York City with real energy and verve, and as a reader, you feel you are right along with new “Copper” Timothy Wilde, a member of the brand new NYPD.  Faye’s first novel centered on child prostitutes; this one, her second, centers on the dreadful practice of slave catching and takes a hard look at all the different forms abolitionists took at the time, as well as at the politics that controlled the situation.  This is an immersive read – you’ll look up and be startled you aren’t actually in 1840s New York.  There are surprises, plot twists, wonderful characters, heartbreaks and some small redemptions that make this novel one of the reads of the year.

Pagan Spring, G.M. Malliett, Minotaur, $24.99.

“The slice of Nether Monkslip in his view was of a classic village whose roots predated recorded history, a place that had survived centuries of wars and feuds and conspiracies largely because it had managed to go unnoticed.  It was… a mix of styles pleasing to the eye and just managing to avoid the chaotic.” 

I enjoyed the first two books in this series featuring vicar Max Tudor very much.  The first, Wicked Autumn, was a pitch-perfect tongue-in-cheek send-up of a British village mystery; the second, Fatal Winter, adjusted the tone somewhat so that the book read slightly darker than the first.  In this third novel, just like Goldilocks on her third try, Malliett seems to have gotten things “just right.”  Balancing Max’s new love life with the murder of an obnoxious new member of the village of Nether Monkslip, Max again helps out the local inspector in sorting out various village entanglements, connections and alliances (he’s a former member of MI5).  Malliett hits her stride in this book, matching the tone of the novel with the setting – not too light, not too dark, and she’s paced this book perfectly. This is a totally enjoyable read in every way.

Deadly Harvest, Michael Stanley, Harper Collins, $14.99.

“Every day that he came to work, he was grateful that the detectives had their offices at the foot of Kgale Hill – a wild enclave with the city lapping around its base…as he squeezed himself out of his old Land Rover in the narrow parking bay, he could enjoy the wildness of the hills above him and hear distant calls from the baboons.”

I’ve enjoyed all the Detective Kubu novels set in Botswana, but this is my favorite, as the pair of writers behind “Michael Stanley” keep getting better and better as they go along.  This heartbreaking tale finds the fat, cheerful, food-loving, essentially lazy and brilliant Kubu on the trail of a witch doctor.  As always, the combination of African culture with a great story and wonderful characters proves irresistible.  It’s also a pretty heartbreaking story, even though there’s a nice balance of light and dark within its pages.  One of the more refreshing reads of this, or any, year.

The Midwife’s Tale, Sam Thomas, Minotaur, $24.99.

“The smiles that lit their faces when they caught sight of her will stay with me for the rest of my days.  I saw joy and love, of course, but also a trace of sadness, for they knew that they might never see their daughter again… To say farewell to one’s child is a terrible thing.”

While most historical novels can’t really claim title to “zippy”, this one does, as along with being a professor, Mr. Thomas is also a very able novelist, with the novelist’s concerns of plot, character and setting.  He takes the reader on a gripping tour of 1644 York as seen through the eyes of midwife Bridget as she tries to save the life of her friend Esther, sentenced to death for poisoning her nasty husband.  Mr. Thomas not only ably gets inside the head of his female protagonist, but delivers a full and painful picture of what it meant to be a woman in 1644. Hard to put down and hard to forget – this is a terrific first novel.

Death and the Olive Grove, Marco Vichi, Pegasus, $25.00.

“As he crushed the fag-end in the ashtray, a big, sluggish fly landed on his wrist.  It was fat and black, with hairy legs.  The inspector held his hand still, so it wouldn’t fly away, and so he wouldn’t feel alone.”

This has been one of our favorite handsells of the year – an Italian novel that can happily be read by those folks who love Andrea Camilleri but have already read his books.  Set in 1964 Florence, Inspector Bordelli tears around in his rattle-y VW beetle, terrifying his assistant, a Sicilian named Piras.  While Piras’ thinking is straightforward and linear and Bordelli’s is complex and operatic, they share a passion for justice.  In this novel they are trying to solve a string of deaths involving young girls.  While that’s a heavy topic and the book certainly has its dark side, it also has its cosmic, life-affirming side, one where Bordelli ponders cooking, washing machines, why he hates Nazis, love, and spaghetti.  He writes like a poet wearing dark glasses.

Also Recommended

Though it’s for kids, adult mystery writer Chris Grabenstein’s foray into YA territory has yielded an instant classic, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library; Ellen Hart’s always excellent Jane Lawless series has another winner in Taken by the Wind; Loren D. Estleman takes an artful look at gangster life in The Confessions of Al Capone; Elly Griffith’s excellent A Dying Fall features lots of Cathbad; Theresa Schwegel’s suspenseful boy-and-his-dog story, The Good Boy, is hard to put down S.J. Bolton’s scary and memorable Lost sticks with you; Denise Swanson’s terrifically entertaining Murder of a Stacked Librarian is a deft handling of a long awaited wedding; and I welcomed the arrival of the energetic and enjoyable Susan Elia MacNeal – I especially enjoyed Princess Elizabeth’s Spy.  

Reader’s Picks

Commonalities here: Louise Penny; Robert Galbraith a.k.a. J.K. Rowling; William Kent Krueger; Lyndsay Faye; Alan Bradley; Simone St. James; Susan Elia MacNeal; Anna Lee Huber; and Barbara Ross’ Clammed Up.  I have a soft spot for librarians, and librarians sending in their picks have an asterisk after their name.

Marty Cignetti, Ace Assistant:  Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger; The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, Colin Cotterill; The Gods of Gotham, Lyndsay Faye; Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol, Giles Brandreth; and A Man Without Breath, Philip Kerr.

Patti O’Brien*, Tucson: How the Light Gets in, Louise Penny; The Gods of Gotham, Lyndsay Faye; Deed of Murder, Cora Harrison; Princess Elizabeth’s Spy & His Majesty’s Hope, Susan Elia MacNeal; The Sleeping Partner, Madeleine Robbins; Eleven Little Piggies, Elizabeth Gunn; The Yard, Alex Grecian; Leaving Everything Most Loved, Jacqueline Winspear; The Sound of Broken Glass, Deborah Crombie; Bad Blood, Dana Stabenow.

Kathy Fannon*, Washington, MI:  How the Light Gets in, Louise Penny; A Bitter Veil, Libby Fischer Hellmann; In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming; Lucky Bastard, Deborah Koontz; Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger.

Carla Bayha, Ann Arbor:  Clammed Up, Barbara Ross; Topped Chef, Lucy Burdette.

Larka Karian, Ripon, WI: Leave the Grave Green, Deborah Crombie.

Ariel Zeitlin Cooke*, Montclair, NJ: The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith; Busman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers; The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Laurie R. King; and “My favorite new one was the last Sookie Stackhouse, Dead Ever After.  It was a thunderously satisfying conclusion to one of my favorite series.”

Linda Kimmel, Ann Arbor: Speaking from Among the Bones, Alan Bradley; How the Light Gets in, Louise Penny; Behind the Shattered Glass, Tasha Alexander; The Book of Killowen, Erin Hart; A Dying Fall, Elly Griffiths; An Inquiry into Love and Death, Simone St. James; Mortal Arts, Anna Lee Huber; Etiquette and Espionage, Gail Carriger (YA title).

Vicki Kondolik*, Ann Arbor: Speaking from Among the Bones, Alan Bradley; The Anatomist’s Wife, Anna Lee Huber; Out of Circulation, Miranda James; A Killing in the Hills, Julia Keller; His Majesty’s Hope, Susan Elia MacNeal; How the Light Gets In, Louise Penny; The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith; An Inquiry into Love and Death, Simone St. James; Nickeled and Dimed to Death, Denise Swanson; and The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, Alana White.

Via Facebook:

Jeffrey Marks, Cincinnati:  Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, Sarah Weinman (editor).

Bob Cunningham: Brilliance, Marcus Sakey.

Lauren LaRocca: How the Light Gets in, Louise Penny.

Meg Mims: Clammed Up, Barbara Ross.

Michele Claro Dancer: The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith; The Last Word, Lisa Lutz.

Peg Herring: The Secret Keepers, Kate Morton.

Jim Graham: Then We Take Berlin, John Lawton.

Nancy AndrewsHow the Light Gets in, Louise Penny; Storm Front, John Sandford; The Kill List, Frederick Forsyth; W is for Wasted, Sue Grafton.

Colleen Moore: How the Light Gets in, Louise Penny.

Jackie Jenkins: The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith.

Linda Chudej: The Beautiful Mystery, Louise Penny; Hercule Poirot’s Christmas & Curtain, Agatha Christie; Murder is Binding, Lorna Barrett; Scone Cold Dead, Kaitlyn Dunnett; A Cookbook Conspiracy, Kate Carlisle.

Best of 2011

Every year, one of my favorite tasks is assembling my Top 10 List, which usually (actually always) involves winnowing and eliminating –  at the end of the list, there are even more titles I really enjoyed.  This year I’m moving two perennials to the “Emeritus” category – Louise Penny and William Kent Krueger – they are almost always on the list so, while including the wonderful book each of them wrote this year, I’ve left room for 10 other titles as well.  Happy reading!

Now You See Me, S.J. Bolton, Minotaur, $25.99.

“We lie to dying people, I realized that evening, just as the first sirens sounded in the distance.”

Bolton goes from strength to strength, delivering an original read every time.  While her first three books were set in remote British locations, this one takes place in London, and is a straight up police procedural – or is it?  As the cops working what quickly become obvious are copies of Jack the Ripper’s killings, it’s also obvious that the killer is fixated on one of the policewomen, who the rest of the squad keeps under close watch.  What isn’t clear is – is she being watched because they think she’s connected to the killer, or because they’re worried about her?  Or both?  Bolton keeps you guessing, and this is a wonderfully twisty thriller with her trademark wonderful use of setting.  What also sets this book apart is her look at the crimes, and at the work of the policewomen involved, through a gender lens.  It’s not a polemic, but it gives the reader a female-centric view of crime, not only the murder cases, but also some rape cases in a correlated thread.  You could also just read this book because it’s a terrific thriller.  Either way, this is not an author to be missed.

Killed at the Whim of a Hat, Colin Cotterill, Minotaur, $24.99.

“A number of lands around the globe have what they refer to as a southern temperament.  Thailand is no exception.  Old Mel could surely have gone running off screaming for help…But he was a southerner.  He broke off a stem of sweet grass to chew while he sat on the concrete segment and gazed into the abyss.”

Colin Cotterill has transplanted the charm and humor of his Dr. Siri series to his now native Thailand, and created an entirely new family of eccentrics for readers to love.  His gentle and ironic touch is unchanged, though his new central character, Jimm Juree, is a young woman instead of a 70-something man like Dr. Siri. Jimm lives with her family in crowded Chang Mai, and as the story opens she discovers her mother has sold the family business and bought a resort in the middle of nowhere.  The photos of the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant made it look beautiful; the reality is slightly different.  A former crime beat reporter, Jimm is bored by the tiny fishing village where the resort is located.  However, she is delighted when two skeletons are discovered buried in a VW bus, and as she explores the mystery, she also begins to love her new town.  She shares the stage with her eccentric and strong willed mother, her grandfather, who rarely speaks, and her brother, Arny, a sensitive 31 year old virgin and bodybuilder.  The story is clever and surprisingly complicated, tied together with chapter epigraphs taken directly from the lips of George W. Bush, whose malapropisms are somehow wildly appropriate to Jimm’s new life in the provinces.  The gentle interplay of the family – the grandfather who starts to speak; the mother who appears to be getting forgetful and is sneaking around in some kind of Ninja costume, and the changing love fortunes of the shy and awkward Arny – are the true heart of the book.  This is one of the reads of the year.

Murder Season, Robert Ellis, Minotaur, $25.99.

“She could smell it in the pillow as she pulled it closer.  On the sheets as she rolled over in the darkness and searched out cool spots that were not there.  Murder Season.  She was floating, drifting.  Cruising through an open seam between sleep and consciousness.”

If there is a writer to resemble, it might be a good idea to resemble Michael Connelly. It is no disrespect to say that Robert Ellis’ tightly plotted police procedurals set in LA and featuring homicide detective Lena Gamble resemble Connelly’s Harrry Bosch novels. However, the gender change up makes the whole enterprise fresh. Ellis happily also shares Connelly’s sharp plotting and ability to give the reader a twist that has been fairly laid out for the reader, yet is still a surprise.  I think police novels are the modern equivalent of the private eye novel – the police in contemporary mysteries often think and operate somewhat outside the box, much like an old school private eye – so using the old P.I. tropes are a natural fit. Ellis embellishes the tropes and makes them his own, and one of the ways he does this is with evocative prose.  In this tricky story involving a notorious Hollywood murder case, Lena has much territory to navigate, with the help/hindrance of an old cop on the way down.  In true noir fashion, she’s never sure who to trust, but the reader can easily trust Lena, whose smarts never lead her in the wrong direction.  Beautifully written and plotted, it would truly be a shame to miss this wonderful novel.

The Janus Stone, Elly Griffiths, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25.00.

“Love is always a force for good…Your love for your wife and daughters, for this woman and her unborn baby.  Even your wife’s kindness toward her.  These are all good things…love is always a blessing.”

So many people I respected told me to check out Elly Griffiths I finally did, and boy, am I hooked on Ruth Galloway.  She’s fabulous.  Unapologetically overweight, with no interest in clothes, Ruth instead focuses on her fascinating job as an archaeologist.  Set on the coast of England, Ruth lives in a remote location, and she’s a convenient expert whenever bones are discovered – in this novel, some are Roman, some are more recent.  When I read the first book, The Crossing Places, I liked it so much that I ordered 25 copies right away and proceeded to hand sell them.  I can safely say every reader I’ve introduced to Ruth is looking forward to the January publication of The House by the Sea. These books, aside from featuring a great character – in fact many great characters – also have a good, complex story and a lovely setting and background.  I think I’m a life time fan.

Buffalo West Wing, Julie Hyzy, Berkley Prime Crime, $7.99 (paperback original).

“Two hours later, I had rehashed every moment of the kids’ disastrous first visit to the kitchen a hundred times.  No matter how you cut the cheesecake, there was no way I could have served those wings.”

I always like to include a book on this list that’s simply the most fun I had “between the covers” all year.  For me, it was this book, the 4th in Hyzy’s wildly entertaining series set in the White House Kitchen.  In this one, executive Chef Olivia Paras gets a new boss in the form of a new first family, and the new first lady is skeptical, as are her children.  Olivia tries her hardest to please her new bosses, big and small,  but an incident early on sours things, and it takes a kidnaping toward the end of the book to get the first family on Olivia’s side.  I found this entry as funny and fast paced as the others but also surprisingly moving. Hyzy really seems to have hit her storytelling stride.

Season of Darkness, Maureen Jennings, McClelland & Stewart, $22.95.

“Dawn was starting to seep through the trees and the exercise was getting the blood flowing.  She kicked her feet off the pedals and did a little swoop from side to side just for fun.  Whoopee!  There was something to be said about this war.  She’d never have this experience stuck in the filthy London back-to-back housing where she’d grown up.”

Maureen Jennings hits the ball out of the park with this first book in a planned trilogy set during WWII England, and helmed by local policeman Tom Tyler.  This tiny Shropshire town is populated not only by an interment camp for Germans – mainly intellectuals, one of them a student of Freud – but it’s also full of Land Girls, the young women who helped to bring the crops in all over Britain during the war.  When a body of a Land Girl is found with a mysterious bunch of white poppies, it takes all of Tom Tyler’s instincts and some help from the Freudian to help unravel what becomes a series of killings.  The killing are tied in a complex way to the town, with emotional repercussions for many of its citizens.  A master at complex plotting, wonderful characters, and a vibrant setting, it’s wonderful to see the talented Jennings at work on a new series.

Northwest Angle, William Kent Krueger, Atria, $24.99.

“He woke long before it was necessary, had wakened in this way for weeks, troubled and afraid.  A dull illumination came through the houseboat window into the cabin he shared with his son.  Not light exactly.  More the promise of light.  False dawn…”

Krueger uses one of his trademarks – a high drama weather event, tied to an emotional one – to great effect here.  As Cork O’Connor’s family is enjoying a vacation in a secluded area called the Northwest Angle, a storm comes up and Cork and his daughter Jenny are separated from the rest of the group, and for a time, from each other.  While alone, Jenny finds both a dead body and a baby, and the first half of the novel is a bravura chase sequence, with Cork and Jenny’s main goal keeping the foundling safe.  Skillfully balancing a complex story, some deep emotional threads, and a beautiful rendering of the north woods and waters, Krueger’s book is also simply a wonderful, well written thriller.  It’s another great read from one of our top notch contemporary crime writers.

The Girl in the Green Raincoat, Laura Lippman, William Morrow, $11.99.

“Overdo a slow waddle to the bathroom!  This made no sense to Tess.  Raucous fun could be overdone.  Drinking could be overdone.  High-fat food could be overdone, even exercise.  But a ten-foot walk to the bathroom?”

This slender paperback, culled from a serial that appeared first in the New York Times, is such a perfect book in its own way that I had to include it.  In this book Tess is pregnant and on forced bed rest (something she’s not taking well), and with a bravura nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the bedridden Tess uncovers a mystery as she watches the action unfold outside her front window.  At the same time it allows Lippman to have almost every important-to-Tess character come through the door, and she gives them each their own chapter, so as a reader you learn more about series stalwarts like Mrs. Blossom, Whitney, Lloyd, her Dad, and Crow. While Lippman works with very familiar tropes, she makes them fresh, sometimes through originality of character, sometimes through humor, and always with a snap of her crisp plotting skills. Moving, fast paced, and clever, this is a purely delightful read, and if you are a Tess Monaghan fan, one not to be missed.

A Trick of the Light, Louise Penny, Minotaur, $25.99.

“Was this how dreadful things started? Peter wondered.  Not with a thunder clap.  Not with a shriek.  Not with sirens, but with a smile?  Something horrible come calling, wrapped in civility and good manners.”

Penny’s latest novel is a long awaited look at the marriage and careers of series characters Peter and Clara, both artists.  As the book opens, most of Three Pines is headed to Clara’s gallery opening in Montreal.  When one of Clara’s old frenemies (and former art critic) Lillian Dyson turned up dead in Clara’s garden the day after the art opening, all hell breaks loose.  While Penny hews to almost golden age conventions in some ways (her story set ups) her emotional truths and revelations are far more contemporary, and this novel is a mediation on jealousy and it’s destructiveness in any kind of relationship.  The mystery part is as skillful as ever, but here is also the trademark beautiful prose and memorable characterizations Penny’s readers have come to expect, as well as her ultimately optimistic viewpoint. Long may she write.

Children of the Street, Kwei Quartey, Random House, $15.00.

“Every time he came home, Dawson felt a surge of thankfulness, like the swell of a wave. The little house was a sanctuary, armor against the wickedness of the crime he dealt with every day.  A bit of a fortress too.  His police sense had led him to burglarproof the house to the extreme.”

I hear Kwei’s series hasn’t been picked up, and that’s a real shame because both his novels, set in Ghana and featuring Detective Darko, are knockouts.  This book moves him to the head of the class as Darko is in his home city of Accra, dealing with the deaths of the some of the incredible number of street children there.  While giving the reader a heartbreaking picture of the city, he also gives a balanced one, as Darko’s own family life, while not uncomplicated, is far from bleak, and he loves his wife and son.  Darko is one of my favorite new mystery characters, as he’s not uncomplicated himself – he has anger issues, a little problem with pot, a bit of a wandering eye, and he can “hear” a lie in someone’s voice – and at the same time he’s a very smart and capable policeman.  The novel moves at a fast pace with lots of clues scattered throughout, as Quartey is also a devotee of the classic mystery.  I’m truly hoping Detective Darko and his creator find a new publishing home, as I was looking forward to many more outings.

The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes, Marcus Sakey, Dutton, $25.95.

“A blurry week ago he had woken on one coast.  It had been cold and gray and lonely, beautiful in a desolate sort of way.  It had nearly killed him, and maybe he had wanted it to.”

This book, like all of Sakey’s novels, was impossible to put down, and like the best of them, it also carries some emotional heft.  Daniel Hayes wakes up on one side of the country with no memory (or clothes) – but finds a convenient BMW nearby, with clothes that fit – and he drives the car back to Los Angeles, which feels like home to him.  As his memory comes back to him in bits and pieces he starts to remember that he was married to a fairly well known television star, she’s dead, and he’s the main suspect.  As Sakey teases out Daniel’s memories, as a reader, you’re working as hard as Daniel, since what you’re working with is no different from what Daniel is working with.  Daniel is a writer, and Sakey uses that skill to help him figure out what’s going on. The thoughtfulness that Sakey brings to his explication of memory, desire, love and loyalty as a part of Daniel’s quest adds to the book’s depth. Sakey is also a gifted prose stylist.  He makes his prose simple but it’s crisp and memorable, with never a misplaced word.  A Sakey novel is always something worth celebrating, especially when it’s as good as this one.

One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Minotaur, $24.99

“Are you kidding?”  She looked around with lively interest.  “I’ve never been in the Dew Drop Inn before.”  “For a very good reason.  This piss-hole is no place for a- a – “ ”Officer?  Lady? Priest?”  “A nice Episcopalian.”

I think I can safely say there was no more anticipated return to the mystery reading community than that of Clare Fergusson and her creator, Julia Spencer-Fleming.  Happily, this book is not a disappointment, but a great, sprawling, complex read, one that finds Clare back from Iraq, planning her wedding to Russ.  Her return is complicated by her struggles with addiction. Her membership in a returning vets support group illuminates different folks in town as Spencer-Fleming skillfully weaves her story to include a wide swath of Miller’s Kill, New York.  The emotional wallop of this novel is huge, as Spencer-Fleming spares heartbreak neither in her stories of the veterans, nor in her depiction of Clare’s struggle.  When there’s a murder in town, with ties to the vet’s group, Clare of course gets involved, more or less shutting Russ out, in classic addict behavior.  Things are coming right by the end of the novel, but not before a lot of emotional struggle and heartbreak.  The narrative is complex and tricky, as Spencer-Fleming continues to proves that she’s also a devotee of the traditional mystery structure.  I’m already looking forward to Clare’s next appearance.

Also recommended:

Wicked Autumn (Minotaur), G.M. Malliett’s sly take on the village cozy; Dogs Don’t Lie (Poisoned Pen), Clea Simon’s original story about a woman who “hears” what animals are thinking; Motor City Shakedown (Minotaur), D.E. Johnson’s sophomore effort set in 1911 Detroit; Winged Obsession (William Morrow), Jessica Speart’s compulsive read about the world of butterfly collecting; and Killing Kate (Atria), Julie Kramer’s latest and scariest Riley Spartz outing.

Customer & Staff Picks

A few commonalities here – Alan Bradley, Louise Penny, Jacqueline Winspear, and Elly Griffiths.

Linda Kimmel, Ann Arbor: Alan Bradley, I am Half-Sick of Shadows; Jacqueline Winspear, A Lesson in Secrets; Tasha Alexander, A Crimson Warning; Deanna Raybourn, The Dark Enquiry; Rhys Bowen, Naughty in Nice; Louise Penny, A Trick of the Light; Elly Griffiths, The Janus Stone.

Vicki Kondelik, Ann Arbor: Susanne Allyen, The Cavalier of the Apocalypse, Alan Bradley, A Red Herring Without Mustard; Casey Donis, Crying Blood; Elly Griffiths, The Crossing Places; David Hewson, The Fallen Angel; Camilla Lackburg, The Ice Princess; Elizabeth Loupas, The Second Duchess; Louise Penny, A Trick of the Light; Judith Rock, The Rhetoric of Death; Jeri Westerson, Troubled Bones.

David Andrew Speer, via facebook: Starvation Lake, Bryan Gruley.

Becky Felan Frieseman, via facebook: Now You See Me, S.J. Bolton.

Mary Treusch, via facebook: Cypress House, Michael Koryta.

Lisa Arnsdorf, Ann Arbor: The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, Alan Bradley; The Janus Stone, Elly Griffiths.

Tori Booker, Ann Arbor: The Brutal Telling, Louise Penny; Still Missing, C. Stevens; Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides.

Maria Parker, North Carolina: Alastair Sim, The Unbelievers; Ruth Rendell, Portobello; Reginald Hill, Midnight Fugue & The Woodcutter; Jacqueline Winspear, A Lesson in Secrets; Kate Atkinson, When Will There be Good News; Mark Billingham, Death Message; Ruth Rendell, Tigerlily’s Orchids; Anne Perry, Treason at Lisson Grove; Peter Lovesey, Stage Struck; Anne Perry, Acceptable Loss; Kate Atkinson, Case Histories.

Best Of 2012

I love remembering back over the year to the books that gave me a thrill or a delightful character or a great story or a memorable setting or gorgeous prose – or all of these. It’s always tough to winnow this list to 10 – I’ve listed other titles at the end of this list that were also great.  For the month of December 2012, we offer these titles, including the extra recommendations, at 15% off.  (Please contact us in order to receive the discount.) This list is alphabetical.

No Mark Upon Her, Deborah Crombie, William Morrow, $25.99.

“The shell rocked precariously as it took her weight.  The movement reminded her, as it always did, that she sat on a sliver of carbon fiber narrower than her body, inches above the water and that only her skill and determination kept her fragile craft from the water’s dark grasp.  But fear was good.”

Crombie’s thoughtful and suspenseful look at the Oxford rowing culture focuses on the disappearance of an Olympic caliber sculler, Becca Meredith, last seen out on the river.  This is an excellent police procedural, centering on her series characters, Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, but it’s also a meditation on power, control and obsession.  The fact that it’s wrapped up in a great story just makes it more of a standout.

Midnight in Peking, Paul French, Penguin, $26.00.

“The eastern section of old Peking has been dominated since the fifteenth century by a looming watchtower, built as part of the Tartar wall to protect the city from invaders.  Known as the Fox Tower, it was believed to be haunted by fox spirits, a superstition that meant the place was deserted at night.  After dark the area became the preserve of thousands of bats…”

This is a rare true crime addition to our list, an impossible to put down look at Peking in 1937, right before the Japanese invasion.  The gruesome death of wild girl Pamela Werner is investigated but as the looming Japanese takeover becomes apparent the case is more or less dropped, to be pursued only by Pamela’s grieving, obsessed and increasingly overlooked and ignored father.  The outcome is so unbelievable it could only be true, and French’s depiction of a society undergoing a brutal change is indelible.  This is also a beautiful volume, lovely to hold, with fabulous endpapers, maps, and photographs.

A Room Full of Bones, Elly Griffiths, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.00.

“The coffin is definitely a health and safety hazard.  It fills the entrance hall..The coffin’s wooden sides are swollen and rotten and look likely to disgorge their contents in a singularly gruesome manner.  Any visitors would find its presence unhelpful, not to say distressing.”

Can I just say without reservation that I love Elly Griffiths and Ruth Galloway, her archeologist detective?  This may be my favorite in her now four book series, with Ruth called in to a local museum for the unveiling of the long interred bones of a bishop.  The ceremony is ruined when the very recently dead museum curator is found instead, and Ruth is caught up in another archeological situation with complex family ties as well as archeological ones.   Griffiths writes with a light touch but her books have real resonance and meaning.  This lively novel is a delight from beginning to end.

Die a Stranger, Steve Hamilton. Minotaur, $25.99.

“The weather stayed picture perfect, like a consolation of pure sunlight on such a sad day.  There wasn’t a hint of trouble on the water.  But of course the trouble was there, just below the surface…No matter how beautiful the day, before you can do anything about it, without any warning at all.  The storm will come.”

Steve Hamilton makes it look easy, but a book this tight, this brutal, this dark and this fine tuned is a masterwork of smooth, concise writing.  This Alex outing involves the disappearance of his best pal Vinnie after his mother’s death, and the reappearance of Vinnie’s father.  As Alex and Vinnie’s father team up for a terrible chase all over Michigan hot on Vinnie’s trail, this is also, as it happens, a book about friendship and kinship and how those ties are forged and held.  One of the best in a stellar series.

Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand, Minotaur, $23.99.

“I caught a glimpse of myself in the dark window, a gaunt Valkyrie holding a spear taller than I was, teeth bared in a drunken grimace and eyes bloodshot from some redneck teenager’s ADD medication.

“Hey, ho, let’s go”, I said, and went.” – description of Cass Neary in Generation Loss

Elizabeth Hand has been a critically acclaimed and award winning fantasy/horror writer for awhile.  It’s a definite win for our genre that, somewhat to her surprise, her 2007 book Generation Loss turned out to be the first book in a mystery series,  The most notable attraction of this year’s Available Dark is series protagonist Cass Neary, a foul mouthed, morally challenged, damaged survivor of the punk era who is reluctantly pulled from decades of near hibernation only to find herself in the middle of some seriously nasty stuff.  But besides the compelling Cass, there’s plenty of deft plot and setting, Scandinavian death metal music, snuff photographs, and pure evil as well as some pretty darn profound themes.  It’s weird to talk about “discovering” an author who has written as many books as Hand has, but she has to go down as one of my favorite finds of 2012.  (Jamie)

A Killing in the Hills, Julia Keller, Minotaur, $24.99.

“She flinched, trembled.  This was the scene of a terrible crime, and the owl’s cry was a warning.  She did not return often, because there was nothing here.  Only the past.  And for that, she knew, she did not have to come back.  Because the past traveled with her.”

I was talked into Julia’s book by Hector DeJean at Minotaur, as I needed to fill a space at the Kerrytown BookFest last fall.  However, I was blown away when I read this novel, featuring county prosecutor Belfa Elkins.  When a mass shooting happens right in front of her teenage daughter at a fast food restaurant, Belfa is more than motivated to figure out what happened, and  as she unravels the crime, which is tied to drugs, family connections, friendships, and betrayal in a complicated mix, you can’t stop reading.  This crisply intelligent thriller is  also a bravura look at Appalachia, warts and all.  Belfa won’t be easily forgotten either.  This book calls to mind Sharyn McCrumb’s early entries in her great Ballad series.  Don’t miss this fabulous debut.

A Simple Murder, Eleanor Kuhns, Minotaur, $24.99.

“Suddenly aware of his pounding heart and of the blood throbbing in his ears, Rees took several deep breaths.  He forced himself to relax, listening to the lowing of the cattle and the faraway rooster crow. Gradually his thoughts scattered, and as the moon climbed into the sky he finally slept.”

Eleanor Kuhns’ first mystery set in 1796 and featuring traveling weaver Rees, is both a look at the then vital Shaker community, and at the world of post Revolutionary war America, with all the rapid change that comes with a post war culture.  Rees is looking for his runaway teenage son; he finds him inside a Shaker community.  The Shakers put Rees up and he takes a nearby weaving job, and stays when he’s asked to look into the murder of a Shaker sister.  This is a very traditional mystery, with an outsider detective, clues, and an actual summing up at the end.  What makes it special is Ms. Kuhns’ deft hand at characterization and her penetrating psychological insight, as well as a setting that’s hard to forget.  This is a wonderful debut.

Sacrifice Fly, Tim O’Mara, Minotaur, $24.99.

“I knew before I pushed the bedroom door all the way open what I’d find on the other side.  I knew it would take me somewhere I’d been before and hoped to never go again.  I should have turned around and gone home.  I opened the door anyway.”

What a kick ass debut novel – a new entry into the diminishing private eye field.  O’Mara’s central character, Ray,  is not actually a P.I. but a former cop who’s now a teacher, and he has the righteous anger of any teacher when something happens to one of his best students.  His student disappears and when Ray goes to look for him he finds instead the student’s dead father.  Ray is soon on the hunt with an over eager sidekick and the sometimes reluctant, sometimes grateful help of various members of the police department.  O’Mara creates a full universe inside one part of Brooklyn, crammed with memorable characters and a tight, well told story.  More please, Mr. O’Mara.

Valley of Ashes, Cornelia Read, Grand Central, $24.99.

“Sorrow is always your own, offering no temptation to the fickle gods.  Fucking joy, on the other hand? You might as well string your heart from the ceiling for use as a frat-party piñata.”

Some writers have the kind of voice that’s so distinctive and so original it rattles around in your head long after you finish the book.  Cornelia Read is just such a writer, and wherever she takes her character, Madeleine Dare, I’m more than happy to follow.  In this outing, Madeline has moved with her two toddler twin girls to unfamiliar Colorado, with a husband who is increasingly, and puzzlingly, distant.  At the same time she gets a part time job writing restaurant reviews for the local paper, but it really takes her on a path following a series of local arsons, one in her neighborhood.  The vivid reality Read brings to her pages may make a reader look up with a start when you realize you’re not actually there with her.  Funny, smart, sometimes heartbreaking, it’s a mistake to miss a single word this woman writes.

Before the Poison, Peter Robinson, William Morrow, $25.99.

“…Grace comported herself with great dignity throughout, and she never faltered in her steps or uttered a sound, except for a brief shudder and audible inhalation of breath when she first saw the rope.”

This is a ghost story, and it’s a great one.  A stand alone novel rather than one in Robinson’s classic Inspector Banks series, this book follows  recent widower Chris to the depths of the English countryside.  As he mourns his wife, he discovers that the house was owned during the war by a Dr. Ernest Fox, whose wife, Grace,  was convicted of poisoning him.  Haunted and obsessed by the shades of both his dead wife and the long dead Grace, Chris sets out to prove her innocence.  This is a haunting story, and it’s meant to get under your skin.  Robinson brings in details of Grace’s wartime experience and her marriage to Ernest that will make you as obsessed as he is to discover her guilt or innocence.  Beautifully, precisely, and intelligently written, this is a lovely book.

Also Notable

Tana French’s beautifully written, wrenching Broken Harbor; Gillian Flynn’s impossible to put down Gone Girl; Tabish Khair’s delicate and brilliant Victorian mystery, The Thing About Thugs; Louise Penny’s locked room mystery, set in a monastery, The Beautiful Mystery; William Kent Krueger’s look at friendship (good and bad), Trickster’s Point; D.E. Johnson’s third Detroit mystery set in the Eloise mental hospital, Detroit Breakdown; Bryan Gruley’s wrenching story of his main character’s relationship with his mother, The Skeleton Box; and Laura Lippman’s beautifully written, perceptive and suspenseful And When She Was Good.

Staff & Customer Faves

Always fun to see what the commonalities are here – one missing that was kind of the “book of the year” is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.  It’s well worth a look.  But here’s what many of you liked in common:  Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery; Deborah Crombie’s No Mark Upon Her; Elly Griffith’s A Room Full of Bones; Cornelia Read’s Valley of Ashes; S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep; Graham Moore’s The Sherlockian; Kwei Quartey’s Children of the Street, as well as various Tasha Alexander titles.

Marty Cignetti, Ace Assistant: As the Crow Flies, Craig Johnson; Prague Fatale, Philip Kerr; Ronin’s Mistress, Laura Joh Rowland; The Shirt on His Back, Barbara Hambly; The Fires of the Gods, I.J. Parker; Kill My Darling, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

Dianne Thomas, via Facebook:  rediscovery of Agatha Christie’s Murder in Retrospect

Linda Kimmel, Ann Arbor: A Room Full of Bones, Elly Griffiths; The Girl is Trouble, Kathryn Miller Haines; Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach, Colin Cotterill; No Mark Upon Her, Deborah Crombie; Mr. Churchill’s Secretary & Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal; The Beautiful Mystery, Louise Penny; Valley of Ashes, Cornelia Read; Death in a Floating City, Tasha Alexander.

Roxie Weaver, South Lyon: And When She Was Good, Laura Lippman; The Skeleton Box, Bryan Gruley; Die a Stranger, Steve Hamilton; Trickster’s Point, William Kent Krueger; Taken, Robert Crais; Wanted Man, Lee Child; Racketeer, John Grisham; Forgotten, David Baldacci; Affairs of Steak, Julie Hyzy; Cold Vengeance, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child.

Tori Booker, Ann Arbor:  The Sherlockian, Graham Moore; Before I go to Sleep, S.J. Watson; Wicked Autumn, G.M. Malliet; Children of the Street, Kwei Quartey.

Aline Clayton-Carroll, Ann Arbor:  A Bitter Truth, Charles Todd; Naughty in Nice, Rhys Bowen; Audition for Murder, P.M. Carlson; Season of Darkness, Maureen Jennings; Before the Poison, Peter Robinson; Case Histories, Kate Atkinson; Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House, M.C. Beaton; Murder in the Bastille, Cara Black; Blood on the Tongue, Stephen Booth.

Vicki Kondolik, Ann Arbor:  A Poisoned Season, Tasha Alexander: The Wrong Hill to Die on, Casey Donis; Killed at the Whim of a Hat, Colin Cotterill; Carnival for the Dead, David Hewson; Classified as Murder, Miranda James; Garment of Shadows, Laurie R. King; The Beautiful Mystery, Louise Penny; A Plague of Lies, Judith Rock; Ghost Hero, S.J. Rozan; The Queen’s Gambit, Diane A.S. Stuckart.

Shelagh Davis, Brighton:  The Affair & The Wanted Man, Lee Child; No Mark Upon Her, Deborah Crombie; The House at Sea’s End & A Room Full of Bones, Elly Griffiths; The Curse of the Jade Lily, David Housewright; Death Comes to Pemberly, P.D. James; The Beautiful Mystery, Louise Penny; The Other Woman, Hank Phillippi Ryan; Elegy for Eddie, Jacqueline Winspear.

Lisa Arnsdorf, Hawaii:  Unknown, Mari Jungstedt; White Lioness, Henning Mankell; Children of the Street, Kwei Quartey; The House at Sea’s End, Elly Griffiths; The Likeness, Tana French; The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes, Marcus Sakey; A Poisoned Season, Tasha Alexander; The Surgeon, Tess Gerritsen; The Sherlockian, Graham Moore; Night of the Living Deed, E.J. Cooperman; Moscow Rules; Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson.

Angel Connors, Jackson: A Beautiful Mystery, Louise Penny; I Am Half Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley.

Vani Katta, Ann Arbor: Gone for Good, Harlan Coben.

Jan Burgess, Ann Arbor:  A Simple Murder, Eleanor Kuhns; The Coroner’s Lunch, Colin Cotterill.

Maureen Mulligan, via Facebook: Junkyard Dogs, Craig Johnson.

Ariel Zeitlin Cooke, via Facebook: Broken Harbor, Tana French; Valley of Ashes, Cornelia Read.