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.