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.