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.