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