“The Last Best Book” is my occasional post on a favorite recent read — playing on one of Montana’s many nicknames, The Last Best Place. A handful were published in 2016; others go back a few years. I’ve included audio books—yes, listening to a book is reading it, albeit a different experience. And I love audios—the narrators create their own worlds for me, and I get to read books, especially nonfiction, that I might not otherwise pick up.
Of 57 titles, including 46 novels or story collections, 18 were published in 2016 and 13 in 2015. (One will come out in 2017.) Yay—I’m catching up! No doubt I’ll still have read like a demon this spring to be ready to vote for the Agatha Awards, especially since only one of those 2016 titles was a first book. But books from earlier years rose to the top as well, so I’m listing my faves, in no particular order, regardless of when they were published.
The Last Bus to Wisdom, Ivan Doig (2015) Alas, the last novel by the great Montana writer, but a fitting end to a storied career. IMO, Doig was at his best when writing in the voice of a young boy—here, Donal Cameron, age 11, sent by “dog bus” (the Greyhound) from north-central Montana to a great-aunt he’s never met in Wisconsin, in 1951. Part road trip, part buddy story, part coming–of-age novel, with Doig’s keen eye and ear—pure delight.
The Orphan Train, Cristina Baker Kline (2013) An intriguing snippet of history, with a surprising modern parallel.
Whistling Past the Graveyard, Susan Crandall (2014) Hmm. The third historical coming-of-age novel on the list. A different time and place—Mississippi, 1963—but just as powerful.
Little Pretty Things (2015) and The Day I Died (2017), Lori Rader-Day. The winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award for 2015 is a major new talent.
Wilde Lake, Laura Lippman (2016) Not sure whether I’m more impressed by the story or its structure. Masterful.
The Ex, Alafair Burke (2016) Smart and wicked—a great combo.
Down River, John Hart (2007, audio) and A Killing at Cotton Hill, Terry Shames (2013) Two authors who deserve to be better known. Set in North Carolina (Hart) and Texas (Shames), both books convey their authors’ love of the land as well as their deep understanding of crime and family.
Two fun historical mysteries: Murder in Morningside Heights, Victoria Thompson (2016), the 15th or 16th Gaslight Mystery, and Delivering the Truth, Edith Maxwell (2016), the first Quaker Midwife Mystery.
And I’m finally catching up with Deborah Crombie and Jacqueline Winspear, reading several books by each this year, every one a true joy.
A special mention for a short story collection, All the Wrong Places, by Molly Giles (2015). Giles’ stories are smart, funny, with an amazing range and dialogue that makes my writerly heart churn with envy. I met Molly this past summer on a perfect evening on a friend’s deck overlooking the Swan River, and am so happy that I liked the stories as much as I like the woman herself!
What were your favorite reads of the past year?