The Last Best Book — Top Reads of 2017

The Last Best Book — an occasional series highlighting books I’ve loved. 

It’s a bit disheartening to see how many books on my 2017 reading list were published in 2015 or 2016 — I’m always playing catch-up! But I suspect you are, too, so my list of top reads in 2017 isn’t confined to those actually published in 2017.

Best Mysteries (in no particular order):

Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz (2017) Horowitz created two much-loved mystery series for British TV, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, and his knowledge of the genre helps make this mystery-within-a-mystery smart, clever, and fun. I read it over the holiday break, and the cat was thrilled because it actually kept me in my chair for hours at a time.

Fogged Inn, Barbara Ross (2016) One of the best contemporary cozy series. In this installment, Ross sets herself a well-met challenge and flips a convention of the genre in a surprising but utterly satisfying way.

Wicked Girls, Alex Marwood (2012) I went searching for books that wove together past and present story lines, and this was one of the best. The ending still chills me — not for physical horror but for its internal impact on the protagonist.

Sunburn, Laura Lippman (2018) Watch for this book, a bit of a departure for Lippman, in February.

Best First Mystery: Hollywood Homicide, Kellye Garrett (2017) Not your typical cozy — more caperish, with a fun premise and an appealing protagonist.

Best Other Fiction: Not surprisingly, all three weave together past and present story lines, although the lapse of time varies from several hundred years to just a few months.

Truly, Madly, Guilty, Liane Moriarty (2016) If you enjoy audio books, this performance will knock your socks off.

The Savage Garden, Mark Mills (2008) Travel by armchair from 1958 England to Italy in 1958, at the end of WW II, and during the Renaissance. Pop the cork on a nice Italian wine and be doubly happy.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes, Jamie Ford (2017) Did you know Seattle hosted two worlds fairs, in 1909 and 1962? Ernest, an accidental immigrant at four who becomes houseboy to an infamous madam, then loyal husband and father, attended both. Ford, author of The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, really shines in the voice of a young boy.

Here’s to another happy year of reading! What were your favorites of 2017?

The Last Best Book — Musselled Out and Fogged Inn, by Barbara Ross

The latest in an occasional series of books that turn my crank, and which I think you’ll like, too.

Product DetailsMusselled Out (2015) and Fogged Inn (2016) by Barbara Ross (Kensington Books), the 3d and 4th in the Maine Clam Bake mysteries. I love this series. Barb Ross is writing some of the smartest cozies around. Julia Snowden took a break from her career in venture capital in NYC to return to her Maine hometown to help her widowed mother, sister, and brother-in-law brink the family’s clambake business back from the brink. She’s succeeded, but not without personal peril, murder, and unexpected romance. In Musselled Out, her boss’s patience is running out, and she’s got to decide whether to stay—while investigating the death of a potential competitor, the disappearance of a local lobsterman, and the strange doings of her own mother.

Product DetailsObviously, she stayed, or there would be no fourth book! In Fogged Inn, Julia investigates a death that appears to be closely linked to four couples determined to deny any connection with the dead man—or each other. Fogged Inn explores old friendships and new tensions. The author set herself two challenges—one obvious on the first page, the other on the last—and meets them both beautifully. This book is nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel, and deservedly. I’m in awe. (Next up: Iced Under, published in December 2016.)

The Last Best Reads—My Favorite Books of 2016

IMGP1761“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? 

The Last Best Book — Down River, by John Hart

The latest in an occasional series of comments on books that knocked my socks off!

DOWN RIVER, John Hart (St. Martin’s, 2007, audio 2011), winner of the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Mystery

I was given this audio book years ago at a Bouchercon, the international mystery convention, and stashed it in the console of my car for later listening. There it sat until late last summer, when I had an audio emergency—I had finished my last audio book and the library was closed, so I couldn’t sneak in for another before heading over the mountains to visit my elderly mother.

This was just the book I needed.

Adam Chase is about to turn 30 and he’s headed home to the North Carolina farm that’s been in his family since before the war—the Revolutionary War. Only a few people will welcome the young man with a streak of violence who left after being acquitted of murder—in a trial in which his own stepmother testified against him. Now there’s another murder, and the secrets come rushing down the river, threatening to sweep all the family away.

Hart portrays emotional tension beautifully, and the mystery itself is solid. Where he really shines is the interconnection between character and setting. I felt like I knew Red Water Farm, because of the way it defines the lives of Adam, his father, a close family friend, and other characters.

If like me, you’ve heard Hart’s name but haven’t read him, do. The King of Lies (2006), was a finalist for the Edgar for Best First Novel, and The Last Child (2009) also won the Edgar for Best Mystery. His books have been nominated for and received several other awards as well. His fifth book, Redemption Road, came out in May, 2016.

The Last Best Book — The Masquerading Magician, by Gigi Pandian

The latest in an occasional series of comments on books that knocked my socks off!

THE MASQUERADING MAGICIAN, by Gigi Pandian (Midnight Ink, 2016), second in the Accidental Alchemist series

Zoe Faust, an herbalist and tea shop owner in Portland, Oregon, looks good for her age—roughly 350 years old. As a teenager cast out of Salem, Massachusetts for suspected witchcraft, she used her plant craft in an attempt to save her dying brother, and accidentally discovered the Elixir of Life which made her immortal. Now she’s desperate to save another life, that of Dorian, the Parisian gourmet gargoyle who lives with her, while solving a murder at a magic show and discovering the truth behind a famous theft of jewels more than fifty years ago that have never been recovered—until now.

Pandian achieves something particularly challenging—and delightful—in The Masquerading Magician. She creates an alternate world that is completely credible and compelling—and presents it quickly, clearly, and credibly in book two. Readers new to the series, as I was, will grasp the unique elements of this world and accept them, while readers who’ve read book one, The Accidental Alchemist, won’t feel weighed down by repetitive details. Short snippets from the 1850s to 1880s in Paris, in the world of cathedral sculpture, alchemy, and magic, are used with great effect.

I’ll be reading book one soon, so I can be ready for book three, which I’m fairly sure will take us to Paris!

The Last Best Book — Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman

The latest in an occasional series of books that knock my socks off! (Although in this fall weather, I’ve had to put them back on, darn it!)

WILDE LAKE by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, 2016)

Luisa Brandt is the newly-elected State’s Attorney in Howard County, Maryland, the same position her father once held. He’s still described as “beloved,” and Lu feels that label as burden, challenge, and comfort. But her first murder trial in her new job will shake everything she thinks she knows about herself and her family.

Lippman’s recent standalones often weave together a contemporary storyline and an older one. In WILDE LAKE, as in AFTER I’M GONE, the present-day story covers a short period and the investigation of a present-day crime with ties to long-ago events that are played out over years, even decades. Lippman handles the time shifts beautifully, and she captures the 1970s and 1980s with exactly the right details.

Few authors are smarter about observing women in modern culture, and the struggles we often face because of our social roles.

I read this book in audio. The two narrators—one for the current-day story, one for the historic chapters—have distinctive, clear styles that drew me in and kept me good company on a long drive over the mountains and back.

The Last Best Book — The Last Death of Jack Harbin

last-death-225-shadowAn occasional series in which I share a recent read I loved. 

The Last Death of Jack Harbin: A Samuel Craddock Mystery by Terry Shames (Seventh Street Books, 2014)

I picked this book up for two reasons: Author Terry Shames was the moderator for a panel discussion on small town crime that I participated in at the Left Coast Crime mystery convention in Portland, March 12-15, and I like to be familiar with the work of others on the panel. And her first book, A Killing at Cotton Hill, won the 2014 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery and was nominated for the 2013 Left Coast Crime Best First award. As a Best First winner myself (Death al Dente won the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First novel), I love reading other new writers.

But even before I met her, I knew Terry Shames was an old hand. Why she hadn’t been published before, I have no idea, but this is a writer with great control. Samuel Craddock is the retired police chief of Jarrett Creek, Texas, a fairly recent widow with a bad knee and a reputation as a kind man who gets to the bottom of things. In The Last Death of Jack Harbin, we meet a cast of characters who have run up against some of life’s rougher edges. Some respond better than others, of course, letting their scars make them more human, gentler rather than harsher. It’s this variety of responses that I most enjoyed in Shames’ novel.

I have not been to Texas, but I feel I know Jarrett Creek. People are people pretty much everywhere, but they have their own local variations, and Shames portrays them clearly—they are recognizable without being cliched. Small town relationships and routines, the importance of high school sports even 20 plus years later, the military veterans, the religious fanatics, the men and women who fall beneath the cracks and the men and women who pick them up. They’re all here.

As I said, control is the Shames’ hallmark. There’s a little violence, yes, but only what’s needed. Emotion, setting, clear and vibrant language, backstory—we’re given pretty much all we need to understand these characters, and nothing superfluous. The mystery is solid; the secrets of the past keep coming. And Samuel Craddock is a crackerjack of a character.

Take the trip to Jarrett Creek. If you like a good mystery, I think you’ll be glad you did.

The Last Best Book — Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger

—the latest in an occasional series of raves about books I love—

Ordinary Grace

Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger (Atria Books, 2013)

Last May, I gave a book talk at a rural library about 50 miles from my home. I was just back from Malice Domestic, and the staff, Friends of the Library, and patrons helped me celebrate my Agatha win. Naturally, we talked about other Agatha winners, and the winners of the Edgar Awards, which had been given out a few days before Malice. One woman confessed her dismay that her favorite author, Louise Penny, had not won the Edgar Award for Best Novel for How the Light Gets In. She’d immediately bought the winning book, Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, convinced that it could not possibly deserve the award. She read it in two nights, and now has two favorite authors.

Took me a little longer to get to it. My friend was right, and I too now have another favorite author.

Less a crime novel than a coming-of-age story exploring the effects of death—both accidental and criminal—on a family and on a community, Ordinary Grace is simply stunning. Thirteen year old Frank Drum tells the story of the five deaths in the summer of 1961 in a small Minnesota town, each different, each leaving a permanent mark that makes Frank a different man than he might otherwise have become. He’s the son of a minister, whose experience in the war diverted him from his plans to be a lawyer, and a musician who is not as keen on God as her husband is. Frank’s older sister Ariel is a brilliant musician; his younger brother Jake is both his best friend and a bit of a mystery.

The language is beautiful, but because Krueger is also a mystery writer, it never overwhelms the story, but always serves character and plot.

I read the audio version. (And yes, I read audio books. It is a different experience, but it’s still reading, even though it uses the ears and not the eyes.) The narrator did a terrific job, infusing Frank’s  narration with just the right mixture of knowing and innocence. He also slipped in a bit of the Minnesota accent—but not too much—and captured beautifully the way a Sioux man of Warren Redstone’s age would speak.

I’m so glad my friend in Ronan read this book and recommended it to me. Now I’m recommending it to you.

(I got this book from my local library.)

The Last Best Book — Ten Poems to Change Your Life

— being an occasional series, when a book really strikes me —

I’m not sure how I discovered Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden (Harmony Books/Random House, 2001), but to whomever first brought it to my eyes, my thanks. This is the first in a series of Ten Poems books, all compiled by Housden — an Englishman now living near San Francisco — with marvelous commentary.  Of course, it helps that he starts with “The Journey” by Mary Oliver, from Dream Work, given to me by my dear friend, poet Kelly Elizabeth Allen, shortly after it was published in 1986. But Housden also gives us less familiar poems, all deeply inspiring — and a little bit surprising.

(FTC disclosure: I got this book from the library and the author and I have never met.)