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Best of...

Best of 2007

This year, while I usually stick to just ten titles, I have chosen eleven because I just couldn't cut it down any further! I also have an "honorable mention" section - it was hard to pare this group down. Whatever your taste there should be something for every type of reader to enjoy on this list.

The Song is You, Megan Abbott, Simon & Schuster, $14.00.

The Song Is You by Megan 
     Abbott

"She's not interested in me, he reminded himself. Sometimes, with these actresses, after a cavalcade of getting-to-know-you drinks, he'd forget. Barbara Payton, for example, had two tastes: dull-eyed muscle men and flush, faux-ivy debonairs. He was a long way from either."
- from The Song is You

Megan Abbott is a truly original voice in mystery fiction. This noir novel is set in 50's Hollywood, and exposes a very seamy side of the movie business. We follow slick PR man Gil "Hop" Hopkins through the novel as he unravels the secret of starlet Jean Spangler's disappearance. No-one is free of corruption in this book; everyone is touched by it, and I think one of the more interesting things about this novel (along with the lovely prose) are the various reactions of the characters to both the corruption and the glamour that surrounds them. Brilliantly taking the tiny shreds of a true story (there was a Jean Spangler, and she really did disappear) Abbott takes the pieces and makes her own delirious, almost hallucinogenic reality, along the way filling in the dreamy details of the 50's.

The Conjurer, Cordelia Frances Biddle, St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95.

The Conjurer by Cordelia 
      Frances Biddle

"The two dogs stare down into the river. In their intense concentration, they neither move nor whimper, while their brown fur, wet and bemired with hunting, appears all of one color with the earth like two animate objects formed from the flinty Pennsylvania soil. The older dog shivers and finally relinquishes his post..."
- from The Conjurer

I admit it, I picked this book up for its gorgeous cover, but there's so much more inside. Biddle is a writer of great complexity and surprising darkness. She paints a picture of 1842 Philadelphia, using as her focal point the innocent Martha Beale, whose father has vanished and who is presumed dead. Martha is completely believable as a denizen of 1842; she's never anachronistically out of period in her behavior. This is a wonderful recreation of the time with many plot threads that are neatly tied up by the end of the novel. The way this woman writes makes me think of two other very gifted historical authors, Kate Ross and Bruce Alexander. Even better, it makes me remember in December what I enjoyed about this book back in February.

Yesterday's Fatal, Jan Brogan, St Martin's Minotaur, $24.95.

Yesterday's Fatal 
      by Jan Brogan

"The road narrowed, and the trees grew fuller to form a canopy that blocked out the sky. The only source of illumination came from the weak headlights of my Honda and I knew that the Wendy's I'd remembered was nothing more than a wishful thought, a bladder mirage."
- from Yesterday's Fatal

Jan Brogan hasn't had quite the career her talent deserves; this is her third novel and third publisher. Hopefully St. Martin's will provide a happy home for journalist Hallie Ahern and her creator. Set in a richly detailed Providence, R.I. ( reminiscent of Estleman's Detroit or Lippman's Baltimore), Hallie is a journalist on the edge. She's on the edge of recovering from a gambling problem; she's on the edge of being laid off as the paper downsizes; and she's teetering on the edge of a relationship. The book starts off with a bang as Hallie witnesses a car accident, and her subsequent investigation leads her into a tangled web of insurance fraud and high level political corruption. This is a very dark book and it's also a very well written one. Brogan deserves the same mention that some of her male brethren are receiving, because she's walking the same territory as they are. This book is a delightful discovery.

Her Royal Spyness, Rhys Bowen, Berkley Prime Crime, $23.95.

Her Royal Spyness 
     by Rhys Bowen

"There are...disadvantages to being a minor royal...one is expected to behave as befits a member of the ruling family, without being given the means to do so."
- from Her Royal Spyness

When I first saw the cover of this book and heard the concept behind it I was very put off - I wasn't so sure I even wanted to read it. I shouldn't have doubted Bowen for a minute; one of the very best pure narrative storytellers in the business, she takes the slightly fluffy premise of a very minor royal, makes her work for her income, takes her to tea with Queen Mary (this is set in London in the 30's), and makes it totally original. It's funny, the characters are great, the social history is light but solid, and the story is terrific. It avoids the first-in-a-new-series feeling of being a set up for further books and stands nicely on its own, while still making you look forward to the next installment. A complete delight.

The White Corridor, Christopher Fowler, Bantam, $24.00.

The White Corridor 
    by Christopher Fowler

"My dear chap..everyone is younger and fitter than us. What have we got on our side? Decrepitude, mid-afternoon narcoleptic attacks, and ill-timed lapses of memory."
- from The White Corridor

I think all of Christopher Fowler's books, featuring the Peculiar Crimes Unit in a decayed and forgotten building in London, are ridiculously enjoyable. His obvious love for the genre allows him to build on the conventional tropes with a great deal of wit and intelligence. I found this entry particularly enjoyable as it features not just one, but two, locked room mysteries. One of the deaths occurs in the locked morgue; the other in a line up of cars stuck in a blizzard. Unfortunately for the murderer, two of his / her fellow stranded motorists are the heroes of the series, the elderly Bryant and May. Bryant and May are in communication with the unit back in London, giving them help with their case, while the London unit in return supplies Bryant and May with necessary information. The whole enterprise is made far more enjoyable by the looming visit of a particularly unpleasant and minor royal who is due to inspect the unit and perhaps give an unfavorable report back to the higher ups that it should be shut down. As always in a Fowler novel, nothing that is expected actually happens. Settle in for a wonderful read.

The Mortal Groove, Ellen Hart, St. Martin's Minotaur, $25.95.

"...you know that saying I hear people use every now and then. About ‘getting their groove on,' or getting their ‘groove back.' It was like we were in our own kind of groove over there - a mortal groove. Death...was our reality."
- from The Mortal Groove

Ellen Hart's skill sets are so varied it's hard to know where to start. One of course is her talent as a pure mystery writer, from the point of view of a tricky plot, fair clues, and even the occasional red herring. One is her talent with creating character; all of her characters are memorable and even better, she makes you care about them. This novel encompasses so wide a canvas it could almost be called an epic, though clocking in at just 350+ pages it's simply a ripping good story that's hard to put down. This Jane Lawless installment deals with Jane's father, Ray, who is running for governor, and some of the unsavory things his campaign manager and friends got into back in 1971 after returning from Vietnam. That experience created an unbreakable bond between the three disparate men, but it's a bond that's tested to the limit when the most unsavory of the three turns up in Minneapolis for a "visit". As the plot deepens in complexity, it takes in Jane's friend Cordelia's grief at losing her niece Hattie to her sister; and her brother Peter's struggles as he loses his job and looks for a lost child. Peter's struggle is the most meaningful, as it's actually his struggle to find himself. As Peter's story becomes entwined with the story of the three Vietnam vets, Hart ratchets up the suspense and tension. This is a remarkable novel, full of emotion, depth and a complexity of plot that shouldn't be missed by any devotee of the contemporary traditional mystery. There are really few, if any, better practitioners than Ellen Hart.

Thunder Bay, William Kent Krueger, Atria, $24.00.

Thunder Bay by William 
     Kent Krueger

"The biggest word in the human vocabulary has only four letters and no definition that's ever been adequate. We love our dogs. We love our children. We love God and chocolate cake. We fall in love and fall out of love. We die for love and we kill for love. We can't spend it. We can't eat it when we're starving or drink it when we're dying of thirst. It's no good against the bitter cold of winter, and a cheap electric fan will do more for you on a hot summer day. But ask most human beings what they value above all else in this life and, five'll get you ten, it's love."
- from Thunder Bay

I keep thinking I shouldn't include Krueger on this list every year, but I guess he would have to stop writing such great books. Thunder Bay is actually one of the strongest books in a brilliant series; Cork O'Connor goes on a search for his friend Henry Meloux's son, and meanwhile we as readers learn about Henry's life, making it absolutely unnecessary to have read any of the previous novels to appreciate this one. Henry's past life, full of surprising violence and affections, is told with the typical Krueger skill in drawing the reader in to the world of his characters and also placing the reader into a fully realized, and beautifully portrayed, setting. He may be one of the best writers about nature working at the moment. Included is a subtheme about the various parts love plays in all our lives; there's a paragraph toward the very end that's so lovely I re-read it frequently (and one of my customers told me she has it laminated and on her refrigerator).

What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman, William Morrow, $24.95.

What the Dead Know by 
      Laura Lippman

"You're only as happy as your unhappiest child."
- from What the Dead Know

Laura Lippman is such a good writer she makes the complex look easy. This book is so smoothly written and goes down so well you won't notice until you finish it that its plot is complicated and the characterizations are exquisite - they just feel so "right" it's almost like reading about real life. The story is about two sisters who disappear in the 70's, and when one of them reappears in the present, Lippman details so perfectly the ripple effect the girl's absence has had in the lives of everyone they touched that you won't be able to look away. This is the only book on this list that actually made me gasp in surprise when I got to the end - but Lippman had set the whole thing up so well I really shouldn't have. This book is entering Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine territory in terms of its psychological astuteness - though Lippman has more of a heart. She's not as bleak - and that's a good thing. This is a book you won't forget for a long, long time.

Maiden Rock, Mary Logue, Bleak House, Cloth, $24.95, Tradepaper, $14.95.

Maiden Rock by Mary 
    Logue

(Cloth)
(Paperback) "The moon was blastingly bright and she could easily see her way. She felt powerful, with that cool night vision where everything was clear, in focus. The heart of the earth pulsed. Everything connected to her, moved through her. There was nothing she couldn't do."
- from Maiden Rock

This is the sixth novel by Logue about Deputy Sheriff Claire Watkins of tiny Pepin County, Wisconsin. Claire left the Twin Cities to escape the crime that killed her husband, and has raised a daughter and met a new man in the form of pheasant farmer Rich. This book really is about Claire's teenage daughter Meg, who is dealing not only with the uncertainty and turmoil of simply being a teenager, but with the sudden death of her best friend. This is a horrifying look at drug use in rural America, as well as a deep and complex look at family loyalty, friendship, and just plain growing up and the issues of trust that come with it. It's a completely rocket powered read - I was unable to put it down. There are few writers better than Logue at creating memorable characters, and this is one of her very best books.

Bloodshot, Stuart MacBride, St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95.

Bloodshot by Stuart 
   MacBride

Aberdeen is where "we murder more people, per head of population, than the whole of England and Wales combined."
- Stuart MacBride

MacBride doesn't miss a beat in Bloodshot, the latest entry in his excellent Aberdeen, Scotland based series featuring Detective Sergeant Logan McRae. In the beginning of the book Logan's girlfriend Constable Jackie "Ball Breaker" Watson lives up to her nickname while busting a suspected serial rapist. When that suspect turns out to be a popular football star with a seemingly unshakeable alibi who calls upon the services of a despicable solicitor and the sympathies of a gullible public, things, as usual, get complicated. McRae's personal life gets complicated too, as a misunderstanding with Jackie causes him to finally act on his long suppressed attraction for Rachael Tulloch, the deputy Procurator Fiscal. MacBride combines the mundane, the horrific and the ridiculous skillfully to produce another enormously satisfying read. Along with Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Denise Mina, MacBride is a leading figure in a Scottish crime wave that's producing some of the best mysteries in the world. The writing in this series is always great and the weather in Aberdeen is always awful.

A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny, St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95.

A Fatal Grace by 
   Louise Penny

"Crie knew from long experience that it was always the things you didn't see that were the scariest. And what Crie didn't see broke her heart." - from A Fatal Grace

I admit it, I'm smitten by Louise Penny. I absolutely loved her first novel Still Life and was just as taken by the second, the story of the death of the world's nastiest woman and most horrible mother in a freak curling accident. The setting is again the idyllic Three Pines, with all its wonderful inhabitants, and the police work is once again carried out by the wonderful Armand Gamache, a re-visitation in contemporary form of Inspector Maigret. I have talked with many, many readers about these books; we all wish that we could actually live in Three Pines. Far from painting herself into a corner, Penny has been able to change up the formula from the first book to make the second quite different from the first, but just as terrific. A bravura sophomore effort from a very talented and welcome addition to the mystery world. And, as a bonus, her prose is pure poetry.

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Also Notable:

Donna Andrews' funny, completely delightful The Penguin Who Knew Too Much; David Ellis' twisty, edge of your seat, intelligent thriller, Eye of the Beholder; the always excellent P.J. Parrish turns in another exciting thriller, A Thousand Bones, this time set in Michigan; and Jeff Cohen's affectionate and funny look at the movies, Some Like it Hot-Buttered. Cohen's is the first in a new series.

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Staff & Customer Picks

Common titles on these picks: The Virgin of Small Plains, Nancy Pickard; A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny; The Song is You, Megan Abbott; Jar City, Arnaldur Indridson; The Cold Dish, Craig Johnson; and Her Royal Spyness, Rhys Bowen, with the talented Megan Abbott perhaps getting the most (and most passionate) votes.

Marty, Ace Assistant: Thunder Bay, William Kent Krueger; Island of Exiles, I.J. Parker; Silence of the Grave, Arnaldur Indridson; Never End, Ake Edwardson; What's So Funny?, Donald E. Westlake.

Linda, Ann Arbor: The Virgin of Small Plains, Nancy Pickard.

Bennet, Ann Arbor: Pursuit and Nightlife, Thomas Perry; The Cold Dish, Craig Johnson; Total Chaos, Jean Claude Izzo

Vicki, Ann Arbor: The Tale of Hawthorn House, Susan Wittig Albert; Murder with Peacocks, Donna Andrews; Her Royal Spyness, Rhys Bowen; Jar City, Arnaldur Indridason; Tonight I Said Goodbye, Michael Koryta; The Railway Viaduct, Edward Marston; We Shall Not Sleep, Anne Perry; Dissolution, C.J. Sansom; The Case Against My Brother, Libby Sternberg (this is a YA title); and Find Me Again, Sylvia Warsh.

Roxie, Ypsilanti: Bad Luck and Trouble, Lee Child; Wheel of Darkness, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child; Sweet Revenge, Diane Mott Davidson; A Thousand Bones, P.J. Parrish; A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny; The Conjurer, Cordelia Frances Biddle; and A Welcome Grave, Michael Koryta.

Maria, North Carolina: End in Tears, Ruth Rendell; Diamond Dust, Peter Lovesey; The Blade Itself, Marcus Sakey; The Chalon Heads, Barry Maitland; The Secret Hangman, Peter Lovesey; The Companion, Ann Granger; Silent in the Grave, Deanna Raybourn; The Various Haunts of Men, Susan Hill; Cold Granite, Stuart MacBride; and Red Leaves, Thomas Cook.

Catie, Grand Rapids: Still Life & A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny, "new favorite author"; The Song is You, Megan Abbott, "great noir"; The Burnt House, Faye Kellerman, "main characters standing the test of time"; Thunder Bay, William Kent Krueger, "learning about Henry Meloux in depth is great"; Night Work, Steve Hamilton, "a great new character - I didn't even miss the series".

Patti, Arizona: A Deeper Sleep, Dana Stabenow; The Song is You, Megan Abbott; The Cold Dish, Craig Johnson; Shell Game, Sarah R. Shaber; Queenpin, Megan Abbott; A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny; and Trunk Music, Michael Connelly.

Angel, Jackson: A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny; Her Royal Spyness, Rhys Bowen; Jar City, Arnaldur Indridson; The Virgin of Small Plains, Nancy Pickard; Still as Death, Sarah Stewart Taylor; The Tomb of Zeus, Barbara Cleverly; The Song is You and Queenpin, by Megan Abbott.

Tori, Ann Arbor: The Virgin of Small Plains, Nancy Pickard; Dead Midnight, Marcia Muller, "good to read one of hers after a long hiatus"; Dissolution, C.J. Sansom, "so well written"; and Hunting the Witch, Ellen Hart.

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"But Bosch thought it didn't really matter if you died cornered in a butcher shop or on an overlook glimpsing the lights of heaven. You were gone and the finale wasn't the part that mattered. We are all circling the drain, he thought. Some are closer to the black hole than others. Some will see it coming and some will have no clue when the undertow of the whirlpool grabs them and pulls them down into darkness forever.

The important thing is to fight it, Bosch told himself. Always keep kicking. Always keep fighting the undertow."
-from The Overlook, by Michael Connelly

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