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Best of...

Best of 2008

Our annual top 10 list always is full of surprises — it's the distillation of a fun journey of a year's reading. There should be something on this list for almost every taste — happy reading! The books are listed alphabetically by author.

Master of the Delta, Thomas H. Cook, Harcourt, $24.00.

Master of the Delta by Thomas H. Cook

On that particular night I found him seated in a large brocade chair that like everything else in the house seemed larger than human life could adequately sustain.

The first element that always draws me into a Thomas Cook novel is his magnificent prose. Lush and musical, it's the perfect vehicle for his tales of buried sin and hidden guilt which often take place in the oldest and most haunted parts of our country. Set in a small town in the Mississippi Delta in 1954, it's narrated by Jack Branch, the scion of an upper crust family, who, from a somewhat condescending sense of duty, has, like his father before him, become a teacher in the local public high school. Deeply interested in the concept of evil in an academic way, he soon encounters it in actuality. Events in Master of the Delta unfold in intriguing ways, the book concluding with one of Cook's trademark twists, at once completely unexpected and totally logical. With his complex prose and almost overwhelming sense of the tragic, Cook may not appeal to readers who like their mysteries light and inconsequential, but those who aren't afraid of the dark will appreciate his masterful handling of every literary element and savor Master of the Delta as much as I did. (Jamie)

Gas City, Loren D. Estleman, Forge, $24.95.

Gas City by Loren D. Estleman

There was little enough of him in his son, apart from the uncanny physical resemblance: the truck driver's build in the thousand dollar suit, the big, barber-shaven face, the ridge of black hair that glistened like a phonograph record. It even had the grooves.

One of the many great things about Loren D. Estleman is that he's not afraid to write a flat out private eye novel, and it's his unapologetic embrace of genre that paradoxically allows his books to transcend genre. But as Gas City proves, he's equally capable of writing a flat out novel. This is a work that the author has been thinking about a long time and it shows. Gas City is about power and honesty and how hard it is for the two to co-exist in the modern world. It reminds me of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key or the very best of John O'Hara in that it expertly dramatizes characters from many layers of society, all the way from streetwalker to mayor and every social level in between. Among the many, many good books Loren has written, I believe Gas City will stand among the very best. (Jamie)

Madman on a Drum, David Housewright, St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95.

Madman on a Drum by David Housewright

I've become much better at evaluating men since my third divorce,” she said.

Neither of us believed that for a moment.

Housewright, an author who should be as well known as P.I. heavyweights like Robert Crais and Robert B. Parker, is an original, entertaining and completely engaging writer. I've enjoyed every book in this series about Mac MacKenzie, an unlikely millionaire who uses his money for good. He's the absolute epitome of the P.I. “White Knight” trope, but it surprisingly doesn't feel a bit like a gimmick. One of the strongest entries in the series, Madman is almost two novels in one — the first part concerns the kidnaping of Mac's goddaughter; the second part is the solving of the kidnaping, a crime tied to Mac's past. Both parts not only dovetail neatly, both are impossible to stop reading. Housewright's impressive command of character, plot and place (these are set in St. Paul, Minnesota) as well as a way with a quip should earn him a place at the table with Elvis and Spencer. If you haven't yet discovered him you're in for a treat.

Red Knife, William Kent Krueger, Atria Books, $24.00.

Red Knife by William Kent Krueger

They left the clearing, left their enemy unburied, left the bodies and pieces of bodies to be eaten by the scavengers of the forest. In the stories the Anishinaabeg would tell of this battle, they would call the clearing Miskwaamookomaan — Red Knife — for the color that flowed across their blades on that triumphant autumn morning.

Krueger hasn't yet broken an impressive streak - one of the longest and best in series history, as far as I can tell. Each Cork O'Connor book is a fully realized novel, but each one is different enough from the one before it (and from all the others) that it can be enjoyed on it's own. The additional emotional power that comes from the depth of characterization an author is able to supply in a long running series is undeniable. If last year's wonderful Thunder Bay was a meditation on love, Red Knife is a meditation on violence, in all its awful forms. The wrenching ending, and Cork's involvement in the denouement, will probably leave you thinking for a long time to come after you finish the book. As I mentioned, if you've read all of these books, Cork is probably practically a real person to you as a reader, and you'll be forced inside his head and inside his behavior and made to think about it. It's everything I like in a book — a great story, wonderful characters, and a non stop plot that also makes you think. Oh, and the prose is beautiful too.

The Shanghai Tunnel, Sharan Newman, Forge, $24.95.

Emily enjoyed her stroll down to Second Street. The drizzle seemed to soften the rough edges of the town. It was like seeing the world through a silver curtain. There was a tang in the air that made her feel as if she were waking from a long and confusing dream.

For straight up fun this is the book I'd recommend to anyone, but especially to any lover of historical mysteries. Newman, long one of the best narrative storytellers in the business, begins a new series set in 1860's Portland, Oregon, featuring recently (and somewhat happily widowed) Emily Stratton, who has just come back to America from China and is trying to figure out how to live as an American. She's also a partner in her husband's business, a business which appears more troubling the more she knows about it. Not only that, she's bedeviled by the wild behavior of her son - the servants know he's not perfect, but Emily is a little clueless about him. As usual all the threads are held lightly in Newman's capable hands - you'll learn something while you're reading but you won't notice, you'll just want to find out what happens next. I devoutly hope there will be a second book in this series.

The Cruellest Month, Louise Penny, St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95.

The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny

One by one they entered the old Hadley house. It was colder inside than out and smelled of mold. The electricity had long since been turned off and now the circles of torchlight played on the peeling floral wallpaper...Emboldened by the light, as though what they held were swords, they moved deeper into the house.

This is the third book in Penny's Three Pines/Inspector Gamache series, and I'm amazed not only that Penny can change up her formula slightly with each book — making each one a very fresh read — but that she grows thematically as a writer with each book as well. This book, set during Easter in Three Pines, is a meditation on friendship in all it's many permutations. It starts with a very scary haunted house scene which is truly chilling, and gets deeper and more interesting as the narrative unfolds. As usual the characters and prose are gorgeous; and as usual, when you're finished, you'll be wondering how you can move to Three Pines yourself. You'll also be longing for the next installment, which happily is due is January.

The Crazy School, Cornelia Read, Grand Central Publishing, $23.99.

The Crazy School by Cornelia Read

The trees outside were losing their last Robert Frost touches of burnished brass and copper — sorry leaves ready to drop from maples and elms and whatever the hell else kind of East Coast trees I still didn't know the names of, twelve years after leaving California.

The minute I read this I knew it was one of the reads of the year. The second book from the talented author of Field of Darkness, Read gives up a bit of the poetic prose from the first book but in it's place is a tighter narrative that won't let go. Set in a school for mentally disturbed teens, series character Madeleine Dare, a teacher at the school, quickly realizes the faculty and administration are actually far worse than the students. The characterizations in this incredible novel are unforgettable, as is Madeleine Dare, a woman who takes no prisoners. Read is an up and coming star, but she's already made a splash with these first two terrific novels. Don't miss the beginning of a great and hopefully lengthy career.

At the City's Edge, Marcus Sakey, St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95.

At the City's Edge by Marcus Sakey

Twenty minutes ago, when Jason had yanked open his apartment door, he'd found his nephew trembling, clothing filthy and torn. A small leaf hung orange in his hair, and it made him look like a corpse, some broken thing washed up on the banks of a desolate river.

This was another book I knew instantly was one of the best of the year after I finished it. After Sakey's splashy debut novel, The Blade Itself, this wasn't at all the book I was expecting the second time out. It's like Sakey grew sudden additional writing chops overnight, as he tells the heartbreaking story of an Iraqi war vet plunged into Chicago gang warfare that seems unfortunately similar to the war he's left behind. Jason Palmer, the central character, is dealing with the death of his brother and taking care of his young nephew. The characterizations in this book blew me away, as did the moving, non stop plot and thoughtful look at a society in chaos. This young writer is full of delightful surprises. He has a third book out already — Good People, which, like the first novel, is an impossible to put down plot machine. I can't wait to see what Sakey might have up his sleeve the next time around.

Child 44, Tom Rob Smith, Grand Central, $24.99

This mission, however, was something entirely different. The order to investigate had come from above. This was official state business; a matter of national security. At stake was not their marriage but their lives.

This book is an incredible journey — the kind that will have you flipping to the author photo to try and figure out how a young Englishman was somehow transported here from Soviet Russia to tell this story. Smith will take you completely back to Stalin's Russia and totally immerse you in the bleak and hopeless world of one Leo Demidov, a high up policeman who is forced to investigate his own wife by one of his rivals. There is no right answer or solution to any of his problems, as each choice he makes will have an horrific result, impacting one person or another: all his “choice”. The thing is this lack of choice — the stultifying way society was structured by Stalin — feels so authentic. The remarkable thing is that Smith is also able to tell a very original crime story on top of his masterful portrayal of a miserable society, a crime story based on the Stalinist premise that there was no crime in the USSR, only terrible “accidents”. The book is so perfectly structured you won't be able to stop reading it, though it's slightly marred by a highly unbelievable and coincidental ending. It's an amazing book, one which will probably make you delighted that you don't live under Stalin's rule. I know I am.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, Kate Summerscale, Walker, $24.95.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale

The family story that Whicher pieced together at Road Hill House suggested that Saville's death was part of a mesh of deception and concealment...All the suspects in a classic murder mystery have secrets...For most of them, though, the secret is not murder. The danger, in a real murder case, was that the detective might...(get) mired in the mess he had dug up.

From the very beginning real and fictive crime have had an inseparable relationship. Novels have influenced the way people think about crime almost as much as actual crimes have influenced novels. Obviously detective fiction couldn't have started before there were detectives, but once it did, the public perception of what detectives are and what they do was very much determined by mystery books. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a fascinating work, not only for its vivid portrayal of an intriguing true crime in 1860's England, but also for its deft examination of the parallels between the real life detectives of the time and their literary doppelgangers. The real crime is as interesting as the concept — a very young child is found with his throat cut, the only suspects his middle class family. It takes a famous detective from out of town to crack the case, complete with a twist at the end. An original and engaging book. (Jamie)

Bonus Title

Hell Hole, Chris Grabenstein, St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95.

Hell Hole by Chris Grabenstein

Nobody saw it except Ceepak and that's really all that matters because, like I said, my partner will not tolerate cheating — even if the cheater is wearing the same color uniform he is.

Chris Grabenstein's Ceepak mysteries are as much fun as the amusement park rides they're named after. In this one, John Ceepak, the Mary Poppins of the mystery world (he's always prepared for anything) takes on the case of a suicide of an Iraqi war vet that really isn't. He's also dealing with family issues of his own - in this case, his father. The emotional punch added to the rocket powered story and Grabenstein's sense of humor, great pacing and cool New Jersey resort setting (complete with Springsteen quotes) all add up to a great read. If you haven't tried this series yet, check out the first one, the Anthony award winning Tilt-a-Whirl.

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Honorable Mention:

An Incomplete Revenge, Jacqueline Winspear, by far one of Winspear's strongest books, to my mind the best book since Maisie Dobbs. A tight story and moving characterizations. South of Hell, P.J. Parrish's suspenseful novel set in Hell, Michigan and Ann Arbor — another terrific Louis Kincaid entry. Pont No Point, Mary Logue's next Claire Watkins installment, a rocket powered read that's also a smart meditation on sex vs. love. Deception's Daughter, Cordelia Biddle's strong and moving second book in her Martha Beale series, set in 1840's Philadelphia. Last but not least, Mike Lawson's House Rules, a must in an election year but also just plain great storytelling.

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Staff & Customer Picks

Common titles here: The Fire, Katherine Neville; In the Woods, Tana French; What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman.

Marty, Ace Assistant: Exit Music, Ian Rankin: “Goodbye Rebus?? If you haven't read Rankin start with Knots and Crosses and enjoy the journey.” Voices, Arnaldur Indridson; Ritual, Mo Hayter: “When I'm in the mood for a dark & disturbing read, Mo Hayter is the one”; The Paper Moon, Andrea Camarelli.

Kim, Webmistress: The Cruellest Month, Louise Penny; The Iron Tongue of Midnight, Beverle Graves Myers; Buffalo Bill's Defunct, Sheila Simonson; The Merchant's Mark, Pat McIntosh; The Penguin Who Knew Too Much, Donna Andrews; Raisins and Almonds, Kerry Greenwood; Seven For a Secret, Mary Reed and Eric Mayer; The Paper Moon, Andrea Camarelli.

Aline, Ann Arbor: An Incomplete Revenge, Jacqueline Winspear.

Maria, North Carolina: An Absolute Gentleman, R. M. Kinder; Even Catsitters Get the Blues, Blaize Clement; Raven Black, Ann Cleeves; Bloodshot, Stuart MacBride; No Time for Goodbye, Linwood Barclay; Not in the Flesh, Ruth Rendell; The Headhunters, Peter Lovesey; August Moon, Jess Lourey. Maria's favorite title was Bloodshot.

Angel, Jackson: Red Leaves, Thomas Cook; The Chatham School Affair, Thomas Cook; Tug of War, Barbara Cleverly.

Jane, Ann Arbor: Christine Falls, Benjamin Black; Silver Swan, Benjamin Black; Killer Heat, Linda Fairstein; A Small Death in Lisbon, Robert Wilson; Tell Me Pretty Maiden, Rhys Bowen; The Book of Air and Shadows, Michael Gruber; and Forgery of Venus, Michael Gruber.

Tori, Ann Arbor: What the Dead Know; Laura Lippman; Maiden Rock, Mary Logue; In the Woods, Tana French.

Liz, Toledo: What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman; Moscow Rules, Daniel Silva; The Girl of His Dreams, Donna Leon; Suffer the Little Children, Donna Leon; A Darker Place, Laurie R. King; Touchstone, Laurie R. King; The Poe Shadow, Mathew Pearl; The Cater Street Hangman, Anne Perry; The Eight, Katherine Neville; The Fire, Katherine Neville.

Vicki, Ann Arbor: The Tale of Briar Bank, Susan Wittig Albert; In the Woods, Tana French; The King of Lies, John Hart; What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman; The Spellman Files, Lisa Lutz; Organize Your Corpses, Mary Jane Maffini; The Iron Tongue of Midnight, Beverle Graves Myers; The Fire, Katherine Neville; The Cruelest Month, Louise Penny; Laughter of Dead Kings, Elizabeth Peters.

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More than anything, she wanted to know why driving through the village had caused her to shiver and the hair on the back of her neck to bristle. Could it simply be the mood of dissent between the landowner and the village, or was it caused by the incoming workers from London and the gypsies?

Maisie turned and shivered again, only this time she felt as if she was being watched. Looking around, she saw no one, so, throwing her knapsack over one shoulder, she moved without haste to the mouth of the clearing...As she stepped out...she felt a clench around her free hand and looked down. A lurcher held Maisie in her viselike grip...

Maisie had recognized the dog to be a lurcher, the mongrel they called the dog of the gypsies, a first cross between a greyhound and a collie. It was a dog, they said, with the speed of one and the canniness of the other. Lur, as she knew already, means thief in the ancient Romany language. And it was no good breeding two lurchers to get a litter either, for only that first cross produced the true lurcher — the gypsies know their dogs and horses.
An Incomplete Revenge, Jacqueline Winspear

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