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Best of 2009

Top Ten List 2009

As always, the Top Ten list is a distillation of a year's reading journey, and the books I've chosen are books that took me out of myself as a reader and that I found affecting emotionally or intellectually, or in some cases, both. But with any of these titles I was very much grabbed by the talented writer telling the story and made to pay attention. I've also included a "favorite discovery" as I couldn't confine the list to 10 this year. Read on!

Bury Me Deep, Megan Abbott, Simon & Schuster, $15.00.

Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott

"As she watched him through the trolley window...slope shouldered in that ancient brown suit, hat too tight, gait slow and lurching, she thought, Who is that poor man, walking so beaten, face gray, eyes blank? Who is that sad fellow?"

There's a lot of chatter about noir these days, but it's easier to drop the term than to define it, and even harder to recreate a noir novel without seeming quaint or mannered. As far as I'm concerned there are only two authors out there now who can credibly keep up with Chandler, Hammett, Cain and the rest of them on their own turf—James Ellroy and Megan Abbott. Following on the heels of her Edgar winning Queenpin, Abbott's latest book is Bury Me Deep, a brilliant fever dream inspired by the real life "Trunk Murderess," Winnie Ruth Judd, the central figure in one of the most sensational crimes of the depression era. It's a measure of Abbott's skill that by the end the crime that has so baffled history seems not only inevitable but even understandable. There's also a brilliant coda that supplies a much more satisfying conclusion that real life could manage. It's not necessary to know anything about Winnie Ruth Judd or even noir to enjoy this book. Anyone with an appreciation for good crime fiction will find more than enough to satisfy in Bury Me Deep. (Jamie)

Awakening, S.J. Bolton, Minotaur Books, $25.95.

Awakening by S.J. Bolton

"How did it all begin? Well, I suppose it would be the day I rescued a newborn baby from a poisonous snake, heard the news of my mother's death and encountered my first ghost."

Jamie and I (and my daughter and mother) all loved this strikingly original novel set in a tiny British village. Throw out anything you might think about "British village" mysteries, because this isn't one. It's the story of a mysteriously disfigured and reclusive vet who works on injured wild animals, and who is far more comfortable with animals than with humans. In this novel the animals center stage are actually snakes, as they take over the tiny village in almost biblical proportions. A gifted narrative story teller, Bolton is also wonderful both with complex characters and with simple surprise. She ties much of her story to myth and folklore, adding to the atmosphere. Her first novel, Sacrifice, was a book club favorite this year, but this one (I also loved Sacrifice) is tighter and more smoothly told. I also loved her central character, Clara, a Nancy Drew type who's an expert on reptiles. I'm very much looking forward to more books from this talented author.

The Last Child, John Hart, Minotaur Books, $24.95.

The Last Child by John Hart

"What had been concrete one day proved sand the next; strength was illusion; faith meant shit. So what? His once bright world had devolved to cold, wet fog. That was life, the new order, Johnny had nothing to trust but himself, so that's the way he rolled..."

I read this book in a fever, remembering in December what I liked about it way last January. Hart's lovely prose and way with a metaphor are an added bonus to his strong story telling in this entry about a thirteen year old boy, Johnny Merrimon, looking for his missing twin sister. As his family has self-destructed in the wake of his sister's disappearance, Johnny's quest is mirrored by the detective who caught the case originally. Johnny heads all over town on his bike looking for likely spots, sometimes marking his much creased map, "Bad men live here." Johnny himself is one of the better child characters almost since Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. He's mature, yes, but he's still a child with a child's eye view. The portrayal of the South and its background of racism are just below the surface in this novel, which only makes it more poignant. It can be read on many levels, but one of them is simply as a page turner.

Heaven's Keep, William Kent Krueger, Atria, $25.00.

Heaven's Keep by William Kent Krueger

"The mountains became deep blue in the twilight, and the canyons between were like dark, poisoned veins. Though the sun had dropped below the rest of the range, it hadn't yet set on Heaven's Keep, which towered over everything else. Its walls burned with the angry red of sunset, and it looked more like the gate to hell than anything to do with Heaven."

I'm not sure what I can say about Kent Krueger's books that I haven't said before. I think Heaven's Keep is an extraordinary achievement in that it completes an arc of the central character's emotional development begun in the very first novel in the series, Iron Lake. In the first novel, Cork and his wife Jo are separated; in subsequent novels, they draw back together, and in this one, Jo is killed, making the driving force of the book a mission of grief. The way Krueger is able to tie his character's emotional journey to his strong narrative skills and his way with prose and setting is truly brilliant, and I think, very original. While almost all the other novels could almost be read as standalones, this one seems of a piece with the others. You'll want to have read them all to get everything out of this book. Whatever path this writer takes next, I'm willing to follow, as I think he's one of the most gifted of American crime writers.

The Brutal Telling, Louise Penny, Minotaur, $24.99.

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

"Olivier flicked on his flashlight, scanning the darkness. Gray tree trunks crowded round. He shone the light here and there, trying to find the narrow path through the late summer forest. Once on the trail he hurried. And the more he hurried, the more frightened he became, and the more fearful he grew the faster he ran..."

Like Kent Krueger, Penny has been a constant fixture in this list. It's no secret I love her books, and this one may be one of her very best. Set again in Three Pines (after a little time away in A Rule Against Murder), the mystery concerns a dead man found on the floor of Gabri and Olivier's bistro. Not only is it a question of how the man got there, but who he is, and what his ties are to someone in Three Pines. As usual, Penny uses her pure mystery writing skills to weave a web (literally, read the book!) of clues, red herrings and double backs, but the real joy to be found is in the characters, and in the emotional truths this author is able to tell about them. The ending may break your heart a little bit, but like all the best reads, you'll be wondering what's next.

The Shanghai Moon, S.J. Rozan, Minotaur, $24.95.

The Shanghai Moon by S.J. Rozan

"I appreciate your seeing me, Mr. Zhang."... "How could I resist? The Maltese Falcon! Farewell My Lovely! When I was young, schoolboys in Shanghai were weighed down with dull books for our English lessons, but among ourselves we put those lessons to better use. Oh, the intrigue! The romance!...Of course in those days the detectives were tough-talking, two-fisted men."

S.J. Rozan visited the store in February, and I played a late game of catch up, inhaling several of the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith mysteries before immersing myself in this one. It's a fascinating look at Jews fleeing Europe during the war; one of the safe havens being Shanghai, as no papers were required, and the Chinese were not especially racist. This is a "Lydia" book, and Lydia is trying to find some smuggled jewels brought to Shanghai by long ago refugee Rosalie Gilder. Rozan skillfully ties her present day story to the one from the past, using letters written by the heartbreaking Rosie, one of my favorite characters of the year. I loved that I not only learned something as I read the book, but as usual Rozan delivered her trademark complex yet concisely rendered plot, along with great characters that break your heart. In terms of pure narrative, this is an author who really can't be beat.

Last Known Address, Theresa Schwegel, Minotaur, $24.99.

Last Known Address by Theresa Schwegel

"Sloan's eyes dance, nonthreatening, around the girl's face, managing to squeak details: early twenties, five-five, a hundred pounds, blond with help, eyes blue, swollen. Her lips are split at both corners, and nothing says ‘rape' like the way they're pursed, trembling, still waiting for an answer."

Theresa Schwegel keeps getting better. She won an Edgar for her first (and my least favorite) of her novels, but every book since then has gotten better—fresher, tougher, tighter. They're difficult books, told in the first person/present tense, but once you're into them they're impossible to set aside. This one is the story of a serial rapist in Chicago, and Schwegel's straight on look at what happens after a rape—almost as bad as the rape itself—ties in thematically with her central character, a female cop sometimes struggling in the macho police culture. Never told as a polemic, it's instead almost as if an incredibly gifted reporter had gotten inside the heads of all the characters. Schwegel's true gift (aside from telling great police stories) is taking a hard look at the way human beings both treat and react to one another. A young woman, she seems to have the wisdom of someone much older. This is an original writer, one whose books should not be missed.

Murder of a Royal Pain, Denise Swanson, Obsidian, $6.99.

Murder of a Royal Pain by Denise Swanson

"Still, they had a lot in common. Both of them had had to move back to small towns, and both worked in a helping profession. So what was troubling her? Skye bit her lip. Could it be that she felt displaced?"

I've known Denise Swanson since her first book, Murder of a Small Town Honey, was released, and she visited the store with her mom and gave everyone at the event a personality test. To me this book was a great surprise because while I've enjoyed the entire series, this book added a bit of an edge to take it up another notch. What a wonderful achievement, eleven books into a series, to hit a sparkling home run. This one has beleaguered school social worker Skye Denison at last getting an assistant social worker, an assistant who seems almost too good to be true, and who to Skye seems a little bit off. Operating man-free in this outing, Skye is up against one of her worst fears, a haunted house, and an actual threat, in the form of her assistant. Effortlessly blending humor with great storytelling and wonderful characters, this is a standout in a long series.

A Duty to the Dead, Charles Todd, William Morrow, $24.99.

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

"I always tried to keep my letters cheerful, even when the wards were filled with wounded, and we were working late into the night, fighting to save the worst cases. At home and in the trenches, letters were a brief and welcome respite from war."

While this book may remind some readers of Winspear's terrific Maisie Dobbs, Charles Todd possesses some narrative chops that Winspear doesn't. While this novel's Bess Crawford has been a nurse on the front during WWI, just like Maisie, in this novel the war is still ongoing. Bess' mission—her "duty"—is to take a dead man's dying message to his family. In doing so she's completely caught in the undertow of a supremely dysfunctional family, and she's also called upon to use her nursing skills. The trauma of war is beautifully and heartbreakingly illustrated, as is the trauma of family dynamics. There are few writers better than Todd at the narrative "hook", and few writers better at bringing that hook to fruition. Bess Crawford isn't a character you'll soon forget, and she's probably one you'll want to revisit. I know I do.

Liars Anonymous, Louise Ure, Minotaur, $25.95.

Liars Anonymous by Louise Ure

"I missed my friend Catherine like she was a country I could no longer visit."

To say I was knocked out by the originality of the prose in this book would be an understatement. Ure is able to tell a very noir story while leavening it with memorably gorgeous writing, complex plotting and a nuanced central character that grabs you in the first chapter and doesn't let go. Jessie Dancing, who works for an On-Star type service, thinks she overhears a crime, but there's no proof, and ultimately no missing person. She takes time off from work to discover what happened and becomes completely embroiled in the crime. Jessie has been recently released from prison, an official member of "Liars Anonymous." Her efforts to regain a foothold in the world and the way the story is told—as well as the Arizona setting—make this novel absolutely memorable and original.

Favorite Discovery

Starvation Lake, Bryan Gruley, Touchstone, $14.00.

Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley

"He looked down. Brown stains pocked the concrete porch, down the three steps and along the walk to the street. The stains seemed to grow bigger as they neared the curb. He hoped they weren't blood."

While it's terrific, as a Michigan bookseller, to discover a new series set in Michigan, it's even better when the book is as good as Gruley's. His story of small town politics, bad memories, and lots of hockey is beautifully rendered and memorable. His central character, Gus Carpenter, left town after blowing the one chance the town ever had at a hockey championship (a failure neither forgiven or forgotten) to work in Detroit at the "Detroit Times" as a reporter. He blows things in Detroit as well, it turns out, and has gone back to his hometown to run his tiny hometown paper. When his old coach's snowmobile—complete with bullet holes—resurfaces in one of the nearby lakes, he and his ace cub reporter are hot on the trail. Any vaguely political or touchy story is killed by the paper's lawyers, and the investigation is an uphill battle, one that exposes terrible and long buried secrets. While there's an inevitable comparison to Steve Hamilton here, this is a much darker and more psychological book. I'm looking forward to more from this talented writer.

Also Notable

Peter Robinson's strong series entry, All the Colors of Darkness, based on Othello; George Pelacanos' emotionally memorable The Way Home, about a difficult child who works his way back to society; Michael Gruber's The Forgery of Venus, a trippy, mind bending look at art history that's so vivid you'll be googling Velazquez; Tasha Alexander's sensual, languid and lovely look at Victorian-era Constantinople, Tears of Pearl; and Sharon Fiffer's strong series standout, Scary Stuff, that looks at the scary stuff that goes on in families behind the scenes.

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Staff & Customer Picks

Book Recommendations

Every year I ask customers to recommend books they enjoyed over the past year—this year, I also asked a few authors. Clear customer favorites this year are Bolton's Sacrifice, Penny's The Brutal Telling, and Krueger's Heaven's Keep.

Author Recommendations

Theresa Schwegel: Bury Me Deep, Megan Abbott.

Denise Swanson: Truly Madly, Heather Webber (due in 2010); Hard Row, Margaret Maron.

Katherine Miller Haines: The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton; Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell.

Megan Abbott: Last Known Address, Theresa Schwegel; The Long Division, Derek Nikita; Slammer, Alan Guthrie.

Louise Penny: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale.

Tasha Alexander: The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey.

Family & Customer Recommendations

Robert Agnew (age 16): The Amateurs, Marcus Sakey.

Margaret Agnew (age 18): Sacrifice, S.J. Bolton.

Elizabeth Solway: Heaven's Keep, William Kent Krueger; A Mortal Groove, Ellen Hart.

Liz O'Connor:: About Face, Donna Leon; Sacrifice, S.J. Bolton; A Carrion Death> and The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, Michael Stanley; The Fire and The Eight, Katherine Neville; The Lace Reader, Brunonia Berry; The Spies of Warsaw. Alan Furst; The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown.

Vicki Kondolik:: Through a Glass, Deadly, Sarah Atwell; Sacrifice, S.J. Bolton; The Last Enemy, Grace Brophy; The Sky Took Him, Casey Donis; What Angels Fear, C.S. Harris; The Language of Bees, Laurie R. King; The Brutal Telling, Louise Penny; A Judgement in Stone, Ruth Rendell; A Carrion Death, Michael Stanley.

Barb Fisher: Heaven's Keep, William Kent Krueger.

Linda Arnsdorf: Sacrifice, S. J. Bolton..

Aline Clayton-Carroll: Child 44, Tom Rob Smith

Tori Booker: Sacrifice, S.J. Bolton; The State of the Onion, Julie Hyzy; South of Hell, P.J. Parrish; Look Again, Lisa Scottoline.

Jane Johnson: The Shanghai Tunnel, Sharan Newman; All the Colors of Darkness, Peter Robinson; Arctic Chill, Arnauldur Indridason; Revelation, C.J. Sansom.

Patti O'Brien: Paper Towns, John Green (YA title); Sand Sharks, Margaret Maron; The Murder Stone/A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny; Shanghai Moon, S.J. Rozan; and Whisper to the Blood, Dana Stabenow.

Kathy Fannon: Down River, John Hart; Queenpin, Megan Abbott; The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Mary E. Pearson—"a YA title but a great story for anyone"; Starvation Lake, Bryan Gruley; The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley—"The heroine in this may be my favorite"; And Only to Deceive, Tasha Alexander; The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman—"again, written for kids but wonderful story"; Mind Scrambler, Chris Grabenstein; The Mistress of the Art of Death and Grave Goods, Arianna Franklin—"(Grave Goods) is a toss-up for my favorite of the year—and it should be noted that the whole series is wonderful."

Catie Heynen: Heaven's Keep, William Kent Krueger; The Brutal Telling, Louise Penny; A Carrion Death, Michael Stanley; Heartsick, Chelsea Cain; The Draining Lake, Arnaldur Indridason; The State of the Onion, Julie Hyzy; Murder on Astor Place, Victoria Thompson; Pardonable Lies, Jacqueline Winspear; And Only to Deceive, Tasha Alexander.

Alessandra White: The Brutal Telling, Louise Penny.

Susan Harris: Murder in House, Veronica Heley; Revenge of the Spellmans, Lisa Lutz; Dog On It, Spencer Quinn; The Silent Man, Alex Berenson—"wow".

Bill Castanier: 9 Dragons, Michael Connelly; The Silent Hour, Michael Koryta.

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