Sunday, December 30, 2018

LJ's Favorite Reads of 2018

It wasn't easy to pare down my list.  I read so many very good books both by favorite authors, as well as those authors who were new to me, but are now on my list to follow.  However, this is a list of those books I particularly enjoyed in 2018.  You may notice my list leans toward licensed investigators (police procedurals, legal mysteries, etc.) and historical mysteries, but not all. So enjoy. Perhaps you'll find a book to pique your interest.

With a connection to the Kennedy assignation, "November Road" is an exceptional book.  It is a love story with danger and suspense enough to keep one reading late into the night.  Berney's previous book "The Long and Faraway Gone," was excellent.  "November Road" surpasses even that.  Simply put; read it!

"Wild Fire" is yet another excellent read from Ann Cleeves. Set in the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, Cleeves doesn't rely on twists, but when she does include one, it's very effective.  She also does a very good job of increasing the level of mystery and suspense, keeping the killer's identity from the reader until the last possible moment. It is said that this is the last book in the Shetland series.  An intriguing and subtle Easter egg leaves us wondering what's coming next.  

Joe Talbert Jr., a cub reporter, wrote a story about a Senator which went to press without confirmation, with the result that he has been suspended and may be fired. However, he has come across the story about the murder of a Joseph Talbert in southern Minnesota.  Could this be the father he never met?  "The Shadows We Hide" is a story of secrets, lies, and addictions; of the harm people can do to themselves and one another.  But in the end, it is a story of redemption and is very well done.

Retired PI Leo Waterman is asked by Art Fowler, an old friend, to help find answers as to why his grandson would suddenly kill a city councilman and then himself. When Art allegedly commits suicide two days after making the request, Leo knows he can't ignore things.  Leo's questions into the matter nearly cost him his life and take him into a situation he'd never expected. "Soul Survivor" presents a very different, and much darker, G.M. Ford than we've ever known.  It's not a comfortable read, but it's an honest one with several "wow" moments.  One can only hope to see more of Leo in the future.

Twenty years ago, Aaron Falk had been accused of murder.  Now a Federal Agent, Aaron has returned for Luke's funeral. Together with Sergeant Raco, the cop new to the town, they work to learn what really happened.  "The Dry" is filled with very effective twists that one doesn't see coming even though Harper plays completely fair with the readers.  Secrets; everyone has secrets, but secrets will out and Harper does an excellent job of exposing them all.  What an excellent debut.

Psychologist Joe O'Laughlin is coping with Parkinson's, recent widowhood, and raising his two daughters.  Receiving a call that his father has been attacked and in a coma introduces yet another challenge.  This is a story about families, and secrets, and the lengths to which one is willing to go for one's family.  "The Other Wife" is a rollercoaster of twists and surprises, filled with excellent characters, thought-provoking truths, and an ending of hope.

It is difficult to say much about this book without giving away spoilers.  My best recommendation is to read it cold without having looked at any information about the plot, impossible as that may be."Dancing on the Grave" is an excellent read which deals with the psychology of the characters as well as the forensics of the crimes.  It is both suspenseful and disquieting, clearly demonstrating Sharp's true skill as a writer.

Inspector Ian Rutledge, driving on deserted roads in the middle of the night, doesn’t expect to come across a stopped motorcar, a dead man, and a woman with blood on her hands.  The Gatekeeper” is so well done.  Its multifaceted plot is equaled only by the excellent, multifaceted protagonist, and the quality of the writing.  This may well be the best book in the series to date. 

A rare devotional in an exquisite box moves from person-to-person, affecting the life of each person by whom it is possessed.  Not tied to either their Ian Rutledge or Bess Crawford series, this novella is a lovely way to try Charles Todd.  "The Pretty Little Box" is fascinating and thought-provoking.  It leaves one with more questions than answers, but that's part of its appeal.

Other books I enjoyed, and highly recommend are:

You'll find all the other books I've read on my Goodreads page.

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen

First Sentence:  He was going to die.  That was quite obvious. 
Joanna Langley returns to the place which was once the family estate in order to plan her father's funeral.  In going through her father's things, she comes across an unopened letter addressed to Sophia.  All Joanna knew of her father's past is that he had been shot down over Tuscany during the war and left with a permanent limp.  With the revelation of the letter, Joanna decides to travel to Tuscany in order to learn more about her father, and her own past.   
There is nothing more effective than a powerful opening to get one's attention.  Bowen's opening is all that and more.  It is visual, terrifying, and demands one keep reading.  That it then segues from 1944 to 1975 is even more compelling, both due to the transition in time and ambiance, as well as introducing the protagonist, Joanna Langley, establishing both the family's, and Joanna's, history, before switching back to Hugo, Italy, and the war.  
Bowen conveys emotion in a very British manner—"To realize that one has nobody in the world—this is a sobering thought."—and contrasts that with the Italian sentiment—"Don't look so sad,' she said, touching my cheek. 'All is well.  We are tested and we survive, and life will be good again.'"  She also does a good job of conveying Joanna's shock at learning an unexpected bit of news, and at building one's curiosity about what is to come.   Bowen also makes an interesting comparison between Hugo's life with a title, large house, and staff; and Sophia's life with a husband she loved which beautifully illustrates what in life are true riches.
The sense of place is wonderfully done.  By the time Joanna reaches Italy, one is ready to pack and join her there, with Paola being the person with whom one would wish to stay.  A word of warning; one should not read this when hungry. 
This is not a perfect book.  There are portents and large, very convenient coincidences.  Although there is a mystery, it seems secondary to romance.  For those who enjoy history, Bowen does provide an interesting look at the impact of WWII on a small village in Italy.  That is something one doesn't often find.
"The Tuscan Child" is a lovely, rather idealistic story. However, it is also a pleasant read with a happy ending, and there's nothing wrong with that.

THE TUSCAN CHILD (HistMys-Hugo Langley/Joanna Langley-England/Italy-1944/1975) – G+
      Bowen, Rhys - Standalone
      Lake Union Publishing – Feb 2018

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton

First Sentence: On the hottest day of the year, Larry Glassbrook has come home to his native Lancashire for the last time, and the townsfolk have turned out to say goodbye.
Police detective Florence Lovelady's career was made when she brought about the arrest and conviction of serial child-murderer Larry Glassbrook.  Thirty years later, Florence, with her son, returns to witness Glassbrook's funeral and to the small village where events took place.  Revisiting the property where she originally stayed, she finds an effigy, similar to those found with the murdered children, but this one looks like her.  Another child disappears calling into question whether Glassbrook really was guilty or is there a copycat.  When Florence's son disappears, it becomes very personal.
Having the story set in two time periods, 1969 and 1999, works very well.  One becomes immersed in the case from the beginning, meeting all the significant characters.  In 1969, Bolton establishes the relationships, and illustrates the sexism professional women faced.  Florence "Flossie" is well-created and is an example of so many women caught in that time.  The example of Florence having achieved the rank of inspector, yet still expected to type notes, was so classic for the time.  In the present-day setting, her son Ben is a wonderful source of relief from the increasing tension of the plot.
Bolton very effectively builds the feeling of suspense and threat against Florence—"The sense of something dark on the loose in Sabden was growing. If I spent any time alone, I could almost see a shadow ahead of me, slipping out of sight, and if I stopped moving, even for a few seconds, the silence around me started to feel ominous."  There is just the right touch of psychic ability and creepiness, which is perfectly offset by occasional touches of wry humor.  One can appreciate that when Florence gets into a situation which could flounder into a TSTL (too-stupid-to-live) moment, she doesn't go there—"I'm not an idiot.  Of course I thought Trap as soon as I saw it."
The setting of the Pendle Hill and the history of the Pendle witches, as well as the story being set in a small village, creates a perfect backdrop to the story.  The subject of witches and witchcraft is a fascinating one, and one which has gone on through the ages, including the last witchcraft act being repealed by the English Parliament in 1951. The characters of Daphne and Avril are the perfect tutors, as well as also providing some humor—"Don't look so worried, dear.  We don't turn people into toads anymore.".  The power of the Freemasons is another fascinating topic which is included, as well as enlightenment about priests and corpse roads.  Those who enjoy learning about the unusual will feel right at home.
Each of Bolton's books is not only a standalone, but each is unique in theme and tone.  Although Bolton has played with the idea of the paranormal before, the actual inclusion of it, employing witchcraft, is new to her writing.  It brings in just the right touch of tension which is significantly increased as the story progresses and raises the question as to the identity of the actual killer.  Although the twist is somewhat predictable, it is still very effective and is followed by one which is completely unexpected.
"The Craftsman" is a gripping read with gothic overtones, filled with suspense, surprises, and an ending which will be hard to forget.  Bolton has created another very individual story.  One can't wait to see what she does next.

THE CRAFTSMAN (Susp-AC Florence Lovelady-Lancashire, England-Cont) – VG+
      Bolton, Sharon - Standalone
      Minotaur Books – Oct 2018

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Shadows We Hide by Allen Eskins

First Sentence:  I'm lying on the hood of my car, my back reclined against my windshield, knees bent, fingers laced together on my stomach, my breathing relaxed to ease the throb of pain.
Joe Talbert Jr., a cub reporter, wrote a story about a Senator which went to press without confirmation, with the result that he has been suspended and may be fired. However, he has come across the story about the murder of a Joseph Talbert in southern Minnesota.  Could this be the father he never met?  Rather than someone to be admired, the dead man's death isn't mourned but was felt to be long overdue.  Responsible for his brother, contacted by his addict mother who claims to be recovering, with the encouragement of his girlfriend Lila, Joe is determined to learn about his family.  Someone is out to stop him.
A good, evocative opening is something to be savored, and this truly succeeds.  It engages both the senses and the emotions, as well as informs.  For those who read Elkins' previous book, "The Live We Bury," it is a true pleasure to have Joe, Lila, and Jeremy back again.  For those who haven't read it, Eskins provides all the background one needs, and more, to feel comfortable starting here.
Eskins effectively conveys Joe's feelings about finding information on the family he never knew.  One surprise after another keeps things interesting.  Joe's family, start to end, has issues that are monumental.  And just because someone is a relative doesn't mean they're a good person or can be trusted. 
Each of the main plot threads holds one's interest.  There are so many facets to the story.  Eskins skillfully makes elements of it very personal and emotional, while painful to read even if one hasn't experienced such things for oneself.  Joe's relationship to his autistic brother, Jeremy, is beautifully done with a portrayal of Jeremey which is neither condescending nor contrived. 
The structure of the book is interesting in that Part I is the first 261 pages of the 339 pages total.  Sadly, there are a couple unfortunate and unnecessary portents. 
"The Shadows We Hide" is a story of secrets, lies, and addictions; of the harm people can do to themselves and one another.  But in the end, it is a story of redemption and is very well done.

THE SHADOWS WE HIDE (Myst-Joe Talbert Jr.-Minnesota-Contemp) – VG+
      Eskins, Allen – 2nd in series
      Mulholland Books – Nov 2018

Monday, December 17, 2018

Body & Soul by John Harvey

First Sentence:  The house was at the edge of the village, the last in a row of stubby stone-built cottages backing onto fields which led down to the sea.
Retired policeman Frank Elder hasn't seen his daughter for a while, so is surprised when she shows up with bandages on her wrist.  Unwilling to talk about it, Katherine stays two days and is gone, with events of Katy's past still being a major wedge between them.  Frank wants to help, which leads him into the world of painters and life modeling.  Yet once a cop means you never know what danger may lie in wait.
The recounting of what happened to Katherine when younger is succinct and very painful to read.  Harvey also provides a good accounting of Frank's history, including his periodic work with DI Trevor Cordon, and his current relationship with jazz singer Vicki Parsons.  It is Harvey's definition which makes one put Frank's life in perspective—"Loneliness is just solitude taken a step too far."

One thing to love about Harvey's style is his subtlety.  That DCI Hadley is gay and D.S. Phillips is black are details one comes to know as casually as its being a sunny day.  And isn't that as it should be?—"Living in London as long as he had, thirty-one of his thirty-five years, it was possible to go for days, sometimes, without being reminded of the color of his skin."
There are twists, and then there are knock-you-back-twists.   It is the latter which Harvey has created.  Although there are references to a previous case, enough information is provided so that there is no sense of pieces missing.  Harvey builds the suspense steadily, keeping one completely enthralled.  
"Body & Soul," the final book in the Frank Elder series, is apparently also the last full-length novel Harvey plans to write.  It is extremely well done, very emotional with a shocking turn, and a devastating ending.  However, if one is curious about the series, do start with "Flesh and Blood," the first book of the series.

BODY & SOUL (Pol Proc-Frank Elder-England-Contemp) - Ex
      Harvey, John – 4th in series
      Pegasus Books – Nov 2018

Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Christmas Revelation by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  Worm stood and stared, overcome with wonder.
Worm is a former Thames River urchin, somewhere around nine years old, who has never known a family Christmas.  He now has a job and a place to stay at Hester Monk's clinic and is looked after by volunteer Miss Claudine Burroughs and bookkeeper Squeaky Robinson. When Worm witnesses the possible kidnapping of the most beautiful woman he's ever seen, he begs Squeaky's help in rescuing the lady.  However, the mystery woman is not the victim she seems and has her own plans for revenge, with Squeaky and Worm providing assistance.
Perry's ability to establish a sense of time and place is transportive.  She takes one to the sights and sounds of Victorian London and truly engages all our senses—"He had time to get a piece of bread from the larder and a little bit of meat dripping to go with it. It tasted salty and meaty and buttery, all at the same time.'
All the preparations for Christmas impart memories many may have known.  More than physical things is the recognition that holidays are best when shared—"Claudine looked at him closely, 'I will like Christmas very much if everyone else does.  Christmas is not a good time to be alone.  We must make sure everybody is included.'"
Squeaky's introspection as to why helping Worm matters to him shows how much Squeaky's character has developed over time.  Although this is particularly meaningful for those who have followed the series, Perry provides enough information for new readers to appreciate the transformation.
Perry's bits of wisdom are insightful and quote-worthy.  It's hard not to include them all, but this particularly stands out—"Everyone has to accept disillusion sometime.  Hardly anyone was as good as you believed.  He supposed that was what love was: accepting someone the way they were."
"A Christmas Revelation" has an exciting climax and a lovely ending.  Yes, the story is sentimental, but it is also a wonderful gift one may give oneself. 

A CHRISTMAS REVELATION (HistMys-Worm/Squeaky-London-1868) – VG
      Perry, Anne – 16th Novella
      Ballantine Books – Nov 2018

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Deck the Hounds by David Rosenfelt

First Sentence:  I've come up with a solution to the homeless problem.
Semi-retired attorney Andy Carpenter can never pass up a dog, especially when it's the companion of a homeless man.  The dog, Zoey, bites a man in defense of an attack on his owner, and the dog is quarantined. Laurie, Andy's former-cop wife, decides they should help by taking Zoey into their kennels and his owner, Don Carrigan into the apartment over their garage.  When Andy accidentally mentions Don's name in an interview, they learn that he is wanted for a murder from two years ago, of which Don has no knowledge.  It's up to Andy to prove Don innocent.
Rosenfelt created an opening which not only touches the heart but makes one wish to be in a position to commit similar acts.  However, it may also cause one to search the internet for corn crème brûlee recipes.  The short summary of Laurie's background is just enough.  Andy's friends and co-workers are a diverse and interesting group who appear throughout the series, although one can become a bit annoyed with a couple of them over time.  Carrigan, however, is a character who reminds one not to make assumptions about people based on their appearance or their situation.  That is very well done.
The story starts fairly low-key.  Then the switch flips and the risk factor becomes higher.  However, an element Rosenfelt uses, often to lighten the mood, is Andy's internal narrative—"The door is opened by a woman who is clearly some kind of housekeeper/maid.  She is wearing a sort of uniform, mostly white with some dark blue trim.  The skirt looks like one enormous doily; I shudder to think how many normal-sized doilies were killed in the making of that garment."
Rosenfelt's plots remind one of complex Venn diagrams with numerous overlapping circles.  What's nice is how well it all works, and the overlaps never feel like coincidences.  That Andy isn't one's usual macho protagonist is a refreshing change.  That Marcus, the muscle, works with Andy's wife Laurie is even better.  As the chain of evidence builds, the center of the diagram becomes clear.  Even the identity of the killer is a very effective twist.
Following the trial is always interesting.  Rosenfelt clearly explains the process along the way, including what can, and cannot, be done.  At the same time, there is a nice balance between the case and Andy's home and family life, which makes the characters more real.
"Deck the Hounds" has plenty of bodies and a very twisty plot which is anything but boring. One will appreciate that the author doesn't do the expected or go for the easy solution.

DECK THE HOUNDS (LegMys-Andy Carpenter-New Jersey -Contemp) – G+    
      Rosenfelt, David – 18th in series
      Minotaur Books – Oct 2018

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit by Amy Stewart

First Sentence:  On the day I took Anna Kayser to the insane asylum, I was first obliged to catch a thief.
Deputy Constance Kopp is a target of politicians who don't believe women belong on the police force.  With her boss, Sheriff Heath, running for higher office, she is in a precarious position.  Jumping into a river at night to save a prisoner who escaped from another officer is bad but becoming personally involved in the case of a wife whose husband repeatedly commits her to the local mental asylum puts her at risk of losing her job.
What a wonderful character is Constance Kopp.  At one moment she's chasing down a thief, saving a man from a raging river, making the female prisoners as comfortable as she can, and worried about a woman being taken against her choice, to an insane alyssum for the fourth or fifth time.  However, the most important thing one must know about Constance Kopp is that she was a real person, 6 feet tall, and believed that--"A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.” Many other characters in the book were also real people.  []  One may find that this, and that the newspaper stories, too, are real, makes the book even more fascinating.  They are a true look at both life during this period and a woman's life during this time.
How nice to have an opening which makes one smile.  Even better is how distinct is Stewart's voice.  Not every author can give the impression that the story is being told just to one personally, and with such clarity that perfect visual images are created—"…there I happened to be, in my uniform, equipped with a gun, handcuffs, and a badge.  I did what any officer of the law would do:  I tucked my handbag under my arm, gathered my skirts in my hands, and ran him down."  That wonderful combination is further topped by a touch of humor'—"The boy was too engrossed or slow-witted to step out of the way.  I'm sorry to say I shoved him down to the ground, rather roughly.  I hated to do it, but children are sturdy and quick to heal."
One doesn't often think about the women who would be in jail and the various reasons why they would be there.  This was a time of unions and workers' strikes, but it was also a time when a man could have his wife committed for long periods of time, for "nervous hysteria," with only his words and the substantiation of a friendly doctor.    Stewart so captures the sexism and pomposity of some of her characters, it's difficult for one not to be incensed.  This was also the period leading up to World War I with anti-European sentiment, particularly against Germans, Poles and Austrians, and Constance's sister Norma designing a traveling cart for homing pigeons, and Fleurette wanting to entertain the those learning to be soldiers.
Stewart is very good at weaving together the numerous threads of the story.  They mesh beautifully, yet each is distinct, and the finished cloth only adds to the reality of the story. The twist may have been anticipated, but it was nonetheless effective when it came.  It does lead to a very interesting turn of events that is even relevant today.  The use of actual newspaper stories is both interesting to see for the journalistic style of the time, and for the reality it brings to the story.
There really are some brilliant lines—"I wish I could say that we left Mr. Courter speechless, but an incompetent man is never without another terrible idea."  The secondary characters of Constance's family add both veracity and richness to the story.  One can't help but like Bessie, the blunt and pragmatic sister-in-law.
"Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit" is another wonderful book within a fascinating series.  The ending and the promise of the next phase of life for the Kopp sisters is perfect and enticing.  Don't forget to read the Historical Notes and Sources.  

MISS KOPP JUST WON'T QUIT (HistMys-Constance Kopp-New Jersey-1916) – VG+
Stewart, Amy – 4th in series
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – Sept 2018