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Favorite Books of 2019

Here they are, not in any countdown order, merely in order of when I published my reviews. The entire review can be viewed by clicking on the title line.


    


The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Flatiron Books, 368 pages, $16.99 paperback release scheduled for 1/2020


“A Stockman’s Grave” should be this book’s alternate title, because the activities in “The Lost Man” revolve around both the grave and the metaphor it becomes for Jane Harper’s central mystery. Harper evokes the aridity and loneliness and alone-ness of the Australian outback so very, very well. Lightly littered with words like “g’day,” “mate,” and “jackaroo,” the book’s language seems natural, not clichéd. She gives us a parched and dangerous environment in which it seems remarkable that anyone has managed to live. It should be no surprise that Cameron, the person whose dead body immediately appears in “The Lost Man,” died from exposure. The deceased’s brother, Nathan, lives next door. Next door in this case means a three-hour drive away. He has chosen to live alone after his wife left him, taking their young son with her. He and other members of his family must find out why Cameron died. This is not a “thriller,” but it is a page-turner, which enhances the lure of the characters and the environment. Seeing the author’s resolution of what turns out to be many storylines is like watching a stone drop and following the ripples out.


The Current by Tim Johnston

Algonquin Books, 432 pages, $16.95


Audrey Sutter is the nineteen-year-old daughter of a man dying of cancer. She leaves college to travel back to her home in Minnesota to see him, maybe for the last time. Although they did not get along initially, Audrey has become fast friends with Caroline, her original roommate in the dorm. They immediately parted ways, but then the vagaries of fate entwined them once again. This time the bond was not based on shared accommodation but on shared interests and then a deep liking. So Caroline offers to drive Audrey home, far from their college and far from Caroline’s hometown in Georgia. It’s winter, there’s snow and ice, and it’s a preposterous journey for two young girls to be doing on the spur of the moment. Not too far from Audrey’s home, their car crashes down an embankment and spins out onto an ice-encrusted river. Johnston writes one of the most thrilling and haunting scenes of the two girls suspended on top of the possibly very fragile ice. The next time Audrey makes an appearance is in the hospital. Her ailing father is an ex-sheriff and he uses his dwindling strength to find out what or who caused the accident. Johnston evokes the winter in Minnesota, the tenderness of death, and the vulnerabilities of his main characters so well. 


Firefly by Henry Porter

Mysterious Press, 496 pages, $16.00


Henry Porter is one of my favorite authors of spy fiction. Porter is a journalist and obviously au courant about British and European affairs. He imbues his works with a larger sense of the politics and corruption at play, but his focus is at a very human level. Paul Samson is an independent investigator, sometimes hired by his ex-employer, MI6, to go where his smaller footprint might be more useful than the clodhoppers of MI6. This proves to be the case when Paul’s interests turn toward a thirteen-year-old migrant, Naji Touma (codenamed “Firefly”), a Syrian refugee, who might have, improbable as it sounds, important information about a terrorist plot. Paul manages to track Naji through Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia, following Naji’s desperate attempt to reach the safety of Germany. What Henry Porter does well is to give his characters depth without oversharing their lives but with enough sense of how they are different from "normal" people. More people need to read Porter.


    


Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Knopf, 272 pages, $26.95 (still in hardcover as of this writing)


It’s good to hunker down to a book with a sense of anticipation. But Julia Phillips turns that anticipation on its head. She gives you an unexpected story. Two children have been kidnapped and the rest of the book should be about dogged police or private investigators or a determined relative tracking the children down. If the reader is lucky, the book will be well-paced, full of fleshed-out characters, even ones falling prey to a trope or two, and with writing that clamps your heart in a vise. Julia Phillips burns your expectations and drowns your tropes in an inky bog. Alyona, eleven years old, and her sister, Sophia, eight, take care of themselves most summer days while their mother, Marina, works. As the book begins, they are at the beach in their hometown of Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, Russia. As their chapter ends, they are being stolen away by a man who has tricked them into getting into his car. After that scene, we are treated to chapter after chapter about … other people. Where are the girls? Ah, that is Phillips’ genius. It is on full display when she gradually draws all her characters (and what happened to the missing girls) together.


Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown & Co., 400 pages, $30


Investigator Jackson Brodie has been resurrected to appear in “Big Sky, “ the fifth novel in Kate Atkinson’s adept series. Atkinson has a writing style that is designed to keep readers off balance. She inserts humor in subtle ways in unexpected places. She has a protagonist who appears only sporadically and sometimes just whimsically in her series. She probably sits at her writing desk and says the word “traditional,” then laughs uncontrollably. In broad strokes, Atkinson plays with fate and coincidence. Jackson settles into his new abode near Whitby, England, having made the decision that investigation can be done from anywhere.  Atkinson introduces many inhabitants of the villages in this coastal area. One of them is the dead ex-wife of Vince, who is afraid he will be charged with her death. Impetuously, Jackson hands Vince his business card. Call, he says. Ha! Area constables are investigating a cold case that ostensibly has nothing to do with anything. Ha! One of the constables is Reggie Chase, first viewed in “When Will There Be Good News,” when she was sixteen. Now she’s twenty-six. It is a delight to witness Reggie and Jackson’s subdued reunion, haunted as it is by a murder and the odious men who litter this story. There are invisible threads everywhere, and it is our delight to see Atkinson roll them out and unravel them. This is not a whodunnit per se. This is a look at some good-hearted people trying to wade through life’s many miseries, mysteries, and mayhem and not lose their humanity. The big sky covers us all.


Conviction by Denise Mina

Little, Brown & Co., 385 pages, $27


Denise Mina’s writing voice is jazzy, lippy, arresting, and Scottish. In her latest book, she presents a complicated, enigmatic, troubled protagonist, a character she writes so well. Anna McDonald is the young mother and the companion of a respectable lawyer. She does the laundry, picks up dry cleaning, drops kids at school, and executes other mundane household tasks. On the face of it, she is a normal housewifey-type character. Then her husband leaves her to go to Portugal with Anna’s best friend (ex-best friend). AND he is taking the kids. Then Fin, ex-best friend’s not-yet-ex-husband, arrives. Just before this Anna, in a stupor, had listened to a podcast. The name of an old friend was mentioned in the podcast. The old friend is dead, perhaps because he sunk his yacht, which also killed his children. Impossible, thinks Anna. She tears out of the house to save her friend’s reputation. Fin tags along. She periodically tries to get rid of him, but he sticks like glue. He is a bonehead about the podcast, a bonehead about being dumped, a bonehead about what really is going on with Anna. And it turns out he’s a sticky, anorexic, persistent, famous bonehead. Fin was once a rock star. Also, the ship’s chef was the person convicted of destroying the yacht and the subsequent deaths. So many types of conviction to choose from. Most importantly, I laughed when I read the last paragraph.


    



Metropolis by Philip Kerr

G.P. Putnam & Sons, 384 pages, $28


British author Philip Kerr died last year, so “Metropolis” is the last Bernie Gunther book to be released. Maybe. (There is an unfortunate tendency to resurrect characters by giving them to other authors to handle.) Bernie will be a hard character for another author to adopt. Kerr has taken him through the horrors of World War II as a police detective in Berlin to the post-war world and all its disillusionment and falsity. It’s not just the unusual time and place, it’s not that Bernie is a German in Germany during WWII, it’s not that Bernie is a cynical optimist, it’s that Kerr has breathed startling life into Bernie and his time. It was heartbreaking to learn of Kerr’s death, because it also meant that Bernie, as Kerr wrote him, is also dead. Kerr has left us, however, with a Bernie at the beginning of his police life. It is Berlin in 1928, and he is a beat cop who has just earned the right to join the famous murder squad. His first task is to find out who is killing prostitutes and then scalping them. Kerr handles all the intricacies of this historical environment and spins a thrilling fictional narrative from it. And Kerr’s writing has humor. Granted, it’s a touch ironic and sarcastic — e.g., “I never yet saw a musical I didn’t think could be improved by a deeper pit for the orchestra, and a bottomless chasm for the cast.” — but it balances the grimness of the crimes and the blackness of Berlin’s soul.


Recursion by Blake Crouch

Crown, 336 pages, $27


“Groundhog Day” was cute, charming, romantic. “Recursion” is grim and scary. “Recursion” is about events that happen over and over again, with differences, sometimes for a phase of mere minutes and sometimes of years. It’s “Groundhog Day” on steroids. The insistent, repetitive nature of the central idea of the book could be dreary but Crouch makes it exciting and heart-breaking. Barry Sutton is a police detective who must figure out why people are insisting that “things” are not the way they should be. “False memory syndrome” is a term being bandied about. Barry becomes convinced that it is something more devious than a disease that causes a warped-time dementia. Crouch’s book is not strictly a science-fiction thriller or even a horror novel. “Recursion” is the butterfly wing that beats and opens up an unpalatable look at the repulsive tendencies of humans but also a hopeful glance at their transcendent and self-sacrificial ones as well.


Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Riverhead Books, 285 pages, $27 (Polish ed. c2009; US ed. c2014)

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones


Janina Duszejko is an “old crone” who lives alone in her house in an area fairly distant from the nearest village, in Poland, near the border with the Czech Republic. Although her age is never stated, she is old enough to have “Ailments” and to refer to herself as an old biddy. The other two occupants of her little area are “Oddball” and “Big Foot.” Of course those are not their real names.  Mrs. Duszejko prefers to give people names appropriate to how she views them. One cold night Oddball awakens Mrs. Duszejko to attend to Big Foot, who lies dead on the floor of his own house. After it is determined that Big Foot has died from choking on a bone from a deer he killed — probably illegally — and cooked, Mrs. Duszejko believes it was fated because of his cruelty to both humans and animals. It is hard to believe this odd work is a mystery book, but more bodies slowly start to drop. Although the rhythm of the book is slow and replete with full-stop digressions into astrology and philosophy, "Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead" is a book with a strong voice. 


  



Sarah Jane by James Sallis

Soho Crime, 216 pages, $23.95


James Sallis wrote some of the best mystery novels I’ve ever read: his Lew Griffin series. His books are brought to life by his understanding of human nature and his poetic writing. Also, apparently Sallis can write from any point of view and sound credible. Lew Griffin was a black private investigator. The eponymous star of “Sarah Jane” is a white woman. He takes her from her teenage years to middle age. “Sarah Jane” is told from Sarah Jane’s perspective. It is full of her pensive thoughts and softly evasive storytelling. Time goes back and forth but that allows the many revelations to occur in their appropriate places. It allows Sallis to meander us down his path. I have to say that if you are looking for a traditional mystery, this ain’t it. Maybe not all your questions will be answered. Come for the story, stay for the writing. “Sarah Jane” is a beauty of a book. And, yes, there is a dead body. It is storytelling essence. It celebrates a joy of words and reminds us of the definition of strength.




Just added this to the list (12/13/19):


City of Windows by Robert Pobi

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $26.99


Great enigmatic protagonist and antagonist! A mystical sniper is hunted by a mystical FBI analyst. (And it's not a science fiction or fantasy book.) Fast-paced, lots of action but also lots of cerebellum, suspense, thrills. Find that sniper in the wilds of Manhattan, Agent Lucas Page!


And this one (12/17/19):


Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman


Baltimore in the 1960s. Thirty-six-year-old runaway Jewish housewife seeks second life as a reporter. Mystery; Jewish communities; black communities; single, soon-to-be divorced woman; the underworld, the underbelly, the under-served. Laura Lippman's world has it all. (But no humor; not Mrs. Maisel.) Was the "The Lady in the Lake" murdered?


And now for a book I missed in 2014!


Love Story, with Murders by Harry Bingham

Delacorte Press, 400 pages, $27 (c2014)


When your popular novel features a protagonist so acutely different, what’s your next move? How do you continue to create interest when readers (presumably) already know the secret to your character’s eccentricities? We should all have this problem. Harry Bingham was born ready to write the sequel to “Talking to the Dead” (2012). D.C. Fiona Griffiths of a Welsh CID unit is back. This twenty-six-year-old woman (in the fictional year of 2010) spent part of her youth thinking she was dead. She still isn’t quite sure she isn’t actually dead. But mostly now, she lives on what she terms “Planet Normal.” She has a loverly boyfriend, Buzz, and a job she hasn’t managed to lose. “Love Story, with Murders” is a strange title, but at the end, perhaps you will agree, it is spot on. It first begins with a murder. The murder actually took place several years ago, but the body — or at least part of it, consisting of a leg — was only recently discovered. In someone’s garage freezer. Soon other pieces of Mary Jane Langton, a twenty-two-year-old student and sometime “exotic” dancer, begin to surface. What makes this book so extraordinary is the same thing that made “Talking to the Dead” extraordinary. Bingham mixes the grisly with the humorous, the sweet with the macabre. He is excellent at keeping both the pacing and storyline off balance. Tra la la la la, boom! 


    



I added these three titles after 2018’s list was first published. Here they are again, with links to my reviews:


Only to Sleep by Lawrence Osborne

American By Day by Derek B. Miller

The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran


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