Between 700 and 800 new titles passed through our store this year. We’d like to say that we read every single one but, alas, we were limited by the number of hours in the day we could spend reading. Customer suggestions helped lead the way to some books and serendipity led to others. Sometimes the latest book by a favorite author had to be set aside to read the avalanche of books by new authors.
We were so enthusiastic and lengthy in our reviews, that these are only truncated versions. Read the full, unexpurgated text (links will follow shortly). They’re often (intentionally) hilarious.
Misery Bay ($14.99), Steve Hamilton serves up an exceptional return for his mainline series character, Alex McKnight, following a six-year hiatus (during which time he won the 2011 Edgar award for Best Mystery with The Lock Artist).
Ex-policeman McKnight lives on the upper Michigan peninsula in Paradise, a tiny community characterized in winter by bleakness, bitter cold, and isolation. When the local sheriff, usually at odds with Alex, pleads with him to help investigate the supposed suicide of a friend’s son, Alex only reluctantly agrees. To their surprise, they uncover other deaths, possibly related, but how? And why?
From the prologue (not usually a feature I’m fond of) to the snippets of filming described throughout the book, to the hair-raising finale, Hamilton’s writing shines, and his plot is ingenious.
Ensuing events bring all the parties under scrutiny from various arms of several governments and, eventually, to working with one another to solve the mystery of the missing millions and the identities of those responsible.
Although complex, Robotham’s plot is managed handily, moving between landscapes and societies freely, relying on one of his strongest gifts, that of characterization. His are flesh-and-bone creatures, artfully filled out and let loose for us to enjoy.
The characters are likeable (although the crimes are quite gruesome and not for everyone’s reading tastes), there is a surprisingly good ending after a nail-biting journey, and Kepler has fashioned many interesting subplots along the way.
As their first case, they select the disappearance years earlier of a talented and dedicated politician, a woman not known to have bitter enemies of any sort. But she did, and those enemies had long memories and motives which only become clear after the relentless probing of the unlikely detective duo.
Another dramatic page-turner, to be sure, but Keeper is also laced with humor, full of believable characters, and a certain bet for follow-up cases.
The Sentry ($9.99, Joe Pike) and Taken ($9.99, pb release date 12/31, Elvis Costello),
by Robert Crais
Betrayal of Trust ($9.99), by J. A. Jance ( J. P. Beaumont)
Zero Day ($9.99), by David Baldacci
The Tourist ($9.99), by Olen Steinhauer
The Ranger ($15), by Ace Atkins
Are Pak and Ga the same person? In slowly uncovered stages, Johnson reveals the metamorphosis. The answer is not supernatural or outrageous, but Johnson’s narrative has a fantastical touch to it. And there’s surprising humor. In a brief interlude worthy of the best comically improbable situations of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard, an adult Pak and some newly-minted Korean politicos journey as representatives of North Korea to Texas. From barbeque to dogs-as-pets, it’s America through the eyes of a travel virgin, and it’s touching and bizarre.
Although the story bounces around among the first-person narratives of Pak, Ga, and an anonymous interrogator, and state-scripted declamations blasted from speakers to the North Korean population, the story is cohesive. This is a thoughtful, illuminating, imaginative work. The orphan master’s son may not have his own name, but in the end he has an identity.
This has been awarded an MBTB star.
Sounding more like a song from Mary Poppins than the name of a former hotshot crime reporter for a Chiang Mai daily, Jimm Juree has relocated to an agricultural and seafaring backwater. Her mother, Mair, supposedly diagnosed with the early stages of dementia, has sold her home and relocated daughter Juree and other odd members of her family to manage a rundown resort on the beach. Tired of gutting mackeral for the non-existent guests, dodging carnivorous crabs and nosy neighbors, and putting up with brown-outs, Jimm almost welcomes the dead bodies that have popped up on the beach. They may be her ticket back to the big time.
From start to unorthodox finish, this book was a joy.
Returning to a lighter, more humorous style than the dark pieces he has been writing, Winslow brings us another story in the life of surf bum and private eye Boone Daniels. Besides the Peter Pan-like boardriders, San Diego is home to Mexican drug cartels, real estate con men, American drug crazies, white supremacists, and lots of rich people. Boone awkwardly finds himself working on behalf of the defense team for the alleged killer of Kelly Kuhio, Boone’s surfing guru and hero. In the process, Boone manages to entangle himself with all of the aforementioned groups.
Winslow’s story races merrily along, but it’s not all about plot. There are wonderfully colorful characters, including a couple of villains. In addition, the “Surfbonics” that the Dawn Patrol uses in their conversations is amusing and gives a good sense of their community.
The village is a wonderfully gossipy, your-business-is-my-business kind of place in the best Miss Marple tradition. An admonition of “don’t tell” immediately translates to “don’t tell too many people.” There’s a lot to talk about with a disappearance and a murder.
With the exception of a couple of expletives uttered (by the villain) towards the end of the book and with the awareness that a couple of controversial issues are peripheral to the story, this book is firmly proper and polite and easy to recommend to practically everyone.
Kudos to Mulholland Press for re-issuing this 2007 book in 2012.
And She Was, by Alison Gaylin ($5.99), features an unusual private eye, a young woman suffering (or blessed) with hyperthymestic disorder. That means that Brenna Spector can recall every day of her life in excruciating detail from the age of 11 onwards. She can remember with all her senses the highs, lows, and mediocrities of her life. When a new investigation shows signs of crossing paths with an incident from her youth, her uncommon ability may be the key to solving both cases.
Ben Aaronovitch’s series is a cross between the Harry Potter books and “The Avengers.” This year’s entry, Whispers from the Underground ($7.99), is no good without the two preceding books. Aaronovitch irritatingly begins Whispers without an introduction to his characters or prior events. Begin with Midnight Riot ($7.99) and enjoy the unusual department of magical things that is surreptitiously a part of the London police force. (P.S. Aaronovitch’s CV contains a stint as a writer on “Dr. Who.”)
A Drop of the Hard Stuff ($14.99) unfolds as a story Matt shares with an old friend in a bar long after closing time. The men talk about choices they made in their lives. Matt’s thoughts turn to Jack Ellery, a boy he grew up with and later saw when Jack was being questioned by the police. Years later, when the two run into each other at an AA meeting, Jack says he is on Step 9, making amends to people he has harmed. Soon after, Jack is killed, shot by someone on his list who wasn’t interested in helping him along the road to sobriety.
Since this story takes place more than 20 years ago, Matt follows leads the old fashioned way, without the help of computers. (Some phone calls are made from a telephone booth!) This is a familiar story: crime plus detection equals solution. But in the hands of a master storyteller, it becomes something more.
In another production assignment at a restaurant, things are starting to turn ugly. The restaurant is floundering and investors are fighting among themselves. When one of them turns up dead, the docudrama suddenly becomes a true crime. O’Donohue weaves the two storylines together effortlessly, so that Kate’s search for the truth involving a convicted killer aids in the discovery of the murderer of the restaurant investor.
Kate juggles these projects with the help of her loyal crew, Andres (camera) and Victor (sound). One of the things I like most about this series is the relationship between these three co-workers, who are more like family.
Having a main character that interests me is a must and Kate Conway does just that. She is smart, funny, independent, and flawed. Even when she makes mistakes, they are believable ones, things you might imagine doing yourself. I always recommend starting with the first book in a series, so be sure to read Missing Persons.
Trick of the Light ($14.99): My yearly favorite list would not be complete without a Louise Penny title. I love recommending her series because of her intricate plots, multi-dimensional characters, and the wealth of detail she provides. In this book, one of my favorite characters finally gets the attention and respect she deserves for her work, only to have long-buried resentments (and murder) take center stage.
In Pursuit of Spenser, edited by Otto Penzler ($14.95), is a tribute to the late Robert B. Parker and features a who’s who of mystery writers sharing their thoughts on Spenser, the Boston PI Parker introduced in 1973. These essays encouraged me to go back and reread Early Autumn, my all-time favorite Parker book. And you know what? I still loved it.
Reading The Attenbury Emeralds, by Jill Paton Walsh ($14.95), was like visiting a familiar friend because Walsh manages to capture the charm and wit of the Lord Peter Wimsey series, penned by the incomparable Dorothy L. Sayers. This book is set in London, after WWII, and Lord Peter looks back on his very first case, recounting to his wife, Harriet Vane, the story of investigating the theft of a valuable jewel during a house party.
In The Burning, by Jane Casey ($15.99), DC Maeve Kerrigan is young, fairly inexperienced, and eager to show her male co-workers that she is tough enough for the job. In London, the hunt for a killer dubbed “The Burning Man” provides her with just such an opportunity. Tight plotting and well-drawn characters kept me reading this first book in a new series late into the night.
Don Winslow’s Savages ($15), about a trio of young Southern California drug dealers battling a powerful Mexican cartel, and The Kings of Cool (due in paperback in early 2013), the prequel to Savages the same way “The Godfather, Part II” was a prequel to “The Godfather” – which bounces between two generations of SoCal drug dealers: far out 60s surfers and the 21st-century savages they spawned.
Set in a future not too different from the one we’re heading toward with our perfect storm of economic ruin, climate change, and accelerating digitization, this novel portrays a world where everyone lives in the used-up real world but escapes as often as possible into an immersive virtual world called OASIS that’s like a cross between Facebook and “The Matrix.”
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll stomp your feet and scratch your head. But most of all you won’t want it to end.
Hired by a ruthless boss known only as The Commodore, Eli and Charlie Sisters set out on a horseback trek from Oregon to California, where they are to murder a gold miner named Hermann Kermit Warm.
The book can be grim and violent at times, but it wins you over with its strangely loveable characters and its infectiously funny narrative voice. Any coarseness aside, this is a beautifully written novel. The polished prose feels deliberately awkward, almost angular with its choppy yet poetic phrases. As readers, we find ourselves connecting with Eli, the narrator, as he begins to question this horrible way of life that he and his brother have chosen for themselves. As we turn the pages, we cannot help but hope that the Sisters Brothers can find a way to escape this darkness of their own making.
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This edition of the year’s best is unusual. For one, you’ve probably noticed that instead of our regular 10 to 12 selected books, we have 14. We’ve also picked our favorite hardcovers of 2012. In our job, we have to read far ahead of a book’s release, which means we sometimes read a hardcover about a year and a half before we can recommend it as a paperback! Why wait, we decided. They can make your favorite person pretty darned happy this holiday season.
What follows now are books by Pacific Northwest authors that we enjoyed and highly recommend. What a year for these talented writers!
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Although the digital revolution has touched our lives in a significant way, we continue to enjoy selling print books, meeting people face-to-face, and talking about the books we love. We hope you enjoy reading our reviews and see the value in supporting your local independent bookstores.
If one of our write-ups makes you want to read that book, consider coming in and buying it or ordering it from us (503-232-9995 or email@example.com). Thank you for your support.
Barbara, Carolyn, Jean, Nick, Jackie & Chuck