Saturday, December 31, 2011


It’s gotten to be a New Year’s ritual: taking a sad hour or so to reflect on the talented lights we've lost through the previous 12 months. With that reflection comes another: you can’t help but think about the stories that will never be told.

In the month of January we were sad to share news of the death of the doyenne of American Mysteries, Ruth Cavin. An editor at Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press for more years than many people could remember, Cavin was 92 when she died.

In February, we reported on the passing of beloved Canadian humorist Eric Nicol (Script Tease, Old Is In) at the age of 91. Nicol was the author of 36 books as well as radio plays, stage plays and television musicals and was a three time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.

Also in February, came news of the death of yet another legendary editor. Children’s editor and publisher Margaret K. McElderry was 98 at the time of her death.

In March, well-loved children’s author Diana Wynne Jones (Howl’s Moving Castle, Dark Lord of Derkholm) passed away after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. The next month, brilliant and beloved director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Serpico) died at age 86.

In June, Governor General’s Award-winning author Robert Kroetsch (The Studhorse Man, The Man From the Creeks) died in a car crash and in October, we lost Steve Jobs (lower right) at just 56. But November was a very cruel month: we said good-bye to both beloved dragonlady Anne McCaffrey (above left) and renowned poet, Ruth Stone.

Most recently, we were saddened to report on the passing of Christopher Hitchens. His death was not a surprise: he’d been publicly battling cancer for the last few years. Even so, his was a voice that I never wanted stilled: until the last, it was so vibrant, so contentious and so deeply charged with talent.

For all of these losses as well as the many we did not cover, we bow our heads.

Have we forgotten anyone in our accounting? Feel free to suggest additions in the Comments section of this post.

READ MORE: And So Comes the End,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet).


Pierce’s Pick: The Silver Stain by Paul Johnson

Speaking of crime, this week, J. Kingston Pierce chooses The Silver Stain by Paul Johnson:
Half-Greek, half-Scots gumshoe Alex Mavros (The Golden Silence, 2004) gets involved with a film being made about the 1941 German invasion of Crete. When one of the movie’s consultants is found hanged, Mavros must determine whether the tragedy has to do with old animosities or a conspiracy involving drugs and antiquities theft.
Looking for previous Pierce’s Picks? Twelve months of them are here.

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Crime is Covered

Near the end of each year, our sister publication, the crime fiction-focused Rap Sheet, looks back at the top covers of the year and gets its readers involved in choosing the very best one. Editor J. Kingston Pierce says:
Come the end of every year, it’s now a tradition here at The Rap Sheet to look back over the preceding 12 months and choose our favorite crime novel fronts. We commenced this custom way back in 2007, and have no interest in discontinuing it. Especially not when there ample excellent candidates from which to select.
You can see the top covers and vote for your favorite here.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Best Books of 2011

After a year of reading, months of choosing, weeks of editing and days of final preparations, January Magazine’s Best Books of 2011 feature is complete. This is our biggest end-of-year feature ever, with selections in eight categories: fiction, non-fiction, crime fiction (parts one and two), art & culture, cookbooks, books for kids, science fiction & fantasy and biography.

You can read about January’s Best of 2011 feature here, including details about our selection process.

Still hunting for a last-minute gift? Head to your favorite neighborhood bookstore with a selection from our Holiday Gift Guide.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Best Books of 2011: Fiction

This is the fiction segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2011 feature. You can see other sections as follows: Best Non-Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Biography, Best Books for Children and Young Adults, Best Cookbooks, Best Science Fiction/Fantasy, Best Crime Fiction (part I) and Best Crime Fiction (part II).

11/22/63 by Stephen King (Scribner)
It’s no secret that Stephen King knows how to weave a tight story in short form, and of course many of his novels are classics. But some of his books are, well, daunting. There was The Stand, as brilliant as it was long. It, which exhausted me before I finished. Under the Dome, 2009’s examination of the population of a small town when a strange dome is lowered over it, trapping them inside. And now there’s 11-22-63, which, at almost 900 pages, approaches epic status. So what does happen when a guy steps back in time from 2011 to 1958, with the goal of stopping Kennedy’s assassination? For King, it involves five years of life beforehand, proving Oswald’s lone-gunman status. The frame is the events of Dealey Plaza -- but the picture inside that frame is something quite different. This is an adult novel that speaks of real relationships, real love; the dialogue and cultural touchstones feel like vintage King. No one is better at zeroing in on the detail that gets us to ooh and aah and maybe even shed a tear as we remember. But this goes beyond that. Far beyond.What’s so wonderful is King’s take on what happens when changes are made in the past. The JFK aspect of this book, for all the hype, is the smallest part of it. Is it cool to see what happens? Well, yeah. We’re all suckers for all things JFK. But this book isn’t really about Oswald and JFK; it’s about a man who agrees to undertake a world-changing mission, then comes to understand how that mission changes his own life -- and possibly the lives of everyone on the planet -- and possibly the existence of the planet itself. 11-22-63 is a surprisingly layered, complex story about the small part we all play in this thing called life. It’s also about the idea that each part may not be as small as we think it is; each one may, in the end, be a tiny, though essential, factor in the future we all share. In a way, it’s that tale about the butterfly that flaps its wings in Iowa and causes a tidal wave in Japan (there are countless variations) -- except each one of us, in turns out, is a butterfly. -- Tony Buchsbaum

A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism by Slavenka Drakulić (Penguin)
Celebrated Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić takes fiction to its very highest form with A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism, a book that recalls Eastern European Communism through the perspective of several animals: a Czech mouse, a Yugoslavian parrot, a Polish cat, an East German mouse, a pig from Hungary and Albanian raven and a Romanian dog. In a note to the reader, Drakulić cautions against taking her fiction here at face value: “From the point of view of person and events described, regardless of whether a story is narrated by a dog, a cat, or some other domestic, wild, or exotic animal, it all really happened.” Was Communism as described wicked? Absolutely. Are there parts of it to be mourned? Maybe. Perhaps the parts that were the dream of Communism, rather than its reality. That does seem to be part of the idea that emerges. Despite the animal narrators, A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism is no one's idea of a romp. Drakulić takes searing looks at Communism and the price that it exacted on an important part of the world. The book is not as much fun as you might expect, but it is even more important. -- Aaron Blanton

A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear by Atiq Rahimi (Other)
When A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear was first published in the United Kingdom in 2006, The Guardian nailed it in their review, calling the book a “taut and brilliant burst of anguished prose .... both a wonderful and a dreadful little book.” For me that covered filmmaker and novelist Atiq Rahimi’s novella with startling precision. The book is like a beautiful, yet slightly repellant poem. The structure, the meter, the words chosen, all beautiful. But Rahimi’s prose captures the violence of fact and spirit so completely, you don’t always see the art; just feel the hammering of your heart and taste the blood. We’re in Kabul in 1979 when we meet 21-year-old Farhad, a typical student bent on the pleasures of those of his interests and background. One night, not long after the pro-Soviet coup, Farhad goes drinking and falls into the hands of a group of soldiers who brutalize him. Later he wakes up in a strange house where a beautiful woman is looking after him and a child calls him “father.” He thinks he is dead. As he heals, he becomes ever more cognizant of the plight of Afghani women and he realizes he can no longer live in his homeland, but must find his way to Pakistan. This synopsis might give you the idea that A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear is a more traditionally structured book than it is. But it is not. It reads at times like absolute stream of consciousness. In fact at times it feels like your own dream. The images are so vivid, the violence so close, in the time that I read the book, my own sleep was troubled by nightmares. In some ways, one suspects elements of this nightmare/dream might be autobiographical. Author Rahimi was born in Afghanistan in 1962 and fled to France in 1984. He is an award-winning filmmaker -- his film version of his novel Earth and Ashes was an official selection at Cannes in 2004 and has won significant prizes -- and though he lives in Paris, he has set up an organization in Kabul that offers training and support to young writers and filmmakers. -- Linda L. Richards

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay (McClelland & Stewart)
Elizabeth Hay’s last novel, Late Nights on Air, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and those of us who have been watching her knew it was only a matter of time before that happened. Knew, also, that the best was yet to come. Alone in the Classroom lives up to that expectation. The Ottawa Valley in summer during the Depression and a young girl is about to disappear. Just before she does: “Early August. The jewelweed was in the air. Every child felt it. She was aware of precious time running out.” Hay evokes first beauty then fear as she explores the connections between two women separated by generations: narrator Anne and her aunt, Connie Flood who, as a student, is both compelled and repulsed by the principal, Parley Burns. Between the two timelines -- Anne’s and Connie’s -- Hay obliquely examines the twinned natures of love and hate and how obsession can cross generations. This is CanLit. Flawlessly rendered. Confidently told. A story that, viewed from above is gorgeous and rich and complete, the imperfections in the world created revealed only to those who jump in with both feet and look beyond the polite veneer to the flawed humans who give the story its pulse. -- Linda L. Richards

The Architect of Flowers by William Lychack (Mariner)
In this collection of short fiction, Lychack’s strength lies in his ability to render details in language so precise -- at once familiar and fresh -- that the stories demand multiple re-reads just to savor the gorgeous flavor of the words. In “Chickens,” we sit in a “house so quiet you could hear the clock chewing minutes the way an insect chews a leaf.” In “Thin Edge of the Wedge,” a lawn is “the green of frozen peas.” In “Like a Demon,” a roadside diner has the “slushy sound of cutlery and voices, walls of quilted aluminum.” Lychack takes all the hard, ugly, misshapen realities of our world, waves his pen like a magic wand, reaches into the hat, and pulls out—not rabbits or doves, but something infinitely better: words. -- David Abrams

A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston (Knopf Canada)
While it’s certainly no The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, A World Elsewhere sometimes comes close to reaching the heights Wayne Johnston attained in his wonderful 1998 novel. Landish Druken and Padgett Vanderluyden meet at Princeton near the close of the 19th century, setting in motion a friendship that will have unexpected long-term repercussions for both men: one of them the son of a sealer from the Canadian Maritimes, the other the son of the richest man in America. Does Johnston reach a little too far for the surprises that conclude this novel? Possibly. But, still: the wordplay and story itself make it well worth the journey. Even not Johnston’s best is better than much of what you’ll have read this year. -- Adrian Marks

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin (Delacorte)

I was pleasantly surprised by the new book by the author of 2010’s Alice I Have Been. Not that this earlier work wasn’t terrific: it was. But in some ways and at first glance, it seemed as though The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb was going to be too contrived with a lot of potential of being a lame-duck effort to do something similar-but-different from that the Alice book, which was very successful. Delightfully, then, I’m please to report I was wrong. The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb takes up the voice Lavinia Mercy Warren Bump, for most of her life known as Mrs. Tom Thumb. Once again, Benjamin handles the 19th century material as though she’s seeing it all with her own eyes. Or, of course, more properly, Vinnie’s and it’s exciting -- and sometimes sad -- to spend time looking through the eyes of the woman who was at one time one of the most famous in America. While at the same time, she was necessarily always somewhat outside the mainstream. It is not, of course, an autobiography. It is fiction, though admittedly of the skilled variety. Still it’s easy to lose yourself in Benjamin’s storytelling and imagine that this is the autobiography that history tells us that 32-inch tall Vinnie planned but never wrote. History as it might have been. Enchanting enough to lose yourself in. There are worse things for a book to be. Whatever can Benjamin have in mind next? -- Monica Stark

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago (Mariner)
Because The Elephant’s Journey is being published posthumously, it seems all the more special; all the more bittersweet. Portuguese author, José Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, was prolific and beloved. Over two million copies of his various books are in print, but he is perhaps best known for the novels Blindness, All the Names and Death With Interruptions. He died last year at the age of 87. For those of us who enjoyed Saramago’s work during his lifetime, The Elephant’s Journey seemed a fitting good-bye. Slender, magical, charming and thoughtful, in some ways, the book is like a fairytale for adults. As with a fairytale, we are being told things beyond what we see and, even if -- like me -- you’re never really sure what those things might be, it’s a wonderful journey. In 16th century Portugal, King Joao comes to the realization that he was neglectful of his nephew, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, by not giving him a wedding gift. As it turns out, the King has an elephant, Solomon, that he hasn’t been paying much attention to. He instructs that Solomon be given a good cleaning, gets the elephant’s keeper, Subhro, some new duds, then sends the two of them off with a royal guard and a motley entourage on a mad journey from Lisbon to Vienna. The Elephant’s Journey is enchanting. It is lighter than most of Saramago’s novels; a sweet and easy read. For all of that it is no less thoughtful and insightful than what we’re used to from this author. All in all, a fitting way to say good-bye. -- Linda L. Richards

Glass by Sam Savage (Coffee House Press)
Readers who don’t know that author Sam Savage (Firmin, The Cry of the Sloth) holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale until after they’ve read Glass will be unsurprised. The book, while a skilled piece of storytelling, reads like a philosophical exploration as much as anything else. The story is told by Edna, who has been asked to write a foreword for one of her late husband’s long out-of-print books. And she takes it on, this request. Nay: she wallows in it, turning the relatively simple task into a personal magnum opus. She explains the request and says she wrote back, telling the publisher that she could “not (I underlined not) write a short preface but that I would consider writing a long introduction or even, I said, a separate book (I underlined separate twice, and while there would be a lot about Clarence in it, it would not just be about him but also about my life before and after, as one could not pretend to understand Clarence without that.” Glass is that book: a personal treatise from an unreliable narrator who we’re never quite sure is trashing on her late husband’s memory or grieving with a deep a palpable sadness. Glass is a fantastic experiment in perspective and an oddly memorable book. -- Linda L. Richards

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Ballantine)
Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers, came with a lot of hype. I wasn’t sure it would live up to it. The story jumps back and forth in time, between the childhood and adulthood of a woman named Victoria Jones. As a child, she was shuttled from foster home to foster home, eventually ending up at the farm of Elizabeth, who has familial demons of her own to deal with. As a young adult, Victoria is no longer in touch with Elizabeth -- which fact creates a tension and a question -- Why? -- that drives the twin narratives forward. Elizabeth teaches Victoria about the language of flowers, the hidden meanings, the code, of each flower. What yellow roses mean, versus red. What thistle means. And on and on. And what they mean in combination. This part of the book is fascinating, especially as the flowers are used to deliver messages among the main characters. I was -- and remain -- completely smitten with Victoria. She’s not always likable, with enough rough edges to draw blood if you get too close, but there’s something about her that makes her irresistible. Her forthrightness. Her honesty. She’s compelling, even captivating -- and it’s her personality, above all, that propels the novel forward. The pages turn almost by themelves, and I found myself purposefully slowing down, to read this luscious book at a more relaxed pace, absorbing its language, Diffenbaugh’s gorgeous sentences. Her prose is direct, simple, and she wisely avoids over-writing, which would have been easy to do in a book about flowers how stunningly beautiful they are, and what they say. I’m sure she was tempted to over-describe them, but she resisted. The result is a book that’s smartly assembled and smartly written. The structure of The Language of Flowers forces you to keep reading. As the two halves converge, the tension grows to an almost unbearable state. At the end, I was driven to tears as many of the strands of Victoria’s story come together. As for the hype, why was I worried? -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (Random House Canada)

In a year when a Rapture scare actually held America’s attention for ten or twenty scary minutes, Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers poses a delicious “what if?” More to the point, what if you got left behind? Though we learn early on that millions of people around the world have simply disappeared, we see how this impacts the small suburban town of Mapleton, whose number has been overnight reduced by over a hundred, leaving large holes and a lot of post-Apocalyptic confusion behind. Though all of this sounds a bit like the plot of some new series on the Syfy network, in Perotta’s hands this somewhat absurd premise becomes material for a starkly human tale. Though Mapleton’s struggles are out of our experience, we can identify with the way the town’s surviving inhabitants deal with what they’ve been given: both individually and as a community in a world where everything is exactly the same… only different. If you find the premise off-putting, don’t give it up yet: Perrotta is a terrific writer who just seems to get better and better. I’m at a point with him that the topics no longer matter: he can tell me any story that he wants. -- Linda L. Richards

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (Ecco)
In a 2003 interview with January Magazine, Russell Banks explained why his characters manage to live and breathe as sharply as they do: “Again, it goes back to: how does the writer view the universe? How do you view human beings? It's the case, I think, that no one is simply one thing or the other -- except for those few beings who are out of their minds, in a literal and ongoing way. But most human beings -- almost all human beings -- are made up of this conflicted mix of good and bad motives, and good and bad deeds, and perception and blindness.” It is this conflicted mix of good and bad that most characterizes the main character in Banks’ latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin. “The Kid” is 22 and out on probation, having done his time after his involvement with a girl who was underage. Labeled a sex offender, the Kid no longer belongs anywhere and creates a makeshift life with his pet iguana under a South Florida causeway with others who share his brand. When the Kid is befriended by a professor with an interest in homelessness, both men think the older man will be helping the younger. Both are surprised when it turns out to be the other way around. As in earlier works like Continental Drift and The Sweet Hereafter, in Lost Memory of the Skin, as Margaret Atwood said, Banks “takes us into the dark side of the dark side.” The light never looked so sweet. -- Monica Stark

Men in the Making by Bruce Machart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Another powerful debut story collection from the author who wrote The Wake of Forgiveness, one of my favorite novels of last year. Machart writes of men -- primarily Texans -- who navigate that tricky territory between the tradition of macho swagger and the inward pull of sensitivity. The stories are so overwhelming in their intensity, I can only read one per day because they are like miniature razor blades bumping through my bloodstream. This is fiction that excoriates and scrubs the reader from the inside out. And lest you think I’m making Men in the Making sound like a visit to the dentist, it’s not. Far from it. It’s beautiful and engrossing and hopeful and funny in all the right places. -- David Abrams

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown)
Everything written about David Foster Wallace since his death by suicide in 2008 is tinged with tragedy. It can’t be helped. The enormity of his talent. Gone. The thought of the books we’ll never get to read. Thinking about it still just breaks our hearts. That being the case, there’s no real surprise that every word breathed about his last book, the posthumously compiled, finished and published The Pale King, should evoke shudders of tragedy from readers and reviewers alike. We’re just so goddamned sad. It doesn’t help that we can’t be sure if this is the book he would have wanted us to read. The core of what was published this year as The Pale King was found in a pile on the author’s desk after he was dead. Michael Pietsch, the executive VP and publisher at Little, Brown, was charged with the daunting task of making something worthy of the celebrated author out of sometimes disconnected-seeming material. Some of the reviews the book received were like love letters to Wallace himself. “The final, beautiful act of an unwilling icon,” Benjamin Alsup wrote in Esquire. “Deeply sad, deeply philosophical … breathtakingly brilliant,” wrote Michiko Kakutani for The New York Times and Lev Grossman at TIME said that “The Pale King represents Wallace’s finest work as a novelist.” I’ve sliced these reviews down to nothing: not even the essence of the love letters that they were. And they are love letters: make no mistake. But that doesn’t make things better. Hell, in some ways, it makes things worse. I found The Pale King impossible to review properly, and for so many reasons. One, of course, is the fact that it’s been pieced together -- by loving hands, sure. But still. We will never know exactly had Wallace had in mind. And it doesn’t matter what the reviews say in this case, does it? Those who loved Wallace will read The Pale King no matter what is said about it. And they should because, in this instance, reviews are really not the point. -- Linda L. Richards

Parallel Stories
by Péter Nádas, translated by Imre Goldstein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
This toe-breaking novel from the author of A Book of Memories, the book Susan Sontag called “the greatest novel ever written in our time,” is impossible to talk about briefly. It is multi-layered. Difficult to define. Almost unthinkably complex. Eighteen years in the writing, four years in translation, at well over 1100 pages, there is a lot to read and never mind ponder. Any way you look at it, Parallel Stories is a whole lot of book. It begins with a crime -- or the aftermath of one -- amid all the accouterments of the most classic whodunnit. We are in Berlin in 1989, just as the Wall is tumbling. But just as you settle in to the pace and rhythm of the crime and its resolution, we are cast back to 1961 Budapest where we begin to be brought into the parallel stories promised in the title. Some of this historical hither and yon becomes disorienting. How can it not be? But the strength of the prose and its promise lead the reader to doubt their own understanding, rather than the skill of the author. Parallel Stories is, in many ways, an almost unimaginably wonderful and epic book. Is it sometimes too big, too deep and altogether too much? Well, yes. But it is also an event on a grand scale. Magyar Nemzet, the Hungarian newspaper called Parallel Stories a “twenty-first century War and Peace.” I’m a huge Tolstoy fan and reading War and Peace translations is something of a hobby, so my knee-jerk reaction is to call that an overstatement but, honestly? Nádas has here reached that high. -- Linda L. Richards

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Ballantine)
There was never a moment when The Paris Wife was not going to be a huge seller. In fact, we called it nearly a year ago. The writing here is sharp and terrific, but the subject matter clinches things. The story of Ernest Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife, Hadley, would have been of great interest even without the success of Loving Frank (2007), Nancy Horan’s explosive bestseller about Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress. But with Loving Frank paving the way, there was going to be no stopping The Paris Wife. (And yes: that is a blurb from Horan on the cover of McLain’s book.) Both books were edited by Random House executive editor Susanna Porter. Porter is said to have paid “north of half a million” for North American rights to the debut novel. McLain’s jazz age love story is perfect from the beginning. “The very first thing he does is fix me with those wonderfully brown eyes and say, ‘It’s possible I’m too drunk to judge, but you might have something there.’” Of course, it’s not all wonderfully brown eyes and strains of jazz. You know going in that The Paris Wife is going to end badly. After all, before Hemingway killed himself in 1961, there would three wives post-Hadley. The book concerns itself mainly with the five mad years the couple spent in Paris and includes the birth of their son, John Nicanor Hemingway (known as Bumby), who would one day grow to be the father of Mariel and Margeux Hemingway. The marriage came to an end when Hadley discovered the other woman, the journalist Pauline Pfeiffer. Hadley and Hemingway were divorced within the year. In between is a heartbreaking stream of pain and near misses. This is, after all, the woman about whom Hemingway wrote, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” Though The Paris Wife is, of course, fiction, sometimes it’s difficult to keep in mind. McLain delivers Hadley’s voice so perfectly, it’s easy to forget that the 28-year-old St. Louis virgin that Hemingway first married didn’t have much of a voice: at least, history doesn’t give her one. McLain has repaired that quite completely. -- Linda L. Richards

Pulse by Julian Barnes
The title of Julian Barnes’ 17th book refers to the rhythms that function within each relationship. So, at least, it would seem, because Pulse concerns itself entirely with love and relationships, a topic that turns out to be as fraught with danger as his previous collection, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which focused on death. Barnes has broken this collection into two distinct parts. In the first, he explores contemporary relationships, punctuated by repeated appearances of a set of couples at regular dinner parties, observing and commenting, most often not too kindly. “Did you see the map of global warming the paper the other day? It said a four-degree rise would be utterly disastrous -- no water in most of Africa, cyclones, epidemics, rising sea levels, the Netherlands and southeast England underwater.” “Can’t we rely on the Dutch to sort something out? They did before.” “What time span are we actually talking about?” “If we don’t agree now, we could have a four-degree rise by 2060.” “Ah.” In the second part of Pulse, Barnes looks at love in a more historical way, with forays into the 18th and 19th centuries. The results are somewhat predictable: times change, but the human heart, truly, does not. -- Aaron Blanton

Randy Lopez Goes Home by Rudolfo Anaya (University of Oklahoma Press)
The most astonishing thing about Rudolfo “the Godfather of Chicano literature” Anaya is that he’s not better known and more widely read. This is illustrated most dramatically in his latest novel, Randy Lopez Goes Home, an elegant juxtaposition of magical realism and 21st century Hispanic American concerns. Randy Lopez returns to his hometown in Northern New Mexico and everyone -- even his godparents -- have forgotten him. He sets out to build a bridge that will bring him properly home, figuratively and actually. Rich in allegory and steeped in magic, you could shorthand the whole reading process just scanning chapter headlines. “Randy arrives in Agua Bendita, where time stands still.” “The old cowboy explains bet-him-Mike’s-horses, or becoming bear scat.” “Those reincarnation guys have it made… they just keep on being recycled.” While to do this would be to miss out on Anaya’s wonderful prose, it does provide a different sort of journey. And Randy Lopez Goes Home is all about the journey. If you have not read Anaya you really must, and Randy Lopez Goes Home -- slender and sparkly -- is a fantastic starting point. -- Lincoln Cho

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Knopf)
Who’s to say, when we start a life, where we will end up? What will we do? What will we regret? What, if anything, will we understand? These are a few of the questions posed by Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Award-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. At just 160 pages or so, the book is deceptive. It’s spare but not sparse. It’s short but not light. Instead, it is a rich tapestry of starts, stops, decisions, regrets, misunderstandings, resentments and rapprochements, all concerning an Englishman named Tony Webster and some of the people in his life, notably his first lover and his ex-wife. Barnes sketches Tony’s years in broad strokes, in little more than an outline. Tony’s schooling, his first girlfriend, his subsequent relationships, his marriage, his work, his divorce, and the latter years of his life. When I say broad strokes, I mean broad. While Tony’s schooling and first girlfriend are given the early part of the novel, almost everything else is summed up in a few paragraphs, all except for the latter part of his life, which occupies most of this novel. It’s here, when Tony is what might be called old but not elderly, that his search for answers takes hold of him like nothing else in his life ever has. Written in the first person, with a sort of blasé intensity, Tony discusses his life as if he were looking at a painting he knows intimately. As if he’s painted it himself. As if it’s not a work in progress, but a finished work that warrants close, almost microscopic examination. In one way, The Sense of an Ending is a Renoir-type Impressionist painting: all swaths of color, one blending and sometimes crashing into another. In another way, it’s more like Seurat: it’s not the brushstrokes that matter, but the dots. Every detail. What happened to Tony’s marriage? What happened with his first, earlier, girlfriend? And why did his close friend commit suicide, ending abruptly a life of such promise? What happened appears to be the key question here. Tony seems to believe that by knowing what happened, he will also understand what happened. This point is the core of the novel, the desire for knowledge, but it ends up a shattering disappointment because it isn’t true; knowing does not necessarily provide understanding. But as he pulls this tightly wound knot apart, Barnes uses language that’s forthright, almost matter-of-fact. In Tony’s voice, there is great pain behind each word, as if he is struggling under the weight of what the words mean as much as what they say. What this wonderful, heartbreaking novel shows us -- what Tony learns, eventually -- is that knowing something may provide a certain clarity, but not the kind one yearns for when examining one’s life so closely. One wants answers, yes, but answers require more than facts. Facts may give one the sense of an ending, surely, but only that. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Soldier of the Horse by Robert W. Mackay (Touchwood)
Most historians agree, the First Great War was one of the most horrible conflicts in history, coming as it did at a time when new technologies -- in the forms of modern arms and chemical warfare -- were being introduced to battlefields still entrenched in the tradition of hand-to-hand combat. Some of the stories and art that came out of World War I were truly awful and thousands of young men suffered unthinkably. In his first novel, Soldier of the Horse, former lawyer and navyman Robert W. Mackay explores the struggles on the Western Front through the eyes of Tom Macrae, a young Canadian soldier intent on just keeping his feet under him in France during the War. In 1914 20-year-old Tom is studying law in Winnipeg when he is caught in a scandal that leaves him in extreme dilemma. In the end, he must choose between incarceration -- and, with it, professional ruin -- or service to his country in France. Tom chooses France. Serving with Lord Strathcona’s Horse in the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, Tom discovers that war really is hell. Before long he knows that if he gets out of this alive, it’ll be due to luck and the cooperation and support of his constant companion; his horse, Toby. Soldier of the Horse is an engaging first novel. A memorable view of a war that, in some of the ways that matter, we really still know surprisingly little about. -- Monica Stark

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (Random House)
The Tiger’s Wife is a good case study in that age-old debate about separating the artist from the artwork (i.e., Can we appreciate John Cheever’s short fiction for what it is, setting aside his behavior as a father and husband? Or, once upon a time, could we still groove to Michael Jackson’s music and ignore the rumors coming from Neverland?). Given all the marketing noise buzzing around Téa Obreht (and I know I’m a loud contributor to that very huzzah), it’s important to stop our ears and focus on the contents of the page. That’s easy because the assured strength of the prose pulls you right inside. As The Tiger’s Wife opens, Natalia, a young doctor working in an unnamed Balkan country, learns of the death of her grandfather, a distinguished doctor himself who was forced out of his practice by ethnic politics. When he died, the grandfather was far from home on a secretive journey to a remote town. Natalia makes it her goal to learn the truth about her grandfather’s fate and in so doing, she unleashes a flood of memories -- most of them involving her family’s patriarch who was her closest friend when she was a young girl, taking her on long walks and repeated visits to the zoo. Natalia, who is working on a humanitarian mission of her own to deliver medicine to an orphange, begins to recall the stories her grandfather would tell about a certain “deathless man” named Gavran Gaile who never seemed to age but who always shows up just before a person’s death. She also remembers the days when they would visit the tigers’ cage at the zoo, and he would read to her from the well-worn copy of The Jungle Book which he always carried in his coat pocket. The tigers, it seemed, held a deep-seated fascination for her grandfather. Obreht tells the story of the “tiger’s wife” bit by alluring bit over the course of the book. Through the eyes of the grandfather as a boy, we learn how the tiger gave the young Muslim bride confidence and power, and we learn how the frightened villagers eventually came to regard her as a witch, believing the tiger shed his skin each night he paid her a visit. These are the kind of people, Obreht writes, “with small ailments and terrible fears, because everything they do not understand frightens them.” And yet, as she unspools the story, we find there is a mysterious love between beast and beauty. The novel is divided into chapters with headings that evoke fables: “The Bear,” “The Apothecary,” “The Heart,” and so on. Obreht has paid special attention to the structure of the book and, indeed, the way a story is built. Every truss is carefully set in place, the floorboards are squared and true, each nail is pounded into place with the strongest, surest blows. The sentences in and of themselves are miniature works of art and you keep thinking each one is greater than the one before and she could never top herself. And yet, she does. Just look at the beauty Obreht packs into the short space of this one sentence: “It was late afternoon when they came across the tiger in a clearing by a frozen pond, bright and real, carved from sunlight.” The heart of The Tiger’s Wife, however, is how the human race deals with death, grief, and war. Though Natalia aches for her dead grandfather, as she unpeels the many layers of his past, she learns that the afterlife carries its own sense of wonder and hope. “Dying is not punishment,” the deathless man once told her grandfather. “The dead are celebrated. The dead are loved. They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.” The Tiger’s Wife is so majestic in its telling, you almost don’t hear the the morality whispering past your ears. But the philosophical foundation of the book is strong and only serves to deepen Obreht’s strength as a storyteller. Layered in myth, memory and folklore, this novel is one of those rare books which are full-immersion experiences. Long before thirty pages have passed, The Tiger’s Wife ceases to be a book; it becomes a door to a world which we eagerly revisit with frequent trips to the page. Reading The Tiger’s Wife, it is as if we were transported to an age before electricity when storytellers mesmerized listeners with spell-binding tales told in a half-circle around a fireside. We hang on every word, our mouths slowly falling agape as the light of flame licks our faces and whole worlds are built with words inside our imaginations—worlds full of undead men thirsting for water, snowbound villagers ruled by superstition, zoo animals walking the streets of cities, and magical women who lay with tigers. -- David Abrams

Volt: Stories by Alan Heathcock (Graywolf)
The strongest debut of a short-story collection I’ve read in a long, long time. In a tradition stretching from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Heathcock links the stories in Volt through setting and character -- the residents of the fictional town of Krafton. They exist in an indefinable place and time. It could be Indiana in the 1950s or it could be Montana in the 2010s, but the characters are, at heart, those folks who live next door to us; or, more precisely, those who live in the mirror. Heathcock has gone directly to the heart of what makes us tick and breathe in a world thrown into disarray, no matter if it’s the Cold War or the Iraq War in the background. With a certain Midwestern stoicism, most of Heathcock’s characters are men and women of few words. In the collection’s opening story, “The Staying Freight,” Winslow Nettles embarks on a weeks-long cross-country odyssey after he accidentally kills his son and, in a separate incident, causes a train derailment. Before he departs, however, he leaves a note on the kitchen table for his wife: “Took a walk. Be back soon.” In fact, Winslow will not be back anytime soon. He has set off on a sojourn across a rough landscape and, metaphorically, across an equally-scarred soul. His prolonged descent into a hell of his own making is the kind of punishing, self-imposed exile typical to many of the characters in Volt. Heathcock’s men and women feel they aren’t worthy -- not in the eyes of their Creator, nor even in the judgment of their friends and neighbors in Krafton. At times, it feels like we’re reading The Greatest Hits of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sin, guilt, regret, redemption, forgiveness, and mercy wrestle like naked, greased angels of God in these pages. -- David Abrams

West of Here by Jonathan Evison (Algonquin)
It is always distressing to me when I discover a book that I strongly suspect will be one of my picks for best book of the year too early in the twelvemonth. If by late January you’re already reading something you know will be hard to beat, you just can’t help wondering why read any further. I had this feeling again and again while reading West of Here, a lovingly rendered novel, epic in scope, that tells the story of the settlement of the Olympic Peninsula, west of Seattle, and the impact that white settlers ultimately have on the region. That description sounds more dry than the story Evison evokes. This is, after all, a lusty, full-blooded tale and the writer has created a story about nature lost and found in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Moving us skillfully back and forth between the 19th century and contemporary Washington State, Evison tells a story that melds the mood and sensibilities of another era with the supposedly more enlightened consciousness of this one. It’s difficult to credit that this is Evison’s second novel. West of Here is ambitious and mature; a masterwork. The author’s first book, 2009’s All About Lulu, won the Washington State Book Award. I found myself wondering if West of Here had begun as Evison’s starter novel: begun long ago and pulled more recently from a drawer. After a while, though, I decided it didn’t matter. However it came about, West of Here is one of the best books I read in 2011. -- Aaron Blanton

The Woman at the Well by Ann Chamberlin (Epigraph)
Readers who would take a fictional journey to the heart of Islam to understand it better will enjoy Ann Chamberlin’s The Woman at the Well. On her personal website, Chamberlin says that she believes “the purpose of storytelling -- as of all true art as well as all true religion -- is to support positions in exact opposition to the views prevailing in a culture's powerhouses, whatever those views happen to be.” Her twelfth book makes use of all of her background to tell a story that is no way slight. Chamberlin studied Archaeology of the Middle East, spent a summer in Israel excavating a Biblical city and traveling in the Holy Land. She reads Hebrew, Arabic, Egyptian hieroglyphs and ancient Akkadian as well as French and German and her Reign of the Favored Women series, a trilogy set in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire, has been on the bestsellers list in Turkey for six months. The Woman at the Well is not a light read. Not a beach read. But you’ll come away from it feeling as though you have a deeper understanding of things that were opaque to you before. -- Aaron Blanton

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Best Books of 2011: Crime Fiction, Part II

This is the second crime fiction segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2011 feature. You can see other sections as follows: Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Biography, Best Books for Children and Young Adults, Best Cookbooks, Best Science Fiction/Fantasy and Best Crime Fiction (part I).

The Gentlemen’s Hour by Don Winslow (Simon & Schuster)
Although Winslow’s follow-up to 2008’s The Dawn Patrol has been out in England for several years now, it was a wise move for Simon & Schuster to hold it until after the release of Savages (2010). Why? Because that grenade of a novel proved that Don Winslow is a madman who will go there. That makes this sequel all the more compelling, because we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Winslow will kill off the characters we know and love -- from laid-back surf detective Boone Daniels to 12-toed Hang Twelve -- if it serves the story. That makes The Gentlemen’s Hour one of the most gripping books of the year -- including a 75-page tour de force that will have you turning pages with both fright and delight. Winslow continues to challenge our assumptions of what a detective series can -- and should -- be. Challenge is the wrong word: Dude takes a sledgehammer to them. -- Brendan M. Leonard

Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward (Putnam)
In this co-authored novel, plot points are discarded and later brought back, the authors -- who used to date each other -- bicker in footnotes and in between chapters, the characterizations of certain players seem to change periodically, characters die and then spring back to life (in one instance, more than once), big events take place but are ignored for ages (a plane crashes, and nobody seems to care) and after Lutz contends that Hayward is writing too “smart,” he takes revenge in the next chapter he composes (the authors alternate) in a hilarious way. The results of all these efforts are brilliant. Heads You Lose is a meta-love letter to the art of writing and what a bad idea it can be when friends decide to pen a book together. It’s great satire, and I was dying to know what horrible crime against literature would happen next. We all know, from her novels about the dysfunctional Spellman family, that Lisa Lutz is a delightful writer, so the real discovery here is that David Hayward has a real gift for composing dialogue. I hope Hayward has a novel or three left in him. If Donald E. Westlake were still alive, he would embrace Hayward and Lutz and give them a standing ovation for this comic masterpiece. Bravo, I say. -- Cameron Hughes

The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin (Reagan Arthur)
In his second outing (after last year’s The Complaints), Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox and his team from Professional Ethics and Standards find themselves in the coastal town of Kirkcaldy, north of Edinburgh, investigating some of their own. Days earlier, Detective Constable Paul Carter had been found guilty of misconduct. What made the case unusual is that the complaint was lodged by that copper’s uncle Alan, himself a retired officer. In the wake of Detective Carter’s conviction, several fellow officers find themselves suspected of helping to mount a cover-up, and Fox and his team get the predictable runaround from everyone at the station. Fox decides to speak with Carter’s uncle, running him to earth at his remote cottage. Their meeting isn’t all that helpful, but not long afterwards Alan Carter is found shot. The locals chalk it up to suicide, but Fox isn’t buying it: the senior Carter had been working on a cold case involving a lawyer who’d been killed in 1985. Assumed to be the victim of a car crash on a lonely rural road, a bullet hole had been found in the lawyer’s head once he reached the hospital. There are too many coincidences here to please Fox. His investigation will take him back to a different era, in which paramilitary groups were plotting Scottish independence, and carry forward again to the present day, when people have moved on, established other lives and are prepared to kill so that the past remains the past. Plotting is one of Rankin’s many strengths, and The Impossible Dead is like a Chinese puzzle in 3D, intricate and layered and as good as it gets. As Fox works his way through a labyrinth of lies and deception, he teases out the relationship between a gun that should not exist and a young woman who was never alive. Once again, Rankin demonstrates how a novel with nuanced characters and a finely paced plot can hold its own against stories boasting nonstop, mindless violence any day. -- Jim Napier

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen (Dutton)
Anybody who thinks fictional detectives from Scandinavia must be suicidal or homicidal, and inevitably sacrifice parts of their souls with each new case, has not yet enjoyed Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s series of crime thrillers about Department Q, the first of which -- The Keeper of Lost Causes (originally published in 2007 as Kvinden i buret, or The Woman in the Cage) -- was released this year in an English translation. (The UK edition is titled Mercy.) Yes, the central crime here is grim, but the book’s tone is not irredeemably dark. Adler-Olsen has written two non-fiction books about American film comedian Groucho Marx, which may have given him a taste for outrageous characters and situational humor, both of which enliven Keeper. The star here, if you can really call him that, is Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck, who has recently survived a violent episode that left his partner paralyzed and soured Mørck on the police work he’s done so well for so long. All he wants to do now is find a quiet corner where he can run out his time with the Copenhagen constabulary unmolested by responsibilities. So it’s fitting that he should be appointed to head up an entirely bogus new unit -- Department Q -- that is supposedly charged with closing cold cases, but is actually just a convenient pocket into which politicians with tough-on-crime credentials in need of burnishing can toss government money. Only one problem: among the cases Mørck’s handed is one involving a young former member of the Danish parliament, Merete Lynggaard, who vanished five years ago and is presumed dead. Goaded by his new assistant, Hafez el-Assad, a curiously able immigrant from the Middle East, Mørck embarks on an investigation that may prove he hasn’t lost his cop’s touch entirely, and may save a life nobody even knew was still savable. The villains in The Keeper of Lost Causes are shallowly reprehensible, but Adler-Olsen’s exposition of clues is captivating as well as credible, and the more we see of Mørck and Assad the better. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Liar’s Kiss by Eric Skillman and Jhomar Soriano (Top Shelf)
Rumpled stud Nick Archer may not be much of a private eye, but he sure can be a dick in Liar’s Kiss, an effort that marks the full-length graphic-novel debut of both writer Skillman and artist Soriano. Nick’s got a sweet deal going: he’s been hired by a jealous rich man with more money than sense to keep an eye on his hot cha-cha trophy wife. The problem is that Abbey is a little too easy on the eyes -- and almost as horny as Nick is. Together, the bored babe and the morally flexible gumshoe cook up a plot -- between torrid blasts of slap-and-tickle -- to string the old coot along. And then, like a zillion other tawdry pulp tales and noir films, murder rears its ugly little head. When hubby assumes permanent room temperature, Abbey is the prime suspect. Except ... she was in bed with Nick at the time. Or was she? The tangled plot offers up at least a few head-spinning coincidences that may or may not be coincidences after all, and some unexpected hops that fully utilize the form of the graphic novel (and will reward sharp-eyed readers). The author, an art director responsible for many of the Criterion Collections’ finest DVD covers, conjures up a deliciously tawdry noir tale of greed, lust and hidden agendas that would be right at home in a RKO crime flick from the ’40s, but feels decidedly, thoroughly modern. He also sure knows how to pick artists. Jhomar Soriano’s sketchy, rough-but-right black-and-white artwork is reminiscent at times of José Sampayo and José Muñoz’s classic P.I. comic, Alack Sinner, making Liar’s Kiss more than just a stunning debut; it’s one of the most satisfying noir tales -- in any medium -- this year. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Perfect People by Peter James (Macmillan UK)
This is not a crime novel per se, but a topical international techno-thriller, and a remarkable one to boot. Author and filmmaker James, best known for his highly successful Brighton-based police procedurals featuring Detective Roy Grace, started his writing career penning thrillers and horror fiction; Perfect People expands his horizons further, being a cautionary tale of genetics and madness. It opens in the United States, where we find Californians Dr. John Klaesson and his wife, Naomi, getting over the loss of their 4-year-old child to a rare genetic condition, and planning for another child. Since they are both carriers of that deadly genetic condition, these two fear the odds of it striking again. So they turn to the mysterious geneticist, Dr. Leo Dettore, who offers a gene-screening process to prevent the unthinkable taking place once more. Because of the complexity of laws and ethics that make genetic manipulation a minefield, Dettore performs his “technique” aboard a ship in international waters. Dettore’s procedure offers an added dimension -- the ability to “design” their offspring, and we’re not talking about just sex and hair color here. There are many moral and ethical dilemmas to overcome, not only for the Klaessons, but also for readers. The debate over the rights and wrongs of “designer babies” provides an interesting dimension to this thriller, and one that attracts the attention of a millennial religious cult. Dettore soon dies in a helicopter tragedy, and with Naomi pregnant, husband John realizes that their own lives are at risk, so the Klaessons flee America for Great Britain. The pace of this yarn is ratcheted up further when the couple discover they’re expecting twins, a boy and a girl. But once those children are born, the Klaessons’ problems really begin, because their babies are not what was expected. Endowed with unearthly intelligence, the Klaesson children are “more than human,” and soon the dangers facing John and Naomi are far closer to home. A surreal journey of ethics, science and religion -- and as far away from the dark alleyways of Roy Grace’s Brighton as one could get -- Perfect People is a blindingly hot read set at the edges of our reality and making clear that James can carve a thriller as twisty as DNA’s double-helix. -- Ali Karim

Ranchero by Rick Gavin (Minotaur)
I love a great first novel that sticks with me and shows me promise in a young writer. I love the discovery and wonder, and then I love bothering all my friends and acquaintances by putting a book in their hands and saying, “Read this. It’s special. Thank me later.” Ranchero is such a book. Its story takes place in the Mississippi Delta region and stars repossession agent Nick Reid, who goes out on the seemingly simple job of retrieving a flat-screen TV from a white-trash couple. (I just love “repo men” as protagonists, whether in Joe Gores’ DKA novels or other works of fiction. My dad was in that same business in San Diego, California, back in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s easy to get a plot going with repo men.) Naturally, things go wrong for Nick. He’s hit over the head with a fireplace shovel and the couple take their television and escape in the mint-condition, 1969 hot-pink Ranchero that Nick had borrowed for this assignment from his elderly landlady. Together with his huge black friend and fellow repo man, the fast-food-loving Desmond, Nick gives chase. He wants that Ranchero back, if nothing else. I’m a big fan of road-trip novels, especially those taking in scenery with which I am not familiar. Author Gavin proves to be a great tour guide, talking in these pages about the beauty and horror of the Mississippi Delta. The Bush recession hit that area hard, emptying many of its towns and leaving them vulnerable to thieves. I learned from this book, as well, that the Delta is quite ethnically diverse, because after slavery was outlawed in the United States in the 19th century, plantation owners in that northwestern corner of Mississippi still needed workers, so they hired foreign immigrants, who started families -- and the rest is history. Gavin can be a really funny writer, in addition to being skilled. He’s given Nick Reid a tremendous voice, one part Truman Capote and one part Jason Lee’s protagonist from the 2005-2009 TV show My Name Is Earl. Gavin manages to locate the hidden depths of characters and lay them bare for all to see. His work reminds me a lot of what Texas novelist Joe R. Lansdale (Devil Red) has offered over the years. Rick Gavin is the real thing. I’m eager to see what he can come up with next. -- Cameron Hughes

The Retribution by Val McDermid (Little, Brown UK)
Building on her compelling British TV series, Wire in the Blood (2002-2009), in The Retribution author McDermid confronts forensic profiler Dr. Tony Hill with a former nemesis. Jacko Vance is a brutal psychopath who murdered 17 girls and a police officer years earlier, and Hill helped put him in prison. Facing a lifetime behind bars with no chance of parole, Vance promised himself he would escape. Now he has made good on his word, and is looking to take revenge on Hill and DCI Carol Jordan for locking him up. Putting Vance in prison deprived him of the one aspect of his twisted life that gave it meaning: kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing young girls; and it made him utterly dependent on the decisions of others. Finally sprung, the manipulative psychopath is determined to exploit the vulnerabilities of the people who were responsible for his incarceration. Factor in the inevitable screw-ups, a crime reporter determined to get a scoop, and obstructive senior officers more interested in departmental budgets and image than keeping the streets safe, and you have a lethal mix. The Retribution is a finely layered, textured tale, as good as or better than any crime thriller since Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. It’s an exquisite blend of pure thriller and evocative storytelling, a tale of the nuanced relationship between Hill and Jordan, who cannot put to rest the differences -- and attractions -- between them, even as their lives are on the line. As we have come to expect from this accomplished author, the characterizations are spot-on, the dialogue is utterly believable and the plotting is intense, with enough suspense to satisfy even the most jaded thriller fan. The Retribution is a riveting tale by a master of the genre. -- Jim Napier

The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen (Mulholland)
This weird political espionage thriller is a disturbing mix of George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, with a sprinkling of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and hints of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island or Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Nothing in these pages can be taken at face value. We start out with an “agent” from the future named Zed (who uses the alias Troy Jones), sent back to our time period to watch over world events and ensure that all known disasters occur as history has recorded them. Zed’s role, and that of his fellow agents with the Department of Historical Integrity, is to guarantee that nothing in the past alters the “perfect world” of his future. However, extremists from his own time -- the “hags” -- have also discovered time-travel technology and want nothing more than to upset the past. So Zed plays cat and mouse with his fellow time travelers, simultaneously struggling to justify -- at least in his own mind -- the tasks with which he’s been entrusted. Those include his latest assignment: to ensure that an upcoming “event,” which will decimate Earth’s population and leave only a small contingent alive to help craft his perfect world, takes place on schedule. Now add into the storytelling mix Leo, a disgraced former CIA operative who works as a private contractor, watching over political dissidents, including the youthful anarchist “T. J.”; his friend, the corporate lawyer Tasha, who’s grieving over her dead brother, killed in military combat; and Sari, a Korean diplomat’s housekeeper. How the paths of all these characters cross with Zed’s is somewhat fantastic. And there are rumors that Zed/Troy is not what he seems, because perhaps the future is not as perfect as he has been lead to believe. In a world were reviewers bemoan books devoid of originality, this is a noteworthy exception. The kicker is that the ambiguity of The Revisionists’ ending forces the reader to re-think what he’s just witnessed, to question the reliability of the book’s narrator. There’s a lot of story here, and a lot of ideas raised. Author Mullen delivers everything with a disturbing intensity that may cause you to reach for Valium at the end of each chapter. -- Ali Karim

San Diego Noir edited by Maryelizabeth Hart (Akashic)
Akashic continued its eclectic and engaging Noir series this year with a bevy of books that compiled crime and mystery stories set in new locations. Among them was San Diego Noir, one of the publisher’s most consistent titles yet. There wasn’t a bad story among them, and the tales ranged from funny to heartbreaking to thrilling. Standouts included Don Winslow’s period, kitchen-sink drama, “After Thirty”; Gar Anthony Haywood’s disturbing revenge-of-the-nerd tale, “Like Something Out of a Comic Book”; Debra Ginsberg’s sad “The New Girl”; and January Magazine contributor Cameron Pierce Hughes’ “Moving Black Objects,” which, full-disclosure aside, is the best blend of nutty and believable. -- Brendan M. Leonard

The Sentry by Robert Crais (Putnam)
Joe Pike is the ultimate tough guy. If you’re Wilson Smith getting the crap beat out of you by two gangbangers in a small Los Angeles store, you might thank your lucky stars that Pike has decided to intervene. This is the inciting incident to the third Joe Pike book, The Sentry. But Smith has plenty to hide and Pike has just made it worse by stepping in. In a novel that keeps shifting gears and presents things that are not as they seem, the reader can hang his hat on the broad, tattooed shoulders of Pike to see it all work out OK by the end. Well, sort of. Pike is a brute-force warrior wrapped in a Buddhist-type ethereal calm, but when he meets Smith’s niece, Dru Rayne, he is smitten. Like everything else in The Sentry, however, Rayne is not who she says she is. Although our hero soon realizes that Rayne has played him, by that time she has earned his undying loyalty. When she and Smith subsequently disappear, Pike suspects foul play and immerses himself and his partner, Elvis Cole, in an increasingly Byzantine case involving East L.A. gangbangers, Mexican cartel types, suspicious and creepy FBI agents and neighbors who know perhaps too much. There is plenty of meat in this tour de force tale, and the backbone of it all is the guy with the red arrow tattoos. For a mix of P.I. story and action-adventure, you can’t beat Crais. -- Anthony Rainone

Spycatcher by Matthew Dunn (Morrow)
This tense debut novel, written by a former MI6 field operative, opens in New York City’s Central Park, where British agent Will Cochrane and his team of covert MI6 men try to protect an Iranian “asset” from a hit squad. Things go very wrong very fast. The British agents are shot by the “hostiles,” forcing Cochrane to put a bullet into his asset’s skull -- a brutal but humane act (as opposed to a death by torture that would have been the alternative for the asset if captured by the hit men). Although wounded while escaping, Cochrane is rescued by a CIA team headed by the mysterious “Patrick,” who makes sure our hero’s wounds are patched up and that he returns to London. Back home, Cochrane is reunited with his SIS handler, “Alistair,” who is upset at the Central Park fiasco. Cochrane’s next assignment is to round up an über-terrorist, the Iranian Megiddo, who -- backed by his nation’s regime -- is plotting a violent outrage to occur either on the American mainland or somewhere in the British Isles. (Or is he? This information, after all, was intercepted amid communications from a secret and not wholly trustworthy source.) What the Anglo-U.S. alliance headed by Cochrane needs is some sort of lure to draw Megiddo from his protective shadows out into the open, where he can be compelled to pay for his past deeds and prevented from committing new atrocities. The best bait, Cochrane believes, is an Arab woman named Lana, who was once Megiddo’s lover. But the agent must gain her trust in order to bring Lana into the scheme ... and as we all know, trust in espionage circles is not easily secured. Our hero has to hope that the old adage about “a woman scorned” is true, and that Lana’s own hunger to bring down Megiddo will benefit him in capturing the terrorist. The cat-chasing-mouse part of Spycatcher (published in Britain as Spartan) begins as Cochrane enlists a quartet of tough sidekicks to help him protect Lana, while they dangle her enticingly in front of Megiddo. A series of letters sent back and forth between Lana and Megiddo serves to lure the prey, and leads to assorted varieties of surveillance games. So easy is it to become caught up in Dunn’s story, that at one point in my reading I seriously considered finding a first-aid kit, in case any stray bullets came flying my way out of this book’s pages. Spycatcher is a remarkable thriller by someone obviously very familiar with his subject matter. -- Ali Karim

Thick as Thieves by Peter Spiegelman (Knopf)
Heist novels are like magicians’ tricks. The goal is to entertain the audience and hold their attention, but make them look away at critical moments so you can wow them with the big finish. By those standards, ex-financial wizard and author Spiegelman is a magician of the highest caliber. In Thick as Thieves, former CIA agent Carr and his crew are similar to Robin Hood and his Merry Men, in that they rob from the corrupt and affluent. However, this thieving band gives to themselves, partly just to line their own pockets, but also to fund their next big score. Their latest “mark” is a former hedge fund manager named Curtis Prager, who went to the slammer for all the reasons so familiar from newspaper reports of the last few years. Now free, he splits his time between Florida and the Caymans, and is a sort of accountant for the elite criminal scum of the world, with access to their illicit treasures. Carrying off this crime might be the stuff of another typical day of work for Spiegelman’s company of purloiners, except that several people died during their last job, and Carr’s suspicions about those who survived are growing by the minute. Be patient with Thick as Thieves as Spiegelman introduces his characters, the world they live in and their pasts, and finally the heist. Trust that Spiegelman is a great magician. -- Cameron Hughes

The Thieves’ Labyrinth by James McCreet (Macmillan UK)
I somehow missed spotting the first two titles in this series -- The Incendiary’s Trail (2009) and The Vice Society (2010) -- when they were originally published. Thankfully, I didn’t also miss the third of McCreet’s novels set in 1840s London, because it’s a real corker. This tale begins on a fog-wrapped night (totally appropriate!), when a man comes stumbling off a Thames River bridge, his throat cut, and promptly expires. Before long, eccentric investigator Eldritch Batchem, hired by the bridge company, shows up, pokes around the meager clues and finally announces that a suicide, not murder, has been committed. But that incident is followed closely by the retrieval of a corpse from the river, the theft of a woman’s silver bracelet outside a theater and the disappearance of a four-masted brig, along with half its crew and the entirety of its valuable cargo. This sudden concentration of illegalities leaves the still-young Metropolitan Police Force hopping and convinces the police commissioner, Sir Richard Mayne, to call for help -- off the books, of course -- from two crime-fighting rivals: arrogant Inspector Albert Newsome, who has been exiled to river-policing duties as a result of his recent conduct; and George Williamson, a widowed former police detective who’s been forced to find other security work since departing the force under a cloud. As an incentive, Sir Richard promises these two that whichever of them can get to the bottom of the recent outrages first will be reinstated in his detective branch. Newsome has cunning and determination on his side, while Williamson benefits from his association with a resourceful lawbreaker, Noah Dyson. However, that russet-capped amateur, Batchem, is pursuing the same investigative path, and may in the end eclipse both professionals. McCreet employs a formal and rather old-fashioned prose style that fits splendidly with the time period of his yarn, and takes his competing sleuths -- and his readers -- into enough bizarre and fearsome corners of Victorian London to keep them on their toes. The conclusion of The Thieves’ Labyrinth leaves no doubt that another entry in this series is on its way, but I want to go back and read the preceding two first. -- J. Kingston Pierce

13 Million Dollar Pop by David Levien (Doubleday)
Screenwriter Levien’s detective thrillers have been gathering strong acclaim, including a Shamus Award nomination from the Private Eye Writers of America in 2010. One reason for the popularity of these books is their protagonist, Frank Behr, a troubled former cop who’s now scratching out a living as a private eye in Indianapolis, Indiana. Following the release of Levien’s City of the Sun (2008) and its follow-up, Where the Dead Lay (2009), there was a three-year gap, but the wait for the third entry in this series, 13 Million Dollar Pop, was worth it. The author’s screenwriting background is evident in this novel’s Spartan prose, which propels the story forward with the momentum of a movie script, rather than the slow burn evident in some literary work. That rapid-fire plotting is present from the book’s beginning, when Behr takes what appears to be a straightforward bodyguarding job, protecting businessman Bernard “Bernie Cool” Kolodnik, only to wind up in the crossfire of a shoot-out. It appears that Kolodnik’s politics are not shared by some figures in the darkness. Striated across this novel with grim subtlety is the backdrop of the economic reality facing us all these days. Behr is no exception. He has moved in with his pregnant girlfriend, Susan, and finds himself worrying about America’s out-of-control health-care costs as he’s embroiled in intrigue and gunplay. To make ends meet, the former free agent has also taken a job with the Caro Group of private investigators and personal security advisers. But this only leads him into uneasy situations, as Midwestern politics become as dangerous to Behr as the conspiracy he finds himself tackling. Perhaps protecting Bernie Cool was not the plum job it appeared. Contributing further to his woes are hit man Waddy Dwyer and the escort girls and euro-trash in Behr’s path. Blocking Behr’s path is never a smart thing, but the consequences of those turns make this novel well worth recommending. -- Ali Karim

White Heat by M.J. McGrath (Viking)
Only part of the appeal of McGrath’s debut novel lies in its plot. Yet that plot is of considerable merit and intrigue. Set in northern Canada’s sparsely populated and Inuit-dominated Nunavut territory, White Heat focuses on the escapades of Edie Kiglatuk, a half-white, half-native former polar bear hunter who, at 33 years old, is a mostly recovered alcoholic with an ex-husband, a strong appetite for sugary tea and a reluctance to let sleeping dogs lie. After a white hunter she’d been guiding across the ice is killed under suspicious circumstances, she tries pushing local authorities to investigate, but the mayor of her tiny Ellesmere Island community -- wary of bad press (like all fictional mayors, it seems, since Larry Vaughan in Peter Benchley’s Jaws) -- puts a quick end to such talk. Soon after, though, Edie’s beloved stepson, nurse-in-training Joe Inukpuk, dies in the aftermath of a second expedition gone wrong. It’s thought that Joe killed himself, but Edie doesn’t believe he had cause to do such a thing, and sets out to prove it. In the course of her nosing around, she confronts corrupt Russians and greedy energy companies, learns a few things about meteorites and her own ancestry, and puts her hard-won sobriety at risk. Had the basic elements of McGrath’s plot been applied to a novel set in, say, northern California rather than the Canadian Arctic, they might have been appealing. But it’s the bleak, cold, wind-ravaged setting of White Heat that really makes this book stand out. McGrath knows the region and its inhabitants well. We learn here that the Inuit “considered knocking [on somebody’s door] an insult, an acknowledgement that the visit might not be wholly welcome.” We’re invited to share in Edie’s appreciation of maktaq, “thick, chewy whale skin underscored with a layer of creamy, slightly sour fat.” And we gain perspectives on ice that aren’t available to those of us living below the 76th parallel (“Locals often said the difference between Inuit and southerners was that southerners thought of ice as frozen water, whereas the Inuit knew that water was merely melted ice”). White Heat is supposedly the start of a new crime-fiction series. We should be so lucky ... -- J. Kingston Pierce

You're Next by Gregg Hurwitz (St. Martin’s Press)
There aren’t many writers better than Gregg Hurwitz at portraying the common man going up against malicious forces. The sense of desperation and courage under fire elevate You’re Next to page-turner status. Mike Wingate is a successful land developer married to the beautiful Annabel and the father of young daughter Kat. Wingate’s life goes to hell when two old-school henchmen, William and Dodge, show up with their twisted psyches and a ball-peen hammer. Their reason for targeting Wingate and wreaking havoc on his family seems tied into the developer’s difficult past. Abandoned at age 4 by his parents, Wingate was reared in an orphanage and left wondering who his parents were, and why they gave him up. Indications are they had no choice. Revisiting the orphanage he once knew so well, Wingate becomes fast friends with Shep White, a dangerous man in his own right, but one with a loyal heart. Seeing his past collide up against greedy political machinations, the tortured Wingate is determined that his present-day nuclear family will not meet the same fate as his former one. Amateur sleuth or not, Wingate would make any detective proud. -- Anthony Rainone

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