Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best Books of 2012: Children’s Books

This is the Best Books for Children and Young Adults segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2012 feature. Also available are our picks for best crime, mystery and thriller fiction of 2012, in two parts: one and two. As well, here are the best cookbooks of 2012. Still to come: our contributors’ selections of the Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Biography and Best Science Fiction/Fantasy. Look for them in the coming days.

Black Painted Fingernails by Steven Herrick (Allen & Unwin)
Steven Herrick is one of Australia’s most celebrated contemporary poets. His competence and passion for words shows up in his prose, as well and his late YA entry, Black Painted Fingernails, does not disappoint. James is shy and geeky. Sophie is sleek and confident. When life puts them together on a cross-country road trip, it is inevitable that life-changing and coming of age will ensue. James is looking for the strength to live his own life, away from family for the first time. Meanwhile Sophie is at the other end of the spectrum, trying to pull together the pieces of her own shattered past. On the road together as strangers, they open up to each other and help each other towards their own truths. Black Painted Fingernails is warm, real and unforgettable. -- Aaron Blanton

Eldritch Manor by Kim Thompson (Dundurn)
Is there something odd about the boarding house down the street? That’s what 12-year-old Willa Fuller wonders, even thinking that the people who live there might be being kept as prisoners. But when Willa is hired on as a housekeeper, she learns the truth: Eldritch Manor is something like a magical retirement home, where strange and magical beings with stories to tell are living out their unusual years. But when Willa is left alone to keep the place in order, she is faced with crisis after crisis, including the possible unraveling of time. (Which is never good!) Eldritch Manor is slender but compelling: a fantastical adventure story in a small package with a big whallop. Filmmaker-turned-author Kim Thompson understands what makes a story work. She has been generous with that knowledge here. Eldritch Manor is charming, compelling and just the right amount of scary. I enjoyed this one a lot. -- India Wilson

Freakling by Lana Krumweide (Candlewick)
“If everyone is special, is anyone really special?” The famous phrase is what Lana Krumweide’s Freakling is about. In the future, there is an isolated metropolis called Deliverance where everyone has a telekinetic power called psi. Taemon is an 11-year old boy who’s finally starting to get the hang of using his power while his older brother, Yens, torments him and is believed to be the new successor of Deliverance, otherwise known as the True Son. But what is unknown is Yens has true evil inside him and everyone but Taemon is blind to that. Yens soon goes as far as almost killing his brother, which gives Taemon the ability to kill him. But Taemon can't do it, and the inner force that controls everyone’s psi takes Taemon’s away. Freakling is an amazing story about what happens when superpowers get out of hand. Ben Parker wasn’t wrong when he said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Five stars. You’ll be intrigued at every turn, wanting to read more and more. The book is full of wonderful ideas and things that you wouldn’t think of.  -- Ian Buchsbaum

Get Outside: The Kids Guide to Fun in the Great Outdoors by Jane Drake & Ann Love, illustrated by Heather Collins (KidsCan)
In an era when adults often complain about how kids don’t get out to play enough and spend too much time watching television or playing computer games, Get Outside provides a fairly complete list of what kids can do in the great outdoors. Get Outside is meant to be a strong tool against “I’m bored!” The book not only provides dozens of ideas for outdoor fun, it also offers historic, scientific and cultural context in the form of lists and sidebars intended to create a book that even reluctant readers will feel comfortable using. From making a scarecrow to flying a kite and juggling bubbles, Get Outside is a great tool to help create active readers. -- Monica Stark 

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
History and fantasy are often an uneasy blend, with neither coming out very well against the other. Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy proves the exception, a thrilling journey following an assassin nun on her deadly trail through a fantastic version of 15th century France. When she escapes from an unthinkable arranged marriage, 17-year-old Ismae finds sanctuary at a convent where her gifts from the god of Death are discovered. She is trained as an assassin to serve as Death’s handmaiden, an uneasy robe, but one she must be willing to take in order to be able to move forward. “Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?” is the motto of Grave Mercy, the first book in a series called “His Fair Assassin.” Beautifully written and imaginatively realized, a new series this good only debuts every few years. I loved every word. -- Monica Stark

Greta and the Goblin King by Chloe Jacobs (Entangled Teen)
Though it’s not difficult to find someone to tell you that the whole teen paranormal book thing has been done to death, young readers don’t seem to be listening. Writers don’t either: though, thankfully, we’ve begun to see fewer vampires and evermore night creatures with only one thing in common: despite odd bits of lore and heritage, the weird dudes in YA novels these days need to be mindlessly hot. Without speculating on what impact this might have on the future mate selection of the young women who read these books, I get the fascination with sexy vampires, angels and all other manner of unexpected leading men. But I have to admit: it takes a bit of authorly magic to fit that sexiness around the most unlikely of love interests. Of course the title of Chloe Jacobs’ Greta and the Goblin King gives away the nature of the ultimate object of protagonist Greta’s affections. But a goblin? C'mon! Yet Jacobs makes it work. Before she can make any headway with Isaac, said Goblin King, bounty hunter Greta will be exposed to all sorts of nightmarish danger, enough, in any case, to keep readers perched at the edge of their seats. A contemporary fantasy quest with a strong romantic element, Greta and the Goblin King will have young readers swooning for a sequel. -- Linda L. Richards

The Mark of Athena: Heroes of Olympus, Book 3 by Rick Riordan (Hyperion)
Rick Riordan fed readers with The Mark of Athena, the third book in the sequel series to the popular Percy Jackson novels. Although this book showed a lot of repetition, it shows the Rick Riordan still has it. I was hooked since before page one, since Riordan left the last book off at a massive cliffhanger; a clever trick. I was bothered by the repetition: one of the main characters frequently getting knocked out, long travels, groups of three, a god or goddess giving them advice in the form of a riddle. They would also reference things from earlier books, but it’s been so long since the last book, everyone forgot about that stuff. But you can ignore all those things, and let yourself get hooked. This masterpiece is for everyone, since it has so many genres to it; action, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, even a little bit of romance, and comedy. The best part about it are the many reveals to the prophecy we read about in the fifth book of the first series, like who are the demigods for a quest and what they have to do. This book hits the mark (of Athena), leaving readers wanting more. -- Ian Buchsbaum

Moonlight and Ashes by Sophie Masson (Random House Australia)
Interestingly, this year my YA favourites were all by Australian women writers and all were based on, or inspired by, folk tales. Moonlight and Ashes is Sophie Masson’s version of Cinderella. It’s based on the German version, Ashputtel, in which the Cinderella character is a lot stronger than the French Cendrillon, who is very passive. She uses a hazel tree planted on her mother’s grave to get herself to the ball. This one simply uses the Cinderella story as a jumping off place and her heroine is even tougher than Ashputtel. Sophie Masson is very good with folk tale-based novels -- most of her books are inspired by fairy tales, so she has had a lot of practice in this area. The setting is firmly 19th century Europe, though in a fictional country. But among all the steam trains and newspapers, there is still the magic of a “once upon a time” kingdom. -- Sue Bursztynski

Potatoes on Rooftops: Farming in the City by Hadley Dyer (Annick Press)
Potatoes on Rooftops is just about the best introduction to the new food movement that one could imagine. Intended for nine to 12-year-olds, there is a lot here for almost everyone who is interested in small-scale urban farming. Or, in the case of the kids who will read the book, everyone who should be interested. The book looks at what’s happening in cities with regards to foods we can all grow and be part of. Very much like Jennifer Cockrall-King’s Food and the City, but for the junior set, it’s impossible to read Potatoes on Rooftops without feeling like getting your hands dirty. The book looks at examples of city gardening including high school programs in Toronto and Detroit. It also looks at some of the specifics of urban gardening: composting, seeding and planting in small and unusual places and includes looks at innovative places to plant. It’s powerful to think Potatoes on Rooftops might set kids to digging. But even if it doesn’t, getting them thinking now might be enough for later. In any case, it’s a dead interesting book. -- Sienna Powers

Redwing by Holly Bennett (Orca)
Rowan’s entire family is wiped out by the plague and he’s left alone in a hostile world not unlike (but not entirely like, either) our own Middle Ages. He keeps himself going, traveling in his family’s old caravan, going from town to town playing music made all the more poignant by his broken heart. After a while, he forms an uneasy alliance with another young musician who has the ability to help Rowan communicate with his dead sister. The story turns on the twinned themes of friendship and grief and places an engaging story into a fascinating landscape. As she did in 2010’s Shapeshifter, Bennett brings a fantasy world into suspenseful, believable life. -- Sienna Powers

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allan & Unwin)
If, like me, you grew up on Celtic folk tales, you’ll be familiar with the story of the human male who gets himself an otherworldly bride. With a few exceptions, it’s really only in modern YA paranormals that it’s the other way around. Basically, there are two kinds: There’s the one where she’s the daughter of a king of the otherworld, whether it’s the sea or Faerie; and there’s the one where she’s a selkie (seal-maiden) whose skin is stolen while she’s dancing around in human form. There is always a condition -- the groom has to promise not to ask her certain questions, not to hit her without cause (Welsh -- The Physicians of Myddfai), not to see what she gets up to on Saturdays (Melusine, who is, in theory, the ancestress of the British royal family), or he has to keep her sealskin hidden because once she finds it, she’ll grab it and go home, even leaving her children by her land husband. Invariably, the husband breaks the contract, mostly by accident, and loses his wife and any wealth she brought with her. Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts asks: Yes, but what happens generations later when there are descendants of those seal maidens in a small community where presumably the gene pool is pretty small? Sea Hearts  is a series of connected novellas, told from the viewpoints of a number of characters, including Miskaella herself. Despite this, there is still a twist at the end, when you realize that Miskaella didn’t tell you quite everything. The writing is beautiful, your heart aches for those selkie girls and you can even understand why Miskaella is so bitter. It’s a fascinating take on the old folk tales, a wonderful “what if ... ?” In Sea Hearts (called The Brides of Rollrock Island outside Australia) the author asks what happens centuries later when the islanders are mostly descended from these reluctant brides? And what happens when Miskaella, a young woman who has been bullied by the other women finds she can bring beautiful women out of the island’s seal population? It’s an exquisitely beautiful novel, seen from a number of viewpoints over a couple of generations. -- Sue Bursztynski

The Secret of the Fortune Wookie by Tom Angleberger (Amulet)
Breaking the rule that says the first of a trilogy is the best, I thought that the third book the popular Origami Yoda series was the best one yet! This addition to the trio was full of hilarity and kept me hooked throughout the whole book, with interesting stories and fun concepts. Tom Angleberger has continued his streak of wonderful books with this great story. The star of The Secret of the Fortune Wookie is ... well, a Fortune Wookie: a cootie catcher designed to look like the famous character Chewbacca from Star Wars. This time, our origami wielder is none other than Sara, the girlfriend of our main character, Tommy. She lets the students ask questions, which are answered with roars and are translated by the Fortune Wookie’s friend, Han Foldo. But, while the students have fun with the Fortune Wookie, the infamous Harvey is trying to prove that all this origami stuff is fake, and that he’s been right all along. Meanwhile, the star of the first books in the series, Dwight and Origami Yoda, are trapped at a fancy private school where everyone has picked up on making Star Wars origami, making Dwight miserable and no longer unique. Read Secret of the Fortune Wookie to see how everything is resolved.  -- Ian Buchsbaum

The Third Wheel: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Book 7 by Jeff Kinney (Amulet)
After six books, readers couldn’t get enough, so Jeff Kinney gave it to them. The Third Wheel, the seventh book in Diary of a Wimpy kid series, has arrived. This time around, Greg is in the circle of love, but the third one. The book illustrates the complications Greg faces with school and girlfriends. This continuation fulfills all the archetypes the other ones filled; Greg wasting money, going out of his way to impress someone, shocking twists and something always going wrong. The book was so amazing, I read it in about an hour and a half. I crack when I read about the childish thoughts of Rowley -- Greg’s best friend -- alongside Greg’s street smarts and high expectations. I suggest this book for about 3rd to 7th graders, give or take. A definitely awesome book. -- Ian Buchsbaum

Toads on Toast by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Colin Jack (KidsCan)
I am invariably charmed by the combination of a delightful and slightly aberrant story with top notch illustrations. That was certainly the case with this year’s Toads on Toast by award-winning author Linda Bailey. In this story, Mama Toad is desperately trying to keep her brood out of a hungry fox’s frying pan. The matter is resolved by an entirely vegetarian version of toad-in-a-hole (recipe included). Colin Jack’s illustrations fairly crackle with the energy of his animation background and the story is compelling and entirely engaging. -- Monica Stark

Uncle Wally’s Old Brown Shoe by Wallace Edwards (Orca)
“This is Uncle Wally’s old brown shoe/This is the kitten that drove around in Uncle Wally’s old brown shoe/This is the pig in the fancy hat that tickled the kitten that drove around in Uncle Wally’s old brown shoe.” And so on. The rhyme is inspired by The House That Jack Built, but the illustrations seem inspired by many places and leave the reader with a plethora of input. Where to leave one’s eyes? So much is going on in every panel, it’s hard to know where to begin and end. The illustrations, also by author Wallace Edwards, have a Victorian feel. The depth, detail and wimsey seem vintage, as well. Children will enjoy the solid rhymes and deeply detailed illustrations, but I’ve a hunch that collectors will be on the list for this book, as well. -- Monica Stark

Under My Skin by Charles de Lint (RazorBill)
The premise of Under My Skin is very good. Something is happening to the young people in a town called Santa Feliz. And the thing that is happening is so dramatic, it’s difficult to believe. The kids are changing shape: shedding their human forms and becoming various animals. Basically, if you can think of it, the animal is represented. These are shape-shifters with a difference. The action focuses on Josh Saunders who shifts for the first time during an argument with his mother’s boyfriend that, from Josh’s perspective, goes from argument to Josh standing over the man, as blood drips from his mountain lion claws. Josh’s experience almost undoes him, but he will emerge as one of the leaders of the wildlings. de Lint is credited with the creation of the urban fantasy and readers will encounter that in this story. The setting is perfectly contemporary -- anytown and any group of kids. In a way, that’s what makes the story so chilling and helps make it work this well. The book is a wonderful exploration of a very good idea, but it is also a deeply human tale. -- Lincoln Cho

Under the Moon by Deborah Kerbel (Dancing Cat Books)
When Lily MacArthur’s Aunt Su dies, Lily pretty much loses her tenuous hold on sleep. She’s was never terribly good at sleeping, but with Su’s death, sleep evades her entirely. As she begins to lose her health -- and maybe, to a certain degree, her sanity -- Lily begins to push away her human friends while drawing ever closer to the moon she struggles under every night. When she meets new boy Ben, it seems for a time that he’ll be able to help Lily recapture her lost sleep. But Ben’s own past is troubled and perhaps somewhat dark and he has problems of his own. Under the Moon is a classic coming of age story, yet our quirky narrator, Lily, holds us entranced. Lily is beautifully fleshed out. A damaged teen, but weren’t we all, to some degree? Damaged and confused to discover that the adult life that’s threatening to erupt all around us is not at all what we pictured when we were little kids. Kerbel captures all of these emotions so delicately, explaining why this book was so heavily awarded in its native Canada this year. -- Sienna Powers

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This Just In… The Kult by Shaun Jeffrey

People are predictable. That’s what makes them easy to kill.

Out of misguided loyalty, police officer Prosper Snow is goaded into helping his friends perform a copycat killing, but when the real killer comes after him, it's not only his life on the line, but his family's too. Now if he goes to his colleagues for help, he risks being arrested for murder. If he doesn't, he risks being killed.

“Shaun Jeffrey hits one out of the park with this creepy, character-driven thriller that starts with a jolt, stays in the fast lane, and plunges into the darkest territory of the human mind.” -- Jonathan Maberry, author of Patient Zero

“Part mystery, part police procedural, part horror story, it’s one thrilling ride.” --Nate Kenyon, author of The Reach

“The Kult is a creeping stalk through a shadowy labyrinth of thrills and terror. Shaun Jeffrey delivers a pulse-pounding novel of superb skill and unequivocal horror.” -- Jon F. Merz, author of the Lawson Vampire novels.

You can visit author Shaun Jeffrey on the web here. Order The Kult here. ◊

This Just In... is a column that shares basic information on selected titles. Titles are included at the editor’s discretion and on a first come, first served basis. Want to see your new book included? You can see details here.

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Best Books of 2012: Crime Fiction, Part II

This is the crime, mystery and thriller fiction (part II) segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2012 feature; part I was posted yesterday. Also available are our picks of the Best Cookbooks of 2012. Still to come: our contributors’ selections of the Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Biography, Best Books for Children and Young Adults and Best Science Fiction/Fantasy. Look for them in the coming days.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter (Knopf)
In Carter’s fascinating “what-if” construction of history, Abraham Lincoln doesn’t die in April 1865 after being shot by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Instead, he survives. Two years later, Lincoln’s growing contingent of enemies -- led by radicals within his own Republican Party -- work to oust him from the Executive Mansion. They charge Lincoln with, among other offenses, trying to usurp congressional authority. As the case against the 16th president builds, one of Lincoln’s lawyers is murdered and a brilliant young African-American law clerk, Abigail Canner, persists in yanking at the loose threads of political conspiracy long after her boss tells her to desist -- only to find that her connection with those schemes is closer than she’d imagined. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln offers not only an American government in crisis and a capital riddled with rumor, “machination and double dealing,” but a mystery of history-changing proportions. Although its denouement features a turn that’s too convenient by half, Carter’s novel remains one of the finest historical thrillers I’ve read this year. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Kings of Cool by Don Winslow (Simon & Schuster)
Nobody would have blamed Don Winslow, author of 2010’s awesome Savages, for concocting a prequel to that novel simply for a large paycheck. The book transformed him being from a fairly obscure writer with a dedicated cult following into a Serious Name among wordsmiths. Hollywood soon came calling; Oliver Stone turned Savages into a pretty good (and beautifully shot) 2012 movie that seemed to excite and reinvigorate the filmmaker himself. As I said, Winslow could’ve written The Kings of Cool strictly for the money; I would have been disappointed, but I wouldn’t have blamed him. Fortunately, however, that’s not the path he took. Although I don’t love Kings in the way I did Savages, it’s a solid home run in comparison to the latter’s World Series-winning grand slam. It’s becomes very clear, very fast that this prequel was as much a product of Winslow’s passion as Savages. A good prequel should build on the world we know from its predecessor; Kings does that in spades. We are witness here to the beginnings of Elena Sánchez’s career as a drug cartel kingpin (Salma Hayek brought just the right amount of femme fatale sexiness and toughness to her film portrayal of Sánchez). We also see the first steps taken by DEA agent Dennis (portrayed in the film Savages by John Travolta) toward playing on all sides of the law. while trying to keep his soul. Best of all, Winslow explains the origins of Paqu, who goes from rags to social-climbing queen with an almost ferocious, feral zeal. Her tragic climb is almost Shakespearean in nature; Paqu is not a bad person, she’s just white trash who sees an easy way out. I grieved for her and wished that her daughter, the comely O, could have met her mother before she became the fake-boob airhead who has half a dozen meaningless marriages under her belt. Ben, Chon, and O -- the major characters from Savages -- are secondary characters in this novel. Curiously, I didn’t miss them the way I had expected to. The Kings of Cool is really about their parents and other elders. It’s about how beach bums, harmlessly dealing and smoking pot, became a force to be reckoned with. Savages was an angry book, focusing on people my age living in a world that can no longer be saved, but The Kings of Cool is bitter. Boomers here talk about the 1960s with an almost reverent tone (conveniently glossing over such high-profile tragedies as the murders of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X). The players in Kings know they had a chance to make a different and better world, but fucked it all up out of greed and apathy. Winslow grew up in that era, and when his man Ben asks his father what happened to make everything so bad, the ensuing rant feels like one Winslow has had inside his head for awhile. Unlike so many other thriller novelists, who produce tedious, seen-it-all tales that barely reach B-level, Winslow writes novels about actual crimes and the people involved. He’s like the Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann of the written word, turning sleaziness into an art form. Don Winslow clearly likes the robbers more than the cops (and sometimes the cops are robbers) in his fiction, and I say bravo. Pray at his altar, people. -- Cameron Hughes

The Lost Daughter by Lucretia Grindle (Pan UK)
When 17-year-old American schoolgirl Kristen Carson is given the opportunity to study for a year in Florence, Italy, it seems too good to be true -- and it is. Just as her parents arrive for a visit, Kristen suddenly disappears. Her influential father pulls out all the stops in an effort to find her, but there isn’t a lot to go on. Gradually, however, a picture emerges, and it’s not pretty: just before vanishing Kristen left a note for her flatmate, saying she’d be away for a few days; then she spent a wad of money on new clothing. It sure looks like she did a bunk. It falls on Italian detectives Enzo Saenz and his partner to track her down. The one clue they have is a cell phone photo of her getting into a car with a man, not identifiable, but clearly older than Kristen. The missing girl’s father doesn’t recognize him, but Saenz believes that Kristen’s stepmother, Anna, does. When he confronts her privately, though, she denies it. Before long Anna too has disappeared, and in an ominously similar way, drawing out a large sum of money and leaving all her personal identification behind. What common link would drive two apparently ordinary women to turn their backs on their comfortable and seemingly happy lives, and melt into a foreign country? The quest to find the missing women will take the detectives back more than 30 years, to the turmoil surrounding the kidnapping -- and, ultimately, murder -- of Aldo Moro, Italy’s president at the time. It will unearth old betrayals and build on new deceptions, and before it is over both careers and lives will be lost. Lucretia Grindle reminds us that the “war on terror” did not begin with the events of September 11, 2001. Moving easily between Ferrara in 1965, Rome in 1978 and Florence in 2012, The Lost Daughter is a layered thriller based in historical fact and rich in suspense. Grindle expertly mines actual events and intersperses them with nuanced characters that lend credibility to her tale, and she perfectly captures the mendacity of politics and the making of young radicals. This is a book that will earn her many new fans. -- Jim Napier

The Messenger by Stephen Miller (Delacorte Press)
When I first heard that Stephen Miller’s newest book was a contemporary thriller, I was a little disappointed. I’ve so loved his historical fiction featuring the investigator Pyotr Ryzhkov in pre-Communist Russia. The Messenger is a whole different ballgame. So different, in fact, that at times it feels almost like a different planet. What isn’t different: Miller is a writer’s writer and under his hand this tightly wound and very 21st-century thriller resonates with the true wordsmith’s sense of time, place and rhythm. Daria Vermiglio has lost everything and seen too much. She is released from a refugee camp with a ticket to New York and a deadly mission. Dr. Sam Watterman is charged with stopping Daria and averting what for a time seems like an inevitable outcome. Miller hits many contemporary thriller tropes here, but manages to bring something to his tale that is both fresh and worthwhile. We tangle here with biological warfare bearing international implications and threats: terrorism at the highest level. What’s most interesting, however, is Miller’s delivery on two very different sides of the terror coin. Both Daria and Sam are human and very flawed, and before the (terribly exciting) conclusion, there will come times when we wonder just who’s side each really is on. Although he’s now several novels into his second career, it is his first career for which Miller is better known. As an actor of stage and screen, his face is familiar to many, even if his name is not. That might do something to explain the very visceral feeling to Miller’s writing, which is not in the least bit absent in this latest entry. I never read anything by this writer without being left with deep visual and emotional impressions. Miller has that kind of power and he’s not been cheap with it here. The Messenger takes place over 16 taut days. I read it much, much more quickly than that but took longer to catch my breath. -- Linda L. Richards

Niceville by Carsten Stroud (Knopf)
It’s funny, but in 1990, no one would have thought that David Lynch’s foray into episodic television with Twin Peaks would have created such a passionate cult fan base. It’s more common and exasperating now with TV series such as Joss Whedon’s western in space, Firefly, and it’s box-office follow-up, Serenity. (Don’t get me wrong: I love both of those, but the uber-fans can be so annoying). But in 1990? No way. Twin Peaks has had a lot of imitators since, all of which failed for various reasons. So maybe it’s a good thing that Carsten Stroud’s Niceville is a book first, so he doesn’t have to worry about viewer ratings and nitpicking notes from network bosses. For David Lynch, who was known for quirky dramas, it was odd seeing him doing something on a very mainstream network, and Stroud comes from an unusual place too. He’s been known for penning tough political thrillers as well as one great true-crime work, Close Pursuit: A Week in the Life of an NYPD Homicide Cop. Niceville reminds me a lot of Twin Peaks, with its eccentric small town (this time in the Deep South), its oddball characters who reveal more layers as you read on (even the cop with a dark side and the crusading lawyer), and a large-scope story with so many twists, it left me gasping for breath; I kept expecting it all to go off the rails every 50 pages or so, and while it comes dangerously close a few times, Stroud always manages to save it with the introduction of a new character, or perhaps a wonderful quip or a great action scene. (Truly, there is a chase and shoot-out near the beginning that is so well choreographed and written, I felt like cheering.) Hell, there’s even a ghost in these pages. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because the fun a reader can have in discovering its every turn and back-stabbing shouldn’t be missed. However, there are two big story lines that drive many smaller plots in Niceville: a bank robbery and the case of a missing child named Rainy. The town’s centuries-old history and local family feuds are simply icing and decorations on a delicious cake. Needless to say, I loved Niceville. It’s big and ambitious and never boring, and best of all, it’s different. I want more stories about Niceville, Mr. Stroud. Past or present, I don’t care; just give me more. -- Cameron Hughes

Not Dead Yet by Peter James (Minotaur)
James’ eighth Detective Superintendent Roy Grace police procedural (following Dead Man’s Grip) finds the coastal town of Brighton, England, becoming the location for a huge Hollywood blockbuster, featuring the diva Gaia Lafayette (a combination of Madonna and Lady Gaga). Although she’s now a U.S. resident, Lafayette grew up in the more humble quarters of Brighton. She has come back to film a historical thriller that she hopes will win her an Oscar, and Grace is under pressure to ensure that nothing goes wrong while the film crew are in town. This is especially critical when they discover that Lafayette has some obsessive fans, including a stalker. Grace’s attention and that of his partner, Glenn Branson, is caught when a corpse -- actually, just a torso -- is discovered on a chicken farm, and there are connections made to Ms. Lafayette. Despite the density of James’ plot, which includes his trademarked multiple viewpoints, Not Dead Yet is a remarkably fast read, due to the shortness of its chapters, all of which lead to a frightening finale in Brighton’s Royal Pavilion. -- Ali Karim

The Paris Deadline by Max Byrd (Turner)
Set in the fabled City of Light, beginning in 1926, Byrd’s colorful, often clever tale spotlights Toby Keats, a still-traumatized veteran of the so-called Great War, who now works as a rewrite man for the Chicago Tribune. Keats is accustomed to a fairly peaceful, near-monkish existence, sampling Paris’ gourmet wares as he observes girls herding goats through the streets and mutilated French ex-soldiers trying to survive without too obviously begging. But then into his life falls what could be Vaucanson’s Duck, a “somewhat scandalous” 18th-century automaton that’s coveted by an American banker and a delightful, resourceful young woman named Elsie Short of the Thomas Edison Doll Company, as well as by criminals who may desire the phony fowl for its interior mechanism -- technology that might further advance weapons development. Byrd won a Shamus Award for California Thriller (1981), the first in a trio of novels starring San Francisco private eye Mike Haller. During the 1990s he penned historical fiction about a trio of U.S. presidents: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant. Now, in The Paris Deadline, he delivers a sparkling and suspenseful caper with a mystery plot well-rooted in a loving re-creation of Jazz Age Paris. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (Marian Wood/Putnam)
One of the finest entries yet in Kerr’s series of Bernie Gunther historical thrillers, Prague Fatale begins with his ever-cynical protagonist back in harness as a Berlin police detective, investigating the 1941 stabbing death of a Dutch worker. The case acquaints him with a fetching good-time girl, Arianne Tauber, but brings few other satisfactions, so he only mildly resists being called away to Prague by his old boss, Reinhard Heydrich, the new Nazi Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia. Heydrich fears he’s been targeted by one of the colleagues he has gathered in a country house to celebrate his promotion, and wants Gunther’s protection. But instead, one of Heydrich’s aides is found shot dead in a locked room, Agatha Christie-style. To solve this crime -- and also, in the course of it, the Dutch worker’s demise -- Gunther must defy his Nazi superiors and endanger Arianne, knowing all the while that the murderer’s rank may ultimately protect him from prosecution. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen (Putnam)
When we did a signing event together midway through 2012, Owen Laukkanen confessed to me that he thought Putnam had given him a publishing contract because of his distinctly Scandinavian name. He had the feeling that fate had helped him choose his moment, and an industry hungry for the newest Stieg Larsson was ready to jump on the first thing that walked in the door with the right kind of name. In this regard, Laukkanen is full of crap. His debut novel, The Professionals, is sharp, hot, edgy and compelling -- quite everything a thriller should be. The fact that the not-quite-30-year-old Canadian of Finnish descent is tall, good-looking and swims in buckets of charm has nothing to do with that other, all-important thing. What else does Laukkanen have going for him? Dude can write. In tone and pacing and even a bit in content, for me The Professionals called to mind Danny Boyle’s brilliant 1994 film Shallow Grave. In Laukkanen’s take, though, it’s a whole new financial crisis and four recent college grads, unable to land the jobs they feel they deserve, who start joking about a kidnapping. It isn’t long before the joke turns into something more substantial and, from there, it’s only a matter of time before they’ve worked out all of the details of their master plan. What could go wrong, right? They’re brilliant, confident, even a bit cocky. But the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket when they pinch the wrong guy and end up as targets of both the FBI and the mob. Is Laukkanen’s name new to you? It won’t be for long. A film version of The Professionals is already in the works. Word is that Twilight lead Robert Pattinson has been tapped to star. -- Linda L. Richards

Sailor by Tom Epperson (Forge)
I greatly anticipated Tom Epperson’s second novel. I have a lot of love for the 1992 neo-noir movie One False Move, which Epperson co-wrote with star Billy Bob Thornton, and I liked his 2008 “gangster noir” tale, The Kind One. Thankfully, Sailor doesn’t disappoint. It reads like one of Elmore Leonard’s leaner and meaner novels from the 1970s and ’80s, classics such as Cat Chaser, Gold Coast, Unknown Man #89 and his Edgar Award-winning LaBrava. Fifty pages in to Sailor, we find single mother Gina -- a refugee from the Witness Protection Program -- on the run with her son, Luke, and pursued by her mobster father-in-law as well as the marshal on the take who is supposed to be protecting her. Like Leonard’s best work, Epperson’s novel is full of character without sacrificing characters. The bad guys are certainly bad, but they are also recognizably human; indeed, the killers hired to take Gina down provide much of this story’s humor, having memorable conversations that are funny without the writing looking as if it’s trying to be funny. And Gina’s father-in-law has a shockingly sweet relationship with his wife, who’s suffering from a stroke. His part is so well-written, you almost forget that he’s a dangerous psychopath. At the center of this story, though, is a man named Gray, who meets Gina and Luke in Los Angeles and claims to be a sailor (thus, the book’s title). He’s a figure straight out of a Western novel such as Shane, and we slowly learn of his tragic past. He’s a terrific hero, and Gina, while needing help, is no damsel in distress. I loved each character that Epperson introduced, and since he’s a screenwriter, this book felt cinematic in the best ways possible. Sailor is a wonderful novel that feels very 21st century, while being old-fashioned noir. -- Cameron Hughes

Siege by Simon Kernick (Bantam Press UK)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Terrorists storm and take a hotel hostage. They have mysterious motives that are revealed as the story moves along. Only one man in the hotel can stop them, with the police outside trying to get control of the situation. Oh yes, it is very definitely Die Hard in a London hotel. What’s different about this latest thriller from British author Kernick, is that it’s inspired by the best parts of Die Hard. Smart characters, a unique and increasingly claustrophobic setting that’s used well and a story that moves like a bullet as revelations and twists are rolled out. Scope, the hero trapped in the hotel with the other guests and staff, is instantly iconic, being tough but over his head and having to use his brains in order to survive. The rest of this novel’s cast is well-drawn too, with the threatened guests all bearing distinctive voices and personalities. The staff you are invited to follow are so well-formed that you constantly fret for their safety. I loved the European setting and seeing how a Metropolitan Police squad would handle such a crisis. Kernick uses his regular character, Detective Inspector Tina Boyd (The Payback), to splendid effect, but he also introduces several other cops, all of whom are good at their jobs and well-realized. Siege is the rarest of animals -- a thriller that thrills. It’s written with adults in mind and is great entertainment for those of us who want a terrific read but expect more from books than the endless stream of cookie-cutter thrillers being churned out these days. A U.S. edition of Siege is due for release in June of next year. -- Cameron Hughes

Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin (Orion UK)
Here’s welcome news for fans of Detective Inspector John Rebus: the iconic bad boy of Britain’s Lothian and Borders Police is back in harness and working for his old force, this time as a civilian in a cold-case unit. His boss, Detective Sergeant Daniel Cowen, resents having to supervise a bunch of over-the-hill ex-cops, and predictably, Rebus gives him plenty of attitude, further nursing the man’s aggravation. When Rebus is approached by a woman seeking information about her long-missing daughter, Rebus isn’t sure he has anything to work with; she was 18, and a dozen years have passed since her disappearance and the original investigation. There was little enough to go on at the time, and since then the original case officers have either died or retired. But several other women have dropped out of sight over the ensuing years, all in roughly the same region of rural Scotland, suggesting there might be a serial killer at work. His curiosity piqued, Rebus decides to look into the case; but with no real support from Cowan, and lacking even a warrant card, he’s very much on his own. So what else is new? Meanwhile, Rebus is unaware that he’s in the crosshairs of another cop in Lothian and Borders. DI Malcolm Fox (The Impossible Dead) heads Ethics and Standards, the current incarnation of Internal Affairs, and he’s convinced that John Rebus is dirty. So he sets out to investigate the maverick copper, and it isn’t long before he learns that Rebus has a more-or-less regular drinking partner, an ex-con known as Big Ger Cafferty. Is Fox after Rebus because he thinks Rebus is corrupt, or because Rebus reminds him all too much of his own failings? Long a leader in the contemporary noir field, Rankin’s appeal lies to a great extent in his masterful use of layered subplots, including here Rebus’ nuanced relationship with onetime partner Siobhan Clarke, his taut alliance with ex-crime boss Cafferty, and the tension between Rebus and Malcolm Fox. These elements are every bit as compelling as the main story line, and raise Ian Rankin to the very pinnacle of crime writers, contemporary or otherwise. Standing in Another Man’s Grave will be released in the States next month by Reagan Arthur Books. -- Jim Napier

Stray Bullets by Robert Rotenberg (Touchstone Canada)
This is the compelling tale of a spontaneous shooting at a Tim Hortons restaurant in Toronto, Ontario -- a firefight that leaves a 4-year-old boy dead and a crucial eyewitness, an illegal alien, vanished into the night. Detective Ari Greene struggles to separate the facts of this case from the many conflicting eyewitness accounts. How many shots were fired, and from how many guns? Which witnesses are reliable, if any? And how does he go about tracking down the shooter, who melted into the cold November darkness? Greene only wants to bring a killer to justice and give the grieving parents of the young victim some solace, but he soon finds there are people involved in this case who have other agendas than solving the crime. Building on the time-tested format of the TV series Law & Order (begin with the crime, move to the investigation, conclude with the trial), Robert Rotenberg expertly mines his considerable experience as a Toronto criminal lawyer to spin a story that’s long on colorful detail but carries the reader along effortlessly. With a cast of believable characters cutting across the social spectrum, a layered plot and convincing dialogue, Stray Bullets has all the qualities of a Michael Connelly novel married to a courtroom drama by John Grisham. It’s a well-crafted, compelling tale that will send readers back to look at Rotenberg’s previous works, Old City Hall and The Guilty Plea. -- Jim Napier

Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay (New American Library)
Put simply, Trust Your Eyes is a digital-age reworking of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The main story is relayed from the perspective of Ray Kilbride, a freelance cartoonist in a changing modern market. His younger brother, Thomas -- who suffers from a mild form of schizophrenia -- witnesses these changes too, but from the point of view of cartography. After widower Adam Kilbride dies in a tragic accident while mowing his lawn, his lawyer, Harry Peyton, contacts Kilbride’s elder son, Ray, and urgently summons him back to the family home in Promise Falls. This return is most troubling. He finds that Thomas, who was living with their father, has developed a mania about mapping the world. He hears voices, claims to receive calls from former U.S. President Bill Clinton and says he’s been working on a clandestine mission for the CIA. That mission calls for Thomas to memorize all of the world’s maps, using an online computer program called Whirl360 (a fictionalized Google Street View). Thomas believes those digital illustrations are all in danger of being wiped out. Now, this seems perfectly innocent to a troubled and deluded mind -- until the day that Thomas, using his Whirl360 program, sees in the window of a New York City apartment what he’s convinced is the face of a woman being murdered by suffocation. From there, Barclay’s new novel assembles a chess game involving flawed people, driven people and other people with their own agendas, all in need of forwarding. As the plot strands converge, and the bodies start to pile up, we see there may be more to Thomas’ delusions than his brother understood. The closing sections of Trust Your Eyes drew to my mind images of Russian nesting dolls: every time you open one up, you find another complication inside. These revelations mount toward a shocking resolution on the book’s last page. -- Ali Karim

What It Was by George Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur)
This feels like the ultimate Pelecanos novel. All of the things he seems to love are included: talk of clothes and funk music, and a story that feels like a Western told in an urban 1970s setting. The story takes place in 1972 and focuses on a small-time criminal named Red Fury (named after the red Plymouth Fury that he and his girl CoCo ride around in). Red is blazing his way through Washington, D.C., killing and making money. He knows it’s not a smart way to live, but he’s making a name for himself that’ll be whispered reverently in the neighborhoods for years to come. For Red, that’s better than being a hard-working chump who lives his life without making a mark. Meanwhile, Derek Strange, fresh off the local police force and trying to make it as a fledgling private eye, has taken the case of a missing piece of costume jewelry. Soon enough, that investigation and Red’s rampage intersect, provoking the literary resurrection of Frank “Hound Dog” Vaughn, a cop from Pelecanos’ Hard Revolution (2004) -- and my personal favorite among Pelecanos’ secondary characters. What It Was is everything you could ask for in a Pelecanos novel. I sometimes forget how fun and slick this novelist can be, and his talents are in full force here, as he builds a period yarn that’s also a blaxploitation tall-tale played out on the mean streets of America’s capital. I’d love to see a director like Craig Brewer or Martin Scorsese make a movie out of What It Was. It’s not totally light; Pelecanos does talk here about race and being a good man, but he’s not heavy-handed about it. I loved it. You will too. -- Cameron Hughes

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best Books of 2012: Crime Fiction, Part I

This is the crime, mystery and thriller fiction (part I) segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2012 feature; part II is scheduled for presentation tomorrow. Already posted are our picks of the Best Cookbooks of 2012. Still to come are our choices of the Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Biography, Best Books for Children and Young Adults, and Best Science Fiction/Fantasy. Look for them in the coming days.

Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke (Liberties Press)
I’ll start by repeating a statement I’ve made before: “Absolute Zero Cool is a wild, zany read, and I loved it.” I don’t intend to write a spoiler now, but the sheer originality of this book shrieks out in various unavoidable ways. The language is rich, the story is anarchic, the dialogue sparkles and the laughs are frequently side-splitting. An author (Declan Burke, perhaps?) finds himself face to face with a psychopath from a story he had dreamt up, then failed to publish. The nutty phantom, Karlsson, has decided to change his name to Billy, and he has kept on growing. “I’m in limbo,” Billy complains to the man who created him, and Billy wants to be rescued. And he is such a pushy, outrageous character that he will not be silenced. Unpublishable? Me? “I’m not the problem,” Billy insists. “The story’s the problem.” So what, according to Billy Karlsson, was the problem with the original unpublished story? The subject was just too serious. Billy has a suggestion to offer in that respect: “Make euthanasia funny,” he says. It may sound impossible, but Declan Burke -- a sometime Rap Sheet contributor -- makes far worse things even funnier. At the same time, he manages to encapsulate perfectly what crime writers do between chatting with the wife and pandering to the baby: they create whack jobs in the study. “These days I write comedy,” the author-star of the novel remarks. “Life is shitty enough for people without asking them to waste their precious reading time.” Don’t waste your own precious reading time. Read Absolute Zero Cool today. It’s as cool and bare and original as Waiting for Godot, but it offers a lot more laughs. -- Michael Gregorio

Big Maria by Johnny Shaw (Thomas & Mercer)
With two novels out, both this new one and last year’s fantastic Dove Season, I’ve decided that Johnny Shaw is the most exciting new young writer to come along in quite some time. Why? Character. Big Maria is a white-trash version of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, featuring three bumblers -- Harry, Ricky, and Frank, a Native American who’s dying from cancer. A lesser-caliber writer would have gotten to the main plot as quickly as possible; it’s a good one, after all, involving the map to a gold mine located across a very active artillery field in Arizona’s Chocolate Mountains. But Shaw is a superior writer, taking his time to get to his adventure. He introduces the reader to his three main players, showing instead of telling us about their world and making us care and be invested in their quest. So by the time that trio faces threats on the order of wild animals and shifty drug dealers, those threats are more than mere obstacles in a plot -- they’re genuine problems for guys we know and like a lot, and who we want very badly to succeed. Shaw combines the buddy novels of Joe R. Lansdale with loads of movies made over the years, and makes his formula sing. Big Maria is also a damn funny book, with naturalistic dialogue similar to what the Coen Brothers can deliver. I found myself turning pages and finding gems such as “My brother’s dumb as a box of hammers and she ain’t no rocket surgeon.” And: “You know how when you get high and Nacho Doritos sound better than a lady hole?” Finally, you’ve got to love a novel in which a burro explodes, causing major problems for everyone involved. -- Cameron Hughes

The Blackhouse by Peter May (SilverOak)
Scottish-born author May has had a rather varied career. He started out in journalism, but switched to TV screenwriting after being asked to adapt his first novel, The Reporter (1978), as a 13-part BBC series called The Standard. In 1996 he quit television to resume his book-writing career, producing half a dozen mysteries set in China (beginning with 1999’s The Firemaker) before embarking on a second series, that one starring Enzo Macleod, a half-Italian, half-Scottish forensic scientist turned university biology professor with a particular aptitude for solving cold-case crimes. (2011’s Blowback is the latest installment in the Enzo series.) The Blackhouse is the opening entry in a trilogy of books set on the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides archipelago. Abundant in back-story, manifest grief and corrosive fears, it introduces Detective Sergeant Fin Macleod, who grew up on that wind-savaged lump of rock but now works with the police in Edinburgh. Fleeing a crumbling marriage, and still reeling from the accidental death of his only child, Macleod comes to the Outer Hebrides to investigate a ghastly homicide that’s similar to one committed on his big-city home turf. The reader might think Macleod could find some solace in such familiar environs. However, his boyhood among the island’s hardened souls and fundamentalist churches was something less than thoroughly happy, and numerous ghosts -- along with plenty of more tangible dangers -- await him there. The solution to this tale’s mystery may dwell in a trauma Macleod has long suppressed. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker)
Following the close of Arctic Chill, the lynchpin in Indridason’s acclaimed Icelandic mystery series, Reykjavik Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson has taken some time off, gone on “walkabout” to contemplate and review his childhood. This has lead the series to an interesting fork in the road. The last novel, Outrage, was told through the eyes of policewoman Elinborg, while Black Skies is told through the eyes of her colleague, the U.S.-educated detective Sigurdur Óli. Óli often demonstrates less patience and finesse than Elinborg, and he’s often prepared to “bend the rules” a tad when squeezed for a result. Interestingly, it is those precise faults in his character that make his viewpoint perfect for Black Skies’ plot about corrupt bankers and hidden motivations. Set in 2005, this novel (the title of which is a metaphor for the financial crisis destined to clobber Iceland) starts out along the well-worn path of a serial-killer yarn. We see an alcoholic drifter named Anders crafting a hideous killing device, the design of which comes from Iceland’s history: a leather mask fixed with a spike in its forehead. Meanwhile, Óli -- suffering the slings and errors of marital strife -- must deal with a case of “wife swapping.” That soon leads to the extortion of a former schoolmate’s banker relative, a woman’s savage beating and questions about Óli’s profession judgment. Before long, the reader finds himself trapped on a carousel of troubles, watching as bankers are caught up in the machinations of greed and witnessing the fractured childhood that led Anders to his present sorrowful state. There is no finer writer of literary police procedurals these days than Indridason. Black Skies proves the truth of that statement. -- Ali Karim

Broken Harbor by Tana French (Viking)
This is a compelling, finely crafted tale about the horrific multiple-murder of a family in rural Ireland. In a coastal housing estate of half-vacant, jerry-built homes an hour’s drive north of Dublin a grisly crime has been unearthed: Patrick Spain and his two young children have been brutally stabbed to death. Spain’s wife, the sole surviving member of the family, has been found in critical condition, stabbed multiple times and barely clinging to life. The bodies of the children show no signs of a struggle; they seem to have been murdered in their beds while they slept. Detective Sergeant Mick Kennedy, a 10-year veteran of the Dublin Murder Squad, is handed the case. Everything points to a family member being responsible; and on the verge of poverty and trying desperately to maintain an image of middle-class respectability, the father is the odds-on favorite for the crime. But there are anomalies, and the case is proving to be far from simple. There’s also an elephant in the room. Years earlier Kennedy’s own family had taken their holidays near the scene of this crime, and his younger sister, Dina, witnessed their mother commit suicide in the coastal waters nearby. Now bipolar and off her meds, Dina’s vivid memories of that day and her out-of-control behavior threaten to jeopardize the case and even put an end to Kennedy’s career. Grabbing the reader’s attention with a first-person point of view and a driving narrative voice, French strips readers of their detachment, drawing them into the vortex of this dark but all-too-believable tale. Perfectly paced, with nuanced characters set against a backdrop of heart-rending conflict and dialogue that reads as though you’re a fly on the wall, Broken Harbor shows that Tana French is one of the most talented emerging writers around. -- Jim Napier

Confined Space by Deryn Collier (Touchstone Canada)
There is a distinctly Canadian insouciance in Deryn Collier’s debut effort, Confined Space. The pacing feels slow, yet somehow the pages snap by, and though the action is unapologetic, there are times when you get the feeling that things could go either way. Is the beer factory locale in a sleepy hamlet in the Kootenay region of British Columbia what gives Confined Space its distinctly Canadian air? Well, yes. There’s that. But there’s so much else. Almost the whole time I spent reading this first book in what is meant to be a series, I kept thinking: Is this it? Is this, finally, the Canadian crime fiction we’ve been waiting for? The book that will snap Canuck crime into the spot those darn Swedes have been occupying for last half decade or so? I’m not sure. It might be. It’s good enough. It will just depend on who is paying attention, I guess. The protagonist and the crime solver we are introduced to here is Bern Fortin, an ex-Canadian Forces commander who has aborted his military career to take on the job of coroner in the sleepy hamlet in question. Quite the plum gig. Bern anticipates growing fat tomatoes and becoming part of a community, after stints in Afghanistan and other war-torn areas have given him a thirst for a quieter kind of life. And it looks as if he’ll get his wish ... right until the time he gets a call from the local brewery: a body has been found floating in the bottle-washing tank and, not long after, the dead man’s girlfriend is found dead in a field adjacent to the brewery. It all looks pretty accidental, but Bern can’t help having his doubts. Collier is breathtaking here and never puts the tiniest foot wrong. There are echoes of the type of writing and setting on which Louise Penny has built her reputation -- rural Canadian locations, a male police-connected protagonist with a Quebecois background -- but Confined Space exhibits a sharper, grittier edge. Collier has done a skillful job of setting Bern Fortin up as someone with whom we’d like to spend more time. I’m glad of that, too. It’s not a pleasure I would like to be denied. -- Linda L. Richards

Creole Belle by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)
Detective Dave Robicheaux lies in a New Orleans hospital, hooked to a morphine drip that allows him to cope with the excruciating pain caused by his taking a bullet in his back a month earlier. Drifting in and out of reveries, his mind playing tricks on him, he is unsure about whether his experiences are real or not. He thinks he’s been visited by a Cajun singer named Tee Jolie Melton, who leaves him an iPod with some songs she recorded on it (including “My Creole Belle”). The problem is, no one else can hear the songs, and Tee Jolie disappeared weeks ago. When he learns that her sister Blue has turned up dead, Dave decides he has to look into the matter. Robicheaux shares his tale with his ex-partner, Clete Purcel. Purcel is retired, in large measure due to an uncontrollable temper, and because when he senses an injustice he’s just got to deal with it, the consequences be damned. Purcell has a new worry: a young woman named Gretchen has shown up in his life, and she turns out to be his illegitimate daughter, although she doesn’t know it. They say the acorn doesn’t drop far from the tree, and that’s certainly true in this case: Gretchen is a contract killer, and her next target may just be someone Clete loves. In an intricate, macabre dance of death, Robicheaux and Purcel work their respective ways through the mystery that each has chosen -- until, inevitably, their paths intertwine and events come to a heart-stopping, violent climax. Along the way they will encounter a body in a block of ice floating in the bay, and confront villains ranging from a pair of two-bit street hoodlums to oil-company executives and fundamentalist ministers, as well as a patriarch with a dark past who rules his parish with an iron grip. And before this morality tale is played out, the body count will rival that of a biblical apocalypse. Burke’s prodigious narrative powers are the stuff of legend, and he has lost none of his skills. There is more meat in almost any single paragraph of Creole Belle than in an entire book by most writers. It is a thick, rich gumbo of a tale, immensely satisfying, but not for the faint of heart. -- Jim Napier

Dare Me by Megan Abbott (Reagan Arthur)
Compared favorably to everything from The Great Gatsby and Fight Club to Richard III and East of Eden, Megan Abbott’s Dare Me is the tale of a Machiavellian struggle for power within a high-school cheerleading squad. And if cheerleading seems like an unlikely milieu for practitioners of Niccolò Machiavelli’s brand of cunning and duplicity, maybe Machiavelli and Abbott have a thing or two to teach you about ambition and risk-taking. In war, politics and, as it turns out, high-school cheerleading, everyone is keeping score: you need only understand the stakes and measures of success. For Beth Cassidy, squad captain, Addy Hanlon, first lieutenant, and Collette French, the new coach, the stakes are control of the squad. Respect, loyalty and fear are the measures of success. Much of the power and appeal of Dare Me comes from the language and voice of narrator Addy. Her interior dialogue feels like a fever dream at points -- so body-conscious, so tied to real time, with little emotional distancing. It’s a bravura performance that made me realize how far above the rest of the crime-writing field Abbott is now working. Last year’s The End of Everything was in many ways a breakthrough book for her. Dare Me takes her work to a new level. -- Mark Coggins

Dark Room by Steve Mosby (Orion UK)
Police detectives Andy Hicks and Laura Fellowes investigate what appears to be the slaying of a woman by her ex-husband. But when more corpses turn up in close succession, Hicks and Fellowes have to question their original theory of a domestic incident. The various victims seem unrelated and there’s no clear pattern to these killings, yet talk of a serial murderer is soon in the air. Hicks is one of those characters who believes all puzzles have logical solutions, and he is therefore thrown for a loop by the randomness of the recent homicides. Are they, however, random? Little can be taken for granted in Mosby’s literary nest of divergent plot threads, including Hicks’ own relationship with the killer or killers. Hicks helps raise Dark Room well above the level of cliché. He’s a detective compelled to probe the worst excesses of human nature at the same time as he contemplates the birth of his first child. The strain on Hicks as he struggles to juggle both his family life and the investigation is shadowed by secrets from his past. Adding to this novel’s sense of unease is its setting: a landscape as vague as it is dangerous, a Northern British city sometime in the near future. Dark Room is a superb thriller for those who eat with their mouths closed and relish the existential musings of people who operate on the edges of society -- and must ultimately pay the price for playing at the darkest end of the street. -- Ali Karim

Dominion by C. J. Sansom (Mantle UK)
Taking another detour from his Matthew Shardlake Tudor detective series -- as he did with the melancholy Winter in Madrid (2008) -- Sansom gives us a what-if spy adventure set in 1952. A dozen years have passed since Great Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany, though World War II continues to rage on in Russia. Britons are chafing under the authoritarian regulations imposed by their new government, and they’re worried by atrocious acts taking place in their midst. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill’s Resistance movement appears to be expanding, and it may have discovered a way to tip the balance of power in its favor. Much depends, though, on the daring efforts of a civil servant turned reluctant Resistance spy, David Fitzgerald, who has been assigned to help a scientist, trapped in a Birmingham mental hospital, flee the country. Fitzgerald soon finds himself hiding from capture, together with a group of other Resistance activists, in a London menaced by a hazardous air-pollution event, the notorious Great Smog of ’52. At the same time, Fitzgerald’s wife, Sarah, faces her own terrors, and one of the Gestapo’s most notorious manhunters is hot on both their heels. Sansom’s characters are provided with dimensions and detailed histories enough to make them credible, and in Dominion the author has merged sufficient real events from 1950s Britain with his own imaginings to make readers believe, if only now and then, that the story presented in these pages might actually have happened. Fans of Len Deighton’s own alternative thriller, SS-GB (1978), may see similarities in Dominion, but they shouldn’t be disappointed with this new novel. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Double Game by Dan Fesperman (Knopf)
The Double Game is a sublime indulgence for lovers of spy fiction. In this cleverly executed novel, author Fesperman takes the reader back to the era of Cold War espionage and deftly reminds us that spying is all about deception and information as currency. Protagonist William Cage is a frustrated Washington, D.C., public relations guy. His writing career fell off the tracks more than 20 years earlier, after he interviewed former spook and current spy novelist Edwin Lemaster, who revealed that he’d once considered being a double agent. Now, Cage receives a cryptic message at his Georgetown home, saying that he should follow up on what Lemaster told him all those years ago. That pursuit of knowledge draws him back to his old boyhood haunts in Europe -- including Vienna, where his retired diplomat father, Warfield, still lives amidst bookshelves overflowing with first-edition spy novels. Things take a dangerous turn in Vienna and Prague, and Cage doesn’t know who he can trust anymore. His father is suspiciously keeping long-held CIA secrets, and even Cage’s former flame Litzi Strauss seems to be playing him. More than just a spy novel, The Double Game is a brilliant tribute to spy literature in general. It drips with references to such giants of the genre as John le Carré and Eric Ambler and revels in the gloriousness of all things covert. You don’t need to be well-versed in spy fiction before taking up this novel, because Fesperman provides all that’s necessary. The reader merely needs to sit back and enjoy the ride. In these pages, the KGB and CIA simmer in all their paranoid glory. Cutthroat agents put bullets into the faces of their enemies. And CIA spymaster James Jesus Angleton hunts for moles. Mainly though, The Double Game is about William Cage righting his own life. Be prepared to buy a few spy novels after you’re done reading here -- Fesperman’s story is infectious. And in the spirit of this novel, be sure to buy those books in print versions and from bricks-and-mortar bookstores. -- Anthony Rainone

El Gavilan by Craig McDonald (Tyrus)
Earlier this year (technically, at the end of 2011), fans of author Craig McDonald were treated to something new and different. Taking a departure from his historical series featuring pulp writer Hector Lassiter (Print the Legend, Head Games), McDonald released El Gavilan, a present-day saga of immigration tensions in a fictitious yet familiar-feeling town in Ohio. In that yarn, the rape and murder of a coffee shop waitress, who was a favorite of the county sheriff, Able Hawk, nicknamed “El Gavilan,” sets up the action and theme of the book. Hawk teams up with new police chief (and ex-Border Patrol agent) Tell Lyon to solve the murder, while also trying to keep the community under control in the summer heat and amid simmering emotions over illegal immigration and the Mexican drug trade. El Gavilan crackles with the hard-boiled action for which McDonald is known. Readers of the Lassiter series know that the characters always take center stage, and this book is no exception. The centerpiece is the character of Hawk himself. When we first meet him, he seems like a barrel-chested and bigoted law-enforcement character right out of central casting, but McDonald shrewdly and effectively colors in nuance and contradictions, making Hawk a surprisingly sympathetic and likeable character (the fact that he also has all the best lines doesn’t hurt). Fans of action will find plenty to like here, but a recent second reading of the book reminded me that El Gavilan benefits from an atmosphere of civic desperation that is new to McDonald’s work. In this respect, El Gavilan rises above noir entertainment and easily becomes McDonald’s most compelling and mature work to date. I yield to no one in my love of the Lassiter series, but El Gavilan is a cut above. 2012 was a productive year for McDonald. In addition to El Gavilan, he also released two e-books featuring supporting character Chris Lyon, Parts Unknown and Carnival Noir, with a third, Cabal, to come soon. -- Stephen Miller

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam)
Set in New York City in 1845, Faye’s second novel (after her 2009 Sherlock Holmes tale, Dust and Shadow) traces the escapades of Timothy Wilde, a young bartender who -- following a devastating downtown fire that causes his disfigurement -- signs on with the city’s embryonic police force, a company of “copper stars” (as those early patrolmen were known) who are still trying to figure out the best means to curb Manhattan’s escalating crime rate. After literally running into a 10-year-old girl covered with blood, Wilde sets out -- with his elder brother’s help (and sometimes his hindrance) -- to determine where she’s come from, what horrors she’s witnessed and whether her story about a field of corpses secreted in a woodland north of 23rd Street can possibly be true. My understanding is that Gods is the opening number in a new series. If so, I definitely look forward to seeing the next installment. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown)
Flynn’s work is very disquieting, featuring unreliable narrators who weave story lines that are as disturbing as any reader, tired of crime-fiction conventions, could hope to discover. If Patricia Highsmith were still writing today, she would have fierce competition from this fellow American, as both authors share a strand in their tales: the effort to comprehend the amorality and darkness that lie mere millimetres below the veneer of our observed reality. Gone Girl, Flynn’s third novel (after 2009’s Dark Places) is a fairly tough work to review, since it reads like a bad drug experience, or perhaps a lucid dream from which one wakes in sodden sheets and with the fervent desire to record the night’s reverie before it evaporates. Told from the viewpoints of Missouri couple Nick and Amy Dunne, it’s a haunting romance, simmering with menace and illustrating that when two lovers find their lives changing, the circumstances can sometimes lead to a dangerous conclusion. The backdrop to this yarn is the all-too-recent worldwide economic crisis, which has forced the Dunnes to downsize and move out of New York. Nick now looks after his sick mother, and for income he uses a chunk of Amy’s inheritance to open a bar with his twin sister, Margo. There is subtle subtext behind the couple’s relocation to the Midwest, as the narrative mentions how tough the economy is for people who used to make a reasonable living from writing, including Amy’s parents. The plot of Gone Girl is simple enough, kicked off by Amy’s disappearance on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. The shadow of suspicion quickly falls on husband Nick. In the absence of any hard evidence, suspicions become whispers, and those whispers find their way into the press. The local police then hound Nick, hoping to bring down the façade of innocence he seems to have raised around him. But just when the reader thinks he or she knows what became of Amy, a divergence between Nick’s recollections of his relationship with his wife and Amy’s diary entries throws everything up in the air once more. This thriller will appeal to anyone looking into the dark side of human relationships, and if you are looking for the heir to Patricia Highsmith, crack the spine of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and be prepared to be disturbed. It’s unsettling entertainment sure to be a contender for one or more 2012 book awards. -- Ali Karim

House of the Hunted by Mark Mills (Random House)
Former British special agent Tom Nash is enjoying a rather idyllic life with his privileged friends on France’s Côte d’Azur in 1935, hiding the pains and horrors of his past, when he’s suddenly attacked in the middle of a quiet night. He succeeds in doing away with the hit man, but the incident leaves Nash uneasy. It’s unlikely that this molestation is linked to his present travel-writing career, so it must have to do with his history in the intelligence services. Clearly, Nash hasn’t covered his tracks -- or protected himself -- as well as he’d hoped. Somebody knows who he was and what he’s done. Now this flawed but fascinating man must fall back on his espionage instincts, distrust everybody around him, and relive the memories of a woman executed 16 years before by Russia’s Bolsheviks if he’s to save himself and the other people he loves. There’s studied unhurriedness to this story that plays well against its moments of high drama. Readers tired of being dragged bodily through rapid-clip adventures, over one cliffhanger after the next, with only workmanlike prose to lubricate their passage, should find House of the Hunted to be a refreshing change. -- J. Kingston Pierce

(Part II of this feature can be found here.)

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Django Unleashed

While you’re thinking of lining up to see Django Unchained, writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, be aware that there is another way to experience the story. At the same time, DC/Vertigo Comics has released a new comic series that is set to be a close adaptation of Tarantino’s script. WIRED looks at the new release:
The comic is an incredibly faithful adaptation of Tarantino’s movie script – the first issue is the first few scenes of the film, almost line for line. Drawing on the director’s story, the book’s interior art comes from [R.M.] Guéra, who made characters that hew closely to their actor counterparts but are their own characters entirely. The artist’s Django, the slave that becomes a bounty hunter, has a more steely cowboy vibe than smooth, cool Jamie Foxx; ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie looks even more maniacal than Leonardo DiCaprio; and Candie’s house slave Stephen looks far more jowly and grizzled on the page than Samuel L. Jackson does on screen.
Meanwhile, pretty much everyone is talking about the film version starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio. Forbes was over the moon about the film:
The “D” may be silent, but the “A+” scores aren’t. Quentin Tarantino’s new spaghetti western Django Unchained delivers one of the best times you’ll have at the movies all year, in the director’s best film in almost two decades (which is saying a lot).
Meawnhile, Spike Lee has publicly been much (much, much) less enthusiastic:
Director Spike Lee won’t be rooting for “Django Unchained” at the 2013 Golden Globes, let alone see the Quentin Tarantino film, after he ripped the movie for being disrespectful to African-Americans and the history of slavery.

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