Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Best 2009 Reads

It's that time of the year: when we begin to reflect on the past year. For reviewers and other readers, that means their best reads of the year. Janet Rudolph has an impressive collection of best mystery lists at her blog. Of course, these lists often serve to remind us of the many books we did not get around to reading! But, given that constraint, I offer my own list of books I most enjoyed reading this year (some were published this year, but not all). They are:

Shatter, Michael Robotham
A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny
The Brutal Telling, Louise Penny
A Darker Domain, Val McDermid
Echoes From the Dead, Johan Theorin
The Shanghai Moon, S.J. Rozan
Bleeding Heart Square, Andrew Taylor
The Last Refuge, Chris Knopf
River of Darkness, Rennie Airth
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley
The Coroner’s Lunch, Colin Cotterill

With best wishes for many good reads in 2010!

The Shanghai Moon by S.J. Rozan

Protagonists: Lydia Chin and Bill Smith
Setting: New York City
Rating: 5.0

It is very rare that I fall in love with a story on the first page. Yet The Shanghai Moon pulled me in immediately, spinning a yarn that was as alluring as the Shanghai Moon itself -- a legendary piece of jewelry at the center of the story. Private eye Lydia Chin is hired to help track stolen jewels dating back to World War II, when Jews fleeing the Nazis went to Shanghai. The story is told in flashback through a series of letters from the jewels' original owner, Rosalie Gilder, and by her surviving family. But someone is not telling the truth, and even after being fired from the case, Chin, with partner Bill Smith, can't let go.

Now, mysteries with jewels are nothing new (Wilkie Collin's The Moonstone is considered the first detective novel). But Rozan spins her story around two independent women -- Rosalie, a young woman sent alone to Shanghai with her younger brother (and this part is based on the very-real Jewish settlement in Shanghai during World War II) and Lydia, whose ringtone is the theme to "Wonder Woman" but who is also very rooted in the Chinese traditions. Set in New York City, Rozan very much brings the sights, smells and yes, even tastes, of Chinatown to life.

The Shanghai Moon is part of an award-winning series, but this novel can be read on its own (in fact, I haven't read any of the other novels -- yet -- and had no trouble following the characters). It's been seven years since Rozan has written a Chin/Smith novel. All I can say is, welcome back!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Darker Domain by Val McDermid

Protagonist: Det. Insp. Karen Pirie
Setting: Fife, Scotland
Rating: 4.7

In 1984, a miner goes missing during a strike. His family believes that he's joined strikebreakers in another part of Scotland. But, more than 20 years later, Mick Prentice's daughter is trying to find him -- and she can't. Her son needs a bone marrow transplant to survive, and her father is the last hope for a match. Seemingly unrelated, a year later, Catriona MacLennan Grant, daughter of a powerful businessman, and her baby son are kidnapped. Catriona is killed, but the baby disappears. Now, a journalist vacationing in Italy has found a clue that may lead to the kidnappers. Both cold cases land in DI Pirie's lap, and both, unsurprisingly, are related. McDermid does a wonderful job of switching back and forth not only between time and place, but also between characters. Pirie is so well-drawn, in fact, that it's a shame this is a standalone novel, and not a series. The book is gripping, and moves at a quick pace. I would have given it a perfect rating except that some of the revelations were easy to figure out. Still, even when I thought I had it all figured out, McDermid had a few more curveballs to throw.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor

Protagonists: Lydia Langstone and Rory Wentwood
Setting: Bleeding Heart Square, London, 1934
Rating: 5.0

Lydia Langstone is an upper-class woman used to the finer things. But when her husband strikes her, she leaves her comfortable life to share a gritty apartment with her estranged father in the somewhat seedy Bleeding Heart Square. Rory Wentwood, a journalist who has spent years in India and is now unemployed, also finds himself renting an apartment there. The legend of the square has it that the devil, disguised during a party, danced away with a lady, leaving her body on the square, her bleeding heart on the cobblestones. Now, someone is sending apartment owner Serridge hearts and skulls. Could it have something to do with Miss Penhow, the middle-aged spinster who owned the apartments before she fell in love with Serridge? Miss Penhow mysteriously disappeared a few years ago, and now Rory, acting on behalf of his one-time fiancee Fenella, is trying to find out what happened. Lydia soon becomes involved in the mystery, as well.

While Bleeding Heart Square is most assuredly a mystery, Taylor's books are so much more, this one being a Dicksensian tour of the have's and have not's, of a politically-torn England pre-World War II and of the options open to women at that time. Taylor is a master of the atmospheric, and he paints bleakness beautifully. I've read some criticism that the book moves too slowly, but that is what I like about Taylor -- he writes psychological suspense like no one else. He pulls you into the characters' stories so completely and then -- surprise -- wraps up the mystery you almost forgot about.

Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley

Protagonist: Gus Carpenter
Setting: Starvation Lake, Michigan
Rating: 4.5

In this debut novel, journalist Gus Carpenter returns to his hometown in northern Michigan, having been fired from a large Detroit newspaper. Now he's working for a small daily that fills the pages with light-hearted features. That's until police find a snowmobile that belonged to the town's legendary hockey coach in Starvation Lake, miles from where he disappeared years ago. Suddenly, Gus and rookie reporter Joanie are on to a big story. Warning: There's a lot of hockey in this novel -- Gus is forever remembered by townspeople as the goalie who lost the team their state ice-hockey championship and he still plays in an adult league. The amount of hockey detail does bog the book down sometimes. Still, there's a very good mystery here, great characters and wonderful descriptions of the snowy small town of Starvation Lake. This is a stellar debut and I look forward to more from Gruley.