It’s Fall of 1983 and Winston Barnes, the 63-year-old Sheriff of Oak Island, North Carolina is awakened one night by the sound of a low flying airplane. When he investigates, Barnes is surprised to find a huge, abandoned cargo plane crash-landed on the local airport’s small runway. He is further surprised to discover the body of a local young Black man, a new dad whose wife says just ran out for diapers, shot dead nearby.
As Barnes begins his investigation, he believes he is mere days away of being voted out of office. His opponent, Brad Frye, a land developer and “good old boy” is delighted when the FBI roll onto the scene to put doubt in the public’s mind that Barnes is still a capable sheriff. Frye is also more than happy to stir up local suspicion that the murdered Black man was part of a drug smuggling ring. Action culminates when the locals begin to threaten and attack the home of the new widow, and Barnes must choose between being popular and doing what is right.
If you are in the mood for simmering, southern atmospheric fiction, with a bit of mystery, pick up When Ghosts Come Home and prepare to be absorbed by this quiet but compelling, character-driven novel that explores themes of grief, greed and racism.
In This Tender Landby William Kent Krueger, hundreds of Native American children have been separated from their parents and sent to the Lincoln School in Minnesota, a boarding school meant to take the perceived “wild” out of these children by providing structure and forcing them to speak only English. The Brinkmans are the corrupt family who run the school and for years have taken advantage of their students, by stealing their money, by not permitting any family contact, and by doling out physical & mental abuse along with a shortage of nutritional food and clean clothing.
Odie narrates this novel and shares his adventures from the summer of 1932, when at 12-years-old, he and his older brother Albert O’Banion, along with Mosie, a mute Native American boy, and Emmy, a six-year-old ward of the Brinkman’s, decide they’ve all had enough at the Lincoln School and escape by canoeing down the Mississippi river.
As the group of self-proclaimed “vagabonds” journey in search of better lives, they have run-ins with drunks, bootleggers, hobos and con artists and get into some seriously dangerous situations along their way to St. Louis. Suspense builds as the gang learns that the Brinkmans have hired bounty hunters and are after them and closing in fast.
This Tender Land, was published in 2019 but is set during the Great Depression and reads like a modern classic. and is a beautifully crafted novel that has plenty for every reader —a mix of literary fiction, coming-of-age, adventure, mystery, and a lesson in morality and forgiveness.
If you liked Where the Crawdads Sing, Huckleberry Finn or just enjoy compelling historical fiction, you won’t want to missthis novel.
If you are a fan of good crime fiction, start the year right with Kathleen Kent’s “Detective Betty” trilogy, which follow the ups and (mostly) downs of a tough-as-nails, Brooklyn-born, Dallas-based narcotics detective. Betty Rhyzyk was raised by a family of policemen, but was all but destroyed by the death of her brother and the rampant police corruption in Brooklyn. For love, Betty has followed her partner Jackie to Dallas, where she is also hoping for an easier gig. Unfortunately, Betty is still haunted by her past, and not only are the good old boys in blue just as corrupt in Texas, Betty’s new batch of bad guys aren’t afraid of her one bit, even if she is carrying and badge and a gun.
In Betty’s first outing in The Dime, a vengeful cult leader Evangeline Roy tortures and nearly kills Betty. Both women survive and Roy escapes, leaving Betty perpetually looking over her shoulder, even as she throws herself into chasing down the next criminal. In the subsequent volumes of her adrenaline-filled story, The Burnand The Pledge, Betty’s dogged sense of right and wrong get her in more trouble than most of her male counterparts, and her inability to let go of an investigation or listen to authority figures has her on the outs with her superiors more often than not. Even when she’s closing drug cartel cases, catching criminals and getting promotions, Betty faces adversity as a female detective and as a lesbian on the force, and finds she must work that much harder to get respect. No worries –Detective Betty Rhyzyk thrives under pressure. Fans of Michael Connelly’s books and smart, high-octane crime fiction should snap this trilogy up and get ready to enjoy.
In his smart and funny “Hawthorne and Horowitz” series of whodunnits, author Anthony Horowitz writes himself directly into the books, playing a bumbling, self-deprecating sidekick to the often gruff and sometimes mysterious, private detective Daniel Hawthorne. The results are three (so far) very readable and enjoyable crime novels, in which Hawthorne finds his killer and Horowitz documents the investigation along the way, hoping for his next bestseller.
In book 3, A Line to Kill, Horowitz (the character) is wanting to impress his editors and finally introduces them to Hawthorne, a move that backfires when both men are sent to an exclusive literary festival on Alderney, an idyllic island off the south coast of England. Horowitz is aghast that Hawthorne has been included, as Hawthorne hasn’t written a single word, but is happy enough to have the investigator along after a local bigwig is found dead under mysterious circumstances.
The island is locked down until the murderer is found, and the suspects include a bestselling children’s author, a French poet, a TV chef turned cookbook author, a blind psychic, and a war historian—along with a group of angry locals feuding over a planned power line that threatens to wreck the island’s ambiance and environment. Hawthorne finds himself enjoying the literary festival after all, and certainly won’t let anything stop him from finding the killer, not even the local cops who have never seen a dead body before.
These character rich mysteries are like modern day Agatha Christie novels -leisurely paced, rich in detail and plot points, along with plenty of dry humor that is often directed towards the world of books and writers. While A Line to Kill can be enjoyed on its own, I recommend first reading The Word is Murderand The Sentence is Death. And then, like me, you’ll be eagerly waiting for the next in this original series.
Annie is born in the mid-19th Century, alongside coal-covered canals of the Black Country, in the West Midlands of England, to a large Romani family. When her father dies, her mother becomes desperate and makes the impossible decision to sell Annie, who is almost nine years old to the highest bidder at an annual fair. Overnight, Annie becomes daughter to the famous, and foul-mouthed bare-knuckle boxer Bill Perry, the legendary “Tipton Slasher,” who though over-fond of drink, dotes on the girl.
As Annie grows up, she ends up taking care of an aging and ailing Bill more and more. When Bill ends up in financial trouble, Annie decides to train as a fighter, herself, in order to get him out of the jam. Soon enough, Annie becomes a legend in her own right, and along with the opportunity to attend school and become literate. Will that be enough to allow her to escape to a better life?
This rollicking read is filled with run-ins with the law, robberies by dangerous highway men, the finding of first love, and of course, plenty of fist fights. Annie’s independence and joie de vive make her a delight to spend time with, and her determination to succeed no matter the obstacles in her path, makes her downright inspirational. If you like action-packed historical fiction with strong and unique characters, a vivid setting and old world dialect, don’t miss Featherweight. It will knock you out!
If you are off to Grandmother’s house this year for the holidays, you’ll be glad that she isn’t anything like Maud, the protagonist from Helene Tursten’s new collection of connected short stories, An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed. In some ways, Maud, at 89-years-old, is inspirational: she is spry, resourceful, and unafraid to travel internationally and live alone. However, Maud is also not above “acting her age” by using fake hearing aids as props to avoid answering pesky questions from unwanted visitors, like the police. Maud also is unafraid to solve her problems the permanent way — with murder!
In order to avoid further questions regarding a dead body in her apartment, Maud decides to embark on a lavish trip to Africa. On her flight, she reminisces about her past — and mostly bloodless past murders that she has carried out over the years. These vignettes of Maud exacting her own brand of justice are a bit dark, but they are funny and mostly bloodless affairs, made to look like accidents. This modern day avenging octogenarian isn’t very nice but she does care for some people in her own strange way, and her unapologetic and no-nonsense attitude about how life (and death) should work will keep you turning the pages to see who Maud might target next.
Ann Cleeves’ The Heron’s Cry, the second installment in her Two Rivers’ mystery series, sees the residents of the coastal destination town of North Devon, England endure a rash of murders and suspicious suicides with suspects galore. Lucky for them, Detective Inspector Matthew Venn is as meticulous a crime solver as he is a fastidious dresser.
When Venn’s Detective Sergeant Jen Rafferty is approached by public servant Nigel Yeo at a party where she’s had too much to drink to talk, she considers it a possibly-missed love match. When Yeo ends up dead the next day at a local artist colony, stabbed with glass made by his artist daughter, Jen wonders if the man sought her out to tell her something important. Soon, another murder with the same ‘MO’ takes place, and things become complex indeed in their small community. Venn and his team investigate as the case evolves into a complex web involving suicide chat rooms, medical malpractice and an artist colony where tensions run high.
If you like atmospheric, character-driven mysteries, this one is for you. And, while The Heron’s Cry can be read independently of its predecessor, The Long Call (which has been adapted for TV and currently airing on Britbox), why not read them both?
With the busy holiday season ahead, why not sit down with a quick read and a light romance that will lift your spirits, make you laugh, and help you believe in love.
In Very Sincerely Yours by Kerry Winfrey, a nearly 30-year-old Theodora “Teddy” Phillips spends her days surrounded by toys, working at a Columbus, Ohio vintage toy store. She is stuck in a rut with her job and now that she’s been dumped by her long-time boyfriend, she feels even more embarrassed about her lack of future plans. Teddy wallows in her misery by eating plenty of ice cream and binge-watching her guilty pleasure: episodes of Everett’s Place, a local children’s show hosted by Everett St. James, the gorgeous guy who has all the right answers for the kids on his TV show.
On impulse, Teddy writes to Everett, asking for advice on her own life, never expecting an answer. Meanwhile, Everett, who indeed feels like he has his own dream job, is still looking for that missing “something.” When Everett gets a letter from Theodora he is drawn to her vulnerability and a delightful correspondence is born between them.
With witty characters and plenty of heart, this novel about love, family and friendship is a sweet story of self discovery that will put a smile on your face. Pick up Very Sincerely Yours for a charming and chaste romance for anyone who (still) doesn’t know what they want to be when they grow up.
Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, Harlem Shuffle, probably is already on your to-read list but if it isn’t, place that hold now! This literary blend of historical and crime fiction tells the story of Ray Carney, the son a small-time crook. Carney is proud not be like his Dad and also proud to own a furniture store in Harlem in the early 1960s. Sometimes, though, Carney is forced to accept questionable merchandise for resale just to get ahead and rationalizes that he is a cog in the machine. In order to help his cousin Freddie get out of a jam with some crooks who steal the wrong jewelry from the wrong bad guy, Carney agrees to play the role of “fence.” When things go bad with the heist, however, Carney gets his hands very dirty and the lines between crooked and straight begin to blur.
The magic of Harlem Shuffle, which among other things is about the divide between black and white America, is its humor, attention to characters’ backstory and its heart, all hidden behind a slow-building sense that one wrong move could unravel Carney’s life. This love letter to 1960s New York will have you rooting for even some of the not-so-good-guys, as they each just try to live out the American Dream.