The top titles I read this year turned out to be mostly crime fiction. A few other genres sneak in, but I have them mostly relegated to honorable mentions and to a special section for on-going graphic novel series. Even if most of the titles are contained with the crime genre, I have tried to read from a diverse array of authors.
Bearskin (2018) – James A McLaughlin
Rice Moore to find safety seclusion from his past has taken a job as a caretaker of a remote Appalachian nature preserve. However, when he comes across a poached black bear in the woods things start falling apart as soon as he starts making inquiries with the locals who are generally wary of outsiders. Rice spends a lot of time in the untouched Appalachian wilderness which McLaughlin lovingly writes at length in vivid prose. This is a thriller that will be enjoyed most by those that also enjoy a walk in the woods.
French Exit (2018) – Patrick deWitt
I adore reading deWitt. I honestly do not much care what is happening in his stories. Rather, it is his unique perspective and witty presentation of absurd situations that cannot get enough of. This is not my favorite deWitt book – like I said above, I enjoy a western, and The Sisters Brothers is a masterpiece – but it is a great deal of fun all the same. In French Exit, deWitt lampoons New York high society.
Bluebird, Bluebird (2017) – Attica Locke
Lark is a rural East Texas town that has had two suspicious deaths in quick succession; one a black out-of-state visitor, the other a white local girl. Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger, decides to head on up to Lark and take the lay of the land. However, Mathews is still suspended from the Rangers, and the local white sheriff is more interested in sweeping things under the rug than stirring up trouble. And a strong undercurrent of racial tension running through Lark means there is a lot of trouble to be had. Full of flawed and interesting characters, rich East Texas atmosphere, and compelling story this was my favorite of the year.
The System of the World (2014) – Neal Stephenson
The conclusion of Stephenson’s nearly 3000-page trilogy, Baroque Cycle, is just as ambitious as the first two volumes. A dense, complicated series that sprawls through history as Europe begins to enter the Age of Enlightenment. The Baroque Cycle defies to be pigeonholed to a genre; it is part swashbuckling pirate adventure, part history of calculus, part political thriller, and so much more. Though this series was sometimes a slog it is also the series I continue to contemplate and itch for more. Perhaps, Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon will be the balm.
Doc (2011) – Mary Doria Russell
I enjoy a western. There is something about the legends we have constructed around the historical figures and locations of the time that captivate me. In Doc, Russell does just that by blending fact in fiction as young Dr. John Henry Holliday, also known as Doc Holliday, begins practicing dentistry on the Texas frontier. Holliday finds it difficult to pay bills on dentistry alone and soon takes up professional gambling and befriends the Earp brothers. The rest is history… mostly.
A Drop of the Hard Stuff (2011) – Lawrence Block
A Drop of the Hard Stuff is the seventeenth, and likely final, book in the Matthew Scudder series. While this is a good installment in the series, its selection in this list is so that I can recognize the phenomenal series. The series begins with a disillusioned Matthew Scudder in 1970s New York that has quit his job with the NYPD and taken up unlicensed PI work and drinking. Scudder ages in real time and as the series progress Scudder grows and changes with the world around him. He stops drinking, starts attending AA, and makes and loses friends and relationships. By the end of the series, Scudder is both the same man and a very different one. The series spans four decades and it is intensely rewarding to journey along with Scudder as he and New York evolve with time.
Queenpin (2007) – Megan Abbot
This was the most fun I had with a book this year. The unnamed narrator, a young woman with limited prospects, takes a job keeping books at a small nightclub. Soon she begins practicing some shady accounting and is taken under the wing of the infamous and ruthless Gloria Denton. Casinos, racetracks, heists – all the money in the city runs through Gloria before it makes its way to the big bosses out of town. Gloria will provide access to the action and the lavish lifestyle if only the narrator can keep from falling for the wrong guy. Megan Abbott takes the bones of the same old, time-tested gangster story and gives it new life. By the end symbols of toxic masculinity are kicked apart and lay shattered and bloody on the floor.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970) – George V. Higgins
Eddie recently got jammed up by the cops while driving around Vermont with a truck full of stolen booze. Now that he’s back in Boston with a little time before his sentencing, he’s hoping Foley, a local cop, can put a good word in for him if he feeds Foley a little information. Eddie, who’s still running guns for the local mob, wants to rat on his source of guns, not the mob boss that Foley is aiming for. Eddie might not want to go to jail but he’d in an uncomfortable position if people knew he is ratting. Everyone has an angle and friends are friends only until they aren’t. Elmore Leonard style dialogue drives this novel that Leonard also called the best crime novel ever written.
The Grifters (1963) – Jim Thompson
Jim Thompson is not exactly known for invoking the warm and fuzzies with his novels. If you are searching for something to brighten your day or your view of humanity, look elsewhere. The Grifters starts with Roy Dillion, a successful short con man, having a bad day. An easy con goes awry, and he gets an unlucky slug in the stomach that causes unexpected and lasting damage. While laid up healing Roy’s structured life continues to slip away as he tries to balance the three competing women in his life.
In a Lonely Place (1947) – Dorothy B. Hughes
For the last several years crime novels are the genre that has made up the majority of my reading. So, when I stumble across an article from an author that I respect, Megan Abbott in this case, and she is calling out In a Lonely Place as a groundbreaking, and subversive novel canon to the genre, my ears perk up, and my to-read list grows and so should yours. Read my recent Read it or Weep summary here.
Best Continuing Series:
Giant Days, Vol. 7 (2018) – John Allison (Author) and Liz Fleming (Illustrations)
This British bildungsroman centers on three university students as they transition into the complex world of adulthood and living on their own. Even though the young adults are frequently melodramatic and angsty – as one would expect – it is a series that is immensely humorous, fun, and finds the joy in life even feels hopeless and chaotic.
Lumberjanes, Vol 7: A Bird’s-Eye View (2017) – Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Ayme Sotuyo
Though I no longer even make an attempt to maintain an up-to-date awareness of teen and juvenile publishing, I make sure to know when the next Lumberjanes is to be released. I was on the verge of dropping the series as a few of the volumes had been a little lackluster, but A Bird’s-Eye View was so pleasantly absurd that I am fulling back on the Lumberjanes bandwagon. The Lumberjanes inhabit a diverse and adventure-filled world where obstacles are overcome through teamwork and acceptance.
Varina (2018) – Charles Frazier
Monstress Vol. 3 (2018) – Majorie Liu (Writer) and Sana Takeda (Artist)
The Bear and Nightingale (2017) – Katherine Arden
The Fifth Season (2015) – N.K. Jemisin
Out (1997) – Natsuo Kirino and Stephen Synder (Translator)