Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Favorite Reads of 2014

I don't read as much as I used to. This morning I finished reading the manuscript of my friend and client John Connolly's next Charlie Parker novel, A SONG OF SHADOWS (coming to the UK in April 2015, in the US sometime in early summer), and that brought my total to 115 for the year. It is possible, but not likely, that I'll finish Lisa Unger's CRAZY LOVE YOU before the end of the day, but I wouldn't do that just to boost my number.

About half of my reading this year was work-related: manuscripts, review copies, books I read for conferences (I moderated two panels at this year's Bouchercon, which accounted for about a dozen books), and books I read in my capacity as a judge for the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. One of my 2015 resolutions is to do more pleasure reading; too often this year, when I wasn't working, I was destroying my brain with a video game and calling it relaxation. It's true that books are competing not only with each other, but with Netflix and YouTube and Candy Crush, and I've been as guilty of that as anyone else.

In making my list of favorite reads of 2014, I've deliberately excluded my clients, even though they published great books this year, too: The Wolf in Winter by the aforementioned John Connolly, and Conquest by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard; Terminated by Ray Daniel; Suspicion by Joseph Finder; Desperate by Daniel Palmer; and Fatal Impressions by Reba White Williams. (All of these clients, by the way, have equally good books coming out next year — and so does Lisa Lutz, whose forthcoming How to Start a Fire may be my favorite among all the books I've ever worked on.)

Alphabetically by author, then, here goes:

Alison Gaylin, STAY WITH ME (2014). Stay With Me completes Gaylin's trilogy about Brenna Spector, a private investigator cursed with hypermnesia, an ability to remember everything that's ever happened to her in precise detail. Over the course of three books — and her entire career — Brenna's been trying to find out what happened to her teenaged sister, Clea, who disappeared when Brenna was only a child. That search has damaged every other relationship in Brenna's life, and is now threatening Brenna's connection with her own teenaged daughter, Maya. I was awed by how well Alison (who's a friend) brought this story to a heartbreaking, profoundly satisfying conclusion.

Donna Johnson, HOLY GHOST GIRL (2011). Donna's agent sent me this book, saying he thought it sounded like just my kind of thing, and he was right. Holy Ghost Girl is Donna's memoir of growing up in a tent revival community, as the daughter of a woman who became the organist for (and later mistress of) Brother David Terrell, an apocalyptic preacher. Donna remembers the practical details of that nomadic life in a way that reminded me how quickly almost anything can start to seem normal, if it's how you live every day; but what impressed me most was her extraordinary generosity of spirit toward the adults who raised her, even Brother Terrell. Brother Terrell is a weak, sinning man, but one who also seems to have access to a realm of the spirit most of us can't reach. These things are not mutually exclusive, Donna shows us, and having seen examples of that in my own life, I continue to ponder that mystery.

Stephen King, MR. MERCEDES (2014). You know what? Being popular doesn't mean that something's not good. I expect to see this book on next year's Edgars shortlist. Retired police detective Bill Hodges can't let go of his unsolved cases, especially the apparently deliberate mass murder of a crowd of people lined up for a job fair, run down by a man in a stolen Mercedes. When the murderer starts to taunt Hodges, the retired detective has a new series of clues to pursue, and a new lease on life. This book blew me away. As much as I admire Stephen King, I was surprised by what this book showed me about the genre I work in. I have already pre-ordered the sequel, FINDERS KEEPERS.

Frank Langella, DROPPED NAMES: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them (2012). When I'm exhausted or burnt out on fiction, I read celebrity memoirs. I binged on them this spring, recovering from gallbladder surgery, and I have a stack I plan to go through this weekend. This one, a series of anecdotes — some very short, some longer — about the dead famous people Langella worked with, played with and slept with, is the literary equivalent of a whole can of Pringles. For the most part, he's kind, although some of the stories are sad, and a few have real barbs. I loved this book so much that when I finished reading it, I bought the audiobook so I could listen to Mr. Langella tell me the stories himself.

Laura Lippman, AFTER I'M GONE (2014). 2014 was an embarrassment of riches for me, as I got to read two full-length Laura Lippman novels —this one and the Tess Monaghan coming next year, HUSH, HUSHas well as Laura's bibliomystery, "The Book Thing," and another e-book novella, "Five Fires." AFTER I'M GONE was my favorite of these, as well as being an objectively impressive book — a true ensemble story, about what happens to a family of women after the man of the house (husband, father) disappears. What appears to be the central mystery — what happened to Felix Brewer? — ultimately turns out to be irrelevant. The real story is, as the title suggests, about what happened after he left. Among other things to love about the book, the early chapters on Felix's courtship of his wife, Bambi, evoke memories of Herman Wouk's classic MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR, a favorite of both Laura's and mine.

Liza Palmer, NOWHERE BUT HOME (2013). This year's winner of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction is a magical book about food, forgiveness and love, three topics that preoccupy me pretty much constantly. Aspiring chef Queenie Wake returns to her small Texas hometown and accepts a uniquely difficult job: preparing last meals for the death row inmates at the nearby state prison. Each meal becomes a meditation on Queenie's own past, including the alcoholic mother who taught her to cook and the high-school hero who was the love of Queenie's life. It's a beautiful, loving novel that feels like a gift and will make you want to eat chicken-fried steak.

George Pendle, STRANGE ANGEL: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons (2005). You know what they say about stepping on footnotes before they start to multiply? I discovered this book through a mention of John Whiteside Parsons in GOING CLEAR, Lawrence Wright's fantastic history of Scientology. Before he founded Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard spent some time in Pasadena, living in a group house of Aleister Crowley's disciples headed by John Whiteside Parsons, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; in fact, Hubbard's second (bigamous) wife had been Parsons' sister-in-law/girlfriend. The story only takes a page or two in GOING CLEAR, but I had to know more. This wonderful, expansive biography by the author of THE REMARKABLE MILLARD FILLMORE (which I also recommend) deserves to be a movie — and is going to be, if all goes well. The Satanic bedhopping isn't even the best part of the book: the most fun are the stories of Parsons and his friends blowing things up in the San Gabriel mountains, and that turning out to be Science.

Louise Penny, A TRICK OF THE LIGHT (2012). I had spent a few years away from Penny's Three Pines series, after THE BRUTAL TELLING, which broke my heart, and its sequel BURY YOUR DEAD, which enraged me (and which I still consider a cheat, and which still makes me want to bite someone). This book, however, went a long way toward bringing me back into the fold. Artist Clara Morrow's professional triumph, a solo show at the Montréal Musée d'Art Contemporain, is ruined by the discovery of a dead body in her garden that night. The dead woman is a childhood friend of Clara's, and her death sets off a chain of events that shake Clara's world to its core. A TRICK OF THE LIGHT is not only a murder mystery but a brilliant story about women's lives, women's friendships, and how women discover their own value at midlife.

Alex Stone, FOOLING HOUDINI: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind (2012). Probably my single favorite book of this year, this memoir of Alex Stone's life in magic becomes a discursive history of the art form. The thing about "magic" is that it often involves feats of skill, strength or technology that are just as amazing as the illusion the magician is offering; they're just complicated, and tedious, and hard to explain, and the audience would rather have the illusion. I like things complicated, and the obsessives who populate Stone's book are my kind of people. I'll reread this book in a month or two, and expect to get new things out of it then. If you're giving this book as a gift, pair it with Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy.

Joakim Zander, THE SWIMMER (2015). I got an early copy of this book through sources I cannot divulge, but the person who gave it to me said, "You know how everyone's supposed to be 'the new Le Carré?' This guy is the new Le Carré." I read this book in a single sitting. A veteran CIA operative abandoned his baby daughter decades ago; when, as an adult, she becomes an international target for reasons that seem unrelated to her parentage, her secret father does what he can to try to save her. The lines between hero and villain are fuzzy here, if they exist at all; as Steinbeck once said, there's no good and there's no bad, there's just stuff people do.