The Year’s Best Crime Fiction: 2016

police car

photo: P.V.O.A., creative commons license

Why deal with poorly executed [!], formulaic, airport quality crime fiction, when there’s Best Crime? Booklist’s longtime crime fiction reviewer Bill Ott has combed reviews of the amazing spectrum of books in this genre—from “crime caper novels, psychological thrillers, and history-mystery blends,” to police procedurals, and every kind of crime, white collar to noir, to come up with his top 10 crime novels of the year, 5/1/15-4/15/16.

An end-of-year summary of Best Crime/Mystery/Thriller fiction of 2016, is here.

And, the 2017 update of Ott’s list is here.

Every time the award-granting groups publish their nominees for the year’s top books in this genre, I’ve usually not read (and often not even heard of) any of them. This, despite reading some 70 books a year, heavily weighted toward the new and the criminal.

Booklist’s Top Picks

Mexico, drug cartels

(graphic by Christopher Dombres, creative commons license)

I was delighted, therefore, to see at the very top of Booklist’s review two novels I not only read and reviewed, but found absolutely spectacular—Don Winslow’s The Cartel, a cri de coeur for greater understanding of the clueless U.S. War on Drugs, its spectacular failures, and its deadly impact on the people of Mexico.

The other is Bill Beverly’s Dodgers, a terrific debut novel about a young black man growing up in Los Angeles, how race and crime affect his worldview, and so much more. While I’m not usually a fan of coming-of-age novels, this one will knock your socks off. Says Ott, Beverly’s characters “all live, breathe, and bleed.”

These two books are beautifully written, with convincing characters and engaging plots, and I wish that all the thrillers I read had the same moral significance. The other eight on Ott’s list—which I now want to read to see whether they meet the standard set by Winslow and Beverly—are:

  • Forty Thieves, by Thomas Perry—says Ott, “irresistible” comic capering
  • House of the Rising Sun, by James Lee Burke—“a quest of Arthurian proportions” and, since it’s based in Texas, a must-read for me—hey, those are my kinfolk
  • Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?, by Stephen Dobyns – uproarious, says Ott, who invokes my favorites Elmore Leonard (in his comic vein) and Donald E. Westlake; “loosen the reins of realism,” he advises
  • Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye – “Reader, I murdered him.” Jane Eyre devotees need know no more
  • King Maybe, by Timothy Hallinan – “one of the best in a sinfully entertaining series” involving crooks in LA, their perfect setting
  • Little Pretty Things, by Lori Rader-Day – A Mary Higgins Clark award-winner, atmospheric and suspenseful
  • The Passenger, by Lisa Lutz – a dark psychological thriller about a woman fleeing the consequences of her husband’s death (What, no sticking around for the insurance?)
  • The Whispering City, by Sara Moliner – an evocative historical, set in Barcelona in the early 1950’s, where General Franco’s security police are everywhere and a newspaper reporter is investigating a death best left alone.

Edgar Winners 2016

While I’m at it, I’ll mention that the Mystery Writers of American recently announced its 2016 Edgar winners. None of the nominees for “best novel” were in the list above, with the winner Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy (“a hybrid of mystery, coming-of-age and Southern gothic,” says the LA Times). MWA’s award for “best first novel” went to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (a cerebral spy thriller about the Vietnam War and winner of the Pulitzer Prize).

Be sure to check out the “Reading . . .” tab above to find more book reviews, many in the crime/mystery/thriller genre.

Princeton Literary Inspirations

Elvis, Fort WorthYesterday, poet Ciaran Berry and novelist Nell Zink read from their work as part of a series of author presentations at Princeton University, open to the public (that’s me!). On Friday, Man Booker Prize-winner and Ireland’s “first fiction laureate” Anne Enright will read excerpts from her most recent novel, The Green Road. I’ll be there!

The series of readings is conducted by the University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, with Enright’s presentation sponsored additionally by the Fund for Irish Studies. (Last year’s fantastic presentation by Belfast author Glenn Patterson was under the Fund’s aegis also.)

Ciaran Berry

Coincidentally, award-winning poet Ciaran Berry also is an Irish poet and grew up in County Galway and County Donegal. He now directs the creative writing program at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He doesn’t have the full-out accent, though.

Berry read several of his poems from various periods, including The Death of Elvis and Liner Notes. His particularly lovely poem For Shergar, Neither Ode nor Elegy, is a tribute to the legendary race horse Shergar, kidnapped and killed by the IRA, and includes this: “the past tense entering its perfect form.” It’s one of those, “wish I’d thought of that” lines.

Nell Zink

Nell Zink grew up in King George County, Virginia, but for many years has lived in Israel and Berlin, and has become a recent literary phenomenon in this country. She was introduced by faculty member Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex, The Marriage Plot) who said the classic “Nell” and its assertive “Zink” is “a name just waiting to be famous.”

Zink’s debut novel was The Wallcreeper, from which she read a passage about a married woman who plunges into an affair with a gas station attendant named Elvis—acknowledging the nifty segue from Berry’s poem. A New Yorker profile of Zink by Kathryn Schulz said The Wallcreeper “sounds like nothing you have ever read, and derives its bang from ideas you hadn’t thought to have.” Smart, funny, insightful. Likely to come to a bad end. In this setting, it’s hard to get a sense of the whole work, but the voice was terrific.

Her second excerpt was from the more recent novel Mislaid, a scene in which two gay men eating dinner in a crab restaurant make observations about other diners and themselves. The novel is notorious for its Caucasian main character Peggy, who reinvents herself and her white-blonde, blue-eyed daughter by claiming they are African Americans—“a high comedy of racial identity,” Schulz says, and not easy to pull off. About such tectonic plot shifts in her books, Eugenides said, “You cannot call them plot twists, because that implies some underlying straightness.”

In short, the subjects she takes up and the unflinching way she renders them make her, he said, “a bull in the china shop of contemporary American fiction.” More to read, more to read.

Asian Immigrants’ Tales

suitcase, Asian

adapted from Roger Wagner, creative commons license

The recent success of the movie Brooklyn has reminds us of the universality of immigrant stories in American history (even as anti-immigrant, anti-refugee positions characterize the political discourse). While the immigrant experience is a common thread running through our national character, and the experiences of Irish and Italian immigrants relatively well known, each country’s immigrant story is in many ways as unique as the person and family who dons this new cultural garment.

Shawna Yang Ryan, writing for LitHub (“From There to Here: Five Essential Tales of Immigration”) says “Immigration is anything but pedestrian. To displace one’s self in adulthood, to uproot, to leave behind ways of speaking, moving, being that are second nature is a feat of true grit.” She tells of her own mother’s move to the United States from Taiwan after marrying an American GI, which helped inspire her novel Green Island. Among the tales from other immigrants that she recommends are:

  • Carlos Bulosan’s autobiographical America Is in the Heart, about the struggles and prejudices faced by Filipino farm workers. They worked in America legally (and, by the way, served in the U.S. military), but, says Ryan, were barred from citizenship. His book has been called a brown-skinned Grapes of Wrath.
  • The Namesake, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, about the Ganguli family’s move from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Massachusetts and the inter-generational rifts that creates. Pulitzer Prize-winner Lahiri has now taken displacement one step further, living part-time in Italy and writing in that language
  • The “graceful essays” by Andrew Lam, collected in Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, not only examine what it’s like to come to American, but also the experience of a return visit to Vietnam

On this  theme, I would add these classic award-winners from my bookshelf:

  • Anne Fadiman’s non-fiction The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the tragic consequences for a Hmong family, whose child is afflicted with epilepsy, when their traditional beliefs collide with modern medicine. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1997)
  • The unforgettable memoir, The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, relates her “girlhood among ghosts”—both her female relatives’ ghosts from China and the New World ghosts she encounters: Policeman Ghosts, Social Worker Ghosts, Garbage Ghosts, and Wino Ghosts. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1976)
  • Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker—one of the early books selected for community-wide reading—about Korean American Henry Park, the “perpetual outsider.” (PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel, 1996)
  • Asian American Dreams, by award-winning journalist Helen Zia describes the transformation of Asian Americans from a small and largely invisible minority to a presence in virtually every facet of American life.
  • In the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Korean American businesses were especially targeted for destruction, with some 1500 looted and destroyed. Blue Dreams, by Nancy Abelmann and John Lie, explores the reasons Koreans were singled out and what happened in the aftermath.
  • The classic Strangers from a Different Shore, by historian Ronald Takaki, lays out the successive waves of Asian immigration in American history, with each nationality’s experience taking place in a different context.

Reader Question:

What favorite books would you recommend that tell the immigrant story?

Polishing Your Instrument: Your Voice


(photo: Pete on Flickr, public domain)

Last Friday actor and writer Alex Adams led an informal seminar for local writers on reading their fiction aloud, effectively and entertainingly. He described ways to create meaningful vocal variety and illustrated his points with excerpts of recordings created for “Selected Shorts.” As an avid reader of audiobooks, I appreciate how much a reader contributes to the impact of a tale.

Alex writes specifically for live audiences and regularly presents his stories and sketches in various venues in New York. As a member of the writing group I belong to, he helps us get ready for our own much less frequent public readings (see yesterday’s post about the benefits of reading your work out loud).

Over the years, he’s developed a method for marking up his copy that helps him achieve the most effective read. By practicing the marked-up copy numerous times, these vocal changes become as integral to the piece as punctuation. He suggested that authors mark up the copy they’re going to read to indicate:

  • Pauses. Alex uses a check mark in the places where a brief pause will allow a moment of dramatic tension, time for a joke to settle, or the chance to take a breath—you don’t want to run out of air!
  • Pacing. You may want to read some passages—for example, explanatory words and phrases—more quickly, and others—such as the introduction of an important new character—more slowly. “Change-of-pace” is synonymous with preventing monotony!
  • Emphasis. He underlines critical words and phrases one, two, or even three times to make sure he gives them the attention they need. You can emphasize words by rising volume or pitch or both.
  • Special attention. He circles words that are important, need very clear articulation, are easily misunderstood, or that give him trouble in practice. Taking the trouble to say a few words extra clearly helps it stick in the listener’s mind.
  • Dialog. While amateur readers don’t need to go overboard in trying to mimic various characters’ speech, some differentiation helps the listener know who’s speaking. Jessica Woodbury in Bookriot recently complained about audiobook readers (male) who pitch the female characters’ voices too high and make them all sound breathily the same. This is not only unnatural, she says, but “They become inferior characters in the telling of the story.” Alex edits his manuscript to look more like a play script so that, as he’s reading, he doesn’t lose track of which character is speaking.
  • Freestyle. Any additional annotations meaningful to yourself and the piece you’re reading.

Alex’s presentation made me think of audiobooks that exemplified his points. One is Herman Koch’s The Dinner, narrated by Clive Mantle, a story in which the first-person narrator is deeply jealous of his successful brother. Because of the way Mantle always carefully articulated the brother’s name—Serge Lohman—loathing just dripped off it.

Another good example (and another terrific book) was Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, narrated by Oliver Wyman. At first I thought the reader wasn’t doing much, but he grew on me, perfectly capturing the main character’s puzzlement, sadness, hope, fear. This book isn’t about a larger-than-life hero, it was Billy’s ordinariness that made it so heartbreaking.

In total contrast to these insightful narrations, imagine my bafflement when I listened to a post-recording interview with Ralph Cosham, audiobook reader of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries. He said he likes to discover her books along with the listener. As a result, he never reads them before sitting down in the recording studio! Totally winging it may work for him, but the rest of us have to practice in order to mine the rich possibilities inherent in our own voices.

9 Keys to a Successful Reading

road sign, rough road

(copyright Elvis Kennedy, creative commons license)

Reading your own work aloud—even without an audience—is a helpful exercise for any writer. The sentences that seem to flow so smoothly across the page will reveal themselves to be scarred with rough patches, poor word choices like potholes, and cracks in logic.

Members of my writing group do a public reading twice a year. Not only does preparation for the reading improve the writing, the audience feedback is strongly energizing (since so often, submissions to agents and publishers evoke no feedback at all).

An audience isn’t necessary for diagnostic work; you can read a draft aloud at any stage it’s in. But if you have the chance to do a public reading, the route to success is simple: practice! The more run-throughs you do, the greater your confidence and the smoother your performance.

Key hints are:

  1. Lighting: If you’re over 40, you may need extra light. Maybe you’re thinking, I’ll use my laptop, no problem. Consider whether the laptop screen not only casts an unflatteringly cold light on you, but also sets up a perceived barrier between you and your audience. You may decide old-school is better.
  2. If you use paper, print your manuscript in a BIG font. The less light you have, the bigger your font should be. I generally print mine in 20-point BOLD, after an embarrassing episode when I couldn’t see what I was reading.
  3. Be sure you understand time constraints, and when you practice, time yourself. If you consistently bump up against your time limit, cut something. You don’t want to notice the clock and start rushing.
  4. Stand up when you practice. Even if you’re offered a chair at your reading, you’re better off on your feet. Your voice will carry farther and your breathing will improve.
  5. Plant your feet firmly, a little apart to prevent weaving (you don’t want your audience to get seasick), and use natural hand gestures. Practice them, too.
  6. Whenever you stumble over a word, circle it, so you know it’s coming and can anticipate it. If a word or phrase is too much of a tongue-twister, or you consistently read it wrong, consider changing it.
  7. Mark up your copy to indicate variations in intonation, speed, emphasis. If your piece has dialog, differentiate the voices.
  8. On performance day, have a small bottle of water handy.
  9. Smile and make eye contact!

If you’re like me and tend to yawn while reading aloud, you may need more oxygen. You probably won’t have the problem if you read standing up. I don’t. And you might also want to take a few deep breaths before you start!

Tomorrow: Polishing Your Instrument–Your Voice for a public reading.

Get Your Irish On

Belfast, Writer's Square

Writer’s Square, Belfast (copyright, Albert Bridge; reused under creative commons license)

Ireland has produced so many familiar writers, from James Joyce and Oscar Wilde to more current classics, like Frank McCourt and Angela’s Ashes. For St. Patrick’s Day, Barnes & Noble assembled a short list of contemporary authors who keep the country’s storytelling traditions going. Here are three of theirs and two of mine:

  • Colm Tóibín – “a living link to Irish history,” from his grandfather’s arrest during the Easter Rising (its centenary is this year) to his father’s affiliation with the IRA. Best known to American audiences is his novel Brooklyn, made into a wonderful 2015 film, reviewed here.
  • Neil Jordan, novelist and screenwriter (known best for the 1992 movie, The Crying Game). “A clear, poetic style.”
  • Tana French, the award-winning “First Lady of Irish Crime” is a master of twisty plots with deep psychological resonance. I read her Broken Harbor in 2013, and especially admired her unforgettable depiction of a mentally unbalanced character.
  • Glenn Patterson, whose novel The International (review) has been called “The best book about the Troubles ever written,” and it isn’t about bloodshed and betrayal at all.
  • Adrian McKinty, who also writes about Belfast and its residents and expats, profiled here. Great humor. I’ve listened to three of them, and Gerard Doyle’s audio narration is sublime!

No blarney here!

On Your Reading Radar: Best Books of Spring


(photo: Andy Atzert, creative commons license)

Already reading as fast as I can, I stumbled onto Google’s enticing menu of the 30 Best Books of Spring. The “delightfully unhinged” stories in Helen Ellis’s The American Housewife sound like fun, as does Dexter Palmer’s Version Control about a possible near-future involving a woman who works in customer support for an internet dating site and her scientist husband is trying, it seems, to develop a time machine.

Jo Nesbo is always a winner in the crime/fiction genre (new book: Midnight Sun, whose protagonist is a runaway hitman), though I’m still trying to steel myself to read his reportedly most chilling book, 2012’s The Snowman.

Two more that sound intriguing are: Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night (an opera singer combs her colorful past for clues about who has betrayed her) and Jung Yun’s Shelter (a financially struggling couple must take in his parents. Tensions mount.). Finally, I cannot resist a book whose title is The Little Red Chairs (Edna O’Brien), set in Ireland, about a war criminal in hiding.

Frankly, having read so, so, so many book blurbs, they all start to sound cheesy. I tried to get past that in reviewing the Google list. You might pick out others. But wait, there’s more.

Publisher’s Weekly’s list of “Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2016,” plays it safe by emphasizing well-known authors. Its list is “culled from the 14,000+ titles” known to be forthcoming soon [!]. With that tsunami of prose, who can blame the editors for defaulting to the reliable?

In that rundown are a couple of debuts, but also:

  • Louise Erdrich’s LaRose (an ill-fated hunting trip, North Dakota, 1999)
  • Martin Seay’s Venice trifecta The Mirror Thief (16th c. Venice, Venice Beach in the 50s, and Las Vegas’s Venice casino today)
  • Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (late 17th c., New France. “10 years in the writing,” 800 pages) and
  • Stephen King’s End of Watch, the conclusion of the crime trilogy begun with the Edgar award-winning but overly formulaic Mercedes.

Finally, if I can get these read, I can be ready for the November publication of Moonglow, by one of my favorite writers, Michael Chabon, which explores a family’s hidden past and, says GoodReads, “the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies.”

Best Reads of 2015

books, reading

5-star books of 2015 (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

The books in my “best of” list are not necessarily published in 2015, just read last year. Of the 71 print and audio books reviewed here in 2015, I gave five stars to 10.

What are the criteria for awarding stars? In general, because I try to avoid books likely to be poor, most receive three or more. In my “system,” a three-star book is a good book, a four-star book is an excellent book, and those that earn that last star have something special in terms of language or character or can’t-put-it-downness.

  • City of Thieves – by David Benioff – During the siege of Leningrad, two young men are on a quest to find a dozen eggs (and save their lives). Full of adventure and humor.
  • The International: A Novel of Belfast – by Glenn Patterson – Set just before the start of the Troubles, the patrons and doings in this hotel bar reveal what Northern Ireland was then and lost forever.
  • Grand River and Joy – by Susan Messer – In the months before the 1967 Detroit riots, a Jewish shopowner must decide whether to stay in the city or flee to the suburbs like so many friends and family already have. A Michigan native, I know many places mentioned.
  • The Orphan Master’s Son – by Adam Johnson – Set in North Korea and filled with both pain and wry humor, this Pulitzer-winner shows how people must accommodate under a regime of total oppression. I didn’t expect to like it and did!
  • Against a Darkening Sky – by Lauren B. Davis – I was thrilled to see her bring 7th century England alive, when the advent of Christianity was rooting out the old polytheistic ways and being a traditional healer became dangerous.
  • Elsewhere – by Richard Russo – Not a particular fan of memoir, I found this first-person exploration of a son’s relationship with his feckless mother as absorbing as any novel.
  • Seveneves – by Neal Stephenson – What if the moon blew up? Would humans survive? Written with the author’s usual engaging characters, nail-biting situations, and deep humor. He understands people as well as science (860 pages).
  • Ghost Fleet – by P.W. Singer & August Cole – This near-future thriller shows how dependence on wireless communications networks, GPS, and other technologies make the U.S. military vulnerable. Such an important book and a good read!
  • The Children Act – by Ian McEwan – Moral dilemmas when law and religion collide in disputes over children’s fate. First-rate writing.
  • Clockers – by Richard Price – set in the fictional New Jersey town of Dempsey, the seesawing interactions of police and street drug dealers in this 1992 novel were one inspiration for The Wire.

Happy Reading!

Last-Minute Book Gifts

book gifts

(photo: Quinn Dombrowski, creative commons license)

Is  Santa still searching for a few perfect stocking-stuffers for the people on your list? Here’s some help.

I scanned through the books I’ve read and reviewed this year, and selected some for people having different interests.

Included are a few lesser-known books, too. You don’t need me to tell you about Everything I Never Told You (by definition!) or other front-of-the-store best-sellers.

And, you’ll find The Cowboy and the Cossack there, once again, because everyone who takes my advice about it says it’s one of the best books they’ve ever read!

Clicking on the title will take you to my review. If the lucky recipient likes:

While you’re at it—buy two copies, one for yourself! Happy reading!

Spooky Reads

haunted house

(photo: Sean MacEntee, creative commons license)

The book-obsessed websites haven’t overlooked the opportunity to capitalize on the scary underpinnings of the Halloween season. A reader poll by the folks at BookRiot yielded this top 10 list, with The Shining scariest of all:

  • The Shining by Stephen King
  • It by Stephen King
  • Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
  • The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
  • Pet Sematary by Stephen King
  • House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
  • Bird Box by Joshua Malerman

When you recall that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, that family has lock on half the fright mindshare.

Not surprisingly, The American Scholar takes a more high-brow approach to its list of “Spooktacular Books,” with the only overlaps House of Leaves and The Haunting of Hill House.

No time to read whole books? Jonathan Sturgeon, writing for Flavorwire, has assembled 30 of the scariest moments from Western literature—going all the way back to 760 BCE. Once again, Shirley Jackson and Hill House make the bloody cut.