I started off with the goal of a Top Ten list for the year, but I couldn’t do it – I had thirteen, then fifteen. And then I was up all night, tossing and turning, and decided to stop torturing myself and just put all the books I loved this year on the list. Such is the beauty of working on this site until the wee hours of the night – I can do what I want here. Being the anal-retentive creature that I am, I needed a round number so I cut it off at twenty. Twenty of my favorite books – the ones that I loved best, the ones I remember vividly, the books I recommend the most.
The criteria I used in making these selections is extremely subjective and not necessarily the same for each book. So what do my favorite books have in common this year? The same thing they have in common every year: a story that kept me spellbound, good writing with no glaring errors, a fine sense of place, characters that I cared about, and most importantly, regret when I had to turn the last page. I think I learned something from each and every one of them. In a nutshell – these are the books that stayed with me.
Statistics: Twelve male authors, eight female – that’s the most women I’ve ever had on an annual favorites list. Nineteen fiction, one nonfiction, but in all fairness I didn’t read much nonfiction last year. One book was translated. At least half are crime fiction; five are historical and two of those are written in journal format; one, possibly two are sci-fi/fantasy; one is chick-lit; and one simply defies categorization.
The most astounding statistic of all: half of them, that’s TEN, are first novels.
In the Forest of Harm by Sallie Bissell: Taut, fast paced thriller set in the Nantahala National Forest. Mary Crow is a winning D.A. in Atlanta who has just put away “Handsome Cal” for murder, despite his wealthy family’s connections, although in doing so, she humiliated his brother on the witness stand. To celebrate her victory, she invites her two best friends to go home with her, back to her Cherokee roots – hiking in the mountains of North Carolina. Mary hasn’t been home in twelve years, since her mother was raped and murdered, and her grandmother took her away to live in Atlanta, and she feels it is time to face the demons she left behind. But things go awry when one of her friends is raped, and the other abducted. Mary is determined to find her missing friend, and all her childhood tracking skills come back to her in her pursuit. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Mary, she is also being pursued. Bissell creates tension that just keeps building page after page, but somehow also manages to create unforgettable characters and uses breathtaking imagery in her descriptions of the forest. I ripped through this in one sitting – an excellent read, although not for the squeamish – lots of graphic, albeit not gratuitous violence.
Nine by Jan Burke: The F.B.I.’s Ten Most Wanted list is shrinking rapidly. No, they haven’t been apprehended, but they are being murdered. A serial killer going after, well, other serial killers, and terrorists, and rapists, et al, and leaving the bodies all over Los Angeles County, creating a most intriguing dilemma for the L. A. Sheriff’s Department. Detective Alex Brandon has been assigned to head up the investigating task force, and something about these killings seems familiar to him. There are similarities to a previous case he worked on, and despite public opinion that the killings are really a the community service, Brandon is determined to end it. Good character development, fast paced plotting and lots of twists and turns are the hallmarks of a good thriller, and this is one of the best. Nine is a 10.
Gone for Good by Harlan Coben: TELL NO ONE made my top ten list for 2001. His new one, GONE FOR GOOD, is among the first contenders for 2002. The strong writer of the Myron Bolitar series (THE FINAL DETAIL, FADE AWAY, etc.) left Myron behind and had a breakout success with TELL NO ONE. His new novel, GONE FOR GOOD, should firmly entrench Coben in the big leagues. Will Klein returns home to suburban New Jersey as his mother lay dying to hear, “He’s alive.” The “he” in question is Ken Klein, Will’s beloved older brother. After Will’s high school sweetheart was murdered eleven years earlier, Ken became the prime suspect, which only intensified when he disappeared amidst the suburban media frenzy. His devastated family never heard from him again, and so begins this thriller extraordinaire. Well-defined characters enrich this story that also deals with family relationships, friendship and love.
GONE FOR GOOD has “best seller” written all over it. I couldn’t help but compare it to THE SUMMONS by John Grisham. They both start out with the kid coming home after the death of a parent. After that, Grisham went nowhere but on a 200 page car ride through a school zone with money in the trunk. Harlan took me on a roller coaster ride that left me breathless until the very last page. PS: The movie version of TELL NO ONE is supposed to start filming this summer. GONE FOR GOOD is being developed into a six one-hour limited series for USA network.
City of Bones by Michael Connelly: The decades old, partial skeleton of an abused and murdered child is found in a shallow grave. Harry Bosch is determined to find the killer, and in doing so has to deal with his own troubled childhood. He also has to deal with seeing a woman the police department says he shouldn’t be seeing. Michael Connelly skillfully weaves together a story that will hold you hostage until you turn the last page. This series is going on ten years old; this is the eighth installment (the last one was A Darkness More than Night) and somehow Connelly just keeps getting better and better.
Must Love Dogs by Claire Cook: This utterly charming novel is a fun read, perfect for whiling away an afternoon on the beach. Sarah Hurlihy is 40 years old, divorced and happily teaching preschoolers a multicultural curriculum. But her interfering, overzealous Boston Irish family thinks she should be dating, and with much love she is pushed into answering a personal ad from a gentleman seeking a lady “who enjoys elegant dining, dancing and the slow bloom of affection” and the clincher; he’s a man who “loves dogs.”
That date turns out to be the last man on earth any woman would want to date, but Sarah pushes on, slowly falling headlong into the dating game with decidedly mixed results. Meanwhile, Sarah’s widowed father has his own dating troubles, brother Michael is having marital problems, sister Carol is having troubles at home with her temperamental teenage daughter Siobhan, who turns to her favorite aunt for comfort and body piercing support. Somehow, they all seem to end up on Sarah’s doorstep at the most inopportune moments, keeping the laughs going all the way to the not-quite-storybook-perfect ending. Copyright © 2002 Cahners Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. Reprinted with permission.
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger: I loved this beautifully written book about a family and a place – Minnesota and the North Dakota Badlands. Every character comes to life through the narration of 11-year-old Reuben Land, who suffers from asthma. I fell in love with his sister Swede, a 9-year-old writer of enchanting cowboy poetry with exquisite meter. But older brother Davy kills two boys that have been attacking this family and pays a steep price for it, sending them out on the road and into what surely must be some of most beautiful acreage in America. But it’s Reuben’s father, Jeremiah Land, conduit of miracles, who holds them all together. Suspend your disbelief and plunge headlong into the inspirational world of the Land family; you will not forget them.
One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus: Thoroughly engrossing fictionalized account of a true historical incident. The Chief of the Cheyenne tried to reach an agreement with President Ulysses S. Grant in an effort to promote peace and integrate the Cheyenne into Christianity; in a secret deal, the U.S. government would trade 1000 white women for 1000 horses. It didn’t get though Congress, but it did ignite the imagination of this author! He found his women, all volunteers, in a variety of places; prostitutes, imprisoned women granted their freedom for this, and women from hospitals for the mentally ill. One of the latter is the voice of this novel that is told in the form of her journal.
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde: This book is a gift for anyone literary on your list. One of the most creative and clever genre-defying books to show up on a bookshelf in a very long time, it encompasses murder and mystery, time travel and alternate history, along with enough literary references, both obscure and popular, to make any literati feel smug. Thursday Next, operative of the Literary Division of the Special Operatives Network, is the heroine of this inspired caper set in England in 1985. Someone has kidnapped & killed a character from Dicken’s Martin Chuzzlewit – then goes after Jane Eyre. This is great stuff, don’t miss it.
Red Water by Judith Freeman: It could be called historical fiction or cultural fiction or religious fiction or all of the above, yet somehow this book defies labeling. It is an intimate look at polygamy, at the beginnings of the Mormon faith, and at the one of the worst civil crimes ever committed in this country. It was called the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and pardon my ignorance, but I had never even heard of it prior to reading this book. In 1857, 120 California-bound pioneers were massacred by a Mormon militia, who blamed it on their American Indian allies. The well written, fascinating novelization of these events is told from the perspective of three of the wives of John D. Lee, the man who was eventually convicted of the crime. I was so intrigued by this book that I started poking around the web, looking for more info and found tons available. The Massacre is still being debated and studied.
Replay by Ken Grimwood: I loved the movie “Groundhog Day” and this book goes there and beyond. Our hero has a heart attack and dies when he’s 43 years old, then wakes up in his 18 year old body…all memories of the past 25 years intact. Then it happens again, and again, and again…leading to the question if you could do it all over again, knowing what you know now, would you? It makes for a very interesting premise that draws to a very satisfying conclusion.
The Blue Edge of Midnight by Jonathon King: Journalist-turned-first-time-novelist King has written crime fiction with all the requisite elements of a top-notch book; slightly damaged characters, interesting setting and page-turning suspense. Max Freeman was a cop in Philadelphia until he took a bullet in the neck, but he killed a child in the process. Unfortunately Max is not quite as forgiving of himself as the police department was, so he quits. He wants to be alone, and he contacts his friend Billy, a brilliant, good-looking, successful Latin lawyer in south Florida who also happens to have a stutter. Billy arranges for him to live in a secluded shack deep in the Everglades, which gives Max exactly what he craves most; time to be alone. I’m a long time south Florida resident, but like most area residents I’m not real familiar with the Everglades, so I just loved the descriptions in this book.
The story centers around Max finding the body a baby in a canal near his shack. He reports it to the ranger, and it turns out the cops are already on the way. Living in isolation as he is, Max is not aware that there is a serial killer that has been hiding children’s bodies in the Glades and Max becomes their first suspect. Soon it becomes apparent that someone is trying to set him up, and the story just starts twisting and turning like the waters of the Glades after that, culminating in a strong, although not terribly surprising ending. The next book in this series comes out in April 2003.
Surface Tension by Christine Kling: A new mystery series set in Ft. Lauderdale, featuring a tugboat captain with the fabulous name of Seychelle Sullivan. She’s trying to make a go of the boat salvage business she inherited from her father, and is just scraping by. She hears a Mayday call from a woman on board the Top Ten, a luxury yacht she happens to be familiar with – it’s captained by her ex-lover, Neil. She heads out to try and save the boat with money in mind, but when she arrives just ahead of the Coast Guard, she finds the woman dead, and no sign of Neil or anyone else. Good characterizations and an appealing locale add interest as the story starts spiraling deeper into murky waters, but Seychelle emerges slightly battered and perhaps even stronger. I am looking forward to more from this new author who knows whereof she writes; Christine has been working on boats for more than twenty years.
The Diamond Conspiracy by Nicolas M. Kublicki: This tightly written debut novel is a big, fast-paced Clancy-like thriller that takes the reader on a whirlwind, worldwide journey through corruption. Patrick Carlton is a Department of Justice maverick lawyer who is plucked from the biggest case of his career and thrust into a small antitrust case involving a diamond mine in, of all places, Arkansas. Carlton is suspicious when the shark law firm representing the mine agrees to a ridiculously high, ridiculously quick settlement, and he recruits the beautiful Erika Wassenaar, a newly minted DOJ lawyer, to help him out. Waterboer, the monopolistic diamond behemoth of the world, (think DeBeers) will stop at nothing to maintain its artificially inflated diamond prices, and Carlton suspects they are somehow involved with the Arkansas mine. Curiosity and determination lead him to pursue it further, uncovering a conspiracy that runs rampant through the upper echelons of the United States, South African, and Russian governments, but he gets assistance from the unlikely duo of the Mafia and the Vatican, with quite a few surprises along the way. Copyright © 2002 Cahners Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. Reprinted with permission.
NOTE: The real mystery here to me is why this book is not available everywhere. Publishers Weekly liked it, Booklist liked it, Library Journal liked it (ok, ok, that was me) and hell, even Kirkus liked it – and they don’t like anything! My library doesn’t own a copy, nor does the library system next door. A quick peek at my local Borders stores show it’s available in only the two largest stores in South Florida; it’s a special order item at the rest. All I can say is that it’s worth seeking out.
Atonement by Ian McEwan: This incredible novel started off slowly for me but soon became totally engrossing. Written in three parts, it encompasses love and war and betrayal and…atonement. Or does it? I didn’t like the main character, Briony, a precocious little brat, so I had difficulty staying inside her head at the beginning. But the way the author portrayed her, from the silliness and selfishness of that little girl, to her spiteful cruelty that changed the lives of so many, resonated throughout the novel. Once I got past the beginning, the searing heat between lovers Cecilia and Robbie made the book start clicking for me and I read the rest straight through. I found it totally engrossing, from the insanity of the family dinner to the insightful descriptiveness of war to the sterility of the hospital where Cecilia worked (not to mention the sterility of the nurses!) to the ultimate conclusion, the atonement. Simply put, it was beautifully written. Shortlisted for the Booker.
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka: This tiny book packs a big emotional wallop. This is a story about a Japanese-American family living in Berkeley, California during World War II. The father is arrested and sent to a New Mexico prison. A few weeks later, the mother and children are sent to an internment camp in Utah, and they, like the reader, never knows why any of this happens. We are never told the family member’s names, and the story is told very matter-of-factly and without too many grisly details, which just made it all the more powerful for me. Their day-to-day existence is bleak while in the camp, but the harsh realities of freedom don’t come any easier after they are released. The lyrically written final chapter sadly illustrates that this family’s story is really the story of every Japanese-American family that was living in America during the early 1940s. When the Emperor Was Divine is a beautiful homage to an ugly and shameful piece of American history. Don’t miss it.
Hell to Pay by George Pelecanos: Strange & Quinn are back in this sequel to Right as Rain, and the streets of D.C. are as black and gritty as ever. The private investigators are hired to find a fourteen-year-old runaway girl from the suburbs, and it turns out she is working as a prostitute for one very bad guy. Things really spin out of control when one of the boys on Derek Strange’s PeeWee football team is killed, and Strange takes it personally. This fast moving, suspenseful story kept me turning pages until the wee hours.
Massacre in Mexico by Elena Poniatowska; Octavio Paz, Introduction; Helen R. Lane, Translator: This oral history is a painful, systematic telling of the events that led to what has to be one of the worst civil crimes ever committed in a democratic country. After months of conflict between university students and the authorities, the Mexican police and army fired on a peaceful demonstration of hundreds of students in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in Tlatelolco, Mexico, just prior to the 1968 Olympics. Because the Olympics were scheduled to begin the following week, the eyes of the world were focused on Mexico, but the government denied any involvement. This chronicle brings together testimony from a variety of witnesses, including parents, students and local residents; headlines and statements from newspapers; official documents from various student organizations; transcripts of tape recordings; army dispatches; and Poniatowska’s thoughtful take on it all. The way the material is presented makes it all the more distressing as it is so matter-of-fact, one story after another, one vignette more heart wrenching than the next, so that cumulative effect is devastating. There are pictures as well, but the text is much more horrifying. Most of the official records are still sealed, but recently some pictures were made available that proves the government’s involvement in this disgraceful piece of Mexican history.
Open & Shut by David Rosenfelt: This legal thriller is one of the best debut novels I’ve read in a while. I love finding new authors, and this book literally dropped into my hands. The cover immediately caught my eye, so I read the flyleaf and was hooked:
“I hate DNA more than I hate opera. I hate it more than I hate meaningless touchdowns by the underdog that cover the spread when I’m betting the favorite….I hate DNA because it’s boring, because I will never understand it, and because it almost always works against me.”
A legal thriller, humor and sports talk; what more could a girl want? I flew through this book in a few hours, alternating between sitting on the edge of my seat and laughing my head off. This is a legal thriller with enough twists to keep you guessing, and enough humor to keep you laughing, always a terrific combination. The mélange of the outrageous lead character Andy Carpenter, a self-deprecating lawyer with chutzpah, his strong female P.I., and even his whiny wife and her super-rich dad, stir up a terrific story.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: This is the story of Susie Salmon, a 14 year old girl who is raped and murdered. Susie tells us this story from her perch up in heaven, and it’s an incredible journey along the lives of everyone she touched. Not every loose end is tied up, and it may smack too much of reality for some, but this is a breathtaking debut novel. Amazingly, it hit number one on the NY Times bestseller list, and has become something of a permanent fixture in the top ten these past six months. I say amazingly not because it doesn’t deserve it, but rather because it does – and that doesn’t happen very often for a first novel. It is a gorgeous book, beautifully written, and I am thrilled for her – and for me, because I enjoyed every word of it.
Criminal Intent by Sheldon Siegel: I like what I like. This is the third year in a row that a Sheldon Siegel book has made my favorites list for the year.
The third outing in this marvelous legal series just proves that Siegel keeps getting better and better. Ex-priest Mike, & his ex-wife Rosie, “boutique” lawyers sharing a practice while no longer sharing a marriage, have a new client, Angel Chavez, a movie star accused of killing her much older, very wealthy husband, producer Richard “Big Dick” MacArthur. Unfortunately, her only alibi is a lot of “I don’t know”, which makes Aunt Rosie’s job ever so much harder. Yes, this movie star is Rosie’s niece, and that’s not all the familial trouble heading their way. The different threads are skillfully woven throughout this story, building suspense along the way until the very last page. Another winner.
Geoff’s Best Reads in 2002
1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
2. Roscoe by William Kennedy
3. An American Scoundrel by Thomas Keneally
4 Atonement by Ian McEwan
5 City of Bones by Michael Connelly
6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
7. Death of an Irish Sinner by Bartholomew Gill
8. Death of a Joyce Scholar by Bartholomew Gill
9. Triggerfish Twist by Tim Dorsey
10. Only Child by Andrew Vachss
11. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
12. Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins
~Submitted by Geoffrey R. Hamlin