BEST BOOKS OF 2008 from Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch
BEST FICTION OF 2008
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN by Garth Stein: Enzo’s point of view about his family is center stage – and Enzo is a dog. The best book I read this year.
THE BRASS VERDICT by Michael Connelly: This sequel to the terrific Lincoln Lawyer has both Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch, and Connelly proves once again that while I didn’t think it even possible, he gets better with every book.
L. A. OUTLAWS by T. Jefferson Parker: Loved this saucy thriller with a realistic ending from one of the most under-valued, under-appreciated best crime fiction writers today.
DON’T TELL A SOUL by David Rosenfelt: Stepping away from the fabulous Andy Carpenter series, Rosenfelt proves that he has what it takes. This terrific thriller grabs you from page one and never lets go.
AT THE CITY’S EDGE by Marcus Sakey: Sakey was the new kid on the block just a year ago, but his sophomore effort was just as good, if not better than the first (The Blade Itself.) Looks like Sakey will be to Chicago what Connelly and Parker are to Los Angeles.
THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE by David Wroblewski: Big behemoth of a beautifully written book that is a re-invention of Hamlet with its own unique twists and wonderful characters. An investment of time, yet every minute, every page makes you glad that there is more to come, and so sad to see it end.
AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld: Very interesting fictionalization of Laura Bush’s life. Couldn’t put it down.
CERTAIN GIRLS by Jennifer Weiner: Loved this long-awaited sequel to Good in Bed – it’s funny as hell, rings true to life, and I never saw the ending coming.
THE SEVEN SINS by Jon Land: Lots of action, a bigger than life protagonist, and a great story that moves from Las Vegas to Italy and a few places in between makes this one of the best thrillers of the year. Can’t wait for the sequel – and the movie!
THE COMMONER by John Burnham Schwartz: Completely mesmerizing story of the young Emperor of Japan, the selection of his wife, and her life as Empress.
JUDGMENT DAY by Sheldon Siegel: It was worth the wait for this newest installment in the Mike Daley legal series – it’s smart, funny, well-plotted and a riveting read.
FIRST PATIENT by Michael Palmer: Gotta love a medical thriller that puts the President in peril and has lots of action mixed in with the medical stuff, and Palmer does it all brilliantly.
BEST DEBUTS OF 2008
A CURE FOR NIGHT by Justin Peacock: Legal thriller set in Brooklyn, New York with great characters, smart writing and a terrific story. In the tradition of Scott Turow, John Grisham, David Ellis, I’m looking for more from this gifted lawyer-turned-novelist.
CITY OF THE SUN by David Levien: A very dark, very disturbing look at child abduction that is well written and achingly memorable.
BEST NONFICTION OF 2008
DEWEY: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron & Bret Witter: Pull up a box of Kleenex and settle in for this story of an amazing animal who touched so many lives, and look for the movie next year (?) with Meryl Streep portraying Myron, the librarian.
BEST OLDER FICTION PUBLISHED PRIOR TO 2008
(that I didn’t get to until 2008)
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen: I came late to the party, I admit it – I just couldn’t get up the interest to read a book about a circus. But when I finally did, I quickly realized the error of my procrastination. This is a beautiful, compelling story that just happened to take place at a circus during the depression. It intrigued me enough to send me packing for Sarasota and the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art – with a circus museum too, which I highly recommend visiting.
NOT ME by Michael Lavigne: A first novel about the Holocaust with a twist; an old man with Alzheimers has a box of journals detailing his life during World War II that his son reads, with fascinating and disturbing results.
TOP TEN PLUS ONE from Jack Quick
A CALCULATED RISK by Katherine Neville: If you enjoyed the 1999 film Entrapment starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones, you will love this one. Verity (True) Banks is a 32 year old “bankette” who specializes in bank systems security and whose career path has just been short circuited by her bumbling jealous boss. This leads her to accept a challenge from her former mentor, a reclusive computer genius/ Renaissance man, Dr. Zoltan Tor. Which of them can steal $1 billion, and invest it to earn $30 million in only three months? (Of course, the money will be returned, and no one will be injured.) And so, the race is on. I didn’t complete this one in a single night, only because #1 USC was playing and getting beaten by Oregon State. I loved it.
A CARRION DEATH by Michael Stanley: Michael Stanley is the pen name of the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollop. Sears lives in South Africa and Trollop divides his time between South Africa and Minneapolis. I include this information because there is no trace of Minnesota in this first outing by the duo. Its strictly Africa and you can feel the heat, smell the dank vegetation and acrid animal smell on every page. This is home for Detective David “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. Like the hippopotamus (“Kubu” is Setswana for “hippopotamus”) that lives in his native land Bengu conceals a deceptively dangerous streak beneath a placid exterior. His large size is in keeping with his presence, whether it is on the sun-baked and blood soaked plains of the Kalahrai riverbeds or the plush and lavish offices of international conglomerates, Kubu will follow the trail to its end. A welcome addition to the likes of Kaminsky’s Porfiry Rostnikov, Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, and even Ian Rankin’s John Rebus as larger than life, imminently entertaining but also flawed detectives who can’t be bought, or scared off. Looking forward to the next outing.
CHASING DARKNESS by Robert Crais: Wow, what a plot. Police and fire department personnel discover the corpse of one Lionel Byrd, an apparent suicide. In his lap is a photo album containing crime scene photos from seven brutally murdered women, one per year for seven years. All the evidence appears to point to Byrd’s guilt as a serial killer. Three years ago, however, when Byrd was charged with the fifth of these seven murders, Elvis Cole was hired by Byrd’s attorney and found an exculpatory videotape that allowed Lionel Byrd to walk free. At the time Elvis was a hero. But was he in fact collateral damage? Now he is being reviled and threatened while he himself is desperate to know the truth. Was he responsible indirectly for the deaths of two young women? Can he and Joe Pike find out the truth before someone takes out Elvis? Start this one on a Friday since you aren’t gonna put it down soon.
THE DAWN PATROL by Don Winslow: A gnarly rad epic that is macking crunchy. Don’t worry, if you, like me, don’t speak surfer. There is an on-going surfer-English dictionary embedded in the book. Unfortunately this tends to take away from the flow of a nicely done P.I/police procedural with some really neat characters. Boone Daniels was conceived on the beach to surfer parents, has lived all his life where he can hear the waves, and lives to surf. He is a key member of the Dawn Patrol, a mixed bag of aficionados that start each day with a “run” on Pacific Beach. Some of the members have j-o-b-s, but for Boone, all he wants is to make enough for fish tacos and wetsuits, and to be n the water to surf. Nevertheless, this ex-cop is actually a pretty good investigator, working primarily for a surfing lawyer bud that has asked him to find a missing stripper the lawyer needs to testify at an upcoming trial. When one of the stripper’s friends is murdered in a possible case of mistaken identity, Boone becomes obsessed with solving the case, even if it means dealing with a gorgeous, but bossy, female lawyer from Great Britain, who thinks that anyone still remaining in the pool, must be an evolutionary reject. All in all an excellent book that truly is macking crunchy.
THE EIGHT by Katherine Neville: Somehow I missed this one when it was first released twenty years ago in 1988. Katherine Neville’s debut novel is a thriller with action divided between 1790 and 1972. The action centers on a chess set owned by Charlemagne which ended up in a French monastery. Supposedly players who use it can tap into incredible powers. As the set is dispersed during the French Revolution, a young novice risks her life to safeguard it. Alternating with her story are the present-day efforts of a U.S. computer expert and a Russian chess master to assemble the set and solve its mystery. Kind of a precursor to Indiana Jones and the DaVinci Code, the book has withstood the test of time and will probably continue to be enjoyed for many years to come.
THE GHOST WAR by Alex Berenson: CIA agent John Wells, the first Western intelligence officer to penetrate the upper levels of al-Qaeda, featured in 2006’s The Faithful Spy (which won an Edgar Award for best first novel) is back. This time, Wells returns to Afghanistan to find out what outside country is assisting the Taliban. Meanwhile, fellow CIA agent and significant other Jennifer Exley is trying to identify the person or persons who compromised the security of Dr. Sung Kwan, a North Korean nuclear scientist on the CIA payroll. Surprise, surprise, as their twisting paths race to a most plausible conclusion. Berenson, a New York Times reporter, obviously has the right stuff.
GO-GO GIRLS OF THE APOCALYPSE by Victor Gischler: “This is how Mortimer Tate ending up killing the first three human beings he’d laid eyes on in nearly a decade:” What an opening line. Mortimer Tate, a recently divorced insurance salesman holes up in a cave on top of a mountain in Tennessee to ride out the end of the world. Nine years later he emerges to a post apocalyptic landscape covered with abandoned automobiles, where the only source of electricity is provided by indentured servants pedaling stationary bicycles. The only semblance of life as it was revolves around Joey Armageddon’s Sassy A-Go-Go strip clubs, where the beer is cold, the lap dancers are hot, and the bouncers are armed with M16s. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Tate picks up some needy companions – cowboy Buffalo Bill, former stripper Sheila, and mountain man Ted. Together they journey to the lost city of Atlanta in a desperate attempt to save what is left of mankind. James Rollins says it best in his blurb, “Who would have guessed the book was even better than the title?” I concur.
HIT AND RUN by Lawrence Block: Keller is like most of us. He has a job that he works at in order to pay his bills, feed his hobby (stamp collecting) and hopefully prepare for his eventual retirement. The major difference is Keller’s a hit man. After all these years and many successful assignments he is now ready to begin that retirement, but there is just one more job. Keller really doesn’t want to go to Des Moines for the job but it has been paid for so what else can he do? After all, there are no refunds in this business. While he is in Des Moines looking at additions to his stamp collection, someone kills the charismatic governor of Ohio. Normally this would have little impact on Keller – except the police have released a picture of the alleged killer. Guess who? Now Keller is stranded in Des Moines, cut off from his associate Dot in White Plains, New York, every cop in America’s just seen his picture, his ID and credit cards are no longer good, and he just spent almost all of his cash on the stamps. The best Keller yet.
L.A. OUTLAWS by T. Jefferson Parker: Another outstanding offering from Parker who always comes up with the neatest characters. By day, Suzanne Jones is an eighth grade history teacher with three sons in Los Angeles. By night, she dons a mask, pockets her derringer and steals – cash from fast food places, cars, and in the instant case, almost half a million in diamonds. You see, Suzanne aka Allison Murrieta, claims to be a descendant of Joaquin Murrieta, a 19th-century California folklore figure who was either a ruthless robber and killer or an Old West vigilante and Robin Hood. Suzanne/Allison’s problem is that the diamonds are the basis of a gang disagreement and a master criminal known as the Bull has sent Lupercio, a ruthless assassin, to recover them. Lots of violence and hot car action with just a touch of s-e-x makes this a fun read. One of my best of the year.
MR. CLARINET by Nick Stone: Max Mingus spent seven years in Attica for killing three child molesters. Now the ex-Miami cop and erstwhile PI is trying to put his life back together. He is hired to find the missing three-year old son of a wealthy white Haitian family in the violent mid 1990’s world of Haiti. His search for Charlie Carver leads him from the richest to the poorest sections of the island and to powerful drug baron Vincent Paul. Not for the faint hearted, this first effort is gritty throughout. Hopefully we will hear more from Mr. Stone in the future.
SWAN PEAK by James Lee Burke: The seventeenth Dave Robicheaux novel, and they just keep getting better. Dave has accepted the offer of long-time friend Albert Hollister to come to the Bitterroot Mountains of Western Montana to escape the post-Katrina blues. Wife Molly and friend Cletus Purcell come along and they look forward to an entire summer of fishing and relaxing. Unfortunately, Clete runs across a hardass who was a driver for mobster Sally Dio, killed in a plane crash in Black Cherry Blues, the third Robicheaux outing. The thug now works for Ridley Wellstone, a wealthy ne’er do well who counts among his antagonists, retired English professor Albert Hollister. The discovery of the body of a college student, shot execution style, found not far from the body of the dead boy’s raped and murdered girlfriend, coupled with Clete becoming enamored of Jamie Sue Wellstone, wife of Ridley’s brother, Leslie, and throw in Jimmy Dale Greenwood, prison escapee and Jamie Sue’s former lover, and you have the beginnings of a mess. For good measure add in sadistic prison director Troyce Nix in pursuit of Jimmy Dale, and the “Reverend” Sonny Click, and you know there will fists flying and maybe bullets as well, before it all gets pulled back together. If this were Home Run Derby, it would be no contest. Burke has hit it out of the park once again.
GEOFF’S TEN FAVORITES OF 2008
from Geoffrey R. Hamlin
Lush Life – Richard Price. Best crime novel of the year. Superb dialogue, pitch-perfect descriptions of the lower East Side of New York City and a great story to boot.
Soldier’s Heart – Elizabeth Samet. The author, armed with he r Yale PhD in English Literature, took a position teaching English at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. As fine and thoughtful an analysis of military education, the military mind and the importance of literature for everyone as I have ever read.
Brass Verdict – Michael Connelly. Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch finally in the same book. The first page should be mandatory reading for any would-be trial lawyers. Probably would-be crime novelists, too. Connelly just gets better and better.
The White Tiger – Aravind Ardiga. The story of Balram, a poor Indian boy, and his rise to success against all odds of class and education. Balram’s sarcastic take on life in the New India goes beyond entertaining to expose the limits on upward mobility for the great masses still living in “the Darkness.” And it should remind us of our own “Rooster Coops” in this country. Winner of the Man Booker prize.
The Great Derangement – Matt Taibbi. Taibbi evokes Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalistic style as he examines a Congress which he regards as wholly unresponsive to the citizens or their needs, the evangelical Christian movement and the 9/11 Truth Firsters. His conclusion is that Americans do know that their government is broken, but in deranged fashion pursue answers which are equally without a basis in reality. Think Fear and Loathing in America.
Blackout – Luis Alfonzo Garcia-Roza. Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa is the Lt. Columbo of Rio De Janiero. More bookish, but wholly incorruptible. This whole series is a wonderfully human depiction of life in a city that, despite its glamorous reputation, is less than paradise.
The Eleventh Man – Ivan Doig. Doig, the chronicler par excellence of all things Montana, has written a compelling story about the eleven members of an undefeated college football team serving in combat roles during World War II.
If By Sea – George Daughan. Professor Daughan has written a scholarly, yet readable, history of the creation of what came to be the U.S. Navy from the time of the Revolution through the War of 1812. While his discussion of the pros and cons of a formal Navy put forth by our founding fathers is the meat of the book, early in his narrative he offers the intriguing suggestion that the success of early guerilla maritime efforts by the colonists might have had a more significant impact if they had been duplicated more widely.
Dawn Patrol – Don Winslow. The Elmore Leonard of the beach community, Mr. Winslow has written another fine and funny story, this time involving a group of surfers. In so doing, he reminds us of the importan ce of knowing that “everything is better on a tortilla.” I am not going to argue with that.
Boots on the Ground by Dusk – Mary Tillman. Pat Tillman’s mother tells of their family’s struggle to get the truth from the United States government about their son’s death from friendly fire in Afghanistan. The sad part about all this is that, in service and out, Pat Tillman was a hero who needed no embellishing to serve as a role model.
2008 FAVES from Becky Lejeune
Ice Trap by Kitty Sewell – An amazing debut mystery that will keep you guessing all the way to the end. I can’t wait for Sewell’s next one!
Obedience by Will Lavender – A class assignment ends in a surprising revelation. Absolutely amazing ending and a brilliant debut!
City of the Sun by David Levien – A child kidnapping leads a PI and the kid’s father to a disturbing discovery. Another fantastic debut and author to watch.
Curse of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz – Second in the hilarious Izzy Spellman series. Watch out Evanovich!
Rogue by Rachel Vincent – Second in the wonderfully original urban fantasy/paranormal mystery series about werecats.
Ritual by Mo Hayder – Gruesome and shocking as always. Read it as a stand-alone or as part of a series, either way works. Hayder proves she is still one of the best in the business.
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith – A debut mystery based in Stalinist Russia. How does one unmask a serial killer when the government insists one cannot exist? Don’t miss this one!
The Host by Stephenie Meyer – The first adult novel from the bestselling author of the Twilight series proves not only that Meyer can handle multiple projects at once (two HUGE books in one year) but also that she can excite an adult audience as much as teens.
Stalking Susan by Julie Kramer – A cold case mystery with a truly memorable heroine and a gripping plot.
Duma Key by Stephen King – From beginning to end, this latest from the King of horror is a true adventure. You’ll never guess where it’s going!
BEST BOOKS OF 2008 from Jenne Bergstrom
Most Intrepid Science Writing: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
Most Simultaneously Nerdy and Hardcore: Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Series That Made Me Believe in Mysteries Again: Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Ferguson series & Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series
Book That I Liked in Spite of Myself: Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos
Best Novel About Organizing a Large Project: Remainder by Tom McCarthy
Most Amazing Older Novel: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (and no, it’s not related to the Tom Cruise movie)
TOP BOOKS OF THE YEAR from Jennifer Lawrence
THE FRIDAY NIGHT KNITTING CLUB by Kate Jacobs: When I picked up this book, I thought it was going to be one of those happy, lovey, chick lit type books. But it’s so much more than that. I grew to love the characters, they became a part of my life.
TWENTY WISHES by Debbie Macomber: This was my first “Blossom Street” book and I absolutely loved it. Macomber’s characters come alive and I feel like they are a part of my life. Finishing the book, I felt a sense of loss, but I have plans to pick up the rest of the “Blossom Street” books and continue on with these truly amazing women!
THE DEPARTMENT OF LOST AND FOUND by Allison Winn Scott: This book was amazing. The journal entries allow the reader to witness the evolution Natalie goes through during this self-discovery. Rather than being a downer, this book was incredibly uplifting. It realistically portrayed the frightening truth behind cancer and its victims but still provided hope.
THE WOLFMAN by Nicholas Pekearo: Pekearo did a wonderful job with this amazing thriller/horror novel. The descriptions of the Wolf’s actions were downright gory and added to the intensity of this book. This is definitely a book that would attract readers from several different genres, ranging from paranormal thrillers to true crime. The Wolfman was Pekearo’s first and only published work. Pekearo was a volunteer for the NYPD Auxiliary Police Officer and was killed in the line of duty in 2007.
SISTERS OF MISERY by Megan Kelly Hall: While Sisters of Misery is categorized as a YA book, audiences of all ages will be pulled into the gothic style writing of Megan Kelly Hall. I’m impatiently looking forward to more from this amazing debut author.
THE RICHEST SEASON by Maryann McFadden: McFadden wrote a wonderful account of a woman’s struggle for independence. The reader experiences the story from three viewpoints: Joanna, her husband Paul, and Grace. The lessons learned by each character during their journey of self discovery are very valuable, and for this reason I envision this book generating a lot of discussion in book clubs nationwide.
THE WHITE MARY by Mira Salak: The White Mary is an incredibly powerful and empowering tale about one woman’s dedication to her career. While the scenes detailing the atrocities that are occurring clear across the world are difficult to read at times, the end result gives you an appreciation for all that we have as inhabitants of the “civilized” world.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larsson: The storyline was a little slow at first, but it quickly reveals itself to be an amazing story that any fan of mystery would love. The characters are powerful and the story line, once it picked up, was faced paced and thrilling.
SWEETHEART by Chelsea Cain: The storyline is fast paced and powerful. The various sub plots slowly weave together, and the ending appears with the reader begging for more. I sincerely hope Cain has another Archie Sheridan book up her sleeves. The demand definitely exists!
AGAINST MEDICAL ADVICE by James Patterson & Hal Friedman: I can’t say enough about how amazing this book is. I believe that this tale of perseverance, dedication, and love, would be beneficial to any family undergoing any sort of medical or behavioral problem.
DAN CAWLEY PICKS ONE
I recently enjoyed MOTEL LIFE by Willy Vlautin. It’s a few years old but really well-written. He’s got that Flannery O’connor/Larry Brown/Harry Crews thing going on. I’ve been digging southern gothic weirdness and all that goes with it.