Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2013

Last year I compared the best mysteries and thrillers to phyllo dough pastries as you never know what delicious treat is inside them.  The best mysteries and thrillers of 2013 reminded me of a tasty appetizer I've made more times than I can remember. Brie with Caramelized Cranberry Onion Chutney is a staple at all our family’s holiday gatherings. The tangy sweet and sour taste of the cranberry onion chutney is a wonderful counterpoint to the creaminess of the brie just as the combination of evil juxtaposed with the sweetness of light trying to conquer it is in these books. (As a New Year’s gift, the recipe appears at the end of this post as well as in the incomparable Tastes and Tales Along the Tunnel of Trees Cookbook.)

The Best Mystery of 2013

How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

The mystery's title is an homage to Leonard Cohen’s poem/song “Anthem” that states Ring the bells that still can ring, -- Forget your perfect offering, -- There’s a crack in everything. – That’s how the light gets in.  Penny beautifully depicts series hero Inspector Gamache’s evil boss Francour and the unspeakable horror he tries to let loose in Quebec.  Intertwined plots involving the murder of the last surviving Ouellet quintuplet and more intrigue behind the scenes in the town of Three Pines make this the best in a long line of fabulous mysteries.  If you haven’t read any in the series, start at the beginning with Still Life so you’ll be able to savor all the characters and understand how they've evolved.  All you have to do is read one of these books and you’ll want to move to Three Pines.

The Runner-Up:

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (published in 2012)

The Cutting Season stirs up questions about slavery’s cruel past while providing a chilling, atmospheric mystery. Caren and her young daughter live on a historic Louisiana plantation where her mother cooked and her ancestors were enslaved. She runs it as a wedding and event site for the wealthy owners but a migrant worker’s murder at the edge of the property threatens to derail her carefully composed life. This southern Gothic novel was the first work published by Dennis LeHane’s new imprint.

The Best Suspense Novel I read in 2013

31 Hours by Masha Hamilton (published in 2009)

When 21-year-old Jonas’s mother wakes up in the middle of the night she just knows that her son is in danger. Neither she nor his girlfriend have heard from him and they can’t reach him. Should she call the police? Could a good kid become a fanatic? Can the police find him and stop him in the next 31 hours?  I held my breath for the last fifty pages. Only someone with Hamilton’s Middle East knowledge could write a story like this and make it so real and terrifying.

The Runner-Up:

The Intercept by Dick Wolf (published December, 2012)

Wolf, the creator of TV’s “Law and Order” knocks it out of the park with this suspense-filled thriller featuring two NYPD intelligence officers trying to find a suspicious passenger who’s disappeared after a terrorist incident on a jet over the Atlantic.  With it set just before the Fourth of July and a dedication at Ground Zero, readers will not be able to sleep as time runs out on the detectives in this Day of the Jackal-like thriller.

The Best Mystery/Historical Fiction I read in 2013

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye (published in 2012)

Gods of Gotham is set in 1845 New York City when Irish immigrants are flooding the city and anti-Catholic sentiments run high. Timothy Wilde is a fledgling Cop (named for his copper star) in the newly formed police department when a 12-year-old murder victim and a girl named Bird lead him to an underground world with its own language. It’s extraordinary and the good news is that Wilde is back in the sequel Seven for a Secret. This is also a great book club choice.

The Best Psychological Thriller I read in 2013

Broken Harbor by Tana French (published in 2012)

Two small children and their father are murdered in their home in Broken Harbor, an abandoned, half-built “luxury” development outside Dublin. Jenny, the mother, clings to life as Detective “Scorcher” Kennedy tries to find clues in all the baby monitors, holes in the walls, and an unexplained break in. But something bad happened to Scorcher’s family in Broken Harbor years before and it might derail the investigation. French really knows how to write psychological thrillers and this one with its look at how families can disintegrate during a recession is no exception.

The Best Debut Mystery/Thriller of 2013

The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne

Scottish author Ballantyne’s debut is a psychological thriller for fans of Defending Jacob and Tana French’s novels.  When eight-year-old Ben Stokes body is found in a playground outside London, his 11-year-old neighbor, Sebastien, is charged with the crime.  Daniel, Sebastien’s lawyer, doesn’t know what to think of the brash child and his edgy mother and irritating father but the case haunts him and brings up his own troubled childhood. In alternating chapters Daniel’s past with his foster mother, Minnie, is slowly revealed showing why Daniel has such empathy for his client.  When Sebastien’s father hires a new lawyer and Daniel learns more about Minnie, the book soars. Minnie is such a great character that I hope this will be made into a movie so I can “see” her again.  It’s a perfect choice for book clubs as there’s so much to ponder.

The Best Mystery with Characters We Rarely Encounter

Mission by Peter Robertson

Mission is a traditional mystery with a unique setting and a compelling protagonist. After Tom, a Scottish expat, helps pull the body of a homeless man from the surging waters of Boulder Creek he attempts to find out why the man died and learns more about his own past. It’s a nuanced look at those we rarely see.  A mystery that introduces realistic homeless characters alongside people from churches, libraries and an industry (no spoilers on the industry)  we seldom encounter is cause for celebration.
Here’s the recipe. Find it and many more in Tastes and Tales Alongthe Tunnel of Trees Cookbook available from bookstores and retailers in northern Michigan.

Brie with Caramelized Cranberry Onion Chutney
2 tablespoons butter, melted in a 10” skillet
1 medium onion, thinly sliced and quartered
1/2 cup dried cranberries, blueberries or cherries, chopped
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
Cooking spray
1 round (15 ounces) Brie cheese
Unflavored water crackers

·       Melt butter over medium heat. Cook onion in butter for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in berries, brown sugar and vinegar. Cook an additional 5 minutes, stirring frequently until mixture thickens and caramelizes.

·       Preheat oven to 350 and spray an ovenproof glass or pottery tart or pie pan with cooking spray.  Place cheese on center of pan.  Bake uncovered 10 – 15 minutes or until cheese is soft.  
Spoon cranberry and onion topping over cheese.  Serve with unflavored water crackers.

The topping can be made up to 24 hours ahead and covered and refrigerated. Reheat the topping in the microwave.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Best Books to Inspire You in the New Year

When I think of the word inspire, I’m inclined toward the word’s root meaning of breathing in or inhaling. For me reading is akin to survival as I continuously inhale ideas, word pictures, and stories.  That means that my choices for the best inspiring books are the ones that fill me to the brim with thoughts that arouse me to do something or that make me different than I was before the words entered me. It seems I’m not the only one with that feeling.  Kirkus Reviews in a recent article noted: 

Too many books sold on the inspirational shelves at bookstores are anything but—the advice they offer is too easily considered and sometimes pitying. In selecting the books for this . . . list, we looked for novels and nonfiction whose characters face tough battles: “tenacity and perseverance prove life can be good,” for example, in the case of Mardi Jo Link’s memoir Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm. Or as our reviewer writes about the abolitionist John Brown in National Book Award winner James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, “his soul does indeed go marching on.”

I thoroughly agree with Kirkus Reviews’ selection of Bootstrapper and The Good Lord Bird as books to genuinely inspire your new year.  My choices for The Best Books to Inspire You in the New Year are (in alphabetical order by title):

Bootstrapper by Mardi Jo Link illustrates a single-mother’s fierce love for her three sons in this ode to tenacity, honesty, authenticity, and creative survival skills . . . Share the ride that is motherhood with this authentic woman who uses much more than just her boots to pull herself out of misery and insolvency into a life well lived.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent tells the story of Agnes, the last person executed in Iceland in 1828.  The effect Agnes has on the family charged with housing her in the months before her execution and on the young priest given the task of preparing her spiritually will imbue you with a feeling of wonder at the difference that one person can make. It will also intensify your understanding of the evils of poverty.

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers tells of Agn├Ęs Morel whose past threatens to derail her full and connected life in the cathedral town.  She confronts her trauma and the reader sees why she’s indispensable. It’s similar to Chocolat - filled with kindness, healing, and love

Dog Stars by Peter Heller is a post-apocalyptic tale of a man who loses his pregnant wife when disease kills off most of the world. Nine years later he and other survivors and his wonderful dog work to remake the world in love.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride testifies to the difference John Brown made in American history while telling the tale with a Mark Twain touch through a wryly concocted character.

Jewelweed by David Rhodes shows how people can overcome mistakes they've made if they’ll just allow others to “touch” them. It’s set in Words, Wisconsin, the town of Rhodes magnificent novel Driftless. Everyone in this novel makes a difference.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger tells of a small-town, 13-year-old boy’s 1961 summer of death, fear, murder and suicide that instead of being sad is filled with “ordinary grace.”

600 Hours of Edward by Craig Lancaster introduces Edward, a 39-year-old man dealing with Asperger’s and OCD, who opens himself to new experiences and hope.

The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagame tells of his challenges as a 6’ 7“ giant of a man who faces severe Tourette ’s syndrome symptoms and whose persistence leads him into a joy-filled life as a weight-lifting, Mormon librarian.