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My Top Ten Favorite Novels of 2015
The Do-Right by Lisa Sandlin
The Do-Right is a colloquial term for a state prison and that's where Delpha Wade has been for fourteen years for killing a man who was raping her. She tried to kill the other one too, but he got away. Now, released from prison, she can't get a job until she starts working for free for a former roughneck oil worker turned private eye due to an injured hand. Tom Phelan is learning as he goes, but eventually has the money to pay her salary. Together, they find work from the mundane to the heights of scientific and white collar crimes.
This is one of the most enjoyable novels I have experienced in many years. The writing is stylish and clear, setting a balance of tone, story, and empathy. The plot is intricate without being confusing or convoluted. The characters are real enough to live on well past the final page.
Killing Lessons by Saul Black
Saul Black is a pseudonym for British author Glen Duncan. I found this somewhat surprising because having read Duncan, I found Black to be a quite different and more gripping stylist. But, perhaps, that is just another reason writers use alternate pen names. I am not certain I am a fan of Duncan, but I feel strongly that I am a big fan of Black and will read whatever he writes next as soon as I can get my hands on it.
Nell Cooper's mother has been attacked in their home by two men who forced their way inside on a snowy Colorado day. Her mother convinces her to flee for help. Nell nearly gets away unseen, but one of the men gives chase. When she is injured badly falling down a deep ravine, her pursuer gives her up for dead. The two men have a long way to go and more victims to dispatch in their special way.
For San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart, hunting them along their trail of victims has given her a new obsession to replace the one she cannot ever resolve. Though the two men began their spree in California, Hart makes the connection and she knows the murders at the Cooper farmhouse didn't quite go according to plan.
An old man with a crippling back injury finds the half-frozen, injured Nell and drags her back to his reclusive cabin across the bridge on a dead end road. When Nell comes to, she figures out that her mother, the old man, and she herself all need help. But the old man has no phone, no cell reception, and the snow is not letting up.
Black renders each of the storylines, Nell's, the detective's, and the killers' independently, but with the certainty that they will all meet up in the end.
The Searcher by Simon Toyne
A fiery plane crash interrupts a funeral in Redemption, Arizona, and a pale albino man, Solomon Creed seems to emerge from the site of the crash. He has no memory except for his name and his purpose, to save the man the town is burying. The town has secrets they are trying to bury with the man. There are also forces at work on both sides of the border which complicate Creed's attempts to expose the truth and possibly his own past.
It's clear Creed is a character whose story will take a series of novels to tell, and in Simon Toyne's more than capable hands, the series should be a solid success. Toyne maintains just enough mystery to keep the reader guessing while moving the plot along at a manageable gallop. Creed is a fascinating character I look forward to following on his next journey.
Finders Keepers by Stephen King
John Rothstein, an iconic author who created a famous character, Jimmy Gold, has become a recluse and hasn't published a book for decades. He is visited one day by Morris Bellamy, who is Jimmy Gold's biggest fan. He believes Rothstein had Gold sell out for a career in advertising, so he kills Rothstein and empties his safe of cash and the treasure trove of notebooks containing more Gold stories and novels. Morris hides the money and the notebooks, before he is arrested and put away for another crime. Decades later, a boy named Pete Saubers finds the treasure, and uses the money anonymously to help his floundering father and disillusioned mother through tough economic and emotional times. When Morris gets out of prison, Pete's sister who has figured out the mystery of the family's benefactor, seeks the help of Bill Hodges, Holly Gibney, and Jerome Robinson, the stars of King's "Mr. Mercedes" to get brother out of his jam.
Though the structure feels like two distinct stories glued together, the emotional momentum is maintained and accentuated. Pete's resolution is satisfying and Bill, Holly, and Jerome's characters are further developed along with their evolving relationship. King leaves the reader hoping for at least a third entry in the series.
The Cartel by Don Winslow
Although it is conceivable a reader might be able to read and be absorbed "The Cartel" without having first read Winslow's previous masterpiece, "The Power of the Dog," it would be impossible for the latter to have the same impact. Much of what happens in the second relies on the developments and motivations from the action in the first book. Art Keller has a blood feud with Adán Barrera, the head of El Federación, the world's most powerful cartel, and the man who brutally murdered Keller's partner. Keller got Barrera into a prison, but it cost him dearly--the woman he loves, his occupation, his future well-being.
When Barrera engineers his escape, Keller, who realizes he should not have spared Barrera's life the first time, returns to finish the job. He has nothing left to lose, no reason to play by the rules, and no rationalizations about what he's done or will do. Keller must be smarter and more devious to pretend to work within the confines of U.S. law enforcement and Mexico's own efforts to fight the drug trade under the handicaps of corruption, extortion, and violence.
As in the first book, Winslow relies on more than Keller's force of will to carry the reader. He explores the new era of the war on drugs with a new cast of characters from the youthful recruits to the various cartels' armed forces to the next generation of drug lords trying to corner the market. The result is every bit as exhilarating and tragic as in the first book.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
In the American Southwest, Angel Velasquez is a water knife, part-detective, leg-breaker, fixer, and spy. His boss is Catherine Case of Las Vegas Water which is trying to expand its control of the dwinding water supply. When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in drought-ravaged Phoenix, Angel is sent to investigate. There, he encounters journo Lucy Monroe, a veteran reporter with a reputation for following a story and Maria Villarosa, a young Texas refugee who survives by paying for just enough protection with small volume water deals. Bad luck and bad men force Angel, Lucy, and Maria into an uneasy alliance with each trying to save the new water source for vastly different reasons.
Bacigalupi has an uncanny ability to set his plots far enough into the future that the world is changed significantly, but not so far that it doesn't also include a whole lot of recognizable aspects of our current situation. His books resonate with immediacy and relevance. His characters have evolved from people we know or know of. They could be any one of us. This makes us care all the more.
Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater
Following "The Raven Boys" and "The Dream Thieves," "Blue Lily, Lily Blue" is the next book in the Raven Cycle series by Maggie Siefvater. Gansey's elderly British mentor, Malory arrives in Henrietta, Virginia to help Gansey, Blue, Adam, Ronan, and Noah continue to seek out the tomb of the ancient Welsh king, Glendower. In this one, Blue is being drawn toward a crossroads of decisions involving her mother, her aunts, the Raven Boys, and the prophecies she has been afraid to told she will fulfill. The ley lines, the corpse road, and Cabeswater have begun to shift and relocate and rearrange their appearance. There are other visitors besides Malory who do not seem as intent on helping Blue and the Raven Boys.
This book may not be as inclusively satisfying as the previous two, but it is powerful bridge to the next installment, "The Raven King" due sometime in late April.
Shady Cross by James Hankins
Stokes crashes his motorcycle when a car careening around a corner runs him off the road. The guy in the car gets the worst of it on the other side of the road. Stokes finds the man dead, but he discovers a knapsack stuffed with $350,000. He takes the sack and covers his tracks but then the man's cell phone rings. On the line, a little girl asks, "Daddy? Are you coming to get me? They say if you give them the money they'll let you take me home." Certain of his mistake, Stokes plays along with the kidnappers, trying to figure out their plan and save the child. The little girl figures him early on, so how can he fool the kidnappers. Nothing will go smoothly as his every decision seems to dump more obstacles in his way.
Hankins never lets up on his unlikely hero, a well drawn less-than-average joe who most readers will find believable and engaging. While never letting the tone shift from the appropriate gravity of the situation, he is not afraid to explore the black humor of the inevitable missteps and mishaps which plague Stokes in his seemingly hopeless quest to do something right.
Memory Man by David Baldacci
A gifted athlete, he was the only person from his hometown of Burlington ever to play in the NFL. But his career ended when a helmet-to-helmet collision knocked him off the field for good, and left him with an improbable side effect -- he can never forget anything. Nearly two decades later, Decker had become a police detective. Returned home from a stakeout, he found his wife, young daughter, and brother-in-law had been murdered. Though the killer was never found, Decker still can't forget a single detail about that night. He leaves the police force, loses his home, and winds up on the street, taking unorthodox assignments as a private investigator. Then a man turns himself in to the police and confesses to the murders. At the same time, the school is the site of a Columbine-type mass shooting. Even though he knows the man who confessed could not have killed his family, Decker agrees to help with the investigation of the school shooting when he begins to pick up hints that the two cases are connected in some way.
With his athleticism gone to flab and his strange gift both a blessing and a curse, Decker uncovers enough to keep going. Baldacci resists letting Decker wallow or letting readers feel sorry for him. Decker himself is aware of his own personal foibles, but we care enough to want him to succeed in finding solutions to both his dilemmas.
Near Enemy by Adam Sternbergh
Sternbergh picks up Spademan's story where he left him at the end of "Shovel Ready." New York is still toxic from the dirty bomb years ago. Spademan is still living in New Jersey, but has allowed the preacher's daughter and her baby to live at his place after rescuing her from her even more secluded cabin. He's not as thrilled about the visits from her scary ex-boyfriend.
To escape the grittiness of reality, many of the wealthy lose themselves in the virtual world of the limnosphere. Spademan's latest job is to find a lurker named Lesser who spies on other people's limnosphere experiences. Lesser comes back from the limn with a wild claim: terrorists are planning to attack New York from the limnosphere. Then a political fixer tells him of a long-running power struggle that goes all the way to City Hall. A brilliant Egyptian radical brings Spademan to the mysterious far-reaches of the limn. And a beautiful nurse/limn babysitter knows more than what she's letting on. Soon, Spademan figures out that the more he finds out, the more he's a target along with everyone he cares about.
The plot here is strong enough to carry any reader through Sternbergh's second Spademan novel without having to read the first one, but knowledge of the relationships between the characters from the first will certainly enhance a reader's experience. His clipped style is perfect for the tone and pace of his plots, but it isn't ideal for filling in backstories.
Other books which might have made the list in 2015:
Song of Shadows by John Connolly; Bangkok Asset by John Burdett; The Verdict by Nick Stone, and Descent by Tim Johnston.