From the Booking Desk:
2020 was a very strange reading year. It was the year of the pandemic and as such, my schedule for reading was completely chaotic. As usual, I took this task of selecting my Top Reads List very seriously and really struggled to make sure the list commemorates my favorite books of the year. Simply put, sometimes this means splitting hairs and having to leave off books that I truly loved but which just didn’t quite have the lasting impact of others. This does not mean I didn’t enjoy those other books – I did! – but anytime you are making a list, some things make the cut and others do not. Rest assured, if I talked about your book here on BOLO Boos, I am proud to have read your work and will continue to suggest it to folks for years to come. These are just the books I feel had the most resonance with me this year.
I will remind readers that this is my Top Reads list – not necessarily a Best Of list. Certainly these books are worthy of any Best Of list, but since I did not read everything published this year, I always hesitate to call it that. These are just the Top Reads of those that I experienced.
I am proud once again that my Top Reads list reflects the vast diversity found in the crime fiction genre. My life has always been improved by allowing many different voices to guide my through life and these books show that anyone who thinks that quality diverse crime fiction is a passing trend will be sadly mistaken.
My final list is presented in alphabetical order based on the novel’s title. Along with the cover image for each selected book, I have included a short extract from the original review. Please follow the link following each extract to re-visit the full review and to find purchase links.
I can already hear you saying, enough with the babble, let’s see this list!
Louise Penny’s writing skill allows her to create tension out of even the most innocuous of details and to elevate the risk with every sublime moment, so what readers end up with is a fully-immersive experience where they journey with the investigators through the course of their inquiries…Readers can rest assured that this still feels like an authentic Three Pines/Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mystery and in many ways it is setting the stage for the novels moving forward. There is no doubt that Louise Penny’s existing fans and the new ones who discover her with All the Devils Are Here will gladly follow her wherever that journey takes us. (FULL REVIEW)
The strength of this novel lies squarely on the shoulders of Grayson Sykes. Fortunately, she is a one-of-a-kind character that is more than up to the task – charming readers in a way that is not often witnessed. Grayson Sykes is a worthy successor to the lineage of Black female private investigators that includes the likes of Barbara Neely’s Blanche White, Mma Precious Ramotswe from The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, and Dayna Anderson from the books by Kellye Garrett…Anyone interested in the evolution of crime fiction must read And Now She’s Gone, as this is a novel that brings diversity to the genre without the need to centralize the Black experience as the focal point of the book, while at the same time this book never shies away from its roots. It is a refreshing angle for a suspense novel and one that has been missing/ignored for far too long. (FULL REVIEW)
S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland is the novel everyone in the crime fiction community is talking about. You could put an image of this book’s cover next to the dictionary definition of buzz and be accurate, although some would say it might be an understatement…The power in Blacktop Wasteland comes not just from the story itself, but from the way in which S. A. Cosby tells it. This is an author who writes with the precision of a poet and the heart of warrior. (FULL REVIEW)
Lisa Unger continues to produce one of the most varied collections of writings in the crime fiction genre. Each of her works – even when they are linked as part of the same series – stand alone in their uniqueness. Her novels never tell the same story twice and refuse to adhere to any standard structure, tone, or style; yet they all appeal to the same reader, linked by their consistently high level of quality and their ability to resolve in ways both surprising and completely satisfying. Confessions on the 7:45 is Lisa Unger’s most recent novel and the book is as unique as the title implies…Unlike the train where it all began, the journey of Confessions on the 7:45 is a twisted path full of dangerous swerves and dark detours ultimately arriving at a wholly unexpected destination. (FULL REVIEW)
There is no denying it, Hank Phillippi Ryan has a way with words; anytime she puts pen to paper, the resulting prose is guaranteed to provide readers with hours of escapism. Simply put, Hank Phillippi Ryan is a born storyteller, with the skills to transform any tale into a compelling narrative. Her new novel may be called The First to Lie, but there is no falsehood in that introduction…In The First to Lie, Hank Phillippi Ryan presents readers with a collection of characters all of whom are lying – to each other, to themselves, to their loved one, to society, and maybe even to the reader…The First to Lie is another award-worthy novel from an author who is consistently able to try new things without ever sacrificing quality. (FULL REVIEW)
While it is true that many crime fiction fans enjoy being surprised during the reading process, this has led to some authors stretching credibility in order to embed the wildest twists possible, which can often have the opposite effect, frustrating the reader. However, in a book like Goodnight Beautiful, Aimee Molloy shows that a subtle shift designed to subvert standard genre tropes can have a seismic impact on the reader’s experience. Molloy does this not once, but twice, in Goodnight Beautiful and as a result, the reader closes the cover at the end feeling truly surprised and satisfied…Once read, Goodnight Beautiful will not be forgotten. Aimee Molloy uses the reader’s familiarity with crime fiction traditions as a shield to obfuscate deliberate misdirection and clever manipulation. (FULL REVIEW)
Skillfully tying these three cases together into a satisfying whole is enough of a challenge, but Julia Spencer-Fleming takes it even further. Each of the various “domestic” plot-lines in this novel reflect on, are affected by, and alter the course of Russ’s murder investigation. Ultimately, Hid From Our Eyes is structured as a complex web where only one misplaced thread would result in total collapse. Fortunately, and not at all surprisingly, Julia Spencer-Fleming is far too skilled a writer to make any such error and the conclusion of this novel brings about satisfying ends for *all* of the story-lines, while leaving readers eager for the next novel is this phenomenal series. (FULL REVIEW)
Picking up a Jennifer Hillier novel is a guaranteed way to ensure a few evenings of missed sleep. This is an author who knows how to put her readers through an emotional wringer in the midst of an anxiety-fueled plot designed to distract and entertain…Jennifer Hillier continues to produce unique novels that defy expectations, prove to be immensely enjoyable, and are ultimately unforgettable. Placing one’s trust in an author is a precarious proposition, but with Jennifer Hillier, readers can always count on her to have their back – with the goal always being the most satisfying journey for her fans…at any cost. (FULL REVIEW)
This is a novel in which character and characterization play a significant role, but I would argue that it is also the most intricately-plotted of Rader-Day’s work. The fusion of relatable characters and a truly gripping plot result in a novel that is compulsively readable and quite literally impossible to stop thinking about – even long after the final pages are turned…In a time when some corners of the crime fiction output are becoming too predictable and repetitive, readers can always count on Lori Rader-Day to shake things up and present work that is wholly-original. The Lucky One is just the latest example, but given the strengths on display throughout this novel, both fans and new-comers simply cannot afford to miss it. (FULL REVIEW)
Every season or so, there’s a book that seemingly comes out of the blue that manages to knock our socks off. Rules for Being Dead is that book for the Summer of 2020. And its author, Kim Powers, is a bona fide breath of fresh air on the literary landscape…If you threw The Lovely Bones, Cinema Paradiso, and Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story into a blender the result would look something like Rules for Being Dead, but even that doesn’t fully express the bounty of treasures within. The love of cinema and film history oozes from the pages and makes for cultural touchstones all readers can connect with. (FULL REVIEW)
Ivy Pochoda seems incapable of writing the same story twice; and yet every time she puts words down on the page they are distinctly her own and always, always worth reading…In addition to the serial killer storyline that serves as the connective tissue, there are smaller crimes and micro-aggressions that populate the story of these women, the story of all women. These Women is a dark journey, but one that allows a glimmer of hope to survive; a spark that, if fed, could become a revolution. (FULL REVIEW)
Jónasson nails the tone in what I like to call “cozy noir.” These are dark books, in terms of human nature, but they evoke this disturbing worldview without graphic violence or harsh language. If in fact Winterkill is the last readers see of Ari Thor, it’s a fitting conclusion to a powerful series from a writer who is one of the best in today’s crime fiction community…Ragnar Jónasson has always been an economical writer. His ability to convey complex emotions and situations in clear, concise language is a true gift. (FULL REVIEW)
From the Booking Desk
As usual, I separated out my favorite debuts of the year.
If the literary works of Stephen King, Gordon Merrick, and Joe R. Lansdale initiated a throuple relationship, the resulting ménage à trois might echo John Fram’s The Bright Lands…This is a novel that can be read on several levels. First and foremost, it is a crime novel with a compelling mystery at its core. But it can also be seen as a metaphor for a shared generational trauma linked to the gay experience. Sexuality oozes from every page of The Bright Lands – in all form and fashion, both celebratory and salacious. (FULL REVIEW)
Imagine, if you will, this Venn diagram: the murder mystery is a subset of crime fiction which is both a subset of literature and a subset of social commentary. Or perhaps this diagram: truth and lies are two distinctive sets of data that would seem to be mutually exclusive, but actually their interaction is often much more complex, sometimes overlapping to various degrees and maybe even, just possibly, acting as subsets of one another. As strange as it is to see mathematics discussed in a crime fiction review, this is vital to understanding the majesty of Alex Pavesi’s The Eighth Detective, one of the most unique and unforgettable novels of the season. (FULL REVIEW)
In Virgil Wounded Horse, David Heska Wanbli Weiden has crafted an instantly-iconic crime fiction protagonist – an inherently good man, flawed and fractured, but always striving to do better, to be better, surrounded by a society that repeatedly undermines his self-confidence at every turn…His #ownvoices story of life on the reservation – where the addiction and corruption of the drug trade shatters the hopes and dreams of both individual and tribe – feels fresh in both its celebration of an under-represented people and in the incandescent prose Weiden uses to convey his tale. (FULL REVIEW)