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The Best Books I Read This Year

It’s that time of the year – the end of year lists. The best of this and that. Movies, books, music. Critics line up to tell you what they liked (and sometimes, what they didn’t). I thought I would join the crowd and write about the best 21 books I read this year. To date, I have read 127 books. I went through the list (yes, I keep lists) and picked my favorites without counting. When I was done, I had 21 books on the list. So, without further adieu, here is my list.

Agent in Place by Mark Greaney – The Grey Man. I love him. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know I love a good thriller/spy novel. The Grey Man is one of my favorite characters. I love Mark Greaney because he puts Court in these horrible, untenable positions and you think there’s no way out. But there is always a way out for Court. I like Court better than James Bond. Better than Scot Harvath. Better than Pike Logan. Don’t get me wrong, I love all those characters. But I like Court more because he’s more human. He admits his shortcomings. If you haven’t read any Grey Man, I highly recommend him. Agent in Place is probably my favorite because it moves so fast and is so good.

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara– from the Grey Man to the Golden State Killer. Having lived in California almost all my life, I was stunned to realize there was a serial killer in the 70s and 80s that I knew NOTHING about. One of my besties lived in Visalia when the Visalia Ransacker (considered to be the Golden State Killer at the very beginning) was active. This book was so good and freaky and scary.

The Fox Hunt by Mohammad Al Samawi – From the Golden State Killer to Yemen. Mohammad was born and raised in Yemen. He was a devout Muslim until he met a Christian professor. They exchanged gifts (Mohammad gave the professor a Quran and the professor gave Mohammad a Bible) and the gift changed Mohammad’s life. He embarked on a mission of peace-making. He wanted all people to get along. He was forced to flee Yemen at the beginning of the civil war. The book tells a compelling story and stayed with me for a long time.

How Hard Can It Be by Allison Pearson – A middle-aged Brit tries to navigate a mid-life crisis husband, ill parents, surly teenagers, and re-entry into the job force. Laugh-out-loud funny. And real. I loved this book.

Warning Light by David Ricciardi– Spy novel number two. An origin story. Zac Miller end up in Iran and on the run for his life. MacGyver meets James Bond. I found this book thrilling from the get. Some people didn’t. But I did love it.

Rising Out Of Hatred by Eli Saslow – What happens when the heir-apparent to the White Nationalist movement in the United States goes to college and realizes that his entire belief system is wrong? That is the premise of this book. And it’s probably the most important book I read this year. I have recommended this book about 100 times. I will keep recommending it. You want to know how Donald Trump got elected? Read this book. Scary, scary stuff.

The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz – This book is genius. A writer named Anthony Horowitz is shadowing a cop, investigating the murder of a celebrity. Fact meets fiction. This book is spectacular. I kept having to google names to see who was real and who was a figment of Horowitz’s imagination. Brilliant.

November Road by Lou Berney – I got hipped to Lou Berney from Don Winslow. I follow Winslow on Twitter and he raved about this book. Then, I won a copy. THE BEST BOOK I READ THIS YEAR. Hands down. It’s a about a mobster, running from his boss, after unwittingly being an accomplice to the Kennedy Assassination. It’s about a woman and her daughters leaving their small life and imaging something better. Lou Berney has a gift and you can experience it by reading November Road. It’s lyrical and beautiful.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – A book that is a mystery and a meditation on aging. A supposedly long dead man comes back. A woman is convinced he killed someone a long time ago. But her memory issues and being in an assisted living community are hampering her ability to solve the mystery. You will get to a conclusion and the mystery will be solved, but at what cost? An engrossing book.

Light It Up/Burning Bright/The Drifter by Nick Petrie– I discovered Peter Ash this year and I’m glad I did. I won a copy of Light It Up, the latest in the series. Peter has a form of PTSD that causes him to become extremely claustrophobic. He cannot be indoors for very long.  Peter is a stand-up guy who will go to the ends of the Earth for his friends, and even people he doesn’t really know. These are really good books.

Measure of Darkness by Johnathon and Jesse Kellerman – Clay Edison, book two. I won and read the first book (Crime Scene) last year. I like Clay. He’s human and basically a good dude. There is a shooting at a party in Oakland, but one victim is unidentified and not shot as a result of the violence at the party. Clay goes on a quest to find out who she is and what happened to her. A really good mystery.

The Heart Between Us by Lindsay Harrel – Megan and Crystal are twins. Megan has a heart transplant. She and Crystal drift apart. Megan has a friend who also received a heart transplant, Caleb. She stood Caleb up and did not move to London to work with him because she was afraid. Then she meets the parents of her heart donor and decides to complete the girl’s bucket list. The book is a story about living and redemption and relationships. It is well-written and touching.

An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks – Jessica Ferris signs up for a mysterious study because she needs money. Her life unravels as a result. This book doesn’t come out until January, 2019. I’m putting it on my list because I read it months ago and it is a spine-tingling thriller with some excellent plot twists. These authors also wrote The Wife Between Us, another twisty thriller. I mention this because, unlike other authors who write thrillers, Hendricks makes each one original and interesting. And worth reading.

Trust Me by Hank Ryan Phillipe – A journalist is covering the trial of a woman who supposedly killed her daughter. The case mirrors Casey Anthony and that case is mentioned in the book. A really, really good, tightly wound thriller that kept me guessing until the very end.

Rocket Men by Robert Kurson – The story of the Apollo 8 mission that flew around the moon Christmas, 1968. A thrilling true story. This book was absolutely fascinating. Kurson manages to discuss the lives of the three astronauts, the space race, and the events that occurred in 1968, causing a deep divide in this nation. I loved this book. It is well-written and entertaining.

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton – As much as Rocket Men was uplifting, The Sun Does Shine is rage-inducing. Anthony Ray Hinton spent 21 years on Death Row in Alabama for a crime he couldn’t have committed. Anthony’s faith, his best friend, and his mother kept him sane. Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative took on Anthony’s case and ultimately win his release. This book should be a must read for everyone.

Loot by Aaron Elkins – an art theft mystery set in WWII and today. This book is a mystery that is truly mysterious. A truck of looted art disappeared during WWII. A Boston pawn shop owner gets a Velasquez painting that turns out to be from the missing truck. The pawn shop owner calls his art historian friend and then the pawn shop owner is killed and the art historian attacked. These acts set off a chase through Europe and Russia to find the rest of the missing art. I read this book in one sitting and it was fantastic.

Other People’s Houses by Abbi Waxman – I loved this book. Part chick lit, part hilarious story, the book follows four families who live on the same block in Los Angeles. I totally identified with the characters and the book reads with ease. I loved it.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean – She writes about the fire at the Los Angeles County Public Library on April 29, 1986. Don’t remember it? That’s because Chernobyl was the prior day. The news cycle was dominated by the nuclear meltdown and the LA County Library Fire was relegated to the back pages. More than 400,000 books burned. 700,000 more were damaged. 51 firefighters were injured fighting the fire. Orlean tells the story of the fire, but also of the Los Angeles County Public Library. It is an engrossing tale.

So, there you have it. The 21 best books I have read this year. I hope that you have found some new authors and some good reads.

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The Library Book

On April 29, 1986, a massive fire started at the main branch of the Los Angeles County Public Library. 400,000 books were destroyed. Another 700,000 were damaged. Priceless collections of maps, autographs, and other items were lost. Fifty firefighters were injured fighting the massive fire. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water were used to douse the flames. Sawdust and plastic sheeting by the mile were used to protect other books. The LAFD ultimately determined the fire was an arson. They even identified a suspect. But no one was arrested. And to this day, experts are no longer convinced it was an arson. Susan Orlean tells this story – and the larger story of the founding and running of the Los Angeles County Public Library in The Library Book.

Full disclosure – I am a book nerd. I love to read. I read books about books. I read about libraries and librarians. It’s like I missed my calling. What I loved about this book was not just the mystery of who would set fire to the library, but the way Susan Orlean tells the story of the library. I was unaware of the segregated way the library was run (men only, thank you very much). Throughout my childhood, librarians were almost exclusively female and I just assumed they ran them as well. In LA, that wasn’t the case. Susan Orlean shows, instead of telling. I love her storytelling. Even when I thought, at times, the book veered way off course, she always managed to bring it back on course.

This book is an ode to libraries, books, and all the people who depend on and use libraries for all sorts of things. For those of you who feel that libraries are overrated or have outlived their usefulness in today’s digital age, read this book. If it doesn’t change your mind, nothing will. The story is engrossing and interesting.

I listened to the audio book, which the author reads. I found her to be an engaging narrator and the book translated well to audio. If you love libraries and books and characters, you will love this book.

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The Sun Does Shine

Anthony Ray Hinton was convicted of capital murder in Alabama. He spent 21 years on death row. He had an alibi-iron-clad, at that. He was locked in a warehouse 20 miles from the crime. He had family support. He had the support of his friends and his church. What he didn’t have was an effective attorney. What he didn’t have was money to hire a decent expert. What he didn’t have was white skin.

The state of Alabama refused, repeatedly, to turn over evidence. The state refused to admit they had the wrong man. Anthony languished until Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative took his case. He was ultimately exonerated and released from prison. Unfortunately, his mother passed the year before he was released.

Anthony pointed out at the end of the book there are still a lot of people on death row. For every ten who are executed one is innocent. Read that sentence again. For every ten people executed – ONE is innocent. That is not a good percentage. It should give every single person pause. Do we really want to execute innocent people? Reading this book made me so angry. It made me feel like chucking the whole system and starting over again. And I work in the system. We have got to change the way we think about crime and punishment in this country. It should NEVER be okay to kill innocent people. It should never be okay for an attorney to be paid $1,000 for a capital case and refuse expenses for experts. The system isn’t supposed to be rigged in favor of one side, but increasingly, it is.

I loved this book. I loved Anthony. His mother, his best friend, and his faith got him through the dark years. He was able to survive on death row and bring humanity to the men who served with him. This book made me so angry. It made me sad. It made me cry. It made me happy. I can see why Oprah picked it for our book club and I’m glad it got picked for ours.

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Reading Rut

After I finished Loot in the hospital last week, I started The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton. It’s a good book. But I’m having a hard time with it. I’m sure it’s not the book. I just haven’t felt like reading much this last week. It happens every few months or so. Every book I pick up doesn’t hold my interest. I start and stop like ten different books. Eventually, I know I will find one that holds my attention. I’m just frustrated because I don’t feel good and haven’t been reading and, thus, haven’t been blogging. Not that I’m really good at it anyway. But I made a commitment to myself to post more than just reviews here. Now is my opportunity.

So, I’m throwing this out to anyone who reads this. How do you get yourself out of a reading rut or a book hangover? Is there any thing that is tried and true and works for you? Do you just wait until your attitude improves? I’m interested to know how other book works deal with this very frustrating thing.

So far, I’m just forcing myself through The Sun Does Shine. It’s the book club book and I need to pass it to my mom when I’m done. I will finish it this weekend. And I’m going to try not to let my mood influence of my feelings about the book.

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Loot

Ben is an art historian. He gets a call from his friend who runs a pawnshop, saying that a guy came in and pawned what he thinks is a very expensive painting. The painting is a Velasquez, which was part of a truckload of paintings that went missing during WWII. When Ben goes back to his friend’s house, the friend has been murdered and Ben is attacked.

This is the set-up for Loot by Aaron Elkins. It is a mystery and a thriller. It has three of my favorite things, a murder, Nazi-looted art, and page-turning suspense. As Ben is starting to investigate Simeon’s murder, he gets a fax from Albrecht Stetten, an Austrian Count, who claims the Velasquez is his. He also claims he got a letter from a Czech art dealer who claims to have another Velasquez, belonging to Stetten, and part of the lost truck.

Ben goes to Austria, St. Petersburg, Budapest, and back again to try to track the art and find the missing paintings. I did not see the end coming – which is the best kind of ending.

Other than some unfortunate typos and type-setting errors, the book was really good. It was a tightly woven plot with just the right amount of twists and turns to keep you interested, but not enough to confuse you. I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

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Homer & Langley

I’m going to be honest here. This is the first E.L. Doctorow book I have read, which seems wrong, given how big he was. This is the story of two brothers – one blind and the other potentially driven mad by mustard gas in the great war. They end up living together and become hoarders. They live as shut-ins in a decrepit mansion.

I did not like this book. First, it was boring. Really, really boring. Second, I did not like the writing. To me, it was stuffy and stilted. Maybe it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I would not recommend this book.

 

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The Misogyny Of Thrillers

I love a good thriller. I love spy novels, police thrillers, military thrillers, and detective novels. Always have. But, of late, I have noticed that many, many books in the genre are very misogynistic. And I am having an increasingly hard time with that.

I have noticed that women in these books – for the most part – fit into three categories: (1) tough-as-nails broad who doesn’t need help, but who men can’t help but notice her “smoking” body, (2) damsel in distress, or (3) devious evildoer. Or they are side characters like wives or evil, ambitious politicians whose mission is to destroy the men who are trying to protect our country. All of the women are vapid and superficial. They serve the purpose of being a bitch or a sex object.

I used to read these books in the same way I listen to old-school hip-hop or 80s hairbands – knowing they are misogynistic, but excusing it because I was entertained. (Side note: one of the reasons a lot of women like Tupac is because he didn’t rap about women as objects.) I used to be able to look past the horrible caricatures and enjoy the ride. But, as of late, I am having a hard time ignoring just how horrible women are written in these novels.

Not all thriller writers do this. Some write really good female characters, who are human. (The Russian badass in the Grey Man novels comes to mind.) But the vast majority do. (See my review of Brad Thor’s Code of Conduct.) I understand that the world of military badasses are primarily men. But. That doesn’t mean that female characters HAVE to be sex objects or bitches. There is a middle ground. A human ground.

One of my favorite television shows in recent history was The Brave, which of course, did not get renewed. What I liked about this show was that the female member of the team was truly a badass. Not only was she truly a badass, the men she worked with saw her not as a sex object, or a lesbo bitch, but as a teammate, capable of doing her job just as effectively as they do. Certain thriller writers could take note of this. If you want a larger female readership, write some decent women into your worlds.

Yes, I keep reading these books, just like I keep listening to “Golddigger” and other misogynistic music. It probably makes me a hypocrite, but humans are full of contradictions. And good writers write their characters that way. I just wish that more thriller writers would do the same.

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Trust Me

Mercer Hennessey is a journalist. She has been out of the game for a while. She is trying to recover from losing her daughter and husband in a car accident when her friend asks her to write a “true crime” book about the trial of a mother accused of killing her toddler daughter a la Casey Anthony. As Mercer delves into the case, she decides that Ashlyn, the mother, killed her daughter, Tasha. Lo and behold, the jury acquits Ashlyn and Mercer’s editor shows up at Mercer’s house with Ashlyn in tow, talking about writing a book about Ashlyn’s redemption. But is Ashlyn really innocent? If so, why can’t she offer a coherent story about what happened?

Trust Me by Hank Phillipi Ryan is a page-turner. I loved the plot. It is tightly wound and was hard for me to put down. Ryan is a master at making you think one thing, when something else is actually going on. This novel is a crime thriller and a psychological thriller. You never know what is really happening. You think one thing, but in the back of your mind you think, “But maybe Ashlyn is right…” just like Mercer does.

There were several times in this book when I thought that Mercer should do something different or confront Ashlyn, or… anything than what she was doing. You second-guess things that are happening, just as Mercer does. Ryan does an excellent job of making you think one thing while something else is going on. I like that. I like to think I have it figured out, only to find something different is going on.

I really liked this book and I recommend it to anyone who likes crime thrillers or psychological thrillers.

I won this book from Goodreads and received no other compensation in exchange for this review. The opinions expressed herein are mine and mine alone.

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Rocket Men

Robert Kurson did his homework. Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon is a comprehensive and entertaining examination of the first manned space flight around the world.

I love all things related to space and astronauts and memoirs relating to space. This book is among the best I have read. It is written as narrative nonfiction and tells the story of the trip around the moon from many perspectives. What I liked about the story was the fact that Mr. Kurson included discussion of other things that were happening at the time this mission happened – the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Viet Nam war, the Cold War. He discusses how volatile the U.S. was in 1968 and that this mission – run over Christmas – brought some healing to the country and brought people back together. He weaves all these events into the compelling story of how we flew men around the moon – 250,000 miles from Earth – in a rushed mission to beat the Soviets to the moon and fulfill Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon before the end of the 60’s.

Kurston doesn’t sacrifice space for the political and social happenings of 1968. He weaves the events together to provide the reader with a fantastic overview of all the events that were happening at the same time. This is important to me, because I was not born when all of this happened and it helped me to understand how big this mission was when put into the perspective of all of that. I loved the stories of the astronauts, naturally. But I found myself liking the stories of the wives and children who had to wait all those days to see if their husbands were going to make it back to Earth. At the time Apollo 8 launched, NASA was unsure of whether these three men would live through this mission. Things were predicted – and amazingly happened – to the second. The amount of technical knowledge and forethought that goes into a space flight is described with poetic beauty in this book.

I loved this book. It was informative and entertaining. If you are at all interested in how we got to the moon and probably the most important space mission we have undertaken to date, read this book.

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Code Of Conduct

I have read all over the Scot Harvath books to this point. A couple have been okay. Some have been outstanding. Some have been bad. I know this one has gotten some great reviews from people I respect, but this book just didn’t do it for me. I think Brad Thor is getting a bit preachy about things and I don’t understand why thriller writers have to be high and mighty and political in their books. They would be much better without it. I also do not like the way, in this particular book and in most of the Harvath books, he is trying to seem “enlightened” about women’s rights, but still come off as caveman and misogynistic.

Harvath is tasked to go to Africa to check out a situation for CARE. He meets a group of British mercenaries on the ground and a doctor, who is female. And I’m just going to say right here that I HATED the doctor. I liked the fact that she demanded to be treated with respect because she’s a doctor, but really? Who cares if they look pretty in the jungle? Ugh. Only a man would write a woman like this. I also was offended by the way Thor made comments like, “Harvath was taught not to hit a woman…” He wanted to hit her because she would not bend her ethics and do something unethical. Thor makes it sound like she’s the one in the wrong for not being “morally flexible.” I found that offensive.

The plot revolves around an American Pro-Palestinian who sets a virulent virus on the loose, which is meant to wipe out half the world’s population, especially all of Israel, and allows a coup to be performed in America, which, of course, Harvath (and Harvath alone) can stop.

I found the plot to be a bit ridiculous, though, I guess somewhat feasible. I just didn’t like the preachy tone of the book and how Thor makes Harvath the put-upon hero who is irritated when others don’t see his point of view. I would have preferred more action to philosophizing. And while I’m on the critical bandwagon, I would also like to say that anyone who reads this particular genre is used to a certain amount of “salty” language. Anyone who knows me knows I swear worse that the worst sailor you know. So “Harvath was thinking of a word that started with “f” and rhymed with truck” is about the stupidest thing I have read in a adult book. Really? 6-year-olds are not reading this book. I think we can dispense with the cuteness. It’s not cute.

Maybe this book was bad timing for me. Sometimes, I have to be in the mood to read a certain book and maybe this book hit me at the wrong time. I may read it later and decide it wasn’t so bad. But for right now, I am not impressed. I hope the next one is better. I don’t like giving up on a series, but I will if I read another book like this one.

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