Favorite books of 2020

Click on the titles to see the whole review.

MBTB stars were awarded to the following books in 2020:

Hi Five, by Joe Ide

Ide continues the tumultuous journey of his eccentric protagonist Isiah “IQ” Quintabe, an unusual sort of private investigator in South Central Los Angeles. The owner of a neighborhood bodega was shot and lies near death. It turns out he wasn’t just nice, he walked the walk by helping the homeless, shelter animals, and little kids. IQ wants to track down the shooter and bring him to justice, maybe with a caulk gun or Taser. IQ doesn’t want to really hurt anyone. “Hi Five” strays into more serious territory than the other books, although there are still Ide’s signature touches of humor and the peculiar.

Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd

Oh, to be as lyrical and Irish as author Jess Kidd is. This happy combination has led to some wonderful books. Protagonist Bridie Devine, who does “Domestic Investigations/Minor Surgery (Esp. Boils, Warts, Extractions),” marches full-tilt into the world of 1863 London. The six-year-old daughter of an English aristocrat has been kidnapped. There is something peculiar about the child, Christabel, which is why Bridie’s discretion is needed to find and return her. And it results in a fine tale full of mystery and a touch of the fantastic.

Play the Red Queen, by Juris Jurjevics

Author Juris Jurjevics was a co-founder of Soho Press. Unfortunately, Jurjevics died in 2018, but we were fortunate that this novel could be published posthumously. His book is set in 1963 Vietnam, just after the U.S. has sent in “advisors” in order to unseat the king and insert a “democratic government” with Ngo Dinh Diem as the president. This tale is noir, political thriller, cultural exposition, and a backwards historical glance rolled into one. A woman riding pillion on a motorcycle is shooting Americans and placing a card with the picture of a red skull at the kill sites. Who is she? How does she know whom to kill? Why is she killing? Jurjevics gives us a mighty fine chase to find out.

The Lost Ones, by Sheena Kamal

This is a tough book to read at times. Bad things come in waves and are unrelenting for long stretches, but the protagonist, Nora Watts, is a tough character. She fights to have some semblance of a normal life, to be a survivor. Nora is an assistant to a photographer and his private investigator husband in Vancouver, B.C. One day a man and woman walk into their offices and say they are the adoptive parents of Nora’s child, given up for adoption years ago. The fifteen-year-old girl has run away from home, maybe to find Nora. Will Nora find her? All the buttons are pushed, the traumas flare, and things tamped way down are now bubbling up. But, of course, she finally says yes.

Running Out of Road, by Daniel Friedman

If talk of crime, philosophy, ethics, discrimination, and Machiavelli all crashed into each other, “Running Out of Road” would emerge from the rubble. And it would be sublime. Buck is an 89-year-old man with dementia. He was a police detective in Memphis before he retired – let me be clear, he was a Jewish detective in Memphis. Buck arrested Chester March way back when. Chester is on death row, and an NPR journalist, Carlos Watkins, is looking into whether Chester is actually guilty of the original charges. Can Buck remember enough of the case to help out? Does he want to help out? There are historical elements in the mix and a side discussion of the death penalty. It’s all within an economical 288 pages.

G. I. Confidential, by Martin Limón

I have followed this series for years, and it has gotten even better, a difficult accomplishment in the world of series writing. George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are CID investigators for the military in South Korea in the 1970s. They become involved in a string of bank robberies because the culprits are not Korean. Could they be military? What other choices are there? Sueño and Bascom also get involved in the purported transportation of hookers to the Korean compound in the DMZ. That story was broken by intrepid American reporter Katie Byrd Worthington, who works for a trashy alternative to the venerable Stars and Stripes, and the powers-that-be want that story tamped down. Tangled webs everywhere with the simplest of explanations in the end. Real historical facts peak over everyone’s shoulder.

The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman

This was a fun read. The characters were interesting and charming. The premise was outlandish but I had no trouble accepting it. A group of senior citizens in a retirement village meet to solve cold cases. Then a fresh body pops up and the group takes up the task of solving that murder. Chaos ensues, of course. Yay!

The Deep, Deep Snow, by Brian Freeman

Here’s Brian Freeman’s winning trifecta: compelling story, believable yet strange resolution, interesting characters. Shelby Lake is a deputy in her father’s police department in a small town. Her father, Tom Ginn, has the beginning stages of dementia. Shelby must navigate how that affects the department’s new case of a missing ten-year-old boy. That’s the first part of the book. The second part of the book — neatly presented in its own part — takes place ten years later. I was impressed with how Freeman brought almost everything together in the end, even things that didn’t seem to matter. His characterizations were impeccable.

Two of these “retro stars” were published in 2019, the other was in 2017. Two aren’t even true mysteries, but they got coveted MBTB stars nonetheless.

The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves (2019)

Meet Ann Cleeves' new character, North Devon police detective Matthew Venn. A body was found on the beach near the home Venn shares with his husband. There are lots of surrounding small villages and towns with a lot of small town busybody-ness to complicate the story satisfactorily. When the identity of the body is revealed, there is a surprising connection to Venn’s husband. The creator of Vera and Jimmy successfully strikes again!

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (2017)

Murderbot to the rescue! Yes, this is science fiction about a sentient organic-inorganic synthesis, but hear me out! Murderbot’s regulator was accidentally disconnected, so Murderbot can make its own choices now. It chooses, as it turns out, to help people with their problems. Of course, that is also advantageous to Murderbot’s agenda, the story of which is probably strung out over several of Martha Wells’ novellas. I haven’t read them all, but what I have read I've enjoyed tremendously.

Exhalation, by Ted Chiang (2019)

Speaking of science fiction, Ted Chiang has written some short stories that are exquisite. They are meditations on what it means to be human. Not a mystery.

These titles missed MBTB star status by a hair’s breadth.

Kingdomtide, by Rye Curtis

A 71-year-old woman survives a plane crash in the forested wilderness of the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. This book doesn’t meet my definition of mystery, but it was compelling. Does she survive the wilderness? How does she survive the wilderness? Boy, is she stubborn.

The King at the Edge of the World, by Arthur Phillips

This isn’t a mystery either. It’s a fictional work set in early 1600s England. Mahmoud Ezzedine, a scholar and a doctor, finds himself marooned in England, far from his home in Constantinople. England at the time was full of its superiority to other cultures, even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. Mahmoud manages to survive his abandonment by his home delegation and even some English palace intrigue, but he is shuffled around the aristocracy like a pet peacock. This is a vivid look at racism, nationalism, monarchy, intolerance, and longing.

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, by Elsa Hart

England in 1703 was no place for a lady scientist. Lady Cecily Kay and her childhood friend, Mrs. Meacan Barlow, are middle-aged women who meet again in the home of collector Barnaby Mayne. Mayne’s home overflows with both junk and treasure. Visitors come to stay for awhile and inspect this or that collection. Other people wait for the rare invitation to visit for a day and take a guided tour of the cabinets. A murder occurs in the midst of a houseful of visitors, who then become suspects. There’s a cliff-hanger at the end.

The Devil and the Dark Water, by Stuart Turton

The characters and their value to the storyline have to be teased out. There are a lot of characters wandering below ship and on deck of the ship trying to make its way back to Amsterdam from Indonesia in 1634. Before he dies in a flaming ball, a leper has warned of a curse on the ship. So there’s that. Also, something called “The Folly” is on board. And someone (maybe) called “Old Tom” is determined to make the curse come true. Old Tom can scale the hull of the ship and leave burnt handholds as evidence, slip into cabins, and kill without a whisper being heard. Yeow!

The Glass Kingdom, by Lawrence Osborne

Gorgeous language. Unrelenting sense of dread. Exotic locale. Guilty, guilty, guilty. Everyone is guilty of something. Probably.

Finally, I am currently reading “Blacktop Wasteland,” and I like it very much so far, so it may join the line-up. I’ve had “Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line” in my to-be-read stack forever. That may get added as well.

Happy reading!