Favorite Paperbacks of 2012

Between 700 and 800 new titles passed through our store this year. We’d like to say that we read every single one but, alas, we were limited by the number of hours in the day we could spend reading. Customer suggestions helped lead the way to some books and serendipity led to others. Sometimes the latest book by a favorite author had to be set aside to read the avalanche of books by new authors.

We were so enthusiastic and lengthy in our reviews, that these are only truncated versions. Read the full, unexpurgated text (links will follow shortly). They’re often (intentionally) hilarious.

Carolyn liked:

In Misery Bay ($14.99), Steve Hamilton serves up an exceptional return for his mainline series character, Alex McKnight, following a six-year hiatus (during which time he won the 2011 Edgar award for Best Mystery with The Lock Artist).

Ex-policeman McKnight lives on the upper Michigan peninsula in Paradise, a tiny community characterized in winter by bleakness, bitter cold, and isolation. When the local sheriff, usually at odds with Alex, pleads with him to help investigate the supposed suicide of a friend’s son, Alex only reluctantly agrees. To their surprise, they uncover other deaths, possibly related, but how? And why?

From the prologue (not usually a feature I’m fond of) to the snippets of filming described throughout the book, to the hair-raising finale, Hamilton’s writing shines, and his plot is ingenious.

The Wreckage, by Michael Robotham ($13.99), is an exhilarating international thriller with roots in reality. It begins in Iraq, with a foreign correspondent looking into multi-million-dollar bank robberies that have occurred in recent years, and in London, where a banker suspected of embezzlement goes missing after being robbed by a couple of scam artists. Into this mix comes retired policeman Vincent Ruiz (one of Robotham’s main protagonists in his series).

Ensuing events bring all the parties under scrutiny from various arms of several governments and, eventually, to working with one another to solve the mystery of the missing millions and the identities of those responsible.

Although complex, Robotham’s plot is managed handily, moving between landscapes and societies freely, relying on one of his strongest gifts, that of characterization. His are flesh-and-bone creatures, artfully filled out and let loose for us to enjoy.

A Swedish police detective investigating the horrific killings of a family in the dead of winter finds a skilled doctor to hypnotize a possible witness for more information in The Hypnotist, by Lars Kepler ($16). The catch is that this witness is part of the family who was killed, and he himself was brutally attacked, barely escaped with his life, and has lapsed into a state of shock. Reluctantly, the doctor agrees – and thus sets in motion a long and terrifying chain of events.

The characters are likeable (although the crimes are quite gruesome and not for everyone’s reading tastes), there is a surprisingly good ending after a nail-biting journey, and Kepler has fashioned many interesting subplots along the way.

A curmudgeonly Danish policeman, guilt-ridden after failing to save two colleagues in an impossible situation, is shunted off to a new department of cold cases in The Keeper of Lost Causes, by Jussi Adler-Olsen ($16). Instead of languishing away as hoped, he demands an assistant, who turns out to be the cop equivalent of a Mrs. Hudson, Dr. Watson, and Sherlock Holmes all in one.

As their first case, they select the disappearance years earlier of a talented and dedicated politician, a woman not known to have bitter enemies of any sort. But she did, and those enemies had long memories and motives which only become clear after the relentless probing of the unlikely detective duo.

Another dramatic page-turner, to be sure, but Keeper is also laced with humor, full of believable characters, and a certain bet for follow-up cases.

Carolyn also liked these series novels:

The Sentry ($9.99, Joe Pike) and Taken ($9.99, pb release date 12/31, Elvis Costello),

by Robert Crais

Betrayal of Trust ($9.99), by J. A. Jance ( J. P. Beaumont)

Zero Day ($9.99), by David Baldacci

The Tourist ($9.99), by Olen Steinhauer

The Ranger ($15), by Ace Atkins

Barbara liked:

A place not on my travel bucket list? North Korea. Especially after reading The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson ($15). The first half of the book is about Pak, the son of the cold, inattentive head of an orphanage. His life and fortune is not much better than that of an orphan. The second half of the book is about Commander Ga, a war hero, tae kwon do champion, and Director of the Prison Mines.

Are Pak and Ga the same person? In slowly uncovered stages, Johnson reveals the metamorphosis. The answer is not supernatural or outrageous, but Johnson’s narrative has a fantastical touch to it. And there’s surprising humor. In a brief interlude worthy of the best comically improbable situations of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard, an adult Pak and some newly-minted Korean politicos journey as representatives of North Korea to Texas. From barbeque to dogs-as-pets, it’s America through the eyes of a travel virgin, and it’s touching and bizarre.

Although the story bounces around among the first-person narratives of Pak, Ga, and an anonymous interrogator, and state-scripted declamations blasted from speakers to the North Korean population, the story is cohesive. This is a thoughtful, illuminating, imaginative work. The orphan master’s son may not have his own name, but in the end he has an identity.

This has been awarded an MBTB star.

Longer review

In Killed at the Whim of a Hat ($14.99), Colin Cotterill keeps and expands upon the gentle humor he evinces in his Siri Paiboun series. This time he aims it at the cultural eccentricities of rural, contemporary Thailand.

Sounding more like a song from Mary Poppins than the name of a former hotshot crime reporter for a Chiang Mai daily, Jimm Juree has relocated to an agricultural and seafaring backwater. Her mother, Mair, supposedly diagnosed with the early stages of dementia, has sold her home and relocated daughter Juree and other odd members of her family to manage a rundown resort on the beach. Tired of gutting mackeral for the non-existent guests, dodging carnivorous crabs and nosy neighbors, and putting up with brown-outs, Jimm almost welcomes the dead bodies that have popped up on the beach. They may be her ticket back to the big time.

From start to unorthodox finish, this book was a joy.

Longer review

Dude, The Gentlemen’s Hour, by Don Winslow ($15), is a most excellent follow-up to The Dawn Patrol. Macking, even.

Returning to a lighter, more humorous style than the dark pieces he has been writing, Winslow brings us another story in the life of surf bum and private eye Boone Daniels. Besides the Peter Pan-like boardriders, San Diego is home to Mexican drug cartels, real estate con men, American drug crazies, white supremacists, and lots of rich people. Boone awkwardly finds himself working on behalf of the defense team for the alleged killer of Kelly Kuhio, Boone’s surfing guru and hero. In the process, Boone manages to entangle himself with all of the aforementioned groups.

Winslow’s story races merrily along, but it’s not all about plot. There are wonderfully colorful characters, including a couple of villains. In addition, the “Surfbonics” that the Dawn Patrol uses in their conversations is amusing and gives a good sense of their community.

Longer review

Tom Christmas is a vicar in a small, charming English village in Twelve Drummers Drumming, by C. C. Benison ($15). Despite the obvious assumption, it is not a book set at Christmastime, but it is a cozy with a definite contemporary feel. Right from the start, we learn that what brought Tom and his nine-year-old daughter to the picturesque village of Thornford Regis is to start a new life, away from the horror of having discovered his murdered wife on the steps of his London church.

The village is a wonderfully gossipy, your-business-is-my-business kind of place in the best Miss Marple tradition. An admonition of “don’t tell” immediately translates to “don’t tell too many people.” There’s a lot to talk about with a disappearance and a murder.

With the exception of a couple of expletives uttered (by the villain) towards the end of the book and with the awareness that a couple of controversial issues are peripheral to the story, this book is firmly proper and polite and easy to recommend to practically everyone.

Longer review

Barbara has these retroactive recommendations:

If Slip and Fall, by Nick Santora ($13.99), sounds like an episode of “The Sopranos,” it’s because Santora was a writer on that show. The wiseguys, the Italian families, life in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York City – they’re all in this debut novel. Not surprisingly, the dialogue sings.Kudos to Mulholland Press for re-issuing this 2007 book in 2012.

Longer review

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell ($15), is probably more famous for the movie made of it, with its multiple high-wattage stars, special effects, and advertising budget, than for the complex, virtuoso writing of David Mitchell. This is a brilliantly unlikely book: six stories that build to a crescendo and then a revelatory diminuendo. He writes in various styles and sets his stories in different time periods. The true genius of this work is how each story is intriguing in its own right. Each voice is spot on, each resolution touching and illuminative. Although this book was published in 2004, I didn’t read it until this year. I’ve given it an MBTB star. (And, yes, one of the stories is a murder mystery.)

Longer review

Barbara also liked:

And She Was, by Alison Gaylin ($5.99), features an unusual private eye, a young woman suffering (or blessed) with hyperthymestic disorder. That means that Brenna Spector can recall every day of her life in excruciating detail from the age of 11 onwards. She can remember with all her senses the highs, lows, and mediocrities of her life. When a new investigation shows signs of crossing paths with an incident from her youth, her uncommon ability may be the key to solving both cases.

Longer review

Ben Aaronovitch’s series is a cross between the Harry Potter books and “The Avengers.” This year’s entry, Whispers from the Underground ($7.99), is no good without the two preceding books. Aaronovitch irritatingly begins Whispers without an introduction to his characters or prior events. Begin with Midnight Riot ($7.99) and enjoy the unusual department of magical things that is surreptitiously a part of the London police force. (P.S. Aaronovitch’s CV contains a stint as a writer on “Dr. Who.”)

Jean liked:

Fictional American PIs seem to be a dying breed, so thank goodness for Matt Scudder and his creator, Lawrence Block. Matt has changed in ways both big and small since his debut in The Sins of the Fathers in 1976. Scudder’s most consistent supporting character throughout the books has been New York City, which has changed right along with the unlicensed PI.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff ($14.99) unfolds as a story Matt shares with an old friend in a bar long after closing time. The men talk about choices they made in their lives. Matt’s thoughts turn to Jack Ellery, a boy he grew up with and later saw when Jack was being questioned by the police. Years later, when the two run into each other at an AA meeting, Jack says he is on Step 9, making amends to people he has harmed. Soon after, Jack is killed, shot by someone on his list who wasn’t interested in helping him along the road to sobriety.

Since this story takes place more than 20 years ago, Matt follows leads the old fashioned way, without the help of computers. (Some phone calls are made from a telephone booth!) This is a familiar story: crime plus detection equals solution. But in the hands of a master storyteller, it becomes something more.

Longer review

Life Without Parole, by Clare O’Donohue ($15), features Kate Conway, a freelance television producer in Chicago. Kate is slogging through a series of assignments when she is offered the challenge of interviewing two prisoners who have recently had their death sentences overturned and are now serving life without parole. One of the prisoners swears that he is innocent and persuades Kate to look into his case.

In another production assignment at a restaurant, things are starting to turn ugly. The restaurant is floundering and investors are fighting among themselves. When one of them turns up dead, the docudrama suddenly becomes a true crime. O’Donohue weaves the two storylines together effortlessly, so that Kate’s search for the truth involving a convicted killer aids in the discovery of the murderer of the restaurant investor.

Kate juggles these projects with the help of her loyal crew, Andres (camera) and Victor (sound). One of the things I like most about this series is the relationship between these three co-workers, who are more like family.

Having a main character that interests me is a must and Kate Conway does just that. She is smart, funny, independent, and flawed. Even when she makes mistakes, they are believable ones, things you might imagine doing yourself. I always recommend starting with the first book in a series, so be sure to read Missing Persons.

Longer review

Jean also liked:

Trick of the Light ($14.99): My yearly favorite list would not be complete without a Louise Penny title. I love recommending her series because of her intricate plots, multi-dimensional characters, and the wealth of detail she provides. In this book, one of my favorite characters finally gets the attention and respect she deserves for her work, only to have long-buried resentments (and murder) take center stage.

In Pursuit of Spenser, edited by Otto Penzler ($14.95), is a tribute to the late Robert B. Parker and features a who’s who of mystery writers sharing their thoughts on Spenser, the Boston PI Parker introduced in 1973. These essays encouraged me to go back and reread Early Autumn, my all-time favorite Parker book. And you know what? I still loved it.

Reading The Attenbury Emeralds, by Jill Paton Walsh ($14.95), was like visiting a familiar friend because Walsh manages to capture the charm and wit of the Lord Peter Wimsey series, penned by the incomparable Dorothy L. Sayers. This book is set in London, after WWII, and Lord Peter looks back on his very first case, recounting to his wife, Harriet Vane, the story of investigating the theft of a valuable jewel during a house party.

In The Burning, by Jane Casey ($15.99), DC Maeve Kerrigan is young, fairly inexperienced, and eager to show her male co-workers that she is tough enough for the job. In London, the hunt for a killer dubbed “The Burning Man” provides her with just such an opportunity. Tight plotting and well-drawn characters kept me reading this first book in a new series late into the night.

Nick liked:

Dead Harvest, by Chris Holm ($7.99), is the first in a new series. Sam Thornton is a soul collector for the underworld. But when he’s assigned a girl whose soul is pure, unblemished, and beautiful, he’ll risk everything – including an all-out war between Heaven and Hell – to learn who or what has the motive – and the power – to do the unthinkable: to damn an innocent soul to the fires of Hell … forever. Effectively mashing up urban fantasy and urban noir, Dead Harvest delivers a breakneck plot peppered with strong dialogue, interesting characters (read: creatures), and even a few original ideas. Indeed, the story rarely lets the reader take a breath. I highly recommend this one for fans of Jim Butcher, urban fantasy, and dark noir.

Longer review

False Negative ($9.95) is the first novel in twenty years from former crime reporter and Edgar nominee Joseph Koenig. It stars Adam Jordan, a post-WWII journalist, whose last story – about a Miss America hopeful found strangled to death on an Atlantic City beach – has set its hook deep. What begins as just another story quickly becomes a personal obsession, even as powerful forces work hard to cover up the murder of the cover girl. Koenig skillfully captures both the addictive energy and deep-rooted cynicism of 1950s crime reporting, of the lying, bribing, and gentle blackmailing of cops and civilians alike just to get the scoop … or worse, the photos. This one’s a must-have for fans of well-written spicy, retro crime fiction.

Longer review

Nick also liked:

Don Winslow’s Savages ($15), about a trio of young Southern California drug dealers battling a powerful Mexican cartel, and The Kings of Cool (due in paperback in early 2013), the prequel to Savages the same way “The Godfather, Part II” was a prequel to “The Godfather” – which bounces between two generations of SoCal drug dealers: far out 60s surfers and the 21st-century savages they spawned.

Chuck liked:

Okay, so everybody’s trying to write genre-busting novels these days, but Ernest Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One ($14), gives us a maniacally magical mash-up of dystopian cyberpunk science fiction, rousing action-adventure with a rag-tag circle of heroic friends fighting against the sort of dastardly evil villains you love to hate, and an expertly tangled mystery in the form of an old-school, puzzle-based treasure hunt.

Set in a future not too different from the one we’re heading toward with our perfect storm of economic ruin, climate change, and accelerating digitization, this novel portrays a world where everyone lives in the used-up real world but escapes as often as possible into an immersive virtual world called OASIS that’s like a cross between Facebook and “The Matrix.”

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll stomp your feet and scratch your head. But most of all you won’t want it to end.

Longer review

Don’t get the wrong idea when you notice the seal on the cover saying that The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt ($14.99), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Yes, this quirky crime novel dressed up in cowboy clothes may owe more to its high-falutin’ literary roots than to its “genre” kin, but it tells a compelling and character-driven story for all that.

Hired by a ruthless boss known only as The Commodore, Eli and Charlie Sisters set out on a horseback trek from Oregon to California, where they are to murder a gold miner named Hermann Kermit Warm.

The book can be grim and violent at times, but it wins you over with its strangely loveable characters and its infectiously funny narrative voice. Any coarseness aside, this is a beautifully written novel. The polished prose feels deliberately awkward, almost angular with its choppy yet poetic phrases. As readers, we find ourselves connecting with Eli, the narrator, as he begins to question this horrible way of life that he and his brother have chosen for themselves. As we turn the pages, we cannot help but hope that the Sisters Brothers can find a way to escape this darkness of their own making.

Longer review

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This edition of the year’s best is unusual. For one, you’ve probably noticed that instead of our regular 10 to 12 selected books, we have 14. We’ve also picked our favorite hardcovers of 2012. In our job, we have to read far ahead of a book’s release, which means we sometimes read a hardcover about a year and a half before we can recommend it as a paperback! Why wait, we decided. They can make your favorite person pretty darned happy this holiday season.

What follows now are books by Pacific Northwest authors that we enjoyed and highly recommend. What a year for these talented writers!

One of our favorite people is Johnny Shaw. He often stops by and entertains us with his stories and opinions on a wide variety of books and related topics. He’s passionate about writing and books. He has provided us with great recommendations, the latest of which is The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen ($9.99). His own book, Big Maria ($14.95), is a rollicking caper adventure, full of wicked fun, the power of friendship, burro enlightenment, what a proving range has to prove, and gold. Think Dante’s journey. Replace Virgil with a donkey. Now you’ve got it.

Oooh, yeah. Robot+apocalypse= Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson ($15.95). What does a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon and a lifelong interest in science and science fiction get you? If you’re Daniel Wilson and your mind is exploding with ideas, you get a book in which human heroes join forces with free-thinking robots to save humanity from extermination. (You also get a movie option from Steven Spielberg!)

Martin Limón drives down from Seattle every year to entertain us with great stories and books. His latest paperback, Mr. Kill ($14.95), is exceptional. Army CID detectives George Sueño and Ernie Bascom work in challenging times in 1970s South Korea. When they meet the mysterious Mr Kill, a heroic and almost mythical detective for the Korean National Police, will he help or hurt them in their quest to find an American G.I. who is raping Korean women on trains?

Ann Littlewood’s smart and intrepid main character, zookeeper Iris Oakley, returns in Endangered ($14.95). Danger intrudes when Iris stumbles upon illegal animal sales and murder. Ann has given us Iris’ familiar passion and smart-alecky sense of humor, and added the compassion of a mother and loneliness of a widow. Iris faces more of her flaws and bravely continues to put one foot in front of the other. She seeks justice in her stubborn, one-track-minded way. This depth of character becomes Iris and lends power to an interesting and exciting story.

Lori L. Lake knows her stuff. She not only teaches writing, she shows us what good writing looks like. A Very Public Eye ($16.95) returns us to the scene of the crime in Minnesota with Human Services Investigator Leo Reese. Her search for the killer of a 17-year-old boy in a chemical dependency clinic vies with her need to take care of herself after a bout with cancer. What elevates Lori’s writing is her ability to add human and realistic touches to her story.

Dana HaynesBreaking Point ($9.99) is the sequel to the Portland-based thriller Crashers about a CSI-like airplane crash investigation team. In Breaking Point, members of the crash team are themselves victims of a suspicious plane crash in the wilds of Montana. It’s a page-turning, door-busting, barn-burning thriller. Yee, haw!

William Dietrich is another Seattle-based author who journeys down to see us once a year. His Ethan Gage series set in Napoleonic times is thrilling storytelling matched with impeccable historical detail. The Emerald Storm (hardcover, $25.99) continues Ethan’s adventures: finding Montezuma’s treasure, thwarting armies fighting a civil war, and battling no-goodniks, competing treasure hunters, and elemental forces.

Chelsea Cain kills us every time with her creativity, sneakily compelling characters, twisted plotting, and that je-ne-sais-quois-pizazz factor. Kill You Twice ($25.99) takes Portland police detective Archie Sheridan and journalist Susan Ward into collision again with not-so-friendly neighborhood psychopath Gretchen Lowell. She has confessed to a 20-year-old crime. What are a conscientious cop and curious journalist to do?

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Although the digital revolution has touched our lives in a significant way, we continue to enjoy selling print books, meeting people face-to-face, and talking about the books we love. We hope you enjoy reading our reviews and see the value in supporting your local independent bookstores.

If one of our write-ups makes you want to read that book, consider coming in and buying it or ordering it from us (503-232-9995 or books@mbtb.com). Thank you for your support.

Barbara, Carolyn, Jean, Nick, Jackie & Chuck