25 January 2014

My Favorite Reads of 2013

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I read twenty books I loved last year and started close to 150 that I didn't finish, not to mention a number of books, some the latest in series by well-known authors, that failed to engage my interest more than marginally: I slogged through those over periods up to two weeks of bedtime reading, since they reliably made me drowsy.

Here are the twenty books that were winners for me. Note that my tastes are as idiosyncratic as those of any reader. They run to intelligent writing, strong voice, endearing characters, clever dialogue, and plausible relationships. Given those elements, I'm looking for a plot that keeps moving, though not necessarily at breakneck pace.

In alphabetical order:

Maggie Barbieri, Once Upon A Lie, 2013
A beautifully worked out unreliable narrator mystery with a likable protagonist. If this is the first in a series, I'll definitely read the next one, and I plan to go back and try the author's earlier work.

PM Carlson, Rehearsal for Murder, 1988
PM Carlson, Murder Unrenovated, 1988
PM Carlson, Murder is Pathological, 1986
I know Pat Carlson from Sisters in Crime, but I hadn't read her Maggie Ryan novels until Jim Huang, a small press publisher and bookseller as well as a Mister Sister, started re-issuing them in e-editions. They typify the character-driven traditional mystery that's so hard to get published nowadays, with the added twist--unusual but not unique--of not making Maggie herself a point of view character.

Jane Casey, The Last Girl, 2013
Jane Casey, The Burning, 2012
Jane Casey, The Reckoning, 2012
I read the latest first and liked it enough to go back to the beginning of the series. Maeve Corrigan is an Irish detective constable in London. Nice balance between police procedural and character arc, reminiscent of Deborah Crombie's Kincaid/Gemma James series. Some might compare her to Elizabeth George, but George's latest was one of those books that took me forever to finish because it kept putting me to sleep, on top of irritating me with its many implausabilities; I think it's time for me to give up on George.

Anne Cleeland, Murder in Thrall, 2013
Another Irish detective constable heroine at Scotland Yard, another British lord turned copper like George's Lynley, a satisfying police procedural--and the most unusual love story I've come across in ages. The author takes a big risk and pulls it off beautifully. The sequel is due this summer, and I'm looking forward to it.

Deborah Crombie, The Sound of Broken Glass, 2013
A long-running series of character-driven police procedurals that's still getting better and better. You may be getting the impression that I'm a fan of police procedurals, but in fact, what I care about is the authenticity and appeal of the characters and their relationships.

Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling), The Cuckoo’s Calling, 2013
I didn't read this, in fact, didn't hear about it, till the news that Galbraith was JK Rowling broke, but I adored it and can't wait for the sequel. A tremendously appealing private eye and sidekick and a solid mystery. Rowling more than makes up for the absence of endearing characters in her first post-Harry Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy. I think she's amply proved her point about the publishing industry in the 21st century (sales not pegged to merit) and her own talent (shining through).

Michael Gruber, The Return, 2013
I've read everything by this brilliant and too often overlooked thriller writer. He's got it all: storytelling, writing, and characterization. This one whips together an old secret from the Vietnam war, a protagonist with terminal cancer, and a couple of Mexican drug cartels. I found it a little more lightweight and breezy than his last, the acclaimed The Good Son, and Publisher's Weekly and Booklist weren't kind to it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Laurie R. King, Touchstone, 2008
I reread this suspense novel set in 1926 Britain on the brink of a general strike in anticipation of the 2013 sequel and found it just as brilliant and absorbing as I did the first time. Disappointingly, I didn't like the sequel. I found protagonist Harris Stuyvesant much less sympathetic on his second outing, which illuminated for me why I don't share the general nostalgia for and fascination with the expatriate artists' and writers' Paris in the 1920s: it's a boys' club. A few rich lesbians had a lot of fun, but straight women's main function was to sleep with the boys. This feminist says, "Yuck."

William Kent Krueger, Tamarack County, 2013
Not my usual kind of read, but the medium-boiled Cork O'Connor series, set in northern Minnesota with a fine sense of place and great sensitivity to Native American issues along with solid plotting, has kept me reading forward and going back to earlier books. I didn't like Krueger's other 2013 book, a literary sort of crime-fiction standalone that others raved about, nearly as well. Kent Krueger himself is one of the nicest people in the mystery community.

Jenny Milchman, Cover of Snow, 2013
An unusually suspenseful debut with a slam-bang opening and a superbly well realized cold-weather setting in upstate New York.

Naomi Novik, Blood of Tyrants, 2013
A superb series in the speculative fiction/alternative history genres: the Napoleonic era with dragons. The dragon Temeraire himself is high on my list of lovable protagonists. This one is the eighth and next to last in the series. Peter Jackson has optioned the books for the movies, and he'd do a great job.

Sara Paretsky, Critical Mass, 2013
Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski's special brand of brainy and tough in the sixteenth in this terrific series that smashed through the gender barrier in private eye fiction.

Linda Lee Peterson, The Devil’s Interval, 2013
Linda Lee Peterson, Edited to Death, 2005
I fell in love with the voice in the second of these traditional mysteries featuring journalist/editor Maggie Fiori and had to go back and read the first one. The wisecracking dialogue and vein of real feeling underneath the fun reminded me of my own Bruce Kohler series. I got the impression the author must be my kind of woman.

Julia Spencer-Fleming, Through the Evil Days, 2013
This traditional mystery series featuring clergywoman/combat vet Rev. Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne is deservedly a multiple award winner. The author once again offers a masterful blend of suspense, love story, and social issues as she sends her protagonists on a life-threatening honeymoon.

Elizabeth Zelvin, Voyage of Strangers, 2013
Yes, this one is mine: my historical novel about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, from the outsider perspective of a young marrano sailor. Sequel to an Agatha-nominated story that first appeared in EQMM. I did read it more than once in 2013, and I do love the characters and the story.


  1. I must tell you that thanks to Voyage of Strangers I picked up Mann's very interesting 1493 about the after effects of Columbus's voyages and felt that I knew all about La Isabela and Navidad.

  2. This is quite the awesome list. Thanks for adding to my "to read" list, Elizabeth!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>