Book of the Year. The Hanging Psalm by Chris Nickson

Book of the Year.  The Hanging Psalm by Chris Nickson.  I have been a fan of Chris Nickson for several years now, ever since reading the first Richard Nottingham mystery in 2010.  Nickson has managed to take his hometown of Leeds and create three different historical mystery series, each set in its own time period.  The seven books in the Nottingham series follow the adventures of the city constable during the 1730s, whereas the D.I. Tom Harper series jumps readers forward to the Victorian 1890s.  There is also a fourth series set in 1360s Chesterfield, a small town just south of Leeds, in which John, a carpenter by trade, is frequently asked by the town coroner to use his investigative skills to solve crimes.

The Hanging Psalm falls in between on the timeline, in the 1820s, and introduces thief-taker Simon Westow, who operates outside of the city bureaucracy, but with his own moral compass.  All of Nickson’s books attempt to show the struggles of an ordinary man balancing the daily life of his family with the dangerous work of finding criminals.  These series would all be considered police procedurals, so you won’t find aristocratic house parties and balls in any of these books.  Rather, Nickson does a fine job of capturing the atmosphere of the rougher and dirtier parts of a growing town/city.

What sets this particular book above the rest are two characters.  First, Westow’s family, consisting of his wife and three-year-old twin boys, has also taken in off the streets his assistant, a fourteen-year-old girl named Jane.  Jane has a unique set of skills useful in this line of work: the ability to sense when people are following her or hiding in the shadows, a knack for becoming invisible herself in a crowd, and quick hands with a knife.  Second, Westow and Jane are matched by a villain who, unlike the illiterate common criminals of Leeds, plans several steps ahead, can move fluidly between the lower and upper-class residents of the city, and is strikingly vicious when needed.  What starts out as a simple kidnapping case quickly becomes a complex mystery with several twists.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

Best Debut. The Second Rider by Alex Beer

Best Debut.  The Second Rider by Alex Beer.  For some reason, Vienna has been the setting for several of my favorite historical mysteries and in The Second Rider, the debut from Alex Beer, it once again takes center stage.  The city and its population are suffering from the post-WWI collapse of the Austrian empire.  Food, heat, jobs and medicine are all in short supply and even normally moral people will take any measures to survive.  Among those that lose hope in their current situation, some try to emigrate abroad, whereas others take their own lives.  Our protagonist is an ambitious police inspector August Emmerich who is striving to move up within the department, but is saddled with an inexperienced assistant and a war wound that could end his career.  Emmerich is sent to an apparent suicide, but believes it to be a murder instead and when he continues to investigate against the orders of his commanding officer, he starts a sequence of events that lead to an “against all odds” adventure that keeps readers in suspense until the very end.  Beer’s focus is on her principal character, but she also does a good job of introducing a variety of others from Vienna’s underworld.

Over the years, I have especially enjoyed two mystery series set in the 1900s Vienna: the Max Liebermann books by Frank Tallis and the Karl Werthen books by J. Sydney Jones.  Tallis does an exceptional job of describing the music and food of the city, but Jones also captures the atmosphere of the Austrian capital in its heyday before the war.  Laura Lebow and Matt Rees have also written Vienna-based mysteries, though these are set in the late 1700s.  For another mystery set in early 20th-century Vienna, try Jody Shields’ The Fig Eater.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

Best Historical Fiction. The Red Ribbon by H.B. Lyle

Best Historical Fiction.  The Red Ribbon by H.B. Lyle.  It seems as if every character in the Sherlock Holmes’ stories now has their own mystery series: Irene Adler (Carole Nelson Douglas), Moriarty (Anthony Horowitz), Mycroft (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Mrs. Hudson and Mary Watson (Michelle Birkby).  H.B. Lyle’s choice of protagonist is Wiggins, the one-time leader of the Baker Street Irregulars, who is now a young adult trying to make his way in 1910 London.  Upon the recommendation of The Great Detective, he has become a lone agent for the newly established British Secret Service, doing counterespionage in the run up to the first world war under the supervision of Captain Vernon Kell.

This is the second book in the series and although there is some benefit in seeing how Wiggins and Kell begin their relationship and the backstories of other characters in the series, I found the multi-layered plot of The Red Ribbon to be superior to the initial tale in The Irregular.  The Secret Service is tasked with discovering a leak within the British government and the German spies to whom the traitor is supplying vital information, but is given additional assignments by the Home Office to infiltrate the labor unions and also to provide security at the King’s memorial.  How can a two-person operation successfully achieve all these directives, especially when the more established Special Branch is backstabbing them at every turn because they don’t like the competition?  Wiggins has his own agendas seeking revenge for the murder of a friend and the disappearance of a friend of another friend while Kell fights the political battles and faces domestic strife with a wife involved with the suffragist movement.

Lyle manages bring together all of the strands into a fast-paced adventure with interesting characters representing the disparate levels of London society.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2019 in review: tv bests books

I can’t believe I am about to say this, but I got more enjoyment watching television this year than reading books.  What an uninspiring year it was between the pages as more than one of my favorite authors produced duds, none of the non-fiction titles I read were special enough to warrant inclusion on my annual list of best books, and only three of the eighty-nine historical mysteries were exceptional.  It was quite rare when I experienced that blissful pain of closing the back cover and wanting more.

Conversely,  that feeling happened several times this year when staring at my television screen.  In this new Golden Age of tv, I was able to repeatedly find short, previously-broadcast series that held my attention and made me disappointed to see their end.  “TURN: Washington’s Spies” (based on Alexander Rose’s 2007 book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring) is a history of the Culper Ring, a group of spies from Long Island who provided intelligence during the Revolutionary War.  TURN aired on the AMC Network for four seasons.  The first three are available on DVD, but the fourth is only available on Netflix.  “Deadwood,” an HBO series ending in 2006, is set in the 1870s in Deadwood, South Dakota, before and after the area’s annexation by the Dakota Territory, and charts Deadwood’s growth from camp to town.  All three seasons, plus the follow up movie, are available on DVD.  Finally, FX’s “Fargo,” which was inspired by the eponymous 1996 film, is a fascinating dark comedy-crime drama set in Minnesota and the Dakotas.  Each season takes place in a different decade and has a story that is almost self-contained with very few characters reappearing.  All three seasons are available on DVD and a fourth season is planned for 2020.

All these shows featured excellent writing, talented ensemble casts, and complicated plotting that inspire binge-watching every night.  Unlike the crop of books I read this year, it was difficult to turn away from these entertainment options.  Hopefully, next year will see a return to printed page’s rightful place as my first choice.

I will be publishing short reviews of the three titles that did make the cut for my 17th annual Best Books of the Year list over the next few days and there are now over 100 options from my previous “books of the year” lists on my dedicated page.

2018 Book of the Year. Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

Book of the Year.  Thinking in Bets: making smarter decisions when you don’t have all the facts by Annie Duke.  If you’ve never played or watched poker, you might not know who Annie Duke is, but don’t let that stop you from reading her terrific book using concepts learned from her career as a professional player to improve your strategic planning.  She seamlessly blends examples from her life, sports and business with ideas from game theory, cognitive psychology and behavioral economics in a very readable way with the goal of showing how poker players think while competing, how it differs from how normal people make decisions and how we can incrementally do better.

She begins by explaining how we are too focused on the outcome of a decision (resulting) and not enough on how we made the decision in the first place.  She continues with the idea of luck vs. skill, uncertainty, how our beliefs lead to confirmation bias, echo chambers and motivated reasoning.  All of these mental issues lead us to make decisions without an accurate evaluation of the current situation.  She then looks at how we can change our habits to improve our learning loop and gradually get better.  She recommends forming truthseeking groups, which can introduce more accountability, diversity of viewpoints, and organized skepticism.  All of these lead to deeper situational analyses before decisions are made, more certainty of possible outcomes and better post-decision interpretations so that mistakes can be corrected and not repeated.  Finally, she looks at mental time travel, both looking into the future and working backward from positive (backcasting) and negative (premortems) futures.

She doesn’t just rely on her experience as a professional gambler or her own work in psychology, but frequently references the academic research in this field without overdoing it and her real-life examples are well-chosen to appeal to a broad range of readers.  She does get a bit repetitive at times, but that is a minor point.  Perhaps I am guilty of some confirmation bias of my own in this evaluation as her recommendations for further reading is full of books I’ve enjoyed in the past, including previous Books of the Year winners: The Half-life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date by Samuel Arbesman, The Power of Habit: why we do what we do in life and business by Charles Duhigg, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2018 Runner-up, Non-fiction. Finding the Game by Gwendolyn Oxenham

Runner-up, Non-fiction.  Finding the Game: three years, twenty-five countries, and the search for pickup soccer by Gwendolyn Oxenham.  The best books are those that you don’t want to put down, can’t wait to find out what happens at the end, and then when you’re finished, wish were even longer.  I’m only two-thirds through Oxenham’s recounting of her worldwide journey with her boyfriend and two other filmmakers as they searched for games across the globe, but I can’t wait to write about it.  Like “Rejection Proof” by Jia Jiang, this was another find through my university’s alumni magazine in which she wrote a compelling essay about her fear of the future after her varsity soccer career ended, about how she and her friends eventually made the documentary (entitled Pelada) and the accompanying book, and about how she has made peace with being scared through her new profession as a writer.  Having played pickup games of several kinds across this country, I felt an immediate kinship with Oxenham’s story and thought this was going to be a worthwhile read and, thankfully, it was.

The book is a travelogue of adventures in South America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East with the common thread of pickup soccer, not the football of the Champions League or the MLS or even the organized youth leagues found every weekend across the U.S.  These are games “organized” by friends calling friends or fortuitous meetings in parks or on beaches in Brazil or by tracking down rumors, like the games on the rooftop of a Japanese department store.  Sometimes games were arranged, like at the prison in Bolivia, or they joined competitions, like the four-village championship in Ghana, but a lot of time was spent just hoping to find a field or hear the raised voices of players arguing about whether a shot was inside or outside the goal post.

A less prominent, but still interesting, sub-plot is the travails of getting the project completed.  Putting together the team of twenty-somethings: Luke, the boyfriend and former player at Notre Dame; Ryan, a former camera partner in the undergraduate documentary studies department, and Rebekah, a former teammate and another documentary filmmaker.  Getting the funding, planning the trips, navigating the cities, back roads, and border crossings, and then pulling everything together.

Oxenham sparingly describes the individual games, though she does point out the different national styles of play, but devotes most of the book to the people they meet along the way: the old men who can’t give up the game, the young ones who work all day looking forward to playing all night, and the kids eager to learn new tricks and hoping to use the sport as a way to better their lives.  As she discovers, that last hope is inevitable, whether one advances through organized leagues to national teams or whether one just plays “kick about” and “take a sweat.”

And if you prefer golf to soccer, then you should try “Around the World in 80 Rounds” by David Wood instead in which he plays courses in twenty-two countries in twelve months.  Or “18 in America: A Young Golfer’s Epic Journey to Find the Essence of the Game” by Dylan Dethier, an account of one teenager’s solo trek to play golf in each of the lower forty-eight states.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2018 Honorable Mention, Non-fiction. Hit Makers by Derek Thompson

Honorable Mention, Non-fiction.  Hit Makers: the science of popularity in an age of distraction by Derek Thompson.  The best non-fiction books aren’t full of dry academic prose, but use great storytelling to introduce scientific concepts.  Fortunately for Thompson, his experience at The Atlantic magazine makes this one of his strengths.  Each chapter begins with the origin and development story for a phenomenal entertainment hit: Johannes Brahms’ “Goodnight” lullaby, George Lucas’ Star Wars, E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” series.  He then transitions to the science, both the psychology of why people like things and the economics of how products can reach a mass audience.  These concepts: familiarity, repetition, speech and music rhythms, the MAYA rule (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable), global cascades, chaos, the myth of “viral” distributions, homophily, neophobics and neophilics help explain the stories behind the unusual success of these endeavors.   It’s true that the first half of the book focusing on “Popularity and the Mind” is stronger than the second, “Popularity and the Market,” and Thompson does not do as well looking forward as he does looking back, but overall this is a very good effort to explain what is very hard to explain: why do some songs, books, movies, artists, or creators become famous when millions of others don’t.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2018 Best Entertainment Book. The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten. the tweets of Steve Martin

Best Entertainment Book.  The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People.  Make That Ten.  the tweets of Steve Martin.  I don’t tweet, or Instagram, or snapchat.  I don’t care how many followers a celebrity has or what they’re doing, eating or thinking.  But I do think that Steve Martin is an incredibly quick-witted, smart guy and I still think his autobiography, Born Standing Up, is the best entertainment-related book I’ve read in years.  So when I saw this book about his early tweets from 2010-12 on the shelf, I picked it up.  His musings on dieting, Oscars Holy Week, jury duty, alternative Christmas song lyrics and a variety of other topics are as funny as you might expect.  You might conclude that his brain works in some strange, unique way, but based on the responses to his tweets also included here, there are lots of others who think the same way.  And they are just as funny, if not more so.  This slim, 100-page volume is worth an hour or two of your time.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2018 Best Historical Mystery. The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch

Best Historical Mystery.  The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch.  I can’t believe it’s taken me ten years and eleven books before I’ve selected one of the Charles Lenox series for inclusion here.  Perhaps it’s because there is nothing unusual about the setting: early Victorian London or about the main protagonist: the second son of a baronet who chooses to make his way not in the military or the church, but by becoming an amateur private detective.  What does set these books apart is how well-written they are and their pacing.  These are definitely “Just one more chapter” no matter what time of night it is type of books.  Normally, I would recommend readers begin a series with the first book, in this case A Beautiful Blue Death.  However, as Finch described it at a recent author talk at my local library, his editor suggested that a prequel to the series might work. So in The Woman in the Water the backstories for Lenox, his brother Edmund, his valet Graham and the other characters inhabiting Lenox’s world are not as critical.  Finch’s self-critique is that this is a “much better book” than Beautiful Blue Death.  “It can stand on its own, but there are several Easter Eggs for readers who have been through the series.”  The story begins with a killer who writes a letter to a local newspaper claiming to have committed the perfect murder and promising to soon double his tally of victims.  And we’re off with a plot that contains several excellent twists, though unfortunately does not have a completely satisfactory conclusion, perhaps because as Finch hinted, he is planning to continue this younger, more uncertain Lenox for a few more books.  For those looking for the grit and grime of mid-19th century London, then this isn’t for you.  Although there is a corpse found along the Thames, it’s mostly Scotland Yard, upper class balls, country estates and lots and lots of tea.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2018 Historical Mystery, Runner-up. Deeds of Darkness by Mel Starr

Historical Mystery, Runner-up.  Deeds of Darkness by Mel Starr.  I have long enjoyed the chronicles of Hugh de Singleton, surgeon and bailiff in 14th century Bampton, a small town outside Oxford.  So in all fairness, including this title on my list of best books is more an accumulative award for quality rather than a reflection of the merits of this particular story, in which Hugh searches for the town’s missing coroner and finds a crime spree stretching for miles throughout the surrounding countryside.  I would highly recommend beginning with Hugh’s introduction in “The Unquiet Bones” as it really gives the backstory for how he came to be bailiff to Lord Gilbert Talbot and introduces all the supporting cast, including his beloved Kate and others in the local area.  These mysteries are not terribly complicated: basic murder or theft usually, but Starr excels in two important areas.  First, he takes us inside the head of his protagonist, who also serves as narrator, allowing us to see how Hugh interprets each clue, both the critical ones and the red herrings, but Starr does this without becoming long-winded about it, a trap many other authors fall into.  Hugh is a religious man, who studied under John Wycliffe before turning to medicine, so there are numerous references to Bible passages and teachings scattered throughout each story as Hugh ponders the good and especially the evil of his fellow man.  Second, he captures the atmosphere of a rural English town: one large enough to have a lord’s castle, but small enough that the lone surgeon has to double as the lord’s bailiff.  But again, his descriptions are crisply told, which keeps the pacing of each tale going.  The books are a bit shorter than typical, but provide a pleasant escape for a few days of reading and I look forward to each new chapter in the series.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

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