Over the past 9 months, I expanded my reading horizons. I wanted to find out what types of stories were popular in other genres. Some I read for research purposes–I’m always looking for inspiration–others were simply to open my mind to new ideas, characters, storylines. Because I started writing an amateur sleuth series last year, several of my favorites on this list are from that category. I also read several romance titles–don’t judge!–because it’s consistently the best-selling category in the market. I wanted to find out why, and see if any elements of those stories could be incorporated into mine.

Under Tower Peak by Bart Paul

I’m a fairly generous reviewer but this book deserved the full five stars despite a semi-slow start. I was intrigued by the cover–nobody in “amateur sleuth” is doing this. I thought…”watercolors? men on horseback?” but it has plenty of good reviews so I took a gamble. The first detail that pulled me in was the Eastern Sierras setting, a rugged, almost forgotten terrain that was described in perfect, rich detail. I’ve spent several summers in Wyoming’s Wind River mountains, which felt similar, and have also relied on horse packers to deliver my rations, so this type of lifestyle felt wonderfully familiar. The story opens when Tommy, an army sniper back from a tour in Iraq, a gentle, calm soul who is healing from deep wounds he can’t quite see, and his best friend and packhorse partner, Lester, spot a downed plane melting out of the snow under Tower Peak while doing trail work for their boss. They investigate, and find a dead pilot dead and a suitcase full of cash. Unbeknownst to Tommy, Lester pockets some of the cash and the pilot’s very fancy watch, later claiming that the dead man doesn’t need it. What happens when Les’s girlfriend leaks information about the missing pilot to his son is when the story takes off.

What makes a story for me are the characters, and this book had several that were so finely tuned that they became real. The author’s rich use of detail and voice was spot-on, masterful even. There’s a solid dose of “Western” like the subtitle makes clear, but it’s so perfectly executed, from the language the characters speak, their ease with working in remote and rough regions, the way they navigate the two worlds–the small town and the backcountry–make it feel rich and wonderfully complex. The way the main character carries himself, managing to outsmart several dangerous characters, is especially well done. I grew to love Tommy like a brother, and when the story ended it felt like I’d lost a friend. The pace of the book speeds up with each twist, and the climax was expertly presented. There’s another book featuring Tommy Smith, and I can’t wait to read it.

Fallen Mountains by Kimi Cunningham Grant

I so enjoyed this small town mystery with it’s wonderful characters and intriguing plot. The author made good use of the “everyone has a secret” tool in this book, and as they are revealed, the layers of the plot start to come together beautifully. The story opens with a missing person named Transom, a local who grew up in Fallen Mountains, population tiny. Transom left to seek his fortune but has recently returned after the death of a beloved community member named Jack. Transom’s best friend Chase, Jack’s grandson, has inherited his farm, a 200-acre tract of land full of beautiful old trees, wild meadows, and wildlife, a sacred place that has been in Chase’s family for generations. But the farm is deeply in debt, and Chase, overcome with grief (his parents died when he was a teenager), agrees to sell the farm to Transom who promises to shoulder the debt. As part of the deal, Chase gets to stay, farming the subsistence garden and milking the cows, doing the part of the work he loves.

But things start to sour quickly when logging trucks and fracking rigs arrive at the farm to sink their teeth into the land that Chase loves. But the two are close friends, with a deep, complicated history, both with secrets they’d like to keep hidden. When Transom goes missing, almost-retired Sheriff Rediford and everyone else in town thinks he’s taken off just like he always does. But Red is holding onto a secret of his own that may play a part in the mystery that just won’t go away. The more he investigates Transom’s disappearance, hoping the evidence will point at him simply leaving town, the more obvious it becomes that something serious has happened to the slippery character he’s never trusted–especially after witnessing the event he’s kept quiet about all these years.

The book goes back and forth from “Before” to “After” which did throw me for a bit until I realized how the two were connected. In each “Before” we learn a little more about each suspect’s history, some little piece that comes to play in the “After” when the sheriff and (near the end), a city-bred P.I., are investigating. The small town setting and the environment (set in North Carolina) were beautifully portrayed here and formed the tight-knit setting that suited the story perfectly. A lot of authors could learn from the author’s detailed use of place, and if she didn’t live in a town like Fallen Mountains, she must have spent quite a lot of time crafting it. The ending is very clever, and that’s the sign of a true gem–when the surprise is both satisfying and creative, and this book delivers on both.

The Dry by Jane Harper

A stunning, full engrossing novel that I couldn’t put down and didn’t want to (though I should have in order to savor it). Very few mysteries these days can surprise me. But this book, set in rural Australia in the midst of a heartbreaking drought that’s slowly swallowing the town, blew me away. I loved the characters and the setting, which is so wonderfully woven into the fabric of the plot, and the premise, which brings a boy once shunned from the small town back to mourn, and inevitably investigate, his best friend’s apparent suicide.

But the town hasn’t changed, and many people remember what transpired so many years ago, and make it clear that our hero, now Federal Agent Aaron Falk, isn’t wanted. As Falk investigates further into the circumstances of his friend’s death, the town closes in on him, adding intense pressure to an already tense setup. But Falk discovers reasons to believe the suicide isn’t what it seems, and what comes next is a series of twists and turns that kept me guessing all the way until the end. I repeatedly found myself shocked and pulled in by Harper’s fast paced and engrossing writing. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

 

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

I have a weak spot for strong, somewhat untrustworthy female narrators…and this one takes the cake. Sunburn is another story of secrets, but these characters are wickedly smart about managing them. These secrets start unfolding early in the book; details slipping out as brief as a thought (“When you’ve been in jail even a short time, you don’t like being confined”), facts materializing before their significance can be grasped, clues gradually accumulating until all of a sudden you’re in the thick of it. This process is mirrored in the development of Polly, our main character, and Adam, the P.I. tasked with finding her as they enter into an unexpected relationship. Falling in love was never the plan for either of them, and what began as something closer to target practice than courtship, with each testing the other, establishing boundaries, going through the motions of a happy relationship while working their own angles, becomes an emotional investment before they realize it.

I didn’t know who to believe or trust and it was a delicious feeling, knowing I was going to be surprised, and was kept guessing right up to the end. And what an ending it was! It was a surprising development that I had to sit and think about for a while. If you like noir-type mysteries, think The Postman Always Rings Twice crossed with a femme fatal movie like The Last Seduction, you’ll be in reading heaven.

 

Books NOT to read: 

My Sister’s Grave by Robert Dugoni

I’ve met Robert, back when I was involved in the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference where he served as the event’s M.C. and I was a volunteer helping new authors pitching their stories to agents. He was going through a bit of a rough transition–his popular legal thrillers were falling out of fashion and he was desperate to find a new trope. He landed on a female FBI agent-driven series, which I quickly forgot all about (yawn). This winter, while doing research on bestselling female sleuth novels, his most recent in this series, featuring Federal Agent Tracy Crosswhite, occupied a spot in the top 10. With great reviews, and a setting near my hometown, plus the fact that I knew him and liked him, I settled in for what I expected was a great read. Ugh. This book is an example of what happens when authors get lazy, editors get compliant (why edit this when it’ll sell thousands based on the author’s name?), and readers stop paying attention. Sloppy plotting, inconsistent details, the female character was so clearly written by a man that it made me angry (what modern author would write about a woman being self-conscious about calories? It’s so outdated as to be painful), and the love story so predictable (right down to a dog being injured that brings them closer together…double ugh) to an ending with so little energy if it wasn’t on my kindle I would have chucked it across the room.

Tangerine by Christine Magnan

I haven’t had a book make me actually angry–fists shaking with rage angry–in a very long time. Basically–the bad guy (in this case, a cunning and deviant young woman) wins. A historical literary fiction story, this cleverly written book is set in Morocco just when the country is on the brink of a revolution to regain control from the French. Because I’ve lived in the Mediterranean region and have visited Morocco, I was interested to revisit some of the sights and scents of the region, and the author does this so well. Her characters, two women, one fragile and quite unprepared for the cruel, harsh world and its complexity, and the other a “friend” who has courted her the way a viper might coil around its prey. As the climax neared and it looked like our vulnerable heroine, Alice, would lose, I burned through the pages, waiting for the author to turn the story around at the last minute–hoping for vindication, redemption, and for the wicked friend to get her due punishment. When this didn’t happen, and the evil friend takes everything, I was crushed, betrayed, even (my husband even said I screamed).

Books for the curious:

Losing It by Crystal Kaswell (romance)

Okay, okay, you got me. Yes, this is a romance, the happy ever after kind with lots of gritty sex. I wanted to check in with this genre after avoiding it since I was fourteen and reading harlequins at summer camp. I wanted to see why people love these books. After doing a ton of market research this year, romance is the top-selling fiction category by a landslide. This book hovered at the #1 spot for weeks, so I gave it a try. I’m not a fan of fairy tales, or perfect, happy endings, but I went in trying to be open-minded. This story is a “first-time romance” which is romance code for someone’s losing their virginity. I was pleasantly surprised by the characters, which are well-developed and interesting. The male lead is a “bad boy” type with deep scars from a messed up family situation, and the female lead is a nerdy loner about to head off to medical school. But she doesn’t want to start this phase of her life–at age 23–a virgin, so chooses childhood acquaintance, a player named Wes. The plot centers around the two falling for each other despite their different pasts and life goals, and it’s surprisingly sweet even though it’s overdone (but probably spot on for the genre). I learned a few tricks from the developing relationship and the trust these two people cultivate over the course of the book. Not sure when I’ll use it but I found it interesting.

The Rosemary Spell by Virginia Zimmerman (YA)

The Rosemary Spell completely captivated me in and refused to let go. This book has such an amazing and creative concept, and a mystery all rolled into one. Mystery is a genre that I have always loved and this book did not disappoint. Geared for a middle grade audience but adults will love the enjoyable writing, unique story, and the satisfying ending.

Best friends Rosie and Adam find an old book with blank pages that fill with handwriting before their eyes. Something about this magical book has the power to make people vanish, even from memory. The power lies in a poem—a spell. When Adam’s older sister, Shelby, disappears, they struggle to retain their memories of her as they race against time to bring her back from the void, risking their own lives in the process. Don’t be afraid that it’s YA, the language, subplots, and characters are all wonderfully complex and will be enjoyed by all audiences. A truly great read!

Whatever you’re reading, I hope it inspires and entertains you!