Supernatural elements feature in top books read in 2021

By G. ROBERT FRAZIER

It’s hard to pick a favorite. Or even several favorites. But here goes.

Of all the books I read and reviewed in 2021 – 41, counting the dozen audiobooks I also listened to – I’ve narrowed my list of best books to five, plus my top three audiobooks.

Looking over the list, my novel selections (except one) have a supernatural element or otherworldly force in them. That’s not all that surprising as my two favorite genres are mysteries/crime and horror (Stephen King being one of my favorite authors). You can’t go wrong with a gritty crime thriller or noirish detective tale combined with ghostly chills or otherworldly mayhem.

Top 5 Fiction

Clay Chapman’s Whisper Down the Lane stands out as one of my most memorable reads this past year.

Inspired in part by the real-life McMartin preschool trial—in which members of the McMartin family who operated a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were charged with sexual abuse of children, which in turn gave rise to a national panic over satanic ritual abuse—the novel follows similar circumstances, although in a highly fictionalized way.

Chapman alternates chapters from the perspectives of Sean, a kindergartener in 1983 Greenfield, Virginia, and Richard, a teacher living 30 years later in Danvers, Virginia, where he and his wife are raising his stepson, Elijah. As you might expect, their stories are inextricably linked, and everything starts when Sean, influenced by his mother’s paranoia, tells a lie that will change his entire world.

Part of the novel’s chilling effectiveness comes from its portrayal of the detectives assigned to Sean’s case and how their leading questions ultimately result in Sean saying what they want him to say, resulting in the unfair and undeserved persecution of Sean’s teacher on suspected sexual offenses. Chapman pulls no punches, revealing how the simplest of misrepresentations can result in a sort of mass hysteria against someone, just as it did in the real-life McMartin era.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The six women in Lynnette Tarkington’s therapy group are fiercely independent and strong-willed but also tragically haunted by their past experiences. All of them survived random mass killings that later became the bases for Hollywood slasher franchises that were popular among moviegoers in the 1980s and ’90s. 

But then “America’s first final girl” and keystone support group member Adrienne Butler is killed in a massacre of camp counselors at Camp Red Lake. Hendrix puts Lynette and her fellow survivors through all the typical horror tropes as they are forced to once again face a mysterious killer.

The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig’s new horror/dark fantasy novel The Book of Accidents (Del Rey Books, 0399181136, $28.99) is a chilling romp through dark dimensions in the best Stephen King tradition.

The book starts out in typical horror fashion as our protagonists – husband and wife Nathan and Maddie Graves and their fifteen-year-old son, Oliver — uproot their lives to move to Nathan’s rural Pennsylvania family home following the death of his father.  As is typically the case in a horror novel, though, strange occurrences soon follow and grow exponentially more bizarre as the story rockets along.

The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jonassen

The advertisement is simple and honest: “Teacher wanted at the edge of the world.” And for Una, the main character of Ragnar Jonasson’s The Girl Who Died, it is the perfect enticement to leave her drab life behind and start a new chapter.

The “edge of the world” is actually the isolated fishing village of Skálar, located on the northeastern tip of Iceland.

At first, the idyllic community of just 10 people, including two young girls whom Una is hired to tutor for the year, seems like something out of a storybook. It’s not long, however, before the remoteness of the community and the tight-lipped nature of its residents begin to weigh on her, forcing her to question if she’s made a serious mistake.

City on Fire by Don Winslow

The only book without a touch of the supernatural on my list is Don Wilson’s City on Fire, which I read for Chapter 16. But as the book’s publication date was postponed until spring because of the Delta Covid outbreak, my review has yet to be published. I’ll let you know when it’s up, but for now you’ll just have to take my word that it is not to be missed. (Hmm, I wonder if I should count it as a 2021 best book or a 2022 best book?).

Top 3 Audiobooks

Until this past year, audiobooks were not a thing for me. But BookPage editor Cat Acree asked if I’d be interested in taking on reviews and I was eager for the challenge. I’ve come to the conclusion that I prefer reading my books to listening to them, but maybe this audio thing will grow on me in time.

Certainly, the audio experience is vastly different from physical reading and takes some getting used to. It does require a different skillset, namely, listening. With audiobooks, you can’t allow yourself to become distracted by other tasks or …

Most of my audio selections were nonfiction-oriented, but I also managed to listen to a few novels.

Topping my list of best audiobooks is Carry On by John Lewis. Written by the late, great civil rights icon and representative from Georgia, the book is made up of inspirational essays from Lewis on such topics as teamwork, friendship, success and justice. It’s like those motivational posters on the walls of your workplace, only better, because his aphorisms are punchy yet never cliched, and you can take his inspirational words with you and play them anytime you need a lift.

One of the most important books, or audiobooks, you should listen to is Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe.

In jaw-dropping detail, the New Yorker staff writer Keefe recounts the greed, deception, and corruption at the heart of the Sackler family’s multigenerational quest for wealth and social status through their company, Purdue Pharma, and the rise of the OxyContin painkiller epidemic.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

In a series of first-person interviews conducted by journalist S. Sunny Shelton, the fictional oral history recounts the story of a 1970s rock collaboration between glam Black American singer Opal Jewel and white British singer-songwriter Nev Charles. Walton skillfully blends in real-life events such as Vietnam War protests to firmly establish the narrative’s tone and time period, layering the duo’s rise to rock stardom with social, economic, racial and sexual undercurrents.

Click the links in any of the above articles to read the full reviews.

Detective’s dark secret may end career in McCaw’s latest novel

By G. Robert Frazier

Hilo, Hawaii chief of detectives Koa Kane has a talent for digging up secrets – and keeping them buried when needed.

Kane is tested on both fronts in Treachery Times Two (Oceanview Publishing, $27.95, 9781608094646), the fourth in Robert McCaw’s suspense-filled mystery series.

On the one hand, Kane is undaunted in his quest to apprehend whoever killed a woman whose mutilated body is discovered during a volcanic earthquake. On the other, he is determined to keep his own murderous misdeed years ago secret.

McCaw and Kane are both new to me, so I was a little hesitant about diving into a series that was already four books old. But McCaw managed his character’s introduction and set up the book’s premise so well that my fears were put at ease.

I was hooked by the first case when McCaw reeled me in all the way with the second.

Thirty years ago,Anthony Hazzard orchestrated the murder of Kane’s father at a sugar mill where they worked. Kane followed Hazzard to a remote hunting cabin on the island and confronted Hazzard, who retaliated, forcing Kane to fatally strike him with a fire iron. Kane staged the scene to look as if Hazzard had committed suicide.

But now, Bobby Hazzard has come to the big island in search of answers about his grandfather’s death. With a powerful senator backing him, Kane has no recourse but to cooperate and reopen the investigation into Hazzard’s death, even though it could point the finger at him.

“He had come to believe his suicide ruse had succeeded. He felt safe. Seeing Bobby Hazzard, his fear had come roaring back like a spike through his heart.”

Robert McCaw

When a fingerprint left at the scene of the cabin identifies another man as a suspect, and the DA’s office seeks an indictment, Kane faces another moral dilemma: Does he let another man take the fall for a crime he committed?

“He saw his future as tenuous,” McCaw writes. “He could not, under any circumstances, let an innocent man go to jail for his crime.”

The internal struggle Kane experiences in the novel is enough to compel readers to keep turning pages alone. At one point, Kane even contemplates suicide.

Robert McCaw

But McCaw doesn’t let up. There’s still the initial case to be resolved.

After identifying the victim, Tiger Baldwin, as an employee at X-CO, a government defense contractor on the island, company officials prove less than willing to cooperate with his investigation. Before long, Kane’s efforts attract the attention of the FBI who are conducting their own probe into stolen plans for a secret weapon.

Kane’s sense of duty leads him to unwanted truths about a longtime friend as well as his own hidden past. Whether his desire to see justice done is enough to make amends for his own murderous past remains to be seen.

As its title suggests, Treachery Times Two is a riveting, double-edged mystery. Whether you enjoy good, old-fashioned police work or a moral tale of right and wrong, this one’s got it all.

I’ve definitely got the inevitable book five in the series on my radar.

Review: The Passenger by Lisa Lutz a study in do-overs

The Passenger

Have you ever wanted to just run away and start over as someone else? The main character in Lisa Lutz’s new novel does just that — time and time again.

You can read my review now at BookPage.

Review: Buckle up for Philip Donlay’s latest, Pegasus Down

by G. Robert Frazier

Before you crack open Pegasus Down (Oceanview Publishing), the new novel byPhilip Donlay, you better buckle up: You’re in for a hell of a ride. This action-thriller soars from start to finish with page-a-minute suspense and thrills to keep you riveted to your seat, just like an on-screen summer blockbuster.

Pegasus DownDonlay drops readers, and one of his main characters, right into the fray in his opening chapter as a CIA-operated Learjet crashes behind enemy lines somewhere in Eastern Europe. On board are Special Agent Lauren McKenna, code name “Pegasus”, and a recently liberated American scientist who possesses technological plans for a new stealth jet capable of delivering a nuclear device.

McKenna manages to swim free of the wreckage, and must immediately go on the run from foreign forces and a terrorist group that will stop at nothing to obtain the technology.

Read my full review at Killer Nashvillle.

Around the Web: A roundup of articles on reading and writing

by G. Robert Frazier

As you know, I occasionally like to list a roundup of interesting articles about reading and writing. I’ve been meaning to add a new list for a while but have been busy writing, so the list just kept getting bigger and bigger. Herewith, then, is my latest collection for your reading enjoyment. Feel free to comment about any of the items that strike you or post links to articles you’ve come across. 

President Obama will nominate Carla D. Hayden to be the Librarian of Congress; Hayden would be both the first African-American and the first woman to hold the position.Speaking of diversity, blogger Jenny Bhatt wrote this interesting article on

Speaking of diversity, blogger Jenny Bhatt wrote this interesting article on diversity in publishing. The publishing industry should certainly encourage and promote diverse authors when it can, especially based on the statistics, but what we don’t need is a box on submission forms asking the writer’s color or sexual preference. Let’s let our words speak for us, not the color of our skin.

James_Patterson

The LA Times Book Prizes will honor U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and novelist James Patterson. Additionally, five finalists were announced in 10 categories. Patterson is currently sponsoring a contest in conjunction with his online master writing course in which he pledges to co-author a book with the winner of the contest. The catch is it costs $90 for the course and your chances of winning are probably as good as winning the next Powerball jackpot. Still, could you imagine what it would mean to have your name on a book alongside Patterson’s? Talk about a career highlight! I am very tempted to give it a shot. It’s only money, right? And, at the very least, you do get the benefit of learning in his writing course.

The Horror Writers Association has announced its final ballot for its annual Bram Stoker Awards. I so want to read all of these books. But more importantly, I want to be on this list some day. I’ve got a horror novel in the works that I hope to dust off in the next few months.

While we’re talking about genre, which is more important? Literary or genre fiction. Join the debate here. Personally, I’m a genre writer. I like characters that do things, action and mystery. I feel you can explore plenty about the human soul by putting your characters in unusual and moral situations while still being entertained.

The PassengerNPR talks the latest trend in crime thrillers: The ‘Girl’ in the title. Even more interesting are the comments at the bottom of the article, so be sure to read through. I just finished reading a “Gone Girl” type novel called The Passenger, by Lisa Lutz. See my review at BookPage.

If you missed it when it was first posted, here’s Christopher Walken reading “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe.

The New Yorker recently cited T.S. Eliot as offering this advice on What Makes Great Detective Fiction.

Here’s a great way to get to know your characters. Interview them and ask these probing questions that CEOs sometimes ask on new hire interviews.

I’ve been saying it all along. There’s just something more to like about an actual print book than a bunch of digital letters flashed on your e-reader. According to a recent study, 92 percent of students agree.

Any sci-fi writers reading this? If so, have you ever wondered what it means to be a science fiction writer in the 21st century? That’s what author Charlie Jane Anders asks in this article over on io9.gizmodo.com.

Author Jo Nesbo has the perfect writing room. He never uses it.

To the sensory cortex in your brain, reading is the same as doing. The words you choose not only have the power to change your readers’ minds. They can also change their brains, according to new neurological research.

Publishers Weekly posted a different sort of list recently: 10 books about loneliness. The cool thing being that in examining loneliness, they also serve as an antidote to it.

Here’s a take on the ever-raging debate of pantsing versus plotting from The Atlantic. It’s from a 2013 article, but still plenty relevant for writers wrestling over how best to approach their craft.

The battle lines have been drawn again against The Huffington Post over its policy of not paying writers for their work. Some interesting reads on the subject (and make sure you read the comments as well to further the debate) at Writer Unboxed, from Chuck Wendig, and Huffington Post UK editor in chief Stephen Hull.  For more on writers getting paid for what they do, check out Kristen Lamb’s blog.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of these roundups, and a week since this happened, but it’s fitting that we pay tribute to Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose, who both passed away recently. In memoriam, BookBub posted seven timeless quotes from Harper’s book, while Eco left this advice for writers.

Have you come across any interesting reads for writers? Share a link in the comments section.

Review: A Better Goodbye takes look at gritty underside of L.A.

by G. Robert Frazier

A Better GoodbyeYou know how they always say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? In the case of A Better Goodbye (Tyrus Books), this is one instance in which you certainly could. The cover of John Schulian’s debut novel depicts a brilliant yellow and orange sunset over the dark and gritty cityscape of Los Angeles. It’s a perfectly fitting image, as it represents the murky lifestyle Schulian paints beneath the brilliant sparkle and glamour of the movie capital of the world.

It’s in this milieu, right on the fringes of tourist-friendly Hollywood, that we find Schulian’sunforgettable cast of down-and-out characters. They’re not the sort of characters you’d want to associate with, but you can sympathize with their plight. And like any good noir novel, the lives of Schulian’s characters are irrevocably intertwined and destined to come crashing down in a bloody finale.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville.

Review: Dig Two Graves a thrilling, suspense-filled debut

By G. Robert Frazier

Ethan Holt’s greatest accomplishment, winning the decathlon at the Olympics in his 20s, also proves to be his greatest undoing in Kim Powers’ thrilling, suspense-filled debut novelDig Two Graves (Tyrus Books).

Dig Two GravesNicknamed “Hercules” for pulling off the heroic task of being an Olympian, Ethan’s success on the field translates into a coveted teaching position at his ivy-school alma mater, where he’d just as soon as forget about the Olympics and get on with his life. His biggest challenge is simply relating to his teenage daughter, Skip, whose rebellious attitude tests him in more ways than any pole vault or long-distance jump ever could.

When Skip is kidnapped, Ethan realizes she is the most important thing in his life and he will do anything to get her back. To do so, however, means Ethan will have to push himself to his athletic, and academic, limits as he must solve a series of increasingly cryptic riddles and tasks at the behest of the kidnapper.

Read the rest of this review at Killer Nashville.

Review: Steven James peels back twists in Every Crooked Path

by G. Robert Frazier

Every Crooked PathReading Every Crooked Path, the new novel by national bestselling author Steven James, is like peeling an onion: each layer of mystery pulled back reveals something more foul and evil than the last.

What starts as an investigation into a fatal stabbing takes a twisted turn when James’ recurring hero, FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers, uncovers a child exploitation ring on the Dark Web, a cyber world hidden away from the regular internet, where anonymous clients barter and trade in sexually explicit photographs of minors for their perverted pleasure and the profit of a mysterious cadre of webmasters.

James hooks readers right from the start, as within the first few pages Bowers is attacked at the crime scene in a Manhattan high-rise. Bowers manages to fend off his attacker, but before he can get anything out of him, the man jumps off the balcony to his death, leaving behind a key and a cryptic clue to an even larger conspiracy.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville.

Review: Herman Koch’s The Dinner a tasty good read

by G. Robert Frazier

The main course of Herman Koch’s The Dinner  is deliciously twisted, and so too is the dessert. After reading this compulsively addictive novel, you’ll want to make it the topic of conversation at your next dinner with family and, perhaps, for many meals to come.

The DinnerOriginally published in the Netherlands in 2009, Hogarth – an imprint of Crown Publishing – has served up a new Extra Libris printing of the New York Times bestseller for connoisseurs of fine reading, with a reader’s guide as well as a behind-the-scenes essay and conversation with Koch. And it’s worth every juicy morsel.

The Dinner introduces readers to a pair of brother-and-wife couples during the course of an evening meal at a fashionable restaurant in Amsterdam. But as the night wears on, the conversation – like the dinner itself – takes on a meatier tone. Masked beneath the gentle dab of a napkin and the fussy attentions of the restaurant’s manager (and his obtrusive pinky finger) is a family secret that threatens to spoil the couples’ friendship, their reputations, and very livelihoods.

Koch masterfully draws readers into the conversation, spoon-feeding tasty nuggets of information to us as if we were sitting at a nearby table eavesdropping for gossip. Much of the story takes place during a single evening, but Koch weaves in numerous flashbacks to deepen and enrich the characters’ feelings and relationships to each other like appetizers before the main meal.

The further we dig into the story the more we also learn of the narrator’s own secrets and the less trustworthy he becomes, adding a bit of spice and bitterness to the tale in the same sort of vein as Gone Girl’s unreliable narrators.

Ultimately, readers are left to chew on one insatiable question where it concerns not only the story’s main characters but in their own lives, and that is: how far would you go to protect your loved ones?

Koch is the author of eight novels and three short story collections. The Dinner has been published in twenty-five countries. Just desserts indeed.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this honest review.

Book review: White Leopard a gritty, graphic PI novel

by G. Robert Frazier

Whether it’s shooting thugs in the kneecaps, punching them in the solar plexus, or chopping off their hands at the wrist, author Laurent Guillaume doesn’t pull any punches in his gritty and graphic English-language debut, White Leopard (Le French Book, $16.95).

White LeopardGuillaume’s anti-hero Souleymane (Solo) Camera is a tough-as-nails private investigator making his living in arid Bamako, Mali, in West Africa after running from a dark past in France, where he was a former drug force detective. Solo’s cases typically involve chasing down and photographing cheating husbands in divorce cases, although he has handled a few higher profile criminal cases, netting him the title’s nickname from police. (He’s part French, part Malian, and reviled by both.)

A simple case—“buying” the freedom of a woman arrested on drug charges by offering a bribe to the local magistrate (apparently an all-too common occurrence in corruption-rife Mali)—takes an unexpected turn when the woman is brutally murdered upon her release. The sister of the victim, who hired Solo in the first place, boasts that he will bring the killers to justice, which only serves to make Solo the next target for the thugs.

Read the rest of this review at KillerNashville.com.