Meike’s Top 10 Reads of 2020

Bookseller, former Events Host, and avid mystery reader Meike dishes on her ten favorite reads of the year. How does your stack compare?


2020 saw the (hopefully temporary) elimination of my role as an Event Host at BookPeople, but the folks over there were kind enough to ask me to weigh in on some of my favorite titles of the year. If there was any silver lining to this otherwise miserable year, it was the remarkable quality and diversity of the crime fiction titles that were released—and the extra free time allowed me to take full advantage by reading  more widely than I might have otherwise. Narrowing my favorites down to only 10 was a challenge—there are many more that deserve to be mentioned in any summary of the year’s best. Below are some highlights which I’ve listed in alphabetical order only because rating them in any other manner would be almost impossible.

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And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall

Private investigator Grayson Sykes is hired for her first big case at Rader Consulting—to find Isabel Lincoln, the missing wife of Dr. Ian O’Donnell. But Isabel seems to have left virtually no trace, so part of the mystery is whether her absence is intentional. While this is a cleverly-plotted PI procedural, Howzell Hall tackles issues ranging from race to domestic abuse to toxic masculinity to the lasting effects of childhood trauma—all of which to conspire to leave the reader solidly hooked into a compelling and eye-opening drama.

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Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby

This will be on almost every top 10 list you see this year, and with good reason—it’s an adrenaline rush that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let up. Beauregard “Bug” Montage, like his father before him, was once one of the best getaway drivers in the South but he’s worked hard to leave that life behind. He wants to succeed where his own father failed–he loves his wife and kids deeply and desperately wants to make an honest living. More than anything he wants to give them the stable family life he himself missed out on. But the odds are stacked against people like Bug, and he just can’t resist that one more “can’t miss” opportunity—which of course does exactly that to spectacular effect. 

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The Bright Lands by John Fram

I was living in a small Texas town when my sons’ football team won the state football championship, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this debut. Joel Whitley couldn’t get out of his home town of Bentley fast enough when his homosexuality was outed in a most humiliating way. But when he receives a troubling message from his younger brother Dylan, the star quarterback of Bentley’s high school football team, he reluctantly returns—only to have Dylan go missing a short time later. As he hunts for Dylan some long-buried secrets come to light—and some people will go to any lengths to make sure those secrets stay deeply buried. Framm nails the small town obsession with high school football but this is no Friday Night Lights—Friday Night Darkness might be more apt.

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Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee Molloy

Newlyweds Sam and Annie leave NYC behind so that Sam can establish a therapy practice in his small upstate New York hometown. The practice is thriving—Sam’s a popular therapist, especially with his female clients—but Sam doesn’t realize that every word of his sessions can be heard in the room upstairs through a vent in his office ceiling. One day he leaves for work and doesn’t come home, and Annie is left wondering how well she really knows her husband. It’s tough to say more about this book without revealing spoilers, but there are some fantastic twists that absolutely blindsided me.

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Hard Cash Valley by Brian Panowich

This is the third installment in Panowich’s Southern Noir trilogy set in the fictional North Georgia McFalls County. Ex-arson investigator Dane Kirby is pulled into an FBI investigation when a mutilated body is found in Jacksonville, Florida. The investigation circles around to a gambling ring run by some of the baddest Southern outlaws imaginable; Dane has a history with these men and must learn to come to terms with a tragedy that threatens to destroy him. It’s a dark and gritty tale filled with bad men, but balanced by complex female characters that give heart to the saga.

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He Started It by Samantha Downing

Downing’s My Lovely Wife (about a married couple keeping things spicy by committing murder) made my list in 2019, and her sophomore effort does not disappoint. Siblings Beth, Portia, and Eddie haven’t seen each other in years but when their wealthy grandfather dies they are not only forced to reconnect—they’re required to reenact the road trip their grandfather took them on as kids. As if a long car ride with your siblings isn’t enough reason to commit murder, some long buried secrets come to light and confrontations ensue. (Personal note: I raised 3 kids and loved seeing someone explore the fraught emotions of adult sibling rivalry. I’m considering re-writing my will.)

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Long Bright River by Liz Moore

This gritty and gripping police procedural illuminates multiple aspects of the opioid crisis and its wide-ranging effects. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a Philly beat cop patrolling the deteriorating Kensington neighborhood where she grew up, and where almost every resident’s life has been affected by the booming drug trade. When a series of murders rocks the neighborhood Mickey realizes that she hasn’t seen her younger sister Kacey in several weeks. Kacey has been living rough, turning tricks to support her addiction. Although the adult sisters are estranged, as children they were inseparable and Mickey has always felt responsible for Kacey. As she hunts for both Kacey and the killer, Mickey is forced to come to terms with the long tail of trauma both girls experienced as children.

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The French Widow by Mark Pryor

As a bookseller, I absolutely love Pryor’s Hugo Marston series because I can recommend it to just about anyone looking for a good mystery. The series is set in Paris and features Hugo Marston, a cowboy-boot wearing Texan transplant who works as head of security for the American embassy—so lovers of espionage enjoy the international intrigue. The books have just the right amount of violence—they satisfy lovers of darker tales while not upsetting devotees of more cozy fiction. Although the main characters are the straight arrow Hugo and his freewheeling best friend Tom, they’re balanced by the sophisticated and independent Claudia—the kind of strong, complex female character that’s often under-represented crime fiction. And then there’s the setting–Pryor’s deep love of Paris is evident in his references to its beauty and history (not to mention the occasional glowing descriptions of its culinary offerings). Hugo’s latest challenge is to find out who attacked a young woman at a historic Paris chateau on the same night four valuable paintings are stolen while facing considerable media and police attention. Pryor’s books are best enjoyed with a café-au-lait and croissant at hand—you are welcome.

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These Women by Ivy Pochoda

Five very different women who live in the West Adams neighborhood of South LA are connected by a serial killer—but this is their story, not his. Told in a kaleidoscope of overlapping viewpoints, this beautiful story shines a light on women who are frequently overlooked and examines why their stories often don’t seem to matter to everyone.

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Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

I love reading about the history of indigenous people and I love reading crime fiction—so I was thrilled by this debut novel that both entertains and educates. (It was my pick for this year’s BookPeople Holiday Catalog.) Virgil Wounded Horse works as a kind of private enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation is South Dakota—when the tribal council and US law enforcement fail to prosecute crimes (often those committed against women and children) family members hire Virgil to exact his own unique type of punishment. (The book kicks off with a bang as Virgil beats the CRAP out of a rapist behind a bar!) His vigilantism takes a personal turn when his nephew becomes ensnared by the booming drug trade on the reservation. Wanbli Weiden is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota nation and brings an authenticity to the issues faced by his Native American characters. The fact that he’s such a talented storyteller results in one of the most exciting debuts of 2020.


You can find each title listed in-store and online at BookPeople.

Meike’s Top 10 Mystery Reads of 2020…So Far!

The first half of the year is in the books and Meike’s ready to unveil her ten favorite mystery titles of the year…so far! Read on to see what Meike’s been savoring and see how your personal list compares to hers.


9780525540670_648f9Long Bright River by Liz Moore 

Long Bright River is a genre-defying thriller that straddles literary fiction and crime fiction with a gripping police procedural that illuminates multiple aspects of the opioid crisis. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a Philly beat copy in the deteriorating Kensington neighborhood where she grew up, and where almost every resident now has a connection to the opioid epidemic. When a series of mysterious murders rocks the neighborhood, Mickey realizes she hasn’t seen her sister Kacey in several weeks. Kacey has been living on the streets, turning tricks to support her drug habit. Although the sisters are estranged, they were inseparable as children and Mickey has always felt responsible for her younger sister. As she hunts for both Kacey and the killer, Mickey is forced to come to terms with the long tail of trauma both girls experienced as children. 

 

9781641291095_f585dThat Left Turn at Albuquerque by Scott Phillips 

This darkly hilarious crime spree features a cast of characters who are all pretty terrible people, but you just can’t help but root for them. At the book’s heart is attorney Douglas Rigby—he’s facing bankruptcy as his latest shady deal falls apart, so he comes up with yet another swindle that will put him back on top. He enlists the help of his wife (who’s cheating on him with the local golf pro), his girlfriend (who happens to be the wife of his recently deceased business partner), an art forger, the embittered nurse of his last remaining client, and that client’s money-hungry nephew. What could possibly go wrong? Everything, to riotous results.

 

9780062838209_a4012Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson 

Any avid reader of crime fiction will love this homage to some of the most well-crafted mysteries of all time. Malcolm Kershaw is pretty much living my dream life—he’s the owner of The Old Devil’s Bookstore in Boston, with a capable staff that allows him the freedom to come and go as he pleases (and the financial security to live within walking distance to the store and enjoy the occasional excellent glass of wine). But the dream is threatened when an FBI agent comes calling—it seems there have been a series of murders that bear an unusual resemblance to a blog post Malcolm once wrote called “Eight Perfect Murders” and which extolled the virtues of some of literatures most unsolvable murders (from Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train to Christie’s ABC Murders, the best of the best are well-represented).

 

9781250154224_5fd08Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier 

Marin Machado led a charmed life until the day 16 months ago when her young son Sebastian (“Bash”) went missing. Marin was holding his hand in a crowded Christmas market; she only let go of his hand long enough to answer a call from her husband Derek, but suddenly Bash had vanished. Clues have dried up and the FBI have all but given up, so Marin hires a private investigator to resume the search. But what the PI finds isn’t Bash—it’s the younger woman named Kenzie that Derek is having an affair with. Determined not to lose her husband as well as her son, Marin enlists the help of her best friend Sal to fix the Kenzie problem—for good. Hillier is masterful at exploring the dark thoughts hidden in her characters’ psyches; this time around she ratchets up the tension and then blindsides the reader with a gut-punching twist.

 

9780062367686_93c1fA Good Marriage by Kimberly McCreight 

Part domestic suspense, part legal thriller (the perfect “marriage,” if you will) this book examines just what compromises, secrets, and even lies are sometimes required to keep a marriage intact. Against her better judgment, attorney Lizzie Kitsakis agrees to defend her former law school classmate Zach Grayson when he’s accused of the brutal murder of his wife Amanda. She soon learns that Zach and Amanda’s seemingly perfect marriage was anything but, and along the way she’s forced to confront the cracks in her own marriage. Anyone who has ever even contemplated marriage will enjoy this exploration of what exactly a “good” marriage entails. Fans of Big Little Lies will love this one!

 

9780525658658_89f89The End of October by Lawrence Wright 

This one might not technically be crime fiction, but it crosses into thriller territory and couldn’t be more timely. A novel coronavirus breaks out in Asia and threatens to spread across the globe (sound familiar?), and epidemiologist Henry Parsons races to contain the virus before it decimates the human population. Wright’s eerily prescient imagining of how a pandemic might play out in the lives of ordinary people throughout the world is backed by extensive research— the reader will come away both highly entertained as well as better informed about the major historical event of our time. Wright is a masterful storyteller and his journalistic background lends a chilling realism to the novel.

 

9780062656384_adbbdThese Women by Ivy Pochoda 

Five very different women who live in the West Adams neighborhood of South LA are connected by a serial killer—but this is their story, not his. Told in a kaleidoscope of overlapping viewpoints, this beautiful story shines a light on women who are frequently overlooked and examines why their stories often don’t seem to matter to everyone. Pochoda imbues these women, who are often dismissed by society, with grace and dignity.

 

 

9781250206923_a07f3Hard Cash Valley by Brian Panowich 

This is the third installment in Panowich’s Southern Noir trilogy, set in the fictional north Georgia McFalls County. Ex-arson investigator Dane Kirby is pulled into an FBI investigation when a mutilated body is found in Jacksonville, Florida. His investigation soon circles around to his own backyard where he’s forced to confront some of the baddest Southern outlaws imaginable while at the same time coming to terms with a tragedy that threatens to destroy him.

 

 

9780525620785_a8a32Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia 

Naomi Taboada, a wealthy and glamorous young debutante, receives an urgent letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom. Naomi heads to her cousin’s new home, High Place, an isolated manor in the Mexican countryside. Her cousin’s new husband—an enigmatic and handsome Englishman—and his family are far from welcoming, and Naomi soon learns that High Place is rife with secrets and danger. Naomi is a fearless heroine facing an unimaginable horror, and the resulting chills are a delightful diversion.

 

9781633885523_2d883Turn to Stone by James Ziskin 

It’s late summer 1963 and “girl reporter” Ellie Stone has travelled to Italy to attend a symposium honoring her late father. She’s invited to spend the weekend at an elegant villa just outside Florence, and a possible German measles outbreak means no one can leave. But when the symposium organizer is found floating in the Arno and foul play is suspected, Ellie begins to wonder if any of her new friends could be capable of murder. If you spent your quarantine time anywhere but an Italian countryside villa well-stocked with delicious food and drink then you’ll want to read this wonderful novel to see what might have been… 


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