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  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2018/05/14 Permalink
    Tags: achy obejas, , cristina garcía, cuba 15, dreaming in cuban, Fiction, lived experience, nancy osa, oscar hijuelos, ruins, silent city, the mambo kings play songs of love   

    5 Cuban American Novelists You Should be Reading 

    One of the most magical aspects of literature and art in general is that combination of attitudes and backgrounds that occurs in your head when you read something written by a member of another culture—which is even more powerful when the writer is combining different experiences themselves. The Cuban-American diaspora in America has influenced every aspect of our culture, from food, to music, to literature, birthing stories flavored with Cuban-specific experience that make their tales unique. The work of these five Cuban-American writers represents some of the best work coming out of that community today.

    Oscar Hijuelos
    Start with: The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
    Born in New York City to Cuban parents, Hijuelos is perhaps the most famous Cuban-American writer. His 1990 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love won the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into an award-winning film; and it stands as an ideal example of the writer’s style. He explores his status as a child of Cuban immigrants, eschewing the political to focus on the inner lives of his characters—their personal passions and tragedies. While his characters and settings are clearly informed by his own family’s experiences, his work is universal in theme and identity. His writing is profound and rhythmic without being pretentious or fussy. He wrote several other novels, all worth reading, before dying of a heart attack in 2013 at age 62.

    Alex Segura
    Start with: Silent City
    Segura, a Miami native, knows intimately the contradictions and challenges of being Cuban-American. His series of mystery-thrillers starring recovering alcoholic Pete Fernandez don’t necessarily deal directly with ex-pat themes , but the Cuban-American experience is soaked into their every lived-in word. Segura is so good at spinning a story it’s easy to forget that he’s also showing you aspects of Miami that outsiders might never be exposed to, capturing a Cuban subculture that has flourished at a remove from the country that gave birth to it all those decades ago. All of this vivid detail is skillfully folded into mysteries that also pay homage to the classic whodunnits of the past.

    Cristina García
    Start with: Dreaming in Cuban
    Formerly the Miami bureau chief for Time Magazine, García published her first novel in 1992. Her work possesses a singular point of view; while there are clear Cuban references and imagery, she has been clear about her desire to avoid being defined by her heritage. While her first three novels were more explicitly linked to the Cuban-American experience, in her later work she’s moved to a more general approach, rejecting the idea that everything she does must be informed by her ancestry and her connection to the Cuban diaspora,. Still, her work is infused with Cuban influences: her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, is a complex tapestry about a Cuban family, tracing generations from before the revolution to their new life in America. Moving back and forth through time, the story concentrates on the experiences of three women from different generations of the family. Tellingly, one of the major themes is how politics, and the passions stirred by them, can create division, even between people who care very deeply about each other.

    Nancy Osa
    Start with: Cuba 15
    Nancy Osa’s love for the video game Minecraft (she’s even written several unofficial tie-in novels) just goes to show that people can be several things at once. Her debut YA novel, Cuban 15, tells the story of Violet Paz, a young girl disconnected from her Cuban heritage. Her father won’t discuss their homeland, and her life in America is typical of a young girl in high school—worrying over activities, friends, and her first boyfriend. Her grandmother decides to organize a quinceañera party for her, which leads to Violet learning about her heritage. Osa’s point-of-view is important, as a younger generation of Cuban-Americans balances their dual identity with a distance from the politics and violence that their parents’ and grandparents’ generations still remember clearly.

    Achy Obejas
    Start with: Ruins
    Obejas writes explicitly about Cuba, sexuality, and feminist issues with tight, clear prose, offering a unique perspective that combines several categories of exiles. Her novel Ruins is a perfect distillation of her themes; set in Cuba in 1994, it explores the world of Usnavy, who struggles to keep his family alive amidst the crushing poverty and ruin of a once-vibrant country. Usnavy would like to build an illegal sleeping area in their tiny room, but the ceiling is filled with the family’s one treasure: a massive, ornate chandelier that’s possibly a genuine Tiffany. While people around him literally build rafts to escape the country, Usnavy tries to protect his family and hold onto his political faith in Castro in this beautiful, affecting novel.

    The post 5 Cuban American Novelists You Should be Reading appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Sam Reader 6:00 pm on 2018/05/09 Permalink
    Tags: different seasons, everything's eventual, Fiction, full dark no stars, , i know what you need, just after sunset, , nightmares and dreamscapes, , skeleton crew, ,   

    A Definitive Ranking of Every Stephen King Short Story Collection 

    On May 22, Stephen King’s hotly anticipated new thriller The Outsider arrives to scare the pants off of us again. To keep ourselves busy while we wait, we’ve already ranked every one of the Master of Horror”s novels—but for the purposes of comparing apples to apples (presumably, apples with razorblades hidden inside them), our exhaustive list did not include King’s numerous short story collections. As King is one of America’s best and foremost short story writers, this is a matter that bears rectifying—after all, there are more than 100 stories spread across his 10 collections, and that’s a considerable body of work. Here, submitted for your approval, are the short story collections of Stephen King, ranked.

    Just After Sunset
    There’s nothing particularly wrong with Just After Sunset—it even includes one of King’s most ambitious publishing experiments in “N.,” a story first released as an online motion comic serial. At the same time, there’s nothing that stands out. The stories are consistently strong, but the concepts within them are ones he has either explored fully before, or improved upon in later works. In rereading the King collections for this article, I was surprised at how many of these stories I didn’t remember encountering before. And while “forgettable” isn’t necessarily a deadly sin, considering how memorable so many of King’s stories are, Just After Sunset must logically place low on this ranking, all things (and Kings) being relative.

    Four Past Midnight
    A collection of four novellas ranging from cosmic horror, to psychological horror, to dark fantasy, Four Past Midnight is, taken as a whole, distinct and interesting, but never truly cohesive. While all four novellas go some interesting places, none stand alone as singular works. Whether they take too long to build, telegraph their twists, or feel like a prologue to a later work, all four stories are memorable but not superlative. It’s a shame, because when these tales finally do get moving, they deliver on great concepts (particularly “The Library Policeman”), but they might have worked better trimmed to the length of short stories.

    Hearts in Atlantis
    It may seem like I’m being hard on King’s novella collections, but oh, is Hearts in Atlantis an uneven reading experience. The first novella, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” (later turned into a movie that shares the name of the collection but has nothing to do with the titular story) is incredibly powerful, mining a great deal of emotion and depth out of a story of a young boy’s unusual relationship with his mother’s new lodger, who turns out to be crucial to the fate of all existence. The story works even if you haven’t read King’s Dark Tower novels, to which it serves as a rather essential sort of footnote. It offers an excellent mix of nostalgia, paranoia, and fantasy, and offer a realistic look into the minds of its young protagonist. But after that, the ostensibly linked stories that fill out the collection grow increasingly disjointed, and are all over the place in terms of tone and setting—though the title tale, about a group of college friends who become obsessed with playing cards during a summer of political upheaval, is essential reading.

    The Bazaar of Bad Dreams 
    The most recent entry on the list, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a solid collection that hangs together on a general theme of mortality and morality, with stories including a seductive avatar of death, an execution in a small western town, and “Obits,” the Hugo-nominated tale of a journalist with the strange power to cause deaths based on the obituaries he writes. It’s one of the high points of King’s recent work, and hangs together a little better, both thematically and tonally, than some of the collections on this list. And yet, taken together, these stories aren’t quite as evocative or powerful as the books below—perhaps its damning him for maturing as a writer, but this one has none of the twisted pulp of Night Shift, or the unnerving gloom of Skeleton Crew, or the colorful weirdness of Nightmares and Dreamscapes. It’s solid.

    Different Seasons
    Another collection of four novellas, this one based thematically around “seasons.” It was King’s attempt to try something in defiance of his 1980s-era reputation as a horror writer (though “The Breathing Method” and “Apt Pupil” might still qualify as such). As an experiment, it worked incredibly well, proving King didn’t need supernatural twists or pulp excess to grab readers and keep them. All four of these stories are excellent, though some elements of each do come across as excessive, unsubtle, or slightly out of place (“Apt Pupil” is a notable example; it’s a novella about the banality of evil, but the protagonist starts off by cheerfully rattling off concentration camp statistics and quickly graduates to serial-murdering hoboes). Also, by this point, most will have already come across Different Seasons through the film adaptations (only “The Breathing Method” has not been made for the screen), skewing perceptions of the originals. While the printed and filmed versions are two entirely different animals, it’s difficult to look at one without seeing glimpses of the other; thus while the stories are very good, they’ve lost some of their sheen.

    Nightmares and Dreamscapes
    The most appropriate adjective to describe Nightmares and Dreamscapes is “kaleidoscopic.” It has its good moments, it has its bad moments, but the latter definitely doesn’t outweigh the former, and it’s a volume filled to bursting with all of King’s considerable talents and quirks and particular obsessions—pastiches of authors he enjoys, stories transmuted into teleplays, and, in general, ideas spanning multiple genres and styles. It’s a bizarre funhouse of stories, bouncing from tone to tone and genre to genre with abandon, from a tale of killer joke teeth, to a story about the dark secret behind a bestselling author’s success. Even the weaker entries are just interesting, and worth at least one read. The constant juggling of tone and format can get exhausting, and fictional sprawl isn’t always a good thing, especially on a reread, putting this one lower in the rankings—but we’re already well into “must read” territory at this point.

    Full Dark, No Stars
    Four novellas centered around the concept of revenge, Full Dark No Stars is a series of slow-burning, dark tales, each building tension in its own way until something finally snaps and it all goes spiraling out of control. It’s clear from  the very beginning of each story that something is going to go wrong, it’s just a question of what and when—and how it will all play out in the end (hint: not all that well for most characters). There’s not much to pick at here; it’s just an excessively rough read, even for King—not because of gore or violence, but because each story works overtime to live up to the collection’s name, from the unrelentingly grim “1922,” about a man who conspires to kill his wife with the help of their son; to “Fair Extension,” a sort of social satire in which a man essentially destroys his friend’s life through a deal with the devil, and which is either a dark comedy or a horror novel from the perspective of the monsters, depending on your point of view. Either way, the unrelenting bleakness makes it something of a “sometimes” book.

    Everything’s Eventual
    Everything’s Eventual probably doesn’t feature many stories King’s fans would call favorites, but oh man, is it evocative. Beyond its best-known story, the nightmarish ride “1408” that pits one man against a hotel room in a battle for his life, King paints on indelible image and moment after another. These stories provoke reactions, offer odd glimpses into the real world. They stick with you. (In full disclosure, I have been known to writes lines from the stark, ambiguous “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away,” about a suicidal traveling salesman who collects bathroom graffiti, on bathroom stalls all over the country). It is, by all measures, a good collection. Possibly even a very good one. But that its power is found in moments more often than in whole stories, it doesn’t break into the top of the list.

    Night Shift
    To be blunt, King’s first collection, published in 1978, is pure nightmare fuel. Its blend of gothic horror, pulp, suburban fiction, EC Comics-level grotesquerie, modern horror, and genuine compassion for its characters is something many have tried to replicate, but few have managed quite so successfully. While this one might be known for its more gruesome offerings (the post-apocalyptic “Night Surf,” which opens in the wake of a global pandemic; “The Mangler,” which somehow manages to make a demon-possessed laundry press into a terrifying menace, despite how ridiculous that idea is), it also contains the wrenching “Last Rung on the Ladder,” about a man who can’t forgive himself for his sister’s suicide; and the darkly hilarious “Quitters, Inc.” a far more effective smoking deterrent than any Surgeon Generals’ warning. It’s a remarkably consistent collection from front to back, even if the stories are a bit raw, and lacking the polish that would characterize the author’s later work.

    Skeleton Crew
    If there is one book I would recommend to any Stephen King neophyte, it’s this one. While no story collection is flawless (not even one of Stephen King’s), it’s more unified in tone, and contains more heavy hitters, than any other horror collection I can name, and it handles both the gothic pulp and gore a steadier hand than Night Shift (Skeleton Crew hails from a bit later in King’s career—1985). It builds dread and atmosphere like nothing else. These are stories that linger, just at the corner of your eye—images like the thrashing tentacle from “The Mist,” about monsters invading the mundane world of a grocery store and exposing the madness just below the surface of the everyday; the final, haunting line of “The Jaunt,” both a cosmic joke and one of fiction’s darkest examples of curiosity killing the cat. It’s the best display of the breadth of King’s talent, without the macabre palette of Night Shift or the referential sprawl of Nightmares and Dreamscapes. It’s every bit as evocative as Everything’s Eventual. It’s a tightly curated slab of darkness that invites readers into its parlor and bites them unawares, its venom turning them into lifelong addicts.Even better, it’s eminently accessible, allowing those who haven’t experienced King’s work to take their first steps with him into the dark.

    How does your King collections ranking compare? Don’t forget to also check out our ranking of King’s novels, as well as our list of authors who might one day inherit his throne.

    The Outsider will be published May 22.

    The post A Definitive Ranking of Every Stephen King Short Story Collection appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Sarah Skilton 4:00 pm on 2018/05/01 Permalink
    Tags: , , Fiction,   

    May’s Best New Fiction 

    Beach Read Queens, assemble! May brings us fresh fare from Dorothea Benton Frank, Mary Kay Andrews, and Mary Alice Monroe, aka your go-to authors for sand, surf, love, and family drama. Danielle Steel’s newest depicts a work-based family behind the scenes at a TV show, Michael Ondaatje offers up a coming-of-age mystery, and Christopher Buckley provides unexpected laughs from 1664.

    Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain
    After depicting the life of Hadley Richardson in her bestselling The Paris Wife, McLain sets her sights on Hemingway’s third wife, acclaimed war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Her connection to Hemingway begins in Key West, Florida, in the late 1930s and ramps up against the invigorating, terrible backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Two stars are on the rise—journalist and novelist, equal in skill—but one must eclipse the other. 

    By Invitation Only, by Dorothea Benton Frank
    Wedding season is upon us, and who better to enjoy it with than Dorothea Benton Frank, the queen of Lowcountry beach reads? Meet the Stiftels, peach farmers in South Carolina. They’re in for some serious culture shock when their beloved only son, Fred, becomes engaged to Shelby Cambria, the wealthy daughter of a Chicago-based private equity master of the universe.  When the two families are thrown together, first in Lowcountry and then in the Windy City, their disparate backgrounds clash, and multiple secrets come tumbling out.

    The High Tide Club, by Mary Kay Andrews
    New York Times bestseller Andrews delivers a tale of Southern romance and suspense that kicks off when Josephine, an eccentric, almost century-old heiress living in a Grey Gardens-esque crumbling mansion by the sea, hires lawyer Brooke to complete a mysterious task. Brooke must gather together the descendants of Josephine’s best friends for a reunion that may prove either profitable or deadly.

    The Cast, by Danielle Steel
    Kate Whittier, a twice-divorced magazine columnist with a robust fan base, powers through her fears of intimacy after she finds the support she needs to create a TV show based on the life of her extraordinary grandmother. And when Kait’s own life implodes unexpectedly, it’s the tightknit cast of the show she turns to for the strength to carry on.

    Beach House Reunion, by Mary Alice Monroe
    In the fifth book of her popular, heartwarming Beach House series, which concerns several generations of the Rutledge family living in Lowcountry, we meet Cara’s niece Linnea, a recent college grad who feels uncertain about her future and burdened by her parents’ expectations. Perhaps a summer at the Isle of Palms, rife with dolphins and loggerhead sea turtles, is in order? At Primrose Cottage, she and Cara help one another put the past to rights. Although it can be read as a standalone, series readers will be delighted by the cameos from previous characters.

    The Judge Hunter, by Christopher Buckley
    In this comedic, historical mystery-thriller (how often do you see that genre?), expert satirist Buckley (Thank You For Smoking) scatters real-life figures amid his own creations. A young, utterly useless layabout, Balty St. Michael, sets off for the New World in 1664, commissioned by his cousin Samuel Pepys to locate two judges who disappeared after assisting in the murder of Charles I. Helping Balty is a competent former commander with motives of his own. Adventure and hijinks ensue on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as throughout the newborn colonies.

    Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje
    From the author of The English Patient and The Cat’s Table comes a bildungsroman set in London in the immediate aftermath of World War II, as well as fourteen years later, when protagonist Nathaniel attempts to make sense of his mother’s enigmatic and disturbing behavior. Immediately following the war’s conclusion, teenage Nathan and his sister Rachel were left behind for a year with two mysterious, possibly criminal guardians while their parents traveled to Singapore. (Or did they?) In the decades to come, now working for British intelligence services, Nathan tries to piece together his mother’s secrets. The buildup to the answers he’ll find promises to be exquisitely poetic.

    The High Season, by Judy Blundell
    In her first book for adults (she previously won the National Book Award for her YA noir, What I Saw and How I Lied), Blundell proves once again how skilled she is at peeling back the glossy exteriors of people’s lives. Middle-aged, divorced Ruthie and her fifteen-year-old daughter are forced to abandon their beach house each summer and rent it out in order to afford living there the rest of the year. To their consternation, and despite their location in North Fork, they’re not safe from the wealthy, greedy Hamptons crowd two ferry stops away; in fact, their latest boarder exemplifies that group and seems poised to scoop up and replace Ruthie herself, starting with staking a claim on Ruthie’s ex-husband.

    Adjustment Day, by Chuck Palahniuk
    This dystopian-horror satire flows straight out of 2018 America. Day blends revolution, dirty politics, the worst of the internet, widespread murder (journalists and elites from a publicly voted on list are targeted), and a “Declaration of Interdependence” that results in the country being carved up into sections with names like Blacktopia, Gaysia, and (medieval) Caucasia. Heaven help you if you don’t fit the theme within your new borders: better adjust or flee. Fight Club aficionados will love the allusions to Project Mayhem.

    A Shout in the Ruins, by Kevin Powers
    Moving back and forth in time from the Civil War to the recent past, Shout examines the effects of slavery, segregation, and endemic violence on people from all sides of it. In the 1950s, seventysomething George Seldom decides to retrace the steps of his life, uncovering the threads that bind him to the inhabitants of the Beauvais Plantation in Richmond, Virginia. He’s joined by a young waitress whose own story (and contemplation of the past) take center stage in the 1980s. A Virginia native, Powers is an army veteran whose debut, The Yellow Birds, won the PEN/Hemingway Award.

    The post May’s Best New Fiction appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Sarah Skilton 4:00 pm on 2018/05/01 Permalink
    Tags: , , Fiction,   

    May’s Best New Fiction 

    Beach Read Queens, assemble! May brings us fresh fare from Dorothea Benton Frank, Mary Kay Andrews, and Mary Alice Monroe, aka your go-to authors for sand, surf, love, and family drama. Danielle Steel’s newest depicts a work-based family behind the scenes at a TV show, Michael Ondaatje offers up a coming-of-age mystery, and Christopher Buckley provides unexpected laughs from 1664.

    Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain
    After depicting the life of Hadley Richardson in her bestselling The Paris Wife, McLain sets her sights on Hemingway’s third wife, acclaimed war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Her connection to Hemingway begins in Key West, Florida, in the late 1930s and ramps up against the invigorating, terrible backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Two stars are on the rise—journalist and novelist, equal in skill—but one must eclipse the other. 

    By Invitation Only, by Dorothea Benton Frank
    Wedding season is upon us, and who better to enjoy it with than Dorothea Benton Frank, the queen of Lowcountry beach reads? Meet the Stiftels, peach farmers in South Carolina. They’re in for some serious culture shock when their beloved only son, Fred, becomes engaged to Shelby Cambria, the wealthy daughter of a Chicago-based private equity master of the universe.  When the two families are thrown together, first in Lowcountry and then in the Windy City, their disparate backgrounds clash, and multiple secrets come tumbling out.

    The High Tide Club, by Mary Kay Andrews
    New York Times bestseller Andrews delivers a tale of Southern romance and suspense that kicks off when Josephine, an eccentric, almost century-old heiress living in a Grey Gardens-esque crumbling mansion by the sea, hires lawyer Brooke to complete a mysterious task. Brooke must gather together the descendants of Josephine’s best friends for a reunion that may prove either profitable or deadly.

    The Cast, by Danielle Steel
    Kate Whittier, a twice-divorced magazine columnist with a robust fan base, powers through her fears of intimacy after she finds the support she needs to create a TV show based on the life of her extraordinary grandmother. And when Kait’s own life implodes unexpectedly, it’s the tightknit cast of the show she turns to for the strength to carry on.

    Beach House Reunion, by Mary Alice Monroe
    In the fifth book of her popular, heartwarming Beach House series, which concerns several generations of the Rutledge family living in Lowcountry, we meet Cara’s niece Linnea, a recent college grad who feels uncertain about her future and burdened by her parents’ expectations. Perhaps a summer at the Isle of Palms, rife with dolphins and loggerhead sea turtles, is in order? At Primrose Cottage, she and Cara help one another put the past to rights. Although it can be read as a standalone, series readers will be delighted by the cameos from previous characters.

    The Judge Hunter, by Christopher Buckley
    In this comedic, historical mystery-thriller (how often do you see that genre?), expert satirist Buckley (Thank You For Smoking) scatters real-life figures amid his own creations. A young, utterly useless layabout, Balty St. Michael, sets off for the New World in 1664, commissioned by his cousin Samuel Pepys to locate two judges who disappeared after assisting in the murder of Charles I. Helping Balty is a competent former commander with motives of his own. Adventure and hijinks ensue on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as throughout the newborn colonies.

    Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje
    From the author of The English Patient and The Cat’s Table comes a bildungsroman set in London in the immediate aftermath of World War II, as well as fourteen years later, when protagonist Nathaniel attempts to make sense of his mother’s enigmatic and disturbing behavior. Immediately following the war’s conclusion, teenage Nathan and his sister Rachel were left behind for a year with two mysterious, possibly criminal guardians while their parents traveled to Singapore. (Or did they?) In the decades to come, now working for British intelligence services, Nathan tries to piece together his mother’s secrets. The buildup to the answers he’ll find promises to be exquisitely poetic.

    The High Season, by Judy Blundell
    In her first book for adults (she previously won the National Book Award for her YA noir, What I Saw and How I Lied), Blundell proves once again how skilled she is at peeling back the glossy exteriors of people’s lives. Middle-aged, divorced Ruthie and her fifteen-year-old daughter are forced to abandon their beach house each summer and rent it out in order to afford living there the rest of the year. To their consternation, and despite their location in North Fork, they’re not safe from the wealthy, greedy Hamptons crowd two ferry stops away; in fact, their latest boarder exemplifies that group and seems poised to scoop up and replace Ruthie herself, starting with staking a claim on Ruthie’s ex-husband.

    Adjustment Day, by Chuck Palahniuk
    This dystopian-horror satire flows straight out of 2018 America. Day blends revolution, dirty politics, the worst of the internet, widespread murder (journalists and elites from a publicly voted on list are targeted), and a “Declaration of Interdependence” that results in the country being carved up into sections with names like Blacktopia, Gaysia, and (medieval) Caucasia. Heaven help you if you don’t fit the theme within your new borders: better adjust or flee. Fight Club aficionados will love the allusions to Project Mayhem.

    A Shout in the Ruins, by Kevin Powers
    Moving back and forth in time from the Civil War to the recent past, Shout examines the effects of slavery, segregation, and endemic violence on people from all sides of it. In the 1950s, seventysomething George Seldom decides to retrace the steps of his life, uncovering the threads that bind him to the inhabitants of the Beauvais Plantation in Richmond, Virginia. He’s joined by a young waitress whose own story (and contemplation of the past) take center stage in the 1980s. A Virginia native, Powers is an army veteran whose debut, The Yellow Birds, won the PEN/Hemingway Award.

    The post May’s Best New Fiction appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 6:30 pm on 2018/04/24 Permalink
    Tags: Fiction, kinsey millhone, kinsey scale, ,   

    The 10 Most Essential Sue Grafton Mysteries 

    In the realm of fictional private investigators, Kinsey Millhone stands apart for a number of reasons. She’s a woman, first of all, though that was a lot more unusual in 1982, when Sue Grafton launched her bestselling series of alphabetically ordered mystery novels. She’s also iconoclastic and minimalist, preferring her tiny apartment and a steady diet of junk food to the lavish jet-set lifestyle of some protagonists we could name. And Grafton aged her deliberately over the course of 25 books, planning to have Millhone celebrate her 40th birthday in book 26.

    Sadly, Grafton passed away before the final book could be written (today, in fact, would’ve been her 78th birthday). But that still leaves 25 books in the “Alphabet” series, covering letters A through X. If you’re just coming to the series now, that number might be a bit intimidating, but you needn’t let that deter you—the series is remarkably consistent in terms of quality, so reading all 25 is no chore, but despite Grafton’s decision to allow Millhone to move forward in time, the books aren’t really dependent on one another. You could read the 10 best—presented below in series order—and come away with a good grasp of the character (and, we’ll bet, a desire to go back and fill in the gaps).

    A is for Alibi
    It really is best to start at the beginning. Grafton’s first novel wasn’t an instant hit, and the plot isn’t as airtight as later installments. But the character of Kinsey Millhone leaps off the page fully-formed, a spirited woman who thinks for herself and cares more about justice than about earning a paycheck. Most of her foibles and tics are on display here, from her love of snacks to her disdain for grooming (she cuts her own hair and doesn’t do a great job), and Grafton’s first moment of true genius comes at the ending, which sees Millhone solving the main murder while also discovering she’s gotten a lot of other things entirely wrong—a rare case of a reader having a cake (the case is solved) and eating it too (there’s one more shocking twist in store).

    B is for Burglar
    Grafton perfected her concept in the second book, which has a much stronger plot. Millhone is hired to find a missing person, but when she goes to Florida to check out the woman’s vacation home she finds a man living there, claiming to be a tenant—a tenant no one knew about. Grafton establishes Millhone’s intelligence and grit as she enters a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a killer, showing us everything that makes the character unforgettable but avoiding making her into a collection of quirks. She’s a butt-kicking, mystery-solving machine in a story that never slows down.

    D is for Deadbeat
    Any time a private detective is handed cash, people are going to crawl out of the woodwork, and Millhone is no exception. Asked by a drunk to give $25,000 to the survivor of a car crash he caused while driving while intoxicated, Millhone is determined to honor his wishes even after he turns up dead—but finds herself beset by ex-wives, children, and the drug dealers the money was stolen from in the first place. Although Grafton sometimes loses track of her own plot, she manages to pull it all back together for another story that serves to strengthen the fundamentals of Kinsey’s character and outline the rules of the seedy universe she operates in. Plus, the book’s just a lot of fun.

    H is for Homicide
    This book represents the point at which Grafton really got into a groove with her character, universe, and plotting. In a story that involves insurance fraud, the murder of someone close to our protagonist, and Kinsey going undercover to crack the case, Grafton finds plenty of opportunities to have a little fun, and she makes hay with all of them, introducing a cast of side characters that are fascinating but believable, all of whom contribute to a strong plot filled with great twists and turns. Grafton found an ideal balance between quirk and humor on the one hand and a seriously tense mystery on the other.

    J is for Judgment
    Hands down, this is one of the best cases Kinsey Millhone ever gets involved with. A wealthy banker disappears in an apparent suicide after his not-exactly-legitimate financial empire begins to collapse. Five years later, he’s officially declared dead, and his wife gets a huge insurance payout. When the banker is then spotted in Mexico, Kinsey’s hired to look into the mess. One of the strengths of this one is how focused it is on that central case; while the forays into Kinsey’s neighbors, landlord, and family that crop up in other books are entertaining and sometimes illuminating for the character, the clarity of purpose in this novel is energizing.

    K is for Killer
    Probably the darkest of the Millhone novels, and one of the best. Kinsey is suffering from insomnia, an affliction that starts off as a minor and somewhat humorous problem but develops into a debilitating weakness as sleep deprivation makes her start to doubt her own memory and perceptions. The case involves a dead body that lay undiscovered for so long a cause of death cannot be determined. Kinsey quickly figures out the dead woman was an under-the-radar prostitute, opening up a wide list of possible murder scenarios—and a long list of potential killers. With Kinsey’s confidence at an unusual low ebb, it’s the first time the reader can’t be 100 percent certain she will prevail at the end.

    M is for Malice
    A wealthy man, a junkie son who’s the black sheep of the family, a last will and testament that cuts the son out of the inheritance in favor of his three brothers—so far, so straightforward. But everything goes hinky when the father dies and the will goes missing. Kinsey is hired to locate the son, long banished due to his drug habit. When she digs him up, he’s clean and sober and seems to honestly regret his past behavior—and Kinsey finds his siblings to be unpleasant. What should be a clear-cut resolution to a simple problem quickly goes sideways, and Kinsey slowly unravels a dense mystery on her way to figuring who she can believe—if anyone. This one would rightly be a bestseller even without the charm of Kinsey Millhone.

    N is for Noose
    This novel features Kinsey’s off-center charm in spades. Hired by a police detective’s widow to pick up the cold case he’d spent his life trying to solve, Kinsey discovers that the small town he lived in is more or less united in the opinion that the matter should remain a mystery, and that his widow is nothing but a muckraker. Kinsey initially agrees, seeing nothing to justify the detective’s obsession—until she’s brutally assaulted in what seems a clear attempt to run her off. Anyone who’s ever read a detective novel knows the best way to keep a PI on a case is to try to threaten them, and Kinsey dives into the case with renewed passion. The small town characters are expertly sketched, and making Kinsey the fish-out-of-water sheds new light on her character and reminds even long-time fans why she’s one of the best fictional sleuths ever imagined.

    O is for Outlaw
    While it’s not necessary for readers to know all the details of Kinsey’s past and family in order to enjoy the books, it’s great fun every time we make a new discovery. This book is a great way to catch up on most of those details, because the case Kinsey takes on is more or less her own life. She stumbles onto evidence that proves she was 100 percent wrong about one of the reasons she used to justify leaving her husband. The revelation forces Kinsey to reexamine her decisions and dig back into her past. Along the way, we learn an awful lot about Kinsey Millhone’s journey into her late 30s.

    X
    The really sad part about Sue Grafton’s passing is that even at the tail end of the alphabet, she was still doing some of her best work. X is a complex book that slowly twists together three narrative arcs: the main mystery, in which Kinsey is hired by a woman to search for a recently released convict who might be her long-lost son; Kinsey’s kindhearted efforts to help a peer’s widow organize his case files, leading her into surprising danger; and the matter of a frightening man who might be a serial murderer—and who is definitely obsessed with Kinsey. It’s a tightly-written thriller that delivers on all three plot threads, and ends with a few details unresolved, leading us directly into Y is for Yesterday, the unintended final book (a book also worth reading—it’s not only Kinsey’s swan song, but a pretty great installment).

    Kinsey Millhone will never see her 40th birthday, and the world will never get another Sue Grafton book. Both facts are tragedies—but at least we have 25 novels with which to celebrate both of their lives.

    The post The 10 Most Essential Sue Grafton Mysteries appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
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