From Arizona to Iceland: A Summer 2012 Reading List

In honor of the summer solstice today, I thought I’d put together a list of books I’m very much looking forward to reading this summer. A few of these are new releases (or soon-to-be releases), a couple are older titles. All of them should be entertaining, which is what you obviously want in a summer book–a blazing sun and 50%+ humidity can make it hard to focus on denser tomes–although not everything on this list is, perhaps, a traditional ‘beach read.’ I seem to have also planned myself an armchair world tour, starting in the U.S. and working my way half way around the world before I’m done.

Any particular book that you, dear readers, are looking forward to dipping into whilst poolside this summer?

The American Southwest

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

NYRB is bringing out this title by Hughes, a New Mexico-based mystery writer and critic (1904 – 1993), in July. I am not familiar with Hughes’ work (she was the author of 14 noirs and detective novels), but am intrigued by at least two other of her better-known works, the quirkily titled The Cross-Eyed Bear, and In a Lonely Place, which was made into a film with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. The Expendable Man seems like a good place to start, though, particularly because I’m always on the look-out for books that accurately capture Arizona (my ‘homeland’). And the plot doesn’t sound half bad, either. From the description on the NYRB website:

“It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.” And Hugh Denismore, a young doctor driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix, is eminently educated and civilized. He is privileged, would seem to have the world at his feet, even. Then why does the sight of a few redneck teenagers disconcert him? Why is he reluctant to pick up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway? And why is he the first person the police suspect when she is found dead in Arizona a few days later?

Switzerland, (East) Germany, Israel

The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (Translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen)

I was delighted to receive a review copy of this title, forthcoming from Open Letter Press in September 2012. The book, which I’ve just started, is a sort of literary “Choose Your Own Adventure” loosely modeled “on the true story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose fabricated 1995 Holocaust memoir transfixed the reading public.” The Canvas contains two interconnected narratives which tell the respective tales of Jan Wechsler, a Jewish publisher and writer living in Berlin who receives a mysterious suitcase one Shabbos afternoon, and Amnon Zichroni, an Orthodox student of the Talmud who was born in Israel and is then sent to live with an uncle in Switzerland.

Part of the fun this book promises is the format–the two stories begin opposite and upside down from one another and read toward the center of the book. As it explains on the cover, “There are two main paths and intertwined side-trails running through this novel. Behind each cover is a possible starting point for the action. Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance.”(For what it’s worth, I started with Jan Weschler’s story and already know that one of his opening chapters–in which he talks about the way books, particularly borrowed ones, are inexorably wrapped up in past memories–will remain with me for a long time. It’s just wonderful so far.)

Norway

It’s Fine by Me by Per Petterson, Translated from the Norwegian by Don Barlett

I believe that this book was already published in English in 2011, but Graywolf Press is bringing out another edition this coming October. It’s Fine by Me finds frequent Petterson stand-in Arvid Jansen (the narrator from the remarkable I Curse the River of Time and also In the Wake) in his youth, befriending Audun, a troubled new kid at his school who shares Arvid’s love of authors like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Per Tim Parks in The Guardian:

“…this edgy bildungsroman makes explicit what many will already have suspected: for Petterson, the craft of writing, of carefully reconstructing life’s precariousness in sentences as solid and unassuming as bricks, is itself a way of building shelter. For those who see danger everywhere, literature is a place of refuge.”

I think Arvid Jansen is a marvelous, complicated character, and I think Petterson has done a remarkable thing in carrying him through multiple novels and multiple points of his life. (Also interesting is the fact that (I think) Arvid doesn’t actually narrate It’s Fine by Me–I think Audun does.) I’m definitely looking forward to this one.

England

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
Another NYRB title, Angel is the story of a dreamy shopgirl in Edwardian England who rises above her circumstances to become a successful author wealthy manor-mistress. I’ll be coming to this book with prior–although perhaps inaccurate–expectations: it was the basis for François Ozon’s opulent, lavishly campy romp of a film, starring Romola Garai and Michael Fassbender. I don’t know how the movie relates to the source novel yet, but on its own, its a rather delightful feat of melodrama, if you’re into that sort of thing, which I certainly am.

Based on what I’ve read about Taylor and Angel–Sam Jordison’s recent post in The Guardian’s Books Blog, “Rediscovering Elizabeth Taylor–the brilliant novelist,” is good for quick context–I won’t be surprised if the novel strikes a more serious, reflective tone, but either way, I’ll definitely be interested in comparing the original and its adaptation.

Iceland

The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness (Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson)

I’m slowly but surely working my way through the cornerstones of Icelandic literature–the Sagas and the novels of Iceland’s only Nobel laureate to date, Halldór Laxness. Thus far, I’ve read The Great Weaver from Kashmir, one of Halldór’s early novels and certainly an interesting introduction to his oeuvre, even if it isn’t one of his ‘larger’ works. I’ve also read (and loved) Under the Glacier, which contains one of my all-time favorite quotes: “Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity.”

I’ve read about half each of Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, and was greatly enjoying both when I got distracted in my reading–not finishing in these instances is not indicative of the books’ quality, for sure. But until I get the beginning of both of these half-read novels out of my head so that I can start them again fresh, I would like to read another one of Halldór’s ‘lighter’ novels. The Fish Can Sing, set in the small settlement of Brekkukot and told through the eyes of the orphan Álfgrímur, who–from what I can tell from pieced-together summaries–spends the book reflecting on his simple upbringing, storytelling, and the larger, (Danish) world outside of Brekkukot . I believe there’s an opera singer involved, too.

This is perhaps a measly pitch for reading the book, but it sounds wonderful to me. There’s a good review by M.A. Orthofer over at The Complete Review, and that site also archives a number of other reviews of the book, too.


Why This Book Should Win the BTBA: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Three Percent is posting write-ups of each of the 25 books nominated for the long list of this year’s Best Translated Book Award (BTBA). I was pleased to be asked to contribute my own piece for Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? It’s a casual recap/list of awesome things about this great book, but gave me a good excuse to go back and re-read much of the book, which was among my favorites last year. The re-read did nothing but confirm my positive feelings about the book, so I highly recommend that you check it out.

While I was reacquainting myself with Buzz Aldrin, I also ran across some interesting related links that I wanted to call to your attention:

  • Harstad has had three pieces of short fiction published at Words Without Borders, which are all available online, here.
  • The Power of Second,” and interview conducted with Harstad for The Brooklyn Rail, in which the author admits that despite what Buzz Aldrin might suggest, he’s “not a great Cardigans fan,” and also that “the novel as a whole will possibly read nicely to the sound of Beck’s Sea Change and Sigur Ros’s Ágætis Byrjun,” which sound like great pairings to me as well.
  • A 2010 piece in N+1 called Into the Woods: On Norwegian Literature” by Silje Bekeng uses Harstad and his work as an example of young Norwegian writers who “have found ways to use classic themes to reflect on the era they’re writing themselves into.” I remember reading this piece at the time and really enjoying it, but Harstad’s book hadn’t been published in English yet. Having read Buzz Aldrin now, Bekeng’s observations resonate more, but it’s still an interesting article if you haven’t read the book.

My “Why This Book Should Win” piece for Buzz Aldrin is on the Three Percent website, here. The full text is also below.

***

When we meet 29-year-old Mattias, the narrator of Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, he is happy and satisfied with his life. He loves his girlfriend, Helle, who he has dated for twelve years. He loves his job as a gardener at a local nursery–so much that he often comes in early to just sit in the quiet of the garden alone. Idolizing Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, Mattias only wants to “be a smooth running cog in the world. To do the right thing. Nothing more.” Instead of seeking recognition for his talents (he’s a wonderful singer, for instance) or trying to distinguish himself in an impressive career, Mattias instead hopes to blend into the background, “to vanish into the commotion out there, to be number two, a person who made himself useful instead of trying to stand out, who did the job he was asked to do.”

The simplicity of Mattias’ world is upended in short order, however, when Helle leaves him for another man (someone who “wanted to be seen in the world”), and he loses his job at the now-bankrupt nursery. Depressed and hopeless, he follows his friend’s band to a music festival on the Faroe Islands. The next thing he remembers is waking up face down in the rain, in the middle of a dirt road in the Faroe countryside, with 15,000 kroner in his pocket.

Norwegian author Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? was, without a doubt, one of the best books I read last year. Won over almost immediately by just the title, I picked up the book on a whim and then spent the next few days delightedly underlining each wonderful sentence or clever bit of dialog until I realized that if I didn’t stop, I’d soon have underlined the whole book. As I read it, I talked about the book incessantly, reading bits aloud in bars, and generally recommending it to every third person I met on the street. The book is extremely well written, it’s funny, and it’s affecting without being trite. But as is so often the case with books that I’ve truly loved, it’s hard to go back and objectively critique it. What’s easier–and more fun–is to give you a short list of reasons that Buzz Aldrin is a fantastic book that you should go read now, and a great contender for this year’s BTBA:

1. It’s wonderfully written. Johan Harstad is an incredible prose stylist who pays particular attention to natural details. (All due credit to translator Deborah Dawkin that the language reads so fluidly.) Harstad has a knack for intermixing delightfully odd observations (“Tuesday. The week’s most superfluous day.”) with fantastically long, melodic trains-of-thought which fully immerse you in Mattias’ perspective. The opening paragraph of the book has a great example of this:

“I bend over the tulips, gloves on my feet, small pruning shears between my fingers, it’s extremely early, one April morning in 1999 and it’s beginning to grow warmer, I’ve noticed it recently, a certain something has begun to stir, I noticed it as I got out of the car this morning, in the gray light, as I opened the gates into the nursery, the air had grown softer, more rounded at the edges, I’d even considered changing out of my winter boots and putting my sneakers on.”

2. The Faroe Island Setting: A write-up in Kirkus Reviews embarrassingly referred to Buzz Aldrin as “the long-awaited Great Faroese Novel,” by which they probably meant not to discredit the brilliant (and actually Faroese) novels by William Heinesen, but rather to point out that the Faroe Island setting is as much a character in this book as any of the people. As described by Harstad, the Faroese landscape is not only evocative and otherworldly, it also provides an important counterpoint for Mattias’ isolationist worldview. There are less than 50,000 people living on the Faroe Islands, so it’s impossible to blend into the background as Mattias would like. As he comes to realize, “…for each person that died, there was one less inhabitant, one less person to meet on the road, one less person who spoke the same language.”

3. The Cardigans: Never has a book paid better homage to this Swedish pop band (you know you loved them, too). One of the book’s main characters listens exclusively to albums by The Cardigans because “…everything I need is in this band.” Also, each of the book’s four sections is named after a different Cardigans album. (Funnily enough, Harstad said in an interview that he isn’t really a big fan himself. “I chose the band because I couldn’t figure out who would love such a band.”)

4. The Cultural Collage: Harstad brings together a variety of historical and cultural reference points (beyond The Cardigans)–from Radiohead and Top Gun to the unsolved murder of Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme, the start of Bosnian War, the Chernobyl disaster, and the Challenger space ship explosion–not just to prove his zeitgeisty prowess, but also to create a fully contextual background for his characters and their general sense of unease and displacement. The main action of the book takes place between the mid-eighties and late nineties–not so long ago, and yet, long enough to be able to reflect back now on what a unsettling couple of decades it was.

5. The Epic Thor Heyerdahl-esque Escape: Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian adventurer and anthropologist who sailed roughly 8,000 km from Peru to Polynesia on a homemade raft (the Kon-Tiki) in 1947. After a particularly unexpected plot development, Mattias and his companions make a similar voyage from The Faroe Islands to the Caribbean. It’s awesome.

Fun Reads for Friday: BTBA Finalists / 100 Great Books for Kids

25 Days of the BTBA (Three Percent)

As you may remember, Three Percent recently announced this year’s long list for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA). Leading up to the announcement of the short list of ten titles on April 10, 3P is running a daily series of posts explaining why each of the 25 books on the long list should win the award. All of the posts are archived here, and many are rather compelling. (I’ll actually be writing one of these myself for the only book on the list that I’ve read–Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?) Chad Post’s pithy one-liners on why each book should win are also pretty fun. Some of the more amusing examples:

On Upstaged by Jacques Jouet, translated by Leland de la Durantaye:

Why This Book Should Win: Oulipians have the most fun.

On New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry [Ed: and this book sounds awesome]

Why This Book Should Win: Because Marani invented Europanto, a “mock international auxiliary language.”

On Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger, translated by Ross Benjamin

Why This Book Should Win: Two reasons: 1) during Thomas’s reading tour, three consecutive events were disrupted by a streaker, a woman passing out and smashing a glass table, and a massive pillow fight amid a Biblical thunderstorm; 2) the phone number. [Ed: Not sure about this reason…]

On Lightning by Jean Echenoz, translated by Linda Coverdale

Why This Book Should Win: Tesla, duh. And Linda Coverdale. But mostly Tesla.

Scholastic’s Parent and Child Magazine’s “100 Greatest Books for Children”

A friend who works at Scholastic brought this list–which actually includes Young Adult titles, as well as those for children–to my attention on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day. While drunken faux-Irish bar patrons sloshed about around us, we had quite a nice time of guessing books which were included on the list. I was happy to have guessed several in the top twenty, and was surprised at some of the omissions (Ed Young’s Lon Po Po; anything by J.R.R. Tolkien, but mostly The Hobbit). Since authors were only represented once on the list, some of the representative selections were also a bit suprising (Green Eggs and Ham over Cat in the Hat, even though I like the former better; Matilda for Roald Dahl over James and the Giant Peach or The Witches; The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik instead of Wonderstruck; The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks over basically any other Magic School Bus book…)

Of course, the question of what makes something a “great” book for kids is a big and incredibly vague one. P&C attempts to clarify their selection process here, although I think there is still some ambiguity. But here’s the gist:

“To create our list, we asked several highly respected literacy experts, educators, and parents for suggestions. (See “Contributors” on our bookshelf.) They came through in a big way — nearly 500 books were in the running. We used a variety of criteria to narrow down to 100 and then rank our titles, including diversity of genre, topic, format, ages and stages, authorship, and cultural representation. Factors such as literary and/or illustration excellence, popularity, and longevity or innovative freshness were all qualities of books in the final round.

Along the way, a few familiar and well-loved titles made way for fresh, unique books that children today know and love. Some authors’ secondary works stepped aside to allow for a greater variety of names and faces who may be new to you. We also included nonfiction, a rarity among these kinds of lists, but a must, given the high demand for it in schools today and the great quality of these works. In the end, we came up with a diverse range of timeless titles, classic and new, that children of all ages will learn from, grow through, and enjoy.”

And here’s the top 10:

  1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  2. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown / Illustrated by Clement Hurd
  3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
  4. The Snowy Day written/ illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
  5. Where the Wild Things Are written / illustrated by Maurice Sendak
  6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling / Illustrated by Mary GrandPré
  7. Green Eggs and Ham written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss
  8. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  9. The Giving Tree written / illustrated by Shel Silverstein
  10. Frog and Toad Are Friends written / illustrated by Arnold Lobel

See any glaring omissions/terrible choices? Especially happy about a selection? (I was thrilled that The Phantom Toll Booth and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH were included, myself.) Discuss…

The Best Translated Book Award 2012 Longlist

Today, Three Percent released the longlist for 2012’s Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), and judging from the list, I fell behind in my international reading last year. You can check out the press release with more information about the selection process on the Three Percent blog here, but I’ve pasted the longlist below.

The 2012 BTBA Fiction Longlist (in alphabetical order by author):

Leeches by David Albahari
Translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson
(Open Letter)

Demolishing Nisard by Eric Chevillard
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
(Dalkey Archive Press)

Private Property by Paule Constant
Translated from the French by Margot Miller and France Grenaudier-Klijn
(University of Nebraska Press)

Lightning by Jean Echenoz
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
(New Press)

Zone by Mathias Énard
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
(Open Letter)

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin
(Seven Stories)

Upstaged by Jacques Jouet
Translated from the French by Leland de la Durantaye
(Dalkey Archive Press)

Fiasco by Imre Kertész
Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson
(Melville House)

Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles
(Knopf)

Kornél Esti by Dezső Kosztolányi
Translated from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams
(New Directions)

I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière
Translated from the French by David Homel
(Douglas & MacIntyre)

Suicide by Edouard Levé
Translated from the French by Jan Steyn
(Dalkey Archive Press)

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry
(Dedalus)

Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne
(Bloomsbury)

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books)

Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
(Seagull Books)

Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
(W.W. Norton)

Scars by Juan José Saer
Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph
(Open Letter)

Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar
Translated from the Portuguese by Thomas O. Beebee
(Texas Tech University Press)

Seven Years by Peter Stamm
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
(Other Press)

The Truth about Marie by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith
(Dalkey Archive Press)

In Red by Magdalena Tulli
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books)

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
(New Directions)

I’ve read David Albahari before (I was a big fan of his Words Are Something Else in college), I’ve been meaning to read a different title (Unformed Landscape) of Peter Stamm’s  for a few years, and I am aware of several other authors on the list. But the only one I’ve actually read is Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, which thankfully, I did really love. (Never has there been a book that has integrated the Cardigans’ Grand Turismo so well). But otherwise, I’ve got nothing on these titles or authors. So it’s time to do some research, eh?

Prior to posting the longlist, Chad Post asked readers of the blog to contribute titles that they were either guessing would be included, or just hoping to see on the list. I actually forgot that Buzz Aldrin was published in the right time frame to qualify (December 1, 2010 – December 31, 2011) so it wasn’t in my short list. Just for kicks, here are some titles–in no particular order–I would have liked to see included (obviously I skew a little more northerly than the judges….):

  • The Greenhouse by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, Translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon
  • The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, Translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer (I haven’t reviewed The Long Ships, so no link above, but Nick Pinkerton had a good one on The L Magazine website here, and Michael Chabon–who wrote the kinda lame, but certainly enthusiastic, introduction–wrote a piece about it for The Paris Review here.)
  • Fair Playby Tove Jansson, Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (Teal won last year, so this would have been a long shot, but it’s such a good book! My favorite Jansson so far.)
  • Karaoke Culture by Dubraka Ugresic, Translated from the Croatian by David Williams

In Honor of Stan and Jan: My Top Five Berenstain Bear Books

Young Stan and Jan via pbase.com

Sad news today for those of us who grew up learning a whole lot about life from the Berenstain Bears: Jan Berenstain has died, after suffering a stroke at the age of 88. Her husband and writing/illustrating partner, Stan, died (of complications from lymphoma)  in 2005.

While this is sad news, of course, the couple certainly seemed to have a wonderful life together, doing what they loved. From the CBS News piece linked to above:

Stan and Jan Berenstain, both Philadelphia natives, were 18 when they met on their first day at art school in 1941.

They married in 1946, after Stan Berenstain returned home from serving as a medical illustrator at a stateside Army hospital during World War II. During that time, Jan Berenstain worked as a draftsman for the Army Corps of Engineers and as a riveter building Navy seaplanes.

Before their family of bear books was born, the young couple had already built a successful career in periodicals. A cartoon series they produced called “All in the Family” ran in McCall’s and Good Housekeeping magazines for 35 years, and their art appeared in magazines including Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post.

Mike Berenstain said his mother worked daily at her home studio in an idyllic part of Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, which served as inspiration for the books’ setting. He said he will continue writing and illustrating future Berenstain books.

In honor of Jan and Stan, here’s a quick list of my top five favorite Berenstain Bear books, in no particular order:


Please post your own favorites! If you’re having trouble remembering the titles, Wikipedia has a comprehensive list here, along with some summaries.

NBCC Reads: Favorite Comic Novels

For the last four years, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) has had a regular feature on their blog, Critical Mass, called “NBCC Reads.” For this feature, NBCC members are asked to share their “bookish expertise” on a variety of topics. This spring’s question was “What are your favorite comic novels?” My own answers–along with those of  Bob Grumman, the editor at Runaway Spoon Press, and Chelsey Philpott, the associate editor of book reviews at the School Library Journal, were featured in this week’s post, which you can read here.

I’ll leave the (admittedly brief) explanations for my choices for you to check out on the NBCC blog, but for shorthand, I voted for Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, and Halldór Laxness’ Under the Glacier.

All of the member answers to the question–some of which are more in-depth–are archived on Critical Mass here.

Booklist’s The Year’s Best Crime Novels

Booklist‘s has just published a list of “The Year’s Best Crime Novels,” (compiled by Booklist publisher/editor Bill Ott) which does, of course, raise a few questions given that it’s only May. But whatever the logic behind this mid-year round-up (maybe it’s their own annual cycle? Some of the books were published in 2010, some in 2011…), it’s an enjoyable list of 20 books–there’s a top ten, and also a list of the ten best debut crime novels. You can check out the full list on their website, but I’ve cherry-picked a few of the ones that sound most interesting to highlight below.

I’ve actually only read one of the titles, but I was glad to see it on the list: Camilla Lackberg’s excellent debut novel, The Ice Princess, which I reviewed for Reviewing the Evidence in June 2010.

But here are some titles that sounded particularly interesting to me, just in time for summer reading!

Bury Your Dead. By Louis Penny. 2010. Minotaur, $24.99 (9780312377045).

Penny’s sixth Armande Gamache novel is her best yet, a true tour de force of storytelling. Juggling three freestanding but subtly intertwined stories, Penny moves seamlessly from present to past as Gamache, the chief inspector of the Sûreté du Quebec, investigates a murder in Quebec City, tries to determine if he jailed the wrong man in an earlier case, and struggles with his memories of a third case that went horribly wrong. Penny hits every note perfectly in what is one of the most elaborately constructed mysteries in years.

Painted Ladies. By Robert B. Parker. 2010. Putnam, $26.95 (9780399156854).

Are we honoring the late Parker’s career here or is this really one of his best books in its own right? Well, both. His penultimate Spenser novel captures all the charm of the landmark series. The iconic Boston PI can still nail a person’s foibles on first meeting, still whip up a gourmet meal in a few minutes, still dispatch the thugs who haunt his office and his home, and still do it all while maintaining a fierce love of Susan Silverman and English poetry. Parker was one of the first to show us that a hard-boiled hero doesn’t have to frown all the time, and we’ve been smiling along with Spenser ever since.

Started Early, Took My Dog. By Kate Atkinson. 2011. Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur, $24.99 (9780316066730).

In the latest entry in Atkinson’s brilliant Jackson Brodie series, the semiretired detective is touring abbeys in northern England, but soon enough he becomes involved in several interrelated cases, one of which concerns a police detective who has rescued a child from a prostitute by paying cash for her. Her odyssey as a new parent, relayed with tenderness and wry wit, must be one of the grandest love affairs in crime fiction. For its singular melding of radiant humor and dark deeds, this is must-reading for fans of literary crime fiction.

Mr. Peanut. By Adam Ross. 2010. Knopf, $25.95 (9780307270702).

Despite the fact that David declares that he has been in love with wife Alice ever since he first spotted her in a film class, he is continually imagining her death via everything from carjackings to “convenient acts of God.” Naturally, when she is found dead at the kitchen table, he is the leading suspect. Ross is interested in all the soul-killing ways men and women try and fail to achieve intimacy, and he explores his age-old theme (marriage as one “long double homicide”) in eloquent prose and with a beguiling noirish sensibility.