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Woman With A Gun, by Phillip Margolin
Woman With A Gun, by Phillip Margolin

That's a wrap: 18 must-reads that’ll make great stocking stuffers Add to ...

Still looking for gifts? A selection of books in a variety of genres (crime fiction, young adult and romance) might be just the ticket

Wolf

By Mo Hayder. HarperCollins Canada, 410 pages, $22.99

Mo Hayder continues to push the envelope with her subtle, fascinating detective Jack Caffery. His life and that of the enigmatic Walking Man converge, sort of, in this brilliantly wrought story of loss, guilt and penance. If you need a book to escape the holiday treacle, this is it. Fans know that the defining event of Jack Caffery’s life was the abduction of his brother, Ewan, age nine, by a pedophile ring. Ewan was never found and so Jack is a copper who, in the midst of others’ crimes, is always alert for a possible lead, a bit of luck. The plight of the Anchor-Ferrers family comes to Jack via The Walking Man, who discovers a dog with the message “help us” attached to its collar. At first it seems to be a botched home invasion that has turned into a hostage-taking, but there is more – much more – going back to a far earlier horror. Is a convicted killer out of jail to finish the job? Or was the wrong man sent away? Spellbinding suspense and all Hayder’s talents for character and plot. –M.C.

Roses For A Diva

By Rick Blechta, Dundurn, 413 pages, $17.99

Toronto’s Rick Blechta gets better and better. This time out, he’s turned to his extensive knowledge of music for a delightful mystery set in the dramatic and cat-fighting world of grand opera. The Diva is soprano Marta Hendriks, a globe-trotting beauty with a regal voice and temperament to match. When a fan starts leaving bouquets of roses in her dressing room, she’s charmed. But as she travels, so do the flowers, always with the same nameless message. It seems harmlessly sweet until strange things start happening: a treasure broken in her apartment, a feeling of being followed. Marta calls in private investigator Shannon O’Brien to see if she’s being stalked or if it’s just a star’s nerves. Then someone dies and the strange bouquets take on a whole new meaning. –M.C.

Woman With A Gun

By Phillip Margolin, HarperCollins, 304 pages, $33.50

Not too many photographs end up as the inspiration for, and cover of, a major crime novel but that’s the backstory for this terrific new work from the great Phillip Margolin. The bride with the very big revolver is a compelling image and Margolin has built it into a great tale of art and crime. Stacey Kim is an aspiring novelist who sees the image in a retrospective of the work of a famous photographer (a bit like Margolin discovered it) and is enthralled. Who is she? What did she do? What is she going to do? Bit by bit, Kim digs into the story behind the picture but the only person who knows the answers, the photographer herself, isn’t talking. This one is about obsession and guilt, and the suspense is riveting. –M.C.

Only The Dead

By Vidar Sundstol, translated by Tiina Nunnally, University of Minnesota Press, 152 pages, $26.20

Maybe it takes the mind of a Norwegian to see the possibilities for crime fiction in the forests of Minnesota north of Lake Superior. In any event, Vidar Sunstol’s brilliant trilogy featuring U.S. Forest Service officer Lance Hansen captured me in book one. Book two is so short (I read it in a morning) that it may seem slight, but it’s not. It continues the mystery of the 100-year-old murder of Swamper Caribou and that’s a clue to a more recent murder. It all means that Lance can dig even further into the families and connections of the Scandinavian settlers who came to this rugged and unforgiving land and made it their home. Who knew a mystery based in part on genealogy and local history could be so engaging? –M.C.

Windigo Fire

By M.H. Callway, Seraphim Editions, 298 pages, $19.95

This debut novel from Callway, of Toronto, comes with the recommendation of the redoubtable Marian Misters of the bookstore Sleuth of Baker Street, and that tells you it’s good. Callway is far from unpublished with a list of short works to her credit. The story, set in the Canadian woods, has Danny Bluestone, a young Native man, agreeing to lead a group of hunters on an illegal bear hunt. He delivers the men to their destination on an isolated island. When he returns, they’re dead – all but one, who insists he didn’t do it. As the pair search for the supposed killers, each believes the other is, in fact, the murderer. Well-done atmosphere and a really chilling premise. M.H. Callway is a writer to watch. –M.C.

The Final Silence

By Stuart Neville, Soho Crime, 352 pages, $26.95

The critics are already calling Stuart Neville “the king of neo-noir” and the shoe fits. If you loved Ratlines (and I did), you will adore The Final Silence, set again in Belfast with a plot so strange, tight and compelling, you won’t be able to put the book down. Rea Carlisle is a nice woman from a good family who inherits a house from an aged uncle. It doesn’t take more than a couple of days to clear out the dead man’s scant possessions – but then Rea comes to The Locked Room. When she finally gets the door open, the room is empty except for a chair, a table, and a leather-bound book filled with carefully mounted locks of hair, bits of fingernail, grisly mementos of something horrible. Rea wants to go immediately to the police but her family fears danger to her father’s political career. So Rea calls in disgraced cop Jack Lennon to see if he can quietly delve into what appears to be a serial killer in the family. –M.C.

Last Of The Independents

By Sam Wiebe, Dundurn, 332 pages, $17.95

Vancouver is a great setting for a crime novel and the B.C. coast has turned out some of Canada’s best, including Bill Deverell, Sparkle Hayter, and the late Bunny Wright. Add to that list the up and coming Sam Wiebe, if this debut is any indicator. It has smarts, style, and a slick P.I. who deserves a long series of searches. Mike Drayton specializes in missing persons cases. In most cases, the lost can be found or they turn up of their own free will. But the missing persons that stay missing are the ones Mike remembers. Especially when the missing are young and the family continues to wait, hope and hunt. When Mike takes on the search for the missing son of a local junk-merchant, he quickly discovers that a previous sleuth was corrupt and the cops on the case didn’t do their jobs. Just what happened is part of a much larger plot that evolves as Mike continues the hunt. There are a couple of first-novel bobbles but they don’t hurt the story and Wiebe’s characters are believable and well drawn. –M.C.

Thin Ice

By Nick Wilkshire, Dundurn, 288 pages, $17.99

I know very little about hockey, but I do know that Thin Ice, a murder mystery about hockey and the big business behind it, is a terrific read from Ottawa author/lawyer Nick Wilkshire. Curtis Ritchie is the hottest name in Ottawa when the local NHL team signs him in the spring draft. The whole town is wild to see the young phenom in his first game of the season… and then he’s found dead. That brings in Ottawa Major Crime Unit investigator Jack Smith. The media image of Ritchie is of the clean young man with the fabulous talent but there’s much, much more that Smith discovers. Plenty of people had a motive to want the hockey star dead. Hockey fans will like the insider bits but the plot works well for the non-skater too. –M.C.

The Secret Place

By Tana French, Viking, 452 pages, $32.95

Anyone who’s attended or taught at a girls’ school knows that teenagers can be sneaky, sly and crushingly brutal. In Dublin at St. Kilda’s, school for the daughters of the elite, The Secret Place is where the girls put their nasty notes, gossipy tales, and, one day, a photo with the message “I know who killed him.” The dead boy is handsome, popular Chris Harper. Detective Stephen Moran knows that solving this case can get him a coveted slot on the Dublin Murder Squad. But Moran quickly discovers that St. Kilda’s girls are covering up more than murder and the iron law of The Secret Place protects a killer. One of French’s best. –M.C.

The Whole She-Bang 2

Edited by Janet Costello, Toronto Sisters In Crime, 230 pages, eBook $.99 until Jan. 15, 2015, $3.99 after.

The short story is a mainstay of crime writing. Most authors try it and many graduate from short to longer pieces. The Sisters In Crime anthologies showcase some known and many (as yet) unknown writers. This new one includes a great piece by the late much-loved Lou Allin, as well as a batch of good stories from writers Catherine Astolfo, Melodie Campbell and Jill Downie. There’s humour, plenty of suspense and some real drama here and it’s great for filling in those moments while you’re waiting for the gravy to thicken or the potatoes to boil and you don’t want to get too involved in a long book. –M.C.

Many Unpleasant Returns

By Judith Alguire, Signature, 208 pages, $16.95

Agatha Christie, a clever marketer, knew the value of the Christmas mystery. She produced some of the best, filled with poisoned puddings and corpses under the mistletoe. Judith Alguire’s Rudley series, set in a charming southern Ontario bed-and-breakfast The Pleasant, is the perfect setting for holiday mayhem and so we have the usual cast of characters arriving for the holiday. But before Trevor and Margaret Rudley can get the mulled wine out, someone poisons Mr. Sawchuck’s salt substitute and strange Santa dolls start turning up in odd places. Then there’s the body in the driveway. This one is terrific fun right down to the feast at the end. –M.C.

Leaving Time

By Jodi Picoult, Random House, 416 pages, $30

Since becoming a fixture on bestseller lists eight years ago, every novel Jodi Picoult puts out has been touted as her “best one yet.” But this one might actually be her best one yet. It’s got everything you’d expect from Picoult: the impeccable pacing, the efficient prose, the expertly rendered characters, the brushstrokes of deep emotional brilliance, the carefully presented moral dilemmas. But somehow, Picoult has managed to do what she does so well with human characters – present them as a hodgepodge of flaws, quirks and strengths that give the reader no choice but to believe in their existence – with elephants, too. Leaving Time follows 13-year-old Jenna as she sets out on a quest to find out what happened to her mother, Anna Metcalf, an elephant-grief researcher who disappeared after a tragedy that left a co-worker dead. She enlists the help of a washed-up-cop-turned-private-investigator named Virgil Stanhope, and Serenity Jones, a psychic who fell spectacularly from grace on national television years before. As the narrative moves towards its unexpected and shockingly beautiful conclusion, Picoult presents a chronicle of the inner lives of a group of elephants and their ancestors that makes this book part breathless mystery, part exquisite love letter to a species that shares a surprising amount in common with humans, especially in the way they socialize, care for their young, and grieve their losses. Truly, this is Picoult at the top of her game. –M.S.

Burying Water

By K.A. Tucker, Atria, 368 pages, $18

This first installment in a new romantic suspense series by the Canadian author of the USA Today bestseller Ten Tiny Breaths is the guiltiest of pleasures – and absolutely merits putting on your pajamas, turning off your phone, and sneaking away from all obligations. It’s easy to become immersed in the will-they-won’t-they saga of a young woman beaten and left for dead in the rural woods of Oregon – who wakes up in a hospital with no memory of her previous life and names herself Water after the tribal tattoo that is her only clue to who she once was – and Jesse Welles, the smouldering 24-year-old bad guy with a heart of gold who lives next door to the ranch she’s holing up in and has a mysterious connection to her tortured past. Novels that involve amnesiac characters run the risk of many clichéd pitfalls, but Tucker avoids them as she deftly presents the story of how Water ended up in such bad shape, what Jesse’s role was in her previous life, and whether their romantic connection can survive both the hell it’s already been through and the challenges in store for the star-crossed pair. Another addictive triumph for the impressively prosaic Tucker. (One of the best parts about reading one of her novels is that you always know you won’t have to wait long to get your next fix. Becoming Rain, the second book in the series, is expected to be released in March 2015.) –M.S.

Accidents of Marriage

By Randy Susan Meyers, Atria, 368 pages, $29.99

Randy Susan Meyers is at her perceptive best as she first presents the harrowing realities of a marriage on the rocks and then rips it all apart in one calamitous moment. Maddy is a social worker who fell for her husband Ben, a public defender, because of his fiery passion for life and justice. But three kids and more than a decade later have seen her ardor for him fade to frustration and fear as his angry outbursts increase in intensity and she struggles to cope with their demanding home life. When Ben’s temper gets the better of him yet again during a car ride on a rainy afternoon, the disastrous consequences leave Maddy fighting for her life. Meyers has worked with batterers and victims of domestic violence, and so her revelations about the inner workings of a marriage at its breaking point and the potential for such savage consequences ring painfully true. The chapters written from the perspective of 14-year-old Emma, the eldest daughter in the family, add a rich, insightful layer to a disturbing, redemptive, and positively unforgettable read. –M.S.

It Started With Paris

By Cathy Kelly, Orion, 400 pages, $20

Fans of famed Irish storyteller Cathy Kelly will delight in her latest offering which, as the title suggest, starts in Paris at the top of the Eiffel Tower with a young man proposing to his girlfriend while tourist bystanders clap. This rosy romantic scene doesn’t present the full picture, though, and Kelly skillfully reveals how the lives of the young man and woman affect a cast of characters back in Ireland. There’s heartbroken Leila, who has been jilted by her husband and is struggling to care for her aging mother; Vonnie, a widowed baker who is being thwarted at every term as she attempts to get her love life up and running again; and Grace, a divorced head teacher who struggles with the fact that the upcoming marriage of her son means she must spend more time with her ex-husband – finding in the process that she may have made a mistake in leaving him. The wedding is the event that draws all these characters together in a story that is as sweet as a mug of hot chocolate – but also smart, savvy, and expertly spun by a storytelling master. –M.S.

Out of this World

By Charles de Lint, Razorbill, 464 pages, $21

Charles de Lint likely needs no introduction: A winner of the World Fantasy Award and a hero of imaginative storytellers and readers alike, his books arrive highly anticipated. In the third book in The Wildings series, we have Josh in the Otherworld, trying to understand his powers, foiled by a backlash from animal clans and his elders. Between two worlds, Josh and his comrades must rely on their timorous loyalty to hash out their survival. Lively and full of heart. –L.B.

Earth & Sky

By Megan Crewe, Razorbill, 306 pages, $18.99

On an alternate Earth, where alien scientists have been studying humanity via time-altering experiments, young Skylar is troubled by the premonition that things are somehow deeply maligned. When she meets Win, an enigmatic young man who affirms her suspicions, Skylar is exposed to a reality far more troubling than she had imagined. A smart story blending a satisfying time warp with politics that feel fresh, it is a terrific read for those seeking an unlikely adventure that will explode expectations of what might, and could, be lurking below the observable surface of society. –L.B.

One Death, Nine Stories

Edited by Marc Aronson and Charles R. Smith Jr., Candlewick Press, 160 pages, $19

A deliciously delightful collection of nine stories, each focusing on a death, by murder or not, this book combines just enough spookiness to entice while retaining the requisite humanity to make the macabre meaningful. Focused around the demise of young Kevin, it becomes clear that through the people he has left behind, he is not at all gone from this earth. Through a collection of tales from strangers, first loves, childhood friends and the filial, a life and death and beyond is delicately, beautifully filled out, and what is most resonant is what is left unsaid. A human, haunting group of tales. –L.B.

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