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In a remote, almost unpopulated area adjacent to Argentina’s pampas, China Iron, the main character and speaker in this small epic, grew up believing that she was “born an orphan,” never having known her mother. Brought up as a virtual slave by a woman known as Las Negra, she was then married off to Martín Fierro, a gaucho-singer who won her in a card game and by whom she had two sons before reaching the age of fourteen. Now, in 1872, her husband has been conscripted by the army, along with all the other young men of the outpost, and China has decided to take off, not in search of her sometimes violent husband, but in search of a life. Leaving her babies with an elderly couple, she joins with Liz, a red-haired Scottish woman whose husband Oscar was conscripted before he could take possession of land he had planned to purchase and develop. Liz, with an oxcart, supplies, and clothing from her previous life abroad, is about to set off across the pampas in her cart to find and rescue Oscar, and she is happy to have some company. The trip becomes a mini-epic (with a twist) based on the Martín Fierro work from 1872, as China, Liz, and the cowherd Rosario head for new worlds beyond the pampas. Brilliant descriptions, lively characters, and a picture of Argentina in the 1800s that few will forget. On the Favorites List.

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In this autobiographical novel of his early life and family in Gjirokastra, Albania, author Ismail Kadare focuses primarily on his mother, “the center of his universe” for his early years. Though she was not a warm, demonstrative person, her son stresses that she did have a caring nature and that it was “her self-restraint, her inability to cross a certain barrier,” that gave her a “doll-like mystery, but without the terror.” Her tears, he says, sometimes “flowed like those in cartoon films,” but when he asked her once about the reason for them, her answer “[made] my skin creep to recall it: ‘The house is eating me up!’ ” she claimed. Totally different from the newer, warmer house in which his mother had lived with her own family before her marriage, the Kadare residence was a grim, three-hundred-year-old building almost devoid of people, and for Kadare, it is as much of a character here as the family itself. Kadare’s early interest in writing eventually causes him to leave his home for later schooling in Tirana and Moscow, exposing him to many philosophies alien to his Russian teachers. These ideas further develop for him as he continues his work into the future and in exile in Europe. Trips back to his old house bring back last memories and the perplexity of his early life and family.

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If Jeremy Olson’s arresting cover art does not inspire new readers to investigate this book, the descriptions in the novel’s epigraph certainly will. Here July, the sister of September, describes her sister as, among other things, a black hole, a falling tree, the last packet of crisps, and a bricked up window. It takes little imagination to appreciate that this book is about to become a dark, perhaps horrific, psychological novel involving two sisters and, at a distance, their mother. Quickly involving her readers in the narrative, author Daisy Johnson depicts the disturbed family arriving at a decrepit house in the North York Moors. The sisters and their mother have moved there from Oxford, where the girls have lived all their lives to date, and none of them have any real expectation that they will be leaving this remote location anytime soon. Sheela, the mother, promptly disappears into a neglected but unoccupied room which will be hers for the expected duration, while the girls will be on their own in their own area of the house. Hints about the past and references to something the girls have done in Oxford may have been responsible for the mother’s silence and isolation, and July suspects that their real crime is having been born at all. A suspenseful can’t-put-it-downer.

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Ten pages into this novella, which Muriel Spark claimed was her favorite among all her novels, the fate of main character Lise is not in doubt. Lise will be dead before the book ends. Since the reader will suspect who the murderer is well before the murder happens, the author has always preferred to refer to this book not as a “whodunnit,” but as a “whydunnit,” a term she uses within the book. From the outset the reader observes surreal, alarming, and clinically insane behavior from Lise, the victim. At the same time the person who seems to be her murderer appears to be a just bit wacky. Unexpected ironies throughout turn the novel on its head, creating a mood in which dark humor and bizarre surprises keep a smile on the face of the reader almost all the way through the novel – until the reader discovers the truth, that the person in “the driver’s seat” throughout the novel’s action is actually neither of the two main characters. It is Muriel Spark herself, whose ability to play with the reader’s sensibilities, control them, and then reveal the extent to which they have been manipulated turns the “whydunnit” into an unparalleled tour de force.

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Australian author Christian White uses two separate narratives to create a murder mystery which goes way beyond the usual thin characters forced to deal with bizarre and unexpected experiences. By alternating chapters between two families, he focuses instead on creating real people who find themselves suddenly dealing with events for which they have never prepared, many of which are now crises that have evolved from experiences buried deep in their past. The two narratives have few connections until late in the novel, as “The Wife” and “The Widow” share their lives with the reader but do not know each other and have virtually no contact. It is not until the ferry arrives on tiny Belport Island with Kate Keddie and her father-in-law, Fisher Keddie, about a third of the way into the novel, that the mystery takes off. Arriving at their summer house, they discover that there is food in the microwave, a shopping bag on the counter, and a note to himself written by John Keddie. Fresh sheets on a bed, items in the bar fridge, and a room service menu prove to Kate and Fisher that John has, in fact, been at the island during his “missing” weeks. Unfortunately, however, a body is soon found inside a car that has been located in deep water off the harbor docks, and, not surprisingly, the body inside is John’s. He has been murdered. Written in clear, precise prose, and filled with drama and excitement, the novel raises questions about sacrifice and guilt which will linger long.

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