The Amateur Spy (Knopf)
Over the past 10 years, Fesperman has steadily crafted a remarkable body of work and carved a niche for himself in a crowded field of mystery/thriller novelists. A longtime Sun journalist and foreign correspondent, Fesperman has a knack for placing already-at-risk characters in settings that are both physically and psychologically challenging. As a result, suspense builds from the inside out and intensifies as external circumstances twist the plot to squeeze his protagonists. Here, Freeman Lockhart, a frazzled aid worker with a questionable past, gets recruited to spy on a former colleague in the Middle East. At the same time, a prosperous Palestinian-American couple (Abbas and Aliyah Rahim) living in Washington, D.C. comes unhinged by the torments and anxieties of a post-9/11 world. Their paths cross in Jordan, where aid organizations, terrorist groups, freedom fighters, the local police, and international spies whisper secrets as events explode around them. Lockhart may be the antihero of this book, but the Rahims give it a moral complexity that lifts the story beyond the typical thriller. Like Laura Lippman before him, Fesperman seems poised to trade the "great mystery/thriller novelist" tag for "great novelist." Period.
Suzanne Strempek Shea
Sundays in America (Beacon)
Shea spent a year traveling around the United States and attending Christian worship services, of various denominations, along the way. Because her account is so even-handed, this book comes across as a document of curiosity as much as faith. She visits mega-churches, small town parishes, and even the chapel at Denver International Airport, and mingles easily with pastors and parishioners alike. In Chicago, she goes to Trinity United Church of Christ, Barack Obama's church, but misses Jeremiah Wright. She also finds a substitute pastor at Al Green's church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle, in Memphis. Although Shea sits in on Jimmy Carter's Sunday school class in Plains, Georgia, it's not the famous people and places that make this book a good read; it's the typical Americans practicing their faith, day by day. At the end of the book, she reflects on her travels and cites a few particularly memorable churches, including Baltimore's own St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Fells Point.
C. Fraser Smith
Here Lies Jim Crow (Johns Hopkins)
In this case, you can judge a book by its cover. On it, civil rights activist Gloria Richardson, looking fiercely determined, brushes aside a National Guardsman's bayonet during a demonstration on the Eastern Shore. It sets the tone for Smith's spirited discussion of Jim Crow laws and the efforts of Marylanders to resist and overturn them. To Smith's credit, the heroic work done by lesser-knowns like Richardson and others ranks up there with local titans Thurgood Marshall and Harriet Tubman.