Monday, January 1, 2018

Best reads of 2017

I read a lot of good books in 2017, though I completed fewer books than in the last few years - 85. Selecting the top ten was relatively easy given I'd only given ten books 5 stars. I'd rated another fifteen as 4.5 stars. Thirty percent of reads hitting the top two categories is a pretty good strike rate, I think. Here's my best reads selection.

The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong

A brilliant slice of literary Australian noir told through twin narratives. The first details the attempt by Darren Keefe – a bad-boy of Australian cricket – to free himself from the confines of a car boot. The second charts the childhood and careers of Darren and Wally, his elder brother who secures a place in the Australian national team and eventually becomes captain. The plotting, pacing and prose is superb, with Serong creating a convincing story of two brothers who seem to have it all but are always slightly out of their depth and attract tragedy as much as success. The characterisation and character development is excellent and the denouement packs a powerful and surprising punch.  

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Sellout is the story of how an unnamed narrator becomes infamous through his efforts to place Dickens, a town in South Central Los Angeles, back onto the map and to challenge ideas of race and racism within the black community. The story is smart, sassy, outrageous, knowledgeable, and laugh-out loud funny. It is highly entertaining tale, with a great set of characters and an engaging storyline, yet also makes one reflect and think on a whole bunch of social issues and the history of race relations and places.

Real Tigers by Mick Herron

Real Tigers is the third book following the exploits of the slow horses – spies who’ve been put out to grass because of some major blemish in their careers. The two key elements – plot and characterisation – are excellent. The slow horses are pawns in a much larger game between a vengeful ex-army senior officer, a clownish but ruthless politician, the head of MI5 and her internal rival. There’s plenty of scheming, backstabbing, action, and twists and turns. Herron creates a multi-threaded and layered story with the strands being drawn to a climatic showdown and intriguing fallout. The dialogue and social relations between characters is nicely done, as is the storytelling in general, and there's a delicious streak of dark humour running throughout.

The Trespasser by Tana French

The sixth book in the Murder Squad series set in Ireland charts an investigation into the death of a young woman in Dublin. The story provides a microscopic account of the case, including every sentence in every interview, all of Detective Antoinette Conway’s thoughts, rich descriptions of context and scenes, detailed explanations of procedural elements, etc. It could have been overly descriptive, but is actually fully absorbing with the detail adding to the tension. This is aided by close attention to office politics and psychology and strong characterisation and character development. A wonderfully written, multilayered and intense tale. 

After You Die by Eva Dolan 

The third book in the Ferreira and Zigic series set in Peterborough. In this outing, the pair and their small team investigate the murder of a mother and the death of her severely disabled child who been victims of a harassment campaign. It's strong point is its realism and tight plot that doesn't rely on unlikely coincidences or weak plot devices. Dolan does an excellent job of keeping various possible suspects in the frame and shifting potential guilt between them. The characterisation is nicely done, as is the peeling back of the victims’ lives and their relationships. The tale also deals well with issues around disability, harassment, and fostering. Overall, a captivating read.

There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty 

The sixth book in the Sean Duffy series set in Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. Duffy seeks the killer of a local drug-dealer which brings him into the orbit of paramilitaries who ‘police’ local areas. As usual he manages to rub his colleagues and powerful people up the wrong way, with potentially deadly consequences. The characterisation, sense of place and time, intertextuality, and prose are excellent, and the dialogue throughout the story sparkles. In addition, the pacing and plotting is very nicely done, with tale working its way to a tense denouement without obvious plot devices. 

Riptide by John Lawton

The fourth book in the Inspector Troy series, though a prequel to the other books in the series, set in 1941. The plot centres on the hunt for a senior Nazi and American agent who has fled to London and is hiding in the city, unsure who to trust. The story blends to strong historicisation and sense of place with a ripping yarn peopled with interesting and engaging characters, ranging from everyday folk to senior diplomats and politicians to real-life players at the time. The result is a wonderfully evocative sense of London at war and a gripping tale of espionage, politics, murder and pathos, that has a nice side line in dark humour.

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

The second book in the Peter Grant series set in modern day London, which slots into the genre of urban fantasy police procedural. The tale has all the elements of a good story – plot, voice, sense of place, context, characterisation. I was particularly taken with the voice, the little asides about London’s history and jazz, and observations about modern policy. The trick with good urban fantasy is to make it seem completely natural so the reader suspends disbelief without effort and the magical elements don’t jar or throw the reader from the story and Aaronovitch executes this very well. There’s also a nice streak of humour running throughout.

Redemption Road by John Hart

Elizabeth Black is a tough cop living with a dark secret. Ex-cop Adrian Wall has served 13 years for the death of a local woman. The day after he’s released, another woman is found dead in the same place and laid out in the same way as Adrian's first victim. Elizabeth seems to be the only person who doesn't believe Adrian is guilty. There's a lot going on in the story with two prime story lines and their various subplots. The pacing is at a quick tempo and there are multiple mini-cliffhanger moments. Indeed, the story is full of tension, though it's also relentlessly grim. The result is a kind of literary redemption, serial killer tale with a hell of a lot more going on than the average literary tale.

The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell

The second book in a trilogy. The hapless Paul Mulchrone has started a new private investigation company with Nurse Conroy and former Detective Sergeant Bunny McGarry. Mulchrone's task is to trail a property developer involved in large-scale corruption, embezzlement and building control violations. It should be straightforward but someone is murdering the developer’s colleagues. The tale is great fun; witty throughout and with a number of laugh out loud moments, plus it has all the elements of a decent crime tale. The characterisation is excellent, the plot is well constructed building to a nice denouement, and there's a strong sense of place and context.

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