Sunday, January 1, 2012

Best reads of 2011

2011 was a good year for reading. I completed and reviewed 103 books, 92 of which were fiction. I awarded five stars to 12 fiction books and one non-fiction. Difficult to decide which two to leave off the top ten list, but below is my final ten fiction choices. My book of the year was Declan Burke's Absolute Zero Cool. Only two of the 34 books I read that were published in 2011 made it onto my final ten list (I might do a separate published in 2011 list).

Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke (2011). "Burke uses Greek mythology, theology and philosophy to deconstruct and satirise the life of a writer, the crime novel and contemporary society, especially the Irish health system. The result is a very clever book, that’s at once fun and challenging. The prose and plot has been honed within an inch of its life, full of lovely turns of phrases, philosophical depth and keen observational insight. ... Absolute Zero Cool takes the crime genre and its many tropes and stereotypes and throws them out the window. It’s a genuinely unique tale."

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (2010). "A slower burner of a novel that never really roars into fire, but rather sizzles along intensely from start to finish. Which suited me just fine; this was a book to savour. Like Daniel Woodrell, Franklin immerses the reader in the landscape, people and rhythms of rural America; its small town politics and social relations, the poverty and racism, the slowly decaying buildings and half-tamed wilderness. Indeed, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a masterclass in Country Noir - atmospheric, understated, dark, humane. The plotting was excellent with just the right balance of back story, historical flashbacks and contemporary unfolding."

Field Grey by Philip Kerr (2010). "Field Grey is a real return to form. It is a big book linking together parts of Bernie’s life between 1931 and 1954 and a connected set of events and actors in Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia. The plotting is intricate, with the flashbacks skilfully interwoven with the 1954 narrative, and dotted with insightful observations and history. The pacing is well judged, the characterization excellent, the dialogue and action credible and engaging, and the balance between show and tell just right."

Mixed Blood by Roger Smith (2009). "Mixed Blood starts at a nice quick pace and steadily gathers more speed, rattling and twisting along like a rollercoaster by the end. This pace, however, is not at the expense of plot, sense of place or characterisation. Indeed, Smith manages to pack an awful lot into three hundred pages and Mixed Blood is a masterclass in tight, taut and tense writing. Smith perfectly captures the troubled post-Apartheid politics and geography of Cape Town, its racism, poverty, crime and corruption. The Cape Town tourist industry probably won't thank him for his efforts, but anyone who likes noir will thoroughly enjoy this dark tale."

The Holy Thief by William Ryan (2010). The Holy Thief skillfully weaves together a police procedural with the understated elements of a spy thriller a la Le Carre. The characterization is well developed and Korolev is sympathetically portrayed with an interesting back story and enough depth to sustain a series. Where the book excels is in the contextual framing of politics and social relations of Stalin’s Russia – the cliques and factions, the collectivization, the role of the state, the division of power and resources, the social conditions and the everyday drudge of making ends meet – and in the strong sense of place and claustrophobic atmosphere. The plot is carefully constructed and well paced, with sufficient twists and turns and tension points."

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (2011). "The book has all the ingredients I like in a novel - a strong story, well penned characters, a good sense of place and atmosphere, lovely prose, and a sensitive embedding in historical context. The characterization and the social relations between the principals - the love, jealousy and tension - is the standout quality of the book. At the heart of the story are the themes of friendship, betrayal, guilt and forgiveness and these are skillfully woven through each other, providing the threads that tie the two time periods together. The prose is rich and colourful, and a real joy to read."

Secret Dead Men by Duane Swierczynski (2004). "Swierczynski has one hell of an imagination and taking a reader and immersing her/him in the world as he’s conceived it, and to believe and go along with that world, takes a lot of skill. He manages to pull it off and after the first two dozen pages the story is zipping along. The jumping between bodies, false identities and double crossing demands a certain attention to the plot, but it’s well worth it. Secret Dead Men is a blast of a read and the most imaginatively conceived crime novel I’ve read in ages, possibly ever."

Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston (2004). "Caught Stealing starts at a canter and is soon at a flat out gallop. Huston’s writing is terse, edgy and captivating. I was hooked from the first page to the last. Huston does a great job of introducing the reader to Hank and his world in an economical, yet rounded and somewhat self-depreciating fashion, and in constructing an action filled, yet strangely credible, plot. I thought it was a hoot. If someone has some spare cash for the film rights, and they’ve not already been snapped up, then it would make a terrific movie."

Winterland by Alan Glynn (2009). "Winterland is a searing social commentary on Irish life, full of keen observational insight and emotional depth. Glynn writes with deceptively engaging prose, appearing quite ordinary but actually well layered and lyrical. The principal characters are all nicely developed, with full contextual back stories. The plot was well structured and despite the story being framed as a thriller that links a disparate set of characters it is very believable. A very entertaining read that provides real insight into twenty first century Ireland."

The Deputy by Victor Gischler (2010). "The Deputy is country noir crime novel that unfolds at an ever-quickening pace. Gischler writes in a well honed, pared back prose, and like Daniel Woodrell seems to be able to paint characters with a few deft strokes. Whereas Woodrell focuses on the everyday and mundane consequences of crime, Gischler delivers a rollercoaster ride, with twists and turns and some very fine set pieces. There’s a nicely developed sense of place and the plotting is first rate. I thought it was a blast of a read and zipped through it in a sitting."

Non-Fiction book of the year

The Ghost Mountain Boys by James Campbell (2007). "The story of the 32nd Division’s campaign in New Guinea in WWII, their trek across the Owen Stanley range and the eerie Ghost Mountain, and their struggle to overrun the Japanese at Buna. A wonderfully engaging narrative that provides a detailed overview of the campaign. In my view, this is military history at its best, working at different levels and registers to give the reader a real sense of the tragedy of war. A poignant but rewarding read."


seana graham said...

Thanks for this list. I've only read two books on it, but look forward to reading the others.

Rockman said...

I've read five of your ten. Of those, I'd rate 'Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter', 'Caught Stealing', and 'AZC' a little higher than I would 'The Deputy' and 'The Holy Thief'.