Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Best reads of 2012

I read and reviewed 109 books in 2012, way more than the 80 I predicted at the beginning of the year.  Nearly all of them scored three stars and above - thus ranging from solid, enjoyable reads up to outstanding.  In other words, I read a lot of good books by authors whose other works I'd also be happy to read.  I gave 16 books a 5 star rating and another 13 4.5 stars.  Here are my top ten novels and my top non-fiction book, with wee snippets from my reviews - click on the covers to link to the full review.

In We are the Hanged Man Lindsay mercilessly satirises reality television to great effect.  At points the story appears to hang on a comic flight of fantasy, but as unlikely as parts of the premise seemed somewhat paradoxically they also felt wholly plausible given the pervasive and intrusive nature of reality television and how society is presently governed.  Indeed, the story is very nicely plotted, thickly laced with dark humour, with a little bit of everything thrown in - drama, intrigue, humour, mystery, tension, romance.  It has some wonderful observational touches, played out through some excellent dialogue and scenes.

The City of Shadows is quite simply a brilliant crime novel.  Although his debut novel, Michael Russell has a wealth of experience as a television scriptwriter (Midsomer Murders, A Touch of Frost, Emmerdale) and it shows in the quality of the story, which works at every level - plotting, sense of place, historical contextualisation, characterization.  Whilst the plot is expansive and complex, it is straightforward to follow and utterly compelling, grabbing the reader from the start and not letting up in intrigue or pace, and very well structured.  There are plenty of twists, turns and feints, with the reader kept guessing until the very end as to the mystery of the disappearance of Hannah’s friend.

The Point is a novella. And whilst it’s a relatively short book - I flew through in a couple of hours - it packs one heck of a punch. The writing is tight, each scene crafted and shorn of flab, and the pace is electric and never lets up. What really struck me about The Point was that it managed to work at a number of different levels - it has crime and violence, warmth and tenderness, humour and pathos - and it had gritty realism to the anarchic arc of the Morgan brothers freewheeling lives.

In Istanbul Passage Kanon envelopes the reader in the city in the immediate post-war era - a city on the fulcrum between East and West in a country seeking to remain somewhat neutral in the coming cold war.  Kanon expertly recreates its cultural landscape and sense of place - the melting pot of sights and sounds; the busy waterways and markets; the contrasts between rich and poor; and the political and diplomatic haunts of consulates, hotels and private parties.  The characterisation is keenly observed, especially Leon Bauer, who is given the unenviable task of keeping alive a war criminal, someone hated by the Jews he helps rescue, and who finds himself caught in both a political drama and an unfolding romance.

As an Irish police procedural, The Cold, Cold Ground might just be the best example of a police procedural so far produced on the island.  McKinty immerses the reader in Carrickfergus and Belfast in 1981 - its politics, its riots, its policing, its fashions, music and social relations, its sense of place, without it ever swamping the narrative. The attention to detail is excellent. Sean Duffy is a complex, flawed and bright lead character, out of his depth and desperately trying to stay afloat amongst paramilitary groups and police and security service politics, and determined to solve the two cases.

I loved A Dirty Job. It was inventive, clever, laugh-out-loud witty, and well told. The main trick to comic noir fantasy is to create a fully believable world that the reader can inhabit despite its oddities. Moore does an excellent job of this, placing the reader in the geography of San Francisco, the world of Charlie Asher and the ‘death merchants’, and the underworld of the Morrigan. The contextualisation concerning beta-males and soul collecting is nicely woven into the narrative. The characterisation, in particular, was very nicely done with each character well-penned, distinct and fully fleshed out.

The Envoy is a superior spy story that blends real world events and people with a fictional tale.  It is complex, multi-layered, atmospheric, full of historical and political insight, and reveals deep insight into human relations.  Wilson constructs a compelling and plausible plot that cleverly uses real events, such as the Ordzhonikidze incident in Portsmouth harbour, Britain’s hydrogen bomb program, and the Suez crisis, and real personalities such as Allen Dulles, Jack Kennedy and Dick White.  He recreates the social landscape of Britain and the wider political atmosphere and diplomatic games being played in the 1950s, providing a deep sense of historical realism.

As debut crime novels goes, White Heat couldn’t be much better. It has everything a good crime novel should have: strong plot, excellent characterization, vivid sense of place, a dollop full of history, culture and social politics, and a swirl of conspiracy. The book doesn’t simply describe the world of Edie Kiglatuk - the small, tight knit community and the icy, harsh landscape - but places the reader into it. Edie is a wonderful creation - a headstrong woman who rails against custom and tradition at the same time as she tries to maintain them in the face of encroachment by the ‘white world’.

It’s difficult to think of a crime that it is not committed in Wake Up Dead - armed robbery, murder, theft, blackmail, rape, fraud, bribery, assault, kidnapping, cannibalism, abandonment, carjacking, drug dealing, the harvesting of body parts; the list is endless.  And they happen multiple times.  In other words, Wake Up Dead is not for the faint hearted.  From its inception it’s a fast moving, violent tale, whose pace and body count rises as it progresses to its bloody conclusion.  I was hooked from the start, caught in the headlights as the carnage and life histories of its victims unfolded on the page.  The most visceral, action packed rollercoaster ride of a novel I’ve read this year. 

The Nameless Dead is the fifth instalment of McGilloway’s Ben Devlin series.  McGilloway has the full measure of Devlin’s world - his family, police politics and rivalries, his embedding in the social and criminal landscape of the border.  The writing is very assured, with a lovely cadence and pace, and nicely balances plot, characterization, sense of place and contextualisation.  The plotting is particularly well done, interlacing a number of subplots to produce a layered and textured story that charts both the investigation and Devlin’s personal life.  A satisfying and superior police procedural in what is shaping up to be a very accomplished and enjoyable series.

Homicide is a detailed 650 page, warts and all expose that shows the cops of Baltimore in both a good and negative light.  It’s a brilliant piece of ethnographic research and an excellent read.  Simon uses particular cases and officers to explore in detail various aspects of the job, crimes and judicial service, and moreover he mixes up the writing style and perspective to keep the narrative fresh.  Even though it involves a large cast, it is easy to follow the dozens of threads and personalities.  A fascinating, disturbing and excellent read.


Anonymous said...

Rob I've only read two of your top 10 books, but I look forward to reading at least four if I can find time and I'll take note of the other four.

Paul D Brazill said...

Some good sounding books there! Happy new year!

Bernadette said...

I've only read two of them - the McKinty made my own list of favourites for the year, the McGrath we'll have to agree to disagree :)

Of the others I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the Russell and Konrath books in particular

Elizabeth said...

They look good...I haven't read any of them. Going to need to check them out.

My favorites are below, but they aren't all mysteries.

Great blog. Going to follow my e-mail.

Silver's Reviews
My Favorite Books of 2012

Rob Kitchin said...

Elizabeth, thanks for stopping by and for the link to your best reads. Likewise, I've not read any of your top picks. So many books, so little time. I'll also check out your blog in more detail. Best, Rob