Thursday, January 1, 2015

Best reads of 2014

I read and reviewed 109 books in 2014 - in line with previous years but way more than the 80 I hoped to read.  Here are my ten favourite fiction books read in 2014 (not all of which were published during the year).  For full reviews of each book click on the links and to see all 109 reviews click here.

In The Morning I'll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty

Hits all the bases - strong voice and prose; very good sense of place and history that interweaves real events and people; nice characterisation and interplay between characters; and a well worked plot that entwines two compelling stories to great effect.  At one level the tale is a straightforward police procedural thriller; the twist is that McKinty inserts a cold case locked room mystery into the heart of the novel.  Both cases are very well told and enfolded, leading to a clever and interesting climax. 

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

A layered tale that has a great sense of place and social depth, dropping the reader into the world of Red Hook and its inhabitants, with keen observations regarding race, class, family, and urban life.  The characters are very nicely portrayed and their interactions and dialogue realistic.  The plot has a nice cadence, the prose is evocative, and the telling has a strong emotional register, especially a sense of foreboding, without ever slipping into melodrama or psychological suspense. 

Pest Control by Bill Fitzhugh

A screwball noir caper set in New York that plays off a confusion of two forms of extermination -- the killing of insect infestations and contract killing by hitman -- with the hapless hero of the story working as the former but being confused with the latter.  What I liked so much about the story is its warm, upbeat slant despite all the mayhem and madness taking place.  Fitzhugh also peppers the text with entomological detail about the various bugs that appear.  The plot is nicely constructed and well paced, with a succession of confusions, setups, twists and turns that keep the pages turning. 

Villain by Shuichi Yoshida
A thoughtful and thought-provoking read that could have easily been titled ‘Victim’, since the two roles are thoroughly entwined in Yoshida’s absorbing tale of the murder of a young insurance sales agent.  The great strength of the story is its telling, characterisation, contextualisation, atmosphere and plotting.  Yoshida’s narrative has an understated style, avoiding any melodrama, and yet captures the subtleties of emotion and human relations.  He does a particularly nice job of detailing the relationships between friends and family members and their petty jealousies, awkward moments, lonely reflections, secret fantasies and encounters.  

Long Way Home by Eva Dolan

The antithesis of the classic English cozy.  Rather than the amateur detective solving a dastardly crime in some middle/upper-class idyll, Dolan presents the rotten underbelly of modern Britain -- everyday racism, anti-social behaviour, poverty, and exploitation -- investigated by a police force under resource constraints and media pressure, who are mistrusted and little respected.  The real strength of the book is the plot, which is a cleverly worked police procedural with a couple of nice twists and turns, and the contextualisation and gritty social realism. 

Grind Joint by Dana King

A tale of a town in decline, local politics, personal rivalries, turf battles, inter-agency rivalry, family relations, and a cop determined to try and uphold law and order in the face of greed, betrayal, and rising crime and poverty.  King packs an awful lot into an excellent story, with multiple, intersecting plotlines, and he hits all the right buttons -- excellent characterisation, strong sense of place, good contextualisation, engaging plot, and tight, expressive prose.  King sticks firmly to social realism rather than veering off into a thriller with a capital T, with an undertow of compassion running throughout the narrative. 

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

The fourth book in the Philip Marlowe series.  The strength of the book is the plot and Chandler’s storytelling.  The story starts as a missing wife case, quickly becoming a two missing wives case, then a murder investigation.  It takes all of Marlowe's guile and abrasiveness to solve the puzzle, and the denouement is very satisfying as Chandler reveals a perfectly logical, but well camouflaged, twist.  Overall, a superior PI tale from one of the genre’s masters.

The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey

The fourth book in the DC Maeve Kerrigan series set in London sees Casey hits all the nails on the head: a well developed set of characters, a nicely constructed plot, a good sense of time and place, well depicted police procedural elements, engaging prose and narrative, and a good pace.  Kerrigan is a complex character, wracked with vulnerabilities, insecurities, and has low self-esteem, but at the same time knows she has talent, is headstrong and risk-taker, charting her own path often in direct contravention of orders.  The tale has plenty of intrigue, tension, twists and turns, feisty interchanges, and engaging subplots.  

Cross of Iron by Willi Heinrich

Considered one of the classic combat novels about the Eastern Front in World War Two, rather than glorifying the campaign, Heinrich instead delivers gritty social realism -- the daily grind of staying alive, everyday encounters with wounds and death, petty and class politics and personal rivalries, the formation of bonds between men who would never otherwise associate with one another, and the brutality of close quarter fighting.  The result is a compelling, sometimes harrowing, read, with a strong storyline and characterisation.

Keep Away From Those Ferraris by Pat Fitzpatrick

A satire set at the tail end of the Celtic Tiger.  Whilst the plot is quite outlandish it works extremely well because the boom then bust in Ireland was so outlandish.  There’s very little to fault - the plot is very nicely worked with some good twists and observational asides, the characterisation is spot on with even the ‘hero’ being somewhat of a cad, the contextualisation with respect to the Irish crash and associated shenanigans is excellent, the black humour and wit is genuinely funny, and the writing is engaging.


Anonymous said...

I have very much enjoyed the ones I've read from your list, Rob. And I've most of the rest on my TBR.

Bernadette said...

Your first two are on my own list Rob - great minds eh :) I've got several more of these on my giant TBR, looks like some good reading ahead for me then

Bill Selnes said...

Rob: I have not read any of your top 10. Maybe in 2015. They look excellent.

Anonymous-9 said...

Bravo, Rob. Happy 2015!

Rob Kitchin said...

Hi all. I think you'll enjoy all of these books.

Bernadette, I hope you're going to get back up to reviewing speed again as I always source great reads from your blog.