Monday, January 4, 2016

Best reads of 2015

I read and reviewed 99 books in 2015.  Here are my favourite fiction books read in 2015 (5 star reviews).  For full reviews of each book click on the links and to see all 99 reviews click here.

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

In my opinion The Laughing Policeman a masterclass in how to write a realist police procedural novel that does not rely on coincidence or plot devices to move the story along, nor does it concentrate on a non-conformist, lone cop (plus sidekick) who singlehandedly solves the case whilst coping with all kinds of personal issues.  Instead, the case is solved through patient, diligent investigative work by a team of cops, involving a lot of footwork, collaboration, probing, leaning on informers, petty criminals and suspects, and wandering down blind alleys.  The story is completely gripping as the dyspeptic Beck and his team inch towards solving the death of their colleague and eight other passengers shot late at night on a Stockholm bus.

A Fine Dark Line by Joe Lansdale

A coming of age tale set over the summer of 1958 in town of Dewmont, East Texas.  The voice is pitch perfect and Lansdale drops the reader into the world of an innocent thirteen year old boy living in a liberal family in a socially and racially divided society as he learns of the world’s various vices, some of its terrors, and how to survive them.  The characterisation is excellent and there’s a clear sense of character development as the story unfolds.  Where the tale really excels is the sense of place and time, and the plot.  The result is a taut, tense mystery that is vividly told and keeps the reader engaged and guessing until the final page.  I thought it was a wonderful, poignant and riveting read.

The Long-Legged Fly by James Sallis

A wonderfully emotive tale underpinned by strong character development and observational philosophy.  Sallis’ narrative subtly explores race and gender in the Deep South, and reflects on the intricate webs of social and political relations and histories people are bound up in. Sallis revels in the question ‘what does this all mean?’, with Griffin looking for answers on the street and the bottom of a glass.  The prose is a joy to read.

Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney

What separates McIlvanney’s crime fiction from most is, I think, its literary sensibilities.  While his stories are very much of the crime genre and are dark and gritty tales, they are crafted with prose and are rich in philosophical reflection.  In Strange Loyalties Laidlaw is trying to come to terms with the untimely death of his brother, picking away at questions that no-one wants answered except him.  While it's not the most cheery of tales it is compelling and haunting with Laidlaw seeking a truth that he knows he does not want to know. 

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers

Sayers’ book rightly deserves plaudits for being a classic crime fiction tale, ticking all the key boxes - intriguing and clever plot, a thorny puzzle, excellent contextualisation, nice characterisation and interaction between characters, a strong sense of place, and literary prose.  Essentially the tale is a whodunnit set in a small English village in the fens, centred on a Church and its bells, and the legacy of a robbery some twenty years previously.  The plotting is intricate and well executed with minimal use of plot devices, and while the tale strays a little from social realism at times it nevertheless hangs together coherently and is rounded off with an ingenious but plausible denouement.

Red Joan by Jennie Rooney 

An engaging and thought provoking traitor’s tale, Red Joan tells the story of a woman recruited at university by the Soviets who went on to become a leading spy at an atomic research centre and her subsequent interrogation many years later.  The narrative structure works very well, aided expressive prose, nicely crafted characterisation, and a carefully constructed plot.  A particular strength of the story is how Rooney unsettles any straightforward black and white reading of being a traitor, providing a layered, nuanced and poignant account that gradually exposes a long held secret and its consequences, and explores themes of motive, ideology, conscience, guilt, regret, and protection.  

The Pale House by Luke McCallin

Set in the closing stages of the Second World War, McCallin has his German detective, Reinhardt, conduct a murder investigation in Sarajevo.  He weaves a clever, compelling and somewhat complex plot, nicely capturing the fear at work in the city, the tension within the German ranks and between them and their Croatian collaborators.  Reinhardt is a somewhat sombre character, but his principles and role as a flawed but ‘good German’ in a corrupt regime makes him an interesting anti-hero.  I particularly liked the very strong sense of place and historical context.  Overall, an excellent historical crime tale.

The Peripheral by William Gibson 

It’s easy to understand how some readers might get frustrated with William Gibson’s writing style.  In The Peripheral he uses a raft of made-up slang and neologisms, new cultural norms and invented technologies without ever explaining them.  He just plunges the reader into the narrative.  The result however is worth the disorientation.  The plot is ingenious and nicely constructed, with Gibson exploring the unfolding arc of history and the interplay of politics and technology, and speculating on the fate of humanity.

These books all received 4.5 stars and make-up the rest of my 'best of' list for 2015.

Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto
In The Wind by Barbara Fister
Angels Passing by Graham Hurley
The Instant Enemy by Ross Macdonald
The Dead Ground by Claire McGowan 
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B Parker
Mort by Terry Pratchett
The Vanished by Bill Pronzini 
Rosa by Jonathan Rabb 
Rough Riders by Charlie Stella 
Unholy Ground by John Brady


R.T. said...

Wonderful! I confess to being a low-life thief. I prowl around book bloggers' sites and steal reading ideas from their lists. Oh, what a great list of titles/authors I've stolen from you. I hope you won't report me to the authorities.

seana graham said...

Thanks for gathering these all in one place, Rob.