Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Best reads of 2016

I read and reviewed 104 books in 2016.  Here are my favourite fiction and non-fiction reads.  For full reviews of each book click on the links and to see all 104 reviews click here.

The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh

Set in 1974 in central Los Angeles, the tale follows the lives of five pairs of patrolmen working the night shift over a six-month period, culminating in a fatal shooting in MacArthur Park, where the men gather periodically to get drunk and let off steam.  The Choirboys is a fascinating, multi-layered story. The characterisation and social relations excellent, with Wambaugh fleshing out fully-dimensional personalities who form an uneasy and fractious alliance.  The vignettes and story arc are compelling and realistic.  And the prose and voice are engaging, blending serious social commentary with black humour and tragi-comedy.  A thoughtful, insightful, critical and entertaining read.  

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The story charts the life of Dorrigo Evans, a flawed war hero who is haunted by his love for a woman with whom he had a brief affair and the horror of a Japanese prisoner of war camp.  It’s essentially an exploration of the human condition through a series of contrasts and juxtapositions – love/indifference, freedom/confinement, compassion/cruelty, carefree/haunted – with threads of connection, such as the camaraderie of prisoners, family ties, poetry and literature.  The result is a vivid, haunting, moving and thought-provoking tale of love and loss told through some wonderful prose. 

A Killing Frost by R.D. Wingfield

The final book in the Frost series.  Wingfield does a great job at weaving together a multiple set of engaging plot lines, overloading the already overstretched Frost with cases and internal battles.  Along with the plotting, the characterisation is excellent and the dialogue and interactions between characters is superb.  The result is a thoroughly enjoyable read, full of black humour.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Exposure is a spy drama that focuses mostly on the fallout affecting a wife and children when a family-man is framed as a traitor.  The storyline is nicely plotted and paced. The characterisation and character development is excellent, with each of the leads being fully dimensional, along with the children, and their interactions ring true.  In addition, Dunmore keeps the mood and tension low-key but persistent, keeping the sense of an everyday family caught out of step front and centre.  The result is an engaging, thoughtful, understated literary spy tale.

Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn

The third book in the Emmanuel Cooper series set in 1950s South Africa.  Nunn has really hit her stride with this instalment.  The characterisation is excellent, especially Cooper and his colleague Shabalala, and Nunn nicely portrays their interactions and social relations.  Indeed, she excels at detailing the complex social structure within and between communities – Black, Indian, Jewish, White Afrikaans, White English – and the politics of policing within such strictures.  There is a nice attention to historical detail and the sense of place is palpable with the reader being transported to rural South Africa and its dramatic landscape.  A very good police procedural that delivers on multiple levels.

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen

When the Doves Disappeared charts the entangled lives of three Estonians during the Second World War and twenty years later.  Each represent the different positions of Estonians during successive waves of occupation, resistance, and collaboration.  Oskanen maps out their intersecting lives, shuttling back and forth between the years 1941-44 and 1963-66, documenting the ongoing struggles and betrayals of family and country.  The result is a compelling, bleak, haunting and thought-provoking black drama that explores themes of love, loyalty, treachery, tragedy and freedom. 

7Days by Deon Meyer

7Days has all the good hallmarks of a police procedural – an interesting lead cop and supporting cast, a strong sense of place, interesting puzzles, and attention to detail – but also have the pace and tension of a thriller. Meyer expertly balances character development, plot and pace, producing a highly engaging and entertaining read that not only delivers an intriguing story but nicely advances the longer narrative of the Benny Griessel books.  I was hooked from the first page.

The Whisperers by John Connolly

The ninth book in the Charlie Parker series set in Maine.  In this outing, Parker is tasked with discovering why a small group of Iraqi veterans are taking their own lives.  All the key elements were on point, the hook, the social commentary on the Iraqi war and the treatment of veterans, the investigation, the sense of place, the characterisation and social relations, and the plotting.  The result is an engaging, informative and tense read grounded in strong research that contextualises but doesn’t swamp the narrative.  A thoroughly entertaining tale.

Eleven Days by Stav Sherez

In Eleven Days Sherez uses the format of a police procedural and London’s diverse population to shine a light on a couple of fairly weighty issues: the political turmoil and violence in Peru during the 1970s and the role of liberation theology and the contemporary movement of Albanian criminals into London’s underworld and sex trafficking.  The result is an engaging and compelling tale full of gritty realism in which the politics is a crucial element of the story but never overly dominates it at its expense.  I wasn’t entirely convinced by the denouement, which I felt had one twist too many, but nonetheless a superior, thought-provoking, edge-of-seat police procedural.

City of Thieves by David Beniof

City of Thieves is a well crafted coming-of-age story set during the Siege of Leningrad.  The tale has a number of strengths, including an engaging voice and prose, well-paced narrative, a well-developed sense of place, time and context, and a great hook and engaging story line.  What makes the book shine, however, is the characterisation and the emerging relationship between two friends, Lev and Kolya. Benioff nicely blends their quest to find a dozen eggs, with observations about Soviet society and the war.  An engaging and entertaining tale of hardship, friendship and adventure.


The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the US rowing eight and their quest to win gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  The central hook for the story is the life of Joe Rantz, a man who’d had a hard upbringing and had never rowed three years prior to the Olympics.  Brown tells a multi-layered story, weaving together strands that detail the development of rowing at UW in the 1920s and 30s, the personal trajectories of coaches and master boat builder, George Pocock, their rivalry with the University of California, and rowing in the US more generally, the Great Depression, and how the Nazis orchestrated the 1936 Olympics.  The result is a richly contextualised, fascinating, and highly entertaining tale, rich in personal biographies, historic occasions, and high emotion and drama.

Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen

As the Second World War in Europe drew to a close the Allies started to hunt down Nazi war criminals and top German scientists.  In many cases, these two groups overlapped.  The US had a choice – prosecute scientists who had participated in crimes against humanity, or give them clemency and hire them to work on military science projects and for the US military-industrial complex. It chose the latter and through Operation Paperclip recruited many to work for the US.  Jacobsen does an excellent job of setting out the Operation Paperclip programme and detailing the cases of several of the most prominent scientists.  The result is an interesting, engaging and disturbing read that raises all kinds of moral and ethical questions

The Battle of Midway by Craig L Symonds

A very readable and highly informative account of the battle at Midway in June 1942, including some contextual framing with respect to Pearl Harbour, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the first US air raid on Tokyo.  Unlike previous accounts that suggest that the US were lucky to win the encounter, Symonds argues that the US won due to good intelligence, strong leadership, and the element of surprise.  Given the number of different threads and personalities involved the narrative could have easily become quite jumbled or bogged down in detail, but Symonds manages to blend the various strands into a coherent, gripping and page-turning story told with an engaging voice.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

I read THE CHOIRBOYS a couple of years ago. Brilliant book.