Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Best reads of 2018

I was a little surprised to find I'd read 101 books in 2018. Every year I think the number will drop to 80 or so, but it sticks pretty resiliently at c.100. According to Goodreads, the books totalled 34,435 pages, the third highest year over the past ten. I guess it's a mark of the books I read that the pages just flew by. In the end I read 12 books I rated at five stars and here is my best reads selection. Difficult to put in an order as all were excellent.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

An expansive and endearing story of the life of Count Alexander Rostov, placed under house arrest in the Metropole Hotel in Central Moscow in 1922. It is somewhat of an allegorical tale exploring the nature of being confined within borders and hope, friendship, dignity and making-do under political tyranny driven by political ideology. The characterisation and character development is excellent, as are the social interactions between them. There is a real sense of place as to the Metropole Hotel and all the goings on within its walls. The prose is lovely and the storytelling compelling, full of wonderful little side stories, musings, and reflections on life. And the long arc of the plot, with its somewhat meandering path, is very nicely executed.

The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle

The Way Back to Florence is a tale of love during war between an Italian woman and English man, and between a father and his young daughter. The tale is told as a multi-layered narrative, involving a number of entwined threads, and doesn’t pull any punches with respect to the harrowing experiences of the lead characters. The story is loaded with a deep sense of realism, tension and affect, so that just as the characters cycle through a gamut of emotions, so does the reader. The result is a visceral, engaging, thoughtful and at times traumatic story of love, loyalties, compromises, and survival.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

In 1829 Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be formally executed in Iceland. Hannah Kent provides an in-depth and sympathetic character study of Agnes. The story is somewhat of an existential tale, in part examining the mind and actions of a person awaiting death, in part charting the path that led to this fate. In combination with some wonderfully evocative and lyrical prose, a strong sense of place and time, the result is a compelling, thoughtful-provoking read in which the nuances and circumstances of the crime are laid bare. In particular, the characterisation and social relations between Agnes, her priest, and the farm household are beautifully realised.

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper

A noir tale of a father and daughter struggling to take on a major criminal gang, the Aryan Brotherhood, and survive. Nate decides that the only way to make the death sentence placed on the two of them go away is to cause so much destruction and lost income that the Brotherhood call quits. Polly transforms from a relatively innocent, bullied school girl into a mini-Bonnie Parker. Harper provides a very nice balance of character development and action, telling a fresh, modern-day noir that slowly ratchets up the tension to a dramatic denouement. It’s difficult to see how the story could be improved – an excellent, engaging coming-of-age tale with a twist.

The Force by Don Winslow

The Force is a tour-de-force police procedural, with well-drawn characters, a strong sense of place, and a complex, multi-layered, intricate plot that has more twists and turns than a bowl of spaghetti. What elevates the book is its wider political and social reflections. Most crime fiction is also usually a slice of social realism that provides a commentary on society and its ills. That commentary is often incidental, but in The Force, it’s front and centre. Winslow’s ambitious tale of cops on the take in New York is not simply an engaging, compelling tale, but a searing exploration of law and justice in the US.

Watch Her Disappear by Eva Dolan

The fourth book Zigic and Ferreira series focuses on violent attacks against trans women, while also developing the personal lives of the lead characters, and the institutional politics of their police station. Dolan does a very nice job of exploring the often complex family situations of trans women, as well as the hateful ways they are often treated by society. She never loses sight, however, that she is telling a police procedural and does a very good job of keeping the reader guessing as to the guilty party. A very good police procedural, with engaging characters and a compelling plot.

Sirens by Joseph Knox

A dark, gritty, violent tale of fall and redemption set in Manchester. Aidan Waits has a past he’d sooner forget and a future that is seemingly going nowhere. The route to possible salvation is go undercover into the city’s criminal underworld. Knox’s tale is a rollercoaster of a read, a dark, chilling thriller that throttles along, full of twists and turns and tension. The sense of place and atmosphere are excellent, as is the characterisation. Knox layers in multiple threads to produce a small Gordian knot that is slowly unravelled. The result is a compelling, page-turner.

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham

Fiona Griffiths is a wonderful literary creation, an engaging, complex, multidimensional, and often surprising character. In this outing, she trains to go undercover and then penetrates a sophisticated, careful and ruthless criminal gang who are perpetrating an enormous accounting fraud. The plotting is excellent, with Bingham spinning a multi-layered tale that also twists and turns and creates plenty of tension. The police procedural elements are very nicely done and the whole book feels steeped in realism.

Rain Falls on Everyone by Clár Ni Chonghaile

Rain really does fall on everyone in Clár Ni Chonghaile’s tale of identity and belonging in situations of violence in Dublin. Ni Chonghaile’s tale is a carefully crafted slice of social realism. It is shot through with empathy and pathos, but it is not for the faint-hearted with its scenes and discussion of domestic abuse, genocide, gang violence, suicide, and racism. The characterisation, character development across the story, social interactions and sense of place are excellent. Engaging, thought-provoking and compelling.

A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee

Set in 1920s India, detectives Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee travel from Calcutta to Sampalpore, an Indian state rich from trading diamonds and run by an aging Maharajah, to investigate the assassination of a Prince. The tale has all the hallmarks of a very good police procedural: an interesting puzzle, well-drawn and engaging characters, a balance of investigation with character development and back story, strong sense of place, nice pacing, plenty of intrigue and twists and turns, and interesting framing and contextualisation. Does a very nice job in detailing the complexities of Indian society, politics, and pre- and colonial history. The result is a thoughtful, entertaining and colourful tale.

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