Thursday, January 2, 2020

Best reads of 2019

I read and reviewed 87 books in 2019, totalling 31,908 pages according to Goodreads. I rated 14 books as five star reads, two of which were non-fiction. That's a pretty good strike rate for excellent reads, which is mostly down to knowing whose recommendations to trust. Difficult to put the books in an order as all first class.

The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei

Linking together six novellas, the stories trace the legendary career of Kwan Chun-dok, a Hong Kong detective, working back from the present day to 1967. While each tale is an intricately plotted police procedural, where the mystery is a difficult puzzle that takes a different form – locked-room, prisoner-dilemma, jail break, siege, kidnapping, terrorist conspiracy) they are also astute social and political commentaries about Hong Kong as it passes from British colony to the sphere of Chinese rule. Kwan is an intriguing character, full of humanity and compassion, but ruthless in pursuing justice. An engaging, intriguing and thought-provoking novel with excellent plotting, strong character development, and a good sense of place and historical context.

A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott

Manda Scott expertly weaves together two inter-related plots that are separated by seventy years. The first concerns a battle of wits between a master Gestapo agent who cleverly turns resistance members and a group of SOE agents and French Marquis that last much of the war. The second charts the present day investigation into the assassination of one of the elderly former SOE agents. Both threads make for compelling stories, but when twisted together the result is a page-turning thriller. The characterisation is very nicely done, there’s good historical contextualisation, and the underlying premise in terms of the post-war era is interesting. Scott peppers the plot with twists and turns, and keeps the reader guessing to the end.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Ursula Todd is born on 11 February 1910 and promptly dies. History repeats but she lives, the doctor having made it through the snowstorm. It is a pattern that Ursula is set to repeat dying multiple times in several different ways, sometimes a sense of déjà vu saving her from the same fate in a subsequent life. Mostly her lives follow a very similar trajectory, occasionally they diverge and take a different track. At some point, she realises that she could potentially save the world from the darkness of the Second World War. But can one person stop fate? Atkinson uses the repeating lives idea to explore the notion of history as a palimpsest. The result is an engaging, thoughtful literary novel that asks big questions but not in a highbrow, inaccessible way.

The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh

The Blinds blends together aspects of a Western with a SF memory loss tale. Caesura, West Texas, is a dusty, isolated town of second chances. Its residents are either criminals or key witnesses who’ve had their memories altered so they cannot remember what led to them being there. A suicide and a murder have them worried. Sternbergh spins-out a compelling yarn in which the past gradually intrudes on the present leading to betrayal, violence, redemption, and desperate fight to survive. The plot is very nicely constructed with plenty of intrigue and tension, the characterization is excellent, and there’s a strong sense of place and context. A wonderful, engaging, fresh tale of corrupted justice.

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran

Claire, a wonderful, flawed, complex, anti-hero character with a self-destructive streak, investigates the murder of an ex-boyfriend. Half debilitated by drugs, grief, and the memories of a past case, she slowly seeks clues. As with all detectives trained in the Silettian tradition, her pursuit is truth rather than justice, and Gran mixes in philosophy, dead-pan and dark humour, and two interesting mysteries. I was hooked from the get-go and my interest never waned. This multifaceted, engaging and quirky tale would be perfect for a movie treatment or a TV series.

Only Thieves and Killers by Paul Howarth

A coming of age tale set in the settled outback of Australia in 1885. when their parents are murdered and their sister left for dead, brothers Tommy and Billy team up with a wealthy landowner and ruthless policeman and head off into the outback to capture the suspected Aboriginal killers. While Billy embraces the bigotry and violence of the landowner and native police, the other starts to regret what they have started and resist rough justice. Howarth creates an engaging story rooted in a credible history of Australian colonialism and the relations between settler and Aborigines without it swamping the story or becoming preachy. There's strong character development, and a good sense of place and time. 

Tightrope by Simon Mawer

Marian Sutro, a SOE agent dropped into France in 1943 and arrested by the Gestapo a short time later and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Post-war she returns to Britain to be debriefed and to convalesce but finds it hard to adjust. She still craves purpose and adventure, so when an opportunity arises to slip back into the intelligence world she takes it. Mawer tells her story via a narrative pieced together by her biographer, Samuel, who’d been obsessed with her ever since he was a boy. It’s an interesting approach as it allows for hesitancy and silences where the biographer has to speculate about motives and what really occurred. The tale is very nicely plotted, with Marian struggling with loyalties and motives, and her past and her future, as she’s drawn into the cold war intelligence and romance.

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

Nayir Sharqi works as a desert guide and Katya works as a lab technician in the coroner’s office. They are paired together through their shared acquaintance with the brother of Nouf Shawari. Nouf is found dead in the desert having drowned in a flash flood and the brother asks each of them to investigate her death. The sixteen year old girl was due to be married shortly after she disappeared. Ferraris creates a compelling murder mystery tale that is firmly rooted in the culture and place of Saudi Arabia. The contrast and awkward tension between Nayir and Katya nicely unfolds, as does the investigative elements of the plot.

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Set in Tokyo, The Devotion of Suspect X is a police procedural with a difference. The reader is presented with the murder at the start of the novel. Yasuko Hanaoka and her daughter murder her abusive former husband. Their neighbour, Ishigami, who is smitten with Yusuko, hears the fight and offers to help them dispose of the body and create a cover-up. A body is subsequently found, quickly identified and the police turn up at Yashuko’s door. Will the police discover the truth given Ishigami’s carefully plotted cover-up? It's a slow burn, but the patient build-up is worth it. Despite having sight of all sides in the game, the pay-off for the reader is the double-twist in the denouement. It’s relatively rare to come across a twist so clever and the ending is just perfect. Overall, an absorbing tale with a nice philosophical spin.

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonio Hodgson

A whodunit set in a London debtors prison in 1727. Tom Hawkins, a young man who has dropped out of training for the church, finds himself in the prison as a debtor. He has to adapt quickly, but saviour is promised if a challenge is completed – solve the murder of Captain Roberts that took place a few months before he entered and he'll have his debts cancelled and be set free. Hodgson draws on real testimony about life in Marshalsea prison and the populates the story by a number of real-life historical characters associated with the prison. She spins the tale out with plenty of intrigue and twists and does an admirable job of creating a strong sense of place and history. The result is a well-researched, engaging historical murder mystery full of colourful characters that keeps the reader guessing.

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