The Best Books of 2019

When I started making this list, I had more than 40 books scrawled on a piece of paper. Getting it down to 20 books was difficult. Whittling it down to 10 was excruciating. I could actually feel it in my gut each time I crossed one out. Fact is, this list would probably be slightly different depending on the day you asked me to make it. On any other day, Favel Parrett’s There Was Still Love, Adrian McKinty’s The Chain, and R.W.R. McDonald’s The Nancys — not to mention a whole host of others — might’ve made it. But ultimately I think my Top 10 fairly and evenly represents the books that I think stand above the rest this year.

Continue reading “The Best Books of 2019”

Review: Keeper by Greg Rucka

9780553574289Greg Rucka is an unsung genius of thriller writing, whose debut Keeper still sparkles more than 20 years after its publication. His professional bodyguard protagonist, Atticus Kodiak, has as much brio as Jack Reacher; but his heroics are packaged in adventures anchored by dynamic characters, and a willingness to dive deep into social issues without forsaking the vitality of the narrative. In this case, it’s America’s abortion debate, which remains salient today, more than four decades after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, and two decades since Keeper landed in bookstores, with opponents and supporters of abortion rights are still arguing over the issue.

In Keeper, Kodiak is hired to protect the director of a Manhattan abortion clinic whose life has been threatened by militant pro-lifers lead by a zealous charlatan, Jonathan Crowell. Kodiak, whose girlfriend has just undergone an abortion herself, is personally committed to Felice Romero and the safe-guarding of her daughter, Katie, who has Down syndrome. So when his protective details fails to stop a particularly heart-wrenching murder, Kodiak doubles-down on protecting his charge, and uncovering the identity of the killer, and putting them in the ground.

Rucka, whose prose has echoes of Robert B. Parker and Chandler, maintains a rapid pace, steadily increasing the tension as the narrative builds to its cinematic climax at a cemetery. The ingredients are familiar, but in Rucka’s hands, the recipe is fresh and exciting.

ISBN: 9780553574289
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 332
Imprint: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group
Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc
Publish Date: 5-May-1997
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman

rpszjbl-hw2zxzwhle8vxvx43mw9mko2gztt1c7xxdn0va6060A superbly crafted espionage thriller that doubles as a gripping mystery.

West Berlin, 1979; the height of the Cold War. Helen Abell is the young, rookie overseer of the CIA’s network of clandestine safe houses. She’s serving one such safe house, which is supposed to be vacant, when she overhears a meeting between two people, speaking  in a coded language that hints at a vast conspiracy. Encouraged by her lover, a veteran agency operative, to forget what she heard and erase the taped evidence, Helen returns to the safe house, only to stumble upon the abhorrent scene of a high-profile undercover agent violating one of his contacts.

Thirty-five years later, Helen and her husband are shot dead in their farmhouse; purportedly by their mentally-ill son. But Anna, his older sister, doesn’t believe he’s capable of such violence, so hires private investigator Henry Mattick to uncover the truth. She doesn’t know that Henry’s already been tasked by a shadowy benefactor to observe the farmhouse and report back to his mysterious contact…

Fesperman cleanly divides the dual narratives of Safe Houses into the past and present, setting scenes that slowly build in intensity, and keeping readers guessing about who can and cannot be trusted. The novel only stumbles once, when Anna and Henry become romantically involved, which feels like such a cliche, but I’ll forgive Fesperman, because the rest of Safe Houses is watertight; the prose crisp, the characterisations vidid. Fans of Cumming, Herron, Porter and le Carre will feel right at home in Fesperman’s world. It’s a chunky six-hundred page thriller that readers like something half the size, and leaves you wanting more.

ISBN: 9781788547888
Format: Paperback / softbackPages: 624
Imprint: Head of Zeus
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publish Date: 11-Jul-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Dying Trade by Peter Corris

9781921922176Published in 1980, The Dying Trade introduced readers to one of Australian crime fiction’s most enduring and endearing protagonists, Sydney-based private investigator Cliff Hardy. At the time of his death last year, Peter Corris had written more than forty mysteries starring the hardscrabble gumshoe. I’ve read maybe half of them, and even the mid-grade mysteries are buffed to high gloss thanks to the author’s economy with words, and acute sense of place; Corris’s ear is finely attuned to the voices of Sydney’s distinct neighbourhoods. Not to mention the first-person narrator makes for good company.

The pleasures of The Dying Trade may be primitive, but they’re genuine. There are echoes of Chandler and Hammett, but Hardy’s first outing isn’t some lame Aussie pastiche. Here, Hardy is hired by a wealthy property developer to determine who is harassing his sister. But of course there’s far more to it than that; and as Hardy digs deeper, he discovers dark and deadly secrets connected to the Gutteridge family.

What makes The Drying Trade, and the entire Hardy series so compelling, is the author’s ability to extricate moral complexity from absolutely everyone on the page; suspects, victims, even the protagonist himself.

ISBN: 9781921922176
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 372
Imprint: Text Classics
Publisher: Text Publishing
Publish Date: 26-Apr-2012
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Neon Prey by John Sandford

neon-prey-9781471184383_lgRelentlessly formulaic, this is assembly-line stuff from John Sanford. Lucas Davenport remains a strong enough protagonist to keep the pages turning, but it’s starting to feel like the author is phoning it in. Neon Prey is slick, swift, and utterly forgettable. It hits all the right beats, but with an impotence that undermines any tension or compulsivity.

Thing is, there’s enough here to elevate this manhunt beyond routine. The ingredients just seem undercooked. Initially Clayton Deese seems like your run-of-the-mill gun-for-hire criminal. But when he skips bail after job goes wrong, U.S. Marshals start digging deeper into his background and discover Deese is actually a prolific cannibal serial killer, who has gone undetected for years. Enter: Lucas Davenport, whose job is to hunt Deese down and bring him in, or put him down. But for all his supposed menace, Deese never feels terrifying. He’s a sketched villain rather than a fully-formed threat. He’s a bad guy because he does bad, bloody things, that we sometimes see on the page, but it all happens so hurriedly, there’s absolutely no resonance. Sandford has created some truly terrifying villains; Deese is not one of them. A problem when he’s the driving force of the narrative.

Not much of a thriller, not much of a mystery. Sandford has a brilliant ear for dialogue, and it’s the character interactions that make Neon Prey worth sticking with, assuming you like the cut of the author’s jib. Sandford has done better, and hopefully will again. The thirtieth novel in the series is out next year.

ISBN: 9781471184390
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 25-Apr-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: She Said by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey

9781526603272“If the story was not shared, nothing would change. Problems that are not seen cannot be addressed. In our world of journalism, the story was the end, the result, the final product. But in the world at large, the emergence of new information was just the beginning — of  conversation, action, change.”

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the two New York Times journalists who broke the Harvey Weinstein  story and helped ignite the  burgeoning #MeToo movement, tell how they did it in this behind-the-scenes, blow-by-blow recount of their investigation. This story, like their series of articles implicating  the Hollywood film producer in an abhorrent three-decade-long sexual misconduct scandal, doesn’t require sensationalism; She Said powerfully and starkly depicts the reality of life as an investigative journalist, as Kantor and Twohey doggedly pursuit leads and sources, encourage witnesses to come forward and speak on the record, and deal with Weinstein’s attempts to sabotage their efforts to reveal the truth.

She Said is a powerful testament to the power of journalism, and a tribute to Kantor and Twohey’s persistance and commitment to not only uncovering the powerful men in America responsible for sexual abuse, and for covering it up, but for identifying the elements of the system that keep sexual harassment so pervasive. This is only the beginning of the dismantling of an oppressive system. She Said is vital to stoking the movement’s flame. Long-form journalism at its absolute finest.

ISBN: 9781526603272
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 336
Imprint: Bloomsbury Circus
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Publish Date: 10-Sep-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Night Fire by Michael Connelly

9781760876012-1I have read all 32 — now 33 with The Night Fire — of Michael Connelly’s crime novels at least twice, and I’m almost certain I’ve read each instalment in the Harry Bosch series on three or four separate occasions. These books are nestled in my bookcase, spines proudly creased, pages yellowed; worn, and loved, and returned to. If one author epitomises precisely what I want from my crime fiction, it’s Connelly: enthralling police procedurals without the outrage pyrotechnics that blight many of his peers.

There has been a notable shift in Connelly’s writing since the premier of the Bosch television series. In the early days, the books focused on a single investigation. Think of Angels Flight, when Bosch investigated the murder of a high profile black lawyer; or City of Bones, when a chance discovery leads Bosch to discover a shallow grave in the Hollywood hills. More recently, Connelly’s novels have handled multiple narrative threads; separate investigations, not always connected, twisting around each other. Think The Wrong Side of Goodbye and Two Kinds of Truth.  These novels read more like a television series; each chapter an episode contributing to an overarching story. One style is not better than the other, necessarily; in fact, I appreciate the evolution and refinement of Connelly’s craft.

The Night Fire is a perfect encapsulation of this ‘new’ brand of Connelly. Once again uniting former LAPD detective Harry Bosch — approaching 70, but who still bleeds blue despite giving up his badge years earlier — and Renee Ballard — an active cop who works midnight shift; the ‘late show’ — this new novel focuses primarily on their dual investigation into the cold case of the unsolved killing of ex-con John Hilton, whose murder book was hidden away in Bosch’s recently-deceased former partner’s study, for reasons unknown, but which we’ll discover. At the same time, Ballard is working her own case: the arson that killed a homeless man inside his tent. And as if Bosch didn’t have enough on his plate, dealing with a medical diagnosis that ties back to 2007’s The Overlook, he finds himself involved in the defence of the client of his half brother, Lincoln lawyer Mickey Haller. Because if the defendant on trial isn’t responsible for the murder he’s accused of, there’s still a killer out there, who the police aren’t looking for. a

Connelly’s genius is his ability to render the slow, meticulous, dogged pursuit of murderers absolutely captivating. He is the unrivalled master of the police procedural. The Night Fire is a maze of distinct investigations, and Connelly is the perfect guide. Nothing excites me more in crime-lit than when Bosch has jazz playing on the stereo, he’s poured himself a mug of black coffee, and is about to open a murder book. I hope he’s got a few more cases left in him, but contented knowing Ballard is a more than capable replacement; not just a Bosch facsimile, but a character who lives and breathes in these pages.

ISBN: 9781760876012
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 416
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 21-Oct-2019
Country of Publication: Australia