The Best Books of 2017

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We’ve reached that point of the year when the tower of 2018 proofs on my bedside table (and on my floor, behind the door, so visitors can’t see the madness) wobbles precariously with even the gentlest footfall. Which means it’s time to pull the plug on 2017 and start diving into next year’s titles. But before that, there’s the small matter of declaring The Best Books of 2017… otherwise known as my favourites. There are so many books I haven’t mentioned here that I adored, but what follows are the ones that my brain simply refused to forget.

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Review: Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly

9781760630775Two Kinds of Truth harnesses the strengths of Michael Connelly’s two longest-running series, uniting Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller in a book that’s a distinctive blend of police procedural and legal thriller, which is as much an addictive page-turner as it is a provoking meditation of the moral ambiguity that permeates society.

Thirty years ago former LAPD Detectives Francis Sheehan and Harry Bosch were certain Preston Borders raped and murdered three young women. He was eventually convicted of killing Danielle Skyler, and given the death penalty. He’s been sitting in San Quentin ever since, waiting for that fateful day. But now it looks like he’ll get out, thanks to an analysis of unexamined evidence from 1988, which has revealed DNA  on Danielle’s pyjama bottoms belonging to Lucas John Olmer, who died in prison, and is unconnected to Borders. Guided by his lawyer, Borders has filed a habeas corpus petition, and in doing so, accused the LAPD — specifically Bosch, since Sheehan is dead — of planting evidence against him.

Now working cold cases for the San Fernando Police Department, Bosch knows neither he or Sheehan did anything untoward that lead to Border’s conviction. But the mere hint of corruption would be enough to taint Bosch forever, sullying his reputation, and would force him to surrender his badge, and therefore his mission. So while his half-brother Mickey Haller prepares Bosch’s legal defence, Harry re-opens a case he’d thought long-closed, while also working with his SFPD colleagues to investigate the murder of José Esquivel Sr. and Jr., which thrusts him into undercover work as an addict and potential drug mule.

A little mystery and a lot of mayhem keep the plot boiling, and while the two cases remain unconnected, one influences the other with almost catastrophic consequences. We’ve not seen Bosch this far our of his comfort zone since he travelled to Hong Kong in 9 Dragons on a mission of vengeance. While the mystery in Two Kinds of Truth doesn’t possess the depth and complexity of Bosch’s most memorable cases, the standout scene, which is reserved for when Haller takes the stage in the courtroom, propels the book to Connelly’s usual Gold-Star standard. The Mickey Haller books have always evocatively portrayed the murky machinations of the legal system, and the brief episode here will have readers craving the next book in that series.

Michael Connelly does a masterly job of unravelling dual storylines, once again proving himself a consummate plotter as he steadily complicates an already complex narrative. His mysteries, and the Harry Bosch series, continue to burn bright.

ISBN: 9781760630775
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 25-Oct-2017
Country of Publication: Australia

 

Review: Under the Cold Bright Lights by Garry Disher

9781925498882Garry Disher is one of the most reliable craftsmen in crime fiction, and his latest, Under the Cold Bright Lights, epitomises his talents. This is a smart police procedural, with satisfying twists and turns, and a vigilante cop readers will want to see return.

Alan Auhl has returned to the Victorian Police Department after a brief sabbatical to work cold cases with a team of young detectives. He’s very much set in his ways, the kind of cop who prefers to get off his arse and knock on doors than run computer searches and make inquiries by phone. As such, his colleagues have dubbed him a retread, but he doesn’t mind. With his marriage in tatters, the job gives Auhl focus, and the three unrelated cases he works — four if you count a personal vendetta — demonstrate his unparalleled tenacity . . . and willingness to bend, possibly break, the law he was sworn to protect.

Auhl lives in a large shared-house — he refers to it as Chateau Auhl — which he uses to provide shelter for strays, people down on their luck, in desperate need of aid. Two of those boarders include a battered wife and her ten-year-old daughter, who are entangled in legal proceedings that will determine custody of the girl. Which means Auhl’s private life is as complicated as his professional one, as he juggles the death of John Elphick, and the discovery of a skeleton beneath a concrete slab, and the doctor who has seemingly killed two wives without leaving a trace of evidence against him.

Free of the structural problems you might expect from juggling so many unrealted plots, Under the Cold Bright Lights is a brilliant demonstration of Garry Disher’s artistry. And the doses of vigilante justice add essential pep to proceedings, providing a shot of adrenaline just when you think the book might be gliding. Gripping and intelligent, Under the Cold Bright Lights is a crackling page-turner, and proof that Disher should be held in the same regard as his international contemporaries. Connelly and Rankin fans should devour this, and Disher’s extensive back catalogue.

ISBN: 9781925498882
Format: Paperback (231mm x 155mm x 25mm)
Pages: 320
Imprint: The Text Publishing Company
Publisher: Text Publishing Co
Publish Date: 30-Oct-2017
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

Moonlight MileGone, Baby, Gone is one of my favourite crime novels, and I revisit it every couple of years out of sheer appreciation for its craftsmanship (its film adaptation is great, too). I’ve read Moonlight Mile — its sequel, penned and set twelve years later — just as often, and love it almost as much. Having reread it recently, it reminded me of how much I miss Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro . . . and also, how effectively Dennis Lehane ended (supposedly) his series.

Moonlight Mile relies on the emotional impact of the gut-punch ending of Gone, Baby, Gone. In that book, private investigators Patrick and Angie rescued four-year-old Amanda McCready from a couple who only wanted the best for her, and returned her to her unfit mother. The morality of that decision has plagued Patrick and Angie for more than a decade; it has become a subject they no longer discuss. In those intervening years, Patrick and Angie have married, and a blessed with a daughter. All things considered — they’re broke, scraping to get by, living from paycheck to paycheck — they are happy. They are a family. Then they learn Amanda disappears again, and wracked by guilt, Patrick makes it his mission to find her, which seems him square up against the Russian Mob and other nefarious characters, putting his wife and daughter’s life at risk.

The twelve-year gap between books works brilliantly. Angie and Patrick have matured, with flickers of their youthful, instinctive selves, but now burdened by other responsibilities. Once upon a time they could — and did — throw themselves into the fray with barely a thought of the consequences. They’re not able to do that anymore. Characters in crime fiction are rarely allowed to age — of if they are, because we revisit them every year or two, their changes and maturity occurs glacially. The constrast between the characters then and now makes Moonlight Mile a real treat. Lehane doesn’t labour on these differences; they’re identifiable, but nuanced.

Moonlight Mile packs plenty of action, well-developed characters, and an ending that’ll leave you wanting more, but also accepting of the fact Patrick and Angie may have nothing else to give. It’s not a revolutionary PI novel. Lehane doesn’t reinvent the wheel, here. But gosh, he’s proves that wheel has plenty of traction. It’s just a darn fine mystery novel with brilliant characters.

ISBN: 9780349123684
Format: Paperback
Pages: 448
Imprint: Abacus
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 1-Jun-2011
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Call For the Dead by John le Carré

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Call For the Dead, published in 1961, was both John le Carré’s first novel, and the world’s introduction to the inimitable George Smiley, who returns later this year in A Legacy of Spies. Paced with  le Carré’s trademark assuredness, it’s less an espionage novel and more of a murder mystery, whose main players happen to work for British Intelligence, with a plot that revolves around East German spies inside Great Britain.

Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office civil servant, apparently commits suicide after a routine security check by Circus agent George Smiley. Certain erroneous details, however, identified by Smiley’s keen eye, bring Fennan’s fate into question. With  Inspector Mendel in tow, Smiley unravels a clandestine spy ring, the members of which will stop at nothing to keep their secrets safe.

Call For the Dead is perhaps John le Carré’s simplest story in terms of scope, but it still manages to highlight the inherent complexities of the life of a spy. Smiley is one of the unlikeliest heroes in espionage fiction, described here as a somewhat short and fat man, but it’s his tenacity and intelligence that shines through, as always. It’s no wonder le Carré decided to continue relaying the man’s adventures to his burgeoning readership. Having said that, the novel hasn’t aged especially well, and modern audiences might struggle with this one. Most readers will accept the now-outdated technology of the time, of course; that’s not the issue. It’s the structure of the book itself — an opening chapter, for example, that is nothing more than a history of George Smiley (it’s actually titled A Brief History of George Smiley!) — that occasionally grinds and clunks. Also, Call For the Dead ends with a summation of the core plot points, penned by Smiley, which is quaint, but something contemporary writers wouldn’t get away with so plainly. Le Carré’s thrillers are now celebrated for their nuance, and in that regard, Call For the Dead definitely has a “first book” vibe.

Nonetheless, re-reading Call For the Dead was a worthy exercise, reminding me of how much more elaborate and nuanced Le Carré’s novels later became. It will be interesting comparing this with A Legacy of Spies, surely the final Smiley thriller, and charting the immeasurable advancements of the world’s greatest writer of espionage fiction.

ISBN: 9780141198286
Format: Paperback
Pages: 160
Imprint: Penguin Classics
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 1-Nov-2011
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: UNSUB by Meg Gardiner

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Darkly and extravagantly imagined, full of pulse-pounding action and brutally emotional highs and lows, UNSUB is a tremendous work of suspense fiction. The nerve-shredding never lets up for a minute as Edgar Award-winner Meg Gardiner picks you up by the scruff of the neck and shakes you vigorously, over and over again, until finally shoving you to the ground, standing over you, and with a smile, asks if you’re ready to go again, with a sequel clearly already in the works. Canny plotting, tight prose, swift tempo; the only thing readers will be left wanting is more.

Two decades after a five-year murder spree that cost 11 lives and the sanity of Alameda County Sheriff’s Department Detective Mack Hendrix, the serial killer dubbed the Prophet resurfaces. Mack’s daughter, Caitlin — a freshly-appointed Narcotics detective — is assigned to Homicide to work the case, her superiors hoping she can utilise her father’s exhaustive knowledge of the killer to facilitate a quick resolution. But the Prophet is shrewder, bolder, and far more savage than ever, leaving taunting notes addressed to the wider public, and later to Caitlin herself. It’s clear he wants an audience as he builds to his psychotic, bloody crescendo, in a case that becomes significantly more personal for Caitlin.

Gardiner piles on the plot twists, false leads, violent set pieces and climactic surprises in a novel that at times strays into implausible territory as the Prophet’s schemes become increasingly grandiose, but with its breakneck pace and plethora of memorable homicides, readers won’t have a chance to second-guess its extravagances, and in fact, will appreciate its pedal-to-the-medal summer blockbuster style. Gardiner has a gift for sustaining momentum that never lets up, constantly upping the ante, topping off proceedings with a genuinely heart-stopping climax.

Agonisingly suspenseful, served up with pulpy panache and a hero to root for, UNSUB stands as the best thriller of the year, securely positioned as the book to beat.

ISBN: 9781101985526
Format: Hardback (229mm x 152mm x 25mm)
Imprint: Dutton Books
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publish Date: 27-Jun-2017
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner

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A spare, propulsive, ever-intensifying noir novella by the creator of Mad Men.

With Heather, The Totality, Matthew Weiner has written a superior, haunting thriller about obsession and parental love, laced with moral ambiguity, with a sobering ending that lands like a gut-punch.

Almost entirely void of dialogue, Weiner’s sparse expository style works thanks to razor-sharp sentences and characterisations. We’re introduced to Mark and Karen — set up by mutual friends — who marry and quickly find themselves expecting a baby, Heather, who — when she enters their lives — becomes the centre of their universe. It would seem the perfect life, the Breakstone’s the idyllic family living in an apartment building west of Park Avenue, with barely a hint of menace in the text. That is, until Weiner introduces Robert ‘Bobby’ Klasky, born into poverty and violence ten years after Mark and Karen’s first date, whose emotional corruption results in a spree of crimes that escalate in seriousness as he gets older. From then on, the reader knows: at some point Klasky and the Breakstone will cross paths, and the repercussions will be catastrophic. But events don’t necessarily play out as you’ll expect.

Heather, The Totality is a superb read-in-one-session book that exposes the harsh realities of love, and obsession’s inescapable links to violence.

ISBN: 9781786890634
Format: Hardback  (214mm x 135mm x mm)
Pages: 144
Imprint: Canongate Books Ltd
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
Publish Date: 7-Nov-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom