Wednesday, 31 December 2014

These are a few of my favourite books of 2014...

This year I sadly did not read as many books as I wanted to.  However there were a number of books that I read that certainly made my favourites list this year and a number that are also honourable mentions.  They are as follows in no particular order (that is to say as a how I remembered them).

The Wolf in Winter by John Connolly.  John Connolly is one of those writers whose writing continues to fascinate in a myriad of ways.  With his latest Charlie Parker novel he has once again written a stylish novel that reminds longstanding readers as to why he is one of our foremost thrillers writers.  In The Wolf in Winter the community of Prosperous, Maine has always thrived when others have suffered.  Its inhabitants are wealthy, its children's future secure.  It shuns outsiders.  It guards its own.  And at the heart of the Prosperous lie the ruins of an ancient church, transported stone by stone from England centuries earlier by the founders of the town . . . But the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of his daughter draw the haunted, lethal private investigator Charlie Parker to Prosperous.  Parker is a dangerous man, driven by compassion, by rage, and by the desire for vengeance.  In him the town and its protectors sense a threat graver than any they have faced in their long history, and in the comfortable, sheltered inhabitants of a small Maine town, Parker will encounter his most vicious opponents yet.  Charlie Parker has been marked to die so that Prosperous may survive.  I have always loved John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series and this one in my opinion is one of the best in the series.

The Fever is by Megan Abbott in which the Nashes are a close-knit family.  Tom, a popular teacher, is father to the handsome, roguish Eli and his younger sister Deenie, serious and sweet.  But their seeming stability is thrown into chaos when two of Deenie's friends become violently ill, and rumours of a dangerous outbreak sweep through the whole community.  As hysteria swells and as more girls succumb, tightly held secrets emerge that threaten to unravel the world Tom has built for his kids, and destroy friendships, families, and the town's fragile idea of security.  For me Megan Abbott is a writer whose novels always fascinate and always have a sense of place whether it is writing noir stories that evoke sexy, dark and tormented characters or teenage angst and family dilemmas. 

The Axeman's Jazz by Ray Celestin.  New Orleans, 1919.  As a dark serial killer - The
Axeman - stalks the city, three individuals set out to unmask him.  Though every citizen of the 'Big Easy' thinks they know who could be behind the terrifying murders, Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, heading up the official investigation, is struggling to find leads.  But Michael has a grave secret and — if he doesn't find himself on the right track fast — it could be exposed.  Former detective Luca d'Andrea has spent the last six years in Angola State penitentiary, after Michael, his protégée, blew the whistle on his corrupt behaviour.  Now a newly freed man, Luca finds himself working with the mafia, whose need to solve the mystery of the Axeman is every bit as urgent as the authorities'.  Meanwhile, Ida is a secretary at the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.  Obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and dreaming of a better life, Ida stumbles across a clue which lures her and her musician friend, Louis Armstrong, to the case and into terrible danger . . . As Michael, Luca and Ida each draw closer to discovering the killer's identity, the Axeman himself will issue a challenge to the people of New Orleans: play jazz or risk becoming the next victim.  And as the case builds to its crescendo, the sky will darken, and a great storm will loom over the city . . . The Axeman’s Jazz is a debut novel that will satisfy anyone who enjoys historical crime fiction.  Based on a real life killer it is also set in 1919 in New Orleans, the pre-prohibition era, and the birth of the jazz era and the mafia holding their grip.  Along with a young Louis Armstrong helping with the investigation it makes for a wonderful story.

Kill Your Boss by Shane Kuhn - If you're reading this, you're a new employee at Human Resources, Inc.  Congratulations.  And condolences.  At the very least, you're embarking on a career that you will never be able to describe as dull.  You'll go to interesting places.  You'll meet unique and stimulating people from all walks of life.  And kill them.  You will make a lot of money, but that will mean nothing to you after the first job.  Assassination, no matter how easy it looks in the movies, is the most difficult, stressful, and lonely profession on the planet.  Even when you're disguised as an intern.  John Lago is a hit-man.  He has some rules for you.  And he's about to break every single one.  Kill Your Boss is subversive, funny, twisty, ultra violent, and darkly comedic.  It is a novel that is destined to become a classic. 

After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman.  When Felix Brewer meets nineteen-year-old Bernadette 'Bambi' Gottschalk at a Valentine's Dance in 1959, he charms her with wild promises, some of which he actually keeps.  Thanks to his lucrative if not always legal businesses, she and their three little girls live in luxury.  But on the Fourth of July, 1976, Bambi's world implodes when Felix, newly convicted and facing prison, mysteriously vanishes.  Though Bambi has no idea where her husband — or his money — might be, she suspects one woman does: his devoted young mistress, Julie.  When Julie herself disappears ten years to the day that Felix went on the lam, everyone assumes she's left to join her old lover — until her remains are found in a secluded wooded park.  Now, twenty-six years after Julie went missing, Roberto 'Sandy' Sanchez, a retired Baltimore detective working cold cases for some extra cash, is investigating her murder.  What he discovers is a tangled web of bitterness, jealously, resentment and greed stretching over the three decades and three generations that connect these five very different women.  And at the centre of every woman's story is the man who, though long gone, has never been forgotten: the enigmatic Felix Brewer.  Somewhere between the secrets and lies connecting past and present, Sandy could find the explosive truth...  After Your Gone is a classic story of murder and mystery, in which one man's disappearance echoes through the lives of his wife, daughters — and mistress.  Laura Lippman is as skilful at plotting as she is at characters and setting and she is a writer of some of the best contemporary crime writing being written today.  Any of her novels are worth reading but with After I’m Gone she has written a novel that focuses on crimes of the heart and the repercussions that have an effect on so many. 

Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch.  If you haven’t read this series then I would urge you to do so.  This time around Peter Grant is out of whatever comfort zone he might have found and out of London - to a small village in Herefordshire where the local police are reluctant to admit that there might be a supernatural element to the disappearance of some local children.  But while you can take the London copper out of London you can't take the London out of the copper.  Travelling west with Beverley Brook, Peter soon finds himself caught up in a deep mystery and having to tackle local cops and local gods.  And what's more all the shops are closed by 4pm.  Think police procedural and magic and murder.  However, for all the murder and mayhem, this is a darkly comic read with characters you can't help but like.  Easily read by adults and young adults alike.

A Cruel Necessity by LC Tyler - The theatres are padlocked.  Christmas has been cancelled.  It is 1657 and the unloved English Republic is eight years old.  Though Cromwell's joyless grip on power appears immovable, many still look to Charles Stuart's dissolute and threadbare court-in-exile, and some are prepared to risk their lives plotting a restoration.  For the officers of the Republic, constant vigilance is needed.  So, when the bloody corpse of a Royalist spy is discovered on the dung heap of a small Essex village, why is the local magistrate so reluctant to investigate?  John Grey is a young lawyer with few clients at the time of Oliver Cromwell and Charles Stuart.  Grey is drawn into a vortex of plot and counter-plot and into the all-encompassing web of intrigue spun by Cromwell's own spymaster, John Thurloe.  So when nothing is what is seems, can Grey trust anyone?  LC Tyler is best known for his comedic crime novels featuring Ethelred Tressider a mid-list crime writer and Elsie his trusty agent.  However in A Cruel Necessity, LC Tyler has started a new historical series which is richly drawn and where it is clear that painstaking research has given this new series a strong sense of credibility and historical accuracy.  As a character John Grey is engaging as much as he is sympathetic.  This is a series that will no doubt get better and garner a loyal following.  Hopefully I am at the head of the queue.

The Final Silence by Stuart Neville.  Rea Carlisle has inherited a house from an uncle she never knew.  It doesn’t take her long to clear out the dead man’s remaining possessions, but one room remains stubbornly locked.  When Rea finally forces it open she discovers inside a chair, a table — and a leather-bound book.  Inside its pages are locks of hair, fingernails: a catalogue of victims.  Horrified, Rea wants to go straight to the police but when her family intervene, Rea turns to the only person she can think of: DI Jack Lennon.  But Lennon is facing his own problems.  Suspended from the force and hounded by DCI Serena Flanagan, the toughest cop he’s ever faced, Lennon must unlock the secrets of a dead man’s terrifying journal.  Whilst the characters in The Final Silence are not all likeable they do bring a sense of depth.  He’s not afraid of violence, less than perfect characters or controversial plot developments; all of which make his stories more realistic and thrilling.  The Final Silence has a very dark noirish quality to it as can be expected in the novels of Stuart Neville.  It is gloomy and violent, but it is also wickedly funny at times.  Most of its bitter characters are mired in the past; like one has come to expect from Stuart Neville this is not a book for the fainthearted.  It is intriguingly complex, and Neville's dialogue is profane and caustic.  Perfect.
The Missing by Sam Hawken.  Jack Searle, an American widower, is bringing up his two stepdaughters, Lidia and Marina, alone in the border town of Laredo.  One night, Marina crosses the border into Mexico to go to a concert with her cousin Patricia in Nuevo Laredo — a dangerous city, controlled by drug cartels and devastated by violence and corruption.  They never come back.  A frantic hunt begins, with Jack and Inspector Gonzalo Soler leading the way.  But soon the whole police force is suspended due to endemic corruption, the army takes over the city and missing girls are forgotten.  Jack and Gonzalo must take the law into their own hands, but in their efforts to find the girls they uncover truths about Nuevo Laredo that neither of them ever wanted to face.  It is clear that he is preoccupied by current events in Mexico and the events are very sharply portrayed in his novels.  From his first novel Tequila Sunset (which is my personal favourite) to The Missing, Hawken manages to enthral readers .  His prose is razor sharp and it is an exceptionally crafted novel that resonates with urgency, emotion, and danger.  It’s a gritty, visceral novel you won’t want to put down.  My only problem with The Missing is the fact that I felt that it was too short. 

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly.  I always have a soft for Harry Bosch and in this latest novel Michael Connelly has reaffirmed why he is the best in the business.  In the LAPD's Open-Unsolved Unit, not many murder victims die a decade after the crime.  So when a man succumbs to complications from being shot by a stray bullet ten years earlier, Bosch catches a case in which the body is still fresh, but any other clues are virtually non-existent.  Even a veteran cop would find this one tough going, but Bosch's new partner, Detective Lucia Soto, has no homicide experience.  A young star in the department, Soto has been assigned to Bosch so that he can pass on to her his hard-won expertise.  Now Bosch and Soto are tasked with solving a murder that turns out to be highly charged and politically sensitive.  Beginning with the bullet that has been lodged for years in the victim's spine, they must pull new leads from years-old evidence, and these soon reveal that the shooting was anything but random.  As their investigation picks up speed, it leads to another unsolved case with even greater stakes: the deaths of several children in a fire that occurred twenty years ago.  But when their work starts to threaten careers and lives, Bosch and Soto must decide whether it is worth risking everything to find the truth, or if it's safer to let some secrets stay buried.  As can be expected this is  a well-drawn police procedural.  The beautifully constructed plot involves political corruption, greed, lust, and vengeance.  It excels as a look at how power, prestige, and the media can override the best intentions.                                   
Skeleton Road by Val McDermid.  In the centre of historic Edinburgh, builders are preparing to demolish a disused Victorian Gothic building.  They are understandably surprised to find skeletal remains hidden in a high pinnacle that hasn’t been touched by maintenance for years.  Who do the bones belong to, and how did they get there?  Could the eccentric British pastime of free climbing the outside of buildings play a role?  Enter cold case detective Karen Pirie, who gets to work trying to establish the corpse’s identity.  And when it turns out the bones may be from as far away as former Yugoslavia, Karen will need to dig deeper than she ever imagined into the tragic history of the Balkans: to war crimes and their consequences, and ultimately to the notion of what justice is and who serves it.  One of the things McDermid excels in is writing standalone novels.  This is not to say that there is anything wrong with her series books but it seems that she writes with an extra fervour with these.  In Skeleton Road we have a murder mystery moves seamlessly to an exploration of geopolitics and genocide.  This is one of her best being complex and thought provoking.  With a multi stranded story and some very haunting and evocative details about the atrocities in the Balkans, this was really part murder mystery and part history lesson.  At the heart of the story is a real opportunity to explore themes of loss and revenge.  It is not surprising with novels like Skeleton Road that Val McDermid is considered to be one of our finest crime writers.

Grandville Noël by Bryan Talbot.  This is not strictly a novel but a graphic novel.  A steampunk graphic novel to be precise.  I mean how else can one explain the head of Scotland Yard Inspector LeBrock, a muscular, talking badger who has penchant for bareknuckle fights.  Not only badgers, but also rats, dogs, and every other kind of talking animal populate Talbot’s alternate nineteenth-century Britain and France.  In Granville Noël Detective Inspector LeBrock is alone in Grandville, stalking a growing religious cult led by a charismatic unicorn messiah who, along with his con-men partners, are responsible for horrific mass murder.  With Paris in the grip of the mysterious crime lord Tiberius Koenig and increasingly violent attacks by human terrorists, can LeBrock stop the inevitable slide into fascism?  And could these conditions all be the manipulations of a centuries-old conspiracy to throw the world into war?  This is the latest book in the series in this beautifully illustrated murder mystery that is one part Sherlock Holmes, another part Wind in the Willows, wrapped in a steampunk veneer.  It is not to be missed.

Honourable mentions go to Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin, A possibility of Violence by D A Mishani, The Ghost Runner by Parker Bilal, This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash, The Silent Boy by Andrew Taylor and Euro Noir by Barry Forshaw.

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