Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Best and worst of 2009

It's been a funny old year for me. The 2nd half was particularly chaotic and not a lot of reading done in the past 3 months or so. My record keeping was also abysmal.. So this is what i've managed to cobble together from what records I do have.

Interestingly one author made it onto both my lists.

1. DEVIL'S PEAK - Deon Meyer (South Africa)
Plot
DEVIL’S PEAK begins with a prostitute telling her story to a clergyman. On her lap is a shoe box. What’s in the box?

Inspector Benny Giessel has just been thrown out of the house by his wife. She has given him an ultimatum. Choose either the booze or his family. He has six months to get sober and stay that way or he won’t see his kids again. Benny is a veteran of the South African police. He is one of the very few left from the days of apartheid. In a force where the majority are young and inexperienced, a wise Superintendant realises the the value of a talented and experienced detective. With the support of his boss, Benny begins the slow, painful process of getting sober and staying that way.
Someone is killing people with an Assegai (tribal spear). Many on the police force aren’t that bothered because the victims are child killers. Benny is assigned to lead the investigation. Realising this may well be his last chance to save his career as well as his marriage, Benny puts everything into finding out the identity of the killer.

My thoughts
The alcoholic detective is something of a staple in crime fiction; to the extent that it frequently becomes a cliché. Not so Benny. Meyer writes about Benny’s struggle , self-recrimination and the realisation of the full impact of his drinking on his life, his family and his colleagues with a great deal of sensitivity . We feel Benny’s pain, guilt and despair as struggles through “one day at a time.”

Full review: http://sunniesbookblog.blogspot.com/2009/01/sunday-salon-fine-south-african-crime.html

2. A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE - Malla Nunn ( African born writer, living in Australia, set in South Africa)
Plot
South Africa in 1952 is not a comfortable place to live. Apartheid laws have been introduced just a few years earlier and the National Party are tightening their stranglehold on the country with their vision of what South Africa should be. The security forces are being granted more powers and are exercising them freely.

When an Afrikaner police officer is murdered in the small town of Jakob’s Rest, Detective Emmanuel Cooper is sent to investigate. The dead man Willem Pretorious is from a prominent family in the district . As an English South African, Cooper is regarded with hostility and suspicion. Cooper’s task is made more difficult and dangerous when the Security Branch decides to take over the case. They have no interest in finding out who was responsible for Pretorious’ death; certainly not if the killer is white. They just want to link the murder to the Communist party and they don’t care how they go about it.
My thoughts
A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE is a book that paints a vivid picture of life under apartheid in the early 1950s. And that picture isn’t pretty. Suspicion and hatred, fear and paranoia are never far from the surface and racially motivated violence ever-present. One wrong move; a look in the wrong direction can cost a life.

my thoughts
The author, Malla Nunn manages to infuse the book with with a strong sense of what it must have been like to live under racial segregation laws without sacrificing plot. As crime fiction it works beautifully. As a commentary of the time it pulls no punches and spares no feelings in portraying supporters of Apartheid as arrogant with a sense of entitlement that they were born to rule. A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE is impressive on every level, particularly more so when you realise this is Nunn’s first novel

3. THE BAD POLICEMAN - Helen Hodgman
Plot
Constable Blainey is a uniformed police officer stationed in a town 100 kilometres West of Sydney (i.e. The Blue Mountains). He is divorced, lives alone and isn’t close to his only (grown up) son. Blainey is a poet in his spare time. He has had a small book of verse published, but he’s a bit self-conscious about that. He regards his partner, Steve as his only real friend.

THE BAD POLICEMAN is Blainey’s own inner dialogue with himself. The people he meets, the things he witnesses, decisions he makes all pile on top of each other to bring him to where we meet him in the book. He sees corruption around him, both small and large. He debates with himself which he can act on and which he can’t. This leads to even more inner turmoil. We see Blainey as he sees himself, stripped bare of all pretence or facade. What Blainey sees in himself he doesn’t like. A number of things happen that effect his life which leads him to a crisis point.
Blainey takes us through his days from his own point of view. At times his thoughts are confused and confusing; almost stream of consciousness. The book is many things, often funny, sometimes heartbreakingly tragic but it is never dull. THE BAD POLICEMAN poses the obvious question. Is Blainey a bad policeman, a bad man, both or neither? The reader must make up their own mind.

My Thoughts
The unexpected surprise of the year. THE BAD POLICEMAN is a short, obscure book, published a number of years ago without fanfare. It probably only sold a few copies - most of which probably reside in libraries. It would be very hard to get, but if you get the chance read it..
Full Review http://sunniesbookblog.blogspot.com/2009/04/sunday-salon-review-bad-policeman.html

4. THE PREACHER - Camilla Lackberg
Plot
Twenty years ago two holiday makers disappeared from the tourist town of Fjällbacka. Now a young boy has discovered the bodies along with a third which seems to be fresh.

Detective Patrik Hedstrom is on vacation. His partner, Erica is expecting their first child in less than a month. Fjällbacka is experiencing a heatwave and Erica is restless and short-tempered so when Patrik receives a phone call cutting short his holiday he isn’t too upset.

Attention focuses on the Hult family. A family divided by the suicide of one member who was the prime suspect in the disappearance of the holiday makers. It is also a family divided by wealth: one branch inherited the estate and has prospered, the other lives in poverty. This is a family of misfits, religious fanatics and criminals. A rich vein of suspects in anyone’s book.

Patrik also has to deal with Erica and the unwanted visitors who keep turning up on their doorstep wanting to take advantage of their hospitality for a cheap holiday during the summer season.wenty years ago two holiday makers disappeared from the tourist town of Fjällbacka. Now a young boy has discovered the bodies along with a third which seems to be fresh.

Detective Patrik Hedstrom is on vacation. His partner, Erica is expecting their first child in less than a month. Fjällbacka is experiencing a heatwave and Erica is restless and short-tempered so when Patrik receives a phone call cutting short his holiday he isn’t too upset.

Attention focuses on the Hult family. A family divided by the suicide of one member who was the prime suspect in the disappearance of the holiday makers. It is also a family divided by wealth: one branch inherited the estate and has prospered, the other lives in poverty. This is a family of misfits, religious fanatics and criminals. A rich vein of suspects in anyone’s book.

Patrik also has to deal with Erica and the unwanted visitors who keep turning up on their doorstep wanting to take advantage of their hospitality for a cheap holiday during the summer season.

My thoughts:
These days translated books are things of quality; it’s seamless. If it wasn’t for the name of the translator in the book you’d never know it wasn’t originally written in English The other upside of translated books is that rarely do the publishers go to the extra cost of hiring a translator if the book is a dud.

THE PREACHER is a first rate detective novel. The mystery really sucks you in, there are clues and red herrings scattered everywhere. I changed my mind about the murderer a number of times while reading the book. I’d think I had it nailed and Lackberg would throw in another twist. I figured it out about the same time as the author revealed whodunit.

5. ONCE WERE COPS - Ken Bruen
Plot

Michael O’Shea is a Guard (Irish police officer) in Northern Ireland. He is known simply as Shea, Shea is seen as a good cop, but he is hiding a secret. A very dark secret. Shea has a black heart and a taste for violence and death; especially young women with swan-like necks.

Northern Ireland and New York City have a police officer exchange programme. Shea feels like his dream has come true when he is selected to spend a year on the streets of New York City. The big apple. Or in Shea’s case The Rotten Apple. Shea finds himself teamed with Kebar, an officer whose name comes from the fact that he likes to mete out justice with short metal stick called a K-bar. Kebar is corrupt and unstable. The murder of his beloved sister puts him over the edge.

My thoughts:
No one could ever in their wildest dreams describe Bruen’s writing as cozy. Bruen is contemporary noir. Midnight noir.. His writing is to the point and punchy in every sense of the word. Pick up a Ken Bruen novel and you’re hooked. I guarantee your bath-water will be ice-cold before you know it.

6. SMOKE AND MIRRORS by Kel Robertson. The 2nd in the Bradman Chen series.
Brad Chen is a member of the AFP (Australian Federal Police). He is Chinese Australian.
Joint winner of the 2009 Ned Kelly Award for best Australian crime fiction.

Plot
Brad is recovering from injuries he received in the first book (DEAD SET) and is persuaded to return to work part time by his friend and superior officer, "Talkative". A retired politician from the 1970's Whitlam Government has been found murdered with his editor. He has been working on a book which he claims will reveal all about the inside story of the Whitlam Government's controversial dismissal by the Governor General in 1972.

When Brad starts to dig deeper some nasty characters begin to emerge from the woodwork, all of them seemingly determined to inflict major physical harm on him.

Why are the Russian mafia interested in a book about 1970s Austrlaian politics? And who the heck hired a bunch of South African mercenaries to dash about the landscape ambushing people and sometimes bumping them off?

My thoughts
Brad Chen is a cyncial, wise-cracking police officer who operates according to his own conscience. His new offsider is a tall skinny red-head with the surname of Filipowski who is very close-mouthed about his private life.

What I enjoyed about DEAD SET was the banter between Brad and Filipowski. Very entertaining stuff. There is a fun little diversion when Brad meets up with a journalist acquaintance who is in trouble after writing an editorial for his blog after a choof and a drink too many one night. It's about George W. Bush's reasons for invading Iraq which is politically incorrect in the extreme and very very funny.

There's quite a bit of action as well as an entertaining mystery. And then there are the nickames: Talkative, Voodoo, Baby's Arm (don't ask.)

7. FEVER OF THE BONE - Val McDermid (A Tony Hill/Carol Jordan mystery)
Plot
Someone is luring teenagers to their deaths; killing them quickly and then and mutilating them in the most horrifying manner. Someone who spends weeks online grooming them for their fate. Someone who knows what teens like.

Carol Jordan's team has been set up for this very type of case. However, just when they need profiler Tony Hill the most, Carol's new commander has placed a ban on him being used; budget cuts have to begin somewhere.

Meanwhile Tony is working on a case in a nearby county. One that he begins to suspect might be linked to Carol's.

In order to catch the killer the police have to work out how these kids are being selected and Tony Hill is just the man to do the job, but can he convince the powers that be to allow him back into Carol's case?

My thoughts
There are reasons why Val McDermid is one of the best in the business when it comes to writing crime fiction and they are all contained in FEVER OF THE BONE.

Tony, Carol and her team are all familiar but evolving characters. Characters you care about. Several different threads of the plot weave in and out of each other, changing emphasis at just the right time for maximum suspense.

FEVER OF THE BONE differs from many books featuring serial killers in that McDermid doesn't take you inside the killer's head and doesn't describe graphic violence.
It is a police procedural and one of the best I've read in a long time.

8. HALFHEAD - Stuart MacBride
Plot
They're called Halfheads. They are the convicted violent criminals of society: the murderers and rapists. They are lobotomised and surgically mutilated ("halfheaded") and sent to do society's most menial tasks. If you're convicted and sentenced to halfheading there's no way back for you. No one notices halfheads. The are little more than sexless zombies, incapable of independent thought.

Will Hunter is a high ranking officer with the tech-crimes and police actions unit. Part of their job is investigating murders. Will and his team are called out to a particularly grisly murder scene in one of Glasgow's vast connurb blocks. When more than a quarter of a million people are crammed into a vast high rise complex in one of the most deprived areas of the city, is it any wonder things can and do explode?

However, there's more to this murder than meets the eye and Will's determination to find out what is really going on despite orders to the contrary lead him to a very dark conspiracy.

My thoughts
MacBride's vision of the future is a dystopian nightmare. It seems to be a combination the worst of Soviet Union dysfunction and a high technology, uncaring big-brother state. And it is a totally compelling one.

Make no mistake, HALFHEAD is very violent and bloody, but MacBride's ability to create characters with both humanity and humour transcend the bleakness of the violence.

If the book has a flaw it is that in the latter stages, Will and his team seem to get bogged down in hunting for a killer who is right under their noses all the time.

Despite that I found HALFHEAD very difficult to put down. The imagery of the halfheads will haunt me for quite some time I imagine.

9. THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE - Alan Bradley
Plot
It's the beginning of a lazy summer in 1950 at the sleepy English village of Bishop's Lacey. Up at the great house of Buckshaw, aspiring chemist Flavia de Luce passes the time tinkering in the laboratory she's inherited from her deceased mother and an eccentric great uncle. When Flavia discovers a murdered stranger in the cucumber patch outside her bedroom window early one morning, she decides to leave aside her flasks and Bunsen burners to solve the crime herself, much to the chagrin of the local authorities. But who can blame her? What else does an eleven-year-old science prodigy have to do when left to her own devices? With her widowed father and two older sisters far too preoccupied with their own pursuits and passions—stamp collecting,

My thoughts
This book is delightfully and quintessentially English. It is set in a time that has passed and is funny and moving with deliiciously dotty English characters. One of the most charming books I've ever read. I look forward to meeting the fiercely intelligent, yet oddly naive Flavia again.

10 I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER - Dan Wells (Young adult fiction)
Plot
ohn is a fifteen year old sociopath. His mother and aunt own one of the town mortuaries. John is obsessed with serial killers but is afraid that one day he may become one himself. In order to keep “the monster in the wall” John has set up an elaborate set of rules to live by. If a person interests him he will follow them around, but only for a week; to do so any longer would be dangerous.

John wants to please his mother and be a “normal” person and he does not want to do any harm, but the monster in the wall makes it difficult. He discovers he’s not the only “monster” in town when the mutilated corpses of some of the townsfolk begin to appear. In order to understand the killer and perhaps gain greater insights into himself, John starts investigating. What he discovers is something far more strange and chilling than he could ever imagine. The dilemma John finds himself facing is should he unleash the monster within to stop the killing or will the monster in him become worse than the one currently causing such mayhem?

My thoughts
The adolescent voice of John and his desperate efforts to appear “normal” and fit in with society will resonate with teenagers. I can imagine many parents may have a problem with the violence in the book. I have two sons who are both now in their mid 20’s. Would I have allowed my sons to read this book when they were teens? Yes, without hesitation. The other themes in the book such as the need to fit in with perceived norms of society, facing moral dilemmas, loss and grief, family and relationships are far more important. Violence is part of the human condition. We see it every day in the media. We can protect our kids to some degree but we cannot lock them away from such things and pretend they don’t happen.

Bottoms..
Mercifully few this year. None of them are what I'd call stinkers, but they were books for varying reasons I either disliked or couldn't finish.

DEAD OF WINTER - Rennie Airth
It ‘s not often that I don’t finish a review book. I feel obligated to read the entire book in order to do justice to the review.
Sadly, I had to give up on THE DEAD OF WINTER. Not because it was a necessarily a poorly written book. I don’t think it is. I have read worse and finished them. So why did I give up at page 197 of a 408 page book? I ran headlong into one of my pet peeves. This particular peeve is when the author pauses the plot to give the back story of a character. It’s all very fine and dandy for a couple of major characters but when the reader is being told the history of minor characters it becomes a major distraction. That’s what happened in this case. Do we really need to know the history of the relationship between the main character and the local village bobby, who up until i stopped reading the book had a very minor role. If this had been a movie it would have been with half a dozen lines.It ‘s not often that I don’t finish a review book. I feel obligated to read the entire book in order to do justice to the review.

FLESH AND BONE - Jefferson Bass
I'm always excited when I read a book that is first in a new series that I enjoy. A few weeks ago I reviewed Carved in Bone by Jefferson Bass, the first in the Body Farm series, which I thoroughly enjoyed. So it was with some anticipation I picked up FLESH AND BONE; the 2nd in the series.

Sadly, FLESH AND BONE didn't live up to my expectations. The plot revolves around the protagonist, Dr Bill Brockton being framed for the murder of a close friend. There is also a secondary thread of the murder of a man who had been dressed as a woman. Are they connected?

What worked so well in the first book seems be lacklustre in this one. There are so many cliches that I don't know where to begin. The first is the hero being framed for murder by someone with a grudge. It was patently obvious to me who it was almost from the word go. I could see only one suspect. Then there is the transgender "southern belle" nightclub singer with a heart of gold. Oh pu-leaze. And let's not forget the defence lawyer who is a shark; up until he defends the hero, whereupon he sees the light and stops taking on cases where he knows the accused is guilty. This is where the book almost hit my bedroom wall with great velocity; if it hadn't been a library book it might have. And what cliche wouldn't be complete without a gathering of the book's characters at the end to pay tribute to one of their fallen colleagues. Yes, folks that was thrown in there too.

Dr Bill Brockton is painted as a good man, who is uncomplicated and does a difficult job. Now that's all very fine when the book focuses on the job. You like the guy and the job is fascinating, but when that uncomplicated man is in a relationship that is the focus of the book, it falls down completely. Romances involving uncomplicated characters just aren't interesting.

BROKEN SKIN - Stuart MacBride
BROKEN SKIN is Stuart MacBride’s third Logan Macrae novel. The first, COLD GRANITE had him working with DI Insch. In the second, DYING LIGHT, DI Steele was the officer in charge. In BROKEN SKIN, MacBride seems to have gone for a bet each way and had Macrae working for both at the same time. It’s a plot idea that does not seem to work terribly well. Rather than concentrating on a single investigation, Macrae is pushed from pillar to post, grumbling all the while and becoming impatient himself. Macrae and his colleagues moan, groan and whinge their way through the book. We know this because these adjectives are used often; to the point of annoyance on my part.

The issue of the over-used adjectives aside, BROKEN SKIN is entertaining enough. However after the wonderful debut novelCOLD GRANITE, BROKEN SKIN is a bit of a disappointment. I only hope this was a glitch and subsequent novels will be of the standard of MacBride’s first.

2 comments:

Maxine said...

Great post, Sunnie. Devil's Peak is high up on my reading list after enjoying two others by this author (Blood Sunset and Dead Before Dying). I haven't read many of your selections but I liked Fever of the Bone, even though it is a touch more commercial than her earlier books she can sure write a good story. I wasn't convinced by the murderer, though.

Sunnie Gill said...

Thanks,Maxine. Even though I fell into a big reading hole at the end of the year which I haven't quite managed to haul myself out of yet, when I went back and looked at what I'd read I was surpised how many wonderful books there were.

Here's hoping 2010 is better in that respect.