“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Best Books 2015: January – June

It being the end of June, and thus halfway through the year, I thought I’d post a list of the best new books I’ve read so far in 2015. In order of my reading them, they are:

Acts of the Assassins, Richard Beard.
On the basis of its opening 20 pages or so, the second offering Richard Beard’s ‘Messiahs Trilogy’ – the first, Lazarus is Dead, was published in 2011 – is an audacious take on the crime / mystery novel. Beard is clearly a student (or perhaps scholar might be more appropriate) of the crime fiction genre, given that the story begins as a straightforward police procedural investigation but also broadens out to incorporate other sub-genres such as the spy novel (“Jesus has skills, fieldcraft …” muses Gallio on his foe). The serial killer novel also looms large when it is discovered that the disciples, having exiled themselves to various parts of the empire, are being bumped off one by one, murdered by some shadowy killer in a variety of gory deaths, such as beheadings, flayings, stonings and so forth.

For the rest of the review, clickety-click here

The Shut Eye, Belinda Bauer.
A ‘shut eye’ is a magician so good at persuading the audience the illusion is real that he comes to believe in the trick himself. In Belinda Bauer’s superb sixth novel, The Shut Eye (Bantam Press, €22.50), the phrase refers both to Richard Latham, a celebrity psychic helping the police with their enquiries into the disappearance of young Edie Evans, and to DCI John Marvel, the detective inspector leading the investigation. Marvel is resolutely old-fashioned about police work (“John Marvel didn’t believe in coincidence any more than he believed in global warming …”) and refuses to countenance any supernatural aid, but his hardnosed materialism is shaken to the core when he meets Anna Buck, whose young son Daniel has also gone missing, and whose grief-wracked visions appear to offer clues to the whereabouts of Edie Evans. The Shut Eye is an unusual but absorbing police procedural that also functions as a thoughtful meditation on faith, hope and belief. John Marvel may well be a no-nonsense copper, but in a genre that has been dominated in recent times by the CSI school of facts and evidence, Marvel’s journey towards the truth is refreshingly unconventional.

A Song of Shadows, John Connolly.
The 13th novel in the Charlie Parker series, John Connolly’s A Song of Shadows (Hodder & Stoughton, €22.50) opens in Maine’s remote coastal town of Boreas. Recuperating from grievous wounds sustained in his previous outing, A Wolf in Winter (2014) – Parker was declared clinically dead before being resuscitated – the private investigator is drawn into a bizarre case when an obsessive Nazi-hunter is discovered dead on a nearby beach. No stranger to evil, and still coming to terms with his experience of another realm about which “he still had questions, but no doubts,” Parker finds himself immersed in the horrors of the Holocaust, and determined that this particular evil will not thrive on his watch. Connolly has been engaged for some years now in gradually refining the supernatural and horror tropes that gave the Parker novels their distinctive identity, and A Song of Shadows, blending the language of myth and New Testament into a hardboiled tale, marks a significant shift in Parker’s metamorphosis into an explicitly Christ-like figure (“This one bleeds from the palms,” observes one of his foes). That notion has been explored before, most notably by Ross Macdonald and James Lee Burke, and while A Song of Shadows more than earns the right to be judged in such company, Connolly further appears to be breaking new ground, not least in terms of Parker’s haunting relationships with his daughters, one dead and one living. It’s a fabulous piece of work, in both senses of the word, from one of contemporary fiction’s great storytellers.

Mrs Engels, Gavin McCrea.
Gavin McCrea has crafted a beautifully detailed historical fiction in Mrs Engels, and the political backdrop is indeed a compelling one as he describes the revolutionary frustrations of Engels and Marx, the fall-out to the Franco-Prussian war and the consequent rise and fall of the Paris Commune, and the rise of militant Irish nationalism in Britain. Lizzie’s drawing room hosts agitators, revolutionaries and activists of all hues, but there’s none so fascinating as Lizzie herself, toasted at one point by Engels as a ‘Proletarian, Irish rebel and model Communist.’ In truth, Lizzie is far more difficult to label that her lover realises. From the very beginning Lizzie tells us that she’s a pragmatic woman whose loyalty is only her own survival: “Establish yourself in a decent situation,” is her advice to all young women, “and put away what you can, that, please God, one day you may need no man’s help.”

For the rest of the review, clickety-click here

Disappeared, Anthony J. Quinn.
First published in the US, and shortlisted there for a Strand Literary Award, Quinn’s debut propels the Tyrone author into the first rank of Irish crime writing. An eye for vividly contrasting imagery means that Disappeared is superbly evocative of its bleak setting, such as when Daly leaves behind the rural shore of Lough Neagh to drive into Portadown. “The shapes of trees shining in the frost were like the nerves and arteries of a dissected corpse,” writes Quinn; little more than a paragraph later Daly is contemplating Dalriada Terrace: “The street felt like a dingy holiday resort inhabited by the inmates of a concentration camp.”

For the rest of the review, clickety-click here

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, David Shafer.
For all its conventional narrative scenarios of innocent civilians at the mercy of dark forces and its bleak dystopian vision of the near future, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is by no means a standard techno-thriller. For one, Shafer has sufficient confidence in his readers to craft a slow-burning tale that is, for all its gleaming hardware and plans for a ‘New Alexandria’ of a globally centralised library-for-unimaginable-profit, very much a character-driven tale. Leila, Leo and Mark are richly detailed and empathic creations, their quirks and idiosyncrasies integral to the way in which they gradually uncover SineCo’s foul machinations. Moreover, the writing is a joy, Shafer employing both sly wit and a sharp eye for the telling image. “The grandeur fled,” Leo observes as he emerges from a reverie of a better world, “like shining back into shook foil.” Leila decides that Myanmar ‘sounded like a name cats would give their country.’ Indeed, the entire novel – all 422 pages of densely packed text – is littered with deliciously wry snippets and quotable lines, which gives the overall impression of a Neal Stephenson novel redrafted by Carl Hiaasen in blackly humorous form.

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