My Top Reads of 2016

I read almost thirty books this year, which is probably a record for me since my pre-teen bookworm days. Many were decent but unremarkable, a few were pants. These five stood out as the best. If you also read any of them I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

        

1. Life Or Death – Michael Robotham

I’ve read a lot of thrillers over the past couple of years. Very few of them have been complete duds, but I could say the same about the number that have really grabbed me and stood out from the crowd. This book is one of them.

The premise for the book is a complete winner. Audie Palmer has spent ten, hard years in prison, but the day before he is due to be released, he escapes. Why would anyone do something like that?

What follows is a brilliantly told tale. It unravels beautifully, revealing the reasons for Audie’s actions as it switches between present day and his past. The writing is fantastic, with some of the best similes and descriptions I’ve read in a long time. I found myself entirely immersed in the book, rooting for Audie, booing the baddies and turning the (electronic) pages with relish.

I can’t speak highly enough of this book. By far the best book I’ve read this year and straight into my top ten ever, I think. Superb!

2. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

It’s funny how you can convince yourself that a book won’t be for you based on some rather tenuous assumptions. This book was one of those. Sure, I knew it was regarded as a classic, and a touchstone for many a crime-writer, but I didn’t think I’d like it. I was so, so wrong!

I picked this up in a bookshop and, by the end of the first page, I was hooked. The humour is razor-sharp, with cracking one-liners and acerbic asides on almost every page. It’s not a comedy but it is very amusing and very clever.

It has to be said that the story is contained within a bit of a rambling plot, and on a few occasions I found the dialogue hard to fathom – it’s definitely stylised and of its time. However, I got used to it and it was worth the effort. The ending is very satisfying and ties together the loose ends that, at one point, I thought might be left hanging.

Superb stuff, and I’ll be reading the rest of the Marlowe books, now that I’ve broken through my prejudices.

3. A Walk In The Woods (Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail) – Bill Bryson

I’ve read a few Bill Bryson books and enjoyed them all. This was no exception.

Bryson is witty. I don’t find him belly-laugh funny but when I’m reading his stuff I smile a lot, snort occasionally, and admire his way with words. The tale he tells here is diverting and interesting, with his adventures on the trail interspersed with a bit of history and social commentary. It’s not a tension-filled, roller coaster, brimming with intrigue and jeopardy (although there is a little of that), but it still held my attention, amused me, and made me want to read on.

Having read some of the negative reviews I’m rather struck by how selective or just plain wrong some of these people are in their criticism. For instance, according to many of the 1 star reviews, he does nothing but rip into everyone he meets on the trail, running them down in some way. This is not the case. He speaks warmly of many folks, and has a go at what sound like a few idiots, deserving of his ire. He gently and affectionately ribs a couple of others. According to some, he seems to think he’s a proper mountain man and superior to day-hikers. He doesn’t say that even once in any serious way – although he jokes about it in a self-deprecating fashion on several occasions. In fact, he does a fair bit of day-hiking himself. He repeatedly points out his own shortcomings, including devoting almost a chapter to an occasion when his own stupidity and bad planning almost got him into serious trouble on one section of the trail (on a day hike). I wonder if they even read the last two chapters when they make these claims about his superior, know-it-all, attitude to trail hiking.

All I can think is that, for some people, they read this book wanting to dislike it, or Bill Bryson himself, and exaggerated or misrepresented certain aspects of the story in order to confirm their misgivings were well placed. Either that or they just took him too seriously and literally: it’s perhaps more of a British thing (and he’s a bit of an Anglophile) to employ self-deprecation and banter, and be tongue-in-cheek about a subject to get a laugh. It’s also true to say that pointing out facts will always get someone’s back up who is determined never to accept them as such – whatever subject they pertain to.

In any case, I really liked this book and, if you’ve read and enjoyed other books of his, I think you’ll enjoy this one too.

4. Beyond The Rage – Michael J. Malone

A very good read and a refreshing change from the cop-centric thrillers that dominate the crime genre.

Set in Scotland, this is the tale of a gangster with a past he knows little about, but that is going to cause him a lot of trouble in the here and now.

Great plot, great characters, believable and realistic dialogue, and some very clever twists – all delivered at a cracking pace.

Thoroughly recommended.

5. The Dark Inside – Rod Reynolds

The unusual setting of Post-War, small town, 1940’s Texas is atmospherically captured in this novel.

A traumatised and emotionally unstable reporter from New York, Charlie Yates, is exiled to the town of Texarkana, which straddles the Texas/Arkansas border. He’s been involved in an altercation at work, and his marriage is on the rocks. Two young people have been found murdered in their car in a lover’s lane. At first, it seems a banal case to the big city hack -he’s seen and reported on a lot worse – and his mind is elsewhere. However, before long, it’s clear there’s a serial killer on the loose and, in order to stop him, Yates will encounter police corruption and brutality, Chinese whispers, hostile locals, a powerful businessman, and a femme fatale.

It’s a well-written tale. The punchy dialogue uses enough Texas-isms to create a sense of place, without becoming a bewildering chore to decipher. Descriptive passages are mercifully short and add to the story. The plot is well-woven and the denouement very good. It’s got the feel of a movie – perhaps starring Russel Crowe or Guy Pierce as our hero – with very well-drawn characters.

Well worth a read.

 

Peter Carroll

About Peter

Peter Carroll is a Scotsman, author, musician and wildlife enthusiast.
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