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Best books of 2015

This year I have read fewer books than in previous years, but expanded my genre a bit and have read a few very long books (800+ pages) that I had put aside last year. This list is a bit more eclectic than last year and on the whole, I think that I have enjoyed reading more this year than last.

There is no ranking order in this list. My choices are for the most memorable and some may not have been rated 5 stars. Thrillers are marked with an asterisk.

This year I have deliberately started to read more books in my favourite series. While you will see some of the latest books listed below, please go to my best series list for further information.

Leon Uris: Armageddon
This was a superb historical saga about the occupation of Germany after WWII. I was totally absorbed by this superb historical reenactment of the fall of Germany, the occupation by the winning Allies, especially by the Russians in the divided city of Berlin and the Berlin Airlift which really was the start of the Cold War.

The story is told through the lives of fictional US General Andrew Hansen and Major Sean O'Sullivan who plan the occupation of Germany before the surrender and were initially faced with the occupation of a German town with a concentration/extermination camp nearby. The key challenges were to find the worst of the Nazis when most of the population was in denial and finding Germans without Nazi background to govern their people. Then they moved on to Berlin and the struggle with the Russians for control of the ruined city, finishing with the Russian blockade and the Berlin airlift.

Jason Matthews: Palace of Treason *
Red Sparrow was one of my best reads in 2013. It was an "outstanding, exciting, chilling espionage thriller" and the sequel Palace of Treason meets the same bill, if not more so.

The Red Sparrow, Dominika Egorova of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, is now back in Moscow after a spy exchange went badly wrong and the CIA spy she was swapped for was assassinated. She continues to work as a double agent for the CIA.

This is a top-notch espionage thriller that has everything - double-agents, betrayal, violence, great street-craft (avoiding surveillance), revenge, blackmail, and murder. Add some romantic interludes between Dominika and Nate, her CIA handle and the pages sizzle.

Pat Conroy: Prince of Tides (Audiobook)
This was a superb emotional story by Pat Conroy brought to life brilliantly by an Audiobook narration by the late Frank Muller (Conroy said that Muller "gave me ... a work of art"). Conroy is one of my favourite contemporary American authors. His prose is almost poetic and his love for his the beauty of South Carolina's low country stuns the imagination. Surprisingly while I had seen the Oscar-winning movie of Prince of Tides with Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte I had never read the book, which has an even greater emotional impact.

"Prince of Tides" is the story of the Wingo family living in comfortable poverty on a small island of the South Carolina coast. It is the turbulent story of Tom Wingo and his supremely talented but very troubled twin sister Savannah as they come to grips with the legacy of their extraordinary family and the dark things that happened to them during their childhood. In New York Savannah has tried to kill herself again and Tom travels there to tell her psychiatrist, the beautiful but enigmatic Dr Susan Lowenstein, things about his family history that he and Savannah have repressed to try to keep their sanity.

Jodi Daynard: The Midwife's Revolt (Audiobook)
This was one of the most compelling, captivating, and compulsive historical novels that I have read for some time. It is set in Braintree, Massachusetts near Boston from 1775 onwards during the American Revolutionary War and brought to life a period of history that I, as an Aussie, knew little about.

The "heroine" is Elizabeth "Lizzie" Bolyston, a strong and independent woman whose husband is killed in the struggle for independence, and as a single woman, she does her part to advance the struggle.The story is also in part a biography of Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, who played a major role, albeit indirectly, in the founding of the United States. John Adams, a country lawyer, was a key figure in the creation of a the new nation and went on to become Vice President to George Washington and eventually the second President of the USA.

Once again I enjoyed this tale even more through the talented narration of the Audiobook by actress Julia Whelan which further brought the period to life for me.

Walter Tevis: The Queen's Gambit
This is a charming story about a young girl, orphaned at the age of eight who gets taught chess by the janitor of the orphanage. Chess becomes her life and at thirteen, she wins a local chess tournament. With the help of her foster-mother, by the age of sixteen, she is competing in the US Open Championship. Her ultimate challenge is to go to Russia to face and beat the Russian world champions.

The Queen's Gambit is a more than a story about chess - it is fundamentally a thriller with the same kind of adrenaline-filled action that takes you into the heat of battle on the chessboard in a similar way that Bernard Cornwell takes you with Richard Sharpe into the heart of battles between the British and the French in the Napoleonic wars.

This was an exciting and beautifully crafted book which had a profound effect on me emotionally.

Ward Larsen: Assassin's Games *
This is the sequel to Larsen's great debut espionage thriller, "The Perfect Assassin". David Slaton, Kidon (Assassin) with Mossad no longer exists, At the end of that book David quietly exited his job to recover from multiple gunshots and is now living a happy peaceful life in Virginia under another identity with his wife Dr. Christine Palmer who had helped his pursuit of Mossad double-agents involved in hijacking a couple of nuclear weapons.

Despite his dreams of a normal life, a Kidon can never expect to retire completely. When his wife's life is threatened David is given the choice to become an assassin again as the only way to save her. He is faced with a dilemma - go to Geneva and kill an Iranian scientist, or lose his new life forever. Christine's words echo in his brain "If you kill this man in Geneva .... don't ever come back to me".

Paula McLain: Circling the Sun
This is a remarkable tale about a remarkable woman - a fictional biography of the life of Beryl Markham, a record-setting female aviator who was the first person to fly solo from east to west across the Atlantic from Europe to America.

McLain's story revisits the scene of Out of Africa with Beryl's childhood in Kenya and her friendship as an adult with Karen Blixen (who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic tale Out of Africa) and her attraction to Karen's lover, safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton, From Denys she not only discovers the greatest love of her eventful life but also her long-term love for flying.

The book is set against the magnificent wild country of 1920's Africa, and the growth of Nairobi into a major city. It is a powerful, and frequently emotional tale of historical fiction about an amazing independent woman who was really ahead of her time.

Candice Fox: Fall *
This is #3 in the Archer and Bennett series by outstanding Australian author Candice Fox. It is as dark, violent, quirky and outstanding as her first two highly awarded thrillers. The action is fast, intelligent and frequently very violent.

There is a strange bond between Detective Frank Bennett and his partner Detective Eden Archer. While they have worked together for some time, Frank is not really that close to Eden. One reason is that he knows that as well as being a very effective policeman, in the background Eden is also a serial killer, who hunts down and kills whatever lowlife she finds, in a kind of Robyn Hood role. Frank knows and has worked for Eden's "father" Hades Archer who brought her up in a world where he is an expert in body dismemberment and disposal in his own garbage tip.

There is no doubt that Candice Fox is one of the most creative authors of Australian crime thrillers. She has recently landed a co-authorship with James Patterson of a book set in Australia which should help her international reputation.

Philip Kerr: Berlin Noir Trilogy *
This trilogy was written between 1989 and 1991. The books are a great introduction to the excellent Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr - one of the best hardboiled police/crime series I have read for a long time. It is extra special because the series is set with meticulously researched historical detail in Nazi Germany before and after the war and is seamlessly integrated with some of the key happenings and powerful personalities of that time.

This is a brilliant trilogy - MARCH VIOLETS, set in 1936; THE PALE CRIMINAL, set in 1938; and A GERMAN REQUIEM set after the war in Berlin and occupied Vienna. The books were so good that it is the first time I have sat down and read all books in a trilogy without a break.

Bernhard (Bernie) Gunther is a Berlin detective who served eleven years as a homicide detective in Kripo (Berlin's criminal police) and left in 1933 when the National Socialists started to purge the force of all non-party members. He becomes a private investigator and then is forced back to Kripo by the Nazis. After witnessing mass killings he fights on the Eastern Front and becomes a POW with the Russians.

Gunther was never a Nazi or a war criminal but went through the war at the front because opposing what was happening was too painful to contemplate. He is not averse to some brutality where necessary in his work, has a tough and rough sense of humour, is constantly cynical but while he is sometimes morally-compromised he has a pragmatic sense of right and wrong.

Philip Kerr didn't revisit Bernie Gunther for 15 years and since then he has written a further 6 books in the series which have been highly acclaimed. This year he released The Lady from Zagreb which I thoroughly enjoyed. I haven't read the other books but plan to do so in 2016.

Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre (Audiobook)
During 2015, I discovered Audiobooks and also discovered the joy of hearing several classic novels narrated by magnificent voice actors. I have listened to several marvellous classics but my pick so far is Jane Eyre, one of the most brilliant classic novels of English literature. The skills of the narrator, English actress Emma Messenger, brought the book to life in an emotional and compelling way.

This novel, published 170 years ago, transfixed me with its prose, emotions and structure that revolutionised the art of fiction as we know it today.

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