FictionFan Awards 2014 – Literary Fiction

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Literary Fiction Category.

If you’ve been around the last couple of weeks, you might want to skip this bit and go straight to the awards. But for the benefit of new readers, a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

 

LITERARY FICTION

 

Regrettably, this has been the worst year I can remember for new literary fiction. In the entire year, only a handful of books achieved five-star status, and a couple of them already appeared in the FictionFan Shadow Booker Awards 2013. Of course, there might have been hundreds of brilliant books published that haven’t come my way, but I don’t get the impression from around the blogosphere that there are absolute must-reads out there that I’ve missed. Fortunately this dearth has been more than compensated for by the books I’ve read as part of the Great American Novel Quest, the vast majority of which have been superb – presumably that’s why they’re classics. As you will see, this year’s nominees reflect that…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the roadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

I’m a little surprised to be including this bleak dystopian novel as a runner-up. It is the tale of a man and a boy travelling through a landscape devastated by some unspecified disaster – probably a nuclear winter. At the time I was somewhat ambivalent about it, finding the writing style a little irritating, and feeling that the book thought it was more profound than it actually was. However I also found it “thought-provoking and full of imagery that will stay with me for a long time – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty.” And indeed, it has stayed with me ever since I read it, and I find the images have become part of my literary landscape. It’s a book I find myself thinking about and referring to time and again, with the result that my opinion of it has continued to grow, to the extent that I would now count it as a great novel.

Click to see the full review

the road2

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Arzee the Dwarf by Chandrahas Choudhury

arzee the dwarfDespite his lack of inches, Arzee is on the verge of achieving the two things he most wants out of life – to become the head projectionist of the Noor Cinema and to find a wife. But, as the poet tells us, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. And Arzee’s dream is about to be shattered when the owner of the run-down cinema decides to close it. This is the story of two weeks in Arzee’s life as he faces a future that has suddenly become dark and uncertain.

I loved Choudhury’s prose in this deliciously bittersweet comedy – there’s some beautifully phrased imagery, while the dialogue between Arzee and the various other characters provides much of the humour. Bombay is vibrantly portrayed – the Bombay of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Though there is depth and even some darkness in the story, the overall tone is light with almost the feeling of a fairytale to it. I found I became more and more enchanted with the book as I read and by the end was fully invested in Arzee’s hopes and dreams. This was truly an unexpected delight of a book and it still, ten months on, makes me smile each time I think of it.

Click to see the full review

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the sun also risesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemigway

Another entry that surprises me, and for the same reasons as The Road – I have found this one has stayed in my mind and my appreciation of it has continued to grow. By all rights, I should have hated it – a macho tale of men being men, drunken quarrels, bullfighting and the ‘lost generation’ of feckless wasters. But…some of the descriptions are excellent – the dusty journey to Pamplona, the passengers met by chance en route all merge to become a strikingly vivid picture of a particular place and time. As they all sit around drinking in Pamplona, I felt I could see the various cafés and bars clearly, almost smell them. The interactions between the ex-pats and the natives are brilliantly portrayed, particularly the growing disapproval from the real aficionados when Brett’s behaviour begins to threaten the traditions of the bullfight. And as for the arena itself, I found I was unexpectedly fascinated by his depiction of the rituals around the running of the bulls and the bullfighting. In the end I found that the picture that eventually emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all. And, with the benefit of a little more distance, the book has settled into a permanent place as an unforgettable read, fully justifying its inclusion as one of the best books I’ve read this year…or perhaps ever.

Click to see the full review

Painting credited to 'Matador Painter'
Painting credited to ‘Matador Painter’

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Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

nora websterThe last literary fiction novel I read in the period covered by the awards and so nearly the winner. When we meet Nora, it’s some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. Like so much of Tóibín’s writing, this is a small, quiet story, told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But its simplicity enables Tóibín to create complete and utterly truthful characters – people we feel we have known, may even have been. The book rests almost entirely on characterisation – the plot is minimal. Set in time and place between two of Tóibín’s earlier books, Brooklyn and The Blackwater Lightship, it seems to me that the three can be seen as a loose trilogy, giving a complete and wholly credible picture of the changes in women’s lives in these small communities throughout the second half of the last century. And, of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed most. Nora, while not always totally likeable, is beautifully drawn and her emotions ring true at every step of the way. A deeply moving book, as Tóibín’s always are – not because of any cheap emotional tricks, but because of the clarity and truthfulness of his characterisation. The only book published this year to make the shortlist….

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

 

revolutionary road

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Frank and April Wheeler have the perfect 1950s lifestyle – the nice house in suburbia, the two children; he with the daily commute to a good job in the city; she, a home-maker, beautiful and decorative – the middle-class, mid-20th century American Dream made real. But strip away the superficial and we find two people who have failed to be the people they expected to be, who are living every day with the disappointment of what they and each other have become. There is a desperation at the heart of this book – the desperation of rats caught in a laboratory maze.

When I reviewed it, I described this book as a masterpiece, and I hold to that opinion. Yates captures the language of the time so well that I could hear the dialogue being spoken in my head. These words could have been spoken at no other time and in no other place. And yet for all the talking in the book, there’s no sense of communication – each character is ultimately alone, desperately trying to hide behind the image they project. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. And perhaps we empathise most because he makes us fear that we recognise ourselves in there somewhere.

A book that encapsulates a certain time and place, at a moment when the traditional American Dream was about to be shattered and made anew, when roles were changing in the family and in the workplace, when both men and women were trying to figure out how to forge new ways of living in a world where increasing technological advances were rendering the old ways obsolete – this comes close to rivalling The Great Gatsby as my favourite American novel of all time.

A worthy winner indeed – however since, due to being dead, Mr Yates is unlikely to be producing any new novels in the near future, the prize will be that I will read something from his back catalogue – A Special Providence, I think.

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

kate winslet in RR

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Two weeks today: Crime Fiction/Thrillers Award

56 thoughts on “FictionFan Awards 2014 – Literary Fiction

  1. FictionFan – Not at all surprised at your excellent choice. You’ve really read some fine novels too! It’s nice to know that there is quite a lot of very good literary fiction out there. In fact, I’m impressed with the variety of novels on your list.

    • Yes, thank goodness for the Great American Novel Quest – it turned what could have been a very poor year for fiction into one with several great reads. Though it’s possible this year’s books suffered by the comparison…

  2. great post—interesting winner! I, too, enjoyed Revolutionary Road, but in the end,
    labeled it shallow. Lo and behold—that’s the point! . . . and notable runnerups. I plan
    to read Nora Webster for certain

    • Thanks! It wasn’t really the story in Revolutionary Road that got me, so much as the underlying snapshot of a society on the cusp of change. Roll on more Great American Novels next year…

      Yes, I highly recommend Nora Webster – for the same kind of reasons actually. It’s not heavily story-driven, but I felt it painted a really truthful picture of that particular time and place, and for some reason Toibin writes women so well…

  3. Yes, yes, yes! Revolutionary Road IS my favorite American novel of all time. Every sentence is brilliantly, beautifully crafted.

    But be forewarned: none of his other books quite compares.

    • Yay! Yes, I thought it was beautifully written, with a voice that was totally specific to its time. I could actually hear the dialogue being spoken in my head as I read. A brilliant book – but I can’t give up my first love for The Great Gatsby!

      That’s a pity, but I suspected that might be the case since the rest don’t seem to be so well known – over here, at least. But I’ll be interested to see how he developed anyway… 😀

  4. Some brilliant choices there. I was also ‘pleasantly’ surprised by The Road – it was poignant and ultimately more uplifting than I expected. And Revolutionary Road – well, it ‘destroyed’ me when I read it, as the French would say. Dismantled me emotionally. (But I too can’t quite let go of The Great Gatsby… Although Tender Is the Night is sort of on the same theme as the Yates novel).

    • I still find myself puzzling over the possible meanings for The Road – always the sign of a great novel. And like you I found it left me with an odd sense of hope. And Revolutionary Road had the same impact on me as you – I still find myself get emotionally wrung out whenever I think of it. It’s so long since I read Tender is the Night that I can’t really remember much about it – I think I did it an injustice by reading it immediately after The Great Gatsby and hoping for more of the same. I really must re-read it…

        • I’ve never reacted to any book as strongly as I did to Gatsby when I first read it. I read it in one session (while I was supposed to be working) and was literally breathless and with goosebumps for most of it. It was like a revelation – almost a religious experience. Overall, I claim Bleak House as my all-time favourite but for sheer immediate impact, Gatsby wins…

          • What a contrast: Bleak House (and that court case that just drags on and on…) and the verve and brevity of Gatsby. Interesting… Gatsby is my favourite American novel, I should point out (which gives me lots of scope for other favourites).

  5. I just saw a staged reading of a couple of Cólm Toibín’s short stories here in SF. They were performed by a literary theater company called Word for Word. The company was started a little over 20 years ago, and they perform shorts stories, literally, word for word, including the “he saids” and “she saids.” It’s hard to describe, but it truly brings stories to life, and all of those words that you don’t really “see” when you’re reading, like the “he saids” disappear as the drama on stage unfolds. It is wondrous. Yes, Toibín is a quietly powerful writer.

    Now Yates! I have RR on my shelves, and I’ll be dad-gummed (my grandfather’s expression) if I can recall anything about it at the moment. I think I meant to pull this off the shelf when I first read your review. Now, I’ve actually got to get it off the shelf and into the pile…..Just tried to find it. Hmmmm. DId I lend it to someone? Oh dear…This may mean I’ll have to buy another copy. Cough. Choke. Must look through the dusty sections in other rooms……

    • Oh, I’d enjoy that, I think. In fact, it’s a bit like listening to a really good narrator in an audiobook – the ones who are skilled enough actors to give a different voice and personality to each character. I’ve noticed a real improvemnt in audiobooks recently with some of the top actors being willing to do it – it’s becoming a mainstream form of entertainment now. You might enjoy Meryl Streep’s version of The Testament of Mary… https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/the-testament-of-mary-by-colm-toibin-read-by-meryl-streep/ She didn’t quite get my idea of Mary right, but it was still an excellent reading.

      Yes, you must dig out RR – then read it and come back and tell me what you think. (If it was a Kindle book, you’d be able to find it… 😉 )

      • Please don’t rub it in!

        The word for word reading is quite interesting in that characters can often share lines in the reading, depending on how the director and actors feel the line should be read. Actors can also take the form of inanimate objects. I’ll never forget seeing one of the actors become a racy little red sports car as she spoke the lines of the narration that described the main characters lust for the car. It was hilarious and memorable. They are quite creative in their interpretations. if you’ve ever in SF or in Paris, you should take in one of their shows. They usually tour in France for a short time each year.

        Now, where was I? Oh yes, looking for a book….

  6. Having read your reviews of these throughout the year I can see myself picking up anyone of them but I definitely need to read the winning book in this category. Thanks for another great selection roll on the crime thrillers!

    • Thanks, Angela! Good choices! I’m still surprised that I enjoyed either the Hemingway or the McCarthy, but they both deserve their reputation, I think. And the Choudhury deserves a much wider readership – a real treat!

  7. I really need to read Revolutionary Road (actually, I confess, I still haven’t even gotten around to seeing the movie, since I need to be in a particular kind of mood for stories about unrelenting, everyday misery). Glad to hear you (mostly) enjoyed The Road, though! I wasn’t personally bothered by the style, but I can definitely see it being divisive; it’s so distinctive that it’s probably a “love it or hate it” kind of thing. It’s definitely a novel that has stayed with me, largely because it has such a tender, hopeful core to it, in spite of everything.

    • I watched the film of Rev Road after I read the book, and really enjoyed it, but the book is so much better. The writing is brilliant! I got used to the style in The Road after a while but this is one book that I definitely grew to appreciate more after I’d finished it, because I found I was still mulling over it for weeks. And yes, I agree that there’s a real feeling of hope about it somehow – that’s what makes it so intriguing…

  8. RR has been sitting on my real TBR shelf for some years, after a strong recommendation from another Viner in the days when we used to frequent the Forum. I can see that with another strong recc from you, its definitely time to move it further up the wobbly pile

    • Then dust that book off and get reading! Seriously it’s one I think you’d probably enjoy as much as me – one of those ones that crosses over into both our different likes…like Gatsby…

  9. I have read (and seen the film of ) The Road, and I read the Hemmingway back when dinosaurs, etc., and I will read the Toibin (of course!),but neither of the others really appeals to me. Great reviews though – if anybody could talk me into them, you could.

    • I must get around to watching the film of The Road sometime…

      I don’t think Rev Road is really your kind of thing probably, but Arzee is a lovely book – really different to all the other Indian authors I’ve read. And I’m betting much truer to how it really is than most of the misery tomes on India…

  10. Great list, and it covers a big black hole I have in my reading: twentieth-century white guys weren’t so prominent in my classes when I went to college 20 years ago.

    I need to be ready to read Revolutionary Road, I think. I admit that I gave up on reading The Road closely after awhile as well. And I’m a huge Fitzgerald fan too.

    Thanks for inspiring me to get to my listmaking, and I can’t wait for your crime reads of the year!

    • Yes, my knowledge of twentieth century fiction is woeful, especially American, but British too. Rev Road is definitely much more in the Fitzgerald vein than The Road is – I’d think anybody who loves Gatsby is likely to love RR too. But yes, it’s emotionally shattering, so you need to be in the mood – but the sheer quality of the writing lifts it.

      Still haven’t decided on a winner in crime… panic is setting in!

  11. There’s something delightful about encountering a book like Revolutionary Road at the right time, even though it was something one could have read in college, but didn’t. This happened for me just a few years ago, and it felt a little like finding the source from which so much seems now to have flowed — all the Cheever, right on down to all the Ford. I’m not saying the other contemporaries or later works are copies, or even uncomfortably close derivatives, only that this experience shines a light on how it all works. There’s a way of looking at things in RR — unvarnished and clear, focused on the downside of what were in many way really good times, without being cynical or overly clever but just telling the truth nobody is talking about — that for me felt quite like a worthy lesson in how literary fiction develops over time. It’s just a fabulous book.

    So, too, Nora Webster. And you’re spot on about its having, a needing, the slimmest of plots. The whole story is built on character, like nearly all of his work, and it gets me every time. My mother, Patsy Sullivan, who was Nora’s contemporary if you will, would have had the very same troubles had my father gone in the Sixties. I like to think she’d have risen to the challenge — but it would indeed have been a challenge. When he did go, in the Eighties, my mother said to me, “What will I do with all these years?” She was 59, and she’d never written a check. What happened to Nora near the end, happened in a way to my mother for years and years afterward.

    I’m glad The Sun Also Rises grows on you as it does on me. I’m reading it again, too, in Spanish, with the English close by. I’m hopelessly mono-linguistic, so it’s slow going but worth the effort.

    Finally, one of my favorites of the year was — you’ll hate me for this — The Children’s Act. Ah, fiction.

    • Ah, I was just admiring your impeccable taste, and then you spoiled it all in that last paragraph! Well, I’ll forgive you, if you forgive my predilection for gory crime novels…

      Now I don’t know Cheever at all, not even the name – should he be on the GAN list? Ford is already on with The Lay of the Land, and I’m intending to get back to reading more of these in the New Year so he should be coming up in the next few months. I wonder if you have to be a certain age to really appreciate RR – I don’t know if it would have had the same impact on me when I was a student, and hadn’t yet experienced the difference between the dream and the reality.

      My mother was widowed when she was 62, and I was about the age of Nora’s eldest, perhaps a year or two older. I recognised so much of her in Nora even though she was older – she’d never travelled by herself since they married, or made big decisions about money or the house. And gradually over the next few years, she found that she could cope, but almost felt guilty for being able to. Toibin really threw me back to that period – his perceptiveness about women is pretty stunning.

      I’m impressed! I used to be able to read in French – slowly and painfully, admittedly – but lack of practice means I doubt if I could manage it at all now…

      • John Cheever is best known for his short stories. “The Country Husband” is a good place to start. Nowadays, one rarely finds anything but the big Collected Stories volume, which for me is one of those you can always pick up and have a good read with a whiskey on a few rocks. I don’t think anyone regards any of his few novels as GAN candidates.

        The creator of Mad Men credits Cheever as an influence or spark that put him on to that series idea.

        • Yes, it’s only the big Collected Stories that’s available on Amazon here right enough (and a couple of his novels) – I shall stick it on the wishlist in the hopes that my reading list will be more under control next year than it has been this year. I do hope you drink whisky though, and not whiskey – the Scots stuff is much better than the Irish… 😉

  12. I read RR when I heard about the planned film version, and adored it – it was around the time Mad Men was becoming really fashionable, and it was recommended in a lot of the good papers – but of course it’s set a little earlier. I can see him in Richard Ford, definitely. Hemingway I was put off in school, with The Old Man And The Sea – so dull. And not a v nice man – a real man’s man, in the worst sense. Although I do have Mrs Hemingway to read which may rehabilitate him somewhat – or not, v possibly! I’m with you on The Great Gatsby, and I last read Tender Is The Night for A level English Lit…so I think it’s about time I ALSO re-read it! I’ve also read a few books about him, and Zelda…and it’s also one of my favourite periods of history…And so we read on…

    • Indeed! Any good book tends to lead on to others – though I must admit I hardly ever read books about writers. In fact, I don’t really wnat to know much about the writer of any book I’m reading – it gets in the way of the fiction somehow.

    • Gatsby is the GAN, and Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. But Tender is the Night is a particular delight. The couple on whom it is based are also featured in a slender nonfiction volume by Calvin Tomkins called Living Well is the Best Revenge. Any fan of either might well enjoy the other. Those were the days . . . and nights . . . but the mornings-after were brutal.

  13. Nice collection of boring books!!!! I remember you liked The Sun Also Rises. Did BUS really walk with the dinos? Bet she had a Spino for a pet. The Great Gatsby is worse then…then…The Horse and His Boy!

    • *laughing* At one point you were tempted to read at least three of these, you know! You’ve toughened up since then…

      She did – she may even be older than the Professor!

      *laughing lots* But, Tash…you like The Horse and His Boy! And secretly, I expect you like Gatsby too…just like Emma!

      • I was? I was not! Won’t believe it. (That’s what happens when you’re heartless, dadblameit.)

        *gasps* Wow…definitely from the 40’s!

        Okay, so it was a rotten comparison, Aravis! But…but…it stinks–the GG! The professor only read one Austen book. The one with Darby. Maybe I saw the Emma movie. I’ve been tortured before, you see.

        • Yes, you were, and I have the evidence to prove it! It’s tragic to think that you get less enthusiastic about books with every one of my reviews you read… I could probably destroy the entire publishing industry at this rate…

          20s! (She’s away this week so I can say anything! *twirls moustache wickedly*)

          It does not stink! And Austen is not torture! The 5th Wave now – that’ll be a bit like being thrown in a dungeon with a hungry crocodile and no chocolate…

  14. I haven’t read The Road, but Cormac McCarthy is one of my favourite authors, what he can do with language amazes me, I’m in no rush to devour his work, but I really admire his talent.

    Colm Toibin is another master and Nora Webster is something of a classic, in terms of the use of 3rd person limited narrative perspective, so well done I wanted to shout at her at times and beg Toibin to give us another POV, being inside Nora’s head drove me a bit mad and then even more astounding were the number of readers who recognised her behaviour and could relate to it, a masterpiece indeed.

    A great selection!

    Still mulling over mine but Laline Paull’s The Bees is going to be near the top if not the outstanding read for me. Happy Reading!

    • The Road is the only one of his I’ve read, although I’ve got another couple on the TBR. It was one that definitely continued to grow on me after I’d finished, which is usually the sign of a great book for me.

      Nora Webster is wonderful – I’m one of the ones who really felt it reflected parts of my own life – or my mother’s to be more accurate. I’ve loved everything of his I’ve read, but Nora and The Testament of Mary are the two that I think are most brilliant.

      Looking forward to your list – and to reading The Bees! Your review makes it sound fascinating… 😀

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