Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
NOVEMBER

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it. (Time to think up a new idea for next year, Cleo! 😉 )

So here are my favourite November reads – click on the covers to go to the full reviews…

 

2011

 

after the lockoutVictor Lennon, hero of the failed Easter Uprising of 1916, returns to his home town in Armagh to look after his drunken father at the behest of Stanislaus, the local priest. Through the microcosm of this small town, we are shown the various tensions existing in Irish society at this period – the iron rule of the Catholic church, those who desire independence from the English, those who are fighting alongside those same English in WW1, those who, like Victor, are inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia to bring about a socialist republic.

But although there is much about religion and politics in this book, the author manages to keep it on a very human level – what we see are two fundamentally good but fallible men driven by circumstances to battle for the hearts and souls of the people. This very fine novel is so well written and accomplished that it’s hard to believe that it is the author’s first. Sadly, so far it has also been his last…

 

2012

 

fujisanThis rather strange but very moving collection of four stories is centred round the iconic Mount Fuji. In each story the central character seems somehow damaged and alone, struggling to work out who they are and why they feel what they feel. There is a spiritual feel to the book; these characters are seeking something that will enable them to explain themselves to themselves and their searches take them in strange and surprising directions. ‘Blue Summit’ tells of an ex-cult member now working in a convenience store and learning how to live outside the cult. ‘Sea of Trees’ is a disturbing tale of three boys confronting death while spending a night in the woods of Mount Fuji. ‘Jamilla’ is a compulsive hoarder and this is the tale of the social worker detailed to clear her house. And lastly, in ‘Child of Night’ a walk up the mountain becomes a journey of self-discovery for a nurse who is struggling with the ethics of her job.

This was my first introduction to contemporary Japanese fiction and has some of the features I’ve since encountered in other books – a strange passivity to some of the characters and a feeling of a generation that has thrown out its old traditions but hasn’t quite worked out how to replace them. I’m not at all sure that I fully understood the book (as often happens to me with Japanese fiction) but I found it compelling and thought provoking, and although it saddened and even disturbed me in places, I felt oddly uplifted in the end.

 

2013

 

an officer and a spyBased on the true story of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer convicted of spying for the Germans in the late 19th century, the book begins with Dreyfus’ humiliation as he is stripped of his rank and military honours in front of his army colleagues and a baying, jeering public crowd. With Dreyfus sent off to Devil’s Island and kept in almost total isolation, the matter was officially considered closed. However as suspicions began to emerge that he was not the spy after all, the army and members of the government began a cover-up that would eventually destroy reputations, wreck careers and even lives, and change the political landscape of France. This fictionalised account is based on the verifiable facts of the affair and, as far as I know, sticks pretty closely to them. The book is lengthy and allows him to examine the various different aspects of French society that made the case both so complex and so significant.

Well written and thought-provoking, my only real criticism of the book is that Harris has jumped on the fashionable bandwagon of using the present tense. However, Harris handles the device as well as most and better than many, and despite it the book is a very interesting and human account of this momentous event in French history.

 

2014

 

the zig-zag girlWhen the legs and head of a beautiful young woman are found in two boxes in the Left Luggage office at Brighton station, something about the body makes Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens think of an old magic trick, the Zig Zag Girl. But when the missing torso turns up in a box addressed to him under his old army title of Captain, he begins to realise that whatever the motive is, it’s personal. So he turns for advice to top stage magician, Max Mephisto, who served with him during the war in a top-secret unit dubbed the Magic Men. Together they begin to investigate a crime that seems to be leading them back towards those days and to the small group of people who made up the unit.

Set in the early 1950s, the investigation is written more like the stories of that time than today’s police procedurals. This is a slower and less rule-bound world where it doesn’t seem odd for the detective to team up with an amateur, and Edgar and Max make a great team. Being based around the world of variety shows, there’s a whole cast of quirky characters, and the rather seedy world of the performers is portrayed very credibly. Griffiths takes her time to reveal the story and paces it just right to keep the reader’s interest while maintaining the suspense. And I’m delighted to say that the next in the series Smoke and Mirrors is, if anything, even better. A must-read series.

 

2015

 

coup de foudreThis collection of a novella and 15 short stories lives up to the high expectations I have developed for the writing of this hugely talented author. The novella-length title story, Coup de Foudre, is a barely disguised imagining of the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal (when the leader of the International Monetary Fund and possible candidate for the French Presidency was accused of having sexually assaulted a chamber-maid in a Manhattan hotel room). In Kalfus’ hands, it becomes a compelling examination of a man so intoxicated by power and his own superiority that he feels he is above the common morality.

Some of the other stories are also based on real-life events. Some have a political aspect to them, while others have a semi-autobiographical feel, and there’s a lot of humour in many of them. There are several that would be classed, I suppose, as ‘speculative fiction’ – borderline sci-fi – but with Kalfus it’s always humanity that’s at the core, even when he’s talking about parallel universes, dead languages or even cursed park benches! There are some brilliantly imaginative premises on display here, along with the more mundane, but in each story Kalfus gives us characters to care about and even the more fragmentary stories have a feeling of completeness so often missing from contemporary short story writing. This is a great collection which would be a perfect introduction to Kalfus.

* * * * * * *

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for November, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

36 thoughts on “Five of the Best!

  1. Good heavens Fiction Fan – you do realise that we agreed that your 2011, 2012 and 2013 were all excellent books?!! We clearly diverged over the finding of beautiful dismembered corpses as the idea makes me automatically steer a wide berth, but I have absolutely no doubt, that when i eventually get to do something about that Kalfus, I shall also agree that your choice was excellent. Clearly that thanksgiving party you gave has put us in rare accord in November. Those sprouts must have been wonderfully cooked, and the pumpkin pie too.

    • Yes, back in those days we seemed to enjoy the same stuff mostly, but now we seem to have gone off in completely separate directions! But I think you’ll probably enjoy the Kalfus, should you get a chance to read it. 2015 though – it’ll probably take you 20 years to reach books published that year! The dismembered corpse in Zig Zag was quite tastefull really, as dismembered corpses go…

      • I shall be getting to this century beyond the veil, via a literary medium. I’m awfully glad I checked to see what tap tapping on tablet produced there, as it produced via a dietary means, rather than via a literary medium. The mind boggled. Reviews written in well gummed porridge, perhaps?

        • Haha – isn’t prdctv txt wonderful? I should think porridge is more likely to send you beyond the veil rather than bring you back… but don’t tell my fellow Scots I said so!

  2. The Zig-Zag girl seems brutal! Though, if a killer did that to me–send me the bodies, I mean–the whole idea would be lost, I think. I’ve never seen the trick, but I’m thinking it must be gory. Which makes it cool.

    So, out of all of these, do you have a fav?

    • *laughs* I think the good magicians usually manage it without actually chopping the girl up – imagine trying to hire assistants for that job otherwise… *thinks about Amelia suddenly*

      Hmm… either Zig Zag or the Ken Kalfus…hmm… Zig Zag!

      • Haha, the girl would have to be very desperate for a job, I’m thinking. Still, there wouldn’t be much incentive there, I’m thinking. Goodness, what a thought.

        I see what you did there. The KK book’s title is impossible to pronounce.

        • Might be better than some of the jobs I’ve had in my time! It’s rather a nice thought, I think… don’t you think?

          Yes, it’ll be all those ‘u’s that are confusing you, since you’re not used to them.

            • Hmm… possibly when I worked as a chalet maid at a holiday camp, cleaning 17 chalets and making up 51 beds (including bunk beds) every day! I stuck that for three weeks. And then there was the one where I sat in an office drawing green circles round the tax bit on invoices – I kept asking what the point was, but never really found out… two weeks for that one!

              *nods* Of course! Your American accent would make it difficult…

            • *laughing lots* Oh my! What hilarious jobs, especially the second. Imagine that! But the first sounds dreadful. Making other beds is awful. It’s a pain enough to make one, see.

              Don’t you pick on my beautiful accent!

            • It was dreadful but when I refused to do it anymore they moved me to the hotdog stand and that was one of the funnest jobs I ever had…

              Aha! So finally you admit you have one! *victory dance*

  3. Really interesting choices, FictionFan! I’m an Elly Griffiths fan, so not surprised to see The Zig Zag Girl here. And you’ve reminded me that I was interested in the Kalfus. I ought to put that on the reading list…

    • The first couple were via Amazon Vine back in the good old days, when they used to regularly tempt me out of my comfort zone. Yes, the Edgar and Max series has already become one of my favourites – I hope she continues with it. And I’m fairly sure you’d enjoy the Kalfus…

  4. It is common among western people to not get what is going on. East may meet West but few why completely understand it. It is different than visiting other occidental countries. And it goes deep into the culture. And it tends to be life-long even when living in western countries.

  5. You have the most eclectic reading habits! That’s awesome!
    Fujisan really intrigues me as does The Zig-Zag Girl, though I’d probably be squeamish about reading it if it’s really gory.

    • Haha! I know – butterfly mind – or maybe jack of all trades!

      Fujisan is excellent, if a bit strange. The Zig-Zag Girl really isn’t gruesome – it’s written almost in the style of the time it’s set in, so there are no horrific autopsy scenes or anything. And though there is a dismembered corpse, she doesn’t dwell on the gory details. I do recommend it highly… 🙂

  6. Very interesting selection – I feel I would like the Japanese stories and the Robert Harris book. The Zig Zag girl is my favourite of Elly Griffiths’ books – not written in the present tense for one thing and an unusual story for another – not gory, well apart from the obvious!

    • Fujisan is a bit strange but it was one of those I almost enjoyed despite myself, if you know what I mean. And the Robert Harris was excellent – I really must read more of his stuff.

      Yes, I like this series better than the Ruth books, and a large part of it is the past tense, and a real mystery plot. Have you read Smoke and Mirrors yet? I think I may even have liked it better…

  7. I’ve just read The Zig-zag Girl and Smoke and mirrors and loved them. the Harris was good too, and pretty accurate, from what I can remember.

    • Oh, glad you enjoyed them! Now I just have to persuade you to read Jane Casey and my work will be done! Yes, the Harris seemed pretty accurate to me too, and I’d just read a ‘proper’ history before I read that one, so my usually appalling memory had been recently refreshed.

  8. After the Lockout sounds very interesting to me, as does The Zig Zag Girl. Even the Mount Fuji collection sounds doable, though I’m not sure I’d feel much empathy for a hoarder, ha! Great recommendations for November, FF — you’re bound and determined to keep me adding to my TBR list and not get my own writing done, aren’t you?!?

    • Sadly I feel too much empathy for the hoarder! I need one of these life-coaches to come and de-clutter me… though they’d probably try to take my books away and then I might turn nasty… 😉

      Haha! Yes, you’ve worked out my fiendish plot! The only way I’ll ever get my TBR down is if people stop writing new books for a decade… or two…

  9. Another great selection for the penultimate post of 2015 *frantically scratching head for new idea* I totally agree with The Zig-Zag Girl and I really Luke the idea of the Mount Fuji collection -and the Harris…

    • Yeah, I’ve been trying to think of something too – so far, nothing! I was thinking alphabets with a book for each letter in the name of the month, but too many months end with Y – not to mention all those Us! Or maybe 5 books beginning with a single letter? A, then B, etc. That should be fun when it got to X… 😉 Somebody used to do a Six Degrees of Separation thing – finding links from one book to another – that might be fun… hmm! I might think about that one…

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