A round of applause…
…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2021.
For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around in previous years, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…
All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2020 and October 2021* regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.
(*my reviews have been running late recently so some drifted into November this year)
The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.
This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:
Short Story Collections & Anthologies
Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller
Book of the Year 2021
For the winners!
I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!
(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)
For the runners-up!
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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in
I’ve read far fewer factual books than usual this year, and a lot of them related to my ongoing Reading the Spanish Civil War challenge. Fortunately most of the books were excellent – out of a total of eight books read, five got the full five stars, So that made shortlisting easy!
Yesterday’s Tomorrows edited by Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley has been editing the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series for the last few years, for which he has selected some excellent novels and brought together several enjoyable themed anthologies. So it seems natural that he should produce what can be seen as a guide book to his chosen genre, classic British science fiction novels from the mid-1890s to the mid-1960s. He has selected 100 of these, discussing the merits of each and placing them in their context within the genre.
I love this kind of book – when you don’t really know a genre very well it can be hard to know where to start, and I have a tendency to read the very well known ones and then give up. This has given me not just the basic 100 books to explore, but an understanding of what was happening in the genre and how the later writers built on the work of the earlier ones. I’ve resisted the temptation so far to challenge myself to read all 100 but, as Seven of Nine would remind us, resistance is futile…
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Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
Orwell’s classic memoir of his time as a participant in the Spanish Civil War has the mix of romanticised idealism and hard-nosed realism that has become embedded as the received mythology of the war in the popular imagination – in Britain, at least. Orwell attached himself to POUM, one of the many factions on the left – a Trotskyite grouping opposed, not only to the right whom they were supposed to be fighting, but also to the USSR-backed Communist faction. This division led to fighting on the streets of Barcelona in May of 1937, as a result of which POUM were driven underground by the ascendant Communists.
Splitting the politics off into the appendices works very well, preventing the human side of the story from getting bogged down in analysis. I was expecting it to be more propagandistic than it is – his honesty gives a very clear picture of his growing disillusion, not with the theories and ideals underpinning the revolution, but with the realities of it. Although I was glad I knew a bit of the background, I didn’t think it was necessary. It could easily be read on its own – it’s more about the experience of participating in a civil war than it is about the rights or wrongs of the cause. An excellent read.
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The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
May, 1940. Already weakened by failures in Norway, the successful blitzkrieg in Holland and Belgium sounded the death knell for Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Reluctantly King George VI offered the position to Winston Churchill, a man adored by the public although many of his colleagues thought him too erratic for the role. Larson sets out to tell of Churchill’s first year in power: holding British morale together during the Blitz; desperately working to build up British forces to defend against the expected invasion; battling to get America, even if they weren’t willing to put boots on the ground, to at least assist with money and equipment while Britain stood alone against the overpowering forces of the Nazi war machine.
Larson is brilliant at bringing historical events to life so that it feels as if the reader is there in the room rather than reading a dry recital of historical facts years afterwards. Here he uses a variety of personal accounts to paint a vivid picture of Churchill through this dramatic period – primarily the diaries of his daughter, Mary, and his private secretary, Jock Colville, supplemented by various letters and memos between Churchill and members of his inner team. Larson also turns to contemporaneous reports in the newspapers and on radio, to show what people knew and how they felt at the time rather than through the lens of hindsight.
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The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan
Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period.
Where Brenan excels is in his detailed breakdown of the background to the conflict, especially his explanation of why the various different regions in Spain developed differing political alignments dependant on local geographical, agricultural and industrial factors. While all were affected by the power plays amongst the monarchy, Church and military, he shows that the impact differed according to the economic and social history of each region. I found that I was gradually developing a map of the country in my mind, one that showed not simply where places were but what people did there – how they lived, were they wealthy or poor, who owned the land, was the land fertile, what were their local industries, and so on. He also shows how parts of Spain looked over the border towards Europe while other parts were still influenced by their Moorish past. I found this a fascinating and hugely informative read, that left me with a much better understanding of what led to the rise of the various factions, and why the drive towards war became seemingly unstoppable.
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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021
The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill
While all the shortlisted books are excellent and highly recommended, again it was easy to pick the winner in this category. This series, among his other writings, won Churchill the Nobel Prize for Literature and for once I heartily concur.
The first book in Churchill’s massive six-volume history of the Second World War, this covers the period from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to the day when Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940. It is a superbly written account of the period from one man’s viewpoint – that man happening to be one of the handful of important men who decided the fate of the world for the second half of the twentieth century at least.
Churchill leads us through his stance against appeasement, explaining how the Nazis used the time gained by the Allies’ dithering to build up a mighty war machine. He is pretty brutal about failures of the national policies of the WW1 victors, especially the US’ self-interested and isolationist position of neutrality. But France and Britain come in for plenty of criticism too, for continuing to attempt to mollify and compromise with Hitler’s Germany long after, in Churchill’s opinion, such attempts were obviously dangerous. He barely hides his disgust at the Munich agreement and the betrayal of the Allies’ commitment to Czechoslovakia. And he takes us through the early days of the war, when Chamberlain’s failures led to his resignation, and the monarch and Parliament turned to Churchill to lead Britain through her darkest hour.
A first-rate history with just enough of the personal to bring out the emotional drama of war – I will certainly go on to read the other five volumes in the series.
….A few feet behind me, as I sat in my old chair, was the wooden map-case I had had fixed in 1911, and inside it still remained the chart of the North Sea on which each day, in order to focus attention on the supreme objective, I had made the Naval Intelligence Branch record the movements and dispositions of the German High Seas Fleet. Since 1911 much more than a quarter of a century had passed, and still mortal peril threatened us at the hands of the same nation. Once again defence of the rights of a weak State, outraged and invaded by unprovoked aggression, forced us to draw the sword. Once again we must fight for life and honour against all the might and fury of the valiant, disciplined, and ruthless German race. Once again! So be it.
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