FictionFan Awards 2021 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year!

A standing ovation, please…

…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…

THE CRITERIA

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

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:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Factual

Short Story Collections & Anthologies

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2021

THE PRIZES

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!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

LITERARY FICTION

It has been a wild and uneasy ride in my bid to get back in touch with new releases this year. I have abandoned nearly as many novels as I have finished, and am heartily bored with the contemporary obsession with identity politics of all kinds, grief-soaked tales of misery and the plethora of self-indulgent, narcissistic books about how people “feel”. Give me a window on the world – on history in the making – at the very least an interesting story – and keep your feelings for your diaries, authors. And write your books well, not “creatively”. Thanks.

Haha, sorry! Amidst the dross, happily a few gems still sparkled – books that did indeed transport me to different times, different places, different lives. I gave only 6 modern novels the full five stars, and one of them, The Promise by Damon Galgut, I failed to review, so the shortlist was very easy to compile.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. It’s only supposed to be for a year, but when the Congo declares independence from Belgium and the mission tells Nathan to return to America, he refuses – he is determined to finish his work whatever the cost to his own family. Left without even the meagre wage the mission had provided or the support of other missionaries to fall back on in emergencies, life, already hard, becomes almost unbearably tough for Orleanna and the girls. And then tragedy strikes…

The story is told in the voices of the mother and daughters. Orleanna only appears briefly but the girls tell us their stories in real time throughout, in rotating chapters, and Kingsolver does a remarkable job of juggling four distinct voices and personalities, while gradually ageing them through childhood into young adulthood and finally to the more reflective maturity of mid-life. A great book that made me laugh and cry and care and think.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks

After leaving university in Vienna, Anton Heidick gradually builds a small reputation as a foreign correspondent, sent off to witness major events around the world. But it’s now 1914, and the clouds of war are gathering across Europe. Lena has survived a difficult childhood as the daughter of an illiterate and often drunken woman. She too makes her way to Vienna, where she becomes involved with Rudolph, a young left-wing activist. Later, between the wars, Anton and Lena will both find themselves at the Schloss Seeblick, a mental health sanatorium in a mountain valley in Carinthia, each seeking a kind of healing.

Anton and Lena are the main characters, but there’s a cast of secondary characters who each give us a different perspective on this period of Austrian history. Unusually for modern fiction, all of the characters are likeable, and all are fundamentally decent people trying to do their best despite their normal human weaknesses and flaws. I found that deeply refreshing, and was happy to find myself totally immersed in each of their stories.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner

Meggie has come to live in London from her home in South Africa. She has an office job which she finds dull, and a boyfriend whom she loves, but she feels as if she wants something more from life than marriage and children, though she isn’t sure what. Then one day Sabine comes to work in the office and Meggie finds herself immediately fascinated by this beautiful, enigmatic young woman. They form a tentative friendship, or so it seems to Meggie, and when Sabine decides to move to the nightshift, Meggie follows. Years later, she is looking back at this period of her life in the dying days of the last millennium, and telling the story of her obsession with Sabine…

Meggie’s quest to work out her sexuality, to make herself into someone new with her own place and identity in this shifting, impermanent community is beautifully done – an extreme example, admittedly, but recognisable as a part of life we all go through to a degree as we move into adulthood. In Meggie’s case, the whole thing is given a kind of hallucinatory edge, not only because of the drink and drugs, but because of the nocturnal life she is leading and the insomnia this brings on. Dark and disturbing, the book is nonetheless full of humanity and sympathy for human frailty. An excellent début.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

When the Pastor goes walking round the woods and hills around his village in Pajala in the north of Sweden, seeking new botanical specimens, he is always accompanied by the young Sami boy, Jussi, whom he had found living wild and near to starving, and taken in to his own family. The Pastor, we gradually discover, is the founder and leader of the Lutheran Pietist Revival movement, Lars Levi Laestadius – a real person, who as well as his religious work made a name for himself in the scientific field through his work on botany. When a local maid goes missing and is later found dead, the villagers believe it was the work of a killer bear and they set out to hunt the creature down, but the Pastor’s scientific knowledge and keen powers of observation lead him to think that the girl died at the hands of a human. And then another girl is attacked…

This is one of these books that, despite having a murder mystery at its heart, falls very definitely into the category of literary fiction. As the Pastor and Jussi go about their investigation, the author slowly builds a detailed picture of mid-nineteenth century life here in this remote northern area where Sweden and Lapland meet, and of the Pastor’s mission to stamp out the drunkenness that bedevils the population and bring education to the poor so that they can lift themselves out of their physical and spiritual poverty. Jussi’s wonder and musings on the importance of writing are beautifully done, and he is clearly a metaphor for what Niemi sees as Laestadius’ major contribution to the advancement of his own people, Niemi himself having been born in Pajala about a century after the time the book is set. A truly absorbing read.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

Last Days in Cleaver Square
by Patrick McGrath

Despite the paucity of excellent books, it was still hard to choose a winner in this category since several of the shortlist would have been worthy. My final decision may have been swayed by my current absorption in reading about the Spanish Civil War, but I feel it’s not necessary to know much about the war or Franco’s dictatorship to appreciate this one.

Francis McNulty is an old man now, in 1975, but his younger self was one of the many men who had gone to aid the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, in his case as a medic. Now he is frail, although he hates the word, and showing signs of mental decline, perhaps even the beginnings of dementia. So when he starts seeing visions of General Franco at first in his garden and then later inside his house, his daughter puts it down to his mental state. Francis is convinced though that Franco, currently on his deathbed in Spain, is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind.

Told as Francis’ journal in a somewhat disjointed and rambling fashion as befits an elderly, possibly confused man, this is a wonderful picture of someone haunted by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. The story Francis reveals is a human one, of unexpected love and loyalty, of betrayal and the search for redemption and forgiveness. But it’s also a wonderful portrayal of ageing, with all the pathos of declining physical and mental faculties, and a beautiful depiction of closeted homosexuality, since Francis chose the easier path at that time of outwardly living a heterosexual life. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving and full of emotional truth – it made me laugh, made me cry and made me think, and still makes me smile with pleasure whenever I think of it.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

Best Vintage Crime Fiction – The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher
Best Factual – The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill
Best Short Story Collection – Green Tea and Other Weird Stories by Sheridan Le Fanu
Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller – The Last Trial by Scott Turow
Best Literary Fiction – Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2021

THE WINNER

The Last Trial
by Scott Turow

In the end, an easy choice despite the quality of all the category winners. As the finale to the career of a character I’ve been following for most of my adult life, lawyer Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, this book is from the pen of an author at the top of his very considerable game. Although it is given added resonance by the emotional attachment long-term fans will feel for Stern, it would also work very well as a standalone for a new reader. Although written before Covid hit the headlines, its story of ethics and skulduggery in the field of medical research feels even more relevant in these trying times. A great book in a wonderful series – though Sandy’s career may have drawn to a close, I sincerely hope Turow’s will continue for many years, and many books, yet.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks to all of you who’ve joined me for this year’s awards feature.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!

32 thoughts on “FictionFan Awards 2021 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year!

    • Last Days in Cleaver Square is a lovely book – despite the wartime memories, it’s one of those books that leaves a warm glow! Haha, I shall do my best to make sure you don’t run out of books… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m pleased, but not surprised, that the Turow is your book of the year, FictionFan. He is such a talented writer, and his characters are both nuanced and believable. I like the way he conveys the tension of a trial, too, without resorting to Hollywood-esque thriller moments. As for your literary fiction…I’m glad you found some gems, as you say. For me, the key to an excellent novel is a plot and some well-developed characters. No amount of rumination, self-recrimination, etc., etc., etc., will make up for it if a book doesn’t draw me in with its plot and characters. I don’t even have to like the characters, so long as they’re interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, the Turow was the inevitable winner for me this year, just because it capped off Sandy Stern’s career so well! I realise all these introspective books must be popular, but I’m with you – for me a book has to have a strong story if it wants to hold my attention. And I like my characters to be interested in the world around them, rather than constantly obsessing about their own feelings, if that makes sense. Like you, I don’t need to like them, but I need to find them interesting,,,

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Had to laugh at your description of so much current fiction ‘all feelings’ – can you please emote somewhere else and give me a story instead? Nightshift and Snow Country are on my reading list as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hahaha, I seem to be becoming increasingly bitter about the state of fiction these days! Aren’t authors lucky I’m not the one who decides whether their books can get published? 😉 Both good choices – Nightshift is probably the closest to a “feelings” book on my list, but she does it so well…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. On behalf of Scott, thank you so much! (Though I’m not affiliated with him in any way. I just wanted to say that. 😁
    “I have abandoned nearly as many novels as I have finished, and am heartily bored with the contemporary obsession with identity politics of all kinds, grief-soaked tales of misery and the plethora of self-indulgent, narcissistic books about how people “feel”.😁 I have too!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, thank you for accepting the award on his behalf – for some reason he doesn’t seem to have turned up at the party! 😉
      😂 I do get bitter about the state of fiction today and all these books about poor little self-pitying victims! Give me adventure!! Give me excitement!!! Give me entertainment!!!! 😀

      Like

  4. Well, it was all very exciting!! Apart from The Poisonwood Bible which I’ve read they’re all going on my list, thank you for all the time you’ve taken it’s very much appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh, I love adding books to other people’s TBRs – payback! 😀 All of these are well worth reading and quite different from each other, so I hope you enjoy them. Glad you enjoyed this year’s awards! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I tried to read one of Turow’s earlier works but found I just couldn’t get into it. Obviously, he’s improved since then, so I might have to give him another chance, especially since he won your grand prize!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Honestly I think it’s that they get touted as thrillers when they’re really not. I think that means people are often disappointed by how slow and detailed they are. I hope you do enjoy him if you try another, but I know he’s one of those authors that people seem to either love or hate.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. To Cook A Bear sounds really intriguing once again for its picture of life in 19th century sweden/lapland encased in a murder mystery (hope the bear gets away safe!), and The Poisonwood Bible will be going on my TBR as well. The one book I read set in Franco’s Spain this year was Ruya Sepetys’ the Fountains of Silence, an eye opener for me in many ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved To Cook a Bear, although I should warn you that he’s quite unsentimental about how the people treated wildlife back then! The Poisonwood Bible is great – she handles all the four daughters’ individual voices so well. I haven’t come across the Ruya Sepetys’ book – I shall investigate! I have quite a few SCW-related novels lined up for next year…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha, yes, I think Dombey and Son definitely qualifies as a chunkster! I’m loving it again so far, though – as usual it’s all the secondary characters that make it for me, Old Sol and Captain Cuttle and so on… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • We’ll surely have persuaded at least a few people to try Nightshift between us, I hope! 😉 This was my first McGrath and I loved his writing. Looking forward to backtracking to some of his earlier books.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Many of your literary pics sound great. The Poisonwood Bible has been on my TBR for ages, and Nightshift sounds intriguing also. While I don’t think your pick of the year would be especially for me, I’m glad you have still been able to find an outstanding read for the year, and that your journey with that particular character came to such a satisfying conclusion, the sign of a great writer and series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, they have to be great to stop me abandoning them at the moment – I’ve become brutal! 😉 The Poisonwood Bible is wonderful – she does such a great job keeping the four daughters’ voices separate and individual as they grow up. Nightshift is probably the one that’s most about “feelings” on my list, but she does it so well that she got past my grumpy side! I’ll miss the character of Sandy Stern but I’m intrigued to see if Turow continues the series without him – it’s always been one of those series where different characters come to the fore in different books.

      Like

    • The Poisonwood Bible was a definite highlight of the year for me! Glad you’ve enjoyed this year’s awards feature – I’m always happy to look back and remind myself of the best books of the year! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for a wonderful award season! I’m not surprised to see the Turow as the overall winner, but I think some of your others contenders are tempting me more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed this year’s awards feature! 😀 Turow is great but definitely a matter of taste – his books are very slow which is usually a no-no for me, but somehow he always keeps me interested. But I was happy that there’s quite a range of styles and subjects in my reading this year, so I hope you find some that tempt you! 😈

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible, though it’s my least favourite of her novels. I have enjoyed your awards and am always reassured by your careful statement on your timeline for them at the start! Look out for my best of at the turn of the year. Will I allow myself 20 books as I’ve read 180 already with more to finish??

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, since I picked 25 out of only about 120 books read, I feel 20 out of 180 is quite restrained! I’ll look forward to seeing your list – though all these lists are playing havoc with my wishlist! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Being the finale was the deciding factor – the award is as much for the whole series as for the individual book. I hope he does – he’s never been the most prolific writer, so it’ll be a while before there’s another, I expect!

      Liked by 1 person

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