FictionFan Awards 2022 – Anthologies

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2022.

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 2021 and October 2022 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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:

Anthologies

Vintage Crime

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Modern Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2022

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

ANTHOLOGIES

I don’t know whether it’s just that I’ve got into them more, but it seems to be a golden era for anthologies of vintage stories, in crime, horror and science fiction. I tend to stick to three publishers, purely due to time limitations – the British Library, with their wonderful series of Crime Classics, Tales of the Weird and Science Fiction Classics; Oxford World’s Classics who have produced several excellent vintage horror collections and anthologies in recent years; and HarperCollins who seem to be getting more into the vintage field recently.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime
edited by Martin Edwards

This British Library anthology has the theme of Scottish stories – either stories written by Scots, or written by people from elsewhere (generally England) but set in Scotland. There are seventeen stories in total, though a handful of them are very short and quite slight. There’s the usual mix of weel-kent names, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson; some regulars of these anthologies, such as Michael Innes and GK Chesterton; and several that I’ve never come across before. Some of my favourite stories were from these never previously encountered writers, of whom several were Scottish, so that pleased my patriotic little soul and has given me a few names to investigate further – always one of the pleasures of these anthologies. The geographical spread is good too – a few of the stories are set in the big cities, but the writers have taken full advantage of the less populated areas of the Highlands and the Borders too.

I really liked the variety – everything from humour, both dark and light, to veering towards the noir end of crime fiction, and Edwards has picked a lot of stories that show different aspects of Scottish life, from urban to rural to wilderness, from the mean streets of Glasgow to the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ Lairds of the Highlands.

Click to see the full review

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Bodies from the Library 5 edited by Tony Medawar

This series of “forgotten stories of mystery and suspense” from HarperCollins and Tony Medawar has now become an annual event, and one I look forward to. The stories are all ones that haven’t been collected before, or occasionally have never been published. Every year I feel the well must run dry but each year Tony Medawar proves me wrong. He ranges widely to find his treasures – through old magazines and newspapers, into the BBC archives for radio scripts, digging out stories written originally to boost a charity or good cause, and so on. There are sixteen stories in this collection, ranging from a few pages up to novella-length, and lots of familiar names show up, some very well known – John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L Sayers, Ellis Peters, etc. – and others who are becoming well known to those of us who are reading a lot of the vintage crime currently being re-issued by various publishers – Michael Gilbert, Anthony Berkeley, John Bude, et al. The quality is more consistent than it sometimes is in anthologies, which I always find surprising for stories that haven’t been included in collections over the years.

Click to see the full review

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The Ghost Slayers edited by Mike Ashley

From the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this one has the theme of psychic detectives – ghost-hunters who investigate hauntings and sometimes set out to lay the ghosts. There are nine stories, some by well-known authors like Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson, and an array of lesser-known ones, to me at least. Many of the ghost-hunters appeared regularly in their authors’ output, but each of the stories stands on its own.

The overall quality of the stories is high, all rating at either four or five stars. Most of them are not terrifying, focussing more on the ghost-hunt than the scares, and they occasionally have a rather anticlimactic ending as the psychic detective “solves” the haunting. But some have plenty of thrills despite the format, and I found one or two quite chilling, even disturbing. I found it interesting to learn that there was a thriving sub-genre of fictional psychic detectives, and Mike Ashley’s introduction indicates how this arose out of the real-life interest in spiritualism and the psychical researchers who were developing scientific approaches to investigating reports of spiritualist events.

Logo from William Hope Hodgson’s ghost hunter series

Click to see the full review

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Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edwards

Another from the great team of Martin Edwards and the British Library, this one contains sixteen stories, all connected in some way to books, book collectors or authors. I came to the conclusion, in fact, that being a writer is a very dangerous thing – so many of them seem to become either murderers or murder victims! Plenty of big names here – Ngaio Marsh, Julian Symons, Christianna Brand, etc. – and a few less well known ones, though through reading so many of these anthologies I’m beginning to recognise and look forward to some of the names which turn up regularly even if I’ve not yet read any of their novels.

The overall quality of the stories is unusually high, with by far the majority rating as either good or excellent. The variation in styles is also wide, from traditional “closed circle” and “impossible crime” mysteries, to humorous and self-mocking takes on the life of the poor downtrodden mystery writer, all the way to full-on thriller-style stories.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2022

for

BEST ANTHOLOGY

The Origins of Science Fiction
edited by Michael Newton

This is the latest in the Oxford World’s Classics hardback collection, several of which recently have been anthologies or collections of weird and Gothic horror. This one is a slight departure into science fiction but, as the editor Michael Newton suggests in his introduction, early science fiction has its roots in the Gothic tradition; and certainly many of the stories in the collection would sit just as neatly in a horror collection. There are seventeen stories in it, most of them quite substantial and with one or two reaching novella-length. It’s in the usual OWC format: an informative and interesting introduction, scholarly in content, but written in an accessible non-academic style; the stories, each preceded by a short biography of the author, including their contributions to the field of science fiction; and the all-important notes, which explain the many classical references and allusions, historical references and any terms that have fallen out of use. I found the notes in this one particularly good – well-written and done on a kind of “need to know” basis; that is, not overloaded with too much detail and digression.

Illustration of Jack London’s The Red One

In his introduction, Newton discusses how the concerns of the time are woven into the stories – the gathering pace of scientific and technological development, the impact of colonialism, anxiety about man’s future ability to communicate with the ‘other’, whether that other may be alien, evolved humanity, or machine. It’s interesting that all of those concerns are still subjects of contemporary science fiction, suggesting we haven’t yet solved the questions these early science fiction authors posed. He also talks about how many authors at that time who were known primarily for other styles of writing ventured into science fiction, sometimes to the displeasure of their publishers and perhaps to the bafflement of their readers. Certainly some of the names that turn up here surprised me – George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. Others are much better known as stalwarts, even progenitors, of the genre: HG Wells, of course, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others. It’s truly a stellar line-up and they have produced some stellar stories – I gave them a veritable galaxy of stars. A well-deserved winner!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Vintage Crime

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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

FictionFan Awards 2021 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Drum roll, 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

MODERN CRIME FICTION/
THRILLERS

I’m still out of synch with most modern crime fiction and have abandoned several this year, including some from authors I’ve previously enjoyed. However, happily there have also been some that I’ve loved, proving that it’s still possible to win the judge’s approval with a good story, written well! I gave a total of seven the full five stars, and have selected my shortlist on the basis that these five were all new releases within the last eighteen months or so…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Final Twist by Jeffery Deaver

In the third and final part of Deaver’s Colter Shaw trilogy, Shaw has come to San Francisco on the trail of the conspiracy which he believes led to his father’s murder, finishing the story arc that has been running in the background of the previous two books. Here, he’ll find he is both hunter and prey, as the people behind the conspiracy try to stop him from getting the evidence he needs to bring them down.

Although it’s essential to switch off one’s credibility monitor, I enjoyed this one just as much as the other two in the trilogy. There are conventions to this kind of thriller and Deaver is a master of them, so that when he goes over the top, the reader is quite happy to go along with him. There is hardly any swearing, remarkably little gruesomeness and gore, and no graphic sex, so it’s all very tasteful despite the constant violence! I’ve enjoyed spending time with Deaver after a long gap away from his books.

Click to see the full review

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The Silence by Susan Allott

In 1997, in her flat in London, Isla Green gets a phone call from her dad in Sydney. He’s worried. He tells her that the police have been looking into the disappearance of Mandy Mallory, who used to be their next-door-neighbour back in 1967 when Isla was a very little child, and they seem to have him in their sights as a suspect in her possible murder. Isla has always been close to her dad, so she decides to go home to Sydney to support him through all this – the first time she has been home in years. At first she is convinced her father could never have killed anyone, but once she’s home old memories begin to resurface and she sees the people she thought she knew through different, more experienced eyes, and suddenly she’s not so sure any more…

The writing is terrific, the pacing is perfect, and Allott handles the subject of race and forced separations in the Aboriginal community with a great deal of subtlety, showing the differences in society’s attitudes between the two timelines and indeed with our current attitude too. The story itself is straightforward, never stretching credulity, and told with deceptive simplicity – all the complexity is in the excellent characterisation. A great début!

Click to see the full review

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The Pact by Sharon Bolton

It’s the night before A-level results and a group of six friends have gathered together as they’ve done most nights of this gorgeous summer. They’re confident they’ll get the results they need for their chosen Universities, for they’re the cleverest group in their expensive, academically-renowned school. But drink and drugs and youth are a dangerous combination, and they all agree to one last mad escapade that results in the death of a woman and her two young children. Panicked, they flee the scene, but they’re sure the police will soon trace the car they were in. And then Megan, the quiet one, the outsider, offers to take the rap for them all on one condition – that when she gets out, they’ll each do her one favour, whatever she asks. Fast forward twenty years… Megan is back, and she’s ready to call in the debt…

Goodness, when Bolton’s on form there’s no one to touch her for truly thrilling thrillers! This one grabbed me right from the start as I watched these six kids – selfish, yes, but also programmed to be high achievers by pushy parents and ambitious schools – do one stupid thing and then follow it up with another, even stupider. Even though the blurb reveals this early part of the plot, the tension that Bolton creates is irresistible, the definition of page-turning!

Click to see the full review

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The Less Dead by Denise Mina

When Margo Dunlop decides to seek out her birth mother, she discovers she’s too late – her mother, Susan, died shortly after giving Margo up for adoption. But the counselling service puts her in touch with her mother’s sister, Nikki, and they arrange to meet. Nikki has a strange story to tell, and a request to make. Like Nikki herself, Susan was a street prostitute on the Drag – Glasgow’s red light zone – back in the late1980s. Susan was brutally murdered and left lying naked in the street – one of a spate of murders of prostitutes over the course of a few years. Nikki is convinced the murders were carried out by one man, although the police disagree. The man in question had an alibi for the time of Susan’s murder, but Nikki hopes that Margo will be able to use her privileged position as a doctor to help break the alibi. At first, Margo thinks Nikki is some kind of fantasist, but events soon convince her that there may be some truth in her story…

This was a time of huge change for Glasgow, dragging itself out of the poverty and gang violence of the post-war era and recreating itself as a modern, vibrant cultural centre. Mina’s story straddles this transformation, Susan a product of the old times and Margo of a new, more affluent and perhaps more hopeful future, but still saddled metaphorically as well as literally by the city’s past. Mina’s knowledge of Glasgow appears to be encyclopaedic and this is a far more accurate depiction of the city than in the vast majority of contemporary crime fiction, written, I feel, with unromanticized affection, and the strength of the story of these despised and disregarded women well outweighs the slight weakness of the mystery plot.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021

for

BEST MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Last Trial
by Scott Turow

Despite the quality of the shortlisted books, there was never any doubt over the winner this year. Not only is this an excellent novel in its own right, it represents the finale for one of modern crime fiction’s most brilliantly drawn characters – Sandy Stern.

Lawyer Alejandro “Sandy” Stern is old now and beginning to fail both physically and mentally, but when Kiril Pafko finds himself in trouble, Sandy agrees to defend him. Facing his own mortality, Sandy finds himself thinking back to the people who have been important in his life – his family and friends. Kiril is one of those friends, a brilliant Nobel prizewinner, who has developed a drug that combats cancer with spectacular results. Too spectacular – Kiril is on trial for suppressing negative studies into the side-effects of the drug, and for the murder of patients who, the prosecution claims, had their lives shortened by taking it. Kiril is also accused of having made a fortune by selling shares in the drug just before the negative studies became public. Although for Sandy the main aim is to have Kiril legally acquitted, Kiril is just as concerned about the damage to his reputation in the scientific community, and Sandy finds that their differing objectives mean that his client often impedes his attempts to argue the case on legal grounds.

Sandy Stern first appeared in Presumed Innocent in 1987 and Turow has used him over the series to present a thoughtful and realistic picture of how the law works in the US, slowly and not always achieving true justice, but an essential part of the democratic system of ensuring the rights of the individual. The books are always billed as legal thrillers which I think does them an injustice. To me, these long ago crossed the line into literary fiction – they are far more about the human condition in all its frailties and strengths than about exciting courtroom drama, and the writing is of the highest quality. A wonderful finale to what has been a superb series.

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Literary Fiction and
Book of the Year 2021

FictionFan Awards 2021 – Short Story Collections & Anthologies

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…

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

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
& ANTHOLOGIES

Between horror, science fiction and mystery, I’ve read umpteen vintage genre collections and anthologies this year, many of them excellent, so I’ve decided to give them their own category. Five of them got the full five stars, so shortlisting was easy!

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Nature’s Warnings edited by Mike Ashley

This themed anthology from the great pairing of Mike Ashley and the British Library brings together eleven stories each with a focus on some aspect of ecology. It starts with an introduction in which Ashley discusses the rise in ecological awareness since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, but goes on to point out that SF writers had been considering ecological subjects for decades before that – dystopian destruction, animals and nature fighting back against man’s intrusions, symbiosis, settlement and terraforming of new worlds, and so on.

There’s the usual mix of well known SF authors, such as Philip K Dick and Clifford D Simak, together with some I’d never heard of, though since I’m no expert in this genre perhaps they’re more familiar to those who are. Two or three of the stories are a bit didactic and preachy for my taste, too busily making a point at the expense of entertaining. But the majority are very good – it’s always fascinating to see how imaginatively SF writers can deal with basically similar subject matter.

Click to see the full review

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Bodies from the Library 4 edited by Tony Medawar

The theme of this series of anthologies of vintage mystery stories is that they are all, or mostly, ones that have never before been collected in book form since their first appearance in magazines or occasionally as scripts for radio plays. There are seventeen stories in this one, ranging from some that are only a few pages long right up to a short novel-length one from Christianna Brand, which frankly is worth the entrance price alone. There are some big names – Brand, of course, Ngaio Marsh, ECR Lorac, Edmund Crispin, et al – and, as usual, a few that were new to me. The last six stories form a little series, when well-known writers of the day were challenged by a newspaper to write a story based on a picture each of them were given.

Of course the quality varies, and there were several of the stories that got fairly low individual ratings from me (some of which are from the bigger names too). But they were mostly the shorter, less substantial stories, and were well outweighed by the many excellent ones. So overall, a very enjoyable collection and I’m now waiting to see if Medawar can find even more great uncollected stories for another volume!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Spaceworlds edited by Mike Ashley

This anthology takes as its theme living in space, either on space stations or ships. As always there’s an informative introduction from the series editor, Mike Ashley, in which he gives a short history of the development of the ideas of how man might make the colossal journeys around the solar system and beyond. The nine stories in this collection date between 1940 to 1967, so late enough for the scientific difficulties of space travel to be well understood, but early enough for the full play of imagination still to have plenty of scope.

Because of the theme of this collection, only one of the stories involves aliens and the characters rarely land on a planet, but the authors show how varied stories can be even when they share similar settings. A couple of them depend too much on technical problems for my taste – as soon as widgets break down and need to be repaired by ingenious scientific methods my brain seizes up and my eyes glaze over, but that’s simply a subjective issue. The other seven stories are all about the side of science fiction that interests me much more – examining how humans react when placed in unique situations. Another very enjoyable collection.

Click to see the full review

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Born of the Sun edited by Mike Ashley

Mike Ashley’s third nomination in this category and fourth overall for this year’s awards – a phenomenal achievement! I was torn between this and the eventual winner, even considering whether to make it a joint award this year. This collection of ten vintage science fiction stories takes us on a tour of our Solar System. “Ten?” I hear you ask. Yes, there are six of the seven actual planets in the system (excluding Earth). Saturn’s moon Titan is included instead of the planet itself. (Well, obviously one couldn’t live on Saturn, silly!) Pluto is included because it was considered a planet until Neil De Grasse Tyson viciously demoted it to lump of rock or some such. The Asteroid Belt gets its own entry since there have been lots of stories about it. And there’s a mysterious planet, Vulcan – never seen but once postulated to exist by scientists trying to explain the oddness of Mercury’s orbit before Einstein’s theories provided a better explanation; and exercising a considerable magnetic pull on the imaginations of SF writers of the time.

Before each story there is an introduction to the planet, giving its dual history – the advances in scientific understanding of its physical properties over the decades, along with a potted history of how it was viewed and used over time by SF writers. These intros are fantastic – pitched at absolutely the right level for the interested non-scientist and packed full of examples of authors and specific stories to investigate further. Each story is also prefaced with fabulous pictures of the relevant planetscape, mostly as envisioned by Lucien Rudaux, a French artist and astronomer of the early 20th century. I must say that, much though I enjoyed most of the stories, it was the intros in this one that made it extra special – of all the great anthologies the BL has produced this year, this one is my favourite by miles… or I should probably say, by light-years!

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021

for

BEST SHORT STORY COLLECTION

Green Tea and Other Weird Stories
by Sheridan Le Fanu

This was an extremely difficult choice given how much I loved Born of the Sun, but the combination of great stories and an excellent introduction and notes in this collection helped consolidate Le Fanu’s position as one of my favourite horror writers of all time.

In terms of horror writing, it could be said that Sheridan Le Fanu needs no introduction, but in fact the introduction in this new collection of his work adds a lot of interesting insight into his life and work. Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University, discusses whether Le Fanu was really the originator of weird fiction, as a term as well as a sub-genre, as is sometimes claimed. He also discusses the influence on Le Fanu’s work of his position as an Anglo-Irish Protestant of Huguenot descent living as part of a ruling class over a largely Catholic country.

The collection contains twelve stories, three of them novella length, and an exceptionally fine bunch they are, including some of his best known such as Green Tea, Schalken the Painter and my own favourite vampire story, the wonderful Carmilla. In most cases where more than one version of the story exists, Worth has gone back to the original and that seemed to me to work very well – there were a few of the stories I’d read before that I enjoyed more here, either because later changes had been stripped out or because the excellent notes provided extra information that enhanced my reading. I’ve said it before, but this is another example of how a well curated collection can become greater than the sum of its parts.

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

FictionFan Awards 2021 – Factual

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…

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

FACTUAL

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!

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

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…

Click to see the full review

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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.

Barricade in Barcelona during the May Days

Click to see the full review

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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.

Visiting the bombed out Coventry Cathedral

Click to see the full review

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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.

Gerald Brenan

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021

for

BEST FACTUAL

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.

Spoiler alert: We won!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Short Story Collections & Anthologies

FictionFan Awards 2021 – Vintage Crime Fiction

Drum roll 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

VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

This has been another fab year for vintage crime fiction with publishers re-issuing more and more “forgotten” books, keeping me entertained with some of my most enjoyable reads of the year, not to mention my slowly ongoing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge. To keep it simple, I’m calling anything published up to 1971 Vintage, and anything after that date Modern. That way it ties in with the date I use to differentiate classic from modern in literary fiction.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

Mr Justice Barber is a High Court judge, currently acting as His Majesty’s Judge of Assize in the Southern Circuit of England. When he receives a threatening anonymous letter he doesn’t think much of it, since threats tend to come with the position and as the King’s representative he is surrounded by police and officials to protect his dignity and, if necessary, his life. However, when he then receives a box of chocolates which turn out to have been poisoned, he begins to take the matter more seriously…

Cyril Hare drew on his personal experience as a barrister and Judge’s Marshal to give a wonderful depiction of the Assizes, an archaic and now defunct system of travelling justice. The characterisation is excellent, especially of the judge’s wife, Hilda, a brilliant, qualified barrister in her own right who now acts as a kind of power behind the throne to her husband. The mystery is fair play, but of course I failed to work it out!

Click to see the full review

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The Corpse in the Waxworks by John Dickson Carr

Inspector Bencolin and his friend Jeff Marle take on a case involving a woman who walked into the Musée Augustin waxworks one evening and was never seen alive again. Her body later turned up in the Seine. Before they can discover who killed her, they must find out why she went to the waxworks, and why so many other unlikely people seem to find it a place worth visiting late in the evenings…

This is the fourth in the series about the Mephistophelian Bencolin, head of the Parisian detective force, and his American sidekick Marle. The plots are always intricate versions of the “impossible” crime subgenre for which Carr was famous, and this is just as fiendish as the others. But what makes them stand out most from the crowd is Carr’s ability to create wonderfully macabre settings, steeped in decadence and the gruesomeness of the Grand Guignol. Carr is brilliant at spooking both poor Jeff and the reader too, and the decadent evil at the heart of the plot seems right at home in this waxen world of shadows and horrors.

Click to see the full review

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Cécile is Dead by Georges Simenon

Cécile Pardon had become a regular visitor to Inspector Maigret at his office in the Police Judiciaire building in Paris. A spinster who lived with her elderly widowed aunt, Cécile had become convinced that someone was coming in to their apartment at night while they slept. Maigret had made a superficial gesture towards investigating, but everyone thought she was imagining things. So on this morning, when Maigret saw her sitting patiently in the waiting room he left her there and got on with other things. When eventually he went to collect her, she was gone. Later, the body of her aunt is found in the apartment, strangled, and Cécile is nowhere to be found. The title gives a clue as to her fate.

This is one of the best of the Maigrets I’ve read so far. Simenon’s portrayal of the unglamorous side of Paris is as excellent as always, but this one is better plotted than some, the themes have depth, and the characterisation throughout is excellent. And I always enjoy when the solution manages to surprise me but still feel credible. Quite a bleak story, but Maigret’s fundamental decency and integrity always stop these stories from becoming too depressingly noir.

Click to see the full review

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The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

When country solicitor Robert Blair is contacted by Marion Sharp with a request for his help in a matter involving the police, his first reaction is to refer her to another lawyer specialising in criminal matters. But Miss Sharpe is adamant and the case sounds intriguing, so Robert heads off to Miss Sharpe’s house, The Franchise, to meet her, her mother and Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard. The Sharpes are eminently respectable ladies, so the story that schoolgirl Betty Kane tells sounds fantastical – she claims that the two women abducted her, locked her in their attic and tried to force her to work as their servant, doling out regular vicious beatings when she didn’t comply.

This is considered a classic of crime fiction, and it fully deserves its reputation. The writing is great and the plot is perfectly delivered. I found a lot of unintended amusement in Tey’s clear snobbery and good old-fashioned Tory values, but she gives a very insightful picture of the kind of trial by media with which we’re all only too familiar today.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2021

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher

I gave ten vintage crime books five stars this year, and yet the decision was quite easy. This one stood out, mostly because of its sheer enjoyability, but also partly because Rudolph Fisher had the distinction of being the first black American author to write a mystery novel, then remaining the only one to have done so until several decades later. He was considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance, but sadly he died a young man just a few years after publishing this, his only mystery novel.

It’s a late evening in Harlem, in the early 1930s, and a little group of people are waiting to see Frimbo, a conjure-man with extraordinary powers to see the future and even to change it, or so the locals believe. But while Jinx Jenkins is sitting in Frimbo’s dark consulting room, Frimbo seems to lose the thread of what he’s saying and then goes silent. Jinx turns the single light on him, only to discover he is dead. But how did he die? And how could anyone have killed him without Jinx seeing it? Sergeant Perry Dart and his friend Dr Archer will have to find their way through a maze of motives and superstition to get to the truth…

Well, this is just fabulous fun! There’s a real Golden Age style mystery at the heart of it, complete with clues, motives, a closed list of suspects, and so on. But the setting makes it entirely unique. Fisher gives a vivid, joyous picture of life in Harlem, bringing to life a cast of exclusively black characters from all walks of life, from the highly educated Dr Archer to the new arrival from Africa, Frimbo, to the local flyboys hustling to survive in a Depression-era America that hasn’t yet moved far from the post-Civil War era. Amid the mystery and the lighthearted elements of comedy, a surprisingly clear picture emerges of this black culture within a culture, where poverty and racism are so normal they are barely remarked upon, and where old superstitious practices sit comfortably alongside traditional religion. Life is hard in Harlem, for sure, but there’s an exuberance about the characters – a kind of live for the moment feeling – that makes them a joy to spend time with. Great stuff!

….In the narrow strip of interspace, a tall brown girl was doing a song and dance to the absorbed delight of the patrons seated nearest her. Her flame chiffon dress, normally long and flowing, had been caught up bit by bit in her palms, which rested nonchalantly on her hips, until now it was not so much a dress as a sash, gathered about her waist. The long shapely smooth brown limbs below were bare from trim slippers to sash, and only a bit of silken underthing stood between her modesty and surrounding admiration.
….With extraordinary ease and grace, this young lady was proving beyond question the error of reserving legs for mere locomotion, and no one who believed that the chief function of the hips was to support the torso could long have maintained so ridiculous a notion against the argument of her eloquent gestures.
….Bubber caught sight of this vision and halted in his tracks. His abetting of justice, his stern immediate duty as a deputy of the law, faded.
….“Boy!” he said softly. “What a pair of eyes!”

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Factual

FictionFan Awards – Book of the Year 2020

Drum roll, please…

Due to having read hardly any new releases this year, I’ve decided not to do my usual elaborate FictionFan Awards. Not that I didn’t have plenty of great reads – between 1st November 2019 and 31st October 2020 (my usual bookish “year”), I gave a total of 59 books five-star reviews. The majority of them were vintage crime and classics, though, and many of them were comfort re-reads of old favourites, and I never count re-reads when giving out awards.

So I’ve decided to simply pick the best book of each genre (with a few honourable mentions along the way), and then an overall winner. Ready? Here goes…

* * * * *

Classics have been the backbone of my reading and listening this year. Fifteen of them got the full galaxy of stars, including three re-reads. Loads of highlights here – The Go-Between review-along which several of us did together was great fun, and Joseph Conrad became a surprise star of the year. Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock blew me away and was a strong contender for the award. I loved some of the lighter ones, like Around the World in Eighty Days and The Prisoner of Zenda. And I found a couple of Scottish greats – The New Road and The White Bird Passes. But two books were so far ahead of all the rest I can’t choose between them, so…

Joint Best Classic Fiction 2020

For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Ernest Hemingway

and

Nostromo
by Joseph Conrad

* * * * *

My contemporary crime reading was way down in terms of quantity, with me largely sticking to favourite authors. So there were only ten five-star reads in this category, of which very few were brand new releases and several were re-reads. I loved Val McDermid’s A Darker Domain, Jane Casey’s The Cutting Place and Stuart MacBride’s All That’s Dead. But one stood out clearly above the rest…

Best Crime Fiction 2020

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau
by Graeme Macrae Burnet

* * * * *

My factual reading took a complete dive with the result that only four books made the five-star list. I very much enjoyed Paul Corthorn’s Enoch Powell, but I do feel it would probably only be of interest to British political nerds like me. This one would have a much wider appeal, I think…

Best Factual Book 2020

The Spanish Civil War
by Stanley G Payne

* * * * *

My fiction reading was extremely limited and shockingly I only awarded nine five-star reviews, and four of those were re-reads. A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth delighted me as a homage to the science fiction greats, and I found a soulmate in Serenata, the grumpy older heroine of Lionel Shriver’s The Motion of the Body Through Space. However, the standout book in this category isn’t a new release but isn’t old enough to be a classic yet, though it will be…

Best Fiction 2020

I Married A Communist
by Philip Roth

* * * * *

Vintage crime has been my major form of comfort reading this year. A massive fifteen achieved the full galaxy, though three of them were re-reads – all three by Agatha Christie, of course. I continued my love affairs with ECR Lorac and George Bellairs, started a new one with John Dickson Carr, and flirted outrageously with John Bude. But in the end they were all also-rans…

Best Vintage Crime 2020

The Spoilt Kill
by Mary Kelly

* * * * *

And that only leaves the almost impossible task of picking just one of these. While For Whom the Bell Tolls is equally good, this turned out to be the year when, after decades of avoidance, I finally became a confirmed Joseph Conrad fan. So he has to win the ultimate prize…

FictionFan’s Book of the Year 2020

Nostromo
by Joseph Conrad

* * * * *

Thanks for joining me on my reading journey 😀

FictionFan Awards 2019 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year 2019

A standing ovation please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2019.

For the benefit of new readers, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2018 and October 2019 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2019

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

Like last year, I’ve been reading so many classics this year it hasn’t left room for an awful lot of modern literary fiction, and I don’t include classics in these awards. However, being forced to be choosier means I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of the books I have read. I gave eleven books the full five stars, so the choice was not easy. And two of these could really share top spot, but since I’m not the Booker committee I’ll actually make a decision!

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. Meantime, Ji Lin is working as a dance-hall hostess, and when one of her customers becomes overly amorous he drops something – a preserved and blackened finger in a vial. And suddenly strange things begin to happen around Ji Lin – unexplained deaths and vivid dreams that seem to impinge on her waking life…

While there is on one level a relatively straightforward crime and mystery element to this, it’s shrouded in the folklore of the Chinese inhabitants of colonial Malaya (now Malaysia), especially as regards the mythology surrounding death rituals and the legend of the weretiger. I enjoyed every word of it – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness – great stuff!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage

After years of unsuccessful IVF treatment, Meg and Nate have given up their attempt to have a child, leaving Meg especially feeling that a vital part of her remains empty and unfulfilled. Her older sister Anna is home in Australia after spending several years working for various aid agencies in Thailand and Cambodia. At lunch one day, Anna introduces Meg to some friends who have just become parents via commercial surrogacy in Thailand. Suddenly Meg feels the hope she thought she had stifled come to life again. Anna is horrified at first but she comes to recognise Meg’s desperation and agrees to use her knowledge of the language and customs of Thailand to help her sister and brother-in-law navigate their way through the difficult path they have chosen.

Savage brings a balanced impartiality to the moral questions around the issue of paid surrogacy. I’m always afraid when a book is so clearly based around a moral issue that the author will slip into polemics, forcing her view on the reader. Savage avoids this by having her characters have very different opinions on the subject and letting them speak for themselves. An “issues” book where the author trusts the reader to think for herself, very well written, deeply emotional and, in my opinion, a very fine novel indeed.

Click to see the full review

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The Observations by Jane Harris

Fleeing from her hometown of Glasgow in search of a better life, young Bessy Buckley finds herself more or less accidentally taking a job as maid at Castel Haivers, the home of Arabella Reid and her husband James, halfway along the road to Edinburgh. Arabella is young, beautiful and kind, and the affection-starved Bessy is soon devoted to her new mistress. But soon Bessy finds she’s not the first maid to whom Arabella has shown peculiar attention; in particular there was a girl named Nora, who died in circumstances that seem to cast a dark shadow over the household…

This is a take on the Victorian sensation novel complete with touches of Gothic horror, insanity, shocking deaths and so on. But what makes it special is Bessy, our narrator. She’s both feisty and vulnerable, strong but sometimes unsure of herself, devoted to but clear-sighted about the flaws of her mistress. However, it’s Bessy’s voice that is so special – a real tour-de-force from Harris in recreating an entirely credible dialect and slang for that place and time. Bessy is Irish originally, as were so many Glaswegians, and I loved the way Harris managed to give her language an authentic touch of Glasgow-Irish at points. Great characters, lots of humour, nicely spooky at points – a great read!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

Tequila Leila’s body is dead, but as her consciousness slowly fades, she finds herself drifting through memories of her life – the childhood that made her the woman she would become, her family, her loves, her friends. And along the way, we are given a picture of the underbelly of Istanbul, of those on the margins finding ways to live in a society that rejects them.

Despite the fact that the main character is dead, this is a wonderfully uplifting, life-affirming story. Time ticks down minute by minute for Leila, each marked by an episode from her life, often triggered by a memory of an aroma or a taste, such as the lemons the women used to make the wax for their legs, or the cardamom coffee that Leila loved. And as we follow Leila through her memories, we learn about the people who have had the greatest impact on her life. Her father, hoping always for a son. Her mother, a second wife married as little more than a child to provide that son that the first wife has failed to give. Her uncle, a man who will disrupt her childhood and change her possible futures irrevocably. And most of all her friends – five people she meets along the way who become bound together closer than any family, through ties of love and mutual support in a world that has made them outsiders. Beautifully written, a wonderful book that moved me to tears and laughter, that angered me and comforted me and, most of all, that made me love these characters with all their quirks and flaws and generosity of spirit. Could so easily have been my winner…

Click to see the full review

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

Night Theatre by Vikram Paralkar

A former surgeon now acts as a general doctor in a small run-down clinic serving a population of rural villagers. Frustrated with the way his life has turned out, the surgeon is in a near perpetual state of disappointment and ill-temper. Then, one night after a long day when he has been giving all the local children their polio vaccinations, he is approached by three very strange patients, each with terrible wounds. They are a husband, wife and young son who were attacked in the street, robbed, stabbed and left to die. Which indeed they did. Now they have been given the chance to return from the afterlife, but before they come alive at dawn the next day, they must have their wounds treated or they will die again…

A beautifully written fable which, while it can be read on one level simply as a unique, interesting and very human story, has layer upon layer of depth, dealing with the big questions of life, death, faith, and the place of medicine in all of these. The whole question of the unknowableness of God’s plan and of the place of faith in determining how to act underlies every decision the characters are forced to make and, in the end, their humanity is all they have to guide them. Paralkar also shows the skills we take for granted in our surgeons – the near miracles we expect them to perform, and our readiness to criticise and blame if they fail. The underlying suggestion seems to be that we’re near to a point of refusing to accept death as inevitable, and what does that do to questions of faith?

Paralkar has achieved the perfect balance of giving a satisfying and thought-provoking story without telling the reader what to think, and as a result this is one that each reader will make unique to herself. One of the most original novels I’ve read in years.

(And yet… it seems to have sunk almost without trace, having garnered only 172 ratings on Goodreads as compared to Elif Shafak’s 5113. Suggesting that a Booker nomination is more influential than an FF Award – surely not! Get out there, people, read it, review it and force it on everyone you know… for my sake! 😉 )

Click to see the full review

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And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2019

THE WINNER

An extremely difficult choice this year – both Furious Hours and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World would have been worthy winners too. But this book just edged ahead in the final furlong – its originality, its profound humanity, and the fact that several months after reading it I still often find myself pondering over the questions it raises. One that I will undoubtedly read again – the highest accolade I can give to any book – and I’m looking forward with great anticipation to seeing what Paralkar gives us in the future.

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!

 

FictionFan Awards 2019 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

A round of applause…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2019.

For the benefit of new readers, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2018 and October 2019 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2019

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

MODERN CRIME FICTION/ THRILLER

This has been my worst year for modern crime fiction ever. I’m simply out of tune with what’s being produced now and I’ve pretty much given up the attempt to find the occasional one I enjoy. I suspect this may be the last time it appears as an award category unless something changes dramatically in the genre, and I’m seeing no signs that it will. In total, I only gave four books the full five stars, while in comparison I abandoned eleven, including several by authors I’ve previously enjoyed. So a very short and rather uninspired shortlist this time, I’m afraid…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Clare Cassidy is writing a biography of the writer RM Holland, who was best known for his terrifying ghost story, The Stranger. So she’s happy to be teaching at Talgarth Academy, a school in Sussex which was once Holland’s home and where his study is still intact, giving Clare access to his papers. Clare uses The Stranger as part of her lessons, both for her school pupils and for the adults who attend her creative writing classes in school holidays. But when one of her colleagues is brutally murdered, Clare is shocked to learn that a piece of paper was found by her body containing a line from Holland’s story. And soon, as the plot thickens, it becomes clear that somehow the story holds the clue to the case…

I loved the way Griffiths gradually fed us the story of The Stranger, which in itself is a pretty good pastiche of a real Victorian ghost story. But the spookiness doesn’t stop with it – the main story has some seriously goose-pimply moments, and at least two where I gasped out loud! Lovely Gothic stuff, with the old house and all the diary-writing and mysterious messages and other things I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Even the investigation has a rather old-fashioned feel to it, with the emphasis on suspects, motives and clues rather than on forensics.

Click to see the full review

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The Man with No Face by Peter May

When a new editor takes over at The Edinburgh Post and begins to dumb it down in an attempt to increase circulation, top investigative journalist Neil Bannerman makes his feelings only too clear. So he is swiftly banished to Brussels, to the headquarters of the EEC (as the EU was called back then), tasked with digging up some stories in the run-up to the forthcoming British Parliamentary elections. No-one is expecting quite such a big story though. Bannerman’s fellow journalist, Tim Slater, is murdered along with a rising man in British politics, Robert Gryffe. When the story is quickly hushed up on orders from on high, Bannerman’s journalist interest is only more heightened, and he sets out to discover who carried out the killings and, perhaps more importantly, why.

This is actually a re-issue of a book first published in 1981, so only barely counts as “modern”. I wouldn’t describe the book as full-on noir, but there’s certainly a noirish feel to it with lots of damaged characters and corrupt politicians. But May doesn’t overplay his hand, and allows at least some of his characters some hope of redemption, all of which prevents the tone from becoming too bleak. A very good thriller and the EEC setting gives it an added layer of interest.

Click to see the full review

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Cruel Acts by Jane Casey

Leo Stone was convicted of killing two women and sentenced to life imprisonment. But now one of the jurors has revealed that the jury broke the rules and as a result his conviction is certain to be overturned when it comes before the Appeals Court. There will be a retrial, but Superintendent Godley wants to make certain that he’s convicted again, so Detective Sergeant Maeve Kerrigan and Detective Inspector Josh Derwent are assigned to reinvestigate the case and to find more evidence if they can. In the midst of the investigation, after Stone has been released, another woman goes missing…

The eighth in the Maeve Kerrigan series, one of very few contemporary series I’m still following. In general, I’m not wild about serial killer stories and helpless females being tortured and killed, but Casey handles it with her usual sensitivity and good taste. While Maeve’s personal life might be a bit complicated, she’s no angst-ridden maverick. The same goes for her colleagues, in fact – they’re probably the most realistic police team I can think of, and while there are petty jealousies and squabbles, they behave overall like the kind of professional force I’d like to think we actually have.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019

for

BEST MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

Deadland by William Shaw

When a severed limb turns up inside an urn on loan to the local art gallery, DS Alex Cupidi and the team have a real mystery on their hands. First they have to try to work out to whom it belonged and if the owner is dead, and why it was left in a place where it was bound to be discovered, all before they can even begin to investigate who put it there. At the same time, two local lads, Sloth and Tap, are starting out on a life of petty crime. They decide to steal a mobile phone, but unfortunately for them they pick the wrong victim, and soon find themselves being hunted by someone who seems willing to go to any lengths to recover his property, so they run off into hiding. While Alex is tied up in the possible murder investigation, she can’t help being worried for the safety of the boys – criminals they may be, but they’re also victims, of difficult homes, of substandard schools, of a society that doesn’t seem to care. And they’re the same age as Alex’ own daughter, Zoe…

This is part police procedural, part fast-paced thriller. Alex is another detective who avoids being angst-ridden and her relationship with her daughter is very credible. The two boys, Tap and Sloth, are great characters – Shaw makes us care so deeply about them that the tension level ramps ever higher as the story unfolds, with some real heart-thumping moments along the way. And there’s no cosiness about it, so that there’s a real feeling of fear that one or both of them may pay the ultimate price for their stupid crime. But equally their story is not too grim or gritty to be enjoyable.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Literary Fiction

FictionFan Awards 2019 – Factual

A round of applause…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2019.

For the benefit of new readers, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2018 and October 2019 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2019

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

FACTUAL

I’ve read fewer factual books than usual this year. I felt I needed a bit of a break from heavyweight history books, so instead I’ve been reading quite a lot of true crime and books on lighter subjects, and have thoroughly enjoyed most of them, giving nine books the full five stars. So yet again the decision has not been easy…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Europe: A Natural History by Tim Flannery

Starting roughly 100 million years ago, Flannery sets out to tell the story of Europe – how it formed, the species that have lived, survived or become extinct in it, the rise of humanity, and the possible future impacts of our current galloping climate change. Along the way, he tells us of the many men and women who have contributed to uncovering this history or who have in some way affected it.

There’s so much in this fascinating book that it’s hard to know how to summarise it in a few hundred words. It gives a panoramic view, bringing together and linking all the bits of natural history that are often covered separately, such as the formation of the continent, or current rewilding projects, or the origins of humanity. It’s surprisingly compact, considering its huge scope, and yet never feels superficial or rushed. And Flannery is a master of the art of converting scientific information into language easily understandable by the non-scientist.

Cretaceous Europe

Click to see the full review

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The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

Abraham Lincoln has won the Presidential election and now, in early 1861, is about to undertake the journey from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington for his inauguration. But these are troubled times, and the journey is complicated because of all of the different railroad companies that own parts of the route. One of the company owners hears of a plot to destroy his railroad to prevent Lincoln making it to Washington, and so he calls in the already famous private detective, Allan Pinkerton. But when Pinkerton starts to investigate, he becomes convinced that there is a deeper plot in the planning – to assassinate Lincoln before he is inaugurated. This book tells the story of Lincoln’s journey, the plot against him, and Pinkerton’s attempt to ensure his safe arrival in Washington.

It’s written very much in the style of a true crime book, although it has aspects that fall as much into the category of history. Stashower focuses on three main aspects: a biographical look at Pinkerton and the development of his detective agency; the rising tensions in the still-new nation that would soon break out into full scale civil war; and Lincoln’s journey, and the plot against him. Well written, interesting and informative – thoroughly enjoyable!

The logo that gave rise to the expression, “private eye”.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Seashaken Houses by Tom Nancollas

The author set out to visit seven of the major rock lighthouses that stand as warnings to shipping around Britain’s shore, sometimes getting permission to land and see the interiors, other times examining them from the outside. Along the way, he tells us tales of their construction and history, of the men who built, lived in and maintained them over the years, and of the many shipwrecks they have doubtless averted and of some they didn’t. Nancollas also fills in the historical background, lightly but with enough depth to give a feel for what was going on in Britain and the western world at each point. He talks of Britain’s growing status as a maritime trading nation and tells tales of the shipwrecks and disasters that gave an urgency to finding some reliable way of guiding ships safely through the rocky hazards around the coast.

His style is non-academic, sometimes lyrical, always enthusiastic, and I found myself coming to share his fascination for these incredible feats of engineering and his admiration for those who built and worked on them. A fascinating subject, brought wonderfully to life.

Bell Rock Lighthouse during a storm by John Horsburgh
Illus. in: Robert Stevenson, An Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

Click to see the full review

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American Heiress: The Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

When Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) back in 1974, it was such a huge story that it made headlines for months not only in the US but here in the UK too. Was she a victim or a terrorist? Willing or brainwashed? Heroine or villain? In this book, Jeffrey Toobin sets out to tell the story of the kidnapping and its aftermath, and to answer some of those questions. To do this, he also has to analyse the political and social forces of the time, and the counterculture which, in America, had grown out of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam protests.

The whole thing is well written and excellently told, as informative about the wider society of the time as it is about the philosophy and actions of the SLA and the counterculture. While I found it hard to have much sympathy for the spoilt little rich kid Hearst, Toobin maintains considerably more balance in his summing up, and the final section describes the legal consequences for Hearst and her surviving comrades, showing quite clearly that, when it comes to justice, money talks. A great read.

Fear not, Patty – Daddy’s on his way with his chequebook…

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019

for

BEST FACTUAL

Furious Hours by Casey Cep

In June, 1977, a man walked into a funeral home in Alabama during a service, accused one of the mourners, Reverend Willie Maxwell, of murder and shot him dead. When the shooter, Robert Burns, was subsequently tried for the murder of Maxwell, everyone wanted a seat in court. Harper Lee got one. Years after helping Truman Capote with the research that lay behind his best-selling In Cold Blood, Lee had decided to write her own true-crime book, and the Maxwell case promised to provide plenty of material. In this book, Cep tells both stories: of Maxwell, the crimes of which he was suspected, his own murder and the trial of his killer; and of Harper Lee and her failed attempt to turn the Maxwell story into a book.

The section on the Maxwell case is very good true-crime writing in its own right, but what makes this one stand out from the crowd is the association with Harper Lee. The whole section on the writing of In Cold Blood and what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird is excellent, succinct and insightful. It’s not so much a literary analysis as an examination of the two authors’ creative processes, casting a lot of light on their personalities; all of which would be sure to make this book appeal to admirers of either of those works as well as anyone interested in true crime for its own sake.

While any of these books would have been a worthy winner, this one stood out because I had recently read To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood, and then this inspired me to read Go Set a Watchman at last. Reading all four close together made it a truly immersive experience, with each enhancing the others.

Truman Capote signing copies of In Cold Blood with Harper Lee in 1966.
Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

FictionFan Awards 2019 – Vintage Crime Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2019.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2018 and October 2019 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2019

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

VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

This has been another fab year for vintage crime fiction with publishers re-issuing more and more “forgotten” books, keeping me entertained with some of my most enjoyable reads of the year, not to mention my slowly ongoing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge. To keep it simple, I’m calling anything published up to 1965 Vintage, and anything after that date Modern. That way it ties in with the date I use to differentiate classic from modern in literary fiction.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

When Joan Bendix dies of poisoning, it’s quickly clear that the weapon was a box of chocolate liqueurs given to her by her husband. A clear-cut case, it would appear, but on closer examination there are a couple of problems. The police find themselves baffled, so turn (as you do) to a bunch of self-styled amateur criminologists for help…

Berkeley wrote this to parody how most detective fiction is carefully contrived so that each piece of evidence can have only one meaning – the meaning brilliantly deduced and revealed by the detective in the last scene. Berkeley does this by sending the six members of the Crimes Circle off to investigate in their own way for a week, after which, on consecutive evenings, one by one they give their solution only to have it destroyed the next evening as the new solution is put forth. It’s brilliantly done and highly entertaining, with a lot of humour in the characterisation of the members.

Click to see the full review

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A Voice Like Velvet by Donald Henderson

Ernest Bisham is a radio announcer, with the velvet voice of the title making him beloved by the many listeners who, back in 1944, get all their news from the BBC. His picture regularly appearing in the Radio Times means that he is also recognised wherever he goes. Which makes his second career as a cat-burglar even more risky!

Despite the obvious crime element, this is really much more of a character study of Bisham, and a rather humorous look at the oddities of life in the BBC at the time when it was Britain’s sole broadcaster and still finding its feet in a rapidly changing world. But it’s undoubtedly Bisham’s cat-burgling that gives the book its major elements of fun and suspense. Recently re-married, Ernest is rethinking his criminal activities, realising that now he wouldn’t be the only one who suffered if he is caught. But he finds it very hard to fight the temptation to do just one more job… and meantime the police are patiently waiting for the man whom the newspapers call the Man In The Mask to make a mistake…

Click to see the full review

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Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

It’s a cold winter in London during World War 2, with the blackout in full force and the population living with the constant spectre of bombing raids. One night, young Bruce Mallaig is sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park thinking romantic thoughts of the girl he loves, when he sees – or mostly hears due to the pitch darkness – two men near the little footbridge, one on the bridge, the other standing below it. While he ponders what they might be up to, the man on the bridge lights a match and Mallaig catches a glimpse of a face looming behind him. The match goes out and there’s a thud as of someone falling. By the time Mallaig fumbles his torch alight, the man on the bridge is dead…

One of Lorac’s chief skills is in developing her settings with a great feeling of authenticity. This one takes us to the heart of the capital city during the bombings, and gives a wonderful depiction of the dogged Londoners picking themselves up and carrying on, with the kind of defiant resilience that was the hallmark of London’s war-time attitude. Strong plot, good characterisation, plenty of mild humour to lift the tone – all-in-all, an excellent read that gives a real insight into the war on the Home Front.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

As poet Richard Cadogan walks along an Oxford street at night, he notices the door of a toyshop is open. His curiosity gets the better of him so he enters, but is shocked to find the corpse of a woman lying on the floor. Then he is hit on the head and falls unconscious. When he comes round some time later he finds himself locked in a cupboard, but manages to make his escape and go to the police. However when they return with him to the spot, not only has the corpse disappeared but the whole shop has gone, and in its place is a grocer’s shop! Not unnaturally, the police have difficulty believing his story after this, so he turns to his old friend, the amateur sleuth and university professor, Gervase Fen…

This is one of those crime novels that goes way beyond the credibility line, but makes up for its general silliness by being a whole lot of fun. Cadogan and Fen make a great duo as they bicker their way through the investigation, and as a little added bonus, this is the book that inspired the brilliant fairground scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Highly entertaining!

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert

I gave sixteen vintage crime books five stars this year, so the decision was by no means easy. However, Gilbert had two in serious contention, this one and Smallbone Deceased. In the end, the unique setting of this one made it stand out from the crowd.

It’s 1943, and the British officers held in a prisoner-of-war camp in north Italy take their duty to escape seriously, so the camp is riddled with tunnels. The biggest and most hopeful of these is under Hut C, elaborately hidden under a trapdoor that takes several men to open. So when a body turns up in the tunnel the question is not only how did he die but also how did he get into the tunnel? The dead man is Cyriakos Coutoules, a Greek prisoner who was widely unpopular and whom some suspected of having been an informer. When it begins to look as if his death was murder, the camp authorities quickly fix on one of the prisoners as the culprit, but the Brits are sure of his innocence. So it’s up to them to figure out how and why Coutoules died, and who did kill him…

This is a very different take on the classic “locked room” mystery. In fact, to a degree the mystery becomes secondary to the drama of what’s happening in the prison camp as the Allies approach and it looks as though the Italians may surrender. The prisoners doubt this will lead to their release – they anticipate the Italians will hand them over to the Germans before the Allies arrive – so it’s all the more important that they get their plans for escape ready urgently. Tense and hard-hitting, but the general camaraderie and patriotism of the prisoners also give the story a kind of good-natured warmth and a fair amount of humour. One that shows the wonderful versatility in the genre – great stuff!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Factual

PS – I suddenly realised I couldn’t bring myself to write any reviews this week, so I’m taking a week or two off till my enthusiasm revives. I’ll still be posting the awards posts on Thursdays though. See you soon! And to those who celebrate it, Happy Thanksgiving! I’m thankful for all of you… 😀

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year

A standing ovation please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

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

I’ve been so busy this year trying to catch up with my Classics Club list and various other challenges that I’ve read far fewer new releases than usual, but being a bit choosier means that I’ve enjoyed most of those I have read. As a result, the shortlisting has been extremely tough. In the end, I’ve decided not to include classics or any of the fiction I read as part of my Russian challenge since I’ve already posted about them in previous challenge summaries. All of which very neatly leaves me with five excellent contenders, so here goes…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war 

This is Boyd at his best and the narration by Harriet Walter does it full justice. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina

When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago, when Tommaso met and fell in love with Anna. We know from the beginning that their relationship ended with some kind of tragedy that led Tommaso to cut all ties with home and take on a new identity in London. But it’s only after we follow Tommaso through the events of the summer that we find out what happened…

On the face of it, this is a straightforward account of a love affair, but the quality of the writing, the great pacing and, most of all, the superb sense of place make it so much more than that. It’s an intense character study of Tommaso, and it’s wonderfully evocative of the culture of Puglia, in the heel of Italy, in the 1980s – still strictly conservative in outlook, still largely in thrall to Catholicism, and with strong family expectations that children will follow the paths determined for them by their parents. A first-class début.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Eagle and Crane by Suzanne Rindell

Earl Shaw takes two small planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. One day, the pilots take up two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada. Daredevil Harry decides he will walk along the wing, and Louis, feeling challenged and a little humiliated, follows suit. Earl offers them both jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage fellow citizens as more than a comic-book threat. And Harry and Louis will find their friendship altered and strained…

While the book has some elements of the thriller, it definitely falls far more into the category of literary fiction for me. Rindell’s research is skilfully fed to us through the development of her characters and her story, so that we gradually get a real feel for rural Californian life and attitudes in this period, and an in-depth look at the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans. This third book cements her place as one of my favourite authors.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti

Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. As Santiago sits in jail not knowing when – if – he’ll be released, he writes letters full of love to his wife, Graciela. For him, life is static, his memories of their love the thing that has sustained him through the torture and now the sheer stultification of his imprisonment. But for Graciela, life is a moving thing – she is still young, in a new city, with a job and a growing child, and for her the present is more vivid than the past. She finds herself increasingly attracted to Ronaldo, but knows that Santiago needs her love and loyalty. The crux of the story is deceptively simple – what will Graciela decide to do?

This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time, and credit must go to the translator, Nick Caistor, who has done a marvellous job. Although it’s based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair. It’s profoundly moving – full of emotional truth. Wonderful!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

LITERARY FICTION

Tombland by CJ Sansom


This was an extremely difficult decision and I swayed back and forwards between Tombland and Springtime in a Broken Mirror several times, but in the end my love for the wonderful Matthew Shardlake won out…

It’s 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne. Since he is still a child, his guardians have appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by Princess Elizabeth to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. Superb!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2018

THE WINNER

Five excellent contenders, but no hesitation in my mind as which deserves to win. This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read.

Then, at just about two o’clock, they saw where they were. A quirk of wind tore the clouds apart, and two wicked peaks loomed above a line of cliffs and the perpendicular faces of glaciers that dropped sheer into the sea. The coastline looked to be about a mile away, perhaps a little more. But vastly more important, in that single glimpse, they saw to their terror that they were only a short distance outside the line of breakers, the point at which the seas ceased to behave like swells and became combers instead, rushing faster and faster towards their own destruction against the land. As each swell passed under them, they could feel it tugging momentarily at the boat, trying to get hold of her and hurl her toward the beach. It seemed now that everything, the wind, the current and even the sea itself, were united in a single determined purpose, once and for all to annihilate this tiny boat which thus far had defied all their efforts to destroy it.

A wonderfully emotive journey that shows the human spirit at its very best. First published in 1959, this fully earns its reputation as a classic of non-fiction writing.

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!

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

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

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

I’m still struggling with the obsession with identikit so-called psychological thrillers that is dominating modern crime fiction at the moment, so have read fewer books in this category this year than every before in my adult life, I think. I can’t help thinking that the astonishing rise in popularity of vintage crime over the last few years suggests I’m not alone in this. However, happily I’ve still managed to find a few great reads, none of which have the ubiquitous and terminally unoriginal woman in red/yellow coat on the cover, you’ll note…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Hal (Harriet) Westaway is struggling to keep her head above water. The bills keep pouring in and in these winter months she doesn’t get enough custom at her kiosk on Brighton’s West Pier to pay them all. Things are reaching a crisis. So when she receives a letter from a solicitor informing her that she has been left a legacy by her grandmother it seems like the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem – Hal knows there’s been a mistake. Her real grandmother died years ago… 

All I ask for in crime fiction is a good story well told; some characters I can like, hate, worry about, mistrust; enough uncertainty about how it will play out to keep me turning pages; a minimum of unnecessary padding; and told in the past tense, preferably third person. And that’s exactly what Ruth Ware has given me in this hugely enjoyable thriller. Add in a dark and dusty old house full of attics and cellars and narrow little staircases, the shade of a wicked old woman who tyrannised over her family, a bunch of squabbling siblings, and a scary old housekeeper who knows more than she’s telling, and I’m pretty much in modern-Gothic heaven!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Broken Ground by Val McDermid

DCI Karen Pirie of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit is in the middle of re-investigating a series of rapes when she is diverted to a crime scene in the Highlands. A woman and her husband are on a kind of treasure hunt, looking for something that the woman’s grandfather buried in a peat bog long ago. They find the spot, but when they dig down into the peat, they are shocked to discover not only the looted items but the body of a man, almost perfectly preserved…

Now that a national police force has taken the place of the old regional forces in Scotland in real life, it gives fiction writers the ability to have their detectives travel all over the country, and McDermid is as comfortable writing about the Highlands as she is her hometown of Edinburgh. She gives an amazingly good sense of place and a wholly authentic feel to contemporary Scottish life and to a professional police force where dysfunctional drunken mavericks wouldn’t be tolerated. The fifth book in the Karen Pirie series and an excellent addition.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Sweet William by Iain Maitland

A man escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital to find his little son, sweet William, and run off to a new life, just the two of them, in the south of France. This is the story of the next forty-eight hours…

And what a story! A complete roller-coaster during most of which we’re stuck inside the head of Orrey, the father, whose frequent assertions that he’s not mad somehow fail to convince us! Dark and disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it. By all rights, I should have hated it – I’ve bored on often enough about my dislike of using children to up the tension in crime fiction. But it’s a tour de force piece of writing with one of the most brilliantly drawn disturbed central characters I’ve read in a long time – think Mr Heming or The Dinner or Zoran Drvenkar. Then add in relentless pacing that drives the book forward at a speed to leave you gasping – the definitive page-turner! 

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Roused from a drug-addled stupor in an opium den in the backstreets of Calcutta, Sam Wyndham, Captain in the Calcutta police, discovers the place is being raided. Discovery of his addiction will finish his career so he flees, only to stumble across the body of a horribly mutilated Chinaman. Or did he? Next day, when no report of the murder comes in, Sam is left wondering if he hallucinated the whole thing. That is, until he is called out to another murder, where the body has been mutilated in exactly the same way…

This series goes from strength to strength with each new instalment – this is the third. Set in the early 1920s, the dying days of the Raj when the Indian Independence movement was well under way, Mukherjee always manages to work the political situation into his stories without allowing it to overwhelm them or feeling like a history lesson. As always, though, the plot is founded much more on human nature than on politics. I feel this is his strongest plot so far, which takes us into some dark episodes in the dealings between the Raj and their subjects. There’s a good deal of moral ambiguity in there, and some excellently complex characterisation to carry it off. And it all builds to a first-rate, entirely credible thriller finale that I found fully satisfying.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Since I couldn’t find a single thing to criticise about this book, it was the only possible choice to be this year’s winner.

When Bertrand Barthelme runs his car off the A35 into a tree one evening and dies, Inspector Georges Gorski has no reason to think it was anything other than an unfortunate accident. But Barthelme’s widow thinks there’s something odd about her husband having been at that spot at that time and asks Gorski to look into it a bit more. Mme Barthelme is an attractive 40-something with more than a touch of the femme fatale in this first meeting, so Gorski finds himself agreeing. Meantime, Barthelme’s 17-year-old son Raymond starts a kind of investigation of his own, in an attempt to learn more about the father with whom he had always had a rather cold, distant relationship. Both investigations will head off in unexpected directions.

This is on the face of it a crime novel, but the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterisation, the creation of place and time and the intelligence of the game the author plays with the reader all raise it so that it sits easily into the literary fiction category, in my opinion at the highest level. The setting – the small town of Saint-Louis, in the corner of France that borders Germany and Switzerland, some time in the 1970s – is brilliantly drawn, but it’s the human characters who make it such an absorbing story.  Not a word is wasted – with the briefest of descriptions, Burnet can create a person who feels real, solid, entire, as if they might be a neighbour we’ve known all our life. I loved every lean and beautifully placed word of this slim book, and was wholly absorbed from beginning to end. Superb!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next Week: Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Factual

A round of applause…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

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

FACTUAL

Overall I’ve had a pretty slow year on the factual front – I think I’ve been in recovery from overdoing the heavy history the year before. But although I’ve read far less, I’ve still had some great reads…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

The Winter Queen of the title is Elizabeth, daughter of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, and herself briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick. Elizabeth and Frederick produced an alarming number of children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood, and as their sons and daughters grew up and contracted marriages or made alliances, they spread their influence throughout the ruling families of 17th century Europe, thus being involved in all the major events (aka wars) of that turbulent period. The book is about the four daughters who survived their childhood years, and at least as much about their brothers, husbands, suitors or male friends.

Goldstone writes breezily, with a great deal of affection towards her subjects, and with a lot of humour. Although there’s lots of history in here, clearly excellently researched, she tells her story almost as if she were writing a novel – a comedy of manners, perhaps, with the odd episode of tragedy thrown in to leaven it, and the non-academic style makes it approachable and easily digestible. The book is a pleasure to read, which is not something that can always be said about history books!

Triumph of the Winter Queen by Gerrit van Honthorst
The Queen surrounded by her many children in various allegorical poses.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

This beautifully produced and gorgeously, lavishly illustrated publication is far more than a coffee table book. It’s a comprehensive history of British bookishness from its beginning to the present day. The main thrust of it covers the 17th to 19th centuries – the period when the country house came into its own and wealthy people saw libraries as an essential feature of their homes. Mark Purcell looks at both the books and the rooms they were stored in.

Purcell has clearly had a ball prying into the bookshelves and book catalogues of centuries’ worth of bibliophiles, and his enthusiasm is matched by deep knowledge, backed up with an immense amount of research. This results in a phenomenal amount of detail, which in the early chapters overwhelmed me a little and made the reading heavy going. But I found that I gradually became fascinated, especially when I realised that the bookshelves of the rich – who, of course, were also the powerful – cast an interesting sidelight on many famous historical personages and the societies in which they lived.

Chatsworth: Darcy’s Library!!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

In 1908, an elderly lady, Miss Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home and a brooch was stolen. Shortly afterwards, Oscar Slater pawned a brooch and boarded a ship bound for America. These two facts were enough for the police to decide that he was the guilty man and, sure enough, they arrested and charged him, and he was convicted and condemned to death – a sentence that was swiftly commuted to life imprisonment in response to a growing feeling of doubt over the verdict among some sectors of the public. This book sets out to tell the story of the case and specifically of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the campaign to have the verdict overturned.

I found this a fascinating read, especially since rather to my surprise I learned quite a lot that I didn’t know about my own city and country. The class divisions, the way people lived, the prejudices and culture all feel authentic and still recognisable to this Glaswegian, and the wider picture of policing and justice in Scotland feels very well researched. The story of Conan Doyle’s involvement is also told well with lots of interesting digressions into the art and science of detection, and plenty of referencing to the world of Sherlock Holmes. One that true crime fans will thoroughly enjoy. 

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick approached Clarke with a view to them working together, and then goes on to give a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

FACTUAL


Despite the quality of the runners-up, there was never any hesitation in my mind as to which book should win this category.

This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read. These were the days of the great explorers, making crazy expeditions in the name of scientific discovery, but just as much for national pride and for the sheer glory of being the first.

I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble, and he does a fabulous job. Lansing’s language is wonderfully descriptive, but not full of overly poetic flourishes. This rather plain style, however, works beautifully – the events are so thrilling and the men are such heroes that they don’t need any great fanfares or flowery flourishes to enhance their story. I found myself totally caught up, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. As it got towards the end, my tension levels were going through the roof, just as they would have been had these men been personal friends – indeed, after the long journey I’d made in their company, I truly felt they were.

The Endurance trapped in the ice during the long polar night…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next Week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Genre Fiction

Please rise…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

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

GENRE FICTION

I don’t always include an award for genre fiction, but I’ve had a lot of fun this year reading classic science fiction and horror, so it seemed a shame to leave them out in the cold. Some of my favourites were re-reads – The Day of the Triffids, for instance – so can’t be included. I’m including several short story collections since so much good genre fiction comes in that format.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others.

The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

When Mr Bedford leaves London for the quiet of the Kentish countryside he meets his new neighbour, Mr Cavor, an eccentric scientist, and becomes intrigued and excited by the possibilities of the invention Cavor is working on – a substance that will defy gravity. Bedford, always with an eye for the main chance, begins to imagine the commercial possibilities of such a substance, but Cavor is more interested in the glory that he will gain from the scientific community. And so it is that these two mismatched men find themselves as partners on an incredible voyage – to the Moon!

To a large degree, this is a straightforward adventure novel with a great story and lots of danger and excitement. But, being Wells, there are also underlying themes relating to contemporary concerns: primarily the danger of science untempered by ethical control and a rather terrifying vision of a utopian society. But the themes are treated more lightly in this one and Wells allows his imagination free rein, resulting in a great read – lots of humour, great descriptive writing, enough depth to keep it interesting without overwhelming the story, a couple of characters you can’t help liking even though you feel you shouldn’t, and plenty of excitement.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. His stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them. Many have strong sexual undercurrents (never overtly spelled out – it’s the Victorian era) and paganism is a recurring feature.

The quality of the writing is excellent, especially the descriptive imagery he uses to give both of his settings a sense of evil things lurking unseen, ready to prey on the morally weak or unwary. The Welsh parts have a very similar feel to Lovecraft’s ruins – Lovecraft acknowledged his influence – but where Lovecraft opted for ancient malign aliens, Machen’s evil, though equally ancient, is all of earth, earthly. However, there’s a good deal of humour alongside the effective and occasionally gruesome horror and he’s a great storyteller, making this a marvellously entertaining collection. 

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

It’s 1980. Travis Stillwell lives life on the road, travelling from small town to small town in Texas, running from the memories of his earlier life, seeking something lost. Some nights he’ll pick up a woman in a honky-tonk bar, but not for love – these women are victims, killed almost as a sacrifice to those demons he can’t shake off. But one night he picks up Rue, a beautiful young woman who is more evil than even the horrors in his own mind – a woman searching for her own kind of mate, who will change him in ways he could never have imagined even in his worst nightmares. When he wakes up the next day, he is wounded, bloodied, and prey to a strange and terrible hunger – a hunger he must satisfy so that he and Rue can live.

I don’t normally read modern horror but I’m glad I made an exception for this one. It’s a bloody and often gruesome vampire novel, but it’s also so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans in the early ’80s and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing, so much so that I considered putting it in the literary fiction category. The writing and imagery are wonderful, poetic and brutal at the same time – it blew me away. 

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

This was an extremely difficult decision – at least three of these books could easily have won. But Lovecraft has been a stalwart of the blog for years now, so it felt only right he should finally win a prize!

In his introduction to this collection of thirteen tales, Xavier Aldana Reyes discusses how Lovecraft’s reputation as a major influence in weird fiction has led to his more traditionally Gothic work being somewhat overlooked. But Reyes points out that even in his weird fiction, Lovecraft often used Gothic concerns. Having read the stories, I’d say the reverse is also true – that his Gothic tales often include elements of his major weird works, particularly in the settings, the hint of unknown fears from something more cosmic than ghostly, and the idea of the degeneration of humanity, which recurs frequently not only in Lovecraft’s work but in that of many of his near contemporaries. 

I loved this collection – every story got either a four or five star rating individually, a rare occurrence indeed. Many of the stories are traditional in style and genuinely scary, while others show Lovecraft’s brilliance in creating an unsettling atmosphere where man exists as a helpless plaything, at the mercy of forces we are too puny to comprehend. Great stuff, and a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next Week: Best Factual

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Vintage Crime Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

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

VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

This has been another fab year for vintage crime fiction with both the British Library Crime Classics and the Collins Crime Club working hard to keep me entertained with some of my most enjoyable reads of the year, not to mention my slowly ongoing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Fire in the Thatch by ECR Lorac

The Second World War is drawing to a close when the tenancy of a piece of land complete with thatched cottage falls vacant on the estate of Colonel St Cyres, in Devon. The Colonel is determined the lease shall go to someone who shares his love of the land and who wants to work it productively. However, his daughter-in-law June has different ideas. A Londoner by birth and a party-girl by nature, June is staying with her father-in-law because her husband, the Colonel’s son, is a prisoner of war in Burma. She wants the Colonel to give the cottage to a “friend” of hers, a Mr Gressingham, who would use it as a place to entertain his (and June’s) rather decadent London friends. Fast forward a few months, and Inspector MacDonald of the Yard is on his way to investigate what might have been a case of accidental death, or possibly one of arson and murder…

Lorac’s writing is excellent and the picture she creates of rural England during the war years is totally convincing. Inspector MacDonald is an appealing detective – a thoughtful and kindly man, strictly moral on his own account but with the capacity to make some allowance for moral weakness in others. Although convoluted, the plot is firmly grounded in human nature, giving it a timeless quality. Lorac and MacDonald deserve their return to the limelight!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Eye of Osiris by R. Austin Freeman

One November day in 1902, John Bellingham disappears from the study of a friend’s house where he had been waiting for his friend to return home. Two years later, there has still been no sign of him and his potential heirs are left in limbo, unable to execute his rather strange will. And then pieces of a dismembered skeleton begin to show up in odd places. Meantime, young Dr Paul Berkeley, our narrator, has fallen in love with Ruth Bellingham, the missing man’s niece, whose father is one of the potential heirs. He persuades Ruth’s father, Godfrey Bellingham, to allow Dr John Thorndyke, an expert in medical jurisprudence, to look into the case. It’s up to Thorndyke to find a way to identify the remains and to find out what was behind Bellingham’s disappearance.

The prose is elegant, reminding me of Conan Doyle’s easy style, and the wit in Berkeley’s observations of the other characters made me chuckle aloud several times. And I adored the romance! Ruth feels remarkably modern considering the book was written in 1911 – humorous and intelligent, strong and self-reliant. A thoroughly entertaining read!

Click to see the full review

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

It’s the early 1930s. Britain’s finances haven’t yet recovered from the Great War and now the Stock Market collapse has brought matters close to crisis. So the Home Secretary has invited an American financier to a private dinner at the House of Commons to schmooze him into agreeing to make the government a substantial loan. But when the Division Bell sounds, the Home Secretary has to leave the room to go and vote. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, young Robert West, is also hurrying along the corridor to vote, but as he passes the room where the financier waits alone, he hears a shot. Rushing in with the other people in the corridor, he finds the financier dead! Who killed him? And why? Robert finds himself working as a liaison with the police to find the answers…

This is a lot of fun, with two likeable lead characters in Robert and Grace, a feisty young Socialist MP based on the author herself, who wrote the book during a temporary halt in her own Parliamentary career. The plot is a bit messy perhaps, but that’s more than compensated for by the humour and especially the enjoyable insider look at all the quirky traditions that surround parliamentary procedures. Great fun!

Click to see the full review

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The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Mademoiselle Mathilde Stangerson is attacked in her yellow bedroom by a murderer wielding a mutton-bone. When her father and the other people in the house break down the door, Mlle S is on the floor and her murderer is nowhere to be found. How did the murderer get out of a room in which the only door and window were securely locked? Enter our hero, Joseph Rouletabille, a young journalist who at the age of eighteen has already acquired a reputation as an inspired amateur detective.

A classic ‘locked room’ mystery with another ‘impossible crime’ thrown in for good measure, this is a fabulous little romp that is more and more fun as it goes along. Hercule Poirot himself described it as a masterpiece, and who am I to disagree? Essential reading for vintage crime fans and so nearly the winner…

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

Good though the shorlisted books are, the decision was an easy one. The Murder of My Aunt entertained me as much as any book I’ve read this year.

Edward Powell is an unhappy young man. He lives with his annoying Aunt Mildred who, as his guardian and trustee of his inheritance, holds the purse-strings, rather too tightly in Edward’s opinion. To make matters worse, he’s forced to live in the family home in a small village in Wales, surrounded by landscape and hills and sheep and all that awful stuff, when he should be mingling with artists and bright young things in one of the fashionable hotspots of the world. Really it’s too much to bear. So he decides there’s only one thing to be done… the clue is in the title!

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. An expert example of how to make an unlikeable character work, and full of wicked humour – brilliant!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Genre Fiction

FictionFan Awards 2017 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year 2017

Drum roll, please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2017.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2016 and October 2017 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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/Thriller

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2017

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

As with crime fiction, I’ve been reading a lot more classic literary fiction this year and therefore not so many contemporary books. There’s been something of an obsession in this year’s new releases from big name authors with thinly-disguised polemical ranting over minority liberal concerns, presumably as a reaction to Trump, which has led to me abandoning more books than usual. But I’ve still had some excellent reads – a mix of old and new…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

It is 1918, and Kiev in the Ukraine is at the swirling centre of the forces unleashed by war and revolution. The three Turbin siblings live in the house of their recently deceased mother in the city. They are White Russians, still loyal to the Russian Tsar, hoping against hope that he may have escaped the Bolsheviks and be living still. But there are other factions too – the German Army have installed a puppet leader, the Hetman Skoropadsky, and the Ukranian peasantry are on the march in a nationalist movement, under their leader Petlyura. This is the story of a few short days when the fate of the city seems up for grabs, and the lives of the Turbins, like so many in those turbulent times, are under constant threat.

This is a book about confusion and betrayal, shifting allegiances, chaos and fear. Bulgakov takes a panoramic approach, following one character and then panning off to another. This gives it an episodic feel and adds to the sense of events moving too quickly for the people involved ever to fully grasp. A truly brilliant book that, while concentrating on one small city, gives a brutal and terrifyingly believable picture of the horrors unleashed in the wake of bloody revolution.

The snow would just melt, the green Ukranian grass would grow again and weave its carpet over the earth… The gorgeous sunrises would come again… The air would shimmer with heat above the fields and no more traces of blood would remain. Blood is cheap on those red fields and no one would redeem it.

No one.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

Two brothers are being groomed by their father to become the greatest cricketers in India. Their mother having disappeared when they were little (run away? dead? The boys aren’t sure), the brothers have been brought up by their tyrannical father Mohan, who is determined they will succeed in the sport as a way to raise the family out of the slums. So when the chance of sponsorship comes along, Mohan grabs it, even though it’s at best an unethical deal which sells his sons into a kind of bondage and, at worst, borders on the illegal.

This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. Adiga depicts the poverty and class divisions in contemporary Mumbai quite clearly but he also shows the other side – the vibrancy, the struggle for social mobility, the advances of recent years. The book tackles some tough subjects, but there’s also humour in there, and happily there’s no whiff of the polemical. And as always Adiga’s writing is pure pleasure to read.

“People thought I had a future as a writer, Manju. I wanted to write a great novel about Mumbai,” the principal said, playing with her glasses. “But then…then I began, and I could not write it. The only thing I could write about, in fact, was that I couldn’t write about the city.

“The sun, which I can’t describe like Homer, rises over Mumbai, which I can’t describe like Salman Rushdie, creating new moral dilemmas for all of us, which I won’t be able to describe like Amitav Ghosh.”

Click to see the full review

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The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison

This is the tale of three sisters, daughters of the minister in a parish in the Highlands of Scotland. Our narrator is the youngest of the three, Lisbet, who over the course of the couple of years of the book’s story grows from a girl only half comprehending her elder sisters’ early forays into the world of romantic love, into a young woman on whom the two older girls come to depend for support. The book was published in 1933 and it reads as if the story is set somewhere in the decade or two before that, at a time when young girls had more freedom than Austen’s heroines, for example, but were still confined by lack of opportunity and girded round by social restrictions, breaches of which would inevitably lead to scandal and ruin.

The quality of the writing and characterisation; the beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Highlands; the delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within this small, rather isolated society; the story that manages tragedy without melodrama and hope without implausibility – all of these mean it richly merits its status as a Scottish classic, and deserves a much wider readership than it has.

The carriage moved forward. We turned the bend in the road where we used to stand to see if any one were coming. I heard the immeasurable murmur of the loch, like a far-away wave that never breaks upon the shore, and the cry of a curlew. All the world’s sorrow, all the world’s pain, and none of its regret, lay throbbing in that cry.

Click to see the full review

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The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Leningrad, 1937; Kirovsk, 2013; Grozny, Chechnya, 2003. These are the three locations in which this collection of stories take place, over the period of the last century. The stories are so beautifully interlinked that the eventual effect is to create something that really must be considered a novel. The central linking stories are those of the ballerina Galina and her first love, Kolya, who later becomes a soldier in the war in Chechnya; and of an invented painting by the Chechen artist, Zakharov, altered repeatedly by the people into whose hands it falls over the decades, till it becomes a kind of metaphor, partly for the way history can be altered to suit the agenda of the historian, and partly of the different perceptions people can have of the same events.

Some of the stories are tragic, some more uplifting, but none are monotone – each has moments of heartbreak and, not joy perhaps, but fellowship and humour, humanity breaking through in even the most inhumane circumstances. The characterisation is superb throughout – so many characters and all very different, but each ringing entirely true; no real heroes or villains, just people trying to get through their lives as best they can. A stunning book, that could have so easily won…

The portrait artist must acknowledge human complexity with each brushstroke. The eyes, nose and mouth that compose a sitter’s face, just like the suffering and joy that compose his soul, are similar to those of ten million others yet still singular to him. This acknowledgment is where art begins. It may also be where mercy begins. If criminals drew the faces of their victims before perpetrating their crimes and judges drew the faces of the guilty before sentencing them, then there would be no faces for executioners to draw.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2017

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

White Tears by Hari Kunzru

When Seth and Carter meet at college, they discover a shared appreciation for music – not as musicians, but as listeners and producers. Seth has the technical skills and Carter’s family is rich, so they’re able to set up their own studio. Loving the distinctive sound of vinyl, Carter eventually works his way back in time till he has become a knowledgeable collector of old 78s, especially blues. Seth too had gone on a musical trip back in time, during a period in his teens after his mother died, when he isolated himself from the world in his room and escaped into the world of early records. But Seth had reached a point where he believed he could hear ghosts behind the music…

A difficult book to summarise since it only slowly reveals where it’s heading and the journey of discovery is the important thing. In the end, it’s about race, and cultural appropriation, and race guilt. About how music, specifically recordings, can let us visit the past. How acquisition can become more important than art – ownership and control above appreciation. There are references to blackface and minstrelsy, and white tourism of black history. It’s a book of two halves, the slowness of the first half well outweighed by the subtlety and power,  and the compelling originality of the language in the second.

Day after day. Always on the move. My boot heels quite worn away. Wolfmouth only left me alone when I came home at night. Even then he followed me through the hallways, tap dancing up the stairs. He followed me, he follows me. Step scuff smack step, step scuff smack step. Echoing in the stairwell at the end of another long day.
– The kooks, there are more of them all the time.
– That’s right, Mrs. Waxman.
Carrying my groceries past her door. The stink of her cats.
I hole up, lock the door, fix the chain. Step scuff smack step, shuffling in the hallway. Then, at last, silence. I am not sure if he goes away.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

 


FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2017

THE WINNER

This was rather a slow burn for me, in that it continued to grow in stature in my mind long after I’d finished reading it, and I found that some of the images and, in particular, the superb use of language in the second half had taken up permanent residence. It’s not unflawed – the two halves feel a little unbalanced. But it has a lot to say about race in America and says it in a unique and original way, for the most part avoiding the use of liberal polemics that has become so prevalent in contemporary literary fiction. A wonderful story, wonderfully told. It becomes almost like reading a vivid dream – short sentences giving us a glimpse of a thing or snatching at a sound, then moving wildly away to the next thing. Often just a few words create a picture in the mind. It becomes disorientating and strangely disturbing after a bit, and I found it totally compelling. The narrative shifts around in space and time, in reality and illusion (delusion?), and the story gradually gets darker and more violent. A book that fully captures the essence of the early blues music which it takes as its central motif…

Every sound wave has a physiological effect, every vibration. I once heard a field recording of a woman singing, sitting on a porch. You could hear her foot tapping, keeping time. You could hear the creak of her rocking chair, the crickets in the trees. You could tell it was evening because of the crickets. I felt I was slipping, that if I wasn’t careful I’d lose my grip on the present and find myself back there, seventy or eighty years in the past. The rough board floor, the overhang of the roof, her voice travelling through the moist heavy air to the diaphragm of the microphone, its sound converted into electrical energy, frozen, then the whole process reversed, electricity moving a speaker cone, sound spilling into my ears and connecting me to that long-ago time and place. I could feel it flow, that voice, inhabiting the cavities of my body, displacing the present like water filling a cistern.

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!


FictionFan Awards 2017 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

A round of applause, please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2017.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2016 and October 2017 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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/Thriller

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2017

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…

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

By modern, in this context, I mean published fairly recently rather than being about contemporary subjects necessarily. I’m still reading far less modern crime than usual as the march of the first-person misery-fest novel continues its relentless rampage – we’ve done Girls, Wives, Twins, even Husbands, but sadly we’ve still got Aunts, Mothers-in-Law and Second Cousins, Twice Removed to go. Happily, though, there have still been some great books that rely on excellent writing, good characterisation and a strong story rather than on the dubious merit of having more twists than an entire ’60s disco…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Dry by Jane Harper

Kiewarra has been suffering from drought for a couple of years now with no sign of rain coming soon. The farmers are worried, many having to kill their livestock for lack of water, and the knock-on effects are being felt through the town. As tensions rise, a tragedy occurs – Luke Hadler shoots his wife and young son, and then kills himself. Or so it seems, but Luke’s parents can’t accept that their son would have done this awful thing. So when Luke’s childhood friend Aaron Falk turns up for the funeral, they ask him to look into it. Falk is now a police detective working in the financial crimes section in Melbourne. It’s twenty years since he was last in Kiewarra, when he and his father left the town under a cloud of suspicion after another death. Many of the townsfolk are unhappy to see him back…

Aaron Falk is an excellent character and the plot is strong and well executed. Add in great writing and one of the best and most original thriller endings I’ve read in a long time, and it’s hard to find anything to criticise in this first-class début.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

A hot-air balloon is drifting over Northumberland, carrying the pilot and twelve sightseers. Jessica and her sister, Bella, now better known as Sister Maria Magdalena of Wynding Priory, are two of the party – a treat for Bella’s birthday. As they silently pass over an isolated farmhouse, Jessica sees a man killing a young woman – and then the man looks up and spots Jessica. By this time everyone in the balloon is watching the man. He only has one option – to kill them all…

Sharon Bolton appears so regularly in the FF Awards that she really deserves a category all to herself. No-one writes more entertaining thrillers than she when she’s on top form – and yet again, she’s on top form with this standalone. The secret is in the writing. Once you reach the end and look back, it’s so much fun to see how cleverly Bolton has misled and misdirected all the way through – never cheating though! She never once says anything that is inconsistent with the solution – she just says it in such a way that you don’t spot it at the time. Delicious!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Devon Knox has spent all her young life becoming a gymnast, her eyes firmly fixed on the ultimate prize of reaching the elite levels in her sport, perhaps even the Olympics. But a hit-and-run accident that kills a young man connected to the gym disrupts her training schedule, and when there begins to be suspicion that Ryan’s death might not have been accidental after all, the repercussions ripple out to threaten the stability of her family and of the whole community of budding gymnasts and parents attached to the gym.

Yet again, Abbott takes us to the murky heart of teenage girls, where hormones play their twisted games, where innocence and sexuality crash head on, where everything is so intense it can feel like euphoria and despair are the only two possible states of being. Here, though, the main focus is on Devon’s mother Katie and on the pressure young athletes are under from well-meaning parents and ambitious coaches alike. A dark plot wonderfully executed, that kept me reading into the wee sma’ hours…

Click to see the full review

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His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

One day in 1869, young Roderick Macrae walked along the tiny street of his village and brutally murdered three of his neighbours. He is now in custody awaiting trial, and his defence lawyer is trying to get at the root causes that led him to commit these horrific crimes. This Booker-nominated novel is presented as if it were a true crime book with witness statements, medical examiner reports and so on. The first half gives us Roderick’s own account of what led to the murders, while the second half lets us read reports from experts and then takes us into the courtroom for the trial.

The book creates a completely convincing picture of crofting life at this period – a life of hard work and poverty, where the crofters’ living was entirely dependant on the whim of the local laird. Burnet shows the various authorities who held sway over the crofters and how easily these people could browbeat, bully and abuse those under their power, who had no rights to assert and no power to protest. The book also gives a thoroughly researched and fascinating look at how questions of criminality versus insanity were viewed at the time. And Burnet does an excellent job of showing us Roderick’s crimes from all angles and then leaving us to decide for ourselves his level of culpability. Excellent writing, well researched, interesting story, fascinating characterisation – it could so easily have won…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2017

for

BEST MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Long Drop by Denise Mina

William Watt wants to clear his name. His wife, sister-in-law and daughter have been brutally murdered in their home, and Watt is the chief suspect. But convicted rapist and burglar, Peter Manuel, recently released from prison, claims he knows who did the murders and can lead Watt to the murder weapon, a gun which has passed from hand to hand through the criminal underworld of Glasgow. So one December evening in 1957 the two men meet and spend a long night together drinking and trying to come to some kind of deal – a night during which the truth of the killings will be revealed.

This book is based on the true story of Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged in Scotland, in the late 1950s. Mina has largely stuck to the truth, but has taken a few fictional liberties that give it an element of suspense even for people who may remember the real story. The writing is fantastic, conjuring up an utterly authentic feel for the city and its people at that time period, from the buildings still soot-blackened from the furnaces of the industrial revolution, to the hard-drinking, masculine society where violence is an ever-present threat, to the children playing in the streets. Its clear-sighted truthfulness reminded me of William McIlvanney’s portrait of the city in Laidlaw, so I was delighted when it won the McIlvanney Prize for best Scottish Crime book of the year for 2017. A worthy winner then for the even more prestigious FF Award for Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller of the year!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Literary Fiction
and
Book of the Year 2017

FictionFan Awards 2017 – Factual

Please rise…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2017.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2016 and October 2017 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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/Thriller

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2017

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

FACTUAL

In terms of numbers of books, I haven’t read as much factual as usual this year. But that’s been because of my Russian Revolution challenge – so many of those books have been massive monsters! They’ve also provided some of my best factual reads of the year, but there have been other great books too that have provided some much-needed variety along the way…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky

Written in three parts some years after the Revolution, Trotsky begins with a fascinating analysis of why revolutions arise, then goes on to give the historical background to the Russian one, followed by a minutely detailed, blow-by-blow account of the events of 1917 and beyond.

In terms of the writing itself, there’s a real mix. When Trotsky is detailing the more technical stuff, it can be very dry with long, convoluted sentences full of Marxist jargon, which require concentration. At other times, he is sarcastic, humorous, angry, contemptuous depending on who he’s talking about. Most of it is written in the past tense. But when he gets misty-eyed about the masses, describing a rally or demonstration or some other part of the struggle, he drifts into present tense, becoming eloquent and inspirational, writing with real power and emotionalism, and rising almost to the point of poeticism at times. These passages remind the reader that Trotsky was an observer, a participant and a passionate leader in the events he’s describing. So long as one remains firmly aware of Trotsky’s bias at all times, this is a fascinating book, not by any means an easy read, but certainly an enlightening and worthwhile one.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Larson tells the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania, its passengers and crew, and the wider political situation that gave rise to the circumstances in which the ship was left unprotected in waters in which it was known U-boats were operating.

Larson uses four main strands to tell the full story of what happened. We learn about the codebreakers of the British Admiralty who had obtained the German codes and were therefore able to track U-boat movements with a fair degree of accuracy. Secondly, Larson takes us aboard U-20, the U-boat that would fire the fatal torpedo, and introduces us to its Captain, Walther Schwieger. The third aspect revolves around President Wilson and America’s lengthy vacillations before finally committing to war. The fourth section, and the one that humanises the story, is of the voyage of the Lusitania itself. Larson introduces us to many of the passengers, telling us a little of their lives before the voyage, so that we come to care about them.

Larson’s excellent writing style creates the kind of tension normally associated with a novel rather than a factual book, and his careful characterisation of many of the people involved gives a human dimension that is often missing from straight histories. An excellent book, thoroughly researched and well told.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Here Martin Edwards, regular editor of the British Library Crime Classics series amongst many other things, looks at the rise of the crime novel and its development throughout the first half of the last century. Edwards writes knowledgeably but conversationally, so that it never feels as if one is being lectured by an expert – rather it’s like having a chat with a well-read friend. He starts each chapter with a discussion around its theme, showing how the genre and various sub-genres developed. Following these interesting introductions, he lists and discusses the books he has selected for each section. He makes it clear he doesn’t necessarily think they’re all brilliant – rather, he feels they’re either an important link in the development of the crime novel, or a good representative example of the sub-genre under discussion.

Great for anyone who’d like to know more about the history of the crime novel, or who’d like to read some of the classic books but doesn’t know quite where to begin. But equally interesting for people who already know quite a bit about the genre – it’s so packed with goodies I can’t imagine many people wouldn’t learn something from it as well as being entertained by some of the stories about the authors.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Welcome to the Universe by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott

This book arises from a course on the universe run by the three authors at Princeton University for non-science majors; indeed, for students who perhaps had never taken a science course before. As someone with almost no knowledge of science, it seems to me it is indeed suitable for a beginner so long as s/he has an enquiring mind and either the ability to understand the maths or the willingness to skim over those bits that are maths-heavy.

The book is divided into three sections, each written mainly by one of the authors with the occasional contribution from one of the others. Tyson takes us through how scientists learned to measure distances between stars, how they work out their composition and age, and goes into considerable depth on the lifecycles of stars. Strauss takes the reader through the story of galaxies, from how our own was first mapped to the discovery that (almost) all galaxies are moving away from each other, proving that the universe is expanding and enabling scientists to estimate its age and speculate as to its future. The final section is by Richard Gott and takes us from Einstein’s relativity back to the Big Bang and beyond, finishing with some speculation about the beginnings of the universe and even what may have come before the Big Bang. A great book, managing to be both hugely informative and entertaining – undoubtedly the best and most comprehensive of its kind that I’ve come across.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2017

for

BEST FACTUAL BOOK

A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes

Given my submersion in the Russian Revolution this year, it will be no surprise that this outstanding history wins the award.

In order to tell the story of the Russian Revolution, Figes begins three decades earlier, in 1891, with the famine that could be seen as starting the journey towards revolution; and continues up to 1924, the year that the first dictator, Lenin, died. This is a huge work, massive in scope, meticulously researched and delivered with a level of clarity that makes it surprisingly easy to read and absorb, even for someone coming to the subject with no previous knowledge.

It’s divided into four sections that thoroughly cover each period: when revolutionary ideas were still in their infancy, before and during the Romanov period; the period from 1891 to just before the revolution proper began; the revolutionary year from February 1917 to the signing of the peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918; and finally, the complex tale of the Civil War that followed the revolution. Figes ranges widely, often using the stories of individuals to add a human face to the political history.

Brilliantly written, well laid out and lavishly illustrated, making it easy to read and understand despite the immense complexity of the subject, it’s an exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal, so that I came away from it understanding not just the politics and timeline of events, but how it must have felt to have lived through them. An exceptional book – one of the best broad scope histories I’ve read and a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

FictionFan Awards 2017 – Vintage Crime Fiction/Thriller

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2017.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2016 and October 2017 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

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/Thriller

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2017

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!

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

VINTAGE
CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

This category is taking the place of genre fiction this year. My growing obsession with vintage crime fiction has left me with little time to read either sci-fi or horror, and these older books have been some of the most enjoyable reads of the year for me.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

A young Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home alone from an unspecified European country. Suffering from sunstroke, she nearly misses her train but a helpful porter shoves her into a carriage at the last moment. The people in the carriage clearly resent her presence – all except one, that is. Miss Froy, another Englishwoman, takes Iris under her wing and carries her off to have tea in the dining carriage. When they return, Iris sleeps for a while. When she awakes, Miss Froy has gone, and the other passengers deny all knowledge of there having ever been another Englishwoman in the carriage…

White’s writing is excellent and, although the motive for the plot is a bit weak, the way she handles the story builds up some great tension. She’s insightful and slightly wicked about the English abroad and about attitudes to women, both of which add touches of humour to lift the tone. And she rather unusually includes sections about Miss Froy’s elderly parents happily anticipating the return of their beloved only child, which gives the thing more emotional depth than I’d have expected in a thriller of this era. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Click to see the full review

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Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate

A trial is about to commence and the jury is being sworn in. A death has occurred in unusual circumstances and a woman has been charged with murder. But the evidence is largely circumstantial so it will be up to the jury (and the reader) to decide whether the prosecution has proved its case. The book has an unusual format, almost like three separate acts. As each jury member is called to take the oath, we are given background information on them; sometimes a simple character sketch, at others what amounts to a short story telling of events in their lives that have made them what they are. These introductions take up more than a third of the book before we even find out who has been murdered and who is on trial. When the trial begins, the reader is whisked out of the courtroom to see the crime unfold. Finally we see the evidence as it is presented at the trial and then follow the jury members as they deliberate.

Excellent writing, great characterisation, insightful about society, lots of interesting stories within the main story, and a realistic if somewhat cynical look at the strengths and shortcomings of the process of trial by jury. It’s easy to see why this one is considered a classic.

Click to see the full review

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The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary

Matthew Martin Cabell has been in the Eastern Urals carrying out a survey for the oil company he works for, and now wants to go home to America. But Russia is in the midst of the Civil War that followed the Revolution, and the local leader of the Whites, General Bronevich, sees an American citizen as a good opportunity to make some easy money. Eden Penfold is an English governess looking after the children of a local Prince who has gone to fight in the war. Eden has received a message from the children’s mother that she should bring the young Prince and Princess to her in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), but Eden is worried how she will make the journey safely in these dangerous times. When Bronevich attempts to rape Eden, Cabell kills him – and suddenly Matthew, Eden and the children are on the run through Russia in the Prince’s Rolls Royce… pursued by a dwarf!

Despite some cringe-makingly out-dated language and non-politically correct attitudes towards women and gay men, this is a hugely enjoyable rip-roaring adventure yarn, full of excitement and danger, and with a nice light romance thrown in for good measure. Well written and with likeable lead characters, the pace never lets up – a truly wild ride!

Click to see the full review

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Cop Hater by Ed McBain

When a cop is shot down in the street one night, the squad from the 87th Precinct in Isola swing into action. At first the reason for the shooting isn’t known. Was it random? Was it personal? But when another cop from the precinct is killed in the same way it begins to look like there’s a cop hater on the loose. Now Detective Steve Carella and his colleagues have two reasons to find the killer quickly – to get justice for their fellow officers and to stop the perpetrator before he kills again…

First published in 1956, this is the first in the long-running, successful and influential 87th Precinct series. Writing, setting, atmosphere, characterisation – all superb. While some of the attitudes are obviously a bit dated, the storytelling isn’t at all, and the vices and weaknesses of the human animal haven’t changed much over the years. Excellent stuff – definitely a classic of the genre – a realistic police procedural with an edge of noir.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2017

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Good though the shorlisted books are, in the end this was an easy decision. The Lodger stands out as one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read – what today we would call a psychological thriller.

Mr and Mrs Bunting are becoming desperate. Having left domestic service to run their own lodging house, they’ve had a run of bad luck and are now down to their last few shillings with no way to earn more unless they can find a lodger for their empty rooms. So when a gentleman turns up at their door offering to pay a month’s rent in advance, they are so relieved they overlook the odd facts that Mr Sleuth has no luggage and asks them not to take up references. Meantime, London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. The murderer leaves his calling card on the bodies – a triangular slip of paper pinned to their clothes with the words “The Avenger” written on it…

What Lowndes does so well is show the dilemma in which Mrs Bunting in particular finds herself. It’s not long before she begins to suspect her lodger of being The Avenger. But, on the other hand, there’s nothing definite to say he’s the killer, and Mrs Bunting rather likes him. And, just as importantly, the Buntings rely totally on the rent he pays. It really is brilliantly done – great characterisation and totally credible psychologically. No wonder Hitchcock used this as the basis for his first big success back in the silent movie era. A great classic and a worthy winner indeed!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Factual