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

* * * * * * * * *

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!

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Factual

FictionFan Awards 2016 – Literary Fiction & Book of the Year 2016

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 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.

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

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

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 abandoned more lit-fic novels this year than ever before, I think – partly due to my lengthy reading slump and partly due to the current fad for plotless musings and polemics thinly disguised as fiction. However, I’m delighted to say there have been some great reads, too, including a couple from new authors who will hopefully go on to even greater things in the future. The shortlist is too long, but I really couldn’t decide which of these fantastic books to leave out, so I’ll try to keep my comments on each brief…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

the high mountains of portugalThe High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

The three interlinked stories in this book are each very different but with common themes running through them, and all linked to a small town in the High Mountains.  The whole book is deliciously enigmatic and sometimes surreal, and I’m sure could be read in a hundred different ways. It is a subtle discussion of the evolution vs. faith debate, with the old evolutionary saw of “risen apes, not fallen angels” appearing repeatedly. Chimps appear in some form in each of the sections, though symbolically rather than actually, except in the third. But meaning aside, the sheer quality of the writing along with the more overt themes of grief and love make it a wonderful read – one that has left some indelible images in my mind.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

exposureExposure by Helen Dunmore

When fading spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help, sucking Simon into a situation that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

In many ways this is a standard spy thriller. But mostly what it is is a set of brilliant character studies showing the impact of this event on the lives of all those involved. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children where we see the story from the adults’ side, and an entirely credible portrayal of a fictionalised version of the Cambridge spy ring. Great stuff!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

three martini lunchThree-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

It’s 1958, and Greenwich Village is the centre of the hipster scene, populated by aspiring poets and writers. The three main characters take turns to narrate their own stories: Eden, determined to make it in the male-dominated world of publishing; rich boy Cliff, who is pretty sure he just needs a break to make it big as a writer; and Miles, who has real talent as a writer, but as a black man must face the discrimination that is an integral part of the society of the time. When their lives intersect, a chain of events is started that will change the course of their lives.

Rindell has the gift of creating truthful characters with individual voices, and of putting them into settings that feel totally authentic. Her scene-setting is superb – she brings the Village to life in all its seedy vibrancy. A great new talent – one to watch.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

zero kZero K by Don DeLillo

This is a strange book that takes one of the clichés of science fiction – cryogenics – and turns it into something that is either incomprehensible or profoundly thought-provoking, depending on how willing the reader is to play along. However, behind the cliché, a distinctly unsettling atmosphere of unease soon begins to seep out of the pages, as the narrator wanders alone through the silence of the cryogenics facility, down long corridors full of doors with nothing to indicate what is behind them. At the end of some of the corridors are viewscreens, showing increasingly horrific images of disaster, destruction and death. It’s an exploration of identity, and of the importance of death in how we define and measure life. From a shaky beginning, I grew to love it, for the writing, the imagery and the intelligence of it.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

enigma 2Enigma by Robert Harris

It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, it’s the authenticity of the setting and the superb plotting that make this one so great.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the girlsThe Girls by Emma Cline

Evie is 14 the summer she meets the girls from the ranch – the summer of ’69. Evie’s fascination quickly turns to infatuation, and a desire to prove herself mature enough to belong to this little group. Before long, she’s spending most of her time at the ranch, where she meets the group’s charismatic leader, Russell, and finds herself willingly sucked into a world that passes beyond hippy commune to cult. And by the end of the summer something so shocking will happen, it will shadow her life for ever.

The characterisation is superb, especially of Evie herself, both as a girl on the cusp of womanhood in the ’60s, and as an adult in late middle-age in the present. And the depiction of the cult is entirely credible, set well within this period of generational shift and huge social upheaval. An excellent book, all the more so considering it’s Cline’s début.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

beloved

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live isolated lives in their community, because everyone knows that their house at no. 124 is haunted. Sethe’s two sons have already left, unable to take any more of the spiteful tricks played by the ghost. But Sethe and Denver see the ghost differently. To Sethe it is the other daughter that she lost, a child known only by the single word carved on her gravestone, “Beloved”. The ghost is angry but Sethe understands why and endlessly forgives, no matter how cruel or violent her behaviour. And to Denver, the ghost is her sister, her only companion in her loneliness. Then one day a man from Sethe’s past arrives, Paul D, who knew her when they were both slaves on Sweet Home. It seems at first that he has driven the ghost away, until some weeks later a strange young woman arrives at the house – her name, Beloved.

This isn’t just a book of the year for me, it’s one of the books of my lifetime. Morrison’s brilliant writing and imagery turn it into one of the most powerful and emotionally devastating books I have ever read. There is furious anger here, in scenes of brutal horror, cruelty and vile humiliation, but the overwhelming tone is of a sorrowful lament for humanity. And to make it bearable, just, there is also beauty, love, some kind of healing, and ultimately hope. Sethe’s is a story that must be understood if we are ever to truly understand ourselves, and ultimately isn’t that what literature is for? Tragic that such a book should ever have come to be written, heartbreaking and devastating to read, but I count it a true privilege to have been given an opportunity to hear Beloved’s story.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

 

.

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016

THE WINNER

.

Best Fiction

Normally I’d rather choose a new book as Book of the Year, but Beloved is so outstanding it had to win! Some of the Great American Novel Quest books I’ve read this year have been pretty disappointing, but I’ll always be glad I started the quest since it was through it that I discovered this book. I realise most people have already read it, but if, like me, you’ve managed to miss it up till now, it gets my highest recommendation. The beautiful writing, savage imagery and deep understanding and sympathy for humanity make it a truly wonderful read – unforgettable.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks to all of you who’ve stuck with me through this year’s awards feature.

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

 

FictionFan Awards 2016 – Crime Fiction/Thrillers

A round of applause please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 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.

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

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

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

CRIME FICTION/THRILLERS

Domestic thrillers continue to dominate the crime fiction market at the moment, and my distaste for them continues to dominate me! So this year I’ve been reading mostly police procedurals or thrillers, with a fair sprinkling of vintage crime fiction and some re-reads of old favourites. Despite the ongoing march of the misery-fest there’s still some great stuff out there, even if it’s not getting hyped as much as the latest “First-Person Present-Tense Grief-Stricken Drunk Girl in a Mini-Cab with a Red Coat and a Killer Twist”. And because I read more crime/thriller fiction than any other genre, it seems only fair to mention some of the books that didn’t quite make it on to the shortlist. All of these books were great reads, and I look forward to reading more from each of these authors in the future.

NOMINEES

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

night blindNightblind by Ragnar Jónasson

It’s autumn in tiny Siglufjördur but it feels like winter is on the way. Ari Thór Arason, one of the town’s two police officers, is off sick with flu, so his colleague Herjólfur is on his own as he stands in the wind and rain outside an old, abandoned house a little way out of town, watching a light inside that seems to come from a torch. Summoning up his courage, he goes to investigate. It’s only when his wife reports him missing the next day that he is found, shot through the chest…

This is a cracking start to what turns into an excellent book. The combination of Jónasson’s great descriptive writing and Quentin Bates’ flawless translation create an atmospheric sense of the isolation of this small weather-beaten place on Iceland’s northern shore. Great plotting and characterisation too – all round, this is about as good as the police procedural gets.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

a rising manA Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

The corpse of a white man is discovered in an alleyway in an unsavoury part of Calcutta, and Inspector Sam Wyndham is assigned to investigate. It is 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in India after recovering from injuries he received during the war, so he will have to depend for local knowledge on his two colleagues – Sergeant Digby, an Englishman with all the worst attitudes of imperial superiority and a grudge against Wyndham for getting the job he felt should be his own; and an Oxford educated Indian from a well-to-do family, Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, so called because Digby finds his real name too difficult to pronounce.

Mukherjee knows his stuff for sure, and the picture he paints of Calcutta and the Indian political situation of the time positively reeks of authenticity. His British characters are equally believable and there are many references to Scottish culture that again have the ring of total truthfulness, and are often very funny. A great novel – hard to believe it’s a début. And I’m delighted that it’s apparently the first book in a series.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

open woundsOpen Wounds by Douglas Skelton

Davie McCall is a gangster with a moral code – he doesn’t hurt women, children or ‘civilians’. But that doesn’t stop him from hurting other people – badly, when they’ve done something that crosses one of his personal lines. He’s always felt in control of his violence though, until recently, when he suddenly found he was enjoying it. Now he wants out of the ‘Life’, but he’s scared – not of what his boss might do to him, but scared that he won’t be able to change, won’t be able to leave the desire for violence behind him. Meantime, he’s still working as a heavy for Rab McClymont, who’s not just his boss but an old friend. So when Rab asks him to lean on a man, Fergus O’Neill, at first Davie’s fine with that. O’Neill was convicted a few years back of a horrific burglary that involved rape, but is now out pending appeal and is publicly accusing Rab of having fitted him up for the crime. When Davie begins to believe that O’Neill may have been innocent, he still can’t believe that Rab would have been involved in a rape, even indirectly. So he begins to investigate.

This is genuine Tartan Noir, grounded in the real recognisable Glasgow of today. The book is set in Glasgow gangster culture and has a totally authentic feel to it. As well as giving a great sense of place, using mainly real locations, Skelton has a complete grip on Glaswegian “patter”, the humour that covers the harshness of life on the edges of society. Put that together with great characterisation and plotting, and this book takes its place amongst the very best of Scottish crime writing.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

daisy in chainsDaisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton

Hamish Wolfe is a prisoner, convicted of the murders of three young women. Maggie Rose is a defence barrister and author of several books regarding possible miscarriages of justice, some of which have resulted in the convicted men being released. Hamish and his little group of supporters on the outside are keen to get Maggie to take on his case. Pete Weston owes his promotion to Detective Sergeant to his success in catching Hamish, and he’s adamant that no mistakes were made.

This is Sharon Bolton at her twisty, twisted best, and her best is pretty brilliant! Bolton’s skill is not just in the plotting, great though that is. Where she really excels is in setting up an atmosphere of growing tension and dread, always helped by the settings she chooses. Her descriptive writing is fabulous – the lowering snow clouds, freezing cold and short dark days of her Somerset setting all adding beautifully to a scary sense of creepiness and fear. But there’s a healthy dose of humour which prevents the book from becoming too dark, meaning that it’s a truly enjoyable read even while it’s deliciously tingling the reader’s spine. This book so nearly won…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

 

magpie-murders

Magpie Murders
by Anthony Horowitz

Susan Ryeland, editor for Cloverleaf Books, settles down happily to read the new manuscript from their star author – Magpie Murders by Alan Conway. Susan may not like the author, but she loves his books, a series of Golden Age style mysteries starring Atticus Pund and his sidekick James Fraser. But she will find that on this occasion the mystery extends beyond the book, and murder might have leapt from the pages into real life…

This is a fantastic take on a Christie-style murder mystery – country house, lots of characters all with secrets and motives, a nicely unpleasant victim so we don’t have to venture into grief territory, some great clues and red herrings, an intriguing detective in the German-born Pund, and a rather charming if intellectually challenged sidekick in James. It is in fact two books – the one involving Susan and “real” life, and the fictional book involving Atticus Pund and a gruesome murder in the village of Saxby-on-Avon. Like Christie, it gets that perfect balance between dark and light, depth and entertainment. Again, as with his take on the Holmes mysteries, Horowitz has shown how effectively he can play with these much-loved, established fictional worlds, always affectionately but always with an original twist that prevents them from being mere pastiche. Great stuff, that I’m sure will be enjoyed by any mystery fan.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Literary Fiction Award

FictionFan Awards 2016 – Factual

All stand please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 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.

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

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

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

The Golden Age of factual writing continues this year, although my general reading slump means I’ve read considerably fewer than usual. Fortunately, even from this restricted pool there have been some corkers, each of which is worthy of the award. A difficult choice, especially since there’s always an element of comparing apples and oranges in this category, but in the end the judge’s decision was unanimous…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

douglas macarthurDouglas MacArthur: American Warrior
by Arthur Herman

From the prologue of this biography, where Herman gives a dramatic description of the events at Inchon and then leaves those of us who don’t know our history on a cliffhanger, foreshadowing MacArthur’s future downfall, I knew he was going to achieve the remarkable, I might even have said impossible, feat of making me enjoy over 800 pages of the history of a soldier fighting the various American wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

The picture that emerges is of a true military hero, a man of great personal courage, with a huge ego and a desire for public recognition and even glory, but with a driving ambition to see his nation provide a shining example to the rest of the world. A flawed hero perhaps, but I sometimes think we as a society expect a level of perfection that our heroes cannot possibly achieve, and in general I prefer sympathetic biographies that recognise and allow for human fallibility, as Herman’s always do. So from my perspective, this is another great biography from Herman, thoroughly researched and immensely readable.

Click to see the full review

MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines
MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines

* * * * * * * * *

the wicked boyThe Wicked Boy
by Kate Summerscale

For ten days in the summer of July 1895, two boys spent their time roaming round coffee shops and attending cricket matches, and telling anyone who asked that their mother had gone to visit relatives in Liverpool. Meantime, an unpleasant smell was beginning to seep from their house, becoming so bad eventually that the neighbours complained to the boys’ aunt. When she forced her way into the house, she discovered the badly decomposed body of the boys’ mother, and immediately young Robert Coombes admitted to having stabbed her to death.

This is a chilling but fascinating true crime story from the end of the Victorian era. Robert Coombes was thirteen at the time of the murder and his brother Nattie was twelve. Summerscale tells the story of the crime and its aftermath – firstly, the trial and conviction of young Robert, and then following him through his later life to answer the question of whether there can be any kind of redemption in this life for someone who has committed such a horrific crime. Immaculately researched, well written and presented, this is an intriguing look at how children were treated in the justice system at the time, and at the regime within Broadmoor, the state hospital for the criminally insane.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the murder of king james iThe Murder of King James I
by
Alastair Bellany & Thomas Cogswell

Following the death of James VI and I in 1625, rumours abounded that he had been done away with by his favourite, George Villiers, by then Duke of Buckingham. Over the intervening period these rumours have been dismissed by historians, partly on the grounds of lack of real evidence and partly as a result of developments in the field of forensic medicine, which suggest other, natural causes for his death. In this book, the authors’ position is that whether James was or wasn’t murdered is not the point. They argue that it is how and why the allegations were made that matters, and how they were spread, perceived by contemporary society, and altered over time to suit the end purposes of various factions. They set out to prove that the allegations played a major role in the downfall of Charles I, and were still exerting a political influence many decades after the event, all through the period of Cromwell’s Protectorate, through the Restoration, and on to the final demise of the Stuart dynasty.

I found the story the authors told fascinating. Although it’s more academic in style than most of the history I’ve reviewed, it’s very well written – thoroughly explained and convincingly argued, and free of academic jargon, so still quite accessible to the general reader. Personally I found it an immersive experience, at some points feeling that I knew the players and politics of the period of and just after the ‘murder’ better than I do the contemporary political scene.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

citizen kaneCitizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey
by Harlan Lebo

In the introduction, Harlan Lebo explains that the book is based on source documents and conversations with some of the participants in the making of the film. He starts with a brief biography of Welles’ achievements on stage and radio before he was given a contract by RKO.

Once Welles is installed at RKO, Lebo takes the reader through the entire process of the making of Kane in painstaking and pretty geeky detail. But geeky in a good way – written so that even I, who wouldn’t recognise a movie camera if I tripped over it, was able to easily understand. No detail is too small, no aspect too obscure to be included here, from budgeting, casting, direction, production, even what days particular scenes were filmed on. Sounds dreadful, huh? And yet, I found it increasingly fascinating – I had no idea of all that went into producing a film and began to feel a much greater admiration for the strange and wonderful people behind the camera, sometimes far behind it. It may not have made me enjoy the film more in the end, but I now have much more appreciation of the work that went into it, I admire a lot of the innovation, I see the stuff about the cinematography, I’m impressed by the dissolves between scenes, I hear how the music is being used. Recommended for Kane buffs, movie buffs, and people with a weird penchant for detailed geekiness…

Click to see full review

Citizen Kane galleons

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST FACTUAL

gandhi and churchill

Gandhi & Churchill
by Arthur Herman

Yes, Herman makes his second appearance in the shortlist, and fourth overall appearance in the four years I’ve been doing these awards! I think that officially makes me a fan!

The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.

The book is quite simply a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.

Click to see the book review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Crime Fiction/Thriller Award

FictionFan Awards 2016 – Genre Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

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 2015 and October 2016 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.

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

Genre Fiction

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

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

The FF definition of ‘genre fiction’ for the purpose of these awards is basically anything that doesn’t quite fit into one of the other categories. I’ve read very little genre fiction this year – in fact, my reading in general is way down due to the depressing effect of world events combined with an excess of tennis watching. Fortunately the comparatively little I have read has had plenty of good stuff in it. This year I’ve also decided to include genre films in this category, since I’ve been reviewing films on the blog a little more, and genre films are often as good or better than the books (a thing I wouldn’t generally say about adaptations of literary or crime fiction). Most of the genre fiction I’ve read have been classics with just one or two new releases.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

fear is the riderFear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook

It’s 50 degrees centigrade outside as John Shaw is driving over one of the most dangerous roads in the Australian outback, and there isn’t a house within two hundred kilometres. A terrified girl has run out in front of his vehicle, running for her life. Now they’re racing along the track, but someone is behind them, and he’s catching up…

This thriller with a horror element is pure action from beginning to end. Cook doesn’t give us any explanations or much character development, either of which would just serve to slow the pace. Neither of the main characters is a superhero – just two ordinary people caught up in an insane terror. The pacing is great – it never lets up! It’s novella length and definitely one to be read in one sitting – no chapters, just a heart-pounding race with a new peril thrown in every few pages, leading up to a truly fab climax. A thriller that’s actually thrilling and isn’t trying to be anything else – great stuff!

Click to see the full review

Danger sign

* * * * * * * * *

the machine stopsThe Machine Stops by EM Forster

At some time in EM Forster’s distant future, but not seeming quite so distant now, man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. But one man is convinced that the Machine is no longer the servant of the people and has become instead their master. And he prophesies that one day the Machine may stop…

What a fantastic story! The joy of it is all in the telling. The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. Full of some disturbing images, a little bit of horror and a tiny bit of hope, this is a masterpiece of short story writing.

Click to see the full review

the machine stops art

* * * * * * * * *

the children's homeThe Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

Morgan was a beautiful young man but a terrible incident has left him so horribly disfigured he can no longer face the world. So he stays holed up in the house his grandfather built while his sister runs the family business that keeps them both wealthy. The only person Morgan lets see him is his housekeeper, Engel. But one day Engel finds a baby left outside the house. The two of them agree not to tell the authorities and so the child becomes part of the household. Shortly after, another child arrives, then another, until before long there are seven of them… and more keep coming. No-one knows where they’re coming from and the children never say, but Morgan is becoming convinced that these children have the power to appear and disappear at will. And soon it seems as if they’ve come for a purpose…

The quality of imagination in this book is matched by the quality of the writing. It reads like a corrupted fairytale, reminding me of Shirley Jackson, with elements of John Wyndham thrown in to the mix. But these references don’t take away from the book’s own originality. There is an unsettling tone of horror under the seemingly bright surface, and the story gets progressively darker as it proceeds. There are parts that are truly shocking and the writing is of such quality as to create some images that stay long after the last page has been turned. Is it sci-fi? Horror? Fantasy? Lit-fic? Yes, to all of the above. It’s the first book for a long time that has had me gasping aloud in shock…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

2001 both1

2001: A Space Odyssey – book and film

The first ever joint winner! The book and film were created jointly and intended to complement each other, and each adds hugely to the enjoyment and understanding of the other, so they can’t be separated.

A tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Arthur C Clarke and  Stanley Kubrick developed the basic idea together based on some earlier stories of Clarke’s, although the film does diverge somewhat from the book, especially around the mystical ending. The book, while still leaving much open to interpretation, tells the story much more clearly, while the film concentrates on visuals and effects to create a kind of mystical experience that, in Kubrick’s words, “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

Apparently Clarke said “I always used to tell people, ‘Read the book, see the film, and repeat the dose as often as necessary’”. I heartily concur. Reading the book first turned watching the film into an fantastic experience, and next time I read the book, I’ll have the fabulous images and music from the film running in my head. Two parts that are differently great but which, together, become something uniquely wonderful.

Click to see the book review

Click to see the film review

2001 poster

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Factual Award

FictionFan Awards 2015 – Literary Fiction & Book of the Year 2015

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

.

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2014 and October 2015 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

.

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

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

.

…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

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 read far less new literary fiction this year because I’ve been re-reading some old favourites, which don’t count for these awards. However there have still been a few great novels that are either new or new-to-me. This hasn’t been such a hard decision as some of the other genres – while each of the books is excellent, the winner is a truly stand-out novel…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

f daniel kehlmannF: A Novel by Daniel Kehlmann

.

This is a brilliant novel, sparkling with wit and intelligence. The fact that I have no idea what it’s about really didn’t affect my enjoyment of it in any way. F is for family, or failure, or faith, or fraud, or fear, or fate. Or possibly it isn’t. The one thing I do know is it’s impossible to sum up in a few words. The story of three sons of a missing Father – one a priest who has lost his Faith in God, one a Financial broker who is waiting to be Found out for committing Fraud and one a Failed artist and successful Forger – and an event which the reader knows about but the characters don’t. The writing is superb – Kehlmann can squeeze a mountain of characterisation into a few telling phrases, allowing him plenty of space to treat us to some fairly tongue-in-cheek philosophical asides. And he forces the reader to collude with him in mocking, but affectionately, the worlds of art, literature and religion. It’s also pretentious, absurd, marginally surreal at points and wickedly funny. And one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Docherty 2Docherty by William McIlvanney

.

On a December night in 1903, Tam Docherty lifts his new-born son and declares that this one will never go down the pits – this child Conn, his youngest, will work with his brains, rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The book covers the next twenty years or so, telling the story of Conn and his family, and most of all of Tam himself, a man who may be “only five foot fower. But when yer hert goes fae yer heid tae yer taes, that’s a lot o’ hert.” In some ways this is quite an intimate novel, concentrating on Tam’s family and the small community he is part of, but through them it’s a fairly political look at the lot of those at the bottom of the ladder in the early part of the twentieth century, a time when the old traditions are about to be challenged, first by the horrors of WW1 and then, following close on its heels, by the new political ideas that will sweep through Europe between the wars. McIlvanney writes beautifully, both in English and Scots, with as keen an ear for speech patterns and banter as for dialect. A great novel.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the blue guitarThe Blue Guitar by John Banville

.

Olly Orme used to be a painter, but his muse has left him. He’s still a thief though. He doesn’t steal for money – it’s the thrill that attracts him. Usually it’s small things he steals – a figurine, a tie-pin. But nine months ago, he stole his friend’s wife, and now that theft is about to be discovered. This is Olly’s own story, told directly to the reader in the form of a narrative being written as events unfold. The tone starts off light and progressively darkens, but there is a delicious vein of humour throughout the book, observational sometimes, self-deprecatory at others. Olly is a narcissist, but his ability to admit his faults with a kind of saucy twinkle makes him an endearing character. In truth, other than Olly’s character, there’s nothing particularly original or profound here. But it’s the language! The fabulous prose! I could forgive a lot to someone who makes me enjoy every word, whether deeply meaningful or dazzlingly light. And Banville dazzled me while Olly entertained me – I’ll happily settle for that.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Two Years Eight Months 2Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

.

Back in the 12th century, disgraced philosopher Ibn Rushd has a love affair with Dunia, a princess of the jinn, and they have many children together. Centuries later, not far in the future from our own time, the slits between the jinn world and our own have been lost for many years and Dunia’s descendants have spread throughout the world, unaware of their jinn heritage. But after a great storm lashes the world, strange things begin to happen – people finding their feet no longer touch the ground, people being struck by lightning and finding themselves afterwards possessed of strange powers, people suffering from what are either terrifying hallucinations or perhaps even more terrifying reality. It appears the jinn are back… Rushdie ranges widely, through philosophy, politics, religion, terrorism, the importance of words, language and stories, optimism and pessimism, the disconnect of modern humanity from the planet, and so on. It’s all handled very lightly, though, with a tone of affectionate mockery more than anything else. And, much to my surprise, it’s deliciously funny. It’s being pigeon-holed as magical realism but not in my opinion – this is satire masquerading as a fairy tale. A book that surprised and delighted me.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

 

the way things were

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

.

When Skanda’s father dies, it falls to Skanda to accompany his body back to India for the funeral rites. The death of his father and the experience of meeting up with many of the people he knew in childhood leads him to remember and re-assess the recent history of his family, from the period of the Emergency in the mid-70s until the present day. Like his father, Skanda is a Sanskrit scholar, with a penchant for finding linguistic cognates – seeking out the shared roots of words across languages ancient and modern. And this book is about roots, or about what happens to a person, and by extension a society, when it becomes culturally detached from its roots. But the book isn’t just about India’s past. It also looks at the politics of the present from the time of Mrs Gandhi to today. A strongly political novel, it is in no way overly optimistic, but unlike so much of the misery writing coming from India, this has a sense of hope – a message that India must and can choose its own future, not by rejection of its past, recent and ancient, but by understanding it and building on it.

That might all make the book sound unbearably dull, but in amongst all the politics and philosophising are a group of exceptionally well drawn and believable characters, whose story is interesting not just for what it tells us about India, but in itself. I was particularly pleased to see a strong female figure front and centre in this one. Uma, Skanda’s mother, is without exception the most intriguing female character I have come across in Indian fiction and, for me, she is the heart of the book; and is in many ways the personification of this post-colonial class that Taseer is portraying. The quality of the prose and the depth of insight make this an enlightening and deeply thought-provoking read – an exceptional book from an author who is emerging as a major voice in literature.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

.

.

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2015

.

THE WINNER

.

lamentation

It is 1546, and an increasingly ailing Henry VIII has swung back to the traditionalist wing of the church – in fact, some fear he might be about to make amends with the Pope and take the country back to Catholicism. The constant shifts in what is seen as acceptable doctrine have left many sects, once tolerated, now at risk of being accused of heresy. And, as the story begins, Anne Askew and three other heretics are about to be burned at the stake for preaching radical Protestantism. At this dangerous time, Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book, Lamentations of a Sinner, describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. And when a torn page turns up in the dead hand of a murdered printer, it’s clear some people will stop at nothing to get hold of the book…

I have long held that Sansom is by far the best writer of historical fiction, certainly today, but perhaps ever; and I’m delighted to say that this book is, in my opinion, his best to date. Brilliantly written, impeccably researched, full of great characterisation, and the combination of the personal and the political is perfectly balanced. A superb novel – in fact, a superb series – and a truly worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks to all of you who’ve stuck with me through this year’s awards feature.

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

 

FictionFan Awards 2015 – Crime Fiction/Thrillers

A round of applause please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

.

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2014 and October 2015 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

.

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

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

.

…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

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

CRIME FICTION/THRILLERS

.

Despite the fact that I’ve grown more and more unenamoured with a lot of contemporary crime, I’ve still had lots of good reads this year, though on looking back several of them are reissues of older books or have taken a slightly quirky approach. But simply because I read more crime than any other genre, this is still the section that is hardest to decide. So because the choice was so hard, I’ve decided also to list the nominees that didn’t quite make it into the final list. All of these books were great reads, and I look forward to reading more from each of these authors in the future.

NOMINEES

 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the voices beyondThe Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin

.

Young Jonas is spending the summer on the island of Öland at the resort owned by his family, the Klosses. One night, he takes his dingy out onto the sea. Drifting in the darkness, a sudden shaft of moonlight shows a boat approaching and he doesn’t have time to get out of the way. He manages to climb aboard the boat before his dingy is sunk, but what awaits him there is the stuff of nightmares – dying men (or are they already dead?) on the deck stalking towards him and calling out in a language he doesn’t understand. This brilliantly atmospheric opening sets the tone for a book that combines a mystery in the present day with a story that takes us back to the USSR in the days of Stalin. Plot, writing, research, characterisation – all top quality, and it finishes off as atmospherically as it began. A great read – frankly, this could easily have been the winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the zig-zag girlThe Zig-Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

.

Set in Brighton post-WW2, this is a great start to a new series from the author of the Ruth Galloway series. Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto served in a secret unit known as the “Magic Men” during the war. Now Edgar is a police detective and Max has gone back to his profession as a stage magician. When a dismembered corpse turns up, it has echoes of one of Max’s tricks, and as Edgar investigates it appears the solution may lie in their wartime past. Both place and time are done very well, with the shadow of the war still hanging over the characters and the world they inhabit. With an intriguing, complex plot, an interesting slant on a unique (and not entirely fictional) aspect of the war, some very enjoyable humour and a touch of romance, this is a great mystery of the traditional kind. And best of all, unlike the Ruth books, it’s written in the past tense.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

vertigoVertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

.

As Paris waits uneasily for war to begin, Roger Flavières is approached by an old college friend, Gévigne, who puts an odd proposition to him. Gévigne is concerned about his wife, Madeleine. She has been lapsing into odd silences, almost trances, and seems bewildered when she comes out of them. Gévigne knows she’s been going out during the afternoons but she says she hasn’t – either she is lying, which Gévigne doesn’t believe, or she has forgotten. Gévigne wants Flavières to follow her, partly to find out what she’s doing and partly to make sure she is safe. This is, of course, the book on which the Hitchcock film was based and, for once, despite my love for all things Hitchcock, on this occasion I think the book is better. Hitchcock’s decision to elevate the importance of the vertigo aspects, as opposed to the book’s study of the effects of obsession on an already weak mind, somehow makes his Ferguson a less complex and intriguing character than Boileau-Narcejac’s Flavières. And the ending of the book is much more satisfying than that of the film. An excellent read.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

you zoran drvenkarYou by Zoran Drvenkar

.

Back in 1995, a massive snowstorm brought traffic to a halt on the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. As people huddled in their cars overnight, trying to keep warm, The Traveler stepped out of his vehicle and worked his way along the line of cars, murdering the people inside. By the time the snowploughs got through, twenty-six people were dead and there was no trace of The Traveler. In the present day, Ragnar Desche has found the frozen body of his brother Oskar and is out to get revenge against whoever killed him and stole the massive stash of heroin he was keeping for Ragnar. And four teenage girls are worrying about the fifth member of their little clique who has been missing for nearly a week… This is a great book, written almost entirely in the second person through the eyes of each of the huge cast of characters in turn. Drvenkar handles this unusual technique superbly, forcing me to identify with each of them, however unlikely. It’s noir dark shot through with just enough gleams of light to keep it bearable, pacey and tense, grim and disturbing, no punches pulled – and quite stunning. I’m still not completely sure it shouldn’t be the winner…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

 

lamentation

Lamentation by C.J. Sansom

.

It is 1546, and an increasingly ailing Henry VIII has swung back to the traditionalist wing of the church – in fact, some fear he might be about to make amends with the Pope and take the country back to Catholicism. The constant shifts in what is seen as acceptable doctrine have left many sects, once tolerated, now at risk of being accused of heresy. And, as the story begins, Anne Askew and three other heretics are about to be burned at the stake for preaching radical Protestantism. At this dangerous time, Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book, Lamentations of a Sinner, describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. And when a torn page turns up in the dead hand of a murdered printer, it’s clear some people will stop at nothing to get hold of the book…

I have long held that Sansom is by far the best writer of historical fiction, certainly today, but perhaps ever; and I’m delighted to say that this book is, in my opinion, his best to date. A huge brick of a book, coming in at over 600 pages, and yet at no point does it flag. Like the earlier books, this one is completely immersive – the length of it is matched by its depth. The fictional aspect is woven seamlessly into fact, and the characters and actions of the real people who appear in the novel are consistent with what we know of them through the history books. The combination of the personal and the political is perfectly balanced, and Sansom never fails to take the consequences of events of previous books through to the next, meaning that the recurring characters continue to develop more deeply in each one. There’s always a long wait between Shardlake novels, but they are invariably worth waiting for. And as England moves on to dealing with the aftermath of Henry’s death, I very much hope that Shardlake will be there to lead us through it…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Literary Fiction Award

FictionFan Awards 2015 – Factual

All stand please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

.

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2014 and October 2015 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

.

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

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

.

…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

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

.

This is a Golden Age for factual writing, especially in history and science, with authors reaching out beyond the academic market to make their books accessible to the general reader. The result is that it’s almost impossible to decide which should win since each of the books mentioned below deserves an award in its own field – it’s a bit of a comparing apples and oranges situation. However, the judges have emerged from their lengthy deliberation and a winner has been chosen…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the telegraph book of the first world warThe Telegraph Book of the First World War edited by Gavin Fuller

.

This book brings together a selection of the news reports and articles printed in The Telegraph during the First World War, at a time when for most people their daily newspaper was their only source of information. The quality of the writing itself is astonishingly high, filled with passion and poignancy, and sometimes reaching towards poetry. There are articles from literary figures here, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but it’s the reports from the professional journalists that have most impact. No dry reporting of facts and figures here – these are vivid word pictures that evoked a whole range of emotions in me, sorrow, anger, horror, grief and, more unexpectedly, pride, admiration, and a fierce desire to see the Allies win. I found it fascinating, absorbing and moving, and it has given me a real feeling for what it must have been like for the people left at home, desperate for news, and totally dependent on the brave men who put themselves in danger to tell the story of the war.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

huck finn's americaHuck Finn’s America by Andrew Levy

.

Bravo to Andrew Levy! Literary criticism has long been the most jargon-filled, pretentious and badly written of all the factual fields (in my opinion, of course) but Levy has broken the mould with this immensely readable criticism of Twain’s acclaimed masterpiece. Part biography and part history, Levy sets the book firmly back into his context, stripping back much of the mythology that has grown up around it since its first appearance. His contention is that one must understand the social culture at the time of writing to make sense of Twain’s portrayals of both Huck and Jim. He discusses ‘bad boy’ culture, the status of black people thirty years after emancipation, and Twain’s nostalgia for the minstrel shows of his youth, and shows how each fed into the book. A great read – well researched, clearly structured, convincingly argued and best of all written in normal language rather than lit-crit gobbledegook. A template for others in the field to follow.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the churchill factorThe Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson read by Simon Shepherd

.

In this book, Boris Johnson sets out to try to discover what made Churchill into the man who is considered to have been crucial in the British war effort. He does this with his usual panache, making the book hugely enjoyable and filled with humour, which doesn’t disguise the massive amount of research and knowledge that has clearly gone into it. He makes it crystal clear that he admires Churchill intensely and, because he’s so open about it, his bias in the great man’s favour comes over as wholly endearing. The book is nearly as revealing about Boris as Churchill and, given that he’s one of our major politicians who might well be Prime Minister one day, it’s an intriguing insight into the things he admires, and presumably would want to emulate, in a leader. And on top of all that it’s read by Simon Shepherd, owner of one of the loveliest voices in the world. I have happy memories of going to bed each night with Winston, Boris and Simon – more fun than you might think! If I had a category for audiobook of the year, this would win easily.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

resurrection scienceResurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor

.

In a period called by scientists the ‘Sixth Extinction’, the question of conservation has never been more relevant or immediate. But what exactly are we conserving for? What are the moral, ethical and philosophical questions that surround the various types of conservation? In this excellent book, M.R. O’Connor highlights some of the species on the edge of extinction and uses them as jumping off points to look at some of the arguments, from the practical to the esoteric, that surround the whole question of species conservation. From Northern white rhinos and the effects of war, to the panther in the south-eastern USA and its impact on the American character and psyche, the book is stuffed to bursting point with the most current thinking on the ethics of conservation, all written in an immensely readable and accessible way. Without exception, the most interesting and wide-ranging book on the subject I have ever read and so nearly this year’s winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST FACTUAL

 

john knox

John Knox by Jane Dawson

.

In Scotland, John Knox is thought of as a misogynistic, hellfire-and-damnation preaching old killjoy, who is responsible for the fairly joyless version of Protestantism that has blighted our country for hundreds of years. Father of the Scottish Reformation, he is notorious for being the author of ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. In this new biography, Jane Dawson sets out, not so much to overturn this impression of Knox, but to show that there was more to him than this. She sheds a great deal of light on this complex and important figure, showing in depth how his interpretation of the Bible influenced every aspect of his life. She also widens the subject out to put the Scottish Reformation into context with the Protestant movement throughout Europe, showing how, despite some internal differences, there was an attempt to unify the theology and forms of worship of the fledgling religion. And she goes on to show how local circumstances led to variations in the practices of Reformed churches in different nations.

(I just want be clear that the award is going to Jane Dawson and not in any way to that misogynistic old killjoy, Knox. 😉 )

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

In two weeks time: Best Crime Fiction/Thrillers Award

FictionFan Awards 2015 – Genre Fiction

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

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 2014 and October 2015 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.

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

Genre Fiction

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

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

 

The FF definition of ‘genre fiction’ for the purpose of these awards is basically anything that doesn’t quite fit into one of the other categories. I’ve not read nearly as much genre fiction as I intended this year, and a lot of what I did manage to fit in were re-reads of some classic sci-fi. Despite that, I had some great reads during the year… a mix of old and new.

 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

dune messiahDune Messiah by Frank Herbert

 

It’s twelve years since we left Paul Muad’dib at the end of Dune – twelve years in which his war against the Harkonnen and the Emperor has grown into a jihad resulting in the deaths of tens of billions and the destruction of several planets. Paul’s beginning to wonder if perhaps things might have gone a little too far. His power of prescience has made him an unwilling Messiah to his people, but the ability to see so many possible futures, none of them good, has left him desperate to find a way out that will stop the killing…

Though this is the sequel to Dune, I think it’s a better book, but it really is necessary to read them in order. Unfortunately the books go badly downhill after this one, so I abandoned the series. But the first two books undoubtedly deserve their status as classics for the quality of the writing and the imagination that created the unforgettable desert world of Arrakis.

Click to see the full review

Art by Henrik Sahlstrom
Art by Henrik Sahlstrom

* * * * * * * * *

the haunting of hill houseThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

 

Hill House has a reputation for ghostly goings-on – so much so that even the servants won’t stay around after dark. So it’s the ideal place for Dr John Montague to carry out an investigation into supernatural manifestations. He collects together a little group of strangers – selected because they have had previous experiences of strange happenings, and they all set off to spend the summer living in the house…

Finding Shirley Jackson is one of the many benefits I’ve had from blogging – she’s not nearly so well known on this side of the pond as in the US. This one shows all her skill in playing with expectations, her gothic references always just a little subverted, making the whole thing feeling slightly off-kilter. Though I thought the ending fell away a little, there were plenty of genuinely creepy moments along the way, along with some delicious humour. Another true classic.

Click to see the full review

eleanor

* * * * * * * * *

twenty trillion leagues under the seaTwenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

 

It’s June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine’s capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on… past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure… and on… and on…

Stylistically this reads like classic sci-fi from the early twentieth century and is filled with references to many of the greats. But the quality of the writing and imagination lifts it from being pastiche and makes it something unique. Again, I felt it fell away a bit towards the end, but for the most part I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror.

Click to see the full review

twenty trillion leagues 1

* * * * * * * * *

dark matterDark Matter by Michelle Paver

 

It’s 1937 and war clouds are gathering over Europe. Jack Miller is poor and struggling in a job he hates, so he jumps at the chance to join an expedition to Gruhuken, an abandoned mining settlement in the Arctic. But the expedition begins to hit trouble even before they leave London, with a couple of the men having to drop out at the last moment. And the troubles don’t end there – once they are in Gruhuken a series of events mean that eventually Jack is left alone to keep the expedition alive…and the long dark Arctic winter is beginning…and Jack begins to feel he may not be as alone as he thinks…

This is a great ghost story – or maybe it isn’t. Is there something out there in the never-ending Arctic night or is it all in Jack’s mind? We only have his own narration to go on and, as with all the best horror, nothing is certain. It’s all done by a brilliantly executed build-up of psychological terror – from ‘don’t go there’ warnings from the captain of the ship to things barely glanced from the corner of the eye, sensations of a presence, and distorted perspectives. The writing is top quality – this book would sit just as well in the literary fiction category as in horror. I dare you to read it…

Click to see the full review

arctic night

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

 

the martian chronicles

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

 

Written as short stories for magazines in the late 1940s and pulled together with a series of linking pieces for publication in book form in 1951, the book is set around the turn of the millennium, when man is beginning to colonise Mars.

Because of the way it developed, the book is very episodic in nature and Bradbury reinvents Martian society anew depending on the story he wants to tell. After reading the first few chapters, I was a little puzzled by the book’s status as an acknowledged sci-fi great  – the stories were good but relatively standard. However as the book progresses Bradbury allows his imagination to take full flight and some of the later stories are beautifully written fantasies with more than a little philosophical edge. Many of the later stories blew me away, leaving indelible images in my mind. As with the best sci-fi, the book is really an examination of what it means to be human and Bradbury approaches the question from many different angles, each as thought-provoking as the one before. And on top of all that, he produces some of the highest quality writing I have come across in sci-fi. I’d hate anyone to be put off this one by the genre label – it’s as stimulating and well written as most ‘literary’ novels and shows a great deal more imagination than they usually do.

Click to see the full review

the martian chronicles 4 les edwards 2009
© Les Edwards 2009.

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Factual Award

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Crime/Thriller Category – Standalones & Book of the Year 2014

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Crime Fiction/Thriller Category – Standalones.

The last reminder of the rules for this year…

THE CRITERIA

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

THE CATEGORIES

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

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – Books in a Series

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – Standalone Novels

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

 

CRIME FICTION/THRILLERS

 

And here we go for the final category (hurrah!) for this year. It’s been a great year for original and well-written standalones, many of them with more than a touch of humour, black or otherwise. To be honest, any of these would make a fine winner, but only one can get the prize. So here goes…

STANDALONES

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

life or deathLife or Death by Michael Robotham

One of the finds of the year for me, I’ve been loving Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series, and this standalone is equally good. Audie Palmer has been in prison for ten years for an armed robbery that went wrong. Although two of the gang died and Audie was arrested, the stolen $7 million has never been found. Since Audie’s brother is suspected of being the fourth gang member, everyone assumes he’s living a life of luxury somewhere and that Audie will get his share when he gets out. So why would Audie suddenly choose to escape, just one day before he’s due to be released? It seems he has made a promise that he must keep – but there are people who want to stop him. So not only is Audie running from the law, he’s in a race to fulfil his mission before he loses his life…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

moriartyA brilliant ‘follow-on’ novel. There’s no sign of Holmes or Watson in this one but it’s set perfectly in the Holmesian world we know so well. It is the year 1891, just after Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have fought their final battle at Reichenbach Falls. Our narrator is Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton man, in Europe on the trail of a criminal mastermind, one Clarence Devereux, who he believes is responsible for killing one of his colleagues.There’s constant excitement, terrifying peril, touches of horror, brilliant descriptions of London and enough humour to keep the tone light. The writing is superb, totally within character and as good as Conan Doyle’s own. The tone feels completely right for a Holmes book and the world of the book is absolutely the one in which Holmes lived and worked. And the only word I can find for the climax is awesome! So clever I read the last part of the book with a huge grin on my face, out of sheer pleasure and admiration.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

little liesLittle Lies by Liane Moriarty (aka Big Little Lies)

Trivia Night at Pirriwee Public Primary School in New South Wales doesn’t turn out quite as planned. We learn in Chapter 1 that the evening ends with a murder, but we don’t know the victim, the murderer or the motive. We are then whisked back six months to meet the various characters and follow the events leading up to the murder. It all begins on the day the mothers bring their five-year-olds along to the Kindergarten ‘Let’s Get Ready’ Orientation Day…

I loved this book. The mothers are brilliantly observed, completely believable – people most of us have met. They each have quirks and flaws, they can be annoying, but they’re also intensely likeable – you can’t help but feel that it would be so much fun to spend time with them. The writing is great, and the author keeps a perfect balance between the serious side of the story and the humour – like in real life, she allows her characters to have both happy and sad times, rather than burying them under a blanket of angst. So nearly the winner…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

Summer HouseAs the book begins we learn that Marc is being investigated for malpractice by the Board of Medical Examiners over the death of one of his patients, successful actor Ralph Maier. As he waits to learn the outcome, Marc tells the story of how Ralph became his patient and of how their families gradually became acquainted, culminating with Marc taking his wife and two young daughters to stay with Ralph’s family in his summer house, complete with swimming pool. Sexual attraction turns the house-party into a bubbling cauldron of hidden and not-so-hidden emotions, gradually coming to a boil as we move towards the shocking incident that’s at the heart of the story. Dark, funny and thought-provoking, in the end this is as much about the diseases of the soul as of the body, the two somehow tangled together in Marc’s mind. The pacing is perfect, the writing and translation are superb, and Marc is an unforgettable monster of a character. Brilliant!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

a pleasure and a callingA Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

William Heming has always been fascinated by the lives of the people around him. Some might call him a stalker, but he wouldn’t call himself that. He just likes to find out all about people…without them knowing. So when he is given a job as an estate agent, what joy! The ability to poke and pry round other people’s houses; and better yet, to be able to copy the keys of the houses so that he can pop back when the owners are out – or even when they’re in…

If I had an award category for character of the year, Mr Heming would win hands down! This is a hugely entertaining read, both creepy and humorous. Twisty and turny all the way through, it kept me guessing right up to the end. It’s all handled with huge skill and a lot of humour so that the reader ends up completely ambivalent about the awful Mr Heming – laughing along with his wicked sense of humour even while condemning his ever-more extreme behaviour. Oh, it’s hard not to let this one win…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST CRIME FICTION/THRILLER – STANDALONE

 

 Entry_Island_JK (2)

Entry Island by Peter May

In the tiny community of Entry Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, a man has been brutally murdered. The local police don’t have the expertise to investigate such a serious crime, so the Quebec Sûreté send a team to the island. Unusually for this French-speaking province, the islanders are English-speaking, so his Scottish descent means that Detective Sime Mackenzie is included in the team to carry out interviews. But when Sime (pronounced Sheem) meets Kirsty Cowell, the wife of the victim and the chief suspect, he is struck with an unshakeable feeling that he knows her…although they have never met.

Like the Lewis Trilogy, Entry Island has a double time-line – the present day investigation set in Canada, and a historical storyline set on Lewis. May’s books are always meticulously researched with a very strong sense of place. But since he started writing about Lewis this strength has taken on an extra layer – it feels as if he is really now writing with his heart as well as his head. He spent a good deal of time on Lewis while producing a Gaelic-language drama serial, Machair, and he seems to have absorbed the landscape and the community of this remote and weather-beaten island until it has become an integral part of him. In my opinion, this is the best book May has ever written and one of the best crime novels I have read – with an authenticity and depth of emotion that reduced this sentimental lowland Scot to tears on more than one occasion. A great book and a worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

 

 

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2014

 

THE WINNER

 

Factual...
Factual…

 

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson
by S.C. Gwynne

The first time a factual book has ever been my book of the year, but this is an outstanding biography, as readable as the best fiction. Well researched and clearly structured, the book balances the history and the personal perfectly, but what really made it stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anyone to interest me in the minutiae of military campaigns, but I became absorbed by the descriptions of artillery and troop movements, supply chains and battle plans. Gwynne’s brilliance at contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the horrors of the battlefield is matched by his ability to show the contrast between Jackson’s public and private personas. If only all history were written like this – a superb book, and one that gets my highest recommendation – truly the book of the year.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * *

Thanks to all of you who’ve stuck with me through this mammoth awards feature – I may try to streamline it a bit in future years. I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Crime/Thriller Category – Books in a Series

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Crime Fiction/Thriller Category – Books in a Series.

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

THE CRITERIA

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

THE CATEGORIES

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

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Literary Fiction – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – Books in a Series

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – Standalone Novels

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

 

CRIME FICTION/THRILLERS

 

As usual, there are far more books in contention for this category, and many of them are installments in series that I follow. So, since I found it almost impossible to narrow the entries down, I’ve decided to have two sub-categories of nominees, Series and Standalones, each with a winner, and to split them over today and tomorrow. Here goes then…

BOOKS IN A SERIES

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the killThe Kill (from the Maeve Kerrigan series) by Jane Casey

When an off-duty policeman is shot dead in his car it looks at first as though the motive must be something to do with his personal life. His widow seems angry rather than grief-stricken and his daughter has some unexplained bruises. But a few days later a team of officers is attacked while out on patrol and it becomes clear that someone is targeting the police in general. But no-one knows why…or do they? This is the fifth book in the Maeve Kerrigan series and continues the high standard that Jane Casey has set herself in the last couple.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Saints of the Shadow Bible (from the Rebus series) by Ian Rankin

saints of the shadow bibleWhen the ‘double jeopardy’ law is relaxed, the Solicitor General asks Malcolm Fox to reinvestigate a case from the ’80s, one involving a young DC Rebus. Meantime, in the present day, Siobhan Clarke and Rebus are back working as a team. With the new rules on retirement age, Rebus has been taken back into CID but has had to take a downgrading to Detective Sergeant, meaning Siobhan now outranks him. They are called out to what looks at first like a straightforward road accident, but a couple of things about the scene make them suspect there may be more to it than that. A fine entry in the series that, as always, has great characterisation, a complex plot and a real insight into modern Scottish life.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the papers of tony veitchThe Papers of Tony Veitch (from the Laidlaw series) by William McIlvanney

Tony Veitch has disappeared and it seems like half the city is looking for him. Laidlaw’s one of the searchers. He knows why he’s looking for Tony – his name’s come up in connection with Eck Adamson, a drunk and down-and-out, now dead; and it seems Laidlaw’s the only man who cares. But Laidlaw doesn’t know why some of Glasgow’s hardest men seem to be wanting to find Veitch too, and the question is – who’ll find him first? Glasgow, as the sum of its people good and bad, is the character that is at the heart of the book and McIlvanney makes us weep and rejoice for it in equal measure. A love letter from a man who sees the violence and darkness of the city, but also sees it as a place of courage and heart and humour – and ultimately integrity. A great book.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

A Dark and Twisted Tide (from the Lacey Flint series) by Sharon Bolton

a dark and twisted tideAfter her recent experiences, Lacey has stepped back from her role as a detective and joined the Met’s Marine Unit, patrolling the Thames. She’s also moved to live on a houseboat moored in Deptford Creek and taken up the highly dangerous sport of river-swimming. And it’s when she’s out swimming alone one early morning that she finds the first body…

This is another excellent entry in the Lacey Flint series, with all the regulars back in fine form. By a tiny margin, not the best in the series perhaps, but still one of the best books I’ve read or expect to read this year.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST CRIME FICTION/THRILLER BOOK IN A SERIES

 

gallowglass

Gallowglass (from the Douglas Brodie series) by Gordon Ferris

Post-WW2 Glasgow. Douglas Brodie is back working at the newspaper and beginning to recover from the psychological after-effects of his recent involvement in the Nazi war-crime trials. But he still hasn’t learned how to avoid danger. So when Lady Gibson asks him for help, he finds himself unable to turn her down. Her husband, Sir Fraser Gibson, the Chairman of the Scottish Linen Bank, has been kidnapped, and Lady Gibson has decided to pay the ransom without involving the police. So Brodie sets off with a briefcase full of cash to make the rendezvous on her behalf. Needless to say, it doesn’t go according to plan..

This is the fourth and, I believe, final entry in the Douglas Brodie series, and the award is as much for the whole series as for this individual book. Now that we have all four books, we can see how Brodie’s character has changed in the few years since the end of the war – at first an all-action man, careless to a degree of his own life and others; then having to face the source of his nightmares and realise the damage that he’d suffered in the war – and finally, in this excellent last instalment, asking himself whether he can find some kind of peace and redemption, and have a future worth living. Although each works as a standalone, I would strongly suggest reading them in order to see the skilful way that Ferris develops Brodie’s character throughout. A great series, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And a very worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Tomorrow: The Standalone Award and Book of the Year 2014

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Literary Fiction

Please rise…

 

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

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

THE CRITERIA

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

THE CATEGORIES

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

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

 

LITERARY FICTION

 

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

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the roadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

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

Click to see the full review

the road2

* * * * * * * * *

Arzee the Dwarf by Chandrahas Choudhury

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

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

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the sun also risesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemigway

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

Click to see the full review

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

* * * * * * * * *

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

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

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

 

revolutionary road

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

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

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

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

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

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

kate winslet in RR

* * * * * * * * *

Two weeks today: Crime Fiction/Thrillers Award

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Genre Fiction

All stand please…

 

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

In case any of you missed them last week (or have forgotten them – you mean you don’t memorise every word I say?), a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

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

THE CATEGORIES

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

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

GENRE FICTION

 

This is a new category, created because I’ve read several things this year that don’t quite fall into any of the others. The Transwarp Tuesday! and Tuesday Terror!  features have led to me reading considerably more horror, sci-fi and fantasy than I have done for years, and I’ve also enjoyed a tiny foray into graphic novels. So, since I had to think of a catch-all title for all these bits of things, Genre Fiction it is. And I must say some of my most enjoyable reads this year have come from this new category. An almost impossible choice, especially with the ‘comparing apples with oranges’ effect of this mixed-bag category, and as I type this I’m still not totally sure who the winner will be…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the birdsThe Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

There are some true standouts in this collection of six stories, and if you don’t believe me, believe Alfred Hitchcock. As well as the title story, I loved The Apple Tree best, but the whole collection gives a great flavour of du Maurier’s style – rarely overtly supernatural and using elements of nature to great effect in building atmospheres filled with tension. From mountains to lakes, bright summer to freezing winter, frightening trees to terrifying birds, nothing can be taken at face value in du Maurier’s world. And her trademark ambiguity leaves room for the reader to incorporate her own fears between the lines of the stories – truly chilling.

Click to see the full review

the birds

* * * * * * * * *

p&p mangaPride and Prejudice (Manga Classics) by Jane Austen adapted by Stacy King

This is an utterly charming, witty and affectionate adaptation with some really fabulous artwork by Po Tse, (who is apparently a manga-ka, whatever that might be). Apart from the cover all the artwork is black and white, which apparently is the norm for manga, but this really doesn’t detract from the enjoyment. Most of the social commentary has been thrown out, but all the fun and romance of the original has been retained – enhanced, even – by the great marrying together of the original text with a beautifully modern outlook. I can see how this adaptation might annoy Austen purists (and you know that usually includes me). But this is done with such skill and warmth that it completely won me over. I adored it and I’m not alone, it seems – the book is through to the semi-finals in the Best Graphic Novels and Comics category of the Goodreads Choice Awards 2014 (not quite as prestigious as the FF Awards, but not bad…)

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

p&p manga 1

* * * * * * * * *

the martian 2The Martian by Andy Weir

After an accident during a dust storm, Mark Watney finds himself alone on Mars. His colleagues in the Ares 3 expedition believed he was dead and were forced to evacuate the planet while they still could, leaving him to survive alone until a rescue attempt can be made. This is a fantastic adventure story set in the near future. It only just scrapes into the sci-fi category since all the science and equipment is pretty much stuff that’s available now – and though it’s chock full of science and technology, it’s presented in a way that makes it not just interesting but fun. Mark is a hero of the old school – he just decides to get on with things and doesn’t waste time angsting or philosophising. And he’s got a great sense of humour which keeps the whole thing deliciously light-hearted. It reminded me of the way old-time adventure stories were written – the Challenger books or the Quatermain stories mixed with a generous dash of HG Wells – but brought bang up to date in terms of language and setting. Superb entertainment!

Click to see the full review

mars and earth

* * * * * * * * *

a princess of marsA Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Our hero John Carter is transported to Barsoom (Mars) and must save not only his own life but his beloved Princess, Dejah Thoris. A surprise hit – I truly expected to dislike this and ended up enjoying it so much I went on to read the first sequel and watch the movie. And I suspect I’ll be reading the later sequels too sometime. It’s silly beyond belief and, even making allowances for the fact that it was written in 1911, the ‘science’ aspects are…unique! But it’s hugely imaginative and a great old-fashioned heroic adventure yarn, from the days when men were men and damsels were perpetually in distress. The action never lets up from beginning to end, from one-to-one fights to the death, attacks by killer white apes, all the way up to full-scale wars complete with flying ships and half-crazed (eight-limbed) thoats. Great escapist fantasy, with action, humour and a little bit of romance – plus Woola the Calot! What more could a girl want? (And see? I didn’t even mention the naked people… 😉 )

Click to see the full review

a princess art2

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

 

the truth is a cave

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

 

You ask me if I can forgive myself?

I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter…

So starts this dark tale of a journey, a quest into the Black Mountains to find a cave – to find the truth. Our narrator is a small man, a dwarf, but he’s strong and he’s driven; by what, we don’t yet know but we feel a slow anger in him, an undiminished determination despite his ten year search for the object of his obsession. As we meet him, he is about to hire a guide, Calum MacInnes, to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle which is reputed to be filled with gold…

This book is nothing less than stunning. Gaiman’s wonderfully dark story is equalled and enhanced by the amazingly atmospheric illustrations of Eddie Campbell. The two elements – words and pictures – are completely entwined. There’s no feeling of the one being an addition to the other – each is essential and together they form something magical. The story is by turns moving, mystical, dramatic, frightening; and the illustrations, many of them done in very dark colours, create a sense of mirky gloom and growing apprehension. Words, pictures and production values of the hardback combine to make this a dark and beautiful read – a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

DSCN0545

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Literary Fiction Award

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Factual

Drum roll please…

 

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

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 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories have changed slightly since last year to better reflect what I’ve been reading this year.

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

Factual

Genre Fiction

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

 

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

FACTUAL

 

Last year, I split my factual reads into two categories – Science/Nature/Environment and History/Biography/Politics. This year I’ve read lots of history and politics, but very little popular science, so I’ve gone for a single category of Factual. This category contains many of the books I’ve enjoyed most throughout the year. It’s a Golden Age for factual writing at the moment – both quantity and quality. Which means that the choice has been a very difficult one indeed…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the cave and the lightThe Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilisation by Arthur Herman

In this comprehensive view of the last 2,500 years, Arthur Herman sets out to prove his contention that the history of Western civilisation has been influenced and affected through the centuries by the tension between the worldviews of the two greatest of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy, politics, religion and science are all discussed,, showing how they linked and overlapped to influence the major periods and events of Western history – the fall of Greek civilisation, the Roman Empire, the birth and rise of Christianity, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Revolution and on past the rise of totalitarianism to the end of the Cold War. Phew! And yet, Herman’s writing style makes the book very accessible to the non-academic reader. Not the lightest read in the world, but great for anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals and history of Western philosophy.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

When Chicago won the right to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, there was much sneering from the snobbish elite of New York and elsewhere at the idea of this brash, dirty city, best known as the home of slaughterhouses and pork-packing factories, being able to put on a show that would impress the world. However, brash though Chicago may have been, it was also filled with go-getters and entrepreneurs, tough businessmen with determination, drive and, most of all, massive amounts of civic pride. This is the story of how those men turned an impossible dream into an astonishing reality – the building of the White City and the Chicago World’s Fair. And it’s also the story of how one man took advantage of the huge numbers of people coming into Chicago because of the Fair to indulge his psychopathic tendencies – the serial killer HH Holmes. A fascinating story very well told, I found this a totally absorbing read, written so well that it read like a novel complete with drama and tension.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

roy jenkins2Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

An affectionate and well-researched biography of one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins’ life in the context of the times at all stages thus also giving us a look at the wider political context. Jenkins did indeed live a well-rounded life – he was not just a highly successful politician but a very well-regarded biographer in his own right, of political figures such as Asquith and Churchill. But he also enjoyed the social side of life, never allowing the pressures of his various roles to get in the way of the more hedonistic side of his nature. This huge book is well written and structured so that, despite its size, it is a flowing and accessible read. An excellent biography that does its subject full justice.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the scottish enlightenmentThe Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

Yes, two books from Arthur Herman made the runners-up list. I don’t think I’ve read a factual book about Scotland in the last year that hasn’t referenced this one. And not surprisingly – not only is it an excellently written history, it’s also extremely flattering about the Scots. Even our First Minister, Alex Salmond, was plugging it during the Independence debate. Although there are a few chapters in this book dedicated to explaining the ideas of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the bulk of the book is an examination of how those ideas spread via the Scottish diaspora, and changed not just Scotland or the UK but, in Herman’s view, the Western world. As accessible as The Cave and the Light (but considerably shorter), this book is certainly not just for Scots – in fact, there’s as much in it about the founding of America as about Scotland. A fascinating and enjoyable read.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST FACTUAL

 

rebel yell

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne

I can’t remember ever enjoying a biography more than this one. Well researched and clearly structured, the book balances the history and the personal perfectly, but what really made it stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anyone to interest me in the minutiae of military campaigns, but I became absorbed by the descriptions of artillery and troop movements, supply chains and battle plans. Gwynne’s brilliance at contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the horrors of the battlefield is matched by his ability to show the contrast between Jackson’s public and private personas. If only all history were written like this – a superb book, and a worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Genre Fiction Award

FictionFan Shadow Booker Award 2013

And the prize goes to…

 

It has taken six months but I’ve finally finished reading the 2013 Booker shortlist – a mammoth task, not made easier by the current fashion for ridiculously long books. The final part of the task is to decide whether I agree with the judges’ choice of winner. So here’s a brief summary of what I thought of the books – click on the book title if you’d like to read any of the full reviews.

Just for fun (and hopefully to provoke a bit of controversy), I’ve put the books in reverse order…

* * * * * * * * *

Shouldn’t have been shortlisted…

 

the lowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

Lahiri’s strange choice to leave the interesting character and storyline of Udayan and the Naxalbari at an early point in the book, and instead follow the dull-to-the-point-of tears Subhash and Gauri to the States for (yet) another look at the ‘immigrant experience’, combined with her lacklustre writing and lifeless characterisation, led this to being the only one of the shortlist that I really wouldn’t recommend at all. So, for the FF Shadow Booker Award, it’s been removed and replaced.

* * * * * * * * *

6th and last place

 

a tale for the time beingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

 

The quality of writing and storytelling shown in the part of this book that deals with the young Japanese girl Nao is in stark contrast to the clumsiness and dullness of the portion relating to the author’s namesake (and alter-ego?) Ruth. Add in copious and unnecessary footnotes, daft little drawings and the silliest descent into quantum-mechanical quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo at the end and you have a book that could have been great…but isn’t. (Perhaps it’s great in a parallel universe, though…)

* * * * * * * * *

5th place

 

HarvestHarvest by Jim Crace

 

With poetic, often lyrical writing, Crace’s book brilliantly evokes a rural society on the cusp of overwhelming changes as landlords begin to enclose land for sheep-farming. Unfortunately the narrative voice is somewhat unconvincing and the story falls away badly in the last third of the book. Well worth reading, and worthy of its shortlisting, but just fails to be great.

* * * * * * * * *

4th place

 

Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

 

The strongest and most beautiful piece of writing on the shortlist, this short novella punches well above its weight and will undoubtedly be the book I remember most vividly. But…it’s far too short to be considered a novel, and for that reason, regardless of how much I loved it, I remain surprised that it was shortlisted and can’t bring myself to think that it should have won. However, it comes with my highest recommendation of all the books – if you haven’t read this one, you should.

* * * * * * * * *

3rd place

 

burial ritesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent

 

This book should have been shortlisted in place of The Lowland. A haunting and heartbreaking debut, this fictionalised account of a true story shows a confidence and assurance rarely matched by even the most experienced writers. Kent conveys brilliantly the harsh Icelandic environment, the relentless struggle of the inhabitants, the constant threat of extreme weather; and her use of language is skilled and often poetic. The omission of this one in favour of The Lowland shows that sometimes more account is given to an author’s name and reputation than to the actual quality of the novel.

* * * * * * * * *

2nd place

 

we need new namesWe Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

 

There are significant weaknesses in this book – firstly, the ticklist of horrors that Bulawayo seems to be working through in both Zimbabwe and the US, and secondly, the weakness of the second half in comparison to the first. However these are massively outweighed by the positives – the freshness of the writing, the characterisation of Darling (who has joined my list of unforgettables) and most of all, the beautiful chapter in the heart of the book that reads like a prose poem as it describes the exodus of a generation from their troubled homeland. This book has gained a permanent place in my heart and the decision not to name it as my winner has been a hard one indeed…

* * * * * * * * *

1st place and…

Winner of the FictionFan Shadow Booker Award 2013!

 

the luminaries blueThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

 

Yes, I believe the judges got it right! (I bet they’re sighing with relief!) Intelligent, original, and wonderfully crafted, Catton’s structural game-playing doesn’t prevent this from being first and foremost a great read. The only one of the books apart from The Testament of Mary in which the highest standards are maintained all the way through, The Luminaries does what any great book must do – it teaches us something we didn’t know and sheds some light on that nebulous thing we call the ‘human condition’. Despite its ridiculous length, I can envisage re-reading this book more than once and gaining something new each time. A worthy winner!

* * * * * * * * *

 

Overall I enjoyed the books and the challenge of reading them all, but I suspect it will be a one-off experience, especially since, by allowing American authors to participate, the Booker has thrown away the thing that made it unique amongst literary prizes – its deep ties to the Commonwealth. (I shudder at the thought of The Goldfinch winning in 2014…)

* * * * * * * * *

Now…let the controversy begin…

 

(puts on some music and steps out of the way of hordes of irate Lady Fancifulls…)

 

FictionFan Awards 2013 – Crime/Thriller Category and Book of the Year 2013

A round of applause please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2013 in the Crime/Thriller Category.

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

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2012 and October 2013 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

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

History/Biography/Politics – click to see awards

Literary/Contemporary Fiction – click to see awards

Science/Nature/Environment – click to see awards

Crime/Thriller

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2013

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

CRIME/THRILLER

 

This turned out to be an almost impossible category. While there was a clear winner, there were so many contenders for runners-up that in the end I’ve had to include 6 honourable mentions. And because the choice was so hard, I’ve also decided to list the nominees that didn’t make quite make it into the final list. All of these books were great reads, and I look forward to seeing where the authors take us in the future.

NOMINEES

 * * * * * * * * *

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Pilgrim Soul (Douglas Brodie 3) by Gordon Ferris

pilgrim soulThe first two novels in the Douglas Brodie series were very good noir thrillers – fast-paced, explosive and full of black humour. This one is very different and takes the Brodie series to another and much darker level.

Brodie is asked to investigate a spate of burglaries in Glasgow’s post-war Jewish community. But when the burglar is found murdered it gradually becomes clear that there is a connection that leads back to the horrors of the concentration camps – horrors that Brodie has been trying to forget since his role as interrogator of war criminals after the war.

 Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Like This, For Ever (Lacey Flint 3) by SJ Bolton

Llike this for everacey Flint’s third outing shows Bolton at her best – inventive plotting, great characterisation, plenty of humour, much of it black, and a sense of tension that builds throughout to a thrillingly dramatic climax.

The book starts with the discovery of the body of twins under Tower Bridge, the most recent victims of a serial killer who steals young boys and cuts their throats. The MIT squad, still led by Dana Tulloch, is getting nowhere fast – these murders don’t fall into the normal pattern as there’s no sign of a sexual angle. Dana and the squad are already feeling the pressure and it’s going to get worse…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Chessmen (Lewis Trilogy 3) by Peter May

The ChessmenThis third part of Peter May’s Lewis trilogy is stunningly good. As a long-standing enthusiast for May’s work, I believe these three books are by far his best work*, and this last one may even be the best of the three. (*That is, until I read his new one, Entry Island, which is better yet…)

May’s descriptive prose and sense of place are, as always, wonderful. The bleakness and yet beauty of this harsh weather-beaten landscape, the way of life and traditions of the islanders, the still strong grip of the ultra-conservative Church – all of these are woven seamlessly through the story. And the story once again is focused on shadows of the past coming back to haunt the present.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Stranger You Know (Maeve Kerrigan 4) by Jane Casey

the stranger you knowOne murder might be a one-off, two might be a coincidence, but a third means there’s a serial killer at work. Maeve Kerrigan is assigned to the investigating team and is shocked to discover that the chief suspect is Josh Derwent, her colleague and boss. OK, he’s an unreconstructed male chauvinist pig, he’s a bully and a womaniser but…a murderer? Maeve can’t believe it. At least, she almost can’t believe it – but this murderer is plausible, he gains the trust of his victims and his psychological profile does sound an awful lot like Derwent…and it seems this isn’t the first time he’s been a murder suspect…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

RubberneckerPatrick is a young man with a mission – to find out the meaning of death. And having Asperger’s Syndrome means that he takes his mission to extremes. When he signs up for a course in anatomy, his team is tasked with dissecting cadaver Number 19 to see if they can spot the cause of death. Meantime, elsewhere in the hospital, Sam is in a coma, but although he can’t wake up he can see and hear what’s going on around him and it’s not all good. But Sam is gradually coming back and is desperate to regain the ability to speak…

Grisly, macabre and in places gloriously blackly funny, this book is a compulsive read. It may be a cliché, but I really couldn’t put it down.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial ritesHaunting and heartbreaking, this is the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to die for her part in the murder of two men, one her lover. While waiting for the date of execution to be set, Agnes is put into the custody of Jón and Margrét Jónsson and, at Agnes’ request, a young priest, Reverend Tóti, is given the task of preparing Agnes spiritually for her death. At first the family are horrified to have a murderess amongst them, Margrét fearing for the safety and moral well-being of her own two daughters Lauga and Steina, while Tóti doubts his own experience and ability to help Agnes find some kind of repentance and acceptance. But as summer fades into the long, harsh winter, Agnes gradually breaks her silence and begins to reveal her story of what led to that night…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2013

laidlaw

 

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

“Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park. It was the sententious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw. It was Milligan, insensitive as a mobile slab of cement, and Mrs Lawson, witless with hurt. It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat.”

When Jennifer Lawson’s body is found in Kelvingrove Park, it falls to Laidlaw and his colleague Harkness to find the man who raped her and beat her to death. But they’re not alone in the search. Jennifer’s father, Bud Lawson, wants to get there first, to mete out his own form of justice. And both Lawson and the killer have contacts in the city’s underworld – men for whom violence replaces judge and jury. So the race is on…

McIlvanney’s Glasgow is a bleak place, with violence never far beneath the surface, fuelled by drink and prejudice. A place of contradictions, where love exists but doesn’t flourish, where loyalty is a product of fear and betrayal is met with uncompromising brutality. Laidlaw is our everyman, our observer – a player, yes, and a flawed one, but with an understanding of humanity that allows him to look beyond events to their causes, and to empathise where others condemn.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

And finally…

the winner of the

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2013

 

fallen land 2

(And if you’re surprised by that, then you really haven’t been paying attention… 😉 )

In this extraordinary book, Patrick Flanery delves deep into the troubled American psyche in the post 9/11, post global crash world where the tectonic plates of certainty and complacency have shifted with volcanic and destructive results. A disturbing psychological thriller, this works just as well as a metaphor for a society where love and trust have been overwhelmed by suspicion and fear. Flanery’s prose is wonderful and the characters he has crafted are complex and compelling, each damaged by history and experience and each inspiring empathy in the reader. He develops them slowly, letting us see the influences, both personal and political, that have made them what they are. This was the first book I blogged about – indeed, the book that inspired me to blog, in an attempt to spread the word about Flanery. His first book, Absolution, was my FF Award Winner in 2012 and this year he has achieved the double with Fallen Land. What next from this exciting and talented author? Who knows, but I can’t wait to find out…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks to all for joining my reading journey this year and, with your help, I look forward to finding some more great books in the year to come.

FictionFan Awards 2013 – Science/Nature/Environment

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2013 in the Science/Nature/Environment Category.

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

THE CRITERIA

 

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2012 and October 2013 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

 

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

History/Biography/Politics – click to see awards

Literary/Contemporary Fiction – click to see awards

Science/Nature/Environment

Crime/Thriller

…and…

Book of the Year 2013

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

 

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

SCIENCE/NATURE/ENVIRONMENT

 

Wow! What a great year in this category! Each of the books below could easily have won, and my choice in the end is based purely on the one that added most to my limited knowledge of science while entertaining me thoroughly. But I’ll be keeping an eagle eye out for all of these authors, who have brought me so much pleasure over the year…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

Dreams of Other Worlds by Chris Impey and Holly Henry

 

dreams of other worldsDescribing the search for the conditions for life on planets within our solar system and beyond, this hugely enjoyable book takes us through eleven space missions over the last 40 years or so, then looks towards the future. From planetary missions like Rover and Voyager to observational missions such as Hubble and WMAP, the authors give us an insight into how the gathering of information from these missions has been used to confirm or alter current scientific theories. The authors also show the impact of these missions on popular culture – and vice versa. For those with a geeky soul – but scientific knowledge is not needed to appreciate this inspiring and well written book.

The gravity of Wild 2 is so weak you would literally be as light as a feather. A small push and you could escape your world and sail into deep space. And think of the glittering minerals – a hoard magnificent enough to power all the dreams ever dreamed.’

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot

 

feralGeorge Monbiot fired my imagination and enthusiasm with his ambitious proposal to turn parts of our countryside over to true wilderness and reintroduce some of the top predators we have hunted locally to extinction. At last it seems that some of our most prominent environmentalists are combining common-sense and optimism to come up with ideas that could radically alter how we see conservation, making it a positive thing. As he says

‘Environmentalism in the twentieth century foresaw a silent spring, in which the further degradation of the biosphere seemed inevitable. Rewilding offers the hope of a raucous summer, in which, in some parts of the world at least, destructive processes are thrown into reverse.’

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Cosmic View of Albert Einstein: Writings on Art, Science, and Peace edited by Walt Martin and Magda Ott

 

the cosmic view of albert einsteinThe thoughts of one of the world’s greatest scientists, but not specifically on science. This book combines some of Einstein’s writings on pacifism, religion and the social responsibility of scientists with the most stunning pictures of the universe he did so much to explain. In this book we see Einstein’s spiritual and intellectual self, as important to him as the scientific. The illustrations are lavish and superb, and the book is beautifully produced, with carefully selected fonts and gorgeous quality paper.  One to be enjoyed as much for its physical beauty as its content, there is rightly no Kindle version available. A joy to possess.

“Whatever there is of God and goodness in the universe, it must work itself out and express itself through us. We cannot stand aside and let God do it.”

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Kingdom of Rarities by Eric Dinerstein

 

Kingdom of RaritiesThis book took me on a joyous jaunt round the world in the company of some amazing creatures and a guide whose enthusiasm and love for his work shines through every word. A storyteller of extraordinary skill, Dinerstein could make the smallest, greyest rodent fascinating if he chose. But since he has a world full of rare species to tell us about, instead we are treated to tales of the golden-fronted bowerbird, the scarlet minivet, the red panda, the jaguar, Mrs Gould’s sunbird…

There is a serious purpose to this book: to look at why rare species are rare and to determine what intervention is required to conserve them and their habitats. But it’s all done with a sense of optimism that left me enthused and heartened to know that the future of the world’s rarities is in the best of hands.

Mrs Gould's Sunbird
Mrs Gould’s Sunbird

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2013

Gravity's Engines

 

Gravity’s Engines: The Other Side of Black Holes by Caleb Scharf

 

‘What I’d like you to take away from Gravity’s Engines is both a sense of the cosmic grandeur we have discovered and a feel for the great scope and ingenuity of human ideas at play.’

Black holes – the most mysterious and perhaps the most terrifying objects in the universe. Scharf takes us on a journey through space and time from the earliest observable point to explain the impact that black holes have on the formation of galaxies, stars and perhaps even of life on earth itself. Along the way he tells us the history of science that has brought us to our current understanding of the cosmos. There is a good deal of science in this book, but on the whole Scharf manages to simplify it to a level where it’s accessible to the layman by clever use of analogy – I’ve never come closer to getting my head round relativity. His boundless enthusiasm for his subject makes this an exhilarating journey and a truly inspiring read.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Crime/Thriller Award

FictionFan Awards 2013 – Literary/Contemporary Fiction

All stand please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2013 in the Literary/Contemporary Fiction Category.

In case any of you missed them last week (or have forgotten them – you mean you don’t memorise every word I say?), a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2012 and October 2013 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

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

History/Biography/Politics – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

Science/Nature/Environment

Crime/Thriller

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2013

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

LITERARY/CONTEMPORARY FICTION

 

This was an almost impossible choice – the year started with a bang and, quite frankly, ended with a whimper. So many pretentious and/or tedious reads by self-indulgent established authors that I’m considering a new award category of Books to Put Under the Shoogly Table Leg. But against that dull background, a few shone all the more brightly…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

telegraph avenueBased around a vinyl-record shop in Oakland, California, this is a story of people coping with change. Strongly character-driven, full of warmth and humour, Chabon creates a vivid and exuberant world that is a delight to spend time in. Watch out for the soaring 11-page tour-de-force sentence in the middle of the book – a technical (and possibly artistic) marvel. Brilliantly written and flamboyantly entertaining, the sheer joy of watching this master wordsmith ply his trade outweighs the underlying lack of substance.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

we have always lived in the castleThis is a deliciously wicked little book that turns the traditional witchy story on its head. Merricat lives with her sister and uncle – all that’s left of her family after a mass poisoning. Everyone believes Merricat’s sister Constance to be guilty, and the little family is shunned by the villagers. But they live quite contentedly in their isolation…until Cousin Charles comes to visit, bringing the harsh reality of the outside world with him. Twisty and clever, Jackson’s superb writing hides the darkness at the heart of the story until it’s too late for the reader to escape. Merricat may haunt your dreams…or your nightmares…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

VERY, VERY, VERY HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

and the mountains echoedWithin the first few pages of this book, the reader knows s/he’s in the hands of a master storyteller. In a village in rural Afghanistan, mid 1940s, a father tells a folk tale to his two young children. On the next day, they will travel to Kabul and start a chain of events that will take the reader on a journey across the world and through the decades. A beautiful and emotional book, peopled with unforgettable characters, this is told almost as a series of short stories, each concentrating on one person’s tale; but Hosseini brings us round in a perfect circle and the last few chapters bring all these disparate episodes into one immensely moving whole.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Equilateral by Ken Kalfus

EquilateralThis shortish novel took me completely by surprise with its scope and deceptive simplicity, and left me breathless. Not a word is wasted or misplaced as Kalfus plays with early science fiction, empire and colonialism, and the arrogance of science. Sly and subtle humour runs throughout, as our Victorian hero sets out to signal man’s existence to the technologically advanced Martians by building a giant equilateral triangle in the Egyptian desert and setting it ablaze. Superbly written, the prose is pared back to the bone with every word precisely placed to create an atmospheric, sometimes poetic, and entirely absorbing narrative. This book left me gasping and grinning, and I still can’t think of it without smiling. In any other year, it would have been an outright winner…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2013

 

fallen land 2

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

 

In this extraordinary book, Patrick Flanery delves deep into the troubled American psyche in the post 9/11, post global crash world where the tectonic plates of certainty and complacency have shifted with volcanic and destructive results. A disturbing psychological thriller, this works just as well as a metaphor for a society where love and trust have been overwhelmed by suspicion and fear. Flanery’s prose is wonderful and the characters he has crafted are complex and compelling, each damaged by history and experience and each inspiring empathy in the reader. He develops them slowly, letting us see the influences, both personal and political, that have made them what they are. This was the first book I blogged about – indeed, the book that inspired me to blog, in an attempt to spread the word about Flanery. His first book, Absolution, was my FF Award Winner in 2012 and this year he has achieved the double with Fallen Land. What next from this exciting and talented author? Who knows, but I can’t wait to find out…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Science/Nature/Environment Award

FictionFan Awards 2013 – History/Biography/Politics

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2013.

What, I hear you all asking breathlessly, are the FictionFan Awards? (Oh, you didn’t ask? Never mind, I’ll tell you anyway…)

THE CRITERIA

 

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2012 and October 2013 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

 

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

History/Biography/Politics

Crime/Thriller

Science/Nature/Environment

Literary Fiction

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2013

 

THE PRIZES

 

For the winners!

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

HISTORY/BIOGRAPHY/POLITICS

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

live from downing streetLive from Downing Street: The Inside Story of Politics, Power and the Media by Nick Robinson

The BBC’s own Political Editor tells the history of the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the press, from its earliest days through to the end of the Gordon Brown era. A fascinating and very readable account given added interest by Robinson’s own involvement in the media over the last couple of decades. He gives a thoughtful analysis of the BBC’s reputation for unbiased reporting and argues that bias may become unavoidable in the internet era. The later parts of the book have an introspective air about them, as Robinson seems to re-assess some of his own actions throughout his career.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the war that ended peaceThe War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

A thoughtful, well-balanced and detailed account of the decades prior to the First World War, showing the fears and power-plays that led to a devastating war that nobody wanted. A very accessible book that focuses on the individuals involved as much as the nations, and tells us not just about the politics, but also how both military planning and public opinion impacted on the drive towards war. A salutary reminder that peace can’t be taken for granted.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the men who lost americaThe Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

Scholarly but accessible, this book looks at the inevitability or otherwise of Britain’s loss in the American War of Independence. O’Shaughnessy introduces us to each of the British commanders and politicians (including George III) who were in charge of the running of the war, and argues that in most cases they don’t deserve the opprobrium heaped on their individual heads. Well written, informative and enjoyable, the book tells as much about the military and naval campaigns as it does about the politics.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

wealth and powerWealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century by Orville Schell and John Delury

An absolutely fascinating book that takes an in-depth look at the psyche of China through the words and writings of its leading thinkers. Starting from the mid-19th century and bringing us up to the present day, the authors show how the encroachment of the Western empires and defeats at the hands of enemies within and without led, not just to the fall of the empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, but to the creation of a national mind-set that has kept the aim of achieving ‘wealth and power’ at the heart of Chinese politics ever since. Illuminating and thought-provoking, this explains (without justifying) some of the excesses carried out as China sought to regain her position as a world power.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2013

 

Unfinished Empire

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin

In this immensely interesting book, Darwin covers the last 500 years of history to show how the British Empire grew to its enormous size and then gradually contracted in the late-19th and 20th centuries. He does this by breaking the huge subject down into a series of themed chapters that makes it approachable and easy to follow. He shows how similarities and differences in the approach to controlling the empire depended on local circumstances; and gives a very clear picture of the global and historical context, placing the British Empire as one of a line of empires that have risen and fallen throughout history. In fact, while obviously the book is primarily about the British Empire, its scope and clarity of presentation made me feel almost as if I were reading a history of the world over the last half-millennium.

In what has been a great year for histories, biographies and political books, this one stands out because of its sheer scope and Darwin’s ability to present a vast amount of information in a way that made it accessible and enjoyable.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Literary Fiction Award