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

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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

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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

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

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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

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

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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

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resurrection scienceResurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor

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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

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST FACTUAL

 

john knox

John Knox by Jane Dawson

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

Wha daur meddle wi’ me…

😡 😡 😡 😡 😡

“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.”

laidlawWhen 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.

Set in the late 1970s, this is the Glasgow of my youth and I found it reeked of authenticity. The language, the attitudes, the hard-drinking culture centred around the city’s pubs, the humour and bravado that defended against the ever-present threat of violence – all more extreme in the book (since I didn’t mingle too much with the underworld!) but all very recognisable. And, sad to say, the sectarianism and homophobia were as present and as open in the real world as in the book.*

“Across the street the door of the Corn Exchange opened suddenly and a small man popped out onto the pavement, as if the pub had rifted. He foundered in a way that suggested fresh air wasn’t his element and at once Harkness saw that he was beyond what his father called the pint of no return.”

William McIlvanney
William McIlvanney

The characterisation throughout the book is particularly strong, each character as believable as the next. Though there’s an air of menace throughout, there are only a couple of graphically violent episodes and they are all the more shocking for their rarity. Fear runs through the book and, as with all the best crime fiction, moral certainties become blurred round the edges. McIlvanney’s use of language is brilliant – the Glaswegian dialect is completely authentic, and I particularly enjoyed how Laidlaw slips between educated English and dialect depending on whom he’s speaking to. I now fully understand why this book is considered the progenitor of the Tartan Noir genre – I can see it’s influence on so many of the current crop of Scottish crime writers, not to mention the early Taggart series – and I’m duly ashamed that it took me so long to get around to reading it. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate, via NetGalley.

* * * * *

*Before Visit Scotland sues me, I’d just like to point out that Glasgow has changed now and is a wonderful, sophisticated place full of welcoming, warm-hearted, friendly and non-violent people!! Honest!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

last-man-in-towerUK300When a community divides…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Sometimes a book is so good it’s hard to do justice to it in a review. This is one of those books.

As the Vakola area of Bombay (as the author usually calls it) begins to come up in the world, the inhabitants of an apartment block are offered money by a developer to move out. One man, Masterji, a retired teacher, wants to stay. This is the story of how the promise of wealth changes and corrupts a community. But it’s also so much more than that. The author takes us into the lives of Masterji and his neighbours, letting us see their thoughts and dreams and fears. With humanity and humour he paints a picture of the friendships, favours and shared histories that bind a community together; and then shows how small envies and old grievances are magnified when that community is divided.

Bombay itself is a major character in the book. There is a real sense of how the city is changing as India becomes richer. The contrasts between the lucky rich and the frightening hand-to-mouth existence of the very poor are woven into the story, but subtly, so that the reader accepts these contrasts as easily as the inhabitants. The author also highlights the cosmopolitan nature of the city, the differing religions and cultures all forming one vibrant whole.

Aravind Adiga (www.bbc.co.uk)
Aravind Adiga
(www.bbc.co.uk)

This book made me laugh and cry. It is full of warmth and the characters are drawn sympathetically and affectionately. In many ways an intimate portrait of a small group of people, but also an in-depth look at the strengths and frailties of human nature. By a long way, this was my favourite book of 2011 and winner of that year’s FictionFan Award, the prize for which, as regular readers may know, is that I guarantee to read the author’s next book. I’m still waiting, Mr Adiga!

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Dark and Broken Heart by RJ Ellory

a dark and broken heartThrilling Noir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This was the winner of the FictionFan Award* for Best Noir Thriller of 2012. Fabulously well written, dark and twisted, the reader is carried into Vincent Madigan’s life as he struggles to find a way out of the tangled and dangerous mess he has made of his life.

An anti-hero of epic proportions, we know from the beginning that he is surely irredeemably bad. No-one could be forgiven for the crimes he has committed, the vicious things he has done. And yet…and yet, as we get to know him, we find empathy for him as the author brilliantly plays with questions of morality and ethics. Madigan makes no excuses for himself; he accepts responsibility for every criminal and violent act he has committed, blames himself for the break-ups of his marriages and for losing touch with his children. But inside this man beats the dark and broken heart of the title and the reader – at least, this reader – can’t help but see the good man he might so easily have been…and might still be. The author manipulates the reader so skilfully that I was left uneasy at how much I wanted Madigan to win through despite knowing his history. It reminded me a bit of how I felt about the awful but oddly likeable Patrick of American Psycho, but where that was blackly comic, this is true thrilling noir.

RJ Ellory(source: telegraph.co.uk)
RJ Ellory
(source: telegraph.co.uk)

I have deliberately not given a synopsis of the plot since it is so complex and has so many twists that I fear even a simple outline could lead to unintentional spoilers. But after the first couple of violent chapters, the reader is blasted by the first breath-taking twist and from there on is swept into an ever-shifting, ever more threatening world where good and bad become so blurred that they are eventually almost impossible to tell apart. This is a superbly told and completely compelling roller coaster of a story – bleak, often violent, but never without the possibility of redemption.
Highly recommended.

*The prize for the prestigious FictionFan Award is that I guarantee to read the author’s next book 🙂 – which in this case apparently will be The Devil and the River due to be published in June 2013. Can’t wait!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Absolution by Patrick Flanery

Wonderfully complex and beautifully written…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

absolutionI noticed last night that the Kindle version of Absolution is currently available for £0.99 ($1.51 in US) so that seemed like a good prompt to post my review. This was the winner of the FictionFan Book of 2012 (a prestigious award – the prize being that I guarantee to read the author’s next book!) and although it was critically acclaimed it never got the readership I believe it deserves. Flanery’s new one, Fallen Land, is due out on 1st May and, having been lucky enough to get an advance copy from the publishers, I was blown away by it – certainly the best book I’ve read this decade. (For my review click here.)

So here’s my original review of Absolution – all this for 99p…and still time to read it before the new one comes out!

This wonderfully written book is so complex it’s hard to give a full flavour of it in a short review. As Clare Wald, famous South African novelist, gives a series of interviews to her biographer, Sam Leroux, she begins a journey through her memories, re-assessing the part she has played in the lives of those around her. She is also writing an autobiographical fiction and we see all the different threads as we, like Clare, try to find the truth amidst the invention.

Clare’s story, and Sam’s, is told against the background of the role and position of the white South Africans during and after the struggle against apartheid. It is a search for truth that shows how memories are distorted and conflicting, how it is hard to distinguish whether motives are personal or political. The fear felt by the white community, whether real or exaggerated, pulses through the book allowing the author to examine questions of suspicion and trust.

As Clare and Sam search for their own redemption, the author has them echo the theme of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings designed to allow South Africa to face its past and look forward to its future. With the white South African regime having been one of the ogres of my youth, I was amazed at the way the author made me feel both sympathy and empathy for the white people caught up in these events. But this book isn’t just about South Africa – the emotions and motivations of these characters are universal.

This is a wonderful book, all the more remarkable since it is the author’s first. Assured, beautifully written and shocking in parts, it has left me with images that will stay with me for a long time. Sorrowful, filled with guilt and cruelty but echoing with hope, much like South Africa itself – in my opinion, this will be in the running for best book of 2012. Highly recommended.

Patrick Flanery(source:patrickflanery.com)
Patrick Flanery
(source:patrickflanery.com)

If you do read it, or if you already have, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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

Gravity's Engines42

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

‘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.’

So says Caleb Scharf in his introduction to this very accessible account of the current thinking on black holes, how they formed and the effect they have on the universe.

Scharf starts with the stirring story of photons journeying across space and time bringing with them the information that scientists are using to reveal the answers to the questions of how the universe works. He then takes us back to the earliest days of scientific enquiry describing some of the people, experiments and discoveries that have led, stage by stage, to our current understanding of the impact that black holes have on the formation of galaxies, stars and perhaps even of life on earth itself.

nasa image
nasa image
As someone with zero scientific education and knowledge, I found on the whole that Scharf’s use of analogy made the complex concepts relatively(!) easy to follow, while his style of writing and boundless enthusiasm made this a fascinating and enjoyable read. There were parts where he nearly lost me, when he explained some of the science around the more difficult theories, but without in any way ‘dumbing down’ he managed to clarify and simplify things enough to allow me to follow him on this exhilarating journey.

Caleb Scharf
Caleb Scharf

Perhaps not the complete answer to life, the universe and everything but a pretty good stab at it; and, as Scharf intended, I am left in awe of these massive and mysterious ‘dark stars’ and of the scientists who have gone so far towards understanding and explaining them. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.
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Amazon UK Link
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Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin

Accessible, edifying and enjoyable…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Unfinished Empire3For the non-academic reader, any history book has to be first and foremost readable and this one most certainly is. Darwin has taken the huge subject of the British Empire and broken it down into a series of themed chapters that makes it accessible and enjoyable reading. For example, one chapter is devoted to Traffic and Trade, while another discusses Ruling Methods. This method allows Darwin to show how similarities and differences in the approach to controlling the empire depended on local circumstances; and to give 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 500 years.

British EmpireDarwin tries successfully on the whole to maintain a neutral stance on the ethics of empire; if he is taking a position at all, it is that the empire was so differentiated and came about for such complex historical reasons that to argue that it was in some way an evil aberration is overly simplistic. Instead he shows, with great lucidity and considerable depth, the who, why, where, when and how; and then leaves the reader, armed with that information, to consider whether the effects were all bad, all good or somewhere in-between.

British Empire2If I had any criticism, it would be that at points I wanted maps as a visual prompt to show the reach of both the formal and informal areas of influence at different points in history – the maps included were interesting, but concentrated more on specifics, like shipping routes or distribution of military resources. Darwin suggests that looking at the bright red zones on maps gives a misleading picture of the empire and he has persuaded me of that, but for those of us who can never quite remember where, say, Borneo actually is, they do help! However that is a very small criticism of what is an excellent book, thoroughly enjoyable and immensely edifying, that has left me very much better informed about the political and historical context, the rise and decline, and the global impact of and on the empire – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
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Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

fallen landState of the Union…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Publication Date: 1st May 2013

“Anyone who doesn’t believe in freedom at eighteen is a fascist. Anyone who doesn’t believe in security at forty is a criminal.”

In this extraordinary book, 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.

When the economic collapse strikes, Paul Krovik loses everything, including his family and the house that he built for them. He had planned to build a whole development but now the few completed houses stand, already decaying, on swampy land in the middle of an unfinished building site. Louise’s family had owned the land for generations until she was forced to sell to Paul and now Louise lives in her old house at the edge of the site. And now Nathaniel and Julie Noailles, with their young son Copley, are moving from their urban, socially liberal life in Boston to live in this suburban house in an unnamed town in the South. Unknown to them, Paul is living in the concealed basement, determined to get the house back…

Patrick Flanery
Patrick Flanery

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: Paul, whose father brought him up on quotations from Emerson, believes in individualism and apocalypse; Louise, descendant of slaves, guilty at losing the land they treasured, and hating Paul for destroying it; and the Noailles, a family whose veneer of liberalism hides dark secrets and is gradually eroded by fear and mistrust. Through their stories, Flanery shows us the stresses and tensions in a nation still dealing with the aftermath of terror and economic meltdown. The society he depicts is one where trust has broken down; where ultimate security is the goal regardless of the cost to personal freedom; where privacy is seen as an unaffordable luxury; and where the state is in the process of passing responsibility for social control into the hands of an unelected, unaccountable and profit-driven private sector.

The descriptions of the decaying house and the swampy land as the rain beats interminably down add to the air of oppressive menace and threat that builds throughout the book. And as events spiral, Flanery’s depiction of the psychological effects on each character is both convincing and disturbing, as love and trust turn gradually into suspicion and paranoia. This is a masterly, multi-layered book, which works on both levels – as a fine, slow-burning psychological thriller, and as a persuasive metaphor for a society in turmoil in response to huge events.

“If we are not in the final chapters of our history then we are at the end of a particular volume, unable to predict how further instalments may unfold.”

Is this the Great American Novel for this decade? As a Brit, I wouldn’t presume to decide that question but I’d certainly nominate it strongly for the shortlist. And, as a Brit, I feel I understand far more clearly where the American psyche is positioned after reading this, and it scares me. I wait with real interest for the reaction of American reviewers. Highly recommended.

NB This review is of a proof copy kindly provided by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

Amazon UK Link
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