Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
APRIL

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it. I was a bit later in starting reviewing than Cleo, really getting properly underway in about April/May of 2011, so for the first few months I might have to be a bit creative in my 2011 selections.

So here are my favourite April reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

pureWhen I reviewed this, I only gave it 4 stars, but remarked that some of the images in it would stay with me for a long time. Indeed they have, and I’ve felt for some time that I did it an injustice and that it deserves the full 5 star status. Set in pre-Revolutionary France, it is the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young man contracted to clear the overcrowded cemetery of les Innocents in Paris. The sense of time and place in the novel is truly remarkable, and the book allows us to see the build-up of Revolutionary ideas from the perspective of the ‘ordinary’ man. As Miller describes the malignant stench and rotting horrors of the cemetery, parallels can be drawn with the glimpses we get of the corrupt state and political system. My review does it no justice – this is one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade.

 

2012

 

dare meA dark journey into the mind of adolescent girlhood, this book tells of the jealousies and tensions amongst a group of high-school cheerleaders. Abbott’s use of language is innovative, imaginative and often poetic. Throughout the book, she uses the physicality and danger of the cheer stunts to heighten the sense of tension and fear at the heart of the story, and changed my condescending Brit view of cheerleading for ever. When a new coach arrives to lead the cheerleading team, she will prove to be the catalyst for a dangerous reassessment and realignment of friendships that have lasted for years, and will eventually lead both reader and characters to some very dark places. The body is an important theme throughout – the punishment the girls put themselves through, the intimacy of their physical reliance on each other, the underlying sexuality and sensuality of these girls on the brink of womanhood. Dark and wonderful.

 

2013

 

and the mountains echoedA beautiful and very moving book from the pen of a master storyteller, this tells the tale of various members of one extended family affected by war and poverty in Afghanistan. Though many of the events of the book take place in Europe or America following characters driven abroad in the diaspora, Afghanistan remains at the heart of the novel, because it remains in the hearts of the unforgettable people who populate the pages. In structure, this feels almost like a series of short stories, but Hosseini brings them all together in the end in one perfect circle. Truth is, I sobbed my heart out over this book, starting at page 5 and not stopping till about two weeks after I’d finished it. And even now, I only have to think about the first chapter to find myself reaching for the Kleenex again. But alongside the sorrow and sadness, there is love and joy here, and a deep sense of hope…

 

2014

 

the birdsSix short stories from the mistress of supenseful terror, this collection starts with the story on which Hitchcock based his famous film The Birds. While he made some changes to it, mainly so he could find a role for one of his famous blondes, all of the tension and atmosphere comes from du Maurier. The other stories may not be so well known but they stand up very well to the title story. One of my favourites is The Apple Tree – a tale of a man who becomes obsessed with the belief that the tree in his garden bears an uncanny resemblance to his late unlamented wife. 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. And her trademark ambiguity leaves room for the reader to incorporate her own fears between the lines of the stories – truly chilling.

 

2015

 

the martian chronicles 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. It’s episodic in nature and the Martian world that Bradbury creates doesn’t have quite the coherence of some fantasy worlds. But like all the best sci-fi, this book is fundamentally about humanity and Bradbury uses his created world to muse on, amongst other things, loneliness, community and the mid-20th century obsession with the inevitability of nuclear self-destruction. Many of the stories, especially the later ones, are beautifully written fantasies that are both moving and profound. It certainly deserves its reputation as one of the great classics of the genre but, in my opinion, it goes beyond genre – it is as well written and thought-provoking as most ‘literary’ novels and shows a great deal more imagination than they usually do.

 

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If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for April, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

And Kay has joined in too, over on kay’s reading life, but with a twist – she’s highlighting books from 5, 10, 15 and 20 years ago. Here’s the link…

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!

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Next week: Best Science/Nature/Environment Award

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

and the mountains echoedBlown like leaves in the wind…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Publication due 21st May 2013

“A story is like a moving train: no matter where you hop onboard, you are bound to reach your destination sooner or later.”

Within 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.

Khaled Hosseini(source: wikimedia)
Khaled Hosseini
(source: wikimedia)

The novel is made up of a series of linked and interlinked stories about members of this one family, their descendants and people whose lives they touch. Hosseini takes us back and forwards in time but each episode tells a whole story of one of the characters. This made the book feel in some ways like a collection of short stories rather than a novel, but Hosseini brings us round in a perfect circle and the last few chapters bring all these disparate episodes into one immensely moving whole.

The beauty of the writing is only matched by the humanity of the characters. Hosseini takes us inside their minds and their hearts and we see them laid bare, essentially good people but with their flaws and weaknesses exposed, to us and to themselves. Although much of the book takes place in Europe and America, Afghanistan remains at the heart of it because it remains in the hearts of the characters, even though they may have become part of the war- and poverty-driven diaspora.

Peacock_feathers_closeupA beautiful and very moving book that brought me to tears on several occasions, this isn’t fundamentally about politics or war; it is about the unforgettable people who populate its pages – about humanity. And though there is sadness and sorrow here, there is also love and joy and a deep sense of hope. Highly recommended.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link