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

Drum roll, please…

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

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

THE CRITERIA

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

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction/Thriller

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2017

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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

LITERARY FICTION

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

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

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

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

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

No one.

Click to see the full review

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Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

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

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

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

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

Click to see the full review

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The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison

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

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

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

Click to see the full review

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The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

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

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

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

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2017

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

White Tears by Hari Kunzru

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

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

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

Click to see the full review

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And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

 


FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2017

THE WINNER

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

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

Click to see the full review

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

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


Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

The Gentleman’s Game…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

“India: A country said to have two real religions – cinema and cricket.”

selection-day-2Two brothers are being groomed by their father to become the greatest cricketers in India. Radha, the elder, with his film-star looks and love of the game, is the better of the two, and it’s accepted that he will be the star. But as they grow up, Radha’s skill diminishes, just a little, but enough for him to be eclipsed by the younger Manju, whose attitude to the game is more ambivalent. Their mother having disappeared when they were little (run away? dead? The boys aren’t sure), the brothers have been brought up by their tyrannical father Mohan, who is determined they will succeed in the sport as a way to raise the family out of the slums. So when the chance of sponsorship comes along, Mohan grabs it, even though it’s at best an unethical deal which sells his sons into a kind of bondage and, at worst, borders on the illegal.

This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. The game, once the preserve of all that was considered gentlemanly, has become all about money. The days of languorous five-day test matches has morphed into not only one-day cricket, but the hideousness of the ultra-short 20-20, which Adiga describes in his humorous glossary of cricketing terms at the end of the book as “in the eyes of some older fans, almost as bad as baseball.” It’s not necessary, I think, to know about cricket to enjoy the book – Adiga doesn’t fall into the trap of lengthy descriptions of games, tactics or technicalities, and the sport could as easily be any other. But cricket has a particular resonance, because of its origin as a game of the British Empire, a period whose influence is still vital in understanding much of Indian society.

In the next few minutes, Anand Mehta came up with the following observations about cricket: that it was a fraud, and at the most fundamental level. Only ten countries play this game, and only five of them play it well. If we had any self-respect, we’d finally grow up as a people and play football. No: let’s not expose ourselves to real competition, much safer to be in a “world cup” against St. Kitts and Bangladesh. Self-obsession without self-belief: the very definition of the Indian middle class, which is why it loves this fraud sport.

Poised to offer the world more deep thoughts about the gentleman’s game, Mehta heard:

Shot! Bloody good shot!…

Confronted by the sound and smell of an instant of real cricket, Mehta felt all his mighty observations turn to ashes.

As Manju hits adolescence, he becomes fascinated by another young player, Javed. Javed is gay and Manju’s attraction to him suggests that he is too. But Manju is of a lower class than Javed and has a father who’s not likely to be the most supportive, so it would take considerably more courage for him to admit his feelings than Javed. But his relationship with Javed isn’t purely about physical attraction – Manju finds himself influenced by the older, more confident boy in other ways. Javed, another talented cricketer, sees the corruption in the sport and wants Manju to give it up. So poor Manju has a jealous brother who feels he deserves to be the best, a friend pulling him away from cricket, and his father and his coach putting pressure on him to practice every moment he can. It’s not altogether surprising that he’s confused before he gets to Selection Day, the day on which the big teams pick which young players they will sign.

Sachin Tendulkar, India's finest batman and constantly held up to the boys as an example of what they could be. He's also much loved by advertising executives...
Sachin Tendulkar, India’s finest batman and constantly held up to the boys as an example of what they could be. He’s also much loved by advertising executives…

I love Adiga’s depiction of Mumbai or Bombay (names which he uses interchangeably). He shows the poverty, corruption and class divisions quite clearly but, unlike some of the (usually ex-pat) Indian writers who love to wallow exclusively in the misery, Adiga, who lives in Mumbai, also shows the other side – the vibrancy, the struggle for social mobility, the advances of recent years. His characters, even when they’re being put through the emotional wringer, manage to have some fun along the way, and the whole atmosphere he portrays lacks the irredeemable hopelessness of so much Indian literature. There’s also a good deal of humour, often very perceptive and coming at unexpected moments, startling me into laughter. This book tackles some tough subjects, but on the whole Adiga simply lays the arguments out and leaves the reader to come to her own conclusions – there’s no whiff of the polemical in his writing.

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

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

Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga

There is, however, some great characterisation, and he writes about them empathetically so that it’s hard not to see why even the less savoury characters have turned out as they have. One of the things I loved was seeing how the perception of Mohan, the boys’ father, changed as they grew up. This man who loomed over them in childhood shrinks as they grow – both physically and in terms of his influence. It’s the mark of the quality of Adiga’s writing that this happens so gradually there’s no jarring moment, but towards the end I realised I had come to feel about him quite differently than I had in the beginning.

For me, this was a slow-burn book. It took at least a third of the book before I was convinced that this tale of cricketing brothers was going to hold my interest. But as it progressed, I began to appreciate the subtlety with which Adiga was showing various aspects of contemporary Indian life, and as always I found his writing pure pleasure to read. And by the time I reached the end, I found he had again created some characters who had become real to me, in the way Masterji did in his excellent Last Man in Tower. This book confirms Adiga’s place as one of my favourite authors, and gets my wholehearted recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 102…

The books that aren’t there…

As part of my ridiculous TBR spreadsheet, whenever I give a book 5 stars I add the author’s name to a list to remind me to read either one of their existing books or their next one, if they’re new authors or I’ve already read all of their previous books. Every now and again I check Amazon to see if there’s any sign of the next book coming along, and generally they duly appear within a year or two. But when I last checked, I realised some of these authors had been on the list for a long time with no sign of a new book. Where are they? Are they still writing?

the luminaries blueEleanor Catton won the Booker for The Luminaries, first published in August 2013. I loved it for her careful creation of a town that I came to feel as if I had actually visited. The book was monstrous in size and scope, so perhaps she’s working on another just as ambitious, but I can’t find anything on the web that tells me when we might see a new one appear.

* * * * *

money treeFor several years, Gordon Ferris was publishing books pretty regularly, every year or two. But it’s well over two years since his last book Money Tree appeared in June 2014. At the time, this was billed as the start of a new series looking at some of the world’s contemporary concerns – a series of standalones but with an overarching theme under a series name of “Only Human”. But since then, nothing – and again I can’t see anything suggesting another book is on the way soon.

* * * * *

paradeShuichi Yoshida’s Parade, published in translation in March 2014, was billed as a crime book, but I felt it actually fell more into the category of literary fiction. The picture it paints of the lives of young people in Tokyo left me strangely discombobulated, as Japanese fiction often does – it’s a society that always seems in a kind of free-fall. I find Yoshida’s writing compelling, and his characters are always believable even when I don’t fully understand them. Perhaps his long absence is a translation issue rather than a writing one, but no sign of a new one on the horizon.

* * * * *

after the lockoutDarran McCann’s début After the Lockout, published way back in February 2012, was an intriguing book set in Armagh in the period following the Easter Uprising. Though there was much of politics and religion in it, McCann managed to keep it at a very human level. He’s an author of whom I genuinely expected great things, but again he seems to have disappeared, at least in terms of publishing another novel.

* * * * *

arzee the dwarfI positively adored Chandrahas Choudhry’s Arzee the Dwarf. Published in December 2009, it’s a deliciously bittersweet tale of one man trying to achieve his dreams in contemporary Bombay – a beautifully written depiction of this vibrant and contradictory city at odds with the picture of unrelieved misery so often given in Indian novels. Years after reading it, I still smile whenever I think of it. And I’m getting extremely impatient for another…

* * * * * * *

The good news is that, five long years after his wonderful Last Man in Tower, a new book has finally appeared from Aravind AdigaSelection Day, which I will be reading just as soon as I can.

selection-dayThe Blurb says: Manju is fourteen. He knows he is good at cricket – if not as good as his elder brother Radha. He knows that he fears and resents his domineering and cricket-obsessed father, admires his brilliantly talented brother and is fascinated by CSI and curious and interesting scientific facts. But there are many things, about himself and about the world, that he doesn’t know . . . Everyone around him, it seems, has a clear idea of who Manju should be, except Manju himself.

But when Manju begins to get to know Radha’s great rival, a boy as privileged and confident as Manju is not, everything in Manju’s world begins to change and he is faced by decisions that will challenge both his sense of self and of the world around him.

* * * * * * *

And here are a few more long-awaited ones that will be appearing soon (all publication dates are for the UK)…

penancePublication due 5th April 2017 from Kanae Minato, author of the dark and compelling Confessions

The Blurb says: The tense, chilling story of four women haunted by a childhood trauma.

When they were children, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into separating from their friend Emili by a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurs: Emili is found murdered hours later. Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko weren’t able to accurately describe the stranger’s appearance to the police after the Emili’s body was discovered. Asako, Emili’s mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will pay for her daughter’s murder.

* * * * *

the-death-of-kingsPublication due 16th January 2017 from Rennie Airth, author of the Inspector Madden series set in post-war England…

The Blurb says: On a hot summer day in 1938, a beautiful actress is murdered on the grand Kent estate of Sir Jack Jessup, close friend of the Prince of Wales. An instant headline in the papers, the confession of a local troublemaker swiftly brings the case to a close, but in 1949, the reappearance of a jade necklace raises questions about the murder. Was the man convicted and executed the decade before truly guilty, or had he wrongly been sent to the gallows?

Inspector Madden is summoned out of retirement at the request of former Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair to re-open the case at Scotland Yard. Set in the aftermath of World War II, The Death of Kings is an atmospheric and captivating police procedural, and is a story of honor and justice that takes Madden through the idyllic English countryside, post-war streets of London, and into the criminal underworld of the Chinese Triads.

* * * * *

the-followerPublication due 9th February 2017 from Koethi Zan, author of the dark and disturbing thriller The Never List

The Blurb says… very little: You think she’ll help you. She won’t.

A page-turning thriller about the wife of a kidnapper and her relationship with his last victim.
.

* * * * *

the-good-peoplePublication due 9th February 2017 from Hannah Kent, author of the stunning Burial Rites

The Blurb says: Nóra Leahy has lost her daughter and her husband in the same year, and is now burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson, Micheál. The boy cannot walk, or speak, and Nora, mistrustful of the tongues of gossips, has kept the child hidden from those who might see in his deformity evidence of otherworldly interference.

Unable to care for the child alone, Nóra hires a fourteen-year-old servant girl, Mary, who soon hears the whispers in the valley about the blasted creature causing grief to fall upon the widow’s house.

Alone, hedged in by rumour, Mary and her mistress seek out the only person in the valley who might be able to help Micheál. For although her neighbours are wary of her, it is said that old Nance Roche has the knowledge. That she consorts with Them, the Good People. And that only she can return those whom they have taken…

* * * * * * *

So there’s still hope… if you can shed any light on if and when we might see new books from any of these authors, please do so in the comments. Are there any authors who’ve been on your own “avidly awaiting” list for too long?

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
MAY

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.

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

 

2011

 

last-man-in-towerUK3002011 was the first year I chose a ‘Book of the Year’ and this was the book. For me, the best fiction must shed some light on the society in which it’s set, provide memorable characters and tell us something about the ‘human condition’. This book does that in spades. Masterji, the last man of the title, has become one of those rare characters who have gained a permanent place in my fictional landscape. As the Vakola area of Bombay 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. A great book.

 

2012

 

bring up the bodiesWhen a book is as good as Wolf Hall, a sequel is sometimes as much to be dreaded as anticipated. Here, though, Mantel succeeds in giving us a second instalment that is worthy of the first. As Anne Boleyn fails to give Henry his much-wanted son, Cromwell finds himself facing a similar situation as his mentor Cardinal Wolsey had – to find a way to rid the King of one Queen and replace her with another. Ever mindful of Wolsey’s fate, Cromwell is determined to succeed where he failed; and to settle a few old scores along the way. In this book, Cromwell is still presented as urbane, intelligent, mannerly and a loving father. But we also get to see more of his dark side – the man who will stop at nothing to achieve his ends. As the Seymours seek to rise to power on the back of Henry’s longing for the quiet Jane, we are given a clear picture of how women were schooled and used as objects of barter. But in the end, the outstanding character in this sequel remains Cromwell who, in Mantel’s confident hands, has become one of those literary characters who will remain in the mind long after the book has been read.

 

2013

 

someone to watch over meWhen a residential unit for disabled people is burned down, all the residents are killed bar one. Jakob has Downs Syndrome and a grievance – he never wanted to be placed in the unit and he doesn’t like it there. It seems to be an open and shut case but, because of his disability, Jakob is sent to a secure psychiatric hospital rather than prison and it looks like he’ll stay there for life. At least, until one of the other inmates asks lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to try to get the case reopened. I’ve discovered over the last few years that I don’t really get on very well with male Nordic writers, but enjoy some of the female ones a good deal. Haven’t quite analysed why this should be, yet. Sigurdardóttir manages the difficult subject of disability in this book without ever becoming mawkish or sentimental, and there’s a beautifully creepy strand woven through the main plot, which adds an extra layer of tension. One day I’ll read the rest in the series…

 

2014

 

a princess of marsArriving naked on Barsoom (Mars), John Carter finds himself captured by huge six-limbed green Martians, also naked, repulsive to look at and vicious by nature. However, endowed with superior strength and agility by the low gravity on Mars, the brave Carter has soon killed enough of these creatures to win their admiration and to be made a chieftain among them. This comes in handy when he meets his true love, in the guise of a (naked) red Martian, Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. She has been captured by the green Tharks and is soon to be tortured to death for their amusement. But Carter is entranced by the beauty and spirit of Dejah Thoris and sets out to save her and return her to her own (naked) people, the Heliumites. In truth, the ‘best’ book I read in May 2014 was The Road, but this one has given me so much fun in terms of reading, reviewing and chatting that it has to be the winner. I’ve since read two of the sequels and expect to return to Barsoom again…

 

2015

 

you zoran drvenkarGrim and brutal, darker than black, and written almost entirely in the second-person present tense, so I should have hated it. But it’s brilliantly written, with language and imagery that would easily fit into the ‘literary’ category, and with a depth and range of characterisation that is rare in any kind of fiction. Although there’s no supernatural element to it, it feels strongly like a particularly savage fairy-tale. Fundamentally, it’s about evil. Three strands – a gangster looking for the person who left his brother dead and stole a stash of drugs, a group of teenagers worrying about a missing friend, and a serial spree killer. The viewpoint revolves through thirteen characters with the reader being put inside each of their heads in turn. Drvenkar handles the complexity in a masterly fashion and the second half of the book in particular whirls the reader on towards a climax that is almost operatic in its high drama and totally satisfying inevitability. It’s noir dark shot through with just enough gleams of light to keep it bearable, pacey and tense, grim and disturbing, no punches pulled – and quite stunning.

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

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

the white tigerEscaping the Rooster Coop…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Having given the FictionFan award for Book of 2011* to Adiga’s great novel Last Man in Tower, I backtracked to this earlier book with very high expectations, perhaps too high. The White Tiger won the 2008 Man Booker Prize but, while it shows all the same skill in writing, the humour and the ability to compel the reader to keep turning the pages, for me it lacks some of the humanity and warmth that characterises the later book.

On the eve of the Chinese President’s visit to India, Balram Halwai, the White Tiger of the title, writes him a series of letters ostensibly to explain how democracy and entrepreneurship are the factors that differentiate the two countries. However as Balram’s story unfolds, it become a confessional, as we learn of the unconventional way in which he broke out of the ‘Rooster Coop’ that keeps the lower caste Indian in a state of poverty and servility to the rich.

Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga

Balram’s job as driver and servant to a rich businessman gives Adiga the opportunity to show the contrasts in Indian society, as does Balram’s move from the poverty of rural India to the rich parts of Delhi in the wake of his master. Adiga’s writing is so assured and flowing that the book is a pleasure to read and Balram, despite his faults, is a character it’s hard not to empathise with and like. But somehow the descriptions of the society seem a bit shallow – not enough shades of grey. Adiga is wryly scathing about the corruption endemic in politics and the police, but so many of the characters seem purely driven by greed that often there’s very little room for the reader to sympathise with them.

Overall, I found this a well-written, enjoyable read with obvious signs of the talent and promise that, for me, Adiga fulfilled in Last Man in Tower. Recommended.

*The prize for this prestigious award is that I buy the author’s next book.

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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.

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