FictionFan Awards 2018 – Genre Fiction

Please rise…

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

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

THE CRITERIA

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

THE CATEGORIES

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

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

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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

GENRE FICTION

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

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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

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

Click to see the full review

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The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

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

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

Click to see the full review

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The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

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

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

Click to see the full review

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In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

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

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

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

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

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

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

Click to see the full review

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Next Week: Best Factual

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

Weird and wonderful…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. Normally when a book is titled after one story with the rest lumped under “and other”, my expectation would be that the title story would be the best of them. And indeed, I loved The Great God Pan, as you’ll know if you read my Tuesday Terror! post about it. But I was thrilled to find that many of the other stories in this book are at least as good, and some are even better. I’ve discovered a new favourite horror writer!

The book is edited by Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University. He provides an informative introduction, which gives a brief biography of Machen’s literary life along with a discussion of his influences and themes, and of his own influence on later generations of writers. Worth also provides copious notes to explain any unfamiliar terms, or allusions within the text to other works, to mythologies, or to the preoccupations of Machen’s society. All of this richly enhanced my reading experience, reminding me once again that, great though it is to be able to download so many old stories, a well-edited volume is still a major pleasure.

Machen’s stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them. Worth tells us that Machen was sometimes considered to be connected to the Decadent movement – Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, et al – although Machen himself disputed this. But there is a definite air of decadence with a small ‘d’ about the stories. Many have strong sexual undercurrents (never overtly spelled out – it’s the Victorian era) and paganism is a recurring feature. There’s also a frequent suggestion that the morally deficient are most likely to succumb to the forces of evil, and will often pay a horrible price for their weakness.

The Great God Pan
All the fabulous illustrations on the post are by mgkellermeyer via DeviantArt.com.

The quality of the writing is excellent – stylistically it compares to the likes of Conan Doyle or HG Wells. There’s a good deal of humour in it alongside some effective and occasionally gruesome horror and he’s a great storyteller. His descriptive writing is also very good. I particularly liked how he used London pollution effectively to give a strangeness to the city – his skies are purple, grey, dark, red, and the street lamps have to fight to shed their light through the dirty air. His Wales is equally good in what feels like a deliberately contrasting way. There, the air is clear but there are hidden things behind ancient rock formations – old symbols, and sometimes new symbols placed by ancient races.

The Welsh parts have a very similar feel to Lovecraft’s ruins – Lovecraft acknowledged his influence – but where Lovecraft opted for ancient malign aliens, Machen’s evil is all of earth, earthly. Worth reminds us that this was at a time when Victorian society was having to get used to the ideas that man had evolved from the beast and that the world was far, far more ancient than had previously been thought. Where Wells takes evolution far into the future in The Time Machine, Machen instead suggests that some of the ancient things of earth are still here, unevolved and unchanging. And that sometimes they might even live within us…

The stories range in length from a couple of pages to well over a hundred. I gave every one individually either 4 or 5 stars – I think that’s a first for me in any collection. Some of the very short ones are a little fragmentary, but each either tells a tale on its own or adds depth to the world Machen has created. Some are outright horror, some more an evocation of a kind of witchy paganism, some based more in reality. Marvellous stuff! Hard to pick favourites, but here are just a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

The Shining Pyramid

The Inmost Light – this one features Dyson, who along with his friend Phillips, appears in a few of the stories, almost as a kind of Holmes and Watson of the occult. Dyson sees a horribly frightening face in a window and some time later discovers the woman of the house has died. The doctor at the inquest declares that her brain was inhuman, and Dyson investigates. This has some great London scenes and a decidedly demonic theme – Machen apparently subsidised his meagre earnings as an author at one point by taking on the job of cataloguing a library of occult publications, and used the knowledge he gained from that throughout his work. Excellently told and a very effective horror ending.

The Three Impostors – this is the longest in the book and in fact reads like a mini-collection of stories all linked by one major underlying one. It has a great mixture of humour and horror within the separate episodes, and again stars Dyson and Phillips. The main story is of an evil cult which sucks people in through exploiting their greed or weakness, and then either forces them to join or uses them as victims. But it’s really the minor stories that make this one special. My favourite of all, I think.

The White People – a story told by one man to another as an illustration that evil is an elemental force. It tells of a girl who from an early age has seen things invisible to others. She is introduced to old stories and pagan rituals by her nurse. This displays another common theme of the stories – female sexuality and its links to witchery, paganism and even Satanism. It’s brilliantly told and one can see its influence on both weird and witch fiction, and Machen’s siting of evil within humans rather than as an external force is particularly effective.

The White People

I could go on, and on, but I won’t. I’ll just say if, like me, you’ve managed to miss out on Machen up till now, I strongly recommend you make his acquaintance – a great collection.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

Paganism and Victorian shenanigans…

First published in 1890, this is the title story in the new Oxford World’s Classics collection, The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories. It’s considered to be a classic of the genre, influential on later writers from HP Lovecraft to Stephen King. So I prodded the porpentine awake, and we sat down ready to be horrified, in this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen

‘I have heard myself called quack, and charlatan and impostor, but all the while I knew I was on the right path. Five years ago I reached the goal, and since then every day has been a preparation for what we shall do tonight.’

Clarke has been asked by his friend Dr Raymond to witness an experiment in his laboratory in far away Wales (Machen’s native land), the culmination of the work of years. He proposes to carry out a brain operation on his young ward, Mary, which, he claims, will allow her to look into the spiritual world closed off to our normal brains – to see the Great God Pan, as he puts it. Clarke isn’t so sure the whole thing is a good idea…

“Consider the matter well, Raymond. It’s a great responsibility. Something might go wrong; you would be a miserable man for the rest of your days.”
“No, I think not, even if the worst happened. As you know, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit.”

Crikey! I’m betting Mary’s thinking pretty nostalgically about that gutter round about now! Anyway, needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong…

…suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror.

Le Faune by Carlos Schwabe.
Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva.

Poor Mary collapses, shrieking. When Clarke sees her next, three days later, she is lying in her bed, grinning vacantly. Fortunately, Dr Raymond manages to be quite philosophical about the whole thing…

“Yes,” said the doctor, still quite cool, “it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”

Oh, well, that’s all right then! This is all in the nature of a prologue. The story then jumps forward some twenty years or so and the scene shifts to London. Clarke has remained interested in the occult and makes a habit of gathering strange stories. These stories are relayed to the reader as a series of snippets or brief sketches with a variety of narrators. To the people involved these incidents seem entirely random at first. But after a while, Clarke begins to see a pattern emerging. His subsequent investigations take him into the dark belly of London’s seamy underworld, on the trail of a mysterious woman who has been connected to some of the strange and horrible events…

“I should be wrong in saying that she found her level in going to this particular quarter, or associating with these people, for from what I was told, I should think the worst den in London far too good for her. The person from whom I got my information, as you may suppose, no great Puritan, shuddered and grew sick in telling me of the nameless infamies which were laid to her charge…”

Fabulous illustration by sandpaperdaisy at deviantart.com

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While the porpy and I weren’t exactly terrified, we thought this was a jolly good story. Mad science, that great love of Victorian horror and science fiction writers, mingled with paganism and a good deal of hinting at immoral and quite possibly unnatural sexual shenanigans, there’s also plenty of typically Victorian, fine descriptive writing, both of nature in the countryside and of the dark and gloomy streets of London at night. The Great God Pan is no cuddly pipe-playing faun in this one – he’s satanic, possibly in fact Satan, and we all know what happens to innocent young girls who fall in the path of that old cloven-hoofed goat. Being Victorian, we are spared the details, but Machen manages to get his meaning across. Of course, the woman is the one who succumbs to the dark pagan powers – but then the men succumb to the equally dark force of female sexuality. (They’re called Victorian attitudes for a reason…)

Combine that with Clarke’s familiarity with the seamy side of London life, where he cheerfully admits, with no attempt at concealment, “I have always been fond of diving into Queer Street for my amusement, and I found my knowledge of that locality and its inhabitants very useful.” Even worse, that he is there on the trail of a society lady who also likes to head to the lower levels to take her pleasure. No wonder it was considered pretty shocking at the time! (So disgusted were the morally upstanding Victorians, in fact, that it apparently shot to the top of the best-sellers list…)

Guillermo del Toro acknowledges the influence of the story on his film, Pan’s Labyrinth

It might be a little less shocking now, but it’s well told and one can easily see its place in the chain that links horror writers of different generations. It’s almost like a bridging link from the older ones, – the Gothic style of Poe, for example – through his contemporaries – his dark London having much of the feel of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde – and onto those who followed, like Lovecraft, who acknowledged his debt to Machen. Great stuff, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the collection…

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….He bought a can of Pearl with the last two dollars he had, then dropped a quarter in the Wurlitzer. He punched a number and settled down at a table and tipped his chair back against the wall and put his boots up. He set his hat over his eyes and drifted in the peaceful dark of not being on the road.
….The man in the box began to sing.
….The music rose and fell.
….Out of the darkness came her scent of lemon and vanilla, the curve of a white calf beneath the hem of a pale blue cotton dress, her shape an hourglass, like time itself slipping away. She, before the picture window that looked out on the mimosa dropping its pink petals on the grass. Her slow smile spreading beneath a pair of eyes as blue as cobalt glass. Water sheeting in the window and casting its shadow like a spell of memory on the wall behind. Her little red suitcase turntable scratching out a song beneath the window and he, a boy, with his bare feet on hers as she held his hands and the record turned and they danced.
….Their private, sad melody unspooling in his heart forever.

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….Cusps are often the central features of a stability problem. A classic example is the Euler column, a simple model that explains why steel columns buckle when they reach a critical load. The key objects that underlie this are two smooth but rather abstract surfaces: the energy surface and the equilibrium surface.
….At any given value of the axial load, we can calculate how the total potential energy stored in the column varies as we increase the central lateral deflection. For small loads, the energy graph (plotting energy against central deflection) is usually a U-shape, with a single stable equilibrium at the base of the U. That is where the system will stay, happily and safely.

(Does it surprise you to know that I abandoned the book at this point – page 18? And frankly I think I deserve a Perseverance in the Face of Extraordinary Gibberish Award for getting that far. However, I highly recommend it to mathematicians who want to build a bridge while looking at pictures of nudes…)

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….What is this love, this profound and absolute attachment I feel for Scotland? Why do these mottled rising green-brown hills, these humped fields, this river, even the familiar cast of the houses, feel so right and move me so? Lesley accepts that she is English, but it is not a defining fact for her, any more than being right-handed or blue-eyed. Whereas she can see that for me being Scottish is fundamental to who I am.
….As I turn off at the Tore roundabout onto the A835 to Ullapool, drive on past scattered villages where the valley pushes a green wedge between the hills on either side, I’m thinking of one of MacCaig’s shortest poems, Patriot.

My only country
is six feet high
and whether I love it or not
I’ll die
for its independence.

….The idea of patriotism was abhorrent to him. He’d seen enough of what it led to. He could not love an abstraction. But he loved – my God how he loved! – things that were solid, concrete, particular: some people, dogs, frogs, rivers, mountains, toads, a wild rose bush, so many kinds of birds. His vision was earthly, corporeal.

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….While I was getting out my pouch, I looked up in the direction of the houses, and as I looked I felt my breath caught back, and my teeth began to chatter, and the stick I had in one hand snapped in two with the grip I gave it. It was as if I had had an electric current down my spine, and yet for some moment of time which seemed long, but which must have been very short, I caught myself wondering what on earth was the matter. Then I knew what had made my very heart shudder and my bones grind together in an agony. As I glanced up I had looked straight towards the last house in the row before me, and in an upper window of that house I had seen for some short fraction of a second a face. It was the face of a woman, and yet it was not human. You and I, Salisbury, we have heard in our time, as we sat in our seats in church in sober English fashion, of a lust that cannot be satiated and of a fire that is unquenchable, but few of us have any notion what these words mean. I hope you never may, for as I saw that face at the window, with the blue sky above me and the warm air playing in gusts about me, I knew I had looked into another world – looked through the window of a commonplace, brand-new house, and seen hell open before me.

From The Inmost Light

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 147…

Episode 147…

You see, the thing is, it’s not my fault! No, really, it isn’t! I haven’t bought any books this week, nor requested any from NetGalley – I’ve been good! And yet, still my TBR has gone up again – by 2, to 216. This strange phenomenon is as a result of publishers forming a conspiracy to break my legendary willpower by sending me unsolicited books and too, too tempting catalogues. What’s a girl to do?? And meantime my reading has dropped off because I’ve been distracted…

(Poor Rafa – retired injured again. So sad!)

So anyway, looks like I better get some reading done…

Factual

Continuing my bid to read some of the books that have been on my TBR for longest, I bought this one in June 2013. Still sounds interesting! Fortunately it’s a Kindle version so at least the pages won’t have turned yellow…

The Blurb says: Paris and London have long held a mutual fascination, and never more so than in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when they both vied to be the world’s greatest city. Each city has been the focus of many books, yet here Jonathan Conlin uncovers the intriguing relationship between them for the first time. It is a history of surprises: Sherlock Holmes was actually French, the can-can was English and the first restaurant served English food in Paris.

Tales of Two Cities examines and compares six urban spaces – the street, the cemetery, the apartment, the restaurant, the music hall and the nocturnal underworld. The citizens of Paris and London were the first to create these landmarks of the modern cityscape. By borrowing, imitating and learning from each other they invented the modern metropolis and so defined urban living for us all.

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Classic Horror

Courtesy of the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. This is part of a newish hardcover range from OWC. I haven’t had time to look at the inside properly yet but the outside is much more gorgeous than the picture makes it look. The Great God Pan was recommended to me on one of my horror posts by fellow blogger Grass and Vanilla, so this seemed like the ideal opportunity to read it, along with many other stories by Arthur Machen…

The Blurb says: Perhaps no figure better embodies the transition from the Gothic tradition to modern horror than Arthur Machen. In the final decade of the nineteenth century, the Welsh writer produced a seminal body of tales of occult horror, spiritual and physical corruption, and malignant survivals from the primeval past which horrified and scandalized late-Victorian readers. Machen’s “weird fiction” has influenced generations of storytellers, from H. P. Lovecraft to Guillermo Del Toro – and it remains no less unsettling today. This new collection, which includes the complete novel The Three Impostors as well as such celebrated tales as The Great God Pan and The White People, constitutes the most comprehensive critical edition of Machen yet to appear. In addition to the core late-Victorian horror classics, a selection of lesser-known prose poems and later tales helps to present a fuller picture of the development of Machen’s weird vision. The edition’s introduction and notes contextualize the life and work of this foundational figure in the history of horror.

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Vintage Crime

This is one of the books for my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins, so I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: Also published as The Spiral Staircase. Helen Capel is hired as a live-in lady-help to the Warren family in the countryside. She enjoys the eccentric household and her duties, but her peaceful and simple life is soon disturbed by a series of mysterious murders in the isolated community.

As Helen’s employer, Professor Sebastian Warren, battens down the hatches and locks all the doors of their remote country house, the eight residents begin to feel safe. But somewhere out there lurks a murderer of young girls. As the murders crawl closer to home, Helen starts to wonder if there really is safety in numbers—and what happens when those numbers start to dwindle?

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Fiction

For the Reading the Russian Revolution challenge. Ken Kalfus lived in Russia for some years and the Soviet Union appears in quite a lot of his work. I love his writing, so I’m looking forward to this one…

The Blurb says: Ken Kalfus’s mesmerising first novel is about two events that become milestones in the history of the modern media: the death of Tolstoy and the murder of Lenin. One young filmmaker was there. The story begins in 1910, as Leo Tolstoy lies dying in Astapovo, a railway station in provincial Russia. Members of the press from around the world have descended upon this sleepy hamlet to record his passing for a public suddenly ravenous for celebrity news. Cinema is the newcomer, and Nikolai Gribshin arrives to capture the extraordinary scene and learn how to wield his camera as a political tool. At this historic moment, he comes across two men – the scientist, Professor Vorobev, and the revolutionist, Joseph Stalin – who have radical, mysterious plans for the future. Soon they will accompany him on a long, cold march through an era of brutality and absurdity, as science struggles with superstition. Brimming with intellect, humour, and rich, inventive storytelling, The Commissariat of Enlightenment is a novel of ideas that brilliantly evokes the tragi-comic world of revolutionary Russia as well as the birth of today’s image-based society. 

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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