FictionFan Awards 2018 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year

A standing ovation please…

…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

LITERARY FICTION

I’ve been so busy this year trying to catch up with my Classics Club list and various other challenges that I’ve read far fewer new releases than usual, but being a bit choosier means that I’ve enjoyed most of those I have read. As a result, the shortlisting has been extremely tough. In the end, I’ve decided not to include classics or any of the fiction I read as part of my Russian challenge since I’ve already posted about them in previous challenge summaries. All of which very neatly leaves me with five excellent contenders, so here goes…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war 

This is Boyd at his best and the narration by Harriet Walter does it full justice. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully.

Click to see the full review

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That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina

When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago, when Tommaso met and fell in love with Anna. We know from the beginning that their relationship ended with some kind of tragedy that led Tommaso to cut all ties with home and take on a new identity in London. But it’s only after we follow Tommaso through the events of the summer that we find out what happened…

On the face of it, this is a straightforward account of a love affair, but the quality of the writing, the great pacing and, most of all, the superb sense of place make it so much more than that. It’s an intense character study of Tommaso, and it’s wonderfully evocative of the culture of Puglia, in the heel of Italy, in the 1980s – still strictly conservative in outlook, still largely in thrall to Catholicism, and with strong family expectations that children will follow the paths determined for them by their parents. A first-class début.

Click to see the full review

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Eagle and Crane by Suzanne Rindell

Earl Shaw takes two small planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. One day, the pilots take up two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada. Daredevil Harry decides he will walk along the wing, and Louis, feeling challenged and a little humiliated, follows suit. Earl offers them both jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage fellow citizens as more than a comic-book threat. And Harry and Louis will find their friendship altered and strained…

While the book has some elements of the thriller, it definitely falls far more into the category of literary fiction for me. Rindell’s research is skilfully fed to us through the development of her characters and her story, so that we gradually get a real feel for rural Californian life and attitudes in this period, and an in-depth look at the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans. This third book cements her place as one of my favourite authors.

Click to see the full review

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Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti

Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. As Santiago sits in jail not knowing when – if – he’ll be released, he writes letters full of love to his wife, Graciela. For him, life is static, his memories of their love the thing that has sustained him through the torture and now the sheer stultification of his imprisonment. But for Graciela, life is a moving thing – she is still young, in a new city, with a job and a growing child, and for her the present is more vivid than the past. She finds herself increasingly attracted to Ronaldo, but knows that Santiago needs her love and loyalty. The crux of the story is deceptively simple – what will Graciela decide to do?

This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time, and credit must go to the translator, Nick Caistor, who has done a marvellous job. Although it’s based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair. It’s profoundly moving – full of emotional truth. Wonderful!

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

LITERARY FICTION

Tombland by CJ Sansom


This was an extremely difficult decision and I swayed back and forwards between Tombland and Springtime in a Broken Mirror several times, but in the end my love for the wonderful Matthew Shardlake won out…

It’s 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne. Since he is still a child, his guardians have appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by Princess Elizabeth to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. Superb!

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 2018

THE WINNER

Five excellent contenders, but no hesitation in my mind as which deserves to win. This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read.

Then, at just about two o’clock, they saw where they were. A quirk of wind tore the clouds apart, and two wicked peaks loomed above a line of cliffs and the perpendicular faces of glaciers that dropped sheer into the sea. The coastline looked to be about a mile away, perhaps a little more. But vastly more important, in that single glimpse, they saw to their terror that they were only a short distance outside the line of breakers, the point at which the seas ceased to behave like swells and became combers instead, rushing faster and faster towards their own destruction against the land. As each swell passed under them, they could feel it tugging momentarily at the boat, trying to get hold of her and hurl her toward the beach. It seemed now that everything, the wind, the current and even the sea itself, were united in a single determined purpose, once and for all to annihilate this tiny boat which thus far had defied all their efforts to destroy it.

A wonderfully emotive journey that shows the human spirit at its very best. First published in 1959, this fully earns its reputation as a classic of non-fiction writing.

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!

Six Degrees of Separation – From Kingsolver to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

This month’s starting book is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I haven’t read it but it’s been sitting on my TBR since 2015, so maybe I’ll get to it soon! The blurb tells me…

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

Another book set in the Congo, though this time in what was once the French Congo, is…

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd. As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. I loved this book, with its themes of the pursuit of scientific fame, evolution, war and, on a more personal level, the breakdown of a marriage.

I stopped and filled my lungs, smelling Africa – smelling dust, woodsmoke, a perfume from a flower, something musty, something decaying.

I also loved it for its observations of the lives of the chimps, which seems like an excellent cue to reprise one of my favourite gifs…

I can’t ever think of chimps now without being reminded of another wonderful book…

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel – this is a beautifully written novel in three parts, each of which relates to a small town in the mountains of the title. Again it has a theme of evolution running through it, this time the old debate of faith versus science, and the chimps appear as both real and symbolic throughout. But that aside, the sheer quality of the writing along with the more overt themes of grief and love make it a wonderful read. It gets my highest recommendation – one that has left some indelible images in my mind.

If a job was left unfinished at the end of a day – the coop not repaired, a row of vegetables not weeded – we knew that one of us had sat down and wept. That’s the nature of grief: it’s a creature with many arms but few legs, and it staggers about, searching for support. Frayed chicken wire and a profusion of weeds became expressions of our loss. I can’t look at chicken wire now without thinking of my lost son. There’s something about the warp and weft of it, so thin yet strong, so porous yet solid, that reminds me of how we loved him. Later, because of our neglect, chickens died at the jaws of a fox that slipped into the coop, and the crop of vegetables was not so bountiful – but so it goes: a son dies and the earth becomes barren.

Another book where the stories in it all link back to a mountain is…

Fujisan by Randy Taguchi. This rather strange but very moving collection of four stories is centred round the iconic Mount Fuji. There is a spiritual feel to the book; these characters are seeking something that will enable them to explain themselves to themselves and their searches take them in strange and surprising directions. ‘Blue Summit’ tells of an ex-cult member now working in a convenience store and learning how to live outside the cult. ‘Sea of Trees’ is a disturbing tale of three boys confronting death while spending a night in the woods of Mount Fuji. ‘Jamilla’ is a compulsive hoarder and this is the tale of the social worker detailed to clear her house. And lastly, in ‘Child of Night’ a walk up the mountain becomes a journey of self-discovery for a nurse who is struggling with the ethics of her job. Stories that have stayed in my mind in the five or six years since I read them.

The story ‘Sea of Trees’ in this collection tells a strange and disturbing story of young people in a wood, and so does…

In the Woods by Tana French. In 1984, three children went into the woods in Knocknaree. Only one returned, with blood – not his own – in his shoes, so traumatised he is never able to remember what happened. The other two children have never been found. That traumatised child is now a detective on the Murder Squad, Rob Ryan. And when another child is found murdered in Knocknaree, he and his partner Cassie are given the case. I enjoyed this début in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, with a few reservations as to overwriting and over-padding, and really must read more of her books someday

A book set in Dublin that I enjoyed with no reservations at all is…

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan. This novella is an early, previously unpublished work of Maeve Brennan’s, discovered in a University archive after her death. It is a wonderful study of loneliness, self-absorption and selfishness, of thwarted love, both romantic and familial, and of a longing for that nebulous thing we call ‘home’, and is beautifully written.

She walked out along the shallow path. At the gate she turned to look up at Miss Kilbride’s window. It was blind and closed, like a person sleeping. Like Miss Kilbride, lying on her back in difficult slumber. And later, waking to dream of a doubtful deathly union with her long-lost hero, with whom she had once struggled in valiant, well-dressed immodesty on a small settee, for love’s sake.

Regulars will know I always try to find an author pic for my reviews, and the picture of Maeve Brennan is one of my favourites. I want to be on the other side of that table, listening…

Maeve Brennan

Another of my favourite author pics is this one…

So my final book will be…

Docherty by William McIlvanney. On a December night in 1903, Tam Docherty lifts his new-born son and declares that this one will never go down the pits – this child Conn, his youngest, will work with his brains, rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The book covers the next twenty years or so, telling the story of Conn and his family, and most of all of Tam himself, a man who may be “only five foot fower. But when yer hert goes fae yer heid tae yer taes, that’s a lot o’ hert.” A beautiful book, written mostly in standard English, but with some excellent Scottish dialect…

“Son, it’s easy tae be guid oan a fu’ belly. It’s when a man’s goat two bites an’ wan o’ them he’ll share, ye ken whit he’s made o’. Listen. In ony country in the world, who are the only folk that ken whit it’s like tae leeve in that country? The folk at the boattom. The rest can a’ kid themselves oan. They can afford to hiv fancy ideas. We canny, son. We loass the wan idea o’ who we are, we’re deid. We’re wan anither. Tae survive, we’ll respect wan anither. When the time comes, we’ll a’ move forward thegither, or nut at all.”

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So Kingsolver to McIlvanney, via the Congo, chimps, mountains, woods, Dublin and author photographs!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

Of chimps and humans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war, though this strand has less weight than the other two.

While each strand is told linearly in time, the book cuts between them so that the reader is following them all simultaneously. Hope’s marriage to John is happy at first. She is contentedly working as an ecologist mapping ancient hedgerows, while John is immersed in the study of chaos theory – a subject Hope can’t even pretend to understand but she does understand John’s passion for it. Gradually though, as John repeatedly fails to achieve his own goal to make a unique contribution to the subject, his mental health begins to show the strain. Jumping from one mathematical discipline to another, alternating between heavy drinking and total abstention, John’s behaviour becomes progressively more erratic and their marriage comes under ever greater strain.

The reader knows from the second strand, at Grosso Arvore, that the marriage ended, but doesn’t know how or what was the final straw until towards the end of the book. But we see Hope, still young, now researching chimp behaviour in Africa. Her task is to observe a small group of chimps who have broken away from the main group. Eugene Mallabar is about to publish what will be his magnum opus – the last word on chimpanzees – and his reputation is what brings in the grants and donations that make the research possible. But Hope begins to see behaviour in her chimp group that doesn’t tie in with Mallabar’s research. At first, she tells him about this but he dismisses her – he doesn’t want his research threatened. So she begins to conduct her own research and is increasingly disturbed by what she discovers.

William Boyd

Hope sees Usman whenever she goes to the nearby town for supplies for the project. But on one trip, she and a colleague are taken captive by a group of rebels. Although this is a fairly small part of the overall story, it’s one of the most powerful – Boyd gives a compelling picture of the chaos of this kind of indeterminate warfare which is so commonplace on the African continent.

This is a book that could easily be read on two levels. The ideas in it about scientific ambition and evolution may not be particularly original, but they are very well presented, and Boyd even manages to make the maths discussions comprehensible and interesting, with something to say about the wider world. But put all the ideas and themes to one side, and the book becomes a simple but compelling story of Hope’s life. She is an exceptionally well drawn character, a strong, intelligent, independent woman, self-reliant sometimes to the point of coldness, but I found it easy to empathise with her nonetheless.

While I found the stories of Hope’s marriage and her later relationship with Usman absorbing and emotionally credible, what made the book stand out for me was the story of the chimp research in Grosso Arvore. For those particularly sensitive to animal stories, I will say that Boyd pulls no punches – he shows us nature in all its gore, sometimes graphically. But this is all animal to animal interaction – there is no suggestion of human cruelty towards the chimps – and I therefore found it quite bearable, like watching a wildlife documentary. Hope is professional in her approach so that the chimps are never anthropomorphised, but clear parallels are drawn between the behaviour of the chimps and the war going on in the human world. And because the chimps are such close relatives to humans, they gradually develop personalities of their own that we care about as much as if they were human. The other aspect of the chimp story is Mallabar’s reaction to the threat to his life’s work, and I found this equally well executed and believable.

Harriet Walter

For me, this is Boyd at his best. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? I listened to it on audio, perfectly narrated by Harriet Walter. I found it took me ages to get through (mainly because I tend to listen while cooking and eating, and frankly a lot of the chimp stuff just wasn’t suited to that activity!) but I remained totally absorbed in each strand, never having that irritating feeling of wishing he would hurry up and get back to the other storyline. It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

The Master of Ballantrae, James in baptism, took from his father the love of serious reading; some of his tact perhaps as well, but that which was only policy in the father became black dissimulation in the son. The face of his behaviour was merely popular and wild: he sat late at wine, later at the cards; had the name in the country of “an unco man for the lasses;” and was ever in the front of broils. But for all he was the first to go in, yet it was observed he was invariably the best to come off; and his partners in mischief were usually alone to pay the piper. This luck or dexterity got him several ill-wishers, but with the rest of the country, enhanced his reputation; so that great things were looked for in his future, when he should have gained more gravity. […] I think it notable that he had always vaunted himself quite implacable, and was taken at his word; so that he had the addition among his neighbours of “an ill man to cross.” Here was altogether a young nobleman (not yet twenty-four in the year ’45) who had made a figure in the country beyond his time of life.

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She told him it had been six years ago that she had stayed a day with the Rasputins while on a pilgrimage to Kiev. It was the busy season, and Rasputin was mostly out in the fields, but he would often run home to check on things, each time trying to get her to kiss him. She resisted, insisting that it was not right, but he told her that “among us spiritual pilgrims seeking to save ourselves there is a type of spiritual kissing, like the way the Apostle Paul kissed St. Thekla.” Karneeva repeated how while climbing up out of the chapel beneath the stables, he had grabbed her and kissed her cheek. It was then Rasputin told her of the appearance of the Holy Spirit. Later that day, Glukhovtsev brought Karneeva and Rasputin together for what the Russians called an ochnaia stavka, a sort of face-to-face confrontation, to try to get to the bottom of her claims. Seated directly across from Rasputin, Karneeva repeated everything she had told Glukhovtsev. To each of her statements Rasputin said little more than “That was all long ago, I don’t recall a thing,” or “I don’t remember a thing from that far back,” or simply “I don’t remember that.”

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I had visited the place several times when the professor was alive, and I was also a student of zoology, especially anthropods, so I should have been quite used to the sight; nevertheless it still gave me the shivers and I was rooted for a moment to the spot. Inside hundreds of bottles lining the walls, eight-legged monsters were running around and spinning their webs. Big Oni-gumo and Joro spiders, yellow with blue stripes; Harvestmen with legs ten times longer than their bodies; Cellar spiders with yellow spots on their backs. The grotesque Kimura spider and trapdoor spiders, Ji-gumo, Ha-gumo, Hirata-gumo, Kogane-gumo; all these different kinds of spider had not been fed for about a month and, having lost most of their flesh, were looking around with shiny, hungry eyes for food. Some jars had not been properly sealed and the escaped spiders had spun their webs on the ceiling and in the corners of the room. Countless numbers of the ghastly creatures were crawling around on the walls and ceiling.

From The Spider by Koga Saburo

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I sauntered through the camp towards my hut. On my left, scattered amongst nim and palm trees and big clumps of hibiscus hedge, were the most important buildings in the camp complex – the garage and workshops, Mallabar’s bungalow, the canteen, the kitchen and storage sheds, and beyond them the now abandoned dormitory of the census workers. Beyond that, over to the right, I could just see, through a screen of plumbago hedge, the round thatched roofs of the cooks’ and small boys’ quarters.

I continued past the huge hagania tree that dominated the centre of the camp and which had given it its name: grosso arvore. The Grosso Arvore Research Centre.

On the other side of the track, opposite the canteen, was Hauser’s laboratory and behind that was the tin cabin he shared with Toshiro. Thirty yards along from the lab was the Vails’ bungalow, not as big as chez Mallabar but prettier, freighted with jasmine and bougainvillea. And then, finally, at the camp’s northern extremity, was my hut. In fact “hut” was a misnomer: I lived in a cross between a tent and a tin shack, a curious dwelling with canvas sides and a corrugated iron roof. I suppose it was fitting that it should go to me, on the principle that the newest arrival should occupy the least permanent building, but I was not displeased with it and was indifferent to what it might say about my status.

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From the Archives…

Imaginings and resonances and pain and small longings and prejudices. They meant nothing against the resolute hardness of the sea…It might have been better, she felt, if there had never been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love.

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?