Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
NOVEMBER

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. (Time to think up a new idea for next year, Cleo! 😉 )

So here are my favourite November reads – click on the covers to go to the full reviews…

 

2011

 

after the lockoutVictor Lennon, hero of the failed Easter Uprising of 1916, returns to his home town in Armagh to look after his drunken father at the behest of Stanislaus, the local priest. Through the microcosm of this small town, we are shown the various tensions existing in Irish society at this period – the iron rule of the Catholic church, those who desire independence from the English, those who are fighting alongside those same English in WW1, those who, like Victor, are inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia to bring about a socialist republic.

But although there is much about religion and politics in this book, the author manages to keep it on a very human level – what we see are two fundamentally good but fallible men driven by circumstances to battle for the hearts and souls of the people. This very fine novel is so well written and accomplished that it’s hard to believe that it is the author’s first. Sadly, so far it has also been his last…

 

2012

 

fujisanThis rather strange but very moving collection of four stories is centred round the iconic Mount Fuji. In each story the central character seems somehow damaged and alone, struggling to work out who they are and why they feel what they feel. 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.

This was my first introduction to contemporary Japanese fiction and has some of the features I’ve since encountered in other books – a strange passivity to some of the characters and a feeling of a generation that has thrown out its old traditions but hasn’t quite worked out how to replace them. I’m not at all sure that I fully understood the book (as often happens to me with Japanese fiction) but I found it compelling and thought provoking, and although it saddened and even disturbed me in places, I felt oddly uplifted in the end.

 

2013

 

an officer and a spyBased on the true story of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer convicted of spying for the Germans in the late 19th century, the book begins with Dreyfus’ humiliation as he is stripped of his rank and military honours in front of his army colleagues and a baying, jeering public crowd. With Dreyfus sent off to Devil’s Island and kept in almost total isolation, the matter was officially considered closed. However as suspicions began to emerge that he was not the spy after all, the army and members of the government began a cover-up that would eventually destroy reputations, wreck careers and even lives, and change the political landscape of France. This fictionalised account is based on the verifiable facts of the affair and, as far as I know, sticks pretty closely to them. The book is lengthy and allows him to examine the various different aspects of French society that made the case both so complex and so significant.

Well written and thought-provoking, my only real criticism of the book is that Harris has jumped on the fashionable bandwagon of using the present tense. However, Harris handles the device as well as most and better than many, and despite it the book is a very interesting and human account of this momentous event in French history.

 

2014

 

the zig-zag girlWhen the legs and head of a beautiful young woman are found in two boxes in the Left Luggage office at Brighton station, something about the body makes Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens think of an old magic trick, the Zig Zag Girl. But when the missing torso turns up in a box addressed to him under his old army title of Captain, he begins to realise that whatever the motive is, it’s personal. So he turns for advice to top stage magician, Max Mephisto, who served with him during the war in a top-secret unit dubbed the Magic Men. Together they begin to investigate a crime that seems to be leading them back towards those days and to the small group of people who made up the unit.

Set in the early 1950s, the investigation is written more like the stories of that time than today’s police procedurals. This is a slower and less rule-bound world where it doesn’t seem odd for the detective to team up with an amateur, and Edgar and Max make a great team. Being based around the world of variety shows, there’s a whole cast of quirky characters, and the rather seedy world of the performers is portrayed very credibly. Griffiths takes her time to reveal the story and paces it just right to keep the reader’s interest while maintaining the suspense. And I’m delighted to say that the next in the series Smoke and Mirrors is, if anything, even better. A must-read series.

 

2015

 

coup de foudreThis collection of a novella and 15 short stories lives up to the high expectations I have developed for the writing of this hugely talented author. The novella-length title story, Coup de Foudre, is a barely disguised imagining of the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal (when the leader of the International Monetary Fund and possible candidate for the French Presidency was accused of having sexually assaulted a chamber-maid in a Manhattan hotel room). In Kalfus’ hands, it becomes a compelling examination of a man so intoxicated by power and his own superiority that he feels he is above the common morality.

Some of the other stories are also based on real-life events. Some have a political aspect to them, while others have a semi-autobiographical feel, and there’s a lot of humour in many of them. There are several that would be classed, I suppose, as ‘speculative fiction’ – borderline sci-fi – but with Kalfus it’s always humanity that’s at the core, even when he’s talking about parallel universes, dead languages or even cursed park benches! There are some brilliantly imaginative premises on display here, along with the more mundane, but in each story Kalfus gives us characters to care about and even the more fragmentary stories have a feeling of completeness so often missing from contemporary short story writing. This is a great collection which would be a perfect introduction to Kalfus.

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

Coup de Foudre by Ken Kalfus

A master of the short story form…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

coup de foudreKen Kalfus has become one of my favourite writers since I first read Equilateral, his brilliantly written take on the Mars sci-fi story. His collection of short stories about Soviet Russia, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, confirmed my first impression, while also letting me know that he is a true master of the short story form. So I was primed to love this new collection, which consists of a novella and 15 short stories. And I’m pleased to say that the book lived up to, perhaps exceeded, my high expectations.

The novella-length title story, Coup de Foudre, is a barely disguised imagining of the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal (when the leader of the International Monetary Fund and possible candidate for the French Presidency was accused of having sexually assaulted a chamber-maid in a Manhattan hotel room). In Kalfus’ hands, it becomes a compelling examination of a man so intoxicated by power and his own superiority that he feels he is above the common morality. Landau, the Strauss-Kahn figure, narrates the story in the form of a letter to the maid. There is much here about the then political situation, with Greece teetering on the brink of financial meltdown and a real possibility of a domino effect across large parts of Europe; and, in his arrogance, Landau believes only he can save Europe and his downfall is Europe’s also. But monstrous though Kalfus paints him, we also see his concern in principle for the poor and less advantaged of the world. He recognizes the maid’s positional weakness as an immigrant who lied to get entry to the US to escape from a country where women are still treated abominably and where female genital mutilation is still routinely practised, and is sympathetic to her situation, while not allowing that sympathy to interfere with fulfilling his own desires.

strauss-kahn headlines

The story is extremely sexually explicit, but not pruriently. Rather, Kalfus is drawing parallels between economic and political power and sexual power, and the single-minded egotism that seems so often to be the driver behind both. I admit I felt uneasy, as I always do, about the morality of writing a story so obviously concerning real people still living. Not for Strauss-Kahn’s sake, I hasten to add, but I did wonder about the re-imagining of the maid’s story. Although depicted clearly as the victim, there are aspects of the story that made me feel as if it almost represented another level of assault, and I wondered whether she had been asked for and given permission to have her story told in this way. One could certainly argue that the salacious details of the story have already been so hashed over in the public domain that it can’t matter. But somehow I still feel it does. Despite that reservation, I found the story well written, psychologically persuasive and intensely readable.

Ken Kalfus
Ken Kalfus

Fortunately the rest of the collection didn’t affect me with the same kind of internal conflict. Some of the other stories are also based on real-life events but not with the same kind of personalisation and intimacy of this first one. Some have a political aspect to them, while others have a semi-autobiographical feel, and there’s a lot of humour in many of them. There are several that would be classed, I suppose, as ‘speculative fiction’ – borderline sci-fi – but with Kalfus it’s always humanity that’s at the core, even when he’s talking about parallel universes, dead languages or even cursed park benches! There are some brilliantly imaginative premises on display here, along with the more mundane, but in each story Kalfus gives us characters to care about and even the more fragmentary stories have a feeling of completeness so often missing from contemporary short story writing. Here’s a small flavour of what can be found in the collection…

The Un- – a beautifully funny tale of what it’s like to be an unpublished writer – all the insecurities and jealousies, the stratagems for getting stories into print, the need to earn a living while waiting for the never-appearing acceptance letter. Witty and warm, Kalfus gently mocks the pseud-ness of so much of the writing world, but never from a place of superiority. It’s clear that this is autobiographical, and Kalfus was a member of The Un- back in the days before there was the possibility of solving the problem by becoming part of The Self-. He speculates on whether one can call oneself a writer before one is published. The drive to be published comes above all else, until he is suddenly hit with an idea – when suddenly it takes second place to the need to write.

An entire ward at the Home for the Literary Insane was occupied by people who insisted on favorably likening their evening-and-weekend scribbling to the work of the world’s most accomplished writers. Another ward was for people who compared their work to that of inferior writers who were nevertheless published; something snapped when they tried to account for the appearance of these mediocrities in print: it required a bloodlessly cynical theory of publishing or, even more, a nihilist’s genuflection before the mechanisms of an amoral universe.

Mr Iraq – this is the story of a journalist, normally on the left politically, who found himself supporting the Iraq war. Now in 2005, his father is attending anti-war demonstrations and his son is advocating bringing back the draft. This story gives a great picture of the dilemma in which left-wing supporters of the war found themselves when everything began to wrong and of the sense of alienation from politics with which many of them were left.

Teach Yourself Tsilanti: Preface – a charming little tale of unrequited love and longing disguised as an introduction to a rediscovered, long dead language, written by a man whose own love of words shines through in the precision with which he uses them to create beautiful things. I can’t help feeling this one may have an autobiographical element too…

How did Tsilanti gallants win their sweethearts? Not with testosterone-fuelled competitive violence, nor with gaudy displays of material riches, nor with glib lines of poetry ripped off from professional bards. No, the currency of love in the era of Tsilanti greatness was manufactured by patient, passionate, intimate instruction. The Tsilanti swain approached his maiden with fresh or obscure words, phrases, and sentences. With his glamorous baubles of language, he gave her a new way of thinking about the world and the distinct items that populate it. If she accepted his tribute, the Tsilanti couple began to share a common experience, a vision, and a life. This is all any of us can hope for within the span of our brief earthly tenures.

This is a great collection which would be a perfect introduction to Kalfus. Occasionally shocking, hugely imaginative, full of warmth and humour and extremely well written, every story in the book rated at a minimum of four stars for me, with most being five. And Kalfus finishes the thing off beautifully with some Instructions for my Literary Executors, a little piece of mockery at the expense of the occasional pomposity of the literary world, but done so self-deprecatingly that any sting is removed…

4. The Collected Correspondence. I was never much of a letter writer, but in the course of a long and varied literary life, I’ve left a lot of messages for people, mostly on their answering machines. Place a query in the New York Review of Books; certainly many of these answering-machine tapes have been saved and my messages can be retrieved from them. Don’t edit the messages – please! I want posterity to “hear” me as I was…

 

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 59…

Episode 59

 

A massive decrease in the TBR this week – to 140. I’m powering through the books but developing a backlog for review. This is due to a combination of summer, tennis and general procrastination – all of which have meant I haven’t been visiting your blogs this week either, for which my apologies! Wimbledon is underway so I may not be around much for the next week or so, but should be back properly after that, revitalised and ready to serve up some backhanded reviews and slice a few more off the reading list. Hope I don’t hit any ballboys…

Vamos Rafa!
Vamos Rafa!

Meantime, a few that are rising to the top of the heap. A mixed bag this time – the only one I feel really confident about is the Ken Kalfus…

Fiction

 

coup de foudreThis book has been a long time in the publishing – I originally pre-ordered it in January 2014, and still no Kindle version available, and I’m not sure the hardback is out yet either over here, though it is in the US. However with Kalfus I’m sure it will have been worth the wait…

The Blurb says The third collection by the celebrated author of Thirst and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, Coup de Foudre is the groundbreaking work of literary invention Ken Kalfus’s fans have come to expect. The book is anchored by the biting title novella, a sometimes comic, ultimately tragic story about the president of an international lending institution accused of sexually assaulting a chambermaid in a New York hotel. With irony and compassion, Kalfus skewers international political gridlock and the hypocrisies of acceptable sexual conduct. The stories in Coup de Foudre vary boldly in theme, setting, and tone, yet they each share Kalfus’s distinctive humor and intellect, inextricably bound with high literary ambition.

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skinCourtesy of NetGalley. I have no idea why I requested this! I must have been having a funny spell…it just doesn’t sound like my kind of thing at all. But maybe it’ll be great…

The Blurb says “Imagine a world where everyone is born with a ‘skin’ name. Without skin you cannot learn, you are not permitted to marry, and you grow up an outsider amongst your own people.This is no future dystopia. This is Celtic Britain.

It is AD 43. For the Caer Cad, ‘skin’ name determines lineage and identity. Ailia does not have skin; despite this, she is a remarkable young woman, intelligent, curious and brave. As a dark threat grows on the horizon – the aggressive expansion of the Roman Empire – Ailia must embark on an unsanctioned journey to attain the knowledge that will protect her people, and their pagan way of life, from the most terrifying invaders they have ever faced… and it is this unskinned girl who will come to hold the fate of her people in her hands.

SKIN is a standout, full-blooded debut which invokes the mesmerizing, genre-transcending magic of novels such as Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cavebear; it combines epic storytelling with a strikingly unique plot set during a fascinating period of Britain’s history.

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Crime

 

little black liesCourtesy of NetGalley. I love Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint series, but I’m not so sure how I’ll feel about this standalone. However I think she’s a great storyteller, so hopefully she’ll carry me with her… (I’ve started it since I drafted this – hmm! Still not sure…)

The Blurb says What’s the worst thing your best friend could do to you?

Admittedly, it wasn’t murder. A moment’s carelessness, a tragic accident – and two children are dead. Yours. Living in a small island community, you can’t escape the woman who destroyed your life. Each chance encounter is an agonizing reminder of what you’ve lost – your family, your future, your sanity. How long before revenge becomes irresistible? With no reason to go on living, why shouldn’t you turn your darkest thoughts into deeds?

So now, what’s the worst thing you can do to your best friend?

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the case of the dotty dowagerCourtesy of NetGalley. Given my growing aversion to ‘gritty’ modern crime fiction (i.e., police brutality, drunkenness and swearing), I’m hoping this title suggests something a bit more mystery and a bit less graphic…

The Blurb saysMeet the Women of the WISE Enquiries Agency. The first in a new series.

Henry Twyst, eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, is convinced his mother is losing her marbles. She claims to have seen a corpse on the dining-room floor, but all she has to prove it is a bloodied bobble hat. Worried enough to retain the women of the WISE Enquiries Agency one is Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish and one English Henry wants the strange matter explained away. But the truth of what happened at the Chellingworth Estate, set in the rolling Welsh countryside near the quaint village of Anwen by Wye, is more complex, dangerous, and deadly, than anyone could have foreseen . . . ”

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NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

So…what do you think?

Do any of these tempt you?

(Apart from Rafa, obviously…’cos he’s mine!)