FictionFan Awards 2019 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year 2019

A standing ovation please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2019.

For the benefit of new readers, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2018 and October 2019 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

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2019

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

Like last year, I’ve been reading so many classics this year it hasn’t left room for an awful lot of modern literary fiction, and I don’t include classics in these awards. However, being forced to be choosier means I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of the books I have read. I gave eleven books the full five stars, so the choice was not easy. And two of these could really share top spot, but since I’m not the Booker committee I’ll actually make a decision!

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. Meantime, Ji Lin is working as a dance-hall hostess, and when one of her customers becomes overly amorous he drops something – a preserved and blackened finger in a vial. And suddenly strange things begin to happen around Ji Lin – unexplained deaths and vivid dreams that seem to impinge on her waking life…

While there is on one level a relatively straightforward crime and mystery element to this, it’s shrouded in the folklore of the Chinese inhabitants of colonial Malaya (now Malaysia), especially as regards the mythology surrounding death rituals and the legend of the weretiger. I enjoyed every word of it – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness – great stuff!

Click to see the full review

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Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage

After years of unsuccessful IVF treatment, Meg and Nate have given up their attempt to have a child, leaving Meg especially feeling that a vital part of her remains empty and unfulfilled. Her older sister Anna is home in Australia after spending several years working for various aid agencies in Thailand and Cambodia. At lunch one day, Anna introduces Meg to some friends who have just become parents via commercial surrogacy in Thailand. Suddenly Meg feels the hope she thought she had stifled come to life again. Anna is horrified at first but she comes to recognise Meg’s desperation and agrees to use her knowledge of the language and customs of Thailand to help her sister and brother-in-law navigate their way through the difficult path they have chosen.

Savage brings a balanced impartiality to the moral questions around the issue of paid surrogacy. I’m always afraid when a book is so clearly based around a moral issue that the author will slip into polemics, forcing her view on the reader. Savage avoids this by having her characters have very different opinions on the subject and letting them speak for themselves. An “issues” book where the author trusts the reader to think for herself, very well written, deeply emotional and, in my opinion, a very fine novel indeed.

Click to see the full review

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The Observations by Jane Harris

Fleeing from her hometown of Glasgow in search of a better life, young Bessy Buckley finds herself more or less accidentally taking a job as maid at Castel Haivers, the home of Arabella Reid and her husband James, halfway along the road to Edinburgh. Arabella is young, beautiful and kind, and the affection-starved Bessy is soon devoted to her new mistress. But soon Bessy finds she’s not the first maid to whom Arabella has shown peculiar attention; in particular there was a girl named Nora, who died in circumstances that seem to cast a dark shadow over the household…

This is a take on the Victorian sensation novel complete with touches of Gothic horror, insanity, shocking deaths and so on. But what makes it special is Bessy, our narrator. She’s both feisty and vulnerable, strong but sometimes unsure of herself, devoted to but clear-sighted about the flaws of her mistress. However, it’s Bessy’s voice that is so special – a real tour-de-force from Harris in recreating an entirely credible dialect and slang for that place and time. Bessy is Irish originally, as were so many Glaswegians, and I loved the way Harris managed to give her language an authentic touch of Glasgow-Irish at points. Great characters, lots of humour, nicely spooky at points – a great read!

Click to see the full review

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10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

Tequila Leila’s body is dead, but as her consciousness slowly fades, she finds herself drifting through memories of her life – the childhood that made her the woman she would become, her family, her loves, her friends. And along the way, we are given a picture of the underbelly of Istanbul, of those on the margins finding ways to live in a society that rejects them.

Despite the fact that the main character is dead, this is a wonderfully uplifting, life-affirming story. Time ticks down minute by minute for Leila, each marked by an episode from her life, often triggered by a memory of an aroma or a taste, such as the lemons the women used to make the wax for their legs, or the cardamom coffee that Leila loved. And as we follow Leila through her memories, we learn about the people who have had the greatest impact on her life. Her father, hoping always for a son. Her mother, a second wife married as little more than a child to provide that son that the first wife has failed to give. Her uncle, a man who will disrupt her childhood and change her possible futures irrevocably. And most of all her friends – five people she meets along the way who become bound together closer than any family, through ties of love and mutual support in a world that has made them outsiders. Beautifully written, a wonderful book that moved me to tears and laughter, that angered me and comforted me and, most of all, that made me love these characters with all their quirks and flaws and generosity of spirit. Could so easily have been my winner…

Click to see the full review

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

Night Theatre by Vikram Paralkar

A former surgeon now acts as a general doctor in a small run-down clinic serving a population of rural villagers. Frustrated with the way his life has turned out, the surgeon is in a near perpetual state of disappointment and ill-temper. Then, one night after a long day when he has been giving all the local children their polio vaccinations, he is approached by three very strange patients, each with terrible wounds. They are a husband, wife and young son who were attacked in the street, robbed, stabbed and left to die. Which indeed they did. Now they have been given the chance to return from the afterlife, but before they come alive at dawn the next day, they must have their wounds treated or they will die again…

A beautifully written fable which, while it can be read on one level simply as a unique, interesting and very human story, has layer upon layer of depth, dealing with the big questions of life, death, faith, and the place of medicine in all of these. The whole question of the unknowableness of God’s plan and of the place of faith in determining how to act underlies every decision the characters are forced to make and, in the end, their humanity is all they have to guide them. Paralkar also shows the skills we take for granted in our surgeons – the near miracles we expect them to perform, and our readiness to criticise and blame if they fail. The underlying suggestion seems to be that we’re near to a point of refusing to accept death as inevitable, and what does that do to questions of faith?

Paralkar has achieved the perfect balance of giving a satisfying and thought-provoking story without telling the reader what to think, and as a result this is one that each reader will make unique to herself. One of the most original novels I’ve read in years.

(And yet… it seems to have sunk almost without trace, having garnered only 172 ratings on Goodreads as compared to Elif Shafak’s 5113. Suggesting that a Booker nomination is more influential than an FF Award – surely not! Get out there, people, read it, review it and force it on everyone you know… for my sake! 😉 )

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 2019

THE WINNER

An extremely difficult choice this year – both Furious Hours and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World would have been worthy winners too. But this book just edged ahead in the final furlong – its originality, its profound humanity, and the fact that several months after reading it I still often find myself pondering over the questions it raises. One that I will undoubtedly read again – the highest accolade I can give to any book – and I’m looking forward with great anticipation to seeing what Paralkar gives us in the future.

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!

 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

Generosity of spirit…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Tequila Leila’s body is dead, but her brain has not yet shut completely down. As her consciousness slowly fades, she finds herself drifting through memories of her life – the childhood that made her the woman she would become, her family, her loves, her friends. And along the way, we are given a picture of the underbelly of Istanbul, of those on the margins finding ways to live in a society that rejects them.

Despite the fact that the main character has just been murdered and is now lying dead in a rubbish bin hoping that someone will discover her body, this is a wonderfully uplifting, life-affirming story. Time ticks down minute by minute for Leila, each marked by an episode from her life, often triggered by a memory of an aroma or a taste, such as the lemons the women used to make the wax for their legs, or the cardamom coffee that Leila loved. And as we follow Leila through her memories, we learn about the people who have had the greatest impact on her life. Her father, hoping always for a son. Her mother, a second wife married as little more than a child to provide that son that the first wife has failed to give. Her uncle, a man who will disrupt her childhood and change her possible futures irrevocably. And most of all her friends – five people she meets along the way who become bound together closer than any family, through ties of love and mutual support in a world that has made them outsiders.

Nalan now remembered an evening in a restaurant in Asmalimescit where they often dined, the three of them. Stuffed vine leaves and fried mussels (D/Ali had ordered them for everyone, though mostly for Leila), pistachio baklava and quince with clotted cream (Leila had ordered them for everyone, though mostly for D/Ali), a bottle of raqi (Nalan had ordered it for everyone, though mostly for herself).

Elif Shafak

It’s always difficult when reviewing this kind of fictional biography to avoid saying too much, since most of the joy comes from the slow revelations that bring us to where we know the story ends – with Leila’s murder. I loved this one so much I’m going to err on the side of caution and say nothing about Leila’s life, or the lives of her friends, other than that the book is not so much about how they are beaten down by the unfairness of their lives, but rather about how their mutual friendship helps them transcend their circumstances. The prose is wonderful, the many stories feel utterly true and real, and they are beautifully brought together to create an intensely moving picture of a life that might pass unremarked and unmourned by society, but showing how remarkable such a life can be in its intimate details and how mourning is a tribute gained by a loving, generous soul regardless of status.

But as well as the people, Shafak creates a wonderful picture of the darker parts of Istanbul, where those whom society rejects hustle to live – “fallen” women, transgender people, people with physical disabilities, political dissidents, those who simply feel they don’t quite fit the life that has been allocated to them, by their families, by their religion, by the state, by fate. It’s an often exotic picture (to my Western eyes, at least), with wonderfully sensuous descriptions of food, aromas, sounds, colours.

Slowly, dawn was breaking. Streaks of colour – peach bellinis, orange martinis, strawberry margaritas, frozen negronis – streamed above the horizon, east to west. Within a matter of seconds, calls to prayer from the surrounding mosques reverberated around her, none of them synchronized. Far in the distance, the Bosphorus, waking from its turquoise sleep, yawned with force.

And there’s a sense of danger always hovering, with its corollary of exhilaration. Without any polemics, Shafak lets us see how this society works – still repressive to our Western eyes, but with a tension between those of a conservative cast looking East and those who look with envious longing towards the liberalism and comparative wealth of nearby Europe. I felt it gave me a much deeper understanding of this country which is often the subject of debate as to whether we should welcome it into the family of European nations or reject it as too “Arabic” – our opinions swayed backwards and forwards as each new leader changes the direction Turkey faces. A country that itself is in some senses as liminal and marginalised as the characters Shafak creates for us.

A wonderful book that moved me to tears and laughter, that angered me and comforted me and, most of all, that made me love these characters with all their quirks and flaws and generosity of spirit. One of the books of the year for me and, obviously, highly recommended.

When men asked – and they often did – why she insisted on spelling ‘Leyla’ as ‘Leila’, and whether by doing so she was trying to make herself seem Western or exotic, she would laugh and say that one day she went to the bazaar and traded the ‘y’ of ‘yesterday’ with the ‘i’ of ‘infinity’, and that was that.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Viking at Penguin UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 4 of 20

TBR Thursday 198…

Episode 198

Yet again, the TBR has dropped – down 1 to 221! I wish this was because I was racing through the books, but in reality it’s because I’ve been abandoning books right, left and centre. It’s a brutal way to get it down, but effective…

Here are a few more that will be rolling off the pile soon…

Factual

Courtesy of Picador via NetGalley. The story of a real female amateur detective operating in the time of Golden Age mystery fiction is irresistible…

The Blurb says: Maud West ran her detective agency in London for more than thirty years, having started sleuthing on behalf of society’s finest in 1905. Her exploits grabbed headlines throughout the world but, beneath the public persona, she was forced to hide vital aspects of her own identity in order to thrive in a class-obsessed and male-dominated world. And – as Susannah Stapleton reveals – she was a most unreliable witness to her own life.

Who was Maud? And what was the reality of being a female private detective in the Golden Age of Crime?

Interweaving tales from Maud West’s own ‘casebook’ with social history and extensive original research, Stapleton investigates the stories Maud West told about herself in a quest to uncover the truth.

With walk-on parts by Dr Crippen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Parisian gangsters and Continental blackmailers, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is both a portrait of a woman ahead of her time and a deliciously salacious glimpse into the underbelly of ‘good society’ during the first half of the twentieth century.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Viking via NetGalley. I know nothing about this one but have heard good things about the author, and the blurb makes it sound wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful. Plus it’s set in Istanbul, so hopefully will make for an interesting detour on my Around the World challenge…

The Blurb says: “In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away…”

For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life – friends who are now desperately trying to find her. . . 

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Thriller

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. RJ Ellory is one of those authors who is great when he’s on form, but sometimes he’s not. Hopefully this “what if?” thriller will be one of the great ones…

The Blurb says: IT WAS THE SHOT HEARD AROUND THE WORLD
On 22nd November 1963, John F. Kennedy’s presidential motorcade rode through Dealey Plaza. He and his wife Jackie greeted the crowds on a glorious Friday afternoon in Dallas, Texas.

BUT WHAT IF IT MISSED?
Mitch Newman is a photojournalist based out of Washington, D.C. His phone never rings. When it does, a voice he hasn’t heard in years will tell him his former fiancée Jean has taken her own life.

WHEN THE TRUTH IS BIGGER THAN ALL THE LIES
Jean was an investigative reporter working the case of a lifetime. Somewhere in the shreds of her investigation is the truth behind her murder.

WHO WOULD BELIEVE IT?

For Mitch, piecing together the clues will become a dangerous obsession: one that will lead him to the dark heart of his country – and into the crossfire of a conspiracy…

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Fiction on Audio

I tried to listen to this when it came out and abandoned it, partly because Reese Witherspoon’s accent is so Southern I was struggling to catch some of the words, but mainly because I was uneasy about the publication of the book – I still feel Harper Lee was taken advantage of at the end of her life. However, having recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and just finished the fascinating Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), about the true crime novel Lee tried and failed to write, I find I’m ready to approach this one now, more as an interesting insight on Lee herself, perhaps, than with a real anticipation of it being a great novel. If Reese is too much for me, I have a paper copy to fall back on…

The Blurb says: Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.

Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch—Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.

Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee’s enduring classic. Moving, funny and compelling, it stands as a magnificent novel in its own right.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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