Six Degrees of Separation – From Donoghue 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 Room by Emma Donoghue. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

Jack lives with his Ma in Room. Room has a single locked door and a skylight, and it measures ten feet by ten feet. Jack loves watching TV but he knows that nothing he sees on the screen is truly real – only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits there is a world outside.

This one has never appealed to me, despite the zillions of glowing reviews. The idea of spending a book inside the head of a five year old is my idea of hell, I fear. But the being held captive by a maniac theme reminds me of…


Koethi Zan’s The Never List, a dark and disturbing psychological thriller. When Sarah and her best friend Jennifer were growing up, they made a list of all the things they should never do if they wanted to stay safe in a world that they had already discovered could turn dangerous in an instant. But one night they forgot the most basic never of all – never get in the car

“There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity. And then, very suddenly and without warning, there were three. Even though the fourth person hadn’t made any noise at all in several months, the room got very quiet when she was gone.”

This was a début that immediately put the author on my must-read list. Which happened again when I read another début…

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rendell. It’s Prohibition Era in America and the police in Brooklyn have been tasked with closing down the speakeasies that have sprung up around the district. To help with the extra workload a new typist is hired, the charming and beautiful Odalie. At first, Rose, the narrator, is a little jealous of the attention Odalie receives from all quarters, but when Odalie decides to befriend her, Rose quickly falls under her spell. Even as she realises that Odalie might have some dark secrets, Rose can’t resist the new and exciting lifestyle to which Odalie has introduced her. But Rose herself may have secrets too – or else why would she be narrating the story from an institution…?

Keira Knightley has bought the films rights to The Other Typist apparently – I think she’d make a great Odalie…or maybe Rose!

Rendell brings the Prohibiton era to life and admits in her prologue that she took inspiration from her favourite book – a favourite of mine too…

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. Set in the summer of 1922, the book portrays the brittleness of a society still quivering from the aftershocks of WW1 and looking fearfully towards an uncertain future. The hedonism and dazzling decadence of the “Roaring Twenties” is exposed as a thin veneer over a society riven by class division, old wealth and new, and showing the first signs of a breakdown in the old social order. And then, of course, there’s the stunning, evocative writing…

But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

 

I thought Mia Farrow made the perfect Daisy, a picture of vulnerability but with an unbreakable core. She played a similar character, Jackie, in another film adaptation, though of a very different kind of book…

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. I haven’t reviewed this one on the blog which tells me it’s well overdue for a re-read, since it’s one of Christie’s finest. The rich and beautiful Linnet Ridgeway is on honeymoon with her new husband Simon, cruising the Nile. But their idyll is about to be destroyed when Simon’s jealous ex-lover Jackie shows up. Jackie is the obvious suspect when Linnet is murdered, but she couldn’t have done it. It’s up to fellow holidaymaker Hercule Poirot to find out who did…

One of the major themes of Death on the Nile is betrayal, which made me think of…

Exposure by Helen Dunmore. When fading Communist spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help. The brilliance of this story about spies and traitors rests largely on its excellent charcaterisations and authentic setting. But what really makes this book stand out from the crowd is the inclusion of Simon’s wife and family. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children, where we see the story from the adults’ side.

While Giles is the name of a person in Exposure, it’s part of the name of a place in another great novel – Kingston St Giles, the setting for…


Sebastian Faulks’ Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. Modern follow-on novels notoriously usually make me spit and curse. But Faulks has got the overall tone completely right and the dialogue, especially between Bertie and Jeeves, is wonderful! Scarcely a false note, throughout. The plot is suitably convoluted, we meet some old friends and the special sunshine of Wodehouse’s world is back to warm us all again.

‘And what was his attitude towards Georgiana?’
Jeeves considered. One could almost hear the cogwheels of that great brain whirring as he selected the mot juste. It was a pity that, when it came, it was one with which I was unfamiliar.
‘I should say his attitude was complaisant, sir.’
‘Complacent, do you mean?’
‘I fancy either adjective might apply, sir.’
‘Hmm.’ While unsure of the difference, I was fairly certain neither was quite up to snuff.

My fave Jeeves and Wooster

 * * * * *

So Donoghue to Faulks, via captivity, débuts, the Prohibition era, Mia Farrow, betrayal and Giles!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

FictionFan Awards 2016 – Literary Fiction & Book of the Year 2016

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 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.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

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!

* * * * * * * * *

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

LITERARY FICTION

I’ve abandoned more lit-fic novels this year than ever before, I think – partly due to my lengthy reading slump and partly due to the current fad for plotless musings and polemics thinly disguised as fiction. However, I’m delighted to say there have been some great reads, too, including a couple from new authors who will hopefully go on to even greater things in the future. The shortlist is too long, but I really couldn’t decide which of these fantastic books to leave out, so I’ll try to keep my comments on each brief…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

the high mountains of portugalThe High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

The three interlinked stories in this book are each very different but with common themes running through them, and all linked to a small town in the High Mountains.  The whole book is deliciously enigmatic and sometimes surreal, and I’m sure could be read in a hundred different ways. It is a subtle discussion of the evolution vs. faith debate, with the old evolutionary saw of “risen apes, not fallen angels” appearing repeatedly. Chimps appear in some form in each of the sections, though symbolically rather than actually, except in the third. But meaning aside, the sheer quality of the writing along with the more overt themes of grief and love make it a wonderful read – one that has left some indelible images in my mind.

Click to see the full review

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exposureExposure by Helen Dunmore

When fading spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help, sucking Simon into a situation that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

In many ways this is a standard spy thriller. But mostly what it is is a set of brilliant character studies showing the impact of this event on the lives of all those involved. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children where we see the story from the adults’ side, and an entirely credible portrayal of a fictionalised version of the Cambridge spy ring. Great stuff!

Click to see the full review

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three martini lunchThree-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

It’s 1958, and Greenwich Village is the centre of the hipster scene, populated by aspiring poets and writers. The three main characters take turns to narrate their own stories: Eden, determined to make it in the male-dominated world of publishing; rich boy Cliff, who is pretty sure he just needs a break to make it big as a writer; and Miles, who has real talent as a writer, but as a black man must face the discrimination that is an integral part of the society of the time. When their lives intersect, a chain of events is started that will change the course of their lives.

Rindell has the gift of creating truthful characters with individual voices, and of putting them into settings that feel totally authentic. Her scene-setting is superb – she brings the Village to life in all its seedy vibrancy. A great new talent – one to watch.

Click to see the full review

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zero kZero K by Don DeLillo

This is a strange book that takes one of the clichés of science fiction – cryogenics – and turns it into something that is either incomprehensible or profoundly thought-provoking, depending on how willing the reader is to play along. However, behind the cliché, a distinctly unsettling atmosphere of unease soon begins to seep out of the pages, as the narrator wanders alone through the silence of the cryogenics facility, down long corridors full of doors with nothing to indicate what is behind them. At the end of some of the corridors are viewscreens, showing increasingly horrific images of disaster, destruction and death. It’s an exploration of identity, and of the importance of death in how we define and measure life. From a shaky beginning, I grew to love it, for the writing, the imagery and the intelligence of it.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

enigma 2Enigma by Robert Harris

It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, it’s the authenticity of the setting and the superb plotting that make this one so great.

Click to see the full review

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the girlsThe Girls by Emma Cline

Evie is 14 the summer she meets the girls from the ranch – the summer of ’69. Evie’s fascination quickly turns to infatuation, and a desire to prove herself mature enough to belong to this little group. Before long, she’s spending most of her time at the ranch, where she meets the group’s charismatic leader, Russell, and finds herself willingly sucked into a world that passes beyond hippy commune to cult. And by the end of the summer something so shocking will happen, it will shadow her life for ever.

The characterisation is superb, especially of Evie herself, both as a girl on the cusp of womanhood in the ’60s, and as an adult in late middle-age in the present. And the depiction of the cult is entirely credible, set well within this period of generational shift and huge social upheaval. An excellent book, all the more so considering it’s Cline’s début.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

beloved

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live isolated lives in their community, because everyone knows that their house at no. 124 is haunted. Sethe’s two sons have already left, unable to take any more of the spiteful tricks played by the ghost. But Sethe and Denver see the ghost differently. To Sethe it is the other daughter that she lost, a child known only by the single word carved on her gravestone, “Beloved”. The ghost is angry but Sethe understands why and endlessly forgives, no matter how cruel or violent her behaviour. And to Denver, the ghost is her sister, her only companion in her loneliness. Then one day a man from Sethe’s past arrives, Paul D, who knew her when they were both slaves on Sweet Home. It seems at first that he has driven the ghost away, until some weeks later a strange young woman arrives at the house – her name, Beloved.

This isn’t just a book of the year for me, it’s one of the books of my lifetime. Morrison’s brilliant writing and imagery turn it into one of the most powerful and emotionally devastating books I have ever read. There is furious anger here, in scenes of brutal horror, cruelty and vile humiliation, but the overwhelming tone is of a sorrowful lament for humanity. And to make it bearable, just, there is also beauty, love, some kind of healing, and ultimately hope. Sethe’s is a story that must be understood if we are ever to truly understand ourselves, and ultimately isn’t that what literature is for? Tragic that such a book should ever have come to be written, heartbreaking and devastating to read, but I count it a true privilege to have been given an opportunity to hear Beloved’s story.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

 

.

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016

THE WINNER

.

Best Fiction

Normally I’d rather choose a new book as Book of the Year, but Beloved is so outstanding it had to win! Some of the Great American Novel Quest books I’ve read this year have been pretty disappointing, but I’ll always be glad I started the quest since it was through it that I discovered this book. I realise most people have already read it, but if, like me, you’ve managed to miss it up till now, it gets my highest recommendation. The beautiful writing, savage imagery and deep understanding and sympathy for humanity make it a truly wonderful read – unforgettable.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks to all of you who’ve stuck with me through this year’s awards feature.

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

 

Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Cold War espionage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

exposureWhen fading Communist spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help. But Giles is under observation and someone sees Simon collecting the file. And so Simon is sucked into a situation that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

It’s almost impossible to write a short blurb for this one that doesn’t make it sound as if it’s a spy thriller, and in many ways it is. But mostly what it is is a set of brilliant character studies showing the impact of this event on the lives of all those involved. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children – a book the author herself references in the text, so the connections are clearly intentional – where we see the story from the adults’ side. And it’s an entirely credible portrayal of a fictionalised version of the Cambridge spy ring and its association with homosexuality, at that period of the 1950s and early ’60s still a crime, and enough to destroy a man’s career and even life, if exposed.

The writing is excellent, quickly building up a tense atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion. The book is written in third person, allowing the reader to get inside the head of each of the major characters in turn. Dunmore’s skill allows her to use tense effectively – the book is mostly written in the present tense, but slips in and out of past tense seamlessly when appropriate, so that the reader always knows where s/he is in the timeline. The “past” is there only to provide the reader with an understanding of why the characters act as they do in the present – the real story is of the weeks and months following Giles’ accident.

Cold War spy fiction is usually an almost entirely male preserve (with the exception of the occasional sexy femme fatale) and the Cambridge spy ring has been examined many times in fiction and fact, so to a degree Simon’s and Giles’ stories are familiar territory, though rarely in my experience told with such exceptional depth and credibility of character. But what really makes this book stand out from the crowd is the inclusion of Simon’s wife and family.

The real Cambridge spy ring…

Lily is intelligent and loving, never once doubting her husband’s innocence and fiercely protective of her children. But her childhood was filled with experiences that give her particular cause to fear and distrust the shady world of intelligence and security – a past she now fears may come back to damage Simon and the children. Dunmore brilliantly shows how Lily’s early experiences are both her weakness and her strength when she must start making decisions for her family.

Peter is the eldest son but still only a boy on the cusp of his teen years when the story begins. With his sister, at first his head is full of adventure stories, such as the aforementioned Railway Children, where somehow the children will find a clue that will save their father, or be able to survive on their own if, as they fear, both their parents are arrested. Dunmore again gives a superb portrayal of Peter suddenly being forced to grow up before his time and take on some of the responsibilities of the man of the family. Lily finds herself reluctantly leaning on her son’s strength, but simultaneously regretting that he is now losing his childhood too early, as she herself had done.

The family is at the heart of the book, but the spy story is excellent too. Giles is a low-level spy, once a golden boy but now his constant drinking making him something of a liability. We see the coldness at the heart of the spy ring – the readiness of each level of the organisation to sacrifice the people lower down in order to protect themselves. But Dunmore also takes us back to the time when Simon and Giles met, so that we can see how their relationship developed and understand why Simon still retains feelings of loyalty to this rather sad and broken older man who has dragged him into a situation that is destroying him and the people he most loves.

Helen Dunmore
Helen Dunmore

To understand the Cambridge spy ring, it’s necessary to understand the society of the time, so different to today’s. Dunmore’s depiction feels perfect – at no point did I have that jarring sensation of tripping over an anachronism. The physical stuff – furniture, cigarettes, food etc – is used skilfully to put us into this time period, without ever being overdone. But even more, she reproduces the social and emotional aspects of the time with great authenticity, especially with regard to the two aspects most closely associated with the Cambridge spies – the old boys’ network of class and social background, and society’s attitudes to homosexuality. Her characters’ reactions are always true to the period – no 21st century political correctness creeping in at inappropriate moments. I think the best compliment I can pay her is to say that the book reads as if it could have been written contemporaneously.

And so, when the end plays out with all the drama and suspense of any good spy thriller, it nonetheless all has a feeling of inevitability and truthfulness – none of her carefully developed characters could have acted in ways other than they do. A wonderful book, one of the best of the year for me, and I shall certainly be reading more of Dunmore’s books soon.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

20 books 2016

This is Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer.

TBR Thursday 85…

Episode 85…

And for the third week in a row, the TBR is stuck on 165. It’s not so much that books are being added this time, though, as that my reading has begun to drop off as it always does when the summer tennis season begins to build up. Somehow my mind just doesn’t seem to be on books…
Rafa Nadal Doha

Erm…what was I saying? Oh, yes – books! Well, here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…

Factual

douglas macarthurI know nothing about Douglas MacArthur and generally speaking wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested in a biography of a US general. But this one is written by the fabulous Arthur Herman, whose previous books on philosophy, the Scottish Enlightenment and Gandhi and Churchill I have loved, so if anyone can interest me in MacArthur, I bet Herman can! Courtesy of NetGalley…

The Blurb says: Douglas MacArthur was arguably the last American public figure to be worshipped unreservedly as a national hero, the last military figure to conjure up the romantic stirrings once evoked by George Armstrong Custer and Robert E. Lee. But he was also one of America’s most divisive figures, a man whose entire career was steeped in controversy. Was he an avatar or an anachronism, a brilliant strategist or a vainglorious mountebank? Drawing on a wealth of new sources, Arthur Herman delivers a powerhouse biography that peels back the layers of myth—both good and bad—and exposes the marrow of the man beneath.

* * * * *

Fiction

exposureCourtesy of NetGalley. I’ve seen several very positive reviews of this around the blogosphere, plus I have to admit I love the cover a lot!

The Blurb says: London, November, 1960: the Cold War is at its height. Spy fever fills the newspapers, and the political establishment knows how and where to bury its secrets. When a highly sensitive file goes missing, Simon Callington is accused of passing information to the Soviets, and arrested. His wife, Lily, suspects that his imprisonment is part of a cover-up, and that more powerful men than Simon will do anything to prevent their own downfall. She knows that she too is in danger, and must fight to protect her children. But what she does not realise is that Simon has hidden vital truths about his past, and may be found guilty of another crime that carries with it an even greater penalty.

* * * * *

Crime

daisy in chainsFabulous title, fabulous cover, fabulous Sharon Bolton! Fabulous! Strange blurb though… Courtesy of NetGalley again. I love NetGalley…

The Blurb says: Famous killers have fan clubs.

Locked up for the rest of his life for the abduction and murder of three young women, Hamish Wolfe gets countless adoring letters every day. He’s handsome, charismatic and very persuasive. His admirers are convinced he’s innocent, and that he’s the man of their dreams.

Who would join such a club?

Maggie Rose is different. Reclusive and enigmatic; a successful lawyer and bestselling true-crime writer, she only takes on cases that she can win.

Hamish wants her as his lawyer, he wants her to change his fate. She thinks she’s immune to the charms of a man like this. But maybe not this time . . .

Would you?

* * * * *

the widow bartonThis one is Cleo’s fault – it was her review that sent me scuttling off to… you’ve guessed it… NetGalley! Honestly, I reckon it’s a conspiracy, don’t you? And I think it’s becoming clear who is the chief suspect…

The Blurb says: We’ve all seen him: the man – the monster – staring from the front page of every newspaper, accused of a terrible crime. But what about her: the woman who grips his arm on the courtroom stairs – the wife who stands by him?

Jean Taylor’s life was blissfully ordinary. Nice house, nice husband. Glen was all she’d ever wanted: her Prince Charming. Until he became that man accused, that monster on the front page. Jean was married to a man everyone thought capable of unimaginable evil. But now Glen is dead and she’s alone for the first time, free to tell her story on her own terms. Jean Taylor is going to tell us what she knows.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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