FictionFan Awards – Book of the Year 2020

Drum roll, please…

Due to having read hardly any new releases this year, I’ve decided not to do my usual elaborate FictionFan Awards. Not that I didn’t have plenty of great reads – between 1st November 2019 and 31st October 2020 (my usual bookish “year”), I gave a total of 59 books five-star reviews. The majority of them were vintage crime and classics, though, and many of them were comfort re-reads of old favourites, and I never count re-reads when giving out awards.

So I’ve decided to simply pick the best book of each genre (with a few honourable mentions along the way), and then an overall winner. Ready? Here goes…

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Classics have been the backbone of my reading and listening this year. Fifteen of them got the full galaxy of stars, including three re-reads. Loads of highlights here – The Go-Between review-along which several of us did together was great fun, and Joseph Conrad became a surprise star of the year. Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock blew me away and was a strong contender for the award. I loved some of the lighter ones, like Around the World in Eighty Days and The Prisoner of Zenda. And I found a couple of Scottish greats – The New Road and The White Bird Passes. But two books were so far ahead of all the rest I can’t choose between them, so…

Joint Best Classic Fiction 2020

For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Ernest Hemingway

and

Nostromo
by Joseph Conrad

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My contemporary crime reading was way down in terms of quantity, with me largely sticking to favourite authors. So there were only ten five-star reads in this category, of which very few were brand new releases and several were re-reads. I loved Val McDermid’s A Darker Domain, Jane Casey’s The Cutting Place and Stuart MacBride’s All That’s Dead. But one stood out clearly above the rest…

Best Crime Fiction 2020

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau
by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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My factual reading took a complete dive with the result that only four books made the five-star list. I very much enjoyed Paul Corthorn’s Enoch Powell, but I do feel it would probably only be of interest to British political nerds like me. This one would have a much wider appeal, I think…

Best Factual Book 2020

The Spanish Civil War
by Stanley G Payne

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My fiction reading was extremely limited and shockingly I only awarded nine five-star reviews, and four of those were re-reads. A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth delighted me as a homage to the science fiction greats, and I found a soulmate in Serenata, the grumpy older heroine of Lionel Shriver’s The Motion of the Body Through Space. However, the standout book in this category isn’t a new release but isn’t old enough to be a classic yet, though it will be…

Best Fiction 2020

I Married A Communist
by Philip Roth

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Vintage crime has been my major form of comfort reading this year. A massive fifteen achieved the full galaxy, though three of them were re-reads – all three by Agatha Christie, of course. I continued my love affairs with ECR Lorac and George Bellairs, started a new one with John Dickson Carr, and flirted outrageously with John Bude. But in the end they were all also-rans…

Best Vintage Crime 2020

The Spoilt Kill
by Mary Kelly

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And that only leaves the almost impossible task of picking just one of these. While For Whom the Bell Tolls is equally good, this turned out to be the year when, after decades of avoidance, I finally became a confirmed Joseph Conrad fan. So he has to win the ultimate prize…

FictionFan’s Book of the Year 2020

Nostromo
by Joseph Conrad

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Thanks for joining me on my reading journey 😀

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Love and war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the pine forests high in the Spanish Sierra, a small band of Republican guerrillas is holed up, waiting instructions. Robert Jordan, an American who has volunteered, is sent to lead them in the blowing up of a bridge to prevent Franco’s Nationalists from bringing up reinforcements during a Republican offensive scheduled to begin in a few days time. The guerrilla band is ostensibly led by Pablo, who was once a feared warrior but is now an untrustworthy drunk. The real leader is his woman, the gypsy Pilar, on whose strength and courage Robert will quickly learn to rely. Also in the group is Maria, a beautiful young woman whom the guerrillas rescued from the fascists, but not before they had abused her cruelly, raping her repeatedly and cutting off her hair to advertise her shame to the world. Over the next few days as they prepare for their mission, Robert will learn the stories of these people and we will learn his, seeing what drives a man to participate in a war in a country not his own, and the effect it has on him. And we will see Maria and her Roberto fall in love – a love made more urgent and profound by the uncertainty of the future. As the group sit in the evenings in the cave where they are living, they tell each other stories they have told many times before – stories of the days before war, of atrocities they have seen and participated in, of bullfighting and politics and love.

At first the writing seems odd – Hemingway uses thee and thou and a stylised sentence structure in the dialogue throughout, as a way, I assume, of reminding the reader that in fact the participants are speaking in a language which Robert knows well but is still foreign to him. He also replaces the infrequent swear words with euphemistic replacements, so that one gets sentences like: “And when thou comest to the camp, order that someone should relieve me because I have indescribable and unprintable hunger and I have forgotten the password.” However, he does it so well and consistently that very soon the reader’s mind becomes attuned to it, and it begins to add to the sense of place and time. (It also meant this reader spent way too much time guessing which swear words were being bleeped out…)

Book 60 of 90

The main story, of the plot to blow up the bridge and of the love affair, is wonderful in itself, full of drama and tension, brutally savage at times followed by scenes of tender beauty. Regulars will know that I have mercilessly mocked other male writers’ attempts to write sex scenes, but boy, Hemingway knows exactly how to make something erotic without any explicit description of body parts or bodily fluids! (I was amused to discover that this is the book from which the famous question “Did the earth move for you?” originated, although in the book it is a moment of real emotion rather than the naughty wink-wink joke it had become by my teen years.)

“I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry. I love thee as I love Madrid that we have defended and as I love all my comrades that have died. And many have died. Many. Many. Thou canst not think how many. But I love thee as I love what I love most in the world and I love thee more.”

Maria, admittedly, is little more than a beautiful sex object, the idealised submissive female rather typical of the time. But she is strongly counter-balanced by the depth Hemingway brings to Pilar – for me, the real central character of the book. It is Pilar who tells us about the tragic life of the matador she once loved, a wonderfully told and absorbing tale which shows the importance of bullfighting as part of the culture both as it happens and as a basis for the tradition of oral storytelling and mythologising which feeds into the camaraderie and fellowship of the band. It is Pilar, too, who tells us of the time that she and Pablo took back her village from the fascists, repaying atrocity with atrocity, and showing the reader how easily good people can become a vicious mob, each afraid to stand out and goading each other on to ever worse barbarity. One of the things I most appreciated about the book was Hemingway’s refusal to make one side all bad and the other all good. Here motives and affiliations are murky and, as in most forms of guerrilla warfare, somewhat tribal in that most participants are following strong local leaders rather than fighting for deeply held convictions of their own. Here too we see how the peasants, told by the Communists that God no longer exists, struggle with a sense of loss for a religion that has been so deeply embedded in their culture.

….“You have killed?” Robert Jordan asked.
….“Yes. Several times. But not with pleasure. To me it is a sin to kill a man. Even fascists whom we must kill.”
….“Yet you have killed.”
….“Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.”
….“By whom?”
….“Who knows? Since we do not have God here anymore, who forgives, I do not know.”

Hemingway doesn’t delve into the minutiae of politics in Spain, but instead treats fascism as a universal threat. He has Robert talk to the other characters about his own country, America, suggesting it is not immune to the forces ripping Spain apart. Much of what he says about that aspect sounds depressingly like the current political state of the US, giving the book a feel of contemporary relevance. Robert does not consider himself a Communist – he is fighting for love of the Republic – but he knows that when he goes home he will likely be branded a Red and be barred from pursuing his career in teaching. He tries to imagine life in America after the war, with Maria as his wife, but there’s a pathos to these scenes because we also see that he doesn’t expect them ever to come true. Robert has killed men and is willing to kill more, but he knows that when it is over, if he lives, he will be changed forever by what he has experienced.

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

So much beauty in this book, side by side with so much brutality and so much tragedy. A real masterpiece – the descriptive writing is wonderful and the depth of insight into humanity and how people behave in times of war is breathtaking. A book of this stature doesn’t require a recommendation from me but it has it anyway – my highest. What a great start to my new challenge!

Book 1

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 217…

Episode 217

Oops! A tiny little increase in the TBR this week – up 1 to 215. But it’s not my fault! It’s all these politicians! How is a girl to concentrate when the “civilised” world is going into meltdown?? Still, they might all be useless, but at least our new PM is more entertaining than the last one…

Here are a few more I’ll be putting to the vote soon…

American Classic

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

I surprised myself by loving my introduction to Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, a few years ago, so am hoping he works the same magic with this one, which actually sounds more like my kind of thing…

The Blurb says: High in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra, a guerrilla band prepares to blow up a vital bridge. Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. There, in the mountains, he finds the dangers and the intense comradeship of war. And there he discovers Maria, a young woman who has escaped from Franco’s rebels…

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Vintage Sci-Fi Shorts

Menace of the Monster edited by Mike Ashley

I thoroughly enjoyed the other volume I’ve read in this series of vintage sci-fi from the British Library, Menace of the Machine, so I have high hopes for this one. I’ve already dipped into it to find a Tuesday Terror! story and the porpy and I were both cowering behind a barrel of ant spray after reading De Profundis – we’re hoping they’re not all quite as scary as that one!

The Blurb says: The field of classic science fiction is populated with bizarre and fearsome creatures, be they lifeforms from other worlds, corrupted beasts from our own planet or entities from unimaginable dimensions.

Collected within is a diverse host of these otherworldly beings, from savage prehistoric revenants to nightmare predators encountered in the dark of space; from alien visitors on trial under US law to unfamiliar species under the knife in an intergalactic hospital; and from warlike Martians to the peaceful creatures for whom Man might be the monstrous invader…

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Horror

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

This has been on my TBR since 2014, mainly because I’ve only read one ghost story of Hill’s and it was bland, unscary and derivative. This one is of course much praised, so hopefully it will be better, but my expectations are low. I did see a theatre adaptation of it many moons ago and, hmm, well, let’s just say I snored more than I shrieked… but the book is always better, right? Right?

The Blurb says: The classic ghost story by Susan Hill: a chilling tale about a menacing spectre haunting a small English town.

Arthur Kipps is an up-and-coming London solicitor who is sent to Crythin Gifford—a faraway town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway—to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Mrs. Drablow’s house stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but Kipps is unaware of the tragic secrets that lie hidden behind its sheltered windows. The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images—a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black. Psychologically terrifying and deliciously eerie, The Woman in Black is a remarkable thriller of the first rate.

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Scottish Classic

The New Road by Neil Munro

I know nothing about this one other than it regularly appears on lists of Scottish classics. The blurb might be short but it still sounds intriguing… 

The Blurb says: The New Road tells the story of Aeneas McMaster – a young man haunted by the disappearance of his Jacobite father 14 years earlier. It is also the story of the Highlands at the time when General Wade’s road was carving its way between Stirling and Inverness into the traditional strongholds of the Clans.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?