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 😀

The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly

The body in the clay…

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The prestigious old firm of Shentall’s Potteries has a problem – it seems someone may be leaking its designs, allowing counterfeiters to flood the market with cheap copies. The current head of the firm, Luke Shentall, has his suspicions of who is guilty, so calls in a private investigator to find proof, or alternatively to prove someone else is the culprit. It’s the investigator, Nicholson, who tells us the story, and he starts in the middle with the discovery of a body in the ark, a vault in which the liquid clay is stored…

This is a very different take on the traditional detective story. The narration gives it something of the style of the noir first-person private eye stories of the US, but without the true noir feel. Nicholson (we never learn his first name) is indeed a man with his own sorrows, somewhat world-weary but still with the ability to believe in the good in people. The other characters however are all fundamentally decent even if they each have their flaws, so that the effectiveness of the story comes from the fact that quite soon neither Nicholson nor the reader really wants any of them to be the guilty party. And especially we want Corinna Wakefield, Luke’s suspect, to be innocent – the reader because she quickly gains our sympathy and liking; Nicholson because he increasingly finds himself developing a deep attraction to her.

The quality of the writing is wonderful; this could as easily be read as literary fiction as crime. Kelly paints a full and affectionate portrait of the landscape and culture of the Staffordshire area and its traditional pottery industry, showing how the old methods and family-run businesses are gradually giving way to newer techniques, more cost efficient, perhaps, and certainly cleaner than the old coal-fired kilns, but also more impersonal. Shentall’s is one of the old firms, and while Luke has introduced up-to-date machinery and equipment, he works hard to retain the traditional atmosphere and values of this being a family concern – not just his own family, but his employees also passing their skills down through the generations, father to son, mother to daughter. This is partly why his suspicions have fallen on Corinna – as a talented designer, she has been brought in from the outside, and Luke can’t bring himself to believe that his long-term employees, many of whom worked for his father and even his grandfather before him, could betray the firm.

Kelly shows the soot-blackened buildings, the constantly-burning furnaces that can be seen from the older coal-fired kilns day and night, the pit, known as Etruria, where Wedgwood’s factory once stood, now the site of an iron works. These could easily be made visions of an industrial hell, but Kelly shows them as having a kind of dark beauty and as the beating heart of this community whose existence is inextricably linked with the potteries that provide their pay and their purpose.

I stared down into the pit, at the black buildings silhouetted against the flushed sky, buildings, some of them, flickering within, as if a river of liquid gold were rolling through them. Clouds of steam and smoke drifted across the shadowy vale, rosy steam, lit from the fires below. There was a continuous hollow rushing sound, broken by clanks of shunting. An engine, raised on a bank, black and red, like a slide, moved slowly backwards and forwards. The whole pit seemed to breathe as it worked; for though it was past midnight on Saturday, and the Newcastle neighbours’ windows were dark, naked lights on gantries and signals glittered all over Etruria.

Mary Kelly

The plot is divided into three sections: the first, a short one describing the finding of the body, though we aren’t given the victim’s identity at this early stage; then two long sections, one set before the finding of the body and one after. Because of the more literary, descriptive prose style it took me a little longer than usual to settle in, but once I had I became completely involved in the slow playing out of the story and in the characters that Kelly creates so well – not just the main players, but the other members of the staff and workers of the pottery, each of whom has their own part to play. The mystery is rather secondary to Nicholson’s growing dilemma – his distaste for the job grows as his feelings for Corinna deepen, and his initial pretence of befriending her so he can get close to her feels sordid now that he discovers he would like to be more than her friend. But he’s a hired hand and must do his best for Luke, and it seems more and more that, innocent or guilty, Corinna is at the heart of the mystery.

I thought this was great, and the ending, when it came, arose perfectly from the characterisation and motivations Kelly had so carefully and subtly built throughout. Shall I admit that it actually made me cry, just a little? Not a thing that happens often, especially in crime novels. A travesty that this one should ever have been allowed to become “forgotten” – Martin Edwards refers to it as her “masterpiece” and for once that word seems perfectly chosen to me.

Book 10 of 20

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 250…

Episode 250

A huge drop in the TBR this week – down 3 to 205! The plan of reading all the shortest books is beginning to pay off. It’s so exhilarating!

Here are a few more that should slide off soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey

It was exciting this week! For quite a while there was no clear leader and then gradually the eventual winner pulled away from the field and slowly developed a commanding lead. From the comments, many of you were attracted by the title. Me too! I’m sure that’s what made me buy it way back in 2015. Intriguing choice, People! I plan to read and review it by the end of October.

The Blurb says: Alafair Tucker is a strong woman, the core of family life on a farm in Oklahoma where the back-breaking work and daily logistics of caring for her husband Shaw, their nine children, and being neighborly requires hard muscle and a clear head. She’s also a woman of strong opinions, and it is her opinion that her neighbor, Harley Day, is a drunkard and a reprobate. So, when Harley’s body is discovered frozen in a snowdrift one January day in 1912, she isn’t surprised that his long-suffering family isn’t, if not actually celebrating, much grieving.

When Alafair helps Harley’s wife prepare the body for burial, she discovers that Harley’s demise was anything but natural—there is a bullet lodged behind his ear. Alafair is concerned when she hears that Harley’s son, John Lee, is the prime suspect in his father’s murder, for Alafair’s seventeen-year-old daughter Phoebe is in love with the boy. At first, Alafair’s only fear is that Phoebe is in for a broken heart, but as she begins to unravel the events that led to Harley’s death, she discovers that Phoebe might be more than just John Lee’s sweetheart: she may be his accomplice in murder.

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Short Stories

Thirst by Ken Kalfus

In recent years, Kalfus has become one of my favourite authors and I’m gradually working my way through his back catalogue. This was his first collection of short stories, I believe. This, and the next two books, are all from my 20 Books of Summer list…

The Blurb says: Distinguished by black comedy and an international perspective, Ken Kalfus’ stories frequently fold into each other and are most often about the abrupt dislocation of people bumping into different cultures, be they real, hallucinated, dreamed, or desired. His characters — which include an endless line of refugees fleeing Sarajevo with no particular destination, an Irish au pair plagued by her own psychosexual fears in a Paris science museum, and an entirely fictitious baseball league — are constantly thumping their heads against a shifting reality. Kalfus’ sympathetic portraits of human beings caught in the tectonic cultural shifts that disrupt our lives are frequently hilarious, consistently touching, and powerfully creative.

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Vintage Crime

The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly

After a little spate of books from authors they’d previously published, the BL seems to be back to adding “new” authors to their list, and it’s always fun not quite knowing what to expect. I like the idea of that corpse in the clay!

The Blurb says: Shentall’s, a long-established institution of the Staffordshire Potteries industry, is under attack. With its designs leaked to international competition and its prices undercut, private investigator Hedley Nicholson has been tasked with finding the culprit of the suspected sabotage.

But, industrial espionage may just be the beginning. Delving further into the churning heart of Shentall’s Pottery, Nicholson’s prying is soon to unearth rumours of bonds cruelly smashed to pieces, grievances irrevocably baked in stone and a very real body, turning and turning in the liquid clay.

First published in 1961, The Spoilt Kill received widespread critical acclaim and praise from contemporary crime writers such as Julian Symons. It was awarded the CWA Gold Dagger and remains a finely crafted masterpiece of the crime genre.

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Classic Fiction

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Given my lifelong love affair with Jane Austen, I can’t think why I’ve never read this before. Time to correct that omission!

The Blurb says: Beautiful, flirtatious, and recently widowed, Lady Susan Vernon seeks an advantageous second marriage for herself, while attempting to push her daughter into a dismal match. A magnificently crafted novel of Regency manners and mores that will delight Austen enthusiasts with its wit and elegant expression.

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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?

PS New laptop arriving later so I’ll catch up on comments and your posts once I’m up and running – might be later today, might be three weeks on Tuesday, depending on how quickly I can get it all set up. If you hear loud sobbing coming from a northerly direction, send me chocolate! Typing on my old lappy has become nightmarish now that I have to bang repeatedly on the “y” key every time I need to use it. Have you ever tried writing reviews using only words without a “y” in them? It’s reall, reall annoing, I can tell ou!

The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly

’Twas three nights before Christmas…

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Three days before Christmas, Inspector Nightingale is called to the scene of a suspicious death. An elderly woman has been found dead in her bed, and given her age it may have passed as natural but for the fact that she appears to have been robbed. Her trunk, which she always kept securely locked, is empty. Nightingale soon discovers she was a Russian Princess who had fled to Britain during the Revolution, bringing with her many fabulous jewels and valuable pieces of art. There has been a recent spate of burglaries and Nightingale suspects this is the latest, somehow gone wrong, leaving Princess Olga dead. But where is the Princess’s grandson? And why is there a note of the name and address of a local dealer in jewellery in her room? Nightingale and his sergeant, the rather cheeky and irreverent Beddoes, set out to investigate…

This isn’t a whodunit – although there is a mystery element around the grandson, the police are never in much doubt that the robbery ties in with the others, and the bulk of the story is about following Nightingale, and occasionally Beddoes, as they try to identify and catch the thieves. It’s very well written and both the settings – first the busy pre-Christmas streets and alleyways of Islington and later the blizzard-bound countryside of Kent – are used to great effect. Nightingale and Beddoes make a great team, obviously fond of each other and with a kind of rapport that comes from having worked together before. Each has full confidence in the other and they are more like equals than superior and subordinate, and there’s a lot of humour in their interactions.

The Princess’s backstory as a Russian émigrée adds another element to the story, and gives it the human interest aspect that can sometimes be missing in stories about thefts and police hunts. And the jeweller whose name is found in her room is a great character – a shrewd businessman with his own Russian background, is he the gossipy charmer he likes to portray, or is this a cover for shady goings-on? Nightingale’s constantly changing opinion about him and other people who might or might not be involved is a lot of fun and gives us a real feel for his character, as an honest man who wants to think the best of people but whose job means he has to consider the worst of them too.

Mary Kelly

The first half of the book sets up the story and introduces the characters, and then the second half becomes more of an action thriller as the hunt for the jewel thieves hots up. I found the whole thing a quick, interesting and enjoyable read that kept me turning the pages – I ended up reading it all in one day which is unusual for me. Apparently Kelly only wrote a few books and then stopped, which is a real pity since on the basis of this one she was clearly very talented. I hope the BL might reissue the two other Nightingale books sometime. And with its Christmassy timing and snowy settings, this one is a perfect read for the festive season. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 219…

Episode 219

No reduction in the TBR this week… but no increase either! Remaining stable on 213…

Here are a few more I’ll be butting up against soon…

English Classic

The Go-Between by LP Hartley

For my Classics Club list. During the last Classics Club spin, three of us – Rose, Sandra and myself – all put this book on our list at the same number thinking it would be fun to review it at the same time. The number didn’t come up but we decided to do a review-along anyway, all posting our reviews on 15th January if we can. Anyone else is welcome to join in, either with the reviewing or just the reading! It’s a long overdue re-read for me of a book I thought was brilliant first time around… and second… and….

Even if you haven’t read the book, I bet you recognise the first line…

The Blurb says: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

When one long, hot summer, young Leo is staying with a school-friend at Brandham Hall, he begins to act as a messenger between Ted, the farmer, and Marian, the beautiful young woman up at the hall. He becomes drawn deeper and deeper into their dangerous game of deceit and desire, until his role brings him to a shocking and premature revelation. The haunting story of a young boy’s awakening into the secrets of the adult world, The Go-Between is also an unforgettable evocation of the boundaries of Edwardian society.

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Vintage Crime

The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly

A seasonal mystery, courtesy of the British Library. I’ve never heard of Mary Kelly, but apparently she was well regarded in her time. Another gorgeous cover, and it sounds like fun…

The Blurb says: London. 22nd December. Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale and Sergeant Beddoes have been called to a gloomy flat off Islington High Street. An elderly woman lies dead on the bed, and her trunk has been looted. The woman is Princess Olga Karukhin – an emigrant of Civil War Russia – and her trunk is missing its glittering treasure…

Out in the dizzying neon and festive chaos of the capital a colourful cast of suspects abound: the downtrodden grandson, a plutocratic jeweller, Bolsheviks with unfinished business? Beddoes and Nightingale have their work cut out in this tightly-paced, quirky and highly enjoyable jewel of the mystery genre.

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New Crime

The Cabin by Jørn Lier Horst

Courtesy of Penguin UK – Michael Joseph via NetGalley. This is the second in Horst’s Cold Case Quartet and for once I’ve actually read the first! And I enjoyed it – William Wisting is the kind of detective I like – dedicated, hard-working, with a stable family life and a life outside work. And the cover looks delightfully seasonal…

The Blurb says: It’s been fifteen years since Simon Meier walked out of his house, never to be seen again. And just one day since politician Bernard Clausen was found dead at his cabin on the Norwegian coast.

When Chief Inspector William Wisting is asked to investigate he soon discovers he may have found the key to solving Meier’s disappearance. But doing so means he must work with an old adversary to piece together what really happened all those years ago.

It’s a puzzle that leads them into a dark underworld on the trail of Clausen’s interests and vices. A shady place from which they may never emerge – especially when he finds it leads closer to home than he ever could have imagined.

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Fiction

Something to Answer For by PH Newby

This was the book that won the first ever Booker Prize in 1969. That’s not why I’m reading it though – I was recommended it to fill one of the tricky compulsory places on my Around the World challenge, the Suez Canal. The colonial aspects always appeal to me, so fingers crossed!

The Blurb says: It is 1956 and Townrow is in Port Said – of these two facts he’s reasonably certain. He has been summoned by the widow of his deceased friend, Elie Khoury. She is convinced that Elie was murdered, but nobody seems to agree with her. What about Leah Strauss, the mistress? And the invading British paratroops? Only an Englishman, surely, would take for granted that the British have behaved themselves. In this disorientating world Townrow must assess the rules by which he has been living his life – to wonder whether he, too, may have something to answer for. . .

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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?