Modern classics…

The Classics Club – July Meme #ccmeme

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club meme for this month is looking at recent books rather than old ones…

What about modern classics? Pick a book published since 2000 and say why you think it will be considered as a “classic” in the future.

Hmm… the first thing, I suppose, is to define “classic”. When I drew up my own list of classics, I decided that it pretty much meant any book over 50 years old that is still in print and read today. By “in print” I mean in a priced version by a publisher, rather than a scanned Kindle freebie or only available on Project Gutenberg and the like. I did include a couple of out of print books in my Scottish section, but in general I still hold that if a book is out of print it hasn’t really survived the test of time.

So, restricting it, not surprisingly, to books I’ve read (and reviewed, ‘cos they’re the only ones I ever remember!) I came up with several that I expect will still be in print and being read in fifty years’ time. The majority are pretty safe bets, since they come from authors with such an established and respected body of work that their stuff is bound to survive. Most of these authors have won or at least been shortlisted for the major literary prizes, though not necessarily for these books. Here they are…

Harvest by Jim Crace

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt*

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

(*The inclusion of The Goldfinch will alert regular readers to the fact that I’m only suggesting these books will become classics, but not necessarily saying I think they’re good…)

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It’s more difficult to guess which newer, less established authors will survive. It’s rare indeed for an author to write only one book that becomes a classic, however great it may be. To Kill a Mockingbird springs to mind, but not much else. However, in general, the bulk of an author’s work survives or it all disappears, even if it’s generally accepted that one or two of their books are outstanding and the rest not quite at the same level. The Great Gatsby is read by millions of people who never read anything else by Fitzgerald, for example, but all his major work remains consistently in print.

So here are four authors that I think may survive. In each case, the book I’ve listed has had some success but not the recognition I felt it deserved.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Burial Rites was a bestseller but was unforgivably not longlisted for the Booker. However, it’s Hannah Kent’s only book to date, and by itself I don’t know if it would survive. But if, as I expect, she goes on to write a whole lifetime’s worth of good stuff, and wins major prizes one day, then I think her books will become classics for sure. Similarly, Yann Martel might be a fairly safe bet because of the major success of The Life of Pi, but I feel he still needs a bigger body of work before his place as a great is assured.

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

Patrick Flanery and Aatish Taseer both received a good deal of critical praise for these books, but neither really took the reading world by storm as much as I’d have expected (though Taseer may have done in India and Pakistan – I don’t know). Again, neither was longlisted for the Booker, not that that’s much of a guide to longevity, anyway – the books on the longlist will mostly be forgotten by this time next year, if they ever get read at all by anyone except those who like to read the longlisted books each year. (My evidence? Pick a year and look at the longlisted, but not shortlisted, books on Amazon and see how few reviews most of them will have; and most of those will appear at around the time of the longlisting announcement. You might, or might not, also be surprised at how low even those dedicated Booker readers tend to rate these ‘best’ books of the year… but be careful, or you might become as cynical as me…)

Aatish Taseer
Aatish Taseer

Both at the beginning of their writing careers, I’m betting both Flanery and Taseer will break through properly at some point, and join the likes of Rushdie, Tóibín, McCarthy, as writers with a solid body of work, some great, some good, but almost always worth reading. And I’ll stick my neck out and say they’ll both win the Booker one day. And, of these two books, the one which seems to me more likely to have a long life is Patrick Flanery’s.

I reckon Fallen Land was written too soon after 9/11 and the global crash for the American public to accept how fundamentally these things had affected every aspect of society. The book, in my opinion, shows the widening gulf that is becoming ever more clear now between the progressives and the conservatives, how that arises out of the constitution and history of the US; and that the gap between them leaves a dangerous vacuum waiting to be filled. With its references to the founders, to slavery, to the importance of land ownership, to the attitude of suspicion towards ‘foreigners’, to surveillance, to the disconnect between people and the government, to the part of the American psyche that turns people into assault-rifle-wielding survivalists, I’m betting it’s a book that will be appreciated more in retrospect for what it says about today’s America than America is willing to admit even now. So it’s the one I think most likely to be a future classic. But only if Flanery does achieve that major breakthrough…

Patrick Flanery
Patrick Flanery

Over to you…what modern book do you think will become a classic?

(PS – On reading this over, it seems awfully opinionated and a bit grumpy… but it’s late and I’m tired and I can’t bring myself to redo it, so please don’t hold it against me… 😉 )

I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

Paranoia doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

😀 😀 😀 😀

i am no oneJeremy O’Keefe has returned to New York after spending a decade teaching at Oxford University. He’s glad to be back, especially since it means he’s able to spend time with his daughter, now grown and married. But a series of odd events begin to make him feel he’s under some kind of surveillance, though he doesn’t know by whom or why. Unless he’s imagining it all…

Flanery has chosen a very different voice for the first-person narrator of this book, and he sustains it beautifully. Almost stream of consciousness at times, Jeremy uses long run-on sentences, full of digressions and asides, but so skilfully constructed they always make it back to where they began without losing the reader along the way. Jeremy is unreliable, not so much – or perhaps not only – because he is trying to mislead the reader, but because he doesn’t really want to face up to his own weaknesses. But as he rambles on, frequently repeating himself and going over the same bits of his life again and again, each time the story he tells contains subtle changes, so that we gradually get to understand him better and, despite him, begin to be able to see between the gaps and put the true story together ourselves.

A feeling of unease develops from the beginning, when Jeremy waits for a student with whom he has arranged a meeting. She doesn’t turn up, and Jeremy later finds an e-mail exchange he apparently had with her postponing the meeting – an exchange of which he has no memory. When he recounts this incident to his daughter, he is surprised at how ready she is to consider that the problem lies in Jeremy’s own mental state. But paranoia does seem to be a feature of Jeremy’s personality, as does fear. His academic focus is on post-war surveillance methods, particularly in East Germany, and he also runs courses on how surveillance and voyeurism are portrayed in films. Perhaps all this is feeding into how he’s interpreting events. Certainly some of his suspicions about people seem little more than paranoia, but some of the odd things that happen (if we can trust his account of them) suggest there’s more to it than that. The uncertainty is brilliantly done and creates an atmosphere of growing tension as the story slowly unfolds.

Patrick Flanery zoomed onto my must-read list with his first novel Absolution and consolidated his position as one of my favourites with Fallen Land, a book that I presumptuously declared should be a contender for the title of Great American Novel for the 2000s. So my expectations for this one were high – probably too high. And in truth it didn’t quite meet those expectations. However, having given myself some time to mull it over before writing this review, I’ve concluded that it’s primarily the comparison with his previous books that has left me a little disappointed with this one.

Patrick Flanery (source:patrickflanery.com)
Patrick Flanery
(source:patrickflanery.com)

It’s difficult to explain without spoilers why I felt a little let down by how the story played out, so I’ll have to be pretty oblique here – sorry! There are two main questions in the book – is Jeremy under surveillance, and if so, why? When the answers become clear, it also becomes obvious that Jeremy must have known certain things all along, which makes a bit of a nonsense of all the passages where the reader watched him puzzle over them. As an intelligent man, whether paranoid or mentally stable or not, he could not have known what he knew and yet not have understood the implications. So when all became clear, I found that credibility nosedived. However…

… as I thought about it more, I realised that Flanery had done something that I think in retrospect is rather clever, though I’m not entirely sure whether it was intentional. (And, clever or not, intentional or not, it doesn’t remove the basic credibility problem.) The whole book reads as if it’s heading in the direction of criticism of our surveillance society – of those hard-won freedoms we have cheerfully and perhaps short-sightedly given up in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist episodes of the last couple of decades. This preconception of the ‘message’ of the book meant that, when it ended, my initial reaction was to say Flanery had failed to make his point. But when I thought more about it, I realised that he could have done that facile thing – given us the cliché of the blameless individual hounded by an over-powerful state – and we could all have tut-tutted merrily along in our liberal disapproval. But Flanery didn’t – instead he gave us something that left the moral stance much less clear; something that made me realise how far my own opinions have shifted in response to the repeated horrors of recent years. That yes, I do want to shelter behind state security services and, yes, I am willing to give up things I would once have considered sacrosanct in return for security. And that left me ruminating…

So, in the end, the depiction of Jeremy’s descent into paranoia and fear make it a tense read, and Flanery’s excellent use of language and voice make it an enjoyable one. And, although I don’t think this book works quite as well as his previous ones, it is still thought-provoking, raising important questions about security, surveillance and freedom in this new world we inhabit.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
MARCH

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. I was a bit later in starting reviewing than Cleo, really getting properly underway in about April/May of 2011, so for the first few months I might have to be a bit creative in my 2011 selections.

So here are my favourite March reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

The BurningThis is the first in the Maeve Kerrigan series, though not Jane Casey’s first book. I loved Maeve as soon as we met her – an ambitious young police officer who gets on well with her colleagues and has a great sense of humour. Josh Derwent, who has grown into a major character as the series has progressed, is just one of the team in this book. The real male lead is the lovely Rob, and the budding romance between Maeve and him is handled beautifully. Ah, Rob! I’m worried that it’s all beginning to go horribly wrong between you and Maeve – can’t wait for the next book (After the Fire – due out on 18th June) to find out. Jane Casey has established herself as one of my must-read-on-publication-day-if-not-before authors, and it’s a double treat this year, since her third in the YA Jess Tennant series is due out in August.

 

2012

 

Charles Dickens Theatre CallowI adored this superbly readable and affectionate account of the great man’s life, viewing it from the perspective of how Dickens’ love for the world of the theatre influenced his life and work. Interspersed generously with Dickens’ own words, taken from his correspondence with friends, we get a real feel for his massive personality, his sense of fun, his unstoppable energy and, yes, his occasional pomposity too.

Who better to write such a book than Simon Callow, who has played Dickens so superbly on stage in his one man show? An exuberant and boisterous biography, and a fitting tribute to the affection Callow has for the man and his works.

 

2013

 

fallen landIn this extraordinary book, Flanery delves deep into the troubled American psyche in the post 9/11, post global crash world where the tectonic plates of certainty and complacency have shifted with volcanic and destructive results. Part terrifying psychological thriller/part wonderful literary novel, this book inspired me to start blogging so I could rave about it, won the FF Book of the Year Award for 2013, and my declaration that it should be nominated as the Great American Novel for this decade started off the GAN Quest! So it would be surprising if it didn’t appear as the best of March 2013, really, wouldn’t it? What do you mean you still haven’t read it? Why not???

 

2014

 

the martian coverAfter an accident during a dust storm, Mark Watney finds himself alone on Mars. His colleagues in the Ares 3 expedition believed he was dead and were forced to evacuate the planet while they still could. The communications system was broken in the storm so Mark can’t let anyone know he’s alive. And it’s four years till the next scheduled mission to Mars. I loved this book – more old-fashioned adventure story than sci-fi, really, with a wonderfully likeable protagonist, tons of humour, and a brilliantly depicted setting on the surface of Mars. Can’t wait for the film, nor to see what Andy Weir comes up with next…

 

2015

 

The Shut EyeBelinda Bauer is another of the more recent additions to my must-read list, and her latest novel lived up to my expectations. Little Daniel Buck ran out of his house one morning four months ago and has never been seen since. Edie Evans was older when she went missing several months earlier, nearly a teenager, but the signs are even more sinister in her case, since blood was found beside her broken and abandoned bicycle. Edie’s case still haunts DCI John Marvel, especially since he has convinced himself that she is still alive. Always well plotted, and with great characterisation, what I love most about Bauer’s books is the way she uses some pretty black humour to lift the tone of even the grimmest storylines. Clicking on the cover for this one will take you through to the Petrona Remembered blog, where my review can be found along with a host of great recommendations from other bloggers.

 

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

FictionFan Awards 2013 – Literary/Contemporary Fiction

All stand please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2013 in the Literary/Contemporary Fiction Category.

In case any of you missed them last week (or have forgotten them – you mean you don’t memorise every word I say?), a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2012 and October 2013 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

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

History/Biography/Politics – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

Science/Nature/Environment

Crime/Thriller

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2013

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

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/CONTEMPORARY FICTION

 

This was an almost impossible choice – the year started with a bang and, quite frankly, ended with a whimper. So many pretentious and/or tedious reads by self-indulgent established authors that I’m considering a new award category of Books to Put Under the Shoogly Table Leg. But against that dull background, a few shone all the more brightly…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

telegraph avenueBased around a vinyl-record shop in Oakland, California, this is a story of people coping with change. Strongly character-driven, full of warmth and humour, Chabon creates a vivid and exuberant world that is a delight to spend time in. Watch out for the soaring 11-page tour-de-force sentence in the middle of the book – a technical (and possibly artistic) marvel. Brilliantly written and flamboyantly entertaining, the sheer joy of watching this master wordsmith ply his trade outweighs the underlying lack of substance.

Click to see the full review

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

we have always lived in the castleThis is a deliciously wicked little book that turns the traditional witchy story on its head. Merricat lives with her sister and uncle – all that’s left of her family after a mass poisoning. Everyone believes Merricat’s sister Constance to be guilty, and the little family is shunned by the villagers. But they live quite contentedly in their isolation…until Cousin Charles comes to visit, bringing the harsh reality of the outside world with him. Twisty and clever, Jackson’s superb writing hides the darkness at the heart of the story until it’s too late for the reader to escape. Merricat may haunt your dreams…or your nightmares…

Click to see the full review

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VERY, VERY, VERY HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

and the mountains echoedWithin the first few pages of this book, the reader knows s/he’s in the hands of a master storyteller. In a village in rural Afghanistan, mid 1940s, a father tells a folk tale to his two young children. On the next day, they will travel to Kabul and start a chain of events that will take the reader on a journey across the world and through the decades. A beautiful and emotional book, peopled with unforgettable characters, this is told almost as a series of short stories, each concentrating on one person’s tale; but Hosseini brings us round in a perfect circle and the last few chapters bring all these disparate episodes into one immensely moving whole.

Click to see the full review

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Equilateral by Ken Kalfus

EquilateralThis shortish novel took me completely by surprise with its scope and deceptive simplicity, and left me breathless. Not a word is wasted or misplaced as Kalfus plays with early science fiction, empire and colonialism, and the arrogance of science. Sly and subtle humour runs throughout, as our Victorian hero sets out to signal man’s existence to the technologically advanced Martians by building a giant equilateral triangle in the Egyptian desert and setting it ablaze. Superbly written, the prose is pared back to the bone with every word precisely placed to create an atmospheric, sometimes poetic, and entirely absorbing narrative. This book left me gasping and grinning, and I still can’t think of it without smiling. In any other year, it would have been an outright winner…

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2013

 

fallen land 2

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

 

In this extraordinary book, Patrick Flanery delves deep into the troubled American psyche in the post 9/11, post global crash world where the tectonic plates of certainty and complacency have shifted with volcanic and destructive results. A disturbing psychological thriller, this works just as well as a metaphor for a society where love and trust have been overwhelmed by suspicion and fear. Flanery’s prose is wonderful and the characters he has crafted are complex and compelling, each damaged by history and experience and each inspiring empathy in the reader. He develops them slowly, letting us see the influences, both personal and political, that have made them what they are. This was the first book I blogged about – indeed, the book that inspired me to blog, in an attempt to spread the word about Flanery. His first book, Absolution, was my FF Award Winner in 2012 and this year he has achieved the double with Fallen Land. What next from this exciting and talented author? Who knows, but I can’t wait to find out…

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Science/Nature/Environment Award

Publication Day! Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

State of the Union…

A stunning multi-layered book that works as both a fine slow-burning psychological thriller and more deeply as a metaphor for the troubled American psyche in the post-9/11, post economic collapse world. Great language, great characterisation, great story – not just the book of the year but quite possibly the book of the decade. Really, what more could you want?

My full review is hiding behind this link 🙂

fallen land

Absolution by Patrick Flanery

Wonderfully complex and beautifully written…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

absolutionI noticed last night that the Kindle version of Absolution is currently available for £0.99 ($1.51 in US) so that seemed like a good prompt to post my review. This was the winner of the FictionFan Book of 2012 (a prestigious award – the prize being that I guarantee to read the author’s next book!) and although it was critically acclaimed it never got the readership I believe it deserves. Flanery’s new one, Fallen Land, is due out on 1st May and, having been lucky enough to get an advance copy from the publishers, I was blown away by it – certainly the best book I’ve read this decade. (For my review click here.)

So here’s my original review of Absolution – all this for 99p…and still time to read it before the new one comes out!

This wonderfully written book is so complex it’s hard to give a full flavour of it in a short review. As Clare Wald, famous South African novelist, gives a series of interviews to her biographer, Sam Leroux, she begins a journey through her memories, re-assessing the part she has played in the lives of those around her. She is also writing an autobiographical fiction and we see all the different threads as we, like Clare, try to find the truth amidst the invention.

Clare’s story, and Sam’s, is told against the background of the role and position of the white South Africans during and after the struggle against apartheid. It is a search for truth that shows how memories are distorted and conflicting, how it is hard to distinguish whether motives are personal or political. The fear felt by the white community, whether real or exaggerated, pulses through the book allowing the author to examine questions of suspicion and trust.

As Clare and Sam search for their own redemption, the author has them echo the theme of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings designed to allow South Africa to face its past and look forward to its future. With the white South African regime having been one of the ogres of my youth, I was amazed at the way the author made me feel both sympathy and empathy for the white people caught up in these events. But this book isn’t just about South Africa – the emotions and motivations of these characters are universal.

This is a wonderful book, all the more remarkable since it is the author’s first. Assured, beautifully written and shocking in parts, it has left me with images that will stay with me for a long time. Sorrowful, filled with guilt and cruelty but echoing with hope, much like South Africa itself – in my opinion, this will be in the running for best book of 2012. Highly recommended.

Patrick Flanery(source:patrickflanery.com)
Patrick Flanery
(source:patrickflanery.com)

If you do read it, or if you already have, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

fallen landState of the Union…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Publication Date: 1st May 2013

“Anyone who doesn’t believe in freedom at eighteen is a fascist. Anyone who doesn’t believe in security at forty is a criminal.”

In this extraordinary book, Flanery delves deep into the troubled American psyche in the post 9/11, post global crash world where the tectonic plates of certainty and complacency have shifted with volcanic and destructive results.

When the economic collapse strikes, Paul Krovik loses everything, including his family and the house that he built for them. He had planned to build a whole development but now the few completed houses stand, already decaying, on swampy land in the middle of an unfinished building site. Louise’s family had owned the land for generations until she was forced to sell to Paul and now Louise lives in her old house at the edge of the site. And now Nathaniel and Julie Noailles, with their young son Copley, are moving from their urban, socially liberal life in Boston to live in this suburban house in an unnamed town in the South. Unknown to them, Paul is living in the concealed basement, determined to get the house back…

Patrick Flanery
Patrick Flanery

Flanery’s prose is wonderful and the characters he has crafted are complex and compelling, each damaged by history and experience and each inspiring empathy in the reader. He develops them slowly, letting us see the influences, both personal and political, that have made them what they are: Paul, whose father brought him up on quotations from Emerson, believes in individualism and apocalypse; Louise, descendant of slaves, guilty at losing the land they treasured, and hating Paul for destroying it; and the Noailles, a family whose veneer of liberalism hides dark secrets and is gradually eroded by fear and mistrust. Through their stories, Flanery shows us the stresses and tensions in a nation still dealing with the aftermath of terror and economic meltdown. The society he depicts is one where trust has broken down; where ultimate security is the goal regardless of the cost to personal freedom; where privacy is seen as an unaffordable luxury; and where the state is in the process of passing responsibility for social control into the hands of an unelected, unaccountable and profit-driven private sector.

The descriptions of the decaying house and the swampy land as the rain beats interminably down add to the air of oppressive menace and threat that builds throughout the book. And as events spiral, Flanery’s depiction of the psychological effects on each character is both convincing and disturbing, as love and trust turn gradually into suspicion and paranoia. This is a masterly, multi-layered book, which works on both levels – as a fine, slow-burning psychological thriller, and as a persuasive metaphor for a society in turmoil in response to huge events.

“If we are not in the final chapters of our history then we are at the end of a particular volume, unable to predict how further instalments may unfold.”

Is this the Great American Novel for this decade? As a Brit, I wouldn’t presume to decide that question but I’d certainly nominate it strongly for the shortlist. And, as a Brit, I feel I understand far more clearly where the American psyche is positioned after reading this, and it scares me. I wait with real interest for the reaction of American reviewers. Highly recommended.

NB This review is of a proof copy kindly provided by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link