TBR Thursday 105…

Episode 105…

My persistent attempt at exercising willpower is finally showing results, with another week where my TBR has remained stable – at 176! Happily, the review copy backlog has dropped 4 to 32, of which only 18 are overdue – the best it’s been for a long time. Feeling good about being able to get off the review copy treadmill in the new year, and having time to read some of the books I’ve been stockpiling for far too long.

Of course, I’m still looking forward to getting review copies of books from favourite authors and there’s a couple of those here, specially scheduled to ensure some great reading over the festive season. A bumper edition this week, since this will be the last TBR post till 2017…

Factual

how-shakespeare-put-politics-on-the-stageCourtesy of NetGalley. Shakespeare, politics, a bit of history and Yale University Press – how could it go wrong? Hmm… early reviews, including one from a reviewer I know and trust on this kind of book, suggest it could be way too academic and dry for my dilettante mind… but we’ll see…

The Blurb says: With an ageing, childless monarch, lingering divisions due to the Reformation, and the threat of foreign enemies, Shakespeare’s England was fraught with unparalleled anxiety and complicated problems. In this monumental work, Peter Lake reveals, more than any previous critic, the extent to which Shakespeare’s plays speak to the depth and sophistication of Elizabethan political culture and the Elizabethan imagination. Lake reveals the complex ways in which Shakespeare’s major plays engaged with the events of his day, particularly regarding the uncertain royal succession, theological and doctrinal debates, and virtue and virtù in politics. Through his plays, Lake demonstrates, Shakespeare was boldly in conversation with his audience about a range of contemporary issues. This remarkable literary and historical analysis pulls the curtain back on what Shakespeare was really telling his audience and what his plays tell us today about the times in which they were written.

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Crime

the-beautiful-deadCourtesy of NetGalley. I have no doubts about this one though! A new Belinda Bauer is always a major treat…

The Blurb says:  In her latest, The Beautiful Dead, Bauer turns the trope of the media-attention-hungry killer on its head, with a riveting narrative centered on a down-on-her-luck crime reporter and a serial killer desperate for the spotlight.

Crime reporter Eve Singer’s career is on the downward slope when a spate of bizarre murders—each carefully orchestrated and advertised like performance art—begin in her territory. Covering these very public crimes revives her byline, and when the killer contacts Eve to discuss her coverage of his crimes, she is suddenly on the inside of the biggest murder investigation of the decade. But as the killer becomes increasingly obsessed with her, Eve realizes there’s a thin line between inside information and becoming an accomplice to murder—possibly her own.

A seamlessly-plotted thriller that will keep readers breathless until the very end, The Beautiful Dead cements Belinda Bauer’s reputation as a master of heart-stopping suspense..

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Crime

cast-ironCourtesy of Quercus via MidasPR. The new Peter May has become part of my festive tradition in recent years. I’m going to whisper a little secret though – the Enzo Files series, of which this is #6, isn’t my favourite May series. In fact, I’ve only read a couple of them. The earlier ones were written several years ago, before the Lewis series, and I do think he’s been at his peak for the last few years, so will he be able to change my mind? Exciting… and even May’s less good books are still way ahead of most of the competition…

The Blurb says: West of France, 1989. A weeping killer deposits the unconscious body of nineteen year old Lucie Martin, her head wrapped in a blue plastic bag, into the water of a picturesque lake.

Lot-et-Garonne, 2003. Fourteen years later a summer heatwave parches the earth, killing trees and bushes and drying out streams. In the scorched mud and desiccated slime of the lake a fisherman finds a skeleton wearing a bag over its skull.

Paris, October 2011. In an elegant apartment in Paris, forensic expert Enzo Macleod pores over the scant evidence of this, the sixth cold case he has been challenged to solve. In taking on this old and seemingly impossible task he will put everything and everyone he holds dear in a peril he could never have imagined.

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Fiction

our-mutual-friendMy major festive reading tradition is to read Dickens (hence why there are five Dickens novels on my Classics Club list, including this one). For some incomprehensible reason, I’ve never read this one before – an omission I can’t wait to rectify…

The Blurb says: A satiric masterpiece about the allure and peril of money, Our Mutual Friend revolves around the inheritance of a dust-heap where the rich throw their trash. When the body of John Harmon, the dust-heap’s expected heir, is found in the Thames, fortunes change hands surprisingly, raising to new heights “Noddy” Boffin, a low-born but kindly clerk who becomes “the Golden Dustman.” Charles Dickens’s last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend encompasses the great themes of his earlier works: the pretensions of the nouveaux riches, the ingenuousness of the aspiring poor, and the unfailing power of wealth to corrupt all who crave it. With its flavorful cast of characters and numerous subplots, Our Mutual Friend is one of Dickens’s most complex—and satisfying—novels.

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Horror

dark-talesCourtesy of NetGalley. Horror stories are an essential part of the Christmas season – the perfect antidote to all that excess goodwill floating around. Bah, humbug! And who better than Shirley Jackson to shiver the spine…

The Blurb says: There’s something nasty in suburbia. In these deliciously dark tales, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide and seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the country manor, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods…

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Crime

maigret-and-the-tall-womanCourtesy of NetGalley. I’ve been enjoying reading some older crime fiction recently, so this should fit in nicely. I did read some Maigret in my youth, but that’s soooo long ago, he feels like a new-to-me author…

The Blurb says: A visit from a tall, thin woman he arrested many years ago—now married to a hapless burglar—leads Maigret on a tortuous investigation in which he struggles with a formidable suspect. The thirty-eighth book in the new Penguin Maigret series.

A face from Maigret’s past reappears to tell him about the misadventures of her husband, a safecracker nicknamed “Sad Freddie” who discovered a dead body while committing a burglary and fled the scene in a panic. In a race against the clock, Maigret must use his full arsenal of investigative methods to solve the crime.

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Fiction

el-doctorowCourtesy of NetGalley again! Some more short stories to fill in those short gaps that happen around this time of year, when there’s just not enough time to get properly stuck into a longer novel. And my first introduction to EL Doctorow…

The Blurb says: A superb collection of fifteen great stories by an American master, E. L. Doctorow—the author of Ragtime, The March, The Book of Daniel, and Billy Bathgate.

In A House on the Plains, a mother has a plan for financial independence, which may include murder. In Walter John Harmon, a man starts a cult using subterfuge and seduction. Jolene: A Life follows a teenager who escapes her home for Hollywood on a perilous quest for success. Heist, the account of an Episcopal priest coping with a crisis of faith, was expanded into the bestseller City of God. The Water Works, about the underbelly of 1870s New York, grew into a brilliant novel. Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate is a corollary to the renowned novel and includes Doctorow’s revisions.

These fifteen brilliant stories, written from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century, and selected, revised, and placed in order by the author himself shortly before he died in 2015, are a testament to the genius of E. L. Doctorow.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think?
Doesn’t this just look like a fab festive reading list?

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FictionFan Awards 2015 – Genre Fiction

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2014 and October 2015 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

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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

GENRE FICTION

 

The FF definition of ‘genre fiction’ for the purpose of these awards is basically anything that doesn’t quite fit into one of the other categories. I’ve not read nearly as much genre fiction as I intended this year, and a lot of what I did manage to fit in were re-reads of some classic sci-fi. Despite that, I had some great reads during the year… a mix of old and new.

 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

dune messiahDune Messiah by Frank Herbert

 

It’s twelve years since we left Paul Muad’dib at the end of Dune – twelve years in which his war against the Harkonnen and the Emperor has grown into a jihad resulting in the deaths of tens of billions and the destruction of several planets. Paul’s beginning to wonder if perhaps things might have gone a little too far. His power of prescience has made him an unwilling Messiah to his people, but the ability to see so many possible futures, none of them good, has left him desperate to find a way out that will stop the killing…

Though this is the sequel to Dune, I think it’s a better book, but it really is necessary to read them in order. Unfortunately the books go badly downhill after this one, so I abandoned the series. But the first two books undoubtedly deserve their status as classics for the quality of the writing and the imagination that created the unforgettable desert world of Arrakis.

Click to see the full review

Art by Henrik Sahlstrom
Art by Henrik Sahlstrom

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the haunting of hill houseThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

 

Hill House has a reputation for ghostly goings-on – so much so that even the servants won’t stay around after dark. So it’s the ideal place for Dr John Montague to carry out an investigation into supernatural manifestations. He collects together a little group of strangers – selected because they have had previous experiences of strange happenings, and they all set off to spend the summer living in the house…

Finding Shirley Jackson is one of the many benefits I’ve had from blogging – she’s not nearly so well known on this side of the pond as in the US. This one shows all her skill in playing with expectations, her gothic references always just a little subverted, making the whole thing feeling slightly off-kilter. Though I thought the ending fell away a little, there were plenty of genuinely creepy moments along the way, along with some delicious humour. Another true classic.

Click to see the full review

eleanor

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twenty trillion leagues under the seaTwenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

 

It’s June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine’s capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on… past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure… and on… and on…

Stylistically this reads like classic sci-fi from the early twentieth century and is filled with references to many of the greats. But the quality of the writing and imagination lifts it from being pastiche and makes it something unique. Again, I felt it fell away a bit towards the end, but for the most part I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror.

Click to see the full review

twenty trillion leagues 1

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dark matterDark Matter by Michelle Paver

 

It’s 1937 and war clouds are gathering over Europe. Jack Miller is poor and struggling in a job he hates, so he jumps at the chance to join an expedition to Gruhuken, an abandoned mining settlement in the Arctic. But the expedition begins to hit trouble even before they leave London, with a couple of the men having to drop out at the last moment. And the troubles don’t end there – once they are in Gruhuken a series of events mean that eventually Jack is left alone to keep the expedition alive…and the long dark Arctic winter is beginning…and Jack begins to feel he may not be as alone as he thinks…

This is a great ghost story – or maybe it isn’t. Is there something out there in the never-ending Arctic night or is it all in Jack’s mind? We only have his own narration to go on and, as with all the best horror, nothing is certain. It’s all done by a brilliantly executed build-up of psychological terror – from ‘don’t go there’ warnings from the captain of the ship to things barely glanced from the corner of the eye, sensations of a presence, and distorted perspectives. The writing is top quality – this book would sit just as well in the literary fiction category as in horror. I dare you to read it…

Click to see the full review

arctic night

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

 

the martian chronicles

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

 

Written as short stories for magazines in the late 1940s and pulled together with a series of linking pieces for publication in book form in 1951, the book is set around the turn of the millennium, when man is beginning to colonise Mars.

Because of the way it developed, the book is very episodic in nature and Bradbury reinvents Martian society anew depending on the story he wants to tell. After reading the first few chapters, I was a little puzzled by the book’s status as an acknowledged sci-fi great  – the stories were good but relatively standard. However as the book progresses Bradbury allows his imagination to take full flight and some of the later stories are beautifully written fantasies with more than a little philosophical edge. Many of the later stories blew me away, leaving indelible images in my mind. As with the best sci-fi, the book is really an examination of what it means to be human and Bradbury approaches the question from many different angles, each as thought-provoking as the one before. And on top of all that, he produces some of the highest quality writing I have come across in sci-fi. I’d hate anyone to be put off this one by the genre label – it’s as stimulating and well written as most ‘literary’ novels and shows a great deal more imagination than they usually do.

Click to see the full review

the martian chronicles 4 les edwards 2009
© Les Edwards 2009.

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Next week: Best Factual Award

Tuesday Terror! The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

Traditional horror…

 

Apparently when Shirley Jackson first published this story in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were so shocked by it that she was sent hate mail. Sound like it ought to be perfect for this week’s…

the lottery

 

Tuesday Terror

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

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Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

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The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

On this beautiful morning, the people of this typical small town American village gather together to celebrate the annual tradition of the lottery. The tradition goes back so far that no-one really remembers why it began, though Old Man Warner suggests it was originally some kind of ritual to ensure a good harvest. Schools are closed for the summer, so all the kids are there, and neighbours chat cheerfully as they gather in the square. But the behaviour of the boys give an early indication that something a little darker might be going on…

Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones…

Illustration by Anita Stevens Rundles
Illustration by Anita Stevens Rundles

Everyone knows exactly what will happen, but Mr Summers takes charge as he does every year to make sure everything is done fairly and according to the rules. There are only three hundred people in the village, including children, so it won’t take long. As they chat, some mention rumours that other towns and villages have decided to stop running the lottery, but the older folk think that’s foolish – why mess with tradition?

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.

Eventually all is ready, and the man at the head of each family draws a slip of paper from the box. As they wait for Mr Summers to give them the signal to look at the paper, the holiday atmosphere changes to one of tension…

For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saying, ‘Who is it?’, ‘Who’s got it?’, ‘Is it the Dunbars?’, ‘Is it the Watsons?’.

It turns out it’s the Hutchinsons. Now the atmosphere changes again, as the mother of the family, Tessie Hutchinson, declares the draw was unfair and should be done again. But she meets with little sympathy from her friends or even her family…

‘Be a good sport, Tessie,’ Mrs Delacroix called, and Mrs Graves said, ‘All of us took the same chance.’
‘Shut up, Tessie.’ Bill Hutchinson said.

The next round of the draw begins, to decide which of the Hutchinson family is to be chosen. The father? Young Nancy? Or maybe the little one, Dave, too young to draw without assistance…

Illustration by Monica Garwood
Illustration by Monica Garwood

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This is a chilling little tale which, even as the first story she published, shows some of the techniques Jackson used to great effect in her later work. No gothic ruins or thunderstorms, Jackson’s stories take place in the full glare of summer sunshine and it’s the contrast of the total normality of the people with the sheer craziness of what they are about to do that creates the feeling of menace – of madness. To be honest, I felt it was pretty obvious what was going to happen from the point in the second paragraph when the boys were gathering stones, but that might be because there have been derivatives of this story over the intervening decades.

What interested me more than the story was the fact that it inspired hate mail from contemporary readers. Partly it seems to have been as a result of confusion – a bit like the Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds thing – with some readers thinking it was a report of real events. But otherwise some of the hate that was hurled at Jackson seems to be wildly over the top for a story which, while well written and effectively horrifying, would be considered relatively mild today. Perhaps in 1948, the horrors of WW2 were too fresh in people’s minds for them to be willing to consider that any group of people can do evil unthinkingly if they blindly follow rules and obey their leaders without question.

The most inappropriate cover ever?
The most inappropriate cover ever?

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Apparently Jackson’s explanation was “I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.” It appears she may have shocked them even more than she intended.

If you’d like to read the story for yourself, here’s a link. It’s very short – about 3500 words.

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Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

porpentine 3

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

the haunting of hill houseThings that go bump in the night…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Hill House has a reputation for ghostly goings-on – so much so that even the servants won’t stay around after dark. So it’s the ideal place for Dr John Montague to carry out an investigation into supernatural manifestations. He collects together a little group of strangers – selected because they have had previous experiences of strange happenings, and they all set off to spend the summer living in the house. The third-person narrative is told entirely from the viewpoint of Eleanor, who has recently lost the mother she has spent years caring for, and it’s not long before the reader becomes aware that Eleanor is a rather disturbed and fragile young woman. And, as a narrator, intensely unreliable.

“No,” Theodora said, and they heard the crash against the door across the hall. It was louder, it was deafening, it struck against the door next to them (did it move back and forth across the hall? did it go on feet along the carpet? did it lift a hand to the door?), and Eleanor threw herself away from the bed and ran to hold her hands against the door. “Go away,” she shouted wildly. “Go away, go away!”

hill house

The question is – is the house haunting Eleanor, or is Eleanor haunting the house? How much of what we are told can we believe? Shirley Jackson is great at suddenly shifting perspective and turning everything on its head, and in this one she uses Eleanor’s seeming descent into madness to confuse and misdirect. The book begins as almost a traditional gothic horror, only with a typical Jackson twist in that it is all taking place in summer with the sun shining, which I found reminiscent of how she subverted the gothic tradition in her later (and better, in my opinion) book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. We have doors that close by themselves, strange noises in the night, blood-spattered rooms, half-seen creatures glanced sideways. We also have a twist on the old gothic servitor in the shape of the servants, the Dudleys, who provide a much-needed touch of humour with their lugubrious and sinister warnings. The house, we are told, was deliberately designed as a kind of trick with odd angles and slightly sloping floors, and with the rooms laid out almost as a labyrinth, leading in and out of each other, so that nothing is quite as would be expected. And this is how the story develops too – nothing feels quite linear about it; each time we think we know the characters, they suddenly shift slightly and we are thrown off kilter, perpetually unsettled.

“God God,” Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, “God God – whose hand was I holding?”

hill house 2

It’s in the middle section of the book that we realise that Eleanor’s viewpoint can’t be relied on, but she’s all we’ve got to go on. Eleanor has never felt that she was wanted anywhere and sees the summer at Hill House as a way to become different – to fit in. At first it seems she’s succeeding – she and the other young woman, Theodora, strike up an immediate intimacy and Eleanor even harbours hopes that Luke, the sole young man, is falling for her. Dr Montague becomes like a father figure to them all. But soon paranoia sets in – or is it real? – as Eleanor feels she’s being excluded from the group, treated differently – and frighteningly, the increasingly threatening disturbances in the house seem to be centred on her too. But as her relationships with the group spiral downwards, Eleanor has a growing feeling that, in some way, she belongs to the house.

It is so cold, Eleanor thought childishly; I will never be able to sleep again with all this noise coming from inside my head; how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?

eleanor

Jackson is brilliant at creating atmosphere and there are parts of the book that are creepy in the extreme. She uses the power of suggestion to leave much of the work up to the reader – a bit like Room 101, Hill House is a place where each person will find his or her own greatest fears. She describes the terror but often leaves the cause to the imagination. There was a point midway where I could genuinely feel the hairs rising on the back of my neck. For me, the end section fell away rather – as it became more confused as to what was real and what was Eleanor’s imagination, somehow the scare factor diminished. But it still remained an excellent and disturbing examination of madness – from the inside – and perfect reading material for the spooky season.

“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” Mrs Dudley said. “We couldn’t hear you, even in the night. No one could.”

“All right now?” Theodora asked, and Eleanor nodded.

“No one lives any nearer than the town, No one else will come any nearer than that…In the night,” Mrs Dudley said. She smiled. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

Happy Hallowe’en!

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Thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for the brilliant review that prompted me to read this. And you’ll find another great one over at the blog of my old mucker, Lady Fancifull.

Images are stills from the 1963 film of the book, The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 39…

The People’s Choice 4…The Result!

 

Excitingly, the voting has once again resulted in a tie for first place! The Professor and the Madman sounds like a great read. But since I’m up to my eyes in factual books at the moment and since the spooky season will soon be upon us, I’m giving the casting vote to…

the haunting of hill house

The BlurbFirst published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

 *******

Thanks to all who voted, and to Cathy at 746 Books for the review that brought this book to my attention.

Now all I have to do is find time to read it…

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And here’s a few more that should be rising to the top of the pile soon…

Factual

 

joan of arc

Courtesy of NetGalley, heading away from British and American history for a bit…

The BlurbWe all know the story of Joan of Arc. A peasant girl who hears voices from God. A warrior leading an army to victory, in an age that believes women cannot fight. The Maid of Orleans, and the saviour of France. Burned at the stake as a heretic at the age of just nineteen. Five hundred years later, a saint. Her case was heard in court twice over. One trial, in 1431, condemned her; the other, twenty-five years after her death, cleared her name. In the transcripts, we hear first-hand testimony from Joan, her family and her friends: a rare survival from the medieval world. What could be more revealing? But all is not as simple as it seems, because this is a life told backwards, in hindsight – a story already shaped by the knowledge of what Joan would become.

In Joan of Arc: A History, Helen Castor tells this gripping story afresh: forwards, not backwards, setting this extraordinary girl within her extraordinary world where no one – not Joan herself, nor the people around her, princes, bishops, soldiers or peasants – knew what would happen next.

 

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Crime

 

the beat goes onPublication today, it will be interesting to see how the Grand Old Man of Tartan Noir fares in short story format…

The BlurbOver the years, Ian Rankin has amassed an incredible portfolio of short stories. Published in crime magazines, composed for events, broadcast on radio, they all share the best qualities of his phenomenally popular Rebus novels.

Brought together for the first time, and including brand new material, this is the ultimate Rebus short-story collection and a must-have book for crime lovers and for Ian’s millions of fans alike.

No Rankin aficionado can go without it.

 

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Fiction

 

nora webster

From NetGalley again, towards the end of the dreariest year I can remember for new literary fiction, here’s hoping Colm Tóibín can lift the standard…

The BlurbSet in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s superb seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be drawn back into it. Wounded, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning empathy and kindness, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven—herself.

 

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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

TBR Thursday 38…

The People’s Choice 4…

 

The TBR is sitting at a 112 – ridiculously high but heading downwards for once. Despite my iron willpower in requesting nothing from NetGalley and Amazon Vine, my fellow bloggers remain a souce of constant temptation – grrrr!! But I can’t add them all…so, yet again, I need your help in deciding, Which one deserves a coveted place on the TBR?

Here’s my shortlist – and they all look great! So which is it to be?  The winner will be announced next Thursday…

With my usual grateful thanks to all the reviewers who’ve intrigued and inspired me over the last few weeks, here are:

The Contenders…

 

the brokenThe Blurb – Best friends tell you everything; about their kitchen renovation; about their little girl’s schooling. How one of them is leaving the other for a younger model. Best friends don’t tell lies. They don’t take up residence on your couch for weeks. They don’t call lawyers. They don’t make you choose sides. Best friends don’t keep secrets about their past. They don’t put you in danger.

Best friends don’t always stay best friends.

Rebecca Bradley says: “Then it happened, I looked at the book, looked at the clock and realised I couldn’t put the book down. There just wasn’t a chance it was going to leave my hands until I had got to the end. The tension had been ramped up. The behaviours and relationships were becoming stretched thin and yet the people within them didn’t seem capable of doing anything to stop what was happening and the strange thing was, I could completely see how that would happen.

See the full review at Rebecca Bradley

*******

the professor and the madmanThe BlurbThe Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857 – it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

I Know What You Should Read says: …by and large, the book reads like fiction—it is fast-paced, interesting, and exciting (War? Check! Murder? Check! Dismemberment? Check!). Appropriately, each chapter begins with an excerpted OED word entry that corresponds to an event or person highlighted in that chapter (the words range from “bedlam” to “sesquipedalian”). The words and definitions serve as a fun tie-in to the OED–they bring to life the work that is being discussed throughout the book.

See the full review at I Know What You Should Read

*******

the house at rivertonThe BlurbSummer 1924 – On the eve of a glittering society party, by the lake of a grand English country house, a young poet takes his life. The only witnesses, sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, will never speak to each other again.

Winter 1999 – Grace Bradley, ninety-eight, one-time housemaid of Riverton Manor, is visited by a young director making a film about the poet’s suicide. Ghosts awaken and old memories – long consigned to the dark reaches of Grace’s mind – begin to sneak back through the cracks. A shocking secret threatens to emerge, something history has forgotten but Grace never could.

Set as the war-shattered Edwardian summer surrenders to the decadent twenties, The House at Riverton is a thrilling mystery and a compelling love story.

What Amy Read Next says: “From the first paragraph this novel gripped me. The quote above, the novel’s opening paragraph, is one of the many beautiful passages evoking the haunting feel of war-time Britain, so intricately and vividly done that you can almost imagine yourself there. The House at Riverton is a beautifully written and enthralling read, perfect for fans of Daphne Du Maurier, Ian McEwan’s Atonement- and Downton Abbey.

See the full review at What Amy Read Next

*******

the haunting of hill houseThe BlurbFirst published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Cathy at 746 Books says: The Haunting of Hill House is a taut and creepy master class in how to write a ‘ghost story’ that is as much about the demons of a haunted house as it is about the demons inside our own heads. Like all good ghost stories, Hill House offers some spine-tingling chills, but what the book really exudes is a lingering, oppressive sense of dread.”

See the full review at 746 Books

*******

station elevenThe BlurbOne snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

wanderaven says: You guys, this book is incredible. If, like me before reading this book, you read apocalyptic and cringe, please, please don’t move on. Does it help if I tell you that it is partially set in the current era, before the collapse of the world? Does it help if I tell you that much of the apocalyptic part is during the time immediately after the collapse so it’s all too painfully easy to imagine precisely what it would be like if this all happened to you today?”

See the full review at wanderaven

*******

NB All blurbs and covers are taken from Goodreads.

An impossible choice, isn’t it? So…over to you! Choose just one or as many as you like – the book with most votes will be this week’s winner…

Hope you pick a good one! 😉

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!

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Science/Nature/Environment Award

Tuesday Terror! We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

“Something wicked this way comes…”

I had intended to review a short story by Susan Hill today, but by half-way through this book, it was clear it had to be this week’s…

Tuesday Terror!

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

we have always lived in the castleWith all the charm and tripping lightness of a fairy dance, Shirley Jackson lures the unsuspecting reader through an enchanted garden into a world of insanity, witchery and murder. The author has taken the elements of Gothic and turned them on their heads, creating a world where the sun shines so brightly that it’s only gradually the reader feels the chill seeping into her bones. No ruined mediaeval castle filled with cobwebby gloom here – this castle is a lovely house, tastefully decorated in white and gold, with interiors so clean that they sparkle in the endless sunshine pouring through the high and plentiful windows. Three people live here (though once there were more) protected not just by the fence that surrounds the grounds, but by the buried charms and magical words that Merricat, our narrator, uses to keep the world out.

I am walking on buried treasure, I thought, with the grass brushing against my hands and nothing around me but the reach of the long field with the grass blowing and the pine woods at the end; behind me was the house, and far off to my left, hidden by the trees and almost out of sight, was the wire fence our father had built to keep people out.

Merricat survived the crime that is at the heart of the story – the wholesale poisoning by arsenic of most of her family when she was just 12. Now she lives with her sister Constance, who everyone assumes is guilty of the crime, even though she was tried and acquitted. The third member of the household is Uncle Julian, another survivor, although he has been left disabled by the experience. While Merricat, now 18, runs childlike and free in the grounds of the house with her constant companion, Jonas the cat, Constance is the homemaker, always cooking and baking, and caring for both Merricat and their uncle. Uncle Julian is writing a memoir of the day of the poisoning, a task made difficult by his failing and confused memory. It is through Uncle Julian’s ramblings and Merricat’s hints and suggestions that the reader gradually gets a picture of what happened.

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

But regardless of truth or proof, Constance has been tried and found guilty by the villagers. The family were never liked – they fenced themselves in and the villagers out – so now the villagers have an ideal excuse to vent their bitterness. On Merricat’s twice weekly trip to the village for supplies, she is shunned by the adults and jeered at by the children. But once home, back in the enchanted space inside the fence, the little family is safe and happy. Until one day, Merricat’s protections fail, and Cousin Charles comes to visit, bringing with him all the sanity and coarseness of the real world. And when Charles’ arrival awakens new desires in Constance, Merricat’s childlike superstitions turn towards something much darker…

Thursday was my most powerful day. It was the right day to settle with Charles. In the morning Constance decided to make spice cookies for dinner; that was too bad, because if any of us had known we could have told her not to bother, that Thursday was going to be the last day.

Merricat is a unique narrator, though much in the Gothic tradition of the lunatic telling her tale. But though we are forced to recognise the insanity that lives within her imaginings, there is a charm and air of childish innocence about her that leads us to sympathise with her totally; the most disturbing thing about the story is that, though we know someone in the house has committed this awful crime, we can’t condemn – we are firmly on the side of Merricat and her family and against the rest of the world. As the story progresses, the sunshine gradually fades into something very disquieting and truly spine-tingling.

A wonderfully written book that distorts and plays with the reader’s expectations, this reads to me like the ‘true’ story behind the creation of the familiar ‘witch’ myths. We see the story from the inside, but if we look closely we also see how Merricat and Constance would have been viewed by the villagers – two strange women, one suspected of a horrific crime, the other, accompanied everywhere by her knowing cat, using talismans and magical words to ward off strangers. As I left Merricat’s world and returned shivering to my own, it seemed when I looked backwards that perhaps the house was made of gingerbread after all…

Hansel-and-gretel-rackham

To see the great review that inspired me to read this, please click through to LitBeetle’s blog. Thanks, LitBeetle!

Fretful porpentine rating 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Next week on Tuesday Terror! – Susan Hill

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 3…

Episode 3

Great writers never die...
Great writers never die…

Since this is the first TBR Thursday for three weeks, you can only imagine how many reviews have tickled my fancy in that time – a stupendous total of 23 made it on to the longlist. Shortlisting has never been so hard, but with a TBR pile which remains stubbornly at 99 (despite my best endeavours), I have been ruthless. So with my usual thanks to all the bloggers who have entertained, intrigued and tempted me, here goes…

The Silver Medallists

With grateful thanks to the reviewers/recommenders, here are the runners-up in this week’s contest:

blessed are those who thirstRooms filled with blood begin another investigation for Hanne Wilhelmsen…

The Game’s Afoot says: “Blessed Are Those Who Thirst is an extremely rewarding reading. Despite being relatively short, the novel has a wide scope…: a police investigation, the trauma of a rape victim, the private investigation of the victim’s father, the twisted motives of the perpetrator and the further development of some of the characters that we have first met in The Blind Goddess. “

See the full review at The Game’s Afoot

*******

die a littleModern noir from the writer of the brilliant The End of Everything

Sparkcharms says Die a Little isn’t just a noir novel, but a commentary that reaches far deeper into our own psyches, whether we’re in LA or Mississippi. There is darkness in all of us, and it’s a beguiling thing, even to the most straight-laced of us. Some are encompassed, and when that happens, disentangling oneself from it becomes excruciatingly hard.”

See the full review at Sparkcharms

*******

the housekeeper and the professorA Japanese story about love, family, memory…and mathematics…

Need to Read Blog says It is a quick read, but will leave a definite mark on your mind. Although I couldn’t understand all of the mathematical formulas within it, it doesn’t matter so much. What is important however, is to understand the professor’s passion, which is so strong that it leaps off of the words on the pages, and right into the hearts of the readers.”

See the full review at Need to Read Blog

*******

the english spyThe Act of Union of 1707 and the spying of Daniel Defoe…

BooksPlease says “This is a story about spies and the struggle between various factions for power and once I had got the characters sorted in my mind I was swept along with the intrigue and dangers of the times, keen to see how the Union came about. The English Spy is a mix of fact and fiction but A Warning to the Reader at the beginning of the book clarifies that Daniel Defoe had indeed been sent to Scotland…’

See the full review at BooksPlease

******

And the Gold Medallist is…

 

we have always lived in the castle

Murder and madness with a magical edge…

LitBeetle says More than anything, I was charmed by their lunacy, and it’s not until later, as the mystery unfolded and with some space from finishing the book, that I realized how disturbing it all is. Make sure you wear a decent shawl while reading this, because–between Merricat’s quietly frightening mind and Jackson’s simple but eloquent writing–We Have Always Lived in the Castle will give you chills.”

Litbeetle’s reviews always inspire me with enthusiasm – time to put it to the test!

See the full review at litbeetle

Now all I have to do is find time to read it…