FictionFan Awards 2018 – Literary Fiction and Book of the Year

A standing ovation please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

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 2017 and October 2018 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.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

LITERARY FICTION

I’ve been so busy this year trying to catch up with my Classics Club list and various other challenges that I’ve read far fewer new releases than usual, but being a bit choosier means that I’ve enjoyed most of those I have read. As a result, the shortlisting has been extremely tough. In the end, I’ve decided not to include classics or any of the fiction I read as part of my Russian challenge since I’ve already posted about them in previous challenge summaries. All of which very neatly leaves me with five excellent contenders, so here goes…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war 

This is Boyd at his best and the narration by Harriet Walter does it full justice. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully.

Click to see the full review

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That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina

When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago, when Tommaso met and fell in love with Anna. We know from the beginning that their relationship ended with some kind of tragedy that led Tommaso to cut all ties with home and take on a new identity in London. But it’s only after we follow Tommaso through the events of the summer that we find out what happened…

On the face of it, this is a straightforward account of a love affair, but the quality of the writing, the great pacing and, most of all, the superb sense of place make it so much more than that. It’s an intense character study of Tommaso, and it’s wonderfully evocative of the culture of Puglia, in the heel of Italy, in the 1980s – still strictly conservative in outlook, still largely in thrall to Catholicism, and with strong family expectations that children will follow the paths determined for them by their parents. A first-class début.

Click to see the full review

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Eagle and Crane by Suzanne Rindell

Earl Shaw takes two small planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. One day, the pilots take up two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada. Daredevil Harry decides he will walk along the wing, and Louis, feeling challenged and a little humiliated, follows suit. Earl offers them both jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage fellow citizens as more than a comic-book threat. And Harry and Louis will find their friendship altered and strained…

While the book has some elements of the thriller, it definitely falls far more into the category of literary fiction for me. Rindell’s research is skilfully fed to us through the development of her characters and her story, so that we gradually get a real feel for rural Californian life and attitudes in this period, and an in-depth look at the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans. This third book cements her place as one of my favourite authors.

Click to see the full review

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Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti

Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. As Santiago sits in jail not knowing when – if – he’ll be released, he writes letters full of love to his wife, Graciela. For him, life is static, his memories of their love the thing that has sustained him through the torture and now the sheer stultification of his imprisonment. But for Graciela, life is a moving thing – she is still young, in a new city, with a job and a growing child, and for her the present is more vivid than the past. She finds herself increasingly attracted to Ronaldo, but knows that Santiago needs her love and loyalty. The crux of the story is deceptively simple – what will Graciela decide to do?

This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time, and credit must go to the translator, Nick Caistor, who has done a marvellous job. Although it’s based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and hope, and sometimes despair. It’s profoundly moving – full of emotional truth. Wonderful!

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

LITERARY FICTION

Tombland by CJ Sansom


This was an extremely difficult decision and I swayed back and forwards between Tombland and Springtime in a Broken Mirror several times, but in the end my love for the wonderful Matthew Shardlake won out…

It’s 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne. Since he is still a child, his guardians have appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by Princess Elizabeth to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. Superb!

Click to see the full review

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And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2018

THE WINNER

Five excellent contenders, but no hesitation in my mind as which deserves to win. This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read.

Then, at just about two o’clock, they saw where they were. A quirk of wind tore the clouds apart, and two wicked peaks loomed above a line of cliffs and the perpendicular faces of glaciers that dropped sheer into the sea. The coastline looked to be about a mile away, perhaps a little more. But vastly more important, in that single glimpse, they saw to their terror that they were only a short distance outside the line of breakers, the point at which the seas ceased to behave like swells and became combers instead, rushing faster and faster towards their own destruction against the land. As each swell passed under them, they could feel it tugging momentarily at the boat, trying to get hold of her and hurl her toward the beach. It seemed now that everything, the wind, the current and even the sea itself, were united in a single determined purpose, once and for all to annihilate this tiny boat which thus far had defied all their efforts to destroy it.

A wonderfully emotive journey that shows the human spirit at its very best. First published in 1959, this fully earns its reputation as a classic of non-fiction writing.

Click to see the full review

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Thanks to all of you who’ve joined me for this year’s awards feature.

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

Eagle & Crane by Suzanne Rindell

Those magnificent men in their flying machine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Earl Shaw wins two small planes in a poker game, he decides to put his skills as a showman to good use by taking the planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. One day, the pilots take up two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada. Daredevil Harry decides he will walk along the wing, and Louis, feeling challenged and a little humiliated, follows suit. Earl offers them both jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage fellow citizens as more than a comic-book threat. And Harry and Louis will find their friendship altered and strained…

Suzanne Rindell has rapidly become one of my most highly anticipated must-read authors. This is only her third book, after The Other Typist and Three-Martini Lunch – both excellent. But she’s still improving with each book, and the joy is that each time she comes up with an entirely different and fascinating setting and story. I had mentioned in my reviews of both her earlier books that she sometimes gets so involved in creating an authentic setting that the descriptions can become overly long, creating a bit of drag in the mid-section. Not here! She achieves a pretty much perfect balance between scene-setting and plot, so that the pacing is steady and the forward momentum is maintained beautifully.

The book begins with FBI Agent Bonner showing up at the Yamadas’ farm looking for Harry and his father, who have apparently escaped from one of the Relocation Centers (concentration camps) to which people of Japanese heritage were sent following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. From here, we are taken back to the past to learn how Harry and Louis befriended each other as children, across a racial divide and a family feud. We follow them as they develop into Eagle & Crane, seeing how their very different backgrounds (different in not quite the way you may be thinking – Rindell doesn’t do clichés) have made them the men they have become. We see how Depression and war affect California, and our young heroes in particular. And we get to know Ava, Earl’s step-daughter, who travels with the barnstormers and forms a firm friendship with both boys, gradually complicated by the growth of romantic attraction. Every now and then we flash back to the present of 1943 (the only part of the book written in present tense), where slowly Agent Bonner discovers what has happened to Harry and his father, and lets us see too how the other characters have fared.

It’s a slow-paced book that takes an in-depth look at the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans. While it has some elements of the thriller, it definitely falls far more into the category of literary fiction for me. Rindell’s research is skilfully fed to us through the development of her characters and her story, so that we gradually get a real feel for rural Californian life and attitudes in this period. She is clearly making a point about the racism underlying the internment policy, but she doesn’t thump the reader with polemical rants. Instead she lets us see through Harry’s eyes – a boy who thought he was American even though he knew he would never be treated in quite the same way as other Americans who looked like Louis rather than him. We also see through Ava’s initially innocent eyes – gradually awakened to an understanding of how thoughtless, low-level racism runs almost unnoticed as a backdrop to every aspect of Harry’s life.

But don’t let me put you off with my usual concentration on the political themes of the book! It also has an excellent story and the characterisation is wonderful. I loved learning all about the stunts the boys do, and about barnstorming in general. I enjoyed watching the careful way Rindell develops the setting, and found it so absorbing that I would find myself looking up after an hour or two, surprised to discover I was in 21st century Scotland rather than Depression-era California. The three major characters gained all my sympathy, even though they’re very different from one another, and I grew to care deeply about the outcome for each of them. And I was equally impressed by the depth Rindell puts into the supporting cast of characters – Agent Bonner, Earl, Ava’s mother, Louis’ family, and most of all the Yamadas as they find their American dream turning into a nightmare.

Suzanne Rindell

If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller, this isn’t it. But if you want a beautifully written and insightful story about a time when political America showed itself at its worst and yet still with love and loyalty and friendship running through the lives of the people affected by it; if you want to be absorbed by the hopes and fears of a set of superbly observed characters; if you want to spend some time in a wonderfully authentic historical setting, then I highly recommend this book to you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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

Please rise…

 

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

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

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

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

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

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

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

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

LITERARY FICTION

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

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

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

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

Click to see the full review

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exposureExposure by Helen Dunmore

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

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

Click to see the full review

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three martini lunchThree-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

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

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

Click to see the full review

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zero kZero K by Don DeLillo

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

Click to see the full review

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enigma 2Enigma by Robert Harris

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

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

Click to see the full review

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the girlsThe Girls by Emma Cline

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

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

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

beloved

Beloved by Toni Morrison

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

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

Click to see the full review

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And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

 

.

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016

THE WINNER

.

Best Fiction

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

Click to see the full review

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

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

 

Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

The hipster scene…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

three martini lunchIt’s 1958, and Greenwich Village in New York is the centre of the hipster scene, populated by aspiring poets and writers – some, dilettante rich boys, others more serious in pursuit of their dreams. Here we meet the three characters who take turns to narrate their own stories. Eden is a young woman just arrived from Indiana, determined to make it in the male-dominated world of publishing. Rich boy Cliff’s father has cut off his allowance, determined to force his son to earn his pleasures. But Cliff thinks he can write and is pretty sure he just needs a break to make it big, a break he feels his father could easily give him. Miles is black – a Negro, in the terminology of the time. About to graduate from Columbia, he’s working part-time as a messenger-boy for one of the publishing houses. Miles also aspires to write, but unlike Cliff he has real talent and the industriousness to work quietly towards his goal. When their lives intersect, casually at first but gradually more intricately, a chain of events is started that will change the course of their lives.

Rindell has the gift of creating truthful characters with individual voices, and of putting them into settings that feel totally authentic. The book is ambitious, looking at several different aspects of how life in this outwardly bohemian corner of society reeked of the same kinds of prejudice that were prevalent in the wider world. Her scene-setting is superb – she brings the Village to life in all its seedy vibrancy, a place where dreams arise out of drugs and booze and usually sink under them in the end, but where just occasionally a true talent can emerge. She is brilliant at capturing the speech patterns and slang of the time, never falling into the trap of over-using them.

In my review of her previous book, The Other Typist, I remarked that the book was seriously over-long for its content. I felt this may have been because she was trying to give a fullness and depth to her setting, but said that, in my opinion, she had achieved this perhaps more quickly than she realised, leaving all the rest feeling like repetitious filler. I fear I have to make the same criticism of this one, but with less generosity – here it feels self-indulgent, as if she has fallen in love with her characters and her depiction of the Village, and wants to spend more time with them than is necessary. As a result, after a great start, the first half of the book tends to drag with very little forward momentum and no clear narrative drive. For too long, I had no glimmer of where we were heading.

Looking back on it now, I see that New York in the ’50s made for a unique scene. If you lived in Manhattan during that time you experienced the uniqueness in the colors and flavors of the city that were more defined and more distinct from one another than they were in other cities or other times. If you ask me, I think it was the war that had made things this way. All the energy of the war effort was now poured into the manufacture of neon signs, shiny chrome bumpers, bright plastic things, and that meant all of a sudden there was a violent shade of Formica to match every desire. All of it was for sale and people had lots of dough to spend and to top it off the atom bomb was constantly hovering in the back of all our minds, its bright white flash and the shadow of its mushroom cloud casting a kind of imaginary yet urgent light over everything that surrounded us.

However, from about the halfway point, the various strands begin to come together and the story she tells is more than worth waiting for. This is a hero-less book – each of the characters is flawed, each selfish in pursuit of his or her aims, each weak at points. But they are created so carefully that it’s easy to see why they are as they are and hard not to empathise with each of them, though perhaps not equally. While the voices of all three characters are excellent, Cliff’s is truly outstanding. He narrates his sections in a conversational tone, picking up the rather jazzy language and inflections of youth culture of the time and sustaining it wonderfully throughout. He is perhaps the most complex of the three, selfish and narcissistic, often seeming unaware of his flaws, then just occasionally using a kind of self-deprecating humour that leaves the reader wondering if he understands himself better than he pretends. Rindell handles this with great skill, so that there’s an ambiguity on occasion as to whether he believes his own self-justifications, and it’s unclear whether he knows how much he is revealing to the reader between the lines.

Suzanne Rindell
Suzanne Rindell

While Cliff’s problems are mostly brought on by his own weakness of character, blaming everything on the father he thinks doesn’t do enough for him, both Eden and Miles have to contend with issues forced on them by the society they live in. Eden has to overcome both sexism and anti-semitism in the workplace, while Miles has the double complication of being both black and gay, at a time when homosexuality was still considered a crime. Rindell manages the delicate task of handling all of these liberal concerns without the book ever feeling preachy – she keeps all of the characters living in their own time and doesn’t project modern sensibilities onto them. She leaves that up to the reader and it works much better as a result. And all of these issues feed into a fascinating and credible plot, rather than being the sole focus of the book.

While I struggled a bit with the first half of the book, I raced through the second half. Rindell is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and skilled new writers I’ve come across in recent years, coming up with original stories and great characters, and writing them with an easy assurance many a more experienced author must watch with envy. The Other Typist was a crossover between crime and literary fiction, but this one falls much more clearly into the latter category, which I feel suits her style better and is where her future should lie. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing how she develops.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 4
Book 4

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Champagne and chameleons…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the other typistIt’s Prohibition Era in America and the police in Brooklyn have been tasked with closing down the speakeasies that have sprung up around the district. To help with the extra workload a new typist is hired, the charming and beautiful Odalie. At first, Rose, the narrator, is a little jealous of the attention Odalie receives from all quarters, but when Odalie decides to befriend her, Rose quickly falls under her spell. Even as she realises that Odalie might have some dark secrets, Rose can’t resist the new and exciting lifestyle to which Odalie has introduced her.

The movie rights to this début novel have apparently been grabbed by Keira Knightley in conjunction with Fox Searchlight, and I can see why. Knightley would make an excellent Odalie – all Twenties It Girl on the outside, but underneath, chameleon-like, ambiguous, secretive and perhaps wicked. Or perhaps all these attributes are merely inventions of the obsessed Rose, a narrator who is profoundly unreliable. She lets slip quite quickly that she’s telling us her story from an institution, where she has ended up as a result of the events she is about to narrate, and it’s fairly clear that the doctor whose care she is under is of the psychiatric rather than the medical kind.

The book is not unflawed. In common with so much current crime writing, it is grossly overlong for its content, with huge stretches where nothing happens to move the plot forward at all. After a good start, I really struggled to maintain my interest level through the seemingly endless middle – it could easily have lost 100-150 pages and been a better book as a result. There are frequent digressions and little bits of side stories that never go anywhere, and far too much foreshadowing of the “but that would come later” variety in a not very successful attempt to hold the reader’s attention. I suspect the author’s intention was to give a fullness and depth to her carefully recreated world of speakeasies and bootleggers, but I felt she had achieved this perhaps more quickly than she realised, leaving all the rest feeling like repetitious filler.

I'm assuming Keira Knightley will be playing Odalie, but of course she may choose to play Rose. Which would be...intriguing...
I’m assuming Keira Knightley will be playing Odalie, but of course she may choose to play Rose. Which would be…intriguing…

However, this is one where the positives very definitely outweigh the negatives. Rose is an excellent creation. She tells her tale in a rather stilted language, rather like the voice of someone pretending to be a social class higher than she is, or pretending to a level of education she doesn’t properly have. It’s sustained beautifully throughout the novel, giving her a very definite personality – one that shouldn’t be likeable but somehow manages to get the reader onside anyway. I think it was a risky and brave decision to use such a distinctive and stylised voice in a début, since I certainly spent the first few chapters wondering if it was the author’s own voice that felt stilted, but once I’d become confident that the voice was Rose’s, I greatly admired the skill with which it had been done. (Of course, if her next novel turns out to be in the same voice, I shall delete this… 😉 )

Because we only see through Rose’s eyes, the other characters are somewhat nebulous, changing depending on Rose’s opinion of them at any given point. Rose tells us she was brought up by nuns in an orphanage, so starts with a strict moral code and a prudish, judgemental attitude about the behaviour of all around her. Under Odalie’s influence, not to mention the champagne cocktails, her morals might slip a little but her feelings of moral superiority never do. In some ways she’s clear-sighted about her own weaknesses, but she’s a mistress of the art of self-justification. She’s jealous of Odalie in both senses – jealous of her easy charm and sophistication, and also jealous of her showing favour to anyone else. Rose assures us so often that her feelings towards Odalie are not “unnatural” that it seems as if perhaps they must be…

Suzanne Rindell
Suzanne Rindell

From about the halfway point, it becomes fairly clear where the book is heading, but this isn’t a weakness. The fun from there on is that the reader knows something Rose doesn’t know and, again, I feel the way Rindell handles this is extremely skilful. There’s enough humour in the book to keep it entertaining (except through that middle portion), but the plot at the heart of it has both darkness and depth. Rindell says in her afterword that she had deliberately nodded to Gatsby in places as a kind of homage to her favourite book. Yes, she has, in terms of the parties and lifestyle, but she has wisely made no attempt to cover the same subject matter nor pretend that her book comes from the same mould. This is historical crime, well written, cleverly plotted and with great, original characterisation, and I very much look forward to seeing how Rindell develops in future books. I hope that film gets made…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

PS Last night I was European. Today I’m British. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I’m going to bed now and I may be some time. If they announce another referendum, don’t wake me… 😉

TBR Thursday 86…and results of the #20booksofsummer poll!

Episode 86…

The TBR is at a frightful 169 – up 4!! However, during my little break it briefly went over the 170 mark, so really it’s going down. (Did you find that as convincing as I did?) But once I’ve powered my way through the 20 Books of Summer, everything will be back under control…

Which brings me neatly to the results of the poll to decide which books should fill the three remaining slots on my 20 Books list. Wow! It was exciting watching the books move! It took a day or two for four leaders to emerge from the pack, but then they raced ahead of the rest and jostled for position. A couple of the trailing pack picked up speed in the final furlong and finally two of the runners shared fourth place. And then there were a couple of also-rans…

Poor Ken Livingstone (You Can’t Say That)! Thrown out of his job by Margaret Thatcher, voted out of his role as Mayor of London, chucked out of the Labour Party, but I don’t think he’s ever suffered quite such a humiliating defeat before – one measly vote! Don’t tell him!

Then poor H Rider Haggard (Nada the Lily) only got two votes! I shall need to convince you all of his worth in the months to come. Mary Queen of Scots (The Queen’s Caprice) was chased by The Invisible Ones right to the door of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – surreal!

Uncle Tom and Ray Bradbury (From the Dust Returned) ended up sharing fourth spot, and since my first book of summer, Barkskins by Annie Proulx, quickly got thrown into the abandoned tub for being boring, then one of these will be the new number twenty. I have exercised my casting vote…

So now, in reverse order…

The Winners!

4. From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

3. Enigma by Robert Harris

2. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

1. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Great choices, People! Thank you all so much for voting, commenting, tweeting – these will be my most looked-forward-to books of the summer. 😀

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And, since I’m still bogged down after my marathon read of books for Bloody Scotland, not to mention still being in the middle of the massive Douglas MacArthur, just a couple that will be reaching the top of the pile soon…

Factual

citizen kaneSince I’ve never felt I appreciate Citizen Kane as much as I should, I thought perhaps learning more about it might help. Courtesy of NetGalley.

The Blurb says: With the approach of the 75th anniversary of Citizen Kane in May 2016, Harlan Lebo has written the full story of Orson Welles’ masterpiece film. The book will explore:

–Welles’ meteoric rise to stardom in New York and the real reason behind his arrival in Hollywood
–Welles’ unprecedented contract with RKO Studios for total creative control and the deeper issues that impeded his work instead
–The dispute over who wrote the script
–The mystery of the “lost” final script, which the author has in his possession, and the missing scenes, which answer questions relating to the creation of the film
–The plot by Hearst to destroy Welles’ project through blackmail, media manipulation, and other tactics
–A detailed look behind the scenes of a production process that was cloaked in secrecy
–The surprising emergence of Citizen Kane as an enduring masterpiece

Using previously unpublished material from studio files and the Hearst organization, exclusive interviews with the last surviving members of the cast and crew, and what may be the only surviving copy of the “lost” final script of the film, Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey recounts the making of one of the most famous films in Hollywood history.

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Fiction

three martini lunchHaving very recently read and enjoyed The Other Typist (review still to come), I spotted that Suzanne Rindell’s new book has just been released and managed to snaffle a copy. Courtesy of the publisher, Allison & Busby.

The Blurb says: In 1958, Greenwich Village buzzes with beatniks, jazz clubs, and new ideas—the ideal spot for three ambitious young people to meet. Cliff Nelson, the son of a successful book editor, is convinced he’s the next Kerouac, if only his father would notice. Eden Katz dreams of being an editor but is shocked when she encounters roadblocks to that ambition. And Miles Tillman, a talented black writer from Harlem, seeks to learn the truth about his father’s past, finding love in the process. Though different from one another, all three share a common goal: to succeed in the competitive and uncompromising world of book publishing. As they reach for what they want, they come to understand what they must sacrifice, conceal, and betray to achieve their goals, learning they must live with the consequences of their choices. In Three-Martini Lunch, Suzanne Rindell has written both a page-turning morality tale and a captivating look at a stylish, demanding era—and a world steeped in tradition that’s poised for great upheaval.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads. (BTW, whatever happened to short blurbs??)

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

 

TBR Thursday 83…

Episode 83…

 

Ooh, the TBR has dropped 2 again this week – to 165! I knew it was the start of a trend! I shall be in single figures any time now, I’m convinced of it! So long as nothing unforeseen happens…

Here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…

Factual

the wicked boyCourtesy of NetGalley, from the author of the brilliant The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (and the slightly less brilliant Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace)…

The Blurb says: In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbours they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When eventually she forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.

At a time of great tumult and uncertainty, Robert Coombes’s case crystallised contemporary anxieties about the education of the working classes, the dangers of pulp fiction, and evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man’s capacity to overcome the past.

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Fiction

 

americanahNext up for the GAN Quest. I’m not expecting this to be The Great American Novel but I’m hoping it will be A Great American Novel. Can’t be worse than Absalom! Absalom!, right? 😉

The Blurb says: As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

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Crime

 

the other typistRecommended by the lovely Raven way back in 2013, it’s taken some time for this one to reach the top of the heap…

The Blurb says: New York City, 1924: the height of Prohibition and the whole city swims in bathtub gin. Rose Baker is an orphaned young woman working for her bread as a typist in a police precinct on the lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precinct. While she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid.

But when the captivating Odalie begins work at the precinct Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell. As do her bosses, the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. As the two girls’ friendship blossoms and they flit between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the precinct by day, it is not long before Rose’s fascination for her new colleague turns to obsession.

But just who is the real Odalie, and how far will Rose go to find out?

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mrs hudson and the malabar roseAnd NetGalley again. Not exactly a Holmes pastiche, more a riff on a theme, I think. It’s had mixed reviews so far, so we’ll see…

The Blurb says: As snow falls on Baker Street, the wintry city is abuzz with rumour and excitement: the Malabar Rose – a fabled and frankly enormous ruby – has been sent as a gift to Her Majesty Queen Victoria by the Marharajah of Marjoudh. An extraordinary condition is attached to the gift, though: the gem must be displayed at London’s sumptuous Blenheim Hotel to be admired by all. How can the safety of this priceless jewel be assured? The authorities wisely enlist the help of Sherlock Holmes and his colleague Dr Watson… but fortunately for them, they are also on the receiving end of help from Holmes’s redoubtable housekeeper Mrs Hudson and her able assistant, Flotsam the housemaid.

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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 12…

Episode 12

 

With the TBR list sitting at 102, I really shouldn’t be adding to it at all…but it’s the 23rd of January, so well past time to break all those New Year resolutions. A particularly tough choice this week – the runner-ups are all extremely tempting…

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

The Runners-Up…

 

cosmicomicsEnchanting stories about the evolution of the universe…

Reading on Cloud 9 says: “These stories are dreamy, philosophical and funny at the same time. I think of them as bedtime stories for adults – they have the enchanted feel of a bedtime fairy tales, but not really the story structure, nor necessarily the happy endings. But these stories will make you think, make you feel in awe of this world, put a smile on your face and before you know it, you are ready to put yet another day away.

See the full review at Reading on Cloud 9

*******

i was amelia earhartA fictionalised account of Amelia Earhart’s last flight…

Women’s Prize for Fiction says “At only 146 pages in length the book is short but very sweet. Jane Mendelsohn has taken the ‘goddess of flight’, as she was described by the press, and brought her down to earth by encasing her feet in clay. But, though the author has endowed Amelia Earhart with flaws, insecurities and an occasional hint of self loathing, Amelia Earhart still remains a heroine.

See the full review at Women’s Prize for Fiction

*******

picnic at hanging rockA summer picnic turns into a mysterious disappearance…

Booksaremyfavouriteandbest says: “My feelings about this book have built gradually, after countless readings, the enchanting movie version directed by Peter Weir in 1975, and of course the fuss when the final chapter was released. So why do I love this story? Part of it is purely nostalgic but what truly stands out is Lindsay’s description of the Australian bush – you can feel that summer day and the descriptions of Hanging Rock are intimate.

See the full review at booksaremyfavouriteandbest

*******

elementalOne woman’s life story (This would have been a winner except that it’s horrendously overpriced in the UK at present. It will remain on my wishlist till the price drops…)

Angela Savage says: “Elemental is rich in historical detail, from the unforgettably harsh conditions of village life in remote coastal Scotland, to the challenges facing migrants in early twentieth century Freemantle. This detail is woven seamlessly and skilfully into the story, never jarring or slowing down the pace of the narrative.”

See the full review at Angela Savage’s blog

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And the winner is…

 

the other typistA Jazz Age thriller…

Raven Crime Reads says “I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of twisted loyalty resulting in murderous betrayal. From the perfect capturing of the period, to the locations, to the characterisation and the wonderfully placed reveals, this was a deeply satisfying read and I have no hesitation in recommending this to any reader who appreciates well written and sophisticated fiction, with a dark sting in the tale…

See the full review at Raven Crime Reads

*******

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