FictionFan Awards – Book of the Year 2020

Drum roll, please…

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

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

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

Joint Best Classic Fiction 2020

For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Ernest Hemingway

and

Nostromo
by Joseph Conrad

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

Best Crime Fiction 2020

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau
by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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

Best Factual Book 2020

The Spanish Civil War
by Stanley G Payne

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

Best Fiction 2020

I Married A Communist
by Philip Roth

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

Best Vintage Crime 2020

The Spoilt Kill
by Mary Kelly

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

FictionFan’s Book of the Year 2020

Nostromo
by Joseph Conrad

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Thanks for joining me on my reading journey 😀

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Opposite and equal…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of two men, residents of the drab little town of St Louis on the French side of the Swiss border. One, Georges Gorski, is a police inspector; the other, Manfred Baumann, is a loner who frequents the bar of the Restaurant de la Cloche – the restaurant where Adèle Bedeau worked before she disappeared. There is no real reason to assume that Baumann had anything to do with her disappearance, except for his strange behaviour and the lies that he tells. But is this a sign of guilt, or simply a symptom of his general social ineptitude? Gorski doesn’t even know whether there is anything to be guilty about – in the absence of a corpse or anything to indicate violence, it’s impossible to know if Adèle’s disappearance is a sign of a crime at all. But many years ago, as a rookie detective, Gorski failed to bring the murderer of another young girl to justice and this haunts him, so he is determined this time to ensure that the killer of Adèle (if she has been killed) will not escape.

This compelling book falls very definitely on the literary side of crime fiction while never feeling pretentious or overdone. The central mystery of Adèle’s disappearance is intriguing but is almost peripheral – the real meat of the story is in the slow reveal of the characters of the two men, detective and suspect: both brought up in this rather dead-end, grey town, both outwardly successful in their careers but both inwardly feeling that somehow they haven’t achieved their early ambitions, both haunted for different reasons by an event from many years earlier. The careful depiction of the town is so authentic that it feels as if it must exist and that the Restaurant de la Cloche is a real place where the regulars are real people who really gather each night to bicker over the news of the day.

There is a strange device employed whereby the book is credited to one Raymond Brunet, translated into English by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Because of Burnet’s success as an author, especially with his Booker-nominated His Bloody Project, a reader coming to it now realises this is an obvious fiction, although it is presented quite credibly and if I hadn’t heard of the author before I may well have fallen for it, not noticing the similarity in the names. (Having done my usual thing of reading the second book in this duology first – The Accident on the A35 – I knew going in how this aspect would be developed in the next book, but wondered what I’d have made of it if I’d read this one first. It may have struck me as an unnecessary and slightly pretentious device, so I do think it’s important to see these books as halves of a whole, although storywise each stands on its own as complete.)

Brunet, Burnet and Inspector Gorski all admit to the influence of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, the first two as writers and Gorski as having been inspired to become a detective by reading the books. I’ve read a few Maigret books but am not really well enough acquainted with his work to judge how well Burnet catches the tone, so I defer to better read reviewers who seem to feel he’s done it very well. The mood is noir, but as I said in my review of the other book, the drabness of St Louis makes it a faded noir – grey rather than black.

The writing is wonderful, both in the physical descriptions and in the depth of characterisation. Told in the third person we are nevertheless allowed deep inside the minds of the two men, and both are interesting. Despite a failing marriage and a stalled career, Gorski is basically a contented man who feels he has found his level. It may not be the level he once hoped he would reach and he may still harbour dreams that one day he’ll do something to impress people, but he’s comfortable in his own skin. The same is not true of Baumann. An outsider all his life, he thinks obsessively about how other people see him and as he feels suspicion surrounding him becomes almost paranoic, thinking that he’s being watched not just by the police but by the people of the town. He may be right – we see this through his eyes so we have only his impressions to go on. As the book progresses we learn more about the experiences that have formed Baumann, and I found myself having a great deal of sympathy for him while simultaneously finding him repellent. Truly an excellent creation – believable as the kind of man any of us may know and yet ultimately unknowable, even to himself.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

Adèle disappears not just from St Louis but from the book. She is never developed as a character, deliberately, her only importance existing in her absence. Her mystery exists mostly in her blankness – one feels that if she had never disappeared, she would never have been noticed at all. There seem to be no grief-stricken relatives and her job at the restaurant is soon filled. Even her boyfriend barely knew her. And Gorski, though he tries not to admit it, is somewhat hopeful that she has indeed been killed, giving him the opportunity to make his mark and make things right with his conscience by finally solving a murder.

I’d be hard put to choose between the books in the duo – both are excellent individually and together they become something really quite special and, in my opinion, unique in crime writing. I recommend them both highly and hope that Burnet will continue to blur the boundaries of literary and genre fiction in his future work.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 221…

Episode 221

Considering my inability to ignore all the political chaos on both sides of the Atlantic – as a spectator sport, it’s all fun so long as you can suspend your disbelief – it’s amazing that my TBR has actually gone down, by 1 to 214! And I’m proud to announce that I survived East of Eden – not unscathed, but ultimately unbowed…

A bumper batch this week, since this will be the last TBR Thursday of the year. Next week I’ll be starting the annual FictionFan Book of the Year posts – get your ballgown ready for the awards ceremony! Meantime, some shorter, lighter reads, mostly vintage crime, to accompany my Dickens book over the festive season… 

Crime

The Mugger by Ed McBain

The second in the long-running 87th Precinct series. I enjoyed many of these back in the day and more recently was impressed by a re-read of the first in the series, Cop Hater

The Blurb says: This mugger is special.

He preys on women, waiting in the darkness…then comes from behind, attacks them, and snatches their purses. He tells them not to scream and as they’re on the ground, reeling with pain and fear, he bows and nonchalantly says, “Clifford thanks you, madam.” But when he puts one victim in the hospital and the next in the morgue, the detectives of the 87th Precinct are not amused and will stop at nothing to bring him to justice.

Dashing young patrolman Bert Kling is always there to help a friend. And when a friend’s sister-in-law is the mugger’s murder victim, Bert’s personal reasons to find the maniacal killer soon become a burning obsession…and it could easily get him killed.

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Vintage Crime

It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr

Courtesy of the British Library. I have a feeling I read a few John Dickson Carr novels in my teens, but I fear I don’t remember them. More recently, I’ve come across a few of his short stories in various anthologies and have enjoyed them, so fingers crossed. As I’m sure you’ll agree, nothing says Christmas quite like a beheaded corpse…

The Blurb says: We are thrilled to welcome John Dickson Carr into the Crime Classics series with his first novel, a brooding locked room mystery in the gathering dusk of the French capital.

In the smoke-wreathed gloom of a Parisian salon, Inspector Bencolin has summoned his allies to discuss a peculiar case. A would-be murderer, imprisoned for his attempt to kill his wife, has escaped and is known to have visited a plastic surgeon. His whereabouts remain a mystery, though with his former wife poised to marry another, Bencolin predicts his return.

Sure enough, the Inspector’s worst suspicions are realised when the beheaded body of the new suitor is discovered in a locked room of the salon, with no apparent exit. Bencolin sets off into the Parisian night to unravel the dumbfounding mystery and track down the sadistic killer.

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More Vintage Crime

Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert

Courtesy of the British Library again. Apparently Anthony Gilbert was one of the pen names of Lucy Beatrice Malleson, who also wrote as Anne Meredith. So since I enjoyed Anne Meredith’s Portrait of a Murderer, I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: The British Secret Service, working to uncover a large-scale blackmail ring and catch its mysterious mastermind ‘The Spider’, find themselves at the country residence Feltham Abbey, where a fancy dress ball is in full swing.

In the tumult of the revelry, Sir Ralph Feltham is found dead. Not the atmosphere bewildered young lawyer Tony was expecting, he sets out to make sense of the night’s activities and the motives of the other guests. Among them is Hilary, an independently-minded socialite still in her costume of vivid silk pyjamas and accompanying teddy bear…

This classic country house mystery, first published in 1933, contrasts the splendours and frivolities of the English upper classes with the sombre over-hang of the First World War and the irresistible complications of deadly familial relationships – with just the right amount of international intrigue thrown in.

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Crime

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I loved the second book about Georges Gorski, The Accident on the A35, actually even more than Burnet’s Booker-nominated His Bloody Project, and have had this first one lingering on the TBR for far too long. (Yes, I know it would have made more sense to read them the other way round… 😉 )

The Blurb says: Manfred Baumann is a loner. Socially awkward and perpetually ill at ease, he spends his evenings quietly drinking and surreptitiously observing Adèle Bedeau, the sullen but alluring waitress at a drab bistro in the unremarkable small French town of Saint-Louis. But one day, she simply vanishes into thin air. When Georges Gorski, a detective haunted by his failure to solve one of his first murder cases, is called in to investigate the girl’s disappearance, Manfred’s repressed world is shaken to its core and he is forced to confront the dark secrets of his past. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is a literary mystery novel that is, at heart, an engrossing psychological portrayal of an outsider pushed to the limit by his own feverish imagination.

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Vintage Science Fiction

Courtesy of the British Library again! Another of their fab anthologies, this time on the vexed subject of time travel. As Captain Janeway of the USS Voyager said – or maybe that should be, will say – “Time travel. Since my first day on the job as a Starfleet captain I swore I’d never let myself get caught in one of these godforsaken paradoxes – the future is the past, the past is the future, it all gives me a headache.” Sometimes headaches can be fun…

The Blurb says: The threads of time run forward, backward, round in circles and side by side in this new anthology of stories from the Golden Age of science fiction. How can you comprehend a newspaper whose current events cover the distant future? How do you escape from a day at the office which cycles, cruelly, endlessly? How do you prevent monks from the future smuggling your revolutionary miracle food into the past?

Charting the chronology of the time travel narrative from the 1880s to the late 1950s, classic tales of trips to the past and their consequences run alongside rare experimental and mind-bending pieces, with paradoxes, philosophical dilemmas and every perplexing strand of time travel unravelled in between.

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Even More Vintage Crime

And yet again, courtesy of the British Library! (Clearly we have found the culprit behind my groaning TBR problems…) ECR Lorac is one of my favourite of all the authors the BL has introduced to me, so I’m looking forward to this one hugely…

The Blurb says: First published in 1944 Fell Murder sees E.C.R. Lorac at the height of her considerable powers as a purveyor of well-made, traditional and emphatic detective fiction. The book presents a fascinating ‘return of the prodigal’ mystery set in the later stages of the Second World War amidst the close-knit farmerfolk community of Lancashire s lovely Lune valley.

The Garths had farmed their fertile acres for generations and fine land it was with the towering hills of the Lake Country on the far horizon. Garthmere Hall itself was old before Flodden Field, and here hot-tempered Robert Garth, still hale and hearty at eighty-two, ruled his household with a rod of iron. The peaceful dales and fells of the north country provide the setting for this grim story of a murder, a setting in fact which is one of the attractive features of an unusual and distinctive tale of evil passions and murderous hate in a small rural community.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?