Six Degrees of Separation – From Yates to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

revolutionary-road

This month’s starting book is Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. This is a book that blew me away when I read it as part of the Great American Novel Quest a couple of years ago. It’s a book about failure – of individual hopes and dreams, of a marriage, of the American Dream.

Long after the time had come for what the director called “really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen,” it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other’s eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might wait for them there.

The film can’t quite match the depth of the book, but it’s excellent nevertheless.

kate winslet in RR

It stars Kate Winslet, which made me think of…

enigma 2

Robert Harris’ Enigma. A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this story is set amid the codebreakers of Bletchley Park during WW2. A great depiction of the almost intolerable pressure placed on the shoulders of these mainly young men at a time when the course of the whole war depended on their success.

enigma 1

The WW2 setting reminded me of…

vertigo

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The book from which the famous Hitchcock film was made but, unlike the film, the book is set in wartime France, with the first section taking place in Paris just as the war is beginning and the second part four years later in Marseilles as it is heading towards its end. This gives a feeling of disruption and displacement which is entirely missing from the film, set as it is in peacetime America. For once, despite my abiding love for Mr Hitchcock, on this occasion the victory goes to the book!

vertigo-alfred-hitchcock-865414_1024_768

And thinking of Hitchcock reminded me of…

the birds

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier. The title story is of course the one on which Hitchcock based his film of the same name, but my favourite story in this great little collection tells the tale of a recent (unnamed) widower, bereaved but not bereft. Frankly, he had found his wife Midge irritating for years. So he happily admits to himself, though not to the world, that her death from pneumonia was more of a relief than a loss. And suddenly he’s enjoying life again – until one day he looks out of his window and spots that one of his apple trees bears an uncanny resemblance to the hunched, drudging image of his late wife…

Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.

That story is called The Apple Tree, which made me think of…

the color master

The Color Master by Aimee Bender. The first story in this excellent collection of modern folk tales is called Appleless, and has undertones of the story of Eve and the fall from grace. The quality of the stories varies but the quality of the writing is so high that it easily carries the weaker ones in the collection.

“…I did what the Color Master had asked, and went for blue, then black, and I was incredibly slow, but for one moment I felt something as I hovered over the bins of blue. Just a tug of guidance from the white of the dress that led my hand to the middle blue. It felt, for a second, like harmonizing in a choir, the moment when the voice sinks into the chord structure and the sound grows, becomes more layered and full than before. So that was the right choice.”

donkeyskinOne of the stories I particularly liked is The Devourings, which tells the story of a woman who married a troll. And that made me think of…

the shapeshifters

Stefan Spjut’s strange but rather wonderful The Shapeshifters. In many ways, this is a traditional crime novel set in modern Sweden – but in this version of Sweden trolls still exist in some of the more isolated places. There’s a folk-tale feel about the whole thing as if the fables of the old days have somehow strayed back into the real world. As with so much Nordic fiction, the weather and landscape plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere of isolation – all those trees, and the snow, and the freezing cold.

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

 

Thinking of crime novels set in Sweden reminded me of…

the voices beyond

The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin. The bulk of the book is set in the present day, but there’s another strand that takes the reader back to time of the Great Terror in the Stalinist USSR, and it is this strand that lifts the book so far above average. This time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times.

Stalin poster

* * * * *

So Yates to Theorin via Kate Winslet, WW2, Alfred Hitchcock,  apple trees, trolls, and Swedish crime.

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

FictionFan Awards 2015 – Crime Fiction/Thrillers

A round of applause please…

 

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

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 2014 and October 2015 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

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual – click to see awards

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!

* * * * * * * * *

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

CRIME FICTION/THRILLERS

.

Despite the fact that I’ve grown more and more unenamoured with a lot of contemporary crime, I’ve still had lots of good reads this year, though on looking back several of them are reissues of older books or have taken a slightly quirky approach. But simply because I read more crime than any other genre, this is still the section that is hardest to decide. So because the choice was so hard, I’ve decided also to list the nominees that didn’t quite make it into the final list. All of these books were great reads, and I look forward to reading more from each of these authors in the future.

NOMINEES

 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the voices beyondThe Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin

.

Young Jonas is spending the summer on the island of Öland at the resort owned by his family, the Klosses. One night, he takes his dingy out onto the sea. Drifting in the darkness, a sudden shaft of moonlight shows a boat approaching and he doesn’t have time to get out of the way. He manages to climb aboard the boat before his dingy is sunk, but what awaits him there is the stuff of nightmares – dying men (or are they already dead?) on the deck stalking towards him and calling out in a language he doesn’t understand. This brilliantly atmospheric opening sets the tone for a book that combines a mystery in the present day with a story that takes us back to the USSR in the days of Stalin. Plot, writing, research, characterisation – all top quality, and it finishes off as atmospherically as it began. A great read – frankly, this could easily have been the winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the zig-zag girlThe Zig-Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

.

Set in Brighton post-WW2, this is a great start to a new series from the author of the Ruth Galloway series. Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto served in a secret unit known as the “Magic Men” during the war. Now Edgar is a police detective and Max has gone back to his profession as a stage magician. When a dismembered corpse turns up, it has echoes of one of Max’s tricks, and as Edgar investigates it appears the solution may lie in their wartime past. Both place and time are done very well, with the shadow of the war still hanging over the characters and the world they inhabit. With an intriguing, complex plot, an interesting slant on a unique (and not entirely fictional) aspect of the war, some very enjoyable humour and a touch of romance, this is a great mystery of the traditional kind. And best of all, unlike the Ruth books, it’s written in the past tense.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

vertigoVertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

.

As Paris waits uneasily for war to begin, Roger Flavières is approached by an old college friend, Gévigne, who puts an odd proposition to him. Gévigne is concerned about his wife, Madeleine. She has been lapsing into odd silences, almost trances, and seems bewildered when she comes out of them. Gévigne knows she’s been going out during the afternoons but she says she hasn’t – either she is lying, which Gévigne doesn’t believe, or she has forgotten. Gévigne wants Flavières to follow her, partly to find out what she’s doing and partly to make sure she is safe. This is, of course, the book on which the Hitchcock film was based and, for once, despite my love for all things Hitchcock, on this occasion I think the book is better. Hitchcock’s decision to elevate the importance of the vertigo aspects, as opposed to the book’s study of the effects of obsession on an already weak mind, somehow makes his Ferguson a less complex and intriguing character than Boileau-Narcejac’s Flavières. And the ending of the book is much more satisfying than that of the film. An excellent read.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

you zoran drvenkarYou by Zoran Drvenkar

.

Back in 1995, a massive snowstorm brought traffic to a halt on the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. As people huddled in their cars overnight, trying to keep warm, The Traveler stepped out of his vehicle and worked his way along the line of cars, murdering the people inside. By the time the snowploughs got through, twenty-six people were dead and there was no trace of The Traveler. In the present day, Ragnar Desche has found the frozen body of his brother Oskar and is out to get revenge against whoever killed him and stole the massive stash of heroin he was keeping for Ragnar. And four teenage girls are worrying about the fifth member of their little clique who has been missing for nearly a week… This is a great book, written almost entirely in the second person through the eyes of each of the huge cast of characters in turn. Drvenkar handles this unusual technique superbly, forcing me to identify with each of them, however unlikely. It’s noir dark shot through with just enough gleams of light to keep it bearable, pacey and tense, grim and disturbing, no punches pulled – and quite stunning. I’m still not completely sure it shouldn’t be the winner…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

 

lamentation

Lamentation by C.J. Sansom

.

It is 1546, and an increasingly ailing Henry VIII has swung back to the traditionalist wing of the church – in fact, some fear he might be about to make amends with the Pope and take the country back to Catholicism. The constant shifts in what is seen as acceptable doctrine have left many sects, once tolerated, now at risk of being accused of heresy. And, as the story begins, Anne Askew and three other heretics are about to be burned at the stake for preaching radical Protestantism. At this dangerous time, Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book, Lamentations of a Sinner, describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. And when a torn page turns up in the dead hand of a murdered printer, it’s clear some people will stop at nothing to get hold of the book…

I have long held that Sansom is by far the best writer of historical fiction, certainly today, but perhaps ever; and I’m delighted to say that this book is, in my opinion, his best to date. A huge brick of a book, coming in at over 600 pages, and yet at no point does it flag. Like the earlier books, this one is completely immersive – the length of it is matched by its depth. The fictional aspect is woven seamlessly into fact, and the characters and actions of the real people who appear in the novel are consistent with what we know of them through the history books. The combination of the personal and the political is perfectly balanced, and Sansom never fails to take the consequences of events of previous books through to the next, meaning that the recurring characters continue to develop more deeply in each one. There’s always a long wait between Shardlake novels, but they are invariably worth waiting for. And as England moves on to dealing with the aftermath of Henry’s death, I very much hope that Shardlake will be there to lead us through it…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Literary Fiction Award

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
SEPTEMBER

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.

So here are my favourite September reads – click on the covers to go to the full reviews…

 

2011

 

gods without menA young autistic boy disappears on a trip to the California desert, a disappearance that echoes other incidents in the history of this empty and mysterious place. Kunzru takes the reader back through the history of the various people who have visited this place or made their lives there. Each is fundamentally changed by their experiences there. A beautifully written novel, enigmatic enough to allow for different interpretations. For me,  it is about the search for faith – the desire for belief. The fascinating characters bring so many gods to the desert over the years, and it seems that the desert absorbs them and weaves them into its mystery. But the book is not preaching a particular line – the overwhelming feeling left at the end is that, for the author as well as for some of the characters, the question of whether there is something beyond the rational remains unanswered, perhaps unanswerable. I’ve been waiting for four years to read Kunzru’s next novel… still waiting.

 

2012

 

my heart is my ownIt was John Guy’s brilliant biography of Thomas Becket that reawakened my enthusiasm for reading historical biography after a lapse of many years. This earlier book of his is a sympathetic portrait of the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots. Meticulously researched, as Guy’s books always are, but he’s also a great storyteller who makes his books as enjoyable as they are interesting. He set the standard that I’ve looked for ever since in non-academic histories – that is, to assume no knowledge on the part of the reader, fill in all the necessary background, give a picture of the wider society and tell the whole thing in an interesting way. Mary is one of the endlessly fascinating characters in history, still attracting supporters and denigrators centuries after she died. Guy is undoubtedly a supporter – in fact, at times I almost felt he’d fallen a little in love with his subject. But then it seems Mary had that effect on many men…

 

2013

 

the bones of parisIt’s 1929 and Paris is filled with avant-garde artists leading the bohemian life. So when Harris Stuyvesant, ex-FBI agent turned private investigator, is hired to find a missing young American woman he fully expects to find her so immersed in this exciting world that she’s simply forgotten the folks back home. That is, until he meets Inspector Doucet, a man worried about unsolved disappearances stretching back for years. As Harris plunges into the strange and twisted world of surrealist art, Grand Guinol theatre, decadence and drugs, he begins to realise that the glittering artistic society hides a dark secret…

A fairly slow-burn thriller, this works well as a standalone although it’s the second book in the Harris Stuyvesant series. Some of the adjectives I used in my review were macabre, gruesome, dark, sensual, disturbing. The story somewhat takes second place to King’s brilliantly convincing picture of the amorality of the bohemian scene in 1920’s Paris.

 

2014

 

rebel yellI feel I’ve been banging on about this book forever, but since it won my Book of the Year Award last year, it could hardly not be the best book of the month! So, since I have nothing left to say about it (other than – read it!), I’ll just apologise instead for nearly reigniting the Civil War on Amazon US! It all started with one comment on my review from someone who felt I shouldn’t have shown any admiration for a Confederate. I replied with a fairly bland response to the effect that of course I wasn’t intending to imply any kind of support for slavery. I then got blasted by another commenter who felt the need to explain to me – at some length, I may say – that the Civil War wasn’t fundamentally about slavery. (He had clearly failed to spot I’d just read a 400-page book on the subject.) This did not please Mr First Commenter! (Yes, of course they were both men – did you ever doubt it?) He replied forcefully and at equal length. A ding-dong ensued, which gradually spread to about a zillion people all hurling Yankee and Confederate insults at each other. I dropped out of the conversation at about the fifth comment but it still rumbles on, as a new reader comes along, reads the thousands and thousands of words, leaves their own comment and starts them all off again…

 

2015

 

the voices beyondA difficult choice, since September was filled with 5-star books, but this is one of the best crime/thrillers I’ve read in a long time. Set in two timelines, this takes us to present day Öland in Sweden, and back to Stalinist USSR at the time of the Great Terror. While the present day story is good, it’s the USSR strand that lifts the book so far above the average. This time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times. Back in the present, the main protagonist is 86-year-old Gerlof, and his characterisation is another of the book’s major strengths. This is the fourth book in Theorin’s Öland Quartet, all featuring Gerlof, and led to me immediately adding the other three to my already groaning TBR…

* * * * * * *

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

 

The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin

the voices beyondBack in the USSR…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Jonas is spending the summer on the island of Öland at the resort owned by his family, the Klosses. One night, he takes his dingy out onto the sea. Drifting in the darkness, a sudden shaft of moonlight shows a boat approaching and he doesn’t have time to get out of the way. He manages to climb aboard the boat before his dingy is sunk, but what awaits him there is the stuff of nightmares – dying men (or are they already dead?) on the deck stalking towards him and calling out in a language he doesn’t understand. Terrified, Jonas jumps overboard and manages eventually to swim to shore. He makes for the first lighted dwelling he sees – the boathouse of old Gerlof, who’s back staying in Öland for the summer months. Something odd happened to Gerlof too when he was young, so despite the strangeness of Jonas’ story, Gerlof believes him – and so is sucked into a mystery that will get darker as the summer wears on…

This will undoubtedly appear in my best of the year list this year. The first two chapters – the one on the boat, and the one about the spooky experience in Gerlof’s youth – are brilliantly atmospheric, hooking the reader right from the beginning. And the rest of the book pretty much maintains that high standard all the way through. The next few chapters introduce the various characters, giving a bit of back-story for each and then bringing them all to the island in time for the Midsummer celebrations in 1999. At this point it can be a bit confusing as to how they will all fit into the story but Theorin gives just the right amount of information at each stage to keep the story flowing.

The characterisation is particularly strong. There are several main characters, and the chapters rotate amongst them, all in the third person – Gerlof, a life-long resident of the island, elderly now but still with a curiosity about life that means he gets himself involved in other people’s problems; Jonas, visiting the island for the summer and feeling a bit isolated as his brother and cousins consider him to be too young to take along with them; Lisa – a musician and DJ who’s working at the resort for the summer; and Aron, who left Öland for the ‘new country’ as a child and has now come home, though we don’t learn why till later. Gerlof is both well drawn and likeable – as a man of 86, Theorin never makes the mistake of having him be some kind of physical hero. Rather he is someone who is good at listening and believing, and at persuading people to talk to him. Aron is enigmatic – it’s clear from his first appearance that he’s plotting something bad and has a grudge against the Kloss family, but as his story is gradually revealed, it’s hard not to find some empathy or, at least, pity for him – some understanding of why he has become who he is.

Johan Theorin
Johan Theorin

The bulk of the book is set in the present day, but there’s another strand that takes the reader back to time of the Great Terror in the Stalinist USSR, and it is this strand that lifts the book so far above average. As it happens, I have recently read a history of the Stalinist period, so for once am in a position to say that the picture Theorin paints of this time is totally authentic and clearly based on very thorough research. I’m not going to say any more about this part of the plot, because the way that Theorin gradually reveals the story is the real strength of the book. But this time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times.

Back in the present, all the various strands are gradually pulled together in the lead up to an explosive thriller finish – well foreshadowed, but still surprising and shocking when it comes. And just to finish off one of the most perfectly structured crime/thrillers I’ve read in a while, the epilogue is as compelling as the first couple of chapters were. Though this works perfectly well as a standalone, it’s the fourth in Theorin’s Öland Quartet, with Gerlof as the recurring character who links them. I shall promptly be adding the other three to the TBR. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 58…

Episode 58

 

I’m traumatised to report that, because of the addition of my selections for the 20 Books of Summer challenge, the TBR has leapt up to a dramatic 148 – the highest figure since measurements began! I’m further traumatised by the fact that I have no fewer than 18 books for review over the next three months, that I gaily didn’t include in my 20 list. What do you think my chances are of reading 38 books, reviewing them and watching Wimbledon between now and 4th September?

despair

Oh well… here’s a few I’ll get to some time…

Factual

 

being nixonCourtesy of NetGalley. All I know about Nixon is Watergate, and I’m still not totally clear what that was all about! So time to find out more…

The Blurb says The New York Times bestselling author of Ike’s Bluff and Sea of Thunder brings new life to one of American history’s most infamous, paradoxical, and enigmatic politicians: Richard Nixon. Dispensing with myths to achieve an intimate and evenhanded look at the actual man, Evan Thomas delivers the best single-volume biography of Nixon to date, a radical, unique portrait of a complicated figure who was both determinedly optimistic and tragically flawed.

What drove a painfully shy outcast in elite Washington society—a man so self-conscious he refused to make eye contact during meetings—to pursue power and public office? How did a president so attuned to the American political id that he won reelection in a historic landslide lack the self-awareness to recognize the gaping character flaws that would drive him from office and forever taint his legacy?

In Being Nixon, Evan Thomas peels away the layers of the complex, confounding figure who became America’s thirty-seventh president.

 * * * * *

Fiction

 

the shapeshiftersCourtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I’m classifying this as fiction, but frankly that’s only because I don’t have a category for weird. Hoping it’s weirdly wonderful though… it seems to be dividing reviewers.

The Blurb says Summer 1978. A young boy disappears without a trace from a summer cabin. His mother claims that he was carried away by a giant. He is never found.

Twenty-five years later, another child goes missing. This time there’s a lead, a single photograph taken by Susso Myren. She has devoted her life to the search for trolls, legendary giants known as stallo who can control human thoughts and assume animal form. Convinced that trolls are real, she follows the trail of missing children to northern Sweden. But humans, some part stallo themselves, have been watching over the creatures for generations, and this hidden society of protectors won’t hesitate to close its deadly ranks.

Mixing folklore and history, suspense and the supernatural, The Shapeshifters is an extraordinary journey into a frozen land where myth bleeds into reality.

* * * * *

Crime

 

bitter fruitsCourtesy of NetGalley. I’m not sure why I requested this one – I have a sneaking feeling I just liked the cover. But it sounds like an interesting debut…

The Blurb says “Detective Inspector Erica Martin’s first case in the university city of Durham is Emily Brabents, a first-year student, who is found dead in the river.

DI Martin visits Joyce College, a cradle for the country’s future elite, and finds a close-knit community full of secrets, jealousy and obsession.

Her search reveals a vicious online trolling culture but could Emily, from the privileged and popular crowd, have been a victim? Should the sudden confession to the murder by the student president be believed?

And just who is the mysterious Daniel Shepherd whose name keeps appearing in the investigation…?

* * * * *

Crime

 

the voices beyondCourtesy of NetGalley. This is the fourth book in Theorin’s Oland Quartet – I haven’t read the other three, but I get the impression they can be read as standalones – linked by setting rather than plot. We shall see…

The Blurb saysSummer on the beautiful Swedish island of Öland. Visitors arrive in their thousands, ready to enjoy the calm and relaxation of this paradise. Amongst them is Jonas Kloss, excited at the prospect of staying with his aunt, uncle and older cousins. But it is not as he had hoped. One night he takes a boat out onto the moonlit sea. A ship looms out of the darkness and the horror he finds on board is unimaginable.

Fleeing for his life, Jonas arrives at the door of an elderly islander, Gerlof Davidsson. Once Gerlof has heard his tale of dead sailors and axe-wielding madmen, he realizes that this will be a summer like none other Öland has ever seen.

For one man – the Homecomer – this is a very special journey. He seeks revenge that he’s waited a lifetime to exact…

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

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