Six Degrees of Separation – From Martin 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…

This month’s starting book is Shopgirl by Steve Martin, a book I’ve not only not read, but have never heard of before! The blurb tells me…

Lonely, depressed, Vermont transplant Mirabelle Buttersfield, who sells expensive evening gloves nobody ever buys at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and spends her evenings watching television with her two cats. She attempts to forge a relationship with middle-aged, womanizing, Seattle millionaire Ray Porter while being pursued by socially inept and unambitious slacker Jeremy.

Hmm… not for me, I think, though it sounds quite amusing. But any mention of evening gloves inevitably makes me think of the wonderful…

American Pastoral. Roth’s brilliant novel tells the story of Seymour “Swede” Levov and the collapse of the 1950s American Dream. Swede owns a factory where skilled craftspeople lovingly create luxury gloves for the fashionable, but his daughter is of a different generation – the Vietnam generation that blew the old certainties apart as surely as Swede’s daughter blew up the local Post Office…

“Those assumptions you live with. You’re still in your old man’s dream-world, Seymour, still up there with Lou Levov in glove heaven. A household tyrannized by gloves, bludgeoned by gloves, the only thing in life – ladies’ gloves! Does he still tell the great one about the woman who sells the gloves washing her hands in a sink between each color? Oh where oh where is that outmoded America, that decorous America where a woman had twenty-five pairs of gloves? Your kid blows your norms to kingdom come, Seymour, and you still think you know what life is!”

As part of my GAN Quest, American Pastoral was the first book to which I awarded the title of The Great American Novel. Only one other novel shares that honour so far…

Toni Morrison’s wonderful Beloved. This story of one woman’s escape from slavery to liberty and the sacrifices she makes along the way is full of anger and sorrow, and some of the most savagely beautiful writing I have read.

They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.

And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again. They killed a boss so often and so completely they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time. Tasting hot mealcake among pine trees, they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr Death, they smashed his head. More than the rest, they killed the flirt who folks called Life for leading them on. Making them think the next sunrise would be worth it; that another stroke of time would do it at last.

Oprah Winfrey as Sethe revealing the “tree” on her back

Much though we sometimes like to pretend, slavery isn’t a thing of the past though its forms may be a little different today. Which made me think of…

The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham. The plot of this one is hard-hitting, involving illegal immigration, sex trafficking and forced commercial surrogacy. The trail takes police detective Alisha Barba to the sleaziest parts of Amsterdam, where she’s soon in trouble not just with the bad guys but with her superior officers back home. But she’s become too involved to pull back – too many lives are dependent on her, some of them very vulnerable. Robotham doesn’t hold back in the picture he gives of the exploitation of women trafficked as sex slaves from some of the war-torn places of the world and he has clearly done his research as thoroughly as always.

The book stars with Alisha attending a school reunion. Which made me think of another book that begins that way…

John Gaspard’s The Bullet Catch, the second in his excellent Eli Marks series. This is a series of murder mysteries with the hugely likeable stage magician Eli taking on the role of detective. A little too gritty to be cosy, these are nonetheless on the lighter side of crime fiction, filled with warmth and humour. Each book is named after a magic trick and Gaspard is brilliant at making the tricks come to life on the page while respecting the magicians’ code not to reveal how they’re done…

Another series set in the world of stage magic began with…

The Zig-Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths, book 1 in her great Stephens and Mephisto series. Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto worked together during WW2 in a top-secret army unit dubbed the Magic Men, with the aim of misleading the enemy. Now, shortly after the war, Max has gone back to his old role of stage magician while Edgar has become a policeman in Brighton. When the various body parts of a beautiful young woman turn up in three boxes, it makes Edgar think of an old magic trick so he turns to his friend Max for help in solving the crime…

(The Zig-Zag Girl trick…)

Griffiths brings the post-war Brighton setting brilliantly to life. My last book is also set there…

Erin Kelly’s The Ties That Bind marries together two periods in the life of this ever-changing town – the ’50s and ’60s, when it was home to some seriously violent gangsters (the location, of course, for Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock), and today, when it has a brighter reputation as the UK’s gay capital and as the place where weary Londoners go to relax, soak up a little sea air, and party. Kelly shows that the town still hides a murky underbelly beneath the surface glitter though, in this well-written thriller with elements of redemption and revenge.

Brighton’s iconic West Pier

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So Martin to Kelly, via gloves, Great American Novels, slavery, school reunions, stage magicians and Brighton!

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

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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

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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

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…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

THE PRIZES

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For the winners!

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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!

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Nothing!

THE JUDGES

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Me!

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

CRIME FICTION/THRILLERS

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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

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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

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

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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

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vertigoVertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

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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

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you zoran drvenkarYou by Zoran Drvenkar

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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

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

 

lamentation

Lamentation by C.J. Sansom

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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

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Next week: Best Literary Fiction Award

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
NOVEMBER

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. (Time to think up a new idea for next year, Cleo! 😉 )

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

 

2011

 

after the lockoutVictor Lennon, hero of the failed Easter Uprising of 1916, returns to his home town in Armagh to look after his drunken father at the behest of Stanislaus, the local priest. Through the microcosm of this small town, we are shown the various tensions existing in Irish society at this period – the iron rule of the Catholic church, those who desire independence from the English, those who are fighting alongside those same English in WW1, those who, like Victor, are inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia to bring about a socialist republic.

But although there is much about religion and politics in this book, the author manages to keep it on a very human level – what we see are two fundamentally good but fallible men driven by circumstances to battle for the hearts and souls of the people. This very fine novel is so well written and accomplished that it’s hard to believe that it is the author’s first. Sadly, so far it has also been his last…

 

2012

 

fujisanThis rather strange but very moving collection of four stories is centred round the iconic Mount Fuji. In each story the central character seems somehow damaged and alone, struggling to work out who they are and why they feel what they feel. There is a spiritual feel to the book; these characters are seeking something that will enable them to explain themselves to themselves and their searches take them in strange and surprising directions. ‘Blue Summit’ tells of an ex-cult member now working in a convenience store and learning how to live outside the cult. ‘Sea of Trees’ is a disturbing tale of three boys confronting death while spending a night in the woods of Mount Fuji. ‘Jamilla’ is a compulsive hoarder and this is the tale of the social worker detailed to clear her house. And lastly, in ‘Child of Night’ a walk up the mountain becomes a journey of self-discovery for a nurse who is struggling with the ethics of her job.

This was my first introduction to contemporary Japanese fiction and has some of the features I’ve since encountered in other books – a strange passivity to some of the characters and a feeling of a generation that has thrown out its old traditions but hasn’t quite worked out how to replace them. I’m not at all sure that I fully understood the book (as often happens to me with Japanese fiction) but I found it compelling and thought provoking, and although it saddened and even disturbed me in places, I felt oddly uplifted in the end.

 

2013

 

an officer and a spyBased on the true story of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer convicted of spying for the Germans in the late 19th century, the book begins with Dreyfus’ humiliation as he is stripped of his rank and military honours in front of his army colleagues and a baying, jeering public crowd. With Dreyfus sent off to Devil’s Island and kept in almost total isolation, the matter was officially considered closed. However as suspicions began to emerge that he was not the spy after all, the army and members of the government began a cover-up that would eventually destroy reputations, wreck careers and even lives, and change the political landscape of France. This fictionalised account is based on the verifiable facts of the affair and, as far as I know, sticks pretty closely to them. The book is lengthy and allows him to examine the various different aspects of French society that made the case both so complex and so significant.

Well written and thought-provoking, my only real criticism of the book is that Harris has jumped on the fashionable bandwagon of using the present tense. However, Harris handles the device as well as most and better than many, and despite it the book is a very interesting and human account of this momentous event in French history.

 

2014

 

the zig-zag girlWhen the legs and head of a beautiful young woman are found in two boxes in the Left Luggage office at Brighton station, something about the body makes Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens think of an old magic trick, the Zig Zag Girl. But when the missing torso turns up in a box addressed to him under his old army title of Captain, he begins to realise that whatever the motive is, it’s personal. So he turns for advice to top stage magician, Max Mephisto, who served with him during the war in a top-secret unit dubbed the Magic Men. Together they begin to investigate a crime that seems to be leading them back towards those days and to the small group of people who made up the unit.

Set in the early 1950s, the investigation is written more like the stories of that time than today’s police procedurals. This is a slower and less rule-bound world where it doesn’t seem odd for the detective to team up with an amateur, and Edgar and Max make a great team. Being based around the world of variety shows, there’s a whole cast of quirky characters, and the rather seedy world of the performers is portrayed very credibly. Griffiths takes her time to reveal the story and paces it just right to keep the reader’s interest while maintaining the suspense. And I’m delighted to say that the next in the series Smoke and Mirrors is, if anything, even better. A must-read series.

 

2015

 

coup de foudreThis collection of a novella and 15 short stories lives up to the high expectations I have developed for the writing of this hugely talented author. The novella-length title story, Coup de Foudre, is a barely disguised imagining of the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal (when the leader of the International Monetary Fund and possible candidate for the French Presidency was accused of having sexually assaulted a chamber-maid in a Manhattan hotel room). In Kalfus’ hands, it becomes a compelling examination of a man so intoxicated by power and his own superiority that he feels he is above the common morality.

Some of the other stories are also based on real-life events. Some have a political aspect to them, while others have a semi-autobiographical feel, and there’s a lot of humour in many of them. There are several that would be classed, I suppose, as ‘speculative fiction’ – borderline sci-fi – but with Kalfus it’s always humanity that’s at the core, even when he’s talking about parallel universes, dead languages or even cursed park benches! There are some brilliantly imaginative premises on display here, along with the more mundane, but in each story Kalfus gives us characters to care about and even the more fragmentary stories have a feeling of completeness so often missing from contemporary short story writing. This is a great collection which would be a perfect introduction to Kalfus.

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

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

the zig-zag girlAbracadabra…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When the legs and head of a beautiful young woman are found in two boxes in the Left Luggage office at Brighton station, something about the body makes Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens think of an old magic trick, the Zig Zag Girl. But when the missing torso turns up in a box addressed to him under his old army title of Captain, he begins to realise that whatever the motive is, it’s personal. So he turns for advice to top stage magician, Max Mephisto, who served with him during the war in a top-secret unit dubbed the Magic Men. Together they begin to investigate a crime that seems to be leading them back towards those days and to the small group of people who made up the unit.

As a fan of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, I’ve always had two small reservations. The first is that they’re written in my pet-hate, first person, present tense, and the second is that because Ruth is not with the police, her links to the various crimes are often tenuous and a bit unbelievable. So it was a delight to me to see that this one stars a policeman and is written in the third person past. Griffiths tells us in the afterword that her grandfather was a music hall comedian and that her mother grew up in the world of theatrical digs and itinerant performers. The book is also based in Griffiths’ home town of Brighton. These things all come together to give the book a real feeling of authenticity, especially to the life of Max Mephisto, the co-hero, a top billing magician who is nevertheless aware that the old variety shows are beginning to lose their appeal.

The Zig Zag Girl trick  – I still can’t see how it’s done!

Set in the early 1950s, the investigation is written more like the stories of that time than today’s police procedurals. This is a slower and less rule-bound world where it doesn’t seem odd for the detective to team up with an amateur, and Edgar and Max make a great team. As they travel around England interviewing their old colleagues, we find out more about their war-time past and the tragedy that affected the whole unit. Griffiths takes her time to reveal the story and paces it just right to keep the reader’s interest while maintaining the suspense. Being based around the world of variety shows, there’s a whole cast of quirky characters, from the rather nasty mind-reader and comic Tony Mulholland, to the glamorous female assistant Ruby, who wants to become a magician in her own right. We also meet some of the old army men – shouldn’t every mystery story contain at least one retired Major? And the two leads, Edgar and Max, are very well-drawn and likeable.

Elly Griffiths
Elly Griffiths

The rather seedy world of the performers is portrayed very credibly – lives spent touring round the various seaside resorts, living in dingy bed and breakfasts run by theatrical landladies, and performing night after night in the grand old theatres at the ends of piers. Griffiths shows us Brighton as it’s on the cusp of changing from its old-fashioned respectability to becoming the more violent and dangerous place it became in the late ’50s and ’60s. 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, for me at least, a real step up from Elly Griffiths’ already high standards. Is this the start of a new series? I hope so…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link