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!

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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

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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!

 

Modern classics…

The Classics Club – July Meme #ccmeme

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club meme for this month is looking at recent books rather than old ones…

What about modern classics? Pick a book published since 2000 and say why you think it will be considered as a “classic” in the future.

Hmm… the first thing, I suppose, is to define “classic”. When I drew up my own list of classics, I decided that it pretty much meant any book over 50 years old that is still in print and read today. By “in print” I mean in a priced version by a publisher, rather than a scanned Kindle freebie or only available on Project Gutenberg and the like. I did include a couple of out of print books in my Scottish section, but in general I still hold that if a book is out of print it hasn’t really survived the test of time.

So, restricting it, not surprisingly, to books I’ve read (and reviewed, ‘cos they’re the only ones I ever remember!) I came up with several that I expect will still be in print and being read in fifty years’ time. The majority are pretty safe bets, since they come from authors with such an established and respected body of work that their stuff is bound to survive. Most of these authors have won or at least been shortlisted for the major literary prizes, though not necessarily for these books. Here they are…

Harvest by Jim Crace

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt*

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

(*The inclusion of The Goldfinch will alert regular readers to the fact that I’m only suggesting these books will become classics, but not necessarily saying I think they’re good…)

* * * * * * *

It’s more difficult to guess which newer, less established authors will survive. It’s rare indeed for an author to write only one book that becomes a classic, however great it may be. To Kill a Mockingbird springs to mind, but not much else. However, in general, the bulk of an author’s work survives or it all disappears, even if it’s generally accepted that one or two of their books are outstanding and the rest not quite at the same level. The Great Gatsby is read by millions of people who never read anything else by Fitzgerald, for example, but all his major work remains consistently in print.

So here are four authors that I think may survive. In each case, the book I’ve listed has had some success but not the recognition I felt it deserved.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Burial Rites was a bestseller but was unforgivably not longlisted for the Booker. However, it’s Hannah Kent’s only book to date, and by itself I don’t know if it would survive. But if, as I expect, she goes on to write a whole lifetime’s worth of good stuff, and wins major prizes one day, then I think her books will become classics for sure. Similarly, Yann Martel might be a fairly safe bet because of the major success of The Life of Pi, but I feel he still needs a bigger body of work before his place as a great is assured.

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

Patrick Flanery and Aatish Taseer both received a good deal of critical praise for these books, but neither really took the reading world by storm as much as I’d have expected (though Taseer may have done in India and Pakistan – I don’t know). Again, neither was longlisted for the Booker, not that that’s much of a guide to longevity, anyway – the books on the longlist will mostly be forgotten by this time next year, if they ever get read at all by anyone except those who like to read the longlisted books each year. (My evidence? Pick a year and look at the longlisted, but not shortlisted, books on Amazon and see how few reviews most of them will have; and most of those will appear at around the time of the longlisting announcement. You might, or might not, also be surprised at how low even those dedicated Booker readers tend to rate these ‘best’ books of the year… but be careful, or you might become as cynical as me…)

Aatish Taseer
Aatish Taseer

Both at the beginning of their writing careers, I’m betting both Flanery and Taseer will break through properly at some point, and join the likes of Rushdie, Tóibín, McCarthy, as writers with a solid body of work, some great, some good, but almost always worth reading. And I’ll stick my neck out and say they’ll both win the Booker one day. And, of these two books, the one which seems to me more likely to have a long life is Patrick Flanery’s.

I reckon Fallen Land was written too soon after 9/11 and the global crash for the American public to accept how fundamentally these things had affected every aspect of society. The book, in my opinion, shows the widening gulf that is becoming ever more clear now between the progressives and the conservatives, how that arises out of the constitution and history of the US; and that the gap between them leaves a dangerous vacuum waiting to be filled. With its references to the founders, to slavery, to the importance of land ownership, to the attitude of suspicion towards ‘foreigners’, to surveillance, to the disconnect between people and the government, to the part of the American psyche that turns people into assault-rifle-wielding survivalists, I’m betting it’s a book that will be appreciated more in retrospect for what it says about today’s America than America is willing to admit even now. So it’s the one I think most likely to be a future classic. But only if Flanery does achieve that major breakthrough…

Patrick Flanery
Patrick Flanery

Over to you…what modern book do you think will become a classic?

(PS – On reading this over, it seems awfully opinionated and a bit grumpy… but it’s late and I’m tired and I can’t bring myself to redo it, so please don’t hold it against me… 😉 )

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Risen apes, fallen angels…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

the high mountains of portugalIn a few short days in 1904, young Tomàs loses his lover, his child and his father to unexpected deaths. In the turmoil of emotions that follows, he begins to walk backwards everywhere he goes. People think this is his way of dealing with grief, but Tomàs sees it not as grieving but as objecting. Objecting to the unfairness of life and of God. Tomàs works in a museum and has come across an old journal written by a priest who lived amongst the slaves in one of Portugal’s African colonies centuries earlier. Father Ulissis was building something he referred to as ‘a gift’. Tomàs believes this gift ended up in a church in the High Mountains of Portugal, and decides to track it down…

So begins the first section of this three part novel, each very different but with common themes running through them, and all linked to a small town in the High Mountains, Tuizelo. The writing is nothing short of brilliant. It flows smoothly, feels light and airy, but is full of insight into grief and love and heartache. This first section also has lots of humour as Tomàs sets off on his journey in a borrowed car – a newfangled thing in 1904 that causes consternation everywhere he goes, especially since his driving is reminiscent of Mr Toad’s.

Beneath the humour, though, Martel never lets us forget Tomàs’ grief, showing it with great empathy but never descending into mawkishness. The search for the gift has become an attempt for Tomàs to find some kind of catharsis. On the death of his beloved Dora, Tomàs found himself feeling that at such a time one must either accept or reject faith totally. His search is as much to find the answer to that question as the gift itself. The journey gradually darkens and takes on elements of the surreal before Tomàs reaches his destination, physical and emotional. The middle of this section drags a little, but the end makes up for the length of the journey.

If a job was left unfinished at the end of a day – the coop not repaired, a row of vegetables not weeded – we knew that one of us had sat down and wept. That’s the nature of grief: it’s a creature with many arms but few legs, and it staggers about, searching for support. Frayed chicken wire and a profusion of weeds became expressions of our loss. I can’t look at chicken wire now without thinking of my lost son. There’s something about the warp and weft of it, so thin yet strong, so porous yet solid, that reminds me of how we loved him. Later, because of our neglect, chickens died at the jaws of a fox that slipped into the coop, and the crop of vegetables was not so bountiful – but so it goes: a son dies and the earth becomes barren.

The second section is considerably more surreal. Normally surrealism and I don’t get along, but Martel’s storytelling is so beautiful my cynicism was swept away. Late one evening in 1938, Eusebio Lozora, a pathologist, is visited in his office by his wife, who has come primarily to discuss Christ’s miracles, which she does by comparing the gospels to the works of Agatha Christie. In the context of the book, this is not as off the wall as it sounds – well, it is! But her argument makes a kind of sense – she suggests that the importance of both is in the witnessing. When she leaves, another woman turns up, a woman from Tuizelo, who wants Eusebio to carry out an autopsy on her dead husband.

Tuizelo in the High Mountains of Portugal
Tuizelo in the High Mountains of Portugal

It’s always difficult to know how much to say in a review, and I’m not going to reveal any more about this section because the wonder of it is in the revelations that come about as it progresses. I found the whole section stunning. It flows superbly, and the fundamental ludicrousness of it is entirely dispelled by the excellence of the writing and the insight into love and grief. Quite beautiful.

They never look very big on the table, the bodies. It’s built to accommodate the largest frames, there’s that. And they’re naked. But it’s something else. That parcel of the being called the soul – weighing twenty-one grams, according to the experiments of the American doctor Duncan MacDougall – takes up a surprising amount of space, like a loud voice. In its absence, the body seems to shrink. That is, before the bloat of decomposition.

And yet still not as wonderful as the third section. It’s 1981 and Canadian Senator Peter Tovy is grieving the death of his wife. On a trip to Oklahoma, he visits the Institute for Primal Research, where he makes a sudden connection with a chimpanzee, Odo – the chimp looks straight into his eyes in a way people have avoided doing since his bereavement. He buys the chimp and the two of them set off to make a new life in Tuizelo, where Peter’s family originated.

It’s in the observation that this section excels. Odo is not anthropomorphised; in fact, if anything, it is Peter who tries to ape the lifestyle of the chimp. Their interactions are beautifully realised – Odo always projects an element of slight menace to Peter; although the chimp is happy to share his life with the human, he retains his fundamental wildness. In time the villagers, who initially feared him, begin to accept Odo as a unique presence within their community. Again I don’t want to reveal too much, except to say that links between this section and the others are gradually revealed, and the ending is a thing of perfect beauty that left me sobbing – not for sorrow, but for joy.

In Portugal the sunshine is often pearly, lambent, tickling, neighbourly. So too, in its own way, is the dark. There are dense, rich, and nourishing pockets of gloom to be found in the shadows of houses, in the courtyards of modest restaurants, on the hidden sides of large trees. During the night, these pockets spread, taking to the air like birds. The night, in Portugal, is a friend.

Yann Martel
Yann Martel

The whole book is deliciously enigmatic 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, but symbolically rather than actually, except in the third. I feel Mantel is suggesting that the two sides of the debate are not irreconcilable, and that faith itself is the thing that is required to reconcile them. Small miracles are possible, but we will only see them as that if we let reason take a back seat for a bit. Perhaps he’s also reminding us that religion and faith are not always the same thing. And ultimately it seems to me he is saying that just because we are risen apes doesn’t mean we couldn’t be fallen angels too. I did feel some aspects of the chimp symbolism might offend some Christians, but I found the whole thing an original and insightful approach to the question that provokes thought without forcing any specific answers on the reader.

But meaning aside, the sheer quality of the writing along with the more overt themes of grief and love make it a wonderful read. It gets my highest recommendation – one that has left some indelible images in my mind and will undoubtedly be in the running for my book of the year.

PS I have tried to avoid revealing too many details in this review. If you’re planning on reading the book, I strongly advise that you avoid the various press reviews, which seem to have been vying with each other to ruin it by giving details of the endings of each of the three sections. Fortunately I didn’t read any of them till after I’d finished the book, and thus had the joy of discovering it unspoiled.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 80…

Episode 80…

 

The TBR has stayed steady for the week at 165 – could this be the start of the downward trend that I’m sure must be just about to begin?? Hmm… depends how many years of my life I’m willing to devote to decrypting Faulkner, the man who makes Alphabetti Spaghetti look like well-crafted prose…

Here are a few books with normal sentences that make sense that I very much hope to get to soon…

Factual

 

the secret poisonerCourtesy of NetGalley and my favourite factual publisher Yale University Press. This looks like a more in-depth academic book than I assumed when I requested it, and is yet another brick, but it should be interesting certainly, and hopefully enjoyable…

The Blurb says: Murder by poison alarmed, enthralled, and in many ways encapsulated the Victorian age. Linda Stratmann’s dark and splendid social history reveals the nineteenth century as a gruesome battleground where poisoners went head-to-head with authorities who strove to detect poisons, control their availability, and bring the guilty to justice. She corrects many misconceptions about particular poisons and documents how the evolution of issues such as marital rights and the legal protection of children impacted poisonings. Combining archival research with a chemist’s expertise and a novelist’s eye, Stratmann charts the era’s inexorable rise of poison cases both gruesome and sad.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

the high mountains of portugalCourtesy of NetGalley again. I haven’t read anything by Yann Martel before, so time to try. I can’t in truth say the blurb convinces me I’ll like this one too much and it seems to be getting pretty mixed reviews, but we’ll see…

The Blurb says: In Lisbon in 1904, a young man named Tomás discovers an old journal. It hints at the existence of an extraordinary artifact that—if he can find it—would redefine history. Traveling in one of Europe’s earliest automobiles, he sets out in search of this strange treasure.

Thirty-five years later, a Portuguese pathologist devoted to the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie finds himself at the center of a mystery of his own and drawn into the consequences of Tomás’s quest.

Fifty years on, a Canadian senator takes refuge in his ancestral village in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife. But he arrives with an unusual companion: a chimpanzee. And there the century-old quest will come to an unexpected conclusion.

The High Mountains of Portugal—part quest, part ghost story, part contemporary fable—offers an exploration of love and loss.

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Crime

 

mrs maybrickOn the subject of poisoners, a true crime book from the pen of Victoria Blake, who regularly visits the blog under her more casual moniker of Vicky Blake. Looks most intriguing, and it’s actually physically a lovely little book…

The Blurb says: Florence Maybrick was a 19-year-old Alabama belle when she married cotton-broker James Maybrick in 1881. She was convicted of his murder in 1889 after arsenic was found in his corpse. However, it was never established whether she administered the poison, or whether Maybrick himself, a hypochondriac who used arsenic and other tonics, took the fatal dose. Her death sentence was commuted to imprisonment and she served 15 years before her reprieve in 1903. This ‘bloody history’ tells the compelling tale of a ruined marriage and its infidelities, examining the murder, trial and controversy through Home Office files held at the National Archives and features new photographs of Mrs. Maybrick. It concludes with a bizarre twist: James Maybrick became a Jack the Ripper suspect in 1992.

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the sans pareil mysteryNetGalley again – historical crime set in Regency London. I have no idea what to expect from this one, to be honest, never having come across the author before. I took a punt on it purely because I like the cover and the blurb. I’m pleased to see it’s getting very positive reviews though…

The Blurb says: On a cold February night in Regency London, a dark curtain falls on the Sans Pareil Theatre following the death of April Clare, a promising young actress, whose body is found in mysterious circumstances. Detective Stephen Lavender and his dependable deputy, Constable Woods, quickly discover that nothing is quite as it seems. As successive mysteries unfold, they soon realise that it is not only the actors from the Sans Pareil who are playing a part.

With the Napoleonic War looming dangerously across the Channel, this is a time of suspicion and treachery. Following the clues from the seedy back streets of Covent Garden up through the echelons of society, Lavender and Woods begin to fear that the case is much bigger than they’d dared imagine—and worse, that they are at risk of becoming mere players in a master criminal’s shadowy drama. It will take all of Lavender’s skill and wit, and help from the beautiful Magdalena, to bring the mystery of the Sans Pareil Theatre to a dramatic conclusion in the final act.

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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?