FictionFan Awards 2018 – Factual

A round of applause…

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

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…


All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.


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

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

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction


Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction


Book of the Year 2018


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!




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


Overall I’ve had a pretty slow year on the factual front – I think I’ve been in recovery from overdoing the heavy history the year before. But although I’ve read far less, I’ve still had some great reads…


Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

The Winter Queen of the title is Elizabeth, daughter of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, and herself briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick. Elizabeth and Frederick produced an alarming number of children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood, and as their sons and daughters grew up and contracted marriages or made alliances, they spread their influence throughout the ruling families of 17th century Europe, thus being involved in all the major events (aka wars) of that turbulent period. The book is about the four daughters who survived their childhood years, and at least as much about their brothers, husbands, suitors or male friends.

Goldstone writes breezily, with a great deal of affection towards her subjects, and with a lot of humour. Although there’s lots of history in here, clearly excellently researched, she tells her story almost as if she were writing a novel – a comedy of manners, perhaps, with the odd episode of tragedy thrown in to leaven it, and the non-academic style makes it approachable and easily digestible. The book is a pleasure to read, which is not something that can always be said about history books!

Triumph of the Winter Queen by Gerrit van Honthorst
The Queen surrounded by her many children in various allegorical poses.

Click to see the full review

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The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

This beautifully produced and gorgeously, lavishly illustrated publication is far more than a coffee table book. It’s a comprehensive history of British bookishness from its beginning to the present day. The main thrust of it covers the 17th to 19th centuries – the period when the country house came into its own and wealthy people saw libraries as an essential feature of their homes. Mark Purcell looks at both the books and the rooms they were stored in.

Purcell has clearly had a ball prying into the bookshelves and book catalogues of centuries’ worth of bibliophiles, and his enthusiasm is matched by deep knowledge, backed up with an immense amount of research. This results in a phenomenal amount of detail, which in the early chapters overwhelmed me a little and made the reading heavy going. But I found that I gradually became fascinated, especially when I realised that the bookshelves of the rich – who, of course, were also the powerful – cast an interesting sidelight on many famous historical personages and the societies in which they lived.

Chatsworth: Darcy’s Library!!

Click to see the full review

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Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

In 1908, an elderly lady, Miss Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home and a brooch was stolen. Shortly afterwards, Oscar Slater pawned a brooch and boarded a ship bound for America. These two facts were enough for the police to decide that he was the guilty man and, sure enough, they arrested and charged him, and he was convicted and condemned to death – a sentence that was swiftly commuted to life imprisonment in response to a growing feeling of doubt over the verdict among some sectors of the public. This book sets out to tell the story of the case and specifically of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the campaign to have the verdict overturned.

I found this a fascinating read, especially since rather to my surprise I learned quite a lot that I didn’t know about my own city and country. The class divisions, the way people lived, the prejudices and culture all feel authentic and still recognisable to this Glaswegian, and the wider picture of policing and justice in Scotland feels very well researched. The story of Conan Doyle’s involvement is also told well with lots of interesting digressions into the art and science of detection, and plenty of referencing to the world of Sherlock Holmes. One that true crime fans will thoroughly enjoy. 

Click to see the full review

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Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick approached Clarke with a view to them working together, and then goes on to give a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Click to see the full review

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Despite the quality of the runners-up, there was never any hesitation in my mind as to which book should win this category.

This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read. These were the days of the great explorers, making crazy expeditions in the name of scientific discovery, but just as much for national pride and for the sheer glory of being the first.

I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble, and he does a fabulous job. Lansing’s language is wonderfully descriptive, but not full of overly poetic flourishes. This rather plain style, however, works beautifully – the events are so thrilling and the men are such heroes that they don’t need any great fanfares or flowery flourishes to enhance their story. I found myself totally caught up, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. As it got towards the end, my tension levels were going through the roof, just as they would have been had these men been personal friends – indeed, after the long journey I’d made in their company, I truly felt they were.

The Endurance trapped in the ice during the long polar night…

Click to see the full review

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Next Week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

30 thoughts on “FictionFan Awards 2018 – Factual

  1. I’ve only read The Margalit Fox book from this week’s award mentions but I do have the winner already on the wishlist for 2019 and since I’m now better with audio listens I may well follow your example given you point out the plain style works so well for this factual book.


    • The Conan Doyle book was great and the Glasgow connection made it even better for me, I think. I really do recommend the audiobook of Endurance. I felt the narration was great – a bit like the writing, he didn’t get all over-emotional and dramatic – he just let the story speak for itself. If you’re still listening while walking, though, don’t forget to take plenty of tissues…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Country House Library sounds brilliant – libraries are, of course, always my favourite room in any stately home! I hadn’t heard of Conan Doyle for the Defence before, but it sounds very interesting. I know Glasgow a little bit because I have a good friend who lives there so I have visited quite a lot, and I really like it – that definitely sounds like one to pick up (or maybe to put on my Christmas list).


    • I loved The Country House Library – there’s a lot of detail which can make it a hard slog at some points, but those gorgeous illustrations are always there to keep you turning pages! Ah, knowing Glasgow a bit would probably add to your enjoyment of the book then – I love reading about places I recognise, and though the city has obviously changed a lot in the last hundred years, the basics are still the same… 😀


    • Ooh, shove it to the top of your pile then – it would be a brilliant winter read for when you’re feeling snowed in! Hurrah! Both great choices – I think you’ll love them both. Nancy Goldstone is great at these histories – she manages to write them in a way that’s actually fun to read, which is not always the case with history books! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can see exactly why you chose this one, FictionFan. What a great book this sees to be, and with a lot to it. I’m glad you had such good contenders this year, as some factual books don’t draw the reader in the way fiction can. I have to say, though, I still think the Purcell and the Fox are tempting. Very tempting. Very, very tempting…


    • I’m sure you’d enjoy the Fox and who wouldn’t like to drool over all those libraries?? But Endurance is definitely the star of the show – no wonder it’s been consistently in print for over half a century. It’s been a strange year for non-fiction for me, but though I haven’t read so many, I’ve had some great reads… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • The Conan Doyle is great, too, but Endurance really is exceptional – a combination of the wonderfully exciting story and the fantastic storytelling. No wonder it’s a classic of its kind! 😀


  4. I’m still hoping to find The County House Library, but not surprised you chose Endurance to win after remembering how much the story affected you. I still don’t want to put myself through it!


    • The Country House Library is definitely drool-worthy and interesting, too! But Endurance is very special – a true classic of its kind – so don’t forget about it when you’re more in a mood for having your emotions put through the wringer… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • I did indeed love it – and after thinking about again for this post, I now really want to listen to it again! Needless to say, I still haven’t watched the movie either, though I did see it when it was first on TV…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t know any of these books, but the libraries look beautiful and it is so interesting finding out what people read! Space Odyssey will make a good christmas present for at least two people so thank you!!


    • I loved The Country House Library and the illustrations are totally droolworthy! Space Odyssey would be a great gift for anyone interested in movies, I think – I found it absolutely fascinating, especially all the stuff about the special effects… 😀


    • I definitely think you need to read Endurance – you’ll never complain about a few inches of snow on the ground again! 😉 The Conan Doyle book is very good too – I think the Glasgow connection made it extra interesting to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Now, with a second nudge from you as to the value of Endurance, I checked and see that our library has the audio version of Endurance. No excuses not to join this chilly experience! Thank you!


    • Isn’t it? One of the men was a photographer and through it all he took some amazing pictures – I spent ages googling them after I’d read the book. I wish someone would produce an illustrated edition, in fact…

      Liked by 1 person

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