FictionFan Awards 2019 – Factual

A round of applause…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2019.

For the benefit of new readers, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…


All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2018 and October 2019 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


Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction


Book of the Year 2019


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


I’ve read fewer factual books than usual this year. I felt I needed a bit of a break from heavyweight history books, so instead I’ve been reading quite a lot of true crime and books on lighter subjects, and have thoroughly enjoyed most of them, giving nine books the full five stars. So yet again the decision has not been easy…


Europe: A Natural History by Tim Flannery

Starting roughly 100 million years ago, Flannery sets out to tell the story of Europe – how it formed, the species that have lived, survived or become extinct in it, the rise of humanity, and the possible future impacts of our current galloping climate change. Along the way, he tells us of the many men and women who have contributed to uncovering this history or who have in some way affected it.

There’s so much in this fascinating book that it’s hard to know how to summarise it in a few hundred words. It gives a panoramic view, bringing together and linking all the bits of natural history that are often covered separately, such as the formation of the continent, or current rewilding projects, or the origins of humanity. It’s surprisingly compact, considering its huge scope, and yet never feels superficial or rushed. And Flannery is a master of the art of converting scientific information into language easily understandable by the non-scientist.

Cretaceous Europe

Click to see the full review

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The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

Abraham Lincoln has won the Presidential election and now, in early 1861, is about to undertake the journey from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington for his inauguration. But these are troubled times, and the journey is complicated because of all of the different railroad companies that own parts of the route. One of the company owners hears of a plot to destroy his railroad to prevent Lincoln making it to Washington, and so he calls in the already famous private detective, Allan Pinkerton. But when Pinkerton starts to investigate, he becomes convinced that there is a deeper plot in the planning – to assassinate Lincoln before he is inaugurated. This book tells the story of Lincoln’s journey, the plot against him, and Pinkerton’s attempt to ensure his safe arrival in Washington.

It’s written very much in the style of a true crime book, although it has aspects that fall as much into the category of history. Stashower focuses on three main aspects: a biographical look at Pinkerton and the development of his detective agency; the rising tensions in the still-new nation that would soon break out into full scale civil war; and Lincoln’s journey, and the plot against him. Well written, interesting and informative – thoroughly enjoyable!

The logo that gave rise to the expression, “private eye”.

Click to see the full review

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Seashaken Houses by Tom Nancollas

The author set out to visit seven of the major rock lighthouses that stand as warnings to shipping around Britain’s shore, sometimes getting permission to land and see the interiors, other times examining them from the outside. Along the way, he tells us tales of their construction and history, of the men who built, lived in and maintained them over the years, and of the many shipwrecks they have doubtless averted and of some they didn’t. Nancollas also fills in the historical background, lightly but with enough depth to give a feel for what was going on in Britain and the western world at each point. He talks of Britain’s growing status as a maritime trading nation and tells tales of the shipwrecks and disasters that gave an urgency to finding some reliable way of guiding ships safely through the rocky hazards around the coast.

His style is non-academic, sometimes lyrical, always enthusiastic, and I found myself coming to share his fascination for these incredible feats of engineering and his admiration for those who built and worked on them. A fascinating subject, brought wonderfully to life.

Bell Rock Lighthouse during a storm by John Horsburgh
Illus. in: Robert Stevenson, An Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

Click to see the full review

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American Heiress: The Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

When Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) back in 1974, it was such a huge story that it made headlines for months not only in the US but here in the UK too. Was she a victim or a terrorist? Willing or brainwashed? Heroine or villain? In this book, Jeffrey Toobin sets out to tell the story of the kidnapping and its aftermath, and to answer some of those questions. To do this, he also has to analyse the political and social forces of the time, and the counterculture which, in America, had grown out of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam protests.

The whole thing is well written and excellently told, as informative about the wider society of the time as it is about the philosophy and actions of the SLA and the counterculture. While I found it hard to have much sympathy for the spoilt little rich kid Hearst, Toobin maintains considerably more balance in his summing up, and the final section describes the legal consequences for Hearst and her surviving comrades, showing quite clearly that, when it comes to justice, money talks. A great read.

Fear not, Patty – Daddy’s on his way with his chequebook…

Click to see the full review

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Furious Hours by Casey Cep

In June, 1977, a man walked into a funeral home in Alabama during a service, accused one of the mourners, Reverend Willie Maxwell, of murder and shot him dead. When the shooter, Robert Burns, was subsequently tried for the murder of Maxwell, everyone wanted a seat in court. Harper Lee got one. Years after helping Truman Capote with the research that lay behind his best-selling In Cold Blood, Lee had decided to write her own true-crime book, and the Maxwell case promised to provide plenty of material. In this book, Cep tells both stories: of Maxwell, the crimes of which he was suspected, his own murder and the trial of his killer; and of Harper Lee and her failed attempt to turn the Maxwell story into a book.

The section on the Maxwell case is very good true-crime writing in its own right, but what makes this one stand out from the crowd is the association with Harper Lee. The whole section on the writing of In Cold Blood and what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird is excellent, succinct and insightful. It’s not so much a literary analysis as an examination of the two authors’ creative processes, casting a lot of light on their personalities; all of which would be sure to make this book appeal to admirers of either of those works as well as anyone interested in true crime for its own sake.

While any of these books would have been a worthy winner, this one stood out because I had recently read To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood, and then this inspired me to read Go Set a Watchman at last. Reading all four close together made it a truly immersive experience, with each enhancing the others.

Truman Capote signing copies of In Cold Blood with Harper Lee in 1966.
Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

51 thoughts on “FictionFan Awards 2019 – Factual

  1. Seashaken Houses and The Hour of Peril both sound absolutely fantastic. I’ve always been fascinated by lighthouses, though I have no idea why – they must have featured in a book I loved when I was very young or something. I somehow missed your review the first time around, so I’m pleased you mentioned it here or I would never have known it existed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Both great books! Seashaken Houses is fab if you’re interested in lighthouses – he’s clearly fascinated by them and has the ability to let the reader share his enthusiasm. I loved all the little stories he told about the men who built them and manned them, and about the places they’re situated near. If you get a chance to read it sometime, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so glad you liked Furious Hours so well, FictionFan. Everyone I trust – everyone – tells me that I need to read that one. I haven’t yet, but the more good things I hear about it, the higher up it goes on the list. You had some great factual reads this time, and I’m glad of that.


    • It really is excellent, Margot – I’m sure you’d enjoy it. The connection to Harper Lee and Truman Capote made it perfect for true crime lovers and fiction lovers alike – a perfect marriage! Yes, it’s been a good year for factual reads – even though I’ve read less than usual, I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve read very much. Can’t ask for more than that! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Lee book and the one about Lincoln appear to draw me in this week. I haven’t read either one, but from your reviews, I can see I probably need to. Thanks again, FF!


  4. Well, yay! I already have the winner waiting in my kindle! I still need to read In Cold Blood and Go Tell a Watchman. I’m trying to remember in which order you suggested reading them.


  5. Ah, this one doesn’t come as a surprise either. Although based on your reviews, I am more likely to read The Hour of Peril, which sounded amazing.

    Potentially, Europe: A Natural History would be interesting as well. Sometimes, I get frustrated though when reading books, which try to cover a lot of ground. Unavoidably, a lot of topics are covered superficially and I feel I need to read additional books to find out more about each topic. Of course, you could argue, that is not a bad thing at all.

    I am enjoying your awards season – much more fun than the award ceremonies in the sector I work in, which also take place at the moment.


    • I did love The Hour of Peril too – with these awards there’s rarely a clear-cut winner. Any of these would have been worthy of the top prize. Europe is great, but I know what you mean! I found with it that I had already read lots of books that touched on one aspect or another of what he was saying, and that this one really pulled all those bits of knowledge together for me – kind of put them in a larger context. And he’s very good at making science readable…

      Ha! Thank you! I think all awards seasons should just have one judge – it cuts out all that messy arguing and compromising… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Is that what they call dictatorship? One judge to rule them all (or was it one ring….). After following the Brexit process, I have spotted a few flaws in democracy though, so perhaps one judge is not so bad after all. If it’s a fair one! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • It is! I’m a big fan of dictatorship, so long as I get to be the dictator. I’d be a good one, I promise – very fair, except perhaps when it came to chocolate distribution… Haha! I know – democracy is taking a hammering at the moment whichever side of the debate you’re on. I reckon the first law any new government should pass is one banning all referendums!!! I assure you there will be none once I become World Empress…

          Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! Either of them could have won really – sometimes it all comes down to a coin toss! But it was really the stuff about Harper Lee that made Furious Hours the winner in the end… 😀


  6. The Furious Hours sounds like a great combination of true crime and literary analysis, both of which can be really engrossing. For that matter, I really should get around to reading In Cold Blood. I will probably check it out first before moving on to the non-fiction title.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d definitely recommend reading In Cold Blood before Furious Hours. It’s not essential but I think you get far more out of her analysis of how Capote and Lee worked together if you’re familiar with the end result. Anyway In Cold Blood is well worth reading in its own right, even if I had a few issues with the way he messed with the truth.


  7. Learning that Harper Lee was researching true crime with Truman Capote blew my mind! And I’ve dropped it into cocktail conversation ever since, so thank you for making me look smarter than I really am in public 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s been a great year for the lighter side of factual for me – some very lucky picks! I always think factual books make great gifts, because unlike with fiction the chances are pretty good the recipient won’t already have read them! 😀


    • I loved Seashaken Houses – it was so well written and he managed to get the reader to share his enthusiasm. But Furious Hours was just so good – all the literary connections made it stand out from the usual run of true crime books.


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