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…

THE CRITERIA

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

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

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

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

FACTUAL

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…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

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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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

FACTUAL


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

Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

Or maybe the sons…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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, also known as the Palatinate. 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 ostensibly about the four daughters who survived their childhood years – Elizabeth, Louise Hollandine, Henrietta Maria, and Sophia.

Did you notice that sneaky word “ostensibly”? In fact, the book is much more about the kings and sons than it is about queens and daughters. (Feminists may wish to look away for the next couple of sentences.) This is completely understandable since, at that period as in so much of history, women generally played a very small role in events, limited as often as not to being pawns in the diplomatic marriage market. There’s no doubt Elizabeth’s sons led much more interesting lives than her daughters, especially since only two of the girls married, and one of those died almost immediately afterwards. (You can come back now.) So I’m not complaining about the fact that Goldstone spent far more time with the men than the women – I’m merely pointing out that the title is a little misleading and the book may therefore set up false expectations in the prospective reader.

Goldstone writes breezily, with a great deal of affection towards her subjects, and with a lot of humour. The history can sometimes feel a little superficial – she is trying to cover a lengthy and complicated period in a relatively compact book – but it’s fun, and the characterisation is great. I use the word ‘characterisation’ intentionally, because 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. I feel that all sounds a little dismissive, and I don’t mean it to be. There’s lots of history in here, clearly excellently researched, 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!

The first few chapters give a biography of Elizabeth (the Winter Queen) and then in the latter two-thirds or so of the book, Goldstone moves on to the daughters, rotating through them, giving them each a chapter in turn. So in total each daughter merits around four chapters. You can tell from this that we largely get a broad overview of their lives rather than the detailed minutiae that tends to appear in a single subject biography. Given the fact that in reality none of the women lived particularly exciting or historically significant lives, I felt this was plenty.

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

But in fact, most of the chapters start with one of the daughters and then promptly swing away to her brother, husband, suitor or male friend. We follow a couple of the sons to England where they were involved in the events leading up to and following the execution of Charles I. Through Elizabeth, we spend some time in the company of her friend and teacher Descartes. Henrietta Maria married but then died too young to have much of a story to leave, poor thing. Through Louise, a skilled painter in her own right, we learn something about the artistic movements of the time. And through Sophia, the one who married and lived, we are taken into the politics of succession – the various manoeuvrings of those in power to gain territory through war, alliance and inheritance, again told mostly through the men’s stories.

Along the way, Goldstone brings the characters, male and female, to life by including their own words from correspondence and journals and by telling anecdotes about them. This gives a great and, I assume, accurate feel for their different personalities, and Goldstone delves back into their childhoods to show how their early experiences helped to mould them into the women (or men) they became. On the whole, the daughters seemed to be a pragmatic bunch. The various religious shenanigans in Europe meant that there was a limited pool of suitable matches for impoverished Protestant princesses, so those who didn’t marry took religious orders – one converting to Catholicism to do so. Sophia was the one who interested me most, not only because her life as a daughter, wife and mother of powerful men meant that she was more involved in events, but because she loved to write and had a witty, acerbic style that gave a real feeling for her and for the people she somewhat wickedly observed.

Nancy Goldstone

Overall, I enjoyed this book. That particular period of history is complicated by all the religious squabbling and ever-shifting allegiances so my eyes glazed over from time to time, but Goldstone does an excellent job of simplifying it and helping the reader through the maze. I thoroughly enjoy her writing style and would mention that her footnotes are not to be glossed over – often the best humour in the book is hidden in them. The book wasn’t quite what I was expecting, and the daughters weren’t as interesting as I’d hoped, on the whole, but there was plenty to keep me engaged in the stories of the sons, fathers and husbands. Next time though, I’d hope Goldstone could find women who were more interesting in their own right (as she did with Catherine de’ Medici and Marguerite de Valois in her previous book The Rival Queens) or not set up false expectations in her title. Not every book has to have a feminist angle, especially when there isn’t one, and The Children of the Winter Queen would have worked just as well, I feel. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Luckily for Frederick – or the Palatine, as he was called in England – he had some potent weapons in his wooing arsenal. Although his property was in Germany, he had been educated in France by his suave uncle the duke of Bouillon. The duke could not have provided a more thorough or excellent preparation for royal lovemaking. Whatever else the results of Frederick’s studies, his uncle had made sure that he knew how to dress, that his manners were charming, that he spoke French to perfection, and, more important, that he was well versed in the art of romance.
….Judging by the recollections of an observer who chronicled the Palatine’s visit to England, Frederick’s first performance at court was nothing short of masterful. He flattered James [. . .] conciliated Anne [. . .] joked with Henry [. . .] and then knocked it completely out of the park with Elizabeth: “Stooping low to take up the lowest part of her Garment to kiss it, she most gracefully courtesying lower than accustomed, and with her Hand staying him from that humblest Reverence, gave him at his rising a fair Advantage (which he took) of kissing her.”

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….All things considered, the new academic year has not got off to a very auspicious start. No tea and biscuits in the Porters’ Lodge, a murderous Russian inducted as our new Bursar and now two dead bodies at the bottom of the gardens. When I first came to Old College a year ago, the arbitrary arrival of dead bodies used to worry me a bit. I soon learnt that, for some reason, academia is more dangerous than would first appear and for reasons harking back to the ancient founding of the College, prominent figures of The Fellowship meeting an untimely demise was par for the course. And, having also learned what a conniving bunch of power-crazed narcissists they all are, this seems perfectly reasonable. The politics of the academic elite make the machinations of Ancient Rome look like a bun fight and many of the devious buggers deserve everything they get. Not all of them. But quite a few of them.

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….Jane, observing Selena’s long glance of perfect balance and equanimity resting upon Nicholas, immediately foresaw that she would be disposed in the front seat with Felix, while Selena stepped with her arch-footed poise into the back, where Nicholas would join her, and she foresaw that this arrangement would come about with effortless elegance. She had no objection to Felix but she could not hope to win him for herself, having nothing to offer a man like Felix. She felt she had a certain something, though small, to offer Nicholas, this being her literary and brain-work side, which Selena lacked. It was in fact a misunderstanding of Nicholas. She vaguely thought of him as a more attractive Rudi Bittesch, to imagine he would receive more pleasure and reassurance from a literary girl than simply a girl. It was the girl in Jane that had moved him to kiss her at the party. She might have gone further with Nicholas without her literary leanings. This was a mistake she continued to make in her relations with men, inferring from her own preference for men of books and literature their preference for women from the same business, and it never really occurred to her that literary men, if they like women at all, do not want literary women, but girls.

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….The devil makes work for idle hands. The memory of his mother saying those words was so sharp that he almost turned round, expecting to see her sitting in the chair by the fire, the belt filled with horsehair round her waist, one needle stuck into it, held firm, while the other flew. She could knit a pair of stockings in an afternoon, a plain jersey in a week. She was known as the best knitter in the south, though she’d never enjoyed doing the fancy Fair Isle patterns. What point is there in that? she’d say, putting the stress on the last word so she’d almost spit it out. Will it keep dee ony warmer?
….
He wondered what other work the devil might find for him.

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….Tear the collar of your last shirt at your throat, dear heart! Tear the hair of your head, thin with your joyless, heavy life; bite your lips till the blood comes; wring your work-scarred hands and beat yourself against the floor on the threshold of your empty hut! The master is missing from your hut, your husband is missing, your children are fatherless; and remember that no-one will caress you or your orphans, no-one will press your head to his breast at night, when you drop worn out with weariness; and no-one will say to you as once he said: “Don’t worry, Aniska, we’ll manage somehow!” You will not get another husband, for labour, anxieties, children have withered you and lined you. No father will come for your half-naked, snivelling children. You yourself will have to do all the ploughing, the dragging, panting with the over-great strain. You will have to pitchfork the sheaves from the reaper, to throw them onto the wagon, to raise the heavy bundles of wheat on the pitchfork, feeling the while that something is rending beneath your belly. And afterwards you will writhe with pain, covering yourself with your rags and issuing with blood.

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 155…

Episode 155…

The steady decline in the TBR has stalled temporarily. It’s jumped up 1 to 218, but I’m sure it will fall again soon…

Here are a few more that should drop off soon…

History

Courtesy of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. I found Nancy Goldstone’s earlier book The Rival Queens a highly readable and entertaining history, so I’m hoping for more of the same with this one, especially since I know nothing about any of these royal ladies…

The Blurb says: In a sweeping narrative encompassing political intrigue, illicit love affairs and even a murder mystery, Nancy Goldstone tells the riveting story of a queen who lost her throne, and of her four defiant daughters.

Elizabeth Stuart’s (1596-1662) marriage to a German count far below her rank was arranged with the understanding that her father, James I of England, would help his new son-in-law achieve the crown of Bohemia. The terrible betrayal of this promise would ruin ‘the Winter Queen’, as Elizabeth would forever be known, imperil the lives of those she loved and launch a war that would last thirty years.

Forced into exile, the Winter Queen found refuge for her growing family in Holland, where the glorious art and culture of the Dutch Golden Age formed the backdrop to her daughters’ education. The eldest, Princess Elizabeth (1618-80), counted the philosopher René Descartes as her closest friend. Louisa (1622-1709), whose lively manner would provoke heartache and scandal, was a gifted artist. Henrietta Maria (1626-51), the beauty of the family, would achieve the dynastic ambition of marrying into royalty, although at great cost. But it was the youngest, Sophia (1630-1714), a heroine in the tradition of Jane Austen, with a ready wit and strength of character, who would fulfil the promise of her great-grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots, a legacy which endures to this day.

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Science Fiction

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Last of the five HG Wells science fiction blockbusters in the OWC catalogue, this is another I have never read before. If it’s halfway as good as the other four, I’m in for a treat…

The Blurb says: One night in the depths of winter, a bizarre and sinister stranger wrapped in bandages and eccentric clothing arrives in a remote English village. His peculiar, secretive activities in the room he rents spook the locals. Speculation about his identity becomes horror and disbelief when the villagers discover that, beneath his disguise, he is invisible.

Griffin, as the man is called, is an embittered scientist who is determined to exploit his extraordinary gifts, developed in the course of brutal self-experimentation, in order to conduct a Reign of Terror on the sleepy inhabitants of England. As the police close in on him, he becomes ever more desperate and violent.

In this pioneering novella, subtitled “A Grotesque Romance”, Wells combines comedy, both farcical and satirical, and tragedy–to superbly unsettling effect. Since its publication in 1897, The Invisible Man has haunted not only popular culture (in particular cinema) but also the greatest and most experimental novels of the twentieth century.

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Fiction

The last scheduled book for my Russian Revolution Challenge. I freely admit my enthusiasm for this one has worn off considerably, purely because I feel I’ve reached a surfeit of massive descriptions of the Revolution now. However, it is considered to be a great classic, so I’ll have a go, and if I can’t take it, it can go back on the shelf for a couple of years till I get back in the mood…

The Blurb says: The epic novel of love, war and revolution from Mikhail Sholokhov, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

An extraordinary Russian masterpiece, And Quiet Flows the Don follows the turbulent fortunes of the Cossack people through peace, war and revolution – among them the proud and rebellious Gregor Melekhov, who struggles to be with the woman he loves as his country is torn apart. Borne of Mikhail Sholokhov’s own early life in the lands of the Cossacks by the river Don, it is a searing portrait of a nation swept up in conflict, with all the tragic choices it brings.

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Crime

The constant drip, drip, drip of blog reviews praising Ann Cleeves has finally worn me down, so it’s time to pluck this one from where it’s been hiding for three years in the depths of the TBR and shove it onto the top of the pile…

The Blurb says: Raven Black is the first book in Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series – filmed as the major BBC1 drama starring Douglas Henshall, Shetland.

It is a cold January morning and Shetland lies buried beneath a deep layer of snow. Trudging home, Fran Hunter’s eye is drawn to a vivid splash of colour on the white ground, ravens circling above. It is the strangled body of her teenage neighbour Catherine Ross. As Fran opens her mouth to scream, the ravens continue their deadly dance . . .

The locals on the quiet island stubbornly focus their gaze on one man – loner and simpleton Magnus Tait. But when police insist on opening out the investigation a veil of suspicion and fear is thrown over the entire community. For the first time in years, Catherine’s neighbours nervously lock their doors, whilst a killer lives on in their midst.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

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

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