FictionFan Awards 2017 – Factual

Please rise…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2017.

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 2016 and October 2017 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/Thriller

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2017

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!

* * * * * * * * *

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

FACTUAL

In terms of numbers of books, I haven’t read as much factual as usual this year. But that’s been because of my Russian Revolution challenge – so many of those books have been massive monsters! They’ve also provided some of my best factual reads of the year, but there have been other great books too that have provided some much-needed variety along the way…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky

Written in three parts some years after the Revolution, Trotsky begins with a fascinating analysis of why revolutions arise, then goes on to give the historical background to the Russian one, followed by a minutely detailed, blow-by-blow account of the events of 1917 and beyond.

In terms of the writing itself, there’s a real mix. When Trotsky is detailing the more technical stuff, it can be very dry with long, convoluted sentences full of Marxist jargon, which require concentration. At other times, he is sarcastic, humorous, angry, contemptuous depending on who he’s talking about. Most of it is written in the past tense. But when he gets misty-eyed about the masses, describing a rally or demonstration or some other part of the struggle, he drifts into present tense, becoming eloquent and inspirational, writing with real power and emotionalism, and rising almost to the point of poeticism at times. These passages remind the reader that Trotsky was an observer, a participant and a passionate leader in the events he’s describing. So long as one remains firmly aware of Trotsky’s bias at all times, this is a fascinating book, not by any means an easy read, but certainly an enlightening and worthwhile one.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Larson tells the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania, its passengers and crew, and the wider political situation that gave rise to the circumstances in which the ship was left unprotected in waters in which it was known U-boats were operating.

Larson uses four main strands to tell the full story of what happened. We learn about the codebreakers of the British Admiralty who had obtained the German codes and were therefore able to track U-boat movements with a fair degree of accuracy. Secondly, Larson takes us aboard U-20, the U-boat that would fire the fatal torpedo, and introduces us to its Captain, Walther Schwieger. The third aspect revolves around President Wilson and America’s lengthy vacillations before finally committing to war. The fourth section, and the one that humanises the story, is of the voyage of the Lusitania itself. Larson introduces us to many of the passengers, telling us a little of their lives before the voyage, so that we come to care about them.

Larson’s excellent writing style creates the kind of tension normally associated with a novel rather than a factual book, and his careful characterisation of many of the people involved gives a human dimension that is often missing from straight histories. An excellent book, thoroughly researched and well told.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Here Martin Edwards, regular editor of the British Library Crime Classics series amongst many other things, looks at the rise of the crime novel and its development throughout the first half of the last century. Edwards writes knowledgeably but conversationally, so that it never feels as if one is being lectured by an expert – rather it’s like having a chat with a well-read friend. He starts each chapter with a discussion around its theme, showing how the genre and various sub-genres developed. Following these interesting introductions, he lists and discusses the books he has selected for each section. He makes it clear he doesn’t necessarily think they’re all brilliant – rather, he feels they’re either an important link in the development of the crime novel, or a good representative example of the sub-genre under discussion.

Great for anyone who’d like to know more about the history of the crime novel, or who’d like to read some of the classic books but doesn’t know quite where to begin. But equally interesting for people who already know quite a bit about the genre – it’s so packed with goodies I can’t imagine many people wouldn’t learn something from it as well as being entertained by some of the stories about the authors.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Welcome to the Universe by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott

This book arises from a course on the universe run by the three authors at Princeton University for non-science majors; indeed, for students who perhaps had never taken a science course before. As someone with almost no knowledge of science, it seems to me it is indeed suitable for a beginner so long as s/he has an enquiring mind and either the ability to understand the maths or the willingness to skim over those bits that are maths-heavy.

The book is divided into three sections, each written mainly by one of the authors with the occasional contribution from one of the others. Tyson takes us through how scientists learned to measure distances between stars, how they work out their composition and age, and goes into considerable depth on the lifecycles of stars. Strauss takes the reader through the story of galaxies, from how our own was first mapped to the discovery that (almost) all galaxies are moving away from each other, proving that the universe is expanding and enabling scientists to estimate its age and speculate as to its future. The final section is by Richard Gott and takes us from Einstein’s relativity back to the Big Bang and beyond, finishing with some speculation about the beginnings of the universe and even what may have come before the Big Bang. A great book, managing to be both hugely informative and entertaining – undoubtedly the best and most comprehensive of its kind that I’ve come across.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2017

for

BEST FACTUAL BOOK

A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes

Given my submersion in the Russian Revolution this year, it will be no surprise that this outstanding history wins the award.

In order to tell the story of the Russian Revolution, Figes begins three decades earlier, in 1891, with the famine that could be seen as starting the journey towards revolution; and continues up to 1924, the year that the first dictator, Lenin, died. This is a huge work, massive in scope, meticulously researched and delivered with a level of clarity that makes it surprisingly easy to read and absorb, even for someone coming to the subject with no previous knowledge.

It’s divided into four sections that thoroughly cover each period: when revolutionary ideas were still in their infancy, before and during the Romanov period; the period from 1891 to just before the revolution proper began; the revolutionary year from February 1917 to the signing of the peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918; and finally, the complex tale of the Civil War that followed the revolution. Figes ranges widely, often using the stories of individuals to add a human face to the political history.

Brilliantly written, well laid out and lavishly illustrated, making it easy to read and understand despite the immense complexity of the subject, it’s an exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal, so that I came away from it understanding not just the politics and timeline of events, but how it must have felt to have lived through them. An exceptional book – one of the best broad scope histories I’ve read and a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

An avoidable disaster…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

dead-wakeOn a day which had earlier been foggy but was now clear and calm, some passengers aboard the Lusitania stood on deck and watched the ‘dead wake’ of a German U-boat torpedo heading towards the bow of the ship. It was 7th May 1915; Europe was engulfed in war while the USA was desperately maintaining its position of neutrality. Larson tells the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania, its passengers and crew, and the wider political situation that gave rise to the circumstances in which the ship was left unprotected in waters in which it was known U-boats were operating.

Larson starts with a prologue about the evening before the attack. Before she sailed from New York, the Germans had threatened they would attack the Lusitania, but the passengers weren’t particularly anxious. The Lusitania had been built for speed, the fastest ship of its time. Captain William Turner was confident she could outrun any U-boat. Anyway, given the threat and the knowledge that U-boats were operating around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, there was a general confidence that the Royal Navy would be on hand to escort them for the last dangerous stage of the journey.

lusitania-advertising-poster

Larson uses four main strands to tell the full story of what happened. We learn about the codebreakers of the British Admiralty who had obtained the German codes and were therefore able to track U-boat movements with a fair degree of accuracy. Eerily reminiscent of the Bletchley codebreakers of WW2, there was the same dilemma as to how often to act on information obtained – too often and the Germans would work out that their codes had been cracked, and change them. So some ships were left unprotected, sacrifices, almost, to the greater war effort. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, and was desperate to draw the US into the war on the British side. There appears to be little doubt that he felt that if German U-boats sank ships with American citizens aboard, this might be a decisive factor.

U-20 - the U-boat that fired the fatal torpedo...
U-20 – the U-boat that fired the fatal torpedo…

Secondly, Larson takes us aboard U-20, the U-boat that would fire the fatal torpedo, and introduces us to its Captain, Walther Schwieger. By using Schwieger’s logs amongst other sources, Larson creates an absorbing and authentic-feeling depiction of life aboard the ship, including a lot of fascinating detail about how U-boats actually worked – the logistical difficulties of diving, with the weight constantly changing as the amount of fuel aboard decreased; and how the crew would have to run from place to place to keep the boat level when manoeuvring. Larson widens this out to tell of some of the dangers for these early submarines, and some of the horrific accidents that had happened to them. And he takes us further, into the ever-changing policy of the German government with regards to the sinking of passenger and merchant ships.

lusitania-nyt-headlines

The third aspect revolves around President Wilson and America’s lengthy vacillations before finally committing to war. Politically hoping to sit it out while Britain bore the brunt, Wilson was also suffering personally from the loss of his much-loved wife, closely followed by what sounds like a rather adolescent rush of passion for another woman. It appears that he spent as much time a-wooing as a-Presidenting, and his desire to spend his life taking his new love out for romantic drives meant that he seemed almost infinitely capable of overlooking Germany’s constant breaches of the rules regarding neutral nations. (I should say the harshness of this interpretation is mine – Larson gives the facts but doesn’t draw the conclusions quite as brutally as I have done. Perhaps because he’s American and I’m British. But he leaves plenty of space for the reader to draw her own conclusions.)

Wilson getting his priorities in order...
Wilson getting his priorities in order…

The fourth section, and the one that humanises the story, is of the voyage of the Lusitania itself. Larson introduces us to many of the passengers, telling us a little of their lives before the voyage, so that we come to care about them. There were many children aboard, including young infants. Some people were bringing irreplaceable art and literary objects across in the way of business. There were pregnant women, and nannies and servants, and of course the crew. Larson explains that the crew were relatively inexperienced as so many sailors had been absorbed into the war effort. While they carried out regular drills, logistics meant they couldn’t actually lower all the lifeboats during them, so that when the disaster actually happened this lack of experience fed into the resulting loss of life. But he also shows the heroism of many of the crew and some of the passengers, turning their backs on their own safety to assist others. Even so, the loss of life was massive, and by telling the personal stories of some who died and others who survived but lost children or parents or lovers, Larson brings home the intimate tragedies that sometimes get lost in the bigger picture.

1915 painting of the sinking
1915 painting of the sinking

And finally, Larson tells of the aftermath, both personal for some of the survivors or grieving relatives of the dead; and political, in terms of the subsequent investigations in Britain into what went wrong, and Wilson’s attempts to ensure that even a direct attack on US citizens wouldn’t drag his country into war.

Larson balances the political and personal just about perfectly in the book, I feel. His excellent writing style creates the kind of tension normally associated with a novel rather than a factual book, and his careful characterisation of many of the people involved gives a human dimension that is often missing from straight histories. He doesn’t shy away from the politics though, and each of the governments, British, German and American, come in for their fair share of harsh criticism, including some of the individuals within them. An excellent book, thoroughly researched and well told – highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 103…

Episode 103…

I seem to be operating on a one in, one out, basis at the moment, since for the fourth week in a row, the TBR has remained static on 181, and the number of outstanding review copies stays the same at 38. And I’m still “reading” Moby-Dick! (i.e. It looks at me accusingly every time I open the Kindle, and occasionally I read a few pages hoping something will happen, only to find he’s still sneering at artists or boring on about how fish aren’t like dogs – seriously! An amazing revelation – guess there’s no more point in me throwing sticks into the river and shouting “fetch” then…)

Here are a few that may help to restore my joie de vivre. I’m trying to clear some of the NetGalley books that have been hanging around for too long, so some of these are ones where my enthusiasm wore off a bit after requesting them. But hopefully it will revive once I start reading…

Factual

dead-wakeHaving thoroughly enjoyed Larson’s earlier The Devil in the White City, I’ve been wanting to read this one for ages…

The Blurb says: On 1st May 1915, the luxury ocean liner Lusitania sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool. Her passengers were anxious. Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone and its submarines were bringing terror to the Atlantic.

But the Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, had faith in the gentlemanly terms of warfare that had, for a century, kept civilian ships safe from attack. He also knew that his ship was the fastest then in service and could outrun any threat. Germany was, however, intent on changing the rules, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. For this would be the ill-fated Lusitania’s final crossing . . .

* * * * *

Crime

murder-of-a-ladyCourtesy of NetGalley. These British Library re-issues of forgotten classics have been a mixed bag – some great, some showing why they were forgotten. But they’re all interesting as an insight into how the genre has developed over the years…

The Blurb says:  Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom – but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish’s scale, left on the floor next to Mary’s body. Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick – perhaps too quick – to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plots...

* * * * *

Fiction

the-presidents-hatCourtesy of NetGalley. This could be a lot of fun, or it could be unbearably twee. Time will tell…

The Blurb says: Dining alone in an elegant Parisian brasserie, accountant Daniel Mercier can hardly believe his eyes when President François Mitterrand sits down to eat at the table next to him.

Daniel’s thrill at being in such close proximity to the most powerful man in the land persists even after the presidential party has gone, which is when he discovers that Mitterrand’s black felt hat has been left behind.

After a few moments’ soul-searching, Daniel decides to keep the hat as a souvenir of an extraordinary evening. It’s a perfect fit, and as he leaves the restaurant Daniel begins to feel somehow … different.

* * * * *

Crime

the-eskimo-solutionCourtesy of NetGalley. I’ve had a mixed reaction to the Garnier novellas I’ve read to date, so I’m approaching this with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension…

The Blurb says: A crime writer uses the modest advance on his latest novel to rent a house on the Normandy coast.

There should be little to distract him from his work besides walks on the windswept beach, but as he begins to tell the tale of forty-something Louis – who, after dispatching his own mother, goes on to relieve others of their burdensome elderly relations – events in his own life begin to overlap with the work of his imagination.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *