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

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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

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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

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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

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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?

* * * * *

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Factual

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014.

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 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories have changed slightly since last year to better reflect what I’ve been reading this year.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual

Genre Fiction

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

 

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

FACTUAL

 

Last year, I split my factual reads into two categories – Science/Nature/Environment and History/Biography/Politics. This year I’ve read lots of history and politics, but very little popular science, so I’ve gone for a single category of Factual. This category contains many of the books I’ve enjoyed most throughout the year. It’s a Golden Age for factual writing at the moment – both quantity and quality. Which means that the choice has been a very difficult one indeed…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the cave and the lightThe Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilisation by Arthur Herman

In this comprehensive view of the last 2,500 years, Arthur Herman sets out to prove his contention that the history of Western civilisation has been influenced and affected through the centuries by the tension between the worldviews of the two greatest of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy, politics, religion and science are all discussed,, showing how they linked and overlapped to influence the major periods and events of Western history – the fall of Greek civilisation, the Roman Empire, the birth and rise of Christianity, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Revolution and on past the rise of totalitarianism to the end of the Cold War. Phew! And yet, Herman’s writing style makes the book very accessible to the non-academic reader. Not the lightest read in the world, but great for anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals and history of Western philosophy.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

When Chicago won the right to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, there was much sneering from the snobbish elite of New York and elsewhere at the idea of this brash, dirty city, best known as the home of slaughterhouses and pork-packing factories, being able to put on a show that would impress the world. However, brash though Chicago may have been, it was also filled with go-getters and entrepreneurs, tough businessmen with determination, drive and, most of all, massive amounts of civic pride. This is the story of how those men turned an impossible dream into an astonishing reality – the building of the White City and the Chicago World’s Fair. And it’s also the story of how one man took advantage of the huge numbers of people coming into Chicago because of the Fair to indulge his psychopathic tendencies – the serial killer HH Holmes. A fascinating story very well told, I found this a totally absorbing read, written so well that it read like a novel complete with drama and tension.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

roy jenkins2Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

An affectionate and well-researched biography of one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins’ life in the context of the times at all stages thus also giving us a look at the wider political context. Jenkins did indeed live a well-rounded life – he was not just a highly successful politician but a very well-regarded biographer in his own right, of political figures such as Asquith and Churchill. But he also enjoyed the social side of life, never allowing the pressures of his various roles to get in the way of the more hedonistic side of his nature. This huge book is well written and structured so that, despite its size, it is a flowing and accessible read. An excellent biography that does its subject full justice.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the scottish enlightenmentThe Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

Yes, two books from Arthur Herman made the runners-up list. I don’t think I’ve read a factual book about Scotland in the last year that hasn’t referenced this one. And not surprisingly – not only is it an excellently written history, it’s also extremely flattering about the Scots. Even our First Minister, Alex Salmond, was plugging it during the Independence debate. Although there are a few chapters in this book dedicated to explaining the ideas of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the bulk of the book is an examination of how those ideas spread via the Scottish diaspora, and changed not just Scotland or the UK but, in Herman’s view, the Western world. As accessible as The Cave and the Light (but considerably shorter), this book is certainly not just for Scots – in fact, there’s as much in it about the founding of America as about Scotland. A fascinating and enjoyable read.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST FACTUAL

 

rebel yell

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne

I can’t remember ever enjoying a biography more than this one. Well researched and clearly structured, the book balances the history and the personal perfectly, but what really made it stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anyone to interest me in the minutiae of military campaigns, but I became absorbed by the descriptions of artillery and troop movements, supply chains and battle plans. Gwynne’s brilliance at contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the horrors of the battlefield is matched by his ability to show the contrast between Jackson’s public and private personas. If only all history were written like this – a superb book, and a worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Genre Fiction Award

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

All the Fun of the Fair…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Chicago won the right to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, there was much sneering from the snobbish elite of New York and elsewhere at the idea of this brash, dirty city, best known as the home of slaughterhouses and pork-packing factories, being able to put on a show that would impress the world. However, brash though Chicago may have been, it was also filled with go-getters and entrepreneurs, tough businessmen with determination, drive and, most of all, massive amounts of civic pride. This is the story of how those men turned an impossible dream into an astonishing reality – the building of the White City and the Chicago World’s Fair. And it’s also the story of how one man took advantage of the huge numbers of people coming into Chicago because of the Fair to indulge his psychopathic tendencies – the serial killer HH Holmes.

The Court of Honor (shame they forgot that pesky 'u' but otherwise quite impressive...
The Court of Honor (shame they forgot that pesky ‘u’ but otherwise quite impressive…)

In Larson’s hands, the story of the building of the White City is fascinating. The odds against success were huge – time was running short, the weather threw everything it had at the site frequently destroying half-built buildings, a financial crash began while the City was half-built, and unions and management were regularly at loggerheads. Although many men (and a few women) were involved in bringing the thing together, the whole effort was largely co-ordinated by one man, architect Daniel H Burnham, who as Director of Works was responsible for getting together the best architects, planners, engineers and landscapers, and inspiring them to believe in his vision of a beautiful city rising from a derelict piece of lakeside land. Larson uses all kinds of sources to bring Burnham and the other major players to life – newspaper articles, journals, official records and personal letters. He tells the story almost as if it were a novel, never revealing ahead and regularly leaving a chapter with a cliffhanger ending, as a storm approaches or a bank crashes or illness strikes.

Midway Plaisance - Eskimos, cannibals, belly-dancers - what more could you want?
Midway Plaisance – Eskimos, cannibals, belly-dancers – what more could you want?

The story of HH Holmes is told in separate chapters interspersed throughout the main narrative. To be honest, though it was interesting and also very well-researched, I mainly found it broke the flow of the much more absorbing story of the Fair. Apart from the fact that both events took place in Chicago over the same time period, there was very little to connect them. I wondered if the Holmes strand had only been included because the author felt that more people would be interested in a serial killer than in the building of the Fair – and I can’t argue with that, since it was the thought of the intriguing contrast that attracted me to the book. But when it came to reading it, I found I was rushing through the Holmes chapters to get back to find out how things were going on the building site.

Daniel H Burnham - "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."
Daniel H Burnham – “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Once the Fair finally opens, Larson gives a vividly credible account of what it might have been like to visit, including telling of some of the many attractions the fair had to offer – from orchestral music wafting ethereally over a moonlit lake to rather more earthy sideshows, such as the belly-dancers from Algeria. He tells us about Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, cannily sited just outside the Fair grounds and constantly competing with it for customers. And the crowning marvel of the Fair – the world’s first Ferris wheel, built as a result of a challenge by Burnham to America’s engineers to come up with something that would top the recently built Eiffel Tower in Paris. At the same time, Larson takes us behind the scenes to see the men responsible for the maintenance of the site, publicity, finance and the sheer logistical nightmare of feeding and cleaning up after the many thousands of visitors who passed through the gates each day. The Fair was so huge, Larson tells us, that it was considered that it took a fortnight to see everything it had to offer.

Herman Webster Mudgett aka HH Holmes
Herman Webster Mudgett aka HH Holmes

In a few chapters at the end, Larson tells us what happened to the men we’ve got to know so well in their later careers and shows how the Fair influenced architecture and fairs and even city-planning far into the future. And at the same time he concludes the story of the serial killer, but I won’t spoil it by saying whether he was ever caught or convicted in case you’re inspired to read the book and don’t know the outcome.

A fascinating story very well told, I found this a totally absorbing read. The only real disappointment is that there are very few illustrations, so I had to turn to the Internet to fill that lack. But Larson has put the Chicago World’s Fair close to the top of the list of Things I Want to See When I Get a Time-Machine – till that day comes, the book makes a most satisfactory alternative. Highly recommended.

The world's first Ferris Wheel - 250' in diameter and carrying 2,160 people at a time
The world’s first Ferris Wheel – 250′ in diameter and carrying 2,160 people at a time

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 8…

Episode 8

 

This whole TBR Thursday thing was supposed to stop my list growing – so can anyone please explain why it’s now sitting at 105? And to make matters worse, this week sees the first joint-winners. Never mind, I’m sure eventually I’ll evolve so that I can read different books with each eye simultaneously, while listening to an audiobook…

The last two weeks produced a dramatic longlist of 12, but with the help of my trusty pinking shears I’ve cut that down to a shortlist of 5 (and given the pages a lovely deckle-edged finish at the same time).

Here, then, are the runners and riders in this week’s TBR Derby…

Up with the pack…

 

With grateful thanks to the reviewers/recommenders, here are the runners-up in this week’s contest:

the holy thiefHistorical crime set in Stalin’s Moscow…

The Little Reader Library says: “This is an exciting and atmospheric historical crime novel with an intriguing plot and well-drawn characters. Moreover, the author has chosen a fascinating setting and period as the backdrop for the novel and then captured it convincingly, adding much authentic detail but never overwhelming the reader or holding up the plot.

See the full review at The Little Reader Library

*******

Red JoanInspired by the true case of a Soviet spy operating in Britain…

It’s a Crime! says “Red Joan is a novel that explores ambiguities, grey areas and the two sides of a coin. In plotting the course of personal development and disclosure of changing motivation Rooney creates characters with whom we sympathise whatever the next page throws up. It is also an unusual mix of spy thriller and love story as we track the life of Red Joan.

See the full review at It’s a Crime!

*******

is this tomorrowA child goes missing in Boston of the 1950s…

Curl Up and Read says “Those times depicted in the media as peaceful were anything but, and always hovering nearby were the fears and paranoia: nuclear war, Communism, and the stigma placed on those who were different. Beneath the surface, nothing is perfect or as it seems. Is This Tomorrow: A Novel is a hauntingly poignant read.

See the full review at Curl Up and Read

*******

Photo finishers…

 

an officer and a spy

Historical thriller based on the Dreyfus Affair in late 19th century France…

Lady Fancifull says “I overheard Harris being interviewed on Radio 4, talking about this ‘novel’ – except to call it a novel implies that it must be fiction. As Harris and the interviewer concurred, if someone invented the Dreyfus affair as a fiction, the writer would be castigated for having stretched credulity too far. In fact, as Harris points out, all this is documented, and researched, and is a deeply shameful part of France’s history. Except that what is even more worrying and shameful is that large scale cover-ups, the concept of obeying orders without question, systems protecting their own despite betraying principles of justice, and inherent racism are not endemic flaws peculiar to late nineteenth and early twentieth century France.

See the full review at Lady Fancifull

*****

the devil in the white city

A true story about two men – an architect and a serial killer – at the time of the Chicago Fair in the 1890s…

History Reading Challenge says: “This book sounded so creepy that when I started my History Reading Challenge months ago, I knew I had to save it until the spookiest month of the year, October. And the “devil” of its title is definitely creepy in that over-the-top, steampunk -supervillain kind of way. His charm was preternaturally overpowering, enough so that his many victims—and, later, investigators and creditors—fell for the most flimsy excuses he bothered to offer them. He relied on his personal charisma to manipulate people and enjoyed the heady, invulnerable feeling of power it brought.

See the full review at History Reading Challenge

*****

Two winners this week. The Dreyfus Affair was discussed in The War that Ended Peace so, when Lady Fancifull raved about An Officer and a Spy, it seemed too serendipitous to ignore. The Devil in the White City was shortlisted before on the basis of this review of LitBeetle’s and sounded just as interesting again, even if History Reading Challenge’s review is a little less enthusiastic.

I expect to read them both some time this millenium…

TBR Thursday…

Episode 2

Kes: On my home-world it’s much simpler. You choose a mate for life. There’s no distrust, no envy, no betrayal.

The Doctor: Your world must have very dry literature.

kes and the doctor

I’m delighted to report that for the first time in months my TBR list has actually fallen – by one – to 99! However, this week you all had a wonderful time trying to undo all my hard work. In fact, twelve reviews tempted me this week, so I have had to ruthlessly shortlist…

Always a Bridesmaid Awards

With grateful thanks to the reviewers/recommenders, here are the runners-up in this week’s contest:

the last policemanA murder mystery set in a world under threat of destruction from an approaching asteroid…

Mysteries in Paradise says: “Public infrastructure is collapsing. Fuel supplies are almost nil. There is no public transport, telephony is collapsing, there are very few cars on the road. Outside public buildings people hand out pamphlets urging citizens to pray. And all the time the asteroid gets closer. The exact location of where it will hit, and exactly what day are still unknown.”

See the full review at Mysteries in Paradise

*******

train dreamsA tale of the American West in the early twentieth century, seen through the life of one man…

The Indiscriminate Critic says For such a slim volume, it takes up a surprisingly large footprint in the imagination. Conjuring up sounds of train whistles and wolf howls, the thematic echoes manage to fill the spaces between. In many ways, it’s an epic writ small.”

See the full review at The Indiscriminate Critic

*******

tigers in red weatherFiction set at the end of WWII…

What Amy Read Next says Tigers in Red Weather is a honest and beautiful novel of desire, abandon, despair and quiet desperation, offering the reader a dark mystery and an equally dark look into the inner workings of marriage, mental illness and the lives of the rich. The hot, lazy, summer setting with a bit of glamour thrown in echoes themes from The Great Gatsby, as facades are crumbling and ugly truths are surfacing..”

See the full review at What Amy Read Next

*******

the devil in the white cityA factual book about two men, an architect and a serial killer, in the Chicago of 1893…

LitBeetle says They want to enrapture people, gain power over them, control their hopes and quell their doubts. Burnham wants to accomplish this through the artistry of architecture, throwing millions into reverie at what humankind can accomplish in an impossibly short amount of time. Holmes wants to seduce people with his charm and control their lives, and eventually control their deaths.”

See the full review at LitBeetle

******

And this week’s bride is…

 

a tale for the time being

A story of shared humanity and the search for home. Specifically recommended to me by Lady Fancifull.

Lady Fancifull says I’m deliberately saying nothing about how these worlds and voices connect and form something lovely – tender, horrendous, shocking, charming – because this is a book which demands the reader to have the experience, be surprised, be amused, be sickened, be saddened, laugh, cry.”

To be honest, I have no idea what this book is about – all the reviews seem to be vague in the extreme – but Lady Fancifull’s track record of picking books I’ll like is pretty high…

See the full review at Lady Fancifull

Now all I have to do is find time to read it…