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…

THE CRITERIA

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

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

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2019

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

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…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

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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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019

for

BEST FACTUAL

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

Europe: A Natural History by Tim Flannery

From fossils to the future…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Flannery starts by explaining how the landmass formed and changed over time and how this impacted on the development and spread of species, or conversely on their isolation to single geographic areas. He explains the various climate changes over the aeons – why they happened and how they affected both environment and fauna. He describes the various land corridors that have existed at points between what are now separate continents, and the flow of species along these. I was reading a review copy without maps, but it indicated that maps will be available in the final version – I didn’t find the lack of them seriously affected my understanding of what he was describing, but they would undoubtedly be an enhancement.

Cretaceous Europe

Personally I’m very human-centric, so I found the sections where he discussed the early hominids, the Neanderthals and the early humans particularly interesting. Flannery seems to have a good deal of admiration for the Neanderthals, seeing them not in any way as a lower form of species to humanity. In fact, he often gives the impression that in some ways he thinks they were superior in terms of intelligence and innovation, and that humanity’s main advantage, and the reason why we survived and they didn’t, is that humans can exist on foods other than meat, which enabled us to adapt better to changing environments. There’s a fascinating chapter on hybridisation between pale-skinned European Neanderthals and the early black African humans to create the first European humans. He doesn’t specifically say so, but I got the distinct feeling that he thinks the infusion of Neanderthal DNA was advantageous to the humans. Certainly he suspects that female Neanderthal mothers may have passed tips to their hybrid offspring on how to survive in the cold European climate, such as cave-dwelling. Apparently indigenous Europeans (and their descendants throughout the diaspora) still have a small but significant percentage of Neanderthal DNA.

Neanderthal Man, though I’m sure I’ve
met him up the dancin’…

Once into the human phase of history, he shows how man began to impact on the environment and on other species, hunting some to extinction, destroying the habitats of some through farming, and domesticating some as farm animals or working animals. He talks of the European reliance on the cow as a source of food, and how that advantaged those with high lactose tolerance. He discusses the domestication of dogs, horses, cats, and explains how repeated selection and breeding of those with the most suitable temperaments for living domestically eventually changed them fundamentally from their wilder forebears. And he shows how human activities led to the introduction of species from (and to) other regions of the world, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally, and often with unforeseen effects on indigenous species.

As well as being a naturalist, Flannery is a renowned name in the field of climate change, so his final section looks to a future where change is happening so fast some species are unlikely to be able to adapt quickly enough to survive without human intervention. However, it’s not all bleak – the warming of Europe allows scope for reintroduction of species who emigrated during the ice ages, and Flannery sees this as a possible means of survival for some of the species who will be under threat in warmer parts of the world. He makes a strong case for Europe reintroducing some of the large species from Africa, including the predators, arguing that it’s unfair for Europeans to expect a turbulent, growing Africa to have to bear all the risks and costs of preserving these species if we are all to enjoy the benefits of their survival. He’s less clear about his support for the reintroduction of extinct species, possible now with genetic science, but suggests that society should form a view on this (presumably, though he doesn’t say so, before the mad scientists make the decisions for us). Thankfully, he draws the line at the idea of reintroducing the Neanderthal, although the survival of Neanderthal DNA makes this possible, concluding that the genetic manipulation of humans is immoral. I can only hope the wider scientific community agrees with him on that one.

Serious moves are already afoot to clone mammoths by creating an embryo from genetic material and implanting it in the womb of a donor elephant. Good idea? The elephant doesn’t get to express an opinion…

As always with these science-based books, I feel I’ve give only a superficial flavour of this one, concentrating on the bits that most interested me. But I found the whole thing fascinating, bringing together lots of disparate bits of things I’ve read about over the years into one coherent whole. Flannery writes clearly and entertainingly, including lots of anecdotes about the scientists and naturalists who’ve contributed to the sum of knowledge over the centuries, which helps to break up the more sciency stuff. And he’s meticulous about differentiating things that are known from those that are theorised but not yet proven, and from his own occasional speculations. An excellent read, informative and enjoyable – highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press.

PS Although obviously Europe is the best continent in the world, for those of you from inferior other continents, Flannery has previously written similar books on the natural and human histories of Australasia and North America.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

 

….Then she closed her mouth, looked again at the cat-eyed boy, and lacing her fingers, spoke her next words very slowly to him.
….“Listen. Go around to the back of the hospital to the guard’s office. It will say ‘Emergency Admissions’ on the door. A-D-M-I-S-I-O-N-S. But the guard will be there. Tell him to get over here on the double. Move now. Move!” She unlaced her fingers and made scooping motions with her hands, the palms pushing against the wintry air.
….A man in a brown suit came toward her, puffing little white clouds of breath. “Fire truck’s on its way. Get back inside. You’ll freeze to death.”
….The nurse nodded.
….“You left out a s, ma’am,” the boy said. The North was new to him and he had just begun to learn he could speak up to white people. But she’d already gone, rubbing her arms against the cold.
….“Granny, she left out a s.”
….“And a ‘please.’”

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….Like two charging bulls they came together, and like two wolves sought each other’s throat. Against the long canines of the ape was pitted the thin blade of the man’s knife.
….Jane Porter – her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration – watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman – for her.
….As the great muscles of the man’s back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl.
….When the long knife drank deep a dozen times of Terkoz’ heart’s blood, and the great carcass rolled lifeless upon the ground, it was a primeval woman who sprang forward with outstretched arms toward the primeval man who had fought for her and won her.
….And Tarzan?
….He did what no red-blooded man needs lessons in doing. He took his woman in his arms and smothered her upturned, panting lips with kisses.
….For a moment Jane Porter lay there with half-closed eyes. For a moment – the first in her young life – she knew the meaning of love.

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….When I first travelled to Europe [from Australia] as a student in 1983 I was thrilled, certain that I was going to the centre of the world. But as we neared Heathrow, the pilot of the British Airways jet made an announcement I have never forgotten: ‘We are now approaching a rather small, foggy island in the North Sea.’ In all my life I had never thought of Britain like that. When we landed I was astonished at the gentle quality of the air. Even the scent on the breeze seemed soothing, lacking that distinctive eucalyptus tang I was barely conscious of until it wasn’t there. And the sun. Where was the sun? In strength and penetration, it more resembled an austral moon than the great fiery orb that scorched my homeland.

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….The flames leap merrily as I write. They must consume all when I am done. They may take me too, in the end, but they will keep me warm first. Perhaps I will be found like poor Brother Severus, whose body vanished into ash and left only his feet and one hand still in the chair! What devil took him so, that charred him even before he went to hell?
….Am I afraid of the other place? What fool is not? Yet I have raised great churches to set against my sins. It is my fervent hope that there is no eternal torment waiting for me now. How they would smile then, the dead, to see old Dunstan cast down! Made young again, perhaps, to be torn and broken for their pleasure. I could bear it better if I were young, I know. How those saints would laugh and shake their fat heads. I wonder, sometimes, if I can feel them clustered around me, all those who have gone before. Like bees pressing on a pane of glass, I feel their souls watching. Or perhaps it is just the wind and the scratching of woodworm in cantilevered joists.
….Settle, Dunstan. Tell the story.

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 185…

Episode 185

The TBR has been up and down over the last couple of weeks – loads of books in, loads read, leaving the final count up just 1 at 226. It’s felt a bit like a game of snakes and ladders…

 

I wish I could do that! Anyway, here are a few more that should slither my way soon…

Natural Science

Courtesy of Atlantic Monthly Press via NetGalley. I read a previous book of Tim Flannery’s on climate change and was impressed by his obvious expertise and arguments more than his style, which seemed a bit didactic and overbearing. But I suspect that was because he was so outraged at the lack of world action, so I’m hoping he’ll be approaching this less contentious subject a bit more calmly. It’s already in the running for the prize for longest blurb of the year, and it’s only January…

The Blurb says: In Europe: A Natural History, world-renowned scientist, explorer, and conservationist Tim Flannery applies the eloquent interdisciplinary approach he used in his ecological histories of Australia and North America to the story of Europe. He begins 100 million years ago, when the continents of Asia, North America, and Africa interacted to create an island archipelago that would later become the Europe we know today. It was on these ancient tropical lands that the first distinctly European organisms evolved. Flannery teaches us about Europe’s midwife toad, which has endured since the continent’s beginning, while elephants, crocodiles, and giant sharks have come and gone. He explores the monumental changes wrought by the devastating comet strike and shows how rapid atmospheric shifts transformed the European archipelago into a single landmass during the Eocene.

As the story moves through millions of years of evolutionary history, Flannery eventually turns to our own species, describing the immense impact humans had on the continent’s flora and fauna–within 30,000 years of our arrival in Europe, the woolly rhino, the cave bear, and the giant elk, among others, would disappear completely. The story continues right up to the present, as Flannery describes Europe’s leading role in wildlife restoration, and then looks ahead to ponder the continent’s future: with advancements in gene editing technology, European scientists are working to recreate some of the continent’s lost creatures, such as the great ox of Europe’s primeval forests and even the woolly mammoth.

Written with Flannery’s characteristic combination of elegant prose and scientific expertise, Europe: A Natural History narrates the dramatic natural history and dynamic evolution of one of the most influential places on Earth.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve nearly caught up with my backlog of vintage crime review books now – just another couple to go (unless the postman has other ideas). I read another of Julian Symons’ books, The Colour of Murder, just before Christmas – review to follow – and enjoyed it, so am looking forward to this one. And it’s in the running for shortest blurb!

The Blurb says: When a stranger arrives at Belting, he is met with a very mixed reception by the occupants of the old house. Claiming his so-called “rightful inheritance,” the stranger makes plans to take up residence at once. Such a thing was bound to cause problems in the family—but why were so many of them turning up dead?

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True Crime

Courtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. I have had this since July 2017 but it kept sliding down the TBR as I got distracted by new shiny things. I was originally tempted towards it when fellow blogger Marina Sofia revealed that she had lived in the same neighbourhood as the killer, though fortunately at a later date. It’s in the running for least informative blurb of the year…

The Blurb says: On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting…”

With these chilling first words, acclaimed master of psychological suspense Emmanuel Carrère begins his exploration of the double life of a respectable doctor, 18 years of lies, five murders and the extremes to which ordinary people can go.

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Classics

This one fits into two of my challenges, the Classics Club and the Five Times Five. I’m always slightly ambivalent about Steinbeck – his prose can be sublime but I find he veers towards bathos in his attempt to manipulate his readers’ emotions. I’m hoping this one might avoid that pitfall. It’s in the running for most intriguing blurb…

The Blurb says: A Depression era portrait of people living in an area near a sardine fishery in Monterey, CA known as Cannery Row.

From the opening of the novel: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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