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

Furious Hours by Casey Cep

Harper Lee, Truman Capote and the Reverend Willie Maxwell…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Cep starts by describing the still racially divided area of Alabama in which Maxwell operated, a place of black poverty and strong religion. The son of a black sharecropper, Maxwell received only a basic education. He served in WW2, then when he came home he married and worked in various jobs but found it hard to keep them. He took to preaching and gained a following, but he was hardly a good man even then – he used his preaching as a way to find vulnerable women he could seduce. After twenty years of marriage, his wife, Mary Lou, was brutally murdered. The evidence pointed to Maxwell and he was duly indicted. Between the indictment and the trial, with the breathtaking hubris that he would show time and again, Maxwell claimed on the insurance policy he’d bought not long before Mary Lou’s death. Despite this, he was found not guilty. Over the next few years, several of his relatives would die suspicious deaths, and Maxwell would make many insurance claims, but somehow he continued to evade the law, until Robert Burns, a relative of the girl assumed to be his latest victim, took justice into his own hands.

Rev Willie Maxwell

As with all great true crime, Cep uses this basic story as a jumping-off point to look at various aspects of the society of the time. First she looks at the birth and growth of the insurance industry and how it became open to abuse by both buyers and sellers. Amazingly, it was perfectly legal for someone to take out a policy on the life of another person without that person’s agreement, or even knowledge. It gave me a real insight into why so many American crime novels and movies of the mid-twentieth century feature insurance as a motive, especially in noir.

One of the reasons Maxwell continued to evade justice was that often it wasn’t possible to determine the cause of the deaths associated with him. Everyone suspected him, everyone feared him, but no one could prove his guilt. This led to rumours that he was practising voodoo, and Cep uses this aspect to look at the history of voodoo in the South, referencing Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological efforts to record rituals and practices.

Zora Neal Hurston beating a hountar, or mama, drum in Haiti 1937.

For years, Maxwell was represented by Tom Radney, a lawyer who not only defended him at trial but who assisted him with his insurance claims. Radney was a well known Democrat, and Cep goes into his biography in some depth too, expanding out to discuss the Wallace era in Alabama – segregation, white supremacy, etc. I found this very interesting, though I found it hard to reconcile the decent young liberal Tom Radney with the one who would assist Maxwell so enthusiastically a decade later. In an even more interesting twist, Radney would later defend Maxwell’s killer and become a friend of Harper Lee as she researched the case. A man of contradictions, and I’m not sure Cep managed to fully explain him.

In the second section of the book, Cep concentrates on Lee’s story, starting with a look at her childhood and student years, and her friendship with Capote. To be truthful, Lee came across to me as eminently unlikeable at this stage, rather arrogant and thinking she was above the common herd (which, of course, she was). Cep then goes into detail on the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, including a discussion of how the book evolved from what we now know as Go Set a Watchman under the advice and guidance of her agent and publishers. Once the book was finished, there was a long wait until publication and it was during this period that Lee worked with Capote on the research for In Cold Blood. Cep gives her a lot of the credit for it, suggesting that it was she rather than Capote who was able to persuade the townspeople to open up to her.

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

Cep next talks about Lee’s life after Mockingbird. Burdened by success, grieving for her father and always complaining about punitive taxes, her friends and family worried about her mental state, and this would continue for most of her life. She wrote constantly but, never satisfied with her work, then destroyed the manuscripts. She drank to excess, often turning up drunk unexpectedly at friends’ houses. Then, after meeting Capote again and becoming acquainted with Tom Radney, she decided to try her hand at her own true-crime book.

Cep gives a brief but interesting account of the rise of true crime reportage in the US, from early pamphlets to the modern day. She discusses In Cold Blood and its impact in creating the “non-fiction novel”. She highlights the factual inaccuracies in In Cold Blood and reports some of the adverse reaction to it. She suggests that Lee was unpleasantly surprised by Capote’s fictionalising of the story, and that this fed into their growing coolness and separation. So when Lee decided to write her own book, she intended it to be true and based strictly on the facts.

Harper Lee

Cep also highlights Lee’s continuing desire to write a book showing that white segregationists could still be good people but, as now, that view didn’t fit the liberal consensus and would have been unpublishable at the time. (This made me think for the first time that perhaps she actually was happy to see Watchman finally published, and changed my reluctance to read it into eagerness.) Cep then tells of Lee’s research into the Maxwell case and her long and ultimately failed attempt to bring it together into a coherent book.

Casey Cep

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 of analysis of Mockingbird and In Cold Blood 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. An excellent book – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

(If you want to go for total immersion, my suggested reading order would be: first Mockingbird, then In Cold Blood, then this, then Watchman.)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 195…

Episode 195

On the surface, a little rise of 1 in the TBR to 231 doesn’t sound too bad, really, does it? But the underlying problem – aka the postman – means that sackfuls of books could be arriving over the next week! This happens every time I do a quarterly round-up – I get so smug about how well I’m doing, I go temporarily mad. At least, I’m hoping it’s temporarily…

Here are a few more I shall take with me to my padded cell…

True Crime

Courtesy of Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley. I know nothing about this crime, nor was I aware of Harper Lee’s ambition to write a true crime novel. But the blurb makes it sound a fascinating story…

The Blurb says: The stunning story of an Alabama serial killer and the true-crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird.

Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s. With the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative shot him dead at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell’s murderer was acquitted–thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend.

Sitting in the audience during the vigilante’s trial was Harper Lee, who had travelled from New York City to her native Alabama with the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research seventeen years earlier. Lee spent a year in town reporting, and many more working on her own version of the case.

Now Casey Cep brings this story to life, from the shocking murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South. At the same time, she offers a deeply moving portrait of one of the country’s most beloved writers and her struggle with fame, success, and the mystery of artistic creativity.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. The BL have issued three of Michael Gilbert’s books in the last couple of months, and this is the second of them. I thoroughly enjoyed Smallbone Deceased, so have high hopes for this one. The setting sounds very different to anything I’ve come across before in vintage crime. And even by the BL’s always fab standards, isn’t this the most gorgeous cover?

The Blurb says: A man is found dead in an escape tunnel beneath an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. Did he die in an accidental collapse – or was this murder? Captain Henry ‘Cuckoo’ Goyles, master tunneller and amateur detective, takes up the case.

This classic locked-room mystery with a closed circle of suspects is woven together with a thrilling story of escape from the camp, as the Second World War nears its endgame and the British prisoners prepare to flee into the Italian countryside.

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Fantasy

Courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton via NetGalley. Fantasy? Me?? I can’t for the life of me work out why I requested this one! Probably brainwashed by the drip-drip-drip of glowing reviews I’ve read for Guy Gavriel Kay’s previous books. Well, the Renaissance Italy-style setting appeals, so we’ll see…

The Blurb says: In a chamber overlooking the night-time waterways of a maritime city, a man looks back on his youth and the people who shaped his life. Danio Cerra’s intelligence won him entry to a renowned school, though he was only the son of a tailor. He took service at the court of a ruling count – and soon learned why that man was known as The Beast.

Danio’s fate changed the moment he recognized Adria Ripoli as she entered the count’s chambers one night – intending to kill. Born to power, Adria had chosen a life of danger – and freedom – instead.

Other vivid figures share the story: a healer determined to defy her expected lot; a charming, frivolous son of immense wealth; a religious leader more decadent than devout; and, affecting these lives and many more, two mercenary commanders, whose rivalry puts a world in the balance.

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Fiction on Audio

This won the Saltire Society Literary Award for Scottish Book of the Year in 2010 – generally considered the most prestigious of Scottish literary awards. And since then, it’s gained something of a reputation as a modern classic, possibly because it caught the navel-gazing zeitgeist of Scotland in the run-up to the independence referendum. The audiobook is over 33 hours long, so at my glacial speed with audiobooks, I’m expecting to be listening to this for the next few months! 

The Blurb says: Michael Pendreich is curating an exhibition of photographs by his late, celebrated father Angus for the National Gallery of Photography in Edinburgh. The show will cover fifty years of Scottish life but, as he arranges the images and writes his catalogue essay, what story is Michael really trying to tell: his father’s, his own or that of Scotland itself? And what of the stories of the individuals captured by Angus Pendreich’s lens over all those decades? The homeless wanderer collecting pebbles; the Second World War veteran and the Asian shopkeeper, fighting to make better lives for their families; the Conservative MP with a secret passion, and his drop-out sister, vengeful against class privilege; the alcoholic intelligence officer betrayed on all sides, not least by his own inadequacy; the activists fighting for Scottish Home Rule – all have their own tales to tell. Tracing the intertwined lives of an unforgettable cast of characters, James Robertson’s new novel is a searching journey into the heart of a country of high hopes and unfulfilled dreams, private compromises and hidden agendas. Brilliantly blending the personal and the political, And The Land Stay Still sweeps away the dust and grime of the postwar years to reveal a rich mosaic of 20th-century Scottish life.

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

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