FictionFan Awards 2015 – Factual

All stand please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

.

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2014 and October 2015 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

.

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

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

.

…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

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

.

This is a Golden Age for factual writing, especially in history and science, with authors reaching out beyond the academic market to make their books accessible to the general reader. The result is that it’s almost impossible to decide which should win since each of the books mentioned below deserves an award in its own field – it’s a bit of a comparing apples and oranges situation. However, the judges have emerged from their lengthy deliberation and a winner has been chosen…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the telegraph book of the first world warThe Telegraph Book of the First World War edited by Gavin Fuller

.

This book brings together a selection of the news reports and articles printed in The Telegraph during the First World War, at a time when for most people their daily newspaper was their only source of information. The quality of the writing itself is astonishingly high, filled with passion and poignancy, and sometimes reaching towards poetry. There are articles from literary figures here, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but it’s the reports from the professional journalists that have most impact. No dry reporting of facts and figures here – these are vivid word pictures that evoked a whole range of emotions in me, sorrow, anger, horror, grief and, more unexpectedly, pride, admiration, and a fierce desire to see the Allies win. I found it fascinating, absorbing and moving, and it has given me a real feeling for what it must have been like for the people left at home, desperate for news, and totally dependent on the brave men who put themselves in danger to tell the story of the war.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

huck finn's americaHuck Finn’s America by Andrew Levy

.

Bravo to Andrew Levy! Literary criticism has long been the most jargon-filled, pretentious and badly written of all the factual fields (in my opinion, of course) but Levy has broken the mould with this immensely readable criticism of Twain’s acclaimed masterpiece. Part biography and part history, Levy sets the book firmly back into his context, stripping back much of the mythology that has grown up around it since its first appearance. His contention is that one must understand the social culture at the time of writing to make sense of Twain’s portrayals of both Huck and Jim. He discusses ‘bad boy’ culture, the status of black people thirty years after emancipation, and Twain’s nostalgia for the minstrel shows of his youth, and shows how each fed into the book. A great read – well researched, clearly structured, convincingly argued and best of all written in normal language rather than lit-crit gobbledegook. A template for others in the field to follow.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the churchill factorThe Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson read by Simon Shepherd

.

In this book, Boris Johnson sets out to try to discover what made Churchill into the man who is considered to have been crucial in the British war effort. He does this with his usual panache, making the book hugely enjoyable and filled with humour, which doesn’t disguise the massive amount of research and knowledge that has clearly gone into it. He makes it crystal clear that he admires Churchill intensely and, because he’s so open about it, his bias in the great man’s favour comes over as wholly endearing. The book is nearly as revealing about Boris as Churchill and, given that he’s one of our major politicians who might well be Prime Minister one day, it’s an intriguing insight into the things he admires, and presumably would want to emulate, in a leader. And on top of all that it’s read by Simon Shepherd, owner of one of the loveliest voices in the world. I have happy memories of going to bed each night with Winston, Boris and Simon – more fun than you might think! If I had a category for audiobook of the year, this would win easily.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

resurrection scienceResurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor

.

In a period called by scientists the ‘Sixth Extinction’, the question of conservation has never been more relevant or immediate. But what exactly are we conserving for? What are the moral, ethical and philosophical questions that surround the various types of conservation? In this excellent book, M.R. O’Connor highlights some of the species on the edge of extinction and uses them as jumping off points to look at some of the arguments, from the practical to the esoteric, that surround the whole question of species conservation. From Northern white rhinos and the effects of war, to the panther in the south-eastern USA and its impact on the American character and psyche, the book is stuffed to bursting point with the most current thinking on the ethics of conservation, all written in an immensely readable and accessible way. Without exception, the most interesting and wide-ranging book on the subject I have ever read and so nearly this year’s winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST FACTUAL

 

john knox

John Knox by Jane Dawson

.

In Scotland, John Knox is thought of as a misogynistic, hellfire-and-damnation preaching old killjoy, who is responsible for the fairly joyless version of Protestantism that has blighted our country for hundreds of years. Father of the Scottish Reformation, he is notorious for being the author of ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. In this new biography, Jane Dawson sets out, not so much to overturn this impression of Knox, but to show that there was more to him than this. She sheds a great deal of light on this complex and important figure, showing in depth how his interpretation of the Bible influenced every aspect of his life. She also widens the subject out to put the Scottish Reformation into context with the Protestant movement throughout Europe, showing how, despite some internal differences, there was an attempt to unify the theology and forms of worship of the fledgling religion. And she goes on to show how local circumstances led to variations in the practices of Reformed churches in different nations.

(I just want be clear that the award is going to Jane Dawson and not in any way to that misogynistic old killjoy, Knox. 😉 )

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

In two weeks time: Best Crime Fiction/Thrillers Award

Huck Finn’s America by Andrew Levy

huck finn's americaLooking beneath the mythology…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Not so long ago, I re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time since childhood, and came away from it puzzled as to why, firstly, it has such a reputation as a literary masterpiece and, secondly, and more importantly, it is seen as a great anti-slavery/anti-racist tract. My own feeling was that the portrayal of the slaves was hardly one that inspired me to think the book was in any way a clarion call for recognition of racial equality – I said “…the slaves really do come off as almost terminally stupid. It felt almost as if Twain was really highlighting something more akin to animal cruelty than endorsing any suggestion of true equality between the races, and as a result it left me feeling quite uncomfortable.” The blurb for Huck Finn’s America promised that Levy would be taking a fresh look at the book, arguing that “Twain’s lifelong fascination with minstrel shows and black culture inspired him to write a book not about civil rights, but about race’s role in entertainment and commerce, the same features upon which much of our own modern consumer culture is also grounded.” As you can imagine, I was predisposed to find his arguments persuasive.

Andrew Levy is Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University, Indianapolis, and it’s clear that he knows his subject thoroughly. He also has the gift of writing in a style that is enjoyable and easily accessible to the non-academic reader. His position is that Huck Finn must be seen through the double prism of Twain’s own experiences and the questions that were exercising society at the time he was writing, so the book has elements of biography as well as literary criticism, and also takes an in-depth look at the cultural and political debates that were going on in the public arena.

Jim_and_ghost_huck_finn

The other main aspect of Huck Finn is, of course, childhood, and here Levy argues that, rather than being some great paean to the joys of a childhood freed from the constraints of education, it is actually a reflection of the concern of society around bad-boy culture. He looks at contemporaneous news reporting to show that there was a huge debate going on around adolescent criminality, and the state’s role in tackling this through education. There was concern that boys’ behaviour was being influenced by the pulp fiction of the day, that bad parenting was a contributing factor, and there was a split between those who believed that more regimentation in education was the cause or the cure. If this all sounds eerily familiar, Levy suggests that is partly Twain’s point – that history goes round in circles – nothing ever really changes because man’s nature remains the same.

And, in Levy’s opinion, Twain is saying something similar about race. He is making the point that emancipation had failed to achieve its aims at the time he was writing. Slavery may have been nominally abolished, but black men are being imprisoned in their thousands for minor criminality and then being hired out as labour for pennies. The Jim Crow laws are on the near horizon – segregation in the South is well under way. Levy suggests that the problematic last section of the book, where Tom keeps Jim imprisoned despite knowing that he is now a free man, should be seen as a satire on the status of black people nearly thirty years after emancipation.

Sheet music cover featuring common minstrel show characters, including Jim Crow (top center), a wench (top right), Zip Coon (bottom left), black soldiers (bottom center), and Dandy Jim (bottom right).
Sheet music cover featuring common minstrel show characters, including Jim Crow (top center), a wench (top right), Zip Coon (bottom left), black soldiers (bottom center), and Dandy Jim (bottom right).

However, while Levy accepts Twain’s anti-racist stance in this last section, he also shows convincingly that much of the rest of the portrayal of race in the book comes out of Twain’s nostalgic love for the minstrel shows of his youth. Thus Jim is not exactly a representative of ‘real’ black people, so much as the caricatured version of the blacked-up minstrels. Levy tells us that in the early days of minstrelsy, in Twain’s childhood, the shows were less racist than they became later, and often were in fact used as vehicles for some fairly liberal views. But he also makes it clear that Twain was trying to recapture the ‘fun’ of this form of entertainment. He suggests that this aspect of the book would have been recognisable to contemporary audiences but, because minstrelsy has now become such a taboo subject, is generally missed by readers today.

Tying these arguments together, the fact that contemporary audiences would have recognised Huck as a ‘bad boy’ would have made it much more acceptable to associate him with a black man – both were seen as low down on the social scale, primitive even, and quite probably criminal. Levy acknowledges Twain’s intellectual anti-racism in his later years, but suggests that he retained a nostalgia for the slave-holding world of his childhood and always continued to think of black people as being there to ‘serve’ him. Rather than a call for equality, Twain was using black culture to entertain white people, and only those from the Northern states at that. And again Levy makes the point that black culture is often adopted by white people in much the same way still – as Twain suggested, history is a circle.

Andrew Levy  Photo Credit: Randy Johnson
Andrew Levy
Photo: Randy Johnson

I found this a very well-written and interesting book. Already having doubts about the extravagant claims made for Twain’s anti-racist credentials, I admit that part of my enjoyment was because it gives a solidly researched and explained base to my own instinctive reservations about Huck Finn. That’s not to suggest that Levy is doing some kind of hatchet job on either Twain or Huck – he clearly greatly admires both the man and the book. But he has brushed aside some of the mythology that has grown up around it over the last century and put it firmly back into its own context. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 47…

Episode 47

 

The main TBR (excluding the pre-TBR, the wishlist, the unread-Kindle-books list, and the pile hidden under the bedside cabinet) currently stands at 134. Those of you with calculators will realise that this means I’ve added (almost) nothing for nearly two weeks! I’m so proud! The new system of scheduling my reading is working well, but I’ve fallen behind a little due to the unfortunate Australian habit of playing tennis in the middle of the night.

C'mon, Andy!
C’mon, Andy! (He’s in the final!!!)

So here are a few of the delights which will be forthcoming once I’ve stopped blinking like an insomniac owl…

owl gif

Crime

 

second lifeCourtesy of NetGalley. After the huge success of Before I Go To Sleep, which I loved, the tricky second novel from SJ Watson…

The Blurb says Julia’s life is comfortable, if unremarkable, until her sister’s brutal murder opens old wounds. She finds solace in her sister’s best friend, Sophie, but when Sophie reveals the extent of her sister’s online life, Julia becomes convinced that the truth about her death lies deep in the dark, sordid world of online chatrooms and internet sex.

What begins as Julia’s search for the truth about her sister quickly turns into an exploration of herself and her own desires. After all, the internet is her playground, and why be just one thing when you can be as many as you like? What could possibly go wrong? After all, it’s only cybersex, isn’t it? No one’s going to get hurt. But then she meets the dark and mysterious Lukas in an online chat room, and things begin to get very dangerous indeed.

 * * * * *

Factual

 

huck finn's americaAlso from NetGalley. I wasn’t hugely thrilled by Huckleberry Finn, so I’m interested to see if this will influence my opinion…

The Blurb says “In Huck Finn’s America, award-winning biographer Andrew Levy shows how modern readers have been misunderstanding Huckleberry Finn for decades. Twain’s masterpiece, which still sells tens of thousands of copies each year and is taught more than any other American classic, is often discussed either as a carefree adventure story for children or a serious novel about race relations, yet Levy argues convincingly it is neither. Instead, Huck Finn was written at a time when Americans were nervous about youth violence and “uncivilized” bad boys, and a debate was raging about education, popular culture, and responsible parenting — casting Huck’s now-celebrated “freedom” in a very different and very modern light. On issues of race, on the other hand, Twain’s lifelong fascination with minstrel shows and black culture inspired him to write a book not about civil rights, but about race’s role in entertainment and commerce, the same features upon which much of our own modern consumer culture is also grounded. In Levy’s vision, Huck Finn has more to say about contemporary children and race that we have ever imagined—if we are willing to hear it.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

J a novelShortlisted for the 2014 Booker and nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize, so it must be brilliant. Mustn’t it? Again NetGalley.

The Blurb says “Set in the future, a world where the past is a dangerous country, not to be talked about or visited, J is a love story of incomparable strangeness, both tender and terrifying. Two people fall in love, not yet knowing where they have come from or where they are going. Kevern doesn’t know why his father always drew two fingers across his lips when he said a world starting with a J. It wasn’t then, and isn’t now, the time or place to be asking questions. Ailinn too has grown up in the dark about who she was or where she came from. On their first date Kevern kisses the bruises under her eyes. He doesn’t ask who hurt her. Brutality has grown commonplace. They aren’t sure if they have fallen in love of their own accord, or whether they’ve been pushed into each other’s arms. But who would have pushed them, and why?

Hanging over the lives of all the characters in this novel is a momentous catastrophe – a past event shrouded in suspicion, denial and apology, now referred to as What Happened, If It Happened.”

* * * * *

Sci-Fi/Fantasy

 

the 5th waveHugely popular and not at all my kind of thing, I’ve been talked into this one by Professor VJ Duke. So it’ll be his fault if it all goes horribly wrong…

The Blurb says After the 1st wave, only darkness remains. After the 2nd, only the lucky escape. And after the 3rd, only the unlucky survive. After the 4th wave, only one rule applies: trust no one. Now, it’s the dawn of the 5th wave, and on a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs from Them. The beings who only look human, who roam the countryside killing anyone they see. Who have scattered Earth’s last survivors. To stay alone is to stay alive, Cassie believes, until she meets Evan Walker.

Beguiling and mysterious, Evan Walker may be Cassie’s only hope for rescuing her brother—or even saving herself. But Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death. To give up or to get up.

 * * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

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