FictionFan Awards 2018 – Genre Fiction

Please rise…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

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 2017 and October 2018 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

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

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

GENRE FICTION

I don’t always include an award for genre fiction, but I’ve had a lot of fun this year reading classic science fiction and horror, so it seemed a shame to leave them out in the cold. Some of my favourites were re-reads – The Day of the Triffids, for instance – so can’t be included. I’m including several short story collections since so much good genre fiction comes in that format.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others.

The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.

Click to see the full review

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The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

When Mr Bedford leaves London for the quiet of the Kentish countryside he meets his new neighbour, Mr Cavor, an eccentric scientist, and becomes intrigued and excited by the possibilities of the invention Cavor is working on – a substance that will defy gravity. Bedford, always with an eye for the main chance, begins to imagine the commercial possibilities of such a substance, but Cavor is more interested in the glory that he will gain from the scientific community. And so it is that these two mismatched men find themselves as partners on an incredible voyage – to the Moon!

To a large degree, this is a straightforward adventure novel with a great story and lots of danger and excitement. But, being Wells, there are also underlying themes relating to contemporary concerns: primarily the danger of science untempered by ethical control and a rather terrifying vision of a utopian society. But the themes are treated more lightly in this one and Wells allows his imagination free rein, resulting in a great read – lots of humour, great descriptive writing, enough depth to keep it interesting without overwhelming the story, a couple of characters you can’t help liking even though you feel you shouldn’t, and plenty of excitement.

Click to see the full review

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The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. His stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them. Many have strong sexual undercurrents (never overtly spelled out – it’s the Victorian era) and paganism is a recurring feature.

The quality of the writing is excellent, especially the descriptive imagery he uses to give both of his settings a sense of evil things lurking unseen, ready to prey on the morally weak or unwary. The Welsh parts have a very similar feel to Lovecraft’s ruins – Lovecraft acknowledged his influence – but where Lovecraft opted for ancient malign aliens, Machen’s evil, though equally ancient, is all of earth, earthly. However, there’s a good deal of humour alongside the effective and occasionally gruesome horror and he’s a great storyteller, making this a marvellously entertaining collection. 

Click to see the full review

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In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

It’s 1980. Travis Stillwell lives life on the road, travelling from small town to small town in Texas, running from the memories of his earlier life, seeking something lost. Some nights he’ll pick up a woman in a honky-tonk bar, but not for love – these women are victims, killed almost as a sacrifice to those demons he can’t shake off. But one night he picks up Rue, a beautiful young woman who is more evil than even the horrors in his own mind – a woman searching for her own kind of mate, who will change him in ways he could never have imagined even in his worst nightmares. When he wakes up the next day, he is wounded, bloodied, and prey to a strange and terrible hunger – a hunger he must satisfy so that he and Rue can live.

I don’t normally read modern horror but I’m glad I made an exception for this one. It’s a bloody and often gruesome vampire novel, but it’s also so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans in the early ’80s and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing, so much so that I considered putting it in the literary fiction category. The writing and imagery are wonderful, poetic and brutal at the same time – it blew me away. 

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

This was an extremely difficult decision – at least three of these books could easily have won. But Lovecraft has been a stalwart of the blog for years now, so it felt only right he should finally win a prize!

In his introduction to this collection of thirteen tales, Xavier Aldana Reyes discusses how Lovecraft’s reputation as a major influence in weird fiction has led to his more traditionally Gothic work being somewhat overlooked. But Reyes points out that even in his weird fiction, Lovecraft often used Gothic concerns. Having read the stories, I’d say the reverse is also true – that his Gothic tales often include elements of his major weird works, particularly in the settings, the hint of unknown fears from something more cosmic than ghostly, and the idea of the degeneration of humanity, which recurs frequently not only in Lovecraft’s work but in that of many of his near contemporaries. 

I loved this collection – every story got either a four or five star rating individually, a rare occurrence indeed. Many of the stories are traditional in style and genuinely scary, while others show Lovecraft’s brilliance in creating an unsettling atmosphere where man exists as a helpless plaything, at the mercy of forces we are too puny to comprehend. Great stuff, and a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review

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Next Week: Best Factual

Six Degrees of Separation – From Wolf to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

This month’s starting book is The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

The bestselling classic that redefined our view of the relationship between beauty and female identity. In today’s world, women have more power, legal recognition, and professional success than ever before. Alongside the evident progress of the women’s movement, however, writer and journalist Naomi Wolf is troubled by a different kind of social control, which, she argues, may prove just as restrictive as the traditional image of homemaker and wife. It’s the beauty myth, an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfil society’s impossible definition of “the flawless beauty.”

Hmm – since I think this sounds like utter tosh that’s selling the mythical ‘myth’ about which it’s pretending to protest, I think it’s safe to say the book’s not my kind of thing. Which reminds me of another book that’s not my kind of thing, but which I loved anyway…

In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson. Normally I avoid vampire books but this one turned out to be so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing. And will almost certainly make it onto my best of the year list.

He watched her go, thinking of the children they had been when they were married. He eighteen, she seventeen. She a half-breed, he a white Texan boy, theirs a romance, Reader had always thought, befitting the romance of the land itself, the wide open spaces and faraway horizons, where the hearts of the young were as big and green as the vast sweep of the eastern grasslands, and the land and the courses of the lives lived on it moved and rolled in ways no man could ever predict, as though the breath of giants were easing over them, shaping them, turning them.

Some reviewers have compared it in terms of subject matter to Cormac McCarthy, which makes me think of…

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. As dystopian novels go, they don’t get much bleaker than this. All plant-life and most animal-life has been destroyed, and the implication is that the earth itself has been so badly damaged that nothing can grow in it. We follow two characters, known only as the man and the boy, as they journey through the devastated land. I was unsure how I felt about this at the time, but it is undoubtedly thought-provoking and full of imagery that has stayed with me – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty.

The most recent dystopian novel I’ve read is…

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Written in 1920, this book gives a prescient look at the potential outcome of the Marxist-style regime that was then coming into existence in Revolutionary Russia. A totalitarian “utopia” where almost all individuality is stripped away and people become nothing more than cogs in a massive machine, and just as dispensable. It’s easy to see its influence on some of the great dystopian novels of the early and mid-twentieth century, like Orwell’s 1984.

I haven’t reviewed 1984 on the blog, but I have reviewed…

Animal Farm by George Orwell. This allegorical fable of the Russian Revolution didn’t work as well for me now as it had done when I first read it in school. But it’s still a great book for younger readers who might not be quite ready for the likes of 1984, and the story of poor Boxer the horse is still just as moving…

Talking of boxers reminded me of…

The End of the Web by George Sims, the hero of which is an ex-boxer. (Yeah, I know that link is pretty strrrrrretched, but work with me, people… 😉 ) From 1976, this starts off as a fairly conventional thriller – ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events – but suddenly veers off in a different direction half-way through, giving it a feeling of originality. Well written and giving a great sense of the London of the time, I thoroughly enjoyed it

The author was apparently connected to the code-breaking facility at Bletchley Park during WW2, which made me think of…

Robert Harris’ Enigma. A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this story is set amid the codebreakers of Bletchley Park during WW2. A great depiction of the almost intolerable pressure placed on the shoulders of these mainly young men at a time when the course of the whole war depended on their success.

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So Wolf to Harris, via not my kind of thing, Cormac McCarthy, dystopian novels, George Orwell, boxers and Bletchley Park!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

Blood, bloody, bloodier, bloodiest…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1980. Travis Stillwell lives life on the road, travelling from small town to small town in Texas, running from the memories of his earlier life, seeking something lost. Some nights he’ll pick up a woman in a honky-tonk bar, but not for love – these women are victims, killed almost as a sacrifice to those demons he can’t shake off. But one night he picks up Rue, a beautiful young woman who is more evil than even the horrors in his own mind – a woman searching for her own kind of mate, who will change him in ways he could never have imagined even in his worst nightmares. When he wakes up the next day, he is wounded, bloodied, and prey to a strange and terrible hunger – a hunger he must satisfy so that he and Rue can live.

OK, so it’s a vampire novel. Let’s get that out of the way straight off. It has scenes of the bloodiest horror written in language so vividly, viscerally descriptive that I may never be able to wash my mind clean of them. But the odd thing is, I’m not sure I want to…

“Travis lay the knife on the floor and shuffled forward on his knees like a man about to perform a tender act. He put his face between the girl’s white legs and touched his lips to her wound, and his mouth filled instantly and he was forced to spit.
EAT!
But there was something else now too, wasn’t there? A warmth. A kindling.
He put his lips against the wound again and this time swallowed when his mouth had filled and the horror and revulsion he had imagined were not the things he felt. He felt only a bright relief as the blood slicked his throat and struck the furnace of his gut and its heat spread, and before all of this had even happened he had swallowed again, and again. . .
Take it all, Rue said. Take it all.”

…because the book is so, so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing. I’ve seen it being compared to McCarthy and McMurtry which makes me want to go and read both those authors straight away. The prose is gorgeous, moving seamlessly between melancholy beauty and savage brutality and creating indelible images in both. I could see the landscape and the sky; feel the dust, the burning sun, the rain; smell the stale beer and cigarette smoke and the all-pervasive stench of blood and death.

The characterisation is intense and flawless, so that we come to know and care about each individual. Travis stops at a run-down motel, where young widow Annabelle ekes out a precarious existence and does her best to help her young son Sandy deal with the death of his father. Her kindness to this stranger, who is indeed strange, leads her into mortal peril, at the same time as it awakens in Travis a kind of longing that tears his dual nature apart. Meantime, Travis is being pursued by veteran detective Reader for his earlier, human crimes. Dogged and determined, Reader has seen too much horror already in his life and is haunted by his own personal tragedy, but he’s a good man – a moral man, who provides a rock of decency for us to cling to, a promise of hope amid the darkness.

Remarkably, the author makes us care too for Travis, serial killer turned vampire, as he gradually reveals the experiences that have formed him, first as the child of a stern, forbidding father and a pleasure-loving mother, and later, in Vietnam, a time which branded him physically and mentally. Even Rue, the disgusting, monstrously evil thing that gives the novel its truest horror, has her own back-story. Perhaps it’s too hard to sympathise with Rue, but Davidson makes us understand her, and oh, how we feel her hunger! For blood. For love.

Andy Davidson

To me, the vampire thing felt very much like an allegory for the rot and horror of Vietnam, for these men who returned to no hero’s welcome, whose stories were left untold for too long, left to fester in the darkness of silence. For most of the novel I wasn’t even sure whether the vampire aspect was real or a kind of figment of Travis’ tortured imagination. A part of me wishes Davidson had left it fully ambiguous, because inside here is a great American novel and I fear it may be sidelined into genre fiction. And at the same time, although the horror is handled superbly with some fabulously gory imagery, it may be too slow and too literary in style for many dedicated horror fans.

Certainly, the vampire element would have ensured I’d never have read it, had I not been sent a copy by the publisher. Even then I started it with reluctance, expecting to read a few chapters and then abandon it. But these are not the vampires of modern fiction – sexy heroes who seduce as they suck the blood of their victims. There is more of the original Dracula or Carmilla perhaps, lust and insatiable hunger, but much darker, more brutal – bloodier. But even nightmares are bearable when they are revealed with integrity and meaning and relayed in such astonishing language and imagery. There are scenes I will never forget – scenes of utter brutality that made me cry for the sorrows of the world. Nor will I forget the people – the desperate search for humanity and love that we see in each character, however distorted. And the writing! Ah, the writing!

“He watched her go, thinking of the children they had been when they were married. He eighteen, she seventeen. She a half-breed, he a white Texan boy, theirs a romance, Reader had always thought, befitting the romance of the land itself, the wide open spaces and faraway horizons, where the hearts of the young were as big and green as the vast sweep of the eastern grasslands, and the land and the courses of the lives lived on it moved and rolled in ways no man could ever predict, as though the breath of giants were easing over them, shaping them, turning them.”

Do I recommend it? I hope I’ve made it clear how graphically horrific some parts are, and also how exceptional I think it is, how it transcends horror to become something altogether more profound and strangely beautiful. The decision has to be yours. Personally, I am so glad to have read it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Saraband.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….He bought a can of Pearl with the last two dollars he had, then dropped a quarter in the Wurlitzer. He punched a number and settled down at a table and tipped his chair back against the wall and put his boots up. He set his hat over his eyes and drifted in the peaceful dark of not being on the road.
….The man in the box began to sing.
….The music rose and fell.
….Out of the darkness came her scent of lemon and vanilla, the curve of a white calf beneath the hem of a pale blue cotton dress, her shape an hourglass, like time itself slipping away. She, before the picture window that looked out on the mimosa dropping its pink petals on the grass. Her slow smile spreading beneath a pair of eyes as blue as cobalt glass. Water sheeting in the window and casting its shadow like a spell of memory on the wall behind. Her little red suitcase turntable scratching out a song beneath the window and he, a boy, with his bare feet on hers as she held his hands and the record turned and they danced.
….Their private, sad melody unspooling in his heart forever.

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….Cusps are often the central features of a stability problem. A classic example is the Euler column, a simple model that explains why steel columns buckle when they reach a critical load. The key objects that underlie this are two smooth but rather abstract surfaces: the energy surface and the equilibrium surface.
….At any given value of the axial load, we can calculate how the total potential energy stored in the column varies as we increase the central lateral deflection. For small loads, the energy graph (plotting energy against central deflection) is usually a U-shape, with a single stable equilibrium at the base of the U. That is where the system will stay, happily and safely.

(Does it surprise you to know that I abandoned the book at this point – page 18? And frankly I think I deserve a Perseverance in the Face of Extraordinary Gibberish Award for getting that far. However, I highly recommend it to mathematicians who want to build a bridge while looking at pictures of nudes…)

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….What is this love, this profound and absolute attachment I feel for Scotland? Why do these mottled rising green-brown hills, these humped fields, this river, even the familiar cast of the houses, feel so right and move me so? Lesley accepts that she is English, but it is not a defining fact for her, any more than being right-handed or blue-eyed. Whereas she can see that for me being Scottish is fundamental to who I am.
….As I turn off at the Tore roundabout onto the A835 to Ullapool, drive on past scattered villages where the valley pushes a green wedge between the hills on either side, I’m thinking of one of MacCaig’s shortest poems, Patriot.

My only country
is six feet high
and whether I love it or not
I’ll die
for its independence.

….The idea of patriotism was abhorrent to him. He’d seen enough of what it led to. He could not love an abstraction. But he loved – my God how he loved! – things that were solid, concrete, particular: some people, dogs, frogs, rivers, mountains, toads, a wild rose bush, so many kinds of birds. His vision was earthly, corporeal.

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….While I was getting out my pouch, I looked up in the direction of the houses, and as I looked I felt my breath caught back, and my teeth began to chatter, and the stick I had in one hand snapped in two with the grip I gave it. It was as if I had had an electric current down my spine, and yet for some moment of time which seemed long, but which must have been very short, I caught myself wondering what on earth was the matter. Then I knew what had made my very heart shudder and my bones grind together in an agony. As I glanced up I had looked straight towards the last house in the row before me, and in an upper window of that house I had seen for some short fraction of a second a face. It was the face of a woman, and yet it was not human. You and I, Salisbury, we have heard in our time, as we sat in our seats in church in sober English fashion, of a lust that cannot be satiated and of a fire that is unquenchable, but few of us have any notion what these words mean. I hope you never may, for as I saw that face at the window, with the blue sky above me and the warm air playing in gusts about me, I knew I had looked into another world – looked through the window of a commonplace, brand-new house, and seen hell open before me.

From The Inmost Light

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 144…

Episode 144…

All fired up and ready to smash the TBR! You’re going to be amazed by how dramatically it’s going to fall over the next few weeks! You do believe me, don’t you? Don’t you?? It’s currently standing at 214.

Here are a few I’ll be getting to very soon…

Crime

(Isn’t that the most dreadful cover ever produced? Since the title is well-nigh illegible, it’s Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.) For the Classics Club and because I’m fed up with being the last person living who hasn’t read it…

The Blurb says: In Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel, we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train. But while Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world – where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder.

The inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1951 film, Strangers on a Train launched Highsmith on a prolific career of noir fiction and proved her mastery of depicting the unsettling forces that tremble beneath the surface of everyday contemporary life.

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Vampire!

Courtesy of the publisher, Saraband. I was sent an unsolicited copy of this. Normally, I avoid vampire stories like the plague (Hmm! Is that a pun, I wonder?). But I’ve read a few Saraband publications recently, a couple of them well outside my comfort zone, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all, so will they be able to do it again? We’ll see…

The Blurb says: “A flint-hard, gorgeously written nightmare.” Laird Barron. One night in 1980, a man becomes a monster. Travis Stillwell spends his nights searching out women in honky-tonk bars on the back roads of Texas. What he does with them doesn’t make him proud – it just quiets the demons for a little while. But when he crosses paths with one particular mysterious pale-skinned girl, he wakes up weak and bloodied, with no memory of the night before. Finding refuge at a lonely motel, Travis develops feelings for the owner, Annabelle, but at night he fights a horrible transformation and his need to feed. A riveting new vampire story for fans of Cormac McCarthy, Joe Hill and Anne Rice.

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Fiction

For the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge. This sounds wonderful, so I really hope it lives up to my high expectations – fingers crossed!

The Blurb says: In The Man Who Loved Dogs, Leonardo Padura brings a noir sensibility to one of the most fascinating and complex political narratives of the past hundred years: the assassination of Leon Trotsky by Ramón Mercader.

The story revolves around Iván Cárdenas Maturell, who in his youth was the great hope of modern Cuban literature—until he dared to write a story that was deemed counterrevolutionary. When we meet him years later in Havana, Iván is a loser: a humbled and defeated man with a quiet, unremarkable life who earns his modest living as a proofreader at a veterinary magazine. One afternoon, he meets a mysterious foreigner in the company of two Russian wolfhounds. This is “the man who loved dogs,” and as the pair grow closer, Iván begins to understand that his new friend is hiding a terrible secret.

Moving seamlessly between Iván’s life in Cuba, Ramón’s early years in Spain and France, and Trotsky’s long years of exile, The Man Who Loved Dogs is Padura’s most ambitious and brilliantly executed novel yet. This is a story about political ideals tested and characters broken, a multilayered epic that effortlessly weaves together three different plot threads— Trotsky in exile, Ramón in pursuit, Iván in frustrated stasis—to bring emotional truth to historical fact.

A novel whose reach is matched only by its astonishing successes on the page, The Man Who Loved Dogs lays bare the human cost of abstract ideals and the insidious, corrosive effects of life under a repressive political regime.

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Factual on Audio

Off to Antarctica for the Around the World in 80 Books Challenge. What little I know about Shackleton comes from the old Channel 4 production starring Kenneth Branagh, and I seem to have forgotten everything about it! So this might read as much like an adventure story as a factual book to me – I’m hoping so, anyway…

The Blurb says: The astonishing saga of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s survival for over a year on the ice-bound Antarctic seas, as Time magazine put it, “defined heroism.” Alfred Lansing’s scrupulously researched and brilliantly narrated book — with over 200,000 copies sold — has long been acknowledged as the definitive account of the Endurance’s fateful trip. To write their authoritative story, Lansing consulted with ten of the surviving members and gained access to diaries and personal accounts by eight others. The resulting book has all the immediacy of a first-hand account.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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

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