FictionFan Awards 2018 – Factual

A round of applause…

…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

FACTUAL

Overall I’ve had a pretty slow year on the factual front – I think I’ve been in recovery from overdoing the heavy history the year before. But although I’ve read far less, I’ve still had some great reads…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

The Winter Queen of the title is Elizabeth, daughter of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, and herself briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick. Elizabeth and Frederick produced an alarming number of children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood, and as their sons and daughters grew up and contracted marriages or made alliances, they spread their influence throughout the ruling families of 17th century Europe, thus being involved in all the major events (aka wars) of that turbulent period. The book is about the four daughters who survived their childhood years, and at least as much about their brothers, husbands, suitors or male friends.

Goldstone writes breezily, with a great deal of affection towards her subjects, and with a lot of humour. Although there’s lots of history in here, clearly excellently researched, she tells her story almost as if she were writing a novel – a comedy of manners, perhaps, with the odd episode of tragedy thrown in to leaven it, and the non-academic style makes it approachable and easily digestible. The book is a pleasure to read, which is not something that can always be said about history books!

Triumph of the Winter Queen by Gerrit van Honthorst
The Queen surrounded by her many children in various allegorical poses.

Click to see the full review

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The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

This beautifully produced and gorgeously, lavishly illustrated publication is far more than a coffee table book. It’s a comprehensive history of British bookishness from its beginning to the present day. The main thrust of it covers the 17th to 19th centuries – the period when the country house came into its own and wealthy people saw libraries as an essential feature of their homes. Mark Purcell looks at both the books and the rooms they were stored in.

Purcell has clearly had a ball prying into the bookshelves and book catalogues of centuries’ worth of bibliophiles, and his enthusiasm is matched by deep knowledge, backed up with an immense amount of research. This results in a phenomenal amount of detail, which in the early chapters overwhelmed me a little and made the reading heavy going. But I found that I gradually became fascinated, especially when I realised that the bookshelves of the rich – who, of course, were also the powerful – cast an interesting sidelight on many famous historical personages and the societies in which they lived.

Chatsworth: Darcy’s Library!!

Click to see the full review

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Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

In 1908, an elderly lady, Miss Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home and a brooch was stolen. Shortly afterwards, Oscar Slater pawned a brooch and boarded a ship bound for America. These two facts were enough for the police to decide that he was the guilty man and, sure enough, they arrested and charged him, and he was convicted and condemned to death – a sentence that was swiftly commuted to life imprisonment in response to a growing feeling of doubt over the verdict among some sectors of the public. This book sets out to tell the story of the case and specifically of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the campaign to have the verdict overturned.

I found this a fascinating read, especially since rather to my surprise I learned quite a lot that I didn’t know about my own city and country. The class divisions, the way people lived, the prejudices and culture all feel authentic and still recognisable to this Glaswegian, and the wider picture of policing and justice in Scotland feels very well researched. The story of Conan Doyle’s involvement is also told well with lots of interesting digressions into the art and science of detection, and plenty of referencing to the world of Sherlock Holmes. One that true crime fans will thoroughly enjoy. 

Click to see the full review

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Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick approached Clarke with a view to them working together, and then goes on to give a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

FACTUAL


Despite the quality of the runners-up, there was never any hesitation in my mind as to which book should win this category.

This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read. These were the days of the great explorers, making crazy expeditions in the name of scientific discovery, but just as much for national pride and for the sheer glory of being the first.

I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble, and he does a fabulous job. Lansing’s language is wonderfully descriptive, but not full of overly poetic flourishes. This rather plain style, however, works beautifully – the events are so thrilling and the men are such heroes that they don’t need any great fanfares or flowery flourishes to enhance their story. I found myself totally caught up, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. As it got towards the end, my tension levels were going through the roof, just as they would have been had these men been personal friends – indeed, after the long journey I’d made in their company, I truly felt they were.

The Endurance trapped in the ice during the long polar night…

Click to see the full review

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Next Week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Caution: Geniuses at Work

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact at the time and since.

A couple of years ago, I had the amazing experience of reading Clarke’s book and then immediately watching Kubrick’s film, and discovering how wonderfully they enhance each other. Until then, I hadn’t realised they arose out of a joint venture – I had assumed Clarke had written the book first and then Kubrick had decided to turn it into a film. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick wanted to make the first “really good” science fiction movie and, as research, immersed himself in the SF literature of the day, including reading Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This led him to approach Clarke with a view to them working together. At that stage, the plan was to make a kind of future history of man’s experiences in space. Throughout his book, Benson shows how this initial plan grew and altered stage by stage until it became the book and film that were ultimately released, and gives a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Benson is clearly a huge admirer of the film and of both men, but he’s not so starry-eyed as to be uncritical when it’s deserved. Clarke was struggling financially as the project began, while Kubrick was riding high on the back of the success of his previous film, Dr Strangelove. This meant Kubrick had disproportionate power in the making of the deal between them, and he wasn’t hesitant in making sure the lion’s share of all profits and credit would come his way. He also retained control over every aspect, including when Clarke would be allowed to release the book. Since the making of the film fell years behind schedule, this caused Clarke considerable financial woe. But Benson also shows that the two men managed to survive this kind of friction without it dimming their appreciation of each other’s genius. Benson’s book is a warm-hearted portrayal of both men and it seems to me he tries hard, and succeeds, in giving due credit to both.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of Benson’s writing is first-rate, and I loved that he would break up the more technical side of the story by introducing “voices” for some of the people to whom he introduces us. For example, when a young lad looking for his first break in movie-making goes off to meet Kubrick, Benson tells the story in a kind of Holden Caulfield voice, while the filming of the scene of Kubrick’s little daughter talking to her on-screen daddy is told charmingly, as if from her six-year-old perspective.

Kubrick and his daughter Vivian

Clarke fades a little from the story once his book is more or less written, although the two men continued to consult and communicate throughout the project. But once the filming gets underway, Benson concentrates more on Kubrick and his crew. He shows the innovative techniques they developed as they went along to create not only the special effects but an entire overarching style. Kubrick is shown as demanding, a perfectionist, always pushing a little further than his crew believed they could go until they discovered that they could go further after all. Although he had his faults – a willingness to risk his actors’ and crew’s safety in pursuit of his art, for example – the impression comes through strongly that the people around him admired, respected and even loved him. Benson gives generous praise to each of the other creatives who contributed to the movie, detailing each innovative technique and who was involved in achieving it. As he describes it, it felt to me like an orchestra full of individually brilliant musicians, with Kubrick as the genius conductor melding their talents into a wonderfully harmonious whole.

Kubrick setting up a shot

In the final section, Benson describes the release of the movie, initially panned by all the middle-aged men (and occasionally women) in suits in movie world, from studio chiefs to movie critics. He explains how Kubrick watched audience reaction minute by minute to see what worked and what didn’t, eventually cutting nineteen minutes from the original running time. But he and others also noticed that young people in the audience seemed to “get” it in a way that the movie professionals didn’t at first. Despite the critics, audience figures gave an indication that word of mouth was making the movie a success. Gradually, even the original critics mostly came round, and admitted that on second and third viewing they “got” it too. The film’s success was crowned with a raft of Oscar nominations, though in an extremely competitive year that included Oliver! and The Lion in Winter amongst others, eventually it took only one, rather fittingly for Best Special Visual Effects.

I haven’t even touched on a lot of what is included in this comprehensive book, such as how Kubrick decided on the music for the film, or how the man-apes were conceived and created. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….The fox stopped. Without turning, he said in a husky whisper:
….“I am renouncing the world, dear Sister. I have forsworn the consumption of chicken. From now on my diet will consist of nothing but plants and herbs.”
….The hen was astounded. She said:
….“Are you calling me Sister? Why, you are my worst enemy!”
….“We are all brothers and sisters. We are one family,” said the fox. “What I wish for now is to live in peace and quiet. I am going on the pilgrimage, on the Hajj, Sister. But don’t tell anyone.”
….The hen said:
….“Going on the Hajj? I beg you, take me with you. I won’t tell a soul.”
….He said:
….“I’ll take you with me on one condition: that you keep your distance. Don’t walk too close to me. I don’t want anyone who sees us to think I am planning to eat you up.”

From: Abu Ali the Fox (you just know it’s not going to end well for the hen, don’t you?)

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….Clarke unfolded the two-page letter, which was dated March 31, and saw that it was indeed from Kubrick. Fairly brief, quite to the point, it seemingly had two clear agendas. One was picking his brain about a possible telescope purchase (the director mentioned a Questar telescope in the first and last sentences). The other was his desire to discuss “the possibility of doing the proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie.” This line – the second after the Questar bit – would become well known, and certainly served as the initial aim of the nascent project Kubrick was proposing.
….“My main interest lies along these broad areas, naturally assuming great plot and character,” Kubrick wrote. “1. The reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. 2. The impact (and perhaps even lack of impact in some quarters) such discovery would have on Earth in the near future. 3. A space probe with a landing and exploration of the Moon and Mars.”

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.He held a white cloth – it was a serviette he had brought with him – over the lower part of his face, so that his mouth and jaws were completely hidden, and that was the reason for his muffled voice. But it was not that which startled Mrs. Hall, It was the fact that all his forehead above his blue glasses was covered by a white bandage, and that another covered his ears, leaving not a scrap of his face exposed excepting only his pink, peaked nose. It was bright, pink, and shiny just as it had been at first. He wore a dark-brown velvet jacket with a high, black, linen-lined collar turned up about his neck. The thick black hair, escaping as it could below and between the cross bandages, projected in curious tails and horns, giving him the strangest appearance conceivable. This muffled and bandaged head was so unlike what she had anticipated, that for a moment she was rigid.

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….There was a noise.
….She couldn’t identify quite what or where it was, but it sounded like somebody trying not to make a sound.
….Somebody in the house.
….Catherine’s neck prickled with ancient warning.
….She was thirty-one and had lived alone all her adult life until she’d moved in with Adam nearly two years before. When you lived alone, and you heard a noise in the night, you didn’t cower under the bedclothes and wait for your fate to saunter up the stairs and down the hallway. When you lived alone, you got up and grabbed the torch, the bat, the hairspray, and you sneaked downstairs to confront…
….The dishwasher.
….Which was the only thing that had ever made a noise loud enough to wake her.
….But she hadn’t set the dishwasher…

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….Yesterday, walking around the places in central Bogotá where some of the events that I’m going to explore in this report happened, trying to make sure once more that nothing has escaped me in its painstaking reconstruction, I found myself wondering aloud how I’ve come to know these things I might be better off not knowing: how had I come to spend so much time thinking about these dead people, living with them, talking to them, listening to their regrets and regretting, in turn, not being able to do anything to alleviate their suffering. And I was astonished that it had all started with a few casual words, casually spoken by Dr Benavides inviting me to his house. At that moment, I thought I was accepting in order not to deny someone my time who had been generous with his own at a difficult moment, so the visit would simply be one more commitment out of the many insignificant things that use up our lives. I couldn’t know how mistaken I’d been, for what happened that night put in motion a frightful mechanism that would only end with this book: this book written in atonement for crimes that, although I did not commit them, I have ended up inheriting. 

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 156…

Episode 156…

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!! A massive drop in the TBR since I last reported! Down 4 to 214! But I’m now stuck in the middle of a bunch of giant tomes and a parcel is heading my way, so the slide has probably come to an end for a bit…

(Apparently he was fine!)

Here are a few more that should fall over the edge soon…

Film History

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster. Last year I was blown away by the experience of reading Arthur C Clarke’s book and watching Stanley Kubrick’s film together, as they were intended to be. So I couldn’t resist this book about the creation of these two masterpieces, or, perhaps, joint masterpiece…

The Blurb says: Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s release, this is the definitive story of the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, acclaimed today as one of the greatest films ever made, including the inside account of how director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke created this cinematic masterpiece.

Regarded as a masterpiece today, 2001: A Space Odyssey received mixed reviews on its 1968 release. Author Michael Benson explains how 2001 was made, telling the story primarily through the two people most responsible for the film, Kubrick and science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke. A colourful nonfiction narrative packed with memorable characters and remarkable incidents, Space Odyssey provides a 360-degree view of this extraordinary work, tracking the film from Kubrick and Clarke’s first meeting in New York in 1964 through its UK production from 1965-1968, during which some of the most complex sets ever made were merged with visual effects so innovative that they scarcely seem dated today. A concluding chapter examines the film’s legacy as it grew into it current justifiably exalted status.

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Humorous Crime

The third instalment of Lucy Brazier’s PorterGirl series. I shall stock up in readiness with stacks of sausage sandwiches, copious buckets of tea and a barrel-load of biscuits to fortify myself for whatever skulduggery awaits me in Old College this time… 😱

The Blurb says: “Sometimes the opposite of right isn’t wrong. It’s left.”

Tragedy strikes once more at Old College… The Porters’ Lodge is down to its last tea bag and no one has seen a biscuit for over a week. Almost as troubling are the two dead bodies at the bottom of the College gardens and a woman has gone missing. The Dean is convinced that occult machinations are to blame, Deputy Head Porter suspects something closer to home.

The formidable DCI Thompson refuses to be sidelined and a rather unpleasant Professor gets his comeuppance. As the body count rises, Head Porter tries to live a secret double life and The Dean believes his job is under threat from the Russian Secret Service. Deputy Head Porter finds herself with her hands full keeping Old College running smoothly as well as defending herself against the sinister intentions of the new Bursar.

Spies, poisoning, murder – and none of this would be any problem at all, if only someone would get the biscuits out and put the kettle on…

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Gothic Horror

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Regulars will know I love Sir Arthur nearly as much as I love Dr Watson and Darcy, so I couldn’t resist begging a copy of this new collection of all his darker tales. I’ve read several of them before and even reviewed one or two as Tuesday Terror! posts, but there are plenty more which will be new to me. I can barely resist rubbing my hands in glee…

The Blurb says: Arthur Conan Doyle was the greatest genre writer Britain has ever produced. Throughout a long writing career, he drew on his own medical background, his travels, and his increasing interest in spiritualism and the occult to produce a spectacular array of gothic tales. Many of Doyle’s writings are recognized as the very greatest tales of terror. They range from hauntings in the polar wasteland to evil surgeons and malevolent jungle landscapes.

This collection brings together over thirty of Conan Doyle’s best gothic tales. Darryl Jones’s introduction discusses the contradictions in Conan Doyle’s very public life – as a medical doctor who became obsessed with the spirit world, or a British imperialist drawn to support Irish Home Rule – and shows the ways in which these found articulation in that most anxious of all literary forms, the Gothic.

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Spark on Audio

Having recently thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I decided to try to fit another one in for the second phase of Heavenali’s #ReadingMuriel2018, which she’s running to celebrate Spark’s centenary year. And I thought it might be fun to listen to Juliet Stevenson reading it to me…

The Blurb says: It is 1945; a time of cultural and political change, and also one of slender means. Spark’s evocative and sharply drawn novel focuses on a group of women living together in a hostel in Kensington who face new challenges in uncertain times. The novel is at once dramatic and character-based, and shows Muriel Spark at the height of her literary powers. Juliet Stevenson reads with her customary wit and intelligence this powerful masterpiece.

(Is this the shortest blurb in the history of the universe? I like it!)

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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

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