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

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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

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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

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…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

THE PRIZES

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For the winners!

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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!

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Nothing!

THE JUDGES

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Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

FACTUAL

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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

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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

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

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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

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

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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

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resurrection scienceResurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor

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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

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST FACTUAL

 

john knox

John Knox by Jane Dawson

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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

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In two weeks time: Best Crime Fiction/Thrillers Award

Resurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor

“To be or not to be, that is the question…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

resurrection scienceIn 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.

It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged, if it isn’t already, that the most interesting books, especially in the field of science, are also the hardest to review. There is barely a page in this book that didn’t have me pausing for thought, taking a note, nodding in agreement, becoming outraged, puzzled, saddened, inspired. I could write 20,000 words on it (but I won’t!) and still only give the briefest flavour of the ground O’Connor covers. So rather than try to do that, I’m going to look in depth at the first chapter and then restrict myself to a brief overview of the rest.

Kihansi spray toad and baby at Bronx Zoo, one of only two remaining colonies, both in US zoos.
Kihansi spray toad and baby at Bronx Zoo, one of only two remaining colonies, both in US zoos.

The Kihansi spray toad has evolved to live in one tiny area of the world only – in the spray zone of a waterfall in the Udzungwa mountains in East Africa. Previously an unknown species, it was only discovered when plans were being developed to use the waterfall as a massive hydro-power project. In line with global rules, a biodiversity survey was carried out to assess the impact of the project, and the little toad suddenly became famous in conservation circles. In short, the project went ahead and despite all the technological efforts that were ploughed, at considerable cost, into saving the toad, it went extinct in the wild. But two colonies of them still exist in separate zoos in the US with hopes that they may one day be reintroduced into a specially adapted environment in their original habitat.

A common enough little story, but O’Connor uses it to raise some of the ethical and philosophical issues around the whole question of conservation…

Should the project have gone ahead knowing the likelihood of it causing the extinction of the toad? O’Connor discusses the desperate need for more electricity if this region of the world is to develop out of its current poverty. Hydro-power is clean energy – is this not exactly what we privileged Westerners want the ‘third world’ to develop rather than turning to fossil fuel? How will we eradicate poverty if we put biodiversity above human need?

The last remianing male Northern white rhino in the world being prtoected by armed guards. His horn has been removed to make him less attractive to poachers.
The last remaining male Northern white rhino in the world being protected by armed guards. His horn has been removed to make him less attractive to poachers.

Which leads to the next question – is nature there to ‘serve’ man or does it have an intrinsic value of its own? Are we its master or its caretaker? Was the toad’s existence important before we knew about it? O’Connor ranges fascinatingly through philosophy and ethics in an attempt to elucidate the arguments around this fundamental question.

Can a species really be said to exist if it can’t survive in its own habitat? In other words, if the only remaining members of a species are in captivity, is not that species effectively extinct? This leads on to other questions. How quickly do animals in captivity evolve to suit their new surroundings? One of the scientists working with the toads claims that there are already differences between the two colonies. So can they really be said to be the same species as the one in the wild? If they are reintroduced to the wild, what impact will that have? The habitat has in the meantime been evolving to take account of their absence – are we interfering more by trying to turn back the clock?

In order to create a liveable habitat for the toads, a sprinkler system has been installed at enormous cost – this in a region where children routinely die from poverty and preventable diseases. Could the money have been better spent? Bluntly, is the life of a toad worth more or less than the life of a child? How much are we prepared to spend to conserve a species that can no longer survive without perpetual human management? In these circumstances, can it really be considered ‘wild’ any more… or even ‘natural’?

Florida panther How important was the sense of wilderness to the formation of the American character? What will the loss of 'wild' animals mean for the American psyche?
Florida panther
How important was the sense of wilderness to the formation of the American character? What will the loss of ‘wild’ animals mean for the American psyche?

Along the way, O’Connor discusses the suspicion that sometimes greets conservation efforts in Africa caused by the fact that it has so often been done for the benefit of a white elite – for example, safari parks were originally preserved as private hunting grounds, and to create them native people were frequently driven off their traditional lands. And she shows how divided conservationists are over all these questions – with the pragmatic element feeling that the arguments will go on for ever in academia while on the ground extinctions will continue at an ever more rapid rate.

In later chapters, O’Connor goes much further into genetic conservation – gene banks containing millions of samples, including of species already extinct. Should we try to resurrect these species? How far back should we go – the toad? The passenger pigeon? The mammoth? Neanderthal man? We have the genes for them all. The science is nearly there, but what would the impact be? Are genes alone enough, or is a species defined as much by learned behaviour as genetics? And will these resurrected species be considered ‘real’ or ‘artificial’ – the answer to that will affect how far people are willing to go to conserve them should the species approach extinction again. Will the idea that extinct species can be resurrected in the future make governments less willing to spend money on conservation today?

Hunting and loss of habitat caused the passenger pigeon to go extinct over 100 years ago. Now some people plan to resurrect them...
Hunting and loss of habitat drove the passenger pigeon to extinction over 100 years ago. Now some people plan to resurrect them…

I hope I’ve been able to give a tiny flavour of how fascinating I found this book. O’Connor is an investigative journalist rather than a scientist and this shows through in her ability both to present complex arguments clearly enough for the non-academic reader, and to take an objective view of the subject. She raises and debates the questions, detailing the arguments put forward by the leaders in the field, but she doesn’t force answers on the reader. She leaves us to think it through for ourselves, and shows us that each case is different, creating its own unique set of questions. 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 one that has made me much more aware of the complexities of the debate. Earns my highest recommendation.

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

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link