NetGalley Says Yes!

Mutual approval…

Last week, I posted about my NetGalley rejections, so this week I thought I’d talk about why I love NetGalley nearly as much as chocolate…

Of the 402 titles I’ve been approved for since I joined NG in 2013, I’ve sent feedback for 373 books (the rest are still on my TBR) and have posted reviews for 302 (though for a few I only posted a brief review on Goodreads). The others I abandoned, either because they weren’t for me or because they were too badly formatted to be enjoyable reading. Of the ones I’ve reviewed, roughly 65% were either 4 or 5 stars reads for me – pretty good, huh? Not quite as high as my ratings for books I buy, but then I’m more likely to take a chance on new or new-to-me authors through NG.

Narrowing my best picks down to a reasonable number would be nearly impossible, so instead I’ve decided to list a few of the authors I was introduced to by NG who have now become firm favourites – most are established authors but were new to me. So, in no particular order, here they are – my…

NETGALLEY HALL OF FAME

(Click on the author’s name to see my reviews.)

Robert Harris

Robert Harris

My introduction to Robert Harris came through An Officer and a Spy, a wonderful fictionalisation of the Dreyfus affair in 19th century France. Since then I’ve read every new book he’s released, plus I’ve started on his back catalogue, and I’ve loved every one. However I have loads more to go – he’s quite prolific! Next up will be his Cicero trilogy. He achieves the perfect marriage of research, plotting and excellent writing – great stuff!

* * * * *

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Given how much I’ve talked about various stories being Lovecraftian in my horror slot, it’s strange to think that I’d never heard of him till I read an Oxford World’s Classics collection called The Classic Horror Stories, with a very informative introduction by Roger Luckhurst (another entry to the Hall of Fame – I now look out specifically for books he introduces). I don’t altogether love Lovecraft – too long-winded, too racist – but I recognise absolutely the huge influence he has been on the ‘weird’ story and on horror in general. Since that first meeting, he’s made an annual appearance in my Tuesday Terror! slot.

* * * * *

SC Gwynne

SC Gwynne

I was so blown away by SC Gwynne’s brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, Rebel Yell, that I gave it the FF Award for Book of the Year in 2014. The prize for this prestigious award is that I guarantee to read the author’s next book, even if I have to buy it myself! Imagine my… ahem… delight, then, when Gwynne’s next book was The Perfect Pass – a book about American Football, a subject in which my interest and knowledge tie for last place. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed it! Proof that a good writer can bring any subject to life. Oh, and I didn’t have to buy it – NetGalley gave me that one too.

* * * * *

John Gaspard

John Gaspard

I’ve loved every book in John Gaspard’s Eli Marks series, all of which I’ve been given via NetGalley. A little too dark to be cosies, these are plotted in Golden Age style but with a contemporary setting. Eli is a stage magician and each book is set around a particular trick. Gaspard is brilliant at bringing the magic to life on the page, while following the magician’s code of never revealing how it’s done. I still laugh every time I remember how he managed to read my mind during a trick in book 1! His next book is due this month – can’t wait! And I’ve also bought an earlier book of his that predates this series – The Ripperologists – which sounds like fun too.

* * * * *

Ken Kalfus

The first new-to-me author to whom NetGalley introduced me, when I fell in love with the cover of Equilateral and took a punt on it. He’s now a firm favourite – a writer who gets a lot of critical attention but still doesn’t seem to get the public readership and recognition I feel he deserves. I’ve read and loved a few of his books since then, old and new – only a couple more to go as he’s not nearly prolific enough! He spent several years in Russia so a lot of his books are directly or indirectly about life under the Soviets – he’s one of the inspirations behind my current fascination with that regime.

* * * * *

Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman has firmly established himself as my favourite historian, despite some stiff competition in what has been a golden age for history books over the last few years. My first introduction to him was The Cave and The Light – a comprehensive look at the competing influences of Plato and Aristotle over the last 2,500 years of philosophy. Phew! Not an easy read, but a brilliant one. Since then, I’ve read all his new books and most of the ones that interest me from his back catalogue. And I’m super excited that he’s bringing out a new one on the Russian Revolution this month – the perfect way to end my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge.

* * * * *

William McIlvanney

William McIlvanney

As probably the most influential Scottish crime writer of all time, known as the Father of Tartan Noir, I’m ashamed that I had never read any McIlvanney till NetGalley offered a new edition of his 1977 book, Laidlaw. I was blown away by the quality of the writing, his brilliant use of Glaswegian dialect and the total authenticity of his portrayal of the city at the time of my own youth in it. I have gone on to read the rest of the Laidlaw trilogy and one of his fiction novels, and am looking forward hugely to gradually working my way through the rest of his stuff. For McIlvanney alone, NetGalley has been a wondrous thing for me.

* * * * *

So there they are – seven great authors I may never have read had it not been for NetGalley. And that’s not to mention all the wonderful books I’ve had from existing favourites like Jane Casey, Sharon Bolton, Belinda Bauer, etc., etc. All I can really say is…

THANKS, NETGALLEY!

* * * * *

What about you? If you’re a NetGalley member have you found new favourites through them? If so, I’d love to hear – either in the comments or in a post of your own.

The Perfect Pass by SC Gwynne

Play the next play…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the perfect passThis is the story of how a college coach, Hal Mumme, developed an “unstoppable” offense that would defeat even the biggest, strongest defenses; and of how that offense gradually spread throughout college football and into the professional leagues, changing the very nature of the game – the Air Raid offense.

Sometimes you just have to take the things life throws at you and run with them. When SC Gwynne won my Book of the Year award in 2014 for Rebel Yell, his brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, I gave him the usual prize – my promise to read his next book. Of course, I was assuming it would be another biography of a historical soldier or politician. Imagine my… delight when it turned out to be a book about a passing offense in American football! In my life I have watched one full game and a bit of another, and frankly thought it was a jolly silly game a game one has to have grown up with to fully appreciate. So the question was not so much whether I’d like this book as whether I’d even understand it!

Gwynne starts with a great description of Texas Tech putting the Air Raid offense into action in 2008. He then whisks us back in time to meet Hal Mumme at the beginning of his coaching career. He shows the uncertainty of life as a college coach in a nation obsessed with the game – a hero when leading his team to victory, but abused and reviled if they lose. Hal had always wanted to coach, despite the low pay and precariousness of the profession. His big idea was that he was going to make throwing the ball the centre of the game.

1929 - when men were men and football was war
1929 – when men were men and football was war

To explain why this idea was so radical, Gwynne gives a potted history of the rise of football. He shows it as arising out of a nostalgia for war – an opportunity for men to hone their manly aggression in peacetime. Therefore it was all about brute force in “the pile” in the middle of the field – meat on meat, as it was charmingly summed up. The more broken bones, busted skulls and fatal injuries the better – a real man’s game! Forward passing was initially prohibited, but when reformers began demanding that the game be made less dangerous, it was eventually legalised. However, it was rarely used, since in this beefy culture it was seen as “feminising” the game. In short, passing was for sissies. Games were all about bulldozing the opposition, and as a result were usually low-scoring and rather dull to watch. This chapter is so well-told and very funny in places, especially over the “manliness” aspects of it all.

Though the passing technology was more than half a century old, there was still something morally thrilling about watching the quarterback toss the ball to the tailback, while the guard or tackle pulled and the fullback crashed down on the defensive end and the whole team seemed to move en masse in that swinging, lovely rightward arc of pure power followed by the popping sounds of all those helmets and pads and the scream of the crowd as the whole thing disintegrated into a mass of bodies on the turf.

Testing football helmets...
Testing football helmets…

Hal was convinced though that passing could be made to work, especially for teams without the brute power to win against bigger opponents using traditional plays. The bulk of the book is taken up with Hal’s long road to development of the Air Raid, learning from other coaches who used passing plays in their games, trying out new things with the various teams he worked with and, with his long-time coaching partner Mike Leach, gradually refining his system so that even fairly mediocre players could be taught it. It wasn’t just on the field that he changed things. Again the culture was to make the players prove their toughness in full contact training, often being injured before they even got to play, or being worked so hard in training sessions they would be on or past the point of collapse. Hal had his players do shorter sessions, focussed on passing rather than tackling, developing precision in throwing and tactics rather than beating each other to a pulp. His idea, which doesn’t sound as though it should have been revolutionary but apparently was, was that football should be fun!

Hal Mumme and Mike Leach
Hal Mumme and Mike Leach

And gradually, the no-hoper teams he initially worked with began to win games, and to win them spectacularly with huge scores. And dismissive traditionalist crowds began to see that the passing game was exciting (especially the fans of the winning teams – the losing fans perhaps weren’t quite so enthused). Slowly other coaches started to use Hal’s techniques until eventually passing became an accepted part of the game. Hal’s own career remained chequered and he never made it into the professional divisions, but his ideas did, and the final version of all his work, the Air Raid offense, has been used and adapted by the top teams.

Hal Mumme with Tim Couch, then coach and QB of University of Kentucky Photo credit: Ed Reinke/AP
Hal Mumme with Tim Couch, then coach and QB of Kentucky Wildcats
Photo credit: Ed Reinke/AP

One of Hal’s favourite sayings was, Play the next play. The words were a combination pep talk and theory of life, perfectly aligned with his coaching philosophy. The gist was, life, like football, is a headlong dive into the future. There is no past, at least not one you should worry too much about. If you lose, let it go. Don’t panic. If you win, don’t be too satisfied. Play the next play.

SC Gwynne
SC Gwynne

This isn’t a hugely long book, but even so I’ve only given a flavour of it. Gwynne’s writing brings the sport to life and he explains all the various plays clearly enough that even I felt I understood them. There are lots of diagrams to show the various offensive formations and how they’re designed to bamboozle the opposition defenses. Through it all, Gwynne’s respect for and warmth towards the game, its coaches and players, shines through, and the occasional humour and great descriptions of the games make the book entertaining as well as informative. A surprise hit for me, proving that a great writer can make almost any subject fascinating. I may even watch a few more games now…

(Since the game is American, I’ve gone along with the wrong American spellings of offence and defence throughout… 😉 )

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

TBR Thursday 93…

Episode 93…

A massive drop in the TBR this week – down 1 to 176! This is clearly the start of a downward trend and I expect to be down to single figures quite soon. Unless something goes wrong with my willpower, but that’s highly unlikely, don’t you think?

Here are a few that will be moving onto the Reading section of my spreadsheet soon…

Factual

Sometimes, I can’t help but feel that there’s a malicious booksprite picking on me. Or perhaps I’m being punished for something I did in a past life – wrote a scathing review of Chaucer or something. It seemed like a safe idea, when creating the annual FictionFan Awards, to make the prize be a promise that I’d read the author’s next book. I mean, authors always stick to similar subjects, don’t they? So when SC Gwynne won the 2014 prize with Rebel Yell, his brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, I settled down to wait patiently for another fascinating slice of American history to come along. So imagine my… delight… when his next book turns out to be all about a particular pass in American football. All I know (or want to) about American football is that you don’t play it with your feet…

the perfect passCourtesy of NetGalley and another of my 20 Books. If SC Gwynne can make me enjoy this, forget the Booker – the man deserves the Nobel Peace Prize!

The Blurb says: Hal Mumme spent fourteen mostly losing seasons coaching football before inventing a potent passing offense strategy that would revolutionize the game. That transformation began at a tiny college called Iowa Wesleyan, where Mumme was head coach and Mike Leach his assistant. It was there that Mumme invented the purest and most extreme passing game in the 145-year history of football, where his quarterback once completed 61 of 86 passes (both national records). His teams played blazingly fast—faster than any team ever had before. They rarely punted on a fourth down (eh?), and routinely beat teams with ten or twenty times Iowa Wesleyan’s students. Mumme did it all with average athletes and without even a playbook.

In The Perfect Pass, S.C. Gwynne explores Mumme’s genius and the stunning performance of his teams, as well as his leading role in changing football from a run-dominated sport to a pass-dominated sport. He also shares the history of a moment in American football when the game changed fundamentally and transformed itself into what tens of millions of Americans now watch on television every weekend. Whether you’re a casual or ravenous football fan (or… me?), this is a truly compelling story of American ingenuity, innovation, and how a set of revolutionary ideas made their way into the mainstream of sports culture that we celebrate today.

tom-brady-replacement

* * * * *

Fiction

dirt roadJames Kelman is Scotland’s only Booker prize winner, though not for this novel, of course. To my shame, I haven’t read any of his books (mainly because I think there’s a very good chance I’ll hate them due to his reputation for extreme sweariness). Time to find out… Courtesy of NetGalley…

The Blurb says: From the Booker Prizewinning James Kelman, comes a road trip through the American South. Murdo, a teenager obsessed with music, wishes for a life beyond the constraints of his Scottish island home and dreams of becoming his own man. Tom, battered by loss, stumbles backwards towards the future, terrified of losing his dignity, his control, his son and the last of his family life. Both are in search of something new as they set out on an expedition into the American South. On the road we discover whether the hopes of youth can conquer the fears of age. Dirt Road is a major novel exploring the brevity of life, the agonising demands of love and the lure of the open road.

It is also a beautiful book about the power of music and all that it can offer. From the understated serenity of Kelman’s prose emerges a devastating emotional power.

* * * * *

Sci-fi

from the dust returned 2The last of my 20 Books and it’ll be a miracle if I make it in time. I was blown away by Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Time to find out if that book was a one-off or if he can do it again…

The Blurb says: High on a hill by a forked tree, the House beckons its family homeward, and they come–travelers from the lyrical, lush imagination of Ray Bradbury.

From the Dust Returned chronicles a community of eternal beings: a mummified matriarch who speaks in dust; a sleeping daughter who lives through the eyes and ears of the creatures she visits in her dreams; an uncle with wings like sea-green sails. And there is also the mortal child Timothy, the foundling son who yearns to be like those he loves: to fly, to sleep in daytime, and to live forever. Instead, his task is to witness the family’s struggle with the startling possibility of its own end.

Bradbury is deservedly recognized as a master of lyricism and delicate mood. In this novel he weaves together individuals’ stories and the overarching family crisis into a softly whispered, seductive tale of longing and loss, death and life in the shadowy places.

* * * * *

Crime

4.50 from paddingtonFor the Agatha Christie Blogathon in September, a re-read of one of Agatha Christie’s finest books. It’s not too late to join in – if you’d like to participate, click on the logo on my sidebar to the right…

The Blurb says: Agatha Christie’s audacious mystery thriller, reissued with a striking new cover* designed to appeal to the latest generation of Agatha Christie fans and book lovers. (*New in the 1970s, that is, when I collected every one of the Fontana editions of Christie books with the fabulous cover designs by Tom Adams. They may be yellow, tatty and dog-eared from too many re-reads now, but there will always be a place for them on my bookshelves…)

For an instant the two trains ran together, side by side. In that frozen moment, Elspeth witnessed a murder. Helplessly, she stared out of her carriage window as a man remorselessly tightened his grip around a woman’s throat. The body crumpled. Then the other train drew away.

But who, apart from Miss Marple, would take her story seriously? After all, there were no suspects, no other witnesses… and no corpse.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
SEPTEMBER

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.

So here are my favourite September reads – click on the covers to go to the full reviews…

 

2011

 

gods without menA young autistic boy disappears on a trip to the California desert, a disappearance that echoes other incidents in the history of this empty and mysterious place. Kunzru takes the reader back through the history of the various people who have visited this place or made their lives there. Each is fundamentally changed by their experiences there. A beautifully written novel, enigmatic enough to allow for different interpretations. For me,  it is about the search for faith – the desire for belief. The fascinating characters bring so many gods to the desert over the years, and it seems that the desert absorbs them and weaves them into its mystery. But the book is not preaching a particular line – the overwhelming feeling left at the end is that, for the author as well as for some of the characters, the question of whether there is something beyond the rational remains unanswered, perhaps unanswerable. I’ve been waiting for four years to read Kunzru’s next novel… still waiting.

 

2012

 

my heart is my ownIt was John Guy’s brilliant biography of Thomas Becket that reawakened my enthusiasm for reading historical biography after a lapse of many years. This earlier book of his is a sympathetic portrait of the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots. Meticulously researched, as Guy’s books always are, but he’s also a great storyteller who makes his books as enjoyable as they are interesting. He set the standard that I’ve looked for ever since in non-academic histories – that is, to assume no knowledge on the part of the reader, fill in all the necessary background, give a picture of the wider society and tell the whole thing in an interesting way. Mary is one of the endlessly fascinating characters in history, still attracting supporters and denigrators centuries after she died. Guy is undoubtedly a supporter – in fact, at times I almost felt he’d fallen a little in love with his subject. But then it seems Mary had that effect on many men…

 

2013

 

the bones of parisIt’s 1929 and Paris is filled with avant-garde artists leading the bohemian life. So when Harris Stuyvesant, ex-FBI agent turned private investigator, is hired to find a missing young American woman he fully expects to find her so immersed in this exciting world that she’s simply forgotten the folks back home. That is, until he meets Inspector Doucet, a man worried about unsolved disappearances stretching back for years. As Harris plunges into the strange and twisted world of surrealist art, Grand Guinol theatre, decadence and drugs, he begins to realise that the glittering artistic society hides a dark secret…

A fairly slow-burn thriller, this works well as a standalone although it’s the second book in the Harris Stuyvesant series. Some of the adjectives I used in my review were macabre, gruesome, dark, sensual, disturbing. The story somewhat takes second place to King’s brilliantly convincing picture of the amorality of the bohemian scene in 1920’s Paris.

 

2014

 

rebel yellI feel I’ve been banging on about this book forever, but since it won my Book of the Year Award last year, it could hardly not be the best book of the month! So, since I have nothing left to say about it (other than – read it!), I’ll just apologise instead for nearly reigniting the Civil War on Amazon US! It all started with one comment on my review from someone who felt I shouldn’t have shown any admiration for a Confederate. I replied with a fairly bland response to the effect that of course I wasn’t intending to imply any kind of support for slavery. I then got blasted by another commenter who felt the need to explain to me – at some length, I may say – that the Civil War wasn’t fundamentally about slavery. (He had clearly failed to spot I’d just read a 400-page book on the subject.) This did not please Mr First Commenter! (Yes, of course they were both men – did you ever doubt it?) He replied forcefully and at equal length. A ding-dong ensued, which gradually spread to about a zillion people all hurling Yankee and Confederate insults at each other. I dropped out of the conversation at about the fifth comment but it still rumbles on, as a new reader comes along, reads the thousands and thousands of words, leaves their own comment and starts them all off again…

 

2015

 

the voices beyondA difficult choice, since September was filled with 5-star books, but this is one of the best crime/thrillers I’ve read in a long time. Set in two timelines, this takes us to present day Öland in Sweden, and back to Stalinist USSR at the time of the Great Terror. While the present day story is good, it’s the USSR strand that lifts the book so far above the average. This time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times. Back in the present, the main protagonist is 86-year-old Gerlof, and his characterisation is another of the book’s major strengths. This is the fourth book in Theorin’s Öland Quartet, all featuring Gerlof, and led to me immediately adding the other three to my already groaning TBR…

* * * * * * *

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for September, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

 

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Crime/Thriller Category – Standalones & Book of the Year 2014

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Crime Fiction/Thriller Category – Standalones.

The last reminder of the rules for this year…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 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

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – Books in a Series

Crime Fiction/Thrillers – Standalone Novels

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

 

CRIME FICTION/THRILLERS

 

And here we go for the final category (hurrah!) for this year. It’s been a great year for original and well-written standalones, many of them with more than a touch of humour, black or otherwise. To be honest, any of these would make a fine winner, but only one can get the prize. So here goes…

STANDALONES

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

life or deathLife or Death by Michael Robotham

One of the finds of the year for me, I’ve been loving Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series, and this standalone is equally good. Audie Palmer has been in prison for ten years for an armed robbery that went wrong. Although two of the gang died and Audie was arrested, the stolen $7 million has never been found. Since Audie’s brother is suspected of being the fourth gang member, everyone assumes he’s living a life of luxury somewhere and that Audie will get his share when he gets out. So why would Audie suddenly choose to escape, just one day before he’s due to be released? It seems he has made a promise that he must keep – but there are people who want to stop him. So not only is Audie running from the law, he’s in a race to fulfil his mission before he loses his life…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

moriartyA brilliant ‘follow-on’ novel. There’s no sign of Holmes or Watson in this one but it’s set perfectly in the Holmesian world we know so well. It is the year 1891, just after Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have fought their final battle at Reichenbach Falls. Our narrator is Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton man, in Europe on the trail of a criminal mastermind, one Clarence Devereux, who he believes is responsible for killing one of his colleagues.There’s constant excitement, terrifying peril, touches of horror, brilliant descriptions of London and enough humour to keep the tone light. The writing is superb, totally within character and as good as Conan Doyle’s own. The tone feels completely right for a Holmes book and the world of the book is absolutely the one in which Holmes lived and worked. And the only word I can find for the climax is awesome! So clever I read the last part of the book with a huge grin on my face, out of sheer pleasure and admiration.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

little liesLittle Lies by Liane Moriarty (aka Big Little Lies)

Trivia Night at Pirriwee Public Primary School in New South Wales doesn’t turn out quite as planned. We learn in Chapter 1 that the evening ends with a murder, but we don’t know the victim, the murderer or the motive. We are then whisked back six months to meet the various characters and follow the events leading up to the murder. It all begins on the day the mothers bring their five-year-olds along to the Kindergarten ‘Let’s Get Ready’ Orientation Day…

I loved this book. The mothers are brilliantly observed, completely believable – people most of us have met. They each have quirks and flaws, they can be annoying, but they’re also intensely likeable – you can’t help but feel that it would be so much fun to spend time with them. The writing is great, and the author keeps a perfect balance between the serious side of the story and the humour – like in real life, she allows her characters to have both happy and sad times, rather than burying them under a blanket of angst. So nearly the winner…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

Summer HouseAs the book begins we learn that Marc is being investigated for malpractice by the Board of Medical Examiners over the death of one of his patients, successful actor Ralph Maier. As he waits to learn the outcome, Marc tells the story of how Ralph became his patient and of how their families gradually became acquainted, culminating with Marc taking his wife and two young daughters to stay with Ralph’s family in his summer house, complete with swimming pool. Sexual attraction turns the house-party into a bubbling cauldron of hidden and not-so-hidden emotions, gradually coming to a boil as we move towards the shocking incident that’s at the heart of the story. Dark, funny and thought-provoking, in the end this is as much about the diseases of the soul as of the body, the two somehow tangled together in Marc’s mind. The pacing is perfect, the writing and translation are superb, and Marc is an unforgettable monster of a character. Brilliant!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

a pleasure and a callingA Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

William Heming has always been fascinated by the lives of the people around him. Some might call him a stalker, but he wouldn’t call himself that. He just likes to find out all about people…without them knowing. So when he is given a job as an estate agent, what joy! The ability to poke and pry round other people’s houses; and better yet, to be able to copy the keys of the houses so that he can pop back when the owners are out – or even when they’re in…

If I had an award category for character of the year, Mr Heming would win hands down! This is a hugely entertaining read, both creepy and humorous. Twisty and turny all the way through, it kept me guessing right up to the end. It’s all handled with huge skill and a lot of humour so that the reader ends up completely ambivalent about the awful Mr Heming – laughing along with his wicked sense of humour even while condemning his ever-more extreme behaviour. Oh, it’s hard not to let this one win…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST CRIME FICTION/THRILLER – STANDALONE

 

 Entry_Island_JK (2)

Entry Island by Peter May

In the tiny community of Entry Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, a man has been brutally murdered. The local police don’t have the expertise to investigate such a serious crime, so the Quebec Sûreté send a team to the island. Unusually for this French-speaking province, the islanders are English-speaking, so his Scottish descent means that Detective Sime Mackenzie is included in the team to carry out interviews. But when Sime (pronounced Sheem) meets Kirsty Cowell, the wife of the victim and the chief suspect, he is struck with an unshakeable feeling that he knows her…although they have never met.

Like the Lewis Trilogy, Entry Island has a double time-line – the present day investigation set in Canada, and a historical storyline set on Lewis. May’s books are always meticulously researched with a very strong sense of place. But since he started writing about Lewis this strength has taken on an extra layer – it feels as if he is really now writing with his heart as well as his head. He spent a good deal of time on Lewis while producing a Gaelic-language drama serial, Machair, and he seems to have absorbed the landscape and the community of this remote and weather-beaten island until it has become an integral part of him. In my opinion, this is the best book May has ever written and one of the best crime novels I have read – with an authenticity and depth of emotion that reduced this sentimental lowland Scot to tears on more than one occasion. A great book and a worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

And now…

the nominees for the Book of the Year Award are…

 

 

FICTIONFAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2014

 

THE WINNER

 

Factual...
Factual…

 

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson
by S.C. Gwynne

The first time a factual book has ever been my book of the year, but this is an outstanding biography, as readable as the best fiction. Well researched and clearly structured, the book balances the history and the personal perfectly, but what really made it stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anyone to interest me in the minutiae of military campaigns, but I became absorbed by the descriptions of artillery and troop movements, supply chains and battle plans. Gwynne’s brilliance at contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the horrors of the battlefield is matched by his ability to show the contrast between Jackson’s public and private personas. If only all history were written like this – a superb book, and one that gets my highest recommendation – truly the book of the year.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * *

Thanks to all of you who’ve stuck with me through this mammoth awards feature – I may try to streamline it a bit in future years. I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Factual

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014.

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 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories have changed slightly since last year to better reflect what I’ve been reading this year.

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

Factual

Genre Fiction

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

 

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

FACTUAL

 

Last year, I split my factual reads into two categories – Science/Nature/Environment and History/Biography/Politics. This year I’ve read lots of history and politics, but very little popular science, so I’ve gone for a single category of Factual. This category contains many of the books I’ve enjoyed most throughout the year. It’s a Golden Age for factual writing at the moment – both quantity and quality. Which means that the choice has been a very difficult one indeed…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the cave and the lightThe Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilisation by Arthur Herman

In this comprehensive view of the last 2,500 years, Arthur Herman sets out to prove his contention that the history of Western civilisation has been influenced and affected through the centuries by the tension between the worldviews of the two greatest of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy, politics, religion and science are all discussed,, showing how they linked and overlapped to influence the major periods and events of Western history – the fall of Greek civilisation, the Roman Empire, the birth and rise of Christianity, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Revolution and on past the rise of totalitarianism to the end of the Cold War. Phew! And yet, Herman’s writing style makes the book very accessible to the non-academic reader. Not the lightest read in the world, but great for anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals and history of Western philosophy.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

When Chicago won the right to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, there was much sneering from the snobbish elite of New York and elsewhere at the idea of this brash, dirty city, best known as the home of slaughterhouses and pork-packing factories, being able to put on a show that would impress the world. However, brash though Chicago may have been, it was also filled with go-getters and entrepreneurs, tough businessmen with determination, drive and, most of all, massive amounts of civic pride. This is the story of how those men turned an impossible dream into an astonishing reality – the building of the White City and the Chicago World’s Fair. And it’s also the story of how one man took advantage of the huge numbers of people coming into Chicago because of the Fair to indulge his psychopathic tendencies – the serial killer HH Holmes. A fascinating story very well told, I found this a totally absorbing read, written so well that it read like a novel complete with drama and tension.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

roy jenkins2Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

An affectionate and well-researched biography of one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins’ life in the context of the times at all stages thus also giving us a look at the wider political context. Jenkins did indeed live a well-rounded life – he was not just a highly successful politician but a very well-regarded biographer in his own right, of political figures such as Asquith and Churchill. But he also enjoyed the social side of life, never allowing the pressures of his various roles to get in the way of the more hedonistic side of his nature. This huge book is well written and structured so that, despite its size, it is a flowing and accessible read. An excellent biography that does its subject full justice.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the scottish enlightenmentThe Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

Yes, two books from Arthur Herman made the runners-up list. I don’t think I’ve read a factual book about Scotland in the last year that hasn’t referenced this one. And not surprisingly – not only is it an excellently written history, it’s also extremely flattering about the Scots. Even our First Minister, Alex Salmond, was plugging it during the Independence debate. Although there are a few chapters in this book dedicated to explaining the ideas of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the bulk of the book is an examination of how those ideas spread via the Scottish diaspora, and changed not just Scotland or the UK but, in Herman’s view, the Western world. As accessible as The Cave and the Light (but considerably shorter), this book is certainly not just for Scots – in fact, there’s as much in it about the founding of America as about Scotland. A fascinating and enjoyable read.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST FACTUAL

 

rebel yell

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne

I can’t remember ever enjoying a biography more than this one. Well researched and clearly structured, the book balances the history and the personal perfectly, but what really made it stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anyone to interest me in the minutiae of military campaigns, but I became absorbed by the descriptions of artillery and troop movements, supply chains and battle plans. Gwynne’s brilliance at contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the horrors of the battlefield is matched by his ability to show the contrast between Jackson’s public and private personas. If only all history were written like this – a superb book, and a worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Genre Fiction Award

Rebel Yell by S. C. Gwynne

The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

“Draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.”

 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

rebel yellI’ll start with my usual disclaimer that I can’t speak to the accuracy of the history in this book. In fact, my prior knowledge of Stonewall Jackson, and indeed the whole Civil War, could fairly be described as non-existent. But Gwynne has clearly done a huge amount of research and, assuming the accuracy, the only word that I can find to describe the book is superb. In terms of the quality of the descriptive writing, the structure and skilful use of language, and the depth Gwynne brings to the characters of Jackson and his comrades and friends, the book stands not just as an outstanding biography but as a very fine piece of literary writing.

As Jackson and his force of cadets set out to war, Gwynne tells us of his pre-war life as a rather strange and awkward man, deeply religious, suffering from poor health and perhaps a degree of hypochondria. Having overcome his early lack of education to scrape into West Point, he took full advantage of the opportunities on offer there, dragging himself up from the bottom of the class to graduate in a fairly high position. The first signs of his heroism were seen in the Mexican war when his courageous – some might say reckless – actions against a much greater enemy force were crucial to the success of the assault on Mexico City. But after this war, Jackson had taken a position as professor at the Virginia Military Institute, a job for which he seemed remarkably unsuited. Unable to control his unruly classes and an uninspiring teacher, he was seen as something of an oddity by his pupils. Gwynne shows how that all changed as he became one of the Confederacy’s finest leaders, with many of these same pupils ending up willing to follow him anywhere and die for him if necessary.

Jackson's Foot Cavalry
Jackson’s Foot Cavalry

To them, Jackson’s movement east with his vaunted Army of the Valley meant that he was coming to save Richmond, which meant that he was coming to save the Confederacy. And the soldiers of the beleaguered Army of Northern Virginia believed to the bottom of their ragged, malnourished rebel souls that he was going to do precisely that.

This is very much a biography of Jackson and a history of his military campaigns, rather than a history of the Civil War itself. Therefore Gwynne doesn’t go too deeply into the politics of why the war came about, nor does he make any overt judgements about the rights or wrongs of it. Although in the course of the campaigns, we find out a lot about some of the commanders and politicians on the Unionist side, the book is rooted within the Confederacy and the reader sees the war very much from their side. As we follow Jackson through his campaigns, Gwynne, with the assistance of clear and well-placed maps, brings the terrain to life, vividly contrasting the beauty of the country with the brutality and horrors of the battlefields. He gives such clear detail of the strategies and battle-plans, of troop numbers and movements, of weaponry and equipment, that each battle is brought dramatically to life. In fact, my lack of knowledge was something of an unexpected benefit since I genuinely didn’t know the outcome of the battles and so was in a constant state of suspense. And found that I very soon had given myself over completely to willing Jackson onto victory. The image of this heroic man mounted on his favourite horse in the midst of mayhem, the light of battle in his eyes, one hand held high as he prayed for God’s help while the bullets and artillery thudded all around him, is not one I shall soon forget.

Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Wiinchester, Virginia  by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume
Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Wiinchester, Virginia
by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume

On the way back to headquarters Jackson, riding now with McGuire and Smith, said nothing until they neared their camp, when he suddenly said, “How horrible is war.”

“Horrible, yes,” McGuire replied. “But we have been invaded. What can we do?”

“Kill them, sir,” Jackson said. “Kill every man.”

From the beginnings of the creation of the Jackson legend in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, then on through the series of battles where he snatched victory from what should have been certain defeat, till his final stunning achievements as the right-hand man of General Robert E Lee, Gwynne shows the growing admiration and even love of his troops for this man whose total belief in the rightness of his cause and God’s protection led him to take extraordinary risks. He drove his men brutally hard, marching them at unheard-of speeds, on half rations or worse, and he threw them into battle even when they were exhausted and weak and hugely outnumbered. But his personal courage and strategic brilliance turned him into a figurehead – a symbol for the South, whose very name could make the Unionist commanders tremble. Cheered and adulated by soldiers and citizenry everywhere he went, he consistently insisted that all praise for his victories was God’s due, not his, and remained awkward in the face of his growing celebrity to the end.

Men were fixing dinner and taking naps or relaxing, listening to the distant music of a regimental band, or perhaps discussing the Confederate retreat, when suddenly all nature seemed to rise up in revolt around them. Through their camps rushed frantic rabbits, deer, quail, and wild turkeys, then there was an odd silence, and then Jackson’s massive, screaming, onrushing wall of grey was upon them.

But amidst all the warfare, Gwynne doesn’t forget to tell us about the man. We see the other side of Jackson – the family man, grieving for the death of his first young wife and then finding happiness with his second, Anna. Through extracts from his letters, we see the softer, loving side of Jackson and also learn more about his deeply held conviction of God’s presence in every aspect of his life. We learn how the war divided him from his much loved sister who took the Unionist side. And we’re told of the efforts he made to nurture religion amongst his troops. A silent and somewhat socially awkward man to outward appearance, we see how he opened up to the people closest to him, taking special pleasure in the company of young children. A man of contradictions, truly, who could hurl his men to their almost certain deaths one day and weep for the death of a friend’s child the next.

Last meeting of Generals Robert E Lee and Thomas J "Stonewall" Jackson
Last meeting of Generals Robert E Lee and Thomas J “Stonewall” Jackson

A biography that balances the history and the personal perfectly, what really made this book stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. As Gwynne recounted the final scenes of Jackson’s death and funereal journey, I freely admit I wept along with the crowds of people who lined the streets in wait for a last chance to see their great hero. And I wondered with them whether the outcome might have been different had Jackson lived. If only all history were written like this…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 36…

Episode 36

 

So there I was, all ready for another hard day’s blogging, when all of a sudden my computer heaved a mighty sigh, rolled over…and died! (Oh sorry! I should have warned you this was a sad story – I’ll wait if you need to get a tissue… ) Perhaps it was due to its great age, or perhaps it just couldn’t take one more cat video…we’ll never know, I guess. But after I’d given up my attempts at resuscitation, and was gazing brokenly at a black screen, a little thought came into my head. The TBR!! When did I last back up the TBR list??? Devastation rolled over me at the thought of losing the whole list… devastation, closely followed by something that felt not unlike the sun peeping out from behind a cloud, or losing a tin of spinach and finding a box of chocolates…

Turns out the last back-up was May. Furthermore it turns out that there are over 60 books that were on the list back then that I’ve still not read! And sadly/happily the list was easily resurrected from pre-orders and wishlists. So what have we learned here, people? Either – ALWAYS backup your TBR list or… NEVER backup your TBR list. I hope that advice is helpful to you.

So after all that, this week’s total is… 115! Here are a few that will be reaching the top of the pile soon…

Crime

 

confessionsCourtesy of NetGalley, I’m sure I was tempted into this by another blogger, but the computer fiasco means I can’t remember who. Thanks, anyway – it looks interesting…

The Blurb saysHer pupils murdered her daughter. Now she will have her revenge.
After calling off her engagement in the wake of a tragic revelation, Yuko Moriguchi had nothing to live for except her only child, four-year-old Manami. Now, following an accident on the grounds of the middle school where she teaches, Yuko has given up and tendered her resignation. But first she has one last lecture to deliver. She tells a story that upends everything her students ever thought they knew about two of their peers, and sets in motion a diabolical plot for revenge. Narrated in alternating voices, with twists you’ll never see coming, Confessions probes the limits of punishment, despair, and tragic love, culminating in a harrowing confrontation between teacher and student that will place the occupants of an entire school in danger. You’ll never look at a classroom the same way again.

 * * * * *

Factual

 

rebel yellFrom NetGalley again. I’m not sure what kind of mood I was in when I requested this one, but it seemed like a good idea at the time…

The Blurb saysStonewall Jackson has long been a figure of legend and romance. As much as any person in the Confederate pantheon, even Robert E. Lee, he embodies the romantic Southern notion of the virtuous lost cause. Jackson is also considered, without argument, one of our country’s greatest military figures. His brilliance at the art of war tied Abraham Lincoln and the Union high command in knots and threatened the ultimate success of the Union armies. Jackson’s strategic innovations shattered the conventional wisdom of how war was waged; he was so far ahead of his time that his techniques would be studied generations into the future.

Rebel Yell is written with the swiftly vivid narrative that is Gwynne’s hallmark and is rich with battle lore, biographical detail, and intense conflict between historical figures. Gwynne delves deep into Jackson’s private life, including the loss of his young beloved first wife and his regimented personal habits. It traces Jackson’s brilliant twenty-four-month career in the Civil War, the period that encompasses his rise from obscurity to fame and legend; his stunning effect on the course of the war itself; and his tragic death, which caused both North and South to grieve the loss of a remarkable American hero.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

the children actIan McEwan’s previous books have covered the whole range from Love It to Hate It for me, but though I’m always a bit apprehensive I’m driven to read them as soon as they come out. This one will arrive on my Kindle around 1 a.m. on 2nd September…

The Blurb saysFiona Maye is a High Court judge in London presiding over cases in family court. She is fiercely intelligent, well-respected, and deeply immersed in the nuances of her particular field of law. Often the outcome of a case seems simple from the outside, the course of action to ensure a child’s welfare obvious. But the law requires more rigor than mere pragmatism, and Fiona is expert in considering the sensitivities of culture and religion when handing down her verdicts.

But Fiona’s professional success belies domestic strife. Her husband, Jack, asks her to consider an open marriage and, after an argument, moves out of their house. His departure leaves her adrift, wondering whether it was not love she had lost so much as a modern form of respectability; whether it was not contempt and ostracism she really fears. She decides to throw herself into her work, especially a complex case involving a seventeen-year-old boy whose parents will not permit a lifesaving blood transfusion because it conflicts with their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. But Jack doesn’t leave her thoughts, and the pressure to resolve the case—as well as her crumbling marriage—tests Fiona in ways that will keep readers thoroughly enthralled until the last stunning page.

 

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

* * * * *

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