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!

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Next week: Best Genre Fiction Award

The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman

the cave and the lightEnquire Within About Everything…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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. And for this reader at least, his argument is a convincing one.

The book covers so much in terms of both philosophy and history that a full review would run to thousands of words. Happily that’s not going to happen here, dear reader. I will simply say that, from knowing virtually nothing about philosophy, I now feel as well informed as if I had done an undergraduate level course in the subject.

Plato
Plato

Herman starts way back at Socrates and brings us right up to the philosophers of the late twentieth century. He begins by giving a fairly in-depth analysis of the chief insights of both Plato and his former pupil Aristotle, using Plato’s metaphor of the cave and the light to show how their views diverged. He shows Plato as the mystic and idealist, believer in the divinity of Pythagorean geometry, advocate of the philosopher king, believing that the route to the light of wisdom is available only to some through contemplation and speculation and that these few should set rules for the rest to follow. Aristotle is shown as the man of science and common sense, believing that there is much to be learned from an examination of life in the cave itself and advocating that all men (sorry, women, you’ll have to wait a couple of millennia) should be involved in government with the family at the heart of society.

Herman takes these rival viewpoints (which I have grossly oversimplified and can only hope that I’ve got the basics approximately right) and shows how each has achieved ascendancy at different points in history. And what a journey he takes us on! 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! At each step along the way, he discusses the leading philosophers of the time, linking the chain of development of the various schools of thought back in a continuous line to one or other of Plato and Aristotle – occasionally both – and showing how the thinkers of the time affected the politics of nations. To my personal delight, he pays considerable attention to the Scottish contribution to the Enlightenment.

Raphael's The School of Athens (wikipaintings.org)
Raphael’s The School of Athens
(wikipaintings.org)

This is not just a history of philosophy and philosophers though – like philosophy itself, it covers just about every area of human interaction. The book provides the clearest overview I have ever read of the rise and development of Christianity, the divisions and schisms, the beliefs of the various factions. Herman leads us through from the Old Testament, St Paul, St Thomas Aquinas, Abelard, Erasmus – well, you name them, they’re here. He tells us about the people as individuals as well as their beliefs, so we learn about their backgrounds, where they were educated, whom they were influenced by and whom they in turn influenced.

On politics, amongst many other things, Herman writes in depth about the philosophers of the French Revolution, the founding of the American constitution and the rise of Nazism and fascism. He convincingly argues that the twentieth century history of the parallel rise of democracy and totalitarianism was seeded in the divide between Aristotle and Plato over two millennia earlier. Again the links in the chain are carefully connected – from Plato to Karl Marx, from Aristotle to Karl Popper.

Aristotle
Aristotle

The third main strand is science, and again Herman leads us through the ages, showing the close interconnection between the development of science and philosophy, together with the influence of scientific advancement on religion and politics – and vice versa.

Herman’s writing style is amazingly accessible considering the breadth and depth of the information that he conveys. He doesn’t over-simplify, but explains clearly enough for the non-academic to follow his arguments. My review suggests that he treats each of the strands separately, but in fact he tells the story in a linear fashion, weaving all the strands together, so that a very clear picture is given of the different stages of development of each at a given point in time. At points where it might all get too confusing, he takes the time to repeat the basics to put them into the context of the period he’s discussing, meaning that this poor befuddled reader didn’t have to keep flicking back to remind herself of who believed what.

There is so much in the book that I found this review particularly difficult to write. If I have given any idea of how impressive I found it, then the review has worked. That’s not to say I didn’t disagree with Herman from time to time. On occasion I felt he was stretching his argument a bit too far, perhaps, and once or twice he would make a sweeping statement completely dismissing conventionally held views in favour of his own. And towards the end I felt he was perhaps allowing his own political viewpoint to show through a little too much, in favour of ‘Aristotelian’ capitalism as opposed to ‘Platonic’ socialism for instance (though he pulled that back a little in his conclusion). But the very fact that, by the end of the book, I occasionally felt in a position to question his stance showed me how much I had gained from reading it. Not the lightest read in the world, but for anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals and history of Western philosophy, highly recommended.

Photo credit: Beth Herman
Photo credit: Beth Herman

Arthur Herman has been a Professor of History at various universities in the US and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his book Gandhi and Churchill.

(Phew! Made it in less than 1000 words – just! Apologies!)

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 7…

Episode 7

 

Since I can’t possibly add any more to the heaving, tottering pile of books waiting to be read, there will be no TBR Thursday winner this week. So instead here’s a few of the books that I’m looking forward to reading over the next couple of months…

Courtesy of NetGalley:

 

the cave and the lightThis falls into the ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ category, also known as the ‘what was I thinking?’ genre. However it’ll either be great or I will simply remind myself that suffering is good for the soul…apparently…

“Arthur Herman has now written the definitive sequel to his New York Times bestseller, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, and extends the themes of the book—which sold half a million copies worldwide—back to the ancient Greeks and forward to the age of the Internet. The Cave and the Light is a magisterial account of how the two greatest thinkers of the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle, laid the foundations of Western culture—and how their rivalry shaped the essential features of our culture down to the present day.”

*****

identicalAlready out in the US, but not yet published in the UK. I’ve been a fan of Scott Turow from way back when, although he is variable. But when he’s good, he’s very, very good…

“The Gianis’s and the Kronons. Two families entangled in a long and complex history of love and deceit . . . Twenty five years ago, after a society picnic held by businessman and politician Zeus Kronon, Zeus’ headstrong daughter Dita was found murdered. Her boyfriend, Cass Gianis, confessed to the crime. Now Cass has been released from prison into the care of his twin, Mayoral candidate Paul Gianis, who is in the middle of a high profile political campaign. But Dita’s brother Hal is convinced there is information surrounding his sister’s death that remains buried – and he won’t rest until he’s discovered the truth. A gripping masterpiece of dark family rivalries, shadowy politics and hidden secrets, Identical is the stunning new thriller from bestselling author Scott Turow, writing at the height of his powers.”

*****

smithAlthough this is nominally a children’s book, I first read it as a youngish adult and thought it was great. Now being republished as a ‘modern classic’ (gulp! am I really that old? – NB That’s a rhetorical question!) I’m interested to see whether it lives up to my memory of it…

“Twelve-year-old Smith is a denizen of the mean streets of eighteenth-century London, living hand to mouth by virtue of wit and pluck. One day he trails an old gentleman with a bulging pocket, deftly picks it, and as footsteps ring out from the alley by which he had planned to make his escape, finds himself in a tough spot. Taking refuge in a doorway, he sees two men emerge to murder the man who was his mark. They rifle the dead man’s pockets and finding them empty, depart in a rage. Smith, terrified, flees the scene of the crime. What has he stolen that is worth the life of a man?”

*****

Pre-orders:

 

sycamore rowA new Grisham is always a must-read – never less than good (except when he does one of his dreadful sports books) and often great. Unfortunately, it will be necessary to read A Time to Kill in preparation – so two for the TBR…

“For almost a quarter of a century, John Grisham’s A Time to Kill has captivated readers with its raw exploration of race, retribution, and justice. Now, its hero, Jake Brigance, returns to the courtroom in a dramatic showdown as Ford County again confronts its tortured history. Filled with the intrigue, suspense and plot twists that are the hallmarks of the world’s favourite storyteller, Sycamore Row is the thrilling story of the elusive search for justice in a small American town.”

*****


the goldfinchLike many other people I loved The Secret History and was disappointed by The Little Friend, so intrigued to see whether this will be a return to form…

“It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle. “

*****

entry islandAnd finally, following his triumphant Lewis Trilogy, Peter May moves on to pastures new. As someone who has followed May through his China thrillers, his French series and the Lewis books (not to mention his career as scriptwriter/producer on Scottish Television), I felt the Lewis books were his best work. How will the new series compare?

“When Detective Sime Mackenzie boards a light aircraft at Montreal’s St. Hubert airfield, he does so without looking back. For Sime, the 850-mile journey ahead represents an opportunity to escape the bitter blend of loneliness and regret that has come to characterise his life in the city.

Travelling as part of an eight-officer investigation team, Sime’s destination lies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only two kilometres wide and three long, Entry Island is home to a population of around 130 inhabitants – the wealthiest of which has just been discovered murdered in his home.

The investigation itself appears little more than a formality. The evidence points to a crime of passion: the victim’s wife the vengeful culprit. But for Sime the investigation is turned on its head when he comes face to face with the prime suspect, and is convinced that he knows her – even though they have never met.

Haunted by this certainty his insomnia becomes punctuated by dreams of a distant past on a Scottish island 3,000 miles away. Dreams in which the widow plays a leading role. Sime’s conviction becomes an obsession. And in spite of mounting evidence of her guilt he finds himself convinced of her innocence, leading to a conflict between the professonal duty he must fulfil, and the personal destiny that awaits him.”

*****

All blurbs are taken from either Amazon or NetGalley.

What do you think? Any of these that you’re looking forward to too? Or are there other new releases you’re impatiently awaiting?