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

“A democratic sensation…”

 

(The title of the post is a quote from Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, describing the extraordinary participation of normally disengaged citizens in the campaigns on both sides of the Scottish Independence debate.)

union-saltire

Two weeks from today, the people of Scotland will make the biggest decision that any nation can ever make – the state of its very nationhood. We will decide whether to remain part of the three-hundred-year old United Kingdom or to once again become an independent nation. Four years ago, I was a convinced Unionist, believing that the four nations that make up the UK (Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales) were stronger together – economically, strategically, perhaps even culturally. Two years ago, when the campaign began, my view had already begun to change. Again, as has happened for most of my lifetime, the people of Scotland and England had voted quite differently in the UK elections, and the sheer imbalance in numbers meant that the English vote carried the day. Once again, we were being run by a government we didn’t elect, didn’t support and felt alienated from. There is an argument that that’s what democracy is all about, that we should accept the majority view and keep campaigning from within; but in the UK we split politically along a fairly sharp dividing line, not far south of the Scottish/English border.

As a date for the vote was set for long ahead, I felt myself being emotionally drawn more towards the Yes for independence campaign, but since I am (I like to think) a rational being, I decided to make sure that whatever decision I reached would be an informed one. This decision isn’t about who’s in power today and whether or not we like them – it’s a decision that, whatever the result, will set the direction of our nation for the foreseeable future. Because of this (and perhaps for more strategically political reasons too) the franchise has been extended for the first time to include 16 and 17-year-olds – a group who have grasped this opportunity with enthusiasm and far more intellectual seriousness than the nay-sayers ever anticipated.

William McIlvanney says Yes
William McIlvanney says Yes

When the debate began, many people, Scots and English, felt that an anti-Englishness was at the root of it, but that has been proved not to be so. We don’t hate our neighbours – the English are our best friends. Indeed, for many of us, they are family, and still will be even if we decide to leave the Union. Thousands of Scots live down South, temporarily or permanently, and equally thousands of English people live happily in Scotland, and will of course be entitled to a vote. Of the four siblings in my family, three of us lived for lengthy periods in England, though we each returned home eventually. But the truth is, each of us was forced to go South because the economy of the UK is so skewed towards London, where almost a third of the whole population of the four nations is crowded into a small space. The policies of the ’80s destroyed much of the industrial base of Scotland (and Wales and the North of England) leaving little option for many people but to move. In fact one politician of the ’80s, Norman Tebbit, went down in infamy for telling people in the devastated industrial areas to ‘get on their bikes’ to look for work elsewhere. It was the policies of Thatcherism that led to the demands for a devolved Scottish Parliament, which has been in place since the turn of the millenium, and which has done a great deal to restore our national self-confidence.

It seems to me that, yes or no, our decision must be part of a historical process. And it therefore seemed that, to make an informed decision, I would have to understand fully why we are where we are now. For most people, this would sound straightforward because they are taught their own history in school. In Scotland, however, when I was growing up, we were taught what was called British history – in fact, the history of England primarily. Just as we were expected to read English authors and English poets rather than Scots. Hence my much deeper knowledge of Henry VIII (King of England) than James IV (King of Scotland); and of Dickens and Shakespeare than of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. I wonder if you find that as shocking as I do? The shock didn’t hit me until well into adulthood though – it had been happening for generations and most people accepted it unthinkingly. In the same way, when we speak or write formally, we are expected to do so in English, the language we are educated in – not Scots, a language that is in danger of dying out completely, nor even Gaelic, despite recent attempts to revive it.

JK Rowling says No
JK Rowling says No

Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will perhaps now understand why I have spent so much of this last year or more grappling with Scotland’s history and place in the world. I have read widely on subjects related to Scotland’s history – the Union, the Enlightenment, the Scottish diaspora, the British Empire, the American War of Independence and reasons for it, the after-effects of the break-up of the Empire on the countries that were once its dominions and colonies, the purpose and state of the Commonwealth today, the formation and purpose of the United Nations, the background to and status of the European Union. And I’ve read some polemics from people on either side of the debate, though mostly from the Yes side, since very little positive has been said or written on the No side (who unfortunately decided early on to go with scare tactics rather than a positive campaign). And I am by no means the only Scot who has been going through this process.

There is no definitive right or wrong answer in this debate – either way it’s a leap of faith. I will be voting Yes for independence, but with full understanding of why many, perhaps most, of my fellow Scottish residents will be voting No.

 

I have been proud of being British all my life and, whatever the result, that pride will remain. Together we have achieved some amazing things in the world, punching well above our weight. Over the last three centuries, we have argued and bickered, but when we needed to we stood firmly united and played our part in the threatening world out there. That will not change. If we vote for independence, we will be an active part of NATO; we will participate positively in the UN; we will sit round the table with our erstwhile and future partners in Europe (unless England votes to leave). We will continue to stand for the things we believe in and fight for them when required.

But I have also rediscovered a real pride in being Scottish. I have learned how influential the Scottish Enlightenment has been on the entire Western world and perhaps beyond. I am much more aware of the pivotal role that Scots played in the Empire (I know it’s fashionable to dismiss the Empire as evil these days, but that’s far too simplistic a judgement). I understand how the Scottish diaspora has spread ideas and principles that originated here throughout the former dominions. I appreciate how much our scientists have contributed to all fields – medicine, mathematics, physics et al. I have even been proud to read an American historian claim that the Scots invented the modern world.

And more than all of that, I am proud that we have had this hugely lengthy debate over something so crucial and potentially divisive, with good-humour, intelligence and an almost unique lack of violence. I am proud that we have taken the subject seriously, that we have listened carefully to each other and to the arguments on both sides, and that we have thought profoundly about the kind of nation we want to pass on to future generations. The polls suggest that more than 80% of all eligible voters intend to turn out on polling day and that makes me deeply proud. The Scots will divide when we enter the polling booths on the 18th September, but when the results are known a few days later, we will still be united, whoever wins. Because, as a nation and as a people, the quality and conduct of this debate means that we have already all won. And if we are still partners with England come the 19th September, I hope and suspect it will be a much more equal partnership in future, with a greater degree of understanding and mutual respect on all sides.

The Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament

* * * * * * *

The question the Scottish people will be asked to answer is…

Should Scotland be an independent country?

In the words of Nelson Mandela:

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”

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

‘A man’s a man for a’ that’

 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the scottish enlightenmentAlthough 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 and changed not just Scotland or the UK but, in Herman’s view, the Western world. As with Herman’s more recent book, The Cave and the Light, this is a hugely readable and enjoyable history – Herman writes in a way that makes his books very accessible to non-academic readers.

Starting in the century or so before the Enlightenment period, Herman explains the various factors that led to the Union of 1707. He shows the stranglehold that the Kirk had on Scottish society, but that out of this grew the idea of man as a free individual – that monarchs were not absolute and that tyrannies could and should be challenged. He gives the Kirk the credit for the idea that education should be for all, making Scotland one of the most literate societies in the world, with an appetite for books other than the Bible. And he explains very clearly the impact of the Darien scheme on both the financial state of Scotland and on its self-confidence as a nation. In Herman’s view, the Union was a resoundingly positive development for Scotland, despite its unpopularity amongst ordinary people, since it opened up opportunities and access to the rest of the world via the rapidly developing British Empire, hence revolutionising Scotland both economically and culturally.

Francis Hutcheson
Francis Hutcheson

In the next couple of chapters, Herman deals in some depth with two of the earliest and most influential figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Hutcheson and Kames, showing how their ideas developed, where they contrasted and overlapped, and the influence that each had on those thinkers who followed them. He highlights Hutcheson as the altruist, the first liberal, who developed the idea of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ with man as a free individual choosing to work together for the common good. Kames is portrayed more as a hard-nosed realist (cynic?) believing that societies come together primarily to provide protection for their property from external threats. In these chapters, Herman also shows the beginnings of what we would now call the ‘social sciences’ – the scientific study of human society and social relationships.

Lord Kames
Lord Kames

The rest of the first section of the book is taken up with a wide-ranging history of eighteenth century Scotland. Herman discusses the reasons behind the Jacobite rebellions, showing that the divide was much more complex than the simplistic picture of Scotland v England, so beloved of nationalists and film-makers alike. He discusses the clan culture of the Highlands in some depth, stripping away much of the romanticism that has built up over it in the intervening years. He shows how Lowland Scotland, what we would now think of as the Central Belt, was much more in tune with its English partners, particularly as the two main cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh began to reap major economic benefits from access to the Empire. Throughout these chapters, he continues to show how Enlightenment thinking was developing via such huge figures as Hume and Smith, and influencing not just Scottish society, but attracting students from the UK and Europe to study at Scottish universities.

Adam Smith & David Hume
Adam Smith & David Hume

The second half of the book is largely devoted to showing how the Scottish Diaspora, forced and voluntary, meant that Scottish ideas were disseminated throughout the Empire, particularly to the white English-speaking Dominions. From educators to scientists and engineers, Herman’s position is that Scots were responsible for the birth of what we would now think of as ‘modernity’. Being an American, Herman lays particular emphasis on what he sees as the huge contribution Scots and Scottish ideas made to the founding and Constitution of the US, physically, politically and intellectually. He shows how, in his opinion, the inbuilt ‘gridlock’ of the American political system rose specifically out of Scottish Enlightenment ideas, to provide protection for individuals and communities from the power of an overweening government. He explains the huge influence that Scots had in creating and developing the early American system of education and universities such as Princeton. And, of course, he credits the great Scottish economists with the creation of the capitalist system he so clearly admires.

Arthur Herman
Arthur Herman

While I found this a most informative and enjoyable read (who doesn’t enjoy having their national ego stroked?), I did feel that at points, particularly in the latter half of the book, Herman was stretching his argument a bit. I would be the last person to belittle the huge contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers; or of the Scottish engineers, scientists, writers, religious leaders and statesmen who spread the Enlightenment ideas throughout the colonies and dominions of the Empire. But sometimes Herman gives the distinct impression that the Scots are really the only people who have ever done anything – the rest of the world seems to have rather passively sat back and let the Scots get on with it. (And frankly I’m not sure if I want to be held responsible for America!) If a man of another nationality is credited with something, Herman trawls his background to give him a Scottish connection – he studied at a Scottish University or his grandfather came from just over the English border so was nearly Scottish or his grandmother once ate haggis. (OK, I might have exaggerated that last one a little.)

But with that small reservation aside, I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants a clearer understanding of the history of this period, both as it affected Scotland and the wider world. And, in this year of the Scottish Independence referendum, a useful reminder of the reasons behind the Union and the early economic benefits of it, providing food for thought for either camp as to whether those reasons and benefits are still relevant today.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link