FictionFan Awards 2015 – Factual

All stand please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2015.

In case you missed them last week, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

.

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2014 and October 2015 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

.

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

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

.

…and…

Book of the Year 2015

 

THE PRIZES

 .

For the winners!

.

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

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

.

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

.

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

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

FACTUAL

.

This is a Golden Age for factual writing, especially in history and science, with authors reaching out beyond the academic market to make their books accessible to the general reader. The result is that it’s almost impossible to decide which should win since each of the books mentioned below deserves an award in its own field – it’s a bit of a comparing apples and oranges situation. However, the judges have emerged from their lengthy deliberation and a winner has been chosen…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the telegraph book of the first world warThe Telegraph Book of the First World War edited by Gavin Fuller

.

This book brings together a selection of the news reports and articles printed in The Telegraph during the First World War, at a time when for most people their daily newspaper was their only source of information. The quality of the writing itself is astonishingly high, filled with passion and poignancy, and sometimes reaching towards poetry. There are articles from literary figures here, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but it’s the reports from the professional journalists that have most impact. No dry reporting of facts and figures here – these are vivid word pictures that evoked a whole range of emotions in me, sorrow, anger, horror, grief and, more unexpectedly, pride, admiration, and a fierce desire to see the Allies win. I found it fascinating, absorbing and moving, and it has given me a real feeling for what it must have been like for the people left at home, desperate for news, and totally dependent on the brave men who put themselves in danger to tell the story of the war.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

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

.

Bravo to Andrew Levy! Literary criticism has long been the most jargon-filled, pretentious and badly written of all the factual fields (in my opinion, of course) but Levy has broken the mould with this immensely readable criticism of Twain’s acclaimed masterpiece. Part biography and part history, Levy sets the book firmly back into his context, stripping back much of the mythology that has grown up around it since its first appearance. His contention is that one must understand the social culture at the time of writing to make sense of Twain’s portrayals of both Huck and Jim. He discusses ‘bad boy’ culture, the status of black people thirty years after emancipation, and Twain’s nostalgia for the minstrel shows of his youth, and shows how each fed into the book. A great read – well researched, clearly structured, convincingly argued and best of all written in normal language rather than lit-crit gobbledegook. A template for others in the field to follow.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

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

.

In this book, Boris Johnson sets out to try to discover what made Churchill into the man who is considered to have been crucial in the British war effort. He does this with his usual panache, making the book hugely enjoyable and filled with humour, which doesn’t disguise the massive amount of research and knowledge that has clearly gone into it. He makes it crystal clear that he admires Churchill intensely and, because he’s so open about it, his bias in the great man’s favour comes over as wholly endearing. The book is nearly as revealing about Boris as Churchill and, given that he’s one of our major politicians who might well be Prime Minister one day, it’s an intriguing insight into the things he admires, and presumably would want to emulate, in a leader. And on top of all that it’s read by Simon Shepherd, owner of one of the loveliest voices in the world. I have happy memories of going to bed each night with Winston, Boris and Simon – more fun than you might think! If I had a category for audiobook of the year, this would win easily.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

resurrection scienceResurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor

.

In a period called by scientists the ‘Sixth Extinction’, the question of conservation has never been more relevant or immediate. But what exactly are we conserving for? What are the moral, ethical and philosophical questions that surround the various types of conservation? In this excellent book, M.R. O’Connor highlights some of the species on the edge of extinction and uses them as jumping off points to look at some of the arguments, from the practical to the esoteric, that surround the whole question of species conservation. From Northern white rhinos and the effects of war, to the panther in the south-eastern USA and its impact on the American character and psyche, the book is stuffed to bursting point with the most current thinking on the ethics of conservation, all written in an immensely readable and accessible way. Without exception, the most interesting and wide-ranging book on the subject I have ever read and so nearly this year’s winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2015

for

BEST FACTUAL

 

john knox

John Knox by Jane Dawson

.

In Scotland, John Knox is thought of as a misogynistic, hellfire-and-damnation preaching old killjoy, who is responsible for the fairly joyless version of Protestantism that has blighted our country for hundreds of years. Father of the Scottish Reformation, he is notorious for being the author of ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. In this new biography, Jane Dawson sets out, not so much to overturn this impression of Knox, but to show that there was more to him than this. She sheds a great deal of light on this complex and important figure, showing in depth how his interpretation of the Bible influenced every aspect of his life. She also widens the subject out to put the Scottish Reformation into context with the Protestant movement throughout Europe, showing how, despite some internal differences, there was an attempt to unify the theology and forms of worship of the fledgling religion. And she goes on to show how local circumstances led to variations in the practices of Reformed churches in different nations.

(I just want be clear that the award is going to Jane Dawson and not in any way to that misogynistic old killjoy, Knox. 😉 )

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

In two weeks time: Best Crime Fiction/Thrillers Award

The Telegraph Book of the First World War edited by Gavin Fuller

the telegraph book of the first world warFrom our own correspondent…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Daily Telegraph is one of Britain’s most prestigious newspapers, established in 1855. This book brings together a selection of the news reports and articles printed in the paper during the First World War, at a time when for most people their daily newspaper was their only source of information.

There is a very informative introduction, written by Michael Wright, discussing the role of newspapers in general and The Telegraph in particular as organs of propaganda throughout the war. Much of the information they printed, especially in the early days of the war, was controlled by the War Office and, indeed, there was a feeling amongst parts of the Government, including Winston Churchill, that the course of the war should be reported entirely from London. However, permission was given for correspondents to travel to the war-zones, and while reporting was still restricted and censored, the experienced and talented correspondents were still able to give vivid accounts of events soon after they happened.

Between the two parapets of these adversaries, so near to each other, corpses lie, mud-caked, rotting, in their last tragic gesture – German corpses and Italian. The air of death is all around; a heaviness as of sepulchre pervades the life in the trench. A German lies on the parapet of the enemy’s trenches. He thrusts out his hands and his head from the trench. No one pulls him in or casts him forth. You see the spikes of helmets pass and repass this horror tranquilly. It is an indifference terrifying and splendid. Death has become a familiar. He is always there; he comes and goes, tapping this or that one on the shoulder, gathers all, and for those who fall is neither shuddering nor respect. A dead body is a companion who sleeps and will not waken.

13th February 1915

The articles and reports are given entirely without footnotes or contextual explanation, and there are no notes at the end of the book. At first I found this an exceptionally strange editorial decision, especially given the advance warning in the introduction that the truth and accuracy of the reporting could not always be relied on. Since my knowledge of the conduct and progress of the war could at best be described as sketchy, I was sure, rightly, that I wouldn’t spot where the reporting veered from what we are now told by historians.

This feeling lasted for the first hundred pages or so, when I suddenly realised that I wasn’t reading the book as history any more, or at least not as war history. The lack of notes in fact put me in the same position as any contemporary reader of the paper – I had no other sources of information so had to rely on the reports entirely, and try to see through the words to the truth they were revealing, distorting, exaggerating or minimising. I don’t know if that was the reason for the decision not to annotate the book but, whether or no, it turned out to be incredibly effective in giving me an insight into how it must have been for the mothers, fathers, wives of soldiers and sailors far away and in mortal danger. And that had the odd effect of giving me a different perspective on the use of propaganda in such situations. I began to feel that, if I was the mother of a son on the Western Front, of course I would want to be told that morale was high, that the food was good, that the Tommies were better equipped than Fritz. Of course I’d want to think they were singing Tipperary as they marched to the Front, that they were achieving something, that their deaths were not wasted. Because, if it were my son and I was powerless to help him, how would it help me to know that for the most part the soldiers were dying for nothing?

The men who were going up to the battle grinned back at those who were coming out. One could not see the faces of the lying-down cases, only the soles of their boots as they passed; but the laughing men on the courier – some of them stripped to the waist and bandaged roughly – seemed to rob war of some of its horror, and the spirit of our British soldiers shows very bright along the roads of France, so that the very sun seems to get some of its gold from these men’s hearts.

Tonight the guns are at work again, and the sky is flushed as the shells burst, over there where our men are fighting.

3rd July 1916 – The Somme

British troops newly arrived in France in August 1914 Photo: The Telegraph
British troops newly arrived in France in August 1914
Photo: The Telegraph

That’s not to suggest that the correspondents didn’t paint a starkly horrifying picture of the war-zones – they did, and some of the images will haunt me for a long time to come. But they tended to ‘spin’ it so that the rotting corpses and body parts embedded in the mud and trenches are almost invariably German, and it’s the Germans who commit the horrors like releasing poison gas – when the Brits do it, it’s only in perfectly fair retaliation. German poison gas kills civilians, Allied poison gas is much more discriminating. However, they also frequently express admiration for the enemy – his courage, his gallantry – especially in the sections relating to the war in the air. One of the things that struck me most was how much more similar the fighting was in style to the wars of the nineteenth century than to the later wars of the twentieth. We see the progression from a ‘traditional’ war with cavalry and bayonets, to the tanks and aircraft of the later days of the conflict.

At that moment neither in France nor in England had the question of gas as a weapon even been considered. It was, indeed, months after the Germans began the use of gas that Commissions were appointed in England and France to commence the study of the question, and more months again elapsed before we had prepared any gas at all. Finally, when we did start using gas, all we had were tear bombs, with which we tried to reply to much more dangerous gases sent over by the Germans.

The German reply to the Geneva Red Cross is thus the most cynical lie even the German Government has ever been guilty of. It is satisfactory, by the way, to learn from those who know that for a considerable time past the enemy is being paid back in his own coin, and that though late in this field of scientific barbarism we now have gases that are worse than any German gases.

25th September 1918

The book is enormously wide-ranging. The sections on the war itself don’t just concentrate on the Brits; there are reports about the contributions of all of the Allied nations and some from the other side too. (Scots, Irish and Welsh people should note that most of the journalists refer to Britain as England throughout, but they do mention nationalities when discussing specific regiments.) The Russian Revolution is covered – not in depth, but enough to give a flavour of how bewildering it must have been at the time. And there’s lots of stuff about the ‘home-front’ too – the civilian effort, the munitions workers, the land workers, the internment of enemy aliens. We hear about food supplies, about the American Santa ships bringing toys for the children of the servicemen on both sides in the period when they remained neutral. And we are shown the pressure that was put on young men, especially single men, to ‘volunteer’, with the word ‘shirker’ being thrown around freely by politicians and journalists alike.

The London Scottish Regiment becomes the first Territorial regiment to see action 05-11-1914 Photo: The Telegraph
The London Scottish Regiment becomes the first Territorial regiment to see action 05-11-1914
Photo: The Telegraph

The quality of the writing itself is astonishingly high, filled with passion and poignancy, and sometimes reaching towards poetry. There are articles from literary figures here, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but it’s the reports from the professional journalists that have most impact. No dry reporting of facts and figures here – these are vivid word pictures that evoked a whole range of emotions in me, sorrow, anger, horror, grief and, more unexpectedly, pride, admiration, and a fierce desire to see the Allies win. If these reports could affect me like that one hundred years on and knowing something of the truth, how much more effective must they have been at the time?

Shells were rushing through the air as though all the trains in the world were driving at express speed through endless tunnels, in which they met each other with frightful collisions. Some of these shells, fired from batteries not far from where I stood, ripped the sky with a high, tearing note. Other shells whistled with that strange, gobbling, sibilant cry which makes one’s bowels turn cold. Through the mist and the smoke there came sharp, loud, insistent knocks, as separate batteries fired salvoes, and great clangorous strokes, as if iron doors banged suddenly, and the tattoo of the light field-guns playing the drums of Death.

3rd July 1916 – The Somme

This is a massive book – 570 large pages of small print and no illustrations. It’s beautifully printed on high quality paper and is a tactile delight, despite its fairly considerable weight. I found it fascinating, absorbing and moving, and it has given me a real feeling for what it must have been like for the people left at home, desperate for news, and totally dependent on the brave men who put themselves in danger to tell the story of the war. If they didn’t always get it right, if they allowed themselves to be used for propaganda purposes from time to time, they still provided an invaluable service to their readers, and now again to modern readers in giving an insight into how the war was seen at the time. One I would highly recommend to anyone interested either in the war itself or in the social history of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Aurum Press Ltd.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 42…

Episode 42

 

The TBR saw a massive decrease of 1 this week down to 102. (Yay!) Still on track to go below 100 before Christmas – if only my iron willpower holds out.  This will probably be the last TBR Thursday for a while, since November will be given over to the FF Awards for Book of the Year. Even I don’t know who’s going to win this year – which is a little worrying!

Meantime, another bundle of goodies to incite your envy or disdain…

Crime

 

hardcastles quartetCourtesy of NetGalley, an author I know nothing about. But the blurb took my fancy…

The Blurb saysJune 1918. A patrolling constable discovers the body of Georgina Cheney, wife of a naval commander, in the basement area of a house in Westminster. At first it is thought to be suicide or even a tragic accident. But as Divisional Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle of the A or Whitehall Division of the Metropolitan Police begins to investigate – ably assisted by Detective Sergeant Charles Marriott – they soon discover a different story. It is clear that the woman was murdered, and revelations about the victim’s previous life in Malta arouse Hardcastle’s interest.

But things are destined to get even more complicated for Hardcastle, when he is assigned two further murder cases by Detective Chief Inspector Frederick Wensley, head of the CID at New Scotland Yard. Could they be connected? This may be a puzzle too tricky even for Hardcastle to solve . . .”

 * * * * *

the bullet catchFrom Henery Press via NetGalley. I loved John Gaspard’s first book, The Ambitious Card – the only time an author has successfully carried out a magic trick on me! I finished my review with the fervent hope that he’d write another…

The Blurb saysNewly-single magician Eli Marks reluctantly attends his high school reunion against his better judgment, only to become entangled in two deadly encounters with his former classmates. The first is the fatal mugging of an old crush’s husband, followed by the suspicious deaths of the victim’s business associates.

At the same time, Eli also comes to the aid of a classmate-turned-movie-star who fears that attempting The Bullet Catch in an upcoming movie may be his last performance. As the bodies begin to pile up, Eli comes to the realization that juggling these murderous situations — while saving his own neck — may be the greatest trick he’s ever performed.

* * * * *

finished businessNetGalley again, and another new-to-me author. A little bit of historical crime, plus Caligula…

The Blurb saysNovember, AD 40. When a wealthy consul’s wife asks Corvinus to investigate the death of her uncle, killed by a block of falling masonry during renovations on his estate in the Vatican Hills, a sceptical Corvinus is inclined to agree with the general verdict of accidental death. But his investigations reveal clear evidence of foul play, as well as unearthing several skeletons among the closets of this well-to-do but highly dysfunctional family. Who could have wanted Lucius Surdinus dead? His vengeful ex-wife? His ambitious mistress? His disillusioned elder, or his estranged younger, son? Or does the key to the mystery lie in the dead man’s political past? But when Corvinus’s investigations draw him to the attention of the emperor, a dangerously unpredictable Caligula, his prospects of surviving long enough to solve the mystery look slim to say the least.”

* * * * *

Factual

 

the telegraph book of the first world warThanks to Aurum Press. This one looks fascinating…and massive (600+ large pages of small font). So since there’s very little chance of me reviewing the contents before Christmas, I’ll just mention now that it’s a lovely book in hardback that would be great gift material for anyone interested in the history of the First World War. But I don’t think it will be a light read…

The Blurb saysOne hundred years on, the First World War has not lost its power to clutch at the heart. But how much do we really know about the war that would shape the 20th Century? And, all the more poignantly, how much did people know at the time?

Today, someone fires a shot on the other side of the world and we read about it online a few seconds later. In 1914, with storm clouds gathering over Europe, wireless telephony was in its infancy. So newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph were, for the British public, their only access to official news about the progress of the war.

These reports, many of them eye-witness dispatches, written by correspondents of the Daily Telegraph, bring the First World War to life in an intriguing new way. At times, the effect is terrifying, as accounts of the Somme, Flanders and Gallipoli depict brave and glorious victories, and the distinction between truth and propaganda becomes alarmingly blurred. Some exude a sense of dramatic irony that is almost excruciating, as one catches glimpses of how little the ordinary British people were told during the war of the havoc that was being wrought in their name.

Poignant, passionate and shot-through with moments of bleak humour, The Telegraph Book of the First World War is a full account of the war by some of the country’s most brilliant and colourful correspondents, whose reportage shaped the way that the war would be understood for generations to come.”

 * * * * *

Fiction

 

suspended sentencesAnd NetGalley again. It always embarasses me when someone wins the Nobel Prize for Literature and I’ve never even heard of him. So time to get to know Patrick Modiano a little…

The Blurb saysAlthough originally published separately, Patrick Modiano’s three novellas form a single, compelling whole, haunted by the same gauzy sense of place and characters. Modiano draws on his own experiences, blended with the real or invented stories of others, to present a dreamlike autobiography that is also the biography of a place. Orphaned children, mysterious parents, forgotten friends, enigmatic strangers—each appears in this three-part love song to a Paris that no longer exists. In this superb English-language translation of Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin, Mark Polizzotti captures not only Modiano’s distinctive narrative voice but also the matchless grace and spare beauty of his prose.

Shadowed by the dark period of the Nazi Occupation, these novellas reveal Modiano’s fascination with the lost, obscure, or mysterious: a young person’s confusion over adult behavior; the repercussions of a chance encounter; the search for a missing father; the aftershock of a fatal affair. To read Modiano’s trilogy is to enter his world of uncertainties and the almost accidental way in which people find their fates.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Amazon.

* * * * *

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