FictionFan Awards 2017 – Factual

Please rise…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2017.

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 2016 and October 2017 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction/Thriller

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2017

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!

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

FACTUAL

In terms of numbers of books, I haven’t read as much factual as usual this year. But that’s been because of my Russian Revolution challenge – so many of those books have been massive monsters! They’ve also provided some of my best factual reads of the year, but there have been other great books too that have provided some much-needed variety along the way…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky

Written in three parts some years after the Revolution, Trotsky begins with a fascinating analysis of why revolutions arise, then goes on to give the historical background to the Russian one, followed by a minutely detailed, blow-by-blow account of the events of 1917 and beyond.

In terms of the writing itself, there’s a real mix. When Trotsky is detailing the more technical stuff, it can be very dry with long, convoluted sentences full of Marxist jargon, which require concentration. At other times, he is sarcastic, humorous, angry, contemptuous depending on who he’s talking about. Most of it is written in the past tense. But when he gets misty-eyed about the masses, describing a rally or demonstration or some other part of the struggle, he drifts into present tense, becoming eloquent and inspirational, writing with real power and emotionalism, and rising almost to the point of poeticism at times. These passages remind the reader that Trotsky was an observer, a participant and a passionate leader in the events he’s describing. So long as one remains firmly aware of Trotsky’s bias at all times, this is a fascinating book, not by any means an easy read, but certainly an enlightening and worthwhile one.

Click to see the full review

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Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Larson tells the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania, its passengers and crew, and the wider political situation that gave rise to the circumstances in which the ship was left unprotected in waters in which it was known U-boats were operating.

Larson uses four main strands to tell the full story of what happened. We learn about the codebreakers of the British Admiralty who had obtained the German codes and were therefore able to track U-boat movements with a fair degree of accuracy. Secondly, Larson takes us aboard U-20, the U-boat that would fire the fatal torpedo, and introduces us to its Captain, Walther Schwieger. The third aspect revolves around President Wilson and America’s lengthy vacillations before finally committing to war. The fourth section, and the one that humanises the story, is of the voyage of the Lusitania itself. Larson introduces us to many of the passengers, telling us a little of their lives before the voyage, so that we come to care about them.

Larson’s excellent writing style creates the kind of tension normally associated with a novel rather than a factual book, and his careful characterisation of many of the people involved gives a human dimension that is often missing from straight histories. An excellent book, thoroughly researched and well told.

Click to see the full review

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The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Here Martin Edwards, regular editor of the British Library Crime Classics series amongst many other things, looks at the rise of the crime novel and its development throughout the first half of the last century. Edwards writes knowledgeably but conversationally, so that it never feels as if one is being lectured by an expert – rather it’s like having a chat with a well-read friend. He starts each chapter with a discussion around its theme, showing how the genre and various sub-genres developed. Following these interesting introductions, he lists and discusses the books he has selected for each section. He makes it clear he doesn’t necessarily think they’re all brilliant – rather, he feels they’re either an important link in the development of the crime novel, or a good representative example of the sub-genre under discussion.

Great for anyone who’d like to know more about the history of the crime novel, or who’d like to read some of the classic books but doesn’t know quite where to begin. But equally interesting for people who already know quite a bit about the genre – it’s so packed with goodies I can’t imagine many people wouldn’t learn something from it as well as being entertained by some of the stories about the authors.

Click to see the full review

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Welcome to the Universe by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott

This book arises from a course on the universe run by the three authors at Princeton University for non-science majors; indeed, for students who perhaps had never taken a science course before. As someone with almost no knowledge of science, it seems to me it is indeed suitable for a beginner so long as s/he has an enquiring mind and either the ability to understand the maths or the willingness to skim over those bits that are maths-heavy.

The book is divided into three sections, each written mainly by one of the authors with the occasional contribution from one of the others. Tyson takes us through how scientists learned to measure distances between stars, how they work out their composition and age, and goes into considerable depth on the lifecycles of stars. Strauss takes the reader through the story of galaxies, from how our own was first mapped to the discovery that (almost) all galaxies are moving away from each other, proving that the universe is expanding and enabling scientists to estimate its age and speculate as to its future. The final section is by Richard Gott and takes us from Einstein’s relativity back to the Big Bang and beyond, finishing with some speculation about the beginnings of the universe and even what may have come before the Big Bang. A great book, managing to be both hugely informative and entertaining – undoubtedly the best and most comprehensive of its kind that I’ve come across.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2017

for

BEST FACTUAL BOOK

A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes

Given my submersion in the Russian Revolution this year, it will be no surprise that this outstanding history wins the award.

In order to tell the story of the Russian Revolution, Figes begins three decades earlier, in 1891, with the famine that could be seen as starting the journey towards revolution; and continues up to 1924, the year that the first dictator, Lenin, died. This is a huge work, massive in scope, meticulously researched and delivered with a level of clarity that makes it surprisingly easy to read and absorb, even for someone coming to the subject with no previous knowledge.

It’s divided into four sections that thoroughly cover each period: when revolutionary ideas were still in their infancy, before and during the Romanov period; the period from 1891 to just before the revolution proper began; the revolutionary year from February 1917 to the signing of the peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918; and finally, the complex tale of the Civil War that followed the revolution. Figes ranges widely, often using the stories of individuals to add a human face to the political history.

Brilliantly written, well laid out and lavishly illustrated, making it easy to read and understand despite the immense complexity of the subject, it’s an exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal, so that I came away from it understanding not just the politics and timeline of events, but how it must have felt to have lived through them. An exceptional book – one of the best broad scope histories I’ve read and a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Welcome to the Universe by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott

From 2+2 to Superstring Theory and beyond…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

welcome-to-the-universeThe preface explains that this book arises from a course run by the three authors at Princeton University – a course on the universe for non-science majors; indeed, for students who perhaps had never taken a science course before. My knowledge of science is pretty basic and my maths is, if anything, even dodgier. So although the idea of the book intrigued me, I feared it might be way over my head.

The book is divided into three sections, each written mainly by one of the authors with the occasional contribution from one of the others. The first section is Stars, Planets and Life with Tyson as the main author and a couple of chapters from Strauss. It starts brilliantly for the beginner, with an introduction to the very simplest stuff, like how long it takes for the Earth to revolve on its axis. At this early stage, Tyson assumes no prior knowledge and lays down some terminological groundwork for the more difficult stuff to come later. For example, he explains exactly what an Astronomical Unit is and that it is abbreviated to AU. He’s very funny, so that these chapters are entertaining as well as informative.

Yay! Finally I understand what 'parallax' means! Credit: J Richard Gott
Yay! Finally I understand what ‘parallax’ means…
Credit: J Richard Gott

Each section takes the history of scientific discovery as a template for explaining what scientists know about the universe today and how they know it. All through the book, the authors are careful to credit those who came before, even when subsequent discoveries may have proved them wrong in some aspect. They show how even disproven theories contributed to the advances made by later scientists. There are a couple of chapters in this first section that are very heavy on maths and, truthfully, lost me so badly that I wondered whether there was much point in continuing. But I decided to struggle on and happily discovered that most of the book is perfectly accessible even to those of us whose eyes glaze over at any equation more complex than 2+2=4. On the other hand, there’s loads of very well explained maths in there for anyone whose mind works that way, or who wants to get a feel for whether they would like to study astrophysics at higher levels perhaps.

...and why humans don't glow in the dark! Credit: Michael A Strauss
…and why humans don’t glow in the dark!
Credit: Michael A Strauss

Tyson takes us through how scientists learned to measure distances between stars, how they work out their composition and age, and goes into considerable depth on the lifecycles of stars. It’s fascinating stuff and made me realise how often popular science books just tell the reader something and expect us to accept it. Not this one – every statement is backed up with detail of how we know these things and what they mean in the broader context of the universe. Throughout, the book is superbly illustrated, not just with pretty pictures (though most of them are) but with clear, beautifully designed and explained diagrams and charts that are hugely helpful in understanding the text and visualising things like size comparisons. This section finishes with a chapter on the search for planets that could support life, explaining exactly what scientists are looking for and why, and how they’re going about it.

From simple... Credit: Robert J Vanderbei
From simple…
Credit: Robert J Vanderbei

Strauss takes over as the main author for the second section on Galaxies. He takes the reader through the history of how our own galaxy was first mapped and then the discoveries that led to scientists realising that the Milky Way is only a tiny part of the universe. This section has some fantastic images from the various exploratory missions like Hubble, but the really great thing is that Strauss explains in detail what we’re actually seeing – how to interpret the images rather than just admiring them. He then goes on to explain the discovery that (almost) all galaxies are moving away from each other, proving that the universe is expanding and enabling scientists to estimate its age and speculate as to its future. There is a fair amount of maths again in this section, but I found it easy to ignore for the most part while still grasping the concepts Strauss describes.

...to sublime... Photo credit: Adam Block, Mt. Lemmon Skycenter, University of Arizona
…to sublime…
The Trifid Nebula – Photo credit: Adam Block, Mt. Lemmon Skycenter, University of Arizona

The final section is by Richard Gott and takes us from Einstein’s relativity back to the Big Bang and beyond. I hold my hands up – it’s at Einstein that my brain always closes down and I find myself overwhelmed with an urgent desire to giggle, somewhat hysterically. However, Gott actually explained the whole E = mc 2 thing well enough for me to more or less grasp, plus for the first time I now kinda understand why nuclear bombs work (not sure of the usefulness of that knowledge, but you never know when it might come in handy). His explanation of black holes and spaghettification is both humorous and clear.

...to speculative. I do like the idea of a multiverse of bubbles... Credit: Adapted from J Richard Gott (Time Travel in Einstein's Universe, Houghton Mifflin, 2001)
…to speculative. I do like the idea of a multiverse of bubbles…
Credit: Adapted from J Richard Gott (Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe, Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

He then takes us through all the stuff that sound more like Star Trek plots than science (to my limited mind) – cosmic strings, wormholes, time travel, superstring theory, inflation, etc. While I’ll never fully grasp this stuff and retain a large degree of cynicism about a lot of it, Gott’s explanations are great, and hugely enhanced by some of the best and clearest diagrams I’ve come across, including a spectacular six-page spread in full colour showing Gott’s own map of the universe. He finishes with some speculation about the beginnings of the universe and even what may have come before the Big Bang, and shows how these (crazy-sounding) ideas arise out of the most recent science, while making very clear which bits have been confirmed by observation missions and which haven’t yet. Fascinating stuff! His final plea is for Earth to look quickly at colonising Mars to increase our species’ chances of longterm survival.

The three authors discuss the book…

This is a great book, managing to be both hugely informative and entertaining – undoubtedly the best and most comprehensive of its kind that I’ve come across. It seems to me it is indeed suitable for a beginner so long as s/he has an enquiring mind and either the ability to understand the maths or the willingness to skim over those bits that are maths-heavy. Highly recommended, but do get the hardback rather than the Kindle – it’s beautifully designed and produced, and the illustrations are an essential aid to understanding the text.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press. All illustrations are from the book.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 101…

Episode 101…

Remarkably, despite my ongoing Moby-Dick inspired reading slump, the TBR has remained static on 181. This is because I have resisted all of NetGalley’s temptations for several weeks now. Of course I still have a massive backlog of review copies to clear though – 38 at the current count!

Here are a few I hope to get to soon…

Factual

welcome-to-the-universeCourtesy of Princeton University Press. It’s more than possible this will be way over my poor befuddled head, but it sounds great, so fingers crossed…

The Blurb says: Welcome to the Universe is a personal guided tour of the cosmos by three of today’s leading astrophysicists. Inspired by the enormously popular introductory astronomy course that Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott taught together at Princeton, this book covers it all–from planets, stars, and galaxies to black holes, wormholes, and time travel.

Describing the latest discoveries in astrophysics, the informative and entertaining narrative propels you from our home solar system to the outermost frontiers of space. How do stars live and die? Why did Pluto lose its planetary status? What are the prospects of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? How did the universe begin? Why is it expanding and why is its expansion accelerating? Is our universe alone or part of an infinite multiverse? Answering these and many other questions, the authors open your eyes to the wonders of the cosmos, sharing their knowledge of how the universe works.

Breathtaking in scope and stunningly illustrated throughout, Welcome to the Universe is for those who hunger for insights into our evolving universe that only world-class astrophysicists can provide.

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Classics Club – Crime

the-wheel-spinsThe book on which the movie The Lady Vanishes is based, this is one of my Classics Club selections and will also give me an excuse to rewatch one or more versions of the film…

The Blurb says:  Iris Carr is a beautiful, young socialite on her way back home to England after vacationing in Europe. Feeling terribly alone and afraid, she finds comfort in the company of a strange woman she knows only as Miss Froy. But comfort soon turns to horror when Miss Froy mysteriously vanishes without a trace. Fearing madness, risking death, Iris desperately tries to solve the sudden disappearance of her traveling companion-a woman no one else on the journey remembers seeing at all!

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Fiction

gileadThe Great American Novel Quest is in serious trouble after a series of what I shall euphemistically call less than stellar reads – Absalom! Absalom!, Americanah and the ongoing Moby-Dick débâcle. I wish I could convince myself Gilead is the book which will turn it around…

The Blurb says: A hymn of praise and lamentation from a 1950s preacher man. A testament to the sacred bonds between fathers and sons. A psalm of celebration and acceptance of the best and the worst that the world has to offer. This is the story of generations, as told through a family history written by Reverend John Ames, a legacy for the young son he will never see grow up. As John records the tale of the rift between his own father and grandfather, he also struggles with the return to his small town of a friend’s prodigal son in search of forgiveness and redemption.

The winner of two major literary awards and a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2004, Gilead is an exquisitely written work of literary fiction, destined to become a classic, by one of today’s finest writers.

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Fiction

sandlandsI’ve seen several glowing reviews for this collection (sorry, I didn’t take a note of which bloggers) and left a comment on one saying I must read it, after which the author contacted me and kindly offered me a copy. Sounds wonderful…

The Blurb says: This beautifully written short story collection is inspired by coastal England, by the landscape and its flora and fauna, as well as by its folklore and historical and cultural heritage. Several of the stories focus on a bird, animal, wildflower, or insect characteristic of the locality, from barn owl to butterfly. The book might be described as a collection of ghost stories; in fact, while one or two stories involve a more or less supernatural element, each of them deals in various ways with the tug of the past upon the present, and explores how past and present can intersect in unexpected ways.

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Horror on audio

monster-1983Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. Although I haven’t been listening to many audiobooks recently, I couldn’t resist this one when it was offered. I’ve enjoyed some of these full cast audio presentations in the past – they keep my attention better than most straight narrations, and this one has the delectable Marc Warren in it… they always describe him as “from Hustle” but he’ll always be Monks from Alan Bleasdale’s weird but oddly wonderful adaptation of Oliver Twist to me…

The Blurb says: Catalysing the surge of interest in classic 70s and 80s sci-fi thrillers, and just in time for Halloween, Audible tomorrow exclusively debuts Monster 1983, an original audio-drama from Berlinale-winning director Ivan Leon Menger. Directed by multiple-Audie and RPA winner Cherry Cookson, the chilling tale stars Callum Blue (Dead Like Me), Anastasia Griffith (Damages) and Marc Warren (Hustle) amongst others.

Drawing influences from Poltergeist, Stand By Me and E.T. and other Spielberg classics, the story unfolds in the small coastal town of Harmony Bay, Oregon. Still reeling from a sudden and profound family tragedy, Sheriff Cody uproots his elder son Michael, and younger daughter Amy, from the chaos of Orlando to begin a new, more relaxed life in the Beaver State. Soon after their arrival however, this new-found tranquillity is disturbed by a succession of brutal but mysterious deaths. As the plot twists and turns its way through small-town secrecy, psychiatry wards and the supernatural, Cody comes under increasing pressure to solve each new case whilst keeping his family safe from harm.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads, except for Monster 1983, which is taken from the publicity release.

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

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