What’s your favourite kind of non-fiction? Mine is definitely biographies. Other people’s lives seem endlessly fascinating, as long as they are in the right hands. You certainly couldn’t get a better pair of hands than those of Helen Rappaport, whose Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses is reviewed in this issue. For more sisters, there’s Claudia Renton’s Those Wild Wyndhams: Three Sisters at the Heart of Power, or if you like your biographical heroines a bit more up to date you might prefer Sylvia Plath or Tove Jansson.

But maybe you like reading about reading? Then there’s Andrew Taylor’s Books that Changed the World, or Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great?. We’ve also got travel, we’ve got history, we’ve got gardens, we’ve even got ships.

I’m rather excited about all these, but top of my list are Four Sisters, a fascinating  story of  four strange and ultimately tragic lives, and Vita Sackville West’s Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden, by Vita Sackville West and Sarah Raven. I wonder what yours will be? Do let us know in the comments.  Enjoy!


Harriet, Non-Fiction Editor at Shiny New Books

16 thoughts on “Non-fiction

  1. Carol in Maryland says:

    Lovely! Thanks for all your work! I’m forwarding a link to the members of my book group.

    One suggestion – yellow on white is hard to read. Could the titles list possibly be made more legible? thanks!

    • Thanks, Carol — I hope the book group find lots to enjoy.
      On your comment re. the colour — I will pass this on to my fellow ed.s and hope we can do something to help.

  2. We had a question at our book club reading last week on how the monthly selection (Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl) compared to other autobiographies we’d read. One person ‘confessed’ to reading celebrity ghost written autobiogs but the rest of us drew a blank. Every book we thought of we decided was more a biography or a memoir or even a fictionalised account. So it’s got me thinking whether we were somewhat of an unusual group or are biographies just more popular?? if so, why

    • I don’t think you are unusual at all, Karen. I love a good biography but would run a mile from a ghost written autobiography. A good biographer will have a distance from the subject and be able to assess the life objectively, and the reader will perhaps be able to put themselves in the situations described and ask themselves what they would have done? This is a big subject and deserves a whole post to itself! Perhaps we can commission one for issue two, so thanks for the question.

  3. This is a superb selection of non-fiction, not to mention the quality of reviewing. Well done for having put all this together.

    My particular will-reads are the Tracey Thorn (she sounds so intelligent and interesting) and I also like A L Kennedy – her fiction can be a bit hard work(!) but she’s written some great newspaper articles and comes across really well on TV.

    • So happy to have your comment, Denise. It’s great that you’ve found some books you like the sound of!

    • Thank you, Denise! I really enjoyed reading the Kennedy.

  4. I really enjoy nature writing of the more creative non-fiction type, like Kathleen Jamie’s Findings and Sightlines, the work of Annie Dillard, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby and Terry Tempest Williams When Women Were Birds.

    The most recent book I read that is now considered something of a classic was by Barry Lopez Arctic Dreams, Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. For me, these writers are engaging and passionate about their subject and make me want to read in as compelling a way as if it was a novel.

    I also love books like Edmund DeWaal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes, like a biography but told in a less tradition form, narrating from the perspective of the voyages of over 200 miniature netsuke ceramics, passively observing the going s on on the family around it, was just brilliant.

    Oh and Tove Jansson is fabulous, I have not read any of her children’s books, but adore her summer and winter books and am about to read her biography The Sculptor’s Daughter.

    • What an interesting and helpful reply, Claire. It’s really useful to have suggestions of authors we may not have heard of or remembered. Thanks so much!

  5. I love memoirs, biographies, and letters. There is something so enthralling at being to peek inside other people’s lives.

  6. I recently discovered and loved “Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion” by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. This is a memoir and a book about books that I enjoyed because it educated me and put a smile on my face. These two smart, successful women write so affectionately and respectfully of each other that it gladdened by heart.

    • Sounds great, Pearl. Education with a smile — that’s the best kind!

    • I bought this when I was in the US last October, Pearl, so I’m very glad to hear it comes recommended!

  7. I love biographies and memoirs too. They can be far more interesting than novels if written well. And I love books about books. All of the books you mentioned sound really interesting. I’m going to go read all your reviews now.

  8. Just finished Helen Garner’s House of Grief which is her account of a trial of a man accused of murder driving his three young sons into a dam

    Garner is a superb writer and her observation of and personal response to this difficult subject is thought provoking and quite compelling Highly recommended

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