Nonfiction November – My Year in Non-fiction

Nonfiction November is being hosted by Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Julie (JulzReads), and Katie (Doing Dewey). through the site What’s Nonfiction?  They have a wonderful programme mapped out for November here.

The topic for the first week is “Your Year in Nonfiction ” in which we’re encouraged to review the NF books we’ve read this year, note the topics we’ve read, and the ones we really recommend, so I thought I’d start off with a list of all those I’ve read – which is 22 at the time of writing, up on last year. They fall neatly into three groups


  • Educated by Tara Westover – (8.5/10) Review
  • I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell  – (10/10) Review
  • To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine – (10/10) – Shiny Review
  • Once Upon a Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo – (8.5/10) Review
  • Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle – (8/10) Shiny Review
  • All Quiet on the West-End Front by Will Rycroft – his memoir of acting in War Horse. Just finished so not reviewed yet.

As you can see, there were two stand-out memoirs in this batch and it’s near impossible to pick between them. Some days I think former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine edges it over Maggie O’Farrell, other days that reverses.  Whichever, these are a fine pair of memoirs which are both bold and honest, unsparing of their readers who will laugh, cry, gasp all the way through.

Science and Medicine:

a) The Wellcome Book Prize Shadowing

  • The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman – O (7/10) Review
  • To be a Machine by Mark O’Connell – RC (10/10) Review
  • The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris – O (8.5/10) Review
  • With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix – O (9/10) Review
  • Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing – O (6/10) Review
  • I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell – O – (10/10) Review

This was my first year on the Wellcome Book Prize shadowing panel, and I loved it.  For me, there were four great books with two stand-outs, plus a couple of also rans – which weren’t bad, but not as gripping as the others. Everyone’s winner – mine, the shadow panel and the real judges was Mark O’Connell’s outsider’s look at transhumanism, using technology to prolong, enhance and preserve lives.

b) Other Science and Medicine:
  • All that Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black – (8.5/10) Review
  • Pavlov’s Dog and 49 other experiments that revolutionised psychology by Adam Hart-Davis – (7.5/10) Review
  • Liquid by Mark Miodownik – (9/10) Shiny Review
  • Under the Knife by Arnold Van de Laar – (6.5/10) Review
  • What’s Your Type by Merve Emre – about the genesis of the Myers-Briggs Test – review to come
  • Eye of the Shoal by Helen Scales – Marine biologist Scales talks about fish – review to come

As a trained materials scientist, I like to keep up with popular science books and love medical memoirs too. Fellow materials scientist Mark Miodowski’s new tome, which I reviewed for Shiny was excellent – entertaining yet educational – I learned much I’d forgotten and lots of new things about liquids. He is able to express complex scientific information succinctly for the general reader which is a real gift.


  • Vogue Essentials: The Little Black Dress by Chloe Fox  – Review
  • The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – (8/10) Review
  • The Lives of the Surrealists by Desmond Morris – (9/10) Review
  • Dear Mr Pop Star by Derek & Dave Philpott  – (9/10) Review
  • ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy’: On Where Eagles Dare by Geoff Dyer – Wonderful – review to come.

The surprise of this bunch was Desmond Morris’s book on the Surrealists – but their lives rather than their paintings. This was gossipy, full of personal anecdotes (Morris is one of the Surrealists himself, as well as a noted zoologist), and really got under the skin of what made them tick!

How’s your Non-Fiction reading going this year?

13 thoughts on “Nonfiction November – My Year in Non-fiction

  1. Calmgrove says:

    I’ve not signed up to this challenge but you’ll be unsurprised to know that you’re streets ahead of me in this! I was hoping to summarise what non-fiction I’d read towards the end of December but I’m tempted to move that exercise forward now—at least it will, for me, be a refreshingly short post!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The Wellcome Prize shadowing certainly bumped up my numbers, but I’ve always enjoyed a good biography or science book. I am increasingly delighted though with the number of well-written and entertaining NF books coming out these days with more appeal and, dare I say it, readability for a general audience.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve been intentionally trying to read more NF this year – I managed 20 (15%) last year, but I hope to raise this year’s total to 25 or more which’ll be around 20% in 2018. I’m enjoying them.

  2. whatsnonfiction says:

    So many fantastic-sounding ones here, you’ve had a great year! I just got a review copy for the American release of All That Remains and I’m excited for it, so really happy to hear that you liked it so much. And I’ve heard nonstop good things about I Am, I Am, I Am, I think I need to try that one.
    I also read What’s Your Type (at least I think it’s the same book – under the title Personality Brokers in the US) and it was pretty eye opening, I’d never known how that test actually came about. Was kind of shocking!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The O’Farrell was so bold and brave – just loved it. The Merve Emre book on the Myers Briggs test leads to thinking of the online clone tests as just for fun now. (I vary between an INTP and INFP when I play at them).

  3. buriedinprint says:

    I appreciate/share your intentions to subtly increase numbers when it comes to reading habits you want to change. Trying to make dramatic changes never works long-term for me. I’m very curious, here, about Xiaolu Guo’s book, as I quite enjoyed her first novel: I’m adding this one to my TBR!

  4. Michael says:

    A very wide-ranging and impressive selection of nonfiction titles! I hadn’t heard of Guo’s or Albertine’s memoir, but now I’m interested in checking out both. I enjoy The Slits, and it sounds like To Throw Away Unopened paints a vivid portrait of Albertine’s family, while also touching upon her career.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thank you. This was Albertine’s second volume of memoir. The first Girls, Girls, Girls, Boys, Boys, Boys, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes covered The Slits in more detail – this volume is more contemporary.

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