Narrative Non-Fiction, Well, Just Great Non-Fiction Really…

Last night I had the pleasure of hosting an event with Kate Colquhoun in Liverpool Waterstones, where we were discussed her latest book Did She Kill Him (which I loved and reviewed here) which is the non-fiction account of the Maybrick Murder here in Liverpool back in 1889. As Kate talked about that, and her book previous to it Mr Briggs’ Hat which I haven’t read yet, I was reminded by how much I had enjoy going back to my favourite periods in time and reading these accounts of those times, with all the brilliant and bonkers facts you learn and insights you get, when they are exciting and engaging…

Kate Colquhoun & I in conversation...

Kate Colquhoun & I in conversation…

The thing is not all of them are, some can read rather like the dusty old fusty old academic text books which bash you over the head with facts and figures (though recently I read a fictional futuristic novel that did just that *coughs* The Martian *coughs*) and make you feel like your back in those school lessons where you looked out the window yearning to be free. It is this that keeps me stuck to only really dabbling with non-fiction when it is set in an era that already fascinates me or is about a place or thing I know.

I think I need to branch out more. Actually, I think I need to branch out more when I have finished reading the mass of contemporary novels that have been submitted of Fiction Uncovered, yet it would make a nice change after all that. Before and after the event Kate and I were talking about books we loved and she mentioned a few non-fiction novels (H is for Hawk, which I own, and The Iceberg in particular) and I thought ‘right Savidge, you need to test yourself more.

So what I would love from you all is recommendations. You are welcome to recommend non-fiction accounts of Victorian drama’s, the Mitford’s and other aristocracy or adventures in the Brazilian Jungle which you know I will most likely love of course, I would be delighted. I would also really like to hear about some books which you think might send me out of my comfort zone in terms of topics or themes, I can add some of them to my upcoming Birthday list. Thanks in advance.

16 Comments

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16 responses to “Narrative Non-Fiction, Well, Just Great Non-Fiction Really…

  1. Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm – a brilliant account of a life in neurosurgery. Armchair Nation by Joe Moran – a history of TV in the UK. The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield – the real Six Feet Under. This Boy by Alan Johnson. Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik – fascinating and accessible materials science. I loved all of these.

  2. I was going to recommend In Cold Blood but you’ve already read it. It’s the only one I’ve read that I’m aware of.

  3. I would like two recommend two books about the Pulitzer prize winning poet Elizabeth Bishop, one fiction, the other lively non fiction. The former a very very good debut novel The More I Owe You be Michael Sledge and the latter Rare and Commonplace Flowers by Carmen Oliveira.

  4. You need to read Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, by far the best narrative non-fiction court room drama you will ever read.

    And I highly recommend Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, about life in North Korea — or maybe you have already read that?

    Another good one is the Vienna Woods Killer by John Leake — about a journalist who reported on his own crimes.

    All have been reviewed on my blog.

  5. Sharanya

    I recommend Bill Bryson. Read ‘Notes from a Small Island’ if you haven’t already, and my favourite is ‘A Walk in the Woods’. I have also heard goodthings about Mary Roach, and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’.

  6. As I know you like Daphne du Maurier, I really recommend Captivated by Piers Dudgeon – it tells the story of her and her cousins the Llewellyn-Davies boys, who were J.M. Barrie’s inspiration for The Lost Boys. It’s very well researched and written, and really fascinating. I read it a few years ago and remember loving it. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6503542-captivated

  7. You’ve read Augusten Burroughs, right? His first book, Running with Scissors proves truth is stranger than fiction but his second book, Dry, also really interesting.

    Really, really good is Beautiful Boy by David Sheff and Tweak by Nic Sheff – google the back story on these two books (I recommend reading David’s first). I read both books years ago and still think about them.

  8. I’ve just realised that the non-fiction I suggested was mostly not narrtive non-fic – they’re all brilliant though!

  9. Fenella

    I enjoyed reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I learned a lot about the birth of detectivism.

    Also, Harriette, the Persephone Book, is powerful and a fictionalised account of a true story. It’s harrowing and so well done. So that could tick two boxes in one go.

  10. Hopping by Melanie McGrath is amazing! It’s a creative history of the East End hop-picking families in the 1940s and 1950s and its fantastically written and really moving. Also love her other books The Long Exile and Silvertown.

  11. Pam

    I second the suggestion for mr whicher. Also – anything by Erik Larson (esp. Devil in the white city). Glass castle by Jeanette walls was fab.

  12. I really enjoyed The Psychopath Test and So You’ve Been Publically Shamed by Jon Ronson – I find him very accessible. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays by Joan Didion, it blew my mind. There there’s The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, Just Kids by Patti Smith, Bossypants by Tina Fey, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Tuesday’s With Morrie by Mitch Albom, I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell, An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison (a memoir which has a heavy focus on being bi-polar) and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

    I’m a big fan of memoirs.

  13. I second the recommendations of Jon Ronson and Joan Didion. Ooh, and as you like Victorian true crime, I can recommend The Most Remarkable Woman in England by John Carter Wood. It looks like a fusty academic book from the cover but I thought it was better than The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (which I also liked) in terms of storytelling.

  14. I’m a little late perhaps for your birthday list but as I adore narrative non-fiction I must comment!
    I think The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks should be on everyone’s must-read list both for the subject matter and the style. I enjoy Mary Roach’s work and in a similar kind of irreverent style, I also enjoy Sarah Vowell’s work though it is US centric-she has a humor about the huge amount of facts she gives you in the Wordy Shipmates. Diane Ackerman writes so beautifully about her subjects-I particularly love her Natural History of the Senses. Mark Mazower might tend more to historical nonfiction than narrative but his books are engaging nonetheless (his books on the Balkans are the most readable I’ve read). Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts puts paid to the idea of the lone genius in a series of narratives. Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian ranks among my favorite books and he talks about all of North America in a broad span narrative. More UK centric is Robert Macfarlane’s work where he intertwines naturalism with his journeys. Frank Westerman’s Brother Mendel’s Perfect Horse is somewhat of a challenge but by following the breeding of a horse, he really spans far and wide on a variety of histories and subjects. And I expect you’d already be familiar with Oliver Sacks’s work which really walks the line of narrative and nonfiction.

    As for the Brazilian Jungle, there’s always the Teddy Roosevelt biography: The River of Doubt which starts with Teddy begging his son to let him kill himself so he wouldn’t be a burden on the exploring party.

  15. If you would like to get any insight into my (professional) life then may I strongly recommend Jon Butterworth’s recent and excellent “Smashing Physics”. Other non-fiction that might meet your criteria are Kaler’s “The Every Changing Sky”, L T C Rolt’s “Great Engineers”, Harold McGee “On Food and Cooking”, Gombrich “Art and Illusion”, any book by Martin Gardner, “Life an Unauthorised Biography” by Richard Fortey. I could go on (and on and on …)

  16. Amy C

    Well I’m late to the game but wanted to second the other commenter’s suggestion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I also loved Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (although that is very American, so I guess it just depends on what someone is interested in).

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