From history to politics, nature to science, cookery to music - the best non-fiction of 2018
From history to politics, popular science, nature, cookery and music, it's our guide to the best non-fiction of 2018
Can anything new be said about Winston Churchill, especially after the multi-volume biographies by Martin Gilbert? Definitely, and in Churchill: Walking with Destiny (Viking Penguin), Andrew Roberts has brought us up to date with a lively and sympathetic portrait which also shows the flaws of this great leader.
Churchill would have known all about Heligoland, a small German archipelago in the North Sea, given their key strategic role in both world wars. In 1890, Britain actually swapped the islands with Germany for Zanzibar. Heligoland by Jan Rüger (Oxford University Press) is a lively history of where the Third Reich eventually came to grief.
We know of the fate of the Jews in World War II so how amazing to hear how integral they were to German society and the German military before the Holocaust, as A Deadly Legacy: German Jews and the Great War by Tim Grady (Yale University Press) shows.
Bryan Fanning's major account of the different immigrant experiences here, Migration and the Making of Ireland (UCD Press), starts with the Ulster Plantation in the 17th century and comes right up to the recent experiences of Africans, East Europeans and asylum seekers.
Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation by Peter Marshall (Yale University Press) vividly shows the scale of social disruption and suffering under Henry VIII when England changed from being a Catholic to a Protestant country, which had huge effects on Ireland. The consequences are still with us.
Ambition and Achievement: the Civic Visions of Frank Gibney (Castles in the Air) is a fascinating account by Fergal MacCabe, with illustrations, of the architect who designed the famous Bord na Mona villages, and wanted to create a new urbanised 'capital' in Athlone. Ahead of his time.
As an Irish Times correspondent, Conor O'Clery gave us award-winning accounts of the former Soviet Union. In The Shoemaker and His Daughter he recounts the story of his wife, Zhanna, and her family in this touching memoir about life in Russia. Both personal and historic.
The Big House was once a key feature of our landscape and in Women and the Country House in Ireland and Britain (Four Courts Press) editors Terence Dooley, Maeve O'Riordan and Christopher Ridgway give us a vivid historical account of the women behind this source of social ritual, culture and local industry.
Waterford Crystal: The Creation of a Global Brand by John M Hearne (Irish Academic Press) is an absorbing account of the development of a strong Irish brand which became a luxury pursuit everywhere, and a diaspora symbol especially for Irish-Americans. But the company has been troubled in recent years.
As an island people, we are fascinated by the sea and in Cold Iron: Aspects of the Occupational Lore of Irish Fishermen (Four Courts Press), UCD-based folklore historian Bairbre Ní Fhloinn describes the customs and superstitions that have grown up over this hardy centuries-old activity.
The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris (Penguin) is a gripping account of the early stages of modern 'surgery' when it became a ghoulish source of public spectacle. It makes one glad to live in the modern era.
Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings (HarperCollins) is an excellent salutary account of overreach by a democratic West, first by the colonial French and then by the United States, trying to stop Communism. The prolific Hastings, who reported on Vietnam as a young reporter, revisits the country for this authoritative account.
Ultimately, all politics is personal. Nowhere is that illustrated better than Senator Lynn Ruane's award-winning memoir People Like Me (Gill Books).
What could have been just another cookie-cutter piece of Irish misery-lit instead becomes an inspiring tale of a woman whose life was careering down the wrong path until she got herself together.
A drug user by the time she was a teenager, Ruane writes of Tallaght back in the 1980s, when a massive population shift from the towers of Ballymun to the foot of the Dublin mountains left people isolated and largely forgotten.
A late starter in education, she went on to become well known as president of the Students Union in Trinity College, and was appointed to the Seanad in 2016.
Ruane's story is a testament to the power of education and a timely reminder that it's never too late to start learning.
Francis Fukuyama may well be the most mocked political scientist on the planet. His now infamous The End of History and the Last Man (1992) posited the idea that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world was reaching the end of what he called our "ideological evolution".
As we now know, things didn't exactly work out that way. His latest book, Identity (Profile Books), examines two of the most pressing issues of our age - identity politics and the cost of globalisation.
He attempts to explain Trump in slightly more subtle ways than many of his peers, and liberal American reviewers are furious with some of the assertions contained within. As polarising a figure as ever, you might not agree with everything he says, but he remains a provocative thinker.
She remains one of the most popular women in America and Michelle Obama's memoir Becoming (Penguin) has already broken records for the publisher.
Her publicity tour in the States is taking place in arenas rather than the more traditional bookshops and this memoir features everything from style tips, her personal backstory and some score settling with people who have crossed her in the past.
As Brexit continues to play havoc with everything it encounters, like the political equivalent of Typhoid Mary, lecturer Ivan Gibbons picked a perfect time to release Drawing the Line: The Irish Border in British Politics (Haus Publishing).
Given the abject ignorance of the Border which has been displayed by so many Tory ministers in recent weeks, one can only hope a few of them get this for Christmas as a much-needed refresher course on an issue about which they know little and care even less.
Tim Moore's Another Fine Mess: Across Trumpland in a Model T Ford (Yellow Jersey) sees the author drive coast to coast through the counties which voted for Trump.
As is often the case with first-person accounts, the reader will learn more about the reasons why people voted for him than from a million TV talking heads.
It was a muck-raking, imprecisely sourced and highly dubious account of Trump's chaotic arrival to The White House but Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury (Little, Brown) is a guilty pleasure everyone can enjoy.
Just about the only person who admitted to helping Wolff was the exiled Steve Bannon who gleefully aids the author in dishing the dirt. While the response from Trump was one of, well, fury, there are some cracking moments, not least the scenes at the inauguration, which saw Trump in a foul mood while Melania wept in the corner, horrified that her husband had "broken his promise not to win".
The fact the TV rights were quickly sold, despite the producers not knowing whether to make it as a documentary or a sit-com, says all you need to know, but it is a remarkably funny read.
Tim Radford's The Consolations of Physics (Sceptre) begins, and ends, with the Voyager I and II space probes, launched in 1977 and still going strong in interstellar space: in some ways, he argues, the most incredible feat of engineering ever achieved by mankind. This book, as the title suggests, is a love-letter to science: its beauty, mystery, meaning and, yes, consolations.
Australian writer Gina Perry uncovers the hidden history of a shocking psychological study, carried out in post-War America, in The Lost Boys (Scribe). Muzafer Sherif is the story's anti-hero, a brilliant and somewhat ruthless Turkish psychologist. His unethical study of rival groups of pre-teen boys is like Lord of the Flies made flesh.
Would you trust a justice system run on computers? Should self-driving cars save the lives of passengers or pedestrians? As algorithms dominate our lives more and more, British mathematician Hannah Fry poses a number of enjoyably Gordian quandaries in Hello World (Doubleday), and ponders "How to be Human in the Age of the Machine".
Max Tegmark follows a similar path in Life 3.0 (Penguin), delving into what it will mean to live in a world of artificial intelligence. A Swedish professor of physics at the world-renowned MIT, who has previously written about how the universe has a "mathematical basis", Tegmark brings all his intellectual gifts to bear on a series of difficult questions.
In How to Change Your Mind (Allen Lane), film-maker and author Michael Pollan explores the new science of psychedelics: those mind-melting drugs that, it's increasingly understood, do a lot more than provide a pleasurable trip. Through interviews and his own dabbling, Pollan discovers that "entheogen" use is more of a mystical experience.
And speaking of mind-melting: quantum mechanics is so surreal and incomprehensible, it makes an LSD trip seem like tea with the vicar. What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics (John Murray) sees Adam Becker looking at the clash between two fundamentally opposed realities: the fact that quantum works, every time, at the experimental level - and the uneasy truth that nobody really understands why, or can express its true meaning.
The great Steven Pinker cuts through the hysteria, doomsaying and pessimism of modern times with Enlightenment Now (Allen Lane), a passionately argued "Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress". He outlines, clearly and methodically, how the dominant narrative of society and media - we're all going to hell in a handbasket, basically - is proven wrong by inarguable facts and statistics.
Where we might be going, however, is outer space, after a hiatus of decades. This time, though, it's not driven by Cold War ideology, but tech giants including Elon Musk (of Tesla fame), Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Christian Davenport's The Space Barons (PublicAffairs) is a galaxy-sized tale of ambition, money, ego and ancient dreams of living among the stars.
Even now, some 65 million years after they last walked the earth, dinosaurs exert an incredibly strong hold on the imagination. These magnificent beasts were so strange, so bizarre and (some of them) so inconceivably enormous, that they seem closer to mythical monsters than flesh-and-blood products of the exact same evolutionary process that produced us. In The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (Macmillan), Steve Brusatte, one of the world's top palaeontologists, brings us on a dizzying journey from the beginning of dinosaurs to their abrupt ending in a cataclysmic firestorm. It's the closest thing to magic you can imagine in a science book.
Consider for a moment that a swallow born in a barn in rural Ireland weighs around 18g. Then imagine that bird taking off one day in September and flying thousands of miles all the way down to sub-Saharan Africa, only to return to that exact same barn the following spring. If you don't find that endlessly incredible, then I don't know what to do for you. If you do, however, then it's worth checking out Anthony McGeehan's excellent To the Ends of the Earth (Collins Press), which looks at and beautifully illustrates the mind-blowing science behind bird migration from an Irish perspective.
A magnetic pull of another kind, Collins' New Naturalist Library series aims to bring "the enquiring spirit of the old naturalists" to the wildlife of the British Isles. So exceptional is the precious karst enigma of North Clare, however, that The Burren (William Collins) is the first in the series to examine an Irish region. Co-authors David Cabot and Roger Goodwillie leave no stone unturned, and as we know, there are plenty of them down that way.
A more gentle approach is called for by photographer Carsten Krieger in The River Shannon: Ireland's Majestic Waterway (O'Brien Press), a splendid visual paean to our greatest river that travels with it from source to sea. Releases such as The Running Sky and Four Fields marked Tim Dee out as one of the great contemporary nature writers. In Landfill (Little Toller), the UK author meditates on our relationship with waste and ultimately our love/hate relationship with the gull, a bird which we either regard as "an instructor of grace or a depraved hooligan".
There are no such ambiguities when it comes to the curlew. So iconic and haunting is the call of this wading bird that it is unimaginable that it might one day never be heard again (numbers have halved in the last 20 years). In Curlew Moon (William Collins), Mary Colwell chronicles a 500-mile ramble from the west of Ireland to the east of England in search of these birds and solutions to their plight. Similarly, Seán Lysaght's Eagle Country (Little Toller) behaves like a heady prose map as the Mayo poet and naturalist explores those western counties where the golden eagle and white-tailed sea eagle are being reintroduced.
Another species that is struggling is the honeybee, but losing them would be far more disastrous to human life. Beekeeping is becoming more popular in urban areas as both a fascinating pastime rich in mindfulness teachings, but also a way to accommodate colonies of these vital pollinators. A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings (Scribner) is Londoner Helen Jukes' thoughtful and candid account of getting set-up as a beekeeper while lifting the hive lid on the mind-bending magic that takes place inside.
Much, and yet little, has changed in the 40 years since the world watched in stunned awe as David Attenborough glanced back at gorillas in the cloud forests of Rwanda. For its anniversary, Life on Earth: The Greatest Story Ever Told (William Collins), the book that accompanied the seminal BBC series, has been rewritten and augmented with new images to reflect how much the stakes have risen since. This magnificent release balances its message about the spiralling fragility of the environment with the precious wonderment of the animal world. "Cherish the natural world, because you are part of it and depend on it," as the great man says himself.
Hilary A White
Viv Albertine, guitarist with the all-female punk band The Slits, delivered one of the great memoirs of those heady late-70s days back in 2014, and this year, she followed up with an equally well-written account of a very different time in her life. To Throw Away Unopened (Faber & Faber) is more than a sequel - it takes a look at how rock stars adjust to middle age and a life away from the limelight.
One man who was no stranger to the limelight was Peter Grant, the hell-raising manager of Led Zeppelin. He adored all the trappings of fame but as Mark Blake's entertaining biography Bring it on Home (Constable) demonstrates, Grant's propensity for self-destruction ensured that he cut a tragic figure later in life.
Lily Allen's music could hardly be more different to that of Led Zep, but she has been in the wars, too and her candid memoir My Thoughts Exactly (Blink) sees her lift the lid on a career that's had more ups and downs than a rollercoaster. It is an entertaining tome - even for those immune to her charms.
Even more entertaining is Seymour Stein's look-back on a stunning career in music. The legendary record company exec played a big part in the success of everyone from Talking Heads to Madonna and Siren Song (St Martin's Press) details the thrills and excesses of an industry that has changed utterly.
Rock may be the subject of some of the year's best music books, but jazz gets a look in, too. Because of its glorious history and the tales of its iconic practitioners, it's easy to forget that there's a new generation pushing the sonic boat out and Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (Pantheon), by former New York Times critic Nate Chinen, celebrates some of the great exponents today, including Kamasi Washington and Brad Mehldau.
A far newer genre is the subject of Dan Hancox's absorbing book Inner City Pressure (William Collins). It documents the story of UK grime, especially in London, and shines a light on its leading stars.
One of the great biographies of the year is Robert Hillburn's studious examination of Paul Simon, who announced his retirement from touring this year. Like all great music biographies, The Life (Simon & Schuster) makes you want to go back over Simon's sizeable back catalogue and listen with fresh ears.
Creativity is also first and foremost in the mind of Questlove, a member of the Grammy-winning group The Roots. Creative Quest (Ecco) sees him exploring the output of others - including David Byrne and George Clinton - and encourages anyone with a creative bone to follow their hearts. A good rule of thumb as we look forward to the New Year. John Meagher
Astral Weeks, Van Morrison's second solo album, is not just considered one of the best Irish albums ever; it also appears close to the top of many international lists. To mark the 50th anniversary of its release, Boston writer Ryan Walsh takes a look at the role his city played in shaping Morrison's masterwork in Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 (Penguin Press) and also appraises the creativity at the heart of US counter-culture in 1969. The Belfast singer moved to New York after signing a notoriously bad record deal but after extricating himself from it, he relocated to Boston and fashioned songs like 'Cyprus Avenue' that would become part of the Astral Weeks legend.
I was always of the view that life was too short for polishing copper kettles, and as for making almond milk from nuts, well, that was a step too far in my book. In 2018, I had to eat my words. I fell in love with copper pots and now love nothing more than gleaming them up after dusting down the spines of my array of new cookery books and sipping a mug of (homemade) almond milk latte!
Yes, I swallowed my contempt and this year fell totally, madly in love with a series of healthy eating cookery books, starting with Holly White's Vegan-ish (Gill), ideal for those curious about this lifestyle with health and environmental benefits.
After tasting Holly's delicious Almond Crackers, my curiosity was piqued and I dived into her book with zeal, followed by Ella Mills' Deliciously Ella: The Plant-Based Cookbook (Yellow Kite) which provided a remarkable number of tasty options from breakfast through to dinner. I was hooked.
For pure tactile beauty, you can't beat the peach-feel cover of Diana Henry's How To Eat a Peach (Mitchell Beazley), a book with real authenticity, not least because these are menus and stories the Co Down-born writer jotted down in a copybook over the years. Diana is up there with Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson as a respected writer. She counts Nigella Lawson as a fan, and this book will be a Christmas morning hit for those who like to entertain.
For sheer food porn, you cannot beat Seasons: Big Flavours, Beautiful Food by Nik Sharma (Chronicle). Nik is the writer, photographer, and recipe developer behind the acclaimed blog A Brown Table and the diversity of flavours in his book will kick-start any tired palate.
Neven Maguire's Home Economics for Life (Gill) will appeal to cooks of all ages and it goes back to basics in order to take you forward with added, zesty confidence.
The idea of making suppers from scratch is a real pain for time-poor commuters but Donal Skehan's Meals in Minutes (Hodder & Stoughton) hits the nail on the head with 90 meal suggestions which take around 15 minutes of prep, and I thoroughly commend the Kale and Mushroom Risotto... eaten with a dessert spoon in front of the telly.
Darina Allen's Simply Delicious: The Classic Collection (Kyle) has 100 recipes from three of her previous top-selling books which are all thoroughly dog-eared and floury in our house so the new hardback book is a nice treat.
I was taken by surprise by the sheer spicy appeal of Honey & Co (Pavilion) by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich and finally, 2018 will be remembered for The Currabinny Cookbook (Penguin) in which influencer James Kavanagh and chef William Murray offer a contemporary twist on tradition with a unique cross-generational appeal.
My heart melted the night chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi slid a plate of his Middle Eastern-influenced food in front of me at the Ballymaloe Literary Fest. I savoured every mouthful but at home, I always found his recipes complicated because of the number of components, some of which were hard to locate - but 2018 was the year all that changed with his book Simple (Ebury). The delicious, vegetable-focused dishes are full of those bold flavours you enjoy when you visit his restaurants in London (the one on Ledbury Road is my favourite). And if you are a control freak, his guide abbreviations - such as S for 'short on time' or 10 ingredients or less - are user-friendly.
Beacons, beautiful birds and a window on the newborn State
It's good to see such home-grown pedigree in this lush department. Writer and illustrator Roger O'Reilly pays tribute to the sentinels that guard the Irish coastline in Lighthouses of Ireland (Collins Press). A companion piece to the recent (and wonderful) four-part RTÉ series, it soars around the seaboard, meeting these romantic and remarkable constructions with digested histories and full-colour illustrations.
Staying by the shore, but switching from the ingenuity and exertions of man to the landscape of the soul, we find People on the Pier (New Island), a celebration of Dún Laoghaire's two great contributions to Irish society - its East and West Piers. Compiled by Betty Stenson and Marian Thérése Keyes, this is a love letter to these two concourses of Dalkey granite that offer fresh air and headspace to families, lovers, children, and, yes, doggies.
Fifty years ago, US photojournalist Susan Wood travelled to Ireland on assignment for British Vogue. A part of herself stayed behind ever since, as Susan Wood: Ireland (Lilliput) attests. Over her time, Wood gained access to the Irish cultural elite - Garech Browne, Marina Guinness, JP Donleavy, Tim Pat Coogan - but more fascinating are the changes in the backdrops as we move from the late 1960s right through to today.
A father and son come together to sombre, striking effect in Reconstructions: The Troubles in Photographs and Words (Merrion Press). Bobbie Hanvey was one of the key photographic documenters of the Troubles. Here, his black-and-white images are combined with the poetry of his eldest son Steafán Hanvey, who would have spent time in the darkroom as Bobbie brought these images to life.
While his career only lasted from 1913 to 1931, Harry Clarke was operating at a key juncture in Irish history. Harry Clarke and Artistic Visions of the New Irish State (Irish Academic Press), edited by Angela Griffith, Marguerite Helmers and Róisín Kennedy, collates the work of the great stained-glass artist who played a role in forging a new cultural aesthetic as the State was learning to stand on its own two feet.
If the gooiness of Christmas is beginning to grate and your inner devil needs its funny bone tickled, look no further that Another Fine Mess (New Island). It sees Sligo illustrator and wit Annie West chuckle her way through famous demises as her playful cartoons examine "peculiar and amusing ways to die".
Photographer, archaeologist and globetrotter Vincent Butler became so struck by homelessness in Dublin that he had to do something. Sixty Photographs For Simon (Irish Academic Press) is a broad and beautiful collection of images taking human and animal life around the world. A steal at €20, all proceeds go directly to the Simon Community.
For sheer head-swimming visual ecstasy, you won't do better than Bird Photographer of the Year (William Collins). An accompanying compendium to the annual competition of the same name, this contest's great wealth is to be found in its observance of line, composition, texture, and, occasionally quirkiness. A cornucopia of natural beauty, which you can never get enough of.
Hilary A White