16 best non-fiction books of 2018
It's been a big year in the world of words. From memoirs to cookbooks, there's a tome here for everyone
From glossy interiors books that will inspire you to revamp your home to moving memoirs and biographies, we’ve rounded up some of the best non-fiction books published in 2018. Choosing books is highly subjective, but we reckon that there’s something here for everyone.
Memoir and biography
In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum: £20, Amazon
War correspondent Marie Colvin was the journalist every news reporter looked up to. Glamorous, hard drinking and brave, she reported from the most dangerous places in the world, bearing witness to the horrifying truths of war. Famed for the trademark eye-patch she wore after losing the sight in her left eye when she was hit by a grenade in Sri Lanka, she was killed in Syria in 2012.
The title of this superb and moving memoir, written by her friend and fellow foreign correspondent Lindsey Hilsum, is taken from one of Colvin’s own Sunday Times dispatches. “It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars,” she wrote in 2001.
Educated by Tara Westover: £8.99, Waterstones
Tara Westover’s coming-of-age story of growing up in the wilds of Idaho with survivalist parents is one of the most exceptional books of the year. Isolated from the local community, Westover wasn’t registered for a birth certificate, didn’t go to school till she was 17 and had no medical records because her father didn’t believe in hospitals.
As she grew older her father became more radical and her brother more violent, yet Westover never wavered in her determination to educate herself. She won a place at university in Utah and went on to study for a doctorate at Cambridge. She paid a high price in the process though, eventually severing ties with her parents.
This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay: £8.99, Amazon
If you haven’t read Adam Kay’s memoir about life as a junior doctor there’s a treat in store. One of the bestselling books of the year, it scooped three awards at the recent Specsavers National Book Awards – and justifiably so.
Kay’s vivid “veruccas-and-all” account of his time on the NHS front line isn’t for the squeamish but it’s hilarious, heartbreaking and horrifying in equal measures. From 97-hour weeks to life and death decisions, this is a book that makes you laugh, makes you cry and makes you think.
Mad About the House by Kate Watson-Smyth: £20, Hive
Interiors journalist Kate Watson-Smyth made her name with her entertaining and informative blog, which she launched in 2012. Her stylish north London house – and her grey cat Enid – have featured in a host of magazines and Mad About the House is now the UK’s number one interiors blog.
Mad About the House, her second book, is a must-read for anyone trying to figure out their house style. Beautifully written, with lots of good sense and a dash of humour, it offers advice on choosing paint colours, getting the lighting right, buying furniture and much, much more.
Be Bold by Emily Henson: £19.99, Amazon
If you’re tired of wishy-washy greys and crave big blocks of colour, hot pink paint and sumptuous fabrics, this is the interiors book for you.
When interiors stylist Emily Henson started writing it her life was “in turmoil” and her home had become “pared back and simplified”. But as time passed she was drawn to houses with bold prints, bright colours and exhilarating artwork – and so the book was born.
Be Bold is packed with ideas for readers to recreate and gorgeous photographs of colourful homes. As Emily Henson says: “Bold really is beautiful.”
The New Creative Home – London Style by Talib Choudhry: £19.95, Amazon
Imagine being invited into the homes of some of London’s most creative people. That’s the premise of The New Creative Home, which features the chic abodes of some of the capital’s style setters, including fashion designers Suzanne Clements and Inacio Ribeiro, florist Nikki Tibbles and stylist Matilda Goad.
With ravishing photography by Ingrid Rasmussen, this compelling guide gives readers a glimpse into flats and houses across London. Some are cool and sophisticated, while others, like artist Alice Gomme’s Kentish Town flat, are full of junk shop finds. The current star of the show, writes author Talib Choudhry, is a wild boar’s skeleton, which came from a museum in the Czech Republic.
A Short History of Europe by Simon Jenkins: £25, Hive
Simon Jenkins’s book couldn’t be more timely. With Europe at a turning point and the UK set to leave the EU, the journalist and author guides us through the continent’s history – from Pericles to Putin.
Rather than writing a massive tome, Jenkins is admirably concise, elegantly guiding readers through the battlefields of warring tribes to a landscape of comparative peace and prosperity. He emerges with “an enhanced admiration” for his native continent, adding: “For all its oppressions, cruelties and ongoing mistakes, I see it as a remarkable corner of the globe, fertile in its culture and in its capacity for leadership and charity.”
Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts: £35, Amazon
More than 1,000 biographies of Winston Churchill have been published in the past but historian Andrew Roberts’s weighty volume makes use of a plethora of fascinating new sources. He’s the first Churchill biographer, for instance, to be given “unfettered access” to King George VI’s wartime diaries.
This impressive and very readable book gives a vivid insight into the character of Britain’s wartime prime minister, from his lifelong desire to please his father to his love of the British Empire, his insistence on being where the action was and his willingness to take risks.
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre: £25, Waterstones
John le Carré has called this engrossing tale of KGB insider Oleg Gordievsky “the best true spy story I have ever read”. It’s high praise indeed from the master storyteller himself but The Spy and the Traitor more than lives up to it.
Subtitled “the greatest espionage story of the Cold War”, Macintyre’s account of the KGB officer who spied for MI6 for 11 years is a tale of betrayal, duplicity and courage that changed the course of the Cold War for ever. It’s an impeccably researched, compelling read.
Sport and adventure
The Tour According to G: My Journey to the Yellow Jersey by Geraint Thomas: £20, Waterstones
Geraint Thomas is the immensely likeable cyclist who despite winning two Olympic gold medals seemed jinxed when it came to the Tour de France – thanks to crashes, bad luck and his willingness to sacrifice himself for his team-mates.
But everything changed in July 2018 when he triumphed in the gruelling 21-stage Tour. As he writes in this exhilarating account of winning the prized yellow jersey: “I started on a cheap mountain bike called the Wolf that had a little speaker on the handlebars that could make police siren and fire engine noises, and I ended on the Champs-Elysées on a carbon-fibre wonder painted yellow.”
Up: My Life’s Journey to the Top of Everest by Ben Fogle & Marina Fogle: £20, Amazon
Climbing Everest might not be on your wish list but Ben Fogle’s account of his ascent of the world's highest mountain is told with humour, warmth and self-deprecation.
Fogle embarked on the challenge to climb Everest in aid of the British Red Cross with Olympic gold medallist Victoria Pendleton and mountaineer Kenton Cool. The seven-week expedition proved harrowing and exhilarating but what sets this book apart are Fogle’s personal reflections on living life to the full, seizing opportunities and looking up rather than down.
Food and drink
Together: Our Community Cookbook: £9.99, Waterstones
"Together is more than a cookbook. This is a tale of friendship, and a story of togetherness." Those are the Duchess of Sussex's words in the foreword to this inspiring cookery book – a collection of more than 50 recipes that bear testimony to the women who gathered together in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy to cook for their families and neighbours.
The women named themselves the Hubb Community Kitchen (Hubb means "love" in Arabic) and took comfort in sharing their family recipes with each other. Now, at the duchess's suggestion, they’ve published a book, with the profits helping the community kitchen to strengthen lives and communities through cooking.
From Moroccan pancakes with honey and almond butter to coconut chicken curry, the recipes are delicious – and show how cooking together helped the women to heal and look forward.
Gin Made Me Do It: 60 Beautifully Botanical Cocktails by Jassy Davis: £9.99, Hive
Gin dates back to 11th-century Benedictan monks, who made the first recorded juniper scented spirit for medicinal purposes. Today, gin is all the rage, with distilleries all over the country producing the stuff.
If you’re mad about gin, Jassy Davis’s book will tell you everything you need to know, from the difference between London Dry Gin (it’s a gin-making method, not a place) and New Western Dry Gin, to how to make the best gin cocktails.
The perfect martini is deemed so important that it gets a chapter all to itself. Even more crucially, Davis tackles the “shaken or stirred” conundrum, declaring that “for an ice-cold martini as clear as a lake in winter, stirring is the only way to go”.
You are Awesome by Matthew Syed: £9.99, Amazon
After writing two motivational books for adults, journalist and broadcaster Matthew Syed switches his focus to younger readers.
The aim of this upbeat guide is to give children the confidence to have a go and achieve their potential. He eloquently explains that success is earned rather than pre-ordained in life and if you practise and practise something you’ll get better at it. He knows what he’s talking about. He started playing table tennis against his brother in the garage at home and went on to compete in two Olympic Games.
Syed also cites examples of “famous failures”. We particularly liked this quote from Apple founder Steve Jobs: “I’m convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” There’s also a companion volume, The You Are Awesome Journal, a toolkit for children to record their goals, plans and challenges.
Maps of the United Kingdom by Rachel Dixon and Livi Gosling: £17.99, Hive
In the age of the satnav this beautiful book puts maps firmly back on the, yes, map.
Featuring 48 maps of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it provides a wealth of information about every county, from the birthplaces of famous people to ancient castles, engineering feats and quirky facts.
The Cumbria map, for instance, highlights writers like William Wordsworth, Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter, gives details of one of the steepest roads in England (Hardknott Pass) and reveals the oldest working passenger vessel in the world (the Lady of the Lake pleasure boat in Ullswater).
This is an absorbing compendium that will appeal to children of all ages – and boost their geographical knowledge to boot.
Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration by Leonard C Marcus: £30, Amazon
Thousands of us grew up with Helen Oxenbury’s classic picture books. From We’re Going on a Bear Hunt to The Giant Jumperee, she’s been a stalwart of children’s literature for more than half a century, bringing stories to life with her enchanting illustrations.
To celebrate her 80th birthday, Walker Books has produced this stunning tribute. As well as featuring artwork from her picture books, it includes family photographs (including one of Oxenbury as a champion teenage tennis player), stories from her collaborators and a bibliography of all her books. If you’re an Oxenbury enthusiast, young or old, an art student or an illustrator yourself this is a book to cherish.
The Verdict: Best non-fiction books of 2018
Choosing books is very much a matter of taste but there’s plenty of choice this Christmas.
Our favourite read was In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum, but if you’re looking for a tome that will delight children and adults alike then Maps of the United Kingdom by Rachel Dixon and Livi Gosling is a classic that readers of all ages will return to again and again.
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