Non-Fiction November

I have taken part in Non-Fiction November – in which the aim is to actively try to read more non-fiction than one would ordinarily – for some years now, and always enjoy the process. Whilst I review quite a few works of non-fiction each year, and think I have struck a nice balance between it and fiction, both here and in my reading life, I have not made an effort to theme blog content around it before.

This year, I wanted to do something a little different. Therefore, each review posted during the month of November will be of a non-fiction title. These are not books which I will be reading this November – oh, the joys of scheduling posts ahead of time! – but ones which I have very much enjoyed in recent months. I have tried to vary their content as much as possible, to show just how wonderful non-fiction can be, and how it can appeal to every taste.

With that said, I very much hope that you enjoy the themed Non-Fiction November content, and that you feel inspired to pick up a factual tome or two during the month. Please let me know if you do!


TBR Tracker Update: July

I started the month of July with 25 books on my TBR; this includes both physical books, and those on my Kindle.  The majority of my leftover physical books are now at my parents’ house, and I need to pick them up during August.  I have therefore mainly been focusing upon reading the books which I have bought over the last year or two on my Kindle.

51b1g92btpjl._sx324_bo1204203200_I have added three books to my TBR this month, but did not actively purchase any of them during July.  I received a copy of Irène Némirovsky’s All Our Worldly Goods.  This however is not a recent purchase.  I had ordered it from AbeBooks in March, and had not received the copy, so was given a full refund by the seller.  It finally – and luckily – turned up in the post on my last week in Glasgow before I moved.  The other two books which I added to my TBR were copies which I received as belated birthday presents – A Castle in England by Jamie Rhodes was a graphic novel given to me by my good friend Katie, and my sister gifted me a copy of My Mum, Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson for nostalgic purposes.  I have read each of these books, and very much enjoyed them all.

With regard to my original TBR list, I have managed to read seven titles.  My TBR therefore stands at 18 books.  I had intended to get this down to 15 by the end of July, but with moving and discovering my great new public library, this did not quite go to plan.  I am pleased with my progress however.

I have written up short reviews of the books which I have managed to read below.  Two of them – The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester, and Clara by Janice Galloway – will be appearing as full-length reviews early next year.


The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson (abandoned) 512bzxe5v1ol._sx324_bo1204203200_

I purchased James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack quite some time ago, and it had been languishing on my to-read pile for ages. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, this is the first of Robertson’s books which I have read, and it will sadly more than likely be the last.

In some ways, this is not the kind of book which I would usually go for, as I tend to steer clear of largely religious content. However, the elements of satire and the unusual quality which the story promised drew me in. Whilst not badly written, The Testament of Gideon Mack simply failed to pull me in at all. I did not find Mack convincing or quirky enough for a story of this kind. His first-person narrative voice was rather vague at times, and meandered with little direction.

I read around a quarter of the novel, but found that it was doing very little for me, and that I did not care at all about its characters. I can see why a lot of readers would appreciate The Testament of Gideon Mack, but it is simply not the book for me.


Chernobyl: The History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy *** 9780141988351

I am so interested in Chernobyl and its aftereffects, and therefore felt as though Plokhy’s scholarly account of the nuclear disaster would be well worth picking up.  The facts that it won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction in 2018, and that it is written by a professor of History at Harvard University further piqued my interest.

I found Chernobyl: The History of a Tragedy fascinating from the outset, and learnt a great deal from it.  Plokhy focuses on both individuals and the collective community, in both Chernobyl and its neighbouring town of Pripyat, and in Ukraine as a whole.  Plokhy’s tone is, as I expected, academic, and those chapters which deal with the explosion of the nuclear reactor are incredibly dense, and packed with almost too much information to process.  

I did not feel as though the book was entirely consistent, as some of the chapters felt rather choppy, and others flowed well.  In this manner, Plokhy’s account does tend to feel a little disjointed.  Whilst Chernobyl: The History of a Tragedy is highly saturated at points, as I have mentioned, it is worth persevering with.  I have a few qualms with it, and it is undeniably dry in places, but this weighty tome will be useful to anyone wishing to learn about the science of the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, and its later impact.


Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick ***

nothing_to_envyWhilst I found Demick’s accounts of several citizens of North Korea, some of whom have since defected, interesting, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea did not prove as engaging as I was expecting.  Often, I found Demick’s tone to be impersonal and detached, and this was curious in a piece of reportage which focuses so closely upon individuals.  Some of the chapters here kept me more interested than others, and I must admit that there were one or two which I did not really enjoy at all.  Whilst Demick ties together her points well, Nothing to Envy is by no means the best book about North Korea which I have read, and I would hesitate to recommend it.


If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin ****

I had originally intended to write a full review of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could 41-708jgc9l._sx324_bo1204203200_Talk, but decided that I would simply read it and jot down some thoughts instead.  This is not my first taste of Baldwin’s work.  I have read his wonderful and touching Giovanni’s Room, the novella which he is perhaps most famous for, as well as his lovely compendium of Greek mythology, and the Penguin Mini of his selected essays (review here).  

Tish, the nineteen-year-old narrator of If Beale Street Could Talk, has just discovered that she is pregnant.  Her boyfriend, twenty two-year-old Fonny, is in prison, accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman.  I very much enjoyed the way in which Baldwin unfolds and probes into their relationship from their childhoods, and found his approach convincing.  The characters, too, are entirely believable.

Baldwin’s prose is strikingly contemporary, and his story so poignant.  I was surprised throughout the novella, particularly with regard to the graphic scenes and coarse language which Baldwin includes.  If Beale Street Could Talk has a markedly different feel to Giovanni’s Room, and I found it far grittier.  Baldwin comments wonderfully, and often scathingly, upon the society of 1970s New York, and what life was like for the black community, who were so often scapegoated and unjustly treated.


Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum

9780141978284I read Anne Applebaum’s Gulag several years ago, and thought it excellent.  I was therefore very much looking forward to diving into her oeuvre of non-fiction.  For some reason, it has taken me an awfully long time to pick up another of her books, but <i>Red Famine<i> was just as thorough and well-written as I was expecting it to be.  Applebaum’s writing is always so considered, and is highly accessible, whether one knows a great deal about the famines in Ukraine engineered by the Soviet Union, or whether it is a new topic altogether.  Applebaum uses facts and testimonies alongside her own commentary, and remarks on how so many different topics interlink.  A fascinating tome, and one which I would highly recommend.


My current TBR stands as follows:


  1. Thomas Hardy: A Life by Claire Tomalin
  2. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
  3. The Diviners by Margaret Laurence 9780226469355
  4. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  5. Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba
  6. These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  7. Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  8. Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth
  9. Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd
  10. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
  11. The Seabird’s Cry by Adam Nicolson
  12. Hagseed by Margaret Atwood
  13. Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers by Valerie Lawson
  14. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene



  1. Sweet Caress by William Boyd
  2. Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
  3. The Complete Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  4. The Necessary Marriage by Elisa Lodato


I am keen to get my TBR down to 10 books by the end of August.  Having a TBR of between 5 and 10 books is my goal, but ultimately, I have decided that I would like to completely eradicate my TBR.  I will then be able to focus on reading books from my local library, and all of the galleys which have mounted up on my Kindle over the last couple of years.  Any books which I therefore add to my TBR, whether purchased by myself or received as gifts, can be read very quickly to maintain a zero books TBR.

Please wish me luck for the next leg of getting rid of my TBR altogether!


Challenge-Free 2019

Each year since I have been seriously recording my reading, and particularly since I have been blogging, I have decided to participate in year-long reading challenges.  This year’s Around the World in 80 Books challenge took me only four months to complete, but in the past, I have tended to get a little bored by the challenges which I set myself several months beforehand, and other, non-challenge reading has taken over instead.  This issue has been complicated further by my studies; I had so much to read whilst doing my Master’s that I wanted to make the most of the reading which I was able to do in my spare time, and did not want to have to adhere too much to challenge conventions.


From Goodreads

Despite the evident interest which reading challenges give me (for the first few months of the year, at least!) I have decided that I will not set myself any reading goals during 2019.  I want to be able to pick up books as and when I feel like reading them, rather than having to squeeze in books I am not as interested in, just because they contribute to a particular challenge.  I will also have far less time in which to read during 2019, as I will be working full-time and expect to be commuting every weekday.

I am taking part in a project with my sister, in which we are going to be ticking off every book mentioned in the Gilmore Girls, a series which she loved.  I engineered the challenge in order to encourage her to read, but she is adamant that she’s going to watch as many dramatised versions as she can find, and then read only what she can’t get hold of on Netflix…  I will, of course, be reading each title.  Our deadline goal is the end of 2020, so it should be doable!

I will be participating in the Goodreads yearly challenge, merely in terms of a set number of books which I want to read, although I haven’t decided on my goal yet.  In 2018, I let my mother select it for me; she went for 275 books.  The number which I settle for will more than likely be far lower next year.  I want to set myself a reachable goal whilst still challenging myself, but have no idea how many books I will be likely to get through.

What are your personal experiences with reading challenges?  Do you like to participate in them, or do they detract from the enjoyment which reading should bring you?  What are your goals for reading during 2019?


Reading the World: ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali ***

Originally published in Turkey in 1943, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat is still a national bestseller.  Ali was ‘one of the most influential Turkish authors of the twentieth century’, and his most famous novel, Madonna in a Fur Coat, which is a ‘classic of love and longing in a changing world’, is now available for the first time in English. 9780241293850

Madonna in a Fur Coat takes as its focus a young Turkish man, who moves to Berlin in the 1920s in order to learn a trade.  A chance meeting with a woman in the city ‘will haunt him for the rest of his life’.  Its blurb calls it ’emotionally powerful, intensely atmospheric and touchingly profound’.  Madonna in a Fur Coat opens in a manner which both coolly beguiles and intrigues: ‘Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression.  Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts.  As I sit here alone, I can see his honest face, gazing off into the distance, but ready, nonetheless, to greet all who cross his path with a smile.  Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man’.  The narrator then recounts Raif’s story, which is given to him in the form of a rather sensual diary beginning in 1933, when Raif lays upon his deathbed.

Raif is the German translator who is employed by the same company as the narrator in Ankara; the pair share an office.  He soon becomes fascinated by Raif and his disinterest; he keeps himself to himself, and evades questions about his personal life.  This very mystery acts as something akin to a magnet.  The narrator goes to visit him when he is absent from work due to illness, and finds that his home life, spent in an overcrowded and cramped house, is far from pleasant and desirable: ‘Though it was Raif Efendi who bore the cost of all this, it made no difference to him if he was present or absent.  Everyone in the family, from the oldest to the youngest, regarded him as irrelevant.  They spoke to him about their daily needs and money problems, and nothing else.’  The familial relationship, as well as the tentative friendship which unfolds between both men, are both built well, and are thus rendered believable in consequence.

The translation, which has been carried out in tandem by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, is effective.   Ali’s prose is more often than not beautifully wrought, and is sometimes quite profound: ‘It is, perhaps, easier to dismiss a man whose face gives no indication of an inner life.  And what a pity that is: a dash of curiosity is all it takes to stumble upon treasures we never expected.’  The narrative voice has such a clarity, and certainly a lot of realism, to it.

One of the most important elements of this novella is the way in which Ali displays both Turkish and German history, politics, and culture, particularly with regard to the ways in which both countries altered following the First World War.  The mystery at the heart of the novel certainly kept me interested.  Madonna in a Fur Coat is really rather touching, and reminded me a little of Stefan Zweig.  There is something about it, however, which makes it entirely its own.

Purchase from The Book Depository


Challenge: 20 Books of Summer 2015

The lovely Cathy at 746 Books hosts a wonderful summer challenge which runs between the start of June and the start of September, in which she chooses twenty books to read and blog about (more about the challenge here).  I have chosen to make my own list of twenty books; I am ideally hoping to read more than this, but with a large University reading list looming, I’m not actually sure how much reading for pleasure I will be able to do in the coming months.

I have chosen only books from my physical to-read pile, with one exception.  Whilst there are many books on my Kindle which I am very much looking forward to, they are not taking up vital shelf space, and can thus wait for a later date.  I have tried to make my list as varied as possible, but have mainly included hefty non-fiction tomes which I know will sit on my shelves gathering dust if I don’t do anything about them soon.

Without further ado, here is my 2015 list:

1. Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke (Kindle)20-books-of-summer-master-image
2. Of Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant
3. The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
4. Stalin and His Hangmen by Donald Rayfield
5. The Kit-Cat Club by Ophelia Field
6. My American by Stella Gibbons
7. The End: Germany, 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw
8. War and Peace (Volume I) by Leo Tolstoy
9. The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein
10. The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
11. Love, Sex, Death and Words by John Sutherland and Stephen Fender
12. Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge
13. The Sunflower by Rebecca West
14. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
15. H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
16. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
17. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
18. Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser
19. J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin
20. Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege by James Holland


Joining the Classics Club

I have been thinking of joining the Classics Club for quite a while now, and have finally got around to making a list.  I was originally going to go for fifty books, but I have upped the number to one hundred because I found it so hard to narrow down.

When making my list, I took into account books which I already own, either in physical or ebook format, and those which I can check out from the library.  I have included eight re-reads in my list, and a few ‘modern classics’ too.  I have tried to include all genres – fiction, children’s, poetry, non-fiction, and even a graphic novel nestle amongst my choices.  I have also included several books from the Virago and Persephone lists to tie the challenges together.  I am beginning the challenge as of now, and am aiming to finish it by the 31st of December 2015.  I will be updating the list as and when I read the books on my newly created ‘Classics Club’ page, and will link the reviews there too.

My list is as follows:

1. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
2. The World That Was Ours – Hilda Bernstein
3. The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck
4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
5. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
6. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
7. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
8. The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoevsky
9. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
10. Romola – George Eliot
11. Medea – Euripides
12. The Sound and The Fury – William Faulkner
13. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
14. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
15. Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
16. The Mayor of Casterbridge – Thomas Hardy
17. Les Miserables, Volume II – Victor Hugo
18. What Maisie Knew – Henry James
19. Death in Venice – Thomas Mann
20. Suddenly Last Summer – Tennessee Williams
21. A View From the Bridge – Arthur Miller
22. Rilla of Ingleside – L.M. Montgomery
23. Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery
24. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe
25. Nine Stories – J.D. Salinger
26. Poetry – Sappho
27. Antigone – Sophocles
28. East of Eden – John Steinbeck
29. The Pearl – John Steinbeck
30. Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck
31. Sweet Thursday – John Steinbeck
32. The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien
33. Someone at a Distance – Dorothy Whipple
34. We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
35. Nana – Emile Zola
36. The Rainbow – D.H. Lawrence
37. Watership Down – Richard Adams
38. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
39. The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough
40. Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin
41. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
42. Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset
43. The Kalevala – Elias Lonnrott
44. Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane
45. Crome Yellow – Aldous Huxley
46. Blindness – Henry Green
47. Berlin Alexanderplatz – Alfred Doblin
48. Independent People – Halldor Laxness
49. A Sicilian Romance – Ann Radcliffe
50. Babylon Revisited – F. Scott Fitzgerald
51. The Beetle – Richard Marsh
52. Disturbing the Peace – Richard Yates
53. Living – Henry Green
54. Cold Spring Harbor – Richard Yates
55. The Beautiful and Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald
56. Save Me the Waltz – Zelda Fitzgerald
57. The Mystery of the Yellow Room – Zelda Fitzgerald
58. The Birds Fall Down – Rebecca West
59. Novel on Yellow Paper – Stevie Smith
60. The Life of Charlotte Bronte – Elizabeth Gaskell
61. Maude – Christina Rossetti
62. Saplings – Noel Streatfeild
63. Maus – Art Spiegelman
64. Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke
65. Poetry – Rainer Maria Rilke
66. The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar – Edgar Allan Poe
67. The Clergyman’s Daughter – George Orwell
68. Young Hearts Crying – Richard Yates
69. Dead Souls – Nikolai Gogol
70. Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov
71. Ann Veronica – H.G. Wells
72. Mary Olivier: A Life – May Sinclair
73. Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther – Elizabeth von Arnim
74. Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon
75. The Group – Mary McCarthy
76. The Cossacks – Leo Tolstoy
77. The Kreutzer Sonata – Leo Tolstoy
78. Resurrection – Leo Tolstoy
79. Mother – Maxim Gorky
80. Heidi – Johanna Spyri
81. Five Little Peppers and How They Grew – Margaret Sidney
82. Le Morte d’Arthur – Sir Thomas Malory
83. The Prince – Niccolo Macchiavelli
84. The Histories – Herodotus
85. Octavia – Seneca
86. Barnaby Rudge – Charles Dickens
87. The Bell Family – Noel Streatfeild
88. Black Mischief – Evelyn Waugh
89. The Giver – Lois Lowry
90. Greenmantle – John Buchan
91. The Machine Stops – E.M. Forster
92. Stoner – John Williams

93. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
94. Howards End – E.M. Forster
95. Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
96. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
97. Collected Poems – Alfred Lord Tennyson
98. The Bacchae – Euripides
99. Daisy Miller – Henry James
100. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte


Are you a member of the Classics Club?  What do you think of my choices?  Do we have any on our lists in common?


Woolf and Dickens Challenge – ‘The Waves’ and ‘Hard Times’ (September 2013)

I have challenged myself to read one of Woolf’s and one of Dickens’ work each month for the remainder of the year.  My first Woolf during this challenge was marvellous, but my first Dickens was rather disappointing.

The Waves  by Virginia Woolf ****
The Waves felt almost like a deconstructed play.  The scenes were all set in italicised text, and the story told by way of the protagonists speaking.  This technique was such a clever one, and one which suited the plot incredibly well.  In the novel, Woolf follows six characters from childhood to death, and she does so marvellously.  Her prose is utterly beautiful, as I knew it would be.  I loved the almost stream of consciousness style used throughout, and its use made the novel both rich and eloquent.  Life and death, and the possible beauty of both concepts, are spoken about in the most profound of ways.  This is a novel which I can imagine myself reading time and time again, merely for its beauty.

Hard Times by Charles Dickens **
This is not the most exciting of books to take on an early morning flight, that’s for sure.  It is nicely written, of course, but I found the plot rather sparse almost from the beginning.  The characters, unlike Dickens’ usually vivid constructions, were rather two-dimensional, and very easily forgettable.  Hard Times is interesting enough from a social perspective, due to the way in which the story – or rather, what little there is of it – is set against the backdrop of an industrial town, but with regard to the dull characters who people said town, it seems a very uneven tale.  Hard Times ranks extremely low with regard to the other novels of Dickens’ which I’ve read to date.  I found myself getting very bored almost from the first, and I really had to slog my way through it.  Fingers crossed my next Dickens read will be much better than this one!