It’s a good week for non-fiction books, with Jeremy Paxman on the First World War, Stephen Moss on British wildlife and Jung Chang on the real story behind concubine who ruled China.
Great Britain’s Great War by Jeremy Paxman (£25, ebook £12.99).
With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War fast approaching, historians will be looking to the archives for fresh takes on the tragedy.
Despite being better known for his television presenting, Paxman is more than up to the challenge, having previously tackled such weighty subjects as The English, The Political Animal and Empire.
Scouring an encyclopaedic bibliography for forgotten wisdom about the war, he presents a balanced and intelligent analysis – not just of the Western Front, which is so often the focus for books on the conflict, but of the British at home as well.
Rationing, popular support for the war, and other little-known facets of the conflict are brought out in this engaging, if sobering book.
His take on the Great War is particularly interesting when considering the circumstances of the war’s outbreak.
Famous for asking pointed questions, here Paxman asks, and answers, another one: In the light of what it meant to be British 100 years ago, was this war really inevitable?
A Tap on the Window by Linwood Barclay (£16.99, ebook £8.49).
A Tap on the Window is the latest thriller from Canadian author Linwood Barclay.
Driving home one dark rainy night, private investigator Cal Weaver is flagged down by a teenage girl in need of a lift.
Originally reluctant, he agrees when she reveals that she knew his recently deceased son.
It doesn’t take long though for Cal to realise something is amiss with the situation, and when his passenger darts out of the car just as abruptly as she entered, he worries for her safety.
The detective in him can’t let the matter rest, and the following day when Cal makes a gruesome discovery.
Although enjoyable, this book requires some perseverance.
You need to have faith that the best-selling author will deliver the intrigue expected because it’s almost the midway point before the real mystery develops.
Once the plot picks up though, it’s hard to put the book down and the misdirection, twists and turns don’t disappoint.
Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland (£16.99, ebook £9.49).
When Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture was released in 1991, it both popularised the phrase of its title – Americans reaching adulthood in the late 1980s – and gave birth to the term McJob.
It’s difficult to imagine Worst. Person. Ever, the Canadian’s 14th novel, having similar cultural impact.
It tells the story of Raymond Gunt, a TV cameraman and one of the most unlikable characters you’ll find in the whole post-modern genre.
He lands a job on a reality survival programme on a remote Pacific island, although it takes him half the book to get there, and by the time he has arrived, amid endless plane travel, anaphylactic shocks and more swearing than a whole frigate full of drunken sailors, it’s impossible to care what happens to the wearing Gunt at all, so utterly charmless and lacking redeeming features as he is.
The Americanisms seem odd for a character who is meant to be a Londoner too, while the supposed satire of disposable modern culture and dumbed-down media feels obvious, out-of-date, and from a writer normally as on-the-money as Coupland, oddly toothless.
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield (£14.99, ebook £7.49).
The long-awaited follow up to Setterfield’s debut The Thirteenth Tale takes the form of a gothic ghost story.
We meet William Bellman, the young son of an abandoned single mother and grandson of a mill owner.
As his uncle takes him under his wing, he learns how the mill works, and finds himself a natural. But his life is not easy.
People around him die, and he attends multiple funerals; at each one William sees a mysterious man.
It is only in his most desperate moment that he is able to speak to him, and so a deal is struck that will haunt William the rest of his life.
A novel light on story and strong on writing, it doesn’t have all the meat of The Thirteenth Tale, but is nevertheless a book that lingers after the last page is turned.
Empress Dowager CIXI: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang (£20, ebook £11.39).
Chinese-born British writer Jung Chang has a record for radical biographies having previously released the head-turning tome Mao: The Unknown Story in 2005.
Now she turns her attention to one of Mao’s villainised predecessors, Dowager Empress Cixi.
A great deal of negative attention has been given to the woman who revolutionised the Chinese court in the 19th century in order to take power of the country, but in her latest work Chang seeks to change the record and give an original analysis of the Empress based on recently released documents from the stateswoman’s court.
Cixi, a Manchu-clan member’s daughter, was selected as a concubine for Emperor Xianfeng in 1851.
After his death ten years later, their son – the Emperor’s only surviving boy – became the assumed heir, however his role would be held by a board of Regents until he was of reasonable age.
Due to her education and prior knowledge of the court, Cixi had foresight of China’s future under the rule of the Regents, which was widely accepted as a doomed strategy.
For this reason, and with the help of Princes and her fellow Dowager Empress, Cixi staged a coup and instated herself as ruler of China.
Popular opinion has seen Cixi’s character described as that of a desperate villain whose rule drove China into corruption and anarchy.
In stark contrast, Chang’s biography shows Cixi as a thoughtful, decisive leader who pushed China into the modern world, abolished the cruel practise of feet-binding, and opened relations with the West.
Chang’s writing is sympathetic towards the Empress without being biased, and gives a fresh insight into the political career of one of the world’s most influential leaders.
In addition she manages to inform the reader without overbearing with heavy detail.
This is one of the most engaging and informed political biographies I have ever read, and is sure to make waves around the world.
Running: The Autobiography by Ronnie O’Sullivan (£18.99, ebook £9.49).
In Ronnie O’Sullivan’s candid first book he spoke of how a troubled home life – both parents in prison, one for murder – had contributed to him going down a path of drink, drugs and depression, all while ruling the snooker world.
In this more grown-up life account, Running, he talks at length of how running itself has helped him banish those demons.
In fact, this book is arguably more about running than snooker as he passionately tells of how the sport has saved him.
But while running may have solved some of his problems, he admits to having sprinted away from others, charting the breakdown of his relationship and a long and expensive battle for access to his children.
Intertwined with that is the release from prison of his father after 18 years, and his life as a snooker player which has reached new levels of brilliance after he won a fifth world title despite taking a full year off (during which he worked as a free-hand on a farm!).
Running is a chaotic race through O’Sullivan’s life, but this does little to dethrone him as the people’s champion – it simply adds further to his legend.
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell (£16.99, ebook £9.99).
Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and author of best-selling books such as Blink and The Tipping Point, returns with yet another book examining how we think and act as a society.
This time, Gladwell is scrutinising the David and Goliath legend – where a lowly shepherd carrying just a sling conquers a fully-armoured giant in battle.
The author asks the question: Why do underdogs succeed more often than they should?
What follows is a collection of stories where a disadvantage has turned out to be an advantage, and an advantage has turned out to be a disadvantage.
Gladwell tells tales of the American civil rights movement, The Troubles in Northern Ireland, children who have lost their parents, and the reverse, parents who have lost their children.
He also looks at why smaller classes at school are not always an advantage and why it is sometimes better for an intelligent student to go to a less academically successful university.
The book comes to somewhat of a bumpy conclusion, which is essentially that sometimes a disadvantage can be a good thing, sometimes it can be a bad thing.
Take, for example, dyslexia.
Many entrepreneurs are dyslexic, and Gladwell skilfully explains how the difficulty can lead to success, but then again he also notes that the proportion of dyslexics who end up in jail is very high.
Still, Gladwell’s ability to uncover captivating tales and his clear writing make this an enjoyable, fascinating and thought-provoking read.
The Great British Year: Wildlife Through The Seasons by Stephen Moss (£25, ebook £6.69).
Forget mugs of lattes, The Great British Year is what coffee tables were made for.
This glorious 320-page tome is packed with coloured photographs of the changing seasons in Britain and the wildlife that so enriches it, and coincides with the BBC One wildlife series of the same name.
But this is no fluffy catalogue of cute animals; there are informative passages on how to help familiar creatures like birds during the winter, explanations about our seasons and woodlands, as well as facts about our ecosystem.
Although a lot of complex subjects are introduced and some, like moths and ants, do not seem that riveting at first, leading nature writer Stephen Moss ensures that each area is tackled with the same lively and informative tone as the next.
Consequently, the book could easily be read aloud to a child without becoming too complicated, while maintaining an interest for the adult reading it.
If the text doesn’t do it for you, the stunning photography throughout the book is enough to make the most reluctant birder want to pull out their binoculars and unleash their inner Chris Packham.
With so many nature programmes and books devoted to far-flung shores, it’s heartening to see just how exciting our home grown wildlife can be.
Dragon Loves Penguin by Debi Gliori (£10.99).
Award-winning Debi Gliori returns with yet a beautifully illustrated tale of love, loss and bravery, with Dragon Loves Penguin.
Young penguin Bib asks his mum to read his favourite bedtime story, and so she begins to tell the tale of the dragons who settled in the land where the penguins now live.
As the dragons started to produce eggs, one dragon found herself egg-less, until she found a lone egg which she decided to look after.
But this, it turns out, was not a dinosaur egg, it was a penguin egg.
The dragon did not mind and gave her little penguin all the love and attention it could ask for.
Little penguin was different to the other dragons, but in the end, this turns out to be a good thing.
As Bib’s bedtime story draws to a close, we realise that this tale is close to home.
This is a moving tale of adoption and a touching bedtime read for any little one who feels out of place.