Fact finding mission

In the second of a three-part summer books special Kevin Gopal rounds up the best new non-fiction on the shelves

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Two of this season’s big history releases focus on Britain’s imperial history and offer stern correction to those romanticising the past to conjure up a post-Brexit future. 

Shashi Tharoor may have been a career diplomat but pulls no punches in laying into the theory that Britain’s colonisation of India brought it any benefits in Inglorious Empire (Allen Lane, £9.99), calling it instead a “monstrous crime”. 

Kathleen Burk’s The Lion and the Eagle (Bloomsbury, £30) acknowledges that Britons are split between those who think empire was a “good thing and those who think it was benighted”. Her concern is the interaction, conflict and shared ruthless commercial drive and “self righteous foreign policy” between the British and American empires from 1783 until impoverished Britain’s military withdrawal from east of the Suez in 1972 betrayed Americans who saw the UK as a partner in global policing.

David Edgerton, in the encyclopaedic, hugely detailed The Rise and Fall of the British Nation (Allen Lane, £30), also notes a “post-imperial, indeed anti-imperial nationalism” in post-Second World War Britain, which manifested itself in the “internal rebuilding of the nation”. But as Margaret Thatcher flogged off the wealth and the Blair governments accepted globalisation’s disadvantages with a shrug and embarked on disastrous military adventures, Edgerton’s studiousness gives way to an anguished call for satirists, not historians, to take up the account.

Tharoor calls for the return of the Koh-i-Noor, the world’s largest diamond, looted from Lahore by the British in 1849. William Dalrymple finds previously overlooked Persian and Afghan accounts to explain how the jewel got to Punjab in the first place while BBC journalist Anita Anand details its British ownership in Koh-i-Noor (Bloomsbury, £9.99).

Pop-culture writer Paul Flynn’s Good As You (Ebury, £9.99) traces the road to equality for gay men beginning in 1984, when the Manchester teenager went to his first gay club at the age of 16. But the decade’s ebullience was matched by its darkness, as Serhii Plokhy shows in Chernobyl (Allen Lane, £20), drawing on newly released KGB documents to recount the 1986 nuclear disaster.

Serenity Young’s Women Who Fly (OUP, £18.99) is more classics and mythology, subtitled Goddesses, Witches, Mystics and other Airborne Females, but also has the history of what she calls the “aviatrix” – air pioneers including Amelia Earhardt and Hanna Reitsch.


Keith Payne, professor of psychology and neuroscience, weaves strands of memoir into The Broken Ladder (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £9.99), which accepts inequality of income as a problem but then goes on explain how it affects our mood, decision making and even our immune systems.

Memoirs dominate the season’s non-fiction releases, from Yorkshire horse racing trainer Gemma Hogg’s Stable Lass (Macmillan, £16.99) to, further afield, King of the Yukon (Allen Lane, £16.99) by Adam Weymouth, who recounts his four-month canoe journey along the 2,000 mile river flowing through Alaska and Canada. Heart Berries (Bloomsbury Circus, £12.99) would make companion reading – debut author Terese Marie Mailhot is a Native Canadian woman exploring inter-generational trauma, motherhood, mental illness, race and memory.

Another debut author, marine biologist Shannon Leone Fowler, was moved to write Travelling With Ghosts (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £8.99) after her partner was killed by a jellyfish in Thailand and grief propelled her not home but through Auschwitz, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Israel, witnessing post-conflict – and in some cases conflict – societies.

Which are Lynne Jones’s milieu. Outside the Asylum (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99) gives an insight into the experiences of a practising psychiatrist in war and disaster zones around the world, from the Balkans and Iraq to tsunami-affected Indonesia and post-earthquake Haiti. Equally harrowing is My Country (Bloomsbury, £16.99) by Kassem Eid, who, in August 2013, survived a sarin attack by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces and, later the same day, picked up a rifle for the first time as a new member of the Free Syrian Army.

With Wimbledon still underway and England’s World Cup future still in the balance at the time of writing, John McEnroe’s autobiography But Seriously (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99) and The Secret Footballer: What The Physio Saw (Bantam, £12.99) will appeal to sports fans.

Music fans, meanwhile, can choose Sonic Youth Slept On My Floor (Constable, £20), the DJ and writer’s recollections of encounters with Tony Wilson, Nile Rodgers, Jonathan Franzen – and Morrissey, who once came to tea at his but more recently and righteously was the target of a Haslam protest that in part led to the former Smiths frontman cancelling his UK tour after right-wing outbursts. DJ Target recalls how Wiley and Dizzee Rascal first met in his East London bedroom in his insider account of the music phenomenon, Grime Kids (Trapeze, £16.99). Less cool perhaps, singer Marcia Barrett remembers life with Boney M in Forward (Constable, £20).

The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99) is a vivid account of the times by the New York magazine’s British-born editor Tina Brown that includes her changing relationship with Donald Trump. Women on the New York media and literary scene are the focus of Michelle Dean’s Sharp (Fleet, £20) – not a memoir but portraits of intertwining writers who made it to the top in 20th century Manhattan, including Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion and Norah Ephron.

Also on release: Admissions (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £8.99) by neurosurgeon Henry Marsh; Modern Nature by film maker and gardener Derek Jarman (Vintage Classics, £9.99); The London Lover (Bloomsbury, £20) by Chicago-born writer and activist Clancy Sigal; My Life In Orange (Profile, £9.99) by Leeds-born, now deceased Tim Guest, about growing up in the bizarre Rajneeshi sect – subject of the cult Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country; and novelist Toby Litt’s Wrestliana (Gallery Beggar Press, £9.99).


Inside Iran (OR Books, £13) by Medea Benjamin and Michael Vatikiotis’s Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99) unpick complex politics. So too does Feminism by Deborah Cameron (Profile Books, £8.99), one of the imprint’s Small Introductions to Big Topics series. Or go straight to the source with Germaine Greer’s The Change (Bloomsbury, £16.99), her  updated version of her 1994 book about the menopause.

Socialism underpins Definable Traces in the Atmosphere (OR Books, £13), a collection by the indefinable Mike Marqusee, the American writer who spent most of his adult life in England before his death in 2015 and so was able to get to grips with cricket, one of his many great loves. See also, in this insightful, kaleidoscopic book, the politics of Bob Dylan, wanderings in the Subcontinent, flamenco and the quest for authenticity, and – poignantly and previously unpublished – a piece completed in December 2014 entitled The Cancer Dance and the Rites of Positivity.


By applying physics to biology, physicist Geoffrey West’s research suggests that, despite their diversity, animals are to a large degree scaled versions of each other. In Scale (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £8.99), he applies those principles to companies, cities and social networks, and claims to have found insights into elemental laws that bind us all together. Human Errors by Nathan H Lents (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99) is an entertaining tour of the physical imperfections, from faulty knees to junk DNA, that make us human, accounting for evolutionary history along the way. Climate change is a more serious human error, and Tony Juniper’s Rainforest (Profile Books, £16.99) tells us why they are so crucial for our environment – as well as about the destruction we are causing to them.

Click here to read the best new fiction on the shelves

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