The Ten Best Non-Fiction books I read in 2021

My second collection of favourite books is all about non-fiction. In fact, mostly it’s about history with a touch of true crime thrown in because that is what I enjoy. I actually read quite a lot of memoirs and biographies as well but none of them made it on to this list.

As ever, these are books I read for the first time during the year irrespective of when they were published. They are all books which left me thinking and showed me things I hadn’t known before but they are not all easy reads (because of the content matter – they are all clear and easy to follow). I notice that the majority of these books are about injustice and oppression and which must be an interest of mine although I had not articulated it before.

If you have the same sort of interests as I do then I recommend these – also don’t forget my list of favourite novels of the year which you can find here.

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild. It is difficult to understand but in the time of rampant European Imperialism and the occupation of Africa one country was owned by a single individual. This was The Belgian Congo and it was owned personally by King Leopold of the Belgians who raped the country for its resources to enhance his own riches. It’s a terrible story of white supremacy at its worst and the evils perpetuated on the local people. There were many people at the time who pointed out that what was being done was wrong but they found it difficult to get anyone to listen. Quite horrifying in places but it is interesting to see how it happened and the consequences for the country and its people.

17 Carnations by Andrew Morton is the story of the entanglement of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor with the Nazis before and during WW2. I review it here. The book is particularly concerned with the efforts of the establishment to hush up the matter. Clearly written and illuminating – it is obvious that the writer has no time for the royal couple.

The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guin is the straightforward narrative of an astounding and horrifying event. The People’s Temple was a church/cult/sect led by Jim Jones which created a situation in which more than 900 people died by suicide in the jungles of Guyana. The book is riveting and clearly shows how the initial best intentions of those involved became skewed. It is terrifying to watch the tragedy unfold but despite the author’s very best efforts I still find the whole event and the motivations of the people concerned bewildering.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is the story of the women who were poisoned by radium in their work painting luminous dials during the early part of the twentieth century and their fight for justice. It’s inspiring but also desperately sad (and made me very grateful for the NHS). The author concentrates on a few women at the forefront of the fight and this personalisation makes the book very engaging.

Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar is the story of the Chilean miners trapped underground and their remarkable rescue. I review this book here. Since I reviewed it the book seems to have been renamed The 33. It’s inspiring in places and also quite sad when you look at the daily life of and long term consequences to the miners.

A World Beneath the Sands by Toby Wilkinson tells the story of the discovery of the past of Egypt and what happened to the historical finds. It’s not a story about Egyptian history but of European imperialism and the removal of a country’s history to the West. The stories of individuals concerned and the conflict between European powers in their efforts to acquire more loot are fascinating. I reviewed this book here.

In Plain Sight by Dan Davies is an attempt to understand the crimes of Jimmy Savile by looking at his life and the efforts of those who tried to reveal what he was really like. The author had been asked by Savile to write a biography of him and had close contact with him and his family before and after his death. This book is disturbing and frightening. It is obvious that many people knew exactly what was going on but were determined to cover it up for their own advantage so he went to his grave unpunished. This tells you as much about our society as it does about Savile and his crimes and none of it is edifying. Well written and illuminating but be warned, this book is likely to make you very angry.

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson. This author is always good at popular history and I mention a few of his others here and here. This book is about a huge storm which decimated the city of Galveston in 1900 and especially about the attempts of the embryonic weather service to forecast and predict the course of the storm. The author is good at telling very human stories of those involved in catastrophic events and this book is very sad in places.

White Gold by Giles Milton (another excellent popular historian) tells the story of the Barbary pirates of Morocco who preyed on white seafarers and enslaved them during the eighteenth century. You can see my review of this book here. This was a story I didn’t know before reading this book and I found it fascinating.

Pandemic 1918 by Catharine Arnold was written before 2020 but is amazingly prescient. The descriptions of how the flu spread and how people reacted to it are echoed very much in our current situation although the author’s assertion that a similar worldwide pandemic would not happen again is sadly proved to be hopelessly optimistic. You can read my review of this book here

A lot of fascinating books here – I hope that you can find one or more of interest.

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