Books – non-fiction

Stuff that is not made up. Or mostly not made up.

bookstarBooks that I thought were outstandingly good are now marked with a gold star. That doesn’t mean some of the others aren’t good too, so please read the words I wrote!

rereadicon1And this icon means I’d already read this book at least once before, so that may inform my perspective on it.



150-HyperboleAndAHalf Brosh, Allie – Hyperbole and a Half

Really, if you want to know whether you should buy this book or not, the best test is to go and read the blog it’s based on. If you find yourself charmed by Allie Brosh’s willingness to look inwards, seek out all the most unflattering elements of her personality like an emotional investigative journalist, and report back with humour, bright colours and a rare, even inspirational level of honesty – buy this book! If you don’t, don’t – but just know that I like you a little less now. You might recognise some elements of Hyperbole and a Half that have become memes (“CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!”), but even those that haven’t are wonderfully quotable. For example: “Are you going into the kitchen? Cool. Go fuck yourself” is a phrase that will stick with me, at least reminding me that I’m not alone while I beat myself up over nothing.


The Writer's Tale Davies, Russell T and Cook, Benjamin – Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who more than I love myself – quite a lot more, in fact – but I still think Russell T Davies was quite underappreciated by fans. Not only was it his passion that revived the show back in 2005, he established a level of quality that was by no means assured before that point, but which people almost immediately began to take for granted. This book, through a series of informal and brutally honest letters, documents his writing process during his last couple of years as showrunner, and for aspiring writers it’s funny, familiar, terrifying and reassuring all at the same time. It certainly makes me feel better about my own procrastination, although on balance I suppose that might not be a good thing.


The Elements of Eloquence


Forsyth, Mark – The Elements of Eloquence

A fantastic, inspiring and entertaining glossary of rhetorical techniques to make language sing – from alliteration to zeugma (though not in that order). I wish I had read this book years ago, as I now feel I could apply at least a few of the techniques it describes to my own writing – though there are some, as Forsyth notes, that come naturally to people without them even noticing. Particularly impressive is how the author manages to construct a chain of rhetorical examples, one leading naturally to the other all the way through the book – I can only imagine this involved a maddeningly complicated flowchart of some kind. But it pays off, making the book extremely readable, and if you’re me you will set aside all worldly responsibilities to blaze through it. I will definitely go back to The Elements of Eloquence, and may even pick up a paper copy for easier reference. (Also I can’t believe I never noticed the thing about proper adjective order before! What a little curious thing!)


150-ReasonsToStayAlive Haig, Matt – Reasons to Stay Alive

I bought this book a while ago and was saving it as a sort of emergency ripcord in case I ever needed one. When that time came (damn you January), I read it in less than a day. In it, the author describes his experience with intense depression, how it affected his life, and how he got better, at least better enough to come to the conclusion that life is worth living. Interspersed with the memoir style chapters are assorted interludes such as lists of the lies depression tells you and, of course, things worth staying alive for, but even these are extremely personal, and Haig is careful to emphasise that his own experiences may not apply to everyone. On that note I’m not sure this book actually made me feel much better – while I found a lot of it relatable, in places it prodded (unintentionally I’m sure) at some of my feelings of inadequacy – but it gave me a few ideas for other ripcords to try, and my depression wouldn’t really be doing its job if just reading a book could fix it.

Holloway, Sally – The Serious Guide to Joke Writing

I don’t often like books on how to write: for one thing they usually raise the childish question “If you’re so bloody good at writing, why is this the only book I’ve heard of by you?” But since I’m supposed to be writing sketches for the Beyond Studios Advent Calendar, I thought I’d better at least try to learn to be funny. We’ll see if I succeed, but regardless, I found this book a lot of fun to read. Most useful are the exercises Holloway provides which theoretically allow you to write jokes on any subject – and as she points out, however many bad jokes you come up with, you only need to use the good ones. For example, here’s one it helped me come up with: “Why is a settee called a settee? Because when you sit on it, you’re the sitter and it’s the sittee.” Okay, that one might need a bit of work…


150-OnWriting King, Stephen – On Writing

I was rather confused about what this book was before picking it up, so perhaps I can clarify: it starts out with memoirs recounting interesting incidents from Stephen King’s life – fragmented, because as he states he didn’t want to include the boring bits. (It wouldn’t be King without something horrific, and in this section the horror mostly comes from various medical procedures he has undergone – if you’re squeamish about needles, you may want to skip the chapter about his visit to the ear doctor.) Then comes a separate, somewhat larger section where he gives writing advice, on for example how to use adverbs (preferably extremely sparingly, lol), how to develop the habit of writing every day, and where in the writing process you should start thinking about theme. It’s mostly subjective stuff, but it’s certainly interesting to hear opinions from someone so successful.


How I Escaped My Certain Fate Lee, Stewart – How I Escaped My Certain Fate

My two favourite stand-up comedians, Stewart Lee and Ross Noble, both make me feel somewhat cheated by other stand-ups. Ross Noble because the vast majority of his material is completely improvised, and Stewart Lee because he devastatingly dismantles a lot of the clich├ęs other comedians use to get cheap laughs. This book continues that work, with accounts of his frustrating journey to get his stand-up career back without sacrificing integrity. There are also annotated transcripts of three of his shows, which really make you appreciate the level of thought that goes into his routines, and the subtle ways he manipulates his audiences. As in his shows, it is not always clear here where the real Stewart Lee ends and his stand-up character begins. He is one of those mildly intimidating people with such strong convictions about what art and culture should be that I find myself wishing I could be so sure about things, pondering whether I should start pretending not to like the things he doesn’t like in order to seem more cultured. I still like musical theatre though.


No Such Thing as a Fish – The Book of the Year

A book filled with strange and interesting facts about the year 2017, compiled by the same four cheeky folk who produce the consistently entertaining podcast No Such Thing as a Fish. I suspect the normal version of the book would be fun to flick through on a rainy day, but if you like the podcast I’d highly recommend the audio version, which is quite unique in that it features little audio-exclusive tangents as the four frequently chip in with the sort of witty comments that will be familiar to their fans. And if you haven’t heard No Such Thing as a Fish, I would strongly recommend checking it out. I know, it’s one of those things that sounds like it’ll be funny in a sort of cosy low-key BBC afternoon radio have-a-little-intellectual-chuckle-to-yourself-over-tea-and-custard-creams way, but thanks to the chemistry between the incredibly clever and funny hosts, it is often genuinely laugh-out-loud-on-the-bus hilarious.


Write. Publish. Repeat. Fiction Unboxed Platt, Sean and Truant, Johnny B. – Write. Publish. Repeat. and Fiction Unboxed

More insight into the self-publishing world, written by some intimidatingly prolific self-publishing authors. The first of these books gave me the kick I needed to start really taking writing seriously as a career, and think about realistic ways to make money from it, as opposed to the vanishingly faint hope that my first book will instantly catapult me to success. The second details the process of writing a 100,000 word Young Adult book in the space of a month (whaaa), in a most inspiring and instructive way.




Ronson, Jon – So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

This book was both aggravating and reassuring at the same time. Aggravating because it contains so many examples of online mobs being vicious and disgusting, individual people being petty and unreasonable, and the tabloid press being their usual despicable selves. But at the same time, Jon Ronson’s tone reassured me that I’m not alone in finding public shaming and bullying, even of people who “deserve” it, deeply unpalatable. Numerous times I’ve had to take a break from the internet or unfollow people on Twitter because I was finding myself more annoyed by people whose side I thought I was on than by the transgressors they were attacking. This book at least makes me feel like this isn’t some failure on my part: perhaps I shouldn’t strive to be more blind to my own side’s flaws, more prone to tweeting out acerbic put-downs and less empathetic to other points of view.

Them Ronson, Jon – Them

Jon Ronson is not one to let feelings of social awkwardness (or the occasional mild fear for his life) get in the way of an intriguing human story. In Them he documents his time spent with various religious extremists, gun enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists and other people generally demonised by mainstream culture. In the process, like many a good author, he demonstrates why “evil” might just be the least helpful word in the English language. We bear witness to such disarming juxtapositions as an Islamic fundamentalist watching The Lion King with his baby daughter, and a branch of the Ku Klux Klan nit-picking over how best to burn a cross. Segments are short and snappy and easy to dip into, but as the narrative progresses it builds genuine intrigue, and you might end up reading big chunks all at once just to find out what head-shakingly strange thing happened next.

150-ThePsychopathTest Ronson, Jon – The Psychopath Test

Like Them, The Psychopath Test is the sort of addictive book I tend to blaze through in a couple of days, its unchallenging language expressing some deeply disturbing ideas. In this case, the idea that psychopaths live among us, sowing seeds of chaos throughout society, but they can be weeded out by means of a series of questions. And alongside this, the equally disturbing idea that this test can be misused in order to make almost anyone seem like a psychopath. There is a touch of the counter-narrative that inevitably seems to crop up in every book like this – “omigosh, what if I’M the psychopath, trying to find psychopaths everywhere?!” – but Ronson doesn’t dwell on it too much. Look out for: the chapter about lack of empathy in the world of reality TV, which somehow manages to be more disgusting than all the stuff about murderers. Good job, guys.


Sacks, Oliver – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

I’d heard Oliver Sacks on Radiolab (a great podcast about science and brains and stuff – if you haven’t heard it it’s like having liquid epiphanies poured into your ears), and decided to get this book as part of my vague plan to dig a little deeper into things that interest me. The book recounts a bunch of cases involving people’s brains behaving in unusual ways – failing to process sensory data properly, rejecting the memories of events minutes after they happen, even granting their owners the ability to do seemingly impossible things like instantly identify whether massive numbers are primes or not. It’s accessible and fascinating, and makes you think about how much we take for granted, but also how much of that can be taken away while still leaving something to live for.


Sedaris, David – Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

Maybe I loved this book only because I’m weird in a few of the same ways David Sedaris is weird – several of his stories, for example, resolve with the familiar realisation that’s he’s not quite as good a person as he’d like to think – but given his popularity I have to assume a lot of other people also relate to him, which is comforting. Not that his specific circumstances match mine: I was never kicked out of my parents’ house for being gay, I never fantasised about buying the Anne Frank house, my brother is generally more functional than Sedaris’s siblings, and I certainly haven’t landed in the sheer number of absurd and hilarious situations related here. Or maybe I have? It’s hard to tell if Sedaris has particularly great stories to tell or is just great at telling them. Either way, this collection is moving, insightful and incredibly funny, especially in audiobook form, where it is complemented by the author’s own mournfully deadpan delivery. Within a few stories I’d already added him to my “must read everything by this author” shortlist.



Sestero, Greg and Bissell, Tom – The Disaster Artist

This book documents the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, which is up there with Troll 2 in the “best worst movie” leagues. The unglamorous portrayal of small-time show business is interesting, but it is Tommy’s combination of eccentricity, passion, anger and vulnerability that makes this account so memorable (if you’ve ever acted in a weird and emotionally manipulative way, some of his lower moments may feel uncomfortably familiar). Sometimes I think any work of this type – be it documentary or memoir-type thing – is just an excuse to talk about people for a good long while, the specific subject acting as a framing device which sheds a lot of its importance once we begin to get to know the fascinating characters involved. So even if you haven’t seen The Room, this book deserves to be read by anyone interested in people – and if you aren’t, why are you reading at all?


Spiegelman, Art – Maus

A bold attempt to capture the horrors of the Holocaust in graphic novel form. I’m sure much ink has been spilled debating whether this is appropriate, but to me this debate is not only a waste of time, but borderline offensive considering the depth and breadth of comics as an art form and the extent to which they were pioneered by Jewish artists. Also controversial was (and still is, based on the fiery debates at my book club) Spiegelman’s use of animals to depict various races of people, though how anyone can get through this book thinking this isn’t a deliberate choice to highlight the cartoonish absurdity of racial stereotyping is a mystery to me. The structure is also worthy of note, as it erases the line between fiction and non-fiction: we flash back and forth between a relatively benign present in which Spiegelman himself quizzes his understandably cranky father about his Holocaust experiences, and the up-close-and-personal story of his father’s journey, rife with betrayal, despair and an almost unbearable sense of oppression. Maus is a great book and an essential read, especially in these troubling times. If we refuse to learn from the stories contained here, what possible hope is there for humanity?


150-HowNotToSelfPublish Trevithick, Rosen – How Not to Self-Publish

As I am gearing up to self-publish my novel, I thought I’d better try to learn a bit about the self-publishing world. Despite the fact that this is not the most serious book on the subject – or the second most serious, or, I would imagine, anywhere in the top hundred most serious – I feel as though it’s given me more of a sense of what to expect than any sombre statistic-filled handbook ever could. The absurd scenarios within capture the vivid and often unhealthy emotions that come with exposing your work to the cruel world of readers, critics, obsessive fans and indifferent family members. The fact that Rosen Trevithick is willing to admit some of these emotions and laugh at them makes me breathe a sigh of relief – perhaps worrying about those things does not make me too immature to cope with the business of being a writer. Perhaps I could fit in with all the other indie authors putting a brave face on their seething jealousies and insecurities. Phew.

Follow me! If you want to hear about new projects of mine you can like my Facebook writer page, follow me on Twitter for updates plus more off-topic stuff, or subscribe to my blog from the blog page. You can also get in touch with me via Facebook or Twitter, though I might get all nervous and not reply for ages.