2010 Historical Fiction Non Fiction Recommended books

Young Hitler – Claus Hant

I have recently developed an interest in the psychology behind people who commit acts of evil and so I jumped at the chance to read this book.

Young Hitler is a non-fiction novel showing Hitler’s life as a teenager and young man through the eyes of his best friend.  This was a fantastic device as it allowed us to see his actions and hear his words, but never know exactly what was going through his mind. This meant that many of his actions were open to interpretation, allowing to reader to come to their own conclusions about Hilter’s motivations.

‘No, sir! I live in a world of ideas!’ retorted Dolferl.

‘A mask is an idea,’ countered Herr Maurer. ‘Think of it as an idea that allows you to say and do anything you want amongst strangers who are also posing as ideas. Therefore, everyone and everything is on an equal footing. I find masks allow for a greater exchange of ideas and … everything.’

‘I don’t need any mask to hide behind,’ declared Dorlferl.

‘Then find a mask instead that allows you to become more of who you are,’ replied Herr Maurer.

‘I have that already,’ said Dolferl, pointing to his face. ‘I say whatever I want to whomever I want. And I allow that person the privilege of looking me directly in the eye. And sometimes that, my gracious host, is the most effective mask of all.’

The book was very easy to read and became increasingly gripping as it progressed. I knew very little about Hitler’s early life and so found the details fascinating. It also taught me a bit more about the history of Germany leading up to WWII.

My only problem with this book was that it was a non-fiction novel and there were times, especially in the beginning, when it was more non-fiction than novel. The book was meticulously researched, even including 150 pages of appendices to validate the facts, but there were times when I felt that every tiny detail known about Hitler had to be included. These random details sometimes got in the way of the story and I felt that a few more of these facts should have been left in the appendices.

Overall this was a fascinating book. It is a must-read for anyone interested in Hitler or the causes of WWII, but I think that this insight into Hitler’s life will be of interest to a far wider audience.

Highly recommended.

2008 Non Fiction

The Weight of a Mustard Seed – Wendell Steavenson

The Weight of a Mustard Seed attempts to discover why ordinary people were driven to commit evil acts under the orders of Saddam Hussein. The author,  Wendell Steavenson, is a journalist who travelled to Iraq many times between 2002 and 2005 interviewing the friends and family of General Kamel Sachet; a decorated hero of the Iran-Iraq war and a man favoured by Saddam Hussein. She tried to discover what motivated Sachet and his colleagues and how his actions affected his family.  

The book is a fascinating insight into the lives of both ordinary Iraqis and members of the military. All the people were brought to life and I found myself having great sympathy for everyone in the book, despite the horrendous acts many of them committed. Wendell’s ability to make me see things from their perspective was impressive.

‘You chose to be a part of it,’ I told him. ‘You could have resigned, you could have gone to live in the country like your cousin.’
‘One of my American debriefers asked me the same question. He asked me why I continued to fight against the Americans. I told him it had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. It’s hard for you to understand, but it was a matter of military honour, being part of a country and within that comes your loyalty to your high command.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed was very readable and although there were some descriptions of violence I never felt that it went over the top. The modern history of Iraq was well described, although as the book wasn’t written in chronological order I got a bit confused occasionally.

The book contained many examples of psychological experiments which explained why people behave as they do under the pressure of war. Unfortunately I was already aware of all of these and so these sections were irrelevant for me. If you are interested in finding out about them then some of the experiments are summarised in this post: The Ten Most Revealing Psych Experiments

I highly recommend this book as an introduction to the psychology of war, but if you have read a lot of books on the subject you may find it too basic.

Everyone seemed to enjoy this one:

…one of the most interesting, engaging, horrifying and moving non fiction books that I have ever read. Savidge Reads

…an accessible book for those wanting to read a factual book about Iraq. Novel Insights

This is a powerful, well-written and moving account… Reading Matters


2008 Non Fiction

Bonk – Mary Roach

I had heard many people raving about Mary Roach and so when I spotted this in my local library I took the opportunity to give her a try.

Bonk takes a light, amusing look at sexual research. Mary Roach visits laboratories, hospitals and even pig farms in the hope of gaining an insight into the world of a sex researcher. She interviews everyone thoroughly, asking questions that most of us would be too embarrassed to ask. Bonk isn’t for the prudish as it contains many detailed descriptions of bodily functions and medical procedures, but I was entertained throughout.

I loved all the little facts about attitudes to sex throughout the ages:

The ancient Greeks, as we’ve learned, thought that women produced their own semen, released at the climax of intercourse, and that the mingling of male and female seed formed the basis of conception.  Young widows, with no sexual outlet and a consequent log jam of womanly seed, were said to be especially prone to hysteria – or “womb fury.”

Mary fills the book with snippets of information so interesting that I had to keep pausing mid-page to let my husband know them:

Cheese crumbs spread in front of a copulating pair of rats may distract the female, but not the male.

I’m not sure I learned anything life changing, but I found much of it amusing and look forward to seeking out the rest of her books.

Have you read any of Mary Roach’s books?

Which one do you recommend I try next?

2000 - 2007 Non Fiction

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

Blink explains our instinctive ability to make decisions without thinking about them. Using a series of examples the book analyses the way in which we are able to make critical, often life-saving actions without understanding why we are performing them.

I loved Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point, but I don’t think Blink was quite as good. It had the same number of well researched examples, a large number of those interesting little facts that you find yourself sharing with friends, and the same light hearted, but scientific tone, but overall I felt this book was less useful.

The premise implies that we are all able to make split-second decisions, but reading the book revealed that most of us are likely to be wrong – the ability to make the right choice takes a lot of training.  One of the sections I found most interesting was about a marriage counsellor called John Gottman. He is able to predict whether a couple will still be together fifteen years from now, just by looking at a short film of them talking. John Gottman has worked out that couples who display the tiniest amount of contempt for each other are unlikely to stay together, so he watches for specific indications of contempt, ignoring how aggressive or friendly they appear to be. Other people fail to spot these signs, but once John Gottman has trained them they will be almost as good as him at predicting the success of a relationship.

The book gave many other examples of people who are able to make important decisions based on an instinct that they may not understand. Often concentrating on police officers or fire-fighters the analysis was fascinating, but not of much use to the average person.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys sociology books, but don’t expect it to change your life in any way.

Which is your favourite Gladwell book?

Can you recommend any other authors who write similar books?

2009 Non Fiction

Modern Delight – Various

Modern Delight

Modern Delight is a collection of short essays by some of today’s eminent authors, artists, actors, politicians, comedians and celebrities on what gives them delight. The inspiration for the book came from JB Priestley’s Delight which has been re-released to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the publication.

The book gave me immense pleasure – I read a few ‘delights’ each night and frequently found myself laughing, or sharing quotes with my husband. Even the ones which weren’t funny left me with a warm, glowing feeling.

My favourite essay was the one in which Harry Hill (a British comedian) delights in the tormenting of telemarketers.

‘Brrrring! Brrring!’


‘Hello, to who am I speaking please?’

‘To whom.’


‘It’s to whom am I speaking. You could say “Who am I speaking to?” But not to who am I speaking please.’

‘To whom…I mean, who am I speaking to?’

‘To whom am I speaking?’

‘I’m calling from – Replacement windows.’

‘At last!!’ (as if calling to someone in another room) ‘Darling! fantastic news! – Replacement windows have called us!’

The mad conversation continues and I was crying with laughter by the end.

If you aren’t a fan of comedy then there are a lot more serious, thoughtful delights. I loved Lionel Shriver talking about ‘when anything goes right’ and agree completely with Clive James’s delight in the second-hand bookshop, but one of the most amazing delights was Charley Boorman talking about harvesting potatoes with his motorbike for which he thought after reading at Motorbike Sport. I wasn’t sure this was possible, so was very excited to see this video, proving it to be true!

There are over 80 contributors and I think this book would make a lovely gift. All profits raised from the sale of the book will be donated to Waterstone’s charity partners, Dyslexia Action and the London Library. Unfortunately, this book is only available from Waterstones in the UK, but if you are able to get hold of it, then I’m sure you will be delighted!





Have you read the original Delight?

What would your modern delight be?

2000 - 2007 Non Fiction

Flu – Gina Kolata

I discovered this book amongst my stock and decided to have a quick flick through it. I ended up being unable to put it down. I found it fascinating, given the current situation in the world at the moment. Ironically I think I managed to catch swine flu while reading it and I think this added to it’s relevance to me.

The book charts the progress of the 1918 flu and explains the devastation it caused. It goes on to explain about the more recent flu epidemics of 1957, 1968, 1976 and 1997 (I didn’t realise there had been so many!)

The book is incredibly readable, and looks at the flu from the perspective of individuals. Seeing the effect that it had on small families made it much more powerful, and the history seemed to come alive on the page.

Wolfe came home to a deathwatch. His brother was lying in a sick room upstairs while his family waited for what they feared was inevitable. Wolfe went upstairs to the “gray, shaded light” of the room where Ben lay. And he saw “in that moment of searing recognition,” that his beloved twenty-six-year-old brother was dying.

Despite being packed with facts this book never came across as dry. Everyone mentioned, from the scientists studying the flu, to the doctors treating it, were vividly depicted and it often felt like I was reading snippets of a great novel rather than a non-fiction book.

The book progresses to explain how scientists produced the vaccine for the virus and the efforts they went to trying to find intact pieces of infected tissue buried beneath permafrost in the Arctic Circle. The book tries to explain the biology of the flu in lay-mans terms, but I do think that people without a scientific background may struggle to understand some of the later sections. This doesn’t really matter though, as there is so much to be gained from the lessons learnt from earlier flu infections.

 There were many sections which contained scary parallels to the world today:

It infected people in the spring of 1918, sickening its victims for about three days with chills and fever, but rarely killing them. Then it disappeared, returning in the fall with the power of a juggernaut.

I really hope that the current swine flu doesn’t become as deadly as the 1918 one, but reading this book has reassured me that we are much better prepared for it than ever before, and with our improved levels of understanding the horrors of 1918 will never be repeated.

Recommended to anyone who is worried about flu, but make sure you read more than the first few chapters or you will be panicking!



There seem to be lots of books about the flu circulating at the moment. Have you read any of them?

Have you read any novels about the 1981 flu pandemic?