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As adult non-fiction buyer for Dublin City Libraries, Evelyn's role involves combing through the annual publishing output of new titles ...

Evelyn Conway's top 10 non-fiction books of 2020

As adult non-fiction buyer for Dublin City Libraries, a key part of my role is to sift through the staggering annual publishing output of new adult non-fiction releases, across all the genres, and to pluck out the ‘gems’ among them. So, the process of limiting myself here to just ten personal choices is quite challenging, with so many fabulous titles to choose from.

However, in this most extraordinary year, the unprecedented global experience of the coronavirus pandemic has been grist to the writer’s mill, resulting already in the publication of a spate of pandemic-related publications, ranging from the predictable epidemiology and virology titles, to poetry, memoirs, self-help and wellbeing…

My selection below, while quite eclectic, does include a few ‘pandemic’ titles which directly reflect the historic year we are still undergoing, along with some other standout titles that include my personal favourites. I hope you find them interesting!

Please note that all of these books (some of which are also available in large print, CD and MP3 Audiobooks) are available through Dublin City Libraries and can be accessed from the library catalogue here.

Many of these and similar titles are also available in digital format (eBook and eAudiobook on Borrowbox. Not registered for this? Why wait! Download the app now and sign up!)

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Evelyn's top 10 non-fiction books of 2020

Neven Maguire’s perfect Irish Christmas: 100 recipes for all your Christmas celebrations by Neven Maguire

Published in 2017, this brilliant Christmas recipe book has become something of a Christmas bible for me which helps ensure I get the basics right every year for producing a delicious Christmas family dinner.

With the emphasis really firmly on all culinary aspects of the traditional Irish family Christmas, Neven has it all covered. Starting with a Christmas survival guide section, it is full of practical tips for planning and making ahead, how to timetable the cooking on the day, and very importantly how to cater for large groups, which really does help to take the hard work and stress out of the main event: the actual Christmas day lunch. All parts of the lunch are then covered (including vegetarian options) with recipes for soups and starters; the main event, side dishes, stuffing and sauces and traditional Christmas desserts, and even ideas for drinks.

Ideas for leftover dishes and ideas for breakfasts and brunches are included as well as Festive Extras which is really useful for ideas for foodie gifts. All in all, this book has become my saviour every Christmas.

Hitching for hope: A journey into the heart and soul of Ireland by Ruairí McKiernan

This is a beautifully written, truly inspirational and highly original book by renowned social campaigner Ruairí McKiernan. McKiernan recounts a very personal odyssey undertaken by him in 2013 during which he hitch-hiked around Ireland for a month on what he called a hitching for hope listening tour. Five years on from the catastrophic financial crash of 2008 which caused huge hardship for so many Irish people, the author was feeling lost, burned out and struggling with his own mental health. He knew he needed a change in direction in his life. This partly served as the catalyst for his decision to walk away from his very successful career, up sticks and make a leap of faith to change his life. The other deciding factor was that he was asked to speak at the MacGill summer school on citizens’ views of Ireland, prompting his novel and ingenious idea to take to the roads and hitchhike in order to connect with ordinary Irish citizens on a listening tour to hear their voices and amplify them.

As the main theme is hope in troubled times, this book by total chance is proving to be very timely in this current time of darkness. Highly recommended.

Time by Fidel Hogan Walsh

Time is a highly evocative, beautiful record – in poetry and images - of Ireland’s first lockdown as experienced from March to June 2020. Comprising fifteen poems in all with accompanying images, it is a collaboration between poet Fidel Hogan Walsh and conceptual photographer Julie Corcoran.

From the opening poem Omen, to the closing one 2020 Memories, it captures the range of human responses to the unprecedented times we were thrust into in the first half of 2020.

The boy who followed his father into Auschwitz: a true story by Jeremy Dronfeld

In this the 75th anniversary year of the liberation of Auschwitz, many fine new books on the subject of the Holocaust continue to emerge. However, for me, The boy who followed his father into Auschwitz, although of course horrifying, is a real standout in the canon of recent Holocaust literature.

This 2019 bestseller is a compelling read. It tells the extraordinary story of Austrian Jewish father and son Gustav and Fritz Kleinmann, who were first rounded up together in Vienna in 1938 when Fritz was only fifteen. The ensuing story of their experiences of their five years of hell, first in Buchenwald and then in Auschwitz, is based on a primary source: Gustav’s sparse diary, which he miraculously managed to keep and hide for the five years, in which he recorded their story, often in code. This forms the bedrock for the author’s story.

It is supplemented by Dronfeld’s meticulous research which included interviews and a range of Holocaust documentary sources, allowing the author to retell the terrible years in great detail. When his father was moved suddenly from Buchenwald to Auschwitz, Fritz took the momentous decision to request to join his father in what would have been seen as most likely a journey to certain death. Dronfeld is both a novelist and a historian, so this book is exquisitely written and the research and analysis is superb. An engrossing read, I couldn’t put it down.

Black abolitionists in Ireland by Christine Kinealy

This is a fascinating, scholarly study of the scale and importance of Ireland’s involvement in the anti-slavery movement. It brings together, for the first time, the stories of ten black abolitionists – nine men (including Frederick Douglass) and one woman (Sarah Parker Redmond, who came to Ireland in 1859 and stayed) who travelled to Ireland in the decades before the American Civil War.

One of the men, Olaudah Equino, was a former slave who was kidnapped as a young boy from his home in Africa.

It is a very timely publication also, which gives fascinating insights into the Irish connection to this period of history, and is of course a direct link to the USA’s huge racial tensions today.

Who killed John Lennon? The lives, loves and deaths of the greatest rock star by Lesley-Ann Jones

This year marks a dual milestone in the life and death of John Lennon, it being the 40th anniversary of his tragic and untimely death, also coinciding with what would have been his 80th birthday. A number of new titles have appeared recently, but for me the standout title is Who killed John Lennon? by the acclaimed music biographer Lesley-Ann Jones. This fresh, beautifully written and impeccably researched book is a must-read for Lennon fans.

Jones digs deep into the psyche of John Lennon, using some very significant, original material which has never before seen the light of day. This includes material gathered many years ago from Cynthia Lennon.

It is thought provoking and gives great insights into the complex man who was one of the world’s most iconic musicians.

Wuhan Diary: dispatches from a quarantined city by Fang Fang; translated by Michael Berry

This book is sure to become a future key classic of Coronavirus Pandemic literature, and not just because it’s by acclaimed Chinese writer Fang Fang, a longterm resident of downtown Wuhan, the original epicentre of the pandemic. What makes it so powerful is that it is a real-time record of Fang Fang’s epidemic experience during the very severe Wuhan lockdown from January to April 2020. It captures the day to day apocalyptic struggles and fear among the city’s nine million residents, who in the early stages could not even secure hospital admission or medical treatment in the overwhelmed health system. With absolutely no public transport, residents were forced to walk from hospital to hospital to seek medical help.

The book is made up of 60 daily diary entries by Fang Fang, posted from 25 January to 24 March, on two microblogging sites. This daily record which was shared by millions, was an audacious and brave act by Fang Fang. She fearlessly holds the political leaders to account, for their deliberate, strict policy of not allowing the media or individuals to report negative news. This resulted in the totally avoidable 20 –day delay in which they denied there was any risk of person to person transmission of the virus, with catastrophic consequences. This policy also saw strong censure by the authorities of any individual whistle-blowers. There were also attempts at censorship when some of Fang Fang’s blogs were deleted.

It must be said that it also records the subsequent fantastic system of support set up at neighbourhood level with the help of Wuhan officials, to ensure the daily needs of the city’s nine million residents were met.

The diary was simultaneously being translated into English by American Michael Berry up to April of 2020. It is well worth a read.

How to make the world add up: ten rules for thinking differently about numbers by Tim Harford

This title is by economist and BBC presenter Tim Harford and is again a very timely publication given the vital need for accurate public information in this historic year of the coronavirus pandemic and the US Presidential election of 3 November. Harford was in fact in the process of finishing this book in the early stages of the global pandemic and does make references to it.

Written in a very engaging and humorous style, this is an absolutely fascinating book of our times as it provides great insight into how many of us will find it easy to disbelieve the statistics and what they tell us. Drawing on historic examples of the vital role of statistics in such areas as the link of lung cancer to cigarettes, it is a fascinating book, which brings us through the ten guiding principles for understanding the power of numbers to understand the world around us.

The new map: energy, climate, and the clash of nations by Daniel Yergin.

This is another very timely, incisive 2020 publication, by a global energy expert and Pulitzer prize-winning author Yergin, who was also in the process of producing this book during the earlier stages of the global pandemic.

In this accessible, well-written book on global energy geopolitics, the author cuts through the complex issues at play in the ongoing energy revolution and the global politics of energy among the world’s most powerful players. He explains the controversial fracking technology which has transformed the American economy, and the key role of energy in climate change and the search for a low carbon future.

If you tell: a true story of murder, family secrets and the unbreakable bond of sisterhood by Gregg Olsen

Set in Raymond, Washington, this is a very dark and shocking, ‘house of horrors’ story of psychopathic Shelly Knotech and her tyranny over her weak passive husband David and three daughters, Nikki, Sai and Tori. It is a catalogue of horrific physical and mental abuse perpetrated on her daughters, and live-in cousin Shane.

A highly manipulative and dangerous woman, Shelley Knoteck’s abuse and violence escalated as time went on and it culminated in the death and manslaughter of two family friends she lured into living in the family home.

Her eldest daughters finally found the courage to go to the police and Shelley was brought to justice. This is not an easy read but very compelling.

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