It’s become an annual tradition of mine to put together a post about my favourite books of the year, in part, I think, as I find reading to be such an essential part of writing, and one of the bits that I don’t, as a matter of course, write about. Each year I present my favourite five of, typically, about 50 books (51 this year – perhaps half of that reading on the bus to work and back), because I think being in the ‘top ten percent’ of stuff that grabbed my attention within a year is a fairly strong recommendation.
This year’s selection is a bit of a mixed bag, and contains a strong element of off-the-beaten-track wanderlust. I think it’s an excellent selection – always happy to receive some tip offs in return, hit the comments section!
The Curtain and the Wall by Timothy Phillips
This is not just one of my favourite books I read in 2023, but one of my favourite books I’ve ever read. In it, Timothy Phillips travels, as the name suggests, the length of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, exploring the history and the modern-day impact of the old cultural divide from Norway to Berlin.
What’s great about it, though, is that it manages not to sit too heavily in the realm of staid history, and instead explores a series of personal takes on the wall and its impact, with lots of local input delivered and plenty of oddities, with the facts interspersed. There are some really cool little thing that most people might not have heard of, like the area of Finland briefly occupied by Russia and how trains were allowed to pass through is subject to strict searches and black out windows, or how a war nearly kicked off in an inaccessible part of Norway in the middle of the Cold War. Asides in areas like Azerbaijan, too, give it an ‘off the beaten track’ element. A really excellent read.
The Border by Erika Fatland
I didn’t set out to recommend two of my “best books this year” with a heavy focus on Russia, but it worked out that way. In this one, the author examines the impact of Russia on its neighbours by travelling around the country’s entire border, a difficult task especially in areas like rural China, that leads to some great travel stories. She starts on a kind of adventure cruise ship for the wealthy and elderly working its way around the north of Siberia, an odd an isolated wasteland in large parts, before dropping in on North Korea, and parts of China and Mongolia that are heavily influenced by their neighbour.
This is mainly a travel book but with a nice bit of history woven in, and a lot of conversations that explain the impact of Russia on local populaces at some risk to the people involved (names are often changed). That means a chunky 600 plus pages, which made it probably my longest read of the year (I’m not really into vast tomes, generally), but it justifies it and remains interesting throughout. Well worth a look.
Left For Dead: Surviving the Deadliest Storm in Modern Sailing History by Nick Ward
As a young adult, Nick Ward took part in the 1979 Fastnet Race, a competition that sailing enthusiasts (of which I am not one) will apparently immediately connect. A little aside here: so did my dad, before I was born, and so I have something of a personal connection to this book, albeit a weak one. It’s quite something to learn how the disaster came about. What happened to Ward, though, is particularly astonishing.
With his boat the subkect of an unlikely rescue in appalling conditions, Ward was thought to have died, but he hadn’t. And so he was left behind, together with a crewmate who later died, while the boat floated in horrendous conditions off the Fastnet rock, clinging to his for days life alone. This remarkable retelling is mainly about how events unfolded, but also explores the psychological impact on Ward, who never really forgave those who left him behind. It’s a shocking tale of survival in the most horrific of circumstances, and also something of a morally moving conundrum.
The Plotters by Kim Un-Su
I have quite a thing for Korean books, as is probably obvious from some of my previous recommendations on these annual posts, and while The Plotters isn’t the best one I’ve ever read, it’s fast-paced and slightly manic, and I love the elements of Seoul’s dark side flying off the pages. Focused on an old school house for assassins and their fight for continued survival in what is portrayed as a crowded market for paid killings, the text follows the slow uncovering of a plot to change the market and so the landscape of Seoul’s dark underground.
Surreal and memorable, it is essentially something of a power struggle with extremely dingy undertones, with elements of tradition woven into the drama. Well worth a look, not least for the use of the ‘library’ as a secret home for the massive team of assassins.
Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and Depraved of Chernobyl by Markiyan Kamysh
Chernobyl has become something of a tourist spot, with the wasteland that surrounds the city of Pripyat at the heart of the atomic meltdown a fairly common destintation on the more extreme end of tourism (I won’t lie, I’m quite keen to go at some point, though obviously not during the current crisis!). This book, though, is emphatically not about tourism.
Markiyan Kamysh is part of a small group that likes to break into the Chernobyl area and explore the desolated ruins, sleeping in abandoned houses and living on their wits. He stays far from the tourist areas, mostly, spending weeks at a time trekking through radioactive bogs, living in rundown shacks and evading the guards that are supposed to keep people out. He sees it as an escapist type of freedom, hedonistic and compulsive. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s certainly makes for a memorable book.