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The Five Best Books I Read in 2023

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!

(while you’re here, check out my top books from previous years: 2022, 20212020201920182017, and 2016)

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.

The Five Best Books I Read in 2022

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 (48 this year – I blame having a young baby in the house for the slight shortfall!), 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 more ‘novelly’ than usual, and is shaped, I suspect, by being both exciting and fairly easy reading, so I could follow the text despite long bouts of being quite tired (again, that baby!). Nevertheless, I think it’s an excellent selection. Unusually, this year doesn’t feature any sports books. As usual, the ones I have picked are not necessarily (and in fact, in this case, exclusively not) books released in 2022. They’re just my favourite five that I have read. Here goes…

(while you’re here, check out my top books from previous years: 2021, 2020201920182017, and 2016)

Panic by Lauren Oliver

Now an Amazon Prime series, Panic is the story of a small American town and an annual tradition of graduating school kids participating in a kind of ‘ultra dare’ game for a large prize fund contributed to by each of them over the course of the year. Some of the challenges are scary, some tailored to their specific fears, and others are full on life-threatening. As a consequence, the event has become notorious in hte town, bringing with it police attempts to shut it down, and occasional deaths.

What’s really well done here, though, is the character development. From those who run Panic (kept carefully hidden and passed on annually), to those who take part (for reasons that vary wildly), each person in this book feels distinctly ‘real’, even against such a wild premise. It won’t change your life, but it’s one of the most pleasant reads I’ve picked up in a long time.

David Attenborough’s Life On Air

I’m a huge fan of David Attenborough, and this chunky tome is an exploration of his life in full, so it was always giong to appeal. An interesting side of it is the almost coincidental way he ended up involved in doing environmental TV programming, and how it ended up absorbing his life, including having heaps of rare animals living in his home as a side effect of in-studio broadcasting. It sounded chaotic.

As well as the stunning life stories, the book also sets out Attenborough’s concerns for our future, taking on a kind of ‘Inconvenient Truth’ meets personal experience angle as he outlines what he’s seen environmentally as he’s globe trotted his way through some of the world’s less-visited corners. It’s compelling throughout.

New Book Contribution: Punks Listen

Just a quick post to draw attention to ‘Punks Listen’, a book in which people into punk music write about albums that have had an impact on them, out this month. I have a piece in the book on my childhood love of Less Than Jake and the road it led me down.

I’m particularly proud to be involved in this, firstly because the book is entirely in aid of the Red Cross Ukrainian Refugee Appeal (in fact, producers the Hope Collective are even covering the print run, so it’s not so much ‘profit to the Red Cross’ as ‘entire cover price to the Red Cross). It also has a remarkable list of contributors including Suggs (from Madness), Amanda Palmer, David Gedge (The Wedding Present), Roddy Doyle, Mike Scott (The Waterboys), Henry Rollins and Andy Cairns (Therapy?). Which is the kind of company I could get used to!

It’s for sale now, here, priced at €15.

Here is a very brief extract from my own piece, which focuses on the Less Than Jake album ‘Hello Rockview’:

“When I turned 18, Less Than Jake toured the UK, and I followed them, to Glastonbury, to Reading Festival, and to a series of gigs across the south of England, blowing all the money from my supermarket job. My friends and I stood in the front row clutching a huge blue and yellow flag that said ‘I Stalk Less Than Jake’, a reference to their cult song ‘My Own Flag’. 

The band gave us plecs, and beers, and occasionally edited their setlist on the fly after we shouted out tracks. In Southampton, the whole band crowded around us, three feet away as they blasted ‘My Own Flag’ into the ether. In between, we explored record shops, and drank in parks, and wasted days in Camden, or Portsmouth seafront, or pulling donuts in car parks in a friend’s Fiat Punto that he later drove into an old oak tree.”

Huge thanks to Hope Collective for including me in this great project.

My Top Five Books of 2021

Back again with my one annual post; not New Year’s resolutions, or more music interviews, or anything like that, but an aside into the best books I’ve read all year. I’ve actually read less this year than normal. In fact, I’ve only recently found myself able to read at ‘book length’ again when I’m not required to by my work after our daughter arrived: I was so tired I read almost nothing of note for three months.

Nonetheless, I got through 45 or so books, so the top five is still a fairly high bar, and I found this a little difficult to whittle down. There’s been a lot of sport and music, a couple of dozens novels, and some books that I only read at all as I was reviewing them (none made the list – make of that what you will).

Here are the top five…

(while you’re here, check out my top books from previous years: 2020, 201920182017, and 2016).

Sweet Sweet Revenge Ltd by Jonas Jonasson

Jonas Jonasson is one of those authors who I borderline ‘follow’ – at least to the point where if I see a title I haven’t read, I will grab it. He’s a surrealist, and a brilliant storyteller with it, taking these quirky characters through tales usually set in Sweden that are, underneath it all, ridiculous, but compelling nonetheless.

In this one, Jonasson creates a ‘son’ character who is ‘disposed of’ by his unloving father in the middle of African Savannah, but returns to haunt him, combining with other characters from the dad’s pretty aggressively miserable life to ruin his business years later. Alongside this, the group come up with a planned business to take revenge on behalf of others, a popular if controversial model which takes them in all kinds of ridiculous directions. It’s silly, but I absolutely love it.

Illicit Texts: North Korea’s View on History Explored through Smuggled Books

History is written by the winners, or so they say. It’s an often-forgotten side of East Asian history, though, that North Korea wasn’t always seen as a ‘loser’.

The centrally planned North Korean economy, in fact, matched its southern counterpart right into the 70s, fuelled by support from the communist block. The culture of the post-war country has been a repressive one since the drawing of the 39th parallel, but the ideology has stuck fast, with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s increasing isolation enabling it to create and maintain its own very distinct view on the past 70 years. The North Korean take on history is an unavoidable party line in Pyongyang. It’s given little credence elsewhere, but this hasn’t stopped them producing English language books for tourists, proclaiming their version of history. Before we take a look at these glimpses into the North Korean perspective however, it’s worth looking at the literature more typically available.

There are plenty of books that explore North Korea from a western perspective, and others from the perspective of those who have run from the Kim regime. Some of them are fantastically insightful. Kang Chol Hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang gives a rare account of a North Korean escaping from the notorious gulags. Jang Jin Sung’s Dear Leader comes from another angle, charting the life of a high-ranking, high-society Pyongyang resident and his fall from grace in the ministry of information, and eventual escape.

In Park Yeon Mi’s In Order To Live, the complexities of escape are explored in an intensely personal and harrowing tale, while The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves And Why It Matters (B.R. Myers) gives a brief but startling insight into the North’s ‘Juche’ (self-reliance) worldview.

Most takes on this hermit kingdom focus more on presenting personal perspectives than on reproducing the broader North Korean view, however, and that’s where Pyongyang’s Foreign Languages Publishing House come in. Their English language texts, on sale to tourists who visit the isolationist corner of Asia, set out how North Korea views the world.

The books are heavy-hitting propaganda, extolling the virtues of the Kim dynasty and firing less-than-subtle pot shots elsewhere, largely targeting the USA and South Korea. They’re printed on crumbling, wafer-thin pages marked with official stamps and dated in the North’s Juche dating system as well as our own.

In 2007 and 2008, I visited North Korea twice. At the time I was living in Seoul, South Korea, and I used trips operated by the travel branch of Hyundai (since closed after a tourist was shot by a border guard) to cross the 39th parallel and drop in on the traditional town of Kaesong, and the mountainous east coast at Kumgangsan.

My Top Five Books of 2020

It’s become an annual tradition of mine to write up my five favourite books of each year. Not books that have been published that year, you understand, or even any attempt to summarise the annual highlights (let’s face it, given the sheer volume, that’s ludicrous), but simply what’s crossed my path and impressed. Reading is a big part of my life – I’d esimate I average several hours a week on books alone – and we;ve slowly edged it more and more into family life, too.

We now celebrate ‘book day’, for example, a kind of bastardisation of an Icelandic tradition, on Christmas Eve, which involves buying new books and chocolate and spending an evening in bed consuming both. This year has seen our son’s reading come on from struggling to do more than a page to reading books in a couple of sittings, too, which has been great to watch.

Anyway, rambling narrative aside, here are the books – this time, it turns out, exclusively not released in 2020 – that have lit up this weirdest of years for me. I got through 56 books in total, so this is a kind of top 10%-ish. The common themes seem to be travel and escapism, which I guess makes sense. Want some more? Here’s what I wrote for this very same post in 2019, 20182017, and 2016)

Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood on the Edge of the World by Yang Erche Namu

Yang Erche Namu is a folk singer from a fairly obscure mountain-based minority group in China, and this is her biography, though that slightly dull introduction disguises the surreal genius of this book. Namu comes from a society that’s utterly alien to our day-to-day lives, and seemingly untouched by modernity (though the book does date back to 2003). In a culture very much female-led and rejecting traditional marriage, the book’s early narrative about family life and the steadier women owning and keeping the home while the flitting men respond to symbolic sexual rituals is not as titillating as that might suggest, but so utterly away from my own experience it’s like uncovering a totally different concept for society. Which I guess it is.

As the book progresses, Namu moves on to describing her slow forays into the rest of China, including, eventually, places you’ll have heard of, away from her homeland of Himalayan Moso County, and her first encounters with things like paid performance, hotel rooms, modern transport and business-style exploitation. Namu is a rebel, someone who departed her own society against its implicit rules, leaving behind its conventions, and in doing so she uncovers for us in text an entirely new but distinctly engaging view on humanity itself. One of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.

My Top Five Books of 2019

Because of the nature of my writing work, this website ends up being a whole lot about music. In fact, I’m every bit as obsessive about reading, too. It’s become an annual tradition to post my favourite books of the year, in part for others, in part because I have a bad memory, and dropping back into the old posts to remember what I really loved it quite a pleasant experience (here’s what I wrote in 2018, 2017, and 2016).

This year was a little bit special, of course, because back in April I also launched my debut book, about a relatively obscure international football tournament for unrecognised nations. It’s called ‘CONIFA: Football For The Forgotten‘. Its launch was definitely my favourite booky moment of the year, obviously, but I’m not the kind of egomaniac to include it below (please do check it out – you’ll have to scroll down on the linked post for order details).

I think in part because I was so book focused through the year, my read count is a little up on most years (I’ll have read 55, my own not included, by the end of the year), so this year’s post is a true ‘elite’. As usual, it’s quite an eclectic selection. Here’s what I really loved…

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian (view)

This is a novel based on the Tiananmen Square student uprising, written (originally) in Chinese by a Chinese emigrant. It’s given a real sense of being close to reality by being written by someone who was actually there. It’s based around two parallel stories about a core character: one set at the time of the uprising, and a second over the following years, as he exists in his mother’s house, poorly cared for, in a coma, but able to hear everything going on around him.

It’s a fairly full-on, heady read, absolutely packed with fascinating cultural references, and I found the ‘locked-in’ aspect of it to be quite affecting. A history lesson in novel form, essentially, with lots of alien (to us) politics and colourful relationships. Fascinating.

My Top Five Books of 2018

I remember being told back when I started writing for publication that almost everyone who writes to a high standard reads a lot, too. I’m not sure I quite believed it at the time, but I’ve found myself more and more drawn to well-written tomes over the years, so much so that this particular blog post has just about become an annual tradition (here’s 2017, and 2016). Who knows if any of it’s actually rubbed off!

In keeping with ‘tradition’, this is nothing to do with books that were released in 2018 (they are just ones I read this year), and doesn’t pretend, obviously, to have any learned/ broad perspective (how could it have). I read roughly 50 books in 2018, which has become an oddly consistent number since I started doing this. Of everything I picked up, these are the ones that grabbed me the most…

Marching Powder by Rusty Young (link)

Thomas McFadden was a long-time and seemingly quite effective drug smuggler who ultimately got tracked down and arrested in Bolivia, where he was sent to the notorious San Pedro jail. In this book, a young journalist who was able to buy his way in and out of the jail to talk to McFadden, uncovers the surreal side of his life.

McFadden became a tour guide, showing travelers around the jail. He learned that the prison was the primary source of the drugs he was once famous for buying, with production taking place in areas that the guards couldn’t get near. He bought prison ‘property’, and his own safety, and even found a way to get out of the jail for the night, meet a new girlfriend, and then have her move in with him in San Pedro. Obviously, I have no idea if San Pedro is still like this (the book was published in 2011), but the insight here is breathtaking. The kind of book I had to stop reading to tell people about what was going on: brilliant.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (view)

On finding love in a hopeless place. This is the story of a multilingual Slovak Jew who ended up in the notorious Second World War prison camp, where his language skills and a bit of good luck landed him the job of Tätowierer, the man who tattoos those famous and dehumanizing numbers on new arrivals. There’s an element of mild Nazi-collaboration to Lale Sokolov’s story, but a greater sense that in amongst the sickening world he’s come to occupy, he’s just doing what he has to in order to survive.

For all it’s hard-hitting glances at the prison camp itself, though, it’s the delicate love story that’s what this book is really about. It’s wonderfully delivered, to the point that the grim surroundings almost seem to fade into the background for a while. The ending is powerful, too.