The Curtain and the Wall


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.