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Random reads – my recommended books of 2023

Playing catch-up with my Books of the Year recommendations. Late to the party. Every weekend supplement has already been swamped with the buggers. Alas, there has been less evidence than usual of my fave tips – highbrow critics seeking to impress with the likes of “the great belle lettrist Attila Kosztolányi’s magnum opus, many years in the making, has finally seen the light of day. Read in the original Hungarian, it’s a triumph – let’s hope for a translation soon.”
You’ll find my choices less smarmy, I hope. The list is not, as you’d expect, dominated by food books. For research purposes, I have mostly been delving into scholarly old favourites or making practical use of the jus-stained kitchen recipe faithfuls. Blame the lockdown time on my hands for certain continuing reading obsessions – German history and our own 17th century registers of recusants and Roundheads.
Let’s start then with two magisterial examples of the former, published in 2023…

Beyond The Wall by Katja Hoyer (Penguin £26) and In Search of Berlin by John Kampfner (Atlantic £22)

The first account puts a human face on the DDR, taking it beyond the received wisdom of Stasiland, Trabants and steroid-pumped athletes. Hoyer, a British-based historian, is herself an ‘Ostie’, but she was only four years old when the Berlin Wall came down, transforming a country that epitomised the Cold War. In the re-united Germany three decades on reviews have been mixed, but I found it convincing and revelatory. An equally provocative exploration of the reunited state was Kampfner’s best-selling Why Germans Do It Better. Now the former Telegraph foreign correspondent, who reported on the epic events of 1989, puts today’s restored capital in the context of a thousand years of often troubled history. Riveting for an old Berlin hand like myself.

The Secret Hours by Mick Herron (Baskerville £22)

Divided Berlin was, of course, the backdrop for the Cold War spy genre, notably in the works of John Le Carré and Len Deighton. Herron, touted as Le Carré’s natural heir but very much his own man as the laureate of a deadbeat alternative espionage, is best known for his Slow Hours novel sequence, the third of which is currently being screened by Apple TV with Gary Oldman playing grubby anti-hero Jackson Lamb. The Secret Hours is a standalone title but Herron can’t resist giving (an unnamed) Lamb a key walk-on part in a tale that revolves around skulduggery in today’s security circles and an operation to find a Stasi murderer in 1990s Berlin which goes wrong. Intricately plotted surprises come in from the cold.

The Lock-up by John Banville (Hutchinson £22) and Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry (Faber £18.99)

The Irish penchant for fiction is as vibrant as ever with Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song recently scooping the Booker Prize. My own bookish bucket list for Christmas, though, is headed by The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright, the greatest Irish-based female writer (sorry Sally Rooney). No apologies, though, for recommending two genre-straddling novels by male veterans that have delighted me. The garlanded ‘literary’ novels of old school man of letters Banville have always left me slightly cold, but I am besotted with his increasing dips into crime fiction, featuring an odd couple with their own demons (naturally) – pathologist Dr. Quirke and Detective Inspector St John Strafford. The latest tracks back to 1950s Dublin where young history scholar Rosa Jacobs is found dead in her car. The investigation takes in the Italian mountaintops of Italy, the front lines of World War II Bavaria and deepest rural Ireland.

Barry’s novel also features a cop, retired to a castle in the Dublin coastal suburbs but with skeletons in the cupboard just waiting to be rattled as his past dealings are investigated by former colleagues. It’s dreamlike, almost gothic, packed with red herrings and unreliable narrators. Grim, melancholy, I loved it.

The Blazing World by Jonathan Healey (Bloomsbury £30)

Historical fiction may have peaked with the great Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (my own favourite still Iain Pears’ An Instance at the Fingerpost) but it’s in good hands with the likes of Robert Harris, whose Act of Oblivion (2022), featuring the 17th century pursuit across the New World of two Roundhead regicides, offered contemporary resonances. I read it alongside Anna Keay’s magisterial account of the decade after Charles I’s execution, The Restless Republic. What a blessing then the arrival of a complementary yet contrasting “New History of a Revolutionary Century”. It is a vivid, witty account of certain key characters, who exemplify a divisive age. The title comes from the extravagant aristocrat/polymath Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle, who, after the Restoration, imagined an alternative “Blazing World” of order and tranquillity in contrast to the “malicious detractions” and “homebred insurrection” through which she had lived. My next period read? Likely to be September’s Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish by Francesca Peacock.

Invitation to a Banquet by Fuchsia Dunlop (Particular £25) and Stuffed by Pen Vogler (Atlantic £22)

Let’s stay scholarly as we finally stray into food and drink territory with two books I have already reviewed at length. The first explores the vast complexity of Chinese cuisine, combining historical research and contemporary travelogue; the second, as I summed up, is “a surprisingly political survey of feast and famine with a particular emphasis on the damage wrought on subsistence by 300 years of Enclosures forcing 6.8 million acres of communal land into private ownership. The book title is not just about a full stomach, it’s also about being shafted.” So food adulteration in Victorian times is on a ley line to toxic ultra-processed foods in ours. Plus ça change

Flavour Thesaurus 2 by Nikki Segnit (Bloomsbury £20) and Mother Tongue by Gurdeep Loyal (4th estate £26)

Segnit’s book is the sequel to her eye-opening debut The Flavour Thesaurus, which became an instant classic when it was published 13 years ago. There had never been anything quite like it before, this playful exploration of ingredient matches springing from a flavour wheel of her own random devising. A reference book born out of erudite research that was equally at home by the bedside or on the kitchen table. More of the same, yes, but the  new flavours are predominantly plant-based. From zeitgeist-led vegan, from kale to cashew, pomegranate to pistachio, seaweed to tamarind, but eggs and cheese forced their toothsome way in, too.

A la Segnit, I like to be surprised and Gurdeep Loyal’s colourful cookbook lives up to its fusion manifesto declaring: “Food is a living form of culture that evolves: its boundaries are fluid, blurred, porous and dynamic… authenticity is an unending reel of culinary snapshots, an evolving spectrum that captures many transformative moments along flavourful journeys in generations of kitchens.”

Before Mrs Beeton – Elizabeth Raffald, England’s Most Influential Housekeeper by Dr Neil Buttery (Pen and Sword Books, £20)

Fanny Craddock was a Fifties/Sixties celeb chef in black and white telly world. If the box had been invented in the late 18th century I’m sure Manchester-based Elizabeth Raffald would have had her own show, such was her dynamism. Food historian Buttery charts the dizzying career that culminated in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1786). Why she even gave away the recipe for her invention for the Eccles Cake and there are strong claims that Mrs Beeton “adapted” many of her recipes.

The New French Wine by Jon Bonné (£112) mention Andrew Jefford and natural wine and Noma 2 – Vegetable-Forest-Ocean by Rene Redzepi, Mette Søberg and Junichi Takahashi (Artisan £60)

Two door-stoppers that were published first abroad last year and seeped in to the UK. I first encountered Bonné a decade ago when his New California Wine was a valuable companion on an epic vineyard-led road trip of the state. Since when he has moved to France and compiled this deluxe definitive compendium of the country’s wine makers at a time of profound change. I still treasure Andrew Jefford’s The New France but, published in 2002, it is now ‘Old France’, superseded by this remarkable celebration of a unique wine culture.

The groundbreaking cultural phenomenon that is Noma is reinventing itself as a food laboratory (shades or restaurant rival El Bulli). The gorgeous Noma 2, a hymn to foraging, fermentation and a wacky food aesthetic, may read like a swansong but I’ll take it as a launchpad (though it’s very weighty for lift-off).

Manchester’s Best Beer Pubs and Bars by Matthew Curtis (CAMRA Books, £16.99 pb) and A Beautiful Pint: One man’s search for the perfect pint of Guinness by Ian Ryan (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

Two much slimmer volumes that have a practical purpose in guiding you to the authors’ recommended watering holes. Matthew Curtis, author of the refreshing Modern British Beer upped sticks from London to live in Stockport. Result is a CAMRA beer guide like no other, encompassing craft bars, restaurants and taprooms as well as the traditional pubs. The list of ‘special’ starred establishments is spot on, as is this incomer’s research for a potted history of the scene. 

If that’s a perfect stocking-filler for the hophead in your life, it has a dark rival in Cork exile Ryan’s more niche print follow-up to his notorious Shit London Guinness Instagram and Twitter accounts. The writing is no on a par with Curtis’s but the passion shines through, along with some technical stuff I’d never given thought to. Best of all is his Guinness outlets to visit section. Without it I would never have strayed into the beyond marvellous Cock Tavern on Phoenix Road, just a stroll from Euston Station, where Sheila from Sligo served me the best Guinness I’ve ever had in the UK – at an amazing £4.50 a pint.

Steeple Chasing by Peter Ross (Headline £22) and The Wasteland: Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis (Penguin £12.99 pb)

There are few books I re-read in a year but Steeple Chasing has been one of them. It’s the Glasgow-based feature writer’s follow-up to A Tomb With A View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards and is even more fascinating. Which is saying something. Elegiac, yes but more… The melancholy element is inevitable, if not as pervasive as in its predecessor despite the pandemic hovering over the journeys. On first reading I pinned it down as a neo-WG Sebaldian quest for meaning among Britain’s steeples and bell towers, but with its own special radiance, especially when he explores the sacred territory of Suffolk. 

I inevitably re-read TS Eliot’s great poem in response to Matthew Hollis’s excavation of the post First World War milieu it grew out of – like “lilacs out of the dead land”. So much personal unhappiness fertilised his creation, trimmed into shape for publication by ‘ll Miglior Fabbro’ (the better craftsman), Ezra Pound. Let us salute both of them, “looking into the heart of light, the silence.”