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My books of the year 2016

I’ve had a good year for reading, although I’m not always very good about tracking what I’ve read. Between April and October I had a daily weekday commute that gave me 15-20 minutes reading time at both ends of the day, and I relished the time spent with my kindle or paperback.

I do have tsundoko (pile of books waiting to be read), but here are some of the books that made an impression on me in 2016.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInenery

Pile of books I read in 2016 - The Wolf Wilder, On Starlit Seas, The OutrunI don’t read books just because they’ve won awards, or have become notable in some way. In fact, that’s often reason enough to keep me away from them. But I read the first couple of pages of this in a bookshop and I was hooked. Raw, bold and starkly original, the characters captured me as much as the writing.

An accidental murder sets up characters to rub up against each other, against the backdrop of a poor-at heel Ireland. The desperate frictions create palpable tensions, even as I hoped characters like Ryan, the teenage protagonist, would find a way out. Gritty, sweary and raucous, this felt like keenly observed fiction that read like non fiction, except for the dazzling sparks of beautiful language. A real surprise and my book of the year.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I almost missed my stop reading this on the metro. Fable, fantasy and metaphor mixed in a post-Arthurian world of knights, dragons and quests. Unreliable narrators travel a dream like land, forgetting and remembering glimpses of the past, disagreeing and arguing over what was, what wasn’t and what was meant.

This reminded me a lot of the dream-like quality of Piers Plowman, or the Pearl poet. It felt very English in its style, and like the mist that covers and obscures much of the land the characters travel through, it seeped into my thoughts waking and dreaming. Beautifully written, it lingered with me long after I finished reading it.

A Short Ride in the Jungle by Antonia Bolingbroke Kent

This book was recommended to me by Paul Hughes, as a good one to read while I was travelling through Laos and Cambodia. Antonia took on the challenge of riding a Cub motorbike along as much of the notorious Ho Chi Minh trail as possible, through Laos, Cambodia and into Vietnam. The tales of her adventures, staying in decrepit hotels and tackling the mud, monsoons and mechanical failures along the way are interspersed with episodes of the area’s history and culture.

It’s a rollercoaster of a read – at times funny, frightening and enlightening. I smiled widely as I read about Antonia arriving in Don Khong in Laos on the day I’d cycled there. As well as being a great travel adventure, this is an engaging and well written read.

On Starlit Seas by Sara Sheridan

Much of my knowledge of history comes from novels, and in Sara Sheridan’s latest I gained a fascinating insight into the world of chocolate trading and travelling by sea in the 1820s.

From the depths of the Brazilian rainforest, to life onboard the Bittersweet, and then polite London society, I was immersed in the rich detail of another time.

Her main character, Maria Graham, is notable, not least because she is based on a real person, but also because she shows independence, determination and intelligence in a man’s world. The real and fictional characters blend seamlessly in this tale of smuggling and treachery. They live on the pages and transport you to another time and place.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Touchingly lyrical, at times prickly and awkward, this tells the tale of a seemingly unlikely relationship between a girl and her former English teacher. Two lost souls drifting.

I loved this for the depiction of  Tokyo and the almost torturous slowness of their growing closeness and dependency on each other. The ending is heartbreakingly touching.

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

I’m much older than the target market for Young Adult fiction, but I like to dip into it as I think it’s often some of the best writing and story telling around.

I bought Wolf Wilder, because I’d enjoyed Katherine Rundell’s previous book Rooftoppers and because I liked the cover.

Feodora and her mother live in a cottage in the woods somewhere in Russia. They are Wolf Wilders – people who help wolves to learn to be wild again. When they come to the attention of the Russian Army, Feo has no choice but to run with the pack.

This is a fast-paced adventure, with episodes of delicate stillness, when you can almost feel the snow falling all around. With elements of fairy-tale, this deserves to become a classic.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

I’ve only just finished reading this non-fiction account of a girl’s return to Orkney and recovery from alcohol addiction, and I almost didn’t want it to end. The subject matter sounds bleak, but the book is actually joyous and uplifting, while dealing with tough issues including mental illness and relationship breakdowns.

The scenery, wildlife, people and customs are so wild and vivid, I felt as though I was away on an adventure as I was reading it. Another beautifully written book, I enjoyed its scattering of thoughts and themes, and stopped a few times to drink in a particularly evocative phrase. I love books with a real sense of place and the islands are as much a character in this story as the writer as she examines both her outer and inner space.

The worlds within books

“A book is a world full of words where you live for a while.” Patrick Ness, More Than This

I was talking to someone recently about my time at university and half-jokingly remarked that during my 3 years studying, I only lived part time in the 20th Century.

Picture of a quote "A book is a world made of words, where you live for a while."I discovered a love of medieval literature and stories even older than that from Beowulf to the Pearl poet. My favourite lectures, tutorials and studies were based on old works – Chaucer, Spenser, Sidney, Milton.

These days I’m more contemporary in my reading but I still love that feeling of walking another landscape, sampling another culture or stepping into another experience that I get through reading both fact and fiction.

Last week’s charity challenge of walking 10,000 steps per day gave me some appreciation of the time and effort it takes women and girls in the developing world to fetch water for their families. But arguably books and stories take me even further.

I’ve been to Botswana with Alexander McCall Smith and Mma Ramotswe; eaten in the best places in San Francisco with Amy Tan and even been into space with Commander Chris Hadfield.

I’ve time travelled to Victorian London with Dickens and to Regency period Bath with Jane Austen. I’ve walked the streets of Ankh Morpork; survived a shipwreck on an alien planet where men can hear each others thoughts, and travelled beyond Wall into Faerie (and made it back again). Books take me places I could never go.

I will never know what it means to be a black woman transplanted from Nigeria to the USA; to have my hair chemically relaxed, or tightly braided in a salon. I’ll never experience racism in all its different shades and colours. But, thanks to the book I’m currently reading, ‘Americanah’ by Chimananda Ngozi Adiche, I know about these experiences. And through reading I’ve seen the world through another person’s eyes.

I am grateful to books for all the worlds they allow me to live in for a while.

Reading and eating

I always delight in a new book. And although I have embraced the electronic version as an excellent way of carrying a library around with me, there’s nothing quite like the feel of book made of paper.

Today’s is a particular delight, being an extravagant hardback. A hefty tome that sits, spine along the palm of my hand as its glossy pages open, peppered with photographs. For, this is not fiction, but a cookery book.

As I glance through its pages at random, I stop at one headed ‘Breakfast in Japan’. Here’s the first paragraph:

“Kyoto wakes late, which at least gives me time to write. A perfect morning. Grey clouds. Mist hangs low over the hills like woodsmoke. Soft raindrops. An old woman rides her bike, wobbling, a transparent umbrella in her right hand. Breakfast is miso soup in a deep, black, lacquer bowl, and grilled silver mackerel. A plate of pickles, vivid purple cabbage, white radishes, shredded daikon is salty, sour and crisp.”

Fresh sushi

Which is why Nigel Slater is my favourite food writer. You will find recipes in his books. Good ones, creative and useful ones. But he’ll also take you through the whole sensual experience of growing, preparing, cooking and sharing a meal.

In a few words he’s taken me to the other side of the world and offered me a rather strange, but enticing breakfast, and I’m hooked to a cookery book. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to Japan and had fish for breakfast – raw fish in fact in the form of sushi and sashimi just outside Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fishmarket. But good writing can transport you to new places and give you a sense of sights, sounds and cultures you may never actually experience.

So what does it matter that a cookery book is beautifully written? Surely it’s all about the recipes and the method? The proof’s in the pudding, so to speak.

Well I think it does matter. Because it shows me that Nigel Slater really cares about his work and that he wants to share, not just the end result, but the whole experience. By opening up his memories and thoughts he shares something of himself, as he passes on the pleasures of tastes, flavours and ingredients. If he writes so beautifully, you just know that what he cooks will be served up with as much love and care. To me, Nigel Slater is just as much a writer as he is a cook. And probably the person I’d most like to invite me round for dinner.

Dipping into the third volume of his Kitchen Diaries at that particular page has also brought back memories of my own wonderful time in Japan. The blog posts I wrote then are no longer online, but I still have my notebooks, photographs and poems inspired by my trips there. Maybe it’s time to reflect and republish. Would you like to read more about travelling and eating in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Takayama?