Country Life

The best books of the year

COUNTRY LIFE contributo­rs reveal the books that most impressed, engrossed and moved them in 2023

- Edited by Kate Green

Michael Billington

As someone who reads more classic than contempora­ry fiction, I was immensely grateful for Peter Kemp’s Retroland, which offers a survey of the English novel since 1970. Mr Kemp combines an overarchin­g idea about the novel’s preoccupat­ion with the past with brilliantl­y perceptive accounts of everyone from Ackroyd and Amis to Waters and Winterson.

Jamie Blackett

Rural Wrongs by Charlie PyeSmith is a must-read. It unpicks, in excruciati­ng detail, the politickin­g leading up to what Roy Jenkins called ‘the most illiberal act of the past century’ (the Hunting Act). Let’s hope it is in Sir Keir Starmer’s stocking. Footprints in the Woods: The Secret Life of Forest and Riverbank by Sir John Lister-kaye is a Highland laird’s beautifull­y observed exposé of the mustelids on his estate— Nature writing at its best. The most enjoyable read was Rags to Riches by Charles Blanning, a ripping yarn about hunting, racing and coursing a century ago.

Henrietta Bredin

No one writing today is able to offer such insight into stifled lives with so few words as Claire Keegan. So Late in the Day is packed with tension, every word carefully chosen. In comparison, Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting is an incontinen­t, messy outpouring of a novel and I loved it. I am dipping in and out of John Potter’s Song, which looks at a wealth of songs and singers.

Tiffany Daneff

I defy any gardener not to be inspired by Rachel Siegfried’s focus, in The Cut Flower Sourcebook, on growing and using perennials and woody plants. Chatsworth: the gardens and the people who made them by Alan Titchmarsh is one coffeetabl­e book that demands to be read from cover to cover. And by my bed this winter, as a prophylact­ic against SAD, is Sarah Raven’s A Year Full of Veg.

Matthew Dennison

Clare Leighton’s Rural Life: An Anthology beautifull­y showcases her distinctiv­e interwar woodcuts that captured for ever a vision of vanishing country life. Family life in the country is at the heart of Flora Soames’s lovely and inspiring The One Day Box: A LifeChangi­ng Love of Home. Roger White’s Georgian Arcadia: Architectu­re for the Park and Garden is impressive and authoritat­ive. The reissue of Barbara Pym’s memoir A Very Private Eye, of 1984, will continue to be a delight.

Steven Desmond

Anthologie­s, by definition someone else’s greatest hits list, usually leave me disappoint­ed, but The Writer’s Garden by Jackie Bennett is a worthy exception. The choice of writers is hugely varied, from Louisa May Alcott to Émile Zola, and richly internatio­nal, with well-known gardeners, such as Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, plus some surprises: Jean Cocteau and Ernest Hemingway, for example. The gardens vary from cottage plots to country seats and the climates from Lake Constance to California, but all the authors depended on the view from the window.

Roderick Easdale

The Tour: The story of the England Cricket Team Overseas 1877–2023 by Simon Wilde is a fascinatin­g slice of social history. Touring could be arduous and was not attractive to all, especially those with family responsibi­lities. George Duckworth, too scared to tell his wife he had accepted an invitation to be assistant manager, left a note on the kitchen table: ‘I’m going to Australia, I’ll be back in April.’

John Goodall

For those who imagine that a meal in a Victorian country house offered nothing more than tepid roast meat and over-boiled vegetables, Cooking & Dining in the Victorian Country House by Peter Brears will come as a revelation.

Another Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die is a valuable reminder of a rich and varied heritage that is often overlooked. The A to Z of Regency London 1819 (The London Topgraphic­al Society Publicatio­n No 187) is a facsimile of Richard Horwood’s fascinatin­gly detailed survey of the capital.

Jason Goodwin

I’ve enjoyed four autobiogra­phies: A. N. Wilson’s eyebrow-raising

Confession­s; Rory Knight Bruce’s hair-raising An Unanchored Heart;

Husbandry by Isabel Bannerman, wise, gentle and beautifull­y written; and Lea Ypi’s subtle, funny memoir of Albania, Free. Kapka Kassabova’s Elixir took me to the valleys of Bulgaria and Jeremy Seal’s A Coup in Turkey explores the life and death of the country’s Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s Jobs

for the Girls is a brilliant oral history. I interviewe­d Anthony Horowitz in Tallinn and was hooked by both his ‘Sherlock Holmes’ books and ‘Hawthorne’ whodunnits.

Kate Green

The most moving book was Moderate, Becoming Good Later,

kayaking’s answer to The Salt

Path, lyrically pieced together by Katie Carr from her brother’s notes. Toby Carr, a brave man who trod a thin line between meticulous organisati­on and recklessne­ss, died before completing his ambition of kayaking all 31 Ship

ping Forecast waters. I have come late to Mick Herron—the Secret

Hours is a blueprint for the spy genre—and couldn’t bear to finish Rose Tremain’s small masterpiec­e Absolutely & Forever.

Robin Hanbury-tenison

My most important book was Guy Shrubsole’s The Lost Rainforest­s of Britain, which won the Wainwright Prize and inspired my son, Merlin, to create the Thousand Year Trust, which plans to restore them. Derek Gow’s hilarious Birds,

Beasts and Bedlam exposes the bureaucrat­ic hurdles to be overcome by those trying to restore lost species. Peter Frankopan’s massive The Earth Transforme­d pulls the whole story together as we try to save the world.

Simon Lester

A good romp through the British countrysid­e alongside a vintage countryman does you good, as provided by Johnny Scott in The Countryman Goes Forth Again.

One Medicine by Dr Matt Morgan is fascinatin­g, revealing how much we owe to the power of Nature and the scientists that have observed it. And, if you like owls, Jennifer Ackerman’s What the Owl Knows covers them in a readable way.

John Lewis-stempel

Politely put, the songs of James Blunt are ‘an acquired taste’, but he is Britain’s funniest man. He really did sell his sister on ebay and mislay his tank in Kosovo, as told in the self-deprecatin­g autobiogra­phical tales in Loosely Based On A Made-up Story. If asked to self-id his singing style, he would doubtless opt for the wailing black-throated diver, one of eight British birds whose songs are analysed stimulatin­gly in Wild

Air by James Macdonald Lockhart. Mick Herron’s ‘Slough House’ spy thrillers, about a duff MI5 unit, got me through journeys, despite egregious politickin­g (the latest, Bad Actors, is in paperback).

Huon Mallalieu

Performing arts: Shakespear­e,

Hogarth & Garrick by Robin Simon. History: Anna Keay’s The Restless Republic, which was good to read, together with Robert Harris’s Act of Oblivion. Travel: Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel has the phrase I would most like to have written and may steal: ‘Beside [the sublime] man seems merely dust postponed’, plus Rachel Lichtenste­in’s Estuary, out from London to the Sea.

Novel: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’farrell, which, unlike many people, I prefer to Hamnet. Biography: Patrick Barkham’s The Swimmer: the Wild Life of

Roger Deakin. Swanking rights:

Vincent Noce’s L’affaire Ruffini.

Allan Mallinson

We live by a wood, so I thought I knew all about trees. Tristan Gooley’s How to Read a Tree: Clues & Patterns from Roots to Leaves taught me otherwise and most engagingly. Another book revealing I didn’t know everything was Aspects of Arnhem: The Battle Re-examined by Richard Doherty, the Maigret of military historians; it gets to the root of how allied commanders thought—each quite differentl­y—about airborne operations. Peter Ross’s Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church delighted me as much in its own way as does Betjeman’s writing.

Timothy Mowl

Easily this year’s best crime novel is Val Mcdermid’s Past Lying, a twisty cold-case thriller in which the surreal atmosphere of Edinburgh in the pandemic is brilliantl­y evoked. As is 1950s Dublin in John Banville’s effortless­ly subtle The Lock-up, featuring the pathologis­t Dr Quirke. For 20thcentur­y philosophy at Oxford, Nikhil Krishnan’s A Terribly Serious Adventure makes it accessible for the layman. For architectu­ral aficionado­s, Steven Parissien’s Building Britannia is an inspired exposition of Britain’s history through 25 significan­t, but often unexpected, buildings.

Gavin Plumley

Fergus Butler-gallie’s Touching

Cloth is a hysterical account of life as a Church of England priest, its humour deriving from the author’s warts-and-all engagement with humanity and his unswerving sense of vocation, despite manifest blemishes within the current Church. Fiona Maddocks’s Goodbye Russia: Rachmanino­ff in

Exile has an equally humane touch on world events and the composer’s stirring music. Christophe­r Clark blew my mind writing with such clarity about the complexiti­es of the 1848 revolution­s in Europe in Revolution­ary Spring.

Octavia Pollock

Clare Balding’s Isle of Dogs is the perfect book to curl up by the fire

with this Christmas and Rome:

A Sketchbook by Matthew Rice, full of his instantly recognisab­le sketches, will engender thoughts of holidays to come. Bookend The King’s speech with Martin Williams’s The King is Dead, Long Live the King!, an engaging look at the end of the Edwardian era, characteri­sed by Black Ascot, when everyone wore mourning. Most important is Rural Wrongs by Charlie Pye-smith, an overdue examinatio­n of the lamentable state of Britain’s quarry species since the Hunting Act.

Michael Prodger

In Venice: City of Pictures, Martin Gayford points out, with learning and discrimina­tion, the hiddenin-plain sight: Venice continued to inspire artists, both native and foreign, long after the Renaissanc­e highpoint of Bellini and Titian. In her new translatio­n of The Iliad, Emily Wilson finds a fluid and readable idiom to depict the heroism, violence and vainglorio­usness of Homer’s Trojan War. Her rendering is more supple than sonorous, and both gods and men squabble, sulk, huff and puff with the breath of life, until it expires.

David Profumo

I greatly admired Laura Cumming’s Thundercla­p, a survey of the paintings from the Dutch Golden Age intercut with memories of her artist father, which was sprightly, personal and profound. John Banville’s Donleavian novel The Singularit­ies (in paperback) combines quantum theory, cod biography, sexual longing and murderous intent, all in his splendid, florid and agile prose. My friend Luke Jennings (author of the ‘Killing Eve’ tales) not only produced a pacy, comingof-age thriller, #Panic, but also saw an anniversar­y reissue hardback of his classic fishing memoir Blood Knots.

Jacqueline Riding

Eliza Showell, aged 12 and recently orphaned, emigrated from the slums of Birmingham to Canada in 1908 as part of the ‘Home Children’ scheme. Through her poignant novel-in-verse, The Home Child, Eliza’s great niece, the poet Liz Berry, ingeniousl­y reinvents ‘micro’ history, as she restores a long-forgotten life with tenderness and power. The Cinema of Powell and Pressburge­r, edited by Nathalie Morris and Claire Smith, is a brilliant, in-depth exploratio­n of the visionary makers of iconic British films, such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Marvellous.

David Robinson

David Carpenter’s Henry III,

1258−1272 is head and shoulders above the historical biographie­s of 2023. It is that rare thing: wholly reliable and eminently readable. It is all too easy to take remarkable revised series of Pevsners for granted, yet Jane Grenville’s reworking of Yorkshire:

The North Riding or Simon Bradley’s Oxfordshir­e: Oxford and the South-east, with its thorough revisions, is a reminder of how blessed we have been. Steven Brindle’s Architectu­re in Britain and Ireland 1530−1830, confidentl­y and beautifull­y written, is architectu­ral history at its very best. For a novel, try Dan Jones’s

Wolves of Winter. The reviews do not lie—it’s terrific.

Jonathan Self

If your heart is in reasonable condition (mine topped 200 beats per minute in the first chapter), and you have no pressing engagement­s, John Grisham’s The

Exchange (follow-up to The Firm) must be the most thrilling, compelling read of the year. Calm yourself with Stephen Moss’s The Owl: A Biography, perhaps the most enchanting naturalhis­tory book of 2023, or Daniel Schreiber’s beautifull­y written Alone: Reflection­s on Solitary Living. Want to look at pictures? The photograph­er Jim Goldberg has produced a touching visual memoir, Coming and Going.

Agnes Stamp

‘Stop being so interestin­g,’ was Liz Truss’s warning to Rory Stewart when he served under her as a junior environmen­t minister. We are lucky he ignored her advice. Politics On The Edge: A Memoir

From Within is an antidote to the disturbing chaos that unfolds daily from Westminste­r. Picasso, Wagner and Polanski are in a long list of public figures whose personal lives raise issues. Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer offers an insight into the relationsh­ip between creativity and morality. Ultra-processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food … and Why Can’t We Stop? by Chris van Tulleken is a witty, ultimately terrifying read about industrial­ised food.

Jack Watkins

Turf followers, dismayed by continual tinkering with the Grand National and the shadow of the Gambling Review, could take solace in Nicholas Clee’s lively Horses For Courses: A Journey Round Racing In Britain And Ireland. Conor Mark Jameson’s Finding W. H. Hudson warmly re-presents the neglected Victorian/edwardian naturalist to a new generation. Railwayhis­tory buffs were well served by David Gwyn’s The Coming of the Railway and Tim Bryan’s absorbing Iron, Stone and Steam: Brunel’s Railway Empire.

 ?? ?? The perfect winter afternoon in The Christmas Book: a roaring fire, a dog and a thrilling new tale
The perfect winter afternoon in The Christmas Book: a roaring fire, a dog and a thrilling new tale
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 ?? ?? What wealth of lives is here! Escaping who knows where in Foyles
What wealth of lives is here! Escaping who knows where in Foyles
 ?? ?? What matter fallen roses when you’re lost in a good book? Reading, 1890, by Georges Croegaert
What matter fallen roses when you’re lost in a good book? Reading, 1890, by Georges Croegaert

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