Best of 2019 – Books

Travelling for nearly half the year allowed plenty of time for reading, mostly relating to the places I visited, but also plenty of other topics. I read some fiction but as usual my favourites were all non-fiction. Of the ~160 books I read this year here are my top picks, ordered into history, travel, music and an other.

Bloodlands : Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
One of the most compelling if horrific books I’ve ever read. It covers in unforgettable detail how 14 million people in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and eastern Russia were killed by the Soviets and Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. It includes the Holocaust but also less well known crimes including the Ukrainian famine and starvation of Soviet prisoners of war by the Nazis. The quality and tone of the writing is exceptional, though as it sounds it is not an easy read.

A Short History of Nuclear Folly by Rudolph Herzog
A great read that lives up to it’s title in length and capturing the sheer madness of the early years of nuclear power. Looking back it is quite incredible how nuclear power was planned to be used, including powering aircraft, and for large scale engineering works. Why dig a canal when a series of nuclear explosions could be used instead. This is a well written book that is full of fascinatingly scary information.

The Dark Valley : A Panorama of the 1930s by Piers Brendon
If you’re depressed by the way the world appears to be going at the moment this book will put things in perspective. The 1930s saw the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, militaristic nationalism in Japan, civil war in Spain, the General Strike in Britain, political stagnation in France, and mass famine and terror in the Soviet Union. This is a big and detailed book, I skimmed a few sections, but most of it was engrossing.

The Man Without A Face : The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
Another scarily engrossing book which I read in a single sitting. I heard Masha Gessen talk at the Auckland Writers Festival a few years ago which brought this excellent book to my attention. It’s hard to think of how this book could be bettered as an insight into how Putin came to power, and how he operates.

Tropic of Capricorn by Simon Reeve
The irrepressibly energetic and engaging Simon Reeve is one of the best travel journalists on TV. I particularly enjoyed this account of his travels around the Tropic of Capricorn as I’d been to many of the places he visited travelling across South America, Africa, and Australia. He has a good eye for finding less well known and interesting stories. I also enjoyed his autobiography, Step By Step : The Life In My Journeys, which shows how he came from an unlikely background to write the first book on Al-Qaeda before becoming a travel journalist.

Why the Dutch are Different by Ben Coates
I haven’t been to the Netherlands in ten years but this book has made me much more prepared for a return visit. Comprehensive in detail and engagingly written I read this in one sitting.

Slow Train to Switzerland by Diccon Bewes
I was in Switzerland earlier this year hiking Walker’s Haute Route, to which this was a good companion book. The author follows the route of the original Thomas Cook tour of Switzerland in 1863, which both set Thomas Cook up for 150 years of success, and helped kick start the Swiss economy. It is incredible how poor the country was then, and how it has become one of the richest countries in the world. I also read Swiss Watching by the same author which was also fascinating, if less engagingly structured, more of an information download than a story driven book.

Thanks a Lot Mr Kibblewhite : My Story by Roger Daltrey
The Who are one of my favourite bands so this autobiography by their lead singer was always going to appeal to me. It is written in a direct and honest style, entirely characteristic of Roger’s personality.

Mick Jagger by Philip Norman
An excellent biography, covering his career with the Rolling Stones, and less successfully as a solo artist, alongside his controversial personal life. It’s comprehensive and balanced account of an incredible life.

Captain Fantastic : Elton John’s Stellar Trip Through the 70s by Tom Doyle
A hugely entertaining read that captures brilliantly the Elton John phenomenon in the 1970s. It’s hard to believe how prolific and successful he was, turning out a string of classic albums while maintaining a punishing and extravagant touring schedule, aided by huge quantities of drugs.

Man With A Blue Scarf by Martin Gayford, Lucian Freud
A little gem of a book, as the author chronicles the many sittings he made for one of Britain’s greatest painters. It provides insight into how Lucian Freud worked and lived, along with the eclectic range of conversations they had.

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