Monday, January 13, 2020

Top Ten books of 2019

Every year I’m in two minds about doing a top ten list (it’s a surprising amount of effort at a point where I want to look forward rather than back) but then I look over the last years posts and remember how good things were and it it seems worth it. This time a lot of my favourite books have been food related and it’s been a surprise that books that seem integral to my kitchen came into my life so recently.

As ever these are in no particular order, they’re all just really good books.

Food first, Mark Diacono’s Sour is brilliant. I really enjoy the way he writes, his approach to food (and drink), and in this case the way that he’s exploring a particular element of flavour. This is also a beautiful looking book from cover to cover which is appealing too. A common comment when people ask for wine recommendations is that they don’t want anything that tastes sour - that tells me a few things, including that we’ve trained ourselves to like ever sweeter things. This book is a reminder of what we miss when that happens. It’s also full of things I want to taste.

Sue Quinn’s Cocoa is also full of things I want to taste, engagingly written, and notable for the amount of savoury recipes using Cocoa. I feel like it’s a bit of a hymn to the cocoa nib and as such has been a gift to me. There are sweet recipes too, but this is about much more than chocolate in the way most of us will think about it. Most importantly though, it really is full of delicious things.

I’m quite pleased that I didn’t write about Caroline Eden’s Black Sea until February (I’d bought it when it came out in 2018) because it’s bloody brilliant and I get to list it here. Part cook book, part travelogue, and home of the altogether brilliant Potemkin cocktail, everything about it is beautiful. It’s a book to immerse yourself in and I love it so much I ended up buying a dress that matched the cover.

The cook book I’ve used the most, and which feels like it’s been part of my life for years not months is Anja Dunk’s Strudel, Noodles and Dumplings. A lot of her recipes have become firm favourites, they’re reliable, fresh, and undemanding. They also get me a lot of compliments. I don’t know what my preconceptions about German influenced food were but there’s something about Anja’s flavours I find irresistible in a way that I didn’t entirely expect. It is absolutely a book worth looking at.

Jack Adair Bevan’s A Spirited Guide to Vermouth is the book that finally properly opened up Vermouth to me to the point where I’ve become somewhat evangelical about it, and acquired quite a bit of it. I still wish it had an index, it’s probably something for people who already have an interest in aperitifs and cocktails, and the recipes it has are quite specialised, but it’s an excellent guide to its subject and definitely the best vermouth book I’ve found.

Roseanne Watt’s Moder Dy blew me away. It’s an amazing debut collection of poems that explores a range of subjects. I was particularly interested in all the ways that Watt uses dialect. It’s a book that’s really made me want to re engage with poetry (which I do sometimes read, but slightly self consciously) in the way I did as an A level student (enthusiastically without self consciousness). I can’t guarantee that everyone who reads her work will respond in the same way that I did, though I’ve spoken to plenty of people who have, but I think most of us probably could do with a bit more poetry in our lives.

Stephen Rutt’s  The Seafarers was another really happy discovery. It was so much better than the book I expected it to be. I expected it to be good, but it’s more than that. People talk about a lack of diversity in nature writing (Rutt touches in it himself) mostly meaning that the majority of writers are white, male, and probably at least approaching middle age. There’s a lot of very good writers I need that bracket so I don’t mean that as a criticism, but it’s also really good to read younger writers (Rutt is in his 20’s) as well as thinking along the lines of gender and race. All of those things offer different perspectives. Again though the main thing is that he writes really well.

Nan Shepherd’s The Weatherhouse was a revelation. Her face is on Scottish £5 notes, and ‘The Living Mountain’ has been thoroughly rediscovered but I think her fiction is still a bit neglected. I don’t really understand why because this was excellent - a genuine lost classic in my view. Anybody with an interest in the fiction of the 1920’s and 30s should look at her.

Lynn Enright’s Vagina a re-education was a book full of lightbulb moments, and one that made me think again about a lot of things I hadn’t really questioned. There have been quite a few books around  this or similar topics recently which is all to the good. This is the one I read, and can recommend for everyone.

And finally I’m going with my old Virago copy of The Collected Stories Of Sylvia Townsend Warner. 2019 was the year that I finally started to get her, and I particularly enjoyed her short stories. She’s an absolute mistress of the medium, and it’s a format I love so there’s you go. What will 2020 bring.


  1. I love that you bought a dress to match the cover of a favourite book. What a lovely list and although I have some titles on my wishlist, a lot are new to me. I've been meaning to read more cookbooks (not just for the recipes but for the story and history behind them) hopefully I'll get to some this year. Love reading your posts, Hayley.

    1. Thank you. It’s a beautiful book cover so clothes to match are not quite as weird as it might sound (I hope)

  2. A woman who writes about nature and the natural world (albeit of Tennessee in America) is Margaret Renkl who is an opinion columnist for the New York Times and an absolutely brilliant writer. She published a book late last spring titled LATE MIGRATIONS which I loved. However, I love her periodic op ed pieces for the NY Times more -- they are brilliant and not all about the natural world as some are topical and about politics.

  3. What a delightful post. I’ve just added half your list to my Wishlist. As I may have said before, I’m also a recent convert to vermouth, and love your vermouth suggestions - needless to say that’s one of the books on tbr Wishlist.

    1. Thank you, Vermouth is very much my drink of the moment, and I’m very happy to share some of the book love.