2015 was another year of avid reading for me. I was quite surprised when in 2014 I managed to read 79 books over the course 0f the year. In 2015 it was 97 books. Whilst I haven’t tried to reach a certain number, as I’d rather enjoy the books instead of trying to meet some sort of target, I did end up a little disappointed to just fall short of 100. The full list of what I read is here on my Goodreads site. But as with last year I’m going to pick out some that I particularly recommend or that I think were noteworthy.
Surprisingly, the book that came out top was Roman Krznaric’s How To Find Fulfilling Work. This is part of a series of books by The School of Life, a project started by Alain de Botton to help people improve their lives through culture and their emotional intelligence. It now runs courses, publishes books and has various other services from its base in Bloomsbury. It’s an organisation I’ve always thought sounded interesting and when I spotted a book by them that aims to help you work out what motivates you and how that translates to a job that you would find particularly fulfilling, I knew it was a must read. What this book did most of all for me was make me think. It made me think in a different way about what I’m most interested in and where in the longer term I want to be as it’s highly unlikely I’ll remain in my current job for the 30 years until I retire. It’s a short read but one that made me look at things in a different way, and also much to my surprise included someone as a case study who I once knew and who I hadn’t realised had gone off in a completely different direction from his old career.
Whilst my favourite book of the year is perhaps a surprising one, I have continued to read plenty of crime fiction – traditionally my preferred genre of book. But like in 2014 it’s becoming a lot less of a key part of my reading. My two favourite crime novels last year were both set in the same city – Venice – a city which I have continued to be fascinated by ever since I visited it nearly 15 years ago. It makes me wonder whether it’s the subject matter I find fascinating rather than the books themselves, but regardless of that The Anonymous Venetian by Donna Leon and Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin were both excellent. Donna Leon has rapidly become one of my favourite crime writers and as all her books are set in Venice she manages to depict many different sides of the city in each one. Her main character Commissario Brunetti is also an interesting and fully formed character in his own right rather than being just another dogged investigator. Michael Dibdin is someone who I haven’t read for a while as I was a little disappointed with his last book which felt too melodramatic, however in this one his lead character Aurelio Zen finds himself back in his home city (unlike Leon, Dibdin’s books are often set in different parts of Italy despite the origins of Zen) and is caught up in a complex web of relationships between the great and the good. Dibdin is back on form with this one. 2015 was also a year when I started to read a number of books on real crime, perhaps inspired by my time on jury service in February, of which two particularly stood out – Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun about the first murder victim on a train back in 1864 and Blood on the Altar by Tobias Jones about two murders committed by the same man – one in southern Italy and the other in Bournemouth. I’ve also finally read my first Sherlock Holmes, thoroughly enjoyed JK Rowling’s first book written as Robert Galbraith (great characters about whom I’ll definitely read more) and uncovered Barbara Nadel’s interesting Hakim & Arnold series.
Last year another new departure for me was reading a number of different travel books. I’ve always been fascinated by geography, and in particular what makes different countries tick, but I’ve never read many non-fiction books about specific countries. In 2015 I managed to find out more about Pakistan, Angola, Nigeria, and Italy, as well as a book that explain travel writing in general and one that covered a number of different world cities. I also found myself reading more fiction set in different countries including Japan, Sweden, Norway, Italy, France, USA, Netherlands, Spain, Egypt, Finland and Nigeria (the latter being Americanah by the amazing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). It’s all been pretty enlightening and showing you sides to countries you didn’t know. The two books I’ll particularly pick out though are Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven which is an amazing book, and quite a hefty tome, in which he uses his many years of experience as a journalist in the country to show you the contrasting and contradictory elements of Pakistan. It has made me see the country in a whole different way and helped me understand so much more about its place in the world. The other book was Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa, the daughter of murdered human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who spent most of her life growing up in Britain, but who decides to go back and explore her home country of Nigeria and face what she finds hard about the place. Although very different in style to Lieven’s book, Saro-Wiwa once again shows how books (whether fiction or non-fiction) can give you such a broader understanding of the world than the one you usually get through the media.
I’ve read far fewer political books than I have in previous years. Perhaps the reality of the General Election put me off. But there are two books I will pick out. One is Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism. This was a book I’d long wanted to get and I finally found it at a bargain price from one of the independent retailers that sell via Amazon. As the late Conrad Russell used to do in person, the book manages to sum up really well the key tenets of what being a liberal is about and manages to combine real life with academic rigour to explain the philosophy behind it. This was something that was a refreshing read for a Lib Dem such as me after such a traumatic year politically. The other book I read is one that I’d had mixed feelings about before I read it – Owen Jones’ The Establishment. I admit I’d been put off it because of Jones’ strident political opinions which I rarely agree with and I feared a lot of coalition government bashing. Yet I was also very keen to read it as I liked the premise of the book. The book was well researched and provided fascinating details about the lack of transparency and democracy involved in many of the institutions and companies that affect our lives so much. A very good book, but one that emphasised to me that whilst I share many of the concerns of socialists like Jones, I also disagree with the solutions that he wants to see (where are the books by liberals with the solutions to these same problems?).
One more book that I must particularly mention is Journey Through a Small Planet by Emanuel Litvinoff. I discovered this book entirely by chance when browsing the shelves of Waterstones in Greenwich the day after I’d been on the London Walk entitled The Old Jewish Quarter. This book describes the Jewish East End of Litvinoff’s youth and the people he encountered and the story of how his own parents left Russia and settled in Whitechapel. Where this book really excels is bringing to life the area at the time and the experiences the author had, to the point where you can see and smell vividly in your own mind what it must have been like. A fascinating book about a very distinctive culture that is both familiar yet also very alien.
As I always do on this blog, I have written far more than I’d intended and yet I’ve only covered a handful of the books I read last year. But finally I must give more words of praise for Sheffield’s Central Library. Although I’ve been a member of the city libraries from being a small child it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve used them so extensively. The Central Library, being my nearest, has become like a second home and I’ve acquired far more variety in my reading habits as a result of just being able to take a punt on a book even if I’m not sure whether it’s my thing or not. I’ve discovered new writers and new types of books as a result. It’s largely due to the Central Library that I’ve ended up reading so many books this year as every time I return a book I always end up borrowing more, even though I know that at home I’ve got shelves full of books that I’ve yet to read.
Last year I finished off my review by saying that I wanted 2015 to be the year I finally started the book I want to write. Well it didn’t happen, but perhaps in 2016 it will as I’ve already signed up to a free online course from the Open University via the FutureLearn website on how to Start Writing Fiction and that begins later this month.