Country Life’s best reads 2013

Nigel Slater
(4th Estate, £26 *£20)

Delicious in every way: brief, easy recipes full of new ideas (more than 600 of them, so a good year’s worth). A new way of cooking and eating, too-forget perfection, formality and pages of ingredients: the message here is just eat. Country Life particularly recommends the recipe for brown shrimps with linguine, lemon and garlic.

Eric Ravilious: Artist & Designer
Alan Powers
(Lund Humphries, £35 *£30)

The most informative and well-crafted of recent books on the ever-popular Ravilious, with unexpected insights and detailed analysis adding heft to what is a very readable new study. Alan Powers goes straight to the heart of the artist as illustrator, printmaker and watercolourist, and the book is beautifully produced, too, showing many examples of Ravilious’s work.

All Change
Elizabeth Jane Howard
(Mantle, £18.99 *£15.99)

Other novels this year may have been more heralded, or more original, but Radio 4’s 45-part adaptation of ‘The Cazalet Chronicles’ made one rush to revisit this sharply observed Second-World-War saga. At the end, one felt bereft, but then, as if by magic, the nonagenarian writer produced part five, which has the Cazalet family grappling with the 1950s slump. It’s funny-Miss Howard is brilliant at portraying children-moving and shows, as reviewer Hilary Mantel puts it so perfectly, ‘what the novel is for… [to] open our eyes and our hearts’.

RHS Chelsea Flower Show:
A Centenary Celebration
Brent Elliott
(Frances Lincoln, £25 *£20)

This definitive in-house account, illustrated with numerous superb historical photographs, was published to celebrate the Chelsea Flower Show’s centenary this year. As the RHS’s historian and former head of libraries, Brent Elliott was well-placed to trawl the archives and he has unearthed delightful nuggets about past events, presented here, together with old saws and amusing anecdotes, beside a thorough history and pre-history of Britain’s greatest annual horticultural event.

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Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan
William Dalrymple
(Bloomsbury Publishing, £25 *£20)

This sparkling account of the First Afghan War is William Dalrymple at his best. Drawing on new Afghan, Persian and Russian sources, he re-presents a piece of 19th-century history that has always captivated our imaginations with outstanding skills of story-telling and personal experience of the terrain. Unbiased by the usual exclusively British viewpoint, he explores the character and motivations of the Afghan insurgents as well as those of the British Raj and makes this engrossing story a parable for present times.

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos
Patrick Leigh Fermor; ed by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper
(John Murray, £25 *£21)

Following fast on
the heels of Artemis Cooper’s 2013 bio-graphy, the long-awaited final volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel trilogy brims with raw, physical energy that keeps alive the recently rekindled flame of admiration for this most romantic of 20th-century travel writers. Unfinished at his death in 2011, this picaresque account of the final leg of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 1934 combines vivid descriptions with more ruminative passages that mark the young traveller’s own internal journey and coming of age.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography
Volume One: Not for Turning
Charles Moore
(Allen Lane, £30 *£24)

Like her or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher is a rich subject for book and film, and nobody has told the story of her earlier years, or revealed her true personality, better than Charles Moore in this first volume of his official biography. At 800 pages, it might have been a daunting book, but he moves at a spanking pace and never gets submerged by the weight of his extensive research or diverted by his own political preferences. Taking us from Thatcher’s childhood up to her testing in the fire of the Falklands, this is both a serious tome and a jolly good read.

Anti-Ugly: Excursions in English Architecture and Design
Gavin Stamp
(Aurum Press, £16.99 *£13.99)

Gavin Stamp’s elegant essays, reports, polemics and excoriations, originally published in his monthly column for Apollo, take us on a series of excursions around England in exploration of the uplifting and the destructive in architecture and design. Eloquent, learned and trenchant, this most individual of architectural historians elucidates on whatever takes his fancy, from the magnificent Midland Grand hotel at St Pancras station to buildings obscure and overlooked, underrated architects, dilapidated gems, deplorable losses and the ephemerality of taste.

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