Books of the Year 2012: Travel and place

From art to sport, poetry to nature, travel to food, history to music: our writers select the best of the year’s books in a comprehensive guide to the highlights in every shade of the literary spectrum – except grey

Travel writing is dead; long live the literature of place! In fact, the literary art of journeys and locations merely rebooted while trend-hungry publishers looked away. This year it sprang to life again, healthier than ever. Take Andrew Blum's Tubes: behind the scenes at the internet (Viking, £12.99). He executed a brilliantly smart idea - to visit the global network of data-hubs, server farms and cable nodes from Docklands to Oregon, where immaterial cyberspace hits seabed, hard rock and sub-soil - with investigative skill and flair. Readers will never send an email so carelessly again.

The Mara Crossing (Chatto & Windus, £12.99), equally planetary in its reach but more lyrical in its prose, saw poet Ruth Padel blend travelogue, environmental science and her own verse into a rapt meditation on the meaning of migration - of people, animals and ideas. A pair of legendary, ever-elusive travellers also prompted two of the year's most revealing biographies. In Patrick Leigh Fermor: a life (John Murray, £25), Artemis Cooper winningly followed in the footsteps of the great charmer, warrior and yarn-spinner; while in Ryszard Kapuscinski: a life (translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones; Verso, £25), Artur Domoslawski exposed the double life - as agent and informer for the Polish communist state - led by the most enigmatic and (in many senses) - creative voyager of his time.

In an Olympic year awash with books about London, no work came close to the eccentric charm and warmth on offer in Spitalfields Life (Saltyard Books, £20) by the anonymous "Gentle Author". This deadpan blogger's encounters with East Enders old and new, now transformed into a sumptuous volume, built into an irresistible group portrait of modern metropolitans and their overlapping histories. If the Gentle Author can sound rather like WG Sebald, Nick Papadimitriou veers closer to the topographical delirium of Iain Sinclair or JG Ballard in Scarp (Sceptre, £20): a ramble through his home suburbs of north London that spreads a visionary gleam over the mysterious backwaters of the Northern Line. Further out into the country, Robert Macfarlane's philosophical tramp across deep England, and beyond, in The Old Ways (Hamish Hamilton, £20) confirmed his unique gift for close observation that verges on mystical rapture. Covering some of the same ground (literally), Hugh Thomson enlivened his homecoming walk through the mythic English past and exotic English present with keen reportage in The Green Road Into the Trees (Preface, £18.99).

Three books did the northern counties proud. Simon Armitage read poems for his bed and board as he tramped (in the wrong direction) along the Pennine Way for Walking Home (Faber & Faber, £16.99), which brought a quirkily offbeat sensibility and delectable comic prose to our wild backyard. Jean Sprackland's Strands (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) also packed a poet's eye and tongue into this journal of a year's wanderings along the Lancashire beach near her home, where every tide deposits fresh histories, both natural and human. And in her biography The Pinecone, Jenny Uglow (Faber & Faber, £20) returned to beautifully-observed life the Romantic-era designer and social reformer Sarah Losh, who sought to re-shape the landscapes and communities of Cumbria according to her brand of visionary idealism.

An ocean away, Colombia - a destination of choice for the discerning traveller - inspired two fine, if contrasting books. Tom Feiling's Short Walks from Bogota (Allen Lane, £20) took as its focus the slow recovery of a richly endowed but stricken nation from the fevers of its civil strife. In The Robber of Memories (Granta, £20), Michael Jacobs combined a lusher, more enchanted journey along the Magdalena river with a tender and well-integrated family memoir. From the front-lines and fault-lines of the Middle East, ex-hostage John McCarthy reported with vigour, insight and sympathy on the overlooked Palestinians of Israel itself in You Can't Hide the Sun (Bantam, £20), while Edward Platt brought Biblical history powerfully to bear on a modern flashpoint as he listened to the zealots, peacemakers and survivors of Hebron in The City of Abraham (Picador, £16.99).

The year's strongest literary portrait of a city came in Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom (trans. Laura Watkinson; MacLehose, £20), the great Dutch writer's bittersweet tribute to the fateful capital that moulded his upbringing, and his imagination. And in Meander (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), Jeremy Seal proved (like Jacobs) that a classic travel author's game-plan - a trip along a river, in this case the myth- and history-haunted winding stream that runs through central Turkey to the Aegean - can still deliver an artful and illuminating book.

Further reading:

Books of the year 2012: Fiction

Books of the year 2012: Crime and thrillers

Books of the year 2012: Music

Books of the year 2012: Celebrity

Books of the year 2012: Natural history

Books of the year 2012: Food

Books of the year 2012: Sport

Books of the year 2012: Art

Books of the year 2012: Children's books

Books of the year 2012: Memoirs

Books of the year 2012: History

Books of the year 2012: Poetry

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence