Well, that went fast! 2023 is coming to a close and we’ve had a look back at our best reads of the year. 2023 hasn’t been a year of many huge literary hits. Rather, we’ve poked around and found some smaller, perhaps less well-known books, that we’ve enjoyed at least as much as big best-sellers. You’ll find the full review by clicking on the titles. Happy reading and Merry Christmas!
A novel of rich interiority, Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry introduces us to the sedate life of Tom Kettle, a retired policeman dreaming away his days by the Irish Sea. His is the ‘little routine of a retired man,’ and the comfort of his beloved wicker chair, where he indulges in cigarillos and contemplation of his late wife, June, and their two children. When unwanted interruption comes in the form of two ex-colleagues and the reopening of a cold case, Tom is compelled to revisit the past, in Barry’s fine portrait of trauma, wavering memories, and radiant love.
The Glutton by A.K. Blakemore. We’re in France at the brink of the revolution. A sinister, Hannibal-Lecter-like character rumoured to be devouring everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, including forks, rats and babies, is imprisoned in a monastery. Sister Perpetue has the unenviable task of guarding him. But who is this mysterious Tarare and what is his story? The Glutton by A.K. Blakemore is one the better books I’ve read this year. A brutal story of poverty, survival and class, set against the backdrop of revolutionary France and written by a hugely talented young author.
Updating one of Charles Dickens’ iconic novels is a brave thing to do. In Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver we get squalor, poverty and destitution worthy of the master himself, set in modern day America during the opioid crisis. Damon Field aka Demon Copperhead’s story is one of resilience in a society where everything is stacked against someone like him; his mixed race, poverty, his mother’s addiction, the education system, the list goes on. The shocking realisation is how little things have changed since 1850, which is precisely Kingsolver’s point.
In surely one of the most captivating opening scenes in British literature, O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker, takes us to the vaulted hall of a remote Scottish castle. Here, in a crumpled heap on the flagstones, beneath a tall stained-glass window, lies sixteen-year-old Janet, dressed in her mother’s black lace evening dress, and covered in blood. Unloved and misunderstood in life, she has met a ‘murderous death.’ Moonlight filtering through the stained-glass picks out the legend Moriens sed Invictus; dying but unconquered. In Barker’s glorious and darkly funny portrayal of an outsider heroine’s short and intense life, the truth of this proves undeniable.
Predating the decriminalisation of gay sex in 1967 and never before published, Love, Leda by Mark Hyatt is a lost gem of urban gay literature. By turns, audacious and affecting, Hyatt’s semi-autobiographical novel gives us a handful of days in the company of Leda, depressed narcissist and self-proclaimed ‘social bum’. Leda spends his days (and heady nights) searching for something beyond the greyness of an early 1960’s London that has yet to become groovy. A captivating read, it brilliantly chronicles an unapologetic adventurer and a bygone London.
Wild, surreal, shocking and funny. Short-story collection The Coiled Serpent by Camilla Grudova is unlike anything you’ve read before. A disorientating journey through Britain, in which current Britain sometimes seems interchangeable with 1950s Britain, even Victorian Britain. Where boys attend boarding school from Year Five to Year Twenty, where the tuck shop sells chocolate and haemorrhoid cream. A look at Britishness through the eyes of and insider/outsider (Grudova grew up in Canada but lives in Scotland) which constantly jolts you with unexpected turns and twists. Expect blood, gore and sex from a writer of exceptional imagination.
The opening scene of the brilliant Berg by Ann Quin takes us to a post-war seaside boarding house, where Alistair Berg, hair-restorer salesman and furtive masturbator, lies uneasy in his bed. In the flimsily-partitioned room next door, Berg’s father resides with his flirtatious mistress, unaware of his son’s presence. A ‘scoundrel of the first order,’ the old man deserted Berg in babyhood, and now his vengeful son has come to kill him. In Quin’s 1964 absurdist cult classic, we follow Berg as his tendency towards vacillation causes his master plan to unravel, in the face of a string of farcical events and unhinged decisions.
A novel, an autobiography, a memoir and a diary; four alternative truths. Pulitzer Prize winning Trust by Hernan Diaz is a riveting read, an experimental novels-within-a-novel which deals with the questions of truth, trust and American capitalism. Andrew Bevel is an American gazillionaire banker at the turn of the last century. Incensed by an unflattering roman a clef – which everyone recognises as based on his life – Bevel is keen to set the record straight and hires Ida Partenza as ghost writer for his own (carefully supervised) version of events. Ida, who has a few issues of authenticity herself, starts digging and discovers that all is not what it seems in the Bevel household.
A bildungsroman unlike any other, Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq takes us to the Canadian Arctic and a landscape of boundless terrain and immense skies. It’s the 1970’s and a young Inuk girl tells of her childhood in this extraordinary environment, where deprivation and discrimination sit uneasily beside a magical northern world of nature and mythology. When puberty arrives, it will bestow a shamanic gift upon the girl and prompt her, incredibly, to seek communion with the Northern Lights.
An oblique, Booker Prize nominated novel of sacrifice and survival, Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein tells the story of a young woman who uproots her life and moves to a remote part of Northern Europe, in order to become her brother’s housekeeper and companion. Her martyrish aims to be good, quiet, and to serve others, are taking a toll on her embattled ego, and there’s something else. Something uncanny about her which invites suspicion and hostility from the local residents. Our unnamed protagonist fears that there is something in her blood that makes people recoil, a frisson of foreboding setting the scene for a disturbing tale.
A novel about a saint and a historical cathedral might not make you race to the bookshop, but Cuddy by Benjamin Myers turned out to be a lot more riveting that you’d imagine. Meyers novel is a playful medley of forms – poetry, play, diary and prose. In five different parts, he tells the story of Saint Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral and people whose lives were in one way or another touched by it. A moving love letter to Durham and superb storytelling from an author to watch.
Reading Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of those magical experiences in which you find yourself transported to a completely different time and place. In this case, to a 17th century Japan in the midst of its battle to eradicate Christianity. We follow two young, committed Jesuit priests on their clandestine journey from Portugal to an island off the coast of Japan. Their mission: to keep the Catholic faith alive and to find out what happened to a predecessor who is rumoured to have apostatised. Justly considered a Japanese classic, Silence raises questions around religious colonialism, clash of cultures, freedom of religion and the very core of faith itself while being an absolutely gripping read.
I’ve always wondered how so much priceless European art from the Renaissance onwards made its way to major American museums. In the engrossing Duveen by SN Behrman, we learn how. The greatest art dealer of all time, Joseph Duveen, courted and cajoled American robber barons into spending millions of dollars on old master paintings, most of which eventually ended up being donated to museums. The story of Duveen is absolutely fascinating, even if you’re not passionate about art.
You’ll grow to love winter, both the seasonal and the emotional, after reading the soothing Wintering by Katherine May. I adored this little book, written by May after a break-down caused by a cocktail of undiagnosed autism, an ill husband and an exhausting job. Leaving her job and the pressures of daily life behind, May retracts from the world and cocoons herself with her young son in almost hibernation. There she finds the peace she’s been desperately craving and learns to love herself – and winter, the most unlovable of seasons.
The Wager by David Grann is the story of a doomed secret mission during England’s conflict with Spain in the 1740s. It’s a barely credible story of shipwreck, murder, in-fighting and hardship on an epic scale in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Fuelled by a combination of imperial ambition and arrogance, the mission of the Wager exposes one of the more megalomaniac periods in British history. An unmissable read.
The non-fiction book The Wager was one of my reading highlights this summer so when I heard of Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann I jumped on it. This time, Grann takes us to early 20th century Oklahoma, a state established to house the many displaced Native Americans. After being forcibly moved away from fertile land, the Osage tribe were assigned a rocky patch of no apparent value until, that is, oil in large quantities was discovered. The Osage became immensely rich – at the time they were the wealthiest people in the world – and lived comfortable lives. For a while.
The Very Young Person’s Guide to Ballet Music by Tim Lihoreau and Philip Noyce (5-8 years). The perfect gift for the budding sugar-plum fairy in your life, this captivating tale takes us to the world of tutus, tights, and pirouettes. We join friends Leo and Mia as they are magically spirited away on a journey through iconic and beloved ballets, including Swan Lake, Giselle, and The Nutcracker. Each vivid double- page spread contains facts about the stories, composers and dance moves, along with an exciting sound button. Press to hear accompanying music (frazzled parents note, there’s an off switch!)
The Skull by Jon Klassen (5-8 years). Adapted from a Tyrolean folktale, this deliciously odd story tells of a little runaway named Otilla and her unexpected friendship with a disembodied skull. As lonely as he is bony, the skull inhabits a grand ancestral home, blessed with such added extras as a ballroom and, gulp, a dungeon with a bottomless pit. In exchange for sheltering Otilla, she will come to his aid during an episode of unearthly domestic rumpus. A future classic from the always brilliant Klassen.
A Really Short Journey Through the Body by Bill Bryson (8-11 years). Did you know that a leg hair lasts for about two months before falling out? An armpit hair however, will set up home for a good six months. This engaging, fact-packed guide is brimful of wonderful illustrations and information, ranging from a squirm-inducing look at a medical dissection room to the intricacies of the eyes (which you’ll be blinking approximately 14,000 times today). We take our bodies for granted but Bryson shows us that ‘right now, your body is up to all kinds of marvellous things.’
Stolen History: The truth about the British Empire and How it Shaped Us by Sathnam Sanghera (8-11 years). This engagingly warm and informal history of the British Empire sets straight a complex history that has often been misrepresented. Covering topics from the quintessential cuppa to national wealth and ‘stuff we find in museums,’ Sanghera encourages young readers to ask questions about colonialism, even (and perhaps especially) if they’re awkward ones. Examination of the British Empire may tell us something about our own lives. A great read for enquiring minds.
Impossible Creatures by Katherine Rundell (8-11 years). As all imaginative souls know, magic certainly exists in our world, we just need to know where to look for it. In Rundell’s dazzling new novel, a boy named Christopher discovers a portal into a ‘wild magnificence of a place,’ the home of mythical creatures, a girl with a flying coat, and her pet baby griffin. There are dark forces afoot, and the children must unite to save both their worlds. A richly inventive tale of love and bravery from one of our finest writers.
Wonder: The Natural History Museum Book by Ana Sampson (8-11 years). Opening its doors for the first time on Easter Monday 1881, the beautiful Natural History Museum in London was conceived as nothing less than a ‘cathedral to nature’. This glorious selection of poems celebrates every aspect of its twenty-eight galleries, from the tiniest speck of DNA to the bones of the colossal blue whale, and even includes verse dedicated to the institution itself. Complemented by notes and drawings related to exhibits, Wonder honours a beloved London museum, with its ‘worlds laid out for us to see’. A gift to cherish.
Murder on a School Night by Kate Weston (Teen/ Young Adult). In this laugh-out-loud girl-powered whodunnit, we join teenage friends and Agatha Christie fans, Kerry and Annie, called upon to investigate the diabolical murder of a classmate who is possibly the only person in history to have been suffocated with a menstrual cup. In a rip-roaring tale of mendacity, menace and menstrual murder, the girls take on bumbling police officers and old-school misogyny. Meanwhile the body count rises and even the humble tampon becomes an accessory to murder. The perfect festive sofa-read.
The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros (Teen/ Young Adult). Winner of the Yoto Carnegie Medal 2023, this remarkable Welsh novel is a tale of survival and renewal in post-apocalyptic Wales. It tells the story of 14-year-old Dylan and his mother, Rowenna, learning to live on their wits after a nuclear conflict. They call this time the End Days, ‘a nothingness that is everywhere,’ where they face the seemingly impossible task of creating a new self-sufficient life while preserving their heritage. A compelling and ultimately uplifting read.
For more inspiration, check out these lists:
The Guardian – The Best Books to Give as Presents this Christmas
The Guardian – Best Crime Novels and Thrillers of 2023
New York Times – Ten Best Books of 2023
The New Yorker – The Best Books of 2023
Lithub – Best Audio Books of 2023
The Telegraph – The 50 Best Books of 2023 – ranked
The Financial Times – Best Books of the Year 2023