My favourite books of 2023

Buckle up, it is listicle time!

New year, new platform. There’s no better way to test the functionality of a new newsletter service (hi, Beehiiv) than a listicle, and what better listicle than my annual run-down of ‘books I liked’?

For reference, here are my lists from 2022, 2020, and 2019, and 2018. No idea what happened to 2021. If you find it, let me know.

Unlike some previous years, I actually found this quite difficult. I think there are a couple of factors here:

  1. I read 33 RITA-winning debut romances as a self-imposed challenge. They were not good. As a learning experience, and a field trip through a long-established genre: great. As three dozen books that I enjoyed? It was not. Now, I am a romance reader: I read more non-RITA romances than RITA romances and, by gum - I liked those a lot more. Also, my previous reading challenges of Westerns (Spur) and mysteries (Crime) both turned up some absolute gems. Basically: the RITAs aren’t the award for me, and I’ve left this challenge with a fairly low opinion of that particular prize.

  2. I judged the Kitschies. Speaking of awards! This actually started at the end of last year, but it did mean the first half of 2023 was given over to one or two particular genres. The Kitschies, unlike some other awards (gazes pointedly at RITAs) definitely turned up a lot of books I would recommend. Annoyingly, some of my favourites were technically 2022 reads, and haven’t been included.

Romance and SF/F are my ‘core’ genres: they’re my defaults, and where I browse when I’m looking for something new to read. Because my ‘challenges’ were both in these familiar territories, I think I wound up ‘trapped’ in my comfort zone for the year. The number of Western, horror and crime novels basically bombed to zero. I read a handful of comics (great ones, see below), and almost no non-fiction.

The thing is: I like all of those things! A lot! But reading behaviours, like all behaviours, are difficult to change. Reading romance or fantasy is a passive choice (or lack thereof). I’ll default to those unless I choose to look elsewhere. It was silly of me to have reading challenges in these categories and not alternate with something a little more daring. The tyranny of the favourites.

Books with dangerous people (mostly women)

When We Were Birds (2022) by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo: Set in Trinidad and Tobago, this is definitely a fantasy - with generations of magical, powerful women wrangling the spirits of death in the city of Port Angeles. That said, the non-fantastical elements are what really shine: I was taken by the story of Darwin, the Rastafarian who has to leave his family and pause - if not renounce - his faith in order to provide for those he loves. His conflict is more worldly: full of petty crime and big city life, but incredibly engaging.

Hex (2022) by Jenni Fagan: Is it really a Jared Shurin list if there’s no Jenni Fagan on it? I would be hard-pressed to find a writer that is more consistently dazzling, and Hex is no exception. The book is a sort of … prose-poem-dialogue between Geillis Duncan, a witch facing execution, and a modern young woman who is reaching back through time. It is about power, and fear, and acceptance - all with the most anxious of ticking clocks in the background.

In a Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy B Hughes: I slightly resent liking this book as much as I did, as it was one of those shamelessly manipulative publisher-retailer pushes that wound up putting the (slightly overpriced) paperback at every single till in the country. That said, it is really is a terrific noir novel. You know how it is going to end; you can feel everything unravel - and that rising sense of anxiety, so dreadful is reality, is glorious in fiction.

After Midnight (1969) by Helen Nielsen: A classic detective story with a strapping young lawyer defending a young woman accused of murder. Did she do it? (Probably not.) But which of the other many, many shady characters did? (So many possibilities!) It plays out exactly as you’d expect, but Nielsen has that wonderful gift of bringing secondary characters to life in a few short sentences, making this a very enjoyable romp with a compelling cast of rogues and weirdos.

The Birthday Present (2009) by Barbara Vine: Absolutely gloriously trashy thriller about the accidental death of an MP’s mistress and the inexorable, slow-burning fallout. Slightly humorous, slightly noirish. Slightly, I daresay, nostalgic: imagine having to explain that ‘back in the day, an affair was deemed the sort of thing that would force a politician to resign’.

Books that think about the future, and generally find it to be something we should worry about

Our Wives Under the Sea (2022) by Julia Armfield: The Kitschies’ debut winner, which should say something about how I felt about it. A slow-burning, but oddly too-short, atmospheric, Gothic, disturbing, compelling thriller about a woman who goes too deep and pays the price - largely as narrated by her long-suffering wife. My fellow judge, Molly Tanzer, made a point about how this is Lovecraftian, but in a way that Lovecraft himself never would’ve considered (or, frankly, been capable of writing). Certainly in the sheer terror of the unknown captured in these pages, there’s something damply horrific that HPL could only have aspired to.

Appliance (2022) by J.O. Morgan: One I’ve written about elsewhere, and recently. This is a well-considered, intelligent, modern version of a ‘fix-up’ novel, based on interconnected short stories each giving a different perspective on a science fictional technology.

The Coral Bones (2022) by E.J. Swift: With Osiris, Swift was well ahead of the curve in using science fiction to explore the ramifications of climate change. In The Coral Bones, we see a new (authorial) transition: the story is essentially predicated on climate change, and is now about adaptation. Scientifically, politically, socially, and emotionally - what do we need to become to survive what we’ve done to the planet? It is linked backwards in time to other survivors (adaptors), and, somehow gives the reader a sense of optimism, without ever veering into false comfort or over-promising.

The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer: Alongside my buddy, I read the heck out of this book. And it is a heck of a book to read the heck out of. I’m still actually mulling it over quite a bit. What the VanderMeers did was impose their own fascinating editorial vision on a massive and sprawling genre. They did so openly and rather discursively - it is a book where the editorial matter might just be the best part. This lens is the book’s strength: because of it, I read stories I never would’ve encountered elsewhere, and broadened my view of the genre. That said, I’m already a very well-read SF reader, and one that grew up on far more conventional anthologies (The Year’s Best SF, The Hugo and Nebula Winners, More Hugo Winners, Hugos 4 All, Harlan Ellison’s Big Book of Harlan Ellison, etc). I think this book was particularly valuable to me as it challenged (and actually subverted) my mainstream understanding of the genre.

The Immortal King Rao (2022) by Vauhini Vara: I was very excited for this book to come out, and it didn’t disappoint. Vara’s debut novel is a nearish-future SF epic about the life and rise of an all-powerful tech oligarch (the titular King Rao), his impact on the world, and - especially - what it means for his daughter Athena. Definitely kinda cyberpunkish (at least, in the future it speculates), this actually reminds me more of Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon - if written in a more literary, sensitive, and post-colonial way. Classic science fiction is all about rewarding raw intelligence and manly ambition; this book examines that precept through a far more thoughtful lens.

Books for people that like books with dragons or elves in them

The Queen’s Assassin (2022) by James Barclay: This is just old school. A stand-alone epic fantasy with a smart, sassy heroine who gets into all sorts of trouble. There’s political intrigue, dark magic, big bads, and - all in all - a great deal of fun. (There’s a major plague-related subplot that, I think (somewhat conspiratorially), may have contributed to this book getting less attention than it deserved. But it isn’t a ‘Covid book’ and that shouldn’t put you off of it.)

The Lightning Thief (2005) by Rick Riordan: This was on the shelf in the cottage we stayed in on holiday, so, sure, why not? And I get it. It is phenomenon-worthy. I was rereading Henry Jenkins recently, and you can see why Percy Jackson’s world hits all the right notes to create a ‘fandom’ - and a participatory one. It is an immersive, ‘invitational’ world, with a handy self-sorting classifciation system and hints at a big, inclusive magical universe. Good fun.

Aching God (2018) by Mike Shel: I mean, this is D&D fiction, and, as I wrote about it before, you can hear the clatter of dice. That said: awesome. I would play the HELL out of this campaign. I think what’s most impressive is the pacing. The book has all the classic monster-fights and dungeon crawls that you want, but also fills it out with political intrigue, team-building exercises, and ‘role playing opportunities’ that not only keep up the tension, but really bring the characters to life.

The Last Blade Priest (2022) by W.P. Wiles: The Kitschies’ winner last year, and a well-deserved one. It is a fresh, surprising take on a classic epic fantasy structure. There’s a greedy empire! Old gods! Sinister magical powers! Scary demon creatures! Elves! All of that. And yet, none of those are what you expect. I’ve referred to this, somewhat cheekily, as Joe Abercrombie x KJ Parker, and I’m standing by it. It is revisionist and subversive and extremely smart, but also appreicative and loving of its high fantasy roots. I’m extremely excited about the sequel.

Fourth Wing (2023) by Rebecca Yarros: Perhaps my most controversial pick, and there’s a section of the fantasy-reading populace that will now discount all of my other selections and block this email address. I picked up this book in Belfast, on the way back from a conference, and read it in one extended flight-and-tube-journey sitting. It is utterly and entirely bingeworthy and I stand by that. Lethal magic school plus beautiful people bonking plus dragons plus hand-wavey politics. It is a box ticking exercise for massively enjoyable tropes. I get the criticisms. It makes absolutely no sense, and if you poke at any part of the plot or world, the whole thing falls apart. But also, who cares? It is pure entertainment, and it made me happy.

Books where people mash their squishy bits together and then live happily ever after

Good Girl Complex (2022) by Elle Kennedy: Pretty rich girl, boy from the wrong side of the tracks, small town. Steamy, bantery, and probably better than it should be. Kennedy is very good in the ‘New Adult’ space (basically, if you want romances featuring beautiful-but-haunted-by-their-mistakes early-20-somethings rather than beautiful-but-haunted-by-their-mistakes late-20-somethings).

The Flatshare (2019) by Beth O’Leary: I came to this one late, but it really is very good. I think O’Leary does two things very well. First, she slightly updates the Bridget Jones-esque ‘British disaster girl’ trope. She’s still recognisable, but less self-destructive and annoying. Second, she has absolutely distinct POV characters. A lot (read: most) romances have two interchangeably-written characters. The Flatshare really captures two different voices, which makes the characters more interesting, and more fun. It is (a trite phrase) ‘well-written’.

The Do-Over (2022) by Lynn Painter: I really, really dislike time-loop romances, but somehow this YA one worked for me. Anything that makes me reconsider a long-held grudge gets a say here.

The Love Wager (2023) by Lynn Painter: Building on the above: The Love Wager is nothing particularly new, but it does the ‘fake dating’ trope well. The characters aren’t annoying, the plot is obvious-but-charming, and the whole thing is easily enjoyable without feeling too paint-by-numbers. If I seem rather jaded by romance books, blame the RITA reading. I have read a lot of tropes-done-badly this year, so it is a genuine pleasure to read a book where the author gets it all right.

Books that have as many pictures as words (if not more)

Giant Days (2015-2019) by John Allison: At some point during 2022, Allison and BOOM! Studios were like ‘hey, let’s do this’ and Kickstarted a complete run of this glorious webcomic-turned-comic. (I honestly wish more webcomics would do this [or, if they did, I knew about it].) Some whiskey was involved, but definitely backing happened. Cut to the middle of 2023, and a BIG ASS BOX shows up with, indeed, the complete run of this gorgeous, glorious, goofy comic about a group of friends and their university experience. It is somehow both very touching and very silly: they live in a magical, ridiculous world and do bonkers things. I understand, rationally, how irrational their universe is. But that doesn’t stop me from loving each and every character with all my heart.

The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott (2020) and It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth (2022) by Zoe Thorogood: I’ve written about both of these in other places. Cruelly, I think what surprises me most about this pair of achingly-beautiful books is that they’re both written in sub-genres I really dislike. I find most graphic novel memoirs to be exhausting and ‘art about artists’ to be self-indulgent. There, I’ve said it. But, y’know what? That’s why we read new things, because occasionally you find some absolute bangers hiding in genres you otherwise shun.

Books with people in search of themselves

Moonraker’s Bride (1973) by Madeleine Brent: Brent (aka Peter ‘Modesty Blaise’ O’Donnell) is one of my favourite comfort reads. They’re all romantic thrillers about young women who grow up in Exotic Locations and wind up meeting mysterious and attractive men while inadvertently getting entangled in a treasure hunt/international conspiracy/murderous plot. They’re deeply problematic, on many levels, but they’re also, well… fun. In Moonraker, the Exotic Location is rural China, and Lucy, our lost-little-white-girl, saves the lives of multiple adventurers, returns to England, and discovers she’s an heiress. The surrounding cast are entertainingly Dickensian, but Lucy herself is dry and capable, and makes for a consistent ‘straight man’ while everyone else wibbles around her.

Heat (2006) by Bill Buford: I first read Buford when he was taking a year off to become a football hooligan. Now, he’s taking another year off to work in restaurants. When does he work? What are his advances like!? Heat is very good fun. Buford begins as a cocky home cook and then has the crap beaten out of him as soon as he faces the real cooking that takes place in restaurant. Broken, and then reborn, he goes on a journey around the world, following his passion across restaurants, butchers and farms, to learn more about what separates the great from the good. It is funny and sweet, and filled with catchy lines. (I say ‘carrots don’t want to be cubes!’ about six times a week.)

The Soul of Baseball (2007) by Joe Posnanski: Another one that I wrote about recently. Fabulous book. Still makes me cry.

Books that will weird you out, but hopefully in a good way

Waiting for Ted (2022) by Marieke Bigg: A housewife/influencer/deeply unhappy woman waits for her husband to come home. And waits. And waits. While she waits, she ponders how, exactly, her marriage got to this point… Part existential diatribe and part domestic noir, this is a very strange and unhappy book. Great stuff.

CCRU Writings: 1997-2003 (2017): At some point I’m going to write up my meandering throughts on the uniquely British subspecies of cyberoccultism, and, obviously, the ‘work’ of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit will be central to that. The whole thing feels like a batshit elongated in-joke, with essay after essay trying to unpick exactly how when Lemurian occultists reprogrammed our reality. Plus a comprehensive index of numerologically-organised demons. Not exactly Blade Runner, is it? It is perhaps most impressive purely as a thing that happened. You gawk at the scale and effort of the project, even if you’re not sure why, exactly, it happened. Like an enormous ball of twine.

The Hollows (2022) by Daniel Church: I’m a simple man with simple pleasures, and sometimes I want to read a book about a small town that gets snowed in and attacked by monsters. This should be a Netflix series.

Our Share of Night (2022) by Mariana Enriquez: Another Kitschies finalist - an epic, multi-generational horror novel set in Argentina, and featuring a truly nasty demonic entity. Enriquez’s dark forces take a Lovecraftian approach (recurring theme?): they simply are and don’t particularly care one way or another about humanity. In that sense, they’re more terrifying than the beastie from It, who clearly has nothing better to do than obsess over the sex fantasies of adolescents. The gap in ‘motivation’ is filled by, well, bad people - Our Share of Night is not subtle in demonstrating how human beings can be far, far nastier than otherworldly entities.

The Book of the Most Precious Substance (2022) by Sara Gran: I never read The Club Dumas, but I did see The Ninth Gate. Twice! In Croatia, of all places. For a little while, the only words I knew of the language were ‘BLUE EYES’ as Depp says that a few times, for no apparent reason. (The movie, in a nutshell is, ‘for no apparent reason’.) Anyway, this is a bit like that, except better. (‘That’ being The Ninth Gate - again, I can’t comment on The Club Dumas.) There’s a mysterious occult book and a loose community of book collectors and dealers that are out to get it. There’s a lot of money involved, and also magical power. It is an entertaining scavenger hunt, as our sassy, down-on-her-heels book dealer travels around the world in search of the ultimate MacGuffin. OR IS IT?!?!?!?!

Have a very happy new year, and thanks for sticking with me across the latest platform hop.

Have you set any challenges for yourself for your 2024 reading? If so, please share.

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