My best reads of 2023
Throughout December, I Iook forward to hearing about everyone’s favourite books of the year. Looking back on my own reading notes for 2023, I notice that compared to recent years I’ve read books published relatively recently. I think this is a good indication that this has been a stellar period for my kind of fiction. Here are several I can thoroughly recommend – the books that have stayed with me:
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidsey (Europa Editions, 2021)
One of my first reads of the year dealt with grim subject matter. Remote Sympathy is set in World War 2 in the environs of the Buchenwald concentration camp. We see the camp from the perimeter, so to speak, as seen by the families of the SS German officers who operated the camp. It details how one woman in particular, Frau Greta Hahn, fails to grasp the truth that lies behind that perimeter fence. That is, until she becomes increasingly dependent on an inmate, Lenard Weber, a former physician, who is allocated to the Hahn family as a servant. It’s a totally immersive novel, beautifully crafted.
Cuddy by Benjamin Myers (Bloomsbury Circus, 2023)
This is definitely one of my top novels of recent years. Cuddy won the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker. It’s an ambitious, experimental, epic novel, which spans from Lindisfarne in the 8th century to a present-day austerity Britain. Written in four parts, the novel is held together by the story of St Cuthbert (the titular Cuddy), a hermit and unofficial patron saint of the north of England.
Boy Parts by Eliza Clark (Influx, 2020)
Boy Parts had been on my TBR pile since it was published by Influx. But somehow it took me three years to get around to starting it. I found myself blown away by this dark comedy, which follows art photographer Irina as she persuades young men to model for her in explicit poses. Shocking, funny and engrossing, I could not put this book down.
His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet (Saraband, 2016)
After reading and loving Case Studies by Graeme Macrae Burnet, I decided I should go back and read his highly acclaimed earlier novel, His Bloody Project (shortlisted for the Man Booker 2016). I am partial to historical fiction, and this novel, set in 1869 in the Scottish Highlands, delivers a totally riveting and psychologically intense reading experience. The author portrays the malicious undercurrents in a small highland community – undercurrents that lead to murderous hatred.
Demon Copperhead by Kingsolver (Faber and Faber, 2022)
In Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver takes aim at the ongoing and tragic crisis of opioid addiction, in a modern retelling of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Winner of 2023 Women’s Prize and co-recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it’s a convincing novel with rich, believable characters. I admit I nearly bailed when the novel took a deep dive into American football culture, but I’m glad I persisted. Slightly too long, but an ambitious novel that achieves its aims.
In Ascension by Martin MacInnes (Atlantic, 2023)
An equally sprawling (in a good way) novel, In Ascension takes the reader from the thermal vents on the ocean floor to a space mission to the edge of the solar system investigating a suspected alien first-contact. The main character is marine biologist Dr Leigh Hasenboch who, as a child, found a temporary escape from her dysfunctional family by swimming outdoors. The story returns repeatedly to Leigh’s fraught relationship with her sister and parents. In Ascension was longlisted for the Booker Prize and has rightly gained a wide readership. An ambitious novel, gorgeous prose, heart-rending and absorbing, with an ending that works well for me.
Prophet Song by Paul Lynch (Oneworld, 2023)
Winner of this year’s Booker prize, Prophet Song is a dystopia set in Dublin. An authoritarian regime has come to power and is attempting to suppress rebel incursions. Paul Lynch asks an ages-old question: when do you know it’s time to leave? Or, to put it another way: why do some people leave it too late? The story is centred on Eilish Stack, mother of four, who is fending as best she can following the detention of her detective husband by the secret police. By association she comes under suspicion and loses her job as a scientist. Her elder son leaves Dublin to join the rebels, while she clings to old routines, reluctant to take help from her sister living in Canada. It’s good to see a dystopia winning the Booker!
Orbital by Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape, 2023)
Top marks for a succinct, beautifully written novel set on a space station orbiting earth. Six astronauts carry out their experiments while observing the earth with wonder. Time has little meaning on the space station, which orbits the earth 16 times in 24 hours. Samantha Harvey describes the ‘whipcrack of dawn’ that the astronauts experience time and time again each day. They observe their home planet where the boundaries between countries are invisible. Earth appears natural and beautiful. But the astronauts come to a startling realisation that the earth is not unspoilt. Human impact on the natural world is everywhere in evidence once they look for it. This short novel includes a simple but useful map, which shows the 16 orbits made by the astronauts in this one fictional day.
Julia by Sandra Newman (Granta, 2023)
How can any writer of speculative fiction resist this retelling of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written from the perspective of Julia? In Sandra Newman’s novel we see Julia as a reckless adventurer within the world of Oceania as she pursues sexual encounters which are not sanctioned. She becomes an agent for inner party member, O’Brian, setting honey traps and encouraging her victims to denounce Big Brother. We learn about Julia’s fascinating backstory, we revisit the rat scene in Room 101, and we are rewarded by Newman’s fascinating and satisfactory conclusion.
Currently on the bedside table:
The Deluge by Stephen Markley, which I am loving (though this is a long, long book), Hilary Mantel’s A Memoir of My Former Self, The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid, I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell.
While I am here, I am delighted that my essay on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published this year in Dead Ink’s Writing the Future, edited by Dan Coxon and Richard V. Hirst. You can buy it here direct from Dead Ink!
Also, I am interviewed for the Friends of the Earth podcast series Imagining Tomorrow, launched earlier this month. In this uplifting series, award-winning podcaster and author Emma Newman pieces together the roadmap to utopia by interviewing inventors, communities and science fiction authors.
Happy reading and listening, everyone!