Thursday 4 January 2024

Favourite Reads of 2023

At the end of every year, we ask readers to submit a micro-review of a favourite book they've read in the last twelve months. The book can be from any time or genre - the only qualification is that it has to be a book the reader found particularly memorable, striking or enjoyable. Here are the responses for 2023. Everybody's Reviewing wishes all its readers a happy new year of reading in 2024!

Kirsten Arcadio

The Running Grave, by Robert Galbraith: Not normally a fan of long, overly wordy novels, I've made an exception this year for Robert Galbraith's The Running Grave. This was a highly enjoyable, complex thriller with terrifying yet believable cult leaders and a damming insight into the psychological inner workings of its followers. If you think you'll never get sucked into a cult, think again. 

Joe Bedford

Local Fires, by Joshua Jones: In this collection of interconnected short stories, Jones’s treatment of his hometown (Llanelli, Wales) is by turns sensitive, evocative and ultimately mournful for a place, and a moment, which is fragile enough to vanish forever. In that sense, its resonance carries far beyond the borders of Llanelli, into those quiet parts of ourselves which know that what once was – our people and our places – can never be again.  

Kathleen Bell

Favourite non-fiction book: Dinner with Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age, by Daisy Hay: I delved delightedly into Dinner with Joseph Johnson, which is centred on the remarkable career of one eighteenth-century bookseller and publisher (the two roles overlapped). Every few pages I would learn something new whether about the evolution of children’s literature, the risks of printing or selling radical pamphlets, or the tricky class status of booksellers. Many famous people knew and were published by Joseph Johnson; he employed Mary Wollstonecroft as a full-time writer while William Blake was one of his engravers. But there are numerous other characters outlined in this history who deserve to be just as well known.

Favourite fiction: Maud Martha, by Gwendolyn Brooks, was first published in 1953 but I only came across it this year. It’s the shortest novel I read this year and many of the chapters are only one or two pages long but I spun out the reading for weeks, often relishing a single chapter at a time. As might be expected, Gwendolyn Brooks has a poet’s skill with language as well as a sharp observation, here turned towards the details of African-American life. Maud Martha - perhaps drawing on Brooks’s own experience - is full of dreams, hopes and ambition even as she contends with grating humiliations from people who see her only in terms of her social class and darker skin colour. I started reading this hoping to gain insights into Brooks’s poetry, which it certainly provided, but this is a great and perceptive novel in its own right.

Laurie Cusack

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu: Cosmic Rentokil: Complete Experts in Galactic Pest Control – Distance, not a problem! Competitive … oh, yes! Gallows humour aside − Cixin Liu’s mighty doorstoppers The Three-Body Trilogy blew me away! Frenzied page turning. Unputdownable. I could hear my head squeaking. Scared? we should be ...

Sam Dawson

11.22.63, by Stephen King: Somewhere, out in the netherworld of possibility, a story exists about a time-traveller stopping the assassination of JFK on the 22nd of November 1963. Thankfully, 11.22.63 by Stephen King is a whole lot more. 11.22.63 is a time capsule, a love story, an ode to the uncanny. At over 700 pages, it somehow never outstays its welcome. Brilliant! 

Kristy Diaz

Penance, by Eliza Clark: Examining both the morally ambiguous explosion of society's fascination with true crime and the esoteric world of 2010s Tumblr culture, this ambitious novel brings you to a northern seaside town with a dark history and a horrifying murder case—a thrilling glimpse inside the mind of the 'extremely online' teenage girl. 

Rosa Fernandez

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl's Bookby Naja Marie Aidt (translated by Denise Newman): This is a moving, poetic, tragic, beautiful text; an incredible document of the absolutely unthinkable. A masterclass in writing about grief, one you stay up to finish, it's that good. The resilience to make art out of awfulness is a real feat and this is a great demonstration of that.

Mellissa Flowerdew-Clarke

You Let Me In, by Camilla Bruce, reads like a horrific fairytale. It entwines folklore with reality, slipping between the two to create a surreal world where dark sexual awakenings, abuse, and murder flit between the real and unreal. Sinister, cruel, and totally enthralling, it encapsulates the complexity of trauma, and how the escapism we construct for ourselves can be equally as horrifying as what it is we’re trying to forget.

Neil Fulwood

Erotic Vagrancy: Everything about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, by Roger Lewis: Assiduous, acerbic, scabrous, highbrow, lowbrow and all the brows in between, Erotic Vagrancy swings from passages of blazingly passionate declamation to grumpy-old-man irascibility. It’s a work that simultaneously wants to hymn a certain period in pop culture and start a fight with the modern age. Unlike any other biography or film-related title out there, it is easily the book of the year.

Beth Gaylard

The Giver of Stars, by Jojo Moyes: Set between two world wars in the Appalachian Mountains, this is the story of how a dedication to enabling readers in remote areas leads to near disaster for Margery and Alice, two women who definitely don't fit the expected feminine mould. Together with other local misfits they form an intrepid band of librarians, travelling into the hills to deliver books to outlying homesteads, a mission that is not always well received at home. The story entwines two heartrending love stories, a childbirth scene that will have you on the edge of your seat, and a murder mystery to solve. Oh yes, and lots of horses. The horses are amazing. 

Timothy Grayson

The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf: A Faustian novella from 1842. To prevent her village from starving, a woman makes a pact with a mysterious stranger for his assistance (in exchange for something priceless), but when the village goes back on their word, something terrible awaits them all. My goodness, this was dark. Horrifying, but excellent.

And also ...

For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain, by Victoria Mackenzie: A magnificent book. It brings fresh eyes and vitality to the lives of two real, medieval women of faith: Margery Kempe, and the anchoress Julian of Norwich. It is a work of fiction, but takes its inspiration from The Book of Margery Kempe (the first autobiography written in English by a man or woman) and Julian's Revelations of Divine Love (the earliest surviving book in English written by a woman). Interestingly, these women did meet in real life, and the latter part of the book deftly imagines their conversation. At times, I found myself moved beyond words, as if it was speaking to my soul. It may be classed as fiction, but the author has worked wonders here; it's almost as if she's assisted Margery and Julian in creating a new holy book. Outstanding. 

Gus Gresham

Murphy, by Samuel Beckett: I challenge anybody to best the humour and profundity of the opening line: 'The sun shone, having no alternative …' From this point on, Murphy's life is a tragedy shrouded in an absurdist daymare.

David John Griffin

The Barnum Museum, by Steven Milhauser: With its high-quality prose and the author's extraordinary imagination showing through the words, I was repeatedly blown away (and, should I be honest, slightly envious of his wonderful writing skills!).

Jack Peachey

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, presents a dystopia that is outwardly and inwardly repulsive in character, yet one that is shown with a verisimilitude I've scarcely seen in the genre; a naturalistic state with comprehensive worldbuilding. A challenging novel delivered with evocative prose, it far surpasses its contemporaries in creating a society that is at once alien and disconcertingly real. 

Karen Rust

Stonemouth, by Iain Banks: Set in the fictional Scottish coastal town of Stonemouth, we meet twenty-five-year-old Stu standing on the edge of what sounds like the Firth of Forth Bridge. He's back home for the first time in five years for the funeral of the patriarch of one of the towns' two gangster families - a family he was about to join, until a drunken indiscretion led to them trying to kill him, and a hasty exit on a goods train. Set over a few days, this is a masterclass in how to keep the reader hooked and drip feed the back story in until everything makes sense. Funny, cool and sometimes violent, we follow Stu as he navigates old school friends, the family who wanted him dead, and the woman he lost in his escape to London. An edgy and fun read, I could picture it in my head as a Trainspotting-style film, and have since found out it's been dramatised by the BBC, so will be checking it out on iPlayer! 

Teika Marija Smits

The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker: At over 700 pages long, it took me a long time to make my way through this book, but I know I’ve been profoundly changed by reading and reflecting on Booker’s theories. Not only has The Seven Basic Plots greatly enhanced my knowledge of literature, it has also deepened my understanding of how humans make sense of the world, and their lives, through stories. And as a fan of the theories of Carl Jung I appreciate the way Booker approached storytelling through a Jungian lens. To my mind, this is an essential read for everyone. After all, we are all the authors of at least one story - the story of our life.

Jonathan Taylor

What to Do Next, by Sue Dymoke: Brilliant author and educator Sue Dymoke died in 2023. This is her last collection of poems, and includes a beautiful preface by her partner, David Belbin. The book is a poignant memorial, then, but it is also a joyful celebration of life, of travel, of childhood, of science, of allotments, of what to do next.  

Maria Taylor

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It’s an evocative and stirring narrative of two sisters both before and during the brutal Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-70. The novel vividly depicts the emotional truth of their lives.

Miranda Taylor

Fruits Basket, by Natsuki Takaya, follows Honda Tohru, a young girl who has lived her life in solitude after losing her parents and her house. She encounters a family who takes care of her - however, the family is not as it seems, as they can change into animals of the zodiac. The story is a sad one yet also hopeful.

Rosalind Taylor

The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System, by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, follows Shen Yuan, who reincarnates in a very badly-written novel as the abusive teacher of the protagonist, Shen Qingqui, whose fate is to die at the end at the hands of the protagonist. Scum Villain's Self-Saving System is very funny and enjoyable to read. I liked reading about the characters and how they change. 

Paul Taylor-McCartney

Prophet Song, by Paul Lynch: This is a visceral, heart-wrenching story of one woman's fight to keep her family together as her country descends into a totalitarian nightmare. Urgent and timely dystopian fiction that will live long in the memory.

Harry Whitehead

In the Eye of the Wild, by Nastassja Martin: In this fierce, dark and utterly unique memoir, French anthropologist Martin is attacked by (and attacks!) a huge bear in the Kamchatka wilderness, an event the shaman of the people she’s been studying had long warned her was coming. Unable to rationalise the psychological fallout from her injuries back in France, she returns to Siberia to embody the bear/human she’s become.  

Lee Wright

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, by Kate Beaton, is a graphic memoir of a young woman’s experiences working in the oil sands in Alberta. Kate Beaton grapples with the morality of the oil industry, faces harassment and sexual violence while working in an overwhelmingly male work force, reflects on environmental degradation, homesickness, loneliness, the health risks caused by the oil sands, and the destruction of the lands of the First Nations. 

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