Welcome to my 2023 review of books. Thanks to a broken leg, I read one hundred and ten books this year, surpassing all my previous records, which makes choosing the best reads of the year even harder! Some of the trends which pleased me this year were:
- more choice of brilliant UK books for younger readers (MG) which are a joy to read at any age,
- exciting crime/ whodunnit books for young adult readers,
- general fiction writers moving into the speculative arena – so don’t skip the sci/fi fantasy category! There are people in there who will surprise you…
1. The Chain by Adrian McKinty I read an enormous number of books in this category in 2023, and this was my favourite. The premise is brilliant – a child is kidnapped and the mother receives a ransom note; she has to find a heap of money AND she has to kidnap someone else’s child. She cannot release that child until their ransom has been paid. This is the chain which you cannot break. You will not be able to stop reading this when you start. It is soooo clever. As soon as I’d finished it, I bought The Island, by the same author, and was a little disappointed. I mean it’s pacey and suspenseful but it felt a bit forced at times and the writing was nowhere near as good as in The Chain.
2. A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz – Last year I chose Anthony Horowitz’s Moonflower Murders as one of my top reads; this year I read all four of his Hawthorne & Horowitz series, where the conceit is Horowitz putting himself in the books as a Dr Watson type figure to his Hawthorne detective. Really adored this comical fusion of fiction and reality, with clever, twisty, fast paced plots to boot. My favourite was probably book four – A Line to Kill, where Horowitz himself is the prime suspect, but if you are going to try these, start with book one – The Word is Murder.
3. Last devil to die by Richard Osman I continue to enjoy Richard Osman’s new incarnation as a crime writer, even to the point of forgiving him for dominating the world of publishing. (Although I do have to say that, even though his books are good, they’re really not so good that they demand quite this level of hype). On the subject of celebrity writers of detective fiction, I read two Robert Galbraith books this year, and it’s only because they are so flipping long that one of them –Ink Black Heart – spilt over into this year. (no pun intended). And I really hated that one so I put off buying the new one – The Running Grave for quite some time. When I finally succumbed, I felt she’d redeemed herself a bit, but oh golly, even famous writers need to be edited sometime. You don’t need 1,000 pages to tell a bit of detective fiction, you really don’t.
4. Elevator Pitch by Linwood Barclay. Continuing with my big find of 2021, Linwood Barclay. I read nine more of his books this year and it’s hard to choose the best one, but Elevator Pitch wins it, mostly because it’s a bit close to the bone! It starts with a screenwriter trying to pitch his script to a movie hotshot (in an elevator, as per usual. If I was a person of importance, I think I would avoid them). The elevator, however, plunges to the ground, and thereafter, elevators all over New York begin to fail. It’s probably not a great book if you suffer from vertigo, but if you like to be kept guessing, this one’s for you.
I always look forward the new Jane Harper, and this year’s offering Exiles would have probably been in my top reads, but having read it so close to a Linwood Barclay with a similar plot and setting (and which I preferred) it ended up unmemorable and a bit conflated with the LB. Or maybe that’s my brain getting old.
5. Midwives by Chris Bonhjalian. this was published in 1998, but it’s new to me, and I really enjoyed it. (Actually glad I didn’t read it when it came out as it centres around a home birth that went wrong! Can read it now, looking back on my own two home births with fond memories). Set in the USA where the role of midwifery is far more restricted and birth is highly medicalised, the book tells the story of an experienced lay midwife who attends a home birth where things go wrong, and the subsequent ramifications for herself and her family.
6. The Lighthouse Witches by CJ Cooke. Why have I not discovered CJ Cooke before? Loved this gothic tale set on a Scottish island where children are disappearing, and where belief in the supernatural is strong. Twenty years ago, Liv moved to the island with her three daughters. Within months, only daughter Luna is left. And today, Luna is called to a hospital where one of her sisters has turned up, the same age as when she disappeared. Also enjoyed The Ghost Woods by the same author, set in one of those horrible institutions of the 50s and 60s where unwed and pregnant women were sent to give birth. Harrowing and unputdownable. 2024 is the year of catching up her back catalogue!
7. Hare house by Sally Hinchcliffe. Another modern tale of witchcraft set in a remote area of Scotland, but the author keeps us firmly in the head of the London school teacher and thus we are always kept doubting. Loved the claustrophobic feel of this book and the beautiful descriptive writing.
8. Holly by Stephen King. I only read two Stephen Kings this year – beginning to deplete the back catalogue – but I’m finding that his newest books are always best. Holly was published this year and features Holly Gibney from the Finders Keepers detective agency – a brilliant series which began with Mr Mercedes back in 2015. Holly is reluctant to take on the case of a missing daughter, but inevitably does and it leads her to some really gory places. King at his best, combining loveable believable characters with mind blowing horror. (The other Stephen King I read this year was Salems Lot. Published in 1975, his second after Carrie, it’s a take on vampires in Maine. Chilling but brilliant.)
Best sci fi/ fantasy
9. The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley. Most time slip/ alternative future books involve changing First or Second World War events, but this book changes history so that Napoleon defeated us. Joe lives in London, a British slave, but he has flashes of a world where English is spoken in England and not French. He receives a postcard of a lighthouse Eilean Mor, in the Outer Hebrides – built just six months ago, but that postcard has been held for him at the sorting office for 91 years. Honestly this book is such a great read, interesting characters, an exciting but thoughtful plot.
10. The Memory of Animals by Clare Fuller. Here is a well known general fiction writer moving into speculative fiction, although to my mind her first book – Our Endless Numbered Days – was a preparation for The Memory of Animals. A pandemic is sweeping the world, and when Neffy registers for an experimental vaccine trial in London, she and the other volunteers are thus isolated as the rest of London disintegrates. They turn to Leon, who before the pandemic had been working on a controversial technology that allows users to revisit their memories. Clare Fuller is the master of the claustrophobic novel – don’t know if this is a genre, but if it isn’t, maybe it should be.
11. The space between us by Doug Johnstone. Doug is best known for his short pacey thrillers – I’ve cited him in my top ten lists before, so it was interesting to read a fully committed Sci-Fi novel. It’s set in Portobello, and very much in our world, but it’s a first contact novel, and his exploration of this new species and how they intersect with ours is tender and thought provoking.
Other examples of new writers moving into speculative from this year’s reading – Cassandra Complex by Holly Smale, who up till now is known as the author of the Teen Series Geek Girl. I’d also like to mention Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall which is a near future dystopian imagining set in the Lake District, and which stayed with me for a long time after I’d finished.
Best general contemporary fiction
12. Yellow face by RF Huang. Unless you’ve avoided all bookshops in 2023, you will have seen this distinctive cover piled high. Every writer I know who has read this, has loved it. It’s a funny, tense, at times painful look at cultural appropriation and diversity as seen through the eyes of the publishing industry. A book for our times.
13. Lessons in chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. Another book which was hard to avoid this year, and its recognition is well deserved. A debut novel about a woman scientist in the early 1960s, and being driven out of the field of chemistry by prejudice, she uses her chemistry skills as a TV chef and quietly subverts her female audience. (I’m aware that this somewhat bland description doesn’t do justice to this funny, unexpected, vibrant book).
14. The Dance tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. To date, KMH mostly wrote for younger readers, then YA, but her writing for adults is brilliant. The Mercies was one of my top reads in 2020, a dark story of witch persecution in 1600s Norway. The Dance Tree, her second book for adults, is an even darker and more disturbing read, set in 16th century France, around a true mysterious event in Strasbourg, where hundreds of people danced themselves to death. However one of the main themes is miscarriage and it moved me to tears, even though this is not something I’ve experienced myself.
15. Amy and Lan by Sadie Jones. Although the two protagonists are young children – and the voices felt so authentic – it is definitely a book for adults, as we follow their families’ attempts to live a self-sufficient, communal life in rural England. It’s such a brilliant way of narrating it, as the kids have no idea what is really going on and we the readers are to decipher the ineptitude, the affairs, the neglect, and to wonder how this experiment will end.
Best Young Adult Fiction
16. One of us is lying by Karen McManus. I am really enjoying the growing detective/thriller genre for young adults, and this one is worth reading at any age. Five protagonists (and it’s a measure of the brilliant writing that we are never confused about who we’re with) are all in detention together when one of them drops dead, seemingly murdered. Which one did it? McManus has written at least two sequels, which I’ve yet to read, but I did re-read A good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson – a best read in 2019 plus the two sequels – Good Girl, Bad Blood and As Good as Dead, and all I can say is, bring it on! It’s so good to see the way these authors create teenage protagonists with enough agency to solve murder mysteries.
17. Friend Me by Sheila Averbuch. Loved this clever, twisty tech thriller about Roisin who has moved from Ireland to Massachusetts and is facing bullying in person and on social media, until she makes a new online friend… So clever, unputdownable.
Best Middle Grade Fiction
Where to start? So many brilliant books; funny, dark, fantasy, contemporary, historical….. I discovered two new authors this year (new to me, anyway) whose books I am now devouring – Ross Montgomery writes heartwarming, funny books, (check out Spellstone or The Midnight Guardians) Jenny Valentine has memorable characters and beautiful descriptions (try A girl called Joy or Finding Violet Park) but my two favourites were both fantastical, set in a slightly alternative Scotland:
18 The Dark and Dangerous Gifts of Delores McKenzie by Yvonne Banham. Dark magic and evil protagonists set on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and various spooky locations nearby, including a very spooky opener on the causeway to Cramond Island.
19 Haarville by Justin Davies Funny and yet slightly dark and very entertaining romp set in a town not unlike the East Neuk of Fife, with lots of gruesome detail guaranteed to delight younger readers.
Best book I should have read some time ago
20 Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This has been on my to-read pile for some time, and finally, in the early weeks of the broken leg, bed bound and slightly bored, I devoured it. Wish I had read it before! It amazes me that I wanted to continue reading such an enormous book when I didn’t even like the protagonist, but that is the power of this exquisite writing. What it is like to be a Nigerian living in USA.
Best Non Fiction
21 Maggie & Me by Damian Barr. Romped through this poignant autobiography, about growing up gay under Thatcher, which I bought after seeing him at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year. He appeared with Catherine Taylor who was promoting her own autobiography The Stirrings: A Memoir in Northern Time, which was equally entrancing. If you remember the Thatcher years, or even if you don’t, there will be plenty to enjoy in both these books.
22 What just happened? Dispatches from Turbulent Times by Marina Hyde. Marina Hyde is one of my favourite columnists, incredibly funny, very observant. This book brings together several years of columns in a coherent form, and even though I remembered many if not all of the pieces, it was great to read them again and remember what we were all thinking on the day we discovered we were leaving the UK/ had yet another prime minister, etc, etc.
Best Audible Books
A new venture for me, listening to books, having realised towards the end of 2022, that if I only listen to non-fiction, it works for me (Fiction is hopeless, I lose the place and then miss vital plot points. I can happily doze off on a bus listening to an audible book). So here are the best ones I heard this year.
23 The Christmas Chronicles: Notes, Stories and 100 Essential Recipes for Midwinter by Nigel Slater. I know it sounds weird listening to a cookbook, but bear with me. His dulcet tones were lovely on the ear, and to hear his descriptions of snow, food, candles, childhood…. it was great. In fact afterwards I got the physical book as well, because although you do get a PDF for the recipes, this is a book I will want to savour every year. I started listening early October and finished early November, in time to be inspired to make my own Christmas cake, mincemeat AND Christmas pudding.
24 Windswept and Interesting: My Autobiography by Billy Connolly. The great thing about Billy Connolly is even if you’ve heard the joke before – more than once – it still delights. I think the fact that he often ends up laughing helplessly before the punchline somehow adds to the pleasure – with other comedians it would just be annoying. I’m not promising a bundle of laughs, and some of his childhood would make you want to weep, but it’s a good listen.
25 Black Ops and Beaver Bombing: Adventures with Britain’s Wild Mammals by Fiona Mathews and Tim Kendall. Written by two passionate researchers (who are brilliant at communicating their passion) this is a detailed account of what is happening to Britain’s wild mammals, and it’s pretty depressing overall, but also full of interesting stuff. It was slightly spoilt for me by the narrator not bothering to check how to pronounce many of the words (capercaillie, Abernethy, Boscastle – those in particular jumped out at me, but there were many others). Despite that, it’s still worth a listen/read.
So that’s it! A good year for books, a bad year for legs. Hoping 2024 might be different, and in fact I’m already in February as I finish writing this AND way behind on my Goodreads challenge, so maybe it will be. Right I’m off to the gym to work on the old ligaments…
(Photo taken in Toppings Bookshop, Edinburgh)