Don’t for a minute assume that this is a list of the best books of 2023. I’m not nearly so well read as to attempt that, and this year I only read about 33 books anyway (plus lots of online longreads, as well as research for various projects). That’s well down on previous years and I promise that I’m now trying to lift my reading game! In looking back at the books I’ve read this year, I realise what a tosser I’ve become. If I don’t love a book right away, I’m usually not prepared to persevere. That’s probably something else I should work on.
This, therefore, is merely a partisan and imperfect overview of the books I enjoyed the most in 2023.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
Fiction, Irish, astonishingly exquisite. And mercifully short (it could accurately be described as novella).
The writing is so good that it seems simple, when in fact it took my breath away. Like those gymnasts at the Olympics, who make flying look easy.
In 2022, this book won the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Booker Prize.
As an aside, earlier this year I heard Keegan speak at the excellent Bendigo Writers Festival. She was prickly and funny and as sharp as a knife.
Desire: A Reckoning by Jessie Cole
This is Cole’s second memoir and I liked it even better than her first, Staying, which I enjoyed very much.
She’s an Australian writer, based in northern NSW but, in this memoir, she’s also a regular visitor to Melbourne.
Ostensibly about a love affair, but actually a real-time exploration of the lunacy, wonder and irrationality of what drives us.
As I said on Twittter (no, I can’t bring myself to call it X) this was one of those books that constantly caused me to pause in my reading, stare into space and think Yes, that’s exactly right but I’ve never thought of it that way!
Shy by Max Porter
This is Porter’s fourth novel and it is astounding. I’ve read two others of his – Grief is The Thing With Feathers and Lanny – and they are just as good, if not even better.
His prose is freewheeling, intense, poetic and gobsmackingly beautiful, and his books – all set in England – are insightful and thoughtful.
I truly think he’s one of the best writers I know. Shame he’s not an Aussie!
To Serve Them All My Days by RL Delderfield
This was recommended by one of my absolute favourite podcasts, called Backlisted, and the edition pictured is what I found in the local second-hand book shop.
Set in an England between WW1 and WW2, written in the 1970s, I simply couldn’t put it down.
Ostensibly about a teacher in a remote English boarding school, it’s really about love and life and education and what we should value. It’s marvellous, very readable and terribly moving.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
A fairytale brilliantly retold.
Perhaps you think the whole fairytale thing has been done to death but I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Novik uses the template to explore desire, anti-semitism, family dynamics, violence and the nuances of negotiation.
Beautiful and thoughtful and yet still an absolute page-turner. It’s possible I’m a teensy bit in love with the Winter King… In a similar vein, I also highly recommend Novik’s 2015 novel Uprooted.
Making Australian History by Anna Clark
Probably the perfect book about Australian history.
Clark’s approach is fascinating – in exploring how Australia’s history has been ‘written’, she exposes and interrogates the myths, biases and intentions of this country’s many histories.
Readable, insightful and one I’ll be returning to again and again.
I’ve also read some books about writing (The Novel Project was illuminating) and some terrific books in preparation for the writing projects I currently have on the go – more about those projects soon.
To my lovely readers, grateful thanks for making it all the way down to here. I wish you a very Happy New Year!