Review of the Year #3: 2023, Books of the Year!

I still award a score to all the books I read – recorded on my Reading List page. I score out of 10, including half points (so out of 20 really!). Those scores are only snapshots of course, and some books fade from your memory as others, which maybe scored lower initially, stay or grow. I read 122 books this year, of which I awarded 10/10 to 17 titles – that’s just over 14% – my usual amount, but due to good reading choices, an awful lot of titles got eight and above. I’m allowing myself 14 best books this year with a few runners up, and I’m including titles I reviewed for Shiny New Books. So here are the books that resonated the most with me this year, whatever their initial score, and I’ve had to leave some gooduns out too.

Most toxic relationship: My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley. The first book I read by Riley, won’t be my last. The story of Helen, ‘Hen’, as told by her daughter Bridget. It’s toxic for sure, but there is love there too – it’s the way that Bridget tells it, with a strong streak of very dark humour that had me up, down, chuckling or shocked and on the verge of tears throughout.

Best researched historical adventure: The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman, who is turning out to be a fine novelist indeed. Completely different to his first book, this Elizabethan adventure set in the world of the child theatre initially is superbly atmospheric with a young pairing at its heart to really care about.

Most jazzy: Viper’s Dream by Jake Lamar. A novel that features Thelonius Monk as a supporting character in one of its dual timelines, and the other invoking a Chester Himes feel, was always going to pique my interest, and this story of a young man who goes to NYC to play jazz but becomes a drug dealer in Harlem instead was the real deal.

Best SF that sent me down a rabbit hole: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Reading this modern classic for the first time was sublime, and naturally sent me off to watch Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker, that was inspired by it, and also to read Geoff Dyer’s tribute to Stalker, Zona.

Best memoir concept: The Sound of Being Human by Jude Rogers – I love memoirs that are more than just memoirs. Rogers picks twelve tracks that are formative for her and tells her life story, and celebrates her late father, but also looks at the psychology of music a little in how it makes us feel. A lovely book.

Best gangland thriller: Squeaky Clean by Callum McSorley. What a crime debut this was! It deserves all the plaudits that have come its way. A darkly comic gangland thriller set at a Glasgow car wash with a female detective named Ally McCoist! I loved it. Runner-up: Dry Cleaning by Trevor Mark Thomas.

Most on the edge: Liminal by Roland Schimmelpfennig – A late addition to my best of list, Schimmelpfennig’s second novel, translated wonderfully by Jamie Bulloch follows a disgraced cop trying to find out about a dead girl in Berlin’s underground club scene. The dreamy and hypnotic prose is truly edgy. Runner-up: Trespasses by Louise Kennedy – an edgy affair can only end in doom.

Best Nordic read: The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson – Jansson continues to delight. Runner-up: The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas

Best Bowie feature: David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine by Nicholas Royle – Royle’s lockdown book has an eclectic mix of essay/lecture, memoir, biography, surprise and more within its pages, packed full of literary, musical and cultural intertextural references to keep you on your toes. I did a Q&A with him too, which was huge fun.

Most perfect novella: Foster by Claire Keegan – Perfect indeed. Do read it if you haven’t already. Runner-up: A Little Luck by Claudia Piñeiro.

Best essays: Cary Grant’s Suit by Todd McEwen. McEwen writes wonderfully about the landmark movies in his life in this mixture of memoir and film crit. Great stuff – it’s funny too and it’ll make you want to watch Chinatown again for sure, and North by Northwest.

Best re-read: An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge. I re-read this one for the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week I hosted in November. On a second reading, I found it a lot more poignant than the first. One of my favourites by her.

Best spies: The IPCRESS File by Len Deighton. Harry Palmer just edges it from these ones… Runners-up: The Man in the Corduroy Suit by James Wolff; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré; London Rules by Mick Herron.

Best sense of place: Chourmo by Jean-Claude Izzo. Marseilles is a much a character in the second of Izzo’s trilogy as the people in it.

But which of these fourteen books was my ‘Book of the Year’ ?

It was very nearly Viper’s Dream, but for sheer atmosphere, air of mystery, and adventure, told with literary verve, a drumroll please for …

Have you read any of my choices?

Can you recommend some of yours to me….

14 thoughts on “Review of the Year #3: 2023, Books of the Year!

  1. Dark Puss says:

    I have read some of your nearly winners, but none of those you give an award to. As someone growing up in Edinburgh in the 1960s and 70s I knew the term Luckenbooth, so when a book with that title, by Jenni Fagan, caught my eye in my public library I borrowed it. Dark, exotic, hidden, abusive, violent and mysterious Edinburgh painted most plausably and in an intriguing style where chapters jump decades, characters and Flat numbers in the tenemant of the title. Highly recommended!

  2. Elle says:

    Ooooh, look at that! What excellent choices. Already on my radar but now even more so: The True Deceiver, Roadside Picnic, and the Bainbridge.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ll be so interested to see what you think of Roadside Picnic if you ever get to it – I think you’ll love it. The other two are wonderful also of course.

  3. Laura says:

    My Phantoms was acutely and insightfully grim! I think I preferred Riley’s previous novel First Love, but maybe just because I read it first – they cover very similar ground.

  4. A Life in Books says:

    A great reading year! Pleased to see Liminal made it on to your list and I’d second Dark Puss’s recommendation of Luckenbooth. I have the Osman on my TBR – looking forward to it!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The Osman was unlike any other historical novel I’ve read, so I hope you enjoy it. It had mystery to it and if you could imagine the TV series Taboo moved back from Dickensian to Elizabethan times, it had that feel. So well researched and just dripping with atmosphere. I shall be acquiring Luckenbooth. I thought I’d got it on the shelves but haven’t.

  5. Calmgrove says:

    Strugatsky, Jansson – yes, both wholly warranting high marks but each for different reasons. I’ve just read your review of The Ghost Theatre on SNB and, yes, I can see why it might be your top choice – I’ll keep an eye out for it!

    When I think back over the year three titles stick in my mind – Rebecca Kuang’s Babel, Jansson’s The True Deceiver and Le Guin’s The Birthday of the World. All three are very different but all very intense and thought-provoking.

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