I’ve been crazy busy since the start of the year and likely will be for another month or two yet, so my usually late posts may be even later. I’m temporarily covering for an extra team while its new head is being recruited and it makes for not a lot of downtime. It’ll pass though. On to my best of last year!
2022 was a bumper reading year, not least because of a decent length holiday in July involving several long train trips. I read a lot, 101 books in total, though that includes a fair few novellas and a small number that I abandoned part-way in.
For 2023 I’m changing tack. I’ve a few absolute chunksters I’d like to get stuck into: Anna Karenina; Ulysses; A Suitable Boy; The Books of Jacob and more. Each will probably take weeks so my reading count at end of 2023 is likely to be much lower, but quality rather than quantity really is the thing here.
One wrinkle with reading longer books is that more of them will be on kindle. Porting an 800 or 1,000+ page tome on public transport isn’t that great an experience; Moby Dick doesn’t easily fit in a pocket. It’s a shame as I do prefer hardcopy, but realistically most really long books just won’t get read in hardcopy.
Anyway, that’s the plan for this year. Here though is my best of the year just gone. My top choice of the year is at the end but otherwise these are in the order I read them.
Best book that shouldn’t really be on the list: The Gate of Angels, by Penelope Fitzgerald
I loved this, but then I’m not sure there’s any Fitzgerald’s I haven’t loved. I also read her At Freddie’s this year which I think is actually in many ways the better book, and should really be on the list instead of this one. This though won the prize for its mix of innocence and romance and as ever very dry humour. A gem.
Best Renaissance romance: Tell them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, by Matthias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell)
Of course it’s not really a romance in any meaningful sense at all. I just adore alliteration. Instead it’s another Enardian exploration of the gulfs between east and west and between people, here told through the lens of an imagined trip by Michelangelo to Constantinople. Brilliant, and also bitesize which makes it not a bad Enard entry point.
Best mixed audio/text experience: Border, by Kapka Kassabova
I read three books last year that I had both on kindle and audible. Sometimes I actually read, sometimes I listened while walking. It wouldn’t work for everything but when it does it works pretty well.
This is non-fiction, a travelogue exploring the history, folklore and complex present of the Bulgarian borderlands. It’s very good, not what I’d normally read but even so I plan to read more by Kassabova.
Best book most people wouldn’t read if it weren’t by Ernaux: Happening, by Annie Ernaux (translated by Tanya Leslie)
What is there to say on this one? An unflinching report of an illegal abortion that Ernaux had as a young woman. It’s unsentimental but not unsympathetic and for me easily one of Ernaux’s best. I know the topic is difficult but this really is excellent.
Best book I didn’t think would be on this list: Cold Enough for Snow, by Jessica Au
I found this a bit slight when I first read it, but it’s held up well in memory. It’s beautifully written with a little but not too much ambiguity. It’s a lovely exploration of a mother-daughter relationship and overall very atmospheric. A slow burner but a keeper.
Best book about bullying, adolescence and meaning: Heaven, by Meiko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd)
This was my first Kawakami and confirmed me as a fan. The central character is the subject of brutal bullying and makes friends with a girl in his class in the same situation. Is that really enough to found a friendship on though? This is another difficult read, mostly for the descriptions of bullying, but it pays off. The scene where the protagonist asks one of the bullies for an explanation of why he thinks it’s ok to behave like that remains absolutely sharp in my memory.
Best book that I most regret buying on kindle rather than hardcopy: Cursed Bunny, by Bora Chung (translated by Anton Hur)
I genuinely considered this for my book of the year. Typically I buy short stories on kindle because I mostly read them in bed. This was no exception but I just liked it so much I like the idea of it sitting on the bookcase. Irrational, but then desires largely are.
There’s been a bit of a genre recently of short story collections using fantasy or horror elements to explore contemporary lives, particularly women’s lives. This for me is the best of them, the book that pushes past the limits of form to do something genuinely interesting. A keeper.
Best evocation of a dying order: The Leopard, by G.T. di Lampedusa (translated by Archibald Colquhoun)
I was lucky enough to read this on the train to Sicily. It’s an extraordinary book, widely and rightly praised. The characters are as richly drawn as in any Russian classic, the grandeur and decline of the old Sicilian order is vividly painted and overall it’s a bit of a triumph. Another strong candidate for my book of the year.
Best book about nuns abroad: Black Narcissus, by Rumer Godden
I took a fair bit of persuading to read this and I’m not sure why. It was recommended by readers I trust and it opens well. Eventually I did take the plunge and I’m glad I did. The evocation of the mountain, the tensions of the small community of nuns far from anywhere they have any good reason to be, it’s marvellous. Like quite a few mid-20th Century female novelists Godden deserves a much greater profile than she has.
Oddly enough this isn’t my only book in the nuns abroad category, because of that sf series by Lina Rather I’ve been reading about a convent inhabiting a living spaceship and dealing with their internal issues against a backdrop of interstellar war. One of the more original sf premises I’ve come across in a while.
Best blackest noir: Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy B. Hughes
And this one really is black. This was my first Hughes and it was very impressive. Three characters, a town in fiesta, heat, dust, death and stark moral choices. It’s all here. If you’ve any fondness for noir this is an absolute classic.
Best novel that wasn’t what I expected: Will and Testament, by Vigdis Hjorth (translated by Charlotte Barslund)
My first Hjorth was her Long Live the Post Horn! It’s a gently comic tale involving public service and an EU postal directive. Turns out it’s not necessarily representative of Hjorth’s other work and while this was great it wasn’t quite the wry and charming tale I was expecting.
Here we’re in territory of family trauma, conflicting narratives and how you move forward when people won’t even accept what happened to you because it changes the narrative of their own childhoods. It’s a powerful book that may need a bit of a trigger warning for some. A trigger warning of course doesn’t mean don’t read it, just that it may be worth knowing some of what’s coming.
Best sheer loveliness: Some Tame Gazelle, by Barbara Pym
That is literally the only explanation needed for this being on my end of year list.
Best choral novel: Space Invaders, by Nona Fernández (translated by Natasha Wimmer
This is a really impressive little book. It’s about Pinochet’s Chile and uses a semi-choir of childhood voices and the metaphor of the then-current space invaders game to capture the brutality of life under the regime. Fernandez creates an incredibly effective dreamlike collage of memory, metaphor and dread. Absolutely superb and I’ve already bought her novel The Twilight Zone.
Best book of the year: Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan
Because it just had to be. I read some truly great novellas in 2022, some of them listed above. Regardless of length though this is simply a masterpiece. It’s an examination of history, moral responsibility and moral choice and yet it’s written with a jewel-like clarity and precision. Keegan’s Foster is also brilliant but I try to have no more than one book by an author in my end of year regardless of how great (and Keegan really is great).
This and Foster are also ones I regret buying on kindle to be honest. They’ve since come out in rather nice paperbacks and they’re just so good. If you haven’t read this then I urge you to do so.
And that’s it! I’ve a small number of honourable mentions that on another day might have made the list: Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City (with a superb audiobook adaptation by the way); Elisa Shua Dusapin’s The Pachinko Parlour; and my perennial favourite Arthur Schnitzler’s Casanova’s Return to Venice. End of year lists mean hard choices though and the ones above aren’t too bad a selection.