As with my writing, and art, my reading is fairly eclectic so below you’ll find eight books of various genres from among the two dozen I read last year. These eight books really did something to me – they made me think in different ways, or cry with happiness, or unsettle me with just how chilling they were. Looking back at 2023 – my year of short stories – I’m aware that I read literally hundreds of individual short stories and dipped into many short story collections. Really, the short stories need a post of their own, but for the time being I want to talk about the longer pieces of fiction that blew me away in 2023.
1) Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
As someone who writes in a number of genres I know just how much fun it can be, and I get the feeling that David Mitchell had a lot of fun writing Cloud Atlas which is (kind of) a mosaic novel with six different main protagonists. I found each protagonist’s voice and narrative convincing and compelling, but I think my favourite character was Timothy Cavendish because his story – and the humour inherent in his predicament – was just so very British. And as someone prone to having a very itchy mind (in that I have a tendency to OCD) I particularly like this nugget of wisdom which Cavendish bestows upon the reader:
“Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.”Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
2) Holes by Louis Sachar
I think I came to be aware of this because my son had to analyse a snippet of it in an English lesson, and when I came across a few printed sheets of the start of the book I was immediately intrigued. And rightly so! It’s an utterly brilliant piece of storytelling, ostensibly about how digging holes can turn a bad boy into a good boy, and one which I admired greatly for the way that every single loose end was tied up so skilfully and satisfactorily. Also, being half-Latvian I appreciated the fact that the story actually began in Latvia long before the protagonist, Stanley Yelnats, gets sent to Camp Green Lake because of being a “bad” boy.
3) For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain, by Victoria Mackenzie
Interestingly (or is that fittingly?), I was actually in quite a lot of pain when I read this book. I very vividly remember sitting in the accident and emergency department because of my broken arm and reading the book while wondering if I could get away with taking any more painkillers. So in many ways it helped me to put some perspective on my own pain. From one point of view it’s a high concept feminist novel – the original idea being a question: what would the meeting between the fourteenth century anchoress Julian of Norwich and the Christian mystic Margery Kempe have been like? But I feel it’s much more than simply an original/marketable idea. It’s received a great amount of praise, and I have a sense that this is because for many readers it satisfies a deep yearning that many humans have – a spiritual yearning to feel connected to a power that is bigger than themselves and their everyday lives. Personally, I felt very inspired by this book, and my faith in God strengthened by the many wisdoms within, but I think that Christian or not, any reader could enjoy it as a fascinating piece of historical fiction and be moved by the hardships both women endured for the sake of their beliefs.
(And on a completely different note, I was delighted to discover that both Victoria and I had been shortlisted in the Dinesh Allirajah Short Fiction prize back in 2018 and subsequently published in the anthology of the shortlisted stories called Café Stories! My shortlisted story, ‘Death of the Grapevine’, can now be found in my debut collection, Umbilical.)
4) Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Our family are all fans of the film The Martian, and as my son loved the book we thought we’d give Project Hail Mary a go (particularly as it had loads of glowing reviews). I’m so glad we did. Exciting, thought-provoking and moving, it’s basically the kind of hard science fiction I love, and one of those books that you instantly want to recommend to others. (Also, it’s currently being made into a film, and I can’t wait to see it!)
5) The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
At over 700 pages long, it took me a long time to finish 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 appreciated the way Booker approached storytelling through a Jungian lens. To my mind, this is essential reading for everyone.
6) The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
Funnily enough, I knew the song – performed by the snazzily coiffured Limahl – before I became aware of the book, but it had been on our book shelves for a while since my husband read it to our daughter years ago. Conscious of missing out on a book that was loved by so many people I went into it with high hopes. And of course I wasn’t disappointed! I cried so much at the end that the words swam before my eyes, and I couldn’t help being in awe at its utterly transportive storytelling.
7) Lamb by Matt Hill
An arresting and immediately page-turning novel, Lamb manages to be both a touching story of a family in crisis and a disturbing tale of eco/SF/body horror. I was genuinely moved by the portrayal of the relationship between the teenage protagonist and his mother, and the manner in which parental responsibility begins to shift between them as grief threatens the mother’s grip on reality. A weirdly beautiful, tender novel, it also happens to be written by an author who’s a great guy and published by the respected UK indie press, Dead Ink.
8) Jack O’Dander by Priya Sharma
As creepy stories go, this one pushed all my buttons by speaking to some of my deepest fears. Priya Sharma is an incredibly artistic crafter of prose – with a few strokes of her writerly brush she manages to capture the simmering tensions between two sisters and their families, and the ensuing showdown which leads to the most tragic and unexpected of outcomes. This uneasy novella really got under my skin. You can read it here for free.
Many thanks for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed this post and would like to read more of my thoughts on all things bookish, you can subscribe to my monthly newsletter via the box below. In next month’s newsletter I’ll be giving away a copy of the British Fantasy Society’s Horizon magazine Horizons in which I have a piece of flash fiction called ‘Ida’ that was inspired by a painting by Vilhelm Hammershøi. I haven’t read all of the contents as yet, but so far I’ve very much enjoyed reading Lynden Wade’s ‘A Prophet In His Own Country’, Dan Coxon’s ‘London Deep’ and Dave Jeffery’s ‘The Ghost of You’. All three stories are very different in style, but I was moved by each one of them and am confident that reading Horizons is a great way to get a sense of the wide range, tone and style that short fiction published under the umbrella ‘fantasy’ can encompass. Also, I hope it persuades you to consider joining the British Fantasy Society, which is a most excellent society!