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Best Books of 2023

I’m confident that the fiction that will stay with me is Charlotte Wood’s Stone Yard Devotional which I’d urge you all to read. It’s profound and questioning and serious about grief, forgiveness, and understanding. And at the same time it’s beautifully observed and immersive. For your end of year reading I’d throw in Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting. I’ve not read him before (others have raved about Skippy Dies), but this Booker nominee is a tour de force. Luxuriate in more than 600 pages of this story of an Irish family that is at once sad, funny and tragic. It’s a triumph of intricate plotting and inventive syntax and dialogue. Finally, and fittingly, the last word goes to the ever eloquent and wise Richard Flanagan, who has given us in Question 7 a beautiful blending of a love letter to Tasmania and his parents, with a musing and historical rendering about the development, and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (Flanagan’s father was a POW in Japan at the time). It’s nonfiction, but it soars with a lyricism and spirit of enquiry and reflection perfectly captured in a phrase towards the end: “Life is always happening and has happened and will happen.” I would also add Wifedom by Anna Funder and Killing for Country by David Marr – two very important Australian books that are original, groundbreaking and exceptionally well-written.
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, is essentially a story within a story, lightly told, a beautiful evocation of time and place. I also enjoyed After the Funeral by Tessa Hadley and then went back to read the earlier Sunstroke and Other Stories.
Don’t make me choose between two phenomenally assured historical novels. The New Life by Tom Crewe opens in a muggy, foetid, 1890s London. The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng presents an even more sultry 1920s Penang, and both roar to life with sterling silver prose, page-turner plots and fullyfledged characters.
ISABEL The short word count of So Distant From My Life by Monique Ilboudo does not in any way diminish the strength of its mighty impact. Globalisation, white saviourism, homophobia, migration – Ilboudo dives headfirst into the big topics. This novella has a certain Candide-by-Voltaire-esque quality that I found hugely intriguing. Highly recommended!
A special mention to Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, which is such a beautiful read. It will stay with you well after you’ve finished it. But my favourite this year is the science fiction novel Translation State. Ann Leckie has created an imaginative universe that draws you into each different world and its philosophy and politics. A gripping story with a mind-boggling end sequence.
The Murder Game by Tom Hindle is delightful in every way, and deliciously twisty.
MARION  Wednesday’s Child by Yiyun Li is a collection of distinct short stories rich with nuance and subtext that handles heavier topics like alienation, loneliness and loss with a distinct tenderness and precision.
TILDA  Becky Chambers has been the highlight of  my year. Her sci-fi is detailed, grounded, and simply a delight to partake in. A Psalm for the Wild-Built and its sequel A Prayer for the Crown-Shy are quiet, deep meditations on life, consciousness and humanity’s relationship with the natural world. They are also cozy novellas that celebrate tea, companionship, and plants.
This year I revisited the wonderful books of the all-but-forgotten British writer Barbara Comyns. I can’t tell you how much I love these books. They are strange, mysterious and have been described as “witchery”. Donna Leon’s autobiography Wandering Through Life made me long to visit Italy again. For the past 30 years, she has lived in Italy, the setting for her popular Commissario Brunetti mystery series. Anecdotes about life in Italy and her itinerant early days, which took her from Iran to China, make this a fascinating read.
The Wager by David Grann is a rip-roaring, appalling tale of sea, war, leadership, courage and violence. It takes a piece of history and turns it into a towering story. You’ll never look at an AirBnB the same way again after reading Tasha Sylva’s The Guest Room. If you’re a fan of creepy weirdo stalkers and bone-chilling noir, then this is for you.
AVA Kate Grenville wrote Restless Dolly Maunder as an attempt to understand her relative, whom she knew only as a retiring and unpleasant woman. Born in 1881, Dolly was an ambitious and creative young woman whose passion for life was gradually eroded by familial obligations and a lack of opportunities for women. The book is a devastating reminder of the struggles that intelligent women have faced the world over, and an enchanting window into early settler life in Australia.
VICTORIA How lucky am I that two of my favourite authors published books this year. Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is a love story with characters that are beautifully crafted. A gentle but poignant story that Patchett masters so well. I loved this book. Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry tells the story of Tom Kettle, a retired cop who is dragged back to his past by an unresolved police enquiry. It is thought-provoking and empathically written – which makes this sad story easier to read. Another fabulous book by this fabulous Irish writer.
This year, two books worked their different kinds of magic. In one Katherine Rundell’s Impossible Creatures, a fantasy novel, there’s an urgent plea that warns “the brutality is terrible. And yes: the chaos is very great. But tell them: greater than the world’s chaos are its miracles”. A way of thinking that also describes Karl Geary’s Juno Loves Legs, a raw, working class novel, you dare to break your heart, and when it does, all you wanna say to the world is: I believe in miracles, since you came along.
When a teenage girl is murdered by her peers on Brexit eve, a defamed journalist attempts to piece together their motives through interviews, news articles, podcast transcripts, Tumblr posts, and text messages. Eliza Clark’s Penance is an authentic examination of internet culture, unreliable narrators, and most importantly, the morality of true crime as a genre. For fans of Moshfegh and Awad.
TIFFANY  The Prophet Song by Paul Lynch is a powerful and propulsive exploration of the systematic disintegration of a democratic society – in this case Ireland. For me, its power comes from the inherent plausibility underpinning every step towards this unravelling. It’s an important book for modern times. It invaded my dreams and it’s going to stay with me for a long time.
All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien focuses on Cabramatta in the 1990s. It’s the story of Denny Tran’s brutal murder on the night of his high school graduation. Lien effortlessly blends social commentary on discrimination within a compelling thriller, giving an insight into the racial conflicts that bubble under the surface of Australia’s nationalism. Land of Milk and Honey by Booker Prize longlister C. Pam Zhang is a sensuous novel that delves into the nexus of food, pleasure, privilege and catastrophe. Brilliantly sexy and carnal storytelling juxtaposed with chilling commentary on the everwidening cracks of disadvantage and environmental destruction.
The Daughters of Madurai by Rajasree Variyar opened my eyes to a world and experiences that enrich my understanding of the world I live in. Nila, daughter of Indian parents growing up in Australia, is torn between the desire to live her own life and her parents’ expectations. The tension between secrets, longing to be free and fear of hurting those we love kept me reading this novel in one sitting.  I also loved Tom Lake by Ann Patchett. A family brought together during Covid working the family cherry orchard.
Humphrey Carpenter’s excellent Benjamin Britten: A Biography (1992) is a fascinating portrait of musical genius and singular eccentricity. Carpenter is careful not to overwhelm the casual reader with too much technical information about Britten’s music, concentrating instead on the circumstances behind individual works and their subsequent realisation onstage – often at Britten’s own Aldeburgh Festival. Reading Carpenter’s book prompted me to discover Britten’s rich and extensive musical output. Sadly now out of print.
The Witch King by Martha Wells launches us into a vast, rich, and vivid world split between a distant past and the present. It tells the history of a world eviscerated by a brutal colonial power, and the shaky diplomatic landscape of the new world which emerged from the shattered ashes a century later. I really enjoyed the feel of Wesley Chu’s The Art of Prophecy and The Art of Destiny, which are part of a complete duology released within three months. There’s a consistent sense of politeness, civility even, in his books – despite the murders.
Susanna Hoffs’ This Bird Has Flown is a reimagining of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Jane Smart, a 33-year-old single, one-hit- wonder musician, is sent by her manager from California to London, to rediscover her musical muse after a decade-long hiatus. A pitch-perfect, charming, (very) spicy-sweet, gently funny debut novel from the co-founder and lead singer of 1980s pop group the Bangles.  Killing for Country: A Family Story is a forensic investigation by David Marr into a dark strand of his family history, recounting land-grabbing and massacres of First Nations peoples throughout Queensland, Northern Territory and West Australia carried out by the author’s ancestors as members of the Native Mounted Police. Prodigious research, a clear-eyed analysis and controlled fury fuel this epic account. His masterpiece.
In preparation for my first trip to the Northern Territory, I read as much as I could about it, including Dean Ashenden’s Telling Tennant’s Story. Subtitled “The strange career of the great Australian silence”, Ashenden’s historiography combines memoir, reportage and history in exploring how the story of relations between white Australians and First Nations people have been told and obscured by the early anthropologists, historians and the courts. A brilliant eye-opener (as was my overnight visit to Tennant Creek!). Why We Are Here by Sydney writer Briohny Doyle is beautiful autofiction – my new favourite genre. Set during Covid in the south of Sydney, it’s an elegiac book centering on BB, who is grieving the loss of her father and of her partner. Somehow Doyle manages to stave off bleakness – and there are dogs, which always lifts one’s spirits. And a last-minute mention of Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. Exquisite, as always.
A Day in the Life of Abed Salama by Nathan Thrall tells its story in sparse, dispassionate prose. It revolves around a horrible bus crash that occurred in the West Bank in 2012 which killed several Palestinian schoolchildren. In the tradition of Chloe Hooper, Thrall uses this tragedy to explore the lives of the many people affected by it – and the daily humiliations and historical trauma that Palestinians experience. A must-read for anyone wanting to better understand the reality of what it is like to live under occupation. Paradise Estate by Max Easton is a beautiful novel that will feel close to home for anyone who has experienced the joys and perils of share-house living in Sydney. It follows the lives of a ragtag bunch of 30-odd-year-olds living in a mouldy inner-west rental shortly after Covid lockdowns who are trying to find meaning in their lives. It is a story about life in contemporary Sydney, but also about class and the malaise and despair that afflicts more and more of us as wealth disparity continues to rise and politicians continue to dash our hopes of meaningful social change.
Girl in a Pink Dress by Kylie Needham This is my Australian literature pick of the year. Is it a perfectly executed short, modern novel? I think it might be. Juno Loves Legs by Karl Geary I ached for these young characters of the Irish author’s novel, and think of them still. So beautiful and (thankfully) just shy of devastating.
Pet by Catherine Chidgey A compelling psychological thriller about growing up, favouritism and manipulation, set in a Catholic School in 1980s New Zealand.
If I Was a Horse by Sophie Blackall An amazing and beautiful picture book, it’s good in all the ways a picture book can be and is one to be loved by kids and adults!
August Blue by Deborah Levy Dreamy and haunting, August Blue tells the story of a world-famous pianist who has fallen from grace. It’s an instant Levy classic.
The Puppets of Spelhorst by Kate DiCamillo Combining the melancholic with the beautiful and whimsical, Spelhorst offers tears, laughter and wonder to the grizzled and world-weary reader.
Big Swiss by Jen Beagin An absolutely hilarious, clever and overwhelmingly weird book that you won’t be able to put down. Beware: the emotions will hit you when you least expect it.
Wifedom by Anna Funder A staggeringly great portrait of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, the wife of George Orwell. An intellectual and emotional pleasure.
R.A. Spratt is a comic genius but Hamlet Is Not OK is much more than just a funny romp. It will entice you into the wonderful world of Shakespeare and encourage a love of language. It is clever and perfect for tweens and I hope she continues the series and timeslips into all the Shakepearean mischief. Ages 10+  Borderland  is a horror/gothic coming-of-age story from First Nations writer Graham Akhurst. Set in Brisbane and the outback, and follows Jono, who is grappling with finding his mob, being plagued by frightening visions and navigating his feelings for his closest friend. This story has everything: it’s pacey and has superb characters. A stand-out book that I am sure will be swimming in awards this time next year! Ages 13+
How to Find a Missing Girl  by Victoria Wlosok  is a beautiful combination of mystery and queer romance, captured in a realistic, relatable way. There were so many well-written twists until the very end and I loved how everything fell into place all at once.
Impossible Creatures. I don’t really need to write a review for a new Katherine Rundell – everything she writes is gold. But here’s what you need to know about this one: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and afterwards you shall emerge into the world braver and full of joy.
Mixing science with magic, Meet Me at the Moon Tree by  Shivaun Plozza  whisks us away to a new family home in the country where grief lies heavily within. Exquisitely written and moving, it has stayed with me in the months since reading it.