So here is a brief rundown of my favourite books from 2023. There were others I could have chosen too, but you have to draw a line somewhere. As with the last couple of years’ lists, (2021 and 2022), here are the books I gave 5* to on my Goodreads page.
And because these books have lingered some after I finished them, they are my top 4 from the year.
Fiction (no particular order)
I’d not read Coe before but this is ingenious. A historical novel set in a period I can remember (Thatcher’s 1980s). Acerbic Waugh-like satire and grotesque but enthralling characters. At times laugh-out-loud.
A classic, fictionalised account of life in long-lost, rural England. Set in 1960s Suffolk, we’re introduced to a large cast of villagers by turn, much of it reflecting the Suffolk of my own teenage years in the 1980s. Evocative melancholy.
Addicted to Slough House from the start (+ LOVING the TV version – 1st time casting fits with my imagination). This is in the same universe, but takes a bit to figure out Herron’s game here. But the payoff is perfect and the satire even more biting.
From Albania (Kadare’s home) to the Moscow of Stalin and Pasternak (and where Kadare studied a few years later). Kadare is a superb writer, and this is powerful. Captures the disorientation of establishing what happened under totalitarianism (even when the event lasted only a matter of seconds).
To a quarter of Kingston, Jamaica now, recommended by local friends. A brilliant but heartbreaking evocation of community life, with all the complexities resulting from history, violence, belief and pain. Couldn’t put this down.
A friend and I walked St Cuthbert’s Way this year, so Cuddy’s publication this year was timely. A poignant account of distinct groups living in 4 very different eras, whose lives are all connected to the saint’s tomb in Durham Cathedral. Such a surprisingly affecting novel.
Totally bonkers but a lot of fun. Malcolm Pryce created Welsh Noir, important all the tropes of hardboiled LA detective noir into the realms of a sleepy Welsh seaside town full of nationalists and ice-cream parlours. Fun.
Poland under Nazi occupation now. The eponymous protagonist is a Jewish widow but looks Gentile with her blonde hair and blue eyes. An extraordinary sequence of events follows after her arrest. A stunning novel.
Regulars here know how much I appreciate Spufford’s writing, whether it is fiction, non-fiction or apologetics. Never a dull word. He’s done again this year with this. A counter-factual, historical detective noir, set in the only US state that has preserved a majority Native American population and culture. Cahokia is an important archaeological site in modern St Louis, MO. The protagonist is a fantastic creation and the twists and turns are worthy of the best thriller. What an extraordinary novel.
Arts & Culture
Jonathan Bate is a veteran Shakespeare scholar who manages also to be a superb writer and I’ve loved some of his previous books. This is different – a hybrid of memoir, scholarly insight and meditation, with The Bard as the binding thread. Fascinating and moving.
Neve is an artist who can seriously write (not a common combo); his Unquiet Landscape was in my 2022 list. This was written during COVID and is a brilliantly simple idea: explore the final works of some of his favourite artists (from Michelangelo to Cézanne and Gwen John).
Long after writing an appeal for people to take narrative seriously, Peter Brooks in retirement finds that people have taken it all the wrong way. Narrative is crucial, but it mustn’t be a vehicle to deceive. Fascinating (esp in how it has damaged public discourse and jurisprudence).
Shostakovich’s Babyn Yar Symphony and Britten’s War Requiem are favourites by my 2 top 20thC composers. But this extraordinary book places them in a wider context (with Strauss and Schoenberg) of musicians grappling with the horrors and legacies of the worst of humanity’s inhumanity. A category-defying book of brilliance and insight.
The first of 2 Gayford books this year (he’s featured in my lists before). This reconstructs the days and weeks in Arles when Gauguin and Van Gogh shared a house. It was a recipe for disaster but the two artists were rarely as prolific or brilliant. Utterly gripping but heart-breaking.
Hockney has had many conversations with Gayford over the years. This is a Lockdown compilation when Hockney + entourage were in Normandy. Hockney couldn’t stop himself and was pouring out work. He really seemed to have perfected iPad work (the early versions of which I never thought much of). Life-affirming stuff.
A friend and I have rashly agreed to read the Divine Comedy together. Intimidating stuff. But Peter Hawkins’ book was an incredibly helpful guide to the one guided by Virgil.
Choral music has been central to my aural diet as long as I can remember. The Sixteen have been right up the and I loved these conversations. Opened up some new music (to me at least) as well.
Bizarrely enough, I’m still trying to write a novel. Been well over five years now. And I’ve read a fair few of writers’ guides and inspirations. This was a great one. Amusing and insightful while never claiming to have what it takes to teach someone to write.
Just wow! Few know much about Carel Fabritius, but many know his portrait of a Goldfinch. He died tragically young, but already one of the masters of the Dutch Golden Age. Cumming weaves her gripping story around the painters of the time and in so doing meditates on her own life, especially her artist father. Again, a real category-defying book from which I learned and was moved in equal measure.
Current Affairs / History
The horrors of Gaza have propelled further study. Jeremy Bowen, veteran BBC Middle East correspondent, is a judicious and careful journalist who has witnessed the major twists of the last quarter-century. He knows because he was there. He resists (as far as I now) being partisan, and is able to explain complexity without simplification or dehumanising. Remarkable.
Katja Hoyer was a child of East Germany when the Wall fell in 1989. She is an academic German historian in Britain now and manages to combine objectivity and personal experience to this extraordinary story. She never downplays the horrors and insanity, but (and this is her gift) she manages to present the mundane and normal with it, the lived experience of countless East Germans.
I was sent this to review and I’m very glad I was. The title would never have grabbed me, but it is a model of how a NT Scholar can bring insight to bear on what is assumed or overfamiliar in such a way as to make one reassess even gospel basics. Fascinating to consider the outworking of how faith in Christ might better be seen as ‘allegiance to the king’.
The issue of church power abuse and bullying (and in evangelicalism particularly) is an urgent one – and I’m very grateful for the fact that a seminary president has written this, and thus diversifying the fields of people engaging with it. This is a very helpful book.
Russell Moore’s book is explicitly directed to the USA Evangelical context and so not everything will apply internationally in the same way. But there is still a great deal that does challenge and this is a courageous and compelling read. I was underlining things all over the place and still need to figure out some of the implications.
A bio of a pastor is actually an oddity, since most stay in only a few places and do the same sorts of things every week. This is a super solution: an account of Keller’s chief influences over his lifetime (he collaborated throughout with Hansen), and I found this inspiring and moving. It’s such an act of generous self-effacement actually. I became even more grateful for him than I was before.
It’s a bit of a classic now, actually, having first come out in 2008. But I reread it at the start of the year while prepping for my own writing and found it even more thrilling than the first time. So helpful and practical. Vintage NTW.
Baxter does for C S Lewis what Hansen did for Tim Keller. Based on a brief list of influences that Lewis gave in an interview, it might seem a little tenuous. However, he’s done the work and it’s clear those influences crop up regularly. Fascinating. And in case you were wondering, this was the prompt for embarking on Dante (Lewis said it was the one that never palled for him).