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  • Writer's pictureElliot K

2023 In: Books



I've read 53 books this year.


18,000 pages. 10 genres. Books from the library and from the internet. Books identified in the corners of photos I've taken. Books found in second-hand stalls or on display in Waterstones. Books gifted as presents.


Here's a review of every single one. I'll keep it as brief as I can.


 


 

Comedy

Less - 7.5/10

Andrew Sean Greer

A quirky, self-aware novel about travelling the world during a midlife crisis. The brief cameos by the ensemble supporting cast makes it hard to invest in Andrew Less' network of friends - and, by extension, Andrew himself - but the ebb and flow of the story is engaging, and the occasional poignant moment emphasises the comedy and joy throughout the rest of the book.


"Strange to be almost fifty, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young."
"Yes! It's like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won't ever be back."


To Rise Again at a Decent Hour - 6.5/10

Joshua Ferris

I really wanted to like this. The dialogue is snappy and fast-paced, and Paul's occasional insane tangents serve up some of the funniest moments in the book. The density of the novel made reading it a slog though, with paragraphs often spanning multiple pages. If I had finished the book feeling like I got Ferris' intentions, then that may have counterbalanced the difficulty I faced reading it. But I didn't, so it didn't.


High Fidelity - 6.25/10

Nick Hornby

Hoo boy, this book has not aged well. I've enjoyed some of Hornby's other work previously, but protagonist Rob comes across as a grumpy, self-sabotaging man-child whose behaviour is wildly unpredictable, which lessened the appeal of the book for me. Maybe that was Hornby's intention. Or maybe men were/are trash.


 

Contemporary

Beartown - 9.5/10

Fredrik Backman

I described this book to a friend the other day by saying that only when I took stock two-thirds of the way through the book did I realise how far the story had progressed. Only in the closing stages of each book do you learn who the heroes and villains truly are in this gripping piece of "hockey fiction", and how all of the inhabitants of Beartown are complicit in the town's questionable affairs.


Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else's head, and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got here.


Us Against You - 9/10

Fredrik Backman

The sequel to 'Beartown'. Just as enjoyable, but without the initial novelty and thrill of being immersed in Backman's descriptive literary universe.


The Winners - 9/10

Fredrik Backman

Sequel to 'Us Against You'. Potentially better than the second book, but the length (around 500 pages) isn't justified considering a few of the minor plots feel rushed towards the end. Regardless, it's still an excellent book in a gripping trilogy.


Stepping Up - 8.75/10

Sarah Turner

I originally put this book off for weeks thinking it wasn't me, but was glad I eventually conceded and gave it a go. An eventful opening chapter kickstarts a story about a family of inharmonious characters dealing with tragedy in their own complex yet familiar ways. Don't expect a (completely) resolved ending; the book is all the better for it.


The Satsuma Complex - 7/10

Bob Mortimer

A novel written in exactly the disjointed, unorthodox style you'd expect from Mortimer. Enjoyable if you like frequent low-level doses of absurdism mixed into fairly predictable plot lines. A perfectly pleasant read featuring little complexity and a formulaic ending.


Britt-Marie Was Here - 6.5/10

Fredrik Backman

Making the protagonist intentionally unlikeable made them... Unlikeable. Though Britt-Marie softens towards the end of the book, you tend to naturally gravitate towards the secondary characters, such as the infinitely-patient unemployment officer and the local children in the football team. A far cry from Backman's Beartown trilogy in terms of quality.


Lucy by the Sea - 6/10

Elizabeth Trout

Part of a wider series about the lead Lucy. A bit nothing-y, to be honest, and driven primarily by Lucy saying "I understand". One of a number of books I read this year that focuses on or namedrops Covid-19 too, which will never not be weird.


History - 6/10

Miles Jupp

An example of comedy not translating between media. Jupp is incredibly entertaining on-stage and on-screen, but his writing doesn't live up to this reputation.


 

Historical Fiction

Remote Sympathy - 8/10

Catherine Chidgey

A semi-random selection from the library that was unexpectedly enjoyable to read, though understandably quite tragic for the most part. Hearing a number of characters on either side of the fence recall their experiences around a German concentration camp in the final years of the Second World War is a morbidly interesting experience, not least because a number of the characters and settings were influenced by historical documents and accounts from the era. Don't expect a happy ending - even the winners lose.


'Taking a child to a place like that,' said my mother.
'It's quite safe,' I told her; 'We'll be living well outside the enclosure. We won't even be able to see it. Apparently the villa's beautiful - you can come and stay whenever you like.'


The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing - 5.5/10

Mary Paulson-Ellis

A book revolving around two interlinked timelines, neither of which was particularly interesting. The historical elements were easy to invest in, but the protagonist in the modern-day timeline was detestable. Two timelines added up to too many pages, too.


Slaughterhouse 5 - 5/10

Kurt Vonnegut

Quite a dry read, with only a few sections that drew intrigue. It probably has some greater literary importance that went over my head.


 

Literary Fiction

Wish You Were Here - 8.5/10

Jodi Picoult

A book defined by its plot twist. The first part is decent enough, but the book takes on a deeper meaning when the lead has a substantial change in perspective. Another book that refers to Covid-19, but one which touches on some of the realities of a post-Covid world.


Busy is just a euphemism for being so focused on what you don’t have that you never notice what you do. It’s a defense mechanism. Because if you stop hustling—if you pause—you start wondering why you ever thought you wanted all those things.


Okay Then That's Great - 8/10

Susannah Wise

I think it's fair to say that I'm not entirely sure I understand what I read, but it made me cry, which means something. A book where - and you're going to have to forgive me for how pretentious this sounds - the key aspect is not the conclusion, but the journey that protagonist Marnie takes you on as she explores her deteriorating mental health.


Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow - 8/10

Gabrielle Zevin

I finished the second half of this book in an evening, in part to see how the plot would develop after one of the more significant moments, but also because I wanted to power through a slightly pedestrian final third. The book as a whole drew parallels to The Social Network, and some of the characters bring a similar level of toxicity as Eisenberg's Zuckerberg. I started the book liking Sadie and Sam more than I liked Marx, but ended up realising Marx was - unfortunately - probably my favourite.


10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World - 7.75/10

Elif Shafak

Shafak does a wonderful job of giving colour to the majority of the characters in the book, either through brief asides or by dedicating entire chapters to their origin stories. You can't help but feel empathy for most of the supporting cast (plus Leila herself) because of how horrible their respective lives have been.


Shafak's ability to intricately immerse the reader in the beauty and culture of a complex and vibrant city like Istanbul is incredible, and one which few other authors in this list have matched. However, whilst the wider context of the book was intriguing, the plot-line left a little to be desired in the later chapters, else it might have scored higher.


Saltwater - 7.5/10

Jessica Andrews

I actually quite liked this book on reflection, but the unorthodox format - a non-linear, poetic stream-of-consciousness style wherein micro-chapters start and end on the same page - really threw me at the start. Though nothing in particular happens, a lot of the story is intricately, descriptively written, and if you're able to follow the writing style it's a joy to read.


 

Non-fiction

Strong Female Character - 9.5/10

Fern Brady

I'll start by saying that I finished this in less than three days. This was easily one of the funniest books I read this year, but equally one of the most emotionally taxing.


Brady's literary voice is wonderfully deadpan, earnest, and incredibly addictive. The matter-of-fact nature with which she discusses her traumatic childhood and early adult life is simultaneously heart-wrenching yet hysterical. I revisited the middle of the book whilst writing this paragraph and laughed after reading two pages.


It would be amiss not to acknowledge the overarching theme in the book: Brady's autism diagnosis during her adulthood, which provides a small (but not insignificant) level of context and texture to the anecdotes she recalls and the difficulties that come with such a neurodevelopmental disorder.


"That's what being autistic feels like for me: one long blackout night of drinking, except there's no socially sanctioned excuse for your gaffes and no one is laughing."


Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut - 8.5/10

Samantha Cristoforetti

Purchased on a whim from the cash-only smörgåsbord of literature on the corner of High Street and Church Street that identifies itself as Manchester Book Buyers. Cristoforetti's account of her journey from AM fighter pilot to ESA flight engineer on the International Space Station is one of the most comprehensive and fascinating modern accounts of 'human space stuff' in print. An in-depth and hugely informative read.


White Holes: Inside the Horizon - 7.25/10

Carlo Rovelli

A short, succinct description of an unusual, rapidly-evolving field in theoretical astrophysics. Surprisingly meaty for an A5 book of only 130-odd pages. Would have rated higher if Rovelli hadn't been so relentless in his use of quotations from Dante's Devine Comedy. We get it: you're better than us.


Moods of Future Joys - 7/10

Alastair Humphreys

An interesting account of an impressive achievement, though the best sections in the book were the descriptions of interactions with locals and other travellers along the way rather than Alastair's personal experience of the journey. Humphreys is not a natural writer, and his desire to over-dramatise what is already an impressive feat became tiring.


 

Romance

Grown Ups - 7.5/10

Marian Keyes

A monster of a novel at over 600 pages, though it doesn't feel as long as that. The range of characters with interesting backstories and flaws keeps the book ticking over, and whilst there's an element of "right, all better!" at the end with a few of the subplots, not everything is fully resolved, which feels more real than the classic 'happily ever after' paintbrush that's often used to patch over loose ends at the end of most romances.


Adulthood, for all its opportunities, meant the simultaneous accumulation of loss.


The No-Show - 7.5/10

Beth O'Leary

One of two outcomes were possible: the expected, or the unexpected. Once it was clear it was one rather than the other, it became a bit predictable, but fairly strong up until that point.


The One Plus One - 7.5/10

Jojo Moyes

Just nice. As with most romance novels, it was a bit predictable in places, but it was nice. Moyes sort of skipped over a couple of secondary character subplots towards the end, and a few other bits were conveniently wrapped up or discarded when it suited the story, but that's not uncommon for a book of this genre.


Someone Else's Shoes - 6.75/10

Jojo Moyes

Fairly formulaic romcom-with-a-twist. Of the two main characters, Sam's complexity and resilience in her failing marriage and terrible job provide more interest, as does her character arc throughout the book. Nisha grows on you a bit, but she still comes across as a bit entitled at times. The story itself isn't particularly revolutionary, but it did the job.


The Wake-Up Call - 6.5/10

Beth O'Leary

It's fine. For what it is, it's fine, and it was an easy read. It had some vaguely nice moments, but it felt like a thinly-veiled Mills and Boon with little in the way of plot. Completely fine. The Flatshare and The Road Trip are definitely her two best books; this and The No-Show don't quite have the same appeal unfortunately.


 

Science Fiction

Project Hail Mary - 9/10

Andy Weir

Not what I was expecting originally, but the combo of an engaging storyline and fairly digestible science made for a good read. You could fault Weir's writing for being a bit samey at times if you're not a fan of it; whilst I find Weir's colloquial writing style comes across as very natural and informal, there are other reviews of this book that make comparisons to The Martian (and not in a good way), and how both novels are a bit 'blokey' and Top Gear-esque. For people who like contemporary 'hell yeah, space' sci-fi, this ticks all the boxes.


Human beings have a remarkable ability to accept the abnormal and make it normal.


Recursion - 8.75/10

Blake Crouch

A combination of Live, Die, Repeat and The Discovery. Scientist invents groundbreaking technology, technology falls into the wrong(?) hands, things get a bit weird, things get a bit more weird, things get quite nihilistic, the very fabric of reality comes into question, then the end happens.


For Sci-Fi lovers, this keeps a fairly rapid tempo without trying to lose the reader in anything too complex (conceptually or scientifically). I finished this on Christmas Day after reading on-and-off for the best part of two days, as it was consistently engrossing. My only gripes were that one of the leads is an archetypal Grizzled New York Cop with a Troubled Past™, which is a minor deterrence in the opening chapters. Additionally, the can of worms that is opened by the technology invented in the book sort of nullifies the risk and subsequent impact of dying (minor spoiler alert?); if death is no longer predictable, does it really matter?


This Time Tomorrow - 8.5/10

Emma Straub

There are certain things in books that'll catch me, and subsequently make me consider a book with higher regard than before. One of these things is loss, and the slow inevitability of it, which is a prominent theme in the latter half of this novel.


Straub plays with two trendy fiction themes - 'multiverses', and 'having a crisis as you evaluate your existence' - and ends up combining them expertly. Not a novel that I particularly took to at the start, but one I definitely grew to appreciate in the closing stages.


Metronome - 8.25/10

Tom Watson

Like an extended Black Mirror episode. Overall, an engaging novel that gave you enough context to suspend disbelief but not so much that the allure of mystery disappeared.


Some of the characters were two-dimensional, though the context of the story could arguably justify this being as a result of the hostile world that the book takes place in. Enjoyable enough as a novel that I read most of it in one sitting, and finished it in the space of a day. Nice ambiguous ending, too.


The Three-Body Problem - 8/10

Liu Cixin

Probably one of the more heavy-duty science fiction books I've read in recent years. An interesting, non-linearly-told story regarding extra-terrestrial life and first contact.


There were moments in the book where the story dragged as a result of scientific exposition. Equally, the story being set in China meant that my understanding of cultural references was limited to the context provided by the translator's footnotes which, whilst useful, disrupted the flow of reading the book. That being said, the story was very enjoyable for the most part, with credit to Cixin Liu for writing a science fiction novel that felt different and new.


[Side note: I came across this book after taking a photo over the shoulder of a spectator reading it at the Cycling World Championships. I read a line or two from the image whilst editing and decided it sounded interesting.]



The Dark Forest - 8/10

Liu Cixin

The second novel in the Three-Body Problem trilogy. Just as interesting as the first book, though just as scientific and technical too. Not a huge overlap with the first book in terms of recurring characters and timelines, but this allows for the exploration of new themes and concepts.


The Last One At The Party - 7.75/10

Bethany Clift

Very much a book of two halves, of which I preferred the first. I enjoyed the way it was written, the overall premise, the plausible thought process of the unnamed protagonist throughout the story, and if you suspended disbelief the majority of the post-apocalypse part of the book seemed pretty feasible. A lot of the book left me feeling quite tense in a way that made me appreciate the quality of the writing.


Sea of Tranquility - 7.75/10

Emily St. John Mandel

St. John Mandel has finessed the art of writing thought-provoking literary-sci-fi about complex characters, and Sea of Tranquility puts her engrossing writing style front and centre.


However, with time travel, you have to tee up a lot of the twists and key dilemmas before they actually truly happen; you follow the protagonist's timeline, which is disjointed, but they'll see something important happen before it does, and then again when it actually does happen in their timeline. This means that some of the twists are a bit obvious, though the main twist in this book remained a bit of a surprise until the final few chapters.


Artemis - 7/10

Andy Weir

Weir has a fun, informal style of writing that's present in all of his novels. The lead is vaguely likeable, though not as much as in The Martian and Project Hail Mary. She makes a lot of asides to the reader that almost feel like they should be followed by "wink wink, nudge nudge", a trope which becomes monotonous. The story itself isn't particularly good or bad - there are a handful of ex machina moments, plus a few too many clunkily-shoehorned scientific explainers, but it's fun enough.


The Sanctuary - 7/10

Andrew Hunter Murray

AHM has a verbose writing style that you either love or you don't. I didn't unfortunately, though I thought the story itself was fairly good. The set-up and world-building was enjoyable to follow, but the execution of key plot points in the final chapters felt a bit rushed.


The Last Day - 6.5/10

Andrew Hunter Murray

See above regarding writing style. A nice concept, but not particularly well-executed. Another review noted that a lot of the plot is propelled by coincidence and happenstance, which becomes an annoyance once you clock onto it.


 

Short Stories

Tenth of December - 8.5/10

George Saunders

An anthology of ten short stories published in three US magazines between 1995 and 2012. A wonderful mishmash of tales from an author who has a brilliant knack for moulding his narrative voice around the protagonist in each story.


VICTORY LAP: "People are a bit f***ed and life is hard". A nice start.

STICKS: Two pages long. I laughed. Outstanding.

PUPPY: Perfectly normal, other than one character being chained to a tree. Standard stuff.

ESCAPE FROM SPIDERHEAD: Simple, yet quite dark. Poetic ending. Really enjoyed this one.

EXHORTATION: Odd undertone implied more going on than first appeared. Good, not amazing.

AL ROOSTEN: Al's inner monologue felt familiar in places. Stop overthinking, Al.

THE SEMPLICA GIRLS: Quirky characters who are just down on their luck in a dystopian world.

HOME: A straightforward core narrative. The end chapter is unexpectedly raw.

MY CHIVALRIC FIASCO: The novelty came not from the story itself but from the language used.

TENTH OF DECEMBER: Not sure this was the right story to end with, but perhaps you're not meant to end with the best one.


Why were we put here, so inclined to love, when end of our story = death? That harsh. That cruel. Do not like.


Small Things Like These - 8.25/10

Claire Keegan

The main character's internal conflict was well-written (and thus surprisingly developed and nuanced for such a short book), but his monologue gave the narrative a sense of reasoned structure that made the final act seem like the only option; the inevitable outcome, even. Leaving the ending on a cliffhanger felt like the right decision too - in a longer book, there would have been time to develop the aftermath, but this short story didn't need that.


So Late in the Day - 8/10

Claire Keegan

Pacing exposition throughout a short story is a skill that Keegan has wielded expertly in both of her short stories that I've read; being careful not to front-load with context or rush the ending is even more important than in a standard novel. Whilst the ending is heavily hinted at throughout the 64 pages, Keegan only lands the final blow in the last sentence of the book. You never truly feel sympathy for Cathal, the protagonist, for the wider context of the story reveals that he is not necessarily worthy of support from the reader.


Radicalized - 7.75/10

Cory Doctorow

A dystopian anthology that was sat next to Tenth of December in the bookshop. 'Unauthorised Bread' and 'The Masque of the Red Death' stood out; one showed what people could achieve when fighting oppression in a near-future civilisation struggling to moderate ever-growing rifts between classes, whilst the other offers a slightly unique take on 'rich people hide in bunker during the apocalypse and things go awry'.


Homesickness - 7.5/10

Colin Barrett

Nice, and an easy read, but the stories themselves were ultimately forgettable; I can't recall any of the story titles as I write this review, though it's been a few months since I finished the book. The score is mainly due to its novel (non-novel) format and the engaging writing style throughout.


Second Variety - 7.5/10

Philip K. Dick

A sci-fi staple from a well-known author. Unfortunately, the ending was quite predictable, not least because of a sketch on one of the pages of the book about two-thirds of the way through that depicted one of the pivotal moments in the book's climax. Additionally, once you suspect one person of being untrustworthy, you suspect them all, which reduces the final shock factor.


Her Body and Other Parties - 6.5/10

Carmen Maria Machado

Machado has a unique, almost absurdist writing style. A lot of the stories in this anthology have a supernatural or ethereal undertone, which makes it hard at times to relate to the stories or find the true meaning intended by the author. This doesn't mean the writing is bad - I just don't think I was the target audience.


 

Thriller and Mystery

No One Saw A Thing - 8.5/10

Andrea Mara

A well-written thriller that I enjoyed enough to finish in two days. The book is just shy of 300 pages, yet there were plenty of twists and turns along the way (some of which were predictable whilst others, delightfully, we're not). Almost none of the characters come out of it looking particularly innocent, though it's very much up to the reader to decide whether some characters acted in a morally dubious manner or not.


Oh, and the cover has the wrong type of train on it, which is annoying.


You stand on a crowded tube platform in London. Your two little girls jump on the train ahead of you. As you try to join them, the doors slide shut and the train moves away, leaving you behind. By the time you get to the next stop, you've convinced yourself that everything will be fine. But you soon start to panic, because there aren't two children waiting for you on the platform. There's only one.


The Glass Hotel - 8.5/10

Emily St. John Mandel

Similar in style and narrative to Sea of Tranquility. The non-linear timeline combined with an underlying ethereal, otherworldly element is very much in line with what you'd expect from ESJM, something which is more prevalent having read Sea of Tranquility just a few months earlier. A fairly digestible book that doesn't get bogged down in specifics, yet equally gives major and minor plot points the space to breathe and develop where they need to.


Greenwich Park - 7.75/10

Katherine Faulkner

A strong thriller, though very comparable to (and unfortunately weaker than) No One Saw A Thing. The lead-in time from the first implied conclusion - less than halfway through - to the final reveal was fairly long, meaning I was able to piece things together before the final big reveal. It was an entertaining read regardless, and it being based in London made it marginally easier to picture.


The Bullet That Missed - 7.5/10

Richard Osman

An easy read, and not hugely predictable, but not as good as the first two in the series. Couple of SPAG decisions throughout that made it feel like it may have been rushed at the editorial stage too.


How To Kill Your Family - 7/10

Bella Mackie

For the most part, fairly interesting (the frequency of deaths kept the story going). Let down by a slow ending, a two-dimensional narrator, and a handful of surprising editorial mistakes throughout.


The Twyford Code - 7/10

Janice Hallett

I liked the concept, but when a book turns things on its head in the latter stages it has to feel like a worthwhile, logical move. In reality, it left me unsure as to which bits were true and which bits weren't. The ending felt a bit too fantastical and clever for its own good.


A Line To Kill - 6/10

Anthony Horowitz

A slightly clunky whodunnit from an author whose previous works I've found fairly entertaining. The dialogue was stilted and the conclusion wasn't particularly satisfying. A struggle to finish in the end, though there were occasional flashes of intrigue. Shame you didn't really care for any of the victims else it may have been a more gripping read.

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