Books of 2023

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I didn’t read much in 2023, my usual aver­age is around 50 books per year. I managed 17. My head just wasn’t in the game. I seemed to spend all my time either doing build­ing work at home or trav­el­ling for work. I reviewed most of the books on Instagram as I went, so I’ve copied and pasted my comments here.

1) Good Pop, Bad Pop– Jarvis Cock­er

Jarvis clears out his loft, takes photos of vari­ous inter­est­ing junk items, and then uses each one as a spring­board to talk about vari­ous peri­ods of his life and work. Short, drily funny and really well done.

2) Lost in the Moment and Found– Seanan McGuire

I’ve read most of this novella series and they’re a bit of a mixed bag. Some are really great (the one inspired by Christina Rossetti) and others are really rushed and noth­ingy. All of them take the same format: a child, normally a girl, faces some kind of social or family prob­lem and escapes to a fantasy land, but there are far more consequences to that than your typic­al children’s book. Some of the stor­ies can feel very tick-listy like “let’s do issue X today”.

This one was a very solid story though with some lovely writ­ing: Antoinette’s fath­er dies of a heart attack while they are in the super­mar­ket, and a pred­at­ory step­fath­er soon moves in, caus­ing her to run away, find­ing herself in a magic­al lost and found shop. However there’s a price to be paid in how time passes…

So like I said this is a really nice solidly writ­ten story you can read in an even­ing.

3) The Dispos­sessed– Ursula K. Le Guin (re-read)

A re-read of one of my all-time favour­ites- The Dispos­sessed by Ursula le Guin after recom­mend­ing the series to a friend. The whole series uses anthro­po­logy as an under­pin­ning to sci-fi. In this case explor­ing what life would be like in an anarch­ist soci­ety based entirely on Mutu­al Aid with no concept of money, and how someone from that soci­ety would adapt to life under capit­al­ism. That makes it sound like a dry polit­ics text­book, but it’s not, like the rest of Le Guin’s books it’s a beau­ti­fully writ­ten lyric­al story.

200 years before the book’s setting, anarch­ist revolu­tion­ar­ies left their origin­al world to create a new colony on the planet’s moon. Shevek is an ideal­ist­ic young scient­ist, raised in this soci­ety appar­ently without money or hier­arch­ies, who slowly becomes more and more disil­lu­sioned with the ways people still find to play power games and stifle creativ­ity or origin­al­ity in this appar­ently egal­it­ari­an and free soci­ety. He travels back to the origin­al plan­et to take part in an import­ant scientif­ic research project that could revolu­tion­ise space travel, but has to learn how to survive in capit­al­ism and avoid being caught up in an entirely differ­ent kind of polit­ic­al power grab. 12/​10 you should read this. (The audio book version is really bad though).

It’s actu­ally avail­able to read in its entirety online here. (Scroll to the bottom of the page for down­load­able file versions).

4) A Fish­er­man of the Inland Sea- Ursula K. Le Guin (re-read)

Anthro­po­logy meets space travel. Prob­ably my favour­ite of the Ekumen series, however you should read this collec­tion of short stor­ies last, after all the other novels and collec­tions.

5) The Second Stranger Martin Griffin

A decent example of the 99p cheesy thrill­er, the junk food genre of books.

The manager of a remote high­lands hotel is prepar­ing to lock up for the winter season, when an extreme snowstorm strikes. Two men appear at the door, both claim­ing they are PC Donald Gaines, and the other is escaped crime boss Troy Foley, which one is telling the truth?

A compet­ent, enter­tain­ing if some­what ludicrous locked room thrill­er. Fine for 99p but I wouldn’t re-read it.

6) The Birth­day of the World– Ursula K. Le Guin (re-read)

Anoth­er selec­tion of short stor­ies along the same lines as A Fish­er­man of the Inland Sea.

7) Conquest- Nina Allan

The new book from one of my favour­ite current authors. A miss­ing math­em­atician, alien lichen, and a Borges style network of fake magazine articles by the char­ac­ters, and a cult 50s novel that’s a mock­ing pastiche of Ayn Rand does the Trif­fids. I was gripped for most of it, but the last section kind of petered out, so I wish it were longer. If you’ve read the Rift, it’s in a simil­ar vein. 

A strong memory of this is also read­ing it in the grim­mest work hotel I have ever been put it (in Graz). It had strong vibes of “youth offender’s insti­tu­tion circa 1992” and had clearly not been renov­ated in forever. I spent every night cough­ing, and when I was pack­ing my stuff up to leave real­ised there was loads of black mould there.

(If you’re new to Nina Allan, then I’d start with The Silver Wind or The Rift)

8) Wave­walk­er: Break­ing Free– Suzanne Heywood

I got this after read­ing an extract in the Guard­i­an (link here). It’s a memoir of the author’s child­hood in the 70s and 80s, living out her dad’s fantasy of sail­ing around the world on a yacht, which turns out to be much more danger­ous and less fun than the dream version. (Iron­ic­ally I read this as far away from the Pacific as you can get- the land­locked and flat border region between Austria and Slov­akia).

Gordon Cook is a breath-takingly selfish man who doesn’t give a shit about anyone or anything outside of what he wants. When Suzanne is seven and seri­ously injured after he pig-headedly ignores advice not to sail into a huge storm in the South Atlantic, his first ques­tion to the doctor from the remote milit­ary base who helps them is “what happens if we just do noth­ing about her frac­tured skull?”. He’s an egoma­ni­ac who views his chil­dren as props for publi­city and free labour on his boat, and is adverse to giving them any educa­tion. The moth­er is extremely pass­ive, does anything for her husband, and sees her daugh­ter as a rival once she hits puberty. Any time the kids make friends or get attached to anyone, the dad makes sure to separ­ate them and force them to follow him on anoth­er voyage to yet anoth­er remote island. I’m sure if they were around now the parents would be social media influ­en­cers exploit­ing their children’s images. 

Once Suzanne becomes a teen­ager and starts push­ing to get some qual­i­fic­a­tions via an Australi­an corres­pond­ence school so that she can one day go to univer­sity, the parents aban­don her and her young­er broth­er in New Zeal­and, a coun­try where they don’t even have a long-term visa, and leave her with total respons­ib­il­ity for him. 

Well worth a read. It’s notice­able that after the author went to univer­sity she pursued the most strait-laced civil service and finance career going. I guess she’d had enough adven­ture to last a life­time by the age of 16. Also when I googled her, there was a Daily Mail article from the broth­er going “she’s lying, we had a wonder­ful child­hood because –I– got to go scuba diving all the time”, so I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree with him.

9) Nick Drake: The Life– Richard Morton Jack

The author­ised biography of Nick Drake, endorsed by his sister.

CW: mental illness and suicide 

I have some mixed feel­ings about this book. As it was offi­cially approved the author was able to get more info from people close to Nick, but it treats his family oddly.

His family were creat­ive, support­ive and also rich. His dad was keen on music as well as being a very success­ful engin­eer, and sent his kids to board­ing school, and then Cambridge and RADA. The book acts like noth­ing bad ever happened to Nick until he turned 18, he lived a golden life with the perfect family. Is this true? Is this possible? It feels like it glossed over some things to get the approv­al of the family.

It clears up a few rumours:
1) He wasn’t into heroin
2) Ex girl­friends think asexu­al rather than closeted gay
3) It was suicide
4) John Martyn was a nasty piece of work

All his friends describe him in the same way: intro­ver­ted, private to the extent of being secret­ive (many of his friends only met at his funer­al), kind, humor­ous, and dedic­ated to music. He never had any job except student or song­writer, but was incap­able of doing the endless tour­ing of rough gigs that was essen­tial for a music career in the 70s. 

It goes into a lot of detail about the ugly side of his mental illness. There’s this sort of idea in the air that he recor­ded Pink Moon, and then, some­what depressed, retired to his bed hand­somely and poet­ic­ally, and quietly died to provide a flaw­less artist­ic back cata­logue.

The real­ity was more: scream­ing, smash­ing things and then being unable to speak for weeks, going miss­ing, being in and out of insti­tu­tions and elec­troshock ther­apy. It was only his rich, support­ive parents that preven­ted him perman­ently being sent to one of the grim insti­tu­tions of those days. Not pictur­esque poet­ic depres­sion, prob­ably schizo­phrenia.

10) The Art of Space Travel– Nina Allan

Nina Allan was my big discov­ery in lock­down, and one of my favour­ite contem­por­ary authors. These short stor­ies cover lots of her themes: real­ity shifts, people on the edges of soci­ety, near future social collapse, junk shops, weird stuff found on the inter­net, alien para­sites, discon­cert­ing bodily changes, bleak and forgot­ten coastal towns and hous­ing estates, and “factu­al” essays about things that don’t in fact exist (such as imagin­ary Tarkovsky films).

If you like the Lathe of Heav­en or Ubik, you will like Nina Allan. (I recom­mend start­ing with her novel The Rift however, rather than these stor­ies). If you like nice straight­for­ward books where everything is well-explained and unam­bigu­ous, you won’t enjoy her.

11) The Skel­et­on Key– Erin Kelly

 A murder mystery inspired by Kit Willi­ams’ Golden Hare. I was expect­ing some­thing completely differ­ent from this book than I got: maybe some­thing eerie or myster­i­ous? Instead it’s an enter­tain­ingly trashy potboil­er centred around a dysfunc­tion­al arts family who start off in I Capture The Castle terrain and get dark­er and dark­er as the novel proceeds. An enter­tain­ing read, but noth­ing of substance.

12) Patho­gen­es­is– Jonath­an Kennedy

A history of the world through the lens of plagues at the recom­mend­a­tion of @kaitlinkostus. If you’ve stud­ied history at univer­sity I don’t know how much inform­a­tion in this book will be new to you, but it’s an enjoy­able gener­al read. Gener­ally more thor­ough than a bog stand­ard pop history book.

13) Yellow­face– RF Kuang

I tried to read the authors’ previ­ous book Babel, but gave up halfway through (which is rare for me). The concept was great (colo­ni­al­ism explored through an altern­at­ive Victori­an era) but the execu­tion was lumpen, and the author had no ear for histor­ic­al dialogue what­so­ever.

I think the prob­lem is that due to her academia day job, RF Kuang is marketed as a liter­ary author, but she’s basic­ally just a compet­ent commer­cial one. She’s defin­itely much more comfort­able writ­ing in the present day.

This is a trashy fun thrill­er about the contem­por­ary publish­ing industry, taking in aspects of Caroline Callo­way, Cat Person and the kidney dona­tion saga. The unre­li­able narrator’s friend, rising liter­ary star Athena Liu dies in a sudden acci­dent, and the narrator’s left hold­ing Athena’s half-finished draft of a novel about China in WWI. Recog­nising a future hit, she finishes it off and publishes it herself, under a new pen name that implies she’s Chinese herself (she’s not), creat­ing a night­mare web of deceit that slowly closes in.

Anyway it’s trashy fun that I read in one sitting, not the deep reflec­tion on creativ­ity and racism that it’s marketed as.

14) The Murders at Fleat House-Lucinda Riley

A 99p detect­ive ebook. It did the job, the mystery (set at a board­ing school in Norfolk where the school bully is murdered via switch­ing his medic­a­tion) was fine, but the writ­ing was down­right embar­rass­ing. Every chapter had a char­ac­ter express­ing awe that the female detect­ive looked like a super­mod­el. The dialogue could be writ­ten by a 14 year old. It was supposed to be set in the modern era, every­one has mobiles, but every­one behaves and thinks like it’s 1983.

Turns out it was star­ted by the named author (who appar­ently wrote best­selling romance novels) back in 2006, and then finished off by her son posthum­ously and released last year. Which prob­ably explains why it’s such a mess. I wonder which of them was respons­ible for the cring­i­est bits.

15) Julia– Sandra Newman

1984 goes IP fran­chise mode. This does what it says on the tin, 1984 told from Julia’s perspect­ive, author­ised by the Orwell estate. Although it does skew­er Winston Smith’s solipsism and sexism, and think about what life is like for women under the regime, this is no Wide Sargasso Sea.

It’s just kind of cheap and badly writ­ten, like 1984 has been graf­ted onto some gener­ic dysto­pia thrill­er (iron­ic­ally like the machine Julia works on in the story that auto-gener­ates pulp novels), and the last third crosses over into ridicu­lous 24 type territ­ory. The sections where dialogues or descrip­tions from the origin­al 1984 are used stick out like a sore thumb due to the dispar­ity in writ­ing qual­ity. Also despite the Amer­ic­an author seem­ingly having lived in London, she has a weird lack of grasp of the city (for example Lewisham is presen­ted as far-flung). I read it in one sitting, and have already forgot­ten a lot of it. Licenced trade­mark junk food. 

I think as well my disap­point­ment with this book ties in to a wider trend I’ve noticed lately- of complete commer­cial fluff books being marketed like they are dense and liter­ary. Maybe this ties in with the Book­Tok thing of stick­ing annota­tion tabs into very simple books to look like you are a Seri­ous Schol­ar (most egre­gious examples evenly spacing the tabs along the spine for aesthet­ics).

16) The Earth Trans­formed– Peter Franko­pan

I really enjoyed Frankopan’s Silk Road history books, and this should be right up my street, a history of the world focus­ing on the influ­ence of geology and envir­on­ment­al factors, but it was dry as hell, and I never finished it. Maybe the author wasn’t even that inter­ested in some of the sections? It felt like a dry summary of vari­ous facts strung togeth­er.

17) Emer­gency Skin (novella)– N.K. Jemisin (re-read)

In the near future, all the Musks and Bezoses have fucked off to anoth­er plan­et to create their fascist tech-bro para­dise. A cloned slave man (who is essen­tially a soup of organs inside a feature­less plastic bag) is sent to “ruined” Earth to get some Henri­etta Lacks cells to keep his boss immor­tal. He has been prom­ised a real face if he does.

It turns out with all of the billion­aires gone, every­one has been having a lovely time without them and managed to solve quite a few envir­on­ment­al and social prob­lems. The story is told as a dialogue between the clone man and Mission Control AI over his head­set, with the orders getting further and further from the real­ity in front of him.

Iron­ic­ally, this is some kind of Amazon exclus­ive, so I smell contrac­tu­al oblig­a­tions and extremely enjoy­able mali­cious compli­ance.

(Also remem­ber the halcy­on days about 10 years ago when Grimes used to do music, instead of saying the most pain­fully stupid thing you’ve ever heard every time she opened her mouth?)

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