2023 was a banner year for great books and it’s been very difficult to choose my favourites. I reckon I’ve read about 100 books this year, from Grandad’s Pride to In Defence of Witches to A Day in the Life of Abed Salama to You Could Be So Pretty to The Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland. Alas, there have been plenty of customer favourites and award winners that I haven’t yet got to: Demon Copperhead (several customers have said it was the best book they’ve EVER read), The Bee Sting, Doppelganger (though I’ve seen and read virtually all the interviews Naomi Klein has given this year), Wild Embrace…I plan to tackle all of them in the quiet of January!
In no particular order, here are my favourite reads of 2023:
Focail na mBan Women's Words by Manchán Magan
My Christmas gift book of the year is compiled by Manchán Magan, he of Thirty-two Words for Field and Wolf-Men and Water Hounds, and is easily one of our top 5 bestsellers. It is a compendium of women’s words (our bits and our business) in Irish with literal English translations, some of which will make you howl with laughter: see an tiompán bogach/boggy hollow and mo Mhuire/my Mary or vagina. All the artwork ( a different piece for each word) is by Irish women, and so are all the poems and essays.
Prophet Song by Paul Lynch
This one quite rightly won the Booker Prize in 2023. It is a monumental achievement. It’s tense, anxious, uncertain and urgent! It’s about a mother trying to keep her family together as an authoritarian government takes power in Ireland and war comes to Dublin. It may take a couple goes to get into it because of the breathless format, but once you get it you won’t get enough of it.
North Woods by Daniel Mason
I generally prefer action and dialogue in fiction, rather than narratives that are very descriptive about nature or heavily padded with detail. But North Woods hit me differently. It centres on the same house and its surrounding land, characters in themselves, for 400 years through the misadventure, bad luck, love, hate and ignominy of their inhabitants. And it beautifully describes the growing, shrinking and even the breathing of the forest and house as the years pass. One thing leads to another as actions taken by each generation have repercussions centuries later.
McMaster’s Guide to Homicide: Murder Your Employer by Rupert Holmes
Murder Your Employer was by far the most fun, quirky and hilarious book of 2023. It takes place mostly at an elite but secret university where the entire curriculum is focussed on committing the perfect murder (if you live in the 1950s and there’s no cctv anywhere). It starts out reading like a textbook and then follows 3 “case studies” of the university’s students as they pursue their studies and theses, where the thesis is the completion of that “deletion” (to fail your thesis means certain “deletion” of you).
Nomad Century by Gaia Vince
Nomad Century is terrifying nonfiction. It shows us in frightening detail that today’s migrant crises around the world are just the tip of the melting iceberg, and that the rest of the 21st century and beyond will be marked by the mass movement of BILLIONS of human beings. It details what we are doing to mitigate the upheaval the climate emergency is going to bring to every corner of the world and, more distressingly, what governments are NOT doing to anticipate this. Written in an easy, plain English, this is an accessible book for everyone.
The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet by Jeff Goodell
Here’s another deeply depressing nonfiction, which shows how it is the rising heat itself that is the driving force in all our climate-changing environmental catastrophes, from the wildfires in Australia and Hawaii to the rapidly melting ice shelves to the changes in monsoon patterns to drought and famine. I really don’t know what more to say about this one. It’s truly horrific, but well worth the read.
Broken Light by Joanne Harris
Bernie Ingram is a ground-down menopausal woman who has spent a lifetime looking after others in her life and coming last in line for everything. Her husband is still in love with his university girlfriend, her son prefers his grandmother to her, and so many men in passing are just awful. But then Bernie’s life changes dramatically when telepathic powers that she lost at puberty come surging back with the menopause and tables…well, they turn. In reclaiming her lost power Bernie becomes a new woman, but at some dreadful costs. Women like myself of a certain age will identify with Bernie as she begins to embrace the second half of her life.
Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent
Sally Diamond’s father jokingly tells her to put him out with the bins when he dies. And so she does just that and can’t understand why her small town is in uproar about it. It’s very funny throughout, but also has a dark thread running through it, as Sally has to confront long-suppressed memories of a childhood trauma and learn to live out in the world.