Wednesday, January 3, 2024

This Fluid Thrill Awards 2023: Best Reading

This list is all about the best books I read in 2023, not necessarily those that came out this year.

I've done this before. See: 2022, 202120202019201820172014201320122011, & 2010.

I read 59 books in 2023. The first time since 2018 that I didn't crack 60. But close to the average of 62 per annum from 2010 (if you exclude 2013-2016 when I didn't keep great records, in part because I wasn't reading or blogging as much).

More graphs and junk later. Let's get to the top 10!!

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton (novel, physical book, NZ, 2023)

What I said about it in February:
Potentially the best book I'll read this year and it's only Feb. If you loved The Luminaries you'll love this. Don't let the thriller billing lead you astray (though it does get thrilling) - this is a novel that revels in moving fully rendered, psychologically complex characters around the stage and getting them together at opportune/inopportune times (or, excitingly, for me at least, alone: a couple of these lonely, quiet moments seem to act as tent poles for the three act structure). 

If you are one of the people who talk openly about never finishing The Luminaries, when in the last 10 years did you start admitting this like it was a badge of honour? Go take a hard look at yourself in the mirror, then read Birnam Wood, though you might find it too slow as well. In which case, I've got nothing for you. I guess you don't need to be devastated as deeply as I do. 

Nothing further, your honour.

Foster by Claire Keegan (novella, audiobook, Ireland, 2010)

I read three very short books by Keegan this year. Foster was the first to be published by the second I read, and here's what I said about it in May:
It's probably only a short story, but it's packaged as a standalone book, much like Small Things Like These. Loved this one. Every books should be this short.
But, but, but! I didn't like So Late in the Day, when I read it toward the end of the year, and felt it didn't work as a standalone book. So maybe only great books should be this short.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (novel, audiobook, US, 2020)

Here's what I said about it in May:
Another kind of novel that doesn't care much for things like character development or careful observation at the micro-level. This is all about the macro: what if poor performance against the Paris Agreement meant there was a Ministry for the Future to try and drive intergenerational justice (and what if that needed to be complemented by a dark-wing to get stuff done without bureaucracy). I got very depressed to begin with (I deal with this shit every day, so nothing was a surprise, it was more like: why I am listening to this while I work in my garden?!) but it kind of justified this depression through the journey it goes from this launching point. 
To which I'll add: it's the kind of book people who've read bring up in conversation (and maybe even some of those who haven't read it). I think it's even influencing the framing of some climate solutions, and/or reporting thereof. Who says fiction has lost its power?

Lioness by Emily Perkins (novel, audiobook, NZ, 2023)

I listened to this audiobook while in Europe. Specifically, lying beside the pool at the house in the Algarve we'd rented with our friends from Germany. So: not normal life (and not wholly consistent with my admiration for Kim Stanley Robinson and my day job tackling carbon emissions). But it felt appropriate to be living like the 1% while immersed in Perkins story of a rich man's second wife and the slow unravelling of everything. 

Just who is the lioness? Is it Therese/Theresa, or her more forthright neighbour, Claire? Can there be only one?

Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You by Lucinda Williams (memoir, audiobook, US, 2023)

This is another audiobook I listened to on my trip (hence no contemporaneous micro-review to quote here). I love Williams' album, Car Wheels on a Dusty Road, but couldn't profess to knowing her full back catalogue or anything much about her life before reading this book. And it served to both point me to albums and songs I should listen to intently (hello, 'Pineola'), and, more importantly, leave me with a strong impression of the human being behind the words, her musical family, her prolonged naievty, her relationships with men, some of whom are equally lauded musicians. 

Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser (novel, audiobook, US, 1997)

What I said about it in June:
To read Millhauser is to flirt with fables and the fantastic, but never quite cross over. It's fascinating. I think I prefer his shorter works, where you spend more time - proportionately - on the knife's edge.
Yes, but, actually, in hindsight, this was one of the novels I remember most vividly from my reading this year. And part of this is from the accumulation of detail, the slow edging away from diecast reality, that only a novel can deliver. 

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (novel, audiobook, UK, 2009)

What I said about it in February:
Yeah, okay, I get it now.
Audition by Pip Adam (novel, physical book, NZ, 2023)

A sample of what I said about it in my review for Landfall:

Both structurally and thematically, the closing seventy pages feel akin to the nocturnal swim in The New Animals—we are pulling a thread of strangeness and following wherever it may take us. Sometimes psychedelic, sometimes just plain stoned, but always surreal. Free of earthly forces and pre-eminent Western ideologies, might there be a chance for Alba, Drew and Stanley to remember and reconcile the past, heal, and move beyond?

Audition remixes the tricks and conceits of Adam’s earlier books in such a way that it’s hard not to think about it as a kind of capstone... 

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (novel, audiobook, US, 2019)

Here's what I said about it in May:
I grew up with a father who loved rock documentaries so I enjoyed this. Spent a lot of time wondering why others who might be less of an anorak when it comes to music would enjoy it - the love triangle never quite joins up, which means it skirts around the worst cliches of these kinds of tails but it doesn't really have a huge amount of tension to drive the narrative forward. 
Shortly thereafter, I read Jenkins Reid's Carrie Soto is Back, which, despite also liking sports stories, I enjoyed less. I haven't seen the Daisy Jones TV show, but I did enjoy the album. Will it make my top ten albums of the year??

(Spoiler alert: No, it won't, but it would definitely make my top ten albums by a fictional band list.)

The Bell by Iris Murdock (novel, audiobook, UK, 1958)

One of the last books I read in 2023, and one of the earliest written. There's definitely a contrast between the depth and complexity in a book like this and, say, something by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The thing I sometimes forget, when reading mostly contemporary fiction, albeit across a range of genres, is that writers now held up to be literary greats are, so often, funny. And it's true that a brand of non-LOL humour provides the little bubbler outboard motor that kept things moving in The Bell. All the characters are faintly ridiculous. Murdoch is also a great teller. The opening of the novel is an onslaught of telling (as opposed to showing) and it's an absolute hoot. You can show me the glint of the moonlight on the blade, but I'll enjoy it more if you've told me how she got married to the wrong man, became estranged and has now decided to return to him in a rollicking dozen pages first.


2023 reading year statistics

Some years I set targets for diversity for the reading year ahead. Others I just wing it. I winged it in 2023 and my reading wasn't that diverse...

And only 9 of the 59 books I read in 2023 had non-white authors. Interestingly, no Australians, which must be a first, no Asian or African or South Americans, either. Sheesh.

For 2024, I'm going to set some reading targets:
  • At least ten single-author poetry collections
  • At least one book from every continent
  • At least four books in translation
  • At least four books by Australians
  • At least five different genres of novel.

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