I got back into audiobooks in a big way in 2023, after a total break from them last year. I listened to 13 audiobooks, not to mention a swathe of DNFs. A 10-hour audiobook is not such a slog when you have a few six-hour drives between Jindabyne and Sydney.
In terms of paperbacks, I chewed my way through 21 of them. That happens to be the same number I read in 2022 – though I hope to get my tally up to 25, because I’m still in the process of finishing off a couple of titles at the time of writing. The books I start reading in December are at a disadvantage when it comes to “books of the year” lists: they won’t make this year’s list yet they won’t technically qualify for next year’s if I finish them before 2024.
Whether you’re looking for something to read this summer or are curious to compare your taste in literature with mine, here are my 2023 reading highlights.
Best books read in 2023
The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt
Jonathan Haidt’s book is a must-read for anyone who is left-leaning and despairing of the state of politics. From his Jewish atheist centre-left perspective, the author persuasively argues, among many other things, that a degree of tribalism (including expressions of religion) is valuable to humanity and conservatives have more moral “tastes” or spheres from which to connect with voters than progressives do.
Haidt writes clearly and elegantly, making his book a joy to read as well as thoroughly informative. He has the enviable gift of breaking down – but not dumbing down – dense academic concepts for the average reader. He even manages to be quite personable, effectively transmitting his own enthusiasm for moral psychology to the page. The summaries at the end of each chapter made me inordinately happy, providing an easy recap when I was picking the book up again after leaving it for a while.
Published 11 years ago, this book is as relevant as ever. Now, having engaged with some of what he has written subsequently about woke culture and “the coddling of the American mind”, Haidt is, for me, a writer and thinker to watch.
Story of Your Life – Ted Chiang
This short story by Ted Chiang is the source material for the film Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. It’s superb. I nerded out on the linguistics and philosophical elements and while I could only just follow the talk about physics, it was enough to appreciate how clever the story is. Still, none of the intellectual stuff detracts from how deeply human Chiang’s story is at its heart. It’s so meta it almost feels like an unpreachy spiritual text.
Here’s the free version I read, though I’m now thinking it’s worth investing in the whole collection of short stories.
The Stardust Thief – Chelsea Abdullah
A refreshingly enjoyable young adult fantasy that avoids some of the worst trending tropes, such as gratuitous romantasies (romance-fantasy hybrids) with unhealthy enemies-to-lovers storylines and annoyingly aggro female heroines. Instead, Chelsea Abdullah’s debut beautifully blends a Middle Eastern setting and mythology with a likeable protagonist and engaging side characters. The magic is simultaneously familiar and exotic and it was, quite simply, a lot of fun. I look forward to Book 2, due out February 2024.
Invitation to a Journey – M Robert Mulholland
I’ve written recently about how this book was truly the right thing at the right time for me in my spiritual journey. For anyone who identifies as a follower of Jesus, this thoroughly readable book ties together how deepening our personal faith can and should be for the purpose of blessing the broader Church and beyond.
Liturgy of the Ordinary – Tish Harrison Warren
A wonderful companion to Invitation to a Journey, this book is about the spiritual in the thoroughly ordinary – which is just about the most precious, Jesus-y thing ever, if you ask me.
Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
I came into this young adult novel knowing only that it was some sort of classic. Published at the start of 1985 it, like the best science fiction, contains several details that ring true almost 40 years on – such as the use of the internet to spread persuasive misinformation, with the effect of polarising society. I also enjoyed the clever physics elements in the battles. And, though I have never enjoyed military stories, I found the training camp environment compelling perhaps because many of the recruits were so young – horrifyingly teen preteen despite the interiority being unnervingly adult.
La loca de la casa – Rosa Montero
I read this more than a decade ago and liked it enough to purchase a copy. It sat, wrapped in plastic on my bookshelf for years – until last month. The rereading happened to coincide with my first attempt at NaNoWriMo and I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover it is essentially a book about writing, the imagination and being a writer. Very fitting for a wannabe novelist attempting a writing challenge!
Reading Rosa Montero’s book has been such a pleasure because it was a reminder of how beautiful the Spanish language is – and how powerful good writing is.
The Thursday Murder Club (audiobook) – Richard Osman
“Romp” is the word I would use to describe Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series, of which the first book is the best. Lesley Manville’s reading is delightful, capturing the gorgeously idiosyncratic characters Osman has created.
In a nutshell, it’s about septuagenarians at an English retirement village who solve murders in their spare time. The story delivers all the humour, pathos and Englishness you would expect from this synopsis – and that, my friends, is really all you need to know.
The Dictionary of Lost Words (audiobook) – Pip Williams
A smash hit novel now adapted for the stage, the reason for its popularity is evident. Australian Pip Williams has, in her first novel, crafted a lovely ode to the power of words, set against the backdrop of the suffragette movement in nineteenth-century England. Any reader with a love of books (and/or their father) will relate immediately with Esme Nicoll, a heroine who finds her strength and grit over time, through various challenges and tragedies.
The cynic in me would say it has wide appeal thanks to its pop-feminism (ie. feminist but, y’know, not too much), but please don’t let this detract from the fact that this is a beautifully written novel. As good as Imogen Sage’s reading is, I think I would have preferred to read the paperback in order to fully appreciate the writing.
The Storyteller by Dave Grohl (audiobook). The autobiography of the Foo Fighters frontman is an entertaining read, all the more so for being read by the man himself. Grohl’s path to fame comes across as a string of good luck that he’s still rubbing his eyes to believe.
The Square of Sevens by Laura Shepherd-Robinson. A clever page-turning mystery set in eighteenth-century England.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. So bleak but the (short) length, tone and mood of this prize-winning novel-now-film is on point. I didn’t love it, but I admired it.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman. A genuinely spooky tale for preteens.
And The Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness (audiobook). A beautiful short novel that reimagines the tale of Moby Dick as a war between humans and whales – from the point of view of the whales.
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman (audiobook). All the Englishness of The Thursday Murder Club, some of its good humour but less of its warmth. Still, a fun mystery of alternate universes, involving a librarian spy. Yes, geeks can be badass and badasses can be geeky!
2023’s most disappointing, though not terrible, reads
Babel: An Arcane History by R. F. Kuang. Clever with an interesting premise but ultimately doesn’t quite hit the mark – see my full review.
All That I Am by Anna Funder. She’s such a gifted writer and the level of detail in this novel, imagined out of a short newspaper article, was impressive. Despite winning the prestigious Miles Franklin Award, this work of fiction was slow and really just not as good as the non-fiction Stasiland. I am keen to check out Wifedom, though.
The Secret River by Kate Grenville. Powerfully evokes the grit of colonial Australia but the ugliness portrayed was just too, well, ugly, and the pace too slow. There were no heroes in this novel – only brutes, victims and brutish victims.
Amber and Dust by Lyra Selene (audiobook). Absolutely addictive, but also absolutely in the mould of The Cruel Prince and all the enemies-to-lovers romantasies I can’t stand. Read my blog on the problem with young adult fantasy these days.
What should I read in 2024? Let me know in the comments. So far on my list:
- What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad
- Tell Me the Dream Again by Tasha Jun
- Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
- The final two books of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
- Unknown: A Refugee’s Story by Akuch Kuol Anyieth (for work)
- Faith, Hope & Carnage by Nick Cave