Books: Best of the Year for 2023

It’s that time again when I cast my eye back over some of my favourite reads of the year just gone, from science fiction to espionage history to biography to children’s picture books, and of course my beloved graphic novels (I don’t read quite as many as I did when I edited the Forbidden Planet Blog, but my comics DNA remains!). As usual, I am sure I will realise I’ve forgotten someone after I have posted this, but that’s usually the way!

And if you fancy trying any of these, please do consider buying from your local, Indy bookshop if you can, rather than the chains or the Giant Website That Shall Not Be Named (if you don’t have a local independent bookshop in your area, but would still like to support one, you can buy online via Bookshop.org)

Fiction

Lords of Uncreation, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tor / PanMacmillan

The third and final part of Adrian’s gripping Final Architecture series, dealing with a future where the human diaspora is spread across the galaxy after the destruction of the Earth by the Architects, a mysterious, unknowable, unspeakably powerful race appears from hyperspace and “reshapes” planets, as if making celestial sculptures. Along with other races the survivors on other colonies live in constant fear of their return, and desperate measures are taken, exploring the very fabric of the reality of the universe. Again we see this from the eyes not of great heroes, but our mismatched crew of an old salvage vessel, caught up in politics, crime and galactic destruction.

Despite the size of the book, this is a fairly quick read, as it is so damned gripping and rides along at a terrific pace. Said it before and I will say it again, Adrian is one of the UK’s SF writers to add to your shelves, if you haven’t already, I recommend him regularly in our bookshop.

Starter Villain, John Scalzi, Tor / PanMacmillan

This was an utter delight to read – Scalzi is in his “let’s have fun” mode here. Charlie has had a run of bad luck – he’s relying on a temp job after losing his other work while looking after his ailing father, his marriage broke up, he is back living in the old family home with nowhere else to go, and his siblings want to sell it now their father has passed on. It’s just him and his cats against the world. Then he learns his estranged uncle has passed on, a billionaire and corporate titan, who fell out with his father after his mother’s death, and has never been in touch since.

Now Charlie has inherited his uncle’s business and must arrange the funeral, at which a succession of odd character appear, including some who take to attacking the corpse to ensure he is really dead. It turns out his uncle’s business as just one side of his life, the other was, well, supervillain, complete with a volcano lair on an island (waters patrolled by smart dolphins who want to form a union to get better working conditions). Oh, and his cats are genetically engineered spy cats his uncle slipped into his life to keep an eye on him. And his uncle’s many rivals now scent opportunity as Charlie has to learn the business. Along the way Scalzi manages potshots at the “tech bro” mentality and the idiocy of many of the super-rich (who all assume they must be incredibly clever if they are so rich, of course). This left me smiling.

Dragonfall, L.R. Lam, Hodderscape

I’ve known L for a while as one of our Edinburgh writers, so I was looking forward to this (she had me at the promise of “sexy dragons”!), and as a bonus we had a triple-header of women writers for an evening event at our bookshop, with L, Hannah Kaner and Anya Bergman (see next choices), which I had the pleasure of chairing (great event). This is the start if a new “romantasy” (romantic fantasy, a growing subgenre), which does something interesting and different with one of the most fabulous of mythological creatures, the dragon, and also gives us a compellingly-crafted bit of world-building, including a society with a different take on gender norms.

Godkiller, Hannah Kaner, HarperVoyager

Hannah was also one of our guests at out evening of women fantasy writers event, and I absolutely loved her debut. We have a realm where the royal family outlawed the many gods that existed, which were destabilising society, with gods of all sorts, from the mighty, like fire gods or ocean gods, to tiny, like a god of lost sandals, each with their icon and altars for worship (which fuels their existence), and while many toe the king’s law in public, in private many wish again for their gods. As conspiracies grow across a troubled land, in the best tradition we have a misfit bunch shoved together on a journey.

Hannah brings the characters to rich life, especially on the emotional front – you will really come to care for them. Despite often harsh, brutal elements, there’s also a warm strand of humour woven into it. I’ve just been reading an advance copy of the second volume, Sunbringer, which will be published in February 2024.

The Witches of Vardo, Anya Bergman, Bonnier

We had Anya as part of our trio of women fantasy writers, although this is more historical fiction with a wee smattering of (possible) magic. Drawn from surviving Norwegian court records of witch trials centuries ago, the main characters here are all real people named in those documents, and it will often make your blood boil to read it and realise that, although this is fictionalised, there were women with those names who were treated this disgraceful way by a patriarchal power-base terrified of the idea of women getting ideas above their station.

There’s just enough in there that you could explain some of the more unusual moments away, but equally you could also decide there is indeed some magic involved, the writer leave it to the reader. There have been some great “witchlit” novels in the last year or two, but this one stands out, not least for the historical trial records which underpin it.

The Boys in the Valley, Philip Fracassi, Orbit

I enjoy a good, creepy horror, preferably something that takes the time to build atmosphere, and Philip does that superbly well here – set in a harsh, rural, winter in the US, I was sent this in the middle of the summer, but I still felt those cold winds! The sheriff and his posse seek help at a Catholic orphanage during a snow storm, dragging a hideously injured man they shot earlier, a man covered in arcane tattoos cut into his flesh, a man who should be dead.

He and others had been carrying out some sort of dark ritual, including sacrifices, when the sheriff took them. When the strange man finally dies of his wounds, it is as if the evil in him seeps out into the orphanage and everyone there, like an infection, changing behaviours, unleashing darkness. Delightfully creepy, in the Exorcist vein.

A Haunting on the Hill, Elizabeth Hand, Sphere / LittleBrown

Hand, an acclaimed writer, is, appropriately, a multiple winner of the Shirley Jackson Award; here she is revisiting Jackson’s classic masterpiece, the Haunting of Hill House. Cleverly she side-steps the obvious sequel, instead this is a theatre group hiring the house in the modern era, only to find strange noises and sights and thoughts. Like the original it eschews cheap jump-scare tactics or gore, instead this is psychological terror and atmosphere. I love the original and I have to say I really enjoyed this – ideal for those looking for a creepy, haunting tale on the long, dark nights.

Red River Seven, Anthony Ryan, Orbit

I knew nothing about this book in advance, when the publisher sent me a copy to look at, and within the first few pages Anthony had me hooked right in. A man wakes up on a boat, with no personal memories. He still has knowledge and skills he learned, but nothing about himself – his name, if he had a family, anything of that nature. Others wake up on the ship, save one who appears to have shot himself just before they woke. Each appears to have different skills, as if someone had assembled them as a team, but again no personal memories.

Each bears marks of recent surgery on their skull and torso, and a tattoo with a name (each is given the name of a writer). The boat’s controls are sealed, it is on an automatic course to … somewhere. A radio comes to life, and an artificial voice gives them strict instructions to follow, and will not answer their questions. I won’t say much more because of spoilers, but this has elements of Cube, John Carpenter and even Jeff VanderMeer in its DNA; I found it totally gripping. (full review here)

Infinity Gate, M.R. Carey, Orbit

I’ve been reading Mike’s work since his comics writing days, and here he is doing something new for him – his first foray into Space Opera, with a big, widescreen, multiverse of a setting. In a world very like ours, near future, wars and exhausted natural resources and pollution and environmental collapse, a scientist in Africa has created a portal to parallel Earths – potentially the way to save the world, giving access to near limitless resources.

But there is already a vast confederation out there, of cultures spread across the multiverse, and they really don’t care for anyone else poking their nose into portal technology… Along the way Mike layers in some nice references to racism, bigotry, imperialism and environmental issues across these different but parallel worlds.

Mr Breakfast, Jonathan Carroll, Melville House

I’ve loved Carroll’s works for decades; highly respected by those in the know, and among many other writers, it is a mystery to me why he’s not more widely known. He has a remarkable talent for creating stories that come at you in interesting, different angles than most. Here he has Graham Patterson, a failing stand-up comedian, whose life is falling apart. After one final, poor show, he decides to quit, buy a stupidly large truck, and drive slowly across the US to his family on the opposite coast where he will take up a more mundane job, giving up his dream. On his way he stops overnight in a small town, and is taken with the art on display in the window of a tattoo parlour, prompting him to choose one of their designs.

What he doesn’t know is that this tattoo is special, it gives the wearer a glimpse into alternative versions of their own life, then choose one (or remain in their current life). It doesn’t offer an easy way out – for instance, you may see a version of you that is successful, happy, but that doesn’t mean that life will always be that way, because, well, life. Along the way he starts taking photographs, and these start to weave themselves into the multiple versions of his lives as he attempts to decide who he wants to be.

More Perfect, Temi Oh, Simon & Schuster

Temi gives us a near future in a world very much like ours, but more so, where almost everyone is linked to the Panopticon, a neural net that links not just computers, as we have today with the web, but minds, sharing ideas, even dreams – never be alone! Not everyone loves this idea, and of course it is also wide open to huge abuses, but just as it is seen as odd not to have web access in today’s society, this anti-Panopticon group is viewed as eccentric at best, as a threat to society at worst, and we will experience this world through the eyes of a young woman finally connecting (as was her desire for years) and a young man who has been isolated from it all his life by his dissident father. Shades of the Matrix, Inception and Bill Gibson are woven in with a fresh perspective from Oh (and with a rich seam of diversity too) – she’s a writer to watch, I think.

Ritual of Fire, D.V. Bishop, PanMacmillan

I’ve known David for years through our comics connections (he is a former Tharg, the editor of the legendary 2000 AD comic), and he is also a regular in our bookshop, so when he had the first of his new historical crime novels set in Renaissance era Florence, I had to have a look, and I was hooked. This is the third in the series, and sees our main detective-like character, Aldo, sent out into the surrounding countryside to patrol, sent away from the city, just as a series of gruesome murders of influential Florentines starts, all seemingly linked to an insane religious zealot of a monk who had wreaked havoc a few decades previously, before being put to death.

It’s compelling, with some truly gruesome ends, and David kept me guessing right up to the last few pages as to which way he was going to take it – reading so much I often sense where a story arc is going, but not here, and that was refreshing and welcome. Looking forward to book four this summer.

Viper’s Dream, Jake Lamarr, No Exit Press

When an advance copy of this arrived, I had to have a look – billed as a “jazz noir”, one of my colleague rightly commented, this one must be for you. We follow Viper’s life through a changing Harlem, from the 1930s to the 60s, and the changing scenes around him. Leaving his rural life behind he thinks he will become a great jazz musician, but it turns out he’s terrible, so instead, after a stint working in a jazz club, he becomes a heavy for the owner’s sideline in drugs supplied to the musical fraternity, rising in the ranks, befriending many famous names (people like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis appear as background characters).

It’s a short but atmospheric tale, watching the world and the music scene change around him as the decades roll past, while a personal history recurs again to prompt his own story arc through this. You don’t need to know jazz to enjoy this book, it is a solid, period Noir tale, but if you do like jazz, it’s a bonus. (full review here)

The Second Murderer, Denise Mina, Harvill Secker

“The Montgomery’s money was so old there was a rumour that some of it still had Moses’ teeth marks on it”

One of Tartan Noir’s great crime writing queens, Denise Mina, turns to Raymond Chandler, with a brand-new tale of his iconic Philip Marlowe, one of the most legendary gumshoes of all time. I really wasn’t too sure about this at first – normally I am not mad on a writer doing a deceased writer’s characters, but I know Denise wouldn’t try this unless she thought she could do it both well and with respect for the original material, and indeed she does.

I adore the Chandler novels, and yes, I loved this too – it felt exactly like having that character and world again, but maintaining Chandler’s feel while never slavishly copying, bringing something of her own style to it too. One for fellow lovers of Chandler and classic Gumshoe Noirs.

Graphic Novels

The Hard Switch, Owen D Pomery, Avery Hill

Owen’s previous graphic novel, Victory Point (also Avery Hill), was one of my books of that year, so when Avery Hill had their annual Kickstarter for upcoming new releases, this is one I jumped at backing. Very different from his previous book, this is science fiction, set on a run down, working spaceship scavenging wrecks in a universe where the material that allows faster than light travel is running out – when it is totally gone, people will be effectively stuck on the planet and its solar system they are on, so everyone is scrambling to get what they can then settle somewhere before it happens, while law and order is eroding. This has a real Firefly vibe to it, and again the artwork is a beautiful, clear line style.

Why Don’t You Love Me?, Paul B Rainey, Drawn & Quarterly

 

Back when I edited the Forbidden Planet Blog, Paul’s serial Why Don’t You Love Me? Was one we shouted out many times. Fast forward several years and D&Q produced this lovely, big hardback collection of Paul’s fascinating series, a brilliant comic strip that has you thinking it is one thing, then another, then another, slowly revealing layers upon layers – it’s original, unusual and really draws you further and further into it to see where it is really going. It has, rightly, been appearing on best of the year lists all over the UK and US, and I’m delighted that this veteran of the UK Small Press comics scene is getting such wider recognition for his unique style of comics.

Transitions: a Mother’s Journey, Élodie Durand, translated by Evan McGorray, Top Shelf

“I thought I was open-minded… The news of my child’s gender change hit me like a tidal wave, sweeping away all my certainties. Sweeping away the comfort of my tidy little life.”

The ongoing discussions, debates – and sadly sometimes screaming matches – over the issues of Trans identity in our media can sometimes obscure the fact that, when you look past ideologies, social expectations and norms (and often prejudices which many of us probably never even realised we had), much of it boils down to something very, very simple, something that in one form or another we all do: a person trying to figure out who they are, how to live, how to be comfortable in that skin. Durand takes a mother suddenly finding out her girl actually has found herself identifying as a male for some time, now becoming a Trans man.

There is the initial shock and surprise, the mother wondering how this happened, did she do something wrong somehow? But then through a mixture of musings and performing her own research, she does what any good parent does – she tries to understand so she can support her child. A compelling mixture of informative and compassionate.

Alison, Lizzy Stewart, Serpent’s Tail

In lesser hands, this story of a now-famous artist recounting how as a young, naïve woman she met a famous, much older artist and fell into his orbit would be one where it was mostly concerned with the older, more sophisticated, experienced man taking advantage of a younger, less worldly woman, but Alison is far more nuanced. Although it doesn’t shy away from looking at that aspect of the relationship, it also explores a genuine relationship and romance, despite the age and social difference, and the way she is slowly encouraged to learn more about art, then develop her own, part of the path that lead to her later becoming an acclaimed artist in her own right.

It’s a fascinating tale, also an interesting take on that subject of the older artist and younger muse/lover, and one which I am glad to say does not relegate her to just being that, but explores her as an actual person and artist.

Big Ugly, Ellice Weaver, Avery Hill

When we’re younger, especially in our teens, we often think we’re clueless, that everyone else seems to know what they want to do with life, how to act in most situations, unlike us, but hey, when we are older, we’ll have it all figured out. Then, of course, we find out differently, and we realise actually although part of us still thinks others have a handle on life, unlike us, really they’re mostly thinking the same as us. Ellice creates a story of two siblings, sharing a home as adults after one goes through a rough time, that family dynamic of both feeling and wanting to be needed and help while sometimes resenting being needed, of casting back to youthful incidents that somehow you’re convinced are part of what marked your present, adult self, if only this had been different, if someone had done that instead of this your life today would be so much better…

It’s very recognisable stuff to many of us, while Ellice’s unusual art style reminds me (pleasantly) of stills from a cool animated film, with a nice mix of intimate panels and the odd double-page splash, drawing you in.

Non-Fiction

For The Love of Mars, Matthew Shindell, University of Chicago Press

The Red Planet has fascinated humanity for millennia, from deciding it was a sign from the God of War in antiquity, to early science fiction convinced life existed there, to our modern era where we have been mapping and exploring our near-neighbour. While this is a good popular science read, it is also much more – Shindell covers our scientific explorations and knowledge gained of Mars, but he also takes pains to put the planet into a cultural context, what it has represented to humans in our culture as well as our science, which makes this more human and approachable, and all the more interesting.

Making It So, Sir Patrick Stewart, Gallery / Simon & Schuster

I don’t read a lot of biographies, but, well, this is Patrick Stewart… Obviously there is the very important Star Trek element to this, but the other decades of his life are also compelling reading, from a childhood in a small town in rural Yorkshire, on the edge of poverty (outdoor toilet, hiding with his mum when the rent man came to call) through to being bitten by the acting bug, slowly realising that yes, actually working class lads from Yorkshire can go to drama school, not just the posh folks, the Old Vic, landing his dream job at the RSC, starting to get film work and more.

There’s a strong sense of humour running through it all, and he’s not shy of turning that humour on himself at some points (a couple of times it put me slightly in mind of Spike Milligan’s memoirs). Through all of it shines a love of storytelling, especially with Shakespeare, and the sense of a man who realises how fortunate he has been and is enjoying that life. (full review here)

Wise Gals, Nathalia Holt, Icon Books

This is a fascinating book about a fascinating, and often hidden, subject – espionage. The women here all served in the early incarnations of the US Intelligence services, during the scramble to create such departments as WWII raged (some served as spies and resistance leaders behind the enemy lines, risking torture and death), and then helped to set up the new CIA after the war. That in itself would be compelling reading, the tugs and pulls of war, politics and ethics all clashing, and the women themselves ranging from rural, small-town gals to sophisticated society ladies who spoke multiple languages.

What they had in common was a determination to do a good job for their country, and the bravery to see it through – although this also brings them smack into the incredible sexism of the era – they don’t get the pay or promotions or respect male counterparts do, despite often being as good or better at what they do, so they use their intelligence gathering training to construct data on why women are so important to the CIA to campaign for their rights. This is history, politics, culture and feminism all in one, absorbing read.

Camera Man, Dana Stevens, Atria Books

I’ve loved Buster Keaton’s astonishing silent comedy films since I was a child, watching them with my dad (we both still enjoy watching them!), so this was always going to grab my attention. But Stevens hasn’t created just a simple biography, although this does take us through Buster’s life, from childhood on the vaudeville stage, to the new medium of cinema, to his old age, dispelling myths along the way (such as him effectively disappearing into a bottle when his principal movie stardom faded, despite the fact he was very active in a number of fields for decades after this era).

What she has done is take his life and career, but also use it as a way to look at how entertainment, culture and society all changed across Buster’s lifetime, from the late Victorian period to the 1960s, how the newly evolving technology of film affected popular culture, how people like Buster innovated in that embryonic medium, through to the rise of the corporate studio systems, and to the emergence in the 50s and 60s of TV, which revived interest in these almost-lost silent classics. It’s as fascinating for those insights as it is for reading about the life of one of the first, great movie stars. (review here)

Children’s & YA Books

Bumble and Snug: the Shy Ghost, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books

I absolutely loved Mark’s Bumble and Snug series, and have been recommending it constantly in our wee bookshop, and am delighted to say quite a few of our younger readers have been just as delighted with them! In this third volume our bestest friend Bugpops are preparing for a magic show, when they befriend a ghost – but, as the title suggest, the ghost has a crippling shyness, and the thought of trying to do something in front of people is very scary, so of course they try to help them.

As with the previous books, there’s a lovely wee adventure here, a lot of humour, but also again an underlying theme of friendship and trying to be kind to others, to understand feelings, that we have them and so do others around us – it’s a good message for young readers to learn, but mostly as with the first two books, the main thing I took from this is just pure joy.

100 Tales From the Tokyo Ghost Cafe, Julian Sedgwick and Che Kutsuwada, Guppy Books

I had the pleasure of working with Julian and Chie at their event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last summer, following their previous collaboration, Tsunami Girl, which likes this is an intriguing mixture of both prose and manga. As with Tsunami Girl, the two forms overlap, compliment and indeed enhance the other, the manga performing some storytelling tricks that prose cannot, and vice versa, giving a very rounded view into the characters and the world(s) they explore.

Drawing on famous Yokai tales of Japanese spirits, folklore and myths, our main characters – avatars of the authors – are travelling through Japan to research these tales, each leg of the journey opening up other tales, but with a connecting narrative thread running throughout. There are even some rather lovely nods to characters from Tsunami Girl (you don’t have to read that to get this, but it will add to your experience if you have), in a book which presents rich, Japanese folklore in a very accessible manner, but also in one which is often deeply emotional and personal too.

Mexikid, Pedro Martín, Guppy Books

After chatting to some lovely folks from Guppy Books at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the summer, they very kindly sent me a copy of their edition of Pedro’s autobiographical graphic novel, Mexikid, and I am so glad they did! We’re back in the 1970s, with his large family (eight kids!) in a busy, busy household, and about to become more crowded as they are packing up for a road trip south of the border, back to Mexico – their abuelito, grandfather, something of a legend in the family, is going to be coming back with them to the US.

What follows is part family history, but also a gentle exploration of both Mexican and American lifestyles and cultures, and events which shape families and individuals, all delivered in a wonderfully warm, engaging and often very funny way, with much of the humour coming from a child’s point of view, and the tangled nature of family dynamics (something anyone from any culture can identify with!).

Sam Francisco, King of the Disco, Sarah Tagholm, Binny, Rocket Bird Books / Barrington Stoke

Oh but this picture book had me smiling and laughing – we finally find out what cats do when they are out all night long, and it turns out it is partying as DJ Sam Franciso spins the most awesome tunes around! Of course this does keep some others awake, including the street’s grump, Buzzkill Bill, who unleashes his dogs on the cat rave. Except the dogs join the party, as does everyone else!

Whose Dog Is This?, Andrew Sanders and Aysha Awwad, Macmillan Children’s Books

I loved Andrew and Aysha’s previous picture book, Where Has All the Cake Gone?, and this features the same father and young son, and a similarly tall tale as the boy seems to be inventing ever-more elaborate excuses to explain his naughty behaviour, which becomes ever more imaginative and convoluted (including stealing top secrets and the intervention of a brilliant spy dog, no less! It builds to a crescendo that, like the previous book, leaves you wondering if it was really all made up as an excuse, or if there was just a bit of truth to it, leaving you with a huge smile. I’ve read both this and the previous books at our regular Under Fives Storytime, and they went down well.

Rose Wolves, Natalie Warner, Top Shelf

This is a deceptively simple, beautiful tale, told entirely without words, the art carrying all of the story here. A young girl finds an unusual flower in the forest, a flower which blooms magically into an unusual creature, the Rose Wolf. The animal is missing a leg, just as the wee girl is missing an arm, and the two quickly bond, leading to an adventure to find out where they belong in the world around them. Reminding me a little of Slade’s Korgi series (also a wordless, all-ages comic), this is an enchanting, gorgeous, warm delight for both younger readers (the wordless nature makes it especially suitable for any with reading problems) and adults.

Ning and the Night Spirits, Adriena Fong, Flying Eye Books

Ning has trouble making friends with the other children in his village, and also wonders why the villagers always light lanterns to scare away night spirits. It isn’t long before he goes exploring and find he can make friends, starting with the night spirits in the forest. This is an utterly beautiful work, part picture book, part graphic novel in style, with the usual high standards from Flying Eye. Colourful, enchanting and gorgeous, this is ideal for those who adore Studio Ghibli.

Monster Support Group, Laura Suarez, Flying Eye Books

Channel some of your inner Addams Family with this gorgeously ghoulish tale of young Lowell – 12 years old and worrying about body changes. No, not just the usual ones, Lowell is turning into a werewolf!! He finds the local Monster Support Group where they “don’t judge witches by their warts, nor ghouls by their groans.” It’s a lovely little comedy-horror about growing up, changing, learning to be comfortable with yourself and finding the people who will accept you as you are, all with that Addams Family / Tim Burton twist to it. Made me chuckle!