2023 Reads

2023 Reads

Here are some of the books I appreciated last year, in no order (a couple I actually read the previous year as ARCs, but since they were published in ’23 I’ll include them here):

Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night (trans. Megan McDowell); putting this up top because I started this in ’23 and finished it in ’24 (it’s a brick, and I’ve become a slow reader in these times), but there is no doubt this is among my favourite books I’ve read in the past year, and of all time now. Alan Moore describes it as having ‘realism in its magic and magic in its realism’; exactly what I want to read and write in fantasy and horror. It’s a tremendous book, thick with the coagulated blood of colonial history as it seeps into every aspect of modern life like the effluent of a malign god. Earns every one of its 700+ pages, an intricately carved memorial to the cost of colonialism and its serpent sister capitalism, of resistance, of growing up in a world ruled by demons the same as you. This book actually scared me, it’s so profoundly horrifying it sent me into a kind of depression, so of course I love it to bits. For all its brutality, it’s fiercely humane, filled with a desperate hope that the Dark won’t swallow us all if we refuse to be its instruments. But man, that hope is ragged.

Andrew Sullivan’s The Marigold; grows a terribly plausible urban future from the capitalist wreckage of the modern ‘world class’ city, and drowns it in a tide of Boschian chaos that folds apocalypses of body horror, techno-fascism, economic and climate collapse into one roiling, angry wave that’ll sweep you away with its narrative force.

Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida; Sri Lanka as a case study of how humans physically and psychically terraform the world into demonic purgatories, myriad hells, walled paradises. An excellent fantasy novel about the very real unreality of post-colonial South Asia.

Bill Sienkiewicz’s Stray Toasters; a magnificently rendered and bilious dystopian psychosexual fable. Read this one while listening to the latest Burial EP (Streetlands), and the two go together like toast and melancholic jam.

Junji Ito’s Uzamaki; haven’t finished the entire series, but I knew this much-memed and shared manga classic was a must for a reader like me, and I wasn’t wrong. I love its sickly specificity of place that nonetheless gives way to complete nightmare logic, and of course the artwork is gorgeous and dreadful.

R.F. Kuang’s Babel; falters as a portrait of revolution in its second half, and with a tendency towards eager didacticism, but its world and magic system (a lovely fantasy metaphor for Empire’s plundering of both mineral and cultural wealth) are rapturously detailed and lovingly imagined. Smart and compelling, a perfect replacement for the now-tainted Harry Potter series, for those who want to vicariously experience a magical British university (and all that such a thing might imply).

Guy Davis’ The Marquis; I will follow any good writer or artist into Hell, and Davis (who has much demonic experience with his work on B.P.R.D.) is no exception. A dazzlingly baroque, smart take on the vigilante comic, with stunning monster design and artwork.

Paul G. Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World; made a fist around my heart. An exploration of faith itself as a capricious, fickle god born of humanity’s terror at the self-fulfilling prophecies of its endless apocalypses. Merciless and tender, brilliant. The kind of distress this book plunged me into made me remember first reading King’s Pet Sematary as a kid, that searing evocation of grief and loss. This came out before the pandemic era, it hurts all the more now.

Deepti Kapoor’s Age of Vice; lives up to its (now abruptly receded) hype. A crime epic that distils the socioeconomic brutality of modern India into a potent cocktail equal parts distressing and entertaining, confidently uniting ‘literary’ and pop cinematic sensibilities. I will say, the novel doesn’t really end so much as stop to take a break until the planned sequel. A proper successor to Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games (I say as someone who can’t remember reading any Indian crime epics since that one). Not surprised it’s already being adapted for TV, though hopefully to better results than the latter.

Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt; a novel that lives in the body, written with such gruesome honesty and beauty that reading it feels like the carnal function it is (eyes, brain, heart etc). Proof that the pulpiest genre fiction can feel real as a gut punch when written with care.

Deena Mohamed’s Shubeik Lubeik; one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in a while (and ever), using the conceit of an alt-history where djinns/wishes are commodified to tell a tale of the costs of (a tiny portion of) humanity’s ability to get whatever it wants. This is a heart-wrenching story about, among other things, the crushing weight of living up to one’s morals and maintaining faith in an amoral world, but it’s also funny, sweet, fabulously imaginative, and brilliantly drawn and crafted. Just incredible work.

Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke;  a beautifully awful triptych of stories that delve into faith, in others and something beyond, waiting to be broken.

Vajra Chandrasekera’s The Saint of Bright Doors; this novel will, I hope, be recognised as one of the most vital novels to come out of Sri Lanka or South Asia or anywhere in this era–a surreal saga that captures the death-haunted realities of this region and era, and subverts them into the uncanny dream quest of an anti-champion through the dark labyrinth of imagined laws and powers humanity traps itself inside. This is a book that explores how marvellously and brutally humanity remakes the world, and shows how a book can remake (or, indeed, dissolve) genre.

Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s The Ten Percent Thief; meticulously builds an ark out of the corporate tech utopianism of the present and sails it out into the rough seas of the future to show us how it would sink. A cautionary tale wrapped in a dazzling profusion of ideas, leaping across the different facets of its imagined society with the lightness of a bird, wryly observing the eternal struggle between malign progress and embattled resistance.

Brandon Taylor’s The Late Americans; an antidote to the MCUification of the aspirational idea of a story for so many readers and ‘consumers’ of ‘content’ (fan service over all, trope lists, plot as king, quips as dialogue–yes, a generalisation). What a joy to read a book about normal people just living their lives in a world that has come to feel incredibly abnormal. Taylor is a remarkably sensitive and non-judgmental writer, unafraid of the ‘problematic’, unafraid to look directly at the stew of contradictions and loathing and love that bubbles under the performative veneers of everyone you know, perhaps all the more turbulent among a generation who grew up being trained in the public performance of the self in the theatre of the internet. This is a book about the internet that Taylor knows to keep firmly grounded in the real world, where bodies interact with themselves, each other, the earth, while all else hums in the wires and the air.

John Langan’s The Fisherman; I’ve dreamed so often of an afterlife as a great alien sea and sky haunted by titanic storm and beast, and this novel feels like an account of that un/familiar land, this atavistic non-place. An uncanny, gorgeous novel that hums with a shared primal awe of all that never dies beyond human life.

Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter (trans. Angela Rodel); a beautiful rumination on the fragility of both history and memory, and the ease with which they can be weaponised. Distinctly European, to both positive and negative affect, never quite exploring the implications of its alt-historical temporal politics on the rest of the world, keeping Europe a world unto itself, perhaps apt. At its weakest as it broadens its satire, most powerful when it dwells in the intimate mystery of memory, and evoking the way it reanimates what is lost forever in its ‘true’ form.

Tashan Mehta’s The Mad Sisters of Esi; magnificently odd, a tale of tales wrapped in iridescent spacetime, an infinitely nested creation myth, a portal and a ship and a campfire woven of prose. Reminded me of Calvino, and Clarke’s Piranesi (but spacefaring), of Borges, and I don’t make those comparisons lightly. Another book that simply does not care about genre boundaries or conventional narrative structure.

Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette); brilliant, among the most frightening novels I’ve read, an eerie psychogeographic invocation of the ghosts left by atrocity, wrapped in the dread of their silence. Genocide poisoning the well of time and space itself. The novel underscores the impossibility of normality in life under occupation (while being a compelling portrait of the same, in its second half), in a land surrealised and literally haunted by the repeating horrors of history. Unshakeable. An essential read, as the people of Palestine continue to suffer interminable and unprecedented horrors under the genocidal siege being conducted on Gaza by the state of Israel.

Samit Basu’s The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport; absolutely marvellous, painting a spaceport city as rich in specificity and cultural plausibility as it is outlandish, woven with dense social subtext tying it to modern India. Basu remains one of the few writers who can pull off comedy in literary science fiction and fantasy. Bravo. This is how you do blockbuster entertainment in prose, without pandering or sacrificing depth, humanity, and intelligence. Marketed as a retelling of the tale of Aladdin, but that is a mere seed for what flowers here.

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