Books – Best Of 2023

29th December 2023 · 2020s, 2023, Film, Books

Obviously these are just the ones I have read, and I am a slow reader. But I enjoy a good novel, with good characters, and I try to alternate my novel-reading with the occasional non-fiction book.

Looking at the list, it’s only now I notice that while the first (The Bee Sting) is very much an Irish book about an Irish family, the next five all have themes of race.

I had no conscious awareness of that when I chose these books, but it’s inescapably there in, er, black and white (and brown and what is surely no longer called yellow).

These are the new/newish ones I enjoyed most over the course of 2023, led by Paul Murray’s magnificently told tale of a dysfunctional family in rural Ireland (The Bee Sting) that ought to have won the Booker, followed by Taiwanese-American Elaine Hsieh Chou’s laugh-out-loud satire of race relations in American universities (Disorientation) and Bret Easton Ellis’s “fictional memoir” of his school days as a serial killer roamed LA that inspired Ellis’s breakthrough book Less Than Zero.

Then comes Colston Whitehead’s throwback crime thriller (Harlem Shuffle) set in the world of the black gangs and corrupt cops that ran Harlem in 1950s New York, and Jonathan Escoffery’s series of short stories (If I Survive You) about a second-generation Jamaican growing up in Florida. And finally Joe Thomas’s tale of racism and police brutality in Hackney (White Riot) in punk-era London: a world of Rock Against Racism, National Front marches and corrupt cops.

Bizarrely, the fictional protagonist makes his first appearance in 1978 in a house in Mildenhall Road, Lower Clapton… which is where I (and Joe Thomas, it turns out) lived in 1978. And I was at many of the events described in the book, giving it an added resonance for me.

Among the others I read was a brilliantly complex and convoluted espionage thriller (Damascus Station) in the style of John Le Carre, set among CIA spies in Syria, and the second in a planned series of hardboiled pulp fiction (Wheel Of Doll) about a characterful LA private eye with the splendid name Happy Doll.

There was another notable Irish novel by Megan Nolan (Ordinary Human Failings), a tale of tabloid intrusion after an Irish family move to London and find themselves at the centre of a Bulger-like tragedy, and the press attention that inevitably follows.

In addition to the new and newish books below, I also went back to read Evelyn Waugh (Scoop) and Graham Greene (The Third Man) for the first time since childhood, as well as some of W Somerset Maugham’s short stories, an uncomfortable experience that involved navigating a torrent of N-words and a general air of casual racism (very much sui generis but impossible to ignore) while simultaneously admiring the storytelling and style.

Then there was Tarantino’s memoir of his film-going life (Cinema Speculation), which offered some interesting insights into his craft but is a bit over-nerdy, as is (in a superior way) Scorsese On Scorsese, in which fast-talking Marty offers his thoughts on his films and just about everything else film-related at his usual speed of sound.

The Bee Sting – Paul Murray
Disorientation – Elaine Hsieh Chou
The Shards – Bret Easton Ellis
Harlem Shuffle – Colston Whitehead
If I Survive You – Jonathan Escoffery
White Riot – Joe Thomas
Damascus Station – David McCloskey
The Wheel Of Doll – Jonathan Ames
Ordinary Human Failings – Megan Nolan
Cinema Speculation – Quentin Tarantino
Afterparties – Anthony Veasna So

W Somerset Maugham – The Complete Short Stories
Evelyn Waugh – Scoop
Graham Greene – The Third Man
Martin Scorsese – Scorsese On Scorsese