It's that time of year again, when all sorts of 'best of...' lists and round-ups of the year are contemplated and compiled. Here at Willoughby we always read a combination of new releases and backlist, and you'll see as you read on that our list of favourites reflects this quite well. We happened upon some really interesting, illuminating, and enticing reads in 2023, and we're always curious about everyone else's favourites too. Join us on our meander through our favourite reads and let us know if you've read anything outstanding over the last twelve months.
It’s really difficult to pick my absolute favourite book that I have read this year as there have been some really good ones.
I think I will have to pick Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart though, just for the simple reason that it has stuck with me the most. A story following Shuggie growing up in 1980s Glasgow with his alcoholic mother. Agnes just wants to ‘get better’ and Shuggie just wants to be ‘normal’ and accepted. An absolutely harrowing story of poverty, abuse and unemployment.
I read it right at the start of this year but I find myself thinking about it a lot still, and it’s one of those books that I wish I hadn’t read so I could read it for the first time all over again. My reasons for this don’t really make sense as I have to admit it is the most saddest and depressing book I have ever read. I’m not that person that gets emotional or upset over humans in books (animals are a completely different matter) but I felt broken by the time I had finished it. These seem strange reasons for a book to be a favourite.
As much as I loved this book, I'm always reluctant to recommend it to anyone as it’s definitely not a cheerful read and I don’t want to be responsible for emotionally destroying someone!
Hands down, my favourite read this year was The Poppy War by RF Kuang. Not only did it have a phenomenal premise but the execution was incredible. More impressive is realising it was her debut book- talk about starting with a bang! This is definitely the year of RF Kuang with her new fantasy stand alone Babel coming out in paperback and her first fiction book, Yellowface, released to rave reviews and awards. If you haven’t picked up one of her books yet, you really should.
I loved how well paced The Poppy War was and how it provides just enough context and worldbuilding without completely overwhelming the reader. This is something that a lot of other fantasy books really struggle with in my opinion. With this book, you can really feel the tension building as the new war erupts and, as a reader (much like the character Rin) you realise you might not be fully prepared for what’s about to happen.
If you haven’t heard of this book before, please go into it blind. Don’t look up summaries or spoilers. The twist towards the end absolutely took me by surprise and is definitely something to be experienced first-hand. It is my favourite kind of twist with the perfect amount of forewarning.
It set the tone perfectly for the rest of The Poppy War trilogy and contains everything I love about fantasy. Even if you aren’t a fantasy reader, I think any reader could love this book.
2023 has been a strange reading year for me. Sometimes I’ve read feverishly with very little time between one book and another. At other points, I’ve perhaps only picked up the one book, my mind distracted by the frenzy of the outside world! I’m halfway through a handful of books, ranging from short story collections to chunky and immersive non-fiction titles, but there are some I’ve not been able to put down. My choices for the year are based on wildly different factors. One in particular cannot be described as an ‘enjoyable’ read, but its impact will be long-lasting. Another read was from my favourite author, one who rarely, if ever, disappoints. The final is one that filled me with such joy, that I couldn’t not include it here.
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, although not a long read, will be the standard to which I hold all novellas going forward. Split into two very distinct parts, the book is centred on a specific incident that occurred one year after the ‘Nakba’ of Palestine in 1948, in which 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced by the newly formed Israeli state, in which a young Bedouin woman is murdered by occupying soldiers. The first part follows the lead-up to and occurrence of the incident and the second part is set in the modern-day, with a young woman attempting to find out the truth behind the crime. It’s a book about borders- physical, moral, and emotional- and the continual repetition of history. What Shibli does with the short form, the way she constructs the narrative in such a seemingly simplistic way, is astounding. It’s haunting and wrenching to read, but as a piece of literature and a piece of political literature, it cannot be understated how vital this book is.
Another favourite read of the year is Lean On Pete by Willy Vlautin, published in 2010. It’s no secret in the office that Vlautin is my favourite author, and he certainly does not disappoint with this bittersweet tale of 15-year-old Charley and his endeavours to make a life for himself despite the odds. Vlautin is another writer who is concise and knife- sharp with his language, but infuses every element of his story with pathos and humanity. It’s everything you would want from the ‘Americana’ subgenre. His characters feel fully realised, the relationships that he creates true, and the depiction of the unpolished, forgotten underbelly of American society is authentic and gritty.
My third favourite read of the year is A Perfect Golden Circle by Benjamin Myers. My first experience of the author was with The Offing, where I fell in love with Myers’ beautiful prose and now I recommend it to readers of all stripes! A Perfect Golden Circle is set over one sun-sapped summer in 1989 in rural England, where two unlikely friends create magnificent crop circles under the cover of darkness. Soon the media and public become intrigued by the mysterious circles, making their tasks more and more difficult to keep secret. It’s a love letter to the mythic, to the traditions of Britain, to the countryside and to the wider natural world. I’m always interested in reading positive depictions of masculinity in varying forms and this one explores that idea so, so well. It’s touching, it’s funny and made me want to drink homemade cider in a wheat field!
It's so hard picking a favourite from amongst the books I have read this year.
Like Olivia I completely fell for Benjamin Myers writing, and can't wait to read Cuddy- I just need to wait for the paperback to come out so I don't whack myself in the face with it if I drift off to sleep while reading. I particularly loved The Perfect Golden Circle, which has been passed round the office like Claire Keegan who we also all love. I'm discounting her newest novella So Late in the Day simply because it was so short, although as with all her writing there was not a word out of place. I finally and extremely belatedly got round to reading A Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, which was fantastic.
Another book I absolutely loved this year was Seven Steeples by Sara Baume, a strange and almost trance-like novel, where not much happens except the passing of time. This small, strange book has stayed with me since the reading, her writing is so beautiful, and the focus on the passing of time via the seasons and the detritus of everyday life was very different, and very memorable.
My favourite book of the year was Blindboy's Topographia Hibernica, his new collection of short stories. I've been a long time listener of the Blindboy podcast, and to read these new stories in his voice, in addition to his exploration of writing and his creative flow from listening to him, has really enhanced the reading experience. I love his expansive view of art and format, and the mycelium networks of culture, myth, and understanding that go into the process of creating the final work.
These are weird, unsettling stories, very dark and dense, but with dazzling moments. I can't wait to see what Blindboy writes next.
Can I also give honourable mentions to Anam Cara by John O'Donohue, which I finally re-read in it's 25th anniversary edition (as you can see I'm not a fast reader...) and Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris, which was hilarious, poignant, and heart-breaking all at once.
I absolutely loved Babel by R.F. Kuang. As soon as I started reading, I was completely absorbed into the characters’ lives, the world and the story. I found it very hard to put it down to do essential things like my job. Once I had finished the book, I really struggled to pick up another, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and how I really want to make sure they were all ok and the rich story around them. Despite, R.F. Kuang noting at the beginning of the book, it is a work of fiction, there are elements of the real world and Britain in the 1830’s, that I really loved.
Revolving around Robin Swift as he is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell, after being orphaned by cholera in Canton. He is trained in Latin, Ancient Greek and Chinese, with the hopes and wishes of being accepted into Oxford University’s highly prestigious Royal Institute of Translation, also known as Babel. Once there, Robin finds he’s in a utopia of knowledge, but as he spends more time studying, he learns of the imbalance of power that the British Empire holds and has to make a decision when Britain is deciding to pursue a war against his motherland.
It’s a historical fantasy epic that is full of student revolutions, magic, colonial resistance, and the tool of language used as translation as the dominating tool of the British Empire.
This story and its characters have really stuck with me and I just really want to know more!