He got up and sat on the edge of the bedstead with his back to the window. “It’s better not to sleep at all,” he decided. There was a cold damp draught from the window, however; without getting up he drew the blanket over him and wrapped himself in it. He was not thinking of anything and did not want to think. But one image rose after another, incoherent scraps of thought without beginning or end passed through his mind. He sank into drowsiness. Perhaps the cold, or the dampness, or the dark, or the wind that howled under the window and tossed the trees roused a sort of persistent craving for the fantastic. He kept dwelling on images of flowers, he fancied a charming flower garden, a bright, warm, almost hot day, a holiday—Trinity day. A fine, sumptuous country cottage in the English taste overgrown with fragrant flowers, with flower beds going round the house; the porch, wreathed in climbers, was surrounded with beds of roses. A light, cool staircase, carpeted with rich rugs, was decorated with rare plants in china pots. He noticed particularly in the windows nosegays of tender, white, heavily fragrant narcissus bending over their bright, green, thick long stalks. He was reluctant to move away from them, but he went up the stairs and came into a large, high drawing-room and again everywhere—at the windows, the doors on to the balcony, and on the balcony itself—were flowers. The floors were strewn with freshly-cut fragrant hay, the windows were open, a fresh, cool, light air came into the room. The birds were chirruping under the window, and in the middle of the room, on a table covered with a white satin shroud, stood a coffin. The coffin was covered with white silk and edged with a thick white frill; wreaths of flowers surrounded it on all sides. Among the flowers lay a girl in a white muslin dress, with her arms crossed and pressed on her bosom, as though carved out of marble. But her loose fair hair was wet; there was a wreath of roses on her head. The stern and already rigid profile of her face looked as though chiselled of marble too, and the smile on her pale lips was full of an immense unchildish misery and sorrowful appeal. Svidrigaïlov knew that girl; there was no holy image, no burning candle beside the coffin; no sound of prayers: the girl had drowned herself. She was only fourteen, but her heart was broken. And she had destroyed herself, crushed by an insult that had appalled and amazed that childish soul, had smirched that angel purity with unmerited disgrace and torn from her a last scream of despair, unheeded and brutally disregarded, on a dark night in the cold and wet while the wind howled

Year in Reading (2023)

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I did not read as many books as I would have liked this year, but I still read 70. That’s a dip from last year’s total of 100, but in my defense, I did midwife a number of books of other authors through developmental editing and publishing. I also finished editing my own novel, which I’m currently shopping to agents.

I read pretty widely, as you will see from the partial list below, but I’d say that my biggest group of books is international fiction, both in English and translated. I read sixteen international books this year, and I love reading outside of the borders and encountering cultures and worlds far removed from my own. Look at the graphic at the bottom of this post to see some specific titles.

Without further ado, here are my 7 favorite books of the year.

I feel like Bernard Malamud might get overshadowed by other post-war Jewish novelists like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, but for my money, I dig him. You probably know him because he wrote “The Natural,” made into the eponymous movie with Robert Redford. This year I explored his range with “The Fixer,” “The Assistant,” and “The Tenants,” all of which I enjoyed (and which were wildly different from each other.). Easy-to-read prose with stories wrestling with moral issues.

Michael Faber is the Danish guy who wrote the missionary-to-aliens novel, “The Book of Strange New Things” (the one that’s not “The Sparrow.”). This year I dipped into his most famous work, “Under the Skin,” which got made into the movie with Scarlett Johansson. Haven’t watched the movie, but I loved the book. It feels like literary sci-fi, in the mold of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” gently easing you into a story of an alien woman picking up hitchhikers and doing unmentionable things to them.

“Kristin Lavransdatter,” by the Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset, was a novel I’ve been meaning to read for a few years. Written in the 1920s, it’s set in the 14th century, and it’s one of the greatest love stories ever written, up there with Shakespeare and Austen. It’s a trilogy and I’m excited to read the next two books.

I’m depressed that Bo Caldwell has only written two books, because I would gladly consume anything she writes. Last year I loved “The City of Tranquil Light” and this year I had the pleasure of “The Distant Land of my Father,” a wonderful portrait of an expat family in China during World War II, which explores a daughter’s complicated relationship with her father.

As far as fave memoirs for the year, last year I loved the surfing memoir “Barbarian Days,” which I still recommend to anyone who will listen. This year my favorite was … drum roll please … “H is for Hawk,” a British memoir of dealing with a father’s death by training a wild hawk. Helen Macdonald writes beautifully and muses thoughtfully.

After reading a book, some decay under time’s pressure and others ripen. “The Great Passion” by James Runcie is the latter. It’s the story of Bach composing St. Matthew’s Passion, but it’s a rich meditation on art and grief. We read it inside my book club, and though the rest of the guys enjoyed it, I think I enjoyed it the most.

Lastly, I have to mention “Stoner” by John Williams, recommended to me at a writer’s gathering in Anaheim. No, it’s not about marijuana—Stoner is the protagonist’s name. It’s described as an academic novel, but it’s really a portrait of an unremarkable man, his scholarly career and his love for his wife. It’s quiet greatness.

I also left Goodreads, after a long affair that was not love, merely convenience. It seems Amazon has spiked Goodreads out of spite – buying it and then never allocating any resources to it – so Goodreads is stuck with design and technology from 2013.

So I decided to leave the Amazon ecosystem and try out StoryGraph, which has fun data points for your life in reading:

  • 8% of my books this year were over 500 pages
  • I give 5 stars more than any other ranking
  • 22% of my reading is Nonfiction, while 73% is Fiction, and sorry Poetry, you’re only about 5%.

I miss the community aspect of Goodreads, but StoryGraph is better in every other way.

So this isn’t from StoryGraph, but I did make a map of some of my international reading this year. These aren’t necessarily my favorite books, fyi.

Here are the books, listed from left to right:

  • Canada: “The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman” by Denis Theriault
  • Iceland: “Independent People” by Halldor Laxness
  • Nigeria: “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth” by Wole Soyinka
  • Norway: “Kristin Lavransdattar” by Sigrid Undset
  • Poland: “Solaris” by Stanisław Lem
  • China: “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu
  • Australia: “True History of the Kelly Gang” by Peter Carey
  • Japan: “Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids” by Kenzaburo Oe
  • Russia: “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Sorry, South/Central America! In previous years I’d dipped pretty heavily into South/Central American fiction, because I love it so much, but apparently no books this year in Spanish.

Two of these are sci-fi — other than literary fiction, sci-fi is probably my favorite genre (see Michael Faber above). I like the sheer possibilities of it, unlike more formulaic genres like crime or romance, where the books all tend to resemble one another after you’ve read a few hundred.

My favorite book by Kenzaburo Oe remains “A Personal Matter”, but I did enjoy “Nip the Buds.”

Denis Theriault is a quick read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, although the twist at the ending is probably more appropriate for literary readers (you’ve been warned).

I did not enjoy Wole Soyinka’s novel — I just couldn’t get into it.

I did enjoy Halldor Laxness’s “Independent People” which I read on a recommendation by Ann Patchett at Parnassus books‘ social media. It’s a sprawling epic with a strong streak of independence, but it doesn’t just champion independence, it also shows the limitations of it.

I hope all of your reading has been pleasurable this year, and you’ve found wonderful books that enlarged your world! In the comments, please name your favorite novel of the year.

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  1. I am in the midst of reading Alice Munro’s Collection of short stories Family Furnishings. 1995 – 2914. This book is seldom mentioned as a critical favourite among her collections. In my opinion, some of the stories are so good I need to put the book down and rest for a minute or an hour or a day just to get my breath back. And there are paragraphs that are simply magnificent examples of masterful and impactful writing. How could any human being write this well?

  2. Thank you for talking about StoryGraph. I hadn’t heard of it. Yes, an amazing alternative to all the ugh things about Goodreads, including the way-back machine interface and nasty reviews. I found your reading list interesting. It’s difficult to keep up with current releases let alone turning to work in the early 20th century. And the number of books you read in ’23 – wow.

    1. My favourite read of the year was the complete ‘Animals of Farthing Wood’ series by Colin Dann, which I can only describe as the Odyssey from the point of view of animals in the English countryside. It seems to get (unfavourably) compared to ‘Watership Down’ a lot, which always puzzles me because the writing style and characters are nothing like ‘Watership Down’, which is a very dark story. I think it’s due to a TV series which didn’t exactly match up to the books very well.

      I’m always puzzled by why the rest of the series past the first book is so hard to get, too – I read the whole thing and I can only call it a classic. The humour and variety of the plots included seem to cover everything a reader could want!

  3. My favorite book this year: “So Late in the Day,” by Claire Keegan (I’ll read whatever she writes). This is a collection of 3 short stories, originally published in 2022, 2007, and 1999. I had read the title story in the New Yorker, but not the other two. She was also short-listed for the Booker for her novel, “Small Things Like These,” which is terrific. I should be her press agent.

    1. Aline, I tried to read all the Booker long list this year and made it through 4. I haven’t read the winner yet. I was betting on This other Eden, which sounded grim from the jacket copy, but was so beautifully written and compelling that I still highly recommend it. You can see a longer post I did on this book at my Substack called Christine beck.substack.com.

      1. Haven’t read This Other Eden yet, but I’m a big Paul Harding fan and enjoyed Tinkers and Enon

  4. H is for Hawk is an all time favourite of mine, but this year, my best read was ‘The Covenant of Water’ by Abraham Verghese, an un-putdownable 765 page novel about a family in Kerala, India.
    Happy Christmas, and thanks for your emails.

    1. Sarah, I started it on Kindle, bogged down and quit. Then my best friend said it was the best book she’d ever written and so I picked it back up again, and I’m glad I did. I also thoroughly enjoyed the series of interviews between Verghese and Oprah Winfrey, where he does a deep dive into his book section by section. highly recommend.

  5. Ah! I read H is for Hawk this year too. Her vulnerable style sometimes made me forget I was reading a book rather than a correspondence from a dear friend (or myself for that matter).
    My favorite book I read this year was Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver. Good Lord, I think that woman has made a deal with the devil. The way she is able to conjure these characters into life in a way that the reader cannot help but be totally invested in them. Just magic. She makes me cry in the best way. What an incredible story to tell around the nation’s opioid crisis.

  6. Great suggestions, I have been intending to read KLav forever. I am writing biographical histfic, and read a lot in that genre or just plain histfic. This year, I loved The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald and Pure by Andrew Miller.

  7. my favorite books this year are Playing Big by Tara Mohr and Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. Got my power fix with these two! Highly recommend.

  8. For me, the most inspirational book I read this year and last, is “Apeirogon,” by Colum McCann. It deals with the Palestine/Israel dilemma and how there is no solution but truly knowing each other.

  9. I’m a Nigerian: I’m not surprised that you didn’t enjoy Soyinka’s novel, his novels are very difficult for many Nigerians to understand as well including myself. He is not your average novelist, he is a professor with all those heavy words and grammars, the whole 9 yards if you catch my drift. Maybe next year you should try something from Chimamanda Adichie instead. purple Hibiscus might be ideal. I read so many good books and discovered new authors that it is difficult to choose which one is my favorite but I’m going to try. My favorite book for the year is The Libyan Diversion by Joel C. Rosenberg. I have been subscribed to your newsletter for over a year now. thank you, John, for those important writing tips, it has helped me in my writing. I look forward to more newsletters from you next year.

  10. Wow, John Matthew Fox, so many great new (and not so new) books to check out! Also excited to give Story Graph a try. Thanks for your comprehensive and insightful post.

    I read a lot—probably too much, at @200 books a year, so it’s really tough to choose a single favorite. That said, I fell in love with a debut from Nita Prose called, “The Maid,” and her intriguing protagonist who is on the spectrum. I also discovered the brilliant author Freida McFadden this year through her book, “The Locked Door,” and then to my joy learned that she’s quite prolific, and went on to devour 11 more of her books—all stand alones, all widely different characters, and all interesting in their own way. My favorite books to reread year after year remain “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead,” by James Kirkwood, if ever I start feeling like things aren’t going well, and the classic, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” by the inimitable Douglas Adams when I need a laugh—sometimes even just the first 80 pages for a quick hit. Your posts are also good for that—THANKS AGAIN!

  11. Hi John, I know this is a wee bit cheeky but I would love your (and others) opinions on a wee character I have created called Gordon Lambsay. This is his FB page: https://www.facebook.com/badgordon

    I have already written Gordon’s 1st children’s book called ‘Where have all the sheep gone’ but need to find an illustrator and then a printer. I have also started a longer novel (more on the JK Rowling style) about Gordon finding out about his magical powers and why he is able to interact with the animals (and humans) along with his ‘Poke and Tickle’ cane.

    My apologies if you feel this comment is ‘inappropriate’.

    Caroline and Gordon 😉

  12. I loved Kristen Lavransdattet when I read the trilogy many years ago. Im interested in the book by Kenzaburo Oe- I am in a Japan fantasy phase (where I read about it because I can’t actually go there yet.) My favorite recent Scifi is Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John. Have you read it? Gorgeous writing.

  13. #1–Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver. #2 Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt.
    My comfort food reread was The Greatcoats series by Sebastien De Castel
    My junk food was Bring Me Your Midnight by Rachel Griffin.
    So many good books this year!

  14. I really enjoyed THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY (2021) by Amor Towles that I read earlier this year with my book group. Great characters and story – highly recommended! And it informed the point-of-view structure of the manuscript that I’m currently working on.

  15. What a great list of reads, thanks for the recommendations — and very interesting commentary on the state of Good reads/Amazon.

    My favourite read for 2023: The Yield, by Tara June Winch.
    The Yield speaks directly to the history and current times of Australia’s First Nations people, and therefore to the history and times of all Australians. Tara June Winch is one of the best and most important writers working in Australia today. Told through 3 different characters including Jack Gondiwindi, who is determined to write a dictionary of his people’s language so that the knowledge and power which comes from knowing who you are and where you are from is not lost. (For those who don’t know, Australia’s First Nations people were not allowed to speak their own language for a very long time) His granddaughter, August, has been living in England for the last 10 years. When she hears of her grandfather’s passing she returns for his burial, and has to face all she left behind while also battling to save their land from repossession by a mining company. And a German missionary whose letters from 1800’s Australia break your heart.
    It is a quietly stunning story of a culture and a people who are dispossessed, but it also very powerfully reclaims indigenous language, storytelling and identity.

    Favourite kids book: The Orchard Underground, Mat Larkin. (2018)

    First published in 2018, this is one of the hands-down, laugh-out-loud, funniest books for kids that I have ever read —and re-read for the last few years with my (now) 12 year old.

    Pri Kohli is a kid who knows every inch of his town, Dunn’s Orchard, including all of its secrets (none) all of its mysteries (also none) and best way to have fun (climb a tree and sit in it) but when newcomer Attica Stone arrives and asks the simple question: if the town’s called Dunn’s Orchard, where is the orchard— it unleashes a chain of extraordinary mysteries, including a robot caterpillar, a mayor with a hidden past, a possible Real Life Bogey Man and a house made of doors in a haunted wood. It’s full of wonderful, weird, funny characters (I love them all) having an intensely special, unpredictable and wonderful adventure.

    And for those who love poetry — but also for those like you, John, who aren’t so bitten by the bug, try ‘In Case of Fire’ (Spinebill Press, 2022) it’s a gorgeously designed/illustrated anthology of a mixed group of poets getting work out during the lockdowns. It’s a beautiful work of art, and so accessible. Not just Australian writers though, one of the poets originally hails from Detroit. 🙂 I love his language play, which is so energetic, chaotic and wild, and a perfect balance for some of the quieter pieces.
    Anyway, love the Bookfox stuff, and all these great recommendations.
    Happy reading everyone!

    1. Ooo, thanks for those. The Orchard Underground by Mat Larkin sounds fascinating.

      And I do enjoy poetry quite a bit! It just gets squeezed out by fiction/nonfiction.