My Best Reads of 2023

This year I have read a number of books equivalent to the Answer to the Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, which is fewer than last year (62) or the year before (54). I was going to offer excuses for this (writing another book; an episode of depression that blew a hole out of much of the Spring and Summer) but my records show that this was more than 2020 (41) and a lot more than 2019 (18), so perhaps it’s, you know, about normal. By way of compensation, some of these books have been excellent and there are so many contenders for this year’s Top Ten that I’ve had to leave out some really good ones, and deciding the winner has been difficult. So here they are, in no particular order, as they say on the game shows:

Screenshot 2023-02-22 at 06.47.56Robin Dennell: From Arabia To The Pacific: How Our Species Colonised Asia Our species began as a hunter of open savannah in Africa. When it left Africa into Asia, it had to contend with environments as harsh and as different as arctic tundra and tropical rainforest – which it conquered as no other species has done. In this engaging book, archaeologist Robin Dennell explains how and why our species became so uniquely invasive. DISCLAIMER: I was sent a copy by the author.



Screenshot 2023-04-01 at 11.43.36David Mitchell: The Bone Clocks The only other novel of Mitchell’s I’ve read is Cloud Atlas, and, like that, The Bone Clocks consists of six novellas loosely tied together, though in conventional sequence rather than nested like layers of an onion. Each novella eavesdrops on a decade in the life of Holly Sykes, a seemingly very ordinary English woman, from teenage runaway to dying septuagenarian. The Bone Clocks is never less than ambitious but it is held up from collapse by the sheer quality of writing.



Screenshot 2023-06-29 at 17.06.31A. M. Homes: Days of Awe If  James Thurber had been born in the late twentieth century rather than the late nineteenth, and had been female (also Jewish) he might have turned out something like A. M. Homes, whose dissections of modern American life in this warm collection of short stories have the same satirical, surreal, occasionally fantastical and always affectionate tone, but which are always as sharp as a tack.



Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 17.24.18Robert Graves: Goodbye To All That  is an autobiography, written in the eminent classicist’s early thirties after he had fled to Majorca, swearing to leave England for good (hence the title). And it’s no wonder he wanted to get away from it all. Born in 1895, Graves was sent to a series of dismal preparatory schools before being thrown at Charterhouse and thence the Western Front, which he seems to have preferred to his schooldays. Given the often depressing nature of Graves’ experiences you’d think that reading this book might be a chore, but far from it. The tone is breezy and bright, and full of (often very dark) humour.



Screenshot 2023-07-23 at 12.15.29V. E. Schwab: The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue Adeline La Rue is an illiterate peasant girl born in the French countryside towards the end of the seventeenth century. Fearing a short, brutal life of drudgery and, at best, boredom, she makes a deal with the Devil to be free. But desperate souls never read the small print (the Devil being, of course, in the details) and Addie is destined to go through life instantly forgotten by everyone she meets. Until, that is, three hundred years later, when she meets Henry, manager of a bookstore in New York — who remembers her. The writing is astonishingly good. The characters, both prosaic and demonic, leap off the page.



IMG_6798William Boyd: Any Human Heart consists of extracts from the diaries of Logan Gonzago Mountstuart (1906-1991), a literary figure so insignificant that he is entirely fictional. For me it has echoes of Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess and The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham in its evocation of creative talent just trying to burst through the conventions of their times, not always successfully. It’s a testament to Boyd’s skill that you can’t help but like Mountstuart, despite the fact that he is an adulterous, philandering, voyeuristic drunk.



UntitledBen Elton: Time and Time Again Very far from his 1980s stand-up heyday Elton has proved himself as a novelist of some skill, tackling ever more serious subjects. The one starts with a hypothetical discovery by Newton that were you to stand in a space the size of a closet in the basement of a building in Istanbul at a certain time in 2025, you’d be transported back to 1914. He leaves his calculations to posterity, and time travel is the fate of adventurer Hugh Stanton, who goes back to 1914 to prevent Archduke Franz Ferdinand from being assassinated — thus preventing the Great War.  But Stanton finds that just his very existence in the time stream into which he has so rudely dropped changes the course of events: and he is not the only person who’s had the idea of rebooting history.



Screenshot 2023-10-21 at 20.10.27Dara Horn: People Love Dead Jews Time and time again, the world slaughters Jews, only later on to say how sorry it is about it. In a disturbing, depressing (but endlessly interesting) book that takes in Jewish history from Renaissance Europe to 1920s China, Dara Horn shows that the world is only interested in Jews when they are dead. This is illustrated perfectly by the story of a real, live Jewish member of staff at Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam being told not to wear his kippah in public… for fear of giving offence.  Plus ca change.



UntitledSimon Sebag-Montefiore: The World: A Family History is a rather gruesome 4,000-year litany of murder, incest, deceit, massacres, religious mania, war, genocide, and some rather lavish banquets (which often end up in massacre, rape, war &c. &c.)  after which one feels that the sooner that Hom. sap. becomes extinct, the better. At more than 1,200 pages, it’s a terrific achievement. Having read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire last year (which is more than twice as long) I was surprised at my initial reluctance to read this, but once you pluck up the courage to dive in, the water’s blood-soaked lovely.



And this year’s winner is …

Screenshot 2023-05-07 at 17.30.05Gaia Vince: Nomad Century Because of climate change, the biggest migrations in human history are happening now, and will continue through the present century, as billions flee the global south. Vince sets out the scale of climate-change-caused disruption the world currently faces in stark, even terrifying terms before setting out a detailed manifesto on how the world might be saved or even made better by welcoming migrants into countries suffering depopulation, rather than putting obstacles before them. An important and indeed visionary book.

About Henry Gee

Henry Gee is an author, editor and recovering palaeontologist, who lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets, inasmuch as which the contents of this blog and any comments therein do not reflect the opinions of anyone but myself, as they don't know where they've been.
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