Each January I give a quick summary of the books I read the previous year. This year I thought I’d share thoughts on reading, finding books that satisfy, and book clubs. Let’s see how this goes.
I don’t know about you, but I had a difficult time finding the right books in 2023. I suspect the problem has more to do with me than it has to do with the books that are available, although coping with my mother’s death and a few other events (moving houses, new grandson) may have had something to do with it. Because I’ve had so many disappointing books lately, I now take advantage of the Kindle sample to get a taste of the author’s writing and the storyline before making a purchase – unless it’s one of my ‘go to’ authors.
“What am I looking for?” you might ask. Good question. That begs the follow-on question of why do we/I read? A compelling story, of course, but also characters that are relatable and somewhat larger than life and with issues and circumstances that expand my horizons, inspire me, and make me want to be in their company for many hours. I read to explore unknown times and places – hence the fascination with historical fiction – but I also read to discover something new about myself and to ponder life’s bigger questions.
If I’m in the midst of writing and researching, I often find compelling books both fiction and non-fiction that are relevant. My work-in-process is a contemporary thriller and so I sought out other authors in the genre. Ken Follett’s Night Over Water fits this category (excellent read, historical) as does The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave (excellent, contemporary, and turned into a TV series). Then there were: Red London by Alma Katsu (not quite the page turner that Red Widow was but still very good), The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear (former WWII spy unravels a deadly secret), The 6:20 Man by David Baldacci (fast paced audio book which was perfect for a two-day trip in the car), Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty (Moriarty excels as creating unique characters, circumstances, and lots of twists), Extraordinary People and The Night Gate both by Peter May. My husband is a fan of Peter May’s novels and I can see why. Full confession – I borrowed a technique used by May’s character detective Enzo Macleod to sort out the clues he finds, and incorporated something similar into That Was Then, my newest novel which will soon go to the editor.
Occasionally, I find an author and either read several of that author’s novels in sequence or constantly check for new novels by that author. For example, I read two novels by Marie Benedict: The Mitford Affair (excellent and based on fascinating women from the Mitford family during WWII) and one that she co-authored with Victoria Murray titled The First Ladies (which features Eleanor Roosevelt’s great friendship and partnership with civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune). I did the same thing with Jojo Moyes. In the past, I’ve thought of her novels as pretty light reads (in a somewhat dismissive way), but guess what? Sometimes you need a light read. In the summer I read Moyes’ Someone Else’s Shoes (amusing premise and a satisfying ending), The Last Letter from your Lover (loved the dual timeline of this novel), The Girl You Left Behind (also dual timeline and equally enjoyable). And also two Patti Callahan Henry novels: The Secret Book of Flora Lee (excellent story) and The Bookshop at Water’s End.
I’m Canadian. When I talk about books or my writing with American readers, they often ask whether I’m a fan of well-known Canadian author Louise Penny. So in 2023, I decided to find out what all the fuss is about and read three of her novels, one right after the other. Specifically: Bury Your Dead, Still Life, and A Fatal Grace. Still Life is Penny’s first Inspector Ganache novels – a great story full of charming characters. However, I don’t recommend reading three in a row!
What did I read that I would highly recommend? Horse by Geraldine Brooks which I’ve told many friends about and recommended as a book club read (see this post for more), Tom Lake by Ann Patchett (two timelines cleverly woven together with an intriguing premise), Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt (absolutely delightful, instant best-seller, and recommended by my daughter), and The Last Green Valley by Mark Sullivan (a compelling historical inspired by true events and set in WWII Ukraine).
2023 was a year for memoirs, all of them chosen as book club reads – what does that say about bookclubs?: Dying of Politeness by Geena Davis, Run Towards the Danger by Sarah Polley, Taste by Stanley Tucci, and My Life in France written by Julia Child and her nephew. Looking back I think that memoirs are a difficult genre. There is a tendency for the author to think that everything about their life should be in the book rather than the truly interesting and/or unique bits of their life. Of these, Sarah Polley’s was my favourite while Julia Child’s fell into the category of too much detail.
Non-fiction is always of interest and at times a welcome change of pace. I tried Family of Secrets by Russ Baker which explores a Bush family conspiracy but did not get past 20% of the book. Freezing Order by Bill Browder which is a fascinating look at Russia under Putin and the lengths Putin and his thugs will go to seek revenge. Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State – totally compelling especially in light of what is happening with Donald Trump and the right-wing Christian movement in the US, as well as populism and nationalism elsewhere in the world. Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson which did not hold my attention although it’s probably me rather than Erik Larson as I’ve read and loved other of his books. Also, Becoming Dr. Seuss by Brian Jay Jones which was lengthy (too much detail) but nonetheless highly entertaining.
In June I attended the Historical Novel Society conference in San Antonio. Because well-known authors Lisa Wingate and Jamie Ford were featured speakers, I read Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford and A Month of Summer by Lisa Wingate. Both are excellent novels and each of these authors was a great addition to the conference.
Friend and fellow author Heather Burch passed away this year of a brain tumour. In her memory I read two of her novels, Wishing Beach and Along the Broken Road. Love stories featuring characters with challenging lives and circumstances. Both entertaining and heart-warming.
Other novels from 2023: Homecoming by Kate Morton (gruesome, unsolvable murder that occurs in Australia), The Newcomer by Mary Kay Andrews (beach read), Someday I’ll Find You by C.C. Humphreys (WWII), The White Princess by Philippa Gregory (I’m planning a new novel for my grandsons that features knights and castles!) and Wellness by Nathan Hill (seems to be getting a lot of attention although I found the detailed paragraphs and repetition made the book drag – perhaps I’m not a patient reader?).
A few reflections:
- I read a lot of books and even reread two because they’d become book club reads
- In addition to these books listed, I sampled and discarded many novels. Does that mean the quality being published has diminished or was it just me?
- Memoirs are interesting, however, I think I prefer biographies. Note to self – look for some biographies this year.
- With a contemporary novel in the works, I read less historical fiction in 2023. I enjoyed having that mix.
- There are so many books ‘out there’, it’s difficult to find the ones that will really resonate with me. Perhaps I need new sources of book recommendations.
- The big prize-winning novels may not be my cup of tea. (Why isn’t this expression ‘my cup of coffee’?)
If you have some favourite reads to recommend or thoughts about what you read in 2023, please let me know!
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.