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2023 end of year pick

It’s not an easy task but…. Roaring Stories staff name their favourite reads of 2023.

Bronwyn’s picks

Some years it’s very hard to pick just one favourite. 2023 is one of those years. Throughout this year, I have read and enjoyed so many wonderful stories for very different reasons, that it is hard to compare them or rank them.

How can I possibly choose between a beautiful, tender debut novel written by a former colleague about young love in all its messy, glorious confusion ‘Thirst For Salt’ by Madelaine Lucas and an exquisite novella based on the memory and fiction of the incredibly brave Cheri Tremble who opted for assisted-suicide when she found out her cancer had returned ‘Cheri‘ by Jo Ann Beard? How can I compare the magnificent reimagining and repositioning of Eileen Orwell to centre stage ‘Wifedom‘ by Anna Funder to an absorbing, detailed exploration of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories ‘All Sorts Of Lives‘ by Claire Harman to Debra Dank’s ‘soul-deep stories’ about connection to country in ‘We Come With This Place‘?

How can I pick between the heady three-day holiday reading binge that was ‘Fire Rush‘ by Jacqueline Crooks to the rainy weekend when I devoured ‘The Vaster Wilds‘ by Lauren Groff? How can I possibly compare the heartbreak of intergenerational poverty in ‘Demon Copperhead‘ (Barbara Kingsolver) to the heartbreak of intergenerational dispossession in Edenglassie by Melissa Lucashenko? Surely I shouldn’t have to decide between a tragi-comic environmental thriller Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton and a tragi-comic 1980’s property development/heritage restoration drama Glass Houses by Anne Coombs.

Yet, it seems that I do.

As I was agonising over this decision, I realised that in the end one book does stands out from the crowd of incredible of books I’ve read this year. It was a little bit the story, a little bit the memory. It was a little bit the place and time and a little bit about connections. It was a little bit heartbreak and a little bit tragi-comic. But above all it was about love and hope and consolation. It was a book that celebrates and honours peacefulness and the quieter moments in life.

Tom Lake is a not a page-turning, chaotic or complex book that demands something from its readers. It’s a gentle, charming novel with the art of story-telling at its heart. Given the desperately sad news cycle on our TV’s right now, Tom Lake was the perfect antidote. It was the book that nourished my heart and soul just when I needed it most.

Tim’s picks

The reading mind constantly reconfigures its environment. This year I’ve enjoyed Louis de Bernières’ Light Over Liskeard’, Mick Herron’s ‘The Secret Hours and more recently been majorly impressed with and moved by Patrick Radden Keefe’s ‘Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty’ which reminded me in its investigative momentum  of Philippe Sands’ ‘East West Street’.

I’ve also read Emeric Pressburger’s ‘The Glass Pearls, Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Justine’ (still in progress), Richard Ford’s ‘Be Mine’ and Paul Dalgarno’s ‘A Country of Eternal Light’ (nearly finished), Lou Berney’s ‘Dark Ride‘ and Michael Connelly’s ‘Resurrection Walk’.

That’s a few that come to mind. I’m essentially a slow reader and think that the great thing about books and reading is that they return a person to their own sense of time so I’m not the greatest fan of the production line of global publishing whilst accepting begrudgingly that I don’t know of a better way to get books to people. Quite often I’ll pick up a book that I began reading years ago and after a little refresher moment happily settle in like partying with old friends.

This year a general impression of books read and my response to them is a fresh appreciation of just how much effort and artistry, not to mention natural talent and creative intelligence are contained within all of these books. A book and the collective team behind its creation is an admirable thing. The books I’ve read this year have challenged my way of living in and experiencing the world and opened me to uncertainty and a certain unease that seems real and reminds me of when many years ago whilst chatting about Proust’s writing with someone I made an observation along the lines of “the world he’s created feels more real than reality”. Maybe? I don’t know. Revisiting this list of recent reads I think Paul Dalgarno’s ‘A Country of Eternal Light’ is my pick and along with Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Justine’ is the book I feel that I can learn the most from when next we resume our time together. The greatest pleasure I’ve experienced over the recent reading year was that acceptance that it’s ok to be stumped by a book and that the thing is to persevere. At the end there mightn’t be that big pay off of things making sense or some great revelation but when we make choices as to what we read and how we respond we’re fighting that good battle against propaganda, mundanity, sameness and spin.

Sylvia’s pick

Why We Are Here by Briohny Doyle

My book of the year is Briohny Doyle’s Why We Are Here, which I reviewed back in July– an incredibly funny and incredibly sad novel about figuring out what it means to live in the aftermath of annihilating loss, and also about walking the dog.

My other favourites were Madison Griffiths’ Tissue and Sophie Blackall’s If I was A Horse differing strengths, but masterpieces both.

April’s pick

My favourite read this year was a page-turner called Ordinary Gods and Monsters by Australian writer Chris Womersley.

The book utterly transported me to those suburban long, hot school holidays in the 80s, and to those universal teenage feelings of not knowing who I was or what I wanted. I loved that it was a coming of age story nestled within a thriller and how it managed to be both sad and incredibly funny. A Sydney Morning Herald review summed it up perfectly: ‘A skilfully constructed Rorschach test of a novel… What makes Womersley a special writer is his ability to seamlessly fuse these seemingly disparate threads, creating a self-contained world filled with equal parts dread and awe, ordinariness and otherworldliness.’

While I’m talking suburbia, I can’t resist mentioning Other People’s Homes: suburban kerb appeal. This spunky little book is a loving tribute to the weird and wonderful Australian homes featured on the popular Instagram account of the same name. It’s a great stocking filler for anyone who appreciates some of the unique architecture that exists in this country. Oh, and I’m proud to say I once lived in the glorious art deco Bondi apartments in image 238 – how I loved the curves of that building.

Stella’s pick

For some reason, my favourite books of the year always tend to be the first one I read or the last one. Something about the summer, maybe. The sun is defrosting my brain finally, I am ready to slip into the bracing cool water of a good book.

It has been a busy year, and once again my hypothesis is proving true – the last book I read and my pick of this year’s new fiction (of which there was an overwhelming amount) is The Wren, The Wren. I’m new to Anne Enright, and what a way to start! At its core I feel that this is a book that is brimming with empathy, how relationships of all kinds exist within us across time. It also is a careful examination of writing, each word feels heavy with deliberation and a certain self awareness of its own existence as a novel. Enright uses language to show us at points just the very limits of it in translating the world around us. She has stitched this story together with poetry, and even in its bitterest moments there is both beauty and bluntness. It is a book that has made me think a lot about birds. I recommend thinking a lot about birds. 

Breaking my own rules with some mid-year reads that I also thoroughly loved. Doubly breaking the rules with some non-fiction (truly shocking, I know!). I read Everywhen, partially for a class I was taking and partially because it was just beautifully fascinating. A mix of writings that welcome you into a new way of seeing. Sprawling across language, music, connection, and country, each essay tethered through new and old conceptions of time. I also adored Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know, and can’t wait to jump headlong into the next in her series of memoirs, Cost of Living.

Shanti’s pick

The Goodbye Cat by Hiro Arikawa.

A bit of déjà vu from last year, but I just really like cats! Turns out cats and emotional stories go very well together, and admittedly, I love a good story that can make me cry. The seven short stories take the reader on different journeys that explore how the loyalty between cat and companion can help us through life. In fact, I would say loyalty is a recurring theme throughout the book, but it took me until the last page to realise it.

In one of the stories, a beloved family cat realises the inevitable outcome of different human and cat lifespans, and thus seeks a way to remain with his family forever. This one is a really emotionally powerful story, taking place over more than 20 years.

The way the author provides these snapshots of the family life as they show the growing love and attachment between the cat and youngest child makes the ending so impactful. And commonly with Japanese authors, they like to include a touch of supernatural folklore. The way it is integrated in this first story is in such a clever way – using non-linear storytelling with what the reader would first think is a trivial scene. The last two stories are offshoots of the author’s previous work, The Travelling Cat Chronicles, so fans of that book might take an interest in these two additional tales.

This book, as a whole, is not afraid of showing some of the ugliness in life. It presents these accounts to you, sometimes raw in its words, and often tragic. But by the end of these stories, there is not just sadness, but also a sense of peace. The cats in these tales are not weighed down by human trifles, and they bring out the best in their companions through their love and devotion towards them. The author shows us that through life’s despairs we can overcome them with the right person by our side.

Recommended for any cat lovers or enjoyers of tear-jerkers, and those who enjoyed The Travelling Cat Chronicles, She and her catand Before the coffee gets cold.

Claire’s pick

The Echidna Strategy by Sam Roggeveen

I’m nominating Sam Roggeveen’s The Echidna Strategy as my non fiction book of the year. 

This book provides a deep and cogent analysis of  Australia’s defence and strategic position in the Indo-Pacific and posits that we cannot rely on the US as our major ally into the future.  It provides a very strong, to me an unassailable case, for engaging with our regional neighbours in a committed way in order to navigate our path through the ongoing rise of China as a major economic and security power in our region.  This is a dense book but the clarity of analysis and the strong logic which Roggeveen uses to provide the basis for his argument for a different approach to Australia’s future security, (The Echidna Strategy) is enlightening and rewarding.

Watch our author event where we hosted Sam Roggeveen in conversation with Peter Hartcher.

My fiction book of the year is Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood. Set in the South  Island of News Zealand, she evokes the rugged landscape and terrain.  She has such a deft hand in the creation of the ensemble cast of characters, a number of whom start out as distinctly unlikeable but as we journey with them through the narrative become heroic, while others follow an opposite arc.

Belinda’s pick

I took Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow with me on holiday, expecting it to last at least a week, but I devoured it on the plane.

While it’s a book that revolves around gaming – which holds no interest for me! – it’s a story that is about so much more. Sam and Sadie meet in hospital as children and then again later when they are young adults. They form a collaborative partnership and friendship, creating video games that become international bestsellers. The novel focuses on the relationship between Sam and Sadie who love each other but are never lovers. There is success, betrayal, loss and redemption. I found the story unexpectedly moving and beautiful. And I learned that gamers, like writers, are creative artists who imagine amazing worlds to get lost in.

And a quick shoutout for I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai, a murder mystery with my favourite kind of narrator – the unreliable kind. It’s been described as a #MeToo novel, which it is, but it’s also a coming-of-age story that explores prejudice, justice, memory and truth. It’s sharp, witty and thoroughly absorbing.