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2023 Reading Review

2023 was a difficult year for me personally, primarily due to health issues. The reason I mention this here is because I ended up with executive dysfunction which hugely impacted my ability to read in the first half of the year. In fact, I didn't start the first book on this list until late April.

I'm really proud of myself for reading any books at all last year. More than that, my executive dysfunction prompted me to try audiobooks, a format I've swiftly become enamoured with. Audiobooks spiced up many dull chores for me in 2023 and are a great way to consume some books (I say some because I still struggle to digest some genres in audio form).

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I often see discourse in book spaces on how many hundreds of books someone has read and people bragging about their fast reading speed. I've even seen calls for writers to make every chapter in their books equal lengths so people can better track their pace. If that is how you enjoy reading your books, power to you, but I want to say to everyone else not to worry about how fast you read, or how often, or how many books you get through each year.

There's enough pressure on people, particularly nowadays, it seems, and I'm sure the authors whose books I read in 2023 wouldn't care how fast I sped through their chapters; they'd care more about the moments that made me laugh, which characters made me feel seen, the places I could picture so vividly I wanted to visit them, or the lines they wrote that made me close the book for a moment to fully digest them. Books are a wonderful, important medium, but they are also here to entertain us. If you're reading and enjoying it, that's all that matters.

That's enough from me; onto the books.

"The price of disobedience is death. The words kept running through his head every day as Azoth planned his disobedience."

Brent Weeks' Night Angel is a well-written fantasy-assassin series that flows as swiftly as his characters' blades. This was a fun read full of devious plots, night-time hijinks, mysterious magic and a flawed, broken city in desperate need of saving.

The strength of the series, for me, lies in the action-packed plot. Every action scene is well-crafted and there are ample fast-paced sequences to keep you on tenterhooks. If you're a fan of assassin-fantasy stories, this should be for you. The characters are, for the most part, well-written and interesting enough (although I will say that, sometimes, the treatment of female characters falls flat), but they mostly follow the tropes and paths you'd expect.

"And if she had the faintest smile lines around her eyes and lips—what a tribute to a life well lived. To him, they were a mark of distinction."

But the characters are still compelling components. In this dark and twisted world, it's hard not to feel sympathy towards the protagonist Kylar and his friends.

Although Kylar is an explicitly flawed protagonist surrounded by many characters doing dark deeds with the best intentions, you end up cheering them all on in their struggles.

I'm primarily a fantasy reader, so The Lending Library was far outside my usual reading tastes. In all honesty, that's what made it a fun read for me; it's good to read beyond your genre and to have a palette cleanser every now and then.

I was primarily drawn in by The Lending Library's title and cover; as a book lover and someone working in the publishing industry, I'm interested in reading about books and libraries. The protagonist Dodie's love of reading and her dedication to spreading this joy to those in her town was easily my favourite part of the novel.

I was surprised at how easily I was drawn into Dodie's life as she grappled with her high expectations of herself. While a lot of the plot wasn't particularly thrilling to me (again, I'm used to books often filled with fights and magic and large-scale politics), I can imagine those into romance and chick lit books would find this easy read enjoyable.

This was a wonderful summer read that I picked up because of its similarities to the beautiful All the Light We Cannot See which also features war-torn Paris.

"The library was more than bricks and books; its mortar was people who cared."

This is an emotive story that moves at a fast enough pace to keep your attention. While the majority of the action occurs in 1940s Paris, it does occasionally jump to 1980s Montana where we get to see an older version of the protagonist Odile. I'm not normally a fan of split timelines, but The Paris Library made this a uniquely enjoyable experience for me; the Montana chapters feel entirely relevant to the story, deepen your care for and understanding of Odile's life, and introduce new characters whose lives I quickly became invested in.

Similar to The Lending Library, I particularly enjoyed Odile's time as a librarian and reading about a protagonist with a love of reading. But The Paris Library quickly became a far larger story with huge stakes and earth-shattering consequences. It never loses focus on the heart of the story: the characters, particularly Odile, and how their lives are turned upside down by the war.

"We are only as good as the world we create around us."

This series is one of the first I've read solely as audiobooks. Impostor and Hysteria, the first two books in Ross' Alexander Gregory series, are narrated by Hugh Dancy, who is a fantastic narrator and made my audiobook experiences highly enjoyable. The next few books in the series are narrated by Richard Armitage, which I'm very much looking forward to.

Impostor was a fun thriller story that perfectly introduced the protagonist Alexander Gregory and set the tone for the rest of the series. Hysteria does a good job, for the most part, in following on from this, although it doesn't develop Alexander's character far further than its predecessor. Both plots are similar in theme and tone which can be reassuring; it's nice to have an idea what kind of book you're picking up. I have hopes that the next instalments will further develop Alexander and throw some curveballs his way (and I'm excited for Richard Armitage to pick up where Hugh Dancy left off).

I'll occasionally pick up a good thriller novel, although the main draws for this series were the narration by Hugh Dancy (he has a wonderfully soothing voice and his acting prowess makes the story shine) and my interest in L J Ross as a self-published author. She's one of the most successful self-published authors, achieving international bestseller status and accumulating a plethora of accolades, praise and, crucially, loyal readers. Certainly an interesting case study for authors hoping to follow in her footsteps.

Ever since Amazon Prime's The Wheel of Time series started airing, I've had a desire to re-read Robert Jordan's masterful (and long) book series. I'm trying to pace my re-read to match the TV show's timeline, but we'll see if I can wait for the third series to air.

I'm not going to provide a full review of either these books or the overall series here – as both my favourite book series and a series that has so much depth (and length!) to it, this would require a dedicated post at the very least. Instead, here's why I think this series of books deserves a try, particularly if you're a fan of the TV show.

If you're a fan of the fantasy genre like me, this series is simply a must-read. I've tried to avoid that overused phrase in my reviews, but Jordan developed the fantasy genre just as surely as Tolkien did before him. The first novel in the series, The Eye of the World, really is a love letter to Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings series, but this is where we start to see Jordan putting his unique twist on the genre as he asks: what would these characters actually be feeling and thinking? This humanistic and sympathetic perspective is truly valuable in a genre that is so often simplified to various tropes and cliches: magic spellcasters, knights fighting in medieval armour, or the typical division of a world into the races of trolls, elves, goblins and more. It embraces many classic elements you'd expect from a fantasy series but engages with them on a very human level. There's much to learn from this thought-provoking series that, in my opinion, is fantasy at its best.

From a book series that inspired a TV show to being inspired to read a series because of a TV show...

I finally watched Netflix's Daredevil early last year, and I am now an unrepentant Matt Murdock lover. The TV show is so wonderfully well-made that I highly recommend it if you've yet to see it – but this isn't a TV show review.

"Let all the bullies know—all of them—the kind that use knives and guns and the kind that use money—they have an enemy."

The only comics I'd read before are Matt Fraction's Hawkeye series. They are truly inspired works of art and have, perhaps, set the bar high for my comic book expectations. I couldn’t really imagine myself enjoying another superhero comic. After all, one of the main things I enjoyed about that run was how grounded and realistic the events and the tone of the story were.

Not only are Daredevil comics wonderfully gritty, they offer a more mature story than I had anticipated from a comic book (yes, I’m on my journey to open my mind to comic books as a medium). The dark tone isn’t there for aesthetic, superficial reasons, but provides the necessary backdrop to some incredibly complex emotional beats and a series of stories committed to delving into some deep philosophical conundrums.

The Man Without Fear is a great story, and I would say its strength, for me, lies in its protagonist and his character arc. This is a compelling tale of a man experiencing tragedy and loss, and struggling to do his best under challenging circumstances. This darker comic book character has a palpable relationship with his own humanity and the impulses that come with it. I recently delved deeper into the Daredevil mythos and watched an interview with The Man Without Fear’s writer, Frank Miller, on the superhero. His comments have given me a new appreciation for both the character and the style with which this comic is written and drawn.

As my Daredevil obsession becomes a worsening condition (particularly with the imminent Daredevil: Born Again show that is currently being filmed), there are a number of DD comics on my list that I’m sure I’ll be reading in 2024. One of those comics is written by Bendis, who also worked on The Avengers: Disassembled. I don't have much to say about this comic other than it is short and pointed. If you're a fan of the Avengers comics (and if you like Hawkeye like me), this fun comic packs a punch.

Historically, there's been much wrong with the self-help genre. These books often claim to aid the reader in some area of their life but, in reality, are just an excuse for the writer to spout their own experiences. There's nothing wrong with sharing your own experiences, but doing so in the context of holding the secret to life is disingenuous and can be problematic. (In fact, I think most self-help books would become infinitely more interesting if the writer framed the tools and techniques as things that specifically helped them overcome their personal flaws, rather than trying to sell them to every reader as something that every single person must know and implement in their lives.)

With all of that said, this book somehow appealed to me. Perhaps it was the pretty pink cover with its appealing, shiny foil lettering. Or maybe it was the subject matter that called to me – a perfectionist learning to embrace failure as a positive. Whatever it was, I'm so glad I picked up this self-help book.

Failosophy is a short, genuinely insightful book on failure of all shapes and sizes. Day splits the book up into seven digestible lessons and vulnerably shares with the reader how each one has proven challenging and helpful in her personal life. The book's main philosophy is to embrace failure as an opportunity for growth and for connection; after all, to err is human. Moreover, the book largely focuses on the teachings and experiences of others, thus offering a wide scope of stories for the reader to learn from and connect with.

2023 was a tough year for me and dipping into this accessible short read was a needed, uplifting experience.

"Without that compass, without a murderer's kindness, I'd never have found this place, and yet I cannot shake the feeling that I've been lured into a trap."

This book is such a fun ride. The Groundhog Day, time-hopping element of the novel is a great way to refresh the typical murder-mansion plot. It's particularly fun to have the opportunity to get to know the murder victim while they are still alive and experience them as a character with agency. The eventual conclusion the book reaches feels satisfying and refreshing in a way I honestly did not expect.

"Daniel warned me that each of our hosts thinks differently, but only now do I comprehend the full extent of his meaning."

Turton's prose is a joy to read. With his insightful writing, each character in the novel is a surprise and delight in their own, unique ways. A fortuitous result of the fairly literal head-hopping our protagonist does is getting a glimpse of the way different people operate, creating an interesting dichotomy of an empathetic and judgemental perspective.

Finally, I just want to say that Stuart Turton's author's note at the end might be one of the favourites I've ever read. And yes, Turton, your book did keep me up until 2am, several times. Mission accomplished.

Red, White & Royal Blue is a gorgeously fun and cheesy queer novel; something completely different to my normal reads and equally refreshing. I watched the Amazon Prime film adaptation before picking up the book. It was a fun watch, and I heard from lots of book fans that the film had left out several plot points, which made me want to read the book even more.

This novel follows many of the beats you'd expect from a modern rom-com featuring royalty and politics, and that's one of its many strengths. McQuiston's writing remains light-hearted as you follow Alex’s realisation that he’s bisexual and his romance with the dashing Prince Henry unfolds. I think this is the first time I've read a novel featuring an explicitly bisexual protagonist which, as a bisexual person myself, was meaningful. While some of the relationships in the book are slightly too cheesy, even for me, the plot unfolds at a great pace and the novel certainly has a better structure to it than its film adaptation (though both are very fun).

The inclusion of elements of queer history makes this an even more uplifting novel for queer readers – it’s such a joy seeing yourself represented in such a joyous, happy novel, and the historical elements feel like an appropriate acknowledgement of how far we have come (despite how much further there is yet to go). The political element of the novel not only adds some high stakes and wish-fulfilment fantasy to it (in part, the position and power to enact positive change), it also helps to flesh out the characters and give them dreams and motivations beyond mere caricatures.

I feel like this novel is perfectly encapsulated by its title – a fun pun on full moon that has a lighthearted, supernatural, 'gotcha' vibe. From what I've read of The Dresden Files so far, this is in keeping with the series' tone (although I have heard that the writing improves as the series goes on).

"They're just itching for me to lead them in some meaningful crusade against evil. Hell, I have trouble just paying the bills."

For the most part, this is a great novel of inquiry that leads Harry from one gruesome scene to the next within this noir detective story. While many of Harry's characteristics make him a decidedly flawed character, his perspective is not a chore to read as his flaws are often built into his struggles in the book: he's someone who is trying to do what's right even when his instincts demand otherwise. Aside from that, it can be quite fun to watch a somewhat obnoxious character fail so frequently.

"It isn't enough to stand up and fight darkness. You've got to stand apart from it, too. You've got to be different from it."

I found the magic system and the ways Harry Dresden interacted with it rather touching at times. What's interesting to me about The Dresden Files isn't whether Harry will be able to succeed, but how he'll resolve his problems. When magic is involved in any story, the author runs the risk of the stakes feeling inconsequential and the resolution too easily achieved. But in Fool Moon, Harry has to grapple with his own morality and power, and find a solution that aligns with who he is as a wizard, as a detective, and as a person. The hints we got about Harry's mother further hammered home this theme of identity against a backdrop of people shifting into werewolves and being overcome by their supernatural power, and posed interesting questions to be resolved (I imagine!) in the sequels.

Fool Moon isn't a novel that shook the earth beneath me, but it was a fun supernatural read with great stakes within a dark, magical world.

The Beast of Bridde Place was one of the most surprising and enjoyable reads of the year for me. I was kindly sent a free copy from the publisher (and the following reflects my honest opinions) and, aside from reading the blurb, I really had no idea what to expect.

A L Waters opens her novel with a viscerally engaging sequence, making it easy to become immersed in Nora's story from the very first page (it reminded me of The Eye of the World's infamous prologue – a brilliant demonstration of horror writing in fantasy, and of starting a book with an ending; something Waters also does wonderfully with her book). Once Nora wakes up from her nightmare, the reality she finds herself in leaves enough room for mystery to keep the reader hooked. From then on, Waters artfully disperses information throughout the narrative, making great use of interludes to keep the story feeling fresh while providing crucial clues.

Waters’ wonderful prose carries the reader through the mystery and horrific events to the true heart of the story: the characters. What starts as an eerie, gory murder mystery evolves into a surprising tale of homecoming, with heart-warming themes of identity and self-acceptance. At first, I was gripped by the folkloric magic of Waters’ words, but, by the end, I was rooting for the strangely elusive protagonist.

I have always been a lover of character-driven stories, and I was surprised to find so many characters in this novel to root for. Waters has created characters who all feel real, full of depth, and are very strong-willed. Seeing them confront each other against the backdrop of horror, murder, and suspense is thrilling. I found this book particularly rewarding as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, and the unexpected compassion contained in Nora's story has left a definite impression on me.

“In the wrong hands a secret is a weapon.”

Daughters of Night is a thrilling murder mystery that kept me hooked the whole way through the book. The central mystery gradually unfolds to reveal a host of fascinating, well-realised characters and their numerous secrets and scandals. Every character is given a clear motivation, and there are so many interested parties involved in the main murder that the plot feels like it is constantly evolving along ever-darker paths.

“He should have threatened me with this, not sought to punish me – because if I do one thing more before the roof falls in, let it be this.”

I found the themes of women's rage and desire for justice particularly compelling. The single-minded strength of the female characters is a good balm to the many frauds featured in the novel: the inequality of the sexes, the cons and tricksters in the criminal world, and the duplicitous nature of men. Daughters of Night engages with inequity within society with particular attention to the hypocritical love affair between those in power and the ancient world. Overall, this is a fun page-turner whose themes are as satisfying as the ultimate conclusion of the murder mystery.

I knew this would be the last book of 2023 for me; I started reading this the day after Boxing Day, in between festivities and family gatherings. I was also generally tired and wanted something easy, breezy, and cheery.

For the uninitiated, Dan and Phil are two British YouTubers who have been on the platform almost as long as it has existed. They mostly talk about their own lives, and this book delves further into their weird and wonderful minds. Unless you’re already a big fan of Dan and Phil, I would confidently say this is one to skip. However, what should be notable to everyone about this is the way they produced the audiobook.

I ended up listening to the whole audiobook in one day. Not only is it narrated by both Dan and Phil, but it's done in a way that feels informal and full of personality. It’s not intrusive or overdone; it never feels like a podcast or an audio play. They make use of subtle effects and touches throughout the audiobook to enhance the listening experience; from slight reverbs to signify subtitles to short selections of background music.

I picked this up after Christmas because I wanted something super easy to listen to. I almost just listened to podcasts instead, but I’m glad I got this book. Aside from enjoying the natural chemistry Dan and Phil have, there’s something rather relaxing about listening to an audiobook that you know will end. While podcasts are wonderful, and I’m grateful to listen to them for free, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this audiobook knowing that it was finite. Perhaps this is a strange observation, but I thought it was worth remarking on.


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