Habitual Mood

Some books I read in 2023

I won't say how many books I read in 2023 because people can be touchy about that kind of thing. One thing is certain: I read the correct number of books, and there's no way anyone on social media could be angry with me for the number of books I read.

The following is selective rather than comprehensive. On other days, in other moods, I might have included other books, or perhaps not.

Lists are in alphabetical order by author.

Books I liked a lot (fiction)

Nathan Ballingrud, Wounds. Ballingrud’s first collection, North American Lake Monsters, was a skilful combination of “realist” storytelling and the supernatural. The stories in Wounds are something else entirely. Here Ballingrud leans heavily into the grotesque and phantasmagorical, and the result is a collection that I found utterly gripping. The final long story, “The Butcher’s Table”, is one of the finest dark fantasy/horror stories I have ever read.

John le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl. I have read eleven Le Carré novels, and while that is barely half of his bibliography, the fact is that one day I am going to run out and, worse, there is no substitute. Le Carré is like Jane Austen in this: plenty of writers produce similar work, but nobody does it like they do. The Little Drummer Girl is top-tier Le Carré, the story of an English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence to work as a double agent told over an unhurried 640pp. It is a seduction, a betrayal; inevitably there is bitterness, defeat. A masterpiece.

John Collier, Fancies and Goodnights. Collier is the mid-20th century magazine storyteller par excellence, an acidic, light-footed combination Wodehouse, Nabokov (those casually brilliant turns of phrase!) and Dahl. This is a big collection, and not every story is a hit, but even the lesser stuff is worth reading for Collier’s skill with the English sentence. The best stuff is nigh on perfect.

Barbara Comyns. A few years ago I read Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths and found it pleasingly offbeat but slight. I reread it this year and my opinion hadn’t changed. But then I read The Vet’s Daughter, which was excellent, followed by The Juniper Tree - a dread-filled spin on Rebecca - and the incredible Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, a novel about unfortunate happenings in rural England that combines a kind of jolly hockey sticks pastoral with scenes of graphic horror. A strange, unique writer.

Tanya Kirk (ed.), Spirits of the Season. The British Library’s Tales of the Weird series is a godsend for anyone seeking spooky anthologies that range beyond the usual suspects, and this Christmas-themed volume is the best I have encountered. True, as Tom Ewing said on Bluesky, putting an M.R. James tale in your ghost story anthology is like putting a Beatles track on your mixtape. But there is plenty else of interest, including E. Nesbit’s “The Shadow” and A.M. Burrage’s chilling “Smee”.

James Morrison, Gibbons or One Bloody Thing After Another. James is a fixture of literary social media, one of the great readers (not to mention book accumulators) of our time. His debut novel-in-stories tracks an Australian family - the eponymous Gibbons - through a tumultuous 20th century, into the apocalyptic 21st. It’s a constantly surprising and enjoyable book, one that engages with broader events of Australian history while never losing sight of the characters that give it heart and heft.

Ray Newman, Municipal Gothic. First of all, great title. Second, this is a brilliant collection of ghost/horror stories, set in the world of housing estates, industrial zones, and (to borrow from Richard Mabey) “the unofficial countryside”. Some of the stories are told more or less straight, while elsewhere Newman plays with form. “Modern Buildings In Wessex” is presented as an architectural guide; “An Oral History of the Greater London Exorcism Authority” is exactly what it says. Then there’s “Ten Empty Rooms”: ghost story as prose poem.

Darcy O’Brien, A Way of Life, Like Any Other. O’Brien was the son of early film stars George O’Brien and Marguerite Churchill, and he drew on his personal history for this novel. It’s a classic Hollywood tale of stardom gone sour, love turned to hate, and the desperation of the fallen star. It’s also a coming-of-age narrative, told with the lyricism and irony that gives, as Seamus Heaney writes in his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, “a sense of the language performing in and for and through the writer.”

Marie Redonnet, Hôtel Splendid (tr. Jordan Stump). This was the first of three Redonnets I read this year, and I think the best. (The others were Forever Valley and Rose Mellie Rose; the three books form a loose trilogy.) Three sisters live and squabble in a crumbling hotel in the middle of a swamp: it’s Grey Gardens as scripted by Samuel Beckett, fable-like and disquieting. It’s unlikely that either writer is aware of the other, but in some ways Redonnet’s work reminds me of Magnus Mills’ surreal, deadpan novels.

Books I liked a lot (non-fiction)

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers. There’s no shortage of books about the First World War, but Clark’s is surely one of the best on its origins. He lays out the military, diplomatic and political background of the war, setting up the various dominoes with care, then shows how they were toppled, one by one, in the headlong rush to disaster. To be honest, parts of this book, especially in the first half, are quite dry, but Clark is an engaging writer, even if he’s not a flamboyant, Schama-esque stylist, and he lacks the narrative drive and eye for amusing detail of an Adam Zamoyski. But he gets you through the knotty bits, and the sense of vertigo as Franz Ferdinand heads towards his fate in Sarajevo is intense.

Frank Conroy. Stop-Time. The evocation of childhood, done well, is one of my favourite things, and I have a sort of mental canon of the good stuff. Conroy’s memoir of his strange, peripatetic 1940s childhood definitely fits the bill. The book becomes less interesting as Frank moves into adolescence and adulthood - not bad, just less distinctive - but the childhood sections are unforgettable.

Tomoé Hill, Songs For Olympia. An irreducible mixture of criticism, memoir, fiction, epistle, monologue, structured as a response to Michel Leiris’s The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat. I love this kind of hybrid book that never settles into one thing, always surprising you with something new.

May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude. I read this in the midst of my own bleak midwinter, and it was one of those occasions where you feel your soul extend to meet another long gone. Sarton is excellent company: observant, prickly, insightful, vulnerable.

Zoe Thorogood, It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth. A beautifully drawn, confronting graphic novel about the hopelessness, the black hole nothingness, of depression.

Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. This epic work of travel writing, history, art criticism, politics, and at least a million other things, is the fruit of West’s trip through what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1937. It was published in 1941, coinciding with the German invasion which once again threw the historically volatile region into chaos. It is a love letter to a vanished world, full of extraordinary detail and some breathtaking writing. West is a warts-and-all narrator: one moment open, humane, understanding, the next pompous, chauvinistic, judgmental. She writes with all the confidence of an Englishwoman who is sure of her, and her country’s, superior place in the world - a perspective that can seem narrow and myopic to the reader in 2023. But her idiosyncrasies are part of what makes her book a masterpiece. It is as biased, wrong-headed, clear-sighted, individual, as its author. If, like me, you're fascinated by this part of the world, it's a must-read.

Heather Cass White, Books Promiscuously Read. Nothing so banal as a rote "celebration" of reading, this is a serious and invigorating investigation, but never dry or academic. A book to return to.

Books I did not like but still finished for some reason

André Gide, Marshlands (tr. Damion Searls). The NYRB blurb declares that “Gide is the inventor of modern metafiction and of autofiction”. On the strength of this short but interminable novella, Gide managed to strangle both modes at birth.

Charles Johnson, Middle Passage. Some books fall away in their final chapters, as if the author ran out of time or enthusiasm. Middle Passage contrives to fall away after about five pages: Johnson establishes his smart-arsed narrator (a freed slave who joins a slaving expedition in order to dodge an arranged marriage - a terrific set-up!) then proceeds to do nothing of interest with him for 200 pages.

William Leith, British Teeth. A woeful (and mercifully brief) attempt at a kind of Geoff Dyerish humorous critique of the British character as viewed through the lens of British dentistry. A decent idea, but the resulting book is trivial and racist.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Clouds of Witness. I quite like the occasional Agatha Christie, but otherwise it seems that Golden Age Mysteries are not for me. Sayers might be the worst of the Christie wannabes I have encountered: Clouds of Witness is a deadly dull mystery, full of one note characters and irritating dialogue. Then there’s Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsy, a pompous blowhard whose family motto is (spare me) “As my Wimsy takes me.”

William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost. Marjorie Garber writes that this play “reads ‘hard’ and plays ‘easy’.” It could scarcely play harder than it reads, short of the actors lobbing cinder blocks at the audience. On the page, LLL is utterly tedious, combining the thinness of Shakespeare’s other early comedies with excruciating extended bits of inscrutable wordplay, the kind that has you consulting the footnotes every line, with little increase in edification or enjoyment. May Love’s Labour’s Won remain forever shrouded by the mists of time.

William Sloane, To Walk the Night. The first of Sloane’s two late-30s cosmic horror/sci-fi novels, and a favourite of Robert Bloch’s. It is not a favourite of mine.

Lisa Tuttle, A Nest of Nightmares. The biggest disappointment of the year. I first heard about this book in the mid-90s via Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s Horror: 100 Best Books, but it was extremely difficult to come by until Valancourt published it a few years ago as part of their Paperbacks From Hell series. Having paid an eye-watering $49AUD for it, I found myself reading not the expected classic of confronting, feminist horror, but a collection of tepid, predictable, not especially well-written stories.

2024 goals

One way to ensure I don’t do something is to put it on a list of things to do, so I am always wary of setting goals, for reading or anything else. I tend to pick up books according to some arcane inner compulsion that I choose not to examine too closely. Still, it's nice to lay out some goals, however vague.

More poetry! Specifically, more picking up anthologies and collections and reading whatever takes my fancy.
More comics! 2023 saw me getting back into comics and I hope to continue that trajectory.
More rereading! Rereading made up over 25% of my reading in 2023, and it’s nearly always worth doing, so here’s to more of that in ’24.