At the halfway point of 2023, here are the highlights of my reading year so far, including a Saudi Arabian novel, a history of Algeria and an Australian masterpiece.
I haven’t been doing my usual monthly reading roundups this year, so here’s a summary of the best books I’ve read so far in 2023.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
I read this book recently, and it instantly became the best book I’d read this year, and one of the best books I’ve read for a very long time. It’s a story of lost love, missed opportunities, the brutality of war, small moments of unexpected humanity and compassion in the midst of barbarism and suffering… Loads of huge themes, all handled masterfully. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Flanagan himself, while driving for thousands of kilometres on deserted roads in Western Australia, and the bleakness and beauty of the prose moved me to tears on several occasions.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka
This innovative Sri Lankan novel starts off with the death of Maali Almeida and then follows Maali into the afterlife, where he has seven moons to work out who killed him and help his loved ones to find the photographs that will reveal the truth. It’s a wonderfully creative novel that explores themes of sexuality, mortality, love, friendship, political corruption and much more. The structure and execution reminded me of the Turkish novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak, which was one of my best books of 2019.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
I’ve written here about the urgent need for us all to write about climate change in better ways, ways that overcome catastrophism and inertia and provoke serious conversations about how we can overcome this crisis. This is a novel that avoids far-future post-apocalyptic hellscapes and instead deals with the horror that is to come in just the next few decades. But while remaining clear-eyed about the inevitable suffering that we have already locked in by our stupidity and greed up to this point, it also provides a realistic tale of a pathway towards collective survival. At times, the story and characters get a bit lost amid the detailed ideas and theories, but Robinson has tackled huge, urgent topics head on, and I applaud him for it. There’s loads in here to think about. It’s a wake-up call and a prescription for possible action, and we’ll need more books like this if we are to survive much beyond this century.
A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne
I spent three weeks travelling around Algeria earlier this year, and I wanted to understand the history of the country. This book gave me all the understanding I could have wanted, and a lot more besides. Did you know that more than a million Algerians died in the war to gain independence from France in the 1950s and 60s? More than a million. I didn’t know that, and I think that if a European country kills a million people in the middle of the 20th century, it should be common knowledge. This book tells the whole tragic story in all its brutal, barbaric, senseless detail. It was very, very tough to read, but as a comprehensive account of an important moment in history, it was a thoroughly impressive achievement.
Spare by Prince Harry
Yeah, I’m surprised too. I’m sure I’m not the target audience for this book because (a) I never read celebrity autobiographies and (b) I have zero interest in the Royal Family unless we’re talking about abolition or reparations, neither of which are covered in this book. And yet I found Spare to be a well-written and compelling account of Prince Harry’s life so far, giving me an insight into all the pressures of life as a prince, the toxicity of the media, and the strain of life in a toxic family.
Because I don’t really pay attention to the Royals, a lot of what I read was completely new to me. Although I had a vague idea of how intrusive and mendacious the British media and paparazzi can be, I was shocked by the details and by the level of vitriol, which increased exponentially after Meghan came on the scene and threatened to upstage the rest of the family. The odd thing is that Spare doesn’t match most of the accounts of it in the media. Although the book does criticise other members of the family, it’s not the all-out attack on William and Charles that it’s often presented as. Instead, it’s primarily an attack on abhorrent media practices, and I found it to be a very compelling one.
The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia
I also travelled to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the year, and I loved this novel set in the city in the 1980s. It’s the story of an illicit love affair between Naser and a veiled woman he only knows as Fiore. The affair could mean death for both of them if discovered by the brutal morality police who stalk the city and send the guilty off for a public beheading, but neither of them can stop.
It was hard to pick just a few books out of the dozens I’ve read, but I didn’t want this post to be too long. There are lots of other excellent books I’ve discovered this year, such as Danny Boy by Barry Walsh (review here), Crossing by Pajtim Statovci, The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon, I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McGurdy, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.
Have you read any of these books? What are your favourite reads of the year so far? Let me know in the comments below.