Friday, December 29, 2023

2023: The year in (good) books

Even though this year was more than chaotic for me, I still made time for reading. In fact, it was my favorite thing to do when I wanted to relax and tune out in the evenings. Because of this, I slightly overshot last year's numbers  - especially because there were a lot of short children's books on the list this year :)

I finished a total of 101 books, almost 19,000 pages. Below you can see a list of my favorites, in no particular order.


I didn't read much fiction this year, but in December one last book made the list anyway.

R. F. Kuang: Yellowface

You will especially enjoy this book if you are a writer, or if you work in publishing. It speaks in the first person, allowing us a glimpse into the messed-up mind of a woman who does serious mental gymnastics to justify her theft of someone else's manuscript. On top of that, she pretends to be of Chinese descent (for publicity), digging herself into a deeper and deeper hole. As the book turns into a bestseller, we get to watch with morbid curiosity how far her lie would stretch before it all comes crashing down. Besides being entertaining and clever, Yellowface also delivers some punches at the business of publishing and social media.


Still my favorite genre, and thanks to the Polymath Reading Challenge (and Ploymath Plus), I read a lot of it this year. Here are my new favorites:

Sabrina Imbler: How far the light reaches

I thought it would be a book about marine biology, but it turned out to be something much more complex and beautiful. It is a series of poetic essays, mixing scientific information with the author's own life, identity, and emotions. Neither eclipsed the other. Identity in itself is represented in its richness: the author is queer, part Chinese, child of an immigrant mother, and a member of a generation seeking its place and purpose. Also a sicence journalist, which shows in the attention to detail and empathy directed at marine creatures and humans alike. 

Mike Brown: How I killed Pluto and why it had it coming

If you were upse too when Pluto got demoted, this book is for you. The astronomer whose discoveries accidentally resulted in one fewer planet in our solar system explains what happened, why, and how. It is an enjoyable read. I loved the chapters detailing the painstaking process of search and discovery, looking for barely visible specks of light in the vast night sky, trying to catch a new object.

Carlo Ginzburg - Bruce Lincoln: Old Thiess, a Livonian werewolf

In 1691, during a witch trial, a witness was suddenly accused of being a werewolf. To which the old man shrugged and replied: "yeah, and?" The resulting new trial was, luckily, well documented, and that is what we get to read in this book, alongside several essays and discussions by the authors (representing two distinct points of view). Old Thiess, the werewolf, tells the judges how he is a member of a pack, and how they travel every year to the Underworld to save the crops from evil magicians. You have to admire the pluck of this old guy so long ago: when life gives you a werewolf trial, roll with it and take over the narrative...

Paulo Lemos Horta: Marvellous Thieves

Mandatory reading for all storytellers. A very cool basic concept: the author spends each chapter delving into the life and work of famous translators of the 1001 Nights. He examines how their experiences and personalities influenced the translations they produced... and how much those can actually be called "translations" at all. Antoine Galland, for example (the man credited for starting the Arabian Nights craze in Europe) is famous for adding a whole lot of random tales to a manuscript of only 200 he had, to round out the collection. Also mentioned are Edward Lane, who was a proud Egypt expert, but completely lost without his local guides (and cut women out of many of the tales), and Richard Burton, who never actually translated from the original, rather he repurposed other English translations, and created a myth of himself as an orientalist. Featured furthermore are pre-raffaelite poet John Payne, who barely spoke Arabic but wanted to add the censored saucy bits back in; and Henry Whitelock Torrens, who sadly never finished his own translation, even though he was the only one who could match the language of the tales and understood the importance of female characters. I really enjoyed this book, appreciated the detailed research and psychological insights, and learned a whole lot about the 1001 Nights.

Merve Emre: The Personality Brokers

If you still had any doubt that the Myers-Briggs Personality Test is about as scientific as a horoscope, read this book. It is endlessly entertaining and somewhat surreal to read how it became a worldwide phenomenon while not having any solid foundations in science. The life story of the mother-daughter pair who created it is fascinating, peppered with religious fanaticism, racism, and shockingly abusive Victorian parenting techniques. Victorian mothers will literally invent a personality test and write homoerotic fan fiction of C. G. Jung instead of going to therapy...

Maria Noriega Rachwal: From kitchen to Carnegie Hall

The Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra was the first complete all-women orchestra in North America when it was founded in 1940. Ethel Stark and Madge Bowen - two vastly different women - went against all social norms and expectations to create it. The whole story should be an HBO show, really. In the early 1900s many musical instruments were not thought to be suitable for women (string instruments you had to hold between your legs), so the founders advertised that they'll accept anyone who "could read a little music", regardless of race, age, religion, or social standing. They ended up with an amazingly diverse orchestra including students and grandmothers, heiresses and factory workers, Anglo-Saxon white women, French Catholic women, Jewish women, black women, etc. Ethel distributed used instruments and everyone learned on their own, practicing in living rooms and basements. And against all odds, naysayers and mockery, 7 years later they were performing in Carnegie Hall - the first Canadian orchestra to do so. The orchestra existed for 30 years, and in the end disbanded because it succeeded: female musicians were accepted into professional orchestras around the country along with the men. Ethel lived to be the oldest conductor in the world, and died at the age of 101.

Szvetlana Alekszijevics: Secondhand time / The unwomanly face of war

Both are very difficult reads emotionally, but much worth reading. The author created a new genre by weaving together thousands of oral history interviews to show complex, challenging pictures of World War II, and the fall of the Soviet Union. She talked to all kinds of people from all walks of life and many different ideologies and experiences. I would make her books mandatory reading in History class. Maybe fewer people would romanticize war.


In terms of comics, this was a good year. Continuing series were fun, and the ones below were freshly added to my list of favorites.

John Allison - Whitney Cogar: Giant Days

Adorable, likable, hilarious. Three college roommates with their distinct personalities and problems of epic magnitude. Sometimes it borders on magical realism, and features many memorable, quotable panels and lines. I fell in love with it at first volume. And the artwork is great too.

Simon Spurrier: Hellblazer

Spurrier can do no wrong when the extra mile needs going. Whoever decided he should write John Constantine was right on the money. Too bad it is a limited series, but at least it is a complete story; Spurrier ties it up so neatly (and so epicly) at the end that it should be taught in writing school. The visuals are just as strong and haunting as the story is. I love the way Spurrier handles magic and mythology, and makes each noir-horror episode complete in and of itself.

Kieron Gillen - Simon Spurrier - Al Ewing: Sins of Sinister

We all knew when the whole Krakoa thing started for the X-men that it was only a matter of time before it had to come crashing down. Sins of Sinister is the volume that rings in the beginning of the end, and it does so on a thousand-year alternate-future scale. It seems like the writers thoroughly enjoyed the premise of "what if mutants had no moral qualms at all"? I can't wait to see what comes after this.

Folklore and mythology

I'm not gonna list all the volumes I read this year (a lot), but I'd like to highlight some new favorites.

Oein DeBhairduin: Why the moon travels

This book is an instant classic. The stories were written down from a living Irish Traveller tradition, a whole community participated in shaping them, and the illustrations are also the work of a Traveller artists. The result is a lovely volume full of memorable, enchanting stories. I loved the respect they all show for nature, how even the animals usually portrayed as villains or pests appear as helpful and kind. Even the sad or tragic stories were beautiful; people were taught to learn from their mistakes instead of being mercilessly punished. I will return to this book again and again for moments of beauty and wisdom.

Daniel Allison: Irish mythology

This book is the perfect blend of respect for tradition, deep love for myths, and creative storytelling. This book bridges the divide between oral storytelling and written fiction with a lively style that begs to be read aloud. Epic battles, formidable heroes, powerful magic, and deep personal emotions create a mythic landscape that is vividly alive. Peeling back layers of Christian retellings, and tracing the untold inner motivations of larger-than-life characters, Daniel Allison weaves old stories into a powerful narrative. His admitted goal is to make new generations of readers fall in love with Irish mythology. Mission accomplished. If you enjoyed Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology, you will love this book.

Rakesh Khanna - J. Furcifer Bhairav: Ghosts, monsters, and demons of India

I rarely read encyclopedia style folklore books for three reasons: 1. They usually limit themselves to the most well known stories or creatures. 2. They usually don't contain the actual narratives. 3. They rarely cite their sources individually. This book, however, checks all three boxes, in more than 500 pages. I kept reading and reading, and when I thought we would surely run out to shocking ghosts, memorable monsters, and haunting demons, there was always more. And when I thought I can't be surprised by anything anymore, the book still had some unexpected creatures at Z. It is an entertaining, inspiring read, full of stories I have never heard before (and yes, stories are often included with the creatures). The authors selected from a wide range of cultures within India, and also a wide timeline from ancient textx to 21st century hauntings. There are sources, and pop culture references, and clever commentary. I don't even like dark folklore all that much, and yet I adored this book.


I have to admit I didn't read a lot of poetry this year, but in December I came across this little volume and it is worth a mention.

Kaitlin Shetler: i hope they sing christmas carols in hell

I found the poet through a viral poem on Facebook about the Virgin Mary, and I loved the look of this volume so much I had to buy it. It didn't disappoint. Christmas poetry from an atheist, and yet the poems are not about hate or spite. There is a lot of feminism, a lot of humor, and a talent for seeing deeper messages in classic Bible stories (or what they could have been). And a hope that there are Christmas carols in hell, because an atheist can love the holiday too.

Children's books

A new category this year, for obvious reasons :) Tested with the kiddo, but selected according to my own preferences. 

Kathryn Cristaldi - Kristyna Litten: I love you till the cows come home

My absolute favorite. Adorable illustrations, fun poetry, and a lovable, deeply emotional message. It made me tear up the first time.

Kate Allan: I like you

I like the author for her motivational messages on social media, and the book was a resounding success at home. It is a simple little read - I like you when you are mad, when you are happy, when you are shy, when you are messy, etc. - with bright colors, and it had to be read over and over and over again. Sometimes the kid even asked for it specifically after meltdowns.

Sandra Boynton: Barnyard dance

Another illustrator I like, and a very fun book. Combining funny animals and contra dancing, what's not to love? Extra funny when my Cajun husband reads it.

Béatrice Rodriguez: Chicken thief

I have the Catalan edition, but honestly it doesn't matter because it's a silent book. The pictures speak for themselves, and they are funny and adorable. A fox steals a chicken, and as they are running from Rooster & friends, they slowly grow to like each other. This is a three-book series, each volume just as silly and likable as the next. 

Satoe Tone: Where the heart is

Gorgeous, gorgeous book. A simple yet sweet story, and beautiful imagery filling every page.

Rob Scotton: Splat the cat

A book for starting school, but it works just as well with kindergarten. Kiddo had no problems on that front, but she does love this book for the funny cat characters and entertaining story. And I enjoyed reading it too.


  1. Marvellous Thieves sounds particularly good, also From Kitchen to Carnegie Hall. I'm thinking of doing a nonfiction reading challenge next year, I tend to read in the same subjects and would like to branch out. Happy New Year!

    1. There is a really fun nonfic challenge on the Hungarian book site I'm on, called Polymath Training. They give us 12 themes a year, and you have to pick a nonficiton book for each. 11 themes are the same, the 12th is individually generated with Wikipedia random articles. I have found most of the nonfic books above through that challenge.