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The seven best books of 2023

Overwhelmed with your TBR or looking to get into reading? We’ve got you covered with quickfire profiles of six notable books from 2023, as reviewed by our pool of experts. This article first appeared in The Conversation UK and has been reprinted under special arrangement. 

Update : 06 Jan 2024, 10:29 AM
  1. The Fraud by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s latest novel, The Fraud, is her first foray into the world of historical fiction. The result is a stunning, well-studied examination of Victorian colonial England and some of its inhabitants.

As with other works by Smith, the novel takes a patchwork approach, with several interwoven plots taking place over a period of about 50 years. Centrally placed in the plot is the real-life and highly bizarre trial of a man claiming to be a Sir Roger Tichborne, thought to have been killed at sea and heir to a substantial fortune.

The absurd and very long trial, which had people from all communities in 1870s England hooked, is seen in the novel through the eyes of Eliza Touchet, cousin and companion of William Ainsworth, a novelist well known in Victorian England but relatively forgotten today.

By Leighan M. Renaud, Lecturer in Caribbean Literatures and Cultures.

2. Holly by Stephen King

At the age of 76, with nearly 70 novels and short story collections behind him, American author Stephen King shows few signs of slowing down. His latest novel Holly, hefty in scale and elaborate in plotting, is the work of an energetic writer, not one who is getting tired.

The book is a compelling composite of the crime and horror genres, as addictive as the cigarettes which the title character finds herself smoking, as she investigates a spate of abductions in a midwest town.

One of the incidental pleasures offered by Holly is its allusion to books from earlier in King’s long literary career. The terrifying incarceration experienced by the novel’s victims, for example, recalls that of the central figure in Misery (1987). A reference to blood poured over a high school prom queen summons up thoughts of Carrie (1974), King’s first novel.

That said, this new book shows King experimenting and innovating, rather than simply being content to reactivate the tropes of his previous fiction.

By Andrew Dix, Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Film. 

3.Julia by Sandra Newman

Given the relatively cardboard cut-out nature of the original character in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the foregrounding of [Julia’s] sexual experiences and sexuality as well as her early life gives her a vitality in this retelling lacking in Orwell’s portrait.

This is not so surprising. Orwell’s female characters (even Dorothy Hare, the eponymous heroine of A Clergyman’s Daughter, 1935) tend to be slight figures. By contrast, Newman’s Julia Worthing is anchored and adventurous. She’s willing to take risks and to suffer for her actions in ways that might seem unlikely if not impossible with Orwell’s Julia.

 

By Simon Potter, Professor of Modern History and Peter Marks, Emeritus Professor in English and Writing.

 

4. Victory City by Salman Rushdie

Victory City is an epic chronicle of the rise and fall of Vijayanagar (the capital city of the historic southern Indian Vijayanagara empire), which acquires the name “Bisnaga” through ill-fated attempts at pronunciation by a Portuguese traveller … Throughout the novel, Rushdie explores the process of writing history -- how it is recorded and how significance is apportioned. As Pampa Kampana states: “History is the consequence not only of people’s actions but also their forgetfulness.”

Rushdie is interested in how history is argued over and rewritten in contemporary moments. In particular, he takes aim at the populist exploitation of historical narratives for political gain. We hear that “fictions could be as powerful as histories” and that -- paradoxically -- “they were no more than make believe but they created truth”.

By Florian Stadtler, Lecturer in Literature and Migration. 

5. My Name is Barbra by Barbra Streisand

As a diva, Streisand has consistently defied instructions not to do something by doubling up her efforts. For example, at the start of her career when she was auditioning for record labels, one of the executives said she had a nice voice but was “too ethnic”.

Her response was to loudly embrace her Jewish identity. She played explicitly Jewish characters in her first two and only stage roles, in the musicals I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962) and Funny Girl (1964). She refused to get a nose job and drew attention to her nose a lot in her work. And she co-wrote, produced, directed and appeared in the hit film Yentl (1983), about a Jewish woman who pretends to be a man in order to get an education.

Success has often come to Streisand by doing things people have told her not to do: a twist on the negative diva trope.

By Dominic Broomfield-McHugh, Professor of Musicology. 

 

6. Weird Medieval Guys by Olivia Swarthout

Packed full of satire, stunning imagery and interactive maps and quizzes, Weird Medieval Guys is a deep-dive into some of the most extraordinary -- and quirky -- aspects of medieval daily life. This little book, which should appeal to older children as well as adults, is split into two parts: The Struggle: Surviving Life, Love, and Death, and The Bestiary.

Weird Medieval Guys is a riot, packed full of brilliant medieval facts. Its author, Olivia Swarthout, has been creative in using quizzes and puzzles to engage readers who might like history but don’t get on with dense scholarly texts in the wonderful, wacky world that is the Middle Ages.

What is particularly evident to me as an expert in medieval literature, is the number of hours she has spent consulting digitised manuscripts from the first century onwards, as well as old and recent scholarship on medieval manuscript culture and life in general.

By Madeleine S Killacky, PhD Candidate in Medieval Literature.

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