What We’re Reading: Winter 2023 Edition

What did NWN love reading this year? We’ve assembled our 2023 reading highlights, the books we’re gifting this Christmas, and the ones we’re hoping to find under the tree. Read on to find the perfect present for your nearest and dearest – or a last minute addition to your own Christmas list.

Kathryn Tann

I think this year I’ll be gifting a couple of fellow Brontë fans Fifteen Wild Decembers by Karen Powell – which was our featured Northern Bookshelf title earlier this year! I sank so quickly and comfortably into the world of this novel, and it got me out of an ongoing reader’s block. So thanks Karen for your brilliant words! There are so many takes on Emily, and on life at the Haworth parsonage, but this one felt really safe and thoughtful, and honoured her as an individual without over-dramatizing the ‘grim’ moors. Emily’s relationship to the landscape was done beautifully. A strong recommend to anyone who loves a blustery moorland retelling!

The book I would like to be gifted (if you’re reading this Santa, take note) is the lovely little Wendy Cope collection of poems that Faber has just brought out. I’m not a big poetry-reader, but like many, many others I’m a real sucker for her poem ‘The Orange’. It’s joyful and true, and I love it. And this is the kind of book I wouldn’t normally buy for myself, either.

Rebecca Wilkie

There were so many wonderful books published this year, I’m spoilt for choice for recommendations. Games and Rituals by Katherine Heiny is a short story collection that is hilariously funny and deeply poignant at the same time. I am a Katherine Heiny super-fan and was thrilled to interview her at this year’s Durham Book Festival – she was just as funny and insightful as I’d hoped and anyone who has not yet received this book from me is likely to do so this Christmas! Nina Stibbe’s writing is always warm, funny and engrossing – Went to London, Took the Dog, is the sequel to her best-selling Love, Nina. Here Nina records her return to London (to lodge with fellow writer Deborah Moggach) as a 60 year-old, twenty years after leaving for new life in Cornwall. A final stocking filler sized book I’d like to recommend is the latest novella from the brilliant Irish writer, Claire Keegan, So Late in the Day, promises her usual blend of exquisite writing and the incredible ability to encapsulate so much in such a short form.

I read so much for my job, people are usually reluctant to buy me books! However, over the Christmas break I plan to read advance copies of Mona of the Manor which is the latest in the Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin (who I’ve loved since my teenage years) and Come and Get It by Kiley Reid, whose previous satirical and thought-provoking novel, Such a Fun Age I loved (both books are out next Spring). I’ll also finally tackle Zadie Smith’s newest novel, The Fraud – her first piece of historical fiction and one I’ve been really looking forward to.

Tess Denman-Cleaver

I have reduced my Christmas shopping this year by giving everyone one of two books. Family and friends will be receiving either a copy of Benjamin Myers’ Cuddy or The Variations by Patrick Langley. Cuddy is one of the best books I have ever read, easily top 5 status, and I am so glad it has been recognised with the Goldsmiths Prize this year. My love of Cuddy is detailed in our Durham Book Festival blog, so I shan’t repeat myself, only recommend you add it to your Christmas wish list.

The Variations was another highlight of this year’s reading. It is Patrick Langley’s second novel, composed around an other-worldly hospice for ‘acoustically gifted children’, and telling the stories of generations of wards who are able to hear and harness voices from the past. The world that Langley draws is thrilling and unnerving, and his ability to combine the language of music making with the book’s compelling narrative is incredibly skilful. But the thing that marked this out as one of the best books of the year for me, are the acute and generous insights into his characters’ emotional lives. It is a truly beautiful book that handles human fragility and the ways that we are all haunted in some way with real warmth and care.

I just have to decide who gets Cuddy and who gets The Variations in their stocking…

Claire Malcolm

This year my present buying for others would definitely include the books that have enthralled me this year. If you buy me a book for Christmas I want to be fully engrossed and to be assured that it’s a sure fire cracker. So here is my personal hit list:

Yellowface by R F Kuang (essential cultural commentary disguised as a thriller); Delphi by Clare Pollard (the best novel I’ve read about what lockdown felt like); Toy Fights by Don Paterson (a memoir of a working class Scottish upbringing and a hymn to a certain kind of East Coast sweet tooth); The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey (a fight for justice which hinges on a 1930’s tabloid outrage – we have not changed); The Bee Sting by Paul Murray (a beautiful family unravelling which got me through my second wallop of Covid); and for sheer nerve and authorial bravery, the stunning A Thread of Violence by Mark O’Connoll.

A book that has sustained and enriched me in other ways this year is Scandinavian Green by Trine Hahnemann (you can thank me later when you’ve eaten all the kale in January). Over Christmas I’ll be reading Roman Stories by Jumpha Lahiri, one of my favourite writers.

Carys Vickers

This Christmas I will be excitedly gifting and recommending Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – easily my favourite book that I read this year. Mysterious and fantastical, it kept me compulsively turning pages to try and puzzle the story together piece by piece. A perfect atmospheric dark academia read for cold, wintry days.

I’ll also be recommending Jennette McCurdy’s memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died, to my fellow zillennials who grew up watching Jennette on iCarly. Her honest and humorous writing completely drew me in from page one. It’s heartbreaking and eye-opening to read about her time as a reluctant child actor, dealing with eating disorders and a narcissistic mother, yet there is a hopeful undertone as she writes from a healthier and happier place.

The Wishing Game by Meg Shaffer is top of my Christmas list after hearing a single recommendation on TikTok. The BookTok-er in question was only 60 pages in and already crying, explaining that this is a book-about-books for the people who grew up finding their comfort in Harry Potter and Matilda. I look forward to curling up with it in the days after Christmas.

Margot Miltenberger

The book I want to give (and receive!) this year is The Orange and other poems by Wendy Cope. I only recently discovered Wendy Cope’s poem ‘The Orange’ through a colleague here at NWN and I’m eager to read more of her. There’s something perfect about giving an orange for Christmas, and I think this little book with a Terry’s chocolate orange would make a beautiful stocking stuffer.

I’ve also had my eye on Collected Works: A Novel by Lydia Sandgren, translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broomé. It’s been described as an epic family saga about life and art, with all the twists and turns of War and Peace. It sounds like a good absorbing read for that slow stretch between Christmas and New Year. (I prefer the US cover).

Anna Disley

This year on my Christmas list is Zadie Smith’s The Fraud, and I suspect other NWNers will have chosen this too. It sounds brilliant, she speaks about it so compellingly and I am intrigued by her first work of historical fiction. I also have Erotic Vagrancy on my list – the more I hear about this ‘provocative, funny, yet exhausting’ book about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the more I want to read it. I am also ordering The Moon’s a Balloon, the classic memoir of Hollywood hi-jinks by David Niven, perhaps by way of antidote.

I’d recommend Ada Calhoun’s Also a Poet. It draws on interview tapes that Calhoun’s father made with friends of poet Frank O’Hara in the 1970s, in a failed bid to write his biography. It has oral history at its heart, a form I am fond of, but is also a memoir of her relationship with her father, a self-absorbed art critic who hung around with the New York School in the 1960s.

Laura Fraine

I am usually a last-minute shopper, so I felt particularly smug when Adam Sharp’s latest book was published in September and I knew I’d already found the perfect gift for my Dad. You might know Adam from Twitter/X, where his celebration of the curiosities of language is regularly the most joyous thing you’ll read all day. The Wheel is Spinning but the Hamster is Dead: A Journey Around the World in Idioms, Proverbs and General Nonsense is bursting at the seams with such delights and – essential for Christmas – you’ll never again be short of a creative way to complain about your nearest and dearest.

On top of my TBR pile for the holidays is The Secret Hours by Mick Herron, a standalone spy thriller, which appears to be the best of both worlds as it also promises back stories on some of the brilliant characters in the Slow Horses series. Under the Christmas tree, I’m hoping someone takes the strong hints that I’d love to receive The Bee Sting by Paul Murray, a journey through the life of one family, over the decades and through all its ups and downs.

Grace Keane

The standout book for me this year was Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver. Not the most original thought, as it was the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Pulitzer, but nevertheless a novel I’m keen to press into the hands of various family and friends. It’s a retelling of David Copperfield set in Appalachia, and I completely devoured it. I’m not really a Dickens fan (bad English student) but fell for Demon’s voice immediately – it’s epic and moving and the perfect thing to lose yourself in this Christmas. I also spotted a gorgeous indie exclusive edition at the Bound recently that would make it extra special to receive.

A book I’m hoping to find under the tree this year is Take What You Need by Idra Novey. I’ve been raving about the author’s criminally underrated Ways to Disappear for years, and this is her new title, also published by Daunt Books Originals. I didn’t even need to read the blurb to put it on my list, but in writing this I’ve just discovered it’s also set in Appalachia… spooky. I now know that Take What You Need ‘traces the parallel lives of Jean and her beloved but estranged stepdaughter, Leah, who’s sought a clean break from her rural childhood’ – I’m hoping it will be just as strange and beautiful as Novey’s previous work.

David Roche

It’s been a year of celebrating storytelling for me and nowhere more inventively than Benjamin Myers’ Cuddy which is a meander through 1300 years and differently styled stories centred on St Cuthbert and Durham Cathedral, his final resting place. It’s innovative, clever, engaging and fresh – and my book of of the year (yet again, Ben!).

Special mention for Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees which fits the storytelling excellence bill with her beautiful tale of the difficulty of love across both sides of the Cypriot divide. I have also been catching up with as much Salman Rushdie and Colm Tóibín as my local library can throw at me. Victory City by Rushdie is just a wonderful narrating of a sweeping fable set over 250 years from 14th century southern India, and Tóibín’s House of Names retells the story of Agamemnon and takes you back to times of savage loyalty and violence.

A final recommendation for an audiobook: Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle by Ben Macintyre which focuses on the life the prisoners of war led inside the castle rather than just the often-told story of the famous escape; gripping and extraordinary stuff and you wouldn’t want to be the guards responsible for this band of misfits and renegades!

Naana Orleans-Amissah

I’d love to gift these two books to those I love or those who allow themselves to feel closer to those who, at first glance, live vastly different lives.

The first is the semi-autographical novel So Long a Letter by the Senegalese writer, Mariama Bâ. It’s a book I have long been recommended, and one I somehow missed as I read through the African Writers’ Series. Although it was published in 1979, it retains that universal and contemporary truth of the intimacy of heart ache. Her novel follows Ramatoulaye, an older woman betrayed after thirty years of marriage. Set against the backdrop of the hopes of a post-independent Senegal, she sketches the harsh realities of an older woman rebuilding a life and draws us into the isolation of her pain. It’s perhaps easy to imagine Ramatoulaye’s Muslim, West African letter as one describing a life apart. To me her spare, Wolof and Francophone framed story is as tender, strong, and honest as any recounting of betrayal. In spite of her shattered life, we feel the hope of the dignified integrity of her choices.

The second is the sensual novel Azúcar by the Ghanaian poet, novelist, editor and publisher, Nii Ayikwei Parkes. Set in the lush and fictional island of Fumaz, this is a lyrical story as colourful and musical as it is political and expansive. Packed with big ideas about geopolitics, the science of crop modification; loyalty, identity and love, this is a rich read, perfect for those lost days between Christmas and New Years.

Matt Forster

I was visited by a couple of ghosts of Christmas past this year.

More than a decade since his last novel, Bret Easton Ellis’ The Shards is a semi-autobiographical page turner centred around a serial killer who stalks Bret’s wasted and paranoid mates. Less than Zero revisited, but definitely worth a read.

Eliza Clark is the Easton Ellis of Christmas future. Shifting to the female gaze and swapping LA for the north, Penance is un-put-downable.

Away from all the murder, Katherine Heiny’s very real and very funny collection of short stories Games and Rituals takes a hilariously deadpan look at love and relationships. Thanks Durham Book Festival for the introduction.

And finally – Rick Rubin produced the soundtrack to my youth so The Creative Act was a must. Rubin shares his thoughts on creativity and how we can all tap into it. One to share with agency mates.

In the year ahead I’ll be re-reading everything by John Burnside, my university writer in residence, an all-time favourite and well-deserved Cohen Prize winner.

Caroline Murphy

There have been a couple of standout debut novels for me this year, both by women, and both tales of forbidden love in times of conflict. We think we know the horrors of the First World War but Alice Winn’s In Memoriam knocked me for six, and made me ache for the young men who we follow from boyhood war games to heartbreaking reality through a series of seat-of-your-pants plot twists. Louise Kennedy’s first novel Trespasses is an unflinching portrait of Northern Ireland in the 1970s, where every day brings news of another bomb, another beating, another family shattered. The love affair at the centre of the book is raw and real and thrums with underlying jeopardy.

I was hooked on The Bee Sting by Paul Murray from the first sentence (look it up, it’s a cracker!). This big beast of a book rattles along with humour and tragedy in the tale of a family in turn flinging themselves apart from each other and being drawn back to their shared chaos.

Generally speaking I’m not a big fan of biographies, but there again – as he acknowledges in the introduction – neither is Roger Lewis, author of Erotic Vagrancy: Everything about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (which I think might be my favourite title of the year). He’s not much of a Burton and Taylor fan either. I’m only at the start of this one, but so far I am loving its waspish, witty insights into love, loss, obsession and the colossal over indulgence of fame.