Happy new year! I started working on my annual reading retrospective when I got back to Prague from a campervan trip with family in Arizona last week but haven’t been able to get Goodreads to play ball. It says I read 67 books last year but persists in showing two titles I didn’t actually read—even though I’ve tried to remove them from the shelf. So I think it was 65 books. But then I started wondering if I’d actually remembered to add everything I’d read…
After a few days of back and forth on this with myself, I'm calling it 66.
It’s a good number.
Of these, in 2023 I read 20 books by authors who are not located in North America. Most of these were UK-based writers, it seems, but not all were writing about the UK.
Last year I read books that were randomly recommended to me as usual but also sought out titles set in countries/locations that I was visiting or that I would like to visit one day. That’s how I found the book that was probably my favorite read of the year, 10 Minutes, 38 seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak, which is set in Turkey. I picked it up (along with Belshazzar’s Daughter, Labyrinth and Silent House, all described below) because I traveled to Istanbul for a client’s conference in September. (Deadlands, another favorite, evoked the Arizona desert I just drove through. *chef’s kiss*)
My reading journey this year led me to revisit some favorite authors (including 2 books each by list-toppers Leigh Bardugo, Rachel Howzell Hall & SA Cosby). I pounced on the newest titles from Andrea Bartz and Shannon Chakraborty (who wrote the Daevabad trilogy as SA Chakraborty). I also tried to keep current with some of the books that had “everyone” buzzing (who is “everyone”? can I unsubscribe?) with less satisfying results: RF Kuang’s Babel, This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone and Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney all ended up at the low end of my recommendation lists. I did enjoy Kuang’s Yellowface and the buzzy cosy fantasy blockbuster Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree.
Speaking of Legends & Lattes, it kicked off a mini trend in my reading material of “books where nothing is happening but I’m riveted,” as I described it to my husband. This vibes-only reading also describes other books I very much enjoyed this year, like The Nakano Thrift Shop and Inspector Imanishi Investigates, both set in Japan, Deadlands by Victoria Miluch, and Labyrinth by Burhan Sönmez.
On the opposite spectrum, non-stop action, tension, and excitement kept me flipping pages in Falling by TJ Newman (do NOT, I repeat DO NOT, read before getting on an airplane), Ninth House, and The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi.
I’m super proud of several friends who published books last year too, and it was a joy to read their works: Sarah Tatoun’s Raise the Wind is a historical adventure set in colonial Georgia; Colleen Winter wrapped up her Canadian-set dystopian eco-thriller trilogy with a bang in The Storm; and fellow Mid-May writing group members Vanessa Lillie and Marie Hoy-Kenny added to my thriller list with Lillie’s Blood Sisters, about a Native American archaeologist who seems to dig up trouble as often as bones, and Hoy-Kenny’s YA romp The Girls from Hush Cabin, about four friends from summer camp who team up to solve a murder. (Shout out to Brian Hathaway from the Mid-May group too—his middle grade contemporary fantasy Hope for the Hounds came out in November and I’m currently reading it!)
What did you read last year?
Click through to see my full list and recommendations.
I just re-read my blog post from last year, when I said that I wanted to read more Hispanic or Latino voices, but I did not successfully add enough to my TBR, I guess. I will look for more authors there and also more Czech authors in translation (My first book of 2023 is Katerina Tuckova's harrowing Gerta).
In terms of format, almost all of the books I read last year were ebooks. I don't think I finished a single audiobook (or maybe one and forgot to count it on Goodreads? Yikes. More for 2023!) I did pick up a crop of second-hand paperbacks while we were visiting my in-laws in Australia in August and that's where I found the two novels by Balli Kaur Jaswal and the one true-crime nonfiction book A Murder without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle by Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Uncharacteristically, I spent a *lot* of time this year reading two books that I didn't enjoy that much but that I wanted to finish as an educational experience: Ulysses by James Joyce, which I decided to finally give a shot at since it was the centenary last year when I traveled to Ireland, and the 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories collection from 2015. Also uncharacteristically, I am "cheating" at this challenge because I am still reading that goddamn Ulysses. (I get about two pages done every night before falling asleep) but decided to count it as finished anyway because I am emotionally DONE with it. I'm afraid to look at how many percent left in the ebook I have to go.
There were a few quick, snappy reads, too, by Lucy Foley and Liane Moriarty. And the longest book I read, by pages, Empire of Gold, the final installment in the Daevabad trilogy by SA Chakraborty, certainly didn't feel like a long read. In addition to that one, I continued with a few other series: Australian author Jane Harper's Force of Nature, a follow-up to The Dry using the same investigator character; two of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels; my ThrillerFest pal Colleen Winter's second book, The Disruptors; another friend, Jasmine Silvera's, witchy, sexy, Prague-set Conjuring Moonlight; and Elizabeth George's latest in the Lynley series, Something to Hide. Aaranovitch's novel I mentioned above is also part of a series, as is the best-selling Thursday Murder Club and I may pick up more in those lines later, though I don't think I'll follow the other House of the Seasons novels by Jenn J McLeod.
What did you read this year?
Crime Fiction (Thriller, Mystery, Suspense, Dark)
*in no particular order*
Bath Haus by PJ Vernon. Excellent thriller writing, from the very first scene in a gay men's hookup spot through the ritzy lifestyles of DC to the twisty ending.
We Lie Here by Rachel Howzell Hall. Perhaps my favorite reading experience from 2022. A domestic thriller, this gets in deep to family secrets. I am probably going to auto-buy this author from now on. I've eaten up everything she's produced lately.
The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley. Fun and fast.
56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard. The first book I've read that's completely set during the pandemic. It follows two Irish strangers who become romantically involved on the eve of the COVID lockdown and move in together. And then there's a twist.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. Kids living in poverty in India try to solve the disappearance of their school classmates. So good, so sad, and so well written.
Something to Hide by Elizabeth George. If you've read the other TWENTY mammoth Lynley novels, c'mon, you're reading this doorstop too.
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P Manansala. Don't read this book hungry! Very fun cozy mystery (a category I haven't been reading much of lately) set in a restaurant run by a Filipino-American family.
My Sweet Girl by Amanda Jayatissa. Delightfully dark. I was disappointed when I got to the end only because I wanted to keep reading. This, as was the case for many books I've read in the past few years, was a recommendation from the Unlikeable Female Characters podcast. The podcast is on hiatus for the moment (sadly!) but I recommend browsing their backlist for other recommendations and author interviews.
Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier. Also wickedly fun. Hillier is also becoming one of my recent favorites.
The Finalist by Joan Long. Joan and I are both members of Sisters in Crime and I was excited to read her debut this year after corresponding with her over the years. If you liked the concept of a mystery set on an exclusive island, such as the recent movie Glass Onion, or Rachel Howzell Hall's They All Fall Down, you might want to check out this one!
One by One by Ruth Ware. Great setting in an Alpine chalet â guests of a work retreat are trapped inside with a killer.
The Lying Game by Ruth Ware. One of her earlier books and a bit different to her later style. I found this one stayed with me for a while after I closed the book.
The Body Man by Eric P Bishop. I met Eric at ThrillerFest, along with Colleen Winter. So excited to read his first book, a political thriller set in DC and dealing with taut international secrets and laconic federal agents.
Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett. Another fellow Sisters in Crime member. I just devoured this book. Kellye writes thrillers that include a fun spark of humor along with the urgency needed in the genre.
Force of Nature by Jane Harper. Set in the Australian bush. This, and The Hike, below, have similar premises and I enjoyed them both.
Dead End Girls by Wendy Heard. Perhaps the only young adult title I read this year? Definitely a satisfying read for adults too, about two teenagers trying to pull off their own disappearance. Wendy is one of the Unlikeable Female Characters podcasters and I have *loved* each of her recent novels.
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Also a cozy mystery, this one set in a retirement community, and very fun.
A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins
Kismet by Amina Akhtar. Watch those ravens! Perhaps this can be categorized as social horror?
Her Dark Lies by JT Ellison
Leave No Trace by Mindy Mejia. My favorite part of this was the wintery, outdoorsy setting.
Her Perfect Life by Hank Phillippi Ryan
Ripley's Game & Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith
The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix. If Kismet can't be defined as horror, then this is possibly the only horror novel I read this year? I have been watching a lot more horror on TV though, so I may incorporate more in my reading list for 2023.
Have You Seen Me? by Kate White
A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle (Nonfiction) by Martin McKenzie-Murray
Descent by Tim Johnston. As I said before with The Current, I love his writing.
The Quarry Girls by Jess Laurey. This was set in the 90s and is inspired by real events.
Over Her Dead Body by Susan Walter
The Hike by Susi Holliday
Cold River by Liz Adair
Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty
Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty
The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty. I have now finished all the books I can get my hands on by this author. Hope she's publishing more soon!
Ulysses by James Joyce. Ugh. Will I ever truly finish?
Dava Shastri's Last Day by Kirthana Ramisetti. This was a touching book with a lot more edge than I had expected. I would recommend it if you like a bit of near-future sci-fi in your family tales.
Simmering Season by Jenn J McLeod
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. I read this when I was woozy with COVID and so need to go back and re-read.
The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal. I love how this author, like Moriarty above, mixes in wry humor and *almost* absurdist scenarios.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. This is a beautiful novel set in Perth, about two families who share a house over a few decades. This is the second book I've read by this author (The Riders was the first) and I really like the edge of mystical paired with the nearly humdrum realism of many scenes.
100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore & Heidi Pitlor. I read this because I wanted to work on more short stories but I nearly stopped several times in the middle. Many of these stories felt completely joyless to me and not even that artful. Maybe it was me. I'll move on to a few other anthologies I have collected.
The Widow Killer by Pavel Kohout. I found this paperback of the English translation in a dusty second-hand store in Nevada but it's set right here in Prague. It's a police procedural about a serial killer during the end of World War II.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I am so late to the party on this one. Beautiful.
Inland by TÃ©a Obreht. Not what I expected when I picked this one up, but Iâm glad I read it.
Sci-Fi & Fantasy
The Disruptors by Colleen Winter. Excellent second piece in this series. Looking forward to the third book!
Conjuring Moonlight by Jasmine Silvera. More please!
The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey. Probably my second favorite reading experience this year, but I don't think all readers are going to enjoy it. Could this also be social horror? Possibly.
Meet me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey. I really liked this concept of strangers who keep meeting and re-meeting through many lives. Much of it was touching.
The Empire of Gold by SA Chakraborty. Sad the series ended, but I enjoyed this last installment.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. A necessary read if you like stories about androids, and a beautifully written and quite nostalgic one.
The Grace Year by Kim Liggett.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This was so atmospheric! As with the other book I have read from this author (Mexican Gothic) I wanted to stay in the world after I finished the last page.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by VE Schwab. Also very touching.
Whispers Underground by Ben Araronovitch. Witty and fun.
Like Me by Haley Phelan (ebook)
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo (audiobook; the author is another of the Unlikeable Female Characters podcasters)
Next up? Not sure!
I have Little Pretty Things by Lori Rader-Day and Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney on hold at the library and a bunch of thrift store paperbacks I collected last summer.
Any other recommendations?
Well, writers, NaNoWriMo has almost finished.
I’m at 46,000 words at the moment, but I know from looking at my calendar that I won’t have 50,000 before the clock strikes midnight on November 30. That’s OK, though—I’m still happy with this year’s progress!
It's always an amazing feeling at the end of the month to see how many words I was able to corral into sentences – today, I had the opus so far printed so that I can start a read-through and plan some of the larger editing that it will need– and that reminds me again why I still like this challenge and why the NaNoWriMo challenge is still valuable for me, even 15 years after I first attended a write-in.
This project (in my last post I called it an “Agatha Christie homage”), is still fun. As I told my critique group tonight, it's the kind of project that becomes more fun as I work on it. Which is great! It is, however, a bit less Agatha Christie-ish then in my original conception, but I think it will definitely be a stronger book for some of the changes that I have made to it while I wrote.
As I told some friends when I started out, my goal had been to do an 80,000-word challenge this month, not just the usual 50,000-word challenge. But I am fascinated with the idea of being able to put out an entire rough draft in the time span of one month (I also tried this in August with a different manuscript) and each time I learned something, and each time I am happy that I did it.
I will catch up on the other 30,000 words in December – after 50,000 in November, 30,000 seems like a breeze.
The challenge I set for myself in August was slightly different—I wanted to dictate the entire manuscript. This month, I alternated between typing and dictation. I dictated large amounts of the manuscript, but then I went back over the dictated areas and filled in those passages a bit more. I don’t seem to think as visually when I’m narrating out loud as I do when I’m tapping on a keyboard. I am going to try to train myself into being able to do both as well.
I’m still learning how to be an effective and efficient writer with dictation. (If you have any tips, please let me know in the comments!) It really saves strain on my wrists, and I'm finding that it is opening up the creative side of my brain in ways that I hadn’t expected. (An example: my husband alerted me to the fact that I “do the voices” when I’m dictating dialogue.)
One technique that a guest of Joanna Penn recommended on her Creative Penn podcast was to dictate each scene three times. Once as a short summary, then as a slightly longer summary, then as a full scene. The technique I’m currently using is evolving, but so far it seems most natural to write a short summary by hand in my general outline, then dictate the the scene in ten-minute increments and then finally go back through and embroider some bits later, either by hand on a printed copy or typing into the transcription. That brings me to what I'm calling the zero draft. I'll bring the rest of that up to a more readable standpoint and look at some of the big picture things on my next go round.
Then I'll let it sit.
And then I'll ask for feedback.
(Gosh, this is a long process!)
NaNoWriMo is a good thing for several reasons. One of the biggest reasons is the community. Even when I lived in China, I still found people to talk about NaNoWriMo with. I met them in Hong Kong, and Guangzhou and other cities, where we would meet at a cafe, write and talk about novels. NaNoWriMo is also good as a daily discipline. While I already have the discipline of writing every day, I don't always move fiction projects forward every day.
This month, I still had more fiction binges than steady work, but the NaNoWriMo participation, and the general hubbub of other people on social media and in Write-ins, really do move me forward on things in a way that reinforces some of my own daily discipline. And it's also a challenge!
One of the most important things that NaNoWriMo has taught me is that I can manage long documents. That's important also for my freelance work. I recently had to edit several 50-page reports for clients. That's a large amount of text to take in at once! But when you compare that report to a 50,000-word fiction document, it’s a lot more manageable.
Did you participate in NaNoWriMo this year? How did it go?
This past week, my friend Jasmine Silvera released the second book in her Grace Bloods series, Dancer’s Flame. I've known Jasmine since she was in Prague writing her first book (and, um, actually I’m officially the first book’s godmother and so kind of invested in this…) and I'm thrilled to see her universe, set in a dystopian future Prague, come to life in a second volume. The story centers on Isela Vogel, a dancer who can call on gods through the power of dance and her relationship with the city’s most powerful necromancer, Azrael.
Jasmine did a great job showcasing the city, but often when I pick up a book about a place I know well, I worry if my own experiences are going to take away from my enjoyment of the setting. For example, my own familiarity with Prague makes me hypervigilant to the details, but it’s really not fair to expect an author to always put every cobblestone in the right place. For most books, it's more about catching the spirit of a location and emphasizing only the details that evoke the sensation of being there.
News from Beth
Updates and musings.