According to Goodreads, I read 80 books in 2023. I was also given a wonderful bedside revolving-bookshelf-cabinet, shown above, as my birthday present from Gill. It fits the best part of 100 books. I have a shelf full of poetry books to dip into, another full of books of short stories and essays, again for random dives, another shelf of “in progress” reads, and the rest is “to read”. Or sometimes I just gaze at she shelves contentedly.
In recent years I have tended to read far more non-fiction than fiction. This year, for some unknown reason, the opposite was the case, almost every book I read was fiction or biography.
Here are the books that made the biggest impact on me in 2023…
Early 2023 (and late 2022) was filled with books about King Arthur, as research for my book King Arthur vs Devil Kitty. Some of these were a slog – I particularly struggle with old books, somehow my brain is tuned for modern writing (although Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s History of the Kings of Britain was a blast). But by far the most enjoyable of the lot was Mary Stewart‘s Merlin trilogy – The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973), and The Last Enchantment (1979). These three books tell the life story of Merlin as historical fiction, and are hugely enjoyable. In them, Merlin has no magical powers, he is merely an exceptional engineer (enabling him to rebuild Stonehenge) with the ability to see into the future (which may sound like a magical power, but there is plentiful evidence of precognisance, and the means by which such “retrocausality” may operate is convincingly described in scientific terms in an earlier year’s favourite read, Time Loops by Eric Wargo). Mary Stewart’s books are compelling adventure stories set in 5th Century Britain, and once I’d started I could not put them down.
Another wonderful work of historical fiction was John James‘s 1966 novel Votan. The story of Photinus, a Romanised Greek man who travels north into Germanic country, finally arriving at the town of Asgard, where he applies his cunning and superior knowledge to establish a god-like reputation. My friend Solomon VK does a better job of summarising the novel here than I could manage. What really struck me is that James makes a great job of putting us inside the mind of a 1st Century Roman – there are few modern anachronisms in the narrative, we feel as though we are experiencing the world through the mind of somebody alive at the time.
Maria Dahvana Headley‘s translation of Beowulf is the first version of the story I’ve read since, ooh, around 1977, so I can’t really compare it to other translations, but again it gripped me. It’s been billed as a “feminist” Beowulf, and it was illuminating to observe how the translator’s choice of words, while retaining the sense of the original, could throw into sharp relief the importance of manhood and reputation to Anglo-Saxon culture. And Headley’s rendering of the word Hwæt (elsewhere translated as “What ho!” , “Hear me!” , “Attend!” , “Indeed!” , “Listen up!”, and “So…”) as “Bro” was inspired (though I’m sure it will annoy some).
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is the story of a holocaust survivor who lost his life’s love when he fled to the USA. And so he wrote his love into a peculiarly singular book. Told through the voices of Leo Gursky, the elderly author of the book, and Alma Singer, a teenage girl whose mother is translating it, it’s a wonderful, schmalzy, quirky, surprising meditation on emotions and on loss, which ended with me in tears.
I listened, for the second time, to the audiobook of A Perfect Spy, John le Carré‘s semi-autobiographical novel from 1986. I struggle somewhat to maintain attention when listening to audiobooks, and while that’s not a problem with certain easy-reading books, with this one it meant that I had missed key details on my first listen. A Perfect Spy is occasionally slow-going, and it’s written from several perspectives and across multiple timelines, which can make the thread of the story hard to follow. But, oh my, it is so well-written, a masterpiece. And Michael Jayston’s narration is equally adept. And, once again, the book’s ending made me cry.
She: A History of Adventure by H Rider Haggard was a fun romp, and perhaps the best piece of dungeoneering fiction I have ever read. Horace Holly and his ward Leo travel to Africa and discover a lost civilisation ruled over by an apparently immortal white woman, Hiya or She-who-must-be-obeyed. Much of the action takes place in an underground city built many thousands of years ago by an earlier civilisation, whose mummified corpses are so numerous that Hiya’s people burn them as light sources. Being a 19th century novel set in Africa, the book is, unsurprisingly, full of casual racism, with black characters invariably appearing as cannon-fodder – although this was nothing compared to John Buchan‘s Prester John, a book which I had to abandon because I couldn’t stomach its vile portrayal of black Africans as wilfully evil devils, ungratefully seeking to unseat their colonial masters.
The Forest by Edward Rutherfurd is a novel – or, perhaps more accurately, a series of linked short stories – telling the history of England’s New Forest over the course of almost 1,000 years. I listened to the audiobook – having previously abandoned through boredom another of Rutherford’s multi-generational novels Sarum – and found it slow but soothing, its 50-odd hours eased me through a bout of depression under the duvet.
As is the case every year, I artificially inflated the number of books I read by including several chapbooks from the always excellent Nightjar Press. My favourite one of these dark, weird short stories this year was Stock by Cynan Jones (whose terrifying rural horror novel about badger-baiting, The Dig, was a favourite a couple of years ago).
Other novels which I really enjoyed include Treacle Walker by Alan Garner, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, The Spinoza Problem by Irvin D. Yalom, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Utopia Avenue and Slade House by David Mitchell, and several of Mick Herron‘s Slow Horses series. I also re-read Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock and, to my surprise, found it tedious, dull, overlong (when I’d previously read it, with my Bristol university housemates, we loved it so much that we ended up naming our Ultimate frisbee team after it, a team which, I was amazed to discover, is still active over 30 years on).
Finally, I got to revisit a book which left a huge impression in my early childhood, and which I have pined for all of my life: Odd and the Great Bear by James Roose-Evans. A tale of a little bear who goes on a big adventure, with a really satisfying denouement, although it is somewhat of its time (the heroes are all people of the Welsh countryside, while the villains are a gang made up of “townies” and “gypsies”). Roose-Evans is a fascinating character, having founded the Hampstead Theatre and the Bleddfa Centre, and written many books for adults and children, fiction and non-fiction, and plays including 84 Charing Cross Road. I’m currently enjoying his non-fiction book Passages of the Soul: Ritual Today, as well as enjoying his blog which, although he died at the end of 2022, he has pre-seeded with scheduled posts which are set to run until 2030.
A Little Book of Coincidence in the Solar System by John Martineau is a beautiful and peculiar little pocket-book full of surprising facts about the geometry of the planets and their orbits, and the strange coincidences which connect them. While entirely factual, it is open to the possibility of greater mysteries, and makes it clear that the harmonies and intervals of the “music of the spheres” are signs of some mathematical beauty underlying life on Earth.
Robert K.G. Temple appears to be one of those writers butthurt by academia, somewhat in the mould of a Peter Kingsley or Iain McGilchrist and, like them, he rarely passes up the opportunity to stick the boot into those who, he feels, ought to know better. His book Netherworld: Discovering the Oracle of the Dead and Ancient Techniques of Foretelling the Future is delightfully eccentric, often a little far-fetched, but utterly, utterly fascinating. The first half of the book focuses on ancient Greek oracles. Of course Temple visits Delphi, but most of the first section is reserved for discussion of the a site in the Phlegræan Fields that surround Mount Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples, where there was once a Greek colony. Here, there is an underground complex of caves, including a volcanically-heated river, which Temple believes is the River Styx. Not some sort of metaphorical stand-in for the Styx, but the actual Styx. He goes on to explain how visitors to the oracle here were drugged and deprived for days before being sent down into the sulphurous tunnels to visit dead relatives in “the Underworld”, and how a looped passage and a false wall tricked visitors into thinking they’d travelled there and back again without ever turning around. He then goes on to discuss extispicy – divination by entrails – and engages a friendly abattoirist to help him examine the intestines and livers of lambs, trying to discern what the ancients saw in them. Then, in something of a pivot, he moves on to the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes. He tracks the Chinese tools of divination through turtle shells and ox-shoulders to yarrow stalks (perhaps unsurprisingly he scorns the modern use of coins to generate I Ching hexagrams), and finds that they have one thing in common: angles which can be at either 90° or 30°. He then tracks down an obscure Japanese physics paper from the 1930s (which, he takes some delight in informing readers, nobody else possesses a copy of) which highlights the importance of 30° cracks in creating breaks. Combining this with papers on the tessellation, stacking, and breaking-off of skin cells, he comes up with a theory of a crystalline structure of “events”, with the I Ching used to detect incipient “cracks” in this structure, indicative of approaching changes. Completely bonkers, but also plausible. This book was quite a rollercoaster, and one of my favourite reads of the year. Particularly impressive was how Temple performs a sort of hermeneutics of divinatory techniques, examining entrails and yarrow stalks at all levels from the physical to the metaphorical, and imagining himself into the mindset of the ancients in order to advance his theories.
The Beauty Things by Alan Garner and Mark Edmonds is a peculiar and wonderful little book. A series of short essays about artefacts (some modern, some very very ancient) which Garner owns, and which have appeared in his novels, many of which were found in the grounds of his home at Toad Hall/The Old Medicine House (which is where I bought the book – The Blackden Trust organise guided tours of the Garner home every month, and I highly recommend that you take one if you ever get the chance). The stories are often astounding, as bizarre as anything Garner puts into his fiction, and the book itself is an object of beauty, wonderfully designed and bursting with photos of the objects described.
A new 10th anniversary edition of The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds by John Higgs gave me a chance to revisit this great book. It’s a book which triggered a flourishing of UK counterculture – for starters, without it there would have been no Cosmic Trigger play, hence no Festival 23, hence no Mycelium Parish News. (I have a T-shirt by the artist Shardcore which says “Blame Higgs”, because John Higgs is directly or indirectly responsible for so much in the life I lead now, including the fact that Peakrill Press exists). The book is magical, light-hearted, and easy to read, and ends with a beautiful conceit, one which again has inspired much that I now do. The main text of this 10th anniversary edition is entirely unchanged, but it’s peppered with new footnotes which, in a nod to the “director’s commentary” on DVDs, give Higgs’s explanations for why he wrote the book in the way he did, as well as what he makes of it ten years on.
I had never heard of Owen Barfield until this year, but in the last 12 months his name has cropped up everywhere. Barfield was, along with J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, one of the Oxford “Inklings”. His History in English Words, with a foreword by W.H. Auden, was a pure delight for an etymology-junkie like me. Partly a history of English, from its roots in proto Indo-European (or “Aryan”, as it was known at the time this book was written), but also, as the title implies, an examination of what our words tell us about the history of English-speaking peoples. Barfield has also written extensively on spirituality and human consciousness, and I suspect that we will see a resurgence of interest in his work in coming years (I certainly intend to read a lot more of it).
Any new book by M John Harrison is a big event in my life – stumbling on his Viriconium Nights short stories in my teens changed my life, and he has changed me repeatedly since then, through subsequent books and conversations. And so I was very excited to read Harrison’s “anti-memoir” Wish I Was Here. His books are dense and require a lot of unpicking – metaphor all the way down – and I will need several more passes of this one to fully appreciate it (I’m still finding new things in the Viriconium books, 37 years on). But, even on first reading, I found plenty of wisdom for the aspiring writer and human being. Plus there’s a deliciously hilarious compressed fantasy quadrilogy, which feels like it achieves in 4 pages the kind of deconstruction of fantasy that Harrison intended with Viriconium:
Simple Annals: A Memoir of Early Childhood was written by Roy Watkins in a sort of meditative state where he willed himself back into his pre-adolescent mind, and wrote up what he remembered of the 1940s and early 50s. The results are an utter delight. As well as conveying some of the history of that period – what it was like to be a small child during World War II – the emotions which accompany the sometimes-fuzzy imagery will resonate strongly with the reader, whether they are of betrayal by friends, the idiocy of adults, or unrequited love for a friend’s mother.
Henry Threadgill is, in my opinion, one of the greatest composers and arrangers of the late 20th & early 21st centuries. His autobiography Easily Slip into Another World, written with Brent Hayes Edwards, was an interesting read, starting out in racially divided Chicago in the mid-20th century, through work with the AACM and collaborations with many jazz musicians (including, I was surprised to discover, Cecil Taylor). Threadgill has some interesting run-ins with the Mafia in Sicily – attracting threats from them on one tour but, on his return, wined and dined by the new Mafia leader who, it turns out, is a big Threadgill fan. He also has an incredible encounter in Goa, India, which he ends up making his home.
A quip on Facebook about Jeremy Beadle, and a friend’s response, led me to track down a second-hand copy of Beadle’s Watch Out!: An Autobiography. It’s pretty scrappily written – clearly by the man himself, not ghostwritten – but it contains some astounding anecdotes. Ever the joker, and apparently fearless, the book is most interesting for its tales of Beadle’s early life, whether working as a hospital porter (where he and a colleague would terrify patients by racing their wheelchairs across the bumpy, muddy hospital grounds – Beadle found that he could go faster if he jumped up onto the back of the wheelchair for downhill sprints) or living illegally in Hamburg (where he survived by stealing small change out of unlocked cars).
Familial ties, and the fact that some friends had bought a “ghost box” to receive “electronic voice phenomenon” messages from the unknown, lead me to track down a copy of Thinking Outside the Box: Frank Sumption, Creator of the Ghost Box, by Norma Sumption, Brian Clune, Jim Pfister and Bob Davis. Like Beadle’s book, this one is never going to win any awards for its writing, it’s a bit of a mess, but the story it tells is a touching one. Frank never built his boxes to communicate with ghosts – he had been hoping to hear from aliens. But following the brutal murder of his son, Frank believed that his son continued to talk to him through the box. Frank built over 100 boxes, each one uniquely designed and decorated, and he gave most of them away, only to be repeatedly wounded when the people he gave them to went on to sell them for huge sums. While I’ve been in contact with members of the Northwest USA branch of my family for over 20 years now (isn’t the Internet great!) I never spoke to to Frank, and his untimely death and somewhat tragic life story makes me wish that my scepticism hadn’t prevented me from reaching out to him while he was still alive.
I had never heard of Anthony Irvine, AKA The Iceman, whose act on the 1980s comedy circuit involved melting large blocks of ice while making bad puns. But a friend sent me Irvine’s autobiography Melt It! The Book of the Iceman, written with Robert Wringham and with a foreword by Simon Munnery, and it was a fun read. Irvine appears to be one of those English eccentrics who is driven to do what he does, regardless of whether or not anyone likes or appreciates it (although many did; it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Stewart Lee is a big fan). And I applaud him for that.