The Reading Life – 2023

January 1, 2024 | No Comments

I’m cobbling together this list while nursing a mild hangover with a glass of ginger wine and some extremely cheesy crisps. Not ideal circumstances to produce pithy commentary on my reading year, but sufficient to get the job done under a Ne’r Day resolution of ‘aim not for perfection but good enough.’

We lost Cormac McCarthy in 2023, therefore I thought I should have another go at Blood Meridian having given up some years back. I’m relieved to say I’ve finished it and can now strike it off my ‘should’ve’ list and it need never darken my TBR pile again. Yes, it’s an astonishing tour-de-force but his style is so distinctive and has been so often (badly) imitated that it felt at times like I was reading a pastiche––it is the most Cormac-y of McCarthies. French and Saunders could make a wonderful skit of some of its scenes of mindbogglingly excessive violence complete with a spittoon-drawled voiceover of a single sentence chain-linked by an endless progression of ‘ands.’  To sweeten this trial I alternated its chapters with chapters from Yellowface, toggling between McMisery’s diabolical Old Testament thunderings and Kuang’s enjoyably queasy satire. (Btw: Yellowface would win, hands down, my best cover of the year if I had such a category. Seems I now do.)

My 2023 list seems paltry given some of my more voluminous consumption in previous years but I can’t be arsed counting them. In my defence (excuses…. excuses…), I reread some titles not listed for teaching and research, including working my way chronologically through everything by Colm Toibin. I’m not sure I recommend reading the entire works of a single author back-to-back––even one you deeply admire. Though it certainly helps to clarify their craft and thematic obsessions, it also reveals their ticks. I was also reminded, forcibly, of how much I value humour.

My top ten (hang on, twelve actually…oops) are highlighted in red, but I had a hard time choosing an overall favourite. Nothing streaked ahead like Rundell’s John Donne appreciation in 2022. Jostling for the top spots are Katheryn Scanlon’s episodic fiction/nonfiction hybrid Kick the Latch about the horse racing industry and Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge. This was Bainbridge’s first book, though her second to be published, and proves that her sharp tragicomic style and withering estimation of human nature bolted out the gate full-formed. It was rejected by many publishers with one complaining it was both repulsive and indecent. Repulsive and indecent. That’s our Beryl, and I wouldn’t have her any other way.

Other favourites include the incomparable The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman (which should be a compulsory school text), the Scottish cult classic O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker, two craft essentials by Wharton (The Art of Fiction) and Ginzberg (The Little Virtues), and the lovely The Running Hare about a year in the life of a field. Cary Grant’s Suit is a delightful morsel and reminded me how much I love reading (and writing) about cinema and that I must do this more, while Rory Stewart’s Politics on the Edge is a brilliant political memoir, if not one that will restore your faith in politicians or in the narcissistic, nepotistic, greedy cesspool that is Westminster. I was even more livid than normal when I’d finished it, which is saying something given I’ve been in a bad mood since 2014. 

Finally, my discovery of the year was the English novelist Elizabeth Jenkins, whose The Tortoise and the Hare is a shrewd examination of a love triangle between a man, his young, beautiful wife and his older, countrified mistress. Despite being published in the 1950s, its astute understanding of messy private heartbreak combined with public humiliation conjured eerie comparisons with the calamitous Charles/Di/Camilla fiasco. I’m looking forward to tracking down Jenkins’ other novels, though that may take some doing as I imagine many might be out of print. I recommend you add her to your list of ‘Necessary 20th Century Elizabeths,’ including Howard, Spencer, Bowen and Taylor.  

I’ve set myself a goal to begin a Substack newsletter this year (what are the odds of me doing this? Maybe 10/1?), to share more of my thoughts about the stuff I love: namely books, cinema, art, gardening, etc. But more on that later. If you are interested, please keep in touch. 

(The attached photo includes a glimpse of one of my favourite acquisitions in 2023, a small oil painting by the contemporary Scottish artist William Ferguson.)


  • Matrix by Lauren Gross
  • The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey*
  • Confidence by Denise Mina
  • Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather *
  • The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
  • O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker *
  • Heresy by S.J. Harris
  • Eight Months of Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel
  • The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
  • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
  • The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone by Tennessee Williams
  • Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie)
  • The Colony by Audrey Magee *
  • The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman
  • The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington
  • 4.50 From Paddington by Agatha Christie
  • Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlon *
  • Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  • Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie 
  • The Gardener by Salley Vickers
  • Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge *
  • Haven by Emma Donoghue
  • Tropical Issue by Dorothy Dunnett
  • All Souls by Javier Marias
  • The Wren, the Wren by Anne Enright
  • Nothing Left to Fear From Hell by Alan Warner
  • The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins *
  • The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Van Arnim
  • Trust by Hernan Diaz
  • The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin
  • The Story of the Night by Colm Toibin
  • The South by Colm Toibin
  • Yellowface by R.F. Kuang *


  • The Hard Crowd – Essays 2000-2020 by Rachel Kushner
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius *
  • Agatha Christie by Lucy Worsley *
  • The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman *
  • Daily Rituals – Women at Work by Mason Curry *
  • Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son by Gordon Burn
  • The Little Virtues by Natalie Ginzburg *
  • Procrastination by Jane B. Burka and Lenora Yuen
  • The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis Stempel *
  • The Golden Mole by Katherine Rundell *
  • Why You Should Read Children’s Books by Katherine Rundell 
  • Ultra Processed People by Chris van Tullekin
  • The Ardlamont Mystery by Daniel Smith 
  • Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman
  • Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy
  • The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton *
  • In the Dark Room by Brian Dillon
  • Ashes and Stones by Allyson Shaw
  • Handicraft by Sara Baume
  • A Horse at Night by Amina Cain
  • Not a Novel by Jenny Erpenbeck
  • The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight
  • Cary Grant’s Suit: Nine Movies that Made Me the Wreck I Am Today by Todd McEwan *
  • Politics on the Edge by Rory Stewart *


  • Selected Poems by William Wordsworth
  • Fugitive Colours by Liz Lochhead *
  • Selected Poems by Robert Frost
  • The Queen of Sheba by Kathleen Jamie

The Book I Almost Gave Up On (Again) 

  • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

* Recommended / * Top Twelve