Books of the Year 2023
It's our favourite time of the year, when we get to play Santa and stack up bookish goodies under your tree! The Burley Fisher elves – Cat, Emma, Oisín, Sam, So & Tash – have been in the workshop crafting our reviews for your delectation. Click on any link to order online, or sleigh by the shop to pick up & get them wrapped up! Fiction, Poetry, and Non-Fiction all listed below, or hit the collection and get stuck in.
Our overall Book of the Year announcement is coming soon! Get your crackers and paper crowns ready to celebrate.
Cat says: I was very impressed with the structure of this novel. The narrative splits between two wives, Leah and Miri. Leah has returned from a deep sea mission in a submarine where something has gone badly wrong, her story is concerned with what happened in the submarine, how it sank and they lost control and how her and her colleague coped. When we hear from Miri it is about how Leah has returned changed in some, hard to pin down, sort of way. The keystone of the novel is the mystery of what happened to Leah in the depths of the ocean and both women’s stories move out in different directions from that point.
Emma says: Amy Arnold’s Lori & Joe is a novella about a woman who finds her husband dead one morning. Rather than confront the bodily reality of his death, she walks up the fell by their home in the unusually foggy Lake District. During this journey another kind of confrontation occurs. In rhythmic stream-of-consciousness prose, Arnold creates a meandering thought-train of memory, regret, loss, loneliness and affection, sliced through at points by sharp moments of tragedy.
Sam says: Following on from her Desmond-Elliot prize-winning debut, The Manningtree Witches, A.K. Blakemore’s second novel takes us to the countryside near Lyon in the troubled years just before the first French revolution. It tells the story of Tarare, a young peasant who lives a life slantwise to the events that shook Europe, but who is nonetheless tossed by the convulsions. He is cast out of his village after an act of violence which leaves him with an irrepressible appetite, one which is exploited by those he meets for entertainment. This is a thrilling book that, like Blakemore’s previous novel, locates the point of contention of politics in the bodies of those that have been historically abused and neglected. It is history that thrums with blood, appetite and solidarity.
“I dare say there’s no more cruelty now than there used to be. But it’s not natural anymore. It’s not unthinking cruelty; it’s neurotic cruelty. War goes on for the same excuses, but it’s suddenly become a problem.”
Emma says: Hackenfeller’s Ape was the first novel by legend & icon, Brigid Brophy, written in 1953 and republished this year through Faber Editions. It’s a short book and its main concern is human/animal dynamics. On one hand, there’s the professor who is studying mating between an unwilling male ape and a horny and despairing female ape in Regents Park Zoo, all the while projecting his own insecurities onto the relationship. On the other, there’s the handsome and mysterious military type who tells the professor that his organisation has bought the male ape to send to space. Scheming ensues as the professor tries to save his beloved ape from oblivion. It’s a funny and sometimes bizarre satire about how modern society brushes aside morality for notions of human progress and how slippery morality can be when it is confused for intellectual authority.
Emma says: James Clarke’s Sanderson’s Isle is some sort of thriller set in 1960s England, about a racially ambiguous outsider who comes to London to track down his father. He instead finds himself in a community of free-lovers and acid-party-goers and ends up following Sanderson, a TV presenter, travel writer and egomaniac, on a research trip to the Lake District. It’s a book full of folkloric tendencies toward uncanny Britain, told from the perspective of a soft-hearted cynic.
Tash says: Another debut! I can sometimes find experiments with the form of the novel a bit tiresome – I’m an Edwardian at heart – but Cox’s novel bucked that trend for me. It’s a small book, centred on a group of close friends in their late twenties living in Paris and their visits to their favourite dive bar, located on the titular roundabout. Cox takes this setting as the novel’s structuring principle, a new way of writing group consciousness. Each chapter begins with a paragraph in first-person plural, the group recounting their experience of a particular national event, chorus-style. Having established his hub, Cox gives us the spokes, with the rest of the chapter narrating events whilst cycling through various viewpoints, with every paragraph of the rest of the chapter giving a different character’s perspective on the ongoing action. The word ‘roundabout’ could suggest a kind of imprecision, but if the novel is messy it is a carefully choreographed kind of mess, fitting the restless, melancholy period around the start of your third decade when the headiness of your twenties begins to wane and your friends get further and further away. Cox’s ambition pays off: this is clearly a very considered and thoughtfully crafted novel, and I think it deserves a wider audience. I’m going to be keeping an eye on Will; I’m looking forward to what he does next.
Tash says: When I bought The New Life I wasn’t going to read it immediately. I intended to take it straight home and add it to the pile on my bedside table dedicated to books to be read at a later date, usually when I feel like I have done enough work to have earned something fun. But as much as I like setting my own rules, I also like bending them, so I did what I usually do and read the first couple of lines–just to test the style. Soon enough I had finished the first chapter, and then the second, and by that point, I thought it would be best to just keep on going and finish the whole thing. I’ll let you discover for yourselves what made that first chapter so good, but I really loved this novel: Crewe is a great stylist, and it was a pleasure to read something so vital.
Crewe’s book draws (and then significantly departs) from the real working relationship between poet John Addington Symonds and sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis, and their efforts to shift the Victorian public’s opinion on homosexuality with the publication of their book, Sexual Inversion. John (a married, gay man) and Henry (a straight man married to a gay woman) connect over their shared belief in the injustice of Victorian indecency laws and hope that publishing a scientific study of homosexuality, with anonymised personal accounts, may help to create a more tolerant world. When Oscar Wilde’s arrest threatens the book’s legitimacy, both men have to decide how fully they should live the life demanded by their own convictions, and who they are willing to sacrifice as a result. As a novel about change and political activism, it is unsentimental about the personal collateral and egotism that can often accompany idealism, even as it believes in the object of that idealism. Crewe also writes beautifully, with an attuned sense of the body and the way it moves through the world; a style befitting a novel primarily concerned with sex as a political force. It won the Orwell Prize earlier this year if that sort of thing usually helps to persuade you, but I think it’s fantastic, with or without the accolades.
Cat says: Lydia Davis is one of my all time favourite writers. When I first read her super-short stories in my first year of university I felt a massive possibility that writing and reading this sort of thing was allowed. They’re so short, some are just three lines, some a few pages. I like that and I also like the particular details of life she focuses on, the way she imbues intense, often painful, emotion into small gestures and everyday conversations.
Her output is pretty much consistently excellent so, if you haven’t read her, you could pick up any of her collections and start from there. However with Our Strangers she has decided to only let it be sold at physical bookshops, bookshop.org, and other independent retailers, i.e not Amazon out of solidarity with independent booksellers - thanks Lydia!
Oisín says: Ponyboy was my book of the month in May this year and I have thought about it every month since. It’s devastating auto-fiction in 3 parts - Paris, Berlin and lowa. The 3 parts are a baggy structure that Eliot Duncan puts the story inside. It's about the character [that is kind of nameless at first before kind of going by Ponyboy] moving around relationships with friends, partners, sex, sleep, family, names, countries, addiction and writing. It reads like Eliot was writing part memoir, part lucid-daydream - emailing Paul Preciado, playing Townes Van Zandt and talking to the ghost of Kathy Acker. To me, nonlinear storytelling always feels inherently queer, in this book sort of mimicking the way that the character is always getting close to and then getting away from his transness throughout.
Cat says: I read Ordinary People by Diana Evans when it came out in 2019 and it has been one of those books that has stayed with me, with its images coming into my head from time to time. With this in mind I knew I had to read A House for Alice, a loose sequel to Ordinary People.
It has some of the same characters as OP, in particular Melissa and Michael, who are now divorced and in new relationships. We also meet new characters like Melissa’s father Cornelius who dies in a house fire on the same night as the Grenfell Tower Fire, and Alice, her mother who decides after his death to leave London and spend her last years in her home country of Nigeria.
Evans is an absolute master of free indirect discourse, and the book is populated with characters whose minds we move in and out of seamlessly. The broad scope of characters is matched by how much of London she covers as the book moves around the city with the characters. From Kilburn to Peckham, it feels like we’re in the safe hands of a Londoner, or of course several Londoners.
Oisín says: I love this book!!! It’s my JOINT #1 book of the year (with Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H.). Never Was is an experimental sad-boy trans-boy novel by H. Gareth Gavin. Never Was is the place the where the story is set, it’s 'a place for lost dreams disappointments and things that never came to be'. I've never read anything else like it. The main character is in Never Was but doesn't really know where what that is or how they ended up there. The book follows the main character Fin telling their story ~ a scrappy, foggy, remembering or misremembering of a working-class upbringing, a memory of childhood friends, complicated family members and how gender interrupts and cuts through all these stories - into the person that is storytelling in the moment. There are so many stories in this book. H. Gareth Gavin is so good at giving a voice to everything - all characters and the world they’re in - it's experiential but not messy, it's a life story but not boring, the roots of all the references are so vivid and real that it's weird.
Emma says: Love, Leda was written in the 60s by the late Mark Hyatt, published this year by Peninsula Press. It’s a diaristic account of a queer working-class drifter who journeys through Soho, sofa-surfing, cruising and getting a bit of work here and there. Leda is unattached to a home, job or partner but finds moments of comfort and intimacy among a community of gay men and divorced women. His voice is straightforward and endearing, allowing the reader to stay close behind his distant gaze and feel his loneliness in a city full of people.
Sam says: I was delighted that this fantastically innovative novel made it to the Booker longlist! But I’ll leave it to Antony to give his verdict, as he called it so early (we miss you Ant!)
Sam says: How could I resist these annals of resistance? This book, like So, contains multitudes. It is a debut collection of stories that takes in a lifetime spent thinking, through language, how history might yet be different, if we only to look at it differently. And how our future might yet be better, if we learn, through that alterity, to reject the binaries through which we’ve been taught to view ourselves. Wildly innovative and capacious in its generosity, Truth & Dare is by turns joyful, anarchic, moving, filthy, funny and unforgettable. Give yourself the present of So’s gift this Xmas and change your past, future and everything in between!
If you’re looking for that sat-on-the-sofa-putting-Celebrations-in-your-face (slash delayed on an 8 hour train ride) all-absorbing Christmas hamper of a novel, then this is it. It’s twenty-seven years since Ann-Marie McDonald broke and mended readers’ hearts with her Canadian epic Fall On Your Knees, and she’s back at it. We’re in nineteenth-century Scotland this time, where she and her playful protagonist take on the whole canonical bookshelf, from Darwin to Orlando via James, the Brontës, Dickens, Scott and more… it really is quality street. There’s bogs, tutors, castles, American ingenues, an asylum, unlikely siblings, mean aunts, and above all a queer joie de vivre that keeps you utterly compelled, even through the worst of what the Victorian era could do to people of marginalised genders. A delight.
Written, illustrated and translated into English by triple-treat Deena Mohamed, Your Wish is My Command (aka Shubeik Lubeik) is an utterly gorgeous graphic novel of three intertwined wishes by three Cairenes, whose narration of hopes, dreams, fears, traumas and connections will haunt you for a long time. Wishes, in Mohamed’s otherwise world, have become a hot commodity mined in Egypt and sold on the global market, subject to strict regulation that parodies both the dreamy whimsy of fairy tales and the destructive whimsy of state legislation. What can ordinary people do, how can they live and love, when their very imagination is for sale? As full of stunning graphic invention as it is of bittersweet wisdom, this is an instant legend.
Cat says: This novel is about money, power, class, race and sex. The character is quite outrageous. She is having an affair with a famous photographer, who she has incredible sex with but who has told her they can’t carry on sleeping together because it’s too intense. He still invites her to be his plus one at big events, something which she wonders might be to do with the fact that as a rich white man, he looks better with a brown woman on his arm.
She is infatuated with him, so much so that she also becomes interested in anyone who has also had an affair with him, including one woman whose Instagram she obsesses over. This woman is a rich, white, influencer-type who has curated for herself a beautiful life online.
The book is written in casual fragments with titles like ‘nepotism it girl’ and ‘first of all i didn’t miss the red flags i looked at them and thought yeah that’s sexy.’ This character treats people badly, but the book is very funny and it has important things to say about whiteness, art, gender and where they meet.
Cat says: Mrs S, set in the 1990s, about a lesbian affair in an all girls’ boarding school between the narrator, who has taken up the job as matron in the school and the eponymous Mrs S, the headteacher’s wife.
It is definitely sexy, the will-they-won’t-they aspect of the plot is paced very well before opening up into a fully blown secret affair. Hung over all of it, however is the sad and frustrating atmosphere of a homophobic society, Section 28 was a law that forbade the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools and was in effect from 1988-2003. The knowledge that the novel is set in this time period gives the affair its doomed romantic quality. We don't ever believe that Mrs S is likely to leave her husband and the protection that their relationship gives her as part of the status quo and we can grieve with the narrator about this, but Mrs S too must suffer this lose, her queerness being secret and shameful, not having the chance to fully realise all the types of people she could love, erotically and otherwise.
One of the things I found most interesting about this novel was the distinctions between different types of queerness. How does homophobia affect the narrator, a young butch woman, who people read as gay in different ways to Mrs S, an older, femme and (possibly) bi woman? How does their queerness manifest itself distinctly from how it would in our own time? Would the narrator now think of themselves as a woman at all? There is an important moment between the two characters when Mrs S talks to her lover about why she binds her breasts, whether this means she wants to be a man. Mrs S wants an explanation,‘But she doesn’t understand. And yet understanding is everything to her, she cannot see the ego in it, her need to grasp it all, rather than accept what she does not know.’
I felt moved by this difference between the queer characters (lesbians in a broad sense), them talking during and after sex, the attempt to understand each other and the sometimes failure of this, that they were set up to fail and that they didn’t have the liberty to keep on trying.
As you’d expect from the author of This One Sky Day, this anthology edited by Leone Ross spills marvels: every story is a surprise and yet they build a fantastic multi-faceted world together, one that draws on Afrofuturism with a witty British slant. Everyone will have a favourite story (I was thrilled by Patience Agbabi’s smooth move from poetry to prose), and the collection gathers queens of the form like Irenosen Okojie with fresh voices. You’ll want more from all of them. There’s stories that unfold magically on balconies, in urban parks, under the sea, and in inner space – and keep unfolding. A definitional and thrilling collection.
Adania Shibli is a genius, and her books are diamonds: so much ache and fury and beauty compacted into perfectly-weighted words. Minor Detail asks what happens when one individual act becomes the lens through which we see a century of history, as that one, ramifying act – a Palestinian woman captured and raped by Israeli soldiers during the Nakba – also turns, through its facets, into a detail that exemplifies and unfolds and bears that bigger history. Scalpel-delicate, Minor Detail will introduce you to a world-class writer who will not be silenced.
Sam says: Following in the radiant, revolutionary and gleefully disruptive vein of their previous novels, Isabel Waidner’s new novel begins with a writer winning a big literary prize. Things start to go sideways when Corey tries to collect it. From here the novel catalogues and skewers how mass culture continually represses and exploits the marginalised voices it pretends to uplift. Like Isabel’s previous novels Corey Fah moves with an irrepressible energy, estranging the familiar and showing how strange are the things we take as given!
Sam says: An oldie but a goodie, and one which I only encountered for the first time this year. Hadrian, the third of the so-called ‘Five Good Emperors’, ruled the Roman Empire at the height of its power at the end of the first century. He supposedly wrote a memoir, which was lost to time. In the 1940s Yournecar attempted to imagine what this book might have looked like, and this novel is the result. I was blown away. It is a breathtaking work of imaginative empathy; a double feat in that she not only imagines what might have mattered to a man who lived two millennia ago, but how he would have wanted to be remembered. At the heart of it is a tragic story of queer love, and the excesses of grief made possible by having the resources of the world at his disposal. Beautiful, haunting and strange.
Oisín says: What I love about CA Conrad’s writing is that there is no difference between life and writing - it’s all there. They are writing “(soma)tic poetry.” Soma is a sanskrit that means ‘to press and be newly born’ and Somatic means ‘relating to the body’. They are really embodied in their writing, but so is everything else - animals around them, friends who have died from AIDS and ecosystems both environmental and political. They write with an urgency that totally rejects political apathy and so belongs to this moment (and every other one before). The language is economic and relatable, the form is kind of dreamlike but laid out like a desire path - we can follow them intuitively and they’re made by us all together.
So says: If you’re looking to celebrate and explore the living world with young (or any) readers or eco-activists in your life, turn to The Star Whale, a truly beautiful fusion of poetry and visual art. Unusually for a picture book, artist Petr Horáček’s paintings came first, and writer Nicola Davies responded to the poetry of their vivid colours and glorious shapes that move through the marvels of the living world around us. As Davies writes in the title poem:
Brimming eyes emoji. A picture book you’ll be able to enjoy again and again.
Sam says: In his brief, tragic but beautiful life, the time given to Mark to write was briefer still. After an abusive childhood, he learned to read and write when he was thirteen. When he ended his life in the 70s, his poems were almost lost, but for the intervention of other poets who drove overnight to collect and Xerox them. Out of this small window of time, he bathes us in light. Beautiful, melancholic, wry and liltingly musical, his poems chronicle his struggles with depression, rejection and the legacy of his childhood abuse. They also speak of boredom, horniness, curiosity, altogether of a fertile and fragile intelligence, which shone for far too short a time.
Oisín says: a “Working Life” is the poetry collection that I’ve been waiting for. It’s the first Myles collection since Evolution in 2018 - it’s Myles at their most direct and their most wide somehow at the same time. The poems hold all of the dualities of our daily, working lives. They travel from small rooms when the pandemic was outside, to planes and drives across the changing landscape of America, to small moments inside cups of coffee and interactions with lovers or dogs. This is Myles really looking at our present moment and our environment being destroyed by greed, selfishness, individualism (capitalism) and meeting it with deep, radical noticing (care). Eileen Myles is anyone’s poet, the language is interested in vernacular and the way we share it with each other.
So says: If you like your football grassroots, community-owned, politically-radical, antifa, anti-corruption, feminist and on the barricades, this Eric Cantona drop-kick of a book is for you. Correia, a social issues journalist in France, loves the beautiful game for itself and twines it into a brilliant thread through a long century of solidarity, protest and collective power. So if the Boxing Day games/transfer market shenanigans are getting you down (or cheering you up), let A People’s History speed you into the new year with some exhilarating new chants from Argentina to the Arab Spring.
So says: Blessings upon Daunt Books for republishing this gem (selfishly, because I lent my National Geographic original to someone who never returned it, argh). Louise Erdrich is a firm Burley Fisher fave (and Nobel Prize bet). If we got you into her incredible lockdown novel The Sentence, you’ll love this non-fiction iteration of Erdrich the bookseller and Ojibwe writer of place and community (and if you haven’t read her fiction, this travel memoir is a great place to get to know her work). With her 18 month old daughter, Erdrich canoes islands that are living libraries, pictographic records of stories, dreams and myth, linking this long, long tradition of her people’s writing to her own. A gorgeous book to get lost in, for armchair or other travellers.
Oisín says: Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H. is so good and my #1 book of the year. It's a memoir about Lamya figuring out their sexuality and gender identity and thinking it through their religion - loosely punctuating the book with stories from the Quran. God being the start and end of those questions about your identity felt big and relatable. If the gap between you and God is small in all other areas of your life - your home, your friends house, your school, the playground - then why would the gap be bigger these inward questions? And why would you shy away from asking what this means your God looks like? In the book Lamya starts questioning these things around 14 and has a cool, relentless way of dragging their faith over to meet their politics throughout as they grow up. The book is a fraying knot of their faith and their queerness, feminism, friendships, anti-racism. A coming of age, a building up of their core beliefs and worldview - the big stuff and the small stuff.
I hadn't really read something like this before - the way that the book holds its stories and beliefs so strongly and pokes them all the time, but never starts from a place of rejection. It starts from a place more curious and goes to places more wobbly, while also unambiguously naming things like white supremacy, racism, homophobia, ignorance or the clunky clashing that can happen on butch + butch dates. The directions it moves in feel true to live and hard to write. I wanted to keep reading even when it's done.
Oisín says: Daddy Boy is Emerson Whitney’s second book and first UK release (thank you Cipher Press!). The book navigates the end of a 10-year relationship with a dominatrix they called Daddy. Living in a tent in the back garden of their shared house, figuring out what life will look like now, they connect with something else inside of them, older than submission - tornado chasing. While the narrative follows them on a bus, as part of a storm-chasing group - the form of the book is not a straight story. Whitney brings in all varied references; anecdotes from the road, phone calls from home, memories from the decade gone, past versions of themselves and a first draft of the book you’re reading