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  • Writer's pictureThe Fiction Fox

Year in Review: Favourite Books of 2023

Compiling my favourites list was a bit of a different experience compared to the past few years. Where the struggle was often in narrowing down the number of great reads, 2023 was a year where very few books felt like true new favourites. I’ve read a lot of enjoyable books, but few that feel like they will stand the test of time for me personally. Additionally, there’s a very clear theme in the 11 titles, that I want to mention. Although disability- and chronic illness-fiction has been a huge part of my reading for years now, both for my own entertainment and as an editor/reviewer/sensitivity reader, never before has it dominated my Yearly Favourites-list this strongly. Almost all of them have at least an element of this to their story, so if you aren’t interested in this topic, my list may not be helpful to you. The fact that so  many of these made it on the list is a testament to what’s been on my mind this year, but also to the quality of these books, to all stand out in the midst of the 133 books I finished this year.

As always, this list is roughly ranked, based off my own personal enjoyment, and only includes first-time reads (no re-reads!) and books released at the time of posting (no 2024-previews or ARCS).


That self-imposed rule was more relevant than ever, as without them, my top 3 would just by rereads of some of my all-time favourites. Special shout-out to The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger and The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher. When it comes to first-time-reads, I’ve selected a top 10, in rough order based off my own personal connection to- or enjoyment of the book. Without further ado, let’s get into my top 10 reads of 2023:




In the number 10 spot, we have a book that might as well have topped my Underrated list, as it’s currently stuck at only 200 ratings on Goodreads and I’ve heard absolutely no other reviewers talk about it. Part of me understands it might be a bit of a marmite book, but a far greater part remembers this as one of my most memorable reading-experiences of the year, earning it a well-deserved spot here.Swim Home to the Vanished is a magical realist parable, exploring a man’s grief over the loss of his brother through the lens of Diné mythology. It’s an incredibly layered experience that requires some suspension of disbelieve, but resonated with me personally a lot. Bashams prose is incredibly striking and lyrical (let alone considering this is a debut!) and his character explorations, paralleling the mythological elements are something I haven’t seen done before in quite this way. Magical, lyrical, beautiful and written by an indigenous American author on a culture I loved learning more about.

 


Over the past few years, the genre of “feminist witch fiction” has become so oversaturated that I’ve burned out on it a little bit. Leave it to one of my all-time favourite authors however, to put a spin on it that makes me adore it again. Logan’s signature style, themes, deep atmosphere and stunning prose were all there, and like a true word-witch, she put a spell on me with her writing once more. Our story opens with the stark image of our protagonist Lux burying the remains of her mother in a poison garden. Having lost not just her mother, but her home and roots to accusations of witchcraft, Lux sets of on a journey into the woods. What follows is her life’s travels, making her way from a group of vagrant theatre plays, to a final position as the kings food taster, all the while accompanied by a mysterious woman named Else, who she grows closely connected to. This is a story of feminism, but not the obvious shouty-kind I’ve seen in the genre before. It’s about ghosts, grief, poisons and nature, motherhood, love and learning to trust in life again. Simply stunning.

 


In the number 8 spot, we have the first of my disability-fiction reads to make the list: a novel that wasn’t just a well written young adult contemporary, but also depicted a relatable experience I’ve never seen described before within the genre.

In Where You See Yourself, we follow 17-year old Effie in her senior year of high-school, navigating proms, moving out of her parental home and most importantly: selecting and applying to colleges. For Effie, the process isn’t has carefree as it seemingly is for her classmates. Being in a wheelchair because of Cerebral Palsy, Effie has to consider not only curricula, admittance criteria and the campus-atmosphere of different schools, but also matters of accessibility, housing, travel distance and more…

I was completely open to love this book, but I didn’t expect to relate this much to the representation of being a disabled teen and college student. Effie’s story is such a deeply powerful one, that I’d honestly wished had been around when I was 18 and encountering similar events. What truly sets this book apart is its well-roundedness in depicting the disability aspects ánd the realities of “regular teen-life”, side-by-side without making one seem more profound or important over the other. The own-voice experience of the author shines through in her respect for the characters experiences: she has a disability, but also lives a full teen-experience of first love, academic pressure and more, and both are equally relevant to her identity.

At the end of the book, Effie has to make an important choice that I won’t spoil. However, I deeply appreciated the choice that was made, as well as the reasons behind it. Depending on what you expect going in, it might not be the choice you expect, but it’s one that I deeply respect, and wish I’d had the maturity to make at that age…




At number 7 is the lowest average-rated book on my list, with only a 3.5 on Goodreads, and I cannot understand what possessed the general public for rating this so low. I was drawn in by its description as a “queer, dark gothic novel with themes of poisons, power and privilege” and I wasn’t disappointed.

I will try to keep the plot-synopsis vague, as it’s best to experience this one as it goes. We follow a med-school dropout, forced to leave her dream behind due to financial issues in the family. Desperate for any source of income, she takes a job as a physician’s assistant for a private doctor attending to the ailing son of Boston’s most elite families, suffering from a mysterious illness. Despite the red-flags throughout all of the interviewing process, she is quickly taken in by this morally ambiguous job, getting wrapped up in a world of pharmaceutical corruption, nepotism and the intoxicating power of wealth and extravagance. The incredible split between her own background and her new surroundings send our protagonist spiraling, questioning her own ethics and developing a stronger desire for revenge along the way.

This book belongs in that incredibly niche genre of truly-dark-but-strange-academia-books that I adore. It is tense, sexy, critical and filled with a slow-building rage that few authors convey so effectively.

All of these characters are the definition of morally grey and often unlikable. Yet still, the critique of academic pressure, nepotism and out-of-touch-ness of elite academia (especially within medicine!) is something I and many others like me will relate to on some level. I can see how this book might not be to everyone’s liking, but it certainly was to mine.




 I feel like this book barely needs an introduction or explanation at this point… The first release in Brandon Sandersons “Secret Project” series of books he wrote during the COVID-lockdown, completely blew me away, and I was far from alone in that opinion. This standalone novel, set in the Cosmere Universe, follow Tress, a young woman who embarks on a daring journey across the seas to rescue her best friend Charlie, who’s fallen prey to the Sorceress of the Midnight Sea. Except the seas in the Cosmere Universe, aren’t your typical bodies of water… Instead, Tress has to traverse the treacherous currents of oceans made out of fungal spores, each type of them highly toxic or volatile, responding to agitation in deadly ways. Helped along the way by a lovable cast of (pirate) characters, including a talkative rat, Tress’ adventures are some you won’t easily forget. In short: Sanderson has described this book as “Cosmere, meets the whimsical storytelling of the Princess Bride”, and he nails that vibe. From the plot, to the whimsy, the characters and the hilarious narrative tone of our unreliable narrator Hoid; this story was whimsical fantasy perfection to me. With 2023 being the year of “cozy fantasy”  for many, this was the kind of cozy fantasy that I’m here for: not low-stakes romance with a drizzle of D&D-inspired world building, but epic fantasy with whimsy and heart to inspire that same warm and cozy feeling inside.




Speaking of cozy books: I didn’t have a lot of luck with cozy fantasy, but weird, cozy, slightly absurdist contemporary apparently worked just fine for me. Unlikely Animals is a difficult book to describe, as its plot sounds like complete chaos and its charm is almost inexplicable. That being said, the author somehow managed to make me fall completely in love with its characters and setting, and ultimately hit me with quite the bitter-sweet emotional gut punch at the end.

In short, the story follows Emma Starling, a med-school drop-out returning to her small New Hampshire hometown to visit her father, who’s dying from an undiagnosed brain-disease. Emma is reluctant to return home, where she’s been quite the celebrity on the ground of being rumoured to have an almost magical “healing touch”. Emma, who’s never actually healed anyone to the best of her knowledge, feels the expectation this rumour brings heavy on her shoulders. Meanwhile, as her father’s condition progresses, more and more bizarre events unfold. Clive Starling’s hallucinations of small animals and the ghost of a long-dead naturalist Harold Baynes inspire him to random acts of animal-kindness, with increasingly chaotic results. We follow Emma, as she juggles her increasingly dysfunctional, but insanely wholesome family, as well as her new temporary job as a substitute teacher for a bunch of middle-graders, and (thanks to her dad) an adopted pet dog and fox...   As you can probably tell from the synopsis, this book is a bit bonkers, but Hartnett’s poignant writing and lovable characters add such a layer of depth to this quirky tale that I couldn’t help but fall in love. I highly recommend this book if you’re in the mood for something wholesome with a potentially bittersweet touch, and don’t mind a little bit of weird in your stories.  




 I’ve been a fan of Jen Campbell’s work (both her writing and her content on Youtube) for years now, so I’ve had this book on pre-order ever since its first announcement. With expectations that high, I feared I was setting myself up for disappointment. Yet somehow, Jen Campbell lived up to, and even surpassed some of my expectations. Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit is a poetry collection, in which Jen explores her experiences growing up with a disability and chronic illness, from childhood to adulthood, and ultimately through the process of IVF. Her almost magical, whimsical metaphors and writing style make these difficult topics a lot more accessible to read about.  To say I personally related to this collection, would be the understatement of the century. It’s certainly in my top 3 poetry collections of all time, and the highest that poetry has ever made it on my Yearly Favourites-list. Considering the subject-matter, make sure you’re in the right state of mind before picking up this collection, but other than that, I cannot recommend this one high enough…



Speaking of books that made me cry, there’s always That-One-Middle-Grade book that manages to make its way into the top three, by absolutely wrecking me beyond anything an adult epic tragedy can do. This year, it was this incredible surprise, that I basically only picked up because of its stunning cover.  

The Girl From Earths End is a middle-grade fantasy story about a young girl who’s raised on an island by her two loving adoptive dads, spending their days attending to the local plants and extended gardens. When one of her dads falls incurably ill, twelve-year-old Henna hatches a plan to attend the archipelago’s most prestigious botanical academy, and gain entry to their greenhouses, where a mythical plant with almost magical healing properties is rumoured to be housed. What follows is a story that’s warm, uplifting and sad at the same time, with an inclusive cast featuring a bunch of positive representations (including different ethnicities/cultures, and non-binary- and disabled main character). There’s found family, (non-romantic) love and friendship, acceptance and inclusion, holding-on and letting go.

Without spoiling anything: there’s no magical cure-all-trope here, but something far more nuanced and realistic, and the ending is just as emotionally striking as the journey before. A beautiful coming of age tale that perfectly balanced it’s narrative and emotional beats, and had me laugh ánd cry throughout.  



In the number 2 spot, we have one of my first reads of the year, and one that has lived rent-free in my mind ever since. It’s a debut novel that blends elements of sci-fi and magical realism with the haunting reality of the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster, and its rippling effect through time and the lives it’s affected.

In this alternate reality Japan, an earthquake so tremendous it split and shook not only the Earth, but time itself, hit the islands. Since then, the hardest-hit areas have fractured into zones; time-anomalies where each geographical area flows its own pace of time. These zones are off-limits to everyone but a select handful of scientist studying them. Sora’s father is one of them. Both Sora and her dad have been obsessed with the time-zones, ever since their emergence, for different reasons. Her father hopes to find answers, and an escape from his crushing grief. Sora hopes for even more; to find a timeline where her mother who passed in the earthquake is still present. This book haunted me for the entire year in the best possible way. It’s perfect combination of worldbuilding, slight mystery-plot and incredibly well-done character-work and explorations of grief, memory and time make it a stand-out favourite.

Although it’s marketed towards a young adult audience, I think this book would work perfectly for adult speculative readers as well, thanks to its beautifully integrated ageless themes.




An unprecedented event in my reading wrap-ups, but here we are: my favourite read of the year is a disability-memoir. Not just one, but a second honourable mention as well…I’ve read my fair share of disability-fiction, non-fiction and memoirs over the past few years, and am truly honing in to my likes and dislikes in them. As a result, I’m encountering more “middle of the road ones”, but also more all-time favourites that truly strike home on both a personal and a more objective writing-level.

Some of Us Just Fall by Polly Atkin exemplifies all that I love in the genre. Polly Atkin describes her experience living with two chronic conditions: Ehlers Danlos syndrome and hemochromatosis, and the way those two have shaped the world around her and those close to her. It’s about the artificial border between health and illness and the shadowland those with chronic or incurable conditions inhabit. It’s about falling “in between” diagnoses, when you have not one, but two condition at a young age. It’s about genetics, family, history, nature, bodies and more. What sets Polly Atkins work apart from other disability memoirs is her ability to elevate her personal experiences to a new level, by placing them into new words and context; in this case nature-writing. An often felt sense (although unpopular) about disability-memoirs is questioning “who was this written for?”. Many of them simply describe an individual’s experiences with their particular disability, almost as if you’re reading a diary. You can tell the author got something out of writing their experience down, but as a reader, that isn’t always automatically the case. Reading these narratives as a non-disabled person, you may not be able to relate, nor does it help you understand the experience in particular, just seeing it written down. As a disabled person however, you might recognize those experiences and feel “yes, that’s what it’s like”, but gain no deeper insight.Polly Atkin, by linking her narrative to nature-writing, storytelling and other metaphors, does elevate the genre to a higher level. This isn’t simply a published diary; it’s a work of writing-excellence with the potential to be impactful to many readers out there, by lighting their recognized experience from an angle they might not have viewed it from before.

As an honourable mention, I have to name Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad in this same position too. This book did many of the same things as Polly Atkin’s did, even drawing on some of the same literary sources and metaphors. Yet in my personal opinion, Atkin writing and insight, just beat Jaouads by a hair. That being said, Between Two Kingdoms had the benefit of relating to me personally just a little closer, as it describes a crude break in life causes by cancer. Something I can relate to far too well. That also made Between Two Kingdoms a more difficult read for me, and one that frustrated me at times, ultimately leading to me deciding it was an honourable mention, rather than a first-place winner. Full reviews for both these works are in the making, yet because they’re so close to me, they will require a bit more time for me to get my thoughts in order. Until then, I highly recommend both of them, whether you’re a veteran of the genre, or wanting to explore it for the first time.

Full review of Some of Us Just Fall

Full review of Between Two Kingdoms


As always, links to full reviews of all these books (where I have them) will be linked. Tomorrow, I will be back with my final entry in my Year in Review Series, talking about my most anticipated books for 2024.


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