Monday, January 01, 2024

2023 Reading Year in Review

Two years in a row with a Reading Year in Review, crazy right? Well, since I resurrected the blog earlier in the year, I’ve been much more consistent with posting my reading wrap-ups so of course that calls for a year in review, right? As I’ve done every year I've posted a Reading Year in Review, here are the previous years I’ve put up a reading year in review, 2022, 2021, 2018, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006.

As I've done every year for the past decade and a half, I've contributed to SFFWorld's Favorite of the Year lists: Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, and Film/TV. For those yearly recaps, Mark Yon and I focused only on 2023 releases. Here I will not limit the list to just 2023/current year releases because there are a lot of good books out there from previous years I haven’t read although most are from 2024. I'm still very actively reviewing for both SFFWorld.

Two years in a row, Horror was the dominant genre for me, with Fantasy a fairly close second. Horror continues to be in a fantastic place within the genre, both in printed form and filmed. The breakdown/full statistics of the 93 books I read in 2023:
  • 41 2023/current year releases
  • 53 can be considered Horror
  • 44 can be considered Fantasy
  • 9 can be considered Science Fiction
  • 47 reviews posted to SFFWorld
    • 28 books by authors new to me 
    • 47 Books by women
    • 13 total debut
    • 18 audiobooks
    • 7 Book reviews posted here at the Blog o' Stuff
    • 4 books I DNF'd
    How did I come up with this list? For years, I've been keeping track of the books I read in an Excel workbook and assign each book a rating between 1 and 10. All the books I’ve called out are books I’ve rated 9 (out of 10) or higher. For the purposes of this post, I've listed the books alphabetically by author last name, outside of the first book in this post which was the book I enjoyed the ost.  If I've reviewed the book, the title will link to the review either here at the blog or over at SFFWorld with an excerpt of that review below the cover image. If I haven't given the book a full review, then I've provided a brief summary/reaction to the book.

    So, without further adieu, below are the books I enjoyed reading the most over the past year.

    How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix
    (My Favorite Overall Novel Published in 2023 even though I read it in late 2022)

    Balancing out the creeps is another thing that Hendrix has excelled at portraying in his previous novels: relationships, family or close friends (who might as well be family). Family is an important part of this novel, not just the siblings, but the extended family who reside in and near Charleston, SC. Louise and Mark’s aunts and cousins who are wonderfully drawn supporting characters help to provide some humor and idiosyncrasies that help to make the family unique. Family is who helps us through grief and a lot of this novel is about grief, too. Frankly, many haunted house stories have grief as a major theme and component, and Hendrix’s very human and empathetic characters navigate this complicated human emotion with plausibility…if you factor in creepy haunted puppets into the mix

    Grady Hendrix has become must read for me, he’s grown into a modern master of the genre and each new book he publishes shows his growth as a storyteller in everything that word encompasses. He’s a smart, savvy writer who spins emotional stories featuring very human people and themes with the best of them.

    The Vagrant Gods by David Dalglish

    I was incredibly impressed with my first experience reading a novel by David Dalglish, which happened to be the first book in this series so I was very excited to dive into book 2. That excitement was warranted. 

    The Sapphire Altar picks up shortly after the conclusion of The Bladed Faith with The Vagrant (a.k.a. Prince Cyrus) questioning the rebellion, his place in it, and the man pulling the strings of the rebellion. But Cyrus knows the Empire must be taken down, regardless of his misgivings because the fist of the Everlorn Empire is clenching harder on Thanet. Violent executions of disbelievers are the norm while they try to capture the Vagrant.

    What impresses me the most about the characters is that none of them seem short-changed. They all feel incredibly well-wrought to the point that I wouldn’t be surprised if Dalglish has a notebook on each of them with details that we as the readers will never see and that the characters most definitely have lived.

    In The Sapphire Altar, Dalglish has managed to craft a second book of a series that improves upon the original in layers of world-depth, character building, and stakes. It doesn’t merely tread water waiting for the next volume of the trilogy. I’d call this more of the Second Chapter of the Vagrant Gods series than anything else.

    The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

    When Robbie's white neighbor Lyle McCormack, the son of a fairly influential man in Gracetown, makes advances on Robert’s sister, Robert steps into the situation. There’s a minor physical altercation between Robert and Lyle. As a result, Robert is beaten by Lyle’s father, handcuffed, and shipped off to the Gracetown School for Boys. As it turns out, Gracetown is a recurring town in Due's fiction and if anything screamed the opposite of what its name implied, it is this “home for boys.”

    Due has a very personal connection to the history that informs the backdrop of the novel. Without knowing that, the novel feels intimate and personal. Knowing the connection only hammers home that part even more. Her prose and storytelling is gut-wrenching, addictive, and powerful. None of this would work nearly as well if Tananarive Due wasn't a marvelous writer and storyteller. She pulled me into the story immediately, I felt empathy for young Robert and Gloria and felt their anger, pain, and frustration. Her skill at portraying youthful protagonists dealing with adult horrors is powerful, engaging, and enthralling. This is the kind of book that entertains and enlightens. It is simply transcendent.

    Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey

    The novel is told from Vera’s perspective, but in a unique and fascinating way. We get the “current” timeline of the novel with Vera returning home in the past tense, but when we focus on a pre-teen / teenaged Vera, it is told in the present tense. We only get her perspective, either way. Her wariness in the present about her mother, or Daphne as she’s been calling her mother since she was thirteen becomes understandable the more the past chapters reveal about their lives together. Vera’s whiplash of emotions from being protected and adored by her father to only be verbally and psychologically abused by her mother is raw, it felt real, and I felt a great deal of sympathy for Vera.

    In the present, Vera is continually left unbalanced by her mother’s mood swings which can contradict the spiteful woman she knew growing up. The verbal confrontations with James only amplifies Vera’s sense of unease. To the point that she hears noises, thinks she sees shadows moving, and is convinced *something* is under her bed to the point she goes out and buys a new bed. The icing on the cake of these creepy and potentially supernatural moments are the folded pages she randomly finds that are written in her father’s handwriting. There are more creepy/supernatural elements, I’ll just leave it at that. The timing of the instances of these creepy scenes is expertly doled out by Gailey. She’s got a wonderful sense of pace in the novel. That incredible pacing is also on full display in how Gailey reveals Vera’s past and how she grew closer to her father.


    Black Sheep by Rachel Harrison

    Harrison has proven to be very incisive with her ability to marry horror tropes with societal challenges like werewolves and sisterly love/competition in Such Sharp Teeth, friendship (ranging from true friendship bonds and toxic friendship) and supernatural/demonic possession. Here, Harrison takes her writerly scalpel to cultish religions and familial relationships. There’s a point, about 1/3 into the novel that is one of those “kick wham” moments that is best enjoyed without knowing it, and even that is too much of a spoiler. I’ll just say that I had to re-read it a couple of times.

    Within the novel’s pages is a powerful examination of family, truth, what it feels like to be an outsider everywhere, and betrayal. Rachel Harrison sets these important themes against the backdrop of dark, engaging, and delightfully sinister cult novel. Another great Rachel Harrison novel that continues to establish her as one of the preeminent voices in modern horror..


    101 Horror Books to Read You're Murdered by Sadie “Mother Horror” Hartmann

    What Sadie has done with 101 Books... and its focus on books published (mostly) between 2000 and 2023 is serve up a perfect modern companion to Hendrix’s Bram Stoker Award winning book. Just like Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell, Sadie Hartmann’s love letter to modern horror should be honored with the Bram Stoker Award for Non-Fiction. … 101 Horror Books to Read Before You’re Murdered is a definitive look at horror fiction in the early 21st Century by a smart and engaging voice who has her finger on the pulse of the genre. … If I haven’t made it clear by this point, this is a MUST-OWN book for any horror fan and a great book for anybody with a passing interest in the genre.

    Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin
    (My Top 2023 Debut)

    Damn, is this a potent novel. Kerin painfully depicts the co-dependent bordering on parasitic relationship dynamic in Night’s Edge. I’ve had family members who found themselves in a familial caregiver type of relationship and damage and negativity can grow over the years… even when the caregiver and caretaker love each other like family. I was at a remove from that relationship, but other members of my family with whom I was close heard a lot of that negativity. The relationship between Mia and Izzy is ratcheted up a couple of levels, after all, Izzy is literally taking her daughter’s blood as sustenance. 

    I can’t recall if Kerin actually used the word “vampire” in the novel and in that regard, I found a parallel to Mike Flanagan’s masterpiece, Midnight Mass. While Night’s Edge is a bit more intimate and personal, the effect is similar. I was also reminded of another vampire (and zombie) masterpiece, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in the way the vamprisim is more of a plague/disease and how it halts civilization.

    The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

    The Plot was one of the rare non-genre books I read in 2023. My wife read it and recommended it to me and I loved it. The story concerns a promising young writer, Jacob Finch Bonner, who manages to publish a bestselling novel, but struggles to find his next book. He is teaching an MFA program when Bonner encounters a very strange student whose story is so unique and different, it sticks in the professor’s mind. The student dies under mysterious circumstances, but the story he told Bonner won’t leave him…so he decides to publish it. The novel is a fascinating and taut thriller, a mediation on authorial voice, authenticity, truth in fiction, and the inner fears many writers experience. I still question things about it months later after breezing through the 320 pages in just two days.

    BE SURE collects the first three, Every Heart a Doorway, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and Beneath the Sugar Sky. … Seanan McGuire has done it again. She’s hooked me on yet another of her long running series. I’m about a dozen books into her October Daye series, just started her Incryptid series, and loved the Newslfesh saga under her Mira Grant pseudonym. As fun as those series and books are and were, Wayward Children feels like it may be her may be her defining work. It is enthralling, tackles some really important themes (not that she doesn’t in all of her work), and has some of the most endearing characters in her many works. This is a series that will stand the test of time and BE SURE has more than earned a spot on the shelf of my personal Omnibus Hall of Fame.

    The September House
    by Carissa Orlando

    ...this story isn’t about somebody trying to escape their haunted house, our protagonist Margaret has embraced her haunted house. It was the dream house she and her husband Hal purchased and she is not giving it up. … Of course, haunted house stories are always about more than just a dwelling being haunted. Margaret is the narrator of the story and Orlando all but begs the reader to question how reliable of a narrator she is. We know from her conversations with her daughter, Margaret is not sharing very much information. Margaret is haunted and the pacing at which Orlando reveals Margaret’s past is handled with measured precision. Details about her marriage to Hal come to light, which helps to give reason for Margaret’s actions.


    The Justice of Kings
    and The Tyranny of Faith (The first two books of The Empire of the Wolf) by Richard Swan

    Two books for one slot, largely because I read them sort of back-to-back and they are part of the same story. With The Justice of Kings, his fantasy debut from Orbit, Swan bursts onto the traditionally published scene and kicks off the Empire of Wolf trilogy. The novel is told from the first person perspective of Helena Sedanka, the law clerk of Sir Konrad Vonvalt, a King’s Justice of the Imperial Magistratum of the Sovan Empire. Not unlike Watson relaying the events of Sherlock Holmes’s investigations, except that Vonvalt is not an independent investigator. He is the Emperor’s voice, he is judge, jury, and executioner, when necessary. … the gut of the story is a murder mystery/conspiracy story. The world of the novel is at the precipice of a shift in power, and much of the conflict is between secular law and religious law. Those kinds of conflicting ideologies make for great story and Swan does a very good job of presenting this conflict through his characters. … Swan’s novel is one of the best series starters and fantasy debuts I’ve read the past decade. He has absolutely captured a “voice” in this tale. … Swan picks up the tale of Konrad and Helena in The Tyranny of Faith. Picking up shortly after the events of the previous novel, Helena and Konrad Vonvalt head to the capital of the Empire to investigate how deep the corruption they discovered in The Justice of Kings runs. … The somewhat subtle supernatural elements introduced in the first novel grew in prominence in this second novel in the trilogy. I am immensely impressed with Richard Swan’s Empire of Wolf trilogy thus far. He has set the story up for a thrilling, heart-rending, dark, and tension-filled finale and I cannot wait to read it.

    Camp Damascus by Chuck Tingle

    Yes, there are quite a few Messages in Camp Damascus, neurodivergent people matter and can strive; let people be who they are and love how and who they love; trying to squeeze everybody into a myopic worldview and narrow vision of love is evil. But this book wouldn’t work if it didn’t tell a damned good story. I’ve pointed out the incredible character of Rose, there are true moments of horror and terror, some great horror images evoked in the pages. It works as a gripping horror novel as much as it has a message. It is a thrilling story and it is the kind of story that just may help people suffering in some of the same ways as Rose is suffering.

    Black River Orchard by Chuck Wendig

    It has become predictable at this point for me to include a Chuck Wending novel in my favorite/best-of-the-year post. Blame him, not me. Evil apples, that’s the core (pun intended) of the MacGuffin in this novel. A strange, delicious apple variety that is addictive and drives people to some of their darker instincts. In this character-driven novel, the town of Harrow, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania town becomes obsessed with a new strand of apple. (I'm a short drive over the river from Bucks County so it was kind of fun to hear some locales I'm familiar with being referenced in the book.)

    A down-on-his luck famer named Dan Paxson comes across this strain of apples after a chance encounter with a mysterious individual. When he brings the fruits to the local farmer's market, he realizes he's got something special. These apples, named "Ruby Slipper" by Dan's daughter Calla, makes people feel good, allows them to give into some of their more base desires. As it turns out, Calla does not like apples, much to her father's chagrin.

    Chuck also focuses on a couple named Emily and Meg, who move back to the countryside of Pennsylvania to Meg's hometown after life in the big city didn't quite work out for them. As Meg eats more of the apples, the dark side of their relationship becomes more evident to Emily, who also does not like apples. 

    There's also an "apple hunter" named John who seeks out lost strands of apples and he knows a little bit about the apple known as "Ruby Slipper" though under a different name. 

    Small town drama and pettiness play out on a grand scale, all because that most American of fruits, the apple. Granted, all those unsavory elements were lurking beneath the surface (and right on the surface for some), but the Ruby Slippers enhance, exaggerate, and highlight those unsavory aspects to an even more uncomfortable degree. Wending naturally weaves in themes of gaslighting, bullying, the growing facist sect in America (and how it is impacting Bucks County, PA in real life), queer representation, sexual freedom, parenthood, just to name a handful. 

    With every book he publishes, Chuck Wending grows his resume as a modern master of horror and dark fiction and is a must buy and read for me.

    The Foxglove King (The Nightshade Crown#1) by Hannah Whitten

    The Foxglove King covers a lot of bases, there are political elements; faith & belief; trust; Whitten touches on parental abandonment issues on a couple of potent levels; there’s a romance triangle between Lore, Gabriel, and Bastian; the plot follows something of a mystery thread, it has the feel of a city fantasy and almost urban fantasy even though set in a secondary world. She pulls these elements together masterfully for a unique story. 

    The milieu in which the story takes place has enough details as well, there’s a mythology/religion that provides a strong foundation, but also seems to have more details yet to be revealed. I found a pleasant resonance between the world Whitten has created in The Foxglove King with the world Tad Williams revealed in The War of the Flowers as well the world of League of Legends as revealed in the Netflix show Arcana and the novel Ruination by Anthony Reynolds.… 

    I was enthralled with this novel from beginning to end, Whitten’s characters came alive as real people with emotions, snark, and annoyances that real people posses.

    Honorable mentions: Clown in a Cornfield 2: Frendo Lives by  Adam Cesare, Bloom by Delilah S. Dawson,  Engines of Chaos (The Age of Uprising #2) by R.S. Ford, Nightborn: Coldfire Rising by C.S. Friedman, All Hallows by Christopher Golden, Starling House by Alix E. Harrow, Good Girls Don't Die by Christina Henry, The Gwendy Trilogy by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, Son of the Poison Rose by Jonathan Maberry, The Bloody Chorus by John Marco, The Mary Shelly Club by Goldy Moldavsky,  The Endless Vessel by Charles Soule, and White Horse by Erika T. Wurth.

    That brings my 2023 read wrap-up/review to a close. Hopefully, 2024 will bring just as much quality fiction into our lives.

    No comments: