Book Box | Why these books became my 2023 favourites
A love-hate relationship with end-of-year book lists prompts me to dig deeper into why I read
Everywhere I look, I see the best of 2023 book lists. I can’t resist reading them, yet I have a love-hate relationship with such book lists.
I love them because they direct me to many fabulous reads. I hate them because they mock me - what sort of reader are you, they ask, when of 100 best books, you’ve read only three?
This love-hate relationship gets me to dig deeper: Why do I read?
1. I read to comfort myself: When I am feeling anxious or sad, I dive into murder mysteries. Yes, there is a corpse, but then the detective arrives and makes things alright, hunts out the killer, and restores order to the world. My favourites this year have been The Running Grave which dives into the secret world of cults. I recently discovered the Irish writer Adrian McKinty, and am reading everything by him, from his Sean Duffy police procedurals set in troubled Northern Island to Fifty Grand, a fabulous standalone detective story starring a young Cuban detective. Another riveting 2023 read was The Mill House Murders, a locked room mystery set in rural Japan.
2. I read to increase my step count: Walking down the hillside to the market in Manali, strolling evenings on Juhu beach, and even pacing up and down my living room, audiobooks have pushed me to walk those extra 10,000 plus steps. My top audiobook this year is Tom Lake written by Ann Patchett and voiced by Meryl Streep; the story of a mother, telling her three daughters about a summer in her youth. I loved Siobhan Mcsweeney’s Irish brogue in Doireann Ní Ghríofa's A Ghost in the Throat, the story of a young Irish housewife who becomes obsessed with an Irish poet born 200 years before her.
And I’m currently hooked on My Name is Barbra written and narrated by Barbra Streisand. I hesitated at the start because the book is 48 hours long, but once I began, I couldn’t keep away. As I walk, I drink in the delicious details Barbra goes into, on artistic inspiration, on creative collaborations, on the intricacies of her music and performance and even on the design of her gowns. She sings too and the effect is just fantastic.
3. I read to go beyond the news: Books set around the news help me see both sides of the story. My top read here this year is I Saw Ramallah, a memoir by a Palestinian poet, Mourid Barghouti. (More books on the Israel-Palestine conflict here.) Another book that gave me rich insights into the Russian State is The Wizard of the Kremlin by Giuliano da Empoli, a novel translated from French. Closer home, the novel Quarterlife by Devika Rege investigates conflicting ideologies through a set of young characters. Reading this helped me understand what drives the liberal versus the fundamentalist, and the majoritarian versus the minority.
4. I read to grasp the burning issues of the day: Fire Weather by John Vaillant is a literal example of this, as it zooms in on a Canadian forest fire in the larger context of climate change. Chip War by Chris Miller is an amazing investigation of semiconductor supplies influencing geopolitics. And The Alignment Problem by Brian Christian is an everybody-must-read book on how AI can perpetuate and reinforce existing biases – look out before it’s too late.
5. I read to be better at my job: As a visiting faculty at business schools, I read books around the courses I teach, on storytelling and persuasion. My most read books this year have been The Storytellers Secret, Let The Story Do the Work and Influence. More books on influence here. As a writer, I also re-read lots of books on the craft of writing, like The Secret Miracle.
6. I read to connect with fellow readers: I read my book club books, arguing intensely over the novel Lessons in Chemistry, swooning over The Spy and the Traitor, the story of a Russian double agent for MI5 and debating Blood and Oil, the story of the prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. I find myself compelled to read many literary prize-winning books, just to discover what the hype is about. The ones I enjoyed this year were A Shining by Nobel prize-winning Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse and the achingly poignant Happening by Annie Ernaux, winner of last year's Nobel Prize.
7. I read to inhabit other worlds: Family sagas in countries around the world take me through both geography and history. The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese set in the lush landscapes of Kerala, and The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See, set off an island in Korea, were both stories that stayed in my head for weeks. Two other unforgettable books that told heart-breaking stories of injustice, were Babel by RF Kuang, set around the opium wars and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, set in the 1920s during a series of murders by White Americans that killed dozens of Osage Indians one hundred years ago.
8. I read for a window into different professions: The novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin and the young adult novel Slay by Brittney Morris gave me a fascinating glimpse into the world of video game design. In the novel Second Place by Rachel Cusk, a wealthy patron tries to engage with a talented artist, with disastrous results. The world of a food critic comes gloriously alive in Comfort Me with Apples by Ruth Reichl.
9. I read to get a sense of the space around me: After a day spent climbing up the steep slopes of a pine forest in Manali, it feels wonderful to read Among Flowers by the Carribean American Jamaica Kincaid. Her climb is higher, and more intense, taking her through Nepal, but we are both on the same mountain range. In Brooklyn I read a fantastically surreal detective novel, The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Aster and a pacy chicklit called Pineapple Street.
10. And finally, I read to be inspired: Books like Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao, tell stirring stories - in this Hunger-Games-meets-Game-of-Thrones-meets-The-Three-Body-Problem, a young girl fights against a planetary patriarchy. In Women in the Wild by Anita Mani, India’s best women biologists fight to work, and in The Brass Notebook by Devaki Jain, a talented feminist economist tells her story.
What about you, dear Reader? Why do you read? And what have been your best books of 2023? Do write in with recommendations.
And until next week, happy reading!
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at email@example.com
Books recommended in this edition of Book Box
The Running Grave by Robert Galbraith
Fifty Grand by Adrian Mckinty
The Mill House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
My Name is Barbra by Barbara Streisand
I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti
The Wizard of the Kremlin by Giuliano de Empoli
Quarterlife by Devika Rege
The Storytellers Secret by Carmine Gallo
Let The Story Do the Work by Esther Choy
Influence by Robert Cialdini
The Secret Miracle by Daniel Alarcon
Fire Weather by John Vaillant
Chip War by Chris Miller
The Alignment Problem by Brian Christian
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Mckintyre
Blood and Oil by Bradley Hope
A Shining by Jon Foss
Happening by Annie Ernaux
The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Babel by R F Kuang
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
Slay by Brittney Morris
Second Place by Rachel Cusk
Comfort me with Apples by Ruth Reichl
Among Flowers by Jamaica Kincaid
The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
Pineapple Street by Jenny Lawson
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Women in the Wild edited by Anita Mani
The Brass Notebook by Devaki Jain