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Masterful novels that surprise and delight

BOOKS | Our resident bookseller rounds up his 2023 favorites

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Masterful novels that surprise and delight
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As I reflect on the various books I have encountered in the past 12 months, I’m struck by the similarities between my work as a bookstore owner and my task as a book reviewer.

When considering books to stock the shelves of our shop, we are ever on the hunt for surprises, for books that make us think about reading (and ­storytelling) differently, that provoke awe in their artistry. In short, I’m looking for books that make me want to tell my customers, “You have to read this one, you’re going to love it.”

Ultimately, I’m on this same search as a book reviewer, and an end-of-the-year list is a great place to share the results. So here are eight novels published in 2023 that I’ve been handing to people because they remind me why I love novels in the first place.

I love nothing more than discovering a great forgotten novel, so I tend to scour lists from publishers that reissue books by authors who deserve to be better remembered. Two such novels stood out in 2023.

E.C.R. Lorac’s Crook o’ Lune is an English mystery originally published in 1953 but presented to contemporary readers by the British Library and Poisoned Pen Press, which specializes in forgotten novels of the golden age of mysteries. The story takes place on the fells above the beautiful but rugged Lune Valley where sheep farming is a way of life. When a herd begins to disappear from the hillsides, the locals grow worried and suspicious. Then when one of the local manor houses goes up in flames—with a beloved housekeeper asleep inside—a full-on murder mystery breaks out. It’s up to Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald—Lorac’s recurring character—to suss out the bad guys and solve the mystery even though he’s not used to investigating in such remote places.

Meanwhile, Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast is a bizarre comedy of manners offered up by McNally Editions (in their customary lovely packaging) that tells the story of the doomed Pendizack Manor Hotel, destroyed when a cliff collapses onto it, killing seven guests. Told from the perspective of several survivors, Kennedy’s book is an upstairs-downstairs take on a morality play, featuring a rather heady contemplation of the seven deadly sins.

Both Crook o’ Lune and The Feast are atmospheric, deeply English, and highly entertaining novels that transcend their genre tropes because they are so attuned to the delicacies of ­specific, unusual places. If you want to try something new this winter (and like your books with an English flavor), look no further.

As a lover of mystery fiction, I must also mention two literary thrillers not to be missed: Joseph O’Connor’s My Father’s House—which tells the story of Irish priest Hugh O’Flaherty and his crew of accomplices who smuggled Jews and Allied prisoners out of Nazi-occupied Rome into the neutral ground of Vatican City—and The Secret Hours, Mick Herron’s spy thriller about an investigation into the “historical overreaching” of the British Secret Service. These are books that get described as “poignant” because they’re about courage in the face of evil, but they’re also highly literary and often funny books about the moments in between the action.

I spend a lot of time reading children’s books, and for this list I call attention to Dave Eggers’ remarkable book The Eyes and the Impossible, which is actually a novel for anyone. Eggers’ narrator is a dog named Johannes who lives in an urban park alongside a motley crew of other creatures (raccoon, pelican, seagull, etc.) where he serves as the eyes of the wise old Bison, who run things. If this seems like a setup for a silly book only kids would like, well, trust me: There’s more to it.

It’s one of the most fun reading experiences I have had in a long time, largely because Johannes and his eccentric canine view of the world is so delightful, but also because the book offers a menagerie of rich themes to linger with: the power of art, the beauty of deep friendship, the wonder of nature, the complexity of language. But, unlike most modern books for young people, it’s not filled with platitudes: It’s not saccharine or sentimental or about becoming your “true self.” Instead, it claims that “freedom begins when we forget ourselves.” Not many writers can ask big questions in the voice of a character who thinks he can run at the speed of light, but it makes sense that the supremely talented Dave Eggers could pull it off.

I’m surprised that Elizabeth Crook’s The Madstone hasn’t gotten more buzz this fall because it’s an ­eloquent and funny adventure novel that most any kind of reader would be drawn to. Like Charles Portis’ True Grit and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Crook’s book features a young woman (Nell, in this case) in desperate straits and the cast of characters who courageously help her find freedom. And like those two Western classics, The Madstone perfectly balances a wry sense of humor with a melancholy contemplation of loneliness and love. Told from the point of view of Benjamin, a young man who finds himself swept up in Nell’s story, Crook’s book is a worthy entry into the canon of modern Western novels.

Meanwhile, Susie Boyt’s Loved and Missed—an English novel about a woman named Ruth and her relationship with her granddaughter, Lily—may be the book that most surprised me this year. Ruth’s daughter (and Lily’s mother), Eleanor, is an addict and isn’t capable of raising a child. So Ruth brings Lily to live with her and discovers a second chance for herself, even while mourning the strange and sad turns that Eleanor’s life has taken. That setup may sound tragic, even depressing, but this is not a tragedy, although it is at times quite melancholy. On the contrary, it’s a beautiful book about love and hope even in the face of sorrow. Loved and Missed is Boyt’s first book to be published in America (via the always interesting NYRB), but here’s to being able to recommend the others to bookshop browsers soon.

But my favorite book of the year is The Sun Walks Down, a miraculous polyphonic novel by Australian Fiona MacFarlane that features the best prose I have encountered this year. Taking place in the Australian Outback in 1883, it relates the story of Denny, a 6-year-old boy who goes missing during a dust storm and the various people who are searching for him—his family, the young sheriff and his new wife, a couple of indigenous trackers, and a Swedish artist chasing the light, to name a few.

As with every great novel, it’s about more than its plot. It’s about the difficult work of creating a home in the midst of wilderness, about the complicated nature of civilization, about the relationship between beauty and desire, and ultimately about the demands of surpassing love. Yet it’s also replete with allusions to the Old Testament and Shakespeare and the ancient epics, and for all this is the closest thing I’ve read to John Steinbeck in years. The Sun Walks Down released in the United States in February, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it (or singing its praises) since I first cracked it open.

And ultimately, that’s the chase, the hunt, the search. I spend the year looking for a book like this, and when I find one, it makes all the lesser pages worth it.

As always, I recommend you approach these books with circumspection. The Sun Walks Down includes a few scenes with sexual allusions, especially between a newly married couple, and while these scenes are essential to the moral questions the book is asking, you should know they are coming. Likewise, The Secret Hours, being English and being a spy novel, does include some offensive language, so be forewarned.

I hope one of these titles does the trick for you at the start of a new year. Happy ­reading!

David Kern

David Kern and his wife, Bethany, own Goldberry Books in Concord, N.C., an indie bookstore that focuses on selling new and used books that are True, Good, and Beautiful. He’s also the co-host of Close Reads and Withywindle, two bookish podcasts, the latter of which is for kids.


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