Best-Loved Books of 2023

We love this time of year, when we all get to pause and ponder the reads that made us swoon in the past 12 months.  Some of these authors were Words on the Waves Writers Festival guests (and shhh, some might be joining as guests in the future!), but more importantly, these are the books that stuck with us, like old friends. As ever, we reckon books make the perfect gift come Yuletide, and don’t forget to support your local bookseller; they might even wrap them for you as a bonus!

Adult Fiction

Salt River Road by Molly Schmidt
This is a beautifully written debut novel, and one that plays with form in a unique way – a blend of verse novel and prose. This is a tale of family, growing up and of dealing with grief. The siblings at the centre of the novel are dealing with loss, poverty and uncovering uncomfortable truths about the past, in what is a compelling and lyrical story. Despite the darkness of the issues, there is lightness and joy here as well – add it straight to your summer reading list! (Mandi)

The In-Between by Christos Tsiolkas
I am a huge Tsiolkas fan and you know when you pick up one of his books that the writing will be insightful, the sex graphic and the relationships troubled. The In-Between follows characters who are older than in many of the earlier novels and I enjoyed the complexities of their relationships and histories, just as I did with the younger characters’ coming-of-age in Tsiolkas’ earlier work. These characters were older and able to love and be loved, despite their pasts and this novel has a beautiful tenderness that wasn’t always given to the young men in earlier novels. (Mandi)

Green Dot by Madeleine Gray
Hera Stephen is coasting through her 20s, stuck in a mindless comment moderator role and bouncing from one boozy late night art party to the next. She maintains a sweet relationship with her father and their family dog, although her mother is absent; a wound alluded to but never fully explored. And, then, along comes Arthur. An older man, he also works at her office and before long the zings of chemistry between them flower into a fully-fledged affair. For all its contemporary complexity and moral grey-areas, really Green Dot is about first love… how to submit to it, how to recover from it. Can you recover from it? A confident and bouncy debut. (Angela)

Stone Yard Devotional by Charlotte Wood
Charlotte Wood’s new novel Stone Yard Devotional is such a thought-provoking, powerful read. Charlotte’s writing is beautiful and the narrative is structured so perfectly, giving space for contemplation and deep emotion – there is a strong sense of place and the impact of the past and the decisions of the present all interact so poignantly. One to treasure and think about long after the final page. (Mary-Jayne)

The Anniversary by Stephanie Bishop
Fabulous new work from Stephanie Bishop who is an acclaimed novelist and critic. The Anniversary follows the narrator onto a cruise with her husband Patrick in an attempt to get some time together to repair some of the many fractures in their relationship; but when Patrick is lost overboard, it becomes clear that there is much that we don’t know. This novel is beautifully written, twisty and full of little details of the literary world that I loved. This is a lose-a-whole-weekend type of book. (Mandi)

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott
Published in 2022, Limberlost is the third book by Tasmanian author Robbie Arnott. Set in Tasmania, the book has a strong sense of place and stillness. The protagonist Ned, the youngest of three boys helps in the family orchard while his elder two brothers are away at war.  The story follows Ned across the decades encompassing the highs and lows of a life. I enjoyed the writing style, the quietness of the character and the piecing together of fate and choice in shaping a life. Limberlost is a good choice for a book club because you want to discuss the book with others. (Kaye)

Pet by Catherine Chidgey
W.O.W. Just wow. This book sent literal goosebumps up my neck as page-by-page the horror and deception intensified. Twelve-year-old Justine just lost her mother, and is now navigating a Catholic school classroom riddled with intrigue and manipulation. Everyone wants to be the teacher’s pet, and even unpopular and unpretty Justine will go to great lengths to secure her favour. However, it soon becomes clear that Mrs Price’s glimmering facade masks a sinister truth. Penned by feted New Zealand novelist Catherine Chidgey, this is unsettling, in all the best ways. (Angela)

The Bookbinder of Jericho by Pip Williams
Sisters Peggy and Maude work in the bindery on the printing of the Oxford dictionary which is the perfect place for Peggy and her love of books. Despite her mother’s involvement with the suffragettes, and the involvement of the fabulous Tilda, Peggy is not interested in this, realising that the fight for the vote, like so many things in their society, will still see her excluded on the basis of class and wealth. This is a wonderful read and the heartbreaking stories from the Belgians as they arrive in London as war breaks out, and the dispatches from Aunt Tilda at the front, give insight into those whose lives were devastated in WW1. (Mandi)

Everyone and Everything by Nadine J. Cohen
Charting a year in the life of Yael Silver,
Everyone and Everything is a whipsmart debut full of gentle human truths alongside dry one-liners. Yael has experienced a breakdown and is attempting to piece herself back together, with the help of her sister, her cat Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and the restorative effects of the ocean baths on Sydney’s eastern coastline. What she hadn’t anticipated were the intergenerational friendships that would blossom, each human interaction bringing Yael a step further out of the fog of grief and heartache. A book suffused with hope and humour. (Angela)

Coast by Eleanor Limprecht
Coast is a wonderful Australian historical fiction which took me to the leper hospital in Sydney that I never knew existed! The book follows Alice, who is sent to the Coast Hospital lazaret at Little Bay at age nine due to leprosy, following her mother who had been sent years before. Limprecht cleverly weaves stories of poverty, leprosy and race together as we also meet a young Indigenous man who served in World War 1 but is then locked up as a result of his wounds. (Mandi)

Iris by Fiona Kelly McGregor
Iris Webber arrives to the hardscrabble slums of Sydney in the midst of the Great Depression, and immediately sets out to survive any way she can: busking, stealing, sex work. Dubbed ‘the most violent woman in Sydney,’ Iris is based on a real-life historical figure; in these pages we also meet the infamous Tilly Devine and grog queen Kate Leigh, amongst others.
This book writhes with a bawdy vernacular and an unrelenting stream of storytelling peppered with gritty period detail. It’s a deeply compelling, at times uncomfortable insight into a hardknock life at the bottom of the social ladder, exacerbated by the double disadvantage of being a woman. But more importantly, Iris is a queer love story. Despite everything and everyone around her telling her she doesn’t deserve it, Iris seeks love like heat. Miraculously, she finds it. Unforgettable. (Angela)

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
This was the year I finally fell in love with Kingsolver, consuming not only this Appalachian retelling of Dickens’ classic rags-to-riches tale, David Copperfield, but also her earlier masterpiece, The Poisonwood Bible. Demon Copperhead is a grand, sweeping narrative charting not the tragic life of the titular character, and an America in freefall. Rampant poverty, opioid addiction and a whole generation of forgotten children are embedded into the life story of flame-haired, somehow-still-sweet Demon as he attempts to survive a world with no safety nets, almost no love, and no future. It might all make for painful reading if you didn’t love Demon so much. An epic and powerful river of human stories to absolutely get lost in. (Angela)

Adult Non-Fiction

Trust by Jeanne Ryckmans
A curious but always propulsive blend of, “hybrid memoir and personal detective story”, Trust takes you on a tumble down a rabbit hole of lies, half-truths and deceptions, as author Jeanne Ryckmans untangles her relationship with the ‘Irish Professor’. At first the Professor is charming and warm, with a fondness for designer accessories and fine red wine. He lures Jeanne away to a remote island off the coast of Ireland, a place he has ‘never before taken another woman’. A darkly funny scene finds the locals scoffing at the Irish Professor’s bombast; he’s not only kissed the Blarney Stone, he’s stuck his tongue in. As you can probably guess, before too long the wheels start to fall off. Crystalline and haunting, Trust needs to be read to be believed. (Angela)

A Scar is Also Skin by Ben McKelvey
Ben McKelvey was just 27 when he suffered a stroke which caused him to think about his brain and body in a very different way. Shockingly, a mere few years later he had a heart attack. These two events spark an understandable re-evaluation, but while still recovering, it is taking up the offer to embed as a journalist in Iraq that truly prompts deep questions about a good life and morality. This is a fascinating memoir, and one that avoids the feeling of self-promotion that can often dull the enjoyment of a memoir. McKelvey discusses the influential books he co-wrote with an amazing cast of characters – from the WWE fighter, to a commando to former child soldier Deng Adut – physiology, science and recovery, and the decision to leave the world of traumatic story telling behind. (Mandi)

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
I was late coming to the Brené Brown party. In this book, she addresses vulnerability. Tackling things such as shame, never enough and wholeheartedness through studies and stories from others and herself. Shame and fear hold us hostage. Why don’t we do those things we’ve always wanted to do? What are we afraid of? What is it to be vulnerable? This book has the potential to change your life. It changed mine. Be vulnerable, I dare you and then dare greatly! (Rae)

Tracks by Robyn Davidson
Tracks charts one woman’s 1977 journey across the sun-struck deserts of Central Australia, with only three irascible but loveable camels in tow, alongside her best friend dog Diggity. I devoured this adventure tale as I was caravanning through Alice Springs and Arrernte Country, making her references to deeply spiritual landscapes and encounters with local Indigenous elders all the more riveting. In Tracks Robyn Davidson manages the impossible; to truthfully and authentically convey what she really sees and feels, beautifully but with no bullshit. I can’t wait to read her 2023 release, Unfinished Woman; a memoir of her fraught relationship with her mother, which from all accounts is equally incredible. (Angela)

The Cop Who Fell to Earth by Craig Semple
A hardboiled, clear-eyed insight into the reality of those who form the thin blue line from an ex-cop and detective who brought justice to bikie gangs, murderers, and more. Craig Semple loved his job until the mounting pressure, insane hours and most importantly horror of what he encountered resulted in PTSD and the gradual disintegration of the world he knew. What is incredible to witness is how he managed to build his life back up again, leading to not only to his current work in mental health and resilience, but also this book. Great for readers who like it raw and unfiltered, with a healthy dose of optimism. (Angela)

Youth Fiction 

The Gargoyle by Zana Fraillon
A poignant picture book about an ancient gargoyle forced from his rooftop and ejected from a train, and the child who finds his forgotten suitcase. When the child unleashes the gargoyle’s vibrant memories of a now bleak city, they decide to find a place to bring the gargoyle back, and retrieve the soul of the city. Beautiful, haunting language as always from award-winning author Zana Fraillon. (Fiona)

 Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables by Tim Harris  & James Hart
When teacher Mr Bambuckle arrives in class 12B,  thrills and spills are sure to follow. Full of quirky characters and inspiring stories within the story, this laugh-out-loud novel for ages 8+, will entertain and lift the self-esteem of young readers everywhere. (Fiona)

 

 

Meet Me at the Moon Tree by Shivaun Plozza
The storyline for Plozza’s latest middle-grade novel centres around a young girl called Carina who moves to a country town with her family. One family member is missing—her Dad, who has died. In her new home, Carina makes a new friend and tries all she can to connect with her dead father, using her perception of magic. Challenges along the way include dealing her older and slightly mean brother, Jack; and a mother who is distant, angry, and grieving the loss of her husband. This story is an imaginative adventure filled with friendship, courage and the enchanting power of a special tree. The author weaves together a beautiful tale encompassing the brave and resilient actions of Carina and there are so many heart-warming moments in this book, when I finished it, I immediately wanted to recommend it. Meet Me at the Moon Tree is perfect for young readers seeking a story of connection and discovery, as well as a sense of hope and a touch of magic. Added note – make sure you have tissues at hand, this book will make you cry! (In a good way) (Marie)

The Maiden by Kate Foster
An imaginative and vivid novel based around the true story of the execution of Christian Nimmo in 17th century Edinburgh. The novel is dually narrated by Christian and Violet, a maid and sex worker in Mrs Fiddes’ brothel, which leads ultimately to Christian’s death via The Maiden, (predecessor of the guillotine). If audiobooks are your preference, then this one is highly recommended. Voice actors Paula Masterton and Samera MacLaren truly bring the character to life in a most delightful way. (Fiona)

Words on the Waves 2024 will take place May 29 – June 3, on the scenic Central Coast. The program will be revealed in April 2024. Sign up to the mailing list here.