Arts Team Recommends: Our Favourite Books of 2023


Cara Doherty (she/her), Elena Savvas (she/they) and Emily Stevens (she/her) offer their recommendations for your 2024 reading

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By Elena Savvas , Cara Doherty and Emily Stevens

As January progresses and New Years’ Resolutions start to falter, you may be struggling with one of the most popular aspirations - to read more books. But, never fear! The Arts team are here to inspire you with our favourite titles from 2023. With almost 150 books read between us, our recommendations are tried, tested and painstakingly selected to give you the best guidance on what to start your 2024 reading year with.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I first discovered Adichie last year with the earnest yet witty voice of Americanah, and quickly became captivated by more than just her written work – at this point, I’ve rewatched, recommended and even written about her TedTalk “The Danger of a Single Story” more times than I can count. This 2006 novel sustained my fascination with Adichie’s renowned ability to bring often obscured stories, perspectives and emotions right to the surface.

The story is set in 1960s Nigeria and split between three vastly different perspectives – a houseboy from a poor village, a wealthy young woman moving in with her academic lover and a bumbling Englishman finding love and entropy in a foreign landscape. As the narrative unfolds, the three find themselves entangled in a web of history, loyalties and desire – at turns intimately intertwined and with ties cleaved and differences laid bare. The scars of the Nigeria-Biafra war are played out in shocking real time, and the families must grapple with two difficult lessons: what it is to forgive, and to survive.

Simplistic praise of technical elements like the novel’s steady pacing or thoughtful, considered character development is redundant. For these are not it's true merits; the tenderness, the honesty through which Adichie tells this story is Half of a Yellow Sun’s true strength. Inspired by her own experiences of living in the shadow of the war, brought up on its oral storytelling through her parents, Adichie balances history and humanity in this groundbreaking novel.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Undoubtedly the classic of the year for me – and perhaps for Saltburn director Emerald Fennell too, with its jammy handprints all over the Catton family and their peculiar brand of melancholy.

My first experience of Waugh, I approached Brideshead with a cautious curiosity, selecting it as my one more ‘serious’ read of the summer. While the novel could hardly be called light, I was buoyed by the moments of verve and vibrancy in the prose and how they were expertly stripped away to create the sleepy, sated English garden summers.

Narrated by a slightly lost and lacklustre Charles Ryder studying at Oxford University, the novel traces his meeting and growing infatuation with the enigmatic Sebastian Marchmain and his family. The story spans decades and affords great detail into the psyche of each of the Marchmains, as well as the rapid disintegration of the aristocratic world they inhabit.

While a slow and quiet read, it has a rhythm and pulse that sways you into Brideshead Castle almost against your will – and then draws up the gate.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
It’s always nerve-wracking to enter a book with high expectations, but thankfully my non-fiction pick of the year did not disappoint. Like scores of critics and casual readers, I adored Her Body and Other Parties when I read it last year, and in this innovative memoir Machado builds on the beauty of her liquid prose by defying what she proves are merely the imagined conventions of non-fiction.

Tracing the story of an emotionally abusive relationship, the ‘Dream House’ is a space through which Machado can inspect and investigate her experience, moulding her memories into jigsaw pieces in an attempt to puzzle out her past. It’s difficult not to resort to metaphor when describing Machado’s memoir as she so clearly demonstrates that much of her understanding and processing of the world relies on brushstroke connections, illusion and symbolism.

However, chapter titles and narrative lenses like ‘Dream House as Set Design’, or ‘Dream House as Sci-Fi Thriller’ never obscure the novel’s one immovable object:  its challenge to the romanticisation of lesbian relationships. Frequent footnotes provide statistics of domestic abuse and stories of pleas unheard or unconsidered due to the inability to view love between women as holding the same potential for range and volatility as heterosexual partnerships. In the Dream House pulls back the curtain and reveals a starkly honest portrait of love, loss and pain. It deserves all of the praise heaped upon it, and more.


The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
Although this highly anticipated novel was released in 2020, I shockingly only got around to reading it this year. Like most others my age, I was obsessed with Suzanne Collins’ original Hunger Games trilogy as a pre-teen when my favourite literary genre was dystopian. I was initially apprehensive at the thought of a prequel, but when the feature film starring Rachel Zegler and Tom Blythe was announced, I knew it was the right time to revisit the world of Panem. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the perfect addition to the original book series and reading it was a nostalgic experience.

The novel is set 60 years before the events of The Hunger Games and follows the story of future president of Panem, Coriolanus Snow, and his rise to power. We see how the 10th Hunger Games shaped the future of the event and how Snow became the cruel, loveless monster Katniss encounters in the book series. Heroine Lucy Gray Baird is an enchantingly well-written character and the subtle echoes of the original trilogy that Collins scattered throughout the prequel were excellent. For me, the main strength of the novel is that it is written from Snow’s perspective: a character we know to be evil, yet I found myself automatically rooting for him for no reason other than that he is the protagonist. However, every so often his inner monologue reminds the reader of his cruel nature, forcing us to remember that Snow is not the hero of this story.

This glimpse into Snow’s head is what I feel gives the novel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes the edge over its film adaptation, which does not quite explore Snow’s character to the same extent. Both versions of the story are fantastic, but I would recommend reading the book before seeing it on screen.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
It seems that for me, 2023 was the year of nostalgic reads. Another of my childhood passions, Greek mythology, was reignited when I attended a summer school on Homer and related literature.

I have always loved Margaret Atwood’s work, and this experimental novella was no exception. It follows the events of Homer’s Odyssey, but from the perspective of Odysseus’ often overlooked wife Penelope as she waits for him to return to Ithaca. Penelope has historically been portrayed as the dutiful wife: she supposedly remained painstakingly loyal to her husband for two decades. In Greek literature, she is frequently seen as exhibiting the level of loyalty and servitude every woman should aspire to recreate.

However, Atwood depicts Penelope as much more complicated than this. In The Penelopiad, Penelope is not unwaveringly loyal (a much more realistic depiction, I would argue!) and is given far more credit for her intelligence. I also loved the unique structure of the text: Odysseus’ poor maids are given a voice by frequently interrupting the narrative with lines reminiscent of a Greek chorus. Retelling stories from Greek mythology has become something of a trend in recent years, but this novella is by far my favourite example.

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark
I had the opportunity to read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Driver’s Seat for my English Literature degree, but my first encounter with Muriel Spark was this short, witty novel that I read over the summer. I immediately fell in love with Spark’s distinct, humorous narrative voice, and was consequently ecstatic to learn I would be studying two of her other works in the next academic year.

A Far Cry from Kensington is equally dark and hilarious; Spark paints a vivid portrait of 1950s London as we follow the story of Mrs Hawkins, an editor lodging in South Kensington, her feud with shifty Hector Bartlett, and the mystery of the threatening letters being sent to her neighbour. The novel combines dark themes with lighthearted humour, a combination few authors can pull off successfully, and yet Spark does it effortlessly. Her writing style is truly addictive: upon reading this incredibly entertaining story it is impossible not to want to explore the rest of her oeuvre.


Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
First released in 1954, Under Milk Wood is an amalgamation of epic poem, play and radio drama. Initially recommended by a friend, I re-read the play at the start of the year. Set in the Welsh location of Llaggerub, a reversal of “bugger all”, the play details the eccentricities of local Welsh townspeople, beginning its exploration of their interiorities by setting the audience up in their dreamscapes. The characters may seem slapstick upon reading the character list, which includes clumsy postman Mr Willy Nilly, lazy fisherman Nogood Boyo and undertaker stuck in the past, Evans the Death, but the play unfolds an array of connections between the villagers and a collective connectivity to the Welsh countryside that they live on. Plot wise, it’s difficult to summarise without giving too much away, but all-in-all it is a plentiful dedication to the beauty of the mundane.

I’d recommend listening to the audio alongside reading: the one that I listened to in accompaniment, read by Richard Burton, enhanced my experience with additional comedic timing, chattering, birdsong and laughter. It’s a short read – alongside an audio accompaniment it is likely you’ll get through it in one sitting – but a perfect way to start a quiet new year.

All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
All About Love has definitely had a resurgence in 2023. Organised into 13 chapters which discuss a different aspect or definition of love, hooks entirely changed my conceptions of what love is, and my practises of love in my everyday life. It’s quite the recommendation!

I’ve seen it advertised as a psychological evaluation of love, or a redefining of romance, but it is so much more. A work of creative nonfiction, it opens up the meaning of love to encompass every interaction that we have, moving love from a practice to an indispensable social anti-fascist politics. She begins her work discussing her relationship with her parents, asking questions about who is loved and who is loveless. Despite the differences in our upbringings, her interpersonal vignettes were hard not to relate to. It is hard-hitting and emotional: without revealing too much, she ends with a call for a return to love, which she tells us will unlock “everlasting life”. In the cruel world that we live in, it will always be current and I will always recommend it. I would perhaps recommend finding a quiet spot for this one as reading it on the noisy, greasy pier in Great Yarmouth this Summer was a little overwhelming for me but nonetheless!

Youngman: Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan by Lou Sullivan, edited by Zach Ozma and Ellis Martin
Like Emily, I’m also going to include a course read. This semester I studied various works that came out of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s, all worthy of recommendations in their own right, but Youngman felt the right level of both accessible and provocative for this final slot. Lou Sullivan, a gay trans man who grew up in Wisconsin and later moved to San Francisco, wrote diaries from the age of ten, which were recently uncovered from the depths of the archive for publication. Who doesn’t relate to the intimacy of writing a diary? Full of musings about gender, sex, death, life, authorship and activism, this is an important read. It definitely doesn’t lack fun and promiscuity though – so be warned!

Whilst reading the diaries, it is almost impossible not to let out an audible laugh or cry – it's true. The reader grows up with Lou as he shares his deepest and darkest thoughts, with the hopes they will later be published for the dissemination of knowledge. This publication particularly is interestingly formatted: the editors chose not to use hand-written style fonts, but to include Lou’s infamous ‘and’ sign, and photographs from the diaries themselves. Additionally, despite a sense of chronology, the musings are organised geographically rather than year-by-year, providing a ‘queering’ of time within the foundational reading experience.

I cannot recommend it enough, and if you are shocked when reading it, then rightly so.

So, there you have it! Nine of our top picks for what to start 2024 with – we leave number ten up to you.

Muse Arts wishes you a very happy, artsy good luck to reach your reading goals!