Cultural Wednesday’s Best Books 2023

I love a good book. Fact or fiction it doesn’t matter. One of my great blogging joys in my summer and best book lists. So here we are Cultural Wednesday’s Best Books 2023 book reviews of best titles I have read this year, well these and the ones in my summer list. Perfect present inspiration for bookworm in your life.

Cultural Wednesday Best Books 2023 graphic

Best Fiction Books 2023

Frozen North America, sweltering Calcutta, 18th century London, back to New England and castles in Cornwall are the settings for this year favourite fiction.

The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff

Prepared to be plunged into the depths of winter in one of the early English settlements in America.  The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff  starts with a young woman escaping the settlement.  We follow her on her journey across the Vaster Wilds.  Bit by bit we learn her history, the names others called her and eventually the reason for her flight.  I liked the Vaster Wilds but confess that I have no definite answer to what happens or indeed what is it about.  How to survive on the banks of the James River armed only with a mug, a blanket, a tinderbox and a knife … maybe.  

Death of a Lesser God by Vaseem Khan

In the early days of summer my friend Alison asked me to be her plus one to the launch event of the Harrogate Crime Festival.  I now really, really want to visit the Festival proper next July.  Chair of the festival this year was Vaseem Khan, who was a new author to me.  Somewhat serendipitously the next day I received an email asking if I would like to read his latest novel.  Death of a Lesser God is the fourth in the the Malabar House series, but it entirely didn’t matter that this was the first I had read.  We are in 1950s Bombay and our heroine is  Persis Wadia, the first female detective in the Bombay police.  She is asked to investigate the case of James Whitby whose son is sentenced to death for the murder of a prominent lawyer and Quit India activist.  Her investigation leads her to Calcutta.  Suffice to say, I will be seeking out the first three in the series.  Thank you Alison for introducing me to a new author.

North Woods by Daniel Mason

The stories of a place through time fascinate me.  The forgotten people that occupy a space, fill it with life, maybe leaving a mark, maybe not.  North Woods by Daniel Mason tells those imagined stories.  He starts in the 1760s in a remote North Woods station in New England.  The house, the people, the insects, the trees all get a look in, in the narrative that continues right up to the present day.  A marvellous sweep of American history and every day life.

The Old Ducks’ Hen do by Maddie Please

My friend Maddie Please writes books that never fail to make me smile.  The Old Ducks’ Hen Do is no exception, but there was a moment of tears this time too.  The Old Ducks’ have been friends forever, you can only be an Old Duck once you are past 60.  Denny has just passed that milestone and has been invited on her sister’s hen holiday with the ducks.  Once on Mallorca, an old flame hoves into view and Denny is forced to face up to past and present choices.  Excellent from beginning to end and now I want a holiday in Mallorca.

That Bonesetter Woman by Frances Quinn

Earlier this year my local bookshop Word on the Street played host to Frances Quinn who was there to talk about her latest book That Bonesetter Woman.  I loved her first novel The Smallest Man and soon the WhatsApp messages were flurrying around.   Myself and two friends bought tickets and spent an excellent evening hearing all about how the books came to be.  Whilst there I bought a copy, it has finally floated to top of the pile.  That Bonesetter Woman tells the tale of Endurance Proudfoot, the daughter of a bonesetter and she is keen to follow in his footsteps.  This being the 18th century the path is not straight forward.  Endurance heads to London where the cobbled streets lead to many sprained ankles.  Many of the other people at the Word on the Street that evening were osteopaths, the modern term for bonesetters and they all loved the book, as did I.  Definitely one to add to your Christmas list.

High Time by Hannah Rothschild

Ayesha Scott looks to have the perfect life.  Beautiful, clever, home is Cornish castle and her husband titled and wealth.  In one morning she discovers it is all an illusion, she will need to take on the international financial system, Albanian gangsters and her own dysfunctional family to survive.  High Time draws on characters that appear in Hannah Rothschild’s previous novels The House of Trelawney and The Improbability of Love but you don’t need to have read either to follow the delicious plot.  

Best non fiction books 2023

Clandestine romance at the BBC, London’s water supply, London in the 17th century and a scandalous woman are the subject of my favourite non fiction reads this year.

Ruskin Park: Sylvia, Me and the BBC by Rory Cellan Jones

You may know Rory Cellan-Jones as the custodian of #SophieFromRomania or remember him from your TV screens at the BBC’s Technology correspondent.  Ruskin Park: Sylvia, Me and the BBC by Rory Cellan-Jones tells the story of how Rory came to be.  His parents both worked at the BBC.  They started a relationship and Rory was the result.  They were not married.  This being the 50s, all sorts of commotion then arose.  When Sylvia, Rory’s mum, died he discovered a box of correspondence with a note that the contents would help him understand.  What Rory found in that box was a trove of letters. A heartbreaking, real life story.  Sylvia must have been quite a woman, she continued to work at the BBC and bought Rory up as a single mum.  Rory is a fine person, she did an amazing job. 

The Mercenary River by Nick Higham

I used to live near the New River in Islington.  It is pretty and there are ducks.  That off green mound that I used to glimpse from top deck of the 73 bus, not just a green mound.  Now thanks to The Mercenary River: Private Greed, Public Good: A History of London’s Water by Nick Higham I know both play a huge part in the history of London.  The Mercenary River tells the history of London’s water supply, So many things that I had never thought about are answered.  Like when and how did we all come to have fresh water in our homes simply by turning a tap.  The New River, so much more than a pretty place to walk.  Those grand buildings by Sadlers Wells Theatre that I used to see from the bus?  Water HQ.  Victorian financial scandals, echoing those that bubble away in the privatised water industry today. Absolutely fascinating and a must read for all those interested in London’s history.

London and the 17th Century by Margarette Lincoln

Queen Elizabeth dies, the Stuarts take over, Civil War, Restoration, Plague, Fire the 17th century saw many momentous events. London and the 17th Century – the making of the world’s greatest city by Margarette Lincoln takes a look at the century that started at the tail end of the Tudor era and ended with Queen Anne.  Lots of excellent facts and some glorious maps.   At the beginning of the century and marvel how small London was by the time Queen Anne died the map of Central London was recognisable.  

Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church by Peter Ross

Regular readers will know that I love a church. There is always a story. Mr CW and I are on a mission (pilgrimage?) to every Church of England Cathedral in the country (I really need to write that post). Peter Ross loves a church too. In Steeple Chasing is takes us to some incredible buildings. We meet bats, cats, angels, great cathedrals and small chapels. It is a delight. Mr CW bought this for my birthday, easily this year’s best present.

Museum Bums by Jack Shoulder and Mark Small

I always smile when a Museum Bums post pops up in my Instagram feed.  Yes I know I should be more grown up but a photo of statue’s bottom or delicate painted darrière brightens my day.  Now Jack Shoulder and Mark Small, the duo behind the Museum Bums account, have a book, just in time for Christmas (also a calendar and a pack of postcards). Museum Bums: A Cheeky Look at Butts in Art has some serious words about the art as well as many excellent pictures of bottoms to be found in museums and art galleries

The Duchess Countess by Catherine Ostler

Elizabeth Chudleigh caused a mass of scandalised gossip in late 18th century London.  She was a pretty witty lady in waiting to the Princess of Wales.  The Duchess Countess by Catherine Ostler tells the story of her life.  Duchess Countess because she was both a Duchess and a Countess, via two husbands.  When the Duke died, his family accused her of bigamy and  sensational trial ensued.  A fascinating tale takes in court life in Rome, Paris and St Petersburg as well as London.

These are Cultural Wednesday’s Best Books 2023, what have been your favourite books of the year?

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