08 January 2024

Top 5 Books of 2023

2023 was an excellent reading year overall, and I read a total of 76 books with (weirdly) the same amount of 5 star reads as last year, with 19 books earning a 5 star rating. In previous years, my top five list has covered a range of genres, whereas this year they're drawn from just two. Three of the books featured were requested from the respective publisher, one was my own copy and another borrowed from the library.

Here are my Top 5 Books of 2023 in the order I read them:

1. The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell
The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell book cover

This is an atmospheric novel about class, ambition, loyalty, envy, power and obsession and I was truly gripped as I flipped the pages to witness the slow destruction of certain characters.

Set at the Mercury Theatre in Victorian London, Miss Jennifer Wilcox has been brought low by her circumstances and accepts a job offer from the wife of the theatre's owner in return for a favour she can't refuse. Jennifer will need to make and mend all of the costumes, style hair and organise the accessories for the leading actress at the Mercury while spying on her.

The theatre setting, the backstory and suspicious and deadly accidents at the Mercury along with nods to the era (a young brother pasting together matchboxes to earn his keep and another working in a hat factory) were the icing on this creepy Victorian cake. The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell was a gothic triumph!

2. Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See
Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See book cover

Set in 15th century China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), this is the fictional account of the life of Tan Yunxian, a woman who became a practicing doctor in China at a time it was extremely rare and severely frowned upon. Yunxian was so successful looking after her female patients, she published a book of medical cases in 1511 and to date, it's the oldest known medical book written by a woman in China.

We follow Yunxian from 1469, through her Milk Days, Hair-Pinning Days, Rice and Salt Days right through to her Sitting Quietly days, which formed a wonderful structure for her story and life progression. The relationships Yunxian has with her mother Respectful Lady, mother-in-law Lady Kuo, her father's concubine Miss Zhao, and her friend Meiling drive the character development and plot forward in an unforgettable narrative.

Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See was a complete surprise and I loved the content around foot binding.

3. The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge
The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge book cover

Walcha is a small town in NSW and in 2017, Natasha Darcy murdered her partner Mathew Dunbar and tried to make it look like suicide so that she could inherit his multi-million dollar farm. Australian journalist Emma Partridge is the Senior Crime Editor for Nine News, and in penning Mathew Dunbar's story in The Widow of Walcha, exposes the greedy and despicable behaviour of one of the most cold and calculating women in Australia.

Mathew Dunbar was a kind and generous sheep grazier looking for love and a family, making him the perfect target for Natasha Darcy. The case, arrest and subsequent trial outlined in the book showed Darcy to be a compulsive liar and an evil, manipulative woman. There was so much damning evidence in this case it was mind-blowing and I found it hard to fathom how a woman could be so cold and cruel.

Narrated by Jo Van Es, The Widow of Walcha gives us a shocking glimpse into the sordid mind of a self-serving, unfeeling, greedy and manipulative woman prepared to do anything to further her financial position at the expense of all others. Sentenced to 40 years in prison with a non-parole period of 30 years, thankfully Darcy's black widow days are well and truly over. The Widow of Walcha is one of the best Australian true crime accounts I've ever read and I found myself talking to many people about it afterwards.

4. Everyone on this Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson
Everyone on this Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson book cover

After the events in the last book (Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, which made my Top 2022 list) Ernie Cunningham is enjoying his publishing success when he receives an invitation to attend a crime writer's festival held on The Ghan.

Ernie regularly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, like telling us up front that we can safely assume he survives the tour given he's writing about it. Openly giving us a list of suspects and divulging his findings, this is another brain teasing, mind stimulating laugh out loud slap to the face of a book and I couldn't get enough. Stevenson readily gives the reader clues the entire way, yet still manages to surprise us.

Full of insightful yet funny character observations - the author is also a comedian - booklovers will relish the publishing jargon and observations from the characters during their train journey on The Ghan.

5. Maphead by Ken Jennings
Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings book cover

Maps are such a big part of our lives and in Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, Ken Jennings is the ultimate tour guide on this journey, readily providing all manner of info about geonerds and their love of maps. If you enjoy quirky facts in quick succession, this is for you.

The author has been an enthusiastic toponymist - a student of place-names - for as long as he's loved maps and it shows. We move on to the market for collectors of ancient maps and globes that stretches as far back as the Renaissance, but for readers who would rather leave history in the past, the section on maps in fantasy fiction was illuminating. Jennings weighs in on the 'map gap' between the genders, leading me to make peace with my map preference of 'forward is up' instead of 'north is up'.

I was excited to read about Roadgeeks - the highway scholars of mapheads - who take photos of road signs to clock their routes and discover more about systematic travel, while the chapter on geocaching had me checking for geocache locations near me. Maphead by Ken Jennings is endlessly engaging with sections on confluence hunting, Google Earth and street view being of key interest.

It's great to see a combination of my two favourite genres, historical fiction and non fiction dominating the list and two Australian authors represented. Honourable mention to The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs.

Have you read any of these or plan to?

Carpe Librum!
Top 5 Books of 2023 image by Carpe Librum

Would you like to comment?

  1. Adding Lady Tan and Maphead to my TBR! Thank you!

  2. I also thought Lady Tan was terrific, and the others are all on my TBR

    1. Thanks Shelleyrae, so glad you also loved Lady Tan's Circle of Women and if the rest are already on your TBR you have some excellent reading ahead of you!!

  3. Call for Submissions: PEASANT MAGAZINE is looking for fantasy, historical fantasy, and historical fiction short stories for its next issue. Learn more at Peasant Magazine.


Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!