Best books of 2023: 10 top reads from local writers

Independent bookstore No Alibis select their 2023 top 10 reads by local writers as part of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s National Lottery supported campaign to encourage shoppers to support the local creative community and give the gift of arts this Christmas…. #GiftTheArts.

The Book Who Wanted to Be Loved by John Bittles & Rebecca Elliott

The Book Who Wanted to Be Loved by John Bittles & Rebecca Elliott (No Alibis Press)

A heartwarming and thrilling tale about belonging, friendship and more. This Children’s picture book is a celebration of the magic of bookshops, stories and books. Beautifully Illustrated throughout by local based illustrator and designer, Rebecca Elliott, the adventurous, challenging and ultimately joyful journey undertaken by our plucky book adventurer is beautifully captured with amazing colours and texture. John is no stranger to a bookshop, and there is something captured in his storytelling which fills us with the warmth, magic and the joy of being surrounded by books.

We Play Here by Dawn Watson

We Play Here by Dawn Watson (Granta Poetry)

In a great year for local poetry this clearly written, exquisitely imagined collection by Queens lecturer Dawn Watson managed to stand out. Set in the summer of 1988, the book follows the lives of four close friends as they navigate that difficult transition from children to teenagehood. Although violence is an ever present in their young lives, friendship, together with the stories they tell each other, offer a form of escape and hope. Full of evocative imagery and a vivid sense of time and place, these four prose poems make the streets of Belfast burst into life.

Belfast by Feargal Cochrane

Belfast by Feargal Cochrane (Yale University Press)

A wonderfully crafted narrative history of Belfast. Feargal Cochrane has managed to convey a sense of history and hope within this book. This is not an academic study, but an homage or personal love story to the author’s hometown. Cochrane does not shy away from the dark times, past and present. However, he also makes a point of focusing on aspects of Belfast’s development as an industrial and cultural space throughout its complex history. As one reviewer said, this book, “made me fall in love again with my home city.”

The Detective Up Late by Adrian McKinty

The Detective Up Late by Adrian McKinty (Blackstone Publishing)

I can think of no other local crime novel that has been as eagerly awaited as Adrian McKinty’s latest Sean Duffy novel. It has been over 7 years since our last outing with Duffy. Whilst it has been hard to endure, the wait has been more than worth it. Our detective, as ever, is in a situation where he has to decide whether to pursue what appears to be an impossible case or take the easy road…. we all know what route Duffy will take. A missing 15-year-old traveller girl who nobody seems to care about and the complexities of dealing with an unreliable triple agent…just a normal day for Detective Duffy. Written with style, lyricism and wry dark humour, nobody writes literary crime fiction like Adrian McKinty.

Isdal by Susannah Dickey

Isdal by Susannah Dickey (Picador Poetry)

The author of Tennis Lessons and Common Decency returned this year with ISDAL, a collection of startling poetry that examines the true crime genre, our obsession with the female victim, and more. Using a real-life act of violence as its starting point, the bulk of the tale is told in three parts, (Podcast, Narrative and Composite). These parts work together brilliantly to form a body of work that raises important questions and makes you question yourself and everything you have been told. Surreal, thoughtful, and surprisingly playful, it’s not often that you will read a book of poetry that will have you gasping in horror one minute, smiling ruefully the next.

Two Summers by Glenn Patterson

Two Summers by Glenn Patterson (New Island)

Two Summers is the latest book from Glenn Patterson. A collection of two novellas that capture that confusion and troubling circumstances of navigating an environment beyond your understanding. In the first story, Summer On The Road” it is the social and economic differences associated with class experienced by Mark in Belfast in the 1980’s, in the second story, “Last Summer of the Shangri – Las”, we travel to New York in 1977. You can imagine the culture shock experienced by our young narrator, Gem, just arrived from Belfast to stay with an aunt in the “city that never sleeps”. Each story captures the confusion, anxiety and hope associated with being somewhere on the edge of your understanding with the realisation that to survive a sense of openness and awareness is the only solution.

Taking Liberties by Leontia Flynn

Taking Liberties by Leontia Flynn (Cape Poetry)

A lecturer at Queens University, Leontia’s powerful, humane poetry has been a favourite of the shop for quite some time. Her latest collection, Taking Liberties, is already a firm favourite, and is sure to be for a while. Themes of Motherhood, travelling, urban life, anxiety and more are explored in meticulously crafted prose. In a collection full of highlights, the stunning Nina Simone Is Singing has pushed all other thoughts aside to set up a residency in my mind. Needless to say, if you are a fan of poetry, you owe it to yourself to give this a go.

Lazy City by Rachel Connolly

Lazy City by Rachel Connolly (Canongate)

Richly detailed, and full of a glorious sense of place, Rachel Connolly’s debut novel lit up 2023. Erin returns to Belfast from London after the death of a close friend. Estranged from her mother, she takes a job as an au pair and spends her nights trying to hide from her grief. Starting a relationship of sorts with a visiting American academic, things get complicated by the return of Mikey, an old flame who harks back to simpler times. Written in clear, precise prose, and full of a quiet longing, Lazy City captures beautifully that feeling of alienation when nowhere seems like home.

Close To Home by Michael Magee

Close To Home by Michael Magee (Hamish Hamilton)

We sold so many of this startling debut novel throughout the year that it was almost possible to believe it was the only book we had. Arriving home from university, a supposed means of escape, Sean is drifting though a world of drink, drugs, and dead-end jobs. Sean is trying to hold things together, but the spectre of a moment of violence hangs heavy over his head. Instantly engaging, and beautifully crafted, Close To Home is one of those rare beasts, in that it is a book which every single staff member loved.

Quickly, While They Still Have Horses by Jan Carson

Quickly, While They Still Have Horses by Jan Carson (Doubleday) Forthcoming April 2024

A new book by Jan Carson is always received with glee here at No Alibis Bookstore. Her new short story collection, Quickly, While They Still Have Horses, is another case in point. The book’s sixteen stories feature distracted parents, a troubling rumour at a swimming pool, a father who loses his sons at an adventure park, and lots more. Out in April 2024, this is already promising to be one of 2024’s must reads.

Belfast Telegraph Life