The Best Books of 2023

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It’s time to share my best books of 2023! These are my favorite new books that came out in 2023, and I have to say: it was tough to narrow down this year.

It’s always great to look back and think about what’s been working for me, what kind of books I’ve gravitated to, and how I might need to mix up my reading.

Halfway through the year, I noted that most of my best were by women authors–no surprise since I do tend to gravitate to books written by women–and this trend continued through the rest of the year, with a couple exceptions.

But more than that, I’ve noticed a theme of books by women examining the particular struggles and pressures we face because we are women. I expect we’ll continue to see these books in 2024.

While most of my favorites are literary, I did include some romance novels that were the perfect palate cleansers between the heavier reads.

I always do best when I can mix up my reading in this way, but I feel like many of these lighter books just end up being kind of mediocre. So I pay attention to authors who write more lighthearted books that consistently work for me and I always look forward to their books.

My Best Books of 2023

No Two Persons by Erica Bauermeister

No Two Persons

Author: Erica Bauermeister
Genres: Literary Fiction

Alice has written a debut literary novel that’s caused a minor stir in the book world. As readers encounter the book, each finds something different in the story that resonates. No Two Persons introduces us to nine of those readers who are loosely connected and have their lives changed by the book.

The summary is simple, but I cannot even articulate how beautiful this book is. It may be a case of “right book, right time” for me, in this year when I’m thinking a lot about the ways that we connect with books.

This is not a fast-paced beach read, but I read it on the beach and couldn’t put it down. It’s structured as a series of connected short stories–not my favorite format–but I loved every one of them. I love books about books, and this is quite possibly my favorite I’ve ever read.

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Maame by Jessica George

Maame

Author: Jessica George
Genres: Contemporary Fiction

Maddie (nicknamed “Maame” by her mother) is a twenty-something in London who cares for her father, who has Parkinson’s. Her mother spends most of the year in Ghana and her brother doesn’t help. When her mother decides to come back, this is Maddie’s first opportunity to move out and claim her independence. Maame follows Maddie as she learns about the world outside her home and struggles to find a place in it, while pushing back against her family’s expectations–particularly when tragedy strikes and she is overcome by grief.

Maddie is an endearing character; she’s naive, which could be frustrating to read, but she’s also aware of it. I actually saw hints of autism in her (though I’m no expert and have not seen others mention this), and reading with that lens made her naivete and some of her tendencies more understandable. Whether or not my interpretation is true, Maddie is a character I rooted for, and this book deserves all of its accolades.


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The Best Books of 2023

I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai

I Have Some Questions for You

Authors: Rebecca Makkai
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Genres: Literary Fiction, Mysteries & Thrillers

Bodie Kane is a podcaster and film professor who has been invited back to her boarding school in New Hampshire to teach a course. She isn’t nostalgic about her years at Granby; she was a misfit from Indiana, not wealthy like many classmates. Her memories are further marred by the murder of her former roommate, Thalia, in her senior year.

When her students decide to produce a podcast on Thalia’s case, she is drawn back into the murder and her past. She begins to doubt the guilt of the Black athletic trainer who was convicted; and instead, she starts to suspect a beloved music teacher who may have had a relationship with Thalia. In a unique construct, she narrates directly to him throughout this literary mystery.

Makkai also wrote The Great Believers, a favorite of mine, and she delivers here as well. She is masterful at juxtaposing events and attitudes in multiple timelines, making sharp points at just the right moments.

Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Chain-Gang All-Stars

Author: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Narrators: Shayna Small, Aaron Goodson, Michael Crouch & Lee Osorio
Genres: Science Fiction, Dystopia

Chain-Gang All-Stars is a compelling sci-fi dystopia that has a bit of a Hunger Games feel. The U.S. has implemented a gladiator sport program in which prisoners fight to the death for the entertainment of spectators. If the fighters survive three years in the program, they can be freed. The story follows two women, Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxx” Stacker, who are stars of the program and on the same chain gang, which means they don’t face one another in the ring. The two women are in a relationship, and as Thurwar closes in on her freedom, she tries to help her remaining chain members find connection and humanity in a system determined to dehumanize them.

This is satirical, but also horrifying, and it moves swiftly through the perspectives of the chain-gang members to protestors to workers to fans of the bloodsport. Like those fans, I couldn’t look away from this sharp indictment of the prison system, its racism and violence, and the role of capitalism in our system of justice.


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The Best Books of 2023

Adelaide by Genevieve Wheeler

Adelaide

Authors: Genevieve Wheeler
Narrator: Caitlin Kelly
Genres: Contemporary Fiction

Adelaide is a young American woman living in England. She’s fairly privileged and has good job, but she also has some past family difficulties and struggles with relationships after an abusive one in her teens.

When she meets Rory, she convinces herself it’s love, despite his flaky behavior and general ambivalence. When he experiences a tragedy, she turns herself inside out for him–while he demands more.

This is a poignant novel about how people–and women in particular–are prone to be self-sacrificing caretakers–and manipulative people see this and take advantage of it, demanding they suppress any human needs until they reach a tipping point.

Adelaide is sweet and a little naive, you might feel frustrated with her, but what she does is so common. I mostly loved Adelaide, even when I was frustrated with her; I hated Rory but he was familiar to me; and I loved Adelaide’s friends that held her up and kept her going. This will not be for everyone, but there was some nuance here about this particular time of life that I appreciated.

You Could Make this Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith

You Could Make This Place Beautiful

Author & Narrator: Maggie Smith
Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir

Maggie Smith is a poet who wrote the poem “Good Bones,” which went viral a few years back. It changed her career and her marriage, which ultimately ended in divorce when her husband had an affair. This is Smith’s deeply personal and poetic reflection on that difficult time of her life. Smith doesn’t share unnecessary details, keeping certain things private for her children, but her words cut to the heart of the pain of the split, the way her career and accomplishments were diminished, her default parenting role, and more.

Whether you’ve been through a divorce or not, Smith’s voice is so eloquent, it’s as if she ripped open the collective hearts of so many women in 2023 and read what was written there, then translated it into lyrical prose. Her narration is beautiful, but I also wanted a physical copy to hold and highlight so many passages that took my breath away because they captured so much sparse, brutal, beautiful truth. All the stars.

Happy Place by Emily Henry

Happy Place

Author: Emily Henry
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Genres: Romance

Emily Henry is back with a second-chance romance/fake relationship novel that is perfect for summer reading. Harriet and Wyn were the perfect couple. They met in college and were deeply in love, even engaged to be married. When they both arrive at their friend’s beloved vacation home and learn it’s the last visit before it will be sold, they know they can’t tell their dear friends they broke up five months ago. Now, Harriet’s “happy place” has turned into one of deep discomfort, but she needs this one last trip, and she’s sure everyone else does, too.

As they white-knuckle through their lie, their chemistry–and Harriet’s confusion over their sudden breakup–leads to cracks in the facade. Can they keep up the charade, or will it all come crashing down and ruin their last friend vacation in paradise?

This novel is more melancholy than Henry’s previous books. Both Harriet and Wyn could be frustrating, in very realistic ways. When it started, I thought I was reading an “enemies to lovers” type book (not my favorite), but it soon became clear this wasn’t that–I loved their relationship. Even more: I loved the central place that friendship had in this book. Because I love great friendships in novels, it should be no surprise that this and People We Meet on Vacation are my two favorite Henry books.

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Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

Tom Lake

Author: Ann Patchett
Publish Date: August 8, 2023
Genres: Literary Fiction

On a cherry orchard in Michigan, Lara and her husband Joe have welcomed home their three grown daughters at the start of the pandemic. The family is scrambling to harvest the cherries with a reduced staff, and the girls ask Lara to tell of her summer in stock theater at Tom Lake, where she had a romance with now-famous actor Peter Duke.

Lara stretches her story out over weeks, revealing truths, correcting her daughters’ misconceptions, and keeping some precious things to herself. She revels in the time with her daughters, where time feels suspended in much the same way it did that summer at Tom Lake.

Every moment of this rare summer literary fiction novel feels like golden hour, filtered through the haze of memories, lakes, and dreamy orchards. Patchett seamlessly weaves between the timelines, while quietly revealing truths about family and personal history. Every word feels careful and perfect; I loved it. I read this in print, but I’ve heard the audiobook narrated by Meryl Streep is also sublime.

Small Joys by Elvin James Mensah

Small Joys

Author: Elvin James Mensah
Publish Date: April 11, 2023
Genres: Contemporary Fiction

Harley is depressed. He’s quit college and moved back home to his rural town in England. He’s on the verge of making a tragic decision when he is interrupted by his new roommate, Muddy. Muddy is the polar opposite of Harley; freewheeling, confident, masculine, and presumably heterosexual, he pulls Harley into his orbit and friend group. With his relentless positivity, zest for life, and love of birds, Muddy brings light back to Harley’s life–until the past threatens to darken it again.

I adored this novel of found family and finding meaning in small things. The friends are each different and have their own struggles, but the way these working-class 20-somethings show up, accept, and stay for one another–especially Harley–is remarkable. I loved their dynamic, I loved Muddy, and I didn’t want this to end.

Yours Truly by Abby Jimenez

Yours Truly

Author: Abby Jimenez
Publish Date: April 11, 2023
Genres: Romance

Briana Ortiz is an ER doctor who is used to a certain amount of stress, but her brother’s kidney failure, her pending divorce, and the new doctor in the ER who might steal her promotion have amped it up. Dr. Jacob Maddox has Briana’s hackles up–until he completely disarms her by sending her a letter. Soon they’re writing back and forth and have formed a friendship. When Jacob signs on to donate a kidney to Briana’s brother, she feels she has no choice but to do him a favor–one that brings them even closer together.

This is the second Abby Jimenez book I’ve read, and the follow-up to Part of Your World, which I also loved (those characters appear in this novel, but it stands alone). So far, Jimenez has proven to write books that keep me hooked with amazing characters (someone find me a better male romantic lead than Jacob!), cute setups (the letters!), and realistic obstacles–the major ones here being Jacob’s anxiety and Briana’s past relationship trauma. They each take responsibility for their own issues, while supporting one another. Jimenez goes big on all the romance tropes, usually with a wink-nudge, but this could bother some readers, as could the extended miscommunication between Jacob and Briana. I expect these things in romance, and when they’re done this well, I’m happy to go along for the ride.

The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters

The Berry Pickers

Author: Amanda Peters
Narrators: Aaliya Warbus & Jordan Waunch
Publish Date: October 31, 2023
Genres: Literary Fiction

In the summer of 1962, a Mi’kmaq family arrives in Maine to pick berries. Soon after, four-year-old Ruthie disappears, last seen by her six-year-old brother, Joe. Ruthie–now Norma–spends decades being raised by a helicopter mother and a distant father, always haunted by nightmares and bothered that she looks a little different. Joe remains tormented by guilt and the loss of his sister. As the family continues to search for her, Norma slowly picks apart the inconsistencies in her life, searching for the truth about herself.

Told over decades, alternately by Joe and Norma, The Berry Pickers is a riveting story of trauma, grief, and struggle, as well as privilege and prejudice, and how all of these things are interwoven. It’s an incredible debut, and I don’t think you can go wrong with either the print or audio versions.

Shark Heart by Emily Habeck

Shark Heart

Author: Emily Habeck
Source: Book of the Month Club
Publish Date: 2023
Genres: Literary Fiction, Fantasy

Soon after Lewis and Wren are married, they get the devastating news: Lewis is slowly transforming into a great white shark. This is the absurd premise of a surprisingly lovely book about marriage, memories, grief, and finding meaning when life throws curveballs. We first see Lewis’s transition from human to shark, and among this, slowly gather bits of each of their pasts and how they came together. Wren’s story comes into sharper focus as the story shifts to her mother, pregnant with Wren as a teen by an abusive boyfriend.

This book sounds like an experiment that couldn’t possibly work, but it does–and I marvel at the creativity that brought the author to it. It’s shockingly easy to suspend disbelief here; the transition to other creatures is a fact of this world, and the important thing is pondering the repercussions, the love in the face of loss, and the moving on. You’ll think about this one long after you’ve finished reading it.

Happiness Falls by Angie Kim

Happiness Falls

Author: Angie Kim
Publish Date: August 29, 2023
Genres: Literary Fiction

In a DC-area park, a Korean-American father goes missing and his fourteen-year-old son, Eugene, returns home from the park without him, bloody and distraught but unable to communicate anything. Eugene has Angelman Syndrome and autism, which means he is unable to speak and is easily overstimulated. Over the next three days, 20-year-old daughter Mia tells about the missing person investigation that turns into questions about Eugene’s possible role in her father’s disappearance. As she wrestles with what could have happened, she learns secrets about her father and her brother that lead to more questions about what happened that day.

While this is the plot of this literary mystery, Kim explores so much more through Mia’s analytical, somewhat rambling narration, including happiness and how to measure it (or manipulate it), language and how it’s equated with intelligence, and family trauma and secrets. Readers have had mixed feelings about Mia’s narration and copious asides in footnotes. While I could have done without the footnotes (just the format, not the content), I loved her voice, which rang true of a smart but somewhat neurotic, prickly, and self-absorbed 20-year-old. I was fascinated by Kim’s exploration of the science of happiness, language, and disability alongside the mystery. I couldn’t put this one down.

What are your favorite books of 2023?

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One Comment

  1. My favorite books of 2023 (the first two I actually purchased):
    “Weyward” by Emilia Hart (this won two readers’ best categories in Goodreads: debut and historical fiction);
    “A Fever in the Heartland” by Timothy Egan. The true story of the KKK in 1920s Indiana, and the woman who stopped them.
    “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” by James McBride.
    “The mostly true story of Tanner & Louise” by Colleen Oakley was just fun.

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