I Read 300 Books This Year, and These Are the 15 Best Books of 2023
From a nonfiction shipwreck to a prison dystopia and a remote colony of Jupiter, the best books of 2023 will introduce you to worlds known and unknown
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The best books of the year
The year is winding down. You’ve almost made it through another 365 days, which is as good a reason as any to treat yourself to some of the best books of 2023. Of course, narrowing down our picks was no easy feat. As a librarian, I read around 300 books that came out this year, selecting titles across book genres and from authors both new and familiar to me.
The year’s must-reads range from a deep dive into hot dogs to the story of a Hollywood star to a desperate time-loop tale. (And while this is certainly the year for Fourth Wing, which has sold more than 750,000 copies since May and remains one of the bestselling books of the year, you’ll find a different dragon book on this list.) In other words, there’s a great book for every type of reader on this list.
How we chose the best books of 2023
It’s impossible for any one person to read every single book published in a year, so this list doesn’t just rely on personal recommendations. I’ve taken into consideration reviews, awards, bookstore and book club selections, and audience favorites to help determine the best books of the year. If you’re hunting for books to read in 2023, look no further!
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1. Yellowface by R.F. Kuang
The second I turned the final page of Yellowface, I told my roommate that it was a book people were going to feel extraordinarily passionate about, myself included (from its inclusion here, you can likely gather that I’m in the “love it” column). I don’t know if I can think of another book off the top of my head where the voice of the main character comes through with the same strength as R.F. Kuang’s lead, providing the reader with a compulsive need to devour each and every page.
So what’s it about? When successful author Athena dies unexpectedly, with her manuscript about Chinese laborers during World War I only recently completed, June seizes the opportunity—and the manuscript, claiming it as her own. Though white, she adopts a pen name to fool the world into thinking she’s an Asian author and her masterpiece isn’t a stolen story. But her newfound success is inextricably linked to questions about the book’s origin. A satirical literary thriller, Yellowface is a remarkable book featuring an everyday antiheroine caught in the quicksand of her own poor decisions.
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2. The Neighbor Favor by Kristina Forest
It’s been a standout year for romance novels, but there’s something extra special about Kristina Forest’s adult debut. When Lily’s favorite fantasy author responds to her email, the two strike up a correspondence that turns into a gentle friendship and hints at a romance. But after he ghosts her, she shifts her focus to finding a date for her sister’s wedding. Enlisting the help of her new neighbor, Nick, Lily begins to open up again, even as Nick, who writes fantasy under a pen name, realizes that the woman he was growing too close to is the one who lives down the hall. With multiple starred reviews and a relatable heroine, The Neighbor Favor is the epitome of what contemporary romances should be: a book you can lose yourself in with a couple to root for and a trope or two executed to perfection.
3. Blood Sisters by Vanessa Lillie
One of the best books of 2023 for mystery and thriller fans, Vanessa Lillie’s Blood Sisters is a magnificent treat. Syd Walker has put her Oklahoma hometown in the past, along with a certain violent night a decade and a half ago. The only past she’s concerned with is the land’s indigenous past, which she tries to protect as an archeologist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Rhode Island. Her sister’s disappearance, and the appearance of a skull at the crime scene from her past, pull her back, placing her firmly in a world that is not fully willing to welcome her back. In my experience, the best suspenseful novels are those where the characters and the mysteries they’re looking into are equally compelling, and that’s certainly the case here.
4. All the Fighting Parts by Hannah V. Sawyerr
One of the things about reading so much over the years is that it takes a lot for a book to feel like a gem. But All the Fighting Parts really does, and it deserves its place in the literary canon. The story centers on Amina, who has always had a powerful voice and hasn’t been afraid to use it. But recently, she’s quieted, and no one else knows why. When her pastor is arrested for a crime that shocks the community, she’s relieved to not talk about what happened … until a roadblock in the case forces her to come forward about her assault.
Told in beautiful verse that showcases Hannah V. Sawyerr’s strengths as a writer and guides the reader through an emotional whirlwind, this is not only one of the best teen books of the year (the decade, even) but also one of the overall best books to read in 2023.
5. To Shape a Dragon’s Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose
Building out the world of a fantasy novel is a feat I have never envied, and when an author manages to also make the world inventive and expansive on top of that—as Moniquill Blackgoose has done in To Shape a Dragon’s Breath—I have no choice but to be in awe.
When 15-year-old Anequs finds a dragon’s egg, her people on the remote island of Masquapaug are thrilled, as it’s the first dragon to be seen in generations. The Anglish conquerors of Masquapaug don’t hold the same reverence for Anequs and the hatchling’s special relationship and instead hold firm beliefs about how dragons should be raised. With great hesitation, they bring Anequs to the mainland, where she and her dragon will need to succeed by the Anglish standards, or the dragon will be killed. Moniquill Blackgoose is a name to watch; this book signals the arrival of a great new addition to fantasy shelves.
6. The Fraud by Zadie Smith
It’s 1873, and Sir Roger Tichborne is suing to take control of what he claims is rightfully his. The ensuing trial has captured the public’s interest, enthralling everyone from Eliza Touchet, the unconvinced Scottish housekeeper of novelist Williams Ainsworth, to the trial’s star witness, Andrew Bogle, a man who grew up enslaved on a Jamaican plantation and whose livelihood depends on the story he weaves. The Fraud, Zadie Smith’s first historical novel, spent three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and with its dynamic study of personality and its ability to warp the truth, it’s not hard to see why.
7. The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann
David Grann is a name many nonfiction readers already know: His previous book, Killers of the Flower Moon, recently hit the big screen, and he was just named the inaugural Author of the Year by Barnes & Noble. His latest work is no less impressive. The Wager dives into an incident that happened in the 18th century and is a captivating chronicle of truth and survival. In mid-1742, three castaways landed on the coast of Chile with a tale to tell, one that contradicted the story told by a group of 30 men who wound up on the coast of Brazil half a year prior. A court-martial was convened to try and figure out the truth: Was the first group, billed as survivors of a shipwreck who had lived for months on an island before making it across the sea in a hasty vessel, truly heroic against a tyrannic officer? Or were the trio who claimed mutiny telling the truth?
8. Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
If I had it my way, this book would be on every single Best Books of 2023 list that gets published this year, and quite honestly, if any book could do it, I think it’s this one. A finalist for the National Book Award and already long-listed for at least four others, Chain-Gang All-Stars is a novel I can’t stop thinking about. In Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s dystopian novel, CAPE, Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, has emerged as a profit-earning part of the private prison industry. Part of this is Chain-Gang All-Stars, where prisoners compete to the death for a chance at their freedom. Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker are two of the fan-favorite stars, as well as teammates and lovers, and while Thurwar competes for her freedom, she seeks a way to break the established state of the games.
9. The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
When The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store opens, it’s 1972, and police have just discovered a skeleton at the bottom of a well in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Before they can gather the evidence, a hurricane washes it away. From there, the story flashes back to 1925 and Chicken Hill, a neighborhood where immigrant Jews and African Americans lived side by side. As their stories weave together, they reveal secrets that will stay buried until that fateful day in 1972. At its core, this is a novel about community, and it’s been embraced by critics and fans alike, even earning the title of Book of the Year from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
10. The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older
Good things come in small packages, and that’s certainly the case for The Mimicking of Known Successes. Mossa’s latest investigation on a remote colony of Jupiter leads her directly to the colony’s university. There, she teams up with her ex, Pleiti, a scholar and researcher working on a return to Earth, in her search for a missing man. I love books that cross genres, and Malka Older managed to craft a Holmesian science-fiction mystery romance in under 200 pages.
11. Maybe Next Time by Cesca Major
Literary agent Emma has just woken up after the worst Monday of her life: It involved a forgotten anniversary, countless client emergencies and a car crash that brings with it the death of her husband, Dan. But this isn’t Tuesday; it’s Monday once again, and Dan is still alive. Countless Mondays roll by, with Emma trying desperately to change the end of her story but seemingly stuck in the loop of loss. Maybe Next Time feels eternally relevant—with everything falling apart and limited hope, people still try and try and try to make sense of the reality in front of them. It’s a beautiful story that very effectively uses the time loop trope, especially at the end of the novel.
12. The Wind Knows My Name by Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende may be the master of magical realism, but her nonmagical works are just as powerful. In this latest story, 6-year-old Samuel Adler leaves Austria in 1938, fleeing on the last Kindertransport train to the U.K. after his father’s disappearance during Kristallnacht. Decades later, in 2019, blind 7-year-old Anita Diaz also flees her home on a train, escaping danger in El Salvador and making her way to the United States. But she’s separated from her mother. When her case is assigned to a young social worker, it’s discovered that Anita has another family member in America, one who works for the 86-year-old Samuel. The Wind Knows My Name weaves together the past and present as it brilliantly reveals these characters’ stories. Allende’s writing is some of the best of all time, and the characters in this one shine in a way I will never forget.
13. The Burning of the World: The Great Chicago Fire and the War for a City’s Soul by Scott W. Berg
It was 1871, and the string of dry months was about to create a massive problem for Chicago. The first spark of trouble would come from a minor fire in an Irishwoman’s barn. That would soon become a major blaze and then a hugely destructive natural disaster that would last for days. Covering both the fire itself and the questions about Chicago’s future that emerged in the immediate aftermath, The Burning of the World takes a close look at a historic moment that forever changed one of the largest cities in the United States. Not only is it one of the best books of 2023, but this nonfiction title was also long-listed for the Carnegie medal.
14. Did You Hear About Kitty Karr? by Crystal Smith Paul
Elise St. John is one of three wealthy Black sisters who have just inherited the estate of Kitty Karr Tate, a white movie icon. No one knows why Kitty left everything to them, not even Elise. The inheritance means Elise has access to Kitty’s journals … and to the truth of Kitty’s rise to fame. Fiction that explores the secrets that might hide behind Hollywood glamour has always been a hit for me, and Did You Hear About Kitty Karr? is a fantastic debut that signals great things to come.
15. Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs by Jamie Loftus
Hot dogs are a staple in much of the United States, a fact that comedian Jamie Loftus explores in this hilarious nonfiction title. In 2021, Loftus took a cross-country journey to explore the different ways in which hot dogs are presented in different regions (including Chicagoland, where I grew up). Raw Dog isn’t just another travelogue. It’s an exploration of what, exactly, hot dogs say about America and class—and, of course, how the sausage gets made.
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- Publisher’s Weekly: “Top 10 Overall”