10 favorite reads of 2023
I’m writing this post in the weird no man’s land between Christmas and New Year's and I’m pretty sure it’s Thursday, but who can know at this point. Though most bloggers and bookstagramers have long ago released their top reads of the year, I like to save that reflection till the bitter end just in case a December read sneaks in and steals the show.
This was admittedly a weird reading year for me. Since 2019, my reading has been pretty steady, but this year had some major slumps when life got busy and/or stressful. That’s one of the things that didn’t work for me this year (stay tuned for a full post about what did and didn’t work in my reading and writing life in the coming weeks), but what did work were the actual books I picked up.
Looking through my 2023 list, I could have added 20 books to my favorites with ease. If you’d like to read my real-time thoughts about what I’m reading and loving (and catch up on the ones you’ve missed), make sure you’re subscribed to the Literary Letter and following on Goodreads and Instagram. In the meantime, however, without further ado, here are my 10 favorite reads from 2023 in no particular order.*
*important note before we get started: these are my favorites I read for the first time in 2023, not those that were published in 2023 necessarily.
I would have said that I’m not into historical fiction set in the 1500s, but looking at my 2023 reading list, maybe that's not true. Initially, I didn’t pick this book up because of the story, but rather because I trust Maggie O’Farrell and have loved many of her books already.
The story follows Lucrezia, the youngest daughter of the Duke of Florence. When her sister dies unexpectedly, Lucrezia finds herself married off to the ruler of Ferrara, Modena, and Reggio. When her husband reveals himself to be a cruel man and the pressures mount to produce an heir, she begins to fear for her own life.
I had the joy of reading this book immediately after Oh William! and it made for a wonderful literary experience.
Set immediately following the events of Oh William!, this is a pandemic novel (and not the only one to land on my favorites list this year). As the world shuts down around her and her home in New York City begins to feel hostile, William whisks Lucy away to a small seaside town in Maine, saying his only goal is to save her life. For the entirety of the lockdown, Lucy and William are confined to their cottage and forced to confront parts of their relationship they've left unaddressed for years. Weave in encounters with charming and sometimes complicated local Mainers, and you've got a wonderful book.
You have to read Oh William! first for this to land perfectly, but it's worth it.
Yes, this is the second book set in the 1500s on my favorites list. I’m as surprised as you are! I loved the first book in this series when I read it in January and this one drew me in even more.
After finally succeeding in marrying Anne Boleyn, her failure to provide a male heir has left Henry VIII's affections cooling rapidly. When his former wife Catherine dies in exile, all attention turns to Anne. Thomas Cromwell again finds himself at the center of a conspiracy to dethrone a queen, but this time, the queen's end will be much more gruesome than exile. As Jane Seymour waits to take the throne, Anne watches her position crumble beneath her in the wake of alleged adultery. The book's end is also Anne's.
I don't think you necessarily need to read the first book before picking this one up, but the context of Catherine's downfall is really interesting set against this more violent story.
This is the follow-up to Andrew Sean Greer's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Less, which I loved when I read it last year. I loved this at least as much as the first in the series.
When Arthur Less's former lover passes away and he discovers his financial state is more precarious than he knew, he is plunged into a cross-country adventure in a temperamental camper van named Rosina with a pug named Dolly as a companion to put his life back together. There were parts of this book that made me laugh out loud, the ending was perfect, and it paints a complex yet hopeful vision of humanity that left me wanting more time in the story. While you don't necessarily have to read Less first, I think it would enhance your reading experience and help fill in the backstory nicely.
Also if you want to get to know the writer better (and you like a good literary laugh), Anne Bogel hosted a panel discussion featuring Greer, T.J. Klune, Brendan Slocumb, and Tia Williams!
I loved this book and am mad at anyone who read it and didn't tell me to pick it up immediately.
When a whale washes up on the shore of the English Channel, the Seagrave children—Cristabel, Flossie, and Digby—claim its remains as their own. Under Cristabel's direction and with the help of a traveling artist, the three build a theater in the whale's skeleton and use it as the setting for their imaginative escape from the troubles of their real lives. Of course, as World War II approaches, the trio finds themselves increasingly pulled away from their theater.
Yes, this is a historical novel, but really, it's a story about family and our complicated relationships with the past. If you love Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead or grew up on the 1980s Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Anne of Green Gables, I think this could be a great fit for you.
If you read the jacket copy of this book, you might think it’s a mystery, but it’s definitely more in the literary genre than anything.
The story opens with a family in the midst of a crisis, reeling from the disappearance of their teenage daughter, Rose. While her parents spiral and worry, the youngest daughter in the family, Clara, splits her time between keeping vigil at the window to wait for Rose's return and visiting the neighbor's cat while her neighbor, Mrs. Orchard, is in the hospital. Then, Clara's world is shaken when 30-something Liam moves into Mrs. Orchard's house. As the novel flips between Clara's, Mrs. Orchard's, and Liam's perspectives, the mysteries unfold and intertwine their stories.
If treated a different way, this book would perhaps read like a mystery, but instead, it's a beautifully written book about the ties that bind us. If you love a novel about found family and community, this is a book for you.
A historical multigenerational family saga? This is my catnip.
It's 1938 when the novel opens. Meilin is a new wife and mother, on the edge of a beautiful future, but when the Japanese invade China, she is forced to flee with her son, Renshu. Through the years, Meilin does all she can to keep her family safe and ensure her son has a bright future. Her efforts eventually lead to a new life for Renshu that takes him far away from his mother and his heritage in China. As Renshu builds his life as Henry Dao and starts his new family, he must reckon with the truth of his chaotic childhood and heritage.
While World War II historical fiction is much more in my wheelhouse than novels set in the 1500s, this is very much not the usual World War II historical novel.
It's 2003 and the Berest family receives a mysterious postcard with no message except for the four names of the family's ancestors who were killed during the Holocaust: Ephraïm, Emma, Jacques, and Noémie. Anne confronts her mother—the daughter of Ephraïm and Emma's one surviving daughter—to unravel the meaning of the postcard and its origin. In a chain-smoking fervor, Anne's mother unpacks the tragic history of their family's past from their flight from Russia during the revolution to Latvia, to Palestine, to Paris, and eventually to their untimely demise during the occupation of Paris.
This book is devastating and beautifully written. If you love historical fiction and want something more substantial, I highly recommend it.
The Modern Mrs. Darcy Summer Reading Guide is so reliable in bringing me 5-star reads and I will be forever grateful.
When Ann gets the call that her grandmother, Minh, has passed away, she's in need of an escape from her seemingly perfect life and decides to return home indefinitely. Over the years, Ann has built a life away from her mother (Huơng) and grandmother with a handsome boyfriend, a lake house, and champagne-filled parties. Everything changes with a positive pregnancy test and the reality of her boyfriend's infidelity. She returns to Florida to her grandmother's crumbling manor home in the shade of a banyan tree and must confront not only her own choices but her family's history and Minh's lifetime of hoarding junk that fills the house.
Told over multiple generations from Minh, Huơng, and Ann's perspectives, this is a sweeping generational story about the ties of family and the unavoidable weight of the past. I loved this book and think it would appeal to anyone who loves a family story with strong and complicated characters.
This was my favorite book of the whole year and I already put the audio version on hold at the library so I can reread it (or, more accurately, have Meryl Streep read it to me).
It's 2020 and the pandemic has brought Lara's three daughters home to the family cherry orchard in Michigan. Their days are filled with harvesting cherries in a race to get the work done in time without their usual seasonal workers to lessen the load. To pass the time, Lara finally agrees to tell her girls the story of her doomed love affair with a later-famous actor during a stint in Our Town at a summer stock theater program. Her story weaves in and out of time, through the past and the present, and the narrative will make you feel like you're right there listening to Lara, waiting anxiously to know how it all worked out (or didn’t) with Peter Duke.
I didn’t think I was ready to read books set during the pandemic, but my favorites list has proved me wrong. The key is that I want books that deal with the relationships and close quarters of that time more than books about the devastation the time wrought. If you enjoy Elizabeth Strout's books, this would be a great fit for you too.
Have you read any of my top reads from 2023? What did you think? What were your favorite reads of 2023? Tell me in the comments so I can grow my 2024 TBR!