As a writer, I am also a reader. An ideal day for me includes several hours of focused writing in the early morning, then a walk or yoga class, then reading in the afternoon. Of the 38 books I read this year, the following were my favorite books of 2023.
The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason
A WW1 book I somehow missed when it was released in 2018 but found because Mason’s North Woods was on the NYT’s Book Reviews 10 Best Books of 2023. The Winter Soldier is set on the Eastern Front in and around present-day Ukraine and tells of the war experiences of a doctor and nurse. While others apparently thought the ending abrupt, I found it very satisfying. Also looking forward to reading Mason’s collection of short stories, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Perhaps my own novel of a doctor and nurse in WW1 will one day make a favorite books list.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman
I checked this book out from the library, hoping to learn from a modern omniscient narrator. I was hooked early though by the premise and characters and spent a day buried in my couch reading from start to finish. Wow! Plus, the climax was unexpected and the flash-forwards taught me a lot in terms of craft. I’m reading the sequel now, Us Against You, and just as invested in the characters. I’m rooting for Benji in this one.
Night Watch by Jayne Anne Phillips
This was the first book I’ve read by Phillips, and now I have Lark & Termite and Machine Dreams on my TBR list. The Night Watch appealed to me with its Civil War time period, and the setting in the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum hooked me. The asylum, constructed between 1858 and 1881, “is the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in North America, and is purportedly the second largest in the world, next to the Kremlin.” Creepy setting and an excellent plot twist. Also, loved the illustrated cover.
Corrections in Ink: A Memoir by Keri Blakinger
A recent article in the NYT about The Dungeons and Dragons Players of Deathrow took me to Blakinger’s memoir, about her journey from a promising ice skater to addiction, Cornell, and then prison. Now an award-winning, investigative journalist writing for The Marshall Project, she focuses on exposing our flawed prisons and improving the criminal justice system. I appreciated the memoir for its honesty and humor, the power of second chances, and the reality of who and who doesn’t get those second chances.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Ever since I read The Poisonwood Bible twenty-some years ago, Barbara Kingsolver has been one of my favorite authors, and it was obvious why she won the Pulitzer Prize for Demon Copperhead. Set in the mountains of southern Appalachia, Demon is “born to a teenaged single mother in a single-wide trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-colored hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival.” Don’t let the length scare you off, read this one if you haven’t.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury was not on my small-town high school’s reading list so I’m late discovering his brilliance. Its relevance to today astounded me—not only the technology that Bradbury foresaw (earbuds and ATMs and robots) but also the politics and cultural wars and the effects of social media and cable news. At its simplest, it’s a story about a firefighter, Guy Montag, whose job it is to burn books. The belief in his futuristic time is that books make you think, make you feel, lead to conversation and debate, make you question, and the state wants none of that! The quote in the book about not needing to burn books to destroy a culture—you need only to get people to stop reading them—really resonated with me and what is happening in the U.S. today in states like Florida and Texas and Missouri. PEN America, an organization that supports and protects First Amendment rights, reports that more than 3,300 books were banned in the 2022-2023 school year, a 33% increase from the prior year. To reference another quote in the book—“So few want to be rebels anymore”—join me in rebelling. Read the book, question it, discuss it with your family and friends, get angry, take action before our world becomes Bradbury’s dystopia.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
I love a strong, opinionated heroine. A chemist turned cooking show host in the early 1960s, Elizabeth Zott was before her time in many ways and had me laughing and rooting for her and her daughter throughout the story. Excited to see it’s been turned into a TV series on Apple TV, and appreciated this interview where Garmus discusses how it was men behaving badly in the office that inspired her story. It was also refreshing to just get caught up in a story—to not analyze it as a writer and look for plot and characterization. That doesn’t happen often for me anymore so well done Bonnie Garmus.
The Candy House by Jennifer Egan
I first read Jennifer Egan in 2010 when she wrote, A Visit from the Goon Squad, the prequel to The Candy House. I was intrigued by its linked short stories working together to tell the bigger story, so I’d been eagerly awaiting the follow up. It didn’t disappoint and perhaps more than any other book this year, The Candy House has stayed with me and has me pondering what our near-future holds with the advancement of technology. Yes, there were lots of characters to keep track of, and it took a while to absorb how they connected, but I tried to not focus on that and just read each story for itself. I found myself laughing and creeped out and inspired and ready to delete my social media accounts. One of my favorite quotes is near the end: “But knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information.”