January 18, 2024

2023 By The Books

I had a great reading year in 2023. Happily, reflecting on my past year of reading with enthusiasm is the norm for me, because I'm fortunate to get the chance to read most days, I always have a book or two in progress, and there are so many great books to choose from. I only wish I was a faster reader so I could enjoy even more of those books! It's possible I'm finally getting a little speedier, though: In 2023, I read an almost unprecedented 51 books. (Or maybe I simply spent more time reading at the expense of more writing progress.)

Last year, a couple of things changed my reading habits some, especially by leading me to more books that weren't published in the past year or two. I joined a book club for the first time, and every club selection was from at least five years ago, some from decades back. The book club has been a good experience in reading even more widely than I already do, and I've read a number of books I wouldn't have picked up on my own, including some memoirs. (I'm still not much of a fan of memoir.)

The other reading innovation of 2023 is that I borrowed far more ebooks from my public library than in previous years. I've used the Libby system sporadically for a while, but sometime in 2022 I started relying on it more, and last year I took full advantage. I sometimes get on waiting lists for brand new books, but I especially use Libby availability as a prompt to check out books from past years that I never got around to. (If you read ebooks or audiobooks and aren't already using Libby, jump on this bandwagon!)

Between the overlapping changes of book club and library borrowing, I read a higher percentage than usual of books that weren't new releases. A recurring pattern lately has been that around two-thirds of the books I read were published that year, and in 2023, it was less than half. Still, around two-thirds were from 2020 or later, and except for book club picks, I mostly stuck to books less than ten years old, so it's not as though I've significantly veered from my preference for contemporary reading. (A recency bias, if you will.)

That habit is continuing to work out well for me, because almost all my favorite books of 2023 were published in 2023, and the oldest is from 2019. But beyond that similarity, my favorites are wide-ranging, spanning a variety of genres, topics, and styles. I've wrangled them into some groupings below. (Find my full review of each book at the linked monthly reading recap.)

I didn't expect my top picks to include so many mystery and crime stories, since I don't think of myself as gravitating toward those genres. None of these are exactly prototypical examples, and that's consistent with my attraction to stories that resist categorization, subvert formulas, and do multiple things well. HAPPINESS FALLS by Angie Kim (September) is a gripping, twisting mystery and also a portrait of a family in the midst of multiple crises. It starts as a missing person story, and then the mystery widens as the family members realize how much they don't know about each other, particularly the child who is unable to speak. In I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU by Rebecca Makkai (June), the characters use a true crime podcast to re-examine the case of a student murdered at their boarding school decades ago. As the investigation unfolds, former classmates grapple with the impact of the events, the role of memory and nostalgia, and the ethics of turning crime into entertainment. Both these mystery novels impressed me with how realistic the scenarios stayed even as the plots satisfyingly thickened.

The crime novels on my list offer a fascinating look inside the criminal world of a specific place and time. In AGE OF VICE by Deepti Kapoor (January), readers follow the central character from an impoverished childhood to a comfortable life serving a powerful, corrupt family in early 2000s Delhi. CROOK MANIFESTO by Colson Whitehead (August), the second book of a series, portrays the shady side of Harlem in the 1970s, featuring a cast of thieves, gangsters, and dirty cops. Both books bring their settings to life with the help of multiple character viewpoints and masterful prose.

Specificity of place and time is a common feature of many of my 2023 favorites. THE FRAUD by Zadie Smith (December) is the most firmly historical fiction, combining details of real historical people and events with wonderfully imagined characterizations. The story covers much of the 1800s, focusing especially on prominent London literary figures and a bizarre court case about a disputed inheritance (so it's a crime story as well!). In MOBILITY by Lydia Kiesling (August), we meet an American teenager in 1998 Azerbaijan and follow her into adulthood and around the world on a personal coming-of-age journey that also tracks the climate change narrative we're all a part of. ALL THIS COULD BE DIFFERENT by Sarah Thankam Mathews (April) doesn't hinge quite as much on setting, but the main character's life is shaped by graduating into the recession of the late 2000s. She finds a job in a city where she doesn't know anybody, and in the course of the layered novel, she fulfills her longing for friendship and love. Nuanced character dynamics are prominent in all three of these books, and really in all my favorites.

The novels I've discussed so far are grounded in reality. Now I'll turn to my favorites in the speculative genres, but even some of these draw heavily on real world places and times. I read two excellent horror novels that are also historical. LONE WOMEN by Victor LaValle (April) depicts solitary women homesteading in 1915 Montana, a landscape that's brutal and dangerous enough before the story's horror element emerges. How the women come together to survive frontier life is as much a part of the story as how they handle the mysterious contents of the main character's steamer trunk. Similarly, the threats faced by characters in THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS by Matt Ruff (March) are sometimes supernatural but just as often a consequence of being Black in 1957 America. (This is another second book in a series.)

Setting plays a big role in the delightfully original LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS by Ryka Aoki (April). Amid the Asian communities (and cuisines!) of San Gabriel Valley, a trans violin prodigy is taken in by a teacher who made a deal with a devil, the two befriend a family of extraterrestrials who run a donut shop, and joyful hijinks ensue. By contrast, time is the critical element in RECURSION by Blake Crouch (December). That's because it's a time travel thriller where characters jump between alternate timelines in a clever and intricate plot that made my brain hurt. It might seem a bit forced that I've grouped these two wildly different books together this way, but what they share is that both surprised me by how emotionally affecting I found them.

My final three picks leave the real world entirely, since they're all science fiction of the space opera variety. The distinctive protagonists of TRANSLATION STATE by Ann Leckie (June) come from different planets and cultures, but a search for a fugitive translator brings them together with repercussions that may affect diplomacy between all sentient species. In MERU by S.B. Divya (February), most humans are confined to Earth while their improved genetic descendants roam the stars without needing protection from the vacuum of space. When the human main character is permitted to explore a distant planet, she travels as a passenger inside the body of one of the post-human characters. The robot narrator of SYSTEM COLLAPSE by Martha Wells (November) hates spending time on planets and wishes its humans would finish up their mission and get off this particularly unpleasant one before even more goes wrong. The first of these wonderful novels is set in a larger fictional universe but can be read as a standalone, the second is the promising start of a new series, and the third is the latest installment of an ongoing series. All involve intricate and imaginative worldbuilding, exciting plots, and complex characters.

I've already started 2024 with some great reading, and I can't wait to read on!


Christopher Gronlund said...

I was a terrible reader in 2023. Lots of starts and stops, and only a handful of books read. 2024 is off to a good start, and I definitely plan to read some things you read in 2023!

Lisa Eckstein said...

I know you spent tons of time on writing (and related creativity) last year, and that can make it hard to find time for reading as well. But here's hoping you fit in some good books this year!

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