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Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Here are my favorite novels for 2023, with links to my reviews!

Here are my favorite 23 novels from 2023:   

Count The Ways is an extraordinarily moving, heartfelt, epic novel about a woman's life, loves, and losses as a mother of three. One of my favorite novels of all time -- and a sequel is coming this year!

Cara Romero is one of the greatest characters of all time, and I highly recommend you get to know her via the audiobook version of this fantastic novel, as whoever does her voice does it with humor and pathos in a way that avoids mockery. So, so good!

I listened to the audiobook version of this gorgeous family novel, which is magnificently read by Meryl Streep, who starts off telling a story about the one who got away, but winds up telling us about the more meaningful loves that endure and sustain us.

This was my first Dennis Lehane book, but it certainly won't be my last. It's a mob story with a little bit more violence than I like, but it's also a mother's story about figuring out what matters and fighting to protect your children. I especially recommend this as an audiobook for the pitch-perfect Boston accents, but it's an extraordinary novel however you consume it.

I loved this book! Both a historical novel and a critique of racism in the rarified halls of classical music, this is also a suspenseful, gripping mystery that will keep you turning the pages.

What a sensational novel-- so funny and delightful and feminist, with a main character I adored who is raising a spunky, spirited daughter I loved even more.

This is somehow the third, five-star book I read this year about children of WWII taken from their homes and placed with other families (the first two being The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah and Beyond That, The Sea, also reviewed here), but it's a tribute to the author that everything about her novel felt fresh, immediate, and deeply moving. This book was the only one of the three told from the Jewish children's perspective, and it's powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking. 

Whoo, what a wild ride! I love that this book drew me in by seeming to be historical fiction about a black woman laying claim to territory in the West at a time when doing so was one of the few paths allowed to Black women trying to achieve financial independence. And THEN the novel turns out to be a horror story rich with metaphors about love and family acceptance. I don't love horror as a genre, but this was a great book.

Absolutely brilliant, heart-wrenching novel about a Black, enslaved jockey captured in an oil painting that becomes an object of scholarship and study in the 21st century. The novel moves back and forth in time between then and now, when a black academic finds himself reluctantly falling for a white woman who's been studying this painting. The obvious and subtle ways racism constricts Black lives runs like a poison thread through both stories, and the novel's operatic climax haunts me still, six months after I finished the book. The writing is extraordinary; Brooks is a genius. 

I can't believe I used to think I didn't like historical fiction! (Anyone else who feels that way should read some Kristin Hannah.) Beyond that, The Sea is a lovely, moving story about a London girl sent to live with an American family to protect her from the bombs falling during WWII. This engrossing novel explores how the complicated feelings this raises for everyone affects the rest of all their lives. 

This is a late-bloomer, coming-of-age story in which Maddy, raised in London by Ghanaian parents, must learn to be less mature and responsible to find her own voice. I love how particular and yet universal Maddy's story is. Obviously I am not a young, Black, English woman struggling to get a foothold in my career, dealing with a disabled father, dating for the first time--yet I thoroughly related to Maddy's guilt, anxiety, inner critical voice, work frustrations, and sexual yearnings--while at the same time feeling grateful I was being given a window into a life so different from my own. Maddy is a vulnerable human you cannot help but root for--a bit like Bridget Jones but with Google and deeper thoughts.

The smartest romance I've ever read. Razor sharp in its wittiness, deeply affecting in its portrayal of the protagonist, a bit biting in its revelations about celebrity culture. I couldn't believe the writer wasn't a former comedy writer for SNL; she nails the backstage humor of working on a show like that hilariously well. When you need something fun, pick this book up. 

I love speculative fiction, and this is a great showcase of why.  A mother witnesses something horrible happen to her only child -- and then, miraculously, wakes up the next day and discovers it's the day before, and the horrible thing hasn't happened yet. I loved following this character back in time, and so will you.

Every woman who has (or ever will have) turned 30 will laugh, cry and feel more self-compassion after reading this novel, which I cannot recommend highly enough. I gave this as a gift to several young women in my life, and please let my rave review encourage you to gift this to yourself.

This is an incredible novel about an almost unbelievable (but tragically true) horror story. In New York, The Willowbrook State School, meant to provide education and enrichment to children with developmental disabilities, instead became an overcrowded hellscape of abuse and terror. This novel imagines twin sisters, one of whom is committed to the "school," and the other of whom is mistaken for her sister when she tries to find her there. I would have found this novel gripping and deeply disturbing even if my younger sister hadn't died in Willowbrook, but knowing how true-to-life this book was broke my heart. The story is fast-paced and gripping, too. 

What starts as a humorous romance turns out to be a fantastic, complex story that will give you an education about the history of Puerto Rico. The central character is a high-end wedding planner with (of course) no interest in getting married herself. Her gay brother is a politician being blackmailed into voting against his conscience. Their addict father is dead, and their political activist mother ran away when they were young. These main characters are joined by many entertaining side characters in an  ambitious novel that is so entertaining, you may not even realize you are being educated about the U.S. role in Puerto Rico's colonization as you read it. 

This is a beautiful novel about women sent to a Catholic home for unwed mothers and forced to sign away their babies in the early 1960s. This book deserves a wide readership, but I think the not-great title and cover art might have doomed it. The story tackles lots of hard issues (racism, sexual assault) while telling an engaging, heart-wrenching story involving richly drawn, authentic characters. Please read it!

This is a multi-layered family story about a wealthy man who makes a terrible mistake in his youth, which convinces him he never deserves love or happiness, and the hapless woman who tries to emotionally rescue him. This doomed couple have triplets, and their engaging story is told by a mystery narrator whose relationship to everyone is revealed in the book's final third. I found the novel nuanced and haunting and fantastically well-written.

This dystopian novel is set in a horrifying but all too realistic near-future when anti-Asian sentiment and an economic crisis has left society in chaos and allowed for the formation of a police state. A "patriotic" bill strips citizens of many rights and allows for children to be removed from parents considered "anti-American." Our protagonist is an Asian-American mom labeled a subversive when one of her poems is used in a protest. She runs away to avoid her child being taken--and this lyrical, fairy-tale-like novel begins several years later when her son tries to find her. I found the whole book terrifying and the ending deeply moving.

We are all lucky this book found its way to print. This is a first-hand account of life inside Angola Prison told from the perspective of a young inmate sentenced to life there. How he finds meaning in a life behind bars, how any of the men there do, is a story worth hearing. I recommend the audiobook, as reading the Black dialect in print makes for a slow read, but the voices will move and transport you.

OMG, if this novel doesn't turn you on, see a doctor. A divorced 40-something mom takes her teen daughter and her daughter's friends to see a boy band, and one of the boys in the band falls hard for the mom, a slim, youthful-looking art-gallery owner. Of course she resists him; she cannot have an affair with a 20-year-old! But this 20 yo is unbelievably mature and smooth and HOT and he slowly, so deliciously slowly, wins her over. The book is full of  exquisite sex scenes that revolve entirely around the woman's pleasure. The whole book is one long, languorous, yearning buildup. Five throbbing stars! 

What a unique, sweet, touching, intelligent book. The main character (the one who helps connect all the others) is an octopus imprisoned in an aquarium. The novel is full of quirky small-town characters who all long for or show love in unusual ways, and by novel's end, you will be rooting for all of them to find it.

Some books deserve more than five stars, and this book is one of them. It's a rarity to have a novelist who can weave together language that reads like poetry *and* write a compelling story *and* create characters in whom the reader feels deeply invested *and* write a book so damned good you never want it to end (yet also so good you can't stop turning the pages). This novel is all those things. Do not let its length deter you.

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