IMO Good reading experiences are better than “best books”. Part one of two
I read approximately 130 books last year. That’s not a brag, it’s why you’re here, right? I zoom through the pages because it’s what I do, then I tell you enough so you’ll know if they’re worth your time and $$ and hopefully we’re BOTH happy.
I’ve recommended a LOT of good stuff this past year. But what follows is essentially a partial list of my faves. The 15 books that brought me the most reading joy in the first half of 2023 (the next 15, from later in the year, are coming next week).
These are not the BEST books. They’re the books that gave me, in that moment, the best reading experience. Which I think is different? Like, literary-wise maybe the “best” book I read last year was also the one I finished with my eyes half shut and wailing to my friend I was reading it with about how sad and awful it was making us feel. (How High We Go In the Dark, trigger warning for literally everything and honestly probably just don’t even though as a book it’s very very good it’s also bleak and hopeless and I am still recovering.)
Nope, these are just my personal stars. I had fun in their pages, I put them down satisfied. So here they are with a highly idiosyncratic sentence about what I remember about why I liked them. A few are even what the Bookriot crew calls “Swiss Army Recs”, which means if you like reading books, even if you don’t read a ton, I recommend this one even if you don’t read in this genre specifically, and I flagged those as SAR bc they make good gifts for anyone, any time.
If you loved any of these—and if any of them make you think of a book you also read and loved and therefore I would probably like, hit reply and tell me so!
Black Cake, Charmaine Wilkerson Fed my desire for books that take me into a life I can’t experience AND was a page-turning, relatable family saga. SAR. ALso, I gave it to my mom.
Small World, Laura Zigman This had so much that I’d never been given in a book before. A family/sisters experience that was totally different. Older protagonists who were still just ordinary. Secondary characters who made me SO MAD and then ultimately just had to be dealt with bc life is like that. Also it’s delightfully wintry without being one bit Christmas and very, very Boston.
Best of Friends, Kamila Shamsie So much of the female experience is harder just because we’re women, and so many books that want to talk about that go all the way to the hardest thing, with terrible things happening to girls, especially in non-Western/WEIRD cultures. This is a fascinating growing-up experience in Pakistan where the worst doesn’t happen. And yet, and yet. I liked this so much more than I thought I would.
The Dog of the North, Elizabeth McKenzie An unlikely, ridiculous, manic pixie dream probably spectrum girl road trip that just doesn’t stop. Part of me kept wondering why I was still reading something so very strange but the voice was so engaging I couldn’t put it down.
Back in a Spell, Lana Harper One of a series of super-fun very very witchy often queer highly fantastical stories about a small magical town that just keep getting better and better, along with more and more true fantasy (the OG romantasy, maybe?) in which women with unrelatable powers and geneology have very very relatable problems with exactly that.
Georgie All Along, Kate Clayborn I think what really got me about this is that everyone wanted the MC to get her act together and achieve traditional big things, but what she really wanted and what was right for her was a more blue collar (for lack of a better word) genuinely simpler life.
The Stepsisters, Susan Mallery We see one stepsister through the other’s eyes—and then gradually learn that she’s totally wrong. This is old school, grabby page-turner-y not afraid of melodrama stuff (and before you hold your nose, that’s exactly what Elin Hildebrandt and Liane Moriarty are too). Really broke me out of a reading slump just by laying it all on.
The Bandit Queens, Parini Shroff Look, I don’t actually want to read only books set in the U.S. and England in which people look exactly like me. But I ALSO want to read fun page turners that aren’t trying to whomp me over the head with all the ways my previous reading life has been limited and sheltered both by capital-P publishing and by my own shortcomings. This is… what those Alexander McCall Smith books with the Botswana woman heroine could be if they were actually written by someone from within that world? (He grew up there. Those are fine. They’re fun! BUT THIS IS BETTER.) SAR
Murder Your Employer, Rupert Holmes If Hogwarts were a school to teach people how to murder people who deserve to be murdered. SAR
Kamila Knows Best, Farah Heron Jane Austen’s Emma (or maybe think Clueless), but set in the Canadian South Asian community, where many of the limits and strictures Austen dealt with still have real world impact, and also very fun with lots of Bollywood references.
The Sweet Spot, Amy Poeppel Ok, here’s the note I took on this one: “The PERFECT multi-POV book. Every character’s anger (with each other) was all so justified and so satisfying. Every voice was so distinct (and yet sort of omniscient from-the-outside 3rd person kinda close) that you NEVER wondered whose chapter it was.Touches of slapstick, laugh out loud funny, people saying things you wish you could say.
The Writing Retreat, Julia Bartz The lunatic drama of Mexican Gothic meets Nine Perfect Strangers, but set today and with writers behaving very badly. A wild ride.
The Happy Life of Isadora Bentley, Courtney Walsh I love a heroine whose insistence of a perfectly orderly, clean, complication-free life is just not gonna stand.
Yellowface, R. F. Kuang You’ve already heard about this one. I quite liked it.
The True Love Experiment, Christina Lauren The ur-perfect romance, behind-the-scenes reality TV which I adore, a GOLD premise (romance author is presented with every man-trope she’s every written in a very popular version of The Bachelor but falls for the producer). If you like rom-coms at all, this is for you.
WOW THAT IS A LOT. Tell me if you grab one and what you thought!!