Better late than never! Here’s my list of the best fiction and non-fiction I read in 2023, regardless of when it was originally published.
Honorable Mention: The Stranger (1942), by Albert Camus
I have this as an Honorable Mention because I re-read it this year, and my “Best Books” lists are only for books I’ve read for the first time. This was one of two books I read in high school that really transformed my idea of storytelling. (Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ was the other.) Up until that point, I’d only enjoyed books by Stephen King, Michael Crichton, etc. Then I read this and was blown away. I just re-read it again to see if I still enjoyed it as much as I remembered, and it still hits as hard now as it did then.
- Love in the present Tense (2006), by Catherine Ryan Hyde
I’d never heard of this book or read anything by its author, but decided to do so after a GoodReads friend highly recommended it. The first 20-30 pages felt disjointed and unfocused, which didn’t inspire much confidence. However, the next chapter was better and the next chapter after that even better. By the time I was half the way done, I was fully invested. By the time the story ended I was in complete agreement that the book was excellent.
- Ideal (1934), by Ayn Rand
This was great. I’d never heard of this story of Rand’s before but I loved the way the author used a sequence of varied characters to execute the theme that man is naturally flawed. The only downside was the introduction, written by Leonard Peikoff (whose only claim to fame was being friends with Rand and has used that endlessly to try and make a career for himself), but that can be ignored.
- Dark Matter (2016), by Blake Crouch
2023 marks the year I first read Blake Crouch, and there’s no looking back. This was excellent, and I can already say I’ll read everything else he writes. He has managed to tap into exactly the same kind of science-based, what-if science fiction that made Michael Crichton’s early books (e.g., Sphere, Congo, etc.) so enthralling.
- About Grace (2004), Anthony Doerr
After reading and loving Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, I decided to read anything else he’s written. Cloud Cuckoo Land got rave reviews and a lot of acclaim but I didn’t connect with it the way I’d hoped. ‘About Grace’ is the exact opposite. It fell by the wayside and has a drastically lower rating than his other novels, but I was immediately drawn into the story and I can’t think of another book I’ve read in the last few years where I was constantly thinking about the book when I wasn’t reading it and was compelled to keep reading page after page so I could find out what ultimately happens. Granted, there are a couple parts that felt slow and could have been edited down, but they are few and far between. For the most part, this is a completely engrossing tale that kept me captivated. Highest recommendation for anyone who enjoyed Doerr’s other books.
- Normal People (2018), by Sally Rooney
This was absolutely excellent. Rooney does two things perfectly throughout:
1) The entire story relies on things left unsaid or miscommunication between the two main characters, and at every instance it never feels forced or contrived to prolong the story. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book or watched a movie in which the plot relies on a single scene in which miscommunication is required to drive the rest of the plot and it’s done so poorly that I groan. As a result, my suspension of disbelief is ruined. In contrast, Rooney’s entire story is one miscommunication after another and she executes each one masterfully.
2) She presents ordinary people in ordinary situations in a way that is truly fascinating and represents the best of ‘literary’ fiction. The only conflict in the story is “man vs himself”, there is no great crime or intrigue other than how these two characters relate to each other in normal life, and yet it’s a gripping roller-coaster that I wish more acclaimed literary authors could match.
On a side note, the limited made-for-TV series of this book, available on Hulu, is one of the two best book adaptations I’ve seen in the past couple years. (HBO’s adaptation of “Station Eleven” is the other.) Every part of the show was excellent, so if you read the book and like it make sure you also watch the show.
- Recursion (2019), by Blake Crouch
I almost always reserve 5-star ratings for books that made me feel like I learned some important life lesson or insight. The only other action-based book I can think of that I’ve ever given 5 stars was ‘Ready Player One,’ but Crouch deserves it here as well. ‘Recursion’ is great from start to finish and reminds me of Michael Crichton at his very, very best. This may be the best pure science fiction I’ve ever read.
- What If?: The World’s Foremost Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (1999), edited by Robert Cowley
Parts of this were fascinating and parts were frustrating, but in the end the positives outweigh the negatives. The positives are that there are a wide range of ideas posed by some great historians and some of the ideas put forth are really intriguing and get you thinking about history in a different way.
The one really big negative is the lack of editing and consistency. Cowley needed a real editor to clean this up. Some essays are poorly written and others are very polished. Some present the historical context / setup and then present the “what-if” scenario in the interrogative (“but what would have happened if…” while other essays present the “what-if” scenario as if it’s what actually happened, without any switchover or context, which leads to confusion.
Still worth reading though, especially if you’re at all intrigued by how history might have unfolded if key events had played out differently.
- Between Them (2017), by Richard Ford
If you aren’t a fan of the author, this is probably isn’t a 5-star read. But if you adore Ford’s writing, as I do, it is an easy 5-stars. Outside of essays, this is the first nonfiction he’s written, and in reading it you gain insight into the author’s background, upbringing, and personality. With many authors, when you read their novels you begin to think you know them, but you can never really be sure how much of their fiction is based on their own outlook and who they are versus it being fiction. Books like this allow you to see the author for who he/she really is. In the process, you also read a lovely memoir of both of his parents.
- Zeitoun (2009), by Dave Eggers
The first half of this, dealing to the lead up to Katrina, is worthy of 4 stars. The second half, with what happens following the storm, is worthy of 5 stars (and is also incredibly maddening). This is the fourth book by Eggers that I’ve read and while the others were good, they were also frustrating because of how needlessly over-written parts were, with each being better if they had 50-100 pages edited out. This was the first book I’ve read of his that wasn’t over-written.
As for the story itself, it’s incredibly discouraging that during a disaster, when people need to come together the most, what ensued instead were a lot of people trying to take the humanity away from everyone else. I can’t think of many things more depressing than that.
- Type Talk: The 16 Personality Types That Determine How We Live, Love, and Work (1988), by Otto Kroeger and Janet M. Thuesen
I’ve read a lot of books on personality types but this is the best of all of them. If you want to truly understand how people operate, based on various types of high-level personalities, this is the book for you.
- The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), by Naomi Klein
Even when I was reading it I knew it would be my #1 nonfiction read of the year. Klein does a great job of illustrating the theory and history of governments using disasters to pass economic reform that their populations wouldn’t accept during normal circumstances.
If you want to understand the system that enables this type of predatory system, start with Hudson’s Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of U.S. World Dominance and then read Klein’s book to understand how that system is employed to the benefit of politicians and corporations at the expense of everyone else.
On a side note, the real loser here is the economist Milton Friedman. This book presents hundreds of pages of studies showing how his policies resulted in each country’s economy completely failing and collapsing whenever his theories were enacted.