2023 was another great year for reading for me – a total of 175 books read which is the most that I have ever read as an adult! It was impossible for me to pick just 10 favourite reads so I have settled on 15 favourite books of 2023 (and there were still a couple of others that were very difficult to cut)!
I read almost exclusively fiction across a number of genres and enjoy posting my ratings/reviews on Goodreads and sharing my thoughts about each book on Instagram. If you follow me on either of those platforms then you might already have an idea which books I rated highly at the time of reading but here’s the final list.
Happy reading and please let me know what your top reads were in 2023 and what you’re looking forward to reading in 2024!
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1. The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese
Setting: Kerala, India
I read a digital advance review copy of The Covenant of Water in February 2023 long before it became a bestselling Oprah Book Club pick and knew it would be one of my favourite books of the year. At 700+ pages, it is a commitment but it’s an absorbing epic and I loved every page of the heartwarming story!
Abraham Verghese’s sweeping novel follows three generations of a family in a small Christian community in Kerala, India beginning in 1900 when a 12 year-old girl is married to a man many years older than her and goes to live with him and his son on the family estate. Later known as Big Ammachi, she discovers that her husband and his extended family are plagued by a mysterious condition that causes an aversion to water and she is determined to unravel the mystery to spare her children and grandchildren.
This is a beautiful story of family, love and loss that also encompasses the history of South India and touches on issues relating to poverty, the caste system, religion, and women’s rights as well as a number of interesting medical issues. The lyrical prose is beautiful throughout but I especially enjoyed the evocative descriptions of the landscape of Kerala which brought the setting of the story to life for me.
Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for sending a digital ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
2. The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
Setting: Pottstown, Pennsylvania
The novel opens in 1972 with a prologue of sorts when construction workers discover a human skeleton at the bottom of an old well in a small town in Pennsylvania. After the opening chapter, the reader is taken back in time to the 1930s when a group of African Americans, Jews and other poor immigrants are living in a neighbourhood known as Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. When the state tries to institutionalize a 12 year-old orphaned deaf boy, a disparate group of community members comes together to save him.
This was truly a wonderful read! McBride is a masterful storyteller who takes his time setting up the world of the novel and letting the reader get lost in the details of the large cast of characters and backstories. The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is a novel about race and class in a changing America that acknowledges the negative while remaining hopeful and uplifting. The novel’s message is that love, compassion and community are what sustains us – that our purpose here on earth is to love, to form connections and to treat everyone with humanity.
3. The Postcard by Anne Berest
The Postcard is unlike any other book that I have read about World War II and the holocaust. Author Anne Berest describes her work as “un roman vrai” (a true novel) as it’s the true story of her family’s history but written like a novel with some fictionalized elements.
In 2003 an anonymous postcard is delivered to Anne’s mother with the names of Anne’s grandmother Myriam’s parents and siblings who were killed at Auschwitz listed on it. No more thought is given to the postcard until 2018 when Anne becomes determined to find out who sent it following an antisemitic incident at her daughter’s school. The narrative weaves back and forth between the present and the past telling the story of the Rabinovich family’s history and also the story of how Anne and her mother pieced together that history while conducting their search to discover the origins of the postcard.
The Postcard is one family’s personal and deeply moving story of World War II and the Holocaust as well as the story of a woman discovering her family’s history and what it means to be Jewish. With the current rise of antisemitism in North America and across Europe, The Postcard is a timely reminder of how important it is to continue telling these stories so that they aren’t forgotten.
Well-written, meticulously researched, emotional, gripping, and impossible to put down – a truly extraordinary and memorable book!
4. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Setting: Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
I have been meaning to read this award-winning book since its publication in 2020 but finally picked it up a few weeks ago. Hamnet is a fictionalized account of the death of William Shakespeare’s young son, Hamnet, in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1596. Told from the perspective of Shakespeare’s wife Agnes (also known as Anne), it is very much Agnes’ story as the narrative weaves back and forth in time between Agnes’ past and the time period when they are dealing with illness in the house.
Maggie O’Farrell’s novel is a beautifully-written story about motherhood, grief and loss and a plausible explanation of how the death of his young son affected Shakespeare’s work. I happen to love Shakespeare’s work but this is a great read regardless of how you feel about the Bard.
Several years ago, we visited Stratford-Upon-Avon and the various Shakespeare properties that are part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust so I loved that I could actually picture where this novel takes place. (Read about our visit here – A Fun Day Trip from London to Stratford-upon-Avon)
5. Rage the Night by Donna Morrissey
20 year-old Roan, raised by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell in the Northern Peninsula, believed that he was an orphan with no last name until a nun’s deathbed confession calls into question everything he thought he knew about himself. Despite Dr. Grenfell’s pleas, Roan heads out on a quest to find Ashur Genge who he believes is the one person who knows the truth relating to his birth.
Roan’s journey takes him across a bitterly cold and snowy landscape first by dog sled and then by train from the remote north to Deer Lake, on to St. John’s and then finally, along with Genge and his nephew, aboard the SS Newfoundland sealing boat heading out on the North Atlantic for the spring hunt.
Rage the Night is a gripping historical novel that tells the story of one young man’s search for a sense of identity in the context of the greatest marine disaster in Newfoundland history. Morrissey uses Roan’s story to bring to life this real event from Canadian history making the reader care deeply about these men and their desperate, heartbreaking struggle for survival. The characters in this novel are unforgettable and the story is spellbinding!
6. Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
Setting: Northern Michigan
New York Times Bestseller and Reese’s Book Club pick, Tom Lake is a quiet story with an incredible sense of place. Set in July 2020, Lara and Joe Nelson’s three adult daughters have been at home on their farm in northern Michigan since the start of the pandemic. To pass the time while picking cherries, Lara tells the story of the summer she dated a now-famous actor while they were both at Tom Lake in a summer theatre production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
Patchett’s prose is as beautiful as always and I was completely absorbed in this story of relationships (family, love, marriage) and storytelling. Lara is happy to have her daughters home despite the circumstances and is coming to the realization that she has everything she has ever wanted. Her telling of her story is a reflection on what matters and what doesn’t – the importance of appreciating life while living it and seeing the beauty in the ordinary.
7. The Last Lifeboat by Hazel Gaynor
Setting: England and the Atlantic Ocean
I was completely captivated by this World War II historical novel which takes place in 1940 and is based on a real event. The story is told from the perspective of two women – Lily Nichols is a mother who fears that she can’t keep her two children safe in London and makes the impossible decision to send them on an evacuation ship to Canada and Alice King is a teacher who is escorting the “seavacuee” children on their voyage.
A German U-Boat torpedoes the SS Carlisle which is transporting the children to Canada and there are few survivors with the rest presumed dead. One lifeboat, however, is left adrift in the storm-tossed Atlantic with its occupants struggling to survive and praying for rescue. Amongst these passengers is Alice King and a small group of her young charges.
I couldn’t put this book down and was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next – The Last Lifeboat is heartbreaking yet also uplifting, beautifully written and meticulously researched – one of the best historical novels that I have read in recent years!
8. The Adversary by Michael Crummey
A gritty historical novel set in a northern outpost of Newfoundland late in the 18th century, The Adversary opens with Abe Strapp, a vile drunk, arriving late to church to marry the young teenage daughter of another merchant in order to consolidate their businesses. The ceremony is interrupted by the Widow Caines – a manipulative act of sabotage which escalates a lifelong feud and inevitably leads to a violent, tragic conclusion.
This is a dark, thought-provoking novel about a remote community where the people suffer through pandemics, unforgiving weather, food shortages, invading pirates and other hardships. Surviving in Mockbeggar isn’t easy and the malevolence of the egotistical and power-hungry Strapp who is, for all intents and purposes, above the law makes life even harder. Crummey weaves a gripping story about this community and the two rival merchants – a tale of brutality, corruption, the abuse of power, misery and death.
9. The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters
Setting: Maine and Nova Scotia
A deeply moving debut novel about a Mi’kmaq family from Nova Scotia working as berry pickers in Maine in 1962 when the youngest of five children, 4 year-old Ruthie, goes missing. A desperate search ensues but no trace can be found and the local police can’t be bothered to help because the berry pickers are “transients”. The story is told over the next 50 years from the perspective of two characters – Joe, Ruthie’s brother who was 6 at the time and the last to see her before she disappeared and Norma, the only child of over-protective parents growing up in a small town in Maine.
The Berry Pickers is a beautiful novel about heartbreak and the lasting impact of trauma but also about family, hope and resilience. The characters are so well-written that I felt that I knew them and my heart broke for them. This is a personal story of one family’s hardship but it’s impossible to read without bringing to mind decades of injustice to indigenous peoples. A beautifully-crafted, emotional read – it’s a story that will stay with me for a long time and well worth reading!
10. Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton
Setting: New Zealand
A complex literary thriller set in a fictional New Zealand town, the novel opens with an earthquake and series of landslides that cut off access to Thorndike near Korowai National Park where the recently knighted Sir Owen Darvish and his wife, Jill, own a large piece of rural property. Mira, the idealistic de facto head of the Birnam Wood gardening collective, sees this as an opportunity to plant a garden on some of Sir Owen’s property and while scouting it has a chance encounter with American billionaire, Robert Lemoine, who tells her that he has bought the property to build a luxury underground bunker.
Lemoine offers substantial funding to Birnam Wood and Mira along with her best friend, Shelley, and the majority of the collective members see this as a great opportunity for the organization. Everyone that is except Tony Gallo, a former member and would-be investigative journalist, who thinks that the deal violates their core values and who is also determined to get to the bottom of what Lemoine is up to on the Darvish property in Thorndike.
Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton’s writing is witty and and the novel is brilliantly plotted touching on important issues of our time relating to the environment, contemporary politics, technology and capitalism while also considering more personal issues such as betrayal and the individual struggle to make moral choices.
Birnam Wood is a page-turner but at the same time it’s also a challenging read partly because it includes a fair bit of philosophical and political discussion as well as technical information but also because it’s 423 pages long and is divided into three sections without chapter breaks and many very long paragraphs. It’s worth the effort but won’t be for everyone. I was completely absorbed and couldn’t put it down – it’s a memorable read with a conclusion that’s worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy!
11. The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon
Setting: Maine, USA
The Frozen River is inspired by the life of Martha Ballard, a midwife/healer who lived for many years in Hallowell, Maine. The fictionalized story based on Martha’s diary entries takes place over the long, cold winter of 1789-90 and opens with the discovery of a body entombed in ice on the river. The man found frozen in the Kennebec is one of two men accused of rape and when Mistress Ballard is called to examine the body she concludes that he was hanged and then thrown into the river. The murder mystery, the rape trial and several additional sub-plots are intertwined over the winter and Martha Ballard and her diary tie it all together.
This is the third historical that I have read by Ariel Lawhon and each has been a captivating read – well-written and meticulously researched. The Frozen River is a gripping page turner which combines a murder mystery with a rape trial that highlights the implicit bias in the legal system of the time and it’s also a story about marriage and motherhood and the important role that this woman in her 50s played in the community as a midwife and a healer.
The Frozen River is inspired by real events and sticks closely to the historical record contained within those diary entries but also imagines a story that could have happened. By exercising that creative licence, the author brings Martha Ballard and the historical time period to life for readers in an unforgettable way.
12. To Die Beautiful by Buzzy Jackson
Setting: The Netherlands
A riveting historical novel based on the true story of Johanna (Hannie) Schaft who was a law student at university in Amsterdam in 1941 during the Nazi occupation of her country. As the situation in Amsterdam deteriorates for her two Jewish best friends, Hannie is driven to become an armed member of the Resistance in her hometown of Haarlem. Throughout the duration of the war, Hannie continues to put her life at risk as an assassin known to the Nazis as “the girl with the red hair” – so notorious that Hitler himself had her on his most wanted list.
This is such a powerful, heartrending story of courageous people who risked their lives to do the right thing. The historical research is impressive but the author has also crafted a thrilling page-turner that brings Hannie’s story and her fight against fascism to life as well as her unwavering bravery and her determination to “stay human”. The story is difficult to read at times because of the brutality and lack of humanity of the Nazis but important for us not to forget the suffering that was inflicted in The Netherlands and elsewhere.
Thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Group Dutton for sending a digital ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
13. Prophet Song by Paul Lynch
Prophet Song which won the 2023 Booker Prize was a last minute addition to this list as I received it as a Christmas gift and read it over the following two days. The novel takes place in an imagined Ireland that is descending into tyranny as the government systematically strips its citizens of rights. After her husband goes missing during a union protest in Dublin, Eilish desperately tries to keep her children and her elderly father safe amidst mounting chaos and violence while her sister who lives in Canada tries to convince her to flee the country.
This was an incredible read and I was completely absorbed in it. It’s dystopian which I don’t generally care for but doesn’t feel all that removed from current reality which makes it all the more terrifying. The plot is a page-turner as Eilish and her family fight for survival but the novel is also a reflection on the treatment of refugees not too subtly asking the reader to consider whether the plight of refugees is viewed differently if they are white Europeans fleeing war.
The style of the book doesn’t appeal to everyone as it’s written with long sections and no quotation marks to indicate dialogue but I thought it was an effective technique to underline the relentless nature of what was happening.
14. Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor
Buckle up because Age of Vice is a madcap and sometimes shocking ride through the underbelly of modern day India from the villages of Uttar Pradesh to New Delhi with a couple of side trips to Goa! The ambitious, sprawling (560 pages) crime thriller opens with a violent car accident that leaves five people dead on the sidewalk and then introduces three disparate characters – Sunny Wadia the son of a wealthy, powerful man; Ajay born into poverty and now an employee of the Wadia family; and Neda a young investigative journalist.
As the narrative weaves back and forward through time, we learn about each of their back stories, how their lives are intertwined, how the accident happened and its aftermath. It’s a gripping story of ruthless power, political and moral corruption and organized crime in modern India – India’s ‘age of vice’. The ending is explosive yet leaves a fair bit unresolved as this is apparently the first book in a planned trilogy – I can’t wait to read what comes next!
15. The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng
The House of Doors begins and ends on a farm in South Africa in 1947 but most of it takes place in Malaysia more than 25 years earlier. The story opens with Lesley Hamlyn receiving a package containing a book by famous author W. Somerset Maugham which prompts her to recall a time in 1921 when Maugham and his secretary visited her and her late husband, Robert, for 2 weeks at their home on the Straits Settlement of Penang.
Maugham has been travelling in Asia and is feeling pressured to write several stories suitable for publication to alleviate his financial problems. During that visit, Maugham learns that Lesley was close to Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and probes for information as he suspects the two had an affair – a story which might make good fiction. Lesley decides to share a story about her life with Maugham that she has never told anyone else – a story that takes place 11 years earlier about a man she fell in love with and the murder trial of an Englishwoman in Kuala Lumpur.
Longlisted for the Booker Prize, The House of Doors is a beautifully-written, atmospheric historic novel that transports readers to the colonial world of Penang. The novel, based on real events, is a delicious blend of fact and fiction that touches on many issues including colonialism, adultery, betrayal, and sexuality. A fascinating look at human relationships, a compelling plot, and memorable characters – I was lost in the story and the beautiful prose and couldn’t put it down.
Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury USA for sending a digital ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
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