My best books of 2023
Here are the best books I read in 2023, both old and new.
The Aosawa Murders is a chilling Japanese story about an entire family being poisoned during a birthday. There is only one survivor—a young blind daughter. A remarkably well constructed, haunting mystery.
Trust by Hernan Diaz was outstanding. It’s about the world’s richest man, and how he got there. But it’s also a beautiful literary puzzle that is a profound meditation on success and fame, myth and fable—and husbands and wives.
Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller defies description. Postmodern? Post-postmodern? Or just unique? You, the reader, are in the story from the beginning with the author, reading the first gripping chapter. But chapter two seems to be from a different book altogether, as does the next one. And so it continues, a confounding, weird, wonderful construct that tells us all about storytelling, with much hilarity. Literature lovers, line up!
Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street is a knockout. Narrated by Ted, his daughter, and their cat! That’s right, the cat. It’s highly entertaining, but it’s not a comedy—it’s about child abuse and serial killers, and Ted is a suspect in a missing-girl case. A fourth narrator shows up, seeking revenge, and everything goes crazy. Very adroitly put together.
I waited for Ayobami Adebayo’s second book with bated breath, and was delighted. A Spell of Good Things is about two very different Nigerian families whose fates connect through politics, tragically. Superb writing, but I was left seared by the story and fearful for our societies.
If you’ve been following my annual lists, you know that Patrick Modiano features pretty much every year. The Nobel winner is the only writer I know who can write the same book repeatedly—and keep his fans gripped every damn time. Invisible Ink is right up there with his best. As always, it’s short, moody, allusive, and haunting.
The Maid by debut writer Nita Prose is great fun. It’s about Molly from Housekeeping, who works in a luxury hotel. Molly is different, though: she struggles with social skills and can’t read people well. But she is obsessive about cleanliness and etiquette, and so she makes an exemplary maid. Then she finds a dead body in one of the suites and becomes a suspect. A delightful beach read.
Elena Ferrante is literary royalty, and I picked up one of her earlier, shorter works, The Lost Daughter. A divorced academic whose daughters have left home takes a solitary beach holiday, and finds herself observing a young mother and her little girl—and the girl’s doll. When a strange incident occurs, revelations about the academic’s own past life and motherhood come tumbling out. A powerful piece of truth-telling about mothers and daughters.
Adam Hamdy’s The Other Side of Night was my speculative fiction pick. It was called a “headspinner”—and it really is. Mysterious deaths bind the cast together, and a mind-boggling twist ties up the strange occurrences. It’s bestselling fiction, but also compassionate and wise.
In Love by Amy Bloom is a memoir about her husband’s suicide—which she assisted. A bracing and necessary read about end-of-life decisions, and how to face them with courage and dignity.
The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga stayed with me a long time after putting it down. Does trauma exist? Are all problems relationship problems? Don’t interfere in other people’s lives? Do you have the courage to be disliked? The questions are right in your face, but the answers are thought-provoking and invite great reflection.
And lastly, an excellent counter-history from Howard French. Born in Blackness is about Africans, “revealing the central, yet intentionally obliterated role of Africa in the creation of modernity.” Scathing, comprehensive, and magisterial. I was re-educated about a crucial period and people in world history.
That’s the best of last year for me. Those were are my preferences and my choices; your tastes may be very different. We can all learn about better books from one another, so perhaps this list will get you reading.