Friday, December 8th, 2023

Top Five Books of 2023

2023 is almost over, and that means it’s time for LibraryThing staff to share our Top Five Books of the Year. You can see past years’ lists HERE.

We’re always interested in what our members are reading and enjoying, so we invite you to add your favorite books read in 2023 to our December List of the Month, and to join the discussion over in Talk

>> List: Top Five Books of 2023

Note: This is about what you read in 2023, not just books published in 2023.

Without further ado, here are our staff favorites!



cover image for Babel cover image for Glassworks cover image for Hello Beautiful cover image for Happiness Falls cover image for I Have Some Questions for You

Babel, or, The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang. Okay so I haven’t even finished this, but this post will be live by the time I do, and I know it belongs at the top of my top five. Victorian England. Oxford. Magic. Empire and colonialism. Language and translation. It is beautiful and brilliant.

Glassworks by Olivia Wolfgang-Smith. Four generations of messy humans connected in a variety of ways, each failing to understand those who came before them. Gorgeous prose.

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano. Do you like to be emotionally gutted by words? I do. Read this.

Happiness Falls by Angie Kim. Is it a mystery? A literary family drama? An exploration into language and cognition and philosophy? D, all of the above?

I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai. An interesting and unexpected take on a mystery/thriller.

I read a lot of really great books this year, so I want to also give honorable mentions to these (Pick 5, you said? Is this cheating? I don’t care!): Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, Congratulations, The Best Is Over! by R. Eric Thomas, The Fragile Threads of Power by V.E. Schwab, The Stolen Coast by Dwyer Murphy, Yellowface by R.F. Kuang, Vigil Harbor by Julia Glass, Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen, Hang the Moon by Jeannette Walls, Sam by Allegra Goodman, and They’re Going to Love You by Meg Howrey.


cover image for Exhalation cover image for Why We Did It cover image for Romney: A Reckoning cover image for The Alignment Problem cover image for Sid Meier's Memoir

Exhalation by Ted Chiang. Ted Chiang is that rare coming-together of a fine writer, a fine storyteller and someone who invents and then works through legitimately interesting science-fiction ideas. I loved his Stories of Your Life and Others, which included the story which became the movie Arrival. The stories in Exhalation are of the same quality. I particularly enjoyed The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, which melds time travel and the narrative conventions of the Arabian Nights, and Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, which imagines limited communication between branches of a many-worlds universe.

Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell by Tim Miller and Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins. Why We Did It and Romney: A Reckoning both deal with the descent of the Republican party from what seemed a “normal” center-right party to the moral, ideological and policy train-wreck-dumpster-fire of the present day. How did it happen? How did so many normal politicians and staff go along with it? Who ignored the rot that turned into Trumpism and why? Who’s responsible? And what, if anything, can be done about it? Why We Did It is the personal and political memoir of a Republican operative—a gay man who became a “hitman for homophobes”—but finally left, disgusted. Romney: A Reckoning is a more straightforward political biography, reaching back to Romney’s early days, but focused on the last few years. It answers the question how one of the most ideologically “flexible” Republicans became an inflexible opponent of Trump and everything he did to the GOP. Romney gave Cobbins free reign over his emails and personal journals, and as many interviews as he wanted, and the anecdotes and quotes he came back with are solid gold.

The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values by Brian Christian. I read a ton about AI this year, especially the problems with it. The Alignment Problem is by far the best, explaining the technologies better and deeper than the others, and going into the problems without being hyperbolic or alarmist. The whole OpenAI debacle sent me to reread Cade Metz’ Genius Makers: The Mavericks Who Brought AI to Google, Facebook, and the World, which remains the best narrative of the deep-learning book, until Metz writes the story of OpenAI.

Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games by Sid Meier. I love well-done biographies of businesses, such as Steven Levy’s Facebook: The Inside Story, In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives or Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything. This year I also read Jason Schreier’s excellent Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made, which recounts the stories of key games and the companies that made them. Sid Meier’s book is like those, but told from the perspective of the amiable, somewhat doofus-y programmer who made them. Also, the Sid Meier games are basically the games of my childhood. I played most of them, and have (deep in my brain) nuggets of trivia only Meier’s book could have found for me again. Not a book for everyone, but a book for me.

Honorable mention goes to: The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter by Joseph Henrich. Henrich makes a compelling case that the key human capacity is our capacity to learn. It really belongs in my top five, but I didn’t have much interesting to say about it.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells. I enjoyed this first of the Murderbot Diaries. Wells took an interesting idea and a compelling, original narrator and wrote a fine tale. I wish it were longer and I won’t forget it. I even started the second, and then I asked myself “Do I really want seven more helpings of this?” I did not. This says more about me and my dislike of series, franchises, reboots and other episodic and immortal intellectual properties than it does about the book.


cover image for I Have Some Questions for You

Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll. This fictionalized account of women who encountered Ted Bundy and the aftermath of their encounters, was so much more than I expected from Knoll. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the true crime fascination our society has and this novel brilliantly focuses on the victims rather than the perpetrator.

A Heart That Works by Rob Delaney. I didn’t think anything would make me cry more/harder than When Breath Becomes Air and, well, I was wrong. Delaney’s memoir of the loss of his two year-old son is devastating. But it’s also beautiful, and funny, and hopeful.

You Could Make This Place Beautiful: A Memoir by Maggie Smith. Is there anything Maggie Smith can’t make beautiful? This is a gorgeous memoir on divorce and rebuilding.

My Last Innocent Year by Daisy Alpert Florin. I devoured this book! This is some of the best coming-of-age writing I’ve ever read, but it’s by no means a commonplace story.

I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai. What Abby said. This certainly wasn’t what I was expecting, and I’m definitely not mad about it.


Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. This book was so much fun to read. The kind of book that you simultaneously want to read as fast as possible and read slowly so it never ends!

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. I love a great, long book. Despite a lot of this book being about war, which is usually not my favorite thing, Stephenson’s prose made it a joy to read!

Fairy Tale by Stephen King. I love my Stephen King books. A Stephen King book about a boy and his dog on an adventure is something I cannot resist.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. So many things in this book were familiar to me, having grown up in the 80s/90s and enjoying video games and online role-playing games. It’s always fun to read a book where you can relate to the experiences of the characters.

The Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen. One of my daughter’s SantaThing books from 2022, this picture book is so much fun. It has great rhythm, beautiful artwork, and even a page with hidden animals that my daughter always loves to look at!


The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub. It’s been many years since my last Stephen King read, but it was like riding a bike: a hero, a journey with scary thrills, and a happy ending. I hear they’re making a series out of this—produced by the Duffer Brothers (that’s right, Stranger Things)—and cannot wait to see it.

How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community by Mia Birdsong. A thoughtful and intentional exploration of the modern ways we (in America) build and maintain community, and how some groups in particular are laying foundations. Mia’s storytelling made me reflect about how much awesome, transformative value real community can hold through the most challenging of times. I consider this a strong read for the average American, as modern families embark on the rising challenges of everyday life.

Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese. If you’ve ever heard of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, this is the fictional story of the woman behind the main character of that book, Hester Prynne. Woven into the fabric of 19th-century Salem, Massachusetts stands Isobel Gamble, a talented seamstress and embroiderer from Scotland, looking to make a life for herself in America. She arrives in Salem about 125 years after the Witch Trials, and is forced to consider her own lineage as she walks the tightrope of status and reputation in Salem society. Isobel goes through many trials and tribulations as she seeks to define love, freedom, and strength: many of those qualities that, if bared too much, garnered a woman to be labeled as a witch herself. I loved the depth of character and history in this tale. Will definitely look out for more of Albanese’s work.

Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains by Kerri Arsenault. Everything is poisoned, paper mills are toxic waste factories, the government is lying (either outright or by omission) to us. Some people like reading tragic fiction, I apparently gravitate towards the real thing. I found this to be a depressing but necessary read, especially being a Mainer. Now please excuse me while I go and Google dioxin…

Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder. My annual nod to my son Finn’s collection this year. This is a great book for parents of curious young minds looking to supplement an honest exploration of all the different types of bodies that exist, and how each one has its own special gift.


Below the Root by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, illustrated by Alton Raible The first book in Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s classic Green Sky Trilogy, originally published in 1975, Below the Root is an immensely engaging and deeply moving work of fantasy/science fiction for young readers, one which explores the legacy of violence in a future society that has done everything it can to rid itself of this curse. I love pretty much everything about the book, from the world building to the vocabulary and the way it is introduced, the emotional depth of the characters to the story itself. As if all of this weren’t enough, this book is also greatly improved by the gorgeous artwork of illustrator Alton Raible. Although written in the 1970s, and a product of its time in many ways, in other ways the story here feels oddly current, particularly when it comes to the way in which the goal of avoiding or mitigating harm is used as an excuse for suppression. To offer such wonderful storytelling, and to have such powerful social and intellectual relevance, almost fifty years after its publication, speaks to this book’s staying power, and to its brilliance.

Anna Witch by Madeleine Edmondson, illustrated by William Pène du Bois. From beginning to end, I found Anna Witch a positive delight. It was so lovely, in both storytelling and illustration, that I felt I needed to own a copy of my own, and have now added it to my personal library. So many of the little details here, from the physical characteristics of witches in author Madeleine Edmondson’s world to the fact that they always use names that are palindromes, added to my reading enjoyment. The story itself was also engaging, addressing a number of common childhood themes—young people learning at their own pace, children both needing their parents and needing distance from them—in a magical way. The artwork from Newbery medalist and two-time Caldecott honoree William Pène du Bois was every bit as appealing as the story, capturing both the magical charm of the story and characters, and the emotional pitch of each scene.

The Black Riders by Violet Needham, illustrated by Anne Bullen. The first of Violet Needham’s eight-book Stormy Petrel series, The Black Riders is a marvelous Ruritanian romance for younger readers. First published in 1939, it has become something of a cult classic since, offering a rousing adventure story that is also beautifully written, and that features a wonderful cast of characters. I appreciated the fact that, while there are clear factions in the story, and while the young hero cleaves strongly to his side, the opposition is not depicted as evil, and neither is their leader. Indeed, while in some ways the story here is quite naive, in other ways, it is a very sophisticated book, addressing complex moral questions in an intelligent way, and never talking down to its young audience. Needham is considered a master of Ruritanian tales for children, and I look forward to reading more of her work in this vein.

The Last Devil to Die by Richard Osman. My list of Top Five books for 2022 included The Thursday Murder Club—the first entry in Richard Osman’s mystery series of the same name—and I commented at the time that one of the strengths of the story was the wonderful cast of characters, who truly came alive on the page. In the course of 2023, I have read the second and third in the series, The Man Who Died Twice and The Bullet That Missed, and found that this was also the case with these books. I am not yet done with The Last Devil to Die, but suspect that it is going to be my favorite of the lot, owing in no small part to my love for the characters. As someone who cares for an elderly loved one with dementia, I was deeply moved by the author’s sensitive depiction of a loving couple whose marriage is being affected by Alzheimers. If Osman found it as heartbreaking to write those scenes as I found it to read them, it is no wonder he has announced that he is taking a break from the series.

Saved by the Boats: The Heroic Sea Evacuation of September 11 by Julie Gassman, illustrated by Steve Moors. The story of the maritime evacuation of lower Manhattan on September 11th, 2001, in which some 150 vessels and 600 sailors—many of them civilian volunteers—helped to rescue more than 500,000 people trapped on the island, ferrying them away to safety, is told in this immensely poignant picture book. The story, written by Julie Gassman, who herself escaped Manhattan on that day thanks to the maritime evacuation, is simple but powerful, and I found myself tearing up, while reading it. The artwork from Steve Moors, in muted grayish tones that are sometimes relieved by a bright blue, didn’t speak to me at first, but eventually felt just right for the story, capturing the contrast between the gray dust that coated everything and everyone that day, and the sparkling blue of that September sky. My mother escaped Manhattan on 9/11, thanks to the maritime evacuation, so this story had personal significance for me. It has also been of comfort, since the October 7th terror attacks in Israel, and the more recent spate of praise for Osama Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” on social media, to recall this story of good people stepping up in terrible times, and to remind myself that while there are those who respond to the evil of terrorism with celebration or justification, there are others whose response is to rush to help their fellow human beings.


Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Apocalypse fiction is a genre I tend to really enjoy, and this book was such a treat. It’s very character driven, and I was intrigued by how the storylines entangled throughout the book.

Fungirl by Elizabeth Pich. Fungirl is messy and vulgar and hilarious. Pich’s art style is so whimsical and cute. I don’t think I have ever laughed so much while reading a book.

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi. Peaces caught my eye because I love magical realism, and Oyeyemi’s wonderful prose and surreal story did not disappoint. It’s set on a majestic old train with an unknown destination. The characters are quirky and mysterious and queer, and there are two cute and rambunctious pet mongooses. I adored this book.

All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks. I’m actually still in the middle of reading this one, but I feel like I have already gotten so much out of all the wisdom in it. I really appreciate hooks’ definition of love and her thought provoking look at love in our culture and relationships. This is a book I will be thinking about for a long time after I’ve finished reading it.

The Chromatic Fantasy by H. A. This is such a delightful graphic novel! The art is absolutely gorgeous and H.A. is an incredible visual storyteller. The characters are funny and charming and it was such a joy to watch their romance and adventures unfold in such a beautifully illustrated story.


That’s it!

Come record your own Top Five Books of 2023 on our December List of the Month, and join the discussion over in Talk.

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