My 21 Favorite Reads of 2023

2023 faves - book cover photo collage

Happy 2024, everyone! Another year behind us; another year I continued to be lucky enough to read and write and edit for a living. Living the dream, baby!

If you don’t read my monthly Thunder Thighs newsletter, I’ll give you a little rundown here of all the literary goodness that’s gone down this past year.

First off, there are my regular gigs. It was a rough year financially, and I lost half of my regular income suddenly and unexpectedly. But that’s the freelance life, I suppose. Still, I continue to be a senior contributor over at Book Riot, and I also continue to do copywriting work for Cute Little Fuckers, a queer-owned sex toy company with a lot of heart (it may not be a literary gig, but I get to write words for a company whose values align with my own, so I’m mentioning it). And while most new content is paused at Feminist Book Club, I’m excited for where things are going there. Right now, I’m on their transition team as we evolve into a worker-owned coop.

I’m also still the Essays Editor at Hippocampus Magazine, which I so enjoy. This year, we started holding regular virtual events while the big in-person conference is on hiatus, and I’ve already participated in an evening of mini sessions, during which I gave a flash presentation on how to survive that angsty first year after your book pubs. In the new year, I’ll be moderating a reading and discussion with Chantha Nguon and Kim Green, the authors of Slow Noodles. This is especially exciting for me as, back in 2021, I worked with them to edit an excerpt of their book for publication in the mag. The piece was later included in a Longreads roundup of the best of the web, after which they landed their book deal, which makes me feel like a proud mama. You can read “The Gradual Extinction of Softness” here.

What else? I had new pieces published in oranges journal and Romper. I found out that an essay that was published in under the gum tree last year was listed as a Notable Essay by Best American. I had a horror story accepted by Coffin Bell, which is slated to run on New Year’s Day, plus I have a piece on book sanctuaries coming out in Poets & Writers. And in addition to the abovementioned Slow Noodles event, Emily Nagoski asked me to join her in Philly to chat with her in front of other human beings as part of her book tour for Come Together.

Finally, thanks to a big push from my writing group, I’ve started working on an essay collection. It’s nice to have another big goal to focus on.

My god, I feel as if I’m writing one of those Christmas newsletters. Let’s move on to the books.

Once again, I aimed to read 175 books and, this time, I just made it! Out of those 175 books, I loved 21 of them. Regular readers may notice that this number is lower than usual. I’m not gonna lie. All of 2023 felt like one big book slump. But that’s why y’all are gonna read through this list and give me some books recs. Right? Right?? Onward.

1. How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady HendrixI’m a huge fan of Hendrix, and when I picked up his latest—a horror in which siblings are forced to work together to sell their childhood home after the death of their parents, only to be bedeviled by a haunted puppet collection (you heard me)—I didn’t expect to be punched in the gut by a larger, deeper story about sibling estrangement. Hendrix always hits it out of the park with his campy, comedic horror, but I think this one is my favorite.

2. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha PhilyawThis is a collection of stories that revolve around the ways in which church and faith and sexual desire bump up against each other in the lives of Black women. Reading about the contradictions we carry within ourselves is interesting on its own, but I was really hooked by the phenomenal writing.

3. The Road to Roswell by Connie WillisIn this comedic sci-fi rom-com (a sub-sub-genre at which Willis excels), a woman travels to Roswell, New Mexico, for her college roommate’s wedding, only to be abducted by an alien who looks like a tumbleweed. Hijinks ensue on this road trip of a lifetime as the sentient tumbleweed picks up more and more people on his way to…What? Where? Our protagonist isn’t sure, but she becomes convinced she has to help him. As their journey continues, she finds herself catching feelings for one of her fellow abductees. Is she losing her goddamn mind? This book had me snort-laughing non-stop.

4. Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi OhIn this sci-fi novel, scientists discover another planet that could possibly sustain life. So they open an academy at which kids study and train and compete to be among the six teens who will eventually be sent into space, alongside three veteran astronauts, so that they may colonize this new Earth. The chapters cycle through the perspectives of each of these six teens, showing readers how they handle the inevitable setbacks that occur. No matter what happens, however, there are some who never give up hope that they will be able to create this new utopia for humanity.

5. The Berry Pickers by Amanda PetersIn this novel, a Mi’kmaq family travels to pick blueberries for the summer. Before the season ends, however, their 4-year-old goes missing. Years later, a young girl feels as if her affluent white parents are keeping something from her. Will she ever figure out their secret? This book made me feel ALL THE FEELINGS.

6. How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu. Researchers in the Arctic Circle unleash an ancient plague across the world. Through linked stories, Nagamatsu shows us how humanity copes with this wave of fear, death, loss, and grief. There’s a sadness that wends its way throughout this book, frustration over the commodification of grief, and the sense that humanity won’t be able to come back from this. But at the very end (and I don’t want to spoil anything), there is also a tiny glimmer of hope that—even though it is small—feels satisfying.

7. The Drift by C.J. Tudor. I took this book with me on a long weekend trip to D.C., where I was attending a conference, and I finished the whole damn thing before returning home. This post-apocalyptic thriller takes place during a pandemic and its aftermath, cycling through three different points of view. Each of these three characters is introduced to us while in a moment of imminent danger, and I couldn’t stop myself from racing through the chapters so I could see how it all came together in the end.

8. The In-Betweens by Davon Loeb. I picked up a free copy of this memoir at the aforementioned conference, having never heard of it before. When I finally got around to opening it up, it instantly became one of my favorite reads of the year. Loeb lays out his story in gorgeously lyrical vignettes, writing about what it was like to grow up biracial, unsure of his place in his white family and in larger society. Taking us from childhood all the way through adulthood, The In-Betweens gives us the portrait of a man trying to find himself in a culture that seems hellbent on erasing him.

9. Fat Talk by Virginia Sole-Smith. As I’ve read more about Health at Every Size and body neutrality these past few years, I’ve made a concerted effort to divest myself from diet culture. So this book about parenting in the midst of that culture came at exactly the right time. This cultural critique of anti-fat bias and diet culture—bolstered by history and science—did more than just teach me how to handle food talks with my kid. It helped me interrogate my own body biases (and also convinced me to sign up for the author’s newsletter, Burnt Toast).

10. What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo. In this memoir, Foo writes of a life in which she finds it difficult to cope. While she’s a high achiever and her life looks perfect on paper, she’s often subject to intense panic attacks and emotional outbursts. There’s a clarity that comes with finding yourself and, in this case, with finally finding a diagnosis that explains everything. When Foo is diagnosed with complex PTSD at the age of 30, she is finally able to acknowledge the years of abuse and neglect to which her parents subjected her. Eventually, she learns how to manage the symptoms of her illness while still living a full life.

11. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. [cw: sexual assault] This novel received a wave of buzz this year thanks to its adaptation for Apple TV, but the book itself came out in 2022, at which point it quickly became a book club staple. I was skeptical when a friend insisted I read it, and was then immediately put off by an upsetting scene early on in the book depicting a sexual assault. But when I forced myself to push past it, I found myself enchanted by this quirky story of a chemist battling sexism who ends up hosting a cooking show and inspiring a revolution. In fact, it’s one of my favorite-favorite reads this year.

12. Mimosa by Archie Bongiovanni. This graphic novel revolves around four queer thirtysomethings, best friends who are sick of being “the oldest gays at the party.” They decide to launch a new queer event called Grind, a project that allows each of them to avoid thinking about their real problems, which run the gamut from messy divorces and single motherhood to inappropriate workplace relationships and dirty secrets. The four of them have always been there for each other but, as it becomes tougher to ignore their problems and even tougher to fully support each other, they find that the unthinkable happens: they grow apart. But friendships can’t always last forever, especially as we grow and change. I loved this queer coming-of-age for adults.

13. America the Beautiful? by Blythe RobersonIn this travel memoir, Roberson writes about her cross-country road trip to America’s national parks, purporting to discover why the genre seems monopolized by “white men who have no problems, who only decide to go to the desert to see what having problems feels like.” I know. It reads like Bill Bryson for women…but better. Not only is Roberson a master of humorous travel writing, but her travel narrative goes far beyond an accounting of her travels. In each chapter of this book, as she makes her way further along on her journey, she tackles a different topic: whether solo travel is too dangerous for women and BIPOC, the ethics of national parks on land that once belonged to Indigenous folks, the way social media has made it impossible to just be in a moment…Despite the light tone, Roberson digs deep, making for a particularly enjoyable and satisfying read.

14. The September House by Carissa Orlando[cw: domestic abuse] This book starts off as your typical haunted house story, but it quickly begins to dawn on the reader that the hauntings are a metaphor for something much darker. I don’t want to reveal too much more than that. What I can say is that when we meet our protagonist, she’s been living in her haunted house (whose hauntings ramp up every September) for several years, and her husband has recently gone missing. If you do want spoilers, I wrote this whole-ass post after reading this book.

15. Mexikid by Pedro Martín. I grabbed an excerpt of this graphic memoir on Free Comic Book Day back in May. When I saw the whole-ass book on display in my local comic shop, I didn’t hesitate. This road trip memoir is written from the point of view of Martín’s younger self and is about the time when he and his massive Mexican American family traveled down to Mexico to pick up his grandfather and bring him back home with them. Adventures are had. Lessons are learned. Growing up occurs. The book is wholesome AF.

16. In Zanesville by Jo Ann BeardThis novel, published in 2011, is probably the oldest book I read this year. Why’d I pick it up? I’m the essays editor for Hippocampus Magazine. Earlier this year, I accepted a coming-of-age essay in our submissions queue, gushing over the spot-on child’s voice and the writer’s exploration of that time when girls are on the cusp of womanhood, torn between wanting to stay young and wanting to move forward. If you like these themes, the writer told me, you have to read this book. I loved this story of a late bloomer finding her way. And that child’s voice? Spot-on AF.

17. Whalefall by Daniel KrausThis book is for sure battling Lessons in Chemistry for the number one spot in my heart this year. In this fast-paced sci-fi/thriller/horror (I don’t know; genres are hard), a young man undertakes a dangerous solo dive in the Pacific Ocean in search of his late father’s remains… and perhaps redemption. Things take a horrifying turn when he’s swallowed by a sperm whale, and the rest of the book focuses unflinchingly on him as he fights for his life. I was so incapable of putting this one down that when my 9-year-old wanted to hang out with me as I approached the end of the book, I just read it aloud to her. Parenting at its worst best.

18. Moby Dyke by Krista BurtonThis one was on my TBR for a number of reasons: The title made me giggle. I loved the cover art. And the premise sounded fun. I finally sat down with the book during the FBC Readathon. In Moby Dyke, Burton decides to travel to America’s last few lesbian bars in order to figure out why there are so few left. In taking this cross-country journey, she not only explores the disappearance of a certain type of venue, but also the evolution of the experiences of an entire marginalized community. I was surprised by how much I ended up loving this book. It made me think more deeply about the importance of communal spaces, and it also made me realize I need to leave my house more because this book gave me major FOMO.

19. Foreverland by Heather Havrilesky. I actually DNF’d this title back in 2022 but then borrowed it from my library more recently because I was exploring similar themes in my own writing. And my god, what a near-miss. This hilarious memoir about “the divine tedium of marriage,” and about how the strongest marriages necessitate choosing each other over and over again, was so much fun. I couldn’t believe how much I connected to the author’s story… and how close I came to never reading this book at all.

20. Paladin’s Grace by T. KingfisherI don’t generally read romantasy (even separately, romance and fantasy don’t often make it onto my TBR), but I do love Kingfisher’s work, so I decided to give this one a go. The first in the Saint of Steel series, Paladin’s Grace is about a paladin and perfumer who get caught up in an assassination plot. And my god. As always, Kingfisher’s sense of humor and skill with character development are impeccable. I was giggling the whole way through. And the sexy bits? They made me all tingly. Does this mean I like romantasy now?? Or do I just like Kingfisher romantasy? Someone give me their best romantasy recs, stat.

21. Free Period by Ali Terese. I received an advance copy of this last one and read it purely so I could decide whether or not to include it in the Guerrilla Sex Ed resource database. It’s a middle grade novel about a group of middle school girls fighting for menstrual equity at their school, and it is fire. There’s also lots of good stuff in there about friendship, and about the varying approaches to activism that can exist. Loved it. Parents: Get it for your kids. Teachers: Get it for your classrooms. But you’ll have to preorder it because it’s not out until March.