The best books I read in 2023

A happy corgi on a couch, reading a book. Digital drawing.
Source: Dall-E 2

Welcome back to one of our regular segments here on the blog: I read, watch, and play way too much stuff and now I'm telling you to do the same!

Kidding aside, in 2023, I was once again fortunate to experience a lot of great media, and I want to tell you about it because good art is one of the things that makes life worth living.

However, this year we're doing things a bit differently. Instead of writing one gargantuan post containing all of the books, movies, games, etc., I'll create a separate post for each category.

First up: books.

5th: What's Our Problem by Tim Urban

The cover image of the book, What's Our Problem.
Image: Wait But Why

Arriving at fifth place, What's Our Problem is the only piece of non-fiction that made it onto my top 5 in 2023. It's a book I've been waiting for a long time, written by one of my favorite bloggers, Tim Urban.

Back in 2016, Urban started a string of posts on his site, Wait But Why, with the promise to explain why public discourse felt more and more toxic lately. The posts were good, albeit a bit meandering and convoluted, even by Tim's standards.

They also came with longer and longer breaks between them, until one day he stopped entirely, and told readers he had realized the topic would take a feature-length book to explain well.

Then he disappeared for six years. Fortunately, the wait was worth it.

What's Our Problem is a tighter, better version of the original posts and a much deeper exploration of the topic of public discourse and modern politics. It won't give you a solution to any of the problems it raises, but it does have a handful of new mental models you can use to understand the world around you.

I wholeheartedly recommend it, and not just because of the stick figure drawings.

A good fit for: People who liked the old Wait But Why posts. Sociology nerds. Lovers of badly drawn, yet charming stick-figure-based humor.

Not a good fit for: People who hated the old Wait But Why posts. Readers who don't appreciate a few hundred footnotes. Generally, anyone who doesn't like to be sad about the world around them.

4th: Six of Crows & Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Two books in a slipcase: Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom.
Image: Macmillan Publishers

The Six of Crows duology follows an unlikely band of misfits who attempt to pull off an impossible heist. Then another. Then another.

If you ever wanted a story about a twenty-something Ocean's Eleven, set in a dark(ish) steampunk fantasy world, this is the duology for you.

I can easily understand why Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are the most popular entries in Bardugo's Grishaverse. Witty writing, a compelling cast, and a setting infused with just enough Eastern European and Dutch weirdness to be unique.

Also, plenty of (well-established) twists to satisfy the heist enthusiast.

If nothing else, read it because of Kaz Brekker and Nina Zenik — my beloveds — and because of one particular fight sequence in the second book that might be the best damned fight scene I have ever read.

A good fit for: Lovers of heist stories. (Former) brooding teenagers. People who love to go up against impossible odds.

Not a good fit for: People who hated Ocean's Eleven and all that came in its wake. Readers who just want a straightforward story without a bunch of vertigo-inducing reveals.

3rd: Normal People by Sally Rooney

The cover of the book Normal People.
Image: Faber

On one sad day in May, I accidentally wandered into a little bookshop called Libertine on the banks of the Danube. I was the only customer in the shop at the time, and after browsing for a while, I picked up Rooney's Normal People. When I brought it to the register, the clerk nodded and smiled: "Good choice."

She was right.

Normal People is a book about nothing and everything — a story of two people orbiting each other like two planets in an ever-increasing spiral.

A good fit for: Romantics at heart. 30-something Millennials who went to university during the 2010s and appreciate a dose of nostalgia about the good old days.

Not a good fit for: People who are bored by books where all that really happens is ordinary people talking to each other.

2nd: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

The cover of the book, Crossroads.
Image: Macmillan Publishers

Crossroads is a quintessential Franzen novel. It follows an ordinary middle-class family in the Midwestern United States beset by secrets, resentment, and a deep failure to communicate with each other. In usual Franzen fashion, the story cycles through multiple viewpoints and timelines, letting you puzzle together the full portrait of the Hildebrandt family as we careen toward a fiery conclusion.

A good fit for: People who have a complicated relationship with their families.

Not a good fit for: People who don't like to think about their complicated relationship with their families.

👑 1st: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

The cover of the book, Some Desperate Glory.

The queen of my shelf in 2023, the novel I enjoyed the most last year.

There are some books that feel like they were written for you. Some Desperate Glory is that book for me.

It's a social science-fiction story set in a Mass Effect-like universe with well-drawn characters, a tight plot, and enough cute aliens to choke a grown-up Pixar fan.

It's also the most carefully balanced novel I've read in a long time. Even though it tackles some heavy topics that will linger long after you've put down the book, the story never feels tedious, preachy, or unfun.

It's a thrill ride, through and through.

A good fit for: Anyone who sunk a couple hundred hours into the original Mass Effect trilogy. Lovers of redemption arcs and compelling villains. Readers who love adorable aliens, and would protect them with their lives.

Not a good fit for: Hard sci-fi fans who want to spend a lot of time reading about the scientifically accurate inner workings of a warp drive. Misogynists. 🤷‍♂️ People who react badly to emotional damage delivered by the written word.

Honorable mentions

And that is the list.

I hope you found something you could add to your own TBR pile. See you back here soon(ish) with the second installment of my Best of 2023 roundup: comic books.

P.S. If you absolutely can't wait until then, check out my 2022 media diet for some great reads in the meantime.

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