From buzzy novels to literary biographies, Vox’s book critic breaks down the year in reading.
Every year, I recommend the best books out of the hundreds that have crossed my desk in my work as Vox’s book critic. These are the books I can’t stop thinking about months after I’ve read them, the books I’ve pressed on my friends along with demands that they tell me all their thoughts and especially let me know if they burst out laughing/burst into tears/threw the book across the room at that one part.
I’ve already recommended the best books from the first half of the year. These are the books that wowed me in the second half of the year, when publishers rush to release their most exciting novels and buzziest memoirs for the one-two punch of the National Book Awards and the holiday book tables.
In this batch: An action-packed allegory of the failures of America’s prison system. A philosophical literary biography about the paradoxes of marriage. A surprising amount of excellent historical fiction, a trend I’m choosing to blame on Hilary Mantel. Domestic novels and satire and an extended tribute to Nabokov.
Let’s get into it. In no order but alphabetical, here are the 13 best books from the second half of 2023.
Penguin Random House
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Imagine a version of The Hunger Games with the original’s alchemical combination of scathing social criticism and adrenaline-pumping action. Now fix its biggest flaws by adding to the mix beautiful sentences and coherent racial politics. You have just created a near-perfect book. You have also invented Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut novel, Chain-Gang All-Stars.
Chain-Gang All-Stars takes place in a near-future US where prisoners have the option of leaving jail to fight to the death in nationally televised gladiatorial games. If they live through three years on the circuit, the prisoners are free, sentence served. Almost no one ever lives that long.
Across three acts in this taut novel, Adjei-Brenyah kaleidoscopes into the minds of people at all levels of complicity and victimization from the Chain-Gang All-Stars fights. A white spectator goes from justifying her fascination with the games as cultural anthropology to rooting for the villains to get their throats cut. A prisoner tortured in solitary confinement opts for the circuit over another day at the mercy of his brutal guards. A board member working for a private prison company strategizes the best way to increase audience investment in the games. And two veteran fighters struggle to find love and forgiveness within their brutal, bloody world.
Glossing the text with periodic footnotes, Adjei-Brenyah makes it clear that the atrocities of his world are only slightly removed from the atrocities of our own. His most admirable characters declare that they are opposed not just to the Chain-Gang All-Stars fights but to the whole system: the games, the death penalty, and the prisons themselves. They dare us to ask whether we can be so brave.
Read alongside: The Hunger Games,The New Jim Crow, Are Prisons Obsolete?
New York Review of Books
Loved and Missed by Susie Boyt.
Loved and Missed by Susie Boyt
Loved and Missed, the seventh book by UK author Susie Boyt and her first to be published in the US, is a deceptively simple novel. On a first read through, this tale of a grandmother building a life with her granddaughter is so charming that you almost don’t notice how technically difficult the book is. It is hard to write a book that is warm without being sentimental. Yet Loved and Missed is full of heart but never saccharine; it is warm, and it shows you the effort and strain it takes to become so warm.
Ruth, prone to sardonic observations yet also deeply earnest, is the narrator of this slight book. She’s a part-time schoolteacher and a single mother. At school she is a triumph — her students have been known to call her “Mum” — but her own daughter, Eleanor, ran away from home at 15. As the novel opens, the pair are partially estranged, and Eleanor is addicted to drugs. Ruth, desperate to care for someone who will have to love her back and certain that Eleanor is incapable of caring for anyone, more or less kidnaps Eleanor’s daughter, Lily, to come and live with her.
The domestic routine between Ruth and Lily fills this novel with its pleasing cozy rhythms. “It was so civilized,” Ruth marvels, recounting the ritual of their days. “The evenings settled on us gently and we read our books side by side on the sofa, a saucer of biscuits balanced on a cushion, until six, when we put the television on.” The pleasure of this small-scale household bliss is all the more intense because we know how hard-won it is, and how easily it can be disrupted.
Read accompanied by: very hot toast sliced very thin, butter and marmalade dripping off the sides, and a pot full of good strong tea ready next to it.
The Last Language by Jennifer duBois.
The Last Language by Jennifer duBois
In 2014 and 2015, a startling court case gripped the nation. Anna Stubblefield, a professor of ethics at Rutgers, was accused of raping a nonverbal man named D.J., who had a developmental disability. Stubblefield argued that D.J., who had cerebral palsy, consented to everything that had happened and that they were in love. They had communicated, she explained, through a speech therapy method called facilitated communication, in which she held D.J.’s arm to steady it and he typed on a keyboard.
Stubblefield said D.J. was brilliant and that facilitated communication had unleashed his true self. Skeptics said facilitated communication wasn’t real, that it was barely more than a Ouija board party game. The court found D.J. legally incapable of either communication or consent and Stubblefield guilty of rape. In the end, she served 22 months in jail.
In The Last Language, Jennifer duBois uses the story of Stubblefield and D.J. as the basis for a fictional, Lolita-inflected story, and the results are sharp enough to cut. Here, Angela is a Harvard-educated linguist who ends up working as a facilitated communication speech therapist out of sheer desperation for a job. She’s in a rough spot: In rapid succession, her husband died by suicide, she was kicked out of her graduate program, and then she miscarried. (This beginning, Angela notes, “casts me as an extremely sympathetic figure.”)
At first it’s enough for Angela that she’s managed to find an employer willing to hire someone with a master’s in linguistics. But then, she meets a patient, Sam, determines that he is a savant, and falls in love with him.
“I see how it all looks,” Angela admits. She’s a crafty and Nabokovian narrator, fond of linguistic games and literary references. As she walks us through what she continues to insist is a love story, it remains a mystery how much of what she’s saying even she believes to be true.
Read if you: are a sucker for an unreliable narrator and have opinions on linguistic determinism.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The Marriage Question by Clare Carlisle.
The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life by Clare Carlisle
In this richly compelling biography of George Eliot, philosophy professor Clare Carlisle builds her story around the issue that gave Eliot both her life and her scandal: marriage. It’s a surprisingly effective organizing principle.
Eliot famously spent most of her life living with George Henry Lewes, a man she called her husband but to whom she was not legally married. (Lewes’s first wife was still alive.) Their partnership scandalized polite Victorian society and cost Eliot some of her dearest friendships. Eliot demanded to be known socially as Mrs. Lewes; her acquaintances only sometimes acquiesced.
Meanwhile, Eliot’s books are haunted by the specter of marriage gone wrong. The most devastating portrait arrives in Middlemarch, in which blazingly idealistic teenager Dorothea marries herself off to dry, dull, middle-aged Casaubon under the mistaken apprehension that he is a great man. It’s an awful moment to read, which is why Middlemarch is a great book.
Carlisle argues that marriage is one of the great philosophical problems of modern life: “that leap into the open-endedness of another human being.” For her, Eliot is a brilliant investigator of that problem, one who “pursued her marriage question with the tenacity of a great philosopher, as well as the delicacy of a great artist.”
Eliot sacrificed her reputation for a marriage. She publicly performed her scandalous marriage as a union of near-religious bliss. She wrote great novels of marriage as a destroyer of dreams. This lovely, rigorous biography explores all Eliot’s contradictions to bring her to life, both in her cramped, anxious human mind and in her expansive literary genius.
Read alongside: Middlemarch, of course. It’s always a good time to read Middlemarch.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The Upstairs Delicatessen by Dwight Garner.
The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading by Dwight Garner
Somewhere between a memoir and a commonplace book, The Upstairs Delicatessen is a sweet and witty ode to two of life’s great pleasures. (Three, if you consider reading while eating to be sensually distinct from reading and eating on their own.) New York Times book critic Dwight Garner is in full raconteur mode as he talks through his life in food and books, liberally salt-and-peppering the pages with his favorite quotes about food.
Garner describes himself as a kind of omnivore of both food and words from his earliest days. Every day after school, he writes, he would “gather an armload of newspapers and magazines and library books and paperback novels,” then pile a plate with sandwiches and potato chips and pretzels and cookies, not neglecting a glass of cold red juice (from powder) and a glass of milk for the cookies. He’d fling the reading material onto the living room floor and read on his stomach. “I’d tattoo the pages with greasy fingerprints,” Garner writes. Don’t you want to flop down on the floor yourself with a big snacking plate and an absorbing book and join him?
Read accompanied by: a dry martini and richly buttered anchovy toast.
Menewood by Nicola Griffith.
Menewood by Nicola Griffith
A friend recommended Nicola Griffith’s Hild trilogy, about the life of seventh-century British St. Hilda of Whitby, as being a cross between Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet. She’s entirely right: The Hild books marry the detailed historical past of Wolf Hall, all smelly wool and oiled knife blades, with the joyous feminine coming of age of the Alanna books.
Menewood, this fall’s release, is the second in a planned trilogy; the first volume, Hild, came out in 2013. Both follow Hild, our heroine, a political operator in the body of a very young girl. In volume one, Hild’s mother presents her to the king as a seer, and Hild, drawing on her ability to read people and animals in ways others cannot, pulls off the scam. She’s 3 as the book opens and 7 years old when she makes her debut in the royal court. Over the next 11 years, she develops into a fearsome kingmaker within the political landscape of early Britain.
Menewood, which picks up shortly after the queasy, unsettling ending of Hild, is a more compressed and more traumatic novel. It covers a bare four years of Hild’s life, with a war at either end. Most compelling, though, is the central third of the novel, which Griffith gives over to the process of restoration. Hild’s unindustrialized country must rebuild itself and its infrastructure after the massive destruction of war, and she must rebuild herself after enormous personal tragedy. The results are redemptive, absorbing, and deeply satisfying.
Read equipped with: a notepad and pen to help you keep track of the many identical-sounding medieval names, so you can tell Oswald from Osric.
The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff.
The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff
There’s a stark purity to The Vaster Wilds that makes it stand out from the other books I’ve read this year, a viciousness and a precision of language that isn’t quite like anything in the other books on this list.
The Vaster Wilds tells the story of an unnamed girl fleeing the Jamestown colony in the midst of the Starving Time. Outside the walls of the settlement is winter wilderness, but the girl, who possesses a scrappy survivor’s cunning, has determined that her odds are better outside than in. The result is a girl-versus-nature story that’s all the more compelling for being so unforgiving.
Read if you: still think you could probably survive in a hollow tree trunk for a few years à la My Side of the Mountain.
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride.
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store is a shaggy-dog tale, a deeply charming yarn of a book that ambles its way slowly from tales of two-bit vaudeville theaters to horrific murders. At its core, it’s a novel of solidarity between the Black and Jewish communities of Chicken Hill, Pennsylvania, in the 1920s.
Moshe Ludlow owns the local dance hall, which mostly plays Black musical acts because they’re the most popular. His wife, Chona, runs the titular Heaven and Earth Grocery Store. The dance hall more or less subsidizes the store, which keeps losing money because Chona lets poor neighbors shop on credit and never collects. At their neighbors’ behest, the pair agree to take in and hide an orphaned deaf Black child named Dodo, whom the state has threatened to place in a dangerous mental asylum.
The great pleasure of this book is watching McBride swing between the patterns of Jewish American and Black American speech with an easy, virtuosic rhythm. This is a voicey novel in the truest sense of the term, and a pure joy from start to finish.
Read alongside: Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century.
Henry Holt & Company
The End of Drum-Time by Hanna Pylväinen.
The End of Drum-Time by Hanna Pylväinen
Hanna Pylväinen’s The End of Drum-Time deals with a 19th-century preacher’s daughter who ruins her reputation because she is in love with an animal herder, like something out of a lost Hardy novel. But this preacher’s daughter lives in the tiny village of Garasavvon, along the borders of Finland and the federated powers of Sweden and Norway, and the man she is in love with is a Samí reindeer herder.
The Samí are the native people of Sápmi, historically known in English as Lapland. Their economy and social structures are all built around reindeer: keeping them, tending them, following their migrations. Yet as the nationalist powers of Scandinavia keep redrawing their political boundaries, the reindeer migration is becoming an ever-more perilous expedition — as that heartsore preacher’s daughter is soon to learn.
Pylväinen’s prose is rich with physical detail. You can smell the grass with which the Samí stuff their reindeer-hide shoes and see the ghostly twilight of a land where the sun never quite sets in the summer. Most of all, her sparse, precise sentences are as beautiful and merciless as the snow itself.
Read somewhere close to: a sauna and cold plunge, so you can warm up and cool down with the Samí.
The Fraud by Zadie Smith.
The Fraud by Zadie Smith
In this year of historical novels, Zadie Smith has written a historical novel about why books in this genre are so often very bad. The Fraud takes place primarily in the house of one William Ainsworth, a Victorian author who spends most of his career writing sentimental romances in tin-eared dialect.
Early in his career, Ainsworth attempts a contemporary novel. When it is pronounced morally corrupting, he flees, ”off into the distant, storied past — where he felt safest — or up and away into the ether, the supernatural, where nothing is real and nothing matters.” The novels that result are torpid and dull, but they also make a great deal of money.
It’s the money that’s of chief importance to Smith’s protagonist, Eliza Touchet, Ainsworth’s cousin and housekeeper. Touchet watches Ainsworth work with a sardonic eye, quietly convinced that all novels are morally suspect. She , meanwhile, becomes enmeshed in a tabloid case of the era and the racial politics that have set Victorian London ablaze. Smith’s historical novel, it’s clear, takes place in a world where a great deal is real, and all of it matters today.
Read accompanied by: a cappuccino and a scone that you can eat slowly, mouthful by mouthful, crunching the sugar grains on top of the pastry between your teeth, over the course of an hour as you read.
Little, Brown and Company
How I Won a Nobel Prize by Julius Taranto.
How I Won a Nobel Prize by Julius Taranto
Helen, the narrator of Julius Taranto’s witty and provocative new novel How I Won a Nobel Prize, doesn’t consider herself a natural for the Rubin Institute Plymouth, also known as RIP, also known as Cancel U, also known as Rape Island. Built on a fictional island off the coast of New Haven, the Rubin Institute is a university that specializes in hiring the canceled. Helen’s just a physics grad student who wants to solve climate change.
All the professors at Rubin were fired from their home institutions for sexual harassment, except for the ones that were fired for racism. R. Kelly shows up for soirees where the caterers serve “ostentatiously problematic meat: foie gras, roast suckling pig, octopus, horse.” The whole thing is funded by an anti-woke billionaire who’s committed to giving the students free tuition, as long as they sign a detailed waiver.
Helen finds herself stuck there after her adviser, the only person alive who can understand her research, accepts a job on the faculty. She’s sure that if she just keeps her head down and focuses on her research, she’ll be fine, but things don’t quite work out that easily. Some of Taranto’s most insightful passages come as we see Helen finding herself drawn toward a Philip Roth–like canceled author. Taranto understands the appeal of bad-man geniuses, and he understands their dangers, too. Not for nothing: This book is funny as heck.
Read if you: are tired of reading Woody Allen think pieces.
Harry N. Abrams
Idlewild by James Frankie Thomas.
Idlewild by James Frankie Thomas
Idlewild is about one of those high school friendships that is all-consuming, that takes over your whole personality and sense of self. Faye and Nell are theater kids at a tony Quaker school in Manhattan in 2002. Nell is the only out lesbian at school; Faye spends her English classes pointing out homosexual subtext in the assigned reading.
They write torrid fanfiction together over AOL Instant Messenger and speculate over which of their classmates is secretly gay. Both of them consider Faye to be the boss, partially because Nell is in unrequited love with her. Faye herself is only interested in the prospect of beautiful evil gay men, but not, exactly, because she wants to have sex with them.
In 2002, Faye and Nell call themselves “we, the F&N unit,” and narrate their days in the second person plural. In 2018, they recall their friendship from separate perspectives as though they’re looking back on a murder. In a way, they are: They’re telling us the story of how they killed their friendship.
Author James Frankie Thomas has said that he sees Idlewild as a novel in conversation with The Secret History and The Talented Mr. Ripley and A Little Life: novels that are widely read by writers “with an attraction to trans masculinity and gay trans masculinity in particular.” The connection is there. Idlewild has a similar aesthetic sensibility to those novels, a nostalgia for a past that was always corrupted, a kind of lushness to the atmosphere that is heavy with unspoken yearnings. When Thomas at last allows his characters to speak those yearnings aloud, the results will break your heart.
Read accompanied by: the most luscious slice of cheesecake you can find.
W. W. Norton & Company
This Is Salvaged by Vauhini Vara.
This Is Salvaged: Stories by Vauhini Vara
Vauhini Vara was a Pulitzer finalist for her first novel, The Immortal King Rao. In This Is Salvaged, a short story collection, she returns to the themes of grief and alienation that made that book sing.
Vara’s characters are mourning: the loss of a sister, a brother, a pregnancy, a mother, a job, a marriage. In the title story, an artist running out on his marriage attempts to build a replica of Noah’s Ark, with unhoused men doing the labor. Another story sees a teen girl mourning her brother’s death trying to get a job at a phone sex line. In another, a disgraced alcoholic lawyer tries to hide a pile of vomit from her visiting family.
What’s perhaps most compelling in this book is how physical grief is — it smells. These characters keep finding forgotten egg rolls and apple cores lost in their homes, or building balls of dead skin out of their frustration and rage. You can smell the rot in them. Always, though, there is a possibility of redemption, a glimpse of something human and warm to air out the stale air that grief has brought.
Read if you like: complicated endings, characters with bad habits, stories with some spike.
By: Constance Grady
Title: The very best books of 2023
Sourced From: www.vox.com/culture/24008240/2023-best-books-vaster-wild-lauren-groff-chain-gang-all-stars-nana-kwame-adjei-brenyah
Published Date: Wed, 20 Dec 2023 12:30:00 +0000
I'm a writer for lifestyle publications, and when I'm not crafting stories, you'll find me cherishing moments with my family, including my lovely daughter. My heart also belongs to my pets—Sushi, Snowy, Belle, and Pepper. Besides writing, I enjoy watching movies and exploring new places through travel.