With El Niño slated to drop a warm, wet winter on most of the US in the coming months, everybody’s going to need something good to read while the weather outside is frightful. Engadget’s well-read staff have some suggestions: our favorite books of 2023! We’ve got a phenomenal assortment of genres and titles for you this year, from horror and true crime to rom-coms and fantasy adventures, here to provide months of entertainment for even the most voracious reader.
Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix (Karissa Bell — Senior Reporter, Social Media)
I love horror movies but horror novels are kind of hit and miss for me. I was immediately pulled into Final Girl Support Group, though, which does a lot of winking and nodding at classic slasher flicks while creating a completely unique story.
If you’re a fan of horror, then you’re already familiar with the trope of the “final girl.” Grady Hendrix’s novel doesn’t satirize the final girl, but imagines what life might be like for them after the end of their movie. Each of the main characters is (loosely) based on the final girl of a classic slasher, though their storylines don’t feel contrived or predictable. It reads like a fast-paced thriller but, like so many of the best horror movies, it’s also a poignant reflection on trauma. It’s also the rare thriller where I found myself wanting more at the end of the story. Luckily, HBO has signed on to develop a series based on the book, so I may soon get my wish.
The Chromatic Fantasy by H. A. (Avery Ellis — Deputy Editor, Reports)
2023 was the year I undertook to read a lot more books written by or centering characters who were like me: which is to say, trans. I tore through Nevada and Dream of a Woman, recognizing bits of myself reflected back and seeing versions of me that could exist in the future; I just barely slogged through Testo Junkie, cringed with Tiny Pieces of Skull, gravely nodded along with Whipping Girl and sobbed as Stone Butch Blues kicked me in the heart over and over again. (There’s more. Ask me for recommendations!) The canon of trans literature is unfortunately not huge, and I speedran a good portion of it, always interleaving comics, zines or manga between novels.
Enter The Chromatic Fantasy.
It popped up in the new releases section of the newsletter from comics mainstay Silver Sprocket, which was all I knew going in. What I got, in what I assumed would be a break from often-heavy trans narratives, was… the most adorable T4T romance I’ve ever read?? Jules and Casper have some truly cute us-against-the-world chemistry, which is only further heightened by their status as literal outlaws — get in loser, we’re robbing rich jerks at swordpoint. The fantastical setting is best described as polychronistic: while mostly hewing to gorgeously rendered high fantasy aesthetics, there are, for example, landline telephones (such the better to flirtatiously twirl a finger through the wire of), and seemingly the corporation Starbucks, none of which is explained or needs to be.
The Chromatic Fantasy slips effortlessly between swashbuckling glibness (benefits of a protagonist who literally cannot die) and genuine emotion. And did I mention it’s gorgeous? No really, it’s jaw-droppingly pretty. Congratulations to H. A. on joining Leslie Feinberg in the hall of Authors Who Made Me Cry Ugly Tears This Year.
Nestlings by Nat Cassidy (Valentina Palladino — Senior Commerce Editor)
Nat Cassidy hooked me last year with his excellent novel Mary: An Awakening of Terror, and his sophomore release is certainly not a slump. Nestlings follows Ana and Reid, a couple with a new baby who move into the Deptford, an ancient, revered Manhattan apartment building overlooking Central Park. It seems almost magical that they even won the competitive lottery to move to this otherworldly place. Both Ana and Reid believe their new home could be the answer to their problems: Reid, a struggling musician with a lackluster day job trying to care for his new daughter and his wheelchair-bound wife; Ana, a voice actor with bubbling resentments toward her baby after a traumatic childbirth left her paralyzed from the waist down.
But there’s no peace for the little family once they move in. Disturbing events leave Ana paranoid and wanting to get out, while Reid dismisses her concerns as he dives deeper into learning about the gothic building’s history. Baby Charlie never sleeps and constantly fusses, and things go from bad to worse when the young parents discover needle-like bite marks on their daughter.
What follows is an absolute rollercoaster of terror, filled with gargoyles, vampiric creatures, sore–infested, suicidal neighbors, cockroach-chomping real estate agents and lots and lots of bugs. Cassidy does a great job of drawing readers in with questions about what the hell is going on in this apartment building that’s so hard to move into but also seems to have no one living in it aside from Ana and Reid. The plot is enough to keep readers guessing, but you really stay for the tension Cassidy builds between these complicated characters. Ana and Reid’s relationship is put through every test, and I found myself loving each of them and hating them both at various points of the novel. Cassidy thoughtfully explores a lot of topics in Nestlings through the struggles of his characters: marriage, parenthood, postpartum depression, ableism, antisemitism, grief and much more.
I particularly enjoyed the nuanced discussions around being a caretaker, being a mother and all of the other things that can suck the life out of a person. There are many complicated ideas surrounding motherhood in this book: What does motherhood give to you, and what does it take away? How much control does a mother have over their child? Where does a mother’s influence end? Even with all of those heavy themes running throughout this book, Nestlings, in my opinion, is even more fun than Mary thanks to its consistent pacing, complicated characters, creepy setting and downright disgusting imagery. – Valentina Palladino, Senior Commerce Editor
Alex Carter #3: A Ghost of Caribou by Alice Henderson (Valentina Palladino — Senior Commerce Editor)
I watched Animal Planet like it was my job when I was a kid. So my inner child was thrilled to discover Alice Henderson’s Alex Carter series last year. The books follow wildlife biologist Alex Carter as she monitors near-extinct animal species in the field, while also encountering a new unsolved murder in each sleepy town she resides.
The latest installment, A Ghost of Caribou, takes our hero to the mountains of northwestern Washington state to track a single mountain caribou believed to have wandered down from Canada into the contiguous United States. But she’s quickly met with hostility and violence: activists and loggers are duking it out over protected lands and the townspeople are on edge after the murdered body of a forest ranger is discovered in a local park. On top of that, Alex learns a hiker went missing a year prior in the same forest in which she’s conducting her research. Alex is soon forced to fight for her life, while also trying to solve at least two murders that may or may not be connected.
I love a good cozy mystery, and this series feels like one step up from those genre staples. It’s a little more serious with more threatening baddies, but you still get a hint of a cozy vibe thanks to the very careful choice of setting and the wildlife element. You actually end up learning quite a lot about the star animals in these books, thanks to the author’s experience as a wildlife researcher herself. Alex is a well-realized protagonist with a clear moral compass and a deep devotion to the protection of animals and the environment, but she’s also entertaining to follow. And while each book takes her to a different locale to study another species, there are throughlines in the series that make you want to pick up the next installment to see what’s going to happen. The side characters (recurring ones like Alex’s father and her best friend, along with single-book individuals) are also colorful and engaging. I can’t think of a better series to pick up if you love mysteries and suspense novels, and also have a fascination with the animal world.
Adelaide by Genevieve Wheeler (Sarah Fielding — Contributing Reporter)
At the center of Genevieve Wheeler’s debut novel is the titular character Adelaide, a 26-year-old American living in London who believes she’s found her very own prince charming in Rory. She’s sure he’s the love of her life, regardless of his complete disregard for her feelings throughout their relationship. Wheeler remarkably brought me deep inside Adelaide’s consciousness while seamlessly adding depth and a fuller story by jumping into the perspectives of both Rory and his ex-girlfriend Nathalie.
On the surface, it’s easy to put Adelaide strictly into the romance box, another story of girl meets boy. But, to do so belittles the nuanced experience of what it’s like to live a life of incredible moments of joy and piercing episodes of despair — namely to be human.
Adelaide deals with themes of trauma, friendship, heartbreak, mental health and, critically, the desire we all have to not just be loved, but to be understood. As a mid-to-late 20-something American living in London, it would’ve been difficult not to relate to Adelaide. But, these aspects of Wheeler’s novel made me reckon with the way I move through life and drove home the fact that — cheesy or not — we’re each the greatest love of our life.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (Cherlynn Low — Deputy Editor, Reviews)
Project Hail Mary may not have been released this year, but I only came across it in one of my numerous attempts to read more books in 2023. Try as I might, I just had a hard time concentrating, and nothing managed to hold my attention. On Libby, I borrowed and skimmed titles by authors like Blake Crouch and Stephen King — people whose work I always liked. And nothing took. I’ll admit it took me more than 10 pages to really get hooked on PHM, too. But once I began to absorb the premise, I devoured the book in two days.
In PHM, Weir tells the tale of a man in space, off to investigate a mysterious substance that not only proves that life exists outside of Earth, but also might lead to the destruction of our planet. His is on a suicide mission, with not enough fuel for a return trip. Yeah, the stakes are high.
I’m not a scientist, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the book’s finer details, but Weir’s evocative descriptions helped paint a rich mental image of the spacecraft. And though one of the characters in the story remained an amorphous blob in my mind, I still formed an inexplicable emotional bond with them, the way you might grow to love a boisterous pet.
As with most space adventures, PHM’s characters encounter numerous challenges and setbacks, making for a gripping read. Throw in likable characters, an emotional turn of events and a somewhat satisfying end, and PHM easily nabbed the title of my favorite book all year (not to mention a spot in my heart).
The Future by Naomi Alderman (Lawrence Bonk – Contributing Reporter)
Naomi Alderman’s last book, The Power, was a very big deal. It made both Barack Obama’s and Bill Gates’ best-of lists for 2016, and it even spawned an Amazon Prime Video show. All of the accolades were well-deserved, as I had never read something quite like it. The book examined the corruptible nature of power and how it impacts gender, all while remaining a rip-roaring yarn about women who have the ability to control electricity.
Alderman’s latest and greatest, The Future, isn’t going to set the world ablaze quite like its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an absolute page-turner. This is for one simple reason. There are already a ton of speculative fiction books that examine near-future technology and how it could impact humanity. It’s a whole genre unto itself. Still, The Future is a fantastic example of this type of book, and manages to fold in recent events, from COVID to Elon Musk and the rise of AI platforms.
To that end, the novel revolves around proxy versions of many of our big tech companies (Apple, Meta, Microsoft, OpenAI etc.) and boasts a sprawling narrative with multiple protagonists, including a tech vlogger that hits a bit too close to home. There are doomsday cults, narcissistic billionaires, depression-inducing social media algorithms and, of course, plenty of technological advancements. The tech in this book isn’t pie in the sky. It’s stuff that’s five or 10 years out. Alderman is careful not to give a year for when the story takes place, but she does refer to actor Ryan Reynolds as a “silverfox” and, well, he’s 47 right now.
The story is fast-paced and involves, surprise, a potentially game-changing AI. There’s also more biblical allegory than you can shake a stick at. Alderman, after all, previously wrote a book that examined the life of Jesus Christ. The Future is tough to put down and well worth reading, even if Bill Gates didn’t put a review up on his blog. Yes, Bill Gates has a blog.
This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno (Cheyenne MacDonald — Weekend Editor)
Every time I recommend this book to someone, which is fairly often, I usually throw in a small apology for what it’s going to put them through. Here’s me doing that now: sorry, this one’s pretty heavy! But damn, is it a powerful read.
This Thing Between Us is often described as being about a haunted Alexa-style smart speaker called Itza, but that’s only partially true. Really, it’s about grief, cultural identity and inescapable cycles of hardship. It’s told from the perspective of Thiago, who seems to be recounting for his late wife, Vera, the increasingly bizarre and horrifying experiences he’s faced after her sudden death from a freak accident. The apparent supernatural possession of Itza is initially positioned as the catalyst for the horrors that play out across the novel.
Thiago’s unraveling mental state as he grapples with the loss of his wife and a haunting that starts to take on a more cosmic quality builds into a frantic sense of dread. It’ll break your heart over and over. There are some pretty solid scares, too, with more than a few deeply unsettling moments that have lingered in my memory, popping back up when I’m driving alone on a dark country road or taking my dog out at night. While This Thing Between Us didn’t come out in 2023 (it was published in 2021), I didn’t get around to reading it until this year, and it’s probably the book I’ve thought about most since.
Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones (Cheyenne MacDonald — Weekend Editor)
Stephen Graham Jones is one of those authors who is just so good, you end up wanting to inhale his entire body of work immediately after finishing whichever book first got you hooked. At least, that’s how it went for me. I read one, and I needed infinitely more. So, I was beyond excited to find out that 2021’s My Heart is a Chainsaw — a love letter to slasher films and social misfits — was not only getting a sequel, but would ultimately be spun into a trilogy. Don’t Fear the Reaper, which came out in February 2023, is the second book in that series and it’s got all the heart of the first one, if not more.
Don’t Fear the Reaper continues the story of slasher-obsessed Jennifer “Jade” Daniels and the residents of Proofrock, Idaho, who four years prior endured a town-wide tragedy that irrevocably changed their lives. This time, because they cannot catch a break, a convicted serial killer known as Dark Mill South is on the loose after he managed to escape from a prison convoy nearby during a blizzard. And bodies are starting to pile up. In the first book, Jennifer/Jade’s acute knowledge of final girl survival skills took center stage as she tried to make people see the signs of a slasher in their midst before it was too late. Now, she’s repressed that part of herself and her protégé, a survivor of the previous book’s climactic event, has taken the torch.
It has all the elements of a good slasher story and tons of movie references for genre fans to latch onto. There are twists that will put your brain to work, plus a few moments that are purely supernatural. Like Graham’s other works, it also contains a lot of important subtext about being an American Indian. Jade, the final girl to end all final girls, is Native. So is the killer, Dark Mill South. In the end, Don’t Fear the Reaper is a surprisingly beautiful narrative about trauma (personal and generational), perseverance and healing. The third and final book in The Indian Lake Trilogy comes out in March 2024 — so you have just enough time to catch up with the first two before then.
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton (Amy Skorheim — Commerce Reporter)
I didn’t know much about Birnam Wood before picking it up — just that it had a Booker Prize winner for an author and a Shakespearean title that made me feel smart for vaguely remembering Macbeth. Turns out, it’s about the clash between an anarchist New Zealand gardening collective and a doomsday-prepping American tech-bro billionaire, which, had you given me a million guesses…
The story has plenty of meat on its bones, grappling with the Big Issues of environmentalism, capitalism, class struggles and the absurd ineffectuality of grassroots action in the face of unfathomable wealth. The main players in the gardening collective are idealistic but erratic Mira, her dissatisfied second in command, Shelly, and Tony, a Bernie-bro trust-funder with a self-righteous inflexibility that butts up against his desire for glowing recognition.
When Mira scouts out a vast plot of land the collective could potentially “borrow” for some guerilla farming, she meets billionaire Robert Lemoine who has already earmarked the property for his luxury end-time bunker. When he impulsively (sociopathically) decides to bank roll the gardening collective, the group has to make a decision. And at least one of them has to figure out what Lemoine is really doing out in the pristine lands of New Zealand’s South Island.
To talk too much more about the machinations of the plot is to give away some of the joys. But I will say that I ripped through the book’s 400 pages. Birnam Wood manages to meld the breath-holding pace of a genre thriller with the psychological archaeology of the best literary reads. And no other novel in recent memory has presented a better thesis as to what it may take to derail the runaway train of resource exploitation.
Girlfriend on Mars by Deborah Willis (Nathan Ingraham — Deputy Editor, News)
Girlfriend on Mars tells the story of a train wreck that I just couldn’t look away from. Told in both the first-person view of complacent stoner Kevin and in third-person of his girlfriend of 14 years, Amber, the story bounces between their two perspectives as Amber tries to win a reality show that’ll send her and another contestant on a one-way trip to Mars. The whole time, I was fascinated by whether Amber would win the contest and really walk away from Earth forever and equally engaged in watching Kevin’s descent into full-on agoraphobia as the one person he cares about essentially tells him she’s willing to leave the planet and him forever.
The two main characters are massively flawed, something that’s obvious right from the start, but you care about them finding some measure of peace and happiness regardless. Amber’s side of the story is a scathing critique of multiple parts of American culture, with the Elon Musk-esque billionaire funding the trip to Mars cutting corners and disregarding safety at every turn just to make a profit. Takedowns of the influencer world and the reality show obsession with watching beautiful people duke it out are well-trodden territory, but there’s an extra bit of grotesqueness to these proceedings, since the people flying to Mars are assuredly going to die there, sooner or later, and probably on camera.
Kevin’s story is a lot smaller, but the effects of his proximity to Amber’s growing fame are tough to watch — everyone wants a piece of her, which means they want a piece of him, all the while knowing that her success in the contest makes it more and more likely she’ll never see him again. The book is extremely readable, almost fluffy with its reality show tropes, but the last third is quietly devastating in a way that stuck with me more than I expected when I started. At first, Girlfriend on Mars feels as light as the image on the cover, but there’s surprising depth and darkness in these pages.
Time’s Mouth by Edan Lepucki (Nathan Ingraham — Deputy Editor, News)
As the title suggests, Time’s Mouth has some elements of time travel to it, but it’s decidedly not science fiction — or at the very least, it’s not just science fiction. Edan Lepucki has some experience straddling genres, as her 2014 novel California deftly straddled a post-apocalyptic setting with literary fiction musings on family and environmental breakdown. In the same vein, Time’s Mouth focuses on a woman who can revisit any time in her past and the effects it has on both her and future generations of her family. Like any good time travel story, moving back and forth in time ends up having unexpected repercussions, and they come together in a very satisfying way as, years later, her son discovers his daughter can do the same thing.
It’s not an easy story to put into words, involving a sinister California commune of “mamas” who worship Ursa and her time-travel gift. Being brought up in such an environment makes her son Ray want a totally different life, but he’s drawn back to her world when his daughter Opal independently realizes she has the same skill as her unknown grandmother. At first, I thought the story would deal with Opal and Ray’s life without intersecting back with Ursa, who Ray has completely distanced himself from. But when the two worlds collide again after decades apart, it leads to a stunner of a reckoning for the family. Time’s Mouth made me both wish I could revisit my past and see it from a different light while also making me thankful that I’m stuck firmly in the present, aside from my memories.
Beware of Chicken by Casualfarmer (Andrew Tarantola — Senior Reporter, AI)
It’s the same reason I don’t watch prestige dramas: The world’s on fire and everything is already terrible, why would I watch rich and powerful people be horrible to one another as entertainment? I simply don’t have the emotional bandwidth these days to follow along the intricacies of courtly intrigue, betrayals and political maneuvering among competing noble houses, but I will spare an afternoon to read a wholesome isekai progression fantasy like Beware of Chicken.
Set in an alternate universe of Qi cultivation (wherein its practitioners meditate and partake in vigorous training to achieve superhuman powers and godlike immortality), the story follows Jin Rou, an initiate cultivator who is having a very bad day. First our protagonist finds themself isekai’d from a previous life in modern day Canada into the body of a Warring State period initiate cultivator — one who was just severely beaten by his fellow disciples. Not about to hang around the jerks who just bludgeoned the last version of him into putty, Jin Rou picks up, leaves his sect behind and hightails it to the most remote, least magical (and therefore least dangerous) region he can find in his new world, intent on living out the quiet life of a hermit farmer. Too bad for Jin, the universe has other plans.
In this three-book continuing series, Jin Rou’s efforts to remain anonymous prove comically ineffective — whether due to his steadily growing menagerie of human and spirit animal disciples or his inexplicably fertile farming efforts — especially after members of his former sect come sniffing around. If you’re a fan of massively OP protagonists like John Sutton from Battlemage Farmer and Saitama of One Punch Man, or are into LitRPGs like Path of Ascension, Mark of the Fool and Unbound you’re going to love Beware of Chicken.
Once Upon a Crime by Fergus Craig (Daniel Cooper — Senior Reporter, UK)
It’s always fun watching a professional pretend to be bad at their job, because it requires so much effort. There’s an art to doing something badly in an entertaining way that doesn’t just spill over into tragedy, or worse. Now imagine how hard it is to write a book that’s intentionally bad that never wears out its welcome, and you’ll see why I’m in awe of Once Upon a Crime.
Once Upon a Crime is written by Fergus Craig, but it’s really the debut novel from Craig’s comic character Martin Fishback. Fishback is a middle-aged, middle-of-the-road middle-Englander who, after his forced early retirement, aspires to becoming a crime writer. His lowbrow taste may far exceed his talent, but that’s not going to stop him writing his own crime novel, damnit.
Fishback’s main character, Detective Roger Le Carré, is the most obvious case of self-insert fic you’ll see all year. He’s a sprightly all-star police officer with an old school sensibility (read: He share’s Fishback’s provincial tastes and attitudes) and a knack for romance. Le Carré is also the only man who can tackle the grand criminal conspiracies on the mean streets of… rural Exeter.
As well as the general bathos of trying to pass off a sleepy cathedral city as a criminal hotbed, Fishback is prone to a tangent. Not to mention needing to pad some sections of his book where he’s gone to Wikipedia to help add ballast to the word count. All of this may sound bad, but in the hands of a master like Craig, it threads the needle to perfection.
I didn’t even know the book existed until I saw it on a table in a book store in London, clocked the name and reflexively started reading. In about three hours, I’d devoured it, hooting with glee to the great annoyance of my children and the other passengers on the train.
The Year of Less by Cait Flanders (Malak Saleh — Health & Fitness Reporter)
The Year of Less is a biography of a woman in her late twenties stuck in a cycle of accumulating debt. She decides to make a complete life change after racking up nearly $30,000 in credit card debt. Looking back, she can’t even recall most of the things she’s mindlessly purchased. Flanders decides to challenge herself and not shop for an entire year. For 12 consecutive months, she only purchases absolute necessities like groceries and gas for her car. Her endeavor starts small, with a ban on things like takeout coffee and new books. By the end she’s gotten rid of 70 percent of her belongings and saved more than half of her income. She keeps her readers looped in through her online blog the entire way. By the end of her project, she achieves her goal of only making purchases that are in alignment with her bigger life goals. Flanders’ story might make you want to create your own version of a personal shopping ban. Though you might not feel compelled to make such drastic cuts in every aspect of your life, The Year of Less could inspire you to spend more consciously.
This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/the-best-books-we-read-in-2023-163028702.html?src=rss