There is no better time to set reading resolutions than at the beginning of the year, and as we start 2023, I am most certainly arranging and rearranging my TBR. As an adventurous reader, this year I am seeking inspiration from reading challenges across the internet to build my own personalized reading goals and to determine which books on my TBR I should prioritize. From books I have been meaning to read and still haven’t picked up, to stories that wouldn’t have previously been on my radar if these challenges hadn’t helped me discover them, here are seven reading challenge prompts I am aiming to fulfill in 2023.
I have made it a personal mission to diversify my TBR and pick up books that aren’t traditionally considered among “the classics” by reading books set around the world and translated works of fiction. Luckily for me, the 52 Book Club’s 2023 Reading Challenge includes a prompt that slots in perfectly with this goal: read a book by a Caribbean author.
THESE GHOSTS ARE FAMILY by Maisy Card is the perfect book to fulfill this challenge. Charting a course from colonial Jamaica to present-day Harlem, the novel follows the Paisley family over multiple generations—specifically, how they grapple with the consequences of patriarch Abel Paisley’s death . . . and the subsequent, sudden revelation that he was alive the whole time.
Longlisted for the 2020 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
A “rich, ambitious debut novel” (The New York Times Book Review) that reveals the ways in which a Jamaican family forms and fractures over generations, in the tradition of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
*An Entertainment Weekly, Millions, and LitHub Most Anticipated Book of 2020 Pick and Buzz Magazine’s Top New Book of the New Decade*
Stanford Solomon’s shocking, thirty-year-old secret is about to change the lives of everyone around him. Stanford has done something no one could ever imagine. He is a man who faked his own death and stole the identity of his best friend. Stanford Solomon is actually Abel Paisley.
And now, nearing the end of his life, Stanford is about to meet his firstborn daughter, Irene Paisley, a home health aide who has unwittingly shown up for her first day of work to tend to the father she thought was dead.
These Ghosts Are Family revolves around the consequences of Abel’s decision and tells the story of the Paisley family from colonial Jamaica to present-day Harlem. There is Vera, whose widowhood forced her into the role of a single mother. There are two daughters and a granddaughter who have never known they are related. And there are others, like the houseboy who loved Vera, whose lives might have taken different courses if not for Abel Paisley’s actions.
This “rich and layered story” (Kirkus Reviews) explores the ways each character wrestles with their ghosts and struggles to forge independent identities outside of the family and their trauma. The result is a “beguiling…vividly drawn, and compelling” (BookPage, starred review) portrait of a family and individuals caught in the sweep of history, slavery, migration, and the more personal dramas of infidelity, lost love, and regret.
The Book Riot Read Harder challenge is one of my favorite reading challenges due to its wide-ranging prompts that encourage readers to try books outside of their comfort zone. One prompt I was particularly excited to see on this year’s challenge is to finish a book you did not finish last year. As someone who tends to read a lot of books at the same time, I have fallen victim to picking a book up, only to be sidetracked by another one.
This year, I am making it a personal mission to finish WE PLAY OURSELVES by Jen Silverman, which I started in 2021 and, sadly, had to return to the library before I could complete it. The book follows Cass, a young playwright on the rise who is brought down by an intense public shaming. When she flees to Los Angeles in an attempt to reinvent herself, she meets Caroline, her enigmatic filmmaker neighbor. As Cass is slowly brought into Caroline’s orbit, her curiosity develops into fear as she questions the ethics behind Caroline’s devotion to her craft.
When I saw that one of the prompts for PopSugar’s 2023 reading challenge is “a book with just text on the cover,” I knew immediately that my pick for this prompt would be WHAT MY MOTHER AND I DON’T TALK ABOUT, an essay collection edited by Michele Filgate. The genesis for this book arose from a viral essay Filgate wrote that details how her stepfather’s abuse of her impacted her relationship with her mother, and each essay in the collection expresses the dynamic of love, loss, and trauma between the writer and their mother. As an additional bonus: you can utilize WHAT MY MOTHER AND I DON’T TALK ABOUT for another prompt from the PopSugar challenge, “a BookTok recommendation,” as this book has gained widespread acclaim across BookTok.
“You will devour these beautifully written—and very important—tales of honesty, pain, and resilience” (Elizabeth Gilbert, New York Times bestselling author of Eat Pray Love and City of Girls) from fifteen brilliant writers who explore how what we don’t talk about with our mothers affects us, for better or for worse.
As an undergraduate, Michele Filgate started writing an essay about being abused by her stepfather. It took her more than a decade to realize that she was actually trying to write about how this affected her relationship with her mother. When it was finally published, the essay went viral, shared on social media by Anne Lamott, Rebecca Solnit, and many others. This gave Filgate an idea, and the resulting anthology offers a candid look at our relationships with our mothers.
Leslie Jamison writes about trying to discover who her seemingly perfect mother was before ever becoming a mom. In Cathi Hanauer’s hilarious piece, she finally gets a chance to have a conversation with her mother that isn’t interrupted by her domineering (but lovable) father. André Aciman writes about what it was like to have a deaf mother. Melissa Febos uses mythology as a lens to look at her close-knit relationship with her psychotherapist mother. And Julianna Baggott talks about having a mom who tells her everything.
As Filgate writes, “Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them.” There’s relief in acknowledging how what we couldn’t say for so long is a way to heal our relationships with others and, perhaps most important, with ourselves.
Contributions by Cathi Hanauer, Melissa Febos, Alexander Chee, Dylan Landis, Bernice L. McFadden, Julianna Baggott, Lynn Steger Strong, Kiese Laymon, Carmen Maria Machado, André Aciman, Sari Botton, Nayomi Munaweera, Brandon Taylor, and Leslie Jamison.
The reading tracking app The StoryGraph traces so many different stats in one’s reading habits, including your top moods, that it has led me to discover I do not read many happy books. In fact, some of my least popular moods are relaxing, hopeful, and inspiring. As much as I love deriving catharsis from books, in 2023, I’m going to go out of my way to try to read books that will actually leave me in a more positive mood than when I started.
The StoryGraph’s Stat-Buster challenge is perfect for me to incorporate some more hopeful books into my 2023 reading, as one of the challenge’s prompts is to read one of your least-read moods. Fredrik Backman has a track record for writing cozy reads, and I can think of no better choice to fulfill this prompt than reading ANXIOUS PEOPLE. One wouldn’t expect a story about an apartment viewing hijacked by a failed bank robber who takes everyone hostage to be particularly hopeful, but Backman infuses ANXIOUS PEOPLE with his trademark humor and heart to create a universal, optimistic story about humanity.
An instant #1 New York Times bestseller, the new novel from the author of A Man Called Ove is a “quirky, big-hearted novel….Wry, wise and often laugh-out-loud funny, it’s a wholly original story that delivers pure pleasure” (People).
Looking at real estate isn’t usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can’t fix their own marriage. There’s a wealthy bank director who has been too busy to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can’t seem to agree on anything. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-ready-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment’s only bathroom, and you’ve got the worst group of hostages in the world.
Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them is entirely who they appear to be. And all of them—the bank robber included—desperately crave some sort of rescue. As the authorities and the media surround the premises, these reluctant allies will reveal surprising truths about themselves and set in motion a chain of events so unexpected that even they can hardly explain what happens next.
Proving once again that Backman is “a master of writing delightful, insightful, soulful, character-driven narratives” (USA TODAY), Anxious People “captures the messy essence of being human….It’s clever and affecting, as likely to make you laugh out loud as it is to make you cry” (The Washington Post). This “endlessly entertaining mood-booster” (Real Simple) is proof that the enduring power of friendship, forgiveness, and hope can save us—even in the most anxious of times.
I feel like this prompt from The 52 Book Club’s 2023 Reading Challenge is directly targeting me. There are multiple books on my TBR that I have intended to read not just in the last year, but in the last TWO years. I have been telling myself that I will pick up TENDER IS THE FLESH since August 2020, and yet it sits on my shelves, unread, mocking me.
There is truly no good reason why I haven’t picked up this book yet, especially since I am a massive fan of dystopian fiction. Set in a world where animal meat is poisonous, eating humans, now called “special meat,” is made legal. The ramifications are explored through Marcos Tejo, who works in the business of slaughtering humans at a processing plant. When he is given a live specimen of the finest quality, he develops a forbidden relationship with her and must reconcile with the consequences.
Working at the local processing plant, Marcos is in the business of slaughtering humans—though no one calls them that anymore.
His wife has left him, his father is sinking into dementia, and Marcos tries not to think too hard about how he makes a living. After all, it happened so quickly. First, it was reported that an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans. Then governments initiated the “Transition.” Now, eating human meat—“special meat”—is legal. Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing.
Then one day he’s given a gift: a live specimen of the finest quality. Though he’s aware that any form of personal contact is forbidden on pain of death, little by little he starts to treat her like a human being. And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost—and what might still be saved.
Similar to TENDER IS THE FLESH, Emily Austin’s debut novel EVERYONE IN THIS ROOM WILL SOMEDAY BE DEAD is a book I was immediately excited to read when it first came out in July 2021, and since then I have still not picked it up. My excitement to read this story has only grown as I have seen it pop up all over social media, and when I saw that one of the prompts for PopSugar’s 2023 Reading Challenge is to read a book by a first-time author, I knew that this would be my top choice.
Twentysomething atheist lesbian Gilda cannot stop ruminating on death. In an attempt to ease her mind, she responds to a flier for free therapy posted by her local Catholic church. When the priest assumes she’s there for a job interview to replace the recently deceased receptionist, Gilda is too embarrassed to correct him and is hired. As she stumbles into increasingly absurd situations, Gilda attempts to find what is worth living for in a world where death is the only certainty.
In this “fun, page-turner of a novel” (Sarah Haywood, New York Times bestselling author) that’s perfect for fans of Mostly Dead Things and Goodbye, Vitamin, a morbidly anxious young woman stumbles into a job as a receptionist at a Catholic church and soon finds herself obsessed with her predecessor’s mysterious death.
Gilda, a twenty-something, atheist, animal-loving lesbian, cannot stop ruminating about death. Desperate for relief from her panicky mind and alienated from her repressive family, she responds to a flyer for free therapy at a local Catholic church, and finds herself being greeted by Father Jeff, who assumes she’s there for a job interview. Too embarrassed to correct him, Gilda is abruptly hired to replace the recently deceased receptionist Grace.
In between trying to memorize the lines to Catholic mass, hiding the fact that she has a new girlfriend, and erecting a dirty dish tower in her crumbling apartment, Gilda strikes up an email correspondence with Grace’s old friend. She can’t bear to ignore the kindly old woman who has been trying to reach her friend through the church inbox, but she also can’t bring herself to break the bad news. Desperate, she begins impersonating Grace via email. But when the police discover suspicious circumstances surrounding Grace’s death, Gilda may have to finally reveal the truth of her mortifying existence.
With a “kindhearted heroine we all need right now” (Courtney Maum, New York Times bestselling author), Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is a crackling and “delightfully weird reminder that we will one day turn to dust and that yes, this is depressing, but it’s also what makes life beautiful” (Jean Kyoung Frazier, author of Pizza Girl).
I have read several fantastic books of dystopian fiction in 2022, and luckily, I can explore the genre more in 2023. The 52 Book Club has included a dystopian fiction prompt in their 2023 reading challenge, and I’m fully prepared to utilize this reading challenge prompt to pick up one of the highest priority books on my TBR: THE IMMORTAL KING RAO by Vauhini Vara.
Athena Rao has had to contend with her father’s legacy in more ways than one. Not only does she sit in a prison cell accused of her father’s murder, but thanks to a biotechnological innovation, she literally possesses all of her father’s memories.
In his lifetime, King Rao was a brilliant, if damaged, visionary. With the help of his wife, Margie, he created the personal computer known as the Coconut, setting into motion the contrivance of a new world order led by a corporate-run government. Athena’s fate now lies in the hands of this government’s Shareholders—unless she can escape and rejoin the resistance group known as the Exes.
Photo credit: iStock / monap