As the pages of 2023 turn, it’s clear that our reading appetites have been particularly voracious this year. From the edge-of-your-seat thrills of new mystery novels to the immersive depths of historical fiction, the year’s most popular book lists reflect a diverse tapestry of literary inclinations. Each season brought its own flavor to our bookshelves, but one thing’s for sure: 2023 was the year of the unputdownable page-turner. Read on to see which book lists your fellow readers couldn’t get enough of.
Meet your next read-in-one-sitting thriller! This suspenseful debut by Julia Bartz had me hooked from the first page. THE WRITING RETREAT is about a famous author who invites five up-and-coming female novelists to her home in the Adirondacks for a month-long writing competition. The retreat is fierce, but there is a whole lot more at stake than just winning. The gothic atmospheric setting and complicated characters are icing on the cake for this cold winter hair-raiser. That’s all I’ll say about the plot . . . to make this psychological read all the more intriguing.
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The Plot meets Please Join Us in this psychological suspense debut about a young author at an exclusive writer’s retreat that descends into a nightmare.
Alex has all but given up on her dreams of becoming a published author when she receives a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: attend an exclusive, month-long writing retreat at the estate of feminist horror writer Roza Vallo. Even the knowledge that Wren, her former best friend and current rival, is attending doesn’t dampen her excitement.
But when the attendees arrive, Roza drops a bombshell—they must all complete an entire novel from scratch during the next month, and the author of the best one will receive a life-changing seven-figure publishing deal. Determined to win this seemingly impossible contest, Alex buckles down and tries to ignore the strange happenings at the estate, including Roza’s erratic behavior, Wren’s cruel mind games, and the alleged haunting of the mansion itself. But when one of the writers vanishes during a snowstorm, Alex realizes that something very sinister is afoot. With the clock running out, she’s desperate to discover the truth and save herself.
A claustrophobic and propulsive thriller exploring the dark side of female friendships and fame, The Writing Retreat is the unputdownable debut novel from a compelling new talent.
Sadeqa Johnson’s historical fiction (remember Yellow Wife?) always fills in the gaps of history with much-needed clarity and imbues it with an emotional pull. Her latest, THE HOUSE OF EVE, is especially touching, as it stems from her curiosity about her own grandmother, who became a mother at the age of just fourteen. Driven by questions of what happened to young unwed Black women like her grandmother in the 1950s, Sadeqa created the intertwining narratives of Ruby and Eleanor. Each young women comes from a different walk of life—high school Junior Ruby in urban Philadelphia is set to become the first person in her family to go to college, and Eleanor’s middle-class suburban life in Cleveland doesn’t help her fit in as much as she’d hoped at Howard University—but unexpected pregnancies send them on separate (and then colliding) trajectories that explore class, race, and gender mixed with ambitions in the mid-twentieth century.
From the award-winning author of Yellow Wife, a daring and redemptive novel set in 1950s Philadelphia and Washington, DC, that explores what it means to be a woman and a mother, and how much one is willing to sacrifice to achieve her greatest goal.
1950s Philadelphia: fifteen-year-old Ruby Pearsall is on track to becoming the first in her family to attend college, in spite of having a mother more interested in keeping a man than raising a daughter. But a taboo love affair threatens to pull her back down into the poverty and desperation that has been passed on to her like a birthright.
Eleanor Quarles arrives in Washington, DC, with ambition and secrets. When she meets the handsome William Pride at Howard University, they fall madly in love. But William hails from one of DC’s elite wealthy Black families, and his parents don’t let just anyone into their fold. Eleanor hopes that a baby will make her finally feel at home in William’s family and grant her the life she’s been searching for. But having a baby—and fitting in—is easier said than done.
With their stories colliding in the most unexpected of ways, Ruby and Eleanor will both make decisions that shape the trajectory of their lives.
RIPE by Sarah Rose Etter absolutely floored me. It's a gut punch, heartrending yet often unexpectedly hilarious exploration of the frenetic Silicon Valley life through the eyes of Cassie, a character so real, I felt her struggles deep in my bones. Her ever-present black hole companion—yes, you heard that right—resonated so powerfully with me. Once you start reading this cutting satire, which encapsulates the bizarre, often harrowing paradoxes of our modern world, believe me, you won't be able to stop. Prepare to binge-read, laugh, and maybe even cry.
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From an award-winning writer whose work Roxane Gay calls “utterly unique and remarkable” comes a surreal novel about a woman in Silicon Valley who must decide how much she’s willing to give up for success—for fans of My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Her Body and Other Parties.
A year into her dream job at a cutthroat Silicon Valley start-up, Cassie finds herself trapped in a corporate nightmare. Between the long hours, toxic bosses, and unethical projects, she also struggles to reconcile the glittering promise of a city where obscene wealth lives alongside abject poverty and suffering. Ivy League grads complain about the snack selection from a conference room with a view of houseless people bathing in the bay. Start-up burnouts leap into the paths of commuter trains, and men literally set themselves on fire in the streets.
Though isolated, Cassie is never alone. From her earliest memory, a miniature black hole has been her constant companion. It feeds on her depression and anxiety, growing or shrinking in relation to her distress. The black hole watches, but it also waits. Its relentless pull draws Cassie ever closer as the world around her unravels.
When her CEO’s demands cross an illegal threshold and she ends up unexpectedly pregnant, Cassie must decide whether the tempting fruits of Silicon Valley are really worth it. Sharp but vulnerable, funny yet unsettling, Ripe portrays one millennial woman’s journey through our late-capitalist hellscape and offers a brilliantly incisive look at the absurdities of modern life.
The story opens with a young child traveling with his family to a beach to watch turtles come ashore and lay their eggs in the sand. In the morning we learn that the boy and his family will dig up some of the turtles’ eggs and take them back to their village in the shadow of Mount Namuli. The reason for this: a lesson learned, to take only what is needed and leave the rest behind. This is a memory that he will hold on to for as long as he can. A memory of the last time he was free, a memory of his mother and father and the place he called home. This child will soon have his whole life changed when his village is destroyed and he is kidnapped. Based on the true story of Yasuke, Japan’s first foreign-born samurai and the only samurai of African descent. A riveting and very powerful story.
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Set in late 16th-century Africa, India, Portugal, and Japan, The African Samurai is a powerful historical novel based on the true story of Yasuke, Japan’s first foreign-born samurai and the only samurai of African descent—for readers of Esi Edugyan and Lawrence Hill.
In 1579, a Portuguese trade ship sails into port at Kuchinotsu, Japan, loaded with European wares and weapons. On board is Father Alessandro Valignano, an Italian priest and Jesuit missionary whose authority in central and east Asia is second only to the pope’s. Beside him is his protector, a large and imposing East African man. Taken from his village as a boy, sold as a slave to Portuguese mercenaries, and forced to fight in wars in India, the young but experienced soldier is haunted by memories of his past.
From Kuchinotsu, Father Valignano leads an expedition pushing inland toward the capital city of Kyoto. A riot brings his protector in front of the land’s most powerful warlord, Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga is preparing a campaign to complete the unification of a nation that’s been torn apart by over one hundred years of civil war. In exchange for permission to build a church, Valignano “gifts” his protector to Nobunaga, and the young East African man is reminded once again that he is less of a human and more of a thing to be traded and sold.
After pledging his allegiance to the Japanese warlord, the two men from vastly different worlds develop a trust and respect for one another. The young soldier is granted the role of samurai, a title that has never been given to a foreigner; he is also given a new name: Yasuke. Not all are happy with Yasuke’s ascension. There are whispers that he may soon be given his own fief, his own servants, his own samurai to command. But all of his dreams hinge on his ability to protect his new lord from threats both military and political, and from enemies both without and within.
A magnificent reconstruction and moving study of a lost historical figure, The African Samurai is an enthralling narrative about the tensions between the East and the West and the making of modern Japan, from which rises the most unlikely hero.
When I tell you that I found myself absolutely enchanted by Emily Habeck’s writing from the very beginning of her debut novel, I’m not hyperbolizing. The wonderfully strange story dances on the page amidst large, telling portions of white space—some pages only feature a stoic paragraph, while others are written in the form of a play. The way the form of this novel fluctuates and mutates over time complements the story that it’s telling: Lewis, a newly married theater teacher, has just been told that, over the next year, he will gradually transform into a great white shark. Lewis and his wife, Wren, are met with difficult choices, making SHARK HEART a unique, endearing meditation on connection, grief, and adaptability.
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A gorgeous debut novel of marriage, motherhood, metamorphosis, and letting go, this intergenerational love story begins with newlyweds Wren and her husband, Lewis—a man who, over the course of nine months, transforms into a great white shark.
For Lewis and Wren, their first year of marriage is also their last. A few weeks after their wedding, Lewis receives a rare diagnosis. He will retain most of his consciousness, memories, and intellect, but his physical body will gradually turn into a great white shark. As Lewis develops the features and impulses of one of the most predatory creatures in the ocean, his complicated artist’s heart struggles to make peace with his unfulfilled dreams.
At first, Wren internally resists her husband’s fate. Is there a way for them to be together after Lewis changes? Then, a glimpse of Lewis’s developing carnivorous nature activates long-repressed memories for Wren, whose story vacillates between her childhood living on a houseboat in Oklahoma, her time with a college ex-girlfriend, and her unusual friendship with a woman pregnant with twin birds. Woven throughout this bold novel is the story of Wren’s mother, Angela, who becomes pregnant with Wren at fifteen in an abusive relationship amidst her parents’ crumbling marriage. In the present, all of Wren’s grief eventually collides, and she is forced to make an impossible choice.
A sweeping love story that is at once lyrical and funny, airy and visceral, Shark Heart is an unforgettable, gorgeous novel about life’s perennial questions, the fragility of memories, finding joy amidst grief, and creating a meaningful life. This daring debut marks the arrival of a wildly talented new writer abounding with originality, humor, and heart.
This epic love story from the author of THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO follows one woman as she is forced to choose between the two men she loves. Emma is in her twenties when she marries her high school sweetheart, Jesse, and begins a life of adventure with him. But when Jesse’s helicopter disappears over the Pacific, it seems he’s gone forever. Years later, Emma moves home and reconnects with Sam, an old friend. After their engagement, Emma discovers that Jesse is still alive; now Emma must choose who she loves and which life she wants to lead.
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If you haven’t read any of Tananarive Due’s works, then you are missing out on one of the scariest and most poignant voices in modern horror, and her latest book all but secures that title. THE REFORMATORY follows young Robbie Stephens, Jr., who is sent to an all-boys reformatory in 1950s Florida after defending his older sister. But Robbie’s got a secret: he can see ghosts, or haints, as he calls them. And the haints at the reformatory reveal the dark and twisted things that are happening behind closed doors. Will his family be able to save him in time? Or will these haints be welcoming Robbie as one of their own?
A gripping, page-turning novel set in Jim Crow Florida that follows Robert Stephens Jr. as he’s sent to a segregated reform school that is a chamber of terrors where he sees the horrors of racism and injustice, for the living, and the dead.
Twelve-year-old Robbie Stephens, Jr., is sentenced to six months at the Gracetown School for Boys, a reformatory, for kicking the son of the largest landowner in town in defense of his older sister, Gloria. So begins Robbie’s journey further into the terrors of the Jim Crow South and the very real horror of the school they call The Reformatory.
Robbie has a talent for seeing ghosts, or haints. But what was once a comfort to him after the loss of his mother has become a window to the truth of what happens at the reformatory. Boys forced to work to remediate their so-called crimes have gone missing, but the haints Robbie sees hint at worse things. Through his friends Redbone and Blue, Robbie is learning not just the rules but how to survive. Meanwhile, Gloria is rallying every family member and connection in Florida to find a way to get Robbie out before it’s too late.
The Reformatory is a haunting work of historical fiction written as only American Book Award–winning author Tananarive Due could, by piecing together the life of the relative her family never spoke of and bringing his tragedy and those of so many others at the infamous Dozier School for Boys to the light in this riveting novel.
Few genres blend as beautifully as historical fiction and mystery, which is why I’m always on the lookout for promising new historical mysteries. And Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s THE SQUARE OF SEVENS immediately caught my eye. Not only does it have a cool cover, but it’s described as atmospheric, geared toward fans of writers like Sarah Waters and Sarah Perry, and set in Georgian England. Check, check, check. The real kicker, though, I think you’ll agree, is the plot: THE SQUARE OF SEVENS centers on Red, a young lady who grows up practicing a tarot technique she learned from her secretive late father. Red’s mission to learn more about him and her mother expands her world . . . and puts her safety at risk. Doesn’t get more intriguing than that!
“A big, satisfying, and clever read.” —The Times (London)
An orphaned fortune teller in 18th-century England searches for answers about her long-dead mother and uncovers shocking secrets in this immersive and atmospheric saga perfect for fans of Sarah Waters and Sarah Perry.
Cornwall, 1730: A young girl known only as Red travels with her father making a living predicting fortunes using the ancient Cornish method of the Square of Sevens. Shortly before he dies, her father entrusts Red’s care to a gentleman scholar, along with a document containing the secret of the Square of Sevens technique.
Raised as a lady amidst the Georgian splendor of Bath, Red’s fortune-telling delights in high society. But she cannot ignore the questions that gnaw at her soul: who was her mother? How did she die? And who are the mysterious enemies her father was always terrified would find him?
The pursuit of these mysteries takes her from Cornwall and Bath to London and Devon, from the rough ribaldry of the Bartholomew Fair to the grand houses of two of the most powerful families in England. And while Red’s quest brings her the possibility of great reward, it also leads to grave danger.
Laura Shepherd-Robinson, “the queen of modern Georgian literature” (Susan Stokes-Chapman, author of Pandora), has written a dazzling and Dickensian story of mystery and intrigue, with audacious twists and turns.
Intense and suspenseful, this thriller will have you glued to the page as you desperately hope for the characters to escape. Jane—not her real name—is trapped on a remote farm somewhere in the United Kingdom with Len. He kidnapped her seven years ago and has broken her in every possible way so that she’s beyond hope. That is, until she finds out she is pregnant. Now she will do anything it takes to protect her unborn child and survive. However, all of her plans fall apart when Len brings another victim to the farm. Can she save herself, her baby, and this new stranger from a horrible fate?
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“Immediate, intense, gripping, taut, terrifying, moving, and brilliant.” —Lisa Jewell, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Invisible Girl
“Brilliantly written...terrifying.”—Ruth Ware, #1 New York Times bestselling author of One by One
A woman being held captive is willing to risk everything to save herself, her unborn child, and her captor’s latest victim in this “intense, dark, and utterly chilling” (Jennifer Hillier, author of Jar of Hearts) thriller in the tradition of Misery and Room.
On an isolated farm in the United Kingdom, a woman is trapped by the monster who kidnapped her seven years ago. When she discovers she is pregnant, she resolves to protect her child, no matter the cost, and starts to meticulously plot her escape. But when another woman is brought into the fold on the farm, her plans go awry. Can she save herself, her child, and this innocent woman at the same time? Or is she doomed to spend the remainder of her life as a captive?
Intense, dark, and utterly gripping The Last Thing to Burn “explores the resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of unfathomable evil. This harrowing journey is one worth taking” (Publishers Weekly).
“Astoundingly great. Whalefall is, quite simply, a beautiful novel—a must-read story of the sea, the nature of awe, and the briny relationships between fathers and sons.” – Gillian Flynn
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The Martian meets 127 Hours in this “powerfully humane” (Owen King, New York Times bestselling author) and scientifically accurate thriller about a scuba diver who’s been swallowed by an eighty-foot, sixty-ton sperm whale and has only one hour to escape before his oxygen runs out.
Jay Gardiner has given himself a fool’s errand—to find the remains of his deceased father in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Monastery Beach. He knows it’s a long shot, but Jay feels it’s the only way for him to lift the weight of guilt he has carried since his dad’s death by suicide the previous year.
The dive begins well enough, but the sudden appearance of a giant squid puts Jay in very real jeopardy, made infinitely worse by the arrival of a sperm whale looking to feed. Suddenly, Jay is caught in the squid’s tentacles and drawn into the whale’s mouth where he is pulled into the first of its four stomachs. He quickly realizes he has only one hour before his oxygen tanks run out—one hour to defeat his demons and escape the belly of a whale.
Suspenseful and cinematic, Whalefall is an “astoundingly great” (Gillian Flynn, New York Times bestselling author) thriller about a young man who has given up on life…only to find a reason to live in the most dangerous and unlikely of places.
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