If you ask us, this has been a fantastic year for new books. As we set out to name the Best Books of 2023, we found ourselves ruing the fact that we still haven’t read a huge stack of new novels and nonfiction book releases from this year. Given that, and with the caveat that we are sure we have missed out on some gems, here’s our annual list of top picks and our highly subjective and personal awards for the best books of 2023, including debut novels, new works from favorite novelists, new essay collections and several illuminating histories and other nonfiction. If a friend asked us for a recommendation on what to read next, these are the ones we’d suggest.
Best new novels and nonfiction books of the year for 2023
It’s always a challenge to winnow down the list of everything we’ve read in the past 12 months to determine which books make the cut for our annual roundup of the best new novels and nonfiction of the year, and 2023 was no exception. In alphabetical order based on title, here are our picks for the best fiction and nonfiction books released in 2023.
1. Airplane Mode: An Irreverent History of Travel by Shahnaz Habib.
We love reading travelogues – especially while we’re traveling. And this one is a fresh take on the genre, from a voice not usually heard. A personal and cultural history of travel from the perspective of a Third World-raised woman of color, Airplane Mode asks: “what does it mean to be a joyous traveler when we live in the ruins of colonialism, capitalism and climate change? Because the conditions of travel have long been dictated by the color of passports and the color of skin.”
2. American Mermaid by Julia Langbein.
We’ll admit it – we’re suckers for any novel that features a mermaid. And this one’s the perfect mix of fantasy, feminism and farce. A novelist finds success with her debut novel (also called American Mermaid) and moves to LA to co-write the screenplay. But as Hollywood tries to make this take of female empowerment into a teen male franchise, somehow the mermaid of the title seems to be interfering. The two threads – the novel-within-the-novel and the novel itself – intertwine beautifully. It’s clever, immersive, poignant and really funny. Dive in, dear reader.
3. Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad.
The author of award-winning The Parisian returns with her second novel, Enter Ghost. In it, a British Palestinian travels to Israel to visit her sister and is drawn into a revealing production of Hamlet in the West Bank. In light of current events, this is an even more essential read.
4. Everything’s Fine by Cecilia Rabess.
Here’s a thorny question: is interracial love between a Black liberal and a white conservative actually possible in this politically divided and racially charged moment in America? In her debut novel, Everything’s Fine, the author takes on this pressing question, fearlessly and knowledgeably. And she totally nails it.
Jess is a young Black woman, newly graduated from an elite college (think Harvard) and starting work as an investment banking analyst at Goldman Sachs in New York. Josh is her former college classmate, a Greenwich, Connecticut-born white Choate graduate, who’s on the same desk at work. Their views on politics and society are almost always wildly different – and their experiences at two different elite financial firms are sharply divergent. Yet somehow they can’t stay away from each other.
The whole meet-cute, opposites-attract thing can get old really fast, especially in these troubled times. When the opposing sides involve race and politics, the potential for cheesiness or cliché rises exponentially. Which makes it all the more impressive that in this case, the heated arguments between these two (and their passionate aftermath) feel urgent and fresh and new. As a Black woman with Harvard degrees who has worked at Goldman Sachs, even the most minute workplace details here ring true to me – as does the urgent matter of love across the lines of class, race and ideology. If you’ve read the marvelous story collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins, this is a smart and wildly romantic answer.
5. Eyeliner: A Cultural History by Zahra Hankir.
Who knew that eyeliner has such a rich heritage and such explanatory power? This new work is about how the “ubiquitous but seldom-examined product becomes a portal to history, proof both of the stunning variety among cultures across time and space and of our shared humanity. ” From Cleopatra to Amy Winehouse, this is a riveting account of how our ideas about beauty, the exotic, and the power of makeup have evolved. And a provocation about how we choose to present ourselves to the world.
6. How to Say Babylon by Safiya Sinclair.
How to Say Babylon is the story of the author’s struggle to break free of her rigid Rastafarian upbringing. Governed by her father’s strict patriarchal views and repressive control of her childhood, it’s an inspiration testament to the importance of finding one’s own voice.
7. Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom by by Ilyon Woo.
Master Slave Husband Wife is an account of an incredible true story. in 1848, Ellen and William Craft escaped slavery and fled to the north. They survived by having Ellen pass as a wealthy, disabled White man. With William posing as “his” slave. It worked until the Fugitive Slave Act forced them to go back on the run.
8. Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe.
The author of In the Wake returns with Ordinary Notes, a series of reflections that excavate the condition of being Black in America. Weaving in letters, photographs, autobiographical essays and more, Sharpe explores what happens to people left in the wake. It’s a brilliant series of candid and personal accounts, and a must-read for anyone trying to understand what it feels like to grow up Black in this country. We’ll never forget her account of a visit to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama – and her tender account of her indominable mother alone makes this a wonderful read.
9. Our Strangers: Stories by Lydia Davis.
Available only at independent bookstores and libraries, at the author’s request, Our Strangers is the latest collection of short fiction from the widely-admired storyteller. “Artful, deft, and inventive . . . these stories delves into topics ranging from marriage to tiny insects.” We savored reading this over the course of several days, and we were continually amazed at how much emotion a skillful writer can pack into just a few short lines.
10. Spare by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex.
Spare is “the definitive account of the experiences, adventures, losses and life lessons that have helped shape” Prince Harry. We’re staunch members of Team Meghan and Harry, and we’ve watched the Oprah interview and the Netflix documentary. And yet somehow we still wanted to know more. The ghostwriter is highly skilled, and weaves a story that feels Shakespearean in scope and drama. At its heart is the story of a little boy grieving the loss of his beloved mother who was left by his father and brother to fend for himself – until he found a partner who allowed him to live a life in full.
11. Take What You Need by Idra Novey.
Set in the Allegheny Mountains of Appalachia, Take What You Need traces the parallel lives of Jean and her beloved but estranged stepdaughter, Leah. The abandoned homes and dreams of West Virginia haunt the town where Leah grew up. She makes her escape, but Jean remains, living alone in an increasingly desolate landscape. After Jean’s death, Leah discovers that Jean has left behind several giant sculptures she welded from industrial scraps. There’s also a mysterious young man now living in her house. Touching on class, race, politics and family, ultimately the most powerful part of this narrative is how an artist comes to make their masterworks, despite all odds.
12. The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff.
The Bandit Queens is a buzzy debut novel with a wickedly funny premise. A young woman in a small village in India “loses” her husband when he walks out on her one day. But somehow the village believes that she killed him – and she finds herself in high demand with other wives who are hoping for the same outcome.
13. The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence by David Waldstreicher.
The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley is a comprehensive biography of one of the great poets of the Revolutionary War era – who also just happened to be a Black woman. “Admired by George Washington, ridiculed by Thomas Jefferson, published in London, and read far and wide, Phillis Wheatley led an extraordinary life. Seized in West Africa and forced into slavery as a child, she was sold to a merchant family in Boston, where she became a noted poet at a young age.” The author of “elegies for local elites and celebratory works for political events . . . she also used her verse to variously lampoon, question, and assert the injustice of her enslaved condition.” It’s a vibrant history, illuminating a vital chapter of American history that should be far better known.
14. The Pole by J.M. Coetzee.
The Pole, the latest novel from the Nobel Prize-winning author of Disgrace “concerns a Polish pianist who falls in love (or in lust) with a married woman. Not interested at first, she soon finds herself drawn into her pursuer’s orbit.” And that’s when it starts to get interesting. It turns out that a great love can be forged long after the lovers have parted.
15. The Sisterhood: How a Network of Black Women Writers Changed American Culture by Courtney Thorsson.
The Sisterhood is a powerful account of how a group of Black women writers came together to nurture and support each other, and ultimately transformed the literary landscape in America. “One Sunday afternoon in February 1977, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and several other Black women writers met at June Jordan’s Brooklyn apartment to eat gumbo, drink champagne, and talk about their work. Calling themselves “The Sisterhood,” the group―which also came to include Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Margo Jefferson, and others―would get together once a month over the next two years, creating a vital space for Black women to discuss literature and liberation.”
16. The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez.
The Vulnerables is the long-awaited next work from the author of some of our favorite novels, including The Friend and What Are You Going Through. In it, “a solitary female narrator asks what it means to be alive at this complex moment in history and considers how our present reality affects the way a person looks back on her past.” The literature of the COVID epidemic is only now starting to emerge, and this is a witty and moving account of one Manhattan dweller’s thoughts and experiences in that awful and disorienting time.
17. To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul by Tracy K. Smith.
In To Free the Captives, the Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate of the United States “draws on several avenues of thinking—personal, documentary, and spiritual—to understand who we are as a nation and what we might hope to mean to one another.”
18. What Napoleon Could Not Do by DK Nnuro.
In the novel What Napoleon Could Not Do, Ghanaian siblings Jacob and Belinda Nti had one childhood goal: to move to America. Belinda has achieved this dream. As their father put it, she has done “what Napoleon could not do,” attending college and law school in the U.S. and marrying a wealthy Black Texas businessman. As her brother struggles to make it to America, Belinda’s husband is struggling with his own disappointments and bigoted treatment in this “promised land.” All three must learn to survive and make peace with the hope and the sometimes disappointing reality of Black life in America.
19. Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation by Tiya Miles.
Wild Girls is “a meditative narrative-history of women outdoors; from Harriet Tubman who was forced to labor on a Maryland plantation, to Louisa May Alcott in New England, to an Indigenous women’s basketball team in Montana.”
20. You Could Make This Place Beautiful: A Memoir by Maggie Smith.
Poet Maggie Smith’s sixth book and first memoir, You Could Make this Place Beautiful, is a candid look at her life – and the lives of her children – after a painful divorce. Can a memoir centered on a wrenchingly painful divorce actually leave you feeling more hopeful? In the capable hands of the author, it’s possible.
Smith is a poet and the most glittering and memorable passages center on two of her best works. We hadn’t read her work before, making these pages even more significant. No spoilers here, but this is a journey through one of the hardest experiences life can throw at us – led by guide who is candid, vulnerable and relatable. She shares her hard-won wisdom generously, and it’s a marvelous gift she’s sharing. It reminds us of Rachel Cusk’s revelatory memoir Aftermath. Meaning it’s heart-breaking – and full of hard-earned wisdom.
best new novels and nonfiction books of the year 2023
That’s our highly subjective and person take on the best novels and nonfiction books of the year 2023. What’s on your list, dear reader?