I spend a lot of time researching and reading new books. It’s how I decide what to recommend here on Tolstoy Therapy (and what not to recommend) and it involves a lot of sifting through new releases to decide what’s worth reading.
Of all of the new books I’ve read this year, this collection is my shortlist of the best books of 2023, spanning literary fiction, thrillers, historical novels, and more. These are the books I’ve loved reading this year and have been begging everyone around me to read too (especially my long-suffering husband, who’s been busy reading Anna Karenina).
If you don’t know what to read – or you don’t know which new books are for you – hopefully this helps. Loosely ordered with my favourite books first, read on to top up your TBR list, treat yourself to a few new books to enjoy around Christmas, and set aside some time with a great book. Enjoy!
(Looking for books to preorder? You might also like: 15 anticipated new books of 2024 to add to your TBR list.)
My selection of the best fiction books of 2023 worth reading
1. The Wishing Game by Meg Shaffer
You can think of Meg Shaffer’s 2023 hardcover fiction debut as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (but with books) meets Goosebumps for adults. Most of all, it’s a novel about things working out and wishes being granted.
Dark yet hopeful, The Wishing Game is the story of twenty-six-year-old teacher’s aide Lucy Hart, who’d do anything to adopt Christopher, one of the kids in her class who lacks a loving home after the loss of his parents.
Broke and feeling hopeless, Lucy dares to dream when Jack Masterson, the author of the Clock Island books that helped her survive her lonely childhood, announces he’s finally written a new book. There’s only one copy, and only one person will win it.
Along with three other contestants, Lucy finds herself on Jack’s island where she opens the door to magic, connection, and new beginnings. Here’s my full review.
2. The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese
Found at the top of bestseller lists everywhere this year, The Covenant of Water is Abraham Verghese’s long-awaited new novel about love, faith, and medicine, published fourteen years after one of my all-time favourite books, Cutting for Stone.
Set against the historical progress of India from 1900 through to the 1970s, The Covenant of Water is a big, multi-generational book about the whole spectrum of life, including both joy and sadness… quite a lot of sadness.
It’s not always easy to read, but overall this is an incredibly well-written, beautiful, and ambitious book – one that I’ll absolutely be re-reading and thinking back to for a long time to come.
3. Collected Works by Lydia Sandgren
A Swedish bestseller from 2020 now published in English, Collected Works is a wonderfully literary and complex novel about love, power, and art – and what leads us to make the pivotal decisions that change the course of our lives.
At over 700 pages, it’s a long, long book that seems to move at a glacial pace. And yet, I was completely immersed in Sandgren’s Scandinavian world of cafes packed with students and blustery streets in winter.
Bringing together the realms of academia, books, and art with the story of a publisher’s missing wife, you can think of Collected Works as something like The Secret History meets Sally Rooney in Gothenburg.
4. The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng
As I read The House of Doors this autumn, I remembered just how divine Tan Twan Eng’s writing is. Set in Penang in 1921, Lesley Hamlyn and her husband Robert, a lawyer and war veteran, receive an unexpected visitor: Robert’s old friend, the famed writer “Willie” Somerset Maugham, along with his secretary Gerald.
The story that unfolds is both mesmerizingly written and incredibly insightful into the complicated nature of love and what we hide from our loved ones, the world, and ourselves.
As with Tan Twan Eng’s previous novels (The Garden of Evening Mists, The Gift of Rain) I wanted to enjoy each and every glorious sentence. If I didn’t have a million other books to read, I’d turn to the beginning and start all over again.
5. The Bird Hotel by Joyce Maynard
The Bird Hotel is above all a book about fresh starts. After hitting rock bottom, Irene is guided – by intuition and a little magical realism – to Central America, where she checks into a lakefront hotel overlooking a volcano and surrounded by otherworldly birds and flowers.
Starting with a series of awful tragedies, The Bird Hotel balances the novel’s sadness with the stunning location and the subtle magic that unfolds on Irene’s healing journey. Here’s my full review.
6. Four Seasons in Japan by Nick Bradley
Nick Bradley’s Four Seasons in Japan is one of the wisest and most comforting novels of 2023, especially if you’re feeling stuck or at a crossroads in your life.
The life-affirming story begins with the perspective of Flo, an Oregon-born translator who’s living in Tokyo and achieving her dreams, but feeling more lost and empty than ever.
However, when she stumbles upon a lost book on the subway, she finds both a fascinating project and a beautiful story that brings her back to life. As readers, we also fall in love with this wonderful book within a book as we witness Japan through the seasons.
7. Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton has been researching gardening over the last few years. And doomsday bunkers for billionaires. And a lot more in-between.
Ten years after Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries comes Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton’s gripping new literary thriller focused on a sometimes-criminal, sometimes-philanthropic guerilla gardening group: Birnam Wood. When they encounter a tech-bro-turned-doomsayer who’s hiding something, carnage ensues.
Birnam Wood was not what I expected. After a slow beginning filled with generally awful characters and Catton’s favourite type of writing – elaborate, meandering, and generally superfluous – the book races towards a gripping final third I couldn’t put down. Catton goes full Tarantino and the ending is, well, nuts.
8. North Woods by Daniel Mason
North Woods is a strange and weirdly majestic book. As soon as you start reading it, you’ll see what I mean. That said, you’ll also see how startlingly beautiful it is. Tumble into these exquisitely well-researched pages for the story of a single house in the woods of New England, as told through the lives of those who inhabited it over centuries.
For now, the best I can describe it is a hybrid between Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Maggie O’Farrell’s lavishly beautiful writing in The Marriage Portrait. I think Daniel Mason might be receiving some literary awards in the year ahead.
9. Wellness by Nathan Hill
I’ll continue my theme of peculiar books with Wellness, Nathan Hill’s satirical yet moving story of the rising, crumbling, and excavation of a marriage – as well as wellness fads, tech obsessions, and the bonds that keep people together.
Following the success of his spectacular debut The Nix, this is the story of a single couple: Jack and Elizabeth. As they navigate their relationship through kids, unfulfilled ambitions, and dysfunctional families, we journey with them from student life in gritty Chicago to competitive modern suburbia in their thirties.
Rambling over 600 pages and complete with seamless referencing of scientific and sociological studies throughout (there’s a thorough bibliography at the end of the book), Hill puts modern society under a satirical, frequently hilarious, and often exhaustingly accurate microscope.
10. The Five-Star Weekend by Elin Hilderbrand
Now, to finish up with something breezier: the most delightfully easygoing read I picked up all year, The Five-Star Weekend. Elin Hilderbrand is my favourite not-so-secret guilty pleasure author, and I loved reading her new sun-kissed beach read for 2023.
In the book, Hollis Shaw seems to have the perfect life: she’s the creator of a popular food blog and married to Matthew, a dreamy heart surgeon. Although the book is brimming with summer vibes, it begins with loss, exposing the cracks in Hollis’s marriage and relationship with her daughter, Caroline.
When Hollis hears about something called a “Five-Star Weekend”, she decides to host her own, bringing together four friends from different stages in her life.
Reading The Five-Star Weekend back in the summer was my much-needed antidote to too much intense reading and too long without a proper break. Pick this up for a captivating, sunshine-filled story about friendship, love, and self-discovery from the bestselling author of The Hotel Nantucket.
So, there you go! Whether you’re in the market for sunny vacation reads or cryptic literary thrillers, I hope you’ve found some new books to enjoy as much as I have.