My Top 10 of 2023

Choosing my top ten books of the year is difficult. I always end up reading a lot of books, and a lot of books I like quite a bit. This year, I tried a bit of an experiment. I kept a running list of the books I’d read and ranked them as I went along. When it came time to make it official, I looked through my goodreads first so that I could see them chronologically, noted the books that stood out to me, and narrowed it down from there.

Why would you bother to do that?
Well, I wanted to see if there was a difference in how I ranked things in the moment versus after having sat with them for a while. There were some books that I loved right after finishing, but didn’t necessarily stick with me. Others didn’t give me that immediate emotional high, but I’ve been telling people about them and recommending them ever since.

Honestly, most of the books that were in my initial top ten stayed there, but changed positions a little bit.

Happy Place, Emily Henry
I’ve really enjoyed most of her books. I love that she weaves in romance with fairly relatable complications. In this case, it’s that realization that your friend group is all moving on, not because of drama, but because people go in separate directions as their lives evolve.

The House is on Fire, Rachel Beanland
This is a historical fiction that manages to weave a compelling and intricate story that takes place over the space of a few days. The subject is the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811, which was America’s first real tragedy. I love a well done historical fiction, which Beanland pulls off, and bonus points for not being about world war II.

Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver
I didn’t want to like this book. It’s long, it’s about drug addiction, and is a retelling of David Copperfield, which I’ve never read.
But this book has heart in spades. It MADE me care about it, and has been living in my brain ever since. Every time I see the cover, I think “Man. That was a good book.” I’m just not sure I will ever read it again.

Yellowface, R. F. Kuang
I know just enough about the publishing industry to appreciate this book on that level. I also really like an unlikable main character from time to time. Our protagonist isn’t a hero, for sure, but is she a victim, or a villain? You’ll go back and forth on that throughout the story. When I say this book is a train wreck, I mean it in the best way. I couldn’t look away.

Cassandra in Reverse, Holly Smale
I love a good time travel book. (My book of the year last year was Oona in Reverse) While time travel is the plot device that gets this story moving, it almost takes a backseat. The story itself is beautiful and not what you expect when you start out.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins
This book is way, way, way better than the rest of the Hunger Games books, combined.
Of course, this is just my opinion.
I love a villain origin story. I love knowing what Snow becomes, and how it’s all right there under the surface, but you don’t want it to be there. You want him to choose a better path, because it’s presented to him.

Tress and the Emerald Sea, Brandon Sanderson
Oh Brandon Sanderson. You’ve had my literary heart since I read Elantris. Some of his longer works feel inaccessible to me – I just don’t have the time to dedicate myself to 1,000+ page epics. But this story was just about perfect. It had heart, character development, adventure, and was just flat out fun to read.

The Dead Romantics, Ashley Poston
Let’s get this out of the way – this is a Reylo inspired book, which can either be a plus or a huge minus depending on your opinion. Personally, I love seeing people inspired by other works, taking something and making it their own. I think this is one of the better “Reylo” fics I’ve read, because it’s a little more of a creative take. Also, this story has an incredible amount of depth and human experience outside of the romance plot line. This book can be a bit predictable, and I think the only reason it wasn’t for me is that I wasn’t quite sure of the genre. (Romances must have a happily ever after. Other genres, not so much.)

Remarkably Bright Creatures, Shelby Van Pelt
This is another book that I wasn’t all that interested in, as it was sold to me as, “A book where the octopus is the narrator” and that did not hook me. (I’m also completely uninterested in horse books, while we’re on the subject)
But this book is creative and compelling and I had to know what was going to happen next. As it turns out, there are human narrators as well, and I preferred the octopus.

The Second Chance Year, Melissa Wiesner
Look, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one out there who is going to declare this their book of the year, but here we are. This book made me so happy. It was a romance time travel that hit all the right notes, had beautiful character development and, while the end was fairly easy to guess, I wasn’t sure how we were getting there, and the ride was very enjoyable.
It had some 13 Going on 30 vibes for me towards the end, and that is one of my favorite movies. Usually, my rule for declaring a book a “keeper” is that it needs to sit on my shelf for a year – if I still feel strongly about it then, it’s a winner. But no, I immediately knew that I want to re-read this. It’s a comfort novel. You read it with a cozy blanket, curled up where it’s warm and happy, and it just makes you feel good.
That won the year for me.

The Big DNF Question

How long do you give a book before you declare it a DNF? Do you even allow yourself to do that, or do you insist on grinding through those pages no matter what?

Up until recently, I’ve insisted on finishing books, for better or worse. I love the feeling of accomplishment, and feel like it gives me more credibility. I can honestly say that I disliked a book, because I suffered through ALL of the pages. Plus, there’s at least one book in my history that I didn’t finish, and whenever I see said book, I wonder if I should have pushed through. (But since it’s a solid 500 page non-fiction, I’m not sure I’ll actually revisit it.)

This year, I’m experimenting with being a little kinder to myself. There are so many books on my physical and digital shelves, and countless more that I haven’t acquired. Because I’m in book clubs, there are a certain amount of books that I have to finish each month, which means that if I’m busy, books that I want to read end up sitting on the shelf. I don’t want to toss away a perfectly good book, but I also don’t want to continue slogging through something when a book I’m really interested in waits nearby.

I feel like I need some guidelines. One friend said that he gives it the first three chapters. Another said the first 25%. I’ve also heard people say 100 pages. Three chapters might be a bit short, depending on the novel. I feel like you need to give it long enough to see what the setup is, get a good feel for the world and characters, and settle into the writing style. But there is definitely a point at which, if the book doesn’t resonate with you – or worse, is actively irritating – it’s not going to get better for you. So do you settle in for the slog, or let it go?

I won’t give the titles of the books I’ve decided to DNF this year, but here’s what wasn’t working for me:

Book 1: Had a lot of fatphobic/weight shaming comments – and while these were for the character’s eventual growth, I couldn’t stomach it. That feels like an unintentional pun.

Book 2: The first chunk of the book was very interesting, but then the perspective started to shift to another character that was boring and entitled. The story itself began to meander and slow down. It was a long book. So I looked up to see what the general consensus was – even those that really liked the book thought that a large part of the middle was a drudge, and it was 50/50 on whether the end was worth it. Since the beginning of the book kind of wrapped itself up, I decided to leave it as a short story and pretend the rest of the book never existed.

Book 3: On paper, I should have enjoyed this book at least somewhat! But the plot felt thin, the characters weren’t showing any signs of evolving, and when the author decided to delve into the real life history behind the novel, the story suffered. I liked the premise of the book, but I could skim a couple of chapters and nothing would have changed. Some books are engrossing enough to get away with that. This wasn’t.

I don’t know how to properly wrap this up…But I hope wherever you fall on the DNF scale, whatever you read, you find enjoyable. If you’re not being graded on it, don’t suffer unnecessarily!

That Thing I did, and the Other Thing I Did Because of It

Before I dropped off the face of the earth, I said that I had signed up for a weeklong writing retreat.
That retreat took place at a place called Nimrod, and it was honestly one of the best weeks of my life. I don’t know how to describe how magical that experience was. There was no air conditioning, there were bugs, it was humid as all get out, and I’d have gone back in a heartbeat. I loved spending the morning at an antique desk, staring out lacy curtains, plunking away at my work in progress. I came away with the knowledge that my project was worth pursuing, which was priceless. I met some amazing people and had incredible food.

The owners announced in January that they were taking their land private rather than running it as a retreat. I can’t say I blame them – it’s got to be a ton of work. But it broke my heart.

However, I wasn’t about to give up on the whole retreat thing. So I signed up for a more structured workshop that was recommended to me. It was nerve-wracking, because this was definitely taking it up a couple notches. This was a week to get and give feedback and improve my craft. Because I am an absolute slacker, I took the same project to Tinker that I took to Nimrod – just a different section. (If you’re thinking she had ten months and she didn’t finish that book – yes, we can both be disappointed in me.)

This time I came away with incredible, tangible feedback, and the conviction that I need to finish this novel and work on submitting it.
Don’t get too excited. I have a lot of work I need to do. Like, a LOT. Don’t expect to see a finished product any time soon. If I’m lucky and diligent maybe I can have a workable draft by the end of the year, query-able by spring, fingers crossed.

Maybe this time…

Fingers crossed.