2023 was a big year in reading for me, and while there are plenty of blog posts reviewing most of my reads, I thought I should highlight my favorites. Since my reviews include recommendations for who would enjoy or not enjoy any book, I think books I loved aren't always obvious. Without further ado, here are my top reads of 2023:
My Favorite Debut
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
My Favorite Award Winner
Babel by R. F. Kuang
My Favorite Writing Craft Book
Story Genius by Lisa Cron
My Favorite Indie
Anastasia by Sophie Lark
If you want to know about other great books I read, check out my 2023 goals update post, which has links to all my reviews for the year.
What were your favorite reads in 2023? Have you read any of my picks? Let's discuss in the comments!
In January, I posted my reading and writing goals for 2023 and now I'm checking in to hold myself accountable. My reading list from 2023 is at the bottom and I'll share my favorites in another post!
Goal: Read 15,000 pages.
Reality: I read 19,608 pages!
Goal: >50% of the authors will be marginalized or different from me in a demographic way.
Reality: 50.9% were marginalized or different from me in a demographic way.
Goal: Read 9 indie books
Reality: I read 9 indie books (see reading list below)
Goal: Read 2 foundational scifi novels
Reality: I read 2 foundational scifi novels: Frankenstein and I, Robot
Goal: Read 4 scifi nominees/winners from the last two years
Reality: I read more than 4 award winners/nominess, though I'll admit they aren't all scifi, and not all nominated in the last two years: Chain-Gang All Stars (National Book Award 2023 nominee); Babel (Nebula winner 2023); Woman of Light (multiple award winner/nominee 2023); The Sixth Extinction (Pulitzer Prize 2015), All Systems Red (Nebula and Hugo 2018); Artificial Condition (Hugo 2019)
Goal: 5 debut novels
Reality: I read 7 debut novels: Woman of Light, Lessons in Chemistry, Please Report Your Bug Here, I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, The Blood Trials, Camp Zero, and Chain-Gang All-Stars
Goal: Send >5 queries each month until I finish my potential agent list.
Reality: Because some agents never opened in the time period I was querying, I didn't finish the list. However, that's beyond my control, so because I did send more than 5 queries per month until my list ran dry, I am counting this as a success.
Goal: Finish the draft of my current WIP
Goal: Continue to attend my critique groups and keep up with pre-reading
Goal: Attend one writing workshop or conference
Reality: I attended the PNWA 2023 conference.
Goal: Get one short story selected for publication
Reality: Nope! I totally forgot this was a goal this year. I wrote a short story, but never shopped it around. Oops!
Overall, not bad. I only fell short on a couple goals.
Below is my reading list from the year. My most popular genre by far was fantasy, followed distantly by scifi. Three of these books were DNRs, but at least 100 pages of each counted toward my page goal.
Title Author Pub Type Genre Link
The Sixth Extinction Elizabeth Kolbert Trad Non-Fiction My Review
Woman of Light Kali Fajardo-Anstine Trad Historical My Review
Arsenic and Adobo Mia M. Manansala Trad Mystery My Review
Reminders of Him Colleen Hoover Trad Romance Podcast
All Systems Red Martha Wells Trad SciFi My Review
Chain of Thorns Cassandra Clare Trad Fantasy
Lessons in Chemistry Bonnie Garmus Trad Historical My Review
Anastasia Sophie Lark Indie Fantasy My Review
The Chemist Stephanie Meyer Trad Action Podcast
I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself Marisa Crane Indie Scifi/Literary My Review
Please Report Your Bug Here Josh Riedel Trad Scifi My Review
Fevered Star Rebecca Roanhorse Trad Fantasy
The Blood Trials N. E. Davenport Trad Fantasy My Review
Murder Your Employer Rupert Holmes Trad Mystery Podcast
Artificial Condition Martha Wells Trad SciFi
Bird by Bird Anne Lamott Trad Non-Fiction My Review
Babel R.F. Kuang Trad Fantasy My Review
Rogue Protocol Martha Wells Trad SciFi
Six of Crows Leigh Bardugo Trad Fantasy My Review
Story Genius Lisa Cron Trad Non-Fiction My Review
Crooked Kingdom Leigh Bardugo Trad Fantasy My Review
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi Shannon Chakraborty Trad Fantasy My Review
Charlotte: The Price of Vengance James Moore Pre-Pub Mystery Podcast
Camp Zero Michelle Min Sterling Trad Scifi My Review
The Power of Babel John McWhorter Trad Non-Fiction My Review
Putting the Fact in Fantasy Dan Kobolt et. al. Trad Non-Fiction My Review
Love, Theoretically Ali Hazelwood Trad Romance My Review
The Terraformers Annalee Newitz Trad Scifi My Review
The Legacy of Yangchen F. C. Yee Trad Fantasy
Toph Beifong's Metalbending Multiple Trad Fantasy
Fourth Wing Rebecca Yarros Trad Fantasy Podcast
Frankenstein Mary Shelley Trad SciFi My Review
The Mimiking of Known Successes Malka Older Trad Scifi/Mystery My Review
The Raider Bride Johanna Wittenberg Indie Fantasy
Starlet Sophie Lark Indie Historical/Mystery My Review
Throne of Glass Sarah J. Maas Trad Fantasy My Review
iRobot Isaac Asimov Trad SciFi My Review
Of Cinder and Bone Kyoko M. Indie SciFi
Poisoned Primrose Dahlia Donovan Indie Mystery My Review
Chalice of the Gods Rick Riordan Trad Fantasy My Review
Sun and the Star Rick Riordan/Mark Oshiro Trad Fantasy My Review
Crown of Midnight Sarah J. Maas Trad Fantasy
The Dictionary of Lost Words Pip Williams Trad Historical My Review
When We Left Cuba Chanel Kleetan Trad Historical My Review
Chain-Gang All-Stars Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Trad Fantasy My Review
My First and Only Love Sahar Khalifeh Trad Historical
The Savior's Champion Jenna Moreci Indie Fantasy
Iron Flame Rebecca Yarros Trad Fantasy Podcast coming soon!
The Throne of the Five Winds S.C. Emmett Trad Fantasy
Grunt Mary Roach Trad Non-Fiction
Heir of Fire Sarah J. Maas Trad Fantasy
Assassin's Blade Sarah J. Maas Trad Fantasy
We're All Monsters Here Amy Marsden Indie Fantasy My Review
Queen of Shadows Sarah J. Maas Trad Fantasy
The cover is giving me Carmen San Diego as a vampire, which is not a bad thing.
I needed to squeeze one more indie book in before the end of the year to hit my 2023 goals, and thankfully I found the novella We're All Monsters Here by Amy Marsden. At 99 ebook pages, I was able to finish it in one sitting. I'm so glad this is the book I picked up!
We're All Monsters Here is like Glass Onion (aka Knives Out 2) but with a vampire named Anna. She manipulated a corporate big wig into planning an exclusive executive getaway and inviting Anna, whose app he recently bought. It's basically a vampiric buffet. Anna's weekend even improves when she has a fling with one of the assistants, Saira. However, vampire hunters show up and Anna must navigate carefully to avoid being taken out.
This novella had a great voice and premise. Despite killing people, I really liked Anna--I mean, eat the rich, right? While I often complain novellas are too short, I thought the length of this one was just right.
The first half was a little too smooth for me. If nothing goes wrong for the characters, I start feeling like the story is too simple and maybe predictable. When things went downhill for Anna, it was much more fun. That being said, the voice and premise kept me going in the first half.
We're All Monsters Here is for you if you enjoyed Glass Onion, if you're looking for a sapphic urban fantasy, or if you want a quick read. It's not for you if your favorite part of fantasy is extensive worldbuilding, if you are looking for lots of twists and turns, or if you aren't able to handle blood and gore at the moment.
Have you read We're All Monsters Here? What was your favorite novella of 2023? Let's discuss in the comments!
Look at that sphynx! With a cover like that, I couldn't say no!
I stumbled on Poisoned Primrose (Motts Cold Case Mystery, Book 1 ) by Dahlia Donovan when looking for an indie published cozy mystery to read. My goal this year was to read nine indies and I was behind, but I also wanted an indie in a genre I hadn't read indie before. When I saw the cover of Poisoned Primrose, I knew I needed to read it. It is book one in a series which also includes Pierced Peony, Pickled Petunia, and Purloined Poinsettia.
This book follows Motts, an autistic and asexual middle-aged woman and her sphynx, Cactus, who move into a late relative's cottage in a small English town. She knows the villagers, as she spent many childhood visits there, so there's a strong returning-to-small-town vibe. As Motts redoes the garden, she finds a very dated dead body. Motts pokes around to learn more about the victim and those who knew her, but the killer doesn't appreciate Motts's interest.
I liked the portrayal of the sphynx cat, Cactus, it was 10/10. The author either has or has lived with one, I'm sure. Cactus was my favorite character. I liked that the main character was written by an autistic author. I've read a couple books now about an autistic main character written by neurotypical authors and they get quite cringey with the stereotypical portrayals. I liked that this book avoided that! I also liked how Motts's asexual identity was respected and represented.
Unfortunately, the mystery was not clear enough to me. I didn't even have a sense of the age of the victim or why she was buried in Motts's garden at all. I was left without the sense of satisfaction that a solved mystery normally leaves me. I also had no idea what most characters looked like, so it was hard to picture some scenes.
Overall, this book is for you if you're looking for authentic autism or asexual representation, if you want to fall in love with or learn what it's like to own a sphynx, or if you prefer mysteries about cold cases. It is not for you if you want all your questions answered at the end of a mystery, want a romantic subplot involving spice, or a prefer fresh dead body in your mysteries.
Have you read Poisoned Primrose? Do you recommend other indie cozy mysteries? What other books have great autism rep? Let's discuss in the comments!
I decided to read Starlet by Sophie Lark because I loved Lark's Anastasia, which I read earlier this year. I chose the stand alone Starlet, a historical mystery.
Starlet focuses on Alice, the sister of a 1940's Hollywood star named Clara Bloom. When Clara is murdered on set, look-alike Alice sets up to finish Clara's final movie while also investigating the cast and crew to find the killer. She teams up with Jack, a local police detective, and together they dive into the mysteries of old Hollywood and uncover far more than just a murderer.
I liked plenty about this book. Lark's writing style is pretty invisible to me, allowing me to devour the book in about four sittings. I liked Alice and her motives and the details about how Hollywood operated. I liked the mystery too, with various twists and turns making it all the more interesting.
However, I was very disappointed in the reveal of the killer. No spoilers about why, it just felt sad. I also felt like the ending after the reveal came out of nowhere. The romance between Alice and Jack wasn't as fleshed out as I wanted, and some of the characters needed a little more fleshing out.
This book is for you if you like old Hollywood affairs like in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, if you want a classic-feeling mystery, or if you want a quick/easy read. This book isn't for you if you want romance at the forefront, if you want a feeling of justified vindication at the reveal of the killer, or if you're looking for factual old Hollywood events.
Have you read Starlet? Have you enjoyed Sophie Lark's other books? Let's discuss in the comments!
I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is a debut novel by Marisa Crane from an indie publishing company. Though this is a debut novel, Crane has plenty of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry pub credits. It's a literary speculative novel.
In an alternate world, a department exists that assigns an extra shadow to a person who has committed a crime (however, the definition of crime is quite malleable). Kris and her wife have a baby, but her wife dies in childbirth, and the baby is assigned an extra shadow. Kris already has an extra shadow, the story behind which is kept secret for maybe 2/3 of the novel. Kris works her way through grief while their child ages and surrounds herself with other outcasts or misfits of society. It's written in first person with extremely short scenes and often has a stream-of-consciousness feel. The title comes from Kris's habit of naming things with exoskeletons to manage anxiety attacks.
I liked some aspects of this book. It was obviously allegorical, pretty clearly about discrimination (especially against members of the LGBTQIA+ community) and I liked the message. I liked the list of exoskeleton-having creatures when Kris would fight anxiety because the technique of listing items in a category is a real and effective way (one of many) to combat an anxiety attack.
I'm not a literary fiction person, though, so the very short scenes, the tight focus on grief and character instead of plot, and the lack of explanation about the speculative elements were not for me. I couldn't get over wondering how an extra shadow was special because if light hits you from more than one angle, you have an extra shadow anyway. It didn't make sense to me as a literal plot element.
This book is for you if you enjoyed the literary feel of This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, if you're big into allegories, or if you're in the mental space to read about working through grief. It is not for you if you're still working through grief/loss of a partner or if you want more scifi than literary elements.
Have you read I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself? Let's discuss in the comments!
Paper book means Clue gets to pose with the gorgeous cover! Photo by Kate Ota 2023
This post was a bit delayed, but I'm finally reviewing Anastasia by Sophie Lark. It pubbed (Indie!) in December 2022 and is far from this author's debut. The reason my review is delayed is because I originally read in as an ebook and loved it so much I bought the paperback. I would have bought the hardcover if that was an option. I wanted to wait for that to arrive before posting.
Anastasia is about the famed Grand Duchess Anastasia, but in a dark fantasy setting. There are familiar faces from history/the animated movie: the Romanov sisters, Tsarevich Alexi, Tsar Nicholas and the Tsarina, and Rasputin. In this world, people can have powers, and the royal family is known for time walking, which is actually kind of like super speed rather than time travel. Anastasia is the only child who inherits that power, and being a patriarchy, that's frowned upon. There's also Damian, the son of the Cossack ruler, who was taken as a prisoner/foster as an early teen. He and Anastasia develop a friendship as the country spirals toward revolution. And let's not forget Rasputin, who is even more sinister in the book than reality. When the famed night of the revolution hits, it's nothing like our history books.
I loved this book. I loved the occasional illustrations (a huge reason why I bought the paperback), I loved the plot, I loved the romance, and I went rabid for the twist. I hit the twist at the end of my commute to work and wouldn't shut up about wanting to get back to reading the book for the entire work day. The enemies-to-friends-to-lovers felt organic and the sense of doom knowing it would end in revolution added so much great tension. I think this might be my new favorite book.
I'm struggling to think of negatives. I guess I wish the illustrations were in color, because the amazon page had some color ones which I loved. It's also incredibly long, so buckle up. Otherwise, I see myself reading this over and over and over again.
This book is for fans of the animated Anastasia who loved the magical and romantic aspects, fans of the Broadway play Anastasia who liked the incorporation of more of the history, people who enjoy historical documentaries about the Romanovs, fans of enemies-to-friends-to-lovers/slow burn romances, and fans of unique magic. It's not for you if you are looking for a direct retelling of the animated movie or the Broadway play--those focus mostly on post-revolution events and this book is largely pre-revolution events. (Also, certain characters were likely covered by copyright due to being fictional, like Bartok the bat or Dmitri.) This book may also be hard to read for anyone who recently lost family members, especially to violence.
Have you read Anastasia? What did you think? Which is your favorite: animate movie, Broadway show, or book? Did you know that the author made a Spotify playlist that matches certain scenes? (The ebook has links in the prose when you should listen to the songs!)
If you missed it, my story "Please Don't be a Serial Killer" is one of the stories in Nightmare Sky: Stories of Astronomical Horror. It's an anthology from Death Knell Press edited by Red Lagoe, which published in November 2022.
The Bram Stoker Awards announced its preliminary ballots for works published in 2022, and Nightmare Sky made the list for Superior Achievement in Anthology! Horror Writers Association members can vote on which of the ten anthologies make it to the final ballot, which will be five titles. Those five titles can officially say they are nominees. So we aren't there yet, but it's so exciting! Death Knell Press wrote a beautiful post about how much this means to Red.
If you're not familiar with the Bram Stoker Awards, here's a little background. Bram Stoker famously wrote Dracula, among other horror titles. The award was created by the Horror Writer's Association and first presented in 1988. The preliminary list is made from recommendations of HWA members or by a jury. Either way, it means HWA members have been reading and enjoying Nightmare Sky enough to recommend it. It's such an honor! The winners are announced in the spring.
If you're a voting HWA member interested in Nightmare Sky, feel free to contact me for a copy.
Wish us luck!
A year ago, I posted my 2022 reading and writing resolutions. Now it's time to check in and see how I did.
Goal: Read 45 books
Achieved! I read 45 books exactly and reviewed 23 of them (see links below)
Goal: 8 of those books would be indies
Achieved! I read 8 indies exactly and reviewed 3 of them (see links below)
Goal: Greater than 50% of the books would be written by female authors
Achieved! 66.66% were written either exclusively by women or at least one woman, where multiple authors contributed
Goal: At least 50% of the books would be written by authors who have a marginalized identity.
Achieved! 55.55% were written either exclusively by or including at least one author with at least one marginalized identity
I read a ton of great books this year. It was a good mix of new, old, big hits, and quieter releases. SciFi and Fantasy tied as my most common genres, which is no surprise as those are always my favorites.
Here's my reading list from 2022:
Goal: Have my WIP query ready by February
Achieved! I sent my first round of queries for this project in February 2022.
Goal: Send at least 5 queries per month
11/12 on this one, can't win them all, though some months I sent more than 5.
Goal: Complete the first draft of my next WIP by August 2022
Nope! This one is still under construction.
Goal: Continue attending writing groups whenever possible
Goal: Keep up with this website
Achieved! A couple months were slimmer on content than others, but that's the way it goes sometimes.
I'm still deciding on my 2023 resolutions/goals. Did you achieve your 2022 goals? Did we read any of the same books? Let's discuss in the comments!
I'm not going to say for sure that the tagline is a reference to my story, but it could be! Graphic from Death Knell Press.
Looking to buy indie horror?
Nightmare Sky, and anthology of astronomical horror from Death Knell Press, is available as of November 4th, 2022! It's edited by Red Lagoe, and there's a foreword from Aurealis Award-winning author Alan Baxter and stories from 28 authors! The anthology is available in both e-book and paperback. There are all sorts of horror stories inside and they're all fantastic (yes, I got an early copy).
Copies are available from:
Barnes and Noble
Indie Bound (to buy it from your local bookstore)
Don't forget that you can always ask your local library to order a copy!
Authors: Tiffany Michelle Brown, Dino Parenti, Pauline Barmby, Zachary Rosenberg, Ziggy Schutz, Inara Enko, Jeremy Megargee, Vann Orcka, Patrick Barb, Justin Moritz, Matthew Condello, M. Richard Eley, Madison McSweeney, Bernard McGhee, Elizabeth Davis, Lindsey Ragsdale, Jacob Steven Mohr, Tony Logan, Kim Z. Dale, Ai Jiang, C.R. Beideman, Salvador Ayala, Kate Ota, Holly Rae Garcia, Avra Margariti, Grace R. Reynolds, Emerson Seipel, & Rose Strickman.
Want to learn more? Check out Death Knell Press's page about it.
I appreciate anyone who grabs a copy of this anthology!