The sun has just about set on 2023, which means it’s time to look back at the books I’ve read this past year.
We’re about to look at some analytics first, so if you don’t give a shit about that and only want to see what my favorite books were, you can skip over this next bit by clicking here.
According to the Reading List, I read 26 books in 2023. Technically, the list shows 27 titles read, but the last two — FAUN by Joe Hill and A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT by Becky Chambers — are novellas, which I count as half a book each for the purposes of this exercise.
26 books is fairly consistent with the amount I’ve read in the last few years. My average seems to be about one book every two weeks, a pace I am good with given all the other pulls at my time. Here, have a chart.
As you can see, 2020 was an outlier by quite a bit. (It also illustrates why, when you’re looking at a dataset, it’s helpful to know the median as well as the average.) I chalk such a large number up to it being the early days of the pandemic, when I suddenly had more free time but before depression pulled a Christopher Columbus and colonized my brain. Depression, among many other delightful qualities, affects the ability of the brain to think and focus. 2021 was a bad year, mental health-wise, which is a major reason why I only managed to read 20 books.
I’m happy with having read 26 books this year, and I’ll be happy if I reach that number again in 2024.
Okay — enough with the data analysis. Onward to my favorite books of 2023!
FAVORITE NEW BOOK
(Published in 2023 and that I’ve never read before)
SILVER NITRATE, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia has become one of my favorite writers over the last few years. Not just because she writes great books — which, to be clear, she does — but because she switches up genres and eras with every book. 1970s noir? Check. Jazz Age fantasy involving Mayan gods and a road trip? Also check. Gothic horror on a Mexican estate? You got it. Historical romance reimagining of a classic scifi novel? Check and mate. And those are only the novels of hers that I’ve read so far.
SILVER NITRATE continues this trend: a thriller set in 1990s Mexico City, involving a cursed, lost Mexican horror movie and Nazi occultism. From the back cover:
Montserrat has always been overlooked. She’s a talented sound editor, but she’s left out of the boys’ club running the film industry in ’90s Mexico City. And she’s all but invisible to her best friend, Tristán, a charming if faded soap opera star, though she’s been in love with him since childhood.
Then Tristán discovers his new neighbor is the cult horror director Abel Urueta, and the legendary auteur claims he can change their lives—even if his tale of a Nazi occultist imbuing magic into highly volatile silver nitrate stock sounds like sheer fantasy. The magic film was never finished, which is why, Urueta swears, his career vanished overnight. He is cursed.
Now the director wants Montserrat and Tristán to help him shoot the missing scene and lift the curse . . . but Montserrat soon notices a dark presence following her, and Tristán begins seeing the ghost of his ex-girlfriend. As they work together to unravel the mystery of the film and the obscure occultist who once roamed their city, Montserrat and Tristán may find that sorcerers and magic are not only the stuff of movies.
That description barely scratches the surface of this wonderful, deftly-told mystery. One of my favorite bits is a little easter egg that Moreno-Garcia casually drops in the middle (remember, the book is set in 1993 going on 1994) (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler):
Even though each of Moreno-Garcia’s books is wildly different from the others, there are a few common threads: 1) they are historical fiction, 2) they are set in Mexico, and 3) the protagonists are young women from varying socioeconomic backgrounds who all find their power through the course of the narrative. I love this because it gives a white dude like me a glimpse into Mexican culture through a multitude of eras. Combined with Moreno-Garcia’s superb storytelling, this makes every new book from her something to look forward to.
FAVORITE NEW-TO-ME BOOK
(Published before 2023 but I read it for the first time)
THE PRICE OF SALT, or CAROL, Patricia Highsmith
I haven’t stopped thinking about this book since I finished it in January.
THE PRICE OF SALT chronicles the slow-burn romance between two women, Therese and Carol, in the 1950s United States, an era that was, uh, not exactly known for its progressiveness towards such relationships. Therese is a struggling young set designer who works by day in a large department store. It is there she first meets Carol, a customer looking for a Christmas toy for her daughter. They eventually become friends and then lovers. There is a road trip, an unhinged private investigator, and a lot of 1950s gender politics that should be hard to fathom but are still sadly relevant today.
The book was published in 1952. At the time, “lesbian novels” were not so much de rigueur as they were considered a career killer, especially for a well-known suspense writer such as Highsmith. As such, she published THE PRICE OF SALT under a nom de plume. Another byproduct of the era is that the novel’s romance and sex are not depicted outright but instead through subtext. Ironically, this works in the story’s favor by sending an undercurrent of sexual electricity through the interactions between Therese and Carol.
THE PRICE OF SALT was reprinted in 1990, this time under Highsmith’s own name, and retitled CAROL. In the Afterword of that edition, Highsmith shared an observation about one of the things she felt made her novel stand out at the time. It’s the perfect bit to close with.
The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters, or at least they were going to try to have a future together. Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing—alone and miserable and shunned—into a depression equal to hell.
(Something I’ve read before and reread in 2023)
The JUMPER Series, Steven Gould
JUMPER is a perfect example of science fiction doing what it does best: asking a straightforward question — “What if I could teleport?” — and extrapolating from there.
Davy Rice is a 16-year-old kid living with a physically and emotionally abusive, alcoholic father. One day, at home and about to take a beating over some mild transgression, Davy closes his eyes but the blow doesn’t come. When he opens his eyes, he is in his local library. This is the first time Davy realizes he teleport — or “jump” as he calls it.
The first half of JUMPER details Davy’s escape from his dad and does all the things a 16-year-old kid would do if he discovered he could teleport (or at least the things I would have done and still would do): burgles a bank vault and sets himself up in a luxurious lifestyle. He also searches for his mom and meets a girl. Then in the middle of the book, the plot makes a sharp left turn that I will not discuss here because spoilers.
One of the things I love about JUMPER, and about Steven Gould’s books in general, and why I return to them again and again, is that Gould does a wonderful job at puzzling through the mechanics, the physics, the limitations of teleportation and solves for them in thoughtful ways that make sense. For example: later in the book, Davy decides to build an impenetrable home in a remote desert that only a jumper could reach. How would he go about getting lumber, furniture, electricity, plumbing, etc. into such a place? Fuck if I know — but Gould does, or at least fakes it well enough, and has Davy address these challenges one by one. And he does it in a way that’s compelling to read; it’s not just some infodump that you have to skip over five pages to get back to the story. That takes skill, gentle reader.
REFLEX is my least favorite of the series and the only one I’d never reread before. It’s still a good book, but upon rereading it I remembered why I’d not done so before, especially since I love the other books in the series so much. One of the two main plot threads involves Davy being imprisoned for pretty much the entire book. It’s interesting, sure, and Gould does a wonderful job of thinking through all the ways one might imprison a teleporter. But being stuck with Davy while he is methodically tortured and subjugated for half a book gets a little bleak, and then just becomes tedious. The other main plot thread involves Millie, Davy’s wife, who can also jump, tracking him down while avoiding the bad guys, and eventually pulling off a rescue. Millie is just as engaging a protagonist as Davy, if not moreso, and it’s ultimately her narrative that makes the book worth reading.
IMPULSE is set 15 years or so after REFLEX, and focuses on Millie and Davy’s teenage daughter, Cent. IMPULSE is just as good as JUMPER, and Gould begins to do interesting things with the concept of teleportation and extrapolating what else one might be able to do with the ability, like, say, flying. EXO, book four, takes the extrapolation even further and is essentially JUMPER . . . IN SPAAACE. Gould is working on a fifth JUMPER book and is also contracted for a sixth, so I imagine whenever those come out, I will probably read through the series again. Not because I will need to, but because I’ll want to.
This piece ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would be. Next year I think I will break it up into several posts. If you stuck with me ‘til now, then know that I am impressed and you can picture me reenacting that meme of the bearded guy slowly nodding and smiling in approval.