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2023 Book Reviews - A Few Good Recommendations

A review of sixteen great books I read in 2023.

3 minutes
Haley Stomp

Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

This book is begging to be a movie. The author created so many memorable characters, each with their own gifts and challenges, and weaved their intersection together perfectly. It is part murder mystery, part 1920s/30s historical fiction about Pennsylvania immigrant communities told with a Forrest Gump levity. Jewish immigrants from across Europe sharing a community named Chicken Hill with former southern slaves who moved north, all congregating at a grocery store run by Chona, the beautiful, caring, limping woman with the mismatched leg, and her husband, Moshe, daring theater owner who booked controversial but wonderful new music (a la Footloose). The brilliance of the author lies in all the stories within the story, entertaining character qualities like the boy who quacked like a duck, the clairvoyant low country woman, the scary, but other-worldly talented, twin Lithuanian shoemakers and a love story between two people named Fatty and Paper. There’s Bernice, who has a brood of children with fathers unknown and Dodo, the deaf boy who brings joy to the community and ultimately provides the greatest reason to feel something. I loved how this book took me somewhere I would otherwise never be and showed me new perspectives. And I loved how spectacular the author is at his craft. There is a lot to digest in this book, but it was well worth it. The last quarter of the book raced to the finish line as each character’s dilemma was a crescendo to the finale. A great ride of a book. (R.I.P. Monkey Pants)

The Prospectors by Ariel Djanikian

If you’re in the mood for some snowy Alaskan gold rush historical fiction rich in American history and family drama from the late 1800s, this book is for you. It has a death, conniving siblings, secret storage shed sex, present day unearthing of past family secrets, First Nations reflection, and rags to riches conflict. It’s especially interesting because the main families are the author’s own great-great-grandparents who left a starving fruit business in California to strike it rich in Alaska. She spent years researching her family’s archives to create this enjoyable, steady-paced, fictional depiction of an incredible journey. I savored it over several days.

The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff

This 2023 book has done a bit of a number on me, and I’m definitely checking out more of this author’s books. Once through this book is not enough to appreciate Groff’s writing talent. Each paragraph is like a poem. I was instantly sucked into this story about an English servant girl in an early American colonial settlement who escaped into the wilderness to essentially avoid being eaten by her starving master and his family.

This story is so many things: imaginative, survivalist, historical, raw, naturalistic and spiritual. It’s also one big holding-your-breath for the moment when our heroine’s painful, constantly-on-the-brink-of-death life gets some relief. I was over halfway through the book when I thought - Is she ever going to find a native village or another group of people to live with? I won’t spoil it for anyone, but I will say it’s going to take me some time to find closure and think about the different messages here.

It’s a beautiful story of survival, toughness and what it was like to wander the plentiful lands of America before it was America. I am in awe of what our heroine was capable of alone in a strange land. It’s a little bit Wild by Cheryl Strayed meets Charles Dickens’ dirty, sick, scraping-by old English and set in a land still inhabited by its native people. You’ll find yourself asking what you would have done in her shoes, or stolen boots, as it was.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

This book was recommended to me by a friend and a random guy also looking to buy a book in the airport. It is historical fiction based on a real-life villain in Memphis in the 1930s who was stealing and selling kids. It’s one of those historical fiction reads you read to remind you how truly horrible people can be in the name of money and power. It’s also a beautiful story of a girl determined and driven by the power of love. Flowing among the terrible things is a strong current of love carrying our little heroine to a place not as good as home but at least a place of love. Your heart will break and mend a little by the end, just not all the way.

Spare by Prince Harry

I had been avoiding Spare because I thought it was going to be too fluffy, too whiny, too promotional, but I was wrong. Most of this book is about a man I didn’t really know, a man who is still dealing with the trauma of his mother’s death, two tours of war and the ruthlessness of the paparazzi. It was deeper and more mature than I expected. Meghan doesn’t come in until the last few chapters, and it was an interesting look into their version of events. Although the Netflix special covers many of the same things, the book was better. I’m glad I read it.

Three Good Murder Mysteries

A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham is a suspenseful, too-close-for-comfort story about a serial killer snatching teenage girls. The author does a good job of indicating multiple characters, and the end is somewhat unexpected. It’s set in steamy bayou Louisiana.

The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda is a whodunnit set in beautiful coastal Maine. The story is suspenseful but not as deeply developed as the other two books and I wasn’t as connected to the heroine. A quick read.

No Strangers Here by Carlene O'Connor is the first murder mystery in a series and based in Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland. It has race horses, past loves and lots of secrets. It’s smart and twisty with a tiny female veterinarian heroine. The scenery and dialect take me back to Ireland, and the mystery is meaty. Can’t wait for the next book.

We Came We Saw We Left by Charles Wheelan

I loved this book by Charles Wheelan about his family’s trip around the world in nine months. It’s a practical journey about a family full of teenagers navigating life in different geographies. There are family meltdowns, flesh-eating bacteria, a lot of motion sickness and some amazing adventures. I enjoyed following along with the family dynamics, local cultures and their budgeting process. As someone who has traversed the world, it reminds me it is doable, enjoyable and life-changing, even with teenagers. It also made me want to go back to New Zealand

The East Indian by Brinda Charry

If you are craving a literary trip to India, this book is for you. The East Indian is historically and culturally interesting. It’s about a boy from Chennai who ends up as the first East Indian in Virginia in 1635. It takes place at the transition from indentured servant culture to a tightened system of slavery. The story has heavy moments but in general it’s not too heavy, and the book’s length is fairly breezy. Tony, the narrator, is a lovable character. He apprentices with a white doctor and becomes known as a healer. The East Indian reminds me also of The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami. A similar premise but told by a black Spanish slave who arrived in Florida in 934 and interacted with Native Americans. A couple of interesting looks back at what these chapters of our history were potentially like from two unique voices.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

This book was a powerful journey. I’m a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver and this one did not disappoint. It’s an educational novel about modern day Appalachia, especially the opioid crisis. Demon Copperhead is a young boy who ends up in foster care. It gets bleak at times, but you’ll be rooting for him the whole time. Demon’s southern colloquial voice really puts you in the middle of his world, and Kingsolver has written some killer sentences. It’s worth noting there are no copperhead snakes in this book, which I was happy about. If you want to have a better understanding how young kids (and adults) in dire situations get into popping pills, she eases you into it. It’s also a story of the people who show true love for other humans, no matter how messed up things get. There is hope and a window into uncomfortable but important topics.

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

I’m in love with an octopus! What a great book about a mysterious death and a friendship between a 70-year-old woman and a Giant Pacific Octopus. So much heart in this book (the octopus has three hearts). It’s a page turner.

Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Four Winds is a painful but great journey. Kristin Hannah knows how to describe historical hardship so you remember. I never really understood the Dust Bowl until this book. Powerful stuff and great writing. If you’ve read Hannah’s Nightingale, this is a close second.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

This was one of my favorite books in 2023. Such a great read. I haven’t felt this seen in a long time! Laugh-out-loud funny while also covering some serious stuff. Great story with a wonderful main character. This book isn’t just for women in science with kids, but if you fit that demographic, you will love this.

Horse by Geraldine Brooks and The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

These two books take place around the time of the Civil War - before it happened, a bit during, then decades after. Horse is historical fiction based on a famous real horse. It’s part history, mystery and a look at horse racing and race in the 1800s and today. There are so many people and one amazing horse to fall in love with in this book. I loved this horse so much by the end it was like loving my own pets. This horse is a GOAT. It’s a unique story with many parallel stories, and for sure one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while.

The thing that captured me about Sweetness of Water was that it depicted southern life in a small town shortly after the Civil War was over. This time period is not something I ever remember seeing depicted in Civil War movies as most stories revolved around slavery before or during the war. Both books challenged my previous understanding of many things, and I am grateful for the knowledge and the stories.