by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
As always, I embark on the task of selecting five favorite reads (so far!) of 2023 with equal parts enthusiasm and trepidation. I'm composing this blog post on June 7. So far this year, I've read 168 books; of those, I rated 108 of those books with either 4.5 or 5 stars.
In narrowing down my options, I eliminated anything that was a main pick on the podcast and anything that I'd read previously (so, no re-reads!). I also tried to offer a variety that's representative of the types of reading I love to do. With that said, there are SO many books that easily could have a place on this list.
I'll end the caveats there . . . here we go!
Andrea Elliott's Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) - Elliott first published the story of Dasani, a young girl living in a New York homeless shelter with her mother, stepfather, and seven siblings and stepsiblings, in the New York Times, and I remember then being swept away by the five-part article. (It's still available online.) Elliott embedded herself with the family, accompanying them through their days and encouraging them to film short, reflective videos themselves to supplement her reporting. The book extends that original story for years, so we see the journey of this family from 2012 to 2021, as Dasani's parents fight to keep their family together, sometimes faltering, and—all too often—facing down the organizations that are designed to help them but instead tear their family apart. There's much that's unexpected in Dasani's life, but there's also a sense of a story that's occurring over and over again in the United States. Elliott has done masterful work here to bring the lives of Dasani and her family to the page. I listened to this one on audio (it's read by Adenrele Ojo), and while part of me wishes I'd read it in print to mark quotations, the audiobook is a powerful experience.
Ryan La Sala's The Honeys (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) - Ryan La Sala's The Honeys was our Unabridged Podcast Buddy Read pick for April, and I loved it so much! This was a controversial book for our group—people had mixed feelings—but I'm unreservedly a fan. The novel is complex, with many, many layers. Mars is grieving the death of his twin sister from whom he had grown apart in recent years. Her death occurred under bizarre circumstances—that scene opens the book in a surreal, immersive rush—and Mars feels that he's missing something. To get to the roots of her death, Mars decides to travel to the camp they both attended when they were younger: Caroline has been devoted to that camp and to a group there called The Honeys, while Mars—bullied almost to the point of death because of his genderfluidity—stopped attending years before. That's the premise. What ensues is incredibly complicated: there's a mystery, there's body horror, there's an exploration of cliques, of gender, of romance, of friendship. The writing is gorgeous on the sentence level, and I found the plot to be totally captivating. While this is a polarizing read, it's one I highly recommend.
Angie Thomas's Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) - Angie Thomas's middle-grade fantasy debut more than lived up to my extremely high expectations. The novel—the first in a series—focuses on Nic, a twelve-year-old Remarkable (meaning that she has the capacity to do magic) who begins to uncover a series of secrets about her family and her own identity that change how she sees herself and everyone around her. For her entire life, Nic—who lives with her dad—has been used to moving around a lot because of her father's job. Now, she lives in Jackson, a town she loves, with a best friend she doesn't want to give up. On her twelfth birthday, along with receiving a pet hellhound, Nic and her friend JP are looking forward to meeting their favorite author who has written a series of books centered on the Remarkable life. That single event begins to change everything for Nic. Thomas's novel is incredibly propulsive (I didn't want to stop listening!) and contains a mix of original fantasy and Black folklore that results in some beautiful world building. Thomas incorporates important figures and moments in Black history in a way that enriches the plot and informs much of how Nic understands who she is. I cannot wait for the sequel!
Shelby Van Pelt's Remarkably Bright Creatures (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) - There's a reason we've all been seeing Shelby Van Pelt's Remarkably Bright Creatures all over bookstagram since its publication: it is brilliant. The story begins with an octopus, Marcellus, and the elderly lady who cleans at the aquarium where he lives and then broadens out to include a wide range of characters whose lives eventually connect and intertwine. This is a heart-warming novel, a heart-breaking novel, and one that makes me wish I could read it again for the first time, with that lovely journey ahead of me. I highly recommend the audiobook, read by Marin Ireland and Michael Urie, and I also recommend a nonfiction companion book, Sy Montgomery's How to Be a Good Creature (this one is about an array of animals, including an octopus), though she does have one that's octopus centered that I hope to read soon!
Rebecca Yarros's Fourth Wing (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) - Rebecca Yarros's Fourth Wing has been all over bookstagram. I go into super-hyped books with hesitation, but this one lived up to my expectations. There are dragons and extreme training montages, an open-door romance subplot and an enemies-to-lovers trope, as well as some amazing world building. This is a chunky 600+ pager that I couldn't stop reading.
This novel is reminiscent of some other books I've loved: it has the training montages of a Hunger Games, the steamy fantasy romance (romantasy?) of a Sarah J. Maas novel, the dragons of Eragon, and world building of Leigh Bardugo. The sequel will be out in November, and I'm thrilled that there's a quick turnaround.
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