12 books that NPR critics and staff were excited to share with you in 2023
I've worked on Books We Love — NPR's annual, year-end books guide — for a decade, and one of my favorite parts of the process each year is getting a sneak peek at what my co-workers read in their free time. Who's into poetry? Who reads tons of YA? Who's all nonfiction all the time? It's fun to spot trends and see which books get nominated over and over again. Here are a dozen titles pared down from a list that our staffers and critics were particularly eager to tell you about in 2023. To see the full list, head over to Books We Love.
Biography of X by Catherine Lacey
How well can anyone really know their spouse? When an enigmatic artist — who goes by the name X — dies suddenly, her wife, CM, quickly learns how little she actually knew about the woman she had spent years with. Biography of X is CM's metafictional attempt to write, well, a biography of X, an artist with multiple personas who'd become famous for her transgressive, controversial work. Set against the backdrop of an alternate-universe United States that's recovering from a post-World War II schism between the North and South, the book documents CM's journey to untangle the true history of her wife's life by interviewing people who each knew a completely different version of her. And what she uncovers, revealed in the book's final act, left me breathless.
— Natalie Escobar, editor, Newshub
The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese
The doctor and novelist (how can you really be that multitalented?!) Abraham Verghese returns to the literary scene with an epic family drama that has been years in the making. The result — one of the best books I've read about South Asia in years. On its surface, this story set in South India chronicles three generations of a family that suffers from a medical mystery of drownings. But the storyline is much deeper — a complex plot with lessons about love, pain and human understanding. Don't be discouraged by the 700+ pages: The book is a page-turner that miraculously gives you a way to find hope in the face of repeated tragedy (though I still found myself crying).
— Asma Khalid, White House correspondent, co-host of The NPR Politics Podcast
Family Lore by Elizabeth Acevedo
Flor can tell when someone's going to die. It's her gift, her little bit of magic. Her three sisters have their own gifts, as do her two nieces — a magical ability to tell when someone's lying. But when Flor announces she's having a living wake, the family wonders whether she has foretold her own demise. This multigenerational story of secrets, survival and self-discovery artfully weaves together touches of magic with the reality of what it is to be a woman — daughter, sister, mother, tía. Whether you come for the chisme, the magic or the desire to read something real, you'll leave having devoured a lyrical family saga that touches so many real, tender parts of what it means to be human.
— Christina Cala, senior producer, Code Switch
The Guest by Emma Cline
A romp of epic proportions — Alex, our adrift protagonist, swims and eats her way through the private pools and stainless steel kitchens of the Hamptons' elite. Broke and without a home to return to, she extends her summer stay by weaseling her way into the lives of various seasonal residents. After puzzling through all the actually difficult parts of infiltrating the world, her demise is her own once she's in. Alex's self-destructive impulses land her in increasingly anxiety-inducing, thriller-like scenarios and interactions that become harder to unravel as she leaves a trail of mess with every exit. She simply must scratch the itch — steal the watch, kiss the boy, jump in the pool.
— Clare Marie Schneider, producer, Life Kit
Happy Place by Emily Henry
Harriet and Wyn were the perfect couple with the perfect friend group — until they weren't. Now, on their annual friend vacation, they must keep the truth from the people closest to them. Together, they will pretend to be the happily engaged couple everyone believes them to be. Happy Place by Emily Henry highlights the highs and lows of love, friendship and communication while on the ceaseless journey to find yourself. Told out of chronological order, this book pulled at my heartstrings and, as Emily Henry always manages to do, helped me learn more about myself along the way. Sometimes our happy place isn't a location, it is a group of people.
— Valentina Rodríguez Sánchez, audio engineer
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
James McBride is so talented — as a jazz musician, memoirist and novelist — it's almost annoying! But this book is so good and so special you have to forgive him. It's set among fictionalized Black and Jewish residents in Pottstown, Pa., in the 1920s and '30s, where a Jewish couple runs a theater and grocery store and a Black couple who works for them asks their help to care for a young deaf boy whom the authorities want to institutionalize. McBride somehow intertwines their stories in a way that is intricate and heartwarming without ever being cloying, and that still manages to be hilarious too. At a time when there is so much tension and hatred in the world, this story is a reminder of how love, respect and courage really can overcome evil.
— Michel Martin, host, Morning Edition
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
The stories we tell ourselves about our childhoods are often only partially true — tales we invent to make our youthful experiences make sense. But what happens when you revisit a foundational story and begin to unpack it? What happens when you realize that the people you once trusted were inventing tales of their own? This book follows a woman who travels back to teach a class at the boarding school she once attended — and to revisit the circumstances under which her former roommate died while they were at school. It's an eerie look at how race and gender and youth shape our perceptions of guilt and innocence, and a story that reminds us that it takes more than one bad guy to get away with murder.
— Leah Donnella, senior editor, Code Switch
The Postcard by Anne Berest, translated by Tina Kover
An unsigned postcard with the names of relatives killed in the Holocaust arrives at her mother's home; finding out who sent it and why leads the author to learn about her family history and her own identity. Anne Berest describes this as a "true novel" because all of the events in it are true — a result of her meticulous investigation into her family history — but she wrote it like fiction, changing the names of people who harmed her family so their descendants don't suffer today and imagining characters' thoughts. Berest's story is specific, but there are themes in this book anyone can identify with — that history and bias are ever-present when we dig just a little, that how people see us may be so different from how we see ourselves, and that even relatives we never met influence the way we are.
— Isabel Lara, chief communications officer
The Reformatory by Tananarive Due
It's hard to dream up something more terrifying than real history, and Tananarive Due doesn't try. Instead, she uses elements of the spiritual and supernatural to enhance a setting already dripping with horror — a reform school (based on a real place) where young boys are sent to repent for their youthful misdeeds. The book takes place in 1950s Florida, and the protagonist is Robbie, a young Black boy navigating racism and ghosts alike. But though the world he inhabits is often cruel and terrifying, Robbie's story is also propelled by community, persistence, creativity and love.
— Leah Donnella, senior editor, Code Switch
The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff
In 17th century Colonial Virginia, a young servant girl escapes a famine-torn settlement to flee into the sprawling, punishing wilderness beyond. In her fifth novel, Lauren Groff, an author whose prose imbues even the most mundane with magic, crafts a tale that transcends genre. Part historical, part horror, part breathless thriller, part wilderness survival tale, The Vaster Wilds is a story about the lengths to which we will go to stay alive.
— Emma Choi, social media coordinator and producer, Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!
The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann
The Wager is an exhaustively researched and thrilling account of a long-forgotten, 18th century calamity at sea. Unlike Herman Melville's or Patrick O'Brian's nautical adventures, which I also love, this historical narrative isn't just based on a true story — it really is one, despite extremes of psychology and nature that make the recounted events almost unbelievable. That's part of why reading it felt like getting swept away by a hurricane-force gale, as journalist David Grann laid out the stunning facts and surprises in his deceptively simple and spare writing.
— Nell Greenfieldboyce, correspondent, Science Desk
Yellowface by R.F. Kuang
"Nail-biting thriller about the world of book publishing" is not a phrase I ever expected to use. But that's what this book is, with the added dimension of a toxic friendship, an identity thief and, of course, some racebending. The story is glossy and fun but tackles some very serious ideas — like who owns history, what it means to grieve and where the line is between appreciation, appropriation and outright thievery. This one is hard to put down — as baffling and often pernicious as the narrator's decisions sometimes are, I found myself unable to stop hoping, desperately, that she would eventually find the light.
— Leah Donnella, senior editor, Code Switch
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