The 10 Best Books of 2023

Every year, starting in the spring, we spend months debating the most exceptional books that pass across our desks: the families we grow to love, the narrative nonfiction that carries us away, the fictional universes we can’t forget. It’s all toward one goal — deciding the best books of the year.

Things can get heated. We spar, we persuade and (above all) we agonize until the very end, when we vote and arrive at 10 books — five fiction and five nonfiction.

In case you’d like even more variety, don’t miss our list of 100 Notable Books of 2023, or take a spin through this handy list, which features all the books we’ve christened the best throughout the years.

Here they are, the 10 Best Books of 2023.


The Bee Sting, by Paul Murray

Murray makes his triumphant return with “The Bee Sting,” a tragicomic tale about an Irish family grappling with crises. The Barneses — Dickie, Imelda, Cass and PJ — are a wealthy Irish clan whose fortunes begin to plummet after the 2008 financial crash. But in addition to this shared hardship, all four are dealing with demons of their own: the re-emergence of a long-kept secret, blackmail, the death of a past love, a vexing frenemy, a worrisome internet pen pal and more. The novel threads together the stories of the increasingly isolated Barneses, but the overall tapestry Murray weaves is not one of desolation but of hope. This is a book that showcases one family’s incredible love and resilience even as their world crumbles around them. Read our review.

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Chain-Gang All-Stars, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

A dystopian satire in which death-row inmates duel on TV for a chance at freedom, Adjei-Brenyah’s debut novel — following his 2018 story collection, “Friday Black” — pulls the reader into the eager audience, making us complicit with the bloodthirsty fans sitting ringside. “As much as this book made me laugh at these parts of the world I recognized as being mocked, it also made me wish I recognized less of it,” Giri Nathan wrote in his review. “The United States of ‘Chain-Gang All-Stars’ is like ours, if sharpened to absurd points.” Amid a wrenching love story between two top competitors who are forced to choose between each other and freedom, the fight scenes are so well written they demonstrate how easy it might be to accept a world this sick. Read our review.

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Eastbound, by Maylis de Kerangal

De Kerangal’s brief, lyrical novel, first published in France in 2012 and newly translated by Jessica Moore, follows a young Russian conscript named Aliocha on a trans-Siberian train packed with other soldiers. The mood is grim. Aliocha, unnerved by his surroundings after a brawl, decides to desert — and in so doing, creates an uneasy alliance with a civilian passenger, a Frenchwoman. Their desolate environment — de Kerangal describes the Siberian landscape as “a world turned inside out like a glove, raw, wild, empty” — only heightens the stakes. “The insecurity of existence across this vastness and on board the train emphasizes the significance of human connection,” our reviewer, Ken Kalfus, wrote. “In a time of war, this connection may bring liberation and salvation.” Read our review.

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The Fraud, by Zadie Smith

Based on a celebrated 19th-century criminal trial in which the defendant was accused of impersonating a nobleman, Smith’s novel offers a vast, acute panoply of London and the English countryside, and successfully locates the social controversies of an era in a handful of characters. Chief among them are a widowed Scottish housekeeper who avidly follows the trial and a formerly enslaved Jamaican servant who testifies on behalf of the claimant. Smith is a talented critic as well as a novelist, and — by way of the housekeeper’s employer, a once popular writer and friendly rival of Dickens — she finds ample opportunity to send up the literary culture of the time while reflecting on whose stories are told and whose are overlooked. “As always, it is a pleasure to be in Zadie Smith’s mind, which, as time goes on, is becoming contiguous with London itself,” Karan Mahajan wrote in his review. “Dickens may be dead, but Smith, thankfully, is alive.” Read our review.

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North Woods, by Daniel Mason

Mason’s ambitious, kaleidoscopic novel ushers readers over the threshold of a house in the wilds of western Massachusetts and leaves us there for 300 years and almost 400 pages. One after another, in sections interspersed with letters, poems, song lyrics, diary entries, medical case notes, real estate listings, vintage botanical illustrations and assorted ephemera not normally bound into the pages of a novel, we get to know the inhabitants of the place from colonial times to present day. There’s an apple farmer, an abolitionist and a wealthy manufacturer. A pair of beetles. A landscape painter. A ghost. Their lives (and deaths) briefly intersect, but mostly layer over each other in dazzling decoupage. All the while, the natural world looks on — a long-suffering, occasionally destructive presence. Mason is the consummate genial host, inviting you to stay as long as you like and to make of the place what you will. Read our review.

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The Best Minds, by Jonathan Rosen

An inch-by-inch, pin-you-to-the-sofa reconstruction of the author’s long friendship with Michael Laudor, who made headlines first as a Yale Law School graduate destigmatizing schizophrenia; then for stabbing his pregnant girlfriend to death with a kitchen knife, after which he was sent to a maximum-security psychiatric hospital. Drawing from clips, court and police records, legal and medical studies, interviews, diaries and Laudor’s feverish writings (including a book proposal of his own), Rosen examines the porous line between brilliance and insanity, the complicated policy questions posed by deinstitutionalization and the ethical obligations of a community. “The Best Minds” is a thoughtfully constructed, deeply sourced indictment of a society that prioritizes profit, quick fixes and happy endings over the long slog of care. Read our review.

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Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs, by Kerry Howley

Howley’s account of the national security state and the people entangled in it includes fabulists, truth tellers, combatants, whistle-blowers. At the center is Reality Winner (“her real name, let’s move past it now”), the National Security Agency contractor who was convicted under the Espionage Act for leaking classified information to The Intercept and sentenced to 63 months in prison. Howley’s exploration of privacy and digital surveillance eventually lands her in the badlands of conspiracy theorists and QAnon. It’s an arc that feels both startling and inevitable; of course a journey through the deep state would send her down the rabbit hole. The result is a book that is riveting and darkly funny and, in all senses of the word, unclassifiable. Read our review.

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Fire Weather, by John Vaillant

In 2016, raging wildfires consumed Fort McMurray in the Canadian province of Alberta. In the all-too-timely “Fire Weather,” Vaillant details how the blaze started, how it grew, the damage it wrought — and the perfect storm of factors that led to the catastrophe. We are introduced to firefighters, oil workers, meteorologists and insurance assessors. But the real protagonist here is the fire itself: an unruly and terrifying force with insatiable appetites. This book is both a real-life thriller and a moment-by-moment account of what happened — and why, as the climate changes and humans don’t, it will continue to happen again and again. Read our review.

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Master Slave Husband Wife, by Ilyon Woo

In 1848, Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved couple in Georgia, made a daring escape north disguised as a sickly young white planter and his male slave — Ellen as the wealthy scion in a stovepipe hat, dark green glasses and a sling over her right arm to conceal her illiteracy. Improbably, despite close calls and determined slave catchers, the Crafts succeeded in their flight, going on to tour the abolitionist speaker circuit in England and to write a popular account of their journey. Their story, which a leading American abolitionist called “one of the most thrilling in the nation’s annals,” is remarkable enough. But Woo’s immersive rendering, which conjures the Crafts’ escape in novelistic detail, is equally a feat — of research, storytelling, sympathy and insight. Read our review.

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Some People Need Killing, by Patricia Evangelista

This powerful book mostly covers the years between 2016 and 2022, when Rodrigo Duterte was president of the Philippines and pursued a murderous campaign of extrajudicial killings — EJKs for short. Such killings became so frequent that journalists like Evangelista, then a reporter for the independent news site Rappler, kept folders on their computers that were organized not by date but by hour of death. Offering the intimate disclosures of memoir and the larger context of Philippine history, Evangelista also pays close attention to language, and not only because she is a writer. Language can be used to communicate, to deny, to threaten, to cajole. It can propagate lies, but it also allows one to speak the truth. Read our review.

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