In a world where emails find us not that well, contemporary literature continues to be a warm balm for our weary souls. Respite comes in many forms, in this case it may be a debut novel, or a memoir that tugs at your heart, or a short story collection that takes your breath away at the end of every chapter. That’s the beauty of this particular treasure trove: there’s a book for everyone.
Don’t know where to start? Fret not, I got you; it is my literal job to read. And, not to toot my own horn, but I am pretty good at recommending books. I’m the one my friends come to when they’re looking for their next read, but don’t know what they’re in the mood for. I can overhear four seconds of a conversation between two strangers at a bookstore, and immediately know which respective books they can’t leave without buying.
So, you’re in good hands, babe. Let me help you escape perpetual peril with one (or more!) of these books below, considered among the best books of 2023.
In comedy maven Kashana Cauley’s debut novel, Aretha, a young and ambitious Black lawyer, meets and falls for Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur and the owner of a charming Brooklyn brownstone. Things move swiftly and smoothly until she moves in with him and his gun-stockpiling, doomsday-prepping roommates and before long, Aretha finds herself questioning both her personal moral code and future on the whole. What results is a sociopolitical inquiry into today’s global anxieties and the line between survival and self-destruction, all while layering levity in all the right places.
Queerness! Coming of age! Trauma! The melody, rhythm and pitch of what will be my swan song. This debut is about a young man named Justin whose formative relationship with a slightly older, violent boyfriend irrevocably damages Justin and his family forever in the aftermath of a horrifying act of violence committed by his first lover. Years later, Justin arrives on his sister’s doorstep after years of absent communication, struggling with sobriety and the sustained effects of a brain injury, and the two once again find themselves testing the strength of their relationship. By weaving together two timelines, literary star-on-the-rise Richard Mirabella delivers a powerful reckoning with past trauma, and the connections we forge amidst it all.
From the author of the critically lauded novel, The Town of Babylon, comes this highly anticipated collection of short stories from National Book Award finalist Alejandro Varela. The People Who Report More Stress is a collection whose narrative thread links the anxieties of those trying to carve—and keep—their spaces in the world while living in the margins. We meet a Latinx couple who supplement their insufficient income by selling stolen high-end designer clothes, all in an effort to buy a house in the suburbs; a queer Latinx man seeks the use of dating apps to alleviate the restlessness in his relationships; and other stories that look at the way gentrification, racism and sexuality impact the stress in these characters’ lives. If this book were an album, every song would be a hit single.
After her father’s premature death at the age of 67 from diabetes and kidney disease, Nicole Chung is overcome with grief and rage, knowing that inaccessible medical care as a result of financial precarity largely contributed to his early death. Her mother is diagnosed with cancer a year later, right before the COVID-19 pandemic. Chung channels her fury into writing this book, and by doing so, extends a loving hand—and heart—to those of us reeling from loss, especially when that loss is compounded by systemic inequality. We’re left with a powerful lesson: the closer we are to our grief, the better we can live with it.
At one point in his life, Jason Yamas was one of San Francisco’s top drug dealers. In Tweakerworld, he tells us how he got there. But the drug-fueled, round-the-clock sex parties, criminals and surprising cast of characters he meets along the way just scratch the surface of the world Yamas pulls the curtain back on. By blending his personal account of addiction with a world that’s mostly relegated to the shadows, this superlative storyteller bears a narrative binded by humor, tenderness, and triumph.
Every once and a while, I get so attached to a character in a book that I forget they’re not real, and then I reel. Ro, our protagonist in Sea Change by Gina Chung, is one of those characters. She’s just entered her thirties, is estranged from her father, and her boyfriend just dipped to go on a mission to colonize Mars. She lives her life in suspended animation, dragging herself to work at the mall aquarium and drinking novelty cocktails at night. The only constant in her life is Dolores, a giant Pacific octopus. When Ro learns that she might also lose Dolores to a wealthy investor interested in moving her to a private aquarium, she all but completely unravels before arriving at a crossroads—either lose herself, too, or find a new place for herself in a world marked by upheaval. It’s glorious, and I’m already jonesing for a re-read.
Phew, baby. This book didn’t just throw me through a loop, it stuffed me into a cannon and fired me directly into the word “aluminum” written in cursive. And I mean that in the best way possible. I’m Never Fine is a gorgeously written memoir filled to the brim with heart and humor, navigating the tempestuous time in Joseph Lezza’s life leading up to and following the death of his father from pancreatic cancer. It resists platitudes and prescriptiveness; instead it pulls up a chair for one of those late-night conversations with a close friend you didn’t know you needed. Mark my words: this book will be read, talked about and taught for years to come, and its author is just getting started.
When Blythe Roberson’s first book, How to Date Men When You Hate Men, came out, I actively campaigned to replace every Gideon bible from hotel rooms across America with copies of it. Now, Roberson invites us to ride in the passenger seat of her borrowed Prius as she embarks on the open road in an effort to sate her appetite for adventure in this hilariously entertaining travelogue. From America’s national parks to the Pacific Coast Highway and everywhere in between, Roberson unearths the true nature of her quest by asking the question: How far are we willing to search for the thing that makes what we left behind worth it? If anything, at least you can flirt with a cute park ranger along the way.
In this deliciously unpredictable debut novel by rising star Jinwoo Chong, the lives of three protagonists intersect when one of them, Brandon, a queer, half Korean 28-year-old, is hired by Flux, a large, nebulous Silicon Valley-esque start-up that inadvertently stumbles upon the technology to warp time. As Brandon becomes embroiled—not fully by choice—with the unprecedented discovery, the ramifications of his participation also impact our other two principal characters: Bo, an eight-year-old who loses his mother in a tragic accident four days before Christmas, and Blue, a mute, 48-year-old man who wakes from a coma only to undergo a procedure to restore his lost voice that backfires. As three timelines converge, the throughline emerges: regret, loss and trauma. In the end, you’re left dazzled without getting dizzy. Go on the rollicking ride this book offers.
The son of a Black mother and a white, Jewish man from Long Island, Davon Loeb has always felt at odds with himself. Growing up as one of the few non-white children in his suburban New Jersey neighborhood, Loeb, despite his best efforts to fit, is constantly singled out—inside and outside of the classroom. His desire to be included, to belong, are buffeted by his feelings of feeling too Black one day, and not Black enough the next. Try as he might, he fails to exemplify the traits traditionally associated with boyhood, opting instead to stay indoors to read, draw and dream. Each piece in this book stands alone—it’s labeled a lyrical memoir—and they all come together to form an astounding portrait of heritage and identity.
I did not think I could be any more in love with poet and writer Maggie Smith until I read her new book, which immediately claimed a spot on the New York Times best seller list on the heels of its release, and for good reason. Here’s the one-sentence descriptor: It’s about Smith’s divorce, and how writing helped her get through it. Here’s why you should read it, even if you’re not going through a divorce: According to my lunar literate friends, we are going through a period of intense change and transition. Whether you’re into the woo-woo or not, it’s hard to deny. Just look around us. In the past week, at least three major media outlets folded and/or laid off their entire staffs. Personally, I don’t have to look far: Two of my best friends were broken up with on the same day. I myself have been struggling to balance on my two feet all year. This book is an outstretched hand—all you have to do is reach out, grab it and let it lead you somewhere new and beautiful.
This spellbinding debut novel follows two Jamaican-Trinidadian sisters, Zora and Sasha, as they find themselves drifting apart after bearing witness to their father’s violence when he drinks and contending with their mother’s worsening illness. While Zora gets lost in thought of becoming a writer, Sasha holes up with her new girlfriend, spending less and less time at home. But their family is forced to come together and reckon with a secret from the past, nested in the overlap between myth and reality. In the end, what they find isn’t as important as how they found it: storytelling isn’t just a vehicle, it is a means of survival.
Greg Mania is the author of the memoir, Born to Be Public. Subscribe to his newsletter here.