The 10 Best Books of 2023

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This was a year in which the writers I loved most not only helped me escape the everyday but explored escape as a theme. Though I read wonderful books this year about family, about cults, and even about parking, my favorite books of 2023 thought deeply about what it means to set your sights on finding a new future for yourself—or what happens when you discover that a new future has, unexpectedly, opened itself up to you.

It’s 1984 in Wellington, New Zealand, and 12-year-old Justine has a glamorous new teacher, Mrs. Price. Mrs. Price is beautiful. She drives a Corvette with the steering wheel on the American side. Her family is tragically dead. And she rules over the children of Justine’s middle-school classroom, picking favorites and unveiling the secrets of the adult world to them. “We would have done anything for her,” Justine remembers, 30 years later, and this sharp-edged, deliciously dark novel explores just what a group of besotted 12-year-olds might do for a teacher they love—and what Justine does when she learns Mrs. Price isn’t everything she thought she was.

A book jacket has a red pen that looks like the ink is blood.

A survival story that’s also a cosmic adventure and a corrective to colonial “captivity narratives,” The Vaster Wilds has a lot on its mind, which is what makes it so astonishing that it’s also ceaselessly entertaining. A young woman steals out from Colonial Jamestown in the “starving time” of winter 1610, fleeing the horror inside the settlement for the teeming wilderness outside. Surviving on squirrels, duck eggs, and her own determination, the girl gives us a lens into an entirely different way of viewing the world, and Groff’s relentless narrative voice is as interested in the state of her heroine’s soul as the fate of her earthly body. In this magnificent novel, Groff sets herself a nearly impossible writing challenge, then clears the bar with ease and élan. Read an interview with Groff in Slate.

A book jacket has a giant tree.

An ingenious answer to the oft-asked question, How do you write about these dire times? Kiesling, an occasional Slate contributor, answers simply: You write about the people who, like all of us, are responsible in large and small ways for our dimming, sputtering futures. Mobility travels from the 1990s to the middle of the 21st century, following one woman’s life and career in the fossil fuel industry. Kiesling, one of our sharpest commentators on modern family life, is acutely aware of the ways in which readers will be eager to judge her likeable, unusual heroine, and it’s impossible to read this novel of an average person doing averagely terrible things without thinking about your own impact on your parents, your lovers, and your world. This darkly funny novel reset my thinking on art in the Anthropocene.

A book jacket features a futuristic city.
Crooked Media

When Ester is 13, she witnesses her family, everything she knows and loves, torn apart by a manticore, one of the vicious monsters that stalk the far reaches of the Kingdom of Dartha. This short, propulsive fantasy fable is driven by Ester’s thirst for revenge, as she joins the kingdom’s cadre of ruhkers, the men and women who train enormous soaring birds called rocs to hunt and kill manticores. Will Ester bond with her fledgling roc, Zahra? Will she find love with a fellow ruhker? Exciting, bloody, and sneakily profound, Untethered Sky is a winning, single-serving adventure perfect for an afternoon’s escape.

A book jacket has a woman steering some kind of chariot with a huge bird looming behind her.

In 2021, Hilary Leichter won a National Magazine Award for a clever story in Harper’s magazine about a young couple, trapped in a tiny city apartment, who discover a magical terrace hidden in their closet. The terrace only appears when their friend Stephanie visits, and so the couple—and their baby—become enmeshed in Stephanie’s life, so desperate are they for the bucolic space the mysterious terrace offers, and the different path it represents. In Terrace Story, Leichter expands on that short story, opening new vistas as unexpected and magical as the sunset-lit terrace off Annie and Edward’s living room. The result is a novel that explores longing and frustration like no other book I read this year, mapping emotional and physical worlds that readers will find heartbreakingly familiar yet thrillingly unusual.

A book jacket has a house with one wall removed like a dollhouse so you can see the many various activities occurring inside.

A collection of reconceived fairy tales that hums with dark energy, invention, and love, White Cat, Black Dog dazzles with every story. As you read about cats who run a marijuana farm or a man rescuing his husband from the Queen of Hell, you will think, There is no way the next story can top this one, but Link wisely saves the most unsettling, wondrous story for last. In “Skinder’s Veil,” a graduate student gets a great housesitting gig in the nick of time, in a lovely cottage nestled deep in the Vermont woods. The only hitch, his host tells him, is that he must never, ever, admit any guest through the house’s front door. I won’t reveal what happens, but will only say that no one and nothing in this story are exactly what we think they are—they’re far, far more interesting. Read a review in Slate.

A book jacket has a little black dog breaking out of a nutshell.
Random House

On Aug. 19, 1989, a group of idealistic Hungarian dissidents organized a picnic in a field in Sopronpuszta, near the country’s border with Austria. Hungary’s government was making the tiniest of gestures toward breaking with Moscow and the other Warsaw Pact countries, and these young people wanted to push farther. Much to everyone’s surprise, hundreds, maybe thousands, of East Germans showed up and rushed the border, tearing the first hole in the Iron Curtain and setting off the chain of events that would lead to the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Historian Longo’s well-reported book focuses on the summer when everything changed in Europe, but finds the suspense and humanity in his world-shaking story—after all, the families who camped out in Hungarian fields, yearning for escape, didn’t know how their tales would end. A terrific work of history that also becomes a meditation on what freedom means and how tyrannies fall, The Picnic adopts and explicates a wry Hungarian proverb: “The future is certain. It’s the past that keeps changing.”

A book jacket features a chaotic crowd scene from the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Yes, unless you already really like the music of Steely Dan, you are unlikely to get the most out of this book, in which artist LeMay paints glorious portraits of the drunks, creeps, weirdos, and misguided romantics populating Steely Dan songs, and music writer Pappademas tells the tale of a band that was popular but misunderstood in their time, widely despised by the critical establishment for decades, and then reborn as the patron saints of cool, neurotic perfection. But Quantum Criminals is such an unusual, funny, and creative work of criticism that it should inspire anyone who loves pop music but feels tired of the forms into which the market hems writers who want to tell its stories. “We are all Steely Dan characters now,” Pappademas writes, “longing for the unrecapturable past and mourning for bright sci-fi futures we won’t ever get to see.” Read an excerpt in Slate.

A book jacket features illustrations of some members of Steely Dan.
U Texas Press

How to explain what’s so graceful about this collection of fantasy stories by the Hugo and Nebula Award–winning Pinsker? She finds unusual new forms to tell tales about our modern world and its interactions with the uncanny, from a story told entirely through the comments on a Wiki about a traditional English folk song to a story whose drama builds through a series of status updates in a sinister senior-living center’s management system. In one story, explorations into a cable-access children’s show from the early 1980s open a window onto family grief and a town’s decades-old secrets. In another, a painter experiencing cognitive decline must puzzle out the mystery of the retrospective exhibition she didn’t know she was planning. Every story is surprising, delightful, and very human, and left me excited to read more from this writer, who is both finely attuned to the language and rituals of modern life and in touch with some real deep-magic weirdness.

A book jacket.
Small Beer
A book jacket features an illustration of a gray-haired woman seen from behind looking out the window of a yellow taxicab.
Melville House

This slim collection of stories by the 95-year-old writer Lore Segal is sly, dry, and very funny on its chosen subject, the ultimate escape. The ladies have been lunching for four decades now, rotating from apartment to apartment in New York City, discussing books and music and life, but these days each visit and gossip session seems touched by the ghosts of the past and the specter of the future. Segal writes with welcome clarity about life’s final years, and if her characters are not always as wise as they think they are, Segal eyes them all with the unsentimental wisdom of a life spent writing wondrous stories and essays, a career spent telling the truth.