The 12 best books of 2023

Fellow professional book lovers Miwa Messer and Andrew Limbong joined Nerdette’s Greta Johnsen to discuss their top picks for the year.

A collage of the best books of 2023 from Nerdette
Nerdette's Greta Johnsen invited book loving podcasters Miwa Messer and Andrew Limbong to discuss their favorite books of 2023. Photoillustration by Mendy Kong / WBEZ
A collage of the best books of 2023 from Nerdette
Nerdette's Greta Johnsen invited book loving podcasters Miwa Messer and Andrew Limbong to discuss their favorite books of 2023. Photoillustration by Mendy Kong / WBEZ

The 12 best books of 2023

Fellow professional book lovers Miwa Messer and Andrew Limbong joined Nerdette’s Greta Johnsen to discuss their top picks for the year.

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2023 was another great year for books, with compelling options for all sorts of readers.

Nerdette’s Greta Johnsen invited Miwa Messer, host of Barnes & Noble’s book podcast Poured Over, and Andrew Limbong, host of NPR’s Book of the Day podcast to discuss their favorite books of 2023.

Miwa and Andrew are enthusiastic readers who breathe life into the often-stolid book review space. The way Miwa gushes will make you want to quit your job so you can read more books. And Andrew’s selections take fun seriously while also encouraging you to push your reading boundaries.

🎧 Click the red “listen” button for Greta’s full conversation with Miwa and Andrew.

Historical Fiction 

Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff
Courtesy of Riverhead Books

The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books)

Greta read this book twice, and loved it even more the second time. “The thing that I keep going back to about it is that reverence and appreciation of natural beauty — but the fact that it cannot coexist without also understanding the intense brutality of nature,” Greta says.

This Nerdette Book Club pick from October takes place during the winter of 1609, when a young girl escapes misery in the newly formed Jamestown colony to try to survive in the unforgiving woods. The Vaster Wilds subverts many expectations around the American frontier narrative with stunning results.

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Loot by Tania James
Courtesy of Knopf

Loot by Tania James (Knopf)

Miwa says this story of art and ambition explores many themes that speak to 2023 as much as the 18th century. “It’s about the making of art, how we value that and what it means,” she says. 

This adeptly told exploration of the consequences of colonialism is fast-paced, intriguing and full of compelling female characters. Miwa also appreciated that she didn’t need too much background on British, French or Indian history — she just “needed to care about the characters and the story,” she says. Nerdette selected Loot for its Book Club in July. It was also a finalist for this year’s National Book Award.


The Country of the Blind
Courtesy of Penguin Press

The Country of the Blind by Andrew Leland (Penguin Press)

This memoir is about the history of blindness in the United States, but “more broadly, it’s just a really interesting and beautiful and compassionate and curious exploration of disability,” says Greta, who has gushed about this Nerdette book club pick many times since it was featured on the show.

Leland wrote the book as his vision narrowed due to a degenerative eye disease, and the result is an expansive look at blindness, imagination and ableism. He also approaches his impending blindness with openness, grace and a great sense of humor, Greta says.

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Poverty, By America
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond (Penguin Random House)

Andrew called this an uncomfortable read, but an important one. Desmond, a sociologist, argues that poverty exists in the U.S. because we allow it to happen. Not just the ultra-rich benefit from many of the systems we have in place, and learning more about that was a reckoning for Andrew. That’s not a great feeling, but it’s a necessary one to be aware of,” he says. 

This book is full of data, but it doesn’t feel overly didactic or esoteric — you can tell that Desmond’s editor challenged him to write as if he were talking to a friend in a bar, Miwa says.

* * *

Courtesy of Atria Books

Ringmaster by Abraham Josephine Riesman (Atria Books)

Even though he says he was never a “wrestling person” growing up, Andrew loved this biography of former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon. The book explores the cultural impact of pro wrestling — because whether you’re a fan or not, much of American entertainment and politics was shaped by its outrageous pageantry. 

“I think it’s a useful tool to look at the rest of the world through that prism,” Andrew says. “Who’s acting and who isn’t? And does it matter?”

* * *

Ordinary Notes
Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Miwa loved this elegant and smart series of “notes,” which is almost like a succession of thoughts you’d find on a row of Post-its. The notes range from as short as three lines to as long as seven pages, and they do not need to be read in order. 

The book is a reflection on trauma, a celebration of the love of reading and a stark examination of white supremacy in America. “There’s so much love and beauty in this book, and there’s so much tenderness,” Miwa says. “You can read straight through from page one to the end. You can also keep it sort of at arm’s length and dip in and out.”

Chain Gang All-Stars
Courtesy of Vintage

General Fiction

Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Vintage)

Miwa says this National Book Award finalist is a must-read. A dystopian novel that imagines a future where incarcerated people are forced to fight each other to the death on live TV, it’s devastatingly violent.

But Miwa points out it’s also full of love, an intricate balance to maneuver. “This is what it means to be human,” she says. “It’s complicated, it’s messy. We’re not always good at it, but sometimes love wins out and that gets you through.”

* * *

The adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi
Courtesy of Harper Voyager

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by S.A. Chakraborty (Harper Voyager)

Sometimes you just need a hefty fantasy novel about a Muslim lady pirate who has to get her old crew together for one last heist! Greta finds that perspective “so refreshing and exciting,” she says. “It also just has all of these wonderful mythological elements and is such a wild ride.” 

The book takes place in the 12th century around the Indian Ocean and is about motherhood and faith — and full of characters you’ll be glad to have in your head. Greta describes this Nerdette Book Club pick as “so much fun” and “completely escapist.”

* * *

Open Throat
Courtesy of MCD

Open Throat by Henry Hoke (MCD)

Miwa loved this short, sharp, sweet novel told from the point of view of a mountain lion who lives under Los Angeles’s Hollywood sign. 

Hoke masterfully balances sardonic and earnest tones. Miwa says she often recommends this book for people in reading slumps. “It’s just the language, it’s the voice.” she says. The voice was so strong in this book that Miwa says she was able to enjoy it despite usually disliking animal narrators.

Greta says the animal narrator helps the book be more earnest.

“If your main characters aren’t humans, it’s actually an opportunity to say the most about humanity.”

* * *

Courtesy of Doubleday Canada

Landscapes by Christine Lai (Doubleday Canada)

Andrew loved this book, which explores the futility and importance of preserving and archiving art at the end of the world. “It really made me think about why we care about art — any sort of art — in the face of all these major things happening in the world,” he says. 

Largely told in the form of journal entries from an archivist living on a crumbling estate, this book is for art lovers and the apocalypse-curious alike.

“It did make me wanna just walk around museums and look at the different pieces that are unpacked in this one,” Greta says.

* * *

Same Bed, Different Dreams
Courtesy of Random House

Same Bed Different Dreams by Ed Park (Penguin Random House)

This book has it all — alternate history, secret spies, stories in stories and a child named Story. Greta says if you’re looking for a book that will take you on a fascinating trip and leave you wondering how the author pulled it all together, this one is for you. 

“It’s not short, but it’s fun,” she says. “I still am not sure how he pulled off what he pulled off.”

Graphic Novels

Courtesy of Drawn and Quarterly

Roaming by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly)

Andrew’s favorite book this year was this adeptly rendered graphic novel about friendship and adventure. It also happens to take place on a trip to New York City, which especially spoke to Andrew. An unexpected romance between two acquaintances upends a close friendship, putting three young travelers to the test. “It’s all scary and exciting and fresh and new — and it’s all just a beautiful book that sits in my belly,” Andrew says.

Greta Johnsen hosts and produces the Nerdette podcast. Anna Bauman also produces Nerdette. Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ.