We welcomed so many new writers to our team this year (I mean, we have a masthead now!), and as per our tradition, we asked our Write or Die staff and regular contributors to share what 2023 reads they loved this year.
The Leaving Season: A Memoir In Essays by Kelly McMasters | WW NORTON
The Leaving Season is an intimate collection of essays that simmer in the paradoxes behind life’s simple cravings: love, community, home, family, space — all concepts that felt particularly timely post-pandemic. McMasters has a way with words that had me falling in love with the craft of writing all over again. Her analogy on affairs being like vacation homes, and the metaphors surrounding patriarchal influence, of art and holding the title of artist, of seeing and being seen, have lingered with me since I read it six months ago.
These were the kinds of essays I long to write myself and the book has since become one of my “guiding lights” that accompany me at the dining table while I work. What I found most inspiring at the end of this book was learning that many of these essays were adaptations of work she published earlier on in her career. That gave me a lot of freedom to release all the unknowns and just keep writing, anywhere and everywhere that I can, and trust that this book length project of mine will come together in its own way, in its own time, and that sometimes what seems so perfectly fragmented and disparate still holds the power to make something wholly new.
The Chinese Groove by Kathryn Ma | Counterpoint Press
The overly optimistic protagonist, Shelley, was a refreshing and humorous read; a witty narrator that reeled me in on the first page and kept me delightfully hooked. Kathryn Ma’s novel astutely displays how our individual dreams often form in the shadows of our family’s grievances. It made me think a lot about the narratives we inherit; family stories that get passed down in truth, in arrogance, in deceit. When Shelley leaves China for America, his dreams are both lofty and simplistic — family, love, and fortune — and what I grappled with as a reader along his journey is the realization that we usually have to surrender our definitions of what achieving such pursuits will look like in order to fully grasp what they have the power of becoming, everything we want and perhaps, in a surprisingly lofty yet simplistic unraveling, even more.
Upcountry by Chin-Sun Lee | Unnamed Press
When Chin-Sun Lee had the clarity that she wasn’t writing a short story but rather a novel about women, it was as if she inherently knew that the storyline would inevitably cover layered losses and false promises, belonging and betrayal. This gothic story is a page turner, full of surprise, character development, and a setting too believable to put down.
When I found out that Lee had a full-fledged career in fashion design before her debut novel came to be, and that it took place in a fictional town hypothetically close to where I live today, I knew I couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to interview her for WODM. Her book is a testament— to me at least— that art will always be a reflection of culture and that what’s happening in the world around us writers will always, in some direct or indirect way, infiltrate its way onto the page.
Brittany Ackerman— Assitant Interviews Editor
I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore | Knopf
I had been anxiously awaiting Lorrie Moore’s latest novel, since I’ve been a forever fan of hers. I mean, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Anagrams, Like Life, Self-Help, Bark, Birds of freakin’ America! She can seriously do no wrong in my eyes. Her name has already been etched into literary stone long ago, and this book, this beautiful book, I don’t even know how to articulate it. It’s got “the rizz,” as the kids say. This book is about humanity, or perhaps where humanity is going. It’s about finding joy in grief and sadness and how laughter is probably the only thing that will get us through. Graveyards and grapefruits and lovers and siblings and a road trip and all the sparkle and pizazz that makes Lorrie Moore who she is– amplified in this nuanced story with a teacher and a therapy clown at its core. A must, must, must read.
The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis | Vintage
When Bret Easton Ellis began reading excerpts from the work-in-progress during the darkest days of the pandemic, I was already hooked. The story came together in my mind’s eye like a movie happening in my head. When I heard the book was being published this past year, I threw a fist in the air and rejoiced. And it did not disappoint. The Shards is a monolith. It is Los Angeles in the early 80’s encapsulate. And while I wasn’t alive to see that time, the way the time is painted throughout the novel allows me to see it, to feel it, to hear it. Reading the book while caring for my then three-month-old was cathartic in the juxtaposition of the calm and peaceful beauty that my daughter held versus the madness and violence and horror I became immersed in on the page. And this is what a master does– he takes you out of your own life and places you into another. The Shards also has a killer playlist (pun intended) on Spotify that made driving to Target and Whole Foods feel like I was a character in the book. I can’t wait for the HBO show adaptation of the book. Hello Jacob Ellordi!
Ripe by Sarah Rose Etter | Scribner
When The Brittanys came out and I was in Austin, TX doing press for the book, I had tried to make plans with Sarah Rose Etter. She was on deadline for a manuscript, so those plans fell through. Understandably so now knowing that the book she was working on was Ripe. When she came to Los Angeles for a celebratory vacation a month later, she invited me to dinner at one of my favorite LA spots, Momed. I’d never been to a ~literary~ dinner before, but she was so inviting and everyone was so kind, and it has been so deeply delightful to know an author as brilliant as she. This is turning into a personal essay about Sarah Rose Etter, so back to the book– I usually hate when people describe books as “haunting,” but this book is haunting, haunting in the way that it feels true to the powerlessness one can feel when succumbing to anxiety and depression. A black hole hovers over the narrator. It pulses and expands and mocks and frightens. It is doom personified. And the novel is expertly set up with an impending plunge into chaos–my favorite kind of story– a character going down the river as far as it will take her.
Emma Burger— Contributor
Someone Who Isn’t Me by Geoff Rickly | Rose Books
Though technically fiction, Geoff Rickly’s debut novel, Someone Who Isn’t Me, tells a story that closely mirrors his own. The lead singer of the emo band Thursday struggled with heroin addiction himself, and tells a version of his own story in this deep, dark, spellbinding novel. Desperate to kick once and for all, Geoff goes on the trip of a lifetime. Having hit his rock bottom, he travels to an ibogaine clinic in Mexico where he’s treated with a psychedelic whose effects are so intense, they’re said to uncover the darkest corners of the unconscious. A single dose takes users on a visual journey through their entire lives, rewiring the brain in the process, and lifting the obsession to use. In this, the very first book published by Rose Books, Rickly takes readers through an experience unlike any other in fast-moving, lyrical prose. This is one I already know I’ll have to read again.
The Guest by Emma Cline | Penguin Random House
This made my list hands down because it’s the book I’ve wanted to read for so long. It’s the book I’ve wanted to write for so long! Sigh. Another Emma beat me to it. I’m glad she did, though. It’s just so. Much. Fun. I read The Guest as soon as it came out and really, truly couldn’t bring myself to put it down. Set in what we can only assume is the Hamptons, Emma Cline tells the story of Alex’s summer, as she grifts, mooches, and manipulates her way through some of the highest echelons of the worlds of art, media, and finance. She’s the perfect tragic hero for the year 2023 in all her deceitful glory. Many called it the book of the summer, and I’d have to agree! It reads like a prestige TV show, and I’m sure they’ll make one out of it soon.
Death Valley by Melissa Broder | Simon & Schuster
I’ve never read a Melissa Broder novel I didn’t love, and Death Valley was no exception. She could write about pacing around her living room and I would eat it up. I just love getting to hang out inside her brain! To me, her style feels cozy and dark. Pink and fuzzy and full of good snacks. That’s what a Melissa Broder novel feels like. As it so happens though, this novel is about so much more than good vibes alone. It explores those tried-and-true themes of illness, death, and grief in a way that feels neither heavy handed nor done before. In her funny, honest style, she writes about grief in a way that’s totally uplifting, psychedelic, and relatable. Her writing here made me feel so much less alone. In this story, our narrator steps through a magical cactus and gets lost somewhere deep in Death Valley. Her quest home to the room she booked at her beloved Best Western feels biblical. She’s like Moses wandering the desert for 40 years, except if Moses were a bisexual deadhead with daddy issues. What more could I possibly ask for?!
Erin Karbuczky— Columnist, WriterTok Roundup
Rouge by Mona Awad | Simon & Schuster
Ever since I read Mona Awad’s first novel, Bunny, I have considered her one of the most brilliant minds in modern fiction. Skin-care obsessed Belle is devastated when her beautiful, enigmatic mother dies. She travels back to her childhood home to grieve, and takes the reader on a psychological, metaphysical, fairy-tale inspired journey through beauty and time. The surface level is magic mirrors, a mysterious spa, and a love affair with Tom Cruise (yes). But what lies beneath? I highly recommend all of Awad’s books – she has expanded what fiction means to me, and is an automatic preorder for me from now until the end.
All-Night Pharmacy by Ruth Madievsky | Catapult
All-Night Pharmacy was so highly praised, I almost didn’t want to read it because I worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. But it absolutely did. Ruth Madievsky wrote a brilliant book about sisterly relationships, connection to faith, feeling lost in your 20s, and discovering your sexuality. When the unnamed narrator’s sister disappears after they have a big fight, she’s not only worried about her sister, but about how she herself will survive in the aftermath. As she works through addiction and grief, she finds employment in a hospital on the night shift, which leads her to romance with a self-proclaimed psychic, Sasha, who claims to be her spiritual guide. The plot is windy and engaging, but this book really brings the vibes – and Madievsky is a poet, so the prose is top-tier and tight. I’m so excited to see where Ruth goes next with her career.
Kailey Brennan DelloRusso— Editor in Chief
Deliver Me by Elle Nash |Unammed Press
This novel rocked me to my core. I was in a daze after finishing it both from Elle’s magnificent prose and the gory, sticky, grotesque subject matter that makes up Deliver Me. Read it for the descriptions of working in a meatpacking facility, the luster and judgment of the Pentecostal church, the boyfriend named Daddy with an incest fetish, and the charisma of Sloane. Never forget it for the protagonist Dee-Dee, who reminds us that the desire to be love can make us do wild things. My favorite of the year!
Hot Spring Drive by Lindsay Hunter | Roxane Gay Books
Okay, I was NOT ready for this one. I’m a huge Lindsay Hunter fan and had been not so patiently awaiting her new novel. What Lindsay gives us is a gripping psychological thriller (my favorite!) about two women — Jackie Stinson and Theresa Linden — and the events that lead to Theresa’s being killed in the garage of her suburban home. Lindsay writes characters like no other, and I loved every minute of this multi-POV character study that explores human desire, lust, motherhood, and familial love.
Thirst for Salt by Madelaine Lucas | Tin House Books
Madelaine Lucas’ debut novel, Thrist for Salt, follows the fractured love affair of the 24-year-old narrator and Jude, the 42-year-old local she falls for on vacation with her mother at Sailors Beach. With breathtaking prose, this quiet novel is a masterclass on the meditations of relationships intimacies, and power dynamics of two people in love. Since reading in March, I’ve longed to revisit the Australian beach town Lucas so lovingly rendered in this novel. My copy is full of stick tabs that I reference when I’m in need of some creative inspiration.
Kathy Curto—Columnist, Words on the Street, Revisted
We Call to the Eye & the Night: Love Poems by Writers of Arab Heritage: Edited and with and introduction by: Hala Alyan and Zeina Hashem Beck | Persea Books
In the Introduction of this collection the editors offer: “We were both at moments in our lives that called for the sustenance of love poems. We hope anyone who picks up this book will find solace and delight in the eclectic range of those we have included.”
A few weeks ago, after sharing a poem as a writing prompt in my undergrad Creative Nonfiction class, I confessed to my students that I’ve read more poetry in the past four or five years than in all of my life. Maybe, like the editors of this stunning new collection, I, too, recognized something in myself and in my moments. Did the “something” translate to a hunger for the dreamy? For the sensual? For the untidy, beautiful truth?
This anthology’s selections, all written by writers of Arab descent, pointed me to a new way of thinking about answers to these questions. Strung-together with care, the words, phrases and music in this book evoke and suggest. They cry out. They sing. And yes, dreams, the senses and truth do make an appearance. What I was hoping for when I gave that poem to a room of prose writers a few weeks ago and said, “Now go write!” was to see a collective opening, a way to stretch our lenses and, hopefully, our hearts.
The range of love, all kinds of love-intimate, geographic, cultural, familial, erotic and for the self-shines with both delicacy and ferocity on these pages. And this shine is one that comes from a light that is raw, real and bright as ever.
Sipping Dom Pérignon Through a Straw: Reimagining Success as a Disabled Achiever by Eddie Ndopu | Legacy Lit
I met Eddie last summer when he was on a panel I was moderating in New York City. (If you live in or around NYC, I highly recommend checking out these and more summer events held through the Bryant Park Reading Room.) He is just as captivating, engaging, illuminating and funny off the page as he is on! This debut memoir is one I am still processing and remembering, almost a full six months after reading it. Eddie’s storytelling widened my view of ableism, including all its dangerous nuances. Written in a series of both sharp and smooth reflections of daily life as a person with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, this undaunted and poignant account shows the obstacles, challenges and flat-out rage Ndopu encounters as he moves through life in various countries, communities and institutions.
I am grateful to have read this powerful debut, illustrating some of Eddie Ndopu’s true life stories. These pieces sparked a deeper interest in disability rights advocacy and further developed a range of curiosities about theory and practice, discrimination and acceptance, anger and grace. Buy this book!
Kim Narby— Contributor
I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself by Marisa Crane | Catapult
Set in a dystopian future where additional shadows are given as punishment for crimes instead of prison sentences Kris, the narrator of this debut novel, finds herself unexpectedly raising her child alone after her partner dies in childbirth. Kris is a Shadester herself – the name they give to anyone with more than one shadow – and is enraged when the government gives her newborn an additional shadow for ‘causing’ the death of her wife. Kris raises her child into a rebellious pre-teen, while contending with the ostracism they both face, and her own deep well of loneliness. I read this book in January and have not been able to stop thinking about it since. Despite the subject matter – and the idea of a future state where the queer community is still very much blacklisted (extra shadow or not) – this book was a pure delight to experience. Told in both first and second person (Kris speaking to her deceased wife) the novel is interspersed with polls that Kris creates for herself as a form of processing (“Pop Quiz: Q: What is the difference between nice and kind? A: Only one is a result of fear.”), and queer nods such as – “Today, I spent time online shopping. It takes me longer than it should to remember that tops and bottoms are names for articles of clothing, too.” There were many moments I cackled out loud. It left me hopeful, and even, oddly for me, yearning for a kid of my own to romp through life with.
I’m A Fan by Sheena Patel| Graywolf Press
Sheena Patel’s debut beings: “I stalk a woman on the internet who is sleeping with the same man as I am.” A snappy, piercing tale of angst and Instagram wormholes, this book will suck in anyone from the internet generations who has longed for a person, or a type of life, that feels eternally unobtainable. In a fluid time structure, the unnamed narrator tracks the movements of both the man she wants to be with and the woman she’s obsessed with who have power and celebrity she thirsts for. With chapter titles such as “first of all i didn’t miss the red flags i looked at them and thought yeah that’s sexy” and references to friends posting Hinge screenshots on their Instagram stories I felt absolutely read for filth in the best kind of way. Patel confronts the white hierarchy of influencerdom as her protagonist observes the woman she’s obsessed with from afar, and then up close. The narrator notes what a luxury it is feel sad about racism and she references the “circle of whiteness” that nepotism breeds: it “commands their open-mindedness but the kind of open-mindedness that looks just like them, a hall of mirrors in a closed room.” Her narrator poses relationships as a war or combat zone – someone always wins or loses – but cannot help hindering herself, and the future of her relationship with her boyfriend, by her magnetic attraction to the (also unnamed) man she wants to be with.
Liezel Morajela Hackett— Contributor
My first love was short fiction. It was the form that got me into writing. Always offering creativity in exposition, character development, and the resolve or unresolve, all that is unspoken but felt in the spaces in between are for the reader to piece together and contemplate how they all fit into a bigger picture. This year my top picks are three amazing short fiction collections that highlight my favorite aspects of the form: the non-linear way that self-contained pieces connect and provide context and meaning for each other; the range of stories that might be on opposite ends of each other to highlight how connected and similar they are; the beautiful intensity of emotion, the power of a singular moment, and perhaps the best quality found in short fiction, a space to reflect on humanity through moments of magic found in the mundane.
Normal Rules Don’t Apply by Kate Atkinson | Doubleday Publishing Group
The Sorrows of Others by Ada Zhang | A Public Space
Maybe This Is What I Deserve by Tucker Leighty-Phillips | Split Lip Press
Nicole Louie— Contributor
So Late in the Day by Claire Keegan | Faber – After an uneventful Friday at the Dublin office, Cathal faces into the long weekend and takes the bus home. There, his mind agitates over a woman named Sabine with whom he could have spent his life, had he acted differently. All evening, with only the TV and a bottle of champagne for company, thoughts of this woman and others intrude – and the true significance of this particular date is revealed.
I’ll read anything Claire Keegan writes. It’s as simple as that. Her latest book tells one story in sixty-four pages. Only that? Yep. In one of her interviews, the author declared, “Elegance is saying just enough,” and “I do think no story has ever been read properly unless it’s read twice,” so I read it again. One hundred twenty-eight pages in a day. And the more I read, the more bridges and layers I found. It felt like hunting for easter eggs. I wonder what a third read would reveal.
Chrysalis by Anuja Varghese | House of Anansi
Genre-blending stories of transformation and belonging that center women of color and explore queerness, family, and community.
House of Anansi always brings fresh voices and new points of view to the bookshelves. When I visited their store in Toronto last year, I returned home with books by female authors from South Korea, Oman and Germany. This one is by a Canadian author and came strong, winning both the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT literature and the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction this year.
Anuja Varghese’s book is a collection of short stories about complex characters who are introduced to us concisely and poetically. While many of the situations they go through might not be typical, they are still relatable and evocative. Sometimes, the narratives are dark, surreal, and uncomfortable; they can also be open-ended, making for a great reading experience.
A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs | W&N
A piercing blend of memoir, criticism and biography examining how women writers across the centuries carved out intellectual freedom for themselves – and how others might do the same.
As someone who has chosen to circumvent motherhood and place writing at the center of my life, I often dig as much as possible into the lives of the women who wrote books before me. Joanna did the same, but in a structured and generous way that led to singular biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison, and Elena Ferrante. Joanna wanted to learn more about the conditions these women needed to write their best work, and now we, too, can partake in her findings.
Nirica Srinivasan— Contributor
In Ascension by Martin MacInnes | Atlantic Books
In In Ascension, a marine biologist’s research leads her from the deep sea to the deep expanse of space, in search of the mystery of humanity’s origins. It manages to be both expansive and intimate, conjuring vivid images of the very vast and unknowable universe we inhabit, but equally concerned with the unknowability present in our interactions with other people (the idea that each person is their own universe!). It reminded me at times of other sci-fi stories I’ve loved – Interstellar, Annihilation – but remains wholly unique and unlike anything I’ve read before. Across the novel, there are recurring images of circles, patterns that Leigh notices across her work. This circularity is what’s stayed with me the most – the idea that everything is connected in a cycle of influence, and that endings aren’t endings at all but new beginnings.
Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad |Grove Press
Sonia is a Palestinian actress living in London, and it’s been years since she visited her family’s homeland. When the end of a volatile love affair leaves her devastated, she decides to return to Haifa to visit her sister Haneen. There, she meets Mariam, who is taking on an ambitious task – to direct a performance of Hamlet in classical Arabic, in the West Bank. Pulled into the production, Sonia finds herself wrestling anew with her sense of identity, and with the place her family calls home. I thought Enter Ghost was a remarkably beautiful, rich book, bringing to life the ghosts of a family’s past, and a region’s. There’s so much Hammad achieves here – a careful but uncompromising view of modern Palestine, the story of two sisters who struggle to understand each other, and the power of art and resistance. There are layers that I’ll still be thinking about, and unravelling, for years to come.
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton | Farrar, Straus and Giroux
A guerrilla gardening collective in New Zealand makes an uneasy alliance with an American billionaire, a proverbial deal with the devil. This is the setup for Eleanor Catton’s eco-thriller Birnam Wood, a novel of misunderstandings, ideologies, and lofty ambitions. Rather than retell Macbeth in a new setting, Catton reinterprets the story to give us a range of characters that could each, believably, fit the role – each of them the Macbeth of their own story. Birnam Wood is expertly plotted, and it was so pleasurable to take a step back while reading and admire how it achieves momentum. It’s sharply satirical, at times laugh-out-loud funny, while always close enough to reality to be believable (and at times, almost too real). You might think you know where it’s going – Macbeth is a tragedy, after all – but the many narrative threads Catton weaves together are a delight to follow along to their conclusion. It’s one of those novels that constantly made me aware that I was reading a novel, in the best way – with the reassurance that Catton really, really knows what she’s doing.
Shelby Hinte—Associate Editor
The Red-Headed Pilgrim by Kevin Maloney | Two Dollar Radio)
I like to think of The Red-Headed Pilgrim as the perfect book for anyone who loved Kerouac but wondered what would happen if, like most of us, he eventually had to grow up and become responsible to someone else. This novel broke my heart over and over again in the best way as it followed the protagonist (also named Kevin Maloney) on his pilgrimage to lose his virginity and gain enlightenment. Along the way there is farm work and camping; there are wild women and almost loves; there is actual love and its fallout; there is parenting and the chaos that it entails; maybe most importantly there is the constant struggle to build a life that feels meaningful. The Red-Headed Pilgrim embodies many of the same questions and themes found in Kerouac, Thoreau, and Whitman, yet it also feels wholly unique and of this time. It is full of suffering and beauty, and it lurches towards truth in its haphazard way that feels a lot like life. It is a book about yearning —for love, for art, for a different kind of life, for spirituality, and, ultimately, for a sense of one’s identity.
Beijing Sprawl by Xu Zechen, Translated by Eric Abrahamsen and Jeremy Tiang | Two Lines Press
Muyu, a seventeen-year-old has moved to Beijing and spends his days obsessively jogging to calm his nerves, drinking beer, playing cards, and swapping stories with other oddball characters trying to make it in the city. Beijing Sprawl is a novel told through interconnected stories and the vibe feels reminiscent of Reality Bites, Slacker, and Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture. Like the 90s art it is reminiscent of, the characters refuse to acclimate to “normal adult life” of grinding away at 9-to-5s. Instead they drift to the fringes of life outside the mainstream where it’s impossible to anesthetize oneself from the grotesque reality of being human. The characters struggle to make it in an unforgiving city and anyone who has ever relocated from a small town to a big city only to be disillusioned by the high cost of living will relate to these characters. What sets this book apart from other stories about the difficulty of making it in a city, is the way Xu Zechen depicts the casual violences that permeate human environments but are often ignored. Most impressively, there is nothing sensational about the violence in this novel; it is as normal as the sunrise. Whether it is a brawl turned deadly or love lost, Beijing Sprawl reminds us that to be alive is to run from one tragedy to the next with the hope of getting to see something beautiful in the in-between.
The Fraud by Zadie Smith | Penguin Books
I remember when I was in college and I thought everything my professors said was god’s word (yes, I was that kind of student). I read books in a ravenous fit of desire to become all-knowing in the way I imagined professors and writers to be. The wild surprise of my adult life, as both a teacher and a writer, is how little I still know. I have yet to (and nor do I think I ever will) reach a place of finally understanding the truth of this world. Smith’s The Fraud is a satirical tale of the ways in which people claw towards knowing. In it there are writers and criminals and gossips, but what separates one from the other is entirely up for interpretation. Written in a Victorian inspired prose, The Fraud tells the story of Mrs. Touchet, housekeeper and cousin-by-marriage to the once-famous novelist William Ainsworth. When she becomes absorbed by a high profile court case involving an accused imposter looking to get rich (allegedly) and his formerly enslaved star witness, she starts to question the nature of truth and objectivity altogether. In The Fraud there is the truth, there are facts, and there are stories, but telling them apart is a fool’s task. It dismantles the belief that writers or judges or lawyers are anything other than people. Like all of us, the characters in this book, regardless of their status, carry their entire lives with them everywhere they go, and it shapes the reality they preach as truth.