12.22.23 The No Judgment 2023 List of Books

Every year, they show up like clockwork. Or the holidays. “Best of” and “favorite” books of this year. Well, I’m fency about labeling books that way; to me, the best thing you can do is talk about the books you read and which ones stuck with you the most. And so here’s the list of books I pruned from my To Be Read pile this year (minus a few I may have given up on), with thoughts and descriptions of each. Not all may have been published in 2023 — as I learned with Tune in Tomorrow, which published in August 2022, it can take time for people to read your book!

At the Intersection of Love and Death by Michael Haynes
Speculative fiction short stories that are a masterwork in economy in style, plot, and twist. Hard to put down.

Alien3: The Unproduced First-Draft Screenplay by William Gibson by Pat Cadigan
Novelization of a screenplay never filmed, and Ripley has virtually zero role in this. Reading an Alien movie isn’t quite the same as watching one. But midway through things pick up and it’s satisfying and informative and action-packed, with a good ending. Best for real fans of the franchise.

We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker
A new technology is meant to improve people’s cognitive abilities, but it’s not for everyone – and causes rifts in society, as well as one family’s home. Bonus for me: I get a shout-out in the acknowledgements!

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
A onetime web designer takes a job at an unusual bookstore with even more unusual customers, and is drawn into a code-obsessed cultish following who hope to unlock the secret of immortality.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
Groundbreaking, absurd satire with some genuinely funny moments. But both books (the second more than the first) suffers from plot-itis; namely, they’re both a lot of things that happen but don’t tally up to exactly a full story. Which really isn’t a problem in Adams’ case.

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
This is the first of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and is not just compulsively readable despite its age, but actually compelling. I have a full volume of all the Holmes tales and plan on eventually getting through it, but this one stands as a full novella on its own. (That said, I’m utterly unconvinced that Holmes was truly fooled by the “old lady” who came to 221B Baker Street to claim the ring, if he’s as observant as he insists.)

The House in the Pines by Ana Reyes
Called such likely because Cabin in the Woods, which is more accurate, was taken. A woman reflects on the strange man she dated as a high school senior, and who was present at the death of her best friend – and in the present day, a second woman. There are mysteries about something that he “did” to her and those other two women that take a long time to unspool, and are less exciting than the author seems to think they are.

Anthems Outside Time and Other Strange Voices by Kenneth Schneyer
Schneyer’s short stories can go to very dark places as both ripping yarns and emotional dramas, with everything suffused in deep humanity. Many of his stories play with form and structure (including one that’s simply a series of survey questions, growing progressively more ominous) and he frequently uses his legal background to explore speculative situations.

Badasstronauts by Grady Hendrix
When NASA opts to leave a stranded astronaut to die on a space station, his cousin hatches a wild plan to build a rocket and bring him back down. Along the way, his out-of-this-world plan attracts followers, which leads to trouble (as does trying to build the rocket). Part satire, part tribute to the will of determined Americans who have no idea what they’re doing, it’s a live wire of a novella.

Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
What starts out as a simple tale of an overlooked daughter finding her power and strength in success at spelling bees goes in a very different direction as the book progresses, and the rest of the family spirals out of control. While the girl and her father develop a nice rapport, most everyone in this family feels extremely lonely, and looks outside the house for validation and understanding.

The Caretaker by David Badurina
Picked this one up at LibertyCon after meeting the author. Human Caretakers take care of concepts, like Death, Deception and Destiny – and when Death’s Caretaker starts to question his relationship with the special knife in his care, he begins to learn that he’s been a pawn for over a hundred years.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Comey
AKA, the first book in The Expanse series. I’ve seen the TV series and despite not being a real hard sci-fi fan, found it gripping, humane, and breath-taking all at once. Turns out it (so far) very faithfully adapts the first book. Am looking forward to reading all of the others despite knowing the twists and turns to come.

 Aurora by David Koepp
A (fairly short) semi-apocalyptic novel about what happens when a giant solar flare knocks out (most) of the world’s electricity is a workmanlike tale that walks us through hyper-local reactions of a Midwestern neighborhood, a goon squad, and a billionaire who thinks he’ll be fine in his bunker. All are connected, and all find out the hard way that there’s no one way to survive this kind of event. To me, the scariest part is that there is some warning – and the naysayers still refuse to shut down electricity voluntarily for a few days to ride out the flare, as if there’s no reason to listen to scientists. That hit the hardest.

The Vile Thing We Created by Robert P. Ottone
It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you. Though the story takes a while to really ramp up (the titular child doesn’t show up until almost halfway through the book), Ottone effectively balances two tricky elements – a couple who really love one another and probably shouldn’t have procreated – and a sweet young boy who also … well, that might give too much away. A compelling read well told.

The Last Invitation by Darby Kane
A compelling idea: A secret organization out to right the wrongs perpetrated against women by particularly awful men. (And clearly, this group has plenty to choose from.) I loved the idea that it took place in the home county where I grew up in Maryland, and that it reflected an idea for a story I’d had for a long time. But the story is largely about two characters, neither of which are in the organization, who hate each other. There’s not nearly enough insight into the organization itself, which I had imagined it would be. Then again, it’s not the book’s fault if it wasn’t the book I might have written.

The Bone Shaker by Edward Cox
I’m not much of a reader of high fantasy, yet this one kept me compelled. Cox squeezes a full epic fantasy into a novella sized story about knights on a quest to save a kidnapped child, who are confronted with a seemingly-unstoppable magic enemy – and allies who are not always what they seem. (Oh, and did I forget to mention that virtually every character is female?)

The Bookstore Book: A Memoir by Ron Kolm
Ron Kolm is old school New York City – when it comes to its bookstores. In his five decades of working in bookstores around the city, he sold books to – and worked alongside – some of the greats of the 20th Century: Philip Roth, Patti Smith, Charles Bukowski. It’s a slim, indie-published volume of short story-like memories and poems, and a delight all the way through. Note: Ron will be one of our readers at Brooklyn Books & Booze on March 19, 2024.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Nora doesn’t want to live, and finds her way out – but directly into The Midnight Library, a liminal space where she gets to see what the lives she didn’t lead would have been like. Reminiscent of the (more subtle and, personally, better) Resurrection Blues by Michael Poore, it’s a straightforward tale that’s a fast read that’s enjoyable, but could have done from some better worldbuilding.

Infested by C.M. Forest
Beware shadowy corporations bearing free apartments. This is a closed-environment single-night horror that effectively keeps the scares up, but – and this is not something I say lightly – desperately needed better editing. I know this is a no-judgment list, but if this was my book I’d be furious at my editor/publisher, not just for the obvious proper word usage but for the terrible formatting: By the end of the book whole paragraphs that were meant to be italicized are not, and vice-versa, and there’s at least one page where a whole line of text has vanished.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
As a 15 year old boarding school student, Vanessa enters into a sexual affair with her English professor, who is decades older than her. Decades later, as the reckoning of the #MeToo movement flowers, she’s faced with reconsidering whether it was abuse or not – particularly since she’s still in touch with her former teacher, who she just can’t seem to quit, even when her feelings are ambivalent. Praise to the author, who doesn’t offer clear answers or easy characters to like, but it does go flat about halfway through for reasons I won’t reveal here.

OK, what did I miss? Let me know in the comments what books you loved this year, and what books I should be reading in 2024 … I’ve got stacks of TBR piles, but you never know!

Read my 2022 No Judgment List here!

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