What are the top books of 2023? By sales alone, Prince Harry’s “Spare,” written in collaboration with Berkeley writer J.R. Moehringer, was at the top, with worldwide sales reaching 3.2 million in its first week. Colleen Hoover, the Texas author and TikTok favorite, has sold 20 million books since her debut in 2011. David Grann’s “The Wager” and Rebecca Yarros’ “Fourth Wing” also have been huge bestsellers this year.
So many books, so little time. To help readers out, Local News Matters asked some Bay Area booksellers about their favorite books of the year.
A Great Good Place for Books
Kathleen Caldwell, owner of A Great Good Place for Books in the Montclair section of Oakland, recommends:
“Day” by Michael Cunningham — “We’ve waited 10 years and it was worth the wait,” said Caldwell of Cunningham, who won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Hours”; “The guy can’t write a bad sentence,” said Caldwell. “Day” is a book that takes place on April 5 across three different years: 2019, 2020 and 2021. It features an extended family crowded into a Brooklyn brownstone and what happens when Isabel and Dan, whose marriage is in trouble, ask Isabel’s gay brother, Robbie, to move out. They need the extra bedroom for their children, but Robbie’s exit turns their lives upside down.
“The Golden Gate” by Amy Chua — Amy Chua, a professor of law at Yale University, rose to national prominence with her 2011 book, “Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother.” Her first novel “The Golden Gate” addresses controversial topics as well — World War II, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, racism and wealth disparity, but in a highly entertaining way. The book is set in the Bay Area in 1944 and centers around Al Sullivan, a biracial homicide detective for the San Francisco Police Department. He is called to the Claremont Hotel to investigate the murder of a presidential candidate and his inquiries open festering wounds and expose the secrets of a powerful and rich family. Chua grew up in El Cerrito and her parents live in Berkeley, so the details in “The Golden Gate” ring true. Caldwell characterizes the book as “moody and evocative.”
“We All Want Impossible Things” by Catherine Newman — This novel takes place in a hospice and is a love letter to women and friendship, said Caldwell. Edi and Ash have been best friends for 40 years and know everything about one another’s lives. When Edi is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ash jumps in to center her life around her best friend’s last days. There is humor and heartbreak in this novel, said Caldwell. Every single person working at A Great Good Place for Books has placed the book on their best books list.
“The Connellys of County Down” by Tracey Lange — Caldwell loved Lange’s previous book, “We Are the Brennans,” so it’s no surprise that this is on her best books list, she said. Set in upstate New York, “The Connellys of County Down” tells the tale of Tara Connelly, who has just been released from prison after serving 18 months on a drug charge. She moves back into her family home with her brother and sister. Caldwell says it’s about a dysfunctional Irish family so “it’s everything a perfect Irish novel could be.”
Founded in 1857, Books, Inc. is California’s oldest bookstore with 10 locations around the Bay Area. Anita Levin, the marketing manager, queried various stores to come up with this list of favorite books.
“Tom Lake” by Ann Patchett — reviewed by Robin. When Lara Kenison was young, she performed with a theater company on Tom Lake, playing a lead in “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder. She also became intimate with Peter Duke, who later became a movie star. Decades later while stuck on the family’s cherry orchard in northern Michigan during the pandemic, Lara begins to tell her three daughters about her acting career and romance, prompting everyone to reconsider their own lives and relationships. “I will treasure this novel in my heart, and whenever I eat a cherry, I will remember its beauty and love of family and the cherishing of memory,” said Robin.
“Alone With You in the Ether: A Love Story” by Olivie Blake — reviewed by Cari. This is a book about two damaged people falling in love. One is Regan, who has mental health issues and works at the Art Institute of Chicago. The other is Aldo, a depressed doctoral student of theoretical mathematics with an extremely low rating as a professor. Their meeting changes both their lives. “This will be my favorite read of 2023,” said Cari. “I have never read something where I immediately connected with every character. A beautiful and realist love story that involves two broken people colliding together. A must read!”
“Yellowface” by R.F. Kuang — reviewed by hp. Athena Lu is a literary star on the rise. June Hayward can’t understand why they are friends since her literary promise has not panned out. After Athena dies in a freak accident, June steals her manuscript and passes it off as her own, to much acclaim. What possibly could go wrong? “R.F. Kuang, my queen!” said hp. “This pulled me out of a multi-monthlong reading slump; I devoured it in only two days! It’s about whiteness, appropriation and the publishing industry at large. Pick this one up if you want an unlikable protagonist, because she is the worst, but trust me, I loved it!!”
“Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma” by Claire Dederer — reviewed by Anita. This book, an expansion of Dederer’s viral essay, “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” explores whether we can separate the painting, the writing the music, the creation of men who are not nice, and in many cases, abusive. “A thought-provoking, highly entertaining and incredibly articulate rumination on the age-old question if we can/should separate great art from harmful artists,” said Anita. “Hands down my favorite nonfiction book of 2023.”
Hicklebee’s, which has been serving readers around San Jose since 1979, recently changed hands. In November, Laura Gahrahmat took over from sisters Valerie Lewis and Monica Holmes. Each year, the store selects a favorite book, said Carol Muller, who has been working at Hicklebee’s in San Jose for more than 20 years. The store staff selected two “best” books for 2023, one aimed at young adult audiences and one at children, said Muller.
“Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam” by Thien Pham — Pham’s first memories aren’t of leaving Vietnam; they are of the sweetness of watermelon and the saltiness of fish he ate there as a child. Food has remained a way for Pham to reclaim and remember his past. “Family Style” is the graphic memoir of Pham and his family’s journey from Vietnam to a refugee camp in Thailand where his mother ran a food stall to the South Bay where his family had a bakery. (Pham now lives in Oakland). “It’s so completely San Jose,” said Muller. “Everyone probably ate croissants at his family’s bakery. In addition to being an immigrant story, it’s an immigrant story that works out.”
“When the Fog Rolls In” by Pam Fong — In this delightful picture book for children, illustrated and written by Fong, a small puffin gets lost in a bank of thick fog and must navigate his way out. Muller called it “beautiful and inspirational.” The puffin who makes his way has all the attributes of humans who have to “make their way free when they don’t have a clear end in sight.”
City Lights Bookstore
Founded in 1953 in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood as a store of paperback originals, City Lights published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1956. In defending the publication, City Lights became one of the nation’s fiercest advocates for free speech. City Lights Publishing has put out more than 200 books since. The bookstore now occupies three stories of new and used books on Columbus Avenue. Stacey Lewis, the director of publicity, marketing and sales, asked the staff for their 2023 favorites.
“Emerald Wounds” by Joyce Mansour — Joyce Mansour was born in England, grew up in Cairo, and after her Jewish family was expelled from Egypt in 1956, moved to France. Mansour became part of the surrealist circle that included André Breton, who championed her poetry. In 2023, the publishing arm of City Lights published a collection of Mansour’s poetry translated by Emilie Moorhouse.
“Days at the Morisaki Bookshop” by Satoshi Yagisawa — It’s no surprise that the staff of one of San Francisco’s most storied bookstores would love a book set in a Japanese bookstore. “Days at the Morisaki Bookshop,” translated by Eric Ozawa, tells the story of 25-year-old Takako, who has lost her job and her boyfriend. In desperation, she accepts an offer from her uncle to live and work at his bookstore in Jimbocho, Tokyo’s famous book district. Through a newfound love for books, Takako learns to stand up for herself, make a new circle of friends, and help her uncle understand why his wife left him — and what to do about her return.
“White Cat, Black Dog: Stories” by Kelly Link — Kelly Link, a MacArthur “genius” and Pulitzer Prize finalist, has found inspiration from the Brothers Grimm, 17th century French lore, and Scottish ballads to recraft seven fairy tales for the modern day. Link, who started out writing science fiction, writes for adults, not children. One story focuses on a billionaire who sends his three sons on a series of quests to decide which child will become his heir. In another, a sickly professor is stranded for days in an airport and is at risk of missing a critical appointment. Another story is about a weed farm in Colorado run by cats. Link is a master at combining weird fabulism and contemporary realism.
“Chain Gang All-stars” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah — “Chain Gang All-stars” is a dystopian novel that examines and satirizes the U.S. private prison system, capitalism, and America’s love for violent sports. Set in the future, it describes how women prisoners can earn their freedom — if they are willing to fight to the death gladiator-style on a popular television show on the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment channel. Loretta Thurwar, who wields her hammer with deadly precision, is the star of the circuit and is only months away from freedom. Will she get it?
“Tauhou” by Kotuku Titihuia Nuttall — Kotuku Titihuia Nuttall descends from two indigenous cultures, Māori and Coast Salish. Her debut novel, part poetry, part prose, is set in an imaginary world where its cultures share a past. Two islands that are on opposite ends of the globe — Vancouver Island in British Columbia and Aotearoa, the north island of New Zealand — sit side by side in the ocean in “Tauhou.” Yet the Indigenous people who live there have less access to their ancestral lands than the European tourists who visit. Can the family in the book, coming from the two distinct cultures, come together to deal with what colonialism has forced on them?
Book Passage’s main store is in Corte Madera, but it has an outpost in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. The store held its annual holiday books discussion on Dec. 7 and owner Elaine Petrocelli and her staff recommended a slew of books. Here are the mysteries and thrillers they loved.
“Murder By Degrees” by Ritu Mukerji — Petrocelli said she recommends the historical mystery “Murder By Degrees” not because it is written by a local author, a doctor in Marin, but because it’s “absolutely riveting.” Dr. Lydia Weston is teaching her students at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1875 when the body of one of her patients is pulled from a river. Police classify the death as a suicide, but Dr. Weston disagrees and launches a quest for the killer.
“The Secret Hours” by Mick Herron — Anyone who isn’t already addicted to “Slow Horses” should run out and get an Apple TV subscription. The show, about a motley group of disgraced MI5 agents led by a slovenly, slightly disgusting, serial farter Jackson Lamb (played wonderfully by Gary Oldman), is fabulous. The show is based on a series written by Herron and the latest book, “The Secret Hours,” provides some backstory of the crew. It explores a disastrous classified operation in 1994 Berlin— whose cover-up has rewritten 30 years of MI5’s history.
“Christmas Presents” by Lisa Unger — This chilling 266-page novella takes place five days before Christmas and features bookstore owner Madeline Martin. During high school, her best friend was murdered. Two other girls went missing. Martin’s boyfriend was convicted of the killing. He’s in prison, but girls continue to disappear. Ten years later, Harley Granger, a failed novelist turned true crime podcaster, walks into Martin’s store and insists on reinvestigating the crimes. “It’s fabulous and dark,” said Louisa, a book buyer. “It’s going to balance out all the sweets you find in your stocking.”