Cover image of "The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store," one of the best books of the year

Those “best books of the year” lists you come across in mainstream publications single out what they assert to be the best work published during the calendar year. But that’s not what you’ll find here. Or at least it’s not all you’ll see below. Instead, I’m listing here the best books I’ve read this year in each of six categories. History. General nonfiction. Mysteries and thrillers. Espionage fiction. Science fiction. And historical fiction. In each of five categories I’ve included three books—with the exception of historical fiction. There, you’ll see six books listed. I read so much good historical fiction over the past year that I simply couldn’t narrow the list down to just three. 

Estimated reading time: 1 minute

As you’ll see, I’ve singled out one book in each category for special attention. Consider it, if you will, as the very best example in that category. But I confess that most of those choices were arbitrary. 

Boundaries, and arbitrary choices

No matter your preference within my six categories, it’s almost certain you’ll find something below that will make for a rewarding reading experience. But as you’ll know if you’ve been reading my reviews for long, there are limits to the breadth of my reading. For example, there’s no poetry here. No romance. No fantasy. And no books about sports or the arts.

Incidentally, since you’ll find below some titles you’re likely to think obscure, you may wonder how my reading taste comports with that of other people who review books. So, just FYI, I scanned the Reader’s Digest List of Best 100 Books of All Time (updated July 2023). I’ve read 51 of the 100. So, though my selections may seem idiosyncratic at times, I eventually get around to reading many of the books that make other reviewers’ lists of best books, too. It’s just that I don’t always agree with their enthusiastic views. 

The best history books of 2023

As a history major in college more than sixty years ago, and a history buff during all my life since, I read a lot of history books. But I tend toward books published for a general audience, not those academic tomes weighted down with ponderous footnotes and labored exposition. I prefer readable books. And the three books listed here share at least one thing in common: they’re all a pleasure to read. 

Cover image of "The West," one of the best books of 2023

The West: A New History in Fourteen Lives by Naoise Mac Sweeney—Debunking the myth of “Western Civilization”

Most colleges and universities in the United States require first-year students to complete courses in “Western Civilization.” It’s grounded in the notion that American and European history can be traced back in a straight line to what is often called “the glories of Greece and Rome.” That concept is central to the liberal education most US institutions of higher learning still offer. But at least some historians are uneasy about the very notion of Western Civilization. And Naoise Mac Sweeney, a classical archaeologist and ancient historian at the University of Vienna, colorfully spells out the counter-argument in this eye-opening book. Read it, and you’re unlikely to look back on that Western Civ course without raising an eyebrow. 

Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America by W. Caleb McDaniel—Reparations for slavery—in the 19th century

Spymaster: Startling Cold War Revelations of a Soviet KGB Chief by Tennent H. Bagley—Startling revelations from a top KGB spymaster

The best general nonfiction of the year

All other things being equal, I prefer reality to make-believe stories. And even though I read a great deal of fiction, including a fair amount of science fiction, I make a point of reading books that help me understand the world we live in. The three books included here do that beautifully. 

Cover image of "For Blood or Money, one of the best books of the year

For Blood and Money: Billionaires, Biotech, and the Quest for a Blockbuster Drug by Nathan Vardi—The drama behind two biotech startups

Few industries offer more opportunities for rapid access to great wealth more than biotech. Of course, the odds you’ll succeed in the business are heavily weighted against you—astronomical, you might say. But some pull it off. Biotech is the source of scores of billion-dollar fortunes. And in this fascinating journey into the topsy-turvy world of biotech startups, science journalist Nathan Vardi relates the roller-coaster ride of two men who join them. 

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate by Rose George—What makes globalization work?

Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives by Siddhartha Kara—How our cell phones and electric cars depend on virtual slavery

The best mysteries and thrillers of 2023

With the exception of romance novels, mystery stories are the most popular genre in the publishing world—far more so than fantasy and science fiction, which comes in a distant third, so far as I can tell. Suspense fiction appears to dominate in film and online as well. In general, I love the stuff, although my taste has become attenuated after reading thousands of books in the genre over the years. (For example, I tend to shun formulaic murder mysteries written only to tease and challenge the reader.) My taste runs to mysteries and thrillers that are both realistic and well written. The three examples cited here do all that beautifully.

Cover image of "The Running Grave," one of the best books of 2023

The Running Grave (Cormoran Strike #7) by Robert Galbraith—Cormoran Strike takes on a criminal sex cult

J. K. Rowling earned more than a billion dollars from the blockbuster Harry Potter series, and you might think the woman would spend the rest of her life enjoying what that money can buy. But that’s clearly not in her nature. In more recent years, she has turned to writing a series of detective novels set in London. In seven books published to date, she has chronicled the high-profile cases undertaken by private eyes Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. I’ve enjoyed every one. These books tend to be long, even reaching more than a thousand pages each, but the cases the two PIs take on are immensely complicated. The Running Grave is, in some ways, the best of the lot. 

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton—A billionaire survivalist meets environmental activists

Blackwater Falls (Blackwater Falls #1) by Ausma Zehanat Khan—The debut of a brilliant new series of small-town thrillers

The best espionage fiction of the year

Most reviewers consider spy novels to fit nicely into the mystery and thriller genre. While the categorization may make sense, I have such fondness for the field that I’m singling it out here. These three stellar examples of espionage fiction are a terrific point of entry into the genre if you’ve found it off-putting until now. But these are not spy novels in the tradition of Ian Fleming, with superheroes pitted against supervillains. I enjoyed such books as a teenager, but enough is enough. These three books all illuminate the secret intelligence world that working spies would recognize. In fact, two of the books were written by retired intelligence officers. 

Cover image of "The Soul of Viktor Tronko," one of the best books of the year

The Soul of Viktor Tronko by David Quammen—Digging down deep to find the mole in the CIA

This novel, published half a century ago, is hands down one of the best espionage novels I’ve ever read. And anyone familiar with the troubled history of the CIA in the 1960s will recognize in it a not-so-veiled picture of the havoc wrought on the agency by its chief of counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton. Angleton believed that the KGB had planted a mole in the senior ranks of the CIA and proceeded to tear the agency apart in a futile effort to identify the person. He was thought paranoid at the time and forced from the agency after years of damaging investigations. Only decades later did evidence come to light that Angleton was right all along. 

Duet in Beirut by Mishka Ben-David—A failed Mossad operation threatens catastrophe

Red London (Red Widow #2) by Alma Katsu—A joint MI6-CIA operation targets Russian oligarchs in London

The best science fiction of 2023

Science fiction encompasses a wide range of themes, from space travel to dystopian tales to alternate history. Many people conflate SF with fantasy, but I don’t. In fact, I gravitate toward hard science fiction, firmly grounded in known science. Fantasy leaves me cold. So, even though each of the three novels listed here all incorporate elements that transcend the bounds of science today, they all fall squarely within the genre as I define it.

Cover image of "The Art of War," one of the best books of 2023

The Art of War (First Contact #23) by Peter Cawdron—China and the US are on the brink of war. Or are they?

Independent Australian author Peter Cawdron has set something of a record with his ongoing series of standalone novels exploring First Contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. In the 23rd entry in his remarkable series, he ventures into the fascinating realm of military strategy. This concept, as professional soldiers understand it, involves not just fighting but essential aspects of war such as logistics, recruitment, and training. And, as the 2,500-year-old Chinese classic The Art of War makes abundantly clear, successful strategy may rest on not fighting as well. This proposition is central to Cawdron’s brilliant new novel.

The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz—A hopeful future in this brilliant new novel

Daemon (Daemon #1 of 2) by Daniel Suarez—It’s not artificial intelligence. But it’s taking over, anyway.

The best historical fiction of the year

As a lifelong history buff, it’s natural for me to favor historical fiction. And that fact is abundantly clear to anyone who has followed my reviews for very long. I read a lot of historical fiction. So, I was flummoxed when I tried to single out just three historical novels to list here. I couldn’t limit myself to anything fewer than six. Every one of these books is a gem.

Cover image of "The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store," one of the best books of the year

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride—Is this the Great American novel?

Already James McBride’s new novel has begun rising to the top of mainstream best-of-the-year lists. It’s certain to become a contender for the major literary prizes in 2024. In The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, McBride examines life in a small Pennsylvania town that has attracted a large community of Southern Blacks who have joined the Great Migration and a handful of Jews who interact with the established White families of the region. It’s brilliant, and often very, very funny. 

Bomber by Len Deighton—An intensive look a single RAF Bomber Command mission in World War II

Devil Makes Three by Ben Fountain—A dramatic tale of a military coup in Haiti

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese—A deeply moving tale of life, love, and loss in 20th-century India

The Postcard by Anne Berest—One family’s story, from the pogroms to the ovens of Auschwitz

Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane—When the cracks opened wide in Boston society

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