Happy New Year and welcome to 2024! As with past years I like to kick off the new year by reflecting on what I read during the previous year. And 2023 was a strange one, reading-wise for me. I kept starting books and not being able to get into them, so I would not finish them. I did that with at least fifteen books, maybe more. Despite that frustrating phenomenon, the total I finished reading for the year was forty-three. On par with what I have accomplished the past several years. I am thrilled to have read the books I did. I hope you are as happy with your 2023 books, too. If not, do not fret, I am sure 2024 is going to be your year!

Of those forty-three titles, I would like to tell you about a few of my favorites. Below are my top seven picks, in no particular order:

Evelyn Hugo is a famous Hollywood film actress, who has been in the business since the 1950’s and has decided it’s time to have someone write a tell-all memoir about her life. The truth is hard to tell, and for some, even harder to hear, but seventy-nine year old Evelyn is determined to share her truth with the world.

Monique Grant is the writer Evelyn asks to work with, but no one is sure why. Most especially Monique. Her marriage is in a hard place and she is not well known at the magazine she works for, nor in the world of journalism. But Evelyn Hugo has a way of getting what she wants and soon she and Monique are spending their days together, going through her life. She tells Monique everything – about her childhood, her early days in the film industry, about her seven husbands and much more. No matter how hard or terrible, Evelyn is committed to sharing the truth and nothing but the truth.

It’s hard to describe the rest without giving away a couple of major storylines, but this book is so good. I listened to it and in addition to the compelling story, the narration is superb! Reid is phenomenal at writing characters. Her character development is perfect. Wonderfully complex characters that are multidimensional and hard to like, but even harder to not at least identify with. Evelyn and Monique both feel raw, real and like a living breathing people you might know. In addition to the characters the plot is unique and meandering so readers will be hooked from the first scenes. Evelyn has lived a full and exciting life and once the pieces start to click into place it is hard to stop reading. I highly recommend this one.

I wrote a full review for this one in March 2023, but could not pass up a chance to mention it again.

I am in love with this book. It is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It has gaming, friendship, enemies, love, hate and heartbreak. It spans thirty years of a relationship that was created when two eleven year olds, Sam Mazur and Sadie Green, met and started gaming together in a hospital game room. The friendship had a rocky start, thanks to a misunderstanding, but Sam and Sadie are forever connected. They may not always remember they are friends, but they are. Through their love and shared history they create a life, a company and a family that is wholly their own.
Author Gabrielle Zevin is a master storyteller and her character development is brilliant. Each one is so completely developed it is hard to stop thinking about them even after finishing the novel. Zevin’s work is breathtaking and should not be missed. It reads much like real life feels, with all the emotions that love and friendship create along the way. It has a backdrop of 90s style gaming that combines with well-rounded, yet flawed characters to tell a compelling story of love, distrust, hope, hurt and healing. Sam says it best, “To play requires love and trust.” I feel this about reading, too. It requires trust of the author and Zevin does not disappoint.

MAD HONEY by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan
I have been a Jodi Picoult fan for years, but this book reminded me why I appreciate her writing so much. The characters, the timely plot, the slowly parsed details, the twist. It all works so well together and I am here for it.

I do not want to spoil the book so I am only going to share the barest of details.

The book has three main characters:
Olivia – beekeeper, abuse survivor and Asher’s mom
Asher – high school senior, golden boy and Lily’s boyfriend
Lily – high school senior, new-in-town and Asher’s girlfriend

Plot summary: Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl dies, and boy is accused of killing girl.

I know that is not much, but the book is about Asher and whether he is guilty of the crime he has been charged with. But it is Olivia and Lily’s story told through their alternating perspectives. Who they are, where they come from and what makes them similar. The book is such an engaging tale, with thought provoking characters. In addition it provides unique insight and perspective about current issues.

I wrote a full review for this one in September 2023, but could not pass up a chance to share it again because it should not be missed.
The path of Tan Yunxian, the novel’s narrator, is different from most other women in fifteenth century China. In a place where women are encouraged to follow a traditional path, usually one dictated by their father or husband, Yunxian’s upbringing is not like that. She has led a life of great privilege, thanks to the wealth of her family, and being surrounded by educated people, including her paternal grandparents who are both doctors. Throughout childhood, Yunxian’s grandmother teaches her medicine, specifically medicine to help women.
For seven years, Yunxian learns alongside her grandmother until at fifteen she marries the son of a wealthy merchant. After her wedding, Yunxian goes to live with her husband’s family. Her mother-in-law, who is in charge of the household, forbids Yunxian from practicing medicine. Yunxian is left feeling unsure how to move forward in her new life.
The rest of the book reflects on the struggle that Yunxian faces in reconciling her education and upbringing with her married life. As the book title suggests, it is only possible due to her “circle of women.”
I have been a Lisa See fan since reading THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE. She does a tremendous amount of research for her novels and I love how history and her creativity combine to make a beautiful historical fiction account. As with most of See’s characters, Tan Yunxian’s character is true-to-life and the book’s plot is gripping and relatable. Something that surprised me since it was set in fifteenth century China. I could not stop reading this book and I have told so many people about it. See’s descriptions of daily life – the food, the culture, the traditions and the scenery – make the reader feel like they are part of the story. Do not miss this one.

Fantasy is not for everyone, but author Rebeccca Yarros helped introduce a lot of new readers to the genre in 2023. Women readers especially, thanks to the romance elements that she incorporates in her new series.

Twenty-year-old Violet Sorrengail never thought she would be entering a war college for dragon riders. From birth she knew she would become part of the less risky Scribe Quadrant, but when Violet’s commander general mother orders her to join the dragon riders, she has no choice but to comply.

Violet is smaller and physically weaker than her peers, but that does not stop her from trying her hardest to survive so she can attempt to bond with a dragon. She does not have an easy path forward. Not only does she have her physical limitations, but being Commander Sorrengail’s offspring puts an automatic target on her back. Top of the list is Xaden Riorson, her wing leader, and one of the most powerful dragon riders in the war college, thanks to his personal vendetta with her mother.

Violet will need to use all of her skills to survive her first year at the war college. She will need to keep her friends and enemies close as she navigates her daily life because the only way to leave the school is to graduate or to die trying.

This book got so much buzz in 2023 that I could not wait to read it. And thank goodness I was not disappointed. Yarros is clever. She has created a strong addition to the world of fantasy. Dragons, intrigue, magic, all the typical elements, with an enthralling and well written style. I am not sure if this book created a brand new genre of fiction in 2023, but I had never heard of “Romantasy” before this year. I love that it is the meshing of romance and fantasy. And I love the excitement her books have created and highly recommend giving this first one in the series a try.

I will not say much about these two, because I reviewed the first several books in the series last year in my end of year summary. I have added them to this year’s list because I enjoyed them almost as much as the first four books in the series. They are engrossing, suspenseful, clever and dark.

Darrow is a complicated character and he struggles with his own inner conflict for practically all of both books, but he is not always the main draw of the story since there are so many interesting secondary characters. Their narratives move the storyline along quickly.

As I mentioned last year, this series is violent, but do not let that discourage you. I highly recommend the whole series and cannot wait for the next, and supposedly final book to be released.

And that is a wrap for 2023. Thanks for taking the time to share in my reflection and reading about some of my favorites. I am excited to see what 2024 brings and I wish you a wonderful new year of reading!

Review written by: Jeana Gockley, Joplin Public Library Director