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My Top 9 Fiction Books of 2023


Remarkably Bright Creatures

By Shelby Van Pelt

It seemed as if everyone had this sweet, quirky debut on their list of top 10 books for 2022, and when I finally read it recently for my book club, I could see why. Starring Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus, as part-time narrator and full-time wiseman (or “remarkably bright creature”), this novel winsomely takes on challenges of aging, dying, grief, and messy family relationships. 

We meet Marcellus as he contemplates his captivity at an aquarium, an imprisonment made more bearable by his friendship with Tova, the prim 70-year-old night custodian. How Tova solves the mystery surrounding her 18-year-old son’s long-ago death with the help of Marcellus and others is a marvel and a delight. Entertaining, insightful and warmhearted, this mainstream book tops my list for 2023. (Ecco)


The Berry Pickers

By Amanda Peters

In the early 1960s, a Mi’kmaq family from Nova Scotia is in Maine for their annual summer berry picking when their four-year-old daughter vanishes without a trace. Normally, I would stop right there and not read the book because I find it difficult to read about any kind of violence toward children. But that’s not where The Berry Pickers goes, as the reader soon discerns.

Instead, the mystery of Ruthie’s disappearance haunts her family for fifty years, especially her brother Joe who, at six years old when she disappeared, is burdened with paralyzing guilt because he had been the last one to see her. As we follow Joe’s life through the years, we also follow the life of Norma, the only child of a judge and his deeply anxious wife. How are their lives intertwined? It doesn’t take long to figure out, but the reader does want to know how the characters will find one another again. 

This is a novel about the damaging effect of secrets and the lingering presence of trauma throughout one’s whole life. It’s also a valuable peek into the lives of Indigenous peoples and how much has been stolen from them. A stirring portrait of forgiveness and identity, The Berry Pickers is riveting and insightful. Some strong language. (Catapult)


The Mystery Guest

By Nita Prose

Like a million others – The Maid has sold at least one million copies – I could not wait for the return of Molly the Maid in all her dusting, polishing glory. The Mystery Guest, a sequel to The Maid, was worth the wait. 

Molly Gray is unlike those around her. Raised by her beloved Gran, Millennial Molly possesses a kind of old fashioned etiquette that sets her apart from her peers; somehow she talks just like a prim old lady (if she handed you a Kleenex, she would say “a tissue for your issue?”). She adores cleaning and restoring order to the hotel rooms at the posh Regency Grand Hotel and, in her hard-earned role as Head Maid, she is living her dream life. That is, until the famous mystery writer J.D. Grimthorpe keels over and dies in the hotel ballroom, having just partaken of food and drink on the tray for which Molly herself had supervised the preparations.

Immediately thrust into a new mystery, Molly must work with her old nemesis, Detective Stark, to uncover whodunnit within the confines of the Regency Grand. She also must come to terms with her own secret: her long-ago personal connection to the murder victim. Not only is this book a whopping good page-turner, but a social commentary on the lives of the haves and the have nots. Plus, Molly is one of the most endearing characters ever. (Penguin Random House)


The First Ladies

By Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Mary Bethune, a Black woman, was the “first lady of the struggle,” fighting to achieve equality for Black people and other minorities. Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady of the United States. Their unlikely real-life friendship changed the world, and that’s not just back-cover-copy hyperbole.

Though Mary is a staunch Republican – the party of Lincoln, who emancipated her enslaved parents – and Eleanor is a Democrat, the two forged a strong bond based on working toward justice for all disenfranchised Americans. Both women inspire as they overcome tremendous challenges and entrenched racism to build together what would become the foundation of modern civil rights. 

Mary and Eleanor’s friendship – unshakable, tender and enduring – is the heartbeat of their story and of this enthralling work of historical fiction. Highly recommended for book clubs. (Penguin Random House)


In the Time of the Butterflies

By Julia Alvarez

This modern classic, written in 1994 but referring to mid-20th-century events, is based on the true story of the Mirabal sisters – Patria, Mariá Teresa, and Minerva – together called las mariposas, or the butterflies. It’s an apt nickname, as butterflies are symbols of freedom from oppression. 

The butterflies fought for freedom from the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and led a resistance movement that inspired the world. I learned about the book from my teenage daughter, who read it in school. She thought it was “depressing” because three of the sisters are assassinated in the end, but I was energized by the raw courage of the sisters, real-life heroines depicted gloriously in historical fiction. Strong language and sexual references. (Algonquin Books)


The Christie Affair

By Nina de Gramont

Based on Agatha Christie’s real-life 11-day disappearance in 1926, this novel creates elaborate and ingenious backstories for the novelist and the surprisingly sympathetic “other woman” who ultimately came between Christie and her first husband.

De Gramont weaves a murder mystery into the plot, an imagining of what really happened to cause Christie to drive her car away and vanish, kicking off a massive search. Though this is fascinating – to this day, no one knows why she disappeared – I was enthralled by a subplot involving an adoption from an Irish convent. This mainstream novel has some sensual content, but it’s not graphic. 

With stunning, elegant sentences and a cracking good twist near the end, The Christie Affair is not to be missed for fans of mystery, suspense and historical fiction. (St. Martin’s)


The Hidden Prince

By Tessa Afshar

Christian author Tessa Afshar is at the top of her game with her latest two biblical novels, which both made my best-of list for 2023. I adored her previous books Jewel of the Nile, about a Cushite girl, and Pearl in the Sand, about Rahab, and I knew I would love these books about the people surrounding Daniel during the Jewish captivity in Babylon.

When Keren, the daughter of Jewish captives in Babylon, is sold into Daniel’s household to help her family survive, her whole life changes drastically. But instead of kitchen work (which she is terrible at), she learns how to be a scribe and soon becomes a trusted and valued member of Daniel’s household, even learning swordsmanship with his sons and their best friend, Jared. 

When tragedy strikes, Keren’s life is in danger and she is moved to another nearby pagan land where she is given a mysterious assignment: tutor a young shepherd boy who is not who he seems to be. Fleeing a rampaging king over mountain ranges and through desolate lands, Keren faces peril at every turn in this action-packed book studded with careful historical details. (Tyndale)


The Peasant King

By Tessa Afshar

The sequel to The Hidden Prince unfolds the life of Jemmah, Keren’s daughter, and various members of the royal court including King Cyrus himself. 

Jemmah and her sister plunge into adventure and danger when their mother is kidnapped. Along with Asher, a mystery man with big secrets, they steal into enemy territory to try to rescue their mother. But they soon find out that getting in is much easier than getting out. Oh, and the entire fate of the Persian empire and the Judean people rests on whether or not Keren can convince Asher to give up his life’s goals for the sake of a higher purpose. 

I was transfixed by this book’s propulsive plot, woven with what Publishers Weekly calls Afshar’s “amazing talent for packing action and intrigue into the biblical setting for modern readers.” And I learned so much about the period of captivity and what life was like for Judeans living through it. 

Afshar opens each chapter with a verse of Scripture, often a harbinger of that chapter’s contents and always a fitting word. Together with Scripture and the rugged faith of the characters, both novels are not only terrific reads but offer encouraging devotional benefits as well. (Tyndale) 


The Island of Sea Women

By Lisa See

I read The Island of Sea Women during my trip to Korea this summer, so I was thrilled when we spotted a changing hut on the East Sea for the haenyeo, Korea’s fabled female deep sea divers and the heroines of this book. I was captivated by Young-sook and Mi-ja, the two indelible main characters in this immersive and engrossing novel. Their friendship is so strong, so bonded, that when a matter of life and death comes between them, the reader can feel the tear in their hearts. 

The haenyeo are utterly fascinating. In a deeply patriarchal culture, they reigned as breadwinners and de facto heads of the household. With every dive into the dangerous ocean, they risked life and limb to harvest sea creatures such as anemones and octopus. Even on dry ground, they faced the horrors of World War II and Japanese occupation. 

I cared deeply about these characters, and could hardly put the book down. Christian readers will find the theme of forgiveness to reflect our faith, but may be disturbed by the graphic violence in the book. Mesmerizing and evocative. (Simon & Schuster)

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