The Best of 2023 – Dabney’s List

2023 was a smashing reading year for me. I read a book or so a week–a slower pace than of old but one that gave me more time for thought. Of those reads, these ten books, all published last year, were my faves. Not all are romances although all but one have love stories in them.

Night Will Find You by Julia Heaberlin.

I thoroughly enjoyed Night Will Find You. Each character, from the skeptical cop Mike to the unlikable yet driven Nikki and the steadfastly skeptical Sharp, embodies layers of intricacy and depth. Heaberlin blurs the lines between fact and fiction, science and faith, and truth and deceit to cast a mesmerizing spell. The novel’s suspense unfurls through intricate relationships, asking readers to consider the complexities of the human spirit and the vastness of the world we inhabit. I’d have liked more romance and a bit less woo-woo, but these are small criticisms of a very good read.

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The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon.

I adore this book. As I wrote in my review, “Ariel Lawhon’s latest work is my favorite book of 2023. This whopper of a novel delicately peels back the layers of history to reveal the intricate struggles and enduring resilience of women in post Revolutionary War 18th-century America. Through the eyes of Martha Ballard, a local midwife and guardian of the town’s hidden stories, Lawhon brilliantly illuminates the profound absence of women’s rights in the burgeoning American legal landscape, all without resorting to heavy-handed messaging.”

It’s a perfect read.

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Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

Patchett is one of our current great chroniclers of family life. This one is her best. As I wrote in my review, “Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake is a marvel. The narrative takes place over a few weeks on a family farm–echoes of Chekhov’s cherry orchard–in Michigan, where Lara Kenison, her husband, and their three adult daughters labor amidst the lockdown’s restraint. As the book begins, Lara is telling the story of the summer of her twenty-fourth year, a season she spent acting in summer theater and falling in love with famed actor Peter Duke.”

I don’t know of anyone who’s read this book and not loved it. It’s a gem.

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Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane

In the summer of 1974, in Southie (in Boston), Mary Pat Fennessy, a 42 year old woman living in the projects, wakes up to find her daughter Jules, her last surviving family member, missing. The same night Jules vanishes, a young Black man is also found dead, in Southie, a place he has, in this time and place, no place being. Mary Pat–and a more riveting protagonist you will not find–is determined to find her daughter and will take on anyone to do it, even the Irish mob that runs her world.

Set against the real events of in the summer of 1974, when the city’s public schools were very suddenly ordered to desegregate, Small Mercies is both a superb thriller and an overwhelmingly wrenching portrait of the racism of its times. I could not put it down.

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Fortune Favors the Viscount by Caroline Linden

In this delightful historical romance, Linden sets her tale in the notorious Vega Club where Nick Dashwood, its owner, encounters the remarkable Emilia Greene. Emilia, a governess with a life-saving mission, compels Nick to claim a titled inheritance he’d rather forsake. Their ensuing wager is at the heart of this narrative, where Emilia’s determination and Nick’s reluctance entwine in beautifully. Linden gives us a mesmerizing romance, as both protagonists, ensnared by mutual admiration, navigate societal confines and personal histories. Emilia’s resilience and Nick’s reluctant nobility shine as do the backdrop of engaging secondary characters. Laden with charm and grace, this traditional yet captivating love story enchants readers seeking a smart, passionate historical romance—it’s yet another a delightful addition to Linden’s accomplished collection.

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The Hurricane Wars by Thea Guanzon

In The Hurricane Wars, Guanzon has written a vivid tapestry of Southeast Asia, intertwining ancient magic with technological prowess to fashion a world where typhoons and volcanoes exist alongside powerful magical airships and enigmatic weaponry. The intricate portrayal of the Philippines’ culture and geography is riveting as is easily the best part of a very good book. The leads are a compelling duo amidst a grim backdrop, their complex love story—born from a marriage of convenience—evolving amidst their countries’ conflict. For those drawn to familial themes, angsty romance, and enthralling magical battles, the book offers a compelling saga with intricate world-building and a fascinating exploration of Philippine lore, and a very sexy pair of badass leads. I can’t wait for book two!

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Homecoming by Kate Morton

I’ve enjoyed several of Morton’s works–this is her best.

As I wrote in my review, “The landscape Morton creates is tangible, immersive, and transportive. Much of the novel takes place in the weeks around the Christmas of 1959 in the fictional Southern Australian town of Tambilla—and as I read, I was there. I could see the lush foliage, hear the screech of the cockatoos, and experience the loves and losses of those whose stories Morton tells….

Morton limns the way humans hide truths from both themselves and others. With gorgeous prose, she slowly cracks open how, for better and for worse, families, especially mothers, love. This is a book tinged with sadness and yet, when I turned the last page, I felt elated. The hours I spent in the landscape meticulously portrayed in Homecoming were a gift. Readers of historical fiction will treasure this book.”

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Forever Your Rogue by Erin Langston

(from my review) “This book is simply marvelous. I’ve not read a historical romance published in the past few years I loved as much as I do Forever Your Rogue. Smart, sexy, and powerfully grounded in history, written in clean, clear prose–this book is the definition of a Desert Island Keeper….

But what makes this historical romance exceptional is its history. I’ll just say, while reading, I gave thanks for being born in the 20th century–Langston’s deep dive into the laws of coverture, women’s rights, and parental law is meticulous. Cora’s happy ending seems impossible and yet Langston makes it believable without sacrificing accuracy.

Forever Your Rogue is not just the best historical romance I’ve read this year, it’s the best romance.”

If you’ve not read it, you’re missing out!

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Starling House by Alix E. Harrow

Harrow, along with Bardugo and Black, is writing urban fantasy romance that flat out kicks ass. This one is unputdownable.

As I wrote in my review, “Starling House, transports readers to the heart of Eden, Kentucky, a town wrestling with the ghosts of its past—racism, environmental decay, and the decline of coal mining. Against this backdrop stands Starling House, a foreboding gothic mansion with a sinister reputation. Harrow’s narrative deftly weaves together elements of a hero’s journey (times two), supernatural intrigue, and a deft exploration of love and connection….

Starling House is a genre-defying tapestry—a mesmerizing blend of gothic haunted house tale, intricate puzzle, and a love story that pulses with intensity. Harrow’s storytelling prowess shines through, and readers will find themselves irresistibly drawn into the enchanting world she has crafted.”

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Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

Bardugo is just so damn good. Not content with setting stellar reads in a world of her own making, she’s now making Yale–magical, but still the New Haven school a certain class of Americans know well–a must read place.

As I wrote in my review, “Hell Bent proffers a profusion of riches. As is true in every Bardugo book, the world building is meticulous, dense, and brilliant. Not only is Yale so vividly portrayed it might has well be a character but New Haven, which Alex has to venture into on the orders of Eitan, her old supplier, is crisply manifested as well. The gripping plot is full of clever twists, and the writing is vivid and intelligent, with moments of wit and humor. However, the standout aspect of the book are the well-developed characters, particularly the four murderers, who each have a rich backstory that allows the reader to understand and empathize with them as they navigate the challenges of their journey through hell.”

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Honorable mentions include:

The Unmaking of June Farrow by Adrienne Young, Bookshop Cinderella by Laura Lee Guhrke, Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros, and Rebel at Heart by Zoe Young.

I also loved–but found the middle to be almost impossible to get through–The Covenant Of Water by Abraham Verghese. At its end, I was so glad I’d stuck with it but, whew, there’s a part of it that is excruciating to read.

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