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The Best Books We Read in 2023 (That Weren’t Published in 2023)

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Steph Auteri

Senior Contributor

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more creative work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, under the gum tree, Poets & Writers, and other publications, and she is the Essays Editor for Hippocampus Magazine. Her essay, "The Fear That Lives Next to My Heart," published in Southwest Review, was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2021. She also writes bookish stuff here and at the Feminist Book Club, is the author of A Dirty Word, and is the founder of Guerrilla Sex Ed. When not working, she enjoys yoga, embroidery, singing, cat snuggling, and staring at the birds in her backyard feeder. You can learn more at stephauteri.com and follow her on Insta/Threads at @stephauteri.

The longer I’ve been with Book Riot, the more my appetite for reading has grown. Sometimes, I feel like I’m rushing to get through a book just so I can get to the next five books. Hurtling through read after read in this way, I find myself reading fewer and fewer backlist titles, racing through the most-buzzed-about-books from the current year until I get to the point where I NEED MOAR BOOKS.

Eventually, I end up coasting along on advance copies for future books, freaking out over the fact that I could possibly run out of, say, all the horror books in existence.

Which is ridiculous.

Because what we often forget when we’ve been mesmerized by the most trendy titles on BookTok is that there is a vast, endless backlist that exists. We should find this reassuring: We will never run out of books. (Though on the flip side, I will never be able to read all the books!)

Existential crisis aside, I wanted to put together a list to remind all of us that there’s gold in those backlists. Below, you’ll find some of the best books I read this year that were not actually published this year, plus some additional faves from my fellow Book Rioters.

As I write this, there are still 46 days left in the year. So I worry that I’m getting ahead of myself. What if I read even more completely amazeballs backlist titles before the end of the year??

I suppose we’ll just have to chance it. And hell, there’s always next year.

A graphic of the cover of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

This collection of nine stories — published in 2020 — gives glimpses into the lives of multiple generations of women who can’t help grappling with the cultural messages they receive about who and how they’re supposed to be. Each of their stories shows what happens when faith and desire bump up against one another, causing internal conflict. This book came onto my radar when I was doing up a list of linked short story collections, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before.

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh book cover

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh

This 2019 sci-fi novel also took me by surprise. I stumbled upon it when researching titles for another post and, though this book didn’t fit the list, I was so compelled by the premise, I ordered a copy from my local indie. The lowdown? When scientists discover another planet that can possibly sustain life, they open an academy at which kids study and train and compete to be among the team that will eventually be sent into space, all with the aim of colonizing this new Earth. The chapters cycle through the perspectives of the six teens who make the cut, showing readers how they handle the inevitable setbacks that occur. I don’t often love multiple-POV narratives, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this book long after I turned the last page.

Cover of Lessons In Chemistry

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Content warning: sexual assault

This novel received another wave of buzz this year thanks to its adaptation for Apple TV, but the book itself came out in 2022, at which point it quickly became a book club staple. I was skeptical when a friend insisted I read it and was then immediately put off by an upsetting scene early on in the book depicting a sexual assault. But when I pushed past it, I found myself enchanted by this quirky story of a chemist battling sexism who ends up hosting a cooking show and inspiring a revolution.

In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard - book cover

In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard

This novel, published in 2011, is probably the oldest book I read this year. Why’d I pick it up? I’m the essays editor for an online lit mag. Earlier this year, I accepted a coming-of-age essay in our submissions queue, gushing over the spot-on child’s voice and the writer’s exploration of that time when girls are on the cusp of womanhood, torn between wanting to stay young and wanting to move forward. If you like these themes, the writer told me, you have to read this book. I loved this story of a late bloomer finding her way. And that child’s voice? Spot-on AF.

Foreverland by Heather Havrilesky - book cover

Foreverland by Heather Havrilesky

Finally, as far as my personal list goes, I actually DNF’d this title back in 2022 but then borrowed it from my library more recently because I was exploring similar themes in my own writing. And my god, what a near-miss. This hilarious memoir about “the divine tedium of marriage” and about how the strongest marriages necessitate choosing each other over and over again was so much fun. I couldn’t believe how much I connected to the author’s story…and how close I came to never reading this book at all.

Onward To Some Backlist Gems From My Fellow Book Rioters!

The Subtweet cover

The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya

One of the best things about writing for Book Riot is that you have a lot of excellent bookish colleagues who help make sure you don’t miss a backlist title you’re sure to love. Three years after it was published, I hit a critical mass of Book Riot folks telling me I had to read it, and they were so right. I was completely captivated by this book about friendship, creative partnerships, public vs. private personas, and art. Two musicians approach their art in very different ways, but when one’s cover of the other’s song goes viral, it creates a tangled web of questions about who gets credit. Even better, Vivek Shraya is also a musician, and she released recordings of the songs described in the book. They’re still stuck in my head months later! —Susie Dumond

Book cover of Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

I adore a speculative fiction book that is focused on character relationships. In this book, Leah returns to her wife, Miri, after months of being presumed lost on her deep-sea research mission. Miri is thankful for a return to their lives and for her wife’s return to her home. Except something about Leah isn’t right — like her sudden love for the taste of salt water. This book is, yes, partially a mysterious, surreal sci-fi novel about a deep-sea expedition gone wrong, but that’s not what made me love it. It’s a fantastic book about the pain and difficulty of trying to connect with a partner after they have been through a tremendous trauma. It is emotional, frightening, and full of grief — and it’s all written superbly by Armfield. —Leah Rachel von Essen

The Low Low Woods cover

The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado and Dani

I’m normally too much of a coward to pick up a horror comic, but I read this one from 2020 right before taking a workshop class with Machado this summer. And it didn’t disappoint! Most of the horror comes not from gory imagery but from the situation the main characters, El and Octavia, find themselves in: a town where the women are plagued by memory lapses they can’t (and sometimes don’t want to) explain. As our heroines go digging for answers, they uncover an all-too-realistic conspiracy perpetrated by the town’s men. I’ll try not to spoil the ending here, but I did love how it involved giving the women back the power that had been taken from them. —Eileen Gonzalez

cover image of Jack of Hearts and Other Parts by L.C. Rosen

Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts) by Lev A.C. Rosen

Starting a book and immediately being grabbed by the voice and loving the main character — I’m talking straight from the first page — might be my absolute favorite thing to happen when reading. That’s how I felt about Jack Rothman, a sex-positive gay teen who ends up writing a sex advice column. I adored him so much I rearranged my day to get all my chores done first so I could inhale the audiobook in one day. And then, I promptly ordered a paperback copy. It’s strange to say I adored a book that also has a running plotline with a stalker in it, but I adored Jack so much that it is what it is. —Jamie Canavés

Cover of The Black Period

The Black Period: On Personhood, Race, and Origin by Hafizah Augustus Geter

I read this 2022 release as a judge for the Lambda Literary Awards, and it absolutely blew my mind. This is a poet’s memoir, which is always a good sign, and it also includes 70+ paintings and illustrations by the author’s father. This book weaves together personal writing and political, historical reflections. It traces back her experiences, including with racism and homophobia, to their roots, showing how they are inextricably tied to the bloody history of the United States. I truly don’t feel like I can do this book about living as a queer, Black, Muslim, disabled person in America justice talking about it, but it’s thought-provoking and beautifully written. —Danika Ellis

The Bride by Julie Garwood - book cover

The Bride by Julie Garwood

Listen, I don’t blame you for being skeptical. I’m a romance reader, and even I figured I knew better than to bother with a 30+-year-old arranged marriage historical Scottish romance. But when Julie Garwood died earlier this year, so many different kinds of romance readers and writers talked about her legacy and what her books had meant to them that I finally had to pick up The Bride, likely her best-known book. And then I read nothing but books by Julie Garwood for at least a month. Garwood’s books don’t feel quite like they could be written today, but they come awfully close, especially for a genre of books that were mocked as bodice-rippers when The Bride was published in the late 1980s. I enjoyed the story and humor in this book, but I was also struck by the way that Garwood was writing independent, multi-faceted female characters in her romances at a time when those characters were tougher to find in any type or genre of fiction. —Trisha Brown

I’m not gonna lie. I added a few titles to my TBR after reading my colleagues’ picks. If you’d like to dig deeper into the backlist, I should mention that our podcast, All the Books, has episodes completely devoted to backlist titles. You can also check the Best Books We Read in 2022 (That Weren’t Published in 2022). Go forth and read widely.